JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Friday, August 21, 2015


I am not suggesting that Tycho Brahe's parents wanted to get rid of him, but when a rich uncle kidnapped the terrible two year old, they did not ask for him back. Smart people. Brahe was the most argumentative, disputatious and opinionated astronomer in the entire 16th century, maybe of all time. While attending University of Rostock the belligerent Brahe got into an three day argument with a cousin over a mathematical formula. They finally settled it with a sword duel – in the dark. Brahe had to wear a metal nose for the rest of his life, brass for every day and silver for special occasions. But he still insisted he had been right. Seriously, he insulted so many people, historians have been arguing for the last 500 years over who finally murdered him.
One biographer noted Brahe (above) “tongue-lashed kings (and) tormented peasants”, usually when he was drunk, which was often. But he was also “a measuring maniac, a fussily precise man”  But the nicest thing I can say about Brahe was that he was willing to lie to protect his moose. When the Duke's moose died, William IV, of Hess-Kassel, ordered  Brahe to turn over “Rix the Moose”.  But rather than part with his own sweet faced seven hundred pound ungulate, Brahe stalled for time and then made up a story about Rix getting drunk at a party, falling down a flight of stairs and breaking his leg. It might have been true. Brahe was too unpleasant to have many human drinking buddies. But I think it more likely that Brahe was just being an arrogant jerk – again. Which is why I have always secretly suspected it might have been William who murdered Brahe – from beyond the grave.
Most of the people who hated Tycho Brahe were residents of his private three square mile island (above) in the middle of the straight between Sweden and Denmark, 15 miles north of Copenhagen. Hven was a gift from Frederick II of Denmark-Norway to support Tycho's work as the royal astronomer.  The island's fishermen and farmers were required to join the natives of 10 mainland villages in giving two days work a week to build Tycho a castle on Hven..
He called his Flemish gingerbread castle Uraniborg, and it was a combination home and observatory, with everything an ego maniac could dream of,  including a large portrait of Brahe (below) explaining life the universe and everything. Uraniborg had heated rooms and running water, at a time the King's own castle did not. Construction was so elaborate and expensive, it swallowed up more than 1% of Denmark's entire state construction budget. Brahe's excuse was that before telescopes, astronomers spent their nights staring at  stars with quadrants and sextants, and measuring angles and calculating brightness. And Brahe insisted his sextants had to be bigger than anybody else's sextants. But even as the towers of Uraniborg were constructed, Brahe realized they swayed so much in the wind, his instruments would be almost useless.
A large part of the problem was the boorish Brahe did not inspire dedication in his unwilling workers.
Brahe's court jester (yes, he had one) suggested the Lord -of-the-island might at least provide beer for the workers. But Brahe mostly just demanded they work harder. And he punished any who complained by throwing them into the new castle's dungeon and torture chamber, which he had built first.
And after two years, just as they saw an end to their burden, Brahe demanded the islanders build him a second observatory (above), Sterneborg (“castle of the stars”). “My purpose,” explained the didactic Brahe, “was...to have...some of the most important instruments...(not) exposed to the disturbing influence of the wind”. So having built the towers, the islanders now had to dig five large holes in the ground so Brahe and his assistants would be warm, snug and firm while cataloging the exact positions of a thousand stars. Brahe expressed no interest in how cold the islanders got while digging his new laboratory. They must have been very glad to see him go in 1597.
Brahe left Denmark because the new King, Christian IV, was not willing to placate his touchy “enfant arrogant” any longer. The 19 year old new monarch stripped Brahe of most of his inherited fortune, and threatened to treat Brahe as Brahe had treated his peasants. Brahe slipped across the border into Germany, taking with him all his star charts, which technically belong to the King. Christen had satisfy himself with having the white elephant of Uraniborg torn down brick by brick. Christian became another member of the “I hate Brahe” club.
After searching for a year for any royalty willing to put up with his arrogance, in 1599 Brahe got a job offer from Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor. Rudolph gave Brahe his choice of castles, but as soon as the first bills arrived for the extravagant rebuilding of Benatky Castle, Rudolph ordered Brahe and his instruments back to the capital of Prague (above). Not used to being told “no”, in 1600 Brahe went sullen and started looking for a new fly whose wings he could remove.
As his new assistant/victim Brahe picked a Polish mathematician who was just as arrogant as he was, but was poor and a Lutheran, meaning he had few friends in high places - in other words someone Brahe could safely humiliate: Johannes Kepler (above). Not only did Brahe pocket Kepler's promised salary, he forced the Pole to help work out the math supporting Brahe's view of the solar system, which Kepler thought was pure horse poop.
The Catholic Church had said Corpernicus' sun centered system was heresy. Brahe could not argue with Copernicus' math, although he wanted to because “...it ascribes to the Earth, that hulking, lazy body, unfit for motion, a motion as quick as that of the ethereal torches...”. So in Brahe's design (above) the sun and moon orbited around the earth, which sat still in the center of the solar system, while the other five known planets orbited the sun, just as Corpernicus' unarguable math said they must. It was such a convoluted, complicated design, requiring wheels within wheels to function, the very idea infuriated the logical Kepler. But did being forced to become just another wheel in Brahe's self publicity machine drive the Pole to murder?
The arguments about who hated Brahe enough to kill him became more than academic on Saturday, 13 October, 1601 (Gregorian calendar), when the perverse Dane was invited to the home (above) of Prague's 17th century Hugh Hefner, Baron Peter Vok von Rosenberg. Like Brahe, Rosenberg had inherited his wealth, but the astronomer was merely celebrity eye candy at the Baron's party. And it was there, if we are to believe the hypochondriac Pierre Gassendi, the fifty-four year old Brahe took his first step to the grave, by not walking to the latrine. “During the dinner lots of wine was consumed, and Tycho noticed that his bladder was tense...Out of respect for the host, he waited however, but finally he had to get up from the table and get home.”
A wine soaked Brahe had never shown respect to anybody, King, Queen or Baron, before, so why start now? There is no doubt that when he got home the arrogant jackass was sick. According to both Gassendi and Kepler, “Hard pains followed and for five days.” Then for another five days Brahe “had a strong fever and dizziness.” According to Kepler, who had to nurse his torturer, Brahe kept repeating, “May I not have lived in vain” - in Latin. On the eleventh day, the fever broke, and he told Kepler that what was left of his fortune should be given to his wife and children, and his distant nephew Erik Brahe, who had just shown up in Prague. There was no mention of Brahe's long suffering sister Sophia, who had endured decades of her brother's insults while recording his data, nor of Kepler, who was writing all this down. A few hours later, at 9 in the morning of 24 October, 1601, Brahe died, in Erik's greedy arms.
So was the great pain-in-the-azimuth murdered by his opportunistic nephew, working for King Charles back in Denmark? A good argument has been made for that. Or did Kepler slip a knife in his back. (above)? It was Kepler who had just been told there was no reward (and no back pay) for having put up with the arrogant jackass for over a year. Or is it possible Brahe poisoned himself, acting as his own doctor? The only thing we can prove,  500 years later,  is that this most unpleasant man died, and Kepler stole his data. Twenty years later Kepler used Brahe's detailed records to finally prove that Copernicus was right, and that Tycho Brahe was dead wrong. Most importantly, ....dead.  And a great many people slept soundly because of that.
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Wednesday, August 19, 2015


I am told the difference between basic pottery (first developed about 20,000 years ago) and porcelain pottery (first created about 1,000 years ago) is silicate Kaolinit clay in the slurry and an additional 500 degrees Fahrenheit in the firing process. The cost of achieving that temperature is worth the effort because porcelain is impermeable to water throughout its structure and thus, with glass, the only truly hygienic human made material. That meant porcelain was ideal for making “chamber pots”, resistant to staining and easily cleaned. Every potter in England who could, made chamber pots. And the top of the blue blood bottom market was claimed by Wedgwood, chamber pot makers for royal butts since King George III. But there were dozens of porcelain potters in England, clawing and scratching for chamber pot market share, like the Twyford family - “Fathers of the British Bathrooms”

In days of Old, When knights were bold, And, toilets weren't invented. They laid their loads,
Beside the road, And, walked away contented”
Twyford's had been making pottery in Stroke-on-Trent since 1680. But when London outlawed cesspits in 1849, Thomas Twyford senior moved to London and began aggressively selling water closets for London's growing middle class. The Twyford advantage was a siphon design which came to dominate the export market. But he over expanded and by the time Thomas Twyford junior got control of the company in 1879, it was almost bankrupt. Thomas had to do something big. He did it in 1884, when he released his “Unitus”, billed as a “trap-less toilet.”
In Cologne, a town of monks and bones, And pavements fang'd with murderous stones
And rags, and hags, and hideous wenches; I counted two and seventy stenches, All well defined, and several stinks! Ye Nymphs that reign o'er sewers and sinks, The river Rhine, it is well known,
Doth wash your city of Cologne; But tell me, Nymphs, what power divine, Shall henceforth wash the river Rhine?”
Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge - 1834
It wasn't actually trap-less of course – the trap was still there just concealed inside the porcelain. But the “Unitius” was the arrival of the modern can, the everyman and every woman's throne, the feces and forget privy, the dump and deny water closet, the my-poop-don't-stink lavatory, the head, the John, the loo, the shit can, and most recently and famously, the Crapper.
I come here to sit and think, I usually don't mind the stink, But when it gets bad, I am really glad,
That quick out of here I can slink.”
The etymological of crap begins with the Latin “crappa” meaning the chaff, or the unusable portion of wheat. In old Dutch this became “krappe”, an inedible fish or other food. And that was the origin of the family name of Thomas Crapper. The word didn't come to mean what it means today until Thomas began to express his business philosophy of slapping his name on everything that came out of his factory, from product to employee's inventions.
Draw out yere sword, thou vile South'ron! Red wat wi' blude o' my kin! That sword it crapped the bonniest flower, E'er lifted its head to the sun!
Poet Allan Cunningham 1847
At 14 years of age Thomas Crapper was apprenticed to his brother George, who was already a master plumber in the wealthy London suburb of Chelsea. By the time he was 25 the proud Thomas had been awarded nine patents for plumbing innovations. He was no longer a mere plumber. He now billed himself as a “Sanitary Engineer”.
The flush toilet, more than any single invention, has 'civilized' us in a way that religion and law could never accomplish.”
Poet Thomas Lynch - 1997
One of Thomas' nine patents was for a fully automated water closet. The pressure of the user compressed a pair of springs under the seat. When the client arose from their effort the springs lifted the seat and via rods released flush water from the reservoir tank above. Unfortunately it became known as the “Bottom Slapper”. The heavier the user the faster the springs rebounded, in a Catholic punishment for all who soiled the system Clients found them selves unable to relax during their commodious visits for contemplation of the test that was to come the instant the pressure was off.. Needless to say the auto toilet had few repeat customers..And in fact, only two of Thomas' the nine patents proved of any lasting value.
Men who consistently leave the toilet seat up secretly want women to get up to go the bathroom in the middle of the night and fall in.”
Comic Rita Rudner
In 1866, at 30, and filled with a self confidence that would never leave him, Thomas Crapper opened his own plumbing business in Chelsea (above), complete with an on the premises brass foundry. He began every business day by joining his brother George for a champagne breakfast at a pub convenient to both their shops. And this practice might explain his decision to install windows in the front of his factory on Marlborough Road (above, left & right of door) to display his product, as if his “flush down” toilets were shoes or ladies frocks. There were reports that Victorian matrons occasionally grew faint at the impropriety of all those lavatories, the function that dare not speak its name, stacked up in full public view. But it must have increased worker moral. It clearly increased Thomas'. And it also increased sales.
What is toilet training if not the first attempt to turn a child into an acceptable member of society?”
Author Rose George 2004
A big part of Thomas' business was the installation of public lavatories. And on each shinny porcelain Crapper urinal was painted a buzzing bee. It was an inside joke among the public school boys standing to relieve themselves, which they had learned from their Latin instructions In Latin a bee is called an “apis”.  A piss. Very funny.
If you do the toilet scenes well and commit to them, they can be really, really powerful.”
Actress Sandra Bullock
By the 1880's Thomas broke the Wedgwood monopoly on royal crap, establishing a personal connection with the long suffering Prince of Wales, forced to put up with his mother's crap until Queen Victoria finally died in January of 1901. After that the aging Prince became King Edward VII, and Thomas Crapper became “Sanitary Engineer” to the royal bottom. Thomas retired in 1904, turning the business over to his nephew George Crapper (lower right) and his old business partner Robert Wharam (lower left). And in late January 1910, Thomas Crapper (below) , the man with the self confidence to market crap, and do so successfully, passed quietly into that great cistern in the sky.  The company survived, sans any actual Crappers, until it was swallowed by a competitor in 1963.
Crap has always happened, crap is happening, and crap will continue to happen.”
Author Chuck Palahniuk
But with human populations expanding, it was increasingly difficult to avoid all that crap humans had flushed away.
The average human being spends three years of life going to the toilet, though the average human being with no physical toilet to go to probably does his or her best to spend less.”
Author Rose George  - 2004
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Sunday, August 16, 2015


I think the breaking point for Governor Meriwether Lewis came when the Federal Government denied the bill he submitted for translating the territorial laws into French. It was only $18. And even in 1808 that was not much money – it would be about $245 today. But it was just another example of the penny pinching of the bean counters in the administration of the new President James Madison.
The politicians were not very kind to Meriwether Lewis. For risking his life and limbs in the wilderness for three long years, for being shot, for repeatedly almost starving to death and almost drowning several times, when he got back alive the Captain received $1,228 in back pay (equal to about $16,000 today) and a coupon good for 1,600 acres of Federal land. (The official price of which was just $2 an acre – so the equivalent of another $3,000.) Added to this would be his yearly budget/salary  as Governor of $2,000, ($26,000 today), out of which he had to draw all incidental expenses, among which was now deducted that $18. So that was just another kick in the behind.
During their return voyage in 1806, Lewis and Clark had invited the Manndan Chief White Coyote to visit President Jefferson in Washington, and the chief had impulsively agreed. Jefferson was delighted, and the visit had cemented relations with the strongest tribe in the middle Missouri River country. But it proved difficult to get White Coyote and his entourage back home. An attempt in 1807 had been turned back by the Indian tribe, the Arikarass, at cost of the lives of three soldiers and the leg of a fourth man. More soldiers would have to be dispatched and bribes paid to allow the chief and his family to get home. But the price tag of this diplomatic mercy mission had risen to $7,000. The Washington bean counters were appalled. And they sort of had a point.
See, as the last government official to pass off the chief, Lewis had handed the problem over to the St. Louis-Missouri River Fur Company, a private enterprise corporation. One hundred fifty men had marched and paddled up the Missouri River to the Manndan villages. They had returned the chief, and had then continued on, trapping beaver, otter and bear. All the pelts were shipped back to the company warehouse in St. Louis. The profits had gone to the shareholders, but the bill had gone to the Government. Sound familiar? And two of the shareholders in the St. Louis Fur Company were Governor Meriwether Lewis and his brother Reuben Lewis.
These details had been pointed out to the bureaucrats in Washington by the priggish Frederick Bates (above), Territorial Lieutenant Governor and envious enemy of Governor Lewis.  Bates had kept Washington very well informed about every misstep made by the Governor and even invented a few. The result was that the Madison administration, which had not picked Lewis,  had begun going over the Governor's expenses with a fine tooth comb. They grudgingly paid most of the bill for White Coyote's return, but managed to find $940 they could refuse to reimburse Lewis for. That was almost half his yearly budget! Worse still, the Madison administration had re-opened the books on the three year old Lewis and Clark Expedition, and were now demanding a detailed accounting as to why a budget of $2,500 had ended up costing $40,000. The biggest reasons was, of course, that an enthusiastic congress, at Jefferson's urging, had added those land grants for everybody. But the Madison administration had suddenly developed amnesia about that.
The reality was that the land grants had not cost the government a dime, except in the accounting ledgers of the bean counters. But over the summer it took a month for one of the bureaucrats' demands for more paperwork to travel from Washington to St. Louis, and at least another month for Governor Lewis to respond. In the winter there was no mail at all, and for months at a time the misconstructions and misunderstandings simply piled one atop the next. It was a system made for bureaucratic misunderstandings, and the denial of the $18 translating fee was just the final straw. Meriwether Lewis, Governor of the Territory, must return to Washington and make his case face-to-face with the Federal bean counters.
In mid-August of 1809 Meriwether Lewis signed papers granting William Clark and two other friends Power-of-Attorney, in case anything should happen to him on his trip back east. It was a standard precaution, like buying flight insurance in the 21st century. You see Lewis had finally found a wife, and he had to provide for her. Lewis also sent a letter off to the Secretary of War protesting his treatment, and a letter to his mother, telling her he was looking forward to seeing her in Virginia.  None of these were the actions of man who did not expect to return.
The St. Louis Gazette reported on Monday, 4 September, 1809 that Lewis had left town “in good health”. aboard a "Kentucky Ark",  usually a twelve feet wide and thirty feet long flatboat which floated clumsily down the Mississippi.  Lewis was bound for New Orleans, where he intended upon boarding a sailing ship for the long voyage around the isthmus of Spanish Florida and then up the East Coast to Washington. But September was probably the worst time to be traveling by river in America.  And that September in particular.
It was the dry season of a dry year. The river was low, and the flatboat grounded methodically on every sand bar. It was brutally hot, the mosquito population feasted on every inch of bare flesh, and Lewis suffered a relapse of the malaria he had contracted during the expedition. After a week of travel, 180 river miles downriver, his flatboat arrived at the outpost of New Madrid. Lewis had now crossed the border from his own Northern Louisiana Territory, to the providence of Southern Louisiana, run from New Orleans. Lewis clearly felt uncomfortable, and after taking just two days to recuperate, the Governor order the boat to shove off again.
Lewis left New Madrid on 13 September, and  two days later the boat put in at the fourth of the Chickasaw Bluffs (and the future site of Memphis) at Fort Pickering. . Here Governor Lewis was carried off the river on a stretcher, badly dehydrated from his malaria fevers. He was met by Captain Gilbert Russel, commander of the sixteen man outpost. Captain Russel immediately turned over his own bed to the Governor, but was Lewis really so sick he could not continue the boat trip to New Orleans? Was he crazed by illness to the point of paranoia? But from the moment he had landed at New Madrid, Lewis' behavior had changed. His plans certainly did. It almost seems that Governor Meriwether Lewis now thought of himself as being behind enemy lines.
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