A History of Science in 20 Objects

At the end of last year the Institution of Engineering and Technology published an article with this title in its publication Engineering and Technology. The article was written by Mary Cruse who has just published a new book An Illustrated History of Science: From Agriculture to Artificial Intelligence. This is obviously a large brief and she has included 20 illustrations to make it an enjoyable read. I can only copy her list for you, with some of my own comments.

I searched my bookcase for a slim item and blew the dust off Inventors and Inventions by Brooke Bond Oxo Ltd., introduced in 1975. Once upon a time small boys used to collect cigarette cards. When medical opinion decided that small boys should not be introduced to smoking the cards stopped. Tea manufacturers saw an opening and placed similar cards in tea packets. In 1975 we would swop the tea cards until we had a complete set, of 50 cards. Brooke Bond sold an album to mount the cards in for 8p, complete with descriptive text and additional illustrations. It had an introduction from Raymond Baxter of Tomorrow’s World, then on TV, and covered 50 inventors and inventions.

1: The first object chosen by Mary Cruse is a Sumerian sickle dating back to 3,000 BC when nomadic tribes in Mesopotamia had begun to settle and agriculture commenced. The sickle was probably used for agriculture, food gathering and also for making things. Mary Cruse points out that such inventions gave mankind more time to think and explore. I would suggest an alternative in Europe:  the Neolithic flint hand axe used to cut down trees to clear ground for agriculture in the Stone Age.

2: The second choice is an Egyptian Papyrus of 1,600 BC, which is a medical textbook for diagnosis and surgery, describing 48 types of trauma and analysis avoiding superstition and magic, with evidence and scientific thought.

3: Then comes Euclid’s “Elements” of 300 BC in ancient Greece, concerning geometry and mathematical theories with logic, forming the foundation of mathematics and science.

4: Jumping to 1439 AD Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press using movable type and promoted science in Europe.

5: Coming in at No. 5, “pop pickers”, as someone used to say, was the Medieval Islamic Astrolobe of 1480 from Syria or Egypt used to measure the altitude of objects for surveyors, geographers and astronomers.

6: For 1610 it had to be Galileo with his telescope eventually of 30x magnification and with which he discovered the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus.

7: By 1665 the compound microscope had spread throughout Europe and Hooke was able to write his text “Micrographia” with intricate engravings of a fly’s wing, hairs on an ant’s body and a flea among many items.

8: In 1781 James Watt’s steam engine, patented in 1769, was beginning to be installed in factories across Britain and aiding the Industrial Revolution.

9: Edward Jenner, a physician, noted that milkmaids exposed to cowpox were immune to smallpox. He commenced injecting children with a little liquid from cowpox pustules and they did not become infected. This was the first scientific approach to vaccination in c.1796.

10: In 1831 Michael Faraday constructed the world’s first electric generator, proving the principle of electromagnetic induction. It was too inefficient for practical use, but it paved the way for electric power.

11: Charles Darwin set off in 1831 for his five year voyage to South America. Stopping at the Galapagos Islands he observed finches bills varied in size and shape from island to island from which he deduced that they were adapted for different environments. He published his On the Origin of Species in 1859 and the theory of evolution was created.

12: Also in 1859 John Tyndall demonstrated the way in which different gases vary in their ability to absorb radiant heat. He discovered that ozone and ethene absorb more radiant heat than water vapour so that even small traces of these gases may cause excess heat to be retained.

13: 1859 must have been a vintage year as William Rontgen also discovered X-rays whilst passing electric rays through an induction coil inside a glass tube and noted nearby photographic plates were glowing.

14: Something which radically changed the world occurred in 1896 when Guglielmo Marconi was developing radio, or wireless, transmission and in 1897 made contact across sea. Soon messages across the Atlantic became common and also contact with shipping. His work made possible television.

15: In 1928 Professor Alexander Fleming returned to his laboratory to find his petri dishes had been contaminated and bacteria had been absorbed by penicillin mould. He saw this could be an antibacterial material, but was unable to purify it. In 1940 two other scientists were able to refine penicillin into drug form and millions of lives have been saved by its use.                                              At this point my suggestion would be Radar which helped win the “Battle of Britain” and is now widespread.

16: In 1942 film star Hedy Lamarr was also an inventor and with composer George Antheil developed a system of preventing the jamming of torpedo signals and sending them off-course. Their frequency hopping technique allowed switching between different radio frequencies but was not immediately accepted until the Cuban Crisis and later GPS development.

17: Rosalind Franklin, a British crystallographer, produced a diffraction image in 1952 by firing X-rays at a sample which enabled its atomic structure to be deduced. In 1953 Watson and Crick solved the structure of DNA, partly due to her photograph.

18: The Saturn V rocket was first launched in 1967, 64 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight. It launched 13 missions including the Apollo 11 when men first set foot on the Moon.

19: Around 1971 Intel engineers were tasked with producing a powerful calculator, a distraction from their main area of memory chips. They produced four chips including a central processor to perform different functions. This was the first general purpose computer chip, known as the 4004.

20: The Large Hadron Collider at Cern is the most powerful particle accelerator in the world. In 2010 it discovered the Higgs boson, an elusive particle. It continues to investigate fundamental phenomena.

No doubt many readers may disagree with the list produced by Mary Cruse, and have their own proposals, but it gives us a basis for discussion. For example, I would include petrol and diesel engines and motor vehicles, cars, lorries, busses, etc., most of which seem to have originated in Germany, from 1876 to 1893, by Otto, Daimler, Benz and Diesel. Also the Jet Engine and then Concord.

Mary Cruse, in summing up Watt’s Steam Engine of 1781, says that the Industrial Revolution did not come without a cost, for example climate change and environment problems. Also after Tyndall’s Radiant Heat experiments of 1859 she states that we now know greenhouse gases are a cause of catastrophic global warming. This makes us think of 16 years old Greta Thurnberg who has been very forcibly bringing the problem to our attention.

In the Middle Ages trees were cut down for shipbuilding, “Hearts of Oak” as the song goes, possibly not in a sustainable way. I have seen for myself steel production, with furnaces belching out smoke of colours from black to orange/red and containing particles. Does anyone remember London “Smog”, when all houses used coal fires, plus vehicle fumes. I can recall travelling to London by the Great Western Railway, then coal/steam powered when almost everyone smoked cigarettes, to return home to be greeted by “We can tell where you have been, from the smell of your clothes”. I also suggested internal combustion engines as an addition to Mary Cruse’s list, but these are polluters in road transport, trains and ships.

We can only hope that the governments of the world can agree on how best to eliminate the problems we have created over so many years.

The world is a better place through many of the inventions described by Mary Cruse. I am grateful to Mary Cruse for her list and also to Brooke Bond for their tea cards of 1975.

Bridport History Society meets on Tuesday 11th February at 2.30 pm in the United Church Main Hall, East Street, Bridport for an interesting talk from Nick Speakman “D-Day Spearhead Brigade: Hampshires, Dorsets & Devons 6 June 1944”. All welcome, visitors entry £4.


Cecil Amor, Hon. President, Bridport History Society