The Idea That Launched Skype

by Miguel Benavides, Rowie Chua, Katherine Khoo, Alexandra Martin, Juana Montelibano, Laura Que, Maegan Santos

In today’s rapidly evolving world of numerous technological breakthroughs, telecommunications has been a steadfast part of our lives. This past week alone, our Science 10 classes have focused on the way technology has revolutionized the way we bridge the gaps created by distances that come in between personal relationships. In fact, it’s a wonder that billions of people worldwide are actually connected by a single concept of telecommunications: skype.

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A day in the life of Skype

Video calling, or as we like to refer to as “skyping”, has become such a norm in today’s world. When we get to interact and see someone miles away on your computer or tablet screen, it creates the illusion that the physical distance is momentarily gone. The fact that you get to do this in real-time makes it all the more convenient. But little did we know that the idea that launched this widely used app (31 million users as of January 2012 :O) was started by a Filipino.

The man behind it all

Gregorio Zara, most notably known for his invention of the videophone, was a great Filipino scientist from the 1920s to the 1970s. Born on March 8, 1902, in Lipa City, Batangas to a poor family, he overcame poverty when he excelled in school. Having graduated as batch valedictorian for both grade school (Lipa Elementary School) and high school (Batangas High School) in 1918 and 1922, respectively, he was given the chance to study abroad on a scholarship. However, Zara’s experience with having to study abroad was quite a dramatic one *gasp*. The scholarship was granted to another honors student who had support from a prominent person in the province. Zara then enrolled at the University of the Philippines but later on received news that the honors student who had taken his scholarship fell ill and died abroad in the middle of the semester. Zara was then given yet another chance to take the scholarship and study abroad.

He enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and took up BS Mechanical Engineering from 1922 to 1926. He then continued his studies at the University of Michigan, where he graduated summa cum laude with a Master of Science in Engineering in 1927. Zara traveled to France to study the most advanced science available at his time – physics. He took his Doctorate of Science in Physics from 1929 to 1930 at the Sorbonne University of Paris, one of the most prestigious universities in Europe. When he graduated, he was given the distinction “Tres Honorable”, a distinction that was also given to Marie Curie for her discovery of radium.

One might think that with all these achievements, he would have chosen to excel in the sciences in countries where resources were abundant. Gregorio Zara had other things in mind. He instead opted to return to the Philippines where he could use his talents for the development of his nation and its people.

“You should know yourself that you are here with us for a serious purpose – to realize your ambition to have a professional career so that you will be useful and alert Filipino citizens”

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It was not only in the field of science that Gregorio Zara was able to do well, but he managed to do the same with romance :> Zara tied the knot with a former Miss Philippines, Engracia Laconico and had four children: Antonio, Pacita, Josefina and Lourdes. He was a loving father to his children, as he imparted valuable morals such as hard work, perseverance, and humility, which he also learned from his own parents. As he held numerous positions and continued innovating and inventing things, he never failed to talk with his kids. He would help them with their lessons in school and tuck them in their beds with a bedtime story to cap it all off. He was also very good with his hands and liked to tinker with things at home. He would repair their television set, refrigerator and other appliances in the house.

On October 15, 1978 – only three months after he was conferred the National Scientist Award – Zara died of heart failure. His legacy and his contributions to science and Philippine society still lives in the words he uttered himself: “We must toil and sweat with our maximum intellect and efforts rather than depend much on our neighbors and friends from distant lands”.

His work

Best known for having invented the videophone in 1955, Gregorio Zara was also a great physicist who also dabbled in robotics and energy research. He was awarded the Presidential Diploma of Merit and Distinguished Service Medal in 1959 for his pioneering works in solar energy, aeronautics and television. Aside from being a National Scientist, he also garnered two awards for Science Research and Aero Engineering.

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videophone

Patented as a “photo phone signal separator network”, the videophone he invented was a telephone device that enabled one to see the person being spoken to in real time.

Our smartphones today are the great-grandchildren of Zara’s first videophone model. Over the years, companies have since then rolled our various models and designs of phones that enables users to see and interact with the person on the other line, no matter how great the distance between them is.

Among Zara’s greatest scientific discoveries was that of a physical law of electrical kinetic resistance called the Zara effect in 1930. The Zara effect states that “all types of contacts, turning or sliding, between metals, or between carbon and metals, or between metals and mercury, or between conductors, produce a resistance to the passage of electric current which may be kinetic and/or permanent electrical resistance. This is observed at currents of very low amperage. Kinetic electrical resistance is the resistance to the passage of electric current when contacts are in motion. Permanent electrical resistance manifests itself when contacts are at rest”

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His other scientific work includes his contribution to the design of the Marex X-10, a robot that was capable of talking, walking, and obeying commands. He also designed a microscope with a collapsible stage, improved methods of solar energy production including the creation of new designs for a solar water heater, a sun stove and a solar battery. He also invented a propeller-cutting machine and an airplane engine that runs on alcohol fuel.

Nationalism through science

Zara wanted his countrymen to be able to appreciate science, and thus he made numerous attempts to keep them up to date with the latest findings in Physics. He believed that if scientific and technological organizations united, they would have a very significant influence on the socio-economic, cultural and educational developments of the Philippines. As such, many of his inventions can be seen as innovative and nationalistic, and yet accessible. This can be illustrated in his cloud or vapor chamber, which, according to him, he invented to be a “simple and a portable working model that can be operated by anyone who wishes to see and study the behavior of the invisible particles radiating from radioactive sources”.

Many of his inventions are the first of its kind and the answers to many of our problems today had they been implemented and mass produced then. His solar energy devices that he invented in the 1960s could have been the answer to the energy crisis that the Philippines is having, which is most evident in Mindanao. The alcohol-powered aircraft that he made was more powerful and efficient than the gasoline-powered ones, as seen in the test run performed on September 30, 1954. This invention would have cut costs and gasoline-use today had the plans to produce alcohol as a source of fuel been followed through.

Zara’s ingenuity and passion for using science for the country’s development are truly remarkable. His dedication to not only his family, but also his fellow countrymen, is what made him such an influential person in the world of Philippine science. His world-class training mixed with his local initiatives is something that all scientists should really emulate. And for this, he is truly an outstanding scientist the country must be proud of.

Did you know?

Katherine Khoo, one of the authors of this blog entry, is from the same city as Gregorio Zara.

lipa

There is a street named after Gregorio Zara in Lipa City.

Zara became a professor of aeronautics at the Far Eastern University. (Yay Tamaraws! :D)

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References

Bellis, Mary. “Gregorio Zara – Filipino Scientist.” About.com Inventors. About.com, n.d. Web. 04 July 2013.

Fontanilla, Conrado D. and Joyce P. Valbuena. “Gregorio Y. Zara: Renowned Filipino Engineer and Inventor (1902-1978).” National Scientists of the Philippines (1978-1998). Pasig City: Anvil Publishing, Inc. 2000. Print.

Ibock.  Science Blogs. Science Blogs LLC, 31 Oct. 2012. Web. 04 July 2013.

Philippines, Republic of the. PRC Official Website – Board of Aeronautical Engineering. ND. Professional Regulation Commission. 5 July 2013 <http://www.prc.gov.ph/prb/default.aspx?id=2&content=13>.

Sabermidnight. “List of Some Filipino/foreign Physicist.” Scribd. Scribd Inc, 19 July 2009. Web. 04 July 2013.

Santos, Gil Nonato, and Jorge Ocampo. E-Physics IV. First Edition. Manila: Rex Book Store, Inc., 2003. 45. Print.

“Skype Statistics.” Statistic Brain. N.p., 28 September 2012. Web. 04 July 2013.

*All photos have links to their respective sources

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