Tag Archives: JF Ptak Science Books

“The great excellence of this operation was its mechanical Roughness and simplicity”–on Moving a Brick House, 1875

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This is one of the many small articles that appear in major sci/tech/engineering journals in the 19th century that are absolutely so filled with human spirit that it fills your heart with hope for humanity (even if everyone involved has been dead for at least 125 years.  This one is a ravishingly simple three-page report on how to move a (substantial) brick house with a few guys and a horse. The title of this post is taken from the report1, where (I feel) the writer just took a step back from his work and said “holy ____!”, and admired the sheer beauty of the simple and successful approach to a major task. And as it turned out, the house was all of 1/4″ from where it should have been, and that was quickly rectified with a screw jack.


Tri-Triplane Monster Plane (1921)

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A short article (with a smaller photo illustration)  on a very big topic appeared in Illustrated World in June 1921. The photo showed a remarkable plane constructed by aeronautical engineer Giovanni Caproni (1886-1957)–three planes, really. Three triplanes were attached to a floating Pullman-like fuselage, making this the largest/heaviest aircraft ever built at that time. It was 32′ high, 66′ long, and 130′ wide, and was made to seat 100 and make a transatlantic voyage. This was the “Noviplano” (the Caproni Ca. 6c, and translated in the article as “Nine-plannen”), and presented itself in an impressive if not complicated manner–it was a prototype, though, and was crashed and finished on its second flight.  


Radio and Television, a Peep into the Future of 1930 from 1929

 JF Ptak Science Books   Post 2740

Pop Mech 1929 radio of the future

The odd thing about this odd speculation for an odd look advancing a single odd year into the future is that it is so, well, odd. Here on page 1009 of the January-June volume of Popular Mechanics the editors speculated on what the approaching year might bring in the evolution/revolution of the radio. Radio as a popular medium was relatively new-ish in 1922 and the in six quick years very much developed for wide use, and so it must have appeared not too long a leap to jump into a radio for 1930 that offered images to accompany the broadcast. The idea of “seeing by wireless” was already upon folks back then, or at least the technology was.


How High is Blue? (1851)

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What struck me in this technical illustration is the cross-section of the ocean of air, and the attempt to depict the characteristics of the atmosphere in receding qualities of blueness. This seems a natural thing to attempt, but I can’t really remember seeing anything quite like this from the mid-19th century–sure there there are images showing the height of the atmosphere, but I just can’t recall the point being made in shades of blue. The image itself is a large detail from “Illustrations of Natural Philosophy, Pneumatics”, a colored lithograph by John Philipps Emslie, and made in 1851.  This copy is from the Wellcome Collection, London, and try as I might I have not yet been able to find out in what book (if any) in which this work was published. Emslie was very active, and composed a number of complicated technical and data visualization efforts like this one, but I can’t yet find publication details.  In the meantime, I’m posting this, concentrating on the atmosphere.


The 50 Million Volt Dust Curtain of Nikola Tesla (1934)

JF Ptak Science Books  Post 2695    

Pop Mech 1934 TeslaThe “dust” in question here is not intended to be weaponized versions of those famous dancing bits of Brown and Einstein, but a very very high voltage-invisible-something that would obliterate any attacking air force or army. The idea is one in a long history of “death rays”, though this one belonged to Nikola Tesla (who had a much earlier outline for an idea on militarizing wireless telegraphy technology) and as such was received with considerable respect in the public and scientific spheres—or, at least in scientific areas, the low/no detail plan was given inspection and testing before it was dismissed.


Another Episode in Our Bulbous Future (1931)

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I’ve written several posts here on the great science fiction/speculative science illustrator Frank R. Paul, and I am returning to him now with this glorious image of spaceflight commercial services. It appears in Everyday Science and Mechanics, published in November 1931 (volume 2/12), and the great Bulbosity is featured splashily on the cover. The airship was supposed to get its passengers 628 miles into space to complete a one-hour arc from Berlin to New York City, and the image shows us the end of a flight,  the craft slowing above the bay, just south of Manhattan and Brooklyn and north of Staten Island:


The Rolling Houses and Glass Homes of Futurlandia


JF Ptak Science Books   [Part of a series on the History of the Future]

The rolling house of the future (offered in the September, 1934 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics) promised at least one thing–the ability to be towed by a tractor.  (And seeing that the thing is being pulled along by chains, let’s make sure that there’s no downhill towing, yes?)


[Image source originally located via  Retronaut though now I cannot find the correct links for them. Sorry!]

The spherical houses seemed to come with their own railroad tracks for easier motion–a continuously self-laying track, which would make the new American suburbs a Suburbia Mobilia.  Cheap cars, cheap houses, and a Great Depression might have made for a picture of the future that was very self-sustaining.  On the other hand, the one thing that would not have been in the gunsights of the American manufacturing center is the size of the houses, which seem to me to be on the order of 500 square feet or so, which does not make for a lot of room to store all of the consumables that were waiting just around the next decade or so, waiting for the first real generation with a large amount of disposable income to loosen on all manner of never-to-be-purchased-before-by-the-working-classes consumers.  In this respect I am sure that these small buckets for human life would seem unacceptable, leaving little room for purchases. 


Strange Things in the Sky Department: Feathers (without Birds)

JF Ptak Science Books    Strange Things in the Sky Department  

In the 30 or so posts I’ve made in this department I have yet to deal with anything having to deal with birds. This is understandable since they’re the ones who have been up in the air for 200+ million years (or at least late Jurassic), while humans have been in the air for only about .0001% of that time in our controlled falling.  

Feathers detail

[Source: Allan Hume, Stray Feathers, a Journal of Ornithology for India.…1879, American Museum of Natural History, here.]

But it still struck me as odd, these feathers in the air, and very uncommon to my decades+ experience of Looking At Pictures. They are simply a gilt-stamped decoration in a book cover, a piece of arresting design, for an ornithological journal (see below)–still, it is an unusual image, in-context or not. 


A Beautiful Solar Eclipse Print (1858)

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F.G. Hesse captured this dramatic image of total eclipse at Olmos, Peru for Lt. James Melville Gilliss’ report of the event that he chased down for the U.S. Naval Observatory and the Smithsonian in 1858. Gilliss (1811-few months too short of the end of the Civil War in 1865) was a Georgetown boy who is buried in the beautiful Oak Hill Cemetery, and best known probably for being in charge of the Naval Observatory (previously the “National Observatory”), which was teh first national observatory established in the U.S.  He took over that position from Matthew Fontaine Maury1 (as in “Maury Day” celebrations in Virginia and being the father of American Oceanography and a prominent figure in the Confederacy) and was a position he held until his untimely death at age 53. The report in which the eclipse image appears is An Account of the Eclipse of the Sun, published in the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge series in 1859.