Age of Invention: Three Thinkers

A remarkable feature of the human brain is its lengthy development when compared to that of the animal kingdom.  The age at which the brain and nervous system become fully developed seems to be around 33 years.  I would like to present three remarkable thinkers who all began the work for which they are mostly remembered, in their early 30’s.  Facing resistance from the prevailing wiseacres of their time, their thinking was vindicated by history; it can be fairly said that they changed the world for the better.

The Computer

Difference engine constructed at the Science Museum, London

Charles Babbage 1791 – 1871 began work on a computing device he named the Difference Engine, designed to calculate logarithms, in 1823, at the age of 32.  His motivation was the many inaccuracies in log tables, which caused endless problems for mariners. His ideas were far ahead of his time, and he fell victim to predatory price rises from the manufacturer of his cogs and gear wheel machinery, and eventual withdrawal of funding from the British government.  The concept of the computer was so alien to those times that he was once asked in a parliamentary session discussing funding whether, if given the wrong question, the computer he proposed was well-designed enough to provide the correct answer.  His exasperation showed in his reply: “I am at a loss as to the kind of mental confusion which could have prompted such a question.” 

Interestingly, Babbage had strong religious leanings, and he reasoned that if he was able to program long sequences on his Analytical Engine, God might equally be able to program much longer sequences on some other mechanism, to control what happened in nature.  This idea was far ahead of its time, as DNA was discovered well over one hundred years later.  More relevant to modern software is that, sensing a quick buck, the engineer in charge of milling the components for this first Difference Engine priced himself steadily higher and higher until the project collapsed.  If not for this bastard, the computer might easily have arrived 130 years early; faced with such a fine “tech” attitude, Babbage laboured on a new and more elegant design which could be built for less than the cost of finishing the old one.  But after the initial failure and repeated pleas for more money, government enthusiasm had waned and the project collapased.  Babbage’s temper and impatience may have been at least partly to blame.

Babbage had an irritability which often worked against him.  He publicly declared street musicians a nuisance, claiming “the only question is whether their sounds lead to brain damage.”  After this failed campaign, a number of his neighbours had subsequently, according to Babbage, devised or purchased crude musical instruments, which they would play continually without the least hope of perfecting their technique, but simply to annoy him.

While showing some friends the completely built Difference Engine at the Science Museum in London, we had the good fortune to meet with an engineer who was at work on a second one intended for America.  He explained many aspects of the machinery and that the printer which Babbage had designed on paper, lacking the funds to build the actual prototype, worked perfectly – after being reversed, as Babbage had inadvertently drafted the entire mechanism backwards!


John Logie Baird August 13, 1888 – June 14, 1946, the son of a Presbyterian minister, became interested in “seeing by wireless” and worked for years to develop this principle mechanically.  He once attended the offices of the Daily Express to attempt to gain some publicity for his faltering efforts, and on raising the issue of “seeing by wireless”, was escorted from the premises, and checked for knives.  His father, mindful of the various experiments Baird conducted as a youth – including lighting their house with electricity and nearly garrotting a passing hansom cab driver with his low slung cables – mused, “and what good will it do for the soul of man, to see through walls?”  Nevertheless, the altruistic nature of his father no doubt contributed to Baird’s humanistic outlook.

Baird working on early prototype, prior to 1928. The perforated Nipgow disk can be seen at left.

To achieve his goal, he used light-sensitive selenium, which was already known to have the potential of representing images using electric current.  In the 1880’s, the German inventor Paul Nipkow had already established the basic principle of transmitting an image using a spinning disk with a spiral of holes, through which light was bounced off an object, converted to electrical signals via the selenium cells behind the rotating disk, and then reproduced by the equivalent transmission of light through a co-ordinated spinning disk with an equivalent spiral of holes, an arbitrary distance away.  The problem was the signal lag of the selenium, which was beyond the electronic abilities of the time.  But since this deterioration occurred at a fixed rate, Baird reasoned he could compensate using a matching amplification to the electrical signal, something beyond the electronics of Nipkow’s day.  He began work in earnest around 1922, age 34, and laboured for years in very restricted circumstances, finally unveiling his Televisor in Selfridges in 1924.

Baird solved the initial problem of simple image transmission, and progressed to transmitting recognisable human faces and motion by 1926.  His efforts met with great resistance, initially from the BBC, who felt there was not enough interest or broadcast quality material to justify bandwidth for the admittedly crude programs of the time.  Through persistence, his company managed to sell 20,000 Televisors, and some broadcasting was indeed becoming popular.  But Baird clung to his mechanical solution in the early 1930’s even when Marconi-EMI had created rival electronic scanning systems with superior image quality.  The BBC eventually joined with EMI and developed their own system, using cross licencing arrangements, and Baird found himself becoming increasingly isolated technically.

Nevertheless, he persisted in hybrids of scanning and electron beam systems, creating the world’s first interlaced 700 line transmission, and, remarkably, colour 3-d television.  My late grandfather, a close friend of Baird’s and a fellow Scot, confirmed that he had seen the 3-d colour television demonstration for himself at Baird’s laboratory, and described it as being far superior to anything marketed since, and not requiring special glasses or any other such compromises.  Among other inventions, Baird created the first video disk, on which an image’s signal was etched by the  mechanical response to scanned optical signals, and night vision goggles which worked using infra red light.

Iain Carstairs

Baird demonstrating high definition, colour 3d television in 1941. Behind Baird, my grandfather, Lindsay Carstairs, is third from left  (simulated TV image)

Baird’s religious background shows both the inherited nature of his altruistic aims, and the distance his intellectual outlook had evolved in a single generation.  Turning down an offer from his father to study theology, he declared his lack of the necessary hypocrisy to become a church minister.  “Oh, I think ye might manage it,” joked his father.  Baird was later to write of his seething rage on witnessing the extravagant spending and smug display of the London socialites, when he remembered the “starving, barefoot urchins” freezing in the slums of Glasgow.

He battled not just financial but physical hardship as well, as his health was continually failing.  For a while, he was involved in an unconventional relationship with a married woman, with the full knowledge of her husband; this eventually came to an end, and he married in 1931.  The news of this spread before he could decide how to word his letter to her, and came as a huge shock to his former lover.  His ingenuity, tireless effort, humour and self belief in such a difficult but fundamentally important field as television qualify him as one of the most important inventors of the 20th century.

The cure for Scurvy:

James Lind 1716 – 1794

Though scurvy — caused by a dietary deficiency in vitamin C — had been recognised and puzzled over since the time of the Greeks, it had failed to capture the scientific minds of Europe until the Age of Discovery, when mighty sail craft and their crews returned decimated by the disease. More sailors lost their lives to scurvy during the 15th to 17th century than to war, storms, shipwreck, and all other diseases combined.

Sailors were often at sea for months and, even when in port, officers of naval ships were forced to prevent desertion by confining crews to ships anchored offshore while they were reprovisioned with hardtack and salted meat. Wrote a mariner voyaging with Magellan in 1519, “they ate biscuit and when there was no more of that they ate the crumbs, which were full of maggots and smelled strongly of mouse urine . . . Mice could be sold for half a ducat a piece, and still many who would have paid could not get them.” On that three-year voyage, a crew of 250 was whittled down to a mere 18 men. The foul diet led to disease, as William Clowes, a naval surgeon, writing in 1596, recorded it: “Their gums were rotten even to the very roots of their very teeth, and their cheeks hard and swollen . . . Moreover they were full of aches and paines, with many blewish and reddish staines or spots, some broad and some small like flea-biting.”

Cures for scurvy had been advanced for ages, with ill-founded theories of humoral imbalance or putrefaction their only basis. The European Enlightenment — an intellectual movement that idealized progress, science, and reason — was slow to reach the medical province and, when it did, sought unified theories of bodily function and disease, which led to even more misguided proposals for treatment, including purgatives, barley malt, alcohol, and bloodletting.

Wrote James Lind, in 1753, on the state of medical knowledge:

“theories were invented, galenical, chymical, and mechanical, according to the whim of each author, and the philosophy thenin fashion . . . The learned ignorance of the age lay concealed under a veil of unmeaning, unintelligible jargon.”

In 1747, Lind, aged 31, conducted one of the first controlled clinical trials in medical history on board the HMS Salisbury and concluded that citrus juice was a more effective treatment for scurvy than five other standard treatments from seawater to laxatives.

Despite clear evidence, Lind’s recommendations were largely ignored during his lifetime because of prevailing errors of thought — and while wordy scientific debate raged on in the Royal Society, scurvy was killing tens of thousands of mariners.

James Cook, sailing around the world three times in the years preceding the American Revolution, finally kept scurvy at bay through insistence on impeccable hygiene among his crew and on obtaining fresh produce for meals, as well as through broad use of antiscorbutics including citrus juice.  But politics forced him to champion Pringle’s wort of malt in public. It was Gilbert Blane who rediscovered Lind’s experiment and advocated the use of citrus fruits after Pringle’s death.

Blane, now heralded as the father of naval medicine, wrote of citrus fruits in the 1780s:

“upon what their superior efficacy depends, and in what manner they produce their effect, I am at a loss to determine, never having been able to satisfy my mind with any theory concerning the nature and cure of this disease, nor hardly indeed of any other.”

It would be 150 years before vitamin C would be isolated and characterized. By then, thanks to the keen eyes and clear thought of a few men, and in spite of the comfortably seated institutions of science, scurvy had been nearly eradicated from the developed world.

About iain carstairs

I have a great interest in both scientific advances and the beauty of religion, and created about 15 years ago with the aim of finding common ground between the scientist and the believer, and to encourage debate between the two sides.
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