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Posts Tagged ‘invention

“History does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another.”*…

 

The Course of Empire: Destruction, 1836 (oil on canvas)

Thomas Cole: “The Course of Empire: Destruction” (1836)

 

Your correspondent is headed to the steamy Southeast for his annual communion with surf, sand, and delicacies of the deep-fried variety.  Regular service will resume on or around August 26.  By way of hopping into hiatus on a high note…

The conviction that Trump is single-handedly tipping the United States into a crisis worthy of the Roman Empire at its most decadent has been a staple of jeremiads ever since his election, but fretting whether it is the fate of the United States in the twenty-first century to ape Rome by subsiding into terminal decay did not begin with his presidency. A year before Trump’s election, the distinguished Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye was already glancing nervously over his shoulder at the vanished empire of the Caesars: “Rome rotted from within when people lost confidence in their culture and institutions, elites battled for control, corruption increased and the economy failed to grow adequately.” Doom-laden prophecies such as these, of decline and fall, are the somber counterpoint to the optimism of the American Dream.

And so they have always been.  At various points in American history, various reasons have been advanced to explain why the United States is bound to join the Roman Empire in oblivion…

Tom Holland compares and contrasts (very engagingly) the late history of the Roman Empire with that of the U.S., and (very amusingly) second-century Emperor Commodus with Donald Trump; he concludes:

History serves as only the blindest and most stumbling guide to the future. America is not Rome. Donald Trump is not Commodus. There is nothing written into the DNA of a superpower that says that it must inevitably decline and fall. This is not an argument for complacency; it is an argument against despair. Americans have been worrying about the future of their republic for centuries now. There is every prospect that they will be worrying about it for centuries more.

Enjoy the essay in full: “America Is Not Rome. It Just Thinks It Is.

* Max Beerbohm

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As we recognize that this doesn’t actually mean that we can breathe any easier, we might send fantastically far-sighted birthday greetings to Hugo Gernsback, a Luxemborgian-American inventor, broadcast pioneer, writer, and publisher; he was born on this date in 1884.

Gernsback held 80 patents at the time of his death; he founded radio station WRNY, was involved in the first television broadcasts, and is considered a pioneer in amateur radio.  But it was as a writer and publisher that he probably left his most lasting mark:  In 1926, as owner/publisher of the magazine Modern Electrics, he filled a blank spot in his publication by dashing off the first chapter of a series called “Ralph 124C 41+.” The twelve installments of “Ralph” were filled with inventions unknown in 1926, including “television” (Gernsback is credited with introducing the word), fluorescent lighting, juke boxes, solar energy, television, microfilm, vending machines, and the device we now call radar.

The “Ralph” series was an astounding success with readers; and later that year Gernsback founded the first magazine devoted to science fiction, Amazing Stories.  Believing that the perfect sci-fi story is “75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science,” he coined the term “science fiction.”

Gernsback was a “careful” businessman, who was tight with the fees that he paid his writers– so tight that H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith referred to him as “Hugo the Rat.”

Still, his contributions to the genre as publisher were so significant that, along with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, he is sometimes called “The Father of Science Fiction”; in his honor, the annual Science Fiction Achievement awards are called the “Hugos.”

(Coincidentally, today is also the birthday– in 1906– of Philo T. Farnsworth, the man who actually did invent television… and was thus the inspiration for the name “Philco.”)

Gernsback, wearing one of his inventions, TV Glasses

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Written by LW

August 16, 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).

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“All men know the use of the useful, but nobody knows the use of the useless!”*…

 

daniel-gebhart-de-koekkoek-a-guide-to-being-better-photography-itsnicethat-13

 

Chindōgu is the art of inventing seemingly practical but ultimately useless gadgets to enhance everyday life. Popularised in Japan in the 90s by its creator, Kenji Kawakami, it was originally just a comical section that appeared in his monthly magazine, Mail Order Life. From fans attached to your chopsticks that cool your food before you eat it, to a Pritt Stick of butter that allows for easy application onto your toast, chindōgu is the perfect balance between ingenuity and absurdity.

As such, it instantly grabbed the attention of Daniel Gebhart de Koekkoek…

To date, there are over 1000 official chindōgu items in existence. Poetic and political in nature, they are comments on the state of consumerist culture and the materialism of modern life. They poke at fun at our reliance on technology and inability to carry out basic tasks like administering eye drops. Though humorous, chindōgu has a set of rules – a list of ten commandments, in fact – that must be adhered to. They are as follows: Chindōgu must be (almost) completely useless; must exist (they should be real, useable objects); must represent freedom of thought and action; must be understood by all (its function should not be obscure); must not be sold (they are not tradable commodities); must not be made purely for the sake of humour (it should also be an earnest attempt to solve a problem); must not be used as propaganda; must not be taboo (cheap sexual humour etc.); must not be patented; and must not be made with prejudice (they must be useable by everyone, young and old, rich and poor).

A perfect fit with the other tongue-in-cheek projects that make up his portfolio, including his Make Alpaca Great Again series… Daniel knew he had to find a way to shoot this phenomenon…

More at: “Daniel Gebhart de Koekkoek recreates the ingenious yet useless inventions of Chindōgu.”

* Zhuangzi, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu

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As we investigate intention, we might recall that it was on this date in 1985 that the Coca-Cola Company, concerned that it had been loosing share to the sweeter offerings of competitors like Pepsi, introduced Coke II (or “New Coke, ” as it was widely known).  Consumer reaction was swift– and profoundly negative.  Three months later, Coke caved, reintroducing the original formula (rebranded as Coca-Cola Classic)– and enjoyed a boost in sales… leading some charitably to suggest that New Coke was just a ploy.  But the company maintained that it was absolutely for real…  and the episode has become a cautionary example of the dangers in tampering with an established product/brand.

New_Coke_can source

Happy Shakespeare’s Birthday!

 

 

Written by LW

April 23, 2019 at 1:01 am

“After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”*…

 

A Victorian-era mathematical genius, [Ada] Lovelace was the first to describe how computing machines could solve math problems, write new forms of music, and much more, if you gave them instructions in a language they could understand. Of course, over the ensuing 100-plus years, dudes have been lining up to push her out of the picture (more on that below).

Lovelace is hardly the only woman to be erased from the history of her own work…

From computer programming to nuclear fission to the paper bag machine, it’s time to stop erasing these women from their great works.  Mother Jones restores eight female creators from their undeserved obscurity: “Ladies Last: 8 Inventions by Women That Dudes Got Credit For.

* Ann Richards

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As we give credit where credit is due, we might recall that it was on this date in 1851, at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, that Sojourner Truth electrified the gathering with an extemporaneous talk that has come to known as the “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.

Born (c. 1797) into slavery in New York, Belle Baumfree (as she was born) escaped with her daughter to freedom in 1826.  She went to court to recover her son in 1828, and became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man.  She gave herself the name Sojourner Truth in 1843 after she became convinced that God had called her to leave the city and go into the countryside “testifying the hope that was in her”– a hope that she expressed as a fervent abolitionist and champion of women’s rights.

In 2014, Truth was included in Smithsonian magazine’s list of the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time.”

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Written by LW

May 28, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Sympathy is the child of imagination”*…

 

This fantastic eye chart — measuring 22 by 28 inches with a positive version on one side and negative on the other — is the work of German optometrist and American Optometric Association member George Mayerle, who was working in San Francisco at end of the nineteenth century, just when optometry was beginning to professionalise. The chart was a culmination of his many years of practice and, according to Mayerle, its distinctive international angle served also to reflect the diversity and immigration which lay at the heart of the city in which he worked. At the time it was advertised as “the only chart published that can be used by people of any nationality”…

Read more– and see the full chart– at “George Mayerle’s Eye Test Chart (ca. 1907).”

* Clarence Darrow

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As we welcome all comers, we might send enlightened birthday greetings to Benjamin Franklin; he was born on this date in 1706.  One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Franklin was a renowned polymath: a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod and the Franklin stove, among other innovations.  And as a social entrepreneur (who grasped the fact that by united effort a community could have amenities which only the wealthy few can afford for themselves), he helped establish several institutions people now take for granted: a fire company (1736), a library (1731), an insurance company (1752), an academy (the University of Pennsylvania, 1751), a hospital (1751), and the U.S. Postal Service (starting as postmaster of the Colonies in 1753, then becoming U.S. Postmaster during the Revolution).  In most cases these foundations were the first of their kind in North America.

Relevantly to this post, Franklin invented bifocal glasses.

In a Franklin could be merged the virtues of Puritanism without its defects, the illumination of the Enlightenment without its heat.

– Henry Steele Commager

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Written by LW

January 17, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Roads are a record of those who have gone before”*…

 

From the “Data is Beautiful” thread on Reddit,  Tjukanov‘s rendering (from OpenStreetMap) of “All The Roads and Nothing But Roads.”

See also his “Optimal routes by car from the geographic center of the contiguous United States to +3000 counties.”

* Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

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As we gas up, we might spare a thought for Cornelis Jacobszoon Drebbel; he died on this date in 1633.  The Edison of his era, he was an empirical researcher and innovator whose constructions and innovations covered measurement and control technology, pneumatics, optics, chemistry, hydraulics and pyrotechnics.  He was known for his Perpetuum Mobile ( a clock), an incubator for eggs, a portable stove/oven able to hold heat at a constant temperature by means of a regulator/thermostat, his design of a solar energy system for London (perpetual fire), his demonstration of air-conditioning, his creation of lightning and thunder “on command,” and and his construction of fountains and a fresh water supply for the city of Middelburg.  He was involved in the draining of the moors around Cambridge (the Fens), developed a predecessors of the barometer and thermometer, and built a harpsichords that played on solar energy.

But he is perhaps best remembered as the architect and builder of the first navigable submarine.  Created for the British Navy, it was tested at depths of 12-15 feet, and could stay submerged for up to three hours (air tubes with floats went to the surface to provide the craft with oxygen).

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Written by LW

November 7, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid”*…

 

By the time American audiences were introduced to Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr in the 1938 film Algiers, she had already lived an eventful life. She got her scandalous start in film in Czechoslovakia (her first role was in the erotic Ecstasy). She was married at 19 in pre-World War II Europe to Fritz Mandl, a paranoid, overly protective arms dealer linked with fascists in Italy and Nazis in Germany. After her father’s sudden death and as the war approached, she fled Mandl’s country estate in the middle of the night and escaped to London. Unable to return home to Vienna where her mother lived,  and determined to get into the movies, she booked passage to the States on the same ship as mogul Louis B. Mayer. Flaunting herself, she drew his attention and signed with his MGM Studios before they docked.

Arriving in Hollywood brought her a new name (Lamarr was originally Kiesler), fame, multiple marriages and divorces and a foray into groundbreaking work as a producer, before she eventually became a recluse. But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Lamarr’s life isn’t as well known: during WWII, when she was 27the movie star invented and patented an ingenious forerunner of current high-tech communications…

The story of the movie star who invented spread-spectrum radio, the secure signal technology that helped the Allies avoid having their radio communications intercepted by the Axis forces, and that lies at the heart of the cellular phone system that we all use today: “Why Hedy Lamarr Was Hollywood’s Secret Weapon.”

* Hedy Lamarr, who was decidedly not stupid

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As we give overdue credit where credit is due, we might send adventurous birthday greetings to Giovanni Battista Belzoni; he was born on this date in 1778.  The 14th child of a poor barber in Padua, he was a barber, a Capuchin monk, a magician, and a circus strongman before finding his true calling– explorer (and plunderer) of Egyptian antiquities.

Belzoni’s call to action came when he met a British Consul-General named Henry Salt who persuaded him to gather Egyptian treasures to send back to the British Museum.  Under extremely adverse conditions he transported the colossal granite head of Rameses II from Thebes to England, where it is now one of the treasures of the British Museum. Later, he discovered six major royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, including that of Seti I, and brought to the British Museum a spectacular collection of Egyptian antiquities. He was the first person to penetrate the heart of the second pyramid at Giza and the first European to visit the oasis of Siwah and discover the ruined city of Berenice on the Red Sea. He stumbled into the tomb of King Ay, but only noted a wall painting of 12 baboons, leading him to name the chamber ‘Tomb of the 12 Monkeys” (because hieroglyphs had not yet been deciphered, he usually had no idea who or what he had found).

Belzoni had two habits that have contributed to his legacy:  he was a lover of graffiti signatures, and inscribed “Belzoni” on many of Egypt’s antique treasures, where the carvings survive to this day.  And he carried a whip: which, given that he was one of the models for Indiana Jones, became one of that character’s hallmarks.

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Written by LW

November 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

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