What is this? It’s a map. In order to navigate by canoe among the Marshall Islands, residents made charts by lashing together sticks, threads, and shells to represent landmasses and the patterns of ocean swells and breakers between them.
The atolls lie so low that even the tops of the palms are lost to sight 20 kilometers off shore, so a Marshallese navigator may spend several days out of sight of land. Having studied swell patterns with the aid of such charts, he can find his way by observing the motion of his canoe.
For example, an island breaks up the easterly trade wind swell, producing a wave pattern that signals the presence of land. “These navigation signs … extend seaward from any atoll or island in specific quadrants and can be detected up to 40 km away,” writes oceanographer Joseph Genz. “The relative strength of these radiating wave patterns indicates the distance toward land, while the specific wave signatures indicate the direction of land.”
(Joseph Genz et al., “Wave Navigation in the Marshall Islands,” Oceanography, June 2009.)
Frustrated in catching insects in 1904, Max Terletzky hit on this rather alarming solution. A basket with an open mouth is attached to the business end of a feathered arrow; the prospective bug hunter props open the basket’s mouth, stalks his prey, and fires at it using a bow. The arrow is attached to a cord in the archer’s hand, which closes the basket doors when the arrow has intercepted the bug and reached the limit of its flight. At that point the arrow drops to the ground and the archer can draw in the cord and claim his prize.
Terletzky writes, “This particular construction of the automatic device for closing the doors of the basket is extremely strong, simple, and durable in construction, as well as thoroughly efficient in operation.” For all I know he’s right.
In Saint Petersburg, an equestrian statue of Peter the Great stands atop an enormous pedestal of granite. The statue was conceived by French sculptor Étienne Maurice Falconet, who envisioned the horse rearing at the edge of a great cliff under Peter’s restraining hand.
Casting the horse and rider was relatively easy; harder was finding a portable cliff. In September 1768 a peasant led authorities to an enormous boulder half-buried near the village of Konnaia, four miles north of the Gulf of Finland and about 13 miles from the center of Saint Petersburg. Falconet proposed cutting it into pieces, but Catherine the Great, who wanted to show off Russia’s technological potential, ordered it moved whole, “first by land and then by water.”
Incredibly, she got her wish. The unearthed boulder measured 42 feet long, 27 feet wide, and 21 feet high; even when trimmed by a third it weighed an estimated 3 million pounds. But it was mounted on a chassis and rolled along atop large copper ball bearings, a “mountain on eggs,” as stonecutters worked continuously to shape it. When they reached the Gulf of Finland it was transferred precariously to a barge mounted between two cutters of the imperial navy, which carried it carefully to the pier at Senate Square, where it was installed in 1770, after two years of work. The finished pedestal stands 21 feet tall.
“The daring of this enterprise has no parallel among the Egyptians and the Romans,” marveled the Journal Encyclopédique; the English traveler John Carr said that the feat astonished “every beholder with a stupendous evidence of toil and enterprise, unparalleled since the subversion of the Roman empire.” It remains the largest stone ever moved by man.
When Jos de Vink retired from a career in computer technology in 2002, he began casting about for an engaging project. His neighbor, a passionate model builder, challenged him to design a working hot air engine driven solely by the heat of a tea or wax light.
De Vink produced a trial engine using the principles of the first hot air engine built by Robert Stirling in 1816. He displayed it for his model club and at a model exhibition in the Netherlands and, encouraged by the response, began to build more.
By 2010 he had created about 27 engines and began construction on several Stirling low temperature difference (LTD) engines that can run on the warmth of a human hand.
“De Vink designs his engines from scraps of brass and bronze from a scrap dealer,” writes Art Donovan in The Art of Steampunk. “The machines demonstrate the possibility of moving large objects using little energy and show different drive techniques used by hot air engine builders for the past two centuries.”
Hitler’s chief architect, Albert Speer, favored a “theory of ruin value” in which German buildings would collapse into aesthetically pleasing ruins, like those of classical antiquity. “I want German buildings to be viewed in a thousand years as we view Greece and Rome,” he said.
Using special materials and applying statistical principles, Speer claimed to have created structures that in 1,000 years would resemble Roman ruins. “The ages-old stone buildings of the Egyptians and the Romans still stand today as powerful architectural proofs of the past of great nations, buildings which are often ruins only because man’s lust for destruction has made them such,” he wrote.
Hitler liked to say that the purpose of his building was to transmit his time and its spirit to posterity. Ultimately, all that remained to remind men of the great epochs of history was their monumental architecture, he remarked. What then remained of the emperors of the Roman Empire? What would still give evidence of them today, if not their buildings […] So, today the buildings of the Roman Empire could enable Mussolini to refer to the heroic spirit of Rome when he wanted to inspire his people with the idea of a modern imperium. Our buildings must also speak to the conscience of future generations of Germans.
Hitler endorsed the idea, favoring the use of durable materials such as granite to reflect his soaring ambitions. “As capital of the world,” he said, “Berlin will be comparable only to ancient Egypt, Babylon, or Rome!” Ironically, this came true: When ancient Rome collapsed, its greatest buildings were pillaged for building materials, and when the Russians demolished Speer’s grandiose Chancellery in 1947, its marble was reused to build a metro station.
Christina Malmo of Montana patented this combination lantern and dinner pail in 1905. The lantern, which contains its own fuel source, hugs the pail, “conducting heat to the victuals within.”
“This close connection between the lamp attachment and the dinner-pail serves the double purpose of steadying the lamp, thus avoiding any swinging which would occur were the lamp attached by any loose means. The second utility of this close connection is that the heat from the lamp is thus utilized in warming the victuals within the dinner-pail, a very useful advantage to a miner or any one who is obliged to carry his dinner for any length of time.”
Science fiction writer Murray Leinster predicted the Internet in 1946:
I got Joe, after Laurine nearly got me. You know the logics setup. You got a logic in your house. It looks like a vision receiver used to, only it’s got keys instead of dials and you punch the keys for what you wanna get. It’s hooked in to the tank, which has the Carson Circuit all fixed up with relays. Say you punch ‘Station SNAFU’ on your logic. Relays in the tank take over an’ whatever vision-program SNAFU is telecastin’ comes on your logic’s screen. Or you punch ‘Sally Hancock’s Phone’ an’ the screen blinks an’ sputters an’ you’re hooked up with the logic in her house an’ if somebody answers you got a vision-phone connection. But besides that, if you punch for the weather forecast or who won today’s race at Hialeah or who was mistress of the White House durin’ Garfield’s administration or what is PDQ and R sellin’ for today, that comes on the screen too. The relays in the tank do it. The tank is a big buildin’ full of all the facts in creation an’ all the recorded telecasts that ever was made — an’ it’s hooked in with all the other tanks all over the country — an’ everything you wanna know or see or hear, you punch for it an’ you get it. Very convenient. Also it does math for you, an’ keeps books, an’ acts as consultin’ chemist, physicist, astronomer, an’ tea-leaf reader, with a ‘Advice to the Lovelorn’ thrown in. The only thing it won’t do is tell you exactly what your wife meant when she said, ‘Oh, you think so, do you?’ in that peculiar kinda voice. Logics don’t work good on women. Only on things that make sense.
In 1904 Belgian circus manager Eduard Wulff patented an apparatus “whereby living animals, such as horses, elephants, monkeys etc., are readily thrown into space for the purpose of causing same to take a somersault or so-called salto-mortale.”
It’s pretty simple: A “throwing plate” (3) is clamped over a stationary base (1), compressing two powerful arched springs (6). The animal is fitted with a corset which is attached by rings to four supporting standards (7). Wulff emphasizes that the animal should be nearly hanging on the standards, with its feet barely contacting the base. “Otherwise the animal would cling with the legs, which would be objectionable.”
The user pulls a lever, releasing the throwing plate, and “the animal will be caused to turn in space and perform a so-called salto-mortale.” Fair enough. He says nothing about landing.
Mathematician Yutaka Nishiyama of the Osaka University of Economics has designed a nifty paper boomerang that you can use indoors. A free PDF template (with instructions in 70 languages!) is here.
Hold it vertically, like a paper airplane, and throw it straight ahead at eye level, snapping your wrist as you release it. The greater the spin, the better the performance. It should travel 3-4 meters in a circle and return in 1-2 seconds. Catch it between your palms.
By 1958 many of the attributes of living things could be found in our technology: locomotion (cars), metabolism (steam engines), energy storage (batteries), perception of stimuli (iconoscopes), and nervous or cerebral activity (computers). The missing element was reproduction: We hadn’t yet created a nonliving artifact that could make copies of itself.
So Brooklyn College chemistry professor Homer Jacobson built one. Using an HO gauge model railroad, he designed an “organism” made of boxcars that could use sensors to select other cars on the track and assemble them on a siding into models of itself. “Head” cars have “brains,” and “tail” cars have “muscles” and “eyes”; together, a head and a tail make an organism in which the head directs the tail to watch for available cars elsewhere on the track and shunt them appropriately onto a siding to create a new organism.
“Any new ‘organisms’ formed continue the propagation in a linear fashion,” Jacobson wrote, “until the environment runs out of parts, or there are no more sidings available, or a mistake is made somewhere in the operation of a cycle, i.e., a ‘mutation.’ Such an effect, like that with living beings, is usually fatal.”
(Homer Jacobson, “On Models of Reproduction,” American Scientist, September 1958.)
A conventional balloon rises because its airbag displaces a large volume of air. But the gas that fills the bag has some weight; it, along with the weight of the gondola, reduces the balloon’s total lift.
Realizing this, Italian monk Francesco Lana de Terzi in 1670 proposed a “vacuum airship,” a balloon whose airbag was filled with nothing at all. Since a vacuum weighs nothing, this should maximize the vehicle’s lift — the vacuum could displace a large volume of air without itself adding any weight.
In principle this might work; the problem is that the vacuum would tend to collapse its container, and building a shell sturdy enough to withstand it would leave us with a ship too heavy to lift. It’s not clear whether any material or structure could overcome this problem.
Midway along the northwestern face of a monumental Inca building at 410 Calle Hatunrumiyoc in Cusco is a large irregular block of stone worked by a master mason in the era before Columbus. Fitted into place without mortar despite its complex shape, the “twelve-angled stone” has become a hallmark of Inca craftsmanship.
“Just as individual blocks were prepared, so too were the adjoining stones already set in the wall,” notes Southern Methodist University art historian Adam Herring. “In order to receive a new block, bedding planes were carved into those stones below or to the side of the block to be added. This is how the Twelve-Angled Stone took on its busy upper outline; the upper portions of the block were recarved several times over as five blocks — set in a left to right sequence — were fitted along the course above. Other blocks in the wall were similarly shaped, then reshaped as new blocks were added to the masonry mass. As stones of irregular size and degree of finish were inserted into the mural fabric with fastidious technical consistency, the wall went up as tectonic sculpture.”
Pablo Neruda remarked on the “rocky petals” that distinguish this style of architecture; Che Guevara called it “an enigma in stone.” The mason who left this hallmark was a master of this craft, but his identity is unknown.
(Adam Herring, “Shimmering Foundation: The Twelve-Angled Stone of Inca Cusco,” Critical Inquiry, Autumn 2010.)
In 1980 Philip K. Dick was asked to forecast some significant events in the coming years. Among his predictions:
1983: The Soviet Union will develop an operational particle-beam accelerator, making missile attack against that country impossible. At the same time the U.S.S.R. will deploy this weapon as a satellite killer. The U.S. will turn, then, to nerve gas.
1989: The U.S. and the Soviet Union will agree to set up one vast metacomputer as a central source for information available to the entire world; this will be essential due to the huge amount of information coming into existence.
1993: An artificial life form will be created in a lab, probably in the U.S.S.R., thus reducing our interest in locating life forms on other planets.
1997: The first closed-dome colonies will be successfully established on Luna and on Mars. Through DNA modification, quasi-mutant humans will be created who can survive under non-Terran conditions, i.e., alien environments.
1998: The Soviet Union will test a propulsion drive that moves a starship at the velocity of light; a pilot ship will set out for Proxima Centaurus, soon to be followed by an American ship.
2000: An alien virus, brought back by an interplanetary ship, will decimate the population of Earth, but leave the colonies on Luna and Mars intact.
2010: Using tachyons (particles that move backward in time) as a carrier, the Soviet Union will attempt to alter the past with scientific information.
Also: “Computer use by ordinary citizens (already available in 1980) will transform the public from passive viewers of TV into mentally alert, highly trained, information-processing experts.”
(From David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace, and Irving Wallace, The Book of Predictions, 1980.)
London resident Louisa Llewellin filed this dramatic patent in 1904. If there’s a story behind it, I haven’t been able to discover it:
This invention relates to improvements in gloves for self-defence and other purposes and more especially for the use of ladies who travel alone and are therefore liable to be assailed by thieves and others.
The object is to provide means whereby a person’s face can be effectually disfigured and the display of the article which forms the subject of my invention would speedily warn an assailant of what he might expect should he not desist from pursuing his evil designs, and the fact that he would in the case of persistance be sure to receive marks which would make him a noticeable figure would act as a deterrent.
In carrying my invention into effect I provide gloves having sharp steel nails or talons at the ends of the fingers with or without similar talons on other parts of the gloves.
In use the gloves could be worn during the whole journey or put on when required and by drawing them over a person’s face it would be so severely scratched as to effectually prevent the majority of people from continuing their molestations.
She adds, “The invention can also be used by mountain climbers to enable them to catch hold of whatever they pass over during a fall.”
In 1921 someone began stealing money, jewelry, and clothing from a girls’ dormitory at the University of California. When the residents themselves were unable to identify the culprit, student Margaret Taylor made a formal complaint to the police.
The police elected to try something new. One of their number, 23-year-old John A. Larson, had been experimenting with a lie-detecting device that measured a subject’s respiration, blood pressure, and other physical reactions as she responded to a series of questions. He asked the women’s consent to use the device in his investigation, and they agreed.
He started with Margaret Taylor, the student who had first reported the thefts. Part of his technique was to engage in preliminary small talk with the subject, to put her at ease. He found Taylor intelligent and witty, and she said she found his work fascinating and admired his ambition. She passed the test easily, showing no response to key terms such as crime, locker, or purse among Larson’s questions.
In reviewing the results, Larson realized that he might not have eliminated all the extraneous factors that could have affected the young women’s responses — he had tried to make them comfortable with the machine, but some of them also “might have been reacting to the questioner, not the questions.” So he called back Margaret Taylor to test this proposition. He connected her to the machine again and asked her to lie to him. Then he asked her out.
The two were married a year later. One of Larson’s assistants said, “It was an odd way to begin a romance.” The dorm thief was discovered among the other women, and Margaret recovered a $400 diamond ring she had lost. Today Larson is remembered as the father of the polygraph.
In recounting this story in his 2009 book The Lie Detectors, Ken Alder writes:
“Years later, he still had the record of their first meeting in his files, the zigzag trace of her heart as he asked her, ‘Are you interested in this test?'”
Xavier Henry Leder, who declares himself “by profession a seaman,” patented this “foul breath indicator” in 1902, perhaps after inventing it for his own use.
“It is an appliance in the shape of a tube, made of any non-absorbent material and curved so as to transmit without any obstruction the breath from the mouth to the nostrils. … By breathing from the mouth through the tube any foulness or unpleasant state of the breath may be readily detected by the sense of smell.”
The hard part is exhaling and inhaling at the same time.
Shropshire furniture maker Henry Addison patented these “elevators” in 1902:
My invention has for its object a new or improved device or stand for attaching to the foot by means of which those people who are at the rear of, or short people who are in the midst of a large gathering or crowd are enabled to easily and comfortably see over the heads of the people in front thus enabling them to witness a procession or game or other sight without any inconvenience or crushing which will be found of considerable advantage.
Addison thought they’d be particularly valuable at football matches, race meetings, sports, “or games of any kind where a crowd of spectators are assembled.” Of course, the people behind you will have to get stilts.
This summer has brought us one step closer to the technological apocalypse — a robot just successfully hitchhiked all the way across Canada, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.
Created to study how people interact with robots, hitchBOT was outfitted with speech recognition software and equipped with legs and arms, one of which was permanently fixed in a hitchhike position. Links to Wikipedia and social media enabled it to make small talk with the humans who drove it westward.
On the 3,700-mile journey, the gregarious robot fished, camped, and attended a wedding, where it interrupted the bride’s speech by saying, “I like to make friends.”
“This project turns our fear of technology on its head and asks, ‘Can robots trust humans?’,” said Frauke Zeller, a computational philologist at Ryerson University. “Our aim is to further discussion in society about our relationship with technology and robots.”
By 1905 parts of Winchester Cathedral were in danger of collapse — the 13th-century builders had rested their structure on a bed of peat, which had been sinking under continuous pressure of 40 tons per square foot. In order to shore up the building, diver William Walker was enlisted to work in the church’s flooded foundations, replacing the peat with sacks and bricks of concrete.
Walker worked in total darkness for more than five years, from 1906 to 1911, handling an estimated 25,800 bags of concrete and 114,900 concrete blocks while wearing a suit that weighed nearly 200 pounds. “In addition,” notes the cathedral’s booklet, “as he was working in a graveyard, there was some risk of infection. However, Walker seems to have regarded his pipe as his sovereign remedy against all possible ills and immediately on his return to the surface, he always lit his pipe.”
As he worked, the business of the cathedral went on as usual. A journalist for the Standard described the scene in 1906: “The last Amen is sung, and the choir and clergy pass slowly and silently into the vestry. Outside the foreman blows his whistle. The great helmet of the diver with its staring goggle eyes, appears above the brink of the shaft, and the diver is helped out of his slimy, dripping shell. And soon choristers and workmen mingle beneath the shadow of the Cathedral.”
When the work was completed in 1912 Walker received the thanks of the king and was appointed a member of the Royal Victorian Order. During World War I a memorial tablet was laid in his honor on the cathedral’s west wall, and a statue of the diver was unveiled in 1964. On a BBC memorial program in 1956, Walker’s assistant William West was asked to remember him. “I think his habits was like mine,” he said. “He was fond of a smoke and when he come up, spell sometime, somebody told him about germs, which didn’t worry him. And he say: ‘Where’s my pipe? Don’t lay it down there.'”
German engineer Robert Michael patented this “curved shoe” in 1905. It’s intended to increase the length of each stride “to serve for the quick forward movement of people in walking.”
It also beats bicycles because it won’t sink into rough ground. “The user can in walking use a stick as in walking with snow shoes.”
Marvin Minsky invented this machine at Bell Labs in 1952:
Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “It sits on Claude Shannon’s desk driving people mad.”
A great deal of the work of the post office would then be to regulate the use of these personal television channels. Much of the information now sent by mail could be sent through the air on the personal channel, to be viewed in the home or to be printed out for a more or less permanent record. …
Very likely there will be a signal light to indicate that a message is waiting to be viewed. When the personal channel is then activated, each item stored will be displayed in turn. Each can be scanned and erased, scanned and temporarily returned to storage, or scanned and printed out, after which the next item would appear. It will be very much like going through one’s mail today, with its mixture of personal items and advertising, in which some are discarded, some put aside, and some filed.
— Isaac Asimov, “The Individualism to Come,” New York Times, Jan. 7, 1973
In 1495 Leonardo da Vinci devised a mechanical knight that could sit up, open and close its arms, move its head on flexible neck, and open its visor. The plans have been lost, but we know it was made of wood, brass, and leather and operated by cables, possibly driven by a water wheel. The Duke of Milan displayed it at a pageant near the end of the 15th century, perhaps at the wedding of his niece.
Roboticist Mark Elling Rosheim built a working replica of the knight in 2002 using the sketches that remain, detailed in his book Leonardo’s Lost Robots. He thinks it may have been designed to accost an unwary visitor by remote control. “It is almost like something one would find in an old time amusement park, a piece for the scary haunted mansion or tunnel of love — or a labyrinth, which was the 16th century equivalent. The Knight would be excellent at grabbing someone with its arms in a bear hug. … Perhaps the visor would rise, revealing a hideously contorted, sculpted face.”
“Perhaps the great mystery surrounding this lost robot of Leonardo can be summed up by the master himself in the giant scrapbook known as the Codex Atlanticus. In the sheets for this project, we read an incomplete sentence with which Leonardo tried out his pen: ‘Tell me if ever, tell me if ever anything was built in Rome …’ Leonardo may be expressing his frustration and anxiety about a project near and dear to his heart that because of external pressures could not be born.”
As telegraph lines began to appear along London’s railroads, they came to fascinate commuters. One wrote to the Illustrated London News to suggest that cornet lessons might now be given on the moving train.
“The medium of tuition will be the wires of the electric telegraph. On these, being five, notes will be fastened by non-conducting materials, and the pupils will play them as they travel. The andante movements will be placed close to the stations, where progress is slow, and the tunes will be so arranged as to finish at all the stoppages. These will be constantly changed, to extend the benefit to all classes: for instance, galoppes will be chosen for the express trains; sets of quadrilles for the stopping ones; and marches, or dirges, for the luggage trains. At the same time, the passengers, generally, will be diverted with agreeable harmony.”
Another commuter responded: “The great objection is, that the notes once passed could never be taken up again, and especially the high ones; for, before the pupil could get his lips to the necessary embouchure, he would be a mile beyond the bar. A non-musical friend, given to senseless ribaldry, suggests that fugues should be chosen for the music; because, as he says, those compositions never appear to have beginning, end, middle, or anything else, and may be commenced or left of anywhere with equal effect.”
He adds, “It would be better, sir, for you to confine yourself to practical improvements than ingenious but futile schemes. … After my entertainments given in the country, I am usually asked to supper by certain of the leading inhabitants, in gratitude for the amusement I have afforded them; and, from drinking healths, I rise next morning with a dizziness. And then, on my return to town, are the wires of the electric telegraph most dreadful. They go up and down, down and up, for miles and miles, until at last, seeing nothing else, I begin to think that they are stationary, and it is the carriage which is undulating; and this has such an effect, that I am as indisposed upon arriving at the terminus as if I had just crossed the Channel. A little care on the part of the directors can remedy this. Why cannot the wires be turned upright, like those of a piano?”