We asked you five questions about five British inventors and what they got up to in their spare time. Here come the answers!
- John Napier, inventor of logarithms, was also said to be a magician. What creature was said to have been his travelling companion?
A black spider, which he kept in a small box. The Napier family had a reputation for wizardry – his father bet (successfully) that Mary, Queen of Scots would escape Lochleven Castle before 5 May 1568. Napier himself was fascinated by the Book of Revelation and used it together with the Sibylline Oracles to calculate the date end of the world, placing it in either 1688 or 1700. Oh well.
- What creature did Alexander Wood use as a model to develop the first true hypodermic syringe? For a bonus point, can you name the first, and exclusive, use for which this invention was used?
The bee. (Fortunately it wasn’t a honey bee Wood chose, otherwise the barbs would make injections much more traumatic experiences than they are.)
Initially the hypodermic needle was used only for administering morphia and other opium-based preparations, though Wood himself suggested that it had far wider potential. The story that his wife, Rebecca Massey, became the first intravenous morphine addict and died of an overdose is a myth.
- Humphry Davy, inventor of the Davy lamp, during the course of his work became addicted to what amusing substance?
Nitrous oxide (N2O), also known as laughing gas. Just before his twentieth birthday Davy joined the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol, a scientific body set up to investigate the medical powers of artificially produced gases. While there he befriended the inventor James Watt and the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, all of whom regularly used nitrous oxide. Davy noted that the gas helped alleviate hangovers and might be of use in surgical operations, but he was ahead of his time – anaesthetics didn’t catch on for another fifty years.
- What appliance did Percy Shaw, inventor of cat’s eyes, have in excess in his home?
Television sets. Towards the end of his life he had four of them – one black-and-white set each for the then three channels available (BBC1, BBC2 and ITV (Yorkshire Television)), with a fourth tuned in to BBC2 in colour. All of them were left permanently on, but with the sound turned down.
- What public nuisances did Charles Babbage, “father of the computer”, campaign about with particular vigour?
The most active of Babbage’s many campaigns was against street music, particularly organ-grinders, which he hated with a passion. He wrote, “It is difficult to estimate the misery inflicted upon thousands of persons, and the absolute pecuniary penalty imposed upon multitudes of intellectual workers by the loss of their time, destroyed by organ-grinders and other similar nuisances.” But he was also criticised in the House of Commons for campaigning against the trundling of hoops, which he blamed for tripping horses.
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