Processed Foods with Statistical Quality Control

By design, countless food products look and taste exactly the same. Nobody opens a name-brand candy bar and wonders if it will taste different than any other bar they may have chosen. Each can of Coca Cola, Pepsi, or Guinness Beer tastes exactly the same as any other.

All major food companies can thank Guinness brewer William Gosset who developed modern statistics. Many articles note that Gosset wasn’t an academic because he worked for a brewery. However, he was a highly educated mathematician.

His techniques are in use to this day in countless fields.

Regulators decide whether to approve new drugs. People base their professional careers on favorable figures using his statistical analytical tools. Governments calculate the value of human life, balanced against new regulations, using tools developed by the brewer. Insurance companies set rates, civil engineers design master plans, investors gamble trillions, and even spacecraft rely on his techniques.

Due to rules of secrecy at Guinness, Gosset published his work under the Nom De Plume student. Granted, his obvious creativity did not extend to name-picking. In any event, the student’s t-distribution, statistical significance, and Monte Carlo method are all his work. Some argue the entire field of quality control comes from his work. However, by the time he was born the American Manufacturing System was producing high-quality standardized parts.

In any event, the idea that food can be processed to a high degree of sameness, something that permeates store shelves to this day, is certainly his.

Audion Tube

The Audion acts as an amplifier, transforming quiet electric signals into loud ones.


In 1906, Lee de Forest invented the “three-electrode Audion” vacuum tube.

In 1906, Lee de Forest invented the “three-electrode Audion” vacuum tube. The Audion acts as an amplifier, transforming quiet electric signals into loud ones.

Originally de Forest wasn’t quite sure if the Audion had any practical application. That quickly changed. Audions efficiency boost voice over telephones, enabling long-distance calls. They make radios (and, later, phonographs, televisions, and anything else that produces sound) louder. They improve reception. Audion amplifying tubes caused countless noise complaints until digital transistors overtook them.

Patent Battles

de Forest famously fought epic patent battles to protect his Audion tube patent. The two most well-known include one with vacuum tube inventor John Fleming and another with radio inventor Edwin Armstrong. During these fights, de Forest admitted he did not know how or why his tube worked nor did he see any practical use for it. However, as the first person to invent and patent the tube he claimed broad rights to the patent and license it. After prolonged litigation that included three trips to the US Supreme Court they ruled for de Forest.

The de Forest patent war brings up a recurring and never-ending question: what is the purpose of a patent? The US Constitution clarifies patents exist “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Other countries have similar reasoning.

However, when the inventor of a thing sees no purpose for it and does not understand how it works do patents really promote the progress of science? US patents were initially issued by the Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. Except he did not like patents and processed applications slowly if at all. Steamboat inventor John Fitch received a patent after a long wait. However, the patent also issued to three others including two who did no research at all. Similarly, he sat on the application for Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. By the time the patent issues knockoffs abounded. However, steamboats and cotton gins both flourished.

Vacuum Tube (Diode)

Working for the Edison Electrical Light Company of England, Sir John Fleming invented the diode, a vacuum tube at the heart of all early electronics. Radios, television, telephones, computers – virtually every electronic we’re familiar with today – was first built with diodes.

Diodes are typically vacuum tubes, though some have specialized gasses in them. They conduct electricity, moving it from the cathode to the anode.

Early diodes evolved from lightbulbs. Electrons flow free in lightbulbs. Their purpose is to emit light and there is no need to shepherd the energy. Diodes enable the controlled flow of electrons. This enables all sorts of nifty tricks when tied together into circuits.

Compared to modern electronics, Diodes were enormous and also enormously power-hungry. Since they were tubes that typically operate at high heat they also tend to burn out, like old-fashioned pre-LED lightbulbs. Diodes often consumed as much as 100 volts. An iPhone, with billions of more circuits, consumes five volts.

Diodes typically contained additional electrodes, called grids, to control the flow of electricity and form circuits. Diodes with one grid are called a triode, because electricity flows from the cathode to the anode but can be diverted by the grid. Tetrode’s are four-grid diodes, etc…

Despite that Fleming was a physicist he was an avid anti-evolutionist. He profited from the invention of his diode, and subsequent discoveries, and left the bulk of his fortune to Christian charities serving the poor.

Transistors eventually replaced the vacuum tube.


Supertanker ships transport enormous amounts of oil.

They were invented by Ludvig and Robert Nobel, brothers of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite who founded and funded the Nobel Prize.

“Dy-na-mite!” said Ludvig and Robert Nobel’s brother, Alfred, when they shared their invention, an enormous ship to move oil.

OK, we’re 99.99% sure that didn’t happen. But the Nobel brothers certainly had an interest in the exploitation of natural resources.

Supertankers make the modern world possible by moving oil from where it’s plentiful to where it isn’t. The early ones were dangerous, with just one hull filled with explosive and filthy oil.

In one early accident, the oil caught fire and burnt half the crew alive. For example, in 1989 the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground and spilled 10.8 million US gallons (about 41 million liters) of oil into a pristine wildlife sanctuary.

Despite the dangers, tankers are necessary. They continually evolved in size and scope. Today, the largest supertanker is 450 meters long and 25 meters wide, an entire kilometer in diameter.

Besides tankers that carry oil, there are newer ships that carry other natural resources. Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) tankers carry natural gas turned into a liquid, but still stem from the same basic idea of enormous specialized ships to move natural resources.

Moldboard Plow

Traditional plows would become gunked-up with soil, forcing farmers to repeatedly stop and clear away soil. Moldboard plows repel soil, lowering the cost of farming.

John Deere was an ordinary blacksmith, creating pitchforks and other common farm instruments. Farmers complained about the time wasted stopping and clearing their plows. Deere thought there must be a better solution. He reasoned that a differently shaped plow, with a polished steel end, would naturally repel soil.

Iron was more common than steel, so Deere melted down an old sawblade. He iteratively worked with different shapes until finding one that slid through the soil. By polishing it, soil slid off rather than building up.

“Deere must have given a great deal of thought to the shape, to the special curve of his moldboard, for its exact contours would determine just how well the soil would be turned over after the share had made the cut.”

Smithsonian curator Edward Kendall after testing an 1838 Deere plow.

Deere sold his plows first locally then further away. Within a decade, he was selling 2,000 plows per year. Twenty years later, sales continued booming and Deere offered nine different models depending upon a farmer’s needs.



Samuel Morse invented the telegraph. He learned that his wife was sick while working in a different city. By the time he arrived home, she had died. Morse determined to invent a faster message delivery system.

Like Fulton, Morse was an artist before going into business. He had no background in science or engineering. Similarly, Colt was a showman, not an engineer.

There were several impractical precursors to Morse’s telegraph including one that dated to 1816 which used static electricity. Cooke & Wheatstone simultaneously invented a system in the UK. However, it was never popular outside the UK.

Samuel Morse’ Telegraph

Morse invented the first practical, stable, usable telegraph in 1837. However, the system could only handle electrical impulses, on and off. When the operator on onside pressed a lever down the lever on the other side also depressed, due to magnetism. This made a series of clicks.

Morse realized these clicks could be turned into an alphabet of dots and dashes, with each letter representing a dot and dash. The system became Morse Code and still exists 180 years later.

Until the development of an electrical grid, fifty years later, telegraphs ran from large Voltaic Pile batteries.

Both Morse’s and the Cooke & Wheatstone telegraphs were based on the electromagnetic work of Joseph Henry, a professor focused on electromagnets. Henry mentored Morse but had no interest commercializing his work.

Henry testified at a patent infringement trial that Morse eventually won. He summed up what today we call the difference between invention and innovation:

“Morse did not make a single original discovery in electricity, magnetism or electromagnetism, applicable to the innovation of the telegraph. I have always considered his merit to consist in combining and applying the discoveries of others in the innovation of a particular instrument and process for telegraphic purposes.”

Joseph Henry

Morse’ telegraph went on to revolutionize the United States and the world, pulling distant geographies ever closer.


Newspapers especially embraced the new instant communication technology. Thanks to lower-cost paper and steam presses, newspapers churned out multiple editions all day, updating the news as new information came through the telegraph. In 1846, five New York newspapers, led by the New York Times, founded the Associated Press. Its purpose was to source and write articles, transmitted over the telegraph, that any member newspaper could print.

US Civil War

During the Civil War, the telegraph proved vital. Buggies carrying large voltaic piles relayed reports back to the White House via a new division of the army, the Telegraph Corps (later renamed the Signal Corps). Lincoln anxiously awaited reports and, at one point during the war, spent hours in the telegraph room. Additionally, spies from both the North and South intercepted communications necessitating the need for significantly more sophisticated ciphers.

Image result for civil war telegraph

Western Union

There were many telegraph companies but, eventually, Western Union came to dominate the business. They realized that telegraph wires could easily be strung long-distances next to train tracks since the tracks always rested on relatively flat ground. Western Union purposefully skipped entering the telephone business but remarkably managed to keep the telegraph business alive until 2006. Today, the company still exists primarily for transferring funds.

Weather Forecast

The development of the telegraph in 1835 made weather forecasting possible. Before that time, people used various methods to guess changes in the weather. Some observations were accurate. For example, the correlation of barometric pressure to weather changes. However, there was not enough geographically widespread data to methodically forecast weather.

The Britsh government charged Francis Beaufort and his student, Robert FitzRoy with collecting weather information then disseminating it to ship captains. Their office eventually morphed into the British Meteorological Office.

An especially destructive 1859 storm inspired FitzRoy to develop meteorological charts and coin the term “forecasting the weather.” Fifteen stations telegraphed weather data to their office. Early methods were not as effective as they are now but were a vast improvement over nothing.

The scope of weather stations expanded and FitzRoy especially helped build the modern science of meteorology.

By 1861 The Times published regular weather forecasts. In 1911, soon after the invention of voice over the radio, forecasts were broadcast to ships.

Weather forecasts were especially useful during wartime when deciding when to sail ships and fly planes.

Today, weather forecasts are a part of daily life. There is even a full-time weather forecasting channel. Radar, satellites, and weather balloons send enormous amounts of information used to make ever more accurate predictions.

Inexpensive Postage & Stamp

Penny postage refers to low-cost prepaid postage.


By the early 1800s, postage was centuries old. But many postal carriers were essentially government couriers. They were extremely expensive. However, recipients could reject mail by refusing to pay. This made the entire system unpredictable and unstable. Furthermore, postal employees sometimes opened and read mail. Government censors ordered them to read mail searching for spies and some were merely curious.

Besides the recipient-pays scheme and censorship, postal rates varied by distance and the number of sheets in a letter. Recipients never knew how much a letter might cost until it arrived. To game the system, some letter senders would code messages onto envelopes so the recipient could reject the letter while still receiving the message. The system was a complicated, expensive, convoluted mess.

Hill Simplifies Mail

Rowland Hill realized a postal system could take advantage of massive economies of scale. Postal carriers already delivered small bundles of expensive mail. However, payment was iffy and frequently refused. If they carried more mail and payment was guaranteed, the overall system would cost less and be more useful.

Hill’s innovation envisioned vastly lower cost mail, available to any class of people, prepaid by a stamp affixed to the mail. Since recipients no longer needed to pay for mail, they would accept anything sent to them. Additionally, weight determined postage rates rather than size.

In 1840, within a half year after the introduction of his “Penny Black” stamp, the volume of mail more than doubled but costs barely budged. In a decade, the volume of mail doubled again.

The World Adopts Low-Cost Mail

The system gained worldwide fame. Every major country created an inexpensive mail system.

Hill’s inexpensive mail proved so popular that the Founding Fathers of the US wrote it into the Constitution. They explicitly charged Congress “to establish Post Offices and post Roads”. They understood that a functional, inexpensive mail system was vital to the economy of the US.

Despite the financial and logistical success of Hill’s methods and the enormous popularity of penny mail, he was fired as postmaster in 1842 when the conservatives won power. However, he was eventually rehired after the political winds shifted and was eventually knighted in 1860.

Wire Rope

Wire rope is far stronger than natural-fiber rope. German mining engineer Wilhelm Albert invented wire rope about 1834. Wire rope is sometimes called Albert rope after the inventor. Early on, they were used to hoist stuff to and from silver mines in the Hartz Mountain. The first rope was three wrought-iron cables twisted around one another.

There’s not much to write about wire rope; it’s important but boring.

Wire rope is a collection of wires wound around one another to form a rope, much like natural fibers form traditional rope. Wire rope is extremely strong. It holds up bridges, connects high-stress aircraft control, lifts elevators, and has countless other applications. Wire rope was key to building early railroads throughout Europe and the US, helping to hoist equipment in place.

Unlike natural fibers, wire rope lasts a long time. The Roebling Delaware Aqueduct, an 1847 wire rope bridge, is the oldest suspension bridge still in use.

There isn’t much variation in wire rope. Some has a core of fiber, others of metal. Ropes wine to the left or right. Seriously, wire rope is one of the most useful yet boring inventions ever made.

The end of a wire rope is typically an eye hook made by pressing the rope in a loop, much like a regular rope. Giant hydraulic presses form the eye hook.

One interesting use of wire rope is the famous cable cars of San Francisco, plus the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Wire rope made the cable cars possible because they would not stretch or break due to the constant starting and stopping. The rope came to California during the gold rush.

Wire ropes are twisted with something called stranding equipment that twists the wires into place.

Options & Futures

“I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today,” cartoon character Wimpy Wellington repeatedly offers. If he worked as an options trader he’d probably say “I’ll gladly pay you 1/10th the price of a hamburger today if I can buy a hamburger, sometime in the next year, at the price they are today.” You’d answer: “but don’t you want to taste the hamburger?” “No,” he’d reply. “I’m a vegetarian but plan to sell my hamburger option to a meat-eater at a profit: I don’t really care about the burger except to the extent somebody will eventually want it.”

The options and futures market is where speculators agree to buy or sell a stock or commodity in the future, at a price set today.

Tulip Mania

The introduction of options and futures almost immediately created the most famous market bubble in history. Tulips were a popular crop from the Netherlands. They’re a perennial plant, grown from bulbs. Prices began to rise when speculators realized they could use options and futures to profit. Most traders purchased options for tulip bulbs, not actual bulbs. Because there was a limited number of plants, others repurchased the options at higher prices.

Eventually, the price of some tulip bulbs was at ten-times the annual wage of a skilled worker. Options and futures fueled the prince increases enabling traders to increase prices far faster than tulip bulbs could be produced. Eventually, the bubble burst and caused enormous losses.

Image result for tulip bubble chart

Utility Value

Options and futures were originally created, and are still used, to spread the risk of crop failure. Farmers would sell an option to purchase a crop in the future at a set price.

When the crop matures, the agreed-upon price might be lower than the market price and the farmer is forced to sell at a loss. Conversely, the agreed-upon price might be higher and the option buyer then does not purchase the crop but loses the price they paid for the option. Finally, the crop might fail in which case the farmer received at least some revenue – the price of the option – rather than nothing.

In many ways, options function similar to insurance.

Futures or commodities contracts, or derivatives thereof, make up the bulk of trading today.

Traders don’t want and wouldn’t know what to do with, for example, thousands of tons of wheat, aluminum, or pork bellies. They wouldn’t know what to do with one pork belly, much less a truck full. However, they theoretically bring stability and predictability to those who actually grow and consume various products, except when they don’t.