This Week in Tech History

Celebrating the birthdays of three pioneering inventors

3 March 2015

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Born in 1877 to former slaves in Kentucky, Garrett A. Morgan went on to invent two life-saving devices that continue to keep us safe today.

The inventors of the telephone, the gas mask, and the personal computer may have lived during different eras, but they have one thing in common—they all have birthdays this week. Read about their contributions.

CLEAR AS A BELL

“Mr. Watson, come here, I want you” were the first words that Alexander Graham Bell spoke into his experimental telephone. Down the hall, Bell’s assistant, Thomas Watson, heard the first spoken sentence ever transmitted via electricity. 

Bell was born on 3 March 1847 and had just turned 29 when he received a U.S. patent for “an improvement on telegraphy” on 7 March 1887. He made the first successful call to Watson just three days later.

Unlike telegraphs, which transmitted only staccato sounds known as Morse code, Bell’s device transmitted speech using a liquid transmitter, or a vertical metal cone with a piece of parchment stretched like a drum over the narrow end of its base. He used a bottle cork with needle stuck through it and glued it to the outside of the parchment and submerged the needle into a tiny cup containing diluted sulfuric acid. The needle was wired to a battery. When he spoke into the open end of the cone, his voice made the parchment vibrate, which also moved the needle slightly. The movement varied the strength of the current, thus converting sound waves into an electric signal, which travelled along a wire to a receiver.

Bell founded Bell Telephone Co. in Boston in 1877. From 1891 to 1892 he served as president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, one of IEEE’s predecessor societies. He also received the 1914 AIEE Edison Medal for “meritorious achievement in the invention of the telephone.” When Bell died on 2 August 1922 at the age of 75, every telephone in the United States and Canada went silent for one minute in his honor.

ENGINEERED FOR SAFETY

Born on 4 March 1877 in Paris, Ky., to former slaves, African American inventor Garrett A. Morgan faced racism on his road to success. Despite this obstacle, he developed a device that saved the lives of soldiers, firemen, and others who had to breathe in fumes and dust.

In 1912 he patented his “safety hood,” later called the gas mask. The breathing device consisted of a hood, a filtered air intake tube, and another tube that allowed air to be exhaled out of the hood. His device also used a sponge that the wearer could soak in cold water to filter out smoke and cool the air. Morgan and three others donned the safety hoods on 25 July 1916 to rescue several workers who were trapped in a tunnel that exploded 15 meters below the surface of Lake Erie, one of North America’s five Great Lakes.

Orders for the masks soon came pouring in from fire departments across the country, but many were later canceled when it became known that Morgan was African American. However, the use of poisonous gas during World War I soon provided another use for the device, and the U.S. Army purchased thousands of masks, saving countless lives.

Another of Morgan’s inventions prevents traffic accidents, making it safer to drive and walk on busy streets. After witnessing a serious accident between an automobile and a horse-drawn carriage, Morgan decided to develop a way of automatically directing traffic that would be more cost-efficient than placing a traffic cop at every intersection. On 20 November 1932 he received a patent for the first traffic signal—a T-shaped pole that had “stop” and “go” indicators as well as an “all stop” signal that could be used to clear the intersection so that pedestrians could cross. Morgan sold the rights to his invention to General Electric for US $40,000, or $638,490 in today’s dollars. Soon after receiving a commendation from the U.S. government for his invention of the traffic signal, Morgan died on 27 July 1963 at the age of 86.  

THE START OF SOMETHING PERSONAL

It was heavy to carry and its interface was not nearly as user-friendly as the laptops and tablets we tote today, but the Osborne 1 computer still amazed consumers when it debuted in June 1981. Developed by Adam Osborne, it was the first commercially successful portable computer.  

Osborne was born in Bangkok on 6 March 1939 to British parents. He spent most of his early childhood in India. He came to the United States to attend the University of Birmingham, Alabama, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1961. He began his career at Shell Oil and left there in the 1970s to pursue his interest in computers.

In 1975 Osborne began attending meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club, an early computer hobbyist group in Menlo Park, Calif. He founded Osborne Computer Corp. in January 1981 and in June of that year the company debuted the Osborne 1. Weighing in at 10.7 kilograms—about the size and weight of a sewing machine—the computer came in in a rugged plastic case with a handle and the unit could fit under an airplane seat. The computer ran the popular CP/M 2.2 operating system and cost $1,795, just over half the price of desktop computers from other manufacturers with comparable features. In the first eight months after it hit the market, 11,000 units were sold, and at their peak the company sold 10,000 computers a month.

The company’s success was short-lived, however. It released two more computers that did not sell nearly as well as the Osborne 1, and filed for bankruptcy in 1983. The following year Osborne founded Paperback Software International, which specialized in developing inexpensive computer software. He died in Kodaikanal, India, on 18 March 2003 at the age of 64.

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