Monthly Archives: April 2020

Balloonfest!

What goes up must come down – sorry to begin a blog with an old cliché, but we all know there is some truth in the old chestnut. I’m currently writing this in COVID-19 lockdown from Auckland, New Zealand – the Hegemon of New Zealand cities. Currently we’re up – a boom town with much of the wealth, and the largest portion of the population. This will not always be so. Dunedin, at the other end of the country, was once the hegemon. Westport, a town with a current population of around 5 thousand once dwarfed Auckland. Things go up, things go down. I say this, Cleveland, hoping you don’t judge me a snob over city size for telling this tale. I mean no malice and I know what will eventually come to the City of Sails.
I am well aware at some point in the future the air will begin to seep out of Auckland’s balloon, and as the tumbleweeds roll along Queen Street unobstructed, a new hegemon will rise to take it’s place.

What goes up must come down.

Now that is something Cleveland, Ohio knows all too well. Established in 1796, and named after their founder Moses Cleaveland (president Grover Cleveland was a distant relative) – the settlement saw a population boom in the 1830s as the Eerie Canal was cut, allowing transit from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. With access north to Canada, and not terribly far from the Mississippi river, south all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, Cleveland made a great trading post. Following the American Civil war Cleveland became a manufacturing centre – due to their close proximity to coal and iron ore deposits in neighbouring states. John D. Rockefeller established Standard Oil in Cleveland. Their steelworks, early adopters of the Bessemer process were on the rise in the late 1860s. The motor industry first started in Cleveland. Where there was industry there were jobs, and people flocked to Cleveland. What had started as a settlement of just seven people was, by 1913, calling themselves the ‘sixth city’ due to having the sixth largest population of any city in the USA. In 1926 Cleveland constructed the Terminal Tower, a 52 floor monster which was the 2nd largest building in the world upon completion.

The Great Depression slowed their rise upwards, but World War Two gave a boost to the economy. Cleveland was the USA‘s fifth biggest contributor to the war effort. Following the war their economy boomed and they had tagged themselves ‘the best location in the nation’. For a while their sports teams were very formidable – their baseball team won the 1948 world series, their hockey team topped the American hockey league, and their football team dominated for much of the 1950s. A Cleveland DJ named Alan Freed picked up on a convergence of trends across several styles of music and named it Rock and Roll. They had little to do in it’s invention, but Cleveland is forever linked to rock and roll music. Cleveland was on it’s way up, sports up, rock and roll was on the rise.
But what goes up, inevitably, must come down.

First industry waned. Restructuring of the international steel industry saw less business coming their way. Postwar changes to infrastructure (someday I’m going to take a shot at explaining Kondratieff waves, and the effects of long term economic waves on infrastructure – today is NOT that day however) – led to huge highways, and the rapid spread of the suburbs. Other cities, Detroit I’m looking at you, had become the centre of the motor industry – Motown certainly was up. The population of Cleveland shrunk as many of its citizens moved out for a home with a backyard, in a car built in another city. What was left behind however was industrial pollution, lots and lots of it. As the city descended the Cuyahoga river burst into flames, not once or twice – that would be bad enough – but 13 times! It’s last time, in June 1969 earning Cleveland the moniker ‘The Mistake by the Lake’. By 1986 the sixth city had become the 18th …. with an anchor. What could one do to raise morale, and maybe start bringing Cleveland back up?

The Cuyahoga river in flames.

Well……… What goes up?

Balloons.

On 5th December 1985, 84 years since Walt Disney was born and 30 years since Disneyland had been opened – 1 million helium balloons were released into the skies of Anaheim, California. There is news footage of the then Guinness world record release and it does look impressive – like a sea of floating jelly beans. The stunt must have been the hot topic around the water cooler the next day at the United Way of Cleveland – a non profit organization who runs charity fundraisers for needy causes. What can we do to promote Cleveland which we could turn into a money spinner – and symbolically suggests a rising from the ashes of the Cuyahoga river fire? That thing Disney just did – only bigger. United way soon committed $200,000 of their own money to the project, and hired Balloon Art by Treb, the company who organized the Disney launch. The plan was to take up an empty block next to Terminal Tower, building a three story high enclosure around the square plot – and to get 2,500 volunteers in to blow up the biodegradable balloons. The plan was to fill 2 million balloons and charge members of the public to sponsor the balloonfest at a cost of $1 for 2 balloons.


Throughout the day, and all through the night of September 26th 1986 the volunteers, mostly high school students, labored away filling balloons. Throughout the night they soldiered on, into the next day. On the 27th September a storm was setting in but they had come too far now to stop. At 1.50pm, with a little over 1.4 million balloons, the decision was made to loosen the giant net keeping all the balloons- free those colourful little spheroids, out into the universe – Cleveland’s commitment to rise again analogized in a cloud of coloured orbs. Off into the grim day they flew.


They flew aimlessly into traffic, causing multiple pile ups – motorists and vehicles alike crumpled by the impact. They flew out over the tarmac of the local airport – ceasing air traffic to and from the city until every last balloon was coralled. Some flew to Canada, washing up on their shores. Though biodegradable, marine and bird life tangled up and choked on them. On a horse ranch in Medina County Ohio, a stable of Arabian horses became spooked by the invading balloons, causing several stallions to trip and maim themselves. Their owner, Louise Nowakowski, sued Cleveland for $100,000 in damages.

Most disturbing of all, a fishing boat ran into trouble on the lake that day. The coast guard dispatched a rescue party, but when they arrived at the scene – where one would normally see two brightly coloured life jackets bobbing in the water, there were thousands and thousands of brightly coloured balloons obscurring the view. The two sailors bodies would wash up the following day. One of the widows would file suit against Cleveland for over $3 Million – later settling out of court for an undisclosed fee.

What had seemed such a fun publicity stunt quickly turned tragic. All up it cost the city of Cleveland millions more than it made. Balloonfest soon came to signify something altogether – that the rise up may be spectacular – but the inevitable fall is bumpy at best.

Coffee! – The Swedes battle for a good cup of Joe.

I really feel I should declare upfront, I am very much a fan of coffee. This no doubt sways my opinion of Sweden’s former monarch, Gustav III. I may have quietly raised a mug of Ethiopian coffee in quiet defiance to the mad king while writing this tale.


Coffee has been an elixir of life for many since the late 15th century – when a Sufi Imam from Yemen noticed how chipper a group of birds were, pecking away at coffee beans, on a trip to Ethiopia. He promptly brought the elixir back to Yemen, where it quickly became a tradition to pour a cup of hot Joe on the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday – so one story goes. Another tale has it the power of coffee was discovered in Ethiopia, by an Ethiopian herdsman called Kaldi. He noticed the goats who ate coffee beans had boundless energy, so he started eating them himself.


In the recent past, when Cracked.com’s YouTube channel ruled large swathes of the internet, their roving reporter Robert Evans (now of Behind the Bastards, Worst Year Ever and the It Could Happen Here series) explained how the Ethiopians used to ferment coffee beans throughout the day while out riding through their own body heat, for a cheap high at days’ end. It is must see viewing – Evans has several of Cracked’s staff tripping balls on various natural highs and having quite the party in the piece. One TED talk I watched a long time ago and now cannot find to properly reference the author (I particularly closely checked all of Malcolm Gladwell’s talks and, Gladwellian as it sounds I don’t think it was him) claimed – at a time when English water was too polluted to drink – the emergence of coffee houses saved the British Empire. Prior to coffee the everyday Briton sustained themselves on beer throughout the day. Coffee houses gave them both a clearer head and a place to mingle, where the ideas which powered the Industrial Revolution percolated as much as the Arabica beans themselves. I have no idea how true this is – it is an enticing thought though.


On what may well be my favorite episode of the podcast The Constant, ‘Shipwreckless’, Mark Chrisler points to how coffee houses like Lloyds of London morphed into insurance brokers for the marine trade, which, through lack of proper oversight coupled with an ability to make a killing -even when underwriting old death traps – led to the rise of the ‘coffin ships’ – overloaded, decrepit vessels sent out with no regard for the lives of those onboard. Another tale around coffee is how it apparently reached Europe. One tale states in the wake of the 1683 Siege of Vienna, Austria, as the Ottoman Turks retreated they left behind bags and bags of coffee beans. Not only did the siege of Vienna save Christendom apparently, it continues to save our mornings. The first Austrian coffee house did appear two years after the battle, but it is known coffee had been coming into Europe for quite some time before via Malta and Venice. Sebastian Major dissects numerous food myths which arose around the siege in an episode of Our Fake History.

We still have a week to fill in this schedule. I love coffee. Though the following tale is light on detail – Dates? Names? Pffft, who needs that stuff, History nerds? (Yes please!) – Let’s talk about King Gustav III anyway, and his hatred for the Jitter Juice.


Though Sweden is now the 6th biggest drinkers of coffee in the world, per capita – consuming the equivalent of 18 pounds weight of coffee a year – this was a hard won passion. Between 1756 and 1817 the Swedish Royal family would ban the drink on five occasions. Coffee was first imported to the country in 1674 (that’s right, almost a decade before the siege of Vienna apparently brought the bean to Europe) but remained very much a niche drink until the turn of the century. Coffee then suddenly reached a tipping point, and became extremely popular with all levels of Swedish society just after 1700. One might think an elixir of life such as coffee taking off, and in a lot of cases becoming a substitute for day drinking, would be a great boon for the ruling classes. It was a great socializer of people without the occasional ‘nose painting’ drunkenness can bring. It gave your people greater energy to get through the day and work hard. It warms you up in the cold, Northern climes. What’s not to love right?

Well, if you are to believe the King of Sweden, coffee made people jittery, rude, an altogether all too ‘French’. Such foreign-ness was not to be tolerated. It is far more likely the introduction of the foreign drink was hurting the domestic Swedish market for ale and mead, as day drinking gave way to the coffee houses. Though Sweden did not start brewing alcohol at industrial levels till the industrial revolution reorganized society into several large cities – necessitating larger scale production – they did have many local micro-breweries dotted all over the map. These small businesses suffered. In 1746, in an effort to relieve their suffering, the crown enacted a high import tax on coffee and tea. Did this harm coffee sales? Hardly.
The next stage was to convince the populace that to drink a hot cup of Java was to take your very life in your hands. Enter Physician to the Admiralty Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). Linnaeus was a brilliant mind who did much for the proper classification of plants and animals – formalizing what we now call binomial nomenclature (a classification system giving all living things a double barreled, Latin name ie. Homo Sapiens for humans, Felis Domesticus for the common house cat). He identified a great many plants in Sweden and Lapland. He worked out wormwood could be used as anti-malarial medication to help fight malaria. He made a raft of small discoveries over the years, such as recommending the best wood to use for the butts of guns, and suggesting to Anders Celsius his newfangled temperature scale should have the freezing point at 0 and boiling point at 100, and not vice versa – and he was well rewarded for his efforts with titles. When the king wanted scientific proof that coffee was bad for you Linnaeus was happy to oblige. Having first tried and failed to find a way of growing coffee locally, then to substitute the Arabica bean with a local alternative, Linnaeus dutifully proclaimed coffee was dangerous, and possibly to blame for hemorrhoids, constipation, senility, even strokes and heart attacks. In spite of this Carl Linnaeus himself was a big coffee drinker.

Carl Linnaeus.


King Adolf Frederick would ascend to the throne in 1751, and would enact a number of bans on coffee in his lifetime – all largely ignored by the public at large, even though at first they risked the seizure of all their cups and saucers, then later, imprisonment. During one ban, in 1794 the first wave feminist, writer, academic, and mother of Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote of her travels through Sweden, and how even the coffee made in one’s home there outclassed the coffee in Britain’s finest coffee houses. Perhaps ironically Adolf Frederick would become known for his strange death. He died of indigestion in 1771 after a meal of kippers, lobster, caviar, sauerkraut – the not at all ‘French’ champagne – and FOURTEEN SERVINGS of a local dessert called Hetvagg. Not a single coffee was consumed.

King Adolf Frederick.

Which leads us to our, poorly researched and perhaps dubious tale. In 1771 Gustav III would rule Sweden, till his assassination in 1792. Somewhere in this timeframe he was alleged to have carried out the following experiment. Like his gluttonous father, Gustav hated coffee. He was determined, once and for all to prove it was nothing more than a slow-acting poison. The tale has it he took two prisoners who were on death row for murder – some texts claim they were identical twins, and while I won’t say this was bullshit I will say I think it statistically unlikely – and commuted their sentences to life terms on the proviso one would drink three pots of coffee every day till he died. The second prisoner had to drink the equivalent in tea. The sources all point out not only did the prisoners outlive Gustav – who was very unpopular with the nobles because, as their first absolutist ruler in some time following a run of figureheads, he was determined to mess with a lot of their civil liberties. He had also started a constitutionally illegal war with Russia while they were tied up in another war with the Ottoman Empire. He was shot in the hip at a masked ball on 13th March 1792, later dying of infection. The unnamed doctors supervising the experiment all died off before the, also unnamed subjects. At some unnamed point the tea drinker, now 83, passed on leaving the coffee drinker to enjoy his daily cups of mud in peace. Is this a true story? Who the hell knows. A number of publications, including the Smithsonian have all reported on it though.

Gustav III of Sweden, the man did not like his coffee.

The next time you happen to be sitting out in your courtyard, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo up on your Kindle, Kobo, or even real book – it mentions coffee 92 times by the way – remember the right to drink coffee was hard won by the Swedes, that part of the tale at least is true.

Podcast Update: Season 2 coming soon!

Hi all I hope you all are keeping safe out there in these crazy times – for anyone playing this update in years to come I recorded this in April 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As some of you know I’m based in Auckland, New Zealand. I am safe, at the time of writing my family and friends are safe. New Zealand went into lock down early. At this point we were getting through this with minimal fatalities and many more people than ever here are starting to find talking points, I guess gaining a little popularity online? found in books like Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists and Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism – both books I recommend, if anyone is looking for book endorsements.

I’ve been working through this in my day job. Some of you will know I work from home – my blogging and podcasting studio is also my office from 8.30 to 5pm. I have to admit the current crisis has thrown me off my game a little – both in the day job …. And in the preparations for the next season of Tales of History and Imagination. I apologise folks, some nights where I should be knocking out 1000 words I’m getting through 500 or 600, other nights I’m just pouring a bourbon and relaxing to whatever is on Netflix. Week one of lockdown for me – I have been home alone – had more than it’s normal share of anxiety (the last time I have had an anxiety attack was in 2016, preparing for Mastermind and realizing maybe I should’ve picked one Shakespeare play, not several, as a specialty subject). The following weeks have been much more manageable. All this means I’ll be on track to launch the 2nd season in four weeks – about a month behind schedule.

In the meantime I’ve scheduled four extra blog posts on historyandimagination.com. I am keeping those posts plague-free. It occurred to me right now I could be topical, and still avoid the more worn paths – skip did the Black Death clear the way for a more prosperous late middle ages and the Renaissance, for the tale of Pope Gregory IX and his Papal Bull ordering the death of all Europe’s cats – which possibly made the eventual Black Death worse than it could have been. Maybe a look into how several bouts of Yellow Fever in Memphis Tennessee in the 1870s killed white people disproportionately and led to the rise of Beale Street, and the Blues as we now know it. I’ll stash these, and a bunch of other similar tales away somewhere for some time after this pandemic. The blog, as per the podcast when it returns, will be as plague free as it can be.

Please go check out my blog page, historyandimagination.com, I’ve just published my 50th blog post up there so there is plenty of historical weirdness to work through. If productivity further nose dives I’ll release some of those shorter blog tales as podcast episodes. Follow Tales of History and Imagination on Facebook, under Tales of History and Imagination. I am on Twitter under @simonetwhitlow and am very slowly building up an Instagram. Please share the podcast with anyone you know who likes these kinds of tales – ideally episode 5 onwards – the first four could do with some editing and polishing up.

And stay safe, look after yourselves in your bubbles. We’ll all come through this soon enough. Talk soon – Simone.

Hazel Scott; the rise, and tragic downfall of a phenom.

Little girl
Dreaming of a baby grand piano
(Not knowing there’s a Steinway bigger, bigger)
Dreaming of a baby grand to play
That stretches paddle-tailed across the floor,
Not standing upright
Like a bad boy in the corner,
But sending music
Up the stairs and down the stairs
And out the door
To confound Hazel Scott
Who might be passing!

Langston Hughes- To Be Somebody

Hi everyone welcome to the slightly prolonged blog only run of Tales of History and Imagination. Apologies to the podcast followers – COVID-19 threw my productivity into a tailspin for a little while. I am approximately three weeks behind schedule – hence four more short blog episodes. I got feedback from one friend I should not try to make them too happy or upbeat – apparently my horrible history topics are preferred – but I hope you all understand I’m not writing a jot on plagues or any other kind of pandemic for a little while. I don’t see being topical about something which is giving many others (myself included) much anxiety as in any way beneficial right now. I got a message on the Facebook page a month ago asking if I had anything planned for Womens’ History Month this year (I hadn’t) and if so who was I thinking of writing about. Today seems as good a day as any to right my wrong by not dropping any Womens’ History Month material this year and talk about the incredible Hazel Scott.

Born June 11 1920 in Port of Spain, Trinidad; it is safe to say Hazel Scott showed prodigious talent from a very young age. There is a story that one sunny Trinidadian day then 3 year old Hazel’s grandmother was looking after her while her mother took a break. Putting the child to bed she sang Hazel a hymn, then feeling tired herself took a catnap of the couch. She was awoken minutes later by Hazel, seated at her mother’s piano, vamping through an arrangement of the hymn. The child had never, that anyone was aware of, sat at the piano before – had never taken a single lesson – but had hour upon hour watched her mother giving piano lessons to children in the neighborhood. She had acquired the ability to play a musical instrument in much the same way children acquire languages – through observation. It has to be said however, even at this young age Hazel could play with remarkable feel and dexterity. By the age of four Hazel’s mother relocated to New York with her child phenom.

Another tale often told in relation to a young Hazel Scott is how she was ‘discovered’. The tale goes that one day at New York’s famous Julliard School of music the school’s founder, the conductor Frank Damrosch, was shocked out of his chair by an awful rendition of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C# min. Enraged, Damrosch slammed his office door and stormed over to the rehearsal room, ready to give the errant student a piece of his mind. On his way to the room he surmised the problem was those wide interval stretches you need to play Rachmaninov. Where an octave was required someone was playing a sixth – a few keys shy. When he got to the room he found eight year old Hazel, tinkling the ivories. On having a talk with the child it soon become apparent to Damrosch the only thing stopping this child from nailing the difficult piece was she needed to grow those hands a little.. to stretch a few more keys. Before long she would be attending the famed music school, learning all she could from Frank.

Frank Damrosch, founder of the Julliard School of Music.

As a young adult Hazel Scott would go from strength to strength. At 19 she was rocking out at Greenwich Village’s Café Society – an integrated bar (where both black and white patrons were welcomed) whose patrons included poets, movie stars, politicians – anybody who was somebody. She had an act that became known as ‘Swinging the Classics’ which would work as follows – Hazel would take a classical piece, playing it completely straight – then she would start to add a little swing to the beat, and a healthy dose of jazz improvisation. Her performances were dizzying in their virtuosity, and completely unique for their time. She was soon on the bill with a number of major artists of her era and a regular at Café Society. Fast becoming an A lister herself, she rubbed shoulders with all the A Listers. She met and fell in love with Adam Clayton Powell Jr, the first African American congressman in America’s North East. The two would marry in 1945.

Hazel Scott and Adam Clayton Powell jr.


At this point in her life Hazel was doing very well indeed – pulling in around $75,000 a year – around a million in current dollars. By the early 1940s she had begun to appear in the movies. Like Lena Horne, she refused to ever portray a negative stereotype of the like Hattie McDaniel would make a career at. No maids, no stock minstrel characters, no savages. More often than not she would play herself – which she did in several films, first for MGM, then Colombia, then Warner Brothers. She was active in the Civil Rights movement – Besides becoming an agent of change in Hollywood (in her refusals to be presented as a negative stereotype she paved the way for other black actors to do the same), she refused to play segregated venues. At one stage she caused an uproar in Austin Texas, when she found a venue she was booked for had blacks only and white only zones. The situation became violent when she refused to perform, and the Texas Rangers had to escort her out for her safety. Hazel Scott later told Time magazine “Why would anyone come here to hear me, a Negro… and refuse to sit beside someone just like me?” In 1949 she would file a lawsuit against a diner in Pasco, Washington who refused to serve her on account of her skin colour. Her lawsuit would serve as a precedent for later lawsuits in Washington state barring establishments from refusing service to African Americans.


In July 1950 – to some this was Hazel Scott’s crowning achievement – she became the first African American to have her own television show, The Hazel Scott show. A 15 minute, live to air piece for the Dumont Network – Scott would showcase her talents on the piano. It was very popular, but would only run for three months. We have the House Un-American Activities Committee to thank for that – and for the unravelling of Hazel Scott’s remarkable life and career.

Senator Joseph McCarthy.

To sum up the HUAC in a few paragraphs, particularly to the uninitiated, does seem a big task – suffice to say much of the world had been in a state of massive disruption in the decades prior. If we are to draw a line in the sand at the Great Depression and point to how President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted the New Deal – a veritable ‘alphabet soup’ of legislation aimed at looking after the welfare of Americans; stimulating growth via massive infrastructure schemes, a safety net for all who needed it, a program of taxation which made the wealthy pay their fair share and Government ownership of certain essential industries – you get a sense the USA was going through a massive change in the way they did things. With FDR came a change in mindset, as often there is at important historical junctures. Much of the USA became a little more utilitarian – concerned in the greater good and happiness of all. The New Deal would remain the strategic blueprint for America through Democrat and Republican presidents alike right up till the Neoliberals scrapped it in the 1970s. The other important juncture was World War Two.

Geopolitically, the war placed the USA and USSR at the top of the pile, and into a dangerous rivalry with one another. On a personal level, a postwar USA was booming – leading to increased urbanization, among other changes – but one change which those who had fought overseas and those who had sacrificed at home during this long, hard era – were no longer willing to put up with the inequalities and discriminations of the older ways. This time saw a huge rise in unionism, in the civil rights movement, feminism, LGBTQI+ rights, a rise in counter culture movements like the Hells Angels. The rise of youth oriented culture like rock and roll. As much as the HUAC, McCarthyism – named after the Democratic Senator for Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy – may have had some genuine concerns over communist infiltrators now the postwar landscape had made the two blocs bitter rivals – their witch hunts were as much a knee jerk reaction to a rising call for a better standard of life for all Americans. Look, this is reductive, but I did say I’d cover it in two paragraphs.

Back to Hazel Scott. In July 1950, just as her Television career was starting off, Hazel was named on a list of possible subversives. A decade earlier she had played at a charity fundraiser at Café Society for a local member of the Communist Party, who had run for a seat on the New York Council. The chances of her getting called up before the HUAC were slim, but Hazel was never one to back down from oppressors and demanded to speak with the committee. As Americans they had freedom to believe what they wished, and freedom of association. That she was not a communist, and barely knew the candidate is neither here nor there, she was horrified at the gall of these conservative, populist snolligosters daring to ruin the lives of so many Americans, and drag the USA back into a regressive, discriminatory age. She would stand up to them, because somebody had to.

Sadly this tale does not have a happy ending. Not all tales do. Hazel Scott destroyed her career by appearing before the HUAC. The TV show was cancelled. Her movie roles dried up, the concert venues got smaller and smaller. Her marriage to Powell broke up. For a while she moved to Paris. She would continue to make a living out of her talents, but in no way at the level she used to. She would suffer depression and attempt to commit suicide twice. She would eventually die of pancreatic cancer in October 1981.

If I had chosen to do a piece on Women’s History Month, Hazel Scott would have been my choice. She had a preternatural talent which brought joy to millions. She used her platform to help make significant change in the lives of others. She was a role model for many young African American kids wishing to be entertainers. The story of her downfall is a travesty, an unsightly blot on the American landscape often overlooked for bigger, more shocking cases. For such a shining light she has become ephemeral in the passage of time, and that too is wrong. Take a second to honour Ms Scott in the video, borrowed from YouTube below.

That moment Martial Bourdin attempted to kill Time.

At 4:45pm precisely, GMT, on 15th February 1894 the grounds of Greenwich Park, London – home of the Royal Observatory, and a clock we’ll discuss later – are shaken by a resounding boom. Staff at the observatory recalled a “sharp and clear detonation, followed by a noise like a shell going through the air”. They peered out the windows in trepidation attempting to work out what just happened. A park warden and a group of students ran towards the epicenter of the blast – where a solitary young man lay dying. The young man, who died not long after in a local hospital, was identified as 26 year old Frenchman Martial Bourdin.

Bourdin was a member of the Autonomie Club – a collection of anarchists who had largely escaped more authoritarian regimes on the continent, and who, once in Britain had either become radicalized or found kinship in the group. To pin down what constitutes an anarchist – well, their beliefs could run the gamut from Communism to Libertarianism, and all sorts in between – but the unifying themes were the rejection of authoritarian figures and hierarchies, a distrust of all current institutions – and often a wish to destroy society so they could build a new society based on their particular beliefs. Often they hoped to achieve this through terrorist acts. The Autonomie club had come to the attention of many in 1892, when a bomb making facility was rumbled in Walsall, North West England.

The Autonomie Club



That Bourdin would expire from his injuries was a given – when inspecting the scene his blood, flesh and bone left a 60 metre blast radius. That he hadn’t intended to blow himself up was assumed – when he left Westminster that day he was carrying a considerable sum of money. Inspectors took this as evidence he was planning to skip the country for the continent following the blast. It has always been assumed he lost his footing while nervously walking a zigzag pathway to his intended target, and on stumbling, the bomb went off.

His intended target has always been a matter of speculation. It probably wasn’t the well guarded naval facility that was the observatory – chances are at most Bourdin may have blown a hole in their fence – perhaps killed a guard or two; or a crowd of Londoners – on Thursday afternoons the park was quiet… but the 24 hour gate clock on the grounds – a clock which had counted the time with deadly accuracy since 1852.

To understand why someone might want to blow up a clock, we have to consider the concepts of ‘noble myths’, that ‘time’ hasn’t always been exactly as it is now – and that for most conveniences that improve our lives, there is often a corollary effect which makes our lives worse off.

First, to time itself. The Earth is in constant motion in a couple of ways. One way is it spins on its axis – in a direction we call East, at a speed we measure as either 1,000 miles per hour or 1,600 kilometers per hour. The mile comes from an estimate of 1,000 paces by a Roman soldier (in Latin the ‘mille passus’). A Kilometer is 1,000 metres, and a metre is 1 ten millionth the distance from the equator to the north pole. A twenty four hour day is a close approximation of the time it takes for Earth to spin one time on it’s axis (it actually takes approximately 23 hours 56 minutes to fully spin, but close enough). The other way we move of course is in an elliptical orbit of the sun – which gives us our year, but let’s skip the specifics of that.

We get divisions of hours, minutes, and seconds the way we do because 5,000 years ago the Sumerians worked with a duodecimal (base 12) and sexigesimal (base 60) system rather than our preferred decimal (base 10) system. The Babylonians kept base 12 and 60 alive in their mathematics and astronomy because it suited what they were doing. The Greeks brought the concept back to Europe in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests, 336 – 324 BC. They used those systems, particularly for navigation and trigonometry.
Going on knowledge the world was spherical, Hipparchus of Nicaea broke new ground when he divided a globe up into 360 degrees – a derivation of 6 x 60. The Roman Ptolemy of Alexandria further developed the language by subdividing the lines into minute (small) parts ‘minutes’ and a smaller second ‘seconds’, division. He divided by 60 both times. In the 16th century our technology was good enough to make clocks which could tell the time beyond the hour (the very first mechanical clocks in the 14th century only had one arm, for the hour). We borrowed the terms minutes and seconds from Ptolemy of Alexandria via thousands of years of precursors, sexigesimal framework and all. We really could have divided our time any number of ways; by 10, 15, 20, 200 it doesn’t matter- but this is the common story we all adopted, simple as that. It had history and a commonality in it’s favour- and as such it gives us a common, understood framework to work, plan, explain, develop from and exploit- It allowed a framework to direct others by, so is a kind of noble myth if you will.

Oh, and just to reiterate – we had hours, days, weeks, months, years – we had the words minutes and seconds; but we did not measure our time in minutes and seconds until the technology of the 16th century allowed us to.

If you put aside all of the scientific advantages of measuring to the second and beyond (Danish astronomer Tyco Brahe being one of the first to work by such small increments – one day we will come back to Tyco, his brass nose, drunken pet moose, and embarrassing death) – and look at the lives of ordinary working folk you can see how an accurate conception of time may have brought several advantages in organizing your life outside of work, but when coupled with an increasingly industrialized world it also enslaved a lot of people to it’s incessant tick, tock, tick, tock.

For one as production moved away from a model with an artisan making one item from start to finish, then doing the next one – to a mass production model where maybe a dozen people made one part only, over and over. Focus changed to how quickly a person can make that one thing? To a business owner this is efficiency. To a worker this presents a scenario where an artisan, once at liberty to take their time over a varied task, now had one simple – perhaps boring task – and could find themselves having to account for their every second if deemed to be ‘swinging the lead’. In 1748, when Benjamin Franklin offered the advice ‘time is money’ it was clear the criteria for what construed a good job had tipped in favour of efficiency.

In Bourdin’s time, time and productivity experts like Frederick Winslow Taylor had codified your every second into a science – his method, commonly referred to as Taylorism carried the official brand ‘Scientific management’ with good reason. While Mr Taylor suggested workers needed regular breaks (so they could recharge their batteries and work harder overall, not out of any particular kindness) he also had every task analyzed to the smallest increment. He introduced the concept of ‘soldiering’ to the workforce – the belief that a worker will do the minimum they can before they get into trouble. Believing soldiering to be “the greatest evil with which the working people… are now afflicted”, he advocated the use of slave-driving managers to crack the whip. While Martial Bourdin himself may have felt a slave under the shackles of a factory owners obsessive drive be the most productive, let’s not ignore productivity is measured against time – then in minutes and seconds, on new-fangled, accurate clocks. Factory workers were slaves to time as much as a hectoring supervisor.

In the 19th century this adherence to time took more of a twist. As marine chronometers were more in use on ships, to more accurately assess longitude, and people travelled through time zones more – as telegraphs, then later the telephone made our world smaller – and as railways required some uniformity of time zones, clocks across the country, and the world began to follow a more common pattern. Towns could no longer have one town on their own time, and the next town on theirs, a few minutes different. While this seems a good thing – I would argue it is – to many an anarchist like Bourdin this would have seemed another way central governments enforced their will on the people. Only a few months earlier, on November 18th 1883, the USA had finally managed to get their railways running on a common time scheme – following the British who had done so back in 1847. The USA was trying to plan their burgeoning railway system around 300 local time zones before they made the change.

Only a few months after the Bourdin incident, on November 1st 1884, the world would officially assign 24 time zones at the international meridian conference, in Washington DC. Greenwich Mean Time – based on this twenty four hour clock in a London park, where months earlier a young man hopped aboard a time shackled train, and disembarked with the intent of killing time, blew himself to pieces – that Greenwich Mean time, developed I might add, in part so large imperial powers could run their empires of conquered peoples more efficiently- THAT Greenwich Mean Time suddenly became the beat we all danced to. I have little doubt the clock was Martial Bourdin’s target. To Martial Bourdin the clock wasn’t a convenience, or a wonder – the damn thing was enslaving the lot of us.

Sommaroy Island, Norway..



Now, as a coda to this story, in June 2019, I don’t think it matters which day (Ok the article I saved to favorites when I read it says June 23rd 2019) the Norwegian Island of Sommaroy announced the tale we tell ourselves about time no longer served a purpose for them. When you are up high in the Arctic circle and have a 70 day run without a night the downsides began to outweigh the upsides. Effective immediately – whatever that meant to them anymore, time did not exist for the 350 residents. If you ask any historian, or historical writer like myself, if you could live in any time in history I’m pretty sure most of us will pick now (edit: I wrote this a few months ago, some of us would not pick right now in the COVID outbreak obviously – Simone). Now is not necessarily the best time we will have, but it sure beats dying of typhus, cholera, or being murdered by marauding Vikings, Avars, Magyars, Mongols, or for that matter British imperial soldiers. However I bet I’m not the only one that looks a little enviously at those who were less a slave to the clock than we are today. Are not the best times, those idle moments where you have nowhere you need to be, nothing you need to do, and you can relax in a chair with a good book?
Unfortunately it turns out Sommaroy were scamming us – it was a ploy by the tourism authority to get more people to come see the land that time forgot.

Oh, as a coda to the coda, fans of English literature – Joseph Conrad based his novel ‘The Secret Agent’ on the tale of Martial Bourdin. It was my introduction to Conrad’s writing, and is a very readable book, check it out.