In 1920, the great Nikola Tesla patented this ingenious valve that allows fluid or gas to flow in one direction but not the other. And it does it based entirely on its geometry without any moving parts. Here is the US patent, number 1,329,559.
We all know the game Operation in which the player must conduct surgery on a curious character named Cavity Sam. As the commercial goes, "It takes a very steady hand." But as sci-tech historian Allison Marsh writes in IEEE Spectrum, Operation evolved from a very different electrified game called Death Valley that was invented in the early 1960s by a University of Illinois industrial design student named John Spinello. From IEEE Spectrum:
Spinello’s game, called Death Valley, didn’t feature a patient, but rather a character lost in the desert. His canteen drained by a bullet hole, he wanders through ridiculous hazards in search of water. Players moved around the board, inserting their game piece—a metal probe—into holes of various sizes. The probe had to go in cleanly without touching the sides; otherwise it would complete a circuit and sound a buzzer. Spinello’s professor gave him an A....
Spinello sold the idea to Marvin Glass and Associates, a Chicago-based toy design company, for US $500, his name on the U.S. patent (3,333,846), and the promise of a job, which never materialized.
Mel Taft, a game designer at Milton Bradley, saw a prototype of Death Valley and thought it had potential. His team tinkered with the idea but decided it would be more interesting if the players had to remove an object rather than insert a probe. They created a surgery-themed game, and Operation was born.
According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, if current trends in single-use plastic continue, "there could be more plastic than fish (by weight) in the ocean by 2050." Having spent countless family vacations at the beach since she was a child, product design student Lucy Hughes, now 24, was distraught by the amount of single-use plastic she saw littering the shore and water. So she invented a bioplastic made from fish scales and skin collected at a fish processing plant. The scales and skin are bound together with red algae. For her product, called MarinaTex, Hughes just won a James Dyson Award recognizing ingenious design. From Smithsonian:
The resulting product is strong, flexible and translucent, with a feel similar to plastic sheeting. It biodegrades on its own in four to six weeks, which gives it a major sustainability advantage over traditional bioplastics, most of which require industrial composters to break down. In addition to utilizing materials that would otherwise be thrown away, the production process itself uses little energy, since it doesn’t require hot temperatures. One single Atlantic cod fish produces enough waste for 1,400 MarinaTex bags.
Read the rest
In 1943, mechanical engineer Richard James was designing a device that the Navy could use to secure equipment and shipments on ships while they rocked at sea. As the story goes, he dropped the coiled wires he was tinkering with on the ground and watched them tumble end-over-end across the floor.
After dropping the coil, he could have gotten up, frustrated, and chased after it without a second thought. But he—as inventors often do—had a second thought: perhaps this would make a good toy.
As Jonathon Schifman reported for Popular Mechanics, Richard James went home and told his wife, Betty James, about his idea. In 1944, she scoured the dictionary for a fitting name, landing on “slinky,” which means “sleek and sinuous in movement or outline.” Together, with a $500 loan, they co-founded James Industries in 1945, the year the Slinky hit store shelves...
Seventy-two years ago, Richard James received a patent for the Slinky, describing “a helical spring toy which will walk on an amusement platform such as an inclined plane or set of steps from a starting point to successive lower landing points without application of external force beyond the starting force and the action of gravity.” He had worked out the ideal dimensions for the spring, 80-feet of wire into a two-inch spiral. (You can find an exact mathematical equation for the slinky in his patent materials.)
Ralph Teetor, a mechanical engineer who was blind since childhood, invented cruise control because his lawyer's driving nauseated him. Great Big Story has a short video about him and his other inventions. Read the rest
I got to know cartoonist/engineer Tim Hunkin while I was editor-in-chief of Make magazine (here are some of the articles he wrote for me there). Tim has a great sense of humor, and one of the ways he expresses it is by building funny coin-operated amusements with names like “Pet or Meat,” “Autofrisk,” and “My Nuke - Personal Nuclear Reactor”. He has two arcades in England and I would love to visit them sometime.
Here's a longer profile of Tim's work:
Here' the video for "My Nuke":
Harold von Braunhut (1926-2003) was the inventor/marketer behind X-Ray Specs and Amazing Sea-Monkeys. (Apparently von Braunhut was also a nasty racist who, even though he was Jewish, supported the KKK and other white supremacist groups.) Above is the story of von Braunhut's magical brine shrimp that sold themselves through illustrator Joe Orlando's wonderful comic book illustrations of unreal humanoid sea creatures living the life of Riley.
Show here: "Franz Reichelt (d. 1912), who attempted to use this contraption as a parachute. Reichelt died after he jumped off the Eiffel Tower wearing his invention, which failed to operate as expected." Read the rest
America lost a great Maker last week. Stanford R. Ovshinsky was a self-taught engineer and inventor who held more than 400 patents when he died on October 17th at the age of 90. The name may not be familiar to you, but his work is. Ovshinsky is credited with inventing key technologies behind flat-panel liquid crystal displays that we use to watch TV, work on the Internet, or play with our phones.
He was also the inventor of the nickel-metal hydride battery — a rechargeable battery that now powers everything from laptops to the Prius. Ovshinsky (along with his wife, Iris, who held a Ph.D. in biochemistry and was his research partner for much of his life), began working on improved versions of batteries, solar cells, and other energy technologies beginning in the early 1960s. More than a decade before climate change became a well-established fact, Ovshinsky was concerned about the pollution and political instability that went along with fossil fuels. He spent the rest of his life developing better alternatives.
For a good introduction to how truly groundbreaking Ovshinsky's ideas were, check out a 1978 article from Popular Science, all about his invention of amorphous silicon semiconductors — a technology that today forms the basis behind both thin-film solar panels and smart phone displays. At the time though, it made Ovshinky a controversial figure.
• Michigan Public Radio's obituary • A good explanation of the inner workings of nickel-metal hydride batteries • Popular Science's obit (with a link to the 1978 story)
Thanks to Art Myatt for the heads up on this! Read the rest
Marilyn Terrell of National Geographic Traveler magazine says, "I thought you might like this sweet story about Alexander Graham Bell, who was a 27-yr-old Scottish speech therapist and part-time inventor when he fell madly in love with 17-yr-old Mabel Gardiner Hubbard, who was deaf, and whose father was the first president of the National Geographic Society."
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Mabel Gardiner Hubbard was only five years old when scarlet fever rendered her deaf for life. At the age of 17, she would meet a young Scottish speech therapist who was destined to shape her life. Gardiner Greene Hubbard, Mabel’s father and National Geographic’s first president, took a liking to the industrious teacher and part-time inventor. We know him better as Alexander Graham Bell. This is their love story.
The 27-year-old Alexander fell in love with Mabel when she was 17, but it was an unreciprocated fancy. “He was tall and dark with jet-black hair and eyes, but dressed badly and carelessly,” she said. “I could never marry such a man!” Despite her initial disinterest, she began to grow fond of him during his time as her speech teacher and their relationship evolved. After one of her first classes with him, a giddy Mabel wrote to her mother: “Mr. Bell said today my voice is naturally sweet.” In a letter to Mabel on the night of their engagement, Alexander wrote, “I am afraid to fall asleep, lest I should find it all a dream — so I shall lie awake and think of you.”
"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.
Spend enough time in a museum and the space starts to take on a personality. From knowing the exhibits—and thinking about what is included and what isn't—you start to feel like you have some insight into "who" the museum is supposed to be, and, perhaps, a peek into the minds that shaped the place.
And sometimes, what you learn is kind of funny.
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When you go through The Henry Ford as many times as I have, you start to assemble a portrait of a borderline-creepy affection for Thomas Edison by Henry Ford. There's industrialist BFFs ... and then there's Ford and Edison. I've never seen any notebooks with Edison's name and little hearts around it, but whole thing feels rather odd.
So I think it's very telling that there's just one tiny case related to Tesla — arguably Edison's 'Apollo Creed' to Tesla's 'Rocky' — and it mainly houses his death mask almost like a trophy.