Above It All

https://www.google.com/patents/US915171

Here’s a lost art: “Ceiling walking” was a popular form of American entertainment as early as 1806, when “Sanches, the Wonderful Antipodean” wore iron shoes that were “fitted in grooves in a board fastened to the top of the stage.”

Spectacles such as this were drawing crowds right through the 19th century. In New Orleans in the 1880s a young “human fly” named Mademoiselle Aimee was carried by her teeth to a trapeze 50 feet in the air, from which she affixed her feet to the ceiling by some indistinct means. “Many such exclamations as ‘My God!’ ‘Oh My!’ and so on follow, and as she puts one foot before the other, walking in a forward direction, the situation is most thrilling,” marveled the Daily Picayune. “Often ladies have fainted at the sight of the almost child’s peril, and men have trembled while looking up at her. Many refuse to look up at all and those who do continue to look are in constant apprehension of a terrible accident. There is no question in the world but that the feat is without parallel in the matter of tempting fate.”

How was this done? There seem to be a range of answers. V. Waid’s “Theatrical Device” of 1905 used vacuum cups attached to the fly’s feet, but both E.I. George’s “Electric Aerial Ambulating System” of 1909 (above) and C.H. Newman and W. Berrigan’s “Electrical Device to Enable Showmen to Walk on the Ceiling” of 1885 used electromagnets.

How would this have evolved if it had remained popular? What would we be using today?

(From Jacob Smith, The Thrill Makers, 2012.)

Motor City

corbett traffic plan

In 1923 Columbia University architect Harvey Wiley Corbett proposed a novel solution to Manhattan’s traffic problem: surrender. His Proposals for Relieving Traffic Congestion in New York had four phases:

  1. The present situation.
  2. Pedestrians are transferred from street level to bridges that are cantilevered from the buildings, and patronize shops at this level.
  3. “Cut-ins” in the buildings permit six cars to move abreast, with parking space for two cars on each side.
  4. In the end the city’s entire ground level would be an ocean of cars, increasing traffic potential 700 percent, while pedestrians crossed streets on overhead bridges.

Corbett took a strangely romantic view of this: “The whole aspect becomes that of a very modernized Venice, a city of arcades, plazas and bridges, with canals for streets, only the canals will not be filled with real water but with freely flowing motor traffic, the sun glistening on the black tops of the cars and the buildings reflecting in this waving flood of rapidly rolling vehicles.”

By 1975, Corbett wrote, Manhattan could be a network of 20-lane streets in which pedestrians walk from “island” to “island” in a “system of 2,028 solitudes.” That doesn’t feel so different from what we have today.

Related: The city of Guanajuato, Mexico, is built on extremely irregular terrain, and many of the streets are impassable to cars. To compensate, the residents have converted underground drainage ditches and tunnels into roadways (below). These had been dug for flood control during colonial times, but modern dams have left them dry. (Thanks, David.)

Early Adopters

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mark_Twain_young.JPG

Mark Twain was an early proponent of the typewriter — in 1905 he claimed that “I was the first person in the world to apply the type-machine to literature. That book must have been The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

Actually the evidence shows that Life on the Mississippi was the first book submitted to a publisher as a typewritten manuscript, which means that Twain had a surprising competitor in Friedrich Nietzsche, who tried out a Hansen Schreibkugel, or “writing ball,” for a few weeks in 1882, hoping to reduce demands on his failing eyesight.

“Hurrah! The machine has arrived at my house,” Nietzsche wrote to his sister on February 11. He typed poetically:

THE WRITING BALL IS A THING LIKE ME:
MADE OF IRON YET EASILY TWISTED ON JOURNEYS.
PATIENCE AND TACT ARE REQUIRED IN ABUNDANCE
AS WELL AS FINE FINGERS TO USE US.

Unfortunately he found his fingers weren’t fine enough, and he gave it up in March. Twain submitted his manuscript a few months later.

A Vertical Forest

Milan skyscrapers Bosco Verticale were named Best Tall Building Worldwide in 2015 by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, beating out 120 other contenders.

The two towers, 111 and 76 meters tall, are covered top to bottom with more than 900 trees, which attenuate noise, produce oxygen, and regulate temperature: During the summer, the leaves shade the apartments, and during the winter the leaves drop, allowing sunlight in. The building’s irrigation system directs water onto the porches to sustain the plants.

Each tree had to be pruned to fit within its balcony, a process that took two years. If all of them were transplated to the ground they’d make a forest of nearly two acres.

And “The Vertical Forest increases biodiversity,” architect Boeri Studio told Arch Daily. “It promotes the formation of an urban ecosystem where various plant types create a separate vertical environment, but which works within the existing network, able to be inhabited by birds and insects (with an initial estimate of 1,600 specimens of birds and butterflies). In this way, it constitutes a spontaneous factor for repopulating the city’s flora and fauna.”

Two-Way Traffic

http://www.google.com/patents?id=xTBiAAAAEBAJ

In 2009 I mentioned that in 1895 Henry Simmons invented ramp-shaped railroad cars that could pass over one another.

At the time I thought this was alarming, but something like it was actually carried out. On Coney Island’s Leap Frog Railway of 1905, one car full of passengers clambered over another:

The passengers in breathless excitement momentarily anticipating disaster, realizing that their lives are in jeopardy, clinging to one another for safety, closing their eyes to the impending danger. … The cars crash into one another, 32 people are hurled over the heads of 32 others. … They are suddenly awakened to a realization of the fact that they have actually collided with another car and yet they find themselves safe and sound … proceeding in the same direction in which they started.

On the return journey the cars changed positions. At the time this was billed as a prototype “to reduce the mortality rate due to collisions on railways.” Now I wonder whether Simmons’ invention was ever realized.

(From Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York, 1994.)

Jump Cut

This must have scared the daylights out of people in 1895 — The Execution of Mary Stuart, one of the first films to use editing for special effects.

After the executioner raises his ax, the actress is replaced with a mannequin.

“Electric Bathing”

https://books.google.com/books?id=CrbPAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA359

In 1878 Coney Island mounted electric lights on poles so that visitors could play in the surf at night.

“One could take many a long journey and never meet elsewhere with so strange, so truly weird a sight as this,” reported Scribner’s Monthly. “The concentrated illumination falls on the formidable breakers plunging in against the foot of the bridge, and gives them spots of sickly green translucence below and sheets of dazzlingly white foam above. There is a startling spot of foreground and nothing more. A couple who are confident swimmers, possibly a man and his wife, come down the bridge and put off into the cold flood. The woman holds by the man’s belt behind, and he disappears with her into the darkness. A circle disports with hobgoblin glee around a kind of May-pole in the water.”

“Nothing else,” opined the New York Times, “would answer the purpose of those lunatics who persist in bathing after nightfall.”

More Theatrical Codes

https://pixabay.com/p-1982718

Last year I mentioned Sullivan & Considine’s Theatrical Cipher Code of 1905, a telegraphic code for “everyone connected in any way with the theatrical business.” The idea is that performers, managers, and exhibitors could save money on telegrams by replacing common phrases with short code words:

Filacer – An opera company
Filament – Are they willing to appear in tights
Filander – Are you willing to appear in tights
Filiation – Chorus girls who are shapely and good looking
Filibuster – Chorus girls who are shapely, good looking, and can sing

At the time I lamented that I had only one page. Well, a reader just sent me the whole book, and it is glorious:

Abbacom – Carry elaborate scenery and beautiful costumes
Abbalot – Fairly bristles with hits
Abditarum – This attraction will hurt our business
Addice – Why have not reported for rehearsal
Admorsal – If you do not admit at once will have to bring suit of attachment
Behag – Not the fault of play or people
Bordaglia – Do not advance him any money
Boskop – Understand our agent is drinking; if this is true wire at once
Bosom – Understand you are drinking
Bosphorum – Understand you are drinking and not capable to transact business
Bosser – We are up against it here
Bottle – You must sober up
Bouback – Your press notices are poor
Deskwork – A versatile and thoroughly experienced actress
Despair – Absolute sobriety at all times essential
Detour – Actress for emotional leads
Devilry – Actress with child preferred
Dextral – An actor with fine reputation and proven cleverness
Dishful – Comedian, Swedish dialect
Disorb – Do not want drunkards
Dispassion – Do you object to going on road
Distal – Good dresser(s) both on and off stage
Dormillon – Lady for piano
Drastic – Must be shapely and good looking
Druism – Not afraid of work
Eden – Strong heavy man
Election – What are their complexions
Epic – Does he impress you as being reliable and a hustler
Exclaimer – Are they bright, clever and healthy children
Eyestone – Can you recommend him as an experienced and competent electrician
Faro – A B♭ cornetist
Flippant – Must understand calcium lights
Fluid – Is right up-to-date and understands his business from A to Z
Forester – Acts that are not first class and as represented, will be closed after first performance
Foxhunt – Can deliver the goods
Gultab – The people will not stand for such high prices
Hilbert – State the very lowest salary for which she will work, by return wire
Jansenist – Fireproof theatre
Jinglers – How did the weather affect house
Jolly – Temperature is 15° above zero

There’s also an appendix for the vaudeville circuit:

Kajuit – Trick cottage
Kakour – Grotesque acrobats
Kalekut – Sparring and bag punching act
Kernwort – Troupe of dogs, cats and monkeys
Kluefock – Upside down cartoonist
Koegras – Imitator of birds, etc.
Letabor – Act is poorly staged and arranged
Litterat – The asbestos curtain has not arrived yet
Mallius – How many chairs do you need in the balcony
Meleto – Is the opposition putting on stronger shows than we

The single word “Lechuzo” stands for “Make special effort to mail your report on acts Monday night so as to enable us to determine your opinion of the same, as in many instances yours will be the first house that said act has performed in, and again by receiving your report early it enables us to correct in time any error that may be made regarding performer, salary and efficiency.”

(Thanks, Peter.)

Pedal Pushers

Cycling is popular in Trondheim, Norway, but the 130-meter hill Brubakken is more than some riders can manage. So the city installed the world’s first bicycle lift — press the start button and a plate will appear under your right foot and push you up the hill at 3-4 mph, rather like a ski lift.

With a maximum capacity of 6 cyclists per minute, the system has pushed more than 200,000 cyclists to the top of the hill in its 15 years of operation.

Podcast Episode 170: The Mechanical Turk

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tuerkischer_schachspieler_windisch4.jpg

In 1770, Hungarian engineer Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled a miracle: a mechanical man who could play chess against human challengers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Kempelen’s Mechanical Turk, which mystified audiences in Europe and the United States for more than 60 years.

We’ll also sit down with Paul Erdős and puzzle over a useful amateur.

See full show notes …