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Saturday, 17 September 2011

The Battery

Having learned to generate and use electricity, we quite naturally thought how great it would be if we could somehow store it so we could use it when we wanted. With power stations producing it constantly, it's easy enough just to plug something into the supply, but there must be a lot of electricity which just flows straight past us and doesn't get used, which is why power stations reduce output at night - or at least that's the simple way to look at it ! What was - and still is - needed was some sort of storage device which you could carry with you and plug into when you needed some power.
In 1786 an Italian gentleman Luigi Galvani was messing about with some frogs legs, touching them with metal, and noticed that they twitched, even though they were no longer attached to the frog ! He didn't realise it at the time, but he had discovered an electric current. In 1800 Alessandro Volta made a pile of metals and cloth and soaked them in salt, and found he could produced an electrical flow. This was the first battery. Over a couple of hundred years his invention has been improved upon so that we can now buy batteries for our portable electrical appliances, and this has made life a lot easier - think of torches for example, and the thousands of portable communication devices we use. And yet I feel that no-one has yet come up with a really good means of storing power. Batteries don't last very long, and get thrown away when they're used up, wasting valuable raw materials. And think about electric cars - how far can you drive before you need to charge 'em up ? There's a lot of development needed in this field. We need small but very powerful portable electric sources - then our lives would really be improved. So come on you inventors, get on with it !

Wednesday, 22 June 2011


I suppose that technically electricity was discovered rather than invented, but the uses to which it has been put are inventions. The light bulb has probably changed our lives more than any other by extending our daily lives into the night. OK we had candles and oil lamps, and then gaslight, but none of these provided a reliable, steady and sufficiently bright source of light. Just try to imagine your life without light bulbs or their equivalents such as neon strips. And then think of all the other uses for electricity which we take for granted but without which our lives would be very different - and much harder. Nuff said !

Saturday, 17 October 2009

The Micro-Chip

In the 1970s my work involved visiting small, often one-man businesses to find out about them, what they did etc. One has always stuck in my memory. I went to see a gentleman who was self-employed and apparently struggling a little to make ends meet. When I asked him what he did, he said he was working for a major motor car manufacturer", growing silicon chips", which meant absolutely nothing to me. He explained what they were and what they could do and predicted that the world would become a different place because of what he and others were doing. I went away not knowing exactly how this would happen - but how right he was ! I don't intend to write a long essay on the effects of computing and micro-processing etc - you all know just how much we now rely on computer technology to run the world. I'm glad I met this man as I've always had what he said and did in the back of my mind and have followed developments in this field because of my visit to him.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The Ball Point Pen

The Ball Point Pen, or Biro, was invented by Laszlo Biro, an Hungarian newspaper editor. It has two major advantages over the fountain pen, viz it is extremely cheap to make, and the ink dries almost immediately after writing.

The pen came on to the UK market after WW2, whilst I was at school. In those days we had to use either "school ink", a disgusting concoction which was poured into your desk inkwell and involved using a school pen with disposable nibs, or if you were lucky your parents bought you a fountain pen and a bottle of Stephenson's blue-black ink. When the Biro became available, we were not allowed to use it on the grounds that one's handwriting would suffer - and there is a modicum of truth in this for although the ballpoint enables you to write much more quickly, neat formation of letters is not as easy as with a traditional nib - or at least I find this is the case.

During WW2, the RAF issued early ballpoint pens to aircrew as they found that they worked much better than fountain pens at high altitude.

Do we now write much more than previous generations I wonder ? The Biro has made writing quicker and easier, and anyone can carry one around without worrying about ink leaking everywhere. It's better than a pencil for most purposes, and is just about permanent. Will new technology and electronic notepads slowly replace handwriting ? I hope not, I like my biro !!

Friday, 5 June 2009

The Cell Phone

This device hasn't changed my life as I don't use mine very much, but for millions of people instant communication is now very much a part of their daily routine.
One example came to my attention in the early days of the mobile telephone. A transport company regularly carried loads from London to Glasgow. On arrival in Glasgow, the driver would phone his base and if there was a load to bring back, he would collect it. But often there was nothing and he would return empty. When his boss gave him a mobile, the company was able to contact him wherever he was and divert him to collect loads as they became available, thus increasing their profitability.
The current generation is growing up with cell phones as an "essential" - they will probably never know what life was like without them - like air-conditioning, refrigerators and a myriad other devices we somehow managed without for hundreds of years !

Sunday, 1 March 2009

The Boeing 747

Not so very many years ago it was only the rich who could afford to fly long distances - the rest of us had to stay at home or in our own country. The development of commercial aviation brought prices down but it was the introduction of the Jumbo Jet in 1970 which really made air travel available to everyone at reasonable prices, albeit in not very luxurious and rather cramped accommodation. By last year - 2008 - about 1500 of these aircraft had been produced, and most people who have flown long distances have flown in one of them. Only recently has a rival aircraft been introduced - the Airbus A380 - and the 747 continues to dominate the long distance mass travel market. So in less than 40 years our lives have changed and most of us in the opulent west can now manage to fly to the other side of the world at least once in our lives.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

The Bicycle

Really this is just an extension of the wheel, but it has had such a huge impact on how we get around that I feel it should be mentioned. Effectively the bike brought freedom to everyone to go much further than they were accustomed. The average walking speed of about 3.5 mph increased to 12 or 13 even on the heaviest old-fashioned machine, (although not quite so much on the penny-farthing in the picture !) whilst today's lighter bikes are easier to go faster on and give a wider range. Personally I find that, even at 71 years old, I can quite easily manage a 40 mile ride - as long as I don't hurry and have plenty to drink - whereas walking, well ten miles is pushing it. So imagine if you didn't have a car how much more freedom a bike could give you. I remember as a kid when we lived in the country near Stratford-upon-Avon my dad bought me one and it was the doorway to places I'd only ever been driven through. Magic ! Then bear in mind the poorer countries in the world where almost everyone seems to have a bike. And go to Oxford or Cambridge and see the numbers there. A great way to travel, especially in the city (when it's not raining !).

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

The Potato Peeler

This simple little device has made peeling potatoes so much easier. Scraping away at them with a knife is now a thing of the past. This tool is easy to use and is like an extention of your fingers. Personally I don't get on with the "posher" versions with fancy handles as you have to use these as a scraper, which I find slows me down. The beauty of the simple swivel peeler is that it is quick and easy, easy to use, easy to grip, easy to wash and easy to master - and you can use it on any vegetable or fruit which needs to be peeled. It always amazes me how sometimes the simplest invention can have such a marked effect on an everyday chore.

Monday, 16 February 2009

The Axle

I suppose more than any other device, the wheel has made our lives so much simpler. Yet I think it was not so much the wheel as the axle which had the greatest impact. A few thousand years ago some bloke must have found a cheese-shaped rock and found it rolled along quite merrily, but what use was it, other than to amuse his mates. "Silly bugger" they no doubt thought. It was only when someone had the bright idea of joining a couple of these circles together with a big stick and then balancing someone or something on top of the stick that the wheel became any use. This is of course purely speculation on my part, but if you think about it, it does make some sense. A wheel on its own ain't a lot of use to anybody ! In fact if we had a lot of them rolling around willy-nilly, what a mess we'd be in !