Technology

Witchery

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thaddeus_Lowe.jpg

In April 1861, Thaddeus Lowe set out from Cincinnati in the balloon Enterprise, hoping to reach the eastern seaboard. After wandering 900 miles he came down in Unionville, S.C., where he received a rather cold welcome:

Many of them thought Mr. Lowe was an inhabitant of some ethereal or infernal region, who had floated to the earth to do damage to its inhabitants. He thought he would pacify them by showing that he could live on the substantial things of earth just as they did; so he took from the basket a variety of cakes, crackers, bread and butter, cold meats, etc. He also passed out several India-rubber bottles of water which had frozen solid, and to let them realize how cold it was in the upper region of the atmosphere where he had been, he cut one of them open and took out a large mold of ice, shaped exactly like the bottle. This was the worst thing he could have done, for immediately one man asked how any one but a devil could put so large a piece of ice through so small a place as the nozzle. At last an old dissipated man suggested that one who was capable of doing such things was too dangerous to run loose and moved that he be ‘shot on the spot where he had dropped from the skies.’

He won his freedom only by appealing to the officers of South Carolina College, who knew Smithsonian secretary (and ballooning enthusiast) Joseph Henry.

On the way back to Cincinnati, Lowe stopped at a meeting of the Tennessee legislature. He became the first to notify Lincoln of that state’s decision to secede.

(William Jones Rhees, “Reminiscences of Ballooning in the Civil War,” Chautauquan, June 1898.)

Moving Pictures

In 1864 a photographer employed by Mathew Brady used a four-lens camera to record activity at a Union Army wharf along Potomac Creek in Virginia. The four images were taken in quick succession, so staggering them produces a crude time lapse of the events they record:

In effect they present a four-frame film, perhaps the closest we’ll come to a contemporary movie of life during the Civil War. Here are a few more, all taken in Virginia in 1864:

Union cavalry crossing a pontoon bridge over the James River:

Traffic in front of the Marshall House in Alexandria:

Union soldiers working on a bridge over the Pamunkey River near White House Landing:

There’s more information at the National Park Service’s Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park blog.

Ruly English

In 1957, the U.S. Patent Office wanted to design a computer that could track down earlier references to an idea submitted by an inventor. This is difficult, because patents are described in ordinary English, which uses many ambiguous and imprecise terms. The word glass, for instance, refers to a material, but also to any number of things made of that material, and even to objects that have nothing to do with glass, such as plastic eyeglasses and drinking glasses.

To solve this problem, engineer-lawyer Simon M. Newman planned a synthetic language called Ruly English that gave one and only one meaning to each word. In ordinary English the preposition through has at least 13 meanings; Newman proposed replacing each of them with a new Ruly term with a single meaning. The Ruly word howby, for example, means “mode of proximate cause.” It might replace the unruly terms by(take by force) or with (to kill with kindness) or through (to cure through surgery), but it always has the same basic sense.

Newman had to coin other terms to take account of differing points of view. A watch spring and a bridge girder are both flexible to some degree, but using the word flexible to describe both would leave a computer at a loss as to how they compare. Newman coined the Ruly word resilrig to cover the whole scale, from extreme flexibility to extreme rigidity, adding prefixes such as sli (slightly) and sub (substantially). So in Ruly English a bridge girder would be sliresilrig and a watch spring subresilrig. A computer that knew these terms would not be confused into thinking that a thin bridge girder was more flexible than a rigid watch spring.

“Humans are not expected to read or speak Ruly English,” noted Time in 1958. “To them, unruly English will always be more ruly.”

(Newman describes his plan briefly here. I don’t know how far he got.)

Spring Showers

https://www.google.com/patents/US505704

This is clever — in 1893 Texas inventor Martin Everhart patented a clock-winding mechanism that’s driven by rainwater. The water fills a tank in the attic and then drops through a pipe into a pail in the clock. The pail is balanced with a counterweight, so it falls and rises continuously, accepting a new measure of water at the top and discharging it at the bottom. This motion winds the clock.

I guess the whole thing would stop eventually in a drought, but the clock can be wound by hand if necessary.

Cover Story

https://www.google.com/patents/US2930053

Making a bed is a tiresome chore, observed inventor Richard Nowels in 1959, because so much time is spent in walking and bending: “It is necessary to pull the covers from both sides of the bed, from the bottom end of the bed, and possibly also from the top end of the bed.”

A better solution, he decided, is to hide an electric motor under the bed and connect it by cords to the edges of the bedclothes. Now when you get out of bed you can turn on the motor and draw the sheets and blankets immediately into their proper positions.

It’s handy in the middle of the night, too: “Kicked-out covers may be automatically re-tucked into place by the bed occupant merely by flipping a switch.”

In a Word

excogitous
adj. inventive

volitorial
adj. pertaining to flying

empyreuma
n. a burnt smell

Newsreel men recently witnessed an unscheduled drama as flames ended the attempt of Constantinos Vlachos, co-inventor of one of the strangest of flying craft, to win government aid for its development. He had planned an ascent from the lawn of the Congressional Library at Washington, D.C., to demonstrate his ‘triphibian,’ which he claimed could navigate in the air, on land, or in the water. Hardly had he started the motor when fire enveloped the machine. Spectators dashed to his aid and dragged him, severely burned, from the blazing wreck.

Popular Science, January 1936

(Thanks, Tucker.)

Rise and Shine

https://www.google.com/patents/US1293102

In 1919 John D. Humphrey patented an alarm clock designed “to impart a blow to an individual.”

There’s no bell. At the appointed hour, the clock drops a rubber ball onto your face to awaken you “without unnecessary shock.”

Humphrey intended it chiefly for the deaf. He described it as “simple in construction and positive and certain in action.”

Better Late

In 1895, hoping to marry sound and pictures, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson played a violin into a phonograph horn in Thomas Edison’s experimental film studio, and the sound was recorded on a wax cylinder.

The experiment went well, but the team made no attempt to unite sound and image at the time. The film portion remained well known, but the wax cylinder drifted into another archive and was rediscovered only in the 1960s. It wasn’t until 2000 that film editor Walter Murch succeeded in adding the music to the long-famous fragment, and Dickson’s violin could finally be heard.

The vignette, now the oldest known piece of sound film, shows that sound was not a late addition to moviemaking, film preservationist Rick Schmidlin told the New York Times. “This teaches that sound and film started together in the beginning.”

Marine Engineering

An inventive idea from Benjamin Franklin:

The Accidents I have seen at Sea with large Dishes of Soup upon a Table, from the Motion of the Ship, have made me wish that our Potters or Pewterers would make Soup Dishes in Divisions, like a Set of small Bowls united together, each containing about sufficient for one Person, in some such Form as this,

https://books.google.com/books?id=Ukw8qG8Zl2oC&pg=PA463

for then when the ship should make a sudden Heel, the Soup would not in a Body flow over one Side & fall into People’s Laps & scald them, as is sometimes the case, but would be retain’d in the separate Divisions, as in this Figure.

https://books.google.com/books?id=Ukw8qG8Zl2oC&pg=PA463

Also: “If your dry Peas boil hard, a two Pound Iron Shot put with them into the Pot, will by the Motion of the Ship grind them as fine as Mustard.”

(From a letter to David Le Roy, August 1785.)

Progress

The world’s oldest operating roller coaster, Leap-the-Dips, in Altoona, Pa., was built in 1902. It’s 41 feet high and has an average speed of 10 mph.

New Jersey’s Kingda Ka, below, opened a century later. It’s 456 feet high and accelerates to 128 mph in 3.5 seconds.

What’s next?