Since 1840 the Oxford Electric Bell has been ringing in a laboratory at the University of Oxford. Built by a London instrument maker and powered by dry-pile batteries, the bell is said to have rung more than ten billion times. The ring is now barely audible because the charge is so low.
“There is a story, repeated by a number of Roman writers,” explained the classicist Moses Finley, “that a man—characteristically unnamed—invented unbreakable glass and demonstrated it to Tiberius in anticipation of a great reward. The emperor asked the inventor whether anyone else shared his secret and was assured that there was no one else; whereupon his head was promptly removed, lest gold be reduced to the value of mud.”
Ellen Eglin, a housekeeper working in Washington, DC, devised a clothes wringer in 1888 to make washing and drying more efficient. Instead of patenting her invention, she sold the rights to an agent for eighteen dollars, bringing the new owner “great financial success,” according to an 1890 article. “If it was known that a Negro woman patented the invention, white ladies would not buy the wringer,” she told the reporter.
William Petty’s device for “double writing” made it possible, he claimed, that “any man, even at the first sight and handling, may write two resembling copies of the same thing at once.” Petty wrote one of the first-known English claims for patent rights, in his 1648 “Brief Declaration Concerning Double Writing.” “Should I have given it away for nothing?” he asked. “The thing...would have been condemned as of no use, because of no price.”
The earliest recorded process of silver extraction occurred in first-century-bc China by an alchemist named Fang, who devised a secret procedure for boiling off mercury and leaving behind pure silver residue. After her husband tortured her in order to learn her secret, and as she was possibly suffering from mercury poisoning, she went insane. Ten centuries later a girl named Geng Xiansheng was summoned to the emperor’s palace to transform mercury and “snow” into silver. “She mastered the art of the yellow and white [alchemy],” wrote one historian of Geng, “with many other strong transformations, mysterious and incomprehensible.”
According to the iron hypothesis, sprinkling iron into low-chlorophyll regions of the ocean would create large algal blooms. Oceanographer John Martin argued that large-scale iron enrichment could grow enough algae in the oceans to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and reverse the greenhouse effect. “Give me half a tanker of iron,” he famously said in 1988, “and I will give you an ice age.”
Game developer Dong Nguyen released the mobile game Flappy Bird in 2013. By the end of January 2014, it had become the most popular free app in the iOS App Store. A month later Nguyen removed the game from platforms, believing it to be too addictive. The sudden removal drove up prices for cell phones with the game preinstalled. “I think it had become a problem,” said Nguyen. “To solve that problem, it’s best to take down Flappy Bird. It’s gone forever.”
One in four thousand people are said to suffer from photosensitive epilepsy, in which flashing computer screens can induce seizures. In 2008 the World Wide Web Consortium determined that online content should not flash more than three times in a one-second period. Federal government websites must design pages that avoid screen flickering within the range of 2 to 55 hertz.
In 1978 NASA scientists Donald J. Kessler and Burton G. Cour-Palais predicted that the number of artificial satellites in low earth orbit might reach such density as to spark a cascade of collisions. The resulting debris belt would eventually make some orbits nearly impassable. “Under certain conditions,” they wrote, “the belt could begin to form within this century and could be a significant problem during the next century.”
Philadelphia chemist Robert Cornelius took what is widely believed to be the first “selfie,” in the back of his family shop, by removing the camera lens cap, running into the frame, and then replacing the lens cap. On the back of the photograph he wrote, “The first light picture ever taken. 1839.” Three-quarters of a century later, Russia’s grand duchess Anastasiya Nikolayevna took a series of self-portraits, steadying herself on the back of a chair. “I took this picture of myself looking in the mirror,” she wrote in 1914, four years before her execution. “It was very hard, as my hands were trembling.”
Thomas Edison is popularly credited with initiating the practice of saying “Hello” when answering the telephone. His rival Alexander Graham Bell preferred “Ahoy” (as used on ships) as a phone greeting and used it for the rest of his life. The first phone book, published in 1878, instructed users to begin conversations with “a firm and cheery ‘Hulloa.’ ” (To end conversations, it recommended “That is all.”) By 1889 telephone-exchange operators were known as “hello girls.”
According to the Roman biographer Suetonius, the emperor Vespasian declined to use a labor-saving hoist in his construction projects. “To a mechanical engineer who promised to transport some heavy columns to the capitol at small expense, he gave no mean reward for his invention,” Suetonius writes, “but refused to make use of it, saying, ‘You must let me feed my poor commons.’ ”
In 1745 a German cleric by the name of Ewald Georg von Kleist tried to pass an electrical current into a bottle through a nail and was shocked for his efforts. From this accident came the Leyden jar, an electrical condenser that allows electricity to be stored. The following year the abbé Jean-Antoine Nollet discharged a Leyden jar in front of Louis XV, sending electrical current through 180 Royal Guards, who jumped at the sensation.
Euripidean drama requires “the sudden jolt of the machine” to clarify the characters’ “peculiar sense of the political,” writes classicist John Snyder. “The deus ex machina breaks in because that is what history does…outside forces, irrational, nonhuman in origin and agency, yet utterly human at the same time, make people do what they do.”
In the so-called Screw Plot—a supposed conspiracy to assassinate Queen Anne during a Thanksgiving service in 1710—iron bolts were removed from the roof timbers of St. Paul’s Cathedral in order for the roof to collapse during the service. “The new cathedral was not then quite finished,” wrote John Noorthouck in 1773, “and it appeared upon inquiry that the missing of these iron pins was owing to the neglect of the workmen, who supposed the timbers were sufficiently fastened without them.”