Visions of the Retrofuture

We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been
enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.
A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes,
like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car
that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful
than the Victory of Samothrace.
(Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto, 1909)

At the beginning of the 20th century, the world was rapidly changing.
In the cities, people began to go out at night thanks to the electricity that had started to illuminate the streets; film cameras had been recently invented; in 1901 thanks to his wireless telegraph Guglielmo Marconi launched the first transoceanic radio signal.

Above all, the transport sector was making great strides.
The number of cars increased every day, assembly lines speeded up production times more and more; Paris and Berlin were building underground metropolitan transportation systems, just like the one in London.
Not only that, railways began to be built, that were even suspended above the houses: in 1901, the Wuppertailer Schewebebahn was built in the German town of Wuppertal, a 13.3km-long double-track railway with 23 stops, still in operation today. A bold and innovative work, which as we will see had an immediate impact on the collective imagination.

Even the sky no longer seemed so impossible to conquer.
In 1900 Ferdinand Von Zeppelin had flown over Lake Constance with its new rigid airship which, unlike the hot air balloons, could be controlled and guided.
From overseas news were coming of some reckless engineers who were trying to launch themselves into the air on new types of aircraft equipped with wings and rudders.

All these innovations contributed to fueling utopian fantasies of a radiant and hyper-technological future that awaited humanity. What would the cities of tomorrow look like?

We can take a peek at this possible future, this dreamed future, thanks to the postcards that circulated at the beginning of the century. Stefano Emilio, reader of Bizzarro Bazar, has collected several examples: these are real photographs of various cities — from Genoa to San Francisco — reinvented in a futuristic key, with added balloons, airplanes, flying ships. As you can see, the railway suspended in the style of that of Wuppertal is a constant presence, since it evidently had left its mark on popular imagination as an emblem of urban transformation.



Atlantic City





Revere Beach

But were these visions really so naive and utopian? In reality, upon closer examination, many images also included several kinds of accidents: pedestrians getting run over, cars colliding.

These postcards therefore had a double purpose: on one hand they proposed the unprecedented awe of seeing a city crowded with sci-fi vehicles, on the other they had a satirical intent (note the ship below, which is covering a route from Genoa to Mars!). In short, most of these images seem to ask, ironically, “where will we end up with all these devilries?”

La linea Marte-Genova

A final curiosity concerns a real accident, which happened on the suspended Wuppertal railway.
On 21 July 1950, the director of the Circus Althoff had a 4-year-old female elephant travel on the Wuppertailer Schewebebahn as a publicity stunt. While the suspended train was passing over the river, the animal began to trumpet and run inside the wagon, causing panic among the passengers. Terrified, she broke through a window and fell into the waters of the Wupper River, after falling for some 12 meters. Fortunately the baby elephant was saved, and after the accident she was named Tuffi (from the Italian word for “diving”). The circus director and the officer who had allowed the ride were fined, but on the other hand Tuffi became a small celebrity: the facade of a house near the railway still features a painting of the elephant, and the tourist office sells an assortment of Tuffi-related souvenirs.
The inevitable postcard was produced, with a photomontage that reconstructed the accident.

The future illustrated by early-20th century postcards may make us smile today, but it remains a fundamental element of the sci-fi imagery which then permeated the rest of the century, from Metropolis (1927) to steampunk subculture and to retrofuturism.

Blimps still float in the skies in Blade Runner (1982).

(Thanks, Stefano Emilio!)


I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, ‘Where’s the self-help section?’
She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.
(Steven Wright)

This year the seven issues of the #ILLUSTRATI magazine by Logos Edizioni are each inspired by a Genesis day.
Even my column in the magazine will have to stick to this line; I therefore decided to offer readers seven self-help lessons, parroting those “personal growth” books and courses which — despite being often laughable — people seem to like so much.
In each issue I will start from a well-known detail and try to re-enchant it, by revealing the surprising background that lies behind that banality.

The first two “days” have already been published; here you can find both of them, in a double post.

Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation… of a new perspective.


The well-known detail: In our room, we turn on the light: a mechanical gesture we take for granted, and repeat every day. We don’t even look at that switch anymore, and we find nothing special in the bulb lighting up the room.

Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.

The background: The flow of electric charge can be unidirectional (direct current, DC) or reverse direction many times a second (alternating current, AC). At the end of the 1880s, Thomas Edison had developed the direct current system, which was reliable but had a serious issue: it could cover a distance of only one mile off the power plant where the current was produced. George Westinghouse’s alternating current, instead, could be efficiently transmitted over long distances, but at that time it was a complex and experimental system which was not sufficiently understood even by engineers.
In order to corner this emerging market, the Edison and the Westinghouse companies embarked on a no-holds-barred propaganda campaign, which was called “the War of the Currents” by the press. Each of them claimed his own solution was better and safer than the other one; during this controversy, Harold Brown, an electrical engineer (no one had ever heard about him before), decided to take side and launched a crusade against AC. Determined to demonstrate how dangerous the alternating current was, he paid some local children to collect hundreds of stray dogs off the streets, then he killed the dogs one by one, connecting them to a generator of the kind used by Westinghouse. He claimed his tests undoubtedly proved how risky it was to use AC—but indeed, his study didn’t follow a scientific method. Brown decided to give a public demonstration of his ‘findings:’ on the 30th of July 1888, he subjected a dog to several shocks of direct current up to 1000 volts (to prove the animal would survive). When he applied a 330-volt shock of alternating current, the animal died with a last, ghastly bark. This show had a boomerang effect, because it only achieved the result of scandalizing the audience: not only was the experiment uselessly cruel but, since the dog received the lethal shock when he was already exhausted by the previous ones, this brutal charade did not prove at all that one kind of electricity was more dangerous than the other. For this reason, four days later, Brown repeated his demonstration and this time killed three dogs with one single 330-volt shock of AC. But even this attempt did not achieve the desired result of swaying public opinion, since shortly afterwards it turned out that Harold Brown wasn’t an independent researcher but Edison had hired him in order to discredit his competitor.
The War of the Currents reached its peak in 1890 when the State of New York decided to replace hanging with the electric chair. Under Edison’s pressure, they opted for AC as “lethal current.” It was a body blow to Westinghouse, who in the meantime had managed to get Nikola Tesla’s patent for a polyphase induction motor. Thanks to this and other technical improvements, Westinghouse won the war and, in 1895, brought to completion a huge power plant on the Niagara Falls.
Edison never resigned to the defeat. In 1903, he volunteered to electrocute with alternating current Topsy, a female elephant guilty, it is claimed, of killing two circus keepers. On the 4th of January, at 2.45 pm, the pachyderm was electrocuted with a 6600-volt shock, in front of Edison’s cameras filming the execution. But not even this last macabre feat succeeded in giving a bad name to alternating current, which had already become the standard both in the US and in Europe. And which still turns on our lightbulbs today.

The moment of Topsy’s electrocution.

The First Lesson: Current is “all well and good,” it is even fundamental, but it costed the life of a lot of animals, sacrificed in such an insane way only to win a patent war. This may suggest us an uncomfortable but essential thought—light is often matched with shadow, and every glow necessarily involves some darkness. As Bob Dylan sings: “Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain.



The well-known detail: Every morning we go to work, we take a quick look at the sky, just to see if there is any cloud. We know who we are and what we have to do. Every evening we come back home at nightfall, just when the first stars appear. We never think about the stars and how absurd they are. We have worked, so we know who we are.

Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, 2014.

The background: We easily forget that the universe is still a total mystery. Its shape, how it began, how it is going to end, what was there before, what is coming after: these are basically fields of speculation. Notwithstanding the huge amount of data collected and evaluated, and despite the numerous theories developed, astrophysicists and cosmologists are often puzzled by what they see. We could say that surprise is the rule in astrophysics.
The matter we are able to see, with our telescopes and other detection instruments, sometimes behaves in such an unexpected way that we need to postulate the existence of something else in order to explain its dynamics.
In other words, since what we observe doesn’t completely add up, there must be something more —and it’s not a small part of it, since we are talking about 95%: researchers conjectured that we can see only 5% of the entire universe.

One of the most complex phenomena to understand is the expansion of the universe.
Immediately after the initial explosion, the universe started expanding very fast; but the gravitational attraction between galaxies slowed down this process and, just like a balloon being almost completely inflated, the universe started to decelerate its expansion. This deceleration led the astronomers to think that in a very distant future everything would stop and cool down. This was the ultimate fate of the universe they envisioned, unless, at a certain point, the process would reverse into the so-called Big Crunch (the opposite of the Big Bang).
This vision remained nearly unchanged during the last century, until in 1998 two different teams of researchers independently made the same disconcerting discovery. It seems that the universe kept on decelerating its expansion during the first half of its existence. And then, some 6 or 7 billion years ago, surprisingly, it started accelerating. Today, galaxies move farther apart much faster than before. How is it possible that they suddenly started to move so fast? What is pushing them away?
Since there is no apparent reason, astronomers hypothesized the existence of an invisible force, called dark energy, which might be responsible for this acceleration. If existing, this energy must be of such a magnitude as to develop the pressure needed to move entire galaxies. To make the math work, dark energy should contribute a 68% of the total energy of the universe; if we add the dark matter (another hypothetical form of matter), we get to 95%—the percentage of the universe whose components cannot be revealed even with our best instruments.
The existence, out there, all around our small planet, of an immense invisible dark ‘force’ playing marbles with galaxies could be an upsetting idea to the most sensitive of us. But the alternative is not comforting either. Indeed, researchers rejecting the hypothesis of the dark energy support something even more paradoxical, at least to the eyes of the laymen: in reality, the universe is not accelerating at all—it is time which is slowing down. According to this theory, the acceleration is only an optical illusion perceived by an observer, like we are, placed inside a spacetime which is slowly coming to a halt.

Things are actually even more bizarre than this. We must consider that what has been said so far relies on the assumption that the laws of physics will always be the same, unchangeable; and until recently everything indicated that the universe had always ‘worked’ in the same manner. Then, in 2010, an Australian study questioned this assumption. Some measurements made by ESO’s Very Large Telescope Project seem to highlight a variation in time of the so-called fine-structure constant – a fundamental quality of electromagnetism that should remain unvaried, constant, as its name suggests. Should it be confirmed, this discovery would imply that the universal laws of physics (gravity, time, space, speed of light, and so on) might not be so universal, and they could vary over time or maybe depending on the ‘area’ of the universe.

The Second Lesson: We live inside a sort of great puzzle, a paradox where the only certainty is that nothing is certain. We cannot even understand what kind of strange place we live in, so how can we always know for sure what we have to do or not to do, what is right and what is wrong? Maybe, only stupid men are certain of everything, as Chuang-Tzu said, as they “believe they are awake, busily and brightly assuming they understand things, calling this man ruler, that one herdsman”. And, when they come back from work, they have no doubts about who they are or what is expected from them, and they never think about the absurdity of the stars.

An elephant on the gallows

The billboards for Sparks World Famous Shows, which appeared in small Southern American towns a couple of days before the circus’ arrival, seem quite anomalous to anyone who has a familiarity with this kind of poster design from the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
Where one could expect to see emphatic titles and hyperbolic advertising claims, Sparks circus — in a much too unpretentious way — was defined as a “moral, entertaining and instructive” spectacle; instead of boasting unprecedented marvels, the only claim was that the show “never broke a promise” and publicized its “25 years of honest dealing with the public“.

The reason why owner Charlie Sparks limited himself to stress his show’s transparency and decency, was that he didn’t have much else to count on, in order to lure the crowd.
Despite Sparks’ excellent reputation (he was among the most respected impresarios in the business), his was ultimately a second-category circus. It consisted of a dozen cars, against the 42 cars of his main rival in the South, John Robinson’s Circus. Sparks had five elephants, Robinson had twelve. And both of them could never hope to compete with Barnum & Bailey’s number one circus, with its impressive 84-car railroad caravan.
Therefore Sparks World Famous Shows kept clear of big cities and made a living by serving those smaller towns, ignored by more famous circuses, where the residents would find his attractions worth paying for.

Although Sparks circus was “not spectacularly but slowly and surely” growing, in those years it didn’t offer much yet: some trained seals, some clowns, riders and gymnasts, the not-so-memorable “Man Who Walks on His Head“, and some living statues like the ones standing today on public squares, waiting for a coin.
The only real resource for Charlie Sparks, his pride and joy widely displayed on the banners, was Mary.

Advertides as being “3 inches taller than Jumbo” (Barnum’s famous elephant), Mary was a 5-ton indian pachyderm capable of playing different melodies by blowing horns, and of throwing a baseball as a pitcher in one of her most beloved routines. Mary represented the main source of income for Charlie Sparks, who loved her not just for economical but also for sentimental reasons: she was the only real superior element of his circus, and his excuse for dreaming of entering the history of entertainment.
And in a sense it is because of Mary if Sparks is still remembered today, even if not for the reason he might have suspected or wanted.

On September 11, 1916, Sparks pitched his Big Top in St. Paul, a mining town in Clinch River Valley, Virginia. On that very day Walter “Red” Eldridge, a janitor in a local hotel, decided that he had enough of sweeping floors, and joined the circus.
Altough Red was a former hobo, and clearly knew nothing about elephants, he was entrusted with leading the pachyderms during the parade Sparks ran through the city streets every afternoon before the show.
The next day the circus moved to Kingsport, Tennessee, where Mary paraded quietly along the main street, until the elephants were brought over to a ditch to be watered. And here the accounts begin to vary: what we know for sure is that Red hit Mary with a stick, infuriating the beast.
The rogue elephant grabbed the inexperienced handler with its trunk, and threw him in the air. When the body fell back on the ground, Mary began to trample him and eventually crushed his head under her foot. “And blood and brains and stuff just squirted all over the street“, as one witness put it.

Charlie Sparks immediately found himself in the middle of the worst nightmare.
Aside from his employee’s death on a public street — not really a “moral” and “instructive” spectacle — the real problem was that the whole tour was now in jeopardy: what town would allow an out-of-control elephant near its limits?
The crowd demanded the animal to be suppressed and Sparks unwillingly understood that if he wanted to save what was left of his enterprise, Mary had to be sacrified and, with her, his personal dreams of grandeur.
But killing an elephant is no easy task.

The first, obvious attempt was to fire five 32-20 rounds at Mary. There’s a good reason however if elephants are called pachyderms: the thick skin barrier did not let the bullets go deep in the flesh and, despite the pain, Mary didn’t fall down. (When in 1994 Tyke, a 3.6-ton elephant, killed his handler running amok on the streets of Honolulu, it took 86 shots to stop him. Tyke became a symbol for the fights against animal cruelty in circuses, also because of the heartbreaking footage of his demise.)
Someone then suggested to try and eliminate Mary by electrocution, a method used more than a decade before in the killing of Topsy in Coney Island. But there was no nearby way of producing the electricity needed to carry out the execution.
Therefore it was decided that Mary would be hung.

The only gallows that could bear such a weight was to be found in the railyards in Erwin, where there was a derrick capable of lifting railcars to place them on the tracks.
Charlie Sparks, knowing he was about to lose an animal worth $20.000, was determined to make the most out of the desperate situation. In the brief time that took for Mary to be moved from Kingsport to Erwin, he had already turned his elephant’s execution into a public event.

On September 13, on a rainy and foggy afternoon, more than 2.500 people gathered at the railyards. Children stood in the front line to witness the extraordinary endeavour.
Mary was brought to the makeshift gallows, and her foot was chained to the tracks while men struggled to pass a chain around her neck. They then tied the chain to the derric, started the winch, and the hanging began.
In theory, the weight of her body would have had to quickly break her neck. But Mary’s agony was to be far from swift and painless; in the heat of the moment, someone forgot to untie the animal’s foot, which was still bound to the rails.

When they began to lift her up — a witness recalled — I heard the bones and ligaments cracking in her foot“; the men hastily released the foot, but right then the chain around Mary’s neck broke with a metallic crack.

The elephant fell on the ground and sat there upright, unable to move because in falling she had broken her hip.

The crowd, unaware that Mary at this point was wounded and paralyzed, panicked upon seeing the “murderous” elephant free from any restraint. As everyone ran for cover, one of the roustabouts climbed on the animal’s back and applaied a heavier chain to her neck.
The derrick once more began to lift the elephant, and this time the chain held the weight.
After she was dead, Mary was left to hang for half an hour. Her huge body was then buried in a large grave which had been excavated further up the tracks.

Mary’s execution, and the photograph of her hanging, were widely reported in the press. But to search for an article where this strange story was recounted with special emotion or participation would be useless. Back then, Mary’s incident was little more than quintessential, small-town oddity piece of news.
After all, people were used to much worse. In Erwin, in those very years, a black man was burned alive on a pile of crosstiles.

Today the residents of this serene Tennessee town are understandably tired of being associated with a bizarre and sad page of the city history — a century-old one, at that.
And yet still today some passing foreigner asks the proverbial, unpleasand question.
Didn’t they hang an elephant here?

A well-researched book on Mary’s story is The Day They Hung the Elephant by Charles E. Price. On Youtube you can find a short documentary entitled Hanging Over Erwin: The Execution of Big Mary.

La wunderkammer della Cecchignola

Sorry, this entry is only available in Italian.

Elephant Man

Fra tutte le meraviglie umane, Joseph Carey Merrick rimane la più celebre e riconoscibile; la sua vicenda, adattata e portata sullo schermo da David Lynch nel 1980, ha commosso milioni di spettatori, oltre ad ispirare innumerevoli libri e pièces teatrali. Ma qual è la vera storia di questa enigmatica figura ottocentesca?

Joseph Merrick nacque il 5 Agosto 1862 a Leicester, figlio di Mary Jane e Joseph Rockley Merrick. Aveva un fratello e una sorella più piccoli, e rimase completamente normale fino ai tre anni di età. Poi, alcune cisti cominciarono ad apparire sul lato sinistro del suo corpo, simili a piccoli bernoccoli (come ricordava una nota autobiografica sul retro del pamphlet che Joseph utilizzava nei freakshow).

All’età di 12 anni, quando sua madre morì, la deformità di Joseph era già grave; suo padre si risposò, e la nuova matrigna cacciò Joseph di casa, costringendolo ad affrontare non soltanto un handicap fisico in continuo aumento, ma anche una vita fatta di fame e freddo. Dopo un periodo passato in strada vendendo lucido da scarpe, tormentato dai ragazzini e dai loro sberleffi, Joseph trovò lavoro in un freakshow, sotto il nome di “Uomo Elefante”. Così, esibendosi come fenomeno da baraccone, riuscì a mettere da parte una somma di denaro e ad essere trattato con un minimo di dignità. Durante uno dei suoi spettacoli, incontrò il dottor Frederick Treves, medico dell’ospedale di Whitechapel, che gli chiese di esaminarlo; Merrick rifiutò cortesemente, e Treves gli diede un suo biglietto da visita, casomai cambiasse idea.

Ma nel 1886 il Regno Unito dichiarò fuori legge i freakshow; non potendosi permettere il viaggio fino agli Stati Uniti (dove l’esibizione circense delle meraviglie umane sarebbe continuata fino ben oltre la metà del ‘900), Merrick si spostò in Belgio. Qui venne maltrattato, derubato ed abbandonato dal suo “manager”, e se ne ritornò in Inghilterra sconfortato.

Solo, senza casa, e con una grave infezione bronchiale, Merrick causò l’isteria della folla in una stazione ferroviaria a Liverpool Street, per via del suo fisico deforme e del panno con cui celava il suo viso. Quando le autorità lo fermarono, Joseph non poteva parlare per l’infezione bronchiale, ma riuscì a consegnare loro il biglietto da visita del Dottor Treves, che aveva conservato.

Quella fu la mossa giusta, e l’unica vera fortuna nella vita di Joseph Merrick. Il dottor Treves venne a tirarlo fuori dai pasticci, e si rivelò, in seguito, l’unico amico sincero che Joseph avrebbe mai avuto. Dispose che Merrick avesse una stanza permanente all’ospedale – per poterlo studiare, certo, ma anche per garantirgli la privacy e il decoro che spettavano ad ogni essere umano.

Anche se la sua vita era un continuo inferno di dolori fisici ed emotivi, Merrick possedeva uno spirito indomabile. In poco tempo si guadagnò la compassione pubblica e la simpatia dell’alta società vittoriana. Diventò una specie di celebrità. Alexandra, allora Principessa del Galles, dimostrò il suo interesse per Joseph, portando altri membri reali ad accoglierlo con entusiasmo. Joseph divenne addirittura un protetto della Regina Vittoria. Eppure il suo sogno, come avvalora la testimonianza di Treves, rimaneva quello di trovare una giovane donna non vedente, che potesse amarlo senza essere disgustata dalla sua apparenza fisica. Nei suoi ultimi anni, Merrick trovò conforto nella scrittura, componendo pagine di prosa e poesia, rimarchevoli per calore e commozione.

Il dottor Treves riuscì anche a regalargli qualche mese di vacanza in una villa di Fawsley Hall, Northamptonshire. Ma la sua breve vita volgeva al termine.Venne curato ed ospitato nell’ospedale fino alla sua morte, avvenuta a 27 anni, l’11 aprile del 1890. Morì per l’accidentale dislocazione del collo, dovuta all’impossibilità di sostenere il peso della sua enorme testa durante il sonno. Merrick infatti doveva dormire seduto, ma sembra che in quell’occasione avesse tentato di dormire sdraiato, per cercare di imitare un comportamento “normale”.

Lo scheletro deforme di Joseph Merrick è custodito all’interno del London Royal Hospital, anche se non è più visibile al pubblico.

I medici hanno dibattuto sulla sua sindrome per decenni: originariamente si pensava che Merrick soffrisse di elefantiasi. La seconda teoria si concentrò sulla neurofibromatosi di tipo I; nel 1986 si arrivò alla conclusione che l’Uomo Elefante soffrisse in realtà della Sindrome di Proteo, associata forse a una forma di neurofibromatosi. Recentemente, una ricerca appoggiata da Discovery Channel basata sul DNA di capelli e ossa, ha permesso di risalire al volto che Joseph Merrick avrebbe avuto se non fosse stato soggetto a questa incredibile e deturpante malattia. Il volto di un bel giovane, pieno di vita e di speranza. Un volto che non ha mai avuto la possibilità di vedere il mondo.