Archives December 2014

"Faith is like electricity. You can't see it, but you can see the light." Unknown author, Poor Man's College In the late nineteenth century, George Westinghouse was a happy man. He had just demonstrated that an alternating current (AC) generator could be used to power lights a mile away. It now dawned on him that he could make a fortune charging for AC electricity. All he needed was an electricity meter based on an alternating current. Thomas Edison was also fairly content because his company, General Electric, was generating the more popular direct current (DC) electricity and he was charging by the lamp. Oliver Shallenberger (1860-1898), a graduate of the US Naval Academy, had been watching the developments in AC generation closely and had been working on an AC electrical meter. He had taken his early ideas to Thomas Edison, but as the meter was not DC-related, Edison was not more...

"Alternating current is like a torrent rushing violently over a precipice." Thomas Edison, inventor When Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) began work at Edison's DC (direct current) power plant in the United States, his new employer was not interested in his ideas for a new type of power—AC (alternating current). At the time DC was the only electrical supply, but it could only be transmitted across short distances before it lost power. To Edison, AC sounded like competition and he persuaded Tesla to work on improving his DC system by offering him & huge sum of money. But when Tesla had done what he had been asked, Edison reneged on his promise. Tesla resigned and returned to his AC power concepts, DC power is constant and moves in one direction and the resistance in wires causes it to lose power over distance. AC power does not have this problem as more...

"Fifty years after the first synthetic polarizers, we find them the essential layer in digital liquid crystal." Edwin Land, scientist In 1854, an English doctor called William Bird Herapath recounted how unusual crystals formed when iodine was dropped into the urine of a dog that had been fed quinine. The crystals (later called herapathite) appeared dark alone, but light when they overlapped. This was an example of polarizing: the crystals formed a screen allowing light through in only one direction. While still a teenager, U.S. scientist Edwin Land (1909-1991) became fascinated by polarizing effects, which he observed in button-sized crystals of the mineral tourmaline. He combed through past attempts to create polarizing filters, but the problem lay in creating crystals large enough for practical use. Land's breakthrough was to create much smaller crystals and fuse them together in a syrupy suspension, drying into a solid sheet of film. He called more...

"[In] the history of fluid beds, the... Speed of certain developments signal their intrinsic rightness." A. M. Squires, M. Kwauk, and A. A. Avidan In 1925 Fritz Winkler (1888-1950) patented a chemical reactor in which large particles could be "fluidized" by forcing an upward current of gas through the solid. Winkler used his reactor to extract gas from lignite, which was then piped directly to engines for compressing ammonia. Catalytic cracking is a process in which the heavier molecules, obtained from petroleum deposits are broken down into the more useful lighter molecules, such as gasoline, by heating them in the presence of a catalyst. The catalyst remains active for a short time and then becomes inactive as a layer known as coke is deposited on the surface. Catalysts can be removed and regenerated by heating them in air. This takes a relatively long time and there is the problem of more...

"The... Evinrude rowboat motor ... had a wooden 'knuckle buster' starting knob on the flywheel" The Practical Encyclopedia of Boating Ole Evinrude (1877-1934) did not invent the first outboard motor. However, his was the first to achieve great commercial success. He built his first motor in 1907, received a patent for the device in 1911, and by 1913 the Evinrude Detachable Row Boat Company was selling almost 10,000 outboard motors a year. Some consider the inventor of the outboard motor to be Cameron B. Waterman, who received a patent for his version in 1907. In 1905, he had attached a propeller to a motorcycle engine and hung it off the back of a rowboat. But Waterman was not the first inventor either—the American Motors Company had built a "portable boat motor with reversible propeller" as early as 1896. Whoever the original inventor, the outboard motor revolutionized pleasure boating. Typical outboard more...

The basic process of typesetting using movable type—handpicking metal letters to mount them in a rack or plate for printing—developed little in the 400 years following Gutenberg's printing press of 1436. In 1822, William Church of Boston, patented a machine that chose brass-reversed letters from a bank to create a continuous line of text, which had to be finished by hand with spacing, line breaks, and justification. However, it was not commercially successful. In Baltimore in 1884 German-born Ottmar Mergenthaler (1854-1899) patented designs for the Linotype machine, which used a ninety-character keyboard to select brass molds (called "matrices") for letters and other characters from a font magazine and mounted these into an assembler, creating one short line of text (hence "lin'o'type"). Tapered spacebands, larger than the matrices, were added between words and used to justify the line by wedging words apart. Assembled lines were then used to cast thin slugs more...

When the German inventor Nikolaus Otto produced the first four-stroke internal combustion engine in the late nineteenth century, he inspired Gottlieb Daimler (1834-1900) and Willhelm Maybach (1846-1929) to produce an exciting form of transport. The concept was every parent's worst nightmare: to combine a strengthened but still dangerously unstable "bone- crusher" bicycle with a gas engine. Two-wheeled, powered transport was not itself a novelty. Steam-powered bicycles had been around since 1867, and the Michaux-Perreaux steam bicycle—with its front wheel larger than its back wheel and the steam engine mounted under the saddle—went into production in 1868. But when Daimler and Maybach produced their gas-based version in 1885 they unveiled what was to be recorded by historians as the world's first motorcycle. Maybach drove the prototype from Cannstatt to Unterturkheim, a distance of nearly 2 miles (3 km), reaching a speed of 7.5 miles per hour (12 kph). While modern motorbikes more...

High-definition (HD) media was originally developed in 1998, three years after DVDs became commercially available. Despite the DVD having six times the storage space of CDs, it was not sufficient to store all the information in the new HD media. New formats were needed and, eventually, in April 2003, the first Blu-ray disk and HD DVD-compatible devices went on sale. Blu-ray and HD DVD store exactly six times more information than a DVD. Members of the general public, disgruntled at having to watch poor-quality images on old-fashioned DVD players, now require these HD storage devices to watch movies on their new big-screen televisions. There was a gap of several years between the development of HD media in 1998 and that of the HD DVD storage device in 2003. Although it was well known that lasers with shorter wavelengths could solve the problem, it was not until Dr. Shuji Nakamura (b. more...

Nowadays, we take for granted that our oven doors and measuring cups will be see-through. But it was not always so. Normal glass will expand and shatter under the temperatures of the kitchen, so ceramics and metals were the only solution. The magic material that changed all this was Pyrex, a borosilicate glass produced by Corning Incorporated. The heat-resistant glass was an immediate success and soon found its way into every cook's armamentarium. Oddly, its origins lie in the railway industry. Lanterns on trains would often crack because of large temperature differences between the hot lamp inside the glass and the cold weather outside. William C. Taylor and Eugene Sullivan at Coming's New York facility discovered that adding boron to the traditional glass mix improved its resilience to temperature extremes. The material was dubbed "nonex" and used with success on the railways for lanterns and telegraph battery jars. Corning went more...

"The high-voltage magneto and spark plug... became available just as serial car production [took off]." Vaclav Smil, Creating the Twentieth Century Gottlob Monoid's (1876-1923) career as an engineer and inventor started with a lucky break. His father was friends with the father of Robert Bosch, founder of the great German technology company. At the age of fourteen, Honold was given his first job in Bosch's workshop in Stuttgart, where he began to hone his technical prowess. He later left to study engineering at Stuttgart University, but returned to Bosch in 1901 as their technical manager. It was then that he made important changes to the concept of the spark plug. Ignition systems for cars had been around for some time, but none of them were reliable. Some systems rapidly drained the car's battery, whereas the Daimler glow tube ignition system sometimes even set fire to engines. The issue of inventing more...


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