The World’s Seven Worst Inventions

According to a nonscientific survey of professionals by Paul A. Offit, the worst inventions in history are:

  • 4,000 BC, the Sumerians discovered “the plant of joy,” which gave birth to a class of drugs that kills over 20,000 Americans every year.  More young adults die from Opiods than from auto accidents.
  • 1901 AD, a German scientist performed an experiment that revolutionized the food industry.  Today one estimate says that eliminating Trans Fats would prevent 250,000 heart-related death a year in the United States.
  • 1909, another German scientist invented Ammonia Nitrate Fertilizer.  It won the Nobel Prize, helped feed over 7 billion people–and could end life on this planet.
  • 1916, a scientific treatise led to strict immigration laws, enabled the forced sterilization of citizens, and provided a scientific rationale for Adolf Hitler to murder 6M Jews.  Echoes of Eugenics can still be heard today.
  • 1935, a Portuguese neurologist invented a surgical cure of psychiatric disorders.  Today, Lobotomies are a subject of horror films.  Remnants of the thinking behind them can be found in a promised cure for autism.
  • 1962, a naturalist’s book led to the ban of the pesticide DDT–a move hailed by environmentalists but feared by health officials.  Their fears were well founded:  As a result of the ban, 10s of millions of children died needlessly.
  • 1966, an American chemist elevated the word Antioxidants into the pantheon of marketing terms.  But those who have taken supplemental vitamins have increased their risks of cancer and heart disease.

All of these inventions were well intentioned, but all resulted in some level of tragedy.

Posted in Science, Technology, transhumanism | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Will the Rate of Technological Progress Continue to Accelerate?

My brother, an economist at the University of Chicago, during a recent presentation at Utah State University on risk and uncertainty, quoted two scholars about the future of technology:

First, Joel Mokyr (2013), economic historian at Northwestern University who specializes in technology:

There are a myriad of reasons why the future should bring more technological progress than ever before – perhaps the most important being that technological innovation itself creates questions and problems that need to be fixed through further technological progress.

Second, Robert Gordon (2016), an economist, also at Northwestern University:

…the rise and fall of growth are inevitable when we recognize that progress occurs more rapidly in some time periods than others…The 1870-1970 century was unique: Many of these inventions could only happen once, and others reached natural limits.

I don’t understand Gordon’s point.  I will have to read some of his work.  I don’t understand what is magic about 1970.  And there is certainly an excellent case for arguing an ongoing accelerating rate of technological progress.

I’m in Mokyr’s camp.  And the world needs to better prepare for a future that brings “more technological progress than ever before.”  To answer the question in the title:  HELL YES.

Posted in Technology, transhumanism | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Thomas Crapper and the Word “Crap”

By Mark Forsyth (edited), excerpt from The Etymologicon

What is the real relationship between Thomas Crapper and the word “crap” (or “crapper”)?

Thomas Crapper was born in Yorkshire in 1836.  In 1853, a year after Edward Jennings’ patented his version of the modern toilet, Crapper moved to London to start an apprenticeship as a plumber. As it turned out, he was an excellent at plumbing, and the 1850s were the golden age of the toilet trader.  The new London sewers meant that everyone could just flush away their troubles.

Thomas Crapper

Crapper was also an excellent entrepreneur; he set up a company, Thomas Crapper & Co., and designed his own line of thrones.  He invented the ballcock for refilling, which stopped water from being wasted, and added extra devices to stop anything unpleasant flowing back into the bowl after the flush.  His were well-designed lavatories, and as a result were widely popular.

Crapper’s bathroom fixtures were chosen for the residence of the Prince of Wales and for the plumbing of Westminster Abbey.  The brand name Crapper was everywhere, but the word “crap” had been around for a while.

Dictionaries claim that “crap” first appeared in the 1840s; but, in fact, the word can be traced back to a poem by J. Churchill published in 1801; a poem written 35 years before Crapper was born.

However, if Crapper’s name didn’t spawn the word “crap,” he associated himself with it closely.  All of his lavatories had Thomas Crapper & Co. stamped on the tanks, and these lavatories were installed all over Britain.  But in America, nobody had ever heard of either Crapper or the word “crap.”

Crapper Inscription on a Lavatory Tank

There isn’t an American reference to crap all through the 19th century.  In fact, there’s nothing before WWI.  Then, in 1917, America declared war on Germany and sent 2.8 million men across the Atlantic where they would have been exposed to the ubiquitous Thomas Crapper & Co. on every second lavatory.

It’s only after WWI that “crap” and “crapper” appear in the United States.  So it would seem that though the English word “crap” doesn’t come from Thomas Crapper, perhaps the American one does.  Even if Crapper didn’t invent it, he definitely was responsible for popularizing the word.

Posted in Books, Personalities, Vocabulary, Water History | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Sir John Harington: Inventor of the Flush Toilet

Sir John Harington (baptized 4 August 1560 – 20 November 1612), of Kelston, but baptized in London, was an English courtier, author, and translator popularly known as the inventor of the flush toilet.  He became a prominent member of Queen Elizabeth I’s court, and was known as her “saucy Godson.” But because of his spicy poetry and other ribald writings, he fell in and out of favor with the Queen.

Portrait of Sir John Harington

Sir John Harington is best known for his invention of the flush water closet. He installed one at his country house at Kelston, near Bath in Somerset, and described it in a Rabelaisian manner in his A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax of 1596. Ajax was a pun on ‘jakes’, which was slang for a privy, where people could simply use a bucket. Wealthy households might have a close-stool, which had a padded seat with a metal or porcelain container beneath it that still had to be emptied.

Harington’s device emptied itself. It had a pan with a seat and water was pumped up into a cistern above. When a handle on the seat was turned, the water swept the pan’s contents into a cesspool underneath. There was a picture of it in his book and he proclaimed that it ‘would make unsavory Places sweet, noisome Places wholesome and filthy Places cleanly’. He installed one for Elizabeth I at Richmond Palace. She does not seem to have been impressed, but then like other rich people she did not have to empty her own close-stool.

A Schematic of John Harington’s Flush Toilet from His Book “Metamorphosis”

A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called The Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596) is a book that is difficult to classify.  It is divided into 3 sections:

  • It starts with a lengthy prologue justifying its subject, with many examples from biblical and classical sources relating to excretion and the disposal of sewage;
  • It then describes his invention – the first flush toilet. He had installed one in his own house, and persuaded some of his friends to do the same; and
  • Lastly, there’s his “Apology,” a mock description of his trial for having written on so unworthy a subject, which ends, of course, with his triumphant acquittal.

Some view Metamorphosis as a thinly veiled political allegory and a coded attack on the monarchy, with a description of his flush toilet thrown in.

Harington’s invention didn’t catch on.  Unless there are sewers and running water, a flushing toilet was never really going viable for the mass market.  It’s like have an electric lamp with electricity, or skis without snow.  Sewers and running water didn’t arrive in Britain until the mid-19th century, and what we generally think of as a lavatory was patented by Edward Jennings in 1852.  Harington was way ahead of his times.

Americans like to talk about going to the john, and it has been suggested that this is in memory of John Harington.  Unfortunately that’s unlikely, a john in the lavatorial sense didn’t appear until more than a hundred years after Harington’s death.  It is likely that john was an alteration of jake.

Posted in Books, Personalities, Water History | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Biram Dah Abeid: Mauritania’s Antislavery Crusader

by Aiden McQuade, Director of Anti-Slavery International [1]

Biram Dah Abeid was just 8 when he became aware of slavery in his home country of Mauritania [locate in northwestern Africa below Morocco].  He saw a defenseless youth being beaten by a man–a common experience, his parents explained, for the thousands of Mauritanians still treated as chattels by their “masters.”  Biram himself was of slave descent; his grandmother was born into slavery.

Biram promised that day that he would resist.  And in 2008, he founded the initiative for the Resurgency of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA-Mauritania).  Alongside other Mauritanian antislavery organizations, such as SOS Enclaves, IRA-Mauritania has sought to break the official silence that enables slavery to persist by using nonviolent tactics: reporting and publicizing cases, assisting victims and holding sit-ins and demonstrations.

For this, Biram and his colleagues have been imprisoned on numerous occasions.  But those instances, coupled with Biram’s pledges to run for President of Mauritania, have only drawn more international attention to Mauritanian slavery and bolstered Biram’s reputation.  He is an inspiration.  He is an inspiration to thousands who continue to resist slavery in Mauritania and beyond.


[1] First appeared in Time magazine

Posted in Africa, humanism, Personalities, Social Justice | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

More Playground Equipment in Sacred Valley, Peru

Recently, the Cardenas-Torres family installed additional pieces of playground equipment:  (1) two downsized combination soccer goal and basketball standard and (2) a tether ball pole using a sock in lieu of a tether ball.  They were installed at the Urco Primary School located near Calca in Sacred Valley, Peru.

Fabricating the Combination Soccer/Basketball Unit

Children at Urco Ready to Enjoy Their New Soccer/Basket Unit

Fabricators–David and John–Trying Out the Tether Ball Unit

This is the first time we have installed tether balls poles and combination soccer/basketball units.

A Downsized Combination Soccer Goal/Basketball Standard Was Recently Installed at a Primary School in Sacred Valley, Peru

Posted in Peru, Playground, Social Justice | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Rebuilding the Navajo Playground in Aneth UT

Years ago, the Aneth Chapter of the Navajo Nation had a playground just north of their Chapterhouse.  The Aneth Chapter is located in the southeastern corner of Utah in the 4-Corners region.

The original playground had fallen into serious disrepair.  It was decided to start the rehab by installing playground equipment (Phase I).  The Chapter used its grader to level the area.

Preparing the Aneth Playground Area

Commercial-quality playground equipment was located on KSL-classified.  It was purchased and transported to the site by Navajo Santa (a SLC-based NGO).  The equipment included: a swing set, a spinner, a circular slide, and a monkey bar set.

Assembling the Monkey Bar Set at the New Aneth Playground

The equipment was installed by a crew hired by the Aneth Chapter.  The monkey bar set was in pieces with no assembly instructions, but the crew was able to figure out the complicated puzzle.  A backhoe was used to lift the playground equipment in place.

The Completed Phase I of the Aneth Playground

Phase I of the playground is now in place.  Future work includes developing the slope that leads down to the general playground area.  This new development will include slides, a climbing wall, fire pole, and terracing.

Posted in Navajoland, Playground, Sports, utah | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment