Category Archives: Science & Technology

Science Undusted: Prince Rupert Drops

Let’s talk about shattering glass. As one does.

Probably as far back as molten glass was first produced intentionally by man (i.e. not volcanic glass drops formed naturally, which are known as Pele’s tears) drips of molten glass fell into the glass blower’s water, kept nearby to cool the glass products in. Sometimes, these drops have particular strength, and these alone are true Prince Rupert Drops.

The English name is a classic example of who knew who, and who wrote the history books: The drops had been made Mecklenburg, northern Germany, since 1625, though some think they go back as far as the days of the Roman Empire; they were sold around Europe as toys or curiosities. In 1660, Prince Rupert brought some of them back to London as a gift for King Charles II, who then gave them to the Royal Society to investigate and attempt to reproduce. Thus, Rupert’s name has gone down in history – for bringing back a souvenir for the right person.

Their unusual strength comes from how they cool; when done right, they will come out shaped like a tadpole with a long, thin tail. The heads can be struck with a hammer or shot with a gun, and they will not shatter; but if the tail is knicked or disturbed, the entire drop shatters into glass dust instantly, from the tail down.

Not all drips of glass cooled in water produce Prince Rupert Drops, also known as Dutch tears, Prussian tears, or Batavian tears; the difference is their behaviour and is probably influenced by impurities or inclusions in the mineral composition of the material used. Higher quality glass produces pure Prince Rupert’s Drops; low quality may simply not have the tension created in the cooling process to be a shattering success. I have a drop of molten glass, found on a beach in the Scilly Isles (UK); it is the result of a shipwreck from around the 17th or 18th century, and the drop is full of the impurities of the orginal glassware plus black flecks of cinders from the burning ship. The tail was snapped off over time, yet the head survived – thus, it was not a Prince Rupert Drop.

For a cool video that explains the science behind the drops, including slow motion analysis of the shattering, just click on the image below; the video is from one of my favourite YouTube channels, Smarter Every Day. For further behind-the-scenes footage of another experiment that Destin did with these drops, click here.

Prince Rupert Drop

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10 Natural Phenomena

Whenever I have a few minutes in my schedule, I like to fill it with something interesting; if I’m eating lunch, I’m probably watching a documentary or a video about a particular topic. So I thought I’d toss together a shortlist of natural phenomena that are out there somewhere on our unique and diverse planet. Just click on the links below to learn more – the links will lead you to either a YouTube video or an article. So, here ‘goes!

  1. The Sahara Eye: Also known as the Richat Structure, it is a fascinating geological structure that’s best seen from lower orbit (located at 21.1269° N, 11.4016° W). Because of its concentric circular formations, there have been many claims that it was the fictional Atlantis of Plato’s writings. While the reasoning the supporters of that theory are interesting to me as a novelist, the scientific explanation is fairly straight forward.
  2. Spotted Lake, Canada: This lake has no run-off, which means that water flowing into the lake only leaves through evaporation. Divots in the lake have grown into spotted pools which attract various minerals as snow melt-water enters the lake. The Native tribes used these pools as therapy for physical ailments in a time before modern medicine, just like people in 18th century England went to Bath to drink and bathe in the mineral waters there. On Google Earth, its coordinates are 49°04’40.86″N 119°34’03.01″W; if you use the historical toggle, you’ll see the individual pools more clearly.
  3. Floating Eye Island, Argentina: This is a relatively new discovery from 2016, located at 34°15’07.8″S 58°49’47.4″W. It was discovered by Argentinian film director Sergio Neuspillerm, who was looking for a location to film a horror film and came across the Google map image of this unusual lake; because of his bent toward the purpose of this place, most “reports” have leaned toward the paranormal, and it was difficult to find a serious scientific report on the phenomenon. The actual interpretation is probably simply a combination of geology, botany and hydrodynamics: The lake produces methane gas, and if the floating island of debris and grasses growing atop the fertile strata get pushed around by methane bubbles rising, it will naturally knock off the rough edges of the floating patch and the land it bumps into, creating a circular “island”.
  4. Ice Discs: Similar to the Eye, these rotating discs of ice form in freezing water which is moving slowly; they usually form in eddy currents, where the accelerating water creates the effect called “rotation shear”, breaking off a chunk of ice and twisting it around; the process grinds off the rough edges, leaving a round disc of rotating ice. This disc grows as it cools the water around it and attracts more ice into its vortex.
  5. Sailing Stones, Death Valley, California: For years, people have observed the evidence of large boulders sliding across the surface of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park. The explanation may be relatively simple, but sometimes people just like a mystery.
  6. Fairy Rings/Pixie Rings: These are caused by the processes of the mycelium of fungi, as it spreads outward in a circle while looking for nutrients. Before scientific understanding came along, of course, these were thought to be portals to the magical realms of pixies or fairies and were convenient scapegoats for anything bad happening in a nearby town or village.
  7. Since we’re on the topic of circles, what about the Namibian Fairy Circles? There are conflicting hypotheses about their origins, but the most recent study has discovered that beneath the bare circular patches of earth, distributed evenly over some 1100 miles of the Namib Desert, are colonies of termites. They eat the roots of the plants growing above their territory, removing the competition for the limited rainfall and allowing the water to go directly into the soil above their colony. It’s a complex ecosystem, but scientists are slowly beginning to understand it. In the meantime, the locals just call them the “footprints of the gods”.
  8. Blood Falls, Antarctica: A waterfall in Antarctica flows blood red, caused by the iron-rich waters hitting oxygen and turning to rust. The symbiosis of microbes living in that subterranean water source is the stuff good science fiction is made of.
  9. The Everlasting Storm: Catatumbo Lightning Storm, Venezuela: This lightning storm occurs during 140-160 nights per year, and lightning flashes up to 280 times per hour. Located over the mouth of the Catatumbo River as it empties into Lake Maracaibo, it has become so famous and so persistent that it is even featured in the flag and coat of arms of Zulia, the state which contains the lake, and is mentioned in the national anthem of Venezuela.
  10. Red Crab Migration, Christmas Island: Christmas Island is an Australian external territory in the Indian Ocean, and on this 135 sq km (52 sq mi) patch live literally millions of red land crabs, found only on this island. To spawn, the females make their way down to the beach at high tide to release their eggs into the ocean – at the risk of drowning, as they are not aquatic. The eggs will hatch, and the tiny crabs will eventually return to the island. During this mass migration, the island slows down and makes way for the red river flowing over its streets, stairs, and anything else between the crabs and their goal.
Christmas Island Crab Migration

Baby crabs returning to Christmas Island

 

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The Salt of the Matter

Recently I was looking into the matter of salt (as one does). Salt is a mineral made mostly of sodium chloride, and in its crystalline state is also known as rock salt or halite. It is essential for life in general, is present in our oceans, and is one of our five basic tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, umami and salty). As a spice, it is the oldest in the world; gathered along dried seashores from evaporated tidal pools, hunter-gatherers soon learned to value it.  Even as far back as 6000 BC, intentional salt production (by boiling or evaporating seawater) was around.  Since ancient times, it has been used as a seasoning, a preservative (whether air-drying in salt or through the brining process), a disinfectant, a unit of exchange, and ceremonial uses. Newborn babies were rubbed with salt to disinfect them (see Ezekiel 16:4 as an example of this ancient practice).

The word brings quite a few things to mind, from culinary to military to spiritual:  One speaks of seasoned soldiers – those who’ve seen action and have learned how to respond rightly in a crisis.  Roman soldiers were given an allowance for the purchase of salt; it’s where we get the word salary (salarius – Latin, pertaining to salt), and worth one’s salt is thought to come from that concept of the Roman soldier’s payment. The phrase above salt, referring to someone high in rank or honour, came from the seating position that a person would be invited to take at a dinner party – the salt being placed in the middle of the long dining table; the more honoured a guest, the closer they sat to the host at the head of the table, above salt (used as far back as AD 1200 in that context).

Salt preserves and adds flavour by bringing out the full bouquet of flavour within the thing it’s added to.  It enhances a sweet melon or a savoury slice of meat.  Seasoned just right, even a lowly carrot or potato can become an explosion of taste.  In Colossians 4:6, the apostle Paul uses this culinary metaphor:  “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”  Applying the qualities of salt to our speech, let it always be full of good taste, preserving the honour of those with and about whom we speak, bringing out their potential, enhancing them.  Such speech is applicable in every situation; such a reply is never wrong.  How we say something is at least as important as what we say; that’s the salt of the matter.  Salt was also used by ancient armies to symbolically curse the fields of a conquered area (it is erroneously thought that the salt was sown to make the land unproductive, but it would take a prohibitive amount of salt to accomplish that, so it’s logically rather a symbolic than literal salting).

Salt also gives us several more idioms than those mentioned above:

  • To take something with a grain of salt – from Modern Latin, cum grano salis. It means not to believe something at face value, or take something completely seriously.
  • (To go) back to the salt mines – (To go) back to work
  • To rub salt in (someone’s) wound – To make someone’s problem or bad situation worse
  • Salt of the earth – a good, honest, upright person
  • To salt (something) away – To save money or other item for another time or purpose
  • Salty dog – An experienced sailor (nickname due to the salinity of the sea)

Today, most countries have a wide variety of salt available: The typical salt in western societies is called “table salt”, and it has been iodized with iodine since 1924, to correct the deficiency of iodine in the average diet. The deficiency can lead to thyroid problems in adults and cretinism in children. Another mineral sometimes added is fluoride, to prevent tooth decay. The additives vary from country to country, which may also add to the variety and regional differences in taste.

Salts

The variety of salts found in my own kitchen

Sea Salt is just that – from the sea, including traces of algae, salt-resistant bacteria and also sediment impurities.

Bamboo Salt (Jukyeom) is prepared by roasting salt in a bamboo container plugged with mud at both ends; it absorbs minerals from the bamboo and the mud, which in turn adds a distinct flavour to the salt.

Celtic Sea Salt, also known as grey salt (from French, sel gris), is harvested by raking salt crystals off of the bottom of tidal pools along the coast of France. It’s got a distinctive briny flavour.

Fluer de Sel (Flower salt), is another tidal salt from France, but its crystals are paper-thin flakes taken from the water’s surface. Because of the labour-intensive harvesting, it’s known as the “caviar of salts” as it is the most expensive salt on the market (1 pound of salt can be $20). Any salt harvested from the water’s surface creates flakes, so there are less expensive varieties available.

Kosher, or kitchen, salt is coarse-grained and non-iodized and used for things like cooking or pretzel-making.

Pickling salt has a very fine grain to speed up the dissolving process in cooking or brining.

Gourmet salts often have other spices or elements added or infused into the salt grains.

Kala namak (Nepalese for black salt) is a Himalayan salt that’s been packed into a container with charcoal, herbs, seeds and bark, then fired in a furnace for a full day before it’s cooled, stored and aged. This process gives it a distinctive reddish-black colour, a pungent, salty taste and the faint sulphurous aroma of eggs, which lends vegan dishes the taste of egg.

Pink Himalayan Salt is rock salt mined in the Salt Range mountains of the Punjab region of Pakistan, and the colour comes from trace impurities found in the soil, ranging from transparent to beet-red. It is comparable to table salt in taste, though it lacks the health benefits of the latter. This salt is especially popular as it is erroneously purported to have special health benefits for everything from reducing ageing, clearing up sinus problems, to increasing bone strength and even more dangerous presumptions – a modern-day snake oil medicine. It is fine as a supplement to, but not a replacement of, our salt intake.

Hawaiian Black Lava Salt is a sea salt harvested from the volcanic islands of Hawaii, and it gets its deep, black colour from the additive of activated charcoal. Alaea Salt is an unrefined red Hawaiian salt; its colour comes from the reddish, iron-rich volcanic clay called alaea, and it adds a robust flavour.

Persian Blue Diamond Salt is extracted from salt mines in the Semman province of ancient Persia (now Iran). Mineral deposits add small flecks of blue to some of the crystals, giving it its name.

Smoked Salt is slow-smoked up to two weeks over a wood fire of hickory, mesquite, apple, oak or alder wood, and it adds a smoky flavour to dishes.

Cyprus Black Lava Salt comes from the Mediterranean Sea. These crystals are formed through natural evaporation; mixed with activated charcoal, the grains look like miniature pieces of charcoal and have a very mild salt flavour.

Red Wine Salt comes from France (where else?); I have one called Fleur de Merlot. It is a coarse-grained salt mixed with wine and then allowed to evaporate, infusing the salt grains with a dark red wine flavour. It goes well with robust flavours with which you might serve Merlot wine.

New Zealand Lake Grassmere Salt: Seawater from the deep is brought to seaside ponds surrounding Lake Grassmere in New Zealand, and at the end of the summer, salt crusts are lifted from the bottom of the ponds.

In some cultures, salt is not a staple condiment, replaced instead by high-sodium ingredients that fulfil the function of salt: Soy sauce, fish sauce, or oyster sauce, to name a few. I cook a variety of dishes, and all of these have their place in my kitchen; you can’t cook an authentic-tasting Asian meal without them.

There are probably thousands of types of salt in the world; each one has its own distinct colours and flavours due to the mineral deposits that seep into the water before or during the evaporation process, or because of additives such as wine, crushed tequila worms, rosebuds or herbs.

Because salt is used as a preservative, many processed foods include it. Over-consumption of salt can lead to health problems – just think of a salt-brined fish, and apply that principle to your organs to get an idea of what happens. I use processed foods sparingly – mainly things I cannot process myself, such as canned tuna. Be aware also of the amount of salt included in spice mixtures; it is hidden in most pre-made items (unless sugar is used as the preservative – but that’s another story). The best way to control your salt intake in a day is to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and make things like spice mixtures and batters from scratch – that way you’ll know exactly what you’re putting into your body!

The next time you reach for the salt, pause a moment and consider where it came from: It could be from the ocean or from a salt mine deep in the earth; it could be from a tidal pool bottom or top or the scum of a pond. It could have intentional additives or random mineral impurities that add to its flavour. Even the humble salt crystal, when seen under a microscope (below), takes on a grandeur that has the thumbprints of a grand Designer.

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Calligram #2: Ammonite

When in Lugano on holidays, we’ve gone occasionally to the Meride Fossil Museum, which houses fossils found in the Monte San Giorgio geological layers. High in the mountains, sea creatures’ fossils are found, which is an amazing fact when you realize that the nearest ocean is hundreds of kilometers away today, and the deposits are 480 metres above modern sea level. To visualize the information, I made a calligram of an ammonite; see if you can spot my name and date of creation in the image. Click on the picture to enlarge. Enjoy!

 

DSCN0866

[As always, if you are interested in using this elsewhere, please ask my permission, and give credit where credit is due (i.e. link to my blog and all that…) Thank you!]

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History Undusted: New Year’s Day

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year VintageOn such a day more than any other time of the year, one tends to think of time. Time has been personified through Father Time for centuries, with the New Year usually being a baby. But what we assume is a universal start of a new year actually isn’t. By the Julian calendar, today is 19 December 2018; by the Gregorian, 1 January 2019.

Perhaps it would help to review the Julian and the Gregorian calendars:

The Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC as a reformation of the Roman calendar, which had months of 29 or 31 days (except February, which must have confused even the contemporaries of the system – it had 28 days or 23 or 24 some years). The Julian calendar has been gradually increasing in discrepancy to the Gregorian calendar, which means that currently, it is 13 days behind. It is still used today by the Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, and the North African Berbers.

The Gregorian calendar was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in October 1582. The corrections spaced leap years to a set rule, making the average year 365.2425 days long. The rule is that every year exactly divisible by 4 is a leap year except those exactly divisible by 100; of the years divisible by 100, if it is exactly divisible by 400, it is a leap year. For example, the year 2000 was exactly divisible by 400, so it was a leap year; 1900 was not, so it wasn’t a leap year (it is exactly divisible by 100 but not 400).

Even though the Gregorian calendar is the only one most westerners have grown up using, it is not the only calendar in use – not by a long shot. There are many religion-related calendars, so some people grow up with 2 calendars (Ethiopian Coptics, Hebrews, and Chinese, to name a few). Added to the confusion is the civil interpretation of the leap year day of 29 February: If you were born on 29 February, in China your birthday in common years would be 28 February but in Hong Kong, it would be 1 March.

When the Gregorian calendar was introduced, imagine the confusion it must have led to (as it was not implemented everywhere at once): Pope Gregory XIII had no authority beyond the Catholic Church and the Papal States of the time, yet he was proposing changes to the civil calendar; this required adoption by the governing rulers of every individual country to have legal effect. It meant that, for the countries which adopted it, they had to have dual dates for clarity with neighbouring states and for their own people who were still adjusting to the fact that they’d just lost nearly 2 weeks. Other countries made a gradual transition, which must have confused things even more; for instance, Scotland adopted 1 January as the beginning of their New Year (previously, around 25 March) in 1600 (making 1599 a very short year), but didn’t switch to the Gregorian calendar until 1752, whereas the rest of the United Kingdom made both switches in 1752, meaning that for 152 years, Scotland’s dates were out of sync with their neighbouring countries.

So the next time you wish someone a Happy New Year, remember the privilege of sharing a mutual understanding of the same date with that friend. Even in our global village, it’s not something we can take for granted!

New Year 2019

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History Undusted: Celebrating Amalie Noether

The celebration of this relatively unknown figure highlights her brilliance in the face of staunch sexism.  As a woman, I still feel sexism today, though it’s far more subtle – the glass ceilings still need to be broken through, and the duplicity of definition needs to be redressed (name any male characteristic, and often the negative reverse is applied to women, whether stated or subconscious; e.g. a man may be assertive, but if a woman shows the same spirit, she’s often labelled as aggressive). Though they paved the way for a better path for many women, Amalie and her female contemporaries faced brick ceilings and walls.

Born in 1882 in Erlangen, Germany, Amalie was born into a family of brilliant mathematicians, yet had to beg to be allowed to study at University; when she aced her audited courses, they only reluctantly acknowledged her achievements. She was an unpaid, unsung heroine for years, yet Einstein himself referred to her as “the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced.”  To read more about her story, and details of her scientific breakthroughs, please click on the image below.

 

Amalie Noether, Mathmatician

Amalie Noether  (Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

 

 

Originally posted on History Undusted, 23 March 2015, by Stephanie Huesler

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Snapshots in History: The Bulletproof Vest

Bulletproof Vests

Talk about trust!

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The Art of Diatom Microscopy

 

John Quekett.jpg

John Quekett

Recently, I came across an interesting piece of history:  During the Victorian Age, people were fascinated with nature, excursions, and technology.  Microscopes were becoming accessible to the rising middle classes of England, and one man, John Quekett, was fascinated by both microscopes and phytoplankton. He wrote a book called Practical Treastise on the Use of the Microscope, which was a hit among the Victorians, and they began discovering a hidden world of tiny creatures known as plankton and diatoms.

 

Plankton is what makes the ocean waters green, or aqua-blue – the differences are not only the sand or rock colour of a particular region, but also the density of microscopic life in the water. The denser the population, the lower the visibility. A teaspoon of seawater can contain a million living creatures. Regardless of their size, they underpin the marine foodchain, and indeed, all life on earth: Diatoms, which is the most common type of plankton, number in the trillions (there are over 100,000 known species to date), produce more than 20% of all oxygen on earth, and contribute nearly half of the organic life in the oceans. The shells of dead diatoms can cover the ocean bed as deep as half a mile in places, and they fertilize the Amazon basin to a tune of 27 million tons annually.

The Victorians knew very little of all that; they were at the dawn of discovery, and modern sciences owe a lot to those early intrepid explorers – women and men who braved the weather, cliffs and oceans in (heavy skirts and) leather shoes to discover, explore, and appreciate nature.  Not only did they discover it, but they began making beautiful arrangements from the various shapes – they would display their microscopic artwork to friends, much like we might look through someone’s holiday photos today.  These were known as Rosette Slides, and there is still one famous artist keeping this art form alive today: Klaus Kemp, known as the Diatomist. Here are just a few of his masterpieces; to see more, just google his name. The two links in this article will take you to two short videos on the topic.  Enjoy!

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History Undusted: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks, Immortal HeLa CellsIf you’ve ever taken any medication stronger than an aspirin and benefited from it, chances are that you owe your thanks to an African American woman who never lived to hear your tale.

Born in 1920 as Loretta Pleasant, when her mother died giving birth to her 10th child and the father could not support the family, the children were divided among relatives to be raised.  Loretta, who became known as Henrietta, was sent to live with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks, who lived in a two-storey log cabin (former slave quarters) on the tobacco plantation of her white great-grandfather.  After having five children with her first cousin, whom she married after their first two children were born, she died at the age of 31 of cervix cancer.

What is most remarkable about her life is something she never knew:  During the diagnosis of her cancer, done at Johns Hopkins (the only hospital near her home that would treat black patients), her doctor, George Gey, was given samples of her cervix for biopsies. Before this time, any cells cultured from other cells would die within days.  Dr Gey discovered that her cells were remarkably durable and prolific.  A selection of her cells was isolated and cultured (without her knowledge – back then, permission wasn’t necessary for what was considered tissue waste) into the immortal cell line that became known as HeLa Cells; they are still in use today worldwide, being the first human cells to be cloned successfully, in 1955.

HeLa cells are so prolific that if they land in a petri dish, they will take over; they have been used to create the vaccine against Polio, in research for AIDS, gene mapping, cancers and countless other projects; to date, scientists have grown over 50 million metric tonnes of her cells*, and there are nearly 11,000 patents involving these cells.  Her name should be known, and as the godmother of biotechnology, her history deserves to be undusted!

For a fascinating book on this topic, see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. I’ve read it, and had trouble putting it down!

*For a more detailed article in the New York Times, click here.

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Upgrades & Technostalgia

Computer UpgradeThere’s no denying the fact that computers are huge blessings – combined with that little invention called “internet” they’re an unstoppable pair… until they stop, and life comes to a screeching halt.

That happened last week, as our main office computer gave up the ghost, after fighting a long, painful demise.  My own laptop, from which I write, has been limping and is in need of repair, but it was our only lifeline to ordering a replacement… done, and three days later, the packages arrived!  I’ve spent the better hours of 5 days sorting out things like transfer of emails and contact lists, programmes, updates, software and hardware setups, and patch-jobs to get old programmes to understand the new ones and vice-versa!

Instead of the “old fashioned” desktop computer with a huge processor that either stands on the floor and collects cat hairs and dust bunnies or stands on our desk and collects dust bunnies and cat hairs, we decided to go with a laptop hooked up to a docking station and two screens.  Sweet!  And yes, I can use both… it’s great when I’ve got research documents open while writing, or doing translations or editing two documents simultaneously.  Now, to get my laptop repaired.

It’s amazing how we’ve become so dependent on computers, isn’t’ it?  Personal computers didn’t really begin to enter households in any significant way until around 1990; technically, they hit the market in the early ’80’s, but the products were mostly limited to electronics geeks and university libraries.  We got our first home computer in 1993, and it had RAM of a whopping 256 MB!!  How could anyone ever use THAT much??  Now we’ve passed Gigabytes, and we’re into terabytes (TB, 10004 ), and it won’t be long until we’re into petabytes (PB, 10005), exabytes (EB, 10006 ), zettabytes (ZB, 10007) and yottabytes (YB, 10008).  I remember writing business letters in DOS – back before Windows, virtual desktops or virtual wallpaper had even been dreamt of.  I remember floppy discs – the latest in technology, now used as drink coasters somewhere in the world, I’m sure.  5-inch floppy discs became passé with the advent of (gasp!) 2-inch version… how could anything that small have so much space on it (1.44 MB).  Imagine – back in the advent of computers, there was no Microsoft, no Amazon, no internet, no cloud storage, no dropbox, no websites, no Skype… they were essentially an information processor, with transfer of information only possible through a floppy disc or good ol’ fashioned printouts and photocopies (we won’t even go into the whole issue of the love-hate relationship most secretaries had with the first few generations of photocopiers).

Do you remember cassette tapes?  Polaroid cameras?  Now music is on a cloud or virtual shelf, and selfies and Instagram have made physical print photos nearly obsolete, except as an art form.

20 years later and these things all fit in your pocketMobile Phone History

 

These images show how far we’ve come in less than 40 years.  But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  Check out these up-and-coming products or concepts that are in the making:  Just hover your cursor over each image for more information.

 

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