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Subject: ‘Inventions’

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Henry Ford invented the most popular machine in history

Posted in Cars, Engineering, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Transport on Thursday, 13 March 2014

This edited article about Henry Ford first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 588 published on 21 April 1973.

Henry Ford, picture, image, illustration
Henry Ford produced his first hand-built car in 1892 by Robins-Davidson-Howat

In the years between 1891 and 1896, the people of Bagley Avenue, Detroit, U.S.A., had got used to hearing strange noises from the woodshed behind one of the houses. If the light glowed far into the night as it often did, they merely muttered to themselves, “It’s only crazy Ford playing with his mad machine.”

Then at 4 a.m. one spring morning in 1896, Henry Ford impatiently knocked a large hole in one of the walls of the shed, and drove his first car out into the world. Later, he took his wife, Clara, and their baby son, Edsel, for a ride in front of their astonished neighbours, who could hardly believe their eyes when they saw what seemed to be a motorized four-wheeled bicycle. However, this was only the first of a whole series of cars that Henry Ford was destined to build and develop, culminating just over ten years later in his famous ‘Tin Lizzie.’ This was a car that was bought by more people than any earlier car.

Henry was 32 years old, and chief engineer at the Detroit Edison Company, when he first frightened the local horses with his spluttering, backfiring ‘horseless-carriage.’ Every spare minute outside his job was spent on his ‘crazy’ hobby. He had not, of course, built the first car in the world, for steam-driven vehicles had been used in Britain for fifty years. But he was one of the pioneers of the petrol-propelled vehicle.

Henry was born on a farm near Detroit on 30th July, 1863; and it seems as if he became addicted to machinery almost as soon as he came into the world. His father could never get him interested in ploughing or milking, and his school career was a failure because his mind was always on cogs and pistons.

As a boy he spent a lot of time mending broken machinery in the area, as well as building water-wheels and steam turbines. He often occupied himself in the evenings by riding around the neighbouring farms, repairing clocks and watches. Eventually, when he was sixteen, he left the farm and went to Detroit, where he became an apprentice in a machine shop that made steam engines. At last, he was in the environment he loved, and he happily worked out his apprenticeship and then got a job repairing road engines for a firm in Detroit.

However his father was still anxious to get him back to farming and he offered Henry forty acres of land if he came and worked it. Henry tried it, but he did not enjoy it. He stayed at home long enough to court Clara Bryant and marry her, but he seemed to spend more time building petrol engines than he did farming. By 1891, he was back in Detroit, again burning the midnight oil in his woodshed on Bagley Avenue. He did not want to be distracted from his obsession with motor cars and his dreams of giving ordinary ‘plain folk,’ like himself, the opportunity of enjoying the fruits of technology. For in the eighteen-nineties, the motor car was a luxury which only the rich, very rich could afford, and that was something Henry wanted to change.

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No-one believed Marconi had sent a transatlantic message

Posted in Communications, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Science on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about Marconi first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 583 published on 17 March 1973.

Marconi experiments with a kite,  picture, image, illustration
Marconi sends the first wireless message by Peter Jackson

Flying kites is usually a summer-time hobby for young people.

But these kite flyers were men, and they were doing it in December. On that bleak headland at St. John’s, Newfoundland, the gale shrieked and the wind, sweeping down like a solid wall, had already carried away one of the kites.

Yet another one went up in its place, and the wire that held the kite trailed off into a lower room in a deserted building. There on the table was a collection of electrical apparatus and an earphone.

One of the men picked up the headphone and listened, hoping to hear the letter S in Morse Code. Three dots – blip, blip, blip.

Nothing. Not a sound. Hours went by, during which the imagination could have played tricks. Even when it came at last the listener could not be sure. He passed the earphone to his companion who listened and nodded. This was it.

Why was this an historic moment? Because the man who first heard the signal was a young Italian named Guglielmo Marconi. The date was December 12th, 1901, and the signal they heard had come through the air from Poldhu, in Cornwall, roughly 3,000 miles away.

The story of wireless – and particularly that of Marconi – cannot be told without first sweeping aside the word “inventor.”

It is a misleading word, suggesting a brilliant flash of inspiration which, at one bound, gives us a great boon. It hardly ever happens. Most of the great inventions came to fruition through the workings of many minds with one man finally gathering the threads together.

In wireless, Marconi was that man.

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The Bessemer process produced cheaper steel for Crimean guns

Posted in Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Industry, Inventions, Weapons on Thursday, 6 February 2014

This edited article about Henry Bessemer first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 546 published on 1 July 1972.

Henry Bessemer,  picture, image, illustration
Henry Bessemer, inventor of the Bessemer process

Henry Bessemer’s fertile mind was always busy with inventions. Born in Hertfordshire in 1813 he was the son of a successful inventor and it was in a type-foundry on the family estate that young Henry gained his first experience in engineering.

The family settled in London, when he was 17, and Bessemer began to produce many new ideas. Among these were a speedier method of type-setting; a cheaper way of making lead pencils; a forerunner of the modern franking machine; and a perforating machine to put the date on stamps so that they could not be re-used. However, he had not a very good head for business and he made little or no money from these ideas, although he received a knighthood for the inventions of the perforating machine 46 years after the Stamp Office had begun using it.

Not until he devised a process for making the “gold powder”, used for lettering book covers, to retail at a lower price than that imported from Germany did he achieve commercial success. Bessemer’s powder was made from brass as was that from Germany. Brass cost sixpence a pound and the German product made from it sold at £5.12s. while Bessemer sold his at £4 a pound.

The money he made from this enterprise enabled him to develop his other ideas. He was awarded a gold medal by Prince Albert for the highly-efficient sugar cane press he invented and he began making optical sheet glass and patented an improved method of silvering mirrors.

With the coming of the Crimean War the need was for armaments. His involvement with gun design led to the work for which Bessemer is most famous – the “Bessemer Process” of steel manufacture. Previously Swedish bar-iron, costing up to £20 a ton, was used for making steel. The expensive conversion process took ten days and a mere 50 pounds of steel could be made at a time. Also the type of metal obtained, while being excellent for making knives and other cutting implements, was unsuitable and too costly for other uses.

Bessemer’s process used the much cheaper crude pig iron and 5 tons of steel could be produced in just half an hour. Instead of days in a furnace, using large quantities of coke, by the “Bessemer Process” the iron once melted was kept in a molten state in the converter by the burning of its own impurities while a stream of air was continuously blown through it. The steel obtained was of a higher quality than that made in the old way.

Bessemer set up his own factory and other manufacturers in England and abroad used his process under licence, from which he gained a royalty of £2 a ton.

Henry Bessemer made over a million pounds from this process before he died in 1898. His knowledge of business methods had obviously improved over the years!

The invention of revolvers, repeaters and automatic guns

Posted in America, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Weapons, World War 1 on Tuesday, 4 February 2014

This edited article about guns first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 541 published on 27 May 1972.

Colt models,  picture, image, illustration
Several firearms from Samuel Colt

“You’ll not take me, sheriff,” growled the unshaved cowboy.

“Don’t be a fool boy,” hissed the lawman; “you just been drinkin’ too much rye-whicky. I’m takin’ you in.”

“You’re an old man sheriff. I said you’ll not take me. Draw!” And the drunken cowboy lurched for his gun.

The sheriff was like lightning. The cowboy’s gun was only half out of its holster before he found himself staring down the steady barrel of the sheriff’s Colt 45 revolver.

“Drop it,” said the lawman quietly, “or you’re a dead man.”

Such incidents happened thousands of times in the rough, tough history of America’s Wild West. Over and over again it was the Colt, called the Frontier Revolver or the Peacemaker, that brought law and order to the West.

Samuel Colt made the first modern revolver, though there had been earlier attempts to make guns that could fire more than once without being reloaded. None was very successful. Some tended to “roman candle,” or go off all at once. Others like the pepperbox were widely used and popular, but their multi-chamber barrels were so heavy that they had to be short and stubby before anyone could lift them. Short barrels meant great inaccuracy so pepperboxes were only useful against a crowd or at very short ranges.

Colt was born in Connecticut in 1814. He was only sixteen when he boarded a brig bound for India, as a midshipman. To while away the long journey, Colt carved a model gun from wood. Its design was unlike anything made before. This wooden pistol was in fact a model of Colt’s first revolver which he made some years later. Samuel Colt soon set up his own business but his “revolver” pistols were so new and unusual that few dared buy them. Slowly, however, the new Colt revolvers caught on. Thousands were issued to the American Army in 1847 for use in the Mexican War, then 40,000 were brought by the British for use in the Crimea.

There were, of course, other rival revolvers on the market by this time, but Colt’s guns were so successful that they became a legend, particularly in the United States.

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Stronger explosives increased the gunners’ recoil problem

Posted in Historical articles, History, Inventions, War, Weapons, World War 1 on Tuesday, 4 February 2014

This edited article about guns first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 540 published on 20 May 1972.

Tractor with siege howitzer, picture, image, illustration
Tractor with giant siege howitzer during World War One

North-West Frontier: the very name conjures up romantic images of sun-scorched mountains, desolate chasms like the Khyber Pass, and wild tribesmen eager to take pot-shots as any passing British soldier.

At the turn of the century this inhospitable region was to the British public what the Wild West was to the Americans. Ranged against the ferocious Pathan tribes were the brave British and their loyal Indian comrades of the Imperial Army. One of the leading participants in this epic was the Mountain Artillery. This British-officered corps of the Indian Army, with its famous Screw Gun carried in sections on muleback, clambered up precipices and into almost inaccessible ravines to save the day in many a minor frontier skirmish.

Though the screw gun was, in a way, old fashioned as a muzzle-loader, it was also advanced in that it could be taken to pieces small enough to be carried by mules, then reassembled in minutes if danger threatened. The “screw” refers to the barrel which consisted of two parts that screwed together, each no more than 250 lbs, the maximum load for a mule.

Elsewhere in the British Army, as in almost every army in the world, muzzle-loaders had at last given way to breech-loaders. Improvements in both the manufacture and in the metal itself has enabled gun-founders to get over their earlier problems.

Breech-loaders could be loaded more quickly than muzzle-loaders, but loading was not the main problem when it came to designing true quick-fire guns. It was the recoil that slowed everything down. When a gun fired, the shock of its charge drove the whole gun backwards. This meant that the gun had to be rolled forward and re-aimed after every firing.

Newer and more powerful explosives such as cordite merely made the recoil worse. Brass cartridges where shell and charge were loaded in one unit, also speeded up loading, but that did not help the recoil problem. One of the early ideas was to connect the barrel to a piston in a chamber full of water. This piston acted as a buffer for the recoil. Strong springs were later added to slide the barrel back to its original position. The Navy experimented with this “buffer and recuperator” principle, but the system was clearly too cumbersome for the Army’s field artillery. A modification of the principle did however provide the final answer many years later.

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The explosive origins of the coveted Nobel Prizes

Posted in Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Science, War, Weapons on Tuesday, 4 February 2014

This edited article about Alfred Nobel first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 539 published on 13 May 1972.

Alfred Nobel,  picture, image, illustration
Alfred Nobel lost his youngest brother when an experiment at a Stockholm factory went wrong, causing a titanic explosion

Alfred Bernhard Nobel was born in Stockholm in 1833, the son of a Swedish inventor. Today his name is chiefly remembered for the five annual Nobel Prizes awarded for literature of an idealistic nature; for a discovery in the field of physics and chemistry; for a discovery in physiology or medicine; and for the greatest contribution towards world peace. Not so well known is the fact that it was this man who first produced “Dynamite” by mixing the highly effective liquid explosive nitro-glycerine with a type of clay called Kieselguhr.

Nitro-glycerine had been invented by Sobrero, an Italian chemist, but it was so dangerous to handle that it was little used and banned in some countries. Dynamite on the other hand had the power of nitro-glycerine, but this solid explosive was easier and considerably safer to handle. Dynamite proved a formidable weapon and Nobel was at one time called “The Merchant of Death” and “The Dynamite King” because he became rich from the manufacture and sale of explosives and munitions. But dynamite has great value in peacetime in mining, road building and other types of engineering work where blasting is involved.

In fact, Nobel was very keen to promote the cause of world peace, but he did not hold out much hope for the idea of universal disarmament as a workable method of achieving this.

At one time his opinion was that if only weapons were powerful enough and fiendish enough, all nations would be afraid to become involved in war. But he came sadly and reluctantly to the conclusion that this was not true. He had, however, several other ideas to offer: one was to try persuading governments to agree not to make war for one year, at the end of which time they might be talked into agreeing to another year’s delay, and so on. In that way peace might come about unnoticed.

His mind was also busy with many new ideas such as the production of artificial leather, silk and rubber from nitro-cellulose. The work of other inventors fired his imagination and he was always ready to help and encourage any young inventor of promise. Although he went on making munitions, it was the fascination of solving the technical problems involved which was the driving factor in this work. The cause of peace was, however, never far from his thoughts. Shortly before his death in 1896 he noted with satisfaction the growth of the peace movement.

His will showed his idealistic principles and provides his monument. Most of his vast fortune was to be invested and the interest from these investments to be given in prizes each year to those who, during the preceding year, had served humanity best.

The honour bestowed by a Nobel Prize far outweighs the money received. Among the long list of eminent people who have been so honoured are: Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, the Curies, Sir Alexander Fleming, Wilhelm Rontgen, the discoverer of X-rays, and Sir Winston Churchill.

The percussion-lock rifle made warfare more deadly

Posted in America, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, War, Weapons on Monday, 3 February 2014

This edited article about guns first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 538 published on 6 May 1972.

George Washington in battle,  picture, image, illustration
George Washington leading his troops during the American War of Independence by Roger Payne

“Forward the 62nd!” yelled a young officer, and with the courage born of stern discipline the British red-coats charged, but they never reached the rebel lines. Their American foes just retreated into the woods. The British Brown Bess muskets could not reach the Americans who certainly didn’t wait for the terrifying British bayonets.

Yet the Americans could reach the British. They had rifles, Kentucky Rifles, which picked off the red-coats one by one. Not all American soldiers had rifles of course, but those that did, the backswoodsmen, always proved a problem for the British.

The name Kentucky Rifle is a misnomer as most of these guns came from Lancaster in Pennsylvania where they were made by German gunsmiths who had settled in the New World. These Germans had brought their Jaeger hunting rifles with them and soon improved on the original design, first making the stock of maple rather than walnut, which is scarce in America, and then reducing the size of the bullets so that the frontiersmen did not have to carry such a weight when going on long forays into the forest.

These early rifles had characteristic brass patch-boxes set into their butts in which greased leather patches were kept. These were wrapped around the ball when it was loaded to make a tight fit into the rifle grooves when the gun was fired.

Rifles were not of course a new idea. Bullets were known to be more accurate when spun by twisted rifle grooves as early as the 16th century, but nobody knew why. Some said that devils rode the spinning bullets and in 1547 the Archbishop of Mainz decided to find out for sure. He organised a shooting match between two riflemen, one who fired ordinary lead bullets, the other who fired silver bullets engraved with crosses. The lead bullets were more accurate, thus “proving” that devils rode these, but not the ones engraved with crosses!

America won its War of Independence and so the Kentucky Rifle got all the glory, but the British did have a few volunteer riflemen of their own. They were led by a ferocious Scot named Patrick Ferguson who also designed the breech-loading rifle that they used. It was very advanced in design and was far better than anything the Americans had. Being a breech-loader, it could be loaded lying down or even walking along. Fortunately for the Americans, the British War Office distrusted rifles and after Ferguson himself was killed by rebel riflemen his volunteers were disbanded and his gun forgotten.

The lessons inflicted by the Americans were not however, completely lost on the British. In 1797, some German riflemen were drafted into the 60th Regiment of Foot, bringing with them their rifles, their traditional green uniforms and their moustaches. In 1800, the Duke of York gathered together various odd rifle companies into a Rifle Corps which fought magnificently in Spain against the French. They did not, however, use the Ferguson breech-loader but the more orthodox muzzle-loading Baker Rifle.

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London’s first traffic lights exploded and killed a policeman

Posted in Cars, Historical articles, History, Inventions, London, Technology, Transport on Wednesday, 29 January 2014

This edited article about traffic control first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 530 published on 11 March 1972.

Cleaning traffic lights,  picture, image, illustration
Traffic light cleaner

The history of traffic lights is one which involves explosions and violent death, but this begins to seem less surprising when we realize what a problem the control of traffic had become in London and other large cities after 1850. Most of the streets were paved with stone and, amidst the noise of carriage wheels, the shouts of street vendors and the cries of humans and horses, the scene was one of constant confusion.

Nowadays we regard travelling in a horse-drawn coach as a rather grand and dignified pastime. Not so then in London, however, for with hansom cabs, private carriages and horse omnibuses jostling with each other for right of way, there were often miniature battles. Carriages became overturned and wheels broken; horses bolted and passengers and cabbies exchanged insults until peace was finally restored. Nor did the new steam buses improve the situation. They had been breaking the law (which only allowed them to travel at 4 miles per hour) for years, and once this restriction was finally lifted they were free to indulge in races with their horse-drawn competitors.

The passengers in these early omnibuses were often supplied with books and newspapers to while away the journey, but if a race started they were more likely to be clinging to the seat in terror as their bus rocketed down Oxford Street. The drivers and conductors were well-known for their wit, exchanging repartee with their rivals as they passed, but many a passenger must have sighed with relief as his journey’s end approached.

Into all this confusion some form of control was obviously needed, particularly as the number of people using the City grew larger each year. Police were only partly successful and in any case manning each junction every day was clearly impossible. John Knight provided what seemed to be the perfect answer to the problem.

He was a railway signalling engineer by trade and he worked at a time when the British railway was at its peak. The great London termini handled thousands of trains a day, and Knight and his colleagues designed the sophisticated signal systems which made the railways such a safe and efficient means of travel.

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The invention of the parachute came long before its time

Posted in Aerospace, Bravery, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions on Tuesday, 28 January 2014

This edited article about parachutes first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 529 published on 4 March 1972.

Garnerin jumps with prachute,  picture, image, illustration
The first parachute jump was made by Jacques Garnerin, by Ferdinando Tacconi

“The world’s biggest step.” This is the slogan which Captain Joseph Kittinger of the United States Air Force saw painted on the floor by his feet as he stepped out of the gondola of his balloon on an August morning in 1960. He was certainly taking a leap that had never been equalled.

Captain Kittinger was about to make the world’s longest parachute drop. It may well be that, as he checked his equipment, he thought briefly of Jacques Garnerin, the fourteen-year-old boy whose enthusiasm and bravery had made it all possible. When Garnerin had made his first jump from a balloon, over 160 years before, he could have had no idea of the way his invention would be developed. Powered flight, free fall acrobatics and paratroops would come in time, but he was then stepping out into the unknown.

Captain Kittinger’s balloon was high above the United States; at 102,200 feet, nearly eighteen miles above ground which had long since been hidden by banks of cloud below. For sixteen miles, he rocketed downwards without opening his main parachute and covered this distance in just over four and a half minutes. Despite having a small stabilizing parachute to keep him from falling in a corkscrew motion, he reached the terrifying speed of 614 miles per hour. Finally, a special mechanism operated and opened his main parachute and the last nine minutes of his earthward journey were completed more gently. After 13 minutes and eight seconds it was all over, and the world’s most spectacular parachute drop could go into the record books.

Our story starts on the other side of the Atlantic at the end of the eighteenth century but, although Jacques Garnerin did not realise it, the use of parachutes had been considered nearly three hundred years before. Leonardo da Vinci had sketched in the design for one and, like so many things he designed, it would almost certainly have worked if the right materials had been available. But his notebooks were lost to the world, and although the Chinese were said to use “aerial umbrellas,” Europe was still waiting for the idea to be reborn.

It was largely because of the interest in hot-air and hydrogen balloons that men’s thoughts became centred once more on the way in which they might come back to earth more safely. In 1783, the provincial town of Montpellier in France became the scene of the first rather dangerous and daring jumps when Louis Le Normand gave his public demonstrations. He used an observation tower at the local botanical gardens to jump from with a “parachute” which was a strange contrivance which managed to look like a conical umbrella.

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The Hungarian Biro brothers invented the ballpoint pen

Posted in Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions on Tuesday, 28 January 2014

This edited article about inventors first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 528 published on 26 February 1972.

Matron,  picture, image, illustration
Three ubiquitous biros or ballpoint pens can be seen on Matron's desk

The lightening of the sky at dawn brought with it the first glimpse of the frontier, and, as the rising sun gradually gave the landscape an air of soft beauty, the refugees turned to take one last, long look at their native land. For most of the travellers, regret was tinged with relief at escaping a reign of terror. For this was Hungary, before the Second World War, and the steady trickle of refugees were those who could see only too plainly that their country’s course must lead to disaster. The thousands who made this dangerous journey settled in all parts of the globe.

Two men came across the frontier with the key to a fortune and a name that would soon become known all over the world. Ladislao Biro and his brother Georg came out of Hungary not only to start a new life but also to revolutionise the writing habits of millions.

Writing with pen and ink is an art several thousand years old, and both the ancient Egyptians and Chinese had workable writing instruments, even if they seem somewhat strange to modern eyes. Brushes, reeds, hollow bamboos and feathers could be fashioned into what we would now think of as nibs. Ink came from more exotic ingredients, including indigo, dragon’s blood, pokeberries and cochineal (now used mostly for flavouring and colouring food).

Little real progress was made until steel dip-in pens (one of many products of the Industrial Revolution) and later, fountain pens were able to be mass produced. Writing at home or in the office was well looked after but in more difficult situations – whether on a gale-lashed ship or high on a mountain – there were still difficulties to be solved and existing implements were far from satisfactory.

The brothers were not the first people to believe that a ball-point pen might provide a solution to the problem. Patents had been taken out by a John Loud in 1888 and seven years later a commercial model appeared for sale. But the patents were allowed to lapse and people lost interest because of the insurmountable difficulty of getting an even flow of ink to the ball.

The idea was simple enough; a reservoir of ink transferred to the paper by a tiny rotating ball. But until this time, no one had made it a workable proposition.

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