THE PLACE DIDN'T LOOK like a cutting-edge research laboratory. The work benches in the little room at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, were cluttered with oscilloscopes and other gear for testing electronics, circuit boards, computer workstations, drills, files, miscellaneous bits of wire, and other gear reminiscent of a hobbyist's well-equipped workshop.
Well before his inauguration, with a recession gripping the country, President-elect Barack Obama proposed plans for a massive federal stimulus package centered on a public works program. “We will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s,” he said.
A typical flight instructor in 1917 would point to the instruments in a cockpit and tell his students to “pay no attention to them.” In aviation’s early days, pilots flew by the “seat of their pants.” They trusted their eyes and gut feelings, even though doing so sometimes killed them, especially when vertigo set in at night or during bad weather. Such loss of equilibrium was considered part of the business, a rite of passage that fliers just had to handle.
Glenn Curtiss made his name as an aviator, but he started out his career as a record-setting motorcyclist, reaching the mind-boggling and joint-rattling speed of 136 miles per hour in 1907. Later that year he joined Alexander Graham Bell and three other members of the Aerial Experiment Association to help create ailerons, hinged wing flaps that enable airplanes to bank and turn. Curtiss went on to make America’s first exhibition flight, win the first international air-speed prize at Reims, France, in 1909, and design the first practical seaplane.
While numerous NASA technologies have found applications outside the aerospace industry, many products long associated with NASA actually came to the space agency fully developed from the consumer and commercial worlds. Test your NASA spinoff literacy below.
It all started nine decades ago, when a college kid began sketching on a scrap of stationery with a pencil and pen. Although the lines are clumsy and the hand that drew them untrained, the image is immediately recognizable as the device found in every American shoe store.
“Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?” radioed astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr. impatiently from atop his Redstone rocket at Launch Complex 5, Cape Canaveral, Florida. The 37-year-old Navy test pilot from Derry, New Hampshire, had endured weeks of launch delays, and now a series of weather and mechanical problems that morning of May 5, 1961.
I remember the dark, crisp air of that early October morning in 1957 as I sleepily followed my father up a hill near our house. The sky was a ceiling of bright stars and the dewy grass soaked my pajama legs.
What do a NASA spacecraft that studied the sun and a fluid that protects vinyl records have in common?
More than you might think.
On January 17, 1994, Los Angeles became transfixed by the saga of Salvador Peña, a hitherto unknown immigrant father of five. Early that morning, Peña had been steering a motorized street sweeper around the first floor of a three-story parking garage at the Northridge Fashion Center mall when ground waves from a 6.7-magnitude earthquake broke the building apart, leaving him critically injured and in excruciating pain beneath two layers of concrete slabs and beams, pinned by his crumpled vehicle near a pool of gasoline.
AT ABOUT 10:30 ON AN otherwise uneventful morning, August 15, 1940, radar operators sitting in the cramped wooden huts studded every 20 miles along the southern and eastern coasts of England were startled to see their electronic equipment suddenly go haywire. Above each but loomed a skeletal pair of 300-foot steel towers with several transmitting antennae strung between them, accompanied by a second set, of wood measuring about 200 feet, that bore a series of crossed receiving antennae.
HAD YOU BEEN IN THE neighborhood of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base sometime in the early 1980s, you might have caught a glimpse of an unconventional aircraft cutting the crystal blue Mojave Desert skies. It was bizarre even by local standards—which is saying something, in a place that for decades has seen the fledgling flights of the world’s most advanced planes.
At two o’clock on a November day in 1848, Congressman Abraham Lincoln walked down from his second-floor law office to the main square in Springfield, Illinois, an 18-inch model of a flatboat under his arm. With the help of a local mechanic, he had built and modified the boat to include large air chambers on each side. He had been working for weeks on this rather original “device to buoy vessels over shoals,” and was now prepared to demonstrate it to a few local townsmen in a large horse trough on the street corner.
The idea of implementing large infrastructure projects has begun to replace the quick fix as a means of revitalizing an economy under duress.
It was a sad day when publication of American Heritage’s Invention & Technology magazine ceased last year. I am pleased to report that we completed an agreement this April to acquire and resurrect I&T —the only popular magazine dedicated to the history of technology. I pledge to you that all subscriptions will be honored—and that we will continue to give you the wonderful magazine that you’ve come to know and love.
On a spring day two decades ago, I joined Nat C. Wyeth for lunch in the posh Brandywine Room of Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, Delaware. A soft-spoken man in his mid-70s, Wyeth was a giant in the chemical industry for inventing the first recyclable plastic bottle for liquids under pressure out of PET, a polymer resin. As we sat down, I noticed that the white-haired DuPont chemist seemed to bask in the artwork that adorned the room’s oak-paneled walls—and I soon understood why.
On my commute home from St. Paul to the western suburbs of the Twin Cities, a little before 6 p.m. on August 1 last year, I neared the 40-year-old I-35W bridge. Construction work had blocked half the lanes and choked it with traffic, so I passed by and took a different bridge over the Mississippi. Fifteen minutes later a truss-supported section near the southern end of I-35W failed, causing a chain reaction that brought down 1,200 linear feet of bridge and sent 100 vehicles crashing into the river. Thirteen people died.