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City Center of Nantes

City Center of Nantes

You are probably familiar with Nantes because of the 1598 Edict of Nantes, a royal proclamation whereby the French king Henry IV granted substantial rights to his Protestant subjects. The Edict of Nantes–and its revocation in 1685 by Louis XIV–were critical drivers for the historical events in continental Europe during the Age of Absolutism (which in turn gave shape to the modern world). However Nantes is also a real place—an industrialized port city near where the Loire river empties into the Atlantic on the west coast of France.

The château of the Dukes of Brittany

The château of the Dukes of Brittany

Although Paris monopolizes most of the international attention which France receives, Nantes is notable as an extremely innovative city which eagerly tries out various new paradigms and technologies. Although not all of these concepts are winners, some of them have paid off remarkably well, and Nantes is often mentioned as one of the safest and most pleasant cities to live in. Indeed back in 2004, a magazine (which was a sort of periodically-issued softback book) named the city as Europe’s most livable.

The port of Nantes ( attributed to Nicolas Ozanne, ca. 1800, inkwash drawing)

The port of Nantes ( attributed to Nicolas Ozanne, ca. 1800, inkwash drawing)

Nantes has a long history as an innovator and early adapter. Through the troubling lens of history we can see how this has been both bad and good. For example, Nantes was the first French city to leap into the slave trade back in the era of colonial expansion and it remained the center of the French triangle trade until that evil commerce was abolished in 1818. Nantes also enthusiastically embraced the French revolution and it was an early industrialized city which featured what was arguably the world’s first mass-transit system.

The Nantes Tramway opened in 1985--as other cities got rid of their trams.

The Nantes Tramway opened in 1985–as other cities got rid of their trams.

In the contemporary world, Nantes has all sorts of futuristic architecture and art projects. These combine very evocatively with its dramatic Ancien Régime heritage to make it look like an alternate reality. Ultra-modern trams run along greenways beneath castle walls. Giant robot cranes loom above bike trails and sculpture gardens. Indeed the sculptures of Nantes are what drew my attention to it in the first place (I, uh, only knew about Nantes because of the famous edict and I sort of thought the place stopped existing after the counter-reformation). I’ll feature an interesting public sculpture from Nantes tomorrow!

dezeen_Tour-Vegetale-de-Nantes-by-Edouard-Francois-1nantes

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky on a Soviet Stamp

Born in 1857, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky grew up in a remote province of Tsarist Russia with his 17 brothers and sisters. His father, Edward Ciołkowskia, was a Polish orthodox priest who had been deported deep into the heart of Russia as a result of his political activities.  Edward Russianized his name and married an educated Tartar woman: the two then proceeded to have many children (of whom Konstantin was fifth). When he was 9 years old Konstantin caught scarlet fever and barely survived.  Once he finally recovered, he was deaf or very nearly so.  Because of his hearing problem he was denied admittance to elementary school and he quickly fell behind his peers. His mother died when he was 13 and his family’s poverty prevented him from moving forward in the world.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky on a Soviet Stamp ( I'm sorry that I'm still thinking about stamps even in the midst of this remarkable tale)

This is a very grim and Russian story so far but here is where it becomes extraordinary. Isolated and alone, Konstantin made his way to Moscow.  He was teaching himself at the Chertkovskaya Library where a very strange and brilliant man named Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov was an employee. Fyodorov was a transhumanist philosopher and a futurist who believed that humankind’s path forward leads ultimately to technological transcendence and divinity. He felt that scientific progress would eventually lead to physical immortality and then ultimately to the resurrection of all people who have ever died (Fyodorov liked to think “outside of the box”).  With the tutelage and mentorship of Fyodorov, Tsiolkovsky taught himself math. He took an active interest in Fyodorov’s scientific philosophy and even began to wonder what could be done with all of the immense number of dead humans if and when they returned. The thought led Konstantin Tsiolkovsky to think about outer space and the subject came to dominate the rest of his life.

Inspired by Fyodorov’s wild ideas and by the science fiction of Jules Verne, Tsiolkovsky began to invent the science necessary to carry humans up gravity’s well and beyond this world.  The Encyclopedia of Science summarizes his work as follows:

Tsiolkovsky produced some of the earliest scientific literature on spaceflight, including the classic work Exploration of Space by Means of Reactive Apparatus (1896). In 1898 he derived the basic formula that determines how rockets perform – the rocket equation. This formula was first published in 1903, a few months before the Wright brothers’ historic manned flight. It appeared, together with many other of Tsilokovsky’s seminal ideas on spaceflight, in an article called “Investigating Space with Rocket Devices,” in the Russian journal Nauchnoye Obozreniye (Science Review). Unfortunately, the same issue also ran a political revolutionary piece that led to its confiscation by the Tsarist authorities. Since none of Tsiolkovsky’s subsequent writings were widely circulated at the time (he paid for their publication himself out of his meager teacher’s wage), it was many years before news of his work spread to the West.

No one understood Tsiolkovsky’s work at the time he wrote them.  Today the basic concepts behind space travel—such as multistage rockets, orbital velocity, and compressed liquid fuels–are widely understood [Ed. not according to the comments of any given article about space exploration on CNN] but at the dawn of the twentieth century they were wildly fantastic and incomprehensible to international scientists much less to Tsarist Russians. Tsiolkovsky did not stop at elementary proposals of space travel and the fundamental underpinnings of rocketry.  He also came up with sophisticated ideas such as using graphite rudders for rocket telemetry, cooling combustion nozzles with cryogenic propellants, and pumping fuel from storage tanks into the rocket’s combustion chamber.

Tsiolkovsky's Conception of a Spaceship

His neighbors regarded him as an eccentric outsider—a deaf schoolteacher mumbling gibberish—but Tsiolkovsky kept on coming up with brilliant ideas, some of which are still ahead of their time.  In 1895 he was inspired by the Eiffel Tower to propose the creation of a 35,790 kilometer tall tower surmounted by “a celestial castle” from which objects could be launched directly into space: it was the first conception of a space elevator.   By the twenties, as the scientific minds of the new Soviet Union began to realize how innovative Tsiolkovsky’s ideas were, he was contemplating sustainable space habitats and galactic colonization.

Today Konstantin Tsiolkovsky is considered the father of theoretical astronautics—or more simply the father of spaceflight.  Sputnik was launched on his one hundredth birthday.  Soviet propagandists built many statues and monuments to Tsiolkovsky but the greatest tribute to his legacy (apart of course from humankind’s space programs–which grew from his ideas) has been seen by only a few humans. Tsiolkovsky crater, the most prominent feature on the dark side of the moon is named in his honor.

The Dark Side of the Moon (Tsiolkovsky Crater dominates in the upper left quarter)

 

Close observation of this image will make you feel better about our current financial situation and about the moral progress of our nation.

The Panic of 1837 was one of the worst financial crises to ever hit the United States of America (at the time it was the worst).  It brought a five year recession in its wake.  Gloom mongers (and even hard-headed realists) believed that the nation would never recover its prosperity.

During the 1830s there was an immense boom of real estate speculation focused on public lands which were being sold off to buyers with political connections.  Huge fortunes could be made by reselling this land to railroad companies and canal builders who were rushing forward with competing projects.  The individual states were complicit with this mania, sinking vast amounts of public money into a diverse array of infrastructure projects both good and bad.

A "wildcat" three dollar banknote issued by a Michigan Bank for some sort of "Safety Fund" in 1837

Through various vetoes and political maneuvers President Andrew Jackson had successfully engineered the demise of the Second Bank of the United States (which was unable to renew its charter in 1832).  A great rash of new banks and investment companies sprang up throughout the 1830’s to supplant the bank.  Rather than paying off their debts and refinancing new projects, these financial houses anticipated greater profits from investing borrowed capital in the booming land speculations.  Because of this apparent national prosperity, the balance of trade shifted.  America, previously an exporter, was suddenly importing more goods than it was selling.  In anticipation of the huge profits, American states and corporations (and wealthy individuals) were borrowing money from European banks.  Additionally,  the world’s climate was changing in the 1830s.  An unusually cold era marked by intense volcanic activity and by an anomalous paucity of sunspots (the Dalton minimum) was coming to an end.  As environmental conditions changed, crops failed in 1835 and in 1837.

All of these factors were topped off by disastrous executive meddling.  The Specie Circular Act was an executive order issued summarily by Andrew Jackson in 1836 (during his last year in office) and carried out by his unfortunate successor. It required payment for all government land to be in gold or silver.  Jackson anticipated that the nation’s coffers would fill up with precious metals (he apparently did not trust paper money).  But people did not and could not pay.  The bubble burst.  Over 600 banks failed and the cotton market completely collapsed.  Eight states partially or wholly failed and even the Federal government was unable to discharge its debts.  Trade stood still as business confidence evaporated entirely.  Food riots shook the country.  Unemployment and hardship were the watchwords of the time.  The whole sad affair was exacerbated by economic calamity overseas: European bankers, suffering from their own setbacks, curtailed lending.  It was not until 1842 that the economy began to recover.

"I have no money and cannot get any work."

Strangely enough, the grim era between 1837 and 1842 witnessed tremendous technical innovations which would reshape the nation and the world.  In 1837 Samuel Morse invented the electric telegraph, which he successfully tested on January 6th 1838 at the Speedwell near Morristown, New Jersey–thus inventing the telecommunications industry.  Crawford Williamson Long used ether for the first time on March 30, 1842 to remove a tumor from the neck of a patient and usher in a new era of surgery.  In Europe a German chemist invented artificial fertilizer while James Nasmyth perfected the steam hammer (which made it much easier to build large machines).  Morse’s accomplishments and those of his fellow inventors are remembered.  The failures of the rapacious bankers, greedy speculators, and incompetent politicians have been forgotten by everyone except for historians.

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