Posted in History & Literature

Destroyer Of The Environment

In the history of mankind, who could be considered to have done the most damage to the environment? Although many names may pop up, no one comes close to the destruction that resulted from one man: Thomas Midgley Jr. While working for General Motors in 1916 as a chemist, Midgley discovered that adding iodine to kerosene reduced “knocking” in engines – where pockets of air/fuel mixture explode in the engine. The effects of knocking on engines range from negligible to destructive. However, he found that the iodine only reduced knocking slightly. To improve on this, he tried adding different elements to fuel until he found the magic solution – lead. And so, the leaded petroleum was born.

Leaded petrol was an instant commercial success and it became the most popular choice of fuel. This resulted in cars, buses, planes and almost all motor vehicles pumping out billions of tons of lead into the atmosphere for over seventy years. Unfortunately, lead is a highly toxic metal that causes symptoms such as muscular weakness, pain, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and madness. Lead poisoning is particularly dangerous to children as it can cause irreversible retardation of physical and mental development. Even though the effects of lead poisoning were recognised since the late 19th century (with many workers and even Midgley himself suffering from it), it was only after the 1970s when fuel companies stopped adding lead to their fuel. Thanks to Midgley’s idea of adding lead to petrol, who knows how many children would have suffered a crippling illness due to lead poisoning.

But Midgley’s “accomplishments” did not stop there. In the late 1920s, Midgley decided to tackle the problem of using sulfur dioxide, propane and ammonia as refrigerants (possibly out of guilt over the whole lead fiasco), which were effective but prone to combusting or exploding. Within three days, he developed an alternative – dichlorofluromethane. This amazing gas was inert, non-toxic and did not have the risk of exploding. It was the first of the chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), which was named “freons”. We now know that freons are responsible for destroying the ozone layer.

In 1940, Midgley contracted polio, causing him to be disabled. Poliomyelitis causes paralysis due to the destruction of motor neurons. Being an inventor, Midgley devised a clever device that would help him off the bed using pulleys and strings. Unfortunately, one day the invention twisted in a certain way, leading him to become entangled in the ropes and being killed of strangulation.

Such was the sad life of Thomas Midgley Jr, who environmental historian J. R. McNeill dubbed “[someone who] had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history”.

Posted in History & Literature

War Of The Currents

In the late 1880s, a war raged on in the United States – one that is not commonly known by the public. It was a war between two wizards: Nikola The Wizard of the WestTesla and Thomas The Wizard of Menlo ParkEdison.
This war involved no guns or explosives, but centred on something so commonplace that people take it for granted nowadays – electricity. The two scientists/wizards fought to determine whose form of electricity transmission was better.

There are two types of electric currents used for transmission.
Direct current (DC) was used by Thomas Edison, a pioneer of electricity distribution. Before him, electricity was more of a scientific curiosity and was not widely available to the public. DC is a unidirectional flow of electric charge.
Alternating current (AC) was later developed by Nikola Tesla, also a pioneer in the field of electricity. AC is the alternating movement of electric charge as it periodically reverses direction from + to -.

When electricity first became public, the industry standard was DC, as Edison started his company, General Electric. This was incredibly profitable for Edison, whose inventions relied on the usage of DC. For example, his incandescent light bulb was the principal electrical device during the time. Edison further advanced DC technology and heavily advocated it.
Tesla claimed that AC was a much more efficient mode of electricity transmission and tried to convince Edison while working for him. However, Edison ignored him and stated that it was an insane, useless idea. Edison was more an inventor than a mathematician, so he did not understand the theoretical benefits of AC over DC.

AC has the advantage of being able to use a transformer to gain much higher voltage than DC, while losing less power when transmitted. It also allowed easy conversion from low-voltage use, such as lamps, to high-voltage use, such as motors.
Despite this, Edison refused to accept the system and continued to lobby against it. The most famous case is his drastic attempt to defame AC by showing the public how “dangerous” it is.

In 1890, Edison and his company developed the electric chair, which used AC to demonstrate the safety hazards of Tesla’s invention. He did this by arranging the first capital punishment by electrocution. Unfortunately, due to calculation errors, the first shock was insufficient to kill the convict, William Kemmler. The procedure was repeated for 8 minutes, during which the convict was screaming in agony, seizing due to electrocution, and at one point, caught fire. This horrible image is portrayed quite accurately in the film The Green Mile.

Despite this unpleasant event, AC became the standard over time and DC is now only used in labs on certain special applications. Also, the electric chair was adopted as an official method of execution.

Posted in History & Literature


Karaoke are entertainment machines that play music without the vocal track, so that users can sing along to the song (where lyrics are usually put up on a screen also). It is a great addition to any party and is found in almost every city nowadays, especially in Asia.

The word karaoke means “fake orchestra” in Japanese, and this is linked to the story of its inception. A musician/entertainer by the name of Daisuke Inoue was often approached by patrons at cafés he played in, asking him to record his tracks so that they could play it anywhere. That, along with his laziness, led him to devise a machine that played pre-recorded tracks when coins were inserted, thus removing the need for an actual band to be present. This idea became instantly popular, and he loaned karaoke machines to businesses, updating the song database himself so that users did not have to purchase new songs every time they came out. 
He was awarded the prestigious Ig Nobel Peace Prize for inventing the karaoke, “thereby providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other”.