I have always been drawn to the obscure, the arcane and the inconspicuous. The things we tend to forget, or overlook, when taking stock of the past. Small nuggets of history lost between more prominent events, inventions that failed, or times and people remembered now only by a few.
We commemorate what remain evident in our lives, the success of great scientists and marvelous inventors, the theory of Special Relativity and the aeroplane, but do we salute the Hollow Earth hypothesis and the Mail Rocket?
Steampunk is basically a tribute to the little things, the pages that didn’t quite make it into history books, things that make you go: Hmmm, I didn’t know that.
I hope you enjoy the posts – don’t be afraid to leave a comment.
20 JANUARY 2012
Sudoku From the Victorian Age
Toy fads and crazes is nothing new. Almost a century before Ernö Rubik created his famous cube another mechanical puzzle had taken the western world by storm. Way back in 1874 the American postmaster Noyes Palmer Chapman made a small square toy consisting of movable numbered tiles. Chapman’s toy was sold under a lot of names: Fifteen-puzzle, Gem Puzzle, Boss Puzzle, Game of Fifteen, or Mystic Square. Most readers probably remember them from their childhood, even if they don’t know them by name.
I haven’t seen one in years, but fun-fairs used to hand them out along with other crappy plastic prizes. They don’t seem like much today, but when they first hit the shops they created a vogue rivaling the Sudoku mania we saw a few years back. Their impact was such that Fifteen-puzzles were banned from many Victorian workplaces, and the little puzzle was even immortalized in songs.
They look very simple, but appearance, as we know, is often deceiving. In the original Fifteen-puzzle the tiles were loose (unlike the modern version where they slide in groves). That meant the game started by placing the tiles in random order, before sliding them around to solve the puzzle (getting the tiles in sequential order from 1 to 15). Like solitaire solving the puzzle depends on the initial layout, and like solitaire not every layout is solvable.
There was a specific layout called 14-15 Puzzle, where 14 and 15 were swapped around, but the remaining tiles placed in their proper place. This particular challenge was created by the American chess player Sam Loyd (who also claimed to have invented the game itself – he had not), who also offered a $1000 prize to anyone able to solve it. A lot of money around the turn of the century, but also an unobtainable prize, as it simply can’t be solved. Never-the-less Loyd’s challenge probably resulted in many headaches and sleepless nights.
Fifteen-puzzle still manage to intrigue mathematically inclined puzzle solvers. Due to its random layout Fifteen-puzzle are far harder than a Rubrik’s Cube. The famous (or perhaps infamous) chess champion Bobby Fisher loved the game and was considered a master, after he solved one in 25 seconds on the Johnny Carson Show in 1972.
Anyway, I just thought the little puzzle had an interesting history and wanted to share it.
29 NOVEMBER 2011
By the early 19th century New York had grown to a modern industrial city with some 200.000 inhabitants crammed into a few square miles on the southern tip of Manhattan. Like any other big city it was a busy claustrophobic place and New Yorkers needed an escape from the constant noise and grime – at least those who could afford it.
The Coney Island peninsular about 10km south of Manhattan was ideally suited to provide that escape and since the 1830s, when carriage roads and steamboats reduced the journey from half a day struggle to a pleasure trip of few hours, it has attracted visitors in their millions. Wealthy New Yorkers could set out in the morning, spend the day strolling along pleasant Atlantic beaches and return to the city the same evening. Alternatively they could spend a few days in one of the many elegant Georgian beachfront hotels
Coney Island grew steadily over the next 70 years and by the dawn of the 20th century the peninsular had turned into an early mega-resort, boasting three amusement parks with carousels, Ferris wheels and roller coasters, all beautifully decorated and magnificently lit by evening. Two iron wrought piers jutted into the Atlantic and was packed with ice-cream parlors, soda fountains and hotdog stands. On either side of the piers the beachfront was choked with restaurants, saloons and hotels. Coney Island was Victorian entertainment American Style.
It’s a strange forgotten fact, that the Coney Island Elephant (a huge wooden hotel built in the shape of an elephant) was the first sight to greet immigrants arriving in New York – well before they saw the Statue of Liberty.
Of all the attractions offered by Coney Island during the resorts 180 year history, none has been more successful or lived longer than Dr. Martin Couney’s Infant Baby Exhibitions. From 1903 to 1945 Couney continuously operated a public incubator ward at various locations on the peninsula, charging customers for the chance to see a prematurely born baby.
Today we might find the idea slightly disturbing, but when Dr. Couney opened his first Incubator Exhibit on the Coney Island promenade there was no other place that tended to premature babies. Couney introduced incubator technology to America by bringing his ’Baby-hatching Apparatus’ across from Germany in 1898 for the Omaha Trans-Mississippi Exposition. He chose to stay on the new continent and opened his Infant Baby Exhibitions a few years later.
Strangely the exhibit was a huge success with thousands of visitors each year. New Yorkers would take a Sunday stroll on the pier, eat an ice-cream and go see the babies. There was of cause an element of charity and many people did not actually come to see the babies, but rather to support Dr. Couney and his lifesaving incubators.
Despite the eccentric doctors unsavory mix of side-show and neonatal care, Couney’s self-professed aim was to demonstrate scientific progress in the treatment of premature births. Without commercial interest from hospital and maternity clinics he chose to fund the ward by charging curious visitors for the privilege of seeing the babies.
The Incubator Baby Exhibits were run like any other hospital ward and staffed with professional nurses, who saw to it that the place was spotless and operated according to health and safety standards of the day. Couney also kept to his scientific vision by inviting doctors and passing experts to visit the incubator ward first hand and evaluate his research. A testimony to Couney and his staff can be seen in statistics: more than 8000 infants passed through the Couney incubators and more importantly 80% survived.
By the 1940s public interest had waned and despite Couney’s hard work, the Incubator Exhibits were no longer profitable. However, Couney had not worked in vain. When the exhibits finally closed in 1945 incubators were common in hospitals and maternity wards across the USA. There can be little doubt that Couney’s unusual side-show had pioneered neonatal care and played a significant role in introducing incubators to the general public. Couney died in 1954. One can only assume he died a happy man, having saved thousands of premature babies and helped introduce a technology that would save tens of thousands more.
17 NOVEMBER 2011
When Geekness was King (and apparently sexy too)
I have kind of a dislike towards stories and articles starting with ’when I was young’, but when I was young our games didn’t need electrical power, or take place in massive mulitiplayer virtual worlds, heck they didn’t even involve a computer. The games took place entirely inside our minds and the most striking similarity between them and modern computer based games is that you play them sitting down – mostly. Those games were called Role-Playing Games and king among them was Dungeons & Dragons.
Technically they were not so much games as collections of rules and for a large part the adventure was left up to the players. Dungeons & Dragons simply told players how things worked in the fictional world and a Dungeon Master kept track of the adventure according to those rules.
The game was originally published in 1974, but it was amateurish in production and written from a perspective that assumed the reader was familiar with wargaming. By the late 70s Tactical Studies Rules, the company behind Dungeons & Dragons, decided to invite beginners to the table by releasing a boxed ‘Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set’. The box contained all you needed to play: a rule book, a set of character sheets and a number of polyhedral dice (optionally you could also purchase a small figurine representing your character). This set the game on a path to glory during the 80s and in turn kickstarted the computer game industry, by creating a market for their wares and supplying a generation of game developers.
Despite the abundance of fair maidens used in their advertisements, Dungeons & Dragons was primarily a boy’s adventure and far from attracting said maidens, players often found that association with Role-Playing Games severely hampered their social lives – nerds before Gates and Jobs made it socially acceptable. Dungeons & Dragons was often ridiculed in popular teenage films, making rule books and character sheets the default regalia of geenikess.
Although somewhat overshadowed by computer games since the late 1980s, the original pen and paper based Dungeons & Dragons game still retain a strong following. It is estimated that since 1974 more than 20 million people have ventured into this weird and strange world of adventure.