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.
The Wrong Computer
James E. Strothman’s article “The Ancient History of System/360” (Winter 1990) incorrectly identifies the computer about which IBM’s chairman, Thomas J. Watson, Jr., wrote his famous memo citing its design and development by “34 people including the janitor.” The computer Watson was referring to was the CDC 6600, produced by Seymour Cray at Control Data Corporation in 1965. And it was not designed to compete directly with the 360 but rather was focused on scientific computing needs.
By the 1870s, much of shoe manufacturing was performed by machine. One intricate operation continued to defy mechanization: lasting, or fastening the upper part of a shoe to the inner sole. Shoes took on their final appearance while being shaped by hand over a wooden model of a foot called a last, and much manipulation was required to accurately form the leather around the last, especially at the heel and toe.
Early in 1924, 34-year-old Edwin Armstrong returned to Columbia University, the scene 11 years earlier of his breakthrough invention of the regenerative circuit, while only a sophomore. His device had amplified radio waves a thousandfold and made radio practical. This time he had set his sights on eliminating static from radio, a problem most felt was insoluble. “Static, like the poor, will always be with us,” declared the chief engineer of AT&T.
In 1900 the United States Weather Bureau hired 34-year-old electrical engineer Reginald Fessenden to develop a wireless system that could distribute forecasts and relay meteorological data. The Canadian-born inventor, a protégé of Thomas Edison, former consultant for Westinghouse, and professor at Purdue and Western universities, moved his family to Spartan accommodations at the Weather Bureau station at Cobb Island, Maryland, 60 miles southeast of Washington, D.C., in the Potomac River.
In early 1945 Laurence Marshall contemplated the imminent financial ruin of his company. Raytheon had enjoyed a lucrative business supplying the U.S. military with magnetrons, electron tubes that generated microwaves, a key component in the nascent technology of radar and the detection of enemy airplanes. But World War II seemed likely to end soon, and with it Raytheon’s lucrative military contracts. Raytheon needed to come up with something it could sell to civilians.
Serial doodler, drafter, and brainstormer, New Hampshire–born Earl S. Tupper was an inventor obsessed with improving everyday household objects. His rough sketches, scrawled with a fountain pen over rapidly yellowing notebook paper, include an eyebrow shield to allow more precise penciling; adjustable glasses; hairpins that wouldn’t fall out; and garter hooks that remained fastened. “My purpose in life [is] to take each thing as I find it and . . . see how I can improve it,” he wrote.
Before 1930, refrigerators were not only bulky and expensive but extremely dangerous. Chemicals used as refrigerants—ammonia, methyl chloride, and sulfur dioxide—were not only toxic but highly combustible. In 1929 a leak in a methyl chloride refrigeration system caused an explosion that killed more than 100 people in a Cleveland hospital. It was no wonder that consumers preferred their old iceboxes. That would all change in 1930 with the invention of Freon by a General Motors researcher.
Look at a sixteenth-century merchant or tax collector as he appears in the paintings of artists like Quentin Massys and Marinus van Roemerswaele. Not only the man’s costume but also the tools of his trade are unfamiliar.
He works with two kinds of information: loose documents on shelves, or perhaps hanging from bands, and bound volumes of entered transactions. Absent are filing cabinets, loose-leaf binders, card indexes, and rotary card files. We take these and other commonplace devices for granted—or rather we consider them survivals of the world before word processing.
My great-uncle, George S. Morison, one of America’s foremost bridge builders, died July 1, 1903, exactly (as he undoubtedly would have said) six years, five months, fourteen days, and six hours before I was born. What follows begins with some incidental intelligence that has nothing to do with his work; these, listed in no order of relative importance, are just some of the things I know about him:
THE DISAPPEARING RECORD: A few years after the last American troops left Vietnam in 1973, the Pentagon turned over a big batch of microfilm, more than one hundred rolls, to the National Archives. The film carried every enemy document captured by U.S. forces during the war—a spectacular trove of information for some future historian, and most of it not existing in any other form. But no historian now would dare approach that file, because the automated, coded index to the three million random images cannot be read by any instrument known to still exist today.