First Class

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/8297/8297-h/8297-h.htm#7

The Scientific American Supplement of June 25, 1881, presents this illustration of a diversion that the family of Louis XIV purportedly used at the chateau of Marly-le-Roi. Called the Jeu de la Roulette, it’s essentially a miniature railway in which the train is pushed along by servants:

According to Alex. Guillaumot the apparatus consisted of a sort of railway on which the car was moved by manual labor. In the car, which was decorated with the royal colors, are seen seated the ladies and children of the king’s household, while the king himself stands in the rear and seems to be directing operations. The remarkable peculiarity to which we would direct the attention of the reader is that this document shows that the car ran on rails very nearly like those used on the railways of the present time, and that a turn-table served for changing the direction to a right angle in order to place the car under the shelter of a small building.

Scientific American says that the engraving’s authenticity is certain — La Nature took it from the archives at Paris among documents dated 1714. In Unusual Railways (1958), John Robert Day and Brian Geoffrey Wilson are rather more reserved, noting that all the evidence for the railway lies in this single print. “There is no evidence that the date or the print are authentic, but we like to think that they are.”

If it did exist, they write, “This almost certainly was the first pleasure railway ever built.”

Key Testimony

Here’s a piano reciting the Proclamation of the European Environmental Criminal Court.

It was programmed by Austrian composer Peter Ablinger for World Venice Forum 2009, sponsored by Italy’s Academy of Environmental Sciences. Ablinger wanted to convey an environmental message by musical means, so he asked Berlin elementary school student Miro Markus to read the text and then translated the frequency spectrum of Markus’ voice to the piano.

“I break down this phonography — meaning a recording of something, the voice, in this case — in individual pixels, one can say,” Ablinger explained. “And if I have the possibility of a rendering in a fairly high resolution (and that I only get with a mechanical piano), then I in fact restore some kind of continuity.”

“Therefore, with a little practice, or help or subtitling, we actually can hear a human voice in a piano sound.”

Mama Bird

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zveno-2.jpg

The Soviet Union redefined heavy bombers in 1930 with the introduction of the Tupolev TB-3, a four-engine behemoth so large that it could serve as a mothership to five little fighters, which could be released in flight and even hooked back onto the aircraft in order to refuel.

A TB-3 once did manage to take off with four fighters attached, then joined up with a fifth while circling the airfield, with a combined nine engines going. Then all five fighters were released at once. “The thing about events like that is, you always wonder how they entered the flight in their log books afterwards,” writes James Gilbert in The World’s Worst Aircraft. “I mean, if you were the pilot of one of the fighters, you could hardly log the take-off because you hadn’t made it, except as a passenger. But how can you log a landing with no prior take-off?”

The whole contraption, known as Vakhmistrov’s Circus, saw some early wartime service, but it was too complex and vulnerable to be adopted widely. Today it’s a historical curiosity.

Payment in Kind

https://patents.google.com/patent/US1377015A/en

During a stickup, bank robbers order tellers to keep their hands up so they can’t defend themselves or the customers. In 1921 San Francisco inventor Harry McGrath offered this solution: The teller wears a loaded pistol under his arm, with a wire running down his coat sleeve to his palm. Now when his arms are raised he can still fire the gun.

The patent says nothing about aiming, but “in order to make the gun perfectly safe, a blank cartridge can be placed in the magazine to be fired first, followed by a ball cartridge.”

I don’t know whether McGrath himself was a bank teller. I hope not.

A Silver Lining

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Huskisson_by_Richard_Rothwell.jpg

The opening of England’s Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830 took a direful turn when William Huskisson, a member of Parliament for Liverpool, approached the Duke of Wellington’s railway carriage. Huskisson became so engrossed in their conversation that he failed to notice an oncoming train, and when he realized his danger and tried to climb into Wellington’s carriage, the door swung outward and deposited him in its path. His leg was badly mangled.

“Immediately after the accident, he was placed on the ‘Northumbrian’ — another of Stephenson’s engines — and raced to Liverpool at the then unprecedented speed of 36 m.p.h., with Stephenson himself as driver,” writes Ernest Frank Carter in Unusual Locomotives. “It was the news of this accident, and the speed of the engine, which was one of the causes of the immediate adoption and rapid spread of railways over the world. Thus was the death of the first person to be involved in a railway accident turned to some good account.”

The Black Beetle

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:M-497_Black_Beetle.jpg

In 1966, with the Interstate Highway System on the rise and increasing competition from airlines, the New York Central Railroad decided to experiment with a high-speed rail service. The result was startling: a jet-powered railcar.

With two secondhand General Electric J47-19 jet engines mounted above a streamlined cowling, this diesel car reached a speed of 183.68 mph that July on the arrow-straight rail segment between Butler, Indiana, and Stryker, Ohio.

Ultimately the project went nowhere — the company was headed for a merger with the rival Pennsylvania Railroad — but that experimental jaunt still holds the rail speed record in the United States.

The Billups Neon Crossing Signal

After numerous accidents where the Illinois Central Railroad crossed Highway 7 near Grenada, Mississippi, in the 1930s, inventor Alonzo Billups came up with a one-of-a-kind solution. When a train approached the crossing, motorists were confronted with a lighted skull and crossbones, the glowing words “Stop-DEATH-Stop,” flashing neon arrows indicating the train’s direction, and an air raid siren.

The video here is a simulation; the actual gantry was removed due to a scarcity of neon in the war years. But two photographs survive.

A Portable Bed

https://patents.google.com/patent/US1316469A/en

In 1919, Mrs. Ray Werner patented a military overcoat with an inflatable lining:

The primary object of my invention is to provide a garment, the back of which may be inflated to provide a resilient support for the body of the wearer without removing the garment, thus providing a greater comfort while reclining in a recumbent position.

A separate compartment can be inflated into a pillow. The application was granted that September; I don’t know whether it was ever manufactured.

Battlefield ID

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bayeux_Tapestry_scene55_William_Hastings_battlefield.jpg

The Norman Conquest unfolded before the advent of modern heraldry, so warriors couldn’t be identified reliably by the designs on their shields, and their hoods and helmets tended to obscure their faces. As a result they were often unrecognizable. At the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror had to raise his helmet to show that he was not dead, as recorded on the Bayeux Tapestry (Eustace II, Count of Boulogne, points to him to rally the troops). Combatants began to carry armorial shields early in the 12th century.