Photography

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This very melodramatic postmortem of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in the March 9, 1917 Brooklyn Daily Eagle asserts that the dirigible builder passed away a broken man because his airships were deemed no longer worthy of bombing missions meant to reduce humans to piles of limbs. Interesting to note Zeppelin was a young German military officer when he encountered his first transport balloons while traveling in America during the Civil War, meeting aeronauts Thaddeus Lowe and John Steiner. (In the top photo, taken in 1863, the German visitor is the second from the right, an embed with a Union unit.) It wasn’t until he was past 50 that Zeppelin was able to completely devote himself to his long-deferred dream of popularizing dirigibles, and his successes with the ships, among many failures, helped make mass air travel seem like destiny.

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1912: “Zeppelin’s first cruise over Germany.”

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For some reason, people long for their cars to fly. In the 1930s it was believed that Spanish aviator Juan de la Cierva had made the dream come true, although he coincidentally died in an air accident in Amsterdam just as his roadable flying machine was proving a success in Washington D.C.

In 1920, the man from Murcia invented the Autogiro, a single-rotor-type aircraft which led several years later to his creation of an articulated rotor that made possible the world’s first flight of a stable rotary-wing aircraft. The American government licensed the technology and eventually turned out a working prototype of a flying car, hoping that suburbanites would soon soar to work from their backyards directly to helipads atop city office buildings. If they needed to nose down and drive on a highway, that would be possible.

The test was deemed a success on road and in sky (even though the machine was clearly more plane than automobile). Sadly, almost simultaneous to the triumphant run, Cierva was killed while a passenger aboard a standard Dutch airliner that crashed in England.

The aerobile was clearly never made available for public consumption, probably owing to safety and cost concerns. One enterprising hotel in Miami, however, purchased a roadable Autogiro and used it to fly guests to the beach, further enticing them by employing celebrity pilot Jim Ray, who had handled the D.C. test run.

An excerpt from an article about the test and tragedy overlapping, published in the December 13, 1936 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

  • The D.C. demonstration of the Autogiro:

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Coney Island was chiefly an amusement and often a raffish one, but there was a serious side to some of the sights. For instance, Topsy the elephant was electrocuted in 1903 in what may have been a scheme to make Nikola Tesla’s AC system seem dangerous, giving Thomas Edison’s DC method positive publicity during the War of the Currents. The baby incubators were likewise a suspect attraction, though it would seem much good came of the spectator-sponsored medical innovation, which, if its proprietor, Dr. Martin A. Couney, is to be believed, successfully graduated 6,000 babies by 1928, the infants nursed on low-pressure oxygen, breast milk and a daily drop of whiskey. An article about the incubators from the August 4, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 

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As difficult as it was to believe that Roald Amundsen had survived his many explorations, at the end it was just as tough to accept that he’d perished.

The early twentieth-century Norwegian explorer was so secretive about his missions that credit for discovering the South Pole in 1912 at first went to his British rival Capt. Robert Scott, until the truth prevailed. So when the ultra-resourceful Amundsen and his party went missing in 1928 when flying to the Arctic to attempt a rescue of crew members of the crashed airship Italia, some in the American media believed, or wanted to believe, that he had only lost contact for the moment. Sadly, the disappearance was permanent; not even wreckage was ever recovered. An article from the June 20 Brooklyn Daily Eagle of that year, which hoped against hope.•

 

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Pony_Express_Map_William_Henry_Jackson

William “Bill” Cates.

A Google Doodle just marked the 155th anniversary of the Pony Express, a hoof-bound American mail-delivery service that brought messages and news from Missouri westward in 1860-61, the days just before the transcontinental telegraph. The system especially helped link the rest of America to California, a state which had grown in importance in the previous decade, owing to the population explosion brought about by the gold rush.

It was not an easy gig, as riders faced Indian attacks, harsh elements and the slings and arrows of nature, and there was none of this be all you can be crap. One ad read: Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. One who took up the challenge was William “Bill” Cates, a self-described “young fellow, craving excitement.” He was one of the last surviving members when he was profiled in the July 29, 1908 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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I stumbled onto Franz Kafka’s short story “A Hunger Artist” at a young age and thought it the greatest thing ever and still sort of do.

What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that there actually were professional fasters. These were entertainers, not political protesters, who went on long hunger strikes to amaze ticket buyers at dime museums with the art of self-abnegation. The popularity of the “sport” pretty much ended in the early twentieth century, though today’s online “performance eating” is a variation of the old theme.

Giovanni Succi, who was often referred to as “the little Italian” in newsprint, was one of the most celebrated practitioners. InSucci’s Long Fast,” a New York Times article dated November 6, 1890, the 38-year-old entertainer announced his intention to starve himself for a personal record of 45 days at Koster & Bial’s music hall/beer garden in Manhattan. Succi would be on display 24 hours a day as his body wasted; student volunteers from Bellevue Medical College would minister to his needs. Below is a piece from the December 21, 1890 Brooklyn Daily Eagle about the end of the act, when Succi stopped skipping meals.•

The main Nazi targets were Jewish people, of course, but the party’s hatred was directed in manifold directions. It’s somewhat surprising, however, that millions of German nudists were among them, considering how the Third Reich relentlessly fetishized the supposedly superior Aryan body. But it was Herr Goering himself who derided the clothesless clubs in a March 10, 1933 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article.

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Norbert Casteret, speleologist, took a giant leap for humankind in 1923 with a dive in the Grotte de Montespan in France. This brave departure from dry land led to one of the adventurer’s greatest discoveries (one of anyone’s greatest): a trove of prehistoric drawings and sculptures of animals. In his book, Ten Years Under The Earth, Casteret recalls the moment he shared with friend and fellow explorer Henri Godin:

At that moment I stopped before a clay statue of a bear, which the inadequate light had thus far hidden from me; in a large grotto a candle is but a glow-worm in the inky gloom.

I was moved as I have seldom been moved before or since: here I saw, unchanged by the march of aeons, a piece of sculpture which distinguished scientists of all countries have since recognized as the oldest statue in the world.

My companion crawled over at my call, but his less practised eye saw only a shapeless chunk where I indicated the form of the animal. But one after another, as I discovered them around us, I showed him horses in relief, two big clay lions, many engravings.

That convinced him, and for more than an hour discovery followed discovery. On all sides we found animals, designs, mysterious symbols, all the awe-inspiring and portentous trappings of ages before the dawn of history.•

The following is an October 7, 1923 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article about the Upper Paleolithic trove, which focuses on clay figures that had been mutilated by their creators as part of a hunting ritual.

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Although different such tools were worked on for hundreds of years, it was Charles Latham Sholes who was awarded a patent in 1868 for what would become the first commercially successful typewriter. It was the “Sholes and Glidden Type-writer” that gave the machine its popular name, also introducing the QWERTY keyboard, which was aimed at slowing down typists so that the keys on these crude early gadgets would not become entangled. The contraption also helped transition women into the workforce, even if the initial jobs were low-level ones. Below is an article from the September 16, 1923 Brooklyn Daily Eagle marking the moment when Sholes’ creation reached a particularly nice round number.

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The Space Race knew numerous casualties, and one of the first was Austrian rocketeer Max Valier, who passed away 39 years before humans reached the moon. His work with rocket motors and his founding, in 1927, of the Society for Space Travel, were instrumental in humankind’s eventual giant leap. (One of the Society’s members was Wernher Von Braun, who later became a Nazi before leading the American postwar space program.) Newspaper writers had wondered for years when his daring experiments would do him in, but Valier actually perished while calmly tinkering in his lab. The story of his demise from the May 18, 1930 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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A house that’s impervious to storm and earthquake sounds pretty good right about now, and that was what Buckminster Fuller promised in 1929 when he introduced the Dymaxion House, an architectural dream never realized beyond a few prototypes. In a 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article from a series on the future of the home, Fuller’s automated abode was given a public hearing. The opening of the piece below.

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“We are living in a spheroidal universe”:

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The Mormon polygamists of Short Creek, Arizona, near the border of Utah, had long vexed local authorities with their alternative lifestyle, but things came to a head in 1953 when the largest mass arrest of such people–perhaps any people–in American history to that point occurred. The state believed they were bringing to a close a chapter it found disquieting, but it was only a temporary interruption. The town renamed itself Colorado City and Warren Jeffs, the polygamous sect leader, held dominion over much of the land more than 50 years later when convicted of sex charges against children. A report about the raid from the July 27, 1953 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

 

You don’t need conscious machines to wreak havoc upon the world; Weak AI can cause serious disruptions in employment and autonomous machines can be tasked with lethal work. Nikola Tesla dreamed of military drones bringing peace to the world, but that hasn’t been the reality. If some government (or rogue state) allows pilotless planes to operate automatically, the weapons systems might be even deadlier. Of course, with the human track record for mass violence, that might not be so. From Robert McMillan at Wired:

Military drones like the Predator currently are controlled by humans, but [Clearpath CTO Ryan] Gariepy says it wouldn’t take much to make them fully automatic and autonomous. That worries him. A lot. “The potential for lethal autonomous weapons systems to be rolled off the assembly line is here right now,” he says, “but the potential for lethal autonomous weapons systems to be deployed in an ethical way or to be designed in an ethical way is not, and is nowhere near ready.”

For Gariepy, the problem is one of international law, as well as programming. In war, there are situations in which the use of force might seem necessary, but might also put innocent bystanders at risk. How do we build killer robots that will make the correct decision in every situation? How do we even know what the correct decision would be?

We’re starting to see similar problems with autonomous vehicles. Say a dog darts across a highway. Does the robo-car swerve to avoid the dog but possibly risk the safety of its passengers? What if it isn’t a dog, but a child? Or a school bus? Now imagine a battle zone. “We can’t agree on how to implement those bits of guidance on the car,” Gariepy says. “And now what we’re actually talking about is taking that leap forward to building a system which has to decide on its own and when it’s going to preserve life and when it’s going to take lethal force.”•

 

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Speaking of psychedelics enthusiasts, Aldous Huxley, who thought deeply about globalism, consumerism, virtual reality and technocracy before most others did, had a little book of his called A Brave New World reviewed in the February 7, 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle. It was apparently a ripping good yarn.

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I think it’s worth looking past the antiquated, racist language and attitudes to read this article originally published in November 21, 1915 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which profiles a physically disabled African-American man who built his own wireless plant in the Long Island woods and was suspected of communicating secrets to the Germans during WWI (though the political espionage aspect isn’t very likely). The young guy’s name was Robert J. Freeman, and imagine how different his opportunities would have been if his skin color was different. When you think of the talent lost to prejudice, it’s just a heartbreaker.

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The Dustbowl was central to his life and work, but Woody Guthrie had some dalliances with the un-Oklahoma of New York City beginning in 1940, which resulted in the two articles below published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The first looks at Guthrie’s involvement in It’s All Yours, an anti-Fascist, anti-Hitler musical drama performed in 1942 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was co-directed by singer-songwriter Earl Robinson as the piece says, but what goes unmentioned is that the other director was Nicholas Ray, who would begin his big-time Hollywood career a half-dozen years later. In the second article, Guthrie brings his dirty boots to the home of etiquette expert (and erstwhile Staten Island Advance reporter) Amy Vanderbilt.

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From October 5, 1942:

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From April 5, 1943:

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I was reading the “Hey Bill” Q&A section of Bill James’ site, and this question was posed:

Hey Bill, I thought it was interesting in 1939 the National Professional Indoor Baseball League was launched with Tris Speaker and franchises managed by guys like Bill Wambsganss, Moose McCormick, and Harry Davis. It went one and done though, disbanded after that season. Do you know how the actual play was set up?

Answered: 1/21/2015

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Indoor baseball, while clearly nowhere near as popular as its outdoor counterpart, was a dogged part of the American sporting scene from the 1890s till the late ’30s. Before the game essentially became softball, it was played on a pro level during the winter months at armories in front of crowds of up to 1,500 fans. Decidedly different than the summer game were the rules (e.g., 35-foot basepaths) and equipment (ball was larger and softer). The most famous iteration of the game was the short-lived 1939 National Professional Indoor Baseball League, which was presided over by the former MLB great Tris Speaker. Below are several pieces from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle about various versions of the game.

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From May 5, 1912:

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From November 20, 1939:

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I’m sure the advent of commercial aviation was met with prejudices about the new-fangled machines, but it took quite a while to perfect automated co-pilots and the navigation of wind shears, so horrifying death was probably also a deterrent. In the article below from the September 22, 1929 Brooklyn Daily Eagle (which is sadly chopped off a bit in the beginning), the unnamed author looks at a selected history of technophobia. 

 

Ruth Snyder was a persistent if imprecise killer.

A Queens housewife who fell hard for married corset salesman Henry Judd Gray, Snyder failed the first seven times she attempted to murder her husband, Albert, finally garrotting her betrothed in 1927 with the aid of her lover, who, of course, had experience tightening fabric around flesh. The slaying was messy and the story she concocted for police about a home invasion even more so, so instead of collecting insurance money, Snyder was soon collecting dust in a prison cell. But not for long: A year later, she and her paramour were no more, silenced at Sing Sing by the hum of an electric chair.

Snyder was the first woman to die in the chair, and despite her vicious crime, her gender made her punishment shocking to many, even the executioner, and the picture of her being put to death, taken stealthily with a hidden ankle camera by New York Daily News photographer Tom Howard, is one of the most famous images in the history of journalism.

A postscript: Even after her death, Snyder had no luck with heat.

The following is the March 22, 1927 Brooklyn Daily Eagle account of her recanting her confession and entering a not-guilty plea.

 

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From the September 23, 1936 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

ViennaDr. Serge Voronoff of monkey gland and rejuvenation fame, announced today he was confident he could create a superman if he were permitted to transplant chimpanzee glands to a 10-year-old boy.

‘If any mother would entrust her child to me, she might be the means of establishing a new type of human far superior to the normal man.'”

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There had been other robots before the late 1930s, tin men who’d greeted conventioners and accomplished all manner of parlor trick, but Westinghouse’s Elektro took the mild amusements of early robotics national at the 1939 World’s Fair in NYC and in subsequent tours of the country. In addition to “playing” musical instruments and blowing up balloons, Elektro could smoke cigarettes, which the kids loved, because emphysema. Never reduced to the recycling bin, Elektro continues his travels to this day. The hacking, teeth-stained machine is one of the several displays of nascent artificial humans mentioned in a World’s Fair preview in the April 9, 1939 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Charles “Chuck” Connors was full of life, and other stuff.

The so-called “Mayor of Chinatown” was an Irishman called “Insect” by his neighbors until his penchant for cooking chuck steaks over open fires in the streets earned him a new nickname. An inveterate self-promoter, he was a tour guide, vaudevillian, boxer, bouncer and raconteur. Some of his stories were even true.

One that wasn’t: For a fee, he showed tourists “authentic” Chinatown opium dens, which were often merely apartments he rented and filled with “extras” paid to pretend to be dragon chasers. The crafty man realized that urban narratives, told just so, could be commodified.

Although he initially wasn’t so appreciated by his Chinese neighbors, Connors eventually earned their esteem and his blarney was sadly missed when it was permanently silenced. An article in the May 10, 1913 Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced his death.

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Mark Twain, America’s second greatest comic ever in my estimation (after George Carlin), died of a heart attack 104 years ago. He lived a life writ large, won fame and lost fortunes, and, most importantly, reminded us what we could be if we chose to live as one, traveling as he did from Confederate sympathizer to a place of enlightenment. I think of Twain what I thought of Pete Seeger and Odetta when they died: You can’t really replace such people because they have the history and promise of the nation coursing through their veins. He was eulogized in the April 22. 1910 Brooklyn Daily Eagle; the opening sections excerpted below follow him from birth to his emergence as a “stand-up” and his shift to author of books.

Two years before piloting the flight that killed himself and the great comic Will Rogers, aviator Wiley Post completed a ’round-the-world trip that was solo save for a helpful robot, an autopilot device fashioned by Sperry. It wasn’t like he could sleep comfortably while his “co-pilot” took over the controls, but it did allow Post to journey the long distance navigator-less. An article from the July 15, 1933 Brooklyn Daily Eagle published just prior to the mission.

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While I’m sure Adolf Hitler’s personal yacht, the Aviso Grille, had some historical value, it probably shouldn’t have been employed as a floating tourist trap, even if the proceeds went to charity. But that’s what happened during the end of the 1940s, soon before the craft was smashed up and sold for scrap. Judging by an article from the June 16, 1949 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which uses some strangely admiring adjectives to describe one of history’s very worst villains, the Führer was unsurprisingly not a fun cruise director, at least according to his former staff, some of whom sailed with the vessel when it made its voyage to New York. Postscript: When the boat was sold in pieces, Hitler’s shitter wound up in a New Jersey gas-station bathroom.

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