Green Activism

There must be a story behind this one: In 1900 Ludwig Ederer patented an “alarm bed” to wake an attendant when a greenhouse grows too cold.

If the steam pressure in the boiler drops, the bed suddenly tilts upright, “so that the sleeper will slide or roll off, thus reminding him that the steam within the pipe system is below a certain point, endangering the life of the plants within the greenhouse.”

After he’s stoked the fire the attendant can go back to bed and dream about getting a better job.

Tipu’s Tiger

When British forces plundered the palace of Indian prince Tipu Sultan in May 1799, they found an infuriating trophy:

In a room appropriated for musical instruments was found an article which merits particular notice, as another proof of the deep hate, and extreme loathing of Tippoo Saib towards the English. This piece of mechanism represents a royal Tyger in the act of devouring a prostrate European. There are some barrels in imitation of an Organ, within the body of the Tyger. The sounds produced by the Organ are intended to resemble the cries of a person in distress intermixed with the roar of a Tyger. The machinery is so contrived that while the Organ is playing, the hand of the European is often lifted up, to express his helpless and deplorable condition.

Tipu had allied himself with France against the encroaching East India Company, and the Fourth Mysore War brought his downfall. The tiger, it appears, had symbolized his defiance of British colonialism. The instrument was removed to London, where it became a centerpiece in the Company’s Leadenhall Street gallery; John Keats saw it there and immortalized it in The Cap and Bells, his satirical verse of 1819:

Replied the Page: “that little buzzing noise,
Whate’er your palmistry may make of it,
Comes from a play-thing of the Emperor’s choice,
From a Man-Tiger-Organ, prettiest of his toys.”

“Indeed, the horrific image of a wild beast attacking a helpless fellow Briton must have stirred strong reactions in the British audience so few years after the brutal Mysore campaigns,” write Jane Kromm and Susan Benforado Bakewell in A History of Visual Culture (2010). “Contained within one wondrous work of art was an illustration of the intensity of resentment toward European imperialism, the ferocious power of the enemy prince, and the moral justification for colonization.”


“An inventor is simply a fellow who doesn’t take his education too seriously.” — Charles F. Kettering


ArnoldC, a language devised by Finnish computer programmer Lauri Hartikka, assigns programming functions to catch phrases from Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Some keywords:

False: I LIED






EndWhile: CHILL

MultiplicationOperator: YOU’RE FIRED

DivisionOperator: HE HAD TO SPLIT







Return: I’LL BE BACK

EndMethodDeclaration: HASTA LA VISTA, BABY

AssignVariableFromMethodCall: GET YOUR ASS TO MARS


AssignVariable: GET TO THE CHOPPER


EndAssignVariable: ENOUGH TALK


This program prints the string “hello world”:

TALK TO THE HAND "hello world"

More on GitHub.

A Human Cantilever

To illustrate the design principle behind Scotland’s Forth Bridge, engineer Sir Benjamin Baker offered a personal demonstration. Sir John Fowler (left) and Baker (right) each hold two wooden poles with outstretched arms, forming two diamond shapes. When construction foreman Kaichi Watanabe sits in the center, the diamonds are prevented from tipping inward because their outer ends are anchored.

It worked. The bridge, opened in 1890, held the record as the world’s longest single cantilever bridge span for 17 years.

Chebyshev’s Paradoxical Mechanism

Russian mathematician Pafnuty Chebyshev devised this puzzling mechanisms in 1888. Turning the crank handle once will send the flywheel through two revolutions in the same direction, or four revolutions in the opposite direction. (A better video is here.)

“What is so unusual in this mechanism is the ability of the linkages to flip from one configuration to the other,” write John Bryant and Chris Sangwin in How Round Is Your Circle? (2011). “In most linkage mechanisms such ambiguity is implicitly, or explicitly, designed out so that only one choice for the mathematical solution can give a physical configuration. … This mechanism is really worth constructing, if only to confound your friends and colleagues.”

(Thanks, Dre.)

A Jump Ahead

Mathematician Marion Tinsley lost only seven games of checkers in a career that spanned 45 years. Between 1950 and 1995, he took first place in every tournament in which he played. “Dr. Tinsley has taken the game beyond what anybody else ever conceived,” International Checkers Hall of Fame founder Charles Walker told Sports Illustrated in 1992. “No one presumed to think they could beat him.”

His last and best opponent was a machine, Chinook, designed by University of Alberta computer scientist Jonathan Schaeffer. When the American Checkers Federation refused to let a machine play for the championship in 1990, the sporting Tinsley resigned his crown and immediately accepted the match.

He won 4-2, with 33 draws. In one game, after the program had played its 10th move, Tinsley said, “You’re going to regret that.” Chinook resigned 26 moves later, and in the ensuing analysis Schaeffer found that Tinsley had looked 64 moves ahead to find the only winning strategy. (When asked for the source of his advantage, Tinsley, a lay preacher, said, “I’ve got a better programmer — God.”)

But the machine kept improving, and Tinsley’s health began to fail. He had to withdraw after six draws in their 1994 rematch, and he died of pancreatic cancer shortly afterward at age 68.

Chinook has since solved the game — after 18 years of thinking, it produced a map that would show it a non-losing move in any situation. In principle, at least, the computer is now invincible — the best a human can hope for is a draw.

This might have disappointed Tinsley, who played not for supremacy but for a love of the game. “Checkers can get quite a hold on you,” he said. “Its beauty is just overwhelming — the mathematics, the elegance, the precision. It’s capable of wrapping you all up.”


The Wheatstone bridge circuit was invented by Samuel Hunter Christie but named after Charles Wheatstone, who developed the Playfair cipher … which was named after Lyon Playfair.

See Who’s On First?

Room Service

fischer patent

Parking was already a problem in 1906, so Swiss inventor Martin Fischer offered a car that you can drive right up to your apartment:

The width of the frame is smaller than the distance of the wheels. That distance amounts to at most seventy-five centimeters. Consequently the motor-car can pass through doors of ordinary width and up staircases with such ease that even persons residing on the upper floors of ordinary dwelling-houses will be able to keep such motor-cars without the necessity of providing special storage space on the ground floor.

It’s built low to reduce the risk of tipping over when traveling around sharp curves. But what happens if you meet someone else on the stairs?

Liquid Assets

New Zealand engineer Bill Phillips found a unique way to model a national economy in 1949: He used water. Working in his garage, he assembled a conglomeration of tanks, pipes, sluices, and valves into MONIAC, a 7-foot hydraulic computer that modeled the economy of the United Kingdom. Colored water, representing money, is pumped from a bottom reservoir to the top, where it’s distributed among taxes, consumer expenditure, and investment, then finds its way downward through the economy. The user can set “functions” that regulate the effect of national income on tax revenue, government spending on consumption, domestic spending on imports or exports, the interest rate on investment, and the exchange rate on exports and imports.

“To approximate a national economy, a ‘Federal Reserve System’ is added (from a tank through the top U-shaped pump) and bank credit is drawn to expand surplus balances when needed,” noted Fortune in a March 1952 feature. “And, if a Keynesian touch is wanted, the government can engage in ‘deficit financing’ by tapping the surplus balances to increase its own expenditures without additional taxation.”

Phillips unveiled the computer at the London School of Economics in 1949 and impressed his audience so much that he was asked to build copies for Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, the Ford Motor Company and the Central Bank of Guatemala. Unfortunately his invention was soon outmoded by electronic computers, and today only two working “Phillips machines” remain: one at Cambridge and the other (above) at the Reserve Bank of New Zealand.

UPDATE: Yale economist Irving Fisher proposed a similar system in his Ph.D. dissertation in 1891, described by Paul Samuelson as “the best of all doctoral dissertations in economics.” Fisher used a working model of his machine as a teaching tool for 25 years. (Thanks, Sroyon.)

Maillardet’s Automaton,_London,_England,_c._1810_-_Franklin_Institute_-_DSC06656.jpg

Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo was inspired by a real event. In 1928 Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute received the remains of an 18th-century brass automaton that had been damaged in a fire. It had been donated by the descendants of wealthy manufacturer John Penn Brock; they knew it had been acquired in France and supposed it to be the work of the German inventor Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, famed for his metronome.

The institute’s machinist set about restoring the machine and discovered that its mechanism used an ingenious system of cams to store almost 300 kilobits of information. When he had finished his work, he placed a pen in its hand and watched it draw four strikingly elaborate illustrations and write three poems (click to enlarge):

The final poem contained a surprise — in its border the machine wrote Ecrit par L’Automate de Maillardet, “written by the automaton of Maillardet.” The automaton’s creator was not Johann Maelzel but the Swiss mechanician Henri Maillardet — and this fact had been remembered only because he had taught the machine to write his name.

Subsequent research showed that Maillardet had created the automaton in the 1700s and exhibited it throughout Europe and Russia. How it came to America is not known. It’s on display today at the Franklin Institute, which demonstrates its talents publicly several times a year.

You Are Here,_waves_and_islands.jpg

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.)

Bug Hunt

terletzky patent

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.

The Thunder Stone

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.

Warm Work

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.”

The Long View

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.

Hot Lunch

malmo lantern patent

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.”

Things to Come

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.

From Leinster’s story “A Logic Named Joe.” (Thanks, Bob.) See You’ve Got Mail.

Higher Mammals!rv;g=p-GB190408713A;t=Patent;backtoken=searchresult

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.

Return to Sender

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.

The Modern Prometheus

jacobson railroad

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.)

The Vacuum Airship

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.

The Twelve-Angled Stone

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.)

Behind Schedule

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.)