Recognizing the First Generation Inventors (II) by Professor MK Othman

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Sir Isaac Newton was a great physicist and astronomer, second to Archimedes among the first generation inventors. Sir Newton, an English mathematician was a great inventor who lived a glorious and fruitful life of 84 years (between 4th January 1643 and 20th March 1727). There was a generation gap of over a thousand years, in fact total of 1,854 years between Newton’s generation and that of Archimedes. (There are many questions on what was happening to science and technology in those years) However, Newton and Archimedes had many things in common, they were both great men of science and technology whose contributions are still being put to use by us.

Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton was born prematurely, tiny, weak and three months after his father’s death. He was not expected to survive, let alone became a great man of science. At the age of three, Newton was made to live with his maternal grandmother when his mother remarried. His early life, as an orphan left an indelible imprint on him and an acute sense of insecurity, which perhaps contributed to his ingenuity and determination for self-survival. Newton was described in his days as a “natural philosopher”, widely recognized as one of the most influential scientists of all time and a key figure in the scientific revolution. His book, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”), was first published in 1687, which laid the foundations of classical mechanics. Newton also made seminal contributions to optics, and he shared credit with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz for developing the infinitesimal calculus.
X-raying the contributions of Newton to the scientific world is unquantifiable and beyond the mandate of this Column. It is however important to mention few of such giant contributions. Newton was the first to invent a practical reflecting telescope and developed a sophisticated theory of color based on the observation that a prism decomposes white light into the colors of the visible spectrum. Newton’s work on light was collected in his highly influential book Opticks, first published in 1704. He was also credited for the formulation of an empirical law of cooling in thermodynamics. He was similarly the first to theoretical calculate the speed of sound, and introduced the notion of a Newtonian fluid. In addition to his work on calculus, as a mathematician Newton contributed to the study of power series, generalized the binomial theorem to non-integer exponents, developed a method for approximating the roots of a function, and classified most of the cubic plane curves. Although his inventions and discoveries were made during the Scientific Revolution, Isaac Newton’s universal principles of gravity found no parallels in science at the time. However, Newton, like all mortals he was never perfect, he was proven wrong on some of his key assumptions. In the 20th century, 100s of years after Newton death, Albert Einstein proved Newton’s concept of the universe wrong, stating that space, distance and motion were not absolute but relative, and that the universe was more fantastic than Newton had ever conceived. Newton, himself accepted his fallacy as later in his life, when asked for an assessment of his achievements, he confessed, “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” That was a life of a great man, indeed, a humble man, Sir Isaac Newton of blessed memory.
Benjamin Franklin in London, 1767, wearing a blue suit with elaborate gold braid and buttons.

Another first generation inventor deserving recognition is Benjamin Franklin. He was a famous American inventor during the colonial period. Benjamin Franklin was born on Sunday, January 17, 1706, in Boston, Massachusetts, which was then under British colony. Benjamin Franklin’s parents were Josiah Franklin and Abiah Folger. Josiah Franklin was born in Northamptonshire, England, in 1657, and came to America in 1682. He worked as a candle and soap maker in Boston. Abiah Folger was from Nantucket, Massachusetts, USA. Benjamin Franklin had a long list of inventions. The list included bifocals, the lightning rod, the glass harmonica, a library chair, swim fins, the Franklin stove, the catheter and a device for determining daylight saving time. Franklin developed swim fins to reduce what he called a “laborious and fatiguing operation” in swimming. As a boy and an avid swimmer, Frank developed early swim fins, which was composed of two oval wooden palettes with thumb holes. With one on each hand, he paddled through water, observed that the fins made him swim faster. Then in 1741, he invented stove called “Franklin stove”. It was an iron furnace used for heating homes with high heating efficiency and safety. The stove was able to raise temperature of the heating environment in a relatively short time for a longer duration and using less wood compared to direct burning of woods. It was then a groundbreaking invention during winter. Then, came yet another invention; “Bifocals”.Franklin’s vision deteriorated as he grew older. He loved to read and grew tired of switching between two pairs of glasses—one that helped him to see things close, another to see things farther away. So he cut the lenses from both pairs in half, and then put half of each lens in a single frame, inventing bifocals.
Franklin Stove

All the aforementioned inventions made by Franklin were considered less important than the one that made his name rings bell in many houses across the world, till date, more than 250 years after his demise. The discovery of “electricity” – a phenomenon that can’t be seen but can be felt. Since electricity is a natural force that naturally exists, it couldn’t be invented. Benjamin Franklin was credited for its discovery. But, was Benjamin Franklin really the first person to discover it? Historical records show he was not. Many years earlier, an English scientist William Gilbert established the science underlying the study of electricity and magnetism. Inspired by Gilbert’s work, another Englishman, Sir Thomas Browne, made further investigations and wrote books about his findings. Gilbert and Browne are credited with being the first scientists to use the term “electricity.” However, Franklin was the first to make a cutting-edge discovery of electricity that opened window for better understanding and utilization of this God given energy – electricity. Thus, he is considered as a “founding father” of electricity. Franklin conducted a famous kite and a silk ribbon in a thunderstorm experiment in 1752, exactly 265 years ago that created foundation for clear discovery and understanding of electricity. The Franklin’s experiment was a watershed moment in mankind’s question to channel a force of nature once thought to be the wrath of God to humanity. Hitherto, Electricity was not a well-understood phenomenon, so Franklin’s discovery proved to be fairly a foundation. Franklin’s frantic effort in discovering electricity made him receive an electric shock that nearly burnt him. That early brush with the dangers of electricity left an impression on him. He was quoted describing the sensation as “a universal blow throughout my whole body from head to foot, which seemed within as well as without; after which the first thing I took notice of was a violent quick shaking of my body.” However, it didn’t scare him away. Instead, it made him more curious, put in more effort until he finally laid solid foundation for a better discovery of electricity.Franklin contributed distinctively in the “science of electricity” from the design of first battery to establishment of some common nomenclature in the study of electricity. It’s thanks to Franklin’s effort, for instance, that electric charges are referred to as positive and negative charges. Before him, they were known as “vitreous” and “resinous” charges.

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