Sunday, August 02, 2009

mad dogs & englishmen

woody outcropping

Some rich men go in for art collections, gay times on the Riviera, or extravagant living. But they all get satiated. That’s why I stick to scientific experiments, spending money to discover valuable things that universities can’t afford. You never get sick of too much knowledge. -- Colonel Fabyan

Biked up to Batavia along the Fox River Trail this afternoon, home to Fermi Lab and the last great supercollider (before CERN ate our shorts) which was also home, at the beginning of the 20th century, to a rich man named Colonel George Fabyan and his wife Nelle, who spent a lot of money on science and scientists and scientific experimentation.

Some of it crazy -- in the fine tradition of Tesla and Marconi.

(Also worth noting: The colonel and his wife slept in beds suspended from the ceiling by hooks, for what I'm sure were perfectly rational reasons.)

We stopped for a tour of the Fabyan Villa because of word that Frank Lloyd Wright had a hand in the renovation of the home in 1907, and so he did: Compression and release was in evidence; the stairwell had been opened and the hallway slatted to breathe better; and Wright did that inverted wainscoting thing he loved to do with variable hues of color on the wall and a running horizontal oak trim dropped to just about eye level.

Photo by karla kaulfluss

Not on the tour was the Colonel's Riverbank Laboratories, right across the street, where the scientists and academics came to play then, and still work today.

One of Fabyan’s academics in residence was Elizabeth Wells Gallop, who moved onto the property with her sister, and under Fabyan’s patronage deciphered Shakespeare’s First Folio and published her theory that the Bard was actually the scientist, Sir Francis Bacon, who encoded secret scientific discoveries and inventions into his plays. [1]

One message that Gallop uncovered in Shakespeare’s First Folio read:

Queen Elizabeth is my true mother, and I am the lawful heir to the throne. Find the Cypher storie my books contain; it tells great secrets, every one of which, if imparted openly, would forfeit my life. F. Bacon [2]

Further decipherment produced the plans for the Baconian Acoustical Levitation Device, which Fabyan and his army managed to build. It was:

A wooden tube with metal strings attached to it, around which fit another wooden tube with metal strings attached to the inside of it. The center tube was supposed to spin and by sympathetic vibration cause the strings on the outer tube to vibrate. The resonance from the striking would create a force field, which would levitate the outer tube off of the ground.

They never did manage to make it work, and it’s now rumored to reside at the Geneva History Center.

Fabyan continued to attract scientists to his laboratory by the riverbank. William Sabine from Harvard joined him when Fabyan promised him a nearly silent location for his acoustic experiments. Together with Bert Eisenhour the Colonel built Sabine an Acoustical Laboratory between 1917 and 1918, which is still deployed for private industry today, and included a reverberation chamber, which remains:

An outstanding example of such a facility, and is still regarded as one of the best in the world. The chamber is completely insulated from the outer walls so far as sound transmission is concerned. Separate foundations are used for the inner and outer buildings, and felt insulation was employed wherever the walls came close together to form a connecting doorway. Sounds produced in the reverberation chamber can be tested with the utmost precision. Here Sabine calculated the Sabine Formula, universally used today to determine sound absorption coefficients.

Wallace Sabine is today considered to be the father of the science of architectural acoustics. His formula for sound absorption is still used in many standard acoustical tests, and the unit of absorption now bears his name, "sabin."

Also attracted to Riverbank Laboratories was William Friedman, who arrived as a geneticist and, in assisting Gallop, discovered that he had a penchant for cryptology -- and for Professor Gallop’s assistant Elizabeth Smith, whom he married in 1917.

During World War I the Colonel [3] volunteered his labs to the war effort and Riverbank became the “first unofficial cryptologic organization”. Friedman and Elizabeth provided cryptological training to reserve military officers and published a series of broadsides regarding decipherment that are “regarded as the prerequisite for a higher education in cryptology.” Friedman continued with his work through World War II and in 1952 was named a chief technical consultant in the nascent National Security Agency.

In his retirement he was awarded a cash settlement for nine cipher machines that he developed during the war years for the U.S. government (six of which remain classified); and together with his wife wrote a book debunking the Baconian Shakespeare Theory that first brought them together.

A first edition of which can be had for cheap on Abebooks »

I think it's interesting that, like Lavoisier shattering Becher's theory of phlogiston, Fabyan's Riverbank produced more than its share of whack science and theory, but from the cinders of crazy (stoked by the dollars of private enterprise) rose solid incarnations of soaring technology -- unless, of course, you consider supporting the war effort crazy.

If that's the case, then crazy birthed crazy.

Video: Diana Krall, Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello perform Crazy

[1] Folks are still promoting this theory on the Internet, of course »

[2] Many of the details excerpted here as blockquotes were extracted from the Riverbank Labs history written up by the City of Geneva, IL »

[3] And the Colonel? Not really a Colonel. (It was an honorary title, bestowed by the Governor.)

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