A Crafty Egyptian Law Helped the Library of Alexandria Assemble Collection

James Burke Connections, Ep. 2 “Death in the Morning”

“Death in the Morning” examines the standardisation of precious metal with the touchstone in the ancient world. This innovation stimulated trade from Greece to Persia, ultimately causing the construction of a huge commercial center and library at Alexandria which included Ptolemy’s star tables. This wealth of astronomical knowledge aided navigators during the age of discovery 14 centuries later following the introduction of lateen sails and sternpost rudders. Mariners discovered that the compass’s magnetised needle did not actually point directly north. Investigations into the nature of magnetism by Gilbert led to the discovery of electricity by way of the sulphur ball of von Guericke. Further interest in atmospheric electricity at the Ben Nevis weather station led to Wilson’s cloud chamber which in turn allowed development of both Watson-Watt’s radar and (by way of Rutherford’s insights) nuclear weaponry.

I would say it was a pretty safe bet
that the the one magic wish most people
would like to be granted would be to be
able to see into the future
I mean think what it would mean I’m
backing the right horse but we can’t we
have to guess about tomorrow and we have
to act on that guess and it’s never been
any different and that’s why following
the trail from the past up to the
emergence of the modern technology that
surrounds us in our daily lives and
affects our lives is rather like a
detective story because at no time in
the past did anybody who had anything to
do with the business of inventing or
changing things ever know what the full
effects of his actions would be he just
went ahead and did what he did for his
own reasons like we do that’s how change
comes about and it’s like a detective
story because if you follow the trail
from the past up to a modern man-made
object the story is full of sudden
twists and false clues and and guesswork
and you never know where the story is
heading until the very last minute
this detective story starts in the
eastern Mediterranean about 2,500 years
ago and it starts with a subject dear to
most people’s hearts money and because
that’s the way things go in history it
will end as will all these programs with
something totally different in this case
a modern-day invention that affects the
life of every man woman and child on
earth take yourself back then to a time
when the Mediterranean was practically
empty when the ancient Greeks had only
just turned up and together with the
Phoenicians and the Egyptians were about
all there was living in cities we would
call villages when if you wanted to
trade with somebody it was a case of
meet me in the Market Square and I’ll
give you my vegetables if you give me
your cloth you bartered because there
was no such thing as cash and the reason
we’ve come looking for clues in this
particular city on the Mediterranean has
to do with how cash was invented and
what happened as a result the way it
shows how change comes as much as
anything by accident sometime around 700
BC in a place called Lydia what is now
modern Turkey there was a river that
washed gold down from the local
mountains and the local people used to
pan it and melt it down for religious
objects jewelry that kind of stuff and
then in the riverbed somebody came
across this it’s called a touchstone and
if you rub gold onto it you get a streak
but if you rub gold mixed with silver or
something else
you get a different kind of streak see
what that means if that streak is pure
gold and somebody’s trying to offload
garbage on to you well you take what he
calls gold and you rub it on the touch
stone and you can see immediately than
what he says his gold isn’t up to your
standard well the Lydians went
immediately into the business of
standardizing their precious metals and
over the next 300 years or so all over
the eastern Mediterranean and in Persia
the habit spread of accepting metal
instead of goods as payment because now
you could trust the value of the metal
after that point in any state or empire
that had a mint making coins the new
money really stimulates trained
by the time Alexander the Great was
running everything from India to Italy
his coinage was accepted everywhere and
his world was like one giant marketplace
well in 331 BC he decided to build a big
commercial center to handle the flood of
goods criss crossing his empire this was
it named after him Alexander you could
do two things here
get very rich and get yourself the best
education in the world you see
Alexandria had a library and what a
library it’s opening hours went on for
maybe a thousand years and its height it
had more than a half a million books and
that was it I mean if it wasn’t here it
wasn’t worth knowing about and then in
the end somebody burnt every single book
nobody knows who fanatical Christians
fanatical Arabs take your pick
religion at work left nothing well
almost nothing because the next clue in
this particular historical detective
story takes us down a hole of course
this was no ordinary hole it led down to
a kind of extra backup library and since
it wasn’t above-ground to be destroyed
it’s still here it’s a real honeycomb of
tunnels down here like a literary rabbit
now all the books were stored in
catalogue just like we do today
according to subject heading and placed
in niches like these of course being a
big seaport the main interest was in
nautical things like maps geography
books aids to navigation that sort of
thing and they were all written in ink
on papyrus made from slivers of reed
stuck flat together and they came out
like this in the form of Scrolls now
they got these Scrolls either because
the local scholars wrote them or because
they had a rather crafty law see if you
came to Alexandria on a boat and you
owned a book you had to lend it to the
library to be copied and sometimes the
good the owners went off with the fakes
and the library kept the original this
is a copy of one of the library’s
bestsellers author Claudius Ptolemy
title all you ever wanted to know about
calculation 13 volumes all the Astronomy
that was known at the time one of the
volumes was a star catalog containing
1022 stars look here’s the name of the
star here’s the zodiac sign it’s in
Gemini Sagittarius here’s where it is in
that zodiac is it northern or southern
hemisphere how many degrees east or west
on the sky is it and how bright is it
Ptolemy did these squiggles about a
hundred and fifty ad and they’re one of
the great examples of an idea ahead of
its time because one of the ways this
was to be used by sailors to open up the
world in a way you’re going to see
happening later in this program wasn’t
gonna come for over 1,400 years and as
for the sailors pouring in and out of
Alexandria in ptolemies time
well they just weren’t interested in
charts of the sky
some sailing astronomers might have used
them in order to find out their position
because you see if the tables told you
that at a certain time a star should be
in that position in the sky and you
actually saw it in that position you
could work backwards so to speak to find
out what position you’d have to be in in
order to see it at that different angle
but the sailors stuck to their maps and
their winds because from the very
beginning they’d used ships with the
kind of sail that makes it hard to get
into serious navigational problems a
square sail that only takes you the way
the winds blowing which is what they did
right through the Roman period with
bigger ships and richer Coggins until
suddenly around 700 AD
the newly arrived Arab pirates gave one
simple order open your wallet and repeat
after me
help yourself you didn’t they took it
it became clear to even the dumbest
merchant that the quickest way to lose a
fortune was to put it all in one big fat
cargo ship so the Arabs could take the
lot everybody started spreading the risk
in smaller ships less to be plundered in
one go
let’s switch to the use of smaller ships
brought into general use something that
would help Europeans colonize America
centuries later the very earliest
picture we have of it comes from a
manuscript written in the 9th century in
Byzantium it was a sail the kind of sail
that had previously only been used on
smaller ships and the kind of sale that
you can find on a modern Arab Dao like
this one today look at the shape it’s
triangular now that is a lateen sail and
what you could do with the lateen sail
was something you could never have done
with the old roman square sail look
suppose the wind is coming in this
direction with a lateen sail you can say
I’m in any direction right up until the
Roma sinning against the wind on either
side of it it’s on a long journey they
would go take the wind from this side
then they would tack and take the wind
from this side and they would tack again
take the wind again from this side mind
you it wasn’t something they enjoyed
doing too much I mean look what it
involved apart from the fact that with
the ton of tackle you needed and a lot
more crew to handle it
the worst bit came when the ship was
just about to cross the wind at which
point you had to lift the spa to right
over the top of the mast and doing that
in rough weather was no picnic still it
was a lot better than going in the wrong
now if you’re not a sailing buff you may
not be turned on by the lateen sail but
as you’ll see it means a great deal more
to you than you might think
see although it was nice to be able to
zigzag everywhere sailing like that
wasn’t the only thing that happened
because of this campus triangle the
lateen sail permitted one other thing
with it you could leave port pretty well
when you wanted to without having to
wait for a wind that was going in the
same direction you were and that meant
he would leave port more often that
meant there was more cargo on the move
more trade more prosperity it’s probable
that the Arabs introduced the lateen
sail into Western Europe just about in
time to play a major role in the
recovery of the European economy after
the chaos and confusion of the so-called
Dark Ages
however by about 1200 there was so much
bulk cargo like grain or Crusaders going
to the Holy Land so much bulk cargo on
the move that the ships had got very
much bigger and then they ran into
another problem the problem of steering
you see up until that point you’ve
steered with a couple of oars one off
either side of the stern but by about
1200 the ships are so big that those
oars just really weren’t feasible
anymore which is why they probably
picked up an idea from the Chinese that
solved the problem this the stern post
brother with the stern post rudder you
could handle a ship of almost any size
in almost any sea condition so by the
13th century the Europeans had all the
technology the lateen sail the old
square sail the stern post rudder to go
they wanted to they didn’t need
to use it until 1453 when Constantinople
fell to the Turks and after that it was
if you wanted something from the Far
it was either pay that price the Turks
wanted for letting it come through their
territory oh go get it yourself which is
just what the Europeans did in the great
16th century voyages of discovery
and it was now that the Mariners began
to use those star charts prepared in
such detail by Claudius Ptolemy fourteen
centuries before
this is the Golden Hind the ship that
carried Sir Francis Drake around the
world it’s not unlike the earlier
caravels that sailed with the great
Portuguese navigators down around the
southern tip of Africa and then out
across the Atlantic with Columbus in
1492 so what was it about these ships
that meant that you could sail them at
will to the ends of the earth well look
at the rigging now I know it looks like
a confused mass of ropes but if you look
carefully you’ll see the old square sail
there on the front mast as some of these
ships had won some two sometimes even
three masses carrying the square sails
but on the back end there was a mast
with a familiar triangular shape of the
lateen and it was this mixture of sail
that allowed you to cross the notion
anytime you wanted to
look here’s Spain and here’s the
northern part of Africa and over here
there’s America and the Gulf and then
South America now in the area here off
the coast you get winds going in all
sorts of direction very variable so you
use a lateen sail to tack yourself into
a position where the steady north
easterly trade winds which you can pick
up on the square sails will take you
straight across the Atlantic when you
want to come home you do the same thing
the other way around you tack through
the variable winds until you pick up the
westerlies you put up the square sails
and the westerlies bring you all the way
home most of the maps they use at the
time are made in Majorca and by the 14th
century they were turning out portolan
charts and updating them as explorers
came back with more information
now the charts contained only what a
sailor needed to know know inland detail
at all just details of the coastline the
names of the harbours and these lines
showing the directions of the major and
minor winds along which you steered the
charts were very precise and because the
aim of the people using them as profit
they were also very secret
but the thing that really gave Europe
the world on a plate was that the first
reference we have to it is by an English
monk around about 1200 it probably came
from China via the Arabs to Europe and
early on they would have used it like
this and the magnetized needle stuck
through the straw would point north and
then around about 1300 somebody probably
in the maritime Republic of amalfi south
of Naples hidden the idea of mounting
the needle and putting a card on it and
on the card putting the wind directions
and putting the whole thing in a box the
effect of the compass was electric in
more ways than one as you’ll see firstly
it meant that you could go out sailing
under cloudy skies because you no longer
needed the Stars or the Sun to steer by
and the immediate effect of that was to
double the number of voyages because now
you could sail in the winter so silk and
spices from India and gold and silver
from America began to pour into Europe
and it wasn’t until enough men had
sailed to enough places that they
realized that the faithful compass was
lying there was true north the north of
the Polestar and there was the magnetic
north and depending where on earth you
were that varied and for a great
mercantile empire like England that was
very bad news
I suppose Shakespeare and the travel
agents have done more than anybody else
to give us our Technicolor view of
Elizabethan England starring the Queen
herself as a kind of swashbuckler in
pearls fact is about all she had time
for was bookkeeping when she took the
place over in 1558 it was national
disaster with the money was worthless
there was no money that was plagued the
cities were packed and stinking
Elizabeth appealed to the decent English
middle class with their healthy desire
for prestige power fun and games at cash
soon anybody who wanted to be anybody
was on the make and none more than that
famous bunch of privateering sea dogs
led by Drake Rowley and Hawkins who
sailed the Atlantic looking for new
American trade opportunities for England
setting up colonies knocking off Spanish
galleons and doing it all with a kind of
gutsy disregard for convention that we
described today as criminal
the privateers would bring back
everything they could lay their hands on
even Eskimos jus touch me
and somewhere in among the hustle and
bustle and talk of adventure during the
great feast days at places like Hampton
Court there must always have been some
b-ball saying hey listen you’ll never
guess what happened to my compass in
England last week
now the reason why all those pushy
ambitious high living upper-middle-class
Elizabethans gave a damn about which way
a compass needle pointed was because
there were fantastic profits to be had
an overseas trade and if your needle let
you down and he went off course well
there’s a pretty good chance you
wouldn’t get home with all the lovely
money see the problem of the needle was
really quite simple it didn’t always
point in the same direction and people
have been saying that since 1492 when
Columbus on his way across to America
got to about here and panicked because
suddenly he realized that his needle
wasn’t pointing at the North Star and
then in 1580 when Sir Francis Drake got
back from his round-the-world trip with
enough gold and jewels pinched from one
Spanish ship on its way home from Peru
to give his backers 4700 cent profit
well it was obviously trying to do
something about it because if his needle
had let him down look what they would
have all lost so in 1581 a compass maker
called Robert Norman decided to look
into the matter and he did this and he
saw nothing happening which was very odd
I mean for a start he said if the needle
is supposed to be attracted to the north
why doesn’t it move to the north instead
of sitting in the middle of the bowl
doing nothing well
Norman’s remarks attracted the interest
of a certain William Gilbert it wasn’t a
sailor wasn’t a merchant as a matter of
fact he was a well heeled society doctor
eventually to become physician to the
Queen now like most other medics at the
time Gilbert knew a bit about magnetism
because his profession was very much
into metals they had recently stopped an
epidemic of syphilis by treating it with
mercury in the form of mercuric oxide
this red powder and magnetic metal was
recommended for treating people with
because it was supposed to bring the
disease out of them so over a period of
about 18 years Gilbert went home at the
end of every day and fiddled around with
natural magnets made of lodestone and
since the name of the game was to find
out why the compass needle varied as it
went round the earth he made his little
magnets in the form of the earth
and when he got plenty of them ready he
started his experiments and brought
anything he could think of in contact
with his magnets including of course a
compass needle which behaved exactly as
he said it should wherever he moved it
the needle pointed at the North Pole of
his tiny magnet so he reckoned that the
earth itself had to be a giant magnet
with a magnetic north pole and it was
that that the compass pointed at not the
North Star what’s more he said if you
leave one of these things alone it turns
once in a day and therefore the earth
must do exactly the same thing and he
said if the earth is a magnet that’s why
what goes up must come down because it’s
attracted in 1600 he wrote down
everything he discovered in a vast book
and in doing so he set in motion a train
of events that would one day lead to one
of the most frightening bits of
technology in the modern world
he called his book de magnete about the
Gilbert’s book was practically an an
overnight success in Europe I mean for a
start he was writing in Latin so he
didn’t have any translation problems
most of the intellectuals around used
Latin to work with and then I’m look
what he was saying that the earth is a
giant magnet spinning in space holding
the moon with its power
surrounded by the vacuum of
interplanetary space and out there in
that vacuum there are thousands and
millions of unseen stars and planets and
he’s saying I said 1,600 I mean no
wonder everybody went bananas about it
and the reason our detective story takes
us next to this small town on the Danube
in southern Germany is because of one
man who got very excited by what Gilbert
had said his name is Otto Eureka and in
1653 he was here in Regensburg commanded
by the emperor to attend the coronation
of his son the coronation was the
occasion for a great Imperial shindig in
the town with dancing and drinking and
singing in them generally burping it up
rather like the annual Regensburg brawl
going on here today
in Regensburg some of the more
meaningful traditions haven’t changed a
bit in hundreds of years
the sober citizens of Regensburg claimed
that it was here in 1653 that autogiro
car did something quite amazing as a
result of reading what Gilbert had said
about the nothingness in interplanetary
space here in Regensburg they say he
took a hollow ball made of two
hemispheres that fitted together
harnessed horses to each side of the
ball and however hard they called the
ball refused to come apart although the
two halves were not held together by any
kind of joy what kept them United was a
mysterious force so powerful that horses
couldn’t break it they say that after
the experiment was over Eureka went on
to astound the onlookers by opening a
tiny hole in the ball at which point
it’s sell apart with a twist of his
madness now whether or not that actually
happened in Regensburg is neither here
nor there the fact is it caused a
tremendous stir all over Europe because
the mysterious force holding those
hemispheres together is what Gilbert had
been theorizing about in 1600 and what
in 1654 had only just been discovered
the vacuum put inside those hemispheres
by the newly invented vacuum pump
invented by otto Gorica or rather
adapted by otto Gorka because what he
did was adapt lee one of these you know
that is it’s what you have to have handy
if most of your buildings are made of
wood it’s a fire extinguisher see and
Eureka adapted it to suck air instead of
water and it was a very big hit with him
Ferdinand the third Holy Roman Emperor
Ferdinand had taken the opportunity of
his son’s coronation to invite all the
princes and bishops and barons and city
representatives more over Germany to
come here to this Reichstag hall for
several months of discussions on things
like taxation and war and economic
policy now they all sat in these benches
and Ferdinand of course being Emperor
said up there on his throne anyway
towards the end of the sessions in 1654
Ferdinand asked Otto Goroka who was here
because he was mayor of Magdeburg if he
Jerrica would do some of the tricks that
the emperor had heard he could do and
gorica in this hall obligingly used his
vacuum pump to make vacuums in glass
spheres and then he amazed the assembled
company by showing them that my
suffocated in the vacuum candles went
out in it if you rang a bell in it you
couldn’t hear the bell and all sorts of
other goodies Ferdinand was so tickled
by the whole thing that when it was over
he asked if he could have all the
apparatus and being Emperor of course
he got it still he did have the whole
thing written up which is how the rest
of Europe got to hear about the vacuum
pump Eureka was a real dabbler and he
got very intrigued by one other thing he
read in Gilbert’s book a bit about some
substances like sulfur attracting things
so chemica quite solemnly built himself
this rather silly self a ball on a stick
and he spun it and when he was spinning
it he rubbed it with his hand like this
now the reason he did that is because he
was looking for evidence of what we
today would call gravity why things
stuck to the earth and didn’t fly off
into space so when he wrote this
experiment up he went into great detail
about things like the ball would have
tracked a piece of thread and when the
thread was in contact with the ball the
thread would attract things fortunately
he also mentioned something else about
which he entirely missed the point
he said if you spin the ball and rub it
and then take it out and hold it next to
your ear you hear a crack and if you do
it in the dark the ball glows now I said
that was fortunate that he mentioned it
because his half interested comments
kicked off investigation into why the
crack and the glow occurred and that
turned out to be electricity you know
the fascinating thing about moments like
this in history is that they lead to so
many places at once
we could for instance go forward from
the vacuum pump to the investigation of
air to the discovery of oxygen to
finding out how the human lungs work to
modern respiratory medicine or we could
go vacuum pump steam engine locomotive
or we could go vacuum pump investigation
of gases sending electric spark through
them to see what would happen the
cathode ray tube modern radar or take
the globe that the sulphur glowed the
fact that the thread when it was
attached you remember carried the
mysterious force away down the thread
led to people trying to do that
deliberately to send the force down wire
that in turn led to the Telegraph and
that in turn led to the telephone but
for our purposes let’s take the route
that leads to one of modern society’s
most horrifying inventions and the next
step on that route from this 17th
century government meeting forward into
the future takes us into the area of the
Englishman’s favorite topic of
the weather there was obviously some
connection between Eureka’s spark and
lightning so people got all excited
about atmospheric electricity in general
was there gunpowder in clouds was Irish
fog more electric than other kinds
interest centered on the unfortunate
church bell rings who have now you
mentioned it did tend to get
electrocuted with monotonous regularity
because one of their jobs was to ring
the bell during storms
but like being got taken really
seriously only when they realized it was
doing this little trick gun Papa stores
kept on doing this now this was serious
it wasn’t just costing lives it was
costing money it was these explosions
that brought to public attention the
ideas of the 15th son of an American
soap maker who flew of his kite in a
storm to prove his point
Franklin reckoned the key solution was
lightning rods that would attract the
negative electricity to their positive
metal ships lasts for like like minutes
and it was a disgruntled Navy that
finally got the subject widened to
include storms in general when this
in an attempt to warn their ships of
storms the Royal Navy started taking
weather reports from as well as readings
from their barometers when the first of
these collections was put together in
1861 they had the world’s first weather
chart of an Atlantic depression looking
remarkably modern on land the same thing
started with stations reporting via the
new Telegraph now fortunately all this
seriousness was tinged with some of the
peculiar insanity of the period by the
eagerness with which people now talk to
an amazing new invention described just
after it came out as infinitely the most
extraordinary and magnificent discovery
perhaps since creation now you may feel
that a bit exaggerated but you can
understand why people got so very
lightheaded about it it’s one of the
symptoms you suffer from when you use it
going up in a balloon makes you feel
like doing all sorts of daft things
by the middle of the 19th century the
balloon enjoyed the same kind of
reputation the back seat of the motorcar
did in the 1940s it was rather often
used for purposes for which it had not
been originally designed
I mean Frenchmen in particular would
cruise along with their girlfriends
dropping empty champagne bottles on the
gaping peasants below and returning to
earth to announce their engagement when
you some of it was all serious science
they took up barometers and thermometers
and cats and dogs and geese and ducks
and sheep and 200-pound ladies to
observe their effect on the weather and
vice versa and these intrepid pioneers
enjoyed all the privileges of going to
high altitude without oxygen and
bleeding at the ears and eyes nausea
vomiting swelling of the head and
passing out mind you in spite of all
that they did learn things they never
would have if they’d stayed on the
ground like the temperature does not
decrease steadily as you rise in the sky
and nor does the air pressure some of
them stayed up for days drifting along
enjoying the view
dropping notes by parachute that never
seemed to save much other than
everything going remarkably well
including those who have ever seen again
by the late 19th century what with all
these airborne anemometers and reports
from shipping and stations on the ground
using the new electric telegraph you
could pick up a copy of your times in
the morning and get almost as good a
forecast as you can today
the only disadvantage to all this
high-altitude information which by now
they regarded as vital was that sooner
or later when you ran out of hot air or
hydrogen or food or champagne you had to
come down what they needed was some way
of staying at high altitude for as long
as they liked which is why our story
next takes us to a place you’d imagine
they would have thought of long before a
place where you can stay at high
altitudes for as long as you like the
Highlands of Scotland
on October the 17th 1883 this ancestral
home at the bottom of a mountain was the
venue for a get-together buy the cream
of enlightened Scottish gentility to
mark the grand opening of a new weather
station on top of the highest Highland
in Highlands delivers refreshments were
offered to the guests and provisions
were loaded for the journey to come by
numerous factors and gillies and other
members of the unpronounceable Scottish
lower orders it was a grand ludicrous
overdone affair in the way that all
philanthropic Victorian public occasions
were in any other country in the world
that have dropped the whole thing – the
rain stopped but this was 19th century
Scotland and they were bent on serious
matters so they gritted her teeth and
cheerfully did their duty as the rain
filled up their bagpipes
after all was the whole thing not being
recorded for posterity
the really nice thing about what science
did to the Victorians was that it made
them all lunatic in the same way so the
townspeople of Fort William also did
their duty as a procession part by
getting soaked and waving silly flags as
they were supposed to
at 9:00 a.m. the party began their trek
up the mountain led by a single Piper
busting a catchy little Celtic number
called low heels owatta France why I’ve
never been able to find out and the rain
obligingly turned to sleet so everybody
could have what one was supposed to have
when doing one’s duty a thoroughly
rotten time
as more and more stations like Ben Davis
were set up and people could sit and
look at the weather as it shifted and
changed they noticed that it made
distinct patterns so in good Victorian
style they catalogued them and in the
1890s came up with an official
international Cloud Atlas which gave
clouds the names by which they’re known
and this catalog of clouds is the next
clue in our detective story because
clouds caused something strange to
happen at Ben Nevis you see from the
moment it opened the station observers
worked 24 hours a day each shift would
send off regular reports on temperature
pressure rain and so on and one of the
reports they had to file would be about
the clouds and if you were on the dawn
shift you’d sometimes see the clouds in
the valley do something very weird to
your shadow
this is called a glory and the strange
thing about it is that the colors that
appear in the halo don’t appear in the
order they do in the rainbow but the
other way round
at this point events took the most
extraordinary twist for the very mundane
reason that the Ben Davis Observatory
was short of cash
and so because of that they used to take
on university students during their
vacation to act as temporary unpaid
observers while their own staffers on
holiday and in September 1894 one of
those young men was a Cambridge physics
graduate called Charles Wilson this is
him in much later life and one morning
on Ben Davis Wilson saw a glory and it
turned him on so much that he decided to
go back to Cambridge and make one for
himself to find out how they worked and
that’s why our detective story brings us
here because the way Wilson did it and
how in the long run what he did came to
affect the lives of every man woman and
child on earth is illustrated in every
Museum of any size in the world this
one’s the Science Museum in London and
Wilson’s machine is here hidden away
among the thousands of other clues to
mankind’s inventive genius
you know considering the amazing thing
of us to help give birth to Wilson’s
machine is really a rather an impressive
looking object and although you’d expect
to find it in the weather section you
know because of the glory business and
all that that’s not where they put it
usually the first thing you see is what
the Machine actually did take a look in
here see those tiny cloud formations
now Wilson wanted to make himself clouds
because he wanted to make himself a
glory to work on so he built himself a
cloud chamber in 1895 this is a later
version but the principles are same here
is a sealed glass container and fitting
into the container below it there’s a
piston inside that cylinder there and
underneath the piston there’s a gap and
leading from that gap is a tube through
to this container in which there’s a
vacuum now if you open the valve on that
tube the air underneath the piston
whistles in here to fill the vacuum that
causes the piston to be jerk down very
fast and then this air up here has more
space to fill which it does so it gets
thinner so it’s air pressure drops and
clouds form in here now at that time
everybody thought clouds formed because
the tiny droplets of moisture condensed
on little specks of dust in the air but
when Wilson cleared all the dust out of
his machine he still got clouds well he
reckoned it had to be something like
radiation because there wasn’t anything
so in 1896 he took some of the newly
discovered x-rays and bend them into his
cloud chamber and sure enough they made
clouds but they made them in tiny
streaks well thought Wilson I’ve
established a relationship between
radiation and cloud and that’s good
enough for me so he dropped his work on
the cloud chamber and when happening
back to meteorology and what he didn’t
realize was that inside that cloud
chamber he had triggered a scientific
time bomb
over the next few years Wilson the magic
cloud maker got really turned on by
really bad weather and in particular
thunderstorms and in very particular the
situations where things got really
spectacularly bad and so he was to be
seen risking life and limb by poking his
instruments as close as possible to
gigantic lightning strikes in order to
find out how much power they gave off
and if you were wondering why I am
telling you all this in the front end of
a wartime b-29 bomber well one of the
reasons is that as a result of Wilson
being so interested in lightning wartime
flying was safer if that’s the right
word to use you see when he found out
what lightning was doing he promptly
told a friend of his called in with
Appleton now in 1915 what Appleton was
trying to do is to find out why when you
turned on your new miracle machine
called radio what you got in your ear
often instead of long-distance
communication what is this
so Appleton decided to take a look at
what the atmosphere did to radio waves
and in 1924 he finally shot some radio
waves up in the sky whereupon they
promptly bounced back down again to the
earth so he measured how long it took
them to bounce back and he said hey
listen there is a layer of something 100
kilometers up there I knew because I
measured it that reflects radio waves
now well this measurement bit may seem
just a touchdown to you but it was music
to the ears of another weatherman called
Watson what who at the time was trying
to find out if he could use radio to
locate storms which of course now he
could do so he did it by using two radio
transmitters so that one would tell you
a storm was in that direction so many
miles and another would tell you it was
in that direction seventy miles and so
you knew where the storm was okay I hear
you say what has this got to
with an obsolete wartime bomber well all
this radio wave super scientific stuff
got the military very worked up and in
1935 the British Air Ministry asked
Watson what if he could make them a
death ray you know destroy enemy planes
in the sky no he said but if radio waves
will bounce off storms they’d also
bounce off aircraft so what about me
giving you something it helps you find
enemy aircraft in the sky tell you how
far away they are and in what direction
we could call it a radio detection and
ranging or our ad AR for short we could
also get to the returning echo from the
aircraft to cause a beam of electrons
going down a cathode ray tube to make a
blip on a screen that had a range skate
on it so you could see the aeroplane and
you could see where it was great idea
they said and this was the result the
radar that was used during the Second
World War
today because of radar your holiday jet
gets to its destination in safety
missing the storms and other holiday
jets and so we come almost to the end of
our detective story you remember how it
all started
2700 years ago when the touchstone told
you you could trust somebody’s gold and
how that got all the merchants racing
around the Mediterranean up to Russia
and out to India and how at the great
trading port of Alexandria the star
tables got written but not used by
navigators until a new sail and rudder
got things moving again in the Middle
Ages by which time they knew where they
were going thanks to the compass which
however let them down so William Gilbert
tried to find out why using his magnetic
models of the earth that attracted
everything and how Eureka in Regensburg
got so excited by attraction he tried
his spinning self a ball and how the
silver ball cause sparks and got
everybody into atmospheric electricity
and the weather and how at the weather
station on been nervous Wilson decided
to make his cloud chamber then got
interested in storms and helped to make
radar happen I said we were almost at
the end of our detective story
not quite the other reason we’re on
board of b-29 is because one of those
bombers also carried the other child of
Wilson’s cloud chamber remember I told
you that he’d set off a scientific time
bomb well he did that because back in
1911 he took this photograph of his
little cloud streaks and he showed it to
a physicist called Ernest Rutherford who
said my god do you know that is that is
a photograph of radiation particles
knocking bits off an atom and that means
we can see what we’re doing when we try
to split the atom
so Wilson’s photograph made it
infinitely easier to produce a modern
invention that helps us to cure one of
the most deadly diseases known to
mankind or if we choose to wipe out all
life on the face of the earth
that invention was dropped by a b-29 at
9:15 on a sunny August morning in 1945
on Hiroshima
it was the atomic bomb
today the nuclear bomb is like a sword
of Damocles hanging over us will it fall