July 28, 2009
July 28th, 2009 |

Going Hi-Tech in the 1400s

Imagine you’re a contestant on the quiz show Jeopardy and can win the game by answering this question:

“When was the first overhead projector developed?”

Would you choose:

A: 1700s

B: 1900s

C: 1800s?

To learn the answer we have to follow a story that begins 25 years ago in the famed Italian Renaissance city of Urbino, where Professor Flavio Vetrano, of the University of Urbino, was seeking additional space for his expanding science department. In one room where “dust and spider webs” were everywhere he found a massive collection of more than 1000 scientific artifacts, recalled Professor Flavio Vetrano.

Closer examination eventually indicated Vetrano had stumbled upon evidence that the flowering of the Renaissance in Urbino encompassed more than the great works of artists such as Raffaello. The collection includes what appears to be the first-ever overhead projector, a generator for producing electric current, a battery for storing energy and correspondence from Galileo seeking help on his own projects – all indications Urbino’s men of science may have been well ahead of their more famed colleagues cross Europe.

The collection, now housed in the museum Ill Gabunetto di Fisica dell Universita di Urbino (The Physics Room of The University of Urbino) was surprising because historical evidence previously indicated scientists during the 1400s devoted their talents to more practical purposes, Vetrano said, such as machines for war, construction tools and even the develop of scientific instruments. (http://www.uniurb.it/PhysLab/Museum.html)

Yet the artifacts clearly show Urbino’s scientists were hard at work on the more theoretical questions of the time.

Professor Roberto Mantovani, now the curator of the collection, said correspondence between Galileo and Urbino scientists prove that point.

“It is very interesting that Galileo had contact with mathematicians in Urbino and later (June, 1618) went to visit the Duke of Montefeltro,” he said. And one of Galileo’s most significant inventions, a military compass “has many similarities” with analogous instruments developed in Urbino.

Because the ancient instruments are in such fragile condition, researchers have tested their efficacy by building scale models. The results are impressive.

The generator spins a large crystal about three feet in circumference to create static electricity that is captures on two copper pickup points. Cables lead from the instrument for the apparent purposes of conducting electricity to other object.

The battery is a crystal cylinder about one foot tall and three inches in diameter containing metal plates and an acid solution.

The projector, composed of a wooden box about one foot square, and uses crystals as lens to direct sunlight into an object. The resulting images are then refracted through other crystal lenses onto a panel inside the box.

This object apparently was designed and built in the 1700s. A tough question for Jeopardy.

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