Celebrating the invention of Vaseline

It is today, 135 years ago on 14 May 1878, that the Vaseline trademark was registered for the petroleum jelly product developed almost a decade earlier by English chemist Robert Augustus Chesebrough.

Chesebrough initially went to Titusville Pa in the USA during the petroleum boom, and became interested in a paste-like residue that clogged the pumps of the oil drillers. Although a rough and unrefined paste, local oil workers had already started using it on burns to promote healing. Chesebrough started experimenting with different ways of extracting and purifying the paste, eventually finding an effective way of manufacturing the petroleum jelly which he called ‘Vaseline’. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “the name is of mixed origin, being derived from Wasser, water, and elaion [Greek in the original], oil (water-oil), and indicates the belief of the discoverer that petroleum, the mother of Vaseline, is produced by the agency of heat and pressure from the carbon of certain rocks, and the hydrogen of water.”

Moisturising, lubricating Vaseline. (© All Rights Reserved)
Moisturising, lubricating Vaseline.
(© All Rights Reserved)

He patented it on 4 June 1872. Realising the potential of the product, he began selling it through his Chesebrough Manufacturing Company. Vaseline continued to be made and sold by Chesebrough’s company for more than a century, until the company was purchased by Unilever in 1987.

It is quite amazing, when you think about the fact that Vaseline started out as an unwanted byproduct of the oil drilling process, what an incredibly useful and versatile product it turned out to be. Not only is it a great moisturiser, working wonders on dry lips, tired eyes and chapped skin (esp hands, heels and elbows), but it also makes a great exfoliating body rub, when mixed with sea salt. From a medicinal point of view, it can sooth and protect burns, grazes, cuts and sensitive shaved skin (or even new tattoos!).

For the DIY types, Vaseline is great to keep screw-in light bulbs or bottle lids from sticking, to sort out a squeaky hinge or to loosen a stiff bike chain. It can also be used to remove watermarks from wood, or lipstick stains from napkins and clothing. It’s even useful as emergency shoe-shine. Oh, and here’s one you may not have heard – when you carve up a Halloween pumpkin, you can rub Vaseline on the exposed cuts on the pumpkin to keep it from rotting or drying out!

And you may know the story of how Vaseline can be used for sex: simply apply it to the bedroom doorknob – it works great to keep the kids out. 🙂

So here’s to Robert Chesebrough and his Vaseline – lubricating the world since 1878.

Cardinal Richelieu and the creation of the table knife

According to Today in Science (a website I use quite often to find some arbitrary scientific topic for my daily blog) today, 13 May, is the day in 1637 that the table knife was created by Cardinal Richelieu of France.

Whether it actually happened on this exact day I was unable to confirm, but various sources seem to agree that it was in fact Cardinal Richelieu (Armand Jean du Plessis) who was responsible for creating the now common table knife with its rounded end. And it happened in the 1630’s, at least.

Spreading made easy, thanks to the wide-bladed, blunt-ended table knife.  (© All Rights Reserved)
Spreading made easy, thanks to the wide-bladed, blunt-ended table knife.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The story goes that Cardinal Richelieu got irritated by the brutish behaviour of men at the dining tables of the time, stabbing their daggers (which doubled as table cutlery) into chunks of meat and other food, or into the table, for that matter, if they needed their hands free. And even worse was their despicable habit of using the sharp daggers to pick their teeth at the end of the meal. To put an end to this behaviour, he ordered his kitchen staff to file off the sharp points of all the house knifes. The idea caught on, and it wasn’t long before this new style of rounded table knife became a trendy dinner accessory in upperclass French households.

In 1669, King Louis XIV of France banned pointed knives – at the table and as weapons – to try put an end to the culture of violence of the time. This further cemented the position of the round-ended table knife as preferred form of cutlery.

Over time, the exact shape and form of the table knife changed, becoming slightly wider to make it easier to scoop food onto a fork, and to make it easier to spread butter or other spreads onto a slice of bread. (Anyone who’s ever tried spreading butter onto bread using a carving knife will know what a frustrating process it can be.)

So next time you butter a slice of fresh bread, or tuck into a soft and juicy stew, remember Cardinal Richelieu, and his clever cutlery innovation from almost 400 years ago.

Lighting a lucifer to celebrate the invention of the friction match

The 1st of May, besides being International Workers Day, is also the day in 1859 that the Englishman John Walker, inventor of friction matches, died.

Walker’s matches, developed in 1826, were small wooden sticks with the tip coated in sulphur with a mixture of potassium chlorate, antimony sulphide and sugar, bound together with gum arabic. He arrived at this mixture after several previous failed attempts. Walker, recognising the potential of his invention, started selling his matches, packaged in boxes of 50 together with a folded piece of sandpaper as a striking surface. Even though he never patented his invention, he managed to earn a good income through the sale of his matches.

Lighting a modern day safety match - much safer than lighting John Walker's 1826 friction matches!  (© All Rights Reserved)
Lighting a modern day safety match – much safer than lighting John Walker’s 1826 friction matches!
(© All Rights Reserved)

John Walker wasn’t the first guy to come up with the idea of friction matches – some 10 years earlier in 1816, Frenchman Francois Derosne attempted something similar, using sulphur-tipped sticks that had to be scraped inside a phosphorous-lined tube. Derosne was, however, unable to make his matches stable enough to be practically viable.

While Walker’s matches worked better than those of Derosne, they were still quite unstable and flammable, and sometimes flaming balls of the ignition mixture dripped from the lit match, burning holes in clothing, carpets etc. This led to them being banned in France and Germany.

Over the next few years, many improvements were introduced to Walker’s friction matches. Most early versions were still volatile, lighting with a strong chemical reaction, burning with unsteady flames, and casting sparks over quite a distance. These early matches came to be known as ‘lucifers’ – a term that persisted into the 20th century and is still used in some countries.

It took almost 20 years before the modern-day safety match was developed in 1844. The main innovation in the safety match lay in the striking surface rather than the match. By including red phosphorous in the striking surface, the ignition mixture on the match could be made less volatile. The safety match was perfected and commercialised by Swedish brothers Johan Edvard and Carl Frans Lundstrom, who sold around 12 million boxes of matches between 1851 and 1858.

Sweden remained the home of safety matches until the start of the 20th century, with the safety matches as we know it today, still being very similar to those developed in the 1850’s.

So next time you light a match, think about the fact that you’re using an invention that is almost 170 years old!

Gideon Sundback and the invention of the zipper

Time for some clever inventions again – today, 24 April, we celebrate the birthday of Gideon Sundback (24 April 1880 – 21 June 1954), the Swedish-born electrical engineer who is best known for his contribution to the development of the zipper.

In the decade between 1906 and 1914, while working for a number of different companies, Sundback made several meaningful contributions to the development of the zipper. While he did not come up with the original concept, he improved on the ideas of others, including Elias Howe, Whitcomb Judson and Max Wolff. One of the key problems Sundback solved was to create a version of the zipper that didn’t pull apart easily. He essentially did away with the hook-and-eye principle of earlier versions, and also increased the number of fastening elements. His version of the zipper included two sides with interlocking teeth, that are locked together or separated using a slider, much like the modern zipper we know today.

Gideon Sundback's 1914 'separable fastener' was almost identical to the zipper as we know it today. (© All Rights Reserved)
Gideon Sundback’s 1914 ‘separable fastener’ was almost identical to the zipper as we know it today.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Sundback also designed a machine to manufacture the zippers, which could produce about 100m of zipper per day. He incrementally improved his design, and the version he patented in 1914 (called the ‘Hookless No 2’) is essentially the same as the modern metal zipper.

Still called a ‘separable fastener’ up to this point, the zipper only became known as a ‘zipper’ when BF Goodrich coined the term in 1923 for the new fasteners used in their boots. Boots and tobacco pouches were the first widespread applications of the new separable fasteners, and it was only after the second world war, shortly before Sundback’s death, that the zipper gained widespread acceptance in the clothing industry.

In acknowledgement for his work, Sundback was included in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006. Google also created a special commemorative zipper doodle on his birthday in 2012.

Celebrating Velcro, ingeniously fastening stuff for more than half a century

It’s April the 2nd, the day in 1948 when one of the most amazing inventions ever, the hook-and-loop fastener Velcro, was first introduced to the world.

Velcro was invented by George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, who came up the idea after investigating the way thistle burrs stick to clothing. Studying the burrs through a microscope, de Mestral noticed they had tiny hooks that gripped on to the yarn loops in clothing. This led him to develop a new type of fastener consisting of two sides, one covered with tiny, flexible hooks, and the other filled with small, hairy loops. When pressed together, the hooks catch on to the loops, holding the pieces together. Pulling the pieces apart, the hooks give way, releasing the loops with a ripping sound. This process of using nature as inspiration for a man-made invention, is called biomimicry or ‘biomimetics’.

Velcro, an ingenious, bio-mimicking fastener made of tiny hooks and loops. (© All Rights Reserved)
Velcro, an ingenious, bio-mimicking fastener made of tiny hooks and loops.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Over the years, Velcro has been manufactured with progressively more durable materials – the first examples were made of cotton, later to be replaced with nylon and polyester. For critical applications, highly durable teflon velcro has even been developed.

The range of applications of velcro is almost without limit. Besides its extensive use as a clothing fastener (often replacing zippers), it can be used wherever things need to be temporarily, and repeatedly, attached and taken apart. A surprising, and very important, use of Velcro has been in the space industry, where Velcro fastening is used extensively to hold items in place in the near zero gravity conditions in space.

Closer to home, and in a more everyday application, Velcro is also an unmissable teaching aid, especially in early childhood education when it is a great way for kids to tag objects to a board etc. A friend of mine who teaches visually impaired students swears by it, saying that she cannot imagine her teaching environment without the ingenious fastener.

From education to outer space, a truly great invention indeed.

The birth of the humble rubber band

It was on this day, 17 March 1845, that the elastic rubber band, made from vulcanised rubber, was patented by it’s English inventor Stephen Perry. Around the same time, Jaroslav Kurash also independently came up with his version of the rubber band.

While this counts as the ‘invention of the modern rubber band’, it is by no means the first occurrence in history of these super-useful little binding tools. Many years before the Mayans had already used the sap from rubber trees to create elastic strands to bind things together.

The rubber band - another of those simple yet super-useful inventions that I find endlessly impressive.(© All Rights Reserved)
The rubber band – another of those simple yet super-useful inventions that I find endlessly impressive.
(© All Rights Reserved)

From their modern-day invention in 1845 it took almost 80 years before William Spencer first started mass producing rubber bands in Ohio, USA. And the rest, as they say, is history – it is nigh impossible to imagine a world without rubber bands.

Throughout history two types of rubber have been used to manufacture rubber bands – natural rubber or latex from rubber trees, and synthetic rubber, a by-product of crude oil refinement. Modern day rubber bands are basically created by extruding rubber into long tubes of varying colour, thickness and diameter. These elastic tubes are sliced into thin circles, creating rubber bands as we know them.

Very simply stated, rubber consists of chains of molecules bonded in such a way that the molecules can move, thus allowing the rubber to be stretched. The bonds between the molecules pull them back together again, causing rubber’s elasticity. Of course it is possible to stretch a rubber band too far, severing the bonds between the molecules, and causing the rubber band to snap. Over time, light and heat also weakens the chains of molecules, resulting in the bands to get brittle and more readily breakable.

Can you believe that the biggest rubber band ball (a ball created by wrapping rubber bands around each other ) was created by Joel Waul in 2008 in Florida, USA? It weighed a whopping 9400 pounds, exceeded 8 feet in height, and consisted of more than 700 000 rubber bands!?

James Dewar, frozen air and a new way to store energy

Today is the second time we meet up with Scottish scientist James Dewar. We’ve already discussed his ingenious Dewar flask, made famous by the Thermos company. As mentioned at the time, Dewar worked with some rather chilly subjects – liquified and frozen gases, to be exact – and he created his insulating flask to serve his practical need for a container that could maintain the low temperatures of the liquified gases he studied.

The reason Dewar pops up on this blog today, is again related to his low temperature work. It was on this day, 9 March 1893, that he informed a meeting of the Royal Society that he had succeeded in freezing air into a clear and transparent solid. As reported in The Manufacturer and Builder Volume 25 Issue 7, he requested additional funding to further study the exact properties of this frozen air; he postulated that “it may be a jelly of solid nitrogen containing liquid oxygen, much as calves’ foot jelly contains water diffused in solid gelatine. Or it may be a true ice of liquid air, in which both oxygen and nitrogen exist in the solid form.” Part of this confusion on the part of Dewar was that he had not been able to freeze pure oxygen, hence it was not clear how the oxygen part of the frozen air behaved.

I have no idea how frozen air would look, but it will surely be very, very chilly!(© All Rights Reserved)
I have no idea how frozen air would look, but it will surely be very, very chilly!
(© All Rights Reserved)

Interestingly, frozen air has recently resurfaced as an subject of research interest. As reported last year on various sites such as ecogeek, sustainable business.com and NBC News, a UK-based company Highview Power Storage has developed a proprietary process using cryogenic air (actually nitrogen, liquified at -321 degrees Fahrenheit) as a way to store energy. Available energy is used to freeze/liquify the nitrogen, which is then kept in its frozen form in a highly isolated, giant vacuum flask. When energy is required, the nitrogen is allowed to warm to ambient temperature, and the energy released during its transition to a gas phase, is harvested to drive a turbine that generates electricity.

While the technology is not yet able to achieve the efficiency of current battery technologies, it is a potentially less environmentally harmful, greener approach.

Now there’s a reason to raise a glass of very chilled liquid to James Dewar and his frozen air!

DuPont’s nylon – hard to imagine the world without it

Our subject for today is nylon, the wonder-plastic developed and first produced in the 1930’s by DuPont. Today, 16 February, is the day in 1937 that Dr Wallace Carothers, inventor and research chemist for DuPont, received the first patent for the new synthetic polymer fiber that came to be known as nylon.

The new plastic fiber proved tremendously useful, and to this day is used in a wide range of applications, from industrial (screws and nuts, gears, bearings), to sports (fabrics, fishing line, racket strings), to entertainment (guitar strings), to domestic products (brush bristles, hosiery, carpeting) and many more.

Nylon's strength, flexibility and durability make it a popular material for 3D prototype printing.(© All Rights Reserved)
Nylon’s strength, flexibility and durability make it a popular material for 3D prototype printing.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Nylon’s usefulness is the result of a combination of many advantageous properties – it is strong, flexible and durable, with excellent resistance to heat, chemicals, abrasion and wear. It is also resistant to fungi, mould and mildew.

It’s flexibility and strength make nylon ideal for 3D printing applications. Complex gears, bearings etc can be printed using a 3D plastic printer – this is particularly useful for the production of strong, durable engineering prototypes.

Of course few things in life are perfect, and along with all it’s positive attributes nylon does have some drawbacks. Producing nylon is an energy intensive activity, and it is rather difficult to recycle. Burning it produces hazardous smoke and toxic fumes often containing hydrogen cyanide, and if it’s dumped in the garbage it decays very slowly. Some nylon is recycled, often creating nylon pellets for industrial use, but this only accounts for a very small percentage of nylon produced annually.

Despite the recycling downside, nylon has become a ubiquitous part of daily life – so much so that imagining a world without it is nigh impossible.

The electrific Thomas Alva Edison, and you

11 February is, amusingly, known as Be Electrific Day. It’s the celebration of the birth of Thomas Alva Edison (11 Feb 1847 – Oct 1931), so today is obviously all about electricity. But electricity wasn’t the only domain Edison dabbled it – in fact he held the world patenting record, being granted a mindblowing 1093 patents in his lifetime. So today is also about being terrific, standing out, being the best you can be. This is the day to be ‘electrific’, a term first coined by inspirational speaker Carolyn Finch in 1998 – she defined being electrific is “an abbreviation for an electrification project – which means to put light where light has not been before.”

Be Electrific Day - the perfect time to allow all facets of your unique brilliance to shine brightly. (© All Rights Reserved)
Be Electrific Day – the perfect time to allow all facets of your unique brilliance to shine brightly.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Talking about Edison – among his dazzling array of patents are the first commercially practical incandescent lightbulb; an electric vote-recording machine, a phonograph, storage batteries, a dictaphone and a mimeograph.

1879 was, literally, Edison’s light bulb year – he built his first high-resistance, incandescent bulb in his laboratory in January 1879, and from that success worked tirelessly on thousands of filament substances before settling on the carbon filament presented for public demonstration on 31 December of the same year.

Beyond that, however, I suppose at a symbolic level Edison’s whole life can be considered a light bulb life. With the light bulb often being associated with creativity and invention, I guess it’s fair to sat that Thomas Edison had more light bulb moments than most.

I cannot help but wonder what it is in the wiring of some people’s brains that result in such seemingly unlimited inventiveness. Are they smarter than everyone else, or is it just a specific way of looking at the world?

But let me not get started on the topics of creativity and innovation, otherwise this post may never end. So for now, let’s just take Edison as a role model for the day, and strive to ‘electrificate’ as best we can!

The umbrella, a tool of many uses

Today is Umbrella Day. Whatever you call it – brolly, parasol, gamp, bumbershoot – there’s no denying the umbrella is one super-useful accessory.

I haven’t been able to find out where it originated, but there seems to be references to umbrellas in all the ancient cultures. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Chinese all found good use for some or other form of the trusty umbrella – for protection from the elements, as a stylish fashion accessory, in religious ceremonies, even as a symbol of social standing.

The brolly - a useful lighting accessory, used with a speedlight. (© All Rights Reserved)
The brolly – a useful lighting accessory, especially used on location with a speedlight.
(© All Rights Reserved)

But of course the main use of brollies are to keep you dry in the rain, and cool in the sun. And while they’re far from perfect (they flip inside out in strong winds, they drip, they can cause serious bodily harm to bystanders), it’s difficult to imagine how the basic design can be much improved. The last really significant design update has been the development of an umbrella with segmented ribs that can be folded in three, to create a much smaller folded unit. Not that inventors the world over are not continuously trying to come up with improved concepts – rain-forecasting umbrellas, biodegradable umbrellas, see-through umbrellas that rest on your shoulders like a backpack, two-person umbrellas, even umbrellas that can store water so you can later water your plants with them. Then there’s the Hollinger umbrella, a teardrop-shaped design with a distinctive rounded front and tapered back to optimise wind flow around it, enabling it to withstand much higher winds. The elongated back also shields your legs from rain while you’re walking.

Personally, being a photographer, my immediate connotation when thinking about a brolly is less about the weather, and more about photographic lighting. Umbrellas made with a reflective inside can reflect the light from a flash light unit pointed away from the subject you are photographing, to create a softer light than having the flash point directly at the subject. Alternatively, an umbrella sporting a translucent cloth can become a ‘shoot-through umbrella’. Placed between your flash unit and subject, this umbrella can help create lovely soft and diffused lighting.

While photographing with an umbrella doesn’t give you the same level of control that you can achieve with specialised lighting accessories like softboxes, honeycombs, and the like, their portability does make them very useful, especially when used as a makeshift on-location lighting unt when used together with an off-camera flash or speedlight.

So here’s to the brolly, the gamp, the parasol – it may be far from perfect, but it’s hard to imagine the world without it.