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Useful And Fantastic: People They Laughed At - 3

Val Yule, who believes that new ideas should be given a chance, even if at first they seem strange and laughable, tells of some new thoughts and suggestions that were greeted with derision.


Air conditioning and refrigeration

Dr John Gorrie (1802 – 1855), ‘the Fever Man’, physician, scientist, inventor, and humanitarian, thought to be the son of Scottish immigrants to America, and possibly illegitimate, is considered the father of refrigeration and air conditioning.

Dr. Gorrie's was studying tropical diseases. At the time it was believed that many infectious diseases were caused by bad air. So Dr Gorrie wanted swamps to be drained and sick-rooms kept cool. He tried cooling rooms by hanging basins of ice from the ceilings. Cool air then flowed down across the patient, and out through an opening near the floor. But ice had to be brought by boat from northern lakes. So Gorrie experimented with making artificial ice.

He became so involved with this that after 1845, he gave up his medical practice to try to invent refrigeration. Six years later, in 1851, Gorrie was granted Patent No. 8080 for a machine to make ice. Now impoverished, Gorrie tried to raise money to manufacture his machine, but his partner died and the venture failed. Humiliated by criticism, financially ruined, and his health broken, Gorrie died in seclusion at only 53 years old. Now the square in Apalachicola, St. George Island, Florida, where he is buried, is named Gorrie Square in his honour. The Smithsonian Institution holds the original model of this machine and his scientific articles.


Sir Humphry Davy, 1778-1829, a woodcarver’s son who became a great British chemist and inventor, suggested in 1799, that nitrous oxide could be used as an anesthetic for surgical operations. He believed it could help alleviate pain for the patients, but this time they really did laugh, in fact, nitrous oxide was only used as laughing gas at party entertainment until 1844.

Born in Cornwall, Davy soon excelled at school, amazing his teachers with his remarkable memory and reading endless books. At age 8, his favourite book was the ‘Pilgrims’ Progress’.

Sir Humphry wasn’t deterred by the surgeons, he became well known due to his experiments and public demonstrations. He would show people what kinds of physiological action of some gases could have. Due mainly to the laughing gas, Davy became very popular and was invited to all the elite dinner parties. He justified his addiction to the gas by stating that its properties bestowed all of the benefits of alcohol but was devoid of its flaws.

Today though, nitrous oxide is used as an anaesthetic to dim the light of consciousness. As people are lying on the surgery room table they feel the affects and drift away, never to feel a thing.

Arabic numerals - 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Some of our numerals appear to have been used in India by 3rd century BC. The Arabs had ten symbols by AD 825 but Europe still had Roman numerals, I II III IV V VI and so on. Then in 1120, an English monk, Adelard of Bath, translated an Arab mathematician’s book into Latin.
But for another 500 years there were still scholars in the West who fought against using arabic numerals. They preferred the Roman numerals because these were familiar, even though it is very hard to do sums with them, and modern science would have been impossible. Today many people think funny spellings like ‘Knife’ and ‘thorough’ are A similar problem to Roman numerals.

Modern European Arabic
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10


Astronomy – the solar system

The almost fabulous philosopher Pythagoras (c 580-500 BC, son of a Greek stonecutter, and his follower Philolaus, had speculated that the Earth, moon and stars revolved around the sun, with the musical harmony of the spheres – but this idea had generally been considered fabulous.

Nicolaus Koppernigk of Poland (1473-1543,) who took the Latinised name of Nicolas Copernicus, lost his father when he was ten, and his uncle, a church canon, became his guardian. Copernicus was a cathedral canon, when his calculations convinced him that the planets, including the earth, moved around the sun. He died in the year his book about celestial orbits was published - fortunately for him. Six decades later, the Roman Catholic Index suspended his book ‘De Revolutionibus’, which remained banned until 1835.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was the eldest child of an Italian musician. Galileo was able to use the astronomical telescope he invented to show in 1632 that Copernicus was right. But he got into great trouble, with the Catholic Church because the Church taught that the earth was the centre of everything, as the home of Man. He was found guilty of heresy in claiming that the earth rotated round the sun, and condemned to lifelong house arrest, although he was able to keep on working. Pope John Paul II admitted that there had been errors in the case against Galileo, 350 years later, but still did not admit the Church was wrong to convict him.

Updating the Calendar

Attempts to reform the calendar when it had got really out of step with the lunar year ran into trouble. The Roman statesman Julius Caesar faced a problem in calendar reform in 45 BC because the Roman priests wanted reforms that suited when their friends were in office. Julius Caesar added ten more days, giving the months the lengths they have today. His months were Ianuarius, Februarius Martius Aprilis Maius Iunius Quintilis (Iulius) Sextilis (Augustus) September October November, December .
By 1582, the calendar was again badly out of kilter with the moon. But when Pope Gregory XIII reformed it, and cut out the extra days, people rioted, “Give us back our eleven days!” They thought that the Pope had shortened their lives! Britain would not accept this reformed calendar until 1752, and Russia in 1918. The Orthodox Church still keeps Julius Caesar’s calendar, and has Easter at different times.


Please visit http://home.vicnet.net.au/~ozideas/socinvent.htm


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