At the end of the 19th century, the dream of a Hungarian engineer became a network that serving content through the telephone line.

The 19th century saw the birth of the first large-scale communications networks that used technology as a means of improving the transmission of information and human relations. First came the optical telegraph networks, then the electric telegraph reigned, and finally, as the century drew to a close, something wonderful was on the horizon: the wireless telegraphy and the radio broadcasting. Beyond all that, when another invention was spreading over the planet, there were those who dreamed of going further. That invention was the telephone, and the idea was to offer content through the telephone wire, as well as a certain capacity for interaction with it. …

It happens from time to time as I review articles about Nikola Tesla. Many of them include a famous photograph of which, insistently, it is said that among the people portrayed is Nikola Tesla. This is the photograph.

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The image was taken in April 1921 at the RCA radio facility in Brunswick, New Jersey. In the picture, Albert Einstein is shown with several engineers and scientists of the above mentioned communication company and members of other companies, such as General Electric. Let’s enlarge a little the central part of the photograph. …

H. G. Wells is considered the original creator of stories about machines capable of time travel, but what if a writer had devised something similar years earlier?

Here is an excerpt from a review about a very special book, in a chronicle published on Friday 18 February 1887 in the magazine La Dinastía, Barcelona (Spain):

The volume (…) is adorned with illustrations by Gómez Soler and is written by the prolific and acclaimed playwright Don Enrique Gaspar. The book has three parts, a novel, El Anacronópete, descriptive letters of a Journey to China, and a short story, Metempsychosis. Gaspar, only known as a comedy writer, stands out here as a novelist and storyteller of very sharp wit. El Anacronópete is a fantastic relationship in the style of Jules Verne, barely yielding to the author’s scientific erudition and perhaps surpassing him in originality and strangeness. …

It no longer exists but it must have been something impressive to behold. Aix-les-Bains is a town in western France where one of the most unique structures I know of was built. Here is a photograph of the time where we can see the Solarium erected on the ground in all its splendour.

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The image makes clear the peculiarity of the building. It was a sunbathing sanatorium that rotated around a vertical axis, optimally oriented towards our star. What was once the “adjustable heliotherapy station” in Aix-les-Bains has now been reduced to a few remains but deserves a place in any chronicle of amazing technology. This story begins in 1921, when the French naturalised Romanian doctor Jean Saidman defended his doctoral thesis on medical treatments based on the use of ultraviolet radiation, infrared, X-rays and radio waves. A proponent of actinotherapy (medical treatment based on the application of radiation, especially ultraviolet rays), he conceived the ultimate tool for his purposes: the rotating solarium.

More than a century ago, the greatest pandemic in modern history was unfolding. It was in 1918, the year of the end of the First World War and also the year of the famous Spanish flu. Depending on the source, you can read that between 50 and 100 million people died from the disease, or about 5% of the human population that inhabited the planet at that time. It is estimated that at least half a billion people were infected, most of them young and healthy, which is particularly striking.

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Flu patients at Camp Funston, Kansas, USA. 1918. (Image: US Army).

It is already a cliché to mention the term “Spanish flu”, which has nothing to do with the fact that the pandemic could have originated in Spain, which is ruled out. In 1918 the world was already involved in the most terrible war ever seen, what was then called the Great War and which over the years became known as the First World War. In this atmosphere the warring nations maintained a strict censorship of the press and hardly allowed any information to be published about possible diseases on their side, lest they should appear weaker than their enemies. Spain, as a neutral nation, published extensively in its press details of everything that happened in the war and, of course, also of what was happening with the disease, and that is where the term “Spanish flu” comes from. …

With obedient confidence Beethoven applied himself to follow the various prescriptions of the doctors he consulted [without any improvement] (…) Disillusioned, disheartened, he had to put between himself and the world those ear trumpets of different forms that Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome, was building for him. And, finally, in his last twenty years he had to reduce his communication with the living to a few humble notebooks of ruled paper…

Excerpt from an article by A. Furno on Beethoven’s deafness, published in Musicografía, August 1933.

This 2020 is the year in which we remember that 250 years ago, in 1770, one of the greatest geniuses in the history of music was born in the German city of Bonn: Ludwig van Beethoven. The “deaf genius” changed Western music forever and its echoes accompany us everywhere. But it is not his great work that concerns us here, but an aspect of his life that is less well remembered but really curious. The deafness, among other illnesses, which afflicted Beethoven until he lost his hearing completely, has always been a subject of debate. Would he have composed any of his last genius works if he had kept his senses in top form? That misfortune left us with the image of a Beethoven locked up in himself, creating a whole revolutionary universe of sound, unique and amazing, in the midst of the most deafening silence. But in the misfortune, as a desperate attempt to maintain access to the world of sound, the genius of Bonn allied himself with a singular character, an adventurer named Johann Nepomuk Maelzel.

We read with unparalleled interest the news of a new discovery, the importance of which is difficult to calculate. (…) We have had to make an effort to restrain our imagination after reading the news because it is very difficult not to be seduced by the flattering idea that one day the word of man will be copied with the same exactness with which his image is copied and who does not get excited when dreaming of procedures by which ideas, feelings and oratorical outbursts are recorded as soon as they come from the lips that improvise them?

Taken from a chronicle in La Zarzuela, Madrid, 1856, following the news of Léon Scott’s invention of his sound recording machine.

During World War II, James H. Brodie, a captain in the United States Army Air Force, sought to create portable airports that could be quickly installed anywhere (see his patents here). The idea behind the “Brodie Landing System for Light Aircraft” was to catch an aircraft in flight with a hook attached to the aircraft by means of a sling associated with a cable system (similar to what happens on aircraft carriers with braking cables, only “hunting” the aircraft in flight). Here is a video showing one of the tests.

The test plane, a Stinson L-5 Sentinel, is currently housed in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. These aircraft were used throughout World War II for various missions. In this case, to test the Brodie System, several launch and recovery tests were carried out in 1943 with a cable system installed on the side of a ship, without using the ship’s deck in any case. The Brodie idea was successfully put into practice towards the end of the war in the Pacific, for example in Okinawa. …

Engineering for Giants

In recent years there has been talk of resuming projects for the construction of a tunnel under the Strait of Gibraltar, or a dam-bridge. In this latter case, mention is made of the usefulness of such a project for mitigating the effects of global warming in the Mediterranean by controlling the sea level in the strait. Time will tell if any of these projects see the light of day. …

Megan Watts Hughes (1842–1907), generally known as Margaret, was a passionate Welsh singer and inventor, who became one of the first women to present an invention at the Royal Society in London in 1887, when she unveiled her eidophone. It was a device that made possible to visualize the human voice. Before the arrival of sound recorders (the first recordings on wax cylinders were taking their first steps), the study of the human voice and singing was limited to the expertise of the trained ears of the teachers. It was known since the end of the 18th century that sound created geometric patterns in the sand, but it was considered necessary to improve the technique to find the right method with which to visually record a vocalized note. …


Alejandro Polanco Masa

Science Writer, Graphic Designer and Mapmaker.

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