Posts Tagged ‘Technology’
* Henry James
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.
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…
* Guglielmo Marconi
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.
Brian Wolslegel was fresh out of school and looking for work as a firefighter when he took a temporary job with a taxidermist. One day a game warden walked into the shop near Wausau, Wis., and asked if he could build a robotic deer to help catch an illegal hunter.
“I had putzed around with robotic cars just like any kid,” Wolslegel said, “and we started messing around with little motors to make things move. It was a lot of fun.”
More than 20 years later, he’s still at it. His business, Custom Robotic Wildlife, is now one of the oldest and best regarded of its kind in North America. Each year, Wolslegel builds a menagerie of about 150 lifelike remote-controlled animals, mostly for wildlife enforcement officers in states and American Indian reservations across the United States and Canada.
Compared to current motorized decoys, that first attempt was “prehistoric,” Wolslegel recalled, laughing. Today, his whitetail deer can be made to independently move their ears and tail, stomp their legs and slide on a track that makes them appear to walk.
He’s made robotic animals as big as a bear and as small as a squirrel. He’s sold pigs to game wardens in Texas, and elk to clients out West…
* Felix Salten,
As we muse on mechanical ducks, we might send thoughtfully-titrated birthday greetings to Denis Papin; he was born on this date in 1647. A physicist, mathematician and inventor, he is best known for his pioneering creation of a “steam digester,” the forerunner of the pressure cooker and of the steam engine.
Replace these “wireless telegraphs” with smartphones, update the dress a little, and this vision from a 1906 issue of Punch magazine could easily be for 110 years in the future. Part of a series of “forecasts” for the year to come, the caption reads: “These two figures are not communicating with one another. The lady receives an amatory message, and the gentleman some racing results.” It’s a reminder that the idea of technology leading to a breakdown in “authentic” human interaction is a worry not solely limited to our age.
Punch seemed to have a knack for uncanny predictions of distant technologies to come. See for example this vision of the Skype-like “Telephonoscope” from 1879…
* Sherry Turkle,
As we pull on the thread, we might recall that it was on this date in 1858 that Queen Victoria sent the first official telegraph message across the Atlantic Ocean from London to the U.S. (Test messages had been exchanged for the prior 10 days). Her message to President Buchanan, in Washington D.C., began transmission at 10:50am and was completed at 4:30am the next day, taking nearly 18-hrs to reach Newfoundland. With 99 words, consisting of 509 letters, it averaged about 2-min per letter. The message was forwarded across Newfoundland by an overhead wire supported on poles; across Cabot Strait by submarine cable to Aspy Bay (Dingwall), Cape Breton; then by an overhead wire across eastern Canada and Maine, via Boston to New York.
This earliest Transatlantic Cable went dead within a month.
“Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite, and furthermore always carry a small snake”*…
During the 1820s, thousands of folks along the Erie Canal corridor were … succumbing to the mind-blasting effects of raw alcohol. America was reeling through the most phenomenal drinking binge in its history. Hordes of citizens were living their lives in the woozy, dislocated haze of permanent inebriation.
Western farmers who grew barley, corn, and rye found it more profitable to ferment and distill their crops into strong liquor than to ship the grain to market. Whiskey was plentiful and cheap. Each man older than fifteen was drinking on average fourteen gallons of hundred-proof whiskey every year. By the middle of the decade, more than a thousand distillers were operating in New York State. Whiskey was cheaper than wine or beer, more readily available than imported luxuries like tea and coffee, safer to drink than water.
Whiskey was considered ‘so conducive to health,’ a journalist wrote in 1830, ‘that no sex, and scarcely any age, were deemed exempt from its application.’ Children drank. Adults deemed it more patriotic to drink whiskey than French wine or Dutch gin. Liquor filled the role that coffee would later assume as a morning bracer. A glass of whiskey with breakfast was commonplace.
A man need not go to a tavern: he could stop for a glass of whiskey at a grocery or candy store. He could down a shot at a barber shop. Theaters served strong drink. Millers provided the refreshment to waiting farmers. Militia musters always ended with heroic drinking. Casual sellers of grog set up bars in their basements.
Men during this period habitually drank at work. Before the spread of factories, artisans typically operated workshops that employed a dozen or so journeymen and apprentices. The master was expected to provide ale or whiskey for his employees’ dinner and breaks. He often drank with them. He tolerated a degree of absenteeism on what was known as Saint Monday, as workers recovered from Sunday binges…
– From Jack Kelly’s Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal, excerpted in the ever-illuminating Delancey Place.
More at “The peak of American intoxication.”
* W.C. Fields
As we head down the hatch, we might recall that it was on this date in 1844 that Captain J.N. Taylor of the Royal Navy first demonstrated the fog horn. At the time, it was called a telephone (to mean a far-signaling instrument to be used on ships, railway trains, etc.).
Happy National Pecan Pie Day
“Nothing can better cure the anthropocentrism that is the author of all our ills than to cast ourselves into the physics of the infinitely large (or the infinitely small)”*…
* Julio Cortázar,
As we step on the scales, we might send fiendishly ingenious birthday greetings to Rube Goldberg; he was born on this date in 1883. A cartoonist, sculptor, author, engineer, and inventor, he is best remembered as a satirist of the American obsession with technology for his series of “Invention” cartoons which used a string of outlandish tools, people, plants, and steps to accomplish simple, everyday tasks in the most complicated possible way. (His work has inspired a number of “Rube Goldberg competitions,” the best-known of which, readers may recall, has been profilled here.)
Goldberg was a founder and the first president of the National Cartoonists Society, and he is the namesake of the Reuben Award, which the organization awards to the Cartoonist of the Year.
Technology is killing off independent pizzerias in the United States at the rate of roughly 2,549 locations per year (in 2015 alone). The pizza category is being reshaped by both big new tech deployed by chains and fresh threats from sophisticated emerging brands that are taking slices of the pie from tens of thousands of ill-equipped and low-tech independent pizzerias…
The whole sad story at “How Tech is Killing Off Independent Pizzerias.”
* (probably apochrophal) plea from a young boy to “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, as Jackson left Cook County Courthouse where Jackson was testifying in the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal
As we ask for extra pepperoni, we might recall that it was on this date in 1841 that Orlando Jones received a U.S. patent for making cornstarch. Derived by grinding the white heart of a corn kernel, and primarily used as a thickener, cornstarch is also used to keep pizzas from sticking to the ovens, pans, or stones on which they are cooked.