Undergrads reinvent the cardboard box

Two juniors at Cooper Union have re-invented the cardboard box, making a tape-free container that's more environmentally-friendly and easier to use. Why didn't the box-making industry think of this 50 years ago? (Thanks, Matthew!)

7 inventions that failed miserably

I like this Smithsonian story that plays with the Edison/Tesla mythology, wherein Edison was the guy who made business-savvy decisions and Tesla was the financial failure. Set your schadenfreude to stun and enjoy this list of 7 Edison ideas that fell flat, including a supremely creepy talking baby doll.

Ten cool inventions unveiled at Engadget's Expand event

Machines that bend strong steel wire have been an important part of industrial manufacturing for decades. But on Saturday, I saw a $3,000 wire-bending machine the size of a laser printer, and my brain bubbled with excitement over the possibilities for hobbyists and small businesses. The machine, called the DIWire, can take a curve that's been drawn in Adobe Illustrator and "print" it on a length of stiff wire. You could make some awesome Eames-style furniture with one of these machines. NASA is already interested in using it to make antennae. It opens new frontiers for artists and designers, too.

Read the rest

Tesla vs. Edison vs. The Great Men of History

Whether you think Tesla > Edison or Edison > Tesla, perhaps you’re missing something important. In reality, technology isn’t shaped by one guy who had one great idea and changed the world. Instead, it’s a messy process, full of flat-out failures and not-quite-successes, and populated by many great minds who build off of and are inspired by each other’s work.

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The history of margarine

Writer Christine Baumgarthuber has a really interesting article in the June issue of Dissent magazine about what working-class Victorians ate, and how their diets (and health) changed with the introduction of relative convenience foods, cheaper sugar, and margarine.

I don't know the cultural history of food—or the medical history of changes in public health—well enough to know whether Baumgarthuber's piece represents a full, nuanced perspective. (Dissent is a well-written and frequently interesting magazine, but it can't really be called an unbiased source.) But I did want to share a short bit from that article about the invention of margarine, which is absolutely fascinating:

Sometime in the 1860s the enterprising French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès made an important discovery. He took a pound of beef tallow soaked beforehand in a solution of 15 percent common salt and 1 percent sulfate of soda, slowly rendered it at 103 degrees Fahrenheit, poured in gastric juices of a pig, and sprinkled it with biphosphate of lime. This curdled mixture he spun in a centrifuge before adding a splash of cream. The resulting opalescent, jelly-like substance tasted much like butter.

This substance not only won Mège-Mouriès a prize offered by Emperor Napoleon III, who desperately sought a cheap, long-lasting, and easy-to-produce substitute for butter to feed the poor and his antsy army; it also secured him a place in history as the father of oleomargarine, which he patented in 1869. Two years later he sold the patent. Not long after a German pharmacist, who adapted the Frenchman’s formula, commenced its industrial production by establishing the Benedict Klein Margarinewerke.

I grew up eating mostly margarine, rather than butter. In my memory, that's what all of my friends at as well. In fact, I distinctly remember reading Matilda for the first time in grade school and being confused by the book's portrayal of eating margarine as a sign that someone was truly poor. From my perspective back then, butter was a hard, un-spreadable, depressing thing that you only bought when you couldn't afford a tub of Country Crock.

That personal memory made the article really interesting for me, as it traces the history of why margarine was food-for-the-poor. It also adds some background to that Matilda memory by quoting some contemporary public moralizing from the UK about poor people and their dietary choices. Since growing up, I've been able to put my childhood confusion into context in a number of ways, but this is the first time I've read some real background on the history of margarine in a cultural context. Really neat!

Read the full story at Dissent

Via Alexis Madrigal

Image: CWS Gold Seal Margarine. Co-op magazine advert, 1960, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from sludgeulper's photostream

The mother of invention is teamwork

The Atlantic has a collection of stories, demonstrating how major inventions usually have more than one "Father". The stories we like to tell each other about one dude who had one great idea and changed the world are usually just that—stories. Reality is more complicated. For instance, the telegraph was invented by Samuel Morse ... and Charles Wheatstone, Sir William Fothergill Cooke, Edward Davy, and Carl August von Steinhiel. Pretty much all at the same time.

Patent for a wristwatch that tells you how much longer you could expect to live

In 2007, Kevin Kelly started displaying a life expectancy countdown clock on his computer. (I posted about it on Boing Boing.) Here's what he wrote about it:

I've been using this system for several months now and it has been very powerful. Day to day I am aware -- and can rattle off if I am asked - how many days I have left. I decided to post my project today because on my clock it shows a handily rounded off sum. So here is the news: As of today I have 8,500 days left to live. That's not much in my book. I can almost hear them ticking away as we speak. I look at my lifelist of current dreams and I realize that in only 8,500 days I won't get to but a few of them. And what of any new dreams?

(It must be at 6,500 or so now.) I thought of Kevin when I saw this 1991 patent for a “life expectancy timepiece”:


It shows the years, days, hours, minutes, and seconds you have left, according to actuarial data. I think Kevin's "days remaining" presentation is more moving than this watch's display, however. Someone should Kickstart a wristwatch that shows how many days you could expect to live!

Memento Mori

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": Awesome DIY transportation

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit" is a series of posts aimed at giving BoingBoing readers a chance to show off their favorite exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. I'll be featuring posts in this series all week. Want to see them all? Check out the archive post. I'll update the full list there every morning.

I don't have much information on this piece. I don't know who made it, or when. But I do know that it is a hand-made wooden bicycle, produced by a clearly incredible everyday artisan somewhere on the continent of Africa. It's also Mike Lynd's favorite exhibit at the Birmingham, England, Thinktank Science Museum, where the bicycle is part of a larger section dedicated to transportation innovations.

A quick Google search tells me that a tradition of hand-made bikes with wooden parts exists in lots of African countries. I found a video of a man in Malawi riding a bike he built from recycled metal tires attached to a 2-by-4 frame; cart-like wooden bikes built in Rwanda and in the Congo to carry goods and belongings over long distances; and some stories on Jules Bassong, a wood sculptor who toured his native Cameroon on a wooden bicycle he made in 2008.