Thursday 31 December 2015

Men of Yore: Oliver Evans

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity. 

Oliver Evans (source)

Oliver Evans,  (born Sept. 13, 1755, near Newport, Del. [U.S.]—died April 15, 1819, New York, N.Y.), American inventor who pioneered the high-pressure steam engine (U.S. patent, 1790) and created the first continuous production line (1784).

Evans was apprenticed to a wheelwright at the age of 16. Observing the trick of a blacksmith’s boy who used the propellant force of steam in a gun, he began to investigate ways to harness steam for propulsion. Before he could successfully pursue this line of research, however, he became involved with a number of other industrial problems. Carding, or combing, fibres to prepare them for spinning was a laborious process constituting a bottleneck in the newly mechanized production of textiles. To speed this operation Evans invented a machine that cut and mounted 1,000 wire teeth per minute on leather, the teeth serving as an improved carding device.

In 1784, at the age of 29, he attacked another major industrial production problem, the age-old process of grinding grain. Building a factory outside Philadelphia and adapting five machines, including conveyors, elevators, and weighing scales, he created a production line in which all movement throughout the mill was automatic. Labour was required only to set the mill in motion; power was supplied by waterwheels, and grain was fed in at one end, passed by a system of conveyors and chutes through the stages of milling and refining, and emerged at the other end as finished flour. The system, which reduced costs by 50 percent according to Evans’ calculations, much later was widely copied in American flour milling.

When Evans applied for patent protection, first to state governments (1787) and later to the new U.S. Patent Office (1790), he added a third invention, his high-pressure steam engine. He continued to work on this for the next several years, envisioning both a stationary engine for industrial purposes and an engine for land and water transport. In 1801 he built in Philadelphia a stationary engine that turned a rotary crusher to produce pulverized limestone for agricultural purposes. The engine that became associated with his name was an original adaptation of the existing steam engine; Evans placed both the cylinder and the crankshaft at the same end of the beam instead of at opposite ends, as had been done previously. This greatly reduced the weight of the beam. An ingenious linkage, which became world famous as the Evans straight-line linkage, made the new arrangement feasible. He saw at once the potential of such an engine for road transportation but was unable to persuade the authorities to permit its use on the Pennsylvania Turnpike—not unnaturally, since it might well have frightened the horses, which at that time provided the main form of transport. Within a few years he had engines doing several other kinds of work, including sowing grain, driving sawmills and boring machines, and powering a dredge to clear the Philadelphia water frontage. Completed by June 1805, his new type of steam-engine scow, called the Orukter Amphibolos, or Amphibious Digger, was 30 feet (9 m) long by 12 feet (3.7 m) wide. In its machinery it embodied the chain-of-buckets principle of his automatic flour mill. Equipped with wheels, it ran on land as well as on water, making it the first powered road vehicle to operate in the United States.

In 1806 Evans began to develop his noted Mars Iron Works, where, over the next 10 years, he made more than 100 steam engines that were used with screw presses for processing cotton, tobacco, and paper. The Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., bought one of Evans’ engines, and, when the War of 1812 broke out, Evans and a partner proposed to build a powerful steam warship with a large gun at the bow, thus anticipating John Ericsson’s Monitor of 50 years later; but the proposal was not accepted.

Evans’ last great work, completed in 1817, was a 24-horsepower high-pressure engine for a waterworks. He died shortly after a disastrous fire that destroyed his Mars Iron Works, including his valuable patterns and molds.

His Young Mill-Wright and Miller’s Guide, which he had written in 1792, continued to sell and had gone through 15 editions by 1860. In another work, The Abortion of the Young Steam Engineer’s Guide (1805), he forecast the need for government subsidization of technological advances. 
Vested interests in horses, as well as poor roads, steep gradients, inadequate springing, and an inadequate technology of materials, hindered the adoption of his ideas for steam engines on roads. Also, because later manufacturers were slow to make use of his innovative manufacturing techniques, Evans was long a somewhat neglected figure. More recently, however, in the allocation of priorities for the development of the high-pressure steam engine, the simultaneity of Evans’ work with that of the British genius Richard Trevithick has been established, and historians have accorded proper credit for his pioneering of the assembly line.


If ever there was a man who deserved the epitaph 'Jack of all trades' it was Oliver Evans.  He turned his hand to numerous fields in industry and managed to contribute to them all.  Whether it was milling flour, kneading bread, freezing water, excavating dirt, or self-propelled vehicles he was eager to turn his hand, and mind, to it and go at it.

It shows us what man can achieve with his seemingly boundless natural enthusiasm and energy when he is given a free environment in which to express those energies.  Unconstrained by red-tape, bureaucracy, or mental stifling from the academic world men can make a better world than the one currently lived in.


Monday 21 December 2015

Men of Yore: Philipp Bozzini

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity. 

Philipp Bozzini (image source)

Philipp Bozzini (May 25, 1773 – April 4, 1809) was born in Mainz, Germany. On June 12, 1797 he was awarded the degree of doctor of medicine. From 1804 onwards, Bozzini devoted himself virtually completely to develop his instrument, Lichtleiter or "Light Conductor", a primitive endoscope to allow for inspecting the ear, urethra, rectum, female bladder, cervix, mouth, nasal cavity, or wounds. Philipp Bozzini, using the modest means available at the beginning of the 19th century, was able to show to the medical profession the way to endoscopy. With his instrument and ideas, he was three quarters of a century ahead of the technical and scientific possibilities of his time. Historians agree that this instrument using artificial light and various mirrors and specula was the beginning of a large family of endoscopes.
Early Life
Philipp Bozzini was born on May 25, 1773 in Mainz, Germany. His father, Nicolaus Maria Bozzini de Bozza, came from a well-to-do Italian family that had to escape from Italy in approximately 1760 as the result of a duel. In Mainz, Nicolaus entered into business and married Anna Maria Florentin de Cravatte, from the city of Frankfurt.
Bozzini started his medical studies in Mainz, and approximately in 1794 went to Jena to complete them. On June 12, 1797 Bozzini was granted the title of doctor of medicine, which allowed him to establish in Mainz as physician. Soon afterwards, he traveled several times to France and the Netherlands in order to acquire professional experience.
Later Life
In 1798 he married Margarete Reck, and they had three children.[citation needed]
During the War of the Second Coalition against France, Bozzini served in the imperial army and was in charge of a 120-bed campaign hospital in Mainz. His extraordinary merits during this time were known by the Archduke Karl of Austria (1771–1847), who would protect in the future Bozzini’s invention. Bozzini thought that the instrument could be incorporated into Austrian military hospitals. This required a device to be sent to Wien, and also the performance of an expertise by health authorities. An investigating committee subjected the instrument to various tests, starting with examination in corpses of the bladder, rectum, vagina, and peritoneal cavity through small laparotomies. The committee proposed some changes intended to improve the performance of the light conductor. Once such changes were made, they were satisfied with the operation of the instrument in patients (only examinations of the peritoneal cavity were not approved), particularly also because the procedure was painless.
Due to intrigues in the upper governmental spheres, a second expertise was decided, this time at the Wien medical school, which performed it, and partly under the negative influence of the church, as the report turned out to be unfavorable for Bozzini and concluded that such an instrument should not be used.
The second coalition war ended with the 1801 Luneville peace treaty between Napoleon and Kaiser Franz, and the left bank of the Rhine river remained in the hands of the French. The new Mainz government granted young Bozzini authorization to practice his profession, but he refused to accept the French citizenship and therefore decided to establish himself at Frankfurt.
Activities in Frankfurt
Bozzini’s knowledge of mathematics, philosophy, and chemistry was outstanding. Aeronautic studies and drawings of a flying device were unfortunately lost. His exceptional talent as an artist and drawer is shown by his monograph about the “light conductor”, where a self-portrait and watercolor paintings about the instrument may be seen.
Like many idealist people, Bozzini had no experience in business matters, but devoted himself with enthusiasm to his scientific activities. From 1804 on, his dedication to the development of his instrument for endoscopy was virtually complete. To earn a living, Bozzini practiced obstetrics with extreme care. On May 30, 1808 he was granted the title of “Physicus extraordinarius” at the request of one of his patients, Karl Theodor von Dalberg, a personality of great influence in the region.
Bozzini was one of the four physicians of the city of Frankfurt who should also care for the surrounding peasant areas while being a “plague” physician.
The various tasks in Frankfurt were not only tedious for these physicians, but also dangerous. His predecessor in the position, Dr. Zeitmann, had died during one of the epidemic outbreaks of typhus in the region. Bozzini contracted the same disease around mid-March 1809, after successfully treating 42 patients with typhus. His friend and colleague Feyerlein subsequently reported the dedication with which he cared of his patients, disregarding the risk of contagion he had. On April 4, 1809, Bozzini died from that infection at 36 years of age.
He left his wife in a bad financial situation. She died six months later. Their three small children were given over to friends.
When the Frankfurt Cathedral was renovated after the war, in 1954, the gravestone to the memory of Bozzini was uncovered; the words dedicated to him by his friend Feyerlein may still be read in it:
“To the devote soul of Philipp Bozzini, doctor of medicine, who was the first to explore the inside of organs through his ingenious light projector. He was able to tenaciously fight fever in other people, with a great sense of duty, and succumbed on the night from the 4th to the 5th day of April 1809, in his 36th year of life. His faithful friend F.F."

Imagine what would have happened to science fiction, looking inwards instead of outwards.  Imagine a zillion and one Raquel Welsh 'Fantastic Voyage' clones clogging up your television schedule like a bad case of cholesterol.  Imagine what Star Trek would have been like.  Imagine what it's intro ditty would have sounded like!
"Inner-space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Endoscope. Its 5-generation mission: to explore strange new holes, to seek out new veins and new bodily-sphincters, to boldly probe where no man has probed before."
# Ooooh 'ooooh' [off note!] ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh #
Jokes aside, Bozzini's creation of endoscopy (he basically conceived the idea of humane endoscopes) has opened up a whole new world which allows doctors, surgeons and the like to peer inside of human bodies without having to open us up like the proverbial can of beans.

No more having some gallumping pompous surgeon stick his right arm up your freshly opened perineum [winces] desperately trying to find your kidney stones.  Should said surgeon actually find the stones you would be mightily happy, although if he didn't you wouldn't be best pleased.  This are some of the un-pleasantnesses that we've been spared thanks to efforts of humane men, like Bozzini.

Humane is a good doctor, surgeon, nurse, and all of the others.  Pompous, self-importance (common amongst Victorian era surgeons who viewed themselves as a cut above, like a priestly caste) doesn't befit a man who feels for those whom he treats.  Pare, Bazzini, Socrates and all the others are men who empathised with their patients.  These are the types of doctors and surgeons we need more of in the world: men who cared for those they treated, rather than the sociopaths that studies have proven we presently have.

When we finally get those doctors, surgeons and more, our children, their children, and their children will benefit.  That's the kind of future that we want, one populated with compassionate men like Bozzini.


Saturday 5 December 2015

Men of Yore: Arthur Hill Hassall

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity. 

Arthur Hill Hassall

Hassall, Arthur Hill (1817–1894), physician and microscopist, was born at Teddington, Middlesex, on 13 December 1817, the son of Thomas Hassall (1771–1844), surgeon, and Ann Sherrock (1778×80–1817). After attending school at Richmond, Surrey, he was apprenticed in 1834 to his uncle Sir James Murray, who had a fashionable Dublin medical practice. In 1839 he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, in London, and in 1841 he was awarded the diploma of the Society of Apothecaries. Hassall's apprenticeship had included walking the wards of Jervis Street Hospital in Dublin, and the Mercers' Hospital. He had also taken the midwifery diploma in 1837 from Trinity College, Dublin, studied the nearby seashore and the coasts, and won a prize in botany. He presented his Catalogue of Irish Zoophytes to the Dublin Natural History Society on 6 November 1840. Hassall went on in 1848 to graduate MB from University College, London; in 1851 he proceeded MD and became a member of the Royal College of Physicians.

His return to Richmond, near the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, enabled Hassall to study structural and physiological botany at Kew. Between 1840 and 1845 he published several articles and books on botanical topics, mostly on freshwater algae, though many of the papers suggested a rather haughty concern with claims to priority. His History of the British Freshwater Algae (1845) became something of a controversial classic in the field; most of his research for this work came from the region of Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, and the specimens he left are now largely in the possession of the Natural History Museum, London. Hassall's studies on fungal rot of fruits and potatoes by experimental inoculation of sound tissues were highly apposite given the subsequent potato famine in Ireland. On 26 May 1846 Hassall married Fanny Augusta, daughter of Alexander Du Corron.

Hassall came to public attention with his book A microscopical examination of the water supplied to the inhabitants of London and the suburban districts (1850), in which he reported on the state of the water supplied by each of the London water companies. Containing colour illustrations of the organisms found, this work helped to convince people of the revolting nature of having living organisms in their water and drew their attention to the ‘carcasses of dead animals, rotting, festering, swarming with flies and maggots’ on the banks of the Thames (Hamlin, 115). According to Christopher Hamlin, the book was ‘one of the most effective appeals to sensibility in the history of public health’, and that one of the most important things it did ‘was to make microscopic life a new category of impurity’ (ibid., 104). There was, however, a great deal of debate about what the presence of such organisms in the water signified. Hassall found that all waters contained microscopic life but ‘was not able to recognise a distinct flora and fauna for each company as he had hoped to’ (ibid., 111). He testified before the Board of Health in March or April of 1850 and in parliament Sir Benjamin Hall used Hassall's drawings to attack opponents of water reform. Organisms came to be seen as proof of impurity.

Over this same period, and despite ill health, Hassall began to study food adulteration. This brought him to the attention of Thomas Wakley, who between 1851 and 1854 published in The Lancet reports by Hassall concerning the virtually universal practice of adulteration. The Lancet reports led in 1855 to a parliamentary select committee (with Hassall as chief scientific witness) and later to the first general preventative (and other) Adulteration Acts (1860), as well as to the presentation on 4 May 1856 from both houses of parliament to Hassall, for public services, of an elegant silver statuette of Angel Ithuriel. Hassall established a reputation as Britain's leading food analyst and was employed as an analytical microscopist by the General Board of Health.

Hassall also became a physician at the Royal Free Hospital, London, which later named a ward after him. By 1866 he was suffering from severe lung problems. His recovery involved long periods confined to bed at his brother's house in Richmond, at Hastings, and at St Leonards, before he transferred to Ventnor, Isle of Wight, as winter approached. Hassall made his home there until at least mid-1877, though he was still able to undertake professional duties in London at least twice a week. During 1866 he was allotted a civil-list pension of £100 per year for public service. While at Ventnor, Hassall and his assistants continued to investigate food adulteration, using the laboratory he had built there.

Hassall decided that Ventnor would be an ideal place to establish a hospital for treating lung disease. The first block was completed in 1868 and the Ventnor Hospital inspired moves to establish similar institutions in Vienna and elsewhere. Hassall's concept was so successful that, by 1908, 23,000 or more patients had been treated there. This hospital finally closed on 15 April 1964, the remaining patients being transferred to the Hassall ward in St Mary's Hospital, Newport, Isle of Wight.

Hassall left Ventnor in 1877 and was presented with a silver service and 300 guineas. Aiming to rest in warmer climes, he spent over a year in Germany and one winter season in Cannes. Italy's ready acceptance of foreign medical qualifications led Hassall finally to settle in San Remo, with occasional stays in London over the summer. Hassall acquired permission to practise in Switzerland and thereafter worked in Lucerne in summer and San Remo in winter; at San Remo he attended Edward Lear. Hassall's time on the continent enabled him to establish a role in pioneering climatic cures for consumption. His San Remo and the Western Riviera Climatically and Medically Considered (1879) was a classic of its kind. Hassall died at his home, Casa Bosso, San Remo, on 9 April 1894 and was buried at All Saints' Church, San Remo. He was survived by his second wife, Alice Margaret, whom he had married some time between 1858 and 1866.

James H. Price


We live in cities; we are dependent upon the provision of food from others; we are dependent upon others to ensure that food is what it claims to be and is un-adulterated.  It's no good going down to your local bakery to buy a loaf of bread, then coming back home and discovering to your dismay that the loaf is a menagerie of flour, sawdust, bone-meal, ash, and other odds 'n' sods.  You want that loaf of bread from that bakery to be a loaf of bread, and not a something else.  And better still you want all loaves of bread in all bakeries to be loaves of bread and not something else.

If we lived in a perfect world then food manufacturers would not adulterate their product with non-foodstuffs because they would be honest and decent, but alas we don't live in a perfect world, so we need Food Safety laws to ensure that scoundrels don't ruin everyone's day by selling adulterated or dodgy food.  And like everything else in the modern world it requires someone, usually a man, to create those laws ex nihlo.  In the case of food safety laws that man was Arthur Hill Hassall.

Arthur Hill Hassall is the reason that you can tuck into your mince pies, slurp some mulled wine, and feast on your Christmas dinner without worrying if it's going to give you and your family the squits tomorrow morning.


Saturday 28 November 2015

Men of Yore: Georges Auguste Leschot

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity. 

George Leschot

George-Auguste LESCHOT (1800 - 1884), Watchmaker mechanic and swiss inventor.
Georges-Auguste Leschot is taken on as production engineer in 1839 and proceeds to revolutionize watch-making techniques by adapting the pantograph to the requirements of his industry. He also produced complicated musical clocks, as well as making artificial limbs (prosthesis of artificial limbs). He also invented a wheel-cutting machine for watch movements and built a device to demonstrate the theory of watch movement gearing. His invention of draw in lever escape wheel contributed to the universal adoption in the watch industry worldwide. He also invented a 'diamond drill' for rock piercing and deep well drilling. This invention was patented in 1862 and facilitated the piercing of a majority of tunnels in the world, such as the 'GOTHARD' in the Swiss Alps, as well as oil deep well drilling. This method is still used today worldwide.

1800  Born.
1830  Design of the Swiss anchor escapement which his student, Antoine Léchaud, mass produced.
1839  Invention of the pantograph which allows the standardisation and interchangeability of parts on watches fitted with the same calibre.
1845  In 1845, with Vacheron & Constantin of Geneva, he received from Geneva’s Society of the Arts the official prize 'Auguste de la Rives'
1862  Création d'outils perfectionnés pour fabriquer des mouvements interchangeables et une perforatrice à couronne de diamants.
1876  Receives a gold medal from the Society for the Arts in 1876 for inventing a procedure for perforating hard rocks by means of drills with a crown fitted with black diamonds, perfected by Colladon and used to drill.
1884  Died.

Leschot made many contributions to the world, from small delicate timepieces to large heavy duty drill bits, yet searching the internet to find out more about him will yield little.  It's a shame that he is little known about.  Especially considering that his diamond drill bits allowed civilization to quarry more goods out of the ground and then transport them through otherwise inpenetrable rock.

Just think of all the mineral-based products that either you or other people use throughout their day, and then think about how these mineral goods had to be drilled out of the ground, and transported through tunnels.  Georges Leschot was one of the men that made it possible for those goods to, well, in short, for those goods to be!

Saturday 21 November 2015

Men of Yore: Norman Borlaug

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity. 

Norman Borlaug

Norman Borlaug Date of birth: March 25, 1914
Norman Borlaug Date of death: September 12, 2009 
Norman Ernest Borlaug was born in Saude, Iowa, on the farm of his grandfather, Nels Olson Borlaug, who was the son of Norwegian immigrants. From the age of seven, young Norman worked on the family farm, where he learned the basics of agriculture, and enjoyed an active outdoor life. School for the young farmboy meant a one-room country schoolhouse until he was old enough to attend the high school in nearby Cresco. In high school, Borlaug was an outstanding athlete, playing football and baseball and achieving statewide renown as a competitive wrestler. He credits his high school wrestling coach, Dave Bartelma, with inspiring him to excel at whatever he attempted.

Norman Borlaug Biography Photo
Although his family was spared the worst effects of the Great Depression, Borlaug saw many of his neighbors lose their farms and homes. Across rural America, the dispossessed threatened violence against bank agents and local law enforcement. Borlaug's grandfather, who had taught him so much about farming, encouraged him to leave the countryside and pursue higher education. A newly created federal program, the National Youth Administration, made it possible for Norman Borlaug to attend the the University of Minnesota, even though his test scores did not qualify him for immediate admission. Immersed in the academic environment of the Minneapolis campus, Borlaug made rapid progress and soon joined the forestry program of the university's College of Agriculture. He also recruited Dave Bartelma, to coach the University of Minnesota wrestling team, and assisted Bartelma in introducing the sport to the state's high schools. Although Borlaug's wrestling career ended after college, he would eventually be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

To support himself at school, Borlaug worked a number of jobs, including waiting on tables at a local coffee shop, where he met Margaret Gibson, whom he would later marry. Between terms at the university, Borlaug led a unit of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal program designed to put unemployed youth to work during the Depression. Many of the young men assigned to Boralug's team were visibly malnourished. Seeing the change in his men's health and morale as they began to eat regularly -- many for the first time in their lives -- made an indelible impression on Borlaug.

Norman Borlaug Biography Photo
Before and after his senior year, Borlaug worked for the United States Forestry Service at research stations in Massachusetts and Idaho. He had planned on a career with the forestry service when he first heard a lecture by the plant pathologist Elvin Stakman. Stakman proposed that crossbreeding of wheat, and of other grains, could produce varieties that would resist the parasitic fungus known as rust, a pest that devastated crops throughout the United States and around the world. Borlaug was fascinated by this research, and when an expected Forestry Service appointment fell through, he decided to remain at the University of Minnesota and pursue graduate studies in plant pathology with Dr. Stakman.

Norman and Margaret Borlaug married and settled in Minneapolis while Borlaug pursued his studies, completing his doctorate in plant pathology and genetics in 1942. He was immediately hired by the chemical firm Du Pont de Nemours in Wilmington, Delaware. Although he attempted to enlist in the Army during World War II, the government regarded his work at Du Pont as essential to the war effort and he was refused for military service. At Du Pont, Borlaug's war work included new developments in camouflage, disinfectants, malaria prevention and insulation for electronic devices. His most significant achievement at the time was the creation of a waterproof adhesive for sealing seaborne supply packages. With the Marines pinned down on Guadalcanal, Borlaug and his team developed the new adhesive in a matter of weeks, enabling the Marines to hold out until the Japanese were driven from the island.

Norman Borlaug Biography Photo
While Borlaug was engaged in war work, his Minnesota mentor, Dr. Stakman, had taken on a different scientific challenge south of the border. The outgoing President of Mexico, Lázaro Cárdenas, had carried out a revolutionary land reform, breaking up the giant estates of the old ruling class and dividing the land into small holdings, know as ejidos. In the following years, Mexican agriculture was devastated by rust, the parasitic fungus Borlaug and Stakman had studied in Minnesota. Recurring crop failures forced the country to import most of its wheat. The Vice President of the United States, Henry Wallace, persuaded the U.S.-based Rockefeller Foundation to collaborate with the Mexican government in introducing rust-resistant wheat to Mexico. Ervin Stakman led the project; his project director, George Harrar, invited Borlaug to join them. Despite a lucrative offer to remain at Du Pont, Borlaug headed for Mexico in 1944 to lead the International Wheat Improvement Program at El Batátan, Texcoco, outside of Mexico City.

Borlaug encountered many obstacles and setbacks in his first years in Mexico. A lack of trained personnel, and the resistance of farmers and local bureaucrats frustrated his early efforts, but Borlaug would not relent. Tirelessly, he crossed one strain of wheat with another, trying thousands of variations to find those that would flourish in Mexican soil and resist rust and other parasites. In time, he hit on an unprecedented idea. The wheat-growing season in the central highlands, where Borlaug was working, took place slightly earlier than the season in the Yaqui Valley of Sonora, farther north. If he planted the same seeds at the highland research station during the summer and in the Yaqui Valley station immediately afterward, he could see his crops through two growing seasons in a single year.

Norman Borlaug Biography Photo
Borlaug's superior, Harrar, strenuously opposed the idea, not only because of its expense, but because of a widely-held belief that wheat seeds required a rest period after harvest before they could be planted. Only Elvin Stakman's intervention prevented Borlaug from resigning over the disagreement. Stakman gave Borlaug the go-ahead for this "shuttle breeding" project. Planting the same seeds at different altitudes, where they were exposed to different temperatures, sunlight and rainfall, yielded a wealth of information and enabled Borlaug to create wheat varieties that flourished under very different conditions.

Borlaug moved his family to Mexico City and made a long-term commitment to Mexican agriculture. He became active in his local community as well, coaching Mexico's first Little League team. As his breeding techniques grew more and more sophisticated, he realized the tall thin stalks of wheat he had been growing too frequently collapsed under the weight of their own grain. In the early '50s, Borlaug acquired a variety of dwarf wheat from Japan and cross-bred it with North American strains to produce a semi-dwarf strain with a thicker, stronger stalk, capable of supporting a heavier load of grain. Crossing these with his rust-resistant strains produced ideal wheat for Mexico's needs.

Norman Borlaug Biography Photo
By 1963, more than 95 percent of the wheat harvested in Mexico was grown from seed developed by Borlaug. The country was now producing more than enough wheat for its needs and was exporting wheat to the rest of the world, while Borlaug's techniques were being applied to other grains. The project first proposed by Henry Wallace had grown into the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), a training institute funded jointly by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and the Mexican government. Borlaug directed CIMMYT for over 30 years. The scientists he trained, and the strains of wheat and corn he developed, spread around the world, and other governments sought Borlaug's services to address their food shortages.

In the 1960s, Pakistan and India were on the brink of war, and the entire subcontinent of South Asia was beset with famine and starvation. The United States was sending more than a fifth of its wheat crop to the subcontinent as emergency aid, but uncounted thousands of men, women and children were starving to death. Scientists in both countries, familiar with Borlaug's work in Mexico, urged him to visit the region. Borlaug's first trip to South Asia was unsuccessful, as agricultural communities in both India and Pakistan resisted his proposals to increase their crop yield. By 1965, the situation had grown so desperate that the governments of both countries insisted he return and apply his expertise to the crisis.

Norman Borlaug Biography Photo
In the West, popular books predicted catastrophic famine in Asia and the rest of the world, with deaths in the hundreds of millions. No improvements in food production could possibly keep pace with the growth in population, they claimed, but Borlaug set to work with his characteristic fervor, despite formidable obstacles. Seed shipments were delayed and contaminated, bureaucrats and farmers resisted change to their accustomed routines. With Pakistan and India at war, Borlaug's teams often operated within sound of artillery fire, but he succeeded in importing and planting his Mexican seeds, and within a single season was producing crops on a scale South Asia had never seen before. As the threat of famine receded, war fever diminished and a fragile peace returned to the region.

Pakistan became self-sufficient in wheat production by 1968; India was self-sufficient in all cereal crops by 1974. Since then, grain production in both countries has consistently outpaced population growth. Borlaug's achievements in Mexico, India and Pakistan were hailed as a Green Revolution. The scientists Borlaug had trained in Mexico and Asia spread his techniques and grains to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Indonesia, to continental South America and to Africa. Around the world, infant mortality rates fell and life expectancy rose. In many countries, the rising standard of living reduced social tensions and political violence.

Norman Borlaug Biography Photo
By 1970, Borlaug had returned to Mexico, and was busy at work in the fields an hour's drive from his home when his wife brought word that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. He is the only agriculturalist ever to have been so honored. A descendant of Norwegian immigrants -- men and women who had come to America to escape a food shortage in their homeland -- Borlaug traveled to his ancestral homeland to be honored for securing the food supply for countless millions around the world. Shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize, Borlaug established a World Food Prize, to honor others who have made outstanding contributions to improving the world's food supply. Every year, the World Food Prize helps focus the world's attention on issues of food production.

In the 1980s, Borlaug's methods were criticized by some environmentalists for their reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers, but Borlaug was quick to point out that by increasing the productivity of existing farmland, his followers removed the necessity for destroying standing forests to clear additional farmland. In India alone, wooded areas the size of California were spared because of his work. Lobbying by Western activists blocked Borlaug's first efforts in Africa, but when a devastating famine struck Ethiopia in 1984, the Japanese industrialist Roichi Sasakawa approached Borlaug about starting a new program there. In his 70s, Borlaug agreed to head the Sasakawa Africa Association, and was soon doubling grain production in half a dozen African countries. Through a joint venture with the Carter Center, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the program trained over 8 million farmers in 15 countries. While much of the continent lacks the roads and other infrastructure to modernize its agriculture, former President Carter took up the cause, and agricultural progress in Africa continues.

Norman Borlaug Biography Photo
While crop failure and hunger persist in many parts of the world, the mass starvation predicted by many experts in the '60s and '70s were avoided by the efforts of Borlaug and his followers. As the years pass, it has become apparent that roughly a billion of the earth's inhabitants owe their lives to the Green Revolution. Although famine was averted by his past efforts, Borlaug insists that a concerted campaign to build roads and infrastructure in underdeveloped countries will be necessary to avoid mass starvation in the decades ahead.

While Norman Borlaug's accomplishments are largely unknown to much of the public in his own country, he has received numerous honors for his achievement, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Streets and institutions are named for him in his native Iowa, in Minnesota, in Mexico and in India. Margaret Borlaug, Norman's wife of 69 years, died in 2007. The couple had two children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. In his tenth decade, Dr. Borlaug continued to consult with CIMMYT in Mexico, to teach at Texas A&M University, and to travel, promoting his ideas to end world hunger. He spent his last years in Dallas, Texas, where he died at the age of 95.


This is the man responsible for increasing the yields of wheat crops by ~4 times.  The following graphic from Norman Borlaugs Wikipedia page says it all really.  It shows how much Wheat yields increased by in third world countries: since 1950:

You can't ask for much more from a man than the ability to provide food.  And Norman Borlaug did that in spades.  He's one of the men people can thank next time they tuck into a sandwich, doughnut, bun or anything containing wheat.

(Apologies for the rather long biography this week, but I find grain farming fascinating.  No idea why!  I'm intrigued by the attributes of grain and it's multifacetedness e.g. the different stalk lengths used, the different micro-climates that these stalk lengths create, the uses of long stalks, and all the rest of it.

For instance Medieval farmers grew wheat with long stalks so that they could use the hay for thatching, animal fodder, faggots (fuel not sausages!).  But modern farmers got rid of the long stalks because roof tiles replaced thatch, hi-tech animal feed replaced hay fodder, and gas/electricity replaced faggots.  The result of shorter stems was that more energy went into the seed rather than the stem, which led to bigger grains ergo (not 'that' ergot!) bigger wheat yields for the farmers and cheaper food for us.

It's a funny old world isn't it, with all these disconnected technologies affecting one another in such big ways; all to our benefit.)


Wednesday 11 November 2015

Men of Yore: John Smeaton

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity. 

John Smeaton

born June 8, 1724, Austhorpe, Yorkshire, Eng.
died Oct. 28, 1792, Austhorpe

English engineer noted for his all-masonry lighthouse on Eddystone reef off Plymouth, Devon, and as the founder of the civil-engineering profession in Great Britain. 
Smeaton learned mathematical instrument making in London, where his scientific papers led to his election to the Royal Society in 1753. Smeaton visited the Low Countries during 1754, studying canals, harbours, and mills; the tour was the turning point in his career. In 1756–59 he built the third Eddystone Lighthouse, using dovetailed blocks of portland stone to withstand the pounding of the waves; this technique became standard for such wave-swept structures. While planning the lighthouse, he discovered the best mortar for underwater construction to be limestone with a high proportion of clay, and thus he was the first to recognize what constitutes a hydraulic lime. 
Smeaton also constructed the Forth and Clyde Canal in Scotland, which opened a waterway between the Atlantic and the North Sea; built bridges at Perth, Banff, and Coldstream, Scot.; and completed the harbour at Ramsgate, Kent. 
Smeaton took a leading part in the transition from wind-and-water to steam power. He introduced cast-iron shafts and gearing into windmills and water mills, receiving the Royal Society's Copley Medal for An Experimental Enquiry Concerning the Natural Powers of Water and Wind to Turn Mills (1759). 
Owing to his improvements, the Newcomen atmospheric steam engine achieved its maximum performance. He designed large atmospheric pumping engines for Long Benton colliery in Northumberland, Chacewater mine in Cornwall, and the docks of Kronshtadt in Russia. He also improved the safety of the diving bell by fitting an air pump to the bell. 
Smeaton founded the Society of Civil Engineers in 1771. In 1791 he wrote Narrative of the Building . . . of the Eddystone Lighthouse.  

If you're a native of planet earth, or have lived here for a couple of weeks, then you've certainly noticed that cities are different to the countryside.  Tarmac roads, concrete road bridges, brick railway tunnels, sewerage tunnels, water pipes, power stations, electricity pylons, and all the rest of it.  It all had to be built.  It all had to be designed.  And it all had to be conceived of.  Those things don't build themselves you know.  There isn't a giant subterranean worm munching a hole through the soil and then lining it with concrete that we can then purloin and conveniently use as a pipe for the gubbins from our toilets to flow down.  Oh no!  These constructions are conceived of, designed, and built by men.  Or more specifically men who are civil engineers.

One of those civil engineers was John Smeaton.  It was he who got the Civil Engineering ball ralling in the UK by founding 'The Society of Civil Engineers', and thus 'paved the way' (geddit?! an engineer who 'paved the way'...?!) for all of those wonderful engineering projects that we all benefit from on an everyday basis.  Like clean water, removal of waste water, tarmacked roads, power lines, and so on.  They're an under-appreciated bunch.  Without them the urban world would be the rural world, and we'd all be trudging down muddy paths, to collect river water that some rodent just swam in, to boil up and drink, every single day.  A life that, in all honesty, we'd rather not live.  It's that kind of life that civil engineers like John Smeaton have helped to do away with, and by doing so, have thus laid the foundations for our modern hygienic, powered, and convenient world.  Huzzah!


Friday 23 October 2015

Men of Yore: Thomas Davenport

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity. 

Thomas Davenport (9 July 1802 – 6 July 1851) was a Vermont blacksmith who constructed the first American DC electric motor in 1834.[1] 
Davenport was born in Williamstown, Vermont. He lived in Forest Dale, a village near the town of Brandon. 
As early as 1834, he developed a battery-powered electric motor. He used it to operate a small model car on a short section of track, paving the way for the later electrification of streetcars.[2] 
Davenport's 1833 visit to the Penfield and Taft iron works at Crown Point, New York, where an electromagnet was operating, based on the design of Joseph Henry, was an impetus for his electromagnetic undertakings. Davenport bought an electromagnet from the Crown Point factory and took it apart to see how it worked. Then he forged a better iron core and redid the wiring, using silk from his wife's wedding gown.[3]
With his wife Emily, and a colleague Orange Smalley, Davenport received the first American patent on an electric machine in 1837, U. S. Patent No. 132.[4] 
In 1849, Charles Grafton Page, the Washington scientist and inventor, commenced a project to build an electromagnetically powered locomotive, with substantial funds appropriated by the US Senate. Davenport challenged the expenditure of public funds, arguing for the motors he had already invented. In 1851, Page's full sized electromagnetically operated locomotive was put to a calamity-laden test on the rail line between Washington and Baltimore.[5]

The electric motor, a pretty simple device that doesn't look all that impressive when viewed on a work bench, and looks even less impressive when it's operational.  Some one might even make a passing remark like "This is just a small box that has a spinning rod come out of it.  How is this supposed to change the world?"

A valid observation, because it is after all just a box with a rotating spindle coming out of it.  But when you start to see and/or think of how that rotating spindle can be put to use then you begin to see how much of an impact it can have on the world.  Davenport improved upon the work of previous men by putting his electric motor to use power printing presses and machine tools.  That's when you know that science has proven itself useful: when it can be used by John Does (like thee & me) in the everyday real world.

That short list has grown and grown since the 1840s when Davenport first developed the motor and now every room in your house has an electric motor in it.  Here's an uber-short list of appliances that have an electric motor in them:

Vacuum cleaner.
Electric saw.
Electric drill.
Ceiling fan.
Electric toothbrush.
Hair dryer.
Electric razor.
Several in the VCR.
Several in a CD player or tape deck.
Many in a computer (each disk drive has two or three, plus there's a fan or two).
Many toys that move have at least one motor.
Electric clocks.
Aquarium pumps.
Playstation games console dualshock controller.
Sex toys.
Food processor.
Electric cars.
Diesel-electric railway locomotives.
and last but not least the minigun.

Not bad going for such an innocuous looking contraption eh?!


Saturday 17 October 2015

Men of Yore: Charles Martin Hall

 This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity. 

Charles Martin Hall

Charles Martin Hall (December 6, 1863 – December 27, 1914) was an American inventor, businessman, and chemist. He is best known for his invention in 1886 of an inexpensive method for producing aluminum, which became the first metal to attain widespread use since the prehistoric discovery of iron. He was one of the founders of ALCOA.[1][2] Alfred E. Hunt, together with Charles Hall and a group of five other individuals including his partner at the Pittsburgh Testing Laboratory, George Hubbard Clapp, his chief chemist, W.S. Sample, Howard Lash, head of the Carbon Steel Company, Millard Hunsiker, sales manager for the Carbon Steel Company, and Robert Scott, a mill superintendent for the Carnegie Steel Company, Hunt raised $20,000 to launch the Pittsburgh Reduction Company which was later renamed Aluminum Company of America and shortened to Alcoa.


Early years

Charles Martin Hall was born to Herman Bassett Hall and Sophronia H. Brooks on December 6, 1863 in Thompson, Ohio.[3] Charles' father Herman graduated from Oberlin College in 1847, and studied for three years at the Oberlin Theological Seminary, where he met his future wife. They married in 1849, and the next ten years were spent in missionary work in Jamaica, where the first five of their eight children were born.[4] They returned to Ohio in 1860, when the outbreak of the Civil War forced the closing of foreign missions. Charles Hall had two brothers and five sisters; one brother died in infancy. One of his sisters was chemist Julia Brainerd Hall (1859–1925), who helped him in his research.[5][6][7]
Hall began his education at home, and was taught to read at an early age by his mother.[4] At the age of six, he was using his father's 1840's college chemistry book as a reader.[8] At age 8, he entered public school, and progressed rapidly.
His family moved to Oberlin, Ohio in 1873. He spent three years at Oberlin High School, and a year at Oberlin Academy in preparation for college.[4] During this time he demonstrated his aptitude for chemistry and invention, carrying out experiments in the kitchen and the woodshed attached to his house. In 1880, at the age of 16, he enrolled at Oberlin College.[9]
Hall was encouraged in his scientific experiments, with ideas and materials from Professor Frank Fanning Jewett (1844–1926). Jewett received his undergraduate and some graduate training from Yale University. From 1883 – 1885, he studied chemistry at the University of Göttingen in Göttingen, Lower Saxony, Germany. There he met Friedrich Wöhler, and obtained a sample of aluminum metal. Upon return to the United States, Jewett spent a year assisting Wolcott Gibbs at Harvard University, then spent a further four years as Professor of Chemistry at the Imperial University of Tokyo in Japan. In 1890, he became the professor of chemistry and mineralogy at Oberlin College.
In his second term, Hall attended, with considerable interest, Professor Jewett's lecture on aluminum; it was here that Jewett displayed the sample of aluminum he had obtained from Wöhler, and remarked, "if anyone should invent a process by which aluminum could be made on a commercial scale, not only would he be a benefactor to the world, but would also be able to lay up for himself a great fortune."[9]


His initial experiments in finding an aluminum reduction process were in 1881; he attempted, unsuccessfully, to produce aluminum from clay by smelting with carbon in contact with charcoal and potassium chlorate. He next attempted to improve the electrolytic methods previously established by investigating cheaper methods to produce aluminum chloride, again unsuccessfully. In his senior year, he attempted to electrolyse aluminum fluoride in water solution, but was unable to produce aluminum at the cathode.[2]
In 1884, after setting up a homemade coal-fired furnace and bellows in a shed behind the family home, he again tried to find a catalyst that would allow him to reduce aluminum with carbon at high temperatures: "I tried mixtures of alumina and carbon with barium salts, with cryolite, and with carbonate of sodium, hoping to get a double reaction by which the final result would be aluminum. I remember buying some metallic sodium and trying to reduce cryolite, but obtained very poor results. I made some aluminum sulphide but found it very unpromising as a source of aluminum then as it has been ever since.".[9]
He had to fabricate most of his apparatus and prepare his chemicals, and was assisted by his older sister Julia Brainerd Hall.[10][11][6] The basic invention involves passing an electric current through a bath of alumina dissolved in cryolite, which results in a puddle of aluminum forming in the bottom of the retort.[12] On July 9, 1886, Hall filed for his first patent. This process was also discovered at nearly the same time by the Frenchman Paul Héroult, and it has come to be known as the Hall-Héroult process.[2]
After failing to find financial backing at home, Hall went to Pittsburgh where he made contact with the noted metallurgist Alfred E. Hunt. They formed the Reduction Company of Pittsburgh which opened the first large-scale aluminum production plants. The Reduction Company later became the Aluminum Company of America, then Alcoa. Hall was a major stockholder, and became wealthy.[2]
The Hall-Héroult process eventually resulted in reducing the price of aluminum by a factor of 200, making it affordable for many practical uses. By 1900, annual production reached about 8,000 tons. Today, more aluminum is produced than all other non-ferrous metals combined.
Hall is sometimes suggested to be the originator of the American spelling of aluminum, but that spelling was used briefly by Humphry Davy in the early 1800s and was the spelling in Noah Webster’s Dictionary of 1828. "Aluminium" was used widely in the United States until 1895 or 1900, and "Aluminum" was not officially adopted by the American Chemical Society until 1925.[13] Hall's early patents use the spelling "aluminium".[14] In the United Kingdom and other countries using British spelling, only the spelling aluminium is now used. The spelling in virtually all other languages is analogous to the -ium ending.[13]
Hall continued his research and development for the rest of his life and was granted 22 US patents, most on aluminum production. He served on the Oberlin College Board of Trustees. He was vice-president of Alcoa until his death. He died unmarried and childless and was buried in Westwood Cemetery in Oberlin.[4] Hall left the vast majority of his fortune to charity. His generosity contributed to the establishment of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, a leading foundation dedicated to advancing higher education in Asia in the humanities and social sciences.[15]

Awards and honors

Hall won the Perkin Medal, the highest award in American industrial chemistry in 1911.[8][16] In 1997 the production of aluminum metal by electrochemistry discovered by Hall was designated as a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society.[1]
Hall eventually became one of Oberlin College's most prominent benefactors, and an aluminum statue of him exists on the campus.[17] Because of its light weight, Hall's statue was once known for its frequent changes of location, often due to student pranks. Today the statue is glued to a large granite block and sits more permanently on the second floor of Oberlin's new science center, where students continue to decorate Hall with appropriate trappings on holidays and other occasions.[18]
The Jewett home is preserved in Oberlin as the Oberlin Heritage Center. The center features an exhibit called Aluminum: The Oberlin Connection, which includes a re-creation of Hall's 1886 woodshed experiment.[19] The Hall House is also preserved in Oberlin, although the woodshed was demolished long ago.[20]


Aluminium smelting is just one of many simultaneous discoveries that have occured throughout history, and Simultaneous discoveries occur more often than you might think.  Here are a few of them:
Calculus:  Gottfried Liebniz and Isaac Newtown.
Theory of Evolution:  Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace,

Discovery of Oxygen: Joseph Priestly and Antoine Lavoisier.
Aluminium Smelting:  Charles Hall and Paul-Louis-Toussaint Heroult.

That two people (sometimes) living in disconnected cultures that have evolved in (relative) isolation end up making inventions or discoveries at the same time is bizarre.  I've no idea why it pans out this way yet it certainly does.

Metaphysics aside though, the discovery that Charles Hall made has allowed us to make use of the most common non-ferrous metal on/in planet Earth.  And if someone can turn a formerly un-usable material into a highly usable material then he's alright by me.