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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 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

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

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Gary Kildall (1942 – 1994)

The early days of computing were a bit like the Wild West where fortunes were won and lost and where the unwary were ripped off. What has been particularly liberating for the ordinary users of PCs has been the development of operating language and protocols which are intuitive and easy to use. You would think that the brainbox who made all this possible would have been assured of fame and riches. Think again as I recount the salutary tale of Gary Kildall, the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame.

Kildall started working for Intel in 1974, hired to develop programming tools for the Intel 4004 microprocessor. He was a bit of a whizz at coding software, turning out code that would work, albeit not necessarily the final polished article. He proposed and developed a high-level language for the 8008 and 8080 models which would allow the user to issue quasi-English commands to the chip rather than relying on binary code. Intel then developed the now unfortunately named ISIS which was the world’s first floppy disk based system and Kildall developed the operating system, CP/M. When Intel decided not to make the PC available in the commercial market, Kildall obtained their consent to market and sell a version of PC/M.

Kildall set up Intergalactic Digital Research and soon PC/M was the operating system of choice in the nascent personal computing world. But success was not assured. In 1980 IBM was on the hunt for an operating system for their soon to be released PC and naturally contacted our hero. Legend has it that Kildall preferred to fly his aeroplane rather than meet the suits from IBM but the reality is that whilst he was late for the meeting, the sticking point was that the hardware giant was only prepared to pay him a one-off fee of $200,000 for using his operating system.

DOS – heard of that? – now enters our story. It was developed by Seattle Computer Products and purchased by a company called Microsoft, owned by one Bill Gates – heard of him? This operating system took the best features of the CP/M operating system but tweaked it ever so slightly to make it incompatible with Kildall’s offering. Gates, a smarter business man than Kildall, sold the rights to IBM for a paltry $50,000, reckoning, rightly as it turned out, that he could make much more by licensing it out to other computer manufacturers – the archetypal sprat to catch a mackerel.

Kildall threatened to sue but never did and was forced to develop another operating system, DR-DOS, to compete with what was his own system. It never made much traction and in 1991 Novell bought what was left of his company. Gates had pretty much the whole of the market sewn up and when Windows replaced DOS his place in history was secured. Kildall was relegated to a footnote, if that.

Worse was to follow. In 1994 Kildall walked into a bar in Monterey wearing a leather jacket with Harley-Davidson badges. There was a group of bikers in the gaff and an altercation. Kildall was pushed, fell to the floor and died from head-related injuries. The coroner reported that the death was suspicious but no one was held to account.

So, Gary, for developing the first PC operating system and failing to cash in on it, 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 Five

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Jerry Siegel (1914 – 1996) and Joe Shuster (1914 – 1992)

Up in the sky, look: It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman”. Superman is one of the most enduring superheroes to have appeared in American comics. The man from the planet Krypton wandered around Earth as Clark Kent on the look-out for possible trouble and adventure. The stories of his astonishing derring-do in the fight against evil have enchanted millions and filled the coffers of publishers and movie companies over decades. But who created him and did they get a sizeable share of the pie?

From around 1933 Messrs Siegel, a writer, and Shuster, an artist, had been developing the idea of a character who would turn out to be Superman. The story goes that Siegel’s father< Mitchell, died on 2nd June 1932 during a robbery staged at his second-hand clothes store in Cleveland. Although the coroner claimed that Siegel’s dad died of a heart attack, the police report indicated that gunshots were heard. In memory of his Dad Siegel created a character who was immune to bullets and would wage war against evil. Shuster was corralled to provide the artwork.

Coming up with an idea and selling it are two different things. The duo’s original idea was to sell it to a newspaper syndicate to be run as a cartoon strip with them retaining ownership and rights to the Kryptonite. Unfortunately, they were unable to find any takers. By now they were working for National Allied Publications and struck a deal in March 1938 with their successor company, Detective Comics, Inc. Under the terms of the contract the duo assigned all rights, goodwill and title to Superman to Detective Comics for the princely sum of $130.

Superman first appeared on the cover of Action Comics on 18th April 1938 and was an overnight sensation. Siegel travelled to New York to meet the co-owner of Detective Comics, Harry Donenfeld, in an attempt to renegotiate the ill-advised contract but was told to do one. The owners did throw the duo some scraps, offering them first refusal on any other creations they may come up with, allowing themselves a six-week window to make a decision. Siegel presented them with the idea of Superboy, stories of Superman’s childhood but encountered radio silence. True to form, Superboy appeared in More Fun Comics whilst Siegel was serving in the army, the script being largely based on Siegel’s script and using Shuster’s illustrations.

In 1948 the pair launched legal action to regain control of the characters and to get a “just share” of all the profits that had been made out of Superman. They failed to wrest control of the character but did get occasional slices of the action but not enough to transform their lives of penury. Their partial breakthrough came when DC Comics sold the film rights to Warner Brothers in 1975. Anxious to avoid any bad press which might have marred the launch of their block-buster movie in 1978 starring Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando et al, the film company agreed to pay the pair $20,000 a year and include their names on all credits on future Superman publications.

The story didn’t end there. In 1999, after Siegel had died, his family finally won rights to half of his creation. But that decision was immediately challenged and the only ones who have subsequently got rich out of the whole mess are the lawyers.

Siegel and Shuster, for giving the world Superman and giving him away for $130, you are worthy inductees 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 Four

Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel (1777 – 1826)

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For a musician time is important. You can dispense with melody or harmony but if rhythm goes out of the window then you are left with an unholy racket. That is why you see a conductor flailing their arms in front of a concert orchestra or a drummer preparing a solid foundation upon which the other players can build in a rock or jazz ensemble. When a musician is practising they will often deploy a metronome, a handy device which you can set to register so many beats per minute by way of audible clicks or ticks. Being mechanical it is unerring. Composers mark their scores with metronome settings to give the musos a clue as to the tempo at which to play the piece.

Of course, some bright spark must have come up with the idea of a musical metronome and this is where the latest inductee of our illustrious Hall of Fame, Lippstadt born Dietrich Winkel, comes in. He was not the first to develop a metronome – this honour goes to the Andalusian polymath, Abbas ibn Firnas (810 – 897 CE) who is said to have devised “some sort of metronome”. In 1696 Frenchman, Etienne Loulie, created the first mechanical metronome, using an adjustable pendulum. The problem with Loulie’s invention was that it did not make a sound and did not have a device – the technical term is an escapement – to keep the pendulum in motion. For a musician it was not much use.

Winkel who by 1812 had now settled in Amsterdam began experimenting with pendulums. His breakthrough came when he realised that by weighting a pendulum on both sides of a pivot it could beat a regular rhythm which was audible. It could be adapted to suit various tempi and was housed in the now familiar pyramid casing. Winkel donated his “musical chronometer” to the Hollansch Instituut van Wetenschappen on 27th November 1814. It was described and commended in the Journal of the Netherland Academy of Sciences the following year.

If Winkel thought by developing this machine he was on to a winner, he was gravely mistaken. He made the fatal mistake that earns him a place in our Hall of Fame of failing to patent his musical metronome. This opened the way for Johann Nepomuk Maetzel to initially try to buy the rights and title to Winkel’s metronome. When Winkel refused, Maelzel simply copied his machine, added a scale and applied, successfully, for a patent. He produced around 200 of his metronomes and sent them out to friends, composers and manufacturers of musical instruments for their comments and suggestions for modifications. One recipient was Ludwig van Beethoven who was much taken by the device and added metronome settings in his later scores.

Winkel sued Maetzel and won but by then the damage had been done. Although the courts acknowledged our hero as the true inventor of the metronome,, Maetzel had cornered the market. Even to this day the metronome is known as the Maetzel Metronome and the notation MM is used in score to denote the tempo at which a piece is to be played.

Winkel did achieve some fame of sorts by inventing the componium which was an automatic organ with two barrels which revolved automatically. The barrels took turns at playing a variation of a piece whilst the other randomly, by way of something resembling a roulette wheel, selected the next variation to play. The variations were almost limitless and it could play variations, “not only during years and ages, but during so immense a series of ages that though figures might be brought to express them, common language could not”. It wowed the crowds when it was displayed at an exposition in Paris in 1824.

Dietrich, for inventing the musical metronome and not getting the recognition you deserved, 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 Three

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Philo T Farnsworth (1906 – 1971)

Christmas has come and gone and many of us will have spent more time than we would care to admit slumped somnolently in front of a glowing rectangular box transmitting what passes for entertainment these days. Yes, the television. I had always assumed that John Logie Baird was the brains behind the gogglebox but recently I was alerted to the endeavours of Utah born scientist, Philo Farnsworth, the latest to be enrolled into our illustrious Hall of Fame.

Philo, who had already shown his mettle as a child by winning a national contest for inventing a tamper-proof lock, was an avid reader of science magazines.  He became interested in the concept of television and quickly deduced that the mechanical systems that were being suggested would be too slow to scan and assemble the many images required to put on a moving picture show. In a chemistry lesson at school he sketched out an idea for a vacuum tube that would revolutionise the TV, although no one realised it at the time. By the age of 16 he had worked out the basic outlines of a functioning electronic television.

In 1926 Philo raised some money to fund his work – $6,000 from private investors and $25,000 from Crocker First National Bank of San Francisco – and on 7th September 1927 made his first successful electronic television transmission, filing for a patent that year. Continuing to work on and perfect the equipment Farnsworth gave his first demonstration to the press in September 1928. But as you would come to expect with our inductees, trouble was just round the corner. His backers were keen to capitalise on their investment and entered into talks with RCA.

RCA sent their head of TV, Vladimir Zworykin, to review Farnsworth’s work. Zworykin was by no means an impartial assessor – after all, he was working on similar ideas for the American corporate – and concluded that whilst his receiver, the kinescope, was superior, Farnsworth’s video camera tube which dissected images and was essentially what he had sketched out in his science lesson a few years earlier was the bee’s knees. To buy him out RCA offered Farnsworth $100,000, an offer he rejected.

The 1930s saw Farnsworth embroiled in legal battles with RCA who claimed that his inventions were in violation of a patent filed earlier than his by Zworykin. The resources of RCA funded a series of actions, appeals and counter-appeals and it was not until 1939 that they agreed to pay Farnsworth $1m for his patents. The Second World War put a stop on TV production and by the time peace returned, Philo’s patents had expired in any case.

The decade of legal battles had taken its toll on Farnsworth’s health – he had a nervous breakdown in the late 1930s – but in 1947 his company Farnsworth Television produced its first TV set. The company, though, was unable to compete with the giants of the industry, particularly RCA, got into financial difficulties and was taken over by IT&T in 1949. Farnsworth was retained as vice president of research but the battle for primacy in the TV market was lost.

Worse was to follow. He moved back to Utah to continue research on technologies such as radar, infra-red telescopes and nuclear fusion but his company, Philo T Farnsworth Association went bankrupt in 1970. Philo then took to drink and died of pneumonia in Salt Lake City on 11th March 1971. It was only through the efforts of his wife, Pem, that Farnsworth’s part in the development of TV has been belatedly recognised, being inducted into the San Francisco Hall of Fame and the Television Academy of Fame.

Philo, for playing a major part in the development of TV and not profiting from it, 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 Two

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Joseph Hansom (1803 – 1882)

I was rereading one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories the other day. The protagonist rushed to the scene of the crime in a Hansom cab, the principal form of taxi in those days. It set me thinking about who designed the carriage and this led me to the unfortunate character that was Joseph Hansom whose ingenuity and ill-fortune earns him a place in our illustrious Hall of Fame.

Working as an estate manager at Caldecote Hall, near Nuneaton, Hansom came up with a revolutionary design for a safety cab. It could hold two passengers with the driver seated at the back, communication between the two parties being effected through a trapdoor in the roof. Its principal advantage over contemporary rivals was that it had a low centre of gravity – large wheels and a lower cab and suspended axle – which meant it was much more stable when cornering. Being light and capable of being drawn by only one horse – making it cheaper for the cabbie to operate – it was faster and more manoeuvrable than many of its rivals.

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Hansom applied for a patent on December 23rd 1834 and the first Hansom cab travelled down the Coventry Road in Hinckley in 1835. The design was a great success and Hansoms soon replaced the more expensive to run four-wheeled Hackney carriages as the vehicle of choice for hire. In its heyday there were up to 7,500 Hansoms plying their trade in London and they were to be seen in other major cities in the UK as well as Paris, Berlin, St Petersburg and New York. The last London Hansom driver handed his licence in as recently as 1947.

Although others, principally, John Chapman, made modifications to the design, mainly to improve passenger comfort, Hansom’s design stood the test of time. As the holder of the patent you would expect Joseph to have received a handsome reward for his ingenuity. Alas, he didn’t. He sold his patent for the cab to a company for the sum of £10,000. The company immediately got into financial difficulties and reneged on the payment leaving Hansom without a penny.

Throughout his life Hansom was dogged by ill-luck. Starting out as an architect – he designed over two hundred buildings including Plymouth Cathedral – he and his partner, Edward Welch, overcame stiff opposition to win the commission to design and build Birmingham Town Hall in 1831. It is a beautiful building with tall pillars and a Roman feel about it but costs soon spiralled out of control and as the architects had stood surety for the builders the edifice brought their company crashing down into bankruptcy.

In 1843 Hansom together with Alfred Bartholomew started an architectural journal called the Builder which is still going today, although it was renamed Building in 1966. Aimed at architects, builders and workmen it found a profitable niche but, as you might expect, Hansom didn’t share in the rewards. He had to relinquish his control over the journal because of lack of capital.

Whilst his name was immortalised in the cab that he designed – there is a blue plaque in his memory outside one of his former residences, 27, Sumner Place in South Kensington – he didn’t receive a bean for his ingenuity. It must have been particularly galling for him to summon a cab. For that reason, Joseph, 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