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Sixteen Curiosities from
the QI Vaults
1 . What drives human sperm wild? The smell of Lily of the Valley.
It appears sperm have “noses” which they use to navigate towards a woman’s egg. Researchers experimented with a range of floral fragrances and Lily of the Valley came top, getting the random sperm wiggling in the same direction at twice the normal speed.
The research was carried out at Ruhr University in Germany in 2003. They discovered a new sperm protein, hOR174, which acted as a receptor for sperm in exactly the same way as protein sensors in the nose detect smells. They then tested their new sperm “nose” on hundreds of synthetic compounds, many of them used to mimic floral scents in commercial perfumes.
One of these, bourgeonal, is used to create the Lily of the Valley fragrance. It had two dramatic effects on the behavior of sperm: doubling its speed and changing undirected swimming behavior to direct movement. The “foot-to-thefloor” effect seems to derive from hOR17-4making the sperm wag their “tails” harder.
Bourgeonal is now being used in fertility treatment to pick out the Mark Spitzes of the sperm world.
SUMMER 2008 2 . Why was the dishwasher invented? Not to make doing the dishes easier.
Its main purpose was to reduce the number of breakages caused by servants, rather than to act as a labor-saving device.
The first practical mechanical dishwasher was invented in 1886by Josephine Garis Cochran (1839–1913) of Shelbyville, lllinois. She was the daughter of a civil engineer and, on her mother’s side, the great-grand-daughter of John “Crazy” Fitch, the inventor of the steamboat. A prominent socialite, married to a merchant and politician, her main problem in life was worrying about the maids chipping her precious china (it had been in the family since the 17th century).
This enraged her and, so the story goes, one night she dismissed the servants, did the dishes on her own, saw what an impossible job it was and vowed, if no one else would, to invent a machine to do it instead. When her husband William died in 1883, leaving her in debt, she got serious.
With the help of an engineer friend, she designed the machine in her woodshed. It was crude and cumbersome but effective. There was a small foot-pedal driven version and a large steam-driven one. The latter, able to wash and dry 200 dishes in two minutes, was the sensation of the 1893Chicago World’s Fair, and won first prize for the “best mechanical construction for durability and adaptation to its line of work”. At $250each, however, the machines were too expensive for home use, but enough were sold to hotels and restaurants to keep Cochran’s Crescent Washing Machine Company in business until her death in 1913.
Other mechanical dishwashers had been developed (and patented) in the U.S. between 1850and 1865(all of them, it seems, by women) but none of them really worked. A hand cranked wooden machine was invented and patented in 1850by Joel Houghton. In 1870, Mary Hobson obtained a dishwasher patent, but even then it contained the word “improved”. The electric dishwasher first appeared in 1912 ; the first specialised dishwasher detergent (Calgon) in 1932; the first automatic dishwasher in 1940, but it didn’t reach Europe until 1960.
Housework can kill you, if you do it right.