Technology

Hoist by Their Own Petards

Inventors killed by their own inventions:

  • According to the Bible, Haman was hanged by the gallows he invented.
  • William Bullock (1813-1837) was crushed to death while trying to fix a rotary printing press he’d invented.
  • Otto Lilienthal died in 1896 after a crash in one of his hang gliders.
  • Thomas Midgley Jr. strangled in the cord of a pulley-operated mechanical bed he’d designed in 1944.
  • Alexander Bogdanov, a Russian physician, died when he accepted a “rejuvenating” transfusion of blood infected with malaria and tuberculosis.

And Jim Fixx, author of The Complete Book of Running, died of a heart attack while jogging.

Fordlândia

Henry Ford was a big deal in the United States, and for a time he was a big deal in Brazil, too. In the 1920s the auto tycoon bought 10,000 square kilometers of land near the mouth of the Amazon. Rubber came from the tropics, he figured, so he’d cut out the middleman and gather it himself.

That’s big thinking, but “Fordlândia” didn’t really work out. The land was rough and unfamiliar, bugs and blight ate the plants, and the natives eventually threw aside their hamburgers and drove the managers into the jungle.

Ford tried again, but by 1945 synthetic rubber had made the whole project look silly, and in the end he took a $20 million loss. That was okay with Ford, for whom active failure was better than passive dreaming. “You can’t build a reputation,” he’d say, “on what you are going to do.”

Wrong Number

Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Computer, once obtained the phone number 888-888-8888.

He found it was unusable — he received more than 100 calls a day from children playing with phones.

Jantar Mantar

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jantar_Mantar_at_Jaipur.jpg

Timex had nothing on Jai Singh II. After building this 90-foot sundial, the Indian maharaja always knew the correct time to within half a second — and this was in the early 1700s.

Ben Franklin wrote, “Energy and persistence conquer all things.”

The Quick Brown Fox …

In 1984, British engineer Lee Sallows built a dedicated computer to compose a self-enumerating pangram — a sentence that inventories its own letters. It succeeded:

This pangram contains four a’s, one b, two c’s, one d, thirty e’s, six f’s, five g’s, seven h’s, eleven i’s, one j, one k, two l’s, two m’s, eighteen n’s, fifteen o’s, two p’s, one q, five r’s, twenty-seven s’s, eighteen t’s, two u’s, seven v’s, eight w’s, two x’s, three y’s, & one z.

Black Gold

Barrels per day of oil consumption, as of 2003:

  • United States: 20,033,504
  • Japan: 5,578,386
  • China: 5,550,000
  • Germany: 2,677,443
  • Russia: 2,675,000
  • India: 2,320,000
  • Canada: 2,193,263
  • South Korea: 2,168,128
  • Brazil: 2,100,000
  • France: 2,059,843
  • Mexico: 2,015,232
  • Italy: 1,874,380
  • Saudi Arabia: 1,775,000
  • United Kingdom: 1,722,419
  • Spain: 1,544,260
  • Iran: 1,425,000
  • Indonesia: 1,155,000

Pencils Down

Bill Gates scored 1590 on his SATs.

Falling Fortunes

Franz Reichelt dreamed big. In 1911 the Austrian tailor designed a garment that he hoped would serve as a combination overcoat/parachute. Never one for half measures, he tested it by leaping from the Eiffel Tower.

The sad/romantic results were caught on film, including Reichelt’s long hesitation on the brink, his fatal fall and a measurement of the hole he left behind.

“If you’re not failing every now and again,” said Woody Allen, “it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”

Graduated Rulers

Stretch out this image by Erhard Schön …

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:OpticalIllusion.JPG

… and you’ll see images of Charles V, Ferdinand I, Pope Paul III, and Francis I:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:OpticalIllusion.JPG

Big deal, you say, anyone with a computer can make a compressed image.

Well, Schön made this one 1535, as a wood carving. Beat that.

Gold Star

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Gates_Bill_talking05_14338.jpg

Bill Gates has not missed a day of work since 1975.

Rods to the Hogshead

Only three nations have not switched officially to the metric system: Liberia, Myanmar, and the United States.

Creative Uses of Company Time

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:British_Rail_UFO.png

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

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%22Eagle%22.crashed3.png

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

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Giraffelamplighterbike.jpg

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!

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FA-18_Hornet_breaking_sound_barrier_(7_July_1999).jpg

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

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Missilemail.jpg

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

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tsar_tank.jpg

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.”

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AntonovA40.jpg

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.”