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Posts Tagged ‘innovation

“Exploring pi is like exploring the universe”*…

 

pi

 

Pi is an infinite string of seemingly random numbers, but if you break down the first 1000 digits of Pi according to how many times each number from 0 to 9 appears, they’re all just about equal — with 1 being the outlier at 12% (although we wonder if they’d all average to ~10% given enough digits of Pi)…

More at “Visualizing The Breakdown Of The Numbers In The First 1000 Digits Of Pi Is Fascinating.”

* David Chudnovsky

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As we watch it even out in the end, we might spare a thought for Hannah Wilkinson Slater; she died on this date in 1812. The daughter and the wife of mill owners, Ms. Slater was the first woman to be issued a patent in the United States (1793)– for a process using spinning wheels to twist fine Surinam cotton yarn, that created a No. 20 two-ply thread that was an improvement on the linen thread previously in use for sewing cloth.

A waxen Hannah, at the Slaters’ Mill Museum in Pawtucket, RI

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Written by LW

October 2, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Baking is therapy”*…

 

Royal Baking Powder Exhibit at the International Exhibition in Philadelphia, 1876. Note the “Absolutely Pure” tagline.

How much thought have you, over the course of your entire life, given to the subject of baking powder? Personally I can say perhaps 30 minutes—that is, until I noticed the existence of food historian Linda Civitello’s Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking. Sorry; come again?

This humble kitchen staple, not infrequently confused with baking soda and practically invisible, is apparently responsible for the fact you don’t have to spend all damn day making bread. Civitello argues that the invention of baking powder was a game-changer, a wildly labor-saving creation that frequently eliminated the necessity of maintaining your own little cache of yeast and made it possible to create all sorts of delicious goodies, from fluffy modern biscuits to birthday cake. Before baking powder, “You’re talking upwards of 12 hours of rising, usually more like 24 hours,” Jessica Carbone, a scholar in the National Museum of American History’s Food History Project, told Smithsonian magazine. Women spent the 19th century learning to use the stuff; cookbooks frequently offered recipes with and without.

But the market was also fiercely contested. Different companies had slightly different variations on a substance that did basically the same thing, leaving them to compete via other means. And they certainly did. Royal Baking Powder, which used cream of tartar, took the tagline “Absolutely Pure,” meant as an indictment of powders made with alum. The company played on consumer fears of adulterated food, Baking Powder Wars recounts, even lobbying to have alum varieties banned. And believe it or not, in Missouri, they succeeded—via bribery in the state Senate, according to the book. When the era’s muckrakers found out, it erupted into an enormous scandal…

The fascinating– and vicious– history of a kitchen staple: “Who Knew? The History of Baking Powder Is Incredibly Dramatic.”

* Paul Hollywood

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As we pop it into the oven, we might send finely-sifted birthday greetings to Oliver Evans; he was born on this date in 1755.  An inventor, engineer and businessman, he was one of the most prolific and influential inventors in the early years of the United States– a pioneer in the fields of automation, materials handling and steam power (for the lattermost of which, he is often referred to as “the American Watt”).

But before he turned to steam, Evans designed the first automatic flour mill.  He replaced labor-intensive grist mills with a mechanism in which grain moved automatically through a series of five machines to deliver flour packed in barrels at the end.

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Written by LW

September 13, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Behold the child, by Nature’s kindly law pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw”*…

 

The plastic straw is a simple invention with relatively modest value: For a few moments, the device helps make beverages easier to drink. And then, due to reasons of sanitation and ease of use, the straws are thrown away, never to be seen again.

Except, of course, the straw you use in your iced coffee doesn’t biodegrade, and stays around basically forever, often as ocean junk. That, understandably, is leading to chatter around banning plastic straws—notably in Berkeley, California, often the first place to ban anything potentially damaging to the environment.

And while the rest of the world won’t be banning straws anytime soon, maybe they should start thinking about it, because the problem with straws is one of scale. According to National Geographic, Americans use 500 million straws every single day—more than one per person daily…

Whence this waste? “A Brief History of the Modern-Day Straw, the World’s Most Wasteful Commodity.”

[Your correspondent highly recommends Tedium, the original source of this piece.]

* Alexander Pope

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As we suck it up, we might recall that it was on this date in 1869 that  Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès patented margarine, the creation with which he won the contest held by Emperor Napoleon III to find a substitute for the butter used by the French Navy.

A rough contemporary of Jules Verne, Mège-Mouriès was surely one of the reasons for Verne’s scientific and technical optimism:  Mège-Mouriès began his career at age 16 as a chemist’s assistant. By the 1840’s he had improved the syphilis drug, Copahin, after which he patented a variety of creations including tanning, effervescent tablets, paper paste, and sugar extraction.  By the 1850s he had turned to food research and developed a health chocolate (featuring a proprietary calcium phosphate protein) and developed a method that yielded 14% more white bread from a given quantity of wheat.  After 1862, he concentrated his research on fats– the primary product of which was his invention of margarine (though he also scored yet another another patent, for canned meat).

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Written by LW

July 15, 2017 at 1:01 am

“What was the best thing before sliced bread?”*…

 

Rohwedder’s bread slicer in use by the Papendick Bakery Company in St. Louis

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Some products are so ubiquitous that it can feel as if they were never invented at all.

Take sliced bread. Around 130 years ago,  the idea of buying a pre-sliced loaf would have been met with confusion, writes Jesse Rhodes for Smithsonian Magazine. “In 1890, about 90 percent of bread was baked at home, but by 1930, factories usurped the home baker,” Rhodes writes. But the two breads weren’t the same thing–”factory breads were also incredibly soft,” she writes, making them difficult to slice properly at home with a bread knife.

Since breadmaking had moved to factories, why not bread slicing as well? On this day in 1928, in Chillicothe, Missouri, the Chillicothe Baking Company became, in the words of its plaque, “The Home of Sliced Bread.” It was the place where the bread-slicing machine was first installed, wrote J. J. Thompson for Tulsa World in 1989. Thompson was speaking with the son of the bread-slicing machine’s inventor, Richard O. Rohwedder. His father, Otto F. Rohwedder, was a jeweler who started work on the bread-slicing project years before…

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It took a surprising amount of technological know-how to make the bread that birthed the expression: “Take a Look at the Patents Behind Sliced Bread.”

* George Carlin

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As we reach for the PB and J, we might recall that it was on this date in 1868 that Alvin J. Fellows patented his Improvement in Tape Measures– the first spring-click (retractable) tape measure.

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Written by LW

July 14, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I say it’s all like cellophane”*…

 

Don’t feel bad if you haven’t spent much time considering cellophane. It’s deliberately transparent, after all. You’re meant to consider whatever it’s wrapping instead.

Yet, it turns out that cellophane has a story worth telling. A new research paper exposes the historical significance of the packaging material, focusing on its key role in the development of self-service merchandising systems in American grocery stores, but also revealing how cellophane manufacturers tried to control the narrative of how women buy food…

Unwrap the story at “How Cellophane Changed the Way We Shop for Food“; then read the paper on which it it based, Ai Hisano’s “Cellophane, the New Visuality, and the Creation of Self-Service Food Retailing.

* Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Breakfast of Champions

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As we see through it, we might spare a sweet thought for Aaron “Bunny” Lapin; he died on this date in 1999.  In 1948, Lapin invented Reddi-Wip, the pioneering whipped cream dessert topping dispensed from a spray can.  First sold by milkmen in St. Louis, the product rode the post-World War Two convenience craze to national success; in 1998, it was named by Time one of the century’s “100 great consumer items”– along with the pop-top can and Spam.  Lapin became known as the Whipped Cream King; but his legacy is broader:  in 1955, he patented a special valve to control the flow of Reddi-Wip from the can, and formed The Clayton Corporation to manufacture it.  Reddi-Wip is now a Con-Agra brand; but Clayton goes strong, now also making industrial valves, closures, caulk, adhesives and foamed plastic products (like insulation and cushioning materials).

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Written by LW

July 10, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Gag me with a spoon!”*…

 

One weekend a year, the remote hamlet of Milan, Minn. — population 369 — is the center of the spooniverse.

The 11th annual Spoon Gathering, hosted earlier this month by the Milan Village Arts School, attracted more than 150 carvers from nearly 20 states and several foreign countries.These people are the rock stars of this fast-growing pastime. Their soundtrack is the chunk of a finely honed ax biting crisply into a log, the rasp of a file on steel. At once energetic and ruminative, analytical and philosophical, they transform raw wood into the humblest of human tools, a creation as ancient and elemental as a good bowl of bear meat stew…

Whittle on at “How a tiny Minnesota town became the wooden spoon capital of the country.”

* Valley girl speak, quoted in Frank Zappa’s “Valley Girl”

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As we dig in, we might recall that it was on this date in 1896 that William S. Hadaway, Jr. received the first U.S. patent for an electric stove.  It provided a uniform surface distribution of heat from a one-ring spiral coiled conductor.

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Written by LW

June 30, 2017 at 1:01 am

“In a properly automated and educated world, then, machines may prove to be the true humanizing influence”*…

 

When George Jakob Hunzinger patented his first piece of furniture in December of 1860, the United States was on the brink of a devastating Civil War. Amid the growing pressures of industrialization, the country was split between those in favor of an old-fashioned business model—dependent on slavery—and those betting on a more diversified, innovative economy. At the time, the American way of life as we know it today was hardly recognizable: Gas-powered automobiles hadn’t made their debut; electric lighting was decades away; skyscrapers did not yet exist. Yet from Hunzinger’s vantage point as a successful immigrant in New York City, possibly the most forward-thinking place on Earth, he imagined a future where humans lived among machines, and even the most humble pieces of furniture would be mechanically enhanced.

Beginning with his first patent for an extendable table whose leaves were hidden underneath when not in use, Hunzinger knew the seamless integration of technology and furniture could be a selling point. Though the Industrial Revolution had already transformed American production, the final decades of the 19th century would thrust the country into modernity, with Hunzinger’s inventions helping to pave the way…

More at: “Furniture of the Future: Victorian New York’s Most Visionary Designer Loved His Machines.

* “In a properly automated and educated world, then, machines may prove to be the true humanizing influence. It may be that machines will do the work that makes life possible and that human beings will do all the other things that make life pleasant and worthwhile ”
― Isaac Asimov, Robot Visions

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As we settle in, we might think back to one of the driving forces that created the America in which many of us live: on this date in 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, landmark legislation that funded a 40,000-mile system of interstate roads that ultimately reached every American city with a population of more than 100,000. Today, almost 90% of the interstate system crosses rural areas, putting most citizens and businesses within driving distance of one another. Although Eisenhower’s rationale was martial (creating a road system on which convoys could travel more easily), the rewards were largely civilian. From the growth of trucking to the rise of suburbs, the interstate highway system re-shaped American landscapes and lives.

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Written by LW

June 29, 2017 at 1:01 am

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