“God Pity A One-Dream Man”

The Ordeal of Robert Hutchings Goddard

In 1901, just after Christmas, in Worcester, Massachusetts, a sickly nineteen-year-old high school student named Robert Hutchings Goddard sat down to compose an essay on an enterprise of surpassing technological challenge. He was no stranger to enterprise. He had already tried to fly an aluminum-foil balloon filled with hydrogen gas and attempted to build a perpetual-motion machine. Samuel P.Read more »

From Pearl Street To Main Street

Lighting Up America

“Remember,” Thomas Edison liked to say, “nothing that’s good works by itself, just to please you; you’ve got to make the damn thing work.” One hundred years ago this October, after trying to make the damn thing work for thirteen months, Edison invented an incandescent bulb that would burn for forty hours.Read more »

Is Something Gaining On Us?

Maybe they ought to call this the Uneasy Decade. As we move on toward the twenty-first century (and it really is not so far away, when you stop to think about it), we seem to spend a good part of our time looking back over our shoulders. Satchel Paige, the black baseball star, advised people never to look behind them “because something may be gaining on you,” but we are doing it persistently and perhaps we are beginning to understand what Mr. Paige was talking about.Read more »

“Gentlemen, This Is No Humbug”

The single greatest medical discovery of the last century began as a parlor game, and brought tragedy to nearly everyone who had a hand in it

In the early 1840’s a visiting surgeon approaching the main building of Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, an imposing granite structure designed by Charles Bulfinch, could consider that he was about to enter one of the foremost temples of his art. From a parklike garden he ascended a flight of stone steps that led him through a portico of eight towering Ionic columns, then continued his climb inside the building up a gracefully winding cantilever staircase.Read more »

Frederick Winslow Taylor

The Messiah of Time and Motion

Toward the end of the last century an idea took form in the mind of a Philadelphia factory engineer that was destined to change, in profound and troubling ways, the nature of work in the modern world. The engineer was Frederick Winslow Taylor, a brash and eccentric young man whose most notable prior accomplishment had been the invention of a crook-handled tennis racquet, shaped like a giant teaspoon, with which he had taken the measure of a number of the leading players of the day.Read more »


The outdoor electric-light spectacular that transformed cities all over the world was born at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, where a single lighted column glowed with no fewer than four thousand incandescent lamps. By 1900, fifteen hundred incandescent bulbs had been hung on the narrow front of the Flatiron Building in New York City to form America’s first electrically lighted outdoor advertising sign. After that, incandescent signs began to flicker on across the country.Read more »

Head Lines

In an age more sanguine about the benefits of progress than our own, Scientific American enthusiastically reported on man’s inventive genius every week. On March 9,1878, its readers learned all about the Hat Conformator (Fig. 1, below), a bewilderingly complicated French tool used to measure men’s heads in order to block their hats properly. Read more »


How the Philadelphia waterworks became a potent symbol of our lost belief that nature and technology could live together in harmony

Charles Dickens apparently found little to beguile him when he visited Philadelphia in the 1840’s. He gave scarcely a page to the city in his American Notes , and was sourly amused at being overcome with “Quakery feelings,” which manifested themselves in an urge to invest in the corn exchange. But when he got to the banks of the Schuylkill, he was deeply impressed: “Philadelphia is most bountifully provided with fresh water, which is showered and jerked about, and turned on, and poured off, everywhere.Read more »

Close Encounters Of The Earliest Kind

During November of 1896 the United States experienced its first publicized UFO flap, and it is perhaps not surprising that it should have occurred in California. After all, Erich von Däniken would have us believe that the prehistoric petroglyphs in Inyo County represent interplanetary flight; Fray Geronimo Boscana, the missionary at San Juan Capistrano, described a “two-tailed comet” overhead in 1823; and in 1883 the scientist John J.Read more »

The Story Of The Pill

How a Crash Program Developed an Efficient Oral Contraceptive in Less Than a Decade

A good beginning for this story is a meeting in early 1951 of three remarkable people—the greatest feminist of our age, a great philanthropist who was as notably eccentric as she was fantastically wealthy, and a biological scientist whose subsequent world fame was achieved in large part because of this meeting. Would that it could be described in circumstantial detail and invested with the drama it should have in view of what followed from it. Read more »