Archive for the ‘inventions’ Category

Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919), an American businesswoman, was the first self-made Black American millionaire – and the first American woman too of any race according to the “Guinness Book of World Records”. She sold hair care products to black women, most notably the hot comb, which made straightened hair common among black women in the early 1900s.

She did not invent the hot comb. It had been invented in Paris in the 1800s at a time when Egyptian hairstyles were in fashion. Sears was already selling them to white women in America in the 1880s. But it was Walker who sold them to black women as an easy way to straighten their hair (though even she first used it to help hair grow rather than to straighten it).

She was born Sarah Breedlove in Louisiana, across the river from Vicksburg, two years after the slaves were freed. Times were hard: yellow fever killed her parents, the Klan burned down her school, by age ten she was working picking cotton, by age 20 her husband was dead and she had a baby girl to take care of (A’Lelia Walker, who later became a figure of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s).

She moved to St Louis where her brother lived and worked as a washerwoman. As little money as she made, she still saved some of it to give her daughter the education she never had.

Then her hair began falling out. She tried all kinds of hair care products to make her hair grow back, but none of them worked. Some of them even made it worse!

In 1904 at the St Louis world’s fair she saw Margaret Washington, the wife of Booker T. Washington. Her hair was so thick and healthy! She wanted hair just like that.

That night she prayed, asking God to stop her hair from falling out. Then she had a dream: she was in Africa and a man was showing her the things she needed to make something that would help her hair to grow back.

That is how she tells it. Some say she had a pharmacist tell her what was in the hair grower of Annie Malone, a forerunner of Walker’s. At the time Walker was selling Malone’s hair care products door to door. She later modelled her company on Malone’s. (Some say Malone was the first black millionaire.)

In any case she moved to Denver soon after her brother died to be near his family. She spent nights working on her hair growing formula until she got it right. It came out in 1905. She called it Wonderful Hair Grower. It proved to be such a hit that other products soon followed and she started hiring saleswomen, training them in the  use of her products.

The rest is history: in time she built a factory in Indianapolis and moved to Harlem.

Her name comes from her third husband, newspaperman Charles J. Walker, her husband at the time she went into business.

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The following is based on part four of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). It is about metals, alchemy and the rise of chemistry.

Man first used fire 400,000 years ago. It kept him warm, cooked his food, kept away wild animals. But he did not learn to use it to get the metal hidden in stone till -5000 somewhere in Persia or Afghanistan: put a certain green stone in the fire and out came a red, liquid metal: copper

Copper was the plastic of its day, an almost universal material that you could shape into anything. But copper had one drawback: it was too soft. It could not keep an edge; it would wear out too quickly.

By -4000 someone made a surprising discovery: if you add tin, an even softer metal, it made a new metal that was much stronger than either one: bronze. An impure metal, an alloy, is stronger than a pure one.

By -1500 the Hittites in what is now Turkey knew how to make and work iron, which requires a much hotter fire.

By -1000 people in India knew how to make steel from iron and carbon. It was used in swords but it was so hard to make that it did not become common till the 1800s.

And then there was gold. It was not terribly useful, but in a world that is constantly changing and falling apart, it stayed the same: wind and rain could not make it rust and fire could not destroy it but only make it purer. In every age and every city it is prized above all the rest.

By 100 in China the alchemists tried to make gold out of more common materials. After hundreds of years of trial and error they failed. But along the way they learned quite a bit about the stuff that makes up the world: the chemical elements.

In the 1700s alchemy became a proper science, chemistry. That was the work of three men in the West: Priestley, Lavoisier and Dalton:

  • Priestley discovered oxygen. It was because people did not know about oxygen that they thought fire was material, like air or water. Fire is not material – it is a process that takes other materials apart and puts them back together in new ways.
  • Lavoisier ran Priestley’s experiments but carefully weighed everything before and after, even the air. He found that elements like mercury and oxygen always go together in certain proportions – it was not just a matter of chance. That was true for any substance that could be broken down into simpler substances.
  • Dalton took Lavoisier’s numbers and asked “Why?” That is the essence of science: ask an impertinent question and you are on the way to the pertinent answer. Dalton’s question led him, in 1803, to discover that everything is made of atoms.

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The following is based on part three of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). It is about architecture and the rise of cities:

One of the biggest steps in the ascent of man was the rise of the stone mason. Instead of living in caves or houses made of earth, man built his house out of wood and stone and brick. It might seem like a small change but in fact it was huge:

  1. It marks a new understanding of nature: that it is something you can take apart, understand and then put back together in new ways.
  2. It allowed the rise of cities: not just physically by providing the necessary buildings but also by giving a new understanding of human society as something made of parts working together.

A city is made up of people who work together in certain ways. In particular:

  • division of labour: a man doing one sort of work his whole life and becoming very good at it, perhaps even coming up with new inventions. Not just the masons but other craftsmen too like potters, coppersmiths and weavers.
  • chain of command: which allows a city or a people to act as one and achieve things for the greater good, like the control of water by irrigation. Information comes into a commander or ruler at the centre and comands flow out. For it to work you need roads, bridges and messages.

When the Incas fell to the Spanish in 1532 they were at just this stage. Their civilization was cut short before it came up with the wheel, the arch or even writing. They kept records on knotted strings called quipu, but it recorded only numbers not words.

The Greeks, despite their great love of geometry, never came up with the arch. That was a Roman invention. By spreading the load it allowed columns to hold up more weight or be spread farther apart. The Roman arch and later the Arab one were based on the circle.

A thousand years later in the 1100s came the Gothic arch, the oval or pointed arch of the Gothic cathedrals of northern Europe. By spreading the load even farther than the Roman arch, buildings could rise to 40 metres. And since the arches, not the walls, were holding up the building, it made possible huge stained glass windows.

The Gothic arch was the last big breakthrough in architecture till the 1800s with the rise of buildings made with steel frames.

Man built Gothic cathedrals not because he suddenly needed huge, beautiful churches, but because he could. Man loves to make things, so much so that he often makes them better than he has to. That in turn allows things to be used beyond their intended purpose, leading to new ways of doing things – technology.

Taking things apart and putting them back together laid the groundwork for more than just architecture and cities but also for a new understanding of nature – which in time became science.

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The Clock of the Long Now (2000-12,000) is a clock designed to keep time – hours, minutes, seconds, days, years, months – for 10,000 years. In the words of its inventor, Danny Hillis, it:

ticks once a year,
bongs once a century,
and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.

long-now-clockWhen the cuckoo comes out next, in 3000, it will show the year not as “3000” but as “03000”. Because one day it will need that much space to show the year.

The Clock is an idea that took hold of Hillis in 1986 and has not let go of him since.

The clock is not built yet. Right now Hillis and others are building prototypes – smaller clocks that show how the big one will work.

The big one, the one that will last 10,000 years, will stand 20 metres tall, as tall as a building with five floors, and be in the side of a mountain in the desert land east of California. In fact, they have already bought a mountaintop for it near Ely, Nevada. They wanted a place where it almost never rains, where no one wants to live, where the trees last for 5,000 years.

Very few man-made things last more than 500 years without constant care and upkeep. The Clock is no different. But to last 10,000 years it will have to designed a certain way:

  • It must not be made of anything anyone would want to take.
  • It must be clear how it works without taking it apart – so that no one will want to (or have to) take it apart.
  • It must be powered by natural forces.
  • It must be built so that even if during a dark age people forget how to build clocks, they can understand this one and how to keep it going.
  • It must keep time for 10,000 year without being off by more than a second.

Hillis is a computer designer. At MIT he once built a computer of Tinkertoys that could not be beaten at tic-tac-toe. So it is no surprise that the Clock of the Long Now is also a computer, one that is powered by natural forces to count and add seconds, over 300 billion of them. And, at the same time, keep track of where the sun is in the sky, of leap centuries, all of it.

The Clock will show time according to the Gregorian calendar, the one currently used in the West – but which may no longer be in use in 10,000 years! It will also show where the sun is against the stars and the waxing of the moon. It will use light from the sun at noon to keep it from running too slow or too fast.

It was Hillis’s friend, the musician Brian Eno, who came up with the name. Stewart Brand (“The Whole Earth Catalog”) is also taking part.

Along with the Clock will be a Rosetta stone, a new one recording 1500 of the world’s 7,000 languages (half of which will die out in the next hundred years!). Work on that is under way too.

– Abagond, 2009.

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nathaniel_wyethNathaniel Wyeth (1911-1990) is the American inventor who gave the world the plastic Coke bottle.  That was in the 1970s. Before then Coke and other soft drinks came in glass bottles, which you can still see in some places, like Greece.

plasticbottlesPlastic is lighter and does not break or burst easily. But, of course, it does not easily return to the earth: while most of the stuff we produce can only last for up to 500 years, a plastic bottle can last for a million years! Yes. Thus recycling. The plastic bottles of New York in the landfills of Staten Island will long outlast its buildings.

Wyeth started working on how to make a plastic bottle at DuPont in 1967. It took him three years to get something that worked. At first he tried using the plastic that washing machine soap is sold in. That swells up: it is not strong enough for a soft drink, which has to be stored in a pressurized form or it will taste flat. In time he found that polyethylene terephthalate was the right sort of plastic, now also known as PET or Plastic #1.

In addition to the right kind of plastic, he was the first one to discover two tricks: he worked out how to blow the bottle and fill it in one step and, later in the 1970s, how to make the bottle in one piece, not two.

His American patent is number 3,733,309: “Biaxially Oriented Poly(ethy.ene terephthalate) Bottle”. He applied for it in 1970, it was issued on May 15th 1973.

He has other inventions too, finding ways to use plastic where metal or glass or other things were once used. Because of him cars are now partly made out of plastic!

He worked by trial and error, never giving up. His early plastic bottles looked terrible, but he said, “If I hadn’t used those mistakes as stepping stones, I would have never invented anything.” By finding out what did not work, he could find out what did.

Whenever he came up with an idea, however strange, he wrote it down on a piece of paper and put it in a box. Every now and then he would empty the box and read through them. (That is what gave me the idea for the Suggestions page on this blog!).

Wyeth got a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and went to work for General Motors, where his uncle worked.  In 1936 he came to DuPont. He worked his way up the engineering ranks and by 1963 he became its first Engineering Fellow, which meant he could work on whatever he liked. In 1976 he retired.

Wyeth grew up west of Philadelphia in a family of artists and painters. But from an early age he showed a love of machines not art, taking apart clocks to make other things.

If the name Wyeth sounds familiar that is because of Nathaniel’s far more famous brother, the painter Andrew Wyeth, who gave us “Christina’s World” in 1948, one of the most famous American paintings ever.


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The Google phone (2008), also known as the Android phone, the gPhone or the T-Mobile G1, is a mobile phone that is the brainchild of Google. It is Google’s answer to Apple’s iPhone. It is, in fact, the first mobile phone to go head-to-head with the iPhone.

The G1, which goes on sale in America on October 22nd 2008 and in Britain a few weeks later, is merely the first of many Android devices to come. Or so Google hopes. Samsung and LG are set to come out with Android phones of their own in 2009.

Android is the name of the software platform that Google built for mobile phones. It remains to be seen whether it will catch on in a big way: Google is not the first to try to build such a platform. Android is built in the Java language running on the Linux operating system. Linux is what the TiVo and Google itself run on.

The Android phone is not a me-too copy of the iPhone. Where the iPhone is a Mac computer shrunk down to fit in your hand, one that can make telephone calls and play music, Google sees mobile phones as Web devices – as pocket computers that can go on the Web (and see Google ads!). The thinking is that mobile phones will become one of the main ways people will go on the Web.

The G1 is a first rough cut at what Google has in mind. It is not as nice as the iPhone nor is it as easy to use, but it holds promise:

  1. Google made it easy for computer geeks to write programs for it. That means in the long run Google phones will be able to do cooler things than iPhones.
  2. Android is not tied to particular hardware, so it will be easier to get it to work on newer and better phones as they come along.
  3. It is designed to be a part of the Internet.

Unlike the iPhone, the G1 has a built-in keyboard, which you can see if you slide back the screen.

Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile G1

On top of being a mobile phone, the G1 has:

  • Google Maps with built-in GPS so it knows where you are,
  • email (but it can handle only one Gmail account),
  • instant messaging,
  • a music player (it can download music from Amazon, but it has no headphone jack! You have to buy a separate USB adapter for that),
  • a camera (that cannot zoom or record video), but no media player yet,
  • a touchscreen (that can handle only one finger at a time),
  • Wi-Fi,
  • the Web (even with a working YouTube, but no Flash).

It has no Bluetooth and there is no easy way for it to talk to your computer. But, unlike the iPhone, it can do cut and paste.

The battery only lasts 12 hours or less between charges.

The G1 runs on T-Mobile’s 3G network, which by October will be in 22 American cities.

The price: $179 (14 crowns), but you also have to sign up for two years with T-Mobile for at least $25 a month (2 crowns a month). An iPhone these days is $199 (16 crowns – way cheaper than when it first came out).

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IQ (1905- ) is short for intelligence quotient. It is a way to measure intelligence. IQs go from 0 to about 200. Most people have an IQ near 100.

To give you a rough idea of what the numbers mean in English:

0 to 70 retarded
70 to 90 dull
90 to 110 average
110 to 130 bright
130 to 200 gifted

Most maids have IQs of about 100, professors about 115 and doctors 120. To join Mensa you need an IQ of at least 130.

IQ = (mental age / calendar age) x 100

If you are over 16, then your calendar age is just 16. It does not go higher than that.

To find out your mental age you take an IQ test which compares how well you did on its questions compared to people of different ages.

So, for example, if you are ten years old but did as well on the test as an ordinary 12 year old, then your IQ is (12/10) x 100 or 120.

Or: if you are fully grown but have the mind of an 8 year old, than your IQ is 50: (8/16) x 100.

So when Steve Sailer says that ordinary black Americans have an IQ of 85 he is saying they have the mind of 13-year-olds (= 16 x 0.85). That is why he says they need “moral guidance” and why black Africa will always be in a “Lord of the Flies” mess unless it is ruled by outsiders.

On the Internet you can find terrible IQ maps of the world. I do not know where they get their numbers. Most go something like this:

  • 105: China, Korea, Japan
  • 100: Europe, Russia, North America, Australia, Argentina
  • 85: Latin America, Middle East, India, South-east Asia
  • 70: Black Africa

Yellow, white, brown and black, in that order, it seems.

If you took the SAT before 1995, the test you need to take to apply to American universities, you can get a pretty good idea of your IQ: it is about one tenth of your combined math and reading score. So if you got 550 math and 630 reading (verbal), your combined score is 1180 and your IQ is most likely somewhere near 118. That is no accident. The SAT grew out of the old IQ test that the army used.

Here are the estimated IQs of some famous people:

  • 195: Pascal
  • 190: Newton, Voltaire, Kasparov, Wittgenstein, Laplace
  • 185: Galileo, Descartes, Bobby Fisher
  • 180: Michelangelo, Lord Byron
  • 175: Kepler, Kant, Spinoza
  • 170: Plato, Luther, Raphael, Wagner
  • 165: Darwin, Hegel, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, John Locke
  • 160: Einstein, Bill Gates, Hawking, Ben Franklin, Isaac Asimov, Reggie Jackson
  • 155: Balzac, Sharon Stone, Cervantes, Rembrandt, Swift, Emerson
  • 150: Rousseau
  • 145: Napoleon, Nixon
  • 140: Hitler, Hillary Clinton, Madonna, Shakira, Jefferson, Geena Davis
  • 135: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Gore
  • 130: Jodie Foster, Lincoln
  • 125: George Bush
  • 120:
  • 115: John Kennedy
  • 110: Ulysses Grant
  • 105: James Watson
  • 100:
  • Less than 100: Andy Warhol (86), Muhammad Ali (78 )

IQs have been going up in rich countries over time, about a point every three years. This is called the Flynn Effect. No one knows for sure what causes it.

It would help if people understood just what it is that IQ tests test. It is not intelligence but something like it – whatever it is that makes some children do well in school and others do poorly. That something is not what Edison, Warhol, Picasso or Churchill had, yet no one ever doubted their intelligence after their school years.

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