Agents of change

Inventions

Agents of change

Recently, a man who’d just recovered his misplaced cell phone told me, “Madam, it doesn’t matter if you lose your wife or kids. But if you lose your cell phone, you’re finished.” I knew just how he felt.

However, a phone wouldn’t have been that important to someone, 30 years ago, would it? For that matter, the thought of a camera or a music player in a telephone would have made us scoff (remember our clunky rotary dial phones?). Not possible, we’d have said.

Well, inventions have made these possible. And there are more inventions, both useful and useless, coming out each day, as people feel compelled to act on strange and funny ideas that they have for making life easier and more fun. In fact, some inventions happen in crazy ways.

 In the 1870s, Constantin Fahlberg, a Russian chemist, was working on the reactivity of coal-tar derivatives at Johns Hopkins University in the USA. One night, he returned home and was eating dinner rolls, when he realised that they tasted very sweet. Rolls normally taste bland, and the recipe hadn’t been changed; it was something on his hands that had made everything sweet. He ran back to the lab and tasted all the vials, beakers and dishes that he had used for his experiments, and found the source, an overboiled beaker. The substance was the artificial sweetener, saccharin.

While saccharin may not be the most important invention in the world, think of this mad scientist who did everything wrong, like leaving the lab without washing his hands properly, and then (horrors) actually tasting various strange compounds! This is when we see that inventing is a strange beast, and inventors are not really ‘normal people’. When most of us ask “Why?”, they ask “Why not?” And while the majority accepts the status quo, they ask “How?” and “What if...?” They are not afraid to step into the dark, vast and mysterious world of possibilities.

Let us first examine the idea of inventions themselves. There are very few inventions in this world which have been the sole work of one person. For example, who invented the television? John Logie Baird holds the patent for the apparatus for transmitting views or images to a distance (1929) and the first colour television (1933), but it is really Philo T Farnsworth who patented the video camera tube, the heart of today’s television.

However, the story of the invention actually began with the introduction of the facsimile machine in 1846. After that came a number of discoveries and inventions that helped Baird and Farnsworth come up with their own inventions. So, while we can name the actual inventor in some cases, we can only point out the patent holder on others. (By the way, producer Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox predicted in 1946 that “Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”)

Now, let’s turn our minds to some inventions that are extremely significant to us. Mind you, we’re not going to talk of the most important inventions, period, but those that are most important to the common man today. And yes, this is where controversies erupt. Yes, the cell phone and the Internet are wonderful inventions, but we can live without them; however, without an LPG cylinder for cooking, we can’t cook food, therefore we can’t eat. Does this mean that we should rate the LPG cylinder above the Internet?

Getting down to basics

Well, one way to reduce the confusion is to categorise inventions according to their fields. For example, in the category of communication, the greatest inventions have to be the Internet and the World Wide Web, right? The initial idea of the Internet is credited to Leonard Kleinrock, while Tim Berners-Lee is honoured as the inventor of the World Wide Web. But the cell phone is much more indispensible to us, isn’t it? Well, the first handheld mobile phone was invented by Martin Cooper who made the first call on April 3, 1973, using a device which weighed 1.1 kg and measured 23 cm long, 13 cm deep and 4.45 cm wide. Today, the device has come a long way, with some cell phones being less than 5 mm thick.

Here’s a thought — the Internet would have been of no use if writing itself had not been invented. Language developed around 35,000 BCE, but written language was invented in Sumer, Mesopotamia between 3500 and 3000 BCE. The alphabet was created in Egypt and Crete and disseminated by Phoenicians (the people who lived in modern-day Lebanon, Israel and Syria). The first written document recovered is The Epic of Gilgamesh (1300-1000 BCE). Mahabharata is estimated to have been written around 400 BCE.

Writing leads us to paper which was first invented by the Chinese. Before this, people used clay, papyrus, wood, slate and prepared animal skin or parchment. T’sai Lun invented the paper-making process in around 105 AD. A German named Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press in Mainz, Germany, in 1440. This led to rapid diffusion of knowledge through books, pamphlets and other similar methods. Following this, the first printed weekly newspaper called Relation was published in Antwerp by Johann Carolus in 1605. And in case you were wondering, in 1938, Jewish-Hungarian journalist Laszlo Biro invented the ballpoint pen for writing.

Some inventions have changed the very fibre of our lives while some have become obsolete. Electricity generation, invented by Nikola Tesla, along with Edison’s light bulb, has changed almost every facet of everyday life, including the very basic daily waking/sleeping patterns of human beings and even some animals, for all time. However, the rotary dial telephone, indispensible though it was, during its time, patented by Almon Brown Strowger in 1891, has gone obsolete.

Meanwhile, some inventions have been particularly beneficial, while others have been extremely bad for us. The object a lot of us rely on, the spectacles, invented by an unknown person in about 1286, has done so much good, while gunpowder, also an ancient invention from China in the 9th century, has done its best to turn man back into a savage.

Some inventions are so ubiquitous that they hide in plain sight, like cement and asphalt. Forms of cement that include lime have been known from ancient Greece, but the most commonly used kind, portland cement, was patented by Issac Charles Johnson at the turn of the 20th century. As for asphalt or tar, the method of using it to pave our roads is from ancient Middle East, but the first road to be paved with it was in front of the Newark, NJ City Hall in 1870.

We’ve come a long way

Speaking of the roads and travel, the first motorised 2-wheeler was the Daimler Reitwagen, invented and built by Germans — Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach — in 1885. The first modern car was the Benz Patent-Motorwagen built in 1886 by Karl Benz. And, on a parallel track, speaking of two, the first 2-piece swimsuit or the bikini was revealed on July 5, 1946 by French designer Louis Reard. It was named after the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean where the US had recently conducted an atomic test.

It is interesting to note that inventions like the bikini preceded more useful ones like wheels on suitcases — US patent no. 3,653,474 — invented by Bernard Sandow in 1972. And appropriately, the first remote for controlling television with an attached wire was called ‘Lazy Bones’, and developed by the Zenith Radio Corporation in 1950. The first wireless remote control was developed in 1955 by Eugene Polley in the US.

In the field of health, inventions like penicillin and vaccination stand out. However, not to be ignored are the inventions of anaesthesia and the pill. On October 16, 1846, William T G Morgan, a young Boston dentist, used his invention, general anesthesia, as Dr John Collins Warren removed a tumour from the neck of a 17-year-old boy at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, and forever relieved mankind of its greatest fear, the pain of surgery.

Abraham Lincoln freed black slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation; the young Mexican scientist, Dr Carl Djerassi, freed women from repeat unwanted and unplanned pregnancies by making the first progesterone pill that prevented ovulation. And then, endocrinologist Dr Gregory Pincus, along with activist Margaret Sanger and financier Katherine McCormick, developed the birth control pill, which was first approved for contraceptive use by the FDA in 1960.

As for the Indian woman, she used to be tied down in the kitchen with stones — the stone and mud chulha, the crushing stone and the grinding stone. Now, three wonderful inventions have removed her crushing burden — the LPG cylinder-gas stove, the mixie and the grinder, in that order.

We have LPG gas in cylinders to help in cooking, thanks to Dr Walter O Snelling who invented ways to liquefy LPG during the refining of natural gasoline in 1910. As for the electric kitchen blender or ‘Mixie’, as we affectionately call it, it was invented by Stephen Poplawski of Racine, Wisconsin, in 1922. It was invented to help make bar drinks, but has been used in so many other ways, too. It was even used by Dr Jonas Salk in the making of his famous polio vaccine.

Finally, the idli-dosa batter maker that saves time and drudgery, and guarantees a healthy breakfast — the wet grinder. It is said that this is the invention of P Sabhapathy of Coimbatore in 1955.

Newer inventions are coming up everyday. Driverless cars and Artificial Intelligence — these ideas are so radical that they have the potential to completely transform our lives. These will not be the end, either. Man is innately a curious animal: he constantly tries to understand and improve upon whatever exists at the present time. This is simultaneously one of his best and his worst qualities since, as Joel Mokyr, professor of economics and history, Northwestern University pointed out, “Every time we solve one problem, a new one comes up. Each invention relies on subsequent inventions to clean up the mess it has made.”
And so it goes on...


Keeping it simple

You don’t always need big technology to do big things. The Egyptians built their pyramids before the invention of cement and steel, even the wheel and the nail; they relied heavily on levers. So did the Incas: the mountain retreat of Machu Picchu was built by the dry stone technique. The stone bricks that were simply placed side-by-side are so well set together in some places that you cannot slide a knife in between them.

A first...

The first known newspaper was the Acta Diurna, published in Rome, in the year 59 BC. It was published to inform the citizens of the daily happenings in the Senate.

All things photography

It started with the discovery of camera obscura or pinhole camera many centuries before Christ.
Louis Daguerre invented the first commercially successful photographic process in 1839. The daguerreotype made portrait-taking more popular with the middle class.

Post-mortem photography was quite common in the 19th century, called mourning portraiture. People took pictures with the recently dead loved ones for visual remembrance.

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