Two-Way Traffic

http://www.google.com/patents?id=xTBiAAAAEBAJ

In 2009 I mentioned that in 1895 Henry Simmons invented ramp-shaped railroad cars that could pass over one another.

At the time I thought this was alarming, but something like it was actually carried out. On Coney Island’s Leap Frog Railway of 1905, one car full of passengers clambered over another:

The passengers in breathless excitement momentarily anticipating disaster, realizing that their lives are in jeopardy, clinging to one another for safety, closing their eyes to the impending danger. … The cars crash into one another, 32 people are hurled over the heads of 32 others. … They are suddenly awakened to a realization of the fact that they have actually collided with another car and yet they find themselves safe and sound … proceeding in the same direction in which they started.

On the return journey the cars changed positions. At the time this was billed as a prototype “to reduce the mortality rate due to collisions on railways.” Now I wonder whether Simmons’ invention was ever realized.

(From Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York, 1994.)

Jump Cut

This must have scared the daylights out of people in 1895 — The Execution of Mary Stuart, one of the first films to use editing for special effects.

After the executioner raises his ax, the actress is replaced with a mannequin.

“Electric Bathing”

https://books.google.com/books?id=CrbPAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA359

In 1878 Coney Island mounted electric lights on poles so that visitors could play in the surf at night.

“One could take many a long journey and never meet elsewhere with so strange, so truly weird a sight as this,” reported Scribner’s Monthly. “The concentrated illumination falls on the formidable breakers plunging in against the foot of the bridge, and gives them spots of sickly green translucence below and sheets of dazzlingly white foam above. There is a startling spot of foreground and nothing more. A couple who are confident swimmers, possibly a man and his wife, come down the bridge and put off into the cold flood. The woman holds by the man’s belt behind, and he disappears with her into the darkness. A circle disports with hobgoblin glee around a kind of May-pole in the water.”

“Nothing else,” opined the New York Times, “would answer the purpose of those lunatics who persist in bathing after nightfall.”

More Theatrical Codes

https://pixabay.com/p-1982718

Last year I mentioned Sullivan & Considine’s Theatrical Cipher Code of 1905, a telegraphic code for “everyone connected in any way with the theatrical business.” The idea is that performers, managers, and exhibitors could save money on telegrams by replacing common phrases with short code words:

Filacer – An opera company
Filament – Are they willing to appear in tights
Filander – Are you willing to appear in tights
Filiation – Chorus girls who are shapely and good looking
Filibuster – Chorus girls who are shapely, good looking, and can sing

At the time I lamented that I had only one page. Well, a reader just sent me the whole book, and it is glorious:

Abbacom – Carry elaborate scenery and beautiful costumes
Abbalot – Fairly bristles with hits
Abditarum – This attraction will hurt our business
Addice – Why have not reported for rehearsal
Admorsal – If you do not admit at once will have to bring suit of attachment
Behag – Not the fault of play or people
Bordaglia – Do not advance him any money
Boskop – Understand our agent is drinking; if this is true wire at once
Bosom – Understand you are drinking
Bosphorum – Understand you are drinking and not capable to transact business
Bosser – We are up against it here
Bottle – You must sober up
Bouback – Your press notices are poor
Deskwork – A versatile and thoroughly experienced actress
Despair – Absolute sobriety at all times essential
Detour – Actress for emotional leads
Devilry – Actress with child preferred
Dextral – An actor with fine reputation and proven cleverness
Dishful – Comedian, Swedish dialect
Disorb – Do not want drunkards
Dispassion – Do you object to going on road
Distal – Good dresser(s) both on and off stage
Dormillon – Lady for piano
Drastic – Must be shapely and good looking
Druism – Not afraid of work
Eden – Strong heavy man
Election – What are their complexions
Epic – Does he impress you as being reliable and a hustler
Exclaimer – Are they bright, clever and healthy children
Eyestone – Can you recommend him as an experienced and competent electrician
Faro – A B♭ cornetist
Flippant – Must understand calcium lights
Fluid – Is right up-to-date and understands his business from A to Z
Forester – Acts that are not first class and as represented, will be closed after first performance
Foxhunt – Can deliver the goods
Gultab – The people will not stand for such high prices
Hilbert – State the very lowest salary for which she will work, by return wire
Jansenist – Fireproof theatre
Jinglers – How did the weather affect house
Jolly – Temperature is 15° above zero

There’s also an appendix for the vaudeville circuit:

Kajuit – Trick cottage
Kakour – Grotesque acrobats
Kalekut – Sparring and bag punching act
Kernwort – Troupe of dogs, cats and monkeys
Kluefock – Upside down cartoonist
Koegras – Imitator of birds, etc.
Letabor – Act is poorly staged and arranged
Litterat – The asbestos curtain has not arrived yet
Mallius – How many chairs do you need in the balcony
Meleto – Is the opposition putting on stronger shows than we

The single word “Lechuzo” stands for “Make special effort to mail your report on acts Monday night so as to enable us to determine your opinion of the same, as in many instances yours will be the first house that said act has performed in, and again by receiving your report early it enables us to correct in time any error that may be made regarding performer, salary and efficiency.”

(Thanks, Peter.)

Pedal Pushers

Cycling is popular in Trondheim, Norway, but the 130-meter hill Brubakken is more than some riders can manage. So the city installed the world’s first bicycle lift — press the start button and a plate will appear under your right foot and push you up the hill at 3-4 mph, rather like a ski lift.

With a maximum capacity of 6 cyclists per minute, the system has pushed more than 200,000 cyclists to the top of the hill in its 15 years of operation.

Podcast Episode 170: The Mechanical Turk

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tuerkischer_schachspieler_windisch4.jpg

In 1770, Hungarian engineer Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled a miracle: a mechanical man who could play chess against human challengers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Kempelen’s Mechanical Turk, which mystified audiences in Europe and the United States for more than 60 years.

We’ll also sit down with Paul Erdős and puzzle over a useful amateur.

See full show notes …

Quick Cuts

In 1973, at the Cricketers Arms pub in Wisborough Green, West Sussex, Irishman Jim Gavin was bemoaning the high cost of motorsports when he noticed that each of his friends had a lawnmower in his garden shed. He proposed a race in a local field and 80 competitors turned up.

That was the start of the British Lawn Mower Racing Association, “the cheapest motorsport in the U.K.” — the guiding principles are no sponsorship, no commercialism, no cash prizes, and no modifying of engines. (The mower blades are removed for safety.) The racing season runs from May through October, with a world championship, a British Grand Prix, an endurance championship, and a 12-hour endurance race, and all profits go to charity.

For the past 26 years, Bertie’s Inn in Reading, Pa., has held a belt sander race (below) in which entrants ride hand-held belt sanders along a 40-foot-long plywood track. All entry fees and concession sales are donated to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Each competitor keeps one hand on the sander’s front knob and the other on the rear power switch while an assistant runs behind, paying out an extension cord. Women tend to excel, apparently because they can balance better than men. “You can’t lean back or lean forward,” Donna Knight, who won her heat in 2013, told the Reading Eagle.

Anne Thomas, who owns the inn with her husband, Peter, said, “We must be crazy, but everybody loves it and has a great time, and we raise a lot of money for charity. We tried to quit one time, and nobody would let us.”

Cash and Carry

During the London Gin Craze of the early 18th century, when the British government started running sting operations on petty gin sellers, someone invented a device called the “Puss-and-Mew” so that the buyer couldn’t identify the seller in court:

The old Observation, that the English, though no great Inventors themselves, are the best Improvers of other Peoples Inventions, is verified by a fresh Example, in the Parish of St. Giles’s in the Fields, and in other Parts of the Town; where several Shopkeepers, Dealers in Spirituous Liquors, observing the Wonders perform’d by the Figures of the Druggist and the Blackmoor pouring out Wine, have turn’d them to their own great Profit. The Way is this, the Buyer comes into the Entry and cries Puss, and is immediately answer’d by a Voice from within, Mew. A Drawer is then thrust out, into which the Buyer puts his Money, which when drawn back, is soon after thrust out again, with the Quantity of Gin requir’d; the Matter of this new Improvement in Mechanicks, remaining all the while unseen; whereby all Informations are defeated, and the Penalty of the Gin Act evaded.

This is sometimes called the first vending machine.

(From Read’s Weekly Journal, Feb. 18, 1738. Thanks, Nick.)

Hidden Mothers

In the 19th century, photographic subjects had to hold still during an exposure of 30 seconds or more. That’s hard enough for an adult, but it’s practically impossible for an infant. So mothers would sometimes hide in the scene, impersonating a chair or a pair of curtains, in order to hold the baby still while the photographer did his work:

More in this Flickr group.

Podcast Episode 169: John Harrison and the Problem of Longitude

john harrison

Ships need a reliable way to know their exact location at sea — and for centuries, the lack of a dependable method caused shipwrecks and economic havoc for every seafaring nation. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet John Harrison, the self-taught English clockmaker who dedicated his life to crafting a reliable solution to this crucial problem.

We’ll also admire a dentist and puzzle over a magic bus stop.

See full show notes …