Although the company supplying electricity to a house charges by the kilowatt hour, and electric bulbs have a W on them to indicate power output, the greatest contribution of James Watt was not in the field of electricity but rather in the improvement of the engine that has given the world the practical power of steam.
Watt (1736-1819) was born in Greenock, Scotland. In grammar school he learned Latin, Greek, and mathematics. Watt had a natural curiosity for things mechanical. Repairing any kind of machinery gave him pleasure, and he became a maker of mathematical instruments such as quadrants, scales, and compasses. Through a stroke of good fortune, in 1757 he was named mathematical instrument maker to the College of Glasgow, a prestigious title for a man who had barely reached twenty years of age.
The decisive event that set the course of Watt’s life came when he was asked to repair a model of Newcomen’s steam engine the best-known engine at that time for pumping water from coal mines. This engine used an enormous amount of steam and therefore large amounts of fuel. Watt separated the condenser and the cylinder, keeping the cylinder hot at all times and saving three fourths of the fuel. By reducing the cost of operating this engine, Watt made it practical for other uses.
The story that made the rounds is that Watt got his idea while watching a kettle boiling on the fire at his home. His aunt rebuked him for fiddling with the kettle — holding a spoon over the spout, releasing it, and then holding it again. She suggested that he spend his time doing something more useful.
After Watt left the college, he became a partner with an engineer from Birmingham, Matthew Boulton. The company was successful, enabling Watt to devote time to other inventions — a throttle value, a governor to regulate the speed of steam engines, a smoke-consuming furnace, a machine to reproduce sculpture, and a copying press, among other devices. Watt and Boulton coined the word horsepower.
In 1885, the International Electrical Congress honored Watt by naming the watt as a unit of electrical power — 736 watts being equal to about one horsepower. The honor was not bestowed for his contribution to the modem science of electricity but for his contributions to applied science. He was considered the greatest single impetus behind the Industrial Revolution.


August von Wassermann (1866-1925), born in Romberg, Bavaria, received his medical degree and then joined the research community of the Robert Koch Institute of Infectious Diseases in Berlin. In 1913, he joined the staff of Kaiser Wilhelm Institute at Dahlen, near Berlin, as its director. He wrote many scientific papers and conducted research on many diseases. But his outstanding work, together with Albert Neisser and Carl Bruck — certainly the one that made him famous — was a blood test for the diagnosis of syphilis, known professionally as the cardiolipin test. This test is made by examining the blood of the patient. If the patient has syphilis, the sample submitted for the test will prove positive. Even though present-day methods of diagnosing syphilis have supplanted the method introduced by the Wassermann test, the test for syphilis still honors the name of the great physician.


Alessandro Guisseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (1745-1827), after whom the words volt and voltage were named, was born in Como, Italy, one of nine children of a Jesuit priest who had left the order to marry.
By the time Alessandro was sixteen, he had mastered many languages and then went on to invent several electrostatic devices. He was invited, in 1778, to become a professor of physics at the University of Pavia.
Volta became internationally famous because of his controversy with Luigi Galvani over the source of electricity. After repeating Galvani’s experiment, Volta disagreed with Galvani’s theory and became a rallying point for those opposed to it. His prominence was such that he was elected to England’s Royal Society and was the first foreigner to receive the Royal Society’s Copley Medal.
Volta invented or improved a number of electrical devices, such as the electrophorus, which transfers electric charges to other objects. He discovered the electric decomposition of water and developed a theory of current electricity in physics. His inventions include the electrical condenser and the voltaic pile, which became the prototype of the dry-cell battery.
Volta received many honors during his long life. Statues were made of him, and kings and the heads of state requested his presence. The prestigious National Institute of France invited him to lecture there, at which time he was additionally honored by the presence of Napoleon, who bestowed on Volta the title of count. Legend has it that when Napoleon was leaving the hall, he noticed a sign reading «Au Grand Voltaire» and proceeded to cross out the last three letters.


The English language is indebted to Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, for some important words. One is vulcanization, the name of a process invented by Charles Goodyear to make rubber stronger, more elastic, resistant to solvents, and unaffected by normal heat and cold. So important is this invention that almost all rubber today is vulcanized. Another is volcano, a vent in the earth’s crust through which lava, steam, and ashes are thrown up.
Vulcanus, or Vulcan as he is known in English, lived a most unusual life. He was thrown into the sea by his mother because he was born lame. According to another version, Vulcan sided with Juno, his mother, against Jupiter, his father. Jupiter thereupon hurled him from heaven. He was nine days in falling and was saved by the people of Lemnos from crashing to earth, but one leg was broken, hence his lameness.
Vulcan, as the god of fire, became the armorer of the gods. His workshops were under Mount Etna in Sicily and in the bowels of volcanoes; the Cyclops assisted him in forging thunderbolts for Jupiter.
Vulcan was consumed by amatory desires, not only his own but also his wife’s. He was married to Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. One day Vulcan learned that she was disporting herself with Mars. He schemed to embarrass them by constructing an invisible net that descended around their bed during their lovemaking. While they were still embracing, Vulcan summoned the other gods to look and laugh at the guilty pair.
A vulcanist subscribes to the theory that fire has changed the earth’s
surface. At one time the earth was in a state of igneous fusion, and its crust has gradually cooled down to its present temperature.
The planet Vulcan, a creation of writers of Star Trek, was the former home of its most distinguished character, the unflappable Mr. Spock.


Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) reign was the longest of any other king or queen of Great Britain. She ascended the throne in 1837 and remained on it sixty-four years, until her death. Her reign was distinguished by achievements in the arts and sciences, and the continuance of the Industrial Revolution, which added to the great prosperity that England enjoyed. During much of this time, Britain’s empire expanded to such an extent that it was rightly said that the sun never set on it.
The premier British award for conspicuous bravery in the presence of the enemy was instituted by Queen Victoria. It is a bronze Maltese cross with the royal crown surmounted by a lion in its center under which is a scroll bearing the words «For Valour». It is called the Victorian Cross.
Queen Victoria gave her name to many landmarks and geographical sites, numerous towns, and a river. Victoria is the capital of both British Columbia and Hong Kong. A low carriage for two with a folding top, low hung so that the queen did not need to walk steps to enter, was named the Victoria in her honor. And so on.
When the queen’s name is converted to its adjectival form — Victorian — its connotation is one of moral rectitude and conservative outlooks, but more aptly stated as prudery and stuffiness. Writers of that period are known as Victorian authors, although many of them don’t fit that description, such as Oscar Wilde. A certain type of furniture, formal in style, popular during her reign, has been aptly named Victorian.


In 1631 French mathematician Pierre Vernier (1580-1637) published a mathematical treatise showing that a small, movable auxiliary scale could be attached to a larger, graduated scale to obtain finer adjustments. From that beginning developed the vernier scale, a short, graduated scale, or ruler, that slides along a larger scale. The subdivisions on the short rule are nine tenths as long as the subdivisions on the long scale, and the scale can measure both lengths and angles.
Engineers often use calipers with a vernier attachment. Some of them read to one thousandth of an inch without a magnifier. The vernier scale which divides each unit of the larger scale into smaller fractions is used with such instruments as the transit, sextant, quadrant, barometer, and compass, as well as the caliper.
To grasp the fineness of the measurements made possible by the vernier, consider this: The beam of a caliper is divided into inches and tenths, and each tenth into fourths. The vernier is divided into twenty- five parts. Sometimes the beam is divided into fiftieths of an inch, and the vernier has twenty divisions to each nineteen divisions on the beam.


Venus, the Roman goddess of love (identified with the Greek Aphrodite), loaned her name to two words of dissimilar meanings: venerable, with its sense of respect because of old age or associated dignity, and venereal, pertaining to sexual love. When the word disease follows venereal, it transforms venereal into a fearful word. Its dictionary definition is «arising from sexual intercourse with an infected person».
A very virulent venereal disease is syphilis, which comes by its name through a Latin poem titled Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus («Syphilis, or
the French Disease»), written in 1530 by Girolamo Fracastoro (1483 — 1553), a Veronese physician and poet who was the first known victim of the disease. The poem’s hero, a blasphemous shepherd named Syphilus, so enraged the Sun God that he struck him with a new disease as a punishment: «He first wore buboes dreadful to the sight,/Hrst felt pains and sleepless past the night;/From him the malady received its name». Perhaps the poet was thinking of the Greek suphilos, which means «a lover of pigs».
The most prevalent form of venereal disease is gonorrhea (from the Greek gonos, «that which begets», «a seed», plus rhoia, «a flowing»). This medical term was coined by an Italian physician in 1530, but it first appeared in print in 1547 in Boorde’s Breviary of Healthe: «The 166 Chaptaires doth shew of a Gomary passion». Gomary was an early name for gonorrhea.
Venereal disease made no distinction among the classes. Some of its distinguished sufferers were Herod, Julius Caesar, three popes, Henry VIII, Ivan the Terrible, Keats, Schubert, Goya, and Goethe.
The goddess Aphrodite also loaned her name to matters pertaining to sexual activity. An aphrodisiac, a drug or food that arouses or increases sexual desire, honors her.


Sir Anthony Van Dycke (or Van Dyck) sported a well-trimmed beard all his adult life. Vandyke (1599-1641), as the English spelled it, was a Flemish painter born in Antwerp, the seventh of twelve children of a silk merchant. When a youth, he was a pupil of the renowned Rubens, and at twenty-one left the continent and went to England in 1632, to become a court painter to Charles I. He married a Scot, was knighted by the king and, during his short life, became an important portraitist. Vandyke acquired so many mistresses and led such a life of luxury that he had to work long hours just to meet his expenses, but he never allowed more than an hour at a time to a sitter.
Aristocrats were proud to have their portraits painted by Vandyke because he had painted the portraits of Charles I (including the famous Charles I on Horseback) and his queen, Flenrietta Maria. The subjects of the paintings were made similarly distinctive because they were painted with white collars with v-shaped points. The men were distinguished by a trimmed, V-shaped beard, the same style worn by the painter. The scalloped border is said to be vandyked and the beards, Vandykes.
Always frail, Vandyke lived for only forty-two years. He died after a brief visit to the Netherlands and France.


The original Vandals (their name perhaps meant wanderers) were a savage Teutonic tribe from northeast Germany that flourished in the fifth century. According to historical records, a horde of 80,000, led by their king, Genseric, ravaged Gaul (France), Spain, and North Africa. In 455 A.D. they swooped down upon Rome and thoroughly sacked it, plundering it of its treasures of art and literature.
The word vandalism derives from the name of the Germanic tribe of Vandals, and it means a willful and wanton destruction of property. As in the form vandalisme, the word was first used by a French churchman at the end of the eighteenth century.


Utopia was an ideal commonwealth where perfect justice and social harmony existed, controlled solely by reason. The name implied the unattainable, a dream world in which communism (in its purest apolitical form) was the cure for the predominating evils in public and private life. Gold was valueless (that was what the chamberpots were made of), and gems (diamonds and rubies) were used by children as toys. (Perhaps that is why Lord Macaulay once said, «An acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia».)
This beautiful dream was the gem of Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), an English statesman and author whose title for his two-volume book, written in 1516, was a coinage, Utopia. The term, a composite of Greek ou («no») and topos, («place»), means nowhere, an apt title because the subject of the book is a nonexistent island.
More, whose head was placed on the chopping block because he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy in favor of King Henry VIII, was supposedly as idealistic in the conduct of his own life as in the life he pictured on the imaginary island of Utopia. He was incorruptible. When someone tried to bribe him with a glove stuffed with gold, he returned the money, saying he preferred unlined gloves. On another occasion, when proffered a valuable goblet, his lordship immediately filled it with wine, drank to the briber’s health, and then returned the empty vessel.