Saturday, April 26, 2008

Wheels for paralyzed turtle

Jim Lee is a contributor to MAKE magazine, and is interested in turtles and bamboo. He built a set of wheels for an injured box turtle, shown here.

Little Bit, a young Eastern Box Turtle was hit by a car in September of 2000. Her shell was crushed and she was left partially paralyzed. There was no way she would ever be released to the wild as happens with most successful rehabs. I repaired her shell using velcro strips epoxied to anchor points on her carapace. After some weeks Little Bit seemed to have made a full recovery except for the use of her hind legs. So some wheels seemed to be the way to go. Some lightweight model airplane wheels on a wire frame did the trick. The removable wheels were secured by a velcro strip epoxied to her plastron. The velcro strips on the carapace were removed after four months. She was eating, drinking, and exploring all the rooms of my house. Eventually she was able to move around outside as well. She lived until early in 2002 when she died unexpectedly (and suddenly). After all she had been through I did not have the heart to order any kind of post mortem from the local vet school. I simply said goodbye and thanked her for what she had shared with me and others who met her.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

9 accidental inventions

1. Penicillin
Everybody knows the story – or at least, should – the brilliant yet notoriously absent-minded biologist Sir Alexander Fleming was researching a strain of bacteria called staphylococci. Upon returning from holiday one time in 1928, he noticed that one of the glass culture dishes he had accidentally left out had become contaminated with a fungus, and so threw it away. It wasn’t until later that he noticed that the staphylococcus bacteria seemed unable to grow in the area surrounding the fungal mould.

Fleming didn’t even hold out much hope for his discovery: it wasn’t given much attention when he published his findings the following year, it was difficult to cultivate, and it was slow-acting – it wasn’t until 1945 after further research by several other scientists that penicillin was able to be produced on an industrial scale, changing the way doctors treated bacterial infections forever.

2. The Microwave
In 1945 Percy Lebaron Spencer, an American engineer and inventor, was busy working on manufacturing magnetrons, the devices used to produce the microwave radio signals that were integral to early radar use. Radar was an incredibly important innovation during the time of war, but microwave cooking was a purely accidental discovery.

While standing by a functioning magnetron, Spencer noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. His keen mind soon figured out that it was the microwaves that had caused it, and later experimented with popcorn kernels and eventually, an egg, which (as we all could have told him from mischievous childhood ‘experiments’), exploded.

The first microwave oven weighed about 750lbs and was about the size of a fridge.

3. Ice Cream Cones
This story is a perfect example of serendipity, and a single chance encounter leading to worldwide repercussions. It’s also rather sweet.

Before 1904, ice cream was served on dishes. It wasn’t until the World’s Fair of that year, held in St Louis, Missouri, that two seemingly unrelated foodstuffs became inexorably linked together.

At this particularly sweltering 1904 World’s Fair, a stall selling ice cream was doing such good business that they were quickly running out of dishes. The neighboring stall wasn’t doing so well, selling Zalabia – a kind of wafer thin waffle from Persia – and the stall owner came up with the idea of rolling them into cone shapes and popping the ice cream on top. Thus the ice cream cone was born – and it doesn’t look like dying out any time soon.

4. Champagne
While many know that Dom Pierre Pérignon is credited for the invention of champagne, it was not the 17th century Benedictine monk’s intention to make a wine with bubbles in it – in fact, he had spent years trying to prevent just that, as bubbly wine was considered a sure sign of poor winemaking.

Pérignon’s original wish was to cater for the French court’s preference for white wine. Since black grapes were easier to grow in the Champagne region, he invented a way of pressing white juice from them. But since Champagne’s climate was relatively cold, the wine had to be fermented over two seasons, spending the second year in the bottle. This produced a wine loaded with bubbles of carbon dioxide, which Pérignon tried but failed to eradicate. Happily, the new wine was a big hit with the aristocratic crowds in both the French and English courts.

5. Post-It Notes
The invention of the humble Post-It Note was an accidental collaboration between second-rate science and a frustrated church-goer. In 1970, Spencer Silver, a researcher for the large American corporation 3M, had been trying to formulate a strong adhesive, but ended up only managing to create a very weak glue that could be removed almost effortlessly. He promoted his invention within 3M, but nobody took any notice.

4 years later, Arthur Fry, a 3M colleague and member of his church choir, was irritated by the fact that the slips of paper he placed in his hymnal to mark the pages would usually fall out when the book was opened. One service, he recalled the work of Spencer Silver, leading to an epiphany – the church being a good a place as any to have one, I suppose – and later applied some of Silver’s weak yet non-damaging adhesive to his bookmarks. He found that the little sticky markers worked perfectly, and sold the idea to 3M. Trial marketing began in 1977, and today you’d find it hard to imagine life without them.

6. Potato chips/crisps
In 1853, in a restaurant in Saratoga, New York, a particularly fussy diner (railway magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt) repeatedly refused to eat the fries he had been served with his meal, complaining that they were too thick and too soggy. After he had sent back several plates of increasingly thinly-cut fries, the chef George Crum decided to get his own back by frying wafer-thin slices of potato in grease and sending them out.

Vanderbilt initially protested that the chef’s latest efforts were too thin to be picked up with a fork, but upon trying a few, the chips were an instant hit, and soon everybody in the restaurant wanted a serving. This led to the new recipe appearing on the menu as “Saratoga Chips”, before later being sold all over the world.

7. The Slinky
What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs, and makes a slinkity sound? Well, originally it was just a spring falling off a desk. To be more precise, it was the desk belonging to marine engineer Richard James, who sometime in 1940 noticed that when the spring fell, it stumbled and tumbled across the floor for a while before laying to rest. After a few prototypes, the Slinky was ready to be introduced to toy stores in 1948, where it became one of the most popular and iconic toys of all time.

James’ wife Betty was the one who came up with the name “Slinky”, and has been CEO of the company since 1960. Over 250 million Slinkies have been sold worldwide, and they were even used as mobile radio antennae during the Vietnam war.

8. The Pacemaker
Like penicillin, here is another accidental invention that continues to save lives to this day. American engineer Wilson Greatbatch was working on a gadget that recorded irregular heartbeats, when he inserted the wrong type of resistor into his invention. The circuit pulsed, then was quiet, then pulsed again, prompting Greatbatch to compare this reaction with the human heart and work on the world’s first implantable cardiac pacemaker.

Before the implantable version was used on humans from 1960 onwards, pacemakers had been based on the external model invented by Paul Zoll in 1952. These were about the size of a television and dealt out considerable jolts of electricity into the patient’s body, which often caused the skin to burn. Greatbatch also went on to devise a lithium-iodide battery cell to power his pacemaker.

9. Superglue
More sticky stuff, though this one was famous for its high adhesive value, unlike Silver’s Post-It Notes. Superglue came into being in 1942 when Dr Harry Coover was trying to isolate a clear plastic to make precision gun sights for handheld weaponry. For a while he was working with chemicals known as cyanoacrylates, which they soon realized polymerized on contact with moisture, causing all the test materials to bond together. It was obvious that these wouldn’t work, so research moved on.

6 years later, Coover was working in a Tennessee chemical plant and realized the potential of the substance when they were testing the heat resistance of cyanoacrylates, recognizing that the adhesives required neither heat nor pressure to form a strong bond. Thus, after a certain amount of commercial refinement, Superglue (or “Alcohol-Catalyzed Cyanoacrylate Adhesive Composition”, to give it its full name) was born.

It was later used for treating injured soldiers in Vietnam – the adhesive could be sprayed on open wounds, stemming bleeding and allowing easier transportation of soldiers; adding a delicious layer of irony to the story in that a discovery made during an effort to improve the killing potential of guns ended up saving countless lives.

Brothers Team Up To Create 100-Mile-Per-Gallon Car

Motorists Looking For Fuel-Efficient Options As Gas Prices Surge
Dana Kozlov
DU PAGE COUNTY, Ill. (CBS) ― With gas prices seeming to go up every single day, some people are more determined than ever to find different, more cost effective ways to get around.

As CBS 2's Dana Kozlov reports, the Ewert brothers have a rather advanced science project. But instead of a typical dry ice experiment, Chris and Andrew used batteries and a charger to make their hybrid Toyota Prius get 100 miles per gallon.

"My brother and I built this, and car companies should be able to do it, too," Chris Ewert, an electric vehicle enthusiast, said.

The car is the Wheaton brothers' way of lessening the dependence on oil and helping the environment.

It's something the DuPage County Forest Preserve has been focused on for close to a decade.

"Oh, we're making a significant difference in the environment," said the district's John Walton.

The district has hybrids and vehicles that run on four different types of alternative fuels, including natural gas.

"It burns at less than 10 percent of the pollutants of gasoline, and for the mile per gallon dollars, it's costing us about a dollar a gallon," Walton said.

If you want to forget about fuel sources altogether, you can go electric. Small electric cars get 40 miles per charge, costing three cents a mile, and are meant for local neighborhood use.

"With the gas prices going up and with the green movement, it's really unbelievable the number of cars we're selling today," said Dan Mack of the Electric Avenue Auto Mall.

The hitch is the vehicles are not legal in Illinois.

That's frustrating, considering Mack, Walton and the Ewerts are convinced gas is not the way of the future.

"There is no gas shortage today; there will be in the very near future," Walton said. "We are not going to have gasoline the way we have it."

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Machine That Made Us The Printing Press

Stephen Fry, best known (to me anyway) for playing Jeeves in the P.G. Wodehouse adaptation Jeeves and Wooster, recently hosted a BBC4 documentary on the Gutenberg Press entitled The Machine That Made Us. The title refers to the movable-type printing press invented by Johann Gutenberg in the fifteenth century.

In the course of the one-hour documentary, Fry travels through Europe to understand Gutenberg’s story. He also builds a modern replica of the press, which turns out to be a tough job. You can watch the entire documentary online via YouTube (embedded videos below — one hour spread across six ten-minute clips), or if you’re in the UK you can watch via the BBC’s iPlayer.

This documentary is an interesting exploration of Gutenberg and his invention; the story of the printing press is one we don’t often think about, but of course it’s central to the development of modern thought and education. Have a look:

You can read more about Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press at Wikipedia. See also: the Gutenberg Bible.






Tuesday, April 1, 2008


Of all of the dreams of humanity throughout the ages, the thought of traveling though the air seemed the most fantastical. Truly a multitude of people spent countless years thinking, building, testing and ultimately failing in the efforts to create a heaver-than-air flying machine.

Electric Adding Machine

In a certain way, this started the whole computer thing going. An operator would handle about 50-80 cards per minute (say 1 per second). Hollerith electric tabulating system, including tabulating machine, card reader, pantograph punching machine, and sorting machine, 1890, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Light Bulb

Contrary to popular knowledge, Thomas Edison did not actually invent the light bulb. The patent is for ‘an improvement in Electrical Lamps, and in the method for manufacturing the same’. It was part of the genius of Edison that also created the Edison Electric Light Company (with the backing of some of the most famous financiers of the day) to market not only the light bulb itself, but also the electric power needed by all those bulbs.


The ability to store information is so pervasive today that it is hard to remember that the whole concept of ‘a media storage device’ is only 130 years old. Mr. Edison didn’t call it that, but the path from his phonograph to you multi-gig thumb drive is fairly impressive. This meme was developed at the first industrial research facility – Menlo Park, New Jersey, USA. The patent was one of the few inventions of Edison that did not describe an improvement of ‘prior art’, but a new and unique way to record, save and reproduce sounds on demand.

Improvement in Telegraph

By the early 1870’s the telegraph was in widespread use. Many inventors worked on the problem of sending multiple signals over one wire, increasing the scalability of the systems in place. Alexander Bell took the path of sending multiple tones on a wire which evolved into the transmission of human voice. Teamed with Tom Watson he was issued patent 1764465 – the first telephone.

Ice Machine

Modern life would be vastly different without refrigeration and air conditioning. The patent that started it all was issued to John Gorrie, a doctor in Florida looking to keep his patients cool. Unable to commercialize his ice making machine, he died four year later at age 54, a ruined man.

Electric Motor

At the heart of the industrial revolution is the ability to take electric power and convert it to mechanical energy. Developed based on the discoveries of Faraday in 1821 and Sturgeon in 1832, Thomas Davenport patented the first commercial electric motor. Unfortunately, because there was no practical electric distribution system in place, Davenport’s invention did not sell and he went bankrupt.

Cotton Gin

No, the ‘Gin’ has nothing to do with drinking. It is a shortened form of ‘engine’ . This device, that separates the cotton from embedded seeds, was instrumental in the explosion of wealth of the United States.