Brave New World

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Only a few years back those who carried Umbrellas were held to be legitimate butts. They were old fogies, careful of their health, and so on; but now-a-days we are wiser. Everybody has his Umbrella. It is both cheaper and better made than of old; who, then, so poor he cannot afford one? To see a man going out in the rain umbrella-less excites as much mirth as ever did the sight of those who first — wiser than their generation — availed themselves of this now universal shelter.

— William Sangster, Umbrellas and Their History, 1855

In 1899 Notes & Queries reprinted an account, now thought to be apocryphal, of “the first silk hat in London”:

It was in evidence that Mr. Hetherington, who is well connected, appeared upon the public highway wearing upon his head what he called a silk hat (which was offered in evidence), a tall structure, having a shiny lustre, and calculated to frighten timid people. As a matter of fact, the officers of the Crown stated that several women fainted at the unusual sight, while children screamed, dogs yelped, and a young son of Cordwainer Thomas, who was returning from a chandler’s shop, was thrown down by the crowd which had collected and had his right arm broken.

Supposedly Hetherington argued that he’d broken no law, and the Times backed him up: “In these days of enlightenment it must be considered an advance in dress reform, and one which is bound, sooner or later, to stamp its character upon the entire community.”

The Tunnel of Eupalinos

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When the Greek engineer Eupalinos contrived a tunnel in the 6th century B.C. to carry water through Mount Kastro to Samos, he started digging simultaneously from the north and south, hoping that the two tunnels would meet in the heart of the mountain. He arranged this through some timely doglegs: When the two teams could hear one another (meaning they were about 12 meters apart), each deviated from its course in both the horizontal (left) and vertical (right) planes:

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Images: Wikimedia Commons

This ensured that they wouldn’t tunnel on hopelessly past one another on parallel courses.

This worked amazingly well: In fact the vertical alignment, established using levels at the start, had been maintained so faithfully that the two tunnels differed by only a few millimeters, though they’d traversed a combined distance of more than a thousand meters.

This is only the second known tunnel to be excavated successfully simultaneously from both ends, and the first to accomplish this feat using geometric principles, which Euclid would codify only centuries later.

The Safety Scoop

Two Sheffield engineers introduced this brainstorm in 1939 — when a motorist realizes he’s about to hit a pedestrian he can pull an emergency lever and the bumper deploys a life-saving “scoop.”

A similar device had appeared in Berlin in 1927 (below). I don’t know whether either was put to practical use.

A New Lease

Brazilian pianist João Carlos Martins won worldwide acclaim but had to retire in March 2019 after 24 surgeries could not relieve the pain caused by a degenerative disease and a series of accidents.

But designer Ubiratã Bizarro Costa proposed making some neoprene-covered bionic gloves that lift Martins’ fingers after they depress the keys, and by December they had perfected them.

“I might not recover the speed of the past,” Martins told the Associated Press. “I don’t know what result I will get. I’m starting over as though I were an 8-year-old learning.”

But his goal now is to play an entire Bach concert perfectly. “It could take one, two years. I will keep pushing until that happens. I won’t give up.”

The AVE Mizar

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1971, two aeronautical engineering students set out to make an aircraft by mating the wings, engine, and airframe of a Cessna Skymaster to a modified Ford Pinto. In principle you could drive to the airport, attach the wings in two minutes, and get quickly into the air under the combined power of two engines. At your destination you’d land, stop quickly using the car’s four-wheel brakes, detach the wings, and drive off.

By 1973, two prototypes had been built and the FAA was considering certification, but on two testing flights a wing strut detached from the car. One pilot had to land in a bean field, and another died when the wing folded. The project was dropped.

Outreach

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Images: Wikimedia Commons

In August 1945, a few weeks before the end of World War II, a Soviet delegation presented a replica of the Great Seal of the United States as a gift to American ambassador W. Averell Harriman, who hung it in the study of his Moscow residence.

In 1951, a radio operator at the British embassy overheard American voices on an open radio traffic channel used by the Russian air force. An investigation showed that they’d been beaming radio waves at the ambassador’s office: The gift had contained a passive listening device that could be activated by a radio signal. The Soviets had been listening in on the ambassador’s residence for six years.

When a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Soviet territory in 1960, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. displayed the device to show that both sides had been guilty of spying.

The Incentive Trap

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Suppose you build a ship that can take you to Barnard’s Star. Should you depart today? Perhaps not: Our civilization might create a faster ship tomorrow that will overtake you on the journey. But clearly if you wait too long then you’ll simply lose out to an earlier ship. There must be some optimal waiting time that will deliver you to the star before any other pilot.

What is that time? “It has been shown that taking reasonable estimates for growth, an interstellar journey of 6 light years can best be made in about 635 years from now if growth continues at about 1.4% per annum,” writes researcher Andrew Kennedy. “At this point, the journey could be made in 145 years.”

(Andrew Kennedy, “Interstellar Travel: The Wait Calculation and the Incentive Trap of Progress,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 59:7 [2006], 239-246.)

No Waiting

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Image: Helmut Zozmann

Designed in 1804, the Grand Shaft, at the Western Heights of Dover, is a triple helix, the only such staircase in Britain. As with Vatican City’s Bramante Staircase, this design accommodates a large number of passengers while minimizing interference among them — using it, a large number of troops might quickly descend the 140 feet from the heights to the town below, while others might even ascend at the same time, using a different spiral.

In 1812 a Mr. Leith of Walmer rode his horse up the stair for a bet, and local legend has it that during Victorian times the separate spirals were assigned to “officers and their ladies,” “sergeants and their wives,” and “soldiers and their women.”

(Thanks, Dave.)

Early Warning

In 2010, as the Colombian government was preparing to rescue 16 soldiers held by armed FARC guerrillas, it looked in vain for a way to alert the soldiers without tipping off their captors. Finally Colonel Jose Espejo arranged to have local radio stations broadcast a pop song that contained a message in Morse code, which the soldiers had learned in basic training but that the guerrillas likely wouldn’t recognize.

The lyrics run, “In the middle of the night / Thinking about what I love the most / I feel the need to sing … About how much I miss them.” And hidden at three points in the song (1:30, 2:30, 3:30), in Morse code, is the message “19 people rescued. You are next. Don’t lose hope.”

“The hostages were listening to our own stations, so we made sure the song was played,” Espejo told The Verge. “The code message said, ‘you’re next’ because the hostages thought if they ran away, they would die in the jungle. We let them know that our troops were nearby.”

It worked. “We know of hostages who heard the message,” Espejo said, “and were able to escape and provide information that led to the release of more hostages.”

Top Drawer

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Introduced by Eberhard Faber in 1934, the Blackwing 602 premium writing pencil was stamped with the words “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed”: Compared to an ordinary pencil, its core contained more graphite, less clay, and wax, so that it wrote like a pencil of 4B hardness but with a unique gliding feel.

It has attracted an impressive roster of creative admirers, including Walt Disney, Stephen Sondheim, Quincy Jones, Vladimir Nabokov, and John Steinbeck, who wrote, “I have found a new kind of pencil — the best I have ever had. Of course it costs three times as much too, but it is black and soft but doesn’t break off. I think I will always use these. They are called Blackwings and they really glide over the paper.”

Steinbeck would use a Blackwing pencil right down to the ferrule (pencil devotees now call this “Steinbeck stage”) and then pass them on to his son, another writer. “Writing with a Blackwing 602, more than any other pencil, feels like an event — something like a rite of passage for a pencil obsessive,” writes Caroline Weaver in The Pencil Perfect: The Untold Story of a Cultural Icon (2017). “When they are sold in my shop I always encourage the customer to sharpen it at least once and to use it for special occasions, because most of the pleasure of owning it comes from knowing what it feels like to write with it as much as it comes from the history.”