Humans might be the most highly-evolved species on the planet, but most animals possess skills we can only dream of having. Imagine how much electricity we could save if we could see in the dark the way cats do. Imagine leaping from tree to tree like a monkey. Giraffes, which are otherwise calm and genteel, sleep only 4.6 hours a day (forget flying, how can I learn to do that?).
We realized a long, long time ago--centuries, perhaps even thousands of years before the publication of Popular Science, shocking as that sounds--that nature provides the best blueprint for invention. We've borrowed canals from beavers, towers from termites and reflectors from cat's eyes. More recently, George de Mestral patented Velcro in the 1940s after seeing how burrs stuck on the fur of his dog. Although the words "bionics," "biomimetics," and "biomimicry" became popular only after the 1960s, history shows that nature has always provided ideas on solving everyday problems. Our archives don't go back to the time of Leonardo da Vinci and his bird-like flying machines, but we can take you to the late 19th century, where we applied those same principles for building our first practical airplanes.
Last Friday, we bade adieu to NASA's 30-year Space Shuttle program as Atlantis lifted off for the very last time. Practical or not, the loss of our capacity for manned spaceflight is a little depressing for those of us who uphold interstellar travel as the paragon of human progress. While we can respect NASA's decision to prioritize other projects, we can hardly fathom how something as futuristic as human space travel ended up becoming a part of our country's past.
Ironically enough, the past can look a whole lot like a distant tomorrow when you study it through our 138-year archives. So until NASA can afford to send humans back into space, let's reminisce on the agency's golden age by flicking through our most dazzling space features.
It's not often that you flip through a copy of Popular Science without seeing something about cars, be it a feature on eco-friendly automobiles, a compendium on futuristic concept designs, or an article on crackpot DIY vehicles. If you look carefully through older copies of the magazine, you'll spot charmingly-illustrated advertisements tucked between the aforementioned stories -- and in most cases, they serve as a surprising testament to that decade's culture, as well as to the beauty of (most) vintage automobiles.
If you've ever felt puzzled by the lack of similarities between polo and water polo, you're not alone; clearly, one inventor from the 1930s thought that the latter could benefit from the inclusion of ponies. As silly as it looks, the idea wasn't entirely unprecedented, nor was it original (two decades earlier, we covered an aquatic polo pony powered by a simple crank and gear). The era's growing demand for novelty sports, aided by the growing sophistication of mechanical gear, sparked trends that involved everything from motorized water horses to rowboat-inspired race cars.
While touting space as the next great frontier, we tend to forget that our oceans encompass domains that might as well exist on other planets. Like outer space, the deep sea isn't an easy place to access, but explorers reared on Jules Verne and tales of the giant squid couldn't resist the challenge of mapping Earth's most alien habitat. To that end, innovators like aqua-lung inventor Jacques Cousteau, Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard, and aviation pioneer Edwin Link built submersibles fit for the long and treacherous task. As Piccard once said, "Exploration is the sport of the scientist."
After celebrating the 67th anniversary of D-Day this week, it's only fitting that we publish a gallery documenting World War II-era PopSci. A warning, though: this was the 1940s, so practically nothing in here conforms to our modern-day notion of political correctness. Some of these headlines may sound a little extreme, but rest assured, we took care to elaborate on the idea from a scientific standpoint.
During the 1950s, architecture, cars, and gadget design took on a curiously spaceflight-inspired aesthetic. Manufacturers built vehicles with ornamental tailfins. Upswept roofs and parabolas cropped up on buildings. Logos incorporated starbursts and satellite shapes, while parallelograms, wings, and free-form boomerangs became the motel sign shapes du jour. In retrospect, those designs look a little gimmicky, but they nonetheless reflect a collective 1950s confidence about America's dazzling future as a leader in space flight and economic prosperity.
In all our years of covering science, no issue has invited controversy like evolution, and that includes the debate on climate change and whether we'll ever own flying cars. As a magazine that had been Team Darwin since its founding in 1872, (just 13 years after Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species), we made it a point to publish periodic in-depth features defending evolution as a credible explanation for the origin of life.
Remember that video we posted on Monday about the paraplegic college graduate who used an exoskeleton to walk across the stage? In addition to making us shed grateful tears for the advancement of technology (whew, robotic tech isn't evil after all), it prompted momentary visions of a future where disabled people have ready access to bionic limbs, super-strong exoskeletons, electric eyes and stair-climbing wheelchairs. Just take a look at the technology in our archives to see what the disabled had to choose from during the greater part of the 20th century.
As someone who was born in the year 1986, I belong to the last generation of people who remember life before computers became an everyday necessity. At the same time, I'm too young to recall machines that lacked Internet access, a mouse, and a monitor. Most people my age or younger tend to assume that even the most rudimentary computers contained these elements, but a peek in our archives says otherwise.