On October 5, 1744, a storm was forming in the English Channel. On the way home after chasing French ships off the coast of Portugal, a fleet of British warships found themselves in trouble.
The main vessel, the ship HMS Victory, sank 80 kilometers south of the city of Plymouth, England, taking 1,100 men with it and – legend has it – a lot of Portuguese gold. The wreckage remained intact, 100 meters deep, until it was located by a marine rescue company in 2009.
In addition to the supposed gold, there was something on board the vessel arguably more economically valuable: that first known attempt to develop a concept that is used today to guide everything from submarines to satellites, from probes on Mars to the cell phone was also lost that day in your pocket.
When the HMS Victory sank, it took John Serson’s “spinning speculum”, a precursor to the modern gyroscope.
Serson was a boat captain with no formal education. But also an “ingenious mechanic”, as The Gentleman’s Magazine would later describe.
And he was trying to solve a serious problem.
Sailors calculated the position of a ship using a quadrant to measure an angle from the sun on the horizon, but it was not always possible to see the horizon because of fog or fog.
Inspired by a children’s toy, the top, Serson wondered if he could create an artificial horizon – something that would remain level, even when the ship rocked.
As The Gentleman’s Magazine reported, he “made a kind of spinning top, whose upper surface perpendicular to the axis was a circular plane of polished metal; and he found, as he expected, that when the spinning top spun quickly, its flat surface soon fell into position. horizontal”.
After impressing two high-ranking Navy officers and a great mathematician, Serson was invited to make further observations … on board the HMS Victory: “and so would poor Serson die.”
His widow, Sarah Serson, was penniless and asked the Navy for copies of his documents in an attempt to try to earn money from the speculum, but there is no evidence that he succeeded.
A century later, however, French physicist Leon Foucault would produce a successful prototype based on the same principle that had fascinated Serson.
Foucault called his device “gyroscope”, a combination of Greek words for “rotate” and “observe”, because he used the instrument to study the Earth’s rotation.
It was a rotating disk mounted on a gimbal, a structure of articulated supports that allows the disk to maintain its orientation regardless of whether the base is tilted.
Soon afterwards, electric motors appeared, which meant that the disk could spin indefinitely. And practical applications did not take long to arrive.
Ships have artificial horizons (instrument with gyroscopic properties), as do airplanes.
In the early 1900s, two inventors figured out how to align rotation with the north-south axis of the Earth, creating the rotating compass.
If you combine these instruments with others – accelerometers, magnetometers – you will have an idea of the direction you are going.
By placing these results on systems that can correct the course, you will have an airplane autopilot, a ship’s gyro-stabilizer and navigation systems for spacecraft or missiles.
Add the GPS, and you will know where it is.
There is a limit to the size of the rotating disks in the gimbal, but other technological developments have miniaturized the gyroscope.
Vibrating microelectromechanical gyroscopes measure just a few cubic millimeters. And scientists are making a laser gyroscope thinner than a human hair.
As these and other sensors got smaller and cheaper – and faster computers and lighter batteries – they came to be used in a number of devices: from smartphones to robots, video game consoles to virtual reality glasses.
And in another technology that attracts a lot of buzz: the drone.
The first use of unmanned aerial vehicles dates back to 1849 – just three years before Foucault’s gyroscope.
Austria tried to attack Venice by placing bombs on balloons and waiting for the wind to blow in the right direction. It was not a triumphant strategy: some bombs fell on Austrian territory.
But military use continued to drive drone technology. If you searched for “drones” in a news archive, until about four or five years ago, you would discover that the main stories were about war.
But suddenly, people started talking about “what airspace regulations mean for amateurs” and “how soon drones will be delivering goods”.
That is a big question. Drones are now commonplace – whether in topography, filmmaking, or taking urgent medications to hard to reach places.
But it’s their daily uses that promise to be truly transformative: delivering the goods we buy online, or even transporting us – Chinese company Ehang is a pioneer in drones that can carry human passengers.
In rural China, parcel delivery drones are starting to be an innovative reality: technology is taking over more quickly where there is no established competitive infrastructure – in this case, large retail stores and van delivery roads.
Zhangwei, for example, is a village in Jiangsu province where few people have a car and only half the population has a refrigerator, but everyone has a cell phone – and uses the device to shop at the online retailer JD.com, from disposable diapers to fresh crab.
As Jiayang Fan describes in the American magazine New Yorker, about four times a day, warehouse workers dispatch orders placed by villagers on a drone that carries up to 13 kg at a speed of 72 km / h. Everyone is happy – except the woman who runs the village store.
But if there will be more and more drones carrying goods, we will need better solutions to the so-called “last mile” problem.
In Zhangwei, JD.com employs one person to distribute orders to customers – but in countries where labor is more expensive, delivery costs are concentrated in the “last mile”; if these deliveries are automated, some believe that physical stores may cease to exist altogether.
But nobody knows exactly how it can work.
Do we want our online purchases to be parachuted in our backyards or on the roof of our buildings?
How about smart windows that can open to let drones in when we’re not home?
Will stricter no-fly zones be needed to avoid the kind of disturbance recently caused at Gatwick and Heathrow airports in the UK, when sighted drones delayed hundreds of flights?
And there is yet another problem – the same problem that John Serson faced: the weather.
If we are going to rely on air deliveries, they will have to be able to work in all weather conditions.
Will drones be able to fly through storms that would sink a warship? Who knows, then the promise of the gyroscope will have really been fulfilled.
* Tim Harford writes the column “Undercover Economist” in the British newspaper Financial Times. BBC World Service, the BBC’s world service, broadcasts the series “50 Things That Made the Modern Economy”.
Have you watched our new videos on YouTube? Subscribe to our channel!