Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

10 FEBRUARY, 2014

We Are Singing Stardust: Carl Sagan on the Story of Humanity’s Greatest Message and How the Golden Record Was Born

By:

“We [are] a species endowed with hope and perseverance, at least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos.”

In 1939, just before his fifth birthday, Carl Sagan visited the New York World’s Fair, where he marveled at the Time Capsule evincing the fair’s confidence in the future — a hermetically sealed chamber, filled with newspapers, books and artifacts from that year, buried in Flushing Meadows to be revisited in some far-off future era by a future culture very different from and curious about the present. “There was something graceful and very human in the gesture, hands across the centuries, an embrace of our descendants and our posterity,” Sagan writes in Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record (public library) — the fascinating chronicle of how, in the early fall of 1977, he and a team of collaborators imbued a similar time capsule with even greater hopefulness of cosmic proportions and sent it into space aboard the Voyager spacecraft as humanity’s symbolic embrace of other civilizations. On it, they set out to explain our planet and our civilization to another in 117 pictures, greetings in 54 different languages and one from humpback whales, and a representative selection of “the sounds of Earth,” ranging from an avalanche to an elephant’s trumpet to a kiss, as well as nearly 90 minutes of some of the world’s greatest music.

Sagan, in his characteristic eloquence, writes of the motivation, offering a poetic, humbling, and timelier than ever reminder of just how misplaced our existential arrogance is:

The coming of the space age has brought with it an interest in communication over time intervals far longer than any [of our predecessors] could have imagined, as well as the means to send messages to the distant future. We have gradually realized that we humans are only a few million years old on a planet a thousand times older. Our modern technical civilization is one ten-thousandth as old as mankind. What we know well has lasted no longer than the blink of an eyelash in the enterprise of cosmic time. Our epoch is not the first or the best. Events are occurring at a breathless pace and no one knows what tomorrow will bring — whether our present civilization will survive the perils that face us and be transformed, or whether in the next century or two we will destroy our technological society. But in either case it will not be the end of the human species.

He also reminds us that our existence is a cosmic accident and our lives are shaped by chance encounters, but that’s precisely what makes it all — what makes us — valuable:

There will be other people and other civilizations, and they will be different from us. Our civilization is the product of a particular path our ancestors have followed among the vagaries of historical alternatives. Had events of the distant past taken a slightly different turn, our surroundings and thought processes, what we find natural and hold dear, might be very different. Despite our every sense that things should of course be the way that they are, the details of our particular civilization are extraordinarily unlikely, and it is easy to imagine a set of historical events which would have led to a rather different civilization. . . . This lack of historical determinism in the details of a civilization means that those details are of extraordinary value, not just to professional historians but to all who wish to understand the nature of culture. I think it is this respect for the integuments of a civilization that, above all other reasons, make us sympathetic to the enterprise of time capsuling.

As for the obvious question of how arrogant it seems to assume that if other civilizations exist — something most scientists agree has a high likelihood given the vastness of the cosmos — they would be similar enough to us to be able to interpret our messages, Sagan offers some optimistic rationale:

There is an argument — perhaps it is only a hope — that we might be able to communicate with representatives of such exotic civilizations, because they, like we, must come to grips with the same laws of physics and chemistry and astronomy. The composition of a star and its spectral properties are not fundamental impositions that scientists have made on nature, but rather the other way around. There is an external reality that we ignore at our peril, and indeed much of the evolution of the human species can be described as an increasing concordance between the images within our brains and the reality in the external world. Thus, whatever the differences in starting points, there must come to be a gradual convergence in intellectual content and discipline between diverse planetary species.

And so the idea of the Golden Record was born — a piece of communication that captures the essence of our species and our civilization, and transmits it using the era’s best recording technology and spacecraft to possible others out in the unknown. Sagan’s first thought was to improve on the plaques which accompanied NASA’s Pioneer spacecraft, mankind’s first interstellar probes launched in the early 1970s, which contained some scientific information in textual form and “a sketch of two representatives of the human species greeting the cosmos with hope.” To that, Sagan wanted to add some information from molecular biology to represent what we are made of, and some other materials. He gathered together a small group of scientific consultants, each of whom would advise on the contents of the Voyager message. Some of the opinions were wonderfully poetic — B.M. Oliver, vice-president for research and development at Hewlett-Packard, captured the heart of the project beautifully:

There is only an infinitesimal chance that the plaque will ever be seen by a single extraterrestrial, but it will certainly be seen by billions of terrestrials. Its real function, therefore, is to appeal to and expand the human spirit,and to make contact with extraterrestrial intelligence a welcome expectation of mankind.

Meanwhile, beloved sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke — who was highly invested in space exploration and had participated in a historic conversation on the subject with Sagan some years earlier — phoned in from Sri Lanka and recommended that the plaque contain the following message, intended as a statement of hope that our civilization would go on long enough for the message to be read:

Please leave me alone; let me go on to the stars.

The original proposal to NASA included this photograph of two nude human beings, which Sagan and his team selected meticulously as a non-offensive image 'neither sexist, pornographic, nor clinical,' to show potential recipients how our bodies look. NASA, however, refused to include it due to fear of potentially negative public reaction. But Sagan and this team decided to keep the silhouette of the picture in the package, feeling strongly that it represented an essential part of who we are and how reproduce.

As more suggestions rolled in, it became clear that the capsule should contain more than scientific information — it should include, rather, a full-spectrum view of humanity, including our artistic footprint. But that would require a recording technology for encoding text, image, and audio, as a visual plaque would no longer suffice. Around the same time, Sagan realized that 1977 was the 100th anniversary of Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph. 1977 was also the year when Peter Goldmark, inventor of the long-playing record, perished in a tragic car-crash. Thanks to this bittersweet symmetry and the suggestions of his technological advisors, Sagan decided to encode humanity’s message on a record. And thus the Golden Record was born. He considers the less obvious but no less important reason for this choice, one that honors the notion that emotion is at the heart of human creativity and the intellect alone is never enough:

I was delighted with the suggestion of sending a record for a different reason: we could send music. Our previous messages had contained information about what we perceive and how we think. But there is much more to human beings than perceiving and thinking. We are feeling creatures. However, our emotional life is more difficult to communicate, particularly to beings of very different biological make-up. Music, it seemed to me, was at least a creditable attempt to convey human emotions. Perhaps a sufficiently advanced civilization would have made an inventory of the music of species on many planets, and by comparing our music with such a library, might be able to deduce a great deal about us.

There was another reason for music, too: Because of music’s highly mathematical quality and the fact that scientists believe mathematical relationships hold up for all cultures, philosophies, biologies, and planets, this universality would suggest, as Sagan puts it, “that much more than our emotions are conveyed by the musical offerings on the Voyager record.”

Once the idea was conceived, the first set of challenges were technical. An ordinary vinyl record is made by pressing the vinyl from a mold made of a copper and nickel positive material called “mother.” A vinyl record would be vulnerable to erosion in space, but the “mother” would be considerably less so. But because nickel is ferromagnetic, it would interfere with the fine-tuned magnetic field detection experiments of the Voyager. So Sagan decided that a copper mother would be needed and reached out to the vice-president of RCA Records to help with the technical development of the record.

The Golden Record

But another technical challenge was that, limited by the compression technology of the time, they could only fit around 27 minutes of playing time on each side of a record to be played at a standard 33 1/3 revolutions per minute. One side would be musical, and the other graphical, containing pictures. That immediately put enormous pressure on them as to the selection of the music, given the space afforded was “barely enough for two movements of a single symphony.”

Once again, Sagan enlisted a team of advisors, including various musicologists, conductors, musicians, scholars, and the writer Ann Druyan, with whom he’d go on to fall in love over the course of the project and spend the rest of his life. Among them was the famed 20th-century folk music field collector Alan Lomax, who had spent decades building a classified library of virtually all recorded musical styles in the world. He became a major influence that shaped the Golden Record’s truly global sound. Sagan recalls one of his first encounters with Lomax:

When Lomax first played Valya Balkanska’s soaring Bulgarian shepherdess’ aria for Ann, she was moved to spontaneous dance. “Do you hear that, honey?” he drawled, grinning and leaning forward. “That’s Europe. That’s the first people who had enough to eat.”

[…]

We are particularly grateful to him for his help in broadening our transcultural musical perspectives, as well as in substantially enhancing the beauty of the Voyager’s musical offerings.

Eventually, Sagan and his collaborators brainstormed a way to increase the storage capacity: They had a record designed for 16 1/3 revolutions per minute, which would decrease the fidelity slightly, but would more than triple the length to a total of nearly 90 minutes, which Sagan felt would let them “at least approach doing some justice to the range, depth and magic of the world’s music.” But by the time the technical challenge had been solved, the launch date of the Voyager had drawn alarmingly near, which made the decision about what to include all the more overwhelming. Sagan offers a taste of just how dizzying that process was:

There is obviously no best answer about what music to send to the stars; there are as many answers as there are people who attempt to make such a decision.

[…]

There were long debates on Gregorian chants, Charles Ives and Bob Dylan (would the music stand if the words were incomprehensible?); whether we should include more than one Bulgarian or Peruvian composition; an Apache lullaby (and the role of Apaches among Native Americans); the definition of Near Eastern music; whether to include music performed by alleged Nazi sympathizers; whether to include music performed by Pablo Casals, whose spirit we very much admired but whose records were of poor quality; which version of the Second Brandenburg Concerto. . . .

They even brushed up against the absurdities of copyright:

We wanted to send “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles, and all four Beatles gave their approval. But the Beatles did not own the copyright, and the legal status of the piece seemed too murky to risk.

And yet beneath all the madness lay a heartening allegory for the spirit of the project, best captured in this anecdote by Ann Druyan:

Robert Brown [the executive director of the Center for World Music in Berkeley] had placed Surshri Kesar Bai Kerkar’s “Jaat Kahan Ho” at the top of his list of world music for outer space. It was an old recording that had recently gone out of print. After hunting through a score of record stores without any success, I phoned Brown and asked him to suggest an alternative raga.

He refused.

“Well, what happens if we can’t find a copy of this one in time to get it on the record?” I pleaded. We had three more days in which to complete the repertoire. I was terribly worried that Indian music, one of the world’s most intricate and fascinating traditions, might not be represented.

“Keep looking,” he told me.

When I phoned him the following day after a series of very unrewarding conversations with librarians and cultural attachés, I was desperate.

“I promise I’ll keep looking for ‘Jaat Kahan Ho,’ but you’ve simply got to give me the name of a piece that we can fall back on. What’s the next best thing?

“There’s nothing close,” he insisted. “Keep looking.” The other ethnomusicologists we had been consulting told me to trust him. I started phoning Indian restaurants.

There’s an appliance store on Lexington Avenue in the Twenties in New York City that is owned by an Indian family. Under a card table with a madras cloth thrown over it sits a dusty brown carton with three unopened copies of ‘Jaat Kahan Ho.’`” Why I want to buy all three occasions a great deal of animated speculation on the part of the owners. I fly out of the shop and race uptown to listen to it.

It’s a thrilling piece of music. I phone Brown and find myself saying thank you over and over.

Nearly every challenge was resolved in a similarly heartening way, but nowhere more so than when it came to the eternal see-saw of greed and altruism. When RCA realized that only one song from the final selections was recorded by RCA Victor, they refused to be of further help with producing the record. Sagan and his team had chosen the music without any reference to label or manufacturer, but realized many of the selections came from Columbia Records, so they reached out to the label for help. After the greedy RCA letdown, a much-needed restoration of faith in the human spirit presented itself when the president of Columbia enthusiastically backed the project. Sagan writes with equal parts humor and humility:

It is not as easy as you might think to attract the attention of the president of a major competitive commercial record company on short notice for any enterprise, much less for volunteering corporate resources to send a record to the stars where, even if there are many potential listeners, no impact on corporate profits is likely to be made, at least in the near future. But, eventually, CBS Records, entirely as a public service, secured all the releases, mixed the music, greetings and sounds, and cut the wax masters from which the metal mothers are made. Worldwide releases were obtained in an unprecedentedly brief time. Since there was no way for CBS Records to increase corporate earnings from this project, their cooperation, although in some quarters reluctant, was on the whole truly remarkable.

(One has to wonder whether such selflessness could be expected of today’s increasingly avaricious commercial recording industry.)

The next challenge was of the bureaucratic kind. In addition to the music, Sagan and his team had decided to include a simple greeting in spoken human language. To keep it globally representative, they decided to have a “Hello” in a few dozen languages and figured approaching the United Nations would be the best way to secure the greetings. Sagan had just given an address on space exploration at the UN General Assembly the previous year and had kept in touch with some members of the UN Outer Space Committee, so he used the connection to ask for the greetings. But he was told that the Committee couldn’t itself initiate any “action,” which was only possible for the national delegations. The American Mission to the United Nations was in charge of those, but it would only act if instructed by the State Department, which would only act if so requested by NASA. The Catch-22 was that at that point, NASA hadn’t even formally agreed to include the record on the Voyager, and the State Department needed firm assurance that UN greetings would be included in order to initiate the “action.”

This, in other words, is what happens when a government is a string of middle-managers and bureaucrats whom humanity is supposed to trust for representation.

So Sagan proposed a solution: A recording studio would be set up for a couple of days at the UN Headquarters in New York, and a delegate from each member nation would drop in to record the coveted “Hello” in his or her language. “Her” turned out to be another point of challenge, and one tragically similar today: Sagan wanted an equal number of male and female voices, in order to represent the gender balance of Earth, but was quickly informed that “virtually all the chiefs of delegations were male, and it was unlikely that they would delegate the privilege of saying ‘Hello’ to the stars to anyone else.” (The male ego, indeed, is of cosmic proportions.) Other concerns were raised about what happens if a delegate is not in New York and further bureaucracy ensued. Sagan recounts with amused exasperation:

What is more, the Outer Space committee would have to vote on whether to say “Hello,” and its next meeting was to be in Europe in late June. I explained that even if greetings from the Outer Space Committee were desirable, the launch schedule of Voyager would not permit such a dilatory pace. Could we not, I was then seriously queried, postpone the Voyager launch?

Eventually, they plowed forward with a selection of 55 languages not even remotely representative of Earth. But when the delegates showed up at the UN Headquarters, it quickly became clear that none was satisfied with a simple “Hello” and each wanted to make a speech. Some read poetry from their home nation. Others spoke in Esperanto, the now-defunct “universal language.” The Nigerian delegate included the following endearing sentence:

As you probably know, my country is situated on the west coast of the continent of Africa, a land mass more or less in the shape of a question mark in the center of our planet.

Despite Sagan’s best efforts to keep the project away from the press during the time of the recording, the United Nations, unbeknownst to him, had issued a press release announcing the recording session. The next day, Sagan also discovered that Kurt Waldheim, Secretary General of the United Nations, had made a recording himself. Though the team never requested it, “the speech was so sensitively and gracefully composed, and so appropriate in its sentiments” that they felt they must include it:

As the Secretary General of the United Nations, an organization of 147 member states who represent almost all of the human inhabitants of the planet Earth, I send greetings on behalf of the people of our planet. We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate. We know full well that our planet and all its inhabitants are but a small part of the immense universes that surrounds us and it is with humility and hope that we take this step.

Since they were including the Secretary General’s message, Sagan thought it appropriate to at least give the President of the United States the opportunity to contribute one as well. To his surprise and delight, President Jimmy Carter eagerly complied, electing to have his message — one of breathtaking optimism — as text rather than audio:

This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.

But the most eloquent and moving encapsulation of the spirit of the Golden Record comes from Sagan himself, who extracts from the adventure in musicology a beautiful metaphor for the essence of the project in reflecting on a “charming and powerful tradition” in Javanese gamelan music, which they serendipitously discovered over the course of the research:

There is, it is said, a kind of spirit music in the world, continuously but silently playing. When a gamelan orchestra performs, it is merely making audible the present movement of the music of eternity. Perhaps all of the Voyager record can be viewed similarly — as a local and momentary expression of cosmic discourse, and exchange of greetings and music and information among diverse galactic species that has been in progress for billions of years.

Billions of years from now our sun, then a distended red giant star, will have reduced Earth to a charred cinder. But the Voyager record will still be largely intact, in some other remote region of the Milky Way galaxy, preserving a murmur of an ancient civilization that once flourished — perhaps before moving on to greater deeds and other worlds — on the distant planet Earth.

In the epilogue to Murmurs of Earth, which is an absolutely wonderful and priceless piece of cultural heritage, Sagan reflects on the legacy of the Golden Record:

One thing would be clear about us: no one sends such a message on such a journey, to other worlds and beings, without a positive passion for the future. For all the possible vagaries of the message, they could be sure that we were a species endowed with hope and perseverance, at least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

10 FEBRUARY, 2014

How Apple Went from Underdog to Cult in Six Design and Innovation Strategies from the Early Days

By:

“Apple had to make real the dreams people didn’t know were dreamable.”

In 1982, Apple hired German-American industrial designer and inventor Hartmut Esslinger to overhaul the company’s design strategy. He created the Snow White design language, which would come to define Apple, and turned the Silicon Valley underdog not only into a global force of design and innovation, but also into a singular culture — an aesthetic cult, even. Esslinger’s design work went on to be included in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum and the MoMA. When Jobs resigned from Apple in 1985 after a power struggle and founded NeXT — the logo for which another iconic designer created — Esslinger joined him. When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 as interim CEO, Esslinger followed and was tasked with advising Jobs on a strategy for lifting Apple out of its sunken market position and establishing the company as a true leader of innovation in technology and design.

In Keep It Simple: The Early Design Years of Apple (public library) — a first-of-its-kind collaboration between Esslinger and Jobs, chronicling the gestational period of Apple’s greatness in more than 380 photographs and illustrations — Esslinger shares the six recommendations he made to Jobs in 1997. What’s striking about them isn’t only how prescient they are — from cultural phenomena that Apple didn’t capitalize on directly, like social networks, robotics, and augmented reality, to specific technologies that Apple brought to market, like Siri, AppleTV and the iPhone — but also how clearly they map onto the strategies of countless contemporary startups that have attempted to copy, with varying degrees of success, Apple’s aesthetics and ethos.

Esslinger itemizes the strategy:

  1. Make Apple’s design a game changer again … by returning to the classic values of “simple is best,” invigorating the products through fresh ideas, and re-focusing the overstretched product lineup.

    (Jonathan Ive’s and Thomas Mayerhoffer’s sensational iMac design would become the urgently needed game changer, and Jonathan Ive also would reconnect Apple’s design approach to its Snow White roots. Steve made the right move and had Jonathan Ive working as an Executive Vice President directly with him. Again, leadership in design was at the top, and ranked equally with all other top executives at Apple. . . . There is no other way to make design the core of a human-centric company.”

  2. Make peace with Microsoft and Bill Gates. The Macintosh platform had been eroded to low single-digits market share, and Apple needed to tap into the life-saving software suite, Microsoft Office. Therefore Steve had to repair Apple’s relationship with Microsoft. In the “peace talks” that followed, Bill Gates actually came to Steve’s family home in Palo Alto and, during several walks around the block the two men forged the beginnings of a working relationship. Afterward, Microsoft invested $50 million in Apple. The announcement of their alliance at the MacWorld conference in Boston was greeted with boos from Apple’s die-hard fans, but both the alliance and Microsoft’s support built trust in the marketplace — and helped Apple’s battered balance sheet.
  3. Make Apple a leader in “digital consumer technology” by converging “consumer electronics” into digital technology and media content. Convergence already was a reality; computing and communication were converging, along with media content from information to music to movies, with the Internet and the Worldwide Web providing an asynchronous distribution platform. Within the new marketplace these advancements were creating, Steve’s biggest concern was Sony, [which], as a leader in micro-electronics that also owned Sony Music and Sony Studios, could be Apple’s most dangerous competitor. But … Sony was asleep at the wheel, as was Samsung and a number of mobile phone companies such as Motorola and Nokia, who were expected to move into the emerging market of universal digital convergence. These companies made good and well-designed products, but they didn’t understand that they actually were putting computers into people’s hands, which could enable them for a totally new experience and culture. . . . We advised Steve to take on the competition with a product strategy focused on people’s real needs and proven innovations — a strategy that would avoid stupid risks. Instead of looking for inspiration in the developments of its existing and potential competitors in the space of consumer technology — whether Dell, HP, Motorola, Nokia, Sony, Samsung, Canon, or others — Apple needed to focus on creating new ways to exploit the potential of proven technology to fulfill people’s unrealized dreams. In fact, Apple had to make real the dreams people didn’t know were dreamable.
  4. Create a Virtual Apple “community.” By connecting its customers, followers and fans and enabling them to communicate with each other, Apple could establish its brand beyond technology, as part of a lifestyle. In that environment, innovation would be defined by what people could achieve with an Apple product, rather than by the product’s level of advanced technology.
  5. Out-innovate and integrate television, audio and communication into a new paradigm. We projected that digital technology was going to replace analog line-interlace standards in television (NTSC, SECAM and PAL) and so Apple should create its magic and put away with the primitive user interfaces that still reigned in those technologies. Sound had already made the digital leap, both in 44.1KHz CDs and 92KHz PCM tapes.
  6. Explore and pioneer smart physical-virtual devices and useful robotics. We encouraged Steve to make Apple interfaces “human,” with controls activated by gestures, speech and emotional sounds. We also recommended that Apple form strategic partnerships for co-creation with MIT and other top universities around the world with programs in mechatronics, nano technology and advanced brain research.

It’s easy to see how this foundational vision shaped Apple’s output, both creative and cultural, in decades to come. Esslinger adds a note on the toxic cultural conceit that doing well and doing good are somehow diametrically opposed, a myth perhaps most famously discredited-by-example in the story of Jim Henson. Esslinger writes:

Yes, Steve also achieved stunning financial success, but it is his cultural contribution that makes his life story truly unique. Apple, like no other company, has brought world-class design and pristine branding to a new mass market — a market it actually created. And Steve takes his place in that small and exceptionally rare collection of entrepreneurs such as James Watt, Henry Ford, Robert Bosch, Thomas Watson Jr. and Walt Disney, who converted a technological revolution into a humanistic vision — one that resulted in fundamental social and cultural change. Nobody can copy the genius of Steve Jobs, but … what might this world be like if all of us followed his advice to “stay hungry and foolish”?

Keep It Simple, which follows Esslinger’s Design Forward, is an excellent read for anyone interested in the history of innovation and in design as a force of culture and commerce. Hear Esslinger discuss his collaboration with Jobs, including the secret to resolving disagreement, in this excerpt from Debbie Millman’s altogether fantastic Design Matters interview with the design legend:

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

07 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Dreadnought Hoax of Febraury 7, 1910: Virginia Woolf Pranks the Royal Navy in Drag and a Turban

By:

How a small group of literary twenty-somethings pulled off “the most daring hoax in history.”

On February 7, 1910, six friends pulled off one of the greatest pranks in history — on the Royal Navy, no less. Among them was Virginia Woolf — at the time still Virginia Stephen, an unpublished twenty-eight-year-old aspiring author — wearing drag and a turban. It’s a remarkable story about privacy and security, about poking fun at society’s ideas about bravery and authority, and perhaps above all about how relative our moral codes for justice and injustice are. It’s also a timeless fable of how, even a century before the age of clickbait, the popular press that claims Truth is its currency is complicit in the success of any hoax.

To this day, the only first-hand account of the prank is The ‘Dreadnought’ Hoax (public library), written by Adrian Stephen, Virginia’s brother and a member of the Bloomsbury Group, who co-initiated the operation along with the famed British prankster and poet William Horace de Vere Cole. The slim memoir was originally published in 1936 by Hogarth Press, co-founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and reprinted in 1983 with an introduction by Virginia’s nephew and official biographer Quentin Bell, with whom she had collaborated on a charming family newspaper and who went on to become a cultural critic in his own right. Bell writes of the hoax:

It was a nine days wonder; it was noticed and embroidered in the press, it resulted in questions in Parliament, it is said to have led to a revision of the security regulations of the Royal Navy. It was a source of endless merriment and some indignation. … The only merit of the plan, in so far as there was a plan, lay in its pure lunatic audacity.

Virginia Woolf in drag as Ethiopian royalty

But a few things make the story particularly noteworthy, besides the disarmingly entertaining image of Woolf in turban, beard, and brownface and the fact that it brought the eventually-famous author her very first contact with the national press. It is, above all, a curious parable of moral psychology and how we rationalize our subjective sense of justice and injustice. It also sparks a strange dual awareness of, on the one hand, how hoaxes today are so much easier to propagate thanks to the churnalism of the social web and, on the other, how impossible it would be to pull off something like this in our present era of TSA-style mega-security. (Even Bell, decades before 9/11, writes wryly: “We have all grown more solemn and serious and ‘security conscious’ and a part of the fun went out of life after [World War I].”)

The story itself is an absolute hoot. It all began in 1905, when Adrian Stephen and Horace Cole were attending Cambridge and, out of boredom, decided to play a little prank. Their initial idea was to acquire some uniforms, impersonate German officers, and march a detachment of troops across the border into France. It was partly pure fun, partly political statement. Stephen writes:

It had seemed to me ever since I was very young, just as I imagine it had seemed to Cole, that anyone who took up an attitude of authority over anyone else was necessarily also someone who offered a leg for everyone else to pull, and of all the institutions in the world that offered a leg for everyone’s pulling the most obvious was the German Army.

'The Sultan of Zanzibar' and his suite. From left to right: Adrian Stephen, Bowen Colthurst, Horace Cole, Leland Buxton, 'Drummer' Howard

But Cole countered with an idea that was “easier and cheaper to carry out”: Since the Sultan of Zanzibar happened to be in England at the time, the duo decided to impersonate him and pay a state visit to Cambridge. They reasoned it was a bad idea to hoax the University, fearing expulsion, so they deemed it safer to hoax the Mayor of Cambridge instead. But because photos of the Sultan had appeared in the newspapers and neither of them looked anything like him, they decided instead to impersonate his imaginary uncle. They got full makeup and costume at a theatrical shop in London and took the train back to Cambridge, first sending a telegram to the Mayor warning him to expect the Sultan’s uncle. Once in Cambridge, they were formally received by the Mayor and even accompanied him on a visit to a charity bazaar, where Cole, as the Sultan’s uncle, proceeded to make “enormous purchases at all the stalls” — proof that pranks are only ever the domain of the privileged.

The hoax was a success — so much so that the Daily Mail ran a story about it, which unfortunately sent an investigator on Stephen and Cole’s trail. Their identities were eventually exposed and they narrowly escaped being expelled from Cambridge.

But their appetites for mischief were now whetted.

It took another five years for their next adventure, but once the perfect opportunity presented itself, the great Dreadnought Hoax commenced.

The idea was first suggested to Cole by a naval officer, who wanted to make a point about the honor of the Navy, but also secretly wished to play a practical joke on another officer, who happened to be a cousin of Stephen’s and the chief command officer on the battleship HMS Dreadnought, the flagship of the prestigious Channel Fleet under Admiral Sir William Wordsworth Fisher’s command. The idea was this:

Cole, Stephen, and a troupe of hoaxers they recruited — which included British soldier and author Anthony Buxton, painter and textile designer Duncan Grant, barrister Cecil Guy Ridley, and Virginia Woolf — would present themselves as the Emperor of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) and his posse and pay a royal visit to inspect the battleship. Cole would pose as a young gentleman from the Foreign Office, Stephen as the interpreter, Buxton as the Emperor, and the rest as his royal suite. Stephen recounts the accouterments:

Horace Cole had just to wear a top-hat and tail coat, but the Emperor and his suite, including Virginia, had to have their faces blackened, to wear false beards and mustaches and elaborate Easter robes. I was merely disguised with a false beard, a mustache, and a little sunburn powder. I wore a bowler hat and a great coat and looked, I am afraid, like a seedy commercial traveler.

'The Emperor of Abyssinia' and his suite. From left to right: Virginia Stephen (Virginia Woolf), Duncan Grant, Horace Cole, Anthony Buxton (seated), Adrian Stephen, Guy Ridley

And so they proceeded just as before: They sent the Admiral a telegram to expect them and set off. On the train, Cole attempted to teach Stephen a few words of Swahili — the only East African language they could find, never mind that it wasn’t spoken in Abyssinia. Stephen could hardly remember more than two words but — for a taste of how deftly newspapers manipulate the “news” — he recounts that several later reported that the group spoke “fluent Abyssinian.”

Once they disembarked the train, a naval officer in full uniform greeted them and the hoax thus began. Stephen speaks to a curious tendency of human nature, which shares a foundation with the psychology of trust and the rationalization of dishonesty:

By the time we reached the Dreadnought, the expedition had become for me at any rate almost an affair of every day. It was hardly a question any longer of a hoax. We were almost acting the truth. Everyone was expecting us to act as the Emperor and his suite, and it would have been extremely difficult not to do so … and we almost, I think, believed in the hoax ourselves.

Still, the dangers of being exposed began rolling in almost immediately. An unexpected one came when Stephen realized that the captain of the ship was someone he knew: They both belonged to a small club that took country walks on Sundays, and they had spent whole days together on several occasions. But thanks to “the naval officers’ proverbial tact” and their cordiality, Stephen wasn’t examined closely enough to be found out, so the inspection of the ship proceeded.

'The Emperor of Abyssinia' and his suite. From left to right: Virginia Stephen (Virginia Woolf), Duncan Grant, Adrian Stephen, Anthony Buxton, Guy Ridley, Horace Cole

A second hazard emerged when the Admiral asked Stephen to translate something about the fleet’s use for “the Emperor,” at which point Stephen’s non-grasp of non-Swahili paralyzed him for a moment. But he recovered swiftly thanks to his education, as he points out with the delightful self-derision that elite schooling tends to engender:

I don’t find it easy to speak fluent gibberish impromptu. . . . I must somehow produce something that would not be too jerky, and too implausible. After a pause I began again as follows: “Tahli bussor ahbat tahl aesque miss. Erraema, fleet use…” and so on. My language may have sounded a bit odd, but at any rate I could be fluent enough. When I was a boy I spent years on what is called a classical education, and now I found a use for it. It was the habit in the middle forms of my school to learn by heart the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid as “repetition” I was able, therefore, to repeat whole stretches of it, and I knew a good deal of Homer in the same way. I was provided by my education, then, with a fine repertory of nonsense and did not have to fall back entirely on my own invention. I had to take care that neither the Latin nor the Greek should be recognized … so I broke up the words and so mispronounced them that probably they would have escaped notice even of the best scholar. The quotation that I started with by the way is from the Aeneid, Book IV, Line 437.

Buxton, meanwhile, was also very quick in picking up some of Stephen’s phrases and using them in his replies as they continued to tour the ship, “inspecting” the equipment and the cutting-edge “wireless room,” the Navy’s pride and joy, which Stephen continued to duly describe to the “Emperor” in a mixture of Homer and Virgil.

Another difficulty arose when the officers, in their extreme hospitality, insisted that the Abyssinians eat and drink at a lavish lunch. The hoaxers, worried that their already deteriorating makeup would falter — “Duncan’s mustache was beginning to peel off,” Stephen notes — cleverly abated disaster by saying that the royal family can only touch food prepared in certain ways. They were equally cunning when a budding breeze and drizzle threatened their makeup. Stephen, with diplomatic subtleness, mentioned to the captain the disparity between the heat of Abyssinian climate and the chill of England. The captain took the hint immediately and escorted the group downstairs.

H.M.S. Dreadnought, 1906-1920

Still, even knee-deep in this epic prank, the hoaxers had a sense of right and wrong when it came to how far they would go. When the Admiral insisted a military salute for the “Emperor,” which required that the ship fire its enormous guns, Stephen thought of how much work the cleaning of the guns would require later and thought it “too much of a shame to cause such unnecessary trouble,” so he refused the salute, passing it off as a grand gesture of benevolence on behalf of the “Emperor.”

The group spent the rest of the day on the ship — the hoax had been a success. On the train back, they devoured their dinner still in costume, thinking that the adventure was over. They had agreed not to tell the newspapers. (Cue in another reminder of how different things were before the age of the social web and ubiquitous smartphone cameras.) But they hadn’t anticipated what happened next. Stephen recounts:

We had a photograph taken of ourselves in our fancy dress as a memento, and one day walking in the street I saw this reproduced on the poster of (I think) the Mirror. I believe that was how I first realized that someone had given the story away, and I have never felt the slightest doubt that it was Cole who did it, and he would certainly never contradict it.

After this we heard nothing more for some time, till one day walking with Cole near the top of Sloane Street, I saw [the Dreadnought captain] and his wife. He saw us, too, and recognized us and pretended at first to be horrified and then to call a policeman. After a second or two, though, he began to laugh and, in fact, took the whole affair in the best of good humors.

But not all officers did. One Sunday morning several weeks later, Stephen’s cousin — whom the naval officers that originated the idea had sought to prank — showed up at Stephen’s house with a grim expression, saying that questions had been asked in Parliament, demanding that Stephen and his co-conspirators apologize, and asking for the names of the others, which Stephen sheepishly provided. It turned out, however, that his cousin was less concerned with the Parliament than with the word on the street: The hoax had gone “viral” in the press and one newspaper published an interview with a man who claimed to have witnessed the Abyssinians’ visit and alleged that they had used the expression “Bunga Bunga.” The phrase quickly became a “meme” of the pre-meme era — it made its way into song lyrics and, to the cousin’s extreme distress, into the mouths of little boys in the streets of the town, who would shout “Bunga Bunga” as a mockery.

Cartoon published in the Daily Mirror, February 1910

The Navy set out to conduct its own revenge on the hoaxers. Cole received a visit from Stephen’s cousin and another naval officer, which turned out at least as comical and absurd as the hoax itself and illustrates, once again, the strange double standards of our moral sense of justice and injustice. Stephen recounts it with the same light-hearted mockery of authority that had inspired the hoax in the first place:

Cole received them in his sitting room, and they announced that they had come to avenge the honor of the Navy. They proposed to achieve this by beating him with a cane. In ordinary circumstances there would probably have been a free fight, and as Cole was pretty formidable, and as his manservant had scented trouble and was waiting outside the door in case he was needed, there is no telling who would have won. There was one thing which complicated matters, though. Cole was only just recovering from an illness which would have made violent exercise rather a serious danger. This was pointed out to the officers, and it put them in a dilemma. This was the third week-end, they said, that they had journeyed up to London to avenge the Navy, and they could not be foiled again. Eventually Cole made a proposal: he would agree to be beaten if he was allowed to reply in kind. This was agreed to, and the whole party adjourned to a quiet back street [where] six ceremonial taps were administered to Cole’s hindquarters, and six ceremonial taps were administer by him in return.

After this the Navy’s honor was at least partly cleared, and the two sides shook hands and parted.

How charmingly British indeed.

The next day, Duncan also received a visit. Per Stephen’s amused account, the officers “asked [him] whether he was ill, fearing [perhaps] a repetition of the night before.” They were also befuddled by the fact that Duncan wasn’t resisting at all — one officer remarked, “He does not put up any fight. You can’t cane a chap like that.” Stephen writes:

In the end it proved that they could cane a chap like that, but only with some difficulty. My cousin was unable to do it himself, but he could order his inferior officer to do so and the inferior officer could carry out his orders. Duncan, then, received two ceremonial taps, also, and the little party broke up. It so happened, though, that Duncan had only his bedroom slippers on, and no hat, and this so distressed the officers that they pressed him to accept a lift home.

“You can’t go home like that,” they said, but Duncan felt it less embarrassing to travel home by tube.

Of course, the story of the avenge is so absurd that it sounds like a Lewis Carroll tale — perhaps we should consider the estimation of myth vs. reality in the context of who is telling the story: a masterful prankster who went on to become a psychoanalyst. But even so, at the end of the book Stephen makes sure his irreverence isn’t misinterpreted and writes rather generously — assuming he is being earnest rather than sarcastic:

I should be so sorry, indeed, if anything I wrote were taken as intended to cast doubts on the bravery of naval officers. These men have very particular feelings on this point. Bravery is as much a matter of professional pride to them as it is the quality of his potatoes to a green-grocer. I should be sorry without the strongest reasons to cast doubts on either.

[…]

As for “revenge,” if [the Navy officers] wanted any they had already had plenty before the hoax was over. They treated us so delightfully while we were on board that I, for one, felt very uncomfortable at mocking, even in the friendliest spirit, such charming people.

As for Woolf, she was spared punishment and rarely mentioned the hoax. She only used it once in her writing, as inspiration for the short story “A Society.” In Virginia Woolf: A Biography, Bell cites a letter his aunt sent to composer and suffragist Ethel Smyth when the Admiral died in June of 1937:

Yes, I’m sorry about William — our last meeting was on the deck of the Dreadnought in 1910, I think; but I wore a beard. And I’m afraid he took it to heart a good deal. . . “

Still, Woolf continued to cherish the fun of it. In 1940, she called it “the most daring hoax in history” as she recounted it in a lecture at the Women’s Institute in Rodmell, the effect of which E.M. Forster captured perfectly in saying that it left the audience “helpless with laughter.” Even so, for Woolf — who challenged and subverted gender norms in both her revolutionary fiction and her private life — there was more to the hoax. Bell writes of his aunt:

She had entered the Abyssinian adventure for the fun of the thing; but she came out of it with a new sense of the brutality and silliness of men.

Surviving copies of The ‘Dreadnought’ Hoax can still be found online and at some public libraries. Stephen’s entertaining and irreverent first-hand account is well worth the read.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.