Technology

Skyward

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:An_Incident_on_the_Western_Front_Art.IWMART2660.jpg

An aviators’ drinking song from World War I, from James Gilbert’s 1978 anthology Skywriting:

A young aviator lay dying
At the end of a bright summer’s day.
His comrades had gathered around him
To carry his fragments away.

The aeroplane was piled on his wishbone,
His Lewis was wrapped round his head,
He wore a spark plug in each elbow,
‘Twas plain he would shortly be dead.

He spat out a valve and a gasket
As he stirred in the sump where he lay,
And then to his wondering comrades
These brave parting words did he say:

“Take the manifold out of my larynx
And the butterfly valve off my neck.
Remove from my kidneys the camrods;
There’s a lot of good parts in this wreck.

“Take the piston rings out of my stomach,
And the cylinders out of my brain.
Extract from my liver the crankshaft,
And assemble the engine again.

“Pull the longeron out of my backbone,
The turnbuckle out of my ear,
From the small of my back take the rudder —
There’s all of your aeroplane here.”

Podcast Episode 93: The Old Flying Days

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%27A_Balloon_in_Mid-Air%27_by_Jules_Tavernier,_1875.jpg

In the early days of English aviation, journalist C.C. Turner seemed to be everywhere, witnessing bold new feats and going on some harrowing adventures of his own. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample Turner’s record of Edwardian aviation, including his own clumsy first attempt to fly an airplane and a record-setting balloon voyage to Sweden.

We’ll also ponder the nuances of attempted murder and puzzle over a motel guest’s noisemaking.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Sources for our feature on early aviation in England:

Charles Cyril Turner, The Old Flying Days, 1927.

Charles Cyril Turner, The Marvels of Aviation, 1917.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listeners J.C. and Brenna Lundberg, who found it in this collection.

Sources for listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Death of Sammy Yatim” (accessed Feb. 2, 2016).

Diana Mehta, “Toronto Cop Found Not Guilty of Murdering Sammy Yatim, But Is Found Guilty of Attempted Murder,” National Post, Jan. 25, 2016.

Jillian Bell, “Forcillo Attempted Murder Verdict Explained,” CBC News, Jan. 25, 2016.

Alyshah Hasham, “Forcillo Guilty of Attempted Murder in Shooting Death of Sammy Yatim,” Toronto Star, Jan. 25, 2016.

Wendy Gillis and Alyshah Hasham, “‘Mystery’ Charge Only One That Sticks in Sammy Yatim Slaying,” Toronto Star, Jan. 25, 2016.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Storm Warning

https://www.google.com/patents/US1046533

How do you design a burglar alarm for people who can’t hear? Arnold Zukor came up with this solution in 1912 — when the burglar opens a door or window, a system of racks and gears opens a faucet and sprays the occupant through a nozzle mounted over the bed. “Alarm is thus given.”

If you leave your house during the day, you can disable the door alarm and direct the nozzle outside. Then if the window is opened, the flow of water will be visible from a distance, “indicating thereby the entrance of unauthorized persons into the building.”

Enlightenment

https://pixabay.com/en/fire-easter-easter-fire-flame-717504/

Biologist F.W. Went points out that the physical size of human beings was a critical factor in their mastery of fire. Any flame must maintain a certain size in order to sustain the ignition temperature of its fuel, and a wood or coal fire in particular radiates so much heat that it must maintain a fairly large critical mass in order to keep burning; a small fire will go out.

“Interestingly enough,” Went writes, “a wood or coal fire above the critical size produces just the right amount of heat to warm man in a cave, or a room, or a camping site. But ants or small rodents would have to keep too far away to make a fire economical, or rather, they would be unable to bring up enough wood to keep the fire going. Therefore in an ant society fire is not an economical possibility, and they have developed without its benefits, by operating only while outside temperatures are within the physiological range. Man on the other hand has been able to move into very cold areas by using fire.”

“Man, with his remarkable brain, developed the use of fire, but … only a creature of man’s size could effectively control that fire,” writes Peter S. Stevens in Patterns in Nature (1974). “It happens that a small campfire is the smallest fire that is reliable and controllable. A still smaller flame is too easily snuffed out and a larger one too easily gets out of control. Prometheus was just large enough to feed the flames and to keep from getting burnt.”

(F.W. Went, “The Size of Man,” American Scientist, 56:4 [Winter 1968], 400-413.)

The Qattara Depression Project

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:All_proposed_routes.PNG

In 1957 the CIA proposed a novel way to bring peace to the Middle East: Flood Egypt’s Qattara Depression with seawater from the Mediterranean. The depression is below sea level and currently an arid waste; connecting it to the sea with giant tunnels or canals would transform it into a lagoon that would be renewed perpetually as the water evaporated, creating a continuous flow would produce endless hydroelectricity for the region.

The idea had begun with John Ball, English director of the Survey of Egypt, in 1927. In presenting it to Dwight Eisenhower, the CIA observed that the lagoon would be “spectacular and peaceful,” that it would “materially alter the climate in adjacent areas,” and that it would “provide work during construction and living areas after completion for the Palestinian Arabs.”

Eisenhower turned it down, but the project has never fallen entirely off the drawing board. In the early 1970s German hydraulic engineer Friedrich Bassler proposed detonating more than 200 nuclear bombs to excavate the canal, which would have meant displacing 25,000 evacuees. That proposal was turned down for ecological reasons, but another solution might yet be found.

See Atlantropa and Dam Ambitious.

Down in Front

https://www.google.com/patents/US1517774

In 1924, as today, it was troublesome and embarrassing to have to excuse your way down a row of theater patrons to get to your seat. Massachusetts inventor Louis Duprey offered this improvement: The whole auditorium is built atop a “loading compartment” where each patron can take his seat, which is then raised on a giant plunger into the theater.

During a performance, any seat occupant may depart by merely turning the handpiece, causing the seat to be lowered into the lobby or loading compartment, and in like manner he may again re-enter the auditorium without in any wise disturbing, or interfering with the view of, other patrons.

A side benefit is that “in case of fire or other panic” all the seats can be lowered into the loading chamber, which is fireproof and designed to accommodate an orderly mass exit. You can even retrieve your hat from the underside of the trapdoor as you take your leave.

Footwork

https://books.google.com/books?id=u3VCAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA204

The first passenger railway in Australia was powered by convicts. Four-passenger carts ran on hardwood rails from the dock at the head of Norfolk Bay to the main settlement at Port Arthur, some 4.5 miles away. (Click the image to enlarge it.) On steep downhill slopes the carts could reach 30 mph, as observed by Col. Godfrey Mundy on an 1851 visit:

The prisoners seized certain bars crossing the front and back of the carriages, and after pushing them with great toil up a considerable plane, reached the top of a long descent, when, getting up their steam, down they rattled at tremendous speed — tremendous, at least, to lady-like nerves — the chains around their ankles chinking and clanking as they trotted along. … [T]he runners jumped upon the side of the trucks in rather unpleasant proximity with the passengers, and away we all went, bondsmen and freemen, jolting and swaying … a man sitting behind contrived, more or less, to lock a wheel with a wood crowbar when the descent became so rapid as to call for remonstrance.

He added, “Our poor beasts of burthen at the end of the traject seemed terribly jaded, running down with sweat, and saw one of them continually trying to shift his irons from a galled spot on his ankle.” On the return journey that afternoon, the leader asked whether they might stop briefly, as the men had had nothing to eat for 12 hours.

After visiting a similar railway at Ralph Bay Neck in 1847, Lt.-Gov. Sir William Denison wrote, “I must say that my feelings at seeing myself seated, and pushed along by these miserable convicts, were not very pleasant. It was painful to see them in the condition of slaves, which, in fact, they are, waiting for me up to their knees in water.”

(From Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, 1987.)

All Aboard

https://books.google.com/books?id=sWhIAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA225

Two more railway oddities. When the local railroad closed its branch, the port of Thames Haven, in southeastern England, devised a trolley driven by the wind. “With a good breeze a speed of from twenty to twenty-five miles an hour can be attained with perfect safety,” reported The Railway Magazine in September 1905. “As can be seen by the photograph, the trolley is an ordinary one, such as are in common use by plate-layers on the railway.”

The second idea is even more dramatic — from Railway World, June 1, 1906:

Despatches from Geneva state that an Austrian engineer, Herr Balderauer, of Salzburg, has been experimenting with much success in the mountains near Salzburg with a novel balloon railway. It consists of a large captive balloon attached to a single steel rail, which in turn is fixed firmly to the side of a steep mountain, whose precipitous slopes no other form of railway could climb without making a series of serpentine detours and passing through tunnels. The balloon remains balanced in the air about ten yards above the rail to which it is attached by a stout wire cable, and it is moved up and down the side of the mountain at the will of the engineer. For an ascent the balloon itself furnishes the lifting force by means of hydrogen; for the descent a large reservoir attached to the balloon is filled with water at the highest station, and serves as ‘ballast.’ Under the balloon is a circular car, seating ten persons. The wire cable from the balloon passes through the floor of the car to a speed regulator underneath, which is controlled by the engineer.

I gather this was actually built, but I haven’t been able to find an image. I’ll keep looking.

12/29/2015 UPDATE: Evidently the balloon system was devised by Salzburg engineers named Balderauer and Brockebusch, who called it the Gebirgsbahn. A reader found this image in Illustrirte Zeitung, Sept. 30, 1897:

https://books.google.com/books?id=SnY5AQAAMAAJ&dq=%22eine%20neue%20gebirgsbahn%22%20ballon%20OR%20ballast&pg=PA448&ci=361%2C30%2C610%2C950&source=bookclip#v=onepage&q&f=true

A “strong rope” connected the balloon to the running gear through a large opening in the “wreath-shaped” passenger car. The water reservoir, which could be filled to different heights according to the expected wind strength, was attached to the running gear, with a mechanism for the operator to release water as needed. The railway had a planned capacity of 1500 kg for passengers and aeronauts, and was to include a hangar for storing the balloon during windstorms, during which the operators planned to suspend service.

The inventors took a “small-scale proof-of-concept trip” in 1896, which they deemed “quite satisfactory,” and construction was scheduled for the following spring. In August 1901 New Zealand’s Feilding Star reported that “Not a single accident has occurred during three months of experiments, and the system is without any danger,” but we don’t find any mention of it after that.

(Thanks, Derek and Stephan.)

Buzz Off

https://patents.google.com/patent/US144792A/en

Mosquito nets will keep insects off you during sleeping hours, but you’re left to fend for yourself during the day. Boston inventor Thomas Prentiss offered this improvement in 1873, so you can get some exercise in fly-plagued regions and ward off sunstroke as well:

This, my invention, consists in an umbrella, sun-shade, or similar article covered with suitable gauze or netting. To the lower edge of the sun-shade, umbrella, &c., is secured a similar netting of ample dimensions, so that one or more persons can be protected under it. The height of the netting may be made so that the lower edge thereof shall reach the ground when the person who carries it is standing.

The handle can be placed in a socket in a chair or settee, or you can stroll around with it. And the whole thing folds up like an umbrella when you’re not using it. The hat, I suppose, is optional.

Express

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sliding,_Mt._Washington_Railway.jpg

This paragraph jumped out at me last night from B.G. Wilson’s Unusual Railways (1958) — he’s writing about the Mount Washington Cog Railway in New Hampshire, one of the world’s steepest, with an average grade of 25 percent:

Before leaving this line, mention must be made of a method of riding down the track employed by track maintenance men and long since banned. Wood and metal seats some 3 ft. × 1 ft. were made to fit over the rack rail. These were known as slide-boards, or more popularly, as ‘Devil’s Shingles’. Seated on these, controlling (sometimes) the speed with hand brakes, the men would career down the mountainside. The record time for the trip — as we have said, 3 1/4 miles — was 2 3/4 minutes!

That’s 70 mph! For comparison, the modern train takes 40 minutes to descend at 4.6 mph. And this was in the late 19th century — the railway opened in August 1869. Wilson writes, “After one man had been killed and another seriously injured, the Devil’s Shingles were banned.” I don’t know any more than that.