inventor

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Six Dots

Louis Braille

How a tenacious boy created one of the most life-changing inventions in human history

Louis Braille was born near Paris, France on January 4th, 1809. At the age of three, he lost sight in his left eye due to an accident in his father’s workshop. A year later, an infection took his vision in his right eye as well.Six dots. Six bumps. Six bumps in different patterns, like constellations, spreading out over the page. What are they? Numbers, letters, words. Who made this code? None other than Louis Braille, a French 12-year-old, who was also blind. And his work changed the world of reading and writing, forever.

Braille would later attend the Royal Institute for Blind Children in Paris. There, he learned of a system used in the military known as “night writing” which allowed soldiers to communicate without light or speech. This system utilised 12 raised dots used to represent different sounds,

Intrigued, the young Braille adapted this system and created the modern Braille system as we know it today. The system has been adapted to most languages and it is still the most popular way for the blind to read.

“Communication is health; communication is truth; communication is happiness,” Virginia Woolf wrote in contemplating the elemental human need for communication. Indeed, a life deprived of that essential sustenance of the soul, whatever form it may take, is a life of unthinkable tragedy.

In the first few weeks of 1809, three baby boys were born who changed the course of history: Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States; Charles Darwin, British father of the theory of evolution; and Louis Braille, the French inventor of a means of literacy for blind people worldwide. Unlike Lincoln and Darwin, Braille’s genius is little known outside his native land, except among those who have been touched by his gift of literacy.

No cultural hero has delivered more people of that tragedy than Louis Braille (January 4, 1809–January 6, 1852).

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Nikola Tesla, in his Colorado Springs laboratory in 1899, sits in front of the operating transformer. Credit: Public domain

Nikola Tesla, in his Colorado Springs laboratory in 1899, sits in front of the operating transformer. Credit: Public domain

The Genius Who Lit The World

Nikola Tesla was born around midnight, between July 9 and July 10, 1856 during a fierce lightning storm. According to family legend, midway through the birth, the midwife wrung her hands and declared the lightning a bad omen. This child will be a child of darkness, she said, to which his mother replied: “No. He will be a child of light.”

The boy spent much of his early childhood enduring Serbian traditions, including an overabundance of sloppy kisses from two wrinkly old aunts, one of whom had “two teeth protruding like the tusks of an elephant,” Nikola Tesla wrote in his autobiography. So one day, when his mother asked him which of the two aunts he thought was prettier, Tesla thoughtfully mulled it over, declaring, “This here is not as ugly as the other,” and thus revealing an early and wicked sense of humor.

Tesla, the forefather of the internet and the man who essentially invented the 20th century — with everything from modern electrical engineering advances such as the electric motor to X-rays, remote controls, radars and radio — didn’t just have a remarkable mind; he also had a witty one. Recognized as one of the greatest inventors of his time, his celebrity status saw him hobnobbing with the likes of Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Edison and J.P Morgan.

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July 7, 1908 Alexander Graham Bell (right) and his assistants observe the flight of a circular tetrahedral kite. IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

July 7, 1908
Alexander Graham Bell (right) and his assistants observe the flight of a circular tetrahedral kite.
IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Bells Flights of Fancy

While working on the telephone, Bell mentioned to Watson that their next project would be a flying machine. On his honeymoon, he told his wife Mabel that he dreamed of flying machines with telephones attached.

Alexander Graham Bell or Aleck, as he was called as a boy, would lie atop a favourite hill in Edinburgh, Scotland (where he was born in 1847) so he could be close to the sky and watched with envy and wonder as the birds flew above him.

To the end of his life Bell maintained the pure delight of a child exploring the world. Those who knew and loved him worried about his lack of concentration. Bell was a great generalist during the birth of the specialist. Bell’s future father-in-law chided him once about his inclination “to undertake every new thing that interests you & accomplish nothing of value to any one”. That was five months before the telephone was patented. It still holds the record for the most financially profitable patent ever issued. Bell was 29 years of age and the year was 1885. He was reported to have answered the phone saying, “Hoy, hoy” – never hello; and that he told his grandchildren, “It’s for calling out, not for calling in.” And that was all!

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Jemmy Hirst

Jemmy Hirst

 Animal-lover and Inventor Jemmy Hirst

James “Jemmy” Hirst was born to a farmer family of Rawcliffe, Yorkshire. Even at school he kept a pet jackdaw and trained a hedgehog to follow him around. His parents’ hope that he would become a priest never materialised when he was thrown out of school for his pranks. Hirst was apprenticed to a tanner, fell in love with his daughter and became engaged to her.

Reputedly Hirst’s eccentricity began when his betrothed died of smallpox after he rescued her from a flooding river. At first Hirst retired to his bed and reputedly contracted “brain fever”. When he recovered he continued his habits of animal training.

He made a remarkable comeback and he earned a small fortune speculating on farm produce. This allowed him to spend the rest of his long life back in Rawcliffe as a gentleman farmer, and to be generous in the most eccentric way possible. He supposedly would blow a hunting horn to invite the poor and elderly to his house for refreshments…which were served in his favorite coffin, because where else would you serve them?

In any event, the real boon of his newfound wealth was the ability to take his love of animals to the next level. His two most frequent companions were apparently a fox and an otter, and he even kept a bear named Nicholas. This creature, unfortunately, resisted Hirst’s efforts to tame it, resulting at least once in injury to the eccentric farmer. Equally unsuccessful but significantly less painful was Hirst’s attempt to train a litter of pigs to be foxhounds, but he could never get the piglets to stop grunting, which made them spectacularly ineffective when it came time to sneak up on foxes.

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