All That Glisters…

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESYou might have heard that the streets of London are paved with gold. Dick Whittington certainly thought so. I didn’t see any the last time I visited, but there may just be a grain of truth behind that story.

On this day in 1577 Martin Frobisher set sail from Harwich for the New World. Frobisher was a bit of a chancer, basically a pirate with a letter from the Queen saying that he could get on with his job. Ostensibly he was looking for the same Northwest Passage that everyone was looking for. Portugal controlled the shipping lanes all along the coast of Africa, so it was difficult for anyone else to trade with the Far East. They were hoping to find a northern route to China and India by finding a way to sail along the north coast of Canada. But Frobisher had a secret mission. He was looking for gold.

An earlier journey in 1576 to the same spot had not gone well. He set off with three ships but lost two of them on the way and five of his crew were captured by Inuit and never seen again. However, he was so confident that he has found the route, he named his landing place ‘Frobisher Passage’. They returned with a few bits and pieces they’d picked up, tokens of possession, including a small black stone “as great as a halfpenny loaf” if you can imagine such a thing. They didn’t think it was worth much to begin with. There is a story that one of the sailors was given a piece of it in payment for his services. His wife was so disgusted by it that she threw it into the fire, where it changed colour and sparkled “with a bright marquisette of gold”. Then, it was examined by experts and most of them thought it was pretty useless. Two men though, named Burchard Kranich and Jonas Schutz thought that it contained gold.

This was enough to send them on the second, much bigger, voyage. They scoured the West Country for miners to take with them and seem to have found only five. Arriving at what is now named Frobisher Bay in Canada, they spent twenty days mining ore and loading it onto their ships. They collected two hundred tons of ore. Significantly, they worked until their baskets wore out and their tools broke. This rather suggests that the men they brought may not have been miners at all, since they didn’t know how to repair the tools of their trade.

Oddly, they returned with only one hundred and forty tons of ore which was locked up in a castle in Bristol. Schutz claimed to have smelted some of the ore and found it to contain £40 worth of gold per ton. Most of it though, he told them, was trapped in the slag and what he really needed was a ‘great workes’ – a really big smelting plant to really, properly get at the gold.

Everyone was pretty excited and set off on a third voyage, this time returning with one thousand three hundred and fifty tons of ore. The smelting works were built at Dartford and everyone thought they were going to be very rich. Sadly, when the ore was treated it was found to yield very little gold. Everyone blamed Schutz for designing such a rubbish 05 31 pyritefurnace but eventually it turned out that the actual problem was that there wasn’t really any gold in the ore in the first place. What it most likely contained were crystals of iron pyrite, which is also called ‘Fools Gold’ and clearly not without reason.

Surprisingly, both Frobisher and Schutz survived the debacle. Frobisher was later knighted for his services in the battle against the Spanish Armada and Schutz went to work for the king of Scotland. His ‘great workes’ were sold and eventually became England’s first paper mill. As for the ore, once it was found to be valueless it was smashed up and used as gravel to pave the streets of London.

Wilder Than A Peach Orchard Boar

05 08 nevesToday I want to tell you about Ralph Neves, a jockey who died and came back to life again on this day in 1936. Neves had a quick temper and a reckless attitude that earned him the nickname Portuguese Pepperpot. He was one of the most fined Jockeys on the West Coast. One trainer said of him “He was a very good rider, but he was wilder than a peach orchard boar.” which is lovely. As the above title could equally apply to my friend and ex-jockey Bob Slayer, I’m going to dedicate this post to him.

On this day Ralph Neves was riding at the Bay Meadows racetrack in San Mateo, California when four horses fell in front of him. His horse, who was called ‘Flannikins’, stopped suddenly then tripped, threw him onto the track and then fell on top of him. Neves was lifted onto a pick-up truck, as there were no ambulances on the course in those days, and taken to the first aid room. What happened next has been retold and embellished so many times, it’s hard to get to the truth of it, so here are all the versions I’ve found, because they’re all excellent.

In the first aid room he was examined by a doctor and pronounced dead. An announcement was made over the tannoy and the stunned crowd were requested to observe a moment of silence. In a last ditch attempt to revive him, the doctor injected adrenaline directly into his heart. Like a scene form ‘Pulp Fiction’, Neves suddenly revived. He demanded to ride the the rest of his races for that day. The stewards would not to let him and insisted that he spend the night in a nearby hospital under observation. They managed to keep him overnight, but the next morning he exited the hospital via a window in his hospital gown and hailed a cab back to the racetrack.

In another account he was revived in the local mortuary and ran screaming into the street, complete with toe tag, to hail a cab straight away. Or perhaps he went to a nearby snooker hall and ran round a couple of times and then hailed a cab. Neves himself insisted that he sat up and walked out of the first aid room and headed across the grandstand towards the jockeys’ room, wearing nothing but his trousers and one boot. When the crowd realized that the shirtless, bloodied, toe-tagged man who was staggering across the grandstand area was the jockey who had been declared dead about a half hour earlier, the crowd and the race officials rushed towards him. Shock turned to celebration. “At one point,” Neves later recalled, “I think everyone on the damn track was chasing me.” He arrived at the jockeys room to find his colleagues had started a collection for his widow.

So there it is. Neves was certainly declared dead and then revived. I don’t know which, if any, of these stories is the true account, but they’re all good. When I told this story to my jockey friend, he was not at all surprised. I was rather sad to learn from him that jockeys seem to fair almost as badly as race horses. Still, he’s not a jockey any more. He’s a comedian with an enormous bus. I couldn’t find a picture of Neves I could use, so here is my drawing of Bob and his Blundabus instead…

05 08 blundabus

Balloons and Catacombs

04 06 nadar in a balloonToday is the birthday of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, better known by his nickname: ‘Nadar’. He was born in 1820 possibly in Paris, maybe Lyons. Initially, he was training to be a doctor and was particularly interested in the emerging field of psychiatry, but gave it up, probably due to lack of funds. His nickname seems to have come from a tendency among his friends to extend any word by adding ‘dar’ to the end of it. It was a sort of code, a little like pig Latin, but it was a sort of mock medieval French. Hence he became ‘Tournachondar’ then ‘Tournadar’ then just ‘Nadar’.

Nadar had a pretty lean time in his youth and soon fell in with similarly impoverished aspiring artists and writers. He wrote, edited and drew caricatures for a couple of satirical magazines called ‘Le Charivari’ and ‘Petit Journal Pour Rire’. One of his fellow artists was Gustave Doré, who I wrote about in January. In 1854, someone persuaded him to open up a photography studio, specialising in portraits. He left the running of it to his brother as he had a lot of drawing to do. But his brother wasn’t great at it and Nadar soon became interested in photography himself.

04 06 nadar studioHe soon became a much sought after portrait artist and, in 1860, moved in to much larger premises. You can see his studio at 35 Boulevard des Capucines on the left. A glass fronted building with his signature on the front of it in huge letters. I wonder what those people on the roof are doing… Nadar depicted his subjects simply and did not surround them with props. He enjoyed being able to put people at their ease and saw his work very much as a collaboration between himself and his sitter. He believed that by applying what he called ‘the psychology of photography’ he could produce an intimate portrait that more closely resembled his subject. He photographed so many famous people that it’s hard to know which to show you. Below are Gustave Doré, Alexandre Dumas, who wrote ‘The Three Musketeers’ and his friend and fellow flying enthusiast Jules Verne. The other picture is a series of twelve self-portraits. Someone has thoughtfully made them into a gif, which I can’t post here, but if you want to see Nadar twirling round and round you’ll find him here. The originals were taken in about 1865, that’s several years before Muybridge’s galloping horses.

04 06 gustave dore04 06 alexandre dumas04 06 jules verne04 06 twelve nadars

04 06 catacombs parisHis work was not just confined to portraiture, in 1858, he became the first person to take aerial photographs. He did this by taking his camera up in a balloon. This was even less easy than it sounds because the glass plates he used had to be prepared, exposed and developed during the flight. As well as taking pictures from the air, he was also the first to take photographs underground. In 1861, he used an early kind of arc lamp to give enough light to photograph the catacombs underneath Paris.

In 1863, he commissioned the building of the biggest balloon in the world It was called ‘Le Géant’. The balloon was 196 ft (60 m) high with a capacity of 6,000 cubic metres. It carried a two storey wicker basket that had six cabins including a printing room and a toilet. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a huge success. It was mainly the landings that were the problem. It’s second flight took its passengers 400 miles, but it hit a strong air current as it descended and almost hit a moving train. Nevertheless, the huge balloon inspired Jules Verne to write his first adventure novel ‘Five Weeks in a Balloon’  and Nadar himself was the inspiration for the character Michael Ardan in Verne’s ‘Rocket to the Moon.’

The failure of the balloon led Nadar to the conclusion that the future of flight was in heavier than air machines. He and Jules Verne established  ‘The Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier than Air Machines’. Nadar was president, Verne was secretary. I’ve been unable to find out if there were any other members. Maybe I didn’t look too hard because it’s quite fun to imagine it was just them. Nadar didn’t totally give up on balloons though. In 1870/71 during the siege of Paris he helped organise balloon flights carrying mail, connecting the besieged city with the rest of the world. It was the first air mail service.

04 06 balloon basket


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

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

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

20 FEB

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

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

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

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

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


02 03 tulip1Today I want to tell you about ‘tulipomania’, which manifested in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. It’s a great example of how people can become spectacularly detached from reality, and just as quickly, come back to their senses again.

The seventeenth century was a golden age for the Dutch. They were newly independent from Spain and had massively increased their overseas trade. Merchants working with the newly formed Dutch East India Company could expect to make a 400% profit on a single voyage. There was a lot of money in the Netherlands and people wanted to show off a bit with their wealth. They built themselves grand houses and surrounded them with flower gardens. Growing plants that weren’t meant for either eating or for medicine really showed everyone you had money to burn.

Tulips were first imported to the country from Turkey in the middle of the sixteenth century. There were no other flowers to match their intense colour. By 1593, they had become very popular. Tulips usually came in red, yellow or white, but there were other, rarer kinds that were multicoloured, white with flame like markings in pink (rosen) or purple (violetten). Then there were the bizarden, white or yellow streaks against a background of red, purple or brown. Often, the edges of the petals were frilled. These were known as broken tulips; not because they thought there was anything wrong with them, they thought they were very beautiful and they were the most highly prized of all. But there was something wrong with them. The unusual colours and frilly petals appeared because the bulbs were infected with a virus called the ‘mosaic virus’.

02 03 tulip 2People were willing to pay higher prices for the bulbs that produced these flowers, but the virus meant that the bulbs were weakened and didn’t produce so many offsets (new bulbs). So they were rarer. That made them even more expensive and even more sought after. Unfortunately in the Netherlands in the mid 1630s, the tulips weren’t the only thing that was afflicted by disease. There was also a massive outbreak of bubonic plague. What with everyone thinking they might die at any moment, they rather threw caution to the wind and things started to get a bit out of hand.

Towards the end of 1636 people started to offer to buy bulbs that were still in the ground. Tulip bulbs are planted in the autumn, flower in the spring and the bulbs can be lifted, dried and sold in the summer. In the winter of 1666, people began to make offers to buy the bulbs, subject to seeing them flower in the spring. They made ridiculous offers and then they sold the bulbs, that they hadn’t yet bought or even seen, on to other people for even more money. The already expensive price of a tulip bulb doubled, then tripled and continued to rise. Much of the buying and selling of the bulbs took place in taverns in the city of Haarlem but there were markets in other towns too. The rather imaginary tulip bulbs could change hands up to ten times a day, the cost rising with each transaction. Prices got out of control because no one had to pay up all the money immediately. All they had to come up with was a 2.5% deposit. That money was generally spent on a round of drinks for everyone in the tavern, which didn’t really help anyone look at the whole thing sensibly.

People who didn’t have enough ready money started to offer goods, services, property in exchange for a tulip bulb. At the height of tulpiomania, bulbs were priced at 3,000 guilders, 5,000 guilders, 10,000 guilders. To put this in some sort of perspective, a skilled craftsman might, at that time, have earned 300 guilders in an entire year. You could have bought a small house for 1,000 guilders. It was entirely insane. It couldn’t last. A collapse was inevitable. On February 3rd 1637, in Haarlem, people just suddenly stopped bidding. Maybe someone came to their senses and everyone followed suit. They wouldn’t bid at the prices they had offered only the day before. The news spread to other towns, and suddenly no one wanted to buy. Everyone was trying to sell. The price of tulip bulbs dropped like a stone.

02 03 wagon of foolsA man called Charles Mackay wrote a very colourful account of tulipomania in his book ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’ in 1841. He would have you believe that everyone in the Netherlands, from the highest to the lowest was caught up in the tulip trade and were ruined by it. He also tells the story of an unfortunate sailor who accidentally ate a valuable tulip bulb, mistaking it for an onion. Probably neither of these are true. Tulip bulbs are not very nice to eat, in fact they can be poisonous if you don’t take the middle out and I don’t recommend it. At the end of the Second World War, many Dutch people were forced to eat tulip bulbs because they had nothing else. They do not remember it fondly.

There is no real evidence that many people were financially ruined in the winter of 1636/7. Not much money changed hands. Even the growers didn’t lose out, because if people declined to pay, they still had their tulip bulbs. In fact, people abroad became so fascinated with the bulb that had caused so much trouble that they wanted to see the tulip for themselves. This led to a large export business in flowers which is still working out pretty well for the Dutch today.

Off With Their Heads

NPG D1306,The execution of  King Charles I,after Unknown artistToday is the anniversary of the beheading of King Charles I in 1649, following his overthrow by Oliver Cromwell. No one knows who wielded the axe because the executioner wore a mask to hide his identity. It is also the anniversary of the time, in 1661, we ritually executed Oliver Cromwell by hanging and beheading his body over two years after he died. We put his head on a pole and left it outside Westminster Hall for fourteen years. His empty tomb was used to bury the remains of King Charles II’s illegitimate 01 30 execution of cromwellchildren. After that Cromwell’s head passed through the hands of several private collectors and was finally re-interred in 1960. No-one is now completely sure that it was even Cromwell’s body that they dug up in the first place. Neither of these events exactly represent our country’s finest hour, but it seems both factions were still commemorating the whole regrettable thing many years later. King Charles was styled as a martyr by the Church of England. The day of his death was declared a day of fasting and repentance. He was canonised in 1660 and remains the only person to be formally made a saint by the Church of England.

In contrast to this, it seems that, there were a group of people who continued to celebrate the beheading of their king as late as 1735. They called themselves ‘The Calves Head Club’. We know about them partly because of an altercation in that year between the celebrants and a mob who thought the whole thing was a disgrace. We also know about them because of a book titled ‘The Secret History of the Calves Head Club’ which was revised and reprinted several times between 1693 and 1716. They adorned their meeting place with an axe, which they hung on the wall. The evening featured a lot of drinking to specially composed toasts. There was also a meal which we are told included a dish of calves’ heads “dressed several ways” to represent the king and his friends. ‘Dressed’ probably means either the sauce or stuffing used to prepare the dish, but it is a bit fun to imagine that they might have put wigs on them or something. There was also a pike’s head, with the head of a smaller pike in its mouth, to represent tyranny. There were also a cod’s head and a boar’s head with an apple in its mouth that specifically represented the king. Basically they spent the evening drinking (sometimes out of a calf’s skull) and eating some heads. After that they took a book called ‘Eikon Basilike’ which was supposed to have been written by the king before he died, and burned it on the table.

According to ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’, on January 30th 1735, several young noblemen had met for their feast at a tavern in Suffolk Street at Charing Cross. They dressed a calf’s head in a napkin and threw out of the window onto a bonfire in the street below. Passers by were pretty upset when they saw people having a massive celebration on a day when everyone was supposed to be fasting and being very sorry about what had happened to the king. But then, the club members made things a lot worse by leaning out of the tavern windows, toasting the crowd and waving handkerchiefs dipped in claret that looked a bit like blood. The people outside, who had also had a fair bit to drink (and probably on an empty stomach) grew angry and started to throw things. Another account says that they threw stones, broke all the windows and tried to set the building on fire. The celebrants were lucky to escape relatively unscathed.

01 30 calves head club

The men who attended the dinner tell a different story. According to them, they met on January 30th by accident and definitely didn’t stick a calf’s head out of the window. There is a letter from Lord Middlesex to his friend Joseph Spence which also tries to explain the event. It begins: “Dear Spanco…” He admits that everyone was very drunk and that they had looked out of the window to see: “a little nasty fire made by some boys in the street”. They had immediately wanted a fire for themselves and ordered their waiter to build them one. He then refers to the waiter as “an impudent puppy” and more or less blames him for following their orders. Then, suddenly, they realised what day it was and that people might be upset by the bonfire. They thought a good way to alleviate the situation would be to lean out of the windows and drink a toast to the passers by. The toast was definitely to the king and not to the executioners of Charles I, But people had got annoyed anyway and started throwing stuff at them.

As a person who is often in charge of small children, I have to say that this sounds like the sort of made-up-on-the-hoof, and immediately detectable lie that I’ve heard a ton of in the playground. It is akin to ‘I don’t know how it happened, I put out my fist and he must have somehow run into it.’ Quite a lot of the people at this dinner became politicians in later life.

Gold Fever

01 24 james w marshallOn this day in 1847, James Wilson Marshall discovered the gold which would spark the California Gold Rush. This is not a story of fame, fortune and happily ever after. James profited not one bit from his precious find. If anything, it made his life considerably worse.

James Marshall was born in 1810 in New Jersey, but his life wasn’t going so well and, in 1834, he headed west. He settled for a while in Missouri, but contracted malaria while farming along the Missouri River. His doctor advised him to move further west for the sake of his health and, in 1845, he wound up in California working as a carpenter for a man called John Sutter. Sutter was a Swiss settler who had established an agricultural and trading colony, called Sutter’s Fort, a few years earlier. In 1847, Marshall convinced Sutter that it would be a good idea to build a sawmill, about forty-five miles away in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, on the south fork of the American River. The mill would be powered by a large waterwheel. Marshall was put in charge of the project.

01 24 sawmillIn order for the wheel to turn, they needed to dig a large channel, called a tail race, that would let the water flow more quickly. In order to speed up the process, overnight, Marshall and his men would divert the course of the river to wash away the soil. Every morning, Marshall would make an inspection of the channel to see how things were going. It was on the morning of the 24th that he saw something shining in the bottom of the channel. He took a closer look and, as he knew a bit about minerals, he knew it was either iron pyrite or gold. He knew that iron pyrite was brittle, so he tried to crush it. He found that it was quite malleable, so he was sure it must be gold.

Sutter seems to have been none too happy about the discovery of gold on his property and tried to keep it quiet. He may have known it spelt trouble. The workers at Sutter’s Mill continued their building work, but spent their spare time searching for gold. The secret didn’t keep for long. Some of his workers visited a store owned by Sam Brannan and paid for their goods with their gold. It didn’t take Sam long to find out where the gold had come from and May 1848 found him running through the streets of San Fransisco with a bottle of gold dust crying “Gold, gold from the American River.” The cat was out of the bag. Within days half the town’s population had left for the hills and more would soon follow.

People’s lust for gold was so strong that Marshall and Sutter were soon overrun and most of their property destroyed. They were unable to hang onto their claim to the land. They had no more gold and no sawmill either. It was at this point that Marshall, for some unknown reason, decided to claim that he had supernatural powers that could lead him to the richest deposits of gold. This was not a smart move. When he either couldn’t or wouldn’t help the prospectors, they turned on him. He found it very difficult to get work. Everyone knew him to be the first person to find the gold and possibly they just assumed he was rich because they felt that, if anything, he should be employing them. Poor James Marshall. He lost all his property and no one would give him a job. He was forced to hide out in the hills with nothing but rice to eat. Unsurprisingly, he felt extremely badly done by and became a very bitter man. He did eventually receive a government pension of $200 a month for his contribution in 1872. Two years later it was halved, and two years after that, stopped altogether. He lived the rest of his life, until 1885, doing odd jobs and selling his autograph at 50c a time.

01 24 gold prospectorMarshall was not the first person to find gold in California. He was just unlucky that the story of his find spread so quickly and so far, thanks to Sam Brannen. He did not profit from the California Gold Rush and neither did many of the 300,000 prospectors who tuned up in California in search of their fortunes. It was a lawless place and around one in twelve of them would die trying to hang onto their claim. Most shamefully of all, it led to the virtual genocide of Native American tribes who had lived in the area for 14,000 years. Greed is a terrible thing.

The people who were on the periphery of the gold rush, offering goods and services were the ones who really made a profit. Guess who the first millionaire of the California Gold Rush was. It was Sam Brannan. He owned the only store between San Francisco and the California gold fields. He bought up all the picks shovels and pans he could lay his hands on. At the height of the rush in 1849, he was making $150,000 a month. He made his fortune selling hope, at a huge premium.

With such a trail of death, misfortune and wily entrepreneurs, it might be hard to see why any of this is brilliant. But the gold discovered in California contributed the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars to the economy. This new wealth created a high demand for pretty much everything and stimulated economic growth worldwide. It led to serious settlement in the west and the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad. In San Francisco alone the population rose from just 500 in 1847 to 150,000 by 1870. California came to be perceived as a place of new beginnings, where great fortunes could be made in return for hard work. People still follow the ‘California Dream’ only now they are more likely to be hoping for a career in Hollywood.

And now, the weather forecast…

01 20 iceBack in December, I wrote about Benjamin Franklin and how he began his illustrious career by writing a comedy almanac. Today I want to tell you about Patrick Murphy, who also won fame and fortune by publishing an almanac. His fame though, was rather more short lived. Late in 1837, he published ‘The Weather Almanac – on Scientific Principles, showing the State of the Weather for Every Day of the Year of 1838.’ He also styled himself: ‘P. Murphy Esq MNS. The MNS stood for ‘member of no society’. Predicting the weather in Britain, more than around five days ahead, is a tricky business even in the twenty-first century and Patrick Murphy reckoned he could forecast the weather for the whole of 1838. It was a bit of a gamble, but he got lucky early on. His entry for January 20th predicted: “Fair, and probably the lowest degree of Winter temperature.” It’s a bit vague and likely an educated guess. The lowest temperatures of the winter generally occur around this time of year. But the temperature in London on January 20th 1838 was remarkably cold. At sunrise it was -4° F, which is -20° C. It was the coldest anyone could remember for a generation. The Thames froze over for the first time in years. Everyone thought Murphy was some sort of genius. For years afterwards, everyone referred to the winter of 1837-38 as ‘Murphy’s Winter’. People clamoured for copies of his almanac. They mobbed his publishers. Demand was so high that it had to be reprinted many times. It ran to forty-five editions. Patrick Murphy made a personal fortune of £3,000 on the strength of that one prediction. Sadly, he lost it all almost immediately when he invested the money in corn.

Murphy already had quite a successful history in the field of meteorology before he published his almanac. He had written a couple of treatises on the subject. He had accurately predicted a storm in 1836, well in advance of the event and also in the autumn of 1846, a gale which caused a lot of damage along the Welsh and Irish coasts and Liverpool. ‘The Monthly Review’ seemed to have high hopes for his publication, even before January 20th. It was hopeful that his methods would prove better than the old wives tales and general nonsense that was usually churned out about red sky at night and cows lying down in fields. Though there was a warning that: “to no person in the universe can the consequence of accuracy or failure in the predictions be half so serious as to the author of them.”

Murphy believed that his methods were based on sound scientific reasoning, but unfortunately, he believed that he could forecast the weather by studying the electrical, magnetic and gravitational effects of the planets. His predictions for the rest of the year were not quite so good. Someone who went to the trouble of comparing his predictions with the actual weather concluded that he was, at least, partially right on 168 days, but on the other 197 days he had got it completely wrong. Poor Murphy became the butt of a lot of jokes, all his serious studies have been forgotten. Another almanac published a picture of a barometer that measured public gullibility in pounds rather than the air pressure. There was even a short play, in which Patrick Murphy BTN (Baked Tatey Merchant), a vendor of baked potatoes, is mistaken for the famous forecaster when he makes a casual remark about the weather.

Although Patrick Murphy continued to publish weather almanacs until his death in 1847, he never really regained his credibility. But he did at least prove that there is a remarkable amount of interest, and a great deal of profit to be made, from forecasting the weather in our unpredictable climate.

Don’t Try This at Home

12 16 johann wilhelm ritterToday is the birthday of Johann Wilhelm Ritter, who was born in 1776 in Silesia, then in Prussia, now in Poland. He was a chemist and physicist with a side interest in philosophy and romanticism, which was rather his downfall. That, and the experiments that he relentlessly performed on his own body.

He began his scientific career at fourteen, when he became apprentice to an apothecary and afterwards studied medicine at the University of Jena. His interest in science sprang from the electrical experiments of Luigi Galvani, who experimented with the effects of electricity on dissected animals in the late eighteenth century. It was work that had led to Alessandro Volta’s invention of the voltaic pile (a sort of battery) which he also used.

In 1800, he discovered that he could use electricity to decompose water into its constituent parts of hydrogen and oxygen. He also found a way of collecting the two gases separately. In the same year he discovered the process of electroplating. He noticed that he could make particles of another metal attach to copper using an electric current. In 1802, he built the first dry cell battery, which he found retained its electrical charge for much longer than the voltaic pile; days rather than hours. That’s quite a list of achievements. But sadly he was not widely recognised or well remembered because he wrote up his notes, if he wrote them up at all, in a rather unscientific way. What he was looking for was a universal balance in all of nature. He hoped to prove that the universe was a single living entity whose functions were, on all levels, interrelated. For example, he believed that it was a certain arrangement of celestial objects that had led to the discoveries of the Leiden jar and the voltaic pile. Then, when he began to do experiments with dowsing, because he believed that magic would turn out to be some king of electricity, and to electrocute plants to see what would happen, people thought he’d really lost it. He probably had. He was thought of as a man who had lost himself in his own dreams.

But it was his belief in an overall balance in nature that led him to his most important discovery. In 1801, Ritter discovered ultraviolet light. William Herschal had recently discovered a light, invisible to man, at one end of the colour spectrum, infra-red. Ritter felt there must be another invisible light at the blue end of the spectrum. Infra-red gives off heat and Herschal had been able to detect it with a thermometer. Ritter couldn’t use this trick at the cooler end of the spectrum and he had to think of something else. He knew that paper which was coated with silver chloride turned black in sunlight. Using a prism, he was able to prove that this happened much more quickly at the blue end of the spectrum than the red. When he exposed the paper only to the invisible part, beyond violet, he found that the paper turned black even more quickly. He had proved that there was a light there that we can’t see.

09 09 voltaic pileI mentioned at the beginning that he performed experiments on himself. This is actually quite common, but Ritter really took it to obsessive extremes. He began by repeating Galvini’s experiment, but he touched one open end of the circuit to a frog’s leg and the other to his own tongue. Once Volta’s voltaic pile became known, he built his own, adding more and more discs to the pile, making the current stronger and stronger and applying it to different parts of his body. Galvini believed that the nerves carried an electrical fluid and Ritter was really trying to find out if electricity applied in certain ways could enhance or dull the senses. He would grab the positive and negative wires in his hands, making himself part of a closed circuit, perhaps for an hour at a time. He noticed that while his positive hand grew warm, the hand on the negative side of the circuit grew cold. But this was not enough for Ritter. He tried his tongue. The positive side tasted acidic and made his tongue feel as if it were bursting out in welts. The negative side tasted alkaline and made it feel as though there was a huge hole in the centre. Putting a wire up each nostril made him sneeze. A wire in each ear made a sharp crackling sound on the negative pole and a muffled sound on the positive. Then he tried his eyeballs. In one eye, everything bowed outwards and he saw blue flashes. In the other eye, he saw a red haze and everything became smaller and sharper. Being the thorough, and also rather unhinged, person that he was, he next tried his genitals. Touching the positive pole to his penis produced a medium swelling. He then tried wrapping it in a cloth which he had moistened with milk to improve the conductivity. He experienced a lot more swelling, but dutifully kept going until he experienced a massive orgasm. Unsurprisingly he judged his experiment a resounding success. He was rather difficult to separate from his voltaic pile after that. Perhaps it was what led him to invent his long life battery.

Ritter pressed on with his experiments and his eyeballs became infected, he experienced frequent headaches, muscle spasms, numbness and stomach cramps. His lungs filled with mucus, which probably contributed from his death from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-three. He was forced to resort to alcohol and to opium to endure the pain, which also became a problem for him. Of course no one should repeat these experiments anywhere, ever. Johann Wilhelm Ritter died alone and in extreme poverty. It was only after his death that the importance of some of his discoveries were noted. He’s a frightening example of why it’s not a good idea to become too obsessed by one thing. What I like about writing this blog is that I can never get overly fixated on one subject. Finish one subject and it’s probably time to learn about something completely different. I aim to keep my interests broad but shallow, and yours as well.


12 14 tycho braheToday is the birthday of Tycho Brahe, who was born in 1546 at his ancestral home of Knutstorp Castle in what was then Denmark, but now Sweden. Brahe was an astronomer who, although he worked without a telescope, produced extremely comprehensive and accurate planetary and astronomical observations. He first became interested in astronomy at the age of thirteen when he witnessed a solar eclipse. He was particularly fascinated because it had been predicted. In 1572, he was lucky enough to witness the birth of a supernova, and clever enough to recognise it for what it was.

12 14 ptolomaic universeBrahe was born into a world where everyone believed that the stars were fixed and unchanging, hanging on a crystal sphere. It’s called celestial immutability. The universe then was built from a progressively smaller set of crystal spheres, one inside the other, with the earth at the centre. These spheres held all the stars and planets and also our sun and moon. This meant that nothing in them could change. So when a new light appeared in the sky, almost everyone thought it must be located somewhere between the earth and the moon. Brahe plotted its movement and realised that it must be much further away. In 1573, he wrote a book about it called ‘De Nova Stella’, the new star. So the ‘nova’ part of the word ‘supernova’ was coined by him. No one believed him very much, and he thought they were all pretty stupid. In his preface to De Stella Nova he says: “O crassa ingenia. O caecos coeli spectatores”, which basically means: “Oh thick wits. Oh blind watchers of the sky”. By observing and recording the movements of the heavens, he also realised that comets were not atmospheric phenomena, but must be objects that passed through the supposedly impenetrable crystal spheres.

12 14 tychonian systemAlthough Nicolaus Copernicus had, in 1543, published a theory that it was, in fact, the sun that was at the centre of the universe, The church weren’t very happy about it. Brahe came up with his own universe model where both the sun and the earth were at the centre. In Brahe’s geo-heliocentric universe, the sun and moon move round the earth, but all the other planets move round the sun. Everything rolls around inside the sphere of fixed stars. Quite how the sun and moon don’t occasionally crash into Mars in this model, I don’t know. But I bet he did, because he was all about measuring things.

But it’s really the other things in his life that I wanted to tell you about today. Tycho Brahe had a strange life and is really the most eccentric astronomer I’ve ever come across. When Brahe was two, he was pretty much kidnapped by a rich and childless uncle who raised him and paid for his education. His parents accepted this and let them get on with it.

In 1566, whilst at university, he attended the wedding of one of his professors. There, he became involved in a dispute with a fellow student over the legitimacy of a mathematical equation. Seventeen days later, they were still arguing about it. They decided to settle the matter with a duel. We don’t know who won but, although both parties survived and later made up, Brahe lost the bridge of his nose in the fight. Oh, I forgot to say, they were duelling in the dark. For the rest of his life Brahe wore a prosthetic nose made from metal. He had to stick it on with paste and keep a pot of spare paste with him at all times in case it fell off. His false nose is said to have looked very much like a real nose, so maybe he had it painted or something, because it’s not in evidence in any of his portraits. Of course, he might just have been sensitive about it. History records that his nose was made of silver and gold, but tests on his twice-exhumed body suggest that it was either copper or brass. Perhaps he had a gold and silver one that he kept for special occasions.

12 14 uraniborgTycho Brahe would have easily been able to afford a gold and silver nose if he’d wanted it, because he was extremely wealthy. At one point he owned one percent of all the wealth in Denmark. As well as coming from a wealthy family, he enjoyed the patronage of kings. He spent a year at the court of Rudolf II in Prague. Frederick II of Denmark gave him the island of Hven in Øresund. He built himself a castle and observatory there in 1576 called Uraniborg and in 1581 he built an underground observatory nearby at Stjerniborg where he found his measuring equipment was more stable and less affected by weather conditions. 12 14 stjerneborgHe lived with Kirsten Jørgensdatter and, although they were never formally married, they lived together for almost thirty years, until Tycho’s death, and had eight children. He kept a team of students at his observatory and his home seems to have been quite a busy place that required a large staff. He even had a court jester called Jeppe. Jeppe was a dwarf who Brahe was quite convinced had psychic abilities. Once during a dinner party the dwarf announced. “See how your people wash themselves in the sea.” Now, Tycho had sent two of his students off to Copenhagen and expected them back that day. Fearing them drowned, he sent someone up the tower to look out for them. The news was that there was an upturned boat on the shore and two men standing next to it who were dripping wet. Tycho was very fond of Jeppe and used to have him sit under the table during dinner and feed him scraps, which is, I suppose, what passes for fondness in sixteenth century Denmark.

12 14 elkNow that I’ve got you used to the idea of a man with a metal nose who kept a psychic dwarf under the dining table for special occasions, I’m going to mention the elk. Tycho Brahe had a pet elk, a moose, if you will. Quite a large animal. It lived with him in the castle and, when he went out anywhere, it would run alongside his carriage like a dog. The Elk, unfortunately, developed a taste for beer. We know about the Elk because of a letter a man called Lantgrave wrote to him, saying he had heard of an animal called a ‘rix’ that could run faster than a deer. Tycho replied that there was no such animal, but he had a tame elk that was pretty fast and he could send it over for an experiment. Landgrave replied saying ‘Yes please’ and he would swap it for a horse. The next letter from Tycho says that sadly, he could not send the elk because it had died after it got drunk and fell downstairs. Tycho had leant the elk to a friend to entertain his dinner guests. So the poor elk didn’t even die after falling downstairs drunk in its own castle. It died at a party.

Tycho himself met a rather unhappy end. There has been some speculation that he was poisoned after having an affair with the mother of the king. But, as I said, his body has been exhumed twice and no traces of poison have been found. Another possibility is kidney stones, but again this has been disproved. The most likely explanation is the traditional one. That he died from an infection caused by a burst bladder. This apparently happened because he felt it was bad form to get up in the middle of a banquet to relieve himself. Poor, duelling, dwarf-feeding, elk-owning Tycho Brahe died because of etiquette. He is said to have written his own epitaph: “He lived like a sage and died like a fool.” so perhaps he saw it coming.