“I have the means to make myself deadly”

Demonstrably, one thing about the life of the electrical engineer Mark Anthony remains in historical memory. His dates of birth and death don’t seem to be accessible online, but during the years of his floruit, 1909-1911, he is known to history to have been experimenting in New York with what we would now call a radio-controlled drone bomber. About that the online record yields two reprinted newspaper articles. Says Anthony in one of them, from 1909,

This airship of mine
(“Airship to Cross Ocean”)

There are also two 1909 portraits in the Library of Congress’s George Grantham Bain Collection, an archive of news agency photographs. One is captioned “Anthony at transformer,” and it shows a standing man, presumably Anthony, looking down at a table upon which rests a transformer. By analogy with “at bat” or “at the wheel,” the phrase “at transformer” is a dramatis persona in a scene of power and mastery.

The other portrait . . .

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Dark but with a rubbery sheen, the rope-bound object in the background may be what the newspaper article calls “a balloon 22 feet long, with a capacity of 600 cubic feet of gas.” Anthony’s right hand rests on what looks like a compressed-gas cylinder’s hose connection, and it seems to be holding the inflation tube of another balloon, tied off with string. The system looks ready for arming and flight, and the artist who memorialized the event for history bent his name to the masterful arc of the inventor’s shoulder.

A later article about radio control extinguishes the expectation. From Germany in 1911, it reports: “A somewhat similar invention was recently reported from New York, where Mark Anthony, a well-known electrical engineer, offered his device to the United States Government for $125,000. The offer was declined. . . ” But in what Cavafy might have called the days of 1909, an image inflated itself with curves bulging into more curves and then went tense and still, in a waiting phase, at the brink of a moment when the curves might merge, then soar free enclosed in straining rubber, then explode and cause to explode. The balloon, the hat, the nose, and the double beacon of the eyes behind their collimators: all these awaited the unbuttoning of what a poem written in 1911 was to call “My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, / My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin.”

The unbuttoning didn’t take place in 1909, but the readiness was all. In 1912 Vaslav Nijinsky would fuck the nymph’s veil. Two years after that, the term “blow sky-high” would explode into aeronautical meaning.


Title: Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent, chapter 4: “I have the means to make myself deadly, but that by itself, you understand, is absolutely nothing in the way of protection. What is effective is the belief those people have in my will to use the means. That’s their impression. It is absolute. Therefore I am deadly.” “Those people” are the police; “the means” is a bomb in the speaker’s breast pocket, with its detonator button in his hand. I visualize a hand looking like Mark Anthony’s.

The photographs: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014683108/
and http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014683107/. Detail restored with Photoshop, using the Topaz AI Clear plug-in.

The newspaper articles:

Cincinnati Enquirer 4 January 1909, page 6:

The_Cincinnati_Enquirer_Mon__Jan_4__1909 cut 2_


Literary Digest, vol. 43 (26 August 1911), pages 313-14:

Literary Digest combined

Technical: in the destructive element immerse

For perhaps a month now, my May 7, 2012, post about Margaret Bourke-White, “Men’s tools and camera queen,” has been getting multiple clicks every day from sites in Poland. I’d like to believe my prose is appreciated in the land of Mickiewicz, but the actual purpose of the clicks is probably more Conradian.

So I’ve taken the post down. If you actually want to read it, get in touch with me and I’ll send you a PDF.

Mistah Tennyson — he dead

Ten years ago, Wikipedia’s article about Emily Dickinson read like a high school project full of beginner’s mistakes. That’s the Wikipedia problem in general, I would tell my students during the last days of the floppy disc. Sure, Wikipedia is handy. Sure, I use it myself. But you can’t trust it.

But Wikipedia’s crowdsourcing algorithm has kept on doing its relentless eugenic good. Now, in the tablet era, Wikipedia’s article about Dickinson has become as useful an introduction as you’d find in a reputable print encyclopedia. The entire process of reference is evolving through a sequence of change as earnestly, unidrectionally Victorian as the project of “Locksley Hall”:

Men, my brothers, men the workers, ever reaping something new;
That which they have done but earnest of the things that they shall do.

But about those men . . .

Early in 2013, the writer Amanda Filipacchi discovered that her Wikipedia entry had been moved from the category “American novelists” to a brand new category, “American women novelists.” The change seemed to have been the unexamined idea of a single Wikipedia editor (male), and after Filipacchi complained in print she was joined in protest by a number of other writers, female and male. Immediately after that, her Wikipedia article was re-edited in an apparent attempt to trash her into oblivion.


The news brought me back to this memory.

A few years ago I was surprised and gratified to find an article of mine cited in Wikipedia’s article about Ezra Pound. The next time I looked, however, my article was gone. Some time later it was put back, and then it disappeared again. Puzzled, I went searching through the pages reserved for Wikipedia’s editorial use, and that’s when I discovered what men they were who had taken charge of my online reputation.

Well, not exactly men, or at least not men yet. One of the Pound boys had given himself the modest nom de guerre of “Truthtalker” and another, no doubt in the spirit of the Master himself, wrote for the Wikisource as Malleus Fatuorum, “the hammer of fools.” A third boy wanted to call the others’ attention to something interesting from his own experience. He had met several people named Ezra, this boy said, and every one of them without exception was Jewish. So could it be, asked the boy, that Ezra Pound was a Jew?

Well, you know along what river of knowledge these young belated Victorians steam. No, it isn’t the Congo. This is still one of the dark places on the earth, and Mistah Kurtz — he dead. The River Wikipedia is a comment stream, and on its banks its bands of savages still shriek and gesticulate. The only difference is that the old savages lived in grass huts and the new savages live in their mothers’ basements.