2 January 2013 by Justin Pollard
In particular I've been thinking about navigation and the sticky problem of finding places like Iceland, which sits in a awful lot of ocean. We know that the Vikings had reached Iceland by 874 when Ingólfr Arnarson, is recorded as building his homestead in Reykjavík, and we know that the descendants of those early Icelanders went on to travel yet further west to Greenland and even Newfoundland. The question is, how? The answer, it would appear are with a bird, a board and a lump of stone - the Viking equivalent of a satnav.
Of course the Vikings were very good with ships and could easily navigate in sight of land by just using landmarks and their knowledge of the coast, shoals, rocks and harbours. Setting out across the open sea was another matter. Flóki Vilgerðarson, who the Icelandic Book of Settlements (Landnámabók) credits as being the first person to deliberately set out for Iceland navigated using ravens. When he reached the Faroe Islands he took three ravens on board and headed off in the rough direction of Iceland. After a while he let a raven go, which flew up until it could see much further over the horizon that Flóki could, at which point it spotted the Faroes and promptly flew back home. Some time later he set another raven free which flew up, had a look round and promptly came back to the deck, indicating that there were really now quite a long way from land. Finally he let the third raven go which flew up, spotted Iceland in the far distance and headed off there. Flóki gratefully followed.
But there is a more technical means of navigation mentioned in the History of the home of the ravens - the Faroes. This is the 'sun-shadow board' or solskuggerfjol. This was used for determining latitude by measuring the height of the sun over the horizon at noon. It was a circular wooden board about 250 to 300 millimeters in diameter with a gnomon at its centre, the height of which could be set to the time of the year (as the sun is lower in the sky at noon in the winter than the summer). To keep it level, the board was placed in a bucket of water. Next the shadow of the noon sun was observed. A concentric circle on the board gave the line the shadow should reach if the ship was on the desired latitude. If the shadow was beyond the line the ship was north of this latitude; if inside, the ship was south of it. So by checking the noon day shadow reached the same circle you could ensure you were going due east or west. Of course you needed to know when noon was so you should start making measurements 'around noon' and start marking the position of the shadow on the board. The point where the shadow is shortest, and hence the sun is highest in the sky, would be noon.
The final method of navigation is shade more contentious. One of the sagas mentions an incident which must have been typical of northerly navigations. Navigation requires knowing where the sun is and this can be tricky under leaden, snowy skies. When King Olaf asked the hero Sigurd to manage this feat in the saga, Sigurd grabbed a 'sunstone' and correctly estimated where the sun must be by looking through it.
Just what this sunstone is has long baffled historians and it has often been dismissed as a 'magical' device. However it has been noted by archaeologists for some time that some forms of calcite, notably Icelandic Spar, have polarizing properties so perhaps these were the basis for real sunstones. They noted that calcite can variably polarize light depending on the orientation of the crystal. At one particular point however, known as the isotropy point, the crystal eliminates all polarization. This property was exploited last year by physicists at the University of Rennes 1 who noted that at this point if the calcite is then suddenly removed from the line of sight a faint, yellow streak know as Haidinger's Brush is briefly visible. This polarization artefact in the eye rather conveniently points directly towards where the hidden sun is.
Proof of concept is not, of course, proof of use, and to date no Icelandic Spar has been found in Viking nautical contexts, although to be fair, no-one has looked for it. Calcite has been found on later vessels however hinting perhaps at the antiquity of the technique. Perhaps Leif Ericson owed his discovery of North America not to luck or bravely, but to birds, boards and lumps of stone.
The Lost Squadron
In 1942 the US began stockpiling equipment in Europe as President Roosevelt's threw his country's manufacturing might behind the war against Nazism. A major part of this involved moving large numbers of planes across the Atlantic in 'Operation Bolero'. Carrying planes on ships was slow and involved running the gauntlet of German U Boats but most US planes didn't have the range to cross the Atlantic in one flight. So the Bolero plan involved flying aircraft from Canada to Greenland, then on to Iceland and finally across to England.
So it was that on the early morning of 15th July 1942, two P38 Lightning squadrons, Tomcat Green and Tomcat Yellow, each escorting one B17 bomber took off from the west coast of Greenland on the second leg of their flight to England. Now navigating over Greenland is not easy at the best of times and, with dense low cloud cover, this was not one of those. There was clear sky if you flew high enough - the only problem was that it was so high that the crew would freeze to death. Having crossed the east coast of Greenland but finding themselves unable to safely navigate to Iceland the commander ordered them to return to their original west coast base but in atrocious conditions the entire flight became disoriented. When they next glimpsed the mountains of Greenland they found that they were not back on the West coast but 2 hours away from their base on the other side of the country without enough fuel to recross the icecap. The only option was to land on the glacier below and hope for rescue.
Fortunately this story has a happy ending. After several days on the ice the crews were picked up, but their 8 planes were, of course, stranded. And so they stayed there on the glacier where they ended their last flight.
Fifty years then passed during which much had happened, not least the P38, once American's most ubiquitous fighter, had become exceptionally rare with only twenty full or partial examples remaining and just a handful flying. So the thought of recovering six planes (and two B17s) just sitting on the Greenland ice shelf proved hard to resist.
I say 'sitting on' the ice shelf. Of course 50 years of weather had landed on the planes and everyone expected them to be buried under snow and, sure enough, there was no sign of them at the crash site. Turning to the archaeological remote sensing techniques attempts were made using magnetometers and airborne radar systems to 'look' through the ice but without success until, in 1983, a radar system specifically tuned to see through ice found two metal anomalies and then, two days later, six more. The only problem was they weren't under a 'bit of snow', they were entombed 80 metres down in the glacier.
So how does an engineer go about getting a plane out of a glacier? First you melt your glacier. Obviously not the whole thing but a borehole. It was 1992 before a team equipped with the 'super gopher' arrived over one of the P38s. The gopher was a simple device - a bullet shaped 'drill', just over a metre wide, inside which hot water was circulated to melt the ice whilst a submersible pump removed the melt-water. This allowed the gopher to melt its way through the glacier at around half a metre an hour.
That was the easy, mechanical bit. The rest of the procedure involved using more fragile but adaptable machines - humans. Each day a volunteer was winched down the claustrophobic 80 metre ice hole (a 25 minute trip in itself) with a steam hose to begin the work of carving out an ice cavern around the plane. To take their mind of the claustrophobia there was at least the though the they had to carve the cavern into a shape that would support the 80 metres of ice above them without collapsing and crushing the plane and them. These things concentrate the mind somewhat.
Eventually the P38 stood in it's own cave, still on the 1942 glacier surface, just as it had done the day it landed. The only problem left was getting it out through a narrow hole. The answer to this conundrum was to turn the P38 into the world's largest Airfix kit - in reverse. Engineers are good at taking things apart and the place was methodically deconstructed a piece at a time and lifted on hand winches through the bore hole. From here the pieces were shipped to Denmark and then back to the USA where each piece was assessed and repaired or replaced.
Fortunately engineers are the only people who are as good at putting things back together as they are at taking them apart and so the P38 was rebuilt to flying condition. On Saturday 26th October 2002, in front of 20,000 spectators P38 Lightning serial 417630, now renamed 'Glacier Girl' took to the skies once more after 50 years entombed in ice.
The point in history at which someone first thought "I wish I could tell if he was lying" is lost deep in prehistory but it was in 1895 that Italian criminologist and physician Cesare Lombroso came up with the idea of measuring the blood pressure of suspects under interrogation to see whether the mention of their crime really did make their heart beat faster. Of course just being interrogated generally makes most people's heart race a little so the results were indifferent. Not that it put off Lombroso who went on to develop a theory that most criminals were born that way and could be identified from their physical features - an idea that proved as popular with the Nazis as it was breathtakingly wrong.
Shortly after, another Italian, Vittorio Benussi suggested that a pneumograph - a device to record breathing rate and depth - might also indicate when a subject is not quite telling the truth but again this proved unreliable as it tended to brand all asthmatics as liars.
It would have taken a superman to carry the idea further but in the end everyone had to make do with Wonder Woman instead, or rather her creator William Moulton Marston. Psychologist and comic book designer Marston probably got the idea for his systolic blood pressure test from his wife Elizabeth who noted that her blood pressure seemed to rise when she was upset. Marston, a noted feminist of his age, went on to build a machine to measure just this although he proved not enough of a feminist to share the credit with his wife. Interestingly it was Elizabeth who also suggested a female comic book superhero, leading to the creation of Wonder Woman, although again somehow he forgot to credit her. What he didn't forget was to give his creation her own lie detector - her 'lasso of truth' which forced those it held to obey and tell the truth. So at least the machine worked in fiction.
By the 1920's it was already clear that taking a single reading couldn't identify a lie, but perhaps taking a suite a readings at the same time would provide the answer. With the invention of the skin conductance monitor by John Larson in 1921 this looked to be step nearer. By combining heart rate and breathing monitors with this new device that effectively measured how sweaty your hands got when you were stressed, the polygraph was born, although Larson called his the cardio-pneumo psychogram, which is less catchy.
What it did do however was catch the attention of Leonarde Keeler, one of Larson's assistants who, as well as being an amateur magician, had worked closely with the Chief of the LA police, August Vollmer. It was these links that led to his machine, the 'emotograph' being first used on those accused of crime. On February 2nd 1935 two men accused of assault took the Keeler Polygraph test and failed. When the result was introduced in court the men were found guilty. Even in this more believing age however there were doubts about a machine whose results were entirely dependent on the analysis of subjective data by a subjective human tester so even when the chief suspect in the Cleveland torso murders failed a polygraph test there was not enough other evidence to bring a charge.
So was the polygraph destined to go the way of other improbable machines? Certainly not. Whilst the methodology may have seemed suspect, the desire to be able to tell if someone was lying proved too great. Up until the introduction of computerized systems in the 1980s the polygraph machinery remained little changed, although from the 1970's it came into competition with Voice Stress Analysis. VSA was another technique promising to cut through the fog of lies, based on UK researcher Olof Lippold's discovery that inaudible changes to voice patterns caused by micro-muscular tremors can change depending on how stressed the subject is. What it did create was an unholy bun fight with the proponents of polygraphy, with both sides claiming the others technology and methodology were unreliable. Perhaps they should have taken lie detector tests?
Despite this both techniques survive today although you're more likely to find a lie detector in a job interview for the security service that during a murder trial (although not exclusively). But do they now work? According to the 2003 National Academy of Sciences report the majority of polygraph research is simply too unreliable and the large number of foreign spies who have managed to pass US lie detector tests with flying colours might suggest that it shouldn't be relied upon. Ultimately a device invented by a eugenicist, a cartoonist and an amateur magician to solve a dream may yet need a little more work.
Travellers in Time
The first time capsule in history occurs in the oldest surviving narrative in history - the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian poem dealing with the adventures of a semi-mythological ruler of the 27th century BC. The Epic begins with instructions on how to find a box of copper inside a foundation stone in the great walls of Uruk, and in the box is Gilgamesh's tale, written on a lapis tablet.
Of course when you bury a document under a rather large wall or temple its arguable whether you ever intended for anyone to see it again. The idea of real time capsules - caches of materials that speak of one era, left for another - are a more modern affair. Often starting out as charms secreted in new buildings, coins, newspapers and in more superstitious time even live cats have been walled up in buildings, although I doubt you could really call the cat a 'gift to the future'.
By the nineteenth century however leaving foundation deposits under major building projects was all the rage. Cleopatra's Needle, whose troubled voyage to London we've talked about before, was installed above a time capsule containing, amongst other things, 4 Bibles in different languages, that morning's papers, a set of coins, a razor, a box of pins, a copy of Bradshaw's Railway Guide, and photographs of 12 English women noted for their beauty, a box of cigars, a babies bottle, some children's toys, a 3' bronze model of the monument, a rupee, a portrait of Queen Victoria, a written history of the miserable tale of the transport of the monument, a translation of the inscriptions, a copy of Whitaker's Almanack and a map of London. What that actually tells anyone about Victorian London I hate to think.
But it was only in the mid twentieth century that any thought really began to be given to leaving the future something worth having (beyond photographs of pretty girls) and doing so in a building whose only purpose was to convey these things into the distant future. According to the International Time Capsule Society the first true 'time capsule' was the rather grandly named 'Crypt of Civilization' in the basement of Phoebe Hearst Hall at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. Sealed in 1940, exactly 6181 years after what was then the earliest known fixed date in human history the idea is that it should be opened in 8113 AD making it a record of life from exactly mid-way through our recorded story.
Inside the crypt are microfilms of great religious and secular literature (including Gone with the Wind), works on the sciences and arts, models of Donald Duck and the Lone Ranger and voice recordings of a host of the more charming characters of the day, including Hitler and Stalin, along with Popeye. In case this all seems like gobbledygook to our descendants - or whoever finds the cache - the first machine you stumble on inside the vault has the sole purpose of teaching you English so you can make sense of all the rest. Although I imagine Hitler was speaking in German so that might be a bit confusing. Fortunately the crypt also contains a Budweiser beer should the finder be temporarily overwhelmed by the task ahead. Of course all these microfilm readers and projectors required electricity so the builders also left a wind-driven generator to power the equipment.
But before you run out to place your own message to the future under your next project its worth taking the time to think about what to put inside. Many historians argue that the contents of most capsules are almost useless, being filled with the sort of material that is likely to survive anyway or tells us very little about how people in that era actually lived. For historians your mum's shopping list might be a lot more useful than a recording of Stalin shouting about something or another. If there's a lesson from the history of time capsules it's that you should never let politicians decide what goes inside - they'll fill it up with themselves.
You also need to consider where you put your capsule and, whatever you do, try to keep a good public record of where it is. The city of Corona in California has so far managed to misplaced a series of 17 time capsules dating back to the 1930s.
Of course nowhere on earth may be safe or memorable and with that in mind in 2008 NASA installed the 'Immortality Drive' on the International Space Station which contains the DNA sequence of a very select group of humans, including physicist Stephen Hawking, US comedian Stephen Colbert, Playboy model Jo Garcia, a couple of fantasy writers and a professional wrestler. Long after humanity has disappeared beings from the distant future will be able to reconstruct this motley crew and learn everything there is to know about humanity from them. When humanity's time is done, only a wrestler and a glamour model will remain to speak for us. Which is probably how it should be.
Half Past Mausoleum
2 October 2012 by Justin Pollard
We know that the Romans divided the day into twelve equal portions of daylight regardless of the time of year so the hours expanded and contracted in length with the seasons. But how this was measured, and how a vast empire was run from Rome on such an elastic timescale was for a long time a bit of a mystery. Clues have emerged over the years from excavations in the city and in the works of ancient writers, but its only been with the aid of modern CGI reconstructions that the answer to how Romans told the time has begun to emerge, and it's startlingly simple - the centre of their city was one vast sundial.
Just whose idea it was to turn the monumental architecture of Augustan period Rome into a timepiece remains unknown but, perhaps not surprisingly, the finished marvel was known as the 'Horologium Augusti'. To call it just a sundial seems a bit churlish when you consider its scale and sophistication. The plan behind the Horologium was to create a device on such a scale that the inhabitants of the city could walk through it rather than up to it. To achieve this it would have to be the largest sundial ever built.
A sundial, as you know consists of two fundamental components. A gnomon which casts the shadow and a dial plate against which that shadow is read. If the dial plate was to be the very pavements and buildings of Rome itself, then the gnomon was obviously going to have to be pretty huge and so the Romans turned to a country famous for building on a rather epic scale - Egypt. Here, at Heliopolis, in their newly conquered territory, they found a handy 22 metres high red granite obelisk, formerly the property of Pharaoh Psammetichus II (595-589 BC), which they then had to transport to Rome. As we know from the trouble the British had getting their similar 'Cleopatra's needle' to London, moving obelisks is a tricky business. Pliny the Elder, who later recorded the event, was certainly impressed by Roman engineering expertise:
"Transporting the obelisk to Rome by sea was a more difficult task by far. The ships attracted much interest. The late emperor Augustus dedicated the ship that carried the first obelisk and preserved it in a permanent dock at Puteoli to mark this marvelous feat. Cement caissons were installed on board at Puteoli. The vessel was then towed to Ostia and scuttled to help construct the port."
In Rome this obelisk was then set up on a 160 by 75 metre pavement in the Campus Martius, into which a meridian, worked out by the mathematician Facondius Novus, was placed and a quadrant marked out with massive bronze letters, with indications of the hours, months, seasons and signs of the zodiac in Greek. This dealt with the timekeeping but the Horologium was intended to do more than mark that. The buildings around it were placed so that the shadow of the obelisk would touch them on significant days. On just one day of the year the tip of the shadow passed over the place where deceased members of Augustus' family were ceremonially cremated. On another it touched the very centre of Augustus' mausoleum. And on 23rd September, the Emperor Augustus' birthday, the shadow reached the bottom of the steps of the Ara Pacis Augustae, the "Altar of Augustan Peace" commissioned by the Roman Senate for the triumphal return of the emperor from Hispania and Gaul. This was a device to remind the people of Rome of the gifts, both physical and political that the emperor had given the city, and demonstrate that the world and the heavens followed a divine order in which the Gods had placed the Imperial family above ordinary men and women.
Of course there are problem associated with setting you timepiece in stone and even in Pliny the Elder's day, and despite his enthusiasm for the horologium and the Imperial family, he has to note that:
"These measurements, however, have not agreed with the calendar for some 30 years. Either the sun itself is out of phase or has been altered by some change in the behavior of the heavens, or the whole earth has moved slightly off centre. I hear this phenomenon has been observed in other places."
Eventually a new pavement was laid to correct the timekeeping, although the buildings surrounding the gnomon could not, of course, be moved. The gnomon itself continued to stand however until at least the 8th century although, thanks to earthquakes, its time keeping become yet more erratic. After that the records fall silent and at some point the obelisk fell. It was only rediscovered in 1512 and had to wait until 1789 before being set up again in its present location in the Piazza di Montecitorio by Pope Pius VI. In 1998, during a redesign of the Piazza, a new meridian was traced on the pavement pointing towards the Palazzo Montecitorio. Sadly the shadow of the gnomon doesn't point precisely in that direction, so Augustus's clock is once again telling the wrong time.
18 May 2012 by Justin Pollard
Before you think this column has simply descended into filth perhaps I should explain. René-Théophile-Hyacinthe Laennec was perhaps the finest doctor of his day. Following his mother's death from tuberculosis when he was only five years old, he had expressed an interest in being a medical man and, aged just twelve, he was sent off to begin his studies with his uncle Guillaime-François Laennec who taught at the medical faculty of Nantes University. By 1799 Laennec was studying in Paris under the greatest doctors of the day, including Baron Guillaume Dupuytren, famed for treating Napoleon Bonaparte's haemorrhoids, and Jean-Nicolas Corvisart des Marest.
In Paris Laennec was introduced to the classical forms of clinical examination - inspection, auscultation and palpitation. For those of us without a medical training that's - look at the patient, listen to the patient and then give them a poke. To this suite, Corvisart, in his study of heart disease, had added percussion - a technique involving tapping the patient's body to determine what lies beneath. This method had originally been developed as a quick and easy way of telling if a beer barrel was full or empty but had brilliantly been applied to diagnosing chest diseases by Josef Leopold Auenbrugger in 1761. Like lots of brilliant ideas (and I don't need to tell engineers this) Auenbrugger's had been largely ignored at the time but Corvisart in Paris and Joseph Škoda (uncle of the early Czech motor magnate) in Vienna were rapidly re-introducing the idea.
These four techniques were now on the brink of becoming the basis of modern diagnosis but for one problem. Looking at a patient was fine, as was poking them and giving them the odd tap, but the problem that dared not speak its name was listening to their chest - auscultation. The usual method of doing this was simply for the doctor to place his ear on the patient chests to listen to their heart. This was fine it is was a man, but what if it were a woman? And what if it were a young woman? And what if it were a young woman who was frankly on the large side and possessed of a somewhat imposing cleavage?
This was the very problem that faced René Laennec in 1816 as he stood in his consulting room, looking down on his latest patient, for looking was all that he could do. The woman had presented with heart disease, certainly exacerbated of not caused by her great size. He had thought about percussion and palpitation but ruefully noted that:
"the application of the hand were of little avail on account of the great degree of fatness.
All that remained was auscultation but that was out of the question as diving into the young lady's cleavage was considered a little forward, even when done by a medical man. There was also not guarantee that Laennec could navigate his way through the mounds of flesh to find the heartbeat.
Fortunately it was at this point that Laennec had his moment of genius. He remembered an old school game in which children put one end of a long, hollow stick to their ear while a child at other end scratched it very lightly with a pin. Despite the pin being so far away and the scratching so tiny, it sounded incredibly loud and nearby in the child's ear as the tube transmitted and amplified the sound. These were the sort of games children played in the days before Grand Theft Auto.
This gave Laennec his idea:
"Immediately, on this suggestion, I rolled a quire of paper into a kind of cylinder and applied one end of it to the region of the heart and the other to my ear, and was not a little surprised and pleased to find that I could thereby perceive the action of the heart in a manner much more clear and distinct than I had ever been able to do by the immediate application of my ear."
He had invented the stethoscope and medicine would never be the same again. Of course the device needed some improvement and by 1819 he had produced the first drawings of 'The Cylinder' as he called it - a wooden tube with an ear piece at one end. It wasn't exactly the modern binaural stethoscope whose invention would have to wait until 1851, but it was the start of a revolution.
Armed with a now complete diagnosis suite he went on to name the diseases cirrhosis and melanoma before returning to the disease that killed his mother, tuberculosis. Studying such a disease meant being frequently exposed to it and the always sickly Laennec took more risks that most. In 1826 his nephew, Mériadec Laennec, used his uncle's 'cylinder' to diagnose the disease in Laennec himself. He died on 13th August that same year, aged only 45. On his deathbed he bequeathed his stethoscope to his nephew, referring to it as "the greatest legacy of my life."
Vaseline - a miracle cure?
The 1850s saw the first boom in petroleum production in the USA and nowhere was it booming more than in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Drilling for oil was and is dirty and dangerous job leading to all manner of cuts, scrapes and burns. But the engineers there had a neat little trick to stop these inconveniences from causing too much trouble. Around the drilling rod of active wells, a thick waxy substance would accumulate, which was known, not unsurprisingly, as 'rod wax.' This petroleum derivative had no commercial value but the engineers had discovered that it was very useful for smearing on cuts and burns which seemed to heal all the quicker under a layer of this grease. This was useful but nobody in Titusville was going to write home about it. After all they were busy creating the petroleum economy and it was oil that they were interested in.
In fact it would take someone from a wholly different profession, chemistry, to take a real interest in rod wax and that chemist appeared in the Pennsylvanian oil fields in 1859 in the form of Robert Chesebrough. Cheseborough wasn't having a very good year if the truth were told. He'd started his career in London purifying whale oil derivatives and the crude oil industry was putting him out of business. Not one to dwell on his misfortune however he'd taken ship for the US to see what all the fuss was about and work out if he could apply his skills to this new substance. And that's where he came across rod wax, which to him was not simply a useful hand cream - it was a miracle.
In fact without his astonishing belief in rod wax the world might now be a considerable less well lubricate place. Taking samples of the wax back to Brooklyn he spent the next ten years analysing and purifying it down to a clear, odourless gel, which he christened 'Petroleum Jelly.' He then began courageously testing it on himself by burning and cutting his hands with knives, acids and flames. The applied jelly did indeed seem to aid the healing of such wounds and so he set about marketing his discovery. Sadly the pharmacists of New York seemed resistant to its charms - perhaps because they were all too used to seeing snake oil salesmen.
Still unbowed, the redoubtable Chesebrough took his 'wonder jelly' on the road, travelling across the state demonstrating its curative powers. To do this was no small undertaking as it required an awful lot of cuts and burns to treat - cut and burns Chesebrough dutifully gave himself at the beginning of each demonstration. This certainly had an effect on the gathered crowds who admired such spirit and by 1870 he was selling a jar a minute - enough of the stuff to open his first factory.
Now he needed a name for his product and in 1872 he patented it as the now-familiar 'Vaseline'. No-one is quite sure how he came by this name but the best guess is that he combined the German 'wasser' (water) and the Greek 'έλαιον' (oil). Other sources suggest he named it after the vases he kept his experimental product in. Either way it was a hit.
But Chesebrough wasn't content with healing minor scrapes. Indeed, after all that self-harm, he became convinced that there was some 'miracle ingredient' hiding in jelly that had astonishing curative powers. So much did he trust the stuff that when he developed pleurisy in the 1880's he had his nurse cover him from head to foot in Vaseline in the certain belief that it would cure him. Astonishingly, he duly recovered. There are no reports of the long term effects of the procedure on his nurse. Nor was he alone in raving about its potential. When Queen Victoria knighted him for his contribution to medicine she allegedly told him that she used Vaseline every day. Sadly, she didn't say what for.
Of course if you ask a modern doctor they'll tell you that there's nothing miraculous about petroleum jelly. All it does is provide a sterile barrier over an injury site which prevents bacteria getting in and moisture getting out - not that that's a bad thing at all, indeed the incredibly benign nature of Vaseline makes it a hospital staple to this day. But Chesebrough remained convinced he had stumbled upon a wonder drug. Indeed, such was his belief that he not only covered himself in it, he even ate a spoonful of it everyday.
He lived to be 96.
Edited: 13 November 2012 at 10:16 AM by Eccentric engineer Moderator
All At Sea
20 February 2012 by Justin Pollard
I will be staying in Russia however or at least hovering off it's coast. It is unboudtedly the case that some of the very earliest boats were round - coracles being a good example. It is also however the case that quite rapidly naval engineers began making boats that were longer than they were wide, with keels and pointier at the front, to help them to handle the sea. And so ships, particularly fast warships became progrssively pointier and longer right up until 1873.
In that year radical Russian Vice Admiral Andrei Alexandrivich Popov deciede to go back to basics. He already had a formidable reputation as a naval architect, being the man behind the turrey-ship Piotr Veliky, one of the msot advanced battleships of the age, but now he decided to take a great leap backwards.
Popov's problem was real enough. His ships couldn't carry guns as large as he would like and couldn't get far enough inshore. His answer was to make his new batleships completely circular. Afterall a ship that was round would have less of an area needing armour plate and hence could be either faster or more heavily protected as well as being more manoeuvrable (not having a keel) and at the same time more stable.
Sadly the Russia Tsar Alexander II also liked the idea so in 1873, work began in the Galerniy dockyards in St. Petersburg on the first of two round, flat-bottomed iron-clads. The ships, which were completely circular when viewed from the air, were driven by six engines, each powering one propeller whilst the firepower came from a pair of 11 inch rifled, breech-loading guns. The first such monstrous vessel was the 2490 ton Novgorod and three years later the Kiev was laid down at Nicolaiev although her name was soon changed to the Rear - Admiral Popov in honour of its far-sighted inventor.
By now you'll be thinking - 'I don't see many circular ships in modern navies. I wonder why?' And you'd be right to wonder. The truth was the idea was an utter disaster. These 'popovkas', as the Tsar affectionately called them, had numerous problems. Their bulbous shape meant that even with six engines they were only capable of around 6-7 knots, less than the current on the River Dneiper where they were tested and where they were promptly swept out to sea. Being not only round but flat-bottomed they were also remarkably difficult to keep steady and as they were swept away they spun round repeatedly, making the crew seasick.
Then there were the guns. They were designed to be fired independently, but when one of the these monsters was unleashed, the recoil imparted an off-centre force to the ship, making the whole thing spin like a merry-go-round. This made it jolly tricky to aim properly, although it did make them amusing targets in themselves. Twelve bilge keels were added to improve the situation but, frankly, didn't.
When the sailors onboard weren't being spun round like salads, they could boil instead. In the Ukranian summer these shallow, silver dishes which presented a huge surface area to the unforgiving sun, heated up like ovens.
Unbelievably the two Popovkas did see action in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, although the main action involved the crews being sick over the side as the ships pitched intolerably in even the slightest seas. Retired to serve as permanently moored batteries they were finally decommissioned in 1903, and then served as store-ships until they were broken up in 1912.
But that wasn't the end of the story. You remember that Tsar Alexander II though the Popovkas were a jolly good idea. So good in fact that he commissioned a new Royal yacht, the Livadia, based on the same design and built by John Elder & Co. in Clydebank. The Tsar confidently predicted that this novel layout would finally cure the Empress Maria Alexandrovna of her sea-sickness.
Of course the Livadia had every modern convenience and was perhaps the most luxurious private vessel of its day. It even boasted a flower garden and a fountain. But it was not a cure for sea-sickness. It took 2 months to deliver the lumbering, wallowing vessel from Glasgow to Southern Spain and the entire crew of seasoned sailors were constinuously sick for the whole voyage - even during the subsequent calm passage from Spain to Istanbul.
Fortunately Tsar Alexander II would not have to face his wife's wrath. Just days after the ship was delivered at Sevastopol in 1881, he was assassinated by an anarchist's bomb.
8 January 2012 by Justin Pollard
But to start at the beginning there are two things you should know about Cleopatra's Needle. Firstly it is only one of three such obelisk to bear that name (it's pair being in Central Park NYC and another with the same moniker standing in the Place de la Concorde in Paris). Secondly none of them were built by Cleopatra. The London obelisk was commissioned by the Pharaoh Tuthmoses III some 1400 years before Cleopatra was even born and was erected outside a temple in Heliopolis. A couple of hundred years later the Pharaoh Rameses II decided to have inscriptions carved on them, something he liked to do to any spare piece of stonework lying around in his kingdom which didn't already make mention of his great deeds.
It was only under Roman rule, in 12 BC that the obelisks were taken to the city that had been until recently Cleopatra's capital, Alexandria. Here they were erected again outside the Sebasteum which Cleopatra had begun in honour of Mark Antony but which Augustus, after their deaths, finished in his own honour and renamed the Caesarium.
It was here that they stayed, although toppled by a series of earthquakes, until the nineteenth century. In 1801 the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt was looking around for something nice to give the British to thank them for Nelson victory at the Battle of the Nile and Abercromby's at Alexandria, and he happened upon the fallen monument. It was an awkward gift however, weighing 187 tons and being, rather inconveniently, in Egypt and the British government wouldn't pay to ship the huge monument to London. So it remained uncollected for 76 years.
Finally, in 1877, a wealthy English dermatologists, Sir William Wilson, agreed to stump-up the eye-watering £10,000 needed to bring the prise to London. Electrical engineers amongst you might remember Wilson as the man who famously predicted in 1878 that "When the Paris Exhibition closes, electric light will close with it and no more be heard of." But let's forgive him that for now.
The question in 1877 was how to move this vast stone obelisk to London. Once the Needle was excavated from where it had fallen, engineer John Dixon was hired to construct a special barge for the purpose. Dixon came up with a cylindrical iron design 28 m in length and nearly 5 metres wide. To stop the barge rolling over and over in high seas, Dixon fitted his design with two bilge keels, ballast consisting of railway track, and a small mast on which balancing sails could be hoisted. A rudder at the stern provided some limited manoeuvrability and a deckhouse was constructed from which the vessels appointed captain, Henry Carter of P&O and his five crew, could control this unusual vessel. With the obelisk inside the barge, now Christened 'Cleopatra', all that remained was to attach a line to Captain Booth's merchantman 'Olga' which was due to leave for Newcastle-upon Tyne with a cargo of grain and have her towed to England.
So far so good. Well not all that far really. On October 14th, the Olga and Cleopatra encountered gales in the Bay of Biscay. The cylindrical barge soon became unstable, rolling wildly in the building seas causing the ballast to shift. Carter and his men tried to move the ballast back but failed and when the balancing mast was lost he signalled for help. Captain Booth send out a boat to rescue the crew but it was overwhelmed and all six drowned. Eventually he managed to get a line to the barge and took off her crew before cutting the cables and heading away, reporting in his log that the Cleopatra was now abandoned and sinking.
In fact, left to its own devices, Dixon's barge managed to ride out the storm rather well and four days later a Spanish fishing fleet was no doubt a shade surprised to find the huge iron cylinder bobbing quietly in the Bay. When they reported the find, the owners of the nearby steamer Fitzmaurice, out of Glasgow, seized their chance to make a few quid and towed the barge into Ferrol where they claimed a £5000 salvage fee. After repairs and much wrangling, the fee was reduced to £2000 and the paddle tug Anglia was dispatched to take the Cleopatra on the final leg of it's journey.
She arrived on the Thames on 21st January 1878 and immediately Parliamentarians began debating where it should be placed. You might think that they had already had 76 years to think about this but they remained unsure and the original plan to place it outside Parliament was eventually rejected in favour of a position on the Embankment. Cleopatra's Needle was finally unveiled there on 12 September 1878. Underneath the monument's pedestal was placed a 'time capsule' including a description of the eventful journey of the obelisk to London, no doubt with the fervent wishes of all engineers concerned that this particular granite monster would never have to be moved again.
30 November 2011 by Justin Pollard
By 900 AD the city of Palenque in what is today Southern Mexico was a ruin, covered in forest and slipping from memory. It would be over 650 years before any outsider would see the remains and another 250 years of occasional reports before the site came to the attention of archaeologists. Following the publication of Descriptions of the Ruins of an Ancient City discovered near Palenque in 1822 interest in these mysterious Central American lost cities began to grow in the West and in 1839 Frederick Catherwood, an architect and draughtsman, and John Lloyd Stephens, a diplomat and writer finally travelled to the region where they glimpsed a pyramid poking through the thick undergrowth of the Chiapas foothills. Setting up camp in the ruins Stephens and Catherwood went about recording what at first appeared to be an isolated temple but which they soon realised was an entire city choked by almost impenetrable rainforest.
The temple they were camping in is known now as the Temple of the Inscriptions and had been begun in around 675 AD when Palenque was the capital of possibly the largest and most important kingdom in the Mayan world. A 23 metre high stepped pyramid with a temple structure on the top, the building was decorated with the second longest inscription known from the Mayan world. Not that Stephens or Catherwood could read the text. Instead they simply drew what they saw - a beautiful, empty temple in a long abandoned city with no sign or clue to where the people had gone, what fate had befallen them or where they were buried.
Had they been able to read it they would have learned that the inscription records 180 years of Mayan history at the city and in particular details the life and achievements of the man who commissioned the temple, K'inich Janaab' Pakal, who is known today as Pacal the Great - the man who had revived the city's fortunes. What they never guessed was that he was still there. Nor had they any reason to. Since the rediscovery of Mayan civilisation it has been widely assumed that the stepped pyramids found in their cities were simply elaborate supports for the temples on their summits. There was no evidence for tombs, no evidence really for any of the people who must have once lived in these places. Just empty, ruined stone buildings.
And this was still the received wisdom when Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier visited the site in 1949. However, standing where Stephens and Catherwood had stood 110 years earlier he noticed a double row of stone plugs set into one of the slabs on the sanctuary floor which he guessed marked the lifting points where the stone had been lowered into position implying there might be something beneath it.
Removing the stone he found he was right. Beneath lay a vaulted passage so full of rubble that it took four digging seasons to clear and it was 1952 before his team arrived at the bottom. Here they found their way blocked by a wall next to which stood a stone box which contained pottery jars, shells filled with the red pigment cinnabar (mercury sulfide), beads, jade earplugs and a solitary pearl. Removing the wall blocking their path they next came to a more grisly discovery: - a chamber containing the skeletons of six human sacrifices, beyond which lay another large block of stone.
On the other side lay something unheard of in Mayan archaeology - a royal tomb in the heart of a pyramid. Inside a large slab covered an elaborately decorated sarcophagus, standing on six short piers, beneath which lay pottery food dishes and two life-size stucco human heads. The lid of the sarcophagus was decorated with one of the most important scenes on any Mayan monument, a depiction of its owner, Pacal the Great himself who is shown falling into the netherworld whose jaws gape open to receive him.
Beneath the lid lay the body of Pacal, sprinkled with mercury sulfide and surrounded by over 700 jade items. He wore a jade diadem, a net skirt made up of jade pieces held together with gold wire, necklaces, pectoral decorations, rings, bracelets and ear-flares. Over his face lay a mosaic jade mask and at his feet rested two jade statuettes. In his hands he held a jade cube and sphere whose significance is still a mystery.
It was the find of the decade and one of the greatest ever Mayan discoveries. Here at last was one of the inhabitants of these lost cities, and one of their greatest - hidden for nearly 1300 years, surrounded by his treasures. It was the sort of discovery you only find in movies and even today, with perhaps only 5 percent of this 65 square kilometre city excavated, Pacal's kingdom holds on to many more secrets.
That Sinking Feeling
If one were looking for a particularly complicated manual then that which accompanied the Kriegsmarine Type VIIC U-boat U-1206 would probably make your list. A magnificent piece of engineering, 568 of this class prowled the world's oceans during World War II, bringing terror to the Allied merchant marine.
Not that U-1206 had brought much terror herself. Since her launch in December 1943 she hadn't sunk or even damaged a single ship although it was some comfort to her captain Karl-Adolph Schlitt , that neither had he lost a single crew member. Not that Karl-Adolph had shrunk from battle. It was now April, 1945 - the 14th to be precise - and U-1206 was some 60 metres beneath the North Sea, just ten miles off Peterhead, hunting for British freighters. In the skies above nervous coastal guard pilots scanned the sea for the telltale sign of a periscope in the water whilst merchantmen hugged the coast hoping to avoid the attentions of these infamous killing machines.
It was at this point that Captain Schlitt made a decision that would change his and his crews future forever. He decided to go to the lavatory. Now, on the hugely complex U-1206 few things were more complicated than the lavatory. The problems were obviously considerable. Whereas a sailor could go over the side, a soldier could go behind a tree and a pilot could cross his legs and wait until he landed, a submariner, deep beneath the ocean, couldn't really just nip outside to relieve himself. This problem had not daunted the engineers of the Kriegsmarine however and they had come up with a fiendishly complex piece of equipment - the high-pressure toilet. This marvel could be flushed whilst the U-Boat was underwater but to do so required a complex series of valves to be opened and closed in exactly the right order.
Indeed so complex was the high-pressure toilet that not only did it come with a manual but it's own dedicated member of staff. On each boat fitted with the device one of the crew members was given special training in its operation so that they could instruct the crew on how to safely spend a penny, or pfennig in this case, whilst beneath the waves.
What exactly happened in the moments after Captain Schlitt entered the lavatory compartment on that fateful day are a matter of debate. The first version of events, put forward by the Captain himself at a reunion many years later in Peterhead, involved faulty equipment, the second, put forward by some other senior members of the crew, involved faulty captaincy.
In the first rendering of events Captain Schlitt finished his business and swiftly operated the complex series of valves which flush the bowl in exactly the correct order. In the second a nervous and slightly embarrassed captain forgot how to operate the mechanism but, not wishing to look stupid in front of his men, decided against calling out for help from the trained lavatory supervisor, but had a go at remembering as best he could - which wasn't very well.
Either way, and there are those who swear by each version, the result was the same. Levers were pressed, valves were opened but the bowl did not flush. Instead gallons of high-pressure water from the bottom of the North Sea shot up the u-bend and into the compartment, showering the captain in effluent and brine. Nor could he turn the flow off.
Being in a room with an exploding toilet would probably be enough to ruin most people's day of itself, but Karl-Adolph and his crew had the added disadvantages of being underwater, in enemy territory and sitting on an unfortunate piece of chemistry. Directly beneath the lavatory was the power bay where the main batteries that powered the vessel when submerged were kept. When the sea water from the lavatory became flooding this compartment, battery acid and brine began mixing forming deadly chlorine gas.
There was really no other choice. In an enclosed space, rapidly filling up with poisonous gas, Karl-Adolph have the order for an emergency surface. The boat shot up and the hatches were opened just in time to see a British coastal patrol plane arc overhead, register their presence and start on a bombing run. As quickly a possible the boat was evacuated and the crew put in rubber life rafts. As the plane aborted its run, perhaps seeing the trouble the vessel was in, Karl-Adolph burnt his orders and gave his last ever command as a U-Boat captain - to open the seacocks and scuttle his boat. He, and most of his crew scrambled ashore and were interned for the rest of the war, the victims of the only submarine ever to be sunk by its own lavatory.
The Boston Molasses Disaster
Molasses is the thick treacly by-product of refining sugar and a jolly useful one at that. Not only can you cook with it and eat it, but it can be fermented and distilled to make rum and ethyl alcohol, used to remove rust, added to feedstock and even used in mortar. What it is not generally used for is surfing. However the terrifying power of a molasses wave has once been tragically experienced.
In the winter of 1918 the United States Industrial Alcohol Company began filling their 15m x 27 m molasses tank at 529 Commercial Street, Boston, Massachusetts. This vast container, capable of holding 8,700,000 litres of the sticky stuff had been built in 1915, to help sate the USA's ever increasing appetite for industrial alcohol, largely for use in the munitions business which was undergoing something of a boom thanks to the outbreak of the First World War in Europe. But the owners, in their haste, had made a number of mistakes.
First amongst these was the appointment of Arthur Jell to oversee the construction. Jell was not an engineer, or an architect, but the company reasoned that fabricating a big tank was hardly the same thing as building a railway or a skyscraper, so costly experts were not needed. With no training in engineering Jell, who was unable to read blueprints, had little idea how to check if the behemoth rising before him would perform as expected and when it was finished he did not even order a simple stress test - filling the tank with water - to check that it would hold up and not leak.
And it did leak, indeed there were reports of it 'weeping' molasses as soon as it was filled. At this point a more risk-averse company might have had it drained and resealed. This one decide to paint the tank brown so no-one would notice.
But for all it's leakiness, the tank survived for the next four years, creaking and groaning, but providing locals with the occasional bonus of free molasses which they collected from the regular seepage. Then, on 12th January 1919 a molasses tanker from Puerto Rico docked at the wharf and over the next two days finished pumping the tank full to the top. Initially all seemed well, until lunchtime on Wednesday 15th. That day had dawned unusually warm for the time of year. Indeed temperatures had risen over the last two days from a chilly - 15.5 C to a relatively balmy 4.4 degrees and the people of this densely populated neighbourhood were out and about their business. Around 12.40 witnesses reported a 'muffled roar' followed by what First World War veterans present said sounded like machine gun fire. This was actually the rivets shooting out of the rupturing tank. The ground then began shaking 'as though a train were passing' and moments later all hell was let loose.
If a flood of molasses doesn't sound all that terrifying it's worth looking at the statistics. In a matter of seconds nearly nine million litres of the stuff was released on to Commercial Street in a wave which in places reached 4.5 metres high and was reportedly travelling at around 56 kph. Over 14,000 tonnes of high speed syrup surged out exerting a pressure on everything it hit of around 200kPa. Just the sickly-sweet air blast ahead of the wave threw people off their feet and wave itself tore the girders off the Boston Elevated Railway and lifted a train from the tracks. People, horses, trucks, carts and whole buildings were lifted onto the wave and tumbled down the street or into the dock.
By this time much of the area was wait deep in black syrup and beneath it's glistening surface lay the bodies of 21 people. Another 150 were dragged injured from its clutches. It would take a further 87,000 man hours to clear the streets and houses and the harbour remained brown with molasses well into the summer. The smell., so local legend has it, has still not entirely gone away.
There was, of course, an inquiry, and fortunately this proved somewhat less of a whitewash than that into the comparable London Beer Flood of 17th October 1814 when 1,470,000 litres of beer from the Meux Brewing Company tore down Tottenham Court Road, drowning eight people in the process. This was declared an 'Act of God' and as such, no-one's fault. In the 1919 case the United States Industrial Alcohol Company tried valiantly to claim the Molasses Flood had been caused by anarchists blowing up the tank but in the end blame was placed on the poor construction and insufficient testing of the container. In the end the company paid out $600,000 in out of court settlements. The damage to property was estimated at what would today be around £100,000,000.
The court case never did get to the bottom of exactly what had caused the tank to fail however. It was certainly unusually full and some fermentation in the vessel in the rising temperatures over the previous few days may have increased the strain. One scurrilous suggestion is that the company was stocking up on molasses just before the introduction of Prohibition in the hope of making a killing on the rum market. However as the company only produced industrial alcohol there's no evidence that this is more than just a rumour. In truth the real reason may be no more complex than the company's failure to hire a qualified engineer four years earlier.
The Empty City
The city of Burlington covers a relatively modest area of 34 acres, served by 60 miles of road. It has four power stations, a reservoir, offices, laundries and a hospital. What makes this city remarkable is that none of this shows up on any map nor is there now a single inhabitant.
Burlington, also known at various times by the codenames Stockwell, Chanticleer, Turnstile and the more bland but sinister '3-site' began as an idea in the early 1950s. Military planners who had been having fun modeling the effects of an all-out nuclear war had estimated that 132 nuclear bombs falling on major British cities would cause hundreds of thousands of casualties and disable all forms of government. In 1955 when William Strath of the Central War Plans Secretariat updated this report to include hydrogen bombs, his estimate for immediate deaths had risen to 12 million (with a further four million serious injuries) - around a third of the population. Plans were considered for providing public shelters but the cost were prohibitive so the answer the Secretariat came up with was to leave the people to their own defences but hide away a core of government officials and ministers in a new, underground city - Burlington. There they could then organize the massive retaliation that the doctrine of 'Mutually Assured Destruction' required and then re-establish contact with the outside world and start explaining to the survivors what it had all been about when the radioactive dust settled.
The site chosen was the subterranean 'Spring Quarry', a source of fine Bath stone, near Corsham in Wiltshire and, in 1957, work began in earnest. Burlington was designed on a grid plan as a small-scale mirror of Whitehall, its streets lined with pared down versions of peacetime ministries, complete with ministers and civil servants. This miniature government was provided with food, water and fuel to last three months, after which it was assumed it might be safe to venture outside.
The whole treeless city was divided into 24 areas designed to provide for outside communication and the basic welfare of 4 - 6000 people. Area 21 held the communications offices of the intelligence services that would monitor above-ground events. Here they would communicate with 12 regional bunkers which in turn would be connected to a network of 1563 monitoring posts manned by the Royal Observer Corps who would relay details of the unfolding devastation back to base.
Elsewhere, area 8 contained the second largest telephone exchange in Britain which would be manned by GPO staff. Area 16 contained the BBC broadcasting studio from where the Prime Minister would update his or her remaining people on the progress of the war and area 12 housed the industrial ovens of the kitchens making meals from the foodstuffs stockpiled in Area 9 which also housed a fully operational hospital and dental surgery. It was a bleak and utilitarian world a best and rumours that there was a pub - the Rose and Crown - were just that - rumours.
At the centre of operations was area 17 where politicians and senior officials would live and work, centred on the 'Map Room'. Here the Prime Minister had the only en-suite bedroom in the entire complex. Notably there was no provision made for their, or any other officials', family members. Indeed it was only with the declassification of the site in 2002 that many civil servants even knew they had a desk reserved for them in Burlington. Had the warning come they would have been expected to immediately leave their families to their fate and set off for their new underground home. With the blast doors sealed and protected by the living rock of the quarry and 100 foot thick reinforced concrete walls, it was expected that they would survive what was estimated as a two day 'destructive phase' and the 'survival phase' of a month. The 'reconstruction phase' was rather optimistically scheduled to last just a year. Just what the inhabitants of Burlington hoped to 'reconstruct' remains somewhat unclear.
Burlington was finished in 1961 and was put in a state of readiness. Journalists invited into the bunker after its declassification noted piles of chairs and tabled still in their wrappers, of thousands of toilet rolls, reams of paper and rows of 1960's telephones still in their boxes, still there - all stockpiled for the unthinkable event. Fortunately that event never came and when Margaret Thatcher was presented with an estimated bill of £40 million for renovating the site in 1989 she deemed it unnecessary as the threat from the Soviet block had disappeared. The invention of bunker-busting bombs had also made hiding underground a shade pointless. In 1992 the last few maintenance officers left and Burlington, the city that never was, never would be again.
The idea of building vastly tall, glittering minimalist monoliths was something of a goal for the modernist architects such as Mies van der Rohe. His Seagram building in New York, finished in 1958, was a very good attempt but, due to engineering constraints, it was never the entirely smooth, glass-clad structure he had envisioned. That would have to wait until 1968, when construction began on the John Hancock Tower - officially now called 'Hancock Place'.
Designed by Henry N. Cobb, the tower was to be in the form of a colossal parallelogram, a shape choose to emphasize the sharp corners of the building, it's shorter sides broken up by a vertical notch to further highlight its dizzying height. And at a whisker under 241 metres it was, and remains the tallest building both in Boston and New England as a whole. The entire thing was then to be clad in mirrored, slightly blue-tinted glass, made from the largest panes available. These, it was hoped, would reflect a lustrous navy blue against the clear city sky.
Construction of such a novel building was, of course, not without it's problems. Even during the foundation digging there was trouble with the retaining steel walls of the trench buckling. This rather unfortunately compromised the foundations of the nearby Trinity Church, one of Boston's most treasured monuments. But such things are hardly unusual for major projects and with some shoring up and only some occasional damage to the city's vital utility lines, building went on apace. What is unusual is what happened next. With the tower finished and about to be opened it started raining. Not the normal sort of rain, you understand - heavy rain. Rain consisting of large numbers of 230 kg panes of shiny mirrored glass which, whenever the wind speed rose about 70 kph, would crash down from an extraordinary height onto the sidewalk and buildings below.
This was not really ideal, but what no-one was sure of was why it was happening at all. Indeed, so bemused were the engineers that a scale model of the whole of that part of Boston (the Back Bay) was built in a wind tunnel at MIT to try to work out if it was some strange conjunction of prevailing wind and topography that had caused the problem. It had been noticed that in higher winds the entire structure twisted, something that neither architects not engineers had envisaged when planning the building. The whole building also swayed alarmingly, causing motion-sickness in people at the higher levels. In fact motion sickness was really the least of their problems as a later analysis suggested that under certain wind conditions the whole thing could have fallen down. Thankfully it didn't and the addition of some stiff steel cross bracing (to keep it upright) and a huge tuned mass-damper on the 58th floor (to prevent the motion sickness) brought the building back under control.
None of this however explained the raining glass and so samples were sent across the country to independent laboratories to try to work out if there was anything wrong with the material itself. And there was. The panes were made of three layers, an outer glass layer, a reflective layer and an inner glass layer, bonded together in a sandwich. As the huge glass monolith heated in the daytime sun and then contracted in the cool of night, like some gigantic sundial gnomon, so the air in between the inner and outer layers expanded and contracted - as it does in every piece of double glazing. However in these massive and very novel panels, the bonding between the inner glass, reflective layer an outer glass had been made so stiff that the entire force of this thermal stressing was not absorbed by the gap but transmitted to the outer pane, which then, rather disconcertingly, pinged off, plummeting onto the street below.
As more panes pinged, so the architects finally resolved that the only answer was to replace every single piece of glass cladding the building - a total of 10,344 panes and at a cost at the time estimated to be around $5 million - $7 million. Whilst the glass was being removed, and to cover the gaps where windows has removed themselves, plywood sheeting was placed over the frames. The modernist dream of a glass monolith was replaced by a joke that Boston was indeed fortunate to have the tallest plywood building in the world. Not exactly what the minimalists had in mind.
The Schienenzeppelin was not the first propeller driven railcar. Those laurels probably belong to the Soviet Aerowagon which Valerian Abakovsky designed to whisk important Soviet officials around their huge country. Sadly, on 24th July 1921 it whisked all those on board, including Abakovsky, off the tracks and to their untimely deaths, marking the end of a rarther promising project. More fortunate was the brilliant Scottish engineer George Bennie who built a prototype track and railcar for his 'Bennie Railplane' at Milngavie near Glasgow, which opened on 8th July 1930. His idea was for a propeller driven train riding on a gantry high above the original track, carrying passengers quickly and quietly to their destinations, while the slower freight trains lumbered on below. Everyone agreed it was a magnificent idea and Bennie was feted as the next in a long line of those great British engineer who were builting the modern world. Showing a depressingly familiar lack of foresight both government and private backers then failed to invest anything further in the project, leaving Bennie bankrupt and his test track sold off for scrap.
This, however, was not how they were going to treat the future in Germany. They too had a brilliant engineer, in the shape of Franz Krukenberg, originally a ship-building engineer, who had already designed aircraft and airships, although he was an early critic of Zeppelins due to their explosive nature. In 1929 he came up with his own spin on the idea - the Schienenzeppelin (rail zeppelin) - so called simply because it looked a bit like a Zeppelin airship. Built from aircraft aluminium, the light, single unit railcar would carry 40 passengers down the track, pushed along by a rear propeller attached to two (later one) huge BMW aero engines. By early 1930 an enthusiastic German state had the plans on the drawing boards of the designers of the German Imperial Railway company. Just six months later it was on the tracks. With it's sleek aerodynamic bullet nose and modernist, stripped back, Bauhaus interior it looked frankly more advanced that most trains that I at least currently travel on.
And it was fast. On 10th May, 1931 the train broke the 200km/h barrier and just 11 days later set a new world rail-speed record of 230.2 km/h. This wouldn't be beaten until 1954 and is still the record for a petrol powered train.
So what happened to this future? It won't have escaped your attention when sitting at faulty signals outside Woking or a hour or so that we still don't whiz around in high speed aircraft-style railcars. Well to be fair, the Schienenzeppelin was not a perfect design. The train proved unable to climb steep gradients hence requiring either new tracks to be laid or an additional power-source put in the unit. There was also something of an infrastructure problem - one which has hardly gone away since. As the train was fast and light there was a danger that uneven tracks, designed for heavy, slow trains, might lead to the Schienenzeppelin 'lifting off'. To try to counter this the driveshaft was inclined at a 7 degree angle to provide some down-thrust but the truth of the matter was that not many tracks were designed for a train quite like this and track laying was a much bigger and more costly undertaking than train building. There were other more prosaic problems too. The rear propeller drive meant that the train couldn't really be attached to other units, hence nullifying one of the great advantages of rail transport - the ability to connect large numbers of wagons or coaches together. Finally there were those spoilsports who pointed out that a huge uncovered propeller, scything through the air at terrifying speeds, made standing idly on platforms a shade more dangerous than it had previously been.
All these things conspired against the futuristic Schienenzeppelin and in 1939, at the outbreak of war, the only prototype was broken up - it's parts apparently needed for the war effort. The German Imperial Railway took another tack, developing their own non-propeller driven railcar, the splendidly named 'Flying Hamburger'. So had Germany's Zeppelin train been a red herring? As is so often the case, much of what Krukenberg learnt by building the Schienenzeppelin was put to use in later high speed designs such as the TGV but not everyone at the time was all that unhappy. At the risk of suggesting the Nazi state was at all cynical, to many in the regime the programme served its purpose admirably. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles had forbidden Germany an airforce but who could complain about the development of high-performance aero engines and airframes if they were simply to be used in trains?
17 June 2011 by Justin Pollard
Earle Dickson had a head start in the bandaging game as he worked for Johnson and Johnson, the American medical company who had been early pioneers of sterile surgical dressings, following Robert Wood Johnson's conversion to the idea after hearing a speech by Joseph Lister. Dickson was not an engineer however, nor was he working in product development, indeed in 1920 he was just a humble cotton buyer at the companay's HQ in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Earle lived nearby in Highland Park with his bride of three years Josephine Frances Knight. It was a happy marriage, if a slightly bloody one. The problem was not however anything sinister, simply the fact that Josephine had come to married life without the sort of manual dexterity that makes tasks like cooking a happy experience. In fact Earle had noticed from early on that her hands were constantly covered in pieces of wadding and medical tape, covering up cuts and burns received in her daily battles with the dinner. Nor was dinner Josephine's only problem. Having been wounded the received practice was to wash it, cover it with a piece of gauze and cotton wadding (preferably purchased from Mssrs. Johnson and Johnson), and then bind the dressing on with tape. This was not an easy procedure to do at home on your own, with one hand, whilst bleeding. Furthermore, the bulky dressings made subsequent culinary upsets more likely and in washing those further burns and cuts, the old dressing would get soggy and the tape peel off.
So like any decent, concerned human, Earle began to experiment. What was needed was a way of easily dressing a wound using only one hand and in such as way that the dressing would remain in place and not precipitate further disasters. Having access to the raw materials at J&J he began to cut strips of medical tape and place down the middle a line of cotton gauze. To keep this clean and dust free until it was needed, he then covered the tape with crinoline. Whenever Josephine needed a dressing, which was often, she could now simply cut a piece of tape, peel off the backing and apply it to the wound. Still not the easiest task with one hand, but a great improvement.
Clearly the improvement in Josephine's quality of life was more generally noticeable too as Earle's friends at the office suggested he take his brilliant idea to his boss James Wood Johnson. Johnson liked the idea of a dressing you could apply yourself and agreed to put it into production. It would be nice to say that sales immediately took off, but sadly they didn't. In the first place the 'Band-Aid' plasters, as they were called, had to be made by hand, a slow and rather expensive job. Secondly they came in a roll three inches wide and eighteen inches long which proved a little cumbersome. Thirdly, no-one knew they existed.
The answer to the first two problems came in 1924 when the company introduced machinery to make the plasters and decide to reduce the dimensions to something which made them more appropriate for small scrapes rather than major amputations.
The third problem proved more tricky. Earle's target audience has been his wife and whilst undoubtedly anyone working in a kitchen would welcome the odd plaster, in truth most people were not as clumsy as Josephine. What was needed was an audience who regularly fell over, cut themselves, scraped their knees and generally returned home of an evening looking like they'd been dragged through a hedge backwards. In other words, small boys. Distributing plasters to the small boys of America would be no mean feat however. Fortunately there was an organization ready to take on just such a job. In a stroke of marketing genius, Johnson and Johnson send free packs of sticking plasters to the organizers of Boy Scout troops. Soon, boys across America were traipsing home from their meetings, neatly bandaged up with Band-Aids and able to tell their parents of both their daring exploits and the new cutting edge treatment for their cuts. This did the trick. By the time Earle Dickson died, in 1961, having risen to the heights of Vice-President of the company, they were making $30 million a year from his invention.
4 May 2011 by Justin Pollard
Sailors in the 19thc century didn't even get their 'daily bread'. Bread was simple enough to prepare but it did require a slightly unusual ingredient - live yeast. Unlike Her Majesty's jolly tars, yeast wasn't fond of long sea voyages and, when press-ganged, had a habit of dying, just to annoy the baker. So the answer for most on board was the truly grueling hard tack biscuit.
Hard tack was an even simpler food, made from flour and water and, if you were lucky, a bit of salt. This glutinous paste was shaped into rounds or squares and baked hard. Then it was baked hard again. This was how poorer landlubbers came across it, but for sailors it was considerably worse. Ships are damp places and damp food tends to go off so it was essential that the hard tack was absolutely bone dry when it went into the hold. To ensure this the navy baked their tack not twice, not three times but four times, creating in the process a snack with many of the physical properties of cement. They also liked to bake early, often preparing the biscuits a full 6 months before a ship set sail. In this time the only creature more tenacious than the British sailor made its own heroic inroads into the stock - the biscuit weevil.
Clearly a change was needed and fortunately, in 1845, Henry James Jones came on the scene. Jones, a Bristol baker, had been puzzling over the problem of how to make bread without yeast. It was the need to keep yeast alive that prevented everyone from housewives and sailors from making their own bread and, after much experimentation, he had come up with a method of combining ordinary flour with tartaric acid, bicarbonate of soda, a dash of sugar and a pinch of salt. This seemed to do the trick. Here was a flour that could be mixed with just water to make a bread dough that would rise like a yeast dough. And so the rest should have been history.
In fact the new 'self-raising flour' was a hit at home and Jones was a great promoter of his flour which he sold in 'signed' bright yellow bags with blue lettering. Patents were duly granted and the judicious mailing of samples of the new flour to the great and good soon brought a Royal warrant along with hearty recommendations from the Lancet and even Florence Nightingale. Naval men also sent their compliments, including the captain of the SS Great Britain, and the chef aboard the Royal Yacht.
But one door remained firmly closed - the Admiralty's. Their Lordships were not known for taking hasty decisions - remember the 139 years without a pay rise - and the chance to put fresh bread on the mess table was not going to make them move any faster. Ten years passed without an Admiralty decision on the patent flour in which time Jones tried everything to persuade them. In 1846 he invented an on-board bread machine designed to bake his self-raising bread which he demonstrated to the Admirals. They dithered for a year before demanding the machine be sent to Woolwich for a full trials. When no word came back Jones wrote again receiving a curt reply telling him his machine had been broken up for scrap. A legal case followed before Jones recouped any of his costs.
The following year the report into the testing of the machine finally emerged and was wholly positive. This spurred the Admiralty into action and six days later they sent Jones a letter saying their were rejecting both his flour and his machine. Six more years passed before Jones tried again. In one last bid he gathered together all his correspondence with the Admiralty along with all the many recommendations he had received, including one from the Director-General of Naval Hospitals. These he published in a pamphlet which he sent to every single member of parliament, with a note saying:
"that a grave responsibility would rest upon himself if he did not make this attempt."
Their Lordships, suddenly finding themselves in the uncomfortable glare of adverse publicity, saw the light. Within a month Jones' self-raising flour was on the provisioning lists of every ship in the Royal Navy. However, just in case the sailors thought all their birthdays had come at once, it's use was restricted to Sundays. For the other six days it remained hard tack and weevils as usual.
12 April 2011 by Justin Pollard
Eleanor Coade was all her adult life known as 'Mrs Coade' despite the fact that she never married and that in itself is a clue to her unusual position in society. The term "Mrs' was applied, as a matter of courtesy because Eleanor Coade was a business woman. After her father had died bankrupt she had joined Daniel Pincot in a business at Narrow Wall, Lambeth making an exciting new material - artificial stone. It was a great time to be in the building trade as the finest Georgian architects were then at work, including Robert Adam and John Nash. The demand for their work was huge and the demands this placed on stonemasons was even larger. The great aristocratic families wanted new neoclassical houses with neoclassical ornaments but making these by hand was a slow and expensive job. Fortunately Eleanor had the answer.
Coade stone, which she called 'Lythodipyra' from the Greek 'twice-fired stone' had the appearance of the greyish yellow stone favoured by Georgian architects. What made it different was that it could be made in moulds and, once the mould had been produced, hundreds of exquisitely detailed copies of architectural elements could be made.
Now Mrs Coade had two great advantages in the artificial stone business. Firstly she was a excellent businesswoman and a fine draughtswoman who could spot a good mould maker a mile off. So when John Bacon hove into view she quickly dispatched Daniel Pincot. Bacon's modelling was so good that soon the finest architects of the era were beating a path to Eleanor's factory in Lambeth where her moulded details were (relatively) cheap, very precise and could be easily arranged into larger elements.
But what made them so attractive to Robert Adam and his like was Eleanor's second advantage. Most artificial stone didn't have a very good reputation. The pieces made by George Davy used on Adam's Brentford gateway to Syon House had crumbled with the first frost much to Adam's embarrassment. Mrs Coade's stone was different. To a base of ball clay from Dorset she added fine quartz, crushed soda lime glass, crushed flint and grog - a powder she made from previously fired pieces (usually wasters). The whole lot was mixed up and fired at 1100 degrees Celsius for four days - a prodigious achievement in an era long before thermostatically controlled kilns. This made a material so strong and resistant to weathering that even today the surviving pieces look like they're fresh from the mould, despite in some cases having spent 240 years in London's corrosive atmosphere.
Perhaps not surprisingly Eleanor's business took off. A showroom was opened at the east end of Westminster Bridge and commissions followed from George III for whom she made the Gothic screen at St. George's Chapel, his son, later George IV and the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich for whom she made the Nelson pediment. The infamous Captain Bligh's tomb was her work as was the front of Twinnings' first tea shop on the Strand. Orders also came from abroad and her work was exported to America, Canada, Brazil, Poland, Russian and South Africa.
After Mrs Coade's death in 1821, her manager, William Croggon bought the company. So famous had she become by then that she even warranted an obituary in the Gentleman's Magazine - an almost unheard of compliment for a businesswoman of the era. Croggon, dogged by the failure of the Duke of York to pay his debts went bankrupt in 1833. And so the work of Eleanor Coade was largely forgotten. But her legacy quietly lived on.
Next to her old factory stood William Woodington's Lion brewery, proudly adorned by the two lions they had commissioned from their neighbours. Covered in thick red paint they survived the Blitz despite the devastation of the surrounding area, and stood guard there until 1950 when the whole area was cleared to make way for the Festival of Britain. Thanks to a personal request from George VI the lions were removed and cleaned up, one being sent to the All-England Rugby Football Club at Twickenham. The other stood for 15 years outside Waterloo station before wandering back closer to the place of its birth. It now stands on the approaches to Westminster Bridge, not far from Eleanor's showroom, cleaned of its paint and not looking a day older than when it was made.
8 March 2011 by Justin Pollard
But I'm not. Instead I'm talking vegetables. Not the leafy green 'rocket' per se (that was just to get your attention) but a nevertheless extraordinary piece of vegetable engineering for which one of our greatest 19th century engineers can claim the credit.
When George Stephenson retired from the railway business to his Tapton House estate in Chesterfield he determined to set his mind to new problems. The first was ensuring that no-one would forget his contribution to the industrial age, which he achieved by regularly reminding everyone and anyone in earshot of his humble background, lack of formal education and years of struggle promoting railways. The second problem was another area of the new Victorian world that clearly needed 'improving' - horticulture.
Stephenson brought an engineer's mind to the task of bettering what was, in these pre-Darwinian days, generally considered to be God's creation. His interest in growing exceptional vegetables had probably been kindled during his years at Killingworth where he had been appointment as brakesman to the West Moor colliery engine in 1804. Here he had delighted in growing enormous cauliflowers and cabbages to win local horticultural competitions.
Now rich and retired he looked to tame more exotic fruits, in particular melons and pineapples . The problem of growing large and perfectly formed melons was solved by his invention of a form of wire basket to hold the fruit suspended with the stalk not under tension, ensuring the melon grew round and clean and was not choked of nourishment from the strain it put on its own stalk. Pineapples also succumbed to his relentless engineering genius thanks to the construction of ten hot-water heated forcing houses and a range of pineries, one 140 foot in length. If his pineapples did not ever quite live up to his boast that he would grow them "as large as pumpkins" he did at least eventually beat his arch rival, the Duke or Devonshire, in competition, although the winning 'Queen pines' were only produced a year after his death.
However his most vexatious vegetable was an altogether humbler thing - the cucumber. Not that Stephenson had any trouble growing them to a magnificent size in his greenhouses, aided by his careful selection of manure and the lavish attentions of his legion of gardeners. What bothered Stephenson was their shape. Cucumbers, he discovered, would not grow straight and, being an engineer who was fond of straight lines, this bothered him.
Fixing the problem was no simple matter however and even he was at first bemused. Initially he tried his melon trick, suspending the cucumbers on wires in the hope that gravity could play a steadying hand in their development. When this failed he tried growing them on trays using various mechanical props to counter any emerging curve before it became too severe. This also failed.
Never a man to give up, as he would have told you by now had you been in audible range, he next turned to the application of heat and light in the hope that the cucumbers were bending towards or away from the source of one or the other and so by applying the same to the other side, the curve could be corrected. Had this been successful there might today be a whole career in manoeuvring paraffin lamps and torches around individual cucumbers. Fortunately it did not.
In the end it was not science that would tame Stephenson's cucumbers, but the application of brute force. If they would not grow straight in any natural environment, he reasoned, then perhaps he could grow them in some kind of mechanical mould that would prevent them growing any other way. Having dashed off a quick design he sent his idea to a glassworks in Newcastle where they produced for him a series of thick-walled glass tubes open at both ends and tapered towards one. When the young cucumber was placed inside one of these straight tubes it could do nothing but grow straight, or so Stephenson hoped.
And indeed the application of this exceptional engineering mind to this most peculiar of problems did indeed work. That other great improver Samuel Smiles notes in his 'Life of George Stephenson' that one afternoon the great man finally returned triumphant from the garden wielding one of his dead-straight cucumbers and announced to his gathered house guests "I think I have bothered them now!"
Edited: 10 March 2011 at 04:20 PM by Eccentric engineer Moderator
Shocking Stories of the Earthquake Secretaries
3 February 2011 by Justin Pollard
So began a small group of Scottish diarists' role at the heart of the development of a whole new science - seismology. Scotland is perhaps not at the top of your list of 'places where there are a lot of earthquakes' but the Highland Boundary Fault does from time to time really make the earth there move, particularly around the village of Comrie, in Perthshire.
Among the first to record this regularly was the Reverend Ralph Taylor of Ochtertyre, just to the east of Comrie, who noticed in the autumn of 1788 that a series of shocks was affecting the area, a fact he considerately communicated to the Royal Society the following year. Taylor, the first of the village's 'earthquake secretaries', kept recording tremors right up until his departure from the area in 1791 when another minister, the Reverend Gilfillan, took over.
In his 30 years in the community, Gilfillan recorded at least 68 shocks, noting the effects, the sounds and occasionally using this eminent proof of the power of God in his religious writings. What he did not do was try to quantify earthquakes in any way that might make them comparable. That wouldn't happen until a sizable jolt in October 1839, after a long period of dormancy, shook two of the most unlikely heroes in seismology into action.
Peter Macfarlane was Comrie's postmaster, but he set out to continue the good reverends' work. Almost immediately he realised that he was lacking a way of quantifying the intensity of each quake. What he came up with was not the world's first seismometer - the laurels for that must go to the brilliant Han dynasty scholar Zhang Heng. Ascanio Filomarino also got there before him in 1795 when the Neapolitan clockmaker built a device, which he hoped might give advanced warning of eruptions of Mount Vesuvius. Locals, however, didn't take to his idea, destroying his seismometer, burning his workshop down and beating him to death for good measure.
Macfarlane's simple devices consisted of a weight suspended on a line which would be displaced when the earth shook and allowed him to record both intensity and direction. But on what scale? To answer this, the resourceful postmaster invented one of the very earliest earthquake scales - the Comrie scale - which grades the intensity of quakes on a scale of one to ten, one being 'just sensible' and 10 being as powerful as the quake of 23 October 1839 that had first stirred him into action.
It was not the most scientific of scales, but Macfarlane didn't have the money or opportunity to travel the world witnessing other quakes. What his dogged recording did achieve was to inspire David Milne-Home, former junior defence lawyer for the notorious murderer William Burke, who persuaded the British Association to appoint a committee to study earthquakes. A flurry of activity followed in which instruments were commissioned and sent to Comrie, to record the extraordinary events regularly occurring in 'Shakey Toun.'
Such interest was not to last. When the quakes began to tail off in 1844, so the great and good turned their back on Comrie. Except Macfarlane, who continued through the next 16 unremarkable years to record every minor shock. In 1869, interest flared again as the quakes increased and the committee was reformed. This renewed activity culminated in 1874 in the construction of one of the smallest listed buildings in Scotland - the Earthquake House. This tiny structure, built directly on the bedrock over the Highland Boundary Fault, still houses a replica of its original 'Mallet' seismometer.'
Not that Macfarlane would see the device in operation, He died that same year, having become the longest serving and greatest of the Comrie earthquake secretaries, witnessing and recording more tremors than anyone to date - over 300. He has, sadly, not gone down in the annals of seismology as a particularly great name but should you visit the Earthquake House today you will see inside a modern seismograph - the automated descendant of all those earthquake secretaries, a testament to Macfarlane's work and his dutiful successor.
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