(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘invention

“It is difficult to predict, especially the future”*…

While perfectly accurate prediction is beyond our ken, it is possible to spot indicators– early warning signs or signals– that the world is headed in one direction or another. BBC R&D Futures is an attempt to do exactly that (in the service of building understanding of the impacts that they might have, right down to the artifacts that they might spawn). For example (from a recent “signals” newsletter):

We are in an era of increasing protests

A number of recent studies tracking and understanding protests and demonstrations around the world are seeing a rise in events. One looking at demonstrations between 2006 and 2020 found that “the number of protest movements around the world had more than tripled in less than 15 years. Every region saw an increase, the study found, with some of the largest protest movements ever recorded.”

Common reasons given for protesting were ‘perceived failure of political systems or representation’, inequality, corruption, lack of action over climate change, and the sense that people’s concerns are not being addressed.

Concerned about the future? A useful source of social, economic, technological, environmental, and political dynamics worthy of attention: BBC R&D Futures.

* Niels Bohr

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As we seek signs, we might recall that it was on this date in 1876 that Melville Bissell patented the first carpet sweeper… one of the innovations (see here, here, e.g.) that revolutionized housekeeping… and with it, modern society.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 19, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Some assembly required”*…

Photographer Todd McLellan disassembles things. As the Smithsonian explains in the web intro to an exhibition of his work…

What makes a watch tick? How does a sewing machine stitch? Where does an iPod get its shuffle? For those who have ever asked questions like these, Things Come Apart is a revelation.

Through extraordinary photographs, disassembled objects and fascinating videos, Things Come Apart reveals the inner workings of common, everyday possessions. Images of dozens of objects explore how things are designed and made and how technology has evolved over time. For example, the individual components of a record player, a Walkman, and an iPod illustrate the technical changes in sound reproduction over the years, and images of the parts of a mechanical and digital watch demonstrate different approaches to timepiece engineering.

As a visual investigation of design and engineering, Things Come Apart also celebrates classic examples of industrial design like the sewing machine, the mechanical pencil, and the telescope. Additionally, the exhibition explores ideas about reuse, repair, and recycling….

More on the exhibit (with examples) at “Things Come Apart@smithsonian; Even more on McLellan’s website (and at @Todd_McLellan).

* the frequently-encountered qualification in advertising and product packaging

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As we take it apart, we might recall that it was on this date in 1843 that Charles Thurber was issued the first patent for a typewriter that actually worked. The forerunners of typewriters had been around for some time; the first known patent was issued in England in 1714, but for a machine that never worked and was never manufactured. Thurber’s “printing machine” did work– but was so slow as to be impractical. He patented an improved (but still painfully sluggish) version a few years later… then moved on. Typewriter development continued in other hands, but slowly. It wasn’t until the late 19th century (and the introduction of a QWERTY keyboard design as a standard) that typewriting became a wide-spread practice.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 26, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Mustard: Good only in Dijon”*…

France is facing a widespread dearth of Dijon mustard; Emily Monaco explains…

Take a wander down any condiment aisle in France these days, and you’ll notice a pervasive absence between le mayo and le ketchup. Since this May, France has faced a widespread dearth of Dijon mustard, leading one French resident to advertise two jars for sale to the tune of €6,000 or about £5,000 (since revealed to be merely in jest). The shortage has incited expats (this author included) to not-at-all-jokingly smuggle squeeze bottles of Maille back into the country from places like the US to get their fix, while author and Paris resident David Lebovitz even resorted to hunting his jars down at a local gardening store, of all places.

While French news outlets wasted no time in attributing the shortage to the war in Ukraine, the real story is a whole lot spicier than that.

Omnipresent on French tables, Dijon mustard, made by combining brown mustard seeds with white wine, is a beloved condiment that provides a counterpoint to rich, hearty dishes thanks to its acidity and heat. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a slice of crisp-skinned roast chicken, the ideal way to jazz up a simple ham-and-butter sandwich and an essential ingredient in homemade mayonnaise.

That the condiment is so anchored in France’s Burgundy region – of which Dijon is the capital city – is thanks to the historical co-planting of brown mustard seeds with the region’s renowned grapevines, a practice introduced by the Ancient Romans to provide the vines with essential nutrients like phosphorous. Monks continued to cultivate mustard in this fashion for centuries, and, in 1752, the link between Dijon and mustard was cemented thanks to Dijon local Jean Naigeon, who married the seeds, not with vinegar, but with verjuice – the juice of unripe wine grapes historically used to add a pleasantly sour flavour to recipes in regions inhospitable to citrus…

But the truth is that despite its historical link the to the region, Dijon mustard has been delocalised for quite some time.

After Burgundian farmers largely abandoned mustard cultivation in favour of higher-paying crops decades ago, moutardiers (mustard makers) began looking further afield for the tiny seed at the root of the condiment that launched 1,000 “Pardon me, sirjokes. Their mustard seed needs were chiefly met by Canada, which produces about 80% of the world’s supply. But this winter, Canadian-grown mustard also dried up, when, after several years of declining production had reduced stores, dry summer weather obliterated the Canadian crop, sending mustard seed prices skyrocketing threefold.

Though the shortage was not caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it was exacerbated by it, impacting Dijon mustard makers “indirectly”, according to Luc Vandermaesen, CEO of mustard producer Reine de Dijon. Rather than the brown seeds required for Dijon, Ukraine predominantly produces the white variety used in yellow and English mustard. Given the conflict, producers less tied to specific mustard varieties turned to Canada’s already meagre supply, intensifying the shortage.

Inadvertently, this all shed new light on the discrepancy between the name “Dijon mustard” and where it’s made. After all, unlike Champagne or Roquefort, the “Dijon” in Dijon mustard refers to a specific recipe and not to a geographic region protected by an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) or Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) designation, which regulate products like wine, cheese and even lentils with an iron fist…

A spicy tale: “Why there’s no ‘Dijon’ in Dijon mustard,” from @emily_in_france in @BBC_Travel.

* Gustave Flaubert

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As we spread it thin, we might recall that it was on this date in 1795 that the Reverend Samuel Henshall was awarded the first patent for a corkscrew.

His idea was to incorporate a button between the shank & the worm. Its purpose was to compress and turn the cork once the worm was fully inserted, thus breaking any bond that might exist between cork and bottle.

Henshall’s improvement to the simple direct pull corkscrew was no doubt a winner. His design
was produced well into the 20th century in a vast array of different styles…

Antique & Vintage Corkscrew Guide

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 24, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.”*…

Earlier (Roughly) Daily posts have looked at “Progress Studies” and at its relationship to the Rationalism community. Garrison Lovely takes a deeper look at this growing and influential intellectual movement that aims to understand why human progress happens – and how to speed it up…

For most of history, the world improved at a sluggish pace, if at all. Civilisations rose and fell. Fortunes were amassed and squandered. Almost every person in the world lived in what we would now call extreme poverty. For thousands of years, global wealth – at least our best approximations of it – barely budged.

But beginning around 150-200 years ago, everything changed. The world economy suddenly began to grow exponentially. Global life expectancy climbed from less than 30 years to more than 70 years. Literacy, extreme poverty, infant mortality, and even height improved in a similarly dramatic fashion. The story may not be universally positive, nor have the benefits been equally distributed, but by many measures, economic growth and advances in science and technology have changed the way of life for billions of people.

What explains this sudden explosion in relative wealth and technological power? What happens if it slows down, or stagnates? And if so, can we do something about it? These are key questions of “progress studies”, a nascent self-styled academic field and intellectual movement, which aims to dissect the causes of human progress in order to better advance it.

Founded by an influential economist and a billionaire entrepreneur, this community tends to define progress in terms of scientific or technological advancement, and economic growth – and therefore their ideas and beliefs are not without their critics. So, what does the progress studies movement believe, and what do they want to see happen in the future?

Find out at: “Do we need a better understanding of ‘progress’?,” from @GarrisonLovely at @BBC_Future.

Then judge for yourself: was Adorno right? “It would be advisable to think of progress in the crudest, most basic terms: that no one should go hungry anymore, that there should be no more torture, no more Auschwitz. Only then will the idea of progress be free from lies.” Or can–should– we be more purposively, systemically ambitious?

* C. S. Lewis

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As we get better at getting better, we might recall that it was on this date in 1922 that the United States paid tribute to a man instrumental in the progress that Progress Studies is anxious to sustain, Alexander Graham Bell…

There were more than 14 million telephones in the United States by the time Alexander Graham Bell died. For one minute on August 4, 1922, they were all silent.

The reason: Bell’s funeral. The American inventor was the first to patent telephone technology in the United States and who founded the Bell Telephone System in 1877. Though Bell wasn’t the only person to invent “the transmission of speech by electrical wires,” writes Randy Alfred for Wired, achieving patent primacy in the United States allowed him to spend his life inventing. Even though the telephone changed the world, Bell didn’t stop there.

Bell died on August 2, 1922, just a few days after his 75th birthday. “As a mark of respect every telephone exchange in the United States and Canada closed for a minute when his funeral began around 6:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time,” Alfred writes.

On the day of the funeral, The New York Times reported that Bell was also honored by advocates for deaf people. “Entirely apart from the monumental achievement of Professor Bell as the inventor of the telephone, his conspicuous work in [sic] behalf of the deaf of this country would alone entitle him to everlasting fame,” said Felix H. Levey, president of the Institution for the Improved Instruction of Deaf Mutes.

In fact, Bell spent much of his income from the telephone on helping deaf people. The same year he founded the Bell Telephone System, 1880, Bell founded the Volta Laboratory. The laboratory, originally called Volta Associates, capitalized on Bell’s work and the work of other sound pioneers. It made money by patenting new innovations for the gramophone and other recorded sound technologies. In 1887, Bell took his share of the money from the sale of gramophone patents and founded the Volta Bureau “as an instrument for the increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the Deaf,’” writes the National Park Service. Bell and Volta continued to work for deaf rights throughout his life.

Volta Laboratory eventually became Bell Laboratories, which was home to many of the twentieth century’s communication innovations.

Smithsonian

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“Culture is not only passed on orally or by instinctive imitation, but above all through reading and study, hence also through the assistance of such a small object as a bookmark”*…

Arthur Fry, inventor of the Post-it Note, found inspiration in the pages of his hymnal

Siena Linton explains how a failed invention and a choir hymnbook led to one of the most iconic office staples of the 20th century…

The year is 1968, and in a laboratory in the midwestern state of Minnesota, US, Dr Spencer Silver is hard at work, attempting to develop an extra-strong adhesive for 3M, then called the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company.

Instead of the super-sticky substance he had hoped to create, Silver was left with a ‘low-tack’ adhesive, albeit a reusable one which could be stuck and unstuck when pressure was applied.

Keen not to let his time and efforts go to waste, Dr Silver searched far and wide for a use for what he called his “solution without a problem”.

For five years, he brought his invention to the table at various seminars and summits, but ultimately failed to make his idea stick.

Little did Silver know, one of his colleagues at 3M had attended one of these many seminars, and was interested to find out more about the oddly-behaving adhesive. Arthur ‘Art’ Fry, who worked to develop new products at 3M, was a keen singer, and sang in his church choir in his downtime.

Fry often used small slips of paper to mark important pages in his hymnbook, but with nothing to keep them in place they frequently fell out, causing Fry to lose his place and costing him precious time.

One Sunday in 1973, during choir practice, he remembered Dr Silver’s seminar. He wondered if he could somehow coat his bookmarks with the adhesive in a way that could help save his page more effectively, without damaging the delicate, wafer-thin pages of his hymnbook.

In the spirit of encouraging creative collaboration and inventiveness, 3M operate a “permitted bootlegging” initiative, which Fry made use of to further develop his design.

Using scrap paper borrowed from the lab next door – which just so happened to be canary yellow – Fry experimented with different ways of applying the adhesive to the paper, eventually settling on a strip of glue along one edge of the paper: enough to allow it to stick, without any tackiness left on the part of the bookmark that extended from the page.

Silver and Fry later began leaving each other notes, stuck to various surfaces around the office. It was then that they realised the full potential of their discovery…

The rest of the extraordinary story at “The surprising role classical music played in the invention of the Post-it Note,” from @sienalinton at @ClassicFM, via @tedgioia.

Marco Ferreri

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As we mark our progress, we might recall that it is on this date in 1948 that Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” was published in The New Yorker. In her tale, each year (on June 27– so just as the issue was landing) the the roughly 300 residents of a small village participate in a drawing that determines who will be sacrificed to insure a good harvest…

The story evoked strong initial negative response: subscriptions were cancelled; much hate mail received throughout the summer; and the Union of South Africa banned the story.  It is now considered a classic of short fiction (and among the most famous American short stories); it spawned several radio, television, and film adaptations, and inspired voluminous analysis, both literary and sociological.

lottery

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