Tag Archives: invention

Experimental setup.

Humans don’t need to understand what they’re doing to create new technology

Humanity didn’t rise to where it is today because of their smarts alone — we got here because we had no issue copying whatever our neighbors invented.

Experimental setup.

Participants could modify the position of 4 weights attached to the wheel’s spokes, in an attempt to increase its speed along the sloping rail.
Image credits Maxime Derex.

An international research team including members from the University of Exeter, the Université Catholique de Lille, CNRS, and Arizona State University, say that new technology doesn’t necessarily hinge on competence. In fact, the creation of effective new technologies doesn’t even require that we understand them, they write.

Monkey see monkey do

It’s easy — and let’s admit it, pleasant — to believe that our success relies on us being smarter and more ingenious than other species. Our fancy tools allowed us to adapt to a variety of environments and out-compete native species, leading us to the world of today, so, naturally, they must be the product of a deeply capable species.

While that may be true, it’s not all brains, says the team. The functionality of many traditional technologies — the bow and arrow or kayaks for example — depends to some extent on parameters that are hard to understand or model even today. This makes some anthropologists suspect that technology arises from our propensity to copy other members of the group, not raw smarts. In such a system, small improvements to any existing technology will be selected for — similarly to biological evolution — eventually generating technologies that are effective despite not being understood by individuals.

The team tested this theory in the lab by asking students to optimize a wheel traveling down on a set of rails. Each was allowed five attempts to produce the most effective configuration they could, before filling out a questionnaire that gauged their knowledge of the physics involved. To simulate successive generations of people, the team created ‘chains’ of students: each individual had access to the wheel configuration and effectiveness from the final two attempts made by the preceding participant.

The set-up did become more efficient (as judged by the wheel’s speed) over the course of these simulated generations, the team reports. However, each individual’s understanding of the physical mechanisms impacting its speed remained mediocre. This strongly suggests that the wheel’s speed wasn’t linked to the participant’s levels of understanding. Each student produced more or less random configurations, but the sum of their trials and errors — as well as the ability to copy the fastest known configuration from previous uses — was enough to refine the ‘technology’ over time.

The team also carried out a second experiment in which participants handed down their last two attempts to the following student. This included the system’s set-up and a piece of text describing their theory on the wheel’s effectiveness. Once again, the wheel would move faster over time, but the individuals were oblivious as to why. The team says that this step shows how transmission of false or incomplete theories could hinder or even prevent later generations properly understanding the system in a way, blinding them to a part of the problem.

All in all, the experiments show how important cultural processes are in the emergence of complex tools, the team explains. Our ability to copy others lets us create technology that no single individual could generate on their own. The authors say the findings suggest we should be more reserved in interpreting archeological remains in terms of cognitive capacity, as their results show that the later does not necessarily drive the former.

Paper DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0567-9


Amazing inventions lost through time

Science has progressed amazingly in recent years, but a handful of spectacular inventions have remained lost to knowledge. Whether it’s the Greek Fire, Roman Nanotechnology or a wonder-material desired by NASA, we’ve lost some great things along the way – these are just some of them.

Greek Fire

Image via Wikipedia.

You can’t really talk about lost inventions without mentioning Greek Fire; one of the greatest kept secrets of all time, Greek Fire was developed around 672, being used by the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. The empire was in dire straits, losing several painful naval battles in wars with the Arab countries. Then, as they found themselves overwhelmed by the vast Arab fleet with few chances of success, something almost magical happened. The Byzantine ships started spitting out their new fire through specially installed siphons and the fire started consuming everything in its path, burning even on water. Nothing could put it out, except sand, vinegar or urine – not something you’d find in large quantities on any ship.

The chronicler Theophanes was among the first to describe the Greek Fire, and he assigns the invention to Kallinikos, an architect (and presumably chemist) from the former province of Phoenice – then overrun by Muslims. However, this is a questionable account, and historian James Partington (among others) believes that the fire was not the creation of a single person, but rather invented by a team of chemists in Constantinopole who inherited scientific information from the Alexandrian school. Whatever the mixture included, it was probably quite complex as despite stealing or capturing some of it, other civilizations weren’t able to copy it.

The Greek Fire could also be deployed on land. Image via Wikimedia.

Its significance was so huge that its discovery was ascribed to divine intervention. As for its composition and manufacture, historians are still debating that one. The only indication concerning its production comes from Anna Komnene, a Byzantine princess and scholar:

“This fire is made by the following arts. From the pine and the certain such evergreen trees inflammable resin is collected. This is rubbed with sulfur and put into tubes of reed, and is blown by men using it with violent and continuous breath. Then in this manner it meets the fire on the tip and catches light and falls like a fiery whirlwind on the faces of the enemies.”

Whatever it contained, Greek Fire burned on water, and forever changed the course of history.

A 1st Century Steam Engine, a Vending Machine and a Windwheel

Hero of Alexandria, also known as Heron of Alexandria was a Greek mathematician and engineer most known today for his formula to calculate the area of a triangle. But Heron was an amazing inventor, taking credit among others for the first windwheel, the first vending machine, and even the first steam engine. That’s right, the first steam engine was invented in ancient Greece.

The Aeolipile. Image via Wikipedia.

The Heron Engine (also called an aeolipile) was a simple bladeless steam turbine, spinning when the central water container is heated. It produced torque from steam jets exiting the turbine, much like a rocket engine does today. Basically, water was heated in a simple boiler which was connected to the rotating chamber through a pair of pipes that also served as pivots for the chamber. Heron was quite generous and explained how one could make his own aeolipile. However, it wasn’t until 1698 that Thomas Savery patented the first steam engine of 1 horsepower (750 W). It had no piston or moving parts, only taps. Heron’s invention went unnoticed for over 1500 years.

Image via Mlahanas.

As if that wasn’t enough, he also invented a vending machine, as described in his book “Mechanics and Optics”; a coin was introduced via a slot on the top of the machine and a fixed amount of holy water was dispensed. He also invented the first windwheel and consequently the first wind-powered organ, a programmable cart powered by a falling weight and created by himself an entirely mechanical play almost ten minutes in length, powered by a binary-like system of ropes, knots, and simple machines operated by a rotating cylindrical cogwheel. Many of his inventions were praised and immediately adopted but others, like the steam engine, were forgotten for centuries.

Starlite, the Wonder Material

OK, so we lost some Antique inventions, but we’re not losing anything modern, right? Well… not quite. Maurice Ward was an amateur chemist who liked to tinker and invent things. In the 70s and 80s, he invented a material he called Starlite that was able to withstand and insulate from extreme heat. Several organizations were allowed to conduct test on its, but none were allowed to take samples for the fear of reverse engineering. Even NASA exhibited interest in the material but unfortunately, Starlite’s composition was kept a secret by Ward and after his passing, no one knew the secret.

Now I know what you’re thinking – this is another cook that claims he invented something… and didn’t. But the Atomic Weapons Establishment and ICI conducted tests on the material and confirmed the claims. Furthermore, a telling demonstration (see above) was shown on BBC. The inventor held a blowtorch directly above an egg covered in Starlite. After five minutes, the egg wasn’t even cracked, and when the inside was revealed, it hadn’t even begun to cook.

Damascus Steel

We’re sticking in the realm of wonder materials, but moving to something completely different: Damascus Steel has been the golden standard for blacksmiths for centuries.

The Distinctive pattern of Damascus Steel. Image via Flickr.

Known by its distinctive pattern, extreme toughness and ability to be honed to extreme sharpness, Damascus Steel is a prime example of an invention lost due to a lack of source material. We’re pretty sure that the steel was made from ore deposits originating in India and Sri Lanka. The original steel was brought in from India to Damascus where local bladesmiths learned to make the highest quality steel – and swords. Damascus still was known and respected by blade wielders and smiths all around the world, but its production was brought to an end rather unceremoniously, as the raw material deposits ran out. The key trace impurities of vanadium and tungsten made the deposits so special, and a similar deposit has never been found.

Image via Wikipedia.

It’s not clear why the technique was then forgotten or abandoned so fast. The very long trade route likely played a part. The technique for controlled thermal cycling after the initial forging at a specific temperature was also lost, and to this day, we don’t know how Damascus Steel swords were made. However, many modern blacksmiths have attempted to recreate it – they may have even gotten it right, but we’ll likely never know.

Roman Nanotechnology – The Lycurgus Cup

A colorful chalet now stored in the British Museum might not seem like much at a first glance, but believe it or not, it’s an example of ancient nanotechnology. The Lycurgus Cup looks differently depending on how light falls upon it. Lift from behind, it’s red, but lit from the front it’s green. It’s one of the most beautiful and well-decorated pieces of glass in all human history.

The same cup, illuminated differently.

The effect was achieved by mixing tiny proportions of nanoparticles of gold and silver dispersed in colloidal form throughout the glass material. The exact process is still unknown, and was probably so complex that some historians believe it may have been achieved by mistake. However, it seems unlikely that glass-makers would leave anything to chance when creating a piece so intricate.

The cup is also an example of a complete Roman cage-cup, or diatretum, where many parts of the cage have been completely undercut to create space for the other decorations. Most cage-cups have an abstract geometric design, but here there is a clear composition of figures, showing the mythical king Lycurgus who tried to kill Ambrosia, a follower of the god Dionysus (Bacchus to the Romans). She was transformed into a vine which ultimately twined around the kind, restraining and eventually killing him. Dionysus and two other followers are shown here taunting the king. The cup is the “only well-preserved figural example” of a cage cup.

Muslin Cloth

Muslin cloth was primarily manufactured in pre-British era India and Bangladesh and was exported throughout many parts of Asia and Europe. In essence a cotton fabric of plain weave, Muslin was traded by ancient Greeks and Romans from the East Indian port town Masulipatnam, known as Maisolos.

Muslin dress. Image via Wikipedia.

However, in British colonial times, the Bengali muslin industry was ruthlessly suppressed in order to favor textile imports from Britain. William Bolts, a Dutch-born eighteenth-century merchant active in India noted that  “instances have been known of their cutting off their thumbs to prevent their being forced to wind silk.” As a result, the quality and skill of producers greatly decreased and the ultimate process for Muslin cloth has been lost.

Image via Wikipedia.

Over the past couple of centuries there have been several attempts to revive the industry and in 2013, the traditional art of weaving Jamdani muslin in Bangladesh was included in the list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. However, the quality and finesse are not the same.

The Antikythera Mechanism

The Antikythera Mechanism is quite possible the most spectacular ancient artifact ever recovered. An ancient analog computer, it was designed to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendrical and astrological purposes, and even included features for the Olympiads – the ancient Olympic games.

Antikythera mechanism. Image via Wikipedia.

The artifact was recovered in 1900 from the Antikythera shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera and was dated around 200 BC – over 2200 years ago! It could replicate the irregular motions of the Moon using two front dials had pointers for the Sun and Moon. Its quality and complexity are simply stunning, and nothing got even close to it until the 14th century when the first mechanical watches were being developed.

Front panel of a 2007 reconstruction. Image via Wiki Commons.

“This device is just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind,” said study leader Mike Edmunds of Cardiff University in the UK. “The design is beautiful, the astronomy is exactly right…In terms of historical and scarcity value, I have to regard this mechanism as being more valuable than the Mona Lisa.”


Not really an invention, Silphium was a plant used in classical antiquity both as a seasoning and as a medicine. Its importance was highlighted by the Egyptians and Knossos Minoans developing a specific glyph to represent the silphium plant, while Romans often said it was worth its weight in silver.

Image via Wiki Commons.

The plant was said to treat cough, sore throat, fever, indigestion, aches and pains, warts, and all kinds of maladies but its most cherished medicinal properties were as a contraceptive; its leaves were ground into a resin that was placed in the vagina as a spermicide. The plant went extinct due to an increase in demand, but some speculate overgrazing and increasing desertification in North Africa were also decisive.

To this day, biologists are still debating in what family this species belong and whatever medicinal properties it could have had are forever lost.


Thomas Edison’s legacy: inventions and discoveries


Image: Value Walk

If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward. – Thomas Edison

Edison is a very controversial character. Although during his life he patented over 1,000 inventions, he often receives credit for inventions he didn’t necessarily create from scratch but rather took the steps to mass produce. The reason why his genius is often disputed is that some of the inventions for which he takes credit didn’t actually belong to him, but were actually a modern, more functional version of other pioneer inventions.

For instance, most people know Edison as the inventor of the light bulb, but he actually just modernized the initial design. His other major contribution was to the American spirit of entrepreneurship. Few people know that he was one of the founders General Electric — still one of the largest companies today. Some of his most important inventions are the light bulb as we know it, the telephone, the movie camera, the microphone and alkaline batteries.

 The Stock Ticker

While it wasn’t his invention per se, Edison did improve the telegraphy technology in order to make a universal stock printer. The gadget (at the time) was better than anything of its sort and it was purchased by the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company for $40,000 – a huge sum back then. Being one of the scientist’s first creations of this scope, the patent paved the way for a series of other scientific discoveries; it also made him a lot of money.

Stock ticker via storage.googleapis.com

The tinfoil phonograph

The telegraph was actually the source of inspiration for this device. Trying to make the telegraph transmitter more efficient, Edison started to experiment with the possibility of recording messages on the diaphragm of the receiver by using a needle. The contraption contained two needles: one for recording and the other for playback. The sound vibration made while speaking into the mouthpiece was recorded to the cylinder with tin foil. This was the invention that made Edison internationally famous.

The tinfoil phonograph.

The Electric Lamp and the Light Bulb

Edison first produced reliable electric light in 1879, guiding us to the electrical age. He invented the first practical incandescent light bulb along with the systems comprising it (a parallel circuit, an improved dynamo, devices for constant voltage and light sockets with switches). In order to allow this invention to be available on a large scale, he also founded one of the world’s first electric companies (which would go on to become General Electric after a huge merger), making the first carbon filament light bulb commercially viable. There were many previous versions of the light bulb, but they were either too expensive (they were using platinum) or didn’t last long enough.

The electric lighting system.

The Kinetographic Camera

This device was designed to ‘do to the eye what the phonograph does for the ear’. Edison developed a projector of his own and built a motion picture production studio from scratch, using the moving camera and viewer. The first motion picture was made possible 7 years later, in 1896, and was filmed in New York City. In 1913, by combining the phonograph and the kinetoscope, he also produced the first talking motion picture.


Alkaline Batteries

As he was experimenting with an iron and nickel battery, Edison discovered an alkaline solution which produced a longer-lasting battery that was also better suited for electric vehicles because of being of a significantly higher energy density. As this discovery turned out to be consumer-friendly, it also became one of the most successful productions in the early 1900s.

The alkaline battery.


Needless to say, cement already existed at the time, but Edison’s contribution was improving the manufacture, especially through the use of rotary kiln. He also founded a company for this product to become widely commercially available.

Edison Portland Cement.

General Electric

In 1889, Edison already had several companies: Edison Lamp Company, Edison Machine Works, Bergmann & Company,  and Edison Electric Light Company. By merging with a company owned by J.P. Morgan and Anthony J. Drexel, he founded the Edison General Electric Company which was incorporated in New York on April 24, 1889.

Today, the company still exists, and it’s now one of the biggest companies in the world, with total equities of $136 billion, and over 300,000 employees.

While it’s hard for us today to imagine a world without telephones, movies, recorded music and electricity, Edison still remains a controversial figure. Despite the fact that he didn’t finish any of his higher academic studies, the scientist did follow an impressive number of classes on different subjects that were close to his scientific interests. No matter how disputed he may be, we should give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.

Robot starfish wiggles through tiny spaces

A seemingly ordinary starfish robot created by scientists at Harvard has pushed the frontiers of robotics one step further by showing that it can wiggle.

The soft bodied mechanism was inspired by squids, worms and starfish, and is built out of elastomers and powered by pneumatics – a cheap and effective mechanism; it has every chance of becoming extremely important in finding survivors after natural disasters such as earthquakes, and generally speaking, wherever penetrating tight spaces is required.

“These organisms, ones without internal skeletons, suggest designs that are simpler to make and are less expensive than conventional hard robots, and that may, in some respects, be more capable of complex motions and functions,” says the team which developed this robot.

Another advantage of this kind of robot is its resistance to breaking and falling, but the downside is that it is more prone to puncture its soft-walled air chambers. It can also cover different surfaces, from hard rugged gravel to Jell-o – it has been tested and it works fine. In a published demonstration, it was able to make its way under a suspended glass plate in less than a minute. The paper was published in PNAS.

Via The Register

In case of emergency, just take off your bra !

No, the people in the photo are not sniffing the bra or… something. This is Emergency Bra, or Ebra, for short may very well be the thing that saves your life; literally. How does it work ? Well, it converts into a respiratory mask. Good thing about it is that since it has two cups, you can save someone else too.

The inventor, Elena Bodnar won an Ig Nobel prize last year for her invention, which despite what you may think, is quite serious.

“Luckily the wonderful design of the bra is already in the shape of a face mask and so with the addition of a few design features, the Emergency Bra enhances the efficiency of minimizing contaminated bypass air flow,” the product’s web site states.

How much for this life saving piece of fashion ? Just $29.99. But how will breast size affect the facial fit, now that’s a good question. But perhaps a better question is how’s a lady going to react when you go for the old “I can’t breathe, take off your bra” line ?

Robot archer learns how to aim and fire

The future is here, baby ! Robot archers, that’s what it’s all about ! This little humanoid robot, nicknamed iCub may be using just arrows with suction cups, but hey – you have to start somewhere ! Italian researchers developed an algorithm that can teach the robot how to shoot arrows.

So, after being taught how to hold the bow and fire, the robot learns to aim on its own, and gets better and better with each hit. It took 8 shots to hit the bull’s eye.

The learning algorithm, called ARCHER (Augmented Reward Chained Regression) algorithm, was developed and optimized specifically for problems like the archery training, which have a smooth solution space and prior knowledge about the goal to be achieved. In the case of archery, we know that hitting the center corresponds to the maximum reward we can get. Using this prior information about the task, we can view the position of the arrow’s tip as an augmented reward, says Dr. Petar Kormushev of the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT).

How does it work ? Again, Dr. Kormushev:

ARCHER uses a chained local regression process that iteratively estimates new policy parameters which have a greater probability of leading to the achievement of the goal of the task, based on the experience so far. An advantage of ARCHER over other learning algorithms is that it makes use of richer feedback information about the result of a rollout.


1962 invention could be worth billions

When the ultra-strong glass was invented more than 40 years ago, it was labeled as interesting, but a manufacturing use for it was hard to find. This glass is about three times harder than regular glass, while it’s also thinner (about as thin as a dime).

Motion tablet with Gorilla Glass

The so called Gorilla glass will probably be worth billions, when it will be used to create TV or tablet screens that are hard to break, scratch or bend. In the screen business, Gorilla glass is the next big thing.

Now if you ask me, the big question is why did so much time pass before this invention was given what it deserves. Or even better, how much more inventions that could be extremely useful are just lurking in the depths of the past, awaiting to be rediscovered ?

This reminds me of another invention: optical fiber. When a chemist named Frank Hyde managed to find a way to turn fused silica into optical fiber, it was considered little more than a fancy trinket. It wasn’t until the 70s that it started to be used in communications. Not quite the get rich fast kind of thing, but still, it’s better late then never, even when it comes to inventions.

A Cambridge University video with superconductors and how amazingly useful they can be

Superconductivity occurs when the natural electrical resistance is exactly 0; it occurs in certain materials at very low temperatures. According to the Cambridge University youtube channel:

The first in a new range of powerful superconductors which could revolutionise the production of machines like hospital MRI scanners and protect the national grid have been developed by engineers at the University of Cambridge. Professor David Cardwell explains what superconductors are, why we need them, and how he and his team have devised techniques to make them more powerful than ever before.

Significant breakthrough in biofuels

I was writing a while ago that major biofuel production is not really that far away and the good news is things seem to be moving in that direction. The importance of biofuels has been underlined as a possible solution to fight the crisis, but the big problem was that creating such alternative fuels required too big amounts of power, despite numerous options that were considered (sugar, waste materials and even algae).

biofuel_logo11However, an innovative device constructed by researchers from the University of Sheffield promises to give the necessary power lowering necessary to make this method viable. This invention was awarded with a prestigious international award (Moulton Medal from the Institution of Chemical Engineers) and it’s estimated that it will make biofuel production efficient.

The invention is basically a bioreactor that creates microbubbles using 18% less energy. Microbubbles are miniature gas bubbles (measuring less than 50 microns in diameter) which means they can transfer materials in a bioreactor much more faster than with regular bubbles, thus using less energy. This innovative approach has the whole scientific world excited and it’s currently being tested with a local water company, and it’s also estimated that the necessary electricity current will be 30% lower;we will post updates as they are released by the researchers.

Professor Will Zimmerman, from the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Sheffield, said: “I am delighted that our team’s work in energy efficient microbubble generation is being recognized by the Institution of Chemical Engineers. The potential for large energy savings with our microbubble generation approach is huge. I hope the award draws more industry attention to our work, particularly in commodity chemicals production for gas dissolution and stripping, where energy savings could enhance profitability. There are many routes to becoming green, and reducing energy consumption with the same or better performance must be the most painless.”

Professor Martin Tillotson, from Yorkshire Water, added: “Many of our processes use forced air in order to treat water and wastewater streams and, given the huge volumes, it is very costly in electricity and carbon terms. This technology offers the potential to produce a step-change in energy performance. We are pleased to be working with Professor Zimmerman and his group in developing the microbubble technology, and delighted with the recognition they have received from the Moulton Medal award.”

Scientists create the first molecular transistor

Researchers from Yale University succeeded in what seemed to be an impossible task: they’ve created a transistor from a single molecule. In case you don’t know, a transistor is a “semiconductor device commonly used to amplify or switch electronic signals” (via wikipedia).


The team showed that using a single benzene molecule attached to gold contacts is just as good as the regular silicone transistor. Also, by modifying the voltage applied through the contacts, they were able to control the current that was going through the molecule.

“We were able to allow current to get through when it was low, and stopping the current when it was high,” says Mark Reed, Professor of Engineering & Applied Science at Yale.

The importance of this discovery should not be underestimated; it could prove to be very useful, especially in computer circuits, because common transistors are not feasible at such small scales, and this may very well be another step towards the next generation of computers. However, researchers underlined the fact that fast molecular computers are probably decades away.

“We’re not about to create the next generation of integrated circuits,” he said. “But after many years of work gearing up to this, we have fulfilled a decade-long quest and shown that molecules can act as transistors.”

First Universal Two-Qubit quantum processor created

qbitPhysicists from NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) have demonstrated what they claim to be the first universal programmable quantum information processor that will be able to run any program allowed by quantum mechanics (the set of principles that describe the atomic and subatomic matter). They managed to accomplish this using two quantum bits (qubits) of information.

This processor could prove to be a major breakthrough for a future quantum computer, that could very well be the ‘evolutionary leap’ in the computers’ life thus resulting the possible solve of problems that are untouchable today. The discovery was presented in the latest edition of Nature Physics and this marks the first time anybody has moved beyond asking a single task from a quantum computer.

“This is the first time anyone has demonstrated a programmable quantum processor for more than one qubit,” says NIST postdoctoral researcher David Hanneke, first author of the paper. “It’s a step toward the big goal of doing calculations with lots and lots of qubits. The idea is you’d have lots of these processors, and you’d link them together.”

The processor basically stores binary information in just two beryllium ions held in an electromagnetic ‘trap’, and then handled with ultraviolet lasers. With these in hand, the NIST team managed to perform 160 different processing routines using just the two qubits. Although practically there is an infinite number of programs you can perform with the two qubits, the 160 are pretty much totally relevant, and they prove that the processor is “universal”, Hanneke says.

Of course there will be many more qubits and logic operations to solve bigger problems, but when you come to think about it, all this was done with just two atoms, basically; and the operations they performed were no easy task. Each program consisted of 31 logic operations, 15 of which were varied during programming.