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August 06, 2018

Inventors, Inventions And The Great Alexander Fleming!

Where would we be today without inventors and inventions? Well you certainly wouldn’t be reading this blog, for a start. That lovely hot shower you had this morning? Nuh uh. The favourite book that you fell asleep reading in bed last night? Not a chance. Think back over the last few days and your mind will surely start to boggle at the sheer number of inventions that make up a normal day in our modern world!

While lots of inventions are used purely for recreation or to make life more convenient, others are truly life-saving. Take Alexander Fleming, for example. A Scottish scientist, Fleming was co-awarded the Nobel Prize in 1945 for his (accidental!) discovery of penicillin. This discovery led to the infection-fighting antibiotics that are still prescribed in hospitals today, saving countless lives.

August 6th marks Fleming’s birthday and to honour this date, we’ll be sharing four fascinating invention stories. Starting with the late, great Alexander Fleming himself.

Inventor 1: Alexander Fleming and the Surprise Discovery

Alexander Fleming wasn’t the tidiest of scientists. While he had a great reputation as a science researcher, his workspace was often rather messy. But he was a man on a mission. During his time working as a doctor in World War I, he figured out that antiseptics – which were used at the time to treat all sorts of battle injuries – were only good at helping surface wounds. For deeper wounds, antiseptics actually lowered the soldier’s natural resistance to infection because it killed white blood cells. The world needed a medicine that could fight bacterial infections.

Fleming was working hard on trying to find such a medicine. In August 1928 he decided to take a holiday with his wife and son, leaving his messy laboratory behind. When he returned he was annoyed to find a pile of petri dishes covered in mould. Pretty gross, right? Except there was one petri dish that looked completely different. In this dish, the fungus was not surrounded by bacteria! Fleming tested the fungus and found that it belonged to the Penicillum family and could kill lots of different types of bacteria, including those responsible for scarlet fever, pneumonia and meningitis. The following year he officially named the antibiotic: penicillin.

Inventor 2: James Wright and the Accidental Toy

During World War II, US engineer James Wright was asked to try and create a cheaper substitute for rubber, for use on soldiers’ boots. He tried to combine boric acid with silicone oil. The resulting substance was a bit like rubber, but much too stretchy and bouncy. No good at all. Disappointed, Wright chucked a blob of the material from the test tube onto the floor. To his surprise, the blob bounced right back up at him! While fun for him and his colleagues, it wasn’t what he was trying to create and the research was halted.

Seven years later, an enterprising businessman called Peter Hodgson packaged some of the creation and took it to a toy fair in New York. He called it ‘Silly Putty’, marketed it as a toy, and it became one of the most sold items in the US in 1949. A hit at parties, it also became useful for grown ups too. Astronauts on the Apollo 8 moon mission even used this goo to keep their tools secure in zero gravity!

Inventor 3: Grace Hopper and the Five Tonne Computer

Grace Hopper was always fascinated by how things worked. As a young girl she took apart no less than seven different alarm clocks in order to understand what made them ring. This hunger for knowledge led her to a successful career in mathematics and physics. But when the US entered World War II, Hopper was desperate to help. The only problem was, at 36 years she was considered too old, she was below the minimum weight and, of course, she was a woman.

She didn’t let that stop her though. In 1943 she finally convinced the US Navy to overlook her age and, because of her mathematics experience, she joined the team working with the Mark I Calculator. This was an electricity-powered calculator and Hopper was the first person to successfully make it work. The Mark I could perform in a day calculations that had previously taken a month. It’s now considered to be the first modern computer and weighed a mighty five tonnes! Hopper also coined the terms ‘bug’ and ‘debugging’, all because of a pesky moth she had to remove that got trapped in the device.

Inventor 4: Percy Spencer and the Melted Chocolate Bar

Despite never receiving any formal training, Percy Spencer taught himself trigonometry, chemistry and physics. Against all odds he ended up becoming a physicist, and worked for the US government, producing combat radar equipment during World War II. One day, standing in front of an active radar device, he suddenly discovered something squishy in his pocket. It was a chocolate bar he had packed for a snack, and the waves from the radar had completely melted it.

It was not the first time this had happened, but Spencer was the first to investigate it. After an egg exploded into the face of a colleague, Spencer realised he had to safely contain his future experiments. He therefore built a secure, metal box inside which microwaves were emitted. Various food items were placed into the box and Spencer monitored the effects the waves had on them. A few more exploding eggs and popped corn kernels later, it became apparent that Spencer’s experimenting had led to the creation of the first ever microwave oven – something most households own today!

We owe so much to the inventors of the past. These people show that hard work, a thirst for knowledge, and sometimes just a light sprinkling of luck, can make such big differences to the world we live in. You can find out more about our Inventors and Inventions workshop here

Love from Ruth and the team at One Day Creative x

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