Tag Archives: JF Ptak Science Books

The Rolling Houses and Glass Homes of Futurlandia


JF Ptak Science Books   [Part of a series on the History of the Future]

The rolling house of the future (offered in the September, 1934 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics) promised at least one thing–the ability to be towed by a tractor.  (And seeing that the thing is being pulled along by chains, let’s make sure that there’s no downhill towing, yes?)


[Image source originally located via  Retronaut though now I cannot find the correct links for them. Sorry!]

The spherical houses seemed to come with their own railroad tracks for easier motion–a continuously self-laying track, which would make the new American suburbs a Suburbia Mobilia.  Cheap cars, cheap houses, and a Great Depression might have made for a picture of the future that was very self-sustaining.  On the other hand, the one thing that would not have been in the gunsights of the American manufacturing center is the size of the houses, which seem to me to be on the order of 500 square feet or so, which does not make for a lot of room to store all of the consumables that were waiting just around the next decade or so, waiting for the first real generation with a large amount of disposable income to loosen on all manner of never-to-be-purchased-before-by-the-working-classes consumers.  In this respect I am sure that these small buckets for human life would seem unacceptable, leaving little room for purchases. 


Strange Things in the Sky Department: Feathers (without Birds)

JF Ptak Science Books    Strange Things in the Sky Department  

In the 30 or so posts I’ve made in this department I have yet to deal with anything having to deal with birds. This is understandable since they’re the ones who have been up in the air for 200+ million years (or at least late Jurassic), while humans have been in the air for only about .0001% of that time in our controlled falling.  

Feathers detail

[Source: Allan Hume, Stray Feathers, a Journal of Ornithology for India.…1879, American Museum of Natural History, here.]

But it still struck me as odd, these feathers in the air, and very uncommon to my decades+ experience of Looking At Pictures. They are simply a gilt-stamped decoration in a book cover, a piece of arresting design, for an ornithological journal (see below)–still, it is an unusual image, in-context or not. 


A Beautiful Solar Eclipse Print (1858)

JF Ptak Science Books   Quick Post



F.G. Hesse captured this dramatic image of total eclipse at Olmos, Peru for Lt. James Melville Gilliss’ report of the event that he chased down for the U.S. Naval Observatory and the Smithsonian in 1858. Gilliss (1811-few months too short of the end of the Civil War in 1865) was a Georgetown boy who is buried in the beautiful Oak Hill Cemetery, and best known probably for being in charge of the Naval Observatory (previously the “National Observatory”), which was teh first national observatory established in the U.S.  He took over that position from Matthew Fontaine Maury1 (as in “Maury Day” celebrations in Virginia and being the father of American Oceanography and a prominent figure in the Confederacy) and was a position he held until his untimely death at age 53. The report in which the eclipse image appears is An Account of the Eclipse of the Sun, published in the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge series in 1859.


The Almost-First Photo of Plutonium (October 1946)

JF Ptak Science Books   Quick Post

Plutonium 1946 _2__0001While writing a post for the bookstore section of this blog on Seaborg’s “Transuranium Elements” article that appeared in Science in October 1946 I was struck by the home-made quality of one of the illustrations for the periodic table. Mainly I was curious to see the representation of the actinides (which at this point included up to Curium (synthesized in 1944) and was still three years away from Berkelium (synthesized in 1949). And since I have been on a small mission to define terms I looked up the discovery of actinium, which turns out to be a little complicated, but was perhaps first discovered by André-Louis Debierne  in 18991.  This distraction led immediately to another–a photo of a speck of plutonium (hydroxide) in a capillary tube (even at 40x it appears as a tiny white cloudy splotch).  Since plutonium after a certain date was not discussed for obvious security reasons in the Physical Review and  other journals (a date that I keep forgetting but I believe was in late 1940 when the nuclear/explosive aspect of Pu-239 was discovered), I wondered about when the first photo of plutonium appeared, anywhere..and if this was it.  But no, it turned out not to be, though it was close.  The “first” award seems to go to Fritz Goro (1901-1986), the great science photographer for LIFE magazine, who made an image for July 27, 1946, some three months before the Seaborg article appeared and just over a year after the Nagasaki bomb. In any event, I reprint the Science photo (left).


When Did “The Great War” Become “World War I”?

JF Ptak Science Books  Quick Post

When does the Oxford English Dictionary establish the first uses of “World War I”, “World War One”, “First World War”, etc?

World War, n.  

A war involving many nations of the world; spec. that of 1914–18 or of 1939 45.First, Second, Third World War: see the first element.

1848   People’s Jrnl. 4 250/1   A war amongst the great powers is now necessarily a world-war

1864   G. Haven National Serm. (1869) Contents p.xx. (title)    The world war: aristocracy and democracy.

1889   R. B. Anderson tr. V. Rydberg Teutonic Mythol. i. xxxiv. 139   From the standpoint of Teutonic mythology it is a world war [Sw. världskrig]; and Völuspa calls it the first great war in the world—folcvig fyrst i heimi.

1900   N. Amer. Rev. Nov. 653   The South African war, following immediately upon the close of the Peace Conference at The Hague, has not yet reached its end, and already the horizon in Eastern Asia is lurid with the glare of a world-war.


One of the Earliest Popularly-Published Eyewitness Accounts of the Armenian Genocide (1916)

Horrors of AleppoThis is a well-traveled pamphlet1, its face showing its miles.

The author, the “German Eyewitness”, was Dr. Martin Niepage2, a school instructor at Aleppo, who wrote what was to become (apparently) the first popularly-published account in the West of the Armenian Genocide.  The pamphlet was published in 1916 and begins the story in 1915, getting quickly to the terror stories of chopped-off children’s hands. 

“In April 1915 the Ottoman government embarked upon the systematic decimation of its civilian Armenian population. The persecutions continued with varying intensity until 1923 when the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist and was replaced by the Republic of Turkey. The Armenian population of the Ottoman state was reported at about two million in 1915. An estimated one million had perished by 1918, while hundreds of thousands had become homeless and stateless refugees. By 1923 virtually the entire Armenian population of Anatolian Turkey had disappeared.”–Armenian Genocide Organization


Cross Section of the Cockpit of a Hawker Hurricane, 1940

JF Ptak Science Books  Quick Post 

I would say that there are perhaps 100 good, solid (mostly technical) cross sections on this blog, and to that number I’d like to add another. This one–barely a cross-section as things go but it does serve our purpose–comes via the cross-section-dependable Popular Mechanics for April 1942, and shows the cockpit controls for a British Hurricane as well as a smaller image for a German Messerschmidt. (Click and click again to greatly enlarge this image for the small print.)

Cross section Pop Mech 1942 Hurricane aircraft



And the Hawker Hurricane in glory, 1940:

Hawker Hurricane

The above image  via “Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes…”, at HistoryNet, http://j.mp/2qFRuaI


By: JF Ptak Science Books

A Flying Aircraft Carrier, 1942

JF Ptak Science Books   Quick Post

Here’s an interesting idea: the flying, floating, helium-filled rigid-airship to serve as a flying aircraft carrier, and it appeared in the May 1942 issue of Popular Mechanics Magazine.  That places the idea in print six months after Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. was gearing up for its own direct involvement in WWII.  At the time of the attack at Pearl, the U.S. had 7 carriers; from this point out (from May 1942) to the end of the war there would be 16 more aircraft carriers constructed, plus another 33 escort carriers and light aircraft carriers, and of course those were all seaborne–and in addition to everything else that was being manufactured, that was a huge achievement.


A Peek at the Future in Which Jobs Are Not Threatened by Machines (1940)

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Book covers world future architecture opportunity youth

This is the front and back cover of a little work directed at upper-aged kids in 1940 about how they might be employed and what life might be like in the future.  The Opportunity for Youth in Building the World of Tomorrow, published by General Motors in 1940, is a lot more sanguine and less interesting than its cover, sorry to say–but the cover is enough to reprint here, all on its own.  

There is one odd thing, one missed peep into the future, and it is made by a great figure in the history of 20th century science, Karl T. Compton, who at the time was president of MIT. He responded to a question about the impact of mechanization in a short section labeled “Man vs. Machine”. Dr. Compton got a lot right in his life and saw a lot of things that other people didn’t or couldn’t, but in 1940, he couldn’t see very far into the future of the machine.  Of course there’s a particular irony with this vision and what would happen with humans v. robots at GM.  So it goes. 


Missing the Colors that Are Not There (1835)

JF Ptak Science Books   Post 2704

I don’t know what there is in this engraving that speaks “color” to me when it should probably be just concerning itself with the blackness of its deep black (which for me is usually the case). Neither the blackness nor the dimensionality of the thing–it seems to give itself some height and depth at the same time–say anything louder than the representation of its missing colors, which we are clearly seeing nothing of in these wavelengths except that there really aren’t any colors here outside of the beautiful black & white.  The contrast is certainly there (“There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast.” Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers), especially in the corner bits, where on closer inspection the blackness is really more white than black. In any event, the print suggests “color” to me for no good reason, except perhaps that it looks very cold, and cold is suggestive of ice blue, and the good contrast for that is yellow. “The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with base notes, or dark lake with the treble.” so wrote Mr. Kandinsky, who saw colors in his sound, and who in the midst of things wrote four experimental pieces of theater based upon this observation, the first and perhaps most prominent of which was called “Yellow” (1909).  And that is why this old engraving seems “yellow” to me (and this without any benefit of synesthesia).