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Sympathetic Physics

John Worrell Keely and his invention.

Poking my head out of the woods for one little bit of good news: Technology & Culture has just published my article, “Sympathetic Physics: The Keely Motor and the Laws of Thermodynamics in Nineteenth-Century Culture.” It’s about the Keely Motor, which was the most notorious perpetual motion hoax of the 19th-century–unless, of course, it was real. Technology & Culture is probably the leading journal in the history of technology, and I’ve been wanting to publish an article there for years. I’m delighted that the first one I did was this one, which I think is both smart and a lot of fun.  Read more

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We Can Be Happy Underground

From the “Further Readings” section at the back of Paul Collin’s wonderful Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change The World:

There is one very simple way to see what Beach’s railway [19th century New York’s secret, unfinished pneumatic subway] looked like, and blown up far larger than any plate in this book could manage. Go to a Subway shop–the fast-food chain, you know, where you can buy a six-inch Cold Cut Trio?–and lo! Pasted upon the walls are pictures of Beach’s invention. Whoever was designing the chainwide decor for Subway simply clipped out a bunch of old public-domain illustrations of subways, including three that originally ran in Scientific American in the 1870s. Look for the pictures that depict an almost perfectly round (save for a slight groove in the bottom) brick-lined subway tunnel, and a rounded subway car interior. These are Beach’s own handpicked illustrations for what was to be an ultra-million-dollar venture. Graze pensively on your Baked Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion chips. Ponder the vagaries of ambition.

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King Crank

Tags: Useless research. Yes, yes, clever of you to spot the irony.

So what was I up to in the Archives of Useless Research, you ask? Here (below the fold) is the prospectus for a paper I’ll be presenting in November at the University of Virginia, for a conference called “Inventing America: The Interplay of Technology and Democracy in Shaping American Identity,” loosely tied to the Benjamin Franklin tricentennial (I just can’t get away from that guy, can I?) and sponsored by the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. (I wonder if the AUR’s hollow earths, perpetual motion machines, and secrets of the pyramids revealed are the sort of invention and innovation the Lemelsons had in mind…)
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The Medium is the Message

Tags: the supernatural is political, suffragists from the Great Beyond, Ghostbusters, ectoplasm, creepy retro bondage gear.

(Part Two of Two. Read Part One.)

My post the day before yesterday described The Perfect Medium, an exhibition of spiritualist photographs on this month at the Met. I talked about spiritualism as a technology, or at least a technological endeavor, and about the funny place the Gilded Age spiritualists tried to occupy between science and religion. I didn’t talk, yet, about what it was that I found unsettling about the exhibition–and no, it wasn’t the gallery of surprisingly portly Victorian ghosts.
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Spirit Fingers

Tags: ghost cameras, necrophones, the no man’s land between faith and reason, a pirate’s daughter.

(Part One of Two. Read Part Two.)

I was in New York last week, and I got a chance to see The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, an exhibit of spiritualist photographs from the late 19th and early 20th century at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I enjoyed it, as I knew I would, but there was something disquieting about the exhibit too. It’s taken me a couple of days to put my finger on what that might have been.

The angel of death comes for Martin Sheen.
The angel of death comes for Martin Sheen.

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