Cure Of The Week

I have a long-standing interest in quack medicine and a couple of recent examples caught my eye.

The pain from a bad back can be debilitating and sufferers are often desperate to get their hands on anything that will relieve their pain. But here’s one remedy not to try – injecting yourself with semen.

The Irish Medical Journal, a must-read in any household, reported, in an article wittily called Semenly Harmless Back Pain: An unusual presentation of a Subcutaneous Abscess, that a 33 year-old man had injected himself with his own semen to cure his chronic back pain.

It didn’t seem to help and on a visit to the quack to get a more conventional treatment, the doctor noticed that the man’s arm was red and swollen. Further investigation showed that the man had a skin infection and that an abscess had formed under his skin.

He was put on an intravenous antimicrobial drip which seemed to have helped relieve his back pain but the patient discharged himself before the medics had the opportunity to drain his arm. Perhaps he was attached to it.

In other parts of the world, they swear by camel’s urine, claiming scriptural provenance for its healing qualities from a passage in the Hadith, a collection of sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad. Bottles of the stuff fly off the shelves in Saudi Arabia and if you get your hands on one, be sure to mix it with milk is supposed to release its healing properties.

But, you need to be sure that what you are drinking is the real deal.

Reports have reached me that Saudi health inspectors raided a shop in the port city of Al Qufudhah after receiving reports that the crafty shopkeeper was selling his own urine instead of going to the trouble of getting a camel, a notoriously bad-tempered creature at the best of times, to point Percy at a bucket. Seventy bottles were taken away for analysis.



Island Of The Week (2)

Farewell, Esanbe Hanakita Kojima. You were hardly missed.

The disappearance of the Japanese island off Hokkaido was only noticed by author, Hiroshi Shimizu, when he visited the area, saw a void where the island once stood and consulted sea charts.

Last surveyed in 1987 when it poked five feet out of the sea, it was only named in 2014 when the Japanese were trying to cement their ownership of the 158 or so uninhabited islands around their coastline. Esanbe was seized by the Soviets at the end of the Pacific War and a peace treaty between the two nations is yet to be signed because of the ongoing dispute over these islands.

What happened to Esanbe?

Experts think that erosion from wind and ice floes that form in the Sea of Okhotsk persuaded the island to make a graceful disappearance.

Perhaps it is a case of yin and yang. After all, in 2013 a landslide caused a 1,000-foot strip of land on Hokkaido to rise out of the sea.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty Five

Ole Johansen Winstrup (1782 – 1867)

It must have been chastening as a 25-year-old to see your capital city set on fire by the Brits and what remained of your navy towed away. The aftermath of the Battle of Copenhagen in 1807 caused the latest inductee into our Hall of Fame, Danish-born Ole Johansen Winstrup to exercise his grey cells to come up with an ingenious method of strengthening Copenhagen’s sea defences.

In 1808 the guardsman worked long and hard in his workshop to develop a model of what he called Hvalfisken, the Whale. And a pretty Heath-Robinsonish affair it was too. The idea behind the vessel was that the best way of surprising an enemy’s fleet was to creep up on it from below. In essence, The Whale was what we would now know as a submarine.

According to Winstrup’s patent application, in preparation for an attack a diver would drill numerous holes into the submarine’s hull and seal them with corks. When the vessel was in the requisite position, the diver would simply remove the corks, causing it to sink, forming a barrier against naval attack. Presumably, once the diver had removed all the corks, he would swim to safety. Quite how many would have to be removed before the vessel became unstable was not made clear.

Of course, there was the risk that the vessel would be detected and boarded by the curious enemy. Naturally, Winstrup had thought of that. “Should it happen that they send a ship’s carpenter to examine the ship,” he wrote, “then the harpoon shown in the model should be used.

Clearly satisfied that he had come up with a workable model and what would have been a game changer in the field of naval combat, Winstrup submitted his patent application to the Danish authorities. He even invited the Danish Crown Prince, later Frederik VI, to take a ride on the boat but the palace declined the kind offer. It may have been this act of hubris on Winstrup’s part that proved his undoing as the patent was refused “because of technical shortcomings” and the Whale was consigned to the scrap heap of history.

Bonkers as the idea of removing corks from holes to make a vessel sink may have been, careful inspection of Winstrup’s plans would reveal one revolutionary idea – the vessel used propellers. Experimentation into the way mechanical power, principally steam, was underway in various parts of the world in the early 19th century but Winstrup was ahead of the curve. It was not until 1815 that Richard Trevithick had designed a steam-powered propeller and the late 1830s that John Ericsson came up with the two-screw propeller system for use on naval vessels. The Danes had cavalierly thrown away a technological edge.

Although Winstrup gave up on the Whale, he did continue to blaze a technological trail. In 1826 he built a two-horse steam engine, which was adopted by a Copenhagen brewery owned by Hans Bagger Momme. It was the first steam engine to be used in Denmark, built by a Dane. Winstrup built a few more steam engines and in 1827 he set up an iron foundry. He even operated a wind turbine.

But by coming up with the use of a propeller to drive a boat and not being able to convince the authorities to adopt the idea, Ole Johansen Winstrup, you are a worthy inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone


You’re Having A Laugh – Part Seventeen

Redheffer’s Perpetual Motion machine, 1812

I find even the simplest concepts of the laws that govern the world, what we now term physics, somewhat baffling but even I know that energy is something that needs to be transferred to an object to make it work. But in 1812 Charles Redheffer astonished the good citizens of Philadelphia by claiming that he had invented what he called a perpetual motion machine which required no energy to run. If his claims were well-founded, it would transform the world of physics as it was known then.

Redheffer had even produced a working model, which he proudly displayed in a workshop near the banks of the Schuylkill River, on the outskirts of the city. The curious were invited to inspect it but had to pay for the privilege, upwards of $5 a time if they were chaps and the fairer sex up to $1. The machine drew quite a crowd and emboldened by this success, Charles applied to the city council for a grant to build an all singing, all dancing version of the machine.

This proved to be his undoing.

In making his application for the funds, Redheffer explained that the perpetual motion machine transferred power to another machine by way of a set of interlocking gears. Eight city commissioners visited the workshop on 21st January 1813 to inspect the machine in detail but Redheffer refused to let them get too near, claiming that he was frightened they might damage it. Still, one sharp-eyed commissioner, Nathan Sellers, noticed that the gears on the machine were marked in such a way that suggested that it was receiving power from the other machine, not generating it, as Redheffer claimed.

Smelling a rat, the commissioners delayed the granting of funds and instructed a local engineer, Isaiah Lukens, to replicate Redheffer’s machine. Luckens used a clockwork mechanism hidden inside the machine to give it its power. When Redheffer saw the machine, he offered to buy it. When the ruse was revealed, Redheffer did what any self-respecting hoaxer would do, fled to New York, taking his machine with him.

Later that year, 1813, Redheffer exhibited his incredible Perpetual Motion machine in New York. As in Philadelphia, it went down a storm and crowds flocked, and paid, to see this mechanism which defied the laws of physics. One person who was drawn to the exhibition was a mechanical engineer named Robert Fulton. On inspecting the machine closely, Fulton noticed that it wobbled slightly and suspected that Redheffer’s marvel was being supplied with power by means of a hand-crank and that the operator was doing so in a jerky manner.

But where was the hand-crank and where was the operator secreted?

Fulton was of a sporting bent and offered Redheffer a sort of challenge. He, Fulton, would reveal the secret source of the machine’s energy or else he would reimburse the inventor for any damage he caused in the attempt to reveal the secret of the Perpetual Motion machine. Redheffer accepted the challenge.

Fulton removed some of the boarding behind the machine and spotted a piece of cord made out of catgut, which seemed to come from the floor above. Tracing it, Fulton revealed an old, bearded man sitting beside a hand-crank, which he turned laboriously with one hand while eating bread with the other.

The spectators, realising that they had been conned, smashed up the machine and once more Redheffer scarpered. He reappeared in Philadelphia in 1816, claiming to have built another machine and offering to exhibit it to the great and the good. Despite a number of meetings, Redheffer refused to reveal the machine.

Astonishingly, in 1820, Charles Redheffer was granted a patent for “machinery for the purpose of gaining power” but, alas, a fire at the Patent Office in 1836 destroyed all the records. We will never know whether it was the same machine.

If you enjoyed this, look out for Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone.

Culinary Tip Of The Week (2)

It’s amazing how inefficiently we do many of life’s mundane tasks.

Take grating cheese.

For those of us who like to make our own – getting a pack of ready-grated cheese is a bit of a cop out – it can be a messy and potentially dangerous exercise. You stand the grater upright and rub a hunk of cheese down the serrated edges. Not only does the grated cheese go everywhere but you run the risk of grating your fingers, particularly when the block has all but disappeared.

But, I read this week, there is a better, safer and more efficient method of grating your cheese.

What you do is lie the grater on its side and scrape the block of cheese in a horizontal direction. Not only does all the grated cheese collect inside the grater, or so I’m told, but you have more control over the block and are less likely to add some unintended ingredients like skin and a seasoning of blood to the mix.

Makes sense. Why haven’t I thought of it before?

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty Four

Rasmus Malling Hansen (1835 – 1890)

The other day I had cause to write something with a pen. It was an odd feeling and the result was something that an inebriated arachnid would feel proud of. So embedded in our daily life is the keyboard in all its forms that many fear for the future of cursive script. But the typewriter, which is the granddaddy of the myriad keyboards which we use, was a relatively modern innovation.

And who could claim to be its inventor? Step forward, Rasmus Malling Hansen, the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame.

The Danish priest was principal of the Royal Institute of Deaf-mutes in Copenhagen. His work piqued an interest in the make-up of Danish letters and sounds and, in particular, the speed at which letters could be spoken and written per second. He concluded, according to his patent application, that “in a given time one can say five times as many sounds as they can be written.

This observation led Rasmus to consider how he could speed up the production of letters on paper. From around 1865 he started experimenting and by 1870 was sufficiently satisfied with the results to apply for and receive a patent for what he described as an “apparatus for quick writing.” He claimed that “The writing speed will easily be two to three times as fast as normal, and practice in using the apparatus should be able to bring this speed up to speech speed.

It was an ingenious affair. The heart of the contraption was a large brass hemisphere in which 52 keys were arranged such that the keys representing the most frequently used letters were directly in reach of the user’s strongest and fastest writing fingers. The vowels were arranged on the left hand side and the consonants on the right and this arrangement, together with the use of short pistons which went through the hemisphere enabled the user, after some practice, reach prodigious speeds. To the eye it looked like an over-sized pin cushion.

The paper was attached to a cylinder which could move both vertically and horizontally. Using an electro-magnet powered by a 10 or 12-cell battery, a mechanical escapement moved the carriage the required distance each time a key was depressed. As well as the forerunner of the typewriter per se, Rasmus’ machine could be claimed to be the first electric typewriter.

The machine caused a sensation when it was exhibited at the large industrial exhibition in Copenhagen in 1872, winning Rasmus first prize. It was also well received at the world exhibitions in Vienna in 1873 and in Paris in 1878. But Rasmus was not satisfied and soon replaced the cylinder with a flat carriage to which the paper was attached and in 1875 he was able to dispense with the battery, having found a mechanical solution to the problem of moving the paper. The philosopher, Nietzsche, bought one but never got on with it.

Leaving the philosopher’s lack of manual dexterity to one side, the principal problem was that the machine, undoubtedly efficient as it was, was fiendishly expensive, making it difficult to attract a manufacturer to produce it in sufficient quantities to make a dent in the market. This opened the way for a rival typewriter, less efficient but cheaper and better marketed, the Remington typewriter which was first produced commercially on 1st March 1873 in Ilion, New York. And the rest is history.

Rasmus could never interest manufacturers in his machine and when he died, his machine died with him. Very few survive but if you have one, they are worth a lot of money.

In 1872 Rasmus also invented a high-speed machine for stenography, the Takyagraf, and was the first to exploit the potentials of carbon paper, developing a technique called Xerografi. But for inventing the typewriter and failing to exploit it commercially, Rasmus is a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone


You’re Having A Laugh – Part Fifteen

The Swedish colour TV hoax, 1962

The younger generations, by which I mean anyone under the age of fifty, look at us oldies with faint amusement and ill-disguised incredulity when we bang on about living in an era when there were few television channels to choose from and programmes were in unremitting black and white, the only time we welcomed varying shades of grey into our lives.

At least here in Britain in the early 1960s we had the luxury of two channels to choose from, the good old Beeb and its slightly racier rival, ITV. In Sweden they only had one channel, provided by SVT or, to give it its full name, Sveriges Television. Yes, you’ve guessed it, its entire output at the time was in black and white, mirroring perfectly the outside conditions encountered in the depths of a Swedish midwinter.

On 1st April 1962, though, SVT introduced a programme that would make their loyal viewers sit up and take note. Their technical expert, Kjell Stensson, would address the nation and tell them how they could convert the flickering black and white images on their goggleboxes into glorious technicolour. You can imagine the frisson of excitement that the continuity announcer’s pronouncement caused throughout the land.

Stensson duly addressed the nation but the early part of his spiel was as dull as ditch water, banging on about prismatic nature of light and double slit interference. I’m sure many gave up the ghost at that point, switched their set off and contemplated the fire burning in their hearths – now that would make a great TV programme.

Those who were made of sterner stuff saw Stensson bring home the bacon in some style. He revealed that researchers had made an astonishing discovery that would enable the pictures displayed on their screens burst into colour. And it was a very simple procedure which required little effort or, for that matter, financial investment on the part of the viewer. All they had to do was place a fine-meshed screen  in front of the television.

And what’s more, nylon stockings were absolutely perfect for the job. Viewers were encouraged to grab a pair and tape them to their TV screen. String vests wouldn’t do as their apertures were too large.

Those who followed Stensson’s instructions may have been perplexed at first by the lack of colour. They were exhorted to experiment by moving backwards from and forwards to the screen because the distance the viewer was away from the screen was absolutely crucial. As was the angle of your head. Viewers were encouraged to move their heads up and down to ensure that they were seeing the full spectrum of colours.

Stensson signed off by telling his audience that the experiment was still in its early stages and that they should write in to let him know how they got on. He also revealed that the television industry were beavering away, developing a frame with tightening screws which could easily be fitted to the screen – “in very pleasing designs”, natch – to make the transformation permanent.

Thousands admitted to being taken in by the ingenious hoax and, doubtless, hundreds of Swedish women were surprised to be parted from their fine-mesh nylon stockings. Others, though, saw the relevance of the date of the announcement.

It wasn’t until 1966 that SVT started experimenting with colour transmissions and colour broadcasting began in earnest, sans nylons, on the eighth anniversary of Stensson’s hoax.

On 1st April 2004 Swedish newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, ran a reprise of the TV hoax, updated for the modern generation, informing their readers that if they shook their GSM mobile phones vigorously enough they would magically convert into the then state-of-the-art 3G phones.

A pale imitation of the original, methinks.

If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone