Scientist of the Day

A. C. Gilbert

February 13, 2018

Alfred Carlton Gilbert, an American inventor and toy-maker, was born Feb. 13, 1884. In 1913, Gilbert marketed his first Erector Set, and it remained a mainstay of the mechanical toy industry until the A.C. Gilbert company went under in 1967 (Gilbert himself died in 1961). The wonderful thing about the original Erector Sets is that the parts were very simple–pulleys, gears, wheels, axle rods, plates, perforated ribs of various lengths that could be put together to form beams, and, in the more expensive sets, an electric motor–and yet you could assemble the parts to make an almost endless variety of real structures and machines…

Ole Brude

February 12, 2018

Ole Brude, a Norwegian sailor and lifeboat designer, was born Feb. 12, 1880. Brude went to sea at age 16, and he decided before he was 20 that the world needed a better lifeboat. So he designed one, an enclosed iron shell, shaped like an egg, with a sail to propel it, that Brude felt would give its occupants a much better chance at survival, since they would be protected from the elements in an unsinkable cocoon. We see above a photograph of Brude with a model of his creation (second image). Brude had a full-size version built, and upon hearing that France was offering a one-million-franc prize for an improved lifeboat, and that the judging was to be at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904, he decided to sail his egg across the Atlantic to New York to prove its sea-worthiness, haul it by train to St. Louis, and claim the prize..

Henry Smeathman

February 9, 2017

Henry Smeathman, an English insect collector, was born Feb. 9, 1742. In 1771, he convinced a consortium of patrons in London to sponsor him on an insect-collecting trip to West Africa–these included Joseph Banks, just back from Captain Cook’s first voyage; Dru Drury, a wealthy insect collector; and John Fothergill, a Quaker physician. What Drury wanted most was a goliath beetle, since William Hunter had one, and he didn’t…

Bernard Courtois

February 8, 2018

Bernard Courtois, a French chemist, was born Feb. 8, 1777. In 1811, the French government was looking for alternate ways to manufacture saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, an ingredient essential for gunpowder. Saltpeter had traditionally been made using wood ash, but France (like England) was running out of wood, and other sources were desperately needed. So Courtois, a professional salpêtrier, was working on extracting potassium nitrate from seaweed, which one can find in great abundance along the coast of Normandy…

Louis Agassiz Fuertes

February 7, 2018

Louis Agassiz Fuertes, an American bird artist, was born Feb. 7, 1874. Fuertes is considered by many to be the greatest bird painter America has ever seen, eclipsing even John James Audubon for that honor. When he made his first appearance at the annual meeting of the American Ornithological Union in Cambridge in 1896, while still a senior at Cornell, he was already getting a favorable comparison with Audubon from the likes of Elliott Coues, the dean of American ornithologists, and Frank Chapman, who would become Curator of Birds at the American Museum of Natural History…

Robert Maillart

February 6, 2018

Robert Maillart, a Swiss structural engineer, was born Feb. 6, 1872. Maillart is best known as a bridge engineer, and in particular, for inventing the modern concrete arch bridge. Earlier bridge designers had employed reinforced concrete, but they tended to treat it like timber or stone, using old designs and structures for their new material. Maillart got rid of stone piers and thick arches and allowed the concrete to take flight and soar…