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Posts Tagged ‘innovation

“Progress is the attraction that moves humanity”*…

 

Steam Engine Crushing A Wall, 1770.

A 1770 engraving of a steam engine crushing a wall

 

How and why did the modern world and its unprecedented prosperity begin? Many bookshelves are full of learned tomes by historians, economists, political philosophers and other erudite scholars with endless explanations. One way of looking at the question is by examining something basic, and arguably essential: the emergence of a belief in the usefulness of progress.

Such a belief may seem self-evident today, but most people in the more-remote past believed that history moved in some kind of cycle or followed a path that was determined by higher powers. The idea that humans should and could work consciously to make the world a better place for themselves and for generations to come is by and large one that emerged in the two centuries between Christopher Columbus and Isaac Newton. Of course, just believing that progress could be brought about is not enough—one must bring it about. The modern world began when people resolved to do so…

Progress: humans invented it—and not that long ago.  Joel Mokyr unpacks its cultural history, and explains why “Progress Isn’t Natural.”

See also J.B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress- an Inquiry into its Origins and Growth and Robert Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress.

* Marcus Garvey

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As we deliberate on direction, we might recall that it was on this date in 1910 that French chemist, engineer, and inventor Georges Claude switched on the first public display of neon lights– two large (39 foot long), bright red neon tubes– at the Paris Motor Show.  Over the next decade, Claude lit much of Paris.  Neon came to America in 1923 when Earl Anthony purchased signage from Claude, then transported it to Los Angeles, where Anthony installed it at his Packard dealership… and (literally) stopped traffic.

Claude in his lab, 1913

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Written by LW

December 3, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The commonality between science and art is in trying to see profoundly – to develop strategies of seeing and showing”*…

 

science-philosopher

 

The Science Museum is always alive with children. School groups scribble on clipboards, five-year-olds drag parents and grandparents by the hand, push buttons, and make lights flash. Toddlers flag for ice-cream. The halls and galleries ring with noise. By contrast, in the softly lit exhibition space on the second floor, a sudden quiet descends. But almost at once, on entering the museum’s new show, “The Art of Innovation: From Enlightenment to Dark Matter,” here are the children again. In Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on an Orrery in which a Lamp is put in the Place of the Sun (1766) [above], they lean over, faces lit up, as the girl, her eyes glowing, points over her brother’s shoulder at the tiny planets circling the sun.

That sense of excitement defines the exhibition, as visitors zig-zag from The Lecture on the Orrery through 250 years of art and science. In the book that accompanies the show, far more than a catalog, the curators, Ian Blatchford and Tilly Blyth, lay out their stall. “Throughout history,” they write, “artists and scientists alike have been driven by curiosity and the desire to explore worlds, inner and outer. They have wanted to make sense of what they see around them and feel within them: to observe, record and transform. Sometimes working closely together, they have taken inspiration from each other’s practice.” To illustrate this dual heritage and point to the leaps of imagination in both fields, they have placed twenty works—painting, sculpture, film, photographs, posters, and textiles—alongside the scientific objects that inspired them. Thus A Lecture on the Orrery hangs near James Ferguson’s wooden pulley-operated mechanical model of the solar system [below], an orrery from the Museum’s collection…

science-planetary-model

 

A glorious (and gloriously-illustrated) appreciation: “Beauty in Ingenuity: The Art of Science.”

* Edward Tufte

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As we bask in beauty, we might spare a cartographically-correct thought for, one of history’s most impactful scientific artists: Gerardus Mercator; he died on this date in 1594.  The most renown cartographer of his time, he created a world map based on a new projection– the Mercator Projection— which represented sailing courses of constant bearing as straight lines, an approach still employed in nautical charts used for navigation.

While he was most esteemed as the foremost geographer of his day, Mercator was also an accomplished engraver, calligrapher and maker of globes and scientific instruments.  And he studied theology, philosophy, history, mathematics, and magnetism.

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Written by LW

December 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

“It’s not the end of Western Civilization. It’s chewing gum.”*…

 

Santa Anna

Antonio López de Santa Anna in his days as a dashing soldier, before his unglamorous exile

 

Two years before he died senile and broke, the disgraced Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna lived in a modest residence in Staten Island. Known variously as the executioner of hundreds at The Alamo, the man who lost Texas, and “His Most Serene Highness” and “The Eagle,” Santa Anna was missing a leg and had recently been conned out of tens of thousands of pesos. He spent his exile moving among high society, plotting to get rich or return to Mexico, and chewing on something called chicle.

Santa Anna hoped that his supply of chicle, a natural latex harvested from trees in the same fashion as rubber, would make him rich. He’d pitched Thomas Adams, a local inventor, on developing this foreign substance into an inexpensive replacement for rubber. It never worked. But after he left for Mexico for the final time, dumping his chicle on Adams, it became something else: the first modern chewing gum…

He captured the Alamo, lost Texas, and helped invent Tutti Frutti: “How a Mexican General’s Exile in Staten Island Led to Modern Chewing Gum.”

* Jerry Springer (defending his television show)

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As we’re careful not to swallow, we might recall that it was on this date in 2012, in the final week of that year’s Texas State Fair, that “Big Tex,” a 55-foot tall statue, marketing icon, and traditional meeting place at the Fair since 1952, was destroyed by fire.  (It was replaced by an updated replica the following year.)

200px-Big-tex-1956 source

 

Written by LW

October 19, 2019 at 1:01 am

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”*…

 

visicalc

 

By the late 1970s, workers on Wall Street were already using rudimentary email processes, putting them among the first to adopt personal computers outside of the sciences, academia, and home hobbyists, according to technologist David Wolfe. But finance’s love affair with computers really took off in the early ‘80s when spreadsheets arrived, and firms began providing in-house employee training for this tool—one that, even today, surprisingly few of us feel comfortable with.

At the time, those groundbreaking programs included VisiCalc—the first-ever digital spreadsheet, and “the ‘killer app’ for the Apple II,” [technologist David] Wolfe said—along with Lotus 1-2-3, which offered expanded capabilities in some areas, and similarly boosted IBM’s PCs.

According to Wolfe, co-director of the Innovation Policy Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, “The spreadsheet immediately started getting picked up by the financial services industry for its ability to do ‘what if’ calculations, like: If the rate changes from 1% to 2% percent, how will it affect my investment capital?”

Almost immediately, Wall Street also started using the technology to create new, more complex kinds of trading and investments. “It became an incredible time saver-tool, but also started to play into the creation of derivatives,” Wolfe explained…

Let it Visi-snow: “How the Invention of Spreadsheet Software Unleashed Wall Street on the World.”

* Father John Culkin, SJ (though often attributed to his friend Marshall McLuhan)

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As we copy and paste, we might send expansionary birthday greetings to Jean-Baptiste Colbert; he was born on this date in 1619.  Minister of Finances of France from 1661 to 1683 under the rule of King Louis XIV, Colbert pursued dirigiste policies (those of a strong, directive state, e.g., tariffs, proactive industrial policy) to create a favorable balance of trade and to increase France’s colonial holdings and foreign market access.  His policies inspired those of Alexander Hamilton, the first treasury secretary of the United States and foundational architect of the U.S. national economy.

Colbert1666 source

 

 

Written by LW

August 29, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Cleanliness is next to godliness”*…

 

Hand dryer

 

Public bathrooms offer three primary options to dry a pair of wet hands. First, there is the venerable crisp-pleated paper towel. Second, the old-style warm-air dryer: those indestructible metal carapaces that, through their snouts, breathe down upon our hands. And finally, the jet dryer sub-species of the sort Dyson makes, whose gale-force winds promise to shear away every drop of moisture rather than slowly evaporating it. In the quest to dominate the world’s restrooms, Campbell discovered, Dryer v Towel is a pitched contest of business strategy and public relations. “Expect to be lied to a lot,” Campbell told me. “It’s almost like the cola wars. You have Pepsi v Coke, and you have hand dryers v paper towels.”

The chief battleground for this duel is public hygiene. Science has tried and failed to come to a consensus about the hygienic superiority of one product over the other. Even so, the paper towel industry has funded or promoted a rash of studies claiming that hand dryers turn bathrooms into mosh pits of pathogens. These results almost always make news. Any sort of health scare is a gift to a journalist – an opportunity to write viral headlines such as “Hand dryers are blowing bacteria all over your hands” or “Hand dryers are germ-flinging bullshit”…

As an invention, the paper towel isn’t much older than the hand dryer; the Scott Paper Company, based in Philadelphia and now owned by the tissue giant Kimberly-Clark, developed the first restroom towel in 1907, while the Airdry Corporation, in New York, patented the earliest “drying apparatus” in 1922. For most of the 20th century, the towel was the more dominant product. Dryer companies, by and large, just made dryers; their budgets were small and their influence limited. The biggest manufacturers of paper towels were behemoths such as Kimberly-Clark or Georgia-Pacific, which also produced a vast range of other items. Their pockets were deeper, their leverage over customers greater.

Only after Dyson arrived and other dryer firms shook themselves awake did the contest acquire any edge at all. The numbers still weigh heavily in favour of Big Towel. In 2020, according to the market research firm Technavio, the world will buy roughly $4bn (£3bn) worth of multi-fold paper towels, of the kind most commonly seen in public bathrooms; the same year, hand dryer sales will jump to $856m, having grown 12% every year since 2014. Between 2012 and 2020, a Dyson spokesperson reckoned, hand dryers will have sucked $873m out of paper towel revenues. This is why, he argued, Big Towel launches such regular broadsides at hand dryers…

For a century, the humble paper towel has dominated public toilets. But a new generation of hand dryers has sparked a war: “Hand dryers v paper towels: the surprisingly dirty fight for the right to dry your hands.”

*  John Wesley

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As we pray for peace, we might recall that it was on this date in 1953 that the U. S Patent and Trademark Office issued patent number 2,636,176 to Howard C. Rossin for an overcoat for two people (or Siamese Twins).

 source

 

“Friends share things”*…

 

Black header

Readers may recall that (R)D has contemplated black before [and here], more particularly, the emergence of the (then) “blackest black,” Vantablack.  Here, via the always-amazing Imperica, an update:

I’ve featured Stuart Semple and his work in here quite a lot over the past few years; this is the latest in his gloriously petty (but also actually sort of serious) one-man project to annoy Anish Kapoor by creating a paint as-black as Kapoor’s famously VERY black Vantablack (if you want the background to the story you can read all about it [at the link below], but basically Semple thinks that Kapoor is a pompous, self-important arsehole and, by all accounts, Semple is absolutely 100% right). Anyway, if you want the chance to own some of the blackest paint EVER MADE, here’s your chance – the Kickstarter for it is 3x funded with over a month left to go, so this is definitely happening, and it’s worth backing it purely to have the chance to draw ACME-style Wil E Coyote-esque fake tunnels on walls all over London…

Semple says, “we’ve created a paint that absorbs 98-99% of visible light, we want to share this black hole in a bottle with all artists and creators.” Learn more– and but some of your own– at “The blackest black paint in the world! Black 3.0.”

* Pythagoras

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As we get dark, we might spare a thought for a man who did his best to dispel a different kind of darkness:  René Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician who thought and therefore was; he died on this date in 1650.

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

source

 

Written by LW

February 11, 2019 at 1:01 am

“If the shoe fits”*…

 

0108_brannock

When a large retail outlet is in its final throes, it can be fascinating to walk around one, not necessarily because you want to buy anything, but because of the things the natural selection process of panic-shopping surfaces. (When something is 90 percent off, you have to really not want it to leave it sitting there.) So when I learned my local Sears store was closing after more than 40 years in business, I made two stops: One, nine days before its closure; and two, on its final day. As you can imagine, the trip surfaced different sales items each time, even though it was the same massive store both times, but the different levels of decay put different levels of focus on what was there. And during the last time, I found myself utterly enthralled with a device I’ve seen a million times, as have most of you. Something about the removal of its full context, as well as the clear amount of use the product had received, made the device stand out that much more. I’m, of course (of course!) talking about the Brannock Device, a mainstay of shoe stores for decades. What’s your shoe size?…

From the ever-illuminating Ernie Smith and his Tedium newsletter, an appreciation of a device that all of us have used, but the few of us have stopped to appreciate.  The “barleycorn measurement scheme” (a barleycorn is the difference in space between one shoe size and the next); the history of shoe sizing; an appreciation of Charles Brannock and his efforts– even a visit to a minor league baseball game that honored Brannock’s creation– it’s all here:  “How the Brannock Device—a measuring tool you’ve definitely seen but didn’t know the name of—made it a lot easier to figure out our shoe size.”

* traditional

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As we wear it, we might recall that it was on this date in 1899 that the rubber heel was patented by Humphrey O’Sullivan (US patent #618128).  O’Sullivan, a printer tired of slipping on his inky floor, began by nailing a piece of rubber floor mat to his own shoes; after developing the product and patenting it, he launched a company to market his podiatric progress– in a way aimed at pedestrians pounding the (wet, icy, or otherwise slippery) pavements in America’s growing cities.

safety heel source

 

Written by LW

January 24, 2019 at 1:01 am

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