One Giant Leap

02 29 leap yearToday is a leap day. If today is your birthday then, congratulations, you are a leapling which sounds like a joyous thing to be. February 29th is mostly added to the calendar every four years to make up for the fact that it actually takes our planet a little under 365¼ days to orbit the sun. It may seem to us that it absolutely comes round every four years without question, but that is because of the period in history we are living in. It is not actually the case. Having a leap year every four years makes our calendar drift off by about three days every four hundred years. So leap years do not happen in any year that is divisible by one hundred, unless it is also divisible by four hundred. So, for us the year 2000 was a normal leap year. The last time the leap year was skipped was 1900, which was a very long time ago, and the next one will be 2100, which needn’t trouble many of us.

This might be a little more complicated than you thought, but it is nothing compared to what the Romans had to put up with before Julius Caesar swept in and reformed the calendar. In the early days of Rome, the calendar was only ten months long. It covered the period from March to December. You can still see a remnant of this in the names of our months; September, October, November and December. Septem, octō, novem and decem being Latin for seven, eight, nine and ten. Nobody was very clear what went on in the rest of the year, where we have January and February. But as they were an agricultural people, they didn’t really need to do anything then, so it didn’t matter.

As the population became more urban, they really needed something that would cover the whole year. According to legend, the months of Ianuarius and Februarius were added by Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome, in around the seventh century BC. This was a bit better, but it left the Romans with a year that was 355 days long, which is way too short. So, rather than having to add an extra day like we do, they occasionally had to add a whole extra leap month. That month was called Mercedonius. To make it even more confusing, it was created by lopping a few days off the end of February and cramming a few more in. So, when this happened, it gave them a year that was 377 or 378 days long.

The decision about whether the leap month was needed lay with the Pontifex Maximus who was the High Priest of Rome. He was supposed to keep an eye on the seasons and decide if they were drifting out of line but unfortunately this is not what happened. The Pontifex Maximus generally had an interest in politics as well, so he could insert the extra month to keep someone he liked, who was in a government position, in office for a bit longer. If he wanted them out quickly he could withhold Mercedonius for another year. Also he might make it a last minute decision, so you never knew if the leap month was coming or not. If you lived anywhere outside of Rome, you had little hope of knowing what day it was. Add to that the fact that Rome was often at war and might forget about Mercedonius all together for a few years and you can see how difficult it all must have been for everyone.

By the time Julius Caesar reformed the calender in 46 BC things had gone very wrong indeed. As Julius Caesar was also Pontifex Maximus he was able to add the extra month, but it wasn’t enough. He needed to make a giant leap. To bring the calendar year back into alignment with the solar year he needed to add a whole extra two months between November and December which are sometimes referred to as Undecember and Duodecember. 46 BC was 445 days long. It is called ‘the last year of confusion’.

In addition to this he sprinkled an extra ten days throughout the year, bringing the year up to a much more manageable 365 days and added a single leap day every four years. Everyone must have been extremely relieved. So relieved that, after he died in 44 BC they changed the name of Quintilis (the fifth month) to Julius instead. Which is why we now call it July.

It’s All About Me

02 28 michel de montaigneToday is the birthday of Michel de Montaigne, who was born in 1533 in the Aquitaine region of France. As he was born at the Château de Montaigne, you might gather that he came from a pretty well-to-do family. He is one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance. His work was sometimes regarded as a bit odd because he mingled his philosphical ideas with little anecdotes and stories about himself. He will tell you when he has a headache, what his dog is doing or what he can see out of the window. He set his ideas out in a way that was relatable and easy to read, so his work was very popular. Generation after generation have found something they recognise in his work, from the Enlightenment period through to Romanticism and the Victorians to our own times.

Montaigne had a rather odd upbringing. His father had him fostered out to a peasant family until he was three. The idea was to: “draw the boy close to the people, and to the life conditions of the people, who need our help”. When he came back to the château, his father wanted him to learn Latin. Just to make sure he really learned it, he employed a German tutor who spoke no French, so all his lessons were in Latin. Both his parents spoke to him only in Latin and they hired only servants who spoke the language. At the age of six, Montaigne was fluent in Latin. He was awoken every morning by someone playing a musical instrument and a zither player followed him and his tutor around all day, in case he got bored or tired.

In 1539, he was packed off to boarding school, where he got through the whole curriculum by the time he was thirteen. Then he went to university to study law. All this sounds like it could easily have turned Montaigne into a bit of a pompous twit, but it really didn’t. After University, he went to work in the High Court at Bordeaux, where he met his very good friend Étienne de La Boétie. Michel and Étienne loved each other very much and told each other everything. It was a terrible blow to Michel when Étienne died of the plague in 1563. It may have been the loss of his friend that first led him to write his great work ‘Essias’ (Essays), his readers taking the place of his lost friend.

On this day in 1571, at the age of 38, Montaigne retired from public life, shut himself up in a tower in his castle and began work on his essays. It took him almost ten years. Oddly, he begins like this: “…I myself am the subject of my book. It is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain, therefore, farewell.” His book has 107 chapters, or essays, on a wide range of subjects and his aim in writing them is to explain what humans are like, and more specifically, what he is like. Some topics are large and serious, others are shorter; he has a chapter where he tells us everything that he knows about thumbs and one where he tells us what he thinks about smells.

His essay ‘of Cannibals’ is an interesting one. In his lifetime, the Americas were still a pretty recent discovery and he wasn’t entirely sure it was a good thing for the people who lived there. He wrote about a tribe in Brazil who ate the bodies of their dead enemies. He didn’t see it as such a terrible thing compared with the way that Europeans routinely tortured their enemies in ways that really hurt them a lot while they were still alive. He actually met and spoke to a tribal chief and asked him what he thought of Europe. The chief replied that he was shocked to see so many poor people begging on the street while there were so many others living in big houses. He didn’t understand how everyone put up with it.

Montaigne had a lot to say about education. He thought everyone should learn at their own pace and that a really good tutor would let his student speak first and always allow time for discussion. He felt that a child’s natural curiosity would lead them to teach themselves Too much was made of the use of books and he didn’t like the way all information was presented as facts. He said that if students were not allowed to question anything, they could never truly learn. Montaigne didn’t think memorising things from books was any kind of education at all. Students who learned this way would grow up to be passive adults who obeyed blindly and questioned nothing. He makes a very good point. Despite being highly educated, he didn’t really like academics at all. He didn’t like the way they saw the ability to reason as a divine gift that put them above, not just animals but often other humans. He thought that they were arrogant and said everyone should remember that even the highest in the land always had to sit on their own bottoms. He also thought they sometimes made things complicated on purpose to make people feel stupid: “…difficulty is a coin the learned conjure with, so as not to reveal the vanity of their studies…” He didn’t think it was beyond anyone to have wise ideas if we could only stop imagining that other people know better. We are all, he says, richer than we think.

Montaigne is also a man who is interested in pursuing the things that make us happiest rather than the things which will bring us glory, which is why he fits in really well here. He tells us a lovely story about a Greek philosopher and a king. The philosopher asks the king what he will do next. The king replies: ‘Conquer Italy’. ‘And after that?’ asks the philosopher. ‘Conquer Africa’ ‘…and then?’ ‘Conquer the World” ‘what will you do after you’ve conquered the World?’ he asks the king. The king replies ‘I will sit down and have a glass of wine.’ The philosopher says: ‘Why don’t you just sit down now and have a glass of wine?’

This is what I’m going to do now, as it is also my birthday.

Burning Down the House

02 27 borley rectoryWinter is almost over and the days are definitely getting a bit longer here. Soon, I’ll be able to look forward to getting home from work before sunset. But, until then, maybe there’s time for just one more ghost story. Today, I want to tell you about Borley Rectory in Essex, a Victorian mansion that was built in 1862. It was built to replace a previous rectory that had burned down in 1841. Borley Rectory became famous as the ‘most haunted house in England’. On this day in 1936, it was destroyed by a fire.

The church at Borley may date, in parts, from the twelfth century. It served a small rural community and not far away, there were the ruins of an old house called Borley Hall which had once been the seat of the Waldergrave family. A local legend spoke of a Benedictine monastery in the area and a monk there who had begun a relationship with a nun from a nearby convent. They were discovered. The monk was hanged and the nun bricked up alive in the walls of her convent. Many people claimed to have seen the ghost of the nun. In fact, she had been seen so often that, in what would become the garden of Borley Rectory, there was an area known as ‘Nun’s Walk’.

Almost from the start, people reported hearing unexplained, heavy footsteps in the house. The first incumbent of the rectory, the Reverend Henry Dawson Ellis Bull died in 1892 and his son, Harry Bull took over the living. He had a large family of fourteen children and, in 1900, four of his daughters claimed to have seen the nun in the garden. But when they tried to approach her to talk to her, she had disappeared. Others said they had witnessed a coach driven by two headless horsemen.

The second Reverend Bull died in 1928 and Reverend Guy Eric Smith moved in. His wife was clearing out a cupboard in the house when she came across a brown paper package. Opening it, she found a human skull. After that, there were a number of incidents. More footsteps, servants bells ringing even though they had been disconnected and lights appearing in the windows of rooms that were empty. Mrs Smith thought she saw a 12 27 harry pricehorse-drawn carriage. In 1929, the couple wrote to a newspaper called the Daily Mirror about their experiences and asked to be put in touch with the Society for Psychical Research. They sent a reporter and also arranged for a psychical researcher called Harry Price to visit them. As soon as he arrived, new phenomena appeared. Stones were thrown and spirit messages were tapped out on the frame of a mirror. These sort of occurrences ceased as soon as Harry left the property. The Smiths left Borley about a month later.

The new Rector, Lionel Foyster, was a distant cousin of the Bulls. He moved in with his wife Marianne and their adopted daughter Adelaide in 1930. Lionel Foyster kept a record of the strange events that happened between then and October 1935 which he sent to Harry Price. Bells rung mysteriously, windows were smashed, stones and bottles were thrown. Writing appeared on the wall that seemed to appeal to Mrs Foyster for help. Adelaide was locked in a room that had no key and Marianne reported that she had been thrown from her bed. Reverend Foyster tried twice to conduct an exorcism, but it was no help. On the first occasion, he was struck in the shoulder by a fist-size stone. These incidents made their way into the Daily Mirror where they attracted the attention of several psychic researchers. The Foysters left Borley in 1935 when Lionel became ill.

Borley Rectory remained empty until 1937, when Harry Price took out a year long rental on the property. He gathered a team of forty-eight researchers who stayed there, mostly at weekends, and reported anything unusual. In 1938, the daughter of one of his researchers conducted a séance in Streatham, London and seemed to make contact with two spirits connected to Borley Rectory. One was a French nun called Marie Lairre who had left her order to marry a member of the Waldergrave family from the now ruined Borley Hall. But she had been murdered in a building that once stood on the site of the rectory. The second was a spirit called Sunex Amures who told her that he would burn down Borley Rectory that very night, March 27th 1938, and that the bones of a murdered person would be found. This did not happen.

02 27 ruined rectoryOn February 27th 1939, the new owner of the Rectory, Captain W H Gregson was unpacking some boxes in the hall when he upset a lighted oil lamp. The fire spread quickly and the house was badly damaged. Insurance investigators concluded that the fire had been started deliberately. A local woman claimed to have seen the nun looking out of one of the building’s upper floor windows during the fire. The house was left a ruin. In 1943, Harry Price returned and conducted a dig in the cellar of the rectory. He found two bones supposed to be that of a young woman. They were buried, with ceremony, in a churchyard, but not at Borley. They refused the remains because they believed them to be the bones of a pig.

Now, I need to tell you that there was no written information about the hauntings at Borley Rectory prior the the involvement of Harry Price. Someone who remembered the Bull family, Louis Mayerling, tells us how much Harry Bull’s fourteen children all loved the story of the ghost nun and exploited it at every opportunity. They claimed to have a magic piano that was played by spirits, but in fact it was one of the children hidden behind it, plucking at the strings with a poker. They found they could set off the servant’s bells by prodding at them through a nearby window. No doubt later occupants found they could do the same.

Certainly the discovery of a skull in a cupboard is a bit weird, but once you realise that the rectory garden had once been part of the cemetery, it’s exactly the sort of thing that might have been dug up by accident and held on to as a curiosity. The Smiths had written to the newspaper hoping that all the phenomena could be properly investigated and reasonably explained. Instead, they got Harry Price, who they rather suspected was responsible for the increased activity during his visit. Price did very well financially when he wrote two books about the hauntings at Borley Rectory. Marianne Foyster later admitted that she had faked some of the psychic phenomena to cover up the fact that she was having an affair with their lodger, Frank Peerless. Peerless himself probably faked some of the others. The house’s final owner, Captain Gregson, had bought the property for £500, but he had it insured for £3500.

Until the house fell down completely, the ghostly nun was still sometimes seen through the windows of the upper storey, even though there was no longer any floor there for her to stand on. With so many people having obviously faked the psychic evidence, it is now impossible to know whether the most haunted house in England was every really haunted at all.


02 26 william kitchinerToday I want to tell you about William Kitchiner. He is one of those people who’s date of birth is lost in the mists of time, but it was probably some time in the 1770s. I do know that he attended his last party on this day in 1827. It always feels a bit odd to be commemorating a person’s death on this blog, rather than their birth, unless they were completely awful. But I can tell you that he’d had a really lovely evening with his friends.

William Kitchiner was the son of a coal-merchant who left him a large fortune, maybe £60,000 or £70,000. So he could do pretty much what he wanted with his life. He liked music, he was very fond of telescopes, but the things that he really enjoyed most were cooking, sharing his food with friends and writing about it. He wrote a book called ‘The Cook’s Oracle’, in 1822, which was a best seller in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Most of the six hundred or so recipes in his book had been prepared by him personally. He cooked them and he did the washing-up afterwards. He also tested them out at a weekly club he called his ‘Committee of Taste’ at his home in Warren Street, Camden. His book contains not only recipes but general tips on household management: how to preserve foods, look after your pans properly and where to buy the best nutmeg graters. He was also considered rather an eccentric man, particularly in respect to time-keeping.

William’s invitations were highly prized but you needed to be punctual. He had dinner at five and supper at half past nine. Arrive late and you would probably find you were locked out. His reasoning was that, whilst it was okay for people to be hungry for a little while if the meal wasn’t quite ready, once the dinner was prepared it could easily be ruined if it was not served immediately. He even suggested that families should synchronise all their clocks and watches to make sure this did not happen. If you tried to stay too late, you would suddenly find yourself out on the street at 11pm with your hat and coat. Fail to respond to his invitation within twenty four hours and he would assume that you weren’t coming. Fail to come up with what he considered to be a proper excuse and he would think you were very rude and probably wouldn’t invite you back. He seems to have had only three acceptable excuses: being detained by the law, visiting the doctor or being dead. Interestingly, being dead did not excuse the host from providing the promised meal. In that case, he would have a stand in host in the form of either a friend or his executor. William took his food very seriously.

Manners were terribly important to him, in his book he says: “Good manners have often made the fortunes of many, who have nothing else to recommend them: Ill manners have often marred the hopes of those who have everything else to advance them.” which is very sound advice. As long as you observed his time-keeping rules, behaved well and ate what you were given, it sounds like a fun evening. He was always careful, when introducing his guests to one another, to point out what it was that they had in common and to sit like-minded people together. We read that, on at least one occasion, he greeted his guests by playing a chorus of ‘Hail the Conquering Hero’ on the piano whilst playing the kettle drums with his feet.

He wasn’t particularly bothered about whether his chosen guests were considered respectable and he didn’t much care what people thought of him, so long as they didn’t find him rude. He lived with a woman who wasn’t his wife and they had a son who they had sent to Charterhouse, which in case you don’t know is a very posh school indeed. He was no snob, as we mentioned, he had inherited his fortune from his father, who had begun life carrying coal on the London Docks and he is described as ‘splendidly indifferent to social disgrace’ which is lovely. He invited Mary Shelley at a time when most people thought she was a dreadful embarrassing mess. He also invited Theodore Hook, who was renowned for his practical jokes but had been arrested for debt. My post about him has been the most popular by far, so if your bored today and haven’t read it, you might want to check out ‘The Berners Street Hoax‘.

02 26 griffin and mock turtleMany of his recipes are of his own invention. He had a particular fondness for gravies, sauces and condiments in general. He had a box of 28 condiments, all numbered and ordered, that he kept in his kitchen and that could also be put on the table for people to help themselves. he called it his ‘Magazine of Taste’. He had a smaller version that he used to take with him to dinner parties. One of his concoctions, Wow-Wow Sauce, has gained some notoriety, not because it’s nice, but because it appears in Terry Pratchett’s ‘Disc World’ novels. His book seems once to have contained a recipe for turtle soup which we couldn’t find as it has been omitted in later editions because it was so difficult and expensive to prepare. Instead he tells us he has used the space for more condiment recipes. There is however a recipe for ‘mock’ turtle soup which, if you’ve looked at your ‘Alice in Wonderland’ properly, you’ll know is made from the head of a calf. In case you can’t be bothered with all that he also includes a recipe for ‘mock’ mock turtle soup.

02 26 condiments

I wasn’t very impressed with his ideas for cooking vegetables. He tells us that carrots will take between 1½ and 2½ hours to cook. For cucumber, he suggests frying it and then boiling it. If you wanted a salad, he recommends a book by someone else entirely. There is definitely one of his vegetable recipes that you will have tried though. He invented potato crisps.

As well as his famous cookery book he also wrote about how to choose the right opera glasses in a book called ‘The Economy of the Eyes’. He also wrote books titled: ‘The Art of Invigorating and Prolonging Life’, which you should probably ignore because he died at about the age of fifty-one. Also, in its sixth edition, it was published with an extra section ‘The Pleasure of Making a Will.’

Mission Impossible

02 25 goodwick sandsToday I want to tell you about the last invasion of mainland Britain. It was not, as you might think, at Hastings in 1066. That was the last successful invasion. There was one in 1797 that did not go so well. It happened as Fishguard in Wales. The invading army was French and they were led by an Irish American named Colonel William Tate. In the accounts I’ve looked at, there is some discrepancy over the date of their surrender, but my favourite part of this story first appeared in the London Gazette on February 25th 1797, so I’ll go with that.

The invasion was part of a planned three pronged attack on the British Isles. The first invasion would take place in Ireland. Fifteen thousand troops would land at Bantry Bay and they would support the United Irishmen in their battle to overthrow British rule. In order to draw British troops away from Ireland, they would launch two further invasions in what they perceived to be places where they would find the most support. One at Newcastle and another near Bristol. The Irish contingent arrived off Bantry Bay on December 21st 1796, but there was such a terrible storm that they couldn’t land. The Irish didn’t know they were coming, so there was no one to help them. They decided to sail home again.

For some reason, the rest of the plan went ahead. Five thousand troops set off in barges for Newcastle, intent on destroying the collieries and shipyards. They were forced to return to Dunkirk because there was a mutiny. But still they pressed on with the planned invasion of Wales. Colonel Tate had fourteen hundred men for his mission. Six hundred of them where troops that Napoleon had felt were best left behind when he went off to invade Italy. The other eight hundred were made up of Republicans, deserters, convicts and Royalist prisoners. They called themselves ‘La Légion Noire’ after the dark coloured uniforms they wore. The uniforms were actually ones they had taken from British Redcoats and dyed a very dark brown. With no support coming from Ireland or the North of England, it’s hard to see why it went happened at all. It does look a little bit like whoever was in charge was just trying to get rid of La Légion Noire.

Four warships sailed from France under the command of Commodore Castagnier. Like the fleet bound for Ireland, they also found the weather was against them and they had to change their plans. In the early hours of February 23rd they landed near Fishguard, but they had already been spotted in the Bristol Channel. The troops and their ordnance were all taken ashore, everyone agreed that the invasion had definitely happened and Castagnier sailed away with the happy news, leaving them to get on with it. Meanwhile, the Welsh were gathering an opposing army. One of the commanders was at a ball, a whole troop happened to be at a funeral nearby. They all set off for Fishguard.

Colonel Tate lost control of a significant proportion of his troops pretty much as soon as they landed. They deserted and set about looting local villages. In Llanwnda, they broke into a church. They used the Bible to light a fire and then heaped the church pews on as well. If they were hoping to find support for their invasion among the Welsh, they certainly weren’t going the right way about it. Discipline was also not helped by the fact that the French soldiers had also discovered that the locals had a large stash of wine. They had it from a Portuguese ship that had been wrecked nearby only a few weeks before.

The Welsh troops were small in number, but they never let on. There were outnumbered by the French about 2-1. Villagers from the surrounding countryside poured in to Fishguard with crude weapons of their own, and one in particular, who I’ll mention in a minute. The Welsh decided to attack before dusk, but the French had an ambush lying in wait for them. Luckily, when they were only a few hundred yards away from lots of armed French soldiers hiding behind a hedge. They decided it was getting a bit dark and headed back to town.

02 25 welsh national costumeThings weren’t going Colonel Tate’s way at all. He tried to negotiate a conditional surrender. The Welsh said no, they had thousands of people on their side and they would definitely all attack if the French did not surrender unconditionally by 10 o’clock the next day. The ruse worked and Tate did surrender. Part of the reason may have been that the French, rather than being a feared enemy, had made themselves something of a local curiosity. The two sides had arranged to meet on the beach at Goodwick Sands the next day and rather a lot of people turned up to see what would happen. They stood on the cliffs above the beach. Among them were hundreds and hundred of Welsh women. Welsh women were, in those days, inclined to wear bright red cloaks and large black felt hats. This possibly made them look, from the beach, like hundreds and hundreds of British Redcoats.

The peace treaty was signed on either the 24th or 25th of February, but a report certainly appeared in the London Gazette on February 25th. It carried the story of Jemima Nicholas, the wife of a Fishguard shoemaker. She was either 47 or, according to more recent evidence 41. She took a pitchfork and single-handedly rounded up twelve French Soldiers and locked them up in a church and then set off to find more. For this, she has been given the name ‘Jemima Fawr’, which means Jemima the Great, and a place in Welsh history.

02 25 jemima nicholas memorial

Automatic Duck

02 24 jacques de vaucansonToday I want to tell you about Jacques de Vaucanson who was born on this day in 1709 in Grenoble, France. Vaucanson built the first completely automated loom. Before that, he built and exhibited automata. He built a flute player and a pipe and drum player. But the machine that has captured peoples’ imaginations the most was his ‘Digesting Duck’ which I’ll tell you about in a minute.

Vaucanson was the son of a glove maker who, early in life, became fascinated with clocks. His mother was a devout Catholic who used to take him along to church. Whilst she was in the confession booth, young Jacques studied the clock that was there. He memorised it’s mechanism and built one himself at home. He was taught by Jesuits and at eighteen he became a novice in the order of Minims in Lyon. There, he was hoping to pursue his interests in all things mechanical. He was given a grant from a nobleman and set up a workshop in 1727. The same year, there was a visit from the governing heads of the order. Presumably the visit involves some sort of feast because in honour of this, Vaucanson built a number of automata that could serve food and clear the tables. They seemed pleased at first but afterwards declared his work ‘profane’ and ordered his workshop destroyed. Jacques left the order.

After that, he went to Paris where he probably studied anatomy at the Jardins du Roi. He must have made and exhibited other automata in that time, but I couldn’t find out what. He had the idea for his flute player whilst he was ill in bed. He dreamed about the statue of a flute player that was in the Tuileries Gardens and imagined it actually playing a tune. His flute player was first exhibited in 1738. It was life-size and could play twelve different tunes. A flute-playing automaton must have been an incredibly difficult thing to make. He found making the fingers from wood didn’t work as they weren’t flexible enough. So we are told he covered them in skin. We don’t know what sort of skin but probably some of the skills he’d seen his father use came in handy. But it wasn’t just that. To play the flute, his model would have needed to breathe, and in a really controlled way. Inside, it had nine sets of weighted bellows, they were attached to pipes which joined in a kind of throat.
It had lips that moved and a metal tongue that controlled the air-flow.

02 24 inside the duckIt sounds amazing and impossibly complicated, but by 1739 interest in it was waning and he built two new figures. His pipe and drum figure could play its pipe faster than any human could hope to. His second piece was a very different project. It was his Digesting Duck. It is considered to be his masterpiece. It was made from gold-plated copper. The wings alone each had over four hundred moving parts. The duck could flap its wings, dabble in water, drink and eat grain. It could also defecate. The drawing on the left shows how the someone imagined the duck’s mechanical digestive system worked. He didn’t have it quite right, as we shall see shortly.

The philosopher Voltaire called Vaucanson the ‘New Prometheus’ long before Mary Shelley subtitled her famous novel ‘The Modern Prometheus’. But he also said of his most famous creation that without the shitting duck there would be nothing to remind us of the glory of France.

02 24 vaucanson automata

Jacques de Vaucanson got bored with his automata and, in 1741, he packed them off to be exhibited in England by other people. King Louis XV had also loved the duck and offered him a job improving a flagging silk weaving industry. He invented a loom that could weave silk more perfectly than people ever did. It could be operated by one person and used a system of punched cards to make the machine weave different repeated designs. The weavers didn’t like it. They threw stones at him. He responded by building a loom that could be operated by a donkey. It didn’t go down too well and his machine rather fell out of favour. The idea was revived over fifty years later when Joseph-Marie Jacquard built his loom which also used punched cards to weave its designs. The same sort of punched cards were used to input data into early computers.

There are scant mentions of another automaton Vaucanson started work on. He had planned to build one that had muscles and tendons. It would breathe, digest food and have circulating blood. He refers to it as ‘the bleeding man’. He had trouble with the veins and arteries, but when someone brought him a sample of a material called ‘cahuchu’ (rubber) from the Amazon, it seemed like the answer. Not only that, but it led him to believe that his might be able to construct vocal chords. His bleeding man might also speak. I have no idea how far he got with this project and no one knows what became of it.

Meanwhile his earlier automata had set off on an adventure of their own. It’s hard to say exactly what happened to them. There are a few mentions of the flute-player, but the model that is mentioned most often is the duck. A man named Dumoulin seems to have travelled Europe with the models and pawned them in Nuremberg. Christoph Friedrich Nicolai, who I mentioned in connection with Messerschmidt a couple of weeks ago saw them in 1783. They were rescued by a collector called Gottfried Christoph Beireis. They were seen by Goethe in 1805. He said the flute player was in a sorry state and that the duck had lost its feathers and looked like a skeleton. It still ate oats but had lost its powers of digestion.

02 24 duck automatonAfter Beireis died, the duck and flute player were lost again. The duck was found twenty years later, re-exhibited and then one of its wings broke. It was taken the magician and builder of automata, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, who I have also mentioned previously. He was delighted to have such a famous artefact in his workshop. He also discovered the secret of its digestion. He wrote in his memoirs: “To my great surprise, I found that the illustrious master had not been above resorting to a piece of artifice I would happily have incorporated in a conjuring trick.” The whole digestion thing was a fake. The duck had a secret compartment that was filled with a mixture of breadcrumbs and green dye which was pumped out onto a little silver dish. It had nothing to do with the food that the bird ate.

After that the duck disappeared again and nobody really knows what happened to it. It may have been destroyed in a fire. The picture above may be a photograph of it. It certainly looks like the object that Goethe described.

I Did Kiss a Queen

02 23 samuel pepysToday is the birthday of Samuel Pepys, who was born on this day in 1633 in Fleet Street, London. I’ve mentioned Samuel a few times in this blog, because his diaries are such a rich source of information about life in seventeenth century London, as well as covering some major historical events. Although his father was a tailor and his mother, the daughter of a Whitechapel butcher, he was actually pretty well connected. His father had cousins in parliament, one of whom was the First Earl of Sandwich. Samuel lived in a turbulent age. When he was only sixteen years old, he attended the execution of King Charles I, in January 1649. At twenty-two, he married Elisabeth de St Michel who was then only fourteen years old. When he was twenty-five, he had surgery to have a stone removed from his bladder. With no such thing as a general anaesthetic, it was a dreadful process which I rather wish I hadn’t read about.

02 23 pepys diariesPepys diary covers almost ten years between 1660 and 1669, a period which saw the restoration of the monarchy and coronation of King Charles II. Samuel was on the ship that brought the King back from exile. The 1660s also saw the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. Outbreaks of plague were a pretty common occurrence in seventeenth century London. There had been major epidemics in 1603, 1625 and 1636. It was mainly a disease that affected the poor, who lived in cramped conditions, and Samuel wasn’t much troubled by it until June when it began to spread to the City. He sent Elizabeth and their servants away to Woolwich, where they might be out of danger but he remained in London. He tells us how there were no boats on the river, grass growing in Whitehall because it was so deserted and ‘no one but poor wretches in the streets’. He gives many descriptions of houses shut up, the news of deaths and how he himself came upon the body of a plague victim when he was out after dark. He chewed tobacco in an attempt to ward off the miasma that everyone believed was the cause of the disease and he worried that the wigs everyone wore might be being made from the hair of plague victims. But apart from that, he had a great time. He almost quadrupled his fortune and by the end of the year he recorded: “I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague-time…”

The Great Fire was far more alarming for him. He described peoples’ homes, even stone churches being destroyed by the fire. He tells us how people had given up trying to put it out and were just trying to save what they could and head for the river. It was so hot that even flying pigeons caught fire. Samuel was the first to bring news of the blaze to the King and the first to suggest tearing down houses ahead of the flames. The fire came very close to destroying Pepys’ house in Seething Lane. In order to save some of his precious belongings: some papers, but also his wine and his Parmesan cheese, he dug a hole and buried them. It might sound odd that he considered his cheese precious enough to bury, but Parmesan cheese is, even today, extremely valuable. There are around $200 million worth of Parmesan cheeses maturing in the bank vaults of Italy that are being used at collateral for loans to cheese makers. Samuel’s house was untouched by the fire, but we don’t know if he managed to retrieve his cheese because he didn’t tell us.

As well as major events, we can also learn a lot from his diary about how the upper middle class of London lived day to day. We know what they ate and how they entertained themselves. He was interested in science, enjoyed singing and playing music. He also loved the theatre. Pepys wrote very frankly about his personal life and his relationship with his wife. So we also know all about his infidelities, his jealously of Elizabeth’s dancing teacher and their arguments. We know how they celebrated holidays, we even know how he celebrated his birthday. Let’s have a look at what he did in 1669…

He took his wife and two young girls, who were distant relatives, to Westminster Abbey to look at the tombs. Here, he tells us “…we did see, by particular favour, the body of Queen Katherine of Valois; and I had the upper part of her body in my hands, and I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen, and that this was my birth-day, thirty-six years old, that I did first kiss a Queen.” Catherine of Valois was the wife of King Henry V. She died in 1437. Her tomb had been opened accidentally during the reign on Henry VII and her body was found to be in a remarkable state of preservation. After that, it became something of a tourist attraction. She was not re-interred until 1878.

02 23 diary pageThe last dated entry in his diary is from May 31st 1669. He gave it up because he believed it was affecting his eyesight. We’ve no idea whether Samuel Pepys ever intended his diary to be seen by others. It’s clear that some of the details are extremely personal. He also wrote it in a kind of shorthand that would be indecipherable to the casual reader. But on the other hand, he did have them bound and left them, along with his extensive library, to his nephew. After that, his library was transferred intact to Magdalene College, Cambridge along with the original bookcase. It was first translated for publication by the Reverend John Smith. It took him three years, between 1819 and 1822 to decipher the shorthand. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until he’d almost finished that he discovered the key to Pepys’ code stored only a few shelves above the diary.

Worst Ever

02 22 mooseToday I want to tell you about a play. It isn’t a good play. It is an awful play. Yesterday, I wrote about a terrible actor called Robert Coates. Today, I give you: ‘Moose Murders’ which both opened and closed at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway on this day in 1983. Such is its infamy, it is now the touchstone by which all Broadway flops are measured.

The play is described as a ‘mystery farce’. It is set at ‘Wild Moose Lodge’ in the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York. The lodge has recently been purchased by the wealthy Holloway family. The father, Sidney, is a heavily bandaged paraplegic who is on the point of dying. They have purchased the lodge as a place for him to live out his last days. Along with the family are a failed showbiz couple (one of whom is blind), a Native American caretaker (who appears complete with feathered headdress and war paint, yet inexplicably speaks with an Irish accent) and Sydney’s seemingly sadistic, black satin clad nurse who leaves her patient out in the rain. They become trapped in the house by a storm and decide to play a murder mystery game, which quickly turns into a case of real murder. The motive seems to be jealously over who will inherit the old man’s money. There is incest, there is mention of a legendary ‘Butcher Moose’ which haunts the mountain and there is dancing. There are also several murders. It isn’t clear how many. It is possible that no one who saw the play could focus on it well enough to be able to remember, or care. We are told that the dialogue in act one was “only improved by its inaudibility”, yet it was “inadequate preparation for the ludicrous depths of act two.”

The writer of the play, Arthur Bicknell, had written a couple of plays that had been produced Off-Broadway and had shown his script to several people, who found it very funny. He was delighted when a Texas oil baron loved Moose Murders so much that he wanted to stage it on Broadway. The oil man’s daughter was chosen to play the part of the first murder victim and her husband was made director. Neither had any previous experience and neither ever worked in the theatre again. The lead role, Sydney’s wife, Hedda, was to be played by Eve Arden who would be returning to Broadway after a forty year absence.

Although the play closed on its first night, it had previously had thirteen previews. Their leading lady walked out after the second one. They quickly managed to recruit Holland Taylor. She knew the play was awful, but needed the money. It had been described by critics as ‘titanically bad’ and “so indescribably bad that I do not intend to waste anyone’s time by describing it.” Frank Rich of the New York Times had this to say:

“From now on, there will always be two groups of theatergoers in this world: those who have seen ”Moose Murders,” and those who have not. Those of us who have witnessed the play that opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theater last night will undoubtedly hold periodic reunions, in the noble tradition of survivors of the Titanic. Tears and booze will flow in equal measure, and there will be a prize awarded to the bearer of the most outstanding antlers.”

He went on to say: “I won’t soon forget the spectacle of watching the mummified Sidney rise from his wheelchair to kick an intruder, unaccountably dressed in a moose costume, in the groin.” This episode does not appear in the original script. The play was so bad that it has made minor celebrities, not only of the actors but also the audience members who witnessed it. The number of people who now claim to have been there far exceeds the actual ticket sales. After the reviews were published, over the following days, the theatre was inundated with calls from people who were desperate to see it. They were to be disappointed. The box office received so many calls that they could easily have sold out the play every day for a month.

When Arthur Bicknell stopped by the theatre the following day to pick up his things, he was forced to witness the scenery for his play being tossed into the street. The oil baron, his daughter and her husband had already escaped to Paris on Concorde. Bicknell no longer writes plays, although he did revise the script for a revival of the play in 2013. Apparently, it was still awful. He was mortified by the whole thing and kept hoping everyone would forget about it, but it has never really gone away. Now, he has embraced his failure. He wrote a book called: ‘Moose Murdered: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Broadway Bomb’. In 2012 he said: “There is such a thin line between fame and infamy, and I’m almost proud of my infamy. Nobody knows who Arthur Bicknell is, but so many people know Moose Murders. I did that. I wrote the worst play that was ever on Broadway. That’s something.”

The Celebrated Philanthropic Amateur

02 21 robert coatesToday I want to tell you about Robert Coates. I don’t know when his birthday was, but I do know that he died on this day in 1848, after being run over by a Hansom cab outside the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane at the age of seventy-five. Robert was the son and heir of a sugar planter and was born in Antigua some time in 1772. Robert was a most flamboyant amateur actor. He was also a terrible actor, and it made him famous.

Robert was educated in England and became enamoured of amateur dramatics after he returned to Antigua in the West Indies. In 1807, after his father died, he inherited the estate and a huge collection of diamonds, which he also loved. He returned to England and settled in Bath, where he lived as a ‘gentleman of fashion’. By 1809, he was acting at the Royal Theatre, Bath, though it seems no one paid him to do so. He particularly loved Shakespeare and made his debut as Romeo. He designed the costume himself. It consisted of a flowing sky blue cloak with sequins, red pantaloons, a muslin shirt worn with a huge cravat, a long wig that Charles II would have been proud of and white hat with ostrich plumes. He also wore diamonds. Lots and lots of diamonds. What’s more, he had had his costume made rather too small, which made him move awkwardly and also the pantaloons split part way through the performance. But it wasn’t just his costume that was comical. He also forgot his lines, ad-libbed, stopped in the middle of the balcony scene to take snuff, and then offer it to the audience and at the end, he tried to open Juliet’s tomb with a crowbar.

This title role was his favourite, it was one he would revisit often. It led to him being given the nickname ‘Romeo Coates’ His performances were always sell-outs. People went to see him just to see if he was bad as everyone said. He was not above repeating his favourite scenes during a play. As Romeo, he might die three or four times. On one occasion he caused a lot of hilarity when he took out a handkerchief to dust down the stage and arrange his hat as a pillow before he lay down to die. The laughter, the abuse, the cat calls that accompanied his performances often drowned out his actual words. It’s hard to say whether he actually knew he was bad and just didn’t care or whether he was doing it all on purpose.

He certainly bore the abuse he received in good humour. Even when he received an invitation to a ball given by the Prince Regent. He dressed in his finest clothes and presented himself at Carlton House, only to find that the invitation had been a forgery and he had to go away again. The Prince felt terrible about it when he heard and really felt that Robert ought to have been let in anyway because everyone would have enjoyed his company. In fact, he felt so bad that he invited Robert to come along afterwards and have a look at the decorations which were still up. Robert was delighted and said that he would love to see the preparations that had been made for the honoured guests, of whom he had almost been one. The forger turned out to be Theodore Hook, who we mentioned several weeks ago as the perpetrator of the Berners Street Hoax. The joke fell rather flat in this case and probably even Theodore thought he’d been quite mean, because he was always quite apologetic when ever it was mentioned.

After moving to London, he soon became a well recognised figure. Particularly as he used to go about in furs, whatever the weather. But it was really the carriage he had made for himself that truly made him stand out. No one else had anything quite like it. It is described as shaped like a scallop shell and ‘a beautiful, rich lake colour’ which I can only assume means crimson lake, a dark pinkish red. It had his own heraldic device on the side, a crowing cockerel, with the motto ‘While I live, I’ll crow’. It also had at least one silver plated crowing cockerel on it. It was drawn by two white horses.

Of course, he ac02 21 the gay lotharioted in London. He appeared frequently at the Haymarket Theatre. He usually appeared as part of a benefit performance. For this he earned, or perhaps gave himself, his preferred nickname ‘The Celebrated Philanthropic Amateur’. The manager knew he would be guaranteed a full house when Romeo Coates was on the bill. In fact, they would often have to turn people away. At one of his performances, several audience members had to be treated for ‘excessive laughter’. People who had to act with him had a difficult time, because they had to work round what ever he happened to do. Once, when his Romeo was about to die a third time, Juliet had to put an end to it by stepping up and saying. “dying is such sweet sorrow, that he will die again until tomorrow.” His tour of the provinces proved equally popular, as were the impersonations given of him by comedians. Sadly, his popularity declined and he was forced to retire from acting, in public at least, around 1816.

He married, moved to France for a time and then back to London. On February 15, 1848 he was leaving the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane when he realised he had forgotten his opera glasses, which he had borrowed from a friend. He stepped down from his carriage to fetch them and was hit by a speeding Hansom cab. Rather than stop, the driver ran right over him and sped away. He was never caught. Robert died six days later from his injuries.

crest of robert coates


02 20 ebs test screenToday I want to tell you about the United States’ Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), which was in operation between 1963 and 1997. It was designed to allow the President to speak to the people of America in the event of war, threat of war or national emergency. More specifically, I want to tell you about the false alarm that happened on February 20th 1971.

The broadcast could be received by many radio and television stations across the country and the system was tested every Saturday at 9.33am Eastern Standard Time. A test message, that was generated from Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, would arrive via a teletype printer. The message would be recorded in the transmitter log and everyone could just forget about it. In the case of a real emergency, a bell inside the printer would sound ten times, there would be a row of X’s at the start of the message and then there would be a codeword. The codeword changed every day and each station received a list of them every three months. They were to be kept sealed inside an envelope. As well as a codeword to authenticate the message, there was a second code word which could be used to cancel the message.

The test message that was sent every week was stored on a tape and simply slotted into the machine at the appropriate time. The real emergency messages were also stored on tape. On February 20th 1971, the man in charge of sending out the message, Wayland S Eberhardt, simply put the wrong tape into the machine. So, when broadcasting stations were expecting to receive the usual test message, what they got was ten bells followed by this:

20 FEB

Anyone who ripped open their envelope and found the codewords would, at that point, have found that the authentication code for that day was indeed, ‘hatefulness’. Some stations went off the air immediately to make way for an announcement from the President. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, broadcaster Bob Seivers was forced try to explain to the listeners what was going on. He had no information to give them and just had to keep saying so over and over. Meanwhile at Mount Cheyenne, Wayland Eberhardt had realised his mistake and was frantically trying to cancel the message. He must have been in a terrible panic because it took him six attempts before he managed to include the correct cancellation codeword in the message. The word was ‘impish’. It took him forty minutes to cancel the message.

I said only some stations went off the air. Only about 20% followed the correct procedure. Some didn’t know what the procedure was. Some didn’t even look at the message, assuming that it was just the regular test. Others realised other stations were still broadcasting and ignored it. Some stations did not receive the messages at all. One poor broadcaster tore open his envelope only to find that it was empty. The whole débâcle proved one thing beyond all doubt. EBS was rubbish.

What good was it if not everyone had received it? Why was it that some people didn’t know what to do? What would happen if there was a real national emergency at 9.33 on a Saturday morning? How could they stop this horrible mistake happening again? I’m happy to tell you that poor, distraught Wayland did not lose his job. They looked at the way all the tapes were stored. They were all hanging on hooks side by side above the transmitter. They decided to remove the emergency tapes and put them away in a cupboard, leaving only the regular test tape near the machine.

America’s emergency broadcast system is now all dealt with by computers, thus eliminating the possibility of human error. So it’s all fine now. Apart from that time in 2005 when the entire population of Connecticut was mistakenly ordered to evacuate. Or any of the other times it’s been set off accidentally. Or that time in 2013 that hackers broke into it to announce a zombie attack.

Maybe you’re starting to think America’s Cold War plans to protect it’s people in the event of a nuclear attack were a bit rubbish. Want to know what was planned for us here in Britain? The BBC planned to distract us with music and light entertainment. There were hundreds of BBC staff and radio artistes who had been security vetted. In the event of all-out war, they were to be deployed secretly at transmission sites all across the country.