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10 surprising day jobs of famous inventors and scientists

Famous inventors and scientists submission to the daily grind

  • Albert Einstein worked as a patent clerk for seven years.
  • In between painting and inventing, Leonardo da Vinci made war machines for the Duke of Milan.
  • Isaac Newton was almost forced to forget mathematics and become a farmer.

Many of the greatest inventors and scientists weren't able to work on their craft and subjects all the time. They were subject, like many of us, to the usual mundanities of everyday life. This meant working a full-time day job oftentimes not even close to their main inventive pursuits. Even so, they were able to create some of the greatest inventions of all time.

Here are some of the most surprising jobs of famous inventors and scientists.

Benjamin Franklin 

Benjamin Franklin is one of the most famous inventors, statesmen, and philosophers of the early American era. Not only was Franklin a productive inventor, he also worked a number of interesting and challenging day jobs.

Throughout his life he worked as the Postmaster of Philadelphia and would later go on to become the Ambassador to France. Of course, no one can forget that he was one of the Founding Fathers of America as well.

As an inventor, his famous kite experiment immortalized his inventive genius into almost mythical proportions. Franklin would go on to create a number of inventions both patented and sealed away in his own personal papers.

Leonardo da Vinci 

The archetype of the Renaissance Man, Leonardo da Vinci embodied the spirit of his era. Scientist, inventor, painter, polymath, and overall curious spirit, we still can't get enough of Leonardo's genius. For a man of so many talents and aspirations, it comes as no surprise that he had a number of interesting odd jobs. For 17 years he was in the service of Duke Ludovico Sforza of Milan. It was here where he worked as a military engineer, crafting death machines, and defensive fortresses.

Amongst his many conceptions, were early ideas of a tank, crossbows, helicopters, and even scuba diving gear. Few of what he invented was created in his time, but would go on to inspire many inventors of the future. Aside from his contributing inventions and advances in both science and the medical field, da Vinci is one of the most accomplished and revered artists of all time.

Jane Goodall

There has never been a scientist like Jane Goodall. A renowned figure who dedicated most of her life to pursue of knowledge of our closest relatives. The greatest expert on chimpanzees, Goodall's 55-year study on the social and primitive dynamics of wild chimpanzees is an unmatched study. Yet throughout the years, she wasn't always a great apes scientist.

Her first job was as a secretary working for her aunt who ran a children's orthopedic clinic. Her job was to take down notes shorthand and type them out. Eventually she'd go on to become a secretary at the Registry Office at Oxford University. Finally, making her way to Africa she remarked on her final job before studying the great apes full time:

"When invited to Africa, I earned money by being a waitress in a hotel around the corner from my home in Bournemouth — very hard work indeed. And the last job prior to my career was to be secretary for Louis Leakey at the Natural History Museum in Nairobi. So the boring secretarial course was certainly worth it in the end!"

John Deere 

Born in the early 1800s, John Deere grew up and worked as a Blacksmith before going on to invent one of the most revolutionary pieces of farming equipment, a steel plow. The invention would go on to become such a great success, that John later founded the business we know today as John Deere and Company.

To this day, they're still at the forefront of developing farming equipment and other assorted machines. John would later spend his time working on civil and political issues. At one point even serving as the Mayor for the town of Moline.

Michio Kaku

Famed science popularizer and theoretical physicist wasn't always pondering the mysteries of the universe. During World War Two when his father was in a Japanese internment camp, his father was working as a gardener. He went along with him and started working mowing lawns, watering plants and throwing down some fertilizer.

On the subject of this time in his life, Kaku remarked:

"As a child I basically had a choice of two paths: One, my father wanted me to take over the gardening business. And two, I wanted to become a physicist. After that gardening job, I decided I would much rather work with my mind."

Marie Curie 

The first woman to win a Nobel Prize for work on radioactivity — as well as the first person and only woman to win the Nobel Prize a second time — once worked as a governess taking care of a family in a little factory village north of Warsaw.

With a limited education and some scientific training from her father, Curie was largely self-taught. Working in difficult and poor laboratory conditions during her early years, she would eventually go on to expand on the works of Henri Becquerel in the field of radioactivity. Her research would led to the isolation of the chemical element polonium, named after the country of her birth.

Isaac Newton 

One of the most famed men of the scientific sphere — Isaac Newton, the inventor of calculus who developed the laws of motion, gravity, and classical mechanics — and so on — was once led by his mother to become a farmer. After his mother had divorced for the second time and Isaac was around 16 years old, Isaac quit school and was supposed to work as a farmer.

That didn't quite go as planned. Newton would go on to develop one of the first practical telescope, develop the theory of the color spectrum and advance the sciences into an entirely new paradigm of inquiry.

Albert Einstein  

The ever-prevailing need for day jobs and other more menial pursuits seemed to have even dragged Albert Einstein down. In 1902, Einstein started working as a technical expert for the Federal Office for Intellectual Property in Bern, or more commonly known as the patent office.

Einstein jokingly referred to this profession as his "cobbler's trade." This turned out to be a good job for the scientist as it was undemanding work that let him focus on his more lofty scientific pursuits. At the time of his work, his schedule was said to be eight hours of regular work, eight hours of scientific work followed by a healthy eight hours of sleep. Which in the case of the latter was often exchanged for writing his manuscripts and letters.

Einstein referred to his time working at the patent office as "that worldly cloister where I hatched my most beautiful ideas."

Samuel Morse

Samuel Morse gives his namesake to the famous technology we now know as Morse code. Born in a relatively modest household and regular upbringing, Morse was fond of art and painting. He excelled in portraiture and at the time was even commissioned to paint a few famous figures. Some of these works include portraits of John Adams and James Monroe.

While painting was his mainstay of work and life, he also dabbled in the realm of electromagnetism. After his wife died, he was inspired to work on a long distance device which would turn out to be the single wire telegraph.

Robert Fulton 

Robert Fulton invented one of the first successful steamboats. He also built the famous boat commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Nautilus. Born to a family of Irish Immigrants in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he was sent to a Quaker school at the time he was 8 years old.

Fulton started off as an apprentice jeweler where he painted little portraits on lockets and rings. Eventually he'd begun work in Europe where he developed early conceptions for inland water transportation. On top of the Nautilus he created and gifted to the French in 1800, Fulton also developed early torpedoes in 1804.

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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