Wednesday, February 8, 2023

A Technological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, October 1952: Jogging Stroller


Caroline Geoghegan

Having long since covered Mr. Atlee's atom bomb, I definitely want to do a technological appendix for the month that sees two actually Earth-shattering scientific developments: The first reference to a "birth control pill;" and the first reference to using a semiconductor chip to store computer memory. On the other hand, it's really hard to see a throughline from one story to the other, so while I'm going to try because that's the artistic thing to do, I'm not going to apologise if it doesn't work. So there! 

It will be noted that Benjamin Sieve's phosphorylated hesperidin pills aren't "the Pill," and didn't work, and that  J. R. Anderson of Bell Labs is touting "a 1 inch square of barium titanate," and doesn't say anything about integrated circuits. Nevertheless!

Before launching in, I should mention that I captioned the photo as being of Caroline Geoghegan, the author of the blog linked here, but image search shows the photo coming up as stock. Maybe it's a stock photo of Geoghegan? Idk! It's what I came up with when I went looking for a modern picture of a jogging stroller, and it is more photogenic than what I eventually turned up in connection with the baby  pram from Minneapolis that converts from wheels to sleds. And by this time I really can't say that this is "before launching in."

 It turns out that there have been a lot of Andersons working at Bell Labs, so I double-checked, and the Newsweek Note is definitely attributed to "R. V."   Assuming that this person did not go on to found a civil engineering practice in Toronto, Ontario, the Internet isn't yielding much more about ol' R. V. Barium titanate is a fascinating material. It is not used to make semiconductor chips, but you can vaguely see why it was a hot prospect in 1952. I assume that other working groups pressed ahead of R. V.'s. A quick boo at Wikipedia credits British engineer Geoffrey Dummer as being the first "to popularise the concepts that ultimately led to the development of the integrated circuit, commonly called the microchip, in the late 1940s and early 1950s," which is clearly incorrect in at least two different ways, since integrated circuits pop up as early as the war years in proximity fuzes and are all over the place by 1952, and here we have Anderson beating Dummer into print on the "memory chip" part. 

That said, Dummer's 7 May 1952 note, discussed in Wikipedia, comes much closer to a single, coherent programme leading to a semiconductor chip than anything I've dredged up here. Just a reminder of how much more complex and contingent the history of science and technology is when you take it as it goes along instead of in the form of canned history. 

Sadly, it turns out to be a lot easier to find an image of my antique stroller on the Internet than the details of R. V. Anderson's life. It's $94.95 on eBay! The stroller is one of a number of baby-related science and technology stories this month. It's a bit weird, but since the papers first noticed the boom in births in the mid-war years, stories explicitly about the Baby Boom have largely vanished from the press. Everyone is a lot more worried about the "baby bust" driving down enrollments in colleges and universities. The exception is that the need to expand primary and secondary schools  gets attention. I don't really have anything profound to say about that, because it seems in line with the increasingly racist and patriarchal spirit of the early Fifties that is going to start taking it in the chin with the Beatniks and Brown vs. Board of Education in a few years.

 But it is important! This society is experiencing what might, in retrospect, be the only major human population expansion driven by increasing birth rates rather than falling death rates. Given the tentative recent glimmering of the thought that the seemingly irreversible decline of the global birth rate below the replacement level might be a bit of a problem, one might expect more attention on this episode of world-historical importance! (Although if the main takeaway is that reduced income inequality equals higher birth rates, you can see why the question struggles to come to the fore at Davos.) 

(It's not my junior high. For one thing, it's a bigger building. But it might as well be.)

One of the simpler versions of this story is that the high boomer birth rate was because this was before science, and that the Pill put a stop to that sort of monkey business. This is not so! The Pill, the actual pill, not Sieve's snake oil, is a prewar development. At a time of historically low birth rates that would, The Economist keeps telling us and telling us, lead to population declines in France and England (Scottish statistics sold separately) by the 1970s, Andry Stynhach, as well as "Makepeace and colleagues" had discovered the ovulation-inhibiting roles of progesterone. The cost of steroids was high, but in 1939 Russell Marker discovered a synthesis, and by 1944 the Wild West era of synthesis from the Mexican yam was well on. 

American feminists, less interested in "population hygiene" were working towards a contraceptive pill on a wide front by the early Fifties, and progesterone was given clinical trials in 1952--3, to unsatisfactory results, according to the potted Wikipedia history. At this point,  "Pincus [a researcher] asked his contacts at pharmaceutical companies to send him chemical compounds with progestogenic activity." Shades of the Chemical-Biological Coordination Council! A combination of steroids was identified as having potential, and clinical trials began in April of 1956.

Needless to say, Paul Smith, Jr. is completely wrong about how petroleum deposits form
Of note is the apparent lack of both autonomy and informed consent among participants in the Puerto Rican cohort prior to the trials. Many of these participants hailed from impoverished, working-class backgrounds." Oh, the Fifties, what a lovable scamp of a decade! 

The first combined contraceptive pill was approved as a treatment for menstrual disorders on 10 June 1957. Approval for prescription as a contraceptive followed in June of 1960, by which time "at least a half a million women had used it." Meanwhile, hormonal contraceptives were launched in the United Kingdom as a treatment for PMS in 1957, and as contraceptives in Germany and Australia in 1961. And if the timing here seems like a poor fit with the "The Pill killed the Baby Boom" thesis, I'll note that it wasn't approved in Japan until 1999, and is still not widely used there.  

Meanwhile, Dr. Sieves isn't waiting for some dumb old clinical trials. A paper in science says that phosphorylated hesperidin has been shown to have an "antifertility effect in rats," and that's good enough for him. Why bother screwing around with Puerto Ricans when you can start selling it to housewives, instead? I note that the first paper discussing it after a blitz from Martin's group, identifies it as a "potent anticoagulent" when "administered intravenously to rats." 

Phosphorylated hesperidin is part of a family of traditional medicines that, as far as I understand the literature play a slightly bonkers game of  collision and reaction. Chemicals like hesperidin have an antihyaluronidase on hyaluronidase, which acts on hyaluronic acid, which is usually bad, but in this case sometimes good? The end result goal seems to be reducing inflammation and fever. If you don't have, like, any good treatments for the condition in question. It pretty clearly doesn't have any real anti-fertility effects, so apart from eliciting that bonkers ethics article I linked to last week that takes its point of departure from the proposal that "any" medical ethicist, would be opposed to artificial  regulation of human fertility, there's not much to this story. Except that there's a market for a birth control pill. 

The flip side of this is Dr. Richard Fischer's comparison of a "[A] large number of quick chemical and skin tests for pregnancy . . .  developed [in the last few years" with the by-1952-traditional Aschheim-Zondek and Friedman Modification Tests. Those are the ones where you inject a mouse or rabbit with a preparation of the woman's urine, and, in the Friedman test, the rabbit would be sacrificed to establish the result. Which, in the Fifties, counted as funny. The numerous other tests that Dr. Fischer evaluated seem to have been forgotten by history of medicine, at least the Wikipedia kind, probably because, like Dr. Sieve's birth control pill, they didn't actually work. 

Maybe the real test result was the money we made flogging snake oil along the way. Although perhaps I shouldn't be too cynical. After all, who knows what all these here chemicals do? You would need some kind of index, and with all the chemicals and all the properties they have, is that really practical? 

As it turns out, the Chemical-Biological Coordination Council of the National Research Council thinks that it is. Ever since its 1941 foundation with the task of finding a satisfactory artificial substitute for the anti-malarial drug, quinine, the Council has been collating information about chemicals, writing them on punch cards in "machine language," and building up an ever larger library of chemicals searchable by an IBM tabulator machine. IBM tabulator machines were admitted into the history of computing at least by Martin Campbell-Kelly's 1996 Computer: A History of the Information Machine, but this is the earliest date for the phrase "machine language" over here at this history of technology blog. 

So there you go, from baby strollers to computers. Also, I got to use that great picture of the basement of the Coordination Council in 1952. "Heumann" is Dr. Karl Heumann, the 31-year-old director of the Council, and, sadly, another of the individuals in this blog to be forgotten by Google.  And not only is he the director at 31, he has been off making money at 3M for the last two years! Do you think that bun lady in the foreground was interviewed for the job? Probably not.

So there you go: A jog from baby strollers to machine language and from there to memory chips.  

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