History

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Art History Illustration

A 19th Century Lithographer Transforms the Alphabet into a Series of Sweeping Landscapes

February 14, 2014

Christopher Jobson

alpha-a

alpha-b

alpha-c

alpha-d

alpha-h

alpha-l

alpha-m

alpha-n

alpha-q

alpha-s

alpha-w

alpha-z

Buried in the archives of the British Museum is this wonderful series of lithographs from illustrator Charles Joseph Hullmandel that transforms the English alphabet into sweeping landscapes. Hullmandel was one of the most important figures in the advancement of British lithography in the first half of the 19th century. These particular pieces were produced sometime between 1818 and 1860 and you can see the full collection here. (via Juxtapoz)

 

 



Art History

900-Year-Old Coded Viking Message Carved on Wood Fragment Finally Solved, It Says "Kiss Me" [Updated]

February 10, 2014

Christopher Jobson

wood

Photo by Jonas Nordby via forskning.no

For the past several years researchers have been trying to crack a Viking rune alphabet known as Jötunvillur, a perplexing code dating back to the 11th or 12th century that’s been found in some 80 inscriptions including the scratched piece of wood found above. Recently runologist (!) Jonas Nordby from the University of Oslo managed to crack the code and discovered the secret message etched into this particular 900-year-old object reads “Kiss me.” Via Medievalists.net:

For the jötunvillur code, one would replace the original runic character with the last sound of the rune name. For example, the rune for ‘f’, pronounced fe, would be turned into an ‘e’, while the rune for ‘k’, pronounced kaun, became ‘n’.

“It’s like solving a puzzle,” said Nordby to the Norwegian website forskning.no. “Gradually I began to see a pattern in what was apparently meaningless combinations of runes.”

However, those thinking that the coded runes will reveal deep secrets of the Norse will be disappointed. The messages found so far seem to be either used in learning or have a playful tone. In one case the message was ‘Kiss me’. Nordby explains “We have little reason to believe that rune codes should hide sensitive messages, people often wrote short everyday messages.”

The act of coding secret messages appears to have been a leisure activity amongst the Vikings, as some of the other translated inscriptions turned out to be playful taunts at the person doing the decoding. The story was originally reported on forskning.no. (via Erik Kwakkel, Neatorama)

Update: Ida Kvittingen wrote to clarify several aspects of this piece that appears to have been lost in translation from the original article in Forskning.no. Specifically:

The inscription “kiss me” is NOT written using the jötunvillur code. This is a well-known code called cipher runes. Nordby did not crack this code, it was deciphered by others years ago. In my article, it is used as an example of how people often used codes in everyday messages. […] Only 9 of the 80 or so runic writings that Nordby investigated are written using the jötunvillur code.

For further information you can see more the article in an English version on ScienceNordic.

 

 



Design History

This 16th Century Book Can Be Read Six Different Ways

January 24, 2014

Christopher Jobson

book-1

Sure, the Amazon Kindle might have dynamic font adjustments, and it can hold thousands of books, but can it do this? Printed in the late 16th century this small book from the National Library of Sweden is an example of sixfold dos-à-dos binding, where six books are conjoined into a single publication but can be read individually with the help of six perfectly placed clasps. This particular book was printed in Germany and like almost all books at the time is a religious devotional text. The National Library of Sweden has a fantastic photo collection of historical and rare books where you can find many more gems like this, and this, and this.

Update: And if you really like amazing old book discoveries, you should be following Erik Kwakkel, the Medieval book historian at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who originally unearthed this story. (via Neatorama)

book-2

book-3

 

 



History

London in 1927 & 2013: A Shot-By-Shot Video Comparison of London, 86 Years Apart

January 13, 2014

Christopher Jobson

london

In the mid-1920s cinema technician, filmmaker, and cinematographer Claude Friese-Greene traveled across the UK with a new color film camera to create his famous collection of films, The Open Road. The filmmaker’s trip culminated in London with scenes that captured the daily life of Londoners as well as several iconic cityscapes. The films were restored in 2005 by the BFI and circulated widely online.

Fast forward 86 years later. Starting early last year filmmaker Simon Smith, armed with his own camera, traversed the footsteps of Friese-Greene to make his own film. The result is uncanny. Smith matched the original films shot by shot, mimicking the timing and angle almost perfectly for nearly 6 minutes of footage. While the differences between London of 1926 and 2013 are easy to spot when viewing the films side-by-side, what’s more amazing are the similarities. While clothing styles and car designs changed a bit, it’s almost impossible to tell some of these shots apart if it weren’t for the quality of the film. Watch it and see. (via Stellar)

 

 



Design History Music

Polish Concert Pianist Builds a 'Viola Organista' Based on a 500-Year-Old Leonardo Da Vinci Sketch

November 18, 2013

Christopher Jobson

organ

Viola Organista built by Slawomir Zubrzycki

davinci

Codex Atlanticus by Leonardo Da Vinci, (page 93r)

Buried in the pages of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous 15th century notebooks, amongst the sketches of flying machines, parachutes, diving suits, and armored tanks, was a curious idea for a musical instrument that merged the harpsichord and cello. The Italian Renaissance polymath referred to it as the viola organista. The general idea for the instrument was to correlate keyboard fingerwork with the sustained sound of a stringed instrument, but among the dozens of ideas pursued by the gifted artist and inventor, this was one he never explored further. Nearly 100 years would pass before an organist in Nuremberg would build the first functional bowed keyboard instrument, and many others would try throughout history to realize Da Vinci’s vision with various levels of success.

Now, after an estimated 5,000 hours of work over three years and nearly $10,000 invested in the project, Polish concert pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki has unveiled his own version of the viola organista. Not only is the new instrument gorgeous, it’s fully functional and Zubrzycki demonstrated it in public for the first time at the 5th International Royal Krakow Piano Festival a few weeks ago. Above is a video of that performance where you can hear how beautiful the strange instrument sounds. Via the Hindustan Times:

The flat bed of its interior is lined with golden spruce. Sixty-one gleaming steel strings run across it, similar to the inside of a baby grand. Each one is connected to the keyboard complete with smaller black keys for sharp and flat notes. But unlike a piano, it has no hammered dulcimers.Instead, there are four spinning wheels wrapped in horse tail hair, like violin bows. To turn them, Zubrzycki pumps a peddle below the keyboard connected to a crankshaft.

As he tinkles the keys, they press the strings down onto the wheels emitting rich, sonorous tones reminiscent of a cello, an organ and even an accordion. The effect is a sound that da Vinci dreamt of, but never heard; there are no historical records suggesting he or anyone else of his time built the instrument he designed.

Here’s an additional interview with Zubrzycki, where you can see the instrument up close (click the “CC” icon for English captions):

You can learn more about Zubrzycki and the history of the viola organista over at the History Blog.

 

 



Design History

This Programmable 6,000-Part Drawing Boy Automata is Arguably the First Computer and It Was Built 240 Years Ago

November 5, 2013

Christopher Jobson

boy-1

The Writer was built in the 1770s using 6,000 moving parts by Pierre Jaquet-Droz, his son Henri-Louis, and Jean-Frédéric Leschot

Designed in the late 1770s this incredible little robot called simply The Writer, was designed and built by Swiss-born watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz with help from his son Henri-Louis, and Jean-Frédéric Leschot. Jaquet-Droz was one of the greatest automata designers to ever live and The Writer is considered his pièce de résistance. On the outside the device is deceptively simple. A small, barefoot boy perched at a wooden desk holding a quill, easily mistaken for a toy doll. But crammed inside is an engineering marvel: 6,000 custom made components work in concert to create a fully self-contained programmable writing machine that some consider to be the oldest example of a computer.

In my youth the “automata” of choice was either a Tomy Omnibot or a demonic Teddy Ruxpin, cheaply manufactured plastic robots, both which played cassette tapes and were destined to break within a few weeks (if you lost or broke the remote control to the Omnibot it was effectively useless). Not to suggest the machines above were mass-produced as children’s toys, but it’s amazing to think such incredibly crafted machines like the Writer and the Swan were built in the eighteenth century around the time of the American Revolutionary War, the age of James Cook, and the invention of the steam engine. (via Colossal Submissions)

In this clip from BBC Four’s documentary Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams hosted by Professor Simon Schaffer, we go behind the scenes to learn just how this remarkably complex 240-year-old device was designed and constructed. Here’s another bit about Merlin’s gorgeous silver swan automata:

Update: Some also argue that the 2,100-year-old Antikythera mechanism used to calculate astronomical positions is a contender for the first analog computer. (thnx, Elliot)