May 22, 2013
Our recent post on the history of the cuckoo clock inspired some research into other examples of early, non-timekeeping robot birds. For centuries, birds–pigeons and canaries in particular–have been a popular subject for inventors and engineers experimenting with early mechanical systems and robotics. Take, for example, Bubo, the ancient clockwork owl seen in the 1981 film Clash of The Titans. Bubo was forged by Hephaestus to aid Perseus in his quest and Bubo was, of course, purely fictional. There were however, actual avian automatons in actual ancient Greece.
The earliest example dates to 350 B.C.E. when the mathematician Archytas of Tarentum, who some credit with inventing the science of mechanics, is said to have created a mechanical wooden dove capable of flapping its wings and flying up to 200 meters, powered by some sort of compressed air or internal steam engine. Archytas’ invention is often cited as the first robot, and, in light of recent technological advancements, perhaps we could even consider it to be the first drone; the very first machine capable of autonomous flight. Very few details are actually known about the ancient mechanical dove, but it seems likely that it was connected to a cable and flew with the help of a pulley and counterweight. This early wind-up bird was chronicled a few hundred years later in the pages of a scientific text by a mathematician, Hero of Alexandria.
In his treatise on pneumatics, Hero also outlined his own designs for several different types of artificial birds that could move and sing in response to flowing water that pushed air through small tubes and whistles concealed within his carved birds. From these basic designs, the interest and intrigue surrounding mechanical birds, and automatons in general, only grew as the centuries passed.
It’s well known that Leonard da Vinci was fascinated by the idea of human flight. He obsessively observed the motion of birds in flight and created dozens of designs for flying machines of all shapes and sizes – from bat-winged gliders to corkscrew helicopters. He dissected and diagrammed bird wings in efforts to unlock the secrets of flight, recording everything in a codex dedicated to flight written in the early 16th century. Around that same time, da Vinci used what he learned to create a mechanical bird for a stage production. The bird was by all accounts a relatively simple thing that flapped its wings via a mechanism activated as it descended down a cable. During da Vinci’s day, such high-wire birds were used in Florence as part of the “Scoppio del Carro” tradition, during which a mechanical dove known as the “Columbina” is used to help ignite a cart of fireworks as a way to ring in the Easter Holiday. The tradition continues today. In the incredibly entertaining but historically dubious television series “Da Vinci’s Demons,” the titular artist creates a highly elaborate mechanical dove that bares more of a resembles to Haphaestus’s Bubo than to a simple theatrical prop:
Perhaps the most famous mechanical bird appeared during the 18th century when French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson astounded the public with a duck that could quack, rear up on its legs, bow its neck, flap its wings, drink, eat, and, most impressive, poop. As they say, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck – unless it’s a robot, that is. Vaucanson charged a steep fee to witness his famous clockwork canard and the gold-plated duck quickly became the talk of France, even earning the acknowledgment of Voltaire, who wryly commented, “without the shitting duck of Vaucanson, there would be nothing to remind us of the glory of France.”
Vaucanson alleged that his creation used a complex system of artificial bowels filled with chemicals to “digest” the grain, then evacuate it through the duck’s mechanical sphincter (there’s a phrase I never thought I’d write). While it made Vaucanson famous and was surely a hit at parties, the duck’s digestion digestion was a hoax – though still quite impressive. In reality, it used an elaborate mechanical system concealed in the podium wherein grain was collected in one chamber and artificial excrement made of dyed breadcrumbs was released from another. However, the hoax was not revealed for more than 100 years. Long after the digesting duck had been forgotten, it was re-discovered in a pawnshop attic, repaired by Swiss clockmaker, and eventually fell into the hands of magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the man from whom Houdini took his name, before disappearing once again in the late 19th century. Robert-Houdin was also a clockmaker who used his talent to create several of his own elaborate automata.
To perfect his mechanical birds, Robert-Houdin spent his days climbing trees and listening to bird songs, trying to reproducer them on his own. The next step was to create a whistle tuned to a specific birdsong, then figure out a system to play the whistle while animating the bird’s beak and wings in sync with the sound. Houdin then took his mechanical bird a step further. He created an innovative combination of automata that included both a basic android –more specifically, a mechanical woman– and a mechanical canary. The “woman” cranked a serinette –a type of music box often used by real people to teach real canaries to sing– that played a song the canary would then imperfectly imitate. The process was repeated: the woman cranked the serinette again, but on the second turn, the canary’s imitation improved. The process continued until the canary “learned” the song and could reproduce it perfectly. Robert-Houdin’s automaton not only reproduced a song, but also the apparent learning of a song.
There were many other different types of automata built during the centuries that these early robot birds were crafted, but these early robot birds were both displays of technological savvy and reflections of trends (training canaries was all the rage in 19th century France), as well as expressions of man’s efforts to understand and to master the natural world. Our fascination with the mechanics of bird and birdsong continues to this day. In our next post, we’ll look at some of the more recent bird-machine hybrids.
May 10, 2013
Benjamin Franklin was many things. Politician, scientist, inventor, printer author, he was a visionary whose ideas helped shape America. But he also had some notions that, while founded on sound logic and pragmatism, seem quite bizarre in retrospect. For instance, there’s his suggestion that the turkey was a more appropriate national symbol than the eagle, which he saw as “a bird of bad moral character.” Franklin’s vision for American didn’t stop with independence and iconography. He also proposed a redesigned alphabet – a new language for a new nation.
Franklin developed his phonetic alphabet in 1768 but it wasn’t published until 1789, when Noah Webster, intrigued by Franklin’s proposal, included its description in his book Dissertations on the English Language. However, because, Webster lacked the type blocks to illustrate Franklin’s changes, the alphabet wouldn’t be seen until Franklin had new blocks cast to print the alphabet for his 1779 collection of writings, Political, Miscellaneous, and Philosophical Pieces. It was the ultimate test of Franklin’s scholarship and polymathy, a phonetic alphabet designed to have a “more natural Order,” than the existing system. His proposal, “A Reformed Mode of Spelling,” opens with an analysis of spoken English in the form of a table prioritizing the alphabet by sound and vocal effort. Franklin gave preference to “Sounds formed by the Breath, with none or very little help of Tongue, Teeth, and Lips; and produced chiefly in the Windpipe.”
Franklin’s analysis resulted in removing six letters from the alphabet – C, J, Q, W, X, AND Y– that were, in his view, redundant or confusing. The “hard” and “soft” sounds of a C, for example, can easily be replaced by a K and S. Franklin also limited the remaining letters to one sound, “as every letter ought to be,” including vowels. In the phonetic alphabet, “long” vowel pronunciations are achieved using double vowels. The changes weren’t all reductive. Franklin’s alphabet includes six letters of his own devise: a letter that makes a “soft O” sound as in “folly” or “ball”; one that replaces all “sh” sounds as in “ship” or “function”; an “ng” sound; two “th” substitutes; and a letter that replaces both “um” and “un” letter combinations. Franklin first used his new alphabet at length in a 1768 letter to Polly Stevenson, the conclusion of which provides an excellent, and mostly legible example, of his proposed revisions:
Franklin was confident that his new alphabet would easier to learn and, once learned, would drastically reduce bad spelling. He believed any difficulty in implementing a new alphabet would ultimately be overcome by its logic and simplicity. However, biographer Walter Isaacson has written that the alphabet “took his passion for social improvement to radical extremes.” But in the heady days after the Revolution, a national language seemed like a natural development for a new country. Franklin’s proposal found little support, even with those to whom he was closest. He did, however, manage to convert Webster, the pioneer of spelling reform. Webster supported standardizing American spelling but, until meeting Franklin, had advocated against its simplification. After reading Franklin’s “A Reformed Mode of Spelling,” however, Webster was inspired to draft a more conservative proposal for reforming the alphabet, which didn’t depend on creating new characters. The two men supported one another’s pursuits but found little interest from others. Franklin eventually abandoned his plan, while Webster persisted, even publishing books using his new orthography. His efforts were met with resistance and ridiculed by critics as an unsightly corruption of language – critiques that were likely also applied to Franklin’s abandoned scheme.
There can be no doubt that language has influence over a country and its populace. It’s an integral part of one’s national identity. Franklin just took this to the extreme. Perhaps he viewed the alphabet in the same way he saw the turkey, as a something “courageous” and “original” to America. The phonetic alphabet would be an American original too, and a reflection of the men and women living in the new country – pragmatic, efficient, egalitarian.
Benjamin Franklin, Political, Miscellaneous, and Philosophical Pieces (1779); Nicola Twiley and Geoff Manaugh, “Six New Letters for a Renovated Alphabet” (St. Bride Foundation, 2005); Jill Lepore, A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States (2007); Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2004); “Benjamin Franklin’s Phonetic Alphabet,” Omniglot; Jill Lepore, A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States (2007)
February 12, 2013
Recently, the United States’ use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has been the subject of much debate and scrutiny. But their history dates back a lot further than the war on terror. The first true UAVs, which are technically defined by their capability to return successfully after a mission, were developed in the late 1950s, but the American military actually began designing and developing unmanned aircraft during the first World War.
Military aviation was born during the years preceding the World War I, but once the war began, the industry exploded. Barely more than a decade after Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully completed the first documented flight in history –achieving only 12 seconds of air time and traveling 120 feet– hundreds of different airplanes could be seen dogfighting the skies above Europe. Mastering the sky had changed the face of war. Perhaps due to their distance from the fighting, the United States trailed behind Europe in producing military fliers but by the end of the War, the U.S. Army and Navy had designed and built an entirely new type of aircraft: a plane that didn’t require a pilot.
The first functioning unmanned aerial vehicle was developed in 1918 as a secret project supervised by Orville Wright and Charles F. Kettering. Kettering was an electrical engineer and founder of the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, known as Delco, which pioneered electric ignition systems for automobiles and was soon bought out by General Motors. At GM, Kettering continued to invent and develop improvements to the automobile, as well as portable lighting systems, refrigeration coolants, and he even experimented with harnessing solar energy. When the U.S. entered World War I, his engineering prowess was applied to the war effort and, under Kettering’s direction, the government developed the world’s first “self-flying aerial torpedo,” which eventually came to be known as the “Kettering Bug”.
The bug was a simple, cheaply made 12-foot-long wooden biplane with a wingspan of nearly 15 feet that, according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, weighed just 530 pounds, including a 180 pound bomb. It was powered by a four-cylinder, 40-horsepower engine manufactured by Ford. Kettering believed that his Bugs could be calibrated for precision attacks against fortified enemy defenses up to 75 miles away – a much greater distance than could be reached by any field artillery. The accuracy of this early “drone” was the result of an ingenious and surprisingly simple mechanism: after determining wind speed, direction, and desired distance, operators calculated the number of engine revolutions needed to take the Bug to its target; the Bug was launched from a dolly that rolled along a track, much like the original Wright flier (today, smaller drones are still launched from a slingshot-like rail), and, after the proper number of revolutions, a cam dropped into place and released the wings from the payload-carrying fuselage – which simply fell onto the target. To be sure, it wasn’t an exact science, but some would argue that drones still aren’t an exact science.
The Dayton-Wright Airplane Company built fewer than 50 Bugs but the war ended before any could be used in battle. That might be for the best. Much like today, there was a lot of doubt about the reliability and predictability of the unmanned aircraft and the military expressed concern about possibly endangering friendly troops. After the war, research into unmanned aircraft continued for a short time, but development halted in the 1920s due to the scarcity of funding and research on UAVs wasn’t seriously picked up again until the outbreak of World War II. Although by today’s standards, the Kettering Bug has more in common with a guided missile than a drone, its conception as a pilotless plane represents an important step in the historical development of unmanned aerial vehicles.
July 31, 2012
Sherlock Holmes’s extraordinary talent for deduction has been well documented by Arthur Conan Doyle. Though they often seem nearly mystical in origin, Holmes’s deductions were in fact the product of a keenly trained mind. Holmes was well-versed in forensic science before there was a forensic science to be well versed in. In his first adventure with Dr. John Watson, A Study in Scarlet, Watson himself enumerates the skills, talents, and interests in which Holmes exhibited a useful capacity. According to Watson, Holmes’s knowledge of botany is “variable”, his skill in geography is “practical but limited”, his knowledge of chemistry “profound”, and regarding human anatomy, his knowledge is “accurate.” The applied knowledge of these various sciences made “the science of deduction” possible. But you don’t have to take Watson’s word for it. Forensic scientist and Holmes scholar Dr. Robert Ing, has closely read Conan Doyle’s stories to craft a more specific list of skills that Holmes demonstrates a working knowledge of: chemistry, bloodstain identification, botany, geology, anatomy, law, cryptanalysis, fingerprinting, document examination, ballistics, psychological profiling and forensic medicine. But knowledge by itself is not enough. In order to put these skills to use to find and decipher the clues that lead to his uncanny deductions, Holmes relied on the optical technology of the time: the magnifying glass and microscope. By today’s standards (not to mention the fantastic machines used in television shows like “CSI”) these tools are not advanced, but in Victorian England they were incredibly precise and quite well made.
In his paper “The Art of Forensic Detection and Sherlock Holmes,” Ing deduced that when working at a micro-scale, Holmes would have most likely used a “10 power silver and chrome magnifying glass, a brass tripod base monocular optical microscope probably manufactured by Powell & Lealand.” The specific brands for these tools are never mentioned in any Holmes story, but Ing notes that these items were the most popular at the time.
To get more specific, the microscope Holmes likely used known as the Powell & Lealand No.1, the design of which remained almost completely unchanged for the better half of the nineteenth century. It was known for having some of the finest brass finish and workmanship of the time. The No. 1 was also quite versatile. Its pivoting arm allowed the eyepiece to be turned 360 degrees, completely away from the staging area if necessary. And the body of the microscope is constructed to allow for interchangeable eyepieces – the monoculuar piece (shown) can easily be replaced with the binocular piece or a longer monocular eyepiece, a feature that is also made possible by Powell and Lealand’s unique tube design. And of course the No. 1 also includes an ample stage and the standard macro and micro adjustments. While many microscopes were redesigned and improved over decades, the No. 1 was able to retain its original 1840s design because it was crafted to make it easy to replace parts as lens technology improved. It was a beautifully designed and well-crafted product.
In the 1901 edition of his treatise The Microscope: And Its Revelations, British physician and President of the Microscopal Society of London Dr. William Carpenter, writes that he
“has had one of these microscopes in constant, and often prolonged and continuous, use for over twenty years, and the most delicate work can be done with it to-day. It is nowhere defective, and the instrument has only once been ‘tightened up’ in some parts. Even in such small details as the springing of the sliding clips–the very best clip that can be used– the pivots of the mirror, and the carefully sprung conditions of all cylinders intended to receive apparatus, all are done with care and conscientiousness.”
Surely as diligent an investigator as Holmes would only have the most precise, most reliable microscope.
Now let us turn our attentions to the magnifying glass. The object with which Sherlock Holmes is perhaps most closely associated – and rightfully so. In fact, A Study in Scarlet was the first work of fiction to incorporate the magnifying glass as an investigative tool. In that text, Watson dutifully documents, though he does not fully understand, Holmes’s use of the magnifying glass:
As he spoke, he whipped a tape measure and a large round magnifying glass from his pocket. With these two implements he trotted noiselessly about the room, sometimes stopping, occasionally kneeling, and once lying flat upon his face….As I watched him I was irresistibly reminded of a pure-blooded well-trained foxhound as it dashes backwards and forwards through the covert, whining in its eagerness, until it comes across the lost scent….Finally, he examined with his glass the word upon the wall, going over every letter of it with the most minute exactness. This done, he appeared to be satisfied, for he replaced his tape and his glass in his pocket.
As Holmes stalks the room, Watson compares him to a bloodhound. However, the image of Holmes at work –puffing on his pipe, oblivious to the world around him as he methodically walks back and forth with a large magnifying glass– also evokes a more modern (19th-century modern) comparison: the detective as a steam-powered, crime-solving automaton with a single lens for his all-seeing eye. Indeed, in a later story, Watson calls Holmes “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen.” In the 19th century, these optical technologies changed the way we see the world. The magnifying glass and the microscope reveal aspects of our world that are invisible to the human eye. Sherlock Holmes does the same. The magnifying glass has become so closely associated with Holmes that it is, essentially, a part of him. He internalized and applied this new technologically-assisted understanding of the world so that the optical devices of the 19th century were merely an augmentation of his natural capabilities. As an avatar for humanity’s rapidly expanding perception of the world, Sherlock Holmes was the most modern of modern men.