Not the Discovery Channel

What we really know about the past

Discoveries. Part 1.

So its been a whole two weeks since a post. I told myself I wanted to get one a week done with no distractions… yet here we are. I could say it was because I was too busy with work last week, or that there was too many other things going on in my life. But really it was because I wasn’t inspired. Which is a poor excuse. So, instead I’m just going to acknowledge it and move on.

Moving on.

I have had repeating conversations recently about big, world changing discoveries and how the vast majority of them are made unintentionally. Like the discovery of penicillin. Or gas from crude oil. Or Columbus finding the New World. You can take your pick.

So with that in mind I started looking into great discoveries and how they changed the world. Kind of like a “best of” list. The very first ones that popped into my brain were biggies: domestic plants and animals, fire, art, and the wheel. The kinds of huge globe-altering developments that let humans become such a dominant force on the planet. And sure they are biggies, probably the biggest of the big, but we don’t know their stories completely. These discoveries are so complex, so world changing, so monumental, that they are constantly debated and reexamined by archaeologists. Basically, we’re not really sure about the specifics.

Admittedly this is also a pretty big Discovery

So, I thought instead we could look at some discoveries where we are sure about the specifics. Primarally because they make for interesting stories, but I hope that a look at these will shed some light on the act of discoveries in general. So lets get started.

I`m going to start with sliced bread.

Yup. Sliced Bread. As in “The Best Thing Since”.

So, first, a simple and self evident question: what makes sliced bread the benchmark for the best idea?  Why are other ideas compared to the simple process of slicing bread? Was it really so hard to make sliced bread?

Well, actually yes. It was. Let’s forget the 30,000 year history of bread, and instead focus on it’s commercially available sliced form.

The inventor of the bread slicer, Otto Frederick Rohwedder, first started toying with the idea in 1912, but didn’t make a prototype until 1916, which he lost in a fire in 1917.  After getting his capital back he developed and sold his first commercial bread slicer on July 6 1928 in Chillicothe, Missouri. A town now known as The Home of Sliced Bread. However the whole bread slicer thing didn’t really catch on, mainly because people thought sliced bread would go stale to quickly. Otto sold his second machine to a St. Louis baker named Gustav Papendick who figured out how to keep the slices together during the process, ensuring the bread would stick together after being sliced- keeping it from going stale.

The final working model of the bread slicer was written up in Modern Mechanics magazine in 1929. You can read the two page article here. You should, because its quite interesting. Apparently over 30,000 women were interviewed to determine optimal thickness. Which seems like a bit of a large sample number, but I’m no bread scientist.

After this invention, which also wrapped the bread immediately after being sliced, Wonder Bread bought themselves some machines and started selling their bread in pre-sliced packages. It wasn’t soon after until all packaged bread was sold sliced.

So, pretty simple right? Two guys, one idea. Boom- sliced bread.

Not really. But you knew that’s where we were going right?

Bill Hammack over at the points out that three different major developments needed to happen before sliced bread could be a commercial success. The first is the development of an automated flour mill. Don’t even get me started on the amount of things that need to be invented before that thing could have come about. Let’s just say it goes all the way back to Archimedes and his famous screw.

Which wasn't really his, but that is a different story


Okay, back on topic. There were two more things that needed to exist before the invention of sliced bread. The first is the use of industrial ovens, which came around after the use of flour mills. These allowed bread to be made in large quantities and- more importantly for the bread slicer- made in uniform sizes. A uniform sized loaf is important if you’re going to make a bread slicer. You simply can’t do it with irregular loaves. Not if you want them them to stay fresh.

Finally we needed a way to wrap the bread after we slice it. At first it was waxed paper, but it quickly became plastic- probably cellophane, though I couldn’t find anything specific. I could write a book on the amount of inventions needed to bring about plastic, but lets just say its a lot. Plastic also allowed us to do a bunch of other things, one of which was sell pre-sliced bread. Without good wrapping it wouldn’t stay fresh. In fact, the saying “The best thing since sliced bread” derives from the first marketing campaign for sliced bread, in which the manufactures claim that it’s the best thing since wrapped bread.

Adds tended to have more words back then


I know I’m glossing over some other points. You also need to have cardboard to hold the bread in place while it’s sliced. You need bread to become a commercial good rather then something produced in individual homes. You need distribution networks, trains, trucks. Seth Godin points out in a TED Talk that you also need a marketing infrastructure in order to get the word out about you’re amazing new pre-sliced bread.

Also needed: Electricity, Steel, WW1, and pretty much everything else ever


So sliced bread isn’t that simple an idea. It builds on a bunch of different inventions and ideas, all required to combine before the sliced bread could enter the world. There is an interesting analogous side note to this story. The pop-up toaster was invented before sliced bread was sold. Charles Strite invented it in 1919 but it was a miserable failure until sliced bread took the guess-work out of slicing bread, making it easier to fit in the slots. Sliced bread also led to increased sales in jams and other spreads as people started eating more bread. Apparently the act of slicing our own pieces makes us eat less. Though maybe we just started eating more PB & J.

Okay, so that was complicated. Apparently we needed a lot of things to come together in order to start slicing bread.

What about something else?

Well, when I mentioned this topic to a buddy of mine at work, he immediately suggested medicine as a great discovery. But that’s a little to broad. The history of medicine is a fairly large topic. Let’s focus on one aspect of modern medicine that has had arguably the biggest affect on success rates.

Washing your hands.

Seriously. This was a big one. Before ideas of sterility doctors had a fairly large mortality rate. There is a great story to explain just how much of a revolution this was in medicine.

In 1846 a young doctor by the name of Ignaz Semmelweis started working at two different  “Maternity Institutions”. These were set up all over Europe to help stop the killing of illegitimate children. The deal was that the clinic would pay for the birth and care for the children in exchange for the (mostly poor) women allowing themselves to be subjects in the teaching of medical students. In Ignaz’s case he was in charge of two different clinics. The first was one of these teaching clinics for doctors, while the second only taught midwives, not doctors.

The first clinic had a mortality rate of around 13 %, which was pretty standard for such clinics around Europe. Most of these deaths were caused by a fever in the mother after delivery- called puerperal fever. The thing that got Ignaz thinking was that the second clinic only had a mortality rate of 2%. He started to look into why. He discounted overcrowding as an reason, because the second clinic was more crowed then the first- probably because of its low mortality rate. Apparently women would beg to be let into the second clinic. I would have. Ignaz came to the conclusion that it must be something in the first hospital causing the deaths. He backed up this idea by looking at the rates of fever in women who gave birth on the streets. It turns out that even this was lower than in the first clinic.

Let me just say that again.

As a poor women, you were less likely to die if you gave birth in the streets of 19th century Vienna  then in a hospital.

I don't know... it looks clean enough


This really rubbed Ignaz the wrong way. While trying to figure out what was causing the discrepancy in the mortality rates, his close friend- another medial student- died of a sudden infection. Ignaz decided to attend his friend’s autopsy. You know, cause that’s what friends do.

At the postmortem, it as determined that his friend died of puerperal fever. Which is weird. Because it only affects women after childbirth, and his friend was male. Ignaz concluded that his friend must have become ill from a cut he sustained while working on a cadaver. He suggested that some sort of “cadaverous material” infected his friend. He then suggested that this same material was causing the death of women in the first clinic. He reasoned that the mortality rate was so low at the second clinic because playing with dead people was only part of the education of doctors,  not of midwifes. Ignaz concluded that doctors in the first hospital were transferring this ‘cadaverous material’ from the morgue to the delivery room. He immediately instituted a policy of washing hands in calcium hypochlorite between the morgue and the examination room and morality in the first institution fell 90%!

Further cleaning regiments brought these numbers down even lower, almost eliminating mortality from puerperal fever all together.

He published his findings and was promptly fired. Other Doctors thought he was crazy for even thinking such a thing. Even with the numbers baking him up. Remember, he did all of this before there was a Germ Theory of Disease. At the time, most European medicinal practitioners were still using the idea of Dyscrasia: the idea that disease was caused by an imbalance in the “Four Humours“. Suggesting that diseases could be caused by outside forces went against established medial knowledge. It also just plain upset doctors to think they they could be the cause of disease. Essentially Ignaz was blacklisted, and eventually assumed to be crazy. He was put in an asylum where he died only 14 days after being admitted. Of an infection.

Interestingly, almost the exact same story was happening to an American Doctor named Oliver Wendell Holmes in Boston. But without the being called crazy and being locked up. Also the guy let the first African Americans and Women into Harvard Medical School. Kind of a stand up dude. But his ideas on cleanliness, like Ignaz’s, fell on deaf ears. It took years before hand-washing became common place. It wasn’t until the 1870s that antiseptic practise began being used in surgeries.

Yup, we're all good here, bring in the next one

The reason for this long adoption of a practise well backed up with data is because of the slow adoption of the Germ Theory of Disease.

It took almost 2000 hundred years to develop an idea of health that centred around germs. With it’s origins going back 2000 years, and Islamic doctors using the idea of microscopic contaminants as causing diseases in the 14th century, it really wasn’t until much later that the idea really caught hold. (Note to myself: I seriously need to write about Medieval Islamic science- it was so crazy awesome)

In the late 17th century Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and his use of microscopes to devolve the field of microbiology, and Niolas Andy suggesting in 1700 that some of these small creatures may be the cause of diseases like smallpox.

However none of these ideas supplanted other theories of disease, like the Four Humours or the idea that diseases were caused by “bad air“. The Miasma Theory of bad air was dominant in England until John Snow studied the pattern of cholera outbreaks during the Broad Street cholera outbreak.

By accurately mapping out the areas of outbreak, Snow traced the source of the outbreak to a single water pump. Though he examined the water and the pump thoroughly (i.e. with a microscope), he was unable to determine what had caused the cholera outbreak. However his patterning data was enough to convince himself that it was definitely not spread by bad air. Instead he started looking at patterns of water quality and areas of outbreak. He looked at who provided the water to high areas of cholera  and where they were getting their water from.

Hint: It didn't look like this


Snow’s data showed that the Southwark and Vauxhall Waterworks Company was taking water from areas of high sewage pollution, and that the spread of cholera outbreaks mapped to their costumers. He basically demonstrated that cleaner drinking water meant fewer outbreaks. Still, it wasn’t yet a germ theory because he didn’t know why.

Louis Pasture helped the development of germ theory by knocking out the idea of Spontaneous generation, but it wasn’t until Robert Koch showed that Bacillus anthracis caused Anthrax by proposing his four postulates in 1884 that we had the first established Germ Theory of Disease.

The spread of Germ Theory quickly gave rise to hand washing as a standard preventative measure for stopping the spread of disease and we were left with arguably the single best advancement in medicine. And all it took was a couple of dedicated scientists.

And the creation of microscopes.

And Microbiology.

Good maps.

The scientific method.

And basically 2000 years of research.

So, in both of our examples, sliced bread and hand washing, these discoveries come about due to a combination of individual genius and the right circumstances. Basically the right mind has to be present in the right conditions before we can have any amazing discoveries.

I find the whole thing nicely summed up by Steven Hawking quoting Issac Newton.  Though we stand on the shoulders of giants, sometimes we need to reach a little higher.


What does this all have to do with the wheel and corn? I have some ideas, but I’ll save them for another time.


One response to “Discoveries. Part 1.

  1. Steve March 12, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    I find your knowledge on such wide ranging topics both peculiar, fascinating and oddly inspirational. It’s also nice to be able to clearly hear your voice through your writing. You’re like a more amusing version of James Burke.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s