The Science Disks of Epcot, Part 1

by Richard Mercer
AllEars® Guest Columnist

Feature Article

This article appeared in the August 14, 2018 Issue #986 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.

Science Disks of Epcot

On the path from the Epcot main entrance to Future World West (The Land, Living Seas, and Imagination), one encounters a collection of stone disks embedded in the pavement representing the great achievements of the human race in science and technology. Some are discoveries, some are inventions, and some are scientific theories. I refer to all of them as "events."

According to one source, these disks were added to the park in 1998. Several years ago I took photos of all 36 of these disks. Each of them gives the following information:

  • the name of the event.
  • the year in which this event occurred.
  • the person or people associated with this event.
  • the "era" during which this event occurred.
  • the country in which the event occurred (when applicable).

Overall Disney has done an admirable job of selecting and identifying these events, but there are some quirks and interesting sidelights. A number of these events are depicted or referred to in the Spaceship Earth attraction.

The Early Years

The first five events are Stone Tools, Fire, Agriculture, Wheel, and Alphabet. The dates given are respectively 2,000,000 BC, 500,000 BC, 8000 BC, 3500 BC, and 1600 BC. These are all classified as belonging to the "Prehistoric Era" (though 1600 BC is clearly within recorded history), and no countries are given. Alphabet is attributed to the Phoenicians. Agriculture and the Wheel are attributed to the Sumerians, an early civilization in Mesopotamia, a region including the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, part of modern Iraq.

The next five events are from the "Renaissance Period." The first is "Sun-Centered Solar System" (1543) by Copernicus (Poland). The prevailing view at the time was that the Earth was completely stationary and that heavenly bodies had a complicated system of motions that explained observations. Copernicus' theory was that Earth rotated on a daily basis, and that Earth and the other planets revolved about the Sun. This theory was much simpler than the previous spheres-within-spheres-and-ad-hoc-gimmicks theory that it replaced, and also had the advantage of being true. I was surprised to learn that the Earth's rotation was not recognized from the beginning!

Science Disks of Epcot

The invention of the Microscope (1590) is attributed to Zacharias Janssen, and the discovery of Microorganisms (1676) to Anton van Leeuwenhoek. I was taught in school that van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope; perhaps the scholarship on this has changed. It seems Janssen's microscope wasn't that good, as others received credit for discovering cells and microbes.

A quirk here is that Janssen was said to be from the "Netherlands" and van Leeuwenhoek from "Holland"! We think of these as being the same country and today they are. It wasn't always quite that simple, but I was unable to find any reason for using different country names.

The other two disks from the Renaissance Period are Scientific Method (1620) by Francis Bacon and Cell (1665) by Robert Hooke, both of England. "Scientific Method" refers to the framing of a hypothesis followed by an experimental test of that hypothesis. Parents of students with Science Day projects are advised that explicit use of the scientific method is crucial to getting a top score! Hooke gets credit for coining the term "cell", but it's unlikely he was the first to see one.

My first choice for an important omission in this section is the creation of an entire branch of science, Physics, by Isaac Newton (1687) in his remarkable series of three books Principia Mathematica.

My second choice is the invention of the Telescope. Though credited by Wikipedia to Hans Lippershey of the Netherlands in 1608, one can reasonably claim Galileo Galilei to be the inventor of the refracting telescope as an astronomical instrument.

The Industrial Revolution

The 12 disks discussed here are classified under "Industrial Revolution" and take place between 1700 and 1900.

Steam Engine (1712) Thomas Newcomen (England)
The rise of the steam engine is nearly synonymous with the industrial revolution, and with the rise of rail transport in the early 1800s. Coal was the fuel of choice, though anything that burned could in principle be used to make steam.

At Disney World, there is a tour at Magic Kingdom called "The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains" that I highly recommend. At Disney World the trains never burned coal; they were converted to burn fuel oil after being purchased in Mexico.

What were people doing for the remainder of the 1700s? I suppose minor things like exploring the world, starting colonies, creating new nations, etc. There were no additional disks, but in the 1800s it was time to get back to work on science!

Science Disks of Epcot

Atomic Theory (1808) John Dalton (England)
As with most scientific breakthroughs, the concept of atoms was not original with Dalton. The ancient Greeks speculated that matter might exist in discrete units, and the word "atom" comes from them. Dalton realized the fact that elements always combined with the same ratio of weights could be explained by an atomic model of matter. It was not until the 20th century that the internal structure of atoms was understood.

Electric Generator (1831) Michael Faraday (England)
Virtually everything we do in modern society involves electricity. None of it would be possible without means to generate electricity. To design such a generator required a sound understanding of the relationship between electricity and magnetism.

Internal Combustion Engine (1860) Jean-Joseph Etienne Lenoir (England)
In the Steam Engine, the burning of fuel and the steam operation take place in separate chambers. An alternative approach is to have the combustion take place inside the engine. This is more efficient because the combustion can directly drive the pistons rather than indirectly as with the steam engine, and powerful engines can be a lot smaller. This was essential in making automobiles practical.

Germ Theory of Disease (1862) Louis Pasteur (France)
As with many scientific advances, a number of people were involved in identifying the true causes of disease. Pasteur was likely chosen because he is the best known and/or because his experimentation was more careful and scientifically valid than his predecessors.

Genetics (1865) Gregor Mendel (Austria)
Mendel's contributions are probably familiar to you from high school biology. Through his breeding experiments (for example with peas) he discovered the existence of dominant and recessive traits and realized this was the result of invisible factors (now called genes) that were transmitted to offspring.

Pasteurization (1865) Louis Pasteur (France)
Pasteur is "double-dipping"! It would have made sense to consider this as part of Pasteur's work on the Germ Theory rather than making it a second disk.

Wireless Telegraph (1865) Guglielmo Marconi (Italy)
Wireless Telegraph? Everyone knows Marconi invented Radio! Yes, telegraphy was the initial application, but Radio became so much more than an alternative for transmitting person-to-person messages, and should have been the title for this disk.

Telephone (1876) Alexander Bell (America)
Two quirky items here. One is that we are so used to hearing Bell's middle name that "Alexander Bell" out of context might not be recognized. The other is that the country is given as "America", which is not the name of a country. "United States" would have fit without problem, and would have been a better choice.

Science Disks of Epcot

Electric Light (1878) Thomas Edison (America)
Of course this means the incandescent lightbulb. This is the only one of Edison's many inventions (over 1000 patents!) selected for this list.

Radio Waves (1887) Heinrich Hertz (Germany)
This would be better titled "Electromagnetic Radiation". Hertz's experiments verified the existence of such radiation with frequencies other than that of visible light, as predicted by Maxwell (see below). Radio waves eventually made possible not only radio as such but also television and cell phones.

Hertz's name is immortalized as the unit of frequency, one "whatever" per second. So 10 megahertz means 10 million "whatevers" per second, be they computer operations or electromagnetic wave oscillations or something else.

Electron (1897) Joseph Thomson (England)
Thomson was the lead scientist in experiments showing that "cathode rays" were in fact a stream of discrete particles, which were named "electrons". Electrons not only made a theory of atomic structure possible, they also made television possible. Until roughly 2000, cathode ray tubes (CRTs) were the dominant type of TVs; they used streams of electrons guided by magnets to produce screen images. Since then other technologies such as LCD TVs have become dominant. The Earth Globe in Illuminations is said to be the world's only spherical LCD TV!

My choice for the most important omission in this section is the theory of Electromagnetism developed by James Clerk Maxwell. His four "Maxwell's Equations" are the foundation of this theory, which underlies many of the theories and technologies discussed in this section. To this day any serious text on electromagnetism begins with an examination of these equations.

Be sure to read your AllEars® newsletter next week for The Science Disks of Epcot, Part 2, in which I describe the remaining disks and the stories behind them!


Epcot Overview

1982 Opening of Epcot

A History of Epcot

Walt Disney World Tours

Richard Mercer with Alice= = = = = = = = = = = = =
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Richard Mercer is a recently retired math professor living in Ohio. As a child he loved science and planned to become a scientist, but in high school discovered he was no good in the laboratory, so he did the next best thing and became a mathematician. An otherwise idyllic childhood did NOT include a visit to Disneyland. As an adult he has made up for this omission by purchasing a DVC membership and visiting Walt Disney World on a regular basis.


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.