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weblog archives
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Tuesday, August 12, 2003
'Imagine that you are walking in a lonely part of the country, carrying a light switch or an umbrella, when suddenly a foot-pad bars your way, carrying a stout stick, with which he threatens you.' From Self Defence with a Walking Stick,' originally published in Pearsonís Magazine on 11 (January 1901), 35-44 (via sugar-n-spicy).

Pearson's specialised in proto-science fiction and tales of derring do (publishing, for example, the work of H.G.Wells on a regular basis). The previous year, 1900, Herbert C.Fyfeís gloomy 'How Will the World End' proposed a number of doomsday scenarios; the earthís oxygen might soon be exhausted (within 340 years), or giant beasts would suddenly evolve to superiority over man:

Fossil remains of crabs, 6ft. in length, have been discovered, and such enormous creatures might - owing to some cause or other - multiply exceedingly. If we imagine a shark that could raid out upon the land, or a tiger that could take refuge in the sea, we should have a fair suggestion of what a terrible monster a large predatory crab might prove. And, so far as zoological science goes, we must, at least, admit that such a creation is an evolutionary possibility.

Fyfe even mentioned the possibility of a stray comet wiping out the planet. 'In 1832,' he claimed, 'our planet is known to have actually passed through the tails of comets, hut nothing came of it. What would happen if we unfortunately encountered the actual nucleus of one is a question more easily asked than answered.' This was Biela's Comet, which contemporary witnesses observed as having split in two after passing so close to the Earth in 1832. The comet, tailless and misshapen, appeared as expected in 1839 and 1846, before vanishing, confounding astronomers who waited patiently in 1852, 1859 and 1866. Until:

The third period of the perihelion passage had then passed, and nothing had been seen of the missing luminary. But on the night of November 27, 1872, night-watchers were startled by a sudden and a very magnificent display of falling stars or meteors, of which there had been no previous forecast...

But what happened to the tails? This fascinating page suggests that the series of mysterious fires that struck America's north-west on 8 October 1871 were directly attributable to the Biela's wayward tail.

The summer of 1871 had been excessively dry; the moisture seemed to be evaporated out of the air; and on the Sunday above named the atmospheric conditions all through the Northwest were of the most peculiar character. The writer was living at the time in Minnesota, hundreds of miles from the scene of the disasters, and he can never forget the condition of things. There was a parched, combustible, inflammable, furnace-like feeling in the air, that was really alarming. It felt as if there were needed but a match, a spark, to cause a world-wide explosion. It was weird and unnatural. I have never seen nor felt anything like it before or since. Those who experienced it will bear me out in these statements.

At that hour, half past nine o'clock in the evening, at apparently the same moment, at points hundreds of miles apart, in three different States, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois, fires of the most peculiar and devastating kind broke out, so far as we know, by spontaneous combustion.

Most famously of all, this was also the night of the great Chicago Fire. Did a comet cause the Chicago conflagration? Academics, unsurprisingly, doubt it. In 1908, however, it was a different matter. Something definitely impacted in Tungasaka, Siberia. Was this a comet strike? I hadn't appreciated that the first expedition to the site only got there 30 years later, yet the devastation was plain to see.

Elsewhere. sugar-n-spicy also sends us scurrying to the historic photo gallery of the United States Department of Agriculture. Most of the imagery was taken between 1937 and 1943. We recommend: machinery, transportation and landscapes (e.g. 'Buried machinery in barn lot,' from 1936) / BMW, chuffed to bits with the success of the new MINI, is chucking around cease and desist letters at online fans who share its enthusiasm / Harry Potter and the Cover Artists, over at Felix Salmon. Related: Coudal has the low-down on the HP fakes and international editions.

Crooked Timber is a new collaborative weblog, which gives us the agony of the tube, and info about Patrick Crozierís (unusual name?) excellent transport blog, which in turn has interesting thoughts on London's congestion charging. It makes depressing reading. TFL might not be doing everything right, but their mapping is a joy to behold.

Music things. Other people's lists are always fascinating, though like Desert Island Discs, they're also an excuse to be as willfully obscure as possible. We'll be visiting Dusted Magazine again / we thought that drones, samples, clicks and throbbing guitars went out with the 90s, until we discovered the joys of the Sunnyvale Noise Sub-Element - who take us back to the heady days of Main (more) and the lovely Loop. Endless smiles / a neat portable record player at Gizmodo / more death of music blather: apparently, profit margins on the ringtone of a new song will soon be higher than those on the CD version.

Thanks to Blurbism for this NPR story on the Tricolor saga / If I was on the same continent as the Walker Art Center I would be beating a door to their exhibition Strangely Familiar. However, full disclosure requires us to state that I did contribute one of the catalogue essays...