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"On This Day" In Engineering History

Tune in to find out about significant engineering events that took place "on this day".

September 27, 1998 – The (Sort of) Birthday of Google, Inc.

Posted September 27, 2017 1:00 PM by MaggieMc
Pathfinder Tags: birthday google September 27

When I chose September 27 to investigate for engineering developments of historical import, I was surprised to find Google’s birthday on the list. Why the search engine’s birthday felt like something I should be familiar with, I don’t know. (Perhaps it’s that Google seems to know and remember so much about me – like my birthday, for instance.) In any case, my deep dive into Google’s history and its birthday grew even more perplexing.

While Google has been celebrating its birthday with a Google Doodle on September 27 since 2006, that day seems to be of no real significance to the company. Evidently, the tech giant’s FAQ once famously indicated: “the exact date when we celebrate our birthday has moved around over the years, depending on when people feel like having a cake.”

So, on the day Google has more recently chosen, let’s examine the days that really are part of engineering history:

1995 — Google, Inc. founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, meet at Stanford.

January 1996 — Google (then named BackRub) began as Larry Page’s doctoral thesis that eventually became a concept for tracking and ranking web listings by the number of other sites they linked to, much as including more citations within an academic work added weight.

September 15, 1997 — Google registered the web domain

August 1998 — Andy Bechtolsheim wrote Page and Brin a check for $100,000 “and Google, Inc. was officially born.”

September 4, 1998 — Google, Inc. was officially incorporated.

September 27, 2002Google’s 4th birthday, or at least the day it was celebrated by Google Doodle.

September 8, 2003Google’s 5th birthday

September 7, 2004Google’s 6th birthday

September 26, 2005Google’s 7th birthday, when the company appears to have made the jump to back the end of the month.

September 27, 20062016 — Google’s 8th through 18th birthdays.

Interestingly, while Google doesn’t have a Doodle in its archive for its 1st through 3rd birthdays, the first Google Doodle appeared before Google even became incorporated on August 30, 1998. The doodle was a sort of “Out of Office” indicator to note that during that last week of August, Brin and Page spent their time at the Burning Man Festival. The second doodle [celebrated?] Bastille Day in 2000.

And, while Google’s first few birthday doodles (2002-2005) don’t settle on a date, the doodles, as well as those up until Google’s 12th birthday in 2010, do share a very similar style that didn’t differ much from the ordinary Google logo.

3 comments; last comment on 10/03/2017
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September 4, 1926 – The Death of Julia Brainerd Hall

Posted September 04, 2017 10:00 AM by MaggieMc

On September 4, 1926, Julia Brainerd Hall, who assisted her brother Charles Martin Hall in producing the first samples of man-made aluminum in 1886, died in her home.

Julia Brainerd Hall is noted primarily for her six-page “History of C. M. Hall’s Aluminum Invention.” The 1887 account of her brother’s success was that of an eyewitness, as she had – by many accounts – assisted his research.

Both siblings were graduates of Oberlin College, Julia Brainerd Hall in 1881 and C. M. Hall in 1885, and both studied chemistry. When Julia Brainerd Hall received her diploma she took over the running of the Hall family, because of their mother’s illness.

Caring for their six other siblings when their mother took ill put J. B. Hall in the perfect position to assist her brother when he graduated and continued his college experiments in the family’s woodshed, right next to the kitchen – Julia’s domain.

Julia Brainerd Hall’s role in Charles Martin Hall’s research [pdf] is debated, but some scholars indicate she consulted with him on both “scientific and technical matters,” while acting as “a scientifically astute, well-educated, and competent eyewitness.” What has been determined is that J. Hall “faithfully and minutely recorded the steps in the invention process” along with evidence that “could substantiate the date.” Meanwhile, she helped her brother seek financial backing.

Just eight months after his graduation, on February 23, 1886, Charles Martin Hall discovered a new method for producing aluminum. Hall used molten cryolite, the mineral sodium aluminum fluoride, as a nonaqueous solvent for aluminum oxide, which allowed him to produce metallic aluminum by electrolysis, using carbon electrodes.

Independently, Paul-Louis-Toussaint Héroult of France discovered the same process. In the resulting patent dispute between the two men, it was Julia Brainerd Hall’s scientific background and record keeping came to the rescue, her aforementioned history “clinch[ing] Hall’s victory” in the dispute.

In his 1911 acceptance speech for the Perkin Medal of the American Chemical Society, Hall did not credit his sister for her potential role in his discovery, termed the Hall-Héroult Process. Her assistance was instead noted in her obituary.

At 51 years of age, C. M. Hall died on December 27, 1914, and was followed by his Julia Brainerd Hall, aged 67, on September 4, 1926.

2 comments; last comment on 09/07/2017
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April 19, 1906—The Death of Nobel Prize Laureate Pierre Curie

Posted April 19, 2017 3:00 PM by MaggieMc

Thinking back to science class, Curie is a familiar name. Marie Curie is a favorite subject in many courses, especially due to organizing mobile X-ray teams during World War I. Her husband Pierre Curie, who died in a street accident on April 19, 1906, is sometimes seen as an afterthought despite the Curies being jointly awarded the 1903 Nobel Peace Prize in Physics with Henri Becquerel for Becquerel’s discovery of “spontaneous radioactivity” and the Curies’ subsequent research on the phenomena.

Together, the Curies received half of the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1898, they announced the discovery of radium and polonium by fractionation of pitchblende after what Curie’s Nobel Prize biography describes as “conditions of much hardship—barely adequate laboratories” and “having to do much teaching in order to earn their livelihood.”

The Curie’s later investigation into the “properties of radium and its transformation products” formed much of the basis for further research in nuclear physics and chemistry.

Unlike his wife, Pierre Curie was a Paris native, born to a doctor and his wife. Curie received his early schooling at home before gaining his licentiateship in physics in 1878 from the Faculty of Sciences at Sorbonne. Beginning in 1882, he functioned as a demonstrator in the physics laboratory. Then, in 1895, he was awarded a doctorate of science and was appointed professor of physics.

Prior to his work with his wife, whom he married in 1895, Pierre Curie studied crystallography with his brother Paul-Jacques Curie, discovering piezoelectric effects, or “the appearance of a positive charge on one side of certain non-conducting crystals, and negative charge on the opposite side when the crystals are subjected to mechanical pressure.” According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, in 1880, the brothers compressed certain crystals, including quartz tourmaline, and Rochelle salt, producing a voltage on the surface of the crystal.

Later, he focused on magnetism, discovering that “magnetic properties of a given substance change at a certain temperature,” which is now known as the Curie point.

On April 19, 1906, Curie was “run over by a dray in the rue Dauphine in Paris… and died instantly.” His complete works were published posthumously in 1908. After his death, his wife Marie won a second 1911 Nobel Peace Prize for producing radium as a pure metal in 1910. Their daughter Irene won the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with her husband Frédéric Joliot “in recognition of their synthesis of new radioactive elements.”

2 comments; last comment on 04/20/2017
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February 17, 1864—The Hunley Sinks the Housatonic

Posted February 17, 2017 12:00 AM by Hannes

On this day in 1864, the pioneering Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley rammed and sank the USS Housatonic during the US Civil War. She was the first combat submarine to successfully sink an enemy warship.

The Hunley was the third prototype submarine developed by businessman, lawyer, and Louisiana state legislator Horace Lawson Hunley. Hunley’s first design, Pioneer, was intentionally destroyed ahead of the Union invasion of New Orleans in 1862. Hunley and his co-inventors then built the 36-foot hand-cranked American Diver, but this vessel sank during a storm in Mobile Bay in February 1863.

Begun weeks after the sinking of American Diver, the H.L. Hunley was much more successful. The 40-foot vessel was manufactured from a cylindrical iron boiler. A seven-man crew turned a hand-cranked propeller, while an additional officer steered and navigated. Hunley had two water ballast tanks, each with a seacock exposed to the open water, at either of her tapered ends. Crew members could raise the vessel by opening the seacocks and lower it via a hand pump. Two hatch covers fitted with watertight gaskets allowed the crew entry and exit through the top. Hunley’s designers attempted to solve the problem of airflow using a simple “snorkel box,” but this never worked as intended. Even without the box, the sub could stay submerged for up to two hours. Like most early submersibles, Hunley’s compartment was extremely cramped and only had space for her crew to crank the propeller, and lighting was provided by a single candle.

The Hunley received private funding for her construction and was successfully tested in Mobile, but the Confederate military seized her from her inventors in Charleston, SC in August 1863. From this point, the Hunley’s history is marred with tragic and sometimes ironic blunders. Later in August, her new Confederate captain accidentally stepped on the vessel’s diving plane control while preparing to make a test dive. The Hunley dove with one of the hatches open, killing five of her eight crew. Three months later, she failed to surface after a mock attack, killing the entire crew and inaugurating Horace Hunley as an inventor killed by his own work.

Finally, on the night of February 17, 1864, the Hunley attacked the USS Housatonic, a 12-gun sloop-of-war participating in the Union blockade of Charleston. She rammed a torpedo fitted to a 17-foot iron spar into the Housatonic’s hull, then reversed course to engage a 150-foot detonation rope. The Housatonic exploded and quickly sank but lost only five of her crew of 150. The Hunley’s fate has never been conclusively determined, but she never returned to Charleston Harbor. Treasure hunters repeatedly attempted to locate and recover her hull in the years following the sinking, but it wasn’t until 1995 that a submersible located the Hunley buried in sediment, and she was raised and recovered in 2000.

For years historians believed the Hunley sank en route to her naval station, but her wreck was located on the seaward side of the Housatonic, leading to a new theory positing that she was critically damaged by her own torpedo. If true, this would be a sadly fitting end to the life of a vessel marked by innovative engineering as well as tragic irony. For an excellent resource on the Hunley’s design, actions, and recovery, check out Friends of the Hunley.

2 comments; last comment on 02/18/2017
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January 25, 1947 — The First Electronic Game is Patented

Posted January 25, 2017 1:00 PM by MaggieMc
Pathfinder Tags: January 25

Nowadays, many of us Millennials take our video and computer games for granted—they’re easily downloaded onto our smartphones, and there’s so many available we could never play them all. While I wouldn’t characterize myself as a ‘gamer’—in fact, I’m awful at most video games—even I can’t help but appreciate the work of Thomas T. Goldsmith and Estle Ray Mann, who, on this day in engineering history, patented the very first electronic game. Goldsmith and Mann’s 1947 patent covered the “Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device.” This device, according to some, does not represent the first video game because it wasn’t technically played on a video device; however, it does mark a significant point in the path to modern video games.

The point of the game, as described in the patent, “was to hit targets, like pictures of airplanes that would be manually placed on the [cathode ray] tube, using the beam” which the player could control using knobs. And, as Popular Mechanics notes, “Even in 1947 people understood that every good video game needed explosions, with the patent reading, ‘the game can be more spectacular… by making a visible explosion of the cathode ray beam take place when the target is hit.’”

One of the only reports of a prototype comes from Bill Brantley who later taught physics with Goldsmith at Furman University. He recalled Goldsmith demonstrating the device for him, and explaining “if you turn these knobs and dials, you could make a little beam move across the image orthicon… and then by turning these other dials and knobs, you could hit the various little targets.” The fact that this product never made it past the prototype stage, and as a result never gained more recognition, could be due to the lack of funds of Allen B. DuMont Laboratory, Goldsmith’s employer. Regardless, the 1947 invention is impressive for its time.

Do you think Goldsmith and Mann’s Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device should be considered the “grandfather of video games?”

Image Credit to Thomas T. Goldsmith and Estle Ray Mann’s U.S. Patent #2455992

6 comments; last comment on 01/26/2017
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