If we want to enmesh engineering into the fabric of our curriculum, we might want to consider shining a spotlight on the engineering history a few key inventions. The PBS series, Breakthrough: The Ideas the Changed the World shines that light on six such triumphs of engineering. The series played on PBS this past spring It streams on Amazon Prime. And the DVD set of the series, hosted by Patrick Stewart, is now available. Here's a rundown of the episodes.
Episode 1 tells the story of the development of the telescope, from a stone-age observatory to the space-based telescopes of the future.
It entails long-abandoned Stone Age dolmens once used as celestial calendars,
how Venetians made glass transparent, the optics of a medieval Persian camera obscura, a Dutch lens maker’s wartime breakthrough and a Venetian math teacher’s advancement of it, a Parisian invention improved by a spilled bottle of mercury, a team of women known as human computers who were armed with fly spankers, an athlete-turned-astronomer working high above Los Angeles, and telescope in space that will allow us to see as far as physics will allow.
Episode 1 "breakthrough celebrities" include Galileo Galilei, Edwin Hubble, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Louis Daguerre, Hans Lippershey, and Ibn al-Haytham.
Episode 2 tells the story of the development of the airplane, from early human-powered attempts to the jet concepts of the future.
It involves a ninth-century moorish daredevil’s first attempt at human flight, how we had tails before we had wings, an artist obsessed with anatomy and flight, a whirling arm in the stairwell of a seaside mansion, the rubber band’s role in flight, the curve of a stork's wing, a connection to maritime technology and the gyroscope, the use of a deep-sea diving suit to fly high, why modern pilots are pressure tested, and the surprising efficiency of the jet propulsion gas turbine.
Episode 2 "breakthrough celebrities" include Leonardo da Vinci, Wilbur Wright, Orville Wright, George Cayley, James Doolittle, Wiley Post, Frank Whittle, Elmer Sperry, Lawrence Sperry, Otto Lilienthal, Alphonse Penaud, and Ibn Firnas.
In episode 3, Locutus of Borg tells the story of the development of the robot. Well, Patrick Stewart is the series narrator, so... close enough!
It involves the ancient legend of Hephaestus and rudimentary Greek automatons,
a device that could learn a new tune and repeat it exactly, a desire to produce navigation tables by steam, the linguistic contribution of a Slavic cubist painter, the breakthrough of storage for programs, an imitation game, an electronic tortoise, a mission to Mars, a nuclear disaster in Japan, and the challenges of balance and hands.
Episode 3 "breakthrough celebrities" include Alan Turing, Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, Hero of Alexandria, William Grey Walter, The Banû Mûsâ brothers.
Episode 4 tells the story of the development of the car, from ancient sleds powered by primitive dogs to autonomous vehicles powered by graphene batteries. Gary Numan was not available for the narration, so Patrick Stewart handled the voice-over.
It involves ancient arctic sled dogs, the pairing the axle to the wheel, the smelting of metals from rocks, the spreading of a language, the need to pump water out of mines, the boring of naval canons, a stunt carried out by an inventor’s wife, the efficiencies of a slaughterhouse, and the promise of graphene.
Episode 4 "breakthrough celebrities" include Henry Ford, Karl Benz, Bertha Benz, James Watt, Thomas Edison, John Wilkinson, Thomas Newcomen, and Jay Leno.
Episode 5 tells the story of the development of the rocket, from ancient guano-powered fireworks to plasma rockets with magnetic confinement.
It involves the use of bat guano from Chinese caves to drive off evil spirits, a modern-day celebratory rocket battle in Greece, a work of fiction by a famous astronomer, an imaginative tale about a trip to the moon, a visionary living in rural Russia, a breakthrough in dairy processing technology, a loophole in an international treaty, a repurposing of firefighting equipment, internal Soviet geopolitical subterfuge that stoked the Space Race, and plasma engines that could transport humanity to other worlds.
Episode 5 "breakthrough celebrities" include Robert Goddard, Werner Von Braun,
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Jules Verne, Ti Tian, Sergei Korolov, Karl Gustav, Thomas Harriot, and Johannes Kepler.
Episode 6 tells the story of the development of the smartphone, from the fall of Carthage to brain-interfaced apps of the future.
It involves ancient Roman battlefield communications, a painter-turned-inventor who devised a code still in use today, a groundbreaking technology whose rightful inventor had to be settled by the US Supreme Court, an obsessive inventor who found treasure in another scientist’s trash, a quirky keyboard talking machine, a Hollywood starlet who was also a prolific inventor keen to defeat the Nazis, the miniaturization of a circuit invented by an engineer who hadn’t yet earned vacation time, and a father eager to share a photograph of his newborn daughter with friends and family.
Episode 6 "breakthrough celebrities" include Alexander Graham Bell, Samuel Morse, Guglielmo Marconi, Hedy LaMarr, George Antheil, Jack Kilby, Polybius, Philippe Kahn, Homer Dudley, and Elisha Gray.