Brain Pickings

Age of Power and Wonder: Vintage Science Infographics from 1930s Cigarette Cards

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What metal diver suits have to do with electricity generation and the sound spectrum.

Vintage visions of the future of technology abound, and while some futurists’ predictions have been strikingly right, most of them remain delightfully ludicrous. Indeed, any trip in the time machine of science and technology is inevitably accompanied by equal measures of amusement at our past misguidedness, marvel at how far we’ve come, and anxiety about how misguided we ourselves may seem in the future. In the first half of the 20th century, such predictions were a form of popular entertainment and even appeared as collectible cards that came with food and tobacco products.

The New York Public Library has digitized a large collection of such cigarette cards, including a Max Cigarettes series from 1935-1938 titled Age of Power and Wonder — a set of 250 cards predicting advances in science and technology and exploring curious aspects of the era’s existing inventions. Also included in the series were a number of scientific and quasi-scientific infographics, gathered here for your viewing pleasure.

No. 20. THE SPECTRUM.

Ordinary white light is made up of a number of colours which, put together, produce 'white'. The picture shows the first position occupied by infra-red light which has a wave length too long to be visible by the human eye. Immediately above the infra-red comes visible red, and then orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Above the violet is the ultra-violet, the health-giving , invisible, high-frequency rays which have been proven so vital to life. Very much higher up come X-rays and Gamma-rays.

(Complement this with Goethe’s theory of the color spectrum and human emotion.)

No. 72. THE SPECTRUM OF SOUND.

The source of sound is always a body in a state of more or less rapid vibration. The number of vibrations (cycles) per second can be measured and so sounds classified according to their cycle values. Thus, like light, sound is arranged in a kind of 'spectrum'; each sound having a wave-length. Thus, if the frequency of a note be 200 to a second, its wavelength is 1-200 units.

No. 209. RELATIVE SPEEDS.

All movement is relative, not absolute. Two cars moving side by side along a road at 60 miles per hour, relative to the road, are stationary in relation to each other. A car is traveling on the road at 60 m.p.h., beside it on the rail a train is traveling at 100 m.p.h. In the air above them a plane is traveling at 200 m.p.h. All the speeds quoted are relative to the surface of the earth. In relation to the train, the aircraft is only doing 100 m.p.h., just as the train is only doing 40 m.p.h. in relation to the car*.

No. 55. IN THE DEPTHS OF THE SEA.

Divers not equipped with any kind of apparatus at all become uncomfortable and run considerable danger if they go beyond 50 feet. Diving to such depths for a living is extremely trying. It shortens life, causes various diseases of the heart and blood, and may result in sudden and painful death. In an ordinary diving suit depths of 150 feet may be reached, but beyond that there is a danger that pressure upon the body would result in injury and death. In the 'Tritonia' all-metal suit, twenty times this depth is quite feasible.

No. 151. PETROL FROM COAL.

Fluid fuel has many advantages over solid fuel; it is easier to handle, can be fed to the fire or furnace without the need for stokers, and it is far cleaner. Moreover, you cannot use coal in the engines of motor cars or aircraft. The supplies of mineral oil which yield petrol are rapidly becoming exhausted. Petrol is being extracted from coal by the hydro-generation process -- five tons of coal yielding one ton of petrol. The other four tons are not wasted but produce valuable raw materials and by-products.

No. 100. SHOWING LOSS OF ELECTRIC POWER IN TRANSIT.

The imperfect conductivity of available materials results in great loss of power of current during transit over long distances. The loss occurs even in the cable, which puts up a slight resistance to current. Metals at temperature near -273ºC. have almost perfect conductivity. A method of reproducing this condition of frozen metals might save millions sterling every year.

No. 78. IMPORTANCE OF TIDAL WAVES.

The importance of the work done in forecasting tidal levels by the 'Brass Brain' in Washington is demonstrated in a simple fashion in this picture. Note how a deep draught ocean-going ship can safely pass at high tide and can still do so if low tide levels were a quarter again as high above the sea-bank. Knowing the exact time and level of ebb is vital.

For a bout of excruciating irony, card number 6 in the series examined advances in cancer treatment:

No. 6. WAR ON CANCER

When scientists first began to create synthetic radio-activity, to make substitutes for radium, by bombarding certain atoms with millions of electron-volts, someone suggested, 'Why make radium to cure cancer? Use the bombarding atoms direct'. This suggestion was adopted by the use of very high voltage X-rays. Many successful experiments have been made.

* Raise your hand if the math here makes you raise an eyebrow.

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