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Useful And Fantastic: People They Laughed At - 4

Val Yule, who firmly believes that new ideas should be given a chance to prove their worth, tells of some concepts which were at first laughed to scorn.

Some ideas that were laughed at.

Cars

According to the poet Homer in 700 BC, the blacksmith god Hephaistos had twenty self-propelled tricycles, and the Bible prophet Ezekiel saw flying wheels in the sky. From this divine inspiration, the great Leonardo da Vinci drew sketches for a self-propelled car.

The first clockwork car was built in 1748, one driven by wind in 1760 and the first successful steam-powered tricycle in 1769. The first successful petrol car with an internal combustion engine was made by Otto Benz in 1885, a three-wheeled carriage that was the first of the modern automobiles. They were all ridiculed.

Lord Rosebery, for example, thought the fad would never take on. Public scepticism was one reason for retaining unnecessary features to keep it looking familiar, like a horse-drawn carriage.

It took seven more years and several improved versions later before Benz’s car became popular - but today the Mercedes-Benz is still high-class plus.

Henry Ford too faced ridicule when he had the idea of mass-producing a cheap car so that everyone might be able to drive around.

Born in 1844, Karl Benz was a son of an engine driver. As well as inventing the modern car, Benz also invented the accelerator, the spark plug, the clutch, the gear shift, the water radiator, and the carburettor. Karl Benz founded the Benz Company, that makes the Mercedes Benz, and before dying in 1929, he saw the fruit of his toil as there was a huge boom in car use in the 1920s - thanks to his inventions.

Cleanliness –Preventing death in hospitals by washing hands

Ignaz Semmelweiss, a remarkable doctor, was the first person to suggest that doctors should wash their hands for germs. At the time he was ridiculed severely when he introduced the use of antiseptics in a hospital in Vienna 1847. Women having babies in hospitals commonly died of fever, but doctors’ wards had three times the death rates of midwifes’ wards. Semmelweiss thought the dirty hands of doctors and students carried ‘particles’ of infection among mothers and corpses. He made all his staff attending childbirths wash their hands in an antiseptic chlorine solution.

The rate of deaths of mothers in his hospital dropped dramatically from 18% to 1.3%.

But doctors were furious at his interference and his “stupid idea” that dirty hands and dirty clothes could spread infection. It had been a mark of honour for some doctors to wear clothes that were filthy with the messes they handled. They refused to test his ideas. Semmelweiss died in despair, it was reported, ironically, from an infected hand after operating.

Dr Ignaz Semmelweiss 1818-1865, born in Hungary, fifth of ten children of a groce.

It was not until twenty years later, that an English surgeon, Joseph Lister, 1827-1912, son of a Quaker family, was influenced by Semmelweiss’ writing, and was able to set the practice for antiseptic cleansing, because he showed he could prevent most of his patients dying of septic infection after major surgery. This was highly unusual at the time.

How the blood circulates

Ancient times had some idea that vital fluids circulated through the body, but the Arabian physician Ibn al-Nafis in 1242 was the first to accurately describe the process of blood circulation in the human body, including via the lungs.

William Harvey (1578-1657) conducted a series of experiments to show how the circulatory system worked and how the heart was like a pump that sent the blood around the body. He was originally criticised, in particular by Jean Riolan who believed that the blood only returned to the heart two or three times a day. Many of Harvey’s critics believed in the teachings of Galen, which proposed that both the heart and liver were constantly creating new blood, and that once it reached its destination, it was consumed by the body part never to return.

When Harvey announced his findings in 1615, they were approached lukewarmly, but due to the strength of his experiments, his book later became highly influential. Harvey did not have a microscope that could discover how the capillary system connected arteries and veins. These were later described by Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694) who founded the science of microscopic anatomy, but who also faced controversy and hostility.

The Umbrella

In Ancient Greek Myth, the goddess Athene Sciras carried a white parasol from the Acropolis to the Phalerus marking her as both a lady of fashion and religious belief. Jumping a head to 1770, British men brave enough to carry an umbrella would hear the shout "Frenchman, Frenchman! Why don't you call a coach?" from the passers by. It’s been only in the last century that the Umbrella shaken the notions of femininity and royalty.

The name comes from the Latin word "umbra", meaning shadow, with "umbrella" making it "little shadow". And the overall design of the umbrella hasn’t changed a lot over the centuries.

Born in London in 1712, John Hanway went in to business for himself after first becoming an apprentice for a Lisbon based merchant in 1729. In 1743, he became a partner to a St Petersburg merchant, a job that took him first to Russia and then Persia. Five years after returning to Russia in 1745, Hanway then travelled through Germany and the Netherlands to England (October 28). Finally back in London, he began work on publishing the tales of his travels. His varied writings and philanthropic interests made him some what of a celebrity.

In 1758 he became a governor of the Foundling Hospital and later he was a central figure in the development of the Magdalen Hospital.

Hanway’s claim to fame however, was his title as ‘the first Londoner to carry an umbrella’. They laughed heartily at the middle aged and slightly foreign Hanway, but he lived to see its influence spread and triumph over all the jeering coachmen. The Umbrellas detractors were known to call out names and sometimes threw things at the brave, but dry, umbrella wielding gentleman.

The Museo dell’Ombrello, stands today in Italy as the only umbrella museum in the world. It’s unsurprising that a Londoner be given so much of the praise for bringing the ancient concept into the Modern era, as one of the wettest countries the English are in great need of protection. Even in the years following Hanway’s death it’s reputed that many English gentleman would speak not of their umbrella, but their "Hanway."

Daylight saving

Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed. Book of Joshua, X, 12-13.

Benjamin Franklin first conceived of Daylight Saving Time in 1784, and published about it in the Journal de Paris.

William Willett, a successful London builder and keen golfer, wrote ‘Waste of Daylight’ in 1908. ‘This noble-minded man personally bore all the expense of bringing his scheme to fruition, which we understand ran into some thousands of pounds.’ As a builder, Willett was an advocate of plenty of light and fresh air and we find his buildings fine expressions of this ideal. The business still flourishes in London today. According to Willett, when the population of Great Britain and Ireland was 43,660,000,the number of hours during which the cost of artificial light would be saved would be: £2,546,834. The Press with few exceptions protested loudly. "Will the cows give their milk earlier because of Mr. Willett?" "Will the chickens know what time to go to bed?”

In 1911 Mr. Winston Churchill addressed a large and enthusiastic meeting at the Guildhall in support of the Bill. Meetings were also taking place in opposition, particularly by the watch and clock industry and agriculture.

Daylight saving came first in Germany, in 1915, as a wartime measure. Willett did not live to see the English 1916 Daylight Saving wartime emergency bill, which was made law in 1925.

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