Moving Up

In the 1930s New York tackled its congestion problem by parking cars in the sky — for 50 cents an attendant would drive your car onto a hydraulic elevator and hoist it as much as 24 stories above street level, where it remained until you returned to claim it.

One “hotel for autos” had space to park a thousand cars, but it was soon obsolete — cars grew too big to fit in the stalls, and underground parking proved to be a cheaper solution. Kent Automatic Garages folded barely three years after it started, and the sites of its marvels are just anonymous office buildings.

(Thanks, Ron.)

03/26/2022 UPDATE: Hydraulic lifts are still being used! (Thanks, Jim.)

Remaking the World

In 2000, University of Maine geological scientist Roger LeB. Hooke estimated that human beings now move more earth than any other geomorphic agent, 6 metric tons of earth and rock per capita each year (31 tonnes in the United States!), for a global total of about 35 billion tonnes.

For comparison, ancient Egypt moved 625 kg per capita per year, Easter Island 260 kg, and the Mayan city of Copán 665 kg. Rome, at its zenith, including the roads, moved 3.85 tonnes of earth per person each year. Hooke estimates that the earth we’ve moved in the last 5,000 years could build a mountain range 4,000 meters high, 40 km wide, and 100 km long. And if the current rates of increase persist (mostly due to technology and population growth), that mountain range could double in length by 2100.

“One may well ask how long such rates of increase can be sustained, and whether it will be rational behavior or catastrophe that brings them to an end.”

(Roger LeB. Hooke, “On the History of Humans as Geomorphic Agents,” Geology 28:9 [September 2000], 843-846.)

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Colombian activist César López came up with a striking new peace symbol in 2003 — the escopetarra, a guitar fashioned from a gun.

The word combines the Spanish escopeta (shotgun) and guitarra (guitar). López made the first from a Winchester rifle and a Stratocaster; he’s since built four more and given them to various Latin American artists and cities and to the United Nations, which displayed it at a disarmament conference.

López told the BBC that he got the idea when he saw a soldier carrying his weapon like a guitar. “From there sprang the idea of joining the worst invention of mankind can be joined with the most beautiful,” he said. “Some of the AK-47s have the barrels marked with each of the victims. So we mark the barrels with the songs we play.”

Card Catalog

This is pleasing: The first library card catalogs were made using playing cards. During the French Revolution the government created a new system of public libraries, and in order to inventory the books they created the “French Cataloging Code of 1791,” in which bibliographic data was written on playing cards, which were sturdy, uniform, and plentiful. A photo is here.

In The Card Catalog, its affectionate tribute to this now outmoded tool, the Library of Congress notes that 1.2 million cards representing more than 3 million volumes were recorded using this system within 3 years. “Although the ambitious cataloging project did not result in the formation of a national catalog, it did demonstrate the potential of utilizing a uniform format.” (Also: “Deuces and aces were reserved for the longest titles, as those cards had the most space on which to write.”)

The Telharmonium,_Holyoke,_Massachusetts.jpg

Inventor Thaddeus Cahill offered a startling advance in 1895: An electronic keyboard instrument that could distribute music over the nation’s telephone networks. By combining sine waves according to Hermann Helmholtz’s new theories, the device could approximate the tone of any given instrument using electrical dynamos.

After hearing a demonstration at the Hotel Hamilton, Ray Stannard Baker wrote in McClure’s, “The first impression the music makes upon the listener is its singular difference from any music ever heard before: in the fullness, roundness, completeness, of its tones.”

Unfortunately, the device required an enormous amount of electricity, it disrupted the New York telephone network, and it was rapidly overtaken by other inventions in an immensely fruitful period. Cahill had hoped to fund it through subscriptions, and this quickly became impossible. But it had its adherents — Mark Twain’s friend Albert Bigelow Paine recalled a social gathering at the Clemens home at which the author demonstrated the instrument:

“Clemens was filled with enthusiasm over the idea. He made a speech a little before midnight, in which he told how he had generally been enthusiastic about inventions which had turned out more or less well in about equal proportions. He did not dwell on the failures, but he told how he had been the first to use a typewriter for manuscript work; how he had been one of the earliest users of the fountain-pen; how he had installed the first telephone ever used in a private house, and how the audience now would have a demonstration of the first telharmonium music so employed. It was just about the stroke of midnight when he finished, and a moment later the horns began to play chimes and ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘America.'”


In the 14th century, after copying a 614-page handwritten manuscript in double columns, an unknown scribe entered this in the colophon:

Explicit secunda pars summe fratris thome de aquino ordinis fratrum predicatorum, longissima, prolixissima, et tediosissima scribenti: Deo gratias, Deo gratias, et iterum Deo gratias.

It means, “Here ends the second part of the title work of Brother Thomas Aquinas of the Dominican Order; very long, very verbose, and very tedious for the scribe. Thank God, thank God, and again thank God.”

(From M.B. Parkes, Their Hands Before Our Eyes: A Closer Look at Scribes, 2017.)

The Conroy Virtus

The space shuttle was originally designed to propel itself, both on returning from a mission and in hopping among various landing sites. When air-breathing engines were judged too heavy and costly, NASA had to find another way to move the shuttle around.

One unlikely candidate was the Virtus, a pair of B-52 fuselages mounted to a giant wing. Proposed by American aviator John M. Conroy, the aircraft would have had a wingspan of 140 meters and a takeoff weight of 850,000 pounds.

Prototypes performed well in the wind tunnel, but the prospect of building, testing, and accommodating a new aircraft, and especially such a large one, finally argued against it, and NASA decided to piggyback the shuttle on a 747.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1920s, Fiat’s car factory in Turin, Italy, contained a spiral roadway — raw materials went in at ground level, and the cars ascended as they were assembled. At the top they emerged onto a test track on the roof.

Lauded at the time, the factory was eventually outmoded and has since been remodeled into a hotel and shopping mall, but the test track remains and is open to visitors.

Contact at a Distance,_1916-1918._Q579.jpg

During daylight hours on the Western Front, soldiers in World War I regularly inspected the no-man’s-land that lay between the trenches. To do this they used either telescopes slid between the sandbag defenses or periscopes, which could be raised above the parapet to give a view of the field via a pair of reflecting mirrors. Normally there was nothing to see, but Brigadier Philip Mortimer of the 3rd Meerut Divisional Train had a start one day while peering through a telescope:

I actually saw as clear as daylight, the reflection in the top mirror of his periscope, a German officer’s head as he searched our trenches through his periscope, a most uncanny sight — the grey peaked cap and face as he looked down into the bottom mirror could be clearly seen.

“It was decided to ‘strafe’ the periscope with a Maxim which after being trained on it carefully was let off to the tune of about 15 rounds. The periscope immediately disappeared.”

(From Richard van Emden, Meeting the Enemy, 2013.)


When inventor Guy Otis Brewster offered his Brewster Body Shield to the soldiers of World War I, he demonstrated its efficacy by standing before a Lewis machine gun firing bullets at full velocity, about 2,700 feet per second.

All that energy heated the breastplate, but Brewster said he felt “only about one tenth the shock which he experienced when struck by a sledge-hammer.”

Unfortunately the armor weighed 40 pounds, which made it cumbersome in the field.

(Bashford Dean, Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare, 1920.)