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See Inside December 2008

100 Years Ago: Engineering a City--New York City's Bridges

Innovation and discovery as chronicled in past issues of Scientific American


DECEMBER 1958
EVOLUTION OF BEHAVIOR— “But is it not possible that beneath all the variations of individual behavior there lies an inner structure of inherited behavior which characterizes all the members of a given species, genus or larger taxonomic group—just as the skeleton of a primordial ancestor characterizes the form and structure of all mammals today? Yes, it is possible! Let me give an example which, while seemingly trivial, has a bearing on this question. Anyone who has watched a dog scratch its jaw or a bird preen its head feathers can attest to the fact that they do so in the same way. A bird also scratches with a hind limb (that is, its claw), and in doing so it lowers its wing and reaches its claw forward in front of its shoulder. One might think that it would be simpler for the bird to move its claw directly to its head without moving its wing, which lies folded out of the way on its back. I do not see how to explain this clumsy action unless we admit that it is inborn. —Konrad Z. Lorenz”

[NOTE: Lorenz shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch.]

ROBO TEACHER— “Can teaching be mechanized? B. F. Skinner, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, believes that it must be if the rising worldwide demand for education is to be met. He has designed and built a number of ‘teaching machines’ which not only present material to the student (as do conventional audio-visual teaching aids) but continually test the student on the information he is acquiring. Skinner and his associates have used machines of this type in teaching part of a course in human behavior to nearly 200 Harvard and Rad­cliffe College undergraduates.”

DECEMBER 1908
DEMOISELLE— “The noted Brazilian experimenter Santos Dumont has brought out once more the tiny aeroplane with which he made some experiments last spring. To give his monoplane good transverse stability, Santos Dumont has placed the two wings at a slight dihedral angle and has located his seat and the motor about 3 feet below. This brings the center of gravity well below the line of support. The spread of the wings is but 16.4 feet. On account of the small size of this monoplane (which he has christened ‘Demoiselle’), Santos Dumont was able to carry it from Paris to St. Cyr on the rear of an automobile.”

ENGINEERING A CITY— “The problem of transportation in the city of New York is rendered extremely difficult and costly by the fact that 2,000,000 of the people live upon, and as many more daily enter or leave, a long, narrow island, which is separated from the mainland by broad and deep rivers. To overcome this isolation, public and private enterprise has built, during the past decade, no less than fourteen tunnels and three of the greatest long-span bridges of the world.”

DECEMBER 1858
LIGHT THE WORLD— “Candles were among the earliest inventions of the fathers of our race, and despite burning fluid, gas and coal oil, still keep their place as light-givers—a luxury to the rich—a blessing to the poor. However, we must say that the candle is a greasy article, and much given to guttering, and wants snuffing very often; or rather did, for we wish to notice an invention which prevents these evils. A method has been patented of indurating or hardening common candles so that they are in every way equal to spermaceti or the highest priced varieties. The indurated coating, being fusible at a much higher temperature than the tallow, causes the candle to burn with a beautiful cup-shape and prevents guttering.”

ELEPHANTS— “The Ceylon Observer contains an account of some brickmaking works recently visited by Sir Henry Ward. The works, which turn out about 20,000 bricks a day, are only six miles from Colombo. The clay for brickmaking is prepared by elephants. The wild and tame work together, and both attempt to shirk their work by endeavoring to put their feet in old footprints, instead of in the soft, tenacious, untrodden mud.”

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