There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty Four

Rasmus Malling Hansen (1835 – 1890)

The other day I had cause to write something with a pen. It was an odd feeling and the result was something that an inebriated arachnid would feel proud of. So embedded in our daily life is the keyboard in all its forms that many fear for the future of cursive script. But the typewriter, which is the granddaddy of the myriad keyboards which we use, was a relatively modern innovation.

And who could claim to be its inventor? Step forward, Rasmus Malling Hansen, the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame.

The Danish priest was principal of the Royal Institute of Deaf-mutes in Copenhagen. His work piqued an interest in the make-up of Danish letters and sounds and, in particular, the speed at which letters could be spoken and written per second. He concluded, according to his patent application, that “in a given time one can say five times as many sounds as they can be written.

This observation led Rasmus to consider how he could speed up the production of letters on paper. From around 1865 he started experimenting and by 1870 was sufficiently satisfied with the results to apply for and receive a patent for what he described as an “apparatus for quick writing.” He claimed that “The writing speed will easily be two to three times as fast as normal, and practice in using the apparatus should be able to bring this speed up to speech speed.

It was an ingenious affair. The heart of the contraption was a large brass hemisphere in which 52 keys were arranged such that the keys representing the most frequently used letters were directly in reach of the user’s strongest and fastest writing fingers. The vowels were arranged on the left hand side and the consonants on the right and this arrangement, together with the use of short pistons which went through the hemisphere enabled the user, after some practice, reach prodigious speeds. To the eye it looked like an over-sized pin cushion.

The paper was attached to a cylinder which could move both vertically and horizontally. Using an electro-magnet powered by a 10 or 12-cell battery, a mechanical escapement moved the carriage the required distance each time a key was depressed. As well as the forerunner of the typewriter per se, Rasmus’ machine could be claimed to be the first electric typewriter.

The machine caused a sensation when it was exhibited at the large industrial exhibition in Copenhagen in 1872, winning Rasmus first prize. It was also well received at the world exhibitions in Vienna in 1873 and in Paris in 1878. But Rasmus was not satisfied and soon replaced the cylinder with a flat carriage to which the paper was attached and in 1875 he was able to dispense with the battery, having found a mechanical solution to the problem of moving the paper. The philosopher, Nietzsche, bought one but never got on with it.

Leaving the philosopher’s lack of manual dexterity to one side, the principal problem was that the machine, undoubtedly efficient as it was, was fiendishly expensive, making it difficult to attract a manufacturer to produce it in sufficient quantities to make a dent in the market. This opened the way for a rival typewriter, less efficient but cheaper and better marketed, the Remington typewriter which was first produced commercially on 1st March 1873 in Ilion, New York. And the rest is history.

Rasmus could never interest manufacturers in his machine and when he died, his machine died with him. Very few survive but if you have one, they are worth a lot of money.

In 1872 Rasmus also invented a high-speed machine for stenography, the Takyagraf, and was the first to exploit the potentials of carbon paper, developing a technique called Xerografi. But for inventing the typewriter and failing to exploit it commercially, Rasmus is a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone



You’re Having A Laugh – Part Fifteen

The Swedish colour TV hoax, 1962

The younger generations, by which I mean anyone under the age of fifty, look at us oldies with faint amusement and ill-disguised incredulity when we bang on about living in an era when there were few television channels to choose from and programmes were in unremitting black and white, the only time we welcomed varying shades of grey into our lives.

At least here in Britain in the early 1960s we had the luxury of two channels to choose from, the good old Beeb and its slightly racier rival, ITV. In Sweden they only had one channel, provided by SVT or, to give it its full name, Sveriges Television. Yes, you’ve guessed it, its entire output at the time was in black and white, mirroring perfectly the outside conditions encountered in the depths of a Swedish midwinter.

On 1st April 1962, though, SVT introduced a programme that would make their loyal viewers sit up and take note. Their technical expert, Kjell Stensson, would address the nation and tell them how they could convert the flickering black and white images on their goggleboxes into glorious technicolour. You can imagine the frisson of excitement that the continuity announcer’s pronouncement caused throughout the land.

Stensson duly addressed the nation but the early part of his spiel was as dull as ditch water, banging on about prismatic nature of light and double slit interference. I’m sure many gave up the ghost at that point, switched their set off and contemplated the fire burning in their hearths – now that would make a great TV programme.

Those who were made of sterner stuff saw Stensson bring home the bacon in some style. He revealed that researchers had made an astonishing discovery that would enable the pictures displayed on their screens burst into colour. And it was a very simple procedure which required little effort or, for that matter, financial investment on the part of the viewer. All they had to do was place a fine-meshed screen  in front of the television.

And what’s more, nylon stockings were absolutely perfect for the job. Viewers were encouraged to grab a pair and tape them to their TV screen. String vests wouldn’t do as their apertures were too large.

Those who followed Stensson’s instructions may have been perplexed at first by the lack of colour. They were exhorted to experiment by moving backwards from and forwards to the screen because the distance the viewer was away from the screen was absolutely crucial. As was the angle of your head. Viewers were encouraged to move their heads up and down to ensure that they were seeing the full spectrum of colours.

Stensson signed off by telling his audience that the experiment was still in its early stages and that they should write in to let him know how they got on. He also revealed that the television industry were beavering away, developing a frame with tightening screws which could easily be fitted to the screen – “in very pleasing designs”, natch – to make the transformation permanent.

Thousands admitted to being taken in by the ingenious hoax and, doubtless, hundreds of Swedish women were surprised to be parted from their fine-mesh nylon stockings. Others, though, saw the relevance of the date of the announcement.

It wasn’t until 1966 that SVT started experimenting with colour transmissions and colour broadcasting began in earnest, sans nylons, on the eighth anniversary of Stensson’s hoax.

On 1st April 2004 Swedish newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, ran a reprise of the TV hoax, updated for the modern generation, informing their readers that if they shook their GSM mobile phones vigorously enough they would magically convert into the then state-of-the-art 3G phones.

A pale imitation of the original, methinks.

If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty One

Nettie Stevens (1861 – 1912)

How the sex of a child is determined at conception has puzzled many grey cells more powerful than mine over the centuries. Aristotle thought it was all about environmental heat and advised males who were looking to sire sons to copulate in the summer. A popular theory going the rounds in Europe during the 19th century was that it was all about nutrition. A good diet produced girls whilst a poor one resulted in males. That was one way of keeping down the food bill.

A more drastic course of action was promulgated by the 18th century French anatomist, Michel Procope-Couteau (1684 – 1753), who in The Art of Having Boys revived Parmenides and Anaxagoras’ theory that the testicles and ovaries were either male or female. Excision of the unwanted reproductive organ would ensure the birth of a child of the desired sex. I’m not sure too many followed his strictures and he did come up with a more practical alternative. The female should lie on the correct side and let gravity take care of the rest.

It was only at the turn of the 20th century that we had a clearer idea of how sex was determined and this is where some insects and our latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Vermont-born geneticist Nettie Stevens comes in. A late entrant into the groves of academe she was awarded a doctorate in cytology by Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania in 1900 and continued as a researcher, looking into the subject of sex determination.

Drosophila melanogaster, to give the fruit fly its Latin tag, is often used in research because they can be bred readily in laboratory conditions, breed quickly and lay a large quantity of eggs. Of particular interest to our Nettie was the fact that they only have four sets of chromosomes and it was these that she studied under her microscope in 1905. She quickly discovered that the chromosomes differed between the sexes.

Transferring her attentions to the mealworm, Stevens identified and isolated a chromosome she called Y, realising that it was linked to and the opposite of the X chromosome discovered by and so named by Hermann Henking in 1890. Extending her research to include egg tissue and the fertilisation process, Nettie realised that the X and Y chromosomes always existed in pairs and that it was the presence or absence of the Y that determined the gender of the result of the fertilisation process. The sex of a baby had nothing to environmental factors – it was down purely to genetics and the Y chromosome.

But Nettie was not working in a vacuum – Edmund Wilson was also carrying out researches into how sex was determined. His methods differed from Nettie’s – he concentrated on species where the male had one fewer chromosome than the female and concentrated on the testes as eggs were too fatty for his staining methodology. It is almost certain that Wilson had access to Nettie’s results and although he concluded that environmental factors also had a hand in sex selection and was less adamant in its conclusions, his paper was published first and being a chap, he was credited with discovering the chromosomal basis for sex determination.

The other villain of the piece is the prominent geneticist, Thomas Hunt Morgan. He wrote the first text book on genetics and there is evidence that he corresponded with Nettie, asking for more and more details of her experiments. When she died in 1912 of cancer, Morgan was dismissive of her contribution, inferring she was more of a researcher than a scientist.  There was no mention of Stevens in his magnum opus and to make matters worse in 1933 Morgan and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

Although Stevens’ theory could not be proven at the time, it turned out to be right and it is only now that her contribution is beginning to be recognised. Her period in obscurity makes her a worthy inductee.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

For more enquiring minds, try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone



Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Sixty Nine

Leslie Keeley’s Double Chloride of Gold Cure

We have seen cures for the evils of the demon drink before but one which took America by storm in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was Leslie Keeley’s Double Chloride of Gold Cure.

Keeley opened the first Keeley Institute in 1879 in the Illinois town of Dwight, south of Chicago, with the bold and ambitious claim; “drunkenness is a disease and I can cure it.” He claimed that he had devised a formula which, if injected four times a day, would lead to a miraculous recovery, although he was circumspect in revealing what it contained save that one of the ingredients was gold.

His advertising campaign fuelled by the desire of many to kick alcohol, together with his claim of a 95% success rate, saw business boom. Between 1892 and 1900 his company’s revenues almost topped $3m and there was even a Keeley Day at Chicago’s World Fair in 1893. Those who completed the course were called Keeley graduates and were given a pamphlet by way of a certificate which told the recipient; “You are now numbered among thousands of men and women who have broken the shackles of alcohol and drug addictions by the Keeley method of treatment. Your cure will be as permanent as your life, you will never have any craving for alcohol or other sedative drugs as long as you live, unless you create it by returning to their use, thus re-poisoning your nerve cells.”

Ardent supporters of the Keeley method formed Bi-Chloride of Gold Clubs, later known as Keeley Leagues, which were sort of alcohol support groups. Centres sprang up around the country, the last closing down as recently as 1965, and some half a million alcoholics and addicts are said to have taken the Keeley Cure. Often Keeley would employ doctors who were cured alcoholics and the staff to patient ratio at each centre was reassuringly high.

If you signed up for a course of treatment, as well as the injections four times a day, you would drink a liquid cordial every two hours. The rest of your day was spent in a variety of ways, designed to improve your physical and psychological well-being through rest, controlled diets and group discussions. The atmosphere was described as warm and friendly, far removed from the austere asylums to which alcoholics were normally consigned.

Keeley’s apparent success provoked two reactions – imitation and investigation. Dr Haines’ Golden Remedy, the Geneva Gold Cure, and the Boston Biochloride of Gold Company were among the many imitators who sought to cash in on the craze for golden remedies to alcoholism. More worryingly for Keeley, his success provoked the medical profession to take a closer look into what was in the cure. They used a variety of methods to get hold of the samples, using the handy mail order service or checking into the centres masquerading as alcoholics.

What was surprising is that the constituents of Keeley’s miracle cure seemed to vary – sometimes traces of alcohol, sometimes coca extract and sometimes a combination of strychnine, willow bark, ammonia and aloe. What wasn’t present was gold – indeed, one director was reported to say that the only time they used gold, the patient nearly died.

But the main ingredient was probably atropine, an active ingredient found in deadly nightshade and possessing hallucinogenic properties, which in ancient times was used as an ersatz anaesthetic. It is also poisonous. It may be that drug acted as some form of sedative in the majority of cases but in certain circumstances could induce psychological reactions that would force the patient to see the errors of their ways. It is unlikely to have been the major contributor to the success that Keely claimed.

What was more likely to have helped is the serene atmosphere of the centres, the ability of the patients to get rest, to talk about their problems and share their experiences with others. This is a feature of the treatment of alcoholics today and Keeley in this respect was ahead of his time.

It was just a pity he focused on filling them up with an unproven drug.

If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty

Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968)

Being Jewish, a woman in academia and living in Austria in the 1930s weren’t the best cards to be dealt with in life and so it proved for the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, nuclear scientist, Lise Meitner.

Born in Vienna, Lise was only the second woman to be awarded a degree in Austria. To further her studies she moved to Berlin where she met Otto Hahn and found a position – a cupboard next to a lab and working as a guest without remuneration – at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. It was only when she was offered a paid position elsewhere that her position at the Institute was regularised. In 1917 she and Hahn discovered a new element, protactinium.

In the 1920s and 30s the race was on to find an element heavier than uranium and it was to this problem that Meitner and Hahn applied their not inconsiderable grey cells. They noticed that whenever they put a neutron on to a heavy Uranium neutron, as you do, they ended up with something lighter. Whilst Hahn carried out the experiments it was Lise who came up with the explanation for this phenomenon and realised the import of what they had discovered. The answer was what we now term nuclear fission. What was happening was the neutron was splitting into two parts, unleashing a phenomenal amount of energy in the process. It was this energy which was harnessed to produce nuclear bombs.

By this time, 1938, the Anschluss had occurred and, sensibly, Lise had made good her escape to Sweden. Now that he had the rational explanation to the phenomenon that they had observed, Hahn wrote up the findings and published a paper, ignoring the contributions that Lise had made and, in fact omitting her altogether. Some kindly souls argue that the omission was due to political pressure exerted because of the race and gender of Hahn’s accomplice. Whether this was the case or whether Hahn just grabbed the glory for himself, we will never know. To add salt to the wound, in 1944 the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Hahn alone for the discovery of nuclear fission.

Not unsurprisingly, Lise was royally pissed off. She wrote, “I have no self confidence… Hahn has just published absolutely wonderful things based on our work together … much as these results make me happy for Hahn, both personally and scientifically, many people here must think I contributed absolutely nothing to it — and now I am so discouraged.”  Worse still, she was horrified to find that the first use of nuclear fission was to make an atomic bomb and was devastated when the Enola Gay dropped its load on to Hiroshima.

To complete her air-brushing from history, the apparatus that was used to carry out the experiments that led to the discovery of nuclear fission was displayed in Germany’s leading science museum for 35 years without mentioning Lise’s name and role in the experiment.

Lise continued with her researches after the war and helped produce one of the first peacetime nuclear reactors and during the course of her career published some 128 articles. It was only in the mid-1960s that the enormity of her contribution to the discovery of nuclear fission was recognised. Posthumously, in 1992, she had an extremely radioactive synthetic element named after her, Meitnerium (atomic number 109) named after her and at least the Periodic Table bears testament to her brilliance.

Lise, for your contribution to the discovery of nuclear fission being air-brushed out of history, you are a worthy inductee.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

For more enquiring minds, try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone

Stunt Of The Week (3)

I’m just sorry that my busy schedule does not allow me to make a visit to Detroit Zoo next Saturday.

The Detroit Zoological Society are holding a GreenFest celebration, something I would ordinarily avoid like the plague, but for the lucky first thousand visitors who visit their anaerobic digester display, I discovered this week, they are giving a bucket with 5lbs of  animal manure. I suppose they have to attract visitors somehow.

The deregister converts 500 tons of animal manure and other organic stuff each year into a methane-rich gas which is used to power its hospital. The poo, dubbed Detroit Zoo Poo (natch), is a by-product of the process and is supposed to be good for your roses.

It might have caused me a bit of trouble getting it back home on the plane, though.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Nine

Cecilia Payne (1900 – 1979)

The stars I see twinkling at night on the few occasions they are not hidden by clouds are a constant source of wonderment to me. Those of a more enquiring mind might wonder what they are made of and a few, a very few, would take the trouble to find out. One such is the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, the British-born astronomer and astrophysicist, Cecilia Payne.

But her contribution to our understanding of stars which should have assured her a stellar career was for decades hidden under the penumbra of male chauvinism that pertained in the groves of academe at the time. Cecilia was a bit of a brain-box and read botany, physics and chemistry at Newnham College in Cambridge in the early 1920s but she did not get a degree as the University only started awarding them to the fairer sex in 1948. She did, however, listen to a lecture by Arthur Eddington which sparked her nascent interest in astronomy.

Winning a scholarship, Cecilia moved to the United States in 1923 and enrolled in the graduate programme run by Harvard College Observatory, specifically established to encourage women to study there. She was encouraged to write a doctoral dissertation and in 1925 Cecilia became the first woman to receive a PhD from Radcliffe College, which is now part of Harvard, for her dissertation, entitled A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars.

And some contribution, it was too.

I will not bore you with the details – the precise findings and analytical processes that she used go way above my head – but in essence Cecilia concluded that whilst the stars shared the same elements to be found in the Earth, hydrogen, by a factor of one million, and to a degree helium was the most abundant element in stars and by extension the Universe. Later astronomers were to call her work “undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy”.  But Cecilia’s problem was that she had made her discovery in 1925 and it flew against the then received wisdom that the composition of sun and the stars was no different from that of the Earth.

The villain of the piece, Henry Norris Russell of Princeton University, now enters our story. He was assigned the task of reviewing Cecilia’s dissertation. Because the findings were contrary to the commonly accepted theories he declared them “clearly impossible” and Cecilia, bowing to the pressure exerted by the eminent professor, amended her conclusions and stated that the calculated abundances of hydrogen and helium were “almost certainly not real.

But something about Payne’s conclusions intrigued Russell and he conducted his own investigations, concluding four years later in 1929, in a short paper, that the principal constituent of the sun and starts was hydrogen. Russell magnanimously acknowledged Payne’s contribution but in popular and academic circles he was recognised as the person who established this ground-breaking fact.

Cecilia spent most of her career studying stars but was forced by the conventions of the time to accept low paid, low grade academic positions. It was only in 1956 that she was able to break through the glass ceiling when she was appointed a professor at Harvard.

To add to the irony, Cecilia was awarded the Henry Norris Russell Prize for her contributions to astronomy in 1976. She was typically phlegmatic, commenting at the time, “the reward of the young scientist is the emotional thrill of being the first person in the history of the world to see something or to understand something.

For discovering the composition of the sun and stars and being ignored, Cecilia, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

For more enquiring minds, try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone