The summer of 1799 saw a new fad take hold in one remarkable circle of British society: the inhalation of “Laughing Gas”.
The overseer and pioneer of these experiments was a young Humphry Davy, future President of the Royal Society.
Mike Jay explores how Davy’s extreme and near-fatal regime of self-experimentation with the gas not only marked a new era in the history of science but a turn toward the philosophical and literary romanticism of the century to come.
Detail from a satirical print from 1830 depicting Humphry Davy administering a dose of Laughing Gas to a woman while Count Rumford looks on (cropped out of the picture above), above the caption “Prescription for Scolding Wives” – Source Wikimedia.
On Boxing Day of 1799 the twenty-year-old chemist Humphry Davy (picture below) – later to become Sir Humphry, inventor of the miners’ lamp, President of the Royal Society and domineering genius of British science – stripped to the waist, placed a thermometer under his armpit and stepped into a sealed box specially designed by the engineer James Watt for the inhalation of gases, into which he requested the physician Dr. Robert Kinglake to release twenty quarts of nitrous oxide every five minutes for as long as he could retain consciousness.
The experiment was taking place in the lamp-lit laboratory of the Pneumatic Institution, an ambitious and controversial medical project where the young Davy had been taken on as laboratory assistant.
It had opened the previous March in Hotwells, a run-down spa at the foot of the Avon Gorge outside Bristol.
Originally developed to rival nearby Bath, Hotwells had dwindled to a downmarket cluster of cheap clinics and miracle-cure outfits offering hydrotherapy or mesmerism to those in the desperate last stages of consumption; but the Pneumatic Institution was a new arrival with revolutionary ambitions.
Its founder, the brilliant and maverick doctor Thomas Beddoes, believed that the new gases with which he and his assistant were experimenting had the power to put the treatment of this most lethal of diseases onto a proper scientific footing for the first time, and in the process to transform the art of medicine.
A stapler is a very satisfying object, securely attaching paper with a pleasing crunch.
Small wonder that it is so often a child’s favourite stationery item. The emergence of the stapler reflects a rise in the use of paper within offices during the 19th century.
Previously, sheets of paper had been held together by pins or string or, in the case of legal documents, red tape. It is often reported that in the 18th century France’s King Louis XVI used the very first, suitably ornate stapler, but there is no evidence to support this.
Not everyone liked the idea of a metal fixing. In the early 1900s, several devices were invented which punched through and then wove the papers together in one action, but the idea never really took off.
The notion of creating a more secure fastening, however, was given a boost when Philadelphian Henry Heyl patented a stapling device in 1877 which could attach and fasten papers in one action.
Heyls’ invention was closely followed in 1879 by fellow American George McGill’s commercially available stapler, which drove a 12 millimetre length of wire through papers and then folded its ends when the top of the machine was thumped down with a single-stroke, rather like a test-your-strength game at a fairground.
This was simplicity itself; the key to any good stapler is the ability for one hand to hold the papers while the other operates the stapler.
It was first displayed in Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and is a heavy object that looks a little like a Singer sewing machine.
This eventually led to smaller and lighter staplers, and magazines that held up to 200 staples were commonplace by the 1920s.
Not everyone liked the idea of a metal fixing, however.
In the early 1900s, several devices were invented which punched through and then wove papers together in one action, but the idea never really took off.
In some parts of Ethiopia, finding potable water is a six-hour journey.
People in the region spend 40 billion hours a year trying to find and collect water, says a group called the Water Project. And even when they find it, the water is often not safe, collected from ponds or lakes teeming with infectious bacteria, contaminated with animal waste or other harmful substances.
The water scarcity issue—which affects nearly 1 billion people in Africa alone—has drawn the attention of big-name philanthropists like actor and Water.org co-founder Matt Damon and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who, through their respective nonprofits, have poured millions of dollars into research and solutions, coming up with things like a system that converts toilet water to drinking water and a “Re-invent the Toilet Challenge,” among others.
Critics, however, have their doubts about integrating such complex technologies in remote villages that don’t even have access to a local repairman. Costs and maintenance could render many of these ideas impractical.
“If the many failed development projects of the past 60 years have taught us anything,” wrote one critic, Toilets for People founder Jason Kasshe, in a New York Times editorial, “it’s that complicated, imported solutions do not work.”
Other low-tech inventions, like this life straw, aren’t as complicated, but still rely on users to find a water source.
It was this dilemma—supplying drinking water in a way that’s both practical and convenient—that served as the impetus for a new product called Warka Water, an inexpensive, easily-assembled structure that extracts gallons of fresh water from the air.
The invention from Arturo Vittori, an industrial designer, and his colleague Andreas Vogler doesn’t involve complicated gadgetry or feats of engineering, but instead relies on basic elements like shape and material and the ways in which they work together.
At first glance, the 30-foot-tall, vase-shaped towers, named after a fig tree native to Ethiopia, have the look and feel of a showy art installation. But every detail, from carefully-placed curves to unique materials, has a functional purpose.
A bigger factor behind the decline in sales of microwaves is likely that Americans just aren’t using them as much anymore.
A shift in eating habits—which favors freshness and quality over speed and convenience—has left a growing number of microwaves dormant on kitchen counters.
“Microwaves have sort of had their day,” says John Owen, a senior industry analyst at Mintel.
The microwave, like many ingenious inventions before it, was birthed by mistake.
Before microwave radiation melted cheese, it served as the magic behind radars, which sent microwave signals out to objects to gauge their distance.
But in 1945, Percy Spencer, an engineer at Raytheon, the maker of the first microwave, noticed something peculiar while experimenting with the technology. The high-powered radar turned a chocolate bar in Spencer’s pocket into goo.
He then deliberately experimented with—you guessed it—popcorn. And it worked. Next, he tried an egg, which promptly exploded (onto a nearby coworker, as the story goes.)
“The microwave energy is like rubbing your hands together, only it rubs the molecules of food together as they are vibrating three thousand million times a second,” Norman Krim, a former vice president at Raytheon explained in a documentary about the device.
Shortly after Spencer’s discovery, Raytheon invested heavily in developing the first commercial microwave.
It was called the Radarange, and it was ridiculously powerful. It could, according to its manual, fry an egg in only 12 seconds.
But it was also the size of a refrigerator, stood almost six feet tall, weighed over 700 pounds (320 kilograms), and cost $3,000.
Raytheon’s first microwave, the Radarange, was a verifiable giant by modern microwave standards (see above).
Given its hefty size (and price), the world’s first microwave was almost exclusively used on ships and trains, and at restaurants, where food needed to be prepared efficiently for many people.
A separate slightly-less-bulky and cheaper version was developed in 1955 for the home.
But it was still too big, and at $1,300, too expensive for mass use.
In smaller living spaces, bike storage can be a tricky thing to figure out.
A cumbersome bicycle is great for transportation needs, but it takes up a lot of room inside a home.
For those who live in an apartment, the vehicle generally ends up parked right beside the living room couch or hanging on the wall in the hallway.
As a solution to this problem, Italian designer Gianluca Sada, of Sada Bike, has come up with an amazing solution for easy bicycle storage and transport.
He developed a spokeless design constructed with standard 26″ wheel dimensions for a quick jaunt around town but then, when it’s time to park, the wheels disconnect and the entire frame folds up as small as an average umbrella.
The working prototype would make a huge difference to urban dwellers who are often lacking storage space and Sada is currently seeking investors to make the product a reality.
“The project may pave the way for a new system of mobility outside the classical schemes, widely accessible and easily transportable,” explains Sada. “Personal style and extreme versatility give dynamism to the traditional bicycle, the subject increasingly required in this environmentally friendly age.”
This peculiar device, in the collection of the Science Museum in South Kensington, London, looks like a tiny gas chamber a movie villain would use.
Throw in your enemy—in this case, a small innocent canary—close the hatch, turn open the valve to let in poisonous gas from the cylinder above, and then laugh manically as the bird suffocates and dies.
In reality, it’s the opposite. This device is used not to kill canaries, but to revive them. The cylinder attached to the top of the metal box contains life giving oxygen.
They are known as Canary Resuscitators. Coal miners used to go down to work carrying canaries with them in glass chambers such as these.
Underground mines can contain potentially deadly gases such as carbon monoxide that can form during an accident such as fire or an explosion.
The colorless gas is equally deadly to both humans and canaries alike, but canaries are much more susceptible to the gas, and react more quickly and visibly than humans do, thus alerting miners to the presence of the poisonous gas.
When a disaster strikes inside a mine, rescue workers would descend into the mine carrying a canary in a Resuscitator.
The glass and metal box has a circular open door in the front to let air in, but a grill prevents the canary from escaping.
If there is carbon monoxide in the air, the canary would show signs of distress. It would start swaying noticeably on its perch and eventually fall of it.
If the canary loses consciousness, the door to the box would be closed and the valve opened, allowing oxygen from the tank on top to be released and revive the canary.