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Historical Tales of Cross-Dressers

Throughout history, men and women have sometimes found it expedient to take on the guise of the opposite sex.  For men, it was often a tool to avoid military duties or to escape punishment of some kind; for women, the reasons were often due to the fact that men’s lives were easier – they had access to higher education, could rule, could lead, could travel more safely than a lone woman, and had far more freedom in society; another frequent reason was to avoid being forced into a loveless marriage.  There are many, many documented histories of cross-dressers; I will therefore focus my selection on a few of those cases where expediency was the factor, and not a question of sexual preference.  Some were androgynous, while others were unattractive or neutral enough in features to pass as either gender.  To read each history, click on the links:

Deborah Sampson Gannett (December 17, 1760 – April 29, 1827):  Served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War as Timothy Thayer.

Hannah Snell (1723-1792): Served as a Royal army foot soldier, and a marine.  She is one of the few cases who became famous within their own lifetime; she revealed her true identity in 1750, and used her tales of adventure to pecuniary advantage.

Catalina de Erauso (late 15oos):  She held many positions, some under the very noses of relatives searching for the missing woman.

Chevalier d’Éon (5 October 1728 – 21 May 1810):  French diplomat, spy, freemason and

chevalier-deon

Chevalier d’Eon

soldier who fought in the Seven Years’ War.

Frances Clayton (1830s):  Female Soldier in the Civil War.

Billy Tipton (December 29, 1914 – January 21, 1989):  Jazz musician.

Ulrika Eleonora Stålhammar (1683-1733): A Swedish Corporal under the name of Vilhelm Edstedt.

Shi Pei Pu (1938-2009): A Chinese opera singer and spy.

Margaret Ann Bulkley (ca. 1789-1865): An Irish military surgeon in the British Army, as James Barry.

Marina the Ascetic, Monk (Fifth Century):  She chose exile from her monastery and to raise the illegitimate child of a woman who wrongly accused “him” of raping her, rather than reveal her true gender.  Only after her death was the truth discovered.

Isabelle Eberhardt (1877 – 1904): Explorer in the Arabian region, under the assumed name of Si Mahmoud Essadi.  Also, spy during the Algerian revolt against France.  She died in a flash flood at the age of 27.

Anne Bonney and Mary Read (18th century):  Ruthless pirates, they started off as cross-dressers, but once their reputations were established they dropped the male guise.

 

anne-bonney-and-mary-read

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Business Histories

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If you’ve ever been curious as to when the first this-or-that happened, and perhaps led to an invention or an industry, then look no further than the gem of a site that I just came across!  Just click on the image below to go to the website, and enjoy!  There, you’ll find the following categories:

Accountancy; advertising; agribusiness; agricultural machinery; aircraft; airlines; arts; automotive (A-G) & (H-W); banking; beverages; biotechnology; broadcasting; business services; chemicals; computers; conglomerates; construction; consumer (non-cyclical); containers; defence; drugs;  electronics;  engineering;  entertainment; family business; fashion & beauty; financial services; food 1 & 2; food service; footwear; forest products; gaming; gas; healthcare; high technology; home furnishings; hospitality; household appliances; industrial equipment; information technology; insurance;  internet; jewellery; law; leisure; machine tools; manufacturing; media;  metals; mining; nonprofit; office equipment; oil; oil service; paper & packaging; publishing to 1900, from 1900, A-L & M-Z; railroads; real estate; regions (A-M) & (N-Z); retail; rubber; savings & loans; securities; shipbuilding; shipping; sports; steel and iron; telecommunications; textiles; tobacco; tourism; toys; transport; utilities; waste disposal; weapons; whaling; blacks in business; kids & business; women in business; and scandal & fraud.

 

Spiral Clock Face

Historical Research Treasure Trove

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printIn researching my present manuscript, I’ve come across quite a few books that are out of print, but perpetuated on the internet.  [Gutenberg Press is a great site for finding such treasures, and many (if not all!) are in Kindle format as well as other formats such as PDF.  Even if you don’t have a Kindle, you can download their free app to your PC, tab or smart phone; all you need is an Amazon account.]

Here are a few of the titles I’ve found on Gutenberg that are pertinent to the current novel I’m writing:

  • Workhouse Characters, by Margaret Wynne
  • A Sailor of King George, by Captain Frederick Hoffmann
  • From Powder Monkey to Admiral, by William Henry Giles Kingston
  • From Workhouse to Westminster, by George Haw
  • Midshipman Easy, by Frederick Marryat
  • Over the Sliprails, by Henry Lawson
  • Sea-Power and Other Studies by Sir Cyprian Bridge
  • The British Navy Book, by Cyril Field
  • The Fortunate Foundlings, by Eliza Fowler Haywood
  • The Sailor’s Word Book, by W.H. Smyth
  • The Shanty Book, Part I – Sailor Shanties, by Richard Runciman Terry
  • Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana
  • Types of Naval Officers, by A.T. Mahan

Not all of these books are in the era that I need for my particular story, but their historical value is nonetheless valuable.  I’m working my way through this list, as I can and as my research needs dictate, but if you’re interested in any of these topics, take a look at Gutenberg Press!

The Eddic Poems (Poetic Edda)

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yggdrasilMapIn the course of research for the novel I’m currently polishing, I developed a taste for obscure literature; among other manuscripts I’ve read is the Poetic Edda, or Eddic Poems.  What I find fascinating in the poems is not just the language itself, but encapsulated within the language is always a glimpse into the mentality, humour, and mindset of a people.

The Poetic Edda is a collection of Norse poems and mythology, mainly preserved in the medieval manuscript Codex Regius which was written in the 13th century, though the poems and tales are centuries older, having been oral history passed on by the skalds for generations before they were written down.  The poems were originally composed in alliterative verse (the alliteration may have changed from line to line, such as “Over beer the bird of forgetfulness broods / and steals the minds of men”), and kennings were often used (a compound noun used instead of a straight-forward noun, e.g. “wound-hoe” for “sword”), though they were not as complex as many skaldic poems were.  For a far more detailed history on the collection, click here.

I’d like to share a few gems with you; the reference “EP#” is the page number embedded in the Kindle manuscript.  These gems are either sayings, kennings, customs, or historical trivia.  Enjoy!

EP17:  “The wolf that lies idle shall win little meat, or the sleeping man success.”

EP20:  “Hard is it on earth / With mighty whoredom; axe-time, sword-time / shields are sundered, wind-time, wolf-time / Ere the world falls; Nor ever shall men each other spare.”

EP30:  “A faster friend one never finds / Than wisdom tried and true.”

EP31:  “Less good there lies / than most believe In ale for mortal men; / For the more he drinks / the less does man / Of his mind the mastery hold.”

EP35:  “To mankind a bane must it ever be / When guests together strive.”

EP36:  “Love becomes loathing if one long sits by the hearth in another’s home.”

EP36:  “Away from his arms in the open field a man should fare not a foot / For never he knows when the need for a spear / Shall arise on the distant road.”

EP39:  “No great thing needs a man to give / Oft little will purchase praise. / With half a loaf and a half-filled cup / A friend full fast I made.”

EP41:  “To question and answer must all ready be / Who wish to be known as wise. / Tell one they thoughts, but beware of two / – All know what is known by three.”

EP44:  “Wealth is as swift / As a winking eye, / Of friends the falsest it is.”

EP45:  “Give praise to the day at evening, to a woman on her pyre, to a weapon which is tried, to a maid at wedlock, to ice when it is crossed, to ale that is drunk.”

EP45:  “From the ship seek swiftness, from the shield protection, cuts from the sword, from the maiden kisses.”

EP48:  “Wise men oft / Into witless fools / Are made by mighty love.”

EP71:  “If a poor man reaches / The home of the rich, / Let him speak wisely or be still; / For to him who speaks / With the hard of heart / Will chattering ever work ill.”

EP167:  “Drink beyond measure / will lead all men / No thought of their tongues to take.”

EP250:  “On the gallows high / shall hungry ravens / Soon thine eyes pluck out, / If thou liest…”

“Welcome thou art, / for long have I waited; / The welcoming kiss shalt thou win! / For two who love / is the longed-for meeting / The greatest gladness of all.”

EP277:  “In the hilt is fame, / in the haft is courage, / In the point is fear, / for its owner’s foes; / On the blade there lies / a blood-flecked snake, / And a serpent’s tail / round the flat is twisted.” (Runes carved on a sword)

EP296:  A “breaker of rings” was a generous prince, because the breaking of rings was the customary form of distributing gold.

EP299: “There was beat of oars / and clash of iron, Shield smote shield / as the ships’-folk rowed; Swiftly went / the warrior-laden Fleet of the ruler / forth from the land.”

EP300:  Raising a red shield was a signal for war.

EP304:  “Helgi spake: “Better, Sinfjotli, / thee ‘twould beseem Battle to give / and eagles to gladden, Than vain and empty / words to utter, Though ring-breakers oft / in speech do wrangle.”

“…For heroes ’tis seemly / the truth to speak.”

EP305:  “Swift keels lie hard by the land, mast-ring harts* and mighty wards, wealth of shields and well-planed oars.” (*the ring attaching the yard to the ship’s mast.)

“Fire-Beasts” = Dragons = Ships:  Norse ships of war, as distinguished from merchant vessels, were often called Dragons because of their shape and the carving of their stems.

EP349:  “The word “Goth” was applied in the North without much discrimination to the southern Germanic peoples.”  “The North was very much in the dark as to the differences between Germans, Burgundians, Franks, Goths, and Huns, and used the words without much discrimination.”

EP368:  “Combed and washed / shall the wise man go, And a meal at morn shall take; For unknown it is / where at eve he may be; It is ill thy luck to lose.”

EP369:  the “Bloody Eagle” was an execution for a captured enemy, by cleaving the back bone from the ribs and pulling out the lungs.

EP373:  “Few are keen when old age comes / Who timid in boyhood be.”

EP374:  “When one rounds the first headland” means, “at the beginning of life’s voyage, in youth”.

EP378:  “Unknown it is, / when all are together, / Who bravest born shall seem; / Some are valiant / who redden no sword / In the blood of a foeman’s breast.”

EP379:  “”Better is heart / than a mighty blade For him who shall fiercely fight; The brave man well / shall fight and win, Though dull his blade may be.”

“Brave men better / than cowards be, When the clash of battle comes; And better the glad / than the gloomy man Shall face what before him lies.”

EP382:  “There is ever a wolf / where his ears I spy.”  This is an Old Norse proverb that basically means, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”.

EP398:  “I rede thee, / if men shall wrangle, And ale-talk rise to wrath, No words with a drunken / warrior have, For wine steals many men’s wits.”

EP399: “I rede thee, / if battle thou seekest With a foe that is full of might; It is better to fight / than to burn alive In the hall of the hero rich.”  “The meaning is that it is better to go forth to battle than to stay at home and be burned to death. Many a Norse warrior met his death in this latter way; the burning of the house in the Njalssaga is the most famous instance.”

EP400:  “I rede thee, / that never thou trust The word of the race of wolves, (If his brother thou broughtest to death, Or his father thou didst fell;) Often a wolf / in a son there is, Though gold he gladly takes.”

“Battle and hate / and harm, methinks, / Full seldom fall asleep; / Wits and weapons / the warrior needs / If boldest of men he would be.”

EP405:  Eating snakes and the flesh of beasts of prey was commonly supposed to induce ferocity.

EP409:  The actual mingling of blood in one another’s footprints was a part of the ceremony of swearing blood-brother hood.

EP418:  “Borne thou art on an evil wave” i.e. “every wave of ill-doing drives thee”.  A proverb.

“Flame of the snake’s bed” = Gold, so called because serpents and dragons were the’ traditional guardians of treasure, on which they lay.

EP452:  “As the leek grows green / above the grass, / Or the stag o’er all / the beasts doth stand, / Or as glow-red gold / above silver gray.”

EP455:  “On the tapestry wove we / warrior’s deeds, And the hero’s thanes / on our handiwork; (Flashing shields / and fighters armed, Sword-throng, helm-throng, / the host of the king).”

EP457:  “In like princes / came they all, The long-beard men, / with mantles red, Short their mail-coats, / mighty their helms, Swords at their belts, / and brown their hair.”

EP458: “Heather-fish” = snake

EP468:  The punishment of casting a culprit into a bog to be drowned was particularly reserved for women, and is not infrequently mentioned in the sagas.

EP513:  “Thou hast prepared this feast in kingly fashion, and with little grudging toward eagle and wolf.”  = “You’ve been generous in the men you give to die in battle today.”

EP524:  “Full heedless the warrior / was that he trusted her, So clear was her guile / if on guard he had been; But crafty was Guthrun, / with cunning she spake, Her glance she made pleasant, / with two shields she played.”  In other words, Guthrun concealed her hostility (symbolized by a red shield) by a show of friendliness (a white shield).

EP546:  “The dawning sad / of the sorrow of elves” (i.e., sunrise – the Old Norse belief was that sun killed elves).

 

Notes from The Poetic Edda (Snorri Sturluson), translated by Henry Adams Bellows. Kindle Edition.

 

OOPArts

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OOPArts are out-of-place artefacts, though other objects of historical, archaeological, or palaeontological interest are included.  The term was coined by the naturalist and cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson.  It isn’t a term used by mainstream scientists as it may be considered tainted with unprofessionalism; it is largely used by those who study the pseudo-scientific topics such as paranormal activities, fringe theories such as ancient astronauts, or the topic of creatures such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster.

Having said all that, I find it interesting to read about various objects that have been labelled as OOPArt.  Here are a few:

The Abydos Helicopter

The Wolfsegg Iron

The Klerksdorp spheres

The  Iron pillar of Delhi

The Baghdad Battery

The Abydos helicopter

The Iron Man (Eiserner Mann)

The Quimbaya airplanes

The Dendera Lamps

The Cambodian Stegosaurus

The Cambodian Stegosaurus

The Cambodian Stegosaurus

While some may be explained with scientific methods, other official “scientific” explanations seem to me, frankly, far-fetched.  Judge for yourself, and enjoy the curiosities of our planet’s history!

 

Accidental Discoveries in History: HOUSEHOLD PRODUCTS

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Household Inventions

Household Inventions

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Marcel Proust

Most inventions are the results of exploration, experimentation, blood, sweat and tears, and lots of sleepless nights.  But there are some moments of serendipity, those “Hmm.  That’s strange…” discoveries that are not lightly tossed aside but seen for their potential.  It’s taking the lemons life has thrown their way, tossing in a wet rag and a few copper and zinc coins, and coming up with a battery.

Here’s a line-up of a few of those wet rag-tossers of household products:

Teflon

Who: Roy Plunkett, young chemist for DuPont.

When: 1938

Why:  He was trying to make a new kind of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the hot new thing in refrigeration science.  He filled a pressurized gas can with a concoction of TFE gas and hydrochloric acid (don’t try this at home, kids); he cooled it and put it away until he was ready to use it.  When he opened the canister, it was empty except for strange, slippery white flakes at the bottom; it turned out to be resistant to extreme heat, and chemicals.  It was first used by the military in the Manhattan Project, and then the automotive industry.  Nearly 30 years later it had finally come home, literally:  Non-stick cookware.

The Microwave

Who: Percy Spencer, American Engineer on a snack break.

When: 1945

Why: His snack break put him in the wrong place at the right time.  He was a leading scientist during World War II, and at work in the Raytheon company labs, he was inspecting a magnetron and noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket melted.  I’m sure his wife appreciated that more fully when she next did laundry.  Others had noticed that phenomenon but hadn’t investigated any further; but it got Percy thinking, and after a few more experiments (and yes, popcorn and exploding eggs were involved), the first microwave oven was born.  But like early computers, it was big and impractical for home use.  By 1967 more compact versions began invading American homes, and the rest is history.

Velcro

Who: Georges de Mestral, Swiss Engineer on a hike.

When: 1948

Why: Out with his dog on a hiking trip in 1941, he noticed burrs clinging to his trousers and his dog’s fur; on closer inspection he saw that the burr’s hooks clung to anything loop-shaped.  But even after he’d perfected his invention (named Velcro as a combination of the French terms velours, “velvet,” and “crochet”), it took years for it to… well, stick.  It was not fashionable-looking enough for the fashion industry to take seriously; its first big break was for the aerospace program for spacesuits, and then eventually skiers saw a similarity in potential on skiing outfits, and it stuck from then on out.  And now kids don’t know what to do with shoe laces.

Silly Putty

Who: James Wright, General Electric Scientist

When: 1943

Why: For the war effort, he was working on a cheaper alternative to rubber when he mixed boric acid and silicon oil (which one does, obviously).  It didn’t work as rubber, but they had a blast stretching and bouncing it, and the silly idea for putty was discovered.  And lucrative.

Slinky

Who: Richard James, Naval Engineer

When: 1943; on shelves since November 1945.

Why:  During World War II, Richard James was working on the development of fine springs to keep ships’ sensitive instruments from bouncing around on rough seas.  He accidentally knocked one off of the desk, and watched as it “stepped” over a few obstacles and ended by righting and recoiling itself on the floor.  By experimenting to find the right steel, he set up a company, along with his wife; it only hit success after setting up a demonstration on an inclined plane in the Gimbles Department Store in Philadelphia; they sold their entire stock of 400 within 90 minutes, and the rest is history.

Play Doh

Who: Noah McVicker’s nephew, Joe McViker

When: 1930s as its original purpose; reinvented as a modelling clay in the late 1940s.

Why:  Originally invented by Noah McViker as a wallpaper cleaner at a time when most homes burned coal, making it necessary to clean regularly; but after the war America switched to natural gas heating, and the company faced bankruptcy.  Joe McViker discovered that children were using the substance to make Christmas ornaments, and he got the bright idea to re-market it as modelling clay.

Post-it notes

Who: Dr. Spencer Silver, working in the 3M research laboratories.

When: 1968

Why: Trying to invent a super-strong adhesive, he failed, but tried unsuccessfully for five years to promote it within the company as “low-tack,” reusable pressure-sensitive adhesive.  In 1974 Art Fry, his colleague, got the idea to use it in his hymnbook, and then began developing the concept, releasing it in 1977-78.  The original yellow colour was simply because the lab next door to the Post-It team only had yellow scrap paper to try it on.

Cellophane

Who: Jacques Brandenberger, Swiss Textile Engineer.

When: Inspiration – 1900; Product release – 1908

Why:  Seated in a restaurant, he noticed a customer spill a bottle of wine onto the tablecloth.  Convinced he could discover a way to apply a clear, waterproofing film to such a tablecloth, he began to experiment, eventually applying liquid viscose to the cloth.  But the cloth became too stiff and brittle, and the experiment failed.  Or did it?  He noticed that the coating peeled off in a transparent film that might actually have other uses.  By 1908 he’d developed a machine to produce sheets of the stuff, and marketed it as Cellophane.

Band-Aids

Who: Earle Dickson, American cotton buyer for the Johnson & Johnson company.

When: 1921

Why:  His wife Josephine was always cutting herself in the kitchen while preparing food.  He noticed that the present solution, gauze wrapped until adhesive tape, soon fell off her active fingers; he decided to invent something that would stay in place and protect minor wounds better.  He took a piece of gauze, stuck it in the centre of a piece of tape, and then covered it with crinoline to keep it sterile.  His boss James Johnson saw the invention and, to his credit, not only manufactured the product for the public but made Earle Dickson Vice-President.

Superglue

Who: Harry Coover, a chemist at Eastman Kodak during World War II.

When: 1942

Why:  Head of a team trying to find a clear plastic to use to make transparent gun sights, one of their unsuccessful attempts stuck to everything it touched; the chemical compound of cyanoacrylate was discovered, and promptly disregarded as a failure.  In 1951 he rediscovered it and this time recognized the commercial value of it, and it went to market in 1958.

Matches

Who: John Walker, British pharmacist.

When: 1826

Why: While stirring a mix of chemicals with a stick, he noticed a dried lump on the end of the stick, and tried to scrape it off.  Spark and flame.  He recognized the significance, and marketed the first matches as “Friction Lights,” selling them at his pharmacy, making the first sticks out of cardboard but soon replacing them with 3-inch long, hand-cut wooden splints, packaged in a box with a piece of sandpaper for striking.  Unwisely, he decided not to patent his invention because he considered it a benefit to mankind; thus it didn’t take long for others to rip off his idea and take over the market, leading him to stop his own production.

Safety glass

Who: Édouard Bénédictus, French artist and chemist.

When: 1909

Why:  In his lab he once dropped a glass flask; it broke but didn’t shatter, and he realized that the interior was coated with plastic cellulose nitrate, holding the broken pieces together.  Shattering glass was, until that moment, one of the biggest dangers in a car accident.  And it remained a danger, as manufacturers rejected his idea to keep their own costs down.  But his glass coating became standard issue for gas mask lenses in World War 1; with its success on the battlefield, the automobile industry finally caved in to the demand for safety and by the 1930s most cars were fitted with glass that didn’t shatter upon impact.

Vaseline

Who: Robert Chesebrough, oilfield worker.

When: 1859

Why:  Working on an oilfield in Pennsylvania, he noticed that the oil workers complained about something they called “Rod wax” forming on and gumming up their drilling equipment; the only redeeming factor as far as they were concerned was that it seemed to speed up the healing of small cuts and burns.  Interested, he took a sample back to his lab in Brooklyn.  Eventually he was able to isolate the substance from ordinary petroleum, and began wounding himself to test it; it worked wonders.  The name Vaseline comes from “Wasser” (German for water) and Elaion (Greek for oil).

Blue Jeans

Who: Jacob Davis (-Youphes)

When: ca. 1869

Why:  In 1868, Latvian immigrant Jacob Youphes moved his tailor shop from New York City and Maine to Reno, Nevada, and began making, among other things, tents and horse blankets from sturdy cotton fabric, with rivets for added strength.  In the late 1870s a woman asked him for a pair of cheap trousers for a large husband who had the habit of going through trousers rather quickly.  He decided to try his hand at trousers made from the material (which he’d been buying through a dry goods salesman, Levi Strauss, in San Francisco); when they were a success, he wrote to Strauss and suggested they partner on a patent.  Since Davis’ name did not appear on the actual product, his connection is little-known, Levi Strauss more often than not being credited with the innovation.

The cloths we know as denim and jeans has a long pedigree:  Jeans material was first created in Genoa, Italy; their sailors used it to protect their goods from the weather, and the cloth was exported throughout Europe.  In the French city of Nimes they attempted to reproduce the fabric they got from Gênes (the French name for Genoa), but instead discovered a different twill, which became known as Denim (literally, “de Nimes”, of Nimes).

Nylon

Who: Wallace Carothers, Julian Hill, and other researchers for the DuPont Company

When: 1930

Why: They were studying chains of molecules called polymers in an attempt to find a substitute for silk; pulling a heated rod from a beaker containing alcohol- and carbon-based molecules, the mixture stretched and, at room temperature, had a silky texture. This work culminated in the production of nylon marking the beginning of a new era in synthetic fibres.

Modern Dry-Cleaning

Who: Jean-Baptiste Jolly

When: Mid-19th century

Why: From ancient times, Romans used ammonia (obtained from urine) with Fuller’s earth to clean their clothes; so glad times have changed.  Early modern dry-cleaning was discovered by the French dye-works owner, Jean-Baptiste Jolly in the mid-19th century, when his maid spilled kerosene onto a tablecloth.  The next day it was clean, and from this idea was born the idea for cleaning people’s clothes as a business.

WD-40

Who: Norm Larsen, founder of the Rocket Chemical Company, in San Diego, California.

When: 1953; commercially available in 1958.

Why:  Mr. Larsen set out to find a formula to prevent corrosion on nuclear missiles; the 40th attempt at Water Displacement, primarily composed of hydrocarbons, was successful.  Since then fans of the product have found over 2,000 uses for it, which can be viewed here.  The product is not patented to avoid revealing the exact contents, so no one knows exactly what it is made of.

Accidental Discoveries in History: SCIENCE / TECHNOLOGY

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Ideas

Accidental Discoveries & Inventions

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” (On inventing the light bulb)

Thomas A. Edison

Most inventions are the results of exploration, experimentation, blood, sweat and tears, and lots of sleepless nights.  But there are some moments of serendipity, those “Hmm.  That’s strange…” discoveries that are not lightly tossed aside but seen for their potential.  It’s taking the lemons life has thrown their way, tossing in a wet rag and a few copper and zinc coins, and coming up with a battery.

Here’s a line-up of a few of those wet rag-tossers of science and technological discoveries:

Radioactivity

Who: Henri Becquerel, French physicist and Nobel laureate.

When: 1896

Why: A bad spate of cloudy days.  He’d been working with naturally fluorescent minerals (in this case a uranium rock), to see if they’d produce x-rays if left out in the sun.  It was winter, and when a week of clouds moved in he wrapped up his equipment and stuck it in a drawer to wait for a sunny day.  You really don’t want to hear, “Oops” and “radioactive” in the same sentence, but that’s what he eventually realised he’d discovered:  When he came back to his bundle, he found that the rock had imprinted itself onto the x-ray plate without having been exposed to sunlight.  Marie & Pierre Curie eventually put a name to the “oops.”

Plastic

Who: Leo Hendrik Baekeland, Belgian chemist with more than 50 patents to his name.

When: 1907

Why: He was actually looking for a substitute for shellac, which was expensive and made from Asian beetles.  His experiments produced a mouldable material that could withstand high temperatures without distorting, and he called it “Bakelite.”  It soon became clear that it had countless uses, and now we wonder what on earth some things were made out of before he came along.

Vulcanized Rubber

Who:  Charles Goodyear

When: 1839

Why:  He’d spend years trying to ding ways to make rubber easier to work with, while still being resistant to heat and cold.  One day he accidentally spilled a mixture of rubber, sulphur and lead onto a hot stove (I hate it when that happens).  In this case charred on the stove turned out to be a good thing, because it wasn’t ruined – it was vulcanized rubber.  Unfortunately, like many inventors, he wasn’t very good with money; he died $200,000 in debt. He didn’t even live to see the famous company named after him, as it took his name nearly 40 years after his death.

Smart Dust

Who: Jamie Link, Chemistry graduate working on her doctorate at the University of Californian, San Diego.

When: 2003

Why:  One of the silicon chips she was working on burst; but she discovered that the tiny bits still functioned as sensors.  Among other things, they can be used to monitor the purity in water, detect airborne biological hazards, and even locate tumour cells in the human body.  In this case, homework blowing up in her face wasn’t a bad thing.

The Big Bang

Who: Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias, radio astronomers

When: 1964

Why: While working with the Holmdel antenna in New Jersey, they noticed a confusing background noise.  After eliminating the obvious and the not-so obvious, they realized that it must be cosmic microwave radiation leftovers from a universe-forming explosion (that’s just what I thought).  Oddly enough, just 37 miles up the road, Robert Dicke and his team had been working on the theory (which had been around for decades, by the way) and searching for that background noise; when he heard of their discovery his comment was, “Well boys, we’ve been scooped.”  He wasn’t the one that won the Nobel Prize.  Incidentally, the term “Big Bang” was coined during a 1949 radio broadcast to highlight the difference between the two scientific models of “steady state” and “expanding state” cosmology.

Dynamite

Who: Alfred Nobel, Swedish Chemist and Engineer.  Yes, the same one the Nobel Peace Prize is named after.

When: 1867

Why: Trying (and failing several times) to stabilize Nitro-glycerine, an explosive liquid.  In 1864 his own brother and several others were killed in an explosion in Stockholm, and some think it pushed him even more to find a way to transport it safely.  Once while transporting the substance, he noticed that one of the cans leaked into the packing material, a sedimentary rock called Kieselguhr.  He explored the possibility of the mixture as a stabilizer, and patented his discovery as Dynamite.  It revolutionized building and mining, saving untold lives from accidental explosions.

Text messaging

Who: Developed in the Franco-German GSM cooperation in 1984 by Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghillebaert.

When: 1984

Why:  Originally written into technical standard specs for mobile phones across Europe, the script enabled telecom engineers testing the system to send short messages back and forth between themselves to help manage the networks; but consumers got wind of that “Short Message Service” (SMS), and have been digressing in spelling and syntax ever since.

Stainless Steel

Who: Harry Brearly, English metallurgist for an arms manufacturer.

When: 1912

Why:  Given the task to develop a non-rusty gun barrel, Harry began testing his creation with various corrosives, including lemon juice; he realized that it would be great for cutlery (not to mention thousands of other uses that have since been discovered).  But really, he owes credit to a Frenchman from 1821, who first recognized the iron chromium alloys’ resistance to corrosion; at the time however, the manufacturing of it was not within their technical grasp.

Modern Fingerprinting

Who: Researchers at the US Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory in Japan.

When: 1982

Why:  They had cracked a fish tank, and patched it together again with superglue (cyanoacrylate).  They noticed that the fumes from the glue had condensed on oils in fingerprints on the glass, making them clearly visible.  It is now an important tool in forensic science.

Fireworks

Who: A Chinese cook, according to legend

When: 2,000 years ago.

Why: They were accidentally invented by a cook who mixed together charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter — all items commonly found in kitchens in those days apparently. The mixture burned and when compressed in a bamboo tube, exploded. I wonder if he survived to tell the tale.

Phonograph

Who: Thomas Edison, credited with the first successful phonograph that both recorded and reproduced sound.

When: 1877

Why:  There were several men in the throes of developing devices similar to a phonograph, but had either not been successful, had limited success, or had not even made it past the basic concept phase.  In the summer of 1877 Thomas Edison was tinkering with a paper cylinder and a piece of tinfoil that would record telegraph signals; his was not an accidental invention as much as it was an educated – very educated – guess of trial and error.  He knew the principles of various concepts, and put them together like puzzle pieces until he got the results he felt could be possible – recording and playing back the human voice.  Think how amazed he would be to know we don’t even need such devices anymore, it a completely digital age… we use satellites in space to chat half way around the world, real-time.

Ink Jet Printer

Who: Ichiro Endo, Engineer at Canon.

When: August 1957

Why:  The Canon engineer discovered the principle, as the story goes, when he set a hot soldering iron next to his pen; it reacted by spitting out ink just moments later, and the principle behind the ink jet printer was born.

Gun Powder

Who: Chinese alchemists

When: 9th century

Why: Ironically, they were trying to create an elixir of immortality; we can only assume that the discoverers failed; let us hope their first attempt didn’t turn out to be their last.  Ingredients are saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur, realgar (arsenic sulphide).  The first use of gunpowder was in Chinese fireworks; but typically human, it didn’t take long for a good thing to be abused and shortly thereafter it was being used in crude cannons and exploding weapons. ‘Fire rockets’ were made by capping bamboo reeds, filling them with gunpowder and bits of metal, and then lit and shot from a bow; you could say that they were the first solid-fuel rockets.

Phosphorous

Who: Henning Brand, German scientist

When: 1669

Why: For some odd reason, Brand decided to store 50 buckets of his urine in his cellar for a few months in the hopes that they might turn into buckets of gold.  It may seem odd to us; but urine has long been used in manufacturing; it was used to wash hair before shampoos were invented, and was used in various products, including clothing dyes, during the Industrial Revolution.  Strangely it didn’t work; but after letting the urine stand until it was purified, he then boiled down the liquid until he was left with a paste. He then heated this paste to very high temperatures and ended up with phosphorus. Of course.  That’s what you do with that much urine, apparently.

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