200+ Free Art Books Are Now Available to Download from the Guggenheim – Creators

200+ Free Art Books Are Now Available to Download from the Guggenheim – Creators

A veritable art history degree’s worth of books digitized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum are now available for free.

There’s Wassily Kandinsky’s 1946 treatise, On the Spiritual in Art; books about movements from the Italian metamorphosis and Russian Constructivism; thousands of years of Aztec and Chinese art; and catalogs of work by the many greats to pass through the Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed halls. Formerly locked in paper prisons (a.k.a., hard-copy books), analysis of work by Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, Dan Flavin, Robert Rauschenberg, Gustav Klimt, Mark Rothko, and more is now free to roam the web as PDFs and ePubs.

The initiative to publish certain entries from The Guggenheim’s vast library began with 65 catalogs published in 2012, and has now grown to 205 titles. This joins 43 titles available in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Online Reading Room, 281 from Getty Publications’ Virtual Library, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art MetPublications’s whopping 1,611 books you can download for free. That’s in addition to the 375,000+ high resolution images of the artworks themselves the Met dumped into the public domain earlier this year.



How the Military Helmet Evolved From a Hazard to a Bullet Shield | At the Smithsonian | Smithsonian

How the Military Helmet Evolved From a Hazard to a Bullet Shield | At the Smithsonian | Smithsonian

Schwarzkopf’s helmet, a PASGT, represents “how technology and innovation work together in the field of ground-forces protection,” says Frank Blazich, Jr., the Smithsonian’s curator of modern military forces. (David Miller, Division of Armed Forces History, NMAH)

The object itself is impressive. A Kevlar casque, covered in a sheath of pale-brown desert camouflage cloth, it has a neoprene olive-drab band around the helmet’s lower rim, with the soldier’s name embroidered on it in black. But on this helmet there are also four black stars in its front, just above the visor and “name band.” The stars are there because this particular helmet once belonged to General Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. , the commanding American General in Operation Desert Storm, which began in January, 1991.

“What’s most amazing to me about General Schwarzkopf’s helmet,” says Frank Blazich, Jr., curator of modern military forces at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., “is that it represents how technology and innovation work together in the field of ground-forces protection.”

Known as PASGT (for Personal Armor System Ground Troops), the helmet was introduced to the U.S. ground forces in the years following the Vietnam conflict—and was initially employed in limited numbers during actions in Grenada and Haiti in the 1980s. It was in wide use by American ground forces by the time Operation Desert Storm was initiated in 1991, when U.S. forces led a coalition of 34 nations to liberate Kuwait after its occupation by Iraq in August of 1990.

On May 20, with Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s Operation Desert Storm helmet as a centerpiece, the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation will host Military Invention Day, an exploration of how objects developed for the battlefield have been adapted into endless aspects of American culture.

Along with General Schwarzkopf’s helmet, will be examples of the entire line of American military helmets over the past century; alongside a thorough timeline of other, different implements of modern warfare. In each example, the program will showcase how advancing military technologies have changed the face of battle and force protection since World War I, and how those technologies than migrated into other areas of American life.

Still, no area of military personnal technology might be more indicative of how change has come to war than the American military helmet. “In 1917,” Blazich says, “when America entered World War I, we used a variation of the British helmet of the time, called the Brodie Helmet, or Mark 1 helmet.” The American helmet was called the M1917.

Effectively an overturned metal dish weighing about 1.3 pounds, with a basic liner to keep a soldier’s scalp from chafing against the helmet’s manganese-steel alloy shell, plus a solid chinstrap that cinched tight, it was a primitive tool at best. As a protective device, Blazich says, it didn’t do much more than keep explosion-driven rocks off the tops of soldier’s heads while they were in the trenches of France. “Though it could also be protective against shrapnel, which was also a big concern in that war,” Blazich adds.

Yet with no real face and side-skull coverage, it left troops wide open to facial and cranial injury, and lasting disfigurement from shell fragmentation was an enormous problem in World War I.

The Brodie Helmet also had other inherent dangers. The chinstrap, which once tightened down, was hard to release: so if a Doughboy’s helmet got trapped or lodged between objects the situation could prove fatal, as the soldier would have a difficult time getting the helmet off and would therefore be trapped and immobile on the field of battle.

Still, despite the M1917’s liabilities, innovation remained slow. In 1936, a slightly more protective version was rolled out, called the M1917A1, or “Kelly” helmet. It had a more comfortable helmet liner and an improved canvas chinstrap. The intent of these changes was to improve the helmet’s overall balance and performance. But it still didn’t provide the kind of protection from side assault that the War Department desired.

So in 1941, in the run-up to World War II, the Army and several of its research partners rolled out the M1 helmet: which had a slight brim on its front to keep precipitation off a soldier’s face and a slightly lipped rim all the way around. The helmet’s sides also trailed down to cover half a soldier’s ears before dropping down to cover the back part of a soldier’s skull. It also employed a manganese steel outer shell that weighed just 2.85 pounds and an inner molded fiber-plastic liner. And later in the war, it was upgraded with an improved canvas chinstrap, “which would break away under pressure,” Blazich says.

“The M1 helmet liner was a big improvement,” says Blazich, “as it allowed for a much closer, more-custom fit. Somewhat remarkably, they originally took the idea for the liner from the liner of Riddell football helmets of the age.”

Blazich says the liner used a network of adjustable webbing connected together, which could be tightened or loosened like the fitting inside today’s construction hard hats, allowing the helmet to more-precisely conform to each soldier’s individual skull features. “It was an enormous development.”

The helmet’s steel still couldn’t stop some close-range bullets or shrapnel, but it offered far better coverage and protection for the skull, appreciably saving American lives. That said, it was somewhat heavy, and was often referred to by troops as the “Steel Pot.” But despite its weight liability, the helmet proved so successful and effective in combat operations that, despite a few design improvements in the liner and exterior flared edging, its use was continued through the conflicts in Korea in the 1950s and Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s.

Then, in 1965, DuPont chemist Stephanie Kwolek invented Kevlar. “That was a game-changer,” says Blazich. In the 1970s, several Army agencies—led by the Army Natick Development Center at the Watertown Arsenal in Massachusetts—began work using layers of tough, puncture-resistant Kevlar 29, a synthetic ballistic fiber bonded with a synthetic polymer resin, to create a helmet capable of stopping most bullets, as well as shrapnel and shell fragments in a skull protecting device that weighed between 3.1 (for the small model) and 4.2 pounds (for the extra-large size).

Because of the malleability and plasticity of Kevlar in the design process, the Army and its agencies were able to make a far more efficient helmet design, creating the PASGT, similar to the one General Schwarzkopf donated to the Smithsonian in 2007. Its design also allowed for coverage of the ears and the back of the skull all the way to the nape of the neck.

Though some of the American troops referred to it as the “K Pot,” referring to its outer Kevlar material, others called it “the Fritz” for its resemblance to the scallop-edged “Stalhelm” helmet worn by German soldiers in both World Wars. But despite the disparaging nickname, the PASGT’s protective qualities, due to the Kevlar exterior, proved a vast protective improvement over the M1. While still not perfect at stopping close-range bullets and shrapnel and shell fragments, the helmet’s provision of safety was recognized as a quantum protective leap forward.

First used combat in Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada in 1983, by the time Operation Desert Storm came around in 1991, it was welcomed as standard equipment until the PASGT, too, was replaced by a new model in 2003.

That year, because the flexibility of Kevlar layered fiber coupled with another evolution in advanced industrial design, the Army rolled out the Advanced Combat Helmet (or ACH). Now constructed of advanced Kevlar 129 and chemically similar Twaron brand ballistic fibers, the ACH is a masterpiece of contemporary military design. Lighter—at 2.4 pounds—and narrower in silhouette, it has better coverage of the ears and also the back of the neck, and offers even better, harder-sided protection from ballistic projectiles, from bullets to shrapnel and shell fragments. It also has an even more sophisticated shock-absorbing liner, which better protects against traumatic brain injury, especially from roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices.

Beyond that, the ACH has a front opening that can accommodate either sunglasses or goggles, which deflect sandstorms in desert fighting, or heavy rains and winds. Because of its lightness, protective qualities, and flexibility with different configurations, the troops were in instant support of it. Add to that an optional black-steel fitting clip above the front visor, which can be used to attach devices from night-vision goggles to video cameras, and the Army had a state-of-the art protective tool at its disposal.

Today, Kevlar’s use has migrated into commercial products for everything from athletic shoes to conveyor belts for hard-rock mining; from athletic cross-training clothing to cut-resistant work gloves and firemen’s outerwear, to auto and bicycle tire antipuncture underliners, to sail and spinnaker lines for recreational and racing sailboats—not to mention cords for parachutes. Light, tough and reliable, Kevlar material has endless applications, and is a prime example of how material developed and first used in military applications has migrated into endless other areas of American life and culture.

Of the display of Army’s helmets shown on May 20 at Military Invention Day, with General Schwarzkopf’s as part of the exhibit’s centerpiece, Blazich seems pleased by the example the array of helmets represents. “It’s just interesting,” he says. “In those examples, you can see an evolutionary change. Really, I think visitors to Military Invention Day will find it all quite enlightening.”


Pensacola Graffiti Bridge – Pensacola, Florida – Atlas Obscura

Pensacola Graffiti Bridge – Pensacola, Florida – Atlas Obscura

The 17th Avenue railroad trestle bridge was built in 1888. A local Pensacola landmark, people have been painting the bridge for generations and the paintings change daily.

Anything and everything gets painted on the graffiti bridge: tributes, professions of love, invitations to prom, well-wishes to sports teams and graduates, anniversaries, holidays, birthdays, profanity, hopeful messages, celebrations, drawings, artwork, community event announcements, and the list goes on. People get engaged here, and some have even gotten married here. The bridge attracts painters, photographers, and tourists who want a sense of what Pensacolans are all about.

Graffiti coats every square inch of the little bridge, so that the art has moved outwards into the parking lot nearby and the railroad ties above. As with most graffiti, it’s not strictly legal, but the Pensacola community seems to have accepted the bridge and the art on it as a local landmark. Police largely look the other way as they drive past the nightly taggers.

The artists know that nothing is permanent here—their works of art might be painted over in matter of hours—but if they put something really good on the bridge, it might just stick around for a while.

[Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA had the most painted object in the world (Guinness Book of World Records) until it fell over from the weight of the paint in 1993. A new fence was built and they are working on setting a new record.]



Forest of the Future Library – Oslo, Norway – Atlas Obscura

Forest of the Future Library – Oslo, Norway – Atlas Obscura

The fate of physical books may seem tenuous, but at least 1,000 copies of 100 different books are set to be printed roughly a century from now, in the year 2114. Indeed, the trees that will be used to make the printing paper have already been planted.

These saplings were planted for the Future Library, a forward-looking art project that’s one part literary time capsule, one part environmental statement. The project, launched in 2014, plans to commission one book from a different author each year for 100 years, none of which will be published until 2114.

The stories will be printed on paper made from the 1,000 trees planted in Nordmarka, a forest just north of Oslo. Until then, the manuscripts will be kept on the top floor of the Deichman Library in Oslo, in a space called the “Silent Room.” They will be on display but not made available to read for generations to come, meaning most of us won’t ever get the chance.

The Silent Room, set to open in 2019, will be made from the wood that was cleared from the Nordmarka forest to make room for the new trees. The room will only be big enough for a few visitors at a time, and will offer a view of the growing forest off in the distance.

Scottish artist Katie Paterson, who conceived of the Future Library project, often uses time and nature for her art. Past projects include mapping dead stars, sending a meteorite back into space, and live broadcasting sounds made by a melting glacier.

Paterson knows she will probably not see the finished product of her century-long project, however she plans to attend the Handover Ceremony as long as she can. At the ceremony, held each spring, the author selected for that year’s text holds a reading in the future forest before delivering the manuscript. The first author to participate was, perhaps fittingly, the popular dystopian fiction author Margaret Atwood. Her 2014 novel, Scribbler Moon, has never been read. The next year was Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell, who contributed a book titled From Me Flows What You Call Time. Next up is Icelandic writer Sjón.


PennDOT Road Sign Sculpture Garden – Meadville, Pennsylvania – Atlas Obscura

PennDOT Road Sign Sculpture Garden – Meadville, Pennsylvania – Atlas Obscura

Along the Smock Highway in Meadville, Pennsylvania, in an otherwise drab stretch of strip malls, the north side of the road is lined by a colorful pattern of repurposed road signs that stretches for nearly a quarter mile. Located on the property of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation building (hence the name “PennDOT”), the PennDOT Road Sign Sculpture Garden is the most perplexing set of driving instructions you’ll ever see.

Alternatively known as “Read Between the Signs,” the road sign sculpture garden was created when art students from the nearby Allegheny College teamed up with DoT employees who had a few extra road signs on their hands. The result was both bizarre and ingenious, portraying the Pennsylvania landscape with a recycled metal homage.

Along the sculpture garden’s 10-foot mural wall, Smock Highway drivers will pass by oceanic waves made of blue hospital signs, a barn constructed from red stop signs, and an adjacent silo made of white junction signs. Turkeys, sombreros, oil wells, kayakers, rainbow hot air balloons, and Ferris Wheels movable by hand are portrayed through creative road sign assortments, and an intricately accurate road sign model of Allegheny College’s Bentley Hall sits toward the wall’s western end. Farmers will enjoy the sculpture garden’s takes on various farm animals, and theme park enthusiasts will be thrilled by a rollercoaster slope made of 45 mph signs.


Nilometer – Cairo, Egypt – Atlas Obscura

Nilometer – Cairo, Egypt – Atlas Obscura

In ancient Egypt, the behavior of the Nile could mean life or death each harvest season. So, long before the Aswan Dam was constructed to manage the flooding of the great river, Egyptians invented an instrument to measure the waters in order to predict the Nile’s behavior: the nilometer.

There were three kinds of nilometers, and examples of all three can still be seen around Egypt. The simplest was a tall column housed in a submerged stone structure called a stilling well. One of these nilometers can be seen on Rhoda (or Rawda) Island in Cairo, an octagonal marble column held in place by a wooden beam at the top that spans the width of the well. The stilling well included a staircase so that priests, who were in charge of monitoring the nilometers, could walk down and examine the column.

Nilometers were used for measuring water levels as early as 5,000 years ago. The nilometer on Rhoda Island dates back to 861, when it was built where an older nilometer had been, based on a design by Afraganus, a famous astronomer. The massive measuring stick had markings on it to indicate where the water level was at any given time, information the priests would use to determine what conditions the future held: drought, which would mean famine; desirable, which would mean just enough overflow to leave good soil for farming; or flood, which could be catastrophic.

Only priests and rulers, whether pharaohs or later, Roman or Arab leaders, were allowed to monitor the nilometers, and their ability to predict the behavior of the Nile was used to impress the common people. (And to determine how much money would be collected in taxes.) This is why so many nilometers were built in temples, where only priests would be able to access the mysterious instrument.

The nilometer on Rhoda Island is today housed in a modernized building. The conical roof replaced an older dome that was destroyed in 1825 during the French occupation. The interior is ornately carved, and three tunnels that once let water into the stilling well at different levels have been filled in, so visitors can walk all the way down.

Another type of nilometer, like the one that can be seen on Elephantine Island in Aswan, had evenly spaced steps that lead straight down to the Nile, and indicator markings on the walls at different levels for each step. This one was often the first to indicate what conditions to expect, being located near Egypt’s southern border. The third kind, an example of which can be seen at Temple of Kom Ombo, a little further north, brought the water away from the Nile by way of a canal that deposited it into a cistern. And again, the indicating markers were carved into the wall, accessible by staircases for the priests and rulers who predicted the fate of the Egyptian crop.


When is Mother’s Day and what is the history of Mother’s Day? — Quartz

When is Mother’s Day and what is the history of Mother’s Day? — Quartz

Unearthing the most complete picture of the origins of Mother’s Day began with a misplaced cardboard box in the kitchen of a West Virginia church.

It was 2003, and Katharine Antolini, then a graduate student researching the history of motherhood, had been asked to speak at the site in Grafton, where the first known celebration of Mother’s Day took place in 1908.

During the church tour, she stumbled upon the box on the floor of the kitchen. “Some of the documents were almost 100 years old,” she told Quartz. “I was like, ‘You can’t leave these here!’”

Antolini offered to archive the papers, and in doing so, became fascinated with what she found: the unlikely story of Anna Jarvis, who first spent years crusading to make Mother’s Day a widely observed holiday—and then spent the rest of her life trying to undo it.

The project inspired Antolini to keep digging, and Jarvis’ story became her PhD dissertation and later a book, Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother’s Day.

“I realized how very complicated the history was,” Antolini said. “She ultimately failed, of course. But she never gave up until her death of trying to fight for her day.”

How did Mother’s Day come to be?

When her mother, Ann Reeves, died in 1905, Jarvis organized the first observances of Mother’s Day at the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, and later in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

She chose the second Sunday in May because it was the Sunday closest to her mother’s death. The white carnation, Reeves’ favorite flower, became the holiday’s symbol.

Jarvis, who had no kids of her own, had a singular understanding of what Mother’s Day should mean. She saw it as a day for children to visit their mothers at home and to remember the sacrifices that they had made.

“This is not a celebration of maudlin sentiment. It is one of practical benefit and patriotism, emphasizing the home as the highest inspiration of our individual and national lives,” Jarvis wrote.

She began a letter-writing campaign, reaching out to anyone who she thought could help promulgate the idea. “Any mayor, merchant or minister,” Antolini said. She wrote to Teddy Roosevelt. To Mark Twain. To every state governor, every year.

By 1914, when most states had already recognized the day locally, the US congress passed a law designating Mother’s Day a national holiday. A day later, president Woodrow Wilson issued an official proclamation.

Why did the holiday’s champion crusade against it?

As Mother’s Day grew more popular, Jarvis became distressed by what she saw as other groups co-opting the day she felt a sense of ownership over.

“She battled over the meaning of Mother’s Day,” Antolini said. Jarvis took issue with businesses, like greeting-card companies and florists, that she felt began exploiting “her day” to maximize their own profits.

Jarvis also was angered by the actions of charities like the American War Mothers, that began selling white carnations on Mother’s Day as a fundraising tool. She once was arrested in Philadelphia for showing up unannounced at the group’s convention.

She crashed the event, yelling at members of the nonprofit organization for exploiting Mother’s Day, Antolini said. A newspaper account said Jarvis was initially charged with disturbing the peace, but was later let off by a local magistrate.

“It was very much tied to her ego…that was her life, her fortune—everything was invested in it,” Antolini said. “When people started to take the day and lay claim to it and use it for different purposes, that bothered her.”

Ultimately, the fight—against the greeting-card companies, the candy shops, the nonprofits—would consume her. “She lost everything. It was a movement that economically, emotionally and physically drained her,” until her death in 1948, Antolini said. “She spent the last four years of her life in a sanitarium, blind and penniless.”

The history of Mother’s Day is actually quite dark

Massive Royal Atlas Gets Digitized | Smart News | Smithsonian

Massive Royal Atlas Gets Digitized | Smart News | Smithsonian

Digitizing books is pretty run-of-the-mill job these days—Google alone has scanned over 25 million titles. But some books need special treatment to make it into the digital world, and the Klencke Atlas held at the British Library took a lot of extra effort, Allison Meier at Hyperallergic reports. That’s because the volume is six feet tall by seven feet wide when open.

In a time-lapse video, the Library shows how the staff had to build a special platform for the massive book, which was wrestled into place by several curators so the maps could be photographed by a high-resolution camera.

So why go to all the trouble to digitize this book? The idea is to give researchers better access to the Dutch cartography, Tom Harper, lead curator of antiquarian maps at the library, tells Meier. “We digitized the atlas in order to increase access to the 41 maps which are contained in it, which are extremely rare — some known in only three surviving copies — but not terribly well known,” he says.

According to Emily Sharpe at the Art Newspaper, the Klencke Atlas was given to King Charles II in 1660 by Dutch sugar merchant Johannes Klencke. Most of the maps were designed to hang on walls, but Klencke had them bound together into the massive book. For the effort he earned a knightship and several lucrative trade concessions for his plantations in Brazil. The atlas was wasn’t very useful but it was impressive. “It is completely impractical, completely overblown and totally over the top,” Harper tells Sharpe.

The digitization is part of an effort to digitize all the volumes in the British Library’s George III map collection. That king began building a massive map library in the 1760s, eventually amassing a huge collection. Many of the maps, he simply “borrowed” from surveyors and others and never returned, and others he claimed he “captured” in war.

While the Klencke Atlas has been on view to the public before, it was not displayed with its pages open until 2010. Now the public can peruse the entire contents online.

The Klencke’s reign as the world’s largest atlas lasted about 350 years, but it was finally surpassed in 2012 with the publication of the Earth Platinum Atlas, a six-foot by nine-foot behemoth that includes incredibly detailed satellite images of the surface of the earth.

A page from the Klencke Atlas (British Library)


When the Potato Launcher Was a Weapon of War

When the Potato Launcher Was a Weapon of War

The potato launcher, a beloved spud-flinging project for DIY tinkerers everywhere, is grandfather to most non-lethal gas-propelled armaments, like the paintball gun and the crowd-pleasing T-Shirt cannon.

And the reason for its popularity is obvious. Potato launchers are relatively easy to make, inexpensive, and dependable—with plenty of power and excitement packed in as well. The modern version is typically a combination of plastic pipe, pipe fittings, and a device that ignites flammable gas inside the gun’s combustion chamber.

But the actual creation of the first true spud gun is up for debate. Some attribute its creation to the inventor of PVC, a material that would become central to the modern potato launcher. Others trace its origins back to Italian physicist Alessandro Volta and his “electric pistol.” But its first modern form wouldn’t take shape until some 160 years later in World War II Britain.

Organized as a top secret skunkworks by the British Admiralty in 1940, the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development—nicknamed the “Wheezers and Dodgers”—designed novel armaments for very specialized situations. Successful projects, like the ship-borne anti-submarine mortar called the Squid, would go on to be used by navies for decades. While others, like “The Great Panjandrum,” were hilariously impractical.

The Great Panjandrum was a spool-shaped contraption for busting through defenses. However, the Germans didn’t build any concrete walls on Normandy beaches, so the plan was eventually scrapped.

As World War II progressed, shipboard anti-aircraft guns were reprioritized from commercial freighters to warships. Finding themselves unprotected against German aircraft, the sailors onboard these merchant ships desperately wanted some way of defending themselves. They needed something that would be much simpler and far less expensive than complex anti-aircraft guns. They didn’t have military budgets, after all.

So the Wheezers and Dodgers invented a gun called the Holman Projector, the world’s first true potato launcher. The Holman was a smooth bore, muzzle-loading gun connected by pipes to the ship’s steam boiler instead of relying on gunpowder, which was always in short supply during the early days of World War II.

When a ship found itself under attack, the crew would pull the pin and drop a hand grenade down the barrel of the Holman Projector. Then, the gun crew would frantically aim at the enemy airplane and stomp on a pedal to release boiler steam. The rush of steam would propel the grenade at the aircraft, and if all went according to plan and the fuse timing was correct, knock it out of the sky. Eventually this simple-yet-elegant solution to a difficult problem drew some high level attention. Winston Churchill got wind of the Holman Projector and asked for a demonstration, which was hurriedly arranged at the British military base at Aldershot. Unfortunately, when it was time for the demonstration, the Wheezers and Dodgers discovered they’d forgotten suitable ammunition.

With Churchill waiting impatiently, the situation was salvaged when somebody on the team remembered the half dozen bottles of lager they had brought with them for a post-meeting picnic. The loader dropped a beer bottle into the muzzle. The first one exploded in the barrel but the remaining bottles scored direct hits on the target, amid sudsy, beery explosions of froth that delighted the Prime Minister.

“A very good idea, this weapon of yours,” Churchill said.

Now officially greenlit, Holman Projectors were manufactured at the Camborne Works, a huge mining equipment factory in Cornwall, England, and installed on thousands of ships. The Holman did have limited success against attacking Junkers and Messerschmitts, but it became better known for its quirky off-label uses. Having a wide, smooth, unrifled barrel, the Holman could shoot nearly anything a sailor could fit inside it. Everything from cans to cabbages got a try, but the most popular makeshift ammunition was the potato.

There are numerous accounts of bored Allied sailors shooting russets at one another’s vessels. A merchant sailor named Sid Kerslake, who perhaps held the Holman Projector in lower esteem than Churchill, wrote about his experience the device and its extracurricular uses in his book Coxswain in the Northern Convoys:

If the steam pressure applied to the projector wasn’t correct, the grenade and its container had a nasty habit of just managing to climb out of the end of the pipe, and drop onto the deck where they separated, rolling about until they either exploded where they were, and fragmented amongst those of the crew who were panicking to throw them over the side, or in the sea out of harm’s way if the crew had been successful in doing what they had set out to do. Most ships’ crews found as time passed by that the best use for the Holman Projector was for throwing potatoes at chummy ships as they passed by them in a channel.

The Cornwall factory eventually closed in 2003, but the town museum still has two remaining Holman Projectors in its collection, maybe the only surviving examples. One of them looks very close to pristine condition, while the other is a battered war relic, heavily damaged in an engagement between the cargo ship Highlander and three German aircraft off the coast of Scotland near Aberdeen in 1940. The crew successfully shot down two enemy airplanes.

After World War II, it would take decades for the potato cannon to become a DIY sensation while other variants—like the beloved T-shirt launcher—wouldn’t come around until mid-1990s.

However, when asked by The New York Times Magazine about his first experience seeing one of the very first T-Shirt cannons, the Denver Nuggets mascot replied that “it looked like it came from World War II.”

He probably didn’t know just how right he was.


Debunking the Myth of the Miraculous Stradivarius – Pacific Standard

Debunking the Myth of the Miraculous Stradivarius – Pacific Standard

For all the otherworldly creatures and Norse gods it evokes, classical music’s most pervasive myth arguably involves old Italian instruments. For two centuries, artists and audiences have passively accepted the received truth that Antonio Stradivari and a handful of other 16th-century masters made violins and cellos that have yet to be improved upon.

French researcher Claudia Fritz has been gradually debunking this notion. In a 2014 experiment, she found 10 world-class violinists who blind-tested old and new instruments and could not reliably tell them apart—and, when pressed, tended to prefer the newer ones.

OK, but what about the real judges—concertgoers? In a just-released follow-up study, Fritz and her colleagues report Strads failed to stand out for two audiences comprised of musically sophisticated listeners—one in France and another in New York.

“The new violins were generally preferred,” the researchers write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “and the listeners could not reliably distinguish new from old.”

“It may be that recent generations of violin makers have closed the gap between old and new,” they speculate. “Or it may be that the gap was never so wide as commonly believed.”

The new study described two experiments: One conducted at a small concert hall outside Paris, featuring 55 listeners, and another at the Great Hall of New York’s Cooper Union Building, with 82 people in attendance. The French audience featured musicians, music critics, violin makers, and acousticians; the New York experiment was a public event within Mondomusicia, an exhibition of handcrafted musical instruments.

The players were all world-class violinists: Seven in Paris, and two in New York (Elizabeth Pitcairn and Giora Schmidt). All wore modified welders’ goggles so they could not identify by sight which instrument they were playing.

Audiences in both cities listened to the same passages played back-to-back on a Stradivarius and a modern instrument. Paris audiences also heard excerpts from popular concertos, with the solo violinist accompanied by an orchestra. Listeners indicated which instrument they preferred, and which they felt projected its sound more effectively.

“The results are unambiguous,” Fritz and her colleagues write. Whether the player was performing solo or with an orchestra, “Listeners found that new violins projected significantly better than those by Stradivari. Moreover, listeners preferred new violins over old by a significant margin.”

In addition, Paris audiences were asked “to guess whether each of seven violins was old or new. In all, just 122 of 273 (or 44.7 percent) of the guesses were correct.”

In an earlier series of evaluations, four out of 10 soloists chose a Stradivarius as the instrument “best suited to replace their own violin for an upcoming tour.” Well, surprise: These new results show they “chose violins with significantly less projection than the two best-projecting new violins.” The researchers note dryly that this confirms “the wisdom of bringing a trusted listener along when trying out instruments.”

As Fritz and her colleagues concede, their studies featured only a handful of instruments; it’s conceivable that the Strads they used were not representative. Even if that’s true, however, their results suggest his treasured creations vary in quality, which belies their uniformly exulted status.

The precise properties of a great violin have always been something of a mystery, and this research doesn’t change that. It does, however, suggest modern makers may be just as likely as their artisan ancestors to forge a first-class fiddle.