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

Ian Shanks (1948 – present)

Whilst a laudable idea in principle, patents, which give the inventor some time to exploit the fruits of their inventive streak without giving them an everlasting monopoly, can be fraught with difficulties and often the only winners seem to be the legal profession. One area of difficulty is who owns the patent when an employee invents something during the course of their employment and, even if they concede ownership of the patent, are they entitled to a share of the profits made by the invention, over and above their normal employment benefits? The case of Ian Shanks has done much to clarify this grey area, in the UK at least.

I am a bit of an aichmophobe and so I have the greatest admiration for diabetics who regularly puncture their skin with a needle to get their shot of insulin or to test their glucose levels. If it was a matter of life or death, I am sure I would overcome my fear, it is only a state of mind, after all. Undeniably, though, what has helped diabetics immeasurably is the nifty little glucose testing kit which has simplified the process and improved the accuracy of the readings. This was the brainwave of Scottish scientist, Ian Shanks.   

Shanks was already a leading scientific pioneer, publishing the first paper on 3D televisions and being at the forefront of the development of liquid crystal display (LCD) technology. Around the summer of 1982 he wondered whether he could deploy LCD technology to make some form of biosensor. If you could suck a liquid, blood, for instance, between two glass plates and coat one of the plates with a material that broke up the molecules you wanted to measure, say glucose, then you should be able to measure its concentration.

Using the glass slides from his daughter’s toy microscope, Shanks played around with his idea until he had developed a working model. Excited by his discovery, he had the prototype for a cheap, pain-free device to test glucose levels, he took it to his employers at the time, Unilever. As Shanks was their employee, Unilever took ownership of the idea and filed for a patent, which was granted. And then they did nothing.

Grudgingly, in the 1990s Unilever began to sell off licences relatively cheaply to other companies to manufacture and sell the glucose sensors. They revolutionised the lives of diabetics but, for reasons best known to themselves, Unilever had missed the boat, earning around £24 million from the licences rather than a billion or so they would have amassed if they had taken the trouble to market and distribute the device themselves. As for Shand, apart from his salary and employment benefits, he got nothing and he wasn’t happen.

Now Section 40 of the Patents Act 1977 enters our story. Under this piece of legislation an employee, who invents something from which their employer derives an “outstanding benefit”, is entitled to a “fair share”. Suitably vague wording, a clause described by an Appeals judge as drafted “on Friday night and after closing time”, it nonetheless offered Shand some hope. He sued his employers and after many a knockback, it took him thirteen years to get justice, in October 2019 the Supreme Court found in his favour.

Lord Kitchin, in his judgment, opined that the rewards Unilever enjoyed “were substantial and significant, were generated at no significant risk, reflected a very high rate of return and stood out in comparison with the benefit Unilever derived from other patents”. Their lordships awarded Shand £2 million. He had got there in the end. The first award made under section 40 was not made until 2010.

Millions of diabetics around the world owe a great debt of gratitude to the genius of Shand.

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

And look out for The Fickle Finger, now available in e-book format.

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

The story behind DNA

Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)

I am a great fan of crime stories from the period between the two World Wars, known as the golden age of detective fiction. Policemen and amateur sleuths had to rely on their wits and their powers of analysis, reason and deduction to solve many a fiendish crime which, at first blush, seemed both impossible to have been committed and to crack. They invariably did, though, usually because the felon left some tell-tale sign that led to their undoing.

Life has moved on and these days the police have a more powerful array of tools at their disposal, at least if you believe the police dramas which are the staple fare of our TV screens, not least DNA testing. If I had even the faintest inkling to commit a crime, the threat of being unmasked by my DNA would be enough to put me off.  Interestingly, the tale of the discovery of DNA is a murky one with elements that would not have been out of place in a good whodunnit.

Rosalind Franklin always wanted to be a scientist, even though her father tried to steer her away from a career path that was nigh-on impossible for women to make much progress in. She was fortunate enough to attend St Paul’s Girls’ School, one of the few schools at the time that taught physics and chemistry to girls, and then graduated from Newnham College, Cambridge.

During the Second World War, Rosalind studied the structure and uses of coal and graphite, publishing several papers and contributing to the development of more effective gas masks. She was awarded a PhD in Physical Chemistry by Cambridge University in 1945.

After the war, Rosalind went to Paris to work under Jacques Mering, from whom she learned about the use of x-ray diffraction techniques to explore and understand the molecular and atomic structures of crystals. Then, in 1951, she made the fateful decision to accept a three-year research scholarship at King’s College, London.

Maurice Wilkins was trying to understand DNA by using X-ray crystallography and so Rosalind was perfectly equipped to contribute to the project. But Wilkins, who was away when Rosalind arrived, assumed that she was hired help rather than be someone who could more than contribute to the project.

Their relationship never recovered from this rocky start.   

Working with a student, Raymond Gosling, Rosalind continued to refine her X-ray images of DNA fibres, using ever finer strands. Wilkins, in somewhat of a huff, spent increasingly more time with his friend, Francis Crick, at the Cavendish Laboratory, where Crick and James Watson were attempting to understand the structure of DNA by using a model-based approach.

Around this time Rosalind made a dramatic discovery when looking at what later became known as Photo 51. The DNA in the image had a distinct helical structure with two strands attached at the middle. She gave details of her findings in a lecture but no one seemed to pay any notice.

However, at a conference, at which Crick and Watson rolled out their theories about the structure of DNA, Rosalind challenged them, pointing out that she was working with empirical data not highfalutin ideas. This open criticism of his friends worsened relationships between Wilkins and the woman he now called the Dark Lady. Sensibly, Rosalind decided to move on and took a position at Birkbeck College in 1953.

But during the move, Wilkins came into possession of the famous Photo 51, certainly without Rosalind’s permission, and showed it to Crick and Watson. It was an earth-shattering moment. Here was the missing piece of information, which Crick and Watson needed to complete their accurate model and proof positive that DNA’s helical structure had two strands attached in the middle by phosphate bases.

The duo rushed to print, publishing an article on the structure of DNA in a 1953 edition of the scientific journal, Nature. Ironically, the same edition carried articles by Wilkins and Franklin on the X-ray data they had compiled about DNA but it gave the impression that their contribution was supplementary to rather than one that had informed Crick and Watson’s discovery.

Rosalind continued her researches at Birkbeck, now turning her attention to the structure of tobacco mosaic virus before succumbing to cancer, which she may well have contracted through her work with X-rays.

In 1962, Crick, Watson, and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. There was no mention of Rosalind and it is only recently that her contribution to the understanding of DNA has been acknowledged. The Nobel Prize, of course, cannot be awarded posthumously.

Did Crick steal the photograph? Perhaps we should run a DNA test.    

If you enjoyed this, look out for Martin Fone’s new book, The Fickle Finger, which will be published in April 2020. For details follow this link

In the meantime, to get your fix of unfortunate inventors, try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone, details of which are here


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

The real story behind the game of Monopoly

Elizabeth J Magie (1866 – 1948)

I’ve always had a love hate relationship with that board game that is trotted out when families and friends gather, Monopoly. On the one hand, it is enjoyable, engaging and can keep everyone entertained for several hours. On the other hand, for someone with socialist leanings, it disturbs me that it seems to bring out the worst features of a grasping capitalist out in many of the game’s participants. 

Elizabeth Magie, known to her friends and family as Lizzie, was from Scottish immigrant stock, living in Prince George’s county in Washington D.C at the turn of the 20th century. She was known for her progressive political views and was looking for a way to bring her concerns about the economic impact of the monopoly on land and property owners on the common folk to a wider audience. At the time board games were becoming increasingly popular amongst middle class families and this seemed to be the best medium to spread her message.

What Lizzie developed was a game called the Landlord’s Game, designed, as she said, as “a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences…contain[ing] all the elements of success and failure in the real world”.

The elements of the game will be familiar to many readers, players progressed around the outer rim of a board, receiving $100 every time they passed the Mother Earth space and going to jail if they trespassed on land. Properties were available to buy and then collect rents from. Those unfortunate enough to run out of money were sent to the Poor House. There were two sets of rules; one which rewarded all players when wealth was created and one where the goal was to create monopolies and crush opponents.

Satisfied with her game, Lizzie applied for and was granted a US Patent (no 748,626) on January 5, 1904. The Landlord’s Game gained some popularity with intellectuals and university campuses (the two are often mutually exclusive, I find) and was revised and improved over time. In 1924, recognising that her patent had expired and that she needed to re-establish her ownership of the game, Lizzie applied for and was granted another patent (no 1,509,312).

It is now time for Charles Darrow to enter our story.

In late 1932, Charles, unemployed and desperate for money, was introduced to a property board game by Philadelphia businessman, Charles Todd. Darrow was taken by the game and saw an opportunity to make some money, initially hand-producing the game which he called Monopoly and then a printed version, obtaining a copyright for it in 1933.  

Sales of the game were so promising in the run up to Christmas 1934 that Parker Brothers, now part of Hasbro, approached Darrow and, on March 18, 1935, bought the game, the remains of Darrow’s stock and helped him to secure a patent. But a month later Parker Brothers became suspicious of Darrow’s claims that he was the sole inventor of the game and, in a smart move, approached Lizzie to buy the patent for her Landlord’s game and a couple of other games she had created. They proposed to her a payment of $500, which she accepted, but they did not offer her a share of the royalties.

At the time, Lizzie didn’t smell a rat, even writing to the treasurer of Parker Brothers that when the prototype of her game arrived, she had a song in heart”. But in January 1936 her mood changed. The Washington Evening Star carried a picture of her holding a board from her Landlord’s Game and one from a game called Monopoly. The similarities were striking, as they would be. She was angry, steadfast in her belief that Parker Brothers had stolen her best-seller of an idea.

 A best seller it was too, taking off in the States and becoming an international favourite. Darrow, who had a slice of the royalties, made millions from the game. When asked by the Germantown Bulletin how he came to invent such a wildfire success, Darrow replied, somewhat ingenuously, “it’s a freak…entirely unexpected and illogical”.

Lizzie’s role in developing the game was effectively airbrushed out of history. When she died in 1948, a widow with no children, neither her obituary nor her tombstone bore any reference to her role in developing one of the world’s best-known games. The website of Hasbro, ironically named for the eighth year in succession in 2019 as one of the world’s most ethical companies by the Ethisphere Institute, is silent on her contribution.

There matters would have remained but for an American economics professor from San Francisco University, Ralph Anspach. In 1974 he launched a game called Anti-Monopoly and was immediately sued by Parker Brothers for breach of copyright. In preparing his defence, Anspach uncovered the history of the Landlord’s Game, Lizzie’s role in developing it, and how Darrow had been economical with the actualité in explaining his how he had come across Monopoly. After a ten-year legal battle, Anspach prevailed and Lizzie has now begun to receive the credit she deserved, at least in some circles.

If you enjoyed this, look out for Martin Fone’s new book, The Fickle Finger, which will be published in April 2020. For details follow this link

In the meantime, to get your fix of unfortunate inventors, try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone, details of which are here

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

Walter Hunt (1796 – 1859)

If you stop and think about it, and few of us do, the safety pin is a piece of design perfection. It is a pin with a spring mechanism and a clasp which fastens the pin to whatever it is to be attached to and prevents the user from pricking their finger. The design is so simple and effective that it is hard to envisage how it can be improved upon. It has stood the test of time and has barely changed since the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Walter Hunt, came up with the idea.

The story goes that fretting over a $15 debt, Walter was fiddling with a bit of wire. In a flash, the idea of a covered pin came to him and within a few hours, had completed his design. Although he patented the design, he sold it on for somewhere between $100 and $400, a fraction of what he could have earned from it.

And that in a nutshell is the story of Hunt’s career; he was a serial inventor but was so strapped for cash that he sold the patents on often for a modest sum, swapping uncertain future income for the certainty of immediate cash. By the early nineteenth century a vibrant secondary market for patents had emerged where companies or individuals would buy the exclusive rights to inventions. Hunt sold the rights of most of his inventions this way.

Born in Martinsburg, in upper New York state, Walter Hunt trained as a stonemason but ended up working in a local flax mill. He had an inquisitive mind and an inventive streak, he went on to become a serial inventor, and began to potter around to see if he could develop a more efficient form of flax spinner.

Naturally, Walter could and sufficiently encouraged by his model, he applied for and was granted a patent in 1826. Recognising that his machine was a game changer, he wanted to build a business around his invention, but there was one problem. He didn’t have the financial resources to bring his plans to fruition. The solution was to treat his patent as a commodity and sell it to the highest bidder. This became Walter’s modus operandi throughout his career.

And a prolific career it was too.

Among his many inventions, the list is too exhaustive for this vignette, were a coach alarm system, which allowed a coachman to warn pedestrians of oncoming horses, a nail-making machine, a ship which broke up ice, a knife sharpener, a rope-making machine, and a street sweeper. Where they were patented, Walter soon sold them on.

Another of Walter’s brainwaves was to develop a repeating rifle and cartridge system, the design of which would be used by Smith and Wesson. Naturally, Walter saw little financial reward for this innovation.

Some of Walter’s inventions were off the wall, or not, in the case of what was known as an “antipodean apparatus”. Despite its odd name, it was a pair of shoes, which allowed the wearer to walk up walls and ceilings. It went down a storm amongst circus performers. It continued to sell and be used until well into the 1930s, but despite its apparent success, Hunt was on his uppers.

In what must be an early example of inventor’s remorse, wishing that he could put the genie he had released back into the bottle, Walter made a significant breakthrough in the development of the sewing machine. In 1833, he came up with what was the first workable sewing machine. He was concerned that if the machine took off it would damage the employment prospects of seamstresses and so, true to form, sold the rights to a businessman.

The businessman struggled to manufacture the machine commercially and gave up, crucially omitting to patent the design. That seemed to be the end of the story until, in 1846, Elias Howe was awarded a patent for his sewing machine.

Howe was disputatious and launched a series of lawsuits against other sewing machine manufacturers to protect and assert his patent rights. This alerted Walter to the fact that Howe’s design was not dissimilar to the one he developed thirteen years earlier. After a legal battle, Hunt was recognised as the inventor, but the absence of a patent meant that Howe got to keep the intellectual property rights to the machine.

Now enter Isaac Singer.

His iconic sewing machine, the prototype of the machine we know today, incorporated elements from Hunt’s and Howe’s design. Howe took Singer to court for Patent Infringement. In his defence, Singer claimed that Howe had ripped off Hunt’s design. The absence of a patent on Hunt’s machine counted against Singer, who had to pay Howe substantial damages.

As a by-product of this case, Singer eventually agreed, in 1858, to pay Walter $50,000 for incorporating elements of his design in his machine but then fate intervened. Walter died of pneumonia in 1859, before he had received a cent from Singer.

That, I suppose, is the lot of the inventor and why, Walter, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

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

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

Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809)

From the age of around ten, until I went to university, I lived in the beautiful rural county of Shropshire. One of its principal claims to fame is that it is home to the world’s first major bridge to be constructed entirely of cast iron, spanning the Severn Gorge at Coalbrookdale.

Abraham Darby’s iconic design was a testament to the burgeoning age of industrialisation and word of the bridge, opened in 1779, spread around the world. Its fame gave its rather prosaic name to the small town that grew up around it, Ironbridge.

Revolutionary as the material used to build the bridge was, Darby’s iron construction was traditional in design, consisting of five ribs, forming a semicircle, a technique dating back to at least the Roman times. The drawback with a semicircle was that the width dictated the height of the bridge, fine for a steep gorge like the one at Coalbrookdale but creating an irritating hump on wider spans.

The Romans, ingenious to the last, solved this problem by using a sequence of small arches. But this approach caused other problems, not least that there was more work required to secure the footings which, in turn, could alter the flow of the river, as the nineteen arches on London Bridge had done to the Thames.

Now that there was a revolutionary new material with which to construct a bridge, wouldn’t it be great if the design was freed from the restrictions imposed by the traditional semicircle methodology?

This is where Thomas Paine sought to make his mark.

One of America’s founding fathers, Thomas is best known these days as the author of The Rights of Man, published in 1791 and a forthright defence of the French Revolution against the attacks of British politicians such as Edward Burke. But he had other strings to his bow, not least being an ardent pontist, fascinated by the mix of architectural splendour and sheer practicality that makes up a bridge.

Aren’t we all?

Intrigued by iron bridges, Paine sought to raise enough money to build a bridge that would span the river Harlem in New York in 1785 and another to cross the Seine in Paris in 1786. His lack of experience in bridge building counted against him, as did his revolutionary design for the span.

Thwarted by practicalities, he turned his attention to perfecting his design.

Claiming to draw his inspiration from a spider’s web, Paine sought to liberate bridge design from the restrictions imposed by a semicircle. He concentrated his attention on what geometricians call the “chord of a circle”, which, simply put, is a straight line between two points on a circle. Using a chord meant that the height of the arch could be adjusted to the demands of the topology of the area to be spanned.

Goodbye, hump-backed bridges.

Convinced that he had cracked the problem, Paine applied for a patent on his idea, the application being granted on August 26, 1788 (patent No. 1667), specifically for a bridge, using his design, to span the river Don in Sheffield.

Despite having the patent to hand, the project was still born.

Desperate to raise some public interest in his design, Paine turned his attention to creating a 110 foot-long iron bridge, effectively a bridge to nowhere, on the bowling green of a public house, the London Stingo, in Lisson Green, on the edge of London’s Paddington.

Quite what the bowling fraternity thought of his erection is unrecorded.

Paine had interested Thomas Jefferson in the project. The Sage of Monticello was enthusiastic, convinced that Paine would build an arch of up to five hundred feet and that any bridge so constructed would soon cover its building costs in toll fees generated.

Work was started in May 1790 and completed in the September, eliciting a congratulatory note from Jefferson, “I congratulate you sincerely on the success of your bridge. I was sure of it before from theory: yet one likes to be assured from practice also.”

But fine words butter no parsnips.

No money was forthcoming to enable Paine to build a bridge to his new design across a river and, by October 1791, the structure was rusting. Disheartened, Paine suffered the ignominy of seeing his bridge dismantled and packed off to Yorkshire, some of the iron then being used to build a bridge spanning the River Wear in Sunderland in 1796, at 240 feet then the longest iron bridge in the world.

At least, the bowlers of the London Stingo got their green back.

By then, Paine had weightier matters on his mind. The Pitt administration, fearing a revolution at home, started to crackdown on agitators and dangerous sorts. With a warrant out for his arrest, Paine skipped across the Channel to France in September 1792.

It is a pity that there was no bridge to facilitate his escape.

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


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

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