Kiwis Might Fly

03 31 richard pearseOn this day in 1903 it is entirely possible that New Zealand farmer Richard Pearse made the first powered aircraft flight. This was some nine months before the Wright Brothers made their first powered flight. I can only say ‘entirely possible’ because his flight was not documented, but circumstantial evidence is strong. Unlike Wilbur and Orville, Richard did not have a team of engineers behind his project.

Richard designed and built the entire plane himself at his remote farm near Temuka on the South Island. Having no access to libraries, he learnt everything he knew from the engineering magazines that he subscribed to. He used bamboo, tubular steel, wire and canvas to construct a monoplane with a 25 foot wingspan with a three wheeled undercarriage. Like the Wright Brothers, he’d been unable to find an engine that would be light enough to do the job, so he invented one for himself. He used tobacco tins and cast iron drainage pipe to build a two-cylinder engine. He even made his own spark plugs. His engine weighed a mere 57kg against Wilbur and Orville’s 82kg one. His design made the craft difficult to steer, but the Wright’s experienced similar problems with their early experiments. His flying machine had more in common with their later aircraft. The Wrights early model was a biplane and his had a single wing. He located the propeller at the front and had wheels underneath, theirs had a rear mounted propeller and was mounted on skis. In many ways Pearse’s aircraft was very similar to a modern microlight.

There were several witnesses to his flight attempts and their accounts can be found here. Some suggest a date as early as 1902. Some saw his plane in the air. Some saw it sitting on top of a high gorse hedge, following a collision. Some just reported hearing unusual noises coming from his workshop. There are definitely reports that pinpoint the date of March 31st and his flights were witnessed by people who had left the area by 1904. My favourite was from a lady called Cissie Connell. She had been watching from the top of a haystack and witnessed the hedge incident. She thought that Richard didn’t fly, but when she was asked how the plane came to be on top of a tall hedge, she couldn’t explain it. She said : “It just hopped up there.”

His flight of March 31st is estimated to have been around 350 yards, which compares favourably with the Wright bothers first attempt in December 1903. No one, including Pearse himself, would claim that he made the first controlled flight, but he does seem to have built a machine that could lift itself from the ground to a height of at least ten feet.

Richard Pearse gave up his flying experiments after 1911, but took it up again during the 30s and 40s. He built something which seems to have resembled a helicopter, because it was designed to take off vertically. His vision was that it could also be driven like a car and that its wings, tail and propeller could be folded up so it would fit in a garage. I did find a photograph of it, and you could probably find it too. But really, I preferred the description. It was said to be like a cross between a windmill and a rubbish cart.

In his remote location, Richard’s achievements and innovations went unrecognised in his lifetime and his work had no influence on aircraft design. His reputation was restored after his death and a replica of his first plane was built in the 1970s which can now be seen at the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland.

03 31 replica plane

Money for Nothing, Gold for Free

03 30 alaskaIn the early hours of March 30th 1867 the United States agreed on a deal to purchase Alaska from the Russians. There were those who thought that it was a waste of money. But the price of $7.2 million was ridiculously low, amounting to around two cents an acre. The Russians really wanted to sell. Although Alaska isn’t very far from the east coast of Russia, it was a long way from their centre of government and their colony there was hard to defend. They feared they would lose it anyway, perhaps to the Americans, perhaps to the British, who had territories just next door in British Columbia. The Russians had, in the 1850s, lost to the British in the Crimean War and they definitely didn’t want them to have it.

03 30 seal skin notesRussia’s interest in Alaska stretched back to the previous century. It was one of the final acts of Peter The Great, in 1728, to send an expedition to find out if Russia was attached by land to North America. He sent a man named Vitus Bering who, after an incredibly difficult journey, found out that is wasn’t. In the 1730s, Bering set out on another journey, this time crossing the strait that now bears his name. He reached Alaska in 1741, but died on the return voyage. What the Russians were particularly interested in was the fur trade and they quickly colonised the coast of Alaska and set up trading posts. They set up a company called The Russian-American Company which dealt in walrus ivory and animal skins. It had it’s own flag and it’s own unusual currency which was made from seal skin. Their relationship with the indigenous people of Alaska was, to say the least, strained and by the nineteenth century, they were facing competition from British Columbia. Russian America became too expensive to maintain and it was just too far away.

When it was suggested that the United States acquire the territory, some Americans felt the same way about it. They too were recovering from the effects of war. They were trying to pull their country back together following the American Civil War. Alaska, which they considered to be a wasteland, was not even connected by land to the rest of the United States. Dissenters thought the land would be worth nothing. They thought it wasn’t worth having even if the Russians were giving it away. They called it ‘Andrew Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden’. They also called it ‘Seward’s Icebox’ and ‘Seward’s Folly’. Andrew Johnson was their president and William Seward was Secretary of State. It was Seward who signed the treaty. Those in favour of the agreement were happy to see yet another ruling country kicked off what they increasingly thought of as ‘their’ continent and it is likely they hoped the British would be next.

03 30 nome gold rushThe Alaska Purchase turned out to be a good thing for America. Alaska is huge and, overnight, the country had become 20% bigger. $7.2 million is a pretty good deal, even if it does include quite a lot of lakes and glaciers. America easily recouped the money from the fur trade. But then, in 1896, gold was discovered in the Klondike on the border between Alaska and Canada. Thousands of prospectors travelled through Alaska. It was a gruelling journey over steep mountain passes and when they got there, they weren’t allowed in unless they had a year’s worth of food supplies with them. So, plenty of boom towns sprang up along the route and there was a good living to be made by anyone prepared to help them carry all their stuff. Then, in 1899, there was a second rush at Nome on the coast. Much of the gold found there was just lying around on the beach. Over the years, the area surrounding Nome has produced around 112 metric tonnes of gold. Not bad for two cents an acre.

There’s A World Going On Underground

03 29 terracotta warriorsToday I am celebrating the discovery of the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, China in 1974. Some farmers were digging a well not far from the site where Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, was laid to rest in 210 BC. Bits of terracotta had been turning up there for centuries. At first they thought they had found a kiln, but when they unearthed an entire life-sized figure, they knew they had something more important. They notified the authorities and government archaeologists were sent to begin excavations. Work at the site still continues and so far around 8,000 figures have been unearthed.

The first pit to be excavated was found to contain 6,000 warriors. The detail on the figures is incredible, from the rivets in their armour to the tread on the soles of their shoes. They vary in height according to rank. Although the heads of the warriors seem to have been made from eight 03 29 terracotta warriorbasic moulds, features have been added to make each one unique. Originally, the figures were painted in bright colours, but any remaining paint tends to flake of within minutes of its being exposed to the dry air. The soldiers also once carried real weapons including spears, swords and crossbows. Some rusted away long ago, some were looted shortly after they were buried, but some have been recovered. Swords have been found that were rust free and still sharp after more than two thousand years. They were found the be coated with chromium dioxide which has protected the blades. No one knows if the ancient Chinese knew how to do this on purpose or if it is just a happy accident.

The warriors were placed there to guard the burial chamber of the Emperor. I have no idea whether it was a normal thing, in ancient China, to have yourself buried with thousands of clay warriors, but I’m going to put Emperor Qin Shi Huang in my category of brilliant eccentrics. He came to the throne at the age of only thirteen and managed to unite a collection of warring states into a single nation. He introduced a single currency and a single written language and also built a good network of roads and canals. All these are fine things for a powerful ruler to do. But there are a few other things I want to mention.

03 29 qin shi huangDuring his reign he survived several assassination attempts including being attacked with a lute packed with lead and having a strongman throw a massive metal cone at him. In later life he became afraid of death and he had tunnels and passageways built between his palaces because he believed that being underground would protect him from evil spirits, and probably from assassins too. In 211 BC a meteor fell in his realm that was said to prophecy his death He had the object found, burned and crushed. He also became obsessed with finding the Elixir of Life which would give him immortality. Needless to say that left him prey to all sorts of charlatans. He once met a thousand year old magician called Anqi Sheng who could sometimes make himself invisible. In 219 BC he sent an expedition led by a man called Xu Fu to find Anqi Sheng and get from him the secret of his longevity. Xu Fu and his fellow adventurers did not find the magician and, probably sensibly, did not return. Legend has it that they sailed to Japan and colonised the islands there. The Emperor’s alchemists made him tablets that were supposed to make him live for ever. They didn’t. It was probably the mercury in the tablets that killed him.

 The warriors were not the only figures that Qin Shi Huang had buried with him. Life-sized chariots and horses have also been found, along with acrobats and water birds. As I said, excavations are ongoing. In fact since I first wrote about the terracotta warriors a year ago, archaeologists believe they have located another 1,400 figures and possibly 89 war chariots. Then there is his burial chamber. It is estimated to be 690 meters long and 250 meters wide. It has never been excavated for two reasons. Firstly, no one is confident that they could safely preserve for posterity what might be inside. Secondly because no one knows how to protect the archaeologists from what might be inside.

There is a huge history of ancient China which was completed around 94 BC. It does not mention the buried army at all but it contains a description of the tomb. It tells us the 700,000 men were needed to build it. It is filled with rare artefacts and wonderful treasures. There are also crossbows primed and ready to fire at anyone who enters. But that is not the main concern. Inside his tomb there is a microcosm of his realm. The ceiling is set with jewels to represent the heavens It is lit by candles made from the fat of the man-fish. And no, before you ask, I don’t know what a man-fish is. There are also said to be a hundred rivers all set to flow mechanically and a vast sea. This is where the problem lies. They are all made from mercury. This could, of course, all be legendary nonsense, but soil tests in the area do reveal a very high mercury content.

What I like thinking about with the terracotta warriors is all the time they’ve been hidden underground. I think about all the hundreds of years of history I’ve covered, all the people I’ve read about who never knew anything about them, and I wonder how people ever managed to forget that they had once buried 6,000 life-size clay warriors. I like that they were discovered completely by accident by people who were just digging a well and it makes me wonder what other treasures might lie hidden. Sadly, the initial discoverers of the army seem to have profited little from their find. In fact, they have been turfed off their land to make way for a museum. So, it seemed the least I could do was to try to dig them out of the internet, dust them off and tell you their names. They were: Yang Zhifa, Yang Quanyi, Yang Peiyan, Yang Xinman, Yang Wenhai, Yang Yanxin and Wang Puzhi.

The Art of Dying

03 28 ruyschToday is the birthday of Frederick Ruysch who was born in 1638 in The Hague. Someone who had himself painted pulling the insides out of a dead baby might seem like an unlikely candidate for ‘Why Today is Brilliant’, but bear with me. Ruysch is the last of three peculiar Dutch anatomists who I first stumbled upon last summer. They all studied at the university of Leiden in the 1660s. I have written about Reinier de Graaf and Jan Swammerdam elsewhere and how they fell out about who had discovered that humans had ovaries. As anatomists, what they really needed were corpses to dissect, but they were difficult to come by, had a disappointingly short shelf life and were rather expensive. They all became involved in finding a way to preserve anatomical specimens. They devised a way of injecting melted wax into blood vessels. When it cooled and set, they had something that they could dissect. It was a method that revealed delicate structures that had never been seen before. They stained the wax red to make the results a bit more lifelike. While de Graaf and Swammerdam were arguing about the nature of human reproduction, Ruysch was doing something else. He was making dioramas out of body parts.

03 28 vesaliusHis work was not entirely unprecedented. There were anatomical texts that showed bodies in dramatic poses. Take a look at this one from ‘De humani corporis fabrica’ by Andreas Vesalius which was published in 1543. But Ruysch had found a way of presenting actual specimens. He found a material that was even better than wax for injecting. It reached even the tiniest of vessels and, when coloured, gave a life-like quality to the whole specimen. He was pretty secretive about it, so no one is quite sure what it was. It may have included Berlin blue, mercury oxide and clotted pigs blood. But I’ve also come across mentions of spirits of Zeus and Poseidon. I have no idea what these are, if you do, I’d love to know. Later, he invented a clear liquid that he used to store his body parts in jars. It kept them soft and more life-like. He referred to it as ‘liquor balsamicum’ and I haven’t a clue what was in that either. It must have been good because some of his wet specimens still survive after more than three hundred years.

Ruysch amassed a huge collection of anatomical specimens. Initially, they were used only for medical study but when non-medical people heard about them, they wanted to see for themselves. He eventually displayed them in a series of cabinets in a private museum. Physicians were allowed free admission and, if they were particularly interested, could attend lectures given by Ruysch. The general public would pay an admission fee and be shown around by his daughter.

So far I have only mentioned anatomical specimens in the vaguest terms, and I promised you dioramas…

L0023489 F. Ruysch, Opera omnia anatomico-medico...
image credit: wellcome images

The centre piece of each cabinet was a little tableau, each of which conveyed some idea of the fleeting nature of human life. The main feature of these were foetal skeletons arranged in various poses. They would be playing the violin, clutching a string of pearls, weeping into a handkerchief. Ruysch actually had access to a lot of foetal skeletons as, in 1668, he was made chief instructor to the midwives of Amsterdam. (He managed to collect and preserve foetuses at all stages of development.) The rest of the scene was made up from bladder, kidney and gallstones for rocks, preserved blood vessels for trees and preserved lung tissue for grass and bushes. Even the handkerchiefs that his tiny skeletons were weeping into were made from the membrane that covers the brain. It all seems rather macabre, but this was not Ruysch’s intention at all. He saw them as beautiful objects that would: “allay the distaste of people who are naturally inclined to be dismayed by the sight of corpses.” It worked too. His anatomical preparations, partly teaching aid, partly works of art, did go a long way towards dispelling some of the stigma attached to the study of anatomy.


As well as doctors and the general population of Amsterdam his museum was frequented by the rich and famous. In 1697, he was visited by Peter the Great. Peter had a keen interest in all things scientific. Ruysch taught him how to catch and preserve butterflies and they had a common interest in lizards. The Tsar liked what he had seen so much that he returned for a second visit in 1717 and bought the entire collection for 30,000 guilders. Ruysch’s collection was installed in Tsar Peter’s Kunstkamera in St Petersburg where it helped to introduce ideas of European Enlightenment and modern sciences to Russia.

Ruysch immediately began to build a new collection. After his death in 1731, it was sold to Augustus the Strong, King of Poland. It is from Peter the Great’s collection that some of Ruysch’s specimens still survive. If you visit this site, you can see some photographs of a few of them. There is the hand of a child clutching the heart of an unborn baby. To cover the place where the hand was cut off there is a beautiful lace cuff that was probably made by his daughter. Some of the site is in English, though you will have the advantage of me if you speak Dutch. Sadly none of his dioramas have survived the test of time but luckily, they were carefully recorded in a series of drawings by Cornelius Huyberts, which is a good thing, otherwise you might not have believed me.

03 28 diorama 1

The Madness of Crowds

03 27 charles mackayToday is the birthday of Charles Mackay who was born in 1814 in Perth, Scotland. He was a poet, journalist, novelist and songwriter, but what I really want to tell you about today is the book that he published in 1841. It is called: ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’, which is an excellent title. It is about the odd things that people suddenly become obsessed with in their thousands. From get rich quick schemes to miracle cures. From the hunting down of witches to the admiration of audacious criminals. Even the peculiar little sayings that come from nowhere and are suddenly on everyone’s lips.

I was also pretty excited to find out about Charles because, in his massive two volume work, he has covered so many of the topics that I have come across, and found fascinating, whilst writing this blog. He has a great deal to say about alchemy and the people who practised it. People, he says, are generally troubled by three things: their mortality, a lack of wealth and worrying what the future holds. Alchemists have at least two of these covered with their Elixir of Life and their Philosopher’s Stone which will turn base metals into gold. They believed that in Antediluvian times (before the Flood) people possessed the knowledge to extend their lives for hundreds of years. They also believed that all metals were made from metallic earth and a red inflammable material they called sulphur. Gold, they thought was made from just these two things, but other metals contained impurities. Find out how to remove the impurities, and you have gold.

There are some great potted biographies of alchemists, including Edward Kelley, who I mentioned elsewhere and a man called Artephius. He was born some time in the twelfth century but managed to convince everyone that he was over a thousand years old. He claimed to possess the Philosopher’s Stone. In his search for it, he had descended into hell 03 27 albertus magnusand seen the Devil sitting on a golden throne. Then there was Albertus Magnus and his pupil Thomas Aquinas. Both were later made saints and both were keen alchemists. They didn’t succeed in finding either the Philosopher’s Stone or the Elixir of Life, but they did manage to bring to life a bronze statue which they also gave the gift of speech. Apparently it used to act as their servant. Unfortunately it wouldn’t shut up and Thomas wound up smashing it to bits with a massive hammer. So, there you are. Be careful what you wish for.

In his section on predictions, he mentions the Prophetic Hen of Leeds, who I wrote about last week. There is also a section on cures which speaks at length about the Weapon Salve which I came across whilst writing about Jan Baptist van Helmont back in December. It was a rather peculiar belief that wounds could be cured at a distance by applying an ointment to the weapon that caused it. After that, people started to believe they could cure a wound by magnetising the weapon. This led to another strange idea, that people would be able to communicate with each other over vast distances in the following way: Cut a piece of skin from the arm of each person and ‘mutually transplant them while still warm and bleeding’. When the patch of skin grew into its new arm, it would still remember the body it came from. It would sense if any harm was done to that body. Therefore, if you tattooed, on each piece of skin, the letters of the alphabet, you could use a magnetised needle to prick out your message. Even if its original body was thousands of miles away, it’s new owner would be able to sense the pricks and read out the message on his own tattoo.

Actually, Charles Mackay has a lot to say about magnetic cures. It has a long history and hasn’t really gone away, even today. He has a great deal say about Mesmer, who I will, no doubt, get round to mentioning in May. There is also a lovely story about an American called Benjamin Perkins who, in 1798, brought to England a magnetic cure that he claimed would relieve gout and rheumatism. It consisted of two heavily magnetised metal plates which he moved over the afflicted area. He called them ‘metal tractors’. His patients experienced much relief and Perkins became a wealthy man. But then a physician at Bath, a Dr Haygarth, began to wonder about the cure. He tried the same thing with blocks of wood, painted to look like metal. He found the results were the same. This led him to write a book which also has a wonderful title, it is called: ‘Of the Imagination, of the Cause and Cure of Disorders, exemplified by Fictitious Tractors.’

Charles Mackay seems to be largely remembered now for his analysis of financial disasters, economic bubbles and the way that humans, no matter how intelligent they are, fail to see the inevitable consequence of investing in something that has no intrinsic value. He mentions tulipomania, which I have also covered elsewhere. Really, you just have to look at the dot com boom, property investment and the selling of debts that will never be repaid to see that we have learned nothing, and probably never will.

But there is a lot more to Charles than that. There’s a whole other volume that I haven’t touched on which talks about the religious fervour and hope of economic and political gain that fuelled the Crusades. He also talks about the obsession people once had with witches. 03 27 matthew hopkinsWitch Finder General, Matthew Hopkins, liked to tie his victim, generally an old lady, to a chair and then wait. If any insects came and settled on her, he declared them her familiars. One poor lady was declared a witch after being visited by four flies called Ilemezar, Peck-in-the-Crown, Grizel-Greedigut and Pye-Wacket. I can’t help thinking this says more about Matthew Hopkins than it does about his poor victim. Matthew himself died as a result of being accused of witchcraft. Someone got a bit fed up of it all and declared that he had got his list of witches from the Devil.

There is also a chapter about the way people have come to love daring criminals like Robin Hood and Dick Turpin. Perhaps, he says, it is because people love an adventurer. Or perhaps it is that they love a story where the undeservedly rich are cheated of their wealth. Clearly I have fallen victim to this particular madness myself, as my post about Jack Sheppard is probably the longest I’ve ever written. If you want to know more about what he has to say about ghosts, about fortune tellers, about holy relics, seek out his work at internet archive. It’s a little ponderous but quite readable.

I’ll finish up for today by telling you about a couple of popular phrases that have captured peoples imaginations and then disappeared into obscurity. He calls them ‘the harmless follies and whimsies of the poor’. In London, there was once a time when you could answer any question or finish any argument with the simple word ‘Quoz’, and everyone thought it was hilarious. Why did this happen? ‘Quoz’. Why did I suddenly decide to start writing a huge essay every day on a subject I previously knew nothing about? ‘Quoz’. See? It still works. This was replaced by: ‘What a shocking bad hat!’ Anyone wearing a hat that was just a little bit worn would face a chorus of ‘What a shocking bad hat!’ as they passed by. It became easier to buy a new hat, even if you couldn’t really afford one. If you appeared annoyed by the taunt, people would remove your hat, drop it in the mud, lift it out with a stick and pronounce again ‘What a shocking bad hat!’. Probably my favourite though, was addressed to adolescent boys who hang around on street corners imagining themselves all grown up and alpha-male. It is: ‘Does your mother know you’re out?’ It made them absolutely furious and also rather humiliated.

Chaos and Custard

03 26 fred karnoToday is the birthday of Fred Karno, an acrobat turned theatre impresario who helped launch the careers of Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin. He is credited with popularising the custard pie in the face gag. He was born Frederick John Westcott in Exeter, Devon in 1866. Shortly after that his family moved to Nottingham. Fred took up an apprenticeship as a plumber, but when he went to do some work at a gymnasium, he was so taken with it that he signed up for instruction. Fred, it turned out, was a natural athlete. Then he met a travelling juggler and wire-walker named Alvene and begged to be taken on as his assistant. It was around that time that the plumber to whom he was apprenticed died and Fred took to the life of a travelling performer.

He worked in circuses, pantomime, music hall and at what he felt was every fair in the country. It was a hard life and he soon found himself in London hanging out at ‘poverty corner’ opposite Waterloo Station where theatrical agents knew they could always find out of work performers in need of employment. To supplement his income, Fred kept a glazier’s kit at home. He and a partner would walk the streets shouting ‘winders a mend’. 03 26 the kidIf there were no windows to be mended, he was not above sending his partner ahead to break a few. Charlie Chaplin would one day use this stunt in his film ‘The Kid’.

His music hall career really took off when he and two other acrobats were asked to fill in for a troupe called ‘The Three Carnoes’. They were asked to stay on and, as no one realised they weren’t the real Carnoes, they named themselves ‘The Three Karnoes’. Fred began performing as Fred Karno and in 1895 he began to introduce music hall audiences to short mime sketches that were re-workings of his circus acts. Fred had introduced slapstick to the stage. He drew on his knowledge of clowning from his circus days and, by 1901, he had four action-packed sketches. They included ‘Jail Birds’, where prisoners played tricks on the warders and ‘Early Birds’, about a small man who beats a huge East End ruffian. Four sketches might not seem like very much but in those days, it was possible to perform the same material for years. He became so well known that people would come to see a show just because it had his name on it. This meant that he was able to give breaks to unknown young actors. Two of these were Arthur Jefferson (who would later become Stan Laurel) and Charlie Chaplin.

Fred was a master of publicity, it was a trick that he learned from theatre manager Arthur Jefferson senior, the father of Stan Laurel. Arthur had a portable zoo cage with a lion inside that was mauling a dummy which he exhibited around Glasgow. For a different show, he sent round a hansom cab with a man inside who had a dummy knife sticking out of him. For his sketch Jail Birds, Fred bought a Black Maria (the name of a police vehicle used 03 26 keystone copsto transport prisoners) and decorated it with streamers proclaiming ‘Fred Karno’s Jail Birds’. He drove it about filled with actors dressed as policemen, warders and convicts. Sometimes the convicts would ‘escape’, particularly during rush hour, and be chased about. Echoes of this stunt can be seen in the antics of The Keystone Cops in early silent movies. It was the Keystone Studio that first signed Charlie Chaplin.

His name became synonymous with anything that was chaotic and badly organised. There was even a popular First World War song called ‘Fred Karno’s Army’. But Fred trained his actors carefully, not only in the art of slapstick, but also showed them how they could gain the audiences sympathy. He believed that the best laughs came when a character didn’t know what was going to happen to him but the audience did. Which is where the custard pie in the face thing comes in.

03 26 fred karno's fun factoryWhen I first wrote about Fred Karno a year ago, who I had then never heard of, I discovered an amazing coincidence. He bought two houses in Camberwell and knocked them into one. It was his home, his office, a rehearsal space and a warehouse for theatrical props and costumes. He called it his ‘Fun Factory’. This is a photograph taken there in 1907. In the 1980s, the building was turned into artists’ studios and I found out that my friend Andrew used to have a studio there. In 2008, they all recreated this photograph, you can see it here.


03 25 canalettoThis day in 421 marks the founding of the beautiful city of Venice. I was surprised that we can be so specific about an event that happened so long ago. Especially when I found out that it happened at exactly 12 noon. A whole city, born in a single moment. The event this date commemorates is the founding of the first church, San Giacomo on the islet of Rialto. March 25th is also the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary with important news, so probably it was a propitious day to found a new city.

The first citizens of Venice were largely refugees fleeing their homes following invasions of Attila the Hun and other tribes from the north as the Western Roman Empire began to crumble. Venice sits on a lagoon which is protected from the sea by a chain of low islands in the north east of Italy, It was a good site for a settlement because it was difficult to reach from land and only the people who lived there knew how to navigate its waterways. But building there was a huge problem. The islands are small and the ground is soft. So the city sits partly on land and partly on water. In order to build foundations, people had to 03 25 santa maria della salutedrive wooden piles into the silt and build on top of them. Wood doesn’t sound like a great material to hold up massive stone buildings. You’d think it would have rotted away, but because the wood is underwater, the micro-organisms that cause decay can’t grow the way they would in the open air. Also there are a lot of them. This church, Santa Maria Della Salute was built on over a million of them, each measuring 4 metres in length. The city is made up of 117 islands, so where a city would usually have streets, Venice has 177 canals. The streets it does have are really just the left over spaces between buildings. The narrowest is just 53 cm wide.

Although a collection of muddy islands wasn’t the most sensible place to build a city, it was excellently placed for trade between western Europe, the still thriving Eastern Empire of Byzantium and the Far East via the Silk Road. Venice became a rich and thriving centre for trade and by the thirteenth century was the most prosperous city in Europe. It was from this Venice that Marco Polo set out, in 1271, on a massive journey overland via the Silk Road to China. His journey lasted twenty-four years. In 1299, a book was published about his travels. It’s a rather fanciful account, that was written by a man named Rusticello. Marco Polo narrated the stories of his adventures whilst the two were both imprisoned following a war between Venice and Genoa.

03 25 marco poloRusticello was a writer of romances, so it’s rather hard to pick out which parts of Marco’s story might be true. He mentions a place where there used to be an island populated by a race of dog headed people, encountered serpents with teeth that could swallow a man and a unicorn. From his description, these are clearly crocodiles and a rhinoceros. He also mentions that the Chinese used paper money and burned coal, both of which were unknown in Europe. The book also claims that he became an important person at the court of Kublai Khan at Xanadu. Marco Polo’s recounted tales were widely read and inspired many to set off on their own adventures. Columbus carried his own, heavily annotated, copy when he set off on his journey that led to the discovery of the Americas. It is also the original source of Coleridge’s famous poem. During his lifetime, people found his stories rather unbelievable and even now there are those who doubt that he ever went to China at all. There is no historical evidence to support the claims made in the book. Marco himself claimed: “I did not tell half of what I saw.”

Kublai Khan died before Marco arrived back in Venice which caused the fragmentation of the Mongol Empire and the closing of the Silk Road. This would eventually lead to new sea routes being found to the Far East and the declining importance of Venice as a centre of trade. It was ravaged several times by plague. In 1630, a third of the population died. But the city still had it’s beauty and it became an important stop on the Grand Tour. This was a city that encouraged pleasure. It was famous for its masked Carnival, for its gambling houses and for its courtesans. This was the Venice that gave birth to Giacomo Casanova in 1725.

03 25 casanovaCasanova also spent much of his life travelling and his adventures also made it into print. But Casanova’s life was very different, he lived on his wits. Sometimes he was lucky, sometimes he wasn’t. He made his living variously as soldier, a musician, a gambler, a medic, an astrologer, a spy and a librarian. He was also quite a prolific writer. Among other things, he translated the Iliad and wrote a sort of science fiction novel called ‘Icosaméron’, which is about a brother and sister who fall into hidden world beneath the surface of the Earth. It is populated by a race of dwarves who feed mainly by breastfeeding each other. But he is now best remembered for his ‘Histoire de Ma Vie’, the story of his life.

His first big break was when he happened to save the life of a Venetian nobleman after he suffered a stroke. The nobleman adopted him and Casanova lived a grand life until he was arrested by the Inquisition. Among the charges were: cheating at cards, blasphemy and occult practices. He was imprisoned in the Doge’s Palace, but escaped through the roof along with a disgraced monk. After that, he was exiled from Venice but famous for his daring escape. He spent the next eighteen years criss-crossing Europe. He travelled around 40,000 miles. Made a fortune running a lottery in France and lost it gambling. He was involved in duel in Poland and frequented the literary salons of Geneva. He met with Voltaire, Catherine the Great and Benjamin Franklin. He got around. Unlike the travels of Marco Polo his adventures are supported by historical evidence.

Casanova’s name is now synonymous with ‘philanderer’ and he is best known for his many sexual conquests. His autobiography was not published until 1822 and it was very heavily edited. Histoire de Ma Vie was not published in full until 1960 and not translated into English until 1966. Giacomo Casanova was remarkably honest about his relationships, his successes and his failures. He opens his memoirs by saying: “I was all my life the victim of my senses; I have delighted in going astray and I have constantly lived in error, with no other consolation than that of knowing I have erred. … My follies are the follies of youth. You will see that I laugh at them, and if you are kind you will laugh at them with me.”


03 24 tunnel harryThe night of March 24th marks the anniversary of the “Great Escape” from Stalag Luft III, a prisoner of war camp in Poland, in 1944. It isn’t a story that ends well. Of the seventy-six men who escaped, only three made it back to British soil. The others were recaptured and fifty of them were shot, which was clearly not brilliant. However, for a brief time they were all free and it is a magnificent story.

The site of Stalag Luft III, which opened in March 1942, had a number of features which made it particularly difficult to tunnel out of. Firstly, all the huts that housed the prisoners were raised about 2 ft (60cm) from the ground to make it easier for the guards to detect any digging. Secondly, it was built on very sandy soil that made tunnelling difficult. At surface the sand was bright yellow, deeper down it was dark grey. So if anyone digging tried to hide the darker subsoil on the sandy surface, it would be easily detectable. There were also seismograph microphones all around the camp’s perimeter that were supposed to detect digging.

Stalag Luft III is best known for two famous escapes that took place there. On both occasions, the prisoners tunnelled out. The first occasion, in October 1943, involved a sort of modern day Trojan Horse. The prisoners took a vaulting horse out into the yard and would spend the day jumping over it. What the guards didn’t know was that there was someone hidden inside the horse. While everyone else was jumping, he was digging. Every day, the entrance to the tunnel was concealed with boards and covered with sand. Every day, they came back and dug a bit more. Three men were able to escape, all made it home and there was no loss of life. So arguably it was more successful than the escape of March 24th. But it was not on such a grand scale.

The second escape plan involved six hundred prisoners and it was hoped that two hundred of them might get away. It was a massive operation that took around a year to complete. Under the command of Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, they began to dig three tunnels at once. The idea being that if one was discovered, their guards would not imagine that there were another two tunnels well underway. The three tunnels were named ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’. Tom was begun in a dark corner, next to a chimney, Dick, in a drain in a washroom and Harry, underneath a stove. The tunnels were very deep, about 30 ft (9 m) below ground, and very small, about 2ft (60cm) square. They shored up the sides with wood scavenged from around the camp. Mostly they used the boards that held up the mattresses on their beds. Each bed had twenty boards. After their escape, each bed was found to have 03 24 klimabout eight boards left. Another massively useful resource were ‘Klim’ cans. These were cans of powdered milk supplied by the Red Cross. They could be used to make scoops, candle holders and later, as the tunnels became longer, to build ventilation ducts. The candles, they made by skimming the fat off their soup and they used scraps of old clothing to make wicks. They built air pumps out of bits of beds, hockey sticks, knapsacks and Klim cans to keep the diggers supplied with fresh air. Guards were bribed with chocolate, coffee and cigarettes from their rations and they provided civilian clothes, maps, railway timetables and official paperwork. All things that they would need on the outside.

Dumping the soil was, of course, difficult. Mostly they sprinkled it onto the ground from concealed pouches in their clothing. Sometimes they dug it into the soil while they were digging their garden. When it began to snow, they ran out of places to hide the soil outside. They decided to tip it underneath the floor of a theatre building that was part of the camp. Tunnel Dick became unusable when the camp was expanded, covering its planned exit. So they partly refilled it with excavated soil. The entrance to tunnel Tom was discovered in September 1943. It was the 98th tunnel to be discovered at the camp. All work on Harry ceased until January 1944.

The escape was planned for the summer, but they brought their plans forward to the moonless night of March 24th because security was being tightened up. There were two groups of one hundred who planned to get away. The first group, the ‘serial offenders’ were those who had a history of escaping, spoke German, or who had just put in an awful lot of effort. The second group, the ‘hard arses’ were determined by drawing lots. They would need to travel at night as they spoke little or no German and had only basic forged paperwork. They all gathered in hut 104 where the entrance was.

As they crawled through one at a time, the first thing they discovered was that the tunnel exit was frozen solid. When they got out, they found that their escape route was not quite so well hidden by trees as they had hoped. Also, it had been snowing. The route of their escape would be clearly seen by daylight because of the dark muddy trail they would leave behind them. Also the tunnel collapsed at about one in the morning and had to be repaired. Seventy-six men managed to get away. The seventy-seventh was caught. As I said at the beginning. Seventy three of the men were recaptured. Hitler personally ordered them all to be shot., along with the camp Commandant, the security officer, all the guards that were on duty and even the camp’s architect. Fifty of the prisoners were shot, which was very much against the Geneva Convention and everyone was very shocked by it. In July a notice went up in all allied POW camps. It read: “THE ESCAPE FROM PRISON CAMPS IS NO LONGER A SPORT”.

After the escape, an inventory was made at the camp to find out what was missing. Here is a list of the things that the prisoners had taken:

  • 4,000 bed boards
  • 90 double bunk beds
  • 635 mattresses
  • 192 bed covers
  • 161 pillow cases
  • 52 twenty-man tables
  • 10 single tables
  • 34 chairs
  • 76 benches
  • 1,212 bed bolsters
  • 1,370 beading battens
  • 1,219 knives
  • 478 spoons
  • 582 forks
  • 69 lamps
  • 246 water cans
  • 30 shovels
  • 300 m (1,000 ft) of electric wire
  • 180 m (600 ft) of rope
  • 3,424 towels
  • 1,700 blankets
  • 1,400 Klim cans

All Safe

03 23 elisha graves otisToday I am celebrating the life of Elisha Graves Otis who, on this day in 1857, installed the first elevator that was able to safely carry human passengers at 448 Broadway, Manhattan. The E V Haughwout Building didn’t strictly need an elevator. At five storeys high, it was no taller than many of the other buildings in New York. It was a store that sold cut glass, silverware, hand painted china and chandeliers. Its owner knew that people would come to see the elevator and hopefully stay to buy his wares.

Simple hoists had been around For a very long time. The first recorded example was a device built by Archimedes in the third century BC. The Romans used hoists at the Colosseum to raise wild animals from its underground labyrinth up to the floor of the arena. King Louis XV of France had a device installed at Versailles that he called a ‘flying chair’. It allowed his mistresses to visit him in secret. It seems to have been a sort of cabinet that the user hauled up and down by pulling on a rope. King Louis and his mistresses were exceedingly lucky that the rope held out. Early hoists had one major flaw. If the rope broke the whole thing just plummeted to the ground.

Elisha Otis was a born tinkerer. He invented an automatic lathe that could turn out bedsteads four times faster than a human could make them. After that he started designing a safety brake for trains and an automatic bread oven. In 1851 he moved to Yonkers, New York and took over an old sawmill. He wanted to turn it into a bedstead factory, but there was a lot of stuff that needed moving first. He really needed a hoist to move things from floor to floor but he knew they were unreliable and sometimes broke. He and his two sons applied themselves to the problem. They hit on a way of improving the safety by adding brakes to the mechanism. If the hoist should fall at excessive speed, there were rollers that would lock the elevator into its guides and prevent it from falling to the ground.

He didn’t patent the device immediately. In fact, he did not patent it until 1861. But when the bedstead making didn’t work out he built and sold three of his improved ‘safety hoisters’ in 1853. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a great business man back then. When he made his first sale, he accepted a cannon and its carriage in part payment. By the end of the year his company was worth only $122.71, and that’s only if you include two petrol cans and a second hand lathe.

03 23 elisha otis1854Luckily, he was rescued by P T Barnum who helped him inject a bit of showmanship into the operation. He paid Otis $100 to bring his contraption to his ‘World’s Fair’ at the Crystal Palace in New York. There, he was suspended high above the crowds on a platform that was held in place by a single rope. Doffing his top hat, he waited for the crowd’s attention then instructed an assistant to cut through the rope with an axe. His audience were terrified when the platform began to plunge floorward, it fell about two feet and then the spring operated brakes came into effect. He announced calmly “All safe, gentleman. All safe.”

After this his business improved considerably. For the rest of 1854, he sold one elevator a month. In 1855 they almost doubled and then doubled again the following year. and he modified his invention so that it was able to carry people from floor to floor safely. By the 1860s his invention had made it possible to increase the height of buildings considerably. Even when modern materials allowed people to build 20, 30 or 40 storeys high, those buildings would have been useless without Elisha’s elevator.

While I was reading about elevators today, I discovered that the first elevator shaft pre-dated the first elevator by four years. The Cooper Union Building was designed with a shaft because Mr Cooper was pretty confident that someone would soon invent the elevator to go inside it. He chose to build a cylindrical shaft. Later, Otis designed a special elevator to go inside it.


03 22 virginia oldoini 1Since the invention of digital photography and social media it is not uncommon for people to amass hundreds of photos of themselves. In the nineteenth century, that was not so easy to achieve. Virginia Oldoini, the Countess da Castiglione managed to provide us with over 400 pictures of herself between 1856 and her death in 1899 and it is her birthday that I am celebrating today.

She was born in Florence in 1837 and was the daughter of a Tuscan marquis. At seventeen, she married an Italian Count, but it was not a happy marriage, she had numerous affairs and extravagantly spent all his money, eventually leaving him bankrupt. In 1856 the couple visited Paris and she was urged by her cousin to plead the case for the unification of Italy with Emperor Napoleon III. Italy was then, not a single nation but a collection of city states.  Her instructions were “succeed by any means you wish, but succeed.” She dazzled everyone at the French Court with her beauty. At a ball hosted by the Emperor, her entrance caused such a sensation that the even the orchestra stopped what they were doing to look at her. It wasn’t long before she became Napoleon’s mistress. The affair caused such a scandal that it led to her divorce.

03 22 virginia oldoini 4It was during her affair with Napoleon III that she first visited the studio of Mayer & Pierson and discovered the delights of photography. She was terribly self absorbed and narcissistic and probably quite annoying to know. The Princess Metternich, wife of the Austrian ambassador, described her thus: “Wonderful hair, the waist of a nymph, and a complexion the colour of pink marble! In a word, Venus descended from Olympus!…after a few moments… she began to get on your nerves.” After her first portrait she went back again and again but she was no passive subject. She literally called the shots. With the help of photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, she began to recreate moments from her life and the beautiful and sensational gowns she had worn. Then, she began to dress up as historical, mythical or fictional characters. In one photo she might be a courtesan, in another a nun. When her ex-husband tried to get custody of their only child, Giorgio, she 03 22 virginia oldoini 5sent him a photograph of herself dressed as Medea holding a dagger dripping with blood. She would choose costumes, props, even camera angles and directed the hand colouring of some of the pictures. She became totally obsessed with her own image, spending all her money and even getting into debt in the process. Virginia Oldoini enjoyed particularly using mirrors in her photographs. Even when she was capturing her image for posterity, she was looking at herself. Some of her later photographs have an almost surrealist quality. There are photographs that are of just her legs, which was not only unusual but quite shocking for the time. There is even a photograph of her, from the waist down, lying in a coffin.

03 22 virginia oldoini 2As she grew older she became reclusive, living in an apartment of rooms painted black. The blinds were kept drawn, there were now no mirrors and she only ventured out at night. This made her very mysterious and intriguing to a poet and dandy named Robert de Montesquiou. He loved the idea of a great beauty locked away in darkened rooms. He really wanted to meet her, but the Countess was then living a rather squalid existence and she declined to receive him. After she died in 1899, he claimed that he arrived at her funeral just in time to glimpse her face as the lid of her coffin was shut. When her possessions were disposed of, he bought her nightgowns and 433 of her photographs. He also composed her biography ‘La Divine Comtesse’. It is clear from her later photographs that she was mourning her fading beauty. Although her life long project was born of extreme narcissism the photographs are beautiful and it is a truly unique 19th century record of one woman’s life.

03 22 virginia oldoini 3