Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Modern Wonders of the World, Circa 1912-1914

I've always been fascinated by old surveys. They were neither rigorous in their sampling techniques nor authoritative in their findings, but they do provide a window into the mind-set of a specific period of time.

August 1912, Popular Mechanics

In their August 1912 issue, Popular Mechanics presented a poll of 1000 scientists as to the seven greatest achievements of the modern world. Fifty-six options were presented. Those that scored the highest:

1. Wireless telegraphy.
2. Telephone.
3. Aeroplane.
4. Radium.
5. Antiseptics and antitoxins.
6. Spectrum analysis.
7. X-ray.

The runners-up were also noted.
8. Panama Canal. (incomplete at that time).
9. Anesthesia.
10. Synthetic chemistry.

Comments: Radium showed up in all the polls presented here. At the time, the element was considered to have almost magical powers. Beyond being a substance which exuded warmth and light, radiation was shown to be legitimately useful in treating several diseases. Its curing powers proved to be greatly exaggerated and its dangers underestimated. The value of spectrum analysis was far-sighted, an important discovery for several fields. The aeroplane which showed up in all these polls, must have come across as a marvel, although it was hardly practical at the time. Among these, Tesla made important contributions to "the wireless" and to X-rays.

The promise of radium

In February, 1914 (well before the drumbeats of war), the Berlin newspaper Local Anzeiger ran a readership poll of the top seven wonders of the modern world.

They received 150,000 votes. They chose:

1. Wireless.
2. Panama Canal.
3. Dirigible.
4. Aeroplane.
5. Radium.
6. Motion pictures.
7. The passenger ship, Imperator.

A couple of notes. German pride shows up in the dirigible and the Imperator. The latter had been launched in June, 1913 and was for a brief period the longest ship in the world.

One month later, in March, 1914, the Paris newspaper, Le Martin, had a similar poll. The results, as reported in The New York Times:

1. Aeroplane.
2. Wireless.
3. Radium.
4. Locomotive.
5. Grafts of human bones and organs.
6. Diphtheria serum.
7. Electric dynamo.

Runners up, in order:
8. Telephone.
9. Cinematograph.
10. X-rays.
11. Telegraph.
12. Eiffel Tower.
13. Cold storage.
14. Antiseptic surgery.
15. Reaching the North and South Pole.

Notes: Due to organ rejection, the grafting of human bones and organs was not successful until the 1950s. One prominent doctor who worked in this field, Alexis Carrel, won a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1912 mostly for his work in developing techniques to suture blood vessels. Many of the other choices were insightful and easily underappreciated, such as cold storage and antiseptic surgery. Beyond contributions to other fields, Tesla is represented in this list for the electric dynamo. (from: Modern World Wonders. March 15, 1914, New York Times, p. C2)

In November 1913, Scientific American presented the results of a contest soliciting the best essay which described the ten most important inventions. Although limited to devices and patentable discoveries of last 25 years, these rules were broken, some are more than 25 years old and some were not patentable. Along with the winning essays, the selections from all entries were ranked by the percent of lists in which they were included.

1. Wireless telegraphy 97%
2. Aeroplane 75%
3. X-ray machine 74%
4. Automobile 66%
5. Motion pictures 63%
6. Reinforced concrete 37%
6. Phonograph 37%
8. Incandescent electric lamp 35%
9. Steam turbine 34%
10. Electric car 34%
11. Calculating machine 33%
12. Internal combustion machine 33%
13. Radium 27%
14. Submarine boats 24%
14. Picture telegraphy 24%
16. Electric furnace 21%
17. Diesel engine 18%
18. Color photography 17%
19. Dictograph 16%
20. Composing machine 15%
20. Transmission and transforming of alternating current 15%
20. Pneumatic tire 15%
23. Dirigible 13%
23. Photo-engraving 13%
24. Tungsten lightbulb 11%
25. Electric welding 10%
25. High speed steel 10%

The first-place essay listed the Tesla induction motor as being eighth among ten choices, saying, "This epoch-making invention is mainly responsible for the present large and increasing use of electricity in the industries."

The complete list in the winning essay.

1. The electric furnace (1889).
2. The steam turbine (1884) Charles Parsons.
3. The gasoline-powered automobile (1889) Gottlieb Daimler.
4. The moving picture, attributed to Edison.
5. The airplane.
6. Wireless telegraphy.
7. The cyanide process for extracting gold.
8. The Tesla induction motor.
9. The Linotype machine, Ottmar Mergenthaler.
10. The electric welder, attributed to Elihu Thomson.

(This list was derived from the 2013 revisiting of the original article as presented by The Scientific American.)

Note: Although not the Scientific American, some of these lists asked for the wonders of the modern world. By that standard I would choose the Linotype machine. It was monstrous, crazy in its complexity, and changed printing more than any other invention since Gutenberg. It was a typewriter which boiled its own lead to cast printed text into lines to make printing plates. It allowed newspapers to expand beyond eight pages.

These lists are fascinating in that they give context to Tesla's work. The electric furnace needed lots of cheap energy to be generally useful. That energy was provide by the Tesla A/C generator, quite often in combination with the Parsons steam turbine. The availability of electric energy contributed to the success of electric welding, the Linotype machine and, of course, the induction motor.

Linotype Machine


Nikola Tesla, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Henry H. Holmes are all characters in my thriller, A Predator's Game.

A Predator's Game is available in soft-cover and ebook through Amazon and other online retailers.

A Predator's Game, now available, Rook's Page Publishing.


Back page blurb.

Manhattan, 1896.

When the author Arthur Conan Doyle meets Nikola Tesla he finds a tall, thin genius with a photographic memory and a keen eye, and recognizes in the eccentric inventor the embodiment of his creation, Sherlock. Together, they team up to take on an "evil Holmes." Multi-murderer Dr. Henry H. Holmes has escaped execution and is unleashing a reign of terror upon the metropolis. Set in the late nineteenth century in a world of modern marvels, danger and invention, Conan Doyle and Tesla engage the madman in a deadly game of wits.

Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of A Predatory Mind. Its sequel, set in 1890s Manhattan and titled A Predator's Game, features Nikola Tesla as detective.


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