SCIENCE: Apr 05, AU Edition
Sure, Einstein hit it big in 1905. But let’s not forget the really important inventions of a century ago – like the windscreen wiper, says Pat Sheil
The Japanese thumped the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War. Sailors mutinied on the battle-ship Potemkin. Norway gained independence from Sweden, Sun Yat-sen founded his secret society to expel the Manchus, and Sinn Fein was founded in Dublin. Oh, and England flogged the Aussies in the Ashes.
But if you ask a group of scientists what happened in 1905, they’ll all say the same thing: Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity. Now, there’s no denying that this was a significant event. A 26-year-old patent clerk had the temerity to tear classical physics to confetti and throw it out the conceptual window, and while most people say the 20th century started in 1901, and others contend it really began in 1914, most scientists date our brave new world from Einstein’s theoretical detonation of ’05.
On top of that, in 1905 he used Brownian motion to confirm atomic theory, and explained the photo-electric effect (for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921 – he never got a prize for relativity, funnily enough). It was a big year for Albert, though he didn’t really become famous until the effects he predicted in his General Theory of 1915 were confirmed four years later during a total solar eclipse, when the light of a distant star was measurably bent by the sun’s gravity. He was right – relativity actually applied in the real world.
Yet even then, with his peers in awe of his achievement, the rest of the world simply took the scientists’ word for it: this Albert Einstein was one brainy guy. Even today, we have to take this on trust, because relativity and all that it implies is not exactly self-evident as we go about our daily lives.
So counter-intuitive is it that even though most of us can come to grips with the ideas if the basics are properly explained, very few of us are able to explain it to anyone else a week or two later.
Relativity has a short cerebral half-life – an hour is long enough for it to be brain-dumped in most cases. The fact is that humans live in a Newtonian world, where the three laws of motion clearly affect everything from cricket to sex, from driving a car to falling down the stairs. Relativistic insights are momentarily gleaned from
encounters with powerful drugs or inspired physics teachers, not by lifting a beer in the pub or running down an infant with a supermarket trolley.
But in a bizarre coincidence, 1905 saw major breakthroughs in the application of Newtonian physics and old-fashioned 19th century chemistry which set the tone for the new century in ways that are much easier to understand. Ideas, patents and processes that we still use all the time and which changed our everyday world, for good or ill, depending on your point of view.
For instance, 1905 saw the invention of the jukebox, by one John Gabel of Chicago. There had been coin-operated Edison phonographs seen in the preceding decade, but these only played one tune, and were so quiet that they could only be heard by putting a listening tube to your ear. Gabel, who had previously built cigar vending machines, manufactured and marketed the “Automatic Entertainer”, which offered a choice of two dozen different songs played through a massive 102-cm. horn.
In one of those fortuitous coincidences that pepper the history of technology, the rise of the jukebox was given a hefty boost by the invention of thermo-setting plastics, also in 1905. Chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland had just sold his photographic paper process to George Eastman for a million dollars and, by 1905 standards, was cashed up in a very big way. He hit pay dirt again by founding the plastics industry virtually single-handed, and felt that his first breakthrough invention in the field was so significant that it was only fair to name it after himself. Bakelite was born.
Technically, Bakelite is a polymerisation of formaldehyde and phenol. In practical terms, it was the first plastic that didn’t soften when heated, and as well as creating an explosion of consumer electrical goods, kitchenware, telephone housings and a thousand other doo-dads and gizmos, it transformed the recording industry as it was ideal for the pressing of 78 rpm discs.
The world was becoming “new-fangled”. If you tired of the 24 Bakelite 78’s on the Automatic Entertainer, you could catch a
motorised omnibus (the first ones plied the streets in 1905) and make your way to the cinema. Well, you could if you were in Pittsburgh, where the first dedicated nickel cinema, or nickelodeon, was opened by vaudeville promoter Harry Davis. It would be 25 years before the movies and the depression killed off vaudeville for good, but Davis pulled in a lot of nickels without having to pay any flesh-and-blood entertainers, and it didn’t take long before others caught on – within three years there would be 8,000 nickelodeons across the USA.
Given that hi-tech entertainment was on a roll in ’05, it was fortuitous that someone came along with a promotional tool that couldn’t be ignored to keep the show on the road. French chemist and inventor Georges Claude worked out in that year that by pushing electricity through a tube filled with neon gas (which had only been discovered six years earlier), a new form of lighting could be had, and one that could be bent and twisted into letters, shapes, and logos. His invention was to make him a fortune, and to reach its apotheosis in the town of Las Vegas, where it took on ever-more-lurid forms.
It shouldn’t be at all surprising that Las Vegas was founded in, yep, 1905.Music, lighting, entertainment, transport, mass-production – in 1905 the 20th century really started to hit its straps. The first signs of what the century had in store came as cracks began to appear in the Victorian/Edwardian edifice of starch and prudery. And not just in the dark, thrilling back rows of the nickelodeons, though preachers were already warning of the moral turpitude to be found in these places. Even talking about sex almost became respectable with the publication of Sigmund Freud’s Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex.
Einstein had never seen a neon light or ridden in a motorised omnibus when he wrote his seminal paper. He had never used a Bakelite telephone or put a coin in a jukebox. He may have seen a moving picture show or two – he was a patent clerk after all – and knew a thing or two about the latest inventions. Perhaps the absence of such distractions, and the sheer boredom of working in the Swiss bureaucracy played a crucial part in the extrapolations that led to the Special Theory. Then again, being a freakish genius probably didn’t hurt.
Years later, as he was driven home from the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study in the pouring winter rain (Einstein was sufficiently a man of the 19th century to have never learnt to drive a car), his driver would have been thankful for the inspiration of Mary Anderson. Mary spent many a freezing evening in New York streetcars, as the drivers stopped, got out, and letting in a blast of snow or sleet wiped the window so they could see where they were going. She got sick of it, and realised that the answer was not relativistic, but deeply Newtonian. She understood that the solution was quite straightforward, and after knocking out a few sketches, patented the first windscreen wiper.