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

Martha Coston (1826 – 1904)

For a century or more the Coston flare system was the usual way by which ships could communicate with the shoreline and vice versa. Indeed, its use was a requirement of marine insurers. The signals were produced in the form of cartridges which were fired into the air from a signal-pistol. There were three colours, white, red, and blue, and by sequencing them a rudimentary form of messaging, akin to semaphore but one that could be used at night, was developed. The light emanating from the pistol was so bright that the signaller was advised not to look at it. The point, of course, was that it could be seen from a distance.

So whose brainwave was it?

Step forward, Martha Coston, the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame. Her tale is one of triumph over adversity. If being widowed at the age of 21 in 1848 with four children to look after was not enough, further misfortune befell her when two of her children and her mother died shortly afterwards. She needed to find a way of supporting herself.

Going through her deceased husband’s papers, Martha found that he had been working on a system for signalling at night. Benjamin’s papers consisted of plans and chemical formulae and whilst there was a kernel of an idea, a lot of work would be needed to bring it to reality. Indeed, it took ten years of hard work for Martha to create a workable system.  As she wrote, “The men I employed and dismissed, the experiments I made myself, the frauds that were practiced upon me, almost disheartened me; but … I treasured up each little step that was made in the right direction, the hints of naval officers, and the opinions of the different boards that gave the signals a trial. I had finally succeeded in getting a pure white and a vivid red light.”

Needing a third colour, the breakthrough came when she was watching a fireworks display in New York City to celebrate the completion of the transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858. The blue fireworks were particularly luminous and visible – a blue flare would complete her system. On 5th April 1859 a patent, number 23,536, was granted for a night signalling system. Sadly for Martha, the inventor on the patent was named as Benjamin, her involvement being relegated to that of administratrix of her husband’s estate.

The US Navy were interested in the flare system and placed an order for $6,000 worth of flares from the Coston Manufacturing Company, which Martha had established. She then went on an extended tour of Europe, getting patents for her invention in England, France, Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands. Returning to the US in 1861 at the outbreak of the Civil War, Martha persuaded Congress to buy the US Patent to her invention but they were only prepared to pay $20,000 rather than the $40,000 she wanted.

The US Navy used the Coston flare system extensively during the conflict and they were particularly key in coordinating efforts in the battle of Fort Fisher in 1865 and spotting blockade runners. The Coston Manufacturing Company were knocking the flares at less than cost price and after the war, Martha calculated that the government owed her $120,000 in compensation. With some reluctance, they offered her a measly $15,000.

In 1871, Martha was awarded a US patent in her own right, number 115,935, for improvements to the night signalling system and by the mid 1870s all the US Life Saving Service stations were equipped with Coston flares. Martha also sold her signals to navies, shipping companies and yacht clubs around the world.

Business boomed until the adoption of ship radios. But Martha said she always had to be “ready to fight like a lioness” against chauvinism, prejudice and attempts to rip her off. She persevered and for this is a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame. Indeed, her presence lights it up, you might say.

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

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


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

Mary Anderson (1866 – 1953)

It’s an everyday scene. You jump into your car, notice the windscreen is a bit smeared, so you flick a switch and two mechanical arms, fixed to the exterior of your car, spring into action and clear it for you. When it is raining or snowing, the windscreen wipers are invaluable to help you see where you are going. But have you ever considered whose brainwave the wipers were?

This is where the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Alabama born Mary Anderson, comes in.

While in New York during the winter of 1902 Mary was travelling on a trolley car and it was sleeting. The stately progress of the vehicle was interrupted every now and again because the driver had to get out and clear the front window of the snow and ice that had accumulated. Instead of fuming about the delay that this operation caused to her journey, Mary started wondering whether some kind of blade could be produced which the driver could operate from inside the trolley car, allowing him to clear the screen without having to stop and start the vehicle.

Food for thought, indeed.

When she got back to Birmingham, Alabama, Mary’s musings were sufficiently advanced that she was able to commit a rudimentary design to paper. She then wrote a description of how it might work and hired a local company to make a working model. It was remarkably simple, consisting of a lever fixed to the inside of the vehicle which controlled a rubber blade fixed to the exterior of the windscreen. By controlling the lever, the blade, which was counterweighted to ensure contact, would go back and forth across the windscreen, clearing it of any obstructions. The blade was detachable, “thus leaving nothing to mar the usual appearance of the car during fair weather.

On 18th June 1903 Mary submitted her application for a patent for what she quaintly described as a Window Cleaning Device. In the supporting documentation Anderson described how the wiper was to be operated by a handle inside the vehicle which was detachable.

On 10th November she was notified by the United States Patent Office that a patent had been granted, number 743,801, and that she had exclusive rights over her invention for 17 years.

But, as we have seen before, inventing something is the easy part. Making a commercial success of it is another kettle of fish altogether.

Mary started searching for commercial partners but, surprisingly, found no takers. Rather like an aspiring author seeking a publisher, she received rejections by the sack full. Perhaps the letter she received from the Montreal firm, Dinning and Eckstein, on 20th June 1905 was typical; “we beg to acknowledge receipt of your recent favor with reference to the sale of your patent. In reply, we regret to state we do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale.”

So that was that and Mary seems to have abandoned her attempts to put her invention into production, concentrating on managing some flats she had built instead.

Her patent expired in 1920. By that time many more people owned cars and vehicle manufacturers were looking to enhance the specifications of their models. In 1922 Cadillac was the first to include windscreen wipers on all of their models and soon they became standard equipment. The timing of their adoption was not coincidental, depriving Mary of cashing in on her simple but essential invention.

It was not until 2011 that Mary’s contribution to automobile safety was recognised by the Hall of Inventors, making her a worthy inductee into our equally illustrious Hall of Fame.

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

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

We Call Upon The Author To Explain

The Eric Hoffer Book Award is one of the top and most prestigious American literary awards for independent books. Last Monday (May 14th) the results of the 2018 Book Award were announced.

I am delighted to reveal that my latest book, Fifty Curious Questions, made its way through a packed field to be named as a Category Finalist. If nothing else, it is gratifying to know that a quirky piece of English whimsy written firmly in a tongue-in-cheek style has transferred successfully across the Atlantic.

The book is available in all formats via

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

Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cecilia Payne (1900 – 1979)

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

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

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

And some contribution, it was too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Do woodpeckers suffer brain damage?

One of the distinctive sounds to be heard in the garden of Blogger Towers is the drilling of a woodpecker as it tries to dislodge insects from within the bark of one of the nearby trees. It has always struck me that there must be easier ways for them to get their food. After all, each time they strike the tree their beaks and head undergo forces of between 1,200 and 1,400 G, over fourteen times the force that would give a human concussion.

According to the ever popular journal Plos One, a team of scientists, led by Peter Cummings, from Boston University School of Medicine, carried out some research into the brains of woodpeckers, using exhibits from the Field Museum and Harvard Museum of Natural History. The tell-tale sign for brain damage, in human brains at least, is the build-up of tau protein around our axons. Normally, tau protein wraps around the axons, giving them protection and stability while preserving their flexibility. Too much of it, though, disrupts the ability of the neurons to communicate, causing no end of problems with some of the brain’s functions relating to our emotions, cognitive powers and our ability to move.

In what is thought to have been the first detailed examination of woodpecker brains, the little grey cells were removed from a number of exhibits and the amount of tau protein was compared with that to be found in the brains of Red-winged Blackbirds. Now, of course, the woodpeckers in question may have been particularly stupid, having allowed themselves to be caught and end up in a museum’s glass case, but the researchers found that there was considerably more tau protein in their brains than in the blackbirds.

Is this indicative of brain damage?

Frustratingly, the researchers are not prepared to commit; all Cummings was prepared to say was “We can’t say that these woodpeckers definitely sustained brain injuries, but there is extra tau present in the woodpecker brain.” It is dangerous to assume that what is good for humans must also be the case for other forms of animal life so a bit more research is needed, I guess.

Empirically, though, as woodpeckers have been around for 25 million years and nature evolves – a controversial contention, I know – you would think that they would have developed mechanisms to prevent injurious damage to their bodies. And it seems they have. Researchers have previously established that woodpeckers have particularly thick neck muscles which serve to diffuse the blow when their beak strikes the wood. They also have a third inner eyelid which prevents their eyeballs from popping out.

In 2012 scientists from Beijing’s Beihang University and the Wuhan University of Technology carried out a more detailed examination of the thick bone that surrounds and cushions the woodpecker’s brain, details of which were reported in Science China Life Sciences. It appears that their brains are surrounded by a spongy bone plate made of tiny beams or rods called trabeculae. This provides a protective layer around the brain. Similarly, their beaks contain these same trabeculae. It is thought that the beak deforms during impact, absorbing the impact rather than sending it onwards towards the brain.

So the answer is probably no. Makes sense, I suppose.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone which is now available via

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

Do your ears grow as you get older?

Ears are wonderful things.

As well as opening up the world of sound for those blessed with the sense of hearing – that is another story – they provide us with something to which we can attach our spectacles. In Chinese physiognomy, large ears are a sign of longevity. As I grow ever older I get this unshakeable feeling that the size of my ears is increasing. The consensus seems to be that old men have big ears and so for those of us with an enquiring mind this prompts the question: Do ears really grow larger with age and, if so, is it a phenomenon restricted to men?

The starting point for our investigation into the lughole is a paper published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 1995, entitled Why do old men have big ears? In this fascinating monograph a general practitioner from Bromley in Kent, James Heathcote, recounts a survey he and three of his doctor colleagues conducted into the size of men’s ears in 1993. The doctors measured the ear sizes of 206 men of aged 30 and over and analysed the results. They calculated that ears grew at an average of 0.22 millimetres a year or, to put it another way, around a centimetre every 50 years. Frustratingly, the worthy medics didn’t hazard a guess as to why this may happen.

But it seems that the British investigation only tells half a story, having concentrated exclusively on the male sex. For an understanding of what happens with the ears of the fairer sex we need to look elsewhere.

A paper, reprinted in the BMJ in 1996 entitled Correlation of Ear Length with Age in Japan details the findings of some physicians working in care homes in Japan where they measured the ears and height of some 400 adult patients of both sexes.  Their findings revealed a significant correlation between the length of your ear and age, confirming Heathcote’s findings, and that there is an even greater correlation when adjusted for height – across both sexes.

An Italian study in 1999, conducted by VF Ferrario and others, measured the ears of groups of males and females in age categories 12 to 15, 19 to 30 and 31 to 56. What they discovered was that ear dimensions were significantly larger in males than females and that there was a significant effect on their size with age with larger ears found predominantly amongst the ageing population.

A more exhaustive study was conducted in around 2006 was conducted by a team of Germans from the Freie Universitat Berlin, led by Carsten Niemitz, based upon some original original research carried out in 1959 by Montacer-Kuhssary. The team found some 1448 photographs of ears of people of all ages ranging from new-born children to adolescents to adults and old codgers up to the age of 92. Each of the photographs was subjected to fifteen different sets of measurements.

What the team found was that “in all parameters where post adult growth was observed, female ears showed a lesser increase than those of men. Moreover the extent to which older men have bigger ears than younger males is greater than the extent to which the size of older women’s lugholes exceeds those of younger females.

But the fact is that women’s ears grow with age as well. Perhaps the reason why we don’t notice this phenomenon is because they often wear their hair in styles which cover the ears.

They also found that noses grow with age but not at the rate of ears – perhaps the Pinocchio effect of those shaggy dog stories the elderly are so fond of telling. There is no certainty as to why ears grow; possibly it is due to the loss of elasticity in the skin and the effect of gravity. Who knows?

Glad to have uncovered the truth on that one, though.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone which is now available via