On the 9th September 1947, the first computer ‘bug’ was found in the Harvard Mark II electromechanical computer. In this case, the bug was a moth trapped between the points inside an electromagnetic relay. Its presence led to problems in the functioning of the whole computer which were resolved when the moth was removed.
Development of the Harvard Mark II was financed by the United States Navy, which explains the involvement of Grace ‘Amazing Grace’ Hopper. She had previously been assigned to work as one of the very first programmers of the Harvard Mark I during the Second World War when she was a member of the navy. The relays inside the Mark II were used for logic calculations using the Boolean system, but if the relay didn’t switch in the correct way the algebraic function would be incorrect.
Urban legend has us believe that the discovery of the moth in the Mark II led to the use of the terms ‘bug’ and ‘debugging’ in computer programming. However, the word ‘bug’ is known to have been used to describe malicious beasties since medieval times, and was well-known in the world of electrical engineering since at least the time of the telegraph. Even Hopper, who is credited with popularising the term ‘debugging’ to find problems in computer code, regularly stated that the moth simply fitted with existing terminology. However, the preservation of the moth in the log-book of the Mark II alongside the label “First actual case of bug being found” is irrefutable proof that computer scientists do have a sense of humour.
Thomas Edison began operating the first permanent commercial electrical power plant in New York.
Edison created his incandescent light bulb in October 1879, and was quick to realise that he also had to develop a system to generate and distribute the required electricity to consumers.
Having successfully installed a number of smaller private systems in both the United States and Britain, Edison bought two adjoining commercial buildings on Pearl Street in the area known as the First District in New York to house his commercial power plant.
Installing the six dynamos and their coal-powered reciprocating steam engines was a significant technical challenge, but one of the most expensive aspects of the venture was the laying of almost 100,000 feet of wiring in specially-dug underground conduits.
By the time the system was ready to begin operation on 4 September 1882, Edison had signed up around 80 customers with a total of 400 light bulbs. The New York Times, one of the first users, described the “soft, mellow” light in a short article the next day. However the inauguration of the world’s first commercial power plant did not receive the media fanfare many might have expected, and the report was filed under ‘Miscellaneous City News.’
While Edison’s customer base increased to almost 500 users within twelve months of the Pearl Street Station opening, it ran at a loss for the first two years. The system did, however, generate demand for electrical energy elsewhere and kick-started the electrical age. The shortcomings of Edison’s direct current soon became apparent, however, as it was prohibitively expensive to provide such power over long distances. Within just a few years, competitors using high voltage alternating current had begun to dominate the market.
On the 17th August 1982, the very first commercial compact disc was produced in the German town of Langenhagen. Although it was a number of months before the disc was actually available to purchase, the advent of the CD marked a seismic shift in the way people listened to music.
Having initially developed separate prototype digital audio discs, engineers at electronics giants Philips and Sony came together in 1979 to develop a standardised digital audio disc. Interestingly, this was happening while they sat on opposite sides of the VHS-Betamax war over home video formats.
In 1980 the engineers agreed on and published their ‘Red Book’ standard, which is still used – with some minor amendments – as the basis for all Compact Discs. Having agreed on the standard format, marketing could then begin. The first public demonstration was given on Tomorrow’s World, a BBC television program about new science and technology, in 1981 and saw presenter Kieran Prendiville smear strawberry jam on a CD of the Bee Gees’ album Living Eyes to demonstrate the supposedly indestructible nature of the new format.
A year later, the first CD was produced to be sold commercially. Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau’s recording of Chopin waltzes was pressed at Philips’ Polydor Pressing Operations plant, with the pianist himself starting the machine. Philips apparently believed that classical music fans were generally more affluent and therefore more likely to pay the hefty price tag for CDs and their players. However, the first ‘pop’ music CD to be produced was the The Visitors – the last album recorded by the Swedish super-group ABBA.
On the 12th August 1865 Joseph Lister carried out the world’s first antiseptic surgery using the chemical phenol, otherwise known as carbolic acid. Lister is remembered among the greats of medical science for being the first person to identify the link between clean hospital conditions and infection rates.
To understand the importance of Lister’s achievement, it’s important to remember that in the 19th Century up to 50% of all hospital patients died of infection. This often occurred after surgery, during which time patients developed ‘ward fever’ – a non-specific range of secondary infections caused through poor hospital hygiene where surgeons weren’t required to wash their hands or even their stained operating gowns.
Having read the work of the Frenchman Louis Pasteur regarding the spread and growth of bacteria, Lister became interested in finding a way to remove infection-causing micro-organisms from hospitals. Germ theory of disease was only just becoming more widely accepted, but after discovering that carbolic acid, now referred to as phenol, had successfully been used to reduce the smell of raw sewage Lister began experiments using it as what became termed an ‘antiseptic’.
On the 12th August Lister used a piece of lint covered in carbolic acid to cover the compound fracture wound of a seven-year-old boy, and found that over a period of six weeks the wound healed without developing gangrene. Developments in surgical hygiene followed. As well as surgeons wearing gloves, they began to wash their hands in carbolic acid, as well as washing their instruments in Lister’s 5% solution and spraying it liberally around the operating theatre.
French aviator Louis Charles Joseph Blériot made the first flight across the English Channel in a heavier-than-air aircraft.
After graduating from the prestigious École Centrale in Paris, Blériot quickly established himself as a talented engineer, and launched his own company to sell the world’s first practical car headlamp. The success of this business provided him with the funds to begin developing his own aircraft.
Having started with ornithopters and gliders, by 1905 Blériot had moved on to developing powered aircraft in partnership with Gabriel Voisin. After this business was dissolved the following year, Blériot went on alone and created a number of working aircraft by the time Lord Northcliffe of the Daily Mail announced a cash prize for the first powered flight across the Channel.
Blériot was not the only person to express interest in the competition, but he was the first to complete the crossing from Calais after the high winds that had grounded the competitors dropped at dawn on 25 July 1909. Piloting his Blériot XI monoplane without the aid of a compass, he drifted slightly east of his intended course. Blériot landed clumsily near Dover Castle as a result of the windy conditions 36 minutes and 30 seconds after departing France.
Having neglected to visit Dover beforehand to identify an appropriate landing site, Blériot touched down where the journalist Charles Fontaine from the French Le Matin newspaper stood waving a large Tricolour.
The Daily Mail correspondent, meanwhile, was on the other side of the town as he had expected the competitors to land on beach. He quickly took a car to meet Blériot, whose achievement turned him into an instant celebrity.
Abraham Lincoln was issued a patent for his invention to lift boats over shoals and other obstructions in a river.
As a teenager the future President had taken a flatboat along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. After moving to Illinois he was employed by Denton Offutt a merchant and owner of a general store, to ferry goods along the Mississippi and its tributaries.
During these river trips Lincoln’s boats had run aground on more than one occasion, leading to the exhausting process of freeing the boat before it sank or the cargo went overboard. These experiences were to provide the inspiration for his invention.
Lincoln is believed to have begun work on his device in 1848, in which ‘adjustable buoyant air chambers’ attached to the boat could be forced under the water and inflated to float the boat free of the obstruction without the need to unload any of the cargo. He filed an application to the Patent Office on 10 March 1849, and Patent No. 6469 was awarded two months later on 22 May.
A model of the device is said to have been produced with the assistance of Walter Davis, a mechanic from Springfield, although Paul Johnston from the National Museum of American History believes it may instead have been made in Washington. Whatever the truth behind the creation of the model, this is the furthest that Lincoln’s invention ever got since nobody ever tried to install the system on a full-size boat.
The model itself can be seen on display at the Smithsonian Institute, and is claimed by the curator of the Marine Collection to be ‘one of the half dozen or so most valuable things in our collection.’ The invention is also significant in that it makes Abraham Lincoln the only President in the history of the United States to have been awarded a patent.
British inventor Edwin Budding went into partnership with foundry owner John Ferrabee to manufacture the world’s first lawn mower.
Edwin Budding grew up near the Gloucestershire town of Stroud, where he often saw teams of labourers using scythes to manually cut the lawns of the landed gentry. The labour-intensive nature of this work would later inspire him to create the ubiquitous machine.
Having begun work in an iron foundry as a pattern maker, Budding came across a mechanical napping machine created by John Lewis in 1815 that was used to trim fibres from the surface of woven cloth to produce an even finish. Later developments to this machine used a cylindrical cutting blade that directly influenced Budding’s lawn mower design.
Powered by a large iron roller and a series of gears that span the cutting cylinder close to a knife plate, Budding’s mower was pushed from behind. A second roller could be adjusted to alter the cutting height, while the clippings were flung into a collection box at the front.
On 18 May Budding signed an agreement with John Ferrabee, owner of the Phoenix Iron Works at the nearby town of Thrupp, to manufacture the machine. One of the first models was sold to Regent’s Park Zoological Gardens in London where the head gardener reported that the new lawn mower allowed two men to do as much work as six or eight men with scythes.
Ferrabee subsequently licensed other manufacturers to produce Budding mowers, while Budding returned to inventing. He went on to create the first adjustable spanner in 1842.
Chappe was born into a wealthy family in 1763 and originally trained as a member of the church. However, the turmoil of the French Revolution meant that he was unable to continue in his position and he returned home to focus on science. Working with his brothers, Chappe began to experiment with optical telegraph designs.
Chappe was not the first person to attempt to create a system of long-distance communication. The English scientist Robert Hooke had presented a proposal a century earlier, but his idea was never implemented. Consequently the Chappe brothers were the first to successfully transmit a message when they demonstrated their system on 2 March 1791, covering more than 16km from Brûlon to Parcé.
Using what became known as the Synchronized System, Chappe was able to transmit the phrase ‘If you succeed, you will soon bask in glory’ in just four minutes. Two pendulum clocks had their faces modified with a series of symbols and, after being synchronised, were placed in the two locations alongside a telescope that pointed to the other. The transmitting station used black and white panels to alert the receiver to when the second hand of the clock was passing over the appropriate symbol, which they then recorded. The string of symbols, when decoded, produced the message.
Chappe soon abandoned synchronised clocks in favour of mechanical arms to portray the different symbols. When mounted on top of a tower, the arms could be seen through a telescope and their alignment either recorded or relayed onwards. A 230km semaphore line of these towers between Paris and Lille was installed in 1792.
The DuPont company’s organic chemist Wallace Carothers received a patent for linear condensation polymers, the basis of the material better known as nylon.
Carothers joined DuPont from Harvard University, where he had taught organic chemistry. He was initially reluctant to move due to concerns that his history of depression would be a problem in an industrial setting, but DuPont executive Hamilton Bradshaw persuaded him otherwise and he took up his role in February 1928.
Having thrown himself into researching the structure and synthesis of polymers, Carothers and his team were responsible for creating the first synthetic replacement for rubber which was later named neoprene. Their laboratory, which was nicknamed “Purity Hall”, then began to focus on producing synthetic fibres that could be used in place of silk as this was becoming harder to source due to declining relations with Japan following the Great Depression.
On 28 February 1935 Carothers produced a fibre initially referred to as polyamide 6-6 as its components had six carbon atoms. Although the manufacturing process was complicated, DuPont were excited by the new material’s strength and elasticity and ordered the laboratory to press ahead with their research. However, plagued by depression, Carothers committed suicide in a hotel room in April 1937 by drinking potassium cyanide dissolved in lemon juice.
DuPont continued to refine the manufacturing process and revealed women’s stockings made of nylon, as it became known, at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. By the time the first pairs were made commercially available in 1940, the company had invested $27 million into the development of a material that is now found in everything from guitar strings to medical implants.
Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr was the director of research at DuMont Laboratories in New Jersey where he was exploring the use of cathode ray tubes in television sets. It was during this period that he and Estle Ray Mann created their game, which was directly influenced by Second World War radar displays. The two scientists combined a cathode ray tube with an oscilloscope to allow a player to simulate launching an explosive shell at enemy targets in what they called The Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device.
The patent stated that targets needed to be physically positioned on the screen of the device using transparent overlays. The player then used the controls of the oscilloscope to position a spot of light created by the CRT, much like the controls on an Etch A Sketch toy, in order to hit the target. When a switch was flicked the spot would move in a parabolic arc, mimicking the flight of a shell, at the end of which the light would become unfocused in imitation of an explosion. If the spread of the beam hit the target, the player scored a hit. Additional controls allowed the player to change the angle and trajectory of the light beam, and change the time delay before detonation.
Despite securing a patent for the device, the game never went into commercial production. The parts were too expensive and DuMont Laboratories were more interested in advancing television technology. Consequently The Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device’s place in video game history is negligible, and it is likely that later developers created their own games without any knowledge of the work done by Goldsmith and Mann.