When appearances meant everything (Part I)

September 24, 2008

A tale of 17th Century Mughal India.

It was a September morning like any other in Delhi. The air clung despairingly to the fading cool of the night, as the sun that would incinerate it began searing the smoky haze of the morning’s cooking fires. A crowd of petitioners, sycophants and sightseers had gathered on the sandy banks of the city’s lifeline – the Yamuna river. They stood at the foot of the looming sandstone ramparts of the colossal Red Fort, their eyes riveted expectantly upon an ornate viewing window built into the imperial chambers that overhung the bastion’s walls. For this was time of the daily people’s audience. It was the time when the Emperor, The Great Mughal Shah Jahan, made his daily morning appearance before the people of Delhi, when he sat himself down in the viewing window and devoted an entire hour of his extraordinary existence to their ordinary one. This was when the Emperor listened to his subject’s complaints, passed judgement upon their tormentors, tossed handfuls of gold coins at their heads, and generally looked regal, divine and – alive. He only missed the appointment on the occasions when the need to crush a rebellion or escape the terrible summer heat took him from his capital. For he was quite fond of tossing gold coins at his people’s heads, of dazzling them with his splendor and wisdom, and above all – of looking alive. Of all of Shah Jahan’s duties and responsibilities, looking alive was by far the most crucial.

On this warm day, the people waited in vain. The hours went by, the sun rose high into the sky, but of the Emperor, there was no sign. Eventually the surprised and disappointed crowd drifted away, some looking back over their shoulders as they went, hoping that their ruler may yet show them his face. They speculated on the reasons for his absence. Perhaps he had been overwhelmed by the memory of his dead wife and departed to Agra to gaze upon the grand mausoleum he had built in her name. Perhaps he had hurried away to combat a defiant Sultan who had raised the flag of insurrection. Or perhaps the great one had fallen ill, as he might, for he was no longer the spry Prince he once was.

By that evening, the bazaars of Chandni Chowk were abuzz with rumor. Sources inside Shah Jahan’s palace had confirmed that the Emperor was not well. Fortunately, he was attended to by the greatest physicians, holy men and quacks in the land and was expected to make a complete recovery. The Emperor’s heart, said the sources, had lost little of the vigor of its youth and all that ailed him was a minor attack of constipation. But despite the reassurances, the first messengers had already left the city, racing for the far corners of the sprawling Empire, to the lands where Shah Jahan had posted his sons as Governors. He had done so because he believed that governing the uncooperative inhabitants of those distant realms would train his sons in the affairs of state. He wanted to keep his sons as far away from each other as possible – to keep them from killing each other – at least while he was still alive. For like their counterparts in Turkey, the Mughals had no belief in primogeniture, preferring that the royal progeny compete openly and violently for the royal crown. And the royal progeny in their distant fiefs waited impatiently for their old man to die.

A new day dawned in Delhi and the people went about their daily routine. Like his subjects, Shah Jahan was also a man of habit, and typically rose at 4.00 AM to spend his day in governance, pleasure, audiences, art and watching elephant fights – a favorite pastime. But for a second day in succession, Shah Jahan did not rise from his bed. For a second day in a row, the Emperor did not make the all important appearance to his people! The crowd of petitioners who had customarily gathered below the royal window again left without a glimpse of their king. The Emperor, claimed the gossips in Chandni Chowk, was bed-ridden with a case of severe constipation, swollen limbs and overwhelming malaise. Soon, the city could speak of little else, as the average citizens took to evaluating their options and what a royal demise would mean to their fortunes, careers, and lives. And the agents and spies that the Mughal princes maintained at their father’s court hastily scribbled updated reports and a fresh batch of horseback messengers raced away with the sealed scrolls.

A third day went by without any amelioration in what was fast becoming a major imperial crisis. And then a fourth. The Emperor remained confined to his bed, alive, but in considerable pain and discomfort. There were many who feared that he was already dead, or else he would have made at least a token appearance at the royal window. Others took comfort in the doctors, priests and quacks who were hard at work, feeding him elixirs, tonics with ground pearls, incantations on scraps of paper, and other exotic medications much trusted at the time. None had any effect. The only progress was in the nature of the rumors, which had taken on a dominantly salacious tone. For the Emperor, it was alleged, was not constipated at all. The Emperor, they said, had actually lost the ability to express bodily waste of the other kind. And this embarrassing condition was not the consequence of age, ailment or injury, but of taking too much of a certain concoction whose sole benefit was the restoration of a vital masculine capacity known to decline with age! The aging Emperor, the diehard romantic who had spent untold millions on building a Taj Mahal to the love of his life, had apparently developed a raging passion for a nubile Moorish slave girl who had recently been added to his harem…

To be continued… Part II

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They Stole it from Us

September 24, 2008


April 6th, 1850. The paddle sloop HMS Medea slipped away from its mooring in the
port of Calcutta and began the long journey to its home port of Portsmouth, England. The charter was unusual, for the ship carried but two passengers: Captain Ramsay and Lt.Colonel Mackeson, both soldiers in the employ of the East India Company and aides to the Governor General of the Company’s Empire in India, Lord Dalhousie. In addition to their personal effects, the men carried with them a single, innocuous dispatch box that presumably contained dispatches from Dalhousie to his board of directors in London. It was uncommon for Her Majesty’s Navy to be deployed on what appeared to be mundane Company business, for the Company had vessels aplenty of its own. What the Medea’s skipper, Captain Lockyer, did not know was that Lord Dalhousie had specifically asked the British Admiralty for the loan of a warship to carry this very particular cargo. Though no doubt curious about their odd assignment, Lockyer and his men could at least content themselves with the prospect of a summer voyage considerably more relaxed than their spring, which they had spent fighting pirates off the coast of Hong Kong.  

The Medea did not reach Portsmouth until June 29th, where it docked in an isolated quay with little fanfare. The voyage had been more eventful than anyone had anticipated, for the ship had nearly met its fate in the Indian Ocean. About a third of the way into the journey, cholera had broken out on board and killed two sailors. Fortunately for the crew, the ship had been on the approach to the island of Mauritius, a British possession, and a crucial supply halt on the India route. But the Mauritians were terrified that the deadly cholera might jump ship onto land and refused to let the Medea birth. They demanded that the Medea leave immediately, which Lockyer flatly refused to do. Irked, they petitioned the island’s Governor to have the ship sunk, men and all. Tensions ran high, but eventually Lockyer had his way and loaded the Medea with fresh clean water, which miraculously banished fresh incidents of cholera from the ship. The Medea left Mauritius with generally better health and fresh food, only to sail directly into the storms that bedevil the environs of The Cape of Good Hope. Its crew battled gale force winds for nearly twelve hours before finally managing to get away.

The relief of the Medea’s crew and passengers at their narrow escape was magnified soon after arriving at Portsmouth, when the contents of the mysterious dispatch box were finally revealed. In the dispatch box was a small iron chest with two locks whose only keys were on the person of Col. Mackeson. Inside the chest sat a solitary stone. It was the Koh-i-Noor, the fabled Mountain of Light. It had been sent to England as a gift from the East India Company to its sovereign, Queen Victoria.

The Company had won the 186 carat diamond by force of arms. In 1849, it had confiscated the behemoth from the twelve year old Maharajah of the Punjab, Duleep Singh. The famed jewel was not all that Duleep had had to surrender. The blood soaked Second Anglo-Sikh War had resulted in the annexation of the Punjab and its 4 million citizens into the Company’s Empire. The powerful kingdom of the Punjab, built by the brilliant Maharajah Ranjit Singh, had crumbled a mere 10 years after his death, victim to the greed, pettiness and intrigue of his worthless successors. The Company, under the imperialist Dalhousie, had stepped in and picked up the valuable pieces. Ironically, the Punjab, like the rest of the British Empire in India, had been won for the British chiefly by Indians. Though lead by British officers and laced with British regiments, the wars of the East India Company were fought and won by an Army made up primarily of sepoys (sipahis) – native soldiers.

The Koh-i-Noor had always been a prize of war. Though its origins are shrouded in mystery, the diamond had certainly been discovered in the mines of Golconda, the sole source of the stones in the world until the 18th century. It passed from hand to hand, and came to obsess any that possessed it. Among its most illustrious owners was the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, then arguably the richest monarch in the world, which one would have to be in order to absorb the immense expenditure of state funds necessary for the construction of a mausoleum named The Taj Mahal. The jewel remained in the Mughal treasury until 1739, when it fell into the hands of the Persian conqueror Nadir Shah, and acquired its present name. Nadir Shah was in the midst of the bloody sack of Delhi, massacring thousands and looting the priceless imperial Mughal treasure – a treasure that the Mughal Empire had accumulated over two hundred years, by, in part, looting the rest of India. It is said that despite being surrounded by the fabulous hoard of gold and jewels, Nadir Shah was so overwhelmed by the diamond’s size, weight and brilliant light that he exclaimed in his native Persian: Koh-i-Noor, Mountain of Light!

The diamond did not remain Nadir’s for long, as he was murdered by his own men in 1747. The diamond made its way to Afghanistan, and from thence to Ranjit Singh in the Punjab. Ranjit Singh was so enamored of the Koh-i-noor that he never let it out of sight. He even had it mounted on his bridle, so that he could admire (and guard) it while taking the long rides he loved.

The legend of the Koh-i-Noor owes much to the travelers, courtiers, ambassadors and common people who wrote, spoke and sang of its beauty. The giant stone was often in plain sight wherever its owners went, shining on royal turban, crown and in Ranjit Singh’s case, a singularly stunning bracelet. But never in its history had the diamond been in actual peril, for none who came under its sway would willingly harm it – until its voyage on the Medea, when it nearly ended up at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

Today, the Koh-i-Noor is not the giant it once was. It lost nearly 40% of its weight when it was re-cut by the Victorians to enhance its brilliance. At 108 carats, it is neither the largest nor the the most beautiful diamond in the world. It sits in the Tower of London in the company of the British Crown Jewels, where it is admired in passing by millions of tourists, most of whom know little of its history or mystique. Except for the tourists with Indian passports, who point at it as they go by and sometimes mutter: They stole it from us.


The Jerky Makers of Hispaniola

September 24, 2008


The 16th century Caribbean – Spain has ruled the island of Hispaniola since the time of Columbus and permanently changed its ecology and population. The city of Santo Domingo crowns the mouth of the Ozama River and has served as the base for the conquest of the continental mainland. The city is home to Spaniards and to drifters from France, England and Holland, many of whom have been brought here by the endless naval warfare that preoccupies the powers of Europe. Of the native
Tainos people there is virtually no sign, for they have been exterminated by the smallpox that has crossed the Atlantic on the Spanish galleons. Any survivors have succumbed to enslavement, to murder and to the hundred other bugs that have caught the ride with the smallpox. The Spanish have shored up the forced labor pool by importing thousands of African slaves – and put them to work on their sugarcane plantations, which have replaced large swathes of the island’s native jungles. They’ve also brought in European farm animals, most of whom have gone feral and prospered in the islands’s lush tropical bounty and lack of major predators. Hispaniola is overrun by wild cattle and pigs. They are to play a key role in the island’s future.

But by 1586, less than a hundred years after its founding, Hispaniola is in decline. The empire and gold of the mainland has drawn away the colonists and the sugar plantations have started to go with them. Investment in the island’s economy has been in precipitous decline and new slave imports are starting to dry up. And when Sir Francis Drake takes and ransoms Santo Domingo, the Spanish begin to lose interest. The island becomes a haven for desperadoes, fortune seekers and former sailors from all over Europe.

One thing that does not decline is Hispaniola’s strategic location. It dominates the Caribbean and the city of Santo Domingo remains a crucial port of call, where ships put in to replenish their supplies. The sailors want rum, water, and meat, all of which are available aplenty. Meat dominates a sailor’s diet, but since the ships can carry only so much fresh meat, if any at all, most of it is carried dried. And in this, Hispaniola’s population of drifters see an opportunity. For raw material, they turn to the wild cattle and pigs that seem to be everywhere and whose numbers don’t seem to fall, no matter how many they shoot. And from the natives (those that remain) they appropriate an ingenious technique for drying the meat. They smoke the meat using a wooden rack called a boucan. And so the drifters and immigrants make a living selling beef and pork jerky to passing ships – and to neighboring islands, which are in easy reach of their small boats. These makers of jerky come to be known as boucaniers.

It does not take long for the enterprising boucaniers to start supplementing their incomes by robbing their customers. And who can blame them? For they have come to the tropics to make their fortunes and there is none to be had in beef jerky. The ships, many of them fabulously rich, are conveniently birthed in Santo Domingo’s harbor, and the sailors are cooperatively drunk. The boucaniers go on to discover that their profits become quite significant when they take the occasional ship outright. And so they begin to waylay unsuspecting Spanish coastal traders that frequent the Caribbean. Beef jerky remains their bread and butter but the temptation of getting rich by robbing the Spanish is difficult to resist.

Getting rich by robbing the Spanish is such a good idea that the English have made it their national economic policy. The Spanish have themselves become wealthy by robbing the Incas and their brethren for a century. Lead by Sir Francis Drake and the Golden Hind, the English launch an officially sanctioned wave of what is essentially piracy, though justified by the fact that Spain and England are at war and that attacking the enemy’s shipping is a sound military tactic. But the Atlantic is so vast, and the Spanish treasure ships so numerous that the English will need to fund an entirely new navy to put a dent in the inflow of treasure. And so the English turn to the free market and private enterprise. They issue licenses to privateersraiders – who have the official sanction of the English Crown to hunt Spanish shipping. Any warship, merchantman, sloop or boat that is game receives a license. The only condition imposed is that any spoils be shared with the Crown. Give England its share of the loot, and you are no pirate, but a sailor fighting for Queen and country.

The boucaniers of Hispaniola enlist as privateers en-masse – thus legitimizing their new profession. And over the next hundred years the boucaniers terrorize Spanish shipping and settlements. Some like Captain Henry Morgan acquire such fame that they are knighted, appointed Governor of Jamaica and used to name a brand of spiced rum. The boucaniers of Hispaniola give up making beef jerky as a business entirely and become professional buccaneers. The Jerky makers of Hispaniola became The Pirates of The Caribbean. The fecund wild cattle and hogs of Hispaniola who give them their start continue to feed them for years to come.


Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy

September 24, 2008


The Chagan river carried no water in the summer. Which was unfortunate because in the spring, it carried rather too much, as the melting snows drove it to spate. The river was, therefore, of little practical value, especially to the patriotic animals of the very practical state farms that littered the surrounding steppes of Kazakhstan.

Such a wanton waste of valuable resources was galling to the energetic Soviet planners of the time. And so they decided to fix the problem – by building a dam. A dam that would hold behind it a reservoir of pure winter melt, and quench the summer thirst of the state owned herds that grazed the steppes, as well as their hardworking caretakers.

Dams are conceptually simple. To build a rudimentary dam, all one had to do was block the flow of the water with a giant pile of earth and rock. The only problem was that making a giant pile of earth and rock cost time and a lot of money. Fortunately, the engineers on the project had an exciting new technology at their disposal – a technology with the potential of permanently transforming how the Soviet Union, and even the world, went about their civil engineering.

And so the Soviets dug a 570 foot deep hole in the dry river bed of the Chagan River. The hole even had a number – #1004. And into this hole, they placed a device – a device sanctioned and paid for by the enigmatically named Program 7. On January 15th, 1965, at 6.00 AM GMT, they detonated the device.

The 140 kiloton hydrogen bomb produced a 320 foot deep crater that had a diameter of 1305 feet. The lip of the crater soared 100 feet into the sky, forming, in a matter of a few explosive minutes, the river barrier that the Soviet planners had wanted.

That spring, the Soviets got not one, but two reservoirs. Waters from melting snow poured into the massive nuclear crater, while the waters of the Chagan River were trapped behind the crater’s lip. The clever civil engineers then dug a channel to connect their two lakes into a glorious unity, thumped each other on the back for a job well done and moved on to the next peaceful nuclear explosion for the national economy.

The Chagan river didn’t cooperate with the engineers for very long. It changed course and began to flow around the obstruction, reverting to its true nature. The man made Lake Chagan, on the other hand, held true, its sheer nuclear walls gleaming on its mirror blue surface. It lay pristine, undisturbed by the cattle of the state farms for whom it had been intended. For somebody had noticed that the new lake was radioactive.


The Emperor Who Was A Prostitute

September 24, 2008


Of all of Rome’s mad emperors, Elagabalus was perhaps the most bizarre. But he remains oddly under-appreciated, unlike those thespians of Roman excess – Caligula and Nero – who are reviled as much today as they were when alive. Even the forgotten Commodus was resurrected and had his reputation freshly besmirched by Ridley Scott’s Oscar winning Gladiator. But poor Elagabalus, despite a truly disastrous career, and an occasional resurgence in a minor novel or play, has never truly received his just due as a standout weirdo.

The Historia Augusta begins its biography of Elagabalus with the following words:

The life of Elagabalus Antoninus, also called Varius, I should never have put in writing — hoping that it might not be known that he was emperor of the Romans….

Elagabalus distinguished himself in the vital imperial discipline of partying. He devoted himself to mastering the pleasures of the flesh. He was proud of his good looks, which he modeled on those of the goddess Venus, wearing too much makeup, having his entire body depilated, and making it his life’s purpose to ‘arouse the lusts of the greatest number’. He dressed in women’s clothes, wore women’s jewelry and took his slave Hierocles as his husband. To make his marriage believable, he encouraged Hierocles to beat and thrash him, especially when caught in the act of infidelity.

For he wished to have the reputation of committing adultery, so that in this respect, too, he might imitate the most lewd women; and he would often allow himself to be caught in the very act, in consequence of which he used to be violently upbraided by his “husband” and beaten, so that he had black eyes.
    -Cassius Dio

Elagabalus was a connoisseur of the orgy, of exotic foods and wines, of lions and panthers as pets, and of dogs, whom he fed exclusively on goose liver. When he wasn’t having a good time, Elagabalus worked diligently at his avocation – prostitution. It was in this profession that he arguably did his best work. He painted himself up as a harlot and frequented Rome’s many brothels, where he reveled in servicing their clients. He even worked industriously as a prostitute within the walls of the imperial palace, satisfying any who wanted him, propositioning one and all, including the formidable Praetorian Guard, to his later regret. According to the Historia Augusta, Elagabalus would:

send out agents to search for those who had particularly large organs and bring them to the palace in order that he might enjoy their vigor.

Elagabalus was often so dissatisfied with the body he was born to that he offered large sums of money to any physician who could bestow upon him the genitals of a woman. But despite his problems with gender identity, he married and divorced 5 women inside the first 4 years of his reign. As one of his wives he took a vestal virgin, whom he first took the perverse pleasure of violating. And neither marriage nor his love for young men kept Elagabalus from enjoying the company of a multitude of women:

he never had intercourse with the same woman twice except with his wife, and he opened brothels in his house for his friends, his clients, and his slaves.

Not satisfied with challenging Rome’s notoriously lax morality, Elagabalus worked assiduously at antagonizing the religious beliefs of its citizens. He defiled their shrines, tried to extinguish the eternal flame of the Vestals, and wanted to replace the worship of Rome’s many gods with the monotheistic worship of himself. A Syrian by birth, he was a fanatical devotee of the cult of the Syrian Sun god and revered the cult’s greatest relic, a conical black stone that had fallen from the sky and was probably a meteorite. He was more than once observed in the streets of Rome at night – stark naked and carrying the holy stone in his hands – walking backwards all the way. He kept the company of astrologers, magicians and necromancers, with whom, he indulged in daily sacrifice, including, it was alleged, the torture and murder of children.

Elagabalus excelled in the political arena, making the philosophy of whim the fulcrum for his policies. A born iconoclast, he boldly committed, what was in Romans eyes, the ultimate political outrage:

he was the only one of all the emperors under whom a woman attended the senate like a man, just as though she belonged to the senatorial order… And never before his time, as I have already said, did a woman come into the Senate-chamber or receive an invitation to take part in the drafting of a decree and express her opinion in the debate…

To the modern eye, Elagabalus was clearly transgender and driven to excess by his position. It is also certain that like most hated Emperors, the accounts of his life were in some part exaggerations and even fiction. But whatever the truth may be, to the conservative Praetorian Guard (and most of Rome, for that matter), Elagabalus was nothing short of appalling. Like many an emperor before and after him, the Guard finally took his neck in their own hands. They found the Emperor cowering in a latrine, murdered him, dragged his body through the streets and as a final ignominy, tried to dispose of it in a sewer. But the sewer proved too small and so, after a final series of humiliations that included being dragged through the Circus, the Emperor’s body found its final resting place at the bottom of the Tiber. And so in 221 A.D. did end the scandalous reign of Elagabalus, only four short years after it had begun. The deceased Emperor was 18 years old. The hormones flooding his Venus inspired body had not helped.

You can read the Historia Augusta’s colorful Life of Elagabalus here:

    1. Elagabalus, Part 1
    2. Elagabalus, Part 2

The Stick That Left A Mark

September 24, 2008


Lead pencils have always been made of graphite. There has never been a pinch of lead, or asbestos, in lead pencils – much to the dismay of lawyers everywhere. Graphite has always been non-toxic.

The confusion began with the English, who started using a new mineral called plumbago to write and draw with. In the late 16th century, the residents of Seathwaite in Barrowdale, Cumbria, had stumbled upon a deposit of an intriguing new mineral. The mineral had interesting physical properties – it shimmered, it was solid and black, had a greasy feel and left a mark upon your hands when rubbed. The mineral was so much like the lead ores found at the time that the residents called it plumbago – which is Latin for lead ore, or colloquially, black lead. The locals soon began using the material to mark their sheep, which they had in plenty. Before long, someone found that plumbago also made excellent marks on paper. And because the mineral was so solid and pure, it could be sawed into a stick, wrapped in a bit of sheep skin and carried around. Presumably, among the first uses of this new mobile writing device was to annotate the walls of tavern bathrooms with philosophical commentary.

Creating a proper holder for the plumbago sticks was the logical next step. At first people took to wrapping the sticks in twine. Then someone borrowed a technique already used to make silverpoint styluses, and enclosed the lead with a piece of wood. The convenient little writing sticks in their wood holders came to be known as lead pencils. Their existence was first documented by the zoologist Conrad Gesner in 1565. Eventually, someone realized that easiest way to make a pencil was to place the lead between two pieces of wood and glue the pieces together. Pencils as we know them began to emerge.

Lead pencils were revolutionary and caused a sensation, especially among artists. Unlike pen and ink, the pencils were highly portable. Unlike charcoal, the pencils could be shaped and sharpened to a point, giving the artist the precision of a metal point. And unlike silverpoint, which required specially coated paper, the versatile new pencils worked on just about anything. Better still, artists could use a piece of white bread left over from their lunch to erase their drawings and start over.

England enjoyed a monopoly on pencil manufacture for nearly a hundred years. For no matter how hard they looked, no one could find a second deposit of plumbago that could be cut into sticks and used to make pencils. There was plenty of plumbago to be had, but just not the right sort. Any ore not mined in Barrowdale tended to be impure and the purification process only yielded black lead in fine powder form. To break the English hold, someone had to figure out how to turn the powder into solid plumbago sticks. In 1662, a German pencil maker from Nuremberg finally did. He combined plumbago powder with sulphur and antimony to make pencil lead. The pencil maker’s name was Friedrich Staedtler. If his name sounds familiar, it is because to this day, Staedtler remains a maker of the world’s finest writing instruments. But in 1662, Staedtler’s new pencil lead, though functional, was too coarse and could not match the quality of the original English product. The best pencil lead in the world continued to come from a single mine in Cumbria. Nevertheless, with demand booming, Nuremberg became a major exporter of lead pencils. The city’s atmosphere proved to be specially conducive to pencil making. The famed pencil manufacturer Faber-Castell also got its start in Nuremberg in 1761.

The 18th century was a time of great fundamental discoveries in chemistry. The brilliant Swiss chemist C.W.Scheele, who had a genius for experimentation, had already made several important breakthroughs. In 1779, he turned his attention to plumbago and conclusively proved that black lead wasn’t lead at all. Black lead was in fact carbon. Class action lawyers have hated Scheele ever since. What could have been a landmark lawsuit featuring billions of tiny tots slowly poisoning themselves by sucking on lead pencil tips (you can imagine the television commercials )… turned out to be tiny tots sucking on carbon – the stuff we are made of. Plumbago came to be known as graphite – so named by Abraham Werner, from the Greek graphein, or “write”.

A few years later, the English monopoly on pure high grade graphite ended. In 1790, an Austrian inventor named Joseph Hardtmuth combined graphite powder, clay and water to make – well, spaghetti. He then cooked the graphite spaghetti in an oven until it hardened and he had himself some pencil lead of impeccable quality. Not only was his new lead cheaper, but its hardness and color could also be varied by altering the proportions of graphite and clay. When Hardtmuth wanted a softer pencil, he used more graphite. When he wanted a harder one, he used more clay.

Before Hardtmuth could say voila, the French stumbled upon an identical solution, or possibly appropriated his – no one can know. In 1795, the new French Republic was at odds with the English and the Germans (they took turns being at odds and still are). An economic blockade had cut off all imports of pencils into France. And so Nicolas-Jacques Conté decided to make his own. He used a process virtually identical to that used by the Austrians. His new pencils were square in cross section and encased in a cylinder of wood. He called them crayons. You can still buy Conte’s crayons at an art store or on the Internet.

It was left to two American cabinet makers, William Monroe and Ebenezer Wood, to put on the finishing touches on the modern pencil and automate its manufacture. By 1812, they had turned their home town of Concord, MA, into a hotbed of pencil innovation. It was Ebenezer Wood who made the first hexagonal pencils. He took two hexagonal pieces of grooved cedar wood, placed the pencil lead in between and glued the two pieces together. And he did so using machines. His pencils would not have looked too different from the ones you buy today at Target. By the close of the 19th century, pencils had acquired built in erasers and were mass produced. In the 21st century, they are made in the billions each year – in China, naturally.

The Barrowdale plumbago mine where it all began was closed in the late 19th century. The deposit remains the only known instance of pure graphite ever found in such form!


The Prince in The Gilded Cage

September 24, 2008

Your father is one of the world’s most powerful men. You live an
obscenely luxurious life in a palace that is more art than building. You have an education, can recite poetry, have courtly manners and are handy with a sword. You are surrounded by beautiful women of exotic ancestries and esoteric skills. You have all the concubines your heart may desire, as long as they are barren. You are not permitted to reproduce while your father is still alive.
 
You live in The Cage. Like your father did before you. And his brothers. And their father. You have lived in The Cage ever since you became a man, day after day, within the same gilded walls, amidst your brothers and uncles, some of whom have been transformed by boredom into lunatics. You have never left the grounds of the Topkapi Palace, having spent your boyhood in The Harem. Each day, you rise to same routine of debauchery and despair. You are sustained by the debauchery (as men are) and a single hope  – that the man who placed you in The Cage, your cursed father the Sultan – may die in your lifetime – preferably of hemorrhoids. You pray that the plague that takes your father may also take your uncles and older brothers, for they precede you in the queue of succession. You dream of the day when you, as the senior surviving denizen of The Gilded Cage, can leave, to see your first hill, forest or river. You dream of the day when you, released from your prison, can parade triumphantly through the streets of Istanbul as its new Lord and Master. 
 
In 1603, Sultan Ahmed I ascended the throne and ended 200 years of institutionalized fratricide by choosing to imprison his brother who might otherwise have challenged him. He thus initiated a practice that lasted until 1923, when the Sultans were retired for good. The paranoia that had lead Mehmed III to eventually murder 27 of his brothers now begat generations of Sultans who had never seen the world they were supposed to rule. The last Ottoman Sultan emerged from The Cage for the first time at the ripe young age of 56 – knowing nothing of the Empire that he was soon to lose.
 
While The Cage did generally keep the Sultan’s sons and brothers out of political trouble, it also turned them into the antithesis of their dynamic ancestors. The new Sultans were often worthless, psychologically scarred by their prolonged incarceration, their authority relinquished to their functionaries. A military theocracy had to have a supreme leader appointed in effect, by God, who thereby legitimized the state’s existence and that of the bureaucracy who ruled it. The Cage ensured the continuation of a single and original Osmanli dynasty – a perpetual renewal of the license to rule  – the license issued by Heaven. The Cage was a storeroom for royal backups. If a Sultan died of too much gluttony and drink, or was murdered by his own men, the Viziers, Pashas and Palace Eunuchs who ran the show could quickly trot out a replacement.
 
And so it came to be that Ottoman Sultans no longer participated in the councils of state, but looked down upon them from behind a latticed window called The Eye of the Sultan. Like his caged heirs and rivals, the Sultan was safely tucked away behind a haze of hedonism, expected only to exist.