It’s hard to believe that anything as jaw-droppingly futuristic could be 53 years old, but the lava lamp (or astro lamp as it was originally known) has been around that long.
Invented by a British accountant named Edward Craven -Walker in 1963, the lava lamp quickly became an icon of 1960s psychedelia, with news of the product spread by worth-of-mouth.
The lamps work by using a light bulb to heat a bottle containing coloured oil and water (and some other minor chemicals – but those are the main two). The oil and water have similar densities but are insoluble to one another, meaning they don’t mix.
When the bottle is heated the oil absorbs the heat first, expanding in size as it does so. The expansion means that it becomes less dense and begins floating upwards.
As it floats up it cools, contracts and falls back to the bottom of the bottle, starting the chain of events all over again.
This continual slow motion process is based around very slight differences in density between the oil and water – the balance between them is like a very sensitive pair of scales, with small amounts of heat tipping the balance back and forth.
Bizarrely, the assembly line robots who help the humans have come from Detroit’s collapsed motor industry.
On 15 March 15, 1892, the young Jesse W. Reno, one of five children of the Civil War hero (who, just for the record, our Biggest Little City is named after), patented his moving stairs or inclined elevator as he called it.
With a rather inauspicious curtain opener, Reno created a novelty ride at the Old Iron Pier in Coney Island, N.Y., a moving platform if you will, that elevated passengers on a conveyor belt at a 25 degree angle to another level from which they now had to walk down.
You had to hold on tight with this design because the steps were also inclined at a 25 degree angle causing many people to stand sideways, one foot higher than the other.
Although a little hard on the feet, Reno used his profits from that venture to begin a small production facility, eventually founding the Reno Electric Stairways and Conveyors company in 1902.
Reviewing his patent today (470,918), it seems to have most of the things we take for granted in an escalator.
The moving belt was made of sections of cast iron and had grooves cut into it to comb people off of the steps at the end, preventing them from getting caught as the belt turned around a large end roller below the floor level.
It also incorporated a moving handrail to which passengers could grab onto for “… the feeling of security and comfort as they move along.” A great invention for its time but one other people were working on as well.
Jesse W. Reno.
In 1896, Chicago engineer Charles Seeberger came up with an idea for a spiral type escalator that also used a moving belt. His design was novel in that it had separations that rode in grooves on the upwards helix to the next floor.
About the same time George Wheeler of New York invented a flat step escalator and received patent 617,788 for his design. This one allowed people to stand upright comfortably as they moved between floors.
All of this people-moving business was newsworthy and eventually attracted the attention of the Otis Elevator company — a leader in the enterprise of transporting people vertically from one floor to another.
By 1899, Seeberger bought out Wheeler’s patent, probably realizing it was an improvement over his own, and coined the name “escalator” from the word “scala,” which is Latin for steps and the word “elevator.”
He was hired by Otis as a design engineer. Sensing escalators might intrude on their elevators, the Yonkers, N.Y., business invested heavily in its design and produced the first commercial one in direct competition with Reno’s company in 1899.
Within a short time the new Otis wooden escalator — with Seeberger’s help — won first prize at the Paris 1900 Exposition. Seeberger eventually sold his patents to Otis in 1910 and the next year Reno followed suit.
According to Otis history, “In the 1920s, Otis engineers, led by David Lindquist, combined and improved the Jesse Reno and Charles Seeberger escalator designs, and created the cleated, level steps of the modern escalator in use today.”
Over the years, Otis dominated the escalator business but lost the product’s trademark.
The word escalator lost its proprietary status and its capital “e” in 1950 when the U.S. Patent Office ruled the word “escalator” had become just a common descriptive term for moving stairways.
Just like Kleenex and Jell-O, the word was used so much it became part of our vocabulary.
Photo: World’s Longest Pencil, 65 Feet in Length, (Kuala Lumpur).
1 There is no risk of lead poisoning if you stab yourself with a pencil because it contains no lead—just a mixture of clay and graphite. Still, pencil wounds carry a risk of infection .
2 Graphite, a crystallized form of carbon, was discovered near Keswick, England, in the mid-16th century. An 18th-century German chemist, A. G. Werner, named it, sensibly enough, from the Greek graphein, “to write.”
3 The word “pencil” derives from the Latin penicillus, which means strangely enough “little tail.”
4 Pencil marks are made when tiny graphite flecks, often just thousandths of an inch wide, stick to the fibres that make up paper.
5 The average pencil holds enough graphite to draw a line about 35 miles long or to write roughly 45,000 words. Who was the lunatic who tested that?
6 French pencil inventors include Nicolas-Jacques Conté, who patented a clay-and-graphite manufacturing process in 1795; Bernard Lassimone, who patented the first pencil sharpener in 1828; and Therry des Estwaux, who invented an improved mechanical sharpener in 1847.
7 French researchers also hit on the idea of using caoutchouc, a vegetable gum now known as rubber, to erase pencil marks. Until then, writers removed mistakes with bread crumbs.
8 Most pencils sold in America today have eraser tips, while those sold in Europe usually have none.
9 In 1861, Eberhard Faber (picured) built the first American mass-production pencil factory in New York City.
10 Pencils were among the basic equipment issued to Union soldiers during the Civil War.
11 The mechanical pencil was patented in 1822. The company founded by its British developers prospered until 1941, when the factory was bombed, presumably by pencil-hating Nazis.
12 More than half of all pencils come from China. In 2004, factories there turned out 10 billion pencils, enough to circle the earth more than 40 times.
13 Pencils can write in zero gravity and so were used on early American and Russian space missions—even though NASA engineers worried about the flammability of wood pencils those concerns inspired Paul Fisher to develop the pressurized Fisher Space Pen in 1965.
14 The world’s largest pencil is a Castell 9000, on display at the manufacturer’s plant near Kuala Lumpur.
Made of Malaysian wood and polymer, it stands 65 feet high.
It’s virtually impossible to imagine the contemporary office without at least a few sticky Post-It notes stuck on the computer monitor.
The Post-It note has injected its sunny yellow colour into the dullest office environment for over 30 years and would appear at first glance to be an item with a clear design brief.
It was, in fact, the result of a happy accident.
In 1968 a chemist called Dr Spencer Silver, working for the American 3M company, was developing adhesives that were strong enough to hold two materials together without it being a permanent adhesion.
Calling himself a ‘molecular architect’ he was looking for something called ‘peel adhesion’, which basically meant an adhesive that had mobility, the ability to be re-used.
Constituted from tiny individual spheres of glue (a word that Silver disliked due to its clumsy connotation of boiled-down animal bones), this new adhesive was reusable, maintaining its stickiness no matter how many times papers applied with it were attached and re-attached.
No one could quite see how this might be useful, although the possible notion of using it in an aerosol can as a spray-on glue seemed a likely outcome.
But Dr Silver was so taken with this new adhesive that he gave seminars about it throughout the company whenever possible—which is how Art Fry, a colleague at 3M who had worked on the development of sticky tape, came to remember it.
Zeppo Marx was the most mechanically inclined of the family. It is even said that he kept the family car in running order.
After leaving the group in the early 1930s, Marx met a Douglass Aircraft executive at the racetrack. The executive told the vaudevillian and movie star that he was short on machinists and was, therefore, short on machine parts.
Zeppo started work on those parts out of his garage and soon formed the company, Marman Products, known for marketing the Marman clamp, which is still commonly used in the aviation and aerospace industries.
Thus began Zeppo’s second successful career. A Day At The Races indeed!
Zeppo also received a total of three patents.
The first was in 1952 for a Vapor Delivery Pad for Distributing Moist Heat (also known as a heating pad), a common item still in use to this day.
The other two patents were received in 1969 for “Cardiac pulse rate monitor” and “method and watch mechanism for actuation by a cardiac pulse.”
When used together, they were meant to alert people with heart problems.
The watch part had two dials. One was driven by the wearer’s pulse and the other operated at a normal heartbeat rate. So, if the pulse-driven part – which was run by an electric powered magnet – started to go too fast or too slow, it would trigger an audible alarm. In other words, it was an early heart rate monitor.