Beer Floods and Cast Steel; Trans-Atlantic Radio and RCA

It happens sometimes that coincidental events, years apart, have a great effect on each other.  A flood of beer in London led to the invention of cast steel that was a boon to generations of beer workers who would supply the steel mill dives with brew: Trans-Atlantic radio service would increase the demand for radio receivers that would lead to the creation of the first global electronic firm.  And all on 17 October.  Oh sure, Ivan VI was crowned in 1740, and the Nine Regicides were executed in 1660 (hanged, beheaded, disemboweled, drawn and quartered and all that stuff), and the sieges at Saratoga ended in 1777, and the one at Yorktown ended in 1781, but we’re talking about important stuff here today: beer and steel and entertainment.

The facts of the case in London’s St Giles rookery seem to be simple.  On 17 October 1814, an iron band on a 135,000 Imperial gallon vat at a Meaux Company Brewery broke, which caused other vats to burst, which spilled about 4.14 million bottles of beer into the streets in a fifteen foot wave.  The tidal wave of suds destroyed a tavern and two houses, and flooded innumerable basements around Tottenham Court Road. At least eight people were either crushed by debris or drowned, including mourners at a wake for a two year old who died the day before. In the midst of this tragedy, “lucky” citizens who survived scooped up as much “free beer” as they could.

The tidal wave of suds destroyed a tavern and two houses, and flooded innumerable basements around Tottenham Court Road.

On a brighter note, the elusive process of casting steel from iron (steel is an alloy of elemental iron) took a great leap forward on 17 October 1855, when Henry Bessemer patented his refractory-lined iron converter.  The Bessemer converter was essentially a great, closed pot that allowed air to be blown through molten pig iron.  This removes impurities like silicon and manganese out and introduces carbon, strengthening the ionic bonds in the iron and forming the steel alloy. The ability to cast steel, as opposed to cruder processes of making blister steel by cementation or by pounding out impurities on a forge.  The ability to cast steel shapes like beams, rods, sheets, and blocks made large steel structures like bridges across the Mississippi and the Ganges possible, in addition to skyscrapers and Diesel engines and cooking pots and almost everything else that makes the technological conveniences of modern life possible.  Cast steel manufacturing was later improved by the open-hearth furnace.  And, yes, it did improve the manufacturing of beer because, after all, there’s nothing better than sucking down a cool one with the boys after a 14 hour shift at the mill in July that hasn’t flooded a few streets and basements.

The ability to cast steel shapes like beams, rods, sheets, and blocks made large steel structures like bridges across the Mississippi and the Ganges possible, in addition to skyscrapers and Diesel engines and cooking pots and almost everything else that makes the technological conveniences of modern life possible.

Just as important as steel (arguably) was when Marconi’s wireless telegraph began transAtlantic service between Glace Bay, Nova Scotia and Clifden, Ireland on 17 October, 1907.  Guglielmo Marconi was an inventive genius who was fascinated with wireless telegraphy, following the work of Heinrich Hertz on radio waves, (called Hertz waves at the time).  In the 1890s, when he was twenty, Marconi developed an entire panoply of devices that made a moveable transmitter and receiver work over a distance of two miles.  As power and range increased Marconi’s reputation rose, and eventually commercial interest developed in his inventions.  By the time Marconi’s stations started commercial  network began (with mostly personal messages at first, weather reports and warnings to and from mariners soon followed), transmissions across the Atlantic were still sporadic.  Nonetheless,  his first stations showed that it was not only possible, but at intervals practical. But there was still no real good reason to sit by the radio and suck beer on a Saturday night.

In the 1890s, when he was twenty, Marconi developed an entire panoply of devices that made a moveable transmitter and receiver work over a distance of two miles.

But radio grew.  In 1912, the Marconi stations were instrumental in sending rescuers to the stricken Titanic, and during the 1914-1918 war it became a vital means of communications when the trans-Atlantic cables were cut.  In 1919, the US government, then controlling many of the American Marconi company’s patents, struck a deal with General Electric, which then formed the Radio Company of America on 17 October 1919. As it grew in wealth and influence, including patents on the superheterodyne receiver among thousands of others, RCA bought independent radio stations and formed them into the National Broadcast System (NBC)  Gradually, through the efforts of David Sarnoff among many others, RCA came to dominate everything on the airwaves, in phonographs, and in electrical and electronics technology.  By the time of its demise in 1986, RCA put its imprint on everything from pocket radios to satellites, from televisions to electron microscopes.  Probably even on some beer-making stuff, too.

Gradually, through the efforts of David Sarnoff among many others, RCA came to dominate everything on the airwaves, in phonographs, and in electrical and electronics technology.

Though this entry has a lot of blather about beer, the Great London Beer Flood was no laughing matter.  Industrial safety was becoming a serious problem at the industrialization of urban areas accelerated in the 19th century. There was a molasses flood in Boston in January 1919 that killed 21 people.  Other industrial spills and accidents, increasingly in the developing world, have killed thousands.

Note to my LinkedIn Readers (all five of you), sorry about last week, but something in WordPress (where this column is created) got discombobulated.  My apologies.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s