Saturday, October 31, 2009


Samhain, or "Summer's End", marked the end of the harvest in Celtic tradition; the end of the "lighter half" of the year and beginning of the "darker half". Samhain begins at sunset tonight and continues all day tomorrow until sunset.

It was once believed that the border between this world and The Otherworld became at its thinnest on Samhain, that it opened a portal of opportunity to enter the Otherworld, and for Otherworldly entities to enter our realm. The resultant celebration took on a sort of Festival of the Dead feeling.

The Gaelic festival became associated with the Christian All Saints Day and All Souls Day, and later got woven into the secular customs now connected with Halloween.

Beginning in the Middle Ages, the custom of "Souling" became popular, in which poor people (both children and adults) would go door-to-door begging for food on All Saints Day. Something called "Soul Cakes" were made and distributed to the beggars, each cake eaten supposedly representing a soul being freed from Purgatory. Although some would claim an unbroken line of tradition between Souling and Trick-or-treating, there is actually a considerable gap in the historical record. According to Wikipedia:

Ruth Edna Kelley, in her 1919 history of the holiday, The Book of Hallowe'en, makes no mention of ritual begging in the chapter "Hallowe'en in America." Kelley lived in Lynn, Massachusetts, a town with about 4,500 Irish immigrants, 1,900 English immigrants, and 700 Scottish immigrants in 1920. The thousands of Halloween postcards produced between the turn of the 20th century and the 1920s commonly show children but do not depict trick-or-treating. The editor of a collection of over 3,000 vintage Halloween postcards writes:

"There are cards which mention the custom [of trick-or-treating] or show children in costumes at the doors, but as far as we can tell they were printed later than the 1920s and more than likely even the 1930s. Tricksters of various sorts are shown on the early postcards, but not the means of appeasing them."

The earliest reference to Trick-or-Treating occurs in a 1927 Canadian newspaper article that speaks of it as if it is a brand-new fad theretofore unknown.

Attempting to contact The Spirit World via wooden alphanumeric Ouija Boards was a popular Halloween party diversion during the Victorian Era. The "divination by planchette" phenomena is one that is real and is verified, despite skepticism by the public. This skepticism was exacerbated by the marketing of the board as a child's toy in the mid-20th century. By itself, the board does nothing. It is solely for the guide of the Spiritualist medium to conduct the seance using it and the planchette as a tool.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Quest for Fire

There's a whole multiverse (literally!) of cool old cigarette lighters out there, all of which are perfectly suitable for time-transcending troublemakers such as ourselves. The above one, cleverly concealed in a pocketwatch housing, was found on Pewtersmith's flickr. A particular favorite is the World War I military lighters fashioned out of spent .30-caliber cartridge casings. Here's one, spotted on Zenbeer's flickr:

The first cigarette lighters were called Döbereiner's Lamps, invented in Germany by Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner in 1823. These worked by way of a charmingly Rube Goldberg sequence of events: zinc metal reacts with sulfuric acid in a small glass jar, producing hydrogen gas which is released when a valve is opened. This jet of hydrogen bursts into flame when ignited by platinum.

Lighters are swell, and I own zillions of 'em, from antiques to mid-century Zippos to cheesy plastic contemporaries - but what I really prefer to light my stogies with is good old-old-old-fashioned wooden matches. Kitchen matches in particular are dripping with mythic resonance, and dammit, they smell great. (I am a card-carrying Philluminist and love all things matchy.)

The Diamond Match Company has nice old-timey matches that can be found in any supermarket, but they also make hard-to-find "strike anywhere matches", which is how all old matches actually used to be. Once upon a time, the white phosphorus on matchheads was so sensitive you could rub a match against almost any surface and make it go off, and the sudden poof of flame could be quite powerful and flashy compared to the wimpy matches of the 21st century.

Ever wondered why people in the movies were managing to strike matches in weird places? In Stalag 17, for example, William Holden lights a match against someone's razor-stubbled chin; and the high flammability of those good old-timey matches was also a key part of that film's plot, with an American soldier devising a time-bomb by nestling a lit cigarette amongst a pack of matches. When the cig burned down to all those volatile white phosphorus matchheads, KABOOM!

In Miller's Crossing, Tom contemptuously lights a match off a policeman's chest, which is believable since the film takes place during prohibition. Not so much with The Breakfast Club, though: Bender lights a match off his teeth, and then lights one off his shoe, which isn't possible with modern matches unless he's gone to the trouble to cut the striking board off a pack of matches and glue it to the edge of his sole. (Hmmm... that's not a bad idea actually...)

A zillion cinematic tough guys in old noir films would conceal a strike-anywhere match in their hand, and with a one-handed flip of the wrist, ignite it against their thumbnail and bring it to their cig, making it appear to modern tv-watchers that they somehow magically just conjured up fire out of nowhere.

Swan Vestas, pictured above, are a British strike-anywhere match said to be more powerful and more like the old classic formula than Diamond's. I'd love to try these out, doubly so for the fact that Victorian burlesque drag-king Vesta Tilley took her showbiz name from the term "Vesta" (a 19th century brand of matches that was so popular, it ended up becoming a generic term).

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Starks Marble

The Starks Building (now the Hertz-Starks Building), built in 1913, sports some truly amazing white-and-gray marble on every wall of every floor. Even the hallway drinking fountains are made of marble.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Baghdad Batteries

In 1936, in the village of Khuyut Rabbou'a (near Baghdad) in Iraq, archaeologists discovered some peculiar ancient vessels, each containing an iron bar and a cylinder of rolled-up copper sheeting.

They languished in a museum's storage for two years, until Wilhelm König, director of the National Museum of Iraq, found them and became fascinated. In 1940, he published a paper speculating that they may have been galvanic batteries, capable of electroplating gold onto silver objects.

The Copper sheeting and iron rod in the Baghdad batteries form an electrochemical couple, so that an electrical voltage will be produced in the presence of an electrolyte. Lemon juice, grape juice, vinegar and other acidic substances are generally thought to have been used in the Baghdad batteries.

Wikipedia says:

"The Discovery Channel program MythBusters determined that it was indeed plausible for ancient people to have used the Baghdad Battery for electroplating or electrostimulation. On MythBusters' 29th episode (which aired on March 23, 2005), ten hand-made terracotta jars were fitted to act as batteries. Lemon juice was chosen as the electrolyte to activate the electrochemical reaction between the copper and iron. (Oddly enough, it was discovered that a single lemon produced more voltage than one of the batteries when using copper and zinc.) However, the batteries which they reproduced did not produce a substantial amount of energy and had to be connected in series in order to achieve a 4 V potential drop and test the theories.

The show's research staff proposed three possible uses: electroplating, medical pain relief (through acupuncture), and religious experience. It was discovered that when linked in series the cells indeed had sufficient power to electroplate a small token. For acupuncture, the batteries produced a "random" pulse that could be felt through the needles; however, it began to produce a painful burning sensation when the batteries were grounded to two needles at once. For the religious experience aspect of the batteries, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant was constructed, complete with two cherubim. Instead of linking the cherubim's golden wings to the low power batteries, an electric fence generator was connected. When touched, the wings produced a strong feeling of tightness in the chest. Although the batteries themselves had not been used, it was surmised that, due to the apparent lack of knowledge of electricity, any form of electrical sensation from them could equate to the divine presence in the eyes of ancient people."

Regarding the observation that using a lemon actually worked better than lemon juice, it may well be that the creators of the batteries actually used several fruits connected in a series, which itself may have also been immersed in lemon juice - electric kool-aid, indeed. Some other item may have been used as a electrolyte which has not yet been considered.

The Rods of Ra site suggests a connection between the Baghdad batteries and mysterious Egyptian ornamental rods such as those found belonging to Pharaoh Pepi II. Another company, Egyptian Healing Rods also sells modern replicas.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Antikythera mechanism

In 1900, divers searching for sea sponges off the coast of Antikythera Island (northwest of Crete) made a startling discovery. The hull of an ancient ship was found, and it was filled with beautiful statues of marble and bronze.

An expedition was made to salvage everything on board the ship, with special focus on the works of art. It wasn't until a couple of years later that archaeologists got around to examining what they considered to be lesser artifacts. Then they realized that one of them contained cog wheels.

Controversy erupted over the find, which turned what we thought we knew about world history on its ear. Mainstream science, faced with something that made them wrong, did what they've always done: they ignored the anomaly.

It wasn't until 1958 that someone finally took the Antikythera mechanism seriously. Dr. Derek de Solla Price from Yale University mounted a full-scale investigation and restoration of the device. Originally, the device seems to have been built around 150 B.C. in a wooden box with inscriptions that contained an extremely accurate astronomical calendar. Inside it were twenty cog wheels and, even more stunning, differential gears (neither of which had been previously thought to exist at that time). Price wrote:

"Nothing like this instrument is preserved elsewhere. Nothiing comparable is known from any ancient scientific text or literary allusion. On the contrary, from all we know of science and technology in the Hellenistic Age, we should have felt that such a device could not exist."

Price also speculated that the item may have once been on public display on the isle of Rhodes. Wikipedia says:

The island was known for its displays of mechanical engineering, particularly automata, which apparently were a specialty of the Rhodians. Pindar, one of the nine lyric poets of ancient Greece, said this of Rhodes in his seventh Olympic Ode:

"The animated figures stand
Adorning every public street
And seem to breathe in stone, or
Move their marble feet."

On 31 July 2008, a paper providing further details about the mechanism was published in Nature (Nature Vol 454, Issue 7204, July 31, 2008). In this paper, among other revelations, it is demonstrated that the mechanism also contained a dial divided into four parts, and demonstrating a four-year cycle through four segments of one year each, which is thought to be a means of describing which of the games (such as the ancient Olympics) that took place in two and four-year cycles were to take place in any given year.

A working reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism has been built (see image above) for the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, by Robert J. Deroski.

Visit the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project for the latest info on this amazing anomalous device which completely and utterly validifies Steampunk as a philosophical precept and not just an RPG/clothing/decor fad.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Falcon Heene Incident

What a day.

I'm sitting around the house trying to get up the oomph to go out in the cold when suddenly, there's breaking news on MSNBC: a helicopter is in hot pursuit of a giant flying-saucer-shaped balloon that accidentally came untethered and took off 10,000 feet in the air with a 6-year-old boy inadvertently aboard. Usually I manage to let tragic news stories wash off me like bourbon off a duck's back, but something about this one really got to me. The horror of the poor child, being that young and trapped inside a balloon that high up, being buffeted around by the winds, probably to eventually crash in the Colorado mountains... it made me sick to think about it.

So we're watching the story unfold, glued to our seats, in sympathy for this little boy trapped inside a balloon hurtling through the air, when the horrific announcement is made that that they think he may have actually fallen out of the balloon to his death somewhere along the way.

Sure enough, when the balloon finally makes its descent into a field, there's no boy inside and the National Guard is mobilized for a massive search for young Falcon Heene's body. A sickening end to a sad afternoon, seemingly.

But then, after all of that, it turns out the kid is alive and well and has been hiding in a box in the attic all afternoon. As of this writing no one's determined what the backstory is to this bizarre drama. And I haven't heard conclusively yet whether this was intended as some sort of weather-balloon science project (the Heene family are well-known storm chasers) or whether it really is an experimental aircraft as the media have speculated.

I've been a bit miffed at the coverage of the incident on both CNN and MSNBC, which I kept flipping back and forth between. Both came dangerously close to openly ridiculing the Heene family over their alleged belief in extraterrestrials, over their storm chasing hobby and their interest in science, and their having taken part in the reality show Wife Swap earlier this year. Apparently having an interest in science, weather, and UFOs brands you as a kook in Rick Sanchez' eyes. Me, I think this Heene family sound like my kind of people...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Bee Smoker

The modern single-handheld bee smoker was invented in 1875 by Moses Quinby, the first commercial beekeeper in the USA. Quinby's device, with a bellows attached to a tin burner, vastly improved previous methods of blowing smoke onto beehives, a practice that has gone on since the ancient Egyptian civilizations, and probably even earlier.

According to Wikipedia:

The fact that smoke calms bees has been known since ancient times; however, the scientific explanation was unknown until the 20th century and is still not fully understood. Smoke masks alarm pheromones (which include various chemicals, e.g., isopentyl acetate) that are released by guard bees or bees that are injured during a beekeeper's inspection. The smoke creates an opportunity for the beekeeper to open the beehive and work while the colony's defensive response is interrupted. In addition, smoke initiates a feeding response in anticipation of possible hive abandonment due to fire. When a bee consumes honey the bee's abdomen distends, making it difficult to make the necessary flexes to sting. (The latter has always been the primary explanation of the smoker's effect, since this behavior of bees is easily observable.)

Smoke is of limited use with a swarm, partly because swarms have no honey stores to feed on. It is usually not needed, either, since swarms tend to be less defensive as they have no home to defend, and a fresh swarm will have fed well at the hive it left behind.

Remind me to get around to inventing a musical bee smoker that plays like a miniature squeeze box/concertina when the bellows are pressed.

(Pictured above: a Steampunk bee smoker from Dreadnought Designs)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Potatoes as Batteries

We've all seen the novelty gag of potato clocks, but what happens when you martial the combined power of five hundred pounds of spuds? From the website of performance artist Amos Latteier:

"I built a potato battery out of 500 pounds of potatoes. It powered a small sound system. With the help of the Red 76 crew I installed the battery and sound system in the back of a U-Haul truck and drove it around town inviting people to enter the truck and take a listen.

Batteries work by allowing electrons to pass from one electrode to another. In this case the potato provides phosphoric acid, which enables a chemical reaction causing electrons flow from copper to zinc. The zinc came from galvanized nails and copper came from small pieces of copper. You don't have to use potatoes; any acidic medium such as citrus fruit will work. I chose potatoes because they are traditional and cheap.

Each potato generates about 0.5 volts and 0.2 milliamperes. I connected groups of potatoes together in series to increase voltage and then connected these groups together in parallel to increase amperage. The entire 500 lb battery generated around 5 volts and 4 milliamperes.

Don't eat potatoes after using them for a battery."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Irish Oatmeal

It's no secret that I prefer to keep, whenever possible, products in my pantry that have at least a tenuous amount of mythic resonance with the style of that golden era we all adore. Well, that's no problem with John McCann's Steel-cut Irish Oatmeal, which seemingly hasn't changed its graphics much since the 19th century.

But it is good? Oh, mais oui. Irish Oatmeal has a thick, nutty flavor that is so far-removed from that bland, bleached-out genetically modified piffle that the guy from the Religious Society of Friends hawks, you won't recognize it. If a cereal can be said to be meaty, this is it.

The main drawback to Irish Oatmeal is that it takes so long to prepare. The package recommends bringing the oatmeal to a boil and simmering at least 30 minutes. However, if you pre-soak 'em overnight, they're all ready to be heated up and served the next morning. Bring it to a boil, then quickly turn it down and simmer it a couple minutes, then set it aside and let stand for a couple more minutes.

Me and all the boys down at the Transylvania Gentlemen lodge recommend pouring a little Bushmills on your McCann's, for a perfect McNulty-approved snack.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Dogs of the World

From a tiny ad (about the size of a business card) in the corner of an old 1950s issue of American Home magazine, an even more miniscule element - an image of a free giveaway book, Dogs of the World (smaller than the smallest postage stamp in the ad) is brought up into our realm of viewing via the magic of scanning.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Hot Air Balloon Death in NM

From InjuryBoard:

A woman died in a hot air balloon crash on Monday, October 8 during an annual balloon festival in Albuquerque. The balloon tipped over after getting caught on fiberoptic line running above a power line at about 8 a.m., which sent 60 year old Rosemary Wooley Phillips to her death.

The crash site is about three miles from the launch site for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, a nine-day event that began Saturday and features mass ascensions of balloons, events for special shaped balloons and competitions for pilots.

In recent years there have been numerous fatalities from hot air balloon accidents.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Cannon Doorknocker

One from our Unusual Kentucky blog:

Walking down the street in Frankfort, at first glance I thought this was supposed to be a submarine, or a submarine's periscope. But upon closer inspection, this unusual old metal doorknocker turned out to be a miniature simulacra of an antique cannon. It's on the door to the ticket office at Frankfort's Grand Theatre. A nice Steampunk-retro touch.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Aether

What is The Aether?

Plato's Timaeus posited that a fifth element must exist, corresponding to the fifth remaining Platonic solid, the dodecahedron. He called it "Quintessence", the stuff of which the entire cosmos is really made of, deep down.

Aristotle included a concept of The Aether in the system of the classical elements of Ionic philosophy as the "fifth element" (the Quintessence), on the principle that the four terrestrial elements were subject to change and moved naturally in straight lines while no change had been observed in the celestial regions and the heavenly bodies moved in circles. In Aristotle's system aether was devoid of qualities of its own - in other words, it was neither hot, cold, wet, or dry.

In the late 19th century, the "Luminiferous Aether", or "Ether", was the term used to describe a hypothetical medium for the propagation of light. It signifies a mysterious all-pervasive substance - and even can be thought of as a place where one goes during astral projection or after death - which was thought in ancient times to contain the key to everything in our universe. Devices, such as the one pictured above, were created to attempt to record and measure this elusive substance.

Einstein's Special Relativity was formulated without needing a concept of an Aether. Albert Michelson called it "one of the grandest generalizations of modern science". Today the idea of The Aether is considered a laughably outmoded concept of the past.

Or is it?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Henrietta Lacks

On October 4, 1951, an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer.

Samples of her cervical cancer cells were extracted by Dr. George Otto Gey. To his amazement and horror, Henrietta Lacks's cervical cells multiplied readily and rapidly, faster than anything ever seen. They quickly latched to the sides of test tubes and consumed the medium around them, growing thicker and thicker all the while. He wondered when the cells would stop growing.

They didn't.

Soon Gey had to transfer the growing mass of cells to another test tube, and then a petri dish, and then more petri dishes. Henrietta's cells were, and still are, some of the strongest cells known to science, reproducing an entire generation every 24 hours. "If allowed to grow uninhibited," researcher Howard Jones said in 1971, "[Henrietta's cells] would have taken over the world by this time."

Scientists saw this horror-film aspect as a boon - since the cells kept replicating like mad, they now had an unlimited supply of a single isolated cell source, and could thus ramp up their efforts to cure mankind's ills using the cells as test cultures. And in 1952, they did just that. Henrietta's cells (now called "HeLa" cells) were directly responsible for Jonas Salk's Polio vaccine.

But then things got weirder.

By 1974 people were starting to realize that HeLa had infiltrated the world's stock of cell cultures and ruined everything it came in contact with. Millions of dollars of research were wasted and for many scientists, at least two decades of work were down the drain. According to Rebecca Skloot in Johns Hopkins Magazine:

The truth was, Henrietta's cells had traveled through the air, on hands, or the tips of pipettes, overpowering any cell cultures they encountered. And researchers had no idea. There was no way to know which cells were growing in the petri dish. And there was no universally accepted test for a cell culture's identity.

Walter Nelson-Rees dedicated his life to trying to control the spread of HeLa, but towards the end of his life he admitted that effort was a failure, and that the HeLa cells are "out there somewhere dancing" and will live forever. The problem of HeLa cell contamination continues to grow today.

Stranger still, Nelson-Rees discovered that the HeLa cell line had several marker chromosomes not found in the normal complement of human chromosomes. Which begs the question, what IS this stuff, really?

Due to their ability to replicate indefinitely, and their non-human number of chromosomes, Dr. Leigh Van Valen has proposed HeLa be classified as an entirely new species, Helacyton gartleri. This controversial idea has not currently been embraced by the scientific community.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

No. 16 Cheyne Walk

An 1882 painting by Henry Treffry Dunn, depicting Dante Gabriel Rossetti's drawing room at No. 16 Cheyne Walk. It's a wonderful representation of a typical Victorian home, with its highly ornamented sense of decor.