Category Archives: biography

How a man losing his hearing was the first to capture sound

Before the light bulb, Thomas Alva Edison was famous for inventing the phonograph, a simple device that was able to record sounds and then play them back. The phonograph had come to existence while Edison worked to develop a commercially viable telephone.

Edison noticed that when a paper tape was ran through a telegraph transmitter at high speeds, it would produce sounds that resemble spoken words. Instead of using paper, Edison would use a tinfoil cylinder that would be hand-cranked. This cylinder could be written onto or read by a metallic stylus.  Finally in 1877 Edison completed this idea and recorded himself reciting the nursery rhyme, “Mary had a little lamb”.

Edison with his second Phonograph
Edison with his second Phonograph in 1878

Though Edison became famous for his work on sound, Edison was almost deaf. He had lost his hearing at age 15 when he was working as a train boy to raise money for his chemistry experiments. Rather then dwelling on the loss, Edison saw how the loss of hearing would in the end give him a wealth of advantages.

In telegraphy being hearing impaired meant that he could only hear the machine in front of him unlike his fellow telegraphers who would have to focus to tune out the noises of the machines around them. Edison’s love for telegraphy would translate into a career of invention as his first patents were ways of improving the telegraph. His handicap also forced him to focus on reading and became more contemplative. Since Edison couldn’t hear the outside world, he spent more time thinking about how different ideas could be combined into a new product. In the case of the phonograph, Edison had invented a telegraph machine that could record telegraph messages years earlier, would it be possible to create a machine to record phone calls? Ultimately his deafness allowed him to invent.

Edison's Improvement on the stock ticker included a device that would allow for quick printing of stock prices
Edison’s Improvement on the stock ticker included a device that would allow for quick printing of stock prices. This machine would take telegraph messages of stock prices and then print the name and price of a stock on a long tape of paper. This device was invented by Edison in 1867.

Though handicapped Edison didn’t see deafness as a disadvantage. He instead focused on what he knew and what he could do with his ideas. Thus through great focus and ingenuity Edison would spearhead the creation of the Electric industry, founding what is today General Electric. He would create film industry and gave great strides to the music industry with his invention of the phonograph.

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Newton’s Light

In 1665 England is stricken by the final waves of the bubonic plague. Cambridge university closes down to avoid plague and a young Isaac Newton returns to Woolsthorpe, his family home in the country side. For the next 18 months Isaac Newton made discoveries that would define the rest of his scientific life, especially his work in optics.

Newton’s family home and birthplace in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth.

Since the time of Aristotle, great thinkers believed that white light was pure. Colored light was created by altering white light, hence a prism creates different colors by internally altering pure light. Newton, incredulous, devices a test of his own. By passing sunlight through a prism he produces a spectrum of colors. However when passing red light through a second prism, it remains red. Since red light was not altered, white light had to be a combination of colored light.

A replica of Newton’s reflecting telescope. Newton saw his invention as a toy, but his colleague though otherwise.

As the plague subsides, Newton returns to Cambridge in 1667. There, Newton notices that the edges of telescope lenses acted like prisms thereby falsely coloring objects being observed. To solve this Newton uses a series of mirrors rather than lenses. This not only removes false colorizations, it also makes his reflecting telescope much shorter then conventional refracting telescopes. To Newton’s dismay, his telescope made him famous throughout the scientific community and in 1672 he was elected member of the Royal Society. That same year Newton publishes his first paper on colors.

Newton’s eighteen months at Woolsthorpe were legendary. His insights on intervals almost as small as zero became the foundations of infinitesimal calculus. His understanding of forces and gravity becomes the cornerstone of his Magnus Opus the “Principia” (published in 1689). He would later be elected as President of the Royal Society in 1703 as well as serving as a member of parliament in 1689 and 1701. Though well honored and distinguished, Sir Isaac Newton publishes his second major work “Opicks” in 1704, long after his initial discoveries at his home in Woolsthorpe.

Special thanks to Fran May for the featured image

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EUREKA! I discovered it! EUREKA!

King Heron II of Syracuse commissions a solid gold crown made for one of his temples and supplies necessary resources. When completed, something was wrong with the crown, it seems large and bulky but weighs the same as the original gold bar. Intuitively, Heron believes the goldsmith cheated him by substituting cheaper metals in place of a portion of the gold, but Heron had no way to back up his claim without destroying the crown. In frustration, Heron calls on the best engineer and mathematician of the time, Archimedes.

Archimedes 287 BC – 212 BC is considered one of the best mathematicians of antiquity and all time.

Archimedes was perplexed; if the goldsmith did cheat Heron than the crown would have to have more volume than a gold bar of the same weight. Cheaper metals such as silver was lighter than gold requiring more volume to give the same weight. Archimedes’ only course of action is to melt the crown into a bar and calculate the volume, destroying the crown in the process. Archimedes could not do that, he needs calculating volume of an irregular object without destroying it.

Confused Archimedes takes a bath to cool off. As he steps in the water level rises, he steps out and it drops. It turns out that water levels can be used to determine volume, thus a way to measure the volume of the crown and not destroying it. Immediately, Archimedes jumps out of the bath and without putting on any article of clothing, he runs through the streets of Syracuse screaming, “EUREKA! EUREKA! EUREKA!”

With the King’s permission, Archimedes takes the crown and a bar of gold with the same weight. It turns out that the crown displaces more water than the gold bar, meaning that the crown is less dense than pure gold, meaning that the goldsmith had cheated Heron.

However this is not the only episode of Archimedes’ brilliance. Archimedes drains bodies of water and vastly improve agricultural irrigation with his invention, the Archimedes’ screw. This invention paves the way for propellers for ships and planes. His rope and pulley systems reduces the force needed to lift heavy objects. Lastly, his innovations vastly improved the city’s defenses.

Archimedes was also millenniums ahead of his time. In his lost notes Archimedes calculates volume using a technique where he slices up objects into smaller and more manageable objects and sums them up. The smaller the slices the better the measurement, predating integral calculus for almost 2000 years. Thus Archimedes is one of the best innovator of his time.

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Fibonacci’s Numbers: a better way of doing business

In medieval Europe doing business requires an abacus, basic arithmetic was nearly impossible without it. Arithmetic with roman numerals was done by counting each of the individual symbols on the abacus. Thus merchants and bankers needed to be skilled using an abacus or hired a skilled abacist. Business, commerce and mathematics was slow, inefficient and costly. To Leonardo of Pisa, there was a better way.

Leonardo Bonacci “Fibonacci” was an Italian mathematician who was one of the first to introduce the Arabic Number system to Western Europe

Leonardo of Pisa (1170 -1240) better known as Fibonacci, travels throughout the Mediterranean to study with Arab mathematicians. The Arabs had their own number system that did not require an abacus. With 10 symbols, 0-9, they could represent large numbers and were easier to handle. Arab traders, merchants and bankers did not need to be skilled at using an abacus or hire abacists, they only needed something to write on. Seeing the benefit, Fibonacci returns to Pisa in 1202 with his book “Liber Abaci”, the first book in western Europe to use the Arabic number system.

In the “Liber Abaci”, the book of calculations, Fibonacci details how the Arabic number system can be applied to business. He shows how businessmen can quickly add numbers, calculate interest rates and  convert currencies. He shows how this number system can be applied to well known mathematical theorems and formulas. He also shows how it can easily compute a series of numbers which would bear his nickname: the Fibonacci number sequence.

His work revolutionizes mathematics and commerce in Europe as many began adopting and promoting the Arabic number system over the Roman Numerals. Unfortunately due to the cost of paper, adoption of the Arabic Number system wasn’t wide spread until the late 16th century.

For his work on bringing the Arabic number system to Europe, Fibonacci not only proves commerce but greatly impacts western thought.

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The Longitude Problem

On October 22 1707, a fleet of English ships returning home from a war with France, meets tragedy. While believing they were on course for Portsmouth England, four ships ran aground on the Scilly Islands killing about 1400 men. In turns out that the fleet was only five degrees longitude west from their destination. Realizing that sailors had no way of calculating their longitude, the Board of Longitude formed in 1714, promises a reward of £20,000 (several million today) to anyone who could provide a solution.

John Harrison (3 April 1693– 24 March 1776) was an English carpenter and watch maker.

The problem is so significant that the board is comprised of prominent figures such as Sir Isaac Newton, and attracts the attention of prominent mathematicians and scientists such as Leohard Euler. Though a grand and seemingly complicated problem, the solution comes from a simple watch maker, John Harrison.

Harrison realizes that the answer istime. Since the earth revolves once every 24 hours a location 15 degrees longitude away from home-port would be one hour different than the time at home-port. Thus a sailor only needs to know the time at his location and his time at home-port and from there calculate the longitude.

The H4 Chronometer created by John Harrison was very effective. A replica was tested by Captain James Cook who praised its accuracy.

The only problem was that clocks at the time weren’t accurate at seas since the rocking motions and temperatures made the pendulum unable to keep time. Harrison chose to replace the pendulum with what today is called a balanced wheel. The balanced wheel like the pendulum swung back and forth to count time, the difference was that the balance wheel relied on springs rather than gravity.

The board claiming that Harrison’s H4 Chronometer was insufficient, awards Harrison £10,000. Harrison pleads his case to King George III. King George personally tests one of Harrison’s chronometers for ten weeks in his palace. After months of testing, Parliament awards Harrison an additional £8750 but most importantly, Harrison is given recognition for solving the longitude problem. Three years later, on 24 March 1776, Harrison dies.

Harrison’s life long dedication to clock making not only solves the longitude problem but revolutionizes Oceanic travel. Accurate time keep would later become the foundation of today’s GPS navigation system.

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