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Lyle Zapato

The Lost Continent Of The Arctic

Lyle Zapato | 2014-07-15.6476 LMT | Lost Worlds | Hollow Earth | Retro

At the dawn of the twentieth century, explorers had vanquished all the dragons from the map, leaving only the Poles as blanks to be filled. The Arctic, nearer to the majority of humanity than its antipode, had long been the subject of imaginative filling, playing host to paradisiacal lands of legend and rumor.


Mercator's map of the North Pole (1595)

The idea of an undiscovered Arctic continent is an old one. The ancient Greeks believed in Hyperborea, an idyllic land of eternal sunlight beyond the North Wind, populated by long-lived Hyperboreans. William Fairfield Warren in his book Paradise Found: The Cradle of the Human Race at the North Pole (1885) placed Hyperborea -- and Atlantis, Eden, Mount Meru, Yggdrasil, and Avalon -- in the Arctic.

Up to the 1890s, Greenland was widely thought to be the peninsula of a much larger land that covered the Pole. On the periphery, phantom islands like Sannikov Land and Frisland dotted the Arctic of the mind. For centuries, cart­o­graph­ers, most notably Mercator, filled the otherwise empty tops of their maps with various places drawn from mythology and tales of sailors seeking the Northern Passages.

It's no surprise then modern explorers, emboldened by scientific and technological advances, took up the search for lands hidden in the northern ice -- and some claimed to have found them.

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Lyle Zapato

After The Commonplace Comes Jumbo

Lyle Zapato | 2013-05-22.9690 LMT | Nature | Art | Retro
Lyle Zapato

The Wonderful Electric Elephant vs. Giant Octopus

Lyle Zapato | 2013-01-04.9240 LMT | Cephalopods | Simulacra | Retro | Random Found Thing

Happy New Year again! Here's a giant octopus trying to crush an electric elephant:


The elephant in the grasp of an octopus.

It's from The Wonderful Electric Elephant (1903) by Frances T. Montgomery, a children's book about a young man named Harold who encounters and shoots an elephant on a trail at the Grand Canyon, only to discover it's actually an electric-powered mecha-elephant piloted by a mysterious old man who soon dies after spilling his immortality elixir. Harold finds the man's will inside, which states that he now owns the elephant, as well as the gold and other curios and treasures the man had collected. Reading the instruction manual, he learns the elephant is watertight, so decides to cross the Pacific seafloor to Japan. On the way, he frees silky-locked Ione from Native Americans and she becomes his companion, and eventually wife, as they travel the world having adventures and frightening people, as one does when one comes into possession of a wonderful electric elephant.

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Lyle Zapato

Burrowing Mammoths of Siberia

Lyle Zapato | 2013-01-01.6380 LMT | Nature | Hollow Earth | Random Found Thing

Happy New Year! Here's a frozen mammoth stuck in a hillside that's been misidentified as a giant, burrowing rat:

This is from Strange Company: Wonder-Wings, Mullingongs, Colossi, etc. (1888) by Charles Frederick Holder.

Professor Holder was the inventor of big-game fishing and one of the founders of the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade (which makes this topical for today, I guess, and gives me an excuse to post it), which he first suggested at a meeting of the Valley Hunt Club as a taunt at New Yorkers: "In New York, people are buried in the snow. Here our flowers are blooming and our oranges are about to bear. Let's hold a festival to tell the world about our paradise."

If a float featuring a frozen mammoth stuck in a hillside rendered in flowers hasn't been featured in the parade yet, it should.

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Lyle Zapato

Edison & Kelvin: A Contrast In Cruelty

Lyle Zapato | 2008-01-04.3520 LMT | Technology | Kelviniana

Wired notes that on this day in 1903 Thomas Edison electrocuted an elephant to death as part of his smear campaign against alternating current, a system in competition with his patented direct current system. As the War of Currents raged, Edison grew increasingly alarmed at the acceptance of AC as the electrical distribution standard, and so set out to scare the public into believing it was too dangerous through a series of publicized animal executions using AC. Topsy the elephant was merely a notable exception in a long string of fried dogs and cats. (Edison also promoted the use of an AC electric chair for human executions, even though he was opposed to capital punishment; such was his desire to tarnish the image of a competitor at any cost.)

It should not surprise readers of this site that the decision that led to AC beating out DC came from none other than the Lord Kelvin.

1895 International
Niagara Falls Commission
The International Niagara Falls Commission, headed by Lord Kelvin (center).

It was Lord Kelvin who headed the 1895 International Niagara Falls Commission that chose Nikola Tesla's alternating current system over other proposals, including the Edison-backed DC system from General Electric, and awarded Westinghouse the contract to construct the hydroelectric generators at Niagara Falls. This highly-visible project showed the practicality of the system and turned the tide in favor of AC.

Kelvin had originally been opposed to alternating current before being swayed at the 1893 Chicago Exposition. His acceptance of Tesla's system actually completed a circuit, since an inspiration for much of Tesla's research was Kelvin's 1853 paper "On Transient Electric Currents". Kelvin, who had long been a promoter of electric lighting -- his house in Glasgow was the first in the world to by fully lit by electricity -- saw in AC the potential to bring about a dream of his, that he reiterated on a visit in 1902 (quoted in The Post-Standard, April 22, 1902, p. 1):

It has been so great, so marvelous, that I hope to live to see the day when a dream I have had may come true. I fervently hope to see the day when we shall have the transmission of electric power over 300 miles with a voltage of 40,000. When I first talked of that fifteen years ago I was laughed at. But with the wonderful transmission of power at Niagara Falls, my dream looks to be near fulfillment in the close future.

And let me tell you American people, there may be a time when the waters will flow no more over that great horseshoe, but instead there will be a beautiful growth of vegetation far more superb than any water flowing in torrents over the precipice, water that will find its way down countless turbines spreading light and power for hundreds of miles in all directions.

Edison's use of violence against animals to undermine Lord Kelvin's choice of AC was viciously ironic given Kelvin's concern for animal welfare. Kelvin, who was a vice-president of the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection, publicly spoke out against animal cruelty. While he did allow that some vivisections might be necessary for the advancement of science in cases where new knowledge might be gained (he later resigned as SPALV vice-president when the Society united with the more hard-line International Association for the Total Suppression of Vivisection,) he firmly held that repeated vivisections merely for the edification of students was "altogether unnecessary" (source).

In a letter to the Scotsman on March 6, 1877 (quoted in S.P. Thompson's The Life of Lord Kelvin), he wrote:

SIR—In your print of this morning I see a report of Professor Rutherford's paper on "The Secretion of Bile," read at the meeting of the Royal Society yesterday evening, when, as president, I was in the chair. As chairman I did not feel that I had the right to express my opinion that experiments involving such torture to so large a number of sentient and intelligent animals are not justifiable by either the object proposed, or the results obtained, or obtainable, by such an investigation as that described by Professor Rutherford. I feel this opinion very strongly, after many years serious consideration of the general question of the advisableness or justifiableness of experiments involving cruel treatment of the lower animals. I trust you will kindly give me this opportunity of expressing it, as my presence without protest yesterday evening might seem to imply that I approved of the experiments which were described.

As to electrocuting animals, this anecdote (recounted in The Elyria Chronicle, Aug. 1, 1906, p. 4) clearly shows that he was against it:

Lord Kelvin once performed a daring experiment before a class of students. In the course of his lecture he said that while a voltage of 3,000 or so would be fatal to a man a voltage of some 300,000 would be harmless. He was going to give a practical illustration on himself, but the students cried out, "Try it on a dog!" Lord Kelvin cast a look of reproach at his class. "Didn't I figure it out myself?" he said quietly, as he walked to the apparatus and safely turned the tremendous voltage into himself.

Kelvin's fondness for his pet parrots, Doctor Redtail and Professor Papagaio, was typical of his concern for animals. S.P. Thompson notes:

Lord Kelvin was very fond of animal pets. His parrots have several times been mentioned. He had a horror of unnecessary slaughter of creatures, particularly of birds. He once seized the arm of a man who, while on board his yacht, was shooting a sea-gull, and he protested indignantly against such wanton cruelty.

In contrast, Edison's proclivity for animal abuse extends even to his arrogant self-promotions, as can be seen in Garrett P. Serviss's Edison's Conquest of Mars, an 1898 sci-fi newspaper serial that was officially authorized by Edison's PR machine. The story, which coincidently casts Lord Kelvin as a supporting player, contains the following scene that would have disturbed Kelvin:

TESTING THE "DISINTEGRATOR"

I had the good fortune to be present when this powerful engine of destruction was submitted to its first test. We had gone upon the roof of Mr. Edison's laboratory and the inventor held the little instrument, with its attached mirror, in his hand. We looked about for some object on which to try its powers. On a bare limb of a tree not far away, for it was late fall, sat a disconsolate crow.

"Good," said Mr. Edison, "that will do." He touched a button at the side of the instrument and a soft, whirring noise was heard. "Feathers," said Mr. Edison, "have a vibration period of three hundred and eighty-six million per second."

He adjusted the index as he spoke. Then, through a sighting tube, he aimed at the bird.

"Now watch," he said.

THE CROW'S FATE

Another soft whirr in the instrument, a momentary flash of light close around it, and, behold, the crow had turned from black to white!

"Its feathers are gone," said the inventor; "they have been dissipated into their constituent atoms. Now, we will finish the crow."

Instantly there was another adjustment of the index, another outshooting of vibratory force, a rapid up and down motion of the index to include a certain range of vibrations, and the crow itself was gone—vanished in empty space! There was the bare twig on which a moment before it had stood. Behind, in the sky, was the white cloud against which its black form had been sharply outlined, but there was no more crow.

Furthermore, The Edison Papers' chronology page has this bizarre entry for April 6, 1877, suggesting the kind of violent work environment Edison fostered: "Laboratory staff's 'pet' bear gets loose and they kill it."

While I can find no record of Lord Kelvin commenting on Edison's public animal executions -- perhaps because Kelvin did not wish to appear biased, as with the incident in the Scotsman letter -- I find it hard to believe that he would have viewed Edison's elephanticidal barbarity, which contributed nothing to the advancement of knowledge, with anything less than abhorrence.

In the end, Edison's scare tactics didn't work; AC won out and elephants now know they have more to fear from monorails than from alternating current.

Lyle Zapato

Pleistocene Monorail?

Lyle Zapato | 2007-05-23.7520 LMT | Nature | Monorail Danger

The June issue of Scientific American is running an article advocating Pleistocene rewilding for North America. This would involve reintroducing to the continent the wild megafauna (or their closest living relatives) that disappeared after the arrival of humans, hopefully restoring the ecological balance of the region. (For more on these theories, see The Rewilding Institute.)

While I, for one, fully support releasing wild lions throughout the Mid West, I noticed something disturbing in the depiction of their vision for a rewilded America that makes me question the competency (or motives) of those behind this movement:


Proposed middle North America circa 2027, with enlarged detail.

That's right: they want to build monorails through their rewilded America!

Now, I'm no paleoecologist, but I'm fairly certain that monorails were not part of the natural habitat of North America 13,000 years ago. Have they considered the negative impact that introducing such a dangerous and out of place technology would have of the sustainability of this ersatz ecology?

For example, they blithely plan to mix monorails with elephants -- something that has been tried before with disastrous consequences. What happens when a large herd of elephants is existentially disturbed by the sight of anachronistic monorails and, in a deranged rush to get as far away from the menace as possible, stampedes right through the "high-tech electrified fence" supposedly keeping in check the pseudo-Pleistocene? Are Americans willing to risk the loss of, say, Topeka to total tramplement? Has any thought gone into these dangers?

But maybe there's something more sinister afoot than simple disregard for monorail dangers. Monorailists would have us believe that monorails are not only futuristic, but an integral part of our planet's history; see the robotic Jurassic Park in Dubai that will feature a historically inaccurate monorail-chasing T-rex, and the unlikely theory of our own resident monomaniac, the Monorailist, that ancient India was home to the world's first monorail (built by monkeys, no less). This tendency to revisionist history is as common among Monorailsts as their tendency to unrealistic futurism, so it would not be surprising for them to misrepresent the Pleistocene Epoch as the Age of the Woolly Monorail.

If, as I fear, the field of ecological engineering has been infiltrated by monorailistic forces bent on using Pleistocene rewilding as a cover to further brainwash the public into accepting monorails as a natural part of the environment, then I must dissuade people from supporting those pro-rewilding organizations that have not yet officially rebuked the use of monorails. (Fortunately, all Sasquatch groups involved in the reoctopusing of Cascadia's forests are staunchly anti-monorail.)

Lyle Zapato

Instinctive Fear Of Monorails In Pachyderms

Lyle Zapato | 2004-12-09.2400 LMT | Monorail Danger | Nature | Retro

While monorailist literature insinuates that they are a futuristic technology, monorails are actually archaic devices that predate the airplane. Case in point: the Schwebebahn in Wuppertal, Germany. This suspended monorail was built in 1901 and is still in operation -- thanks to the backroom influence of the Monorail Industry -- even though it exhibits all the dangers common to monorails; there have been train collisions, trucks hitting piers, and four people died in 1999 when a train derailed and fell into the river. However, even in the storied annals of monorail dangers, the Schwebebahn manages to impress with an incident involving an innocent baby elephant named Tuffi.

Elephant leaping from monorail
Tuffi's daring escape from the clutches of dastardly monorailists.

On July 21, 1950, the 3-year-old elephant, enslaved by a cruel circus-director/monorail-fanatic named Franz Althoff, was forced to board the Schwebebahn as part of an ill-conceived monorail propaganda stunt. Tuffi had suffered through many degrading stunts in the past -- Althoff had her driving streetcars and marching through department stores -- but she balked at riding on that dangerous contraption (the Wuppertaler Todesfalle as it was secretly called by locals). One and a half minutes into the ride, Tuffi freaked out, no doubt sensing something was awry with the train (in other words: normal monorailular operating conditions). In her instinctual desperation to escape death and with no other safe means of egress, she smashed a hole in a side window and, rather taking her chances with the Wupper river 5 meters below, bravely leapt through.

Tuffi was not seriously injured in the fall and was unfortunately recaptured shortly after. There's no telling what would have happened if she had stayed in the train, which was understandably stopped after experiencing an unexpected elephantine defenestration. Perhaps the train would have derailed or spontaneously combusted. We will never know for sure, but it is highly likely that the actions of this monorail-doubting pachyderm might have saved the lives of the human passengers.

(Of course, had this monorail been constructed over city streets instead of a river, as many monorails are or are planned to be, she would have been killed and probably have taken out some pedestrians and small cars too. When will people learn what even baby elephants seem to understand: monorails are a menace.)

Photos from the incident:

Thanks to reader Crosbie for bringing this to my attention.