Archive for the ‘Superlatives’ Category

In a corridor adjacent to the foyer of the Clarendon Laboratory at the University of Oxford in England, is an electric bell that has been ringing almost continuously since it was first displayed in 1840.

OxfordElectricBell1The Oxford Electric Bell, also called the Clarendon Dry Pile, was an experimental electric bell when it was first set up. It consists of two brass half-spheres or bells, each positioned beneath a dry pile battery, with a metal sphere, about 4mm in diameter, suspended between the piles, acting as a ‘clapper’. The sphere moves the very short distance between the bells by electrostatic force. As the sphere touches one bell, it is charged by the pile, is electrostatically repelled, and is attracted to the other bell. On touching the other bell, the process repeats itself.

Whilst a high voltage is required to create the motion, only a miniscule amount of charge is carried from one bell to the other, which is why the piles have been able to last since the apparatus was set up. 

OxfordElectricBell2It is not known for sure what the piles are made of – they may be Zamboni piles which are made of alternate layers of metal foil and paper coated with manganese dioxide – but they were coated with molten sulphur to insulate them and to reduce the effects of atmospheric moisture.

clarendon laboratory, oxford university, physics

The original Clarendon Laboratory in Oxford (photo taken in 1894) was the first purpose-built physics laboratory in the country. The building, much enlarged, is now incorporated into the Department of Earth Sciences.

The bell was apparently made by Watkin and Hill, instrument makers, of London, and purchased by the Rev Robert Walker, Reader in Experimental Philosophy (the name by which physics was known at Oxford) at the university from 1839 to 1860, and Professor of Physics from 1860 to 1865. It bears a label in his handwriting ‘Set up in 1840’.

The Oxford Electric Bell does not demonstrate perpetual motion as the bell will eventually stop when the dry piles are depleted of charge, if the clapper does not wear out first. It has now been ringing almost continuously for 175 years apart from occasional short interruptions caused by high humidity. A double-thick glass bell jar muffles the ringing sound, so the bell is inaudible. There is a video of the bell here.

The bell has rung about 10 billion times and is considered to be the longest running experiment ever. The Guinness Book of Records lists it as the ‘world’s most durable battery’.

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centre of great britain, centre of united kingdom

If uou click on this map of the United Kingdom, you can see two small pink circles which, very roughly, mark the centre of Great Britain (including its 401 islands) and the centre of England.

If someone asked you where the centre of Great Britain was or for that matter where the centre of England was, would you know? Or more to the point would you care? The centre of Britain must obviously be further north than the centre of England, as Britain includes Scotland, of which there is quite a lot. And the centre of Britain is likely to be further west than the centre of England because of Wales.

Northern Ireland is not included in the centre of Great Britain as the country we are part of is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that is Great Britain doesn’t include  Northern Ireland. Well to add to the other obscure geographical posts that I have written previously, here are some answers.

centre of britain, dunsop bridge, millstone grit, whitendale hanging stones

The weathered stones of an outcrop of Millstone Grit called Whitendale Hanging Stones north of Dunsop Bridge. The wooden post marks the exact centre of Great Britain.
© Tom Howard/Creative Commons Licence

The nearest village to the geographical centre of Britain (including its 401 islands) was officially recognised by the Ordnance Survey in 1992 as being Dunsop Bridge in the Forest of Bowland near Clitheroe in Lancashire. However in 2002, the Ordnance Survey calculated that the exact point is at Whitendale Hanging Stones (grid reference SD 64188 56541), near Brennand Farm, 4½ miles north of Dunsop Bridge. The measurement calculates the point at which a two-dimensional object – think of a cardboard cut-out of Great Britain – would balance horizontally on the head of a theoretical pin, that is its centre of gravity.

centre of britain, dunsop bridge, phone box

The plaque in the BT phone box in Dunsop Bridge that marks the centre of Great Britain.

BT also installed its 100,000th payphone at Dunsop Bridge (not by coincidence surely?) and included a plaque to explain its significance. The plaque reads ‘You are calling from the BT payphone that marks the centre of Great Britain.’ The telephone box was unveiled by the explorer and writer Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

The geographical centre of England was calculated by the Ordnance Survey in 2002, again by finding the centre point of the two-dimensional shape made by England. It is in a field close to Lindley Hall Farm near Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire (grid reference SP 36373 96143).

centre of england, lindley hall farm

A post next to a hedge in a field of Lindley Hall Farm near Fenny Drayton points to the exact centre of England.

In June 2013, a 6ft high ‘monument’ made from a railway sleeper was erected on the side of the field with a sign pointing to the exact point, 492ft into the field. According to a BBC report at the time, the owner of the farm, Stephen Farmer, said it could become a tourist attraction in future, explaining that ‘It’s a position on the map, the same as Land’s End [and] John O’Groats. People go to see their marks and have their photos taken so I think it wants to be known to the public, where it is.’ As the field and the path to it are privately owned, Mr Farmer will presumably have to allow public access to the monument if he wants to put it on the map. Incidentally Dunsop Bridge is roughly 95 miles north-north-west of Fenny Drayton.

Some people argue that the furthest point from the sea should be considered the centre of Britain. The Ordnance Survey has found this point is just east of Church Flatts Farm, about a mile south-east of Coton-in-the-Elms, Derbyshire. Haltwhistle in Northumberland also claims, less convincingly, to be the centre of Britain based around it being on the mid-point of the longest line of longitude (the vertical line) on the mainland of Britain. The town even has a Centre of Britain Hotel!

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sandstone, jack hills, western australia, zircon, bruce watson, mark harrison, oldest

These are the sandstone rocks in Jack Hills in Western Australia, in which zircon crystals found by geochemists Bruce Watson and Mark Harrison in 2005, were later dated as being 4.4 billion years old, the oldest material so far found on Earth.

There was a news item on the BBC website a few days ago that tiny crystals of zircon, a blue semi-precious stone, that had been found in a much younger sandstone in the Jack Hills in the Murchison river basin in Western Australia, were the oldest fragments of the earth’s crust. The age of the crystal, which was dated using the decay of trace uranium atoms within it, is 4.4 billion years, only 200 million years after the formation of the earth itself. This is in the very earliest part of the Pre-Cambrian era that makes up seven-eighths of geologic time. The significance of this discovery is not so much how old the rock was, but that it is evidence of the earth having had a solid crust much earlier than had been thought and consequently of having been able to host life very early in its history.

As for the oldest rocks in the world, that is rocks consisting of minerals that have not been subsequently melted or broken down by erosion – unlike the Jack Hills zircon – there are four contenders, depending on the latest research. The rocks are all gneisses (gneiss is pronounced ‘nice’), rocks formed, or metamorphosed, by the action of heat and pressure on earlier rocks. Gneisses are hard, folded, and characterised by darker and lighter coloured bands, and they are widely distributed around the world.

The four locations are in south-western Greenland; the Jack Hills area of Western Australia as above; and in two locations in Canada, the eastern shore of the Hudson Bay and the Canadian shield in the Northwest territory. These rocks have all been dated as being between 3.8 and 4.4 billion years old. The difficulty in assigning the title of oldest to one particular formation of gneiss is that they are all extremely deformed, hence claiming one site to have the oldest rocks may be as much a matter of luck in sampling as by an understanding of the rocks themselves.

geologic time scale, pre-cambrian, age of the earth, jack hills, zircon, chalk, dover, cretaceous

In this geologic time chart, the Pre-Cambrian period, because it covers seven-eighths of the age of the earth occupies most of the lower scale, with the remaining one-eighth expanded into the upper scale. For comparison purposes the Jack Hills zircon were formed in the dark-brown Hadean period at the very beginning of the Pre-cambrian era, and the chalk cliffs of Dover were formed in the light green Cretaceous peiod above, only about 100 million years ago.
Incidentally this is an American chart, and in the UK the two blue periods between the Permian period and the Devonian, are called the Carboniferous period, which is when coal was formed.

But where are the oldest rocks in Britain?

The oldest rocks, the Lewisian gneiss of the Pre-Cambrian era, date from at least 2.7 billion years old – close to two-thirds of the age of the planet – and can be found at the surface in the far north-west of mainland Scotland and on the Hebridean islands. This rock is thought to underlie much of the Britain Isles although boreholes have only penetrated the first few kilometres. The main outcrops of Lewisian gneiss are on the islands of the Outer Hebrides, including Lewis, from which the formation takes its name, but the oldest of these rocks, are on the mainland around Scourie and Laxford Bridge, small villages halfway between Ullapool and Durness.

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fry's five boys, chocolate, wrapper

A Fry’s Five Boys chocolate wrapper. The bars were marked off into five segments, each with one of the faces stamped into the chocolate. The bars originally cost 1d when launched in 1902, that’s just under half of 1p in today’s money.

Fry’s Five Boys was a solid milk chocolate bar that was once the most recognised chocolate bar in the world. It was still being sold until its withdrawal in 1976. But who remembers it now?

It was first sold by J S Fry & Sons of Bristol in 1902 with a wrapper showing not five boys, but the face of one boy, in a sailor suit, with five different expressions representing his anticipation and experience of eating the chocolate bar. Beneath each face was a caption:

Desperation, Pacification, Expectation, Acclamation, Realization [with a ‘z’]

The five pictures were photographs taken in 1885 and were used by J S Fry & Sons in its advertising; appearing on enamelled metal signs displayed outside confectioners, on posters and in newspapers. The boy was Lindsay Poulton, aged five, and his father and grandfather took the photographs for which Fry’s paid £200, a very large sum at the time, to have exclusive use of them.

Lindsay Poulton was still around in 1960s when he was tracked down by the Bristol Evening Post to Rhode Island in the USA. Mr Poulton remembered the photographic session well, particularly the Desperation shot, when his grandfather induced the necessary look, and the tears, by placing a cloth soaked in photographer’s ammonia around his grandson’s neck!

fry's five boys, chocolate, enamelled sign

The five faces of Fry’s Five Boys chocolate on an enamelled metal sign. Desperation – no chocolate, Pacification – the promise of chocolate, Expectation – the prospect of chocolate, Acclamation – happiness at receiving chocolate, and Realization – eating the chocolate, and discovering that it is a Fry’s milk chocolate bar!

So when the chocolate bar was introduced in 1902 with its distinctive wrapper, the Five Boys image became irretrievably connected with it.

There was also a bar called Fry’s Five Centres produced from 1934 to 1992 but this shouldn’t be confused with the Five Boys bar. Five Centres was like today’s Fry’s Chocolate Cream, a fondant centre enclosed in dark chocolate, but with different flavoured centres. Strawberry, orange, raspberry, lemon and pineapple at first, then later on, coffee, lime, and blackcurrant replaced strawberry, lemon and pineapple.

I can remember Five Boys from the 1950s and 1960s. I thought the pictures of the boy were a bit weird, even scary.

Incidentally J S Fry & Sons started with Joseph Fry, a Quaker apothecary, making chocolate in Bristol around 1759. The Quakers were formed as a protest against the established Church and its members were debarred from many public and civic offices, and professions such as medicine or the law were not open to them. This is why so many Quakers gravitated towards business and commerce. As Quakers were concerned about levels of alcohol misuse in the population at large, the move into chocolate that began with cocoa drinks was therefore a reaction against the perceived misery and deprivation caused by alcohol.

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How do you decide what is the most featureless place? The Cambridge dictionary defines featureless as ‘looking the same in every part, usually in a way that most people consider to be boring’. Even the wildest parts of Scotland or the flattest fen in East Anglia have a ditch, bridleway, stream or hill to break the monotony.

Over ten years ago a listener to John Peel’s Home Truths show on Radio 4 asked about boring places in Britain. This triggered the search for Britain’s most boring place. The BBC turned to the Ordnance Survey to see if looking at maps would provide the answer on the basis that their large-scale maps show almost all features in the landscape. Maps are divided by grid lines into squares that are a kilometre wide and tall, and features are identified by various symbols. The obvious thing to do therefore was to find the grid square that had the least symbols in it. Was there a completely blank square among the 320,000 squares in the widely-used Landranger map series? This series of maps are at a scale of 1:50,000, that is one centimetre on the map is 50,000 centimetres on the ground, which is half a kilometre.

map, featureless, britain, ordnance survey, grid square, pylon, electricity, overhead line

This is how it looks on a map. The blue square in the middle has nothing in it except a single electricity pylon (the v-symbol) and the bit of overhead line between pylons.
© Ordnance Survey 2013

map, featureless, britain

The blue spot in the middle of this map, to the east (right) of Goole, marks the location of Britain’s most featureless place.
© Ordnance Survey 2013

After setting a computer to look at every one of the squares, the Ordnance Survey came up with answer! A field in the East Riding of Yorkshire is the most featureless place in Britain.

The square kilometre of farmland on the outskirts of the village of Ousefleet, just south of the River Ouse, near Scunthorpe, has nothing in it except a single electricity pylon and some overhanging cable. The square at grid reference SE 830 220 (the south-west corner of the square) on OS map 112 is as near as cartographers can get to a completely blank square in the Landranger map series.

featureless, britain, pylon, electricity, overhead line, ordnance survey, grid square, farmland

This is what the most featureless place looks like on the ground. The electricity pylon and the overhead line to the left lie just in the kilometre grid square, and that’s it. The rest is flat farmland.
© Roger Gilbertson/Creative Commons Licence.

Philip Round from the OS said at the time ‘We’re not saying it’s the dullest place in Britain. It might be the most fascinating place on earth but on our Landranger maps it has the least amount of information. No ditches, streams or buildings are shown on this particular scale of map. That’s quite some going, considering the low-lying areas of East Anglia and remote parts of Scotland.’

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furthest point, ruadh stac beag, fisherfield forest, wester ross, scotland

The ‘furthest point’ is in the centre of this map, to the left of Ruadh Stac Beag.
© 2013 Ordnance Survey

What is the furthest point from a tarmaced public road in mainland Britain? There may be other contenders for remoteness, but the Ordnance Survey has determined this point as a peat bog on the western hillside of Ruadh Stac Beag in Wester Ross in Scotland, amongst the burns (‘allt’ in Gaelic) that come from Lochan a Bhraghad. The point is at a height of about 610m (2,000 feet) and the grid reference is NH 0202 7700.

It is 10.43 km (6.48 miles) in a straight line from the nearest road, the A832 near the village of Kinlochewe. But up here in the boggy  mountainous wilderness of the Fisherfield Forest of Wester Ross, that doesn’t mean very much.

furthest point, wester ross, scotland

The ‘furthest point’ is marked by the blue spot in the centre of this map of Wester Ross, Scotland,
© 2013 Ordnance Survey

The shortest distance by a path, where there is one, is from Kinlochewe, the nearest settlement, and it is 24.2 km (15 miles). There are a number of deer-season only hunting lodges and abandoned houses, and an out of season bothy, Shenavall, to the north of the ‘furthest point’ near Loch na Sealga and below An Teallach (1,062m), but that is all. There is a nearer settlement at Letterewe on the side of Loch Maree to the south-east, but that is on a private estate.

There are no photographs of the location as far as I know but the nearest photograph, below right, is of Lochan a’ Bhraghad, a small lochan close by. For what it’s worth, the ‘furthest point’ is about 500m away over the slight hill on the right side of the picture.

lochan a' bhraghad, ruadh stac mor, wester ross, scotland

Lochan a’ Bhraghad north east of Ruadh Stac Mor.
© Stuart Meek/Creative Commons Licence

In 2002, the Daily Telegraph sent one of its reporters, Colin Cottell, to this remote spot. He rang the Ordnance Survey to check before setting out. ‘Less than seven miles? Hardly worth getting out of my sleeping bag for. Or so I imagined’. His report is here.

The Fisherfield Forest, and the Dundonnell Forest to the north, is sometimes nicknamed The Great Wilderness because the area is entirely devoid of permanent settlements. Although termed a forest, the area has very few trees, though it was a pine forest 200 years ago.

fisherfield forest, ruadh stac beag, wester ross, scotland

In the midst of the Fisherfield Forest, this is a view down Gleann na Muice Beag to the north of Ruadh Stac Beag and about 1km from the ‘furthest point’.
© Roger McLachlan/Creative Commons Licence

Three estates cover most of the area which is maintained primarily for deer stalking: Dundonnell Estate covers 134 km² in the northwest part of the forest, the Eilean Darach estate covers 262 km² in the northeast, and majority of the area, including all the southern and central sections, forms the 323 km² Letterewe estate.

Other places of interest in Britain:

Lowest land in Britain

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What does caziques, a Native American chieftain, and quixotry, meaning visionary schemes, have in common? And what has this to do with Alfred Butts? Well Alfred Butts was an inventor of a board game ……

alfred butts, inventor, lexiko, scrabble

Alfred Mosher Butts, inventor of Lexiko in 1931, the predecessor to Scrabble
1899-1993

Alfred Mosher Butts, an architect in Jackson Heights, New York, enjoyed chess, crosswords and word games. After he lost his job at Holden McLaughlin and Associates in 1931 during the Great Depression, he set out to design a word game that utilized both chance and skill by combining elements of anagrams and crossword puzzles, a popular pastime of the 1920s. He studied the front page of The New York Times to calculate how frequently each letter of the alphabet was used so as to determine how many of each letter he would include in the game. He found that just 12 letters (E, T, A, O, I, N, S, H, R, D, L and U) accounted for 80% of the letters that are normally used. Although ‘S’ was a very common letter, he decided to only include four ‘S’ tiles to avoid making the game too easy by having too many plurals.

Butts called the game ‘Lexiko’. Players would draw nine lettered tiles from a pool of 100 tiles and then attempt to form words from their letters. It was initially played without a board. Scores were calculated according to the length of the words formed. The first players were Mr Butts, his wife, Nina, and their friends. Mrs Butts was better at the game than her inventor spouse, and he admitted that she ‘beat me at my own game,’ literally.

alfred butts, milton bradley, lexiko, parker brothers, scrabble

The rejection letter from Milton Bradley Co for Alfred Butts’ first game, Lexiko. Parker Brothers also rejected Lexiko. 56 years later, Milton Bradley purchased the North American rights to Scrabble.

In 1933 Butts unsuccessfully tried to register the trademark of his new board game, and he approached all the major games manufacturers, including Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers, but they rejected the game. He changed the name to ‘IT’, then to ‘Criss Cross’, and in 1938, he changed it again to ‘Criss-Cross Words’. He added the 15×15 square gameboard, reduced the number of tiles held at time to seven, and changed squares to double or triple the value of the letter or word placed on them. Butts manufactured some 200 sets himself, $2 a set plus 25 cents for shipping, but again the games manufacturers were not interested. By then Butts was again employed as an architect and he put aside his efforts to develop the game, which was relegated to a novelty played by a handful of people.

In 1948, Butts sold the rights of his game to James Brunot, a Federal official and social worker, who had a friend who had bought one of Butts’ handmade sets. Butts, as the inventor, retained the patent rights of the game and earned royalties on each set sold. Brunot added the 50-point rule for playing all seven tiles at once, changed the colours on the board, and came up with the name Scrabble, a word meaning ‘to scrape or grope around frantically with your hands’ from the Dutch ‘schrabben’ to scrape or scratch.

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