By now, in the second decade of the 21st century, even pointing out the cliché has itself become a cliché. Namely, the frustrated tongue-in-cheek query favored by stand-up comics, science fiction geeks, social commentators, and technology critics: where’s my flying car? Which is generally followed by yet another tired old chestnut: the observation that the question has come to symbolize some failure of technological optimism, scientific advancement, or the supposed predictive powers of science fiction.
Fifth Avenue is the parade route for St. Patrick’s Day; three blocks to the east is Park Avenue. Many honorary Irishmen arrive from points east on that day, so police usually block motor traffic from a stretch of Park Avenue north of Grand Central Terminal. To a person waiting to meet friends at the corner of East 47th and Park, this looks like a fine stretch of midtown Manhattan, where the breadth of the avenue gives it a more spacious feel. There is a parkway with a grassy margin separating the streets, and glossy buildings with shops that front on the wide sidewalks.
Innovation is a hot topic in our editorial offices, only in part because we run a magazine devoted to it. "There's a way to do it better-find it," Thomas Edison once said-a notion that defines
so much of our working lives. Every day we devise more efficient systems, come up with fresh ideas, and create new opportunities. What circumstances, environments, and particular factors spawn creativity and bring breakthroughs?
In perhaps the most famous scene of any Bond film, secret agent 007 lies strapped to a table with his legs spread. Archvillain Auric Goldfinger directs an industrial laser toward Bond’s manhood, and slowly the thick red beam surgically cuts the table in half. The secret agent calmly convinces his foe to shut off the laser in the nick of time.
In the mid-1960s Don Bitzer, the director of the Coordinated Science Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, was tasked with creating the first computer-based instructional system. He recognized immediately that current screen technology would support such a program. A new, brighter display was needed, one that had no flicker and boasted higher contrast than what was then available on screens using cathode ray tubes.
From Ducts To Dresses
THAT WAS AN EXCELLENT article on the substance that fixes anything and everything, duct tape (“Object Lessons,” by Curt Wohleber, Summer 2003). A student in my heat-transfer class last spring semester made a book bag entirely out of the tape, complete with pockets for a calculator and pencils. I found it a classic example of the innovative spirit. Here is a picture.
HENRY FORD WAS INDEED A GREAT IN novator (“Henry Ford’s Big Flaw,” by John M. Staudenmaier, S.J.), but I question that those are “6000-horsepower gas-turbine engines in the powerhouse” shown on page 38 of the Fall 1994 issue. The prime movers driving the dynamos appear to be cross-compound Corliss steam engines. Gas turbines didn’t become available for industrial use until well after World War II.
During World War II, South Carolina–born Charles Townes worked on nascent microwave technology and designed radar-based bombing systems for Bell Labs. After hostilities ended, he accepted a position at Columbia University. One spring morning in 1951 he experienced a eureka moment when he realized he could generate microwaves with molecules instead of free electrons.
On December 23, 1947, in the Bell Telephone Laboratories at Murray Hill, New Jersey, physicists John Bardeen and Walter Brattain spoke over the world’s first transistor-amplified telephone circuit, a quarter-inch-tall device composed of a thin strip of gold foil sliced in two in order to create two metal contacts over a crystal of germanium. Their success was the culmination of eight years of research conducted alongside their team leader, 37-year old William B. Shockley, and triggered a wave of new electronics.
One morning in April 1938, 27-year-old DuPont chemist Roy J. Plunkett cracked open the valve of a pressurized canister containing tetrafluoroethylene (TFE) gas in preparation for an experiment. Much to his irritation, the canister that he had filled the night before appeared to be empty. His assignment had been to find a replacement for the refrigerant Freon 114, on which Frigidaire currently held a monopoly. To conduct his scheduled experiment that morning, he needed to release some TFE into a heated chamber and then spray in hydrochloric acid.
Disillusioned by his bitter rivalry with Thomas Edison over the invention of the incandescent lightbulb, 41-year-old Maine-born inventor Hiram Stevens Maxim sailed for England in 1881, never to return to the United States. Aware that his career in electrical engineering had ended, Maxim became consumed with creating an automatic gun, inspired by the casual remark of an American friend, who said, “Hang your chemistry and electricity! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater facility.”
Just after World War II ended, Stephanie Louise Kwolek tucked her new chemistry degree from the Carnegie Institute of Technology under her arm and—because she couldn’t afford medical school—took a research job at DuPont’s textile fibers department in Buffalo. Although she faced many challenges as one of the few women in chemical research, she liked the work so much that she soon dropped her plans to become a doctor. Two decades later she would invent Kevlar, one of the world’s most versatile materials, and along with it a new branch of polymer chemistry.
In the late 1930s Barry Green, a research chemist at the National Cash Register Company in Dayton, began investigating how the concept of microencapsulation might have potential application in copying documents. If specks of dye could be covered with a special fusible coating, forming a microcapsule, the use of ink could prove much less messy and more efficient. Scientists had long been intrigued by the possibilities of controlling the release of an active ingredient by encapsulating it.
In 1933 the 68-year-old inventor Niels Christensen finally tackled a problem that had bothered him throughout his long career in hydraulics. His elegant and simple solution—the O-ring—would become such a ubiquitous part of so many technologies that it is present by the dozens in every home and car, and applied to everything from fountain pens and soap dispensers to hydraulic presses and bomb-bay doors.
Sometime in the 20th century, public perception of the American inventor converged with the image of a mad scientist into a wild-eyed caricature of a raving lunatic, steam pouring from his ears, hair askew, slide rules or calculators falling out of his pockets: Albert Einstein too brilliantly distracted to put on socks; Thomas Edison curled up exhausted on his desk in his lab coat and shoes; or the unforgettable " Doc" Brown muttering under his breath as he fiddled with the DeLorean's flux capacitor in the Back to the Future film trilogy.
From Steam To Diesel
Having been involved in the dieselization of U.S. railroads, I found Maury Klein’s article “The Diesel Revolution” (Winter 1991) very interesting. His reference to engine men gradually coming to appreciate the vastly improved working conditions of diesel is almost an understatement. On one major road that completely dieselized, a sudden traffic surge required reactivation of a few steam locomotives.
At the age of 24, Polish-born mechanical engineer Tadeusz Sendzimir found himself in Shanghai, China, after escaping his homeland to avoid the draft for World War I. In 1918 he opened China’s first nail and screw factory, using jury-rigged drill presses. He spent his spare time walking along Shanghai’s canals and riverfronts, visiting machine shops and scrap iron dealers. He’d bargain in pidgin English with the shop’s assistant while the owner snoozed peacefully in the back, clutching an opium pipe.
Sometime in 1894, while his Great Lakes steamer W. P. Thew lay tied to a Cuyahoga River wharf in northeast Ohio, 48-year-old Capt. Richard P. Thew, failed farmer and hardware salesman, observed a railroad steam shovel take one clumsy scoop of ore after another from the heap on the wood docks and dump them into a hopper car sitting on nearby railroad tracks. He noticed that the shovel bucket’s teeth gouged the dock’s timbers and left much of the ore behind.