Project Habakkuk or Habbakuk

February 18, 2010 at 8:53 pm (Canada, Failure, Military, Nautical, Technology, The United Kingdom, The United States, Water, World War Two) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

A joint effort between British, American, and Canadian forces during the final years of World War Two, Project Habakkuk endeavored to create a floating aircraft carrier made of frozen water and wood pulp, inspired by the idea of a military base built atop a floating glacier. The project failed miserably but produced some fascinating anecdotes, including one incident in which a bullet shot at a block of Pykrete (the name given to the frozen water and pulp concoction) in order to demonstrate the material’s strength ricocheted around a room containing, among other notables, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. As tempted as I am to write my own take on this intriguing and at times humorous subject, I must admit that the Wikipedia entry on Project Habakkuk is more comprehensive and well cited than any I could produce.

Here is a direct link to the Wikipedia entry.

The strange story of Project Habakkuk excites me because it combines grandiose and radically novel ideas, the impassioned efforts of highly capable individuals, the titillating drama of the wartime urgency for the advancing of naval and military technology, the involvement of conscientious objectors, as well as setbacks and failures that are amusingly pitiful. Enjoy.

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Quinta Essentia

August 7, 2009 at 8:57 pm (Alchemy, Enlightenment, Exclusive Societies, Geology, India, Japan, Kabbalah, Literature, Metallurgy, Mythology, Religion, Shakespeare, Symbology, Technology, The Ancient World, The Occult, The Renaissance, Theater) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties. In form and moving, how express and admirable. In action how like an angel. In apprehension, how like a god. The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

–   The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II, scene ii

Shakespeare's tortured prince weighing the value of mankind.

Shakespeare's tortured prince weighing the value of mankind.

This dizzyingly rich quotation is familiar to any student of literature, and has become a sort of mantra to those who practice the theatrical art of soliloquy. But what interests me here are not the layers upon layers of meaning that Shakespeare wove using these words, but rather one individual word in particular. That word is quintessence which, as it is used in this context, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The most typical example of a category or class; the most perfect embodiment of a certain type of person or thing.” But a bit of etymological reasoning leads to more questions than answers. Why would the prefix quint, meaning five, when attached quite literally to the word essence, produce a word synonymous with archetype or apotheosis? What is this mysterious fifth essence that has seemingly sneaked unnoticed into our contemporary lexicon? The answer, it turns out, lies in various ancient philosophies, ranging from the ancient Greeks to the age-old practice of alchemy.

A table of Medieval alchemical symbols.

A table of Medieval alchemical symbols.

The practice of alchemy, which combines elements scientific, philosophical, and spiritual, is believed to date back to traditions of the ancient Persian Empire, as early as the 8th century BC. While certain aspects of alchemy bear resemblance to complex spiritual systems such as Kabbalah, its more practical attributes can be seen as a precursor to modern chemistry. Although alchemists practicing in different eras and parts of the world embraced drastically differing systems, one unifying theme running through them all is a concern with physical elements.

earth, air, fire, water

The four primary, or Classical, elements are earth, air, fire, and water.  This way of dividing the physical world can be found in various ancient cultures. In many traditions, however, there is a fifth element that is considered to be the most important one of all. Known to the Greeks as Aether, the Hindus as Akasha, and the Japanese as void or sky, the notion of a fifth, ethereal element that ties the four physical elements together is pervasive amongst ancient philosophical traditions. It is from the alchemical interpretation of this fifth element, this quinta essentia, that we receive our term signifying an example of perfection. Sometimes referred to as the Philosopher’s Stone, the fifth element is the unity that comes with the mastery of the four lower elements, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is just this notion that Shakespeare was evoking when he dubbed man “the quintessence of dust”. After all, even a ghost in the machine, no matter how powerful the spirit and how complex the mechanism, is still a mere ghost in a mere machine. This conclusion was, it seems, one of the weights that made Prince Hamlet’s head so heavy.

Some Further Reading:

The online text of a University of Virginia class focusing on the history of alchemy

An analysis of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man…” soliloquy

The entry for lapis philosophorum (the Philosopher’s Stone) from

A site that catalogues the history of chemistry, from alchemy to nanotechnology

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Joseph Faber’s Talking Euphonia

June 24, 2009 at 2:42 pm (Automata, Carnival, Death, Elocution, Linguistics, Technology, The Victorian Era) (, , , , , )

Written mention of machines built to imitate human speech date as far back as the 13th century. Early devices, however, were deemed by the Church to be heretical and were often destroyed (in one instance, it is written, a talking device was smashed by St. Thomas Aquinas himself) or at least kept out of the public eye. It was not until the 18th century that the social climate was willing to permit the creation of mechanisms that imitated human elocution, safely protected under the umbrella of scientific pursuit.


In 1846, a German astronomer living in The United States named Joseph Faber unveiled his cutting-edge Euphonia at London’s Egyptian Hall, having accompanied P.T. Barnum across the Atlantic. Faber had spent the previous seventeen years perfecting this remarkable oddity, and had even dashed an earlier machine to bits out of frustration after American audiences failed to pay him much attention. A complex device controlled by seventeen levers, a bellows, and a telegraphic line, this machine was adorned with the movable replica of a human face, which was able to faithfully replicate the sounds of human speech. At the exhibition, Faber made the Euphonia sing a haunting rendition of God Save the Queen.

As author David Lindsay described it, “By pumping air with the bellows … and manipulating a series of plates, chambers, and other apparatus (including an artificial tongue … ), the operator could make it speak any European language.” Separate levers controlled the movements of the tongue, lips, jaw, and vocal chords.


While those who observed the Euphonia in action described its “voice” as ghostly and monotonous (one claiming that it had a, “horse sepulchral voice…as if from the depths of a tomb”), its imitation of human speech was remarkably advanced given the state of technology at the time. Many who viewed the machine in action, in fact, made the baffled accusation that a small person must have been hidden inside. Standing in sharp contrast to the pristine intricacy of the Euphonia, Faber himself appeared as the stereotypical disheveled inventor. As the London theater manager put it:

“The exhibitor, Professor Faber, was a sad-faced man, dressed in respectable well-worn clothes that were soiled by contact with tools, wood, and machinery. The room looked like a laboratory and workshop, which is was. The Professor was not too clean, and his hair and beard sadly wanted the attention of a barber. I had no doubt that he slept in the same room as the figure – his scientific Frankenstein monster – and I felt the secret influence of an idea that the two were destined to live and die together.”


Even after being promoted by Barnum, Faber and his Euphonia generated little profit and received minimal respect, often finding themselves the subjects of mockery. One of the Euphonia’s few devotees was a Scottish professor of speech named Melville Bell. His son, the famed Alexander Graham Bell, made various attempts to reproduce speech, the most successful of which resulted in his device known as the telephone. Bell’s technological milestone marks Faber’s greatest impact on the field of speech technology as he himself died in obscurity in the 1860s (first destroying the Euphonia and then taking his own life), little more than a bizarre historical footnote.

Alexander Graham Bell with an early model of the telephone, an invention that owes much to Faber’s advances

Alexander Graham Bell with an early model of the telephone, an invention that owes much to Faber’s advances

Faber’s story is almost archetypical. He artfully played the role, whether aware of it or not, of the disheveled monomaniac who produced work that was shockingly advanced for its time, but which was not valued during his life. His inglorious death, followed many years later by posthumous respect, further cements this identity. An immigrant, an isolated genius, a professional failure, and a victim of suicide, Faber was a casualty on the battlefield of technological progress, only given his due respect decades after his bones were as cold and dead as the spectral face of the Euphonia itself.

Some Further Reading:

An article about Faber and his device

Another very nice article

An excerpt from the book Instruments and the Imagination by Thomas L. Hankins, who mentions Faber and the Euphonia

An article form Cabinet of Wonders about ancient automata

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Nixon’s Apollo 11 Contingency Speech

June 16, 2009 at 9:59 pm (Astronomy, Death, NASA, Technology, The Cold War) (, , , , )


On July 20, 1969, two American astronauts aboard the Apollo 11 Lunar Module became the first human beings to set foot on the surface of the moon, dealing a massive blow to the USSR (which only 12 years earlier had bested the United States with the launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite, sparking the Cold War “Space Race”). The Apollo mission was a success and the astronauts returned home unharmed. However, since this mission involved the use of new technology, there was no guarantee that everything would go smoothly. Just in case a malfunction left the astronauts trapped in space with no way to return home, president Nixon had the following speech prepared.


Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are the only two astronauts mentioned in this speech, presumably due to the fact that Michael Collins never set foot on the moon, remaining in orbit aboard the command module.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are the only two astronauts mentioned in this speech, presumably due to the fact that Michael Collins never set foot on the moon, remaining in orbit aboard the command module.

This makes one wonder whether the astronauts aboard Apollo 11 were aware that the president of the United States was prepared to announce their quietus to the world, perhaps in the chilling hours while they were still alive, trapped on the moon’s surface and waiting for their oxygen supply to diminish. This line of thinking also leads to President Obama’s desk, and the contingency speeches perhaps contained within. Have his words announcing nuclear war with Iran or North Korea already been penned? Has he rehearsed what he would say in the event of a coming alien invasion? Of the outbreak of a new plague? Of an impending failure of the national power grid?

Some Further Reading:

A site that looks at White House lost-in-space scenarios

A timeline of the Cold War space race

Links to many different presidential addresses

An article that explores one contemporary astronaut rescue plan

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Earthquake Fish, Earthquake Weather, Earthquake Clouds, Earthquake Light

June 3, 2009 at 5:00 pm (Animals, Death, Fear, Geology, Meteorology, Modern World, Mythology, Technology, Tectonics, The Ancient World) (, , , , , , , , )

Appearing in ancient texts from many cultures across the globe, earthquakes have been a source of fear and speculation since time immemorial. With an average of 18 major temblors striking per year (mostly in the Pacific Ring of Fire), it is small wonder that this violent phenomenon has driven humans to desperate attempts at earthquake prediction. While few modern cultures accept, as some once did, that earthquakes are caused by celestial struggles or air trapped beneath the earth’s surface, many still point to early warning signs with origins in ancient mythology. The following earthquake prediction techniques are not supported by mainstream modern science, but are nonetheless widely embraced by individuals and organizations determined to gain a foothold against one of nature’s most destructive habits.

Earthquake Fish

Ribbon Fish

More commonly known as the ribbonfish, these oddly shaped creatures dwell at great depths and commonly measure up to 8 feet long. Taiwanese legend points to these slender fish when attempting to predict earthquakes, claiming that these deep-sea dwellers rise to the surface in the moments before a quake strikes. Modern seismology has shown no correlation between the activities of these fish and actual earthquakes.

Earthquake Weather

Some claim that the Loma Prieta earthquake that ravaged the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989 was preceded by "earthquake weather". This photograph depicts the part of the Bay Bridge that collapsed during the temblor, which was broadcast on live TV due to the fact that the San Francisco Giants were playing in the World Series at the time.

Some claim that the Loma Prieta earthquake that ravaged the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989 was preceded by "earthquake weather". This photograph depicts the part of the Bay Bridge that collapsed during the temblor, which was broadcast on live TV due to the fact that the San Francisco Giants were playing in the World Series at the time.

Perhaps the most prevalent folk superstition regarding earthquakes in the modern day United States, the notion of earthquake weather in Western culture dates at least as far back as Herodotus (486 BC – 425 BC). Aristotle wrote about this meteorological phenomenon as well, attributing earthquakes to subterranean winds. Warm, calm weather, he believed, would precede seismic activity. While modern seismologists dismiss this notion as foolish and unfounded, I have personally witnessed this widespread superstition in action. On one unseasonably warm afternoon in San Francisco I was warned by multiple people to be wary, for we were experiencing, they claimed, typical earthquake weather. Fortunately, that day ended without disaster.

Earthquake Clouds


Discussed by Indian scholar Daivajna Varāhamihira as early as the 6th century, peculiar cloud formations are believed by some to rapidly appear in anticipation of earthquakes. Similar observations have appeared in Chinese and European writings of antiquity. These long, slender clouds that have been likened to snakes are said to form in a matter of seconds, acting as a grim premonition to observers below. Modern seismologists are divided about the legitimacy of this prediction technique, which does, at least superficially, seem to show some semblance of legitimacy. These clouds, it is hypothesized, correspond to temperature changes along fault lines that can accompany increased seismic activity and the eruption of heated gasses. The thermodynamic mechanisms by which terrestrial temperature changes affect cloud formation, however, have still yet to be demonstrated in a way that satisfies the scientific community. Until this can be successfully done, earthquake clouds will remain relegated to the realm of superstition.

Earthquake Light


This beautiful luminescence was spotted in the sky over Tianshui, Gansu province about 30 minutes before the Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008.

Similar in appearance to the polar aurorae (borealis and austrialis), earthquake light is said to include a wider range of colors. Having been embraced as a harbinger of earthquakes since ancient Greece, several 20th century earthquakes have, many claim, been preceded by these beautiful lights. Minutes before an earthquake struck the Sichuan province of China in 2008, cell phone video footage of these lights was uploaded to the website Skeptics contend that these lights were merely the result of sunlight refracted by atmospheric moisture. Neuroscientist Michael Persinger has attempted to explain these mysterious lights through his Tectonic Strain Theory, which links seismic activity to electromagnetic fields that can be misinterpreted by human cognition as lights or even UFOs.

While each of these prediction techniques has its fervent proponents, evidence for their reliability is not sufficient enough for them to be employed by the United States Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Program. This does little, however, to dissuade individuals from looking to ancient wisdom for comfort in the face of a violent force so overwhelmingly powerful that it effortlessly causes the world’s most developed nations to grovel before it in fear. This speaks to the common occurrence of drastic emotion overriding and even dashing to bits all the pristine knowledge of the academic ivory tower. In the face of violent death, sometimes there is only the terrified individual against an indifferent quagmire of external forces.

Some Further Reading:

A frequently updated site tracking earthquake clouds

The United States Geological Survey’s homepage for earthquake information

An article exploring many facets of earthquake clouds

A brief look at the Tectonic Strain Theory

The National Earthquake Information Center

An article proposing a scientific explanation for earthquake lights

A video depicted the earthquake lights that purportedly predicted the Sichuan quake of 2008

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The Montauk Monster

May 31, 2009 at 7:33 pm (Animals, Cryptozoology, Disease, Modern World, Nautical, Technology) (, , , , )

I have hidden this entry from view due to the grotesque nature of some photographs contained within. Click the link below to see the full article.

Read the rest of this entry »

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The Baghdad Batteries: Were Babylonians able to generate electricity in 250 BC?

May 28, 2009 at 4:06 pm (Metallurgy, Technology, The Ancient World, The Arab World) (, , , , , , , , )


In the mid 1930s a series of curious objects, believed to date from the 3rd century BC, were unearthed in Khujut Rabu, near Baghdad. These earthenware jars, measuring about 5 inches high, contained copper cylinders and iron rods. This strange group of objects, not given any special attention, found its way into the collection of the National Museum of Iraq. It was not until several years later that Wilhelm Konig, the museum’s director, came across these jars and pieces of metal and, upon analyzing them, drew a startling conclusion.


In 1940 Konig published a paper contending that when the pieces of these artifacts were fitted together correctly and the jars were filled with an acidic solution, they formed functional electrochemical cells capable of generating electricity. While modern historians attribute the invention of the battery to Italian physicist Alessandro Volta in 1800, Volta may have simply recreated a 2,000 year-old lost technology. (Cultures dating as far back as 2,750 BC made written mention of electricity, although only regarding electricity that occurs naturally. It wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that serious academic inquiries into electricity were conducted by Western scientists, notably William Gilbert and Benjamin Franklin.)

Volta’s early “Voltaic pile” battery consisted of copper and zinc rods separated by pieces of cloth soaked in brine. When several of these units were piled atop one another and connected end-to-end by a wire, an electrical current flowed.

Volta’s early “Voltaic pile” battery consisted of copper and zinc rods separated by pieces of cloth soaked in brine. When several of these units were piled atop one another and connected end-to-end by a wire, an electrical current flowed.

The Baghdad batteries, Konig believed, worked in the same way as the Voltaic pile. This theory is supported by the fact that the iron rods discovered inside the earthenware jars do in fact show evidence of acidic corrosion, perhaps having been submerged in vinegar. Konig suggested that when the iron rods were inserted into the copper cylinders, fitted into the jars’ mouths with asphalt stoppers, and the jars were filled with vinegar, the resulting cells were in fact capable of producing an electrical current. This claim was proved in 1940 by Willard F. M. Gray of the General Electric High Voltage Laboratory in Pittsfield, MA. Making an exact replica of the devices unearthed at Khujut Rabu and using a copper sulfite solution, Gray generated a half a volt of electricity.


Later experiments using grape juice and vinegar produced similar results. Even the popular television program Mythbusters successfully recreated Gray’s experiment in 2005. While the voltage generated by these batteries is meager (never more than 1V), it has been hypothesized that if several of them were wired together as were the zinc and copper rods in Voltaic piles, higher voltage could be achieved.

Here is a reproduction of a Baghdad battery connected to a multimeter.

Here is a reproduction of a Baghdad battery connected to a multimeter.

Konig cited examples of artifacts electroplated with gold, dating from the same era as the batteries, as evidence of the use of low-voltage electricity in the 3rd century BC. By negatively charging a piece of metal with an electrical current and submerging it in a solution of metal salt, it becomes coated with a layer of positive metal ions. This technique has been used, for example, in the process of gold plating. Gold-coated Egyptian artifacts dating contemporaneously with the Baghdad batteries might support this interpretation of the batteries’ use.

A summary of the conclusions drawn by the television program Mythbusters, regarding possible uses of the Baghdad batteries.

A summary of the conclusions drawn by the television program Mythbusters, regarding possible uses of the Baghdad batteries.

In the years since Konig published his paper in 1940, there has been much debate about the batteries in the scientific community. With some factions contending that the notion of ancient electricity is farcical and others going so far as to claim that the Baghdad batteries explain the legendary powers of the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, a wide range of viewpoints have been expressed. Since ancient texts never explicitly confirm knowledge of usable electrical energy, modern historians are doomed to continue speculating about the role, if any at all, that controlled electricity played in ancient Babylonia. But when pondering objects that have the potential to drastically redefine our conception of ancient history, as with the Piri Reis map discussed in a previous entry, an open mind is certainly the most suitable tool.

Some Further Reading:

The Baghdad Batteries on

The Baghdad Batteries on the UnMuseum

A description of how electroplating works

Some information about Alessandro Volta and his accomplishments

A history of batteries, complete with a timeline

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The Cryptocartography of Piri Reis

May 25, 2009 at 3:03 pm (Cartography, Military, Nautical, Technology, The Ancient World, The Arab World) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Hadji Muhiddin Piri Ibn Hadji Mehmed, better known as Piri Reis, was a Turkish admiral and cartographer who produced many historically important and remarkably accurate maps of the Mediterranean during the first half of the 16th century. Perhaps his most famous map, drawn in 1513, is known as the First World Map. This map has been the subject of much speculation and contention due to some of its striking and peculiar characteristics, specifically its depiction of South America and what may be Antarctica.


Drawn on gazelle skin and measuring 90 cm x 63 cm , the map was lost to the world until its rediscovery in 1929 in Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace, a discovery that has sparked decades of debate. Text on the map states that Reis drew it based largely on ancient cartographical information that he gathered from other maps drawn by Roman cartographer and all-around Renaissance man Claudius Ptolemaeus (better known as Ptolomy) who lived during the 2nd century AD. (Ptolomy, it should be noted, introduced the use of longitude and latitude, which are essential tools of modern cartography). Reis also drew information from Indian, Portuguese, and Arabic maps, and even a map drawn by Christopher Columbus. Some of his source maps, historians speculate, were derived from those housed in the legendary Library of Alexandria before it burned in 48 BC, depriving the modern world of incalculable volumes of ancient knowledge.

Synthesizing information from such diverse sources, Reis compiled one of the most accurate world maps of the 16th century. Here is an illustration of the remarkable precision with which the First World Map depicts the eastern coast of South America.


What makes this map truly fascinating, however, is the land mass depicted to the lower right. While some claim that is it a misplaced representation of Patagonia, others contend that it is in fact the coastline of Antarctica. This latter interpretation has forced historians to drastically reconsider the timeline of ancient geographical knowledge.


If the First World Map does indeed depict Antarctica, this invalidates the widely held assumption that humans first discovered Antarctica in 1820 when a Russian expedition stumbled upon the massive continent. Even more startling, however, is that fact that the area of Antarctica purportedly shown on the map, known as the Princess Martha Coast, has been covered by large sheets of ice, measuring a mile thick, for over 6,000 years. The U.S. Navy Hydrographic Bureau has employed modern technology to peer beneath this cover of ice and map the actual coastline, and has found that the First World Map depicts it with startling accuracy. Here is a letter from Air Force Commander Harold Z. Ohlmeyer to Charles H Hapgood, an expert who has written extensively about Piri Reis, regarding the map’s accuracy:

“6, July, 1960

Subject: Admiral Piri Reis Map

TO: Prof. Charles H. Hapgood
Keene College
Keene, New Hampshire

Dear Professor Hapgood,

Your request of evaluation of certain unusual features of the Piri Reis map of 1513 by this organization has been reviewed. The claim that the lower part of the map portrays the Princess Martha Coast of Queen Maud Land, Antarctic, and the Palmer Peninsular, is reasonable. We find that this is the most logical and in all probability the correct interpretation of the map. The geographical detail shown in the lower part of the map agrees very remarkably with the results of the seismic profile made across the top of the ice-cap by the Swedish-British Antarctic Expedition of 1949. 
This indicates the coastline had been mapped before it was covered by the ice-cap. The ice-cap in this region is now about a mile thick. We have no idea how the data on this map can be reconciled with the supposed state of geographical knowledge in 1513.

Harold Z. Ohlmeyer Lt. Colonel, USAF Commander”

Could it be possible that an ancient thalassocracy, unknown to modern historians, discovered and mapped in great detail the coastline of Antarctica 6,000 or more years ago, and then passed this information down through the millennia until it found its way into the Library of Alexandria only to be fortuitously reproduced before it would have otherwise been forever lost upon the library’s destruction? While many modern academics dismiss this theory as fantastical poppycock, I cannot bring myself to discard the possibility that ancient civilizations were advanced in ways that would astound us if only their accomplishments hadn’t been lost to the great eraser of time.

Some Further Reading:

Here is an extensive look at the controversies surrounding the map

A site devoted to the history of polar discovery

A blog that links to many interesting sites concerning cartography

A bit about the tragic destruction of the Library of Alexandria

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