MySci Round-Up September 16: Rabbit Ears!

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Today would be the 91st birthday of Marvin P. Middlemark, the inventor of the “rabbit ears” antenna, which graced the top of many a TV set during the pre-cable analog age of television, and numerous other gadgets, including the water-powered automatic potato peeler. Middlemark grew up on Long Island and in New York City, and studied at Cornell University before beginning his eclectic career as a machine tools salesman.

But Middlemark was also a habitual tinkerer as well, and in the 1950s, he finally hit paydirt with the rabbit ears antenna, a variation on the basic 
dipole antenna invented in Heinrich Rudolph Hertz in 1886, in which the current amplitude decreases uniformly from maximum at the center to zero at the ends. Rabbit ears were an improvement on earlier configurations, because the dipoles were adjustable in length and angle. They found a market among Americans 
Americans frustrated with the grainy, static-obscured pictures on their black-and-white TV sets. As this 1959 Popular Science article notes, rabbit ears came the closest to matching the reception obtained with a big, unsightly rooftop antenna. Middlemark formed his own company to market rabbit ears, the All Channel Products Corporation. It became such a success that he was able to sell it in the mid-1960s for a then-princely $5 million. Middlemark. a savvy investor, plowed the proceeds into municipal bonds, and grew that fortune even more.

With his wealth, Middlemark retired to a 12-acre estate in Old Westbury, Long Island, where until his death in 1989, he reveled in a lifestyle that was as eccentric as some of his inventions. He kept a pet chimpanzee named Josie, who sometimes answered the door and got drunk at parties. He also owned nine miniature horses and eight miniature donkeys, a dozen statues of Greek gods, stained glass window portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Gandhi and Albert Einstein, and for reasons that remain obscure, 1,000 pairs of woolen gloves.

Middlemark kept inventing, but few of his other brainstorms turned out to have much commercial potential. Some of them were for electronics products, but others were more offbeat. One example: 
Middlemark’s effort to develop a process for resuscitating dead tennis balls by heating them in a microwave oven and injecting them with air. By the time he gave up on the idea, his estate was littered with hundreds of balls, some of which he disposed of by stuffing them into vinyl tube fencing he installed on his property

And with that, here are the science and technology stories of the day.

Microsoft unveils Internet Explorer 9. 
With IE losing ground to Firefox and Chrome, Microsoft is aiming for a quantum leap with its upgraded browser. Developers reportedly are excited about IE9’s support for HTML5, which will do animation and video without Flash or other plug-ins. Almost as exciting: The Gorillaz played at the debut bash.

New autism drug aims to balance brain signals. Most of the study’s 25 volunteers reported reductions in irritability and tantrums, and improvements in social skills. Darn, if only Elvis had this medication at his disposal when he played a hip-wriggling, guitar-playing doctor treating an autistic child in “Change of Habit.”

Cacao tree genome sequenced. This is going to be a big help to the $17 billion U.S. chocolate industry, because it may lead to the development of trees better equipped to resist droughts, diseases and pests.

New Yale supercomputer design is sophisticated enough to drive a car. Okay, most teenagers can do that, too, at least when they’re not texting. But mimicking the human neural network that processes visual information is a pretty awesome feat.

Google employees reportedly caught reading user emails, spying on chats. The company confirmed to tech news web sites that it has fired the two employees, one of whom reportedly misused his level of access to harass teenagers and even prevented a user from blocking him. Oh, great.

Boeing gets into space tourism business. The aerospace giant says it will partner with Space Adventures, the company that sold seats on Russian space flights, to market future rides into Earth orbit to paying customers. No word on what sort of spacecraft or booster they’ll use.