May 24, 2013
Human flight has become boring. Air travel is a testament to man’s ingenuity and imagination. In the words of comedian Louis CK, “you’re siting in a chair – IN THE SKY.” It’s amazing. And yet, in only 50 years or so, flight, something scholars and inventors have been investigating for centuries, has become a banality. Sometimes, even an inconvenience! And though we may have mastered the skies to the extent that unmanned aerial vehicles can be sent anywhere on the planet, there is still some mystery left to discover. For while drone technology may seem to be the only area where advancements in flight are being made, many researchers today, like Archytas and da Vinci before them, remain fascinated by something that seems much simpler: bird flight, and by the possibility of creating unmanned aerial vehicles of a very different nature.
Take for example, SmartBird (top image) a project developed 2011 by Festo, a global leader in automation technology. Inspired by the herring gull and the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Smartbird is a robot with articulated wings that function just like their biological inspiration, generating thrust and forward motion. With Smartbird, researchers wanted to decode bird flight to develop a machine that could take off, fly, and land using only its own wing-flapping power. The “mechatronic and cybernetic holistic design” was made possible by using lightweight construction materials and a unique mechanism that allows the wings to twist and torque in a way that approximates real birds. SmartBird is not necessarily the future of aviation, but was created as a proof-of-concept for technology that may one day be used to help create more efficient factory automation and new power generators. However, it’s natural flight movements and seagull “disguise” seem to imply more tactical uses.
More recently, researchers at the University of Maryland Robotics Center have successfully launched a “micro air vehicle” that has been in development for eight years. After many test flights, many crashes, and many adjustments, the Robo Raven, as it is known took to the skies for the first after the team made a design breakthrough in April. Their new design features programmable wings that can be controlled independently, like real bird wings, allowing for high velocity dives, rolls, and other aerial acrobatics. The silver mylar-winged robot is much smaller and much more abstract in appearance than the SmartBird, but its movement is incredibly realistic. So realistic in fact, that it has even fooled nature – several early models were torn apart by hawks. It’s really quite something to see. The project’s success was also made possible by recent advancements in manufacturing like 3D printing and laser cutting. The Maryland team suggest that one day, the relatively lightweight, cheap, and versatile technology of robot birds could potentially be used for agriculture and environmental monitoring. There are other possibilities as well, including surveillance – Robo Raven has already been outfitted with a POV camera. If these robotic birds become natural enough, the drones of tomorrow could be undetectable to the untrained eye.
But you don’t need drones or robots to survey of a city from the skies. New York architects Aranda\Lasch have shown that cyborg pigeons will do just fine.
Aranda\Lasch developed The Brooklyn Pigeon Project as an experimental biological satellite. A flock of trained pigeons, ubiquitous in New York City, were equipped with a small battery, video camera, and microphone, and flown in spiral patterns over Brooklyn. The project is both a documentation of flocking behavior and an attempt to craft a true birds-eye view of the city. The avian cartographers of the Brooklyn Pigeon Project are sensitive to environmental stimuli that their human counterparts can’t observe. Their flight patterns are affected by sound, smells, and their ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field form. The resulting maps differ dramatically from the purely technological “grid” of modern GIS systems to provide a unique perspective on the city that, in the words of the designers, “contrasts directly with the way the city is increasingly recorded and represented today.”
The Brooklyn Pigeon Project has a precedent in the work of pharmacist, inventor, and amateur photograph by the name of Julius Neubronner who, between 1907 and 1920, developed dozens of miniature cameras designed to be attached to carrier pigeons via tiny leather harnesses. While initially created as little more than a hobby, Neubronner anticipated that his invention would have military uses and indeed his pigeon photographers were briefly enlisted and deployed to safely take photographs over enemy lines (part of an ongoing effort to militarize animals, as noted in ion’s history of animal soldiers). Although slightly more unweilding than the BPP cameras, Neubronner’s device is perhaps more ingenious.
It’s exciting to think that the avian world still has much to teach us. We still strive to capture the world as experienced by birds – the way they so elegantly move thorough the skies, see the ground, and detect the invisible forces that surround us. New research, combined with new manufacturing technologies, is bringing us a little closer to the day when the familiar airplanes and intimidating drones filling our skies will be replaced by autonomous, naturally flying, all-seeing, robotic birds. Despite centuries of investigation, we’ve only just started to unlock the secrets that nature perfected over eons.
May 22, 2013
Our recent post on the history of the cuckoo clock inspired some research into other examples of early, non-timekeeping robot birds. For centuries, birds–pigeons and canaries in particular–have been a popular subject for inventors and engineers experimenting with early mechanical systems and robotics. Take, for example, Bubo, the ancient clockwork owl seen in the 1981 film Clash of The Titans. Bubo was forged by Hephaestus to aid Perseus in his quest and Bubo was, of course, purely fictional. There were however, actual avian automatons in actual ancient Greece.
The earliest example dates to 350 B.C.E. when the mathematician Archytas of Tarentum, who some credit with inventing the science of mechanics, is said to have created a mechanical wooden dove capable of flapping its wings and flying up to 200 meters, powered by some sort of compressed air or internal steam engine. Archytas’ invention is often cited as the first robot, and, in light of recent technological advancements, perhaps we could even consider it to be the first drone; the very first machine capable of autonomous flight. Very few details are actually known about the ancient mechanical dove, but it seems likely that it was connected to a cable and flew with the help of a pulley and counterweight. This early wind-up bird was chronicled a few hundred years later in the pages of a scientific text by a mathematician, Hero of Alexandria.
In his treatise on pneumatics, Hero also outlined his own designs for several different types of artificial birds that could move and sing in response to flowing water that pushed air through small tubes and whistles concealed within his carved birds. From these basic designs, the interest and intrigue surrounding mechanical birds, and automatons in general, only grew as the centuries passed.
It’s well known that Leonard da Vinci was fascinated by the idea of human flight. He obsessively observed the motion of birds in flight and created dozens of designs for flying machines of all shapes and sizes – from bat-winged gliders to corkscrew helicopters. He dissected and diagrammed bird wings in efforts to unlock the secrets of flight, recording everything in a codex dedicated to flight written in the early 16th century. Around that same time, da Vinci used what he learned to create a mechanical bird for a stage production. The bird was by all accounts a relatively simple thing that flapped its wings via a mechanism activated as it descended down a cable. During da Vinci’s day, such high-wire birds were used in Florence as part of the “Scoppio del Carro” tradition, during which a mechanical dove known as the “Columbina” is used to help ignite a cart of fireworks as a way to ring in the Easter Holiday. The tradition continues today. In the incredibly entertaining but historically dubious television series “Da Vinci’s Demons,” the titular artist creates a highly elaborate mechanical dove that bares more of a resembles to Haphaestus’s Bubo than to a simple theatrical prop:
Perhaps the most famous mechanical bird appeared during the 18th century when French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson astounded the public with a duck that could quack, rear up on its legs, bow its neck, flap its wings, drink, eat, and, most impressive, poop. As they say, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck – unless it’s a robot, that is. Vaucanson charged a steep fee to witness his famous clockwork canard and the gold-plated duck quickly became the talk of France, even earning the acknowledgment of Voltaire, who wryly commented, “without the shitting duck of Vaucanson, there would be nothing to remind us of the glory of France.”
Vaucanson alleged that his creation used a complex system of artificial bowels filled with chemicals to “digest” the grain, then evacuate it through the duck’s mechanical sphincter (there’s a phrase I never thought I’d write). While it made Vaucanson famous and was surely a hit at parties, the duck’s digestion digestion was a hoax – though still quite impressive. In reality, it used an elaborate mechanical system concealed in the podium wherein grain was collected in one chamber and artificial excrement made of dyed breadcrumbs was released from another. However, the hoax was not revealed for more than 100 years. Long after the digesting duck had been forgotten, it was re-discovered in a pawnshop attic, repaired by Swiss clockmaker, and eventually fell into the hands of magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the man from whom Houdini took his name, before disappearing once again in the late 19th century. Robert-Houdin was also a clockmaker who used his talent to create several of his own elaborate automata.
To perfect his mechanical birds, Robert-Houdin spent his days climbing trees and listening to bird songs, trying to reproducer them on his own. The next step was to create a whistle tuned to a specific birdsong, then figure out a system to play the whistle while animating the bird’s beak and wings in sync with the sound. Houdin then took his mechanical bird a step further. He created an innovative combination of automata that included both a basic android –more specifically, a mechanical woman– and a mechanical canary. The “woman” cranked a serinette –a type of music box often used by real people to teach real canaries to sing– that played a song the canary would then imperfectly imitate. The process was repeated: the woman cranked the serinette again, but on the second turn, the canary’s imitation improved. The process continued until the canary “learned” the song and could reproduce it perfectly. Robert-Houdin’s automaton not only reproduced a song, but also the apparent learning of a song.
There were many other different types of automata built during the centuries that these early robot birds were crafted, but these early robot birds were both displays of technological savvy and reflections of trends (training canaries was all the rage in 19th century France), as well as expressions of man’s efforts to understand and to master the natural world. Our fascination with the mechanics of bird and birdsong continues to this day. In our next post, we’ll look at some of the more recent bird-machine hybrids.
May 17, 2013
“Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
So says Orson Welles as Harry Lime in the 1949 film The Third Man. Welles added those lines himself to a script based on Graham Greene’s original story. And though he may have been a genius, Welles was wrong about the history of the Cuckoo clock. “When the film came out,” he told Peter Bogdanovich, “the Swiss very nicely pointed out to me that they’ve never made any cuckoo clocks!” Indeed, although often associated with Switzerland, the cuckoo clock was more likely invented in Germany sometime in the 17th century. I use the word “likely” because the origins of the cuckoo clock are unclear and its invention is still a topic of debate among horologists.
For a long time, the cuckoo clock was attributed to Franz Anton Ketterer, a clockmaker of some repute from the Black Forest village of Schönwald. It was believed that Ketterer created the cuckoo in the 1730s, inspired by the bellows of church organs to adapt the technology in lieu of the chimes then typically used in clocks. This oft-cited theory first emerged in a relatively popular 1979 self-published book The Black Forest Cuckoo Clock. For such an iconic timepiece, there is surprisingly little written about the cuckoo clock, but, as recently noted by the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors, modern scholarship does not support the Ketterer theory. While the full origins of the cuckoo clock remain unknown, evidence dates similar, though more primitive, objects to at least the mid 17th century – around 100 years before Ketterer’s supposed invention. In any case, the familiar cuckoo clock that we know and love today, the clock that hangs in our grandparents’ houses, was certainly developed and refined by the talented craftsman and clockmakers of the Black Forest.
In traditional cuckoo clocks, the “coo coo” sound is derived from a system of bellows pushing air through two wooden whistles to recreate the distinctive two-note call of the common cuckoo. The gears of these traditional cuckoo clocks are regulated by a pendulum and system of two or three weights, traditionally shaped like pinecones, that steadily drop over a period of one day or eight days, depending on the model of the clock. One weight, along with the pendulum, is dedicated to keeping the clock gears running while the other weight controls the avian automoton. Clocks that play music in addition to chirping will have a third weight. After a century of development that saw wood replaced with brass and metal, two distinct styles of cuckoo clock emerged from the Black Forest to dominate the market: The ornamented, house-like “Bahnhäusleuhr” or “railroad house” and the Jagdstück” or “Hunt piece” or “traditional style” clock, which features elaborate, decorative hand carved nature scenes adorning a simple encasement.
So why a cuckoo? The common cuckoo, native to Europe, had long served as a natural marker of time, a welcome harbinger of Spring whose familiar calls denoted the coming of the new season and warmer weather. Writing eloquently on the cuckoo in his 1849 book Natural History: Birds, English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse described the joy felt upon hearing the first coos of the season:
There are few who do not feel a thrill of pleasure when it falls upon their ear. But more especially when, for the first time in the season, it is heard in a lovely Spring morning, mellowed by distance, borne softly from some thick tree, whose tender, and yellow-green leaves, but half-opened, are as yet barely sufficient to afford the welcome stranger the concealment he loves. At such a time it is peculiarly grateful; for it seems to assure us that indeed, winter is past.
Over the centuries since it first emerged from the Black Forest, the cuckoo clock has remained largely unchanged. Traditional clocks can still be bought and are a popular souvenir. But of course, there are now a much wider variety of styles to choose from, including striking modern clocks that look more like abstract sculptures than timepieces. However, my favorite contemporary cuckoos are those that pay homage to traditional hand-carved “hunt piece.” Although all details have been stripped away and the elaborate carvings flattened onto a single surface, these modern cuckoos are instantly recognizable solely by their familiar silhouette.
From “cuckoo” to “tweet tweet,” this next modern cuckoo clock is truly cutting edge. It was created by the London-based BERG design consultancy, who have a knack for integrating physical objects with digital network technology.
Designed especially for Twitter, #Flock is a series of four cuckoo clock objects that each literally “tweet” in response to a unique notification from the social media service. Berg’s method involves stripping an object down to its basic essence while maintaining a user-friendly, humanist design. Ornamentation was dropped in favor of a clean, minimalist design, an almost Bauhaus-like Bahnhäusleuhr. #Flock is a distillation of the cuckoo clock to three characteristics: craft, time, and alerts. #Flock is currently a limited edition exclusive to Twitter, but it alludes to a possible future where our digital lives are made manifest in the form of finely crafted objects and we interact with our invisible networks through real, physical things. But will it catch on? Will the cuckoo transform from the herald of Spring to the herald of retweets, emails, and likes? Only time (and tweets) will tell.
May 14, 2013
It’s one of the most recognizable book covers in the history of American literature: two sad female eyes and bright red lips adrift in the deep blue of a night sky, hovering ominously above a skyline that glows like a carnival. Evocative of sorrow and excess, this haunting image has become so inextricably linked to The Great Gatsby that it still adorns the cover of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece 88 years after its debut. This iconic work of art was created by Spanish artist Francis Cugat.
Little is known about Cugat –also known as Francisco Coradal-Cougat– and the Gatsby cover, for which he was paid the princely sum of $100, was the only one he ever designed. In a 1991 essay discussing the connections between the book and its cover, publishing scion Charles Scribner III, who revived the cover after a 40 year absence for his classic edition of the book in 1979, charted the development of the work from its original conception to the final gouache painting of the detached gaze. Scribner notes that its origin is somewhat unusual in that the cover art was designed before the manuscript was finished, resulting in a sort of collaboration between the artist and writer that may have yielded one of the more prominent literary symbols in American literature.
In a letter to editor Max Perkins, Fitzgerald, whose manuscript was late, requested that the art be held for him. “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me,” Fitzgerald wrote, “I’ve written it into the book.” It’s not clear exactly what Fitzgerald meant by this, but it is generally believed that that Cugat’s haunting image was realized in the form of the recurring billboard for oculist Dr. T.J. Eckleburg that watches over one of the climactic moments of Fitzgerald’s work:
“The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic — their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.”
Of course, there are several obvious differences between the final cover art and the bespectacled billboard, but if this is the connection, then the floating, faceless eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg serve as testament to the talent of each artist, as well as to the value of such collaborations. But the familiar cover art may not, in fact, have been what captured Fitzgerald’s imagination. Rather, it’s possible that he saw a much different, early cover sketch by Cugat, several of which were only discovered in 1990:
Because the manuscript was not complete, it’s likely that Cugat based his design on a conversation with Perkins about Fitzgerald’s working text, then titled Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires, and a description of one of the books settings – a “valley of ashes” where “About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land.” In one of these early design proposals, the valley of ashes is presided over by several small faceless eyes and lips floating like clouds. It seems likely that this early draft inspired Fitzgerald to create his own eyes above the desolate landscape in the form of the Eckleburg billboard. As Cugat’s design developed, he focused more on those floating eyes that seem to have enthralled Fitzgerald. The landscape became more abstract and the country road way was abandoned in favor of a cityscape that recalls the glowing lights of Times Square and Coney Island.
Although it seems likely that the billboard really is the manifestation of Cugat’s eyes, without any definitive proof it remains something of an open question. Scribner cites another theory for “those who still find the derivation troublesome” – that the cover image was actually integrated into the text as Nick Carraway’s vision of Daisy as the “girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs….”
With a big Hollywood movie now in theaters, some recent printings of the book have abandoned the classic cover in favor of one that ties in more closely with the film. So high school students working their way through the summer reading list this year will be hard pressed to find a copy without Leondardo DiCaprio standing front and center among the movie’s beautiful cast and art deco ornamentation. While the new cover is controversial among readers and retailers, Scribner himself enjoys it. In a recent letter to The New York Times, he wrote, ”I confess to liking the Leonardo DiCaprio cover, too (the new movie tie-in). I would not be ashamed to be seen reading it on the subway, but then I’m a Gemini.”
Although there have been many covers since its first publication in 1925, today, none are more suited to The Great Gatsby than the celestial eyes of Francis Cugat, so perfectly do the image and text seem align. Perhaps its appropriate that the true meaning of the celestial eyes remain somewhat mysterious. After all, if I remember my own summer reading of The Great Gatsby, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg ultimately serve as a reminder that signs are devoid of any meaning save that which we give them.
May 10, 2013
Benjamin Franklin was many things. Politician, scientist, inventor, printer author, he was a visionary whose ideas helped shape America. But he also had some notions that, while founded on sound logic and pragmatism, seem quite bizarre in retrospect. For instance, there’s his suggestion that the turkey was a more appropriate national symbol than the eagle, which he saw as “a bird of bad moral character.” Franklin’s vision for American didn’t stop with independence and iconography. He also proposed a redesigned alphabet – a new language for a new nation.
Franklin developed his phonetic alphabet in 1768 but it wasn’t published until 1789, when Noah Webster, intrigued by Franklin’s proposal, included its description in his book Dissertations on the English Language. However, because, Webster lacked the type blocks to illustrate Franklin’s changes, the alphabet wouldn’t be seen until Franklin had new blocks cast to print the alphabet for his 1779 collection of writings, Political, Miscellaneous, and Philosophical Pieces. It was the ultimate test of Franklin’s scholarship and polymathy, a phonetic alphabet designed to have a “more natural Order,” than the existing system. His proposal, “A Reformed Mode of Spelling,” opens with an analysis of spoken English in the form of a table prioritizing the alphabet by sound and vocal effort. Franklin gave preference to “Sounds formed by the Breath, with none or very little help of Tongue, Teeth, and Lips; and produced chiefly in the Windpipe.”
Franklin’s analysis resulted in removing six letters from the alphabet – C, J, Q, W, X, AND Y– that were, in his view, redundant or confusing. The “hard” and “soft” sounds of a C, for example, can easily be replaced by a K and S. Franklin also limited the remaining letters to one sound, “as every letter ought to be,” including vowels. In the phonetic alphabet, “long” vowel pronunciations are achieved using double vowels. The changes weren’t all reductive. Franklin’s alphabet includes six letters of his own devise: a letter that makes a “soft O” sound as in “folly” or “ball”; one that replaces all “sh” sounds as in “ship” or “function”; an “ng” sound; two “th” substitutes; and a letter that replaces both “um” and “un” letter combinations. Franklin first used his new alphabet at length in a 1768 letter to Polly Stevenson, the conclusion of which provides an excellent, and mostly legible example, of his proposed revisions:
Franklin was confident that his new alphabet would easier to learn and, once learned, would drastically reduce bad spelling. He believed any difficulty in implementing a new alphabet would ultimately be overcome by its logic and simplicity. However, biographer Walter Isaacson has written that the alphabet “took his passion for social improvement to radical extremes.” But in the heady days after the Revolution, a national language seemed like a natural development for a new country. Franklin’s proposal found little support, even with those to whom he was closest. He did, however, manage to convert Webster, the pioneer of spelling reform. Webster supported standardizing American spelling but, until meeting Franklin, had advocated against its simplification. After reading Franklin’s “A Reformed Mode of Spelling,” however, Webster was inspired to draft a more conservative proposal for reforming the alphabet, which didn’t depend on creating new characters. The two men supported one another’s pursuits but found little interest from others. Franklin eventually abandoned his plan, while Webster persisted, even publishing books using his new orthography. His efforts were met with resistance and ridiculed by critics as an unsightly corruption of language – critiques that were likely also applied to Franklin’s abandoned scheme.
There can be no doubt that language has influence over a country and its populace. It’s an integral part of one’s national identity. Franklin just took this to the extreme. Perhaps he viewed the alphabet in the same way he saw the turkey, as a something “courageous” and “original” to America. The phonetic alphabet would be an American original too, and a reflection of the men and women living in the new country – pragmatic, efficient, egalitarian.
Benjamin Franklin, Political, Miscellaneous, and Philosophical Pieces (1779); Nicola Twiley and Geoff Manaugh, “Six New Letters for a Renovated Alphabet” (St. Bride Foundation, 2005); Jill Lepore, A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States (2007); Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2004); “Benjamin Franklin’s Phonetic Alphabet,” Omniglot; Jill Lepore, A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States (2007)