The alchemy of us


Credit: peter clifford via Flickr

How did the brevity of the telegram influence Hemingway’s writing style? How did a young chemist expose the use of Polaroid’s cameras to create passbooks to track black citizens in apartheid South Africa?

This talk showcased little-known inventors, particularly people of colour and women, who had a significant impact but whose accomplishments have been hidden by mythmaking, bias, and convention.

Science writer Ainissa Ramirez examined some inventions, revealing the fascinating and inspiring stories on our relationships with technologies.

Ainissa G. Ramirez is a science evangelist who is passionate about getting the general public excited about science. 

Dr Ramirez received her training in materials science and engineering from Brown University and Stanford University. Prior to being on the faculty at Yale, she was a research scientist at Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies, in Murray Hill, New Jersey where she did award-winning research. She has authored more than 50 technical papers, holds six patents, and has presented her work worldwide.

She now focuses her energies on making science fun, and gave an impassioned called to action at TED on the importance of understanding science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), which generated widespread enthusiasm. At Yale, she was the director of the award-winning science lecture series for children called ‘Science Saturdays’ and hosted two popular-science video series called ‘Material Marvels’ and ‘Science Xplained’.

Ainissa Ramirez is an American materials scientist and science communicator


The following are notes from the on-line lecture. Even though I could stop the video and go back over things there are likely to be mistakes because I haven’t heard things correctly or not understood them. I hope Dr Ramirez and my readers will forgive any mistakes and let me know what I got wrong.

Dr Ramirez started her talk by explaining where the book came from.

She likened her subject, material science, to the small state where she was born, New Jersey.

New Jersey is a state in the Mid-Atlantic region of the Northeastern United States. It is bordered on the north and east by the state of New York; on the east, southeast, and south by the Atlantic Ocean; on the west by the Delaware River and Pennsylvania; and on the southwest by Delaware Bay and the State of Delaware. New Jersey is the fourth-smallest state by area but the 11th-most populous, with 8,882,190 residents as of 2019 and an area of 8,722.58 square miles, making it the most densely populated of the 50 U.S. states.


New Jersey is a small state sandwiched between two much larger states, New York and Pennsylvania. Just as material science is sandwiched between two larger sciences, Physics and Chemistry (although I would argue that material science and chemistry are just minor branches of physics. As the great Ernest Rutherford said “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”)

Material science is primarily interested in how atoms behave. How the atoms bond together (the chemistry part) and how the atoms and the materials that contain the atoms behave (the physics part)

In the US students do a large range of subjects in their first degree and Dr Ramirez picked a material science option by accident. She was hooked in the very first lecture when the professor explained things like why we don’t fall through the floor, why our clothes are a certain colour and why electric lights work. It is all to do with atoms and if you understand their behaviour you can get them to do new things. This made Dr Ramirez aware of phenomena all around her. Such as what happens when you put pencil to paper. You are simply depositing a layer of carbon atoms on the paper (lead pencils do not contain lead).

Dr Ramirez was always interested in science and she enjoyed taking things apart as a child (although not necessarily putting them back together. I’d have got a slap for doing this) to see how they work. She was always asking questions such as why is the sky blue and why is grass green.

Television also inspired her interest in science, fiction programmes such as Star Trek, the bionic woman and the six-million-dollar man and factual programmes such as 321 contact.

3-2-1 Contact is an American science educational television show produced by the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW, now known as Sesame Workshop). It aired on PBS from 1980 to 1988, and later ran on Noggin (a joint venture between the CTW and Nickelodeon) from 1999 to 2002. The show teaches scientific principles and their applications. Dr Edward G. Atkins, who was responsible for much of the scientific content of the show, felt that the TV program would not replace a classroom but would encourage viewers to ask questions about the scientific purpose of things.

321 contact really inspired her because there was a section in the programme where children solved problems with science and one of the presenters was an African-American woman. Dr Ramirez saw a future reflection of herself and made her think “I could that too” – be a scientist, and several years later she became a materials scientist.

Dr Ramirez’s research was primarily in nanotechnology and smart materials. But she wanted to do a more practical activity. So she took up glass blowing.

Nanotechnology (or “nanotech”) is the use of matter on an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale for industrial purposes.

Smart materials, also called intelligent or responsive materials, are designed materials that have one or more properties that can be significantly changed in a controlled fashion by external stimuli, such as stress, moisture, electric or magnetic fields, light, temperature, pH, or chemical compounds.

Glassblowing is a glassforming technique that involves inflating molten glass into a bubble (or parison) with the aid of a blowpipe (or blow tube).

It was the move from the theoretical research to the practical subject of glass blowing that continued her determination to write her book.

Dr Ramirez described the amazing process that her instructor carried out. Taking a dollop of molten glass and turning it into an exquisite model of a galloping horse complete with swirling mane

(the image below is not the horse, but an image I found on the internet)


She started off by making small vases because she was worried about causing accidents because she regarded herself as rather clumsy. However, on one particular day she was in a very sad, bad mood because a lot of her colleagues had lost their jobs and she took this out on her glassblowing.

She took a larger than usual dollop of glass and blew it harder and twisted it more than usual (taking her anger out on the process).

Her large vase should have gone into the furnace briefly to finish it off but because she was talking to her friends it stayed in longer. She noticed it glowed with a bright, incandescent orange and lost it shape.


The glass furnace allows glassmakers to control the temperature of the glass, so it does not break or lose its shape as it cools.

Dr Ramirez hoped that moving the glass about would allow gravity to get the vase back into shape. It didn’t, in fact it fell off the glass blowing pipe and hit the floor. Her instructor came to the rescue and managed to get the glass back to a point that she could continue with it, producing the large vase and leaving it to one side to cool.

During this glass shaping process she got to think that, in a way, the glass was shaping her, psychologically, and it made her wonder how long we humans have been shaped by the materials and technology we have been using over the centuries. So, her exploring of this theme became her book. How humans and technology have transformed each other.

In her normal working life Dr Ramirez is looking at 10/20 years in the future but for her book she had to look at the past. In her normal working day, she wears a white coat and spends time in clean rooms and using microscopes. This was not needed for looking at the innovations of the past that helped shape us. So, she went from hi-tech laboratories to dusty old libraries. No longer looking for the next new thing but the very old things.

Most days in the various libraries were the same, but when researching the history of timepieces and how they changed society she came across Benjamin Huntsman, a clockmaker, who was in search of a better steel for clock springs.


Benjamin Huntsman (4 June 1704 – 20 June 1776) was an English inventor and manufacturer of cast or crucible steel.

Crucible steel is steel made by melting pig iron (cast iron), iron, and sometimes steel, often along with sand, glass, ashes, and other fluxes, in a crucible.

Carrying on with the timepiece research she found another inspirational inventor. Warren Alvin Marrison (1896 – 1980), a Canadian-American inventor of the first quartz clock, who worked at Bell Labs.


Quartz clocks and quartz watches are timepieces that use an electronic oscillator regulated by a quartz crystal to keep time. This crystal oscillator creates a signal with very precise frequency, so that quartz clocks and watches are at least an order of magnitude more accurate than mechanical clocks. Generally, some form of digital logic counts the cycles of this signal and provides a numeric time display, usually in units of hours, minutes, and seconds.

Nokia Bell Labs (formerly named Bell Labs Innovations (1996–2007), AT&T Bell Laboratories (1984–1996) and Bell Telephone Laboratories (1925–1984) is an American industrial research and scientific development company owned by Finnish company Nokia. With headquarters located in Murray Hill, New Jersey, the company operates several laboratories in the United States and around the world. Bell Labs has its origins in the complex past of the Bell System.

In the late 19th century, the laboratory began as the Western Electric Engineering Department and was located at 463 West Street in New York City. In 1925, after years of conducting research and development under Western Electric, the Engineering Department was reformed into Bell Telephone Laboratories and under the shared ownership of American Telephone & Telegraph Company and Western Electric.

Researchers working at Bell Labs are credited with the development of radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, the photovoltaic cell, the charge-coupled device (CCD), information theory, the Unix operating system, and the programming languages B, C, C++, and S. Nine Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work completed at Bell Laboratories.

The name “Bell” came about because Alexander Graham Bell was involved in the founding of the company.


Alexander Graham Bell (March 3, 1847 – August 2, 1922) was a Scottish-born inventor, scientist, and engineer who is credited with inventing and patenting the first practical telephone. He also co-founded the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) in 1885.

So how did improved steel for clocks and oscillating crystals shape us? Well they increased our desire for punctuality and made the word “time” popular in the English language.

Before the industrial revolution human sleep patterns were different from what they are now.

Historian A. Roger Ekirch has argued that before the Industrial Revolution, interrupted sleep was dominant in Western civilization. He draws evidence from more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern in documents from the ancient, medieval, and modern world. Other historians have endorsed Ekirch’s analysis.


A. Roger Ekirch (born February 6, 1950, in Washington DC) is University Distinguished Professor of history at Virginia Tech in the United States

According to Ekirch’s argument, adults typically slept in two distinct phases (going to bed at about 9pm and getting up 3-4 hours later. Known as first sleep) bridged by an intervening period of wakefulness of approximately one hour (returning to bed for another 3-4 hours. Known as second sleep). This time was used to pray and reflect, and to interpret dreams, which were more vivid at that hour than upon waking in the morning. This was also a favourite time for scholars and poets to write uninterrupted, whereas still others visited neighbours, engaged in sexual activity, or committed petty crime.

Artificial light and the clock changed this. People could now go to bed later and get up early in order to get to the factory. It seemed to be a bit silly to go to bed for a short sleep and then go back to bed for another short sleep. So the modern sleep pattern is to go to bed, usually at night and stay there until it is time to get up in the morning.

The modern assumption that sleep with no period of wakefulness is the normal and correct way for human adults to sleep, has made some people worry that having a period of wakefulness at night means they have insomnia or other sleep disorders. If Ekirch’s hypothesis is correct, they should be reassured that their sleep conforms to historically natural sleep patterns.

So timekeeping, whether by clocks or watches, have shaped our sleeping patterns,

Carrying on with her time research, Dr Ramirez came across something that intrigued her. In the 19th century there was an English woman who sold time.


Ruth Belville outside the gates of the Greenwich Observatory, 1908

Elizabeth Ruth Naomi Belville (5 March 1854 – 7 December 1943), also known as the Greenwich Time Lady, was a businesswoman from London. She, her mother Maria Elizabeth, and her father John Henry, sold people the time. This was done by setting a Belvilles’ watch to Greenwich Mean Time, as shown by the Greenwich clock, each day and then “selling” people the time by letting them look at the watch and adjust theirs.

Ruth Belville’s father, John Henry Belville, created a service for 200 clients in 1836. Each morning, John Henry went to Greenwich Observatory, where he worked and set his watch to Greenwich Mean Time. He would then set off in his buggy and would set the clocks correctly for clients subscribed to the service.

John Henry continued this service up until his death in 1856. His widow, Maria, was granted the privilege of carrying on the work as a means of livelihood and continued the business until her retirement in 1892 when she was in her eighties. Ruth Belville then took over the business. She continued the business up until 1940. Belville was in her eighties when she retired and at the age of 86 she was still able to journey about twelve miles from her home and attend at the Observatory by 9 am. She died at the age of 89.

The watch used by the business was a John Arnold pocket chronometer No. 485/786, nicknamed “Arnold”. It was originally made for the Duke of Sussex and had a gold case. When it was given to John Henry, he changed the case to silver because he was worried thieves might steal a gold watch. When Ruth died, the watch was left to the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers.

Ruth would leave home and travel to Greenwich to set Arnold to the correct time. She would then travel into London where she would first go to the docks to sell time to sailors, so they could set longitude.

Accurate clocks increased the range of methods that could be used to determine longitude. It depends on a common principle, which was to determine an absolute time from an event or measurement and to compare the corresponding local time at two different locations. (Absolute here refers to a time that is the same for an observer anywhere on earth.) Each hour of difference of local time corresponds to a 15 degree change of longitude (360 degrees divided by 24 hours).

Local noon is defined as the time at which the sun is at the highest point in the sky. This is hard to determine directly, as the apparent motion of the sun is nearly horizontal at noon. The usual approach was to take the mid-point between two times at which the sun was at the same altitude. With an unobstructed horizon, the mid-point between sunrise and sunset could be used. At night local time could be obtained from the apparent rotation of the stars around the celestial pole, either measuring the altitude of a suitable star with a sextant, or the transit of a star across the meridian using a transit instrument.


The relative longitude to a position (Greenwich) can be calculated with the position of the sun and the reference time (UTC/GMT).

Ruth would then sell time to factories so the managers would know which of the employees were late for work, then newspapers so different editions could go out on time, then stations so trains could leave on time, then clockmakers so the clocks could be set to the correct time and then pubs so they could keep licensing hours. She also sold time to rich people, who would only need to know the time for setting meals and visiting each other.

Dr Ramirez was rather cross that so little was known about such an important woman and it made her decide that her book should be about little-known contributors to science and technology. Her talk continued with reference to three case studies; a surprise; an unintended consequence; things going awry

1) A surprise. The telegraph

Samuel Finley Breese Morse (April 27, 1791 – April 2, 1872) was an American inventor and painter.


Samuel Morse was a respected painter so it might be surprising that he was responsible for inventing the US version of the telegraph. The sad reason was that it was born out of tragedy.

His paintings did attract public attention but they did not sell well so he took commissions whenever he could. One such commission was to paint the Frenchman Gilbert du Motier, much better known as the Marquis de Lafayette.


This 1825 commission was extremely important for Morse because of Lafayette’s fame. It came from the city of New York, and the fee was $1,000, a handsome sum in those days. Morse left his home in New Haven, Connecticut, and journeyed the four days it took to reach Washington, where he was to paint Lafayette.

Morse left behind his wife Lucretia in New Haven in the advanced stages of pregnancy with their third child. She wrote affectionately to her husband, “I think now that we can indulge a rational hope that the time is not very far distant when you can be happy in the bosom of your much loved family.”

Unfortunately, almost at the same time, he received a letter from his father, Jedidiah Morse, who wrote “My heart is in pain and deeply sorrowful, while I announce to you the sudden and unexpected death of your dear and deservedly loved wife.” That letter must have been as hard to write as it was to read.

And because of the inevitable delays of news traveling from A to B in the 1820s – horse messenger was the quickest method – Morse didn’t get to see his wife before she died. In fact, he didn’t even have the comfort of being present at her funeral.

It isn’t possible to say that there is a direct link between the death of Morse’s wife and his later ground-breaking work on the telegraph system and Morse code. But it hardly stretches the bounds of credibility to believe that it was very likely that his wife’s death, and the delay in his getting the news, would later play an important part in his creation of a working technology for instant messaging.

The telegraph wasn’t something that he started on straight away, after all he had a family to support, so he continued with painting and began teaching art. Some of his commissions took him to Europe,

While returning by ship from Europe in 1832, Morse encountered Charles Thomas Jackson of Boston, a man who was well schooled in electromagnetism. Witnessing various experiments with Jackson’s electromagnet, Morse developed the concept of a single-wire telegraph. He set aside his painting, The Gallery of the Louvre.

In the UK William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone were also working on a commercial telegraph. Wheatstone understood that a single large battery would not carry a telegraphic signal over long distances. He theorised that numerous small batteries were far more successful and efficient in this task. (Wheatstone was building on the primary research of Joseph Henry, an American physicist.) Cooke and Wheatstone formed a partnership and patented the electrical telegraph in May 1837, and within a short time had provided the Great Western Railway with a 21 km stretch of telegraph. However, within a few years, Cooke and Wheatstone’s multiple-wire signalling method would be overtaken by Morse’s cheaper method. (below left)


Sir William Fothergill Cooke (4 May 1806 – 25 June 1879) was an English inventor. (above centre)

Sir Charles Wheatstone FRS FRSE DCL LLD (6 February 1802 – 19 October 1875), was an English scientist and inventor of many scientific breakthroughs of the Victorian era, including the English concertina, the stereoscope (a device for displaying three-dimensional images), and the Playfair cipher (an encryption technique). However, Wheatstone is best known for his contributions in the development of the Wheatstone bridge which is used to measure an unknown electrical resistance, and as a major figure in the development of telegraphy. (above right)

Joseph Henry (December 17, 1797 – May 13, 1878) was an American scientist who served as the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He was the secretary for the National Institute for the Promotion of Science, a precursor of the Smithsonian Institution. He was highly regarded during his lifetime. While building electromagnets, Henry discovered the electromagnetic phenomenon of self-inductance (the tendency of an electrical conductor to oppose a change in the electric current flowing through it). The SI unit of inductance, the Henry, is named in his honour. Henry’s work on the electromagnetic relay was the basis of the practical electrical telegraph, invented by Samuel F. B. Morse and Sir Charles Wheatstone, separately.

Morse encountered the problem of getting a telegraphic signal to carry over more than a few hundred yards of wire. His breakthrough came from the insights of Professor Leonard Gale, (below left)


Dr. Leonard Dunnell Gale (July 25, 1800 – October 22, 1883) was a professor of chemistry and mineralogy.

With Gale’s help, Morse introduced extra circuits or relays at frequent intervals and was soon able to send a message through 16 km of wire. Morse and Gale were soon joined by Alfred Vail, an enthusiastic young man with excellent skills, insights, and money. (Above right)

Alfred Lewis Vail (September 25, 1807 – January 18, 1859) was an American machinist and inventor.

Initially pulses of electric current were sent along wires to control an electromagnet in the receiving instrument. Many of the earliest telegraph systems used a single-needle system which gave a very simple and robust instrument. However, it was slow, as the receiving operator had to alternate between looking at the needle and writing down the message. What was needed was a method to transmit natural language using only electrical pulses and the silence between them. Around 1837, Morse and Vail, developed an early forerunner to the modern International Morse code.

Sometimes they worked in the same room and sometimes they worked in separate buildings. When in separate buildings they would send messages to each other, which at first was rather an onerous process. It involved writing out the long message, converting it into a code, sending it and then converting it back into words. They ended up creating their own shorthand

The Morse system for telegraphy, which was first used in about 1844, was designed to make indentations on a paper tape when electric currents were received. Morse’s original telegraph receiver used a mechanical clockwork to move a paper tape. When an electrical current was received, an electromagnet engaged an armature that pushed a stylus onto the moving paper tape, making an indentation on the tape. When the current was interrupted, a spring retracted the stylus and that portion of the moving tape remained unmarked. Morse code was developed so that operators could translate the indentations marked on the paper tape into text messages. In his earliest code, Morse had planned to transmit only numerals and to use a codebook to look up each word according to the number which had been sent. However, the code was soon expanded by Alfred Vail in 1840 to include letters and special characters so it could be used more generally. Vail estimated the frequency of use of letters in the English language by counting the movable type he found in the type-cases of a local newspaper in Morristown, New Jersey. The shorter marks were called “dots” and the longer ones “dashes”, and the letters most commonly used were assigned the shorter sequences of dots and dashes. This code, first used in 1844, became known as Morse landline code or American Morse code.

In the original Morse telegraphs, the receiver’s armature made a clicking noise as it moved in and out of position to mark the paper tape. The telegraph operators soon learned that they could translate the clicks directly into dots and dashes, and write these down by hand, thus making the paper tape unnecessary. When Morse code was adapted to radio communication, the dots and dashes were sent as short and long tone pulses. It was later found that people become more proficient at receiving Morse code when it is taught as a language that is heard, instead of one read from a page.

To reflect the sounds of Morse code receivers, the operators began to vocalize a dot as “dit”, and a dash as “dah”. Dots which are not the final element of a character became vocalized as “di”. For example, the letter “c” was then vocalized as “dah-di-dah-dit”. Morse code was sometimes facetiously known as “iddy-umpty” and a dash as “umpty”, leading to the word “umpteen”.


Comparison of historical versions of Morse code with the current standard. 1. American Morse code as originally defined. 2. The modified and rationalized version used by Gerke on German railways. 3. The current ITU standard.

The telegraph took off and eventually there was an office in every major US city. The only rule when sending a message was “Be brief” because the system couldn’t send out a lot of messages. Basically, each machine could send out one message out and receive one message back. To help with this, words were contracted or omitted from messages and people were charged per word.

Between 1870 and 1874, Thomas Edison developed a vastly superior system, in which a telegraph receiver utilized a metal stylus to mark chemically-treated paper, which then could be run through a typewriter-like device. It was capable of recording up to 1,000 words a minute, which made it possible to send long messages quickly.,pictured%20operating%20a%20telegraph%20machine.&text=Between%201870%20and%201874%2C%20Edison,through%20a%20typewriter%2Dlike%20device.


Thomas Alva Edison (February 11, 1847 – October 18, 1931) was an American inventor and businessman who has been described as America’s greatest inventor.

Edison’s improvements increased the number of messages being sent and returned but brevity was still required as there was still a pricing structure.

Telegraphs became popular in newsrooms. Editors told reporters to be as brief and succinct as possible as news needed to be sent quickly in order to make the latest edition.

Ernest Hemmingway was a reporter and he carried this reporter way of writing into his books. It became the quintessential American style of writing, harking back to the shortcomings of using shorthand for the telegraph.

So, the surprise is that the American language was shaped by the telegraph (as well as the process of distancing American English from British English – a cultural decision).

2) An unintended consequence. The Lightbulb

Edison was not the first person to come up with the light bulb.

An incandescent light bulb, incandescent lamp or incandescent light globe is an electric light with a wire filament heated until it glows. The filament is enclosed in a bulb to protect the filament from oxidation. Current is supplied to the filament by terminals or wires embedded in the glass. A bulb socket provides mechanical support and electrical connections.

Historians list 22 inventors of incandescent lamps prior to Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison.


Sir Joseph Wilson Swan FRS (31 October 1828 – 27 May 1914) was an English physicist, chemist, and inventor. He is known as an independent early developer of a successful incandescent light bulb, and is the person responsible for developing and supplying the first incandescent lights used to illuminate homes and public buildings, including the Savoy Theatre, London, in 1881.

In what are considered to be independent lines of inquiry, Swan’s incandescent electric lamp was developed at the same time that Thomas Edison was working on his incandescent lamp, with Swan’s first successful lamp and Edison’s lamp both patented in 1879.

In 1850 Swan began working with carbonized paper filaments in an evacuated glass bulb. By 1860, he was able to demonstrate a working device but the lack of a good vacuum and an adequate supply of electricity resulted in a short lifetime for the bulb and an inefficient source of light. By the mid-1870s better pumps had become available, and Swan returned to his experiments. The improved vacuum inside the bulbs with a more slender carbon filament meant less blackening in the bulb, and the bulb lasted longer. Adding platinum leads to the carbon filament kept the bulbs lit for a continuous 40 hours.


Carbon filament lamps, showing darkening of bulb

Edison never set out to work on a lightbulb. He had an interest in light but it wasn’t until he visited William Wallace in his

Connecticut laboratory and saw a dynamo powering an arc light that his interest was really piqued.

Wallace owned a factory making copper and brass pipes and wires, but he regarded himself as a scientist. The “arc light” system consisted of a steam-powered electric dynamo that pulsed current through two tall carbon sticks to create an eye-searing beam.,28804,1999143_1999202_1999203,00.html

On Sept. 8, 1878, Thomas Edison journeyed to the Connecticut workshop of the inventor William Wallace to examine Wallace’s prototype for an electric light.

He was incredibly impressed with the equipment and examined all of it closely, recognising the immense possibilities in the new dynamo but realising that the prospect of the arc lights it powered were limited because the light they produced couldn’t be dimmed and were so bright they were usable only outdoors or in large interiors (of course they were cleaner than candles, gas mantles and oil lamps).

Edison returned home to New Jersey to work on his version of what became an incandescent light bulb, based on a material glowing.

Edison’s first filament was carbon but he switched to platinum, as platinum is unreactive, strong and has a high melting point. However, there was a problem as platinum is a very good conductor. A low resistance means very little glowing.


There is a resistance to the flow of an electric current through most conductors. An electric current flows when electrons move through a conductor, such as a metal wire, when there is a potential difference. The moving electrons can collide with the ions in the metal. This makes it more difficult for the current to flow, and causes resistance. It is these collisions and their transfer of energy that cause the wire to glow.

A simple analogy for resistance is water flowing through pipes of different diameters


In the end Edison returned to a carbon filament and his first successful test was on 22 October 1879 and lasted 13.5 hours. Edison continued to improve this design and by 4 November 1879, filed for a US patent for an electric lamp using “a carbon filament or strip coiled and connected … to platina contact wires.” Although the patent described several ways of creating the carbon filament including using “cotton and linen thread, wood splints, papers coiled in various ways,”

It would take years of experimenting with platinum, paper and bamboo before Edison found his way to a durable filament, carbonized cardboard.


Edison carbon filament lamps, early 1880s

Edison’s goal in developing his lamp was for it to be used as one part of a much larger system: a long-life high-resistance lamp that could be connected in parallel to work economically with the large-scale electric-lighting utility he was creating. Joseph Swan’s original lamp design, with its low resistance (the lamp could only be used in series) and short life span, was not suited for such an application. Swan’s strong patents in Great Britain led, in 1883, to the two competing companies merging to exploit both Swan’s and Edison’s inventions, with the establishment of the Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company. Known commonly as “Ediswan”, the company sold lamps made with a cellulose filament that Swan had invented in 1881, while the Edison Company continued using bamboo filaments outside of Britain.


Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company, otherwise known as “Ediswan”

Artificial light have consequences both for the natural world and for us.

Fireflies produce light for mate selection. Adults have a variety of ways to communicate with mates in courtship including steady glows and flashing.


Artificial street lighting gets in the way of this process and the number of fireflies is falling.

We humans are supposed to have a daytime mode and a night-time mode. During the day our temperature is higher, we have an increased metabolism and increased growth hormones (although mine don’t seem to have worked height-wise). At night these decrease and our melatonin hormone increases.

Melatonin is a hormone primarily released by the pineal gland that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. The greater the amount of melatonin in the body the more you want to sleep.

Natural light dictates which mode is which.

Light passes through the human eye and hits photoreceptors in the retina. They cause electrical signals to be sent the brain so we can “see” things. Also, in the retina are other photoreceptors, not involved with image formation, which adjust the size of the pupil, regulate and suppress the hormone melatonin and control the body clock.

These special photoreceptors are more sensitive to blue light. Blue light suppresses melatonin twice as much as green light. In other words, blue light tells the brain not to produce melatonin and you don’t want to sleep. Blue light is prevalent during the day.


Our ancient ancestors wouldn’t have had a problem as they would have got up when the Sun rose and gone to bed when the Sun set.

Even when our ancestors started using candles, gas mantles and oil lamps there wasn’t a problem as these produce very little blue light (more red light). So, sleep patterns weren’t changed much.

However modern artificial light, along with computers and mobile phones produce a lot of blue light. So, we are in daytime mode as long as we are using these things.

Extra hours of daytime caused by increased blue light increases growth hormone levels. This increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and some forms of cancer. It would not be ethical to do experiments on humans but we can monitor what they do, where they live etc. and make correlations.

There is a population of people who have an increased risk for some ailments and it has to do with when they work. They work at night, underneath blue producing artificial light.

Edison, Swan and Wallace had the purist of intentions to push back darkness and lengthen the day. After all we don’t particularly like the dark.

How do you have a healthy life under electric light? Well, make sure you have plenty of blue light during the day and increase the amount or red producing artificial light at night. Oh, and put your mobile phones and computers away (or put them into night-time mode, if that is present) at bed time.

3) How technology can go awry. Photography

Before the advent of the digital camera, the only way to get an instant picture was to use a polaroid camera



Caroline Hunter (born September 5, 1946, in New Orleans, Louisiana) is an anti-apartheid activist. She graduated with a B.S. in chemistry in 1968 from Xavier University in Louisiana.

After graduation, Ms. Hunter was hired as a research bench chemist for Polaroid Corporation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was responsible for the “goo”, the reagent responsible for developing the image.


The reagent sits in a layer just above the light-sensitive layers and just below the image layer. Before you take the picture, the reagent material is all collected in a blob at the border of the plastic sheet, away from the light-sensitive material. This keeps the film from developing before it has been exposed.

After you snap the picture, the film sheet passes out of the camera, through a pair of rollers. The rollers spread the reagent material out into the middle of the film sheet, just like a rolling pin spreading out dough. When the reagent is spread in between the image layer and the light-sensitive layers, it reacts with the other chemical layers in the film. The opacifier material stops light from filtering onto the layers below, so the film isn’t fully exposed before it is developed.

The reagent chemicals move downward through the layers, changing the exposed particles in each layer into metallic silver. The chemicals then dissolve the developer dye so it begins to diffuse up toward the image layer. The metallic silver areas at each layer — the grains that were exposed to light — grab the dyes so they stop moving up. Only the dyes from the unexposed layers will move up to the image layer. For example, if the green layer was exposed, no magenta dye will make it to the image layer, but cyan and yellow will. These colours combine to create a translucent green film on the image surface. Light reflecting off the white pigment in the reagent shines through these colour layers, the same way light from a bulb shines through a slide.

In 1970, upon the discovery of her employer’s involvement in the South African apartheid system as the producer of the passbook photos Ms. Hunter and her future husband, co-worker Ken Williams, formed the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement (PRWM).

Every black South African had to carry a passbook. These passbooks informed the police where the passholder was allowed to go. Any white person could ask to see it and if it wasn’t shown the black person could be fined a large amount of money. Invariably they couldn’t pay so they were sent to prison to carry out hard labour.

What made the couple particularly angry was that the year before the United Nations had stipulated that no company should have a presence in South Africa. So why were polaroid there and what part did the company play in the suppression of the black population

Williams tried talking to management, who first denied they had a presence in South Africa, “but if we do it isn’t a very big presence”. However, Williams pointed out that only a few hundred cameras are needed to take the picture of 15 million black people. At first the management weren’t bothered by the complaints which is why Hunter and Williams set up PRWM.

Hunter and Williams became the first American activists to challenge their employers’ South African investments. They led a seven-year boycott against Polaroid that included testifying before the United Nations and Congress about American corporations profiting from assisting the South African government.

Hunter and Williams aim was to stop polaroid selling their cameras in South Africa. They produced pamphlets, which they distributed and pinned to noticeboards at work. They also had huge demonstrations but in 1971, Polaroid fired both Hunter and Williams. However, the PRWM prevailed and by 1977 Polaroid had completely pulled out of South Africa. The beginning of the end of apartheid.

Many years later Nelson Mandela came to Cambridge, Massachusetts to thank the PRWM.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013) was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader and philanthropist who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He was the country’s first black head of state and the first elected in a fully representative democratic election. His government focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid by tackling institutionalised racism and fostering racial reconciliation. Ideologically an African nationalist and socialist, he served as the president of the African National Congress (ANC) party from 1991 to 1997.



Technology goes awry when it is used for nefarious purposes.

Inventions should be used to serve humanity positively, without harming any other life too.

We need to put technology under the microscope.

Clocks affect when we sleep.

Telegraph has shaped language.

Photography can be used for nefarious purposes.

Don’t just embrace technology, examine its consequences.

Now technology is in our lives, how are our lives going to change and are we ok with the answer.

Questions and answers

1) Ice market


Frederic Tudor (September 4, 1783 – February 6, 1864) was an American businessman and merchant. Known as Boston’s “Ice King”, he was the founder of the Tudor Ice Company and a pioneer of the international ice trade in the early 19th century. He made a fortune shipping ice cut from New England ponds to ports in the Caribbean, Europe, and as far away as India and Hong Kong.

Frederick Tudor sold ice in a similar way as Ruth Belville selling time. However, his business was doomed as hers was because technology changed. Very few houses in the developed world don’t own a fridge and/or freezer.

Embracing technology can cause us to lose some of our humanity. An obvious example of this was the industrialisation of wool spinning. Initially this was a cottage industry where the women would spin at home to make a little extra money. Then mills were set up where men, women and even children would spend very long hours working for very little money.

2) What will be the next big challenge in material science?

Hard to tell. Better batteries?

Who knew that we would need better materials for masks?

Longevity and health are important. So better biomaterials.

Making computers smaller and faster. Quantum computing.

3) Graphene.

It will make computers work faster.

It is strong so could make strong bridges.

The major problem is that we don’t know how to mass produce it yet. Looking for uses doesn’t attract funding.

Could this material one day be found to be harmful?

There is excitement when a discovery is made, but not much excitement about finding uses.

When Michael Faraday first showed how you could induce an electric current in 1831 there was much excitement.

Michael Faraday FRS (22 September 1791 – 25 August 1867) was an English scientist who contributed to the study of electromagnetism and electrochemistry. His main discoveries include the principles underlying electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism and electrolysis.

However, by the 1890s, people weren’t bothered by the uses of electricity. Only rich people had any electric light, and they didn’t really care if their servants had to do their jobs by hand.

4) Do research scientists think about how their findings affects society?

Scientists don’t really think about the consequences.

Did the people, who invented blue LEDs think about the connection between blue light and sleep?

5) Technology is not neutral. It has consequences. Scientists should be looking at the impacts but often they don’t. The general public do but they don’t often feel confident in their understanding.

Technology is flawed because the humans who design it, make it and use it are flawed.

6) What about AI.

Dr Ramirez is rather worried about AI because of its possible misuse.

Facial recognition software being used to monitor minority groups in China for instance.

What is the agenda of people who create AI uses?

There should be discussions. Things are happening so fast.

7) How can we put the brakes on technology?

Consumers have power. They should ask questions. One obvious question is “Who is actually making the things I use? Are they making a decent living?”

8) DNA and Crispr

Research is one thing but we need oversight. We don’t want science to do just as it likes in case there are problems. People don’t always make the best choices. Manipulation of DNA is good if it helps people to get well but society needs to be informed about possible consequences.

9) Why are we working on AI?

This sort of technology should be used to solve problems, People should not be going hungry or ill in the 21st century.

10) Are there current technologies that in the future we might laugh at?

Plastic products and cars

11) Solid hydrogen?

Dr Ramirez didn’t have an answer at the time but she suggested the audience tweet her

12) Do we still use telegraph?

The military still use morse code because sometimes modern communication technology fails.

The use of word processing has meant that children are losing the ability to handwrite. Having written that I should add that my late mother had the most beautiful handwriting, but mine, although perfectly legible is not and I can’t blame a word processor.

image  image

In the bestselling tradition of Stuff Matters and The Disappearing Spoon: a clever and engaging look at materials, the innovations they made possible, and how these technologies changed us. In The Alchemy of Us, scientist and science writer Ainissa Ramirez examines eight inventions-clocks, steel rails, copper communication cables, photographic film, light bulbs, hard disks, scientific labware, and silicon chips-and reveals how they shaped the human experience. Ramirez tells the stories of the woman who sold time, the inventor who inspired Edison, and the hotheaded undertaker whose invention pointed the way to the computer. She describes, among other things, how our pursuit of precision in timepieces changed how we sleep; how the railroad helped commercialize Christmas; how the necessary brevity of the telegram influenced Hemingway’s writing style; and how a young chemist exposed the use of Polaroid’s cameras to create passbooks to track black citizens in apartheid South Africa. These fascinating and inspiring stories offer new perspectives on our relationships with technologies. Ramirez shows not only how materials were shaped by inventors but also how those materials shaped culture, chronicling each invention and its consequences-intended and unintended. Filling in the gaps left by other books about technology, Ramirez showcases little-known inventors-particularly people of colour and women-who had a significant impact but whose accomplishments have been hidden by mythmaking, bias, and convention. Doing so, she shows us the power of telling inclusive stories about technology. She also shows that innovation is universal-whether it’s splicing beats with two turntables and a microphone or splicing genes with two test tubes.


By explaining how inventions both exotic and mundane transformed society, Ramirez’s ingenious survey illuminates the effect of science in a manner accessible to a wide readership.–Publishers Weekly
Technology buffs should appreciate Ramirez’s efforts to raise the attention of issues impacting scientists, engineers, and technologists.

— —Library Journal

About the Author

Ainissa Ramirez is a materials scientist and sought-after public speaker and science communicator. A Brown and Stanford graduate, she has worked as a research scientist at Bell Labs and held academic positions at Yale University and MIT. She has written for Time, Scientific American, the American Scientist, and Forbes, and makes regular appearances on PBS’s SciTech Now.

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