Deposition of Elizabeth Brett, a Hertfordshire farmer’s servant, regarding an alarming experience on Sept. 15, 1784:

This deponent, on her oath, saith, that on Wednesday the 15th day of September instant, between four and five o’clock in the afternoon, she, this deponent, being then at work in her master’s brewhouse, heard an uncommon and loud noise, which, on attending to it, she conceived to be the sound of men singing as they returned from harvest-home. That upon going to the door of the house she perceived a strange large body in the air, and, on approaching it in a meadow-field near the house, called Long Mead, she perceived a man in it; that the person in the machine, which she knew not what to make of, but which the person in it called an air-balloon, called to her to take hold of the rope, which she did accordingly; that John Mills and George Philips, labourers with said Mr. Thomas Read, came up soon after, and, being likewise requested to assist in holding the rope, both made their excuses, one of them, George Philips, saying he was too short, and John Mills saying that he did not like it; that this deponent continued to hold the rope till some other harvest-men of Mr. Benjamin Robinson, of High Cross, came up, by whose assistance the machine was held down till the person got out of the machine. And this deponent further, on her oath, saith, that the person now present and shown to her by William Baker, Esq., the justice of peace before whom this deposition is taken, as Mr. Vincent Lunardi, and in her presence declares himself to be Mr. Vincent Lunardi, was the person who called to me from the machine, as above stated, and who descended therefrom in the said field called Long Meadow.

Other witnesses acknowledged that Lunardi had told them “that he had set out from the Artillery Ground in London, a little before two o’clock in the afternoon of the said day, in the machine, and had travelled through the air to the place where they found him.” He later described his view of the city from this new perspective.

From Christopher H. Turnor’s Astra Castra, 1865, via Humphrey Jennings, Pandaemonium, 1985.

“Hiawatha’s Photographing”

Lewis Carroll was an early enthusiast of photography, though he seems to have found the social aspects trying — he published this poem in 1857:

From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.
This he perched upon a tripod —
Crouched beneath its dusky cover —
Stretched his hand, enforcing silence —
Said, “Be motionless, I beg you!”
Mystic, awful was the process.
All the family in order
Sat before him for their pictures:
Each in turn, as he was taken,
Volunteered his own suggestions,
His ingenious suggestions.
First the Governor, the Father:
He suggested velvet curtains
Looped about a massy pillar;
And the corner of a table,
Of a rosewood dining-table.
He would hold a scroll of something,
Hold it firmly in his left-hand;
He would keep his right-hand buried
(Like Napoleon) in his waistcoat;
He would contemplate the distance
With a look of pensive meaning,
As of ducks that die ill tempests.
Grand, heroic was the notion:
Yet the picture failed entirely:
Failed, because he moved a little,
Moved, because he couldn’t help it.
Next, his better half took courage;
She would have her picture taken.
She came dressed beyond description,
Dressed in jewels and in satin
Far too gorgeous for an empress.
Gracefully she sat down sideways,
With a simper scarcely human,
Holding in her hand a bouquet
Rather larger than a cabbage.
All the while that she was sitting,
Still the lady chattered, chattered,
Like a monkey in the forest.
“Am I sitting still?” she asked him.
“Is my face enough in profile?
Shall I hold the bouquet higher?
Will it came into the picture?”
And the picture failed completely.
Next the Son, the Stunning-Cantab:
He suggested curves of beauty,
Curves pervading all his figure,
Which the eye might follow onward,
Till they centered in the breast-pin,
Centered in the golden breast-pin.
He had learnt it all from Ruskin
(Author of ‘The Stones of Venice,’
‘Seven Lamps of Architecture,’
‘Modern Painters,’ and some others);
And perhaps he had not fully
Understood his author’s meaning;
But, whatever was the reason,
All was fruitless, as the picture
Ended in an utter failure.
Next to him the eldest daughter:
She suggested very little,
Only asked if he would take her
With her look of ‘passive beauty.’
Her idea of passive beauty
Was a squinting of the left-eye,
Was a drooping of the right-eye,
Was a smile that went up sideways
To the corner of the nostrils.
Hiawatha, when she asked him,
Took no notice of the question,
Looked as if he hadn’t heard it;
But, when pointedly appealed to,
Smiled in his peculiar manner,
Coughed and said it ‘didn’t matter,’
Bit his lip and changed the subject.
Nor in this was he mistaken,
As the picture failed completely.
So in turn the other sisters.
Last, the youngest son was taken:
Very rough and thick his hair was,
Very round and red his face was,
Very dusty was his jacket,
Very fidgety his manner.
And his overbearing sisters
Called him names he disapproved of:
Called him Johnny, ‘Daddy’s Darling,’
Called him Jacky, ‘Scrubby School-boy.’
And, so awful was the picture,
In comparison the others
Seemed, to one’s bewildered fancy,
To have partially succeeded.
Finally my Hiawatha
Tumbled all the tribe together,
(‘Grouped’ is not the right expression),
And, as happy chance would have it
Did at last obtain a picture
Where the faces all succeeded:
Each came out a perfect likeness.
Then they joined and all abused it,
Unrestrainedly abused it,
As the worst and ugliest picture
They could possibly have dreamed of.
‘Giving one such strange expressions —
Sullen, stupid, pert expressions.
Really any one would take us
(Any one that did not know us)
For the most unpleasant people!’
(Hiawatha seemed to think so,
Seemed to think it not unlikely.)
All together rang their voices,
Angry, loud, discordant voices,
As of dogs that howl in concert,
As of cats that wail in chorus.
But my Hiawatha’s patience,
His politeness and his patience,
Unaccountably had vanished,
And he left that happy party.
Neither did he leave them slowly,
With the calm deliberation,
The intense deliberation
Of a photographic artist:
But he left them in a hurry,
Left them in a mighty hurry,
Stating that he would not stand it,
Stating in emphatic language
What he’d be before he’d stand it.
Hurriedly he packed his boxes:
Hurriedly the porter trundled
On a barrow all his boxes:
Hurriedly he took his ticket:
Hurriedly the train received him:
Thus departed Hiawatha.

He introduced it by writing, “In an age of imitation, I can claim no special merit for this slight attempt at doing what is known to be so easy. Any fairly practised writer, with the slightest ear for rhythm, could compose, for hours together, in the easy running metre of The Song of Hiawatha. Having then distinctly stated that I challenge no attention in the following little poem to its merely verbal jingle, I must beg the candid reader to confine his criticism to its treatment of the subject.”

Deep Thinking
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Natural philosopher John Wilkins’ Mathematical Magick of 1648 contains a startling passage in which he foretells the advantages of a long-range submarine, or “ship, wherein men may safely swim underwater”:

  1. ‘Tis private; a man may thus go to any coast of the world invisibly, without being discovered or prevented in his journey;
  2. ‘Tis safe; from the uncertainty of Tides, and the violence of Tempests, which do never move the sea above five or six paces deep. From Pirates and Robbers which do so infest other voyages; from ice and great frosts, which do so much endanger the passages toward the Poles.
  3. It may be of very great advantage against a Navy of enemies, who by this means may be undermined in the water, and blown up.
  4. It may be of a special use for the relief of any place that is besieged by water, to convey unto them invisible supplies: and so likewise for the surprisal of any place that is accessible by water.
  5. It may be of unspeakable benefit from submarine experiments and discoveries.

Wilkins was aware of Cornelius Drebbel’s primitive sub of 1620, but he looks much farther ahead, seeming to foresee combat submarines and deep-sea exploration vessels.

“I am not able to judge what other advantages there may be suggested, or whether experiment would fully answer to these notional conjectures,” he concluded. “But however, because the invention did unto me seem ingenious and new, being not impertinent to the present enquiry, therefore I thought it might be worth the mentioning.”

(From Joseph J. Thorndike Jr., ed., Mysteries of the Deep, 1980.)


During World War I, British physicist G.I. Taylor was asked to design a dart to be dropped onto enemy troops from the air. He and a colleague dropped a bundle of darts as a trial and then “went over the field and pushed a square of paper over every dart we could find sticking out of the ground.”

When we had gone over the field in this way and were looking at the distribution, a cavalry officer came up and asked us what we were doing. When we explained that the darts had been dropped from an airplane, he looked at them and, seeing a dart piercing every sheet remarked: ‘If I had not seen it with my own eyes I would never have believed it possible to make such good shooting from the air.’

(The darts were never used — “we were told they were regarded as inhuman weapons and could not be used by gentlemen.”)

(From T.W. Körner, The Pleasures of Counting, 1996.)


Modern lighting is so ubiquitous that we scarcely think about it, but from prehistory to A.D. 1782 there were just a few primitive means to banish the dark, chiefly fires, rushlights, and tallow candles. And even these were rather precious — in the 17th century John Aubrey wrote of William Oughtred that “his wife was a penurious woman and would not allow him to burne candle after supper, by which means many a good notion is lost.” In 1763 James Boswell was midway through a night of writing when disaster struck:

About two o’clock in the morning I inadvertently snuffed out my candle, and as my fire before that was long before black and cold, I was in a great dilemma how to proceed. Downstairs did I softly and silently step to the kitchen. But, alas, there was as little fire there as upon the icy mountains of Greenland. With a tinder box is a light struck every morning to kindle the fire, which is put out at night. But this tinder box I could not see, nor knew where to find. I was now filled with gloomy ideas of the terrors of the night. I was also apprehensive that my landlord who always keeps a pair of loaded pistols by him, might fire at me as a thief.

What did he do? “I went up to my room, sat quietly until I heard the watchman calling ‘past three o’clock’. I then called to him to knock at the door of the house where I lodged. He did so, and I opened to him and got my candle re-lumed without danger. Thus was I relieved and continued busy until eight the next day.”

(William T. O’Dea, The Social History of Lighting, 1958.)

Looking Ahead

This position is from a 1990 game between Marion Tinsley, humanity’s last checkers champion, and Chinook, the computer program that would eventually take the crown. Tinsley had black. The computer played g1-h2, and Tinsley looked up in surprise and said, “You’re going to regret that.” Programmer Jonathan Schaeffer, who was making the moves for the computer, wrote:

Being inexperienced in the ways of the great Tinsley, I sat there silently thinking, ‘What do you know? My program is searching 20 moves deep and says it has an advantage.’ Several moves later, Chinook’s assessment dropped to equality. A few moves later, it said Tinsley was better. Later Chinook said it was in trouble. Finally, things became so bad we resigned.

“In his notes to the game, Tinsley revealed that he had seen to the end of the game and knew he was going to win on move 11, one move after our mistake,” Schaeffer noted. “Chinook needed to look ahead 60 moves to know that its 10th move was a loser. In my experience with tournament chess and checker players, the sixth sense is experience. It is well-known how intensely Tinsley studied the game, analyzing anything from a Grandmaster game to a game between novices. His uncanny ability to know good from bad and safe from dangerous, is the direct result of all his hard work. Strong chess players have the same ability, but perhaps it is not quite as evident as it was with Tinsley.”

(From Richard J. Nowakowski, Games of No Chance, 1998.)

Weather Station Kurt,_Labrador.jpg

In July 1977 geomorphologist Peter Johnson stumbled across an old weather station in northern Labrador. It turned out to be an automatic station that had been set up secretly by a German submarine crew in 1943 so that Germany might have notice of impending weather systems. The Allies had never discovered it and it had stood unregarded for 30 years after the war’s end.

“Weather Station Kurt” was probably designed to operate automatically for about six months, transmitting readings on temperature, wind direction, strength, and humidity every three hours until its batteries failed in the cold.

All the witnesses to its installation died when the submarine, U-537, was sunk in the Java Sea. Their work marks the only known armed German military operation on land in North America during World War II.

The station is now on display at the Canadian War Museum.

In a Word

adj. liable to raptures

n. rejoicing together

n. buying and selling, trade

adj. intended to be sung

“Selling I. B. M.” to be sung to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain,” from the 1937 corporate hymnal Songs of The IBM:

Selling I. B. M., we’re selling I. B. M.,
What a glorious feeling, the world is our friend,
We’re Watson’s great crew, we’re loyal and true;
We’re proud of our job and we never feel blue.
We sell our whole line, we’re there every time,
To chase away gloom with our products so fine,
We’re always in trim, we work with a vim,
We’re selling, just selling, I. B. M.!

(Via MetaFilter.)

Los Alamos Chess
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The first chess-like game played by a computer was this little variant, written for the MANIAC I by Paul Stein and Mark Wells at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in 1956. To accommodate the computer’s limitations, there are no bishops (and pawns can’t promote to bishops); pawns can advance only one square on their first move; there is no en passant capture; and there is no castling.

It played three games. In the first it played against itself; in the second, a strong human player gave queen odds and won; and in the third it played against a lab assistant who’d learned the rules of chess only recently. The computer won the last game, marking the first time that a computer beat a human in a chess-like game. Here’s the score:

White: MANIAC I Black: Beginner
1.d3 b4 2.Nf3 d4 3.b3 e4 4.Ne1 a4 5.bxa4 Nxa4 6.Kd2 Nc3 7.Nxc3 bxc3+ 8.Kd1 f4 9.a3 Rb6 10.a4 Ra6 11.a5 Kd5 12.Qa3 Qb5 13.Qa2+ Ke5 14.Rb1 Rxa5 15.Rxb5 Rxa2 16.Rb1 Ra5 17.f3 Ra4 18.fxe4 c4 19.Nf3+ Kd6 20.e5+ Kd5 21.exf6=Q Nc5 22.Qxd4+ Kc6 23.Ne5# [diagram] 1–0

Evolved Antennas

NASA’s 2006 Space Technology 5 carried an unusual item — an antenna that had evolved through Darwinian evolution. To meet a challenging set of mission requirements, researchers at New Mexico State University used a computer program to generate simple antenna shapes, altered them in semi-random manner, and evaluated the results. Those that performed worst against design requirements were discarded and the remainder again “mutated” in a process modeled on natural selection. This procedure can produce a complex but highly efficient shape that might not be found using more traditional methods.

“By exploring such a wide range of designs EAs may be able to produce designs of previously unachievable performance,” the team concluded. “The faster design cycles of an evolutionary approach results in less development costs and allows for an iterative ‘what-if’ design and test approach for different scenarios.”