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Posted in Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Industry, Inventions on Tuesday, 21 May 2013
This edited article about the Davy Safety lamp originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 261 published on 14 January 1967.
With a cry of terror the miner saw a light coming down the tunnel to the pit face.
“Get back,” he yelled, “or we’ll all be dead!”
But the light came steadily on. The miner pressed himself against the rock wall, tensing himself for the explosion which he expected at any second.
“For God’s sake, go back,” he implored. “This place is full of fire damp . . .” His voice trailed off.
No wonder the man was filled with fear. At the beginning of the last century scores of miners died annually from fire damp explosions. Fire damp is a dangerous mixture of methane gas and air which will explode on contact with the smallest flame. Because of this danger, miners worked in almost total darkness, their only illumination coming from a device they called a steel mill. This was simply a steel disc which revolved in contact with a piece of flint and gave off a faint glow.
To strike a match or light a candle underground was to commit suicide, yet here was someone walking in the pit with a lamp! He went right up to the cowering miner, raised the light high and said: “You have no need to fear. Here is a new lamp which will burn safely underground.”
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Posted in America, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Language on Tuesday, 14 May 2013
This edited article about Morse Code originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 254 published on 26 November 1966.
In 1811, an American student sailed for England to study the art of historical painting. His name was Samuel Morse and he took lodging in London at No. 141 Cleveland Street, where he stayed for three years. The old house is still standing, and a blue plaque records the young man’s stay there.
Samuel Finley Breese Morse, the son of a clergyman, had a very varied career. He was, in turn painter, politician, businessman, inventor and journalist.
Samuel was not a studious youth, and reports from Yale University labelled him ‘a fickle student’. But while at college, he developed a passion for painting miniature portraits. Determined to learn more about this form of art, he ignored parentai protests and sailed for England.
He returned in 1815, laden with canvases. These, he thought, would make him a fortune, but he was disappointed. Americans were not eager to buy pictures of English historical scenes.
Reluctantly, Samuel turned to portraiture to make a living. In this he was more successful. His pictures were liked and it became fashionable to be ‘painted’ by Morse.
His outlook was much wider than his easel, however, and he enjoyed toying with practical ideas. He was responsible for much of the early development of the daguerrotype process. He also invented a marble-cutter and a pump – and experimented with ideas for an electro-magnetic telegraph.
This last was a device that really made his name. Other people had had similar ideas before him, but he was the only one persistent enough to follow them through, when even his partners abandoned him.
Morse’s problem was to find a convenient code for communication, and for this purpose he developed the series of dots and dashes now so well known as the Morse code.
In 1843, Congress commissioned Morse to erect the first telegraph system between Baltimore and Washington. The new telegraph spread rapidly in Europe and elsewhere, but its inventor’s patent rights were contested, and he had still to fight hard for the fortune it made him.
Always a lively controversialist, Morse founded the daily Journal of Commerce, which is still published in New York, and expressed himself vigorously in its columns. He favoured the education of women, and founded a college. In old age he was a philanthropist.
Posted in Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, London, Science on Friday, 3 May 2013
This edited article about gas-lighting originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 240 published on 20 August 1966.
At ten o’clock on the evening of 17th August, 1807, crowds of Londoners were gazing in awe at a line of flickering gas-lights in Pall Mall. It was the first time that a street had been lit by gas.
The story of gas-lighting began in Redruth, Cornwall, in 1792. William Murdock, a Scottish engineer, was sitting in front of a coal fire in his lodgings when he noticed that, as the lumps of coal burned, little puffs of smoke would appear and burst into flame.
He decided to try an experiment. Filling a kettle with coal, Murdock fitted a tube to the spout. On the end of the tube he fixed a thimble through which he had drilled a tiny hole. When he placed the kettle on the fire, gas came out of the hole and when ignited, burned with a luminous flame. Next he built a proper retort outside his house and was able to produce enough gas to light his room. The result delighted him.
In 1804, Murdock came to London and tried to persuade the authorities to use gas-lighting for the streets. The proposal aroused a storm of protest, and even scientists like Sir Humphrey Davy said it was impossible.
Others called Murdock ‘a madman who wants to light London with smoke’. It was confidently predicted that, if the plan was attempted, London would be blown sky high.
Fortunately Murdock had some supporters, with the result that Pall Mall became the first street in the world to have gas-light.
Posted in Engineering, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Trade on Tuesday, 30 April 2013
This edited article about John Spencer originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 237 published on 30 July 1966.
John Spencer seeing the accidentally sheet of metal which gave him an idea which revolutionised the building trade, by John Millar Watt
In the 1840s, railways were spreading rapidly across England. The Spencer Iron Works in Birmingham was making rails for a new line to run between London and Worcester via Oxford. In those days, rails were shaped rather like a broad upside-down “U”.
One day, a sheet of metal serving as a protection for men working on the rail – making machine, worked loose and was pulled into the machine. It emerged thoroughly crunched into a series of waves. The workmen cast it aside, put up a new sheet and got on with the job.
John Spencer, master of the ironworks, was walking round the works, checking that everything was running smoothly, when he saw the spoiled sheet. He picked it up.
Instead of flopping about as a thin sheet of metal normally would, it remained straight and rigid. Spencer stared at it. He stood it up and leaned his weight on it. It did not bend.
Spencer stood still for several minutes. Here was a marvellous new process which actually increased the strength of metal sheets! The sheets would be cheap to produce, easy to transport. They would revolutionise the building industry . . .
Spencer obtained a patent and started manufacturing corrugated sheets, and other iron masters soon followed his example. The sheets were made from wrought or puddled iron.
They were corrugated in the black (raw) state and were then galvanised by dipping in an open bath of molten zinc, to prevent corrosion or rusting. In the early days of the process, the output was small, and the cost higher than John Spencer had anticipated, but the quality was excellent and showed great promise.
In 1860, the corrugating of steel sheets became a commercial proposition, but they were produced only in heavy gauges, and it was not until 30 years later that light gauges were successfully achieved.
By 1891, the total production of corrugated metal exceeded 200,000 tons, 75 per cent of which was exported. The sheets were used for roofing, siding, fume-ducts and culverts, etc. Some of this sheeting is still in use, although it was fixed in place more than 60 years ago.
Nowadays, cardboard, aluminium, plastics and most malleable materials may be corrugated to increase their strength – and all because of that incident at the Spencer works in 1843.
Posted in America, Engineering, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions on Monday, 29 April 2013
This edited article about the sewing machine originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 234 published on 9 July 1966.
Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine
Elias Howe, a mechanically-minded farm boy who was born at Spencer, Massachusetts, on July 9, 1819, is often described as the inventor of the sewing-machine.
This is not strictly true, because the idea of the sewing-machine had been thought of long before Howe’s day. What Howe did was to produce the first practical machine fitted with a feed movement and shuttle that made lock-stitching possible.
As early as 1755, Charles Weisenthal had patented a sewing-machine using a double-pointed needle with the eye in the centre, but he did not have sufficient money to develop his idea.
The first sewing-machine to be used on a large scale was that invented in 1820 by Barthelemy Thimonnies, a Paris tailor. His machine so impressed the French War office that in 1829 he received a large contract to make army uniforms, and opened a factory in which 100 of his machines were installed. But the hand-tailors feared that sewing-machines would put them out of work and wrecked his factory.
Elias Howe patented his sewing-machine in 1846. It was a greatly improved version of previous machines and, with various modifications, is the sewing-machine we know today. It involved, for the first time, a needle moving with a shuttle to make lock-stitches, and a device to give the thread the tension essential to even stitching.
Howe died on October 3, 1867, having made a huge fortune from his invention.
Posted in Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions on Wednesday, 17 April 2013
This edited article about Jonas Hanway originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 227 published on 21 May 1966.
Jonas Hanway, British wool merchant, stood in the main street of a Persian city one day in the mid-18th century to watch a prince pass by. In the centre of the long and elaborate procession the prince could be seen, shaded from the sun by a strange, tent-shaped structure.
Hanway, who had the interests of humanity at heart, but who was at the same time a shrewd business man, thought lesser Persians might appreciate similar protection from the sun, so he had a large number of these structures, which we would call umbrellas, made in a smaller size.
To his dismay, when he tried to sell them he faced an immediate outcry, for what he had not realized was that umbrellas were an Eastern symbol of royalty and power. So serious was his blunder that Hanway was forced to leave the country without delay.
But Jonas Hanway was a practical man. Surveying the rainy British skies on his return in 1750, he concluded that an umbrella which warded off the Persian sun could equally well divert the English rain. So on wet days he began carrying one made of taut material stretched over wooden ribs.
When he first emerged from his house under an open umbrella, Hanway caused a sensation. He met with a considerable amount of hostility, but he was not the sort of man to be deterred from a sensible habit by adverse public opinion or comment.
He had, in particular, to face the active opposition of the carriers of sedan chairs and the drivers of hansom cabs. Their business boomed in the rain, and when they saw Hanway making his way with umbrella aloft, they would pelt him with rubbish.
On one occasion, the driver of a hansom cab tried to mow him down with his vehicle, at which point Hanway discovered a further merit for his “newfangled” contraption by giving the man a good thrashing.
Thanks to Hanway’s perseverance, the umbrella was firmly established on the streets of London before he died.
Posted in America, Famous Inventors, Inventions, Weapons on Tuesday, 16 April 2013
This edited article about guns originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 226 published on 14 May 1966.
Colt revolver and automatic
Up to the middle of the nineteenth century, mass production of firearms was unknown. One could take a thousand muskets made by one firm and be extremely fortunate in finding two parts that were interchangeable.
The credit for introducing mass production cannot be given to Samuel Colt alone, but his use of gauges and machine tools helped to lay the foundation stone for industrial progress in firearm manufacture.
Samuel Colt was born on July 19, 1814, in a farmhouse near Hartford, Connecticut, in the U.S.A. His father was a fairly prosperous pioneer of the silk worm industry in America.
While still a schoolboy, Sam felt an urge to go to sea and with the help of his step-mother he secured a midshipman’s berth on the Brig Corvo. During his spare time on the voyage, Sam set to work carving a wooden model of a repeating pistol, the system for which had been forming in his mind over a long period of time.
The idea of a multi-chambered cylinder weapon was not original, but Colt’s method of rotating the cylinder certainly was.
During the voyage, Sam must have observed the ship’s capstan operating, with its ratchet bed and pawls around the base to prevent it from turning the other way when pressure was eased on the bars. It was then, perhaps, that the answer to his problem must have suddenly dawned on him: put the ratchet bed on the rear of the cylinder and a pawl on the hammer, bearing on the ratchet bed and forced up when the hammer is pivoted back – that was it! So simple!
On his return to Hartford, Sam asked a local gunsmith named Chase if he would make a pistol and rifle, using his wooden pistol as a model. Chase agreed, but trouble arose over money and Chase never finished the job. Colt later engaged John Pearson, a Baltimore gunsmith, to complete the guns he needed for a final patent.
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Posted in Communications, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Science, Scotland on Wednesday, 10 April 2013
This edited article about John Logie Baird originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 221 published on 9 April 1966.
The pioneer of television is commemorated by a blue plaque above a famous Italian restaurant in Soho, the famous “bohemian” district of London.
The world’s first television demonstration was given in the two attic rooms of No. 22 Frith St., Soho, where about fifty scientists assembled to see the new marvel on January 26, 1926.
The apparatus used on that occasion can now be seen at the Science Museum, South Kensington, but if you go there, do not expect to see anything like the familiar set that graces so many living-rooms today. Baird’s equipment was made of a biscuit tin (which housed the projection lamp), cardboard scanning discs, and cheap cycle lenses. It was built on an old wash-stand, and the whole was held together with scrap wood, darning needles, string and sealing-wax.
The machine was actually built at Hastings, where Baird lived at the time of his earlier experiments, and it was there that he first obtained an image – a flickering shadow of a Maltese cross thrown over a distance of a few feet.
Not until he moved to London, dogged by ill-health and poverty, did he manage to transmit a recognizable picture of a person – the office-boy from the film company’s offices below his workroom.
Later in 1926, Baird developed Noctovision, or night vision, a process using infra-red rays.
In 1928 he arranged the world’s first transatlantic television transmission, both to New York and to the ship Berengaria in mid-ocean. In this year he also demonstrated natural-colour transmissions, and a form of stereoscopic television. In addition he experimented with large-screen television, once shown at the London Coliseum, and in 1931 he televised the Derby from Epsom. The following year he gave the first demonstrations of ultra-short wave transmission.
Despite physical and financial handicaps, Baird was the first practical exponent of every device associated with television. Fittingly, he also became the first Briton to be awarded the gold medal of the International Faculty of Science. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
After his success, Baird moved to Bexhill, Sussex, where he continued experimenting to solve television problems until his death on June 14, 1946.
The son of a parson, Baird was educated at the Royal Technical College, Glasgow, and the University of Glasgow. Rejected as unfit for military service in 1914, he spent some years as super-intendent-engineer of the Clyde Valley Electric Power Co. Afterwards he started several business ventures, successively marketing patent socks, jam, honey and soap. Each was brought to an end by ill-health, and a major physical and nervous breakdown compelled him to retire to Hastings in 1922.
Posted in Boats, Engineering, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Ships, Transport on Friday, 5 April 2013
This edited article about William Symington originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 219 published on 26 March 1966.
Symington’s steam-powered boat, the ‘Charlotte Dundas’
Every liner at sea is a monument to William Symington, who died in London, poor and forgotten, on March 22, 1831. For William Symington was the inventor of the first practical steam-powered boat.
Symington, who was born in October 1763, at Leadhills, Lanarkshire, became a mechanic at Wanlockhead Colliery in Dumfriesshire. While there he met an engineer, named Patrick Millar, who was experimenting with a small paddle-driven boat. Symington was asked to build a steam engine which would drive the paddles through a system of chains and ratchets.
The engine was a success, but the chain-and-ratchet drive was complicated and unreliable. Symington then built a new boat in which the paddles were driven through a shaft and connecting rod. This was the principle which since then has been used for all paddle steamers.
Symington named his boat Charlotte Dundas after the wife of Lord Dundas, who had financed the building of the boat. The Charlotte Dundas made her maiden voyage in 1790 and amazed a crowd of spectators by towing two heavily laden barges at a speed of nearly four miles an hour!
The Duke of Bridgewater, who was among the spectators, was so impressed that he asked Symington to build eight tug boats for use on the Bridgewater canal. But, because canal engineers said the wash from the paddles would destroy the canal banks, the order was cancelled.
Symington gave up experimenting with steamboats and came to London where he worked as a general mechanic until his death.
Posted in Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Science on Thursday, 28 March 2013
This edited article about Heinrich Hertz originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 215 published on 26 February 1966.
With this apparatus Heinrich Hertz proved that an electric spark produced impulses which travel through the air. A spark leaped across contacts on the left, inducing current in the ring on the right.
Many people think of Marconi as the inventor of wireless – or, as it is now called, radio. Actually, radio was not invented by any one man, but resulted from the experiments of many.
One of the first of these experimenters was Heinrich Hertz who was born on February 22, 1857, and became Professor of Physics at Bonn University.
During one of his electrical experiments he accidentally discovered that electric sparks would jump a small gap in a circuit.
In this experiment Hertz had two independent coils of wire wound around a cardboard cylinder. The ends of one coil were connected to two metal knobs a few inches apart. When the other coil was connected to a battery, a spark jumped across the gap separating these knobs. He also discovered that every time this happened, similar sparks jumped across a tiny gap in a copperring which was mounted on a desk on the far side of the room.
By means of delicate instruments, Hertz was able to establish that the sparks were, in fact, discharges of electricity flowing backwards and forwards in alternating waves or cycles.
He was even able to work out that each spark lasted about one-millionth of a second.
Although not realizing it, Hertz had designed the first radio transmitter and receiver. But he did not consider it as having any practical use, and certainly never thought it could become a means of communication.