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Celebrating musical eccentricities on Uncommon Instrument Awareness Day

Today is the day to celebrate musical instruments (and sounds) that you don’t come across every day – it’s Uncommon Instrument Awareness Day.

As long as there has been music, there have been people not content with the range of instruments and sounds already available; people who felt the need to create something new and unique, and sometimes just plain odd.

And lo and behold, there are some seriously strange instruments out there!

I don’t have anything quite as odd as a gravikord, pikasso, or ringflute, but I was lucky enough, some time back, to discover a wonderfully eccentric and jovial-looking little string instrument in a local secondhand shop, and I’m now the proud owner of my own mandolin-banjo.

The mandolin-banjo – it may look like a toy, but it can kick up a serious racket!
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Looking like a mini banjo, yet stringed, tuned and played like a mandolin, with four sets of twin-strings, the mandolin-banjo (sometimes also known as a banjoline in France, or a manjo in Ireland) is not the same as the four-string banjolin (which is more of a mini-banjo).

The mandolin-banjo was originally developed by mandolin players who wanted a banjo-style sound without having to learn the fingerings of the banjo. Thanks to it’s banjo-like stretched skin head, it is a lot louder than a normal mandolin, which made it a popular choice for outdoor performances. It became popular in the early twentieth century, and despite its obvious Irish and American heritage, there is strong support for the fact that it was actually invented in Australia, by the Manj Corporation. How’s that for innovation from Down Under?

So that’s my contribution for the day – do you have any weird and wonderful musical instruments in your closet?

Disposable products; iconic designs

It’s time to celebrate the disposable, to honor the expendable. On this day, 29 July 1914, Baron Marcel Bich was born – the man who built his business empire on his brilliantly designed and cleverly marketed throwaway Bic pens, lighters and razors.

Whether you’re absentmindedly doodling, or jotting down a shopping list, chances are there will be a Bic pen at hand.
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Bich, together with his friend Edouard Buffard, acquired an old factory where they proceeded to produce a low-cost, reliable ballpoint pen that took the world by storm. Bich based his design on a ballpoint pen manufactured in Argentina by László Bíró, but introduced many design innovations into his pen. His manufacturing innovations also allowed him keep the production costs of the pen down.

Bich invested heavily in advertising, and based on a recommendation from his advertising company, shortened the name of the pen to Bic. The Bic pen was an unprecedented success both in Europe and later in the USA and the rest of the world, and with its slogan of “Writes first time, every time”, it became the main driving force in changing the worldwide market from costly fountain pens to disposable ballpoints.

The industrial design excellence of the the Bic Cristal pen (with its transparent polystyrene barrel and classic pencil shape) has been acknowledged by the New York Museum of Modern Art, where it has been included in its permanent collection. Some of the innovative features of the design is its transparent barrel that shows the ink level of the pen, and a small hole in the barrel to ensure equal air pressure inside and outside the pen.

The Bic pen is said to be the world’s most efficient pen, able to write a line over 2km in length. After more than half a century, the Bic pen remains a top seller, with more than one hundred billion having been sold internationally.

Over time, Bich’s company, Société Bic, diversified its business to include the Bic lighter (1973), followed by the Bic shaver (1976). As in the case of the Bic pen, the Bic lighter has become an icon of modern industrial design, and has also been included in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. The design of the lighter has remained virtually unchanged since its inception.

Getting back to the Bic pen, one of the most impressive artists I’ve come across lately is Juan Francisco Rosas, who creates huge, incredibly detailed, photo-realistic artworks using nothing but Bic pens – mindblowing, and further testament to the iconic, throwaway Bic pen.

Invention of the microwave oven – time-saver or taste-killer?

Today we celebrate a device that, despite being a really innovative invention, has in the eyes of many become synonymous with anti-innovation in the kitchen.

On this day, way back in 1894, Dr Percy Spencer (9 Jul 1894 – 7 Sep 1970) was born – the self-taught engineer who, many years later, invented the microwave oven. Before the Second World War, Sir John Randall and Dr HA Boot invented the magnetron tube, with which they were able to produce radar microwaves. A few years later, after the war, Percy Spencer was doing research work on the magnetron tube. While working on an active radar set he noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted – the radar melted the chocolate bar with microwaves. From this discovery, he started investigating the possibility of using microwaves to cook food. Spencer fed microwave power from a magnetron into a sealed metal box. When he placed food into the container and radiated it with microwave energy, the temperature of the food rose rapidly. This resulted in the development of the microwave oven – a device that cooks food with radiation used to heat polarised molecules in the food.

The microwave oven – only good for popping corn?
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The first microwave ovens were large, heavy units, used in restaurants and commercial kitchens. The first countertop microwave was introduced in the mid sixties, soon becoming a ubiquitous device in kitchens around the world.

While the microwave oven is great for reheating food, cooking vegetables, and heating liquids like water or milk, it has not yet achieved any real culinary status. For the most part, it is used to heat ready-made, pre-packaged microwave meals. Microwave cooking can be quite healthy – it’s impact on nutrient content in food is said to be no worse than conventional heating, and thanks to the shorter preparation time, more micronutrients may be retained when microwaving vegetables, for example. But it is limited in application, and for the most part not capable of achieving the culinary effects and flavours created with conventional baking, frying, browning and slow-cooking. (Somehow I don’t expect to see Jamie Oliver’s “The Italian Microwave” or Nigella Lawson’s “The Microwave Goddess” hitting the cookery shelves anytime soon!)

So while the microwave oven definitely has it’s place in the modern kitchen, it may also probably stand trial as the primary culprit in thousands of dull, colourless and uninteresting meals prepared in the past 40 years.

Where do you stand – is the microwave oven an invention to celebrate, or to lament? Do you find it a must-have time-saver in the kitchen, or do you still have difficulty stomaching most microwave meals?

Very clever! Commemorating the design of the Phillips screw

There are so many amazingly clever inventions around us that we often fail to appreciate, or even notice them. Especially if it’s something basic and workmanlike.

The Phillips screw is one of those inventions.

Three cheers to the Phillips screw – simple, elegant, effective.
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Patented by Henry F. Phillips on this day in 1936, the Phillips screw and screwdriver had a fundamental impact on the manufacturing and production industries. The Phillips screw facilitated greater automation in production lines that use powered screwdrivers, through the introduction of a clever tapered crosshead screw design that ensures the screwdriver centres itself in the screw head.

Based on his screw and screwdriver patents, Phillips founded the Phillips Screw Company, and after some initial rejections, managed to persuade the American Screw Company to invest half a million dollars in the manufacture of the screws.

The first major application of the Phillips screw was in the manufacture of the 1936 Cadillac, and within 4 years most manufacturers had switched to the new screws. Worldwide, the Phillips screw and screwdriver quickly became the most popular design – a position that it still occupies to this day, despite numerous attempts at an improved design.

Celebrating the invention of foam rubber

Today in 1929, British scientist EA Murphy, who worked at the Dunlop Latex Development Laboratories in Birmingham, must have been a little bored, or mischievous, because he decided to whip up some latex rubber with a kitchen mixer.  As is often the case with such seemingly arbitrary actions, he ended up inventing a product that, up to this day, has a huge impact in all our lives – foam rubber. It is said that Murphy’s colleagues were initially unimpressed, but this soon changed when they caught on to the amazing cushioning and shape retaining properties of this new invention, and it wasn’t long before foam rubber was used in motorcycle and car seats, mattresses and much more.

In its natural form, latex is a milky white liquid tapped from the trunks of rubber trees. This pure latex gets whipped up with water to create a thick froth. The froth is sometimes exaggerated using CO2 gas. Once frothy, the mixture is heated to the point of vulcanization (about 240°F) which results in the formation of long molecular chains with strong crosslinked bonds, giving the resultant foam rubber its ability to recover its shape after compression.

Close-up view of frothy foam rubber.
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While the shape retention characteristics of foam rubber make it a very versatile substance, it does have some limitations. When it gets exposed to very high temperatures it will melt, and if its frozen it can shatter.

Now researchers at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan, have come up with a new carbon-based nanotube rubber that has even better shape memory than foam rubber, and that can withstand extreme temperatures without any negative effects.

The unique features of this new super-rubber make it ideally suited for use in extreme conditions like spacecraft and car shock absorbers. Incorporating it into clothing also means that you can have a truly non-wrinkle shirt. Perhaps most exciting is the electricity conducting abilities of the carbon nanotubes, which means that, if its used in shoes or shock absorbers, the material could theoretically harvest and store the electricity generated.

While high costs mean the large-scale application of these super-rubbers are still some way off, one can just imagine it becoming as pervasive as foam rubber over the next decades.

Celebrating the invention of Barbed Wire

On this day in 1867, American Lucien B Smith from Kent, Ohio, filed a patent that fundamentally impacted on cattle farming in the US and internationally.

Before barbed wire, cattle fencing was made of single wire strands which didn’t deter livestock and was easily broken. Other alternatives were wooden fencing which was costly, or rock/stone walls that were very labour intensive for large areas.

Barbed wire – elegant, simple, effective.
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Smith’s patent for barbed wire, or what he referred to as an artificial thorn hedge, simply consisted of wire with short metal spikes (barbs) twisted onto the wire by hand at regular intervals. This resulted in four projecting nail-like points radiating from the wire at each point, 2-3 feet apart.

While Smith’s patent showed great potential for restraining cattle, it did not solve the breakage problems – this was cleverly addressed through subsequent improvements, first by Michael Kelly and later Joseph Glidden, who twisted two wires together to form a barbed cable, resulting in a stronger wire which still had the deterring quality of Smith’s original concept.

Glidden’s 1874 patent turned out to be the most effective, most commercially viable design, consisting of a method for locking the barbs in place and a design for the machinery to mass produce barbed wire.

Beyond its obvious agricultural application, barbed wire became widely used during wars, for security purposes, and for prisoner confinement. As such, barbed wire has become a symbol for confinement and restriction, rather than being the empowering tool it was initially meant to be in its agricultural context.

World Sauntering Day

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blindly, aiming only where I’m not
full heart, empty mind
thinking freely

guided by footprints in the sand
sandy path, path of light
light diffracted, fractured, structured
structure birthed in chaos
infinite possibilities
synapses firing infinitely

connecting with strangers, friends forgotten
fragments of conversations
focused, defocused, defined
concepts conjured

eagerly, aiming whence I came
animated by sparkling prospects
calculating courageously

(© 2012)

Going Green on Sewing Machine Day

It’s Sewing Machine Day, the day to dust off and celebrate the trusty sewing machine, unsung hero of the industrial revolution.

Tracking the invention of the sewing machine is like reading the script of a sensational TV drama – a juicy tale of betrayal and deceit, industrial sabotage, stolen ideas and legal battles. The first patented design dates back to Thomas Saint in 1790, followed by various iterative improvements, but the first commercially viable design came some 60 years later, courtesy of Isaac Merritt Singer who combined ideas from various previous designs.  Unfortunately he borrowed a bit too heavily from a patent by Elias Howe, who promptly took him to court for patent infringement, winning the case and forcing Singer to pay him a fee for every sewing machine sold.

Despite its checkered past, the sewing machine quickly gained popularity, vastly improving efficiency in the clothing and fabric industries. As such it played a key role in the industrialisation of the manufacturing sector.

By the early 20th century, the household sewing machine was a common appliance in almost every home. Most families had one in the house – used to sew new clothes, do alterations, or to mend worn or damaged clothes. This golden era of home sewing lasted almost a century, but with the proliferation of mass produced, super cheap clothes from giant producers like China, the trusty home sewing machine seems to be facing extinction.

Scientific sewing? Even a basic sewing machine offers many more creative opportunities than just shortening a pair of pants.
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So, with today being Sewing Machine Day, perhaps it is high time to dig out the old sewing machine, give it a good dusting and reacquaint yourself with the possibilities it offers. Or if you don’t have one, check out the secondhand stores or online auction sites – perfectly functional machines are going for a song.

Not only is home-sewing an excellent outlet for your inner Chanel or Versace – it is also a positive step towards green living.  Sure, it may be quicker and easier to go out an buy a new $5 t-shirt, $30 jacket or a pair of $20 jeans, but Mother Nature will be so much better off if you rather patch up the elbows and cuffs on your old jacket, mend those torn jeans, and wear them for a while longer.  The environmental impact of a few minutes of home sewing is negligible compared to the impact of creating a new garment in some industrial sweat-shop.

Like 150 years ago, when the sewing machine became a key player in the industrial revolution, it now has the potential to become a surprise hit in the green revolution.

Do the write thing – celebrate Ball-point Pen Day!

Back in 1943, on 10 June, a patent was filed by the Hungarian Biro brothers, Laszlo and George, for a new type of writing instrument – the ball-point pen.  The Biro’s weren’t the first to come up with the idea of a pen using a roller-ball mechanism to distribute ink in a controlled manner (the first patent for a similar instrument was issued in 1888 already, and the Biro’s also filed an earlier patent in 1939), but their 1943 design was the one that proved commercially viable.  Once they’d refined their design, they started marketing the pens in Argentina.

The new ball-point pens quickly caught the attention of the British Royal Air Force – they were sturdier than traditional fountain pens, and they also worked at higher altitudes.  Proving their toughness with the Royal Air Force, Biro pens became widely used by the military during World War II.

Its Ball-point Pen Day – the day to Do the Write Thing
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Bic bought out the Biro brothers’ patent in 1950, and has since sold in excess of 100 billion ball-point pens.  The Bic ball-point pen has become so ubiquitous that the term ‘bic pen’ has come to be used as the catch-all term when referring to disposable ball-point pens in general.

Some of the more interesting recent achievements in the continued development of the ball-point pen include the rollerball pen, which combine the basic ball-point design with the use of liquid ink similar to fountain pens, and so-called space pens, which combine highly viscous ball-point pen ink with a gas-pressured piston mechanism forcing the ink toward the point. This allows the pen to write upside down or in zero gravity environments.

It’s hard to imagine life without the trusty old ball-point. With disposable pens having become a popular branding/marketing hand-out, I haven’t had to buy a pen in over 10 years and there always seems to be one handy wherever I am in the house… or car… or office… 🙂