Stanford’s "autonomous" helicopters teach themselves to fly

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

Stanford’s “autonomous” helicopters teach themselves to fly via “apprenticeship learning”

So the researchers had Oku and other pilots fly entire airshow routines while every movement of the helicopter was recorded. As Oku repeated a maneuver several times, the trajectory of the helicopter inevitably varied slightly with each flight. But the learning algorithms created by Ng’s team were able to discern the ideal trajectory the pilot was seeking. Thus the autonomous helicopter learned to fly the routine better — and more consistently — than Oku himself.

During a flight, some of the necessary instrumentation is mounted on the helicopter, some on the ground. Together, they continuously monitor the position, direction, orientation, velocity, acceleration and spin of the helicopter in several dimensions. A ground-based computer crunches the data, makes quick calculations and beams new flight directions to the helicopter via radio 20 times per second.

The helicopter carries accelerometers, gyroscopes and magnetometers, the latter of which use the Earth’s magnetic field to figure out which way the helicopter is pointed. The exact location of the craft is tracked either by a GPS receiver on the helicopter or by cameras on the ground. (With a larger helicopter, the entire navigation package could be airborne.)

Just right for the garden: a mini-cow

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

Dexter cattle are an ancient dual-purpose Irish breed, the smallest of the British breeds:

They originated as a hardy breed of small mountain cattle run on small family holdings. At the turn of the 20th century, Dexters became the show cattle of the English gentry.

As the 20th century progressed, Dexter numbers declined. In the 1970s, they were designated as rare and endangered. More recently, their attractiveness to small landholders has seen a significant increase in their numbers globally.

Now the Times says they’re just right for the garden:

Registrations of the most popular breed, the Dexter, have doubled since the millennium and websites are sprouting up offering “the world’s most efficient, cutest and tastiest cows”.

For between £200 and £2,000, people can buy a cow that stands no taller than a large German shepherd dog, gives 16 pints of milk a day that can be drunk unpasteurised, keeps the grass “mown” and will be a family pet for years before ending up in the freezer.

(Hat tip to Al Fin.)


Sunday, August 31st, 2008

In Earthbound, The Economist argues that gravity is not the main obstacle for America’s space business — government is:

The controls governing America’s export of satellites are part of the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR) and they are handled in the Department of State. At one time the Department of Commerce had the job. But in the mid-90s a great controversy arose when information was shared between American satellite makers and the Chinese. Politicians reacted to fears that secrets had been passed to China by moving control of space exports to the State Department.

Michael Beavin, a programme analyst at the Office of Space Commercialisation in America’s Commerce Department, says that the wording of the legislation is open to broader interpretation than Congress intended. An international GPS ground station may have to get export approval to buy a new screen for its Dell laptop, because it is part of a system that is controlled. Pierre Chao, a senior associate at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think-tank in Washington, DC, says that as soon as satellites were put on the munitions list “the little screw and the commodity wiring became a munition”. Furthermore, anything modified for a munition is a munition. This clause, he says, captures all the little “doodads”. In fact, he explains, it’s the extremely sophisticated “part X” that you want to keep out of the enemy’s hands, not the whole box. “You are using an extremely blunt instrument for sophisticated policy needs.”

You may think that is the price of security, but Lon Rains, the editor of Space News, says that ITAR has “sped up the inevitable proliferation of advanced technology, by forcing other countries to find other means of obtaining satellite components that had previously been manufactured only in the United States.” Joe Rouge, the director of the National Space Security Office at the Pentagon, thinks that ITAR probably made sense a decade ago but agrees that it is now a blunt instrument. “The problem is that today you can buy international equivalents that are as good as what American industry is producing.”

The result is a system that is too successful in keeping American technology out of foreign hands. Before 1999, when the State Department took over the export regulation of satellites, America dominated commercial satellite-making with an average market share of 83%. Since then, this share has declined to 50%, according to Space Review. ITAR’s critics blame the change in export controls. As bidding opened in July this year for the €3.4 billion ($5 billion) of contracts for Galileo, a constellation of 30 positioning satellites being built by the European Union and the European Space Agency, European officials cited export controls as a reason for avoiding anything to do with America wherever possible.

At the start of the decade, Alcatel Alenia Space (now Thales Alenia) announced that it would create an “ITAR-free” spacecraft, purged of all American components. Between 1998 and 2004 the company doubled its market share to over 20%, becoming perhaps the greatest beneficiary of export policies. Export controls also prompted the European Space Agency to pay to develop a European supplier of solenoid valves, so that European space-propulsion systems do not depend on this American part. Similarly, Telesat, Canada’s satellite-fleet operator, has said that ITAR is one of the reasons it has selected European satellite builders in recent competitions. And in 2005 EADS Sodern, a French maker of satellites’ control and positioning systems and subsidiary of the Franco-German company EADS, said it would start to phase out its American supplier base.

Meanwhile, American components and satellites are suffering because of the cost and delays in doing business with the firms that make them. International companies cannot access an inventory of vital American satellite components and place orders as the need develops because each component must run the gauntlet of export controls. Whether the component is a motor, a control valve, a star tracker, an antenna or a chip, it is simpler to look for non-American alternatives.

Night Vision Goggles for Kids

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

GeekDad John Baichtal notes that Jakks Pacific has introduced true Night Vision Goggles for Kids for just $80:

Needless to say, the goggles were designed to present a delightfully Borg-like appearance, however, a lot of the look is cosmetic. Here’s how it’s set up. There are two eyepieces, one covered in LEDs and the other unadorned. Positioned over the forehead is a big central sphere I call a “bulb” which contains the camera and is surrounded by more LEDs. I’m not sure why this bulb had to be so prominent, maybe to stay with the cyclopean theme of the product line. The 5-AA battery pack ends up at the back of the head.

As mentioned, the goggles work by projecting IR light. There are two levels of brightness, the lower uses the LEDs on the right eyepiece, the higher uses the LEDs on the central bulb. Interestingly, the latter are so powerful that when emitting, you can see a dull red glow. (As I said, to the naked eye the IR LEDs don’t normally emit visible light, but digital cameras are able to sense the infrared light. That’s what you see in the photo.)

The camera feeds to a tiny (0.5″x0.75″) LCD screen positioned in front of the right eye. Since there is only one screen you get only monocular vision, if it matters. The smallness of the screen doesn’t really hurt because it’s right in front of the eye. One concern I had was the feasibility of using the goggles with my big nerd glasses. It turned out to be a non-issue, as the miniature screen falls well within my close-in vision. However, someone relying on reading glasses may find themselves unable to see much of anything. As far as the left eyepiece, it is merely cosmetic, and flips up to allow the user to look through a hole.

MIT Team Quietly Builds Virus-Based Batteries

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

MIT Team Quietly Builds Virus-Based Batteries, Popular Mechanics reports:

In a surprise development that could have implications for powering electronics, cars and even the military, researchers at MIT have created the world’s first batteries constructed at the nano scale by microscopic viruses.

A much-buzzed-about paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this month details the team’s success in creating two of the three parts of a working battery — the positively charged anode and the electrolyte. But team leader Angela Belcher told PM Wednesday that the team has been seriously working on cathode technology for the past year, creating several complete prototypes.

“We haven’t published those yet, actually. We’re just getting ready to write them up and send them off,” says Belcher, who won a MacArthur genius grant for her work in 2004 and a Breakthrough Award from PM in 2006. “The cathode material has been a little more difficult, but we have several different candidates, and we have made full, working batteries.”

Instead of physically arranging the component parts, researchers genetically engineer viruses to attract individual molecules of materials they’re interested in, like cobalt oxide, from a solution, autonomously forming wires 17,000 times thinner than a sheet of paper that pack themselves together to form electrodes smaller than a human cell.

“Once you do the genetic engineering with the viruses themselves, you pour in the solution and they grow the right combination of these materials on them,” Belcher says.


Father’s arrest ignites debate over child abandonment

Friday, August 29th, 2008

Father's arrest ignites debate over child abandonment:

Two weeks ago, a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram got into a rapidly escalating argument with his 11-year-old son in a McDonald’s.

The confrontation made for a poignant Aug. 15 column by Dave Lieber, who wrote about angrily jumping into his car after telling the boy to walk home, a distance of “a few blocks.” After cooling off, Lieber returned a short time later to find police officers interviewing his son.

Father and son apologized to each other and, after a stern lecture from a police officer, were allowed to drive home together.

Lieber’s confessional column about his “stupid and quite serious mistake” sparked a flurry of mostly supportive comments — many from parents who had done the same or were treated similarly by their own parents — on the newspaper’s Web site.

But the story wasn’t over. After additional investigation by detectives in suburban Watauga, Lieber was arrested Tuesday on charges of child abandonment and endangerment — reigniting a debate over proper parenting and the role of police in family matters.
Lieber, 51, was charged with two felonies, child abandonment with intent to return and child abandonment/endangering a child, Detective Tiffany Ward said. Lieber turned himself in to the Tarrant County Jail and was released on $4,000 bail.

Police will refer the case to the Tarrant County district attorney, who will determine whether to pursue charges. State law defines abandonment as intentionally leaving a child younger than 15 “in any place under circumstances that expose the child to an unreasonable risk of harm.”

Welcome to the Jungle

Friday, August 29th, 2008

A female journalism student from London decided to investigate conditions at an immigrant camp known as the Jungle in Calais — at night, alone:

Mr Muller said Tuesday’s rape in a hut in the Calais ghetto known as ‘the Jungle’, where hundreds of would-be immigrants to Britain sleep rough, was particularly brutal.

The woman was taking photographs of a gang of immigrants outside one of the shelters around twilight, despite being warned by police not to approach the camp alone.

‘One of them asked her to look at something else,’ said Mr Muller. ‘She followed him inside one of the huts, and that’s where it happened.

‘The victim was raped and brutally attacked. She has very severe wounds around the mouth and scratch marks on her face.
The student, who was born in Canada but who has lived in England most of her life, travelled to France “to highlight problems surrounding clandestine immigration”, said police.

A spokesman added: ‘She was working alone, and admits that going into the Jungle during the evening by herself was immensely naive.

‘She has been through a terrible ordeal and is determined to bring those responsible to justice.’

Although most of the migrants in Calais claim to be asylum seekers from war-torn areas like Afghanistan and Iraq, police believe many are economic migrants from Africa and the Balkans drawn to Britain’s generous social security system and black economy.

They are supported by charities, with the newly elected Right-wing council in Calais refusing to provide them with permanent accommodation.

Calais became a magnet for asylum seekers in the late 1990s after the opening of the Sangatte Red Cross Centre, which housed 67,000 over three years.

Before its closure in 2002, following an agreement between the French and British governments, many tried to jump on to slow-moving trains at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel, or hide inside lorries crossing to Britain.

The jungle was supposed to be burned down — “its reputation as a no-go area was allowing serious crimes, including drug abuse and stolen property dealing, to carry on unhindered” — but the razing was called off, because immigrants were putting their lives at risk by breaking into the nearby chemical plant to create shelters.

Study says eyes evolved for X-Ray vision

Friday, August 29th, 2008

Study says eyes evolved for X-Ray vision — where “X-ray vision” is a colorful way of saying “seeing through clutter”:

Demonstrating our X-ray ability is fairly simple: hold a pen vertically and look at something far beyond it. If you first close one eye, and then the other, you’ll see that in each case the pen blocks your view. If you open both eyes, however, you can see through the pen to the world behind it.

To demonstrate how our eyes allow us to see through clutter, hold up all of your fingers in random directions, and note how much of the world you can see beyond them when only one eye is open compared to both. You miss out on a lot with only one eye open, but can see nearly everything behind the clutter with both.

“Our binocular region is a kind of ‘spotlight’ shining through the clutter, allowing us to visually sweep out a cluttered region to recognize the objects beyond it,” says Changizi, who is principal investigator on the project. “As long as the separation between our eyes is wider than the width of the objects causing clutter — as is the case with our fingers, or would be the case with the leaves in the forest — then we can tend to see through it.”

To identify which animals have this impressive power, Changizi studied 319 species across 17 mammalian orders and discovered that eye position depends on two variables: the clutter, or lack thereof in an animal’s environment, and the animal’s body size relative to the objects creating the clutter.

Changizi discovered that animals in non-cluttered environments — which he described as either “non-leafy surroundings, or surroundings where the cluttering objects are bigger in size than the separation between the animal’s eyes” (think a tiny mouse trying to see through 6-inch wide leaves in the forest) — tended to have sideways-facing eyes.

Arnold Kling’s Campaign-Season Pledge

Friday, August 29th, 2008

Arnold Kling has been a bit bitter recently:

One possible reason is that the election campaign is heating up.

To me, political campaigns are not sacred events, to be eagerly anticipated and avidly followed. They are brutal assaults on reason. I look forward to election season about as much as a gulf coast resident looks forward to hurricane season.

That deserves to be repeated. Political campaigns are not sacred events. They are brutal assaults on reason.

He goes on to make his own multi-part campaign-season pledge:

  1. That no politician will end America’s consumption of foreign oil. Ever.
  2. That no politician will figure out a way to bring the bottom half of America’s children up to the level where they can benefit from a college education.
  3. That no politician will figure out a way to make American health care — meaning virtually unlimited access to specialists and technology — affordable for everyone.
  4. That no politician will alter the trends in technology and family structure that are driving the distribution of income and wealth.
  5. That no politician will produce a sustainable fiscal outlook without trimming future Social Security and Medicare benefits. (I might have ended the previous sentence simply by putting a period after “outlook”)
  6. That no politician needs to create jobs. There is always too much work to be done. The problem is never to create jobs. The problem is for individuals to adapt their abilities to ever-changing job opportunities.
  7. That no politician will be able to articulate an economic difference between moving labor or goods from country X to country Y and moving labor or goods from Maryland to Virginia.

QinetiQ says it has broken unmanned flight record

Friday, August 29th, 2008

QinetiQ says it has broken the unmanned flight record with its ultra-lightweight Zephyr, which is built from carbon fiber and powered using paper-thin solar panels:

QinetiQ Group PLC said its propeller-driven “Zephyr” aircraft flew for 83 hours and 37 minutes, more than doubling the official world record set by Northrop Grumman’s “Global Hawk” in 2001.
The 66 pound- (30 kilogram-) plane was launched by hand on July 28 in the Arizona desert in the United States and flown by autopilot and via satellite to an altitude of more 60,000 feet (18,000 meters), QinetiQ said.

Drawing on the power of the sun during the day, the plane stayed aloft at night using rechargeable lithium-sulphur batteries. Its more than three-day flight began on July 28 and was witnessed by U.S. and British defense officials, the company said.

QinetiQ said the Zephyr, which is funded by a host of U.S. and British military agencies, had potential in the fields of reconnaissance and communications.

The Problem With the Corporate Tax

Friday, August 29th, 2008

Back when McCain was proposing his “laughable” gas-tax holiday, Greg Mankiw decided to write about McCain’s much more sensible idea to cut the corporate income tax from 35 percent to 25 percent. Here Mankiw explains The Problem With the Corporate Tax:

Cutting corporate taxes is not the kind of idea that normally pops up in presidential campaigns. After all, voters aren’t corporations. Why promise goodies for those who can’t put you in office?

In fact, a corporate rate cut would help a lot of voters, though they might not know it. The most basic lesson about corporate taxes is this: A corporation is not really a taxpayer at all. It is more like a tax collector.

The ultimate payers of the corporate tax are those individuals who have some stake in the company on which the tax is levied. If you own corporate equities, if you work for a corporation or if you buy goods and services from a corporation, you pay part of the corporate income tax. The corporate tax leads to lower returns on capital, lower wages or higher prices — and, most likely, a combination of all three.

A cut in the corporate tax as Mr. McCain proposes would initially give a boost to after-tax profits and stock prices, but the results would not end there. A stronger stock market would lead to more capital investment. More investment would lead to greater productivity. Greater productivity would lead to higher wages for workers and lower prices for customers.

Populist critics deride this train of logic as “trickle-down economics.” But it is more accurate to call it textbook economics. Students in introductory economics courses learn that the burden of a tax does not necessarily stay where the Congress chooses to put it. That lesson is especially relevant when thinking about the corporate tax.

In a 2006 study, the economist William C. Randolph of the Congressional Budget Office estimated who wins and who loses from this tax. He concluded that “domestic labor bears slightly more than 70 percent of the burden.”

Mr. Randolph’s analysis stresses the role of international capital mobility. With savings sloshing around the world in search of the highest returns, he says, “the domestic owners of capital can escape most of the corporate income tax burden when capital is reallocated abroad in response to the tax.” When capital leaves a country, the workers left behind suffer. (According to Mr. Randolph, however, some workers do benefit from the American corporate tax: those abroad who earn higher wages from the inflow of capital.)

A similar result was found in a recent Oxford University study by Wiji Arulampalam, Michael P. Devereux and Giorgia Maffini. After examining data on more than 50,000 companies in nine European countries, they concluded that “a substantial part of the corporation income tax is passed on to the labor force in the form of lower wages,” adding that “in the long-run a $1 increase in the tax bill tends to reduce real wages at the median by 92 cents.”

(Emphasis mine. Hat tip to Philip Greenspun.)

Cattle shown to align north-south

Friday, August 29th, 2008

Only after thousands of years has anyone noticed that cattle align north-south:

The researchers surveyed Google Earth images of 8,510 grazing and resting cattle in 308 pasture plains across the globe.

“Sometimes it took hours and hours to find some pictures with good resolution,” said Dr Begall.

The scientists were unable to distinguish between the head and rear of the cattle, but could tell that the animals tended to face either north or south.

Their study ruled out the possibility that the Sun position or wind direction were major influences on the orientation of the cattle.

Dr Begall said: “In Africa and South America, the cattle (were) shifted slightly to a more north-eastern-south-western direction.

“But it is known that the Earth’s magnetic field is much weaker there,” she explained.

The researchers also recorded the body positions of 2,974 wild deer in 277 locations across the Czech Republic.

Their fieldwork revealed that the majority of grazing and resting deer face northward. About one-third of the deer faced southward.

“That might be some kind of anti-predatory behaviour,” speculated Dr Begall.

I’m guessing the accompanying image was taken in Scotland? Because the cattle seem to be facing directly into the sun, which wouldn’t be almost directly north or south in most cattle country.

X2 Technology

Friday, August 29th, 2008

Helicopter-maker Sikorsky has just demonstrated its new X2 technology — but what does X2 mean?

The press release lists a number of X2 technologies, but the key technology is counter-rotating coaxial rotors.

Philip Greenspun explains why that’s important:

Typical helicopters, however expensive, are limited to about 165 knots of cruise speed. When the helicopter is moving faster than that, the “retreating blade” is not getting enough airflow, i.e., the blade is going backward about as fast as the helicopter is going forward. This results in a loss of lift on half of the disk. With two rotor systems rotating in opposite directions you still get retreating blade stall but it happens to both rotors at the same time and on opposite sides of the helicopter. Instead of the helicopter pitching and rolling it should just keep flying. The goal with this style of helicopter is to achieve cruise speeds closer to 250 knots, albeit probably at Sikorsky prices starting at $20 million.

How new is this idea? The U.S. military tried this around 1970 and gave up due to uncontrollable vibrations. The Russians built and flew some helicopters like this, also around 1970, but never went into large scale production.

What makes it practical today when it wasn’t practical in 1970? Better computer systems that can run active vibration dampening (like noise-canceling headsets but for vibration).

60 Minutes on Dungeons & Dragons

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Oddly enough, I never saw the original 60 Minutes piece on Dungeons & Dragons — and the game’s tenuous link to teen suicide — back when it aired back in 1985:

That second video goes into a piece on Thomas Radecki:

Founder of NCTV (National Coalition for Television Violence) and board member on Tipper Gore‘s PMRC group who once used quoted material from Rona Jaffe’s novel Mazes & Monsters as if it was real and factual. Radecki, a psychologist, lost his license to practice for five years for engaging in immoral conduct with a patient. He has since returned to his practice.

Is H.L. Mencken Alive and Well at the NYT?

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

David Friedman cites the New York Times on corporate taxes:

Two out of every three United States corporations paid no federal income taxes from 1998 through 2005, according to a report released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

Perhaps you’ve heard that stat bandied about recently. Friedman also cites the Reuters story on the same report:

The Government Accountability Office said 72 percent of all foreign corporations and about 57 percent of U.S. companies doing business in the United States paid no federal income taxes for at least one year between 1998 and 2005.


The GAO study itself says this:

As figure 2 shows, about 72 percent of FCDCs and 55 percent of USCCs reported no tax liability for at least 1 year during the 8 years. About 57 percent of FCDCs and 42 percent of USCCs reported no tax liability in multiple years — 2 or more years — and about 34 percent of FCDCs and 24 percent of USCCs reported no tax liability for at least half the study period — 4 or more years.

This leads Friedman to ask, Is H.L. Mencken Alive and Well at the NYT?

Mencken’s famous bathtub hoax was an invented history of the bathtub, designed to appeal to what readers wanted to believe about the ignorance and irrationality of people in the past. He published it as a demonstration of human credulity, reported with glee on how many people repeated it as gospel despite its obvious inconsistency with easily established historical facts, published multiple retractions pointing out how obviously false it was — and, by his account, never managed to kill the story.

My previous post pointed to a modern equivalent. The NYT (and, I think, the AP, but not Reuters, which got it right) misread a GAO report in a way that drastically altered its meaning, converting it from a plausible but boring result (a substantial majority of corporations reported no taxable income in at least one year out of an eight year period) to a wildly implausible result that nicely fitted what a lot of people wanted to believe (two-thirds of corporations reported no taxable income over that eight year period). They simultaneously made another mistake almost as bad, calculating what the corporations “should” have owed on the basis of their revenue, not their profit. The Times discovered the latter mistake and corrected it; so far as I can tell, they have not yet noticed the former mistake.

Googling around, I found an enormous numbers of online references to the story. So far, I have not found a single one, other than my piece on this blog, that spotted the mistake. I’ve posted the actual facts on a fair number of them, but it’s like a teacup in a tempest. I have no doubt that, years from now, millions of people will still remember the scandalous, and wholly imaginary, fact from the Times article.

For your enjoyment, I append “A Neglected Anniversary” by H. L. Mencken, first published in the New York Evening Mail, December 28, 1917.

On December 20 there flitted past us, absolutely without public notice, one of the most important profane anniversaries in American history, to wit, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the introduction of the bathtub into These States. Not a plumber fired a salute or hung out a flag. Not a governor proclaimed a day of prayer. Not a newspaper called attention to the day.

True enough, it was not entirely forgotten. Eight or nine months ago one of the younger surgeons connected with the Public Health Service in Washington happened upon the facts while looking into the early history of public hygiene, and at his suggestion a committee was formed to celebrate the anniversary with a banquet. But before the plan was perfected Washington went dry,* and so the banquet had to be abandoned. As it was, the day passed wholly unmarked, even in the capital of the nation. (*This was war-time Prohibition, preliminary to the main catastrophe. — HLM)

Bathtubs are so common today that it is almost impossible to imagine a world without them. They are familiar to nearly everyone in all incorporated towns; in most of the large cities it is unlawful to build a dwelling house without putting them in; even on the farm they have begun to come into use. And yet the first American bathtub was installed and dedicated so recently as December 20, 1842, and, for all I know to the contrary, it may still be in existence and in use.

Curiously enough, the scene of its setting up was Cincinnati, then a squalid frontier town, and even today surely no leader in culture. But Cincinnati, in those days as in these, contained many enterprising merchants, and one of them was a man named Adam Thompson, a dealer in cotton and grain. Thompson shipped his grain by steamboat down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans, and from there sent it to England in sailing vessels. This trade frequently took him to England, and in that country, during the ’30s, he acquired the habit of bathing.

The bathtub was then still a novelty in England. It had been introduced in 1828 by Lord John Russell and its use was yet confined to a small class of enthusiasts. Moreover, the English bathtub, then as now, was a puny and inconvenient contrivance — little more, in fact, than a glorified dishpan — and filling and emptying it required the attendance of a servant. Taking a bath, indeed, was a rather heavy ceremony, and Lord John in 1835 was said to be the only man in England who had yet come to doing it every day.

Thompson, who was of inventive fancy — he later devised the machine that is still used for bagging hams and bacon — conceived the notion that the English bathtub would be much improved if it were made large enough to admit the whole body of an adult man, and if its supply of water, instead of being hauled to the scene by a maid, were admitted by pipes from a central reservoir and run off by the same means. Accordingly, early in 1842 he set about building the first modern bathroom in his Cincinnati home — a large house with Doric pillars, standing near what is now the corner of Monastery and Orleans streets.

There was then, of course, no city water supply, at least in that part of the city, but Thompson had a large well in his garden, and he installed a pump to lift its water to the house. This pump, which was operated by six Negroes, much like an old-time fire engine, was connected by a pipe with a cypress tank in the garret of the house, and here the water was stored until needed. From the tank two other pipes ran to the bathroom. One, carrying cold water, was a direct line. The other, designed to provide warm water, ran down the great chimney of the kitchen, and was coiled inside it like a giant spring.

The tub itself was of new design, and became the grandfather of all the bathtubs of today. Thompson had it made by James Cullness, the leading Cincinnati cabinetmaker of those days, and its material was Nicaragua mahogany. It was nearly seven feet long and fully four feet wide. To make it water-tight, the interior was lined with sheet lead, carefully soldered at the joints. The whole contraption weighed about 1,750 pounds, and the floor of the room in which it was placed had to be reinforced to support it. The exterior was elaborately polished.

In this luxurious tub Thompson took two baths on December 20, 1842 — a cold one at 8 a.m. and a warm one some time during the afternoon. The warm water, heated by the kitchen fire, reached a temperature of 105 degrees. On Christmas day, having a party of gentlemen to dinner, he exhibited the new marvel to them and gave an exhibition of its use, and four of them, including a French visitor, Col. Duchanel, risked plunges into it. The next day all Cincinnati — then a town of about 100,000 people — had heard of it, and the local newspapers described it at length and opened their columns to violent discussions of it.

The thing, in fact, became a public matter, and before long there was bitter and double- headed opposition to the new invention, which had been promptly imitated by several other wealthy Cincinnatians. On the one hand it was denounced as an epicurean and obnoxious toy from England, designed to corrupt the democratic simplicity of the Republic, and on the other hand it was attacked by the medical faculty as dangerous to health and a certain inviter of “phthisic, rheumatic fevers, inflammation of the lungs and the whole category of zymotic diseases.” (I quote from the Western Medical Repository of April 23, 1843.)

The noise of the controversy soon reached other cities, and in more than one place medical opposition reached such strength that it was reflected in legislation. Late in 1843, for example, the Philadelphia Common Council considered an ordinance prohibiting bathing between November 1 and March 15, and it failed of passage by but two votes. During the same year the legislature of Virginia laid a tax of $30 a year on all bathtubs that might be set up, and in Hartford, Providence, Charleston and Wilmington (Del.) special and very heavy water rates were levied upon those who had them. Boston, very early in 1845, made bathing unlawful except upon medical advice, but the ordinance was never enforced and in 1862 it was repealed.

This legislation, I suspect, had some class feeling in it, for the Thompson bathtub was plainly too expensive to be owned by any save the wealthy; indeed, the common price for installing one in New York in 1845 was $500. Thus the low caste politicians of the time made capital by fulminating against it, and there is even some suspicion of political bias in many of the early medical denunciations. But the invention of the common pine bathtub, lined with zinc, in 1847, cut off this line of attack, and thereafter the bathtub made steady progress.

The zinc tub was devised by John F. Simpson, a Brooklyn plumber, and his efforts to protect it by a patent occupied the courts until 1855. But the decisions were steadily against him, and after 1848 all the plumbers of New York were equipped for putting in bathtubs. According to a writer in the Christian Register for July 17, 1857, the first one in New York was opened for traffic on September 12, 1847, and by the beginning of 1850 there were already nearly 1,000 in use in the big town.

After this medical opposition began to collapse, and among other eminent physicians Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes declared for the bathtub, and vigorously opposed the lingering movement against it in Boston. The American Medical Association held its annual meeting in Boston in 1849, and a poll of the members in attendance showed that nearly 55 per cent of them now regarded bathing as harmless, and that more than 20 per cent advocated it as beneficial. At its meeting in 1850 a resolution was formally passed giving the imprimatur of the faculty to the bathtub. The homeopaths followed with a like resolution in 1853.

But it was the example of President Millard Fillmore that, even more than the grudging medical approval, gave the bathtub recognition and respectability in the United States. While he was still Vice-President, in March, 1850, he visited Cincinnati on a stumping tour, and inspected the original Thompson tub. Thompson himself was now dead, but his bathroom was preserved by the gentlemen who had bought his house from the estate. Fillmore was entertained in this house and, according to Chamberlain, his biographer, took a bath in the tub. Experiencing no ill effects, he became an ardent advocate of the new invention, and on succeeding to the Presidency at Taylor’s death, July 9, 1850, he instructed his secretary of war, Gen. Charles M. Conrad, to invite tenders for the construction of a bathtub in the White House.

This action, for a moment, revived the old controversy, and its opponents made much of the fact that there was no bathtub at Mount Vernon, or at Monticello, and that all the Presidents and other magnificoes of the past had got along without any such monarchical luxuries. The elder Bennett, in the New York Herald, charged that Fillmore really aspired to buy and install in the White House a porphyry and alabaster bath that had been used by Louis Philippe at Versailles. But Conrad, disregarding all this clamor, duly called for bids, and the contract was presently awarded to Harper & Gillespie, a firm of Philadelphia engineers, who proposed to furnish a tub of thin cast iron, capable of floating the largest man.

This was installed early in 1851, and remained in service in the White House until the first Cleveland administration, when the present enameled tub was substituted. The example of the President soon broke down all that remained of the old opposition, and by 1860, according to the newspaper advertisements of the time, every hotel in New York had a bathtub, and some had two and even three. In 1862 bathing was introduced into the Army by Gen. McClellan, and in 1870 the first prison bathtub was set up at Moyamensing Prison, in Philadelphia.

So much for the history of the bathtub in America. One is astonished, on looking into it, to find that so little of it has been recorded. The literature, in fact, is almost nil. But perhaps this brief sketch will encourage other inquirers and so lay the foundation for an adequate celebration of the centennial in 1942.

Mencken’s introduction (from A Mencken Chrestomathy, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1949):

The success of this idle hoax, done in time of war, when more serious writing was impossible, vastly astonished me. It was taken gravely by a great many other newspapers, and presently made its way into medical literature and into standard reference books. It had, of course, no truth in it whatsoever, and I more than once confessed publicly that it was only a jocosity… Scarcely a month goes by that I do not find the substance of it reprinted, not as foolishness but as fact, and not only in newspapers but in official documents and other works of the highest pretensions.