Proof of How Far Science Has Come
Proof of How Far Science Has ComeScience
It’s hard to imagine a time when people didn’t rely on their smartphones for everything. But not so long ago, the idea of a touch-sensitive supercomputer in your pocket would’ve been ridiculous!
Believe it or not, we used to wear fish on our heads to cure headaches and inhale scabs to fight off diseases! Let's investigate some amazing signs of just how far science has come!
Waking Up Before Alarm Clocks
Do you think you’d be able to get out of bed on time, every day, without an alarm clock? Before they became readily available in the 1950s, nobody owned them! So, how did anyone get up in the morning? In Britain, there was a whole profession dedicated to getting people out of bed!
These people, called “knocker uppers”, were common throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and would walk the streets every morning with long bamboo sticks. For a few pennies a week, they’d rap on people’s windows at a specific time and wake them up.
But who woke the knocker uppers up? Nobody had to! They slept during the day and naturally got up around 4pm. Unfortunately for them though, when the alarm clock hit stores in the mid-20th century, they were out of a job.
The idea of being woken up by a stranger banging on your window might seem strange, but some of the alternatives today look even worse. A miniature alarm clock, called Clocky, deafeningly jolts you awake, then drives off beeping until you get out of bed, chase it around, and turn it off. Or, if you’re grumpy in the mornings, punt it out of the window.
Money is such an integral part of our society that it’s hard to imagine life without it. In fact, the origin of money can be dated back to at least 40,000 years ago! Back then, groups of hunters traded flint weapons and tools with one another.
Later, people began asserting value to naturally occurring, but rare, objects. In Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia, they traded with cowry shells! It wasn’t until almost 5,000 years ago that the first metal coin emerged, the Mesopotamian shekel.
Fast forward to the present day, and physical cash is being phased out in many countries, replaced by digital, contactless solutions instead. But what if I told you that soon you’ll be able to pay using nothing but your hand or wrist?
Incredibly, the technology has existed for years and involves inserting a tiny, rice-sized microchip under your skin with a syringe which conducts contactless transactions.
Until recently, it’d only been trialed in closed environments like offices, but now Polish-British business Walletmor plan to bring the chips onto the market for about $230. That sounds like a remarkably small price to pay for essentially becoming a cyborg.
The company claims it’s completely safe and doesn’t track your location or personal info, but many find the idea very suspicious.
Toilet Paper History
If there’s one thing we take for granted, it’s being able to wipe ourselves with toilet paper. Yet, toilet paper wasn’t widely available anywhere until China first manufactured it in the 14th century and it didn’t make its way to the US until the 20th century!
What did people do before, then?! Well, after unleashing the four horsemen of the poopocalypse on their poor toilets, early Americans would grab pretty much anything that was closest to clean up with. A favorite however was a dried corncob. Hopefully, nobody got their dinner mixed up!
Further back in history, the Ancient Greeks preferred rubbing their rears with stones or ceramic fragments. Some pieces of ceramic have even been found inscribed with people’s names. Historians reckon people did this to, very literally, soil the name of somebody they didn’t like!
Imagine walking into someone’s house and finding their toilet paper had your face all over it; there’d be a lot of questions.
The award for “grossest bum plumbing instruments ever” has to go to the Ancient Romans though. As well as having communal toilets that offered zero privacy, they also shared sponges on sticks.
That’s right, the crazy crappers all picked from a bowl of soiled sponges to dab their derrieres with. Alright, so they dunked it in a bucket of salt water or vinegar between uses, but I don’t think that would get past hygiene officials today. Mercifully, we now live with the joy of soft, clean, toilet paper.
When you think of X-rays, you probably picture some big machines in hospitals. And yet, following their discovery and development in 1895 by German engineer and physicist Wilhelm Rontgen, radioactive ray machines also became common in shoe stores!
During the First World War, X-rays weren’t just used to examine wounds. The US military also used them to ensure soldiers’ boots were the correct fit! After the war, the technology was adapted to fit inside a strange device called a shoe-fitting fluoroscope, and by the 1920s both Britain and the US used the fanciful fluoroscopes.
The name might sound like something out of Harry Potter, but this weird wooden cabinet used science, not magic, to check how well your shoes fit. Before committing to a purchase, potential customers slid their shoe-clad feet into the fluoroscope.
Then, with the flick of a switch X-rays were beamed through from the device and the resulting image popped up on a screen. The novelty of seeing the inside of your foot made fluoroscopes very popular, and they were a mainstay of shoe stores for years.
As we now know though, too much exposure to X-rays can cause major problems. Swapping blisters for radiation poisoning and even cancer doesn’t sound like a great trade-off. As X-rays became better understood, the fluoroscopes were steadily banned throughout the US, however, as late as 1970 there were still 17 states that allowed them!
Evolution Of The Automobile
Though cars are our preferred mode of transport nowadays, they’re only a relatively recent invention. Back in 1886, German engineer Karl Benz brought the first iteration of the vehicle to the market.
Benz’s company would later merge with another German automobile manufacturer, Daimler, and produce the iconic brand, Mercedes Benz. However, the first car ever was significantly less high-power than a modern Mercedes. Imaginatively named the 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen, it had three wheels, was powered by light petrol and water, and hit top speeds of 10mph!
Compare that with the world’s fastest car today, the Bugatti Chiron, which in 2019 hit the lightning-fast speed of 304mph, and Benz’s OG motorcar looks like a toy. Speed isn’t the only impressive advancement for cars though. A recent trial in the British city of Cambridge sent three “auto-shuttles” on a driverless ride!
The crazy vehicles use an array of sensors, laser scanners, and cameras to build a 3D map of the environment that enables them to maneuver through it, accident-free, all on their own. Though it’ll still be a while before self-driving cars are made road-legal, the future might be here sooner than you think! That’s certainly fuel for thought.
Washing Clothes With Urine
You’re supposed to wash new clothes before you wear them for the first time, but you probably sling them straight on anyway, don’t you? Well, if you lived in the Middle Ages, you’d have acted differently. That’s because, back then, clothing makers bathed their fabrics in stale wee.
Urine, after being left for a week or two, decomposes and produces a pungent gas called ammonia. Despite smelling like a public toilet, the substance is actually an incredibly effective cleaning product.
In medieval England, cloth-makers spun wool into fabric, but were initially left with a greasy, unwearable material. Their solution? Shamelessly going door-to-door asking for as much wee as the occupants could give.
At the end of this dire day, the mass of pee was poured into big pots, and left until it became stale. Then, once ready, the dirty woven wool was dunked into the pee pots.
Finally, it was the joyless job of the “fuller” to stand in the stinky, wee-soaked mess and tramp their bare feet up and down in a disgusting process that often took all day. This pressed the ammonia into the fabric, degreasing it, and kicking up a rancid stench.
It wasn’t just the Brits that used pee to clean, though! Way back in Ancient Rome, people used urine to bleach their clothes and their teeth too!
Thankfully, due to the wonders of modern science, we produce ammonia in special plants now using natural gas, so we don’t have to rely on bodily waste. All those celebs with their shiny white teeth wouldn’t be smiling so much if they had to get them the old-fashioned way.
Space Photography History
Space has fascinated us since the dawn of time. So, it’s no surprise that when the first widely available camera was invented in 1839, the inventor, Frenchman Louis Daguerre, was quick to snap a photo of the moon.
Unfortunately, this historic photo was lost when Daguerre’s laboratory burned down later that year. But we do have this picture taken in 1840 by John William Draper, the oldest image of the moon in existence.
150 years later, NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, which changed space photography forever. Instead of relying on images taken from Earth, we could now take pictures from space itself!
In 1994, the European Space Agency’s Faint Object Camera took this image of Pluto from the Hubble Space Telescope. Not very impressive, right? That’s because, although Hubble was closer to Pluto than Earth is, the dwarf planet was still 2.7 billion miles away.
So, to have captured anything of it is a feat in itself. Which makes the photo below of Pluto, taken 11 years later in 2015, all the more incredible.
The pic was snapped from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006, which, after 9 long years of traveling, got within an insane 7800 miles of Pluto’s surface, that’s 346,000 times closer than Hubble got!
Appropriate spacecraft thrusters hadn’t been developed at the time Hubble was launched, whereas by 2006 technology had advanced far enough to fit New Horizons with 16 thrusters, allowing it to travel much farther and faster. Knowing that, the difference between the two images is pretty understandable.
Curing Headaches With Electricity
If you get a headache, popping a couple of pills is usually enough to keep the pain at bay. However, painkillers like paracetamol and ibuprofen weren’t readily available until as late as the 1950s and ‘60s!
In ancient times, without modern medicine, doctors turned to more shocking solutions. The Ancient Roman physician Scribonius Largus recommended the use of electric black torpedo fish to cure symptoms of a headache.
After placing the aquatic animal on the sufferer’s head, it would start zapping them with up to 50 volts of electricity at a time! And it worked!
The electricity wasn’t strong enough to cause harm, and actually numbed pain. The only downside was having to, you know, wear a wet, living hat that electrocuted you. Luckily for us, the practice is as dead as old Scribonius. However, the concept of using electric shocks to soothe pain is as alive as you and I.
Scientists studying the phenomenon at the City College of New York attached electrodes to the heads of migraine sufferers and sent mild electric shocks through them. After repeated sessions, they found the duration and intensity of their migraines was reduced by almost 40%!
We’re not entirely sure why it works, but the electricity may release neurotransmitters in the brain which relieve pain. And if you want to try it out yourself, there’s no need to learn to fish. You can buy electrically charged headbands now, provided you have a cool $300 to spare.
Puffing Billy, The First Vaccum Cleaner
Vacuuming really sucks, right? But the predecessor to the vacuum didn’t suck at all, it blew. Back in 1901, British engineer Hubert Cecil Booth saw a demonstration for a dust blowing machine that was supposed to clean train carriage carpets. All it really seemed to do though was throw the dust somewhere else.
Rightly convinced that suction would be far superior, Booth came up with the first ever vacuum cleaner. Nicknamed the “Puffing Billy”, the vacuum was so enormous it had to be pulled by horses! For a fee, the cleaner arrived outside your house, and then long hoses were fed through your windows.
Once the machine was turned on, a petrol-powered motor sucked air and dirt from inside the house, down through the hoses. The dirt was then filtered into a clear glass chamber on the side of the machine. Locals outside often stood and marveled at how much had been collected.
But to hire a Puffing Billy just once cost £20, about the same as a junior maid’s entire yearly salary, and the equivalent of over $3,000 today!
Despite starting as a luxury only the elite could afford, as time went on, vacuum cleaners became far cheaper, and a lot smaller too. However, while now powered by electricity, the modern vacuum still follows much of the same design principles as Booth’s original Puffing Billy!
To most, cloning still sounds like the kind of thing that only exists in sci-fi movies. But unbelievably it’s been happening in real life for over a hundred years! In 1902, German scientist Hans Driesch created the first clone by splitting a salamander embryo into two and growing a pair of identical lizards.
Since then, all kinds of different animals have been successfully cloned. None have been as crazy as what happened on July 30th, 2003, though. In a Jurassic Park-like move, scientists in Spain brought an extinct species of wild goat back to life.
The Pyrenean ibex died out in 2000, but frozen samples of its skin still remained in labs. By taking DNA from this skin and inserting it into the embryos of living domestic goats, scientists successfully got a goat pregnant, who gave birth to the ibex!
Sadly, the new-born passed away due to respiratory issues. Nevertheless, it proves that extinct animals can be resurrected, which is honestly mind-blowing.
Don’t worry too much about a real-world Jurassic Park though! You need a very similar surrogate mother to the extinct species for the process to work. An ibex is a type of goat and there were still issues; and the closest thing we have to a T-rex is a chicken. That’d be one really big egg.
If, however, you want your pet cloned, then you’re in luck. Texas-based Viagen Pets will clone your cat for $25,000, and your dog for $50,000, and they’re not the only company offering the insane service.
Today, a watch often does far more than just tell the time. Smartwatches can tell you the weather, your pulse, and even work as phones! However, the concept of a smart watch was first marketed back in 1984. The Seiko UC-2000 wrist computer both looks and sounds like some kind of wrist-mounted superweapon, but its actual functionality was a little less flashy.
For almost $800 in today’s money, you could snag yourself a device that not only told the time, but also let you make shopping lists. The watch itself was clunky, but did the job, with basic time, stopwatch, and alarm settings.
However, by connecting it to the UC-2100 keyboard, you unlocked a few more options. It let you type notes and use a calculator. Furthermore, the ultimate extension, the UC-2200, transformed the watch into a minicomputer. You could play simple games, dabble in a bit of coding, and even print out your work using the built-in thermal printer!
Although, the printer drained the battery powered system pretty fast, and it could only print receipt-sized pieces of paper. So, probably not worth using it to write your next novel.
Almost 40 years after the Seiko UC-2000, compact, touchscreen watches with a gazillion uses dominate the market. Sure, they’re a lot more powerful but they might not even exist if it wasn’t for this old timer!
Back in medieval Europe, the occupants of castles would use rooms known as “garderobes” to do their dirty business. They were small, jutted out from the castle walls, and had a poop hole which descended down the side of the castle and ended in either a pit or the moat.
Without a plumbing system, it was the unenviable job of so-called “gong farmers” to dig out the smelly, gross mess from the bottom and take it away from the castle.
In fact, the garderobes smelled so bad that people used to store their clothes in them, because the pungent stench kept material-munching moths away! This is where the name comes from “garder” is French for “keep” and “robe” refers to clothes.
Mercifully, modern toilets don’t smell as horrific thanks to the development of sewer systems. Waste is now disposed of through your sink and toilet bowl and sent underground through drains and sewers.
From there it’s taken to water treatment stations, where solids are separated from liquids and collected for fertilizer. The remaining liquid is passed through waste-eating bacteria, and finally the clean water is returned to our rivers and seas!
Urine-Based Pregnancy Tests
Disposable pregnancy tests are not only incredibly useful, but cheap, reliable, and commonplace across the globe. So, what if I told you that those little plastic things women pee on are a replacement for mice?
When a woman is pregnant her pee has a reproductive hormone in it called human chorionic gonadotropin, or hcG– which is what the modern pregnancy test picks up.
Back in 1927 however this was only a theory until German gynecologists Selmar Aschheim and Bernhard Zondek injected women’s urine into immature female mice. They found that if the woman was pregnant, the hormone in the urine would elicit a reproductive response in the mouse, made visible by a dot of blood on the rodent’s ovaries.
By checking for that blood, they could reliably tell if someone was pregnant or not! The procedure was undeniably cruel to the poor mice, but at least paved the way for the more ethical method we use today.
Testing for pregnancy wasn’t always this scientific though. A few hundred years ago, in the 16th century, “pee prophets” were a common way to see if you were expecting. Women came to these mystical figures and gave them samples of their urine, which the prophet would inspect.
If he claimed to see tiny living creatures within the liquid, the woman was announced pregnant. The pee prophet might also test to see if the urine rusted a nail or changed the color of a leaf! Unsurprisingly there’s no scientific evidence to back any of this up.
Historical Use Of Mercury
For thousands of years, humans have been fascinated by the silvery, metallic liquid known as mercury.
As long ago as the 3rd century BC, Qin Shi Huang, First Emperor of China’s Qin Dynasty, was obsessed with the stuff. He believed it was magical, and swallowed mercury pills in order to attain eternal life. Ironically, those pills are what caused his demise.
Mercury is incredibly poisonous to humans, and can cause insomnia, memory loss, headaches and much worse. And yet, for hundreds of years this killer chemical was used as a cure.
An incredibly popular medicine called calomel took the Western world by storm between the 17th and early 20th centuries, and was given to sufferers of all kinds of diseases. One of its main components was mercury. Ingesting the white powder made people drool, vomit, and use the toilet a lot – which was seen as purging the body of bad fluids.
Huge doses of the poison were prescribed, and people continued to chow it down, with no idea they were actually experiencing the symptoms of mercury poisoning. In the 1700s, calomel was even marketed as a teething medicine for kids, called Dr Moffett’s Teethina Powder.
As crazy as it seems, it took us until the 1950s to realize how dangerous the shiny substance really is, and now it’s in the World Health Organization’s top 10 chemicals of major health concern.
However, mercury vapor is still utilized in streetlights, fluorescent lamps, and advertising signs. It helps lightbulbs run more efficiently, and is used so sparingly that if a breakage occurs it won’t cause any harm.
History of Vaccination
In recent times, we’ve become very familiar with the concept of vaccinations. By taking a weakened form of a virus into our bodies, we’re able to fight off the disease, and in doing so gain antibodies that protect us from it in the future.
Vaccinations might be a clinical, hygienic process now, but it wasn’t always this way. The first known instance of vaccination dates back to 11th century China, and it wasn't pretty. Smallpox was tearing through the country, spreading fever, rashes, and often proving fatal.
Naturally, people were willing to do pretty much anything not to catch it. Most commonly, the scabs of the afflicted were pulled off and collected, before being ground into a fine powder. This was then blown through a long tube and into the nose of the receiver, who inhaled the diseased dust.
And that’s not even the worst of it! Alternatively, a small cut was made on the skin of a healthy person, and either powdered scab or pus from a smallpox pustule was inserted into it. While absolutely revolting, in most cases people developed a resistance to the disease!
Much later, 18th century English physician Edward Jenner made the first steps to modernizing the procedure. He, rather riskily, injected cowpox into a young boy, and found that afterwards the boy was immune to the more deadly smallpox! Jenner coined the term “vaccination” from the Latin, “vacca”, meaning cow.
Then, nearly a hundred years later, French scientist Louis Pasteur conducted the first true vaccinations by injecting weakened versions of dangerous bacteria into healthy hosts. He honored Jenner’s findings by keeping the same name.
No matter how much you hate needles, you’ve gotta admit, they’re better than snorting diseased scabs up your nose!