The laminated padlock, affordable yet tough

Today we celebrate the birthday of Harry E. Soref (2 Mar 1887 – 1 Mar 1957) an American locksmith and inventor who’s claim to fame is the inventor of the laminated steel padlock.  He also founded the Master Lock Company in 1921.

More than 50 years after Harry Soref's death, Master Lock still produces a wide range of laminated locks.(© All Rights Reserved)
More than 50 years after Harry Soref’s death, Master Lock still produces a wide range of laminated locks.
(© All Rights Reserved)

As a locksmith, Soref knew that standard padlocks didn’t provide sufficient security, as they could easily be broken. To remedy the situation, he came up with the idea of building a lock by laminating layer upon layer of stainless steel together under great pressure. This layered construction, coated with cadmium to rustproof the outer surface, proved to have superior strength compared to other locks of similar manufacturing cost.

Soref tried to sell his idea, but when no-one showed interest, he decided to just make and sell them himself, through his Master Lock company, gaining his first patent for the laminated lock in 1924. The padlock proved to be a great success, and Master Lock grew to be a major lock manufacturer. Today, many lock manufacturers still copy the very efficient and successful design of Soref’s original laminated padlock.

Ray Dolby, shaping sound as we know it

Today we celebrate the birthday of Ray Dolby (18 Jan 1933), the American engineer and physicist who invented the Dolby Noise Reduction System.

Dolby Digital - keeping the Dolby name relevant in the digital era.(© All Rights Reserved)
Dolby Digital – keeping the Dolby name relevant in the digital era.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Dolby started his career in sound engineering while still at school, when he worked part-time at the Ampex Corporation. During his college years he became part of a team of engineers who invented the first practical video tape recorder in 1956. He subsequently started his own company, Dolby Laboratories, where he developed his noise reduction technologies, starting with Dolby A (1966), a broadband audio compression and expansion technique aimed at recording studios, with which audible tape hiss in professional tape recording can be significantly reduced without any discernible side-effects.

While Dolby A had real impact in the recording industry, perhaps the better known technology is Dolby B (1968), a sliding band noise reduction system aimed at the consumer market, which helped achieve high fidelity on cassette tapes.

All the Dolby variants work through a technique dubbed ‘companding’, which involves compressing the dynamic range of the sound during recording (‘dynamic pre-emphasis’), and expanding it during playback (‘dynamic de-emphasis’). This basically comes down to increasing the volume of low-level high-frequency sounds during recording and correspondingly reducing them during playback, thus reducing audible levels of tape hiss.

Various further iterations of Dolby’s audio noise reduction have subsequently been introduced, including Dolby C (1980), Dolby SR (1986) and Dolby S (1989).

Beyond noise reduction, Dolby Laboratories have also done ground-breaking work in the field of digital audio encoding and compression. Dolby Digital – first developed for movie theatres and later implemented in DVDs – is a digital audio compression format that was instrumental in the popularisation of surround sound. It has also been adopted as output format in most video game consoles, and several personal computers. Subsequent iterations of this technology include Dolby Digital EX, Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby Digital Live.

To say that Ray Dolby and his noise reduction and audio compression technologies have influenced the way we experience recorded sound, is an understatement. He has fundamentally shaped the way sound is recorded and reproduced, and his technologies have become so pervasive in sound reproduction that it is almost impossible to quantify its impact.

World Braille Day, celebrating communication via raised dots

January 4th is World Braille Day, a day to celebrate the code of tiny elevated dots that has been instrumental in opening up worlds of information and opportunity to millions of people around the world suffering from blindness or low vision. The date coincides with the commemoration of the birthday of Louis Braille (4 January 1809 – 6 January 1852), the Frenchman credited with the invention of the braille code language over the years 1821 – 1837.

Braille - opening up new worlds of communication through touch.(© All Rights Reserved)
Braille – opening up new worlds of communication through touch.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Louis Braille, while not born blind, was blinded through an accident when he was only 3 years old. He attended the National Institute for Blind Youth in France, one of the first schools in the world for blind children. Here he learned to read using a system developed by the school’s founder, Valentin Hauy, who had books specially printed using a complex wet-printing process, to create raised imprints of the Latin letters in the text. While this was useful, it was very difficult to accurately read the letters by touch, and the complexity of the printing process made it impossible for an individual to use for writing. Braille yearned to read and write as well as any able person, despite his disability, and he knew that effective communication was critical if he was to function fully in a normal world. He is famously quoted as saying: “We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way this can be brought about.”

This passion lead him to devise a set of symbols, consisting of raised dots on paper, that could be felt by hand and read as a sighted person would read printed letters and words on a page. The simplicity of the raised dot system meant that a blind person could also generate a page with the code using simple tools, thus effectively enabling him to write. The system was an improvement on an earlier code system, known as ‘night writing’, developed for military use by Captain Charles Barbier of the French Army.

It is a testament to his intelligence, drive and tenacity that Braille developed most of the code that was to become the basis of the braille language by 1824, when he was a mere 15 years of age. His initial system, published in 1829, contained both dots and dashes, but he replaced this with an updated, simplified edition using only dots, released in 1837.

Braille’s system of communication took some time to gain widespread adoption. First adopted at the school where he was educated, its popularity grew throughout France, and from there it slowly gained recognition in other countries. Almost 2 centuries after its invention, braille remains a critical tool for learning and communication among the visually impaired. Over the years, it has been adapted and expanded for many world languages.

In an incredible twist of fate, the very tool that accidentally blinded Louis Braille at the age of three – an awl – became the tool he used used to write his unique braille code.

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 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).

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.

Celebrating Edwin Armstrong, the man who gave us FM radio

It’s the birthday today of American engineer and inventor Edwin Howard Armstrong (18 Dec 1890 – 1 Feb 1954). In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, he is the guy who laid the foundation for much of modern day radio and broadcasting electronics.

Among other things, Armstrong invented the continuous wave transmitter, the regenerative circuit and the superheterodyne receiver. He also invented frequency modulation (FM) radio transmission. Basically, radio electronics as we know it would not have existed if it wasn’t for his fundamental contributions to the field. Some commentators have gone so far as to call him “the most prolific and influential inventor in radio history”.

Modern electronics owe much to the genius of Edwin Armstrong.(© All Rights Reserved)
Modern electronics owe much to the genius of Edwin Armstrong.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Armstrong fought a long and frustrating battle with his former employer RCA over the invention of FM radio. RCA also claimed the invention, and won the patent battle for the technology. RCA’s ownership of the key FM patents meant that Armstrong could not claim any benefits from the widespread adoption of FM radio in the USA. This sad development left him emotionally broken and financially ruined and contributed to his suicide in 1954. What makes the story even more depressing is that Armstrong posthumously won most of his patent lawsuits against RCA, making him a very rich, dead man. His wife, Marion McInnis, used the money from the patents to establish the Armstrong Memorial Research Foundation, with which she was involved until her death in 1979.

It remains one of life’s cruel misfortunes that, as a result of corporate legal wrangles, a brilliant individual like Edwin Armstrong was never able during his lifetime to get the recognition he so richly deserved.

Celebrating George Crum and the birth of the potato chip

I should start today’s post with a bit of a disclaimer – while this tale is told as the truth, the exact date details are difficult to confirm. However, most references I could find stated the date as 24 August 1853, so here goes.

On the above date, Railroad magnate Commadore Cornelius Vanderbilt went dining at the Moon Lake House, a restaurant in Saratoga Springs, New York. He ordered french fries, but found the fries he received too thick, bland and soggy, so he sent them back to the kitchen. George Crum, the chef at the Moon Lake House, wasn’t impressed by what he considered to be an overly fussy customer, so he went overboard to address his concerns – he sliced the fries paper-thin, fried them to a crisp and seasoned them with a generous helping of salt. Much to his amazement, Vanderbilt loved the the crispy chips, so much so that the restaurant decided to add them as a regular menu item, under the name ‘Saratoga Chips’.

A few years later, in 1860, chef Crum opened his own restaurant, and he took pride in serving his ‘signature dish’, placing potato chips in baskets on every table.

Crispy, crunchy potato chips – not the healthiest snack around, but we cannot seem to get enough of them.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Despite the popularity of Crum’s invention, no-one recognised it’s potential as a mass-produced, off-the-shelf snack – it remained a restaurant delicacy until 1926, when Mrs Scudder began mass-producing potato chips packaged in wax paper bags. In 1938, Herman Lay started producing Lay’s Potato Chips, the first successful national brand in the US.

The rest, as they say, is history – chips (or crisps, as the Brits like to call them) have taken over the world, with the global chip market in 2005 generating total revenues of more than US$16 billion. That’s more than a third of the total savoury snack market for the year.

Of course, being deep-fried and doused in salt, chips aren’t exactly a health snack. They have been identified as one of the leading contributors to long-term weight gain, as well as being linked to heart disease. In response to these issues, potato chips companies are investing huge amounts in research and development of new, more health-conscious products. Frito-Lay, for example, have reportedly invested more than $400 million in new product development, including techniques to reduce the salt content in Lay’s potato chips without compromising taste.

Now flavour is one thing, but did you know that the crunch produced when we bite into a chip, also plays a significant role in our perception of the snack? According to a New York Times article, a team of psychologists at Oxford University conducted an experiment where they equipped test subjects with sound-blocking headphones, and made them bite into potato chips in front of a microphone. In different test runs, using the exact same chips, the sound of the crunch was processed in different ways and passed back to the testers via the earphones. Taking their perception of the unaltered sound as the benchmark, they found that when the crunchy sound was amplified, testers considered the chips to taste fresher and crispier, while muting the crunch resulted in the same chips being rated as less crispy and stale.

Hmmm, all this talk about crunchy chips is making me hungry – I can definitely do with a bag of good old Salt & Vinegar chips right about now!

Samuel Colt, creator of an American icon

Today we celebrate the birthday of Samuel Colt (July 19, 1814 – January 10, 1862). He did not grow to be very old, but in his lifetime he did establish an American icon, Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company (now known as Colt’s Manufacturing Company). Through his company, he developed the first viable mass produced revolver.

After a number of unsuccessful attempts at getting a gun-making business off the ground, Colt got his break when the Texas Rangers ordered 1000 of his revolvers in 1847, during the American Civil War with Mexico. His guns were also used by both the North and the South during the American Civil War. The 1872 Colt Single Action Army revolver (also known as the Model P, the Peacemaker and the Colt 45) has become one of the best known sidearms in history.

Colt’s Manufacturing Company – still going strong 150 years after the death of its founder.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Even though he did not invent the revolver, he did contribute meaningful practical adaptations to the design. Samuel Colt’s real innovation, however, lay in his use of an assembly line approach to manufacturing and using interchangeable parts in the construction of his guns. This approach, enabling him to be more efficient and cost-effective than his competition, placed him at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution.  In Colt’s words, “The first workman would receive two or three of the most important parts and would affix these and pass them on to the next who add a part and pass the growing article on to another who would do the same, and so on until the complete arm is put together.”

Colt was also an advertising and marketing pioneer, employing techniques like celebrity endorsement and corporate gifts to promote his wares. He may at times have gone a bit too far in terms of ‘marketing’, however, having often been accused of promoting his weapons through bribery, threats and monopoly.

Reading up on the man, its clear that Colt was a larger than life character who thought big, lived extravagantly, and didn’t shy away from conflict and controversy.

In 2006, Samuel Colt was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.