A History of Invention

(This column was first published in the January 18, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

    A recent coincidental power and telephone outage in our neighborhood brought home to me once again how dependent we are today on the inventions of the past. Virtually the only device in our home that continued to operate was (thank God!) the flush toilet.

    I have always been fascinated by technological history and have spent many yours paging through Singer's multi-volume survey. So I was delighted to obtain a copy of Trevor Williams' A History of Invention: From Stone Axes to Silicon Chips (Checkmark Books division of Facts-on-File, 1987, rev. 2000) and to find that this single volume is, at least from the point of view of this dilettante, even more enjoyable.

    What makes this book most attractive to me is its diagrams. You name it among inventions and there is an illustration that conveys its inner workings. Among them are water-lifting devices (including the Archimedean screw), the trireme, various water wheels, steam engines (including Hero's first century model), moveable type, the clock escapement, flying buttress and spinning wheel, as well as the more recent nuclear reactor, turbine engine, helicopter and hydrofoil. Each is so clearly and simply depicted that you feel: Why didn't I think of that?

    But the text is interesting as well. Consider some slightly edited examples:

    "It is tempting to suppose that the first wheels derived from logs used as rollers, but there is no convincing evidence for this. The potter's wheel, turning on a central axle, is a more plausible source. All the earliest wheels were cut as a disc from three planks laid parallel: the three pieces were then held together by two crosspieces. If we accept a Middle Eastern origin for the wheel, as is likely, its mode of construction may have been dictated by the dearth of trees large enough to provide planks from which the wheel could be cut in a single piece. It is perhaps significant that in much later wheels from Denmark, where trees of the necessary size were available, wheels were cut from single planks and not -- as one would expect if they derived from rollers -- by cutting successive thin cross-sections. Experience shows that wood so cut tends to split radially and fall to pieces."

    On the arch:

    "The introduction of the arch was in two senses a major architectural advance. It ultimately much increased the length of a single span, and it enabled such spans to be built from relatively small, manageable units instead of single massive beams. They include the dome, which is a three-dimensional arch.

    "Although the Romans made extensive use of concrete, which is lighter than stone, the lateral thrust on the supports of their largest arches and domes was enormous. In the main, this was relieved by massive cross-vaults serving as buttresses, which gave some impressive results. Thus the vaulted roof of the Emperor Diocletian's palace had a span of 115 feet while the great hemispherical dome of the Pantheon, commenced in AD 120 and completed in only four years, spans nearly 164 feet."

    On the application of human power:

    "The abundance of cheap labor, including much slave labor was certainly a disincentive to the development of power-driven machinery. Nevertheless, it is easy to ignore the fact that manpower has to be properly deployed if it is to be effective. Although a man can carry a load of no more than about 90 pounds for long distances, he can briefly lift at least half as much again, say 130 pounds. In theory therefore, 20 men could lift into position a load weighing just over 1 ton: this corresponds to a cube of stone less than 3 feet on a side. But, however much they jostled together, 20 men simply could not collectively get a grip on a block of stone this small; even if they could, they could not lift it more than a yard at a single heave. Some sort of mechanical aid was essential.

    "A sudden concerted lift is one thing, but a sustained expenditure of energy -- as in a rowing galley -- is quite another. Experiment shows that a man can generate about one-third of a horsepower for a few minutes, but cannot work steadily at more than one-tenth of a horsepower: for the purposes of comparison, we can equate 1 horsepower with the output of one small gas or electric motor such as those used to drive lawn-mowers and other similar appliances.

    "Translating this into the power problems of the ancient world, we find, for example, that the combined oarsmen of a Greek penteconter could sustain at a dozen horsepower. Making reasonable assumptions about such factors as water resistance, it has been calculated that this corresponds to a maximum sustained speed of less than 11 miles per hour. This agrees very well with one famous voyage detailed by Thucydides, who lived in the fifth century BC. The Athenians had decreed that the male citizens of Mytilene, then in revolt, should be massacred and they dispatched a trireme to give orders to that effect. They then had a dramatic change of heart and dispatched a second trireme to rescind the order. In the circumstances, these men -- spurred on by the promise of extra pay as well as by compassion -- must have rowed like fury for it overcame the first vessel's 24-hour lead. The 345-kilometer (207-mile) voyage was completed at a probable average speed, under calm conditions of about 9 miles per hour."

    I wish that my junior high school science unit on mechanical advantage had included such a passage and the following information on the use of levers and wedges in the construction of the pyramids as well. If it did, I might have chosen engineering as a career.

    As its title indicates, this book is not all about ancient history.

    "The huge modem plastics industry really dates from 1909, with the introduction of Bakelite, technically the invention of Leo Hendrik Baekeland -- who had already made a fortune from his invention of Velox gaslight papers for photographers in the USA -- but discovered independently in Britain by James Swinbume, who lodged his patent only one day later.... When the great German chemist Adolf von Baeyer in 1872, mixed phenol and formaldehyde, he observed a reaction between them, but as the product was a dark sludge he investigated no further. Yet in the hands of Baekeland and Swinbume this unpromising material became the first industrially important thermosetting plastic -- so called because once the mixture had been heated in a mold its shape was permanently fixed. Thermoplastic resins, in contrast, can be softened and hardened repeatedly by heating and cooling, like wax.

    "By mid-century what von Baeyer had contemptuously dismissed as a mere Schmierewas being manufactured at the rate of 200,000 tons annually. This growth was greatly assisted by the concurrent growth of the automobile and electrical supply industries, which both required vast numbers of small items with good insulating qualities -- such as switches, rotor arms and lamp holders. In this context. its unattractive dark brown color was of no consequence. For other purposes, however, this was a disadvantage: this led to the development of colorless urea-formaldehyde in 1928, and melamine-formaldehyde in 1935, resins which could be attractively colored by adding pigments. This opened up new markets, especially for domestic articles.

    "Meanwhile, other quite different chemical configurations were being explored as a basis for new plastics. The 1930s saw the introduction of a tough transparent material which in many applications was a valuable alternative to glass because it was light and did not easily shatter. This was based on acrylic acid, and marketed in the USA as Plexiglass: initially, a major use was in the manufacture of windscreens and cockpit covers for aircraft, but after the war -- when this priority demand suddenly fell -- vast quantities were used for various kinds of sheeting, including corrugated sheeting for roofs, and for moldings.

    "The introduction of the Haber-Bosch synthetic ammonia process stimulated interest in the possibility of other industrially useful reactions occurring only at high pressures and temperatures. This led in 1932 to the discovery by ICI in Britain of polythene. During the war it proved immensely valuable in the development of radar equipment, but in the event these highly specialized uses, originally thought to limit the market, proved of minimal overall importance in terms of quantity. After the war polythene, in various forms, found quite new uses in the manufacture of all kinds of moldings, from kitchenware to toys. By 1960, against all expectations, production of what seemed to be a product of extremely limited use had soared to over one million tons annually: in the next 10 years this multiplied fivefold.

    "In 1938, Du Pont in America made a very interesting variant of polythene. In this, the hydrogen atoms in the basic ethylene molecule are substituted by atoms of fluorine. The polymer PTFE or Teflon, is expensive and difficult to work -- a modified form of powder metallurgy is commonly used --but its special properties outweigh this in certain applications. These include high-resistance electrical components, non-stick coatings for pots and pans and -- because of its low coefficient of friction -- coatings for skis to make them run faster."

    "As all natural fibers are polymers of one sort of another it is not surprising that attempts were made to make them artificially. In 1892 two British chemists, Charles Frederick Cross and Edward J. Bevan, devised a chemical process for regenerating cellulose in fiber form. By 1939 world production was in excess of 500,000 tons annually. By that time an alternative form, known as acetate rayon, had been developed. This had its origins in the need to find a use for surplus cellulose acetate after the First World War when it was widely used for doping airplane fabric.

    "However the really big development in this field was nylon, a polyamide, invented in 1934 in the USA by Wallace Hume Carothers of DuPont: full-scale manufacture began in 1938. It first appeared before the public in the form of toothbrush bristles, but it immediately appealed to the stocking industry: 64 million pairs of nylon stockings were sold in 1939."

    And finally, we find a somewhat different history of the internet and the world wide web from Al Gore's version:

    "The Web emerged from a strategy to access research information stored on a global network of computers called the Internet. Vannevar Bush presaged the Web in 1945 with a prescient article in the Atlantic Monthlycalled 'As We May Think', in which he outlined a procedure for organizing and accessing data by 'associative indexing', where two or more pieces of information can be 'tagged', or tied together. It was to be many decades before these thoughts became reality.

    "The Internet had humble beginnings in 1969 as a networking research project called ARPAnet, sponsored by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) within the US Department of Defense. The project linked several university and governmental agency computers in an attempt to share information and resources effectively and increase collaboration. This led to a series of evolving projects: continuous improvements were made as more scientists and researchers began to work together.

    "By 1971, a program for sending electronic mail (email) across a distributed network was developed University College of London and the Royal Radar Establishment of Norway made the first international connection in 1973. The following year satellite links across two oceans were tested and the first public data service, Telenet, was released in 1976. The University of Essex created the first Multi-User Dimension (MUD) in 1979, enabling several people to interact simultaneously in a text-based space. In 1982. the word 'internet' was coined to refer to the connected set of networks. In 1990, the World became the first commercial provider of Internet dial-up access, and the following year Tim-Bemers-Lee of the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) added a critical dimension of accessibility and functionality to the Internet by realizing Bush's dream with the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) which 'tagged' information so that people could access it without knowing exactly where it was located in the vast web of data. In 1993, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications' (NCAS) release of a visual 'browser' interface, Mosaic, using the HTTP, set off an explosion. With an easily understood tagging system and a visual means to present information, large numbers of people from around the world began to get involved with the WWW which proliferated for the next year or two at an astonishing 341,000 per cent annual growth of service traffic."

    This is one of those perfect coffee table books -- the kind that I wish were available in doctors' waiting rooms. You can dip into it at any page and quickly become absorbed in its content.-- Gerry Rising