Travels in the Knowledge Web:
Frederick the Great to the Bottle Cap
Frederick II the Great of Prussia 1740-1786 – Intellectual and artistic monarch, Frederick was the enlightened despot’s despot. After he got the throne in 1740 he reformed everything. His orchestra included CPE Bach. His Sans Souci palace housed his art collection. He hired Voltaire for conversations and his new Academy of Science included Big Thinkers like… Francesco Algarotti – This talented, bisexual (possible affair with Frederick) science writer became Prussian Court Chamberlain, wrote ‘Newtonianism for Ladies,’ house-guested with Voltaire, and knew Alexander Pope while in London, where he seduced famous bluestocking Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. One of his corresponding science pals was… Lazzaro Spallanzani – Who never got the big break he deserved after beating Pasteur to germ theory. This Italian academic studied everything: Homer, volcanoes, meteorology, math, electric fish, digestive juices, artificial insemination and heat sterilization (inspiring Appert’s preserved food). He sliced salamanders and worms to watch them regenerate. And reported on this to… Voltaire-Europe’s greatest propellor-head and the philosopher-playwright who inspired his entire generation. Everybody made the trip to meet him, or wrote to him: Catherine the Great, Pompadour, Swift, Diderot, you name them. He spent much of his productive time living with his mistress Emilie du Chatelet, whose 1738 in-house algebra teacher was… Samuel Koenig -Till they had a row about his salary and he left. Hot-shot math maven, Koenig was prof. at a Dutch university, then at his alma mater in Basel. His big stuff was on honeycombs, the shape of the Earth, and Koenig’s Law (energy, v. complex). An early influence was his teacher… Daniel Bernoulli – If you fly, thank him Bernoulli’s Principle: the air going over the top of the wing goes faster that that beneath it, and its pressure lowers, so the plane is sucked into the air. Hydrodynamics was his thing. And jet boats. And one of his pupils would head for America… Joseph Des Barres – Where he fought (for the Brits) Indians and the French (in Canada). Made his name as a military surveyor. So good, he was commissioned to map the East Coast of America. Ended up Governor of Prince Edward Island. Early on in Canada, he taught surveying to a young Royal Naval officer… Captain James Cook – Who charted NZ, Australia, discovered Hawaii (where he was killed) and sailed the Southern Ocean, where he searched for Antarctica (no luck). First major explorer to use Harrison’s new chronometer. Circumnavigated globe. Member of Royal Society. Carried natural history biggies such as Banks and Forster, but not, due religious extremism… Joseph Priestley – Political radical and discoverer of oxygen. Married sister of ironmaker John Wilkinson. His electrical experiments influenced everybody (incl. Volta and Benjamin Franklin). Eventually he ran away to America (too radical for the Brits). Living next to a brewery, he discovered carbon dioxide and how to impregnate water with it, thus inventing… Soda Water – At first, sold by quacks for its medicinal qualities (a cure for fevers), by the early 1800s it had been flavored and was a popular beverage, successfully marketed by Joseph Schweppes. Its major problem (of keeping the fizz in the liquid) was finally (1891) solved by Maryland inventor… William Painter – Who patented a railroad seat, a couch, a counterfeit-coin detector, a seed-sower, a soldering tool and 80-odd other gismos. In the 1880s his greatest triumph (his salesman and quick study was named Gillette) came with the Baltimore Bottle Seal Company, and the product which solved Priestley’s fizz problem… The Bottle Cap – known initially as the ‘Crown Cork Tin Bottle Cap,’ the device is still in use everywhere. Made of cork-lined crimped tin, it is still one of the most prevalent and ingenious innovations. A throw-away that inspired Gilette to greater things.