MySci Round-Up, September 20: Ah, it’s so-o-o Delightfully Shiny!

blog post photo
On this day in 1819, inventor 
Seth Boyden produced the first batch of a new material called patent leather at his tannery in Newark, NJ, and created a fashion revolution.

Boyden was born in 1788 on a farm in Foxboro, MA, where as a teenager he honed his inventive skills by tinkering with watches. In 1815, at age 27, he moved to Newark, which was just beginning to develop into an industrial metropolis. Boyden had a gift for thinking of ways to improve existing implements and processes. He invented a nail-making machine and quickly found a market among tanners for one of his gadgets, a leather-splitting device that increased the value of each hide. He went on to develop a successful business manufacturing house harnesses, and invent a new method for silver plating.

That was just the start. Over the next half-century or so, the inventor-entrepreneur with the restless mind would introduce malleable iron to the U.S.—an innovation that would free the nation from its dependence upon British imports—and invent everything to an automatic cut-off governor for steam locomotives to a new variety of strawberries. None other than Thomas Edison called Boyden “one of America’s greatest inventors.”

But Boyden’s most famous invention—and the most enduring, in terms of usage and influence—was a process for making a super-shiny, durable new type of leather. Though most modern references credit him for having invented the concept of patent leather, some early 1900s historical texts suggest that it may have been developed earlier in Europe, and that Boyden reverse-engineered the manufacturing process from a small sample from France or Germany (in one account, it was the band of a German military cap). Regardless, the method that Boyden developed—treating leather with multiple coats of linseed oil, turpentine and dyes, and then buffing the finish to create a resilient, gleaming coating—soon caught on big time. Boyden is credited with making Newark, for a time, the leather-making capital of the world. Patent leather became so renowned for its durability that it was not only used to make shoes, but a dizzying array of other products as well. This 
1861 issue of The Farmer’s Magazine, for example, offers for sale items ranging from gun covers and aprons to “fishing stockings” (presumably, hip waders).

While some complained that patent leather was vulnerable to cracking, in the 20th century, Boyden’s process was updated by replacing natural oils with plastic coating, making it even more resilient. But as exemplified by Britney Spears’ red patent leather jumpsuit in the video for 
“Oops, I did it again,” patent leather continues to be popular for reasons other than practicality. And with that, here are the science and technology stories of the day.

New accessory receiver could turn iPod Touch into a phone. 
All this overlap with mobile devices is getting really, really confusing. On the other hand, maybe truly trendy iPhone users, who seem to use their devices for everything but calls, will want to buy an iPod Touch now too, so that they can use it to talk to other people.

Did Jupiter and Saturn play pinball with Uranus? 
The gas giant may have been batted around back and forth gravitationally between Jupiter and Saturn, before moving to its present location.

Deleting a gene in mice can make them smarter. Mice with a disabled RGS14 gene are able to remember objects they’d explored and learn to navigate mazes better than regular mice, Rutgers University researchers have discovered. So maybe a little gene therapy someday will enable you to remember the level of the garage where you parked your car. Or even which parking garage. You’re kind of a mess, aren’t you?

Recent discoveries reveal how T. Rex developed. Finds of transitional species of tyrannosaurs are shedding new light on the fearsome giant.

Hackers retaliate against record industry crackdown on file-sharing. The Internet collective Anonymous isn’t just targeting the Church of Scientology, it turns out. “Operation Payback” knocked the Recording Industry Association of America’s web site offline late last week. Other attacks disabled an Indian anti-piracy site and the Motion Picture Association of America as well.

Researchers have found a new remedy for hard-to-treat asthma cases. Spiriva, a new drug developed by Boehringer Ingelheim, apparent so much promise that a rival pharmaceutical company reportedly declined to donate its own drug for a comparative study, forcing government researchers to pay $1 million for it.