July/August 2024: Science History from 50, 100 and 150 Years Ago

July/August 2024: Science History from 50, 100 and 150 Years Ago

Death rays; the sawfly’s barf defense

Trypsin enzyme illustration

1974, Protein Cutter: “Trypsin and a substrate fit together like pieces of a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.” Trypsin is an enzyme that aids with digestion by breaking chains of amino acids in proteins.

Scientific American, Vol. 231, No. 1; July 1974


The Sawfly’s Barf Defense

“Many insects regurgitate or defecate when they are threatened, a phenomenon familiar to almost anyone who has held a grasshopper in their hand. It is be­­lieved that such discharges help to protect the insect against predation. When the larva of the sawfly is disturbed, it quickly turns and dabs a droplet of a viscous resin from its mouth on the offending object. This oral effluent is obnoxious to many predators; ants and spiders promptly flee. The sawfly larva feeds on the needles of conifers, including the lower portion, which contains resin from the branch. The resin repels other insects, part of the tree’s own defenses against attack.”

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Death Rays No One Knows

“Every so often we are startled by re­­ports of a new ray with strange and terrifying properties, in­­tend­ed for such gentle tasks as para­lyzing airplanes in flight, blowing up battleships and killing enemy troops by the wholesale. The mysterious ray is a true perennial of science. It was talked about when Nikola Tesla experimented with high-­frequency currents in 1898 and put out of commission the generators in a power house several miles away. Almost a year ago a French inventor is said to have demonstrated a mysterious ray which caused Parisian taxicabs to stop. Recently, the garrulous Leon Trotsky has told the world to beware of a new Russian death ray. Guglielmo Marconi, from time to time, has been working on some mysterious ray for destructive purposes, according to rumor. What are these diabolic rays? No one except their sponsors really knows. We are given no proof, except a few unimpressive laboratory experiments. Groping about in pitch blackness, we are frankly, skeptical.”


Perils of Nitroglycerin

“Nitroglycerin is a thick, colorless oil. People are so accustomed to handling oils that it is almost impossible to make them realize the danger that lurks even in the smallest quantity of nitroglycerin. It explodes when gently struck, and is 10 times more powerful as an explosive than gunpowder. The other evening, in Jersey City, a gentleman and lady were taking a moonlight stroll in the vicinity of one of the shafts of the new Delaware and Lackawanna railway tunnel. The man saw on the ground the glimmer of a small tube, picked it up, and slapped it from one hand to the other, when a terrific explosion ensued. His eyes were destroyed, his limbs broken, and his companion was dreadfully injured. It was a discarded nitroglycerin tube, such as are used in blasting, and is supposed to have been thrown away.”

Oxygen Centennial

“We have alluded to the proposition of Dr. H. Carrington Bolt­on, of Columbia College, of a reunion of chemists to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the birth of modern chemistry, that event being fixed in 1774, owing to the discoveries, at that time, of oxygen by Joseph Priestley, chlorine by Carl Wilhelm Scheele and other important investigations by Antoine Lavoisier. The day set apart is August 1, in Northumberland, Pa., where Priestley’s remains are buried.”

Prohibition, 46 Years Hence

“There is a substance that has been the cause of more sorrow, crime and suffering than all other evil agencies that have afflicted the world. It has caused tens of thousands of murders and uncounted instances of robbery, theft, arson and suicide; it has brought misery and want into millions of households. What an awful indictment against a substance which stands so closely allied in chemical relationship to innocent sugar! Alcohol is not a natural product; it can only result from a ferment. If this chemicaI change had been impossible, the human race would have been saved from shedding tears, the aggregated volume of which reaches that of a mighty river. We un­­hesitatingly declare that the world in its present advanced stage has no need of alcohol. Why not then make a determined effort to rid the country and the world of the monster? There is virtue and moral force enough to compel Congress to prohibit its importation, and enough in most States to compel legislatures to prohibit its manufacture.”

In the U.S., prohibition of the manufacture, transport and sale of alcohol lasted from 1920 to 1933.

Covers of Scientific American from 1974, 1924 and 1874

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