Tag Archives: The Fickle Finger

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part 106

Robert FitzRoy (1805 – 1865)

We take weather forecasts very much for granted, but they are a relatively recent development. In the mid 19th century many believed that the weather was so unpredictable that forecasting it would be the height of futility. When one MP in 1854 suggested in Parliament that recent advances in scientific theory might allow them to know the weather in London “twenty-four hours beforehand”, he was greeted with hoots of derision. Admiral Robert FitzRoy, the erstwhile captain of the HMS Beagle when Charles Darwin made his voyage of evolutionary discovery, had other ideas.

In 1854 FitzRoy was appointed to establish the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade, later to become the Met Office, charged with enhancing the quality of wind charts with the aim of improving sailing times. He grew increasingly alarmed at the loss of life around the coastal waters of Britain; between 1855 and 1860 some 7,402 ships were wrecked at the cost of 7,201 lives, many of which, he believed, could have been prevented by a timely warning.

The tipping point was the night of 25th and 26th October 1859 when a storm, the worst to hit the Irish Sea in the 19th century, destroyed 133 ships, killing over 800 souls. One of the casualties was the Royal Charter, a steam clipper reaching the end of its two-month journey from Australia, which came to grief off the coast of Anglesey with the loss of all but 41 of its complement of 500 crew and passengers.

FitzRoy was detailed to issue storm warnings. Analysing data gathered from coastal stations and telegraphed to him, when FitzRoy thought a storm was imminent, in what he called “a race to warn the outpost before the gale reaches them”, he deployed the new technology, which the Daily News described “far outstrips the swiftest tempest in celerity”.   

The storm warnings began to appear in September 1860. It was a logical step, having analysed all the data, for FitzRoy to use his findings to predict the weather, irrespective of whether a storm was imminent. On August 1, 1861 hidden away on page 10 of The Times was an unprepossessing item headed “general weather probable in the next two days”. The piece stated that the temperature in London was to be 62F, 61F in Liverpool and a pleasant 70F in Dover, the same as Lisbon. For good measure, it also covered Copenhagen, Helder, Brest and Bayonne.

The weather forecast had arrived, and not only did it prove to be extremely popular, it was surprisingly accurate. FitzRoy’s forecasts were soon syndicated across other newspapers and organisers of outdoor events and students of the turf took especial heed of his prognostications. Punch, the satirical magazine, christened him “The First Admiral of the Blew”.

FitzRoy was keen to manage down expectations, writing “prophecies and predictions they are not…the term forecast is strictly applicable to such an opinion as is the result of scientific combination and calculation”, but cynics were quick to point out their shortcomings. The Age, in its build up to the Epsom Derby in May 1862,noted that with “what satisfaction did the experienced interpreters of the prediction see that he had set down for the south of England – ‘Wind SSW to WNW moderate to fresh, some showers’, which of course indicated that it would be a remarkably fine day, and that the umbrellas might be left behind.” Proactively, FitzRoy took to the correspondence pages of the papers to apologise to “those whose hats had been spoilt from umbrellas being omitted”, when he was wrong, he had a bad run in April 1862, and to defend his methods.      

Storm clouds were gathering, though. Politicians complained about the excessive costs of telegraphing back and forth, politics and public safety rarely mix, the scientific community were sceptical of his methods and his more egregious errors were seized upon by his critics. His last forecast, published on April 29, 1865, predicted thunderstorms over London. The following day, after preparing to go to church and kissing his daughter, FitzRoy went back to his dressing room, locked the door, and killed himself.

It had all proved too much, but the idea of forecasting the next day’s weather was one that would not die.     

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You’re Having A Laugh – Part Forty Three

The Charlton Brimstone Hoax, 1702

A regular and welcome visitor to our garden is Gonepteryx rhamni, better known outside of the lepidopterist fraternity as the Brimstone butterfly. The distinctive yellow of the upper wings of the male, the females’ wings are a very pale green, almost white colour, adds a welcome flash of colour as they dart from flower to flower. Some commentators think that the generic name butterfly owes its origin from the colouration of the Brimstone, a nice story if it is true.  

It is a sad indictment of our blasé attitude to our fellow creatures that butterfly collecting was a popular hobby right up to recent times. Many a country house boasted a collection of dead butterflies and moths pinned and mounted in a wooden cabinet to hang on the wall. Both Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill had collected them with some passion during their earlier years. The reduction in the butterfly’s natural environment, principally from the end of the Second World War, and the growing conservation movement has seen a welcome decline in this so-called hobby.

James Petiver was an eminent and highly esteemed entomologist, operating in London at the beginning of the 18th century. In 1702 he was astonished to receive a package from a fellow butterfly enthusiast, William Charlton (1642 – 1702). On opening it, Petiver saw he had been sent a Brimstone, but a very unusual one. As he wrote, “it exactly resembles our English Brimstone Butterfly (R.Rhamni), were it not for those black spots and apparent blue moons on the lower wings. This is the only one I have seen”.      

The butterfly’s rarity and provenance seemed to have been sealed when the great Swedish biologist and taxonomist, Carl Linnaeus, had the opportunity to inspect it in 1763. Having given it the once over, Linnaeus was satisfied that it was indeed rare and a new species, awarding it the Latin tag of Papilio ecclipsis. So enamoured was he with the butterfly that he included it in his book describing 102 new species, Centuria Insectorium, and in his twelfth edition, published in 1767, of his Systema Naturae.

The exhibit was transferred to the British Museum where it remained until 1793 when the Danish entomologist and former pupil of Linnaeus, John Christian Fabricius decided to have a closer look at it. His attention was drawn to the curious markings on the wings and after a period of close inspection, concluded that they had been painted on to what was nothing other than the common or garden Brimstone butterfly. It was a hoax!

The curator of National Curiosities at the British Museum, Dr E.W Gray, was so incensed, when he heard of the deception, that he “indignantly stamped the specimen to pieces”, a new twist on the responsibilities of curatorship. Fortunately, another lepidopterist, William Jones, carefully created two identical specimens of the butterfly that Gray in his fit of pique destroyed and they are displayed as the Charlton Brimstones, one above and the other below a kosher Brimstone.

The question remains why Charlton carried out the hoax. He died shortly afterwards and would not have had the satisfaction of seeing Linnaeus fall for it, hook line and sinker. It may have been an attempt on his part to get the credit for finding a new species, the holy grail for an ardent collector, or may have been a desire to poke fun at a scientific community that was a tad naïve and gullible. Who knows?

I can assure you that the Brimstones in my garden don’t have spots – yet!

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There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part One Hundred and Five

Robert Propst (1921 – 2000)

An inventor has many obstacles to overcome to bring their idea to fruition. But even when it has seen the light of day and made their fame and fortune, they may be struck by another problem, something that might be characterised as inventor’s remorse. They have released a genie from the bottle and wish that they had let things be. One such, whom I featured in my recent book, The Fickle Finger, was Walter Hunt who came up with the first workable sewing machine and immediately feared for the employment prospects of hand weavers and sought to suppress it. Robert Propst could fairly be claimed to be another.    

Colorado-born Propst was a serial inventor with some 120 to his credit, including such things as a vertical timber harvester, a quality control system for concrete, an electronic tagging system for livestock, and a mobile office for quadriplegics. His claim to fame and the root cause of his bout of inventor’s remorse was to invent the Action Office whilst heading up the research division of furniture manufacturers, Herman Miller. In the 1960s Propst set out to reinvent the rather sterile office environment, based on the underlying premise that he worked better and seemed healthier and happier when he had different surfaces upon which to work.

In an attempt to move away from the serried rows of desks and the cacophony of noise and the clouds of cigarette smoke that were typical of offices at the time, with only the management having discrete areas of their own, he proposed what he called the “Action Office”. The layout of an office was to be defined by lightweight sitting and standing desks, filing systems and each worker’s space compartmentalised by acoustic panels which muffled extraneous sounds of conversation and typing.

Revolutionary as this way of organising and furnishing an office was, it did not meet much favour with the American corporate world. It seemed to be designed to meet the needs of the lowly workers rather than the businesses that needed to house them. Beloved by designers and, ironically, bought by executives for home use, Propst’s Action Office proved a damp squib.

Showing the tenacity that characterises many an inventor, Propst was undaunted and worked on a mark two. This time the acoustic panels were designed as miniature walls, varying in height, allowing the worker inside to have a degree of privacy and seclusion and yet see and communicate with their colleagues. As they were much lighter in weight and easier to construct, they were highly flexible. The corporate world saw the sense of having office furniture offering an extremely flexible and dynamic solution to fitting an ever-changing number of employees into limited floor space. Propst’s Action Office 2 went down a storm.

Unfortunately, businesses saw Propst’s invention as a perfect opportunity to cram as many workers into a set floor space as possible. Instead of an employee having a roomy workspace enclosed by partitions of varying heights allowing different sightlines to enjoy, corporate America installed tiny boxes with partitions of uniform size, making them seem like cages. The eager adoption of Propst’s design system was also aided by a change in tax laws which made it easier for businesses to write off furniture and prompted the adoption of temporary, throwaway structures.  

There were also health concerns. With more workers rammed into smaller spaces, contagious diseases spread more easily, productivity fell, and with more energy efficient and airtight offices, some of the more volatile organic compounds used in the construction of the cubicles like formaldehyde lingered in the air and caused illness. The materials used to construct the cubicles were changed but as time moved on open floorplan configurations became the office layout of choice. That said, some 30% of workers are still housed in box like cubicles.

Propst was horrified by the way his designs were used, spending much of his later life apologising for what he had done. “Not all organisations are intelligent and progressive”, he moaned. “Lots are run by crass people. They make little, bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rathole places”.

But as Walter Hunt found out over a century earlier, once the genie is out of the bottle, it is difficult to put it back in.

If you enjoyed this, check out The Fickle Finger by Martin Fone.

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There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part One Hundred And Four

Samuel Clemens (1835 – 1910)

Better known by his nom de plume of Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens is rightly acclaimed as one of America’s finest writers. Rather like many a great man or woman, though, he had another side to his character, one lost in the mists of time, an inventive streak. His desire to improve the lot of mankind both made and lost him a fortune, ultimately forcing him to shut up his large estate in Hartford and move his family to Europe in 1891.   

Twain’s first invention, for which he received a patent in 1871 (no. 121,992), is still in use today, although not necessarily in the way he had originally envisaged it. The fashion for trousers in the 19th century was for them to be high cut, making the wearing of a belt an impractical way to define the waist and stop the garments from falling down. In 1882 a London haberdasher, Albert Thurston, made and sold the first commercially available braces. So successful were they that his business has held up to this very day.

Twain, though, found braces uncomfortable and set about developing what he described as an “Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments”, something which turned out to be an elastic hook clasp. In his patent application, Twain envisaged that it would be used on “the vest, pantaloon or other garment”, any piece of clothing which required a close or snug fit. Its use never really caught on as vests, what we know as waistcoats, developed a buckle and strap to give that trimmer fit and pantaloons dropped out of fashion. The fashion for men’s trousers saw the advent of a lower cut, allowing the garment to sit on the waist and making the belt a more viable option.

In the 19th century, the corset gave the figure of a woman more shape, but they were uncomfortable and restrictive to wear. In 1889 the French designer, Herminie Cadolle, set in motion the movement to free women from the tyranny of the corset by cutting it in two, allowing the top section to support the breasts. It was not until 1914 that Mary Phelps Jacob invented and patented the bra as we would know it, deploying two silk handkerchiefs and a pink ribbon. Something was needed to ensure that the bra strap at the back remained in place and what better than Twain’s strap? It has been used ever since, but by the time the bra had established itself as an everyday piece of underwear, Twain’s patent had long since expired.

More successful in financial terms for Twain was a self-adhesive scrapbook, which he patented in 1873. As a compiler of scrapbooks, he considered the process of gluing the newspaper clipping on to a page both laborious and messy. His scrapbook consisted of leaves coated with an adhesive substance. All the user had to do was moisten the page and affix their clipping. Simple. According to the St Louis Post-Dispatch, sales earned him $50,000, a quarter of what his writings generated.

Less successful was his “Memory Builder”, a game aimed at children, which he patented in 1885. Its intention was, according to Twain, “to fill the children’s heads with dates without study”, consisting of a cribbage board adapted into a historical timeline. Although he sent prototypes to several toyshops, it never went into production.

What did for Twain’s finances, though, was his obsession with trying to perfect the Paige typesetting machine into shape. He bought exclusive rights to the machine and sank several thousand dollars into getting it to work. The infernal machine, though, constantly broke down and in a stroke of bad luck that besets many an inventor, the linotype machine, a more efficient and reliable machine, cornered the market.

I wonder, if he had not been a wonderful writer, whether Twain would have been remembered today for his role in liberating women from the corset.

If you enjoyed this, check out The Fickle Finger by Martin Fone

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