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Sex Bombs and Burgers

How War, Porn and fast Food Created Technology As We Know It

Peter Nowak

Potato fries - initial attempts to freeze potato chips were mushy and tasted bad. Finally found that had to first precook them in hot oil for 2 minutes then flash freeze them. Slow freezing caused the water molecules to expand and break the cell walls. Flash freezing kept same moisture content, then when cooked for another 2 minutes in hot oil, the water molecules evaporate, leaving gaps which are filled with hot oil. Which makes fried chips taste a lot better than oven baked ones.

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Mass spectrometer was originally invented to measure different isotopes of molecules. But it allowed food scientists to study flavors at the molecular level. So they could grow food that was easy to store, rather than worry about flavor - that could be added at end using synthetic molecules which mimicked the real thing.

Mid 1950's a German man Ralph Bauer, was working on a radar project. In his spare time he came up with TV screen circuitry which allowed you to move a small dot around the screen. Developed it into a simple game where 2 people chased their dots around screen, but sold less than 100,000 copies. But he got a patent for "generating and manipulating symbols on TV screen for playing games" which earned him a fortune in royalties until patent ran out in 1990.

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In zero gravity, blood generates fewer red blood cells which use iron, so space foods have to be low in iron to prevent it being stored in other parts of the body. And they also have to worry about too much sodium and not enough Vit D, so can't use commercially produced food.

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Original digital camera built by Kodak in 1975. Weighed 4kg, took 23 seconds to record a single B &W photo onto a cassette tape, which then had to be loaded into another console to display on TV screen. Patented it in 1977 but didn't try to sell it. They applied Moore's Law (every 18 months, computer chip capacity double and cost halve) and correctly predicted that would be feasible in 15 years.

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Phone sex took off in late 1980's. Route calls to small countries like Guyana and Nuie which had area codes that looked like domestic US ones. In 1995 Guyana earned $130m from phone-sex calls - about 40% of their GDP.

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Review Excerpts:

Busier lives mean less time for preparing and eating meals; advances in food preparation and preservation, Nowak argues, can be traced to the need to supply armies in the field. Paris Hilton's sex video, he suggests, was noteworthy not for the quality of the performances, but because it was mostly different hues of green, owing to the fact that it was recorded using the camera's night-vision mode - a capability originally developed for military purposes. Advances in online security and encryption, he argues, can be traced to porn sites' efforts to safeguard their customers' identities and maintain proprietary control over their content. (Amusingly, he notes that while appearing in pornographic videos may not burnish your resume if you're an aspiring actor, building your experience as a porn-site webmaster makes you very attractive to IT managers.)

The Barbie doll, for instance, evolved from a joke mini-mannequin based on a suggestive German cartoon character called Lilli. Jack Ryan, an engineer, used his experience of designing miniaturised moving parts for missile systems during the second world war to design the doll's joints. ("The levels of stress that adolescent girls could place on their toys weren't unlike the forces of gravity, velocity and drag that missiles had to deal with," Nowak illuminatingly points out.)

I suspect that, like me, you believe the non-stick frying pan was one of the spin-offs from the space race. Au contraire. As you will discover from this book, Teflon was discovered by accident in 1938, and its first use was as a sealant in plutonium production plants, then as a coating for artillery shell nose-cones and a lining for liquid fuel storage tanks. It was patented in 1941 and given its trademark name in 1945, before the end of the war. It was first used for frying pans in 1954, three years before Sputnik was launched. True, various space missions have been responsible for many inventions we consider domestic - the Super Soaker squirt gun was created at the Jet Propulsion lab in California - but the ultimate progenitor was the military.

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