50 Years Ago: Is Bad Air Bad?

Innovation and discovery as chronicled in past issues of Scientific American


October 1961

Is Bad Air Bad?
“Is air pollution in fact a menace to public health? The first place to look for damage by unclean air would be the body surfaces exposed to air: the skin, which is hardy and mainly covered by clothing, and the respiratory passages, which are not covered at all. There is evidence that a commonplace disorder of the bronchial tubes and lungs—chronic bronchitis and emphysema—is showing an alarming increase in some places. At the same time, it cannot be said that any particular atmospheric pollutant is the cause of bronchitis-emphysema or other bronchopulmonary disease, in the legal or scientific sense of the term. If something is happening to the public health from the widespread pollution of the air, it must be happening to a large number of people. Yet it must be something that goes on undramatically in its individual manifestations; otherwise it would attract public notice as an ‘epidemic.’”

October 1911

Hail Costs
“In the absence of any practical method of actually averting the destructive effects of hail, the agricultural population must look to insurance to mitigate the loss to the individual sufferer. At the present time, however, hail insurance, although practiced for over a century, is founded upon a far from secure basis of information. Statistics of the distribution of hailstorms in space and time, and of the damage inflicted thereby, are systematically collected from year to year in but few countries. The first steps toward improving the organization of hail insurance and extending its benefits to all countries have been taken during the past year by the International Institute of Agriculture, Rome.”

Clean Milk
“We read in a Daily Consular Report a note from Consul Mahin, of Amsterdam, in which a local periodical refers to the effect of ultra-violet beams on bacteria and to the fact that such beams are abundantly developed by mercury incandescent lamps, and relates that through this medium milk may now be sterilized in a few minutes. An apparatus has been constructed whereby the milk flows in a thin stream along an electric light. It is said the water was purified in a few minutes, without appreciably increasing its temperature.”

War from the Air
“The rapid development of the aeroplane for military and naval purposes behooves us to consider it most seriously in the problems of seacoast and canal fortification. We like to boast of our splendid isolation, of the steel-throated monsters that guard the entrances to our harbors. Suppose, for instance, that ten years hence, every battleship is equipped with flying machines; also that an enemy’s fleet appears fifty miles off New York. Would it be necessary to pass our forts in order to destroy the metropolis? Hardly; a fleet of aeroplanes would be dispatched; within an hour they would be over the city, obeying wireless orders from their commander, and soon it would be a mass of flames. Fantastic? Possibly so.”
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October 1861

“In consequence of the scarcity of tea in the South, the Southerners are said to be reviving the use of the Yopon or Yaupon (Ilex cassine), of which the North Carolina Indians made their ‘black drink,’ and which has been more or less used ever since in that region, though mainly by the poorer classes. The plant grows on the coast from Virginia southward, especially on the low islands which enclose Pamlico Sound. The leaves and twigs are gathered by the inhabitants and bartered for corn, bushel for bushel. It is a suggestive fact that it contains the same principle which is found in both tea and coffee and is called theine or caffeine.”

This article was originally published with the title "50, 100 & 150 Years Ago."

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