Published on 13 Feb 2017
Filmed at Romagne 14-18 museum: http://romagne14-18.com
Plastic and reconstructive surgery saw rapid development during World War 1. Modern medical care and better equipment increased the chances of survival for the soldiers. But these survivors were often disfigured or lost limbs as a result. To help them return to a somewhat normal life, reconstructive surgeons developed methods to restore their faces and aided them with prosthetics.
February 14, 2017
January 25, 2017
New and improved fabric technologies haven’t attracted public enthusiasm since the backlash against leisure suits and disco shirts made synthetics declassé in the early 1980s. ‘Pity poor polyester. People pick on it,’ wrote The Wall Street Journal’s Ronald Alsop in 1982, describing DuPont’s efforts to rehabilitate the fibre’s image.
What ended the consumer hatred of polyester wasn’t a marketing campaign. It was a quiet series of technical innovations: the development of microfibres. These are synthetics, most often polyester or nylon, that are thinner than silk and incredibly soft, as well as lightweight, strong, washable and quick-drying. Their shapes can be engineered to control how water vapour and heat pass through the fabric or to create microcapsules to add sunscreen, antimicrobial agents or insect repellent. Over the past decade, microfibres have become ubiquitous; they’re found in everything from wickable workout wear to supersoft plush toys.
Microfibres are one reason the ‘air-conditioned’ fabrics Loewy and his fellow designers foresaw in 1939 have finally come to pass. These fabrics just aren’t promoted in the pages of Vogue or highlighted on the racks at Banana Republic. They don’t attract attention during New York Fashion Week. Their tribe gathers instead at the big Outdoor Retailer trade shows held twice a year in Salt Lake City. There, outdoor-apparel makers and their suppliers tout textiles that keep wearers warm in the cold and cool in the heat; that block raindrops but allow sweat to escape; that repel insects, screen out UV rays and control odour. By establishing that truly weather-resistant fabrics were possible, Gore-Tex (first sold in 1976) and Polartec synthetic fleece (1979) created an industry where engineers now vie to find ever-better ways to conquer the elements. For instance, ‘smart textiles’ originally developed for spacesuits use microencapsulated materials that melt when they get hot, keeping wearers comfortable by absorbing body heat; when temperatures fall, the materials solidify and warm the body.
Looking forward, academic researchers have bigger things in mind. Noting that ‘a large portion of energy continues to be wasted on heating empty space and non‑human objects,’ the materials scientist Yi Cui and his colleagues at Stanford envision replacing central heating systems with ‘personal thermal management’, using breathable fabrics coated in a solution of silver nanowires. The fabrics not only trap body heat: given an imperceptible bit of electric charge, they can actually warm the skin.
Other scientists are looking at ways to make fabric turn body heat or motion into usable energy for low-powered electronics. And some hope to make the temperature-regulating effects of smart textiles work without liquids, whose microencapsulation requires substantial energy use. Shifting the focus from outdoor leisure to indoor life – from fighting the elements to everyday energy use and climate control – dramatically reframes several decades of fabric advances, making textiles part of a larger story about energy and the environment.
January 23, 2017
Published on 13 Oct 2015
Covering some of the same territory is my post on British battleship design from the end of the Napoleonic era to the 1880s.
January 21, 2017
Published on 14 Oct 2016
Easily cook up to 6-strips of regular or thick cut bacon in minutes with the Bacon Express! Vertical cooking drains away grease for healthier bacon! Removable non-stick cooking plate and insulated door liners make for easy cleanup. Making bacon is easier than ever!
H/T to Georgia Reams for the link.
[In] 1815, George Stephenson, a humble, self-taught engine-wright with an impenetrable Geordie accent (to which he probably gave the name), put together all the key inventions that — at last — made steam locomotion practicable: the smooth wheels, counter-intuitively less likely to slip if heavily laden; the steam-blast into the chimney to accelerate the draught over the coals; the vertical cylinders connecting directly with the wheels; the connecting rods between the wheels. A year later came his redesign of rails themselves, then later his multi-tubular boiler.
As his biographer, Samuel Smiles, put it:
“Thus, in the year 1815, Mr Stephenson, by dint of patient and persevering labour … had succeeded in manufacturing an engine which … as a mechanical contrivance, contained the germ of all that has since been effected. It may in fact be regarded as the type of the present locomotive engine.”
Suddenly the movement of goods and people fast and cheaply over long distances became possible for the first time.
Not content with that, in 1815 Stephenson also invented the miner’s safety lamp (though snobbish London grandees, unable to conceive that such a humble man could have done so, gave and have continued to this day to give the credit to Sir Humphry Davy). The year of Waterloo was an annus mirabilis of the industrial revolution, putting Britain on course to dominate and transform the world, whether we beat Boney or not. Steam, followed by its offspring internal combustion and electricity, would catapult humankind into prosperity.
Incidentally, there is a tenuous connection between Napoleon and Stephenson. If Bonaparte’s conquests and the corn laws had not driven up the price of corn, then horse feed would have been cheaper and the coal owners who employed Stephenson would not have risked so much money in letting him build a machine to try to find a less expensive way to pull wagons of coals from the pithead in Killingworth to the staithes on the Tyne.
Matt Ridley, “Waterloo or railways”, Matt Ridley Online, 2015-06-18.
January 18, 2017
Whether they were captives in ancient Crete, orphans in the Florentine Ospedale degli Innocenti, widows in South India or country wives in Georgian England, women through the centuries spent their lives spinning, especially after water wheels freed up time previously devoted to grinding grain. Turning fibre into thread was a time-consuming, highly skilled craft, requiring dexterity and care. Even after the spread of the spinning wheel in the Middle Ages, the finest, most consistent yarn, as well as strong warp threads in general, still came from the most ancient of techniques: drop spinning, using a hooked or notched stick with a weight as a flywheel.
Spinning was the major bottleneck in making cloth. In the late 18th century, the thriving worsted industry in Norwich in the east of England employed 12,000 looms but 10 times as many spinners producing fine wool thread. The demand for spinning was so high, estimates the economic historian Craig Muldrew, that it employed more than a million married women in an English workforce of 4 million, providing about a third of the income of poorer families.
A spinster is a woman who spins. Unmarried women with no children and few domestic chores could work longer hours without distraction, earning as much as male day-labourers and, Muldrew suggests, possibly delaying or even avoiding marriage. Spinning also gave poor girls a more lucrative option than domestic service, leading to complaints of a servant shortage. With labour short and wages high, the eve of the Industrial Revolution was a great time to be a spinster.
But a bottleneck is a problem waiting to be solved, and inventors started looking for ways to get more thread with less labour. Like self-driving cars or cheap, clean energy today, spinning machines seemed obviously desirable. In 1760, Britain’s Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce offered prizes for ‘a Machine that will spin Six Threads of Wool, Flax, Cotton, or Silk at one time, and that will require but one Person to work it’.
Nobody won, but within a few years the northern English carpenter James Hargreaves introduced the spinning jenny. It was, writes the economic historian Beverly Lemire in Cotton (2011), ‘the first robust machine that could consistently produce multiple spindles of thread from the effort of a single spinster’. Soon after, his fellow Lancastrian inventor Richard Arkwright refined mechanical spinning with water-powered innovations that improved thread quality and integrated carding and roving (twisting fibres to prepare them for spinning) into a single process. Arkwright’s mills decisively moved thread production from the cottage to the factory.
It was suddenly a bad time to be a spinster, or a family whose household income depended in part on spinning.
November 27, 2016
In February 1939, Vogue ran a major feature on the fashions of the future. Inspired by the soon-to-open New York World’s Fair, the magazine asked nine industrial designers to imagine what the people of ‘a far Tomorrow’ might wear and why. (The editors deemed fashion designers too of-the-moment for such speculations.) A mock‑up of each outfit was manufactured and photographed for a lavish nine-page colour spread.
You might have seen some of the results online: an evening dress with a see-through net top and strategically placed swirls of gold braid, for instance, or a baggy men’s jumpsuit with a utility belt and halo antenna. Bloggers periodically rediscover a British newsreel of models demonstrating the outfits while a campy narrator (‘Oh, swish!’) makes laboured jokes. The silly get‑ups are always good for self-satisfied smirks. What dopes those old-time prognosticators were!
The ridicule is unfair. Anticipating climate-controlled interiors, greater nudity, more athleticism, more travel and simpler wardrobes, the designers actually got a lot of trends right. Besides, the mock‑ups don’t reveal what really made the predicted fashions futuristic. Looking only at the pictures, you can’t detect the most prominent technological theme.
‘The important improvements and innovations in clothes for the World of Tomorrow will be in the fabrics themselves,’ declared Raymond Loewy, one of the Vogue contributors. His fellow visionaries agreed. Every single one talked about textile advances. Many of their designs specified yet-to-be-invented materials that could adjust to temperature, change colour or be crushed into suitcases without wrinkling. Without exception, everyone foretelling the ‘World of Tomorrow’ believed that an exciting future meant innovative new fabrics.
They all understood something we’ve largely forgotten: that textiles are technology, more ancient than bronze and as contemporary as nanowires. We hairless apes co-evolved with our apparel. But, to reverse Arthur C Clarke’s adage, any sufficiently familiar technology is indistinguishable from nature. It seems intuitive, obvious – so woven into the fabric of our lives that we take it for granted.
November 13, 2016
Published on 12 Nov 2016
It’s time for another exciting episode of Out Of The Trenches. This week we talk about the Olympic Games 1916, how the Germans reacted to the first tanks and about barbed wire.
November 4, 2016
In the Economist, a look at a very different kind of wine appliance:
To create a new wine the customer manipulates three sliders on a touch screen attached to the machine. One moves between the extremes of “light” and “full-bodied”. A second runs from “soft”, via “mellow” to “fiery”. The third goes from “sweet” to “dry”. No confusing descriptions like “strawberry notes with a nutty aftertaste” are needed.
The desired glass is then mixed from tanks of each of the four primaries, hidden inside the machine’s plinth. The requisite quantities are pumped into a transparent cone-shaped mixing vessel on top of the plinth. Added air bubbles ensure a good, swirling mix and flashing light-emitting diodes give a suitably theatrical display.
Traditionalists may be appalled by all this, but they should not be. In Mr Wimalaratne’s mind, the function of the Vinfusion system is in principle little different from the blending of grape varieties that goes on in many vineyards, to produce wines more interesting than those based on a single variety. Moreover, if Vinfusion works as intended, it will let people experiment with oenological flavours in a way that is currently impossible and which lets them discover what appeals. A decent sommelier ought then to be able to recommend wines vinified in the conventional way that will taste similar.
In the longer run, recording and collating the requests made to a group of Vinfusion machines might even help restaurants and bars stock bottles that people will like, rather than merely tolerate. And if all this happens, the snobbery and mystique surrounding wine—whether blended in the vineyard or the restaurant—may disappear for good.
The selected “component” wines are chosen for their vintage-to-vintage consistency, so that there’s a lower variability in the wines used to blend your personal selection. This almost certainly wouldn’t work as well with wines from cool climate areas (like Ontario).
October 23, 2016
Published on 22 Oct 2016
Start your free trial of the Great Courses Plus at: http://ow.ly/KUvh30491YZ
Indy is sitting int he chair of wisdom again and answers all your questions about the First World War. This week we talk about technical and tactical innovation, pals battalions and the German officers in the Ottoman Army.
September 17, 2016
At Samizdata, Patrick Crozier gets all contrarian about the tank in a post he titles “Haig’s greatest mistake”:
On 15 September 1916 tanks made their debut at Flers-Courcelette, one of the many engagements which took place during the Battle of the Somme.
The battle marked the beginning of a sorry chapter in British military history because the truth – a truth that to this day few seem prepared to acknowledge – is that the First World War tank was useless.
The list of its failings is lengthy. It was slow, it was unreliable, it had no suspension and it was horrible to operate. The temperature inside was typically over 100°F and as exhaust gases built up so crew effectiveness collapsed. It was also highly vulnerable. Field artillery could take it out easily. Even rifle ammunition could be effective against it. While normal bullets might not be able to penetrate the armour they could knock off small pieces of metal from the inside – known as spall – which then whizzed round the interior wounding all and sundry.
That the tank was the brainchild of Winston Churchill from his days as head of the Admiralty should have alerted senior commanders to the possibility that it was yet another of his crackpot schemes. But they persisted. For his part, Haig being a technophile put a huge amount of faith in the new invention. His diary is littered with references to the tank and he seems to have made great efforts to secure ever more of them. In consequence, huge amounts of effort went into a technological dead end when it would have been far better spent on guns, shells and fuzes.
Not that such efforts were ever likely to satisfy the snake-oil salesmen who made up the ranks of the tank enthusiasts. In the face of tank failure after tank failure they simply claimed that their beloved weapon just wasn’t being used properly.
September 16, 2016
Published on 15 Sep 2016
For years the British had developed the idea of the “landship” or tank and now it was finally ready for the first deployment during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. And even though technical problems plagued the new invention, the British leadership was confident that this new weapon would break the stalemate at the Western Front for good. In the meantime Germany was focusing all offensive efforts on the Romanian front to mercilessly crush the new enemy.
September 13, 2016
Published on 12 Sep 2016
The idea for an armoured vehicle that could withstand fire and travel across battlefields was already developed in 1914 after the Race to the Sea. The British “Landship Committee” developed the tank weapon in secrecy. The French were also trying out different designs at the same time. Learn all about the development and the invention of the tank in our special episode.
April 17, 2016
In a 2015 paper titled Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?, a team of scholars at the National Bureau of Economic Research sought an empirical basis for a remark made by the physicist Max Planck: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
The researchers identified more than 12,000 “elite” scientists from different fields. The criteria for elite status included funding, number of publications, and whether they were members of the National Academies of Science or the Institute of Medicine. Searching obituaries, the team found 452 who had died before retirement. They then looked to see what happened to the fields from which these celebrated scientists had unexpectedly departed, by analysing publishing patterns.
What they found confirmed the truth of Planck’s maxim. Junior researchers who had worked closely with the elite scientists, authoring papers with them, published less. At the same time, there was a marked increase in papers by newcomers to the field, who were less likely to cite the work of the deceased eminence. The articles by these newcomers were substantive and influential, attracting a high number of citations. They moved the whole field along.
A scientist is part of what the Polish philosopher of science Ludwik Fleck called a “thought collective”: a group of people exchanging ideas in a mutually comprehensible idiom. The group, suggested Fleck, inevitably develops a mind of its own, as the individuals in it converge on a way of communicating, thinking and feeling.
This makes scientific inquiry prone to the eternal rules of human social life: deference to the charismatic, herding towards majority opinion, punishment for deviance, and intense discomfort with admitting to error. Of course, such tendencies are precisely what the scientific method was invented to correct for, and over the long run, it does a good job of it. In the long run, however, we’re all dead, quite possibly sooner than we would be if we hadn’t been following a diet based on poor advice.
Ian Leslie, “The sugar conspiracy”, Guardian, 2016-04-07.