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Posts Tagged ‘invention

“How many things have been denied one day, only to become realities the next!”*…

Electricity grids, the internet, and interstate highways are enormous in scale, yet we take them for granted

In 1603, a Jesuit priest invented a machine for lifting the entire planet with only ropes and gears.

Christoph Grienberger oversaw all mathematical works written by Jesuit authors, a role akin to an editor at a modern scientific journal. He was modest and productive, and could not resist solving problems. He reasoned that since a 1:10 gear could allow one person to lift 10 times as much as one unassisted, if one had 24 gears linked to a treadmill then one could lift the Earth… very slowly.

Like any modern academic who prizes theory above practice, he left out the pesky details: “I will not weave those ropes, or prescribe the material for the wheels or the place from which the machine shall be suspended: as these are other matters I leave them for others to find.”

You can see what Grienberger’s theoretical device looked like here.

For as long as we have had mathematics, forward-thinking scholars like Grienberger have tried to imagine the far limits of engineering, even if the technology of the time was lacking. Over the centuries, they have dreamt of machines to lift the world, transform the surface of the Earth, or even reorganise the Universe. Such “megascale engineering”  – sometimes called macro-engineering – deals with ambitious projects that would reshape the planet or construct objects the size of worlds. What can these megascale dreams of the future tell us about human ingenuity and imagination?

What are the biggest, boldest things that humanity could engineer? From planet lifters to space cannons, Anders Sandberg (@anderssandberg) explores some of history’s most ambitious visions – and why they’re not as ‘impossible’ as they seem: “The ‘megascale’ structures that humans could one day build.”

* Jules Verne (imagineer of many megascale projects)

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As we think big, we might send very carefully measured birthday greetings to (the other noteworthy) John Locke; he was born on this date in 1792. A geologist, surveyor, and scientist, he invented tools for surveyors, including a surveyor’s compass, a collimating level (Locke’s Hand Level), and a gravity escapement for regulator clocks. The electro-chronograph he constructed (1844-48) for the United States Coast Survey was installed in the Naval Observatory, in Washington, in 1848. It improved determination of longitudes, as it was able to make a printed record on a time scale of an event to within one one-hundredth of a second. When connected via the nation’s telegraph system, astronomers could record the time of events they observed from elsewhere in the country, by the pressing a telegraph key. Congress awarded him $10,000 for his inventions in 1849.

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“a total space, a complete world, a kind of miniature city”*…

John Portman’s Atlanta Hyatt Regency, which opened in 1967, kicked off a major atrium-hotel-building craze

If you’re craning your neck as severely when you step inside a building as you did outside it, you might be in an atrium hotel, an intensely American structure for sleep, conferences, cocktails, and much more. These are facilities built around a massive central chamber stretching a dozen or several dozen stories into the sky; at the lobby level, you’ll find bars, restaurants, gardens, live birds, and maybe even a boat or two.

We don’t build them much anymore, but Americans invented, perfected and exported this unique building style to the world (where it continues to prosper). Birthed in brash excess, atrium hotels were first seen as too gaudy by the modernist architectural establishment and as too profligate by penny-pinching chain hoteliers. To varying observers, they suggest everything from Disney to dystopia. But in their heyday, these buildings promised — and delivered — a spectacle like no other.

Real estate developer Trammell Crow, the man with the most Dallas-sounding name you’ve ever heard, provided early inspiration for the form with his Dallas Trade Mart atrium, built in 1958. But it was Atlanta architect-developer John Portman, his occasional partner, who adapted and built the form into a colossus. Portman’s Hyatt Recency Atlanta opened in 1967, and was an immediate sensation. Atriums became a signature of the Hyatt Regency brand, and Portman went on to work for a variety of other chains, including Marriott and Westin. Atriums later became a standard feature of most Embassy Suites…

The benefit wasn’t just grand views from the lobby, but from every floor; each hallway was suddenly a balcony. Inside that central volume of space, hotels stuffed a range of embellishments. “One would move through a set of functions and experiences as one might a city: from home, to garden, to urban plaza, cafe, and bar,” wrote University of Technology, Sydney architectural historian Charles Rice in his book Interior Urbanism: Architecture, John Portman, and Downtown America.

The trouble was, some critics saw, that these atrium hotels tended to be creating, as Rice’s title indicates, a new urbanism that was purely inside. Amenities that once faced streets were pulled indoors and replaced with blank walls and hard-to-find entrances. That formula — so irresistible during an era of urban crisis and decay in the 1970s and ’80s — lost some appeal when cities staged a comeback and the streets again beckoned with their own attractions…

Portman’s first atrium wasn’t in a hotel at all, but in the now-demolished Antoine Graves public housing tower in Atlanta, built in 1965. The idea was simple, says Mickey Steinberg, a structural engineer on many of Portman’s early projects. The architect was just trying to provide some sociable space and ventilation to tenants. (The building was not air conditioned.) “If I had a hole down the center of the building,” Steinberg recalls Portman saying, “people could come out and talk to each other and I might be able to get some air through the building.” 

That notion recurred to Portman two years later for the Hyatt Regency. “It wasn’t any grand philosophy about a style of architecture,” Steinberg says. “He was designing for people to want to be there.”

He was also designing for people who might not have wanted to be in Atlanta, whose central business district was in decline. Steinberg recalled Portman’s intention: “I’m going to create a space for them to want to be in, because downtown Atlanta doesn’t have it anymore.”

The Portman-style skyscraper atrium revived a 19th century tradition: the grand hotel lobby, with its adjoining restaurants, ballrooms and other such attractions. In the motel age, these spaces had often been pared back to a mere desk for paperwork. (You’d even usually go elsewhere for that one ineradicable amenity of the ice machine.) Portman bet that guests would embrace spectacle and activity again…

The atrium concept didn’t initially enthrall the moneymen… Bill Marriott had one look and he said, ‘Don’t bother with it. Motels are the thing.’” Conrad Hilton famously called it a “concrete monster.” A then-unknown savior turned up in the form of Don Pritzker, whose nascent Hyatt chain then had only three locations. 

That bet paid off once the Hyatt Regency Atlanta opened: Visits to the hotel in the first four months of operation exceeded their expectation of the first five years. Guests lined up just to go up and down in the glass elevators. And Hyatt ran with the formula, building additional atrium-equipped Regency locations into the 1970s and ’80s…

A consideration of a uniquely-American style and of the social, cultural, and economic forces that birthed it: “Into the Heart of the Atrium Hotel.”

* Frederic Jameson, describing Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, Postmodernism

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As we blow bubbles, we might recall that it was on this date in 1928 that former concert violinist and proprietor of the One-In-Hand Tie Company of Clinton, Iowa, Joseph W. Less, introduced the modern clip-on tie.

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“Like so many named places.. it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts– census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway”*…

Dallas-Fort Worth has one of the world’s most extensive urban freeway systems. It is the product of the pro-growth ambition of political and business leaders, and has empowered the ambition of real estate developers, big business, the technology industry and entrepreneurs. The North Texas cultural spirit to think big and build big has guided the ongoing growth and expansion of Dallas-Fort Worth freeways, a transportation system which has propelled North Texas to be among the most economically successful regions in the United States in the post-World War II era. Dallas-Fort Worth Freeways documents the origins, politics, influence and resulting urban landscape of North Texas freeways…

The very complete– and lavishly illustrated– history of the Dallas-Fort area’s motorways: “Dallas-Fort Worth Freeways.”

See also the same author’s equally remarkable “Houston Freeways.”

* Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

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As we watch for our exit, we might send motile birthday greetings to Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, he was born on this date in 1725.  In 1769, Cugnot, a military engineer, invented the world’s first fuel-propelled vehicle–a gun tractor commissioned by the French government.  The following year he produced the first mechanically-driven “horseless carriage”; his steam tricycle, driven by a steam engine, carried four passengers and was the forerunner of the modern motor car.

There are reports of a minor incident in 1771, when the second prototype vehicle is said to have accidentally knocked down a brick or stone wall, either that or a Paris garden or part of the Paris Arsenal walls, in perhaps the first known automobile accident.

Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, monument à Void (Lorraine)

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Written by LW

September 25, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The greatest value of a picture is when it forces us to notice what we never expected to see”*…

Detail from Richard Waller’s “Tabula colorum physiologica …” [Table of physiological colours], from Philosophical Transactions, 1686 — Source.

One of the most demanding challenges for early modern scientists was devising how best to visually portray their discoveries to the public. In the absence of any sort of technology for automatic visualisation, like cameras or scanners, the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century natural philosopher had to rely on drawings and subsequently woodcuts, etchings, or engravings to turn an experimental finding into a reproducible and publicly accessible demonstration. This was a laborious, expensive, time-consuming, and often problematic operation. Negotiated between several parties involved in the world of image-making, such as draughtsmen, engravers, and printers, the results were inevitably compromises between the intentions of the researcher and the possibilities of the printing press. For example, what a drawing could express with shading, washing, and chromatic nuances, printed illustrations could only approximate through a binary system of black and white, resulting from the pressure of an inked copper plate against a page.

The problem of efficient imaging was particularly felt during the early years of the Royal Society, a scientific institution founded in London in the early 1660s and today still regarded as one of the most prestigious institutions of scientific research in the world. In its early decades of activity, the Royal Society established itself as one of the central forces of the Scientific Revolution, with renowned members such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Members of the Society used to meet on a weekly basis to discuss ongoing research on a variety of subjects, such as physics, mathematics, biology, astronomy, mechanics, geography, and antiquarianism.

Soon after its foundation, the Royal Society sought new ways to increase visibility and maximise its public reach. From this emerged the Philosophical Transactions, a monthly peer-reviewed journal, the first of its kind, featuring extracts from the Royal Society’s weekly research meetings. Founded in 1665 by the Society’s Secretary Henry Oldenburg and still published to this day, the Transactions are regarded as the first and longest-running scientific journal in history, as contributions were the result of original explorative studies into natural and mechanical matters informed by the Society’s culture of experiment — part of what today we generally call science.

The Transactions were printed in small quarto format (about 17x22cm) with up to about a dozen articles per issue and could be purchased for the price of one shilling, about £5 today. The journal was a pioneering learned publication, with exceptional frequency and aimed at a diverse public of curious researchers. As such, especially in the early years, its contributors were often preoccupied with how best to communicate their ideas and discoveries through the immediacy of mass-producible visual media. A closer look into a selection of these articles demonstrates the extent to which natural philosophers were prepared to re-invent the production and consumption of images with new and often odd strategies for representing the world. This was a process of endless hands-on experimentation, often pushing beyond the traditional confines of the printing house…

From infographics to digital renders, today’s scientists have ready access to a wide array of techniques to help visually communicate their research. It wasn’t always so: “‘More Lively Counterfaits’– Experimental Imaging at the Birth of Modern Science.”

* John Tukey

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As we “show don’t tell,” we might spare a thought for Earle Dickson; he died on this date in 1961.  Dickson, concerned that his wife, Josephine Knight, often cut herself while doing housework and cooking, devised a way that she could easily apply her own dressings.  He prepared ready-made bandages by placing squares of cotton gauze at intervals along an adhesive strip and covering them with crinoline.  In the event, all his wife had to do was cut off a length of the strip and wrap it over her cut.  Dickson, who worked as a cotton buyer at Johnson & Johnson, took his idea to his employer… and the Band-Aid was born.

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“Corn is a greedy crop, as farmers will tell you”*…

With harvest season nigh, the corn should be “as high as an elephant’s eye,” as the old Rodgers and Hammerstein song has it. Time to get that water boiling for the corn on the cob?

Sure. But most of the corn we consume isn’t on the cob, in a can, or frozen. Sweet corn is actually less than 1 percent of the corn grown in the United States. Popcorn, our third standard type of corn, is also less than 1 percent of the American corn crop.

Educators Renee Clary and James Wandersee have explored the history of corn, from the first domestication of maize about 10,000 years ago to today’s ubiquitous “commodity corn.”

According to Clary and Wandersee, we should be flush with the hundreds of varieties of corn crafted by human selection over the centuries. But the United States, the world’s largest corn producer, almost exclusively grows field corn, which is also known as dent corn, or, in the futures markets, “commodity corn.” It is not delicious with butter and salt.

Commodity corn is a bit magical, however, because it can be transformed into a plethora of products. Food is still a big part of the corn equation, but indirectly. Meat, for example, is actually transmuted corn: Four-tenths of the U.S. corn crop goes to feed chicken, pigs, and cattle. And since cattle evolved as grass eaters, they have to be dosed with antibiotics because corn isn’t healthy for them.

Many processed foods are built on the back of corn. High-fructose corn syrup, much cheaper than sugar, is the most obvious of these corn-based ingredients in our food system…

Clary and Wandersee have their students survey what’s in their home pantries. There’s a lot of corn hidden in food labels. Caramel color, lecithin, citric acid, modified and unmodified starch? Corn. The same with ascorbic acid, lysine, dextrose, monoglycerides, diglycerides, maltose, maltodextrin, and MSG. Xanthan gum? Well, there’s no such thing as a xanthan gum tree.

But the corn story is even more complicated. Corn can be chemically manipulated into all sorts of unexpected uses. There’s ethanol, for instance, which is basically alcohol used as a fuel supplement.

You’ll also find corn used in the production of antibiotics; aspirin; books; charcoal briquettes; cosmetics; crayons; disposable diapers; drywall; dyes and inks; fireworks; glues; paper, and plastics. The spray cleaner Windex has at least five corn-derived components. Spark plugs, toothpaste, batteries, and running shoes can all be made with things that started out as corn, in a field, under the sun. In 2001, Goodyear introduced tires made with a starch-based filler made from corn. DuPont naturally has a corn-based synthetic fiber.

While we’re at it, Stephen King’s 1977 story “Children of the Corn” gave rise to a movie franchise starting in 1984, and there’s a new Children of the Corn movie scheduled for release next year. Corny as horror movies can be, we apparently can’t get enough of them—or of corn itself.

… all of which goes to show why, as Michael Pollan says “farmers facing lower prices have only one option if they want to be able to maintain their standard of living, pay their bills, and service their debt, and that is to produce more [corn].” Indeed, corn is the most widely grown grain crop throughout the Americas; 13 billion bushels of corn are grown in the United States alone each year (on 91.7 million acres, the largest crop in the U.S.).

The history of corn, from the domestication of maize 10,000 years ago to today’s ubiquitous “commodity corn,” to teach about biodiversity… and its lack: “Corn is everywhere!

* Michael Pollan

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As we give a shuck, we might send artificially-sweetened birthday greetings to Oliver Evans; he was born on this date in 1755. An engineer and one of the most prolific and influential inventors in the early years of the United States, he was a pioneer in the fields of automation, materials handling, and steam power. He created the first continuous production line (the first fully automated industrial process), the first high-pressure steam engine, and the first (albeit crude) amphibious vehicle and American automobile.

But given the subject of today’s post, we might note that he also created the automatic corn mill.

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Written by LW

September 13, 2020 at 1:01 am

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