Mini-Stories: Volume 3

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
It’s the end of the year and time for our annual mini-stories episodes. Mini-stories are quick hit stories that were maybe pitched to us from someone in the audience or something interesting we saw on Twitter, or just a cool tidbit that we found in our research that just got stuck in our heads and wouldn’t come out. But they didn’t quite warrant the full episode treatment for whatever reason. They’re also this great opportunity for us to get to know the non-scripted version of the fine people who work on this show, and as the person who gets to interview them, that is my favorite part of this. We have some real charmers on staff.

Roman Mars:
We’ll have stories of mysterious iceboats, green ruins, sack dresses, steampunk violins, and a little update from a couple of the notable city flags that have been redesigned around the country. It’s going to be fun. First up is senior producer, Katie Mingle.

Katie Mingle:
So okay, we’re going to start out by meeting Denise.

Denise Bonafis:
Hi, my name is Denise Boniface, and I own Aquanuts Diving in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, Canada.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah. So Denise is from Alberta, Canada, where she owns a scuba diving company, and Alberta, as you may know, is not a coastal province. So if you’re scuba diving in Alberta, you’re doing it in lakes.

Denise Bonafis:
They’re cold, they’re dark, they’re murky, they’re kind of creepy.

Roman Mars:
It sounds delightful.

Katie Mingle:
Fun times. So there’s this one lake called Lake Patricia.

Denise Bonafis:
Surrounded by mountains, it’s right in a mountain valley – very, very remote.

Katie Mingle:
And if you find the right spot on the lake and dive about 30 feet down, you’ll find a shipwreck.

Denise Bonafis:
It doesn’t really look like a ship. It looks like there’s a pile of lumber that’s all broken up and laying there, and then there’s a lot of refrigeration coils.

Roman Mars:
What are the refrigeration coils for?

Katie Mingle:
We’re going to get to that, but just for now… So you make your way down through this murky darkness, this like pile of lumber and debris…

Denise Bonafis:
50 feet, 60 feet.

Katie Mingle:
And then you’ll find a plaque.

Roman Mars:
Oh. (laughs)

Katie Mingle:
Right? This is where Roman gets excited. It’s pitch dark, but if you shine a light on it, you can read it. And Denise has read it.

Denise Bonafis:
The plaque says, “Operation Habakkuk, a secret World War II project involving the use of ice in ship construction. This vessel, built January to April 1943, was a prototype. For more information contact the Canadian Parks Service in Jasper.”

Roman Mars:
Wow. So there’s like a hyperlink in the bottom of a lake.

Katie Mingle:
Www dot. Yeah, there’s a QR code. Yeah. Okay, so there’s so many things about this plaque that I love. I love that it’s at the bottom of a lake. I love the part where it says for more info contact the Canadian Park Service because it sort of implies you could just stumble across this whilst like strolling at the bottom of a Canadian Lake. And, actually, I asked Denise that and she was like, “Yeah you could because there’s a lot of people that died in this lake.” But, of course, the most intriguing part of the plaque is the part about the secret World War II project involving the use of ice in ship construction.

Roman Mars:
So what was that about?

Katie Mingle:
Okay, so in the early 1940s during World War II, German submarines, or U-boats as they were called, were basically wreaking havoc on Allied ships in the Atlantic Ocean, just sinking them left and right.

Katie Mingle:
And so eventually this person named Admiral Mountbatten goes to Winston Churchill, and he’s like, “We have to do something about this, and I think I know what the solution is: a giant unsinkable aircraft carrier sized ship made of ice.”

Roman Mars:
Of course.

Katie Mingle:
Right? And actually, Churchill is intrigued. It sounds like one of those farfetched ideas that gets floated during times of war but never actually gets built, except for this really did get built, or at least a prototype of it got built. And that is the shipwreck at the bottom of Patricia Lake, and that’s what the plaque commemorates.

Roman Mars:
Wow. So what in the world made Admiral Mountbatten think that an unsinkable ship should be made of ice?

Katie Mingle:
Yeah, so like what the hell?

Roman Mars:
Yeah, yeah, okay. That’s fair enough.

Katie Mingle:
Okay, So steel and aluminum were in really short supply, so that was a big thing. They were actively looking for alternatives.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Katie Mingle:
And then the second thing is that they hoped that this ice ship would be so dense that it would basically be indestructible.

Roman Mars:
And what made them think that ice would be indestructible because it doesn’t seem like that.

Katie Mingle:
Right. Yeah, actually, it wasn’t just plain ice. They were going to build these ships out of a mixture of ice and sawdust call pykrete named after its inventor, a guy named Geoffrey Pyke. So if you mixed water and wood chips together and then froze it, it made the ice really, really strong. And so this guy, Geoffrey Pyke, he invented not only pykrete, but he came up with the idea of building a ship out of it. Then he got that idea to Admiral Mountbatten.

Roman Mars:
Hmm.

Katie Mingle:
So the ships would be built from blocks of pykrete, and then there would basically be pipes with coolant running through the whole thing.

Roman Mars:
To keep it ice?

Katie Mingle:
Yeah. So that’s the refrigerator coils that Denise saw at the of the Lake, and pykrete really was this like incredibly strong and dense mixture. There’s this amazing anecdote in this story where Admiral Mountbatten, who again is not the inventor of pykrete, but he’s the main evangelist for this idea. He was so hyped about it that he brings a piece of pykrete to a meeting. This is a meeting in which they were trying to convince the Americans, so the British were trying to convince the Americans to get on board this crazy ice ship plan.

Katie Mingle:
So he brings a block of pykrete to the meeting along with a regular block of ice, and at some point he does this demonstration where he takes out his revolver, and he shoots the regular ice. It splinters into a thousand little pieces. Then he shoots the pykrete, and the bullet bounces off the pykrete and actually sort of ricochets into the leg of one of his colleagues, and like…

Roman Mars:
Successful tactic.

Katie Mingle:
It’s actually declared a total success, and they’re all thumbs-up, green light, full speed ahead, and yeah, they decided to go forward with this crazy plan. Winston Churchill signs off on it. I’m not sure what all Americans signed off on it, but they, the Americans, said, “We’ll help you do this.” Then I guess at some point they also got Canadians involved because they end up building this prototype on this little Lake in Alberta, Canada.

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Lake Patricia.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yes, Lake Patricia, and they name it project Habakkuk after a Bible verse, and I think the verse is pretty interesting. So I’m going read it. It goes, “Behold ye among the nations, and look, and wonder marvelously; for I am working at work in your days, which ye will not believe though it be told to you.” It’s basically like the Bible verse that’s like, “We are building a crazy (beep) thing.”

Roman Mars:
Love it.

Katie Mingle:
And Habakkuk apparently was the name of the Hebrew prophet, which I certainly never knew.

Katie Mingle:
And then the prototype itself was built by Canadian conscientious objectors who didn’t know what they were building and who had opted for alternative service jobs, and they were given this job and not really told that it actually was…

Roman Mars:
A warship.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah, for the war. So in just a few months they built a prototype of this ship, but it ended up being harder to build and more expensive than they thought. By the time the prototype was ready, the war had kind of moved on. They were figuring out how to build the atomic bomb. They figured out how to mass-produce smaller aircraft carriers, and in the end they basically scrap the project and, ultimately, let it sink into the bottom of Lake Patricia. And, as we know, you can still see it there today.

Denise Bonafis:
Well, the coolest thing about diving the Habakkuk is being able to say that you dove the Habakkuk. It is cool to dive it, and it’s nice to see it once, but to dive with too many times, it’s not that interesting. But I’m not aware, but that doesn’t really help your radio program, does it?

Katie Mingle:
Yeah. So apparently like if you build a ship out of ice, it just turns into nothing.

Roman Mars:
Some slush at the bottom of the ocean.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
I mean, if you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it enough.

Katie Mingle:
That’s fine.

Roman Mars:
That’s awesome. I love that story.

Roman Mars:
Special thanks to Debbie Schneiderman who sent in the tip about Project Habakkuk. She actually sent it in response to the mini-stories episode that we did last year. So if you also have a mini-story suggestion, we do read them. Reach us through the contact page at 99pi.org.

Roman Mars:
Next up producer Emmet FitzGerald.

Emmet FitzGerald:
All right. Are you ready?

Roman Mars:
Yeah, you should just start because I don’t know who you’re going to do.

Emmet FitzGerald:
Okay, so this is a story about a ruin. It’s probably the most famous ruin maybe in the world, the Roman Colosseum.

Roman Mars:
Oh, cool.

Emmet FitzGerald:
You ever been?

Roman Mars:
I have never been.

Emmet FitzGerald:
I’ve also never been, but you can picture it, right?

Roman Mars:
Absolutely. You can picture it. You can picture white columns kind of dusty, denuded of all life, and it just looks like a classic ruin.

Emmet FitzGerald:
Right. So, yeah, what color would you say it is?

Roman Mars:
White.

Emmet FitzGerald:
Like white, maybe brown, off kind of…

Roman Mars:
Exactly.

Emmet FitzGerald:
Old, old sand-colored stone.

Roman Mars:
Totally.

Emmet FitzGerald:
I think that’s, yeah, that’s the image we have of ruins, but I was on Twitter the other day, and I found this amazing thread that featured all these paintings from the 19th century, and the Colosseum is totally green. It’s like this greenhouse, covered in vines and plants and all this different plant life.

Emmet FitzGerald:
It was a thread put together by this guy named Paul Cooper. He’s a novelist and a Ph.D. researcher at the University of East Anglia, and he studies the history of ruins. And he says that, until the middle of the 19th century, the Colosseum was, yeah, it was totally overrun with plants. There were trees and troubles and vines growing everywhere, and all these artists and poets would write about the Colosseum as this verdant greenhouse. Charles Dickens visited the ruin and said … wrote about its walls and arches overrun with green.

Emmet FitzGerald:
And in the 1850s, this British botanist, a man named Richard Deacon, decides to do a botanical survey of the Colosseum, cataloging all of the plants growing on the ruin.

Paul Cooper:
Well, he found a great many plants, so over 400 species that were growing among the crumbling ruins.

Emmet FitzGerald:
So that’s Paul Cooper.

Roman Mars:
That’s the fellow who put together the Twitter thread?

Emmet FitzGerald:
Exactly. And he told me about all the different plants that, this guy Richard Deacon found.

Paul Cooper:
56 varieties of grass and cypresses and hollies and, yeah, just a real incredible variety. And what comes out of Deacon’s book is this incredibly poetic description of this crumbling landscape that has become this overgrown garden of great variety. It describes how it’s damp and cool in the low arcades of the Colosseum, but dry and warm on the top layers. As you get this incredible kind of micro-climate, there’s this biodome of overflowing life. But you find specifically that some of the plants were so rare that they didn’t actually occur anywhere else in Western Europe.

Emmet FitzGerald:
And so Deacon sits down, and he tries to work out how these plants ended up in this one spot, in this like iconic cultural spot. It’s sort of a botanical wonder, and he comes up with a wild hypothesis.

Paul Cooper:
That these plants must have been brought into the Colosseum on the fur or even in the stomachs of the animals that the Romans brought into the arena to fight.

Emmet FitzGerald:
Romans brought in lions to fight gladiators, and they brought in giraffes and other kinds of African wildlife for ceremonial hunts inside the Colosseum. The theory was, as plants do traveling on the backs of other animals that move around, that we’ve moved around the world, that that might be the cause of what brought these plants to the Colosseum.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s so great.

Emmet FitzGerald:
It’s a little hard to verify like how true that was.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, sure, sure.

Emmet FitzGerald:
But it’s a cool story, and Paul Cooper really likes this image.

Paul Cooper:
There’s something poetic about the idea that these ritual animal hunts that they were held as a way of proving that humans had reached a level of civilization, that they now had complete dominion over the animals, and we’d shown that we had triumphed over the wild and destructive nature of the natural world. But buried in the fur and guts of these animals were these natural seeds that were ultimately going to invade and climb over this whole magnificent ruin.

Roman Mars:
So how did it happen that this verdant micro-climate, almost greenhouse, become the dusty, dry ruined that we think of today?

Emmet FitzGerald:
So in 1870, Italy gets unified under a secular, democratic government, and they take control of the city of Rome, which had previously been in the hands of the papacy. And this new government is really trying to create a set of rational, scientific, modern Italian identity, but they see that as really rooted in this ancient Roman history. And so they care a lot about these old ruins like the Colosseum and projecting a certain Italianess to what these buildings represent. And the plants don’t quite fit with the image that they’re looking for.

Paul Cooper:
They see these plants as invaders that are damaging the ruins, and they began to take the plants off the ruins.

Emmet FitzGerald:
And even at the time, there’s some real pushback from scientists from the botanical community who say, “Stop, this is this like special micro-ecosystem filled with all these totally unique plant species.”

Paul Cooper:
Italian botanist and Countess Mazzanti says that “Nature likes to dress poetically, the venerable walls, and the now archeological cupidity, archeological greed, has destroyed everything.” So people were giving a bit of an outcry about this at the time, but the archeology went ahead, and later on as you get into the rule of Mussolini and his Fascist party, the ruin was completely stripped and excavated, completely cleaned, which is, in my view, unfortunately the state we find it in today.

Roman Mars:
So it was really about whatever you think is the proper thing to preserve. I mean, do you preserve … I mean, because it is true, the vines were destroying the ruin.

Emmet FitzGerald:
Right, right. There’s a certain truth to that.

Roman Mars:
There is truth to that, but what is the cost of removing all the vines? And what is the history represented in the natural history of the things that are there?

Emmet FitzGerald:
Right, exactly. And I think Cooper says that when he sees these beautiful paintings of the Colosseum, these rare plants that traveled there potentially on the backs of lions, it raises … yeah, it raises some interesting questions about what state we should preserve a ruin in. Is it just the rocks? Is that the only thing that we care about? Then, yeah, that there are stories embedded potentially within other aspects of what’s there that tell important parts of the history.

Paul Cooper:
Yeah, it does make me sad to think that we’ve lost the romantic potential of this site or this incredible ruined overgrown with greenery. And also the fact that there are buried stories hidden in these different layers of history and also in the more intangible elements, like the flora growing in a particular ruin can tell like a huge part of the story.

Emmet FitzGerald:
So talking to Paul and seeing the Twitter thread that he put together and then later turned into an article, it really just made me think about historical preservation and archeological preservation and really what gets to be a part of what lives on and what we choose not to leave, what doesn’t make the cut.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Emmet FitzGerald:
Which in this case is all these plants.

Roman Mars:
I mean, the story of the built world is not just the things we build, it’s all this stuff around it, and it could be the natural flora and fauna that it affects. That’s an amazing thing.

Emmet FitzGerald:
Yeah. And there are still some plants in the Colosseum, and there are people that make decisions about what to pick and what to weed out. Now there’s this whole city that’s built up around this space, and so they’re even more outliers within the rest of the built environment. So that’s a little bit of greenery and a gray concrete world.

Roman Mars:
So a while back 99pi’s Digital Director, Kurt Kohlstedt, started researching a story about sackcloth dresses. It’s a type of DIY clothing made from upcycled flour and feed sacks, and we considered it for a full episode for awhile. But Kurt had a connection to the story that made it even better as a mini-story.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Homemade sackcloth apparel grew really popular during the Great Depression, but as I was looking into it, I thought the idea seemed familiar somehow. So I call up this historian I know to see if maybe she had told me about them when I was a bit younger.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Okay, so Mom, can you tell us briefly who you are and what you do?

Sally Kohlstedt:
“I’m Sally Gregory Kohlstedt. I’m a professor at the University of Minnesota, where I teach courses on science and American culture and also courses on women, gender, and science.”

Kurt Kohlstedt:
So my mom was born in Michigan during World War II, and her dad worked in Detroit at the time.

Sally Kohlstedt:
“As soon as I was born, my father was shipped overseas, and so my mother went home to live with her family on a farm in the thumb of Michigan.”

Roman Mars:
So like all people from Michigan, she refers to the shape of Michigan as looking like a gloved hand and refers to it as the thumb or the where it is on the hand. Right?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. And so people, if they’re trying to tell you where they are from in Michigan, they’ll just hold up their hand and point to part of that. Then, like other places in America, people in Michigan had developed ways to deal with shortages in the late 1920s and going through World War II.

Sally Kohlstedt:
“Well, when I was a little girl, my grandmother did most of the sewing for all of us, and so the fabric that she used for what were called our everyday dress was actually fabric that she would pick out by going to the local general store.”

Kurt Kohlstedt:
So my great-grandmother would buy sacks of flour and then reuse those sacks.

Sally Kohlstedt:
“And the flour sacks became then the fabric for these dresses.”

Roman Mars:
I mean, was the fabric … I picture the sacks that hold rice or something, which are terrible, burlap-style sacks. What was the fabric like?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, it actually had to be pretty finely woven because it was made to hold flour.

Roman Mars:
Oh, yeah. I guess that makes sense.

Sally Kohlstedt:
“It was an all-cotton kind of fabric. It’s very decent quality of fabric.”

Kurt Kohlstedt:
So these days we think of flour as being something that comes in these smaller five or 10-pound bags often made a paper, but back then it was a different story.

Sally Kohlstedt:
“They were huge sacks, as I remember. They were as big as I was because they had to hold 50 or 100 pounds of flour.”

Roman Mars:
So did the flour companies know that people were using their flour sacks and upscaling them as dresses?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, I mean they started to figure this out over time, and they started to adjust their designs accordingly. And so some of them actually used ink that would wash back out, so you could have this clean white cloth. And others went the other direction with it, and they designed these patterns. And so, you’d buy flour sacks with dancers or jockeys or bunnies or flowers or other interesting things. My mom’s grandmother would sift through those options and bring home favorites from the store.

Sally Kohlstedt:
“She learned quickly that I didn’t like pink, so I think she avoided getting me pink fabric or pink flowers on fabric because she knew what I liked.”

Kurt Kohlstedt:
People at the time also turned sacks and the quilts, curtains, even diapers, and farmers re-used livestock feed bags, too. That fabric was rougher, but it’s still worked for things like towels.

Sally Kohlstedt:
“So my very first sewing experience was taking a piece of that fabric and hemming it so that we could use it for dish towels.”

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Apparently, my great-grandfather had a feedbag apron my great-grandmother made him for doing really dirty work, like too dirty, even for work clothes. For example, helping out cows in labor.

Sally Kohlstedt:
“For example, he was birthing a calf. You really didn’t want to wear even your ordinary work clothes because that was really a pretty bloody mess.”

Kurt Kohlstedt:
“Wow. So, you’d buy… Huh? So you’d buy a sack of feed for the cows, and then you’d use that sack to help birth new cows. That’s pretty crazy.”

Sally Kohlstedt:
“That’s what I recall.”

Kurt Kohlstedt:
So, companies, of course, caught onto this sack fabric trend, and they realized they could boost their sales with nicer cotton and fresh and more fashionable patterns along the way. And some manufacturers even sponsored national sackcloth dressmaking competitions.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Sally Kohlstedt:
“That’s right. It was very clever marketing as I think about it as a historian.”

Kurt Kohlstedt:
So the first time I talked to my mom about this, she actually said this quote that I really liked, that it was part of the ‘fabric’ of life of living in rural America.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Which seemed really apt. Ultimately these designs, they evolved beyond just being born of necessity. They became about fashion and identity for these people, too, which I think is really fascinating.

Sally Kohlstedt:
“And so once in a while, you got to go to a fabric store and buy velvet or wool or linen, but woven into ordinary life in these farm communities was going to the general store, picking out your fabric and then trying not to pick out the same fabric as some neighbor might have.”

Roman Mars:
Because no matter what, even if you’re wearing a dress made out of sackcloth, you want to look good. You want to have it express yourself. It’s like a universal thing.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
In some cases, they’d buy a batch of bags, bring them home, and everybody in the same family would be wearing the same patterns of sackcloth, so you could actually tell who was from what family by the patterns that they were wearing.

Roman Mars:
Like a tartan, like a kilt or something.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Exactly, exactly. Like a modern-day kilt.

Roman Mars:
That’s so cool.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
“This has been really great. I love talking to you about this. I love the fact that my mom’s a historian and is just so interested in these things and has these great personal histories, too. Thank you so much, Mom, for agreeing to do this and talking to me about this.”

Sally Kohlstedt:
“Well, I think 99% Invisible is terrific, and I’m happy to be part of any part of it.”

Kurt Kohlstedt:
“That’s so great, mom. I love you a lot. Give my best to dad, and I’ll talk to you soon. Okay?”

Sally Kohlstedt:
“Okay. Love you, too, Kurt. Bye-bye.”

Kurt Kohlstedt:
“Bye.”

Roman Mars:
Oh, it’s so sweet.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Isn’t that charming?

Roman Mars:
Oh, I love it.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, Avery, who helped me get set up with all of this, she was like, “Okay, you can cut any part of this you want, but you’ve got to keep that. You’ve got to keep that sign-off.”

Roman Mars:
That’s smart. She knows what she’s doing, Avery.

Roman Mars:
All right, thanks so much.

Roman Mars:
Since the beginning of the year, astute listeners, who listen all the way to the end of the show … you’re my favorite nerds, the nerds who listen to all the way to the end of the show … you may have noticed a new production credit since we started using all original music.

Roman Mars:
Since I haven’t had your voice on here, why don’t you actually introduce yourself and what you do with the show.

Sean Real:
I’m Sean Real. I’m the composer for … I do all the music.

Roman Mars:
Cool. And so you have a mini-story. This is your first mini-story.

Sean Real:
It’s my first radio story ever.

Roman Mars:
At all. There we go. Okay, well congratulations. So let’s hear it.

Sean Real:
So it’s the late 1800s, and people are just starting to consume recorded music. The process of recording at this time is kind of hectic and I like to imagine a lot of fun, but maybe, maybe more hectic. So before they used microphones in studios, sound was captured by these big horns, which were made of mainly brass or copper, and these recording horns would collect and focus the sound vibrations into this little diaphragm and the diaphragm would vibrate a stylus that cut a groove into a wax disk.

Roman Mars:
Should I be picturing these recording horns pretty much like a phonograph, like an old fashion photograph that plays out through one of these horns?

Sean Real:
Yeah, it’s like the same thing except it’s backwards.

Roman Mars:
Okay, cool.

Sean Real:
Yeah, that’s part of it. It’s just the same backwards as forwards. But the problem with this process was that these recording horns were limited in what sound frequencies they’d respond to. So certain instruments like tubas and French horns, which were also made of brass, would get picked up much louder than string instruments like guitars or violins.

Roman Mars:
And that makes sense.

Sean Real:
So nowadays we record every instrument on its own track and do a lot of leveling after the fact, but back then they had to record whole orchestras with just one or sometimes two, if they were really fancy, of these big recording horns in a single room. And then they just make copies of the disc that they recorded on. There was no editing. If there was too much French horn or if an opera singer blew out the recording with their falsetto, you throw the disc away and you do it again.

Sean Real:
So in order to get a balanced mix of different instruments and voices, sound engineers would arrange the musicians all around the studio at various distances from the recording horns. Sometimes they’d have the louder instruments like French horns pointed at the back wall away from the recording horn. And the musicians would be watching their conductor in a mirror.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Sean Real:
And they put pianos on top of platforms so that the mallets and cords that are inside would be up with the recording horn. This one’s on my favorites, they’d sometimes put a singer on a little trolley so that an assistant could wheel them closer to the horn for quieter vocal passages and wheel them away during loud ones.

Roman Mars:
That’s awesome. Well, that sounds chaotic. It’s like a Rube Goldberg recording of an orchestra. That’s amazing. Okay.

Sean Real:
But the string instruments were the hardest to record, and because of that, stand up bass parts were often just played on tuba instead. A lot of engineers didn’t want to deal with recording violins at all.

Roman Mars:
So there were very few recordings with violins on them before a certain time. Is that true?

Sean Real:
Well, there were actually a fair amount of recordings with violins, but it was part because of the engineer’s going through all this trouble to do these elaborate sessions. But also because of this.

Roman Mars:
Oh my god. Okay, so could you describe what you’re holding?

Sean Real:
I’m holding a Stroh violin, which my bandmate found at this novelty music shop, and it’s got the neck and head and bridge of a violin and the strings, but instead of a body, it’s just got this wooden rod and then this huge horn that’s coming out of it.

Roman Mars:
So imagine getting like a violin with no … What do you call it? The body. The body that has the thing that resonates that goes up against your neck when you play a violin, that’s all gone, and then instead is this basically a trumpet sitting on, pointed, folded back into itself, and the sound comes out of the end of the trumpet horn.

Sean Real:
Just like how recording was like the gramophone backwards. This is also the same concept of the gramophone. The vibrating of the strings goes into this diaphragm that’s down here by the bridge, and it vibrates the sound which gets projected out by the horn.

Roman Mars:
Wow, that’s amazing. It looks really … it’s like it would be the centerpiece of a steampunk orchestra basically.

Sean Real:
Yeah, there are, there are steampunk bands that use this.

Roman Mars:
Of course.

Sean Real:
You want to hear what it sounds like?

Roman Mars:
I would love to.

Sean Real:
(plays Stroh violin)

Roman Mars:
That’s awesome. In a way, in its native state, like in this room, it kind of sounds like an old recording of a violin because it’s going through that diaphragm and horn. It has a little bit of a electro-acoustic seeming processing.

Sean Real:
Yeah, and that’s part of it, is the reason why recording sound that way is because that’s what the old recording horns were able to pick up.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Sean Real:
And so what this was doing was it was actually just amplifying the frequencies that the recording horns would pick up.

Roman Mars:
Right. So it was designed to speak to the horn that is doing the recording in some ways. Like it’s the analog, the match on the other side of it to make it even better to be picked up.

Sean Real:
Yeah. Another thing that it did was it actually, like the horn, it made the sound more directional because all of these musicians had to funnel their sounds into this one acoustic horn in the corner of the room. It was really helpful when you could have a violin that would point its sound directly at the horn rather than like just radiating out into the room, which is what the resident body usually does.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s awesome.

Sean Real:
For a little while, it was a big deal in the recording industry, and these designs were applied to all kinds of instruments, Stroh guitars, Stroh cellos, Stroh mandolins, Stroh ukuleles, and actually a lot of instruments that weren’t under the Stroh name, but there were just a lot of different instruments from different companies that utilize this design.

Roman Mars:
And Stroh is the brand name?

Sean Real:
Yeah, the Stroh is the name of the person who invented the first one. He was John Matthias Augustus Stroh.

Roman Mars:
And so were they all manufactured by a company that was the Stroh company or was it just a design that was used by anybody?

Sean Real:
Yeah, it was a Stroh Violin Company, and they kept manufacturing them even past Stroh’s death in 1914. His son picked up where he left off. And there were a lot of articles that were speculating about where it fit into the broader world of music. This one in Strand Magazine from 1902 that I found that was pushing hard that these instruments were the future.

Archival Tape:
The harmonics are loud and pure, but what is of great importance is an entire absence of scrape. This is a point that solo players will value highly. Of course, the idea of a new violin that can be played upon immediately at its finish and that will produce marvelous tone and quality of sound will possibly come as a shock to old-fashioned people to whom the original violin has been a cherished idol. But the spirit of invention respects no one’s prejudices.

Sean Real:
And those are actually phonofiddles playing underneath which are a relative to the Stroh violin.

Roman Mars:
That’s awesome. So I see you have one, but what happened to these instruments in the larger world?

Sean Real:
So around 1925 electric microphone technology made its way into recording studios, and broader ranges of instruments became more possible to capture. So these modified instruments no longer made the same practical sense to the recording industry.

Roman Mars:
Right. Right.

Sean Real:
So this Stroh Violin Company slowed production and then finally shut down in 1942. Can you tell I’m sad about it?

Roman Mars:
I can tell.

Sean Real:
And a lot of people write about them as like this silly, flash in the pan thing, but they were a really valuable tool for the beginnings of the recording industry. And without them, there are a lot of records where violins wouldn’t have been as present probably, or studios just wouldn’t have bothered to record them at all.

Roman Mars:
So after they weren’t necessary because recording technology had advanced, did they just kind of fizzle out as an instrument?

Sean Real:
Oh, they’re actually still around.

Roman Mars:
Oh. Okay.

Sean Real:
You can find them in wide use in folk music from Romania or Myanmar. Shakira, you had a Stroh violin player as part of her 2010-2011 tour. And resonator guitars, you know those ones with the partly metal bodies and they got the nice designs cut into them?

Roman Mars:
Yeah, totally.

Sean Real:
So those are the same technology is the Stroh violin.

Roman Mars:
Oh.

Sean Real:
And one of the inventors of the resonator guitar had visited the Stroh factory in its heyday, and there are a number of articles that say that he based his designs off what he saw there.

Roman Mars:
So it’s still lives on to this day. And what is it that you … I mean, you said you’re a little sad about it, but why are you sad? What does it do for you? What do you enjoy about it?

Sean Real:
Well, I think what I feel sad about is that it’s just so different than a violin, and the Strand Magazine article was like trying to be like, “This is like better than the violin.” And of course, violins, which have been around, had been around for a long time, were like, “Nope.”

Roman Mars:
No. Better than a violin.

Roman Mars:
I mean, it’s actually a little bit more limited range by definition than a violin, but it has a really … there’s something nice about that sound.

Sean Real:
Yeah. It’s a different kind of range of frequencies. I don’t know. I just think that it’s wonderful to have different kinds of sounds.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Sean Real:
So, yeah.

Roman Mars:
Well, cool. Well, thanks for introducing us to this Stroh violin. That’s amazing.

Sean Real:
Thank you, Roman.

(BREAK)

Roman Mars:
So in March of 2015 I did a main stage TED Talk where I talked about the design of flags and how many city flags around the country were particularly awful and I performed it live like a live podcast on the TED stage and I use the voice of vexillonaire extraordinaire Ted Kaye to explain his flag design principles and it was a total blast and what’s great is that since then, there have been over a hundred flag redesigns in the U.S. and it has been fun to watch people engage with their civic symbols in a new way.

Roman Mars:
Burlington Vermont had an open call flag redesign contest to replace their coat of arms style flag and the competition was won by twin 12-year-old brothers, Owen and Lucas Marchessault. It’s a white green and white zigzag stripe on a blue field. It’s a very handsome flag. Congrats guys.

Roman Mars:
Of particular note in the flag redesign world is the flag of Pocatello, Idaho. Pocatello was voted the worst city flag in North America by the members of the North American Vexillological Association, and it was kind of the punchline of the TED Talk. And after they heard about the talk, they invited me up to Pocatello to spur their flag redesign efforts and they couldn’t have been nicer and more gracious. I had a fantastic time there. I had breakfast with the mayor, CBS Sunday Morning came to Pocatello to do a national news piece about their redesign and I think even though, you know, I was having a little fun with him the city came away from the experience really excited and enjoyed the attention and best of all after a year-long effort, they get a new beautiful flag.

Roman Mars:
The new flag is called “Mountains Left” and it has three red peaks symbolizing three local mountains on a field of blue and a blue line at the bottom that represents the Portneuf River and at the top of the highest peak is a golden compass rose representing Pocatello’s transportation history. It is a fine flag. I hope to see it everywhere next time I’m up there. If you’re curious to see a picture of it, you can Google. It’s 2017 just like use your phone, but we’ll also have a picture of it on our website at 99pi.org. Well done Pocatello. It is a real honor to be your guest.

Comments (13)

Share

  1. Olivia Middendorf

    My favorite image of the flour sack prints is from Life Magazine. In the image there is a pile of Sunbonnet Sue flour sacks in assorted prints, but the worker is filling one with a stuffed bunny sewing pattern on it. I like to think that even in times of scarcity and rationing that someone’s little girl, who came with her mother to the general store pleaded for that flour sack like my little girl asks for stuffed animals… well everywhere. I hope she got it.

  2. Ice wasn’t the only material they experimented with for shipbuilding in WWII. Look up the concrete ships. There’s the wreck of one just off a beach in NJ.

  3. Jonathan

    The story of the Stroh violin was fascinating especially as it has a strange connection for me. I am from Northern Ireland and in the capital city, Belfast, there is a well known Romanian busker that uses what I now know to be a Romanian horn violin. This morning I was talking to my work colleagues about the busker, wondering what the strange instrument was. A couple of hours later I listened to this podcast and to my amazement, I could not believe that this podcast contained the answer to our earlier conversation and that the instrument was one of the subjects in the podcast! I just cant believe it, what are the chances!

    I’m a big fan of the show and never miss a podcast, I particularly like these mini stories episodes, especially when you come up with fascinating and interconnected stories like this!

    1. Timothy Seltzer

      Yes, I came to the site for the same reason, hoping to see the old and new flags!

  4. Guru

    I once found a portal into an interdimensional vomitorium when visiting Pocatello. I saw some unexplainable entities there who were really into eating pawpaws.

  5. Great story!!! Funny fact I round researching this story: the man who patented the idea was named ‘Bales’. :) There are some really good books about this, including one called ‘Feedsack Secrets’. Question: is anything known about the designers of the patterns?

  6. SHEILA

    The admiral who came up with the ship idea was named Mountbatten. Was he in any way related to Prince Philip? I was just wondering. Thanks!

    1. Zak

      I was (even as an American) a bit vexed when a member of Prince Phillip’s family and mentor to Prince Charles was only described as this one admiral. There was even the loss of an additional mini story in the deal. Mountbatten was a design choice to Anglicize a Germanic name (maybe a bit of a stretch), the name was chosen to obfuscate the family’s German heritage during WWI by translating the parts of the name separately and smashing them back together.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Playlist