The DeLorean DMC-12 sports car was later used as the time machine in Back to the Future.
The DeLorean Motor Company was founded by engineer and automobile executive John DeLorean in 1975. The prototype DeLorean Safety Vehicle was completed in October 1976 with initial investment from celebrities including Johnny Carson and Sammy Davies Jr. Meanwhile DeLorean secured significant financial incentives from the Northern Ireland Development Agency to build the manufacturing plant in Dunmurry, a suburb of Belfast, in an attempt to cut unemployment and curb sectarian violence.
The factory was built in 1978 with production of the car scheduled to begin the following year. Subsequent engineering delays and budget overruns meant that work on the first units didn’t actually begin until 1981. Built by an enthusiastic but largely inexperienced workforce, the first of the distinctively shaped DeLorean DMC-12s was completed on 21 January. Fitted with gull-wing doors and finished with stainless-steel body panels, the car’s appearance was expected to be a unique selling point.
However, by the time the first cars were available a recession had hit the United States that had a devastating effect on new car sales. Combined with mediocre reviews and customer complaints about the quality of the finished vehicles, it’s reported that at least half of the 7,000 cars produced by February 1982 had not been sold.
Although the company limped on for a few more months, the DeLorean Motor Company went bankrupt shortly after its owner was charged by the U.S. government with trafficking cocaine. Although he was later acquitted, DeLorean’s reputation was irreparably damaged.
The first aerial crossing of the English Channel was conducted by Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries in a gas-filled balloon.
Born to a peasant family in Normandy, Blanchard fled to Paris as a teenager. Here he developed an interest in science and, following the Montgolfier brothers’ successful flight of a hot air balloon in 1783, turned his attention to the new craze. On 2 March the following year Blanchard made his first successful flight at the Champs de Mars in Paris using a hydrogen-filled balloon.
Desperate to achieve fame and fortune, Blanchard moved to London in August 1784 where the population had not yet become caught up in ‘balloonomania’. Blanchard quickly convinced a group of financiers to support him and, alongside the wealthy Dr John Jeffries, Blanchard planned the first aerial crossing of the Channel.
Having provided the necessary funds, Jeffries insisted that he should accompany Blanchard on the flight from Dover to Calais. Unwilling to share the certain fame Blanchard concealed lead weights in his clothes in an attempt to persuade Jeffries that the balloon would be too heavy to carry both of them, but the American discovered the deception and was able to take his place on board.
Soon after departing England, the pair were forced to throw out their ballast and cargo. This included a propeller and a set of oars with which they had hoped to ‘row’ through the air. Barely skimming the tops of the waves, they later urinated over the side in an attempt to reduce the weight before opting to discard their clothes. When they touched down in a forest near Calais, they were wearing nothing but their underwear and the cork life jackets that they had brought in case they crashed into the sea.
Although numerous suspension bridges had been built prior to the Brooklyn Bridge, nothing came close to the almost 1,600 foot span across the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan. German immigrant John Augustus Roebling was attracted to the challenge after he developed a system to stabilise large span bridges using a steel web truss down each side. He was appointed chief engineer but, six months before construction began, died of a tetanus infection after a boat crushed his toes while he was surveying the site.
Roebling’s son Washington took over the project but he too suffered a terrible injury while inspecting the foundations. In order to secure a stable foundation for the towers of the bridge, large watertight timber caissons were sunk to the river bed. These enormous upside down boxes were filled with compressed air to keep out the water, and men known as sandhogs then entered to dig away the sediment until they reached bedrock.
The compressed air inside the caissons gave the workers terrible headaches but, more dangerously, dissolved high levels of gases into their bloodstream. Exiting the caisson caused these gases to expand, leading to incredible pain, paralysis, and even death. Washington Roebling himself was struck down with ‘caisson disease’, now better known as ‘the bends’, and was confined to his home for much of the bridge’s construction. His wife, Emily, took over many of his duties and successfully oversaw the completion of the project.
The bridge was officially opened on May 24, 1883, 13 years after construction began. The total cost was over $15 million, more than twice the original estimate, but well over a century later it still remains a vital link for New Yorkers.
Röntgen was experimenting with vacuum tubes at the University of Würzburg when he discovered the new ‘invisible light’ on 8 November 1895. Although his lab notes were burned after his death in 1923, Röntgen’s biographers describe him noticing a faint glow from a screen covered in fluorescent material about a metre away from his apparatus. This was despite the vacuum tube itself being covered with black cardboard that stopped all visible light.
Having reasoned that the tube itself must be giving off these invisible rays, Röntgen conducted a series of experiments over the next few weeks in which he found that they could pass through certain objects but not others. Due to his uncertainty over the exact nature of the new rays, he adopted the mathematical designation ‘X’ to reflect their mysterious nature.
As his experiments continued, Röntgen began to notice that the rays were able to penetrate the soft tissues in his body but were stopped by bone. After subsequently replacing the fluorescent screen with a photographic plate he made the first ever X-ray image clearly showing the bones of his wife Bertha’s hand and her wedding ring. On seeing the image she is said to have remarked, ‘I have seen my death.’
Röntgen published the paper “On a New Kind Of Rays” on 28 December 1895, and news of his discovery spread quickly. Within a year X-rays were being used as far away as the United States as both a diagnostic tool and for treating cancers. Röntgen refused to take out a patent on X-rays in order to allow the entire world to benefit from them but was awarded the first ever Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901.
French aristocrat Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat set the world’s first officially recognised land speed record.
Chasseloup-Laubat’s older brother, the 5th Marquis of Chasseloup-Laubat, was one of the first members of the Automobile Club de France and bought an electric car from the French manufacturer Jeantaud sometime around 1893. The younger sibling was immediately fascinated with the chain-driven vehicle, and he became his brother’s driver.
The first recorded motoring competition took place in 1894 and saw a range of vehicles undertake the route from Paris to Rouen. Focus turned to the raw speed of a vehicle a few years later when the French automobile magazine La France Automobile organised a competition in the commune of Acheres in the Yvelines department in north-central France. Situated less than 15 miles outside Paris, the long straight road on the outskirts of the village was deemed the perfect place to conduct a time trial. As a keen advocate of the electric car, Chasseloup-Laubat took the Jeantaud along to compete.
The day was cold and wet, but this didn’t stop Chasseloup-Laubat from completing a single flying 1 kilometre run in 57 seconds. The time-keepers calculated that this gave him an average speed of 63.13 km/h or 39.24 mph, and this is universally recognised as the first official automobile land speed record. While this record was in turn broken by the Belgian driver Camille Jenatzy a month later on 17 January 1899, Chasseloup-Laubat regained the title later that day in the same car with which he had set the original record.
The current world land speed record is held by British Royal Air Force fighter pilot Andy Green, who broke the sound barrier in ThrustSSC.
On the 17th December 1903, American brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully made the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight. Their aircraft, known as the Wright Flyer but later referred to as Flyer I, made its historic flights about four miles south of the town of Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. Four flights were made on the day, with the first by Orville lasting for just 12 seconds over a total distance of only 36.5m.
The brothers originally went into business selling, repairing and designing bicycles. However, by the end of 1899 they had developed a keen interest in flight, and began to devise control systems that could be employed on manned gliders. Their justification was that it was pointless to create a powered aircraft before a reliable control system had been designed. Their research led them to develop three axis control: wing-warping to control the roll of the aircraft, a moveable rudder to control yaw, and elevators to control the pitch.
Successful testing of these controls on a glider in 1902 led the brothers to build an engine to power their flying machine, along with a pair of specially-designed propellers that were refined under testing in their own wind tunnel.
After a number technical delays, the brothers tossed and coin to decide who would be the first to fly on the 14th December. Wilbur won, but stalled the engine on take-off and crashed the plane after just a three-second flight. After repairs, Orville became the first to pilot the aircraft on its first true flight three days later. Each brother successfully flew twice that day.
It is estimated that up to a quarter of a million different units of measurement were in use throughout France at eve of the Revolution in 1789, and that these differed not only from trade to trade but also from town to town. The difficulties in trade, science and taxation that arose from these inconsistent systems prompted the French Academy of Sciences to investigate the reform of weights and measurements, although scientists across both Europe and America had discussed the advantages of a universal system of measurement for over a century.
Having decided that units in the new decimal system should be based on the natural world, the Academy defined the metre as one ten millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator. However, since this distance had never been calculated, the astronomers Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre and Pierre Méchain led an expedition to measure the length of the meridian arc between Dunkirk and Barcelona as a basis for it. They completed their survey in 1798 and presented their findings the following year, having created both a reference metre and kilogram from platinum. The latter was calculated as the mass of a cube of water at 4°C, where each side of the cube measured 0.1 metres. This volume was also defined as a litre.
Although France was the first country to adopt the new metric system, it was abolished by Napoleon in 1812. By the time it was reinstated in 1840, however, numerous other countries had begun to adopt the system and its universal units soon spread to become the dominant form of measurement around the world.
On the 3rd December 1910, the first neon light went on show at the Paris Motor Show. Invented by Frenchman Georges Claude, the first neon lights were simply 35m long tubes. However, by 1912 he had begun to create advertising signs using the new technology with the first apparently being sold to a Parisian barber.
Claude’s neon lighting at the Paris Motor Show was used simply to light the front of the large exhibition space at the Grand Palais with red lighting. Frustrated that the red light meant his invention couldn’t be used to replace conventional home lighting, Claude was persuaded by his friend and associate, Jacques Fonseque, to use it for advertising. After the first successful sign was sold to the barber, a large sign for the alcoholic drink Cinzano became the first use of neon to actively advertise a product.
Claude patented his invention in 1915, which gave him a virtual monopoly over the production of neon lights for the first few years of their existence. However, it wasn’t until he sold the first neon lights to a Los Angeles-based car dealer in 1923 that he really began to take advantage of his creation. The new ‘liquid fire’ signs as some people referred to them became – in some places – even more popular than the businesses they were advertising, with signs such as Vegas Vic at Las Vegas’ Pioneer Club becoming cultural icons.
Neon lighting is still a popular form of advertising in the 21st Century, but has also made its way into many homes: the technology forms the basis of plasma televisions.
On the 21st November 1877, American inventor Thomas Edison announced his phonograph, the world’s first practical machine that could record and play sound using a cylinder. Although Frenchman Charles Cros presented plans for a sound recording and reproduction machine called a paleophone earlier that year, the machine was never actually built. Edison made the first demonstration of his phonograph on the 29th November and patented it the following February. Within two decades it had spawned an entire industry built around the recording, distribution and sale of sound recordings.
Edison’s original phonograph was developed as a result of experiments that aimed to record telegraph messages. He had worked with diaphragms during his work developing the carbon microphone for telephones, and was aware that if you could inscribe the movements of the diaphragm he could effectively ‘record’ sound.
His first recording medium was a grooved cylinder covered with tin foil. As the cylinder rotated, an arm attached to a diaphragm would make an indentation of the movement into the tin foil. The arm moved up and down the cylinder, embossing the recording. By adjusting the machine, the arm could then be used to play back the recorded sound through a horn. The first machine was hand-cranked, but it worked well enough to impress everyone who heard it. Within six months he had demonstrated it to scientists and representatives of the government in Washington DC.
Although heralded as a ‘genius’ by the Washington Post, Edison did very little with his invention. Within a few years, however, other inventors developed engraved wax cylinders and – later – flat disks to record sound.
On the 3rd November 1957, Laika the dog became the first animal to enter orbit around the Earth when she was launched into space on board the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 2. Laika was never intended to return as the technology to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere had not yet been developed. However, the launch of a canine into space was seen by the Russian scientists as a precursor to human spaceflight in order to determine the effect of launch and prolonged weightlessness on a living passenger. Laika survived the launch, but died due to overheating as a result of a malfunction in the temperature control system.
Laika was a stray dog who was found on the streets of Moscow. Strays from Moscow were specifically chosen on the assumption that they had already learned how to deal with extreme temperatures and prolonged periods without food. However, Laika and two other dogs still had to undergo extension training ahead of the mission. This included long periods of time in cramped conditions, extreme G-forces on centrifuges, and exposure to loud noises to simulate the conditions of spaceflight.
Throughout the mission, scientists on the ground monitored data coming from sensors attached to Laika. The readings indicated significant stress, but she survived the launch and made four circuits of the Earth before dying of overheating. The exact cause of her death was only confirmed in 2002.
Laika’s death raised ethical questions about the use of animals in scientific research since the spacecraft was not designed to be retrievable. She was, therefore, knowingly sent a mission from which she would not return.