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Subject: ‘Technology’

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USS Nautilus – the world’s first atomic-powered submarine

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Ships, Technology, Weapons on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about the USS Nautilus first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 584 published on 24 March 1973.

USS Nautilus,  picture, image, illustration
USS Nautilus

In 1870 Jules Verne wrote about a mighty submarine that could cruise thousands of leagues under the sea. He called it the Nautilus.

On January 21st, 1954, at a Connecticut shipyard the dream of Jules Verne came true. As Mrs Eisenhower smashed a bottle of champagne against the dark green hull of the Nautilus, the world’s first atom-powered submarine slid into the water.

Nautilus is 300 feet long, displaces 3,000 tons and cost £10 ½ million to build. Her atomic power can carry her round the world without refuelling.

And her speed is in excess of 20 knots.

When the cheers of the launching ceremony died away Nautilus went to work. Soon she was breaking records and in 1957 came a voyage of exploration as exciting as any that man has known.

The brief of her captain, Commander William Anderson, was to explore beneath the ice packs of the North Pole. The rasp of the diving alarm sounded and for the first time Nautilus edged under the ice.

Somewhere in the ship a juke-box was playing. Off-duty members of the crew relaxed in their almost luxurious quarters.

In the mess another group were eating dinner. Meanwhile in the control room, Commander Anderson wondered what they would find below the ice.

It wasn’t long before the answers to questions that had been puzzling scientists for many years began to arrive. By means of a sonar machine scientists on board were able to form a very good picture of what the ice overhead was like.

A sonar machine is a device that picks up sound and so enables the navigator to detect the presence of any objects outside his ship. This he does by listening for the echo made by an object in the path of a beam of sound.

First they found that it was a huge, ever-moving mass of varying thickness. It was made up of floes ranging from a few feet to ten or twelve feet but not often more.

The North Pole ice-pack is interspersed here and there with small lakes, little more than cracks in the surface.

After cruising for some time beneath the surface Commander Anderson decided to attempt to bring Nautilus to the surface in one of these cracks.

It was, as he put it, rather like “threading a needle.”

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Permanent street lighting helped to banish fear and crime

Posted in British Cities, British Towns, Historical articles, History, London, Science, Technology on Tuesday, 4 March 2014

This edited article about street lighting first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 577 published on 3 February 1973.

Moving street lights,  picture, image, illustration
Before street lights, the rich employed people to hold torches to light their evening strolls

Man has always been afraid of the dark. Nobody knew in early days what terrible existence awaited them as soon as day crept into night and blackness magically floated down to earth. Nobody knew; not many dared to find out. The world about would sleep until the sun came out, as if to regenerate the chemicals of life.

But man could not hide from the dark for long. He had to conquer it. In ancient Babylon they used thick tow wicks containing about one hundredweight of fat. The flickering lights would pinpoint a route through the deathly dark to safety. The wicks were so expensive, though, that they could only be afforded at festival times.

Imperial Rome was not much better off. They had no lights, and the coming of night covered the city in a darkness that brought death and emptiness. If you went out to supper without having first made out your will, you would have been considered outrageously mad. Important people might just risk venturing out into the night by having torch bearers with them, or at least a torch of resinous pine. But ordinary folk just wouldn’t consider braving the dark streets, and if they had to, it would be planned well in advance in time for the full moon.

The moon was never sufficient, though. In the 17th Century watchmen along the streets of London used to sing:

“A light here maids, hang out your lights,
And see your horns be clear and bright
That so your candle clear may shine
Continuing from six to nine
That honest men may walk along
And see to pass safe without wrong.”

Honest men, and dishonest ones, come to that, were probably safer in Paris. People there were prepared to pay for their safety, and one distinguished gentleman had a monopoly hiring guides with hand lanterns to travellers at night.

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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 digital revolution stems from the discovery of electrons

Posted in Communications, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Science, Technology on Friday, 24 January 2014

This edited article about electricity first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 526 published on 12 February 1972.

Dr Lee de Forest,  picture, image, illustration
Dr Lee de Forest with the valve transmitter he used in 1906 to broadcast the voice of the famous tenor, Enrico Caruso

A strange phenomenon ‘discovered’ by Thomas Edison in 1883 opened up the whole, amazing world of electronics and gave us radio, television and a host of marvellous devices that now serve mankind.

You cannot see it, hear it or feel it. Yet it is one of the biggest discoveries of all time.

Without it there could be no radio, television, computers, telephones, radar, electric light or a host of other things which have become a part-and-parcel of our everyday lives.

What is it?

This wonder of the modern age is a minute particle of matter called an electron, and it is to be found in every atom. An atom is like the solar system. The sun is the positively charged centre called the nucleus. The planets which revolve around the sun are like the electrons which orbit the nucleus.

Electric current is made by the passage of electrons from one atom to another. And sometimes the electrons can be made to fly through space from one conductor to another. We call this radiation.

The first man to discover this strange effect was Thomas Edison. In 1883 he was trying to improve his carbon filament lamps. To find out why these blackened, he sealed a metal plate inside a lamp to collect the deposit. Then, he noticed that under certain conditions, electricity could flow from the plate to the filament without any electrical connection.

This was the first time that electricity had been known to flow through a vacuum.

For once in his life, Edison, who eventually patented over 1,300 inventions, failed to realise the tremendous possibilities of what he had noticed. The strange phenomenon he had seen was to lead to the radio valve, radar, television and the host of electronic devices that now serve mankind.

One man who was intrigued by this effect was J. A. (later Sir Ambrose) Fleming who experimented with electric lamps fitted with plates of various sizes. But twenty years were to pass before he found a use for this effect, which was due to electrons freed from matter.

A wireless station at Cornwall was transmitting the first transatlantic signals. These were very feeble, and Fleming tried to find a way to make these stronger at the receiving end. He ordered a dozen lamps fitted with metal cylinders around the filaments and used these in the receiving circuit.

At the same time, Dr. Lee de Forest in the U.S.A. was working on the same idea and found that by putting a wire mesh between the filament and the plate feeble signals could be amplified and not merely detected.

From this point onwards, progress raced ahead. Wireless telegraphy and telephony became reliable, stimulated by the need during the First World War to improve communications.

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How Christmas may have changed in the Twenty-first Century

Posted in Christmas, Science, Space, Technology on Tuesday, 21 January 2014

This edited article about Christmas first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 519 published on 25 December 1971.

Santa on Mars, picture, image, illustration
Santa Claus on Mars

For astronauts sitting down to dinner in a space-station orbiting the Earth, it still looks like a traditional Christmas of three decades earlier.

The table and folding chairs may be made of a super-light titanium-aluminium alloy, but the goodies laid out for Christmas dinner are not space-age at all. There is roast turkey with chestnut stuffing, plum pudding, hot mince pie, and trifle.

These men, spending Christmas two hundred miles above the Earth, are lucky – their dinner stays on the table. The huge space station turns slowly like a giant wheel, so that centrifugal force creates a kind of artificial gravity. Otherwise the men, chairs and table, would be floating around in the pressurized cabin like fish in an aquarium, bumping into elusive turkey drumsticks and mince pies. Weightlessness might be amusing, for a while at least, but it would hardly be in the traditional Christmas spirit, and it would be scientifically impossible to pull crackers!

Five other astronauts, however, on a special space mission to the Planet Neptune, will have to stretch their imaginations to the limit to make things seem like Christmas at all. Their Christmas dinner will consist of turkey-flavoured protein powder moistened with distilled water, sucked slowly from polythene bags. Pulling crackers and untying presents will be out, but at least they will be able to play Christmas music from their tape-cassettes, and watch Christmas programmes on their transistorized colour TV.

On Earth, in a flat on the 385th floor of a super-skyscraper in Manchester, the Jones family is entertaining the Green family. The Greens have arrived from California after a journey of just under forty minutes by a hyper-sonic jet airliner, because their friends the Joneses promised to treat them to a traditional English Christmas dinner.

And the meal they are now enjoying is traditional, and perhaps even more English and “Christmassy” than it might have been if they had lived back in 1971, in spite of thirty years progress in science and technology.

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Peter Twiss was the first man to break the sound barrier

Posted in Aerospace, Aviation, Historical articles, Technology on Thursday, 9 January 2014

This edited article about aviation first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 505 published on 18 September 1971.

Air Speed Record, picture, image, illustration
The Fairy Delta 2 (second row, right)

In these days of rocket-powered research aircraft which fly at over 4,000 mph, and conventional planes which top the 2,000 mph mark, to say nothing of trips to the Moon, a speed of a mere 1,000 mph may seem as outdated as a stagecoach to some people.

Most of us, however, who have never travelled at anything like that speed can still marvel at the first man to crack the barrier.

The pilot who pulled off the amazing feat was Peter Twiss, chief test pilot of the Fairey Aviation Company.

The Fairey Company had built the V-winged Fairey Delta 2, which it believed could beat the existing world speed record of 822.27 mph, set up by the Americans in 1955. The new plane was a turbo-jet.

The Company thought that if anyone could nurse the new plane to record-breaking speed it was Twiss. It was, as usual, a long business. Every flight involved checking and rechecking, recording stresses and strains, reporting every quirk and characteristic of the new plane being tested.

Once, flying over Southern England, Twiss suddenly saw the needle of the fuel gauge swing from full to empty in a matter of seconds. He radioed to his base at Boscombe Down and had to decide whether to eject himself from a plane which had now become a glider, or have a go at bringing the plane down. He decided he had just enough height to reach base.

He concentrated on keeping the nose of the plane down to maintain as much control as possible, but the Delta had a drop-nose mechanism by which the nose could be lowered before landing to let the pilot see the runway ahead of him. The plane was actually called the Droop Snoot!

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Hi-tech sports and pastimes of the not-too-distant future

Posted in Leisure, Science, Sport, Technology on Monday, 6 January 2014

This edited article about futuristic Britain first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 503 published on 4 September 1971.

Futuristic leisure pursuits, picture, image, illustration
How will we play in 2001?

Only about ten minutes of play left with the score at Chelsea Special 1 Manchester Rangers 1. Now both teams are making a supreme effort, both on the ground and in the air.

Each player carries on his back a complicated arrangement of cylinders and tubes and rocket nozzles, all made of an extremely light aluminium alloy. At each end of the field are fifty-feet-high goal posts. The ball, a six-foot diameter plastic sphere filled with helium, hovers in the air high above the field as two players soar towards it, propelled by their retro-rockets. There is a sustained roar from the watching crowd of 100,000 fans in the immense stadium as the ball now drifts slowly towards the goal. And in millions of homes throughout Britain the game is watched in colour on fifty-inch TV screens . . .

A sunny Saturday afternoon in 2001 A.D. The final game in the Series for the National Air-ball Cup.

Will a space-age game like this be popular thirty years from now?

Perhaps. Individual rocket engines are already being made and used by American soldiers, and it is more than likely that this ingenious idea could be adapted for use as a national sport.

After all, the idea of playing air-ball is really no more fantastic than some of the predictions we have already made about life and travel in parts one and two of this series.

It is certain we will have a great deal of leisure in 2001 – so much of our work will be done by automated factories and high-speed electronic computers.

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Futuristic travel in Twenty-first century Britain

Posted in Communications, Science, Technology, Transport, Travel on Friday, 3 January 2014

This edited article about futuristic Britain first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 502 published on 28 August 1971.

Futuristic cityscape, picture, image, illustration
Futuristic cityscape of 2001 with a monorail and helicopter

How will we travel in the year 2001? Will we still be crossing the channel by ship when we want to visit the Continent by rail? Will lorries, buses, and motor cars still be filling the atmosphere with dangerous fumes? Will we still have to look carefully right and left when we cross a busy road?

One thing now seems to be certain about travel in thirty years’ time: we will not be using the “internal combustion engine” for driving cars and lorries and buses. Although exploding petrol or diesel oil vapour may be an efficient way of using energy to turn wheels, we now have more than sufficient evidence that it is a hazard to health.

In fact, the motor car engine of the future is being designed now, and some of them are already in use.

The energy of petrol can be efficiently “harnessed” by an ingenious device called a “fuel cell”. This is a small container made of metal which is fitted with a number of metal plates or electrodes. The petrol is simply pumped into the metal container, a complicated chemical reaction takes place, and an electric current flows through the electrodes, which can then be used to drive an electric motor.

Cars carrying batteries of these fuel cells give off no dangerous fumes. Fuel cell cars are also almost silent in operation, and have fewer moving parts to wear out or need replacing or repairing.

A few of the expensive “luxury” cars of 2001 might be both “modern” and “traditional” at the same time. They would be modern because atomic furnaces or “reactors” would furnish the power. They would also be very traditional because their motors would be steam engines!

In these cars heat from the atomic reactors would generate steam in a small boiler, and the steam would drive the car’s motor.

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A surprisingly accurate futuristic vision of British life in 2001

Posted in British Cities, British Towns, Science, Technology on Thursday, 2 January 2014

This edited article about progress first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 501 published on 21 August 1971.

Life in 2001, picture, image, illustration
Shopping will be done using electronic images in 2001

In 30 years time most of you will be married and living in your own homes. Your children will be going to school.

What will life be like in the year 2001? What kind of homes will we live in? What will our schools be like? What sorts of food will we be eating? What strange styles of clothing will we be wearing? Will we still be wearing long hair or short hair? Will we still be using decimal currency?

It is difficult if not impossible to give very accurate answers to questions like these. We can, however, make fairly intelligent guesses about life in 30 years’ time. We can do this by thinking about the advances in science and industry which have occurred in the 30 years which have passed. We can also make reasonable predictions about the future by considering the kind of life we have today.

We can begin by being reasonably certain that most homes will be centrally heated in 2001. Thirty years ago most people used to heat their homes by having a coal fire burning in a grate in each room. Fewer people used gas or electric fires in much the same way, which was more expensive than just using coal.

Today more and more new houses and flats are being built which have central-heating. There are many gas and electric fires still being used, but these for the most part are of a modern kind which warm the air in the room, rather than just giving off a friendly glow which in very cold weather makes us too warm in the front and leaves us too cold in the back! And the coal fires still being used burn the new smokeless fuels which are also designed to warm the air.

It now seems unlikely that future homes will use central-heating which relies upon coal or gas, or even mains-electricity. We are already finding that supplies of coal, gas and oil are rapidly diminishing. It is likely that we will become more and more dependent upon atomic energy.

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Cinerama and the technical challenge of 3D movies

Posted in America, Cinema, Historical articles, History, Technology on Wednesday, 2 October 2013

This edited article about cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 415 published on 27 December 1969.

Cinerama. picture, image, illustration
This is Cinerama

One evening in September, 1952, some 1,000 people gathered in a Broadway Theatre in New York, to see a film which was frankly admitted by its sponsors to be an experimental production. The lights dimmed, and the curtains drew slowly back to reveal an expanse of screen six times larger than the normal screen. A few seconds later, the audience was gasping with excitement as they swooped and dived with a camera which had been attached to a roller coaster.

What the audience were seeing that night was the first public performance of Cinerama, Hollywood’s answer to television, which had been luring audiences away from the cinema in their thousands.

But what, in fact, is Cinerama? It was originally the brainchild of an American engineer, named Fred Waller, who had started his experiments as far back as 1937. Waller began with the realisation that we judged depth by the sight out of the corner of our eyes. Peripheral vision it is called. What he was seeking, therefore, was to create a process which would give the illusion of reality by making the audience feel that they were not, in fact, in a cinema, but actually watching or taking part in an event. The illusion of reality created by Cinerama, therefore, had to be closely linked to the function of the retina of the human eye and the drum of the human ear.

Fred Waller had taken on what must have seemed an almost impossible task, when you consider that, while a person’s attention may be directed primarily at one particular object, their field of vision also encompasses everything on either side of it. Likewise, a person walking down a city street, for example, hears not only the sound directly in front of him, but also that on either side of him and behind him. To bring this into a cinema would have meant building a screen that was literally a mile wide. Waller finally solved this difficulty by curving the screen in the same way that the retina of the eye is curved.

The genesis of Cinerama was, however, a painful one. In 1939, Waller created for the World’s Fair, a form of Cinerama which had a curved screen and a dome that hung over the front of the audience. No less than eleven projectors were needed to throw the image on the screen. The World’s Fair never used the idea.

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