Monthly Archives: April 2015

1910 car phone

From Scientific American, September 3, 1910, p. 185

The mobile phone is older than you think… or at least the desire for it. The device shown above isn’t a true mobile phone, of course, but it shows a way to combine two relatively new technologies — the automobile and the telephone.

“[A]utomobilists who get into trouble or meet with an accident can have telephone connection from any point in the rural districts where there are overhead telephone wires, within two minutes, without leaving the car. The device is also useful to officers in pursuit of criminals. It is composed of a hand microphone and core. The cord and attachments are lifted to the wires above by means of a jointed aluminum rod, which is packed away in small compass when not in use. The clip with which the connection is made consists of two strips of metal riveted together at the bottom and formed with slots about the size of an ordinary wire. These strips open slightly at the top for the purpose of receiving the telephone wire. When pressed upward by the aluminum rod with the telephone cord attached, the wire drops into the slot and the metal clip closes on it…” A sharp jerk forward or backward would detach the wire when the call was complete.

This is the first I’ve heard of such a device… apparently it didn’t catch on, or wasn’t allowed. I know little about early telephones, but I assume that once the connection was live you’d be connected to “central” and could then ask the operator to connect you to your party.

One advantage over today’s technology: you could drive or you could use the phone, but not at the same time!

From Scientific American, September 3, 1910, p. 185. Elsewhere on the same page:

lawn mowerA motorized, self-propelled lawn mower! Readers of Scientific American must’ve thought they were living in pretty fast times, and that electric wires and internal-combustion engines were going to change their world into something barely recognizable. If so, they were right.

Namibian Nights – a timelapse film

This has been out for a few years but isn’t as well known as it should be, judging by its paltry 71,000 YouTube views. (“Paltry” is a relative term here. Think of that pop star you don’t like and compare the numbers from their latest video.) Filmmaker Marsel van Oosten spent two years creating this magical minute-and-ten-seconds, shooting thirty photographs for each second of video. The result is a stunning look at the night sky in the one of the world’s exotic places.

While the land that frames the view differs from place to place, in theory that amazing night sky is available anywhere, with specific star content varying based on your latitude. But in reality, we city-dwellers live under an impoverished sky lit by hundreds (and maybe only dozens) of stars. To truly experience the night sky the way our ancestors did, you have to go someplace without much “light pollution.”

I remember the first time I saw the night sky in its full glory, many years ago in a remote part of western South Dakota. It was a crisp night in March, with a bit of breeze in the juniper trees and an occasional lowing of cattle. Before the moon came out the sky was inky black between the stars and for the first time I understood the aptness of the name “Milky Way,” which had always seemed like a bit of poetic license.

A video is no substitute for the real thing, but it’s something, and if it spurs you to go out in search of dark sky, it will have served a good purpose.

(I learned of this video from the always-wonderful Open Culture.)

The strange origins of the electric chair

"Nebraska's electric chair." (AP Photo/Nati Harnik) Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

“Nebraska’s electric chair.” (AP Photo/Nati Harnik) Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

One thing I love about the study of history is its little weird surprises — such as finding out that a certain notorious invention came with a hidden agenda that had little to do with the death penalty, and a whole lot to do with Thomas Edison’s desire to protect his market share against a superior technology.

First used in 1890, the electric chair is part of a longer humanitarian trend away from acceptance of capital punishment. For much of human history, executions were usually a public spectacle, were widely employed for a wide range of offenses, and were often designed to inflict the greatest possible suffering on the condemned person. Devices like the gallows or the guillotine were actually humanitarian developments because they offered a relatively quick death. And the electric chair was promoted as just such a device — a modern, scientific update for a traditional practice that might otherwise look like a barbaric holdover from more primitive times.

But that isn’t really what the electric chair was about, at least as far as America’s most famous inventor was concerned. Continue reading