Feb. 25, 1837: Davenport Electric Motor Gets Plugged In | This Day In Tech | Wired.com

1837: The U.S. Patent Office approves Thomas Davenport’s application for a patent on an “Improvement in Propelling Machinery by Magnetism and Electro-Magnetism.” We’d call it an electric motor.

Davenport was a Vermont blacksmith and an amateur tinkerer, not a trained scientist or engineer. When he heard about a machine that used an electromagnet to separate high-quality iron ore from the lower-grade stuff, he became intrigued. Unable to meet with the inventor, he sold his brother’s horse and a number of other possessions to buy an electromagnet of his own.

Like many Wired readers, Davenport then proceeded to take apart the nifty gadget he’d just bought in order to find out how it was made. Soon he was making his own batteries and electromagnets, and in half a year had come up with a motor powered by direct current from a galvanic wet cell.

Davenport’s wife, Emily, maintained notes for him and even suggested modifications and materials to be used in his experiments. She also contributed strips of silk from her wedding dress to use as insulation for the wires.

The brush-and-commutator scheme Davenport invented is still used in electric motors today. Current flows through electromagnets mounted on a wheel, causing them to move towards fixed permanent magnets, rotating the wheel through a half turn. As the wheel turns, its motion breaks the circuit powering the magnets and connects a new circuit with opposite polarity. That in turn reverses the polarity of the electromagnets, pushing each one away from the magnet it’s just passed while pulling it towards the next magnet in the circle, thus pushing the wheel through another half turn. The process repeats, and the wheel on the motor goes round and round.

Reading the patent application, you can almost see the patent examiners’ brains quietly exploding. Electricity was still a rather novel concept, despite the fact that people had been experimenting with it for nearly a century, and nobody had tried to patent an electrical device before. The three-page application is elegant, concise and to the point, but the description is a bit hard to follow at some places — and that’s with the benefit of 170 extra years of electrical knowledge behind us.

Davenport’s first patent application was rejected. After winning the endorsement of a number of distinguished men of science, building a working model, rebuilding the model after it was destroyed in a fire, and resubmitting his application, Davenport finally won the patent he’d been seeking.

It was issued U.S. Patent No. 132, because the 9,957 patents issued between July 31, 1790, and July 13, 1836, weren’t numbered.

Davenport had high hopes for his invention: He foresaw using it to power shop machinery and even locomotives. He set up a workshop near Wall Street in New York and published his own promotional newspaper, The Electro-Magnet and Mechanics Intelligencer, which he printed on an electric-motor–powered printing press.

But as a business, the electric motor was a flop. The batteries of the day were too weak, too bulky and too unpredictable to provide reliable power. That didn’t keep the intrepid Vermonter from inventing an electric locomotive and even an electric piano.

It took nearly 50 years before inventors like Thomas Edison started using Davenport’s motor in reverse to generate power, something Davenport had never foreseen (but which Faraday demonstrated in 1831). Once it was possible to use water or steam to generate electricity in large quantities using these generators, electric motors became more practical and were soon employed in trains and trolleys, just as Davenport had envisioned.

Davenport reportedly died bankrupt, a few days short of his 49th birthday in 1851. His patent model for the electric motor now sits in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Source: Various

Photo: jessamyn/Flickr

Prita Ganapati also contributed to this article.

Feb. 25, 1837: Davenport Electric Motor Gets Plugged In | This Day In Tech | Wired.com.

Feb. 25, 1837: Davenport Electric Motor Gets Plugged In | This Day In Tech | Wired.com

Scribd Pushes Content to Smartphones, E-Readers | Epicenter | Wired.com

While magazine, newspaper and book publishers wrestle with the logistics and technical details of publishing to the Apple iPad, Scribd has an alternative: a “send-to-device” feature that lets people send documents to their e-readers or smartphones for reading on the go.

The new feature, reported in the Wall Street Journal two weeks ago and confirmed by Scribd Wednesday, will support most smartphones, as well as the Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Sony Reader, Cool-er and Entourage Edge, among other e-book readers.

Scribd, founded in March 2007, is a document-sharing social network that connects mostly written content (documents and presentations) with a social network of readers. The company claims that 10 million documents have been published on the site to date, including non-copyrighted and amateur content as well as some professional, for-pay content from publishers like Simon & Schuster, Lonely Planet, O’Reilly, and the Chicago Tribune.

When reading a document on the Scribd website, readers can now click a “send to device” button that will pop up a menu of possible devices. Select the Kindle, for instance, and Scribd will ask for your Kindle’s email address, and will then send a Kindle-formatted document to that address. For smartphones like the iPhone, Scribd will ask for a phone number; it then texts the URL of a web-accessible PDF file to the phone.

The send to devices feature will work with any non-DRM-protected content in the Scribd library, or about 95% of its documents (including, for instance, O’Reilly texts — but not Simon & Schuster books).

By late March, the company also plans to offer apps for the Android OS, iPhone and other devices. Scribd CEO Trip Adler told Wired that these apps will synchronize with Scribd on other platforms — so you could leave off reading a long document at your desk and pick up where you left off on your iPhone. Like the Scribd website, the apps will also include social features, so you can share documents you particularly like with your friends, for instance.

Scribd also announced a new application programming interface (API) that device manufacturers and app developers can use to integrate more fully with the Scribd network.

Unlike Apple, which plans to use the relatively stripped-down EPUB format for publishing iPad books, Scribd relies primarily on PDF documents, which retain the publishers’ formatting, layout and font choices better. (The service also accepts Word documents and PowerPoint presentations.)

Scribd will also be converting its documents to EPUB format for many mobile devices.

Adler doesn’t foresee any conflict with publishers — or with Apple, which has already announced its own plans to sell e-books for the iPad.

“In general our goal is to provide these devices with the long tail of content that isn’t already available through publishers… like people’s school papers, PowerPoint presentations, and short stories. So I think we’re really complementing publishers’ content.”

The new “Send to Device” feature is scheduled to be available today.

via Scribd Pushes Content to Smartphones, E-Readers | Epicenter | Wired.com.

Scribd Pushes Content to Smartphones, E-Readers | Epicenter | Wired.com

Lightweight Boots Shore Your Feet Up, Never Weigh Them Down

Lightweight Boots Shore Your Feet Up, Never Weigh Them Down

Review: Kayland Zephyr Hiking Boots

Hikers usually have to choose between boots that are lightweight and boots that are protective and supportive. Kayland’s Zephyrs override that dilemma with a polyurethane exoskeleton that gives the boots leatherlike rigidity, while keeping them lightweight (about 2.5 pounds for the pair) and relatively breathable.

This exoskeleton is a black plastic framework that’s injected directly into the underlying mesh. Combined with the shoe’s padding, this gives your ankles and heels plenty of support on foot-twisting, rocky, rutted trails, while leaving wiggle room and toe protection.

The Zephyrs are lined with something that Kayland calls “eVent Cocona,” which keeps them from becoming a steam locker for your feet. Despite all that padding and infrastructure, the boots don’t heat up much, and they dry out reasonably quickly.

They also sport Vibram soles with aggressive treads, making them serious all-terrain boots, and an EVA midsole keeps them bouncy and flexible.

We wore the Kayland Zephyrs through a rainy Bay Area fall and winter, stomping up and over sandy, rocky, muddy trails and through filthy, puddle-marred San Francisco streets (as well as in the frigid confines of the sporadically-heated Wired offices.) The boots hold up well and kept our tootsies comfortable in all these conditions. But best of all? We never experienced any of the Frankenstein-esque trudging common to most hiking boots. These babies left us feeling fleet-footed and twinkle-toed.

WIRED Exoskeleton feels like lightweight foot armor. Springy soles let you tackle any groundlike surface. Breathable. Highly adjustable lacing.

TIRED Rigidity has its price: Not the best for clambering over rocks or running at high speeds.

  • Manufacturer: Kayland
  • Price: $200
  • Score: 9 out of 10

Kayland Zephyr Hiking Boots | Wired.com Product Reviews.

Lightweight Boots Shore Your Feet Up, Never Weigh Them Down

In the Future, One CF Card Will Hold 200 Years’ Worth of Porn | Gadget Lab | Wired.com

compactflash-188-zillion

Someday, you’ll be able to fit as much data in a small, square CompactFlash card as AT&T carries on its entire network in a week.

In theory at least, version 5 of the CompactFlash standard will allow CF cards to hold 188 petabytes of data. By comparison, that’s equivalent to 188,000 one-terabyte drives, sufficient capacity to contain 2.7 million hours of HD video (two centuries’ worth of the porn industry’s annual output) or more than 7 days’ worth of AT&T’s daily traffic, which currently averages 18.7 petabytes. With that kind of storage, you’d only need five CF cards to stash all of the data currently stored on all the hard drives in home computers in the state of Minnesota. (Data comparisons courtesy of UCSD’s 2009 How Much Information? study.)

CompactFlash cards are the chunky, heavy-duty memory cards that would have gone obsolete years ago except for the fact that they’re used in high-end cameras. All pro photographers use them, so all professional SLR cameras support the technology, in a vicious circle that will keep the technology alive long after everyone else has forgotten it. Unless, of course, they need to stash massive amounts of data.

The current standard, CompactFlash 4.1, limits the cards to a relatively paltry 137 GB, due to the limits of its addressing scheme. In practice, the largest CF card you can currently buy is 64 GB, but that’s still larger than the largest SDHC card, which is 32 GB. The theoretical maximum of the latest SD standard, SDXC, is 2 terabytes, although no one uses these cards yet.

The new CF standard uses 48-bit addressing, which raises the theoretical memory limit to an eye-popping 188 petabytes. We figure it will be quite a while before storage technology comes close to pushing that limit, however.

And by then, you’ll probably have exabytes of ultra-high-definition 3-D home videos that you’ll want to keep track of, meaning that a paltry petabyte card will look just as puny as a 1-GB card does today.

(Via DPReview)

Photo: Wikimedia Commons, poorly butchered by the author

In the Future, One CF Card Will Hold 200 Years’ Worth of Porn | Gadget Lab | Wired.com.

In the Future, One CF Card Will Hold 200 Years’ Worth of Porn | Gadget Lab | Wired.com

Stormy Weather Cannot Defeat Re-Engineered Umbrella

 Stormy Weather Cannot Defeat Re-Engineered Umbrella

Review: Blunt Umbrella

On a recent stormy San Francisco day, pedestrians all around me struggled as the wind made their bodega-bought umbrellas leap like impatient leashed puppies, or worse yet, flip inside-out like starfish stomachs. But not me. My umbrella kept its rounded shape in the nastiest of rainy gusts, its architectural integrity as unbroken as the dome of St. Peter’s.

I was using a Blunt umbrella, a water-repelling shelter whose design innovations include beefier-than-usual struts arranged in a more redundant, robust structure than most umbrellas. A “radial tensioning system” helps move the ribs firmly out against the fabric without requiring you to exert a huge amount of upward force, and there’s no little metal locking clip to fiddle with or catch on your gloves: just a solid plastic collar that you push up until the umbrella snaps into shape. And finally, the ribs’ tips are rounded, which keeps them from poking through the fabric.

On the downside, the Blunt is a bit heavier than most umbrellas, doesn’t fold up quite as compactly as some and for some bizarre reason, lacks a wrist strap.

The Blunt is a solid, reliable wet-weather sanctuary. Its unique construction may not be readily apparent, but you will definitely notice the difference in a storm.

WIRED Tough, double-strut system gives shape and strength. No pointy metal parts to poke you.

TIRED Not terribly large (a $75 extra-large model is available though). Petal shape may leave your shoulder occasionally exposed. Not compact.

Blunt Umbrella | Wired.com Product Reviews.

Stormy Weather Cannot Defeat Re-Engineered Umbrella

Siri Launches Voice-Powered iPhone ‘Assistant’ | Gadget Lab | Wired.com

A new app invites you to command your iPhone in the same way that Captain Kirk addressed the Enterprise’s computer.

Siri's visual interface displays a transcription of what you say, then hands the data off to an appropriate web service or search engine.

Siri’s visual interface displays a transcription of what you say, then hands the data off to an appropriate web service or search engine.

Siri, an artificial intelligence-based voice-recognition startup, launched an iPhone app incorporating its technology on Friday. With the app running, you can address requests to your phone verbally, asking it things like, “Will it rain today?” or “Where is a good place for pizza nearby?” and “I’d like a table for two at Il Fornaio tomorrow night at 7.” The Siri app parses the sound, interprets the request, and hands it off to an appropriate web service, such as OpenTable, Yelp, CitySearch, and so on. It displays the results onscreen as it goes, giving you a chance to correct or adjust your request via onscreen taps.

It’s the most sophisticated voice recognition to appear on a smartphone yet. While Google’s Nexus One offers voice transcription capabilities — so you can speak to enter text into a web form, for instance — the Nexus One doesn’t actually interpret what you’re saying.

The voice recognition and interpretation abilities built into Siri have their origins in artificial intelligence research at SRI, a legendary Silicon Valley R&D lab that was also the birthplace of the mouse and of the graphical user interface. Spun out of SRI in 2007, Siri garnered a lot of attention for its ambitious plans to develop a virtual personal assistant. Actually bringing the product to market has taken quite a bit longer than expected.

In a demo shown to Wired.com, Siri responded quickly to spoken requests, answering questions about restaurants, directions and the weather with relative ease. It’s well-integrated with about 20 different web information services, and Siri representatives say that their application programming interface will allow many others to connect in the future.

From our initial testing on an iPhone 3GS, the app was zippy and smooth. Siri understood broad requests like “Find Chinese food nearby” and more specific ones like “Find Nearest Chase bank.” Impressive, and much more efficient than searching for businesses in the Yelp iPhone app.

The Siri app is free, and the company says it has no plans to charge end-users; the goal is to make money from referring customers to services via affiliate fees.

Siri is available for download in the iTunes App Store. It requires an iPhone 3GS, because it relies on that phone’s faster processing power, but Siri representatives say a version compatible with the older iPhone 3G is in the works.

Siri Launches Voice-Powered iPhone ‘Assistant’ | Gadget Lab | Wired.com.

Siri Launches Voice-Powered iPhone ‘Assistant’ | Gadget Lab | Wired.com

Sun CEO Departs in Geek Style, With a Haiku

Photo of Jonathan Schwartz by Webmink/Flickr.com

Sun’s erstwhile CEO Jonathan Schwartz announced his retirement Wednesday night in a uniquely geeky way: With a haiku posted to Twitter.

Financial crisis
Stalled too many customers
CEO no more

Schwartz’s decision to announce his departure in the form of a short, Japanese lyric was, perhaps, a veiled jab at Sun’s new boss, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, a noted Japanophile who has spent years building a $200 million house, in the wealthy Silicon Valley suburb of Woodside, that’s said to be a replica of a 16th-century Japanese emperor’s castle. It’s likely that the hard-charging, Samurai-inspired Ellison has no particular love for the pony-tailed, Java-loving Schwartz, who bet the farm on an open-source strategy that didn’t pan out and brought Sun’s share price from a split-adjusted peak of $250 to a recent low of $3.49, making its acquisition by Oracle easy. Now Ellison has started cleaning house, slashing back-office personnel and shaking things up in an effort to return Sun to the kind of profitability it once enjoyed.

It’s not the first time that technology and haiku have collided, and in fact, open-source computer geeks seem to have a real affinity for the form. In the early 2000s, spam-filtering service provider Habeas inserted a copyrighted haiku into the header of every authenticated e-mail message; the idea was that if the bad guys tried to spoof the header, they’d be committing a prosecutable copyright violation. Impish programmers have often inserted haiku error messages into the systems they manage, geeks have been collecting spam haiku since the earliest days of the Web, and there’s even an open-source operating system named Haiku (it’s based on the now-defunct BeOS).

With Schwartz showing the way, will other CEOs turn to haiku when they get pushed out? Probably not. They would do well, though, to consider the brevity of life and the futility of their ambitions. As the 17th century haiku master Basho wrote:

Ah, summer grasses!
All that remains
Of the warriors’ dreams.

(Translation: R.H. Blyth)

Disclaimer: The author has long-standing haiku blog, tinywords, which has nothing at all to do with technology.

(Originally published on Wired.com’s Epicenter blog)

Sun CEO Departs in Geek Style, With a Haiku