The Man Who Was Twice as Big as André The Giant

Of the giants who have roamed the earth, the tallest was Robert Wadlow, standing 8 feet, 11 ½ inches. And while he undoubtedly towered above all other men on the planet, he wasn’t history’s most all-around massive person.

That title would go to Miles Darden (sometimes called Mills). Born in 1799 in North Carolina, Darden reportedly grew to stand 7 feet, 6 inches and weigh just over 1,000 pounds. That’s more than a foot shorter than Wadlow, but more than double his weight.

Or, to better help your imagination, picture André the Giant, but slightly taller and twice as heavy. One Miles Darden equals two giant Andrés.

Like Wadlow, André, and other giants, a malfunctioning pituitary gland likely caused Darden’s abnormal growth.

Miles Darden

No photos of Miles Darden exist. But photos of signs about him do.

A man of this stature would seemingly have left numerous legends of size and strength. Yet, few exist.

Darden lived a quiet and uneventful life. He was a farmer and later in life opened a tavern and inn in Lexington, Tenn.

Many articles from the late 19th century stated that Darden wasn’t exactly proud of his size and refused to step on a scale. His weight, in 1845, was ascertained by a clever and curious group of fellows who waited for Darden to board his specially made two-horse wagon — built with very strong tension springs — in order to measure the distance of the cart’s body to the ground. When Darden was away from the vehicle, they loaded it with stones, or possibly 100-pound sacks of sugar, until the cart lowered to the same distance from the ground. Their crude measurement: 871 lbs.

Of course, he continued to get bigger. Combine his glandular condition and a very hearty appetite, and that’s no surprise. In Every Day in Tennessee History, James Jones claims Darden’s typical breakfast included one dozen eggs, 30 buttered biscuits, a gallon of water and two quarts of coffee.

That’s enough food to feed a family — which he also had to do. It is believed that Darden was married at least twice, with one wife bearing at least three children before passing in 1837. Remarkably, she only stood 4 feet, 11 inches and weighed 98 pounds. His children were also large, but nowhere near the unusual proportions of their father.

Outfitting a man of Darden’s size was no easy task. His coat took 13 ½ yards of fabric to create. It once fit around three 200-pound men with ease — who demonstrated its magnitude by walking through the town square together.

It was said that Darden could single-handedly pull a loaded wagon from a mud hole, whereas normal-sized men couldn’t budge it.

According to Lexington historian, Paul Williams, Darden could overpower a bull and pull him backwards. Williams also recounted a story of Darden saving a man who’d ridden up to his saloon on a horse, nearly frozen to death. Darden lifted him off the horse and carried him inside to warm up and recover.

Pulling wagons from mud and besting bulls in strength are impressive displays of power, but Darden’s greatest feat may have been the one he exhibited every day — simply supporting his enormous frame. Darden lived a long life for someone of his size and remained mobile until his final years.

His colossal size eventually led to his death on Jan. 23, 1857. Doctors stated the cause of death was due to strangulation — rolls of fat around his windpipe prevented him from breathing.

His casket was eight feet long and took 17 men to place him in it.

© Marc Hartzman

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The Man-Bats on the Moon

In 1969, the world witnessed history when Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. But there was a time, many years earlier, when the world was abuzz about men not only walking on the moon — but flying on it as well.

For one remarkable week in 1835, it was believed that an entire race of human-like winged people lived on the moon. It became known as the Great Moon Hoax, and indeed, it was great.

It all began with an article in the Tuesday, Aug. 25, edition of The New York Sun, stating that renowned astronomer Sir John Frederick William Herschel (who named seven moons of Saturn and four moons of Uranus) had observed life on the moon.

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This was not a major scoop by the Sun, it was supposedly a reprint from The Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science. The paper’s readers, however, didn’t know that publication had gone out of business several years earlier. Nor did they suspect that a creative editor, Richard Locke, fabricated every detail.

The findings stated wondrous forms of plant life and wildlife were living happily on the moon. The creatures included a monstrous blue unicorn with a beard like a goat and tailless, but talented, beavers that walked on their hind legs, lived in huts and built campfires.

Additional discoveries were reported each day that week, with a growing readership and word spreading across the country and the globe. It was, as one might expect, a true sensation.

Friday’s edition announced the discovery of the flying humans, dubbed “man-bats.” These alleged four-foot tall beings were covered with short, glossy, copper-colored hair — except for on the face. Their wings were composed of a thin membrane and had no hair.

Herschel’s powerful telescope offered even further details to report:

The face, which was of a yellowish flesh color, was a slight improvement upon that of the large orangutan, being more open and intelligent in the expression, and having a much greater expanse at forehead. The mouth, however, was very prominent, though somewhat relieved by a thick beard upon the lower jaw and by lips far more human than those of any species of the simis genus.

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These short, unattractive flying folks were also quite chatty and expressive with their gestures: “the varied actions of the hands and arms appeared impassioned and emphatic.”

As the excitement spread, there were those ready to take action. One group of women from Springfield, Mass., wrote to Sir Herschel asking how they could help spread the gospel to these pagan man-bats of the moon.

Scientists from Yale University were reportedly sent to the Sun to study a physical copy of the journal. But Locke sent them from one office to another, dodging them until they finally returned to campus as curious as they were before they left.

Although it all sounds ridiculous today, in 1835, knowledge of the moon was lacking and the belief in extraterrestrial life, including lunar life, was commonplace.

In the October 1826 issue of the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, an anonymous author wrote that German astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Matthäus Olbers “considers it as very probable that the moon is inhabited by rational creatures, and that its surface is more or less covered with vegetation,” and that based on observations made through his telescope, fellow German astronomer Franz von Gruithuisen “maintains that he has discovered… great artificial works in the moon, erected by Lunarians.”

Gruithuisen also proposed that because the moon was closer to the sun, its jungles grew faster than those in Brazil and that the Lunarians held fire festivals, which caused the bright caps on Venus.

By the end of that extraordinary week, it was reported that the Herschel’s telescope was clumsily left facing the sun and that a hole had been burned into its reflecting chamber, preventing any further observations of our new winged friends on the moon.

The hoax finally came to light when Locke privately told a fellow writer at the Journal of Commerce, and word traveled to the Sun‘s publisher. The story, however, proved entertaining — and that’s just how people took it. Circulation of the paper remained up in the months that followed.

Locke publicly denied that he’d concocted the entire account himself.

© Marc Hartzman

The Art of Bull Riding

Professional athletes have the good fortune of living out their childhood dreams and making a fortune doing it. But while money is a strong motivator, the best athletes play out of pure passion. Nowhere is this truer than with professional bull riders.

For these men, eight seconds of holding onto a two-thousand-pound bucking beast hellbent on hurling its rider to the ground can feel like a full four quarters, nine innings or longer. Those eight seconds constitute a complete ride.

“It’s almost like a car crash — everything happens so fast, but everything slows down,” explains Luke Snyder of the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) league. “Within eight seconds, so much happens. Two minutes before, the adrenaline kicks in. It’s almost like your body puts in the right amount of adrenaline for the job, to get on a bull and stay on something so big.”

Snyder, 29, started riding bulls as a 9-year-old attending rodeo camp. After three days, he was hooked.

Fellow PBR competitor, 30-year-old Colby Yates, started at age 8. Raised in a family of cattle ranchers, he followed the footsteps of his father and brothers.

Dressed in traditional western attire, these bull riders look like cowboys with a death wish — but there is an art to their sport. Technique is key to both scoring points and simply staying alive.

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According to Snyder, you’ve got to be in sync with the bull, which basically moves in four directions: up, down, left and right. A fast bull can jump 15 times in eight seconds. “It’s like a rocking chair, you want to ride with them,” he described. “But you don’t get too lazy with it.”

Riders must hold onto a rope with one hand while keeping the free hand from touching themselves, the bull or the ground.

Like any sport, physical conditioning is a must. A strengthened core allows the rider to stay in movement with the ever-shifting, spinning, and twisting bull. And staying lightweight gives the bull less to throw.

“There’s so much momentum as he’s bucking, if you’re big, as soon as the bull jumps forward, you’re going to take it,” Yates says. “If you’re 150 vs. 200, there’s a big difference in how the bull throws you. It helps us to be light and quick.”

These PBR athletes have to be just as tough mentally: “It’s really easy to overthink this sport,” Snyder says. “The hardest part is waiting around, riding in your head before you start.”

It should be noted that while these bulls appear to be bucking in fury, they aren’t angry. Contrary to popular belief, nothing is done prior to the ride to anger the animal.

The buck is simply bred into them. Professional bulls are like racehorses, descending from long lines of buckers. To help encourage kicking and to bring out a bull’s full potential, a flank rope is tied around the bull’s waist, just loose enough to make him think he can get it off, but tight enough to stay on.

With individual values nearing one million dollars, hurting them is the furthest thing from anyone’s minds.

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“Owners treat them like family,” Snyder says. “Some are treated better than kids. Some won’t drink anything but bottled water and are fed strict diets.”

And it would seem the bulls actually enjoy the sport. According to Yates, the various bulls often exhibit their own personalities.

“One used to do a victory lap after bucking guy off. Another, Little Yellow Jacket, would buck the guy off, then turn and pose — he was one of the greatest ever,” he says.

Points are scored based on the time they remain on the bull, along with the form and style presented during the ride. It must appear that the rider is in complete control. An eight-second ride which appears effortless can earn 50 points. The bull is then also scored based on his aggressiveness, with the potential to also rake in 50 points.

Of course, should the rider make it to eight seconds, he has to dismount. And it’s not like the bull stops to make it easy.

“You gotta ease up and find a good spot to get bucked off. You stop trying and they take care of the rest,” Snyder says.

Three bullfighters assist the riders once they’ve hit the ground. They have the important and ridiculously dangerous job of distracting the bull so it doesn’t chase the rider as he makes his getaway.

“They’re the toughest people I’ve ever met,” Yates says.

“They help 40 people a night,” Snyder adds. “We do it once a night.”

While they both admire the bullfighters’ toughness, theirs can’t be overlooked. Snyder and Yates have broken nearly every major bone in their bodies — including the neck.

“But we always can’t wait to get back,” Yates says. “We’ll cut corners to get back quicker.”

Some injuries, such as a shoulder rotator cuff surgery, can keep them out of action for 6 months; others 2-3 weeks. If it’s a minor injury, like a groin pull or a dislocated shoulder, they don’t bother taking any time off.

“You can fight through that,” says Yates, who claims he’s endured at least 38 concussions. “It’s no candyass sport. It’s something you gotta toughen up to go with.”

Clearly, the injuries don’t give them second thoughts about their sport. “The day you think you should do something else you probably should,” Snyder says. “Because your heart has to be in it. You have to be willing the pay the ultimate price.”

© Marc Hartzman

The Man With Two Mouths

Throughout history, sideshows have given curiosity seekers opportunities to gaze in wonder at people born with something extra — a superfluous something or other.

Francesco Lentini, for example, traveled for decades in the early 20th century as the Three-Legged Wonder. He also had a fourth foot and a second set of genitals.

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Laloo, billed as “The Handsome Healthy Hindoo” was born in 1874 with a parasitic twin protruding from his torso. It had two arms, two legs, and a functioning penis. Fortunately, it could not defecate.

And there have been numerous people born with extra people attached to them — Chang and Eng Bunker being the most famous. The brothers, born in Siam 200 years ago, were joined at the chest by a ligament and the reason we have the term “Siamese twins.” Together, they made a fortune and eventually married two sisters and fathered 22 children (none were twins).

But in November of 1887, New York’s Bowery area featured a most unusual attraction with an extremely rare extra: a second mouth.

He was Otto Tolpefer, the Man with Two Mouths.

Tolpefer was born with a bonus mouth located just below the chin. The blonde, smooth-faced Tolpefer sat on a platform drinking water with one mouth and simultaneously smoking a cigarette with the other. When speaking, he used the top mouth and closed the second one with his fingers.

New York Times reporter covering the act described his speech as poor, because “the tracheal bellows gives his voice a strange and unreal whispering sound like that of a sexton at a funeral.” The second mouth was unable to speak or eat and was fitted with brass lips. He would shut it with his finger when talking with the upper mouth.

The reporter further remarked that “Otto is not a pleasant object to gaze at excessively, and as a wall decoration he would not succeed.”

An additional comment stated, “The two-headed cow, who felt quite badly when he came, has become reconciled after watching his performances.”

Little else is known about Tolpefer. There are no further reports of his appearances, his adventures later in life, or even what he had to say in response to the New York Times reporter’s vivid descriptions.

© Marc Hartzman

Olympic Tug of Warriors

Tug of War is a staple of gym class, where heavy kids are heroes and skinny kids are picked last. But its origins lie far outside the schoolyard, dating back to ancient Egyptians and Chinese competing in what was considered a royal sport. More recently, Tug of War warriors competed for the glory of Olympic gold medals. In 1900, the rope made its Olympic debut in Paris, featuring teams of eight competitors. Victory was achieved by pulling the opponent’s side of the rope past a designated marking.

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Tug of War clubs entered these Olympic battles, as opposed to individual countries. This meant one nation could win multiple medals, which is exactly what happened in 1904 when three teams of burly men from the United States dominated the opposition and took home gold, silver and bronze medals. Great Britain achieved the same feat in 1908, but it wasn’t without dispute. Their first years of superiority was quite controversial. One of Britain’s three teams was made up of Liverpool police, who, the United States alleged, wore illegal footwear. According to the official Olympic Tug of War rules: “No competitor shall wear prepared boots or shoes with any protruding nails, tips, sprig, points, hollows, or projections of any kind. No competitor shall make any other way before the start.”

While the Americans abided the rules of the shoes, their counterparts across the pond did not. According to an account of the affair: “They were wearing enormous shoes, so heavy in fact that it was only with great effort that they could lift their feet from the ground.” The manager of the American team protested the obscene footwear, but Olympic officials stated that Liverpool policemen typically wore such big, heavy clunkers. (Clearly, these policemen did not have a lot of chasing to do, which must have left them plenty of time to practice rope tugging.) Sure enough, Liverpool’s feet dug into the turf, anchored them in place, and led to an easy victory.

By the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, Great Britain and its shoe shenanigans had yanked more rivals than any other country, earning five medals in total to prove itself the king of the rope. And jokers in sportsmanship.

© Marc Hartzman

Raining Cats and Dogs — and Frogs

In times of torrential rain, it is quite probable that some feeble-minded fellow or garrulous gentleman searching for small talk will express its volume in terms of cats and dogs. However, such foolish and juvenile hyperbole opens the window to discuss a slimier, jumpier creature that has in fact fallen from the skies. The frog, by several accounts, has in fact rained upon land.

The most recent case of frog rain was in 2005, when thousands of the web-footed creatures descended upon on a Serbian village. Fearful residents thought the world was coming to an end.

Science, however, reared its rational head and offered a more suitable explanation: a whirlwind had simply sucked up the frogs from a nearby body of water and carried them toward the village where they finally fell to the ground.

The frogs occasionally survive such storms. Serbian witnesses said the little amphibians looked startled at first, then returned to their normal behavior. Just like the poor people they landed on.

In July of 1901, Minneapolis, Minnesota, suffered a frog downpour. A newspaper reported: “When the storm was at its highest… there appeared as if descending directly from the sky a huge green mass. Then followed a peculiar patter, unlike that of rain or hail. When the storm abated the people found, three inches deep and covering an area of more than four blocks, a collection of a most striking variety of frogs… so thick in some places [that] travel was impossible.”

Whirlwinds are powerful enough to pick up other creatures as well. London received a frog shower in 1998. And in 2004, it rained fish in Wales. Two years later India also got a fish shower.

In 1989, a light shower in Ipswich, Australia sprinkled about 800 sardines on a couple’s front lawn.
Worms and squid have also been scooped up and dropped onto unsuspecting homes. But cats and dogs? Nonsense.

© Marc Hartzman

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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