Friday, May 14, 2010

Tech Surprises

Surprises from the History of Science & Technology:

  • Nobody has really figured out why the Chinese stopped innovating after 1500AD, or why the Arabs, who were at the forefront of compiling knowledge (algebra, geometry, metallurgy, chemistry)  from Asia until 1200AD, never quite went on to invent things on their own.
  • The ancient Greeks were thought to be backward in terms of mechanical devises until the discovery of the Antikythera mechanism in a sunken ship, off the coast of Crete. It was a geared astronomical computing machine of astonishing complexity, built in circa 100BC.
  • Science became important for technology-development only after 1850s. Until then new discoveries and innovations happened only by chance or accident, and the scientific rationale for it was deciphered only later. Eg. Vulcanization of rubber, longevity of canned food
  • The original Jethro Tull was not a rock-band but the name of a pioneering agriculturist who invented the modern seed-drill, which was a lot more efficient than spreading seeds by hand (broadcasting) or using sticks to poke seed-holes (setting).
  • 18-year old British chemist, Willing Perkin, was trying to make artificial quinine (anti-malarial) when he discovered aniline purple (1856) which replaced natural mauve dye. Three years later French chemist Emanuel Verguin discovered aniline red or magenta.
  • The Sewing Machine: 17 different sewing machines were invented in Europe and America - all were unworkable because they tried to replace the motion of the human hand in stitching. In 1830 Thimonnier invented a chain-stitch system but his uniform factory in Paris was destroyed twice by violent tailors. Then came Elias Howe (1846)with the lock-stitch, and Issac Meritt Singer, who powered his machine with a foot treadle.
  • The pneumatic tyre was patented in 1845 but the invention was forgotten until a Belfast vet surgeon, JB Dunlop resurrected it in 1888, after he was unhappy with the comfort of his 10-yr-old son's tricycle ride.


Mokyr, Joel (1990), The Lever of Riches - Technological Creativity and Economic Progress, Oxford University Press, 1990

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