Archives September 2014

Conveyers of various kinds have been in use since 250 B.C.E., the earliest example being the Archimedes screw used to raise water. The bucket conveyor, a simple chain of buckets used to move bulk materials, became an important technological innovation in the burgeoning mining industry of the fifteenth century. Conveyor belts were a development of these simple machines. Early versions in the 1700s were nothing more than leather or canvas belts over flat wooden beds, used mostly for transporting sacks of grain and in the mining industry. But over the next couple of hundred years they developed, rubber replacing leather, canvas as the belt material and mechanization being introduced. In 1913 Henry Ford installed conveyor belts in his factory in Michigan to create a production line. Combined  with  other factory  manufacturing techniques and the principle of uniformity and interchangeability of parts, Ford revolutionized the motor industry and effectively created the more...

"This is the mystery of the modern disposable diaper: how does something so small do so much?" Malcolm Gladwell, journalist It took a Swedish paper mill, a Connecticut housewife, and a Proctor & Gamble engineer to free parents from the shackles of diaper duty. Paper mill Paulistrom Bruk put pads of treated paper into rubber pants and produced the first diaper product destined for the bin in 1936.These disposable paper pads failed to impress the baby supply industry. A more commercially successful product came along more than a decade later, thanks to an inventive housewife named Marion Donovan (1917-1998). Forgoing rubber pants for nylon and skipping paper entirely, Donovan created the "Boater" in 1946. Donovan's simple nylon diaper covers far surpassed rubber pants for one simple reasons—diaper rash. "We couldn't say it, but it did cure diaper rash, and many doctors recommended it," said Donovan of her Boater. When it more...

"If a man makes a better mousetrap.....the world will [beat a] path to his door." Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer Hiram Stevens Maxim (1840-1916) was an eccentric inventor who produced numerous creations throughout his life. He filed 271 patents in total, and his work included such diverse objects as a gun, a flying machine, curling irons, and a coffee substitute. Arguably one of his most famous inventions was also one of the simplest—the spring-loaded mousetrap. Maxim is said to have built his automatic mousetrap at the tender age of fourteen, while he was working as an apprentice to a local carriage builder. His spring-loaded trap was tested at a local grist mill, which was subsequently rodent-free. He created a trap design that is still familiar today. It has a baited trip that releases a heavy spring-loaded bar trapping the mouse in its tracks. The device thus damages the mouse's spinal cord, more...

"Women who realize the importance of daintiness are grateful to Mum." Mum advertisement, 1926 Every civilization throughout history has searched for a remedy to the perennial problem of body odor. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks applied mixtures of carob, cinnamon, incense, and various citrus juices, though such attempts did little more than temporarily mask body odor. And the Roman historian Plinus wrote of a deodorizing salt made from a mix of potassium and aluminum. But, it was not until the nineteenth century that the eccrine gland was found to be responsible for the production of body odor. An unknown Philadelphia man created the world's first trademarked deodorant in 1888. Named "Mum," it was sold as a rather difficult-to-apply, waxlike cream in a glass jar, and had zinc chloride as its principal drying-agent. It worked to inhibit the growth of bacteria present in moist, warm areas of the body, such as more...

The human body is a very complex machine. It has plumbing, wiring, and motors, and, just like a car, needs fuel and produces waste. At the moment that is where the similarities end, but in the very near future machines may become a lot more similar to humans. Standard electric motors have their limitations. They are noisy, costly, difficult to miniaturize, heavy, and prone to breakage. Consider a muscle, however. It moves relatively silently, is efficient, reaches its limitation of miniaturization basically at the cellular level, and can operate millions of times without breakage (for example, in the human heart). Muscles are the ideal medium for any number of applications, or at least the U.S. government thought so. In the early 1990s, SRI International was approached and tasked with producing an artificial version of biological muscle. In 1992 they began work on electroactive polymers. Put simply, electroactive polymers are materials more...

"Arrest those drips with genuine Jubilee worm drive hose clips" Jubilee Clip advertising poster The Jubilee Clip was invented by Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Lumley Robinson (d. 1939) in 1921.This ingenious device consists of a stainless-steel band that is put around a hose or tube, then tightened and the fitting sealed by turning the screw on one end of the clip. The screw acts as a worm drive, and so these types of clips are sometimes called "worm-drive hose clips" or simply "hose clamps." The clips could be used for simple household uses, such as plumbing, or for larger applications—such as piping on ships. The Jubilee Clip was issued a patent and Robinson began marketing the clip commercially in 1923. Following his death, L. Robinson and Company Limited was established in 1948 by Robinson's son John in Gillingham, England. The company still manufactures the Jubilee Clip today and is considered more...

"An amazing invention—but who would ever want to use one?" Rutherford B. Hayes, U.S. president (1877-1881) In the 1870s Edinburgh-born Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) was working on a way to improve the telegraph. Although this was well established as a means of long-distance communication, the fact that only one message could be sent at any one time made it extremely limited. Bell's original idea was to develop a "harmonic telegram," using multiple pitches to transmit more than one message at the same time. While working on this, an idea came to him for a more elaborate system—one that could transmit not only the dots and dashes of Morse code, but actual speech. Several other teams were also pushing to transmit sounds via electricity, and there remains some controversy as to whether ideas were "borrowed" from other inventors, but it is undisputed that it was Bell who built the first working more...

In 1906 the Amalgamated Radio Telegraph Company was founded as a merger between the UK De Forest Wireless Telegraph Syndicate and the fledgling operation run by Danish inventor Valdemar Poulsen (1869-1942). Before too long they had successfully established an experimental wireless telegraphy link between  Newcastle, England, and  Denmark. Unfortunately, the Amalgamated Radio Telegraph Company went bankrupt in 1907 before any commercial operation could be set up. The historic event had been made possible by Poulsen's invention of the arc transmitter in 1903. Pouslen was an electrical engineer and prolific inventor who, by 1898, had invented the first device to use magnetic sound recording—the "Telegraphone." Poulsen did not stop there. He became interested in the work of British inventor William Duddell who used a carbon arc lamp to make a resonant circuit that could "sing." Duddell's musical arc resonated at audible frequencies and he adapted this into a crude electronic musical more...

The late nineteenth century was a time of tremendous scientific growth, which included the birth of radium therapy—that is, treating cancer with radiation. Rontgen discovered X-rays in 1895 and Becquerel followed soon afterward in 1896 with his discovery of radioactivity. It did not take long for the physicians of the day to put the newly discovered energy source to work, with the first published report of the use of a radioactive substance to treat a disease occurring before the turn of the century. The early use of radiation was almost laughably crude, with doctors simply exposing various neoplasms to a radiation source with no control over the amount of radiation an individual was exposed to or any sort of ability to focus the area of the exposure. Reports of cancers controlled or even cured by these new techniques were rampant, and radiation was felt to have great promise. Unfortunately, the more...

German engineer Nikolaus Otto (1832-1891) was responsible for one of the great developments in motorized vehicles with the invention of his four-stroke cycle internal combustion engine. After developing an interest in technology, he began designs for a four-stroke engine based on Lenoir's earlier design for a two-stroke cycle. In 1864 he set up N. A. Otto and Cie alongside Eugene Langer, creating the world's first engine manufacturers. In 1872, he employed Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach as technical director and chief designer, respectively. In 1876 the first practical four-stroke engine was constructed. The four strokes are an intake stroke, where the piston moves down to allow a fuel-air mixture into the combustion chamber; a compression stroke, where the piston moves back up to compress the gases; a combustion or power stroke, where a spark ignites the fuel and the piston is forced down again; and a final exhaust stroke, where more...


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