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100 Local Heroes

100 Local Heroes

by Adam Hart-Davis
For more than five years, Adam Hart-Davis travelled the length and breadth of Britain, bringing to life in his TV series, "Local Heroes", pioneers of science, invention and technology. This book presents 100 of the best stories: ingenious or odd, different or daft, but always entertaining.


For more than five years, Adam Hart-Davis travelled the length and breadth of Britain, bringing to life in his TV series, "Local Heroes", pioneers of science, invention and technology. This book presents 100 of the best stories: ingenious or odd, different or daft, but always entertaining.

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The History Press
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Barnes & Noble
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3 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

100 Local Heroes

By Adam Hart-Davis, Paul Bader

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Adam Hart-Davis and Paul Bader
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9475-3


1 Alcuin, Puzzler to Charlemagne

Puzzle 1: You have to cross a river, taking with you a wolf, a goat and a cabbage. You have a boat, but in it you can carry only one of these at a time. The problem is that if you take the wolf, then while you are away the goat will eat the cabbage. However, if you take the cabbage, then the wolf will eat the goat! The puzzle is, how can you get them all across the river safely?

This puzzle was written down as one of a collection of 'problems to sharpen the young' by an English scholar called Flaccus Albinus Alcuinus, or Alcuin, as he is generally remembered.

Alcuin was born in York about AD 735, went to Rome in 780, became Abbot of Tours, and settled in Aachen as what would now be Minister of Education for the European Community, but was then a close adviser to Charlemagne, who became Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day in the year 800.

Some of Alcuin's Propositiones ad acuendos juvenes are fairly trivial, but among the river-crossing puzzles are some really tricky ones. Try this on your friends:

Puzzle 2: Mum and dad and two children have to cross a river. The boat will hold only one adult or two children; not even one adult and one child. How do they get across?

And if they manage that, here's a really tough one:

Puzzle 3: Three married couples have to cross a river, and for religious reasons no woman must be left with a man unless her husband is there. The boat will carry only two. How do they all cross?

What is fascinating about these puzzles is not just that they are good puzzles – they challenge the mind, they seem impossible, and then when you work one out you get a sense of achievement – but that they are 1,200 years old, and still as good as new.

The solution to Puzzle 1, in case you are still suffering, is to take the goat across, leave it, return for either the wolf or the cabbage, take it across, bring the goat back, take the cabbage or the wolf, and finally return for the goat.

St Peter's School, Clifton, York, claims to have been founded by Alcuin, and a college at York University, 4 miles to the south-east, is named after him.

2 Tempest Anderson and the Power of Volcanoes

Modern science does not seem to have much room for the amateur, a trend already established in the late nineteenth century. Dr Tempest Anderson (1846–1913), an eye surgeon from York who described himself as an 'amateur of limited leisure', was looking for a suitable scientific pastime. Curiously, he hit upon vulcanology – the study of volcanoes – because it offered 'exercise in the open air, often in districts remote and picturesque'. He intended to combine his new hobby with his other great love, photography. The result was a stunning record of dramatic eruptions from all over the world, and a new understanding of the destructive force of volcanoes.

Stonegate, one of the main streets of ancient York, is now filled with shops and tourists, but the elegant black and gold plaque outside no. 23 has survived: 'T. Anderson, Surgeon'. This is where Anderson practised as an ophthalmic surgeon, and is only yards from the house where he was born, at no. 17. But with a name like Tempest, he was never going to settle quietly. He used to keep two travel bags permanently packed, one for hot climates and one for cold. When word came of an eruption, he was off on the first available ship. There is no record of what happened to the patients in his waiting-room.

The idea of going to an erupting volcano by ship seems a bit daft: surely by the time news reached York, and Anderson had reached the volcano, it would all be over? In fact Anderson captured many eruptions on film, but his pictures of the aftermath of eruptions are just as powerful. The pictures are especially impressive when you consider the extraordinary lengths photographers routinely went to in those days. Wet plates, where you had to sensitise the glass photographic plate immediately before exposure by dipping it into silver-nitrate solution, had begun to disappear in 1874, the year after Anderson qualified as an MD, so he would have used dry plates for most of his work. But he would have taken hundreds of these glass plates with him on an expedition, together with several wooden cameras, many of which he made himself. Not only would he have to haul the cameras, lenses and plates up mountains in dangerous and inhospitable circumstances, but once on location the plates would have to be loaded, inside a light-proof bag, into 'dark slides' to hold them in the camera. It is a tribute to the pioneers of photography that early pictures progressed beyond posed studio shots. Anderson was clearly a genial chap, who made friends wherever he went. His new friends are recorded on his glass negatives and lantern slides, which feature many pictures of young women. As well as recording them playing cricket on board ship and so on, Anderson photographed many of these women up the mountain, posed in ridiculously unsuitable gear with an erupting volcano in the background.

Having fun was clearly part of the point, and Anderson brought back many rather non-PC stories from his travels. One picture records the famous 'Fainting Dog of Vulcano'. Several times a day this unfortunate beast was led into a cavern with a layer of heavy volcanic gases near the floor. To the apparent amusement of the tourists, it would faint, only to revive again when carried outside. Anderson also visited Yellowstone in the USA to photograph the geysers, and was amused by a tale of an unfortunate Chinaman. The enterprising chap had set up a laundry in a hut on a hot spring. When he tipped in his soap powder, it set off the dormant geyser, which exploded into life, taking the hut with it.

However, Anderson's purpose was serious, and he became a respected authority. He made a thorough and systematic study of volcanoes, calling it a 'clinical or bedside study'. He was especially impressed by the destructive power of volcanoes, and by a paradox that reminded him of the Alps. A keen alpinist and member of the Alpine Club, Anderson had examined trees felled by avalanches. He found that those furthest from the origin of the avalanche had only a light sprinkling of snow. He concluded that they had been knocked over not by the rush of snow, but by the powerful wind the avalanche creates. He arrived at the same conclusion when considering the devastating eruptions on Martinique. The eruption of Mont Pelée had destroyed the town of Saint-Pierre in 1902. When Anderson arrived, the scene was one of complete destruction. The only building left standing was part of the bank, the only survivor a man incarcerated in the underground cells of the jail. Yet, as his photographs show, there was not much ash or lava in the town itself.

The 'ground surge', as he called it, seems to precede the main eruption, and as its name implies it hugs the slopes of the volcano, destroying buildings and trees in its path with more than hurricane force. Sometimes the ground surge contains small rock particles as well as hot gas, and is also known as a 'pyroclastic flow'.

Anderson's pictures are all preserved at the Yorkshire Museum in York. There are over five thousand negatives and slides, some of which were published in Anderson's book Volcanic Studies in Many Lands. Sadly the museum is not able to display them at present, which is a pity, because the photography is superb and the collection includes many self portraits of the bearded Anderson clearly enjoying himself. Although Anderson found much of science closed to amateurs, he was part of a long tradition of amateur science in York, where the Literary and Philosophical Society, of which Anderson became president, was perhaps the greatest scientific society in Britain; in 1831 its members had founded the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Because he was a scientific photographer, Tempest Anderson was keen to use only standard lenses, which have an angle of view the same as that of the human eye, rather than telephoto lenses that would produce an odd perspective. This meant, of course, that he had to get closer to the eruption he was photographing – which increased the risk. A friend said, 'you know, Anderson, you are sure to be killed, but it will be such a very great satisfaction to you afterwards to think that it was in the cause of science'. Tempest Anderson died of fever in 1913, crossing the Red Sea on the way back from the Philippines, and is buried at Suez.

Tempest Anderson's home was at 17 Stonegate, York, with his surgery just up the road at no. 23; there is still a plaque on a pillar.

3 Mary Anning the Fossil-finder

In the centre of Lyme Bay lies the attractive town of Lyme Regis, its tiny harbour protected by the great curving rock wall known as the Cobb, made famous in Jane Austen's Persuasion and John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman. For hundreds of years Lyme Regis has been famous for what used to be called 'curiosities'. We know them as fossils, and they are found in the Blue Lias in the cliffs on either side of the town. Walk along the beach and you can see how the cliffs are gradually eroding and tumbling into the sea. Each time a slab falls off it brings with it nodules of grey rock containing fossils – the remnants of the rich life in the warm muddy sea that swirled there two hundred million years ago. Fossil-hunters are out in force each time the tide goes out, especially when the cliffs are washed down with heavy rain. They seek out new nodules and crack them open with hammers, looking for the fossils that may lie within.

Mary Anning was born in Lyme Regis in 1799. At the age of fifteen months she survived a lightning strike which killed the three women she was with. Family legend has it that she had been a dull child before, but after this accident she became lively and intelligent, and grew up so. Mary's father Richard was a carpenter, but he used to supplement his income by selling curiosities, and following his death when she was twelve, Mary did the same. But if fossils had been a sideline for Richard, they became Mary's life, and she became the greatest fossil-hunter of the age. She was poor, and had little formal education; yet she helped to bring about one of the truly great scientific revolutions, which overturned our view of the history of the world and the origins of life.

Her astonishing success began one day in 1811, the year after her father's death, when Mary and her brother Joseph were looking for curiosities somewhere under Black Ven, the hill half a mile east of the town. Scraping around in the muddy rock, they found the skull of what looked like a crocodile. The following year Mary returned and extracted the body – an amazing feat, because the creature was 30 feet long and entirely encased in rock! In fact she had to hire a gang of men to help her. The skeleton turned out to be not a crocodile, but one of the finest specimens of the recently discovered icthyosaurus.

The icthyosaurus was sold for £23, a tidy sum for a very poor family, and Mary's mother encouraged the girl to look for other specimens. In 1823 she found the first ever plesiosaur fossil, and in 1828 the first pterodactyl. In the intervening years, she found several examples of each, in addition to coprolites, a cephalopod and a fossil fish called Squaloraja. All of these she extracted, prepared and reassembled with incredible skill – so much so that Lady Silvester wrote on 17 September 1824: 'The extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong.'

The Philpot Museum stands above the sea at the very centre of Lyme Regis, where the road, after plunging down the hill, turns sharply back up the other side. It was named after a family Mary knew; the three Philpot daughters were well-known fossil-collectors, and may have inspired her in her work. However, they were young ladies; Mary lived a very different life. The house where she lived and worked was on the same site – it was pulled down to make room for the museum. Outside was a table where she showed off and sold her latest specimens, and down below was the basement workshop where Mary brought the raw specimens from the cliff to be 'developed'.

Developing a specimen means separating it from the surrounding rock – fantastically delicate work, especially with an unknown species where you don't know what it is supposed to look like. Mary was a brilliant developer. She also understood anatomy enough to get her specimens assembled correctly, and of course she had the amazing ability to find them in the first place. A poem was written about her in 1884:

    Miss Anning, as a child, ne'er passed
    A pin upon the ground
    But picked it up; and so at last
    An icthyosaurus found.

Mary Anning was born in the right place at the right time. Philosophers were just beginning to think about what fossils meant. Until that time they were regarded simply as curiosities, because they didn't fit into the history of the world as portrayed in the Bible. The Earth was supposed to be only a few thousand years old, and the fossils were reckoned by many to have been in the rocks from the start – perhaps put there by God as a test of faith.

Mary Anning's skill meant that fossils of real scientific value were available to scientists like William Buckland (see page 97), who were formulating a new history of the earth that led eventually to the idea of evolution. Mary was well known to scientists and fossil- collectors. Some said she became a little arrogant, and she seems to have been a tough, slightly difficult character. Anna Maria Pinney wrote in her journal on 25 October 1831: 'Went out at 11 o'clock fossilising with Mary Anning ... She has been noticed by all the cleverest men in England, who have her to stay at their houses, correspond with her on geology etc. This has completely turned her head, and she has the proudest and most unyielding spirit I have ever met with ... She glories in being afraid of no one and in saying everything she pleases.'

But if she was temporarily famous, she certainly wasn't rich; the family still teetered on the brink of poverty. On one occasion they hadn't had a really good fossil find for over a year, and were selling their furniture to pay the rent; a kind collector sold his collection to save them. Mary's specimens were all sold to collectors, but when they ended up in museums they bore the names of the men who had bought them, rather than the woman who had discovered them.

If Mary Anning had been an educated man, and so able to publish her own scientific papers, she might now be seriously famous. How unfair that most people have never heard of the carpenter's teenage daughter who helped to unravel the history of life on earth.

The Philpot Museum in Lyme Regis, on the site of Mary Anning's house, has a collection of memorabilia.

4 Richard Arkwright's Water-frame and Mill

There are plenty of candidates for the invention that powered the industrial revolution. But what would all these engines drive? Sir Richard Arkwright (1732–92) built the first machine that could accurately reproduce the actions of a skilled manual worker – but he went much further. One of his 'water-frames' could replace not one but nearly one hundred workers; and Arkwright was a businessman with the vision to see that these new machines would allow him to organise labour in more efficient ways, opening up what was probably the world's first single-purpose factory. Arkwright was compared by Sir Robert Peel to Nelson and Wellington, and yet this industrial hero had a very modest start in life.

Richard's father was a peruke or wig-maker in Preston, Lancashire, and as the youngest of thirteen children Richard was last in line for the education his brothers received. Instead he, too, was apprenticed as a hairdresser and earned a living as a wigmaker, basing himself in Bolton from about 1750. Not much is known about Arkwright's early life, but a letter about the great man's time in Bolton written in 1799 concludes: 'He was always thought to be clever in his peruke making business and very capital in Bleeding and toothdrawing and allowed by all in his acquaintance to be [a] very ingenious man.' The account may benefit from hindsight, because we know of no Arkwright inventions from this time. As well as a barber, Arkwright became publican of the Black Boy Inn.


Excerpted from 100 Local Heroes by Adam Hart-Davis, Paul Bader. Copyright © 2013 Adam Hart-Davis and Paul Bader. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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