Monopoly – the classic board game entertaining generations.

On this day in 1935, the very last day of the year, the Parker Brothers was granted a patent for the game of Monopoly.

Houses & hotels established on the right addressed. And the odd chance to spend some time in jail! (© All Rights Reserved)
Houses & hotels established at the right addresses. And the odd chance to spend some time in jail!
(© All Rights Reserved)

The patent described Monopoly as “intended primarily to provide a game of barter, thus involving trading and bargaining”, further stating “much of the interest in the game lies in trading and in striking shrewd bargains.”

The game of Monopoly deals with real estate – players can buy properties on different streets with different values, where they can charge rent etc. An element of chance (the roll of two dice) is incorporated to add excitement and unpredictability.

The original patent for Monopoly was quite comprehensive, including illustrations showing not only the playing board and pieces, but also 22 “Title cards of the respective Real Estate holdings”, Utilities, Chance and Community Chest cards, and the scrip money.

The Parker Brothers’ Monopoly became one of the all-time best selling board games, entertaining generations of adults and children. Intricate and complex enough to stimulate adult players, yet simple enough to still entertain (slightly older) children, it proved a winning recipe, and a true classic of the board game genre.

Asa Candler and Coca-Cola’s rise to world dominance

If I say ‘carbonated soft drink’, what is the first beverage that comes to mind?  If you answered ‘Coca-Cola’ (and the chances are very good that will be the case), you have our birthday star, Asa Griggs Candler (30 Dec 1851 -12 Mar 1929) to thank.

Candler was an American marketer and manufacturer, who took the Coca-Cola soft drink invented in 1886 by pharmacist John “Doc” Pemberton, and turned it into the biggest carbonated beverage in the world. When Pemberton died, Candler bought his secret formula, and proceeded to invest obscene amounts of money ($50k per year – a crazy investment at the time) into the advertising of his product. His goal was to move Coca-Cola from a local beverage, sold from a soda fountain, to a bottled, national drink.

Coca-Cola - after more than a century still untouched as the most recognised carbonated soft-drink in the world.(© All Rights Reserved)
Coca-Cola – after more than a century still untouched as the most recognised carbonated soft-drink in the world.
(© All Rights Reserved)

His efforts were hugely successful, and his beverage became a national hit, but the success brought with it numerous copy-cats – producers who sold similar looking beverages, with similar names (only different enough to avoid patent infringement cases). His solution to this was another stroke of marketing genius – patenting a uniquely shaped bottle. The shape of the Coke bottle became an integral part of its marketing campaigns, successfully differentiating it from other, similar cola beverages.

Candler was president of the Coca-Cola company for almost 30 years (1887-1916) and under his leadership Coke cemented it’s cult status among carbonated soft drinks. Relentless and intense marketing and advertising remained the backbone of Coca-Cola’s success, even after Candler’s death, and to this day no other soft drink has been able to come close to Coca-Cola’s level of market dominance.

It’s Tick Tock Day – one last chance to make it big in 2012

And so another year is almost done and dusted; it’s 29 December – after today there will be only 2 more days to go before 2013 arrives. That time of year when you start seriously contemplating everything you thought you were going to do and achieve this year. And of course with this comes the regrets of all the opportunities missed, all the targets not achieved…

Well, today is Tick Tock Day – especially created to give you one last chance to pick some of those goals that have not been realised; to see if you cannot cram one or two more achievements into the year before everything starts over again with a new set of resolutions.

Keep one eye on the clock, and get a move-on with those 2012 resolutions!(© All Rights Reserved)
Keep one eye on the clock, and get a move-on with those 2012 resolutions!
(© All Rights Reserved)

Think about it this way – after today you have 2 more days to your disposal. That’s 48 hours. Or 2880 minutes. Or if you prefer, 172 800 seconds. That’s hundreds of thousands of seconds! Imagine how much you can achieve in that time!

But you better hurry – time is ticking… Tick tock, tick tock… 🙂

Enjoy some mental gymnastics on Card Playing Day

Today, 28 December, is Card Playing Day – the day to celebrate all games involving your classic deck of cards.

When you think about it, a deck of cards is a pretty impressive creation – the diversity and complexity covered in all the games using a card deck is quite staggering. From games testing cunning and deception (poker), to games teaching teamwork and planning (bridge), to those based on statistical probability and counting skills (blackjack), to visual pattern-matching games (rummy), to the single-player solitaire/patience type games, and hundreds more in-between, the options are almost limitless. And all this based on a simple collection of 52 playing cards, involving four different ‘suits’ of 13 cards each.

Playing cards - a world of complexity lurking in a deck of 52 cards.(© All Rights Reserved)
Playing cards – a world of complexity lurking in a deck of 52 cards.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Playing cards have a long history – they were first found in China as early as the 9th century, and appeared in Europe around the 14th century. The first card decks containing the now-standard 52 cards consisted of suits with themes like polo sticks, coins, swords and cups. The famous suits of spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs, as we still use today, was first introduced in France around 1480. The Kings, Queens and Knaves (Jacks) in the different suits were based on English and French history, and referred to different historical characters such as King David, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and others.

Beyond the historical connotations, a range of symbolic meanings are attached to the deck of cards as we know it. The 13 cards in each suit is said to refer to the 13 months of the lunar year; the 52 cards corresponds to the 52 weeks in a year; the Ace, which is both the lowest and highest card in each suit, is symbolic of the beginning and end, alpha and omega.

From a scientific point of view, playing cards represent an invaluable demonstration and teaching aid in fields such as mathematical logic, probability and statistics.

Whether you enjoy playing cards for the thrill and uncertainty of games of chance, or because of the complex mathematics they represent, or simply because of the social interaction inherent in many card games, today is the day to celebrate all facets of card playing. So while you’re enjoying that pleasant lull between Christmas and New Year, why not pull out a deck of cards –  play an old game, learn a new one, and lose yourself in the mathematical complexities hidden in your standard card deck.

Louis Pasteur, founder of microbiology

Today we celebrate another of the big names in science – Louis Pasteur (27 Dec 1822 – 28 Sep 1895), one of the founders of the field of microbiology.

Thanks to Louis Pasteur, your milk stays fresher for longer.(© All Rights Reserved)
Thanks to Louis Pasteur, your milk stays fresher for longer.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The Frenchman Pasteur, a chemist by training, shifted his focus to microbiology when he started studying the role of bacteria in fermentation. His understanding of the process of fermentation led to fundamental insights into the role of germs in infection, and how the process can be manipulated. He figured out that bacteria can be killed by exposing them for a specific time at a given temperature – a process that became known as pasteurisation.

Pasteur made many contributions in the field of human health, creating and testing a range of vaccines for diphtheria, cholera, yellow fever, plague, rabies, anthrax, and tuberculosis.

James Mason, the guy who (sort of) invented the coffee percolator

I am sure today is important for any number of reasons, but personally the key innovation for the day comes from the American James H Mason.

OK, so perhaps on the universal scale of great scientists and innovators he doesn’t rate up there with some of our recent blog-featured personalities (Newton, Joule, Edwin Armstrong, even Steve Jobs) but to me his contribution has brought much enjoyment – Mason is the guy who first patented the coffee percolator in the US in 1865. (Actually a British soldier and scientist, Sir Benjamin Thompson, came up an earlier version of the percolator some years before, but I couldn’t find out much about his invention.)

The classic coffee percolator - essentially unchanged for the last 120 years.(© All Rights Reserved)
The classic coffee percolator – essentially unchanged for the last 120 years.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Mason’s patent was for a downflow method, which didn’t use rising steam and water, but it did pave the way for another American, Hanson Goodrich who, in 1889, came up with the classic percolator system similar to the stove-top percolators still produced today.

Traditional stove-top percolators have lost some ground in recent years, with the rise in popularity of, firstly, the automatic drip style coffee makers, and more recently the very simple and practical French press devices.

And yes, a French press is great for your daily brew at home, but more than a century after its invention, a classic stove top percolator on a camping stove under a starry sky remains a wonderful thing.

Sir Isaac Newton, a saint among the scientists

Today is Christmas Day. No surprises there. But to add a slightly more scientific flavour to 25 December, did you know that today is also the birthday of arguably the greatest scientist that ever lived – Sir Isaac Newton (25 Dec 1642 – 20 Mar 1727).

Mery Christmas, and a happy birthday to Sir Isaac Newton.(© All Rights Reserved)
Merry Christmas, and a happy birthday to Sir Isaac Newton.
(© All Rights Reserved)

A physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, alchemist and theologian, the importance and influence of Newton on science as we know it can hardly be overstated. Newton provided the foundation of mechanics with his description of universal gravitation and his three laws of motion. He shares the credit (with Gottfried Leibnitz) for developing the mathematical field of differential and integral calculus. He published, in 1687, one of the most important books in science, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’) – a book not only fundamental because of its content, but also because of the clear style it was written in; a style still setting the standards for scientific publication today.

Beyond the above, he also made fundamental contributions to a disparate range of fields  including astronomy, optics and many more – too much to even consider covering with a single blog post.

Newton was also a deeply religious man, so I’m sure he must have considered being born on Christmas day a most amusing coincidence. If ever there was a scientist deserving of some form of sainthood, surely it must be him.

So, on this day, I wish you a Merry Christmas, and lots of good science – theoretically robust and ethically sound, according to the example of Sir Isaac Newton.

James Prescott Joule and the conservation of energy

Today we celebrate the birthday of James Prescott Joule (24 Dec 1818 – 11 Oct 1889), the English physicist famous for his discovery that the different forms of energy – mechanical, electrical, and heat – are essentially the same thing, and as such are interchangeable.

In wind energy farms, wind energy (a mechanical energy) is converted to electric energy. In the process, some loss occurs in the form of heat generated. Joule's important contribution was to figure out that the total energy (mechanical + electrical + heat), however, remains constant.(© All Rights Reserved)
In wind energy farms, wind energy (a mechanical energy) is converted to electric energy. In the process, some loss occurs in the form of heat generated. Joule’s important contribution was to figure out that the total energy (mechanical + electrical + heat), however, remains constant.
(© All Rights Reserved)

This discovery lead to his formulation of the First Law of Thermodynamics – the Law of Conservation of Energy. The law states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but can only be changed from one form to another.

Some of his other important contributions to physics include the definition of the relationship between electrical current, resistance and heat, and also, some 10 years later, the kinetic theory of gases.

His important contributions to the understanding of energy was acknowledged when his name was given to the SI unit for energy – the joule (J).

Transistors – the electronic engineer’s dream

On this day back in 1947, Walter Brattain and John Bardeen had a big day – they did the first live demonstration of a transistor, in a presentation to their superiors at Bell Laboratories.

In the demo, a microphone and headphones were connected to a transistor, and when they spoke over the device, there was ‘no noticeable change in quality’ (according to Brattain’s notes). They finished building their demonstration device just a few short days earlier, on 16 December 1947, so I am sure the excitement must have been quite high on the day of the demo to the bosses.

The name ‘transistor’, by the way, was chosen because of the trans-resistance properties of the component.

Compact, rugged little transistors, replacing the bulky and fragile vacuum tubes of old.(© All Rights Reserved)
Compact, rugged little transistors, replacing the bulky and fragile vacuum tubes of old.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The transistor was basically a much smaller and more usable replacement for the bulky vacuum tubes used before, and as such opened up many new possibilities in electronic component development. This lead to it being referred to as ‘the electronic engineer’s dream’.

At least their efforts didn’t go unnoticed – for their invention, Brattain and Bardeen shared the 1956 Nobel Price for Physics.

Sweets for my sweet, saccharin for my honey

Our birthday star for today is Constantin Fahlberg (22 Dec 1850 – 15 Aug 1910), the Russian chemist who, in 1878, discovered the surprisingly sweet taste of anhydroorthosulphaminebenzoic acid (better known to those of us without PhD’s in chemistry as saccharin), while working on coal tar compounds at the John Hopkins University.

What made him decide to taste the compound he created is not clear to me – he seems to have been quite a daring chemist to taste the stuff he concocted in the lab – but the bottom line is it must have been a thrilling taste-sensation, given that saccharin is said to be 220 times sweeter than cane sugar. Fahlberg dubbed the compound ‘saccharin’ after the Latin name for sugar.

Saccharin - one of the 'big three' most widely used artificial sweeteners around the world (together with aspartame and sucralose).(© All Rights Reserved
Saccharin – one of the ‘big three’ most widely used artificial sweeteners around the world (together with aspartame and sucralose).
(© All Rights Reserved

Realising the potential of his discovery, he took out all the necessary patents and set up a saccharin factory in 1896 with his uncle, Dr Adoplh List. Churning out saccharin by the ton-load, Fahlberg soon became a very wealthy man – unlike some other inventors, he was lucky enough to reap the sweet rewards (pardon the pun) of his invention.

Over the years, saccharin became the subject of various controversies – from being considered an illegal substitute for sugar in certain foods, to being accused of being carcinogenic in the 1960s and 70s. No conclusive proof has however been found linking saccharine to cancer in humans, and today it is still one of the most widely used artificial sweeteners, together with sucralose and aspartame.