MIT Researchers 3D Print a Bridge Imagined by Leonardo da Vinci in 1502— and Prove That It Actually Works

Photo by Gretchen Ertl, via MIT News

Unfortunate though it may be for the dreamers of the world, we're all judged not by what we imagine, but what we actually do. This goes double for those specifically tasked with creating things in the physical environment, from engineers and architects to inventors and artists. Leonardo da Vinci, the original "Renaissance man," was an engineer, architect, inventor, artist, and more besides, and five centuries after his death we continue to admire him for not just the works of art and technology he realized during his lifetime, but also the ones that never made it off his drawing board (or out of his notebooks). And as we continue to discover, many of the latter weren't just flights of fancy, but genuine innovations grounded in reality.

Take the bridge Leonardo proposed to Sultan Bayezid II, who in 1502 had "sent out the Renaissance equivalent of a government RFP (request for proposals), seeking a design for a bridge to connect Istanbul with its neighbor city Galata," writes MIT News' David L. Chandler. Writing to the sultan, Leonardo describes his design as "a masonry bridge as high as a building, and even tall ships will be able to sail under it."

At the time, such bridges required the support of piers all along their spans, which prevented large ships from passing underneath. But Leonardo's design would do the job with only "a single enormous arch." About ten times longer than the typical bridge of the early 16th century, it took a page from the bridges of ancient Rome, designed as it was to "stand on its own under the force of gravity, without any fasteners or mortar to hold the stone together."

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Alas, Leonardo, who had better luck with Italian patrons, didn't win this particular commission. His bridge design must at least have impressed the sultan with its sheer ambition, but would it have held up? A team at MIT consisting of graduate Karly Bast, professor John Ochsendorf, and undergraduate Michelle Xie recently put it to the test, scrutinizing the material Leonardo left behind, replicating the geological conditions of the proposed site, and building a 1:500 scale model out of 126 3D-printed blocks. Not only could the model bear weight using only the strength of its own geometry, the design also came with other features, such as stabilizing abutments (which Chandler compares to the legs of "a standing subway rider widening her stance to balance in a swaying car") to keep the bridge upright in that earthquake-prone area of modern-day Turkey.

That particular location didn't get a bridge until 1845, when Valide Sultan ordered the construction of the first, wooden, Galata Bridge. It stood for 18 years until its replacement by another wooden bridge, part of an infrastructure-building push before Napoleon III's visit to Istanbul. The third Galata Bridge, completed in 1875 from a design by a British engineering firm, floated on pontoons. The fourth was a German-designed floating bridge in use from 1912 until a fire damaged it in 1992. Only the fifth and current Galata Bridge, with its tram tracks above, its pedestrianized deck full of shops and market spaces below, and it drawbridge section in the middle, was built by a Turkish company. In all its iterations, the Galata Bridge has become one of Istanbul's cultural reference points and major attractions as well — not that having been designed by Leonardo would have hurt its image any.

via MIT News/Popular Mechanics

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

26-Year-Old Steve Jobs Debates the Utopian & Dystopian Promise of the Computer (1981)

The deeper we get into the 21st century, the fewer aspects of our lives remain disconnected from the digital realm. The convenience of this arrangement is undeniable, but the increasing difficulty of getting through a day without hearing the latest version of the public argument about privacy and data security suggests an accompanying discomfort as well. Have our online lives stolen our privacy — or have we perhaps freely given it away? Some us now even look longingly backward to a time before not just social media but the internet as we know it, a time in which, we imagine, nobody had to worry about the large-scale harvesting and sale of personal information.

As the 1981 Nightline clip above reveals, these concerns went mainstream well before most Americans owned computers, much less went online with them. Even so, Ted Koppel could open the segment claiming that "as a society, we've become used to computer problems of one kind or another, just as we've become used to computers. We're so used to them, in fact, that few of us stop to think of the extent to which they now play a role in our everyday lives, a role that shows every sign of growing even bigger."

There follows footage of the contexts in which computers involved themselves in the lives of the average person in the early 80s: making a phone call, getting money from the ATM, buying groceries at the supermarket, booking an airline ticket. Nevertheless, actually owning a computer yourself could still get you interviewed on the news with the chyron "Home-Computer Owner" beneath your name. After we hear from one such enthusiast, the scene switches to the headquarters of the five-year-old Apple Computer, "the Big Apple in this land of high technology."

A 26-year-old Steve Jobs appears to describe his company's creation as "a 21st-century bicycle that amplifies a certain intellectual ability that man has," one whose effects on society will "far outstrip even those that the petrochemical revolution has had." But then comes the anti-computer counterpoint: "Some people feel threatened by them," says reporter Ken Kashiwahara. "Some think they tend to dehumanize, and others fear they may eventually take over their jobs." Over satellite links, Koppel then brings on Jobs and investigative journalist Daniel Burnham for a debate about the promise and peril of the computer.

"The government has the capacity, by using computers, to get all kinds of information on us that we're really not even aware that they have," Koppel asks Jobs, underscoring Burnham's line of argument. "Isn't that dangerous?" For Jobs, "the best protection against something like that is a very literate public, and in this case computer literate." Predicting, correctly, that every household in the country would eventually have its own computer, he finds reassurance in the inevitably wide distribution of computing power and computer literacy across the public, meaning "that centralized intelligence will have the least effect on our lives without us knowing it."

But Burnham nevertheless warns of "a tremendous danger that the public is not aware of enough at this moment." He didn't describe that danger in the forms of overgrown e-commerce or social media giants — both of those concepts having yet to be realized in any form — or even ideologically opposed foreign countries, but the United States' own Army and Census Bureau. What happens when they decide to use the data in their possession to "break the rules"? Computers are here to stay, it seems, but so are our inclinations as human beings, and one wonders how cleanly the two can ever be reconciled. As aphorist Aaron Haspel puts it, "We can have privacy or we can have convenience, and we choose convenience, every time."

via Paleofuture

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The First Music Streaming Service Was Invented in 1881: Discover the Théâtrophone

Every living adult has witnessed enough technological advancement in their lifetime to marvel at just how much has changed, and digital streaming and telecommunications happen to be areas where the most revolutionary change seems to have taken place. We take for granted that the present resembles the past not at all, and that the future will look unimaginably different. So the narrative of linear progress tells us. But that story is never as triumphantly simple as it seems.

In one salient counterexample, we find that not only did livestreaming music and news exist in theory long before the internet, but it existed in actual practice—at the very dawn of recording technology, telephony, and general electrification. First developed in France in 1881 by inventor Clement Ader, who called his system the Théâtrophone, the device allowed users to experience “the transmission of music and other entertainment over a telephone line,” notes the site Bob’s Old Phones, “using very sensitive microphones of [Ader’s] own invention and his own receivers.”

The pre-radio technology was ahead of its time in many ways, as Michael Dervan explains at The Irish Times. The Théâtrophone “could transmit two-channel, multi-microphone relays of theatre and opera over phone lines for listening on headphones. The use of different signals for the two ears created a stereo effect.” Users subscribed to the service, and it proved popular enough to receive an entry in the 1889 edition of The Electrical Engineer reference guide, which defined it as “a telephone by which one can have soupçons of theatrical declamation for half a franc.”

In 1896 "the Belle Epoque pop artist Jules Cheret immortalized the theatrophone," writes Tanya Basu at Mental Floss, "in a lithograph featuring a woman in a yellow dress, grinning as she presumably listened to an opera feed." Victor Hugo got to try it out. "It’s very strange," he wrote. "It starts with two ear muffs on the wall, and we hear the opera; we change earmuffs and hear the French Theatre, Coquelin. And we change again and hear the Opera Comique. The children and I were delighted.”

Though The Electrical Engineer also called it “the latest thing to catch [Parisians’] ears and their centimes,” the innovation had already by that time spread elsewhere in Europe. Inventor Tivador Puskas created a “streaming” system in Budapest called Telefon Hermondo (Telephone Herald), Bob's Old Phones points out, “which broadcast news and stock market information over telephone lines.” Unlike Ader’s system, subscribers could “call in to the telephone switchboard and be connected to the broadcast of their choice. The system was quite successful and was widely reported overseas.”

The mechanism was, of course, quite different from digital streaming, and quite limited by our standards, but the basic delivery system was similar enough. A third such service worked a little differently. The Electrophone system, formed in London in 1884, combined its predecessors' ideas: broadcasting both news and musical entertainment. Playback options were expanded, with both headphones and a speaker-like megaphone attachment.

Additionally, users had a microphone so that they could “talk to the Central Office and request different programs.” The addition of interactivity came at a premium. “The Electrophone service was expensive,” writes Dervan, “£5 a year at a time when that sum would have covered a couple months rent.” Additionally, “the experience was communal rather than solitary.” Subscribers would gather in groups to listen, and “some of the photographs” of these sessions resemble “images of addicts in an old-style opium den”—or of Victorians gathered at a séance.

The company later gave recuperating WWI servicemen access to the service, which heightened its profile. But these early livestreaming services—if we may so call them—were not commercially viable, and “radio killed the venture off in the 1920s” with its universal accessibility and appeal to advertisers and governments. This seeming evolutionary dead end might have been a distant ancestor of streaming live concerts and events, though no one could have foreseen it at the time. No one save science fiction writers.

Edward Bellamy’s 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward imagined a device very like the Théâtrophone in his vision of the year 2000. And in 1909, E.M. Forster drew on early streaming services and other early telecommunications advances for his visionary short story “The Machine Stops,” which extrapolated the more isolating tendencies of the technology to predict, as playwright Neil Duffield remarks, “the internet in the days before even radio was a mass medium.”

via Ted Gioia/The Irish Times

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Discover the Jacobean Traveling Library: The 17th Century Precursor to the Kindle

Image courtesy of the University at Leeds

In the striking image above, you can see an early experiment in making books portable--a 17th century precursor, if you will, to the modern day Kindle.

According to the library at the University of Leeds, this "Jacobean Travelling Library" dates back to 1617. That's when William Hakewill, an English lawyer and MP, commissioned the miniature library--a big book, which itself holds 50 smaller books, all "bound in limp vellum covers with coloured fabric ties." What books were in this portable library, meant to accompany noblemen on their journeys? Naturally the classics. Theology, philosophy, classical history, classical poetry. The works of Ovid, Seneca, Cicero, Virgil, Tacitus, and Saint Augustine. Many of the same texts that showed up in The Harvard Classics (now available online) three centuries later, and now our collection of Free eBooks.

Apparently three other Jacobean Travelling Libraries were made. They now reside at the British Library, the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, and the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in October, 2017.

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Watch a Short 1967 Film That Imagines How We’d Live in 1999: Online Learning, Electronic Shopping, Flat Screen TVs & Much More

Nobody uses the word computerized anymore. Its disappearance owes not to the end of computerization itself, but to the process' near-completeness. Now that we all walk around with computers in our pockets (see also the fate of the word portable), we expect every aspect of life to involve computers in one way or another. But in 1967, the very idea of computers got people dreaming of the far-flung future, not least because most of them had never been near one, let alone brought one into their home. But for the Shore family, each and every phase of the day involves a computer: their "central home computer, which is secretary, librarian, banker, teacher, medical technician, bridge partner, and all-around servant in this house of tomorrow."

Tomorrow, in this case, means the year 1999. Today is 1967, when Philco-Ford (the car company having purchased the bankrupt radio and television manufacturer six years before) didn't just design and build this speculative "house of tomorrow," which made its debut on a television broadcast with Walter Cronkite, but produced a short film to show how the family of tomorrow would live in it. Year 1999 AD traces a day in the life of the Shores: astrophysicist Michael, who commutes to a distant laboratory to work on Mars colonization; "part-time homemaker" Karen, who spends the rest of the time at the pottery wheel; and eight-year-old James, who attends school only two mornings a week but gets the rest of his education in the home "learning center."

There James watches footage of the moon landing, plausible enough material for a history lesson in 1999 until you remember that the actual landing didn't happen until 1969, two years after this film was made. The flat screens on which he and his parents perform their daily tasks (a technology that would also surface in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey the following year) might also look strikingly familiar to we denizens of the 21st century. (Certainly the way James watches cartoons on one screen while his recorded lectures play on another will look familiar to today's parents and educators.) But many other aspects of the Philco-Ford future won't: even though the year 2000 is also retro now, the Shores' clothes and decor look more late-60s than late-90s.

In this and other ways, Year 1999 AD resembles a parody of the techno-optimistic shorts made by postwar corporate America, so much so that Snopes put up a page confirming its veracity. "Many visionaries who tried to forecast what daily life would be like for future generations made the mistake of simply projecting existing technologies as being bigger, faster, and more powerful," writes Snopes' David Mikkelson. Still, Year 1999 AD does a decent job of predicting the uses of technology to come in daily life: "Concepts such as 'fingertip shopping,' an 'electronic correspondence machine,' and others envisioned in this video anticipate several innovations that became commonplace within a few years of 1999: e-commerce, webcams, online bill payment and tax filing, electronic funds transfers (EFT), home-based laser printers, and e-mail."

Even twenty years after 1999, many of these visions have yet to materialize: "Split-second lunches, color-keyed disposable dishes," pronounces the narrator as the Shores sit down to a meal, "all part of the instant society of tomorrow, a society of leisure and taken-for-granted comforts." But as easy as it is to laugh at the notion that "life will be richer, easier, healthier as Space-Age dreams come true," the fact remains that, like the Shores, we now really do have computer programs that let us communicate and do our shopping, but that also tell us what to eat and when to exercise. What would the minds behind Year 1999 AD make of my watching their film on my personal screen on a subway train, amid hundreds of riders all similarly equipped? "If the computerized life occasionally extracts its pound of flesh," says the narrator, "it holds out some interesting rewards." Few statements about 21st-century have turned out to be as prescient.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Nigerian Teenagers Are Making Slick Sci Fi Films With Their Smartphones

Someone should really snap up the rights for a movie about The Critics, a collective of self-taught teenage filmmakers from northwestern Nigeria.

The boys’ dedication, ambition, and no-budget inventiveness calls to mind other filmmaking fanatics, from the sequestered, homeschooled brothers of The Wolfpack to the fictional Sweding specialists of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Be Kind, Rewind.

While smartphones and free editing apps have definitely made it easier for aspiring filmmakers to bring their fantasies to fruition, it's worth noting that The Critics saved for a month to buy the green fabric for their chroma key effects.

Their productions are also plagued with the internet and power outages that are a frequent occurrence in their home base of Kaduna, slowing everything from the rendering process to the Youtube visual effects tutorials that have advanced their craft.

To date they’ve filmed 20 shorts on a smart phone with a smashed screen, mounted to a broken microphone stand that's found new life as a homemade tripod.

Their simple set up will be coming in for an upgrade, however, now that Nollywood director Kemi Adetiba has brought their efforts to the attention of a much wider audience, who donated $5,800 in a fundraising campaign.

It’s easy to imagine the young male demographic flocking to a feature-length, big-budget expansion of Z: The Beginning. It's possible even the art house crowd could be lured to a summer blockbuster whose setting is Nigeria, thirty years into the future, a novelty for those of us unversed in Nollywood's prodigious output.

The post-apocalyptic short, above, took the crew 7 months to film and edit. The stars also inhabited a number of offscreen roles: stunt coordinator, gaffer, prop master, composer, continuity…

What’s next? Earlier this month, Africa News revealed that the boys are busy with a new film whose plot they aren’t at liberty to reveal. We're guessing a sequel, to go by a not so subtle hint following Z's final credits and a moving dedication to “the ones we’ve lost.”

“Horror, comedy, sci-fi, action, we do all,” The Critics’ proclaim on their Youtube channel, carefully categorizing their work as “films not skits.” (Their films’ length has thus far been dictated by the unpredictability of their wifi situation—Chase, below, is five minutes long and took two days to render.

“One of the targets we aim for in the years to come is to make the biggest film in Nigeria and probably beyond,” Godwin JosiahZ’s 19-year-old writer-director told Channels Television, Lagos' 24-hour news channel:

We want to do something crazy, we want to do something great, something that has not been done before, and from what has been going on now, we believe quite well that it is going to happen soon enough.

Watch The Critics’ films and making-ofs on their Youtube channel.

Support their work with a pledge to their recently launched Patreon.

via Kottke/Africa News

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 9 for another season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Mister Rogers Demonstrates How to Cut a Record

When I was a little boy, I thought the greatest thing in the world would be to be able to make records. — Fred Rogers

By 1972, when the above episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood aired, host Fred Rogers had already cut four records, including the hit-filled A Place of Our Own.

But a childlike curiosity compelled him to explore on camera how a virgin disc could become that most wondrous thing—a record.

So he borrowed a “special machine”—a Rek-O-Kut M12S overhead with an Audax mono head, for those keeping score at home—so he could show his friends, on camera, “how one makes records.”

This technology was already in decline, ousted by the vastly more portable home cassette recorder, but the record cutter held far more visual interest, yielding hair-like remnants that also became objects of fascination to Mister Rogers.

What we wouldn’t give to stumble across one of those machines and a stash of blank discs in a thrift store...

Wait, scratch that, imagine running across the actual platter Rogers cut that day!

Though we’d be remiss if we failed to mention that a member of The Secret Society of Lathe Trolls, a forum devoted to “record-cutting deviants, renegades, professionals & experimenters,” claims to have had an aunt who worked on the show, and according to her, the "reproduction" was faked in post.

(“It sounded like they recorded the repro on like an old Stenorette rim drive reel to reel or something and then piped that back in,” another commenter promptly responds.)

The Trolls’ episode discussion offers a lot of vintage audio nerd nitty gritty, as well as an interesting history of the one-off self-recoded disc craze.

The mid-century general public could go to a coin-operated portable sound booth to record a track or two. Spoken word messages were popular, though singers and bands also took the opportunity to lay down some grooves.

Radio stations and recording studios also kept machines similar to the one Rogers is seen using. Sun Records’ secretary, Marion Keisker, operated the cutting lathe the day an unknown named Elvis Presley showed up to cut a lacquered disc for a fee of $3.25.

The rest is history.

More recently, The ShinsThe Kills, and Seasick Steve, below, recorded live direct-to-acetate records on a modified 1953 Scully Lathe at Nashville's Third Man Records.

(Legend has it that James Brown's "It's A Man's World" was cut on that same lathe… Cut a hit of your own during a tour of Third Man's direct-to-acetate recording facilities.)

via @wfmu

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine, current issue the just-released #60.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 9 for another season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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