Remember the good old days of Soviet-American warfare? It seemed the only thing we had to worry about in those days was imminent nuclear annihilation. Back then, a nickel could buy you enough purified ricin to fill a poison-tipped umbrella. And when the KGB broke into your home and snuck a listening device into your clock, you could be damn sure there was a real human on the other end of the line, making note of your every utterance. You know, maybe it had something to do with the time-perception altering effects of psychochemical warfare, but life back then just seemed to move a little slower.
The Cold War is long over, and along with it the greatest flourishing of mad-scientific thought since the Dark Ages. But there are still some, like Estonian-born technocrat Anton Vaino, who keep the flame alive. By day, Vaino is Vladimir Putin’s new chief of staff, in charge of the daily schedule of one of the world’s most powerful men. By night, Vaino is the co-inventor of the nooscope, “the first device of its kind that allows for the study of humanity’s collective mind”—a tool so powerful it can, by Vaino’s own admission, see into the future.1 Continue reading
In the not too distant future, when computers inevitably attain consciousness and enslave humanity, the lucky few who manage to escape their Matrix-style pseudo-reality will be left wondering—which asshole invented these things in the first place? And the accusatory finger of history will point back, past Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, past WWII and Alan Turing, all the way back to mid-19th century England, where it will land square on the nose of inventor Charles Babbage.
Babbage developed a digital computer a full century before computers were even a thing. And he did it without transistors, without circuits, without electricity—we’re talking rods and gears here people. Continue reading
History books, Smithsonian tour guides, and commemorative North Carolina state quarters would have us believe that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane. Sure, they managed to launch the first manned, powered, controlled heavier-than-air flight, an improbable feat in its own right. But without the lessons gleaned from nearly a century of ill-informed flight experimentation, they’d never have amounted to squat.
We don’t diminish the Wright’s legacy paying homage to the gliders, calamitous multiplanes, and giant man-lifting kites, that paved their way—but we do open a door to some pretty funky, Victorian-style derring-do. Continue reading
13th century Friar Albertus Magnus is said to have spent upwards of three decades engineering a mechanical head that could move and speak. So terrifying was his creation that Thomas Aquinas smashed it on first sight.1
It would take another 500 years for Europeans to finally ease their attitude toward lifelike automata. In 1739, Jacques de Vaucanson captured the public imagination with his “Defecating Duck,” a bizarre clockwork apparatus that ate food pellets and shat them out the other side. In 1770, Wolfang von Kempelen debuted his mystifying chess-bot (known simply as “The Turk”). The machine would go on to best the likes of Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin.2
Simulating human speech, however, proved a more elusive goal. While Pierre Jaquet-Droz’s robots could be programmed to write and draw pretty much anything, the most advanced mechanical speech synthesizers of the 18th century could utter nothing more than a few select words and phrases. It wasn’t until the early 1840s that an obscure German inventor by the name of Joseph Faber conjured up the very first bona-fide talking head. Continue reading