Biology is Science, Too


Surely, you know what bananas are. (And don’t call me Shirley.) But did you know that, botanically, bananas are a berry? It’s true! There’s a lot you might not know about mankind’s history with the banana. To wit…

The Whole World is Goin’…

The banana was first domesticated for harvest in Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea, beginning as far back as at least 5000 BCE, possibly even 8000 BCE. As Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea are now bananas’ primary and secondary regions of diversity, respectively, which points to this long history of banana cultivation.

Archaeological evidence from Cameroon, dating to the first millennium BCE, suggests that bananas were known and harvested in Madagascar around that time, indicating a significant spread in banana cultivation.

It is also believed that bananas could be found in certain isolated locations throughout the Middle East and were dispersed throughout the known world with the spread of Islam beginning in the early 7th century CE. Numerous references to bananas can be found in Islamic texts dated to the 9th century; by the 10th century, bananagrams began to appear in writings from Palestine, Egypt, and elsewhere.

By the Late Medieval Times, bananas were being cultivated in the Kingdom of Cyprus, notably a Christian kingdom, on what is now the Republic of Cyprus off the coast of Greece. Extensive banana farms were described in the writings of Italian traveler Gabriele “Big Gabby” Capodilista in 1458.

‘Merica Goes…

Portuguese sailors brought bananas to the American continents from West Africa in the 1500s. By the end of the 16th century, the Atlantic islands and Brazil were lousy with Portuguese banana plantations. The first known banana plantations were established in Jamaica, followed closely by nearby Central American regions. The development of reliable refrigeration for shipping helped the market for bananas grow, as the fruit could be transported across the world via networks of steamships and railroads.

Bananas made their way to early America by the end of the Civil War, but did not become popular there until the 1880s when supply had increased enough to bring prices down.

Bananas remained relatively unknown in Europe throughout the Victorian Era. Most readers in England and across the continent were introduced to bananas by Jules Verne’s descriptions in Around the World in Eighty Days in 1880.

Photo credit: =ChevalieR= via / CC BY

Historical Science & Technology, Technology

Tools, Not Cocktails: A Brief History of the Screwdriver

Everybody knows the good ol’ screwdriver. It’s one of the most useful tools in any toolbox, and almost everyone, no matter how mechanically inclined or not, has at least one somewhere in the house. The screwdriver is one of those devices that is so simple, and has been around so long, that it seems like it’s always been a thing—not really invented so much as it has just existed since the dawn of civilization. Where, then, did the noble screwdriver come from?

Screwin’ Around Medieval-Style

The first historical evidence of humans using screwdrivers comes from Medieval Europe, toward the tail end of the 15th century CE. The long shared border between Germany and France makes it difficult to say for sure in which of the two countries the tool was invented. The earliest written evidence is found in the Hausbuch (“housebook”) of Wolfegg Castle, a manuscript written betwixt 1475 and 1490. In Germany, the tool was known as the Schraubendrehe (“screwturner”); in France, tournevis (“turnscrew”); English speakers, naturally, ignored these two perfectly reasonable (and more aurally pleasing) translations and went with screwdriver, for some reason.

These old-timiest of old-timey screwdrivers had pear-shaped wooden handles and were, perhaps unsurprisingly, made to fit slotted screws—what are now often called flathead screws, which were the only type of screws in existence at the time. However, very little actual evidence of screwdrivers themselves from this period exists; we only know that screwdrivers were used for the next three centuries because screws from throughout this period have been found.

Advancements in Screwdriving

One key early use of screwdrivers was in the assembly of firearms, which had only recently become a thing. In early guns, a jaw mechanism was used to hold the pyrites that ignited when struck to fire a bullet. These jaws needed to be replaced frequently, and were held in place by screws. This lead to a number of refinements in screwdriver design, though all screws remained single-slotted until the late 19th century.

It was not until the Industrial Revolution when Job “Big Job” Wyatt and his brother William “Big Willie Style” Wyatt developed a way to quickly, easily, and inexpensively produce screws that the fasteners, and therefore screwdrivers, came into popular, widespread use. With this increase in popularity came considerable refinement and diversification.

Big Pete vs. Big Hank

P.L. “Big Pete” Robertson, a Canadian inventor, developed the first commercially successful socket-head screws and, by necessity, screwdrivers, in 1908. Socket-head screws remain popular today, though they would likely be even more popular had Robertson been able to successfully market them to the then-nascent (and rapidly growing) automotive industry.

Instead, automakers struck a deal with the American Screw Company (who had themselves recently struck a deal with Henry F. “Big Hank” Phillips of Portland, Oregon, inventor of the Phillips-head screw, to mass-produce his new and improved screw), and in 1936, the Phillips screw became the standard throughout the American auto industry. Today, the Phillips-head is the most popular screw type in the world.

Photo credit: Noel C. Hankamer via / CC BY-NC-SA

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


Cage the Faraday

A Faraday cage, also known as a Faraday shield, which doesn’t sound nearly as good, is any kind of special enclosure used to block electric fields. Built with conductive materials, often in mesh form, a Faraday cage causes the electric field picked up by that material from outside sources to be distributed such that the field is canceled out inside the cage.

Neither A Franklin Nor A Beccaria Cage

The Faraday cage gets its name from English scientist Michael “Big Mike” Faraday, who observed the phenomenon described above when working with charged conductors in 1836. By way of demonstration, Faraday constructed a metal foil-coated room and hung out inside it with an electroscope (a device that can measure electrical charges) whilst high-voltage discharges from an electrostatic generator blasted the walls of the room. His electroscope showed no electric charge present within the cage’s walls.

Big Mike explaining his namesake cage to the dummies of his day.

In fact, the “Faraday cage effect” was first observed by Benjamin “Big Ben” Franklin nearly a century earlier, in 1755. Franklin used a ball of cork, silk thread, and an electrically-charged metal can to conduct a similar, if smaller-scale, experiment. (Faraday’s experiment was consciously designed as a modified version of Franklin’s.)

Historians have pointed out that the Faraday cage may have been invented even earlier than that, by Italian physicist Giovanni Battista “Big Johnny” Beccaria in 1753. However, as the device is called neither a Franklin nor a Beccaria cage, this writer is still going to give all credit to Faraday.

Faraday Cages Today-ges

Though the name and the explanation may make them seem like quaint, old-timey devices that have fallen out of use as technology has improved, Faraday cages are still used to this day, for a variety of purposes.

Faraday cages are frequently used to guard sensitive electronic equipment against RFI and other interference. Faraday bags—essentially portable Faraday cages made of fine metal mesh and fabric—can be used to shield smartphones and other gizmos against tampering and interference.

Elevators, by the nature of their construction, usually act as Faraday cages automatically. This explains why your cell phone coverage disappears when you step into an elevator. The wire on the inside of the window on your microwave door creates a low-key Faraday cage that protects you from radiation leakage.

In 1997, American physicist Austin “Big Austin” Richards created a wearable metal “Faraday suit” that protects the wearer against discharges from Tesla coils. Richards has “performed” in the suit as Doctor MegaVolt at various festivals throughout the United States.

Certain highly specialized painting processes—rack-spray coating, etc.—require Faraday cages to prevent paint particles from becoming electrostatically charged, which can affect their flow and adhesion rate.

Photo credit: okfn via / CC BY

Historical Science & Technology, Technology

I Can See For Miles, Pt. II: A Brief History of Prism Binoculars

Welcome to part two of the Sandy Mountain Historical & Technological Society’s brief history of binoculars. In the gripping cliffhanger finale of part one, we introduced the prism binocular design, which was developed as a method of righting the inverted images presented by the Keplerian optical design. Today, our tale concludes with a closer look at the technology that changed the long-distance viewing game forever.

Go Go Porro Bro Bro

Porro prism binoculars are the kind of field glasses you most likely picture your grandfather using. (Go ahead and conjure up a quick mental image of that. We’ll wait.) Named for the Italian inventor who developed this particular lens configuration in 1854, Ignazio “Big Iggy” Porro, this type of binoculars uses Porro prisms (also developed by Big Iggy) arranged in a Z-pattern to flip the image the right way ‘round. By necessity, Porro prism binoculars are wide, with widely-spaced objective lenses (the ones you point toward what you’re looking at) that are offset from the ocular lenses (the ones you look through, also called eyepiece lenses).

Likely the greatest photo of Porro prism binoculars ever taken.

Likely the greatest photo of Porro prism binoculars ever taken.

One significant benefit of the Porro prism design is that its folding optical path (created by the Z-configuration of lenses and prisms) allows the binoculars to have a focal length that is longer than the physical length, sometimes significantly longer. The wider space of the objective lenses also gives the presented image a better sense of depth.

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof Prism

Developed in the 1870s by noted great-French-name-haver Achille Victor Emile “Big Vic” Daubresse, roof prism binoculars use either the Abbe-Koenig prisms (invented by German engineers Ernst Karl “Big Ern” Abbe and Albert “Big Al” Koenig, and later patented, Thomas Edison-style, by Carl Zeiss in 1905) or Schmidt-Pechan prisms, a.k.a. Pechan prism pairs to invert the image to its proper orientation. In this configuration, the objective lenses are aligned with the eyepiece lenses.

Military-grade roof prism field glasses.

Military-grade roof prism field glasses.

The roof prism design results in field glasses that are narrower and more compact than their Porro prism cousins. And, whereas Porro prism binoculars occasionally need their prisms realigned, the fixed alignment of roof prism models eliminates the need for realignment, except in extreme circumstances. However, due to the silvered surfaces of their lenses and prisms, roof prism binoculars present images that are generally 12-15 percent darker than equivalent Porro prism binocs. Additionally, due to the tighter tolerances required for proper alignment of the optical elements, roof prism binoculars tend to be more expensive than the Porro prism variety.

Top photo credit: The U.S. National Archives via / No known copyright restrictions
Bottom photo credit: Caro’s Lines via / CC BY-NC-SA