Saturday, November 25, 2006

Fascinating Inventor No.1 - Sir Goldsworthy Gurney 1793-1875

Sir Goldsworthy Gurney had a truely brilliant name, and he was actually a brilliant but not very well known Victoran inventor. He was born in Cornwall in 1793 and first of all became a surgeon (obviously a bit after being a baby) before he became an inventor full time. His family had a lot of money which was quite useful in Victorian times because it meant he did not have to go down a mine when he was 8 or up a chimney when he was 6, just to earn enough to actually eat some mouldy bread. So, he was able to muck about with things, in the days when health and safety had not been thought of which is a good job for us.
One of his first inventions was the oxy-hydrogen blowpipe. I don't know what he used this for apart from burning things over long distances which is fair enough but it did lead to him finding out about lime and how it could be used as a light. This may sound crazy to you because fruit is not generally known as a source of light but I am not talking citrus. Lime is a mineral that can be burnt and gives off a really powerful light called limelight and this was used in theatres and even lighthouses.
A quite big invention was the steam carriage. He built lots of them around the same time that Stephenson built The Rocket. In 1829, one of them ran from London to Bath at 15 miles per hour (phew). As you can see the steam carriage used to blow up alot and did not really catch on.
If you go to a heating and ventilation engineer party ever, you will find that Sir GG is a big name. He invented giant machines for heating large spaces like cathedrals. These machines did in fact look like early space rockets should have looked like. There are still some of them left, probably because they are far to heavy to actually get out of the building. Anyway, Sir GG did very nearly invent the first space rocket completely by accident. Here is the story. In Victorian times the poor people were a bit stinky. The rich people knew this and tried to keep away from them by living in the country or in huge houses or both. But in London, in the summer of 1858, the sewers were so smelly and the Thames so stinky that THE BIG STINK happened. The Members of Parliament gave Sir GG money to deal with the problem. He thought he could burn off the stinky gases. So he connected the main Victorian sewer to the chimney in the Clock Tower of the Houses of Parliament.
Christopher Jones in his book, 'The Great Palace of Westminster' takes up the story.

"Unfortunately the gases would not light. Next, Gurney put a coal fire at the base of the Clock Tower and tried again; this time the gases burned. One day though when Mr Joseph Bazalgette, the chief engineer at the Metropolitan Board of Works, was examining the pipe that led from the main sewer to the Clock Tower, he discovered that there was a leak from a fractured coal-gas pipe into the sewer, and only a trap-door in the sewer was stopping the coal-gas from reaching the furnace at the bottom of the Clock Tower. There had already been one small explosion, although no one was hurt and no damage done. If the full blast of coal-gas and sewer gas had reached the furnace, then the chances are that the Clock Tower would have taken off for the moon, and the rest of the Palace would have been destroyed with it. Gurney, who so nearly blew up the Palace of Westminster, died knighted and respected in his bed. Guy Fawkes, a bumbling plotter of ludicrous incompetence, died in excruciating agony on the scaffold not far away, in Old Palace Yard."


Monday, November 13, 2006

Grandpa Jack's Crop Circle Needs Probing

A word about crop circles. Granpa Jack believes that crop circles are created by aliens and he is not alone in thinking this. You see what happens, according to Granpa Jack, is that the aliens come down in their spaceships and make interesting patterns in the nearest farmer's field. Nobody knows what the patterns mean. Maybe:

- 'Greetings, we come in peace' or
- 'Don't bother with this planet - they can't understand the interesting patterns we make in their fields' or
- 'zxxxihg435000q!!!

There are some really big patterns with loads of detail and actually the crop circles have become less like plain circles and more like some weird painting by Escher. It is like the aliens are trying to outdo one another in their crop circleness.
It strikes me that it would be easier if aliens used another way to talk to human beings, especially as making a crop circle can only be done when there is an actual crop; so communicating with the human race has to be done for about three weeks a year. It sounds a bit limiting. It is also probably a bit annoying to the farmer that half of his crop has gone into make a pretty pattern and he cannot actually sue the aliens can he?

So, Granpa Jack's crop circle needs probing. The next day I walk with him to the farmer's field.
'I am convinced of the existence of ailens, Wilfred,' says Grandpa Jack and he puffs at his pipe very fast. 'Crop circles, BOLS...'
'BOLS?' I ask.
'Balls Of Light, my boy, been seen since before time began.'
'Was there a time before time?' I ponder. 'Was that the dinosaurs or the stone age?'
'Never mind that! Your friend, Dexter has seen these phenomena - he's in the local newspaper!'
I am stunned. He never told me. 'What?! Dexter is in the newspaper? With BOLS?!'
'BOLS,' nods Grandpa Jack. He prods me with his walking stick. 'This is our big chance, young Wilfred. Soon we'll be able to call the local rag with the latest evidence of aliens amongst us.' I am not listening much because I am still trying not to think about Dexter and his phenomena. We finally stop in the middle of a grass field.
'Behold!' cries Grandpa Jack and he sweeps his stick around him.
I look. We are standing inside a flat grass circle. 'Are you sure this wasn't just the farmer turning his tractor round or something?' I ask. I actually think this is a rubbish crop circle.
'We must make camp!' says Grandpa Jack. 'Keep watch for the visitors and welcome them to our world!' He drags a bin liner out of his pocket and sits down on it. 'Got any whisky, Wilfred?'

Sunday, November 12, 2006

This is Starting to get a Bit Odd

A brief word about dunking biscuits. You may or may not have strong views about which biscuit is the best biscuit for dunking purposes. I like digestives, Dexter likes ginger nuts and that says quite a lot, I think.

When I get home from school Mum is sitting in the kitchen drinking a cup of tea. She pours me a mug and I take two digestives for double dunking. Mum always asks the same questions.
'How was school?'
And I always give the same answers.
'Fine,' I say, dipping my digestives into the tea, unless you count being called, 'Alan' every two minutes. I suck the biscuit.
'Anything interesting happen?' she asks.
'No,' I mumble, unless you count your ex-best friend claiming to be kidnapped by aliens.
'Good,' she says and gets up. 'It's vegetable medley tonight - got to use up the veg box.' She rummages through the dark spotty remains of the organic carrots and cabbage. Yuk. I take three more biscuits very quickly.Then she pulls out a manky piece of celery and that reminds me.
'Mum, do you like stick insects for example?'
'No,' she says, then adds, 'but Grandpa Jack is outside with his stinky pipe.'
I pocket the illegal biscuits and run out of the back door and into the mysterious world of the garden. One time, we lost our neighbour in here. She went in searching for cats but Dad found her again and put her back in her own garden before she starved to death.
'Grandpa!' I call into the dark trees and bushes.
'I'm here!' comes a voice.
I peer into the gloom and see a faint curl of blue smoke rise up near where Dad's shed is. Luckily I know the path and I plunge into the head-high undergrowth and push my way through to the shack . One of Grandpa's hands is outside the window, holding his smoking pipe. The rest of Grandpa is inside perched on the rusty lawnmower. I lean against a stack of old flowerpots.
'Your mother won't let me smoke in doors,' he says. He pulls at his beard and looks around the tiny space. 'You weren't followed, my boy?' he asks.
I shake my head.
'Because what I have to say is top secret.'
'OK,' I say.
'We are not alone,' he says and nods his head. In his excitement he begins to smoke his pipe inside the shed.
'There's no-one else around, Grandpa, I say - I told you, I wasn't followed.'
'You don't understand, young fella,' he coughs and I can hardly see him now because of the dark and the smoke. 'I've seen it!'
'On my way back from the pub, my boy, I took a short cut through Fiddler's Field,' he waves his pipe in the air, 'and I saw it with my own two eyes... a crop circle!'
He said it like I should understand what he was on about. I try and look keenly intelligent.
'Don't look so dim, Wilfred! What are they teaching you in school these days! A crop circle, a perfect pattern created in the long grass!'
I nod wisely.
He tuts. 'Created by inhuman hands!'
'Evidence of an alien invasion!!'
Now that I understand. This is starting to get a bit odd. First Dexter, now Grandpa Jack; it is time to go indoors and face the vegetable medley.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

You Two are the Odd Ones Out

So, camouflage yourself (bet you cannot see the stick insects on that tree) or run away - aagh! It is a giant ladybird! Well the stick insect can do both which is quite handy for the stick insect not to mention AMAZING but it turns out the parents are NOT impressed with these amazing abilities and are NOT happy about me having Stinky's babies. Miranda says I can keep them at her house for now. So, I will use my incredible powers of persuasion on the Parents and soon they will crumble and beg me to bring in the stick insects. Perhaps I will tell them what the experts say, "This is an easy species to keep and very hardy. They are nice and compact," and I will not tell them, "although they have the ability to run away very fast when you are not looking." - either that or I will just sneak the babies in and they will have to blend in with the furniture.

At school everyone is really interested in my stick insects and I am so excited about my babies I forget I am not talking to Dexter and in the playground I give him a friendly shove.
'You know stick insects?' I say in a casual sort of way as he gets up.
'Yeah, I've got loads but they died,' he says and kicks at me - looks like we are friends again.
'Well, I am getting FIVE!' I kick him back.
'I had about a hundred,' he says getting his football out, 'I couldn't be bothered to count them all.'
'Miranda has about a hundred,' I say, backing away ready to get the ball. 'I am keeping mine at her house.'
He stops and puts the ball away. 'At her house? Huh. They are stupid anyway - just swim around like floating fleas.'
'That's sea monkeys you idiot! Not stick insects! Now give me the ball!'
'I'm playing with Tyson anyway...' he shouts and he runs off.

In the classroom things get interesting and that is not something I say alot. Mrs Trundle is meant to be doing science but she ate too much dinner or something and so Mr Bagnall is here talking about forces and even he sounds bored. We are all falling asleep when suddenly Dexter sticks his hand up. This is weird because, first, Mr Bagnall has not even asked a question and second, Dexter NEVER answers a question even when it is asked.
'What is it, Derek?' asks Mr Bagnall. There is alot of sniggering. Dexter looks behind him.
'I'm called, Dexter,' he says 'and I have something big and important to tell you.'
'Is that so, young man? Then enlighten us, I am all ears.' and he cups both ears with his hands.
We stare at Dexter.
'I have been kidnapped by aliens,' he says.
Everybody gasps.
'Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Well done,' says Mr Bagnall.
'It is true,' says Dexter. 'They took me onto their spaceship.'
'Right,' says Mr Bagnall and he is looking at the door now. 'You don't mean you've been kidnapped by ALANS? Do you Dextrose? Do you? Well done, good joke,' he says and points at his badge.
'No, aliens and that is a fact.' Dexter looks at me. If I did not know better I would say he is being a bit jealous of me and my popular stick insects. But then I did see some strange lights in the sky last night. I am not going to tell him that.
'I saw strange lights in the sky last night,' pipes up Oliver-James.
'Me too,' says Itisham. 'Can I go to the toilet?'
'How many of you saw odd lights?' asks Mr Bagnall.
Mostly everyone puts their hand up. Except me and Miranda. I look at Dexter and fold my arms. I will have to probe him about so-called alien kidnapping...
'Looks like you two are the odd ones out,' says Mr Bagnall. 'Well done.'