The Writer

One of the most remote forerunners of the modern computer is a mechanical boy that resides in the Muse d’Art et d’Histoire of Neuchtel, in Switzerland. Designed in the 18th century by Swiss watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz, the automaton clutches a goose feather with which it can write any custom text up to 40 characters, guided by a stack of cams in the interior. Its eyes follow the pen, and it shakes extra ink from its quill after dipping it in an inkwell.

With a similar automaton designed by Swiss watchmaker Henri Maillardet, Jaquet-Droz’s writer helped to inspire Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo.

(Thanks, Snehal.)

Quick Thinking

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Struck by a cyclone in a Samoan harbor in 1889, the U.S. warship Trenton had lost steam and rudder and was in danger of foundering on a reef when her navigator, Robert M.G. Brown, thought of an inventive solution: The crew climbed into the port rigging, where their massed bodies acted as a sail. The ship was able to avoid the reef and even approach the sinking sloop Vandalia to rescue her crew. Of the 450 men aboard Trenton, only one was lost.

Moving Up

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Architect Raymond Hood’s 1927 proposal “City of Towers” would have turned Manhattan into a forest of needles — it would encourage developers to release some land area to public ownership in return for permission to build higher:

Whole blocks would soon develop of their own accord, where two or three towers would provide more floor space than there is in the average block of today, and there would be ten times as much street area round about to take care of the traffic.

He surpassed that four years later with the “City Under a Single Roof,” in which each resident would spend as much time as possible in a single vertical building: “The Unit Building, covering three blocks of ground space, will house a whole industry and its auxiliary businesses. Only elevator shafts and stairways reach the street level. The first ten floors house stores, theaters and clubs. Above them is the industry to which the Building is devoted. Workers live on the upper floors.”

In a later proposal these enormous buildings merge into 38 “mountains,” positioned on alternate avenues at every 10th street. This would finally transcend the “congestion barrier”: The old bustle of the streets would now be moved permanently indoors.

To Your Door

Architect Leroy L. Warner introduced a new concept in 1950: “Park at Your Desk.” The center of the Cafritz office building in Washington, D.C., was a multi-story parking garage with a helical ramp, and set around this core was a ring of shallow day-lit offices. So each worker could drive into the building, drive up to their floor, park their car, and then walk just a few meters to the office.

Why didn’t this catch on? Architect Philip Steadman points out that the design constraints allowed for 150 people per floor but only 29 parking spaces, a bad mismatch. (Also, “One wonders about air quality in the offices.”)

(From Philip Steadman, Why Are Most Buildings Rectangular?, 2017.)

The Jankó Keyboard

Hungarian engineer Paul von Jankó offered this alternative to the traditional keyboard layout in 1882. Within each row, the notes ascend by whole steps, and each vertical column of identical-sounding keys is a half-step in pitch from its neighbors. This means that each chord and scale gets the same fingering regardless of key, and wide stretches aren’t as necessary. The example above has four rows, but the full Jankó keyboard has six:

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This is all appealingly sensible, but music educators were skeptical and performers were reluctant to learn the new fingerings, so manufacturers stayed away. Today it’s largely a curiosity.

Ups and Downs

An Edinburgh startup called Gravitricity is hoping to create a “virtual battery” by hoisting and dropping weights in disused mine shafts. If the weights are hoisted when renewable energy is plentiful, and dropped when it’s expensive, then they can help to balance the energy grid with an efficient source of “gravity energy.”

Managing director Charlie Blair told the Guardian, “The beauty of this is that this can be done multiple times a day for many years, without any loss of performance. This makes it very competitive against other forms of energy storage — including lithium-ion batteries.”

Dropping 12,000 tonnes to a depth of 800 meters would produce enough electricity to power 63,000 homes for more than an hour. Oliver Schmidt of Imperial College London said, “I don’t expect Gravitricity to displace all lithium batteries on grids, but it certainly looks like a compelling proposition.”

(Via Tom Whitwell’s “52 Things I Learned in 2019.”)

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 …