Topics in the News
A Decade of Transformations.
When the 1920s began, the Stanley Company of Newton, Massachusetts, was still manufacturing its Stanley steamers. During the decade the internal-combustion, gasoline-powered car completed its triumph over the efficient but slow-starting steam-powered car. A steam engine, which operates by external combustion, is basically simpler than an internal-combustion engine. In the steam engine a liquid-fueled fire is used to boil water, and the resulting steam drives a turbine that powers the car. Its simplicity was partially negated by the fact that pumps had to be serviced, but what really killed the steam car was the fact that it took at least twenty minutes to build up a head of steam and get going. Although the time required to start it was reduced, the steam car was injured by gossip—such as false reports of boiler explosions. No Stanley or White steamer blew up. The steam car was faster, quieter, and easier to maintain than the gasoline-powered, internal-combustion car. The Stanley brothers' company, which had produced some eighteen thousand steam cars in twenty-seven years, went out of business in 1925.
The story of the motorcar in the 1920s was still the story of Henry Ford, who continued to dominate the fields of automotive engineering and production. In December 1927 the first Model A rolled...
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During World War I, which ended in November 1918, military aircraft technology went through prodigious and rapid development, especially by the Europeans. By contrast the 1920s were devoted to civilian aviation pursuits.
Unemployed former fighter pilots roamed the country, each having spent a few hundred dollars for a war-surplus plane, usually a two-seater Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" trainer. They buzzed from county fair to county fair, giving one person at a time a ride for the then significant fare of five or ten dollars. The daredevil barnstormers became the subjects of many movies depicting their exploits of flying under bridges and through barns. Flying upside down and doing barrel rolls and loop-the-loops were standard practices, and even wing walking was performed to attract attention. Charles A. Lindbergh, too young to have been in the war, always wore a parachute when wing walking and ended his act by floating to the ground to the astonishment of the crowd.
There was no official inspection of aircraft, no mandatory training of pilots, no rules of flight. Anyone old enough to buy a horse could buy a plane and treat either means of transportation with equal abandon. In 1926 Congress passed an Air Commerce Act, creating an Aeronautics Branch...
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Dirigibles and Blimps.
Lighter-than-air craft include both dirigibles, with rigid hull structures, and blimps, with limp hull structures that fall flat when deflated. Blimps were used during both world wars, but they were too small to carry many bombs in wartime or many passengers in peacetime. The large dirigibles could perform either mission.
The French invented the airship in the late eighteenth century, but the craft remained strictly experimental for a century until Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin caused the Germans to move permanently into the forefront of the field. Indeed the word zeppelin became a generic term for the dirigible. Americans did little in the early period of experimenting with lighter-than-air craft, but when they saw the power of German zeppelins on bombing raids over England in World War I and watched while the huge craft soaked up anti-aircraft fire and then floated away, they vowed to get into the program. Separate gas bags within the hulls of the zeppelins meant that a few holes would not disable a ship, although some, of course, were shot down.
In 1920 the U.S. Navy contracted with the British government to purchase their R38 dirigible and sent an aviation crew to be trained in operating the ship and to fly it back to America....
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In summer 1922 the well-known inventor of the microphone, Emile Berliner, and his son Henry A. Berliner made the first successful flight in a helicopter. It attained an altitude of only fifteen to twenty feet and flew at just 20 MPH. The significance of the flight was that the machine rose vertically from the ground and proceeded to fly horizontally. Other experimental craft at the time were able to rise vertically and set down vertically, but they were incapable of horizontal movement.
Sikorsky. Russian American Igor Sikorsky, who directed his efforts solely to fixed-wing aircraft during the 1920s, had built two prototype helicopters before he emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1919, but neither the helicopter he built in Kiev in 1909 nor his 1910 model would fly. Having decided that the helicopter needed to wait for "better engines, lighter materials, and experienced mechanics," Sikorsky returned to work on rotarybladed aircraft in the 1930s and became famous for developing the first truly workable helicopters.
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The Lie Detector
In the early 1920s John Augustus Larson, a Berkeley, California, police officer, developed the first practical polygraph. With three pens swinging back and forth on a slowly moving strip of paper, it worked like a seismograph to record changes in the subject's blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate. Larson's fellow police officer Leonarde Keeler added a fourth measurement. Increases in perspiration were detected by measuring the "galvanic skin response." An electric current passing over the skin gains strength when salty water (a good conductor) appears on the skin surface. Because these indicators were supposed to increase when a subject lied, the moving pens were supposed to swing more widely when untruths were uttered.
The inventors never claimed that their machine was infallible, and many skeptics have maintained that a person being examined would be so nervous that many false readings would be obtained. The trained operator always asks a series of innocuous "control" questions at first in order to establish a base pattern of readings against which to compare deviations, Early examiners often employed the technique of mixing relevant and irrelevant questions. That method was faulted even by Larson himself and was largely abandoned by the 1950s. Although polygraphs and polygraph operators have...
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Motion Pictures with Sound
The 1920s were the golden age of silent films, which flickered on the screen as a pianist played to enhance the mood set by the action. Large metropolitan theaters even had full orchestras to play live music for their patrons. There were rumors that a marriage might be arranged between the flickers and the phonograph, but the greatest American inventor of all time, Thomas A. Edison, had been working on the problem since 1888 and had succeeded in producing only the 1895 and 1913 Kinetophones—ignominious failures. The problem of synchronizing sound and picture seemed insurmountable, and other early-twentieth-century attempts—the Synchroscope, the Cinematophone, and the Cameraphone—had also failed.
Silence Is Golden.
The sound fidelity of available audio systems was not good. Screen actors had been selected for their ability to act out roles physically, not for their speaking voices, while stage actors tended to over-project their voices, an acting style that would spoil the intimate effect created by the close-in cameras. Further-more, producers had another reason to oppose sound: it would cost them most of their lucrative foreign market. The printed titles (dialogue cards) could easily be translated into any language, while a talking picture would have to be "dubbed," and nobody was sure how that inevitably expensive...
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Motion Pictures in Color
The use of color film in motion pictures was pioneered by Herbert T. Kalmus, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who began work on color photography in 1913. Kalmus made a short, one-reel color movie, The Gulf Between, in 1917, but it attracted little notice. In 1920 Kalmus tried to obtain backing for his infant Technicolor Company from George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York. The film-manufacturing giant turned Kalmus down, saying his manufacturing technique was faulty.
A Two-Component Process.
During the 1920s Kalmus, who used a two-primary-color technique to make his pioneer movie, developed two significant improvements to the process, which he called Process Number Two and Process Number Three. Process Number Two, though experimental, met with some success. Kalmus used it in 1922 for the first fulllength techni-color movie, The Toll of the Sea. The following year Cecil B. DeMille used it for the prologue to his The Ten Commandments. Parts of Cytherea and The Uninvited Guest were filmed in Process Number Two technicolor in 1924, the year in which Jesse Lasky used it for the second all-technicolor movie, Wanderer of the Wasteland. The same film was used in 1926 for the third all-color movie, The Black Pirate, starring...
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An Experimental Apparatus.
In 1920 radio was still in the experimental stage. Guglielmo Marconi invented wireless telegraphy in 1899. The wireless telegraph sent a series of dot and dash signals through space, using the same code invented in the 1840s by Samuel Morse. In 1906 an actual voice communication was transmitted, and wireless telephony was invented. Both forms of communication were commonly called "wireless," but in 1912 the U.S. Navy ordered that the terms radiotelegraphy and radiotelephony be employed instead. The American public rapidly accepted the change, but by 1920 the simple term radio had become the American name for the still experimental invention. The British, however, continued using the term wireless for most of the twentieth century.
The earliest radios were crystal sets, difficult to tune and operate. During World War I, however, developments in vacuum tubes, devices similar to light bulbs and the ancestors of the modern transistors, allowed the sending and receiving of radio signals to become much more precise and powerful.
The First Radio Station.
The first commercial radio station was started by Dr. Frank Conrad, an engineer with Westinghouse in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,
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The Red Shift: Discovering an Expanding Universe
Clouds in the Heavens.
In the early 1920s Vesto M. Slipher, an astronomer working at the Lowell Observatory near Flagstaff, Arizona, was examining spiral-shaped nebulae in the night sky. According to contemporary scientific opinion these nebulae were cloudy patches of light caused by gases, but Slipher came to the conclusion that they were entire, separate galaxies like the Milky Way.
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The 1920s were a period of continuous advancement in telephone technology, beginning with the first completely automatic switching office, established in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1921. During that same year the first deep-sea telephone cable was laid, between Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba. (It is not to be confused with submarine cables for telegraph signals which had been laid since the 1850s on the ocean floor.) In 1926 American telephone transmitters and receivers were first placed in the same unit, the handset, while in 1929 telephone linemen began using the power-driven auger to bore holes for telephone poles—a great advance over hand digging.
C. D. Hanscom, ed., Dates in American Telephone Technology (New York: Beil Telephone Laboratories, 1961).
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In 1923 Russian immigrant Vladimir Zworykin applied for a patent for his iconoscope, a television camera or transmission tube. Many scientists and inventors had been working on the possibility of transmitting pictures ever since the first primitive telegraphs of the 1830s. By 1884 a German inventor, Paul Gottlieb Nipkow, had patented a sort of picture transmitter that used a mechanical scanner projecting onto a photosensitive rotating disk. The problem with Nipkow's invention and other primitive mechanical television prototypes was that they employed hand- or electric-motor-driven devices that projected either light or a stream of electrons sequentially onto a photosensitive surface to "draw" a quick series of pictures that the eye would interpret as a moving picture. Through a phenomenon called "persistence of vision" the eye perceives a series of still pictures as actual motion.
Trial Runs.In 1927 Bell Labs publicly demonstrated the transmission of mechanically scanned television over the telephone lines from New York to Washington, D.C. By 1928 General Electric was attempting the actual open-air broadcasting of such images, and in 1929 NBC
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Compton, Arthur Holly 1892-1962
Nobel Prize Winner.
Arthur Holly Compton shared the 1927 Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery of the Compton effect, which lent strong support to Albert Einstein's important law of the photoelectric effect (1905).
Born in Wooster, Ohio, Compton received a B.S. from the College of Wooster (1913) and an M.A. (1914) and a Ph.D. (1916) from Princeton University. After teaching at the University of Minnesota (1916-1917) and working on airplane-instrument design with the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I, Compton spent a year at Cambridge University, where he did research with Ernest Ruther-ford, the discoverer of the nucleus of the atom. He then accepted a post at Washington University in Saint Louis, where he taught physics from 1920 to 1923. He was at the University of Chicago from 1923 to 1945, after which he returned to Washington University, where he was chancellor (1945-1953) and Distinguished Service Professor of Natural Philosophy (1954-1961). During World War II he worked on the project to develop the...
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Goddard, Robert H. 1882-1945
The best rocket research anywhere in the world took place in the United States in the 1920s, and one man, Robert Goddard, was responsible for it. His work on rocketry in the 1920s lay the groundwork for the exploration of outer space that began in the 1960s.
Robert Hutchings Goddard was born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, receiving a B.S. from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1908 and earning a Ph.D. in physics at Clark University three years later. After a year of postdoctoral research at Princeton University, the young scientist returned to Clark to teach physics in 1914 and became a full professor in 1919.
While still in public school Goddard had developed an interest in rockets when he read H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898). He came to realize that rockets would be essential for travel in the vacuum of space because they carry not only their own fuel but also the oxidants necessary for the combustion of the fuel. At first Goddard experimented with traditional solid-fuel propulsion, but he soon turned to liquid fuel, taking out a patent for a liquid-fuel system in 1914. During World War I Goddard worked on shoulder-held rocket launchers. Not perfected in time for that war, the weapon...
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Hubble, Edwin P. 1889-1953
Edwin Hubble's discovery that galaxies are constantly moving away from each other changed forever the conception of a stable universe shared by many of his contemporaries and paved the way for the Big Bang theory, the most widely accepted explanation for the origin of the universe.
Born in Marshfield, Missouri, Edwin Powell Hubble studied under astronomers Robert Millikan and G. E. Hale at the University of Chicago. An amateur heavyweight boxer, Hubble was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, where he studied law and ran track, and earned a B.A. in 1913. He soon decided to return to the study of astronomy and earned a Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of Chicago in 1917, just in time to join the army and fight in France in World War I. He rose to the rank of major before being demobilized and taking up his life's work as an astronomer in 1919.
In 1923 Hubble aimed the powerful 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, California, at the Andromeda nebula. He believed that a nebula was not merely a gas cloud or a fuzzy single star but a collection of stars, perhaps even an entire galaxy like the Milky Way. Andromeda seemed closer than many other nebulae, and Hubble zeroed in on...
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Lindbergh, Charles A. 1902-1974
The greatest aeronautic feat of the 1920s, and indeed one of the greatest and most-publicized events of the decade in any sense, was Charles Augustus Lindbergh's solo, non-stop crossing of the Atlantic in 1927. More important than the personal fame the flight brought Lindbergh was its impact on the history of aviation. It proved that it was possible to build planes capable of flying long distances safely, paving the way for the development of commercial airlines and specialized military aircraft.
The Orteig Prize.
Lindbergh's flight was not the first Atlantic crossing by air. Eight years earlier five navy men in a seaplane, the NC-4, had flown from Newfoundland to the Azores to Portugal and then to England. Still, nobody had ever flown solo directly from an American city to a European capital, and the Orteig prize of $25,000 was offered for the first individual to accomplish such a...
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Mead, Margaret 1901-1978
A Classic Study.
Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa, a classic study of the influence of culture on individual personality, was a best-seller when it was published in 1928 and made her one of the best-known anthropologists in American history.
Born in Philadelphia, Mead earned a B.A. at Barnard College (1923) and a Ph.D. at Columbia University (1929), where she studied anthropology under Franz Boas, who became her mentor. Boas removed the weight of racism from anthropology by denying the existence of "higher" or "lower" forms of humanity. He also denied that genetic inheritance was the primary determining factor in creating human capabilities, falling back on the view of John Locke that the environment in which the individual matures has a far greater influence on human development. According to Boas—and Mead—it was not "nature" but "nurture" that was significant.
Encouraged by Boas, Mead spent the period from November 1925 to June 1926 in the Samoan Is-lands, where she lived with an American family, studied...
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Michelson, Albert A. 1852-1931
Nobel Prize Winner.
The first American to win the Nobel Prize for physics, awarded in 1907, Albert Abraham Michelson is still renowned for his measurements of the speed of light and his calculation of the size of Betelgeuse, the first star other than the sun to be measured.
Born to Jewish parents in a small Polish town that was at the time part of Prussia, Michelson immigrated to the United States with his family when he was four years old. He graduated from Annapolis in 1873 and served in the fleet until returning to the Naval Academy as an instructor in 1875. After study in Germany and France (1880-1882), he taught at Case School of Applied Science (1882-1889), Clark University (1889-1892), and the University of Chicago (1892-1931).
In 1878-1879 Michelson measured the speed of light with impressive accuracy and found it to be a constant. He refined his measurements in 1882, coming up with 299,853 kilometers per second (a little over 186,000 miles per second), the accepted figure until 1927, when he was able to find an even more precise measurement. After moving on to Case in Cleveland, Michelson worked with Edward Morley on an experiment to prove the existence of the ether, the substance that was believed to fill outer...
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Millikan, Robert A. 1868-1953
Nobel Prize Winner.
Robert Millikan won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1923 for his work on the charge of the electron and the photoelectric effect, work essentially completed by 1917. During the 1920s he devoted his attention to radioactivity from outer space, naming and investigating the phenomenon of cosmic rays.
Robert Millikan was born in Morrison, Illinois, and graduated from Oberlin College in 1921. He received his doctorate in physics from Columbia University in New York City in 1895. After further study at Göttingen and Berlin, Germany, he taught and did research at the University of Chicago until 1921, when he accepted a post at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, where he remained until his retirement in 1945.
The Electronic Charge.
In 1906 Millikan began the work that led to his determination of the precise value of e—the charge of the electron. By 1909 he had invented an oil-drop apparatus for use in his experiments. He sprayed droplets of oil about .001 mm in diameter into a chamber. Some of the drops fell by gravity through a pinhole into a lower chamber, where their speed—varied by an electric current—could be measured by a telescope aimed at a set of crosshairs. By causing the drop to fall at...
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People in the News
In 1921-1922 naturalist Carl Ethan Akeley used the motion-picture camera he had patented in 1916 to make the first movies of gorillas in their natural habitat in Africa.
In May 1922 George Frost, eighteen-year-old president of the Lane High School Radio Club in Chicago, fitted the first automobile radio to the passenger door of a Ford Model T.
In 1928 pioneer astronomer George Ellery Hale secured a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to construct an observatory on Mount Palomar for the California Institute of Technology. The telescope at this observatory was larger than the one at Cal Tech's Mount Wilson Observatory, for which Hale had also secured funding and which he directed from 1908 until 1923.
In the 10 July 1920 issue of Scientific American Ralph Howard expounded on the importance of the heatand wear-resistant fiber asbestos, detailing its use as a fireproof insulation material for pipes, boilers, automobile spark plugs and brakes, stove lining, and domestic roofs, walls, and ceilings. He wrote that the material "contributes to the world's progress and makes life safer and more complete in an almost infinite number of ways."
In October 1923 Reuben Leon Kahn brought attention to his newly developed test for syphilis by testing forty serum samples in fifteen minutes. The standard...
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THE GUGGENHEIM AWARD
The Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics established an award for significant progress in aviation research in 1929. The award for that year was given in April 1930.
1929: Orville Wright, for his role in inventing the first workable airplane.
NOBEL PRIZE WINNERS
During the 1920s there were two Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans in the sciences. Both were in physics. (Albert Einstein, who became a resident of the United States in 1930 and a citizen in 1944, won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921, while still a citizen of his native Germany.) The Nobel Prize represents worldwide recognition of a scientist's work and is widely considered the highest honor a scientist can receive.
1923: Robert Millikan won the Nobel Prize for physics for his work on measuring the charge of the electron and the photoelectric effect.
1927: Arthur Holly Compton shared the Nobel Prize for physics with British scientist C. T. R. Wilson for their research on X rays and cosmic rays.
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Frank Stephen Baldwin, 86, inventor of Baldwin calculator and other calculating machines, 8 April 1925.
Edward E. Barnard, 66, first astronomer to combine the camera and the telescope, taking photographs of plants, comets, nebulae, and the Milky Way, 6 February 1923.
Alexander Graham Bell, 75, inventor of the telephone, 2 August 1922.
Emile Berliner, 78, inventor of the microphone, the disk phonograph record, and the first workable helicopter, 3 August 1929.
Hezekiah Bissel, 93, the only engineer with the Union Pacific Railroad to see the construction of the trans-continental railway from start to finish (1862-1869), 23 June 1928.
Bertram B. Boltwood, 57, chemist and physicist who researched the properties of the radioactive elements uranium and thorium, discovering ionium, an isotope of thorium, and pioneering radioactive dating of geological strata, 15 August 1927.
Charles Francis Brush, 80, pioneer in methods of electric lighting, inventor of Brush electric arc light system used on the streets of Cleveland, Ohio, and New York City, 15 June 1929.
Luther Burbank, 77, botanist, the father of modern plant breeding, 11 April 1926.
John Hoffman Dunlap, 41, inventor of the...
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Wilhelm Bolsche, Love-Life in Nature: The Story of the Evolution of Love (New York: A. &C. Boni, 1926);
Gamaliel Bradford, Darwin (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1926);
William H. Bragg, Creative Knowledge: Old Trades and New Science (New York & London: Harper, 1927);
C. D. Broad, Scientific Thought (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1923);
Otis W. Caldwell and Edwin E. Slosson, eds., Science Remaking the World (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1923);
Herdman F. Cleland, Our Prehistoric Ancestors (New York: Coward-McCann, 1928);
A. P. Coleman, Ice Ages, Recent and Ancient (New York: Macmillan, 1926);
Henry Crew, The Rise of Modern Physics: A Popular Sketch (Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1928);
J. T. Cunningham, Hormones and Heredity (New York: Macmillan, 1921);
Paul de Kruif, Hunger Fighters (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1928);
de Kruif, Microbe Hunters (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1926);
George A. Dorsey, Hows and Whys of Human Behavior (New York & London: Harper, 1929);
Dorsey, Why We Behave Like Human Beings (New York &...
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Important Events in Science and Technology, 1920–1929
- In February, physicist William D. Harkins posits the existence of the neutron, a subatomic particle with a neutral charge and a mass equal to that of a proton. In 1932, British physicist James Chadwick will discover the neutron.
- In March, physicist Otto Stern announces that electrons have a spin expressible in either whole numbers (bosons) or half numbers (fermions).
- In July, American inventor Earl Charles Hanson invents the first hearing aid using vacuum tubes. It is marketed in 1921 as the Vactuphone.
- In November, John Thompson, a retired U.S. Army officer, receives a patent for his machine gun, later nicknamed the "tommy gun."
- On November 2, Station KDKA in Pittsburgh transmits the first regular licensed radio broadcast.
- On December 13, at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, physicist Albert Michelson uses a stellar interferometer to calculate the diameter of the large star Betelgeuse, the first star—other than the sun—to be measured.
- The American Radio League and Paul Godley in Scotland exchange the first intercontinental communication by shortwave radio.
- In March, John Augustus Larson and Leonarde Keeler, policemen in Berkeley, California invent the lie detector, or...
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