Marvels of Technology…In Your Kitchen

The history of technology we usually teach kids is a flashy one. They hear about atomic bombs, rocket ships, computers. If it’s big, shiny, explodes, is immensely expensive and difficult to create, we teach them about it. Occasionally, we might mention a really important, yet more boring one, like nitrogen fertilizers. But generally? It’s shiny objects all the way down.

Modern nitrogen fertilizers, are, in my book, the most important invention of the 20th century. Forget computers, forget atom bombs: nitrogen fertilizers are what allow us to maintain our global population levels—and they might get a few sentences in your average grade school history book.

When you look at even less-flashy inventions, they get less and less in the way of attention paid to them. In fact, I can almost guarantee that you never think about one of the categories of devices you use most often. Kitchenware.

The Modern Kitchen

The Modern Kitchen

Seriously. Go in your kitchen right now, and pick up…let’s say, a rubber spatula. We’ve had rubber for much, much longer than we’ve had rubber spatulas, so why did we invent them? Well, you probably have a non-stick pan, right? Try scraping it out with a metal spatula, and you’re going to scrape off the non-stick coating. (Which, apparently, is really bad for your health.)

Or take a look at cast iron pans. They’ve got a bit of a reputation for being a little on the tough side to clean, right? Well, they used to be considerably easier to clean, but as they drifted a bit more out of popular use (though never went completely absent), a final step of the production process was dropped. They used to be sand casted, then given a strong polish, but this polishing step was dropped to save on costs, so antique cast iron is actually considerably more non-stick.

Every single pot, pan, knife, item of silverware, or bizarre back-of-the-drawer gizmo in your kitchen has an extensive history all its own. And even a cultural context: five centuries ago, a muffin pan would have been pretty much useless scrap, thanks to the lack of common closed range stoves. These are tools that you use constantly and are personally relevant every day. Atom bombs? They can, really, only be personally relevant once.

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Photo by Todd Ehlers from McGregor, Iowa, a Mississippi River town, U.S. of A. (1937 Kitchen–Not Bad!) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Egg Drop Competition, Reconsidered

The egg drop competition has been a staple of elementary and middle school science classes since long before I was born. You create a container that will allow an egg to survive a drop of several stories, while still being able to put the egg in the container on-site. It’s a good exercise in creative thinking for kids, not to mention the fun factor.

An egg

An egg

You’ve got a few basic strategies: the first—and simplest—is the “giant wad of padding” strategy, which usually works pretty well. The most common version of this is the big box filled with packing peanuts, but I’ve also seen bags made out of pillows and bubble wrap spheres. (Natch: I made all my kids and grandkids think more “outside the box” than this.)

The next most common is the parachute design—usually one of the more reliable ones, assuming your parachute works. Pretty self explanatory…and it’s the design I used myself as a kid. (A little extra padding didn’t hurt, of course.)

There are also a ton of weirder designs out there: flexible chopstick frameworks surrounding a bubble-wrap core, eggs padded in breakfast cereal or popcorn, containers filled with water (although that’s banned in many competitions), the panty hose box (suspend the egg in panty-hose in a box, and the stretchiness of the fabric will keep it from hitting the sides and breaking), and the small padded box covered in springs.

Then, of course, you have my cousin John’s approach. He always was too smart for his own good, so he decided to come up with something a bit more unusual. When he showed up for school that day, it was with a container shaped like a rocket; the thing even had landing struts. It was even weighted so that the container always fell bottom-first. What he didn’t tell anyone, of course, was that the rocket was weighted with an actual radio controlled model rocket engine and had a thin paper coating over it.

When the teacher dropped his off the roof (all us kids standing below), John, who’d been hiding his remote in his pants, pulls it out to activate it. Unfortunately, it didn’t go quite as anticipated and shot off sideways toward the kids. Guess who it hit?

And that’s the story about how I got a broken rib, minor burns, and a face covered in egg. It wouldn’t be the first or the last time that hanging out with my cousin got me injured, either. At least that time I didn’t get in trouble for it.

History’s Arc of Innovation

I always hear people going on and on about how we’re in the greatest age of innovation and technology, with more amazing things being invented now than ever before. I’ll have to beg to differ there, and I can back up my argument, too:

The Library at Alexandria

The Library at Alexandria

  • The oldest folding chairs date back to the 14th century B.C. from Ancient Egypt.
  • The first fishing reel dates all the way to at least 4th century China.
  • Beer predates recorded history, and has even been linked to the rise of civilization.
  • Wine predates recorded history and is possibly almost as old as beer.
  • Reclining armchairs date back to the Napoleonic War.
  • Organized sporting events predate recorded history.
  • The oldest dice ever found are more than 5,000 years old—coincidentally, they were found in the oldest ever backgammon set.
  • Humans bred dogs before recorded history, or even the invention of agriculture.
  • The earliest form of chess originated in the 6th century in India.
  • The Arawak Native Americans invented the barbeque grill long before any Europeans showed up in the Americas.
  • Playing cards were invented in China during the 9th century.
  • The written word is between six and nine thousand years old; the first proto-books popped up not too long after.
  • The housecat was domesticated in Ancient Egypt, though some experts believe that the process started long before that.
  • The oldest known direct ancestors of the guitar are well over 3,000 years old.
  • Baseball caps are more than a century and a half old.
  • People began drinking coffee—in Yemen—in the 1400s.
  • Native Americans, probably the Arawak, invented the hammock in the Caribbean more than a thousand years ago.

So, the next time someone dismisses ancient peoples as primitive: just smile and nod, then kick back in a hammock with a beer and a good book.

Inventing the Hyperloop

The way I figure it, most billionaires are just investors: they’re simply using money to make more money. It’s not real exciting, but if you really want to be rich that bad, I guess it works.

A few billionaires are more interesting to me, though—guys like Bill Gates and Elon Musk, who actually get involved in producing new things.

Elon Musk is especially noteworthy right now. He’s started a private space corporation (SpaceX), co-founded Tesla Motors, and most recently is pushing for the Hyperloop.

The Hyperloop

The Hyperloop

The Hyperloop is a conceptual transportation system that would be able to move passengers at speeds twice, or more, of a passenger aircraft. Essentially, it’s a high speed train in a sealed tunnel with most of the air pumped out, letting it speed unhindered by air resistance, track friction, weather, or any of the difficulties facing other modes of high-speed transportation.

This thing could potentially hit thousands of miles an hour (depending on how low they can keep the pressure in the tube; that’s the big limiting factor). Rather than using maglev (magnetic levitation) or wheels, the train would float on air rails, very similarly to how an air hockey table works, and it would be accelerated by linear induction motors.

This concept isn’t new. The idea of vacuum trains has been around for decades. This is one of the first attempts to really build one, though. While all of the initial design work was done by Musk’s engineers, he then took the unusual step of releasing all of the designs and plans. All of them. He turned it into an open source project.

Most of the current work on the project is by a group of engineers called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. (The old saw about engineers getting to name companies holds true here).

That’s not to say that it doesn’t face plenty of troubles of its own. They’ve still got to figure out how to handle earthquakes, any number of technical issues, and even zoning issues. But I feel confident saying that we’ll get to see this fly one day.

Orion: They Belted Out the Name

NASA's Orion Spacecraft

NASA’s Orion Spacecraft

 

NASA recently had an unmanned test flight of their Orion spacecraft—a new vessel meant to replace the space shuttle, and to take humans beyond low earth orbit for the first time since Apollo 17.

I’ve been following the program with avid interest for years now. I’m a sucker for the space program. Always have been, always will be. Orion is reminiscent of Apollo in many ways, yet now it’s a bigger, beefier Apollo craft. One thing that bugs me about Orion, though, is the name.

See, years ago there was another Orion. Project Orion never actually got a vehicle up into orbit, but that’s probably a good thing, since it was fueled by nukes.

Project Orion

Project Orion

Note that I didn’t say nuclear power, either. I said nukes, as in actual nuclear bombs. Project Orion flew by detonating nuclear weapons right behind it to launch itself forward. It would have worked, too: absurdly well, in fact. It would have made anywhere in the solar system easily accessible, in fact, and may even have opened up the neighboring stars to us.

The real problem, though, was that most of the designs involved launching from the Earth’s surface, which, as it turns out, was a bit of a bad idea. Detonating a big sequence of nukes in the atmosphere? Good way to give everyone in a thousand miles cancer. The program was canceled in ’63 after the Partial Test Ban Treaty.

It’s not to say the new Orion isn’t impressive in its own right: there are plans to use it for prospective Mars missions, or even for potential asteroid explorations. I just think that the government could have chosen a better name for the thing.

I do know this: I plan on being there for the first manned launch.