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Thursday, 21 May 2020

Pneumatic transports of delight

No, this is not a reference to Brave New World, but to something that turned up in my FB feed this morning, concerning ways of getting cash away from the sticky fingers of shop assistants.

Some ran on wires, others ran through tubes, and as a small boy, these things made me aware that sometimes, rarely, Heath Robinson gadgets might work.

At the age of 8, I tried making Meccano versions of the run-on-wires models, without success. I knew about the pneumatic versions, but the Meccano sets had inconvenient holes, so I gave up.

In what follows, the pics are more detailed than they appear here: click on them to see them in all their glory.

As it happens, I wrote about such things in my Not Your Usual Clever Ideas, available on Kindle (it includes shoe guns, sharkproof suits and pile drivers powered by gunpowder and the 'rowing bike' seen on the left), but here's the detail on the stranger ways that things were moved by air pressure.

In 1868, all eyes were upon the new device, the pneumatic telegraph, which was going to revolutionise the world by allowing one to send actual documents hurtling to their destination. This was the pneumatic telegraph, which was all the rage in the 1860s.

The Pneumatic Dispatch Company in London declared its hand in 1861, when they set up a quarter of a mile (400 metres) of test tubing at Battersea, near the Victoria railway bridge. This included irregular curves and gradients to show that the terrain would be no obstacle to a working system. Carriages were introduced and air was drawn out in front of them to give a pressure differential of "seven to eleven inches of water".

Atmospheric pressure is taken today as 100 kilopascals, and it supports about 400 inches of water, so we are talking here of a pressure in the 2-3 kilopascal range, about the same difference as that between the top and bottom of a 300-metre building, so not that great. Still, this gentle difference was enough to accelerate the rail cars to 25 mph (40 km/hr), and the individual cast iron tubes were 9 feet (2.7 metres) long and about 850 mm high.

There was no seal, which would have caused frictional loss, so there was a small amount of "windage", and most importantly, Parliament had granted them the power to "open the streets", to lay the tubes that would no doubt soon link all of the post offices in the world's greatest metropolis.

By 1862, the company was meeting to vote on an increase in capital to fund extended works and to obtain new machinery, and a further £50 000 was subscribed, though several members opposed the motion, one of them declaring the system a financial failure which ought to abandoned. The details of the company are not very clear, but a 1929 enquiry mentioned "the Post Office Tunnel", constructed by the company in 1866, and found to be less than air-tight. The Post Office bought it in 1921, and the tunnel ended its days as a conduit for telephone cables.

By 1863, 110 mails passed through the pneumatic despatch tube from the station to the district post-office during each day, and, said a report in Scientific American, the occasional human was allowed to ride in the carts.

For some years, the system was used to carry parcels from the railway to the Post Office. In the USA, though, there were far more ambitious plans. By 1867, these extended to mail sorting systems that would carry letters in scurrying carts, hither and thither, under the streets of American cities.

That was nothing, though, to the grand plans of the Waterloos and Whitehall Pneumatic Railway Company which planned to send parcels under the Thames in a giant tube, 12 feet 9 inches (3.9 metres) in diameter. This would connect the various lines which were by then operating on either side of the river. The illustration shows sections of the tube being prepared on dry land before being lowered into the river.

The tube systems operated successfully in a few cities, but they had their greatest penetration in stores, where trusted cashiers, locked in cages, received cash and dockets by pneumatic tube, and sent receipts and change back, again by tube, to be handed to the customer.

If you want the original images, here are the sources.

[1] Scientific American 5 October 1861, 209.
[2] Scientific American 5 January18 67, 1.
[3] Scientific American 16 March 1867, 165.  6

Magic, medicine and technology

This morning, I saw a picture of a truck on which the owner had painted "Jesus is my vaccine". I immediately began to write a piece that referenced this quotation:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
— Clarke’s Third Law, Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future, 1973.

When I went to dig that out of my files, I recalled that I had written about this same matter at the start of my e-book, Not Your Usual Treatments, so I just plundered that. You don't need to read the book (though you'll never be the same if you do!). Here are the salient bits.

I use four different computing devices at different times, and for different purposes. Each uses a different sig file for emails, and right now, the message below appears under emails sent from my tablet:
Away from my desk, and using something with technology sufficiently advanced to pass for magic, given the right lighting. The fully indistinguishable bit will come with the next upgrade.
The sort of people I work and play with recognise that as a reference to Clarke’s Third Law. They probably also know the unofficial corollary: “Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.”

My friends live in the world of logic, science and technology. They know what I know: that when we find “magic” being presented as real, rather than as entertainment, we’re in the presence of ignorance, or fraud, or both. Nearby, we will find charlatans and/or the gullible.

I first encountered “magic” when I was about 13. I had a severe rope burn on my leg, and my uncle had been dabbling with a new “religion”. He treated the burn using a neat trick taught to adherents of this movement. His sons, younger than me, mispronounced the trick as “touch and fix”.

Like most conjuring tricks, it was simple. He repeatedly touched my skin near the wound, asking each time if I could feel it, and in the end, according to my mother who watched the process, he was scraping his fingernail down the wound, quite hard — and I was reporting no pain.

Basically, this was desensitisation, a matter of overloading the pain receptors so they stopped sending strong pain signals. I was a scientifically-inclined child and I knew, even then, about desensitisation and deception. On the other hand, my mother, a life-long gullible, was impressed. Even though this was the first rope burn she had ever seen, she told all and sundry that no rope burn in history had ever recovered so quickly.

She was just about ready to sign us all up to join the group, which would have been a salutary experience for them, having me inside the tent and still aiming inwards, but my uncle realised they were dangerous, dropped them, and warned her off.

Desensitisation is easily explained by science. It is simple technology, but in the wrong hands, it can easily be packaged to look like something close to magic. In the wrong hands, it can wreak havoc, much as I would have done, inside the tent.

Almost anything in the wrong hands can wreak havoc.

In Lamb to the Slaughter, Roald Dahl showed us that the frozen leg of a fluffy lamb makes a grand club for braining somebody. The poison in 200 kg of potatoes will kill anybody persuaded to eat them, and a medicinal leech in a soldier’s drinking water may attach inside his throat and choke him to death. Any book, placed in a drum of cement, and tied to the ankle of a literary critic may be used, in damp environments of sufficient depth, to improve the human gene pool.

It’s all about context and intent. Medical havoc usually comes when a person lacks any basic knowledge of a technology, culture or set of procedures. Guided by a charlatan (or being a charlatan), the ignorant person adopts or constructs a nonsensical explanation of reality, and applies it without any thought, or hesitation.

In ignorant minds, analogy sounds as good as analysis, and by a false analogy with scurvy, cancers can be blamed on dietary deficiencies. It’s an easy slide, all the way down the slippery slope after that. Some users progress to believing that one can eliminate TB by rubbing the patient’s brow with crystals. Soon, the very same treatment is credited with fixing headaches, beating sunstroke, banishing syphilis and mending varicose veins.

Filled with excitement, the converts claim that eating worms mends broken bones, that a tea made from a noxious weed stops HIV in its tracks, or that snake bite is cured by injections of meerkat urine. These people enter a frauds’ universe where, while many things are still impossible, they, the victims, don’t know it. This is not magic, they parrot — just advanced and esoteric science that the listener could never comprehend.

To be fair, some of the frauds are the victims of self-delusion, but they are still a threat to public health. In 1709, Alexander Pope wrote in An Essay on Criticism, “A little learning is a dangerous thing”, though this is usually seen and heard as “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”.

This book is about people with little knowledge or learning, and no inclination to find out — and about people with a great deal of knowledge of deception, and a strong inclination to find money.

I originally planned to look at Australian quacks, but I soon realised that context and intent are all-important, that most “quacks” were nothing of the sort — and that strange medicine knows no borders. In the end, I realised I simply had to spread the net wider, but there is still a strong emphasis on the Australian side of this story.

One generation’s orthodox medicine is seen by the next generation as out-and-out quackery, and the only thing that has changed is the dominant paradigm, the accepted model of what makes us ill.

Occasionally, a far-seeing practitioner has been denounced as a quack, before later being proven right. These rare examples of genius struggling along, unrecognised, are just what the frauds and charlatans need.

“They laughed at Einstein,” they jeer, trying on their Einstein wigs.

All the same, there is a difference between the medically trained lone-wolf pioneer and the fraud. The pioneer was merely working to a different paradigm, while the charlatan works only to a greed paradigm.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Henry Cruciform's transmitting piano

A bit of background: I have just published a new book, Australia's Hidden Heroes: Crooked Mick of the Speewah and Henry Cruciform, and you can read more about the book here.

Among bush folk, Crooked Mick is still remembered, but even science historians like my friends know little about him, but I have recently gained access to the Cruciform Papers, and shared his stories. This account covers one of his wartime exploits, one which required a gifted pianist, a consummate mathematician and a highly creative mind, all in one person

 It reveals for the first time just how complex the secret war was that was waged between 1914 and 1918, when nothing was what it seemed—and the same applied in World War II, when the by-now septuagenarian Cruciform answered his country's call. Sadly, the needs of national security still preclude telling major parts of the story.

Cruciform's first hoodwink project involved some further developments on radio transmission, in particular, the use of his previously developed transmitting piano to send coded messages which sounded like bad piano playing. This was probably (but not definitely) intended as a hoax to play against the German High Command.

The scheme succeeded, as the German Intelligence authorities enthusiastically adopted the scheme and used it with great success. The ‘music’ which transpired helped to sap the moral fibre and fighting will of the average German soldier. Convinced that the Allies were using the same system, the Germans spent a great deal of time trying to decode Cruciform’s random transmissions.

Sir Edward Elgar’s knighthood was awarded for the work he did on the Enigma Variations, which totally defeated the German decoding efforts during the war (with fiendish cunning, the variations contained no code at all, making them very difficult to decode accurately). Some incidental evidence suggests that George Gershwin was performing a similar role for the American forces, while still a teenager.

Fearful that the same code systems would be used again in World War II, the Germans developed the Enigma coding and decoding machine in the 1930s, based on the action of a barrel organ, but playing at supersonic speed.

Cruciform solved this problem for the Allies in World War II, recording the German messages on 78 rpm records, and playing them back on the 33 rpm turntable which he invented for the purpose, but this also will be dealt with in more detail in the forthcoming second volume of Cruciform’s scientific papers.

The project backfired to a certain extent when, during the chaos of post-war Berlin, the memoirs of a German general were mistakenly coded for piano transmission. This would have caused no problem, except that his publisher was also a music publisher, and the result was erroneously released to an unprepared and unsuspecting public, allegedly as the collected works of Arnold Schönberg and Anton von Webern.

By coincidence, there really was an Arnold Schönberg, a little-known composer of rustic polkas and lyric love ballads who happily took the credit and royalties for the cacophony published over his name, although he then needed to compose his simple and derivative tunes under the pseudonym Karl-Heinz Stockaitken-Wassermann. This caused him some problems, as the end of his name invariably fell off the royalty cheques, and he died in poverty, being buried in the same paupers’ grave as W. A. Mozart.

Anton von Webern was wholly imaginary, and his alleged existence remained an embarrassment to the whole musical world until his ‘death’ was staged at the end of World War II, with the agreement of all the Allied and Axis powers, after Eisenhower had asked to meet either him or a Lieutenant Kije of the Red Army.

The story that von Webern was shot dead by an American sentry while slipping outside for a crafty cigarette was deemed so unbelievable that the authorities thought, correctly, that people would believe it. When Eisenhower was told that Kije had fallen victim to Beria’s thugs, he decided to enter politics, and was elected President of the USA in 1952. All of this arose only because of Cruciform’s work during World War I, but we are getting ahead of our story.

By 1913, as has already been mentioned, Cruciform had fitted a transmitter to an ‘Ampico’ reproducing piano. The ‘Ampico’ is able to reproduce every nuance of the original player’s performance, causing Busoni’s widow to burst into tears when she heard one of her husband’s piano rolls played after his death. [1]

During World War II, each secret agent’s ‘hand’ on the Morse key could be separately recognised. If a major deception was to be achieved concerning the ‘piano coder’, then a foolproof method of reproducing the agent’s ‘hand’ would have been invaluable. This alone can account for Cruciform’s work in this area. [2]

Crooked Mick’s main role was to carry pianos into positions where they could be easily captured by the Germans, but once a few of the pianos had been transferred to German control, it became easier simply to allow the rolls of paper to fall into German hands.

[1]        Dennis Condon (pers. comm.)
[2]        The notion that the “radio-Ampico” was part of a complicated diabolical assassination machine, designed to kill anybody sitting during the German national anthem (i.e., the Kaiser) is, of course, too ludicrous for words. Those aware of the literature on Cruciform will already know, of course, that this is another De Choncqui theory.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

A bit about LIDAR

Many moons ago, I was a teenager in New Guinea, working in what we would call "work experience" today. I was in the jungle near Sogeri, and though I didn't realise it at the time, it became good background for the history of the Kokoda campaign that I wrote for younger readers, some years back. It helped me in another way, because we used a "chain", by then a steel tape, to measure distances.

In Port Moresby, I was shown a tellurometer, though I never saw one operating. I was told that in the near future, chaining would be a thing of the past, but the basic methods we used were far more hands-on. They were little changed from the methods used by explorers and surveyors in the 19th century, so that helped me when it came to writing histories of that sort of work.

It's hard to relate to that now, in an era when the truth of plate tectonics can be established by GPS measurements on ground stations. Even recent advances whizz by so fast that we tend to miss them, as a US friend observed the other day:
"[My dad] kept reminding me that he was working on the Atlas missile program and the controls were all in a trailer bigger than his 5th wheel and didn't have as much computing power as Liz's graphing calculator. It's pretty awesome to think that we could have sent men to the moon with less computing capacity than I'm carrying around in my purse."
Well, the tellurometer was good, but grab this, from a release I saw some time back, relating to a story in Nature Photonics*: I tucked it away in a file that was just being searched for something quite different...
"By combining the best of two different distance measurement approaches with a super-accurate technology called an optical frequency comb, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have built a laser ranging system that can pinpoint multiple objects with nanometre precision over distances up to 100 kilometres. The novel LIDAR (for 'light detection and ranging') system could have applications from precision manufacturing lines on Earth to maintaining networks of satellites in perfect formation, creating a giant space-based platform to search for new planets."
LIDAR is a bit like radar: it sends out a flash then detects and analyzes the reflection, updating distances to multiple reference points every 200 microseconds (to get your head around that, it means 5000 times a second!). Now LIDAR has an "ambiguity range", and it has trouble distinguishing between two distances separated by this range. The new system has an ambiguity range of around 1.5 metres, so all the operators have to do is use GPS or some other method which gives you a close enough measure to tell you which of the competing values to accept.

So, we can measure the distances between mountains incredibly accurately but what else can we do? We can launch a bunch of satellites to fly "in formation" at very precise distances, measured by LIDAR. These, says the release, could form images of "black holes with multiple X-ray telescopes on different satellites, and support tests of general relativity through measurements of satellite spacing in a gravitational field".

LIDAR may also be used in automated manufacturing, where many parts need to fit together with tight tolerances, the developers say. This is always the crunch point in press releases: some of them make ambit claims about "shows promise as a cure for cancer" while others miss the boat by not seeing where the real applications may lie.

Recall that Frank Whittle conceived of the jet engine as a power unit for fighters, and not for the jets that criss-cross the world each day, carrying Covid-19, SARS, swine flu and tourists from place to place. Before him, the earliest rocket scientists were simply trying to find a way to get higher in the wispy gas at the edge of our atmosphere than rockets could go.

I would like to be around for another fifty years to see what LIDAR ends up doing, but that won't happen. That's why I spend my days burrowing through 19th century science, where I can look to see what became of this or that greatly praised invention, like putting sulfur in your socks to ward off cholera, but that's another story.

And this is yet another story:

* I. Coddington, W. C. Swann, L. Nenadovic and N. R. Newbury. Rapid, precise absolute distance measurements at long range. Nature Photonics. Published online May 24, 2009. I never throw out any notes!

Saturday, 2 May 2020

Bolters, part 10 of many

Tarwood and friends

It was hard for a convict to hide on a ship, with a view to quitting Australia. After the transport Neptune was unloaded in Sydney in August 1790, she was to sail to China to pick up a cargo, but before the ship weighed anchor, John Long, the town-adjutant, searched the ship and found a man and a woman hidden in the ship’s firewood supply. [1] This was probably no chance search, because there was little honour among the convicts, and informers were everywhere.

Those who went off into the bush never lasted long. They had no idea of how to get food in the bush, no idea of how to stay warm and dry, and Governor Phillip said they stood little chance of being helped by the locals. [2] So if a convict wanted to escape, stealing a small boat was the best choice. It got you away from settled areas.

On the night of September 26, 1790, five male convicts took a small punt from Rose Hill and headed for Sydney. David Collins said the punt would have been a death trap, once they left the shelter of Port Jackson, but the party made their way to Watson’s Bay, or Look Out Bay as it was called back then, stole a small leaky boat with a mast and sail, and headed out to sea.

They had each taken provisions for one week; their cloaths and bedding; three iron pots, and some other utensils of that nature. They all came out in the last fleet, and took this method of speedily accomplishing their sentences of transportation, which were for the term of their natural lives.  Their names were, John Tarwood, a daring, desperate character, and the principal in the scheme; Joseph Sutton, who was found secreted on board the Neptune and punished; George Lee; George Connoway, and John Watson.…  They no doubt pushed directly out upon that ocean which, from the wretched state of the boat wherein they trusted themselves, must have proved their grave… [3]

Collins called this boat small and weak, but it had a mast and a sail. Rather optimistically, they were planning to reach Otaheite, or as we would say now, Tahiti, which was more than 6000 km away.

That, at least, is what they told the people they left behind, but perhaps they were leaving a false trail. They were searched for in the harbour, and when no trace was found, the authorities assumed they had sailed out across the ocean and died. In fact, the men sailed up the coast as far as Port Stephens and put in there.

Sutton later died, but the other four men were taken in by the local people, and when Captain Broughton of the Providence put in there during a storm in August 1795, he found four white men (if four miserable, naked, dirty, and smoke-dried men could be called “white”, David Collins commented) who begged to be taken back to Sydney. They had had enough of the primitive life.

By that time, almost five years on, each had a native wife and one or two had children, and according to them, the natives worshipped them as the spirits of their countrymen, which, after death, had gone away and then returned in pale human form. Worshipped or not, they had had enough. David Collins was fascinated by them:

Each of them had had names given him, and given with several ceremonies. Wives also were allotted them, and one or two had children. They were never required to go out on any occasion of hostility, and were in general supplied by the natives with fish or other food, being considered by them (for so their situation only could be construed) as unfortunate strangers thrown upon their shore from the mouth of the yawning deep, and entitled to their protection.

It appeared from these four men, that the language to the northward differed wholly from any that we knew. Among the natives who lived with us, there were none who understood all that they said, and of those who occasionally came in, one only could converse with them. He was a very fine lad, of the name of Wur-gan. His mother had been born and bred beyond the mountains, but one luckless day, paying a visit with some of her tribe to the banks of the Dee-rab-bun (for so the Hawkesbury was named) she was forcibly prevented returning, and, being obliged to submit to the embraces of an amorous and powerful Be-dia-gal, the fruit of her visit was this boy. Speaking herself more dialects than one, she taught her son all she knew, and he, being of quick parts, and a roving disposition, caught all the different dialects from Botany Bay to Port Stephens. [4]

Nobody seemed to comment on it at the time, but well before Lawson, Blaxland and Wentworth made their “first” crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813, here was clear evidence that the “savages” could cross the mountains at will.

Soon after Tarwood and friends took off, there were others with similar plans, according to an informant who claimed that the plotters “…had provided themselves with oars, masts, sails, etc. for the purpose, which were concealed in the woods…” [5]

The authorities moved in, but found only a few stakes of timber that might have been made into oars. The authorities kept a close eye on the alleged plotters, but nothing came of it. It was likely to be a problem, said Collins, because there were those whose sentences had expired, who wanted to return to their wives and children.

If these people found any obstacles in their way, they would naturally be driven to attempt the attainment of their wishes in some other mode; and it would then become an object of bad policy, as well as cruelty, to detain them.[6]

[1] See David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume 1.
[2] Arthur Phillip, The Voyage Of Governor Phillip To Botany Bay, 118.
[3] David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume 1, 1798, 112 – 3.
[4] David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume 1, 1798, 356 – 7.
[5] David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume 1, 1798, 115 – 6.
[6] David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume 1, 1798, 116.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Deaf adder or death adder?

Note to file.
These three items give the lie to the theory that ''deaf adder'' is a corruption of ''death adder'': in fact, it is the other way around!

King James Bible, Psalm 58:4
Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear;

And when the sound of the church-going bell is heard in the stillness of the Sabbath morn, swelling its note of tuneful invitation upon the breeze to your homes embosomed in the vast forest, whose long silent echoes that sacred minstrelsy never awoke before, O! be not ye as the deaf adder which stoppeth her ears against the charmer, charm he never so wisely; and O! be well assured, the voice which will then be lifted up in this place, fraught with the message of reconciliation, will move in perfect unison with so harmonious and hallowed a tone, when it also calls on the passers-by in such words as these . . . The Sydney Herald, 13/12/1832, 2

The death of Mrs. Ann Morrissy at Dundudemore near Wellington.

The reptile upon being trod upon gave a sort of short shrill cry, that was generally supposed by the friends of the deceased to have emanated from a cat. The deceased, however, stoutly maintained that she had trod upon a death adder, whereupon search was made, and the venomous reptile was caught and destroyed… As the symptoms apparent upon a human being, after the sting from a death adder, have never been fully described, the following may not be uninteresting:-The deceased trod on the death, or deaf, adder, as it is generally designated, late in the evening, near the steps of a kitchen door; she wore a shoe and thick worsted stocking; she trod on, or so near to the head of the reptile, that little doubt seems to be entertained of the fatal wound having been caused by the sting in its tail. The anomalous fact of a sting in the adder's tail has often been doubted, but is generally supposed to be the case.
The Sydney Morning Herald, 31/3/1848, 3,

The truth about kookaburras

This began when my mate Luke sent me a link to a laughing bird, asking if it was a kookaburra. I’m not a birder, but it was pretty obvious what this was, so I said yes. Then I added:

These two had just finished a long call on a
street light on the same level as my upper deck
You rarely get a single kookaburra calling, but they do so in small gangs, often from several sites at once. I'm not sure if the calling is from one gang staking a claim, or two gangs "beating the bounds". One of my incomplete studies is on introduced species in Australia, and colonists blamed the kookaburras for killing snakes, and exported them to the island colony of Tasmania and to Western Australia.

The research is all done: I might just do that this afternoon. One surprise: it took us 80+ years to stop calling them "laughing jackasses".

So here’s the lowdown on what my granddaughters call “kookas”.

The white invaders first noticed one of these birds in April 1788, when surgeon John White travelled with the governor, several officers, three soldiers and two seamen, to Manly Cove, not far from where I live. They headed north, their path was blocked by swamps and thick bush, probably where Manly Golf Club is now.

Going along the coast they went north to a “small salt-water lagoon, about two miles [3 km] away”, where they saw black swans. 

Black swans, Narrabeen Lake.
This sighting was probably on Curl Curl Lagoon, usually called Queenscliff Lagoon now. Then they saw a kookaburra which White correctly recognised as a kingfisher. But what did the Indigenous Australians call it? The earliest hint comes in 1829:

In the valley beneath on the other side is a large verandah cottage with dormer windows, and a row of Norfolk Island pines, each exactly tapering as if cut to resemble a pyramid and in front, is the little bay, called by the blacks Woolamoola. The aboriginal language is certainly beautiful and highly expressive, much, more so, we conceive, than an European tongue. Where did they get it? Gogaga is their name of the bird we call the Laughing Jackass, and Gogaga repeated quick is part of the chuckling notes, which distinguish that ludicrous forester. Here we have several public buildings close at hand. The Prisoners' Barracks, called by courtesy Hyde-Park Barracks, a neat brick building, in which are lodged and fed five and six hundred men, and in Macquarie's time double that number. [1]

George Bennett was for many years Sydney’s leading naturalist, and he encountered the bird in the 1830s:

19th century propaganda shot (NLA)
The natives at Yas called the bird ''Gogera,'' or ''Gogobera,'' probably from its peculiar note, which has some resemblance to the sound of the word. It is said that one seldom laughs without being accompanied by a second, forming a very harmonious duet.

This bird, from its devouring mice and venomous reptiles, deserves protection…A gentleman told me that he was perfectly aware of the birds destroying snakes, as he had often seen them carry the reptiles to a tree, and break their heads to pieces with their strong sharp beaks; he also said that he had known them destroy chickens…[2]
Two honey-eaters confronting a kookaburra
at dawn. The honey-eaters protect their chicks.
Around 1860, Bennett was calling it the “laughing kingfisher”. His ‘Mountain Pheasant’ is what we now call a lyre-bird.

The Mountain Pheasant is a good mocking-bird, for it imitates the notes of the more pleasing songsters, as well as the loud gurgling laugh of the Dacelo, or Laughing Kingfisher. The elegant tail-feathers, detached in their complete form, are sought after by collectors, and are sold in the shops; the natives also use the feathers, as well as those of the Emeu, as ornaments in their hair. [3]

We might note here that the “kangaroo feathers” worn in the hats of the Australian light horse were, in fact emu feathers. The practice and term “kangaroo feathers” date back to the Boer War, but that’s another story, told elsewhere. [4] It was only some years later, around 1871, that we suddenly began calling our national bird a kookaburra. [5]

Around Australia, only a few local species were thought to be worth shifting. Snake-killing kookaburras were sent to both Tasmania and WA. The alien birds took the hollow trees used by other birds, and while kookaburras may have killed some snakes, they also preyed on small mammals and lizards. It seems that the idea of introducing kookaburras to Tasmania is older than people realise, going back at least to 1848:

SNAKE KILLERS.—Can you inform me, Sir, if there are any birds or animals in this country which have the habit of killing snakes. I suppose eagles may kill a few, but should think not many; besides them, I cannot think of anything else, and I should like if anybody could inform me whether the Sydney laughing jackass would be likely to live in this colony, for they kill snakes commonly, and are very amusing.

The Launceston Examiner responded that there would be few more welcome visitors than “…the veritable laughing jackass, who is a universal favorite in the sister colony.” The paper hoped that some naturalist would take the matter up. All the same, it would take half a century, soon after kookaburras were introduced into Western Australia, going on this 1902 report:

By arrangement with Mr. D. Le Souef, director of the Melbourne Zoological Gardens, a shipment of 40 laughing jackasses has been obtained for introduction in Tasmania. Last year 50 of these useful reptile-destroyers were liberated in various parts of the island, with results so satisfactory that the “new importations are in great request, and applications have been sent in for a bird or two from so far afield as the Straits Islands. The curator of the City Park Gardens has charge of the birds, which it is proposed to sell at a cost calculated to defray expenses. [7]

Now back to the Western Australian introduction: in the 1860s, luminaries like Ferdinand von Mueller, George Bennett and Edward Wilson were collecting kookaburras for introduction into Britain, [8] but nothing seems to have come of this scheme. Then in 1897, with Western Australia oozing with gold wealth, a new plan emerged.

Mr W. E. Learoyd, was commissioned by the Acclimatisation Committee of Western Australia to proceed to the Eastern colonies to obtain a supply of oysters for laying down at Albany, and also some birds. He headed for Victoria, hoping to get birds, but a bird catcher there told him they were protected.

Checking with the chief clerk in the Colonial Secretary’s office, he learned that an Act of Parliament held the birds absolutely protected until 1899, and that a permit could not be given in the face of the Act. The helpful chief clerk suggested that he apply to the authorities in Sydney, where he could probably get 100 or 200 birds.

In the end, he got 40, 16 old ones and 24 young ones, but only three of the young ones survived. “On the other hand, the old ones carry well under the most trying circumstances”, Learoyd reported in 1897. [9]

In May 1898, the streamer Rockton delivered thirty kookaburras from Victoria to Fremantle, from there they were sent to settle in at the Zoological Gardens at South Perth. [10] Eighteen months later, they were doing well:

The committee intend introducing more of these interesting and useful birds, which not only relieve the monotony of the bush silence by their laughing note, but are also good friends to the agriculturist as they devour, besides snakes, numbers of noxious insects. [11]

In 1901, came a request to the citizens of Guildford that they stop shooting these “useful and interesting birds”. [12] In 1910, the West Australian offered a detailed report on the work of the Acclimatisation Committee in “correcting Western Australia’s deficiency”, a project which was praised.

A bit more about Bennett, though. In July 1860, he attended a council meeting in London of the Society for the Acclimatisation of Animals in the United Kingdom, where he was elected as a corresponding member. He then

… promised to present to the society a cage which he had invented for the transmission of birds across sea, and also to bring to the next council meeting some specimens of the "laughing jackass" in his possession. [13]

There is no trace of those British kookaburras today, but Bennett returned home, inspired and ready to work again in December. I’ll come back to Bennett some other time. He now rates of one of my slightly expired temporary obsessions, but I still have all the notes, and in lockdown time, they help the sanity.

It’s either that or the mad sheep. Yes, I'm back working on them.

[1] The Sydney Monitor, 9/3/1829, 2,
[2] George Bennett, Wanderings in New South Wales, vol. 1, London: Richard Bentley, 1834, 222.
[3] George Bennett, Gatherings of a Naturalist in Australasia, 179 – 80.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Launceston Examiner, 2 February 1848, 5,
[7] The Advertiser (Adelaide), 10 December 1902, 6,
[9] The West Australian (Perth), 7 January 1897, 2,
[10] The West Australian (Perth), 6 May 1898, 5,
[11] The West Australian (Perth), 2 December 1899, 60,
[12] The West Australian (Perth), 23 August 1901, 4,
[13] 'Society for the Acclimatisation of Animals &c.', The Argus, Tuesday 9 October 1860, p. 5,

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Wayfaring with fossils.

I have been writing a piece this weekend for younger readers. It's about how geology is everywhere, and I'll probably post it here as well, at some stage, but in the end, I decided not to discuss fossils, but to refer them to this blog, because, as a quick click on the fossils tag below will reveal, fossils are one of my longest-lasting temporary obsessions in and among these pages.

In particular, I decided to refer them to my tale of smuggling a fossil out of Britain. There was no crime in this, but for good and valid scientific reasons, I needed to hoodwink an idiot. When I looked, though, I realised that I have never told that story here, nor is it in my Australian Backyard Earth Scientist.

It is, however, in my Mistaken for Granite, and now, finally, it's here.
Ammonite, Morocco.

Fossils were once anything that was found buried, including archaeological material, and this confusion lives on in some quarters, as this true tale will reveal.

In 1993, I was working for the Australian Museum as an educator, but I had been seconded to an aid project in the Pacific (training science teachers), and I brought home a pickled Giant African Land Snail.

Knowing these snails ought to be a dubious import into Oz, I declared it, outlined the preservation methods used to ensure that it was sincerely dead, explained that it was destined to reside in the Australian Museum, and I was told “You know more about this than I do. Take it.”

Clearly, I had pre-empted the argument phase, but equally clearly, I act honestly. That had to change in late April that same year, when I was forced to get an export safely out of Britain.

A colleague at the museum, knowing I would be in Edinburgh, had asked me to courier home a type specimen of a Devonian fish that he had lodged with the Royal Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh some years earlier.

I agreed, took the right letters to effect the loan, collected the fossil in bubble wrap and cardboard and set off, with the appropriate documents saying what it was, and that it was a proper and legitimate loan.

All was well until I arrived at Heathrow on my way out. As I had all the papers, and worried that there might be questions if I did not show what I had, I declared the fish. The customs officer spoke impeccable English but let us just say that he was clearly of non-British parentage and culture. “You can’t take that,” he said.

I asked why not. “You don’t have the appropriate EU documentation, and you are stealing our heritage.” Now I might have said, “Mate, this is a Scottish fish, I’m a genetic Scot, and it’s being loaned by a Scottish museum to a Scot in Australia—and he found it in the first place—and you're no Scot. So just whose heritage are we talking about?”

I didn’t, because that is not my way. I could see the surreal aspect, but I was diplomatic. It availed me nothing. He still demanded that I surrender the object as yet uninspected, which lay in my carry-on bag. I argued, and explained that it was one of a kind. It was a type specimen, and special to science. He produced an alphabetical list of sciences on a sheet of paper. “Is this archaeology or zoology?”
“Neither,” I said. “It comes under palaeontology.”

He bristled, sensing that I was being smart or worse, and scrutinised his sheet of paper. Because I’m good at reading upside-down, I pointed to the word he was seeking. “It means ‘study of fossils’,” I said.

I had, however, recognised that this gentleman, for all that he was polite, well-informed on paperwork and probably well-meaning, was either untrained or as thick as two bricks—or both. I concluded that this was not somebody who could be trusted to look after a type specimen and treat it with due care.

A type specimen is very special to scientists: it is the original specimen from which a name was given. My colleague had found this fossil, described it and named it, but now it needed some further study, which is why he was borrowing it.

I had, in the same bag, a piece of partly metamorphosed shale from Wales, wrapped in newspaper, so as I was arguing, I brought that to the top of the bag. It was, after all, of no real value to me. Let me emphasise that I did not, at any time, imply that this was the fossil because I am, after all, a totally honest man. I spoke no lie. I cannot reasonably be held to account for the wild conclusions made by the Great Unwashed of Brtitain.

His hand darted out, seized the package, and tipped the stone out of the protective wrapping so it landed with a bang onto the counter (confirming my assessment of him), turned it over, dug at it with a grubby thumbnail (further confirmation), then handed it back. “I suppose you can take it,” he told me, somewhat reluctantly.

I thanked him nicely, wrapped the Welsh shale again, placed it protectively over the fossil fish in its bubble wrap, and walked off.

I said nothing until I was home, when I told an edited version of this story in a British weekly, New Scientist, as part of a discussion on rare fossils being sent through the mail, the risks they were put under, and the need to have customs officers examine them. The officers needed to be educated first, I said.

My colleague examined the fossil fish as necessary, and it was later couriered safely back to Edinburgh, though not by me. I was lying low, and having outed myself, I have avoided Heathrow ever since, because they may still be waiting for me.

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Bolters, part 9 of many

Clarke the Barber

A few convicts were accepted by the Indigenous people, but the original inhabitants were choosy. Watkin Tench wrote, probably about John Caesar, a man of African ancestry, who was one of the rejects:

One of the convicts, a negro, had twice eloped, with an intention of establishing himself in the society of the natives, with a wish to adopt their customs and to live with them: but he was always repulsed by them; and compelled to return to us from hunger and wretchedness. [1]

Watkin Tench interviewed the survivors of one group of escaped convicts known as Bryant’s party and reported that when they approached land, while sailing along the coast from Sydney to Timor, they often had to flee when threatened by locals. [2]

Against that, we have the more successful adoption cases of William Buckley in Port Phillip (said to be the original Buckley of “Buckley’s chance”), Eliza Fraser of Fraser Island, Barbara Thomson who was rescued from Torres Strait by the crew of HMS Rattlesnake and Tarwood’s party, taken in by the Indigenous people at Port Stephens, north of Newcastle (you will meet them in #11). Some whites were fitted in, and were able to fit in.

And that brings us to a runaway convict called George Clarke, otherwise known as ‘the barber’. Clarke escaped from the Hunter Valley and lived among the Kamilaroi people. He had the scars of an initiated man, but he had been stealing cattle.

Recaptured and questioned in 1831, he had a tale to tell. He said he had heard of a river called the Kindur, running to the north-west, and decided to follow it, hoping to reach another country. He claimed to have followed the Kindur, a fine broad river that flowed to the northwest all the way to the sea. Ernest Favenc argued plausibly that Clarke’s yarn was fabricated to save him from a flogging when he returned but, naturally enough, Clarke the barber claimed that it was all true.

The river was navigable, so ships could sail it, he said, and it flowed on. He was not sure how far it went, but it never flowed to the south of west. In other words, here was a perfect path to take people up into northern Australia, a marvellous river on which to progress toward great riches. He pitched a good yarn: see for yourself:

I always had a great desire to be free from all restraint, and the last time, which is the third that I took to the bush, I determined to proceed as far into the interior as I could get. I also thought, that by making important discoveries in the interior, I should have been pardoned, and have received encouragement from the Government.

I soon effected a junction with a tribe of blacks at Liverpool Plains, and by acquiring their language and assimilating to their manners, I also acquired their good-will. They treated me as one of themselves. I quitted my European costume a little at a time, and felt no inconvenience whatever from the loss. As remaining with this tribe, although attached to me, was not my object, for fear of being recognised by my countrymen, I joined another tribe, and went with them to a place called in the native language Bresa, about 30 miles to the north-west of Liverpool Plains.

I particularly remarked, that the natives, as soon as we got beyond the stations of the settlers, assumed a more active and cleanly appearance; indeed, the wild tribes in the interior are a much superior race to the blacks who frequent our stock stations. From Liverpool Plains I proceeded with a third tribe to Tuaubilla, about 200 miles north-west from that place without discerning any thing of note.

The country was remarkably rich in pasture, well supplied with water, and covered with many large plains. A river, the Numeva, runs from Liverpool Plains to Tuaubilla, which is well supplied with fish. Proceeding down the Numeva, a short distance beyond Tuaubilla, the ground became boggy, and at last presented one vast bog or morass, the river holding its course through the centre.

We crossed a range of mountains to the north, and after a few days, arrived at another river of some magnitude, named Keindooa. There I left the tribe I had come with, as they were returning, and I joined another who inhabited the country north-west of the river Keindooa. The country from this river, changed its aspect altogether. The land was low and level, with few mounts, and without any extended range of hills. The verdure was luxuriant, quite different to any I had before seen.

Grass herbs in abundance, and in clear parts, a multitude of enormous sow-thistles. The grass there produces a large seed, which is gathered by the natives, pounded between stones into a pulp, and baked in the ashes as food. It was palatable, and resembled bread made from grown wheat.

The Keindooa is divided from the Numeva which last is known to my countrymen) by a range of mountains difficult of access. There are few passes over the mountains, but one of them, if improved, would afford an easy ingress to the flat country for drays and horses. The difficulty in crossing the range, consists in the scarcity of water, which, unless the springs be known to the traveller, would leave him exhausted and oblige him to return.

The part where we made the river Keindooa (after crossing the range) was called Curribingee. Thence we proceeded down the river about west. About 250 miles to the north-west of Curribingee, there is a burning mountain called Coorala. The flame and smoke emitted from the mountain can be seen a great distance. I did not ascend the mountain. Round the base is a quantity of red stone, resembling pumice stone; also a substance resembling allum, which, dissolved in water, had the same taste. The natives say, it is to be had in large quantities. It is called by them Boullau.

We proceeded down the river and at last made the sea, into which the Keindooa discharges itself with a broad mouth. The coast was rather low as far as we could see, and just in sight to the south-west we saw an island; but no other land to sea-ward Along the coast, trees, the wood of which is of a deep red colour, had been felled apparently with a small blunt axe; the barrel of each tree (of a good length) had been cut out by a similar instrument, but was gone.

The natives informed me, that people of a light colour came there with large boats, and took the wood away to the northward. I determined to keep with this tribe, until the return of the adventurers, and then to join them; but in the mean time, we again proceeded into the interior. The coast presents a low bleak appearance, and about mile and a half from the sea, the strand is bounded by a low range of mountains, which run along the coast.

When this range is crossed, the country is fertile in the extreme, and very beautiful, as I have before described. There is another species of wood there, which I never saw before, milk white, with a very fine grain, but so hard, that it is difficult to cut it, The natives make their bumbarines and other instruments of war out of this wood, which never breaks; the leaf is in shape like that of the oak, but very rough.

The trees cut by the strangers and removed, were low and very umbrageous; the leaf of a dark blue colour. The pine tree grows in abundance in this country, and is very tall and straight. The natives are remarkably cleanly, kind, and industrious; in nowise like the blacks about the settlements of the Colony. They are provided with tomahawks and knives made from a blue transparent stone, of uncommon hardness, seldom or never breaking.

They grind them to a fine edge by means of other stones. The river Keindooa abounds with fish; one in particular being very fine, resembling a cod-fish, only having very large sharp fins. In the country at the upper part of the river is found stones of beautiful appearance, but what to call them I know not. There are no kangaroos in that country, but there is a small species of bush wallaby, very small; plenty of emu however and black swans, geese, ducks, and birds of fine plumage.

In hopes of being able to provide myself with a few necessaries from my countrymen at Bathurst, I returned by another route to Mullala (250 miles from Bathurst), where I was captured by Serjeant Wilcox. As I never committed any crimes beyond those of theft; I was in hopes my sufferings and my discoveries would have induced the Governor to extend a pardon to me at once, when I would willingly have conducted a party to the places I now describe, and I would also have made other discoveries, which might have proved of service to my country.


H. M. Gaol, Sydney, Jan. 1832. [3]

The government fell for it, as governments will, because they wanted to believe. A navigable river would be better than an inland sea, and the acting governor of New South Wales, Sir Patrick Lindesay, sent Major Thomas Mitchell out to investigate in November 1831. He went across the Peel, over the Hardwicke Range, and reached the Namoi River about three weeks later.

Expecting a navigable waterway, the party had come equipped with canvas boats, but these snagged in the river, so the party reverted to horseback. They reached the Gwydir, turned west along it for 80 miles (128 kilometres), then struck north to a grand river known locally as Karaula. Mitchell followed this down till the Gwydir joined it and, given that it was heading south, deduced that this was Sturt’s Darling River.

Some of the early explorers who were born and raised in Europe had problems when it came to travelling in Australia. They followed river valleys, because they were used to glaciated landforms where the valleys were broad and easy to walk along. In the old Australian geology, where chasms had been carved by millennia of rare floods, that was not a good move.

Australian valleys were often steep-sided and hard to get out of, and the narrow defile at the bottom was usually blocked by rock fragments that had tumbled down at some point after the valley was carved. Worst of all, there was usually no crystal stream gurgling along, as there would be in any decent European valley.

In the same way, based on what was known of other continents, Major Mitchell, like Banks, Grey and others, was willing to believe in the myth of a great river, stretching across the continent, even though careful mapping of the coast had failed to reveal the mouth of any such river. He had been told by a liar that the river existed, and that was enough.

All the same, if the Kindur River was a non-starter, the rivers had to flow somewhere, so the prospect of an inland sea remained good. Just as the Greek and Roman originators of the European culture once saw their world as surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, so the new Australians dreamed of a continent surrounding an inland sea, hopefully with snow-capped alps somewhere about the Gibson Desert—but not everybody was convinced. Eyre certainly was doubtful.

[1] Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, 144.
[2] Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, 147.