Monday, November 22, 2010

For the scientific mind 150 years ago

Scientific American, June 26, 1869
We've been reading four issues of Scientific American magazine, one from 1869, the others from the 1870s. They're from a collection by inventor and photo enthusiast Lester C. Hehn, about whom we had an article recently.

We didn't find much about photography in these issues (a photographic paper making process from 1874) but it's easy to see why an inventor would be interested in these treasures.

Here are articles on an eclectic collection of subjects from the details of making transatlantic undersea cable to the innerworkings of a then-new Italian ice cream maker for "confectioners and others whose business includes the manufacture of large quantities of ice cream, water ice, and similar delicacies."

Interestingly, the ice cream maker still had to be hand cranked, though electricity was being used to operate some machines at the time.

Here, too, are articles on scientific thought of the day: on a new design of bolt cutter, a safer steam generator, an improved medical inhaler, the latest known astronomy facts, a new method of cremation, a new turbine wheel, lessons from army ants of South America and so much more.

There is an account of the meeting of the National Academy of Science at the Smithsonian Institution. Among the deliberations: a report about Charles Babbage, the British mathematician who had died less than three years earlier. It seems that Babbage, who had originated the concept of a programmable computer, had suggested that "a machine might be made which would play a game of combination, such as drafts, provided the maker of the machine himself would work out perfectly the sequences of the game."

Logo for the magazine from 1870. Click image to enlarge.
The presenter, a Professor Fairman Rogers, suggests a tic-tac-toe (they called it tit-tat-too then). The object: "To show that such mechanism, applied to apparatus for registering physical phenomena or for performing geometrical or mathematical operations, may enable such mechanical devices to have a use much more extended than heretofore." But it would take more than a century to come up with Pac-man and Space Invaders.

There is an update on the practical use of velocipedes, as the early bicycles were called. Seems messengers in Paris were sent to run dispatches from the stock exchange to the central telegraph bureau, a six-mile trip that took 25 minutes and cost the sender 50 cents. The article tells about a high profile trial in which Parisian newspapers hired messengers on bicycles to dispatch developments. The article notes that carrier pigeons were used, too. On a clear day with the birds able to get their bearings, the feathered couriers were quicker. So much for new technology.

One article rails (pun intended) about the false economy and safety issues connected with railroads cutting corners in the interest of saving money. The article concludes, "Pity 'tis that railway managers have not been quick to understand that the 'penny wise' are frequently the 'pound foolish;' that the best is always the cheapest in the long run."

All in all, a fascinating read.

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