The Alchemy of Us | Ainissa Ramirez

Summary of: The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another
By: Ainissa Ramirez


Embark on a captivating journey that explores the intertwined history of humans and their indispensable creations, as portrayed in Ainissa Ramirez’s book ‘The Alchemy of Us’. Discover how technological advancements have shaped our lives and identities, with chapters divulging into themes like improved timekeeping, mass production of steel, telegraph wires, photography, artificial illumination, sound capturing, scientific glass, and the impact of computers and the internet on the human brain. This book summary promises to enlighten and inspire readers, showcasing the fascinating relationship between human innovation and the way it influences society.

The Greenwich Time Lady

Elizabeth Ruth Naomi Belville was a time-seller who lived from 1892 until 1940. She set her pocket watch, which was nicknamed “Arnold,” to Greenwich Mean Time, making it more accurate than other clocks of her time. Belville sold Arnold’s time to people, and this is how she managed to make a living for nearly 50 years. Belville was known as the Greenwich Time Lady. With improved technology, the obsession with time became deeper. The rise of factories in the 19th century made time-management an important aspect of life, with clocks dictating when people ate, worked, and slept. Improved timekeeping technologies served to reinforce certain time-related ideologies, leading to the root of many sleeping disorders today.

In 1927, a Canadian scientist Warren Marrison utilized the special quality of quartz to improve the precision of clocks. By creating a small, thin ring made of quartz that vibrated at a steady pace of 100,000 vibrations per second, he created a mechanism that could measure time with accuracy beyond any other clock of that era. The clock, which contained the quartz ring, was displayed in Manhattan’s Fulton street shop in 1939. Hundreds of passersby used this clock to set their own timepieces because of its high accuracy.

Moreover, timekeeping methods only served to reinforce specific time-related ideologies. Benjamin Franklin’s capitalist notion of “time is money” became relevant during the industrialization of the United States in the 19th century. Factories used clocks to instruct workers when to start working. The influence of the factories grew so extensively that it started dictating people’s lifestyle – setting time for their meals, work, and sleep. This led to a boost in productivity, but this rhythm of factory continues to result in many sleeping disorders.

The Metamorphosis of Steel

Steel, a material known for its durability, is the result of combining carbon with iron. Henry Bessemer’s invention of mass steel production utilizing air changed American culture and commerce, leading to the expansion of railroads, cities, and a commercial revolution that transformed Christmas and shopping into a national pastime.

The Birth of the Telegraph Machine

In the winter of 1825, Samuel F.B. Morse, consumed by grief after his wife’s sudden death, pondered about a way to make news travel faster. Years later, he hit upon an idea when he learned about electricity and created an instrument that could transmit information through electrical signals. This was the birth of the electromagnetic telegraph. The machine worked by transcribing electrical pulses onto paper, with the base of a V representing a dot, while the side representing a dash. With this breakthrough, communication sped up rapidly, bringing communities together and shaping American English. Although initially slow, after an improved version was presented to President Martin Van Buren, it transcribed ten words in a minute, making it the fastest communication technology at that time. The telegraph influenced news dissemination and the way Americans communicated in speech and writing by promoting brevity and concision. This style of writing would later characterize Hemingway’s fiction and influence many other writers after him.

The Power of Photography in Reinforcing Stereotypes and Combating Prejudice

Frederick Douglass believed in the power of early daguerreotype photography to combat the negative portrayal of African Americans. However, as color film became widely used, the images reinforced societal biases, with darker skin tones often appearing sickly or like black ink blots in photos. This situation resulted in mothers of African-American schoolchildren lodging complaints to Kodak about the flaws in the film, but their complaints were dismissed. Not until big businesses such as chocolate manufacturers and furniture makers added their voice was any action taken. The lesson here is that photographic innovation improved image quality, but societal biases remained entrenched.

The situation came into focus again in the 1970s with the Polaroid ID-2 system that allowed its operator to instantaneously print two color photos for identification cards – one for the passbook and one for the government file. In response, Caroline Hunter and Ken Williams began the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement (PRWM) to protest Polaroid’s presence in South Africa. After seven years of organized protest, the PRWM succeeded in their goal – they pressured Polaroid to withdraw from South Africa. Ultimately, the people who control camera and film have the power to reinforce or challenge stereotypes, and photography is, therefore, a crucial tool in the fight against prejudice.

The History and Hazard of Artificial Light

The invention of the light bulb revolutionized society, but it has also disrupted our natural rhythms and contributed to health problems such as cancer. This is due to exposure to too much of the wrong kinds of light. Scientists say dim evenings and bright mornings are beneficial, and spending time in the dark can also help.

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