Technology

Creative Uses of Company Time

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Charles Osmond Frederick was a mild-mannered British engineer at the British Railway Technical Centre in Derby in the 1970s.

Or so everyone thought. Earlier this year, patent researchers discovered that in 1973 Frederick had designed a nuclear-powered space vehicle for intergalactic travel, and even got the British Railways Board to patent it. Apparently no one was paying attention.

When the plans resurfaced, a group of nuclear scientists examined them and declared them to be unworkable; Michel van Baal of the European Space Agency said, “I have had a look at the plans, and they don’t look very serious to me at all.”

But if you like, you can try them out yourself — the patent lapsed when the Railways Board neglected to renew it.

Hope Springs Eternal

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Too much optimism is a bad thing. In 1897, Swedish engineer S.A. Andrée planned to reach the North Pole in a leaky and untested balloon, steering only by dragging ropes. He and two companions lifted off from Svalbard in July, drifted north and disappeared for 33 years.

It wasn’t until 1930 that their last camp was discovered — they had crashed after only two days and spent three freezing months trying to walk home.

“Morale remains good,” Andrée had written before his diary became incoherent. “With such comrades as these, one ought to be able to manage under practically any circumstances whatsoever.”

A Bicycle Built for Few

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Evidently somebody thought this was a good idea. In the late 19th century, lamplighters used this “giraffe bicycle” to travel between gas streetlamps. If you could keep your balance you’d be sitting more than 7 feet above the ground. Watch the road.

Road Warriors

If you think your commute is bad, check out the Kinetic Sculpture Race, held every Memorial Day weekend in Ferndale, Calif. In three days, participants must cover 42 miles of mud, sand, water, gravel and pavement in vehicles powered only by people (“and friendly extraterrestrials”). Arrows, anchors and grappling hooks are strictly disallowed.

The race’s slogan is “adults having fun so children want to get older.”

Unfortunate URLs

The Internet is a great way to publicize your business, but be careful in choosing a Web address:

Amazingly, all four of these are still using these addresses. Maybe the novelty value brings in some customers.

Boom!

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Sonic booms can get on your nerves.

NASA and the FAA learned this the hard way in 1964, when their testing over Oklahoma City caused eight booms per day for six months. It led to 15,000 complaints and a class action lawsuit — which they lost.

The idea seems to have caught Israel’s attention — last October it started using F-16 jet planes to create sonic booms over the Gaza Strip, to bug the Palestinians. Extra points for creativity, I guess.

I Do

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On Aug. 10, 2003, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko became the first person to be married in space.

He was in the international space station, 240 miles over New Zealand, when he married Ekaterina Dmitrieva, who was in Texas.

“The Fuels of the Future”

“With the prospect of coal becoming as rare as the dodo itself, the world, we are told by scientists, may still regard with complacency the failure of our ordinary carbon supply. The natural gases and oils of the world will provide the human race with combustible material for untold ages — such at least is the opinion of those who are best informed on the subject.”

Glasgow Herald, quoted in Scientific American Supplement No. 717, Sept. 28, 1889

Rocket Mail

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In 1959, the U.S. Postal Service tried delivering mail with a cruise missile — they replaced its warhead with two mail containers and fired it from Virginia to Florida.

When it hit the target, the postmaster general announced a new era. “Before man reaches the moon,” he said, “mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”

But the program went no further. “The post office has a great charm at one point of our lives,” wrote Jane Austen. “When you have lived to my age, you will begin to think letters are never worth going through the rain for.”

Penthouse, Please

Record skyscrapers through history:

  • 1873 – Equitable Life Building, New York: 142 feet (6 floors)
  • 1876 – St. Pancras Chambers, London: 269 feet (9 floors)
  • 1889 – Auditorium Building, Chicago: 269 feet (17 floors)
  • 1890 – New York World Building, New York: 309 feet (20 floors)
  • 1894 – Manhattan Life Insurance Building, New York: 348 feet (18 floors)
  • 1895 – Milwaukee City Hall, Milwaukee: 350 feet (9 floors)
  • 1899 – Park Row Building, New York: 391 feet (30 floors)
  • 1908 – Singer Building, New York, 612 feet (47 floors)
  • 1909 – Met Life Tower, New York, 700 feet (50 floors)
  • 1913 – Woolworth Building, New York: 792 feet (57 floors)
  • 1930 – Chrysler Building, New York: 925 feet (77 floors)
  • 1931 – Empire State Building, New York: 1,250 feet (102 floors)
  • 1972 – World Trade Center, New York: 1,368 feet (110 floors)
  • 1974 – Sears Tower, Chicago: 1,451 feet (108 floors)
  • 2003 – Taipei 101, Taipei, Taiwan: 1,474 feet (101 floors)

Try, Try Again

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The Russians’ “tsar tank” (above) didn’t work in World War I, and their “winged tank” (below) didn’t work in World War II.

No matter. “Failure is not falling down,” runs an Asian proverb, “but refusing to get up.”

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Clinton and E-Mail

Bill Clinton sent only two e-mails during his entire eight-year term in office. One was to test the system; the other was to congratulate John Glenn on his return to space.

Both are archived in Clinton’s presidential library.

What Would Darwin Say?

Robert Wallace had a noble impulse when he discovered a new species of monkey in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park. Rather than name the species after himself, he would auction off the naming rights to raise money for the park.

The marketers of the world are not so noble: $650,000 changed hands and the new species was named after an Internet casino. It’s officially called the “GoldenPalace.com Monkey.”

Pull Over

Uninspiring land speed records:

  • 39.24 mph, Dec. 18, 1898, Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat (France)
  • 41.42 mph, Jan. 17, 1899 Camille Jenatzy (Belgium)
  • 43.69 mph, Jan. 17, 1899 Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat (France)
  • 49.93 mph, Jan. 27, 1899 Camille Jenatzy (Belgium)
  • 57.65 mph, March 4, 1899 Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat (France)
  • 65.79 mph, April 29, 1899 Camille Jenatzy (Belgium)

Interestingly, these were all set with electric vehicles.

The Turk

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People were willing to believe in a chess-playing automaton as early as 1769. That’s when Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled “The Turk,” a cloaked and turbaned robot that played over a maplewood cabinet full of clockwork. The contraption toured the courts of Europe, where it beat Benjamin Franklin and Charles Babbage, among many others.

The machine’s secret emerged only in 1854, after the automaton was destroyed in the great Philadelphia fire. The cabinet had contained a human player who followed the game by watching magnets on the board’s underside. He made his moves on a secondary board that transmitted them to the Turk.

Still, it played some good games. Here it beats the crap out of Napoleon Bonaparte, who has White:

1. e4 e5 2. Qf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. Ne2 Bc5 5. a3 d6 6. O-O Bg4 7. Qd3 Nh5 8. h3 Bxe2 9. Qxe2 Nf4 10. Qe1 Nd4 11. Bb3 Nxh3+ 12. Kh2 Qh4 13. g3 Nf3+ 14. Kg2 Nxe1+ 15. Rxe1 Qg4 16. d3 Bxf2 17. Rh1 Qxg3+ 18. Kf1 Bd4 19. Ke2 Qg2+ 20. Kd1 Qxh1+ 21. Kd2 Qg2+ 22. Ke1 Ng1 23. Nc3 Bxc3+ 24. bxc3 Qe2# 0-1

“IP Over Avian Carriers”

Someone make a note, in case we ever run out of power:

In 1990 the Internet Engineering Task Force proposed a way to send Internet messages by homing pigeon.

It was used — once — to transmit a message in Bergen, Norway.

Da Vinci’s Tank

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One more reason not to mess with Leonardo da Vinci — he designed this armored tank at the Château d’Amboise around 1516.

Truth in Advertising

In the UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, a hexagonal nut holds the main rotor to the mast. If it were to fail in flight, the helicopter’s body would separate from its rotor.

Engineers call it the “Jesus nut.”

A Spaceborne Time Capsule

You can write a message to future generations at the KEO project. It’ll be launched on a satellite that won’t return to Earth for 50,000 years.

Even more ambitious is the LAGEOS satellite, which will re-enter our atmosphere in 8.4 million years bearing a plaque that shows the arrangement of the continents. Let’s hope our descendants still have catcher’s mitts.

High PageRanks

Web sites with a Google PageRank of 10:

And, of course, Google itself.

Luddite by Degrees

Douglas Adams’ “rules that describe our reactions to technologies”:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.

Watch Your Step

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Vaucanson’s Shitting Duck was one of the more unsavory products of the French Enlightenment.

When it was unveiled by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739, thousands watched the “canard digérateur” stretch its neck to eat grain from a hand. The food then dissolved, “the matter digested in the stomach being conducted by tubes, as in an animal by its bowels, into the anus, where there is a sphincter which permits it to be released.” These inner workings were all proudly displayed, “though some ladies preferred to see them decently covered.”

Why make fake duck shit when the world is so well supplied with the real thing? It was part of the Enlightenment’s transition from a naturalistic to a mechanical worldview. Suddenly a duck was not a God-given miracle but a machine made of meat, and complex automatons carried the promise of mechanized labor, stirring a cultural revolution.

Goethe mentioned Vaucanson’s automata in his diary, and Sir David Brewster called the duck “perhaps the most wonderful piece of mechanism ever made.” Sadly, the whole thing was a fake: The droppings were prefabricated and hidden in a separate compartment. Back to the drawing board.

Why Is a Manhole Cover Round?

Actual questions asked in Microsoft job interviews:

  • How are M&Ms made?
  • Suppose you had eight billiard balls, and one of them was slightly heavier, but the only way to tell was by putting it on a scale against another. What’s the fewest number of times you’d have to use the scale to find the heavier ball?
  • Why do you want to work at Microsoft?
  • One train leaves Los Angeles at 15 mph heading for New York. Another train leaves from New York at 20 mph heading for Los Angeles on the same track. If a bird, flying at 25 mph, leaves from Los Angeles at the same time as the train and flies back and forth between the two trains until they collide, how far will the bird have traveled?
  • How many gas stations are there in the USA?
  • You’ve got someone working for you for seven days and a gold bar to pay them. The gold bar is segmented into seven connected pieces. You must give them a piece of gold at the end of every day. If you are only allowed to make two breaks in the gold bar, how do you pay your worker?
  • The interviewer hands you a black pen and says nothing but “This pen is red.”
  • Pairs of primes separated by a single number are called prime pairs. Examples are 17 and 19. Prove that the number between a prime pair is always divisible by 6 (assuming both numbers in the pair are greater than 6). Now prove that there are no “prime triples.”

At the end they ask, “What was the hardest question asked of you today?” My answer: “Why do you want to work at Microsoft?”

Oldest Domains

The 10 oldest currently registered dot-com domains:

  1. symbolics.com (registered 3/15/85)
  2. bbn.com (4/24/85)
  3. think.com (5/24/85)
  4. mcc.com (7/11/85)
  5. dec.com (9/30/85 )
  6. northrop.com (11/7/85)
  7. xerox.com (1/9/86)
  8. sri.com (1/17/86)
  9. hp.com (3/3/86)
  10. bellcore.com (3/5/86)