Important People, Important Discoveries, World-Changing Inventions

Big John Gutenberg & the Printing Press

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (1398-1468) was a man of many talents. Known as a blacksmith, a goldsmith, a printer, an engraver, a publisher, and an inventor in his native Germany, his greatest contribution to the world was the mechanical, moving-type printing press. Introduced to Renaissance Europe in the mid-1400s, his printing press ushered in the era of mass communication and permanently altered the structure of society.

Full-Court Press

Johannes Gutenberg began working on this printing press in approximately 1436, in partnership with Andreas Dritzehn and Andreas Heilmann, a gem cutter and a paper mill owner, respectively.

Gutenberg’s experience as a goldsmith served him well, as his knowledge of metals alloyed him to create a new alloy of tin, lead, and antimony that proved crucial to producing durable, high-quality printed books. His special alloy proved far better suited to printing than all other materials available at the time.

He also developed a unique method of quickly and accurately molding new type blocks from a uniform template. Using this process, Gutenberg produced over 290 separate letter boxes (a letter box being a single letter or symbol), including myriad special characters, punctuation marks, and the like.

Gutenberg’s printing press itself consisted of a screw press that was mechanically modified to produce over 3,500 printed pages per day. The press could print with equal quality and speed on both paper and vellum. Printing was done with a special oil-based ink Gutenberg developed himself, which proved more durable than previous water-based inks. The vast majority of printed materials from Gutenberg’s press were in simple black, though a few examples of colored printing do exist.

A copy of the Gutenberg Bible in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California

One of the surviving Gutenberg Bibles, Huntington Library, San Marino, California

Changing the World

The moveable-type printing press is considered the most important invention of the second millennium CE, as well as the defining moment of the Renaissance period. It sparked the so-called “Printing Revolution,” enabling the mass production of printed books.

By the 16th Century, printing presses based on Gutenberg’s invention could be found in over 200 cities spanning 12 European countries. More than 200 million books had been printed by that time. The 48 surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the first and most famous book Gutenberg himself ever printed, are considered the most valuable books in the world.

Literacy, learning, and education throughout Europe rose dramatically, fueled by the now relatively free flow of information. This information included revolutionary ideas that reached the peasants and middle class, and threatened the power monopoly of the ruling class. The Print Revolution gave rise to what would become the news media, and was the key component in the gradual democratization of knowledge.

Photo credit: armadillo444 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Important People, Important Discoveries, Science

The Periodic Table of Dmitri Mendeleev

If you’re here, reading a blog about science and technology, I’m going to assume you already know what the periodic table of elements is, and therefore dispense with the introductory information. However, though you may know the table well, do you know where it came from? Read on, friend, read on…

From Russia with Science

Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev (1834-1907) was a Russian inventor and chemist. In the 1850s, he postulated that there was a logical order to the order of the elements. As of 1863, there were 56 known elements, with new ones being discovered at a rate of roughly one per year. By that time, Mendeleev had already been working to collect and organize data on the elements for seven years.

Mendeleev discovered that arranging the known chemical elements in order by atomic weight, from lowest to highest, a recurring pattern developed. This pattern showed the similarity in properties between groups of elements. Building off this discovery, Mendeleev created his own version of the periodic table that included the 66 elements that were then known. He published the first iteration of his periodic table in Principles of Chemistry, a two-volume textbook that would be the definitive work on the subject for decades, in 1869.

Mendeleev’s periodic table is essentially the same one we use today, organizing the elements in ascending order by atomic weight and grouping those with similar properties together.

Dmitri Mendeleev

Changing & Predicting the Elements

The classification method Mendeleev formulated came to be known as “Mendeleev’s Law.” So sure of its validity and effectiveness was he that used it to propose changes to the previously-accepted values for atomic weight of a number of elements. These changes were later found to be accurate.

In the updated, 1871 version of his periodic table, he predicted the placement on the table of eight then-unknown elements and described a number of their properties. His predictions proved to be highly accurate, as several elements that were later discovered almost perfectly matched his proposed elements. Though they were renamed (his “ekaboron” became scandium, for example), they fit into Mendeleev’s table in the exact locations he had suggested.

From Skepticism to Wide Acclaim

Despite its accuracy and the scientific logic behind it, Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements was not immediately embraced by chemists. It was not until the discovery of several of his predicted elements—most notably gallium (in 1875), scandium (1879), and germanium (1886)—that it gained wide acceptance.

The genius and accuracy of his predictions brought Mendeleev fame within the scientific community. His periodic table was soon accepted as the standard, surpassing those developed by other chemists of the day. Mendeleev’s discoveries became the bedrock of a large part of modern chemical theory.

By the time of his death, Mendeleev had received a number awards and distinctions from scientific communities around the world, and was internationally recognized for his contributions to chemistry.

Photo credit: CalamityJon / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Important People, Important Discoveries, Technology

A Brief Overview of Non-Led Zeppelins

Named after Ferdinand von Zeppelin, a German count who pioneered rigid airship development, a zeppelin is type of dirigible that features a fabric-covered metal grid of transverse rings and longitudinal girders, which contains numerous separate gasbags. This design allowed the aircrafts to be much larger than blimps or other non-rigid airships, which require overpressure within a single envelope to maintain their shape.

Zeppelin I

Count von Zeppelin, he of history’s greatest moniker, first developed designs for the airship that would bear his name in 1874. These designs were finalized in 1893, and patented in Germany two years later; a US patent was issued in 1899.

The frameworks of Zeppelin’s zeppelins were usually made of duralumin, an early aluminum alloy. Rubberized cotton was initially used for the inflatable gasbags, with later craft using a material made from cattle intestines called goldbeater’s skin.

Because of their size, most zeppelins required several engines, which were usually attached to the outside of the structural framework. Usually, at least one of these engines would provide reverse thrust to aid in maneuvering while landing and mooring.

Zeppelin II

The first commercial zeppelin flight took place in 1910. Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-AG (DELAG), founded by Count von Zeppelin himself, ran the world’s leading commercial zeppelin service, and by 1914 had carried over 10,000 passengers on more than 1,500 flights. The runaway success of zeppelin flight led to the “zeppelin” becoming a general term for rigid airships of any design.

The publicly-financed Graf Zeppelin, one of the largest commercial airships ever built.

The publicly-financed Graf Zeppelin, one of the largest commercial airships ever built.

Passengers, crew, and cargo were carried in compartments built into the bottom of the zeppelin’s frame. These compartments were quite small relative to the size of the inflatable portion of the ship. Some later designs included an internal compartment, inside the framework, for passengers and cargo.

Zeppelin III

In early 1912, the German Navy commissioned its first zeppelin, an oversized version of DELAG’s standard zeppelins. It was designated Z1 and entered service in October 1912. A few months later, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the German Imperial Navy’s Secretary of State, instituted a five-year program to enlarge German’s naval airship fleet. DELAG provided a fleet of ten zeppelins, while the German military would construct two airship bases.

During a training exercise, L1, one of the military’s commissioned zeppelins, crashed into the sea due to a storm. The 14 crew members who perished were the first fatalities of zeppelin flight. Six weeks later, L2 caught fire during flight trials, killing the entire crew, including the acting head of the Admiralty Air Department.

It was not until May 1914 that L3, the next German Navy zeppelin, entered service. It was the first M-class airship—measuring nearly 520 feet in length and with a volume of nearly 795,000 cubic feet, these zeppelins could carry a payload of over 20,000 pounds. Three 630-horsepower engines provided top speeds of 52 miles per hour.

Zeppelin IV (Zoso)

In World War I, Germany used zeppelins as bombers and scout craft. Bombing raids over Britain killed over 500 people. Following Germany’s defeat, terms of the Treaty of Versailles put a significant damper on airship use, including for commercial purposes. Existing zeppelins had to be surrendered, and new production was prohibited, with the exception of one airship commissioned by the US Navy. To the victor go the spoils, indeed.

The Treaty’s restrictions on airship production were lifted in 1926, reviving DELAG’s business. Throughout the 1930s, zeppelins made regular transatlantic flights between Germany and North America. However, the Hindenburg disaster of 1937 essentially ended the zeppelin’s run as a commercial aircraft.

Led Zeppelin rules.

Photo credit: San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives / Foter / No known copyright restrictions

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

The Watt Steam Engine

Developed between 1763 and 1775, the Watt steam engine was an extension and improvement of the Newcomen engine. The Watt was the first steam engine to drive its piston via pressurized steam and a partial vacuum. James Watt’s design is considered a key step in the evolution of modern mechanical engines.

Improving the Newcomen Engine

Developed by Thomas Newcomen, the Newcomen engine was far superior to previous incarnations of the steam engine, offering significant improvements in efficiency. Older steam engine models consistently lost steam, and therefore power, at the end of each stroke.

The Newcomen engine’s “atmospheric” design used a cylinder with a movable piston connected by a chain to one end of a pivoting beam, which operated a mechanical pump at the opposite end. Steam entered the cylinder below the piston with each stroke, followed by water, which condensed the steam. As the upper end of the steam cylinder was open, this created a partial vacuum that drew the piston down and raised the far end of the beam.

After being tasked with repairing a Newcomen engine at the University of Glasgow in Scotland in 1763, Watt noticed its inefficiencies and saw room for improvement. Based on his observations, Watt made several changes to the Newcomen engine’s design.

A separate condenser outside of the steam cylinder itself condensed the steam without the need for water spray, which cooled the piston and cylinder walls, reducing efficiency. The two chambers were connected, allowing for condensation and power transfer without loss of heat—the condenser remained cool, while the steam cylinder stayed hot.

Watt sealed the top of the steam cylinder and devised a method of injecting low-pressure steam into the area above the piston. This boosted the vacuum and increased the power of the down stroke, which in turn improved the speed and efficiency of the engine.

Finally, adjusting the design to produce rotary motion, instead of the previous oscillating movement of the Newcomen, proved more useful for industrial applications.

A preserved/restored Watt steam engine.

A preserved/restored Watt steam engine.

The Boulton Partnership

Though his design was completed and he had built a functioning model (ca. 1774), Watt was unconvinced that a marketable version of his engine could be developed. Watt entering into a partnership with Matthew Boulton, a Birmingham entrepreneur. Boulton funded the development of a full-scale test engine, giving Watt access to the facilities, capital, and craftsmen needed to bring his vision to life.

Boulton and Watt went into business selling and installing the steam engines in mines, ironworks, and other industrial locations. The bulk of their profit, however, came from a licensing fee charged to all owners of the steam engines, based on the fuel savings they generated—a  Watt engine used only about one-quarter the fuel that a similarly-sized Newcomen engine would. Despite the licensing fees, this exceptional fuel efficiency made the Watt steam engine the far more attractive option for most businessmen.

Further Improvements

The first Watt steam engines used hammer iron cylinders, which were out of round and caused leakage in the piston. By 1776, an inventor named John Wilkinson had developed a boring machine that was able to produce cylinders up to 50 inches in diameter with perfect precision. The introduction of bored cylinders further improved the Watt engine’s performance.

With a special arrangement of valves, steam could be admitted to either end of the engine. This allowed the direction of the power stroke to be reversed, creating the world’s first double-acting steam engine. This development also improved the engine’s efficiency and speed, and produced a more regular, stable motion.

Using a unique four-bar linkage, coupled with a pantograph—a development Watt dubbed “parallel motion”—the chain that once connected the piston rod and the engine’s moving beam was replaced. This allowed the piston to both push and pull with equal force.

This, in turn, made it possible for the motion of the beam to turn a wheel. Watt’s first rotary motion solution connected the beam to a wheel by a crank—however, the use of the crank was patented, so another method had to be developed. Using an epicyclic sun and planet gear system, Watt created a unique solution. (Later, after the patent on the crank expired, Watt reverted to this more-effective method.)

To ensure that the turning wheel operated at a consistent speed, a steam regulator valve was attached to a centrifugal governor. Watt based this design on the automatic speed controls used on windmills of his day.


With these improvements, Watt’s steam engine became an effective and reliable replacement for the water wheels and (literal) horsepower that had, until that point, powered British industry. Because it significantly improve efficiency and removed the need for a source of flowing water, the Watt steam engine allowed for vast expansion of industry throughout the country and drove the Industrial Revolution to new heights.


Photo credit: Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Important People, Important Discoveries, The Science of Film, Music & Art

Louis Le Prince: Forgotten Father of the Motion Picture

Origins of Le Prince

Born 28 August 1841 in Metz, France, Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince is the long-forgotten father of the motion picture. With single-lens cameras of his own invention, Le Prince was the first person to shoot moving pictures on paper film.

His first two moving picture sequences, Roundhay Garden Scene and Leeds Bridge, were filmed in October 1888 in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. Le Prince exhibited his films at the Whitley Foundry in Hunslet, Leeds, but they were not shown or distributed to the general public.

Though these brief films predate the work of competing inventors, including Thomas Edison, by several years, Le Prince’s place in the history of cinema is largely forgotten. Also in 1888, Le Prince was granted an American dual-patent for his 16-lens device that operated as both a motion picture camera and a projector; a patent for his single-lens camera (known only as the MkI) was refused in the United States due to an interfering patent. Of consequence to Le Prince’s story, Edison’s application for the same patent was not refused when he applied for it just a few years later.

In late 1890, Le Prince was planning a public demonstration of his films in the United States. However, on 16 September of that year, boarded a train from Dijon, France, to Paris. When the train arrived, his friends and family discovered that Le Prince was not on board. His body and luggage were never found, and his mysterious disappearance remains unsolved to this day.

Patent War Assassination Theory

Several theories on Le Prince’s disappearance exist. Perhaps the most commonly agreed-upon of these is that he was assassinated by an unknown person on persons, on orders from Edison. At the time of his disappearance, he was engaged in a “patent war” with Edison regarding the invention of the moving picture camera. Le Prince’s widow and oldest son Adolphe suspected foul play, though no concrete evidence has yet been discovered.

Shortly after Le Prince vanished, Edison tried to take credit for the invention. In 1898, Adolphe Le Prince appeared in a court case brought against Edison by the American Mutoscope Company. Adolphe, who had assisted his father in many of his experiments as the MkI and subsequent MkII cameras were being developed, appeared as a witness for the defense—American Mutoscope hoped to discredit Edison’s claim to be the first and sole inventor the moving picture camera, which would then have entitle him to royalties for the use of the process.

Though Adolphe was not allowed to present his father’s cameras as evidence, and so re-establish Louis Le Prince’s prior claim as the inventor, it was hoped that citing the elder Le Prince’s achievements would gain him the posthumous recognition he deserved.

Ultimately, the court found in favor of Edison. A year later, the ruling was overturned. Two years later, Adolphe Le Prince was found dead while duck shooting on Fire Island near New York.

Louis Le Prince was officially declared dead in 1897. In 2003, during research in Paris police archives, an 1890 photograph of a drowning victim resembling Le Prince was discovered.