There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Ninety Five

Angela Ruiz Robles (1895 – 1975)

Books do furnish a room.

You can tell a lot about a person by the presence or absence of books in their house. When I encounter a bookshelf, I feel drawn towards it, as if I am answering the siren call. There is something magical about the physical properties of a book, the feel, its weight, the cover, the spine, its illustrations, the layout of the text, even the type selected.

Beautiful as they undoubtedly are, they are heavy and take up a lot of room.

I’m a voracious reader and get through books by the dozen. I have a few favourites, which I return to from time-to-time, but most of my reading matter is engorged once and once only. And one of my personal nightmares is being away from home, travelling or on holiday, and running out of reading material.

To me and, I’m sure, many others, the e-reader is a Godsend, allowing me to have almost instantaneous access to hundreds of books in a portable rectangular device. Aesthetically pleasing it is not and unlikely to revolutionise the way books are delivered as the format’s early evangelists once claimed, but it is convenient and, for bookworms like me, an invaluable support prop.

The concept of an automated reading device dates back to the 1940s, the brainchild of the director of the Instituto Ibanez Martin in Ferrol in Spain, Angela Ruiz Robles. Her vision was to make teaching easier and to enable her students to maximise their knowledge with the minimum of effort.

Fundamental to achieving this aim would be the development of a mechanical book, which contained all the texts that a student would need. Instead of volumes of battered text books, all their satchels would contain would be a light-weight, portable, easy-to-use mechanical reader.

Angela worked away on her idea and by 1949 had come up with a pastel-green coloured metal box which she called, snappily, I feel, Procedimiento mecánico, eléctrico y a presión de aire para lectura de libros or, in English translation, “a mechanical, electrical and air pressure procedure for reading books”.

Inside were a series of tapes on interchangeable spools, some containing text and others illustrations, all protected by a transparent and unbreakable sheet. It came with a magnifying lens and a light so that it could be used in the dark. The mechanical encyclopedia even had an audio component, which brought the text to life.

Angela had considered a wider application for her book than just Spain, proposing alphabets and texts in a number of languages. Content could be read from start to finish or the reader could skip to a new chapter by pressing a button. She even envisaged an interactive index and a list of installed works, which the student could move between by pressing one or more buttons.

To entice the publishers, Angela proposed a standard size for cartridges and, of course, some of the production costs associated with book production, such as pasting and binding, would be eliminated.

What was there not to like?

Satisfied with her prototype, Angela applied for a patent. On December 7, 1949 she was awarded Spanish patent 190,698 for what was described as a mechanical encyclopedia. She paid the annual renewal fee up until 1961 but was unable to attract sufficient funding or interest from publishers to make her vision of an alternative to a book a commercial reality.

Undaunted, on April 10, 1962, Angela applied for and received a patent (No 276,346) for an “apparatus for diverse readings and exercises”. Although it contained many of the components of the original mechanical encyclopedia, it had a slightly more streamlined design. Be that as it may, it still met the same fate as Angela’s original machine. No manufacturers or publishers would back it with cash to bring it into production.

And, so, the idea of a mechanised book or reader as we would now call it withered and died, only to be picked up again by Michael Hart in 1971 with the prototype of a truly electronic reader.

Belatedly, Angela’s contribution to the development of e-reader has begun to be recognised but she missed out on the commercial gains of her brainwave. A version of her early prototype, a splendid affair made from bronze, wood, zinc, and paper can be seen to this day at the Science and Technology Museum of La Coruna.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone


A Measure Of Things – Part Twelve

A hangover is nature’s way of telling you that you have overdone the electric sauce. Seasoned topers will have their own tried and tested antidote to a hangover, some more effective than others, but the sobering fact is that that feeling of being under par will remain with you for some hours once your blood alcohol concentration gets down to zero or as close to zero as its ever going to get. The American humourist, Robert Benchley, probably got it spot on when he opined that “the only cure for a real hangover is death.

When drinkers reconvene after a heavy session, the subject of the intensity of their respective hangovers will tend to crop up, once a refreshing drink or three has sufficiently lubricated the brain to allow the faculty of cogent speech to return. The problem is, though, that descriptions tend to be subjective and for anyone who is looking for objective metrics, they are too vague to be of any use. Would that there was a scale by which the intensity of hangovers could be measured and compared.

One of my favourite comic writers, P G Wodehouse, plied his mind to the subject in The Mating Season, published in 1949. He wrote “I am told by those who know that there are six varieties of hangover—the Broken Compass, the Sewing Machine, the Comet, the Atomic, the Cement Mixer and the Gremlin Boogie, and his manner suggested that he had got them all.”  We can understand where he is coming from but for the seeker of exactitude, they are too woolly to be of much use.

Where there is a gap in human knowledge, it is good to know that there are some wonderful men and women in white coats, scientists, working away to plug it. I rarely glance at the pages of Psychopharmacology, my loss I’m sure, but my attention was directed to a paper, published in September 2012, in which six academics, four from Utrecht University and the other two from the Universities of Ulster and Groningen, in which they proposed an Alcohol Hangover Severity Scale, or AHSS as we like to call it.

I don’t know about you but I often find academic papers to be a mélange of the blindingly obvious and the incomprehensible and this one is no different. The introduction opens with a sentence, complete with references (natch), of the most mind-numbing banality; “alcohol hangover is the most commonly reported consequence of heavy drinking.” But after what can only be described as an early stumble, the paper became quite interesting.

A group of 214 social drinkers, drawn from university workers and students from Utrecht University, were asked to complete an online survey the morning after a night of heavy drinking, I can’t imagine they had a shortage of volunteers, and a night of abstinence. There was no restriction on how much they consumed or where or what they did whilst drinking, for example dancing or smoking, but they were disqualified if they had taken recreational drugs. It was the Netherlands, after all.

The volunteers marked the severity of their hangover against a number of criteria using a ten-point scale and then marked those symptoms on the morning after night without a sip of the electric sauce. The mean results of the group were that they had 2.5 hangovers a month and that their latest hangover saw them consume 10.6 alcoholic beverages and had 6.4 hours of shut-eye. The results were then put through a series of analyses.

The upshot was that there were twelve factors that significantly predicted the severity of a hangover. For the record, they are, all painfully familiar, fatigue, clumsiness, dizziness, apathy, sweating, shivering, confusion, stomach pain, nausea, concentration problems, heart pounding and thirst. Interestingly, they found that a headache, the usual sign that you have a hangover, was not a factor in establishing the intensity of a hangover.

Their conclusion was that you could construct a scale, the AHSS, using these twelve criteria and a ten-point scoring system. Simply add up the scores you have allocated to each criterion and divide by twelve to give you your metric. Armed with this you can compare and contrast the intensity of your hangover with fellow topers.

I will give it a try, all in the name of science, you understand.

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

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857 – 1935)

I’m fairly Catholic in my reading but there is one genre that I can’t really get on with, science fiction. Perhaps it is my lack of imagination or just that I would prefer to spend my time understanding the range of emotions that make we humans tick or how we react to situations, comic or tragic.

I’m sure it is my loss.

But there are some whose imagination is stimulated by sci-fi and one such was Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

The fifth child out of eighteen born to an impoverished Polish immigrant family in Russia, (cause and effect, I can’t help thinking), profoundly deaf after a childhood bout of scarlet fever and pretty much self-taught, Konstantin stumbled upon Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, first published in 1865.

Fascinated by the prospect of travel to the Earth’s nearest neighbour but being of a practical bent, he calculated that using a giant cannon to fire a spacecraft to the moon, Verne’s designated method, would generate forces that would kill the unfortunate passengers.

Verne did, though, light the blue touch paper that ignited Konstantin’s life-long interest in all matters aeronautical. He is reported to have remarked, “I do not remember how it got into my head to make the first calculations relating to the rocket. It seems to me the first seeds were planted by the famous fantasoeur, J Verne”.

Initially, he set his sights on flight, designing early airships and Russia’s first wind tunnel. He published his first work on the subject in 1892. In 1894, he wrote an article in which he proposed an aircraft made of metal. Surely the idea would never take off.

But the lure of space travel proved too great.

Konstantin tried his hand at writing science fiction but found that his mind wandered to trying to solve the practicalities of getting a rocket out of the Earth’s atmosphere and on its way to the moon. From 1895, this became his major preoccupation.

By 1903, Konstantin had cracked the problem, writing Explorations of the World Space with Reaction Machines, which was published in Russia’s scientific review, Nauchnoe Obozrenie. More articles were forthcoming from the prolific scientist. His rockets were to be fuelled by a mix of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, precisely the same mix as was to be used by the Space Shuttle.

Astonishingly, hydrogen had only been liquefied for the first time by James Dewar in 1898.

Konstantin developed what later became to be known as the Tsiolkovsky Equation, which demonstrated the mathematical relationship between the change in the mass of a rocket as it burnt fuel, the speed of its exhaust gases, and the final velocity of the rocket. It became the bedrock that enabled the later development of astronautics.

Konstantin wasn’t done.

In 1929, he published an article in which he postulated that in order for a rocket to break out of orbit, it would need a series of rockets to drive it forward, each one breaking off from the main body of the craft as it had used up all of its fuel.

Who needed science fiction when you had Tsiolkovsky?

But hardly anyone outside of Russia had heard of his work. The Bolshevik revolution meant that very little hard information was coming out of the country. In any event, Konstantin was a lowly school teacher, who spent his spare time thinking about rocketry rather than a fully-fledged scientist attached to an acknowledged academic institution of standing. Moreover, the scientific journal he used to publish his articles was closed down.

There was no world-wide web to publicise his findings.

So, independently and in parallel during the 1920s, the German Hermann Oberthand and the American physicist, Robert Goddard, worked on many of the problems that had exercised Konstantin’s mind and often came up with the same conclusions as he had. All three could claim to be the fathers of rocketry, although Konstantin seemed to have got there first.

Full recognition of his genius only came posthumously. His work was drawn on and influenced the rocket designers, Valentin Glushko and Sergey Korolyov, as Russia strove to win the space race in the 1950s and early 1960s. The most prominent crater on the dark side of the moon bears Konstantin’s name as does asteroid 1590.

Tsiolkovsky was a great visionary. He wrote that “mankind will not forever remain on Earth, but in the pursuit of light and space will first timidly emerge from the bounds of the atmosphere, and then advance until he has conquered the whole of circumsolar space”.”

He was not wrong.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone

Meal Of The Week

I may be lagging behind Frank Buckland but I do like to try the meat of as many different animals as I can. I’ve made a mental note, though, to avoid the raw kidney of a marmot, a large squirrel-like rodent.

A couple in Nogoonnuur soum, in the west of Mongolia, decided to tuck into a plateful of uncooked marmot organs, I suppose it made a change from yak steak, anticipating that they would benefit from its supposed health properties. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they soon felt a bit unwell and then went downhill fast, exhibiting fever-like symptoms and vomiting blood, before finally meeting their maker.

The post-mortem examination showed that they had died of a form of bubonic plague, the plague germ, Yersinia pestis being present in the innards of the animal. This triggered a six-day quarantine in the province of Bayan-Ulgii, inconveniencing the locals and stranding nine tourists who happened to be in the area.

It’s not an uncommon event. Authorities state that at least one Mongolian a year, a different one obviously, dies after eating raw marmot. I guess the health benefits aren’t all they are cracked up to be, then.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Ninety Three

Charles Lindbergh (1902 – 1974)

By any stretch of the imagination Charles Lindbergh was a complex character.

He is best known for his solo, non-stop, trans-Atlantic flight in 1927 from Long Island to Paris in a single-engine plane called Spirit of America. Tragedy befell him in 1932 when his son, Charles Junior, was kidnapped and subsequently murdered in what was described by H L Mencken as “the biggest story since the Resurrection.

Returning from self-imposed exile in Europe in 1935 to the States in 1939 and until the Pearl Harbour attack took a prominent anti-interventionist stance, attracting a public rebuke from President Roosevelt and allegations of fascist sympathies. Once he engaged with the war effort he put his undoubted aviatic acumen to good use, flying over fifty combat missions during the war against Japan in the Pacific region. For the rest of his life he was dogged by allegations of being a eugenist and a philanderer.

But the reason why Lindbergh is nominated for our illustrious Hall of Fame is for his now little-remembered involvement in the development of heart surgery and, in particular, the perfusion pump.

Our story begins in 1930 when Lindbergh’s sister-in-law developed a heart condition which proved to be fatal. It set him wondering why it was not possible to repair defects in the body’s major organ surgically. He was introduced to the Nobel Prize winning surgeon, Alexis Carrell, who was working on methods to keep organs alive outside of the body. In fact, Carrell had developed a nutrient-rich fluid that did the trick but lacked the technological know-how to ensure that the organ was continuously exposed to oxygenated blood, a process known as perfusion.

This is where Lindbergh came in.

By May 1931 he had advanced sufficiently to publish in one of the shortest ever articles to appear in the journal, Science, details of a device which circulated fluid constantly through a closed system. It created little attention.

By 1935 Lindbergh had come up with a solution to Carrell’s problem, a glass pump, consisting of three chambers or, to use his own words, “an apparatus, which maintains, under controllable conditions, a pulsating circulation of sterile fluid through organs for a length of time limited only by the changes in the organs and in the perfusion fluid.

The use of glass was critical and Lindbergh used a form of pyrex, as other materials were found to cause blood clots and other complications. The heart was placed in a slanting tube and the carotid artery was connected to a second, small glass tube. Air pressure would force Carrell’s nutritious fluid from a lower chamber through the tube and artery to the heart, gravity then taking over and forcing it back down to the lower chamber. There were no moving parts.

There was one problem; the absence of a filter, an ersatz kidney, meant that the organ’s secretion mixed with the fluid from the perfusion pump, requiring it to be changed frequently. Nonetheless, the duo carried out a public demonstration of their pump on 5th April 1935, perfusing a cat’s thyroid gland which, after eighteen days, was still healthy and, more importantly, alive and replicating.

The public response to this breakthrough was phenomenal. It was described as “the fountain of old age” and some speculated that Lindbergh’s contribution would earn him more fame than his aeronautical achievements. They even graced the cover of Time magazine in July 1935. The press hysteria forced him to flee to Europe.

Over the next four years nearly a thousand trials of the pump were carried out and it never malfunctioned, although the absence of a filter continued to pose the threat of contamination. It was a star exhibit of the World Fair in New York in 1939.

But only around twenty of the pumps were ever produced. What went wrong?

It was tricky to use and attaching the artery to the glass tube was difficult. It was too easy to tear or damage the artery, making the organ to which it was attached unusable. By 1940 it was abandoned.

But it became the forerunner of surgical devices such as the heart-lung machine and gave surgeons a methodology to work on to stop the heart during an operation.

But Lindbergh is best known these days for other things.

If you enjoyed this, why not check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty Five

Why are most display watches set to ten past 10?

I have been thinking about buying a new watch over the last few weeks. With the ubiquity of mobile devices such as smart phones, there is something anachronistic about feeling you need something on your wrist for you to consult if you need to know what time it is. At my time of life, I hardly need the chronological precision that a decent watch gives me to regulate my activities. Sometimes I barely know what day it is.

But old habits die hard. For over half a century I have had a timepiece strapped to my left wrist and on the occasions I have not worn one, either because I have forgotten to put it on or it has broken, I somehow feel under-dressed. It is a kind of comfort blanket and wear one I will continue to do.

What struck me as I browsed at jewellers’ window displays and catalogues was that invariably those watches which had a conventional face as opposed to those digital abominations were invariably photographed as showing the time as ten past 10 or, for those manufacturers showing a rebellious streak, ten to 2. Why was that, I wondered?

It has not always been thus. Back in the 1920s and 30s watches were invariably set to 8:20. The Hamilton Watch Company bucked the trend in 1926 when their watches in advertisements showed the time as 10:10. Rolex followed suit in the 1940s and Timex, with their Marlin model in 1953, began to move their advertisements to the now accepted default time. Other manufacturers bowed to peer pressure and by the 1960s ten past 10 it was.

The reasons for the transition are quite easy to understand and it is all about presenting the watch to its best advantage. The hands are symmetrical, a look most people find more appealing than an asymmetrical one, and the two hands, as well as not overlapping so that they can be admired, allow the manufacturer’s logo, usually placed immediately below the figure of 12, to be seen clearly. The lower part of the face, where other features of the watch such as the date and day of the week are displayed, is unobstructed. The clincher is that the V-shape that the hands make represent a smile, a happy face, whereas the inverted V of 8:20 looks like a frown. And we all respond positively to a smile, don’t we?

Marketeers have long been associated with the dark arts, so is there a deeper, psychological reason behind the portrayal of watches? To answer this question we need to look at some research conducted by Ahmed Karim, Britta Lutzenkirchen, Eman Khedr, and Radwa Khalil, reported in the August 2017 edition of Frontiers in Psychology.

The first of their experiments involved showing a group of people pictures of twenty watches, with their faces set at one of the following settings, 10:10 (the happy face), 8:20 (the sad face) and 11:30, the latter selected because it was neutral and had no associations with human physiognomy. In what the uncharitable may view as a scientific demonstration of the bloomin’ obvious, the results showed that the happy face setting elicited greater feelings of pleasure amongst the viewers than the other two settings.

Perhaps of greater interest was the finding that the sad face setting did not affect feelings one way or the other. For those keen to understand the differences between the sexes, the research showed that the female participants registered stronger expressions of pleasure from the 10:10 setting than did their male counterparts. The researchers thought that this was in line with earlier studies in which women were shown to be better at recognising facial expressions and empathising with them than men.

Showing the watch faces alongside pictograms of happy and sad faces confirmed the assumption that the upturned V-shape was associated with a smile and the inverted V with a frown. However, the good vibes generated by the cheerful 10:10 setting were not strong enough to convince the participants to buy, although the inclination to buy was stronger than that generated by the other settings.

I think the case for any deeper psychological significance in the face display is unproven. In any event, if you are presented with a page of smiling watch faces on a page, the good feelings engendered by one are neutralised by the same feelings that come from the others, forcing you to make your selection based on other criteria.

So, the answer is simply a case of aesthetics, one that has clearly stood the test of time.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Ninety Two

Charles Francis Jenkins (1867 – 1934)

Whether we like it or not, popular entertainment was transformed in the early 20th century by the development of television and cinematography. Someone who could justifiably claim to be at the birth of both media is the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Charles Francis Jenkins. Much good it did him.

Born to a Quaker family who moved, when Jenkins was just two, to farm in Fountain City, Indiana, as a boy he was forever tinkering with machinery and soon proved to be a dab hand at fixing broken down implements. He also showed an inventive streak, developing a jack to lift wagons so their axles could be greased.

Like many a youth, Jenkins could not resist the lure of the city and at the age of nineteen moved to Washington DC, working as a stenographer in the early incarnation of the US Coast Guard. Although he had left his country roots behind, Charles could not shake off his inquisitiveness.

By 1890 Jenkins began working on what he described as a “motion picture projecting box” and called a Phantoscope. By the spring of 1894 he was sufficiently satisfied with his progress that he wrote to his parents that he was coming back to Indiana to show them his latest invention, instructing them to assemble a crowd of relatives and interested bystanders at his cousin’s jewellery store in Richmond on 6th June.

The gadget was packed up and sent to Richmond, Jenkins following on, completing the 700-mile journey by bicycle.

After some technical issues, according to the Richmond Telegraph, “there began a sputtering sound as the machine kicked into life and out of the lens shot light onto the wall and a girl clad in garments more picturesque than protective stepped lively. She did not seem bashful thus displayed, while those in the audience were taken aback.” The shameful hussy was Annabelle, a vaudeville favourite.

The audience, after recovering from the assault on their sensibilities, went behind the screen to check that there had been no sleight of hand. Not only was this the earliest documented performance of moving pictures to an audience but, astonishingly, it was in colour as each frame had been stained or coloured by hand. Moreover, it used reeled film and an electric light to project the images.

In the winter of 1894 Jenkins was introduced to Thomas Armat who was looking for investment opportunities. Jenkins was strapped for cash and by March 1895 they concluded an agreement by which Armat would “finance and promote the invention” of Jenkins.

The duo patented the Phantoscope on 28th August 1895 and gave a public demonstration of their device at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in the autumn of 1895. A modified Phantoscope was patented on 20th July 1897 but relations between the two began to deteriorate. Jenkins eventually sold his interest in the projector to Armat who then sold the rights to Thomas Edison and the rest is history.

But Jenkins wasn’t finished as an inventor.

He developed a spiral-wound cardboard container, the design is still used today, a car with an engine in the front rather than under the driver (in 1898), an early version of a sightseeing bus (in 1901), an automatic starter for cars (1911), and an improved internal combustion engine (in 1912).

In an article entitled Motion Pictures by Wireless – Wonderful possibilities of Motion Picture Progress which appeared in the Movie Picture News of 27th September 1913, Jenkins announced that he had developed a mechanism which enabled him to view distant scenes by radio or, what we would nowadays know as television. Notwithstanding his enthusiasm, it took him another ten years before he was able to transmit a picture, of President Harding, from Washington to Philadelphia but by 1925 he was beaming moving pictures.

Granted a patent (US No 1,544,156 for Transmitting Pictures over Wireless) on June 30th 1925, Jenkins established the first commercially licensed TV station in America, W3XK, which made its first transmission on 2nd July 1928 from Washington. In 1929 it was broadcasting five nights a week.

It initially broadcast silhouettes but later moved on to transmitting black and white programmes. Jenkins’ company even produced the equipment that early adopters would have to use to receive the pictures.

But timing is everything. Selling expensive and, essentially, novelty equipment and services as America was plunging into the depths of the Depression was not a smart move. Jenkins’ company was declared bankrupt in 1931, opening up a space for RCA to exploit.

For your part in developing the cinema and television and failing to profit from it, Charles, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone