Posts Tagged ‘Thames’

BBC World Service Programme Next Tuesday on Scientists Generating Electricity from Leaves

May 13, 2020

This sounds completely bonkers, like the academy discussing ways to generate sunlight from cucumbers in Swift’s great satire, Gulliver’s Travels, but apparently is real science. According to the Radio Times again, next Tuesday, 19th May 2020, the BBC World Service programme, People Fixing the World, is about how scientists have found a way to generate electricity from leaves. The blurb about the programme by Tom Goulding on page 120 of the Radio Times runs

Money might not grow on trees, but scientists in Italy might have discovered the next best thing: leaves that generate electricity when they touch one another on a windy day. This process, enough to power 150 LED lights, is one of several remarkably simple ways of producing energy that scientists are just beginning to understand. In this optimistic documentary, reporter Daniel Gordon investigates some age-old ideas that could finally become viable renewable energy sources with new technology, such as the interaction between fresh and salt water at estuaries and a 5 km well being dug to extract untapped heat in Iceland.

The programme is on at 3.05 in the afternoon.

This sound really awesome, though it reminds me a little of the ‘treeborg’, a cyborg tree aboard a spaceship in a Matt Smith Dr. Who story, and also somewhat of the Matrix films, in which the robots have risen up and enslaved humanity. Unable to use sunlight after humanity wrecked the planet’s whether and created permanently overcast skies, the machines turned instead to growing us all in bottles and using the electricity generated from our bodies. Fortunately, I don’t think that’s a viable option. After the movie came out, people naturally wondered whether that could actually work. And the answer is, that it doesn’t. The amount of electricity generated by the human body is way too small. Nevertheless, reading this in the Radio Times makes you wonder if someone couldn’t harness it to provide useful power, nonetheless. Should the producers of this programme be giving them ideas?

Going on to geothermal power, I can remember in the 1970s watching items about it in Iceland on the popular science programmes’ Tomorrow’s World on the Beeb and Don’t Ask Me on ITV. That was the programme that gave the viewing public the great science broadcasters Magnus Pike and David ‘Botanic Man’ Bellamy.

I haven’t heard of electricity being generated by the interaction between fresh and salt water before, but I was amazed at how long ago tidal power has been around as a possible power source. Turbine wheels were put in the Thames estuary in the 16th century to provide power for mills. George Bernard Shaw also mentions tidal power in his book, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism. As an example of the type of wrangling that goes on in parliamentary democracy, he asks the reader to imagine the type of fierce debate that would occur if someone suggested putting up a tidal barrage in one of Britain’s great rivers. There would be a fiery contingent from Wales arguing that it should be on the Severn, and an equally fierce body of proud Scots declaring it should be on one of their rivers. I don’t think he need have worried. There have been debates about building a barrage on the Severn since I was at secondary school, and it’s no nearer being built because of concerns over its ecological effects.

But this programme sound amazing. I thinks there’s a simple science experiment for children, in which electrodes are stuck into a lemon or potato, and connected together to turn on an electric lightbulb. Will we be doing something similar in our gardens in a few years’ time, just as people are now putting solar panels on their rooves?


Children Scavenging in Bins: The Return of the 19th century Bone-Picker

July 3, 2014

Mudlark pic

A mudlark from Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor: a child that lived by scavenging in the mud of the Thames.

Earlier today I reblogged a truly shocking piece from Mike’s site, over at Vox Political. This reported that children in Stoke-on-Trent had been reduced to such a level of poverty and starvation that they were taking food from rubbish bins.

The Tories have always boasted about ‘Victorian values’, ever since Maggie Thatcher made it her mantra. The Daily Heil even once ran an article praising the ‘new Victorians’, who valued hard work and thrift over their parent’s profligacy. This is very much a return to the Victorian age, and urban poor, who tried to make a living scouring the streets and sewers for anything they could sell.

Henry Mayhew included them in his encyclopaedic description of the lives of the labouring poor, London Labour and the London Poor, of 1851. They included bone-grubbers and rag-gatherers, ‘pure’ finders – actually people who collected and sold dog excrement, cigar-end finders, old wood gatherers, dredgers, or river finders, sewer-hunters and mudlarks. These last were boys, who searched in the mud of the Thames for anything remotely valuable.
There is an obvious parallel here to the desperately poor children in Mike’s article. This becomes particularly clear in this passage from Mayhew’s description of the lives of the bone-pickers and rag-gatherers.

The bone-picker and rag-gatherer may be known at once by the greasy bag which he carries on his back. Usually he has a stick in his hand, and this is armed with a spike or hook, for the purpose of more easily turning over the heaps of ashes or dirt that are thrown out of the houses, and discovering whether they contain anything that is saleable at the rag-and-bottle or marine-store shop. The bone-grubber generally seeks out the narrow back streets, where dust and refuse are cast, or where any dust-bins are accessible. The articles for which he chiefly searches are rags and bones – rags he prefers – but waste metal, such as bits of lead, pewter, copper, brass, or old iron, he prizes above all. Whatever he meets with that he knows to be in any way saleable he puts into the bag at his back. He often finds large lumps of bread which have been thrown out as waste by the servants, and occasionally the house-keepers will give him some bones on which there is a little meat remaining; these constitute the morning meal of most of this class. One of my informants had a large lump of beef given to him a few days previous to my seeing him, on which ‘there was not less than a pound of meat’.

Peter Quennell, ed., Henry Mayhew: Mayhew’s London (London: Bracken Books 1984) 302.

A few pages further on Mayhew describes the squalid, revolting conditions in which the bone-grubbers, including many children, work, searching through refuse.

Between the London and St. Katherine’s Docks and Rosemary Lane, there is a large district interlaced with narrow lanes, courts, and alleys ramifying into each other in the most intricate and disorderly manner, insomuch that it would be no easy matter for a stranger to work his way through the interminable confusion without the aid of a guide, resident and well conversant with the locality. The houses are of the poorest description, and seem as if they tumbled into their places at random. Foul channels, huge dust-heaps, and a variety of other unsightly objects, occupy every open space, and dabbling among these are crowds of ragged, dirty children who grub and wallow, as if in their native element. None reside in these places but the poorest and most wretched of the population, and, as might be expected, this, the cheapest and filthiest locality of London, is the head-quarters of the bone-grubbers and other street-finders. I have ascertained on the best authority, that from the centre of this place, within a circle of a mile in diameter, there dwell not less than 200 persons of this class.

pp. 304-5.

That was London in the mid-19th century. Welcome to the brave new Victorian Age Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and IDS have brought us to.