Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

21 MARCH, 2012

27 of History’s Strangest Inventions

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If you can’t deliver the newspaper on your amphibious bicycle, you can always fax it.

“If at first an idea is not absurd,” Albert Einstein famously said, “then there is no hope for it.” Sometimes, however, absurd is just absurd — yet, even so, it’s a fascinating slice of history’s collective direction of curiosity and experimental innovation. After those vintage versions of modern social media and yesteryear’s visions for the future of technology, here come some of history’s most weird and wonderful inventions, from wooden swimwear to spectacles for reading in bed, captured in archival public domain images by Holland’s Nationaal Archief.

One-wheel motorcycle

Germany, 1925

Manual dredger

Workers operated the so-called bucket dredger with their arms and legs using stepper boards. The machine is a small model, but whether it was actually realized is unknown.

Bike tyre used as a swimming aid

Invented by Italian M. Goventosa de Udine; maximum speed: 150 kilometers per hour (93 mph).

Steam automobile design circa 1845

Amphibious bicycle

This land-and-water bike can carry a load of 120 pounds; Paris, 1932

All-terrain car

This all-terrain car can descend slopes up to 65 degrees; England, 1936.

Radio stroller

Stroller equipped with a radio, including antenna and loudspeaker, to keep the baby quiet; USA, 1921.

Wooden bathing suits

Wooden bathing suits, supposed to make swimming a lot easier; Hoquiam, Washington, USA, 1929

Ice sailboat

In the 17th century, it was so cold that meteorologists spoke of a Little Ice Age. The ice sailboat addressed the challenge of transporting goods over frozen lakes and rivers. Designed by A. Terrier, January 17, 1600

Radio hat

Portable radio in a straw hat, made by an American inventor in 1931

Wetlands windmill

A windmill for draining wetlands, lightweight enough to function in marshy areas. It was designed by C.D. Muys in 1589 but was never built.

Bulletproof glass

Demonstration by NYPD's finest shooter, 1931

Clap skate

In 1936, inventor R. Handl came up with the movable heel plate, but it wasn't until 1996 that this concept revolutionized skating.

Extensible caravan

Built by an unknown French engineer in 1934.

Piano for the bedridden

Piano especially designed for people confined to bedrest; Great Britain, 1935

Hamblin glasses for reading in bed

A pair of spectacles especially designed for reading in bed; England, 1936

Electrically heated jacket

Electrically heated vest, developed for the traffic police in the United States, 1932. The power is supplied by electric contacts in the street.

Loetafoon

A turntable linked to a film projector. It comes with single, dual and triple turntable. Designed by F.B.A. Prinsen, 1929

Car with shovel for pedestrians

Invented for the purpose of 'reducing the number of casualties among pedestrians;' Paris, 1924

Hearing light for the blind

1912

Early GPS

Yesteryear's TomTom, a rolling key map that passes through the screen in a tempo determined by the speed of the car; 1932

Folding bridge for emergencies

The emergency bridge can easily be transported on a handcart; invented by L. Deth. The Netherlands, 1926

Booted rubber boat

Drawing of a 'pneumatic sports- fish and hunt boat,' an inflatable boat for one person with boots attached; The Netherlands, 1915

Faxed newspaper

In 1938, the world's first wireless newspaper was sent from WOR radio station in New York City. In this photo, children are reading the children’s page of a Missouri paper.

Snowstorm mask

Plastic face protection from snowstorms. Canada, Montreal, 1939

Gas-resistant stroller

A wartime stroller equipped with gas protection; England, Hextable, 1938

Revolver camera

A Colt 38 carrying a small camera that automatically takes a picture when you pull the trigger. At the left: six pictures taken by the camera. New York, 1938.

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15 MARCH, 2012

Arthur C. Clarke Predicts the iPad in 1968

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Unpacking humanity’s collective conscience through ‘the last word in man’s quest for perfect communications.’

In 1964, legendary science fiction writer, inventor, and futurist Arthur C. Clarke predicted the future with astounding accuracy, presaging everything from telecommuting to the digital convergence. It turns out he predicted the future in even more granular detail in his 1968 novel-turned-Kubrick-classic 2001 A Space Odyssey, where in Chapter 9 he describes the “newspad” — a strikingly prescient vision for the iPad.

When [Floyd] had tired of official reports, memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one, he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers. He knew the codes of the more important ones by heart and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad. Switching to the display’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him.

Each had its own two-digit reference. When he punched that, a postage-sized rectangle would expand till it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort. When he finished he could flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination.

Floyd sometimes wondered if the Newspad, and the fantastic technology behind it, was the last word in man’s quest for perfect communications. Here he was, far out in space, speeding away from Earth at thousands of miles an hour, yet in a few milliseconds he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased. (That very word “newspaper,” of course, was an anachronistic hangover into the age of electronics.) The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions, one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the ever-changing flow of information from the news satellites.”

The iPad was released in 2010, two years after Clarke’s death.

The past, of course, has a long history of envisioning the future and presaging its inventions — which is to be expected in a culture of combinatorial creativity where ideas build upon other ideas. As neuroscientist David Eagleman reminds us in the excellent Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, one of the 11 best psychology books of 2011:

When an idea is served up from behind the scenes, your neural circuitry has been working on it for hours or days or years, consolidating information and trying out new combinations.”

What is true of a single human brain is no doubt true of humanity’s networked collective conscience.

Margaret Plus

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12 MARCH, 2012

Alan Turing’s Reading List: What the Computing Pioneer Borrowed From His School Library

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What Alice in Wonderland has to do with electromagnetic theory, relativity, and Pluto.

“You are a mashup of what you let into your life,” it’s been said. Since creativity is combinatorial, the architecture of mind and character is deeply influenced by the intellectual stimulation we choose to engage with — including the books we read. There is hardly anything more fascinating than the private intellectual diet of genius — like this recently uncovered list of books computing pioneer and early codehacker Alan Turing borrowed from his school library. Though heavy on the sciences, the selection features some wonderful wildcards that bespeak the cross-disciplinary curiosity fundamental to true innovation. A few personal favorites follow.

SIDELIGHTS ON RELATIVITY (1922)

Sidelights on Relativity, published in 1922, is a two-part book based on a series of lectures Albert Einstein gave between 1920 and 1922. It begins with “Ether and the Theory of Relativity,” explores the nature of ether and the idea that the universe is not mechanical through the lens of Newton, Maxwell, and Lorentz’s work, and the implicit contraction of “space without ether.” The second part, “Geometry and Experience,” considers the concept of infinity through Euclidean geometry.

The book is available as a free download from Project Gutenberg.

THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (1871)

The follow-up to Lewis Carroll‘s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (also on Turing’s reading list), Through The Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There — one of the best classic children’s books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups — has a palpable philosophical undercurrent running beneath the seemingly nonsensical dialogue and situations, inviting the reader to extract his or her own conclusive existentialism.

Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” ~ The Queen

A study in contrasts and opposites, the book is as much escapism from reality as it is a journey into our most authentic, uninhibited selves.

Also in the public domain, the book was the 12th text to be digitized by Project Gutenberg.

SCIENCE AND THE MODERN WORLD (1925)

Science and the Modern World by Alfred North Whitehead, originally published in 1925, is one of the seminal texts of modern science, presaging nearly a century of cutting-edge discoveries by examining science in the richer context of culture and the humanities as a force of social progress — a conceptual predecessor to what Jonah Lehrer has termed “the fourth culture”.

Philosophy, in one of its functions, is the critic of cosmologies. It is its function to harmonise, re-fashion, and justify divergent intuitions as to the nature of things. It has to insist on the scrutiny of the ultimate ideas, and on the retention of the whole of the evidence in shaping our cosmological scheme. Its business is to render explicit, and—so far as may be—efficient, a process which otherwise is unconsciously performed without rational tests.”

The Internet Archive has a free download.

THE UNIVERSE AROUND US (1929)

English astrophysicist Sir James Jeans was an early champion of “popular science.” In The Universe Around Us, he set out to make cosmogony, evolution, and the general structure of the universe “intelligible to readers with no special scientific knowledge” by rewriting and reforming lectures and “wireless talks” he had given to academic audiences.

In the second edition of the book, Jeans added a discussion of “the new planet Pluto,” whose planetary status has since been revoked, as well as the rotation of the Milky Way and “the apparent expansion of the universe.” By the fourth edition in 1943, Jeans had distilled the discovery of atomic nuclei, suggesting it could “not only give a satisfactory account of the radiation of the sun and stars, but can also explain many hitherto puzzling stellar characteristics.” In a way, the changes across the four editions offer a fascinating footprint of some of the most important discoveries in modern science, narrated in near-real-time by a scientist who made it his life’s work to foster a popular understanding of the scientific method.

MATTER AND MOTION (1876)

In 1876, pioneering physicist James Clerk Maxwell, best-known for formulating electromagnetic theory, penned Matter and Motion — the first comprehensive guide to the fundamental principles of elementary physics, pulling the curtain on the logic and rationale of the concepts his work built upon, presented in order of complexity in an effort to build a layered understanding of the timeless laws of physics.

Physical science, which up to the end of the eighteenth century had been fully occupied in forming a conception of natural phenomena as the result of forces acting between one body and another, has now fairly entered on the next stage of progress – that in which the energy of a material system is conceived as determined by the configuration and motion of that system, and in which the ideas of configuration, motion, and force are generalised to the utmost extent warranted by their physical definitions.

To become acquainted with these fundamental ideas, to examine them under all their aspects, and habitually to guide the current of thought along the channels of strict dynamical reasoning, must be the foundation of the training of the student of Physical Science.

The book is available for free in multiple formats, courtesy of The Internet Archive.

Alex Bellos has the full list. Many of the books are now in the public domain and are thus free.

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