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Spotlight on Memory of the World heritage: Inventions and discoveries that changed our world

© Nikola Tesla Museum/Apparatus for Controlling

UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register includes the inventions and patents of two scientists and inventors, one Serbian and the other Hungarian, whose ideas revolutionized the development of electricity distribution and television respectively. Also inscribed in the register is the living heritage of the Tamil palm leaf medical manuscripts that describe treatments and medicines still used in southern India today.

The word “science” tends to conjure up images of Bunsen burners and classroom experiments, Albert Einstein and his Theory of Relativity, lab workers in white coats pouring over test tubes, and the like. But we often forget the many practical, everyday inventions and discoveries by scientists that have become integral parts of our daily lives.

UNESCO’s World Science Day for Peace and Development celebrates the contribution science makes to achieving sustainable development and peaceful societies. Its Memory of the World Register includes archives of the work of people who were on the frontline of scientific invention.

Kalman Tihanyi’s 1926 Patent Application "Radioskop"

© National Archives of Hungary/Radioskop

Quick facts:

  • Year of submission: 2001
  • Year of inscription: 2001
  • Country: Hungary
  • Heritage item: Link

Take Kalman Tihanyi for example. Although not well known, the Hungarian physicist, electrical engineer and inventor was one of the pioneers of electronic television. His 1926 “Radioskop” patent represented a major leap forward in the development of television as it laid out the foundation of modern television detailing the design and mass production of a fully electronic system of transmission and reception. It also included the entirely new concept of a tube that accumulated and stored electrical charges during each scanning cycle, something that has remained a basic principle of television.

Inscribed in 2001 on the Memory of the World Register, the collection is held in the Hungarian National Archives and is accessible to researchers. It includes manuscripts, illustrations and official correspondence with the Patents Office and provides a rare insight into the development of television.

Nikola Tesla’s Archive

© Nikola Tesla Museum/Sketch of Bulb with Tesla's Note

Quick facts:

  • Year of submission: 2003
  • Year of inscription: 2003
  • Country: Serbia
  • Heritage item: Link

But what would television be without electricity? The commercial production of electricity and the long-distance transmission and usage of electrical currents is the result of work by Serbian-born scientist, Nikola Tesla.

A prolific inventor during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Tesla filed 118 original patents of which 40 are related to energies, 50 to work in the field of high-frequency currents, 17 to mechanical engineering and the rest to various other technological fields. He is credited with having set the foundations for the development of radio, radar, robotics, remote control, television and computers, to name but a few.

Many of his discoveries were of groundbreaking importance, and the archive housed in the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade includes patent documentation, papers, manuscripts, technical drawings and photographs that are of great significance. The microfilming and digitization of the archive is in progress and the museum aims to make the documents available on-line. It was included in the Memory of the World Register in 2003.

The I.A.S. Tamil Medical Manuscript Collection

© Institute of Asian Studies/Text on human anatomy: pressure points

Quick facts:

  • Year of submission: 1997
  • Year of inscription: 1997
  • Country: India
  • Heritage item: Link

On a different note, the Register also includes an old, fragile collection of mostly Tamil medical manuscripts which reflect the ancient system of medicine practised by yogis, or masters of yoga who have achieved a high level of spiritual insight.

Owned by the Institute of Asian studies in the Tamil Nadu state, the collection includes manuscripts detailing the nature and symptoms of diseases, cures and the preparation of medicines using herbs, herbal roots, leaves, flowers, fruit and such like.

The documents are written in Tamil, one of India’s two classical languages, on pages made of dried, smoothed and smoke-treated palm leaves, which were commonly used as writing material in ancient India.

Palm leaf manuscripts deteriorate steadily in tropical conditions and so in the past they would have been copied onto new sets of dried leaves when necessary.

The manuscripts held at the Institute are too fragile to be lent out, but a microfilming project is underway to protect the information on the documents and facilitate accessibility.

Today, the ability to read the archaic palm leaf script is a dying skill which survives only among specially trained scholars, and the texts are being translated by the Institute into modern Tamil.

The medicines detailed in the manuscripts and prepared in the ancient way are still used in southern India today.

Memory of the World Register

Listing of items such as these on the Memory of the World Register is intended to generate interest and help with the conservation of documentary heritage which helps us to understand our society in all its complexities.

However war, social upheaval, looting, illegal trading, destruction, inadequate conservation and lack of funding have all had a disastrous effect on the conservation of our documentary heritage.

A growing awareness of this, together with UNESCO’s belief that the world's documentary heritage belongs to all and should be preserved and protected, led to the establishment of its Memory of the World programme in 1992.

The programme works to identify and facilitate the preservation of valuable archive holdings and library collections worldwide, and assists with their dissemination. Inscription of a collection in the Memory of the World register, created in 1995, is part of the process.

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