The Endless House

In 1924 architect Frederick Kiesler proposed a house fashioned as a continuous shell rather than an assembly of columns and beams:

The house is not a dome, but an enclosure which rises along the floor uninterrupted into walls and ceilings. Thus the safety of the house does not depend on underground footings but on a strict coordination of all enclosures of the house into one structural unit. Even the window areas are not standardized in size or shape, but are, rather, large and varied in their transparency and translucency, and form part of the continuous flow of the shell.

Storage space is provided between double shells in the walls, radiant heating is built into the floor, and there are no separate bathrooms, as bathing is done in the individual living quarters.

“While the concept of the house does not advocate a ‘return to nature’, it certainly does encourage a more natural way of living, and a greater independence from our constantly increasing automative way of life.”

(Via Ulrich Conrads, The Architecture of Fantasy: Utopian Building and Planning in Modern Times, 1962.)

Podcast Episode 335: Transporting Obelisks

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cleopatra%27s_needle_being_brought_to_England,_1877_RMG_BHC0641.tiff

In the 19th century, France, England, and the United States each set out to bring home an Egyptian obelisk. But each obelisk weighed hundreds of tons, and the techniques of moving them had long been forgotten. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the struggles of each nation to transport these massive monoliths using the technology of the 1800s.

We’ll also go on an Australian quest and puzzle over a cooling fire.

See full show notes …

Easy Does It

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

South of Brusio, in the Swiss Canton of Graubünden, the Bernina railway must change elevation without exceeding its specified maximum gradient of 7 percent. So engineers adopted the appealing expedient of a spiral viaduct, an arch bridge of nine spans that carries a train through 360 degrees with a grade gentle enough to ensure safety.

Opened in 1908, it was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

Rock Music

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Blackbird is a full-size playable stone violin crafted by Swedish sculptor Lars Widenfalk. The instrument incorporates diabase from his grandfather’s tombstone, with a backplate of porphyritic diabase, both materials more than a billion years old. The design is based on drawings by Stradivarius, but Widenfalk made some modifications to allow it to be played.

The fingerboard, pegs, tailpiece, and chinrest are of black ebony, and the bridge is of mammoth ivory. “What drove me on was the desire to discover the limits to which this stone can be pushed as an artistic material,” Widenfalk said. “At two kilos it is heavier than wooden violins, but it gives you the feel that you are carrying Mother Earth.”

Red Flag Laws

In 1865, shortly after the first steam-powered horseless carriage appeared on English highways, Parliament ordered that a man must precede it on foot, carrying a red flag by day or a lantern by night, to warn others of the impending noise:

Firstly, at least three persons shall be employed to drive or conduct such locomotive, and if more than two waggons or carriages be attached thereto, an additional person shall be employed, who shall take charge of such waggons or carriages;
Secondly, one of such persons, while any locomotive is in motion, shall precede such locomotive on foot by not less than sixty yards, and shall carry a red flag constantly displayed, and shall warn the riders and drivers of horses of the approach of such locomotives, and shall signal the driver thereof when it shall be necessary to stop, and shall assist horses, and carriages drawn by horses, passing the same.

Vermont passed a similar law in 1894, requiring the owner of a steam-propelled vehicle to have a “person of mature age … at least one-eighth of a mile in advance of” the vehicle, to warn those with livestock of its approach. At night this person was required to carry a red light.

Both measures were repealed in 1896 — by which time the internal combustion engine was already being developed.

Getting There

Designed by architects in Amsterdam and Beijing, the Lucky Knot Bridge in Changsha, China, combines three bridges in one. Inspired by both the Möbius strip and the Chinese knotting art, the 185-meter pedestrian bridge spans Dragon King Harbor River, connecting multiple levels at varying heights (the river banks, the road, and a park at a higher level) while permitting pedestrians to pass from one route to another using “moon gates.”

“Bridges … have a highly metaphorical quality,” Michel Schreinemachers, a partner at Next Architects, told Wired. “They connect not only in a physical sense, but also people, places, needs, and experiences.”

A New Outlook

Sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd found an unusual application for her artistry during World War I, creating prostheses for the dramatic injuries produced by machine guns and heavy artillery. After reading about artist Francis Derwent Wood’s “Tin Noses Shop” in London, she moved to London and opened a “Studio for Portrait-Masks.”

Her copper and silver masks, 1/32″ thick and weighing 4-9 ounces, were founded on facial casts and painted to match the precise skin tone of each patient. Held in place by eyeglasses, many included realistic mustaches, eyebrows, and eyelashes. By the end of 1919 Ladd had created 185 of them, charging $18 for each and donating her own services. The Red Cross called them “miracles,” and in 1932 France made her a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.

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Command Performance

This mechanism, recently restored by Michael Start of the House of Automata, was probably fashioned by Blaise Bontems in Paris around 1890.

It’s an example of a lost art, the “singing bird box,” an early variety of automaton introduced by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in Geneva in 1784. The song is produced by a bellows, a whistle, and a system of cams; many of these devices added a mechanical bird that would flap its wings and open and shut its beak while the sound was produced.

Jaquet-Droz also created a stunning mechanical boy who writes custom texts with a quill pen; that unit, which still works, is made up of some 6,000 pieces.

Child’s Play

https://patents.google.com/patent/US6368227B1/en

In 2002 a 7-year-old boy, Steven Olson, patented a “method of swinging on a swing”:

The method comprises the steps of: a) positioning a user on the seat; and b) having the user pull alternately on one chain to induce movement of the user and the swing toward one side, and then on the other chain to induce movement of the user and the swing toward the other side, to create side-to-side motion.

Steven’s father, Peter, a patent attorney, wanted to show him how the system works. Steven’s submission was approved at first (the patent office said that its technical definition of obviousness “is not necessarily the conventional definition”) but later reconsidered and invalidated, perhaps due to criticism.

A year earlier, to test the workability of a new national patent system, an Australian man had patented the wheel.