Progress

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Auto_and_Frightened_Horse,_1907.jpg

Rudyard Kipling described the car as a ‘petrol-piddling monster.’ Queen Victoria called it a ‘very shaky and disagreeable conveyance altogether.’ … As had the cycle before it, the car had a tendency to frighten horses and thus cause great antagonism in other travelers and bystanders. A frequent, joking explanation of the horses’ reactions was, ‘How would you act if you saw a pair of pants coming down the street with no one in them?’

— M.G. Lay, Ways of the World: A History of the World’s Roads and of the Vehicles That Used Them, 1992

Turbulence

The roots of the word helicopter are not heli and copter but helico and pter, from the Greek “helix” (spiral) and “pteron” (wing).

G.L.M. de Ponton’s 1861 British patent says, “The required ascensional motion is given to my aerostatical apparatus (which I intend denominating aeronef or helicoptere,) by means of two or more superposed horizontal helixes combined together.”

Stirred, Not Shaken

The 1967 version of Casino Royale, starring David Niven, set an unlikely milestone: Its soundtrack album became famous among audio purists for the quality of its sound.

“The legend is that the original master tape had ‘mad’ levels on it,” audiophile Harry Pearson told the New York Times in 1991. “Once the meters pass zero, it means that you’re saturating the tape and running the risk of distortion. On ‘Casino,’ they used a supposedly very fancy grade of tape, and the engineers really pushed it, so the meters were typically running deep into the red — plus one, plus two, plus three, plus four.” The result is an extremely wide dynamic range.

A particular high point is Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love” (Track 2). Springfield recorded her vocal in a “tiny isolation booth, so on a really good system, you can hear her voice emerging from what sounds like a little hole in space. She’s not part of the general orchestral acoustic, and once your system gets to a certain point, you can hear that.”

Pearson said the soundtrack came to serve as a benchmark at Absolute Sound, the audiophile bible he founded in 1973. “Whenever we get a piece of equipment that we think is setting new records, out comes ‘Casino,'” he said. “The better your system gets, the more you get out of that album.”

(Thanks, Allen.)

Topology

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bridge_29_Macclesfield_Canal.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Like the Tehachapi Loop, this is a beautiful solution to a nonverbal problem. When the towpath switches to the other side of a canal, how can you move your horse across the water without having to unhitch it from the boat it’s towing?

The answer is a roving bridge (this one is on the Macclesfield Canal in Cheshire). With two ramps, one a spiral, the horse passes through 360 degrees in crossing the canal, and the tow line never has to be unfastened.

SAM

Sculptor Edward Ihnatowicz’s Sound Activated Mobile (SAM) was the first moving sculpture that could respond actively to its surroundings. Listening through four microphones in its head, it would twist and crane its neck to face the source of the loudest noise, like an earnest poppy.

Fascinated Londoners spent hours vying for SAM’s attention at the 1968 Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition. Encouraged, Ihnatowicz unveiled the prodigious Senster two years later.

Mood Indigo

https://patents.google.com/patent/US119242

In the 1870s Philadelphia’s Augustus Pleasonton convinced himself that blue light had almost miraculously beneficial properties: He and his followers insisted that it cured disease, promoted hair growth, banished deafness, even resolved insanity. In 1871 he patented a greenhouse (or bluehouse, I suppose) that would “accelerate the growth and maturity of plants and animals.”

It fell to Scientific American to point out that cobalt blue glass diminishes all rays across the visible spectrum; it just diminishes blue and violet light somewhat less than other wavelengths. A plant (or anything else) would receive more blue light simply standing in the sun than hidden in Pleasonton’s hut.

The fad faded, and by the inventor’s death in 1894 it had been forgotten. “It is amusing to see people making fools of themselves,” observed the Boston Globe, “but it soon grows wearisome.”

Podcast Episode 233: Flight to Freedom

https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1413687

In 1978 two families hatched a daring plan to escape East Germany: They would build a hot-air balloon and sail it by night across the border. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow their struggles to evade the authorities and realize their dream of a new life in the West.

We’ll also shuffle some vehicles and puzzle over a perplexing worker.

See full show notes …

Thinking Big

This is fantastic — in 2017, 56 enthusiasts built an O-gauge model railway 71 miles long, connecting Fort William and the City of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. At a scale of 46:1, that’s half the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Only one journey was made on the completed railway. The locomotive Silver Lady departed Corpach Double Lock on June 23, 2017, and arrived, on time, at Inverness Castle on July 1.

Volunteer team leader Lawrence Robbins told the Daily Record, “Just because it’s bonkers doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.”

The Steam Man

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1868-DederickSteamMan600_1.jpg

I’ve written about this before, but I hadn’t realized a photo existed: In 1868 (!) Zadoc Dederick and Isaac Grass patented a steam-powered robot that pulled a cart. They invested $2,000 in a prototype, hoping to mass-produce top-hatted walking servants for $300 apiece.

The plan never went through, but it lives on in another way: The invention may have inspired Edward Ellis’ 1868 novel The Steam Man of the Prairies, in which a steam-powered robot carries teenage inventor Johnny Brainerd through a series of adventures:

It was about ten feet in height, measuring to the top of the ‘stove-pipe hat,’ which was fashioned after the common order of felt coverings, with a broad brim, all painted a shiny black. The face was made of iron, painted a black color, with a pair of fearful eyes, and a tremendous grinning mouth. A whistle-like contrivance was made to answer for the nose. The steam chest proper and boiler, were where the chest in a human being is generally supposed to be, extending also into a large knapsack arrangement over the shoulders and back. A pair of arms, like projections, held the shafts, and the broad flat feet were covered with sharp spikes, as though he were the monarch of base-ball players. The legs were quite long, and the step was natural, except when running, at which time, the bolt uprightness in the figure showed different from a human being.

“Jump up there, and I’ll give you all a ride!”

The Jones Live-Map

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jones_Live_Map_Meter,_c._1909,_view_2_-_Museum_of_Science_and_Industry_(Chicago)_-_DSC06693.JPG

Somewhat like George Boyden’s “vehicle signaling system” of 1916, Ernest Jones’ 1909 “Live-Map” navigator reckoned distance by monitoring a car’s wheels. But where Boyden’s invention guided the driver using a phonograph recording, Jones’ communicated directions via a printed paper disk that turned under a stationary pointer.

“Under its guidance the most muddling twists, turns and corners melt away behind you,” read the advertisement. “It is better than a Human Guide because it is always doing its work to the exclusion of everything else. … The Jones Live-Map emancipates you from slavery to great, flopping maps and profound route-books that you can’t make head or tail of without stopping.”

You could mount it on the dashboard, carry it in your lap, and even hand it to other occupants. The downside was that if you missed a turn you’d have to find a town on the route and recalibrate the device — and it cost $75 in 1909, or more than $2,000 today.