The Final ChapterBy Malcolm Borthwick. Autumn 2020
Inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison are household names, but often they were inspired by relative unknowns. Materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez talks to Malcolm Borthwick about the outsiders who should be inside our history books
This article originally featured in Baillie Gifford’s Autumn 2020 issue of Trust magazine.
Ainissa Ramirez dreamt of being a scientist from an early age. An inquisitive youngster, she wanted answers to why the sky is blue and why leaves change colour. This interest was nurtured by television shows such as Star Trek and The Bionic Woman. Her dream was nearly blown off course years later when she found herself sitting in a lecture hall with tears welling in her eyes. The awe and wonder of science had been sucked out of her by a series of boring and lifeless lectures.
Fortunately a spark, in the shape of Professor LB Freund at Brown University, Rhode Island, reignited her interest. “He said that everything we know is a result of the interaction of atoms, and if you can understand how atoms interact, you can do new things,” recalls Ramirez. “So the reason why my shirt is pink and this light is working is because of these things that I can never see.” Ramirez’s wonder had been rekindled, and that enthusiasm was still palpable as she chatted to me on Zoom from her study in New Haven, Connecticut. “His comments put me on the path to becoming a materials scientist.”
Ainissa Ramirez and Malcolm Borthwick on their Zoom interview.
Materials science is often overshadowed by its noisy neighbours, physics and chemistry. “You think about atoms, that’s what chemists do, and you think about properties, that’s what physicists do, but if you think about how they interact with each other, that’s where innovation takes place. The physicist will figure out how to make things, or they’ll figure out the theory, but the people who make it actually happen are the materials scientists.”
In her book, The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another, Ramirez explores the genesis of inventions such as photographic film, steel rails, light bulbs and silicon chips, and looks at how these materials shaped society.
Ramirez describes the motivation behind it: “There are books that profile materials: let me tell you all about steel, let me tell you all about iron, and these books work, but they work for a small population. I really wanted to have a broader appeal, and I thought that the best way to do that was with stories.” Ramirez spent four years researching The Alchemy of Us, reading over 400 books, scanning countless archives and interviewing descendants of the people she talks about.
There are plenty of well-known inventors in her book, such as Thomas Edison, who gave us the light bulb, George Eastman, founder of The Eastman Kodak Company, and Sir Henry Bessemer, whose steel-making process transformed transportation in the 19th century. But what’s more fascinating are the unsung heroes behind these inventions. Ramirez describes them as “The outsiders. They’re not inventors. What’s intriguing is that they created industries, without ever setting out to do so.” I asked Ramirez to pick her (not so famous) four:
The Mancunian who refined the arc lamp
Image: © Derby Historical Society and Museum.
William Wallace grew up in Manchester, England. In 1832, aged seven, his family moved to America in search of a new life. “I love the story about Wallace. Not only was he an outsider, he really wanted to be the tinkerer inventor,” says Ramirez. “He made a laboratory in his Victorian house and spent all his time there.” The lab contained microscopes, telescopes and a static electricity machine, and rivalled the best physics departments in the land.
His inventions attracted the interest of Thomas Edison. “When Edison came to visit Wallace, a thickly bearded man of few words, he was enamoured by his arc lamp, an early form of electric light. At the time, Edison wasn’t thinking about electric lights, but when they met, he saw it as a possibility. So Wallace, in many ways, inspired Edison to invent the light bulb.”
In her book, Ramirez describes the extraordinary arc lamp demonstration Wallace gave Edison: “Above their heads on the mansard ceiling was suspended a strange metal bracket holding two carbon plates all encased in a round glass bowl. Two thick wires hung from the glass bowl on the floor. There were flashes and then the frame hissed and sputtered out a blinding glow that flooded the entire room like a searchlight.”
Edison saw the commercial potential. As he departed, he uttered: “I believe I can beat you making the electric light. I do not think you are working in the right direction.”
The inspiration for the telephone exchange
Image: © Courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center.
On 27 April 1877, hundreds of people turned up to watch Alexander Graham Bell present a ‘telephone concert’ at the Skiff Opera House in New Haven, Connecticut. George Coy, a disabled Civil War veteran with a walrus moustache was one of them. Ramirez sets the scene: “Bell talked about how the telephone was going to be great, it’s going to go directly to people’s homes, but he couldn’t figure out how to link people together. And Coy is sitting in the audience thinking I can work on this. I’m going to make a switchboard. Coy is the one who came up with the idea.” Immediately after the lecture Coy approached Bell with his idea. Bell later granted him the right to form the world’s first telephone exchange and that was the birth of the telephone system.
Coy, who worked at a telegraph office, had a natural flare for innovation, according to Ramirez. “He lived in New Haven, which was known for making carriages, so he stole bolts from a carriage company. And New Haven was also known for teapots, so he gathered old teapots that had been thrown out. He needed wire. So what did he do? He got his wife’s undergarments and took the wires out of the bustles. He had, as Thomas Edison would say, an idea and a big pile of junk. And that’s what innovators do.”
George Coy’s telephone switchboard.
© Courtesy of magrissoforte.com.
The housewife who reinvented glass
Image: © The Littleton Family.
Bessie Littleton was raised on a remote Mississippi plantation where she had servants but few visitors. She moved to New York when her husband Jesse (also pictured) got a job at Corning Glass Works. Corning was one of the first US glass companies to employ scientists who used the element boron, which can withstand faster temperature changes than soda-lime glass, commonly used for windows and containers.
Talkative by nature, Bessie loved entertaining and one summer’s day in 1913 she asked her husband to invite a few colleagues to dinner. The topic turned to the indestructability of glass, which gave Bessie an opportunity to raise something that had been troubling her. Her new earthenware casserole dish had broken the last time she used it, and she challenged them to make a new glass dish that wouldn’t break if you put it in the oven.
This was an outlandish idea at the time, according to Ramirez. “The next day Bessie’s husband brings home a sawed-off glass battery jar and she bakes a cake in it. He takes it to work and everybody says this is a fantastic cake. He mentions it was cooked in glass, and you can imagine everybody just dropping food out of their mouth.” Bessie tried out other foods and Corning’s confidence grew.
But they were missing a name. The first commercial sample was a pie plate, so they called it ‘Py-right’, which was renamed Pyrex in 1915. Bessie’s suggestion and experimentation led to a multi-million-dollar brand which endures today.
The Episcopalian preacher who created camera film
In the 1880s, hundreds of churchgoers packed the wooden pews in the House of Prayer Church in Newark, New Jersey to listen to a towering white-bearded pastor with nose-clip spectacles. Hannibal Goodwin was a gregarious and loquacious preacher, loved by his flock, but he also had another passion: the chemistry workshop in his attic.
Goodwin wanted to illustrate Bible stories for his Sunday school classes. “After an appeal, he got a donation from his congregation for a magic lantern, which was the projector of its time,” says Ramirez. “The children helped him with the lantern but would often break the glass slides. So he wanted to make something flexible, and after nearly 10 years of experimentation, he created plastic camera film.” Goodwin produced the flexible film mostly out of nitrocellulose, which in the late 19th century formed the basis of the earliest man-made plastic materials.
Goodwin started a correspondence with George Eastman, one of the richest men of the time. “Eastman was looking for his next invention, and asked Goodwin a myriad of questions about his work. But the relationship didn’t end well and resulted in a protracted patent battle. Goodwin won, but never saw his money or achieved his rightful recognition in history.”
Goodwin’s film patent from 1898.
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Malcolm Borthwick is editor of Trust. He was formerly the BBC’s economics and business editor in Asia and the Middle East, and vice president of corporate affairs at BNY Mellon.
Illustration by darlingforsyth.
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