They Came From Space

11 30 meteorOn this day, in 1954, a meteorite fell near Sylacauga in Alabama. The largest piece of it which was recovered is known as the Hodges Fragment. It is called this because it hit a woman called Ann Hodges. Ann survived, and was able to walk away from the incident, though she was very badly bruised. The eight and a half pound rock had smashed through her roof, bounced off her large wooden radio and hit her in the side as she lay sleeping on her sofa. It’s a very rare thing for a person to be hit by a meteorite, It has been calculated that, in the US for example, a person will be hit by a meteorite once every 9,300 years. Oddly, her home was just over the road from the an establishment called the ‘Comet Drive-in Theater’.

Many people had observed the meteor in the sky. Over three states, they had heard explosions and seen its fiery trail. Some witnesses closer to the meteorite strike reported seeing a plane flying in the area, which was worrying. In 1954, people were pretty edgy about the Cold War and there was some concern that it might be something to do with the Russians. The meteorite was confiscated by the police and turned over to the United States Air Force for examination.

Once they had proved, beyond all doubt, that it was an extra-terrestrial object and not part of some terrible communist plot, the next problem was: who did the meteorite belong to? Hodges thought it was hers, as she was the person who had been hit by it. The owner of her rented house, Birdie Guy, thought as it had landed on her property, it should belong to her. There was a lot of legal wrangling and, eventually, Hodges paid Guy $500 for the rock. Both sides believed, falsely as it turned out, that there was a fortune to be made out of the meteorite. By the time they had finished deciding who it belonged to, everyone had forgotten about it.

The real winner in the Sylacauga meteorite incident was a local farmer called Julius McKinney, who was driving his mule cart when the animals ground to a halt and shied at something in the road. He got down to investigate, expecting to find a snake, but when he found a large black rock, he moved it to the verge and went on his way. When he heard about the Hodges meteorite, he went back, retrieved it and took it home and gave it to his children to play with. After a few days, he mentioned it to a friend who helped him find a buyer from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. We don’t know how much he sold it for, but shortly afterwards he bought himself a house and a car.

11 30 ernst chladniToday is also the birthday of Ernst Chladni, who was born on this day in 1756. I mention him because he happens to be the first person to suggest the meteorites came from space. Before that, everyone thought they must come from volcanoes. Chladni worked mostly with sound experiments and also invented a couple of musical instruments called the euphon and the clavicylinder about which I have been able to find out disappointingly little.

I Bet You

07 10 robert chambersToday I have been referring to Chambers Book of Days, which is a massive two volume work written by Robert Chambers and published in 1864. It takes each day of the year, in chronological order, mentions notable births, deaths and saints days and includes several longer articles on events connected with that day. So, as you might imagine, I like him a lot.

There are two basic problems related to researching this blog. Firstly, I am sometimes presented with a long list of completely awful things that happened on a certain day. This is dispiriting, and on those days Robert has often presented me with some forgotten individual or event which has escaped the wikipedia day lists. The second problem is called ‘falling down a wikipedia hole’ when I become so distracted by following links that have nothing to do with the original story but are none the less fascinating. Robert didn’t have the internet, but something similar seems to happen to him occasionally. Just as he seems to be near finishing recording the days events, he will find a topic that sends him off at a complete tangent.

Today’s entry is a good example. He has a small story about a man called Foster Powell who, on November 29th 1773, set off to walk from London to York and back again. It took him three days to walk there, and three days to walk back. He did this for a bet and won a hundred guineas for his effort. This leads Chambers to take a look at other mad bets in history and gives me the opportunity to share a few of them.

11 29 sir walter raleighSir Walter Raleigh once won a wager against Queen Elizabeth I about the weight of smoke contained in a pound of tobacco, they weighed out the tobacco, set fire to it and then weighed the ashes. By subtracting the weight of the ashes from the original pound they assumed they had calculated the weight of the smoke. Then there was a gentleman named Corbet, about whom we know nothing except for the fact he made a bet that his leg was the handsomest in the whole kingdom. Apparently he won and, in 1864 at least, his family still had a picture showing how the legs of the various claimants were measured.

In 1806 in York two men called Thomas Hodgson and Samuel Whitehead bet each other five shillings which of them could dress the most weird. Hodgson chose to fasten bank notes of varying denominations all over his coat and waistcoat and a row of five guinea notes and a netted purse of gold on his hat. On his back he had attached a sign saying ‘John Bull’ Whitehead appeared dressed half as a white woman and half as a black man. On one side he wore a silk stocking and slipper and had painted one half of his face. On the other he wore half a gaudy, long tailed, linen coat, half a pair of leather breeches, a boot and spur. I think the judges made the wrong decision because they awarded the wager to Hodgson. Maybe they were distracted by the showy display of wealth. Then there was the unnamed man who laid a wager that he could stand all day on London Bridge with a tray of sovereigns fresh from the royal mint, offering them for sale at a penny each, and that he would be unable to sell them. He won, he wasn’t able to shift a single one.

11 29 john james heideggerThere was the case of John James Heidegger, Master of Revels to George II. He was not a good looking man, but took this fact with good humour. He bet his friend, the Earl of Chesterfield, that he could not produce an uglier person than himself in the whole of London. A search was made and the earl presented a very old lady from the neighbourhood of St Giles who was, at first sight, as poorly blessed by good looks as himself. But then Heidegger asked if he might put on the lady’s bonnet, and everyone had to agree that he had won his bet.

One last example from Robert Chambers exuberant list is a man who bet his friend that he dared go into the crypt at Westminster Abbey at midnight. To prove he had been there, he would stick a fork in one of the coffins. He accomplished this, but as he turned to leave he felt something pull at him. He was so scared that he fainted. After a while, his friend came to look for him, found him on the floor and revived him. It turned out that as he tried to walk away, the fork had caught on the hem of his cloak.

I can’t really leave the subject of historical bets without mentioning someone else who is similarly fascinated by these odd wagers. In fact, he’s made a couple of series for the BBC about them. Tim FitzHigham has also unwittingly provided me with a couple of colourful characters for this blog. So, this might not make much sense, but here he is with my friend Bob recreating a bet to find out whether a man can run faster than a racehorse.


11 28 edward hydeToday I want to tell you about Edward Hyde, 3rd Earl of Clarendon who was born on this day in 1661 and grew up in Berkshire, England. As far as I can make out, he’s nothing to do with the Edward Hyde in the 1886 novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, but he may have had an alter ego. Hyde’s aunt was the Duchess of York, who would one day marry King James II, His cousin would grow up to be Queen Anne. He was pretty well connected. Hyde, then known as Lord Cornbury, was colonial governor of New York between 1702 and 1708 and would become fabled as one of the worst governors of an American colony that the British had ever appointed. He was the sort of person that old aristocratic families are so good at squeezing out, an arrogant idiot. He drank too much, accepted bribes and possibly stole £1,500 pound that was meant for the defence of New York Harbour. But none of these awful things are why I want to talk about him today. As you see from this picture, he’s wearing a frock and I want to tell you about his reputation for going about in women’s clothes.

We are told by his contemporaries that he officiated at the opening of the New York Assembly in 1702 wearing a hooped gown, an elaborate headdress and carried a fan. His attire was very similar to something his cousin, Queen Anne would have chosen. When challenged about his choice of clothing, this was his reply: “You are all very stupid people not to see the propriety of it all. In this place and occasion, I represent a woman (Queen Anne), and in all respects I ought to represent her as faithfully as I can.” We are led to believe that he dressed in women’s clothes frequently and was given to hiding behind trees and then leaping out at people shrieking and laughing, which I find a slightly more worrying pastime than the dressing up. An account from 1901 has him frequently parading up and down Broadway in an elaborate gown with a string of amused children following in his wake. He may even have been arrested by a constable who mistook him for a prostitute. When his wife, Lady Katherine, 8th Baroness of Clifton, died in 1706 he was even said to have attended her funeral in a dress.

His mode of attire was not his only unusual habit. He really liked ears. He may have fallen for his wife because she had nice ears. Once, when expected to make a public speech, he delivered instead a flowery sort of eulogy in praise of the beauty of his wife’s ears. Then afterwards he invited everyone else to feel them for themselves so they would know how shell-like they really were.

There is no indication that Hyde saw himself in any way as a figure of fun. In fact, he liked to be addressed by his preferred title of ‘His High Mightiness’, which probably didn’t help him win many friends either. There were many complaints about his general unsuitability for his post as governor and, in 1708, he was removed from office. His successor, Robert Hunter, arrived in 1710 to find Hyde in debtor’s prison in Manhattan, impoverished, but still wearing a dress. Hunter paid his debts and sent him home to England. There, he was able to take his place in the House of Lords.

The actual evidence that Hyde really dressed in women’s clothes is scant. It comes largely from a few letters written by three men who really hated him. So it’s possible that they were spreading a rumour to discredit him. Even the painting with his name on it may just be an image that has become associated with him. It was first alleged to be a painting of Hyde over seventy years after his death. It was bought by the New York Historical Society in 1952 and arrived with a label that described it as ‘Lord Cornbury, half-witted son of Henry, Lord of Clarendon.

I don’t want to pretend that Hyde was nice or misunderstood, he clearly wasn’t. He’s not a person to hold up as a rôle model or a good example of anything. He was an over-privileged idiot. But he’s been presented as an eccentric idiot and what I like about him is that the tales of his proclivities, designed to discredit him, are the same stories that make him so interesting today. No one would care much about a corrupt seventeenth century governor of New York if we didn’t have a picture of him in a dress. Pretty much his only legacy is this picture that might not be him, doing something that he might never have done. But, judging by what I’ve read of the rest of his life, it’s the best thing about him.

Someone at the Door

11 27 berners street hoaxToday I am celebrating the anniversary of the Berners Street Hoax. It all started when a young man called Theodore Hook bet his friend one guinea that he could, within a week, turn any house in London into the most talked about address in the whole city. Whether he picked a house at random, or had some particular grudge against the lady who lived at 54 Berners Street isn’t clear. But here is how events unfolded on November 27th 1810:

At five o’clock in the morning, a chimney sweep arrived. The maid, who answered the door, told him that no one in the house had arranged to have the chimneys swept and sent him away. Almost immediately, another sweep arrived, then another, then another. Soon there were twelve chimney sweeps outside number 54. As soon as they had been sent away, wagons of coal began to arrive, blocking the whole road. They were followed by several cooks, at least one of whom had a massive wedding cake. Doctors, lawyers and priests arrived, having been informed that someone in the house was dying. An undertaker turned up with a made-to-measure coffin. Tailors arrived in Berners Street, so did boot makers, artists, furniture makers and upholsterers. A dozen coach and horses tried to pull up outside the house, so did several drays bearing barrels of beer. The street was so full of people that no one could get near the house. Still, more tradesmen were arriving, There were forty fishmongers with cod and lobster, forty butchers with legs of mutton and at least twelve pianos were being delivered.

It wasn’t just the tradespeople either, the spectacle had attracted quite a crowd. They found it hilarious. The people who had arrived expecting to ply their various trades were less amused. Poor Mrs Tottenham, who lived at 54 Berners Street was verging on insanity. Then, the Lord Mayor of London arrived. He had received a letter, as he thought, from Mrs Tottenham saying that she had been summoned to appear before him, but she was ill, and would he do her the great favour of visiting her at home. When he saw the crowds, his coach was turned around and he went straight to Marlborough Street Police Office to tell them what was going on. Officers were dispatched to restore order to Berners Street, but at first it was impossible. It was chaos. The sight that greeted them was six large men struggling with an organ, surrounded by wine porters, barbers with wigs, dressmakers and opticians. The street was still heaving at four in the afternoon. Then, at around five o’clock the servants started to arrive. They all had letters of commendation and were expecting to gain employment.

Among the more noteworthy of Mrs Tottenham’s visitors that day were the Governor of the Bank of England and the Chairman of the East India Company. They had both received letters alluding to the fact that the lady had knowledge of fraud that was being perpetrated, accompanied by a suggestion that they visit number 54. The Duke of Gloucester received an invitation to visit a dying woman who had once been a confidential attendant of his mother. No doubt all three of them had some skeleton in their closet that they did not want revealed and they hastened to the address.

11 27 theodore hookWhat Theodore Hook had done, along with perhaps two accomplices, was to write to around a thousand different tradesmen, professionals and noteworthy people asking them to attend 54 Berners Street on November 27th at a specific time. Then, he and his friends that sat all day in a house across the road and watched the drama unfold. Although he never publicly admitted to being responsible, everyone knew it was him. Afterwards he was suddenly, and conveniently, taken ill for a couple of weeks, then took off on a convalescent tour of the country. By the time he returned, the fuss had died down a bit and he was never charged with anything for the trouble he caused.

Slow Acting Curse

11 26 opening the tombIt was on this day, in 1922, that archaeologist Howard Carter and his sponsor Lord Carnarvon first opened the tomb of Tutankhamen. The ancient Egyptians buried their Pharaohs with great ceremony and loads of precious objects to sustain them in their afterlife. They took great care to make sure that their kings were not disturbed. They built labyrinthine tombs with secret chambers, blocked passageways with huge pieces of stone and even, in some cases, placed a curse on the entrance. The secret chambers and enormous stones did not deter the thieves. I’ve no idea if the curses worked or not because I don’t know who the thieves were or what happened to them.

European interest in all things Egyptian had really taken off in the early eighteenth century but no one had yet found a tomb that had not been broken into and looted. Carter had been working with ancient Egyptian burial sites since 1891 and he was consumed by the idea that there might be a grave somewhere that had not been robbed in antiquity. He found that a little known Pharaoh, Tutankhamen, had been largely expunged from the records. Carter hoped that this meant his tomb had been forgotten too. Searching the Valley of the Kings was an expensive business, but in 1907, Carter was lucky enough to gain the patronage of Lord Carnarvon. Carter’s search of the valley was interrupted by the First World War but even so, he spent many years searching without turning up anything at all. By 1922, Carnavon was about to call off the search, but Carter travelled to England and managed to persuade him to fund one last season of digging.

When Carter returned to Egypt, he brought with him a yellow canary. His foreman, Ahmed Girigar, was delighted with the golden bird and it’s lovely song. He said: “The golden bird speaks the language of heaven. It will guide us.” Perhaps the bird did bring them luck because, on November 4th Girigar discover what looked like a step. The following day they dug down further and, after uncovering twelve steps, the top of a sealed entrance appeared. They made a hole in it just large enough to see that, beyond, was a rubble filled corridor. Carter thought his sponsor ought to be with him before they explored any further. He had the hole they had dug refilled and large stones dragged into place on top and wired Lord Carnarvon. Carnarvon arrived at the Valley of the Kings on November 23rd and by November 26th they had cleared the rubble and reached another sealed door. Carter chiselled a hole big enough to put a candle through and caught a first glimpse of the treasures inside.

While it was a massive cause for celebration and everyone knows what a wonderful discovery it was, there were rumours that Carter had found and hidden a tablet with a curse inscribed on it that read: “Death will come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the king.” There is also a story that, at the moment the tomb was opened, Carter’s lucky canary was swallowed by a cobra, just like the one that would be found on the Pharaoh’s death mask. Seemingly, it was the first victim of the curse. Then, a few months later, Lord Carnarvon was taken ill after a mosquito bite was infected when he cut himself shaving. He grew worse, developed pneumonia and, on April 5th, he died at the Continental-Savoy Hotel in Cairo. Legend tells us that, at the moment of his death, there was a power failure and all the lights in Cairo went out. Meanwhile, at his family home in England, his favourite dog howled and dropped dead. That wasn’t all. When Tutankhamen’s mummy was unwrapped in 1925, it was said to have a wound on the cheek in exactly the same place that Carnarvon had been bitten by the mosquito.

It was a great story. The press loved it. By 1929 they had attributed the deaths of eleven people connected with the discovery to the curse of Tutankhamen. By 1935, that number had risen to twenty-one. But was this all just press hype? How long do you have to live before you can be said to have survived a curse? Of the twenty-two people present at the opening of the tomb, only six died in the next twelve years. Carnarvon himself was not in the best of health and death from infection was actually quite common before the days of antibiotics.

As to the other phenomena, power cuts were really quite common in Cairo at that time, so all the lights going out was really nothing out of the ordinary. The story of the canary and the snake is a complete fabrication, it was not swallowed by a cobra, but given to a friend. I’m afraid I don’t know what happened to the dog. Carter himself, who actually opened the tomb survived until 1939 when he died of Hodgkin’s disease. I think, if I wanted to curse anyone, I’d like it to work a bit quicker than that.

Catherine’s Wheel

NT; (c) Stourhead; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Today is the feast day of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, after whom the firework called a Catherine Wheel is named. First I’d like to say that there is no historical evidence that there was ever any such person. So, whilst early Christians undoubtedly suffered persecution and death for their beliefs, her life story and the awful tale of her martyrdom are probably made up.

Catherine died at the beginning of the fourth century. She was an extremely well educated and erudite young woman who became a Christian at an early age. When she heard of the dreadful persecutions of her fellow believers at the hands of Emperor Maxentius, she thought that if she went to see him, she might be able to talk him round. The Emperor called fifty of his best pagan philosophers to argue against her, but they failed. She converted all of them to Christianity and they were all immediately sentenced to death by burning. The only thing that seems to have worried them about this was that they had not been baptised. Catherine told them not to worry, because their own blood would baptise them and they would go straight to heaven.

The Emperor was so angry that he had her beaten and thrown into prison for twelve days without food. Luckily though, a dove came and brought her ‘celestial meat’ I don’t know what that is, but it sounds weird. When Maxentius returned, he couldn’t believe how well she looked. He was so impressed in fact, that he asked her to marry him. Unsurprisingly, after all the torture and imprisonment, she declined. The Emperor did not take it well, he called for a contraption to be built that was made up of four wheels. The wheels were to be covered with razors and be set up as two pairs that would turn in opposite directions. His idea was that Catherine be tied in the middle where she would be cut and pulled apart by the wheels. Fortunately, just as she was being tied to the thing, the Angel of the Lord came and blasted the machine apart with such a force that it killed four thousand bystanders. Now if, tomorrow, somebody exploded something that killed four thousand humans, they wouldn’t be widely venerated and have a special day named after them. But I imagine it all depends on your point of view.

Catherine, it seems, was unharmed. But then Maxentius ordered her head cut off. I’ve read a lot of martyrdom stories and saints, rather like vampires, are usually finished off by beheading. Though some have even survived this, at least for a few hours. When Catherine’s head was cut off, instead of blood, milk flowed out of her body. Then angels came and took her. They flew to Mount Sinai, where they buried her. A monastery was built there in her name, a site which was previously venerated as the place where Moses witnessed the burning bush.

The earliest reference we have to the life of Saint Catherine, comes from around 866 AD, more than 500 years after she was supposed to have died. But it seems her remains were ‘rediscovered’ in 800 AD. Her hair was still growing and her bones were producing a constant supply of healing oil. This must have been terribly convenient for those in the business of supplying holy relics. Apparently Edward the Confessor had a phial of Catherine’s oil. He didn’t get such a great relic as an eleventh century monk named Simeon though. Simeon spent seven years praying next to her body, that part of her hand would detach itself from the rest of her. Eventually, either by the grace of God, or just when nobody was looking, three of her fingers did come off. He took them home to France and presented them to the Bishop of Rouen. These fingers and her head, which is still at Sinai, are all that now remain of Saint Catherine. There, on her saints day, we read that there is a ceremony known as the ‘Smelling Of The Head Of Saint Catherine Of Alexandria’ In case you’re wondering, it smells of myrrh.

A Cock and a Bull Story

11 24 laurence sterneToday I am celebrating the birthday of Laurence Sterne, author of the novel ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’. He was born in 1713, in County Tipperary in Ireland whilst his father was stationed there as a soldier. His family were from Yorkshire and, after being ordained, he became vicar of Sutton-on-the-Forest, a little north of York, in 1738.

Then, in 1759, after his dean became involved in some sort of squabble within the church, Sterne wrote a book about the event in support of his friend. It is called ‘A Political Romance’ and was later partially republished under the title ‘The History of a Good Warm Watch Coat.’ Without having read it, it seems to have taken a petty provincial squabble and made it funny by elevating it into something far more epic. The Church was pretty embarrassed about it. The book was burned. Sterne had wrecked his chances of ever making any career advances within the Church, but he had found his true calling, At the age of 46, he realised what he really wanted to be was a writer.

That same year, he wrote and published the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy. There are nine volumes all together, published between 1759 and 1767. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, is supposedly a life story of the central character. It is narrated by Tristram himself, but he keeps getting distracted and leaving his story, making such huge diversions that he isn’t actually born until volume three. Consequently, we actually learn very little about Tristram’s life, but we learn plenty of other things. He tells us about the domestic upsets and misunderstandings in his family whilst all the time breaking off to write huge discourses on sexual practices and insults, on obstetrics and siege warfare. It is a sort of early form of the ‘stream of consciousness’ novel that would later influence the work of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

Of Tristram’s life, we learn about his ill-fated beginnings, when his mother asked his father, at the moment of their son’s conception, whether he had forgotten to wind the clock. We hear how his nose was crushed by the forceps of Dr Slop. This was a terrible thing mainly because his father believed, if a man were to make anything of his life, he must have a large and attractive nose. Tristram tells us how he came to have the name Tristram, even though his father thought it was the unluckiest name in the world, instead of the auspicious name he was meant to have; which was Tristmegistus. We also find out about how he was accidentally circumcised when he was small by a falling sash window that he was weeing out of.

11 24 black pageSterne’s first two volumes were published at his own expense, it’s an unusual book and quite bawdy. It’s not at all what people expected from a novel. It does not progress in a linear way from one event to the next. Not all the pages have text on them. For example, when his favourite character, Parson Yorick, dies in book one, he inserts a completely black page to represent that. There are also blank pages to represent where part of the narrative has been torn out and another blank page for the reader to fill in their own description of Widow Wadman’s beauty. In the first edition he also included a marbled page which represents the chaotic nature of his narrative. Marbling was pretty new in England at the time. Each one was made by hand, so each copy of the book had a unique pattern in it. In volume six there are graphs with great looping lines that are meant to represent the progress of the narrative. His book was hugely popular, it turned out people really liked this bawdy and strange book. When he went to London the following year, 1760, he was gratified to find he was quite famous. Not everyone was impressed though. Dr Johnson didn’t like it at all, and remarked: “Nothing odd will do long, Tristram Shandy did not last.”

11 24 plot linesSterne was very well read and drew his influences from all over the place. He was massively interested in the philosophical ideas of John Locke and the essays of Montaigne and well as the writing of Rabelais and Cervantes. Tristram’s father’s feelings about the nose come straight from Rabelais and the character of Uncle Toby, who is obsessed by battle re-enactments is not dissimilar to Don Quixote. It was not until years after his death that people started to notice that he had lifted ideas and sometimes whole passages from other works and rearranged them to give them new meaning in the context of Tristram Shandy. One of his sources was Robert Burton’s ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’, which is another huge, sprawling work which is full of digressions and difficult to negotiate. It isn’t a work of fiction though, it’s all about what makes people sad and what we should probably do about it. Sterne parodies Burton’s use of weighty quotations to support his ideas and some of his odd chapter titles are drawn from the quaint categories in Burton’s book.

The ninth and final volume ends with a story about a bull belonging to Tristram’s father. The bull is expected to service all the cows in the neighbourhood and the discussion is about whether he is equal to the task. Tristram’s mother asks what their story is all about. This is the final sentence: “A Cock and a Bull, said Yorick – And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.” This could apply to the story about the bull, but equally, as ‘a cock and bull story’ means a fanciful and unbelievable tale, it could equally apply to the entire novel. The phrase ‘cock and bull’ in reference to a story first appears in English in Burton’s ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’: “Some mens whole delight is to talk of a Cock and Bull over a pot.”

Whilst Sterne was no fan of being overly serious about things, I don’t want to present him as entirely frivolous. In 1776, at the height of the debate about slavery, a former slave, Ignatius Sancho wrote to Sterne asking for his support. Here his reply:

“There is a strange coincidence, Sancho, in the little events (as well as in the great ones) of this world: for I had been writing a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl, and my eyes had scarce done smarting with it, when your letter of recommendation in behalf of so many of her brethren and sisters, came to me — but why her brethren? — or yours, Sancho! any more than mine? It is by the finest tints, and most insensible gradations, that nature descends from the fairest face about St James’s, to the sootiest complexion in Africa: at which tint of these, is it, that the ties of blood are to cease? and how many shades must we descend lower still in the scale, ere mercy is to vanish with them? — but ’tis no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, & then endeavor to make ’em so.”

Freedom of the Press

11 23 john miltonToday I want to tell you about John Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ which he published on this day in 1644. Normally, I’m not  a big fan of Milton, his Paradise Lost is tedious in the extreme, so it’s nice to find something he did that I like. Areopagitica is a pamphlet which defends the freedom of speech and expression. It is one of the most eloquent defences of press freedom and many of the arguments he made are still useful today.

Milton published this pamphlet at the height of the Civil War and Parliament had, in 1643, introduced a law which severely restricted people’s freedom to read and publish anything that the new regime did not agree with. Anyone who wanted to publish anything at all required a special license from the government. If they printed anything the government did not agree with the work would be seized and destroyed. Any writers, printers or publishers found to be involved would be arrested and imprisoned.

Milton had already suffered under these stringent censorship laws when he had tried to publish several tracts defending divorce. This was not a popular idea in the 1640s. In publishing and distributing Areopagitica, he was defying the very law he was arguing against.

11 23 areopagiticaHe began, judiciously, by complimenting the government on the way it overthrew the tyranny of the king but went on to say that he ought to be able to air his grievances, because constructive criticism is better than false flattery. He then pointed out that, while the Greeks and Romans had sometimes burned books, they had at least allowed them to be printed, read and judged first. He reminded them that banning books was one of the things they had hated the monarchy for in the first place.

Milton explained that reading is useful because people can only become learned by reading. That means reading bad books as well as good ones. Sometimes you can discover what is true by considering what is not. He believed that God had given every person reason, free will and conscience so that they can judge ideas for themselves and decide what is good and what is bad. They shouldn’t have a government appointed body deciding for them. That you don’t have to believe what you read and sometimes, coming across a lie can lead to good things.

He thought the new publishing laws would not be useful. It can’t possibly prevent the spread of corruption because, if people are not allowed to publish their ideas in books, they will just talk about them instead. If you really wanted to make people think exactly what you wanted them to all the time, you would just have to ban everything: “If we think to regulat printing, thereby to rectifie manners, we must regulat all recreations and pastimes, all that is delightful to man.”

Milton doesn’t think government appointed licensers are the best people to judge what is good or bad anyway. Even if they were good at their job, they could easily make a mistake, and anyway it would take ages to look at every single book. A complete waste of time and money. They must have a pretty low opinion of both the writers and the readers if they think that these sort of decisions need to be made for them: “… a dishonour and a derogation to the author, to the book, to the priviledge and dignity of learning.” He thought people should be open to new ideas, because you never know where a new truth might be found. To be stifled by a government order can only lead to laziness and conformity.

Unfortunately, his arguments did nothing to sway the Presbyterians in government. The law was not lifted until 1695. Although Milton’s Areopagitica, contains some quite modern ideas, he was still a man of his time. He did think that if a book was published, then read by learned men and found to be blasphemous, it should absolutely be burned and its author taken away and executed. Apart from that he seems like a thoughtful and intelligent fellow, so I’ll end with this quote from his pamphlet:

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

Nobody Knows

11 22 max headroom broadcast signal intrusionToday I want to tell you about something that is known as the Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion. On this day in 1987, in Chicago, a person dressed as a character called Max Headroom suddenly appeared on people’s screens in the middle of a television broadcast.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Max Headroom was a popular character of mid-eighties television, first produced for Channel 4 in the UK but who also appeared on US television. He was presented as a sort of CGI character, but before it was possible to create a convincing computer generated human. So it was actually a man called Matt Frewer, wearing heavy prosthetics and a shiny suit made from fibreglass. Max’s voice was digitally altered, would vary in pitch and sometimes get stuck in a loop. Max existed in a dystopian future dominated by television and large corporations. He was uploaded from the memories of a rogue journalist called Edison Carter who was in a coma following a motorcycle accident whilst fleeing from his superiors. The last thing he saw before the accident was a sign in the parking lot specifying the vehicle clearance height, ‘max headroom 2.3m’. The other thing you need to know about Max is that he was, at that time, the advertising face of ‘New Coke.’ If you want to see the real Max Headroom, here he is with The Art of Noise.

But back to November 22nd 1987. People watching the nine o’clock news on WGN-TV and enjoying the highlights from that afternoon’s football game were suddenly faced with a blank screen. This was followed by thirty seconds of a man wearing a Max Headroom mask and sunglasses. He was jumping around in front of a sheet of corrugated metal, which was being shifted about to imitate the background on Max Headroom’s show. It was accompanied by a buzzing sound, but there was no voice. The engineers at the station managed to change the frequency of their broadcast link to the transmitter and cut out the spurious broadcast. The bewildered sports reporter came back with the words “Well, if you’re wondering what happened…so am I”

Later the evening another channel, WTTW, a public broadcast service channel, were showing an episode of Doctor Who, when they too were interrupted by Max Headroom. This time there was sound. Also, no engineers were available to switch the broadcast frequency. It’s rather difficult to make out what he’s saying, as the audio isn’t great. But he does repeat New Coke’s advertising slogan ‘catch the wave’ whilst holding a can of Pepsi. He also presents his middle finger to the camera, over which he is wearing a rubber penis. There’s a bit with a glove, then you see him bending over holding the Max Headrrom mask in front of him with the rubber penis stuck through its mouth. Then he takes his trousers down and a woman comes in and spanks his bottom with a flyswatter. At this point, the broadcasters themselves ended the transmission and Doctor Who reappeared. Plenty of people were videoing Dr Who, so there are recordings of it. You can see one here, along with a possible translation of his message.

The people who did this must have known quite a lot about electronics and microwave links in order to intercept the legitimate broadcast programmes. They must also have had the means to get hold of some pretty expensive equipment, but no one knows exactly how they did it. Despite investigations launched by the Federal Communications Commission and the FBI, the broadcasting pirates were never caught. So nobody knows who it was and, because of the garbled and erratic nature of their message, nobody knows why either.


11 21 piltdown skullOn this day in 1953 the famous archaeological specimen, known as the missing link, Piltdown Man was finally and irrevocably proved to be a hoax. The skull fragments of Piltdown Man were found in a gravel pit in Piltdown, East Sussex in 1912 by a man called Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist and collector. He claimed to have found part of the skull in 1908, the rest was recovered in the company of his friend Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of the geological department at the British Museum. It was hailed as the fossilized remains of a previously unknown species of early man, the evolutionary missing link between apes and humans. The ape-like jaw, combined with the relatively large brain cavity supported the belief that human evolution began with the brain.

11 21 examining the skullAlthough there were plenty of people willing to vouch for its authenticity, there were, from the beginning, others who were doubtful. They thought it looked more like the skull of a modern human with the jaw bone of an ape stuck on the bottom. In 1923, a German anthropologist called Weidenreich concluded that it was the cranium of a modern human and the jaw of an orang-utan with the teeth filed down. But, so soon after the First World War, probably no one wanted to hear what a German had to say about it, which is a shame because he was absolutely right. In fact, there was quite a bit of national pride involved when it came to believing that the earliest known human had been an Englishman.

Then, in 1953, tests were carried out that proved Piltdown Man had the skull of a medieval human, the lower jaw of an orang-utan that was about 500 years old and some fossilized teeth from a chimpanzee. The bones had been artificially aged with a solution of iron and chromic acid. When they examined the teeth under a microscope, it was obvious that some of them had been filed down to make them seem more suited to a human diet.

So, it was not just that someone had found the skull and jawbone near to each other and assumed they went together. Someone had done it on purpose. Who exactly it was and how many people knew about it will probably never be known for certain. Suspects include Dawson himself and his friend Woodward, even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who visited the site, has had the finger of suspicion pointed in his direction. For a while a man called Hinton, who had a grudge against Woodward was thought to be the perpetrator. It’s true that he might have enjoyed making Woodward look like an idiot and, in 1976, a case belonging to him was discovered at the Natural History Museum which contained bones stained in the same way as the Piltdown skull. More recently it has been suggested that Hinton was responsible for creating another, even more unlikely find that turned up at the Piltdown site. It is a stained elephant bone which was roughly fashioned into the shape of a cricket bat. It could be that Hinton knew the whole thing was a hoax and planted the cricket bat in an effort to discredit the whole affair But in fact, at the time, the bat was just accepted as genuine along with everything else. Of course the first Englishman had played cricket.

Over the last few years, suspicion has swung back towards Dawson. An archaeologist from the university of Bournemouth, Dr Miles Russell, who investigated some of Charles Dawson’s other ‘finds’ discovered thirty-eight of them to be fakes. It seems Dawson had form. They include a peculiar reptile-mammal hybrid ‘discovered’ in 1891. Its teeth had been filed down in a similar way to those found on the Piltdown jawbone. He also provided a Roman statue, which was uniquely made of cast iron and a flint nodule with a toad inside it.

As to how one might acquire a medieval human skull and 500 year-old orang-utan jaw, there is also some evidence against him. In 1911, a collection of animal bones from Borneo, bought by the British Museum, lists the jawbone of an orang-utan skull as ‘missing’. When the skull was examined it was found that the bone was unusually thick, suggesting that it’s owner had suffered from Pagett’s disease. A similar skull went missing from the collection of Hastings Museum in the 1900s. In 1889, Dawson had been one of the co-founders of the Museum and remained strongly connected with it. If you need any more evidence that he was a little unusual, he also claimed to have seen a sea serpent in the English Channel in 1906, investigated incipient horns in cart-horses (don’t know, sorry) and, in later life, was reported to experimenting with phosphorescent bullets to deter Zeppelins.