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Posts Tagged ‘Technology

“War is progress, peace is stagnation”*…

 

Even if one doesn’t share Hegel’s copacetic take on conflict, one can observe that wars do, in fact, usually encourage bursts of technological innovation.  Indeed, most of us are pretty familiar (in both senses of the phrase) with the range of epoch-defining technologies that were a product of World War II: radar, radio navigation, rocketry, jet engines, penicillin, nuclear power, synthetic rubber, computers… the list goes on.

But we are perhaps a little less familiar with the advances– now so ingrained that we take them for granted– that emerged from World War I.  Readers will recall one such breakthrough, and its author: Fritz Haber, who introduced chemical warfare (thus lengthening the war and contributing to millions of horrible deaths), then used some of the same techniques– nitrogen fixation, in particular– to make fertilizer widely and affordably available (thus feeding billions).

Five other key developments at “The 6 Most Surprising, Important Inventions From World War I.”

* Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

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As we look for the silver lining, we might that it was on this date in 1917, “Army Registration Day,” that the draft was (re-)instituted in the U.S. for World War I.  Draft board selections were subsequently made, and conscription began on July 20.

These draft boards were localized and based their decisions on social class: the poorest were the most often conscripted because they were considered the most expendable at home.  African-Americans in particular were often disproportionately drafted, though they generally were conscripted as laborers.

Young men registering for conscription during World War I in New York City, New York, on June 5, 1917.

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Written by LW

June 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants”*…

 

Newton’s reflecting telescope of 1671

On 11 January 1672, the Fellows of the British Royal Society were treated to a demonstration of Isaac Newton’s reflecting telescope, which formed images with mirrors rather than with the lenses that had been used since the time of Galileo. Afterward, the fellows hailed Newton as the inventor of this marvellous new instrument, an attribution that sticks to the present. However, this linear historical account obscures a far more interesting, convoluted story. Newton’s claim was immediately challenged on behalf of two other contenders, James Gregory and Laurent Cassegrain. More confounding, the earliest known concept of using a curved mirror to focus light predated Newton by more than 1,500 years; the final realisation of a practical reflecting telescope post-dated him by more than a half century…

For almost any device, claiming one individual as the inventor is problematic to say the least. Conception, demonstration and implementation can be very different things, and the path connecting them is typically not a line but a long, challenging and tortuous route…

A cautionary tale illustrating the danger of crediting technologies to single inventors: “How many great minds does it take to invent a telescope?

Pair with this explanation of why men so often get credit for women’s inventions– a phenomenon so common that it has a name, “the Matilda effect.”

* Issac Newton

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As we share the credit, we might send scientific birthday greetings to Vincenzo Viviani; he was born on this date in 1622.  A mathematician and engineer, Viviani is probably best remembered as a discipline of Galileo: he served as the (then-blind) scientist’s secretary until Galileo’s death; he edited the first edition of Galileo’s collected works; and he worked tirelessly to have his master’s memory rehabilitated.  But Viviani was an accomplished scientist in his own right: he published a number of books on mathematical and scientific subjects, and was a founding member of the Accademia del Cimento, one of the first important scientific societies, predating England’s Royal Society.

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Written by LW

April 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Eagles may soar, but weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines”*…

 

… they do, however, run more terrestrial risks.  The weasel above (a stone marten) hopped over a substation fence at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and was electrocuted by an 18,000 volt transformer (an incident that knocked out power at the facility).  Lest its notoriety fade, the once-weasel is about to go on display at the Rotterdam Natural History Museum.

The stone marten is the latest dead animal to go on display at the museum. It joins a sparrow that was shot after it sabotaged a world record attempt by knocking over 23,000 dominoes; a hedgehog that got fatally stuck in a McDonalds McFlurry pot, and a catfish that fell victim to a group of men in the Netherlands who developed a tradition for drinking vast amounts of beer and swallowing fish from their aquarium. The catfish turned out to be armored, and on being swallowed raised its spines. The defense did not save the fish, but it put the 28-year-old man who tried to swallow it in intensive care for a week…

The tale is preserved in full at: “Totally stuffed: Cern’s electrocuted weasel to go on display.”

* Steven Wright

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As we hold the pose, we might spare a thought for David Wilkinson; he died on this date in 1852.  A mechanical engineer and machinist, Wilkinson (no known relation to your correspondent) played a key role in the development of machine tools in the U.S. (initially in the textile industry): he invented the metal lathe and process for cutting screws.

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Written by LW

February 3, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Don’t be tricked by the verisimilitude into forgetting this is fiction”*…

 

Stranger Things

Thanks to obsessive online forums that pore over a production’s every anachronism , [the entertainment industry]  requires increasingly discerning and dedicated prop hunters. Nowhere is this more apparent on set than with the technology that surrounds actors. Mad Men inspired its dedicated watchers to complain that the Sterling Cooper office’s IBM Selectric typewriters were a year ahead of their time, and the numerous period-specific shows that followed have only had to be more diligent.

Now, as television is trending toward ’80s-era creations like Stranger Things, The Americans, Halt and Catch Fire, and The Goldbergs, decorators are finding it increasingly difficult to fill their sets with gadgets that won’t cause persnickety fans to froth at the mouth. It’s a very first-world Hollywood problem, but a fascinating one. The breakneck pace of consumer technology development — the same thing that has brought us generational inside jokes and those viral “Kids React to Old Computers” videos — is trailed by landfills full of mass-produced gadgets. They are not made of metal or wood, but a beige and flimsy plastic that tends to yellow over time. As the production designer for the first two seasons of The Americans, John Mott, put it, the ’80s “were also a time where design had kind of lost its way.” As a result, gadgets from that era don’t tend to be on most collectors’ radars, even if they’re in high demand in the entertainment industry…

It can’t just be a computer from the ’80s — it has to be THE computer from the ’80s: “How Hollywood Gets Its Old-School Tech.”

And for more on the viewer-side energy driving this, see “The Internet Is Spoiling TV.”

* Sha Li

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As we aspire to accuracy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1970 that Gimme Shelter was released.  A Maysles Brothers documentary edited by Charlotte Zwerin and produced by Porter Bibb (with incidental assistance from your correspondent), it chronicled the last weeks of The Rolling Stones’ 1969 US tour, which culminated in the disastrous Altamont Free Concert.

One of the most immediate and compelling documentaries ever committed to celluloid, it was released twelve months to the day after the era-defining tragedy that it depicted. Before directing Gimme Shelter, Albert and David Maysles had made vérité documentaries focusing on celebrities such as Marlon Brando, Orson Welles, Truman Capote and the Beatles and it was the latter experience that convinced Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones to invite the brothers and their creative collaborator Charlotte Zwerin to film the free concert they were headlining at the Altamont Speedway. The concert was attended by an enormous 300,000 people but the free love party was so large that the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang were recruited in the last minute to act as security for the event. Rather than being a West Coast version of Woodstock (which had been held earlier that summer) Altamont instead became infamous for the death of Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old African-American man, stabbed to death by the Hell’s Angels after drawing a long-barreled revolver. Amazingly, the Maysles caught the incident on film, turning Gimme Shelter into, as Amy Taubin succinctly put it, rock ‘n’ roll’s answer to the Zapruder footage of JFK’s assassination. Not only does the movie feature the fatal incident but, even more compellingly, in one scene we see a clearly affected Jagger watching the incident again as the Maysles edit the footage. A great concert film as well as a hugely important cinematic document hugely altered the trajectory of the Maysles’ career and remains, along with Don’t Look Back, one of the most important music docs ever made.

Focus Features

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Written by LW

December 6, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards”*…

 

45 years ago, four eminences took the stage at the University of Toronto: Irish actor Jack MacGowran, best known for his interpretations of Samuel Beckett; English poet and dramatist W.H. Auden; American architect and theorist of humanity’s way of life Buckminster Fuller; and Canadian literary scholar turned media technology oracle Marshall McLuhan. Now only did all four men come from different countries, they came from very different points on the intellectual and cultural map. The CBC recorded them for broadcast on its long-running series Ideas, prefacing it with an announcement that “the ostensible subject of their discussion is theatre and the visual arts.”

Key word: ostensible. “That topic is soon forgotten as two modes of perception clash,” says the announcer, “that of Professor McLuhan, who is one of the most famous interpreters of contemporary 20th-century cultural trends, and that of W.H. Auden, who cheerfully admits to being ‘a 19th-century man’ and sees no reason to change.” And so, though Fuller and MacGowan do occasionally provide their perspective, the panel turns into a rollicking debate between McLuhan and Auden, more or less from the point where the former — making one of his characteristically compelling proclamations — declares that modern media brings us to a world in which “there is no audience. There are only actors.” But the latter objects: “I profoundly disapprove of audience participation.”…

The conversation is above; for more of the backstory: “Marshall McLuhan, W.H. Auden & Buckminster Fuller Debate the Virtues of Modern Technology & Media (1971).

* Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means

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As we mind the message that is the medium, we might send tasty birthday wishes to John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich; he was born on this date in 1718.  Lore suggests that the Earl, an enthusiastic gambler, instructed his servants to skip the distraction of a served meal, asking instead for “meat between two pieces of bread” to be consumed as he remained at the gaming table.  While there’s no real historical support for the tale, the comestible is nonetheless still known as a “sandwich.”

Montagu also had a nautical edge, serving as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1771-1782.  He was sufficiently regarded that Captain Cook named the Sandwich Islands in his honor.  On the other hand, he was widely blamed for the sorry state of readiness displayed by the British Navy during the “Unpleasantness with the Colonies.”  (Indeed, it may in gratitude for Montagu’s help– however inadvertent– that American’s have adopted the sandwich as our national dish…)

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“The Turn of the Screw”*…

 

* Henry James

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As we turn clockwise, we might spare a thought for Pieter van Musschenbroek; he died on this date in 1761. A one-time student of Isaac Newton (who helped transmit Newton’s ideas throughout Europe), van Musschenbroek was a professor of mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, and medicine. (Those were the days…)  Fascinated by electrostatics, he used what he learned from his father, an accomplished designer and manufacturer of scientific instruments, to build the first capacitor (that’s to say, device that can store an electric charge), the Leyden Jar– named for the city that was home to van Musschenbroek’s university.

Leyden jar construction

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Written by LW

September 19, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Every day sees humanity more victorious in the struggle with space and time”*…

 

Contact: A hundred years before iconic figures like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs permeated our lives, 60 years before Marshall McLuhan proclaimed media to be “the extensions of man,” an Irish-Italian inventor laid the foundation of the communication explosion of the 21st century. Guglielmo Marconi was arguably the first truly global figure in modern communication. Not only was he the first to communicate globally, he was the first to think globally about communication. Marconi may not have been the greatest inventor of his time, but more than anyone else, he brought about a fundamental shift in the way we communicate.

Today’s globally networked media and communication system has its origins in the 19th century, when, for the first time, messages were sent electronically across great distances. The telegraph, the telephone, and radio were the obvious precursors of the Internet, iPods, and mobile phones. What made the link from then to now was the development of wireless communication. Marconi was the first to develop and perfect a practical system for wireless, using the recently-discovered “air waves” that make up the electromagnetic spectrum…

An excerpt from Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World by Marc Raboy. Oxford University Press.  Via “How Marconi Gave Us the Wireless World.”

* Guglielmo Marconi

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As we tweak the dial, we might recall that, thanks to a handwritten note by illustrator Heinrich Cremer, we know that the final binding of the Gutenberg Bible took place on this date in 1456.

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Written by LW

August 24, 2016 at 1:01 am

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