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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

Position Of The Week

My latest book, Fifty Curious Questions – now available via Amazon and all good booksellers (there is a distinction) – seeks to answer some of those maddening questions that life throws up. One that escaped my attention was: Which is the most dangerous sexual position for men?

Fortunately, the improbably named International Journal of Impotence Research, a flop if there ever was going to be one, has come up with the answer, reporting the results of some research conducted in Brazil into the circumstances which led to penile fracture in 90 victims. The answer, it appears, is doggy style. Men aged between 20 and 30 are most likely to suffer this injury because of their fitness and firmer erections. Eighteen unfortunates fractured their penises in the UK last year, according to the ever helpful NHS.

For women, if this incident which came to my attention this week is anything to go by, it may be deciding their respective positions in a three-some. Two women were discussing the point when one of them toppled 10 feet from the balcony of a house in the German town of Bad Breisig. She broke bones in her feet and legs. Her friend (or rival) rushed down the stairs to help her, slipped and broke bones in her arms and neck. Both had a stay in hospital whilst the chap, presumably, was left wondering why they were taking so long.

A good book and cup of cocoa seems the safest option.

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

What happens when three Christs meet?

For a confirmed agnostic the world of religion is a confusing and mystifying place. There are so many faiths competing for our attention that the obvious question is how do you know you are backing the right horse. Of course, there is just the chance that there is an omnipotent being up there who has control over your immortal soul and being a cautious sort of chap, I don’t want to find that out when it is too late to mend the errors of my ways. I have a fond image of representatives of all the major religions crowding around my death-bed intoning their own versions of their creed simultaneously, rather like a DJ sound system clash in a reggae club in the late 70s.

The bedrock of the Christian faith is monotheism – one God, one Jesus etc. Over the last millennium or so groups have formed eagerly anticipating the second coming of Christ, all to be sorely disappointed, at least as far as we know. From time to time some deluded soul pops up claiming to be the reincarnation of Christ. For the enquiring mind, the obvious question is what would happen if two or more so-called Christs met each other. Fortunately, we have a clue from a rather bizarre experiment conducted by psychologist, Milton Rokeach, in 1959.

The starting point is to gather a number of schizophrenics who think they are Christ. Rokeach got his hands on three, Clyde Benson, Joseph Cassel and Leon Gabor, and forced them to live together at the Ypsilanti State Mental Hospital in Michigan. As for methodology, he chose to replicate the apparently successful technique adopted several years earlier where two women who believed they were both the Virgin Mary were put together and one of them as a result of them chatting together realised the extent of her delusional behaviour, was cured and discharged. But men, it would seem, are made of sterner stuff.

As you might expect, when they first met each other, the three Christs argued as to who was the real deal. Arguments became heated and on occasions, instead of a cheek being turned, blows were traded. Over time, though, the three patients began to tolerate each other and to prefer each other’s company. Each developed an elaborate explanation as to why the others were not the real McCoy. Clyde believed that his companions were dead and that they had been taken over by robots, whereas Leon and Joseph thought that their comrades were either crazy or had been duped. Leon came nearest to the truth by recognising that they were in a mental institution so the others, although, interestingly, not he, must be crazy. Rokeach tried to manipulate Leon’s behaviour by taking over the character of his imagined wife – an episode which caused Leon great emotional distress.

Rokeach abandoned the experiment in 1961 without curing the patients of their delusions or even getting any useful insights into the nature of schizophrenia. Towards the end of the experiment, none of the men showed the remotest interest in resolving the question as to who was the real Christ and, in fact, would go out of their way to avoid any conversational topic which might have strayed, however inadvertently, into matters religious. Anything for a quiet life!

The person who displayed the most delusional behavioural characteristics was Rokeach himself who seemed to relish playing the role of God in trying to manipulate his patients’ behaviour. Over time he realised how unethical his experiment was and in his 1981 edition of his book, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, he wrote, “while I failed to cure the three Christs of their delusions, they had succeeded in curing me of mine – of my God-like delusion that I could change them by omnipotently and omnisciently arranging and rearranging their daily lives”.

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links

http://www.authorhouse.co.uk/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-001142053

http://www.authorhouse.com/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-001142053

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fifty-Curious-Questions-Pabulum-Enquiring/dp/1546280022/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1501840203&sr=8-1&keywords=fifty+curious+questions

https://www.amazon.com/Martin-Fone/e/B0034Q4HM4

http://bookreadermagazine.com/fifty-curious-questions/

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

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

Why do shoe laces keep coming undone?

When I was a small boy one of the rites of passage was to be able to demonstrate the ability to tie up one’s own shoe laces. It was a tricky business and required great perseverance and phenomenal powers of concentration. Eventually I cracked it and have never looked back since. These days, with Velcro fastenings and the penchant for wearing trainers without laces it is less of a vital accomplishment and, I’m sure, we will all be the poorer for that.

When you think about it, though, and I have the luxury of being able to, tying shoe laces is a rather odd and inefficient way of making sure that your shoes stay on your feet. Invariably, the laces work loose and at some point in the day you find that you have to bend down and tie them up again. I find round laces the worst and when I buy a pair of shoes, try to avoid them. For the enquiring mind the obvious question is why do shoe laces, however well tied, work loose of their own accord.

Fortunately, some research carried out by Oliver O’Reilly, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California Berkley and published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society may provide the clue to understanding this conundrum. As often is the case, the starting point was to take a couple of PhD students who were rich and uncool enough to own a pair of lace ups. They were asked to sit on a chair and swing their legs and stamp their feet. What they found was that these tow actions independently do not cause the laces to loosen. However, it is when you combine these two actions that trouble begins.

A runner was put on a treadmill and their actions were filmed using a slow-motion camera. What the scientists found was that when running, the foot strikes the ground with a force that is seven times that of gravity. As the fabric of the shoe squashes down on impact with terra firma, extra lace is freed at the top of the shoe, causing the knot to loosen imperceptibly. The trailing leg causes the free ends of the laces to move backwards and forwards, resulting in them being tugged outwards. The knot loosens causing a reduction in the friction which is holding the knot in place and eventually the free ends lengthen and the knot unravels.

It doesn’t happen all the time, the scientists say, but once the tension holding the knot decreases as a result of the movement of your feet, you will soon be bending down to tie your laces up again. It seems that some types of knot are more prone to coming undone than others. I use a granny knot but the tests conducted by O’Reilly show that these knots are five times more likely to come undone than a square knot. With a square knot you cross the end that is in your right hand behind the one in your left rather than passing the ends of the bow and knot over each other.

I doubt whether I will be able to obliterate a process that has been hardwired into my subconscious for over half a century. I find double knots help immeasurably but at least I now know why my shoe laces come undone. Perhaps I should invest in some slip ons.

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links

http://www.authorhouse.co.uk/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-001142053

http://www.authorhouse.com/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-001142053

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fifty-Curious-Questions-Pabulum-Enquiring/dp/1546280022/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1501840203&sr=8-1&keywords=fifty+curious+questions

https://www.amazon.com/Martin-Fone/e/B0034Q4HM4

http://bookreadermagazine.com/fifty-curious-questions/

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

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Twenty Nine

ffirth

The vomit-drinking doctor, Stubbins Ffirth (1784 – 1820)

One of the problems of having an enquiring mind and natural curiosity is that at times you have to temper it. The risk is that your passion becomes all-consuming and it takes you down routes that most sane people would not contemplate. The advance of science and human knowledge requires researchers with undaunted courage and perseverance. But some can take it too far as the curious tale of an American doctor, Stubbins Ffirth, shows.

Yellow fever was a major problem in the United States in the late 18th century – an outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793 had killed several thousand people – and understanding the disease and, more importantly, finding a cure for it was the number one priority. The popular theory around at the time was that the disease was spread by what was known at the time as miasma or bad air. Ffirth was having none of it. The bee in his bonnet – or perhaps it should be mosquito as the cause of yellow fever was eventually attributed to the pesky insect in 1900 – was to prove his theory that the fever was not contagious and he went to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate the veracity of his thesis.

As with most scientists, the starting point was to experiment on animals. Ffirth’s first experiment involved some black vomit collected from some poor yellow fever patients, some bread and a small dog. The latter was confined to a room and fed bread soaked in the vomit. Alas for the scientist but, perhaps fortunately for the dog, it took a shine to the unusual repast and after three days became so fond of it that it would eat the vomit without the accompanying bread. Abandoning that experiment, Ffirth injected vomit into the jugular veins of assorted dogs and cats. The results were inconclusive – one dog died within ten minutes while others remained perfectly healthy.

Undaunted, Ffirth decided that the only thing for it was to dispense with the lower orders of the animal kingdom and experiment on Homo sapiens – and who better than himself? He wrote of his first experiment, “On October 4th 1802 I made an incision in my left arm, midway between the elbow and wrist, so as to draw a few drops of blood. Into the incision I introduced some fresh black vomit…a slight degree of inflammation ensued, which entirely subsided in three days, and the wound healed up very readily”. He injected the vomit of yellow fever patients into various parts of his body with no real effect.

Thinking he was really on to something he devised even more extreme experiments, including frying three ounces of vomit in a pan and inhaling the steam and sitting in a small, enclosed closet inhaling six ounces of steaming vomit. Still no real effect. So the next stage in the experiments was to “take half an ounce of the black vomit immediately after it was ejected from a patient and diluting it with an ounce and a half of water, swallowed it”. The concoction tasted slightly acidic but it neither caused nausea or pain. Undaunted, he pressed on drinking several doses of vomit, often undiluted. But still there was no effect.

The lengths that Ffirth had gone to convinced him that his thesis was correct. His inability to contract the disease even after ingesting copious amounts of body fluids from fever patients was proof enough. He published his findings in A Treatise on Malignant Fever; with an attempt to prove its non-contagious non-malignant Nature in 1804. But he was wrong. It was also subsequently demonstrated that the vomit and other bodily fluids he ingested were from victims who had passed their contagious state. Who’d have thought that? Instead of being a medical, great Ffirth had to make do with being known as the vomit-drinking doctor.

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links

http://www.authorhouse.co.uk/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-001142053

http://www.authorhouse.com/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-001142053

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fifty-Curious-Questions-Pabulum-Enquiring/dp/1546280022/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1501840203&sr=8-1&keywords=fifty+curious+questions

https://www.amazon.com/Martin-Fone/e/B0034Q4HM4

http://bookreadermagazine.com/fifty-curious-questions/

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.

digital_book_thumbnail

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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