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Did Louisiana Invent Saturday Night?

Smithsonian Channel
Because Lead Belly sang about enduring human emotions and experiences, new generations of artists continue to cover and seek inspiration from his music. From: LEGEND OF LEAD BELLY

Invent Your Own Hydroponic Garden

Lemelson Center, National Museum of American History
Building your very own hydroponic garden isn't hard, in fact, it's easier than gardening in soil! Watch Steve Madewell demonstrate the simple steps to growing fruits and vegetables in a hydroponic garden made from household supplies.

Did New Orleans Invent the Cocktail?

Smithsonian Magazine
Cocktail historians differ on the birthplace of the word "cocktail," but they cherish America' invention of drinks like the mint julep (Meredith Bragg)

Spark!Lab: Invent Your Own Light Bulb

National Museum of American History
Spark!Lab's Steve Madewell teaches you how to construct your very own light bulb, just like Thomas Edison. From the Lemelson Center's Spark!Lab in the National Museum of American History.

Did Benjamin Franklin Invent Daylight Savings Time?

Smithsonian Magazine

The creation of DST is usually credited to George Vernon Hudson, a New Zealand artist and amateur bug collector who first proposed the idea in an 1895 paper, but 100 years earlier, Benjamin Franklin, inventor of all things useful, pondered a similar question in a letter to the editor of the Journal of Paris:

I looked at my watch, which goes very well, and found that it was but six o’clock; and still thinking it something extraordinary that the sun should rise so early, I looked into the almanac, where I found it to be the hour given for his rising on that day. I looked forward, too, and found he was to rise still earlier every day till towards the end of June; and that at no time in the year he retarded his rising so long as till eight o’clock. Your readers, who with me have never seen any signs of sunshine before noon, and seldom regard the astronomical part of the almanac, will be as much astonished as I was, when they hear of his rising so early; and especially when I assure them, that he gives light as soon as he rises. I am convinced of this. I am certain of my fact. One cannot be more certain of any fact. I saw it with my own eyes. And, having repeated this observation the three following mornings, I found always precisely the same result.

Adjusting to a new system of sleeping and waking, based not on clocks but on the sun itself, Franklin, argued, would be simple:

All the difficulty will be in the first two or three days; after which the reformation will be as natural and easy as the present irregularity; for, ce n’est que le premier pas qui coûte. Oblige a man to rise at four in the morning, and it is more than probable he will go willingly to bed at eight in the evening; and, having had eight hours sleep, he will rise more willingly at four in the morning following.

What’s more, he claimed, the people of France would save hundreds of francs a year on candlesif they slept when it was dark and woke when it was light, artificial illumination would no longer be a necessity.

Franklin was prepared to give his idea to the world for a low, low fee:

I demand neither place, pension, exclusive privilege, nor any other reward whatever. I expect only to have the honour of it.

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Ben Franklin: Patriot, Foodie
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Why Would a Race Car Driver Invent Speeding Cameras?

Smithsonian Magazine
The irony of speeding cameras is that they were invented by a Dutch race car driver, former Monte Carlo Rally winner Maurice Gatsonides. Here's why

Why Would a Race Car Driver Ever Invent Speeding Cameras?

Smithsonian Channel
The irony of speeding cameras is that they were invented by a Dutch race car driver - former Monte Carlo Rally winner Maurice Gatsonides. Here's why. From: MY MILLION DOLLAR INVENTION: The Vision Thing

The $10 Million Race to Invent Star Trek's Tricorder

Smithsonian Magazine
Star Trek's fictional tricorder is far from becoming a reality. But a $10 million prize from the XPRIZE Foundation is hoping to motivate inventors

The $10 Million Race to Invent Star Trek's Tricorder

Smithsonian Channel
Fifty years after the show aired, Star Trek’s fictional tricorder is far from becoming a reality. But a $10 million prize from the XPRIZE Foundation is hoping to motivate inventors to create one quickly. From: BUILDING STAR TREK

Scientists Invent a Pen That Can Detect Cancer in Seconds

Smithsonian Magazine

“Did you get it all?” is a question many cancer patients ask when waking from surgery.

Unfortunately, cancer surgeons rarely know for sure. Surgeons will try to get “clean margins,” removing enough tissue around a tumor to ensure they’ve cut out any microscopic malignancies. But it’s an inexact procedure, and often results in healthy tissue being removed unnecessarily.

Now, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the Baylor College of Medicine have developed a device that could test tissue for cancer right in the operating room, leaving no question whether it should be removed or not.

The device is a pen-sized mass spectrometry device its developers are calling MasSpec Pen. The pen releases a droplet of water onto a tissue’s surface. The droplet attracts biomolecules from the tissue, and is then drawn back into the pen. The pen does a quick molecular analysis to determine whether the particles are cancerous or not. Within a few seconds, the surgeons know if they should remove the tissue.

“[With MasSpec Pen] we’re able to test tissue without taking tissue out,” says James Suliburk, a professor of surgery at Baylor who helped develop the device. “Right now, anything we want to test, we have to cut out. And we don’t want to cut out normal tissue. This allows us to be much more precise.”

The research team, led by UT chemistry professor Livia Schiavinato Eberlin, tested the MasSpec pen on tissues removed from 253 cancer patients. The pen gave a diagnosis in about 10 seconds, with more than 96 percent accuracy. It was also able to detect subtle changes in tissues in the margins between normal and cancerous tissues.

These results compare favorably with the standard technique for testing tissues during surgery. This technique, called a frozen section analysis, involves surgeons cutting out tissues and sending them to the pathology lab, where a pathologist looks at them under the microscope. This can take 30 minutes or more, during which time patients are lying on the operating table under anesthesia. While frozen section analysis is usually accurate, for some types of cancers it can give inconclusive or even false negative results.

The MasSpec Pen works by analyzing metabolites, small molecules produced by all cells. Cancers produce specific metabolites, which can be identified by the pen’s mass spectrometer. When the device is done reading, the words “cancer” or “normal” appear on a computer screen. For some types of cancers, the device will also tell surgeons the specific subtype.

The research was published this month in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

So far MasSpec Pen has only been tested on tissues in the laboratory. The team will begin human trials in 2018.

“We still haven’t proved that it’s going to work inside the operating room,” Suliburk says.

Getting a new device into the sterile field of the operating room is a logistic challenge: where does it go relative to other pieces of equipment? Where do you put the power source? How can it be cleaned to ensure it doesn’t introduce germs? And then, of course, there’s the bigger question: will it work the same way in live patients as it does with tissue in a lab?

With all the testing to be done, even with optimal results, it will still be at least several more years before MasSpec Pen could be ready for use in a real operating room. The researchers and UT Austin have applied for patents for the technology.

But if it proves successful in trials, it could be a “game-changer,” Suliburk says.  

“We’re changing up something that has been done the same way in surgery for half a century,” he says. “I think probably Harvey Cushing’s invention of the electrocautery almost 100 years ago is the last thing that was as revolutionary as this could be.”

Invention for Improvement in Dulcimers

National Museum of American History
Durand's improvement in "Dulcimers" was his only patent. He owned a dulcimer shop in Connecticut and offered instructional literature in the use of the instrument.

Pocket Notebook of Inventions

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

The Vacuum Cleaner Was Harder to Invent Than You Might Think

Smithsonian Magazine

Hubert Cecil Booth was born to suck.

On this day in 1901, the inventor patented the vacuum in the U.K.–or an early version of it, at least. His machine, known as the “Puffing Billy,” was the size of a coach and had to be pulled by a horse from place to place–a far cry from the home Hoovers that would be on the market less than a decade later, but a significant improvement on everything that had come before.

Floor coverings like rugs have probably been around for about as long as there have been floors. Before vacuums, the standard technique for cleaning a rug was to hang it up outside and beat the dust and grime out of it with a paddle (known as a carpet beater). Carpet sweepers, which sucked up debris by mechanical means and weren’t motorized, came around in the 1860s, writes Curt Wohleber for Invention & Technology. But the technology to make an electric vacuum work took a little longer to come about.

In 1899, a St. Louis man named John S. Thurman patented the first (and only) “pneumatic carpet-renovator” that was powered by a motor rather than a human.  Although he’s sometimes credited with the invention of the vacuum, writes Wohleber, his machine really did the opposite: It “dislodged dust from carpets by blasting them with jets of compressed air. The dust was blown into a receptacle rather than being sucked in, as in the machine we know.”

Booth perceived the problems with this design the minute he saw it, writes Wohleber, when Thurman was in England demonstrating his invention. “I asked the inventor why he did not suck out the dust for he seemed to be going round three sides of a house to get across the front,” Booth recalled. Then, “the inventor became heated, remarked that sucking out dust was impossible and that it had been tried over and over again without success; then he walked away.”

Thurman was right: Producing suction was a mechanical challenge. But Booth managed it, and his machines "became the talk of the town,"writes the BBC. “He was called upon to perform a number of unusual jobs–like cleaning the girders of Crystal Palace, which were suffering from accumulated dust.” He used 15 of his machines to remove literal tons of dust from the building.

When a customer’s home or business needed cleaning, a Puffing Billy was parked outside and a team of workers lugged hoses in through the doors and windows,” Wohleger writes. Although this had obvious commercial applications, it probably didn’t make the life of the average householder any simpler.

“While Booth’s invention worked well, it wasn’t compact nor meant for personal home use,” writes Matt Blitz for Today I Found Out. “But through the early 1900s, patents across the world were submitted to try to capitalize on this new innovation.”

The one who succeeded had a more personal stake in the vacuum. James Murray Spangler worked as a department store janitor who invented on the side. He had asthma, writes Blitz, which didn’t exactly interact well with his job of cleaning a dusty department store. He writes:

To solve this issue, Spangler made his own vacuum cleaner from a tin soapbox, a sateen pillowcase (as a dust collector), and a broom handle. Inside of the box, he had an electric motor he pulled from a sewing machine which powered a fan and a rotating brush. The crudely-made machine collected dirt and blew it out the back, where it was caught by an attached dust bag (the pillowcase).

He called it the “suction sweeper.” Thankfully, his cousin Susan Hoover (yes, that Hoover) also thought it was a good idea and told her husband, industrialist William Hoover. They're still making vacuums with the Hoover name today. 

Edison Invents

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Online exhibit about Thomas Alva Edison's creative genius. He gave us electric lights in our home; a system to produce and deliver electric power; was the first to record sound and started the recording industry; and he developed the first movie camera and produced the first movies. The exhibit includes a biography of Edison, instructions on how to make a light bulb, an interactive game and a list of recommended resources.

Invented Worlds

Smithsonian Magazine

Great inventions, by Charles Greeley Abbot ..

Smithsonian Libraries
"Primitive inventions ... have already been covered in volume 7 of this series ... My purpose was rather to select and explain the operation in their simpler forms of a few inventions, conceived mainly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries." - Pref.

Errata slip mounted on p. 228.

A Mission To Invent a Bottle That Takes the Salt Out of Saltwater

Smithsonian Magazine

The planet has a water problem.

Despite all the videos you may have seen of raging rivers and double-digit downpours, the greater peril lies with too little, rather than too much water. It’s one of Earth’s great paradoxes—a place that has 70 percent of its surface covered with liquid facing the threat of a massive drought. By 2030, according to the United Nations, almost half the world’s population could be dealing with water scarcity.

The solution, it might seem, would be to dramatically ramp up desalination, the ages-old process of making seawater potable by removing salt from it. The methodology has come a long way since Greek sailors boiled water and collected the distilled drinkable droplets. Today, according to the International Desalination Association, there are close to 18,500 desalination plants around the world.  

The technology has had a profound impact in some places. In Israel, for instance, more than half of the country’s water supply now comes from desalination plants, including the $500 million, state-of-the-art Sorek facility south of Tel Aviv. And, last month the first farm in the world to run on solar power and desalinated water, went into operation in Australia.

But desalination plants require a lot of energy, which means that those powered by fossil fuels can be responsible for a high level of greenhouse gases. Their waste product—the brine removed from seawater—can harm marine life. And they can be very expensive. The largest desalination plant in the U.S. opened last year about 30 miles north of San Diego. It cost about $1 billion to build. 

A different approach

Shane Ardo concedes that it wasn’t all that long ago that he didn’t know a whole lot about the world of desalination. But Ardo and his small team of researchers at the University of California, Irvine may have found an alternative to big, pricey plants, which aren’t really an option in many places where the need for fresh water is greatest, such as Sub-Saharan Africa. 

They’re exploring whether it’s possible to produce containers from substances that could, using only sunlight, remove the salt from seawater.  “Imagine if you could dip a plastic bottle in the ocean and have that container take the salt out of the water in front of your eyes,” explains Ardo.

Such a magic bottle is still very much a hypothetical, but based on his research, Ardo believes that membranes can be created that will be able to absorb light and then use those solar photons to cause salt ions to move out of the water.

“Our entire society runs on moving electrons,” he says. “We move electrons in wires to run lots of things. We also know how to take solar energy and convert it to energized electrons and use them to run things. But to drive processes like desalination, you don’t really need electrons—you just need to move the ions and take them out of the water.

“There’s been a lot of excitement about what we’re doing,” Ardo adds. “No one’s taken a synthetic plastic material to drive this type of process, this ionic power generation. When I dreamed it up, on paper it looked reasonable.”

Looking for answers

Lab work over the past few years provided more support for his theory, and last week Ardo’s research received a big boost when he was named a “Moore Inventor Fellow” by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and awarded an $825,000 grant to move the project forward.

Ardo knows that being able to develop a container that desalinates saltwater on its own is hardly a sure thing. But he says he’s determined to keep testing the concept.

"There have been people who have asked a lot of questions about this and I love that," he says. "I want them to push me hard. If I don't have the answer, well that's something I need to research. And if something is going to break our idea, I want to know. I don't want to spend time on something that has a fundamental reason why it's wrong. But I do think we’ve got something here.”

Ardo believes that by enabling desalination to occur in a relatively small container, perhaps even one a person can carry, you could dramatically reduce the cost and environmental impact of seawater conversion, and also create a viable way to provide freshwater where developable land and money are limited.

He admits that it’s hard to predict when a product like this could actually exist. One of the next steps is for him and his team to start making their own polymers from scratch “now that we have a good idea of what needs to be done.” He says they need to make dye molecules that can absorb more light.

“I don’t know exactly what the application looks like,” Ardo notes. “I have a general feel. But the trajectory is really exciting and promising.  What I like is that it allows us to look at this conversion in a new way. Maybe with my group, no matter how much we learn, we won’t figure it out. Maybe some neurobiologist will.

“But I think we can do a lot. I think this could be a big deal.”

Mystery Invention

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Downloadable PDF activity sheet about the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell. Includes word and number games.

Invention for Improvement in Processes of Coloring Photographs

National Museum of American History
Patent consists of a method of preparing photographs for coloring: first immersing the photo in a "clearing solution of rosin and parrafine, each previously dissolved in turpentine, and then applying to the face a coat of rosin dissolved in alcohol, and to the back a coat of the clearing solution..." Common oil colors are then applied to the back "in the usual way."
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