She Who Dares

07 22 hoorayI started this blog on July 23rd last year, with the hope of finding something interesting to tell you about each day of the year, so today’s post will be my last one, for the foreseeable future at least. It’s been difficult to find something that I’m happy to finish on. Looking back at some of my favourite recurring themes over the last twelve months, I probably wouldn’t be happy with anything less than a daredevil hoaxer, with a side interest in alchemy, who also happened to be a woman. Unfortunately, no such person exists, but if I ever write a work of fiction, I know what the central character is going to be like. In the mean time, here is a picture of me celebrating my achievement with a cake and a massive sword..

07 22 maria spelteriniBut I do have a daredevil to tell you about. On this day in 1876, Maria Spelterini, walked over the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope. It was the last of four crossings that she made as part of the celebration of the US centennial. If you’re thinking this story might have a tragic end, it doesn’t. She lived until 1912. Several people crossed the gorge in the second half of the nineteenth century but Maria was the only woman. She made four crossings between the 8th and the 22nd. She walked across and she danced across. She crossed it backwards, she crossed with a paper bag on her head and she crossed with large peach baskets strapped to her feet. Honestly, you can see them in this photograph. On July 22nd, she crossed with her ankles and wrists manacled.

Unfortunately, I can tell you very little else about Maria. Most sources insist that she was Italian, but there is one that suggests she was German. She seems to have begun her career in her father’s circus at the age of three and to have performed around Europe and Russia. I also found a report that she crossed the bay at Jersey City, on a wire 125 ft high, in a thunderstorm.

The bridge that you can see in the background is was once used by the Underground Railroad to secretly transport enslaved African Americans to freedom in Canada. The Niagara Suspension Bridge was the first permanent bridge to cross the gorge and it opened in 1855. But before that, there was a temporary bridge, which is worth a mention. It was built by a rather flamboyant character called Charles Ellet Jr. In order to bridge the gorge, he first had to get a rope across. He thought about towing it across on a steamer, he though about attaching it to a cannonball or rocket and firing it across. In the end, he decided to run a competition.

The first child to fly a kite across the gorge and tie the kite string to the other side would win $5. Young people flocked from nearby towns to participate. The $5 was won by sixteen-year-old Homan Walsh, who flew his kite from the Canadian side of the river. The kite string was used to pull increasingly heavy lines over the gorge until they managed to secure a cable that was almost an inch thick. Charles wanted to use the cable to transport materials across without having to take them down to the river. They tested it with an 07 22 ellet's basketempty metal basket, but it kept getting stuck halfway. The whole operation had attracted quite a crowd of onlookers so, to assure them it was going to work, he climbed into the basket himself and was hauled across. He spotted that the cable had been flattened and the basket’s rollers were getting stuck. He fixed it and was pulled over to the other side. So Charles Eller Jr was the first person to cross the gorge. The basket worked very well after that. In fact, people used to pay him a dollar to ride in it. Even though he had been expressly forbidden to do so, he sometimes took around a hundred and twenty-five passengers a day.

When the bridge was finished, he was the first to cross it, in his horse and buggy, standing, like a gladiator. The 700 ft bridge only had railings along one third of its length. In the first year of its operation, $5,000 had been collected in tolls. Charles and the bridge company fell out over the money. He ended up mounting cannons on the bridge and claiming ownership of it. Eventually he was paid off and someone else built the permanent bridge.

07 22 mary toftAs I couldn’t find the ideal candidate for my last post, I’d like to leave you with a hoaxer and an alchemist, neither have birthdays that I can celebrate, but both are women. Firstly, Mary Toft was born about 1701 in Godalming, Surrey. When she was about twenty-five, she managed to convince some fairly eminent physicians that she had given birth to rabbits. At first she brought forth only parts of animals, but later seemed to produce whole rabbits. I won’t go into the details of how she did this, because it’s fairly disgusting and it’s a wonder she didn’t develop some sort of infection. Mary had been pregnant, but had miscarried after, she claimed, she had seen a rabbit whilst out working in the fields. After that, she had become obsessed with rabbits and couldn’t think of anything else. There was, at that time, a widely held belief that a child could be physically affected by what its mother had seen during her pregnancy. A similar story was ascribed to the mother of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. Many thought a woman capable of producing a small, mouse-like creature known as a ‘sooterkin’. Some doctors believed Mary, others were more sceptical, especially when she later gave birth to a pigs bladder that smelled of urine. When she finally admitted the hoax, it ruined the reputations of those who had believed her. Mary was imprisoned for a while, but then released, as no one could think of anything to charge her with.

Finally, I want to tell you about a lady who is variously called Mary or Maria the Jewess or, alternatively, Mary or Miriam the Prophetess. According to tradition, Mary was the sister of Moses, but she could have lived at any time up the the first century AD. She is known as the first alchemist of the western world. None of her writing survives. But it is referred to in the works of later alchemists, in connection with the first description of acid salt and 07 22 bain marierecipes for turning plants into gold. She in credited with having invented several items of chemical apparatus, including a sort of double flask. The outer flask in filled with liquid that can be used to heat whatever is in the inside flask. So if you put water in the outside flask and heat it up, whatever is on the inside can never get any hotter than the boiling water. It is still used today by chemists who require gentle heat for their experiments. And by me, for melting chocolate. This type of apparatus still bears her name. It is a ‘bain marie’, Mary’s bath.

This Too Shall Pass

07 04 flagsToday is, of course, United States Independence Day. So everyone there will be enjoying an extra day off. There will be parades and picnics, concerts barbecues and fireworks displays. If you are an American citizen I truly wish you a wonderful day and I’m glad your independence has worked out so well for you. Here in the UK however, our own new and largely unlooked for independence is not going so well. Seriously, we must look like a bunch of idiots to the rest the world right now. So, I’d like to say, that if you’ve seen a very rude and stupid man called Farage spouting off in the EU, he doesn’t speak for all of us. We think he’s awful. This man pretty much sums up my feelings on the subject right now, but don’t click on the link unless you enjoy swearing. In case you’ve never seen him before, Jonathan Pie is a performer, not a reporter, but he’s always pretty much spot on about these things.

So, I’m going to leave humanity aside for a moment, to tell you that Koko the gorilla was born in San Francisco Zoo on this day in 1971. Koko has learned a form of sign language which means she is able to communicate with humans. What began as a piece of research for a Ph.D. thesis in 1972 has become a life long relationship between Koko and Dr. Francine Patterson. She says Koko can now understand around 2,000 English words and 1,000 signs. She is even able to put signs together to make new words. For example, when she didn’t know the word for ‘ring’, she was able to put together the words ‘finger’ and ‘bracelet’ to make herself understood. Similarly she had put together the words ‘eye’ and ‘hat’ to mean ‘mask’ and ‘trouble surprise’ for ‘crazy’. She is also able to recognise herself in a mirror, which is unusual for gorillas.

In 1983 she asked if she could have a cat. She was given a toy cat, but that wasn’t good enough. She refused to play with it and kept making the sign for ‘sad’. So on her birthday in 1984 she was allowed a kitten, who she named All Ball. She was very gentle with the kitten, treating it like a baby gorilla.

All Ball was the first of five cats that she has cared for. Although she is clearly delighted by her pets, their relationships have also revealed her ability to lie. On one occasion, whilst feeling particularly destructive, she managed to tear a sink from the wall in her enclosure. When she was asked how it had happened, she replied that the kitten had done it.

07 04 rube goldberg 1928Ah, even animals lie to us, maybe I’ll stick with humans. There seem to be loads of famous American humans who celebrate their birthday today. But out of all of them, I think I want to tell you about Rube Goldberg, who was born in San Francisco in 1883. Goldberg loved drawing but, on his father’s advice, trained to be an engineer and wound up working for the San Francisco sewer department. He didn’t like it very much and soon left to take a job as a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle and later, the New York Evening Mail. He drew political cartoons which earned him the Pulitzer Prize and also a lot of hate mail. So much that he persuaded his sons, George and Thomas, to the change their surnames. Thomas chose the name George and George liked it as well, so they became Thomas George and George George.

07 04 hat tipperGoldberg’s time spent in engineering was not wasted because he became most famous for his cartoons featuring a character called Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts. A character who he later admitted was based on a couple of his university professors. Professor Butts built extremely complicated machines that performed simple tasks in a very round about way. Perhaps he was inspired by devices like this one, on the right, What it does is lift your hat from your head, rotate it slightly then drop it back down again. It was a serious invention that was patented in 1896. What was its purpose? So that you could still greet someone politely, even if your hands were full.

The name Rube Goldberg is now synonymous with any overly complex apparatus. There is even a national Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. This year, the winners found an extremely tortuous way of opening an umbrella.

07 04 self operating napkin

In the UK we use the term ‘Heath Robinson’ in a similar way. There’s something terribly satisfying about watching a ‘Rube Goldberg’ machine in action. They are universally appealing. You can find them in Sesame Street. You can find them in the Saw films. But, as I opened today by giving you a link to a video of a furious man, I thought maybe we could have a look at this OK GO video, which never fails to cheer me up.

Up, Up And Away

06 04 montgolfiersToday, I am celebrating the first public demonstration of the hot air balloon by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783. There were sixteen Montgolfier siblings. I don’t know much about the others but I can say they were, and still are, a family of paper makers. For today though, I shall focus on Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne.

A year earlier, Joseph had been sitting by his fire musing, for some reason, on the fortress of Gibraltar which was impossible to attack by either land or sea. There was laundry drying over the fire and as he watched it billow upward in the rising hot air, he began to wonder whether an air attack might be possible. Joseph was an inventive sort of a chap and he built himself a very thin wooden frame about 3 ft x 3 ft x 4 ft which he covered in taffeta. He put crumpled paper underneath and lit it. The box rose into the air and hit the ceiling. He demonstrated it to his brother Étienne who was extremely impressed and they set about building another three times the size. Before they had even finished filling it with hot air, the contraption floated away. It landed in a field over a mile distant. We don’t know exactly what happened but Étienne tells us that it was destroyed due to the ‘indiscretion of  passers by’.

Étienne, who was the more practical of the two, was concerned that someone else might steal their idea and wrote to a friend in Paris asking him to mention it at the Academy of Science. He could see how it could be used to carry messages, goods, even people, relatively cheaply. But he didn’t send any drawings so his friend didn’t know what on earth he was talking about and kept the letter to himself.

Even so, they set about building a much larger model which was spherical in shape and made from sackcloth. They had lined it with paper to help keep the air in and it was made in four pieces which were held together with 1,800 buttons.

On June 4th, a small crowd gathered in their home town of Annonay to witness a large but uninspiring sackcloth bag being strung between two poles. The weather was not good but there was a diocesan assembly in town which meant that there were a lot of important people around. They lit a brazier near the eight foot square opening of the bag. It soon began to fill with air and four men were needed to hold it down with ropes. As soon as they let go the balloon leapt five or six thousand feet into the air and was carried for about a mile and a half. Unfortunately a last minute decision to fasten the brazier beneath the balloon meant that it caught fire when it landed. People working nearby were too frightened of the strange object to put out the fire so it was quickly consumed by the flames. Still, everyone was pretty amazed and the king soon got to hear about it.

On 19th September they were able to demonstrate an even bigger balloon to King Louis XVI and Marie-Antionette at Versailles. It was made of blue taffeta and decorated in gold with suns and signs of the zodiac. It must have been an incredible sight. Also this balloon was to carry passengers. The king had wanted to launch two criminals but instead the inventors decided on a sheep, a duck and a cockerel. The sheep was chosen because it was the approximate size and weight of a human, the duck because it could fly and wouldn’t come to much harm and the cockerel to see what would happen to a bird that didn’t usually fly much at all. The flight lasted eight minutes, achieved a height of around 1,500 ft, covered about two miles and landed safely.

06 04 manned flightIn October, the first tethered flight was made with a human passenger, and the following month, the first free flight. The balloon travelled around five and a half miles and landed with enough fuel to have flown four or five times the distance. In fact, it landed with so much fuel it almost caught fire. Nevertheless, it was a huge sensation. Engravings were made to commemorate the event. You could buy mantel clocks with balloons painted on the face, crockery decorated with balloons, even balloon-backed chairs. Everyone was very excited, and rightly so.

The following year saw the first ever female aeronaut, so it’s worth celebrating her as well today as we know little else about her, other than the fact that she was the abandoned spouse of a Lyon merchant. She is especially worth celebrating as she was dressed as the goddess Minerva and sang a couple of duets with her co-passenger as they flew. Her name was Élisbeth Thible and her friend was a Monsieur Fleurant. He credited her with the success of the flight as she had been the one who fed the fuel into the firebox all the way.


04 12 blickensderfer typewrtierToday I am celebrating the patenting of the first portable typewriter in 1892 and I am writing it on my first portable computer, for reasons that may become clear later. Also, I am celebrating the fact that it was invented by a man named George Canfield Blickensderfer. What a brilliant name. Here it is on the right… The typewriter, not my computer. I rather like it. It has some sort of insect quality that I can’t quite put my finger on. It looks as though it belongs in more in David Cronenberg’s ‘Naked Lunch’ than in the real world.

Blickensderfer came up with the idea for a portable writing machine while he was travelling about selling his previous invention, which was also brilliant, but rather hard to describe. It was a kind of tiny railway that was used in large department stores; a store carrier service that could transport packages and money from different store counters to a central packing station and back. So you could take something to the counter and pay for it. It would be sent off in a little basket to a back room somewhere. Then come whizzing back, all wrapped up, along with your change.

He did quite a lot of travelling whilst he was selling his store carriers and he thought how useful it could be to write letters and invoices whilst on the train or in a hotel room. There were other typing machines around but mostly, they had two problems. Their design meant that you couldn’t see what you were typing until you scrolled the paper up and also they were very heavy and definitely desk bound. Blickensderfer invented the laptop model. You could see the letters as you typed them. He managed to redesign it so that it had fewer parts; only 250 as opposed to 2,500. He also made it much lighter, it was one fifth of the weight of other typewriters. The letters were embossed on a wheel instead of having a separate type bar attached to each key. 04 12 ibm typeballThis made it good for export as the type wheel was interchangeable and could be used for different languages. The Blickensderfer could be modified to type in Slovak, in Armenian, in Hebrew.  His wheel arrangement was reinvented in 1961 by IBM in their ‘Selectric’ model.

This interchangeable ball idea seems like a wonderfully easy solution to a person who may, for example, have tried to download Windows 10 onto her laptop which subsequently crashed potentially taking over a year’s worth of blog notes with it. So much easier to change your operating system in the 1890s.

Blickensderfer exhibited his machine at a trade fair at the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. He employed his secretary, a lady called May Munson who had bright red hair, to demonstrate the machine.  May and her typewriter attracted so much attention that it seems all the other typewriter manufacturers packed up their booths. The exhibition brought him hundreds of orders and his first export deals. By 1896, he was producing 10,000 machines a year.

Instead of using the QWERTY keyboard he used a different arrangement with the most common keys located on the bottom row. the idea was, that if the typist had their fingers mostly on the bottom row of keys, they wouldn’t have to move their hands as much and typing would be quicker. Like other alternative keyboard layouts, it didn’t really last. His alternate layout is known as DHIATENSOR, for obvious reasons if you look at one.

In 1900, he invented the the first electric typewriter. Although I read that its speed and efficiency was not matched until IBM came along with their reinvented writing ball, it doesn’t seem to have been very popular. Very few are still in existence.

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

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

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.

There’s No Future in It

03 19 workers leaving the factoryOn this day in 1895 the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis made their first film. ‘La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon’ is a forty-six second film showing workers leaving a factory in Lyons which belonged to their father Charles-Antoine. The Lumières were manufacturers of photographic equipment. Louis had invented a new way of producing photographic plates which was particularly popular and their factory turned out about fifteen million plates a year. This made Antoine a successful business man and, in 1894, he was invited to a demonstration of Edison’s new Peephole Kinetoscope in Paris. He was impressed but he thought it was horrendously expensive. He also felt his sons could do better. There were two basic problems with Edison’s machine. Firstly, it was absolutely enormous and could only be used in a studio. Secondly, it could only be viewed by one person at a time.

03 19 lumiere brothersThe Lumière brothers’ film is often referred to as the first ever moving picture, but this is not really true. Louis le Prince, whose work and subsequent mysterious disappearance I mentioned back in October, had filmed his ‘Roundhay Garden Scene’ some seven years earlier. I’ve no idea if the brothers were aware of le Prince’s work, but they certainly built upon the work of other earlier experimenters and their contribution is worth celebrating today too. Within months, they had come up with a machine that could capture images on film, develop them and also project the results. The camera was, compared to Edison’s, lightweight and portable, so they could film anywhere. The addition of a projector meant that they could show their films to a large audience. They called it the ‘cinématograph’.

The name cinématograph, they had from another French inventor, Léon Guillaume Bouly, who had also invented a camera that shot, developed and projected film in 1892. It’s hard to say how successful Bouly’s camera was, but by 1894 he was no longer able to keep up the patent and the Lumières bought it. They made one significant improvement. They added perforations to the edges of the film which allowed it to move through the camera much more steadily.

Auguste and Louis had the idea of adding perforations from Charles-Émile Reynaud who had made the first animated projected films. In 1877, Reynaud had improved on the zoetrope by adding a circle of mirrors in the centre of the machine. This meant you could view the moving images in the mirrors rather than squinting through a tiny slot in the side. He called it a ‘praxinoscope’. Two years later, he added a glass viewing screen through which you could see the reflection of a background scene. When the moving images were spun into life, they were superimposed against the background. By 1880, he 03 19 reynaudhad been able to use lamps to project both background and images onto a screen by using glass plates for his hand-drawn images. In 1888, he patented his ‘Théâtre Optique’ which was on a much grander scale. He abandoned the circular design in favour of using a much longer strip of film which was wound onto a spool. Glass was obviously not suitable, so he painted each image onto squares of gelatin. He fastened them all together with leather strips and added a metal strip with holes between each image. These holes engaged with pins in a revolving wheel and made sure that each image was lined up correctly. Reynaud back projected his images onto a translucent screen and was able to move his film strip backwards and forwards by hand. Although his Théâtre Optique was very popular to begin with, he was quickly overtaken by the Lumières’ Cinématographe. Sadly, little survives of his work because, in a fit of depression, he smashed up his machinery and threw all but two of his picture bands into the Seine.

The Lumière brothers films were an immediate and huge success. They had more cameras built and sent them all over the world, to film and to screen what they saw. Most of their films, like Workers Leaving the Factory, were documentary in nature, but they also produced the first comedy film. ‘L’Arroseur arrosé’, the sprinkler sprinkled, shows a gardener watering his garden with a hose. A boy steps on the hose. Gardener looks down hose, boy steps off, gardener gets sprayed in the face. It’s a classic really and probably the first film that might have had some sort of script. You can see it here. Despite this, they really saw no future in narrative film. They thought it was frivolous nonsense and refused to sell a camera to Georges Méliès when he wanted one.

In fact, they thought the whole thing would be a bit of a flash in the pan and quickly moved on to other things. In 1903 they patented ‘Autochrome Lumière’, a way of producing colour photographs. The images were on glass plates and could be projected, but it seems they never thought of making colour film. Autochrome photography was still popular up until the 1950s, even though other colour processes had been developed. Film, however, has lasted rather longer.

Transport Network

photo credit: chumwa, licensed under creative commons

Today is the anniversary of the birth of public transport, in Paris. It was in 1662. Les Carrosses à Cinq Sous were basically buses, although they were horse drawn. They had set routes that were divided into zones and you paid according to how many zones you travelled across. They also had crossing points where you could change from one route to another. It all sounds very much like modern metropolitan transport. There was even a circle line.

It was all the idea of mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal and his friend Artus Gouffier, the Duc de Roannez. Gouffier, when he wasn’t busy draining marshes, was pretty obsessed with transport. The streets of the city had been recently widened and that set them thinking about urban public transportation. There were cross country public coach services, but nothing in the city. There were people who had private coaches, but they were incredibly expensive and quite a status symbol.

From 1639 it was possible to rent a carriage or a sedan chair by the day, but it was still beyond the financial means of most Parisians. Together, they gathered investors, drew up contracts and got ‘lettres patentes’ from the King Louis XIV giving them a monopoly on their idea. Test runs at the end of February proved it was easy, with only one carriage to make four trips along their proposed route between 6am and 11am and the same between 2pm and 6pm. The new carriages were launched, in a blaze of publicity on March 18th 1662. There were newspaper advertisements and posters everywhere explaining about the new service. Twelve carriages would follow the route, so one would arrive every seven or eight minutes. So, even for those with their own carriage, it would be quicker to catch one than to have your own made ready. Each carriage could carry eight passengers, The fare would be five only sous, which was twenty-five times cheaper than hiring even the cheapest carriage for the day.

The carriages were extremely popular right from the start. Men and women of all classes used them and visitors to the city were rather shocked to find out how up close and personal it all was. It was such a huge success that, within weeks, a second route was announced. The two routes crossed near the Rue Saint-Denis, allowing passengers to change from one route to the other. More routes were added during the summer and, in June, a circular route was begun around the perimeter of the city which was divided into six zones. You could travel across two zones on a single ticket, but would have to pay again for a third.

There were a couple of snags that needed ironing out. It was dangerous for the drivers to carry large sums of money, so passengers were encouraged to present the exact change. In case the cab drivers were rude, each carriage was given a unique number, so it was easy to make a complaint. But the biggest problem was rich people. While some enjoyed the experience of meeting strangers and finding out all about their lives, others did not. Rather than hire a private carriage, they found it much easier to get on one of the Carosses, pay for all of the seats and refuse to let anyone else on. The practice was banned but soon a new law was introduced. For the comfort of the bourgeois, soldiers, servants and unskilled workers were no longer allowed to use the coaches. That didn’t go well. People started to throw stones at the carriages and they had to make another law that fined anyone who attacked cab drivers. From then on, their lovely transport for all, system was not really public any more.

The more well off people still loved them though. There was even a play about two couples who were driven apart and then reunited by public transport. It ran for four years. There was a husband who spent all day hopping between carriages flirting with strangers. His wife won him back by following him disguised as a mysterious masked woman. The other husband was stealing his wife’s jewels to fund his gambling habit. She disguised herself as a man, got in his carriage and managed to pick his pocket to get her jewellery back.

Blaise Pascal died in 1662 but Roannez kept his interest in the company until 1691. Shortly after that, the financial climate took a turn for the worse and nobody could afford to pay for carriages any more. Paris did not have public transport again until 1828 when the omnibus was introduced. Omnibus is a Latin word that means ‘for all’ and it has been shortened to give us the word ‘bus’.

03 18 horse bus

One Day I’ll Fly Away

03 08 burattini dragonToday is the birthday of Tito Livio Burattini, who was born at Agordo in northern Italy in 1617. Burattini explored and measured the inside of the Great Pyramid of Giza in the late 1630s with an English mathematician called John Greaves. But I don’t want to write about that today. He was also the first person to come up with the word metre for a standard unit of length. If your interested, it was first described as the length a pendulum needs to be to measure one second with each swing. But I don’t want to go into any more detail about that either. I don’t even want to tell you about the time he was running a mint in Poland and got into trouble for adding glass to the coins. Today, I want to tell you about Burattini’s flying machine.

As I’ve spent the last two days banging on about seventeenth century authors who wrote about imaginary flying machines, I thought it would be nice to tell you about someone who properly had a go at building one. In the 1640s Burattini went to live in Poland, where he worked as architect for King Wladislaw IV. In 1647, he built a working model of a flying machine. It is generally described as a glider, but it appears to have had moving parts, so perhaps it was an Ornithopter, a machine with wings that flap like a bird. It was four or five feet long and could rise into the air carrying a cat as a passenger. History does not record how the cat felt about this. Pierre des Noyers, who was secretary to the Queen of Poland, said it remained airborne as long as a man kept the feathers and wheels in motion by way of a string. It was demonstrated before the Polish court at the request of the King. He must have been impressed because Burattini was granted money from the Royal Treasury to build a full sized model.

By May 1648, he had built his ‘Dragon Volant’ (Flying Dragon). Again, according to des Noyers, it had four pairs of wings. The two middle pairs seem to have been fixed and were for lift. The rear pair also provided lift but, along with the pair at the front, were designed to flap, by means of pulleys, and propel it forwards. It also had a large tail which moved in all directions for steering. The tail was also meant to act as a float, in case of emergency landing on water. The machine was designed to carry a crew of three. Two operating the wings at either end and a ‘master of the ship’ in the middle. It also carried a large folding parachute in case the wings failed or they needed to slow its descent. Apparently, Burattini claimed that landing the craft would only cause the most minor of injuries, so that’s a comfort.

We are told that it was tested and did rise into the air, but was never completely successful. Burattini was convinced that it would work and that he would be able to use it to fly from Warsaw to Constantinople inside twelve hours, a distance of about a thousand miles. No one knows what happened to his machine. It may have been destroyed by the Swedes when they invaded Warsaw in 1655.

03 08 george cayleyIn my brief research today, I’ve actually found several attempts at human flight previous to Tito Livio Burattini. Mostly they end with someone simply falling off a tower or crashing through a roof. In 1540, there was João Torto, from Portugal. He made himself two large pairs of calico wings and also a helmet shaped like the head of an eagle. He crashed because the helmet slipped over his eyes. Some time in the sixteenth century, a French labourer built himself wings from two winnowing baskets and a coal shovel for a tail. He fell out of a pear tree into a drain. In 1600, there was Paolo Guidotti who built wings of whalebone, feathers and springs. He is reported to have flown a quarter of a mile before his arms grew tired. None of these people can really be described as having flown. They really only devised a means of falling more slowly. The first truly successful heavier than air flying machine would not be flown for over 150 years. It was built by someone who is, for me, a bit of a local boy as he was from Scarborough in North Yorkshire. George Cayley built a glider which he flew in 1804. He properly understood the principles of weight, lift, drag and thrust that you need to know about if you want to build an aircraft. He also knew the importance of cambered wings. His significance in the history of flight was acknowledged by the Wright brothers.