Science & Technology

October Snapshots of Science History

The end of the month is a good opportunity for reflection. Here are a few historical discoveries in science that took place in October that have been important in deepening our understanding and exploration of the world.

1876: First two-way telephone conversation

145 years ago, the first two-way telephone conversation took place. Alexander Graham Bell was a Scottish-born scientist responsible for inventions such as the graphophone. On 9th October, Alexander Graham Bell successfully spoke to Thomas Watson over the line which linked Boston and East Cambridge. This was the first conversation to take place on outdoor wires, completely changing the way that we communicate. We have gone from relying on post and telegrams to being able to communicate with anyone across the world by phone.

1947: October 14 Chuck Yeager Breaks the Sound Barrier

On the 14th October 1947, Chuck Yeager was the first person to break the sound barrier. He was a US Air Force Captain who worked as a test pilot.

Yeager flew the X-1 aircraft in Southern California, managing to fly faster than the speed of sound. ‘Glamorous Glennis,’ the nickname for the plane after Yeager’s wife, was modelled after a bullet. The X-1 was lifted 25,000 feet by another craft and released. It rapidly accelerated to an altitude of 40,000 feet, leading it to travel to 662 mph, which was the sound barrier that had to be broken at that altitude.

Yeager’s flight showed that the human body was capable of withstanding speeds faster than the velocity of sound. The brought the world one step closer to the idea of safe space flight. None of the current developments into space tourism would have been possible without this first satellite.

1957: Soviet Union launches Sputnik

On 4th October 1957, Earth’s first artificial satellite was launched. Sputnik was launched at 10:29pm from a base in the Kazakh Republic. This was a major event which marked the beginning of the space age, and the race between the US and the USSR. Following on from this event, the USSR launched a further two satellites, one of which carried Laika dog into space.

Sputnik weighed 83 kg which was heavier than any satellite that the US had been developing at the time. It was a sphere with two antennas which allowed radio signals to be transmitted to Earth. Sputnik was visible with binoculars and could be observed just before sunrise or after a sunset.

Its path followed an elliptical orbit – where the distance from Earth varies in an oval shape. Sputnik’s orbit took about 98 minutes (same as the run-time for the film ‘The Princess Bride’). From its launch, it continued to orbit the Earth until January 1958

The launch of Sputnik was the first major event to take place in the space race between the US and the USSR. It showed that humans were capable of sending satellites into orbit. This paved the way for animals such as the dog Laika to be launched into orbit and eventually led to man landing on the moon.

1958: Physicist invents first video game

In 1958, William Higinbotham was working on an exhibition for Brookhaven National Laboratory. As part of the instrumentation division, he created what is thought to be the world’s first video game. ‘Tennis for two’ was an interactive demonstration which is very similar to the Pong video game which came out in the 1970s.

People could play the game by adjusting the angel of the ball using a knob and pressing a button to hit the ball. When the ball hit the ground it would bounce like a ball. It was a simple game where players would have to keep score for themselves. This game was retired after a few years at the exhibition and was largely forgotten until the early 80s. By this point, the company Magnavox had secured the first patent for video games from Sanders Associates and started producing gaming systems. The similar game Pong was released in 1972 produced by Atari. We have gone from simple games such as these, to the now booming industry worth over $90 billion in 2020.

2006: Creation of Element 118

On 16th October, it was announced at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research that element 118, the heaviest element, had been created in 2002 and 2005. The element was named Oganesson after the Russian scientist Yuri Oganessian who lead the group creating heavy elements. Oganesson is extremely radioactive and unstable with a half-life of only 0.89 milliseconds.

Element 118 currently has no practical uses due to its extremely short-half life; it has currently only been used for scientific study. However, it was an important discovery in nuclear physics that lead to further investigation into the concept of the ‘island of stability.’ This is the idea that very heavy elements may become stable at a certain point in their existence. Additionally, the production of Oganesson deepens understanding into how particles behave when unstable. This could lead to further developments in the production of nuclear energy.

Image: Ellie Fleury