Sunday, December 27, 2009

Jingle Bells

The first song broadcast live from space (at least in an Earth-centric sense) was "Jingle Bells", sung by astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra on December 16, 1965 from the Gemini 6 space module. With harmonica accompaniment, no less.

It was written by James Lord Pierpont and originally published as "One Horse Open Sleigh" on September 16, 1857. Despite being universally identified with the Christmas holiday, it is not specifically about Christmas at all.

None of Pierpont's other songs (which include "Ring the Bell, Fanny", "The Know Nothing Polka", "Oh! Let Me Not Neglected Die!", "The Colored Coquette", "Wait, Lady, Wait", "Poor Elsie", "The Returned Californian", "Our Battle Flag") ever amounted to much. However, The Sons of the Pioneers recorded his song "Gentle Nettie Moore" in 1934, which in turn inspired Bob Dylan to cover their cover.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Voting Rights for the Dead

One from our Unusual Kentucky blog:

I've always felt that the biggest problem with modern society is that it doesn't take into account its own big picture. To the average American - who knows more about football stats than his own country's history - Millard Fillmore, Thomas Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt might as well all be the same person or from the same time period. And the Bill of Rights means about as much to them as any other oblique and opaque document they had to study in school but never really understood, like the Magna Carta, the Emancipation Proclamation, or the Smoot-Hawley Act.

Despite the efforts of the ACLU and other organizations to try to hold the original spirit and structure of the U.S. Constitution in place, each generation of Americans is more ignorant than the last when it comes to basic civics. If only there were a way to keep the beliefs of the Founding Fathers alive in the brave new world of today.

A modest proposal:

Let's give voting rights to the dead.

And we can retroactively give a vote to the Founding Fathers, whose votes should count the largest, since they started this whole thing of ours, thus cancelling out the votes of the lowest common denominators who walk our streets today. (But of course, that doesn't include you, dear reader!)

Much of the atrocities we've seen in our lifetimes would never have been condoned by previous generations. Let's record how they felt and let their voices continue to carry weight today. Of course, there's the inverse problem that most of these older voices of cantakerous dead guys lack a certain progressiveness, and that many of them would not vote for things we take for granted today, like equal rights. This is, of course, why we need to give the biggest votes to the Founding Fathers and those who shared their ideals.

But on many pressing issues of the day, bringing in the dead-folks vote would help bring cohesion and fairness and save us all from an almost certain technocratic hell. Wouldn't you like to be able to vote now on certain things that may take place in the future, like "If, someday, it's proposed that we all have microchips in our asses that monitor our every move, do you support this?" and we can all vote "uh, no, thanks anyway, do not want."

What's more, we may not have to rely on the historical record of any given dead person's stated opinions to determine how they would have voted on modern issues. There's also the option of contacting them via channellers, spiritualists, Ouija boards, divination, what have you, and asking their ghosts directly what they think about, say, Obama's health care plan.

I submit to you an article found in the March 14, 1873 edition of the New York Times, in which an unattributed writer waggishly notes:

If ghosts continue to multiply with their present rapidity, there will have to be an addition made to the recent volume of census statistics. At the present rate, our ghostly population will soon far outnumber the Indians or the Chinamen, and we may expect to see a movement in favor of giving the rights of citizenship to resident ghosts, either by virtue of the phraseology of the fourteenth amendment, or on the pretext that they are included among the "other persons" mentioned in the original Constitution. A census that omits so important a part of our population is certainly incomplete...

The author goes on to illustrate two recent examples of ghostly incidents that had come to his attention; one was a pie-eating ghost in Ulster, and the other was in located in Kentucky. The author is somewhat geographically confused - there's no such thing as Lebanon County - but let's not let that spoil the anecdote:

(I especially liked the part about a flask of bourbon and a deck of cards being among the "articles necessary to the comfort of a Kentucky Gentleman", which called to mind my own words about how a good Transylvania Gentleman needs lots of pockets to hold all his swag.)

Of course, we could take the whole retroactive-rights idea even further and give a posthumous vote to each of the dead men and women who populated this hemisphere before the United States. That might be the fairest thing to do, even though it would almost certainly mean that most of us would find ourselves "voted off the island", so to speak.

Let's initiate a grass-roots campaign right now to stop disenfranchising our noble deceased ancestors, and to bring them in on the issues that face us young corporeal whippersnappers. To the polls, you spirits, spooks, and spectres!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Myke Amend's Desert Shadows

The brilliant Steampunk painter Myke Amend has a new finished work entitled Desert Shadows, now available for sale as prints. Take your pick of large limited-edition metallics, large limited-edition giclees on canvas, or medium-sized (18×12 inches) open-edition metallics.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Wimshurst Influence Machine

Steampunk Workshop has a great tutorial by Jake Von Slatt on building your very own Wimshurst Influence Machine!

Influence machines were an early type of Electrostatic Generator that operated by way of two vertically-mounted rotating discs (each rotating in a different direction), two crossbars with metallic combs, and a spark gap formed between two metal spheres.

As Von Slatt says:

These machines that create high voltage charges don't have the familiar coils of copper wire, permanent magnets, and commutators of conventional generators. They are made from brass, glass, and wood, and look more mechanical then electrical. But the coolest thing about electrostatic machines is that you can feel them working. As you begin to crank a Wimshurst machine you will hear it start to crackle and hiss with energy, you will smell the sharp scent of ozone produced and you'll feel the hair on your arm stand up as the Leyden jars charge.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Radiometer

One of the most important scientific discoveries of the Victorian age is still misunderstood even today, yet is commonly sold in novelty stores as an amusement.

The Crookes Radiometer is an airtight glass bulb containing a partial vacuum. It contained a set of tiny panels - reflective on one side, absorptive on another - which are mounted on a rotating spindle. The vanes spin when exposed to light, making the Radiometer the first solar energy device.

Order your own here.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Theremin

Russian inventor Leon Theremin brought us many things, such as the world's first motion-detecting security system and an early version of wireless Television in 1925. But his most marvelous creation was the ethereal musical instrument known as the Theremin.

A purely electronic instrument for producing purely electronic music, it is operated by two metal antennas which can sense the position of the player's hands. Pitch and frequency are controlled with one hand, and amplitude with the other. The electrical signals from the Theremin are broadcast via a loudspeaker.

From Wikipedia:

After positive reviews at Moscow electronics conferences, Theremin demonstrated the device to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. Lenin was so impressed with the device that he began taking lessons in playing it, commissioned six hundred of the instruments for distribution throughout the Soviet Union, and sent Theremin on a trip around the world to demonstrate the latest Soviet technology and the invention of electronic music. After a lengthy tour of Europe, during which time he demonstrated his invention to packed houses, Theremin found his way to the United States, where he patented his invention in 1928 (US1661058). Subsequently, Theremin granted commercial production rights to RCA.

Although the RCA Thereminvox (released immediately following the Stock Market Crash of 1929), was not a commercial success, it fascinated audiences in America and abroad. Clara Rockmore, a well-known thereminist, toured to wide acclaim, performing a classical repertoire in concert halls around the United States, often sharing the bill with Paul Robeson.

It has also been variously called the Aetherphone, the Etherophone, and the Thereminvox.

The Theremin can be heard in the soundtracks for classic films such as The Red House, The Lost Weekend, The Spiral Staircase, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing (From Another World), The Ten Commandments, The She Creature, Queen of Blood, and even Jerry Lewis' The Delicate Delinquent. Most famously, the Theremin was used to great subtle effect during Salvador Dali's surrealist dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no Theremin music in Forbidden Planet - the Theremin-like electronic music in that film was generated by electronic circuits but did not involve using one's hands to control the sound.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Steampunk/Dieselpunk USB Flash Drive

"The clever design has been laser cut, shaped to looked beaten up and made to look like it has been rusting away for some time, but in reality this is a 2 Gb flash drive in full working order."

Seen on Zedomax who saw on it on Geeky Gadgets who saw it on Cerrious Design's Etsy Shop.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are on a camping trip. In the middle of the night Holmes wakes up and gives Watson a nudge.

“Watson,” he says, “look up in the sky and tell me what you see.”

“I see millions of stars, Holmes,” says Watson.

“And what do you conclude from that, Watson?”

Watson thinks for a moment. “Well,” he says, “astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter to three. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Theologically, I see that God is all-powerful, and we are small and insignificant. Uh, what does it tell you, Holmes?”

“Watson, you idiot! Someone has stolen our tent!”

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Calliope

The Calliope, a steam-powered musical instrument, was invented by Joshua C. Stoddard of Worcester, MA in 1855.

The name originates from Zeus' daughter Calliope, (whose name in turn means beautiful voice in Greek). Calliope was the Muse of poetry, however - the spoken word is that for which her beautiful voice was famed, not music. The device should probably have been called the Euterpe or Euterpephone instead, but that just doesn't have the same ring to it, I'll admit.

The calliope operates via a series of whistles through which scalding-hot pressurized steam is forced. They're tuned to a chromatic scale, but are almost always off-key because the temperature of the steam is not predictable. The off-kilter sound of the Calliope is part of what lends a psychologically creepy feeling to clowns and circuses, with which the instrument is well associated.

Anton LaVey recounted stories of his carny days as a Calliope player for shady, low-budget traveling carnivals. He noted that the instrument was poorly maintained, and thus he was taking his life in his own hands each time he performed on it, expecting that it could explode in his face at any moment.

A similar device, called a Pyrophone, operated on an even more dangerous principle: it played musical notes via internal combustion. Also known as a "Fire Organ" or "Explosion Organ".

Monday, December 7, 2009

The More You Look, The Less You Know

From the film The Man Who Wasn't There:

"But now, all the disconnected things seem to hook up. That's the funny thing about going away, knowing the date that you're gonna die... Well, it’s like pulling away from the maze. While you’re in the maze you go through willy-nilly, turning where you think you have to turn, banging into dead ends, one thing after another. But get some distance on it, and all those twists and turns, why, they’re the shape of your life. It’s hard to explain, but seeing it whole gives you some peace."

"They got this guy, in Germany. Fritz something-or-other. Or is it. Maybe it's Werner. Anyway, he's got this theory, you wanna test something, you know, scientifically - how the planets go round the sun, what sunspots are made of, why the water comes out of the tap - well, you gotta look at it. But sometimes, you look at it, your looking changes it. You can't know the reality of what happened, or what would've happened if you hadn'ta stuck in your goddamn schnozz. So there is no 'what happened.' Not in any sense that we can grasp with our puny minds. Because our minds... our minds get in the way. Looking at something changes it. Sometimes, the more you look, the less you really know. It's a fact. A proven fact. In a way, it's the only fact there is."

"Sometimes knowledge is a curse, Ed."

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Slow Train Coming

From the film No Country For Old Men:

[Chigurh flips a quarter, and covers it with his hand as it hits the counter]

Anton Chigurh: Call it.
Gas Station Proprietor: Call it?
Anton Chigurh: Yes.
Gas Station Proprietor: For what?
Anton Chigurh: Just call it.
Gas Station Proprietor: Well, we need to know what we’re calling it for here.
Anton Chigurh: You need to call it. I can’t call it for you. It wouldn’t be fair.
Gas Station Proprietor: I didn’t put nothin’ up.
Anton Chigurh: Yes, you did. You’ve been putting it up your whole life, you just didn’t know it.

Anton Chigurh: Do you know what date is on this coin?
Gas Station Proprietor: No.
Anton Chigurh: 1958. It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And it’s either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.
Gas Station Proprietor: Look, I need to know what I stand to win.
Anton Chigurh: Everything.
Gas Station Proprietor: How’s that?
Anton Chigurh: You stand to win everything. Call it.
Gas Station Proprietor: Alright. Heads then.

[Chigurh removes his hand, revealing the coin is heads]

Anton Chigurh: Well done.

[the gas station proprietor nervously takes the quarter]

Anton Chigurh: Don’t put it in your pocket, sir. Don’t put it in your pocket. It’s your lucky quarter.
Gas Station Proprietor: Where do you want me to put it?
Anton Chigurh: Anywhere; not in your pocket where it’ll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin. Which it is.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Motorcycles with Style

The wooden-framed cycle pictured above originally turned up on MAKE a few years back. Pictured below is an 1896 Steam Motorcycle, and even further below, a one-of-a-kind 1912 Gilligan Steam Flyer, on display at Pier 45 in San Francisco.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ship Saved by Potatoes

During World War II, the U.S.S. O'Bannon was saved by the mighty potato, according to

Through October 1943, O'Bannon protected landings, carried out escort duties from Noumea and Espiritu Santo to Guadalcanal and Tulagi, joined in bombardments at Guadalcanal, Munda, Kolombangara, and shouldered her share of the nightly patrols up "the Slot" between the Solomons, guarding against Japanese reinforcements.

Retiring from such a run early 5 April, O'Bannon sighted the Japanese submarine RO-34 on the surface and fired on it, destroying the conning tower. The Japanese skipper then brought the ship too close to be fired upon with the main guns and when the crew came topside the sailors pelted them with a barrage of potatoes. The Japanese sailors believed they were being assaulted with grenades and in a panic threw their sidearms overboard and then attempted to submerge causing the sub to sink. During this period she also splashed at least two enemy aircraft in various attacks.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Bird's Crystal Jelly Powder

The next time you're in the late 19th century, stop and pick up several boxes of Bird's Crystal Jelly Powder at the trading post, won't you?