Tag Archives: Discoveries

One-Sentence Stories

One of the most challenging things as a writer is to remain succinct; “every word counts” needs to be printed on the back of my hands whether I’m working on a book manuscript, writing to a friend, or answering grammar questions on a forum I lead.  Occasional ramblings are far more acceptable than chronic ones; everyone has a friend, acquaintance or family member who rambles (or – you know who you are!):  I have a neighbour near our building who can turn the reply to a simple, “How are you?” into a 45-minute explanation of how her cousin’s frog’s nephew’s classmate’s teacher’s son’s uncle came by with a blue – or was it green?  You know the kind of green that looks like wilting grass, no, that’s too yellow… by the time she takes a breath she’s gone down so many detours I have NO idea what she’s talking about, or even what the original question was.  Needless to say, when I’m on a deadline I politely avoid that side of the house.

I’ve come across a website that would be a literal impossibility for that neighbour, and would even be a challenge for many of us who consider ourselves to personify the phrase, “brevity is the soul of wit”:  Click on the image below to see “One Sentence – True Stories Told in One Sentence”.  Take the challenge – can you write a story in one sentence?  And take inspiration from the site as well; there are some great starter-sentences there that could be expanded upon to make a short story, or even a novel.

Note:  Since this was originally posted, the site at the link below has gone offline.  Instead, just go to Google and search for “one-sentence stories“, and you’ll come across several great options.

That One Sentence

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Filed under Links to External Articles, Nuts & Bolts, Research, Writing Exercise

How To Boost Your Focus

I’m probably the most organised person I know; I’m not OCD about it, I just work better when things are organised.  Writing a book means that I accumulate bits and pieces of information, research facts, website links, editing tips, formatting guidelines, historical trivia that I can integrate into my plot (but only if I can find it when I get there), maps, diagrams, lists of names in various languages, grammar points to remember (I’ve made up a word for “points to remember” – poitrems – you heard it here first), How-To cheat-sheets for PhotoShop, publication checklists (pre- and post-), Shelfari to-dos, and… need I continue?  I’m just getting started.  And that’s my point.  If I’m not organised, I’ll waste half my day looking for something… where did I put that note about the dimensions of a modern casket?  Was it hot arsenic or cyanide that smells like garlic?  Are blue diamonds more valuable than pure white?  What kind of micro-organism poops arsenic?  A friend of mine complimented me one day when I told her some of the things I was researching; she said, “You’re just weird.”  And it’s something my husband repeats fondly on a regular basis.

So, I’d like to share a few of my organisational tips with you:

1)  Know thyself.  Know your weaknesses (You know, those distractions, procrastination excuses, time-eating habits like “just checking into Facebook for a minute before I sit down to write” and an hour later you’re hungry, then you see that the kitchen needs cleaning… you know who you are.).  Recognize those time-wasters, and nip them in the bud before they mushroom into a day wasted.  Keep your cell phone at a safe distance; wear earplugs if you need to; turn on music if it helps you focus, turn it off if it distracts you.  Write down points to research and only dive into research when you have 5 items on the list (and stay away from time-monster sites like Facebook and Youtube while you’re working!)

Character Profile Worksheet 12)  Find a system that works for you.  I organise my notes, etc. in various ways:  I have pocket-sized Moleskin books for quick reference character profiles, lists of words, family trees of characters, etc.; I also have lined notebooks with those heavy-duty post-it tabs labelling the sections (that are well-spaced apart for future additions); I write the section names on the front and back of those tabs so that I can find it from either way the notebook lands on my desk.  For instance, one notebook I always have at hand has sections like publications, pre- & post- publication to-dos, paperback formatting checklist, KDP guidelines, CreateSpace guidelines, grammar, PhotoShop Elements helps, editing checklists, proofing checklists, Beta checklists, and step-by-step guides for various publication formats.  Another notebook I keep on hand has things like time-related notes (Julian calendar terms, Ages [Stone Age = ~6,000-2,000 BC], etc.), medical notes (that’s where I put that note about modern casket dimensions), glossaries for archaeological terms, 18th century England notes, lists of museum curators’ names, phone numbers and emails, etc.  Besides notebooks, I keep “cards” – here’s an example (to the right):  I type up the information in PowerPoint, then save each “card” to .jpg format through MS Paint.  These cards are then saved onto my Tab through Dropbox, and Bob’s your uncle, I’ve got them handy whether I’m writing on the couch, on holiday, or in a café.

Pomodoro Time Management Tips3) Learn to focus.  I’ve recently found a great way to focus better through those hours of the day and night when I know I’m going to be most distracted:  It’s called Focus Booster.  It’s basically a timer on your desktop that counts down time increments, with an additional break-time at the end of each cycle.  The standard unit of time is 25/5, though you can adjust it to your rhythm.  The thinking is that anyone can focus on a given task for 25 minutes, even those who struggle with ADD.  In using it, I’ve realized how often I get distracted by a thought that comes into my mind while writing and I get up to do something quickly.  This way, I stay working for a solid amount of time, and use that 5 minutes to switch gears and get other things done; it’s amazing how much you can get accomplished in 30 minutes.  I’d encourage you to download it and give it a try if you struggle with concentration.  Here’s a second card I’ve made with the basic principles for the Booster.

Those are just a few ideas; if you struggle with a specific area, or would like suggestions on dealing with specific challenges in focusing, just ask away!  Focus well, and your writing will flow so much more smoothly and swiftly.

 

 

 

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Writing to Distraction!

Squirrel_DugIf you’re a writer you know exactly what that title means.  Working on a project usually requires research; I don’t know what I’d do without internet connection, honestly – I’m too busy to take a day and plough through the local library, and as my local library consists of 99.9% German books anyway it’s not very helpful for writing English novels.  I have an extensive library here at home, and my research section is better equipped than the public library… but I digress.  Sometimes distractions come at you from every side; I feel like those dogs in “Up”… Squirrel!

And that’s the point.  Let’s say I go to YouTube for research:  It’s a great place to find out how to do just about anything, from how to throw a keris dagger and the aerodynamic difference between the wavy and the straight blade; how to make a vase out of a plastic bottle; how to make yarn from plastic bags; how to make an emergency stove out of a coke can or a light bulb out of a PET bottle with water, and the list goes on and on and on and on.  There are also hundreds of documentaries available on YouTube, from entertainment like the Horrible Histories series, to astronomy, science, history, you name it.  But if you’re like me you are interested in all of the above; and like Pringles, it’s hard to watch just one.  When I need a change of pace I also like to watch things on YouTube like the Actor’s Studio series, or talk show interviews (and we don’t have English-language television channels, which is actually fine by me – we use our television for sports programs and DVDs – but I digress.  Again.).  And YouTube is just one resource.  I have dozens of links to glossaries, websites that specialize in various aspects of history, science, technology, historical fashions, linguistics, etymology or other areas of interest, reference and research.

An important rule in dealing with online information is to have it confirmed by legitimate sources before using it, for instance, as a basis for anything substantial in a novel or other work of literature.  That rule has led me more than once to buying a book online.  In researching for The Price of Freedom and Redemption, I was especially frustrated with online research in the area of accurate apparel:  1788 was a world of difference in England to 1790, as the French Revolution changed fashion sensibilities in England – people distanced themselves from France, and patriotic influences as well as English fashion designers and trend setters came into their own more because of the vacuum.  But most online research that I came across either had the 18th century all lumped into one style, or “1700 to 1750” and “the latter half of the 18th century” which meant “French Revolution and thereafter” nine times out of ten.  Dubious at best, that.  Not even contemporary paintings are an accurate reference, as many of the “new middlings” had their clothing, and even background houses and gardens, “augmented” (read “upgraded”) for their paintings to add elegance to their new money.  And often, when I search for “18th century” I come across sites that actually mean the 1800s (that is, the 19th century).  My definitive source of information on that topic has become “The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England.”

So in trying to find one tiny little detail for fleshing out a scene, one can spend hours surfing, reading, searching, scanning and getting distracted by something else interesting along the way.  Yesterday I spent hours trying to find online PDFs or text of any kind from actual October 1789 The Times (London) newspaper (I’d have been satisfied with any month of that year!), just to find out what topics were being written about in the newspaper at the time aside from the Revolution.  What were the gossip columns writing about?  What kind of advertisements were there?  What were things considered newsworthy in that newspaper that year?  So far, Research – zilch, Time Spent – 3+ hours.  I looked at archives.com, Google images… nothing.  If anyone knows a resource for that, please let me know!! (If you think it would be impossible to find such old bits and pieces online in the cyber age, think again; I’ve found all kinds of documents far older that have been digitalized; someone out there is interested in it besides me, and chances are, someone has uploaded it into cyberspace; it’s just a matter of finding it in the static of cutesy videos and brainless teenage selfies…)

It can be so easy, and so enticing, to “waste” hours researching.  I try to follow two rules, and perhaps they’ll help you save time as well:

1)  Set a time limit for research.  When I need a break from the manuscript, but I don’t want to stray too far, I look at the clock and set myself one hour to find something on my research list.

2)  Make that research list; as you’re writing, keep a list somewhere (I have an e-post-it on my desktop) of things you’ll need to research, and do it all at once or in organized chunks.  It helps keep you focused on the manuscript, and makes the time you spend both on and off the actual script more efficient.

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The Future in the Past

I love keeping up with the latest technologies, scientific developments, astronomical discoveries and the like; it informs my novel-writing and plot development.  But what did our present look like in the past (if one could say that)?  What did past generations look forward and envision for our time?  How much of it was humorously inaccurate, and how much of it could be inspiration still?  For a glimpse into the minds of the past, click on the photo below.

Future Guess, 1920s

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A great resource: The King of Random

If you’re a writer like me, you like keeping your eyes and ears open for interesting websites, information, random bits that can inspire and inform your writing.  I just came across a great little gem on You Tube, the channel of Grant Thompson, the King of Random.  He has, well, random videos, including scientific experiments, life-hacks, how-tos and a lot more.  Need to know how to make fire with water?  Check.  Need to know how to fold a napkin to look like a shirt, or flower, or boat?  Check?  How to cut an apple to look like a swan?  Check.  Check him out by clicking on the photo below!

King of Random

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5 Inspiring Gadgets

Once in a while I like to go surfing… internet, that is.  I like to search for inspiring images, whether people, architecture, Hi-Tech, transportation, or whatever floats my boat.  I come across them through a wide range of sites, and I’ve collected them for so long that I have no idea where some of them are from, but I hope that they will inspire you to go surfing, and find them on the original sites, read the articles, and be amazed, awed, or just dumb-founded.  So without further ado, here are a few gadgets:

1:  Airless tires.  How cool is that?!

Airless Tires

2: Blood-powered tattoo display.  It’s perhaps just a matter of time.  I wonder what all of those people will do who are already covered with tattoos? “Oops, lost the phone again… I know it’s on my arm somewhere…”

blood-powered-tattoo-display-gadget

3: Insect Spy Drone.  Whether or not it’s really in production by the US government, it’s either a frightening thought, or inspiring for Sci-Fi writers… either way, feel free to swat mosquitoes, even if they’re multi-million dollar ones.

Insect Spy drones

4:  The Skin Gun was developed by Jörg C. Gerlach and colleagues at Stem Cell Systems GmbH in Berlin.  It replicates the healthy skin of burn victims, injecting it straight onto the burn area to grow new skin, avoiding skin-graft rejections.

The Skin Gun, developed by Jörg C. Gerlach at Stem Cell Systems GmbH in Berlin

5:  Duluth, GA-based global systems integrations firm Polytron – transparent cell phone.  I know a lot of teenagers who already have enough trouble keeping track of where they saw their phone last.  Now make it invisible… that’s either a fun prank, or just mean.  Either way, it’s cool.

Duluth, GA-based global systems integrations firm Polytron - transparent cell phone

 

 

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Of Books & Diamonds

The old adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” may seem dated in this computer age, and it’s certainly not what marketing gurus who earn bucks on book cover layout and sales want you to believe; but here’s a story that proves that adage in spades!  Just remember, diamonds start off as coal under a lot of pressure.  Click on the image below for the story:

homeless man with a computer

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Families of Complete Strangers

Photographer Richard Renaldi has a unique way of posing humanity, and something unique happens along the way:  Complete strangers discover that feeling of family, even if only for a moment.  They’ll never look at strangers the same way again.  Click on the image below to see for yourself.

Complete Strangers - Richard Renaldi

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Accidental Discoveries in History: HOUSEHOLD PRODUCTS

Household Inventions

Household Inventions

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Marcel Proust

Most inventions are the results of exploration, experimentation, blood, sweat and tears, and lots of sleepless nights.  But there are some moments of serendipity, those “Hmm.  That’s strange…” discoveries that are not lightly tossed aside but seen for their potential.  It’s taking the lemons life has thrown their way, tossing in a wet rag and a few copper and zinc coins, and coming up with a battery.

Here’s a line-up of a few of those wet rag-tossers of household products:

Teflon

Who: Roy Plunkett, young chemist for DuPont.

When: 1938

Why:  He was trying to make a new kind of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the hot new thing in refrigeration science.  He filled a pressurized gas can with a concoction of TFE gas and hydrochloric acid (don’t try this at home, kids); he cooled it and put it away until he was ready to use it.  When he opened the canister, it was empty except for strange, slippery white flakes at the bottom; it turned out to be resistant to extreme heat, and chemicals.  It was first used by the military in the Manhattan Project, and then the automotive industry.  Nearly 30 years later it had finally come home, literally:  Non-stick cookware.

The Microwave

Who: Percy Spencer, American Engineer on a snack break.

When: 1945

Why: His snack break put him in the wrong place at the right time.  He was a leading scientist during World War II, and at work in the Raytheon company labs, he was inspecting a magnetron and noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket melted.  I’m sure his wife appreciated that more fully when she next did laundry.  Others had noticed that phenomenon but hadn’t investigated any further; but it got Percy thinking, and after a few more experiments (and yes, popcorn and exploding eggs were involved), the first microwave oven was born.  But like early computers, it was big and impractical for home use.  By 1967 more compact versions began invading American homes, and the rest is history.

Velcro

Who: Georges de Mestral, Swiss Engineer on a hike.

When: 1948

Why: Out with his dog on a hiking trip in 1941, he noticed burrs clinging to his trousers and his dog’s fur; on closer inspection he saw that the burr’s hooks clung to anything loop-shaped.  But even after he’d perfected his invention (named Velcro as a combination of the French terms velours, “velvet,” and “crochet”), it took years for it to… well, stick.  It was not fashionable-looking enough for the fashion industry to take seriously; its first big break was for the aerospace program for spacesuits, and then eventually skiers saw a similarity in potential on skiing outfits, and it stuck from then on out.  And now kids don’t know what to do with shoe laces.

Silly Putty

Who: James Wright, General Electric Scientist

When: 1943

Why: For the war effort, he was working on a cheaper alternative to rubber when he mixed boric acid and silicon oil (which one does, obviously).  It didn’t work as rubber, but they had a blast stretching and bouncing it, and the silly idea for putty was discovered.  And lucrative.

Slinky

Who: Richard James, Naval Engineer

When: 1943; on shelves since November 1945.

Why:  During World War II, Richard James was working on the development of fine springs to keep ships’ sensitive instruments from bouncing around on rough seas.  He accidentally knocked one off of the desk, and watched as it “stepped” over a few obstacles and ended by righting and recoiling itself on the floor.  By experimenting to find the right steel, he set up a company, along with his wife; it only hit success after setting up a demonstration on an inclined plane in the Gimbles Department Store in Philadelphia; they sold their entire stock of 400 within 90 minutes, and the rest is history.

Play Doh

Who: Noah McVicker’s nephew, Joe McViker

When: 1930s as its original purpose; reinvented as a modelling clay in the late 1940s.

Why:  Originally invented by Noah McViker as a wallpaper cleaner at a time when most homes burned coal, making it necessary to clean regularly; but after the war America switched to natural gas heating, and the company faced bankruptcy.  Joe McViker discovered that children were using the substance to make Christmas ornaments, and he got the bright idea to re-market it as modelling clay.

Post-it notes

Who: Dr. Spencer Silver, working in the 3M research laboratories.

When: 1968

Why: Trying to invent a super-strong adhesive, he failed, but tried unsuccessfully for five years to promote it within the company as “low-tack,” reusable pressure-sensitive adhesive.  In 1974 Art Fry, his colleague, got the idea to use it in his hymnbook, and then began developing the concept, releasing it in 1977-78.  The original yellow colour was simply because the lab next door to the Post-It team only had yellow scrap paper to try it on.

Cellophane

Who: Jacques Brandenberger, Swiss Textile Engineer.

When: Inspiration – 1900; Product release – 1908

Why:  Seated in a restaurant, he noticed a customer spill a bottle of wine onto the tablecloth.  Convinced he could discover a way to apply a clear, waterproofing film to such a tablecloth, he began to experiment, eventually applying liquid viscose to the cloth.  But the cloth became too stiff and brittle, and the experiment failed.  Or did it?  He noticed that the coating peeled off in a transparent film that might actually have other uses.  By 1908 he’d developed a machine to produce sheets of the stuff, and marketed it as Cellophane.

Band-Aids

Who: Earle Dickson, American cotton buyer for the Johnson & Johnson company.

When: 1921

Why:  His wife Josephine was always cutting herself in the kitchen while preparing food.  He noticed that the present solution, gauze wrapped until adhesive tape, soon fell off her active fingers; he decided to invent something that would stay in place and protect minor wounds better.  He took a piece of gauze, stuck it in the centre of a piece of tape, and then covered it with crinoline to keep it sterile.  His boss James Johnson saw the invention and, to his credit, not only manufactured the product for the public but made Earle Dickson Vice-President.

Superglue

Who: Harry Coover, a chemist at Eastman Kodak during World War II.

When: 1942

Why:  Head of a team trying to find a clear plastic to use to make transparent gun sights, one of their unsuccessful attempts stuck to everything it touched; the chemical compound of cyanoacrylate was discovered, and promptly disregarded as a failure.  In 1951 he rediscovered it and this time recognized the commercial value of it, and it went to market in 1958.

Matches

Who: John Walker, British pharmacist.

When: 1826

Why: While stirring a mix of chemicals with a stick, he noticed a dried lump on the end of the stick, and tried to scrape it off.  Spark and flame.  He recognized the significance, and marketed the first matches as “Friction Lights,” selling them at his pharmacy, making the first sticks out of cardboard but soon replacing them with 3-inch long, hand-cut wooden splints, packaged in a box with a piece of sandpaper for striking.  Unwisely, he decided not to patent his invention because he considered it a benefit to mankind; thus it didn’t take long for others to rip off his idea and take over the market, leading him to stop his own production.

Safety glass

Who: Édouard Bénédictus, French artist and chemist.

When: 1909

Why:  In his lab he once dropped a glass flask; it broke but didn’t shatter, and he realized that the interior was coated with plastic cellulose nitrate, holding the broken pieces together.  Shattering glass was, until that moment, one of the biggest dangers in a car accident.  And it remained a danger, as manufacturers rejected his idea to keep their own costs down.  But his glass coating became standard issue for gas mask lenses in World War 1; with its success on the battlefield, the automobile industry finally caved in to the demand for safety and by the 1930s most cars were fitted with glass that didn’t shatter upon impact.

Vaseline

Who: Robert Chesebrough, oilfield worker.

When: 1859

Why:  Working on an oilfield in Pennsylvania, he noticed that the oil workers complained about something they called “Rod wax” forming on and gumming up their drilling equipment; the only redeeming factor as far as they were concerned was that it seemed to speed up the healing of small cuts and burns.  Interested, he took a sample back to his lab in Brooklyn.  Eventually he was able to isolate the substance from ordinary petroleum, and began wounding himself to test it; it worked wonders.  The name Vaseline comes from “Wasser” (German for water) and Elaion (Greek for oil).

Blue Jeans

Who: Jacob Davis (-Youphes)

When: ca. 1869

Why:  In 1868, Latvian immigrant Jacob Youphes moved his tailor shop from New York City and Maine to Reno, Nevada, and began making, among other things, tents and horse blankets from sturdy cotton fabric, with rivets for added strength.  In the late 1870s a woman asked him for a pair of cheap trousers for a large husband who had the habit of going through trousers rather quickly.  He decided to try his hand at trousers made from the material (which he’d been buying through a dry goods salesman, Levi Strauss, in San Francisco); when they were a success, he wrote to Strauss and suggested they partner on a patent.  Since Davis’ name did not appear on the actual product, his connection is little-known, Levi Strauss more often than not being credited with the innovation.

The cloths we know as denim and jeans has a long pedigree:  Jeans material was first created in Genoa, Italy; their sailors used it to protect their goods from the weather, and the cloth was exported throughout Europe.  In the French city of Nimes they attempted to reproduce the fabric they got from Gênes (the French name for Genoa), but instead discovered a different twill, which became known as Denim (literally, “de Nimes”, of Nimes).

Nylon

Who: Wallace Carothers, Julian Hill, and other researchers for the DuPont Company

When: 1930

Why: They were studying chains of molecules called polymers in an attempt to find a substitute for silk; pulling a heated rod from a beaker containing alcohol- and carbon-based molecules, the mixture stretched and, at room temperature, had a silky texture. This work culminated in the production of nylon marking the beginning of a new era in synthetic fibres.

Modern Dry-Cleaning

Who: Jean-Baptiste Jolly

When: Mid-19th century

Why: From ancient times, Romans used ammonia (obtained from urine) with Fuller’s earth to clean their clothes; so glad times have changed.  Early modern dry-cleaning was discovered by the French dye-works owner, Jean-Baptiste Jolly in the mid-19th century, when his maid spilled kerosene onto a tablecloth.  The next day it was clean, and from this idea was born the idea for cleaning people’s clothes as a business.

WD-40

Who: Norm Larsen, founder of the Rocket Chemical Company, in San Diego, California.

When: 1953; commercially available in 1958.

Why:  Mr. Larsen set out to find a formula to prevent corrosion on nuclear missiles; the 40th attempt at Water Displacement, primarily composed of hydrocarbons, was successful.  Since then fans of the product have found over 2,000 uses for it, which can be viewed here.  The product is not patented to avoid revealing the exact contents, so no one knows exactly what it is made of.

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Accidental Discoveries in History: SCIENCE / TECHNOLOGY

Ideas & Accidental Discoveries

Accidental Discoveries

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” (On inventing the light bulb)

Thomas A. Edison

Most inventions are the results of exploration, experimentation, blood, sweat and tears, and lots of sleepless nights.  But there are some moments of serendipity, those “Hmm.  That’s strange…” discoveries that are not lightly tossed aside but seen for their potential.  It’s taking the lemons life has thrown their way, tossing in a wet rag and a few copper and zinc coins, and coming up with a battery.

Here’s a line-up of a few of those wet rag-tossers of science and technological discoveries:

Radioactivity

Who: Henri Becquerel, French physicist and Nobel laureate.

When: 1896

Why: A bad spate of cloudy days.  He’d been working with naturally fluorescent minerals (in this case a uranium rock), to see if they’d produce x-rays if left out in the sun.  It was winter, and when a week of clouds moved in he wrapped up his equipment and stuck it in a drawer to wait for a sunny day.  You really don’t want to hear, “Oops” and “radioactive” in the same sentence, but that’s what he eventually realised he’d discovered:  When he came back to his bundle, he found that the rock had imprinted itself onto the x-ray plate without having been exposed to sunlight.  Marie & Pierre Curie eventually put a name to the “oops.”

Plastic

Who: Leo Hendrik Baekeland, Belgian chemist with more than 50 patents to his name.

When: 1907

Why: He was actually looking for a substitute for shellac, which was expensive and made from Asian beetles.  His experiments produced a mouldable material that could withstand high temperatures without distorting, and he called it “Bakelite.”  It soon became clear that it had countless uses, and now we wonder what on earth some things were made out of before he came along.

Vulcanized Rubber

Who:  Charles Goodyear

When: 1839

Why:  He’d spend years trying to find ways to make rubber easier to work with, while still being resistant to heat and cold.  One day he accidentally spilled a mixture of rubber, sulphur and lead onto a hot stove (I hate it when that happens).  In this case charred on the stove turned out to be a good thing, because it wasn’t ruined – it was vulcanized rubber.  Unfortunately, like many inventors, he wasn’t very good with money; he died $200,000 in debt. He didn’t even live to see the famous company named after him, as it took his name nearly 40 years after his death.

Smart Dust

Who: Jamie Link, Chemistry graduate working on her doctorate at the University of Californian, San Diego.

When: 2003

Why:  One of the silicon chips she was working on burst; but she discovered that the tiny bits still functions as sensors.  Among other things, they can be used to monitor the purity in water, detect airborne biological hazards, and even locate tumour cells in the human body.  In this case, homework blowing up in her face wasn’t a bad thing.

The Big Bang

Who: Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias, radio astronomers

When: 1964

Why: While working with the Holmdel antenna in New Jersey, they noticed a confusing background noise.  After eliminating the obvious and the not-so obvious, they realized that it must be cosmic microwave radiation leftovers from a universe-forming explosion (that’s just what I thought).  Oddly enough, just 37 miles up the road, Robert Dicke and his team had also been working on the theory (which had been around for decades, by the way) and searching for that background noise; when he heard of their discovery his comment was, “Well boys, we’ve been scooped.”  He wasn’t the one that won the Nobel Prize.  Incidentally, the term “Big Bang” was coined during a 1949 radio broadcast to highlight the difference between the two scientific models of “steady state” and “expanding state” cosmology.

Dynamite

Who: Alfred Nobel, Swedish Chemist and Engineer.  Yes, the same one the Nobel Peace Prize is named after.

When: 1867

Why: Trying (and failing several times) to stabilize Nitro-glycerine, an explosive liquid.  In 1864 his own brother and several others were killed in an explosion in Stockholm, and some think it pushed him even more to find a way to transport it safely.  Once while transporting the substance, he noticed that one of the cans leaked into the packing material, a sedimentary rock called Kieselguhr.  He explored the possibility of the mixture as a stabilizer, and patented his discovery as Dynamite.  It revolutionized building and mining, saving untold lives from accidental explosions.

Text messaging

Who: Developed in the Franco-German GSM cooperation in 1984 by Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghillebaert.

When: 1984

Why:  Originally written into technical standard specs for mobile phones across Europe, the script enabled telecom engineers testing the system to send short messages back and forth between themselves to help manage the networks; but consumers got wind of that “Short Message Service” (SMS), and have been digressing in spelling and syntax ever since.

Stainless Steel

Who: Harry Brearly, English metallurgist for an arms manufacturer.

When: 1912

Why:  Given the task to develop a non-rusty gun barrel, Harry began testing his creation with various corrosives, including lemon juice; he realized that it would be great for cutlery (not to mention thousands of other uses that have since been discovered).  But really, he owes credit to a Frenchman from 1821, who first recognized the iron chromium alloys’ resistance to corrosion; at the time however, the manufacturing of it was not within their technical grasp.

Modern Fingerprinting

Who: Researchers at the US Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory in Japan.

When: 1982

Why:  They had cracked a fish tank, and patched it together again with superglue (cyanoacrylate).  They noticed that the fumes from the glue had condensed on oils in fingerprints on the glass, making them clearly visible.  It is now an important tool in forensic science.

Fireworks

Who: A Chinese cook, according to legend

When: 2,000 years ago.

Why: They were accidentally invented by a cook who mixed together charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter — all items commonly found in kitchens in those days apparently. The mixture burned and when compressed in a bamboo tube, exploded. I wonder if he survived to tell the tale.

Phonograph

Who: Thomas Edison, credited with the first successful phonograph that both recorded and reproduced sound.

When: 1877

Why:  There were several men in the throes of developing devices similar to a phonograph, but had either not been successful, had limited success, or had not even made it past the basic concept phase.  In the summer of 1877 Thomas Edison was tinkering with a paper cylinder and a piece of tinfoil that would record telegraph signals; his was not an accidental invention as much as it was an educated – very educated – guess of trial and error.  He knew the principles of various concepts, and put them together like puzzle pieces until he got the results he felt could be possible – recording and playing back the human voice.  Think how amazed he would be to know we don’t even need such devices anymore, it a completely digital age… we use satellites in space to chat half way around the world, real-time.

Ink Jet Printer

Who: Ichiro Endo, Engineer at Canon.

When: August 1957

Why:  The Canon engineer discovered the principle, as the story goes, when he set a hot soldering iron next to his pen; it reacted by spitting out ink just moments later, and the principle behind the ink jet printer was born.

Gun Powder

Who: Chinese alchemists

When: 9th century

Why: Ironically, they were trying to create an elixir of immortality; we can only assume that the discoverers failed; let us hope their first attempt didn’t turn out to be their last.  Ingredients are saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur, realgar (arsenic sulphide).  The first use of gunpowder was in Chinese fireworks; but typically human, it didn’t take long for a good thing to be abused and shortly thereafter it was being used in crude cannons and exploding weapons. ‘Fire rockets’ were made by capping bamboo reeds, filling them with gunpowder and bits of metal, and then lit and shot from a bow; you could say that they were the first solid-fuel rockets.

Phosphorous

Who: Henning Brand, German scientist

When: 1669

Why: For some odd reason, Brand decided to store 50 buckets of his urine in his cellar for a few months in the hopes that they might turn into buckets of gold.  It may seem odd to us; but urine has long been used in manufacturing; it was used to wash hair before shampoos were invented, and was used in various products, including clothing dyes, during the Industrial Revolution.  Strangely it didn’t work; but after letting the urine stand until it was purified, he then boiled down the liquid until he was left with a paste. He then heated this paste to very high temperatures and ended up with phosphorus. Of course.  That’s what you do with that much urine, apparently.

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