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L.S.B. Leakey on the Distant Past; H. G. Wells on the Near Future

Innovation & discovery as chronicled in past issues of Scientific American
tiger scene


WHEN ANIMALS ACT: A scene from the earliest days of the “movies,” 1914
Credit: SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, VOL. CX, NO. 22; MAY 30, 1914

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May 1964

Earlier Man
“The British paleontologist L.S.B. Leakey has discovered in Africa the bones of creatures he regards as the earliest men, for whom he has proposed the name Homo habilis. Previously the first true man had been thought to be Pithecanthropus, a creature that lived about 500,000 years ago. The bones Leakey and his colleagues have found appear to date as far back as 1.8 million years. Leakey describes the creatures as walking erect on feet almost identical with modern man's and as having hands of considerable dexterity. Leakey also announced that he has abandoned his earlier opinion that Zinjanthropus, a manlike creature whose bones he found in Africa in 1959, was on the line of evolution to man.”


May 1914

Noted Futurist
The World Set Free. By H. G. Wells. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1914. This latest of Mr. Wells' books is at once one of those magnificent flights of imagination which gave us The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, and the keen sociological perception which gave us The New Machiavelli and its successors. The atomic bomb which plays so great a part in this story, although a creation of Mr. Wells, may be regarded as inspired by Frederick Soddy's The Interpretation of Radium (1909). Wells argues that inasmuch as radio-active substances are constantly decaying and giving off energy as they do so, tremendous results could be obtained if the decay could occur with explosive rapidity. Trained scientist as he is, he presents his atomic bomb with an air of definiteness and conclusiveness that almost convinces one it exists.”

Preparing for War
“No less reliable an authority than Dr. Hugo Eckener [of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin in Germany] is responsible for startling revelations about a different kind of aerial marksmanship, dropping bombs to the ground, as practised by modern Zeppelins. From a safe altitude of 5,000 feet heavy bombs were dropped within circles marked by buoys on the water of the lower Elbe, of only 15 feet in diameter, showing that they could be dropped as well into the funnels of warships. Tests made on land showed that from an equal elevation a railroad station could be completely wrecked by four of these bombs.”

Three months later World War I broke out; shortly after, Zeppelins dropped bombs on Liège and Antwerp in Belgium.

Ships for Leisure
“With the launching of each ‘largest’ steamship it was customary, a few years ago, to say of her that the limit of size had been reached. To-day we hear no such prognostications. It was less than one year ago that there steamed into the port of New York the ‘Imperator’ of the Hamburg-American Line—the first ship to exceed a length of 900 feet and her displacement 52,000 tons. This week sees the advent of the ‘Vaterland,’ which exceeds the ‘Imperator’ in length by 41 feet.”

View a slide show on cruise ships and leisure boats at www.ScientificAmerican.com/may2014/pleasure-boating

Animal Actors
“Strong, ambitious wild animals, which until now have hoped for fame only in the circus or on the vaudeville stage, have found a new field for exercising their talent. A private dramatic school has been established for them near Fort Lee, New Jersey. Paul Bourgeois, a young French animal tamer, first thought of teaching jungle inhabitants to appear before the camera for the ‘movies’.”


May 1864

Dark Side of Fame
“The great English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is exposed to great annoyance from the curiosity of intruders. Strangers are found from time to time seated in his garden, peering in at his windows, wandering freely through his grounds. From the lawn in front, when conversing with his family in assumed privacy, he has, on casually looking up, discovered an enterprising British tourist taking mental notes of his conversation from the branches of a tree above. Mr. Tennyson has been compelled to make fences, raise embankments, train foliage, and in fact half-fortify his house.”

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

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