Don the Talking Dog

Those fond of clichés will surely agree that if a dog is man’s best friend, a talking dog might be man’s BFF. In the early 1900s, a dark brown setter, called Don the Talking Dog, was such pal. The pooch belonged to a German gamekeeper named Martin Ebers, who lived in a quaint Western Germany village called Theerhutte, near Hamburg. But his voice attracted the world’s ear.

News of Don came in 1910, after an American newspaper article claiming Alexander Graham Bell had trained his terrier to speak. Germans didn’t think much of the article — at the time there was a belief that anything was possible in America. But rather than let America have the glory of a talking dog, Ebers’ nephew brought media attention to his uncle’s wondrous companion. Suddenly, the small village was bustling with curiosity seekers and reporters wishing to see if Ebers’ dog was the real deal.

Even skeptics became believers after meeting Don. In describing a conversation with the dog, one newspaper claimed, “The tone was not a bark or growl, but distinct speech.” Another correspondent wrote, “The dog is an unqualified scientific marvel.”

Don reportedly began speaking on his own accord in 1905, at the age of six months. As one might expect with a dog, his first words were in regard to food. While the family was eating dinner one evening, Don, like any dog, waited beside the table begging for scraps. His master asked if he wanted something, and Don responded “Haben! Haben!” (Want! Want!). Ebers asked the question again, disbelieving his own ears. Sure enough, Don said “Haben! Haben!”

The dog’s vocabulary soon expanded to other areas in the food department with “hunger” and “kuchen” (cakes). He also pronounced “ja” (yes) and “nein” (no), allowing Don to express his feelings, such as a dislike for cold, wet weather. The clever canine even learned to form a rudimentary sentence with his small arsenal of words. If asked how he was doing, Don could have responded, “Hunger, want cakes.”

The four-legged phenomenon soon attracted the attention of Karl Hagenbeck, the famed German animal trainer and circus founder, as well as other circus showmen and music hall managers. Hagenbeck offered Ebers $2,500 to exhibit Don in his outdoor menagerie at Hamburg. Another impresario offered Ebers $15,000 to purchase the extraordinary dog.

While showmen and the general public were enamored with Don, psychologist Oskar Pfungst was not. In 1912, having debunked an educated horse called Clever Hans several years earlier, Pfungst took it upon himself to explain Don’s garrulous nature. He visited Don and recorded his “speech” on a phonograph. He concluded that the dog merely responded to questions with noises the way any dog might, but through the power of suggestion, listeners heard what they were expecting to hear. A similar experience occurred in more recent years with a dog crooning “I love you” on a David Letterman Stupid Pet Tricks segment. And on YouTube, more than 8,000 videos can be found on dogs allegedly professing their love.

Upon hearing of Pfungt’s findings, The New York Evening Post reported: “It begins to look as if there really were a rather sharp limit to animal intelligence.” As with Hans, Pfungst once again burst an optimistic society’s bubble.

© Marc Hartzman


The Horsey Horseless

Discussions about transmissions, differentials, torque and other vehicular intricacies may rattle amateur auto enthusiasts. But the ambitious conversationalist can impress gearheads by shifting the chatter to the subject of horsepower. More specifically, the power of one horse.

As you know, long before the might of 400 horsepower enhanced the state of a driver’s masculinity, vehicles were powered by actual horses.

However, like any who are left behind during times of technological wizardry and advancement, horses began to lose their jobs as motored vehicles took to the roads in the late 19th century. These wondrous machines were referred to as horseless carriages. In fact, car manufacturers tried to persuade horse owners to make the switch by claiming: “If you can afford to stable a horse, you can afford one of our cars.”

Of course, horseless carriages were a brave new world to be explored by the curious and adventurous, those who sought greater enlightenment, speed, and status as an early adopter. Such courageous souls drove these amazing but “infernal machines” down the streets, startling every horse and pedestrian along the way. Frightened horses became such a problem that some owners threatened to shoot drivers on sight.

In 1899, an inventor named Uriah Smith of Battle Creek, Michigan came to the rescue of modern transportation. In an attempt to ease the transition to engine-powered carriages — for both the driver and the horse — he created a vehicle called the Horsey Horseless Carriage.

The Horsey Horseless

This early concept vehicle was designed to prevent horses from getting scared upon seeing a approaching automobile.

This early concept vehicle was designed to prevent horses from getting scared upon seeing a approaching automobile.The design called for a large, wooden horse head to be attached to the front of the buggy, thereby resembling a typical horse and carriage. “The live horse would be thinking of another horse,” said Smith, “and before he could discover his error and see that he had been fooled, the strange carriage would be passed.”

It’s unclear whether any Horsey Horselesses were ever produced, or if it only existed in theory. It is, however, perfectly clear that those now in the know will not only forever drive with a greater sense appreciation for the bold coup of the automobile and a sensitivity for the mass unemployment of horses worldwide, but will remember to quit the conversation while ahead.

© Marc Hartzman

Russian Two-Headed Dogs

If you were the child of Dr. Vladimir Demikhov, a Russian scientist who gained fame in the 1940s and ’50s, a two-headed dog could very well have eaten your homework.

Over the course of 20 years, the controversial Demikhov created at least 20 two-headed animals in his quest to perfect the art of transplantation. Although he sounds like a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein, Demikhov’s work was an attempt to understand how damaged organs can be replaced, or how to create artificial substitutes. His studies would eventually set the stage for similar organ transplants some forty years later.

Demikhov’s early work focused on replacing hearts in dogs with artificial blood pumps, but by 1946 he successfully transplanted a second natural heart in a dog. He simply removed part of a lung to clear some space for the extra ticker, which beat independently of the original heart. Some of the two-hearted dogs managed to live up to five months. The ever-curious surgeon carried on his work by experimenting with just how much work a single heart could do. So rather than add a second heart to a dog, he added a second front end of a pup. This would determine if one heart could pump enough blood for both heads.

Demikhov had a breakthrough with a German Shepherd called Pirat. Pirat lasted 30 days with the front end of a puppy attached to him. The puppy’s head was attached by joining major blood vessels. “The big dog doesn’t understand,” the scientist told a visiting reporter. “He feels some kind of inconvenience, but he doesn’t know what it is. Sometimes the puppy will playfully bite the ear of the big dog and Pirat will shake his head but he never has tried to scratch or kick off the extra head.”

A Russian Two-Headed Dog

An example of Dr. Demikhov’s experiments. His curious face is seen in the upper left corner.

Both heads slept and woke independently, which was a breakthrough for Demikhov because it proved that the head could be attached and retain some level of normalcy. Of course, “normalcy” is all relative. The puppy didn’t need to eat or drink, as it gained all its nourishment from Pirat. In fact, when it did drink, the water went down its throat and out onto the Shepherd’s neck.

After a month of astounding scientists and anyone else who happened to see the two-headed on its regular walks, Pirat developed edema, a condition in which lymphatic fluid infiltrates into connective tissue. Demikhov was forced to perform another surgery to amputate the puppy head. Pirat was returned to normal — or at least as normal as a dog could be after gaining and losing a head.

© Marc Hartzman

Missile Mail

The history of the post office is rarely of interest to anyone but the uniquely eager philatelist. However, its finer quirks may prove fascinating to both the intelligentsia and dullards alike. Missile mail, in particular, is worthy of occupying a small nugget of the brain.

It was a cold day in January of 1959 when United States Postmaster General, Arthur E. Summerfield, thought he had stumbled upon a stroke of genius. Not one to dilly dally with such a mental feat, he hastily made a bold and proud statement promising tax-paying citizens that before man reached the moon, “your mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to England, to India or to Australia by guided missiles.” He nearly made his prediction a reality. Just six months later, on June 9, he launched a Regulus I guided missile carrying 3,000 pieces of souvenir mail. High-ranking officials such as President Eisenhower and Supreme Court justices were among the lucky recipients.

Missile Mail

In the late 1950s, the US Post Office attempted to send mail by missile.

“This peacetime employment of a guided missile for the important and practical purpose of carrying mail is the first known official use of missiles by any post office department of any nation,” Summerfield claimed.

Summerfield’s missile was fired from the U.S.S. Barbero submarine 100 miles off the Atlantic coast to a naval air station near Jacksonville, FL. Navy planes guided the missile by radio control to its parachute landing in just 22 minutes. The Postmaster said this novel way of sending birthday cards, pen pal letters, and unwanted junk mail was “of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world.”

Cost-efficiency doomed Summerfield’s plan. But expenses weren’t the only criticism of the high-flying Missile Mail. The day after the launch, the Los Angeles Times observed that the real need for speed was in handling mail before and after transport: “We hopefully look forward to the time when the lines in front of post office windows are jet propelled. Or when rocket belts are issued to those who manage to take a week to deliver a letter mailed within the same city.”

We continue to look forward to such a day.

© Marc Hartzman

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