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The Importance of Outsiders in Science

Bernard Newgrosh

Delivered at the SIS Silver Jubilee Conference, Friday 17th – Sunday 19th September 1999

June 1999


Outsiders – people from outside the discipline – have contributed enormously during the history of science. To scientific outsiders we owe many of the laws of physics and chemistry, the foundation of new disciplines, innumerable inventions and vital discoveries. Herewith a roll-call of the most famous and important, with a discussion of the implications for our interdisciplinary studies.

Full article features:

  1. The Early Period, 15th-17th centuries
  2. The 18th Century
  3. The 19th Century
  4. The 20th Century
    • Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), painter Hobby interests in architecture, hydraulics, mechanics, engineering, astronomy, geology and anatomy
    • William Gilbert (1540-1603), physician Proclaim Earth to be a magnet
    • John Napier (1550-1617), laird of Merchison, aristocrat Invented a hydraulic screw for clearing coal pits of water. Inventor of logarithms
    • Robert Hooke (1635-1703), polymath, painter Made over 1,000 inventions, including; anchor escapement and balance springs for clocks; the spring balance; spring suspension for vehicles the universal joint; helical gears; the milometer; the spirit level; the camera iris; the octant.
    • Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716), diplomat, librarian, philosopher Co-claimant (with Isaac Newton) to the invention calculus. Designed and built a calculating machine.
    • Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), haberdasher and chamberlain Made convex lenses. Confirmed the discovery of capillary systems. Described protozoa and three types of bacteria.
    • Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790), printer, ambassador politician Invented bifocal spectacles, the lightning conductor; proved that lightning is a form of electricity. Recognised the Aurora Borealis as an electrical phenomenon; Speculated on the existence of the ionosphere.
    • Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794), tax collector. Overthrew the then-prevalent theory of phlogiston. Demonstrated that water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen; that organic compounds contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen; that carbon dioxide and water are normal products of respiration.
    • Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) Unitarian minister Establishing that electrostatic charge is concentrated on the outer surface of a charged body. Proposed an ‘inverse square law’ for charges, analogous to the gravitational law. Credited with the preparation of oxygen, nitric oxide, the isolation of gaseous ammonia.
    • Charles Augustin de Coulomb (1736-1806) military engineer Inventor of the torsion balance (used to measure the force of electric and magnetic attraction). Studies structural mechanics, friction in machinery and the elasticity of metal and silk fibres.
    • Jacques Alexandre Cesar Charles (1746-1823) clerk in the Ministry of Finance in Paris Made the first ascent in a hydrogen-filled balloon (10 days after the Montgolfiers made their first hot-air balloon flight). Discovered the relationship between the volume of a gas and temperature.
    • William Herschel (1738-1822) musician and composer Pioneered the study of binary stars and nebulae, discovered the planet Uranus. Discovered the hottest radiation was infra-red layin the foundations of the science of stellar photometry. Established the motion and velocity of the Sun.
    • Thomas Young (1773-1829), physician and polymath Inventions included an early form of recording barometer, the kymograph (an instrument for recording the pressure of fluids), and the ripple tank. Proved wave propagation of light, contrary to the prevalent Newtonian particle theory. Discovered interference fringes (known as ‘Young’s Fringes’), giving rise to the science of interferometry.Measured the resistance of wooden beams and metals to compression and bending (cf. Young’s Modulus of Elasticity). In 1814 he deciphered the demotic text of the Rosetta Stone. Four years later he realised that Egyptian hieroglyphics might be constructed along similar lines to Chinese ideograms. In 1819 in a supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Young published translations of 200 hieroglyphic signs. Three years later his discovery was supplanted by Champollion.
    • Augustin Jean Fresnel (1788-1827), civil engineer In 1821 he realised that light waves vibrate transversely, at right angles to the direction of the propagated wave, an insight that led him to produce a revolutionary new lens for use in lighthouses.
    • Nicolas Leonard Carnot (1796-1832), engineer Did pioneering mathematical work on heat engines, effectively founding the discipline of thermodynamics. Proposed that the total quantity of work in the universe is constant – coining the First Law of Thermodynamics.
    • Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875), studied law and admitted to the Bar. Developed the theory of uniformitarianism supplanted the then-prevalent theory of catastrophism. Considered one of the founders of the discipline of stratigraphy, and gave us the names Eocene, Miocene and Pliocene.
    • Michael Faraday (1791-1867), book-binder apprentice His laws of electrolysis established the link between electrical and chemical affinity; he gave us the terms ‘anode’, ‘cathode’, ‘anion’, ‘cation’, ‘electrode’ and ‘electrolyte’; he made the first dynamo; he invented the electrical transformer; he pioneered the electromagnetic theory of light.
    • Georg Simon Ohm (1789-1854), schoolteacher Discovery of the mathematical law of electric-current called “Ohm’s Law”.
    • Charles Darwin (1809-1882), would-be clergyman Put for a mechanism for evolution
    • Gregor Johann Mendel (1822-1884), abbot Credited as the founder of modern genetics
    • Louis Pasteur, professor of chemistry Determined that fermentation involves living micro-organisms. Developed the germ theory of diseases.
    • John Boyd Dunlop (1840-1921), vet. Developed commercially practical pneumatic rubber tyres.
    • George Westinghouse (1846-1914) Prolific inventor and contributor to modern technology. Developed a completely new railway signalling system. Patented a powerful air brake for trains.
    • Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) Invented the telegraphic repeater, the phonograph, incandescent electric light bulb. Developed the world’s first large central electric power station.
    • Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), set up a school for teachers of the deaf Invented the telephone. Patented the gramophone and wax recording cylinder. Built hydrofoil speedboats and invented tetrahedral kites capable of carrying passengers.
    • George Eastman (1854-1932), bank clerk Patented the first photographic film roll and perfected the Kodak camera.
    Invention Name occupation
    Safety razor King Gillette travelling salesman
    Relativity theory Albert Einstein patents clerk
    Electronic TV Philo Farnsworth self-taught inventor
    Jet engine Frank Whittle aeroplane pilot
    Rockets K.E. Ziolhovasky & Hermann Oberth schoolteacher & student
    Photocopier Chester Carlson Lawyer
    Oil refinery Eugene Houdry racing driver
    Ball-point pen Ladislav Biro writer, sculptor & artist
    Gyrocompass Anschutz-Kaempfe art historian
    Hovercraft Christopher Cockerell electronics engineer
    Colour film Leo Godowsky & Leopold Mannes concert violinists
    Missile guidance Hedy Lamarr actress


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