Category Archives: History

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The violent history of train-wreck publicity

Sometimes a publicity stunt can be a complete train wreck. The hashtag #susanalbumparty that required re-reading a few times, the Air Force One Photoshoot that nearly evacuated Manhattan, and the decision to spice up a production of Henry VIII with a real cannon which inadvertently burned down the Globe Theatre — history is littered with PR events that have gone off the rails.

But there is a bizarre history of train-wrecks being the publicity stunt. They started off as a morbid, redneck bonanza back in the 19th century but have, in more modern times, morphed into psuedo-scientific pieces of political theatre.  Continue reading

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The Nobel Prize winner at the bottom of the garden

Of all the mind-bendingly expensive streets in Chelsea, The Boltons, pictured above, are probably the most picture-postcard perfect. Homes here will cost you somewhere in the vicinity of £2,500 per square foot which, based on Sigma-Aldrich prices, is nearly 20% the price of an equivalent area in gold.

Houses for the mega-ultra-wealthy need staff to run them, which is why in 1954 one of the well-to-do residents of the elite SW10 neighbourhood employed a well-spoken Australian man in his mid-sixties named Willie to look after her garden for her. Willie was an enthusiastic gardener and did a fantastic job. However, as Francis Crick wrote in his memoirs:1

For several months all went well till one day a visitor, glancing out of the window said to her hostess, “my dear, what is Sir Lawrence Bragg doing in your garden?”

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A nice glass of red: the colourful history of nanotechnology

Since the dawn of humanity people have been fascinated by colour, and with good reason – it’s bloody confusing.

Amazingly, ancient Romans made “dichroic” glassware that could change its hue depending upon the direction it was lit from. It’s an example of lost technology, and whether they understood the optics or the manufacturing process is debated, as a modern understanding of nanotechnology is needed to explain it fully.

The Lycurgus Cup, lit from front and behind.

The Lycurgus Cup, lit from front and behind.

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Linotype-building

Academics won’t be typecast no more

All the world’s maths and science problem sheets look essentially the same.

If you’ve been taught these subjects at university, you might recognise them: too-wide margins, a serif font that’s more old-fashioned than Times New Roman, surprisingly good-looking equations and numbered section headings that are more reminiscent of an old textbook than something made on a modern computer. There’s a reason for that.

Problem Sheet Two

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Were these Victorian train lines just a load of hot air?

At any subway station, a gust of wind announces the arrival of a train long before it can be seen or heard. Like a piston, the train pushes the air in front of it – but could air be used to push the train?

Such “pneumatic railways” promised a smoother, quieter and more efficient mode of transport than electric or steam-powered trains, but the many attempts to build them in the late 1800s failed due to financial difficulties.

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Lost tech: things we invented and then forgot

It’s easy to think of technology as an onward march of incremental progress, each development building on what came before. It’s easy to think everything we’ve ever known has been put to use in making something new and everything we use is as advanced as it can get.

It would now seem unimaginable that an archaeological discovery could be more technologically advanced than the society that unearthed it, but that’s not always been the case.

Below, I’ll take you on a brief tour of advanced bits of technology we developed — and then lost.

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Sundial

It’s about time: humanity’s heated relationship with the sun

This weekend you enjoyed an extra hour of sleep or revelry, if your region put the clocks back to put an end to daylight saving time.

Depending on your point of view (can you guess mine?), you’re either relishing a few more days of early morning sunlight, or resenting getting home in the dark and having to turn the light on to do your solely-indoor activities.

There’s a lot of confusion surrounding daylight saving time. From my informal poll of family members and colleagues, lots of people think that DST exists to help farmers, much like school summer holidays allowing children to stay at home during the harvest season, or that the summer hours represent the ‘true’ time, which we adjust in winter to be able to enjoy more hours of daylight when they are so scarce.

This is not so: DST is simply one of humanity’s latest attempts to wrest control of time from the dictates of the sun, a process of adaptation that’s been underway since the advent of industrialisation and artificial light in the 19th century. The changes to the sun-imposed daily routine are so great that in contrast to the extra hour of sleep you had last night, people in pre-industrial societies enjoyed an additional hour of wakefulness in the middle of the night, dividing their sleep in two.

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A bridged history of Königsberg

To mathematicians, they are the most famous bridges in the world. Spanning the river Pregel as it flows into the Baltic Sea, the Seven Bridges of Königsberg are today virtually synonymous with the field of topology, the mathematical study of shapes.

Their immortality was assured in 1735 when Leonhard Euler, the great Swiss mathematician, became intrigued by the city’s unique geometrical configuration. In addition to settlements on the north and south banks of the river Pregel, 18th Century Königsberg also included two large islands known as Kneiphof and Lomse. These islands were connected to the mainland as well as each other by seven bridges that were central to the city’s life.

Konigsberg_bridges

Euler wanted to know the answer to a comparatively simple question: would it be possible for a visitor to cross each and every one of Königsberg’s seven bridges once and only once? Being a mathematician and not a tourist, it didn’t matter to him whether the visitor started in the same place as she finished.

Such a path, Euler eventually concluded, would not be possible. The visitor (let’s call her Doris) would either find herself stranded on Kneiphof or else forced to angrily patrol the riverbank waiting for the authorities to build her another bridge. Needless to say, Euler refused to consider either jumping or swimming as valid options.

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Hedy Lamarr

The four women my computers are named after

At the age of 13 I got my first computer: a custom-built gaming rig with a brand new dual core processor. For the first time in my life I didn’t have to share a computer with anybody else in my family — I could use it exactly how I wanted and, more importantly, I could give it whatever name I chose.

Naming a household appliance may seem like a cute affectation — only marginally better than giving a name to your favourite rock or comfiest underwear — but is a necessary part of networking. Without a hostname, computers cannot identify themselves to each other to share information. The principle is somewhat abstracted on the Internet, but essentially, the www in “www.tychosnose.com” is the hostname of our web server.

In honour of the grandfather of computing I named my first computer babbage, so it was only natural that my first laptop – one of those laptops for teenagers – obtained several years later, should then be called lovelace (read on if you don’t know why). After babbage’s retirement, however, all my devices have been named after pioneering women in computer science or related fields.

Babbage and Lovelace as drawn in 2D Goggles

Babbage and Lovelace as a crime-fighting duo in 2D Goggles, a comic by Sydney Padua.

The ‘middle’ Tuesday in October is now known as Ada Lovelace Day, an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women in science and technology. As part of the celebrations, today I would like to share the stories of four amazing women my computers are named after.

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Chemical Calligraphy

Chemical notation from ciphers to calligraphy

What should you do when your King, gold crown and all, gets devoured by a wolf?

According to the 15th Century monk Basil Valentine, the right course of action is to light a bonfire and throw the wolf on the top. Once the wolf has been burned to a crisp, says Valentine, then the King will be brought back to life good as new.

This ludicrous story sounds as though it’s been plucked out of a fairy tale, but is in reality a nearly 600-year-old chemical equation.

The example, vividly brought to life in the engraving below, was used to illustrate the first of The Twelve Keys, a text now thought to have been written by several authors who used the name Basil Valentine as a pseudonym. Let’s face it, it’s a pretty unlikely name for anyone who isn’t an LA detective in a procedural cop show from the 80s.

The First Key of Basil Valentine

The First Key of Basil Valentine

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