Day 258: Saluting The Makers Of Stuff

originally published September 14, 2012

This weekend, as you feverishly work on whatever yard-work needs doing before the weather gets too rotten (I assume most of you liberally scatter pickled goat-eyes around your lawn as I do, to ward off snow-demons), I think we should pay tribute to some of the people who will make this weekend better for all of us: those brilliant savages who tamed the banality of everyday life and pitched in to help invent a more awesome world.

Let’s start with Eadweard Muybridge, who seriously changed his first name from ‘Edward’. Before you write him off as a pompous ass (which he may have been, I never knew the guy), you may want to tip him a salute of thanks as you settle in to your Friday night movie.

Back in 1872, people must have run out of things to talk about quite often, as one of the great unanswered questions of the era was whether or not all four legs of a horse left the ground at the same time. Muybridge ended the debate by setting up a bunch of cameras in a long row, each with a thread attached so that a passing horse would trigger the shutter. He then installed the images onto glass plates inside a device he created called a zoopraxiscope, which projected them onto a wall.

This was the first motion picture projector, over a decade and a half before Edison figured out how to make a movie on celluloid. And as you can see, Eadweard was right in his assumption that the four legs were all airborne during a gallop. Still doesn’t explain his opting for superfluous vowels in his name, though.

As you sit down to watch your movie this weekend, you’ll probably hit play on a remote control to start it. You may even turn the volume up to drown out your neighbor, who’s probably screaming about the horrific smell wafting up from the pickled goat-eyes you left in your yard. As you do so, make sure you pass on a thanks to Robert Adler.

Before Adler, remote controls were light and photo-cell-based. If sunlight crept through your window and struck the receptor cells in the TV, it could change the channel on you, run the volume up, or alter the vertical-hold (that was a thing; ask your parents or grandparents). Zenith tried to improve the technology by using radio waves, except those can travel through walls, and next thing you know your neighbor is constantly changing your set back to a show about squirrels when you wanted to watch Dragnet.

Then Robert Adler came up with this:

Each button would trigger a tiny hammer to hit an aluminum rod that let out a high-frequency tone, just like a tuning fork. That tone would be recognized by the TV, and you’d be in business. Also, no batteries required. Technology has improved since then – Adler was also the guy who updated it to use ultrasonic signals, the dominant technology from the 60s through the 80s – but Adler remains our hero, the man who kept us rooted to the couch, popcorn in one hand, our excuse for not exercising in the other.

In 1941, our next savior, the guy who most likely made that popcorn pop for you, was working for a company called Raetheon. Percy Spencer spent a lot of time with these:

That’s a magnetron. It generates the microwave radio signals that make radar work. Percy figured out how to piece a bunch of these things together to boost the power of radar, which netted him a Distinguished Public Service Award by the US Navy. It also totally melted the chocolate bar in his pocket.

This was one of those moments in which the average man heads to the dry cleaners, while the true genius takes note of the bizarre incident and tries to create something from it. Percy grabbed some unpopped popcorn and dropped it in front of the magnetron. The stuff flew all over the room in what was no doubt a comical and joyous moment of epiphany.

By 1947 Raetheon was marketing a microwave oven and Percy was on his way to becoming Senior Vice President of the company.

Up next we have Josephine. Josephine Cochrane was a rich lady who threw a lot of dinner parties, but hated to clean up. In 1886, She built a bunch of compartments that would fit her dishes, then placed those inside a wheel that lay flat in a copper boiler. A motor turned the wheel, and the dishwasher was born.

Josephine had the good sense to patent her creation, then start up a company to produce them en masse. The Garis-Cochran Manufacturing Company became part of KitchenAid, which has merged into Whirlpool. I lived without a dishwasher for a year of my life. Believe me, I have been high-fiving the memory of Josephine for a long time now.

When Sunday rolls around, if you’re of the mind to stay in bed and plow through the New York Times crossword puzzle in pen, then you’re probably far too well-read to be bothering with this article. So the rest of us will have to tip our less-burdened hats to Arthur Wynne for you, as he invented the crossword puzzle.

Wynne, a Liverpudlian who relocated to New Jersey, created a diamond-shaped puzzle in 1913 with the word ‘FUN’ already filled in, hopefully prodding his New York World readership that filling in the surrounding boxes would in fact involve some fun.

He altered the puzzle’s design, added vertical and horizontal clues and little black squares to separate words, and became quite well known for his Word-Cross puzzles. A few weeks after they debuted, someone screwed up and titled a puzzle ‘Cross-Word’ instead, and that was the name that stuck.

Lastly, and this is a real long-shot here, in between all the fun of your Saturday night movie and your Sunday morning crossword, some of you may drift off to sleep in a waterbed. I know, those are as unstylish as mohair sweaters and polyester onesies now, but they’re still out there. And this is the man to thank for them:

Fans of science fiction literature will no doubt recognize the visage of Robert A. Heinlein, one of the ‘Big Three’ sci-fi authors, along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Heinlein wrote Red Planet, Starship Troopers, Stranger In A Strange Land, and a fair-sized library shelf worth of other classics of the genre. But in 1934, before he’d published his first book and while he was recuperating from a bout of pulmonary tuberculosis, Heinlein came up with this:

He designed it, later incorporated it into several of his stories, but never tried to build one or mass-produce it as a product. He was content just plucking the idea out of the air.

I advise everyone to flip back a few days on this site to pick out a beverage of their choice, then toast the people who will help make this weekend a whole lot sweeter. And quit bitching about my goat-eyes.

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