Tag Archives: Wonders & Marvels

The Civilian Toll of the Lusitania

By Diana Preston (Guest Contributor)

At 2.10 pm on 7 May 1915 off the southern Irish coast the German submarine U-20 fired a single torpedo at the British Cunard liner RMS ‘Lusitania’. Eighteen minutes later the 30,000 ton vessel slid beneath the waves with as one survivor recalled ‘a long, lingering moan’. Among the lusitania1198 killed were 128 citizens of the still neutral United States. Their deaths in an attack illegal under international maritime law and which the ‘New York Nation’ condemned as ‘a deed for which a Hun would blush and a Barbary pirate apologise’ soured already strained relations between the German and the United States governments and fueled bitter diplomatic exchanges about the German campaign of attacking merchant shipping without warning. In April 1917 these culminated in the United States’ declaration of war.


Ruff-ing It and the Politics of Fashion

By Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt (Former W&M Regular Contributor)

Writing in 1637, the Marquis of Careaga deplored the “delicate and womanly” fashions that enraptured Spanish men.  He warned that these indulgences “overthrew their spirits, unnerved their determination, weakened their energy, and diminished their manly vigor.”

We might wonder what sort of fashions could inspire such vitriol.  A particular item stood at the heart of his comments and those of other moralists: a ruff.  Specifically, a Spanish variation on the ruff known as the cuello.  The cuello, represented here in a portrait by El Greco, had become an object of excess.  This collar was several inches high, tinted with powders, and often decorated with fancy threads.  And it had to be washed and starched daily to maintain its appearance.  By the early seventeenth century, some tried to elevate their cuellos even further, using an undergirding support known as an alçacuello.  Thus, the cuello came to embody a host of moralizing complaints that ranged from foreign policy to the economy to fears of compromised masculinity.


The Pickelhoube: How a World War I Helmet Turned into Caricature

By Peter Doyle (Guest Contributor)

+ A Giveaway

PickelhaubeIn 1914, all armies were equipped with some form of uniform cap or ceremonial helmet; but it is the German pickelhaube that is the pre-eminent example of the type: gaudy, impractical and affording little protection from either the elements or from shell fragments and bullets. This style of headdress was adopted in 1842, and with its long history, the pickelhaube became a prominent part of the military imagery of the Prussian state, and, later, of Germany itself. The image of the strong German soldier in a spiked helmet was a striking one; with military fashion following the victors spiked helmets emerged at the expense of French-style kepis in the late nineteenth century armies of many countries, the United States included.


Decades later, a mysterious archival theft still hurts

by Jack El-Hai, Wonders & Marvels contributor

Like many of my colleagues at Wonders & Marvels, I depend upon publicly accessible archival collections when I research my books and articles. For my forthcoming book The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII, for example, I used public archives in New York, Maryland, and California to supplement the research I conducted in a private family archive. Those public records added crucial context and detail.

Still missing: The "Stella" daguerreotype portrait of Edgar Allan Poe

Still missing: The “Stella” daguerreotype portrait of Edgar Allan Poe

I mention this to explain why I regard the theft of materials from archival collections as a heinous crime. When crooks steal valuable goods from archives, they remove information and ideas from circulation and damage the trust that archivists place in the visitors who arrive to examine historical materials.


Names of Dogs in Ancient Greece

Adrienne Mayor (Wonders & Marvels Contributor)

Imagine you live in ancient Greece. You are about to choose a new puppy. What should you call it? There was a science to choosing and naming a dog in classical antiquity.

Which is the finest puppy in a litter? Like moderns, the ancients looked for an adventurous and friendly nature, but one test for selecting the pick of the litter seems rather heartless today. Let the mother choose for you, advises Nemesianus, a Roman expert on hunting dogs. Take away her puppies, surround them with an oil-soaked string and set it on fire. The mother will jump over the ring of flames and rescue each puppy, one by one, in order of their merit. Other signs of an excellent hound are large, soft ears, instead of small and stiff. Upright ears are fine, but the best ears flop over just a bit. A long, supple neck adapts well to a collar. The chest should be broad, shoulder blades wide apart, and hind legs slightly longer than the front, for chasing rabbits uphill. The dog’s coat, whether long or short, can be any color, but the fur ought to be shiny, dense, and soft.


Pipes, Reins, & the Cerebral Winepress: Mechanical Metaphor in Vesalius’ Fabrica

By Marri Lynn (W&M Regular Contributor)

A woodcut from the Fabrica.

In the thousands of years of medical history preceding CAT scans, X-rays, and endeavors like the Visible Human Project, medical professionals often relied on two-dimensional drawings to inform their visualization of the inner workings of the human body. But drawings were often expensive to reproduce even with the advent of the printing press, and came with their own difficulties of representation. More often than not, medical professionals relied on the incredible power of their own imaginations to replace or augment these images.

Metaphor fit uniquely into their intellectual toolkit. Our word ‘metaphor’ comes to us through Old French, originally from the Greek words meta and phero. Meta means “between,” and phero means “to carry.” The resulting meaning is, then, “to carry [a concept] between.” Modern cognitive scientists have recognized the importance of conceptual analogy in our mental processes; some, like Douglas Hofstadter, have even gone so far as to say that “analogy is everything.”


Imaginary body parts

Leonardo da Vinci, section through female body

I’ve been thinking a lot about imaginary body parts recently. The Queen’s Gallery is opening a new exhibition of the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci in May; put it on your ‘to do’ list if you are in London – http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/exhibitions/leonardo-da-vinci-anatomist – and I have done some work for the audio guide and the app (which means you can ‘see’ it even if you are not in London!). One of the amazing things about these pages from Leonardo’s notebooks is that many (to the non-anatomist) very convincing pictures were drawn from his imagination, before he had access to human body parts to dissect. In particular, a sketch of coitus shows him thinking about where everything goes – and includes imaginary channels from the womb to the breasts, based on the ancient belief that breast milk is made out of menstrual blood. His sketch of the penis has an extra channel for the soul to be transmitted through. His section of the female body includes parts from animals. His famous drawing of the foetus in the womb is based on a real foetus, but when he did it he had not seen the womb, so that was idealised as a sphere, and the drawings surrounding it are based on the placenta of a cow. And so on.


The World’s First Robot: Talos

by Adrienne Mayor, Wonders & Marvels contributor

Uncanny mechanical humanoids, automatons, robots, and replicants, so popular in modern fiction and film, are usually thought to be inventions of the 17th century (Louis IV commissioned several mechanized figures). But the creation of artificial humans is a very ancient dream—or nightmare. Daedalus, the most ingenious inventor of Greek myth, was credited with making many marvelous mechanical wonders. His well-known experiment with man-made wings ended tragically with the death of his son Icarus., but Daedalus also created the first “living statues.” These realistic bronze sculptures appeared to be endowed with life as they moved their limbs, rolled their eyes, perspired, wept, and vocalized. Such animatronic statues were not just figments of the mythic imagination—they were actually constructed in classical antiquity.