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!

Photo credit: Toby Dickens via / CC BY-NC-SA

Historical Science & Technology, Important People, Important Discoveries

Big Nick Steno & the Rise of Stratigraphy

Stratigraphy is a branch of geology that specifically studies rock layers and layering (strata and stratification, respectively). First established in the late 17th Century CE by Nicolas Steno, stratigraphy is of primary concern in the study of sedimentary rock and layered volcanic rock.

Steno’s 4 Defining Principles

Born in Copenhagen on New Year’s Day 1638, Nicolas Steno was a Danish scientist and, later, a theologian and Catholic bishop. (This last bit lead to his far-later beatification by Pope John Paul II, in 1988.) The son of a goldsmith whose work was regularly commissioned by King Christian IV of Denmark, Steno began studying medicine at the University of Copenhagen at age 19.

After completing his studies, he travelled throughout Europe—with notable stops in the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Italy—to meet with and learn from prominent doctors and scientists. These fellow scholars inspired Steno to make important scientific discoveries of his own. Rather than appeal to ancient authorities, as was common practice for serious scientific inquiry at the time, Steno made his own observations and reached his own conclusions.

Steno finally settled in Italy in 1666. There, the Grand Duke of Tuscany sent him the head of a huge female shark caught near Livorno for dissection. In his findings, published the following year, Steno noted that the sharkette’s teeth were strikingly similar to “tongue stones” found embedded in nearby rock formations.

Contemporary wisdom suggested that fossils (like the tongue stones) grew naturally within rocks. Steno, however, recognized that something different was happening. In 1669, he published his Preliminary Discourse to A Dissertation on A Solid Body Naturally Contained Within A Solid, in which he identified fossils as being left behind by (formerly) living organisms.

Steno’s book also outlined what became the four defining principles of stratigraphy: The Law of Superposition (“…when any given stratum was being formed, all the matter resting upon it was fluid, and, therefore, [at that time] none of the upper strata existed”); The Principle of Original Horizontality (“Strata either perpendicular to […] or inclined to the horizon were at one time parallel to the horizon”); The Principle of Lateral Continuity (“[materials] forming any stratum were continuous over the surface of the Earth unless some other solid bodies stood in the way”); and The Principle of Cross-Cutting Relationships (“If a body or discontinuity cuts across a stratum, it must have formed after that stratum”).

Easily visible stratum at the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland.

Easily visible stratum at the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland.

Stratigraphy in Action

The first practical application of stratigraphy on a large scale was undertaken in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by scientist William Smith, now known as the “Father of English Geology”. Smith created the first geologic map of England and first to recognize the significance of strata and the importance of fossil markers for correlating said strata.

From Smith’s work, stratigraphy was further refined into two related subfields, lithologic stratigraphy (lithostratigraphy) and biologic stratigraphy (biostratigraphy), which are themselves divided into sub-subfields.

Lithostratigraphy deals with the physical contrasts between rock types, and provides the most obvious visible layering. Key concerns in lithologic stratigraphy involve understanding how geometric relationships between different strata form, and what these geometries reveal about the depositional environment.

Biostratigraphy focuses on fossil evidence revealed by strata. Based on Smith’s Principle of Faunal Succession, biologic stratigraphy provides clear evidence for the speciation and extinction of species. Information gleaned from biostratigraphy lead to the development of the geologic time scale in the 19th century.

Photo credit: Allan Henderson / / CC BY

Important People, Important Discoveries

Big John Holybush: 13th Century Scholar, Monk & Astronomer

Johannes de Sacrobosco—whose moniker is not a place, as is often the case with “de something” names, but instead literally translates to “holy bush” (though no one seems to know where “holy bush” came from)—was a scholar, monk, and, most prominently, astronomer. He also spent many years teaching at the University of Paris. He is best remembered for an influential textbook on astronomy and his own remarkably accurate, 300-years-early version of what is now known as the Gregorian calendar.

A Man of Mystery

Very little is actually known about Sacrobosco’s life outside of his written works, especially his early life. He was probably born in England, probably in 1195, and probably died in 1256; however, these assertions have never been solidly confirmed as accurate. Other information suggests that he may have been Scottish, while still other information claims he was born near Dublin, Ireland.

It is likely that he was educated at the University of Oxford, but, as with his birthdate and nation origin, the truth is unknown. One thing that is known for sure is the date of his arrival the University of Paris: 5 June 1221. Whether he was a student or a teacher upon arrival is, also, unclear. Either way, he soon began teaching various forms of mathematics at the University. An epitaph at his gravesite states that he was a computist—one who was an expert at calculating the date of the roaming Easter holiday many years in advance.

Well-Known Genius

Far more certain than Holybush’s origins are his significant contributions to astronomy, mathematics, and, tying in with his notoriety as a computist, the modern calendar.


His best known work, On the Sphere of the World, was published circa 1230. Drawing information from sources including Ptolemy’s Almagest and noted Arabic astronomers Thabit al-Biruni, al-Fargani, ibn Qurra, and al-Urdi, the book gave a readable account of the Ptolemaic universe. The Sphere principally detailed the heavens above, as “sphere” was, at the time, the word for the imaginary backdrop on which the stars in the sky appear, rather than a term describing the earth itself. (It does include a detailed description of Earth as an actual sphere, however.) The book was so well-received and influential that it became required reading for students in all Western European universities for more than 400 years.

Despite that distinction, Sacrobosco’s biggest claim to fame may be his reworking of the Julian calendar. In 1235, Holybush published On Reckoning the Years. In it, he explained the calculations that led him to discover that the Julian calendar had accumulated an error of over ten days. While he had no suggestions for how to rectify the error, he did suggest a new calendar that would eliminate such inaccuracies going forward, a model that very closely resembles the Gregorian calendar (the one we use today)—300 years before its development.

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Important People, Important Discoveries

The History Behind Newton’s Laws of Motion

The first law of motion is: Do not talk about fight club. Wait. That’s not right…

The Laws of Motion are physical laws that form the basis of classical mechanics. They describe the relationship between a body (any “thing,” essentially), the forces acting upon said body, and the motion of the body caused by those forces. Though the Laws of Motion were first compiled by and credited to Isaac Newton, he didn’t just make them up off the top of his head. Each has its own historical context.

First Law (a.k.a. The Law of Inertia)

“Every object persists in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to changes its state by force impressed.”

Aristotle, ancient Greek philosopher extraordinaire, believed that a body was in its natural state when at rest, and that all objects have a natural place in the universe. Rocks wanted to be at rest on the earth; smoke wanted to be at rest in the sky. For a body to move in a straight line at a constant, he believed, it required an external agent to constantly propel it, or it would stop moving and settle back into its “natural” state.

Galileo refined this notion, realizing that an external force is necessary to change the velocity of a body, but not to maintain that velocity. Without another force working against it, he determined, a moving object will keep moving. Inertia, the tendency of objects to resist changes in motion, was “discovered” by Galileo.

Newton further refined this notion into the Law of Inertia. With no force, there will be no acceleration, and the body in question will maintain its velocity.

Sir Fig has remained at rest for 169 years and counting.

Sir Fig has remained at rest for 169 years and counting.

Second Law

“The change of momentum of a body is proportional to the impulse impressed on the body, and happens along a straight line on which that impulse is impressed.”

Newton further extrapolated, commenting:

If a force generates a motion, a double force will generate double the motion, a triple force triple the motion, whether that force be impressed altogether and at once, or gradually and successively. […] This motion (being always directed the same way with the generating force), if the body moved before, is added to or subtracted from the former motion, according as they directly conspire with or are directly contrary to each other; or obliquely joined, when they are oblique, so as to produce a new motion compounded from the determination of both.

A handy formula for this Law of Motion is F=p’. That’s really all you need to know.







Just kidding. In this formula, F is force, p is momentum, and p’ is the time derivative. Interestingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly (Newton was a genius, after all), this equation remains valid in the context of special relativity, a the physical theory regarding the relationship between space and time proposed by Albert Einstein in 1905.

Third Law

“To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction: or the mutual actions of two bodies upon each other are always each, and directed to contrary parts.”

By way of further explanation, Newton wrote:

Whatever draws or presses another is as much drawn or pressed by that other. […] If a horse draws a stone tied to a rope, the horse (if I may so say) will be equally drawn back towards the stone: for the distended rope, by the same endeavor to […] unbend itself, will draw the horse as much towards the stone, as it does the stone towards the horse, and will obstruct the progress of the one as much as it advances that of the other. If a body impinges upon another, and by its force changes the motion* of the other, that body also (because of the equality of the mutual pressure) will undergo an equal change, in its own motion, toward the contrary part. The changes made by these actions are equal, not in the velocities but in the motions of the bodies […] if the bodies are not hindered by any other impediments. For, as the motions are equally changed, the changes of the velocities made toward contrary parts are reciprocally proportional to the bodies. This law takes place also in attractions.

* Motion, here, means momentum.

From this Law of Motion, Newton later derived the law of conservation of momentum. The conservation of momentum has since been found to be a more fundamental concept that holds in cases where the Third Law apparently fails, particularly in quantum mechanics.

Photo credit: Tim Green aka atoach / Foter / CC BY

Important People, Important Discoveries, Technology, World-Changing Inventions

Danger! High Alessandro Volta-ge!

Chances are good that you’ve got a battery in your pocket right now (or your purse, if you’re a lady). You know, the one that powers your phone. Really, we couldn’t get much done in the course of the day without batteries: your car needs one, your laptop, your TV remote. The sheer volume of battery-operated devices we encounter in the average day is staggering. So, whom can we thank for this portable power technology? Who invented the battery as we know it?

The Mars Italian Volta

Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (try saying that five times fast) was born on 15 February 1745, in the small town of Como in northern Italy. At the ripe old age of 29, he became a professor of physics at the Royal School in Como. At 30, he developed an improved version of the electrophorus, a static electricity-generating device that was a precursor to the battery.

He was a pioneer in the study of electrical capacitance, developed methods of studying both electrical charge and potential, and eventually discovered what would become known as Volta’s Law of Capacitance (from whence the term “volt” is derived). In Seventeen-Hundred and Seventy-Nine, he was named professor of experimental physics at the University of Pavia.

Inventing the First Modern Battery

In the 1780s, Volta’s countryman Luigi Galvani discovered what he called “animal electricity.” Galvani proposed that when two different metals were connected in series with a frog’s leg (as he used in his experiments) and to each other, electric current was generated; he suggested that the frog leg was the source of the electricity.

After conducting his own research on the matter, Volta discovered that the current was a result of the contact between dissimilar metals, and that the frog leg served as a conductor and detector rather than the source of the charge. In 1794, Volta demonstrated that when two different metals and a piece of brine-soaked cloth or paper were arranged in a circuit, an electrical current was produced.

Holy smokes, an actual voltaic pile. Whaddaya know?!

Holy smokes, an actual voltaic pile. Whaddaya know?!

From there, Volta developed what came to be known as the voltaic pile, an early form of electric battery not too terribly different from those we use today. In his early experiments, Volta created cells from a series of wine goblets filled with brine and with the metal electrodes placed inside.

Later, Volta stacked multiple pairs of alternating copper and zinc discs, separated by sheets of cardboard soaked in brine. Upon connecting the top and bottom contacts with a wire, an electrical current flowed through both the discs and the wire. This, then, was the first electrical battery to produce its own electricity.

Photo credit: GuidoB / Foter / CC BY-SA