Milking It

02 18 guernsey cowOn this day in 1930, a Guernsey cow called Elm Farm Ollie became first cow to fly in an aeroplane. It was at the International Air Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri. Ostensibly, it was a scientific experiment to observe the effects of flight on animals and to illustrate the stability of modern aircraft. But really it was a publicity stunt. Ollie’s flight was some seventy-two miles, from her home in Bismark.

The two-year-old cow, who was also known as Nellie Jay, was a particularly placid animal and also a good milker. So good that she needed to be milked three times a day, producing two gallons at each milking. Hence, she also became the first cow to be milked in mid-air. She was also fed whilst she was being milked. And that’s not all. The milk was then sealed into paper cartons which had little parachutes attached to them. They were thrown out of the plane as it circled the arena and they drifted down to the spectators below. We are told that Nellie produced twenty-four quarts of milk during her ground-breaking flight. A quick calculation tells me that twenty-four quarts of milk equals six gallons. That’s three times as much milk as she would normally produce. So I rather suspect subterfuge.

Nellie lived a long and happy life back on her home farm and was given yet another name: ‘Sky Queen’. Oddly, her historic journey is celebrated every year at the National Mustard Museum in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. The curator of the museum, Barry Levenson, loves Elm Farm Ollie. He has written a ballad for her and produces a special commemorative mustard. You might wonder what the connection is between cows and mustard, and my answer is, it doesn’t really matter. Why not celebrate a Missouri cow at a mustard museum in Wisconsin? I am celebrating her here from the depths of rural North Yorkshire. Happy Elm Farm Ollie Day Barry, I hope you’re having a great day.

In Missouri, she is not so well remembered. Any records connected with her have been lost, though the one time Mayor of Bismark does claim to own the fan that was used to keep her cool during the flight. You might think that it would be quite cold in a plane, but cows are actually pretty hot animals. Back in 2014, a plane carrying 390 cows across the Irish Sea was forced to make an emergency landing after they produced so much heat that they set off the fire alarm.

Details of Nellie’s flight are scant, but in my research I turned up another aeroplane/dairy related fact, so I thought I’d share that too. During World War II, American airmen found out that they could make ice cream for themselves by filling a five gallon drum with ice-cream mixture and fitting a spinner that was attached to a paddle inside. They fixed them either to the tail of the plane or under the wings. Then they just flew around for a bit. The mixture was frozen because they were flying at high altitude. When they got back they had perfect ice cream.

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Super Size Me

01 31 mastodonThe brilliance of January 31st has proved a bit elusive, so I’m going to tell you about an exhibition that you could definitely have seen on this date if you were in London in 1842, and again in 1843. It was at the Egyptian Hall which was a rather unusual, but now sadly lost, building in Piccadilly. The main exhibition hall was very large and Dr Albert Koch, a fossil collector from St Louis, had something really big to exhibit. In 1840, he had discovered an almost complete skeleton of a mastodon in Missouri. The mastodon was a large mammal, related to the mammoth and the elephant that, up until 10,500 years ago, ranged across the northern hemisphere. His specimen, Mastodon americanum, would have stood somewhere between seven and ten feet high. Koch had reassembled the bones and then added a few extra bits, according to his own fancy.

01 31 koch's missouriumThe result was impressive. He took the bones from no less than three mastodons and added extra vertebrae and ribs. He even added some extra pieces made from wood. Koch had constructed an animal that was thirty-two feet long and fifteen feet high. As a final touch, he added the tusks, but he put them on upside down so they looked like horns curving over the animal’s head rather than pointing down and outwards. He named his new animal ‘Missourium’. Koch had already had some success hauling his monster all over the United States. Although in Philadelphia, a leading fossil expert, Dr Richard Harlan, had gently suggested that he might be able to do a bit better job of it when he’d done a bit more research.

At the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, Koch’s exhibit was extremely popular. But it did draw the attention of England’s foremost anatomist and palaeontologist, Sir Richard Owen. Owen was immediately suspicious. It seemed to have far too many ribs and its horns looked like upside down elephant tusks. Of course, he was completely right. In February, he read a paper to the Geographical Society, in which he said that Koch’s Missourium was a mastodon that had been incorrectly mounted. In April, Koch had the gall to address the same society, insisting that it was definitely a new species. None of this affected public interest in his monster and the exhibition remained until the summer of 1843. Then Koch moved on to Ireland and Germany, where he met with equal success.

01 31 mastodon skeletonIn 1844, Koch returned to the United States, but stopped over briefly in London where he sold his Missourium to the British Museum. He sold it for $2,000, with a further $1,000 to be paid every year for the rest of his life. Maybe they were hoping he wouldn’t live quite so long as he did, because they paid $23,000 in the end. The British Museum knew perfectly well they were buying a fake. As soon as it arrived, they took it all apart, removed all the extra bits, reassembled it, put the tusks on the right way round and correctly labelled it Mastodon americanus. They had themselves a very fine specimen. It is still in the collection, at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington.

08 05 koch's sea monsterIt wasn’t very long before Koch was up to his old tricks. Later that year, he was on the road with a 114 foot long sea serpent he had named Hydrarchos. We mentioned the creature back in August when we wrote more about sea serpents. Koch’s skeleton was soon identified for the fake it was, the fossil of an extinct whale with the bones of at least four other animals added to it. When he travelled to England with it, he met a similarly frosty reception. He eventually sold it in Germany.

Dr Albert Koch was thought of as a complete fraud. He wasn’t even really a doctor of anything, it was a title he awarded to himself. It’s a pity his career took a wrong turn, because early on, he actually discovered something quite important. In 1838, he had found the bones of a mastodon along with arrow heads. It proved that this animal had lived alongside, and been hunted by, early man. But no one believed him.