Ecommerce

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reflections_on_the_Thames,_Westminster_-_Grimshaw,_John_Atkinson.jpg

In 1857 The Leisure Hour tried to imagine life in London a century in the future, that is, in 1957. Many of the predictions seem sadly optimistic (for instance, the eradication of crime), but one in particular stands out:

I observed that from each of these district shops innumerable electric wires branched off in all directions, communicating with several houses in the district to which it belonged. Thus, no sooner did a house-keeper stand in need of any article than she could despatch the order instantaneously along the wire, and receive the goods by the very first railway carriage that happened to pass the store. Thus, she saved her time, and she lost no money, because all chaffering and cheapening, and that fencing between buyer and seller, which was once deemed a pleasure, had been long voted a disgraceful, demoralizing nuisance, and was done away with.

You can read the whole thing at the Public Domain Review.

Spy Kids

http://www.cryptomuseum.com/crypto/mehano/barbie/

Barbie typewriters, sold worldwide by Mattel, have an undocumented built-in cryptographic capability. Pressing SHIFT and LOCK in combination with a particular trio of keys will engage any of four monoalphabetic substitution ciphers — once the feature is engaged, a keyed message will be printed in a transposed alphabet. Pressing a different combination of keys will put the machine into “decoding mode,” where keying a transposed message will print the deciphered text. So the same machine can be used to code and decode a message.

Details are at the Crypto Museum. These things were marketed to 5-year-olds. What else don’t we know about?

(Thanks, David.)

Turning Keys

Most piano music is written with the melody in the right hand, which seems unfair to left-handers. In 1998 left-handed Chris Seed determined to do something about it: He remortgaged his house and spent £28,000 on a “reversed” instrument built by Dutch fortepiano makers Poletti and Tuinman.

“At first Seed found it far harder to learn to play the instrument than he’d expected,” reports Rik Smits in The Puzzle of Left-Handedness. “It seemed as if he’d have to begin learning again from scratch. But once he got going, Seed’s brain turned out to be perfectly capable of converting everything he’d ever learned into a left-handed playing technique. Exactly what he’d hoped happened: all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place more or less automatically. Seed became at least as good a pianist as he was on a conventional piano and eventually he felt real delight in playing ‘as God intended.'”

Seed told the BBC, “The piano has transformed my playing, and I hope it will set a precedent for a future of left-handed pianists and uncover a whole new wealth of talent in the world of music.”

The Senster

In September 1970, cybernetic sculptor Edward Ihnatowicz unveiled a remarkable piece of robotic art at a Dutch science museum. Standing 8 feet high at the shoulder and “resembling a giraffe or dinosaur,” the Senster was basically a mechanical lobster claw mounted on a six-jointed neck actuated by quiet hydraulic rams. Using an array of microphones, the creature would turn its head in the direction of a sound, its speed proportional to the volume. If the direction of the sound source remained constant, the rest of the body would gradually follow, making the “animal” appear to home in on the sound. It would shy away from loud noises, and at overwhelming sound levels it would raise its neck vertically and “disdainfully” ignore further sounds until the volume came down. Doppler radar units enabled it to detect the motion of visitors; it was attracted toward small motions but “frightened of sudden movements.” All of this ran on 8K of core memory, but Ihnatowicz found that visitors quickly imputed an animal-like intelligence to the sculpture, and the atmosphere of the exhibit was much like that at a zoo:

In the quiet of the early morning the machine would be found with its head down, listening to the faint noise of its own hydraulic pumps. Then, if a girl walked by, the head would follow her, looking at her legs. Ihnatowicz describes his own first stomach-turning experience of the machine when he had just got it working: he unconsciously cleared his throat, and the head came right up to him as if to ask, ‘Are you all right?’ He also noticed a curious aspect of the effect the Senster had on people. When he was testing it he gave it various random patterns of motion to go through. Children who saw it operating in this mode found it very frightening, but no one was ever frightened when it was working in the museum with its proper software, responding to sounds and movement.

MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks later suggested that intelligent behavior can be achieved when sensory signals are mapped as directly as possible to motor signals through a large number of loosely coupled processes, with minimal internal processing. The Senster wasn’t updating an internal model of the world; it would simply turn its head toward a sound, but its behavior struck visitors as intelligent.

(Aleksandar Zivanovic, “The Technologies of Edward Ihnatowicz,” in Paul Brown et al., eds., White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960-1980, 2008.)

The More the Airier?

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Caproni_Ca.60_on_Lake_Maggiore,_1921.png

In 1921 aeronautical engineer Giovanni Caproni designed a 100-seat transatlantic airliner with nine wings. With an empty weight of 14,000 kg, the Caproni Ca.60 Transaereo did tolerably well on its first test flight on Lake Maggiore, but it crashed on the second and never flew again. Caproni said, “So the fruit of years of work, an aircraft that was to form the basis of future aviation, all is lost in a moment. But one must not be shocked if one wants to progress. The path of progress is strewn with suffering.”

Nine wings isn’t even the record — that might belong to the “clever but somewhat dogmatic” Victorian engineer Horatio Phillips, who devised aircraft with up to 200 airfoils, basing them on a multi-vaned marine hydrofoil that he had designed. “But air and water do not behave similarly,” notes James Gilbert in The World’s Worst Aircraft (1976). “Air is compressible, while water, as you will know if you have ever belly-flopped into a swimming pool, hardly is. Multiple vanes lift well in water, poorly if at all in air.” Phillips spent £4,000 and gave up.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Horatio_Phillips_1904_Multiplane.png

The Lycurgus Cup

Roman craftsmen made a remarkable coup around 300 A.D. — they produced a cup that is red when lit from behind and green when lit from the front. The effect occurs because the glass contains tiny proportions of gold and silver nanoparticles that reflect light of certain wavelengths. The workers themselves may have discovered the technique by accident, and may not have understood it fully; only a few pieces of 4th-century Roman glass display this “dichroic” property. Art historian Donald Harden called it “the most spectacular glass of the period, fittingly decorated, which we know to have existed.” It now resides in the British Museum.

The Do Nothing Machine

In 1948, retired clock maker Lawrence Wahlstrom acquired a surplus World War II bomb sight bearing a complicated cluster of gears, restored it to operation, and began adding more gears to it over a period of 15 years. He resolved on adding 50 each year, and succeeded so well that today the total number isn’t known.

Popular Mechanics wrote in 1954, “We all know someone who works harder doing nothing than most of us work doing something, but we can’t possibly know anything that works harder at nothing that a machine built by a California hobbyist. The machine has over 700 working parts that rotate, twist, oscillate and reciprocate — all for no purpose except movement.”

More info here. See Marvin Minsky’s Ultimate Machine.

Directions

wetalltok map

Before 1914, white explorers of Hudson’s Bay knew very little about the location, size, or number of the Belcher Islands — cartographers placed them on maps largely by guesswork, and some even doubted their existence.

In 1895, an Inuit named Wetalltok sketched the map above on the back of an old missionary lithograph, but explorers remained skeptical. “That a land mass of such extent … could exist not a hundred miles to seaward of the centuries-old post at Great Whale River and remain unknown to the Hudson’s Bay Company seemed to me altogether improbable,” wrote anthropologist Robert J. Flaherty.

Only 20 years later, with Flaherty’s expedition of 1912-16, was the striking accuracy of Wetalltok’s map borne out (below). “In its grasp of the intricacies of the island system this map is a specially noteworthy example of its kind,” Flaherty wrote. “The Big Islands are ancient history in the bay now, and Wetalltok stands vindicated.”

flaherty map

(Robert J. Flaherty, “The Belcher Islands of Hudson Bay: Their Discovery and Exploration,” Geographical Review 5:6 [June 1918], 433-458.)

A Disjoint Map

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Holm1887p250_Tr%C3%A6kort.png

When Danish naval officer Gustav Holm was exploring the eastern coast of Greenland in 1885, an Inuit named Kunit gave him this three-dimensional wooden map.

The two parts form one whole: The bottom carving represents the coast from Sermiligak to Kangerdlugsuatsiak, and the top is an island offshore. The Inuit would carry these maps in their kayaks to navigate the waters between the two landmasses.

(From David Turnbull, Maps Are Territories, 1989.)

For Short

Telegraph companies generally charged by the length of a message, so enterprising customers started using codes in place of common phrases. Here are some sample codes, from the ABC Universal Commercial Electric Telegraphic Code of 1901:

Nalezing – Do only what is absolutely necessary
Nalime – Will only do what is absolutely necessary
Nallary – It is not absolutely necessary, but it would be an advantage
Naloopen – It is not absolutely necessary, but well worth the outlay

If you and I both have a copy of the code book, then I can send you the word Nallary in place of the phrase “It is not absolutely necessary, but it would be an advantage” — a savings of 10 words or 51 characters without any loss of information.

Most of these code books are pretty hard-headed (here’s another), but there’s a wonderful exception — Sullivan & Considine’s Theatrical Cipher Code of 1905, “Adapted Especially to the Use of Everyone Connected in Any Way with the Theatrical Business”:

Filacer – An opera company
Filament – Are they willing to appear in tights
Filander – Are you willing to appear in tights
Filar – Ballet girls
Filaria – Burlesque opera
Filature – Burlesque opera company
File – Burlesque people
Filefish – Chorus girl
Filial – Chorus girls
Filially – Chorus girls who are
Filiation – Chorus girls who are shapely and good looking
Filibuster – Chorus girls who are shapely, good looking, and can sing
Filicoid – Chorus girls who can sing
Filiform – Chorus man
Filigree – Chorus men
Filing – Chorus men who can sing
Fillet – Chorus people
Fillip – Chorus people who can sing
Filly – Comic opera
Film – Comic opera company
Filler – Comic opera people
Filtering – Desirable chorus girl

It’s in the public domain, but I haven’t been able to find the full text online — I’m getting this from Craig Bauer’s (excellent) Secret History: The Story of Cryptology. I’ll update this post if I manage to find more.