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

Peter M Roberts (1945 – present)

Here’s a cautionary tale about employee suggestion schemes and involves socket wrenches and the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Peter M Roberts. Socket wrenches have been around since medieval times and were used, for example, to wind up clocks. The first ratcheting socket wrench with interchangeable sockets was invented by an American, J.J Richardson, who filed a patent for his tool on 16th June 1863. Although immensely useful, interchangeable socket wrenches were cumbersome as the operative had to stop what they were doing and use both hands to change the socket.

Roberts’ light bulb moment was to make the operation much slicker by developing a simple, quick-release device which allowed the user to change sockets quickly and easily with one hand. He even developed a prototype. At this time the 18 year-old Roberts worked for the retail chain store, Sears, in Gardner, Massachusetts but all the development was done in his own time, not his employers’. So pleased was Roberts with what he had produced that he was about to hire a lawyer and file a patent when he made a fatal mistake. He mentioned what he had done to his boss.

The boss, in what was possibly the worst piece of mentoring advice in modern history, suggested that Roberts enter his invention into the employee suggestion scheme. After all, Sears were selling around a million wrenches a year and would be bound to be interested. This Roberts did on 7th May 1964 with a note stating that a patent application was pending. He made the even more calamitous mistake of surrendering the only prototype in existence.

Having received this gift horse, Sears proceeded to put the device through a number of tests and received the thumbs up from wrench operatives. By this time Sears had closed the store Roberts was working at in Gardner and as he was out of work he went back to Tennessee to live with his parents. They gave him $10,000 for the patent, claiming that there was no commercial value in the device.  Market research, however, had convinced Sears that they were on to a winner and the product was launched in October 1964. Within a year Sears had sold 26 million of the wrenches, trousering a profit of some $44 million. By 1982 they had sold some 37 million. The only contact Roberts had from Sears during this time was a phone call asking for the identity of his patent lawyer, whom they promptly hired to protect their interests!

Realising the enormity of his mistake, Roberts started to bombard Sears with law suits claiming that they had defrauded him. The path to justice is long, tortuous and expensive and it was not until 1976 that Roberts succeeded in getting a US Federal jury to agree with him and award him $1 million in damages – a paltry amount considering the success of the product but for someone on their uppers welcome indeed.

Sears were not finished with Roberts just yet and decided to appeal the decision, taking the case all the way up to the Supreme Court, although they eventually lost. But the litigation continued and Roberts was able to up the damages awarded to him to $5 million. But even then the dispute dragged on and it was not until 1989, some twenty-five years after the wrench had been invented, that the case was settled and Roberts walked away with $8.9m. This was enough for him to establish Link Tools which, surprise, surprise, manufactured quick-release ratchets, sockets and accessories.

Peter Roberts, for almost giving away all the fruits of your genius, 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 https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

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

Stephen Foster (1826 – 1864)

At primary school, for some unaccountable reason as it was situated in a county with a fine folk tradition, the songs we sang were mainly American. One particular favourite which we sang with gusto was Camptown Races which started off, “Camptown ladies, sing this song/ doo-da doo-da/ The Camptown racetrack’s five miles long/ Oh doo-da day.”  It sounded better than it appears on paper. It was one of over two hundred songs written by the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Stephen Foster, not that I knew at the time nor, frankly, cared.

Foster has been called the father of American music and many of his songs are popular to this day. In his musical canon are ditties such as Old Folks at Home, My Old Kentucky Home, Jeanie with the light brown hair, Old Black Joe and Beautiful dreamer. As a youngster he joined a quasi-secret society  known as the Knights of the Square Table who spent their evenings singing songs and was heavily influenced by a German musician, Henry Kleber, who ran a music store in Pittsburgh and Dan Rice, an itinerant entertainer. It was during this period that he wrote one of his most famous songs, Oh! Susanna, although the first song he published, at the age of eighteen, was Open Thy Lattice, Love.

When he was twenty-four and married, Foster decided to earn his living as a professional song-writer. The problem with being the first in your field, is that there are usually no rules of engagement. So whilst Foster would generally find someone who would pay him some money for the rights to publish his songs, there was no such thing as an established music royalty system. So Oh! Susanna, published in 1848 and the unofficial anthem of the Californian gold rush, earned him just $100 while his publisher raked in $10,000.

Returning to Pennsylvania in 1849 he signed a contract with the Christy Minstrels and over the next five years or so wrote many of his most well-known songs, including Camptown Races in 1850. They were often in the blackface minstrel stylee which was popular at the time but with subtle changes, as Foster wrote, “to build up taste…among refined people by making words suitable to their taste, instead of trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order”. But instead of the millions that his works would have earned him these days, he received little more than $15,000 in total for all the songs which are now the staple of the American songbook.

Inevitably, Foster hit hard times. 1855 might well have been his annus horribilis – he separated from his wife and both his parents died. He reacted to his troubles in the only way he knew how – by writing another hit, Hard Times Come Again No More. What certainly did not come no more was money and he was reduced to living a rootless existence, dossing in hotels in New York.

His demise is worthy of our Hall of Fame. In January 1864 Foster contracted a fever and was severely weakened by it. He was found, naked, lying in a pool of blood, by his then writing partner, George Cooper, having hit his head on a wash basin. He died in Bellevue Hospital three days later, on February 13, aged just thirty-seven. In his wallet was found a scrap of paper with the words, “Dear friends and gentle hearts” and just 38 cents. Perhaps his most famous song, Beautiful Dreamer, was published posthumously.

Stephen Foster, for enriching the American song tradition and not enjoying your just desserts, 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 https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

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

Ludwig Boltzmann (1844 – 1906)

Science in general and physics in particular, whilst fascinating, has always been a closed book to me. Thank goodness there have been cleverer people than I who have made a significant contribution to the understanding of how the universe works like the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Austrian born Ludwig Boltzmann.

Take entropy or the degree of disorder and uncertainty in a system. I have always thought that tidying up was a bit of a waste of time and now I have the scientific evidence to back up my empirical observation. If I’m prevailed upon to tidy up a pile of clothing, have I contributed to a decrease in disorder and a corresponding reduction in entropy? Not a bit of it. You see, there are side effects to my attempt to restore order to my unruly pile of glad rags. I will be breathing, probably cursing, metabolising and warming my surroundings. When everything is totted up, the total disorder measured by entropy will have increased.

Boltzmann’s contribution to the corpus of scientific knowledge was to apply statistical techniques to understanding the second law of thermodynamics, first articulated by the French scientist Sadi Carnot in 1824, that stated that the total entropy of an isolated system can only increase over time. He was an atomist and believed that these tricky little devils held the key to the understanding of entropy. By blending the laws of mechanics as applied to the motion of atoms with probability theory, he concluded that the second law of thermodynamics was essentially a statistical law. The formula he derived to describe entropy in 1877 was S = k · log W. Clear as mud to me but it became the foundation of statistical mechanics.

Our hero didn’t finish there. Between 1880 and 1883 he continued to develop his statistical approach to explaining the mysteries of the universe and refined a theory to explain friction and diffusion in gases. In the late 1880s, following Hertz’s discovery of electromagnetic waves, Boltzmann devised a number of experiments to demonstrate radio waves, lecturing on the subject.

Impressive as this all is, Boltzmann did not find favour with his colleagues. Atomism, which is the bedrock of modern-day physics was under attack at the time and Boltzmann’s theory that entropy was irreversible was counter to prevailing thought at the time. After all, the equations of Newtonian mechanics are reversible over time and the great Poincare had demonstrated that a mechanical system in a given state will always return to the state over time.

One of Boltzmann’s leading critics was Wilhelm Ostwald who paid no heed to atoms, preferring to explain physical science purely in terms of energy conditions. Ostwald put the energist case against Boltzmann succinctly, “The actual irreversibility of natural phenomena thus proves the existence of processes that cannot be described by mechanical equations, and with this the verdict on scientific materialism is settled.” Scientific discussions at the time were lively affairs, one contemporary describing a debate between Boltzmann and Ostwald as resembling “the battle of the bull with a supple fighter”.

The constant criticism of his theories and the need to defend himself vigorously against all-comers wore Boltzmann down. Whilst on holiday with his wife and daughter at the Bay of Duino near Trieste in 1906, he committed suicide by hanging himself. Ironically, shortly after his death discoveries in atomic physics such as the Brownian motion – the random movement of particles in a liquid or gas which can only be explained by statistical mechanics – reinforced the primacy of atomic theory and established Boltzmann’s work as the cornerstone of modern-day physics.

For this, Ludwig, 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 https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

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

Catherine Hettinger (1954 – present)

One of the challenges for an old fogey like me is to keep up with current trends. I’m told that a craze which has swept through the playgrounds this year is something called the fidget spinner. For those who are not in the know it consists of a central circular pad, which the user holds, and two or three prongs, each holing a metal or ceramic bearing. The object of the exercise, is such a rudimentary process can be so described, is to rotate it between your fingers. Apparently users enjoy a pleasant sensory experience. For those looking for more excitement you can toss or twirl the spinner or transfer it between fingers. What fun!

Proponents of the gadget claim that it helps relieve stress and is aimed at those children who suffer from ADHD, another of those conditions which seem to have sprung up since I was a child. It certainly seems to appeal to those who surfeit of energy is in inverse proportion to their concentration span. With the fidget spinner hailed as the toy of 2017 and flying off the shelves in their millions, you would think that the person who came up with the original concept would have unlocked the door to untold riches. But this is where the latest inductee to our illustrious Hall of Fame, Florida based Catherine Hettinger, comes in.

In the 1990s, Hettinger was suffering from myasthenia gravis which causes your muscles to weaken. Desperate to keep her young daughter amused, she came up with a toy which consisted of a circular device moulded from a single piece of plastic which could be spun on the fingertip. In 1993 Hettinger applied for and in 1997 was awarded a patent for her device, described as a spinning toy. She toured around some of the arts and crafts fairs in Florida and sold enough to break even, improving on the design as she went along.

In search of her big break, our heroine approached toy manufacturing giant, Hasbro, who tested the design. Alas for Catherine, they decided not to put into production. One of the problems with patents, as we have seen on numerous occasions, is that you need to renew them and this involves the periodic payment of a fee, $400 a time. Hettinger allowed the patent on her device to lapse in 2005.

In late 2016, eleven or so years after the patent lapsed, the Fidget Spinner began to make waves amongst the junior members of society and manufacturers of the toy started making bundles of money. Again, as we have seen, one of the ways that corporations can evade paying inventors their due is by making subtle changes to the design. Although the current crop of Fidget Spinners are spun using your fingertips, they rely on a completely different movement mechanism from Hettinger’s prototype.

Worse still for Hettinger, even if she had renewed her patent, it would have expired in 2014, seventeen years after it had been granted. This is the way that patents work, ostensibly giving an inventor enough time to capitalise on their genius without granting them a perpetual monopoly. You can’t help thinking that the toy manufacturers waited until any vestige of patent right had disappeared before launching the Fidget Spinner commercially.

It is a moot point as to whether Hettinger would have had any entitlement to cash in. At the very least, she came up with the basic concept but was unable to cash in on her brainwave. For this she is 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 https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

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

Ignaz Semmelweis (1818 – 1865)

Sometimes you discover something and can’t persuade the powers that be that you have made a major breakthrough. This was the fate that befell the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, the Hungarian obstetrician, Ignaz Semmelweis.

Our hero studied Law at the University of Vienna in 1837 but switched to medicine the following year and after gaining his doctorate in 1844, decided to specialise in obstetrics. He took up his first appointment in 1846 as an assistant in the Vienna General Hospital’s maternity ward. There were two wards, A which was the preserve of doctors and trainees, and B which was staffed by midwives only. In the mid 19th century giving birth was a precarious business, often proving fatal to either the mother or the baby or, in some cases, both.

Clinic A had a phenomenally high mortality rate – about 10%, mainly as a result of puerperal fever, whereas the mortality rate in Clinic B was a still shocking but lower 2%. Women who came to the hospital – they were mainly from the lower classes – tried as best they could to avoid Clinic A because of its fearsome reputation. Many preferred to give birth in the streets where the mortality rate was considerably lower. Why was that, Semmelweis wondered?

The duties of the doctors at the hospital were many and varied. They would routinely examine diseased corpses in the mortuary, carrying out autopsies to determine cause of death or dissections to further their knowledge of the human anatomy, before moving on to the maternity ward. Whilst we now tend to regard, or at least hope, that medics are as close to the Platonic paradigm of cleanliness but in Semmelweiss’ time it was rare for a medic to wash their hands between dealing with patients. He noted the discrepancy between mortality rates where doctors were involved and where midwives, who did not handle dead bodies, were in attendance and concluded that some form of cadaverous material picked up from the stiffs was contributing to the high incidence of puerperal fever.

Acting upon these observations and hypotheses, Ignaz decided that he and his colleagues should was their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime, principally to remove the whiff of putrefying flesh, after handling dead bodies. The results were astonishing with fatality rates plummeting and after the experiment had been carried out for a while, deaths were a thing of the past. Concluding that he was on to something, although he could not provide a rational explanation as to why it worked as he knew nothing about germs, Semmelweiss began to promulgate his views. This led to great outburst of hand-wringing but not hand-washing amongst the medical profession, many of whom were outraged by the suggestion that their hands could be unclean. They were gentlemen, after all.

In revolutionary Vienna, Semmelweiss was seen as a trouble maker and was soon dismissed from his post. Surprise, surprise, the abandonment of the hand washing policy saw mortality rates rise to their pre-Ignatian levels. Frustrated, Semmelweiss wrote increasingly furious letters and articles to the medical community, accusing them of cold-hearted murder. Accounts of his discovery were printed in journals such as the Lancet. Semmelweiss repeated his successes whilst working in hospitals in Budapest in the 1850s and in 1861 published his theory and statistical demonstrations in a book called The Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever. It was not well received.

Worse still, he became an obsessive on the subject at a time when he started to develop signs of the onset of what might have been Alzheimer’s. Even his wife thought he was verging on insanity and in 1865 he was lured into a mental asylum in Vienna . Realising he had been trapped, Semmelweiss tried to make good his escape, but was detained, put in a straightjacket and given a good hiding by the warders for good measure. Two weeks later he died from his injuries which had gone gangrenous.

It was only when Louis Pasteur was able to provide a theoretical explanation of the causal link between germs and disease that Semmelweiss began to be regarded as the genius that he was and was able to claim his place as a pioneer of antiseptic policy. For this, Ignaz, you are a worthy inductee to 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 https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

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

Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace (1875 – 1932)

Self-publishing can be an interesting experience. As well as writing your magnum opus you need to market it and the temptation is to come up with some cunning stunt to boost sales. The sorry tale of Edgar Wallace, the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame and Britain’s most prolific author, illustrates what can go wrong.

Wallace wrote his first book, The Four Just Men – to be reviewed in July – in 1905 but struggled to find a publisher. His solution was to establish his own publishing company, Tallis. So far, so good.

The structure of the book is slightly odd in that we are told several times throughout the book that Thery, the fourth just man, had been recruited because he possessed the requisite skills required to carry out an assassination but we are not told what those are. And how the murder is accomplished is only revealed in the final pages. The reason for this is that Wallace decided to promote his book through a major advertising campaign in conjunction with the Daily Mail across Britain and the Empire – we still had one in those days. A prize of £1,000 was made available to anyone who guessed the murder method before the solution was revealed.

£1,000 was an enormous sum in those days and Wallace was prevailed upon to lower the prizes on offer to £250 for the first prize, £200 for the second and £50 for the third. Wallace blitzed the world with an extensive marketing campaign, posting advertisements on buses, hoardings and flyers and ran up a bill of £2,000 in the process. So he needed to sell £2,500 worth of books before he saw a penny of profit.

The advertising campaign worked well and copies of the book flew off the shelves. Wallace wrote over 500 books but his first was one of his best sellers. Entries to the competition, many of which were correct, flooded in. But as befitting an inductee of our Hall of Fame, Wallace had made a disastrous mistake. He had omitted in the terms and conditions of the competition to restrict the number of winners of each prize to just one. Just before the competition closed, the lawyers of the Daily Mail told him that he was legally obliged to pay all the winners of his competition. To say that this put a hole in his financial projections is an understatement.

Wallace’s initial approach was to adopt the stance of Emil Savundra and refuse to pay out. The problem was that the final chapter of the book with the revelation of how the deed was accomplished had now been published and everyone who had entered the competition would know whether they had had a correct answer or not. The size of the prizes, particularly for the sort of people who devoured crime fiction, was of a size that they would not willingly let it go. Indeed, by early 1906 considerable doubts were being expressed about the probity of the competition and the Daily Mail, who had hosted the competition and in those days cared about their reputation, was getting increasingly concerned. Eventually, Lord Harmsworth, the proprietor, put his hand in his pocket to the tune of £5,000 to rescue the situation.

As for Wallace, he had to declare himself bankrupt and sold the rights to Sir George Newnes for a measly £75 in order to throw some scraps to his creditors. His financial situation prompted his phenomenal literary output.

Edgar Wallace, for turning a best seller into a financial disaster, 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 https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

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

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John Fitch (1743 – 1798)

Lady luck plays a large part in someone’s success. If you are cursed with bad luck, then it is even harder to reap the rewards that your invention merits. A case in point is the story of the American, John Fitch, the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame.

Born in Connecticut, Fitch was a bit of a jack-of-all-trades in his youth, turning his hand to farm work, clock making, silversmithing, cartography and fighting in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. After his discharge, he explored the Ohio River valley and was captured by a group of Native Americans who turned him over to the Brits. Eventually he was released but perhaps it was this experience that caused him to ponder whether there was a method of propelling river craft more quickly than simply muscle power.

Fitch’s idea was to deploy the new-fangled steam powered engines that were beginning to make their mark in Britain. They would enable boats to move up and down rivers independently of concerns such as tides and weather. Unfortunately for Fitch, the consequence of independence was that the Brits refused to share their new technology with their erstwhile colonists and so he had to start from scratch, deploying the services of a clockmaker, Henry Voight, to build an engine. By this time he had persuaded various state legislatures to grant him a 14 year monopoly for steamboat traffic on their inland waterways, a concession that enabled him to raise investment from prominent Pennsylvanian businessmen.

The first public trial of Fitch’s steamboat, called appropriately Perseverance, took place on the Delaware river on August 22nd 1787 in front of assembled dignitaries. Although successful and drawing fulsome praise, no additional funding was forthcoming. Undaunted, Fitch and Voight built a more substantial vessel, sixty feet long with a steam engine which powered a number of oars positioned in the stern which paddled rather like a duck. During the summer of 1790 Fitch carried up to 30 passengers a time on journeys between Philadelphia and Burlington, travelling in total over 1,500 miles at speeds averaging 6 miles per hour but getting up to a racy 8 miles per hour at times. As importantly, Fitch claimed they could travel upwards of 500 miles without any mechanical mishap.

Although Fitch was awarded a patent on August 26th 1791 for his steamboat, after a ferocious battle with James Rumsey who had also invented a steam-powered vessel, it did not grant him a monopoly, just protecting his design. This caused many of Fitch’s investors to jump ship and our hero was left high and dry. Desperate for funding, he went to France but arrived at the height of the Reign of Terror when the monied classes had more pressing concerns on their collars. A fund-raising trip to Blighty drew a blank and so Fitch returned to the States.

Misfortune continued to dog him. He moved to Kentucky where he had bought some land in the 1780s, hoping to sell some to finance the building of a steamboat to ply the Ohio or Mississippi rivers, only to find them occupied by settlers, necessitating a protracted legal battle to evict them. He continued working on steam engine concepts and what was found in his attic was described as “the prototype of a land-operating steam engine” meant to operate on tracks. His train preceded that of Richard Trevithick’s, built in 1802 and recognised as the daddy of the steam locomotive.

Alas, Fitch fell into depression, drank heavily and committed suicide in 1798, allowing Robert Fulton with better financial backing to steam in and make his dream of steam-powered boats a reality.

John, for pioneering the steam-powered boat and train but failing to get the credit, you are a worthy inductee.

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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 https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

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

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Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville (1817 – 1879)

It is always fascinating to hear yourself as others hear you. Often it is quite a shock – do I really sound like that? – but the usual way in which we hear our voice as it really is is by recording it on a tape recorder or a dictaphone and then playing it back. Of course, someone must have had the brain wave to capture the human voice and this is where the latest inductee of our illustrious Hall of Fame, Leon Scott, to abbreviate the mouthful that is his name, comes in.

Scott was born and lived in Paris and was a printer by trade. Perhaps unsurprisingly,, he took some interest in the documents, journals and books that he was printing. A particular speciality of his printing business was works of scientific interest and he was able to keep abreast with the latest developments. Having seen the development of rudimentary cameras which were able to capture images of the human form, he began to wonder whether a device could be built to record the human voice. Scott saw a particularly useful application in the ability to record a conversation verbatim, what we would now call stenography and by 1849 had published a number of papers on the subject.

Proof-reading a physics textbook around 1853 he came across a series of drawings of the human auditory system and he wondered whether that could be recreated mechanically. His design replaced the tympanum with an elastic membrane in the shape of a horn and the ossicle with a series of levers which would move a stylus back and forth across a glass or paper surface blackened by smoke from an oil lamp. The object of the exercise was to capture the sound of the human voice in a way that could be deciphered rather than played back.

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Calling his device a phonautograph, Scott sent a version of its design to the French Academy on 25th March 1857 and received a French patent for his troubles. But there is one thing coming up with an idea and another making some money out of it, the significant drawback to his design being that whilst it reproduced sound as a series of squiggles it did not allow the recordist to play it back. So what sales Scott made were limited to the scientific community, principally to allow them to investigate the qualities and properties of sound. Laudable, for sure, but sales were insufficient to make a difference to his lifestyle and Scott saw out his days a librarian and bookseller.

And there it may have rested. But in 2008 a group of scientists the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory got hold of one of Scott’s phonoautographs and succeeded in converting the series of squiggles made on 9th April 1860 into a digital audio file. On playing it they heard a 20 second snatch of Scott singing, very slowly, part of Au clair de la lune, an audio recording pre-dating Thomas Edison’s recording of Handel’s oratorio, Israel in Egypt, by some 28 years.

Edison received a patent for his phonogram in 1877 and Scott went to his grave convinced that the American had wrested some of the glory that was rightfully his. For laying the foundations for recording the human voice, Leon, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

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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 https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty Eight

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John Joseph Merlin (1735 – 1803)

One of the underlying themes of this series is the role that luck plays in success – being in the right place at the right time or, in the case of inductees into our illustrious Hall of Fame, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps a shining example of this is the Belgian-born inventor, John Joseph Merlin. Born in Huy, he studied at the Academie des Sciences in Paris where he became well-known for his inventiveness and was persuaded to move to London in 1760.

In London Merlin used his knowledge of automata and the mechanics of clocks to develop a range of innovative toys and musical instruments which he patented. In 1783 he opened in Hanover Square a Mechanical Museum where he displayed many of the toys and objects that he had developed. It was a great success, Madame d’Arblay noting that “Merlin was quite the rage in London where everything was a la Merlin – Merlin chairs” – he had developed a mechanical gouty chair – “Merlin pianos, Merlin swings…Merlin fiddles and Merlin mechanical pegs for violins and violoncellos”.

Merlin was lionised by the great and the good. He was a particular friend of Thomas Gainsborough, who painted a rather splendid portrait, possibly in return for one of Merlin’s mechanical instruments. He was a regular visitor at the house of the musicologist, Charles Burney. His daughter, Fanny, wrote that Merlin was “very diverting in conversation…he speaks his opinion upon all subjects and about all persons with the most undisguised freedom”. But showing a little Englander attitude even then, she noted “He does not, though a foreigner, want words but he arranges and pronounces them very comically”.

Another theme that runs through this series is man’s frustrations with the limitations that bipedalism imposes on the ability to get from A to B as quickly as possible. We have seen early attempts to create bicycles, air flight, submarines and the like. Merlin applied his ingenuity to the problem of how to accelerate man’s ability to travel and his light bulb moment was to hit upon the ice skate from which he removed the blade and replaced it with a couple of wheels. Attaching them to the feet he had made, and naturally, patented the first pair of roller skates.

Merlin was a showman and could not resist the opportunity to demonstrate his roller skates at one of the premier events of the 1771 London season, a soiree at the home of Mrs Cowley’s at Carlisle House. For maximum effect, Merlin decided to make his entrance on his roller skates while playing the violin – and why not? What happened next is to be found in Thomas Busby’s Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes of 1805. “when not having provided the means of retarding his velocity, or commanding its direction” – two major design faults, I feel –“he impelled himself against a mirror of more than five hundred pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself most severely”.

Merlin’s dramatic entrance set back the development of the roller skate by nearly 90 years. In 1863 James Plimpton, an American, came up with the idea of a rocking skate with four wheels for stability and independent axles. So successful was Plimpton’s device that roller skating took off. Plimpton’s design is still today.

For inventing the roller skate but putting back its development by nearly a century because of your eccentric demonstration, John Julius Merlin, you are a worthy inductee.

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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 https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

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

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Dave Smith (? to present)

Ah, the nineteen eighties. Whether you loved them or hated them, the music of the time was dominated by synthesisers and electronica and one of the developments that made this possible was the creation of the MIDI or Musical Instrument Digital Interface in 1983. It quickly became the universal standard and you would have thought that its inventor would have found the key to a fortune. But you would be wrong as the story of Dave Smith, the latest inductee to our illustrious Hall of Fame, reveals.

The problem with electronic instruments pre-MIDI was that they couldn’t talk to each other. OK, a clever keyboard player could play two instruments at the same time, one with their left and the other with their right but that was pretty much as far as it went. A graduate in Computer Science and Electronic Engineering from UC Berkley, Smith was fascinated by synthesisers, creating Sequential Circuits in 1974 and in 1977 developed the Prophet 5, one of the first analogue polyphonic synthesisers. Sequential Circuits went on to become one of the most successful synthesiser manufacturers ever.

But Smith wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to develop a protocol whereby electronic instruments and synthesisers could communicate, allowing the musician to control a range of instruments from one synthesiser or computer. In 1981 he issued a challenge to the industry to back a universal protocol. To set the ball rolling, he created a rough draft of what it might look like, calling it the Universal Synthesiser Interface. Few came forward to insist but one who did was Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland. The two collaborated during 1982, communicating – it seems astonishing to write this these days – by fax and by the time of the National Association of Music Merchants in 1983, Smith was ready to reveal what they had come up with.

By today’s standards the specification for MIDI was pretty rudimentary, consisting of eight sheets of paper and limiting itself to a range of basic set of instructions you might want to send between two synthesisers, like what notes to play and at what volume. But it worked – Smith was able to link up his Prophet 600 synthesiser with a Roland JP-6. A musical revolution had arrived.

MIDI’s development coincided with the development of the PC whose processors were now fast enough using MIDI to sequence notes, control the number of keyboards and drum machines operating at the same time. It also allowed aspiring musicians to operate at home rather than spending time in expensive recording studios. But it didn’t stop there. MIDI technology has been on Mac OS since 1995 and is used in your smartphone, powering the first wave of ring tones. Games like Guitar hero use it. And it has stood the test of time. The basic protocol has been added to but remains the same.

And why did Smith not make a fortune? Well, he gave it away. Explaining what may seem on the face of it a baffling decision, he said, “we wanted to be sure we had 100% participation, so we decided not to charge any other companies that wanted to use it”. Very magnanimous. On the other hand, it may have been a sprat to catch a mackerel, making products such as synthesisers more valuable and desirable. But even then, Smith had to sell Sequential Circuits to Yamaha in 1988 to stave off bankruptcy.

He is still making and selling synths with his own company, Dave Smith Instruments. But for eschewing the money that would have come his way through licensing MIDI, Dave Smith is a worthy inductee.

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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 https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards