Historical Science & Technology, Important People, Important Discoveries, Science

In Brief: Astronomy in the Renaissance

Thanks to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, among other things, the Renaissance period is perhaps best known for its art and culture. But science went through a real Renaissance during the Renaissance as well. Astronomy, in particular, was a field that saw a number of significant discoveries.

Astronaissance? Renaisstronomy?

As everyone knows, astronomy in the pre-Renaissance Middle Ages was based on Ptolemy’s geocentric model (i.e., Earth is the center of the universe). It is highly unlikely, however, that many astronomers of the Middle Ages had actually read Ptolemy’s writings. Derivations of Ptolemy’s work were more common points of reference, including a series of textbooks known collectively as the Theorica Planetarum—roughly translated, “Planetary Theory”.


To predict planetary motion across the heavens, Renaissance astronomers utilized the Alfonsine Tables. These tables were based on models presented in Ptolemy’s Almagest, but incorporated a number of modifications developed by later stargazers.

Round about 1450 CE, Austrian astronomer Georg “Gorgeous George” von Peuerbach took up a lecturer’s position at the University of Vienna, in the heart of the land of tiny sausages. A student of Peuerbach’s with the name of a dinosaur discovered in Montana, Regiomontanus, collected lecture notes and published them as the Theoricae Novae Planetarum in the 1470s. This “New Planetary Theory” then became the go-to textbook for advanced astronomy.

In 1496, the Epitome of the Almagest, a work begun by Peuerbach and completed by Regiomontanus after his mentor’s death, was published. A summary of, commentary on, and companion piece to Ptolemy’s earlier work, its publication gave many scientists across Europe their first exposure the latest advances in Ptolemaic astronomy.

Copernicus Drops the Mic


Nicolas “Big Nick” Copernicus was the first of the New Wave of Renaissance Astronomers, taught with the Theoricae Novae Planetarum, to sign with a major label. In the early 1510s, Copernicus began to research a wild new theory—that the Earth revolves around the Sun!

For the rest of his days, Big Nick attempted to prove heliocentrism via a mathematical proof. His magnum opus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (or “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”), was finally published in 1543 as he was literally on his deathbed. Though the book proved that the sun, not the Earth, is the center of our solar system, Copernicus’ work is not as revolutionary as it is often deemed. The latter scientist’s writing is really more of an extension of the latter’s, as Copernicus follows Ptolemy’s methods and order of presentation to deduce a logical extension of and conclusion to the Almagest.

Photo credit: Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL via Foter.com / CC BY

Important People, Important Discoveries, Technology

It’s A Gas: The History of Neon Lighting

What would the nighttime world be without neon lighting? Boring as heck, that’s what! We all know that neon lights get their name from the electrified neon gas inside them, but how did anyone figure out that that was a thing? Who’s bright idea was the neon light?

Is this a little too on the nose?

Is this a little too on the nose?

Ramsay & Travers: Gas Scientists

Neon was discovered in the Earth’s atmosphere by William “Big Bill” Ramsay and Morris William “Smaller but Still Quite Big Bill” Travers. After the duo had successfully extracted pure neon from the atmosphere, they began exploring its properties using a Geissler tube. (These electrical gas-discharge tubes were similar to those used in modern neon signs.)

Travers wrote of their experiments, “…the blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story, and was a sight to dwell upon and never forget.” Producing colored light (or “spectral lines”) via electrical gas discharge was a well-known practice at the time, but was then only used to identify the gas in question. The intensity of light created by electrified neon was unlike anything ever seen by science to that point.

Ride the Lighting

Almost immediately, illuminated neon tubes were being produced for use both as scientific instruments and as novelties. Pure neon gas was still quite rare, however, and the potential for its use as a light source was not widely researched. Other, similar technologies used nitrogen or carbon dioxide as an illuminating medium, and found moderate success in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In 1902, a company owned French engineer and inventory Georges “Gorgeous George” Claude began producing purified neon in mass quantities, as the gas was a natural byproduct of their air liquefaction process. Using this gas, Claude built two 39-foot long, bright red neon tubes for display at the Paris Motor Show.

In creating the giant, glowing neon tubes, Claude more or less invented the neon lighting industry. He was granted a US patent for the design of his gas-discharge electrodes, a patent that gave Claude Neon Lights a monopoly on neon lighting in the United States until the 1930s. Claude later pioneered the use of other gases that, mixed with neon, would produce colors that electrified neon alone could not.

Modern neon lights are not much different from Claude’s massive prototypes from over 110 years ago, though today’s neon tubes can be as long as 98 feet. In your face, Georges!

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Historical Science & Technology, World-Changing Inventions

Forged in the Fires of History

Forging is a metalworking process in which metal is shaped via localized compressive forces. These forces are applied via a hammer (or mechanical hammer nowadays) or a die. It is one of the oldest known metalworking processes; good ol’ hammer-and-anvil blacksmithing is a method of forging metal, and mechanical forging was one of the first uses developed for water power.

The Forge Awakens

The earliest archaeological evidence of metal forging dates back to roughly 4000 BCE. Most OG forgers used bronze and iron to create tools, weapons, and other basic metal implements. History’s first forgers, however, were blingin’ outta control and used gold.

Actual photo of a 19th century blacksmith.

Actual photo of a 19th century blacksmith.

Over the centuries, humans more or less perfected the forging process. By the 19th Century CE, blacksmiths were producing high quality wrought iron forgings via the open die process, in which red hot metal is pressed into the desired shape and dimensions using appropriate hand tools. Working in teams—and with really, really big hammers—these smiths were able to produce custom forgings as large as 10 tons.

In 1856, the development of Bessemer steel proved to be a boon to metal forging. The Bessemer process provided a huge supply of low cost steel that made the mass-production of forged metal products possible.

Forging Onward

Like every other industry, the Industrial Revolution had a major impact on metal forging and metalworking in general. Better and more efficient equipment, such as steam-powered hammers, was developed that made forging a more versatile and more easily repeatable process.

Metal forging proved invaluable to the Allied war effort during World War II, and the huge increase in demand for forgings lead to numerous innovations that helped the industry grow even larger. Advances in electrical technology, specifically electric heating, gave metalworkers even greater control of their processes for better quality products and faster production.

Many modern metalworkers produce their steel forgings using computer-controlled, hydraulically powered equipment. This highly specialized, precision operated equipment offers almost unlimited possibilities for creating complex forged parts. Today, the ancient process of metal forging is used to produce products for mining, aerospace, and everything in between.

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Technology, World-Changing Inventions

Can’t Stoppler the Doppler

A NEXRAD Doppler radar tower.

A NEXRAD Doppler radar tower.

You know it, you love it: it’s the Doppler weather radar! Without it, we’d never know if it was going to rain or snow or if the earth was about to crash into the sun… maybe not that last one, but you know what I mean. Where did this brilliant technology come from? Read on to learn more. Or don’t, it’s totally up to you.

You’re Thinking of REGULAR Weather Radar (Non-Doppler)

Though it might seem like the Doppler weather radar has been a staple of evening news forecasts since time immemorial, development of the technology did not begin until the late 1940s. US Armed Forces scientists, returning to civilian life (in most cases) after serving in World War II, set out to develop a peacetime application for the radar technology they had used in the field. Many had noted noise in their radar readings caused by various forms of precipitation, and these “echoes” ultimately formed the basis of Doppler weather radar technology.

In the late ‘40s, Air Force, and later MIT, scientist David Atlas developed the first operational weather radar. Canadian researchers known collectively as the Stormy Weather Group conducted successful studies on the effects of rain drop size distribution that would later evolve into radar reflectivity technology. In the UK, weather scientists continued to study radar echo patterns in all types of weather. EKCO, a UK-based company best known for producing radios and television sets, demonstrated a rudimentary version of Doppler weather radar technology in 1950. By the end that year, numerous weather stations around the world had installed reflectivity radars capable of measuring position and intensity of precipitation.

Technology advanced quickly, as it so often does, and by 1964, the US National Severe Storms Laboratory (or NSSL) had been created to make full use of the increasingly complex incoming data. In 1969, the NSSL used a military-surplus, ten centimeter, Doppler pulse radar to scan and film the complete life cycle of a tornado. From there, it was clear that Doppler radar had the potential to be a powerful predictive tool for forecasting severe weather events.

Adopting Doppler

Following the 1974 “Super Outbreak” (48 confirmed tornadoes across thirteen US states within 24 hours), which likely could have been predicted—and citizens then forewarned—using Doppler technology, the NSSL and the National Weather Service declared Doppler weather radar to be of crucial importance to all weather stations across the world.

By 1988, a nationwide Doppler network called NEXRAD had been installed across the United States. The Canadian Doppler Network was completed in 2004. Much of Europe had made the switch to Doppler technology by the early 2000s.

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Historical Science & Technology, World-Changing Inventions

April Showers Bring A Brief History of the Umbrella

I’m just going to assume you know what an umbrella is and does and spare some unnecessary words here. That said, do you know whence the umbrella came? It’s an obvious design, so much so that saying anyone actually “invented” it is not really accurate. But it had to come from somewhere, so here’s a brief history of ye olde bumbershoot.

China Invented Everything

The earliest written records of what we would now call a collapsible umbrella come from ancient China. The excellently-named Han Dynasty usurper and Xin Dynasty founder Wang Mang commissioned an umbrella to cover his ceremonial carriage in 21 CE. This umbrella was built with bendable joints that allowed it to extend and retract.

However, the “invention” of the umbrella may predate this record by hundreds or thousands of years. At a historic site in Luoyang, archaeologists recovered bronze castings, dated to the Zhou Dynasty (circa 1046 to 256 BCE), that were most likely parts of a folding umbrella.


Interestingly, the Chinese character for “umbrella” (săn) looks pretty much just like an umbrella. Coincidence? Methinks not.

Elsewhere In the Ancient World

At Nineveh, in modern Iraq, multiple sculptures depict figures carrying parasols. Carvings throughout the ancient Persian city of Persepolis also depict many an umbrella. In both locations, most of the art shows a king or other official being shaded by a servant holding the umbrella. Typical monarchs!

Numerous surviving artworks from ancient Egypt depict the umbrella in various forms. Again, they’re usually being used by gods, princesses, and the like. The umbrella was clearly a mark of distinction, but a good number of these works also show it being used for its actual sun-blocking function.

In ancient Greece, round about the 5th century BCE, umbrellas were a staple of ladies fashion. For a brief period, they became a men’s accessory as well, as Greek dudes transitioned from sporting swords to spears to staffs to parasols. Then they dropped the umbrella and it was just for the ladies once again.

Probably the best ancient umbrella story comes from India. According to a famous folktale, renowned archer Jamadagni shot an arrow into the sun to stop it from overheating his wife as she recovered his many arrows. The sun begged for mercy and presented Jamadagni’s wife with the first ever parasol. TL;DR: The sun invented the umbrella. Weird, right?

Photo credit: Judy ** via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND