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Posts Tagged ‘innovation

“Crying won’t help you, praying won’t do you no good…When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move”*…

 

Your correspondent is headed off to his daughter’s graduation– a process rather lengthier and more complex than in the distant past, when he “walked.”  Posts will resume on or around June 1.  In the meantime, Gaudeamus Igitur, y’all

The levees of the 1920s were about six times as high as their earlier predecessors, but really no more effective. In a sense, they had been an empirical experiment — in aggregate, fifteen hundred miles of trial and error.

— John McPhee, The Control of Nature

Last month, the United States issued Patent No. 9,000,000 (for a rainwater-harvesting windshield washer). Every patent tells a story, and a virtual tour through the archive offers a remarkable view of American society, policy, industry, and environment. Here we find technologies that shape a nation but many more machines that fail and ideas that never catch on. Yet to regard the patent office merely as a protectionist legal institution or a hall of curiosities is a mistake, for if every lost invention represents an alternate history, it also contains the seeds of a possible future.

This is especially true for patents granted under the Department of Interior in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the infrastructures that supported national expansion were being developed, tested, and improved. Consider the history of attempts to control and modify American rivers, culminating in the vast levee systems that transformed the Mississippi River Basin and Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, opening vital transportation corridors and buildable lands while devastating riparian and coastal ecosystems. Behind every mainstream levee technology — every dragline excavator and clamshell dredge — there is a host of forgotten and highly speculative inventions that would have produced a very different landscape: the levees that might have been…

Alternative history at “Levees That Might Have Been- A history of forgotten inventions that would have produced a very different landscape along American rivers.”

* Robert Plant/Led Zeppelin

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As we watch the water rise, we might send wonderfully worded birthday greetings to William Whewell; he was born on this date in 1794.  One of the 19th Century’s most remarkable polymaths, Whewell, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was a scientist (crystallographer, meteorologist), philosopher, theologian, and historian of science,  But he is best remembered for his wordsmithing:  He created the words scientist and physicist by analogy with the word artist; they soon replaced the older term natural philosopher. He coined other useful words to help his friends: biometry for John Lubbock; Eocine, Miocene and Pliocene for Charles Lyell; and for Michael Faraday, anode, cathode, diamagnetic, paramagnetic, and ion (whence the sundry other particle names ending -ion).

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Written by LW

May 24, 2015 at 1:01 am

“You know who’s going to inherit the earth? Arms dealers. Because everyone else is too busy killing each other”*…

 

The United States is at the center of a great colorful pinwheel of death, at least according to the latest infographic from Natalia Bronshtein, a data visualizer who focuses on economic trends and political developments. She has worked to produce an interactive visualization of the world’s top 100 arms-producing companies.

Surprising no one, the United States makes more money on war than any other country. Really, it’s not even close. Using the 2013 arms production database of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) as her data source, Bronshtein shows that 40 of the top 100 arms-producing companies in the world are based in the United States, with Lockheed Martin and Boeing being the biggest of the bunch. The visualization represents each company as a circle within the larger circle of its nationality — the bigger the radius, the more money the company or country made selling arms…

The invisible elephant in Bronshtein’s chart ends up being China, which is missing from the SIPRI database, but it’s doubtful it would bump America down. According to SIPRI, China spent $188 billion to America’s $640 billion on its military in 2013, making it the world’s second most expensive military. If China’s companies are making as much money on arms as its military is spending on them, China still likely wouldn’t be enough to knock America from the top of the list…

Read more at “Guess Which Country’s Companies Profit Most From War?”  and explore Brohstein’s visualization here.

* “Yuri Orlov” (Nicolas Cage), Lord of Wars

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As we give peace a chance, we might send ingenious birthday greetings to Clarence Leonard “Kelly” Johnson; he was born on this date in 1910.  A storied aeronautical engineer, He contributed to the design of 40 aircraft, from the P-38 Lightning fighter and the Hudson bomber to the U-2 spy plane and the F-104 Starfighter interceptor.

But Johnson is probably best remembered as the founding leader of Lockheed’s Skunk Works, a development group that has become a model in the business, engineering, and technical arenas of an effective approach to innovation– a group with a high degree of autonomy within an organization, unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects.

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Written by LW

February 27, 2015 at 1:01 am

“New technology is common, new thinking is rare”*…

 

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If one peeks back to the earliest days of television, one discovers that much of the excitement over the nascent new medium was over its promise for education.  In fact, that enthusiasm was an echo; years earlier, Thomas Edison had harbored similar dreams for the new medium he helped create:  motion pictures…

They say they are spending a million dollars nowadays to make just one big picture. If I had been told in the days of our first movie studio that anybody would spend a million dollars to produce a single film, I don’t know whether I would have swallowed it or not. It would have been some effort.

It may seem curious, but the money end of the movies never hit me the hardest. The feature that did appeal to me about the whole thing was the educational possibilities I thought I could see. I had some glowing dreams about what the camera could be made to do and ought to do in teaching the world things it needed to know—teaching it in a more vivid, direct way.

I figured that after the novelty wore off, the camera would either be taken up by the big educators and pushed as a new agency in the schools—or that it would be developed mostly along straight amusement lines for entertainment and commercial purposes. I guess up to date the entertainment and commercial purposes have won.

A good many people seemed to wonder why I did so—maybe they still wonder. But the answer is simple enough. I was an inventor—an experimenter. I wasn’t a theatrical producer. And I had no ambitions to become one.

If, on the other hand, the educational uses of the camera had come more to the front, as I had hoped, and I had seen an opportunity to develop some new ideas along those lines, my story as a producer might have been very different. I should have been far more interested in going on.

Do you know that one of my first thoughts for the motion-picture camera was to combine it with the phonograph? In fact, that was what primarily interested me in motion pictures— the hope of developing something that would do for the eye what the phonograph did for the ear.

My plan was to synchronize the camera and the phonograph so as to record sounds when the pictures were made, and reproduce the two in harmony. As a matter of fact, we did a lot of work along this line, and my talking pictures were shown in many theaters in the United States and foreign countries. I even worked on the possibility of an entire performance of grand opera, for example, being given in this way.

Another thought I had was that such a dual arrangement might record both the lives and the voices of the great men and women of the world. Can you realize the tremendous impetus this would be to the study of history and economics?

They are producing pictures of this kind now, I understand, by photographing and reproducing the sound waves. We were working, of course, from an entirely different angle—but we had the first of the so-called talking pictures in our laboratory thirty years ago.

We might have developed them into a greater commercial circulation if we had kept on—but I was interested in the educational and not the entertainment field. When the educators failed to respond I lost interest. What I had in mind was a bit ahead of the times, maybe. The world wasn’t ready for the kind of education I had pictured.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I should say that in ten years textbooks as the principal medium of teaching will be as obsolete as the horse and carriage are now. I believe that in the next ten years visual education—the imparting of exact information through the motion-picture camera—will be a matter of course in all of our schools. The printed lesson will be largely supplemental—not paramount.

From The Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas Alva Edison. Edited by Dagobert D. Runes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1948; via Lapham’s Quaterly.

Sir Peter Blake

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As we dim the lights, we might recall that it was on this date in 1897 that Edison received a U.S. patent (No.589,168) for his kinetoscope camera, a device for producing moving pictures.  In fact Edison had developed the camera and a viewer earlier, demonstrating “motion pictures” in 1893.  But his earlier attempts to patent the technology were successfully challenged; this was the version that prevailed. Uncharacteristically for Edison (who scored– and energetically protected– 1,093 patents in the U.S. and 2,332 globally), he did not pursue international protection on this invention, which surely hastened its development.

“Fred Ott’s Sneeze”- one of the earlier films shot with the Kinetoscope camera, and the first film to be granted a copyright

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Written by LW

August 31, 2014 at 1:01 am

“The real questions are: Does it solve a problem? Is it serviceable? How is it going to look in ten years?”*…

 

Ziba, a Portland-based design firm, asked each staff member to submit his/her “top five” list of designs that have changed the way we think about the world over the organization’s 29-year history– back to 1983.  They clustered the submissions around thematic statements that characterize the innovations, e.g. “The mundane shall be celebrated,” or “Connectivity is like oxygen.”  Then, they captured the results in an infographic (a detail of which is above).

Explore a larger version here, and note that there are a number of things that didn’t make the cut: Napster? the GIF? Yelp?… but then, that’s the fun– and the useful provocation– of lists like this, encouraging us to make our own nominations.

A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.
– Douglas Adams

* Charles Eames

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As we noodle on the new new thing, we might celebrate the emergence of a design, an innovation, a technology that took on a life of its own and changed… well, everything:  this date in 1455 is the traditionally-given date of the publication of the Gutenberg Bible, the first Western book printed from movable type.

(Lest we think that there’s actually anything new under the sun, we might recall that The Jikji— the world’s oldest known extant movable metal type printed book– was published in Korea in 1377; and that Bi Sheng created the first known moveable type– out of wood– in China in 1040.)

The Library of Congress’ copy

Written by LW

February 23, 2014 at 1:01 am

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a wiener!…

 

From The Atlantic‘s always-illuminating Alexis Madrigal, “The Year in Hot Dog Innovation.”  E.g.:

A printing press for corn dogs

More contributors to the quest for fabulous franks here

Let it never be said that our nation stood still while others carried forth the banner of progress.

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As we reach for the improved sweet onion relish, we might box a dome-shaped birthday cake for inventor, educator, author, philosopher, engineer and architect R(ichard) Buckminster Fuller; he was born on this date in 1895.  “Bucky” most famously developed the geodesic dome, the only large dome that can be set directly on the ground as a complete structure, and the only practical kind of building that has no limiting dimensions (i.e., beyond which the structural strength must be insufficient).  But while he never got around to frankfurters, he was sufficiently prolific to have scored over 2,000 patents.

“Fullerenes” (molecules composed entirely of carbon, in the form of a hollow spheres, ellipsoids, or tubes), key components in many nanotechnology applications, were named for Fuller, as their structure mimes that of the geodesic dome.  Spherical fullerenes (resembling soccer balls) are also called “buckyballs”; cylindrical ones, carbon nanotubes or “buckytubes.”

I have to say, I think that we are in some kind of final examination as to whether human beings now, with this capability to acquire information and to communicate, whether we’re really qualified to take on the responsibility we’re designed to be entrusted with. And this is not a matter of an examination of the types of governments, nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with economic systems. It has to do with the individual. Does the individual have the courageto really go along with the truth?

God, to me, it seems
is a verb,
not a noun,
proper or improper.

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Written by LW

July 12, 2013 at 1:01 am

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.”*…

… or so it must seem to Patrick Andrews, who has, since 2006, been creating and posting (with a rhythm close to your correspondent’s heart, that’s to say, roughly daily) an “Invention of the Day.”

His website…

… is intended as an outlet for the force-four brainstorm which rages in the background of my mind, much of the time. It seems to result, most days, in some kind of invention. Many of these ideas are naive, impractical or just unoriginal. Occasionally, a good one appears (eg www.scenereader.com). In any case, disclosure here of anything clever or original will make patenting it impossible**; which is probably a healthy situation…

The obvious thing to do is to forget patents and move straight to manufacturing and selling your own products. With desktop manufacture and online marketing, this is becoming a real possibility in some cases. I recognise, however, that I won’t have enough time and money to develop and launch the majority of the ideas here in the marketplace.

Please therefore feel free to read, mock and/or exploit commercially any which take your fancy. If they make you rich, do let me know (Donating to Unicef is a good idea, even if you haven’t yet made a mint)…

Consider, for example, #2302- “the Collareel”:

Today’s invention is a dog lead with the added benefit that when your animal is off-lead, it carries the whole thing itself.

A small, spring-loaded reel of strong cord is clipped to the ordinary lead. It is shaped to fit closely to the collar and thus be impossible for the dog to remove or for it to tear off while crashing about the undergrowth.

When you want to reign in your canine, first catch it and then pull the lead out to normal length.

Browse the bounty of his brainstorms at “Invention of the Day.” 

* Mary Shelly

** Sadly, as of March 16, no longer true in the U.S.

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As we await the illumination of the bulbs above our heads, we might tip the plumed birthday bonnet to Rene Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician who thought and therefore was.  He was born on this date in 1596.

Many contemporaries (perhaps most notably, Pascal) rejected his famous conclusion, the dualist separation of mind and body; more (Voltaire, et al.), since.  But Descartes’ emphasis on method and analysis, his disciplined integration of philosophy and physical science, his insistence on the importance of consciousness in epistemology, and perhaps most fundamentally, his the questioning of tradition and authority had a transformative– and lasting– effect on Western thought, and has earned him the “title” of Father of Modern Philosophy.

“In order to improve the mind, we ought less to learn than to contemplate.”
– Rene Descartes

Frans Hals’ portrait of Descartes, c. 1649

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Your correspondent is headed again behind The Great Firewall, where the undependability of connectivity (even, these days, via VPNs) means a hiatus in these missives.  Regular service should resume by April 10 or so. 

Written by LW

March 31, 2013 at 1:01 am

Aye, Robot!…

 

It’s not just the assembly-line worker who’s being replaced by automatons, it’s tough all over:

In the face of rising labor costs, Chinese restaurateur Cui Runguan is selling thousands of robots that can hand slice noodles into a pot of boiling water called the Chef Cui. Runguan says in the report below that just like robots replacing workers in factories, “it is certainly going to happen in sliced noodle restaurants.” The robots costs $2,000 each, as compared to a chef, who would cost $4,700 a year. According to one chef, “The robot chef can slice noodles better than human chefs.” News of Runguan’s invention hit the internet in March of 2011, but they’ve since gone into production and are starting to catch on: 3,000 of them have already been sold. But why do their eyes glow, and why do they look so angry?…

From Eater, via Laughing Squid.

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As we admire the precise proportions of our pasta, we might send well-insulated birthday greetings to Ray McIntire; he was born on this date in 1918.  While working at Dow Chemical during World War II in search of a substitute for rubber (which was in short supply during the conflict), McIntire combined styrene with isobutylene and created polystyrene, a unique material that was solid yet light and flexible (due to the tiny bubbles formed by the isobutylene within the styrene).  Dow patented the serendipitous invention in 1944 as STYROFOAM™.  In 2008, McIntire was inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame.

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Written by LW

August 24, 2012 at 1:01 am

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