The world is far older and weirder than we would like to think. Recently, scientists discovered evidence that life began billions of years before we ever expected it to; with new data suggesting life was already forming in space, alongside the formation of the Earth. It’s like early microscopic life forms were just hanging there thinking “Come on, Earth, form already! Some of us have places to be!”
So in light of this shocking new information, we decided to take a look at some other things that are actually older than we thought they were. The truth may surprise you, as they say – and with that in mind, let’s start with:
If there’s one thing everyone hates about the modern Internet, it’s clickbait – that annoying crap with an attention-grabbing title and very little, if any content that’s at all relevant to anything anyone could possibly ever care about. Well you’re not alone in being angry about this stuff because people have hated clickbait since before the invention of the Internet.
Back in the 19th century, newspapers were so commonplace that every small town in the UK had one; and several cities had more than one just to themselves. The same was true over in the United States, where two media moguls were waging all-out war on one-another to dominate the market. Their techniques for grabbing the attention of would-be readers took many forms but the two that really came to the forefront were attention-grabbing front-page headlines (often exaggerated, often scaremongering – sound familiar?) and the use of newly-invented good quality yellow ink. These two techniques combined into what became known as Yellow Journalism (although over in the UK we tend to use the term “tabloid journalism” and it’s pretty much the same thing).
Yellow Journalism was sensationalist. It was under-researched (if the writer bothered to research at all). It pandered to the lowest common denominator. It sold papers. This yellow journalism allowed Joseph Pulitzer (the guy responsible for creating the Pulitzer Prize, that award for high-quality journalism) to wage all-out, low-grade, non-journalism war against his main rival, William Randolph Hearst for decades.
As a result of yellow journalism, the public’s willingness to believe anything they read should have been severely harmed because a lot of what they read was entirely untrue. Sadly, humans don’t actually work on logic no matter how much we wish they did, so fake news still exists and your uncle still shares all those blatantly false stories on Facebook without actually reading them.
No, we aren’t talking about the Antikythera Device (a word we totally spelled correctly on our first try, why do you ask?), that weird Ancient Greek mechanism that predicted the position of astronomical objects. We aren’t even talking about “human computers”, which is a term invented back in the 17th century for people who worked out mathematical problems and compiled tables of calculated astronomical data.
We are, instead, talking about Difference Engines (no, not the book and my goodness, why do we have to use the same names for so many things? Science and Science Fiction have a lot of questions to answer). You’ve probably heard of the Charles Babbage machine before and I would not be surprised to find that’s the one you think I’m talking about with this entry but guess again because mechanical computers pre-date Babbage. That’s right, it’s a two-for-one sale on things being older than you thought with this one!
The first mechanical computer, a “difference machine” or “adding machine” was written about in 1784 when J. H. Müller wrote about and built his mechanical computer – but he wasn’t the first to do it. The Müller device was, in fact, based on a series of improvements he had worked out for an earlier machine, the Pascaline built by famous mathematician (and namesake for the popular 80’s programming language) Blaise Pascal (whom you may also recall is the winner of the “Most Bodacious Forename Award” in 1623).
Pascal created his first mechanical computer when he was just a teenager back in 1642 because teenagers are instinctively drawn to computers and just can’t help themselves. He built fifty computers in his lifetime and although we can’t confirm this is because he was attempting to create the world’s first LAN Party, we also can’t rule that out.
So next time one of your relatives complains that modern kids are too focussed on their new-fangled computers and technology, just remind them that computers have been around since the 17th century; and they pre-date cars.
3. Genetic Engineering
Genetic Engineering was the creeping terror of the late twentieth century, with films, TV shows and novels about all kinds of horrors that would be created from scientists meddling with the forces of nature itself. We were told that genetically modified foods would kill us all; and that if it didn’t, the genetically-modified life forms we unleashed would definitely finish off any survivors, no question about it.
But here’s the thing: genetic engineering is as old as civilisation itself. Ever heard of dogs? They aren’t naturally-occuring creatures, prehistoric man made those. Same with cats. Same with cows. Mankind has been genetically engineering animals to look like what we want, and do things that we want them to do, for so long that the practice literally pre-dates all of recorded history. We meddle with forces we do not understand as part of our way of life.
Here’s another thing: corn is not a naturally-occuring plant. The food we eat is not natural, it’s all cultivated and developed because we want it. Corn does not grow well in the wild because we invented it when we absolutely did not know what we were doing. It needs to be cultivated by humans or it will die because it’s not natural. It’s delicious, but it’s not a natural plant.
Genetic engineering is older than our knowledge of genetics. It’s older than our knowledge of iron. I’m serious about that, too. We know ancient Mexican civilisations were growing corn 7000 years ago but our first evidence of iron smelting happened only around 3200 years ago. Dudes in South America were eating corn before the Romans existed.
So next time someone tries to scaremonger you about the perils of the mere idea of genetic engineering, ask them what they had for dinner or whether they have any pets. You’ll be able to scare the pants off them.
Earlier this week, I had the misfortune of reading one of the stupidest things I’ve read in quite a while. A minor politician was trying to browbeat someone over a minor squabble on Twitter (is there any other kind?) by suggesting that their latest wild claims couldn’t simply be dismissed because:
“if 100 years ago I had told you people could transmit moving pictures over great distances, you would have called me crazy”.Guy on Twitter whom we’ve anonymised so he doesn’t get flack for being seriously wrong
Yeah, no. They wouldn’t.
The first evidence of television being a possibility comes from 1843, when Alexander Bain developed a “facsimile machine” that could transmit a crude reproduction of a still image from a photograph. German student Paul Julius Gottlieb Nipkow designed the “Nipkow disk” in 1884, thus demonstrating that students and television are as genetically linked as teenagers and computers.
The first test television broadcasts were transmitted via radio waves in 1921 when Edouard Belin tested his Belinograph. Television technology was developing rapidly at this point. John Logie Baird demostrated his television to the public in 1925, transmitting moving images using a ventriloquist’s dummy as the focal point for the pictures. Baird thought using a human face would be too scary given the low resolution of the image but to be honest, we think we’d all have coped better because who in their right minds wants a low-res ventriloquist’s dummy fired at them over the airwaves? Horror films have made bank off less than that.
So by our mechanical calculations (apologies for using such outdated technology here but hey, whatever works, right?), television as we know it now is 94 years old if we count from the point where Baird first scared the living crap out of people with his public demonstrations. If we go by Belin’s test broadcasts, television is 99 years old and if we go from the first time someone actually broadcast an image from one place to another (you know, like television does every day) then it’s 176 years old.
So the idea that someone would think a person mad for claiming they could transmit moving pictures 100 years ago is outright ludicrous. After all, people in 1919 were already well aware of cinema and it seems like half the inventor population were already well on the way to establishing their own TV companies by then as well. It was practically old news, as the yellow press might say.
Back in the Nineties, if it wasn’t a genetically-engineered super-monster that was eating the cast of your favourite sci-fi show, it was probably a clone. Clones were a big, new thing because Dolly the Sheep, the first cloned animal, was born in 1996 and that wasn’t long after Jurassic Park had delighted audiences at the cinema. Clones were fresh, new and cool!
Except… they aren’t. Now we could go all the way back to 1928 when Hans Spemann and Hilde Mangold took the first steps toward creating a clone when they transplanted the first nucleus from a cell into an egg and created a viable embryo; which is precursor to part of the process that would go on to create Dolly the Sheep 68 years later. The thing is, we can actually go back further than that.
Cloning is nothing new, and it’s actually something we’ve been doing for thousands of years in horticulture. Most of the food you’ve ever eaten is cloned because humans take plants they really like and make more of them (usually via a process called “grafting”, where the stem of a grown plant is attached to the roots of a new one, but not always) so they’ll have plenty of plants they enjoy.
That’s actually becoming quite a problem for the planet by the way; since we essentially have one giant monoculture that could be wiped out very quickly if a disease showed up that can harm that plant. When everything is the same plant, everything is susceptible to the same disease. It’s scary when you think about it.
Many species of grape are clones and we’ve all been eating them for thousands of years. Bananas, potatoes, carrots (eaten an orange carrot lately? That’s cloned and genetically engineered – you’re welcome) and more are all cloned. Farmers are basically the descendants of ancient scientists and their combined effect on the planet cannot be understated.
So next time you’re watching a science-fiction show and a clone is eating the cast member that your annoying friend had predicted wouldn’t make it out of the episode alive, at least you’ll be able to comfort yourself with the fact that not all clones are bad.
Zoë Kirk-Robinson is a cartoonist and comedian who writes every day because she thinks it keeps her sane. Her latest book, All Over the House: Book Three, is out now.
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