Mark Twain, Nikola Tesla and the “Irregular” Solution

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By Ken Zurski

Nikola Tesla

Around the same time Nikola Tesla was making waves in America for inventing an alternating current (AC) electrical power source and engaging in a “War of Currents” with his former employer and now adversary Thomas Edison, one of the Serbian-born scientist and engineer’s lesser known laboratory experiments took an unexpected and unusual turn.

It was in the 1890’s and Tesla had perfected what he called the Oscillator, or an AC generator that introduced a reciprocating piston rather than the standard rotating coils to generate power. Tesla used steam to drive the piston back and forth and a shaft connected to the piston moved the coils through the magnetic field. The result was higher frequencies and more current than conventional generators.

He patented this machine and unveiled it to great curiosity at the Chicago World’s Fair. “Mr. Tesla has taken what may be called the core of a steam engine and the core of an electrical dynamo, given them a harmonious mechanical adjustment, and has produced a machine which has in it the potentiality of reducing to the rank of old metal half the machinery at present moving on the face of the globe,” the New York Times raved.


Proving the “mad scientist” was never satisfied with his own work and always tried to improve what he had already achieved, when Tesla returned to his New York lab he attempted to use compressed air instead of steam. He built this on a platform that vibrated at a high rate, driving the piston when the column of air was compressed and then released. Even though it didn’t generate enough electricity to power a lighting system, Telsa was amused nonetheless, especially when he stood on the platform. “The sensation experienced was as strange as agreeable,” he wrote, “and I asked my assistants to try. They did so and were mystified and pleased like myself.”

Only one problem. Each time Tesla or one of his assistants stepped off the platform, they had to run to the toilet room. The reason was obvious, especially to Tesla.  “A stupendous truth dawned upon me. Some of us, who had stayed longer on the platform, felt an unspeakable and pressing becessity which had promptly been satisfied.”

Basically, they had a sudden urge to empty their bowels.

Intrigued, Tesla kept experimenting and ordering his assistants to “eat meals quickly” and “rush back to the lab.” Tesla may have failed in an attempt to upgrade his own machine, he thought, but succeeded in the prospect at least of using electricity to cure a number of digestive issues.

But to be sure, he unsuspectingly enlisted the help of a friend.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain and Tesla were seemingly unlikely acquaintances. In addition to his writing, Twain was a failed inventor, or at least a failed backer of inventions, like the automatic typesetting machine which he poured thousands of dollars into and even more into finding a workable electric motor to power it. Unsuccessful, Twain read about Tesla’s AC steam-powered motor generator and gushed at its simplicity and ingenuity. “It is the most valuable patent since the telephone,” Twain wrote without a hint of his usual sarcasm.

Tesla had sold his invention to lamp maker George Westinghouse’s company which also impressed Twain who lost a sizable portion of his own fortune on the typesetter machine. So at some point the two men met and Twain visited Tesla’s lab. The result is a famous photograph of Twain in the foreground acting as a human conductor of electricity as Tesla or an assistant looms mysteriously in the background. But Tesla fondly remembers helping his friend too. “[Twain] came to the lab in the worst shape,” Tesla recalls, “suffering from a variety of depressing and dangerous elements.”


As the story goes, Twain stepped on the vibrating platform as Tesla had suggested. After a few minutes, Tesla begged him to come down. “Not by a jugfull,” insisted Twain, apparently enjoying himself. When Tesla finally turned the machine off, Twain lurched forward looked at Tesla and pleadingly yelled: “Where is it?”

He was, of course, asking for direction to the toilet room. “Right over there,” Tesla responded chuckling. But Tesla knew he had done Twain a favor. “In less than two months, he regained his old vigor and ability of enjoying life to the fullest extent.”

Of course, Tesla never did patent or market a machine for such a specific purpose and Twain didn’t talk about it, so it’s mostly lost to time, unlike the photograph.  Both men now have an important place in history and numerous books are written about them.  Twain’s recollections are mostly in his own hand. But the story of Twain’s visit to Tesla’s lab and Twain’s resulting step on the oscillating platform is found in Tesla’s versions, not Twain’s.

Perhaps, as one Tesla biographer suggests, it was all a big practical joke, which certainly – and quite remarkably – turns the tables on both men’s reputations considering Twain was the humorist and Tesla the brain.

Despite this, and knowing the outcome, even if it was only intended for a laugh, both men were likely pleased with the results.

But for completely different reasons.

Morton 4








UNREMEMBERED SPORTS: The Kentucky Derby, the First Triple Crown, and You’re in the Army Now

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By Ken Zurski

Sir Barton

Sir Barton is officially the first horse to capture the elusive Triple Crown, a feat that requires winning  three prestigious races as a three-year-old: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Sir Barton did it in 1919, but the distinction was not given until 1948. That’s because at the time there was no award for winning all three races, only accolades for being a good horse.

But all that changed in 1930.

That year, Gallant Fox won each of the three races in a row and the New York Times proclaimed:  “[The jockey] gave all the credit to his mount which by winning the Preakness, Kentucky Derby, and Belmont had equaled the feat of Sir Barton. These two horses are the only ones to win the ‘triple crown.’ ”

That’s the first time, claims the Times, that the words “triple crown” were used in relation to horseracing.

It’s interesting to note that the term has often been ascribed to Charles Hatton, a writer for the Daily Racing Form, who started using “triple crown”’ five years later when Omaha accomplished the same three race sweep as Gallant Fox. “‘Triple Crown’ was a journalistic device,” Hatton later recalled. “It kind of fell out of my typewriter.”

Regardless of who penned the phrase, after Omaha’s victories, the words “Triple Crown” were widely used to describe the three race achievement  – and has been ever since. Later, when the racing board officials went back to assign the very first winner of the Triple Crown, Sir Barton was retroactively given that stature nearly 28 years after accomplishing the feat.

Sir Barton had good bloodlines, but entered the starting gate in Churchill Downs on May 10, 1919 as a maiden, meaning he had never won a race. He was expected to be a rabbit, or a horse that sets the pace for a stablemate horse who presumably has a better chance of winning. Sir Barton’s job was simple: Take the lead, keep a quick pace, and let his stablemate Billy Kelly benefit from a fast time up front and come running hard down the stretch at the end. There was nothing illegal about such a ploy. Both horses had the same owner and were coupled in the betting. But unpredictably reigned supreme that day.  Sir Barton took the lead as ordered, but never relinquished it, beating all eleven horses in the field and capturing the 45th Kentucky Derby by five lengths. “Sir Barton raced into the lead at once and well, ridden, led under restraint until reaching the stretch, where he was shaken up and easily held Billy Kelly safe in the eighth (pole),” the race notes read.

Four days later Sir Barton was entered in the Preakness Stakes and again led all the way. He won another race, the Withers Stakes, before easily taking the Belmont Stakes in New York and setting an American record for a mile-and-three-eighths, the distance for the Belmont at the time (it’s now the longest of the three Triple Crown races at a mile-and-a half). Sir Barton accomplished all this – four victories in all – in just 32 days. Today the time distance between the Kentucky Derby and Belmont is 35 days.

Man O’ War beats Sir Barton in a match race

The following year Sir Barton continued his winning ways, but a match race against another accomplished racehorse Man O’ War effectively ended his career. The contest between the two horses was run on the notoriously hard surface of Kenilworth Park in Windsor, Ontario. Barton, who suffered from hoof problems, never challenged Man O’ War and lost by seven lengths. He was retired to stud after the defeat and although sired several foals who won stake races,  there were no Triple Crown winners in his stock. He was considered a failure in the barn.

So in 1933, at the age of 17, he was enlisted.

Technically, Sir Barton became a “working” horse.

Officially, he had joined the U.S. Army.

The U.S. Army Remount Service was originally a part of the Union Army and began during early days of the Civil War. Its purpose was clear: to train horses for battle. It’s objective obvious: provide all Calvary and artillery units with useful horses. By contrast, on the Confederate side, each participate was asked to bring his own horse.

But there was more confusion than organization at the Union Remount Service depots. No one knew exactly what to do or how to do it. Questions and debates, rather than solutions, kept piling up.  Like how many horses were needed?  What type of training was necessary? Where will the horses come from? And how much would the government pay? Plus, there were staffing issues, poor leadership and as usual with any new institution without historical legalities to back it up– corruption.  But it was useful. Horses were a vital tool in ground warfare and the Remount Service provided quality horses. Each depot could handle between 10-thousand and 16-thousand horses each. There were about a half dozen depots in the country.

The government purchased Sir Barton from a stud farm in Wyoming for just under $500 and assigned the colt to the depot in Nebraska, named Fort Robinson, a makeshift horse farm.

Fort Robinson

What Sir Barton did in the Army is not exactly clear. After the Civil War ended, the Remount Service was used mostly for breeding and not much else. Many horses died in the war and needed to be replaced. So there was a purpose.

When America entered the first World War, the fighting took place overseas so men, not horses, traveled to Europe. The British used horses extensively during the Great War, but they had their own reserves. With nothing to serve and foals outnumbering demand, the U.S Remount Program was finally disbanded in 1948, shortly after the end of World War II.

Sir Barton likely had little do as military horse. He sired horses and was used for training mostly. Also, being a champion racehorse may not have had its advantages either. Sir Barton didn’t have to run fast or beat others, he simply had to work. Most of the horses were thoroughbreds, like Sir Barton, so he fit right in, despite being the only Kentucky Derby winner.

His time in the Army was short, however. He served less than a year before being sold to a Wyoming horseman named Doc Hylton who brought the champion colt back to his ranch for more stud duty.

In 1937, Sir Barton died of colic at the age of 21.

Eleven years later, after being posthumously honored as the first Triple Crown winner, his story became one for the record books.


‘The Paramount Girl’ and the Road Trip to the Movies

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By Ken Zurski

Anita King

On October 19, 1915, Hollywood silent movie actress Anita King pulled into Times Square in New York City and became the first woman on record to drive a touring vehicle solo across the country.

She broke no speed record – 48 days – but was she really trying? Movie giant Paramount Studios sought publicity for the stunt and publicity is exactly what they got. The papers were all over it. “Colorful, convoluted and contradictory” is how one writer described King’s elaborate and perhaps embellished tales from the road.

But it was never boring.

King made stops at over a hundred Paramount theaters and graciously greeted well wishers along the way.  But in between – and for most of the 3,000-plus mile journey – the infectious 30-year old still had to drive long stretches by herself, on paved and unpaved roads, and in all types of weather. In the Sierra Mountains, she recalled, a tramp tried to hitch a ride. “I wouldn’t permit myself to show how frightened I was,” King said. “I handed him a flask of whiskey I had in the car and told him to come to the theater where I was appearing the next night.” He did, according to King, bringing a bouquet of picked flowers with him.

Some of the reports were bleak by design.

King “wilted in the heat,” went one newspaper account.

“She was nearly a goner” read another.

Each story King told reporters seemed to be more extraordinary than the next. In one harrowing incident, just outside of Reno, King tire’s became stuck in the mud. She spent hours trying to shovel them out, but got nowhere. Then suddenly, she was not alone. A “mad coyote” joined her company. “Gee it looked as big as a house,” she explained. “I finally killed him, and knew nothing more until I was picked up by prospectors, who heard the shots of my gun.”

King was born to immigrant parents who settled in Michigan City, Indiana. Her father committed suicide in 1896 when she was 12 years old and only two years after that her mother succumbed to tuberculosis. King was a grief-stricken teenager and an orphan. She moved from Michigan City to Chicago where she found work as a model and actress. In 1908, at the age of 24, she traveled to California and became fascinated with motor vehicles. She competed in a few auto races but after an accident decided to concentrate on her acting career instead. She appeared in a couple of comedic films, bit parts really, but nothing star making.

Jesse L. Lasky

That’s when she heard her boss, motion picture producer John L. Lasky, talking about the Lincoln Highway, the newly opened coast to coast route between San Francisco and New York City that ran through 13 states.

Although it was dedicated in 1913, the road was still a work in progress and Lasky said – perhaps jokingly – that it would be at least ten years before the highway would be in such shape that a lady could make the drive without difficulty.

King chimed in. King could drive a car and she could make the trip now. Seeing the promotional value in the stunt, Lasky was on board telling her he would pay for it and secure a major sponsorship with the Kissel Motor Car Co. for transportation, a machine built for endurance and advertised as “every inch a car” and an “all-year vehicle.” King’s job was to act like a “movie star” and in return, Lasky promised, he would make her one.

King was ecstatic.

Dubbed “The Paramount Girl,” in the papers, King drove the Kissel Kar with a “new set of Firestone tires,” another Lasky sponsor. “There will be nobody with her,” the Los Angeles Times reported, “her only companions will be a rifle and six shooter.”

The trip began appropriately in front of Lasky’s Paramount studios in Hollywood.

When she arrived in New York City, King received a hero’s welcome. She was the honored guest at a ceremonial dinner and shook hands with dignitaries. In typical fashion though, the city’s newspapers, while celebratory, were skeptical too. “Miss King, in spite of being on the road from September 1 to yesterday, had no marks of tan or sunburn,” the New York Sun questioned.  King explained she used grease paint on her face all the time. “I was determined I wouldn’t come into New York City with a red nose,” she said.

The Kissel Kar

King became a darling celebrity and a movie titled ”The Race” starring King and Victor Moore went immediately into production. It was released the following year.

Much to Lasky’s surprise, the film was a disappointment. It got poor reviews and ran for only a week. King’s hailed exploits in the papers, as it turned out, just weren’t as interesting on the silver screen.

King however had fond memories of the groundbreaking trip. In an interview later, she recalled meeting a young girl on the side of the road who had packed a bag and wanted to runaway with King to the movies. From the heart, King gave her a lesson in humility.

“I would give the world to have what you have right there in that home,” she said.

Then King got back in her car, waved goodbye to the little girl, and drove off to her next adventure.

Anita King - Lincoln Highway
Anita King – Lincoln Highway

Why The Legacy Of The Buffalo Is Recounted In Vastly Different Ways

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By Ken Zurski


In Son of the Morning Star, Evan S. Connell’s brilliant but unconventional retelling of the life and death of  George Armstrong Custer, a part of the author’s captivating account is the detailed descriptions of what it would have been like to live, explore and fight in the vast and mostly uncharted territory of the Western Plains.

A land that Custer among others were seeing for the first time.

Custer’s life, of course, ends in Montana at Little Bighorn. But in the context of his story, and examined in Connell’s book, is the role of the country’s most populated mammal at the time: the buffalo.

The human inhabitants had vastly differing opinions on the buffalo, both revered and reviled, but Connell wisely avoids a scurrilous debate. Instead, he gives a fascinating glimpse, based on good research and eyewitness accounts, on what it was like to see the massive herds up close and why they were ultimately decimated. The reasons were just as divided as cultures.

At first the descriptions were formidable. “Far and near the prairie was alive with Buffalo,” Francis Parkman, a writer, recalled after seeing the herds in 1846, “….the memory of which can quicken the pulse and stir the blood.”

Indeed Parkman was right about the prairie being “alive” with buffalo, but unfortunately there is no exact number of how many were in existence before the Calvary arrived. That’s because there was no way to survey the population at the time. Connell doesn’t speculate either, but based on recollections like Parkman’s, others have estimated from 30 million to perhaps as much as 75 million buffalo may have roamed the plains at some point, maybe even more.

“Like black spots dotting the distant swell,” Parkman continued, “now trampling by in ponderous columns filing in long lines, morning, noon, and night, to drink at the river – wading, plunging, and snorting in the water – climbing the muddy shores and staring with wild eyes at the passing canoes.”

The description of herd sizes is nearly incomprehensible. Col. Richard Irving Dodge reported that during a spring migration, buffalo would move north in a single column perhaps fifty miles wide. Dodge claims he was forced to climb Pawnee Rock (Kansas) to escape the migrating animals. When he looked across, the  prairie was “covered with buffalo for ten miles in each direction.”

In 1806, Lewis and Clark, one of the earliest explorers to encounter the massive herds gave an ominous warning. “The moving multitude darkened the whole plains,” Clark relayed.

The sound of the migrating herd was just as impressive as the numbers. The bulky animals each weighed close to a ton each, so when they all galloped, the ground shook. “They made a roar like thunder,” wrote a first settler along the Arkansas River.

The large groupings, however, made it easier to strike them down. And when the killing started, it didn’t stop. In 1874, when Dodge returned to the prairie, he saw more hunters than buffalo. “Every approach of the herd to water was met with gunfire,” he recalled


Killing buffalo became a sport, even for foreigners. Connell reports that The London Times ran ad for a trip to Fort Collins and a chance to kill a buffalo for 50 guineas. Many gleefully went for the adventure, not the challenge. As Connell explains, English lords and ladies came to sit in covered wagons or railway carriages and fire at will. You couldn’t miss.

“Enterprising Yankees turned a profit collecting bones,” Connell wrote, explaining that it was the hide and bones and not the meat they were interested in. “Porous bones were shipped east to be ground as fertilizer; solid bones could be whittled into decorative trinkets – buttons, letter openers, pendants.”

Many settlers not knowing what else to do with a wayward buffalo grazing on their land, just shot it and left it for the wolves to feed. “The high plains stank with rotten meat” Dodge wrote.

“In just three years after the gun-toting Yankees arrived,” Connell soberly relates, “eight million buffalo were shot.”

By the beginning of the 20th century, they were nearly all gone.

The Native Americans killed buffalo too, but it was for survival, not sport. Nearly every part of the animal was used for food, medicine, clothing or tools. Even the tail made a good fly swatter.  According to the Indians, the buffalo was the wisest and most powerful creature, in the physical sense, to walk the earth.  Yet the Indians still played a part in the animal’s near extinction. Large fires were set by tribes in part to fell cottonwood trees and feed the bark to their horses. The massive infernos, some set one hundred miles wide, were necessary to clear land for new grass. Although no one is quite sure, thousands of buffalo and other animals surely perished in the process.

In contrast, Connell includes claims by early pioneers that the Indians were just as wasteful as the “white man” in killing the buffalo, leaving the dead carcasses where they lay, and extracting only the tongues to exchange for whiskey. These reports contradict that of agents stationed at reservations after government agreements were reached. James McLaughlin who was at Standing Rock in South Dakota helped organize mass buffalo killings, but only to stave off starvation, he claims.

Regardless, the difference in attitudes is what may have inflamed tensions between the “palefaces” and the natives.

Col. Richard Irving Dodge

Dodge claims the buffalo were shot because they were “the dullest creature of which I have any knowledge.” Dull meaning stupid in this sense. They would not run, Dodge purports. “Many would graze complacently while the rest of the herd was gunned down.” Dodge says his men would have  to shout and wave their hats to drive the rest of the herd off.

So according to Dodge – and Connell’s book supports this – the buffalo were removed for meager profits and to get them out of the way of railways and advancing troops. This incensed the Indians, especially the Lakota, who in spite of their reliance on the buffalo, had more respect for the embattled “tatanka,” in a spiritual sense.

After all, in comparisons, they named their revered leaders and holy men after the beasts.

Custer knew one.

His name was Sitting Bull.






The Stinking Truth About The Phantom’s Opera House

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By Ken Zurski

(Note: This story was inspired by a 1986 playbill for The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theater in London).

In Paris, around the mid 1800’s, a man named Eugene Belgrand was hired to overhaul a system of underground sewer tunnels that were built nearly five centuries before and while still in use, was in desperate need of repair.

The plan was to make the tunnels more functional in the era of modernized sanitation, which at the time, wasn’t very sanitized at all. That’s because in 19th century Paris, as in other large European cities, waste was still being tossed onto the street, washed away by the rain, and ending up in filthy rivers, like the Seine, where even the shamelessly rich and privileged who strolled the fancy stone walkways of its shore, were appalled.

The old tunnels could still be used, officials determined, but needed reinforcements and additions to be more effective. The French engineer’s task was simple: make it better.

That of course was the practical reason for the upgrade. The more emotional plea came from Parisons who were just plain sick of the consistently putrid smell and squalor conditions. Women especially complained that they were forced to carry parasols all the time for fear of being dumped on from windows above. So Belgrand reshaped the tunnel routes, put in more drains, built more aqueducts, and started treatment plants. Eventually, 2,100 km (1300  miles) of new pipes were installed and the Paris sewer system became the largest of its kind in the world.

But not necessarily the most reliable.

Many of the early tunnels were built tall and wide, but not designed for uniformity. The chutes weren’t long enough or sufficiently sloped enough to keep the flow moving. Victor Hugo in his 1862  novel Les Misérables called the Paris sewers a “colossal subterranean sponge.”  Even improved, the waste would still back up and somebody – or something – had to unclog it. Workers would do their best to dislodge the muck first by hand – usually with a rake. When it was too deep, or wouldn’t budge, dredging boats were used with some success. But when a boat didn’t work, by far the most effective method was using the wooden ball.

Yes, a wooden ball.

The ball was around 5-feet in diameter and resembled a wrecking ball in size, but not nearly as heavy. Constructed out of wood and hollow inside the outside was reinforced with metal for more solidity.


Some mislabeled it an “iron ball,” assuming it was solid throughout, which if true would have been far too cumbersome to move. Several men with ropes could easily lift the wooden ball or pull it into position. With a push the ball was sent careening into a tunnel. (Think of a bowling ball rolling down an alley gutter – only on a much larger scale.)

A London society newsletter in 1887, praised its dependability: “As soon as it comes to a point where there is much solid matter in the sewer it is driven against the upper surface of the pipe and comes to a standstill. Meanwhile the current gathering strength behind it rushes with tremendous force below the ball carrying away all sediment or solid matter and leaving the course clear.” The ball worked well for a time, but eventually its effectiveness wasn’t enough. By the early 20th century, a more streamlined method was deployed that harnessed and released rain water. The increase in the current’s velocity would flush the obstruction away. “The rain which sullied the sewer before, now washes it,” Hugo declared.

The Paris tunnels are still in use today and tourists to the city can visit a museum dedicated to the centuries old system.  Guided tours lead patrons through narrow stairwells and dank rooms as the sound of waste water is heard rushing through the tunnels below. Even the wooden balls are on display.

Paris Opera House

But the Paris tunnels have more history than just collecting and deporting sewerage

When the famous Paris Opera House was built in the 1870’s, architect Charles Garnier’s construction team ran into a problem.  While digging the foundation wall, they hit an arm of the Seine, likely an extension of the tunnel system that led to the river. They tried to pump the water out but it kept coming back. So Garnier designed a way to collect the water in cisterns thereby creating an artificial lake nearly five stories beneath the stage.

It is in this “hidden lagoon” that author Gaston Leroux had an idea for a book that he claims was based on real events. In the story titled Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, a troubled soul named “Erik,” who is grossly disfigured, escapes to the catacombs and the lake below the Opera House. By banishing himself from society, “Erik” became a “ghostlike” figure until a sweet soprano’s voice lures him back to the theater’s upper works.

In the popular musical version that came out many years later, the “Phantom of the Opera” takes his unsuspecting love interest Christine on a gondola ride through the underground lake.

A scenario that if true, would be far less romantic than portrayed in the famous theatrical production.

Whether or not the lake was connected to the tunnels or ran directly from the Seine River, didn’t matter. The result would still be the same. Instead of being mesmerized by the experience as if in a fantasy world, in reality, the lovely Christine would likely be holding her nose, gagging, or worse.

Cue the music.





‘Giant’ Tuba Players Were a Hallmark of Sousa’s Band

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John Philip Sousa

By Ken Zurski

John Philip Sousa, known affectionately as the “March King,” not only composed stirring music for marching bands, he helped define it as well. Disappointed by the sound of the standard B-flat bass tuba – the one with the circular bell opening in front – Sousa sought to make it better. “It was all right enough for street-parade work,” Sousa wrote about the front-facing tuba, “but its tone was apt to shoot ahead too prominently and explosively to suit me for concert performances.”

Sousa had an idea. Why not point the bell of the instrument up rather than forward and let the sound resonate over the top of the band instead. So in 1893, a tuba was modified and manufactured to Sousa’s specifications and the Sousaphone, as it was called, was born.

The original Sousaphone was a huge piece of brass. Weighing in at upwards of 30-plus pounds, it’s circular base wrapped around the player’s shoulder at the top and just below the waist at the bottom. The bell would reach skyward some two feet above the player’s head.

Sousa was pleased. He used the Sousaphone exclusively in concerts. At first, trying just one mixed in with the standard tubas, but eventually replaced them all with Sousaphones.

The new tuba was given an appropriate nickname: raincatcher.

Thanks to Sousa’s ingenious design, the new tuba’s stood out in sound and size. And as it turned out, the men who played the “raincatcher” did too.

Herman Conrad and the first Sousaphone

Whether it was genius ploy by Sousa or just coincidence, at least one Sousaphone player in the band was tall.

In fact, for its time, they were considered very tall.

Herman Conrad was the first to play the Sousaphone. According to sources he stood a whopping “6-foot-6,” although it was more likely 6-foot-4. One ad proclaimed Conrad was a “six foot eight giant!”

When Conrad left the band, John W. Richardson took his place. He was perhaps more accurately listed at “6-foot-6.” Another tubist named William Bell was also reported to be “6-foot-6.”

No one could explain this phenomenon except that Sousa must have had a a little P.T. Barnum-like showmanship in him. Certainly not out of character for a man who loved to entertain the masses outside of music too, specifically baseball, something he enjoyed just as much as conducting.

While on the road and in-between concerts, Sousa would make his band members don uniforms and take the field so he could play exhibition games against local teams. The tall tuba players apparently weren’t so nimble on the ball diamond. During one game, Richardson reached down to grab a grounder and split the back of his trousers. Sousa, who was usually the pitcher on the team, let out a hearty laugh.

Even if it was all in good fun, the tuba player’s height, whether accurate or not, was good marketing for the band. Each had their likeness featured prominently in advertisements, usually standing or holding the Sousaphone. In one rather effective ad, Richardson is seen next to a woman listed as the harpist who is only five-feet tall.  Richardson is holding the Sousaphone upside down. The bell is directly over the woman’s head appearing as though it might swallow her whole. Richardson, by comparison, looks like a giant.


Despite the fanciful publicity, Sousa’s patriotic marches were the biggest draw. “He is the master band leader of them all,” Richardson raved.

In 1911, the string of very tall tubists was broken when Arthur Griswold joined the group. By this time, the towering Sousaphones were a staple in Sousa concerts.

Griswold was listed at 6-foot-2.

Even though he was taller then most of the band members, he was still considered small in size compared to the tuba players who preceded him.

So, in jest, they called him “shorty.”


(Sources: The Incredible Band of John Philip Sousa by Paul E. Bierley; various internet sites)

When We Were Shorter: How 19th-Century Furniture Was Made To Size

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t11By Ken Zurski

If there is one distinctive feature about furniture in the early to mid 1800’s, especially the parlor chairs, it is the height of the legs. While many leg posts are decoratively ornate, they are also quite short, and certainly much lower than what is considered standard today.

The history of furniture is a bit sketchy on this dissimilarity, preferring to focus on style, fabrics and materials to tell the story of furniture.  But speculation is – backed up by good statistics – that we as humans were just smaller in height back then and therefore furniture was made to reflect that.

Basically the lower we stood, the lower we sat.


The Civil War is a good example.  Statistics were actually taken for large groups of men. For instance, in the 44th Massachusetts Infantry, of the 98 soldiers between the ages of 17 and 40, the average soldier’s height was 5-foot 7- inches. The shortest man in the regiment was 5-foot 3-inches and the tallest 6 -foot 1-inch. The most surprising stat is on the higher end where based on the average, very few men were six-feet and above and no one was more than one-inch over the six-foot threshold.

Today nearly 15-percent of all men are over six-feet tall, with the average height of a American male at  177 cm, or 5-feet 10-inches. The average height of an American women is 164 cm, or approximately 5 –foot tall.  Only statistics based on race changes this slightly.

So why did we get taller? Evolution is the simple answer, but even that is convoluted, as development suggests a reversal in size.  “The average population should have become shorter because the shorter individuals in the population were, from an evolutionary fitness perspective, more successful in passing on their genes,” wrote Scientific American in 1998.  “But this did not happen. Instead, all segments of the population–rich and poor, from small and large families–increased in height.”

Scientists claim better nutrition especially in children is the reason we got taller since the rise in height began to take root in the later half of the  19th century when there was an emphasis on living longer. It has since leveled off.

Regardless of the reason, the low profiled furniture of the 1800’s was quite comfortable for the average person.


A man of Abraham Lincoln’s stature, however, was the exception.

Standing at 6 ft 4 in, Lincoln towered over Civil War generals like Ulysses S. Grant, who was above average at height for the time at 5 ft 8 inches. Pictures confirm this discrepancy in height.  The stovepipe hat certainly adds to Lincoln’s size, but there is no doubt the 16th President stood unusually high.

This means Lincoln must have been an uncomfortable guest in most Victorian-style residences of the era where ceilings were built lower and door frames tighter. Except in his own home which was modified to accommodate his tallness, Lincoln did a lot of ducking.

But his biggest obstacle may have been trying to find a suitable place to sit.

However, one permanent seat, made of marble, is the perfect size.