from the world's big
5 of the worst inventions in modern history
Be glad your name isn't attached to any of these bad ideas.
- Some inventions can be celebrated during their time, but are proven to be devastating in the long run.
- The inventions doesn't have to be physical. Complex mathematical creations that create money for Wall Street can do as much damage, in theory, as a gas that destroys the ozone layer.
- Inventors can even see their creations be used for purposes far different than they had intended.
Thomas Midgely Jr. is responsible for not just one invention on this list...
FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
It'd be hard to write this list without including Thomas Midgley, Jr., an inventor that was celebrated during his lifetime but who's inventions have, in some estimates, killed thousands and thousands of people.
For his first trick: think about the gas station. Now think about what they serve there. Unleaded gasoline. Why unleaded? Because leaded gasoline kills people. Well, Thomas was the one responsible for putting lead in gasoline.
It was started under good intentions: in 1921, after working at General Motors for a few years, he discovered that the addition of tetraethyl lead (or TEL) to gasoline prevented engine knocking, which is a problem that plagued early motors. He developed a patent for it, which he called Ethyl, and filed the patent jointly with General Motors. It sold incredibly well but bore the unfortunate distinction of making anyone who worked with the gasoline—people at the plants and people who worked at early gas stations—go somewhat loopy.
Thomas himself, in 1923 (just 2 years into his comfy new role in the Ethyl production facility), got lead poisoning and took a long vacation to Miami to clear his lungs, stating "my lungs have been affected and that it is necessary to drop all work and get a large supply of fresh air". By 1924, four people had died at a Dayton, Ohio TEL plant, and the staff was reportedly threatening to shut the plant down, citing that they were "depressed to the point of considering giving up the whole tetraethyl lead program," as lead poisoning can cause depression. Five more workers died at a New Jersey TEL plant. In late 1924, General Motors figured these were just isolated incidents so they opened another Ethyl treatment plant, this time at the Bayway Refinery (still there!) in New Jersey. In just the first two months of operation, though, lead poisoning contributed to widespread depression, hallucinations, and five deaths.
But ol' Thomas either couldn't see or didn't want to accept that his invention was causing this. So he held a press conference in October of 1924 where he took "deep inhales" of TEL for 60 seconds to proclaim it safe. Just a few days later, General Motors closed the plant and Midgley himself got another case of lead poisoning. He was fired from his job in 1925, but remained a GM employee in stature.
The deaths attributed to TEL noted above don't take into account the dozens — if not hundreds — of additional TEL / lead poisoning cases from people who worked at gas stations, shipped gasoline, and others. So much lead was released into the atmosphere that it's hard to measure the extent of the damage that Midgley caused.
... but twoSao Paulo cityscape showing air pollution and skyline of the
You think Thomas would have stopped his rascally ways, but his other big invention is the one that's still affecting us in a big way today, and may be responsible for (yes, actual) millions of deaths. Specifically, he helped invented R22, or Freon, which is the first CFC ever created. CFCs are two things:
- They're the main ingredients in refrigeration units and aerosol cans...
- ... the main thing that is destroying the ozone layer.
Freon was put into all kinds of things from the mid-'40s onwards, and until semi-recently was powering much of the freezers in your local supermarket. It took until 1987 for the U.S. to sign onto a worldwide accord promising the end of Freon production, and in 2020 R22 will be made illegal to own or possess entirely.
There's no way for Midgley himself to have known this as he died in the mid 1950's, 30 years before people understood that CFCs were destroying greenhouse gases in the ozone layer, basically "earth's sunscreen" that protects against UV rays. A 1991 New York Times article details the staggering cost of fixing the ozone layer, while this 2009 article explains that the world as we know it could have ended in 2060 due to overwhelming heat if CFCs had never been banned. Thankfully, the ozone layer is healing itself and should be back to its pre-1974 ways (when it was first detected) by 2020.
As for Midgley, he did infact die from one of his inventions. He died from after contracting a polio-related disease which rendered him with limited mobility; he designed a very odd bed full of levers and pulleys (that allowed him to get out of bed) but died after getting stuck in it, strangling him.
Historians have said that Midgley "had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth's history."
Alfred Noebl, on the Nobel Prize for Literature medal, via Getty Image
Alfred Nobel invented dynamite in 1867, after spending much of the last 20 years experimenting with (and becoming a somewhat successful in the family business relating to the production of) nitroglycerine. After his younger brother was killed in an explosion on his father's factory, he began to explore ways of making the substance more stable, eventually soaking it in diatomaceous earth from the nearby Elbe river. The unique type of earth—made of fossilized algae—proved to be just the stuff to turn nitroglycerine into something far more transportable, and Alfred later developed a blasting cap, or detonator, to harness the ability to explode it from a fuse, which provided distance.
Big deal, right? Well, Alfred had only intended for it to be used in mining. He really didn't foresee it as an instrument of war, and famously was quoted as saying:
"Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops."
But as anyone undoubtedly knows, dynamite (and variations of his blasting cap) were used in manners of acts of war. When his other brother died, some newspapers mistakenly thought that Aldred had died, leading one prominent French newspaper to call him the "merchant of death". Alfred hated this, and spent the rest of his life trying to atone for his invention. Alfred Noble came to regret his hand in inventing dynamite so much so that he gave much of his fortune and estate to a foundation that awarded prizes that genuinely make the world a better place... you may have heard of the Nobel Prize.
Image of internet spam going into the trash can. Fairfax Media via Getty Images
On May 1st, 1975, a 35 year old man named Gary Thuerk, working a sales job at Digital Equipment Corporation, sent out a message to several hundred people on ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), which would eventually become the groundwork technology for the internet. He was the first person to send out an unsolicited sales email and thus became the grandaddy of modern email spam. Gary was widely ridiculed for his efforts at the time, mostly because he also managed to publish every recipient's email address within the email, thus blasting a large text file (keep in mind how little computers stored at the time) to several dozen email accounts, thereby clogging up the service. You can see the email itself in full, as well as the replies, right here.
USENET spam sprang up in the early 1990s, and spam really ramped up around 1997 when bots could be built to fire off thousands of emails an hour. A highly-cited academic paper from 2012 says:
"Every day about 100 billion emails are sent to email addresses around the world. In 2010 an estimated 88 percent of this worldwide traffic was spam."
That 2012 study estimates that spam costs the world between $20 billion and $50 billion a year in lost productivity (time spent deleting, and spam filter costs), and states that the actual money that spam brings in is about $200 million a year, a 100 to 1 return. Phishing, in effect an offshoot of spam, costs American businesses a huge amount of money a year and was even a major factor in the 2016 American presidential election.
"I am kind of like the Wright brothers, flying the first airplane. It was a long time before people took a commercial flight. I sent out the first mass email in 1978 and it wasn't until 10 or 15 years later that people realized they can send advertising over email for cheap.".
Spam, for what it's worth, actually gets its name not from the curiously versatile meat product, but from a Monty Python sketch wherein regular conversations are drowned out by Vikings singing "spam, spam, spam, spammity spam."
Collateralized debt obligation
Joseph J. Cassano, former Chief Executive Officer, American International Group (AIG), testifies during a Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) hearing on Capitol Hill, June 30, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Getty Images)
Lewis Ranieri and Laurence D. Fink had an idea: if you pooled mortgages together, you could slice the big, um, "mortgage pizza" (forgive me) up and sell each piece of it as a package. That way, much larger companies could own pieces of the American housing market, which itself is propped up by speculative home loans. And while those last two sentences might be cramming two decades of very confusing financial securities information into them, they at least highlight the problem—what happens when people stop paying their mortgage? In 2008, we all found out.
From 1998, when J.P. Morgan presented insurance magnate AIG with a new scheme called credit default swaps (CDS), until 2008 when the market crashed because them, Wall Street was using CDOs and CDSs as a way to make quick and easy money, as what CDOS and CDSs are supposed to do is keep large amounts of debt out of any one particular industry, as the debt is bundled together. But when lenders start handing out money to people who can't pay it back, the market falls apart.
Wall Street sold debts packages as a way to make more money. Because banks were hungry to get more mortgage money in the debt pool, they began to give AAA (read: junk) loans out to just about anybody. Homeowners were encouraged via a slew of advertising from 2004-2008 to re-finance their homes through new mortgages, through companies like Countrywide. This created a housing boom, where property values soared thanks hugely to the fact that banks were printing themselves money in the forms of CDOs.
So while Lewis and Laurence "invented" them... it took someone else, the man in the picture above, to turn them into something far bigger and far worse than anyone had intended.
Much of this monsterization of CDOs and CDSs was thanks in large part thanks to Joseph Cassano, an executive at AIG, who has been called the "patient zero" of the Great Recession. While Cassano didn't invent CDOs or CDSs, he certainly helped popularize them. AIG, under his guidance, sold about $100 billion of them. Because so much of what they were selling were bad loans, in late 2008 AIG's credit was downgraded and they were suddenly on the hook for $100 billion. AIG, and about 11 other financial giants, were bailed out using taxpayer money.
This affected the global economy in such a way that we're still feeling the effects. Housing prices remain high while wages have stagnated, banks have returned to their predatory lending ways, and to make things worse? There's a similar debt-bubble happening right now with CDOs and student loans.
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Emotional intelligence is a skill sought by many employers. Here's how to raise yours.
- Daniel Goleman's 1995 book Emotional Intelligence catapulted the term into widespread use in the business world.
- One study found that EQ (emotional intelligence) is the top predictor of performance and accounts for 58% of success across all job types.
- EQ has been found to increase annual pay by around $29,000 and be present in 90% of top performers.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
What's dead may never die, it seems<p>The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called Brain<em>Ex</em>. Brain<em>Ex </em>is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.</p><p>Brain<em>Ex</em> pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.</p><p>The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if Brain<em>Ex</em> can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.</p><p>As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.</p><p>The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.</p><p>"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told <em><a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/04/pig-brains-partially-revived-what-it-means-for-medicine-death-ethics/" target="_blank">National Geographic</a>.</em></p>
An ethical gray matter<p>Before anyone gets an <em>Island of Dr. Moreau</em> vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.</p><p>The Brain<em>Ex</em> solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness. </p><p>Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death. </p><p>Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?</p><p>"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/science/brain-dead-pigs.html" target="_blank">the <em>New York Times</em></a>. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."</p><p>One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.</p><p>The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01216-4#ref-CR2" target="_blank">told <em>Nature</em></a> that if Brain<em>Ex</em> were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.</p><p>"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.</p><p>It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.</p><p>Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? <a href="https://bigthink.com/philip-perry/after-death-youre-aware-that-youve-died-scientists-claim" target="_blank">The distress of a partially alive brain</a>? </p><p>The dilemma is unprecedented.</p>
Setting new boundaries<p>Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, <em>Frankenstein</em>. As Farahany told <em>National Geographic</em>: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have <em>Frankenstein</em>, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."</p><p>She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.</p>
A study published Friday tested how well 14 commonly available face masks blocked the emission of respiratory droplets as people were speaking.
- The study tested the efficacy of popular types of face masks, including N95 respirators, bandanas, cotton-polypropylene masks, gaiters, and others.
- The results showed that N95 respirators were most effective, while wearing a neck fleece (aka gaiter) actually produced more respiratory droplets than wearing no mask at all.
- Certain types of homemade masks seem to be effective at blocking the spread of COVID-19.
Fischer et al.<p>A smartphone camera recorded video of the participants, and a computer algorithm counted the number of droplets they emitted. To establish a control trial, the participants spoke into the box both with and without a mask. And to make sure that the droplets weren't in fact dust from the masks, the team conducted more tests by "repeatedly puffing air from a bulb through the masks."</p>
Fischer et al.<p>The results, published Friday in <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/08/07/sciadv.abd3083" target="_blank">Science Advances</a>, showed that some masks are pretty much useless. In particular, neck fleeces (also called gaiters) actually produced more respiratory droplets compared to the control trial — likely because the fabric breaks down big droplets into smaller ones.</p><p>The top three most effective masks were N95 respirators, surgical masks, and polypropylene-cotton masks. Bandanas performed the worst, but were slightly better than wearing no mask at all.</p>
Fischer et al.<p>Research on mask efficacy is still emerging. But the new results seem to generally align with <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">prior tests</a>. For example, a study from June published in <a href="https://aip.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/5.0016018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Physics of Fluid</a> found that bandanas (followed by folded handkerchiefs) were least effective at blocking respiratory droplets. That same study also found, as <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">others have</a>, that masks made from multiple layers of quilter's fabric were especially effective at blocking droplets.</p><p>The researchers hope other institutions will conduct similar experiments so the public can see how well different masks can block the spread of COVID-19.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"This is a very powerful visual tool to raise awareness that a very simple masks, like these homemade cotton masks, do really well to stop the majority of these respiratory droplets," Fischer told CNN. "Companies and manufacturers can set this up and test their mask designs before producing them, which would also be very useful."</p>
Sharing QAnon disinformation is harming the children devotees purport to help.
- The conspiracy theory, QAnon, is doing more harm than good in the battle to end child trafficking.
- Foster youth expert, Regan Williams, says there are 25-29k missing children every year, not 800k, as marketed by QAnon.
- Real ways to help abused children include donating to nonprofits, taking educational workshops, and becoming a foster parent.
Real ways you can help stop child trafficking<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="21fc2dc85391501eec28c4bf46d7db15"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/AXL0q9jNZGU?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Williams is the founder and CEO of <a href="http://www.seenandheard.org/" target="_blank">Seen and Heard</a>, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that helps foster youth develop character through the performing arts. She's been involved with foster youth for years; I <a href="https://bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/child-sex-trafficking" target="_self">wrote about her work</a> in child trafficking just over a year ago. Tragically, since that time, the situation for these children has only gotten worse, in large part because of QAnon.</p><p>Williams says child trafficking is an easy cause to rally people together. Fear is also a powerful unifying force, one that QAnon believers are already primed for via the news they consume. Almost every parent cares about their children, making them the ideal target to solidify groups. </p><p>The real problem, she says, is that the youth she works with are falling for these conspiracy theories. Trauma is a particularly powerful tool for indoctrination. If you're a teenager that's been abducted or abused, your trust level is already extremely low. Then you read about a global cabal of powerful men (and a few women) secretly abusing children, and the narrative seems ready-made for your personal history.</p><p>When Williams tried to "lovingly and kindly correct" the youth she was working with after learning about the Wayfair conspiracy, the girls' response was, "well, who owns the media?" </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"She goes from this small little thing to a QAnon talking point. I've been thinking about why she would believe such a preposterous idea—and there are others; it's not just one student, and they're in in deep. I think that when something horrific happens to you as a child, it's a lot easier to distance yourself from the immediate reality that it was an uncle or a parent or a sibling that hurt you. By detaching from that immediate person, they project it onto Bill Gates or Chrissy Teigen. Then it's not so personal, it's global." </p>
A man wear a shirt with the words Q Anon as he attends a rally for President Donald Trump at the Make America Great Again Rally being held in the Florida State Fair Grounds Expo Hall on July 31, 2018 in Tampa, Florida.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images<p>As Williams mentions, there are over 30,000 kids in foster care in the Los Angeles area alone. It's easy to fall through the cracks. The systems in place aren't perfect; they're certainly underfunded. When you're in a system trying to support you yet isn't capable of doing so, viewing the world as imperfect, and even harmful, becomes the lens through which you see reality. Again, this makes for a perfect indoctrination tool.</p><p>One popular QAnon talking point is that 800,000 children are missing. As Williams says, child trafficking experts "don't buy this for a minute." The number makes for a good meme but a poor representation of the problem. </p><p>To source better data, Williams turns to the <a href="https://www.missingkids.org/" target="_blank">National Center for Missing and Exploited Children</a> (NCMEC) and the <a href="https://www.fbi.gov/services/cjis/ncic" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">National Crime Information Center</a> (NCIC). An important factor when reading data: if a teacher <em>and</em> a caregiver report a missing child to NCIC, that counts as two children, not one, which accounts for some of the fluctuations in numbers. In total, between 25,000 and 29,000 kids go missing every year. Importantly, 94 percent of those children are recovered within four to six weeks. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"They're not documenting the recovery rate. It's not like these numbers are perpetually hanging out there. So this 800,000 number is just ludicrous." </p><p>Williams compares what's going on to Black Lives Matter. Blacking out your Instagram profile picture is performative. It signals that you actually care, which is great, but if you're not supporting Black-owned businesses, for example, there are no teeth to your activism. </p><p>Of course, blacking out your profile doesn't cause the real-world harm the QAnon virus does. Sharing misinformation is ultimately harmful to the children in need of help. Williams offers the resources below—ranging from donations to nonprofits to educational trainings to becoming a foster parent—for people that actually want to do something to help victims of sexual and physical abuse. They might not make a great Twitter meme, but in the actual world, this support makes all the difference. </p><p><strong>To report abuse/neglect, call the child abuse hotline: 800.540.4000 (LA county) / 800.422.4453 (National)</strong></p><ul><li>Support anti-trafficking organizations by donating to <a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://savinginnocence.org/" target="_blank">Saving Innocence</a>, which runs the continuum of care from rescue to recovery, <a href="http://gozoe.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Zoe</a>, a reputable faith-based organization, and <a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="https://withtwowings.org/" target="_blank">Two Wings</a>, which helps to rehabilitate female survivors</li><li><a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://www.nolabrantleyspeaks.org/" target="_blank">Nola Brantley</a> offers in-person and online trainings to help combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children</li><li><a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://instagram.com/imrebeccabender" target="_blank">Rebecca Bender</a> is a trafficking survivor that runs "Myth Busters," which combats conspiracy theory disinformation</li><li>The <a href="https://www.instagram.com/missingkids/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">National Center</a> of Missing and Exploited Children</li><li>Operation <a href="https://www.instagram.com/ourrescue/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Underground Railroad </a></li><li><a href="https://www.instagram.com/defendinnocence/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Defend Innocence</a> offers tips for parents and caregivers to keep kids safe</li></ul><p><span></span>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>