1) The first proposal for space travel in English history was made by Oliver Cromwell’s brother-in-law
Theologian and natural philosopher John Wilkins (1614–72), who married Cromwell’s youngest sister Robina, was a polymath of great learning and curiosity, and would be one of the founders of the Royal Society. In two books he explored the possibility of “flying chariots” to carry men to the moon.
He believed, as did many others, that the moon and planets were inhabited, and that we should meet these people and trade with them. People were anchored to the earth by a type of magnetism, and if it were possible to reach an altitude of just 20 miles, travellers would be free to fly, or rather sail, though space. Breathing wouldn’t be a problem as the astronauts would soon grow accustomed to the purer air breathed by angels.
Wilkins appears to have experimented in building flying machines with Robert Hooke, in the gardens of Wadham College, Oxford, in the 1650s. Some years later, however, with growing understanding of the nature of vacuums, he realised that space travel was much more complicated than expected.
While his Cromwellian connections reduced him to poverty after the return of the monarchy, Wilkins’s fortunes were gradually restored and he ended his life as Bishop of Chester.
2) There have been ‘more than 600’ plots against Fidel Castro
The former director of Cuba’s intelligence service claims that there were more than 600 attempts to kill or destabilise Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. These were backed by various opponents of the regime, most notably the United States, often operating at a distance by using gangsters or anti-Castro Cuban exiles.
These have included using thallium to make his famous beard fall out, or LSD to make him sound mad during a radio broadcast. Then there was the poisoned diving suit, the exploding cigar, and the femme fatale who was to seduce him – in the latter case Castro claimed he uncovered her intentions, offered her a pistol and told her to kill him, but she didn’t have the nerve.
There was also a tide-line of exploding seashells, which went off 40 minutes after Fidel’s visit to the beach, but which did succeed in fusing Havana’s traffic lights. There are also bizarre tales of a plan to beam a holographic image of the Virgin Mary, which was supposed to inspire Catholic Cubans to shun communism, though it doesn’t appear to have been tried.
A lot of these plots are impossible to substantiate properly, though there can be no question that many people wanted Castro dead. “If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal,” he said.
3) A pedestrian collected rocks to build a house
A historical, topographical and descriptive view of the county palatine of Durham, Eneas Mackenzie & Metcalf Ross, dated 1834:
“Simeon Ellerton died here [Crayke, North Yorkshire] January 3, 1799, at the advanced age of 104. He was a noted pedestrian, and was often employed by gentlemen in the neighbourhood on commissions to London and other places, which he always executed on foot with fidelity and diligence. He lived in a neat stone cottage of his own building; and what was remarkable, he had literally carried it upon his head!
“It being his practice to bring home from every journey the properest stone he could pick up on the road, until he had accumulated a sufficient quantity to erect his habitation, by which time, although the motive had ceased, this practice had grown so much into a habit, that he imagined he could travel the better for having a weight upon his head and he seldom came home without some loading. If any person inquired his reason, he used facetiously to answer, ‘’Tis to keep on my hat’.”
4) A one-legged man reassured London’s first escalator users
The first escalator on the London Underground system went into operation at Earl’s Court in 1911. On its first day of operation, passengers who had never seen such a thing before were naturally apprehensive. To calm their fears, it is said that a one-legged Underground employee, William ‘Bumper’ Harris, rode up and down to demonstrate its safety – although there are suspicions that this story may be a myth.
Harris was later clerk of works on the project to install escalators at Charing Cross when the remains of an ancient oak tree were discovered during the excavations. This was used to make furniture for the admiralty, but also an ornamental walking stick for Harris, which was presented to him in 1913. The stick and Harris’s pocket watch are now housed in the London Transport Museum.
5) Boston witnessed a ‘toffee-apple’ tsunami
On Wednesday 15 January 1919 in Boston, Massachusetts, a 90-foot wide cast iron tank containing two-and-a-half million gallons of crude molasses (for rum manufacture) exploded, probably because its contents had expanded during a rapid overnight rise in temperature.
The tank, belonging to the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, was set 50 feet above street level; its entire contents spilled within a few seconds and with no warning. The resulting thick, sticky “wall of molasses”, which at times was up to 15 feet high, ran through the streets, reaching a speed of 35mph.
It demolished buildings, tearing them from their foundations; it carried off vehicles and drowned horses. People who tried to outrun the wave were engulfed and drowned where they fell. In all, 21 people were killed and 150 injured (arriving at hospital, according to eyewitnesses “looking like toffee-apples”). The clean-up took weeks, and for decades afterwards the locals claimed they could distinctly smell molasses in hot weather.