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Archive for September, 2017

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“Flem’s mouldy fluid”

Posted in Discoveries, Historical articles, Medicine on Saturday, 9 September 2017

This edited article about medicine originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 849 published on 22 April 1978.

Alexander Fleming, picture, image, illustration

Alexander Fleming in his laboratory

In 1928 a Scottish doctor named Alexander Fleming was growing bacteria for investigation in little glass dishes in a room in his hospital by Paddington railway station in London. Microscopic mould spores drifted in through the window and settled in one of the dishes while the lid was off it for examination. Round where the mould grew in the dish, the bacteria appeared to be killed off.

The dishes in which bacteria were cultured often became spoiled or contaminated, and would then be thrown away as useless. But in this case Fleming, in a historic moment of curiosity and fortune, decided to cultivate the mould and investigate it. He found it was producing a substance which attacked bacteria. The substance he named penicillin (after the scientific name of the mould). Thus was discovered one of the most powerful drugs that man has ever found.

But it was another 13 years before penicillin was produced in a way which could be used to cure disease.

Back in the 1920s, there were two ways of treating infections. One was by vaccination: this assists the body’s natural defence against bacteria to fight off an infection. This method is known as immunisation, and though of great value for certain diseases, its effectiveness is limited.

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Unlucky Logie Baird

Posted in Communications, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, Inventions on Saturday, 9 September 2017

This edited article about inventors originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 889 published on 3 February 1979.

Logie Baird, picture, image, illustration

John Logie Baird works on his pioneering experiments with image transmission which would lead to the invention of television, by John Keay

What could a man build with an old tea chest, a biscuit box, darning needles, the lenses of old bicycle lamps, electric motors due for the scrap heap, lengths of wire and assorted odds and ends?

The people of Hastings, where these purchases were made in the early 1920s, did not know and certainly would never have guessed that it was the raw material for the world’s first practical television transmitter – and that the tousle-headed, bespectacled young Scotsman John Logie Baird who bought them was to become famous as the pioneer of TV.

Baird was a sick man. He had come to Hastings on the south coast for his health, despite his lack of money. But he was determined to achieve the transmission of vision by radio.

Although others before him had established some basic principles of picture transmission, it was Baird who put them into practice.

How do you send a picture through the air? You send it, strip by strip, in the form of radio signals, and at the other end you have a receiver, like our modern televisions, which decodes these signals strip by strip and turns them into a picture again.

For months, Baird worked alone in his attic laboratory, struggling to transmit a recognisable image. In October, 1925, the breakthrough came: he successfully transmitted a picture of a ventriloquist’s dummy from one end of his apparatus to a receiver elsewhere in his room. Baird had proved to himself that it could be done – now all that was necessary was to convince the public.

On 27th January, 1926, at the famous London store of Selfridges, John Logie Baird gave the first public demonstration of television. A blurred image of a human face was transmitted, but it was strong enough to be recognised. Television had arrived.

But there was rather a sad end to Baird’s pioneering work. The system that he had invented was too crude to give the perfect reproduction we expect today, and ultimately another system was adopted by the BBC and other broadcasting organisations of the world.

Roman gluttony

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History on Saturday, 9 September 2017

This edited article about Ancient Rome originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 417 published on 10 January 1970.

Nero, picture, image, illustration

A feast at the court of Emperor Nero by Roger Payne

Ancient Rome grew powerful and wealthy because her great men and soldiers put their country first and were prepared to make many sacrifices. It was a hard life, and when power and wealth were won, it was as if Rome breathed a sigh of relief and began to enjoy herself. Many of Imperial Rome’s troubles stemmed from the fact that rich and important families got the taste for life at its most comfortable and well-fed. In fact, what went on at some banquets has brought the whole Roman way of life into disrepute.

Not all Romans were greedy, but if you happened to dine with one who was, he did not do things by half. What is more, it was the Emperors who led the field in the provision of grotesque feasts. The Emperor Nero is well known for his many vices, and gluttony was one of them. Suetonius, the Roman biographer, tells us that “his feasts now lasted from noon till midnight, with an occasional break for diving into a warm bath or, if it were summer, into snow-cooled water.” And the Emperor Caligula had a talent for inventing the most peculiar delicacies, his best-known being a draught of priceless pearls dissolved in vinegar.

Many Romans were neither extravagant nor wasteful, in fact it was customary for them to have nothing but a cold snack during the day, waiting until evening for their one substantial meal. The Emperor Tiberius made a half-hearted effort to cut down on public expenditure and wastefulness; and to set a good example, he took to serving at banquets the half-eaten remains of the meals of the day before, or he served only one side of a wild boar “which,” he said, “contained everything the other side did.”

Whether the feast was to be a simple or a gargantuan affair, the first essential was that the guests should be able to recline in comfort: to have sat down as we do would have been to class oneself with the slaves. Normally, two or three people shared a couch which was arranged with others around a table, but there were some extravagantly luxurious couches, which could accommodate up to eight people.

Guests, wearing loose gowns, were announced by an usher and shown to their couches. Then slaves brought perfumed water to bathe their hands and feet. The most handsome and skilful slaves, with their long curling hair falling about their shoulders, served the wine and cut up the food and served it. The guests, lying across their couches, held plates in their left hands, and ate with their fingers. Other uglier slaves, whose heads were shaved, collected the empty dishes and cleared away the unwanted food which guests had thrown under the table.

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Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Psychology, Scotland on Saturday, 9 September 2017

This edited article about English literature originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 410 published on 22 November 1969.

Deacon Brodie and his gang, picture, image, illustration

Robert Louis Stevenson based his famous story on William Brodie, who became a legend in Edinburgh – a man who as Deacon Brodie was a city councillor by day and a burglar by night

As a schoolboy growing up in 19th century Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson was fascinated by a bookcase and a chest of drawers which were in his bedroom. They had been made some ninety years earlier by the infamous Deacon Brodie – the master carpenter who was a respectable citizen by day, and the leader of a gang of burglars by night. In his walks through the old quarter of Edinburgh, Stevenson begged his parents to show him Deacon Brodie’s house, and the inns and courtyards where the criminal met with his desperate accomplices.

Brodie’s daring double life made a deep impression on the young Stevenson. And years later, when his Treasure Island had made him one of the world’s most beloved authors, he found his thoughts turning again and again to the man who wore a suit of white by daylight, and black clothes after dark. This split in Brodie’s character epitomised to Stevenson the good and the bad side of man. He felt compelled to write a novel on the subject, and for some time he wrestled with his “Brownies,” as he called the ideas which came to him in his sleep.

The author, who was always fragile in health, was then living in Bournemouth with his American wife, Fanny. She realized the mental torment he was going through, and one night his struggle with the “Brownies” woke her up and thoroughly frightened her. “My husband’s cries of horror caused me to rouse him,” she said, “much to his indignation. ‘I was dreaming a fine bogey tale,’ he said reproachfully.”

The next morning Stevenson worked feverishly on the new book, which was inspired, of course, by the career of Deacon Brodie. He completed the first draft of 30,000 words in three days. But when Fanny read the manuscript, she told him he had not done the story justice. The novelist then destroyed the draft, and rewrote it from a different point of view.

When the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published in 1886 it caused a sensation. Its story of a decent London doctor who, by the use of a powerful drug, is able to turn himself into another and totally different person, caught the imagination of the reading public. As Jekyll continues with his experiment, the tension rises to an almost unbearable pitch. After a while the evil Hyde is able to appear whenever he wants to, and Jeykll has to decide whether or not to destroy his depraved other self. The finale of the book mounts to a crescendo of terrifying action which has seldom been equalled in a story of this nature.