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.

Duet

In 1924 cellist Beatrice Harrison was playing to the birds in her Oxted garden when “I suddenly stopped and thought, ‘Why should I be the only being to have the joy of hearing the nightingale and the cello sing together? If only it were possible for people, even at the other end of the world, to hear him, those who have never heard the most exquisite bird sing.'”

The BBC resisted her idea at first — no wild bird had ever been broadcast before — but on May 19 they arranged a live performance in the garden, and “the nightingale burst into song as I continued to play. … I shall never forget his voice that night, or his trills, nor the way he followed the cello so blissfully. It was a miracle to have caught his song and to know that it was going, with the cello, to the ends of the earth.”

The broadcast was heard by about a million people; those who had radios relayed it by telephone to friends who didn’t. She played again the following week, and again the following year, and received thousands of letters, some addressed to “The Lady of the Nightingales” or “The Garden of the Nightingales, England.”

The only listener who remained unimpressed was her gardener. “I loves your music, Miss,” he told her, “but I do wish it didn’t attract them birds the way it do. They eats up all the fruit, something cruel.”

(From her 1985 autobiography, The Cello and the Nightingales.)

Eric the Robot

In 1928, when London’s Society of Model Engineers received word that the Duke of York would be unable to open its annual exhibition, acting secretary W.H. Richards said, “Very well, I will find a substitute: it is a mechanical show, let us have a mechanical man to open it.”

So they did. Attendees that September were greeted by a robot named Eric who could stand up, bow, look left and right, deliver a four-minute opening address “with appropriate gestures,” and sit down. The speech, imparted by a radio signal, was described as “really sparkling” — apparently literally, as blue sparks shot from Eric’s teeth. From the Model Engineer and Light Machinery Review:

The Exhibition of 1928 has been one of the most successful we ever had. … The ‘Robot’ was a continuous attraction; he drew thousands of people to see his remarkable performance. … It is estimated that he rose and bowed to his audiences more than a thousand times during the week, and he not only amused the majority of his visitors, but positively amazed and bewildered them with his clever movements and conversation.

In 1929 Eric toured America, where he visited Harvard and MIT and informed interviewers that he did not gamble, drink, or run around at night. That’s reassuring, because eventually he disappeared — London Science Museum curator Ben Russell told the Telegraph, “No one quite knows what happened to him, whether he was blown up or taken to pieces for spare parts.” So, working from old photographs, the museum rebuilt him, and he appeared, debonair as ever, in a 2017 exhibition:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eric_the_Robot_(32822317725).jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Clockwork Monk

In the collection of the Smithsonian Institution is this 460-year-old automaton, a robot monk who walks in a square, beats his breast in contrition, raises a rosary and crucifix to his lips, turns and nods his head, rolls his eyes, and mouths obsequies. Its origin is not clear: The story goes that when the Spanish king’s son was ailing the relics of a Franciscan monk were brought to his side, and after he recovered the king commissioned the automaton in gratitude.

But no one really knows. “Many of the earliest automata were commissioned as expressions of religious belief: models of Jesus bled, automata of Satan roared and screamed, moving tableaux of biblical scenes were quite commonplace, coming to life for festivals and holy days,” writes historian E.R. Truitt in Ben Russell’s Robots: The 500-Year Quest to Make Machines Human. “Amazingly, no fewer than three mechanical monks survive: this one … and two more in Munich and Budapest, at the Deutsches Museum and Museum of Applied Arts respectively.”

Clockwise

http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Periodicals/YI/YI19170515-V65-20.pdf

When cattle buyers had trouble finding John Byron Plato’s farm, they gave up and went home. “That killed a mighty profitable bargain,” he told a reporter, which “got me thinking about rural addresses.” The buyers had left a note saying “it takes time to find your place.” Plato looked at his watch and saw that it “smiled back the answer.”

Plato’s “clock system” assigns numbers to directions — 12 is due north, 5 is southeast by south, and so on. Within each of these sectors, a location can be identified by its distance from the town center. “Thus if a man lived four miles west of his post office, his number would be 94 (nine for west and four for distance). If he lived two miles south, his number would be 62.” This could be refined further by adding one more character: 32T means “about 2.75 miles east of the post office.”

Plato claimed that this system could have led his lost cattle buyers to within a hundred yards of his house without a map or a compass. He published a series of “rural directories” using the clock system in western and central New York State in the 1920s and 1930s, but his business faded as the Depression pummeled agriculture, and the patent lapsed.

The Camden Bench

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

The London borough of Camden enshrined disapproval in 2012 with a concrete bench designed to deter sleeping, skateboarding, drug dealing, graffiti, and theft. Its surface discourages any activity but sitting, it contains no crevices or hiding places, its surface repels paint, and it weighs two tons.

The result has been called a “masterpiece of unpleasant design,” a “perfect anti-object” “defined far more by what it is not than what it is,” and an example of “hostile architecture” oppressive to the homeless. The designers, Factory Furniture, responded by saying, “Homelessness should never be tolerated in any society and if we start designing in to accommodate homeless then we have totally failed as a society. Close proximity to homelessness unfortunately makes us uncomfortable so perhaps it is good that we feel that and recognise homelessness as a problem rather than design to accommodate it.”

Whether it discourages skateboarders is debatable.

Efficiency

http://www.bikeboom.info/efficiency/

In a 1973 Scientific American article on bicycle technology, Oxford engineering lecturer S.S. Wilson showed that a man on a bicycle “improves his efficiency rating to No. 1 among moving creatures and machines”:

“When one compares the energy consumed in moving a certain distance as a function of body weight for a variety of animals and machines, one finds that an unaided walking man does fairly well (consuming about .75 calorie per gram per kilometer), but he is not as efficient as a horse, a salmon or a jet transport. With the aid of a bicycle, however, the man’s energy consumption for a given distance is reduced to about a fifth (roughly .15 calorie per gram per kilometer).”

(Via Simon Kuestenmacher’s Twitter feed.)

11/18/2018 UPDATE: In 1974 the Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich wrote:

The model American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts, and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy. The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour. In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only 3 to 8 per cent of their society’s time budget to traffic instead of 28 per cent.

(Thanks, Bryan.)