Archives April 2014

“I  like an escalator because an escalator can never break,  it can only become stairs." Mitch Hedberg, comedian American Jesse W. Reno (1861-1947) came up with the notion of an "inclined elevator" at the age of sixteen and patented the idea in 1891. It was not the first idea of its type because a patent had been granted earlier for a steam-driven design/but this was never built. In 1895 Reno's moving stairway was built as an attraction at New York's Coney Island amusement park. The term "escalator" was not attached to the invention until 1897, when Charles Seeberger combined sea, a (Latin for "stairs") and elevator, the name of a device invented some years previously. Seeberger redesigned the escalator, and it was built in the Otis factory, New York. This became the first commercial escalator, winning first prize at the Paris Exposition in 1900. The Otis Elevator Company bought the more...

"Never under any circumstances take a sleeping pill and a laxative on the same night" Dave Barry, humorist In 1884 William Upjohn (1853-1932), a U.S. doctor from Michigan, invented the first pill that could dissolve in the stomach. Upjohn had the innovative idea of introducing a starter particle into a revolving pan. As the pan turned, the starter was sprayed with powdered medicine, building up the new pill layer by layer. The number of layers controlled the strength of the pill. The resulting "friable" (easily crushable) pill dissolved when ingested.  Prior to Upjohn's development, patients had to ingest drugs in liquid form or as pills with hard coatings. The problems were that the dosage of liquids was inconsistent and the pill coatings were so hard that they did not always dissolve, meaning that patients received no benefit. After patenting his invention in 1886, Upjohn developed a machine to mass-produce his more...

"The first off the assembly line were plated with gold and silver and made into a necklace... “ Norman Nock, Austin Healy Magazine (1996) The cross-shaped screw-head is ubiquitous today, yet its widespread use came only a lifetime ago. Traditional flat-head screws, in use since the late seventeenth century, suffer from two disadvantages: one, the slot and screwdriver have to be precisely aligned; and two, the screwdriver can easily slip from its position thanks to centrifugal force. These problems are particularly pronounced in automated production lines, where robots are not able to compensate for slippage as easily as humans. The cross-head screw, with a pointed tip for self-centering, was designed to eliminate these problems and deliver more torque to boot. The cross-head was popularized by Henry F. Phillips (1890-1958) from Portland, Oregon. Phillips built on the work of inventor J. P. Thompson, who had designed, but failed to capitalize on, more...

From the first recorded uses of flax as a textile fiber around 5,000 B.C.E., to the adoption of cotton, wool, and silk, people have always been ready to exploit any material that can be made into long flexible fibers and woven or knitted into fabric. In 1655 the English scientist Robert Hooke first proposed creating artificial silk from a gelatinous mass, but it it took another 200 years for anyone to realize that ambition. In 1895 the Swiss chemist Georges Audemars made a mixture or pulp from the bark of a mulberry tree and rubber. By dipping a needle into this mess he was able to draw out fibers of artificial silk. His process took a long time for each fiber and was too slow to be of any practical use. In 1884 the French chemist, Comte Hilaire Bernigaud de Chardonnet , having refined the method used by Audemars, patented more...

"The scientific man... does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up."    Nikola Tesia In 1887 David Hughes transmitted Morse code over a short distance. A year later, Heinrich Hertz produced and detected his own radio waves, but he did not realize their practical use. It was only in 1891, when Nikola Tesia (1856-1943) began his researches, that radio technology started to come into its own. Serbian-born Tesia, by then living in New York, was a practical inventor. He quickly saw the potential in the strange resonances and interactions caused by the alternating currents of his electrical experiments. He worked on radio for several years, filed several patents, presented his ideas in London, and created a working long-distance radio system in New York. Tesia was distracted by the long, bitter war between his alternating-current electricity system and Thomas Edison's rival direct-curr.ent system, which left the way more...

"Adhesive stamps...[entail] a serious loss of time when hundreds of letters have to be despatched." Carl Bushe Sticking a stamp to a letter is a fairly trivial matter if you only have one letter. But if you have hundreds of letters then the process of licking and sticking each individual stamp becomes very time-consuming. In the late nineteenth century, Frenchman Carle Bushe first conceived and patented a machine that would print a stamp on an envelope and record the amount of postage payable on a meter. Today the post office supplies users with franking machines, set up with a pre-paid credit limit, which stamps envelopes and registers the cost of the postage used. The credit is then topped up when necessary. Franking originally dates back to the seventeenth century when Members of Parliament (MPs) regularly sent hundreds of official letters and were given the privilege of free postage. In those more...

"The advantage is obvious: I can call my mate in Sydney and chat for the price of a local London call." John Diamond, journalist. The Times In 1973, researcher Danny Cohen's Network Voice Protocol was first used on ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), where it allowed research sites to talk with each other over the computer network. For many years afterward, however, sending your voice over the Internet was the preserve of researchers, geeks, and early computer gamers. But in 1995 a company called VocalTec released a piece of software it called Internet Phone. Designed for Microsoft Windows, it turned the speaker's voice into computer data, compressing it enough to send it in real time over a modem connection to another computer on the Internet. Many people suddenly became interested in Internet Telephone, for one simple reason—it was cheap. In the United States, for example, the local call to more...

"Owens was an inventor. He was no designer, but he could direct engineers." Richard LaFrance, Owens's chief of engineering Michael Owens's (1859-1923) automatic glass bottle- making machine not only revolutionized the glass industry by speeding up the process of bottle-making and reducing its cost, it also helped the growth of several related sectors and eradicated child labor in the industry. At the time glassblowing was one of the most highly paid crafts, and children were often employed as cheap labor. In fact, Owens—who never received any formal education—started working at a West Virginia glass factory at the age often to support his family. He subsequently moved to Toledo, Ohio, to work for entrepreneur Edward Libbey, who gave him the opportunity to realize his inventive potential. Building on existing concepts of similar semi-automatic machines (operated by five people), he conceived a fully automatic device in 1903. The suction of a vacuum—created more...

Canadian-born Reginald Fessenden (1866-1932) caused a landmark in the development of radio when he transmitted his own voice over radio waves late in 1900, a feat not even Marconi had achieved. At the time, Fessenden was working for the United States Weather Bureau to develop wireless technology for weather forecasting. On December 23, at his station on Cobb Island, Maryland, Fessenden transmitted what is considered the first wireless transmission carrying audio sound. "Hello, one, two, three, four. Is it snowing where you are Mr. Thiessen? If it is, telegraph back and let me know," he shouted into the microphone. Thiessen excitedly telegraphed back that it was. The transmitter that Fessenden used was a spark transmitter, a device developed in the late nineteenth century by radio pioneers Hertz, Marconi, and Braun to generate radio frequency electromagnetic waves. Fessenden had modified it so that the sparks produced more continuous waves rather than more...

"Left all alone in some punkensh place, like a rusty tin coat hanger hanging in space..." Dr. Seuss, Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? (1973) Patented more than 200 times in the United States alone, the humble coat hanger has undergone many transformations to reach its modern incarnation. Various methods of hanging clothes had probably existed before Britain's Queen Victoria was gifted a set of wooden coat hangers for her wedding in 1840, however, the mass-market wire hanger was not invented until 1903. The story goes that Albert Parkhouse, an employee of the Timberlake Wire and Novelty company, a Michigan-based firm that specialized in wire lampshade frames, was irritated by arriving at work one day to find that all the coat hooks were in use. Seizing a piece of wire, he bent it into two large oblong hoops and then twisted both ends at the center into more...


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