Since this is Black History month (how can we forget?), it is important (since there is no White History month) to pay tribute to the humble contributions that White folks have made to our culture and to Western Civilization.
I don’t want to risk bragging by enumerating the obvious and blaring it out like some digital-lit billboard on the Interstate, but there are a whole lot of accomplishments that any White person over the age of (hmm) thirty is faintly familiar with. Such as the Magna Carta, the US Constitution, the wisdom of ancient Greece, Christian morality, the Enlightenment, the King James Bible, the common law, property rights, religious tolerance, habeas corpus, universal suffrage, equality under the law, the Golden Rule, free-market economics, the abolition of slavery, respect for women. . . okay, you get the picture.
And the names, my gosh, where do I begin? Let us take note of Joan of Arc, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Leonardo Da Vinci, the mathematician Hypatia (d. 420AD), Michelangelo, Vermeer, Shakespeare, Florence Nightingale, Goethe, Moliere, Jane Austen, Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Charles Darwin, Watson & Crick, Olinto De Pretto, Samuel Johnson, Emmeline Pankhurst. . . the list is virtually endless.
My goal is to entertain as well as enlighten the reader with a few not-as-well known, or so-well-known but taken-for-granted inventions, happenings, and ideas, and a modicum of names of White people who deserve to be listed in the pantheon of The Great Whites. Let us begin.
Arthur Scherbius was a German electrical engineer who patented an invention for a mechanical cipher machine, later called the Enigma machine. He was born in Frankfurt, Germany and studied electricity at the Technical College in Munich, and then went on to study at the Technical College in Hanover, finishing in March 1903. The next year, he completed a dissertation titled, “Proposal for the Construction of an Indirect Water Turbine Governor” and was awarded a Doctorate in engineering.
He subsequently worked for a number of electrical firms in Germany and Switzerland. In 1918, he founded the firm of Scherbius & Ritter. He made a number of inventions, for example, asynchronous motors, electric pillows and ceramic heating parts; his research contributions led to his name being associated with the Scherbius principle for asynchrous motors. He applied for a patent in February 1918 for a cipher machine based on rotating wired wheels, what is now known as a rotor machine. (Thomas Jefferson invented a cipher wheel also.) His company also purchased the rights to another patent for a rotor machine from Hugo Koch—patented in 1919.
His firm’s cipher machine, marketed under the name “Enigma,” was initially pitched to the commercial market. There were several commercial models, and one of them was adopted by the German Navy (in a modified version) in 1926. The German Army adopted the same machine (also in a modified version somewhat different from the Navy’s) a few years later.
Just like all the other rotor machines, this apparatus had both electrical and mechanical systems. The mechanical part of the system consisted of rotors which were arranged along its spindle, a keyboard, and a stepping component which turned one of the rotors when a key was pressed and a sequence of lamps for all the letters.
The machine was used to encrypt any plaintext message and for every letter typed by the operator the lamp showed a different letter as per the pseudo-random substitution. The letters displayed by the lights were recorded as the enciphered substitute. When the key is pressed, it moves one of the rotors, so that the next key uses a different electric pathway, therefore, producing a different substitute alphabet for all the letters. The cyphertext is then transmitted to another operator who deciphers the message. As long as the settings of the deciphering equipment resembled that of the enciphering machine, the message could be deciphered.
Scherbius’ Enigma provided the German Army with the strongest cryptographic cipher in the world at the time, until the code was broken by Polish mathematicians in the 1930s, as discussed in the following section.
Marian Rejewski, Henryk Zygalski and Jerzy Rozycki
While Alan Turing gets all the credit for breaking the code of the Enigma machine, probably due to his cult-like celebration for being a brilliant homosexual and due to the hit movie The Imitation Game, it was actually three Poles who cracked the code. Their story is virtually non-existent to the public.
The earlier Enigma machines were adopted by the government and military services of numerous nations like Germany who used it to send and receive messages before and during the Second World War. The British and their allies understood the problem posed by this equipment in 1931 when a German spy known as Hans Thilo allowed his French spymaster to take a photograph of a stolen operating manual for the Enigma machine. The manual included all the keys and plugboard settings which the Germans used in September and October 1932.
The British and their allies could not decipher the message; therefore, they handed them over to a Polish mathematician named Marian Rejewski. Rejewski together with Henryk Zygalski and Jerzy Rozycki managed to build an Enigma double. They developed numerous techniques for defeating the plugboard and get all the components of the keys, thus making it possible for them to read all the German enciphered messages from 1933 to 1939. With the 1939 German invasion imminent, the Polish government decided to share their secrets with the British.
Less than six weeks before World War II began, on September 3, 1939, Lieutenant Gwido Langer, head of the Polish Central Staff’s cipher bureau invited British and French intelligence chiefs to a meeting at his secret cryptology centre at Pyry in the Kabaty woods near Warsaw.
There he revealed to them that his team, Rejewski, Zygalski, and Rozycki, had cracked the Enigma code seven years before and had been reading German messages ever since. This was five years before Alan Turing had even started studying cryptology – he was still working on a degree in mathematical logic at Princeton University in the United States.
The GC&CS (Government Code and Cipher School) in Buckinghamshire became the Allies’ center for dealing with the war-induced changes in the enciphered messages.
Since the Germans were convinced that their technology could not be deciphered, they continued using the machine for different types of communications with their secret services, in the sky, and on the battlefield. The decoded messages were given to a few commanders who used it cautiously making sure that the Germans did not find out that their cipher was broken.
Alan Turing, gay icon, will be the face on Britain’s next £50 note, which we’ll see in 2021 and is acknowledged as the father of computers. Turing’s legacy is carried on by the annual Turing Award that is the highest recognition in computer science since 1966.
The three young Polish mathematicians who were the first to crack the new German military Enigma code got their faces on a Polish postage stamp in 1983.
Have you heard the term “Information Theory?” No? Then perhaps you’ve been watching too many faux movies, like Red Tails (on the Tuskegee Airmen), or reading factvels (novels passing themselves off as non-fiction) like Hidden Figures (on African-American women involved in NASA).
Claude Elwood Shannon wrote the most important master’s thesis in history in which he, at twenty-one years old, applied Boolean algebra to switching circuitry titled “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits.” In this paper Shannon invented new mathematics to describe the laws of communication. It was a transformative work, turning circuit design from an art into a science, and is now considered to have been the starting point of digital circuit design.
In a 1939 letter to his mentor at Bell Laboratories, Vannevar Bush, Shannon outlined some of his initial ideas on “fundamental properties of general systems for the transmission of intelligence.” After working on the problem for a decade, Shannon finally published his masterpiece in 1948: “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” He introduced new ideas, like the entropy rate of a probabilistic model, which have been applied in far-ranging branches of mathematics such as ergodic theory, the study of long-term behavior of dynamical systems. Shannon’s theories have now become the standard framework underlying all modern-day communication systems: optical, underwater, even interplanetary.
His theories laid the groundwork for the electronic communications networks that now lace the earth. As noted by Ioan James, Shannon biographer for the Royal Society, “So wide were its repercussions that the theory was described as one of humanity’s proudest and rarest creations, a general scientific theory that could profoundly and rapidly alter humanity’s view of the world.”
While Shannon worked in a field for which no Nobel prize is offered, his work was richly rewarded by honors including the National Medal of Science (1966) and honorary degrees from Yale (1954), Michigan (1961), Princeton (1962), Edinburgh (1964), Pittsburgh (1964), Northwestern (1970), Oxford (1978), East Anglia (1982), Carnegie-Mellon (1984), Tufts (1987), and the University of Pennsylvania (1991). He was also the first recipient of the Harvey Prize (1972), the Kyoto Prize (1985), and the Shannon Award (1973). The last of these awards, named in his honor, is given by the Information Theory Society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and remains the highest possible honor in the community of researchers dedicated to the field that he invented.
But Shannon was also a fun-loving joker; he invented something called the “Ultimate Machine,” a machine—a box really—containing a replica of a human hand whose sole purpose was to turn off a switch that had been turned on by its user. Shannon approached research with a sense of curiosity, humor, and fun. An accomplished unicyclist, he was famous for cycling the halls of Bell Labs at night, juggling as he went. His later work on chess-playing machines and an electronic mouse that could run a maze helped create the field of artificial intelligence, the effort to make machines that think. Yeah, we call them computers.
As Stanford University Professor David Tse says, Shannon “invented the future.”
You can watch a recent documentary on Shannon’s life at Amazon Prime.
Oscar H. Banker
If you had never heard of Claude Shannon, then I can guarantee that you’ve never heard this man’s name. You should know it. . . you probably drove or were driven somewhere recently using two of his historic inventions — the automatic transmission and power steering.
Oscar H. Banker (b. Asatour Sarafian, May 31, 1895) was an Armenian-American inventor who patented a number of works, including an automatic transmission and power steering for automobiles. He is considered the “father of the automatic transmission.”
General Motors incorporated the semi-automatic transmission system into some of its vehicles in 1934, oddly enough the same year that Banker filed for a patent on the automatic transmission. The GM design had many flaws, leading Banker to propose his system to the company, asserting that it would be safer and more durable. After battling for eight years, Banker’s design was adopted and GM finally offered the American driver automatic transmissions using Banker’s design in 1940 in Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs, the first mass-produced automatic transmission vehicles. It was a marvel of engineering complexity that simplified driving so much that today, 97 per cent of all cars have just two pedals.
In Banker’s memoirs titled Dreams and Wars of an American Inventor: An Immigrant’s Romance published in 1983 he writes: “America is yet the greatest country existing for opportunity, for achievement and if a person can endure the hardships, ridicule, rebuffs, whatever and keep on going! That is what counts. And absolutely nothing else.”
The Drinking Bird
It would seem that brilliant people have a penchant for designing useless toys if you follow the examples of Claude Shannon and Miles Sullivan both of whom worked for Bell Labs in the 1940s. Sullivan filed for a patent on his toy in 1946.
The drinking bird is an iconic desk toy, but can you explain how it works? The principle is unintuitive at first glance, but beautifully simple in hindsight, like only the most brilliant inventions are.
At its core, the drinking bird is a heat engine, not unlike a steam turbine or diesel engine. When the bird’s head dips in the water, it gets wet. When the water evaporates, the bird’s head cools. This temperature change in-turn changes the internal pressure of the bird’s vacuum sealed body, and the movement of the gases and liquids inside propel the bird’s motion.
The bird’s underlying principle is unintuitive at first glance, beautifully simple and a mesmerizing feat of engineering. The drinking bird illustrates many principles in chemistry and physics: boiling and condensation; combined gas law; torque; the center of mass; capillary action (wicking of water into the felt); wet-bulb temperature (temperature difference between head and body bulbs depends on the relative humidity of the air); the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution; heat of vaporization/heat of condensation; and the functioning of a heat engine.
It’s best just to watch it in action and listen to the engineer guy explain it.
The Columbian Exposition of 1893
The World’s Columbian Exposition celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America. (Or as Wikipedia says, Columbus’s arrival in the new world.)
There hasn’t been a World’s Fair in North America since 1986 in Vancouver, B.C., and the last one in the US was in New Orleans in 1984. During the Fairs’ heydays, wealthy and middleclass families would make pilgrimages across the seas to meccas of modernization to see the wonders firsthand.
Rather than trumpeting how great each nation was or could be, the Fairs became pitiful reminders of how desperate we had become. World’s Fairs don’t even try to capture the imagination like they used to. The 1939 World’s Fair’s Dawn of a New Day slogan exuded aspirational wonder as nations shamelessly hawked their latest kitchen appliances or technological innovation.
The 1964 Fair held in New York focused on Peace Through Understanding—how many foreign wars has the US engaged in since then? The last Fair in 2015 in Milan, Italy had as its theme — Feeding the planet, energy for life — it focused on ending hunger and developing food sustainability for impoverished nations. . . what a downer!
Dubai, a sheikhdom in the United Arab Emirates, bet billions of dollars on an Expo to rejuvenate its struggling economy. That Expo is now postponed to Oct. 1, 2021, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But the Columbian Expo held in Chicago was probably the pinnacle of global mankind’s demonstration of striving for excellence.
Fredrick Law Olmsted, possibly the world’s foremost landscape architect, laid out the plan to build on a swamp requiring wood pilings driven into the ground to support the buildings. He also created a system of lagoons and lakes in which full size replicas of Columbus’ ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria floated. 40,000 skilled and unskilled laborers (making ten cents a day) constructed the fair’s buildings.
There were over 65,000 exhibits at the fair covering 630 acres. The Chicago skyline was dominated by a 250-foot-high Ferris wheel, designed for the fair by inventor George Ferris. It was 100 feet taller than today’s Ferris wheel at Chicago’s Navy Pier and had 36 cars capable of holding 60 people each. Fully loaded, it could carry 2,160 people and took a full twenty minutes to make one rotation. The commission responsible for the Fair believed it couldn’t be done. But Ferris, embodying the spirit of American ingenuity and doggedness, built it anyway.
The color of the material generally used to cover the buildings’ façades, white staff, which was a type of plaster of Paris, gave the fairgrounds its nickname—the White City. Its scale and grandeur far exceeded all prior world’s fairs including the one held in Paris in 1889 symbolized by the Eiffel Tower. The Columbian Expo became a symbol of emerging American Exceptionalism.
Every US state built an exhibition house or building to show its products. California had, among other things, a full-size medieval knight on a horse made of prunes. Missouri showcased a replica of the Statue of Liberty made of sugar. Philadelphia sent the Liberty Bell to grace Pennsylvania’s building.
This was the first Fair to solicit exhibits from foreign countries and forty-six heeded the call. It seemed that each nation was in a fierce competition to excel the others. France built a nearly full-size wing of the Palace of Versailles.
On October 9, 1893, nearly a million people paid 50 cents to attend the opening where President Grover Cleveland pushed a solid gold button to switch on George Westinghouse’s electric lights that illuminated in a bath of brilliant whiteness the staff-laden buildings of the Fair. Nearly half of the total population of the US attended the Fair.
It is impossible to describe the awesome accomplishment of the White men and women who came together to create one of the wonders of the modern world. Everything about it was the biggest, the best, the greatest. It had the longest telescope in the world, the largest building in the world, and a choir of 2,500 singers.
A good book to read on the subject is Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. Another place that I really recommend is the documentary narrated by Gene Wilder titled “Magic of the World’s Fair.” Trust me, the documentary will amaze you.
If you watch the documentary, and I hope you do, you will be left with a sense of appreciation for what white people have achieved. Like George Ferris who was not content to allow the erector-set appearing Eifel Tower to stand as the crowning glory of civilization, there were others who motivated by money, fame, or ego, would scale mountains of obstacles, and leave their indelible record in the history books and in their genes for future generations.
You might also feel a bit wistful if not melancholy as you contemplate that White people descended to the deepest part of the oceans, climbed the highest land masses, and flew to the moon to go for a walk.
Can we ever attain the impossible tasks again? Or have we lost that intangible component, that antecedent of accomplishment, that precursor of victory, and that faculty of deliberative striving?
Have we lost it — our will?