The Hacker's Almanac for Thursday March 22, 2007

22 March, 2007

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On this day in 1885, French inventors Louis and Auguste Lumiere screened the first ever motion picture to a private audience at the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry in Paris. The Lumiere brothers had been raised in Lyon and both of them worked in their father's photographic firm, Louis as a physicist and Auguste as a manager. After their father retired, they took over the company and started experimenting with equipment for making motion pictures. Their first film showed workers leaving the Lumiere factory at the end of the day. It was 46 seconds long.

A few months later, the Lumieres conducted the first public film exhibition at the Grand Cafe. The screening consisted of ten films all under a minute. The titles included "fishing for goldfish", "baby's meal, and "jumping onto the blanket". The event was a sensation and the brothers went on tour around the world, with showings in Bombay, London, and New York. And they had a big influence on popular culture, especially their film, "The Arrival of a Train at la Ciotat Station", which showed a moving train head on. The press reported that audiences screamed and ran to the back of the room in terror on seeing the train coming towards them.

The Lumiere brothers thought that "the cinema [was] an invention without any future" and they declined to sell their cameras. While they went on to produce a series of other inventions, including one of the earliest color film processes, the Lumieres never returned to their work on moving pictures. They sold their company to Ilford in 1962.

It's the birthday of experimental physicist Robert Millikan, born in Morrison, Illinois in 1868. His father was a preacher and he was raised in rural Iowa. After a brief stint as a court reporter, Millikan went to Oberlin College in Ohio to study classics. As a sophomore, Millikan's Greek professor convinced him to teach a preparatory class on elementary physics and he fell in love with the subject. He went on to Columbia for graduate school where he became the first student to earn a Phd. in physics.

In 1909, while working as a professor at the University of Chicago Millikan conducted an experiment designed to measure the charge of a single electron. He setup two metal plates a small distance apart, connecting each to one end of a large power supply. He then sprayed tiny drops of oil into a large pot placed on top of the uppermost plate. The drops fell through a small and drifted into the space between the two plates where they were exposed to the electrical charge which caused some of them to drift upwards. By looking through the gap between the two plates Millikan was able to observe the motion of individual oil drops. And by varying the electric charge between the plates and measuring the corresponding movement, he was able to calculate the charge of an individual electron.

The experiment played a major role convincing skeptical scientists, including Thomas Edison, of the existence of discrete sub-atomic particles and Millikan won the Nobel Prize for it in 1923. Ironically, Millikan himself doubted many of the advanced scientific discoveries of the 20th Century including Einstein's explanation of the photon and his theories relativity. He even including a chapter on the Ether in his textbooks as late as 1927.

In his later life, Millikan became president of Caltech and wrote a series of articles and books on the relationship between his Christian upbringing and his Scientific beliefs. He also became interested in eugenics, working with the Human Better Foundation which advocated compulsory sterilization.

Millikan died in 1953 in San Marino, California.

All information courtesy of Wikipedia except where otherwise noted.

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