Who’s There?

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In some parts of Amsterdam, residents mount mirrors on the sides of parlor windows in order to monitor neighborly activities. This window bears two, one directed sideward and the other down. They’re called spionnetjes, or “little spies.”

“Little spies are relics of an earlier period when they enabled residents to preview visitors, but they are now used to see what is going on up and down the block,” writes John L. Locke in Eavesdropping: An Intimate History (2010). “At one time, similar mirrors were used in America, including Society Hill in Philadelphia.”

The Meigs Elevated Railway

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In 1873, Captain J.V. Meigs patented a surprisingly advanced steam-powered monorail that he hoped could serve Boston. It followed a pair of rails set one above the other, thus requiring only a single line of supports, and it burned anthracite, to reduce smoke in city streets.

Each cylindrical car, shaped to reduce wind resistance, contained 52 revolving seats and was completely upholstered. Engineer Francis Galloupe wrote, “If it were ever desirable, one would become more easily reconciled to rolling down an embankment in one of these cars than in that of any other known form, for the entire absence of sharp corners and salient points is noticeable.”

A 227-foot demonstration line in East Cambridge carried thousands of curious riders 14 feet above Bridge Street at up to 20 mph, but in 1887 a fire, possibly started by a competing streetcar business, destroyed most of Meigs’ car shed. He wrote, “‘the most magnificent car ever built’ was melted down by the furnace into which it was thrust. Its metal plates were melted down and the little wood and upholstering burned out.” He fought on for a few more years, ran out of money, and quit.

Here’s his 1887 description of the project.

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The South-Pointing Chariot

Ancient Chinese documents describe a two-wheeled vehicle fitted with differential gears so that a pointer indicating south at the start of a journey would maintain that orientation as the vehicle wended its way through a landscape. In principle such a pointer could serve as a compass though no magnets were involved. From the sixth-century Book of Song:

The south-pointing carriage was first constructed by the Duke of Zhou (beginning of the 1st millennium BC) as a means of conducting homeward certain envoys who had arrived from a great distance beyond the frontiers. The country to be traversed was a boundless plain, in which people lost their bearings as to east and west, so [the Duke] caused this vehicle to be made in order that the ambassadors should be able to distinguish north and south. The Gui Gu Zi book says that the people of the State of Zheng, when collecting jade, always carried with them a ‘south-pointer,’ and by means of this were never in doubt [as to their position].

In practice such a device would inevitably accumulate errors — so possibly it was most valuable as an amusement that impressed foreign visitors.

Podcast Episode 273: Alice Ramsey’s Historic Drive

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In 1909, 22-year-old Alice Huyler Ramsey set out to become the first woman to drive across the United States. In an era of imperfect cars and atrocious roads, she would have to find her own way and undertake her own repairs across 3,800 miles of rugged, poorly mapped terrain. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Ramsey on her historic journey.

We’ll also ponder the limits of free speech and puzzle over some banned candy.

See full show notes …

Form and Function

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It’s sometimes suggested that the modern QWERTY keyboard was designed so that typewriter salesmen could impress customers by typing the phrase TYPEWRITER QUOTE on the top row of keys.

It wasn’t, but they could.

Rising Masses

A writer in The Builder has cleverly suggested that bridges might be erected in the crowded thoroughfares of London for the convenience of foot passengers, who lose so much valuable time in crossing. As the stairs would occupy a considerable space, and occasion much fatigue, I beg to propose an amendment: Might not the ascending pedestrians be raised up by the descending? The bridge would then resemble the letter H, and occupy but little room. Three or four at a time, stepping into an iron framework, would be gently elevated, walk across, and perform by their weight the same friendly office for others rising on the opposite side. Surely no obstacles can arise which might not be surmounted by ingenuity. If a temporary bridge were erected in one of the parks the experiment might be tried at little cost, and, at any rate, some amusement would be afforded. C.T.

Notes and Queries, July 17, 1852

Eavesdropping

In 1907, two boys in Alameda, Calif., used homemade wireless sets to intercept messages sent from Navy ships to “boudoirs ashore”:

Miss Brown, Oakland — Can’t meet you to-night. No shore leave. Be good in the meantime.

Mrs. Blank, Alameda — Will see you sure to-morrow night. Didn’t like to take too many chances yesterday. We must be discreet.

[from an officer to a woman on Mare Island:] Honestly, could not show last night. Am arranging so I can see you oftener. Will take you to dinner Wednesday afternoon.

A married woman on Mare Island wrote to another woman’s husband, an officer, “All lovely. I’m sure you are mistaken. Call again. Your P.L.”

“Debutantes, it appears, use the wireless system of the navy to relieve their irksome task of correspondence, for there are many fond messages in the book from evidently ingenuous girls to midshipmen and other young officers,” reported the San Francisco Examiner. “At least a third of the messages belong to the class that can not be regarded in any light but confidential without inverting all accepted canons of discretion.”

A Closer Look

Michael Snow’s 1967 experimental film Wavelength consists essentially of an extraordinarily slow 45-minute zoom on a photograph on the wall of a room. William C. Wees of McGill University points out that this raises a philosophical question: What visual event does this zoom create? In a tracking shot, the camera moves physically forward, and its viewpoint changes as a person’s would as she advanced toward the photo. In Wavelength (or any zoom) the camera doesn’t move, and yet something is taking place, something with no analogue in ordinary experience.

“If I actually walk toward a photograph pinned on a wall, I find that the photograph does, indeed, get larger in my visual field, and that things around it slip out of view at the peripheries of my vision. The zoom produces equivalent effects, hence the tendency to describe it as ‘moving forward.’ But I am really imitating a tracking shot, not a zoom. … I think it is safe to say that no perceptual experience in the every-day world can prepare us for the kind of vision produced by the zoom.”

“What, in a word, happens during a viewing of that forty-five minute zoom? And what does it mean?”

(From Nick Hall, The Zoom: Drama at the Touch of a Lever, 2018.)

An Audible End

world war i armistice signature

World War I’s final ceasefire went into effect at a precise moment: 11:00 a.m. Paris time on Nov. 11, 1918. The French had worked out a way of recording sound signals on film — they used it to infer the position of enemy guns by determining the time between the sound of a shell’s firing and its explosion. This gives us a visual record of the end of the fighting, six representative seconds from the periods before and after the armistice. (Note, though, that the minute immediately before and the one immediately after the ceasefire aren’t shown, “to emphasize the contrast.”)

I don’t have an original source for this — Time magazine credits the U.S. Army Signal Corps.