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.


Tuesday 6 October 2015

Men of Yore: Robert Randall

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. 

Robert Randall (or more accurately, a statue of him located in Snug Harbour Cultural Center.)

RANDALL, Robert Richard, philanthropist, born in New Jersey about 1740; died in New York city, 5 June, 1801.

He was a son of Thomas Randall, who was one of the committee of 100 chosen to control the affairs of the city of New York in 1775.

In early life Robert appears to have followed the sea, and he became a merchant and shipmaster, in consequence of which he is generally styled captain.

Captain Randall became a member in 1771 of the Marine society of New York for the relief of indigent and distressed masters of vessels, their widows and orphan children, and in 1780 was elected a member of the chamber of commerce. In 1790 he purchased from Baron Poelnitz the property known as the Minto farm, or Minthorne, consisting of snore than twenty-one acres of land in what is now the 15th ward of New York city, the southern boundary of which was then the upper end of Broadway. This, together with four lots in the 1st ward of New York, and stocks valued at $10,000, he bequeathed to found the home called the Sailors' Snug Harbor, "for the purpose of maintaining aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors." It was his intention to have the home erected on the family estate, but, in consequence of suits by alleged heirs, the control of the property was slot absolutely obtained until 1831. Meanwhile the growth of the city made it more advantageous to rent the farm and purchase a site elsewhere, and 130 acres were bought on Staten island near New Brighton. In October, 1831, the corner-stone was laid, and the dedication ceremonies took place two years later.

In 1834 Captain Randall's remains were removed to Staten island, and in 1884 a heroic statue of him, in bronze, by Augustus St. Gaudens, was unveiled, with appropriate ceremonies, on the lawn adjoining the buildings

At present (1888) the property has increased by purchase to 180 acres, on which there are eight large dormitory buildings capable of accommodating 1,000 men, besides numerous other buildings, thirty-eight in all, including a hospital, church, and residences for the officers.


Nearly all of will grow old enough to retire with a head of grey hair and a few marbles rolling around upstairs.  But who will take care of us?  In the pre-industrial era that probably would have been done by the extended family, assuming that we were lucky enough to live to old age.  Nowadays though loadsa people are living into their 60s, 70s and even 80s, and this means that they have to be taken care of either by family, friends or relocated to a retirement home.

Retirement homes, just like everything else in the civilised world, had to be created ex-nihlo by men.  On this occasion it was Robert Randall who took it upon himself to found a retirement home called the 'Sailors Snug Harbor' which was intended for old, 'worn out' sailors, who would otherwise end up homeless or living in squalor.

And what's more is that he accomplished all of this using his own money that he had either inherited from his father or earned by his own hand.  There was no need for taxes and government spending here.  No siree!  Just a man with a head full of common sense and heart full of compassion.  Outstanding!