Saturday, September 30, 2017
History taught us that the ancient Egyptians had a strong belief in life after death. They often buried their rulers in elaborate tombs filled with items that were intended for use in the next life. During the first dynasty, they took that took the extreme by entombing staff, family members and live animals along with the dead king so they could serve him during the afterlife. It’s not entirely clear what took place during their ordeal but it most certainly could not have ended well for any of them.
Ancient Egyptian Burial Chamber
In days of old, having the cavalry charge in was probably a pretty effective strategy during the heat of battle. When World War II came along, that probably was no longer the case. For whatever reason, the Mongolians decided to test that theory by sending a cavalry division of 2,000 men against the Germans. While all 2,000 cavalry were killed, the Germans did not lose a single man. That was the last time in history that a cavalry charge was ever used. It was a difficult lesson to learn, but apparently it is a lesson that was not easily forgotten.
Cavalry during World War I
February 2nd is Groundhog Day in the United States. According to the legend, on that day, if a groundhog emerges from its burrow, sees its shadow, and scurries back to its den, then many people claim they can expect six more weeks of winter. If not, then spring will come early.
Although the holiday is celebrated in many locations throughout the U.S., the biggest festival takes place in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, home of the legendary Punxsutawney Phil. This is also the place where the tradition originated back in the 1880's. However, the initial celebration, called “the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club,” involved large groups of visitors prowling the hillsides, hunting the groundhogs for dinner.
The club was the brainchild of a local newspaper editor named Clymer Freas. At that time, the train from Pittsburgh passed through Punxsutawney to reach a nearby coal plant, and locals wanted a way to make people stop instead of just passing through. Freas began using flashy descriptions for the groundhog hunts, hoping to draw larger crowds. The tradition morphed into an over-the-top weather forecast soon enough, and in 1886, Punxsutawney Phil became the “Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary.”
In 1647, when Manhattan was a Dutch colony called New Amsterdam, a married barber-surgeon, commissary of stores, and respected explorer named Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert was caught in flagrante with another man, a black slave. Sodomy was a capital offense according the strict Calvinist faith practiced by the Dutch at the time. Pursued by the authorities, Van den Bogaert broke out of custody in Fort Orange and fled with his lover to an Iroquois village, but was tracked down. In the ensuing struggle to capture him, a shoot-out occurred and a longhouse was set on fire. He was literally dragged away by the posse and returned to Fort Orange. He got out a second time, but drowned in the second escape attempt, probably making him the first victim of homophobia in North America.
We have all heard the phrase, “it’s the best thing since the invention of sliced bread.” Clearly, society values that invention pretty highly and it may be surprising to learn that sliced bread has been available commercials since 1927. That was the year that Otto Rohwedder perfected his machine that was able to both slice and wrap bread. Within six years, sales of sliced bread outpaced sliced bread, and the rest is history.
The first policewoman known to history was named Alice Stebbins Wells and she served with the Los Angeles, California Police Department. The year was 1910 and because no other women had preceded her, if fell upon her to come up with the design for her own uniform. She had wanted to become a police officer because she wanted the police department to better serve women and children who were victimized by criminals. Four years later, the first policewoman in Great Britain made her debut.
The former director of Cuba’s intelligence service claims that there were more than 600 attempts to kill or destabilize Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. These were backed by various opponents of the regime, most notably the United States, often operating at a distance by using gangsters or anti-Castro Cuban exiles.
These have included using thallium to make his famous beard fall out, or LSD to make him sound mad during a radio broadcast. Then there was the poisoned diving suit, the exploding cigar, and the femme fatale who was to seduce him - in the latter case Castro claimed he uncovered her intentions, offered her a pistol and told her to kill him, but she didn’t have the nerve.
There was also a tide-line of exploding seashells, which went off 40 minutes after Fidel's visit to the beach, but which did succeed in fusing Havana's traffic lights. There are also bizarre tales of a plan to beam a holographic image of the Virgin Mary, which was supposed to inspire Catholic Cubans to shun communism, though it doesn’t appear to have been tried.
A lot of these plots are impossible to substantiate properly, though there can be no question that many people wanted Castro dead. “If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal,” he said.
King Afonso IV of Portugal was a strong ruler, used to having his way in all things. When his son, Don Pedro (aka: Peter I of Portugal), fell in love with Inês Piras de Castro, he forbade marriage because Ines was illegitimate.
Pedro carried on the relationship, later claiming that he and Inês were married. Afonso tried to end the relationship, but failed and had her confined in a monastery. Here, in January, 1355, he had three of his henchmen murder her.
Two years later Afonso died. Then, Pedro became king and pursued his wife’s killers. Two were caught and brought before him, and he had their hearts ripped out, one from the front, the other from the back. In Portugal, those who think themselves descended from the third killer celebrate his escape with a picnic every June.
According to legend, King Pedro then had Inês exhumed, ordered the corpse dressed in a style appropriate to a queen and had her crowned. Pedro sat on a throne next to her as all the nobility of Portugal filed past, lifted her hand and kissed it as a mark of their fealty.
King Afonso IV of Portugal
Kings and queens had particularly ‘political’ hair. You can even trace the ebb and flow of England’s relationship with France in the hairstyles of Henry VIII and his court. In his youth, he had a long pageboy. But later, Henry formed an alliance with France, and when the French king, Francis I, injured his head, Henry shaved his own. At the highest point of their friendship, Henry and Francis pledged to refrain from shaving until they met again.
Henry’s wife Catherine of Aragon, though, would have preferred an alliance with Spain instead. She complained about her husband’s tickly face, and persuaded him to de-whisker. Only Francis’s mother was able to avert a looming diplomatic incident as Henry’s planned meeting with Francis I drew near. She cleverly declared that it didn’t matter because the love the two kings bore each other was “in the hearts, not the beards”.
King Henry VIII
We have all had tough days on the job, when everything seems to go wrong. These days usually start off rough and just get rougher. And, it is nearly impossible to turn those types of days around. You just have to fight through it, get to bed, and hope tomorrow is better.
But when you are an inventor, you are kicking down the doors of science and making the world aware of your inventiveness. However, when an inventor's day goes wrong, it can go really, really wrong. That ground-breaking invention just might turn on its creator murderously, accident or not. All these inventors would totally back us up on this point - if they were still around.
Thomas Midgley Jr.
Thomas Midgley Jr. was a chemist who solved a lot of tough issues with early autos while working for General Motors, like "engine knocking." He basically came up with the idea of putting additives in gasoline, and he's the reason your engine doesn't sound like a constant barrage of fastballs pelting the inside of your hood. He also introduced leaded gasoline and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) into the world, which have the potential to destroy the atmosphere and therefore life on Earth.
In his later years he was hobbled by polio, and he devised a harness with a series of pulleys to help him get out of bed. It helpfully strangled him one day while he was trying to get into his wheelchair. He meant well, but his inventions apparently just wanted people dead.
Sabin Arnold von Sochocky
The awesomely named Sabin Arnold von Sochocky invented glow-in-the-dark paint, which he cleverly called Undark. He imagined entire houses bathed in Undark's glow and had a successful factory producing thousands of glowing watch dials daily. That is, until his workers started dropping dead, because his product was freaking radioactive and, like, super deadly.
Despite a lawsuit being settled in the surviving workers' favor in 1928, these watch dials and many more insane radioactive products continued to be produced right up through the end of World War II. At that point, the dangers of radioactivity began to be a bit more properly understood.
Decontamination studies at the site of Sochocky's plant started in 1983, and the site wasn't fully decontaminated until 2016. Sochocky himself succumbed to radiation poisoning in 1928. His time of death was probably noted on one of his stupid killer watches.
Henry Winstanley created a structure that has saved countless lives, the offshore lighthouse, the first of which came into operation in 1698 and used 50 candles hand-lit by Winstanley himself. Mariners throughout old-timey England celebrated by drinking just all of the pints, knowing they were finally safe from the dreaded Eddystone Rocks, which is not a Harry Potter reference but sure sounds like one.
How can a non-sentient lighthouse kill its inventor, we hear you asking indignantly? Winstanley chose the night of an event later known as The Great Storm to make repairs to the thing, and it chose that time to collapse right on top of him.
The German reputation for engineering cars begins with the Duesenberg brothers, Fred and August. They built their first auto in 1904, and established their Duesenberg Motor company in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1913. By the early 1920's, Duesenberg vehicles were creaming all competitors in the Indy 500 on a regular basis, and by the 1930's their awesome luxury autos were extremely popular. (Many people incorrectly claim that calling something a "real doozy" started with the popularity of these cars, but the term was around long before the car was.)
Fred Duesenberg's demise was rather predictable - driving one of his vehicles at high speeds on a slick mountain road, he flipped it and injured his spine. Although he was initially expected to recover, complications developed and he died of pneumonia. Somebody should have told him to watch that curve, because apparently it was a doozy.
Perillos of Athens
Perillos of Athens was an ancient Greek dude who was absolutely not soft on crime. He thought that a really excruciating, messed-up method of execution would dissuade citizens from running afoul of the law, so he invented one: the Brazen Bull, a bronze sculpture that you would stuff full of criminal, set ablaze from underneath, and listen as his screams of being roasted alive emanate from the bull's nostrils.
The Brazen Bull
He pitched this idea to Sicilian nobleman Phalaris, who said something along the lines of, why don't you get inside and show me how those screams will sound? Perillos did just that and then demonstrated some very authentic screaming as Phalaris' henchmen lit the fire.
Execution by the Brazen Bull
In 2004, inventor Michael Dacre unveiled his concept for a twin-jet engine, eight-seater flying taxi that he hoped would revolutionize travel. Designed to require very little takeoff and landing space, these vehicles would soon be zipping around our skies like the Jetsons. But safety was key and, after careful development, the first prototype launch finally happened in 2009 at which time, the whole dream came crashing quite literally to the ground.
With Dacre aboard, the prototype struggled to achieve lift before finally rising majestically to about 650 feet. It then promptly lost control and plummeted un-majestically to the ground. Say what you will about reckless big city cab drivers, but with conventional taxi journeys being 99.9 percent less likely to end in flaming wreckage, the whole flying taxi idea was quietly shelved.
Strapping plane engines to things with wheels has a surprisingly long history. Valerian Abakovsky, a chauffeur for Vladimir Lenin's state security organization, had some pretty sweet connections among high-ranking Russian officials. He used them to advance his ultra-bonkers idea for the Aerowagon, a propeller-powered train car, which sounds like about six different disasters just waiting to happen.
Somehow, Abakovsky talked half a dozen top-ranking officials into boarding his insane murder wagon for its initial test run. Shaking, rattling, and terrifying everyone aboard, it managed to complete a 121-mile trip from Moscow to the city of Tula but on the return trip, physics prevailed, and the poorly designed catastrophe fulfilled its destiny by derailing at an obscene rate of speed. The inventor and several other people were killed, but Abakovsky was reincarnated as Michael Bay (probably).
Louis Slotin helped build the first atomic bomb, and was considered to be the foremost expert on
handling dangerous quantities of plutonium. You may see where we're going with this. In May, 1946, he arranged a demonstration of a procedure he called "tickling the dragon's tail" bringing the core of a nuclear bomb just to the brink of going critical. He presumably did this while wearing shades and casually smoking a cigarette, but we can't be sure.
The First Atomic Bomb
Witnesses to the experiment saw a blue flash of light, the visual signature of a whole butt-load of radiation being released. They were all immediately taken for medical evaluation, and it was quickly apparent that Slotin had gotten the brunt of it. His entire body had received four times the lethal dose of radiation, giving him internal "three-dimensional sunburns," and quickly causing his organs to shut down. He died nine days later, because that's what happens when the dragon's tail tickles you back.
Cowper Phipps Coles
Cowper Phipps Coles was a commander in the Royal Navy and a hero of the Crimean War, and he was also really good at designing guns for warships. One of his later designs, for which he got a patent in 1859, was for a hulking beast of a gun with a revolving turret and a super-wide arc of fire. He managed to get this behemoth installed on several vessels including the H.M.S. Prince Albert, with the support of Prince Albert himself.
But while Coles rocked at designing guns, he didn't know squat about designing ships. The wide arc of fire meant that the beast-gun had to sit high up above the water. While previous ships' designers had accounted for this, Coles designed the H.M.S. Captain himself, utterly failing to take the ship's high center of gravity into account. All it took was one gusty storm, and the H.M.S. Captain obediently keeled over with Coles on deck.
Engineer and Confederate soldier H.L. Hunley built a prototype submarine called Pioneer for the South in 1862. But it was destroyed by the Confederates as Union forces entered the area so the Yankees couldn't steal their technology. Undaunted, Hunley built another version, The American Diver, which was promptly lost at sea. Another version, originally just called "Fish Boat," was built. Hunley completed several successful test runs and manned it with eight crewmen for its first full attack. But five crewmen were drowned when the unsealed sub accidentally filled with water at the dock.
A couple months later, after the ship had been rescued, Hunley joined another eight-man crew for a simple test run, which ended with the vessel nose-down in the muck at the bottom of Charleston Harbor. This time nobody survived, including Hunley himself, and the ship was lost for weeks. The Confederates once again salvaged it, renamed it after its inventor, and put it into service. On its first mission, it rammed the U.S.S. Housatonic with an attached torpedo, destroying it and killing five of the 155 crewmen on the larger vessel. But while it still sank the enemy ship, it was a Pyrrhic victory at best. Once again, the Hunley sank, killing everyone on board, officially claiming more of its own crew than of the enemy.
It's great that we're one step closer to immortality, and we can thank Alexander Bogdanov for that because he showed us exactly what not to do. Take blood transfusions, for example. They aren't good for everything. They won't cure a broken foot, or make you younger, or turn you into Captain America. But you couldn't tell that to Bogdanov. He just sailed right over the edge with the technique, giving himself transfusion after transfusion from random people and basically insisting that it was giving him superpowers.
His friends did not help, telling him how hot and less bald he was looking. So great did his craving for the bloody goodness become, he pretty much stopped vetting his donors altogether and inevitably dosed himself with a big ol' helping of malaria.
Max Valier was a dashingly handsome 1920's rocket scientist, who inspired a series of pulp novellas that we're currently writing. He was known to stick black-powder rockets on anything, gliders, sleds, and of course, race cars. But, his need for speed drove him to invent a better fuel: liquid rocket fuel, the crystal meth to black powder's Budweiser.
Early tests were done on prototype engines with open valves, to which fuel was added by hand. Experimenters wore no protective clothing, or even goggles, and sat right in front of the combustion vessel. One day in 1930, one of these experiments went predictably awry, when an explosion sent a piece of shrapnel through Valier's heart, killing him almost instantly.
The printing press was an extremely useful invention, and one that seems not at all like an agent of agonizing death. In 1865, inventor William "Only Slightly Prettier Than Sandra" Bullock helped speed up the media industry when he improved on existing printing presses with some changes that enabled old-timey newspapers to quickly print off thousands of their pulpy rags every hour.
Bullock installed and serviced the machines himself, and this was his undoing. While installing one of his presses, his leg was caught and crushed by the machine. Bullock died during an operation to amputate the leg a few days later.
Francis Edgar Stanley
Imagine a giant teapot screaming down the road at speeds in excess of 120 miles per hour.This is the legacy of the Stanley brothers, Francis and Freelan. Steam-powered cars might sound absurd today, but in 1906 their steam-powered "Rocket" set the land speed record by doing a 28.2 second mile. Developments in gas engines, and the popularity of Ford's Model T prevented "Stanley Steamers" from catching on with the public, but Francis held onto the idea of a commercial steam car … perhaps a little too long.
In 1918, while piloting one of his Steamers on one of those sneaky mountain roads, Francis swerved to avoid something and went straight over an embankment, plunging to his death. We like to think it made a cartoonishly mournful whistling sound as it fell, while Francis held up a sign reading "Uh-Oh!" But that's probably not how it happened.
In 1985, Canadian stuntman Karel Soucek attempted a stunt so insane, even Evel Knievel tried to talk him out of it. Soucek had survived a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel the year before, but this stunt was even nuttier. In front of 35,000 people at the Houston Astrodome, Soucek climbed into a specially balanced barrel of his own design and had assistants drop him toward a 9-foot-deep, 12-foot-wide tub of water 180 feet below.
It didn't go as planned. The barrel began tumbling immediately, drifted off-course, and struck the rim of the tub, instantly fracturing Soucek's skull and crushing his chest and abdomen. The crowd sat in stunned silence as the stuntman, somehow still alive, was cut from the barrel and whisked away by paramedics. He died shortly thereafter, proving that old adage: when Evel Knievel tells you your stunt is too crazy, maybe don't do the stunt.
Everyone considers the Wright Brothers to be the fathers of aviation, but Otto "The Glider King" Lilienthal would have told them where to stick it, if he had lived long enough. Even before the Wrights flew at Kitty Hawk, Lilienthal was cruising around making sustained, repeated flights using gliders of his own design, flipping the bird to the heavens.
Lilienthal developed no fewer than 18 iterations on his design, 15 monoplane and three biplane versions, earning him the most badass nickname of the late 1800's. He's also remembered for two equally badass quotes: "To invent an airplane is nothing, to build one is something, but to fly is everything," which he totally lived up to, and "Sacrifices must be made," which he lived up to even harder. In 1896, he crashed one of his contraptions and sustained serious injuries, expiring two days later. Miles away, the young Wright Brothers paused in the middle of lunch, looking skyward, as if there had been some kind of disturbance.
Austrian-born Frenchman Franz Reichelt was a man with no fear, no engineering talent, and no damn sense. A tailor by trade, Reichelt essentially stitched a whole bunch of overcoats together to make a parachute-flight suit combo, and the French press eagerly gathered at the Eiffel Tower for a demonstration in the winter of 1912. They'd been told a dummy would be used, but Reichelt dramatically announced that he would be making the jump himself, intending to "prove the worth of his invention."
Stepping onto a platform almost 200 feet up on the Tower, he steeled himself, spread his stitched-together wings like Batman, and plummeted to the frozen turf. An early film crew caught it all, the world's first and perhaps hardest epic fail, along with the crowd's reactions, which were split down the middle. Half were shocked and stunned, and the other half don't look at all surprised.