Repairing My Victorian Telescope – A Lesson in Persistence…and patience!

“It’s broken. I can’t get it to work…”

I hear this a lot in flea-markets, antiques fairs, and antiques shops. Or something like it. “It jams”, “It’s very stiff”, “It won’t turn”, “It rattles”, “This thing won’t stay still”, “It doesn’t move like it’s supposed to, see?”

Because of this, a lot of antiques are sold as being ‘broken’, or in ‘original condition’, which is a euphemistic way of saying: “It’s stuffed and I can’t be arsed fixing it because I don’t know how!”

Both online and in real life, I’ve heard loads of people howl and bitch and whine and cry about heathens like myself, who go around cleaning, restoring and breathing new life into an object, erroneously claiming that doing so ‘destroys the originality’ of a piece and therefore ‘makes it worthless’!

That said, restoring antiques is the only way that they ever survive. Repairing them, cleaning them, and overhauling them is how we ensure that they’ll exist in a working state, well into the future, and that they won’t be damaged beyond repair by someone who didn’t know any better, because they tried to force something to work that can’t, for any number of reasons.

Such was the case with the massive, brass telescope I bought for my birthday. When I got my hands on it, although it was cosmetically in great condition, its actual operation left MUCH to be desired. The lenses were filthy, the draw-tubes were clogged with so much grime they wouldn’t even open properly, and the threads on one of the coupling-rings were worn down, meaning that they wouldn’t screw in properly…and if something doesn’t screw, then it doesn’t hold, which means the whole thing can fall apart at a moment’s notice!

Not fun!

Disassembling the Telescope

Having decided that the telescope was something with which I stood a reasonable amount of success in restoring, I haggled down the price and bought it.

The first step was to clean the lenses. As far as restoring this telescope went, that was the easy part!

To clean the lenses properly, the telescope has to be pulled apart. There’s simply no other way to do it. The objective lens housing at the front of the barrel has to be screwed off, and entirely disassembled. The relay lenses in the middle of the draw-tubes has to be removed and entirely disassembled, and the eyepiece lens also has to be removed and disassembled.

Pulling apart my telescope. From left to right is one of the brass collars, the objective lens and its housing, the eyepiece shutter, the eyepiece lens, the two relay-lenses and their housing, and one of the draw-tubes.

Although all the components of the telescope look like they screw in nice and neat and tight and flush, the reality is that an impossible amount of dust and grit does manage to find its way inside the telescope, through the microscopic gaps between the draw-tubes. Over the course of several decades, this dust and grit builds up to intolerable levels, and it eventually dries and crusts over, and even though it’s barely a milimeter thick, it’s enough to jam the telescope – and any attempts to operate it will likely cause irreparable damage. All this accumulated grit also makes it impossible to focus the telescope, or see anything through the lenses, hence the absolute necessity for cleaning.

The achromatic (two-part) objective lens in its housing. It is actually possible to unscrew the lens-frame entirely, and for the glass lenses to drop out of their frame by removing the retaining ring. This allows for really good cleaning and dust-removal…Just don’t cut your fingers on the edge of the glass!

Unscrewing the lenses can be really easy, or it can be really hard. Fortunately for me, most of my restorations of this kind have been pretty easy – a firm grip and the right sort of pressure will unscrew  most lenses with minimal problems. Just make sure that you wash out the threads (both sets of threads!) with oil, before you screw the components back together – because…y’know…dust, which causes threads to jam. Yes, it even gets in there!

Once the majority of the grime was removed from the lenses, and I was able to see that the telescope would be capable of functionality once it was working, I moved onto the next step: Cleaning.

Cleaning the Telescope

Cleaning this telescope was a real lesson in patience. Oh God, was it ever a lesson in patience!

As I said before, massive amounts of dust and grit get inside the telescope, through the joints between the draw-tubes. This causes a buildup of friction between the sliding parts, and this causes jamming. If you get a bit too enthusiastic trying to open the telescope tor viewing, it results in dents, warping, jamming, and if you’re really energetic – complete destruction of the connecting-rings between the draw-tubes… not fun.

The two relay-lenses and the tube they screw into.

To clean out 150 years’ worth of grime, I used WD-40, sewing machine oil, and enough tissues to fill a bathtub! Cleaning out loads of grime came down to spraying or dripping oil liberally over the draw-tubes, and snapping them shut, twisting them around, and opening and closing them hundreds and thousands of times, to flush out all the gunk, grime and grit trapped inside. This had to be done countless times to loosen up and wash out all the crud trapped within. It wasn’t pleasant!

“Why can’t you just put oil on it, lubricate it and leave it like that?” I might hear you ask.

Well…You could! You could just coat it in oil, and that would make the telescope easier to open and close…but it would also make it impossible to hold from how greasy it is! It would also turn your hands black from the grime. Oiling the telescope doesn’t remove the problem, it only masks it, and once the oil dries up, you’re left right back where you’re started…and probably even worse! Because oil attracts dust!

Eyepiece lens and the shutter that screws over the top to prevent dust and damage.

Nope! The only way was persistence, flushing, oil, lubrication, and just working the oil through the telescope, over and over again, to loosen up and wash out as much crud as possible. And this was a process which took a week of almost nonstop, daily cleaning…hey, it is 150 years’ worth of gunk, after all. It was never going to be done in a hurry!

Repairing the Telescope

While I cleaned the telescope, I became acutely aware of another one of its flaws. It wasn’t just grimy and dusty and jammed with filth, it was also broken! The thread which screwed the largest coupling-ring into the barrel, and connected the draw-tubes to the front of the telescope was completely worn down. Or at least partially so.

No amount of tightening and screwing and cleaning would induce the thread to bite, and hold the telescope together. All it took was one good, firm pull (which was necessary because of how stiff everything was!) to completely pull the telescope in half!

Taping the threads to stop them coming apart.

After extensive cleaning, I fixed this problem using ordinary, white masking tape. Once around the threads, and pressing it in with my fingers, and then screwing the components back together fixed the problem. The tape built up the layer of thickness which was necessary for the threads to grip and bite, and now all the components screw in and out, and hold, as they should!

Polishing the Brass

The final step in cleaning the telescope, after cleaning and tightening the lenses, washing out loads of grit and grime with loads of oil and WD-40, and taping up the threads to make them grip properly, was the polishing of the brass!

Before Polishing

From what I’ve seen on a lot of antiques websites, polishing up brass telescopes is an accepted and acceptable practice. And since I like polishing brass anyway, who am I to argue with the experts? Out came the Brasso, and I started polishing away furiously! It took a whole day to do it, but I did get it done in the end.

After polishing!

Polishing the brass does a number of things: One, it makes the telescope look SO much nicer!…Two, it makes it look much more cleaner, and three, it removes even MORE of the grime that was on the draw-tubes, which means that it will operate even better!

One thing about brass is that it never stays ultra-shiny for long. It only takes a small amount of handling for brass to start tarnishing again (which is why polishing brass was such a preoccupation back in the Victorian era, when this telescope was made), but this property suits me just fine, since it gives the telescope a clean, but aged look, all at the same time. This way, it doesn’t look entirely brand-new, and it doesn’t look like I dug it out of the ground this morning.

All up, a very satisfying little birthday project for myself 🙂


‘Through the Looking Glass’ – A History of Spectacles

It’s always important to make sure that you have everything you require before you leave the house. Spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch.

Lots of people wear glasses, even if they don’t want to admit to it. Regular glasses, reading glasses, bifocals, sunglasses, pince-nez, monocles, quizzing-glasses…where do all these different types of glasses come from? Put on your favourite pair of specs and let’s see if we can’t focus in on this fuzzy little problem.

Focusing on Lenses

Lenses used for correcting vision or for magnifying small objects, have been used since ancient times. Originally they were polished stones or crystals. When early glass-making was perfected, a spherical glass container filled with water was discovered to have magnifying properties. In the Medieval era, people with poor eyesight might use a “reading-stone” to better examine the words on the page in front of them. Reading-stones were spheres of glass sliced in half and polished, so that they could be slid along a page, magnifying the text underneath.

By the late 1200s, the first two-lens eyeglasses of a kind which we might recognise today, were developed, most likely in Italy in the 1280s. By 1301, Venice, the famous center of glass-blowing and glass-making in Europe, had established a guild to regulate the manufacture and sale of spectacles. Once the blowing and grinding of lenses had been perfected, and had been fully taken-over by glass-makers, mankind could then start focusing on mounting these lenses into frames.

Early Spectacles

Early spectacles were very crude. Two lenses in a pair of frames, joined together.

And that was it.

The frames holding the lenses, if they were identical, might be hinged in the middle, to fold up, or they might have a ribbon or chain about them to catch them if they fell, but from the Middle Ages until the 1600s, most spectacles were simple hand-held things. Like if you took a regular pair of glasses and snapped the arms off it. They might have a small handle on the side with which to hold them, or else you just held them by the frames. Useful, but hardly practical. Because spectacles could be expensive, if you managed to buy a pair, you probably wanted them to look nice. Frames of gold, wood, ivory and bone, or actual tortoise-shell were popular. Those ugly ‘tortoise-shell’ glasses you used to have as a kid? Cheap plastic junk. Real tortoise-shell used to be used back in the old days.

As you can imagine, having to hold your glasses to your face with your hand was extremely impractical. The distance between your spectacles and your eyes changed constantly, pulling things in, and out of focus. It made the hand and arm tired, and it used up one hand, which might otherwise be doing something useful.

The Pince-Nez

The first solution to this was the Pince Nez (French, literally, for ‘Pinch-Nose’, pronounced ‘pas-nay‘).

Solid gold pince-nez glasses. The frames could be pushed apart, and the clip in the middle literally pinched the nose to stay on the face. The handle on the side held a ribbon or string, which would attach to the wearer’s clothing to prevent loss, or breakage if dropped

Pince-Nez spectacles came with a spring-loaded clip between the lenses, and underneath the bridge that held the two frames together. The clip quite literally pinched your nose and held the glasses in front of your eyes, allowing both hands to be free for use. This was an advancement, but constantly having the clamp biting down on the top of your nose was uncomfortable in long stretches. Most people kept their pince-nez on a chain and only put them on when it was really necessary to do so, to prevent the constant pressure and pinching from becoming irritable.

The Lorgnette

Although pince-nez allowed people to use their hands, the constant pinching was irritating at best and distracting and painful at the worst of times. One alternative was the lorgnette.

Antique, gold-mounted lorgnette from the late-19th century. It’s held by the handle on the left. The ring on the side would be for a ribbon, string or chain, with which to secure the lorgnette around your neck, or to your clothes, to catch it if dropped

Like the ‘Pince Nez’, the ‘Lorgnette’ did not come with folding arms. It came with a small handle that stuck out the side of the frame, which you gripped in your fingers and held in front of your eyes. The handle might have a cord or ribbon run through it, to catch it if you dropped it. Lorgnettes were common during the 17-1800s. For fairly obvious reasons, they, like all previous designs, were used as sparingly as possible. Some lorgnettes came with a folding bridge, that allowed the entire thing to be folded up to be more compact. Others came with spring-loaded handle-cases. The spectacles were folded into the case. When they were needed, they popped out on a spring, and the case then doubled as the grip and handle.

The Quizzing-Glass

How can you give someone a quizzical expression without a quizzing-glass??

Yours Truly taking a closer look at his blog through his quizzing-glass…Oh dear! A spulling mistake!

Popular during the Georgian and Victorian eras, the quizzing-glass was a handheld pocket magnifying-glass. It was designed to be small, portable, and to be carried around by the owner so that he or she could whip it out at a moment’s notice and take a closer look at something.

Suffering from myopia as I do, my own 5x quizzing-glass is an essential piece of kit. I carry this with me where-ever I go. Vital for reading stuff like labels, menus and price-tags. There’s no reason a disability can’t have some flashy accessories

Although they were supposed to be visual aids, quizzing-glasses were also very fashionable, and it was common for men and women to keep one about their persons. Along with its better-known cousin, the monocle, peering at someone with upper-class disgust through the lens of your quizzing-glass has become a stereotype of aristocracy, nobility, old money families and the Nouveau Riche the world over! The quizzing-glass was born in the 1700s and lasted well into the Edwardian era. You can still buy them today, if you know where to look.

The Monocle

I say! When it comes to showing upper-class disdain, genuine curiosity, attempting to keep up appearances or finishing off that last bit of kit for your steampunk party-outfit, the monocle is considered the king of eyewear!

The monocle is the younger brother of the quizzing-glass. It differs in two ways:

1. It’s held in the eye-socket, and not away from the eye. 
2. It’s custom-cut and ground to fit its owner’s eye-socket. 

From the Georgian era of the 1700s until the mid-20th century, monocles were worn by almost everyone, from upper-class dandies, fops and toffs, to jewellers, gentlemen, ladies, aristocrats, the well-to-do, and German, Prussian and Austrian military officers peering down at maps, while they decided on their next move on the Western or Eastern Fronts during the Franco-Prussian War, WWI and WWII.

A monocle mounted in a gold-filled gallery-frame

The monocle was designed to be worn by people with poor eyesight in only one eye. It seemed silly and a waste of money to buy lenses for BOTH eyes when only one had a vision-issue. So the monocle was invented.

Properly cut and measured for its owner’s eye-socket, the monocle was designed to be held in-place by the cheekbone and the eye-socket and eyebrow. Fitted properly, it wouldn’t (or was less-likely) to drop out of one’s face and shatter on the ground, or land in one’s drink, if you saw something that shocked or surprised you.

Monocles have died out a bit in recent years, mostly due to advances in optometry, but you can still buy them, and wear them. And sometimes they’re still prescribed, due to customer not requiring a full set of glasses for his or her particular eye-condition.

Monocles come in one of three different styles. First is just a plain glass disc with ridges around the edge for grip. This is the simplest and cheapest form. Next is the metal-framed monocle, typically framed in gold or silver.

The last form of monocle is one with a gallery-frame, shown above. Galleried monocles were designed for people whose natural bone-structure or facial-structure did not work well with regular monocles. The lens itself was not held in the eye-socket. Rather, the extended gallery was held in the socket, and the lens was held to the gallery. This allowed a person to wear a monocle even if his personal bone-structure wouldn’t allow him to do so naturally.

Modern Spectacles

Modern spectacles or eyeglasses as we recognise them today, with identical frames, a bridge, nose-pads, and hinged, folding arms on the sides to rest on one’s ears, were invented in the 1700s. Throughout the 19th century, they were in constant competition with the other forms of eyewear previously mentioned in this posting.

Having to wear spectacles all the time was seen as a form of weakness. Physical weakness, because it suggested to others that the wearer did not have sufficient vision to handle regular tasks. But as attitudes changed in the 1800s, the weak stigma of spectacles began to be replaced by one of studious intelligence. And wearing permanent spectacles instead of carrying around occasional eyepieces such as lorgnettes, became more acceptable and stylish as the 1800s progressed.


Famous American inventor, printer, founding-father and general brainiac, Benjamin Franklin is credited with inventing a pair of spectacles with lenses of two different powers. Franklin suffered from both near-and-farsightedness. It was extremely frustrating for him to constantly have to change his spectacles while he worked. One pair for regular use, one pair for close-up use. Imagine having to repair his printing-press with one pair of glasses, then stopping, removing them, and putting on his other pair, to read the type in the print-bed.

Franklin solved these frustrations by cutting the lenses in half. His resulting creation meant that he could simply shift his eyesight up or down, to look through either the top, or bottom of his glasses, depending on what he wanted to read. The term ‘Bifocals’, or spectacles with two different types of focusing lenses, was coined in 1824.


The first sunglasses of a kind were invented by the Chinese in the 12th century, using thin slices of smoky quartz crystal, polished until translucent. Sunglasses again appeared in Italy in the 1700s, made of tinted glass, they were worn by those who wanted to protect their eyes from the strong Mediterranean sun, or from the reflections of the sunlight coming off the sea, and were first made in Venice, the glass-blowing capital of Europe.

However, sunglasses as we would know them today – tinted glass or plastic lenses in a dark plastic, metal, or brass frame, are a relatively recent invention. They became popular in the 1910s and 20s, and were worn by film-stars to protect their eyes from the glare of early studio-lights, and the blinding flash of early flashbulb-cameras.

Ray Ban ‘Aviator’-style sunglasses

Sunglasses became more and more popular during the 1930s and 40s. One group of people who came to rely on sunglasses were early airplane pilots. Due to the un-tinted windows and windshields of early airplanes (or in some cases, due to the complete absence of windshields altogether), they required sunglasses to block the glare from the sun.

Among the most famous types sunglasses out there are ‘Aviators’, developed in 1936, for fighter-pilots in the United States Army Air Force (USAAF), to protect them from the glare of the sun while flying missions. Before, during and after WWII, ‘Aviator’-style sunglasses became popular with American youth, something which has not changed in nearly 80 years. Their sleek, simple, minimal design has ensured their popularity well into the 21st century.

 Want a Closer Look?

The History of Eyeglasses

“What Man Devised that he might See”

Quizzing Glasses

The College of Optometrists – Quizzing Glasses

The College of Optometrists – History of Various Glasses-Styles



Now Boarding: A History of Airports

Every day, hundreds of thousands of people travel through airports and millions of people travel by airplane. You grumble and bitch and complain about everything, don’t you? It’s far to walk, your bags are too heavy. You can’t take this, that, the other, and another thing, onto the plane. The gates and terminals are miles apart and you’re running late. Security-checks, baggage snafus, X-rays, immigration, and that endless standing and watching and waiting and walking and running…and at all possible hours of the day and night!

Airports are such a pain in the ass.

So, who do we have to blame for this nightmare? While you’re waiting for that flight which is three hours late, and which will last twelve hours from London to Singapore, why don’t you sit back and find out about the history of airports?

Before Airports

From the 19th century up until the 1950s and 60s, almost all international travel was done by railroad or ocean-liner. You rode in comfortable and luxurious Pullman cars across the vast expanses of the United States. You rode the Orient Express across the Continent. From ports like Southampton, New York, Melbourne, Sydney, Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Calais, Port Sa’id, Tokyo and Bombay, your ship or ocean-liner took you all over the world. Shipping lines such as the Hamburg-America, White Star, Red Star, French, Nippon Yusen Kaisha (better known as the NYK Line) and Pacific & Oriental (better known today as P&O) were world-famous, and shipping lines were all in direct competition with each other to grab as big a slice of the customer pie as possible.

Ports and railroad stations were major hubs. Victoria Station in London, Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong. The Port of Shanghai, New York Harbor, Grand Central Terminal, Union Station, King’s Cross, Paris Gare du Nord, Victoria Dock in Melbourne; all names which were once as familiar to us today as United Airlines, Qantas, British Airways, Singapore Airlines, and Pan-American.

We think that the Golden Age of Travel, the era when international large-scale passenger transport was possible for the first time, was confined solely to smoke-belching trains and ocean-liners, but even in the 1910s, airplanes and airports were beginning to make a name for themselves. And this is their story.

The Airfield

Starting in the mid-1910s, airplanes started becoming a serious form of transport. The First World War saw the first large-scale use of airplanes, for bombing, reconnaissance, artillery-spotting and the most thrilling of all – aerial combat – dogfights!

But what to do when the war was over?

Yes, airplanes had proved their worth, but for the large part, airplanes were still very experimental – most of them were made of nothing but wood and canvas, with struts and wire stays to hold the whole flimsy thing together.

But with the end of the war, there was suddenly a surplus of planes…and skilled pilots…who were suddenly out of a job!

So began the first experimental passenger flights, in the early interwar period.

With the first flights, came the first ‘airfields’.

Early airfields were nothing fancy – quite literally a field, with precious little besides, and usually belonging to, or purchased from a farmer. Fields owned by farmers were of necessity, flat, smooth, dry, and free of stones, tree-stumps and other impediments; ideally suited for aircraft landing. There were no terminals, no control-towers, not even any runways to speak of – nobody envisioned that air-travel would be used for anything more than the delivery of mail, anyway!

Early airfields were simply open fields…with grass. Handy for landing, not so great for taking off. Grassy fields created drag on the undercarriage and landing-wheels of early aircraft, which inhibited takeoff. Things were improved slightly when someone got out the lawnmower and the grassy field was replaced by dirt runways, but even these had issues – in wet weather, dirt runways turned to roads of sludge, making it impossible to take off, or land! It was clear that proper aircraft-handling facilities were required.

So when and where did the first airports pop up?

The World’s First Airports

The oldest airport still in operation was built so long ago, it was barely older than the machines it was built to handle! Opened in 1909 by Wilbur Wright, the College Park Airport, in Maryland, the United States, is the oldest airport in the world!

Originally, the College Park Airport was a training-ground, for the Wright Brothers to show off their new invention – the airplane! But by 1911, it had become an established airport, with wealthy civilians using the area to land and house their own machines. Among other historic events, College Park saw the first experimental helicopter test-flights in the 1920s.

In the postwar period of the 20s and 30s, large-scale passenger transport was still done with ocean-liners and steam-trains. But eventually, airlines started being formed, and they blossomed into the companies which we know today.

In Australia, a company called the Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Services commences operations in 1921. In 1926, Germany establishes Deutsche Luft Hansa (three words). The same year, Northwest Airways is established…wasn’t that in a movie somewhere, starring Cary Grant?

A year later in 1927, in the United States, something called Pan American World Airways first takes to the skies, in 1927 with its famous seaplanes.

In Europe, where there was an established flying culture because of the First World War, and where short distances between countries made early passenger flights practical, the first airports were established.

In 1927, Tempelhof Airport was built near Berlin. Around the same time in England, land near an old race-course is used for aerodrome purposes. In 1930, it will become the famous London Gatwick Airport.

The old Tempelhof Airport, Berlin

Early Airlines and Airplanes

Aerial services were slow to catch on in the United States. With such vast amounts of land to cover between major cities from state to state, it wasn’t possible for many early airplanes to make the distance. They simply didn’t have the size or the fuel capacity to fly that far. Instead, the Americans focused on transatlantic flights.

With the establishment of the famous Pan Am Airways in 1927, America had an airline that could fly its passengers to countries like those in South America, but also to Europe and up and down the east and west coasts of the United States. The early passenger planes were romantically called the Pan Am Clippers. The word ‘clipper’ comes from a type of fast sailing ship, so fast that it ‘clips’ or skims along the water. The analogy was transferred to aircraft which would ‘clip’ through the air. An age of romantic and stylish air-travel had begun.

Pan American route-map, 1936

Travelling by Pan Am clippers was expensive, and could only be done from certain cities – all the planes were seaplanes, which took off from, and landed at, coastal regions. Pan Am was one of the first airlines to offer transatlantic flights.

The limitations of aircraft in the 1930s meant that not all flights were direct. Although Pan Am was flying the latest seaplanes, as designed by the famous Boeing aircraft-manufacturers, sometimes, a plane flying from America to Europe might stop at Newfoundland, Greenland and Iceland for refueling, before finally arriving in France or the United Kingdom. Some simply did not have the fuel-capacity or size to brave direct routes across the Atlantic Ocean. To restore passenger confidence, Pan Am had among the best pilots in the world – specially trained and carefully selected for their long-haul routes, where pilots were expected not just to fly the plane, but also fix it, if it had to make an emergency landing on the ocean, and get it back into the air again!

Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away…
A Pan American clipper seaplane, typical of the 1930s and 40s

Despite technological limitations of the times and low passenger-capacities, the old ‘clipper’ seaplanes did have one advantage which most modern aircraft do not. As they were designed to take off and land on water, the likelihood of surviving an emergency landing on water (a real possibility in those days!) was generally quite high. One such Pan Am aircraft, the Honolulu Clipper, flying Pacific Ocean routes, was forced to land in the middle of the ocean in 1945, when its starboard engines failed. The plane made a safe water-landing, but the pilots were unable to restart or repair their dysfunctional engines. Radio-contact with passing ships saw the passengers safely offloaded, but attempts to tow or fly the plane back to a coastal service-area failed, and it was left to drift and sink.

The same thing happened again in 1947, when another Pan Am ‘clipper’ (this time, the Bermuda Sky Queen) ran out of fuel halfway across the Atlantic! In the middle of a fierce storm, the aircraft was forced to make a crash-landing on the heaving Atlantic Ocean. Against all probability, the seaplane survives the impact with the water, and remained afloat for 24 hours! Long enough for pilots to send out distress messages, and to offload passengers into inflatable life-rafts stored on the airplane. The U.S. Coast Guard responds to the radio call for help, and rescue all passengers and crew.

It was incidents like this that assured the flying public of Pan America’s safety, boosting their numbers of passengers and increasing the need for better airports. Even if their ‘clipper’ got into strife, they knew that they would be able to land safely and be reliably rescued, thanks to radio communications.


From the 1900s until the late 1930s, what with airplanes being unable to travel long distances with safety, most people thought that the way forward for air-travel lay in the famous Zeppelin airships made famous by the Germans. Airships were slower than planes, but faster than ocean-liners, and could carry passengers in comfort. However, a series of devastating crashes in the 1930s, most famously, that of the Hindenburg, scared the flying public away from airship travel. And at any rate, by the end of the Second World War, aircraft design and capabilities had improved enough to make airships a thing of the past!

Airport Development

As air-travel becomes more and more appealing and romantic, the larger numbers of passengers all around the world means that serious thought must now be given to airport design and functionality. Below, we’ll find out about the origins of some of the features that would be found in any modern airport today.

Air-Traffic Control

A crucial component of all airports is one which most people never notice. Air-traffic control. Without it, no airport could possibly operate with any degree of safety or efficiency.

Air traffic control as we might know it today, has its origins in 1920s London. At Croydon Airport outside of the city, the first radio-operated air-traffic control systems are put in place in the early 1920s after two aircraft, one flying towards, and one away, from the airport, collide in midair.

To get better fixings on airplane-locations in the future, all airplanes are fitted with radio-beacons which send out waves. Three receivers around the airport bounce back the radio-waves, and by using three points of reference, are able to get an accurate fix on the location of any one aircraft at a time. This is the birth of modern aircraft tracking and positioning, which is eventually improved in the 1930s and 40s, with the arrival of 1st-generation RADAR.


As airports began to be more established in the 1930s, serious thought was finally being given to airport design. At the height of the Art Deco craze, airports of the 1930s were typically modeled after the only other example of large, passenger-handling buildings familiar to architects and designers at the time – grand railroad stations.

Modelling airports after the great railroad stations of Europe and the Americas had their pluses and minuses. Having large halls and gathering areas was convenient, but it could be tricky when it came to separating arriving and departing passengers. It would be too easy to get lost in the big central terminal which comprised the bulk of early airports. It was now that architects realised that some way of separating and organising passengers would need to be inbuilt into any future airport designs.

The idea of airport gates as we might know them today, came about in the 30s with London’s Gatwick Airport.

In order to load, offload and service as many airplanes as possible, Gatwick’s main terminal was built in a stylish “Beehive” shape:

The ‘Beehive’ meant that planes could circle around the central terminal, load up or offload passengers, and then taxi away smoothly, without the danger of crashing into other aircraft. This also allowed for passengers to be spread out, and be more easily organised, instead of being huddled up and being channeled through two or three doors. Corridors, walls and partitions inside the circular building could divide passengers into arrivals and departures. Now, they could move smoothly through the building, and in and out through multiple entrances and exits, speeding service and easing congestion.

Welcome to…’The Beehive’!

The first prototype gates were introduced at Gatwick. Previously, boarding a plane was an unpleasant experience – you left the terminal and crossed the tarmac and climbed a set of boarding-stairs onto the aircraft. This was bearable during good weather, but when it was rainy or windy, or even snowing, you probably felt more comfortable taking a train!

To provide passengers with greater comfort and protection from the elements, Gatwick Airport installed the first retractable, telescopic corridors ever to be used in airports – and which are the grandparents of all the covered boarding-ramps which we have today.

Numbering six in total, the telescoping corridors slotted neatly into each other and could be retracted when a plane was taxiing into position, and then rolled out once the aircraft was in place for boarding. Having six gates allowed for greater passenger organisation, and prevented overcrowding.

As airports boomed in the 1950s and 60s, with the arrival of the jet-age and the ‘jet-set’, and the vast advances made in aircraft design during the Second World War, airport improvements struggled to keep up. Organising passengers, providing amenities, providing parking, baggage-handling and other services became constant struggles.


Terminals, large buildings which organise passengers, and provide them with the facilities and amenities which they need and require, are a key part of every airport in the world.

Imagine trying to board a plane, when you have to run from one building to another, to another, to another, then out onto the tarmac, and then onto the plane…

You’d rather walk from San Francisco to Chicago.

It was buildings such as the ‘Beehive’ (mentioned further up) that showed how all airport facilities could be housed, and how passengers could be sorted, all inside one building – comfortably, efficiently and without wasting time or money.

Airport terminals continued to evolve in the postwar period. Larger passenger-numbers meant that organisation was crucial. New York’s famous La Guardia Airport, which opened in the late 1930s, took the Gatwick model and upgraded it for even larger passenger loads, and better organisation.

The difference was that the ‘Beehive’ terminal at Gatwick is just one level – restaurants, ticket-counters and facilities are all on the ground floor – and upstairs is all offices. And arriving and departing passengers are all handled in that one, ground floor area. Yes, you can sort them out as they enter or leave, but not while they’re in the actual building. For the city which coined the phrase a ‘New York Minute‘, having thousands of passengers wandering around aimlessly inside their new airport terminal is a huge waste of time!

La Guardia Airport, 1940s. Note the seaplane dock, for Pan Am ‘clippers’

To nip this problem in the bud, the terminal at La Guardia is built on two levels! Departures are upstairs, arrivals are downstairs! They never mix, they never mingle, there’s no chance for someone to get lost. Passengers arriving at La Guardia can go straight in, where waiting friends or relations can meet them on the ground floor, without having to find their way upstairs and get lost. Departing passengers head to the upper level when they reach the airport, and wait for their aircraft, well out of the way of arrivals from overseas or other parts of the country. Also located in the departing area were restaurants, bathrooms, shops, lounges, public telephones and other facilities which allowed a departing passenger to kill the time between arriving at the airport, and actually sauntering out to his airplane.

Airport Security and Baggage Check-In

The one thing which everyone can’t stand – airport security. Metal-detectors, x-ray machines, dipweeds standing around waving wands up and down trying to find stuff on your body that ain’t there, and all eating up valuable time which you could be using to buy duty-free items. Like those chocolates. Or wine. Books for the flight, or CDs for your friend back home.

In the postwar era, airport security became a serious issue. With more and more people boarding aircraft and with more people flying, it became increasingly difficult to run security checks. Skyjackings forced the hands of many airports to try and find ways to stop terrorists at airports, before they boarded the planes.

Skyjackings were at an all-time high in the 60s and 70s; up to forty attempts were made on American aircraft in 1969 alone! Airports could not turn a blind eye to this. If people were afraid to fly, then airports would be bleeding money and losing customers nonstop, which would be a disaster.

The first airport metal-detectors and luggage-scanners entered terminals in the 1970s, taking inspiration from the log-scanners used at sawmills, to detect foreign bodies buried in tree-trunks, such as nails and bullets. Electromagnets on all sides scan a person as he goes through the metal-detector, and any metal on the body is reflected back to the magnets, which triggers that annoying beeping sound that we all hate so much!

At around the same time that airport security started becoming an issue, airport baggage-handling was taking a step up.

Previously, all luggage was handled by human bag-handlers. And generally, most of it still is. But the innovation came in how bags were sorted and organised in the airport. The way forward was shown in the mid-1970s, when barcodes, like those found on almost every type of consumer-product today, started becoming commonplace.

The idea of barcodes started back in the 1940s, but it wasn’t until the 70s that reliable printing methods (which didn’t smudge the ink, rendering the codes illegible) allowed barcodes to become part of everyday life. Poor printing of barcodes meant that the laser-scanners which read the codes could not distinguish between the different bars, when the ink smudged or ran together.

Now, when you check in, a tag is stuck onto your suitcase or roller-bag, with a barcode on it. And a simple scanning of the code tells the conveyor belts and baggage-handling systems where any particular bag is meant to be, and which flight it is destined to.

The Golden Age of Flight

The 1930s-1960s was the ‘Golden Age’ of commercial aviation. The time when it was new, exciting, and changing all the time. Yes, it’s still changing, but now it’s part of everyday life, and it’s frustrating and boring and just a means for getting from A to B. How much air-travel has changed since this period up to the modern day is staggering. And not just because now, we all have our own little movie-screens in our seatbacks, and can no-longer pack knitting-needles and crochet-hooks into our carry-ons.

Differences between aircraft travel then, and now, is the incredibly relaxed nature of older air-travel. Not just in security and luggage-allowances and whatnot, but also in the positioning of seats and greater attention being paid to style and passenger comfort, which to a certain extent doesn’t exist anymore.

For one, aircraft interiors were designed to be much more open-plan, in a manner which most (unless it’s a private aircraft) are not, today. This flexibility and openness is sadly missing, from much of modern air-travel, where people have to fight for leg-room and moving-space, instead of being crammed into airplanes like sardines. The idea that ‘legroom’ was an issue on older aircraft is probably laughable! And before the days of personal video-screens, passengers had much more creative ways of killing time during those long flights.

Bored? Why not show off your music chops on the keys, and provide some live entertainment for fellow passengers? If they vote you off, a parachute is stored under the piano-bench.

Our Final Approach

The next time you’re hauling your luggage through the terminal, patting yourself down to make sure you didn’t forget your tickets, passport, wallet, photographs, iPad, pens, favourite book, keys, or other essentials, spare a thought for the long, trial-and-error journey that the modern airport took.

It’s come a long way from a farmer’s field that’s had a once-over with a lawnmower. The modern airport has everything from hotels, restaurants, shops, medical clinics, cinemas, internet-access and prayer-rooms. Even a multistory slide, if you’re stuck in Singapore’s Changi Airport for a few hours with nothing to do.


Few other buildings have had the challenges of airports – organisation, people-management, security, luggage-handling, segregation and amenities. And yet without them, modern air-travel would be thoroughly impossible.

Want more information?


Big, Bigger, Biggest:

Episodes – ‘Aircraft’, ‘Airports’.

Modern Marvels: ‘Airports’

Ten Things We Miss About Air-Travel


Flaming Hell! A History of Fireplaces and Fire

Ooooh, burny…

My fireplace in winter.
It’s nice to sit and tapper away on the Underwood
in front of a big blazing inferno

Fire: Primal. Essential. The key to human survival. Used to describe everything from boiling passion and flaming love, to burning hatred and searing vengeance. What is the history of fire? How has it shaped the world? And how has the world shaped fire? Let’s find out together.

The Essence of Fire

There are innumerable milestones in the history of mankind, from walking upright, to using tools, to hunting, gathering, farming and the waging of war. But few inventions in history are as important as the creation, understanding, and use of fire. For thousands of years, fire was an essential to life. It heated homes, it gave us light, it cooked our meals, and gave us warmth and protection. Without fire, human migration and settlement would’ve been next to impossible. And human progress and creativity would’ve been greatly hindered. This posting will look at man’s use of fire, as well as the advancements of fire technologies and tools.

The Three Elements

A fire requires three things to burn:

Air. A fire cannot burn without sufficient oxygen.

Fuel. A fire cannot last without additional fuel to keep it going as it consumes its current supply and turns it to ash.

Heat. A fire does not burn and does not last without heat to get it going, and to keep it going.

It was early man’s understanding of these three components of fire that allowed him to use and control fire. Control it for heat, light and cooking. And control is vitally important – improperly used, fire can destroy as much as it can delight. But how do you get a fire?

To start a fire, you first need fuel. Small fuel at first – Tinder. Tinder is anything small, dry and extremely combustible. Cotton-wool, old thread, shredded cloth, dry straw, moss, grass and finely torn paper will all suffice for tinder.

On top of tinder, you require kindling, which is small pieces of wood to encourage the fire to burn and grow. Kindling wood needs to be small and dry – branches, off-cuts of planks, scrapwood, bark, etc, will all suffice.

On top of kindling, you require fuel-wood. Fuel-wood or firewood, are the larger logs, or segments of logs, which you load on top of the kindling once it’s burning sufficiently. As with the others, it needs to be dry. Start with small pieces of fuel-wood first (like thick branches) and then work your way up to larger logs or branches.

There are a million and one methods of building fires – Upside down fires, Teepee fires, log-cabin fires…the methods are endless – and so are the arguments for each one and why A is better than B. So I won’t cover that. Everyone has their own method that works for them.

But how do you LIGHT a fire? This, for centuries, was one of the hardest things to do…

Lighting a Fire

You have your kindling, tinder and firewood. Now you just need it to burn. A fire won’t burn without heat to get it going. To get heat, you need a concentration of energy. Before the advent of matches in the 1800s, fire-lighting was a laborious and at times fiddly task, and was achieved in one of two ways: Concentration of light-energy, and concentration of friction-energy.

Ever stolen grandpa’s magnifying glass and used it to burn ants? That’s starting a fire through concentrating light-energy. Specifically, concentrating the rays of the sun until they are focused on one spot for long enough that the intense heat generated causes your tinder to catch fire through solar energy!

The other method of creating fire, if the sun was not available, was to use friction. This is much more unpredictable and requires quite a bit of skill and patience, but it does work.

One of the most common ways of lighting a fire through friction was through the use of the bow-drill:

A piece of wood with a hole in it is placed on the ground over a piece of kindling-wood (the top piece of wood is used to provide stability). In the hole, a piece of tinder is placed. A wooden stake (the ‘drill’) is placed over  the tinder. The bowstring is then looped around the drill, and the bow is drawn rapidly back and forth and up and down the drill.

Driving the drill back and forth at high speed over the tinder creates friction, which creates heat. At 300 degrees Fahrenheit a spark is generated from the friction, which catches the tinder. Once the tinder is lit, the bow, the drill, and the top piece of wood are removed, and the tinder is fed with kindling to start a fire.

Placing the Fire

Gathering tinder, kindling and fuel-wood for a fire and drying it out was relatively easy. So was starting a fire, given the right tools and sufficient practice. The next thing for early man to conquer was the placement of a fire.

Fires had to be built and lit with careful consideration. Failure to light a fire in a safe place could result in catastrophic, uncontrollable infernos that could destroy grasslands, forests and settlements.

Controlling Fire

The first fires were simply built and lit inside ‘firepits’. A fire-pit was an area of land cleared of grass and wood, where a hole was dug. The hole had stones placed around it to create a fire-ring and hearth, and then the fire was simply built inside the ring and let to burn. And for centuries, this was the main method of fire-control and placement.

Having an open fire in the middle of your house or room or hut or cottage or cave had its advantages and disadvantages. First – the heat was all over the place – Lovely!

The problem was…so was the smoke! Although fireplace smoke can smell beautiful and tangy (which is why we love smoked foods and wood-fired pizzas so much), uncontrolled smoke could be deadly to the people around the fireplace.

To control the smoke, or to clear it out of the building, A simple solution was just to cut a hole in the roof of the building and let the smoke shoot up there. This worked…kinda. The smoke would leave the house through the hole in the roof…eventually. It would waft up there, not flow up there. So it took a while. And if the wind was against you, then you had real strife!

The chimney, followed by its companion, the fireplace, was invented in the 12th Century (1100s), although for a long time, they were considered features found only in wealthy homes and castles. Care had to be taken in their construction of stone, or brick, and this made them expensive. But by the 1500s and 1600s, fireplaces were slowly becoming more and more commonly found in the homes of regular people.

The Fireplace

Starting in the Medieval Period, houses of varying levels of grandeur were constructed with chimneys and fireplaces. Fireplaces were built out of stone or brick, and a typical fireplace setup involved…

The Chimney or Flue

The long stone, or brick pipe or vent which channeled the smoke up and out of the building.

The Smoke-box

The chamber at the bottom of the chimney-pipe, which acted as a buffer against downdrafts.

The Fire-Box/Fireplace

This is directly under the smoke-box, and it’s where the fire itself would be located.

The Hearth

The stone or brick platform on which the firebox and chimney is built. Sometimes extends outside of the fire-box into the room, to provide extra protection against rolling logs.

The Advantages of the Fireplace

The fireplace had numerous advantages over the everyday hole-in-the-ground fire-pit. The fire was now safely contained in its own little box, with a stone chute to carry away the smoke. A sliding or hinged shutter above the firebox, the damper, allowed you to close off the fireplace chimney in inclement weather, to prevent cold drafts and rain from coming down the chimney and into the room below. A big improvement on the hole in the roof which was a permanent opening to the weather outside!

In smaller dwellings, a fireplace was used as both a heater, and as a cooker. The fire kept the room and house warm, but also provided heat for cooking. Pots hung on hooks, or placed on trivets or stands over the coals and ashes of the fire, could hold food (usually soup or stew or some variety of pottage) which could be cooked, or kept warm over the coals and flames.

In and Around the Fireplace

As the fireplace started becoming more and more accepted and more a part of people’s homes and lives, a whole industry sprung up supplying equipment and accessories that the discerning homemaker could purchase for the fireplaces that were likely to have dotted the average home during the period from the 1600s up to the majority of the 20th century.


Also called ‘fire-dogs’, andirons (sold in pairs) are iron (or in more expensive models, brass) stands used to support burning logs above the hearth of the fireplace, to encourage air-flow and improve a fire’s chances of burning more completely.

Brass andirons in a fireplace

Andirons could be simple iron bars or frames, or they could be elaborate, decorative stands made of brass. Some andirons had additional bars and hooks which could be attached or removed as required, so that buckets, pans and pots could be hung over or near the fire, to allow water to boil, or to cook a simple meal.

Andirons at work, supporting a stack of burning firewood

Fireplace Grate

The grate in my fireplace

Invented in the 1600s, fireplace grates were a big advancement on andirons. While andirons could hold large logs and chunks of firewood, a fireplace grate could contain the entire fire, kindling, charcoal, fuel-wood and all, and keep it off the floor of the fireplace, improving airflow. Made of wrought iron which was forge-welded together,  grates varied in size, from smaller, coal-burning grates, to much larger wood-burning grates, which could be several feet wide and several inches deep.


Typically made of brass or iron, a fender is a wrap-around fire-guard placed on the hearth in front of the fire. It’s designed to prevent ash, coals or rolling logs from entering the room and creating a mess, or starting any unintentional fires.

A brass fireplace fender. Fenders are freestanding, and they can be moved to more easily clean the fireplace between uses


Fires were originally tended to using whatever utensils were close to hand, usually improvised. Old swords, iron bars, tree-branches and such. Eventually, pokers were created to give a person a permanent fire-tending tool. Ash-shovels, brooms and fire-tongs soon followed, and it’s these four items that typically make up the average set of fire-irons, usually stored on their own little iron or steel stand. Fire-irons are made of iron, or in more expensive sets, brass.


Fire-irons, stored on their own racks, became staples of homes around the world, and every household was likely to have at least one set. Smaller and shorter ones for coal-burning fireplaces and stoves, and larger, longer ones for wood-burning fireplaces.


Placed next to the fireplace, or directly outside the front/back door, a log-cradle (and it’s relation, the log-bin) became a necessity during very harsh winters.

When it became impossible to make the trek out to the wood-shed in the middle of the night, or when snow or rain proved too heavy, wood had to be stored near to the house. Log-cradles were designed to hold enough wood for anywhere between one night’s burning, or up to a week or more. These cradles are always held above the ground on legs, to stop moisture from gathering and allowing the wood to dry more effectively.


These days, a ‘dustbin’ is just another word for a rubbish bin or a garbage-bin. But in the days when wood and coal fires were a part of everyday life, a ‘dustbin’ was a separate and distinct entity. Specially made of metal with tight-fitting lids, carry-handles, and with raised bottoms, dustbins were constructed specifically for the task of holding household dust and fireplace ash and soot.

Storing ash from the fireplace in the dustbin was done usually only temporarily. When the bin was full, the ash would be dumped into the garden compost-heap. In large cities where this wasn’t possible, the dustbin was collected by the dustman in his dust-cart on a regular basis. The ash and dust in the bin was used for fertiliser out in the countryside.


Fire was an important part of life for centuries, especially in places like the kitchen. Where-ever possible, man created instruments which improved and sped up the creation and maintenance of fire. You could continually blow on a fire, or fan it, to give it more airflow and oxygen, but blowing is exhausting, and fanning is imprecise.

Bellows are much more precise, regulated and forceful, which is why they’re preferred over other methods of giving a fire oxygen.  Giving a fire oxygen like this causes faster combustion and therefore, greater heat output.

Fireplace Reflector/Fireback

It may surprise some people, but fireplaces are not especially efficient. Crackling flames and wafting plumes of smoke give the impression of great energy and heat, but actually, only a small amount of that heat and light is projected into a given room. A fireplace is only open on one side, so only a quarter of the fire’s energy is projected into the room. The rest of the heat which the fire generated is absorbed by the iron grate, the floor, the three walls of the fireplace, or else goes up the chimney.

To improve fireplace heat-efficiency, a fireback is generally recommended. A fireback is a metallic panel placed behind the grate, between the fire and the back wall of the fireplace.

Firebacks come in one of two styles: Solid cast iron panels, or reflective steel, copper or aluminium panels (this latter called fire-reflectors). They both do the same thing, but in different ways.

An iron fireback absorbs the heat from the fire, and radiates this captured heat outwards. This increases the amount of heat that the fire produces, which would otherwise be wasted by being absorbed by the brickwork on the back wall.

Antique cast iron fireback

A reflective fireback or fireplace reflector works by reflecting the heat and light of the fire out into the room. This not only increases the heat output substantially, but also reflects a lot more light into the room, creating a brighter fire.

The reflector placed behind the grate in our fireplace. A homemade affair easily fashioned out of sheet-metal, a few screws and some metal bars

Fire Screens

The Great Fire of London Screen!

Along with fenders, fireplace screens started being used in the 18th and 19th centuries. Originally just a way to cover up the fireplace when it was not being used (to hide the unsightly vision of burnt charcoal and ashes), modern fireplace screens (made of copper or brass) serve a double-purpose of also protecting the room from sparks, flying embers or rolling logs.


a sweep is as lucky as lucky could be…

Apart from giving us possibly the worst Cockney accent ever in movie history, the otherwise wonderful Dick Van Dyke furnished those living in the 21st century with another falsehood about the history of the fire – that chimney-sweeping was a jolly old lark full of fun and games!

If only t’were true.

A fireplace that is used for the majority of the year, every year, or one which is used every day for years on end, needs to be swept regularly. The rosy-cheeked fellow who does this is the humble chimney-sweep.

Every time you light a fire in your fireplace, soot and ash is drawn up the chimney by the updraft of smoke. Over the course of years, this soot and ash builds up inside the chimney, forming black, crumbly deposits called creosote. Just like how grease in your kitchen drain prevents water from going down the pipes effectively, buildups of ash in the chimney prevents smoke from going UP the pipes effectively – in this case, your chimney-pipe, or flue.

For this reason, it’s necessary every now and then to get your chimney swept. By a sweep. With a broom and a brush.

Men of the Stepped Gables

If you’ve ever been to Europe, you may have seen buildings with rather odd-shaped rooves, such as this:

At the peak of the roof, you can see the chimney-stack with the pots on top. Sloping away on either side is the roof. See how it’s staggered down like a staircase?

Called crow-step gables, this roofing-style was popular from the Middle Ages up to the 1700s. Although it looks very pretty and geometric, it actually serves a practical purpose: It’s a built-in chimney-sweep staircase!

In an age when ladders rarely went right up to the roof, buildings were constructed with crow-stepped gables to give the poor chimney sweep somewhere to stand and climb in relative safety, as he made his way to the chimney-top to sweep down the ashes. And it was just as well, because chimney-sweeping was rife with dangers! Rather ironic then, that chimney-sweeps are supposed to be symbols of good luck!

Up until the late 19th century, chimney-sweeping was an extremely dangerous and even lethal profession. But not always for the reasons you might suspect. Laws in the United Kingdom and the United States had to be passed, and then strengthened, before the practice of shoving boys up chimneys was finally abolished in the 1870s.

Child Chimney Sweeps

“It’s a nasty trade!”

“Young boys have been smothered in chimneys before now”

“That’s a’cause they damped down the straw afore they lit it in the chimbly to make ’em come down agin! That’s all smoke, and no blaze; whereas smoke ain’t o’ no use at all in making a boy come down, for it only sends him to sleep, and that’s wot he likes. Boys is wery obstinit, and wery lazy, gen’lemen, and there’s nothink like a good hot blaze to make ’em come down with a run…It’s humane, too!” 

– “Oliver Twist”, 1837

No write-up about chimneys and chimney-sweeping could possibly be complete without a part dedicated solely to the trials and tribulations of unfortunate apprentice-sweeps. Since the earliest days of chimney-sweeping, up until the last quarter of the 1800s, children were used to sweep chimneys. It was indeed a nasty trade, to say nothing of being extremely dangerous and lethal. But what made it so?

In England especially, but also in the United States, children, usually young boys between the ages of four and ten, were sent up chimneys with small brushes to sweep down the ashes inside the chimney-flues. It sounds harmless enough, but was actually phenomenally dangerous.

Imagine the following…

It’s 1830. You’re an orphan-boy, maybe six years old. You’re apprenticed to a Master Sweep. A typical assignment had you following your master to a well-to-do house somewhere in London, to sweep the chimney.

Now understand please, that it was NOT in most cases, the master sweep who did the sweeping – It was usually the job of his apprentice-boy to do that. The youth would be given a brush, and then he would literally have to crawl into the fireplace, and then climb up the chimney from the inside! In this dark, extremely cramped environment (usually less than 1ft square), the boy had to crawl up the chimney and stop every few inches to brush down the ash inside the flue, while the master sweep down below had the cushy job of sweeping the fallen ash into sacks to be removed from the building. In the most extreme of cases, boys were forced up chimney-flues which measured just NINE INCHES BY NINE INCHES! Measure that out with your ruler and see if you could get your son, or your nephew, or grandson, to squirm through a hole that size.

Now imagine a chimney-shaft 15 feet long, and getting him to crawl up that all the way to the top, and then crawl all the way back down again. Then imagine crawling up the chimney…and losing your footing…and falling two storeys down in the dark, and breaking your ankle on the hearth below. Or even worse, imagine getting your knees jammed up against your chest inside the pitch-black chimney, and being completely and utterly wedged into the chimney-pipe. You would choke on the ash, or die of asphyxiation from the smoke or from compression-injuries from the tight squeeze.

This did happen. And frequently. The ways to get boys out was either to drag them down with a rope, or to smash the chimney-flue open with a sledgehammer to break him out – before he either suffocated due to his cramped position, or choked to death on the falling ash.

Most chimneys were not large. Usually, one chimney was shared by two or three fireplaces, all stacked up on top of each other. So the bends, crooks and corners could very easily trap a child if he lost concentration, or panicked, and got himself wedged into the brickwork.

Young Master Oliver Twist was fortunate not become a “climbing boy” as chimney-sweep apprentices were called, and the British Government was genuinely concerned about the plight, and deaths of climbing-boys, but very little was ever done. The first act of parliament to try and regulate the chimney-sweeping trade was in 1788, but had little effect.

As early as the 1790s, longer, mechanical chimney-sweeping brushes had been invented, to try and replace climbing-boys, but due to the vast array of flue-types, the brushes were not always practical. Another act regulating chimney-sweeping came out in 1834, and another in 1840! But still the practice of sending boys up chimneys continued.

In the 1800s, the modern chimney-brush (still used by sweeps today, with big bushy brush-heads and segmented, screw-on handles) was invented. But its introduction was met with ignorance by chimney-sweeps. The new brushes were expensive and burdensome to carry around. It was much easier to pay a poor, starving peasant family, or a pauper family living in the East End of London ten shillings, or five shillings, to take their children away and make them climbing-boys.

Armed with scrapers and brushes, and usually stripped naked, these children were shoved up chimneys to clean them from the inside out. And not just for cleaning chimneys, but also to put out chimney-fires! Imagine being a 10-year-old waif, crawling up a chimney with a flaming hot blaze inside it, with a wet towel to extinguish it!

Although presented in a comical fashion, mocking the chimney sweep’s accent in his book, Dickens’ description of the working-conditions of climbing-boys was incredibly accurate, and some master sweeps really did light fires in fireplaces with the climbing-boys still up the flues! Unsurprisingly, some kids were literally roasted alive.

It was not until 1875, and the disaster attending a boy named George Brewster (aged 12) that sending boys up chimneys was finally outlawed in England! Poor George crawled up a chimney at the Fulbourn Hospital in Cambridgeshire, England.

Like so many hapless boys before him, he got hopelessly jammed in the flue. Sledgehammers and picks had to be brought out to smash the entire chimney down to get him out. He was dragged out alive, but died shortly after. The hospital staff were so appalled that they brought the incident to the attention of the police. George’s master sweep was given a sentence of six months’ hard labour on a charge of Manslaughter as a result.

George’s death in 1875 resulted in the passing of the Chimney Sweeper’s Act of 1875, which finally ended the practice of sending boys up chimneys.

Modern Chimney-Sweeping

After the 1875 abolition of child chimney-sweeps, sweeps had to rely on brushes to do their job for them. Or at least, in the United Kingdom. The practice of climbing boys continued in the United States, even after it had been abolished in England.

The standard chimney-sweeping brush has a round or square head, with stiff-bristles made out of wire for added abrasive action. The brush is fed up (or down) the chimney, and additional extension-rods are added to the brush to push it further up or down the chimney to scrape down the ash and soot.

These days, chimney-sweeps also use vacuum-cleaners and video-cameras to clean and inspect chimneys, but it remains a dirty, dusty job even today.

Like a Tinderbox

For centuries, the only way to light a fire was to do it the old-fashioned way – either through friction or concentrated sunlight. Eventually, mankind discovered that by striking certain materials together, sparks could be generated easily, and a fire could be started much more quickly.

To do this required three things: Flint, steel, and tinder.

Flint is a rock which can be easily chipped and fractured. When chipped to an angle, and struck or scraped down a piece of steel (such as a disc or a rod), sparks are generated by the friction, or the impact of stone and steel. These sparks, (shavings of steel, in fact), landing on a piece of tinder, would start a fire. Usually, flint and steel were kept together, along with a small, tightly-sealed container which held the tinder. This became known as a ‘tinderbox’. Tinderboxes had to be tightly sealed to keep the tinder as dry as possible so that it would catch fire instantly when sparks were showered upon it after flint and steel had been struck.

Even today, we have an expression about how something catches fire “like a tinderbox”, or how a potentially volatile situation is “like a tinderbox”, echoing the extremely combustible contents of these little metal boxes.

Striking a Light

For centuries, starting a fire was a fiddly, imprecise business. It was something which took skill and practice. Things improved when people realised that they could use steel and flint, but the absolutely best, idiot-proof way to light a fire came with striking matches.

Matches have a long history, and it goes all the way back to Ancient China. But modern striking matches, of the kind we purchase and use today, were invented in the 1800s. The first of this kind came out in 1816, and was invented by Frenchman Francois Derosne. Early matches were tipped with sulphur and white phosphorus.

These early French matches were fiddly to use and unpredictable. An improved version by Englishman John Walker, a chemist, was invented ten years later, in 1826, and is the basis of all matches we have today.

Walker’s early friction-matches were improved in 1829 by Scottish inventor Sir Isaac Holden (1807-1897), and were sold under the brand-name of ‘Lucifers’. Although they were an improvement, ‘Lucifer’ matches didn’t last, but the brand-name became a common nickname for matches during the 1800s and early 1900s, and matches were commonly referred to as ‘Lucifers’. The war song ‘Pack up your Troubles’ immortalised them with the line:

“So long as you’ve a Lucifer to light your fag, smile boys, that’s the style”

By the 1830s, more reliable friction-matches had been invented, these matches were stored in smart, silver or gold cases called vestas, which were commonly worn on pocketwatch chains and carried around with a gentleman, since one never knew when one might need a light. These vesta-cases often had corrugated striking-plates on the sides or bottom, so that a match could be retrieved and lit from the same container.

An antique silver vesta case. Note the striking-ridges on the bottom

Matches continued to be phosphorus-tipped, strike-anywhere friction matches until the last decades of the 1800s. Although convenient in the fact that these matches could catch fire after being struck against any sufficiently rough surface (even the sole of your shoe!), their convenience came at the price of being a fire-hazard in that they could be too-easily ignited.

On top of that, white phosphorus matches were extremely poisonous. The unfortunate ‘match-girls’ who made these things, by dipping the matchsticks into phosphorus solution developed a crippling infection called ‘Phossy Jaw’. In essence, the phosphorus fumes seeped into the body and rotted out your jaw-bone, resulting in bone-infections, gum-infections, losing your teeth…eugh.

This was stopped in the later 1800s when white phosphorus was replaced with safer red phosphorus, which is still used today.

Starting in the mid-1800s, poisonous, dangerous, white-phosphorus friction-matches were gradually replaced by safer red phosphorus matches. These were less poisonous, and also much safer because instead of having the phosphorus and sulphur on the match-head at the same time, these matches only contained phosphorus, and the sulphur striking-compound was painted onto the sides of new cardboard matchboxes. Behold the modern safety-match!

The safety-match which we know today works because when you strike a match against a box, the sulphur and phosphorus combine, while at the same time creating friction, which is what causes the match-head to ignite. With the two components of a burning match now separated from each other, it is impossible for a friction match to be lit purely by being struck against an abrasive surface. This made them safer to handle and store than traditional strike-anywhere matches.

Mankind Roasting on an Open Fire

For centuries, heating, lighting and cooking was done with an open flame and fire, using candles, lamps and fireplaces. The Industrial Revolution of the 1700s saw the first practical iron stoves being built in Europe. Made of cast iron, these stoves were able for the first time to allow people to do more of their cooking at home.

Previously, cooking on an open fire was fiddly and tricky – You were limited by what you could hang over the flames or sit on the hearth. The first stoves allowed mankind to fry, bake, steam, boil and roast a much greater variety of foods than a simple open fire would have permitted. This greater control of fire vastly improved home comfort.

Prior to the invention of the cast iron range stove, baking was a specialty art. The only people who could bake were the people who had ovens. And ovens were huge brick and stone structures which were expensive to build and took up a lot of precious space. Not everyone had them, and most people didn’t. To bake your pies, cakes and loaves, you had to take them to the village bake-house to be baked.

With the stove, it was now possible to bake at home! And with a much better fuel, too.

It was at this time that people started switching from wood as a fuel-source to coal, instead. Coal had advantages, but also disadvantages. Coal burns hotter than wood, and so produces much more heat for the same amount of fuel. The problem is that coal burns and produces nasty black smoke! Eugh!

Wood-smoke is lovely. Everyone loves wood-smoke. It smells wonderful. People have smoked meat, cheese, fish and all other sorts of things in wood-smoke for centuries. It preserves the food and gives it a lovely flavour! Yum! But mixing coal-smoke with your food was apt to put you off your appetite, and to prevent this, coal-burning stoves and fireplaces did everything to channel the smoke away from the rest of the house.

Fires in the 21st Century

In the Developed World, the wood or coal-fueled fire is no-longer the primary source of heat or light anymore. Most of us cook on gas or electric stoves and heat our homes with heaters or central heating or split-system air-conditioners. But in other places around the world, fires continue to burn bright. But what should you do if you want to get a fire going?

Using your Fireplace

Perhaps you live in an older house with a fireplace and you would like to start using it to warm the house in winter? What to do, what to do, what to do??

The first thing to do is to ensure that your fireplace is a working fireplace. By this, I mean that all the fittings are functional and undamaged. The chimney should be clear and undamaged, and the damper should open and close smoothly. If you are unsure about the condition of your chimney, then you should have it checked by a professional chimney-sweep. Or you can do it yourself – All you need is a ladder, a flue-brush (and extension-rods) a few drop-sheets and a vacuum cleaner (or a shovel and bucket).

Whenever a chimney is swept, you’re scraping out all the soot and ash which has caked onto the inside of the chimney. It’s called creosote. Here’s a picture:

Scraping this crap out of your chimney-pipe ensures that the air moves smoothly up the flue and that the smoke has an unimpeded passage to the outside world.

To prepare the fireplace, you need to ensure that you have all the right bits and pieces. The necessary bits and pieces are listed and illustrated earlier on in this posting.

Lighting a Fire…

There are a dozen methods for building and lighting a fire. Here are just two methods, and the bare essentials.

To light a fire, you will need a source of ignition – matches, a cigarette lighter, or flint and steel if you want to do it the old-school way.

You will also need tinder. Tinder is anything small, dry and shriveled. Grass. Straw. Shredded, scrunched or twisted paper. Old cloth. Tinder goes first, at the bottom of the fireplace grate.

On top of the tinder, you set up your kindling. Kindling is any small dry pieces of wood. Usually old branches or larger pieces of wood split into smaller pieces. Kindling should be small enough that you can grab a whole bundle of it in one hand. If you can’t, it’s probably too big.

Light the tinder and wait until the kindling is going. Once it is, you can lay on your pieces of fuel-wood. Start with smaller pieces and work your way up to progressively larger pieces.

Waiting for the kindling to light before going further is important. It allows the fire to get a foothold. But it also allows your chimney a chance to warm up. You can’t light a fire in a cold fireplace (trust me, I’ve tried. It doesn’t work). Letting the kindling burn for a bit sends hot air up the chimney. This drives out or warms up any cold air in the chimney, and establishes an updraft – a current of air that draws more air into the fireplace below, which stimulates the fire and encourages it to burn more intensely.

With this going, add on your fuel-wood in increasingly larger segments and logs. You have a fire!

As always, keep an eye on your fire. And if you’re not going to, then make sure that the safety-screen is across the fireplace to prevent accidents – Rolling logs do happen, and you don’t want to come back to your living-room to find one burning a hole in your carpet. You might want to keep a small bucket of water or a fire-extinguisher nearby, in case the unforeseen should occur.

Fire-Building Methods

The two most common fire-building methods are the Upside Down Fire, and the Tepee Fire.

The Tepee Fire works on the age old rule that fire always burns UPWARDS. So any extra fuel should be placed above and outwards, from the fire’s point of origin. You put your tinder in a little pile in the middle of the fireplace, then lean kindling sticks against it, like an American Indian tent, or ‘tepee’. Then lay fuelwood around it in the same manner with a little door open at one side, to stick a match into it to light the kindling.

The other fire-building method which has gained a lot of popularity is the Upside Down Fire.

While the Tepee fire works best with almost any size of wood, the Upside Down Fire works best with smaller, thinner pieces of wood. It’s built in the following method:

Get your fuel-logs and stack them in a criss-cross pattern, building up a tower of wood. At the top, build your fire-tepee with tinder and kindling, and a small amount of fuelwood. Then light the fire at the top.

The reason it’s called an UPSIDE DOWN fire should now be apparent – It goes AGAINST the rule that fire burns from the bottom up. The Upside Down Fire works in that the flaming materials burn DOWNWARDS through the tower of fuel-wood. As it does so, any unburned portions of the tower collapse inwards, further fueling the fire, until it reaches the very bottom, and burns out. Upside Down fires are meant to be maintenance free – Build it, light it, forget about it. Ideal for camping. Or lazy people.

Both methods work. It’s just a matter of which one is best for you in your situation.


Up in Smoke: A History of Firefighting

Fire. One of man’s greatest creations. It allowed for light, heat, and the invention of the barbeque! For millenia, fire was essential to survival in one form or another. But fire was, and remains, a constant threat. Handled properly and safely, fire provided light, heat and the ability to cook delicious meals. But an act of carelessness or a lack of foresight could turn one of the most important forces known to man, into a destructive cataclysm far beyond our control.

To prevent and to manage events of the latter nature, we have firefighters, and firefighting equipment. Fire-fighters have been around ever since Ancient Rome, and they have a long and fascinating history, which this posting will explore.

Ancient Firefighting

Firemen have existed for centuries, in one form or another. There are fire-fighting teams that go back to Ancient Egypt and even Ancient Rome.

The first fire-fighting brigade of significance was established in Rome, by a man named Marcus Licinius Crassus. A wealthy businessman, Crassus employed a team of 500 men whose job it was to extinguish structural fires in the city of Rome…for a fee…to be paid…before the firefighters would even tip so much as a thimble of water…

So much for that.

The Emperor Augustus liked the idea of Rome having a firefighting force. He established the world’s first professional fire-brigade. Called the Vigiles, these men patrolled the streets at night. Upon the alarm of fire, they formed bucket-brigades and teams of laddermen and hook-men, who extinguished fires, or pulled buildings down, to prevent the fire from spreading to other structures in the surrounding areas. The Vigiles did double-duty as an early-form of police-force as well, keeping an eye out for crime, and making sure that the city was safe from both fire and thieves and generally, being vigilant. Yes, that’s where the word comes from. It’s also where we get the term “Vigilante”.

Ancient Firefighting Tools

For centuries, up until the 1800s, firefighting equipment was rudimentary. Buckets of water, long fire-hooks, to pull down buildings, ladders to reach high windows, primative hand-powered water-pumps and only moderately effective “Water-Squirts” (a handheld water-dispenser which was a bit like a modern child’s water-gun), were the main tools of the trade. Fighting a fire was less to do about putting the fire out, and more about preventing its spread. Fire-hooks were used to pull down burning buildings in danger of collapse, or to destroy buildings in the fire’s path, to create a firebreak which the flames couldn’t jump, thus containing its destructive force.

During the medieval period, firefighting was largely self-organised. Various European monarchs (such as Louis IX of France), set up state-funded fire-fighters, but also encouraged regular citizens to form their own “fire-bands”. These acted like Neighbourhood Watch committees, which patrolled the streets at night, keeping an eye out for fires and crimes in progress.

The Great Fire of London and Advances in Technology

In 1666, the ancient city of London was razed to the ground by a fire started by the King’s baker, the unfortunate Mr. Thomas Farynor. The Great Fire was a disaster unprecedented in the history of London. Sure, there had been fires before, but no fire had ever burnt down 4/5 of the city! The Great Fire of London also instituted the start of a newfangled concept in the world…insurance! For the first time ever, you could now pay for fire-insurance! An insurance-company would open an account and upon consideration of a few pounds each year, you would have fire-protection in the event of your property going up in flames. In return for your patronage, the insurance-company gave you a big, fancy metal “Fire-Mark”. This plaque was to be affixed to your residence in a prominent place (such as next to the front door), to indicate to the company’s private fire-brigade, that you were a paying customer who they were expected to help, in the event of a house-fire. And now, fighting fires was slowly getting easier, too!

By this time, the first really successful fire-pumps had been developed. They were heavy, lumbering things that needed a horse to pull them, but they did work. Their main issue, however, was that they had a very short range. You had to be right in front of the fire for the pump to be any good at all.

These early pumps were called ‘force-pumps’. This meant that water filled a piston-shaft, and the piston forced the water up a pipe and out of a nozzle on each down-stroke. On the up-stroke, the piston-shaft was again filled with water from the tank, and again, forced out by the down-stroke.

These pumps were ineffective and rather time-wasting. The man who improved them was a German inventor named Hans Haustch. He developed a suction-and-force pump in the 1600s. This meant that pumping the handle up and down both pumped out water from the piston-shaft, but also pulled more water in from the tank, creating a constant and more powerful flow of water.

Although it was an improvement, this new double-action pump was useless, relatively speaking, until the intervention of Dutchman, Jan Van Der Heyden.

van der Heyden (1637-1712), developed the one crucial bit of equipment so vital to firefighting that centuries later and every fire-station on earth still has one!…in fact, every fire-station probably has dozens of these things!

The fire-hose.

Jan van der Heyden was a Dutch inventor. He developed his newfangled ‘fire-hose’ in the 1660s. His brother Nicolaes was a hydraulic engineer…a handy person to have when designing fire-fighting equipement…and together, they developed a perfected version of the fire-hose in 1672.

Affixed to the spouts of the new double-action water-pumps, the van der Heyden Brothers’ new fire-hoses (made of leather, the only material sufficiently strong enough to cope with the pressure), allowed people for the first time to have directional, pressurised water as a means for attacking a fire. No longer was the range of your attack limited by how far you could throw a bucket or how close you could park the fire-engine, but rather, by how fast you could pump the handle. Everything else was managed by the hose. Direction, height, distance…all you had to do was point and shoot. A great improvement from standing six feet from a blazing building holding a piddly bucket of water. Despite these advances, however, in Colonial America, it was still the law in many towns that every household kept a bucket of water outside the front door at night, as a safeguard against fires. The buckets were used by the local fire-watch, and would be returned to the home-owner once the fire had been put out.

The Development of the Fire Engine

The first fire-engines, with the new water-pumps and leather hoses, hooks and ladders, axes and buckets, were developed in the 1700s. By the Georgian era, firefighting had developed to a point that it was finally practical to make a mobile firefighting unit, the fire ENGINE.

The fire-engine had been in development in the 1600s, but the first really successful versions took root at the dawn of the 18th century. Horse-drawn fire-wagons could now to be directed to any part of a city with its supply of water, hose, pump, men and equipment, to tackle a major conflagration.

It was around this time that the first modern firefighting brigades were developed. While there were still penny-pinching, profiteering private fire-companies around (they were particularly notorious in the United States), city and state governments were now establishing the first paid fire-fighters.

The first city to have such a fire-brigade was Paris. Created by order of King Louis XIV, the “Company of Pump Guards“, as it was called, was the first professional, state-funded, uniformed fire-brigade in the world.

To prevent the squabbling and fighting that had attended the Ancient Roman firefighters, and even the colonial firefighters and private firefighters in the United States, the French Government decreed that ALL firefighting missions were provided by the city, to the victim, FREE OF CHARGE.

As the 1700s progressed into the 1800s, more and more city-funded fire-brigades were established. Big cities such as London, Edinburgh and New York soon had city fire-services and organised firefighting had become a reality.


Fire-trucks are famous aren’t they? Jangling bells, wailing sirens, flashing lights, and that distinctive “fire-engine red” paintjob!

The first-ever modern fire-truck came out in the early 1900s, and belonged to the Springfield Fire Department in Springfield, Massachusetts, USA. Here’s a photograph of it:

This fire-truck was made ca. 1905, an age when most motorised vehicles were still the handmade, and extremely expensive preserve of the upper classes. But it is, nonetheless, the world’s first modern fire-truck.

Victorian-era Firefighting

The 1800s saw a huge rise in urban populations, industry, and…fire. By now, most big cities had their own, state-funded fire-services. But technology was still rather primitive. To improve firefighting, a number of changes had to be made.

Fire-wagons were still horse-drawn, but to improve efficiency, the first coal-fired, steam-powered water-pumps were installed on fire-engines in the 1800s. These allowed for longer fire-fighting times, and for more men to be used fighting the fire, rather than manning the pump.

It was around this time that the fire-dog became famous.

Dalmatian dogs are a common symbol of fire-stations in the United States. They’re famous for being white with black spots, for wearing classic red fire-helmets and for rescuing people from burning buildings!

But why are they there in the first place?

Fire-dogs, the Dalmatian dogs which are so strongly associated with firehouses, are descendant from 18th and 19th century “carriage dogs”. Carriage dogs (an ancestor of the modern Dalmatian) were the canine companions of coachmen back in the days of horse-drawn carriages. They were a sort of car-alarm with fur.

In the 17 and 1800s, when nearly all transport was horse-drawn, the welfare of the horse that did the drawing was extremely important. Especially when the transport happened to be a fire-engine. To protect horses from harm, such as horse-thieves, it was common for stable-boys, grooms and coachmen to keep dogs near to the horses, to drive away people intending the animals harm.

When a fire-engine went out on a call, the dogs went along with it, again, to guard the horses against people who might want to steal or harm the horses, which in the 1800s, were valuable assets.

The 1900s saw the end of the horse-drawn carriage, but the Dalmatian dog remained. They don’t run alongside, or guard the wheels of modern fire-trucks anymore, but they have stayed a symbol of firefighting ever since.

Fire Extinguishers

For most of history, the most widespread fire-extinguisher of any kind was a bucket of water stored next to the stove, or on the front porch.

The first modern fire extinguishers were developed in the 1800s.

Capt. George William Manby, a writer and inventor from England, created the first modern fire extinguisher in 1813.

It was designed to be portable, but it was made of copper, and weighed about 12kg! But it was, nonetheless, a fire-extinguisher.

It was filled with a water-and-potassium-carbonate solution, contained under pressure. In the event of a fire, the pressurized solution could be sprayed out of the nozzle to extinguish the blaze.

In the second half of the 1800s, numerous inventors came up with extinguishers which did more than just spray ordinary water onto a fire. Starting in the 1860s, inventors created the “soda-acid” fire extinguisher, which was particularly useful for fires where there might be poisonous chemicals around.

The soda-acid extinguisher worked by having the main canister of the extinguisher filled with a mix of water, and sodium bicarbonate…baking-soda!…and a separate phial filled with sulphuric acid, sealed inside the main canister, along with the water-soda mixture.

In the event of a fire, the extinguisher (depending on the design) was either tipped upside down, or a plunger was pushed or pulled. The idea was that this motion would break the glass phial inside the extinguisher. This released the acid into the water-soda mixture. The resultant reaction created high pressure, and a lot of carbon-dioxide gas. This could be forced out of the nozzle of the extinguisher to put out the fire.

One of the more interesting types of fire-extinguishers developed during the 19th and early 20th centuries was the so-called “fire-grenade”.

An antique glass ‘grenade’ fire-extinguisher

The fire “grenade” was a sphere of glass filled with either salt-water, or the chemical carbon tetra-chloride (“C-T-C”).

Fire-grenades could be used by firemen or people in distress, to put out a fire from a distance. One simply lined up the fire in one’s sight, and threw the grenade at its base. The glass shattered and the spreading water (or chemicals, as the case might be) put out the fire, with minimal risk to the firefighter or person in distress.

In some places, fire-grenades were placed on special hair-trigger harnesses above doorways in big, public buildings. This way, if there was a fire, the grenades could fall from their harnesses into the doorways above which they were installed. This kept the doorway clear of flames, allowing people a safe escape-route (so long as you were fine with running on top of broken glass!).


Ah, the classic fire-helmet. Originally made of leather, or brass, and today more commonly made of special plastics, the fire-helmet was developed during the Victorian era, as a way of protecting firemen from two of the biggest dangers of fighting a fire: Collapsing buildings, and getting soaked.

Fire-helmets are famous for their long, sloping rear brims. These are designed to protect the neck and the back of the head, and to deflect falling water away from a fireman’s neck, and going down the back of his shirt. Meanwhile, the iconic shape is designed to protect against falling objects, such as collapsing scaffolding, bricks and other debris that might come crashing down out of a fire-weakened building.

Brass helmets were popular during the Victorian era. But they started being changed for safer plastic helmets in the 1900s because of the risk of electrocution from electrical fires. As a result, fire-helmets today are made of special, heat-resistant plastics and composite materials.

Fire Hydrants

The first ‘fire hydrants’ of a sort, were developed in the 1600s. Cities lucky enough to have running water had it transported around town in wooden mains-pipes, which were buried under the streets. In the event of a fire, firemen would dig a hole in the street to expose the water-mains below. A hand-drill was used to bore a hole into the pipe. As the water rushed out and filled the hole around the pipe, a bucket-line could be formed around the hole, filling buckets with water and sending them, hand-over-hand, to the blaze.

When the fire was extinguished, the hole in the mains pipe was plugged with a wooden bung. The hole in the street was filled in, and a marker was placed on the spot. This was so that any future firefighters would be alerted to the presence of a previous bore-hole in the area, if they ever needed to fight a fire in that street again. This is why some people still call fire-hydrants ‘plugs’ to this day; because they literally plugged the water-mains.

The modern fire-hydrant, which we see on street-corners, and which are painted bright red, came around in the 1800s. It was invented in 1801 by Frederick Graff, then chief-engineer of the Philadelphia Water Works. Ironically, the patent-papers for Graff’s invention were lost when the United States Patent Office in Washington D.C. burnt down in 1836!

The Firepole

It’s a scene played out in old movies, cartoons, T.V. shows, and in almost every episode of “Fireman Sam“; the call comes in, the alarm-bells start ringing, and firemen leap into action, jumping for the fireman’s pole, swinging around and sliding down the shaft to the ground floor of the firehouse, to jump into their uniforms, put on their helmets, start up the fire-truck and charge off to the scene of some catastrophe, red lights and sirens glaring and blaring.

The fire-pole was invented in Chicago in the 1870s. As with many inventions, necessity, and a certain level of ingenuity, gave birth to one of the most iconic pieces of firefighting equipment ever.

Firehouse No. 21 in Chicago was an all-black firehouse, and the resident captain, David Kenyon, was stupefied when he saw one of his firemen, George Reid, slide down a pole from the second storey of their three-storey firehouse to the ground floor to respond to an emergency.

At the time, fire-poles did not exist; Reid had actually used the lashing-pole which the firehouse used in transporting bales of hay for the fire-wagon horses. The pole was used as a securing-point when hay-bales were loaded onto the hay-wagon, to stop them rolling off during their deliveries.

Kenyon was so impressed that he pestered the Chicago fire-chief over and over and over again to give him permission to install a similar, purpose-built pole in his firehouse. Eventually, the chief gave in, and agreed – provided that the funds needed for the installation and maintenance of the pole came entirely out of the pockets of the firemen who used it.

And so it came to be, that in 1878, the world’s first fireman’s pole was installed at Chicago Firehouse No. 21.

At first, nobody paid any attention to the pole, and other firemen thought it was stupid and ludicrous. It was some ridiculous toy to play around with when the boys at firehouse 21 had nothing else to do!

But other firehouses began to sit up and take notice when they realised that Firehouse 21 was responding to emergencies much faster, especially at night.

Not having to deal with doors, staircases, landings and overcrowded corridors meant that the firemen could literally slide into action and be ready to go in just a few minutes; compared to having to run down stairs, hold doors open, and risk tripping and falling over, especially in the dark.

With the benefits of fire-poles established, every firehouse in the world began to be fitted with them. To make them stronger and longer-lasting, the world’s first metal fire-pole (made of brass), was installed in Boston, in 1880.

An old fire-pole with important safety-features:
Double trap-doors, and a safety-cage

These days, fire-poles are sometimes considered more of a hindrance than a help, because of the dangers of sprained or broken legs and ankles, and risks of losing one’s grip, and falling. Some countries have outlawed them altogether, but other countries continue to use them, albeit, with better safety-measures in-place, such as protective railings, and padded landing-mats. These prevent accidental falls, and cushion any hard landings.


The “Idiot Box” and the History of Television

The television, the T.V., the idiot-box, the electronic babysitter. That magical screen in our living-rooms which has brought us news, sports, weather, education, entertainment, excitement, bemusement and rage, has come a long way since its inception nearly 100 years ago.

This posting will have a look at the history of television, from its beginnings to the commencement of regular programming.

The Television and Us

For most of us in the 21st century, life without television is inconceivable. There are those of course, who were born without it, but with it or without it, chances are, if you watch it regularly today, you would be hard-pressed to imagine your current and future existence without this magical device in your living-room. How many incredible events have been brought to us through the television? How many amazing films have we seen? Famous and memorable TV serials, and even advertisements. Everything from “Happy Days” to “Brylcreem” (just remember, only use a LITTLE dab), to “Are You Being Served?”

Mankind’s love-affair with the TV is inseparable, unstoppable and unthinkable that it should ever go away. But where does TV come from?

A World Before Television

In a dark and soul-less time, before computers and fax-machines and mobile telephones, when eggs were 5c a dozen and penny-candy was really a penny, mankind tuned into the radio.

From the early 1920s, until the late 1950s, we enjoyed a roughly 30-year period where radio was king. When we literally had to tune in and warm up, to enjoy a program over the air. This was the Golden Age of Radio. It brought us such memorable events as the Hindenburg Crash of 1937, the Attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Declaration of War in 1939 and countless famous old-time radio programs, from “Gang Busters” to “Dragnet”, to “Richard Diamond” and “Abbott & Costello”.

If you want to read more about that, have a look here.

Back then, the family radio-set was an important piece of household equipment. But even by the 1930s, its dominance in our living-rooms was being threatened by a new kid on the block called television.

The Invention of Television

The word ‘television’ comes from the Greek ‘tele’ meaning ‘from afar’. Just like how telephone, and telegraph mean sounds, and writing, or messages, from afar, television means pictures from afar.

So, who invented television?

As with many great inventions, from airplanes to motor-cars, telephones, the fountain pen and the typewriter, television cannot be wholly attributed to one man.

Experiments in transmitting images over a distance have dated back as far as the late 1800s, however, television as we would recognise it today, that is, moving images transmitted to a screen, did not emerge until the mid-1920s. The man responsible for its creation was Mr. John Logie Baird, a Scotsman (1888-1946). To this day, the Australian TV industry still holds the “Logie Awards” every year in his honour.

Mr. Baird was experimenting with transmitting images over the air for a long time, starting in the early 1920s. However, it was not until the early 1930s that the first TV sets that we might know today, ever appeared in shop windows.

Early Television

Named after its inventor, this is the Baird Televisor, ca. 1933, one of the first ever residential TV sets! It’s hardly widescreen, but it is a television.

Back in the 20s and 30s, radio was the dominant force for entertainment, education and news, and T.V. programming was often limited to a few hours, or even a few minutes a day, and nothing more than black and white film with no sound, or sound, with no pictures! T.V. during the interwar period was little more than a fairground attraction, or a toy for the rich.

By the second half of the 1930s, TV started becoming more accessible, and more advanced, although it still had a limited market. Picture-quality was not what it might be, but now, TV sets had sound! Sets were still expensive, but those who could afford them, bought them from famous department-stores like Selfridges in London. In the United States, T.V. broadcasting started in the 1930s and Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first American president to appear on television, at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.


That’s right! Nazi-Vision!

Believe it or not, but it was the Nazis who created one of the world’s first national television networks. German factories started producing early TV sets in 1934, and the Nazis were among the very first people on earth to realise the potential for television to reach several audiences at once, and spread the glorious Nazi ideologies of Strength through Joy, racial purity and an abundance of bratwurst for all!

Based in the German capital of Berlin, the Nazi-controlled broadcasting station and studio produced everything from propaganda movies, to Nazi rallies, speeches and other material, which was transmitted to the screens of loyal Germans fortunate enough to own the first generation of home television-sets. While most of the programming was broadcast live, and was not recorded, some 250-odd reels of ancient film remains, which gives us a tantalizing look at television under the Nazis, from 1935-1944.

Although the Nazis could see that TV could be a great technology for spreading their ideologies and propaganda, they also realised that the technology would have to be greatly improved before it would work properly. The limitations of early cameras meant that picture-quality was mediocre at best. Their solution was to record their broadcasts onto film, and play it back later, like they did with any other movie. This not only improved quality, but it also had the unintended side-effect of giving us a record of Nazi television that has survived to this day.

Despite the Nazis grand vision, the relative expensiveness of television sets meant that the audience for their programming was always rather small. Few people owned sets. Those who did were usually party-members with the money to spend, people in positions of power, money or authority, and a chosen lucky few private citizens. The rest of the sets were set up in public “Television Parlors”, scattered around Berlin. They were little more than simple movie-theaters, where the big screen had been replaced by the small one.

Another opportunity for the Nazis came in 1936. That’s right, the Berlin Olympics of 1936, where Jesse Owens beat the Aryans and humiliated Hitler, were the first Olympics to be publicly televised!

However, the fact remained that, despite the Nazis best efforts, early television remained impractical on a large scale. They had improved some things, such as picture-quality and sound, but a limited audience meant that until the medium was more widely adopted and accepted, and better recording, broadcasting, and receiving means had been devised, TV would be little more than a toy. Indeed, even by the outbreak of the Second World War, the entire nation of Germany had only about 500 television sets, scattered around the country.

Television and the War

By the early 1940s, some semblance of regular TV broadcasts had begun. In 1941, CBS in the United States was broadcasting televised news in 15-minute bulletins, twice a day. Regular programming began to introduce the TV shows that we would recognise today, although the limitations of the studio-cameras and lights of the period left much to be desired when it came to picture-quality. The war itself played a big role in holding back the development of TV. Rationing and shortages of almost everything needed to make TV sets, from wood to metal to glass, made them expensive luxury-items. And at any rate, the companies that made TV. sets were more interested in making radios and other electronics for the war effort.

These shortcomings and interruptions severely affected the widespread use of televisions, and it wasn’t until after the war, in 1947, that regular T.V. broadcasting really took off in the United States.

In Germany, where television was being exploited for propaganda purposes, advances in technology had been made, but even then, programming was brief. Usually only a few hours a day, if at all. By autumn of 1944, with constant, heavy bombing-raids on German cities, and the war going badly for the Nazis, the national broadcasting company in Germany ceased transmissions.

Please Check your Local Paper for the Times

The war is over! Yay!

In the late 1940s, TV programming really started taking off. With the war over, more technology and research could be profitably spent developing and improving the emerging medium of television. For the growing number of television-owners, there were now more frequent telecasts and a greater variety of options, everything from news programs, sitcoms, and early kids’ shows like the famous “Howdy Doody” program, starting in 1947!

There was stiff competition from radio during this time, but one by one, popular radio programs of the 1930s and 40s slowly shifted from the old, to the new, setting up regular TV spots for themselves on the weekly schedule. For a while, some actors and performers ran concurrent TV and radio programs; “Dragnet” used to do it for nearly a whole decade!

By the early 1950s, TV was becoming more and more accepted, and popular shows such as “Amos & Andy” (1951) and the Jack Benny Program (1950), were big hits on TV. Radio-writers and musicians who found themselves suddenly unemployed, began scriptwriting for these newfangled television-series, and writing and recording music for TV shows.

The Shape of the Box

Early televisions of the 1930s and 40s closely followed the styles of furniture and radios of the period. A typical 1930s radio-set was large, with a handsome wood case, cloth-covered speakers and handsome bakelite knobs. Television sets were made in the same style. Here’s an RCA 360, from 1947, one of the first postwar televisions to be mass-produced and available to the public:

By the 1950s, as with many other things, from typewriters to radios to kitchen gadgets, sleeker lines, newer materials and different colour-palettes were the rage. Boxy old wood-case televisions were out. More simplistic and uncluttered looks were in…

In the 50s, televisions were the latest and greatest thing around. Some people who couldn’t actually afford a set, would just buy an aerial and stick it on their rooves, just to pretend that they did, so that they could keep up with the Joneses.

Remote Television

Almost as soon as TV started taking off, people started looking for ways to make the technology more appealing to the everyday user. Why should you have to get up and flip a dial and knob whenever you wanted to change the channel? That arduous, six, seven, or nine-foot trek to the set, and back again, is such an inconvenience! Surely there’s a better way?

I See the Light!

As early as 1950, the first TV remote-controls had been invented. Originally connected to the set itself by long cables, the first wireless TV-remotes, of the kind we recognise today, came out in the mid 1950s. One of the first wireless remotes was the Flashmatic, from 1955. It worked quite simply: You pressed the buttons on the controller and aimed it at the television. A beam of light from the remote hit a photoelectric panel on the TV set, which changed the channel.

Brilliant, but problematic. See, the light-sensitive electric cell on the television-set did not differentiate between the beam shot from the remote, and any other source of light. If you turned on an electric lamp near to the television, or even if you opened the curtains and let in the sunlight, the channel would change automatically, even without the remote!

A Click and a Switch!

Early TV remotes worked on light-beams affecting light-sensitive electric panels on the television set. They worked well enough, so long as you had a decent aim and there weren’t any interfering light-sources, but the drawbacks of their over-sensitivity and fiddly operation made them somewhat impractical. A better type of TV remote was invented shortly after, which relied not on light, but on sound. Pressing the remote-buttons let off clicks of different frequencies, which could be picked up by the TV-set. Each frequency related to a specific command – changing the channel, or the volume, as the case may have been. But even this could be problematic, when people with sensitive hearing could hear the pulses of sound (which were designed to be outside the human hearing-range).

Slice and Dice!

Don’tcha just hate it that, just when the show gets to the interesting bit, it suddenly breaks for a commercial?

You can thank TV remotes for that.

After the invention of the remote, it was discovered by studio bigwigs that airing commercials between shows was ineffective. Once a show was over, you could just turn the set off, or flip to another channel. And you didn’t have to watch the stupid commercial for Remington typewriters, or Brylcreem, or Pepsodent, or whatever other boring junk those commercial schmucks were trying to peddle in your own living room! How dare they invade your privacy like this!?

To remedy this, the modern format of television was created, where shows were split into segments or acts, just like a play at the theater. This allowed for advertising, but it also meant that people were less likely to flip away from the channel, in case they missed the return of their favourite TV episode, thereby increasing the viewer-numbers of TV commercials.

Crafty bastards…

The Golden Age of Television

The Golden Age of Television is defined as the period from the early 1950s up to the 1970s. It was during this period that many of the classic and famous TV shows that we know and love and remember, were broadcast. But more importantly, it was during this time (especially in the 50s and 60s), that TV gained dominance over radio for the first time in history. Also, it was during the 50s and 60s that TV developed its own style, format and language.

Previously, TV shows were modeled after radio-programs, but not everything used in radio was possible on television, which necessitated various changes, which led to the evolution of modern television. Shows produced on TV during and after this changeover, are considered classics of television.

What shows, you might ask? Well, how about Dragnet? The Jack Benny Show? Amos & Andy? Leave It To Beaver? Life with Luigi, and numerous other programs.

Good Night, and Good Luck

Along with regular programming, the television revolutionized the broadcasting of news. Previously, you had the radio and the newspaper. But now, the nightly, six o’clock bulletin was the mainstay of news, sports and weather. The news anchor and reporters became staples of nightly broadcasts. Programs like the 1950s “See it Now“, began to replace radio broadcasts as the method for spreading news to the public. The line “Good night, and good luck”, was the sign-off line used by famous reporter Edward R. Murrow, notable for reporting on the Blitz in London, and MacCarthyism during the 1950s.

We Return You to Your Regularly Scheduled Program…

By the 60s and 70s, TV had become the mainstay of most well-to-do households in the developed world, and had finally replaced radio as the main medium for electronic entertainment, music and news. It had by now, reached the format which we’re most familiar with.

The 60s and 70s saw many of the most famous TV shows in history take to the air, like Gilligan’s Island, the Addams Family, Are You Being Served?, Dad’s Army, Dragnet (which transferred from radio in the 1950s), and the Dick Van Dyke Show.

It was in the early 1970s that the first TV-recording equipment arrived on the scene. These days, we have DVD recorders and other technology that will allow us to pause, rewind, record and watch multiple shows at once. But we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if the VCR and the video-cassette didn’t get there first. Entering the market in 1971, the VHS tape and the VCR remained the standard method for recording TV-programs for thirty years, until the end of the 20th century. Tricks like putting sticky-tape over the slots in the tape-cassette to disable the anti-recording feature on some cassettes, would enable people to use almost any cassette to record movies, TV shows and almost anything else that they wanted, right off their TV sets. VCDs, and eventually, DVDs, and their accompanying recorders, would of course replace them starting in the late 1990s, but VHS tapes paved the way.

That brings us more or less to the modern day, so far as TVs are concerned. Some things have changed, such as digital TVs from old cathode-ray tube (CRT) TVs, and the lack of a need for a pair of rabbit-ear antennae, but in the past few years, not much else has changed about the basics of television as we know it today.

Want to Know More?

“Television under the Swastika – The History of Nazi Television”

A History of Television from the Grolier Encyclopedia


The Elements of a Vintage Study or Office

It occurs to me that there’s a lot of blogs and forums out there these days, dedicated to the proposition that all men are not created equal. There are those who sail merrily on their way, oblivious to everything, and there are those who have thrown out the anchors at the top of the falls, holding back with all their might, mankind’s devilish attempts to hurl them into the abyss of blandness, cookie-cutterism and lack of personality and style.

Some Sort of Introduction

Websites and blogs such as the famous Art of Manliness, and The Gentleman, and forums such as the Fedora Lounge, were created to educate people about what life, mostly for men, but also for women, used to be. Before we all got tangled up in what Hollywood and the men from marketing and advertising wanted us to look like.

Some people have seen the older ways and in one way or another, have decided that they would like to return to them, or imitate their style in one way or another, ranging from behaviour, dress, grooming, style, and home decor.

In the 21st century world, the odious ‘man cave’ has made its appearance, both in peoples’ homes, and as a term on the internet. It is an odious term. Yes. I have said it, and it is said.

We already have ‘study’, ‘office’, ‘den’, ‘loft’, ‘workshop’, ‘games-room’ and ‘garage’ as sanctuaries of masculinity, and as places for men and their friends to hide themselves away from others, and enjoy themselves in their own privacy, or enjoy their privacy with their chosen circle of friends.

But apparently, none of these terms sufficiently captured the essence of what the ‘man-cave’ is, which is in itself, a rather fluid term which at times seems to defy definition altogether. A man-cave can be anything from a games-room, a home-theater, a library, an office,  study, a private bar or a model-making workshop, tinkering-room or gym. Perhaps this is why older terminology has been replaced by something more suited to capture such a diverse space that the man-cave has become.

But I’m kinda digressing here. Like…a LOT. I apologise…

The Actual Point of this Posting

One of the most common and popular rooms in the house, and one which may well become a person’s man-cave, is the room which in older times was marked as a study, office, or den. In an attempt to inject these traditionally masculine rooms with masculinity once more, some men have chosen to go the oldschool-route, and redecorate and redesign their studies so that they might look like the great chambers of thought and knowledge that they once were, full of books, wood, leather, whiskey and tobacco smoke.

This posting will cover the details that you’ll need if you want to try and pull off that classic, old-world man-cave study/office look from yesteryear. Those big, classy executive-style offices that you see in old houses, in period movies, and old photographs, with all the lashings of wood and leather and steel and brass, glass and soft, fluffy rugs. The traditional man’s office of yesteryear.

The Stuff You Will Need

The Desk

Every good study…has a desk. It goes without saying. But if you’re going for that old-world look, what kinds of desks should you be looking for? There are several to choose from.

The Rolltop

The rolltop desk is a traditional desk-form from the Georgian era, characterised by the curved rolling lid made of linked wooden slats. The desk typically comes in one of two styles: Either with a quarter-circle curved frontage and side-panels, or a more bendy “S”-styled roll, such as what is pictured above. One is not necessarily better than the other, and it’s up to personal taste which one you want.

The rolltop desk has plenty of space for storing little nicknacks, files, stationery and so-forth, and enough space on it to keep a typewriter, or a computer. Provided the computer or typewriter is of the portable, laptop variety, the rolltop lid in most cases, can be pulled down over the machine at the end of the day, without the top of the computer or the typewriter getting in the way.

The rolltop also has lots of little cubbyholes and pigeon-holes. These are extremely useful for things like stamps, bottles of ink, pens, paperclips, staplers, hole-punchers and other desktop equipment that you would need on an infrequent basis, but would need to access in a hurry when you did.

The Slant-Top or Bureau

The slant-top or bureau desk is characterised by its famous drop-down work-surface, which is usually supported by a pair of pull-out supports, either side of the top drawers. Much like the rolltop, this desk-form dates back to the 1700s, but remains popular with those people who like to keep things neat and tidy. Its rather small size forces you to keep clutter to a minimum, and like the rolltop, a simple flip of the lid hides everything neatly away from the sight of others.

The Secretary Desk

The secretary desk is instantly recognisable from its distinctive shape. It’s basically a bureau with a bookcase stacked on top. This is a handy desk-form if you find yourself constantly needing to flip through reference-books during your work, and you’re sick of having to trek across the study to your bookcases and back, to find the information you need. Simply stack your most-used reference-books in the case above your desk!

One of the great things about desks of this type is that the shelf at the top of the desk is the perfect place to put a desk-lamp where it will provide light, but not get in the way of your work. The upper part of the pigeonholes is also great for storing pencil-mugs, drinks and other things that you might want to access when the desk itself is closed and/or locked at the end of the day.

Rolltop and slant-top desks are almost strictly wall-desks. The backs of the desks are up against the wall, literally. Some people don’t like this. They like having a desk which they can access from all sides. What should you look for?

In this category, there are two common forms.

The Pedestal Desk

The pedestal desk is a desk-form so common that its creation goes back probably to the beginning of desk-building. It’s called a “pedestal” desk because it holds the desktop above two “pedestals” which house the drawers and storage-cupboards within. In its numerous guises and variations, the pedestal desk is the one desk-form that has survived well into the modern day.

The one small issue with pedestal-desks, and other all-round desks like this, is that there isn’t any back panel behind which you could hide wires and cables, so they can sometimes present a more messy appearance.

Particularly small pedestal desks with a narrow space between the two pedestals are often called “kneehole” desks, because the space under the desktop is just wide enough for the writer to slide in and put his knees in there. Compare the kneehole desk below, to the larger pedestal desk further up, and you’ll automatically see a difference in size.

The Partners’ Desk

The Partners’ desk is without doubt, the granddaddy of all desks. They’re called partners’ desks because they’re designed to be used by two business-partners, working face-to-face, sharing one big desk, which is essentially two pedestal-desks placed back-to-back.

Partners’ desks are MASSIVE. They’re about the size of a small car and have enough surface-area to double as an airfield during times of war. I’m pretty sure that during the Battle of Britain, Churchill allowed the RAF to use his desk as a runway for Spitfires when his majesty’s airfields were bombed out of action. Yes. Their finest hour was won thanks to desk-space.

Yes, I made that up. But the size of these desks was such that during the Second World War, those daring R.A.F. chaps used to refer to partners’ desks as “Mahogany Bombers”, due to their gigantic size. And that’s the truth!

These desks also weigh about as much as a whale after it’s gone through the krill buffet. If you’re looking for a power-desk, you must buy one of these. But be warned, they weigh a lot, and they take up a lot of real-estate. You need a BIG study, office, or man-cave, to fit this in!

Unless IKEA has invented a flat-pack version of this, you’ll never get one home in the boot of your car. You might succeed if you have a truck. Best bet is a trailer of some variety, a moving-van, or a pair of teleport-booths.

Classic Desk Accessories

Now that you’ve picked your desk, you need something to put on it. What kinds of things were common on desks 50, 70, 100 years ago? For the accessories and items that make up that classic desktop look of times gone by, read on.

The Lamp

Unless your awesomeness, sophistication and coolness is such that it generates its own, blinding glow of smug superiority, you’ll need a lamp on your desk. If you want something that will match your beautiful antique or solid-wood desk, and not some smunky piece of junk that you bought at IKEA, then you couldn’t go past a traditional Emeralite desk-lamp…

Commonly called “bankers’ lamps” because of their association with banks and their tellers, Emeralite desktop lamps have been manufactured since 1909! Talk about endurance of design! They were originally produced by the company of H.G. McFaddin & Co., in New York, U.S.A. To this day, the classic brass base and stem, and the swiveling green glass lampshade has remained a popular choice for those seeking old-world lighting charm. The brass is shiny and reflective, increasing the amount of light, and the green lamp-shade provides for a nice dash of colour!

But why is it green?

Although you can get these lamps with their shades in almost any colour, from frosty white to lemon yellow, its most common colour, and the colour which everyone associates with these lamps, is green. Why?

Emeralite lamps (note the name: “Emerald Light”) were made with green glass shades because light shining through the glass was softened by the colour green, and was easy on the eyes, while still providing enough light to be useful. The problem was that early electric lightbulbs could be a tad overpowering (some bulbs made in the Edwardian-era are still burning brightly to this day, a testament to their quality and longevity!). Placing a green shade between the light and the user was meant to soften it and make it less glaring on the eyes.

As bankers and accountants often had to update and check ledgers and balance-sheets, usually written in tiny script, having soft lighting that wouldn’t burn out their eyes was important. This is why the shades are green.

It’s also why those old-fashioned visors (such as worn by bank-tellers and accountants) are green. To diffuse the light and make it less intense.

Enough with the history, where do I get one? You can find them easily at antiques shops, second-hand shops, lighting-shops and office-supply chains. The design is so iconic that there are still people manufacturing the exact same style of lamp today, over a century later. You can pick one up, brand new, for not very much money at all.

A Leather Desktop 

You can’t go past the feel of real leather. Soft, cool, relaxing and smooth. And also an essential on any old-fashioned desk.

In the old days, leather-topped desks (such as the ones seen above), were considered the height of quality. The reason is not always obvious. Some people think that the leather is there purely because it’s there, and it’s there because it’s leather, and leather is expensive and if it’s expensive it’s gotta be quality and…yawn.


Leather is found on old desks because it provides a smooth, soft, cushioned surface for writing. Don’t forget that until the 1950s, most people wrote with fountain pens, or dip-pens. Ever pricked yourself with the tip of a steel pen-nib? I can assure you that it hurts. A LOT.

A pen-nib is sharp enough in some cases, to literally draw blood. Since scraping such a needle-sharp pen-point on a wooden desktop would gouge marks and troughs into it, and make writing a very uncomfortable job, desks were lined with leather to give the nibs a smoother journey across the playing-field. These days, leather-topped desks are mostly purchased for their aesthetics, but if you intend to do a lot of handwriting at your desk (with a fountain pen or a dip-pen), then you should certainly buy a desk with a leather top.

Desk Blotters

What’s that, I hear you say? You can’t find a desk with a leather surface? Or they’re too expensive? Or they’ve been ripped up from years of poor use?

Fear not, intrepid study re-decorator, your grandparents already thought of a solution. They’re called desk-blotters.

Desk-blotters are those big leather pads that you see on executive desks, with the sheets of blotting-paper (yes, that’s what it is, blotting-paper) slotted into their corners. You can buy these things second-hand at antiques shops and places like that, or on eBay. Or you can buy them brand-new from homewares shops and large stationery-chains. Blotting-paper can be purchased in huge A1 sheets from places like arts-and-crafts shops, and big stationery-shops. You may need to cut the paper down to size for it to fit into your blotter, though.

Desk-blotters are handy for a number of reasons. Just like with the leather desk-surface, they protect the nibs of your pens from hard, friction-producing surfaces. They also arrest any drips or spills from ink, or drinks, or food (provided that they land on the blotting-paper, which may be changed and removed as necessary). The blotter also protected the leather surface of the desk underneath, if you didn’t want to damage it, but they also had a role in muffling sounds and providing stability which is necessary for the next item on our list.

The Typewriter

You can’t possibly have a nice, classic desktop setup like what you see in the movies, without a pretty, mechanical typewriter.

Remington Standard No. 16., Desktop Typewriter., Ca. 1933

For a machine that really pops and stands out for all the right reasons, and to match the traditional decor of the room, you’ll probably want a typewriter from the first half of the 20th century. A real vintage or antique machine with chrome and steel, and which has all those classic round glass keys with the chrome rings. Such machines ooze class and style.

However, be warned that typewriters of this style are getting harder and harder to find in working condition these days. All-steel typewriters with the flashy glass keys died out after WWII, and are almost unheard of after 1950. But if you’re looking for one (even a non-functioning one to act as a display-piece), then typewriter models likely to be found in old, pre-war offices and households include the Underwood Standard range, (Nos. 1-6), the Royal No. 10 model, the Remington Standard range (Nos. 10-16), and the L.C. Smith & Bros. Standard No. 8 model.

Be warned: A desktop typewriter of this size and vintage is EXTREMELY HEAVY. A Royal 10 weighs roughly 30 pounds. A Remington of a similar vintage weighs about twice as much. Make sure you have a STRONG desk that can take the weight, but more importantly, can handle the bone-jarring vibrations produced by the machine when it operates.

If a huge chunky desktop typewriter is too much to have on your desk, then you could get a nice vintage portable. You can choose from those made by companies such as Corona, Remington, Royal, Imperial, Continental, Olivetti and Underwood. Portables have the benefits of style, convenience, portability, compactness and smaller price-tags.

To find out more about how to buy your typewriter, read this. 

Having a typewriter in your study has many pluses. Apart from the fact that they’re extremely stylish and photogenic, a typewriter can save your ass if for any reason, you have a computer-failure. Anything from a crash to a blackout, to your printer packing up. Provided your machine’s in working order, in a pinch, a ribbon and a couple of sheets of fresh paper will have your letter, your essay, your business-report or other important document done in a few minutes.

Typewriters are also handy for things like typecasting on your blog, for keeping a diary or a journal, and for running off one-off documents that you really don’t want to have to save on your computer and waste disk-space with.

To muffle any undesirable clanking from your typewriter, and to stop it from shifting around on your desk, you may like to place a typewriter-pad underneath it. In the old days, you could buy these things from any stationery-shop. They’re just thick, square pads of foam or felt that you stick underneath your machine.

If you’re using a portable typewriter, a large mouse-pad, suitably orientated, can be an excellent substitute. A larger desktop typewriter will need something that covers more surface-area, and which will have to be much thicker, to cope with the significantly higher weight. To prevent irritating rattling, clinking or clanking while typing, remove any glass objects (jars, sets of drinking-glasses, etc) off your desk. Even the smallest portable typewriter can produce significant vibrations.

Fountain Pens

A man who loves to write should always have a good fountain pen. Not only are they infinitely classy, they are also much smoother and lighter writers than the modern ballpoint pen. For more information about these classic writing instruments, how to buy them, how to use them, care for them and other information, there is an entire category dedicated to them, which may be found on the menus back at the top of this page, on the left side of the screen.

Inkwell or Inkstand

You couldn’t have a classic desktop setup without one of these, could you? An inkwell, or an inkstand (a pair of inkwells on a stand, with slots and spaces for pens, nibs, and other bits and pieces) was a common desktop accessory, which remained popular long after dip-pens were obsolete. Some inkstands were given away as presentation-pieces or gifts.

The traditional inkstand or inkwell that might be found on a traditional desk would’ve been made of glass, silver, or brass.

Rocker Blotter

If you have a fountain pen, then you need a rocker-blotter. Rocker-blotters, in their various sizes and styles, have been desktop accessories since the Victorian era. They can be made of almost anything, from steel to silver, pewter, brass, leather, and a dizzying array of wood-types.

Rocker-blotters come apart into two-or-three pieces. A strip of blotting-paper (or in a pinch, paper-towel) is slipped over the blotter’s base, and it’s held in-place by the top-plate, which in-turn is held in-place by the knob at the top, which simply screws down. Paper is changed as necessary and as frequently as the blotter’s use requires it.

Magnifying Glass

Every household, or every study, and desk, should have some sort of magnifying device. For stuff like reading maps and small print, a standard, desktop magnifying glass is often sufficient. For a magnifier that won’t look out of place in your new study’s oldschool theme, look for a glass with a silver or brass frame, possibly with a cut-glass handle, like the one pictured above. Glasses like that are heavy and solid in the hands, unlikely to slide off the desk and provide good magnification.

Their extra weight means that they can also double as extra-classy paperweights, if need be.

A Good Drinking-Vessel

Either to be stored at the corner of your desk, or on a separate surface such as a sideboard, you should always have a nice drinking-vessel. What it is depends on what you like to drink. Fine glassware for top-quality alcoholic beverages, or even if you don’t drink alcohol, it can look fine filled with water. If you dislike having to constantly fill up your glass, search for something larger, like a traditional 1-pint pewter tankard.

Relax, modern pewter doesn’t contain any lead, so they’re perfectly safe to drink out of. But if you are the suspicious type, buy a traditional-style tankard with a see-through base. Traditionally made of glass, most modern tankards have see-through bases made of plastic (although some makers do still make tankards with traditional glass bases).

This was an innovation from Georgian times, and was created so that drunken bar-patrons would notice if a Royal Navy pressman had dropped a silver shilling into his beer. Press-gangs would enter a bar and look for drinkers. Accepting a shilling from a pressman was taken as your agreement to enter the Royal Navy. To trick drinkers, pressmen would drop a shilling into their tankards of beer. The drinkers would never see the shilling until the beer was all gone, and they were too drunk to notice it. They’d find the coin at the bottom of their mugs and were therefore hoodwinked into joining the navy.

To beat this crooked system of recruitment, people started making tankards with see-through bottoms so that drinkers could make sure there was nothing hiding at the bottom of their booze.

If you’re really worried about people slipping stuff into your drink, get yourself one of those German beer-steins with the lids on top.


Fewer people smoke today than they did back in the 30s, 40s and 50s, but an ash-tray is a nice thing to have on your desk, even if you don’t smoke. They’re handy as receptacles for things like loose-change, keys, business-cards and other important, but small, fiddly things that you don’t want to lose accidentally. The classic man’s ashtray is typically made of either brass, steel, or cut glass.


Anyone who is in the habit of writing down dozens of little post-it notes, phone-numbers, phone-messages, and other little details on small pieces of paper on a regular basis (like me!) will certainly appreciate a bill-spike.

Commonly found on shopfront-counters, reception-desks and other places where receipts are want to gather, these painfully sharp steel spikes on their metal bases are handy for keeping a tab on little bits of paper which are important enough to keep around, but not large or detailed enough to put in a folder, in a book, or in a drawer somewhere (where they’d probably get lost, anyway). You can pick these things up at places like stationery-chains and nick-nack shops for just a couple of dollars.

I have one on my desk, and without it, I’d forget where I put a person’s phone-number, or the address of someplace, within an hour of writing it down. Having a bill-spike is great for just poking down those flittery bits of paper that some people just have all over their bedrooms, offices and studies. Just write down your note, and poke it on down, and it won’t move anywhere until you want it to.

If your spike has a little coin-catcher, like that one in the photo (mine does), so-much the better. Handy for keeping your loose change in. If it doesn’t, then that’s why you’ve got the ash-tray on your desk for.

Letter Holder

For some people, having a steel bill-spike on their desk can be a safety hazard (if you have kids, for example). An alternative is the traditional letter-holder. Typically made of wood, brass or steel, these things can range from simple one-slot holders, to entire caddies that will hold letters, envelopes, incoming mail, outgoing mail, pens, pencils, scissors, stamps, paperclips, staples and oodles of other things. Handy for storing loose bits of paper in there.


No, not one of those electronic things. I mean a proper inbox! Remember when they used to be made of wood? Handy for keeping documents that you’re working on, spare copy-paper and other things. If you need extra help with organisation, get a matching “outbox” too.


You couldn’t possibly have a vintage office man-cave, without a stapler. And you couldn’t possibly have a stapler more vintage than the El Casco M5, from 1934.

Established in Spain in 1920, El Casco was originally a firearms manufacturer, producing revolvers. But the Depression hit the company like a kick in the nuts. Desperate not to keel over and die, the company turned its precision machining of firearms into precision machining of exquisite desktop accessories…which it still manufactures today. And the M5 stapler is one of its most iconic designs, and is the stapler that you would have to have in any vintage office.

Other Oldschool Office Fixtures

Oldschool Storage Solutions

Pigeon-holes and filing-cabinets kinda rule the roost here. I don’t believe in things really doing double-duty. An object should have a use, and it should be used for that purpose. Having things that double up as something else can be fiddly and frustrating to some people, just as much as it can be space-saving and time-saving for others. Keep a nice old-fashioned filing-cabinet in your office or study. Two or three drawers, possibly four, depending on how much filing you need to do.

And while you’re at it, invest in some of those old beige/custard/buff-coloured manila folders, the ones made of cardboard. I find these handy because you can just write whatever you need to, on the front of the file, in big letters, to save you having to fiddle around with tags and stickers. And some more modern files don’t have surfaces or colour-selections that lend themselves well to this function. Especially handy if you have poor eyesight.

Sound System

For most men, music is a must. To enjoy your favourite rock, jazz, classical, pop, Latin/South-American, or other genre of music, it sounds so much nicer when it’s coming out of something that looks pretty. Or even if it’s just listening to your favourite radio-station, talkback, music, or otherwise. What’s something that you can put in your new, revamped man-space that will look nice and sound nice?

For those of us who enjoy variety, you probably couldn’t go past a Crosley-brand radio-gramophone. Records are becoming more and more popular these days, and people young and old are collecting records, buying new records, resurrecting old records, and dusting off their old collections.  The Crosley record-player shown above is one of many reproduction units evoking the radio-styles of the 30s and 40s. It can tune into AM and FM radio, it can play all your records, ranging from 33, 45, up to 78rpm, and it even has audio-cassette capabilities. Some units of this style even have slots for CDs (keep an eye out for those, if that’s what you’re after).

Some people find themselves listening to the radio more than they listen to their CD, record, cassette or even MP3-collections. Good, old-fashioned tube or transistor-radios are ideal for this. Some people say that vacuum-tube radios, of the kind popular from the 20s-40s, are the ones that produce the very best sound.

Old-fashioned tube-radios came in a number of styles. The two most common are cathedral…

…and tombstone…

…named for their curved, and rectangular/square profiles.

You can buy an antique one that’s been restored, or you can buy a modern reproduction, which will look the part, sound the part, but cost a fraction of the price.

If you have an extensive collection of CDs or records, you might want to buy an old jukebox from the 1940s or 50s…

You can buy original vintage ones, or you can buy modern reproduction jukeboxes, which are designed to play a stack of CDs, instead of a stack of records!

 Seating Solutions

Don’t be a Victorian, and believe that ultra-comfortable seating is something to be considered immoral and rude. Every office man-cave should have a comfortable office-chair. The modern office-chair was invented in the mid-1800s, and was typified by the Centripetal Armchair:

In many ways, this was the first modern office-chair. It came with a swivel seat, rolling caster-wheels, and had models which came with additional features such as headrests and arm-rests. In fact, when it was unveiled in 1851, it was considered so modern and revolutionary that the uptight Victorians were completely horrified by it! Victorian morality dictated that such comfort and pleasure, derived from a piece of furniture, suggested relaxed, loose morals, quite shocking and improper in those days! As a result, despite its revolutionary design, the chair was a poor seller.

Fortunately, such starched, straitlaced attitudes are not so prevalent today, and you can easily go out and by a comfortable chair without fear of immorality.

You don’t have to buy a chair as fancy as that, but any desk-chair should be comfortable and fully adjustable. If you’re going for that vintage look, older chairs were typically made of wood and/or leather. Not plastic or other materials. Chairs like these (particularly ones made of wood) are often pretty cheap and can be bought almost anywhere.

If your room is large enough, then you might also consider the inclusion of armchairs and/or a couch. Handy for visitors, or just as a place to kick back, relax, and have a nap. Or read. Or write.

A Safe Place

What better place to keep things safe than…a safe?

Of course, there are other alternatives, but not all of them are particularly effective. Those pesky “personal” safes that you can buy aren’t really that effective. If it’s small enough to carry home, it’s small enough for someone to steal. And therefore…useless.

What kind of strongbox you buy depends on what you want to keep safe. Some desks come with lockable drawers. If you have a vintage desk with the keys intact, you could use that as your safe. Nobody’s going to try and carry away an entire desk. Some filing-cabinets also have the same feature, for storing important documents.

But if these two options aren’t suitable, and having a floor or a wall-safe isn’t an option, then your best bet is to get an actual, honest-to-goodness safe. Those old-fashioned steel ones that Wil-E-Coyote loves to drop on the Road Runner. A safe like that in working condition, with a known combination, will keep your valuables of all kinds…well…safe!

Of course, these safes come with a few strings attached – They take up quite a bit of space. And they are also extremely heavy! Be glad that some of them come with stands and wheels! But they are handy in storing stuff that you want to have protected. Now, nobody is going to be running off with your precious collection of ‘gentleman’s literature’.


A classic, bentwood tree is always handy. This one belongs to me. Traditionally, hats were placed on the top branches, coats on the lower branches, and things like umbrellas, walking-sticks and canes were placed in the ring around the base. Even if you don’t own a stick or a hat, these things can still be handy as a place to dump your coat when you come in out of the cold. Better than chucking them on the couch, anyway.

Open-Grille Fan

Back in the old days, when health and safety regulations were not what they are today, almost every office or study would have one of these perched somewhere around the room, either on the desk (if there was space…unlikely), or on a stand, pedestal or side-table. Old-style open-grille fans are stylish, easy to clean, and keep you cool the old-fashioned way. Just don’t put your fingers anywhere near it when it’s running, and keep the kids away from it. Or better yet, you could install ceiling-fans. Having a nice collection of paperweights (or paperweight stand-ins) would be important when you have a fan like this in your room.

Rotary Telephone

The old, rotary-dial telephones of the 20s and 30s are iconic, and no vintage office, if you’re trying to recreate one, would be found without one. You can still buy original telephones in working order. Simply plug it into the wall, and let it ring! Some of these old phones have bases and bodies made of steel, so they can be surprisingly heavy. But the good news with such solid construction is that after a heated conversation, you can literally slam down the handset without damaging the unit.

Some Concluding Remarks… 

These are more or less the bare bones essentials that you’ll need to buy, to pull off the look of a vintage office or study, if that’s the angle for your man-cave, or home-office redecoration. You can vary them around a bit and mix them up, but in completion, they’ll turn almost any room into a replica office or home study, straight from 1935.

Any other elements you add in are personal touches to add your own little spin to things. This is my vintage desktop at home:

As you can see, most of the things listed in this posting can be found there. It’s an ongoing project, inspired by my recent purchase of the banker’s lamp in the corner, which in-turn, inspired this posting, for any guy looking to dress up his study or office in a more interesting, vintage style.


Say Cheese!: A History of Early Photography

These days, everyone has a camera. A digital camera, a mechanical camera, an electronic camera, a film-camera, even a camera-phone. Today, taking a photograph is easy. It’s literally done in a flash. You can take hundreds and thousands of photos and store them away, you can edit them, caption them, delete them, enlarge them, reduce them, photoshop them, you can have them black and white, colour, sepia-toned, panoramic and almost any other effect or result that we desire. And most of the time, we just don’t think about how far photography has come.

There was a time not too long ago, when photography of any kind was impossible. When the only way to take a picture of something was with paints, canvas, a pen, a pencil, or a stick of charcoal. When everything had to be sketched, drawn or painted by hand, a process that took hours, and even days or weeks to complete. Today, a photograph takes no more than a second. But what was it like when photography was new?

This posting will look at a history of photography, from its invention and earliest beginnings, to the introduction of the first portable, compact film-camera, in the late 1800s.

The Birth of Photography and the First Cameras

The word “photography” comes from the Greek language, from ‘Photos’ meaning ‘Light’, as in “photosynthesis”, and “Graphos”, meaning “writing”, or “drawing”, as in “Graphics”. So literally: “Drawing with Light”.

However, here we are, jumping the gun. To take a photograph, you first need a device for taking pictures. A camera! Where do we go to find the history of cameras?

The first camera was called the “Camera Obscura”. Taken from Latin, it literally means “Chamber of Darkness”, or “Chamber of Obscurity”, or…a darkroom! One of the most important pieces of equipment in all photography!

The Camera Obscura was a chamber which was completely dark inside, except for a single opening or window, which let in light. Think of it as a lens. The light from outside entered the lens, and whatever was outside the chamber was projected onto a wall, or screen, inside the chamber. Without any other sources of light apart from what came through the lens, anything outside the chamber would be clearly seen on the wall, or screen inside the chamber. Clear enough for someone, if they wanted to, to trace the outline of whatever was projected onto the screen, such as a tree, or a building, or even a person! This…was the first camera. And the tracings that it enabled, were the first-ever photographs.

Hardly faster than having your portrait painted, but hey, you have to start somewhere.

And there we have the camera in its essence. A dark chamber with an opening for light and images to enter, and a medium upon which to record the images.

Obviously, having a camera the size of a closet, being moved around on a horsedrawn cart with your own, live-in artist to trace everything that you wanted to capture was hardly practical. Could you imagine trying to take something that bulky on your next holiday to the South Pacific? You’d never fit it in your pocket…

What was needed was something that took all those principles, and made them…SMALLER! Enter a Frenchman named Louis-Jacques-Mandre Daguerre (1787-1851)!

Daguerre and the Daguerrotype!

The Camera Obscura proved that it was possible to sketch life-accurate pictures of something. Not some fluffy artist’s impression of what something could look like. But the problem with the Camera Obscura is that it’s literally the size of a house. You’d never be able to take it anywhere with you! At least, not with any degree of practicality.

The man who changed this was a Frenchman named Louis-Jacques-Mandre Daguerre….Man that’s a mouthful.

Daguerre did not invent the photograph. That credit goes to another Frenchman, Nicephore Niepce (1765-1833). Niepce had been experimenting with how to use light to imprint an image onto a medium that could record it, if the medium was coated with a material that was affected by light. He’d had some success, and had been experimenting in the 1820s. He made small steps in 1822, but the world’s first real photograph was taken by Niepce in 1826!

Entitled “View from the Window, at Le Gras”, in this grainy snapshot, you can see trees in the distance, and the walls, rooves and windows of surrounding buildings.

Niepce achieved groundbreaking shots like this by a simple replacing of materials.

While a larger Camera-Obscura used paper as a tracing-medium for a projected image, his smaller camera used a sheet of metal impregnated with light-sensitive chemicals. The metal sheeting was made of pewter (alloy of tin & copper, mixed in a ratio of 9-1), which was then coated with a variety of light-sensitive chemicals.

Niepce originally used silver nitrate, which darkens when exposed to sunlight, but also experimented with lavender-oil mixed with bitumen.

In 1829, Niepce started experimenting with Louis Daguerre, and the two scientists attempted to create something that would reliably produce permanent photographs. sadly, Niepce never lived to see the finished product, and died in 1833. Daguerre continued their work, eventually developing a process using lavender oil, which he named the “Daguerrotype”, after himself. Lavender-oil…must’ve had some lovely-scented photographs.

Daguerrotype photography was the first, commercially successful photography in the world, making its debut in the 1830s. Although capable of producing permanent photos that wouldn’t be damaged by extra exposure to light, the process had one serious drawback: It took forever to develop it!

To take just ONE photograph, the camera would have to be set up, and the shutter in front of the camera-lens would have to be opened (to let the light in, to affect the chemicals on the copper-silver photographic-plate inside) for at least TEN MINUTES before a half-decent photograph was taken! Obviously, this was fine for things that don’t move…buildings, trees, woodland scenes…but it was impossible to capture moving objects, such as horse-drawn transport, or people, unless they were standing or sitting somewhere for a very long time!…like in this photograph, one of the first ever taken using this method…

Taken by Daguerre  himself in 1838, this photograph is the first EVER to depict humans.

Found them yet? Try the bottom left corner of the photograph, at the street-intersection. There, you can see a man having his shoes shined. The shoeshine customer and the bootblack were the only two people in the entire street who were standing still (or at least, holding a general pose) long enough for their outlines to be captured on this early photographic process with the ridiculously long exposure-time!

Taking A Faster Photo

Early photography was rather hit-and-miss. Frenchman Louis Daguerre creates the first “practical” photography in the 1830s. But there’s a big problem. The process takes ages to work. Hardly practical for holiday snapshots, or even family portraits! Photography would never become a thriving industry if a married couple on their wedding-day had to stand around lifeless for 10 minutes just to have their wedding photograph taken! The process had to be sped up!

To do this, they had to change two things about the photography process.


Photography worked because light affected the chemicals placed on metal plates stored inside cameras. The light entered the camera-box through the lens at the front, imprinting whatever image was in front of the camera onto the chemical metal plate inside.

To speed up this process, it was easy…make a bigger lens! Bigger lens, more light, faster development! Brilliant!


Along with better and larger lenses for capturing more light, photographic plates were treated with chemicals which were more light-sensitive, and more reactive. Faster reactions would make the exposure-time shorter and the whole process that much faster. To produce better photos, plates were treated with a variety of silver and chlorine compounds.

Ever wondered why in Victorian-era photographs, people being photographed tend to look rather bored, sleepy and tired with it all? Like this?

It’s not because of that famous Victorian prudishness or morality…it’s because it took so damn long to have their photographs taken! Exposure-times which lasted up to five or ten minutes were not uncommon, and it just wasn’t possible to take photos any other way!

Could you imagine sitting in a chair, looking at a box on a stand with a window in it, and smiling all happily and holding that pose…for ten minutes?

Go ahead. Try it. I’ll wait…

…Your neck gets pretty sore after a while, doesn’t it? And you don’t feel much like smiling and holding it for ten whole minutes while someone takes a shot, do you?

It’s because it took so long, that you got photographs and poses like the one you see above. In fact, it took SO long to take photographs that early photography-studios actually employed metal bracing-stands to hold people’s heads up, so that they wouldn’t lop over and fall asleep during the photoshoot! Don’t believe me? Have a look…

Called ‘posing stands’, such as in this illustration, these apparatus would allow a photographed subject a certain degree of comfort during the taking of his photograph. The subject wouldn’t be able to LEAN against the stand, but he could rest his back, shoulders and head on it if he wanted to, to take some of the strain of the long wait, off of his feet. It was hardly comfortable, but it was the best that they could do at the time.

Alternative Means of Photography

Louis Daguerre had shown that permanent, practical photography was possible. But the big drawback to his method was that the long exposure-times made photography a rather unattractive artform. If photography was going to survive, you needed a way to take faster, better photographs.

The first of these methods was the Ambrotype. 

Developed in the 1850s, the Ambrotype used wet-plate technology. Called the “collodion process”, the photographic medium, which by now had advanced from tracing-paper, to copper-silver sheeting, to a sheet of glass coated with a solution of silver-bromide and chloride, was inserted into the camera. To prevent light getting into the shot and damaging the results, a black cloth hood was held over the camera (like what you might see in those old movies).

The lens-cap on the camera is removed and light is allowed to filter through the camera onto the wet, glass plate. As usual, the image in front of the camera is marked onto the chemicals on the glass. Now, you can take that image and go and develop it!

There was just ONE problem.

Whereas the Daguerrotype was too slow, the Ambrotype was too fast! Why? Because of the very method that the photos were taken! Remember, it’s called ‘wet plate’ technology.

The photograph would only last as long as the glass-plate negative was moist and covered with the silver-compound chemicals. The very moment that the chemicals dried up, the photograph would be lost! To transfer the image to a medium that would record it for posterity (such as paper), the photographer had to work really fast! From soaking the plate in the solution, to loading it into the camera, to taking the shot, to unloading the glass plate and developing the image, the whole process had to be done in under 15 minutes!

Not easy when you’re rushing around with sheets of delicate glass, dangerous chemicals, and heavy, bulky, tripod cameras!

Unsurprisingly, people kept experimenting.

The next method was the Tintype.

‘Tintype’ is a misnomer. There is no actual TIN used anywhere in the photographic process.

The difference here is that tintype used sheets of metal (in this case, iron, instead of copper as with the Daguerrotype) instead of glass.

The process was similar, you still had to soak the iron in silver-solutions to prepare them for photography, but it had the advantage that it was a much faster method of photography. Unlike with the Daguerrotype or the Ambrotype, a Tintype photograph could be taken in just a few seconds or a couple of minutes, since the reaction-time between the silver-compounds and the exposed light is much faster. For the first time in history, it was possible to take several photos in a matter of minutes!

With this improvement in technology, photography really took off for the first time. By the 1860s, tintypes were becoming more and more popular. Remember all those black and white photographs that you see in your history books, from the American Civil War?

A lot of those were tintypes. The quick exposure-time meant that for the first time in history, it was possible for newspaper-photographers to actually go out onto a battlefield and take several photographs, without having to wait all day for the image to impress itself onto the recording-medium! More photographs could be taken in a shorter period of time, with a greater degree of sharpness and quality!

How to take a Tintype Photograph:

Flip the Shot!

Tintype photography was popular because it was fast, easy and relatively practical. For the first time in history, you could have something resembling modern snapshot photography. For portrait photography and family snapshots, wedding-photos and other projects likely to be handled by professional photography studios, the tintype remained the standard for nearly 100 years, from the 1850s up until just before the Second World War.

The ONE…small issue…with tintypes is that you never got EXACTLY what you wanted.

From the earliest days of camera photography, be it a camera-obscura, a daguerrotype, ambrotype or even a tintype, there was always one little compromise that you had to put up with:

What you saw through the camera-lens, was never exactly what you would see printed on paper when the shot was finished and developed. For example, in really early cameras, shots were often projected upside-down. So when the photo was done, you’d have to flip it over to get it right side up.

But there was one other thing. Remember that all these early photographic processes used silver-compounds as the chemical for capturing the light and imprinting the image onto glass or metal. And what is silver used for?

That’s right, making mirrors!

Every tintype photograph EVER taken, was always a MIRROR IMAGE. Don’t believe me? Have a look at this:

This rather grainy photograph was taken in 1879. Two years later, the person in this photograph was killed by the local sheriff.

Who is he? William Bonny AKA William McCarty AKA…Billy the Kid.

This is the ONLY known photograph of Billy the Kid, one of the most famous outlaws of the Wild West. But that’s not why it’s in this posting.

Have a look at the gun with its shoulder-stock resting on the ground by Billy’s feet.

This is a Winchester Rifle, a popular long-arm of the latter half of the 1800s. But notice that, in this photograph, the left side of the gun is exposed to the viewer, and that the loading-slot is clearly visible, above the trigger.

There’s just one problem. Winchester rifles, without exception, had the loading-gate on the RIGHT side of the gun.

Flip the image over, and we have…

…the rifle with its loading-gate on the right side of the gun, which is where it always was.

This photograph was a tintype. And all tintypes, just like this one, came out as mirror-images when they were developed.

Portable Photography

Photography had come a long way from simply tracing an outline of a projected image onto a piece of paper. It was now clearer, faster, and cheaper! But there was still one problem.


For cameras of the period to work, they had to be very still, so that the light wouldn’t be interrupted during its interaction with the photographic medium inside the camera. And the medium-materials used, such as copper, glass and iron plates, were heavy and cumbersome to carry around, to say nothing of the cameras themselves, with their bulky wooden tripods. Along with all his kit, a photographer would need a horse and cart to move around town! Hardly practical. What people needed was a smaller, lighter, more portable camera.

Going Dry

The big obstacle to portability, quite apart from the size of the cameras, was the whole  photography process. Up until the 1870s, all cameras used “wet plate” technology, where the chemicals were added to glass or metallic photographic-plates before they were inserted into the camera. And after the photo had been taken, the plate’s image had to be transferred to paper-stock before the liquids dried up, destroying the photograph. Daguerrotype and Ambrotype photographs made this process messy, tricky, cumbersome and frustrating. To take a picture, you had to have EVERYTHING you needed, right there, right now, on the table. The photographic-solutions, the plates, the paper-stock, the developing-fluids. And as the name suggests, the whole process relied on liquids. The moment everything dried up, it was useless.

This meant that a photographer had to work fast, to capture an image before the photographic solutions dried up, and the image was lost before it could be imprinted onto paper. But it also meant that you couldn’t keep a whole heap of photographic-plates in a case and carry them around with you at will, to photograph whatever you wanted…the plates would dry out…and you’d be left with nothing but lots of sheets of dirty window-glass in your suitcase.

The tintype process was better, if only in the fact that you could take faster photographs, but there were still serious limitations.

It was to speed up the whole photography process that the much more convenient “dry plate” process was developed.

Dry photographic plate technology, the immediate predecessor to film technology, was developed in 1871, by Dr. Richard Leach Maddox, an English physician and photographer.

Dr. Maddox was engaged in the science of photomicrography; or translated from Greek, the visual recording of microscopic entities. In other words, he photographed microbes, and other things which he was able to observe through the lenses of his microscope.

The good doctor loved his work, but he was constantly frustrated by the limitations of wet-plate photographic processes. Quite apart from everything else, he was allergic to the chemicals, and they irritated him when he had to take photographs.

In trying to find a solution, Maddox wondered why it wasn’t possible to condense the liquids used in photography, into a sort of gel or paste? Such a product could be spread onto a glass or metallic photographic-plate just like butter onto a slice of bread. It would be faster, cleaner, and there wouldn’t be any vapors, or chances of spillages. Surely, such a process was possible?

It was. But it took Maddox nearly ten years to figure out how to do it.

Eventually, Maddox figured out how to do it. He layered a standard glass photographic-plate with the usual cocktail of silver-based solutions which were necessary for photography to take place. Then, to protect the solution from evaporation, he coated the whole thing in…gelatin.

The same stuff used to make children’s candies and fruit jellies!

Once the gelatin (which is transparent in its purest form) was set on the glass, it sealed in the photographic solution, which now would never dry out. But it could still be exposed to strong light, so that a photograph could be taken. Brilliance!

It took a while, but by 1879, Maddox’s ingenuity had led to the mass-production of the world’s first dry photographic camera-plates!

Kodak Moments

In the 1870s, English physician Richard Maddox pioneered a way for photographic plates to be more easily handled and made more portable. When the process for manufacturing these plates was perfected in 1878-79, a young man stepped in to start producing these plates on a grand scale.

His name was George Eastman. In his twenties at the time, Eastman set up a factory which could mass-produce these dry photographic plates, making photography faster and cheaper. In 1889, Eastman established his own photography company: Eastman Kodak, one of the most famous in the world.

The word “Kodak” was invented by Eastman himself, after asking for suggestions from his mother. George wanted something that was easy to pronounce, unique, short, and which would not sound similar to any other product, brand or company-name then in existence. After twisting a few letters around, George and his mother, Maria, came up with…”KODAK”.

Young Georgie Eastman had entered the world of photography at a critical moment in history. In 1887, the world’s first photographic FILM had been developed! Building on Dr. Maddox’s dry-plate technology, it was a simple process of changing the photographic medium from heavy, fragile and delicate glass plates, to light, flexible celluloid sheeting, or ‘film’. Film was more compact, much lighter, and far easier to transport.

By now, it was possible to have photography on the move! You had faster exposure-times, cleaner, lighter materials…and more compact cameras!…which were yet to be invented…but improved technology had paved the way for their eventual development.

A Little Black Box

This doesn’t look like much, but it is the great-granddaddy of the fancy, compact digital camera sitting on your desk right now.

This, is the Kodak Box Camera.

Invented by Eastman using the latest film-technology, the Kodak box-camera was the world’s first-ever “point-and-shoot” camera, designed to be idiotproof. You simply wound up the film, aimed the camera, peeked through the viewing-window, and pressed the lever to actuate the shutter and get a snapshot! Easy as pie!…although the exposure-time was still a few seconds, so…hold that pose!

This was the camera that launched the Eastman Kodak Company, and it was the first commercially-produced snapshot camera that anyone could use. Designed to be cheap, simple and functional, it could bring photography; previously an expensive and time-consuming hobby of the rich, to the hands of ordinary people.

With the Kodak camera, it was now possible to photograph rooms, houses, parks, family-outings, one’s children, famous events, significant occasions and almost anything else. Now, everyone could stand together and have a group-shot where-ever they wanted to!

Kodak advertised its new cameras as being super-easy to use. The popular slogan was: “You Press the Button…we do the rest!” 

“The rest”, included the development of the film and photographs, and the loading of the camera. You simply used up the film in the roll, and then you sent the film, along with your camera, to the Kodak offices in America…So long as you lived in America, this might be convenient. For people living in Europe, perhaps not. It was for this reason that the Kodak company didn’t kick it off right away with the Box Camera, but things would improve, once they’d set up branch-offices in other locations.

So what happened when you sent your camera back to Kodak?

The developers at Kodak would open your camera, retrieve the film, develop the pictures, put them into an envelope for you, reload your camera with a fresh roll of film, and then send back your camera, your new film, and your photographs, all in one neat little package! And your camera was all ready for another round of shooting!

The End of Eastman

I’d like to say that George Eastman, the man who brought us the snapshot camera, and founded one of the most famous photographic-equipment companies on earth, lived to a ripe old age and died rich and happy.

Sadly, I can’t.

He did live to a ripe old age…77, and he was rich, but he was hardly happy.

In later life, Eastman was struck down by crippling back-pains. These spinal problems made it impossible for him to stand upright, walk, or even move to any great extent, without serious pain. He was essentially crippled, and confined to sitting in a wheelchair. He suspected that he had inherited the same condition from his mother, who had also had back problems later in life, and who had died in agonizing pain in a wheelchair of her own.

Guessing that he would be in for a long, slow, painful death, Eastman took his own life. He left a brief suicide-note, and then shot himself in the chest. Once. Killing himself instantly. The note which he left to be found, read:

TO MY FRIENDS:My work is done. Why wait?‘”.

George Eastman died on the 14th of March, 1932 at the age of 77.

But while Eastman was dead, the camera was not!

The Kodak box camera, later reborn with the enchantingly cute name of the “Brownie”, was the mainstay of point-and-shoot cameras for years. Decades! Even in the 1960s, you could go out and buy a brand new Kodak Box Brownie!

Shooting for the Masses

It was thanks to portable, film-using cameras such as the Brownie, that gave birth to photography as a real and practical hobby. For the first time in history, shutterbugs were everywhere, snapping everything that moved, and even more things that didn’t. EVERYONE used a Box Brownie. Everyone. Even royalty! Queen Mary; grandmother of the current Queen of England, photographed the royal family on holiday, using her own Box Brownie!

In the late Victorian era and from then onwards, photography as a serious and practical hobby really took off. Now, it really was possible to photograph anything, almost anywhere! Photographs of things previously impossible, due to the size and impracticality of Victorian-era photographic technology, were now commonplace. Picture-postcards became popular. And professional photographers could make a lot of money going around snapping exotic sights and selling them to companies to print off postcards.

In the 1920s and 30s, there was a boom in international travel. Now, with fast steamships, automobile ownership and extensive railway networks, families, couples and singles could flit off on a jolly holiday. And they could photograph everything that they wanted, and bring their memories home with them. A hundred years ago, such things were almost impossible, unless you knew how to draw or paint!

Cameras captured some of the most famous events of the 20th century, now. The Crash of the Hindenburg, the Attack on Pearl Harbor, the launching of the Titanic. Some intrepid photographers even risked life and limb (but mostly life) climbing the unfinished scaffolds of famous Manhattan skyscrapers, to photograph the construction-workers at their job.

Flash Photography

A Flash in the Stand

Especially with early cameras and photographic technology, light was essential for the capturing of images. Exposure took a long time, and bright light was needed to capture an image.

As photographic technology improved and photographs could be taken faster, there remained the issue of getting enough light to successfully take a clear shot of something where light was insufficient. To do this, flash-photography was invented.

The earliest flash-photography used a stand loaded with “flash-powder”, which was ignited by an ignition-switch held in the photographer’s hand at the moment of exposure. The stands, called ‘flash-stands’, and the powder with which they were filled, are iconic pieces of early photographic equipment. They were invented in the 1890s by a man named Joshua Lionel Cowen (last name also spelt ‘Cohen’, because he was Jewish).

Does the name sound familiar? Probably because it’s also the name of a popular line of children’s model trains. No co-incidence…Cowen invented those, too.

Early flash-photography was a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. The stands were loaded by hand with a measure of flash-powder, which was ignited with a spark at the moment of the photograph. If too much powder had been loaded into the stand, you were more likely to get an explosion rather than a flash! And if you didn’t have enough powder, you were likely to get a rather dark, useless photo that nobody could see! Getting the balance right was a real skill.

A Victorian-era camera with separate flash-stand and powder. Note how close the photographer’s right hand is to the igniting flash-powder

The flash-stand and powder produced dramatic, loud explosions when the flashes went off. This allowed for photos to be taken at night, and in dark rooms where there might not be enough natural sunlight. But there was one serious drawback. The imprecision of loading the powder into the stand was a serious fire-risk. Incorrect loading of the powder could result in a real explosion when the camera went off, and a photographer could have his hand burnt, or even blown off by the blast of the flash if he had overloaded the stand with powder! Nasty stuff…

The dangers of early flash-photography are dramatically shown in this 1939 Mickey Mouse cartoon; “Society Dog Show“. The results are rather exaggerated for purposes of comedy, but improper loading of the flash-stand really could start a fire.

Flashbulb Photography

Early flash-photography using a stand and powder allowed photographs to be taken at night, in dark places, or in places without sufficient natural sunlight. But it had one serious drawback. Because everything was done manually, there was a significant risk of mishap. Too much powder could result in injurious explosions which were not only life-threatening, but also a major fire-risk!

To try and improve the safety and uniformity of flash-photography, the flash-bulb was invented.

Remember those scenes from those period movies of reporters and photographers in the 1930s with their three-piece suits and fedora hats with their “PRESS” cards in them? How they’re waving around their portable cameras with the flash-holders attached? They take a shot and POOF! There’s a loud, distinctive “Pshink!” as the flashbulb goes off, and a dazzling white light blinds you for the rest of the film?

“Take your picture, mister?”

That’s a flashbulb-camera in action.

In fact, they say the flashes were so bright, Hollywood movie-stars in the 1920s and 30s pioneered the wearing of sunglasses so that they wouldn’t be blinded by the constant camera-flashes at important social or industry events.

Flash-bulbs made night, or low-light photography safer, faster and more portable. However, it was still dangerous.

The bulbs worked in the following manner: The flashbulb-holder was attached to the camera which would use it. The bulb was screwed into the socket in the holder. When the shutter was actuated, the flashbulb was ignited and went off!

The famous blinding white light is the result of the ignition of oxygen and magnesium inside the flash-bulbs. Anyone who’s done highschool science will probably know that when you put a match to magnesium, it burns bright, dazzling white. It’s the exact same thing in old-fashioned camera-bulbs.

The big drawback to this was that the intense flash let off a lot of heat. Once one photograph had been taken, you would have to wait for the flash-bulb to cool down, first! If you tried to unscrew it right away and set in a new bulb for another flash, you’d burn your fingers! You could probably overcome this using gloves, of course, but the white hot flash-bulb was still a fire-risk. Throw it carelessly into a waste-paper basket and you could set a whole building on fire!

Improving Things in a Flash!

Edwardian flash-photography allowed photographs to be taken at night, or in low-light conditions. But it was dangerous and prone to mishap. The flash-bulb invented shortly after, made the process faster and safer, but the intense heat generated by burning magnesium flashbulbs made it impossible to take more than one good flash-photograph at a time, unless you could safely remove the used bulb and insert a fresh one without burning your fingers!

In the 1960s, companies like Kodak, with its Instamatic Camera, invented the flash-cube! A fantastic little detachable light-cube that you stuck on the top of your camera. Now, you didn’t have to change the bulb every time you wanted to take a shot, and you didn’t even have to wait for it to cool down! You simply snapped it on the top of the camera, and flash-flash-flash-flash! Four flash-shots in one! Huzzah!

Although expensive, (early cameras of this type went for hundreds of dollars in the 1960s and 70s), they were the next step in flash-technology, until eventually at the end of the 20th century, the flash had been incorporated entirely into the body of the camera; just as it is today, with no bulbs to change, or flip, or replace, or pans to fill with exploding powder. Simplicity…and choice! Now you can choose to turn the flash on, or off, and you don’t have to carry anything extra around with you, to make that choice with.

Sepia-Tone Selections

Almost any digital camera worth its salt today, will have a sepia-tone option on it. It allows you to take photographs in that famous yellowy-browny tinge reminiscent of old-fashioned photographs, which have yellowed and faded in their frames…without having to wait 50 years for it to happen!

But what is this famous tint called ‘sepia’?

The word ‘sepia’ is actually a…FISH.

That’s right. A fish. That swims in water. Specifically, the cuttlefish.

In older times, photographs were inked using the ink taken from the cuttlefish. As photographs aged and the ink was exposed to sunlight, the darker pigments in the ink would fade, and the natural brown colour of cuttlefish-ink became more pronounced as the darker colours faded away, leaving us with the famous golden-brown tinge on old photographs that everyone loves to try and recreate today.

Shake it like a Polaroid Picture!

Aaaah, instant cameras. Magical boxes of incredibleness that seem to defy the laws of physics!

The most famous instant camera, capable of producing instantly-developed film, was of course, the Polaroid camera. What could be simpler? Aim, shoot, print, shake…voila!

The concept of the instant camera dates back to the Roaring Twenties, a time of great technological change and wonder!…but things were not to be. Although the idea for the instant camera goes back to 1923, it wasn’t until the 1940s that something practical was invented.

The man who invented the modern instant camera was a fellow named Edwin Herbert Land (1909-1991). He unveiled his new creation in 1948, and ever since, we’ve been enjoying the benefits of instant photography, which would probably not be surpassed until the coming of digital cameras in the 1970s and 80s.

Land’s invention of the instant camera, and the foundation of the company that would make them (Polaroid), was born out of a nagging request from his daughter, Jennifer, who constantly asked her father why, after taking a photograph, it was not possible to view it straight away. Of course, the photograph had to be taken to be developed, and this lengthy process between taking photographs, and actually getting to see what they looked like, annoyed Land, leading to the invention of his instant camera and instant photographs!

So. What’s with the shaking?

Believe it or not…nothing at all!

The phrase ‘shake it like a Polaroid picture’, came out with the song “Hey Ya”, in 2003!, and it refers to the fact that some people would shake Polaroid photographs in order to try and develop them even faster. But it doesn’t actually do anything at all.

Shaking the pictures was once done by early instant-photographers, in order to dry the pigments used in the development of their photographs. But shaking doesn’t actually help the photograph develop any faster! In fact, it probably screws it up!

What happens when you take the photograph is that the light enters the camera and reacts with the photo-sensitive chemicals on the photographic card, which begin to develop. Shaking the card actually separates the chemicals, and more importantly, the colour-pigments, distorting and damaging the resulting image!

Risks of Early Photography

Especially Victorian and Edwardian photography, was full of risks and hazards, mishaps and dangers. A few have already been highlighted – Exploding flash-powder, scalding-hot flash-bulbs, but one which hasn’t been mentioned is the dangers of developing fluid.

For ages, photographs had to be developed the old-fashioned way, by dipping the photographic cards into solutions, to make the photosensitive chemicals in the paper take on their proper shades and/or colours, to show the image in its fullest clarity.

Although this sounds dangerous enough with chemicals and solutions everywhere, it was made even more dangerous because of the use of cyanide, one of the most poisonous chemicals known to man. Cyanide was used in early photography, when wet-plate processes were still the main form of capturing images. Excessive exposure to cyanide, even in the small amounts used in photography, could lead to poisoning and even death. That’s one way to suffer for your art.

A Clearer Picture?

This is about where my posting on this subject ends. But if you want to know more, here are some of the links I used…

History of Photography

Pieces of Science: A History of Photography

Photographic Timeline

Stephen Fry’s 100 Greatest Gadgets (Documentary).

“Thoroughly Modern”: The Snapshot Camera (Documentary).

…Anything with Stephen Fry in it is inherently educational and conducive to the growth of personal intelligence.