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    Typing 101


    Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press with loose type in the 15th century and made the way for the printed word.   Four hundred sixty years later…. let there be typewriters for everyone.

    Underwood Typewriter Model 5 would become the design standard for all future typewriters until the IBM Selectric “golfball” machine was introduced in 1961.

    The Model 5 Underwood typewriter is plentiful – the last known serial number is 3,885,000.  Why was this typewriter so successful: typebar construction, frontstroke mechanism, QWERTY keyboard, four-bank keyboard with single shift, and ribbon inking.  

    Typewriter? Typebar? Frontstroke? QWERTY? Four-bank keyboard? Ribbon inking?  


    It’s a familiar scene: while outside city streets bake under the August sun, inside office buildings, workers, most of them women, are bundled in sweaters and blankets. But if this is such a universal experience, why do office buildings set their thermostats so low during the summer? There may be a scientific explanation for it.

    The journal Nature Climate Change recently published a study claiming that office building temperatures are based on the metabolic rates of men, who create and retain more heat on average than women. The temperature model, developed in the 1960s, also assumes that people insulate a certain amount of heat with their clothes, which discounts the different wardrobes of men and women.

    The authors of the study point out that cold employees are less productive. Turning up the temperature would also use less energy, lowering a building’s carbon footprint. Finally, reevaluating the temperature model by considering the average metabolic rates of both genders would remove gender discrimination.

    If you’re still feeling chilly, consider sending this study to your building’s manager. Science!

    Image: The frozen Beaufort Sea off the northern coast of Alaska.

    Over the past year CHF became the intellectual home to more than two dozen enthusiastic, diverse, and publically engaged research fellows. They have taught us about the science and history of taste, told us the stories behind the periodic table’s elements, medieval robots, and revealed the surprisingly complex social and political history of, well … manure. We are devastated to see them go, but grateful for the contributions they have made to our intellectual community and excited to see where their paths next take them.

    Craving more research from our fellows? Lucky for you (and us!), it’s easy to find many of them all over the World Wide Web. Here’s where they make their virtual homes:

    Nadia Berenstein (Haas Dissertation Fellow) blogs regularly and enthusiastically at nadiaberenstein.com about the development of “artificial flavors” in science and history. You can also find her on Twitter @thebirdisgone.

    Deanna Day (Haas Postdoctoral Fellow) explores technology, gender, and culture @deannaday and regularly writes for Somatosphere, where she is also the managing editor.

    Kristin DeGhetaldi (CHF Fellow), a self-proclaimed “fixer of paintings,” tweets about art and conservation @kdeghetal.

    Adrian Dingle (Société  de Chimie Fellow) tweets voraciously about his research on the periodic table and his experience as a chemistry teacher @adchempages, and blogs at adriandingleschemistrypages.com

    Meredith Farmer (Allington Fellow) tweets all about Herman Melville and Moby-Dick at @farmerm.

    Tim Johnson (Allington Fellow) shares his research on Southern agriculture and the history of fertilizer @tim_h_johnson.

    Dan Liu (Price Fellow) tweets about the history of molecular biology and more at @nothingtolius.

    Douglas O’Reagan (Seidel Fellow) talks about his research at douglasoreagan.com and tweets about digital humanities, public history, and the history of 20th-century science @D_OReagan.

    Catherine Price, whose book Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection came out earlier this year, tweets @Catherine_Price.

    Elly Truitt just published Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art and tweets on the topic @medievalrobots.

    Now you can follow tweets from CHF scholars past and present, all in one place: twitter.com/ChemHeritage/lists/chf-fellows-and-scholars

    By Rebecca Ortenberg

    Cat Craze



    Do cats make you crazy? This was the question posed at last week’s Science on Tap, a monthly science café held at the Philadelphia bar National Mechanics. By the end of the talk, the answer was clear. “Probably not, but you should still be careful.”

    The world’s felines have something in common, a trait shared by both domestic housecats and lions in the African savannah: they carry the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, a highly infectious protozoan that can spread to most warm-blooded mammals, including humans.

    Keep reading

    Check out Sam Kean’s article about Toxoplasma gondii in the latest issue of Distillations.

    This monochrome liquor advertisement is a distant ancestor of the screens found in most of today’s televisions, cell phones, and laptops. These devices use compounds called liquid crystals to modulate light, a technology essential to the creation of thin electronic displays. This artifact from the early 1970s represents one of the first attempts to transform the liquid crystal display (LCD) into a commercially useful technology. In a sense it is less a picture frame than a window into the history of electronic innovation.

    Find more about the early days of LCD technology in the latest issue of Distillations.

    A Family Portrait of the Solar System


    Shortly before 8 a.m. on Tuesday morning, NASA’s New Horizons mission reached Pluto. Nearly nine-and-a-half years after its launch from Cape Canaveral, the nuclear-powered space probe captured the first high-resolution images of the outer solar system’s most famous celestial body. Rather than a blurry dot in a telescope, astronomers now see a geologically active world with a distinct heart-shaped region, named the Tombaugh Regio in honor of Pluto’s discoverer.

    To celebrate this milestone of space exploration, CHF research fellow Ben Gross compiled a “Family Portrait,” featuring Pluto alongside the eight planets recognized by the International Astronomical Union. This image—showing the solar system as it was understood throughout most of the 20th century—attracted a great deal of attention on social media and has since been featured in a Business Insider article and the popular science website IFLScience.

    Now you can download a high-resolution copy of “Family Portrait” for use as wallpaper on your laptop, tablet, or desktop computer:

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    Research based on identical twins separated at birth often raises uncomfortable questions about how much of human identity is shaped by DNA. Some twins end up marrying partners with the same first name. Others vote for the same political party, watch the same amount of TV, and smoke the same brand of cigarettes. Heredity appears to beat out environment most of the time.

    But what if instead of two twins being separated at birth, a nurse in a hospital mistakenly swapped one brother in a set of identical twins for another brother in a completely different set of identical twins? This actually happened to Jorge, Carlos, William, and Wilber in Bogotá, Columbia, in 1988. Their story was covered in the New York Times Magazine earlier this month.

    One set went to the country, and the other went to the city. Growing up, their parents assumed they were fraternal twins. By a stroke of luck, a mutual friend noticed their similarities and reunited them after more than 20 years.

    Surprisingly, researchers studying the twins found that the boys’ traits were affected roughly equally by the environment in which they were raised as by their genes, a phenomenon scientists call epigenetics. Basically, scientists believe certain genes switch on or off depending on environmental stimuli. Identical twins share 100% of their DNA, but their genes can be expressed differently depending on their experiences. This was evidenced by the fact that the twins who grew up in the city were taller than their country counterparts. They also had very different voices, speech patterns, and personalities.

    Check out the article for an expertly written story that weaves together genetics, technology, and identity.

    Image: A cross-section of a pregnant uterus containing twins. (Wellcome Image Library)

    Distillations Podcast Turns 200

    This is Distillations’s 200th episode, and we’re celebrating! We pored through hundreds of shows and pieced together some of the funniest, grossest, and most surprising moments in Distillations history.

    Still chuckling from episode 166, “Alchemy After Dark,” where CHF’s rare book curator Jim Voelkel cries from laughter while reading a steamy alchemical passage from yesteryear? Still trying to forget the body-cheese experiment from episode 156, “Hard to Stomach”? Or maybe you’re still perplexed about how a Viagra tablet might wind up in your herbal supplement, as explained in episode 197, “Fads and Faith”?

    We visit these moments and many more. Thanks for listening, and we hope you’ll join us for the next 200 shows!

    By Mariel Carr


    The mighty Tremoctopus. Behold!

    And here’s some folks reacting to the blanket octopus (on what appears to be a Japanese game show?):

    Here’s a strange thing that actually exists. Check out the latest issue of Distillations magazine for the history of even stranger creatures you can believe or not.

    What’s sweet and what’s non-fattening are usually different things, but in 1878 a chemist accidentally discovered a way to have both. Constantin Fahlberg was eating dinner after an exhausting day in the lab when he noticed that his bread tasted sweeter than usual. Tracing the source of the sweetness to his fingers, he returned to the lab to sample every vial and dish until he matched the taste with a beaker of benzoic sulfinide. While Fahlberg’s method was neither advisable nor safe, it did lead to the discovery of an artificial substance 300 times sweeter than sugar. He named it saccharin.

    Throughout the next century, more artificial sweeteners were developed, including the highly controversial aspartame. In 1965 James M. Schlatter was trying to synthesize an anti-ulcer drug when he licked his finger, accidentally discovering aspartame in the process. Artificial sweeteners allowed companies to produce products that are sweet, like diet soda, but without the calories associated with sugar.

    Saccharin and aspartame are both viewed with distrust by segments of the public, even though both substances are approved by the FDA. In the 1970s animal studies linked saccharin to cancer in rats. Today, scientists recognize that saccharin poses no health risks in small quantities.

    Aspartame is supposedly dangerous for a different reason; when digested, it breaks down into formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Formaldehyde occurs naturally in all kinds of foods and in small amounts helps the body produce amino acids and other beneficial molecules. And, according to the CDC, plants and animals, including us humans, naturally produce small amounts of the carcinogen. As the video above points out, there is five times as much formaldehyde in 12 ounces of juice as there is in a 12 ounce can of artificially sweetened soda.

    If you’re looking for a slightly healthier way to enjoy sweet foods, artificial sweeteners won’t hurt you. Just don’t follow the examples of Fahlberg and Schlatter; an unknown chemical in a laboratory is unlikely to be sweet and delicious.

    By Jacob Roberts

    Video: Is Aspartame Safe? produced by the American Chemical Society.

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