A Daily History of Holes, Dots, Lines, Science, History, Math, the Unintentional Absurd & Nothing |1.6 million words, 7000 images, 3.6 million hits| Press & appearances in The Times, The Paris Review, Le Figaro, MENSA, The Economist, The Guardian, Discovery News, Slate, Le Monde, Sci American Blogs, Le Point, and many other places... 3,000+ total posts
I just couldn't resist this. And I don't have much to say about it, either, except that it is a killer cover from Popular Mechanics for May 1941. Unfortunately it has nothing to do with my title for this Quick Post or the sub-head of the magazine--the men are dressed in protective gear to deal with high voltage electrical works, though I have every expectation for these guys to take off with their rocket packs and punch-out Nazi dive bombers.
JF Ptak Science Books Revisiting and adding to Post 1166
On a hot 7 July, 1865, photographer Matthew Brady was the only photographer present at the old Washington Penitentiary to make images of the execution of the Lincoln assassination conspirators Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt and David Herold. All of these stories of the assassination are best told elsewhere–in many other elsewheres, a story that is legion–but I can’t seem to find anything about one special, particular person captured in two of the series of these photos.
If you look closely at the first photograph, there is a man leaning against a pole that is directly under the first condemned conspirator, Mary Surratt. That pole, a substantial 6x6x10' or something like that, is the only thing that is holding the trapdoor closed on which Surratt stands. Or kind of standing...she seems to have swooned a little, or at least is not upright at this point. Actually, I think that two conspirators occupy one trapdoor--there is a second pole just to the right, another man standing nearby.
[Imagine greatly expandable]
I guess the execution was at high noon. The shadows seem to be falling straight down, our man--standing just out of the reach of the shadow of the gallows--has his face obscured by the shadow of the brim of his cap. Like a mask.
What was that first man doing, exactly? He seems to be in a nonchalant attitude, given his position and circumstance, as well as the crowds and significance of the event. Why was he leaning on the pole? Was this just the last part of a long morning? Was the pole not terribly secure? Was he bored? Was he overcome?
He was surrounded on all sides, and he was hearing the boots-on-wood above him, the conversations in the preparations of the nooses, the shuffling of the shackled feet of the condemned, and perhaps the last words of the people waiting now for the last noose to be fitted over the last man. At that point, an order would be given, and our man--who was now positioned behind the gibbet--would simply push another long pole against the bottom of the supporting pole, dislodging it, and allowing the trapdoor to open, the conspirators dropping to their deaths with broken necks. Or I hope for their sake that their necks were broken–by the looks of the position of one of the nooses, its in a bad spot so far as assuring a quick death is concerned. Maybe the noose’s position was changed after this picture was made Maybe not. What did our man do after pushing the beam out of position? He would've been very close to the action, within a few feet.
I wonder what the trapdoor pole pushers do afterwards? What were their jobs? From the looks of the last picture, someone put the beams in order, placing them alongside the execution structured, tidied up.
Where did the man go? Since they were the few folks right at the base of the scaffold, right there where the mandrake were supposed to grow, did these men wind up with the job of cutting the bodies free from their ropes and burying them? Someone did it. I wonder what that someone thought as they returned home, or to the barracks, and st down to dinner. What did they see in their dinner plate?
This contemporary print of the scene gets little correct, though the chairs for the conspirators are about right. The scaffolding is much nicer than in the original, and the place looks certainly far less austere than the penitentiary. The awful thing here is the actual, physical manner of the hanging--the attitudes depicted here would have been even more bestial, the lack of a trapdoor suggesting that the were all dropped or raised a few inches and basically strangled to death. Also in the real scene of the execution there were four coffins for the condemned nearby--except that three of them were piled one on top of the other. I'm not sure why they were stacked. It seems to me that they were within the visual range of the conspirators.
The next contemporary print gets a little more of the reality of the scene correct, both mechanically and emotionally, and shows how our own character of interest did his job. The actual hanging part--the ropes and the nooses--is again wrong, suggesting strangling more than hanging.
The pictures raise far more questions to me than anything else, as witnessed by my personal record use of the question mark in this post. .
[Sources: photographs courtesy of the U.S. National Archives; prints, courtesy of the Stern Collection, U.S. Library of Congress.]
Never pass the opportunity to pick up a dropped book. Picking books up from the floor (in bookstores, libraries) has proven to be a definite education for me. It is where I first learned of the name of Ludwig Wittgenstein when I was (picking up the skinny Tractatus... which was not only on the floor but open and upside down, in D.C. in 1974), and the first exposure I had to Kurt Vonnegut (in the old Brentanos in Manhattan in 1969, finding Player Piano), just to name a few. I know it would be interesting to make a list of all of the good and bad that I've found on the floor, but the lost books are lost to uncaring and neglect of memory. One that came up just today is Andre Breton's selection of Black Humor--found on the floor of a bookstore I can't remember the name of but was on Rue Milton in Montreal in 1978. This was interesting because even though it was upside down it had an interesting rear cover design--flipped over it became a must-buy. I'm pretty sure I had heard of Breton at that point but had never read him--and there he was, in an unusual-looking little paperback, waiting for me to buy it for two dollars. I bumped into this old friend this morning, moving a box to get to a pile of the journal Comptes Rendus..., and then losing sight of the Angelo Secchi papers on spectroscopy from 1866 I was supposed to find in favor of looking through the in-the-way box. And in the bottom of the box was the Breton.
[I like the "i" in "noir" most of all.]
It was a collection of people who wrote wincingly and oddly and funny-bitterly, exposing things with uncomfortable not-sustained laughter. Breton includes selections form the work of 45 writers, many of which I admit to having never heard of before, and a number of others whose names were under years of braindust, and most of which I cannot read now with my mostly-failed French.
The book was published in 1940 and was immediately banned by the Petain French State government of occupied and controlled France, the government that was known more familiarly known by the name of the town in which the government's center was in, at Vichy. Breton (1896-1966) escaped France and spent the war in the U.S. and Canada and the Caribbean, but returned to Paris in '46 and saw his anthology (one of his many books) back into print in 1947. It was re-issued in 1966 (my copy) as the "definitive edition", though I am not sure that it is any different from the two earlier printings. That's okay, because it was Breton who moved out of Dada to found Surrealism, so he can say what he wants to say while saying it and not saying it.
Good French or bad, the references are still very useful--so far as I can recall, all of these writers were worth pursuing. (I left Picasso off the list even though he is represented in the collection because, well, I just don't like or need him.)
I'm certain that Breton would approve of this floor-reading education.
And by the way some give the term "black humor" to Breton. It is much older than that in the history of medicine, as a bilous, disease-causing agency. (For example, it is found in Shakespeare Love's Labour's Lost i. i. 228 "Besedged with sable coloured melancholie, I did commende the blacke oppressing humour to the most holsome phisicke of thy health-geuing ayre".) It may well be: the OED finds an obscure 1916 reference using the term as it is intended today ("C. V. Stanford & C. Forsyth Hist. Mus. x. 212 They [sc. Russian songs] give utterance to a ‘yearning without hope’... Humour there is. But it is the black humour of the drunken headsman") and then another for 1951. No mention of anything in the mid-ground. Perhaps it is the first common usage of the phrase...
Is it really necessary to know subtraction? Or perhaps more appropriately, is it necessary to know subtraction (or multiplication, or division) to be a Pythagorean? Beethoven didn't think so, and that might have been so because he wouldn't express thoughts like that. He evidently never said anything about it but one thing seems to be for certain—he didn't know how to subtract. Or divide, or multiply. Or much else arithmetical. I suspect the he didn't know these actions because he didn't care to, or need to, or want to. In his difficult childhood and his even more-difficult experience in school, I suspect that like Bartleby he simply preferred not to. Perhaps his public “knowing” of things like that were more “no-ing” than anything else.
Follow this link for an earlier story on this blog on the first appearance in print of the addition "+" sign.
This presents itself to me sometimes as a language of control, about what you do or don't know, or choose to know or not know, or express, or admit to, somehow a not-knowing being the limiting factor in what it is you can come to know in the future. It seems to change the chromatics of knowing things.
It is a remarkable thing that Beethoven didn't want algebraic ideas or symbols in his head. Or maybe he did and just didn't say, preferring silence or contrariness.
I don't know if he thought about the physical basis of harmony and the laws of rhythm.
It presents itself to me sometimes as a language of control, about what you do or don't know, or choose to know or not know, or express, or admit to, somehow a not-knowing” being the limiting factor in what it is you can come to know in the future. It seems to change the chromatics of knowing things.
There was a job to do in Chicago, and these men did it--how it all worked out safely accomplished, I do not know, because the episode is gut-wrenching just looking at the photo. Not much can be said here except, "oh, wow".
And for the record they are removing a wall from a mostly-demolished building, the last wall standing, built against its neighbor. And what these guys did six stories up was swing a pickaxe to remove the wall beneath ,them, all the way down, brick-by-brick.
[Image source: Popular Mechanics, August,, 1915, pg 323]
This image comes right on the heals on what has been a much-shared image of the pre-Google Map Car of 1916:
[Image source: Popular Mechanics, volume 44, October 1925]
And as you can see, it isn't that at all, but the antenna on the roof of the cab does suggest itself on the odd-looking Googlemobile, and would have attracted as much attention as the Google car does today. At the time cars were not outfitted with radio set--this enterprising guy did so with his cab (mainly because he couldn't bear to leave his wireless at home) and attracted a lot of attention and clients due to the novelty of having the still-relatively-new idea of wireless in a car (of all places).
Here's that Google Map Car of 1916:
As I said in that earlier post, this was simply a darkroom on wheels, made to look like an enormous camera. If these folks were more enterprising they certainly could have made that darkroom into a camera, without that much fuss...except for the giant paper negatives, of course.
Radios in cars though was a breakthrough idea in 1925, and as we can see in this lovely pamphlet (published in 1936 by the National Broadcasting Company as a revenue-enhancer) the idea of the radio in the car was just beginning to fly. Shown in a delightful graphic display of data using auto steering wheels as a unit of measurement, there were about 100,000 cars with "receiving sets" in 1931, and by 1936 there ere 2.8 million, which is significant growth. NBC points out that there were 22,400,000 cars on the road in the U.S., which meant that there were 20 million cars that needed radios, which meant that there was another gigantic mobile audience of 20-60 million people, which meant that there was a big opportunity for more listeners and a fantastic opportunity to sell advertisements of a value reflecting that new huge audience.
The RAND Corporation (Research And Development) is a think tank originally formed in 1946 by the US Army Air Force as part of a contract to the Douglas Aircraft Company.After 1948 RAND Corp was funded by a number of different sources, private and governmental, and left the sphere of being a direct arm of the U.S. military. (Maybe.)It still did enormous amounts of work on behalf of the military, and seems to have been their chieftheoreticians during this period.It was also the time that the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was formulated at , partially under the direction of we’ll-see-him-again-down-the-road Robert McNamara.And of course much else.
This publication (Project Rand, Next Generation Weapon After the IBM. RAND Corp., 1957). was an internal RAND document, not yet meant for the eyes of the outside world, at least in 1957.I own a number of these reports, and I must say that this one is odd—it seems quick and flippant, sometimes oddly and darkly unintentionally funny.It is also short (four pages) and gets to the very meaty part of the issue immediately.The author(s) assume that the US and the USSR will have achieved a point of stasis such that it would make absolutely no sense for either actor to actually employ their arsenal (and excluding “the possibility of the button pusher ‘flipping his lid’ “.The paper attempts then (“let’s jump right in and assume we find ourselves in this stalemated period”) to envision the next kind of war in which the ICBM would not be an active factor. “We therefore postulate here that the kind of war we will be engaged in…in the period of nuclear stalemate of the non-violent war, the opening phase of which has been called the cold war.”
No, this isn't the equivalent of the Google Street Maps photo car, but it does look a little like its great grandfather. It is simply a stunt truck, a rolling photo lab decked out to look like a camera. It appeared in Popular Mechanics for April, 1916.
Percy Pilcher was a true aviation pioneer who met his end very early, during an event that probably shouldn't have happened, killed by in 30'-fall in 1899. He was creative, and figured out a way to address the knotty problem of lift vs. wing dimensions vs. weight, coming to a tri-plane design in 1898, but was killed before he could fly it in public. His death comes about two years after this appearance in Nature magazine, which tells a quietly dramatic and essentially sotto voce story about attempted soaring flight. It seems so extraordinary to me because--aside from needing a fit of genius to try to figure out the physics of flight, there was a lot that could be done with canvas, pipes, fishing line, and boy-power. When I read this account I could literally feel that soft breeze that he looked for on my teeth--few pieces of major histories of technology get this close to the "common person".
Someone made this nice, short video from the seven stills, perhaps making this one of the earliest "movies" of an human in flight:
"At the time of the flight here illustrated the wind was so light and variable in direction that an ascent from even the elevated position taken up was almost impossible. Means however were at hand by which one end of a thin fishing line 600 yards long could be attached to the machine while the other end passed through two blocks placed close together on the ground at a distance from the aero plane of about 550 yards. These blocks were so arranged that a movement of the aerial machine in the horizontal direction corresponded to a fifth of the movement of the boys pulling the line."
"The start was made at a given signal the line being pulled by three boys and Mr Pilcher gradually left the ground and soared gracefully into the air attaining a maximum height of about 70 feet... A safe and graceful landing was made at a distance of 250 yards from the starting point. The photographs illustrate that part of the flight previous to the attainment of the greatest height...if the machine had been fitted with a small engine or motor to give (this) amount of thrust by means of a screw or otherwise perhaps an equal or further distance would have been covered."
"Mr Pilcher now proposes to employ as soon as possible a small and light engine indicating about four horsepower this being considerably more than sufficient for flights of moderate length. It is however thought advisable to have rather too much than too little power to commence with as a factor of safety. With this improvement it is hoped that further distances will be covered and a nearer approximation to a flying machine will be attained."
I’ve written earlier in this blog about the advent of robots and human machines, and I’d like to add these two images to that thread. Both are male, which is not horribly surprising since the earliest creation of a female robot belongs to the fertile Fritz Lang, who used his creation in his extraordinary movie Metropolis in 1927. (Male robot-like creations go back fairly deeply into the 19th century; so perhaps the creation of female robots was verbotten because of the possibilities for unacceptable sexual fantasies in the high- and post-Victorian world, struggling under the weight of many and multiply-applied public inhibitions. Perhaps it was because of the possibility of sexual relations with an inanimate object that was the cause for uni-gender robots, or perhaps it was a fear of a powerful, intelligent, unstoppable, superior creation that was also “womanly”. I don’t know.)
[And by the way "ca' canny"--which I've never bumped into before--is evidently a practice of deliberately slowing down work.]
The first is an image of the “human machine”, a cog-like adaptation of human workers in a Frederick Taylor-like Scientific Management study. Though many people had written and worked around Taylor’s 1911 semi-revolutionary book (and not necessarily a good revolution, but one nevertheless), I’m not certain that I’ve seen the worker trussed up so before this, encumbered by so many technical testing elements as to make him look like a cyborg (though that term would still be a while coming into the vocabulary.
This image is actually testing a person’s energy expenditure while pushing a wheelbarrow on an incline, and utilizes the newly-created equipment of the French physiologist Langlois, which in 1921 may well have measured for the first time the real-time changes in the rhythm of the heart and blood pressure, changes in body temperature and lung capacity of humans in an activity. I have no doubt that the results would have been very interesting to cardiologists, and probably didn’t mean a thing to industrialists like Henry Ford, who would’ve plowed ahead with their demands on their workers regardless of what tests said, schedules being schedules and all.
(I’m no tsure where this experiment fits in, historically speaking, even within the context of biological advances for that very year. Frederick Banting was able to do some pretty nasty stuff to dogs in a basement lab somewhere at the University of Toronto and come up with a successful treatment for diabetes mellitus–insulin, which would save the lives of millions and earn Banting a Nobel two years later. In the quasi/fake biological arenas came two biggish events: Jung’s creation of the concepts of introvert and extrovert, and Hermann Rorschach’s one-way conversational device for detecting psycho-pathological conditions (in people). I suspect that the Langlois data would fit in there somewhere along the rough edge of Jung and Rorschack, if only because the data was real.
The second image is in a way a reverse sequence of the preceding–an out-and-out robot that was being used to teach human physiology. In this case, the robot was a steam engine, constructed for the Schoolboys’ Exhibition at the New Horticultural Hall for 1928, perhaps under the influence of Karel Capek’s newly published drama R.U.R., which coined the term “robot”. The biological functions of humans were reinterpreted along a more user-friendly vocabulary of the steam engine, using pumps, boilers, hinges, belts, pulleys, filters, compressors and a furnace to explain the functions of respiration and circulation. It was an interesting approach to show these functions on their most basic level–and in less than 75 years, many of these mechanically represented organs were actually replaceable by real mechanical units performing the same task as the biological (as in the heart), while others could be replaced (via transplant).
I've got a small collection of bond promotionals published by the British government during WWII, mostly though for 1942/4, and they have a great feel and sense of spirit, and right, and duty. All extolled the necessary and great need for money to fight the war. The appeals were sensible, and direct, and asked people to loan the government money.
If you scroll down you can see a blank form for docking your paycheck to have some of it go to national defense.
I found this interesting story-without-words in a column in American Agriculturalist, April, 1869. The velocipdes were fairly big, and fairly new-ish to be peddle-powered at the front wheel, and apparently not so welcome on urban streets. (Within fifteen years the bike would take on a decidedly very modern look, easily recognizable as being a close family member to that Schwinn cruiser you owned in 1982.) I don't have any insight about the editorial content of the segment...
I found a news item in the April 6, 1929 issue of Nature that gives a real sense of the coming of the future, of the future-at-hand--and they seemed to have a sense of what was coming, though probably not as big as that future would be. In this case, it was the beginning of the passive visual assumption of the collective culture--the very quick and potentially immediate assimilation of pop culture, this by the invention of television and popular broadcasting.
The unidentified author was reporting on the recent activities of the Baird Television Development Company, which the author was interested in, and although it was "not presently practicable " it did "represent(s) a noteworthy scientific achievement", which I am sure was the writer's way of downplaying a very significant event.
[Woodcut, printed in 1771, from an ealier woodcut of the late 15th century; 6x4 inches. This version available from our Blog Bookstore.]
The lare Medieval/early Renaissance Tractatusartis bene moriendi was a work book of the dead--rather, a book for those about to be dead, an instructional for the process of dying the good death along the (loose) order of the Tibetan Bardo Thodol and the Egyptian book of the dead. The Ars was written in the early the 15th century (some sources say 1415) and began appearing in some of the earliest illustrated printed books by about 1460--it was a wildly popular/necessary book, going through some 100 editions by 15001.
The books basically readied the dying for death, for a holy death, a death filled with high possibilities of a rewarding afterlife, for dying in the good graces of Christ and the christian ideals. The images were such that non-readers could understand them--and this is still pretty much the case.
Many of the variants of this work include a dozen or more woodblock illustrations, an example of which is found above. We see the soon-to-be-departed at the very last instant before death, surrounded by all manner of distractions and entertainments aimed at luring the person to an earthly- rather than holy-demise. Demons, conjurers, makers of greed, and devils surround his bed in temptation, all while the Virgin Mary, Christ and the creator look down upon the besieged from behind the top of the bed.
Death was not an uncommon visitor in Europe in the early/mid 15th century, and perhaps this book served some in the way it taught people how to die a noble and religious death, especially when clergy may not have been so available.
(The blog offers a version of this print, not nearly as old as the original, but with some sort of substantial age on it--it was printed in 1771 in Leipzig, and published in Heinecken's Idee Generale d'une Collection Complette d'Estampes, and it is an attractive print suggestive of a greater age.
Here's another example, this time the dying man is beign attacked by agents of pride and greed. The images are genuinely upsetting--scary even.
1. English editions/variation of this work include The Waye of Dying Well and The Sicke Mannes Salve, and then in 1650 the Holy Living and Holy Dying.
I uncovered a somewhat found-again-lost-again paper in the collection here, an unusual small-distribution version of a great paper in the history of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The work is by N.R. Schwartz and Charles Townes, "Interstellar and Interplanetary Communication by Optical Masers", which appeared in the journal Nature for April 15, 1961 (volume 190, pp 205-208), and I have seen it referenced here and there as a started-it-all sort of paper as the first applied and elaborated scientific effort "to communicate with other intelligent life [which] might exist on neighboring planetary systems". That is to say it is a more involved approach to detection than the two earlier and perhaps more-famous papers by G. Cocconi and P. Morrison, "Searching for interstellar communications" (a short paper published in Nature, volume 184, No. 4690, pp. 844-845, September 19,1959) and F. Drake's "How can we detect radio transmissions from distant planetary systems?", published in Sky and Telescope (volume 19, No. 3, pp. 140-143, January 1960).
The present copy is an offset, stapled affair sent to the editor of Physics Today; it has the annotation "Mr. Katcher" in a secretarial hand at top, that being David Katcher, the founding editor-in-chief. This is a pre-printed version, and is dated more than a month before the article's publication, and is dated February 27, 1961.
Both Schwartz and Townes were at the Institute for Defense Analysis in DC at the time of publication, Townes being the Director of Research; later in 1961 Townes would become Provost and professor of physics at MIT. In addition to the Nobel Prize in physics, Townes was awarded the Templeton Prize (in the understanding of religion and science).
The full text as it appears in six pages in Nature appears here at Coseti; it is obviously a different format from the 14-page variety that I have here, and has a few minor changes, though for all intents and purposes the text is the same.
The Cocconi/Morrison paper is located in full text here at Coseti.
Also just for the sake of it, the Drake equation (1961) for determining the number of extraterrestrial civilizations, here, again at Coseti.