Important People, Important Discoveries

Of Spirit Levels & Breaststrokes: The Life of Melchisédech Thévenot

Seventeenth century Frenchman Melchisédech “Big Mel” Thévenot was the very definition of a polymath. At various times in his roughly 72 years (circa 1620-1692 CE), Thévenot worked as an author, cartographer, diplomat, and scientist; he was also known as an extensive traveler and an “orientalist”—that is, someone who is knowledgeable about Asia (referred to in Thévenot’s day as “the Orient”). Though not a well-known name, Thévenot is credited with numerous significant discoveries and inventions.

Started Near the Top, Stayed There

Thévenot was born into a family of royal office holders—not royalty, exactly, but highly-ranking elected officials that were pretty darn close to royalty. Growing up in a wealthy household gave young Big Mel educational opportunities most of his peers would never have. He took to languages easily, and was soon a polyglot, fluent in French (naturally), English, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish, among others.

He quickly made a name for himself as an amateur scientist, studying astronomy, magnetism, medicine, and physics. Thévenot was one of the first to suggest the use of lemon juice as a potential remedy for stomach ailments, and ipecac to cure dysentery.

In the 1660s, Thévenot and two of his protégé’s Jan “Big Jan” Swammerdam of the Netherlands and Niels “Big Niels” Stenson of Denmark, began a scientific study in which they ultimately discovered the nature and mechanism by which embryo fertilization occurs in humans and animals.

Title Recall

Thévenot’s most famous contributions include the granddaddy of all level measurement gizmos and a now-common form of aquatic locomotion.

It’s called a “spirit level” because the bubble is actually a ghost.

Big Mel invented the spirit level (a.k.a. the bubble level) in 1661, almost filling* a small vessel with alcohol and mounting it on a ruler with a small viewing lens fitted into it. Though Thévenot did everything he could to spread the word on his wacky new invention, the spirit level did not come into widespread use until the early 18th century.

Though he didn’t actually invent the breaststroke, Thévenot’s book The Art of Swimming helped popularize the motion by bringing it to the attention of swimmers all over the world. Good ol’ Benjamin Franklin, when he was good young Benjamin Franklin, is known to have read the book and subsequently became a talented swimmer as a youth.

Oh yeah, Thévenot was also one of the founders of the French Academy of Sciences, which is kind of a big deal, I guess.

* If it were completely full, it wouldn’t work.

Photo credit: Heartlover1717 via / CC BY-NC-ND

Important People, Important Discoveries, Pseudoscience

Humboldt’s Equilibrium

Alexander “Big Al” von Humboldt was a Prussian polymath, known for his contributions to geography (specifically botanical geography), naturalism, philosophy, and science in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Humboldt did so much for the sciences, in fact, that there’s an entire school of thought bearing his name.

Not to be confused with Alexander Van Halen.

A significant concept in Humboldtian science is equilibrium. Said the man himself, “The general equilibrium which reigns amongst disturbances and apparent turmoil, is the result of infinite number of mechanical forces and chemical attractions balancing each other out.”

A Prussian Yin Yang, If You Will

Humboldt’s equilibrium, then, is derived from an infinite number of forces acting simultaneously, in a variety of ways, all around the world. The general order of nature is, in Humboldt’s view, the result of infinity and complexity; however, Big Al also believed that one could gain a greater understanding of the order of nature by measuring more natural forces around the world.

On a voyage to South America in 1799, Humboldt made many significant discoveries that illustrated his theory of equilibrium. In his Physical Profile of the Andes, a graphic record he created during his journey, Humboldt sought to capture every physical force encountered in the mountain range in a single table, from electricity to living organisms.

The Physical Profile included a detailed map of biodistribution, showing the specific locations of plants and animals at the various elevation levels of the Andes Mountains.

Humboldtian Science Branches Out

As he continued his work in botany, Humboldt’s studies gradually moved further and further away from traditional science. He discovered further examples to support his theories of equilibrium and the interconnectedness of all natural elements. Building off the Physical Profile of the Andes, Humboldt focused intensely on the underlying connections and relationships between different types of plants.

“As in all other phenomena of the physical universe, so in the distribution of organic beings,” Humboldt wrote. “Amidst the apparent disorder which seems to result from the influence of a multitude of local causes, the unchanging law of nature become [sic] evident as soon as one surveys an extensive territory, or uses a mass of facts in which the partial disturbances compensate one another.”

Humboldt applied his theory of equilibrium to the overall connectedness of the creation of our planet. In his view, the history of the earth was a continuous global distribution of heat, vegetation, rock formations, etc. To show these connections visually, Humboldt developed isothermal lines that help to balance general forces while preserving local peculiarities. As he himself wrote, the whole equilibrium and order of nature can be seen only “gradually and progressively from laborious observing, averaging, and mapping over increasingly extended areas.”

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution via / No known copyright restrictions

Important People, Important Discoveries, Technology

“Buoying Vessels Over Shoals”: Honest Abe’s Patent

U.S. Patent No. 6,469 begins thusly:

“Be it know that I, Abraham Lincoln, of Springfield, in the county of Sangamon, in the state of Illinois, have invented a new and improved manner of combining adjustable buoyant air chambers with a steam boat or other vessel for the purpose of enabling their draught of water to be readily lessened to enable them to pass over bars, or through shallow water, without discharging their cargoes.”

Yes, that Abraham Lincoln. Patent #6469 is the only patented ever granted to a U.S. President. (Though Lincoln was not president at the time he was granted the patent.)

Waterman, Patent Lawyer, President

Before he became perhaps the GOAT Commander in Chief, Abraham Lincoln worked as a patent lawyer for several years. Before that, he worked a variety of jobs that took him between his home in Illinois and New Orleans via river.

Whilst traveling on the Sangamon River on one such job, the flatboat on which Lincoln was riding got hung up on a milldam and started to sink. Lincoln quickly sprang into action, ditching some of the boat’s cargo into the river to right it, then drilling a hole in the deck to drain the accumulated water. He then plugged the hole, portaged around the milldam with help from the locals, and completed his trip down to New Orleans in the repaired boat.

A few years later, Lincoln made his first foray into politics. One of his first platforms was improving the navigability of the Sangamon River. Another boat he was traveling on during this period became stranded on a shoal, and was only dislodged after a considerable amount of elbow grease was applied by all aboard. This, coupled with the previous incident, inspired Lincoln to create his patented invention.

Scale model of Lincoln's patented invention (see below)

Scale model of Lincoln’s patented invention (see below)

Whatever Floats Your Boat, Abe!

Looking for a way to lift vessels over shoals and other obstructions in waterways, Lincoln invented an inflatable flotation device that could be attached to the hull of a boat. Comprised of a series of waterproof fabric bladders, the device would be inflated when needed to ease a stuck ship over obstacles. In theory, the air chambers would lift the watercraft above the surface of the water, giving it enough clearance to avoid getting stuck.

Lincoln designed and, with the help of Walter Davis, a Springfield, Illinois, mechanic, built a scale model of a ship outfitted with his device. The model is currently on display at the Smithsonian Institution. Lincoln was awarded his patent on 22 May 1849, shortly after the conclusion of his two-year term in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Photo credit: avitechwriter via / CC BY-NC-SA

Important People, Important Discoveries

Studying Heliocentrism & The Tides with Seleucus of Seleucia

Before such a thing was proven to be fact, heliocentrism was the theory that the Earth revolved around the sun, instead of vice versa. It seems obvious now, what with our telescopes and modern book learnin’, but when it was first suggested, the heliocentric model of the solar systems was frowned upon hard. Like, “excommunicate you” hard. Yes, because most folks at the time were still so convinced that God and Jesus had built the universe with humans as its center-point, people were permanently shunned or house-arrested for suggesting—based on scientific reasoning—that maybe that wasn’t the case.

Fortunately for him, Seleucus of Seleucia did not meet that fate. However, his work did go a long way toward advancing the heliocentric model. He also sussed out the cause of the Earth’s tides. A right smart chap, he was.

The Mad Man of Mesopotamia

Born circa 190 BCE in Seleucia on the Tigris in Mesopotamia (in what is now Iraq), Seleucus was an astronomer, a philosopher, and, as has been noted, an early proponent of heliocentrism. Following the teachings of Aristarchus of Samos, which suggested that the Earth turns on its own axis whilst simultaneously revolving around the sun, Seleucus was the first to demonstrate the workings of a heliocentric system using reason. Unfortunately, the exact arguments he used to state his case have been lost to the sands of time.

Heliocentrism FTW!

Heliocentrism FTW!

The excellently named 20th Century CE Dutch mathematician and mathematical historian Bartel Leendert van der Waerden suggested that Seleucus likely arrived at his heliocentric view of the universe by first determining the constraints of a geometric model, then developing methods to compute the positions of the planets using said model. If that sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because Nicolaus “Big Nick” Copernicus used essentially the same process to create his own heliocentric model in the 16th Century CE.

Lucio “Big Luke” Rosso, a modern-day Italian physicist, mathematician, professor, and scientific historian, has suggested that Seleucus’ interest in heliocentric theory was likely related to Earth’s tides. Seleucus closely studied our planet’s yearly tidal cycle, and found that it could not be adequately explained in a geocentric system. Seleucus was the first to hypothesize that tides are caused by the Moon’s gravitational interaction with Earth, and the first to suss out that the “height” of the tides is dependent on the Moon’s position relative to the Sun.

Not too shabby for a punk kid outta Mesopotamia.

Photo credit: nojhan via / CC BY-SA

Important People, Important Discoveries, Technology

Big Léon’s Got Connections

Chances are good that you’ve never heard of Léon Mouttet, nor his company LEMO. But chances are equally good that you’ve experienced some of his and his company’s products in action. If you’ve been to the hospital recently, or listened to music through any sort of high-end system, or been through the security checkpoint at an airport, you’ve been within spitting distance of LEMO connectors.

The short version is: LEMO makes what are widely considered to be the highest-performing connectors for electronics and fiber optic stuff, and have done so for decades.

The Long Version Is…

Léon “Big Léon” Mouttet was a Swiss electrical engineer and inventor, raised on the finest chocolates and perforated cheeses the world has to offer. Mouttet originally started his company (LEon MOuttet—clever, no?) in 1946 in Morges, Switzerland, to manufacture electrical contacts from rare metals, noble metals, and rare noble metals.

Train station in Morges, Switzerland in 2011.

Train station in Morges, Switzerland in 2011.

By 1954, Mouttet had changed his company’s focus to manufacturing electronic cable connectors, including several models based on his own patented designs. In 1957, Big Léon invented the push-pull self-latching system that was to be LEMO’s first big breakthrough. LEMO’s biggest innovation, however, was the modular connectivity that soon became a standard across every product the company made. The modular design made it possible to create a huge number of configurations of LEMO’s products, a then-unique feature that made the company a worldwide name.

In 1957, LEMO connectors were introduced to the American market. In 1972, they became available in the UK; the Japanese market followed a year later. From there, LEMO took off into the stratosphere. The stratosphere, I tell ya! Since 1987, the company has built or expanded new manufacturing plants, or acquired other companies, in Ecublens and Delemont, Switzerland, Rohnert Park, California, Munich, Germany, and Osceola, Wisconsin.

Photo credit: ktulinho via / CC BY