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50 Years Ago: Bee Jargon

Innovation and discovery as chronicled in past issues of Scientific American

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August 1962

Bee Jargon
“For almost two decades my colleagues and I have been studying one of the most remarkable systems of communication that nature has evolved. This is the ‘language’ of the bees: the dancing movements by which forager bees direct their hivemates, with great precision, to a source of food. In our earliest work we had to look for the means by which the insects communicate and, once we had found it, to learn to read the language. Then we discovered that different varieties of the honeybee use the same basic patterns in slightly different ways; that they speak different dialects, as it were. This led us to examine the dances of other species in the hope of discovering the evolution of this marvelously complex behavior. —Karl von Frisch”

Von Frisch shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

August 1912

Sahara Sea
“A sensation was recently caused in Paris by the daring proposal of Prof. Etchegoyen, a distinguished scientist, who declares that France ought to lose no time in converting the vast desert of Sahara into an inland sea. He claims that, since ‘about a quarter of the whole desert area lies below sea level, the construction of a canal some fifty miles long through the higher land of the north African coast would immediately create a Sahara Sea equal in size to about half the extent of the Mediterranean.’ Millions of human beings could then support themselves in comfort, who now lead a miserable existence on the verge of starvation. Moreover, a great new colony could be added to the possessions of France.”

Sulfur Mining
“Sicily's sulphur production comprises an area about equal to that of the State of Connecticut. A population of 350,000 ignorant, ill-nourished peasants, called carusi, labor in the mines [see photograph]. Exceedingly crude and simple methods prevail, and have prevailed since the days of the Romans, in the mining of Sicilian sulphur. The Sicilian industry, debilitated by ages of market speculation, usury and local vendette, late in the last century, staggered under the shock of news of the opening up of an immense deposit of sulphur on the gulf coastal plain of Louisiana. By Herman Frasch's invention of a process for liquefying sulphur in the ground, at a depth of 1,000 feet, and pumping it to the surface in fluid form, sulphur is produced at an average cost of $3.68 per ton, as against $12 per ton, the cost of mining sulphur in Sicily.”

August 1862

Civil War Shipbuilding
“A number of our engineering establishments are engaged at present in constructing ironclad steamers of various kinds. Contracts have been made by the Navy Department with Capt. Ericsson for building several on the general plan of the Monitor. Five are being constructed at Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where a force of nine hundred men are employed upon them. All will be furnished with revolving turrets of greater thickness than that of the Monitor, and most of them are to be armed with 15-inch guns.”

Some images of the technology of warfare, taken from our archives of 150 years ago, can be viewed at www.ScientificAmerican.com/aug2012/civil-war

Tiger Hunt
“Many of the natives of Cochin China [southern Vietnam] obtain their live-lihood by tiger catching, the skin of this animal being valuable. They use a novel mode of ensnaring those savage beasts. The snare consists of large leaves, sometimes pieces of paper, covered on one side with a substance of the same nature as bird-lime, and containing a poison, the smallest portion of which, getting into the animal's eyes, causes instant blindness. They are laid about thickly, with the bird-lime side upward, in the track of a tiger, and as surely as the animal puts his paw upon one of the treacherous leaves, he becomes a victim; for, finding it stuck to his foot, he shakes it, and while scratching and rubbing himself to get free, some of the bird-lime poison gets into his eyes and blinds him. He growls and roars in agony, and this is the signal for his captors to come up and dispatch him.”

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

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