The Book of Origins: A special extract

Parking meters date back to 1932. Newspapers were read in ancient Rome. The first e-mail was sent in 1971, and coffee was enjoyed by Ethiopians more than a thousand years ago. Everything had to begin somewhere, and as Trevor Homer reveals, the truth about the origins of what surrounds us is a lot stranger than we might imagine
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FIRST SONG

The earliest song to have been written down was a Syrian cult hymn, the Hymn to Creation, written in cuneiform characters, and dated at between 3,400 and 4,000 years old.

FIRST MUSICAL INSTRUMENT

A form of flute was played by the Neanderthal. The earliest examples have been dated at between 43,000 and 82,000 years old, and one ancient bone flute has been discovered with holes spaced for half-tones. The Egyptians, Etruscans and ancient Greeks all played flutes.

FIRST PAPER

The ancient Egyptians first used papyrus for writing on from about 2400BC. Although the word "paper" is derived from papyrus, the two products are different. Papyrus is made from sheets of thinly cut strips from the stalks of the Cyperus papyrus plant; paper is made from the matted fibres of a variety of plants, which are soaked, sieved and rolled flat. The earliest paper was invented by in China in AD105. By AD750, paper was being used in Samarkand. By AD794 it had spread to Baghdad, and then on to the rest of the world.

FIRST WRITING SYSTEMS

Around 600BC, there was consensus among Mediterranean cultures to adopt left-to-right, top-to-bottom writing and reading. Before that, there had been a mixture of right-to-left and bottom-to-top, and even "boustrophedon", which involved writing backwards and forwards on alternate lines.

FIRST SHORTHAND

The earliest shorthand was used in 4BC by the Greeks. They used symbols in which a single stroke could represent words. This system was referred to as stenography (narrow writing).

FIRST MAIL DELIVERY

Pigeon post was used first by the Sumerians in 776BC. The first royal mail was introduced by Henry VIII in 1516, when he appointed Sir Brian Tuke as his Master of the Posts. The service was for everyone, but the public was discouraged from using what was effectively the king's private service. The Royal Mail as we know it was established in 1635, and the Royal Charter was granted in 1839. Postcoding of all addresses in the UK was completed in 1974.

FIRST E-MAIL

The first use of e-mail was in 1971. It had been developed by Ray Tomlinson (b 1941). The first e-mail message was "qwertyuiop" (the letters on the top line of a keyboard), and Tomlinson chose the @ symbol to denote which user was "at" which computer. Asked why he had invented e-mail when there was no known demand for it, Tomlinson replied, "Because it seemed like a neat idea."

FIRST BRICK

The brick is probably the most ancient man-made building material still in common use. Approximately 6,000 years ago, the Babylonians began using bricks for construction. The bricks were produced from clay that was deposited by the overflowing rivers Tigris and Euphrates. As the region lacked timber for fuel, the Babylonians were forced to rely on drying the bricks in the sun, which is effective in areas of low humidity.

FIRST CONCRETE

In 2500BC, the Egyptians used gypsum and lime mortar to bond, level and align the stone blocks when building the pyramids. Large quantities of gypsum had to be shipped in from the lime-rich Nile Delta to the Giza plateau, and mixed with smaller quantities of lime to produce the mortar.

FIRST DETECTIVE AGENCY

The first known private detective agency was set up in 1833 by Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857), in Paris. Vidocq called his agency the Bureau de Renseignements (Office of Intelligence). After a long career as a criminal, Vidocq swapped being an informer in exchange for an amnesty on his previous crimes.

FIRST FILM

The appearance of motion on a screen is made possible as a result of an optical phenomenon known as "persistence of vision", that occurs when a series of still photographs are projected rapidly on to a screen. The main technical innovations involved in producing moving pictures were achieved in France in the 1880s and 1890s by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, and in the USA by Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931). However, a ground-breaking contribution was made in 1889 by William Friese-Green (1855-1921), of England, who invented the cine camera. He recorded a film of the Esplanade in Brighton using paper film negative. Later the same year, he replaced the paper with celluloid, which remains the standard material to this day.

FIRST PIZZA

The basis of pizza, unleavened bread, has been around for centuries, and historical writings record that the ancient Egyptians,Greeks and Romans all used a form of flat unleavened bread as a base for vegetables. The invention of the first modern pizza is credited to the Neapolitan restaurant owner Raffaele Esposito. His Pizza alla Margherita, combining pizza crust, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and basil - the red, white and green of the Italian flag - was produced to commemorate the visit of Queen Margherita (1851-1926) to Naples in 1889.

FIRST ICE CREAM

In the first century AD, the Roman Emperor Nero ordered runners to pass buckets of snow from the mountains in the north, along the Appian Way, down to Rome. The snow was mixed with red wine and honey to be served at banquets. The Chinese may have invented a form of half-frozen fruit-flavoured ice cream in the first millennium AD. Marco Polo (1254-1324) returned to Venice from the Far East with recipes for concoctions made of snow, fruit juice and fruit pulp.

FIRST CRISPS

The American restaurant owner George Crum invented crisps - or potato chips, as they are known in the US - in 1853, after the railway and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) had complained about the thickness of the French fries being served in Crum's New York restaurant. Mass-marketing of crisps began in the USA in 1926, when Mrs Laura Scudder began to sell them in waxed paper bags. Scudder invented the airtight bag to keep the crisps fresh, by ironing together pieces of waxed paper.

FIRST X-RAYS

While he was investigating the properties of light in his laboratory at the University of Würzburg, in Germany, on 8 November 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen (1845-1923) discovered X-rays. By January of 1896, the world was gripped by "X-ray mania", and within a few months, X-rays were being widely used as diagnostic tools. The first ever X-ray picture was of Roentgen's wife's left hand.

FIRST SPECTACLES

The invention of spectacles is attributed to Salvino d'Armato (d 1317), who introduced them in Florence in 1268. His spectacles had no arms, and had to be balanced or held on the nose. Arms were not added until the 18th century, in Paris. In 1727, the English optician Edward Scarlett extended the arms to fit over the ears.

FIRST HEART TRANSPLANT

The first human heart transplant was performed by Christiaan Barnard (1922-2001), a cardiac surgeon at Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, on a 55-year-old retired grocer, Louis Washkansky, on 3 December 1967. Washkansky died 18 days later from pneumonia, not failure of the new heart. The donor was Louise Darvall, who had died after a car accident.

FIRST DISHWASHER

The American Joel Houghton developed the first dishwasher in 1850. He patented a wooden machine with a hand-turned wheel, which splashed water on dishes. It failed to become a household item. In 1886, Josephine Cochrane, a wealthy widow in Illinois invented and patented a dishwashing machine because she was dissatisfied with the treatment her servants were giving to her china, and disliked washing up herself. It consisted of wire compartments, into which the dirty china was placed. These were then put on to a wheel inside a copper boiler. The wheel was turned by a motor as hot, soapy water cleaned the china. The machine was used in hotels and restaurants.

FIRST VACUUM CLEANER

A forerunner to the vacuum cleaner was invented in 1901 by the British engineer H Cecil Booth. He developed a petrol-powered, horse-drawn cleaning device, Puffing Billy. The device was for commercial purposes, and would be parked outside offices and shops, with a long suction hose running inside. It was not a commercial success. The domestic vacuum cleaner was invented in 1907 by James Spangler, a janitor in Ohio.

FIRST FRIDGE

In ancient India, Egypt, Greece and Rome, wealthy citizens made use of snow cellars, pits dug into the ground and filled with straw and wood. Ice from mountains could be stored for several months. The first domestic refrigerator was developed in 1834 by the American inventor Jacob Perkins (1766-1849). The machine worked by manually activating a pump and converting the heat produced into a heat loss between two separate chambers. It wasn't a success because of the long time it took to reduce temperature sufficiently to cool liquids and keep food fresh. The first commercially successful domestic refrigerator was produced in 1916 by the Kelvinator Company, now owned by Electrolux.

FIRST TAXI

Horse-drawn vehicles for hire, known as hackney carriages, have been on the streets of London and Paris since the early 17th century. The taxi is named after the taximeter, invented in Germany in 1891 by Wilhelm Bruhn to record distance and time so that arguments over fares would be avoided. The first motorised London taxi was the Bersey of 1897. It was battery-driven and nicknamed the Hummingbird as a result of the sound it made. Paris followed Stuttgart with petrol-driven taxis in 1899, London in 1903 and New York in 1907.

FIRST BRIDGE

The first bridge in the US was built in 1697 in Philadelphia, and still carries traffic on Route 13. The first iron bridge was built in 1779 by Abraham Darby (1750-91) over the Severn at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire. The bridge was closed to vehicles in 1934.

FIRST LIFT

The first lift was invented by Elisha Graves Otis (1811-61) and, in 1853, at P T Barnum's Crystal Palace Exposition in New York, he demonstrated the mechanism that halted the elevator's fall if the hoisting cable was severed. The first commercial passenger lift had a steam-driven lifting mechanism, and was installed in the E V Haughwout & Co department store in New York City in 1857.

FIRST STAIRCASE

The origin of staircases is uncertain, but two Cretan palaces built around 1500BC have staircases, and on the Tai Shan road, in China, there are granite steps built 3,000 years ago.

FIRST ESCALATOR

The first escalator was produced and installed by the Otis Company at its factory in 1899. Otis registered the word "escalator" as a trademark, but it quickly passed into common use, and the registration was dropped. The first escalator installed for public use was at the Paris Exposition of 1900.

FIRST NEWSPAPER

The first official publication was the Acta Diurna (Daily Acts), instituted in 59BC by Julius Caesar in Rome. They were a record of the daily goings-on, such as births, marriages, divorces and deaths, engraved on metal or stone and displayed in public places. They continued to be displayed for the next 300 years. A form of Acta Diurna had appeared in 131BC as a record of the outcome of trials and legal proceedings.

FIRST BBC TRANSMISSION

The British Broadcasting Company Limited, which was set up as a commercial company, made its first broadcast on 14 November 1922 from Marconi House in London. By the end of 1922, there were four employees, including John Reith (later Lord Reith 1889-1971), the first managing director. By the end of 1925, there were more than 600 staff. In 1926 the name was changed to the British Broadcasting Corporation.

FIRST BBC 'PIPS'

More properly known as the Greenwich Time Signal, these were first broadcast in 1924, and have been ever since. There are five pips of a 10th of a second each, and a final pip of half-a-second long. The hour changes at the start of the final pip. Every few years, there is a "leap second", when a seventh pip is added to take account of the slowing down of the Earth's rotation.

FIRST CIRCUS

The modern circus was founded in 1768 by an English trick-rider Philip Astley (1742-1814), who found that centrifugal force made it easy to stand on a horse's back while it galloped round in a circle. He set up a ring close to Westminster Bridge, where he operated a riding school in the mornings, and in the afternoons performed equine acrobatic displays to paying crowds. He took his idea to Paris and formed Le Cirque. The first circus tent was pioneered by J Purdy Brown in 1825, in the US. Until the advent of the "big top", circuses had been held either in buildings or outdoors.

FIRST CUP OF TEA

According to ancient myth, in 2737BC, a handful of dried leaves from a tea bush blew into a pot of boiling water, into which the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung was staring. There is no record to say why the water was being boiled, or why the Emperor was staring at it, nor why the leaves had been dried. The story relates that the resulting brew was henceforth known as "tchai", and became China's national drink during the Tang dynasty (AD618-906).

FIRST CUP OF COFFEE

Before AD1000, the Galla tribe of Ethiopia began to eat ground coffee beans mixed with animal fat for extra energy. It is recorded that a goatherd called Kaldi had noticed his goats jumping around with increased energy after chewing berries from wild coffee bushes. He tried them and found renewed vigour when he became tired, supposedly becoming the first person to benefit from a caffeine "shot". News of the added energy to be gained from Kaldi's "magic" beans spread rapidly, and coffee consumption became a national habit.

FIRST PENCIL

The modern lead pencil only became possible after the discovery of a deposit of pure graphite in Borrowdale, Cumberland, in 1564, and was first described by the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner in 1565. Early versions were made by wrapping graphite in string, but by 1662, wood pencils were being mass produced in Nuremberg, Germany. The pencil eraser, also known as a rubber, was invented by Edward Nairne, of England, in 1770. The pencil sharpener was invented by Therry des Estwaux, of France, in 1847.

FIRST SKYSCRAPER

The first skyscraper was the Home Insurance Company building in Chicago in 1885. The term "skyscraper" was first used in the 1880s for buildings that were 10 to 20 storeys high. Nowadays the term is applied only to buildings above 40 storeys.

FIRST PONY EXPRESS

The Pony Express began operating on 3 April 1860, between Missouri and Sacramento, California, and ran its last mail in 1861, shortly after the overland telegraph had been completed in October of that year. During its short, romantic existence, the Pony Express was the fastest means of delivering messages across the US.

FIRST MOBILE PHONE

The use of a form of mobile telephone (two-way radio) was pioneered by the Chicago police in the 1930s to stay ahead of Prohibition gangsters. The mobile as we know it was invented by Dr Martin Cooper of Motorola. It was first used in 1973 in a demonstration call, made by Cooper to his rival, Joel Engel, of Bell Laboratories.

FIRST TUNNEL UNDER A RIVER

In 2180BC, the Euphrates was diverted and a brick tunnel was built into the river bed before the water was allowed back on course. The next major tunnel under a river was the Thames Tunnel by Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (1769- 1849; father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel), dug between 1825 and 1843 and connecting Rotherhithe with Wapping . It remains in use by London Underground.

FIRST CAR

The original automobile was a fardier à vapeur (steam-driven vehicle) built in Paris by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot (1725-1804) in 1769. He was also the first person ever involved in an automobile accident when he crashed a later model into a brick wall in 1771.

FIRST TELEVISION

In 1884, the Prussian Paul Gottlieb Nipkow (1860-1940) invented a way of transmitting pictures by wire, using rotating metal discs. Nipkow was granted a patent at the Imperial Patent Office in Berlin, but was never able to demonstrate his system. Television was first demonstrated by John Logie Baird (1888-1946) in 1926 at Selfridges, in London, using a mechanical system of rotating discs, which had been successfully patented in 1924. Baird's system was adopted by the BBC in 1929, although the wholly electronic American system, invented by Philo T Farnsworth (1906-1971), replaced it in 1937.

FIRST PARKING METER

Carlton Cole Magee invented the parking meter in 1932. The first one, supplied by the Magee-Hale Park-O-Meter Company, was installed in Oklahoma City in 1935.

This is an edited extract from 'The Book of Origins' by Trevor Homer, Piatkus, £12.99. To order a copy for £11.50, with free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or go to www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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