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.

Happy in Her Work

07 19 florence foster jenkinsToday, I am celebrating the birthday of Florence Foster Jenkins who was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1868. Florence became a New York socialite and founder of the ‘Verdi Club’, a society dedicated to the advancement of American artists and musicians. She was greatly valued by charitable organisations for the concerts she arranged. But Florence also really loved to sing, and it is for this that she is most remembered. Unfortunately, she was completely tone-deaf and had no sense of rhythm or pitch.

Florence took piano lessons as a child and was something of a prodigy, performing all over her home state. She really wanted to study music abroad but, although her father was wealthy, he refused to pay. She retaliated by eloping. Shortly after her marriage, she contracted syphilis from her husband which probably lead to partial deafness. None of this deterred her though. In truth, she was blissfully unaware, until the very end of her life, of her shortcomings.

After separating from her husband she scratched a living teaching piano until an arm injury forced her to give it up. When her father died she inherited enough money to allow her to pursue her dream. She began to take singing lessons.

In 1912, she gave the first of many annual recitals at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in New York City. Her concerts were immensely popular, people came along for the unique experience. The audiences were strictly by invitation only and she would interview people before allowing them to buy the $2.50 ticket, just to make sure that they were true music lovers. What she didn’t know was that the tickets were often being sold on for ten times their face value. Her concerts were always a sell-out and every year the police had to chase away gatecrashers.

She also designed her own elaborate costumes for her performances, and would change them frequently throughout. Probably her favourite outfit was a tulle gown which she wore with a halo made from tinsel and a pair of massive gold wings. She called it her ‘Angel of Inspiration’ costume. Most of her repertoire was made up from operatic arias which she was ill-equipped to perform. Her rendition of ‘Cavelitos’ from Carmen, which is a song about carnations, she sang whilst dressed in a lace shawl with jewelled combs in her hair. She carried a basket of roses and randomly clicked a pair of castanets. At the end she would fling the roses out into the audience, sometimes also the basket and the castanets would follow. Her audience knew it was her favourite piece and would loudly demand an encore. Then her accompanist would have to head out into the audience to collect the flowers, basket and castanets to give back to her. Then the whole thing would start again.

Among the regular attendees of her concerts were Cole Porter and Enrico Caruso. There are a few surviving recordings of her singing. You can hear her massacring Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’ here. Her recordings were self published and intended for friends, but quickly sold out. This only added to her complete conviction that she was an excellent singer. When she heard people laughing during her performances, she just assumed that they were ‘hoodlums’ sent by rivals to undermine her. In fact, her audience were so appreciative of her awful singing that they would try to drown out their laughter with applause and stuff handkerchiefs in their mouths in order to avoid hurting her feelings.

Sadly her downfall came at the age 76, when she hired the Carnegie Hall for a public performance. No one could keep out the critics and obviously the reviews were awful. Previous reports of her singing had been ambiguous such as “Her singing, at its finest suggests the untrammelled swoop of some great bird.” which is lovely. Florence had this to say to her critics “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.” Which is true enough.

Florence suffered a heart attack shortly after her last performance and died a month later. Although her singing was absolutely terrible, it really can’t be denied that she brought joy, however unwittingly, to a lot of people. Also she clearly loved doing it. One of her obituaries read “She was exceedingly happy in her work. It is a pity so few artists are.”

A Wild Duck

07 12 george e ohrSometimes, I just have to see someone’s portrait to know that they are the person I want to write about. Today is the birthday of George E Ohr who was born in 1857 in Biloxi, Mississippi. His father was a blacksmith, his mother ran a grocery store. As you can see from the photo, he was an unusual looking fellow. George was a potter and he used to tie the ends of his eighteen inch long moustache behind his head while he worked. As you might guess from looking at him, his pots were quite unusual too. They were deliberately misshapen and he used bright glazes in unusual combinations at a time when everyone expected their pots to be brown. His boast was that he never made two things that were alike. Mostly he made his living by turning our chimney pots, planters, inkwells and little clay coins with rude messages on them. But he barely sold any of his more creative pieces. This was partly because he asked such a high price for them. People didn’t want to pay $25 for a pot that just looked as though it had gone a bit wrong. But it was also because George couldn’t bear to part with them. He was so fond of them that he called them ‘mud babies’. If he did manage to sell one, he would often chase his customer down the street and try to talk them out of their recent purchase.

George Ohr was one of five children. He described them as “a rooster, three hens and a duck”, he was the duck. At first George was apprenticed to his father as a blacksmith. But he was a restless individual and, at fourteen, he moved to New Orleans. By the time he was twenty-two, he had tried nineteen different jobs, including sailor, which he gave up after only one voyage. But then a friend offered to teach him how to make pots. He knew immediately it was the thing for him. He said “When I found the potter’s wheel I felt it all over like a wild duck in water,” which is lovely because it shows how excited he was about it. After that, he went on a two year tour of the United States, visiting potteries in sixteen states to learn all he could. In 1883, he returned to Biloxi and built his own studio, his own wheel, his own kiln, he even dug his own clay. It was pretty good clay, red in colour and he was able to use it to make pots that were wafer thin in places.

In 1884, a fire swept through the town, destroying twenty businesses including his mother’s grocery store and his studio. George raked through the ashes and recovered his pots, he kept most of them for the rest of his life, and referred to them as his ‘burned babies’. Then, he built himself a new studio. What he built was a five storey pagoda, which he painted bright pink. George knew how to draw attention to himself. He styled himself ‘The Greatest Art Potter on the Earth.’ and the ‘Mad Potter of Biloxi’. He was great at self publicity, he just wasn’t very good at selling pots.

07 12 ohr pottery workshop

By the turn of the century, he was gaining respect for his work. People were beginning to enjoy his colourful glazes. It was around this time that he decided to stop glazing his pots. In 1904, at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, he won a silver medal for his work. He didn’t sell a single pot. He later tried to sell the whole collection but no one would come up with the thousands of dollars he was asking. In 1906, he sent fifty unsolicited pieces to a museum in New Orleans and when they would only accept a dozen of them, he insisted that they were all sent back immediately. Once, he took a bag of his pots, a shovel and a lantern and buried them deep in the woods. He also made a treasure map showing their location but it has since been lost. Possibly because after he died, his son, Leo, burned all of his papers, including all his recipes for beautiful glazes, many of which cannot now be replicated. The buried pots are probably still out there somewhere.

George and his wife, Josephine, had ten children, five of whom survived to adulthood. The first two, Ella and Asa, both died young. But then George noticed that his initials. G E O, also spelled the first three letters of his first name. For some reason, he then decided to name his subsequent children: Leo, Clo, Lio, Oto, Flo, Zio, Ojo and Geo.

In 1910, he closed his pottery and he devoted the rest of his life to becoming even more eccentric. He grew his beard long as well as his moustache and would appear at the Biloxi Mardi Gras as ‘Father Time’, in long flowing robes. Or you might find him racing his motorcycle along the beach with long white hair and beard flying out behind him. His unusual demeanour and self-aggrandizing make him a sort of Dali before Dali. When interviewed in 1901 he said ‘I have a notion….that I am a mistake.’ but predicted that his work would be cherished when he was gone. He died in 1918.

He had packed away around seven thousand of his pots and his sons turned the pottery into an auto-repair shop. After languishing in his sons’ shop for around eighty years, they were discovered, quite by accident, in 1968 by a man called James Carpenter. He wanted to buy them all, but the sons wouldn’t sell. After years of negotiation, he finally persuaded them to part with them for an unknown sum, but possibly around $50,000. Gradually, Carpenter began to sell them. Artists loved them. Andy Warhol bought them,so did Jasper Johns, they appeared in his paintings. Now his work commands very high prices. Jack Nicholson and Stephen Spielberg both own pieces by Ohr. George Ohr was once asked to put a price on his work, he replied that they were “worth their weight in gold”. Now they’re probably worth more that that.

There is now a museum in Biloxi dedicated to his work. You can see a little video of it here. The sound isn’t great, but you can see more of what his work looked like. It is so much more beautiful and elegant than I imagined from the descriptions. You can also see more of his amazing portraits.

07 12 ohr pot 1

Birth of a Legend

07 07 weather balloonI did consider trying to find something else to tell you about today, as this is already well-trodden ground, particularly on the internet, but today is the anniversary of the Roswell Incident. On this day in 1947, the crashed wreckage of something was found on a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. It was reported to the Sheriff’s office, who notified the military. They came and picked it up and took it away. At first it was reported that a ‘flying disc’ had been recovered, which was a bit mysterious. But the military announced that what had been recovered was a weather balloon. Years of speculation have led many to believe that it was a bit more that that. And it was. In the 1990s, the military admitted that they had been using weather balloons, with surveillance equipment attached. They were trying to find out if the Russians had developed and were testing a nuclear weapon and were hoping to pick up disturbances in the atmosphere that would tell them if that had happened. The equipment included a radar reflector, made from thin metal foil, which was used to track the balloon and the balloon itself would have probably been made from neoprene, a sort of synthetic rubber. It was a very secret project named ‘Project Mogul’. The balloons did detect the first Russian nuclear bomb in 1949, but the project was shelved in 1950. As a secretive method of surveillance, a massive balloon wasn’t really all that successful. A colonel, who had been in charge of the project said: “It was like having an elephant in your back yard and hoping no one would notice it.”

Earliest reports of the wreckage described strips of rubber, tin foil, paper and sticks. A lot of the what-ever-it-was had been fastened together with Scotch tape. Some of the tape had flowers printed on it. The material that was collected from the crash site weighed about 5 lb. There were no large pieces of metal, nothing that indicated it might have had an engine. It was bits of a balloon that had had something fastened to it. No one thought much more about it until around 1978.

Between 1978 and 1990, UFO researches interviewed hundreds of people who claimed to had a connection to the event at Roswell. They also received documents that supposedly contained secret information leaked by insiders. A document known as ‘Majestic 12’ claimed that an alien spaceship had crashed and that alien technology had been recovered that could be exploited. Then someone who claimed to be connected to the case said that there had been alien beings on the ship and promised footage of an interview with one of them. Nothing materialised. Majestic 12 is now widely thought of as a forgery, but it was the beginning of a really good story. People were fascinated by the thought that we could have been visited by beings from another planet and that the whole thing had been hushed up by the government. Books were written on the subject and a wild and unsubstantiated rumour amongst a few people moved into the mainstream consciousness.

07 07 roswellIn version one of the story, ‘The Roswell Incident’ published in 1980, a spaceship was struck by lightening and crashed in the desert, killing the aliens. The whole thing was covered up by the government. Some archaeology students, from an unidentified university, saw the crash site and the bodies. The material recovered was not a balloon but some strange, new, super-strong material. A photograph of the rancher posing with the recovered material had been faked. Witnesses had been hushed up. It was a popular book and others started to come up with their own versions.

By 1991, in a book called ‘UFO crash at Roswell’, a second crash site had been added to the story. The whole area had been crawling with military police trying to keep people away. Shortly after that, the story of three alien bodies being held at the Roswell Army Air Base emerged. It was the start of the ‘alien autopsy’ thread. This was followed up by a purported film of the autopsies. Its maker has since admitted that he faked to footage using rubber models, chicken entrails, sheep’s brains and raspberry jam. The following year, another book was published which claimed there had been two flying saucers and eight aliens, two of whom had survived.

In 1997, a book called ‘The Day After Roswell’ was published by a former army officer, Philip J Corso. He claimed to have seen the alien bodies from Roswell stowed in crates and that later, he was given material from the crash site. His job was to reverse engineer the objects he was given, so that alien technology could be exploited for corporate use. He claimed to have found technology which helped with the development of lasers, fibre optics, bullet-proof vests and microchips. Again, a fascinating story, but it seriously undervalues the work of all the scientists who actually worked very hard, over years and years to develop those things. There was one piece of equipment though, that he claimed he could do nothing with. It was a helmet that he believed the aliens had used to steer the ship telepathically. Recently, our scientists have come up with a way of controlling a computer directly from the brain. One day, it will be brilliant for people who are paralysed. They will be able to control their wheelchairs, switch on the TV, use a computer. And we’ve done that all by ourselves, with no help at all from Philip Corso.

Human beings are clever. I think it’s wrong to underestimate our ingenuity. I don’t think we needed outside help with our technology, any more than I think the ancient Egyptians needed alien advice when they built their pyramids. We are an inventive and curious people and we always have been. We are good at making objects and we are also good at making stories. What we probably have at Roswell, which is most interesting to me, is the birth of a legend.

It makes me think about the two completely separate lives of Roger Bacon, one real and one imagined. It makes me think about the Trojan War. It was fought by the gods and the children of gods and was thought to be just a legend. But now there is some archaeological evidence that it may actually have happened. There must have been years and years of people retelling the story, half remembering things, adding bits to make it more exciting. Conspiracy theories like Roswell are probably just no more than modern myths that fulfil our need for wild stories. We have no exciting pantheon of gods now, no Prometheus to bring us fire. We have aliens who bring us microchips and lasers.

Whoopsie

07 06 airshipOn this day in 1919, the R34 airship touched down in Mineola, Long Island and became the first airship to cross the Atlantic Ocean and the first aircraft to cross it from west to east. The R34 was ninety-two feet high and the length of two football fields. Her crew nicknamed her ‘Tiny’.

The airship had left East Fortune, just east of Edinburgh, four days earlier and almost didn’t make it. They had carefully limited the amount of crew and equipment that they would need to carry in order to make the journey, as landing or refuelling would have been difficult. Twelve hours into the flight, they found they had two stowaways on board. The first was man named William Ballantyne, who had been ordered to stay behind, but two hours before the launch, he had hidden himself in the hull of the ship amongst the gas balloons. He had also brought with him a second stowaway, a kitten named Whoopsie. Ballantyne was forced to reveal himself when he began to feel ill due to the gas leaking from the balloons but, by then, it was really too late to do anything about it. As they were now flying over the ocean, it was decided that they would both just have to stay. Had they been over land, he would have been given a parachute and expected to jump.

They travelled via a northern route, so that they might be closer to land if anything went awry. During their voyage they slept in hammocks and prepared hot food over a metal plate welded to an engine exhaust pipe. They kept themselves entertained by playing jazz records on a gramophone and, of course, by a small cat. Strong winds and bad weather meant that they almost ran out of fuel before they arrived, they would land with only another forty minutes worth of petrol in their tanks. As they approached the landing site, their commander, Mayor E M Pritchard, put on his parachute and jumped from the craft in order to assist with the landing. He thus became the first person to arrive on American soil from the air. The crew received an enthusiastic welcome and were treated like royalty during their three day stay in the US. Ballantyne, the stowaway, was sent home by ship. Whoopsie, as far as I can tell, became the airship’s mascot.

Everyone was pretty excited by the possibilities of transatlantic airship travel. They thought that airships, perhaps five times the size of the R34, would soon be crossing the Atlantic with passengers and cargo. It seemed as though the airship would be, compared to an aeroplane, what an ocean liner was compared to a cross channel ferry.

The R34 was not the only airship to attempt to cross the Atlantic with a cat on board. In 1910 an airship called ‘America’ set off from Atlantic City. Just as they were taking off, someone, rather unhelpfully, threw a cat on board. The cat hated flying. Pretty much everyone else on the America hated flying with a cat who hated flying. The America was the first aircraft to be fitted with radio. The first historic in-flight radio message was “Roy, come and get this goddam cat!”. They did try quite hard to get rid of the cat, whose name was ‘Kiddo’. They put him in a canvas bag and tried to lower him onto a boat, but couldn’t quite manage it and had to pull him up again. Oddly, after being dangled over the sea in a bag, the cat calmed down a bit. One of the crew, Murray Simon, noticed Kiddo was particularly good at predicting bad weather. In fact, he thought no airship should ever cross the Atlantic without a cat. Unfortunately, even the cat couldn’t help them when, after flying a thousand miles, they ran into problems and had to abandon the flight. They were forced to ditch into the sea in their onboard lifeboat. All were saved, including Kiddo, but the airship flew on without her crew and was never seen again.

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.

Pioneering

07 01 alice guy blacheToday is the birthday of Alice Guy-Blaché, who was born in France in 1873. You may not have heard of Alice, but she was a pioneer of French cinema. The first female director and writer of narrative fiction films.

Alice’s family lived in Chile, where her father owned a publishing company and a chain of book stores. She had four older siblings who were all born in Chile, but they all travelled to France for the birth of their fifth child, Alice Ida Antoinette Guy. She said it was her mother’s last attempt to make sure one of her children was French. After she was born, the rest of the family took off back to Chile, leaving Alice in the care of her grandparents until she was three or four. Then, she too went to live in Chile, where she learned Spanish. At six, she was sent to school in France. Her father’s business collapsed and he died in 1893, leaving Alice to support herself and her mother.

She trained as a stenographer and typist, which was then, still quite a new profession. In 1894, she was hired by Léon Gaumont as a secretary for a company working with still photography. The following year, they went bust and Gaumont bought up the equipment and started a new company along with an astronomer called Joseph Vallot and Gustave Eiffel, of tower fame. Gaumont was fascinated by photography and great at building precision instruments. He was very interested in building a device that could both film and project moving images. In March of 1895, he was invited to the Lumière brothers to the screening of their first film: ‘Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory‘. Alice was invited along because she happened to be in the office at the time. Gaumont was disappointed to be beaten, but also began to make his own films. Like the Lumières, his films were everyday scenes: people in the street, trains coming into stations. But Alice saw a different possibility.

Alice’s father had been a book seller, she loved books, she loved stories. She didn’t see why a film shouldn’t tell a story too. Alice asked Gaumont for permission to make her own film. He told her yes, as long as she didn’t let her secretarial work drop. Her first film, ‘La Fée aux Choux’, about a woman who grows children in a cabbage patch, was made in 1896. It is a possible contender with the work of Georges Méliès for the first ever narrative film. From then on Alice was made head of production. She not only wrote and directed her own film but also oversaw those filmed by others. Between 1896 and 1906 she was probably the world’s only female film director. She also made travel films and dance films, like this one, which were popular in music halls. Alice used a device invented by Gaumont called ‘Chronophone’, which recorded sound onto a disc along with the film. She used it to produce what might be described as the first music videos.

In 1907, Alice married Herbert Blaché who despite his name, was English. She said she wasn’t quite sure, at first, if she wanted to marry an Englishman, because “they are not noted for their joie de vivre”. Shortly after that, they moved to New York where Herbert was to look after Gaumont’s operations in the United States. In 1908, she gave birth to their first daughter and gave up work for a time. She soon missed it though and, in 1910, she set up her own film company, ‘Solax’ with her husband as production manager and cinematographer and herself as artistic director. Despite being, at this time, pregnant with her second child, she was producing between one and three films a week. Her films were very popular and people were delighted to learn that the company was run by a woman. In 1912, she was the only woman to earn $25,000 a year and they built a new studio in New Jersey which was the largest in the US. This was way before people were making films in Hollywood. She said that, at that time, Hollywood was a small town where they had signs on the doors that said ‘no dogs and no actors’.

Alice was an innovative film maker. She made film versions of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ and ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’. People were impressed by her sets, her costumes, her lighting. She used special effects like double exposures, masking and running the film backwards. She always strove to create more spectacular scenes. If a boat needed to be blown up on screen, she didn’t make a little model, she blew up a real boat. But most of all she encouraged her actors to ‘be natural’. Alice directed melodramas comedies, love stories and westerns, but the film I really want to tell you about today was called ‘A Fool and his Money’. It is about a poor man who falls in love with a rich woman but has a rival who is much better off than him, it’s a universal story. But then, he finds a lot of money. He buys himself fancy clothes, spends ostentatiously and throws a huge party where he plans to ask her to marry him. But at the party, his rival cheats him out of all his money in a poker game and he is poor again. What’s particularly interesting about this film is that is features an entirely African American cast. The film was thought lost, but a copy has been recently rediscovered. You can watch a little video about it here.

In 1918, her husband left her and ran away to Hollywood with an actress. Alice directed her last film in 1920 and, in 1922, she was forced to sell her studio and move back to France with her children. After that she struggled to provide for them by writing children’s stories and articles for magazines. She never made another film. Alice Guy Blaché wrote, directed and produced around 700 films in her 26 years in the film industry. Her career was longer than that of any other film pioneer, yet most of her work has been lost and her legacy has, until quite recently, been largely forgotten by the industry. She wrote her biography in the 1940s, but it was not published until after her death and not published in English until 1986. If you want to learn more about Alice, there’s a lovely documentary here. There is film footage of Alice herself and it is partially narrated by her granddaughter.