“Being virtually killed by a virtual laser in a virtual space is just as effective as the real thing, because you are as dead as you think you are.”*…
Long before Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, the paper peep show—a small, layered diorama that expands like an accordion to create the illusion of depth—was a way for audiences in the 19th century to peer into times and places beyond their own experience. A popular souvenir in their day, peep shows brought to life scenes of the completion of the Thames Tunnel and the Great Exhibition of 1851 to masquerade balls and theatrical stage sets. Now, they’re delightful pieces of ephemera from another time that suggest that desire for immersion in other worlds stretches back centuries…
Peep shows, also known as tunnel books, are widely considered to be the ancestors of animation and film. Peering through a peep show in the 21st century might as well be an analog version of virtual reality—one that transports you to a different time altogether…
Take a peek at “Paper Peep Shows Were The Virtual Reality Of The 19th Century.”
* Douglas Adams
As we don the goggles, we might recall that it was on this date in 1908 that Émile Cohl‘s Fantasmagorie was released. Considered by film scholars to be the first animated cartoon, it had tremendous influence not only on the future of animation, but also on early nature films.
Replace these “wireless telegraphs” with smartphones, update the dress a little, and this vision from a 1906 issue of Punch magazine could easily be for 110 years in the future. Part of a series of “forecasts” for the year to come, the caption reads: “These two figures are not communicating with one another. The lady receives an amatory message, and the gentleman some racing results.” It’s a reminder that the idea of technology leading to a breakdown in “authentic” human interaction is a worry not solely limited to our age.
Punch seemed to have a knack for uncanny predictions of distant technologies to come. See for example this vision of the Skype-like “Telephonoscope” from 1879…
* Sherry Turkle,
As we pull on the thread, we might recall that it was on this date in 1858 that Queen Victoria sent the first official telegraph message across the Atlantic Ocean from London to the U.S. (Test messages had been exchanged for the prior 10 days). Her message to President Buchanan, in Washington D.C., began transmission at 10:50am and was completed at 4:30am the next day, taking nearly 18-hrs to reach Newfoundland. With 99 words, consisting of 509 letters, it averaged about 2-min per letter. The message was forwarded across Newfoundland by an overhead wire supported on poles; across Cabot Strait by submarine cable to Aspy Bay (Dingwall), Cape Breton; then by an overhead wire across eastern Canada and Maine, via Boston to New York.
This earliest Transatlantic Cable went dead within a month.
Researchers modeled continental drift, going back 240 million years ago, on the scale of millimeters per year. It starts really slow and as if the supports give way to the separating pressure, there’s a relative burst of movement.
The full paper is in Nature, and the interactive version, which is a bit rough around the edges, can be found here. Select the time, rotate the planet around, and press play to watch the continents break apart.
(While the changes are slow, they are in fact detectable in the course of a human life; c.f., “Australia’s Entire GPS Navigation is Off By 5 Feet.”)
* Russell Banks,
As we slip and slide, we might spare a thought for William Buckland; he died on this date in 1856. A English theologian who became Dean of Westminster, he was also a paleontologist (who wrote the first full account of a fossil dinosaur, which he named Megalosaurus) and a geologist (who was known for his effort to reconcile geological discoveries with the Bible and anti-evolutionary theories). A gentleman of some eccentricity, Buckland undertook his field work wearing an academic gown.
Your correspondent is off for his annual sojourn in the land of dunes and deep fried food; regular service should resume on or around August 16. Meantime, in the hope of inspiring readers to serendipitous travels of their own…
The notion that maps provide an objective or scientific depiction of the world is a common myth. The graphic nature of maps simplifies reality, giving makers and users a sense of power without social and ecological responsibilities. Details like the coloring of areas or the different sizes in typography can have great political consequences. For example, when names of towns are omitted from a map, it can imply that the area is not of interest, while adding names, details, and other information suggests it is an area of importance.
Mapmaking is a very old trade, but modern cartography originated in the age of European colonialism. Maps were indispensable for ships to navigate the oceans, and they legitimized the conquest of territories. Sometimes just mapping a newly found territory was enough to conquer it, without having to step ashore or have any knowledge of the indigenous population and history.
Even the fact that we put north on the top of the map is a result of the economic dominance of Western Europe after 1500. A map does not have a privileged direction in space. After all, the Earth has no up or down, and no geographical center…
As we struggle to find our bearings, we might spare a topographical thought for Peter Hodgson; he died on this date in 1976. An advertising and marketing consultant, Hodgson introduced Silly Putty to the world. As The New York Times recounted in his obituary,
The stuff had been developed by General Electric scientists in the company’s New Haven laboratories several years earlier in a search for a viable synthetic rubber. It was obviously not satisfactory, and it found its way instead onto the local cocktail party circuit.
That’s where Mr. Hodgson, who was at the time writing a catalogue of toys for a local store, saw it, and an idea was born.
“Everybody kept saying there was no earthly use for the stuff” he later recalled. “But I watched them as they fooled with it. I couldn’t help noticing how people with busy schedules wasted as much as 15 minutes at a shot just fondling and stretching it”.
“I decided to take a chance and sell some. We put an ad in the catalogue on the adult page, along with such goodies as a spaghetti-making machine. We packaged the goop in a clear compact case and tagged it at $1.00”.
Having borrowed $147 for the venture, Mr. Hodgson ordered a batch from General Electric, hired a Yale student to separate the gob into one ounce dabs and began filling orders. At the same time he hurried to get some trademarks.
Silly Putty was an instant success, and Mr. Hodgson quickly geared up to take advantage of it…
Widely considered to be the first sanitary landfill in the U.S., the Fresno garbage dump, which opened in 1937, has the dubious distinction of being named to both the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and the nation’s list of Superfund sites. That’s a funny pair of categories to straddle, but it illustrates an important point: Trash is a starring character in the American story, even as we continue to wrestle with its consequences…
Dumpster dive at “Mapping America’s Mountains of Garbage.”
* John Steinbeck,
As we sort compost from recycling, we might recall that it was on this date in 1583 that Sir Humphrey Gilbert established the first English colony in North America, at what is now St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Decode the pictures above– and experience synesthesia– at “This Is What Musical Notes Actually Look Like.”
* Leopold Stokowski
As we move to the music of the spheres, we might send tuneful birthday greetings to Louis Armstrong; he was born on this date in 1901. A trumpeter, composer, singer (and occasional actor), he was a foundational influence in jazz, shifting the focus of the music from collective improvisation to solo performance, and helping to pioneer scat singing. Nicknamed Satchmo or Pops, he has 11 records in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
From Ulysses S. Grant to Philando Castile— how the automobile fundamentally changed the relationship between the police and the citizenry: “A Brief History of the Traffic Stop (Or How the Car Created the Police State).”
* Dudley Moore
As we stay in our lanes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1900 that the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company was founded in Akron, Ohio (also home to arch-rival Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, and another two mid-sized competitors, General Tire and Rubber and BF Goodrich). The company’s founder, Harvey Firestone, parlayed his close friendship with Henry Ford into a role as prime tire supplier to the Ford Motor Company, starting in 1906 with tires for the Model T. In 1926, the company opened the Firestone Natural Rubber plantation in Harbel, Liberia. The largest plantation of it’s kind in the world, it operated until it was seized, in 1990, by Charles taylor and his NPFL forces. The company’s ventures in Liberia have been the subject of considerable scrutiny and criticism, including a 2005 Alien Tort Claims Act case brought in California by the International Labor Rights Fund and a 2014 investigative report by ProPublica entitled “Firestone and the Warlord,” and a PBS Frontline documentary by the same name.