Normally, we look at research and development (R&D) as a force for good, but at this time of year when pumpkins glow, the cinemas are filled with slasher movies and the cultural focus is on the macabre, we will examine the origins of five horrific inventions unleashed on the world.
‘Bad’ R&D is not always black and white. Take Alfred Nobel for example. His story is familiar to many: he invented dynamite as a stable, packaged explosive (derived from the unstable explosive liquid nitro-glycerine), primarily as a resource to help the construction and mining industries. To his dismay, dynamite was weaponised and has gone on to cause countless casualties in global conflict. In what could be seen as a counter-balance, in his Will, Nobel left his considerable fortune to fund a series of prizes that rewarded those who had done their best for humanity in a number of fields including, most famously: Peace.
Here we are going to take look at R&D that led to five shockingly damaging creations. But are all of the inventors nightmarish spooks? Or were they more like kids running around with sheets over their heads, who could not see the consequences of what they were inventing? Or something else altogether?
Double trouble: The man behind leaded petrol and CFCs!
Thomas Midgely is credited with both having “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history” (not in a good way in case you were wondering!) and being “the one human responsible for more deaths than any other in history”. Not a pair of accolades one would like to hang above the mantelpiece.
He was held in high regard during his professional life. In two waves of R&D he first developed a lead additive to petrol that gave a moderate boost to octane performance and eliminated the phenomenon of ‘engine knock’; and then in the second, CFCs – the chemicals once used in refrigeration and aerosols. Both were proved eventually to be disastrous for the planet but with powerful vested interests behind them, these innovations ran for decades before they were exposed.
It took several years of research and development to come up with the lead additive – essentially working through the periodic table until he struck (metaphorical) gold in 1923. It was a controversial product from the start, and Midgely took to pouring it over his hands to demonstrate to the public how supposedly harmless it was.
But no matter how many times it was called into question, the lead additive survived and thrived – peaking in the 1960’s when 98% of US gasoline was leaded. It was around then that hard scientific evidence started to make an impact. Analysis undertaken on layers of pack ice from Greenland found that airborne lead had been negligible prior to Midgely’s creation of the lead additive in 1923. The numbers had then shot up and by 1965, when the tests were undertaken, were 1,000 times higher. And when modern human bone samples were tested, they were shown to contain lead levels that were hundreds of times higher than older human remains. Lead absorbs and accumulates slowly in the human body and can lead to a wide range of complications – both physical and mental – and eventually death. There were numerous cases of workers in plants that produced the additive dying or becoming very ill. Even with the case against lead additives building, it still took years for it to get outlawed. Latterly, some scientists have even made a link between leaded petrol and crime rates which appeared to rise and fall with the use and removal of lead in petrol. It is still used in some developing countries today.
It’s almost staggering to imagine, but Midgley went on to develop CFCs: something he achieved within three days of being tasked with developing less toxic refrigeration agents than ammonia and propane. Those are the same CFCs that were banned in the 1990s after being proven to be the principle cause behind the hole in the Ozone Layer.
In a twist of fate, Midgely’s final invention would lead to his own death directly. Struck down with Polio, and bedridden, he developed a system of pulleys to hoist him about. The system malfunctioned and strangled him to death. It’s safe to say that he is one inventor who didn’t have the Midas touch.
What is lurking in the dark side of the web
If you don’t know, The Dark Web is a supposedly anonymous section of the Internet that was developed by the US Navy to allow them to conduct online investigations in cognito. Using The Onion Router – known as Tor – to bounce data through 5,000 computers it makes it almost impossible to trace the user. It was designed to be open source as the more people who use it, the more effective it becomes. But at what cost? It has become a haven for arms dealers, paedophiles, drug dealers, cyber-fraudsters and other miscreants. Want something illegal? It’s a good place to look and it’s relatively simple to access. One journalist summed it up “There can be little doubt: this is not just the Wild West, this is the modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah”.
In a strange paradox the US government both funds the Dark Web and allocates budget to try and defeat it, through agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA). Why? It provides the US with covert channels to carry out their own activities and helps them retain some ownership of the landscape in which threats exist. They are not alone in their desire to crack Tor. Among the documents that Edward Snowden leaked (ironically using Tor) was a revelation that Britain’s GCHQ targets The Dark Web. Meanwhile the Russian government has offered four million Roubles (£65,000) to any citizen that can hack it.
The flip side of The Dark Web is that, however much damage it does, its anonymity does have some positive uses. It is a forum for people within oppressive regimes to communicate and share – for instance – State-sponsored human rights abuses. It was reported that it was widely used during the Arab Spring. In 2010 it won the Projects of Social Benefit Award at the Free Software Awards for allowing 36 million people around the world private access to experience the freedom of the Internet.
But despite this freedom, it is hard to look beyond the human suffering, enrichment of criminals and financial cost it causes – it’s estimated that electronic fraud, much of which is facilitated by Tor, costs the UK economy alone tens of billions of pounds every year.
Sub-prime mortgages and speculative OTC derivatives
As we explored in a previous blog, there are many positive outcomes from R&D in Fintech. But there is not always a happy ending.
OK this is a complicated one. You know how most people associate sub-prime mortgages as being the cause of the financial crisis in 2008, they were only really the tip of the iceberg. Sure, they were not great – essentially lending money to people ill equipped to repay it and they seemed to stick as a buzz word for what went wrong. But what lay underneath sub-prime mortgages were unregulated financial instruments called over-the-counter derivatives.
Derivatives are not a new concept. They are a financial instrument that allows two parties to manage the risk of a transaction – for instance exchange rates in international trading. A bit like insurance policies that we are all familiar with – home insurance for instance.
In the years prior to the financial crisis, derivatives were deregulated (‘over-the-counter’ means ‘off-exchange’ so without the checks, balances and regulation that trading on stock exchanges brings). This led to them being used in increasingly speculative ways – including trading on sub-prime debt.
Crucially too, the requirement that the parties using the derivative had an interest in the underlying transaction was removed too. The market exploded and by 2008 it was estimated that the notional value of the derivatives market reached $600 trillion. Much of this was speculation – in other words bets. Even on things like the weather forecast. And with bets comes risk. The financial instruments became so complicated that it appears no-one really understood the risk. When the bets started going bad, only huge government – therefore taxpayer – intervention could stop the global economy imploding and causing even more hardship around the world.
The financial crisis has been massively expensive, divisive, and has created a great deal of human as well as financial misery. The role that over-complicated financial instruments played gets them – and the banking sector that created them – on to this list. It’s a complicated subject and if interested you can read in more detail about the dangers of OTC derivatives here.
Heroin – from big hero to big villain
Where to begin with the problems that this Class A drug causes. At source it instigates bloody power struggles in the poppy fields of Helmand and other producing areas. They create criminal logistical organisations as the product is shipped around the world. And at the point of use they create huge social, criminal and health problems for society.
Of course Heroin doesn’t just grow on trees. Well OK, it comes from poppies, but the refined end products were cooked up in labs many decades ago. So who was responsible? And did they have an inkling of what they were unleashing on the world?
There has been a long tradition of opium usage, but what we may think of as heroin was first stumbled upon in 1874 by an English researcher: Charles Romley Alder Wright, in the guise of synthesized diamorphine. He did this by boiling morphine over a stove. It wasn’t until the 1890s when chemists led by Heinrich Dreser at the Bayer Company in Germany mixed acetyls with morphine. They called the result heroin which was derived from the German word for heroic – a term the Germans gave to powerful medicines.
Heroin was developed as a remedy for coughs and other chest and lung ailments – TB and Pneumonia were big killers back then of course – but soon became prescribed as a replacement to other opiate based painkillers. The addictive properties of morphine were at the time well established and it was hoped heroin would be an improvement. As was soon discovered, the opposite is true.
By 1920 recreational street use of heroin was being observed in New York (the term ‘junkies’ came from the habit of addicts collecting scrap metal from wasteland around the city) and legislators on both sides of the Atlantic and then the League of Nations started curbing its use. After World War II it has been almost completely outlawed and has become synonymous with crime – surely something the World wishes could be un-invented.
Infection: Origins of the computer virus
What does ‘Elk’ and ‘Brain’ have in common? They were the first recognised spreadable computer viruses on the Mac and PC respectively. To be fair they were not in the same league as what we would think of as viruses today.
Elk Cloner was developed by a US student in the 9th grade. It was 1981 and Richard Skrenta had enjoyed teasing his friends by messing with pirate games so that they would self-destruct after being played a number of times (enough for the friends to have got a little addicted). Wanting to move on he worked out how to leave a bit of code on his school’s Apple II operating system. It was called Elk Cloner and it would infect a fresh disk when put into the school computer. The disk would then infect the next computer it was put in…and so on. Its main trick was that it largely lay dormant until the disk had been inserted into a computer 50 times. After this milestone, an annoying poem would appear. Because of the delay in revealing itself the virus could spread unfettered for weeks.
Two Pakistanis – the Alvi brothers – were responsible for the first PC virus. They were not motivated by mischief like Skrenta, but neither were they the stereotype shady cybercriminal of the 21st century. They developed the virus code as an anti-piracy measure for their medical software. The code could sense if it was on a pirate copy of the programme and would reduce the performance of the computer and leave a message saying the computer was infected and to contact the brothers for a vaccine. The first call came from thousands of miles away in Miami and the virus would go on to prove that their software was pirated many times.
Interestingly, Skrenta went on to become CEO of a multi-million dollar search company, whilst the Alvi brothers company evolved into a telecommunications company becoming the largest Internet service provider in Pakistan.
So these pioneers of the computer virus perhaps weren’t the ‘baddies’ that you might imagine. And unlike some of the other things on our list it is hard to imagine the computer virus would have remained ‘un-invented’ for very long if they had not been around.
R&D as a force for good
We think you will agree that once a light has been shone on these sorry inventions, some of the origins were not as sinister as the outcomes. Most R&D is entirely positive and the sign of a vibrant economy. If you are conducting research or developing new products or systems in the UK, speak to ForrestBrown to see how government research and development tax credits could help you innovate.