Mad Science: Einstein's Fridge, Dewar's Flask, Mach's Speed, and 362 Other Inventions and Discoveries that Made Our World

Overview

365 days of inventions, discoveries, science, and technology, from the editors of Wired Magazine.

On January 30, Rubik applied for a patent on his cube (1975). On the next day, 17 years earlier, the first U.S. Satellite passed through the Van Allen radiation belt. On March 17, the airplane "black box" made its maiden voyage (1953). And what about today? Every day of the year has a rich scientific and technological heritage just waiting to be uncovered, and Wired's top-flight ...

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Mad Science: Einstein's Fridge, Dewar's Flask, Mach's Speed, and 362 Other Inventions and Discoveries That Made Our World

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Overview

365 days of inventions, discoveries, science, and technology, from the editors of Wired Magazine.

On January 30, Rubik applied for a patent on his cube (1975). On the next day, 17 years earlier, the first U.S. Satellite passed through the Van Allen radiation belt. On March 17, the airplane "black box" made its maiden voyage (1953). And what about today? Every day of the year has a rich scientific and technological heritage just waiting to be uncovered, and Wired's top-flight science-trivia book MAD SCIENCE collects them chronologically, from New Year's Day to year's end, showing just how entertaining, wonderful, bizarre, and relevant science can be.

In 2010, Wired's popular "This Day in Tech" blog peaked with more than 700,000 page views each month, and one story in 2008 drew more than a million unique viewers. This book will collect the most intriguing anecdotes from the blog's run-one for each day of the year-and publish them in a package that will instantly appeal to hardcore techies and curious laypeople alike.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Wired Magazine's most popular online features in their "This Day in Tech" click, a destination of over seven million visitors a year. This date-keyed gathering of notable events that shaped the wired world range from the pre-Wright Brothers flights of a little-known aeronaut to the birth of a sci-fi visionary to a asteroid close call in 2004. This collection brings together 365 days of inventions, discoveries, mishaps, and surprises. A full year of science fun; think of it as a PC accessory.

Publishers Weekly
An eclectic calendar of scientific breakthroughs, this compilation of WIRED magazine's "This Day in Tech" feature is, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag. Meant less to be read straight through than to be dipped into at random, the book feels a little bit like a less capacious version of Wikipedia's "random article" function (and with, it must be said, about equal odds of landing on something both interesting and well-written). A sampling of entries from solstices and equinoxes would include "Columbia's Microgroove LP Makes Albums Sound Good" (June 21st, 1948), "The Curies Discover Radium" (December 21st, 1898), "Twitter Takes Flight" (March 21st, 2006), and "1792: Day One of Revolutionary Calendar" (September 22nd 1792). With a proliferation of questionable science and technology writing particular to our cultural moment, it's difficult not to feel a little assaulted by constant, unsubstantiated appeals to the faculty of wonder; then again, it's difficult to speak badly of such a good-natured little anthology-its slightness is part of its charm-an amusing novelty, mostly fascinating.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
From the Publisher
"Pure delight. Where else do baseball, birth control and postage stamps come together? Mad Science follows the thread of science and technology through the fabric of our everyday lives." — Richard Hart, Next Step TV, Technology Journalist
Kirkus Reviews
A mostly entertaining, random assemblage of inventions or discoveries (the safety pin, the Internet) sorted by day and year, reflecting advances that led to patents or widespread adoption. This diary of deeds comes to print via the Wired blog This Day in Tech and includes some 40 contributors' pun-filled entries that have been edited (and shortened) by Alfred, with additional notes of what else of technological interest happened on that day or in that year. The result may invoke in readers a combination of feel-good and gee-whiz sentiments. The subjects are widely varied: The Phillips screwdriver invented to automate screw turning on an assembly line (July 7, 1936), the debut of the first Horn and Hardart automat (June 9, 1902), the installation of the first jukebox (November 23, 1889, in San Francisco), the patent for the automatic railroad couple (April 29, 1873), the invention of commercial spam (April 12, 1994). The entries also record famous birthdays (Tesla, Heisenberg), major events (Einstein's 1905 papers, the Curies' discovery of radium), but much of the collection's charm lies in the more mundane: the Mason jar, the Thermos flask and the internal combustion engine. Archaeology, space science, medicine and surgery get their due, as do advances in weaponry that have led to bigger and better killing machines. This is not a text to be read in one sitting since there is no continuity from page to page, but one can imagine how useful those pages could be as a calendar in a classroom, where each day's entry could spark a lively discussion of the science behind the discovery. Edifying bathroom reading.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316208192
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 11/13/2012
  • Pages: 390
  • Sales rank: 949,868
  • Product dimensions: 5.72 (w) x 8.34 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet the Author

Randy Alfred is Editor of "This Day in Tech." He joined Wired.com as a copy editor in 2007. He also worked as senior news writer at Paul Allen's Tech TV cable channel. He lives in San Francisco.

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Read an Excerpt

Mad Science

Einstein's Fridge, Dewar's Flask, Mach's Speed, and 362 Other Inventions and Discoveries that Made Our World
By

Little, Brown and Company

ISBN: 9780316208192

January 1

1583: First New Year of Gregorian Calendar

The calendar established by Julius Caesar in 45 BCE was running ten days behind the real seasons of the year. Easter arrived too late in spring.

All because the Earth year is about eleven minutes short of 365¼ days. Without a calendar correction, Easter would eventually have fallen in summer, and Christmas in the spring. So Pope Gregory XIII appointed a commission. It proposed eliminating three leap years every four centuries (years ending in 00, unless divisible by 400). That would prevent further creep of the calendar against the seasons. But to reset the calendar immediately, ten days had to be eliminated. The pope decreed the new calendar should start in October 1582. The day after October 4 would not be October 5, but October 15.

This was just months away. Only Italy, Spain, and Portugal made deadline. Many people feared their lives were being shortened by ten days. The pious worried that saints might not listen to prayers that were ten days late. Everyone’s birthday moved up ten days too, so 365 days would pass between one birthday and the next. Rents, interest, and wages had to be discounted for that October, since it now had only twenty-one days.

A mob in Frankfurt rioted against the pope and his mathematicians. France made the change in December. Parts of the Low Countries jumped from December 21, 1582, directly to January 1, 1583, skipping Christmas. Most Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar by 1584. But Europe became a patchwork of calendars. You could cross a border and go backward or forward ten days. (Makes the international date line kid stuff.) The Julian calendar (see page 61) held on until 1752 in Britain and its colonies, and right through 1918 in Russia.

As a result, the old Soviet Union used to celebrate its October Revolution in November.—RA

Also January 1:

  • 1801: Piazzi Discovers Ceres, First Known Asteroid

  • 1845: Telegraph Helps Capture Murderer John Tawel

  • 1915: Aspirin Tablets Replace Powdered Form (see page 67)

  • Also Sixteenth Century:

  • May 4, 1536: C U @ the Piazza (see page 126)

January 2

1870: Building the Brooklyn Bridge

Construction begins on the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s the first suspension bridge to use steel—rather than iron—cables.

Conceived in 1867 by famed bridge designer John Augustus Roebling, it was by far the world’s longest suspension bridge, with a deck that connected Manhattan and Brooklyn suspended by cables hung from two neo-Gothic towers that pierced the skyline. Not precisely certain of the strength of his materials, Roebling designed the bridge to be six times stronger than it had to be. As a fail-safe, he added straight, diagonal cables to stiffen the superstructure. They make the bridge not a true suspension bridge (which has just vertical stringers, or suspender cables, hanging from huge, curved catenary cables) but a hybrid of suspension and cable-stayed design. That hybrid also gives the steel webwork its characteristic—and mesmerizing—crisscross appearance.

Roebling died of tetanus in 1869, the result of an injury sustained while surveying the bridge site. John’s son Washington assumed the title of chief engineer, but tragedy struck again when he became ill with the bends (severe decompression sickness) after rapidly exiting one of the bridge’s caissons. It fell to Washington’s wife, Emily Warren Roebling, to supervise construction of the bridge. Though never formally trained as an engineer, Emily had studied alongside her husband and began her own research after he became bedridden. Historian David McCullough credits Emily with saving the project, and she rode alongside President Chester Arthur during the ceremonial opening of the bridge, in May 1883. The Brooklyn Bridge has over the years carried P.T. Barnum’s elephants, light-rail, and six lanes of automotive traffic, as well as the thousands of pedestrians who left Lower Manhattan after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

But it’s not for sale, no matter what that guy on the corner tells you.—KB

Also January 2:

  • 1860: Mathematician Le Verrier “Discovers” the Planet Vulcan—Oops!

  • 1959: Soviets’ Luna 1 Probe Misses Moon, Goes into Solar Orbit

  • Also 1870:

  • February 9: Weather Service Forerunner Established (see page 40)

January 3

1957: Debut of the Electric Watch, a Space-Age Marvel

The Hamilton Electric 500 is announced at a press conference. It is the first battery-operated electric wristwatch and the first watch you never need to wind.

The 500 was made by the Hamilton Watch Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which began developing the timepiece in 1946. It was still not completely ready eleven years later, but the company, feeling the pressure of competition and wanting badly to be the first out the door with this innovation, called the press conference and went into production anyway. It was an instant hit at a time when progress was everyone’s watchword, so to speak, and all eyes looked expectantly to the future. And the 500 was, briefly, the watch of the future, with its ultramodern design and cutting-edge technology. But fundamental problems with the watch soon became apparent.

Battery life was relatively short, for one thing, so while winding was no longer necessary, frequent battery replacement—in some ways a more arduous chore—was. And newer doesn’t always mean “better,” which the 500 proved by being prone to failure, making it less reliable than the standard winding watch.

The watch’s hands were driven by a complex wheel train. By the late 1960s, quartz-movement watches—which had many fewer parts—had arrived, and Hamilton ended production in 1969. The 500 is now a highly prized collector’s piece.—TL

Also January 3:

  • 1888: Waxed Paper Drinking Straw Patented

  • 1977: Apple Computer Incorporates

  • Also 1957:

  • September 4: The Start of the Short, Unhappy Life of the Edsel (see page 249)

January 4

1903: AC/DC Current Events (or, Edison Fries an Elephant)

Thomas Edison stages a highly publicized electrocution of an elephant to demonstrate the danger of alternating current (although the only true danger it poses is to Edison’s own direct-current patents).

Edison had established direct current as the standard for electricity distribution and was living large off the patent royalties, income he didn’t want to lose just because George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla showed up with alternating current. Edison’s aggressive campaign to discredit the new current took the macabre form of a series of animal electrocutions using AC—a process he referred to snidely as getting Westinghoused. Stray dogs and cats were the most easily obtained subjects, but he also zapped a few cattle and horses.

Edison got his big chance when the Luna Park Zoo at Coney Island decided to terminate Topsy the elephant. The cranky female had squashed three handlers in three years—including one idiot who’d tried to feed her a lit cigarette. Someone suggested having the pachyderm “ride the lightning,” a method American prisons had started using in 1890 to dispatch the condemned. Edison was happy to oblige. Topsy was restrained using a ship’s hawser. Copper electrodes were attached to her feet. To stack the odds against Topsy even more, she was fed cyanide-laced carrots moments before a 6,600-volt AC charge slammed through her body. She was killed instantly, and Edison—in his own mind, anyway—had proved his point. A crowd of fifteen hundred witnessed Topsy’s execution, which was filmed by Edison and released later that year as Electrocuting an Elephant.

But in the end, all Edison had to show for his efforts was a string of dead animals, including the unfortunate Topsy. DC fell out of favor as AC demonstrated its superiority and became the standard.—TL

  • Also January 4:

  • 1643: Birth of Isaac Newton, Physicist (see page 107)

  • 1809: Birth of Louis Braille, Inventor of Alphabet for Blind

  • 1813: Birth of Isaac Pitman, Inventor of Shorthand Alphabet

  • Also 1903:

  • August 11: Instant Coffee, a Mixed Blessing (see page 225)

January 5

1972: Nixon Okays “Low-Cost” Space Shuttle

President Richard M. Nixon announces that NASA will develop a space shuttle system, touting its reliability, reusability, and low cost.

The Mercury and Gemini programs had put Americans into Earth orbit. Apollo had been to the moon seven times—landing four times—and would land twice more later in 1972.

But NASA wanted a reusable rocket ship to explore Earth’s orbit and to supply and staff a space station. Nixon gave the go-ahead: “This system will center on a space vehicle that can shuttle repeatedly from Earth to orbit and back. It will revolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it. It will take the astronomical costs out of astronautics.” NASA director James Fletcher’s remarks also referred to the shuttle’s “modest budget” and reduced complexity. The plan was to make forty-eight flights a year at about $50 million per launch ($274 million in 2012 money).

From 1981 to 2011, the shuttles made a hundred and thirty-five space flights, averaging four or five missions a year. University of Colorado researcher Roger Pielke Jr. calculated in early 2005 that the shuttle program to date had cost $145 billion, or about $1.3 billion per flight. (Based on a 1995 midpoint, that’s almost $2 billion per flight in 2012 dollars.)

The Apollo program cost a total of $19.4 billion from 1960 to 1973. That averages almost $2.2 billion each for the nine lunar missions. (Based on a 1967 midpoint, that would be about $15 billion each today.) So, space shuttle flights have certainly been less expensive than Apollo lunar missions. But even adjusting for inflation, and despite the program’s copious achievements, shuttle launches cost seven times more than was estimated.—RA

  • Also January 5:

  • 1943: Death of George Washington Carver, Inventor of Peanut Butter

  • 1996: First Cellphone Bomb Kills Hamas Operative

  • Also 1972:

  • April 10: 140 Nations Sign Biological Weapons Treaty

  • November 29: Pong, a Game Any Drunk Can Play (see page 335)

January 6

2000: Air Traffic Control System Suffers a Really Bad Air Day

Less than a week after Y2K passes without a global computer meltdown, a glitch in a 1960s computer at the air traffic control center in Washington, DC, slows and shuts down airlines in the Northeast.

Normally, when a flight is completed or a plane leaves a region’s airspace, the flight plan is deleted. A software glitch on this day meant the computer was no longer deleting the flight plans. As new flight plans came in, the system overloaded, and it shut down. So controllers went old-school, using small strips of paper with the flight information typed out. These slips were then hand-carried from one controller to another. This sneakernet system works just fine and is still used today as a backup. But it’s slower to walk across a room than to click a mouse, and the system ground to a crawl. Hundreds of flights from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington were directly affected, and that caused a ripple effect as waiting flights stacked up. Travelers around the country suffered nightmarish delays until the computer was fixed.

In the early days of aviation, pilots flew when conditions were good enough for them to see one another. By 1926, the United States started to implement rules for air traffic, and by 1930 the first radio-equipped control tower was installed in Cleveland. The first full-scale air traffic control center was established in Newark in 1936, the same year the federal government took over control of air traffic.

In the early days, controllers used a blackboard and maps with small models to estimate the locations of airplanes as reported by airports, the airlines, and radio operators along the routes. ATC modernized after World War II with the implementation of radar. U.S. controllers today combine radar, satellites, and good old-fashioned eyesight to keep track of more than eighty-five thousand flights a day. The Federal Aviation Administration plans to double air traffic capacity by switching from radar to GPS navigation.—JP

  • Also January 6:

  • 1912: Birth of Tech Skeptic Jacques Ellul

  • 1930: First Diesel Auto Trip, Indianapolis to New York

  • Also 2000:

  • June 10: London’s “Wobbly Bridge” Opens, Briefly

  • June 24: President Goes Live on Net

  • August 17: Half of U.S. Homes Have Internet Access

  • October 11: Ozone Hole Exposes Chilean City (see page 286)

January 7

1851: Foucault Demonstrates Rotation of Earth

Scientists had been trying for two centuries to measure Earth’s motion by dropping objects from towers. It didn’t work: too quick, too crude, too many interfering factors.

Jean-Bernard-Léon Foucault had an insight. A pendulum hanging on a wire and swinging directly north and south would appear to the observer to slowly move its plane of oscillation as Earth turned underneath it. In January 1851, after weeks of work in the cellar of his home, Foucault hung an eleven-pound pendulum from a six-and-a-half-foot cable. He observed a small clockwise motion of the pendulum’s apparent plane of oscillation. The pendulum was going straight back and forth, but the earth moved for Foucault. It was the first direct visual evidence of Earth’s rotation that was not based on watching the stars circle in the sky. He arranged a demonstration for the scientists of Paris on February 3. He told them, “You are invited to see the earth turn.” And so they did, as they watched Foucault’s pendulum move on a thirty-six-foot wire at the Paris Observatory.

French president Louis-Napoléon was a science buff, and he arranged for Foucault to give a public demonstration of his remarkable pendulum on March 31. Under the lofty roof of the Panthéon in Paris, Foucault hung a sixty-two-pound brass sphere on a two-hundred-twenty-foot cable. A pointer attached to the bottom of the sphere traced patterns in sand on a low wood platform. The public was dazzled. President Louis-Napoléon soon became Emperor Napoléon III, and he gave Foucault the position of physicist attached to the Imperial Observatory. But the university-trained scientists of Paris sniffed at Foucault, seeing him as an unschooled upstart. They repeatedly turned him down for membership in the French Academy of Sciences, although they finally admitted him in 1865.—RA

  • Also January 7:

  • 1785: Balloon Carries Two Passengers Across English Channel

  • 1904: CQD Radio Distress Signal Adopted, but SOS Soon Prevails

  • 1953: President Truman Announces U.S. H-bomb

  • Also 1851:

  • May 1: First World’s Fair Opens at London’s Crystal Palace

  • December 10: Birth of Librarian Melvil Dewey, Inventor of Dewey Decimal System

January 8

1942: A Brief History of Time Is Made Possible

British physicist Stephen Hawking is born.

Hawking was born in Oxford, where his parents had moved to escape the German Blitz on London. His website notes, in an interesting historical aside, that his birth came on the three hundredth anniversary of Galileo’s death.

Though naturally predisposed to mathematics, young Hawking switched to studying physics, because University College at Oxford did not offer the other discipline. He turned out to be pretty good at physics too. From there, Hawking moved on to Cambridge to do his research in cosmology. It was while attending Cambridge that he developed the first signs of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an incurable neurological disease. The average ALS patient dies within a few years of diagnosis. Defying all odds, Hawking has managed to live with it for five decades. In fact, Hawking has done far more than simply live with ALS. Almost willfully ignoring his disability, which leaves him paralyzed and unable to speak or walk, Hawking has carved out a brilliant career as a theoretical physicist specializing in the study of the universe.

His A Brief History of Time, a bestseller on the subject, helped raise public consciousness regarding the nature of the universe, its possible beginnings, and its probable end.

The reason for the very slow progression of Hawking’s disease remains a mystery. A special computer rigged to his wheelchair and operated by a blink switch attached to his glasses gives him some limited self-sufficiency, although he still requires around-the-clock nursing care.

In April 2007, Hawking realized his dream of taking a zero-gravity flight, making him the first quadriplegic ever to do so. He hopes to fly a suborbital flight on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo tourist service. The company’s owner, Richard Branson, says he’ll pick up the $200,000 tab for Hawking.—TL

  • Also January 8:

  • 1790: President Washington Urges New Nation to Encourage Science (see page 53)

  • 2004: Largest Ocean Liner, the RMS Queen Mary 2, Christened

  • Also 1942:

  • January 13: Ejection Seat Works, Pilot Elated (see page 13)

January 9

1643: Astronomer Sees Ashen Light of Venus

Italian astronomer Giovanni Riccioli discovers a faint glow on the night side of the planet Venus. Other astronomers over the ensuing centuries will also observe the Ashen Light, but it remains an astronomical mystery that defies conclusive explanation.

Riccioli was the lunar cartographer who named many of our moon’s features, like the Sea of Tranquility and the Sea of Storms. The faint luminescence he saw on Venus has been witnessed many times since, but there have been others who looked for it and did not see it. Some chalk it up to observer error, distortion caused by Earth’s atmosphere, and/or artifacts induced by telescope optics. But still: Four centuries of similar observations? Those who’ve seen the Ashen Light of Venus report it looks a lot like the reflected earthshine that sometimes casts a dull glow on the moon but not even that bright. It’s most easily sighted when the dusk edge of the sunlight on Venus faces Earth.

The U.S. Pioneer mission and the Soviet Venera 11 and 12 landers looked for it without any luck. The Keck I telescope in Hawaii did spot a faint green glow consistent with the emissions from oxygen atoms, but it was too weak to account for all the amateur sightings over the years. Another possibility is multiple lightning flashes. During Venus flybys in 1998 and 1999, the Cassini spacecraft failed to detect the high-frequency radio noise that lightning would be expected to generate, like AM radio static during terrestrial thunderstorms. But other radiation detected on Venus is characteristic of lightning discharges. It’s also possible the Ashen Light of Venus is caused by solar particles energizing the atmosphere, like the terrestrial aurora borealis and aurora australis—hence its evanescence.

Or it’s some previously unknown combination of things we understand. Or something we don’t understand at all.—RA

  • Also January 9:

  • 1816: Davy’s Safety Lamp First Used in a Mine

  • 1839: Birth of Photography—Daguerre Displays His Daguerreotypes (see page 233)

  • Also 1643:

  • January 4: Birth of Isaac Newton, Physicist (see page 107)

January 10

1863: Take the Tube

London inaugurates the world’s first subway service. Approximately forty thousand Londoners ride the trains the first day.

The original line ran from Paddington Station to Farringdon Street via Edgware Road, Baker Street, Portland Road (now Great Portland Street), Gower Street (now Euston Square), and King’s Cross. It took the train eighteen minutes to make the three-and-three-quarter-mile journey. By 1880, the line was carrying forty million passengers a year. Despite the subway’s success, it was not widely copied for more than three decades. The next metro subways to open were in Budapest and in Glasgow, in 1896. Boston’s opened in 1897, Paris’s in 1900, and New York’s in 1904.

The London system relied on steam-driven trains, which made proper ventilation critical. There were several independent companies operating the trains, making logistics a nightmare. By the twentieth century, however, trains had been electrified and tunneling methods improved. The London system, which became known as the Underground, was largely consolidated by 1902 under the ownership of American tycoon Charles Yerkes. But it was 1933 before all the lines came under the control of a public corporation, the London Passenger Transport Board.

Governance of the system has successively passed to the London Transport Executive (1948), London Transport Board (1963), London Transport Executive (again; 1970), London Regional Transport (1984), and Transport for London (2000). During the Blitz in World War II, Underground stations were used as ad hoc air-raid shelters. Today the Underground comprises eleven lines (not counting the Dockland Lights Railway or the converted suburban rail lines of the London Overground) serving 270 stations in metropolitan London. The system carries roughly a billion passengers per year, making it one of the largest in the world. By comparison, New York City’s subway system carries 1.6 billion passengers annually, and Tokyo’s 3.1 billion.—TL

  • Also January 10:

  • 1899: Electric Flashlight Patented

  • 1901: Spindletop Well Produces First Texas Gusher

  • 1949: 45 RPM Records Debut

  • Also 1863:

  • February 7: An Early Stab at Organizing the Elements (see page 38)

  • December 19: Walton Patents Improvement to His Invention of Linoleum

January 11

1922: Insulin Makes a Nice Shot

Insulin is used to treat diabetes in a human being for the first time.

During a clinical test at the University of Toronto, an injection of bovine insulin was administered to fourteen-year-old Leonard Thompson by surgeon Frederick Banting, who had been researching ways of extracting insulin from the pancreas. The boy suffered an allergic reaction to the first injection, but further work improved the extract. A second injection administered a few weeks later was successful. Banting was then able to produce large quantities of insulin, but the process remained impure until pharmaceutical maker Eli Lilly offered its assistance. Banting cut a deal with the drug company, and insulin came into common use.

For his work, Banting, along with collaborator John James Rickard Macleod, was awarded the 1923 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Banting shared the credit—and half of his prize money—with his research assistant Charles Best, and Macleod shared his with coresearcher James Collip.—TL

  • Also January 11:

  • 1902: Popular Mechanics Publishes First Issue

  • 1911: Forerunner of Max Planck Institute Founded in Berlin

  • Also 1922:

  • April 2: Rorschach Dies, Leaving a Blot on His Name (see page 94)

  • June 16: First Controlled Horizontal Helicopter Flight in U.S.

  • August 4: U.S. Phones Shut Off for Bell’s Funeral (see page 71)

January 12

1992 (or 1997): HAL of a Computer

HAL 9000, the master computer aboard the spaceship Discovery in the novel and film 2001: A Space Odyssey, becomes operational. He will inspire millions of dreams—and some nightmares—of artificial intelligence.

Late in the film, HAL regresses to his infancy and begins an eerie recitation of bits of his earliest knowledge: “I am a HAL 9000 Computer, Production No. 3. I became operational at the H–A–L plant in Urbana, Illinois, on the twelfth of January, 1992.” At least that’s what HAL says in the 1968 film. Director Stanley Kubrick and author Arthur C. Clarke cowrote the screenplay, which was inspired by Clarke’s 1950 short story “The Sentinel.” Clarke then wrote a novelized version of the screenplay, in which he changed HAL’s birth year to 1997.

Chapter 16 of the novel clearly states that HAL stands for “Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer.” Many people, however, thought HAL was a one-letter-ahead cipher for IBM. In his book The Lost Worlds of 2001, Clarke dismissed that idea, claiming that it was embarrassing, given all the help IBM provided for the film: “We… would have changed the name had we spotted the coincidence.” The IBM theory is further denied in the sequel, 2010.

Urbana, Illinois, is home to the University of Illinois and—since 1986—the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, which developed the first web browser, Mosaic (see page 114).

The movie cost $10.5 million ($69 million in 2012 dollars) and premiered in New York City on April 3, 1968. The dazzling special effects did not impress all the critics: the New York Times described 2001 as “somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring,” while Pauline Kael deemed it “monumentally unimaginative.” Kubrick promptly cut nineteen minutes from the film, and the smash hit debuted across the country three days later.—RA

  • Also January 12:

  • 1665: Fermat’s Last Breath

  • 1967: It’s Cold in Here—First Cryonic “Burial”

  • Also 1992:

  • May 5: Wolfenstein 3-D Shoots First-Person Shooter into Stardom (see page 127)

  • Also 1997:

  • February 10: IBM’s Deep Blue Outmatches Chess Champ Kasparov (see page 41)

January 13

1942: Ejection Seat Works, Pilot Elated

At the height of World War II, German test pilot Helmut Schenck becomes the first person to use an ejection seat to successfully exit his aircraft in an emergency situation.

Schenck, testing a Heinkel He-280 jet fighter, was in tow behind a conventionally powered aircraft when his plane iced up, making it impossible for him to start the engines. He jettisoned his canopy and activated the seat, which catapulted him clear of the aircraft. Schenck was the first to use this method of exiting his aircraft in an actual emergency, although another Heinkel pilot had previously ejected successfully under test conditions.

Germany led the way in developing the ejection seat. The speed and g-forces generated by its newly developed jet planes made escape problematic for a pilot equipped with only a parachute. Exiting the aircraft by bailing out, common in propeller-driven planes, was exceedingly dangerous in a jet. The British also studied aircraft ejection during the interwar years but then set the project aside in favor of other pursuits. They didn’t seriously revisit the subject until after World War II.

The Germans experimented with several types of ejection seat, or Schleudersitzapparat, “seat catapult device.” Schenck’s was activated by compressed gas; another type relied on a spring-operated mechanism, and a third used a propellant charge. Schenck’s type of seat was later abandoned in favor of the propellant-charge version.

Ejection seats were eventually installed in several models of Luftwaffe jets but in only a few Me-262s, the most widely used German jet fighter of the war. From the time of Schenck’s successful escape to the end of World War II, approximately sixty Luftwaffe airmen ejected from their planes in combat situations.—TL

  • Also January 13:

  • 1908: First Pilot to Fly Kilometer Wins Big Aviation Prize

  • 1928: First Home TV Sets Have Three-Inch Screens

  • 2004: Astronomers Hold Back, Don’t Panic World Over Asteroid That Misses

  • Also 1942:

  • February 23: Japanese Sub Shells Santa Barbara Refinery (see page 55)

January 14

1794: First Successful Cesarean in United States

Elizabeth Bennett delivers a daughter by cesarean section, becoming the first woman in the United States to give birth this way and survive. Her husband, Jesse, is the physician who performs the operation.

Elizabeth, struggling with a difficult labor and believing she would die, had asked her attending physician to perform a cesarean, in the hope of saving the baby. The doctor refused on moral grounds, so Jesse stepped in. Conditions were crude. The procedure was performed at home—a log cabin deep in the backwoods of Mason County, Virginia (now West Virginia). The operating table consisted of a couple of planks laid across two barrels. Jesse Bennett resorted to laudanum—lots of it—to knock out his wife. Despite these limitations, the surgery went smoothly. Bennett extracted a healthy girl, and he closed the incision.

The cesarean section was not new. What was new was the idea that both mother and child could survive the ordeal. The operation itself dated from antiquity but, with very few exceptions, was performed only when the mother was dead or dying. The first recorded cesarean in which both mother and child survived was done in Switzerland in 1500. That was also a husband-and-wife affair, although in this case the husband, Jacob Nufer, was a swine gelder, not a doctor.

Before the nineteenth century, the success rate for C-sections was very low. Times have sure changed: in the United States today, more than 30 percent of all births are by cesarean section.—TL

  • Also January 14:

  • 1898: Death of Mathematician Charles Dodgson, AKA Lewis Carroll

  • 1914: Ford Starts Using Chain-Driven Assembly Line to Build Model Ts

  • 1943: Birth of U.S. Astronaut Shannon Lucid

  • Also 1794:

  • March 14: Eli Whitney Patents the Cotton Gin (see page 75)

  • March 27: U.S. Navy Established

January 15

2001: Enter Wikipedia

Wikipedia goes online. Doing research will never be the same again.

Wikipedia is the web’s vast user-generated, crowd-sourced encyclopedia. The 2001 innovation is itself based on wiki software introduced in 1995 to let groups collaborate on a document. Wiki comes from the Hawaiian word meaning “fast.” Wikipedia is the brainchild of Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. Wales gets credit for the open-to-all encyclopedia concept, while Sanger is said to have advocated using a wiki to accomplish this.

Most entries can be edited by anyone, so there’s legitimate skepticism. What if the Wikipedian who wrote it is a liar? An idiot? Merely incompetent? Well, if you’d rather not screw up your term paper, you’d better cross-check the information. Wikipedia can help with that too: Just follow the links from the footnotes. And use a search engine to find independent verification.

But the wisdom of the crowd can result in pretty good work. Besides, after a couple of high-profile snafus, Wikipedia introduced some controls on the intellectual free-for-all. For instance, you can’t anonymously edit pages about celebrities, some other quickly changing topics, and some specific emotionally charged topics. And upper-level editors use special software to keep an eye on recent changes.

Looking for a list of U.S. first ladies or Swedish kings? Likely no problem. Middle Eastern politics? Tread carefully. But there’s no arguing that Wikipedia usually has the info we want, right there at the top of the search results. In the rush-rush atmosphere of the twenty-first century, there’s plenty to be said for that. And plenty of people know it. The site ranks consistently in the top ten most visited worldwide.

As of 2012, Wikipedia boasts nearly 4 million articles in English alone. Counting everything that appears in 280 languages, it’s 21 million entries from 85,000 active contributors. You could look it up.—TL, RA

  • Also January 15:

  • 1919: Molasses Explosion and Flood Kills Twenty-One in Boston

  • 1929: Birth of Martin Luther King Jr., Who Warned of Technological Amorality

  • Also 2001:

  • January 28: Hey, Don’t Tampa with My Privacy (see page 28)

January 16

1936: Day at the Races, and Your Nag in a Photo Finish

A photo-finish camera is installed at Florida’s Hialeah race track. It marks the first use of the device for Thoroughbred horse racing, the sport with which it is most closely associated.

Photo-finish cameras are also used at track meets, auto races, and bicycle races—anywhere, in fact, where the winner is determined by who hits the finish line first. The photo-finish camera was originally a conventional still camera modified to handle rapid multiple imaging: its focal-plane shutter was replaced with a capping shutter, and it employed a vertical-slit view of the finish line. The camera was elevated to avoid blocking its view of any competitors.

With refinements, which resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of photographs taken per second, this remained the basic photo-finish technology until the advent of digital photography. A camera in the mid-twentieth century might shoot a hundred images per second. A modern digital camera can take a thousand images per second.

The first photo-finish camera was used at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. By the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, photo-finish technology had advanced to include the finish line and a chronograph reading on a single image. A version of this so-called Kirby camera went into use at Hialeah for the 1936 meeting.

In horse racing, the winning horse is the one whose nose hits the line first. In a race among humans, the winner is the one whose torso—any part of it—hits the line first, which is why you often see runners lunging at the tape in a close race.

Perhaps the most famous photo finish of all time occurred with a triple dead heat (three horses hitting the finish line simultaneously) in the 1944 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct Racetrack in New York.—TL

  • Also January 16:

  • 1909: Ernest Shackleton’s Expedition Locates Magnetic South Pole

  • 1969: Two Soviet Spacecraft Dock and Transfer Cosmonauts

  • Also 1936:

  • May 12: August Dvorak Patents New Keyboard Arrangement, but QWERTY Still Reigns

  • July 7: Get a Grip—Phillips Screws Up the Toolbox (see page 190)

January 17

1985: Red Phone Boxes Are Put on Hold

Britain’s famous red telephone boxes are officially retired by British Telecom, another victim of encroaching technology and corporate expediency.

Retired does not mean “completely gone,” however. Although their numbers have dwindled over the years, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s iconic telephone boxes are still kicking around Old Blighty. And they remain the phone box of choice on the island of Malta. Scott’s design was chosen in a 1924 competition, and Scott himself originally recommended painting the boxes silver. The post office—which ran Britain’s phone service at the time—chose red so the booths would be easier to see. Red was also, of course, the color (or should we say colour) of the post office letter boxes found on so many corners. Following privatization in 1984, the phone service switched to British Telecom, and the design of phone boxes became more utilitarian. Many of the red boxes were replaced, but a public outcry led to the preservation of a fair number, especially in areas of central London frequented by traditionalists and tourists.

The growing prevalence of cellphones in the past two decades has severely reduced demand for public phone boxes of any type. Some of the red beauties still in use have been converted to Internet kiosks, but smartphones are knocking the wind out of that market too.—TL

  • Also January 17:

  • 1706: Birth of Benjamin Franklin, Inventor and Electricity Pioneer

  • 1966: U.S. Accidentally Drops Three H-Bombs on Spanish Village; They Don’t Explode

  • Also 1985:

  • March 11: First Public Net Links Consumers’ Computers (see page 72)

January 18

1911: Clear the Deck… for an Aeroplane

A Curtiss biplane becomes the first airplane to perform a landing on a ship.

The plane, piloted by Eugene Ely, landed on a platform bolted to the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania moored in San Francisco Bay. Ely had been flying for less than a year when he was approached by the U.S. Navy to help investigate military uses for aircraft. (Flying was such a new endeavor that mere months of experience qualified Ely for the risky attempt.) The previous November, he’d taken off in a Curtiss plane from a specially built eighty-three-foot wooden platform on the bow of the light cruiser USS Birmingham in Hampton Roads, Virginia. The plane didn’t have a lot of speed when it taxied off the edge of the ship. The wheels actually dipped into the water, and spray splattered on Ely’s goggles. Instead of making a triumphant circuit of the harbor and landing at the Norfolk Navy Yard, he quickly landed on a beach and counted his blessings. But Ely performed flawlessly in his 1911 shipboard landing. And within the hour, he took off from the deck of the Pennsylvania and returned safely to San Francisco.

He was not so lucky later in the year: he was killed during a flying exhibition in Macon, Georgia, just shy of his (some sources say) twenty-fifth birthday.

The military significance of Ely’s shipboard landing and takeoff was staggering, leading directly to the development of the aircraft carrier, which remains, since World War II, the most dominant nonnuclear naval weapon.—TL

  • Also January 18:

  • 1778: Captain Cook lands in Hawaii

  • 1888: Birth of Thomas Sopwith, Designer of World War I’s Sopwith Camel Airplane

  • 1933: Birth of Audio Engineer Ray Dolby, Inventor of Dolby Noise Reduction

  • Also 1911:

  • January 21: All Roads Lead to Monte Carlo… Rally (see page 21)

  • September 17: First Transcontinental Flight Takes Weeks (see page 262)

January 19

1883: Let There Be Light, All Over Town

Roselle, New Jersey, earns its place in tech history when the first electric lighting system employing overhead wires goes into service.

The system was built by Thomas Edison as part of an experiment to prove that an entire community could be lit by electricity from a shared, central generating station. A steam-driven generator sent the juice through the wires strung overhead to a store, the town’s railway depot, forty or so houses, and a hundred and fifty streetlights. The First Presbyterian Church of Roselle made electrical and ecclesiastical history three months later when it installed a thirty-bulb electrolier and became the world’s first church to be lit by electricity. The electric chandelier still hangs in the church. In the centennial year of 1983, a bronze-and-granite marker was dedicated at the original site of Edison’s generator, at the corner of Locust Street and West First Avenue, in Roselle.

Edison, one of the most prolific inventors of all time, was known as the Wizard of Menlo Park. That predates, apparently, the age of visionaries, geniuses, and gurus. Among Edison’s 1,093 U.S. patents are the incandescent lightbulb; the phonograph; the stock ticker; and the kinetoscope, an early film projector. (We could put an Edison patent on nearly every page of this book, but you’d lose interest pretty fast.) Whether Edison was the actual inventor of everything he patented remains debatable; in fact, doubtful (see pages 29, 192, 222, and 354). But there’s no denying that the man knew what he was doing (see pages 4, 229, and 296).—TL

  • Also January 19:

  • 1736: Birth of James Watt, Improver of the Steam Engine

  • 1983: Apple’s Lisa debuts, First Commercial Computer with a Graphical User Interface

  • Also 1883:

  • May 24: Brooklyn Bridge Opens (see page 2)

  • November 18: Railroad Time Goes Coast to Coast (see page 324)

January 20

Inaugural Tech, from Steamboat to Twitter

When George Washington was inaugurated as the first U.S. president, in 1789, his words could be heard no farther than his unaided voice could project them, and they could be carried no faster than the decrees of an ancient Roman or Persian emperor had been.

The choices one had to hurry news on its way were horseback, sailing ship, and carrier pigeon. No railroads, no telegraph. Time and tech have changed how we see and hear the inauguration. Here are some firsts:

  • 1801: Jefferson’s inaugural address prompts a newspaper extra.

  • 1817: Steamboats (see page 198) on the Potomac can carry news of Monroe’s inauguration.

  • 1837: Trains (see page 263) can carry word of Van Buren’s inauguration, because the B&O Railroad began service from Washington in 1835.

  • 1845: As Polk is sworn in, telegraph inventor Samuel Morse (see page 173) taps out the news to places as far away as Baltimore.

  • 1857: Buchanan’s inauguration is photographed (see page 233).

  • 1885: News of Cleveland’s inaugural can be spoken over long-distance telephone wires (see page 71).

  • 1897: McKinley’s inauguration is captured in moving pictures.

  • 1905: Telephones are installed on the Capitol grounds for Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural.

  • 1921: Harding rides to and from his inauguration in an automobile. Loudspeakers let people in the crowd actually hear the proceedings. An announcer on radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh (see page 274) reads an advance copy of the inaugural address.

  • 1925: Coolidge’s inauguration is broadcast live on twenty-four radio stations.

  • 1929: Hoover’s inaugural is recorded by talking newsreel (see page 73).

  • 1949: President Truman is inaugurated on national TV.

  • 1961: Kennedy’s inaugural parade is on color TV (see page 86).

  • 1981: Reagan’s inauguration is the world’s first telecast to include live, closed-caption subtitles for the hearing-impaired.

  • 1997: Clinton’s inaugural is webcast.

  • 2009: Obama’s inauguration is tweeted (see page 82).

Note: Inauguration Day was March 4 from 1793 through 1933.—RA

  • Also January 20:

  • 1838: First Traveling Post Office as Britain Starts Sorting Mail Aboard Trains

  • 1942: Nazi Wannsee Conference Unleashes “Final Solution,” Genocide by Technology

January 21

1911: All Roads Lead to Monte Carlo… Rally

The first Monte Carlo Automobile Rally is held. Twenty-three cars starting from eleven different locations around Europe eventually converge on the tiny principality of Monaco.

The event was organized at the behest of Prince Albert I (great-grandfather of current Prince Albert II). Like many motoring contests of the time, it was seen primarily as a way for auto manufacturers to test new cars and new technologies. Remember, this was the era of the Model T, the first purpose-built race cars, and the earliest electric starters. Results of the hybrid event depended not only on driving time but also on judges’ assessment of the automobiles’ design and passenger comfort, as well as what condition the vehicles were in after covering a thousand kilometers of roads not really made for the horseless carriage. The arbitrary system provoked minor outrage, but the judges’ decision stood.

Automobile dealer Henri Rougier won first place driving a Turcat-Méry 45-horsepower model. Second place went to a driver named Aspaigu in a Gobron, and third to Jules Beutler in a Martini. The rally was held the following year, but then not again until 1924, after which it became an annual event. World War II and its aftermath interrupted the yearly races, so there were no rallies from 1940 through 1948.

Winning the annual rally gives a car manufacturer a great deal of publicity and trust. Before Paddy Hopkirk won the rally in 1964, the Mini was seen as just a commuter car. After winning, the Mini Cooper had the rep of a world-beating performance car.

The Monte Carlo Rally isn’t held on a closed track but on narrow cliffside roads to the north of the tiny principality. About a quarter of it is run at night.—TB

  • Also January 21:

  • 1954: USS Nautilus, World’s First Nuclear-Powered Submarine

  • 1979: Neptune Moves Outside Pluto’s Wacky Orbit

  • 2008: Chief Marie Dies; So Does Eyak Language

  • Also 1911:

  • October 24: Birth of an Inventive Wyeth

January 22

1984: Dawn of the Mac

The Apple Macintosh personal computer is introduced to the world in a now-legendary TV commercial during Super Bowl XVIII.

The sixty-second spot, directed by Ridley Scott, featured a female athlete running through a dystopian landscape inspired by George Orwell’s 1984 and then throwing a sledgehammer at a TV image of Big Brother (meant, in this case, to represent IBM). It ended with a promise: “Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” The first Mac computer went on sale two days later. It was a product of its time—underpowered and not very easy to use. But it did represent a sea change, a paradigm shift, whichever late-twentieth-century business cliché you care to use. It was the first consumer computer to feature a graphical user interface that could be called user-friendly, and it was the first—with the advent of the LaserWriter printer and Aldus PageMaker—to make desktop publishing a reality.

The Macintosh 128K (that was your RAM) screamed along at 8 MHz, featured two serial ports, and could accommodate one 3.5-inch floppy disk. It ran the Mac OS 1.0, came with a nine-inch black-and-white monitor, and sold for a cool $2,500 (about $5,500 in 2012 dollars). In a little under three months, Apple sold fifty thousand of these babies; not exactly an avalanche. But successively improved models did sell big and were enormously influential in goading other computer manufacturers to make their products more intuitive.

As for the ad itself, Advertising Age eventually selected it as the Commercial of the Decade, and it’s credited with beginning the annual creative orgy of modern Super Bowl commercials.—TL

  • Also January 22:

  • 1950: Innovative Automaker Preston Tucker Acquitted of Financial Fraud Charges

  • 1980: Soviets Exile Nuclear Physicist Andrei Sakharov

  • Also 1984:

  • April 11: Shuttle Makes House Call, Repairs Satellite (see page 103)

January 23

1960: Journey to the Deepest Place on Earth

The diving submersible vessel Trieste descends to the floor of the Marianas Trench, the deepest known place on the planet.

The Trieste, a bathyscaph, was designed by Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard and built in Naples, Italy, as a deep-diving research vessel. After proving its mettle in the Mediterranean, the Trieste was purchased by the U.S. Navy and shipped to San Diego. Its dive into the Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the trench, was made, according to a U.S. Navy press release, “to demonstrate that the United States possesses the capability for manned exploration of the sea down to the deepest part of its floor.” The vessel was equipped with air tanks that could be flooded, like a submarine’s, to help it dive. Additionally, it was weighted down with nine tons of iron shot. Trieste descended at a rate of three feet per second to a depth of 27,000 feet, after which its descent rate was halved.

It took U.S. Navy lieutenant Donald Walsh and Jacques Piccard (son of Trieste’s designer) four hours and forty-eight minutes to make the descent to a depth of 35,810 feet, roughly seven miles. The pressure there is nearly 17,000 pounds per square inch. Although an outer Plexiglas window cracked during the descent, Trieste handled the dive like a champ. After sitting on the bottom for twenty minutes, eating candy bars and shining a light that illuminated a shrimplike creature outside, Walsh and Piccard pumped out two tons of iron shot and began their ascent. The trip home was faster—three hours and seventeen minutes to the surface.

Trieste was sent to the Atlantic Ocean in 1963 to search for the nuclear attack submarine USS Thresher, which was lost with all hands during a deep-diving exercise. Upon the bathyscaph’s return, it was retired to the U.S. Navy Museum in Washington.—TL

  • Also January 23:

  • 1911: French Academy of Sciences Rejects Marie Curie (see page 357)

  • 1978: Sweden Is First Country to Ban Aerosol Sprays to Save Ozone Layer

  • Also 1960:

  • May 9: Easy Birth Control Arrives, but There’s a Catch (see page 131)

  • October 24: Soviet Rocket Explodes, Killing Top Engineers, Technicians

January 24

1935: First Canned Beer Sold

The first canned beer in the United States goes on sale in Richmond, Virginia.

The American Can Company began experimenting with canned beer in 1909. But the cans couldn’t withstand the pressure from carbonation, and they exploded. As Prohibition ended, in 1933, the company developed a keg-lining technique, coating the inside of the can in the same way the inside of a keg is lined. American Can offered the beer maker Krueger a deal: if the beer flopped, the brewery wouldn’t have to pay for the canning equipment. So Krueger’s Cream Ale and Krueger’s Finest Beer became the first beers sold to the public in cans. Canned beer was an immediate success. The public loved it, giving it a 91 percent approval rating.

Compared to glass, the cans were lightweight, cheap, and easy to stack and ship. Unlike bottles, cans didn’t require you to pay deposits. By summer, Krueger was buying 180,000 cans a day from American Can. By the end of the year, thirty-seven breweries had followed Krueger’s lead. The first cans were flat-topped and made of heavy-gauge steel. To open one, you had to punch a hole in the top with the sharp end of a church-key-style opener. Some breweries tried out cans with a conical top sealed with a bottle cap, but they didn’t stack and ship as easily as flat-tops.

During World War II, canning was interrupted in order to save resources. Aluminum cans, cheaper and lighter still, were introduced in 1958.

Beyond their economy and convenience, cans are actually better for beer than glass bottles. The opaque can blocks light completely; light splits the B vitamin riboflavin, which then reacts with the beer’s hops to form a molecule that smells like… skunk spray.—DV

  • Also January 24:

  • 1848: Gold Discovered in California

  • 1984: First Apple Macintosh Computer Goes on Sale (see page 22)

  • Also 1935:

  • February 2: First Polygraph Lie-Detector Evidence (see page 33)

January 25

1921: Robots First Czech In 1979: Robot Kills Human

1921: A play about robots premieres at the National Theater in Prague, Czechoslovakia.

R.U.R., by Karel Čapek, marks the first use of the word robot to describe an artificial person. Čapek invented the term, basing it on the Czech word meaning “forced labor.” The robots in Čapek’s play are not mechanical men made of metal. Instead, they are molded out of a chemical batter, and they look exactly like humans.

In the play, over the course of just fifteen years, the price of a robot has dropped from $10,000 to $150. (In today’s money, that’s $128,000 down to $1,900.) Each robot “can do the work of two and a half human laborers,” so humans could be free to have “no other task, no other work, no other cares” than perfecting themselves. However, the robots come to realize that even though they have “no passion, no history, no soul,” they are stronger and smarter than humans. They kill every human but one.

The play explores themes that would later become staples of robot science fiction, including freedom, love, and destruction. Although many of Čapek’s other works were more famous during his lifetime, R.U.R. is the one he is best known for today.

1979: In a remarkable coincidence, the first recorded human death caused by a robot occurred on the fifty-eighth anniversary of the play’s premiere.

A twenty-five-year-old Ford Motor assembly-line worker was killed on the job in a Flat Rock, Michigan, casting plant. Robert Williams died instantly when the robot’s arm slammed him as he was gathering parts in a storage facility, where the robot also retrieved parts. Williams’s family was later awarded $10 million in damages. The jury agreed that the robot struck Williams in the head because it lacked safety measures, such as an alarm that would go off when the robot approached a person.—TL, DK

  • Also January 25:

  • 1627: Birth of Physicist-Chemist Robert Boyle

  • 1945: Grand Rapids, Michigan, Becomes First U.S. City to Fluoridate Drinking Water

  • Also 1921:

  • December 9: Leaded Gasoline Shown to Reduce Knocking

  • Also 1979:

  • March 28: Reactor Meltdown at Three Mile Island (see page 89)

January 26

1983: Spreadsheet as Easy as 1-2-3

Lotus begins selling its spreadsheet application for Microsoft DOS, called 1-2-3.

Lotus 1-2-3 was not the first spreadsheet application—it was preceded by VisiCalc. But 1-2-3 became the most popular, boosting sales of IBM PCs and PC clones, all of which ran DOS, and facilitating the rapid rise of Microsoft’s operating system. The built-in charting and graphing capabilities of 1-2-3 helped it outsell VisiCalc. Lotus 1-2-3 quickly came to dominate the business-software market in the mid- and late 1980s.

Spreadsheet software, which seems commonplace today, was a major breakthrough for personal computing. It made it easy to keep track of columns of numbers, such as sales receipts, paychecks, expenses, or even athletic records. But the real power of the spreadsheet was the ability it gave businesspeople to run quick and easy what-if calculations. What if we lowered the price of our widgets by ten dollars? What if mortgage rates drop to 5 percent and we refinance? What if we laid off five thousand workers and shuttered our Kalamazoo plant, then outsourced manufacturing to a Chinese company for half the cost? Technology pundit John C. Dvorak says the what-if society turned corporate executives into slavish devotees of spreadsheet scenarios, no longer making decisions based on what customers actually want. But there’s no doubt that the spreadsheet has transformed American business and the economy.

Lotus 1-2-3’s reign lasted nearly five years, dwindling only when the company failed to transition from DOS to the increasingly Windows-centric world of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Microsoft Excel was much easier to learn than the forbiddingly austere text screen of Lotus’s product, and Excel started outselling 1-2-3.

Lotus went on to create another incredibly successful business application, Lotus Notes, still used by many companies today. Lotus has been a division of IBM since 1995.—DT

  • Also January 26:

  • 1700: Northwest Quake Unleashes Transpacific Tsunami

  • 2006: End of an Era—the Last Western Union Telegram

  • Also 1983:

  • June 13: Pioneer 10 Reaches an End… and a Beginning (see page 166)

  • June 18: Sally Ride Becomes First American Woman in Space

January 27

1888: National Geographic Society Gets Going

A small cadre of businessmen, explorers, scientists, and scholars incorporates the National Geographic Society.

What began as a small, elite society for “the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge” is now one of the world’s largest nonprofit scientific and educational institutions. Its mission today is broader: “to inspire people to care about the planet.” Founding president Gardiner Green Hubbard was the father-in-law and early financial backer of inventor Alexander Graham Bell (see page 71), another founding member and the society’s second president. The society’s National Geographic magazine first appeared just nine months after that founding meeting. It started as a drab scholarly journal sent to 165 charter members.

National Geographic’s hallmark photojournalism began as an editor’s desperate attempt to fill eleven blank pages of the January 1905 issue before it went to press. Gilbert Grosvenor gambled with a photo spread on Lhasa, Tibet. Members loved it. National Geographic has been a constant pioneer in photojournalism, photographic technology, and color printing. It was the first U.S. publication to establish a color-photo lab (in 1920), first to publish color underwater photographs (in 1927), first to print an all-color issue (in 1962), and first to print a hologram (in 1984).

Membership revenue has provided funding for more than nine thousand grants for research and exploration, including Robert Peary’s expedition to the North Pole, Hiram Bingham’s excavation of Machu Picchu, Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s under-water exploration (see page 164), Louis and Mary Leakey’s research on human evolution in Africa, and Dian Fossey’s and Jane Goodall’s studies of gorillas and chimpanzees, respectively. The society’s yellow-bordered flagship publication is published in thirty-two languages and sent to eight million subscribers worldwide. NGS also produces films, books, DVDs, music, and games; runs a website; and has a television channel that reaches 270 million households in 166 countries.

That’s increase and diffusion for you.—AA

  • Also January 27:

  • 1910: Death of Thomas Crapper, Improver and Popularizer of the Flush Toilet

  • 1950: Antibiotic Terramycin Announced in Science

  • 1967: Three Astronauts Die in Apollo Capsule Fire

  • Also 1888:

  • August 12: Berta Benz Takes Boys on First Auto Road Trip (see page 226)

  • September 4: Eastman Patents Roll-Film Camera, Registers Kodak Name

January 28

2001: Hey, Don’t Tampa with My Privacy

When the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Giants face off in Tampa, Florida, in Super Bowl XXXV, officials debut a new video technology that has nothing to do with instant replay. Facial-recognition surveillance cameras point at tens of thousands of fans entering the game.

The idea: catch known con artists or terrorists. The system set off alarms in the press before the big game, which one magazine called the Snooper Bowl. But there were no touchdowns for facial recognition that day. Not a single bad guy was caught.

Undeterred, Tampa police deployed the system on a busy street; a year later, they were forced to admit that they hadn’t snagged a single fugitive and had mostly given up on the multimillion-dollar system. Tampa kept on with $8 million in federal grants to improve the system. Tampa patrolmen now use digital cameras to take pictures of citizens at traffic stops and compare them against a database of 7.5 million mug shots. About five hundred people have been arrested thanks to the system. But facial recognition on a mass scale remains an engineer’s challenge and a civil libertarian’s nightmare. Photo angles and lighting complicate the task of matching faces to photos. New 3-D solutions that take facial depth into account may overcome those problems. And the Department of Homeland Security hands out millions of dollars to cities and airports for more security cameras.

In the meantime, you can turn the technology on your friends and family using facial-recognition tools in photo-sharing sites like Picasa and Flickr.—RS

  • Also January 28:

  • 1807: Flickering Gaslight Illuminates London’s Pall Mall

  • 1938: Race-Car Driver Bernd Rosemeyer Dies in Record-Setting Time Trial

  • 1986: Space Shuttle Challenger Explodes (see page 103)

  • Also 2001:

  • October 23: Now Hear This… the iPod Arrives (see page 298)

  • December 3: Segway Starts Rolling (see page 97)

January 29

1895: Electrifying!

Charles Proteus Steinmetz receives a patent for a “system of distribution by alternating currents.” His engineering work makes it practical to build a widespread power grid for use in lighting and machinery alike.

Steinmetz fled Germany during an antisocialist crackdown and arrived in the United States in 1889. A brilliant mathematician, he figured out the law governing the power loss, or hysteresis, caused by the reversing magnetic fields of AC circuits. Steinmetz garnered instant fame among his peers, and the constant in his equation remains in use today. He also developed mathematical models for predicting the performance of complex circuits, so electrical engineers no longer had to build every system before they could determine how it would perform.

Thomas Edison was still working only with direct-current electricity (see page 4), but George Westinghouse (see page 66) had bought Nikola Tesla’s patents for alternating current. Westinghouse rival General Electric placed its bet on AC and new employee Steinmetz. Building on his own work and Tesla’s (see page 192), Steinmetz completed a system that let AC be used not just for lighting but for running multiphase motors “without the necessity of installing special multiphase generators for the motors, or running special circuits.” Steinmetz was ready to electrify the nation—and the world.

After retirement, he still consulted for GE on difficult problems. Once, he painstakingly traced the problem in a nonfunctioning apparatus to the element that wasn’t working and then marked it with chalk. When he submitted a bill for $10,000, GE asked him to itemize the charges.

He sent this invoice:

RA

Making chalk mark: $1

Knowing where to place it: $9,999 —RA

  • Also January 29:

  • 1901: Birth of TV Pioneer Allen B. DuMont

  • 1964: Dr. Strangelove Premieres

  • 1998: Tobacco Exec Admits Nicotine Is Addictive

  • Also 1895:

  • May 7: First Calculating Machine That Can Multiply (see page 129)

  • November 5: George Selden Receives First U.S. Automobile Patent

January 30

1975: Rubik Applies for Patent on Magic Cube

Ernö Rubik files for a patent on his twisty toy cube.

Rubik, who’d been schooled in sculpture and architecture, taught interior design at a Budapest art college. His initial interest in building the cube was structural: how the little cubies, or cubelets, could move without the big cube falling apart. Rubber bands didn’t work, so he carved them to interlock with one another. He also applied different-colored paper to each of the big cube’s six sides. As Rubik twisted his bright little bauble, the shifting colors pleased his design sense. But when he tried to put the colors back in order, he found it wasn’t all that easy. Random twisting, he figured, would take a lifetime. (Spoiler alert: Partial solution ahead.) Rubik hit on the rubric of starting by aligning the corner cubes, but it still took a few weeks to solve the puzzle.

He applied for a Hungarian patent and arranged for a small Budapest co-op to produce the toy. Four other inventors in three different countries held similar patents, but the laurels would be Rubik’s. Ideal Toy bought exclusive rights to the Magic Cube in 1979 and changed the name to Rubik’s Cube to provide some trademark protection.

Omni magazine wrote about the cube in late 1980, and a slew of publicity followed. Rubik’s Cube became the mega-fad of the early ’80s. More than 300 million cubes have been sold. That’s nothing, of course, compared to the 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 different possible permutations of the classic cube—enough to cover the planet with 273 layers of cubes, each with a unique arrangement of colors.

Speaking of large numbers, Ernö Rubik became the first self-made millionaire from the Communist bloc, or, in this case, block.—RA

  • Also January 30:

  • 1790: The Lifeboat, an Idea Whose Time Has Come

  • 1894: Charles King Patents Pneumatic Hammer

  • Also 1975:

  • April 4: Bill Gates, Paul Allen Form a Little Partnership (see page 96)

January 31

1958: First U.S. Satellite Discovers Van Allen Belt

The United States enters the space age with the successful launch of the Explorer 1 satellite. Data from the satellite confirms the existence of a radiation belt girdling Earth.

Explorer 1 (officially Satellite 1958 Alpha) blasted into orbit from Cape Canaveral atop a Jupiter-C rocket. Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory carried out the project for the U.S. Army (before NASA was founded). The Jupiter-C was a modified version of Wernher von Braun’s Redstone ballistic missile, itself a direct descendant of another von Braun production, the German V-2 rocket.

Explorer was already on the drawing board but development was accelerated dramatically following the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik 1 the previous October (see page 279). In all, it took eighty-four days to modify the rocket and to design and build the satellite.

Explorer 1 was tiny, weighing thirty pounds fully loaded. More than half the weight was instrumentation, including a cosmic-ray-detection package, a variety of temperature sensors, and a microphone for picking up micrometeorite impacts. It was a model of simplicity, and it worked. Astrophysicist James Van Allen designed the onboard equipment that helped detect and return data about the Earth-circling radiation belts that now bear his name. Trapped within these two croissant-shaped belts, which run from roughly 125 to 620 miles above Earth, are radioactive particles capable of penetrating about one millimeter of lead. Radiation can damage the solar cells, integrated circuits, and sensors necessary to satellite operation, and astronauts who pass through the field may run a slightly higher than normal risk of developing cancer.

In response, NASA has taken to turning off sensors as they pass through the Van Allen belt, and it has improved the protective housing for sensitive instruments. The belt has not seriously impeded human travel in space.—TL

  • Also January 31:

  • 1769: Birth of Pioneer Parachutist André-Jacques Garnerin

  • 1881: Birth of Irving Langmuir, Inventor of Atomic-Hydrogen Welding Torch

  • Also 1958:

  • February 3: Silent Spring Seeks Its Voice (see page 34)

February 1

1951: TV Shows Atomic Blast, Live

For the first time, television viewers witness the detonation of an atomic bomb live, as KTLA in Los Angeles broadcasts the blinding light produced by a nuclear device dropped on Frenchman Flat, Nevada.

One of a hundred aboveground nuclear tests conducted between 1951 and 1962 in the Nevada desert, this A-bomb test found its way into history when a camera crew that had secretly taken position on top of a Las Vegas hotel focused on the blast. The images were relayed to the station’s transmitter on Mount Wilson Observatory about two hundred miles away, and early-bird viewers saw their television screens fill with white light at 5:30 in the morning.

Witnessing the blast firsthand was KTLA reporter Stan Chambers. In a YouTube (see page 46) interview, Chambers described how station manager Klaus Landsberg pulled off the unauthorized broadcast: “We couldn’t get near the field, because it was all top secret. Klaus sent a crew to Las Vegas and put them on top of one of the hotels…. They kept the camera open for the flash of light that would come on when the blast went off.” Los Angeles viewers tuned in for the one-off event. “We had a rating that was very large for 5:30 in the morning,” Chambers recalled. “That one flash. You just see this blinding white light. It didn’t seem real. We didn’t have videotape. You couldn’t say, ‘Let’s look at it again.’ ”

In 1952, KTLA set up the first live national feed for a Nevada atomic bomb explosion. That one was carried by the major networks. The tests became so commonplace that watching mushroom clouds turned into a Las Vegas tourist attraction.—HH

  • Also February 1:

  • 1893: Edison Opens America’s First Film-Production Studio

  • 2003: Space Shuttle Columbia Lost

  • Also 1951:

  • April 5: Birth of Dean Kamen, Pied Piper of Technology (see page 97)

  • May 8: DuPont Debuts Dacron

February 2

1935: You Lie

A polygraph machine (sometimes known as a lie detector) is used for the first time to bring a conviction in court.

Criminal justice systems in many societies have long believed that you can spot a liar based on several physiological reactions to questioning. An increase in blood pressure and heart rate, dry mouth, perspiration—all are believed to suggest the likelihood of guilt. These factors are present in someone feeling anxiety, and, well, why would you feel anxiety unless you were lying? The polygraph measures and records these reactions, but of course the method is not exactly foolproof. Some people get anxious easily and fold at the knees without any real provocation. Others are as cool under duress as the proverbial cucumber.

Nevertheless, on February 2, 1935, Leonarde Keeler, a detective and coinventor of the Keeler polygraph, tested his invention on two suspected criminals in Portage, Wisconsin. The results of these tests were admitted as evidence in court, and both suspects were convicted of assault. Case closed.

But probably not.—TL

  • Also February 2:

  • 1046: Monks Note Cold Weather, Start of Medieval “Little Ice Age”

  • 1923: Leaded Gasoline Goes on Sale

  • Also 1935:

  • February 28: Sheer Bliss (see page 60)

February 3

1958: Silent Spring Seeks Its Voice

Rachel Carson writes to New Yorker editor E.B. White suggesting an article about the danger of pesticides. It’s the genesis of her pioneering book Silent Spring.

Carson was already a successful scientist and author. She’d earned a master’s in zoology and worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service. She’d written for The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly and had authored bestselling books, including The Sea Around Us.

The proposed magazine article grew into a book. Silent Spring called forth the image of a spring without birds… and birdsong. Carson pointed out that inadequately tested pesticides were killing hundreds or possibly thousands of beneficial species. Not only did the chemicals often not work against their intended targets, Carson wrote, but they became concentrated: small animals and poisoned vegetation were eaten by other animals, who were eaten by larger animals, and so on up the food chain. And neither the interactions of the multiple chemicals nor their possible effects on humans, pets, and farm animals had been properly studied. The New Yorker started serializing Silent Spring in June 1962, and it was published in book form later that year. With its warning that it is arrogant to believe humans can totally control nature, Silent Spring is probably the most influential environmental book of the twentieth century. Still in print today, it stands with the previous century’s Walden (see page 223) as a founding volume of eco-awareness. Carson galvanized the modern environmental movement. Despite the chemical industry’s massive counterattack on the book, Silent Spring helped bring about the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency—all within a decade.

Carson succumbed to breast cancer eighteen months after Silent Spring was published. She was fifty-six.—RA

  • Also February 3:

  • 1468: Death of Johannes Gutenberg (see page 133)

  • 1984: First Human Birth from Transplanted Embryo

  • Also 1958:

  • July 29: Ike Inks Space Law; NASA Born (see page 212)

February 4

2004: You’ve Got a Friend in the Facebook

Some college dudes unveil a website only Harvard University people can use. By 2011, it’s worth $50 billion, and for hundreds of millions of people, the site now called Facebook is so integral to daily life that, for all intents and purposes, it is the Internet.

Trying to remember a time before Facebook? That’d be difficult for many people. Friendster was the social media leader in early 2004. Google was still months away from an IPO. YouTube (see page 46) was a year away, and Twitter (see page 82) would have been borderline indescribable.

The speed with which Facebook zoomed from dorm project to tech behemoth makes it seem like an overnight success. But Facebook’s rise has not been without drama over the boundaries of privacy, the definition of friend, and the etiquette of blocking your mother.

And then there were the lawsuits over whose idea it really was, because success has many parents. Regardless, as Wired’s Fred Vogelstein argued, Mark Zuckerberg built the company, “and in Silicon Valley, at least, that’s all that matters.” Indeed, the concept of a social network wasn’t new. Zuckerberg himself had a profile on Friendster, and as Facebook grew, the dominant player was MySpace. Facebook gained early currency as an elite destination for top-college students. It became a global sensation by reversing course and opening up to anyone. Astonishingly, when Facebook allowed mom and dad in, the cool kids didn’t bolt. Instead, they bolted from MySpace. Will Facebook still be the dominant force in social networking in 2020? That’ll depend as much on how much we want to continue sharing as on how the firm operates. After all, it’s “always depended on the kindness of strangers.”—JCA

  • Also February 4:

  • 1915: Experiments Prove Poor Diet Causes Pellagra

  • 1998: Belgian Artist-Provocateur Plants Cream Pie in Bill Gates’s Face

  • Also 2004:

  • June 21: SpaceShipOne—First Privately Financed Manned Craft Reaches Edge of Space (see page 254)

  • August 13: Adam Curry Launches First Podcast, Daily Source Code

  • December 25: Next Stop, Titan, Saturn’s Largest Moon (see page 361)

February 5

1840: Rat-A-Tat-Tat, You’re Dead

Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine gun, is born.

Although multishot weapons existed in one form or another for centuries, Maxim’s gun, which made its debut in 1881, is considered the first true machine gun. The key to the Maxim gun was that it eliminated the need for hand power, relying instead on the recoil of the previously fired bullet to reload the chamber. That exponentially increased the rate of fire achieved by earlier weapons, such as the Gatling gun. Maxim’s other innovation was the introduction of a water-cooling system to reduce barrel overheating during extended firing.

By World War I, the Maxim gun had been adopted in one form or another by all the major combatants, and it was put to use with deadly effect in the trenches. The Maxim gun also saw action in aerial combat; variations were mounted on both Allied and German aircraft (see page 110). It was ironic, perhaps, that Maxim died only a few days after the Battle of the Somme, during which German machine gunners had mowed down thousands of attacking British infantrymen.

Technology had advanced far beyond Maxim’s original gun by World War II, but his basic innovations were incorporated into newer, even deadlier designs.—TL

  • Also February 5:

  • 1897: Indiana Legislature Nearly Declares π = 3

  • 1940: Birth of H.R. Giger, Cyborg Surrealist Artist

  • 1999: Millions View Victoria’s Secret Online Fashion Webcast

  • Also 1840:

  • May 6: U.K. Issues World’s First Adhesive Postage Stamps (see page 128)

February 6

1959: Titan Launches; Cold War Heats Up

The United States successfully test-fires its first Titan 1 intercontinental ballistic missile. The threat of global nuclear holocaust moves from the plausible to the likely.

The Titan 1 was not the first ICBM; both the United States and the Soviet Union deployed ICBMs earlier in the 1950s. But the Titan represented a new generation: a liquid-fueled rocket with greater range and a more powerful payload that upped the ante in the Cold War.

The Titan that the U.S. Air Force successfully launched from Cape Canaveral featured a two-stage liquid rocket capable of delivering a four-megaton warhead to a target eight thousand miles away. Puny by today’s standards, four megatons nevertheless dwarfed the destructive power of the A-bombs dropped on Japan (see page 220). The Titan’s range meant that, firing from its home turf, the United States was now capable of hitting targets in Eastern Europe, the western Soviet Union, and the far eastern Soviet Union.

The first squadron of Titan 1s was declared operational in April 1962. The missiles were stored in protective underground silos but had to be brought to the surface for firing. The Titan 2, which followed in the mid-1960s, could be launched directly from its silo. Though developed as a vehicle for delivering nuclear warheads to targets thousands of miles away, the Titan also proved effective as a launch platform for NASA. The Titan 2 was used extensively during the Gemini program (see page 243), before being replaced for Apollo (see page 203) by the far more powerful Saturn 5.

The Cold War is now history, and various treaties have led to the reduction of nuclear arsenals in both the United States and Russia. But the ICBM (which can be launched from silos, mobile launchers, or submarines) is still around, and still lethal.—TL

  • Also February 6:

  • 1959: Texas Instruments Files to Patent Integrated Circuit (see page 257)

  • 1971: Astronaut Alan Shepard Plays Golf on the Moon

  • Also 1959:

  • May 28: COBOL, a New Language for Business (see page 150)

  • July 24: Moscow Exhibit of U.S. Kitchen Ignites Nixon-Khrushchev Debate on Technology

February 7

1863: An Early Stab at Organizing the Elements

British chemist John Newlands organizes the known elements, listing them in a table determined by atomic weight according to what he provisionally calls his law of octaves. It is not an instant hit.

Newlands noticed, as he cataloged the elements sequentially, based on Stanislao Cannizzaro’s atomic-weight system, that elements with similar properties tended to appear in regular intervals of eight, reminding him of the perfect eighth, or octave, in music. He called his explanatory paper “The Law of Octaves, and the Causes of Numerical Relations Among the Atomic Weights.”

He arranged the elements by weight (like Cannizzaro) and by shared characteristics, grouping elements with similar properties on shared lines of his table. This required some fudging on Newlands’s part and ultimately resulted in some inaccuracies. Nevertheless, Newlands defended his org chart, saying that no other method for cataloging the elements was workable.

Newlands’s table was initially dismissed by the English Chemical Society as irrelevant. It wasn’t until the Russian chemist Dmitry Mendeleyev published his own periodic table of the elements, in 1869, that Newlands’s achievement began to be appreciated. Still, it would be another eighteen years before the Royal Society got around to awarding Newlands the Davy Medal in recognition of his work.

And it wasn’t until 1913 that Henry Moseley established that the properties of the elements varied periodically according to atomic number, not atomic weight.—TL

  • Also February 7:

  • 1984: Astronauts McCandless and Stewart Perform First Untethered Spacewalk

  • 2000: “Mafiaboy” Hacker Overwhelms Major Websites with Denial-of-Service Attacks

  • Also 1863:

  • January 10: London Underground Opens (see page 10)

  • October 14: Alfred Nobel Patents Detonator for Nitroglycerin

February 8

1865: Mendel Reads Paper Founding Genetics

Gregor Mendel reads his first paper on genetics to the local scientific organization.

From 1856 to 1863, Mendel grew 28,000 pea plants in his monastery’s garden. He kept careful records of his crossbreeding experiments, recording each individual plant’s height, pod shape, flower location and color, and seed shape and color. He presented his literally seminal research at the Nature Research Society of Brünn (now Brno, Czech Republic) on February 8 and March 8, 1865. The papers introduced the concepts of dominant and recessive factors. He also postulated his two laws of heredity:

The Law of Segregation: An organism inherits two factors from its parents but contributes only one to its offspring.

The Law of Independent Assortment: Different traits are sorted separately from one another.

Taken together, these new concepts explained why crossbreeding pea plants that have purple flowers (dominant factor) with plants that have white flowers (recessive factor) yields three-quarters purple-flowered plants and one-quarter white-flowered in the next generation.

Mendel published his lectures as “Experiments on Plant Hybridization” in 1866. The methodical monk sent reprints to forty leading biologists. Only one responded. Charles Darwin (see page 363) never read his copy, this even though both Darwin and natural-selection codiscoverer Alfred Russel Wallace (see page 184) had acknowledged they could not explain how traits of successful organisms in one generation were passed on to the progeny.

Mendel’s paper was cited a mere three times over the next thirty-five years. He died in 1884. It was 1900 before biologists realized their current research on heredity was merely reproducing, so to speak, Mendel’s much earlier work. Near-simultaneous publications by three different botanists credited Mendel. An English translation of Mendel’s 1865 paper finally appeared in 1901.

Mendel is acknowledged today as the founder of genetics and the scientist who first uncovered the mechanism that had eluded Darwin and Wallace.—RA

  • Also February 8:

  • 1672: Isaac Newton Reads His First Paper on Optics Before the Royal Society

  • 1924: First Execution by Gas Chamber

  • Also 1865:

  • September 28: England Gets Its First Woman Physician, the Hard Way (see page 273)

  • December 26: James Mason Patents Coffee Percolator

February 9

1870: Feds Get on Top of the Weather

President Ulysses S. Grant signs a bill creating what we now call the National Weather Service.

It had been obvious for centuries that weather in North America generally moves from west to east or from southwest to northeast. But other than looking upwind, you couldn’t use that knowledge to predict the weather. You needed to move weather reports downwind faster than the weather itself was moving. The telegraph (see page 173) finally made that possible. In 1849, the Smithsonian Institution began supplying weather instruments to telegraph companies. Volunteer observers submitted observations to the Smithsonian, which tracked the movement of storms across the country.

Several states established their own weather services, but Congress thought the nation needed a centralized weather office with military precision. The War Department assigned the new function to the Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce. The network went online on November 1, 1870. At 7:35 a.m., observers at twenty-four stations in the eastern United States began taking synchronized readings and telegraphing them to the division’s headquarters in Washington, DC. To head the unit, the U.S. Army hired Cleveland Abbe, a private forecaster who (his name notwithstanding) operated out of Cincinnati. He made his first official forecasts in February 1871.

A forecast looked like this:

Probabilities: It is probable that the low pressure in Missouri will make itself felt decidedly tomorrow with northerly winds and clouds on the lakes, and brisk southerly winds on the Gulf.

The weather division was renamed the U.S. Weather Bureau and transferred to civilian control as part of the Agriculture Department in 1891. President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it to the Commerce Department in 1940.

The bureau was renamed the National Weather Service in 1970, when it joined the Commerce Department’s newly created National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.—RA



Continues...

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