March Snapshots in Science History

The weather is taking a turn for the better, so this month we’ll be focusing on a range of discoveries, many of which include light in some form or another.

1895: Screening of Lumiere Brother’s first film

The Lumière brothers were two brothers from France who pioneered new photography equipment and techniques. They were the largest producer of photographic plates in Europe. At one point they produced fifteen million photographic plates per year, this allowed them to explore other avenues in photography.

They built the ‘Cinematographe,’ which was a camera that could also be used as a photo developer and projector. It weighed nearly 5 kg and produced moving images at 16 frames per second. The cinematographe was operated using a hand crank. It was used to screen the brother’s first film.

Yekaterinburg Lumiere brothers monument. Credit: CopperKettle

On the 22nd of March, they performed their first film. Whilst this wasn’t the first film screening ever it was a significant event due to the techniques which had been developed to produce them. The film lasted for 50 seconds and showed footage of workers leaving a factory and was titled ‘La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon’.

The Lumières went on many cinema tours across Europe showcasing over 40 films that they had developed. They brought the idea of capturing people’s movements and stories to many people. Without inventions such as these to kickstart the beginning of the film industry, we wouldn’t have the entertainment that we know and love today.

1611: Observation of sunspots

The Sun is a huge ball of gas that is held together by its enormous gravitational strength. Sunspots are created by the different rotations between the inner and outer layers of the Sun. The outer layers of the run rotate faster at the equator compared to the poles of the star. This results in changes along the magnetic field lines. Sunspots form as a result of these twists.

Sunspots are first thought to be observed by astronomers in China. The first written record is from 28 B.C. However, it has taken a long time for sunspots to be accepted across the world.

The existence of sunspots questioned the idea of the heavens being perfect and unchanging. Instead, this phenomenon was thought to be planets such as Mercury travelling across the Sun from Earth’s perspective.

Sun Sunspot by Deddy dayag

Johannes Fabricius was a German astronomer who published the first scientific treatise on sunspots. On the 9th of March 1611, Fabricius and his father observed dark spots on the surface of the sun. However, direct observation of the Sun was painful, so they later changed to using a camera obscura (pinhole camera). They tracked the movement of the sunspots which travelled from east to west. The sunspots disappeared at one point to reappear two weeks later, this led to the conclusion that the spots were on the surface of the sun and not a planet transiting.

This discovery was significant as it came at a time when there were competing models for the Solar System at the time. Johannes’ observations combined with other evidence led to the Copernican model being embraced. This model of the Solar System placed the Sun at the centre with other planets orbiting around it.

In the present day sunspots are still a source of mystery. They can be massive structures: as large as the Earth and even as big as Jupiter. When two sunspots interact they can produce solar storms which can disrupt communications on Earth. By understanding more about sunspots, we can be better prepared and aware of the effects of sunspots on our lives on Earth.

1880: Discovery of Piezoelectricity

Piezoelectricity is the process of using crystals to produce electricity. The name originates from the Greek word for press: ‘piezein.’

The piezoelectric effect had been known since the mid-18th century. It is where a change in temperature in a crystal result in electricity being produced. However, it wasn’t until 1880 that the Curie brothers demonstrated this experimentally.

A year later Gabriel Lippman – a French mathematician- demonstrated that the piezoelectric effect can work both ways. Electricity can also be used to produce mechanical energy. The Curie brothers went on to prove this with experiments as well.

These days piezoelectricity can be seen in a variety of forms such as speakers and quartz watches. The technology is also seen in cars where it is used to help drivers determine the distance between the back of the car and any obstacles when parking.

Image by Henri Brispot (1846-1928) 

Written by Louise Weightman

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Louise is a fourth year physics with space science student. She is interested in bringing her love of science to a wider audience.


Louise is a fourth year physics with space science student. She is interested in bringing her love of science to a wider audience.

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