From Hand Shadows to Be Thrown Upon the Wall, by Henry Bursill (1859).
From Hand Shadows to Be Thrown Upon the Wall, by Henry Bursill (1859).
During World War II, Lord Mountbatten and Geoffrey Pyke approached Winston Churchill with a novel plan to reach German U-boats in the mid-Atlantic, where land-based planes couldn’t reach them. They wanted to build an aircraft carrier out of solid ice.
It sounds crazy today, but if they’d gone through with it Project Habbakuk might well have lived up to its biblical billing (“be utterly amazed, for I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told”). Mountbatten and Pike planned to assemble 280,000 blocks of ice into a ship 600 meters long, with a displacement of 2 million tons (today’s Nimitz-class carriers are 333 meters long and displace 100,000 tons). It would carry electric motors, anti-aircraft guns, an airstrip, and a refrigeration unit to keep everything from melting.
Pro: It would be practically unsinkable.
Con: It would take 8,000 people eight months to build it, at a cost of $70 million.
In the end they made a little prototype in Alberta, but the project never got any further. Still, it’s a credit to Churchill that he even considered such an outlandish idea. “Personally I’m always ready to learn,” he once said, “although I do not always like being taught.”
“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” — Napoleon
“Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.” Goethe’s remark is kind but romantic — Michelangelo’s frescoes ennoble the human spirit, but they also illustrate the dangers of scope creep.
The painter signed on in 1508 to repaint the ceiling, at first with simple golden stars on a blue sky. Lacking a project manager, he agreed to add 12 figures, and the slide began. Before he was done there would be more than 300 figures, in scenes depicting the Creation, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the Last Judgment.
As the scale grew, problems multiplied. The Judgment drew objections from Cardinal Carafa, who was scandalized because now a fresco was showing human genitals inside the Vatican. And the artist was forced to make do with male models, because females were too rare and costly.
In short, the Renaissance was plagued by all the same devils that dog modern projects. At least Michelangelo met them philosophically and saw the project through. “If people only knew how hard I work to gain my mastery,” he said, “it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.”
Everyone knows Richard the Lion-Hearted and William and Conqueror. Here’s a list of less auspicous royal nicknames:
Worst of all: “Constantine the Dung-Named,” Byzantine emperor from 741 to 775. Supposedly he defecated in his baptismal font in 718. Nice going.
Excerpts, evidence of a female millhand to parliamentary commissioners during an inquiry into factory conditions, c. 1815:
What time did you begin work at the factory?
When I was six years old.
What were your hours of labor in that mill?
From 5 in the morning till 9 at night, when they were thronged.
For how long a time together have you worked that excessive length of time?
For about a year.
What were the usual hours of labour when you were not so thronged?
From six in the morning till 7 at night.
What time was allowed for meals?
Forty minutes at noon.
Had you any time to get your breakfast or drinking?
No, we had to get it as we could.
Explain what you had to do.
When the frames are full, they have to stop the frames, and take the flyers off, and take the full bobbins off, and carry them to the roller, and then put empty ones on, and set the frame going again.
Does that keep you constantly on your feet?
Yes, there are so many frames and they run so quick.
Your labour is very excessive?
Yes, you have not time for anything.
Suppose you flagged a little, or were late, what would they do?
Did you live far from the mill?
Yes, two miles.
Were you generally there in time?
Yes, my mother has been up at 4 o’clock in the morning, and at 2 o’clock in the morning; the colliers used to go to their work at 3 or 4 o’clock, and when she heard them stirring she has got up out of her warm bed, and gone out and asked them the time; and I have sometimes been at Hunslet Car at 2 o’clock in the morning, when it was streaming down with rain, and we have had to stay till the mill was opened.
You are considerably deformed in person as a consequence of this labour?
Yes I am.
Where are you now?
In the poorhouse.
State what you think as to the circumstances in which you have been placed during all this time of labour, and what you have considered about it as to the hardship and cruelty of it.
“The witness was too much affected to answer the question.”
A villain worthy of DC Comics, Spring Heeled Jack leapt liberally around England between 1837 and 1904, attacking isolated victims who described him as a muscular devil in an oilskin.
If he was the devil, he wasn’t a very ambitious criminal, generally just crashing carriages and groping women. But he could jump 9-foot walls, perhaps using spring-loaded footgear, judging from some ill-preserved prints.
An anonymous letter implied that a human prankster was terrorizing London on a bet, and incidental reports began to mount. In 1838 four witnesses saw him breathe fire and jump to the roof of a house, and in 1845 he threw a 13-year-old prostitute from a bridge, his first killing. On the night of Feb. 8, 1855, long trails of hooflike prints were seen in the snow throughout Devon, crossing roofs, walls, and haystacks. By 1873 thousands were gathering each night to hunt the ghost.
Nothing seemed to stop him, including bullets, and he even attacked a group of soldiers at Aldershot Barracks in 1877. He was last spotted in 1904 in Liverpool, leaping over a crowd of witnesses and disappearing behind some neighboring houses.
There’s no good explanation. Some suspected the Marquess of Waterford, who was known to spring on travelers to amuse himself, but the attacks continued after his death. Others have suggested a stranded extraterrestrial, a visitor from another dimension, or a real demon. We’ll never know.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” wrote Albert Einstein. “It is the source of all true art and science.”
That was true even in the Dark Ages, though the mysteries were a lot iffier back then. William of Newburgh records an “unheard-of” prodigy in East Anglia around 1150, when reapers were gathering produce during the harvest near some “very ancient cavities” known as the Wolfpittes. “Two children, a boy and a girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in gaments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations.”
Taken in by the villagers, they learned to eat beans and bread, which in time “changed their original color” until they “became like ourselves.” The boy died shortly after he was baptized, but his sister continued in good health and eventually married.
On being taught English, they told this story:
William closes: “Let every one say as he pleases, and reason on such matters according to his abilities; I feel no regret at having recorded an event so prodigious and miraculous.” It’s poetic, in any case.
Children’s deaths listed in the London calendar of coroner’s rolls, 1301-1307: