• That Was Genius Team

Episode 41 - Thomas the Self-Pleasuring Engine (40 Week)

Updated: Apr 17

Sam's Episode Notes: The Railway Mania of the 1840s (and a very big boat)


First off, an honourable mention to the, drumroll as we all try and pronounce it... Tessarakonteres.

The longest word and largest ship in antiquity, and quite possibly the largest human-powered ship of all time. It was built by Ptolemy 4th of Egypt in the 3rd Century BC. And it was fucking huge - Tessarakonteres means 40, and the ship was named after the numbers of ranks of oars and rowers on each side. Which is a bit complicated and the maths doesn't actually quite work out, BUT the upshot of this is that it carried 4,000 rowers, 400 non-rowing sailors, up to 3,000 troops AND other passengers and supplies in a ship approximately the same length, and significantly wider than, Noah's ark. It was a catamaran, so essentially two separate ships joined together by a platform. It was 135 metres or 440 feet long, over 20 metres or 65ft tall, and each hull was 20 metres wide, plus the width of the deck between the two. So absolutely massive. Some of the largest oars alone were 60 feet long.

And it was heavily armed, with seven battering rams and catapults.

It was also completely useless. It was too large for any harbour in the world and so sailed only once, after which it was just moored in Alexadria and used as a showpiece to impress visitors. Apart from anything else, it was apparently absolutely impossible to control. Far too big.

The ptolomeic kings had a habit of doing this though, archimedes had built another enormous ship for Ptolemy IV's dad, Ptolemy III. Difficult to remember all the ptolomeic king's names I know. That ship was called the Syracusia and this time, it was the world's first ocean liner. But again, was too big to be moored anywhere and so just sat in Alexandria after being sailed from Sicily. But apparently that was built as a fully floating city, with city walls and towers for archers, flower lined boulevards and an encampment of luxurious tents on deck for visitors. It had an on-board bathhouse with hot running water, and rather than wood, the floors were made of mosaic depicting the entire story of the Illiad, with walls of Ivory and Marble. It also had an on-board gym and a large library. It must have been a treat to row across the mediterranean.

Anyway, enough about that. Because my main story today is heading to Britain in the 1840s, and some of the bizarre events of Railway Mania. Now, at the time, Britain was in the throws of the industrial revolution. There were lots of very rich men with lots of money floating about, an emerging middle class with a desire to invest, and lots of poor people and stuff to be put onto trains and moved around to where they could be more useful. International trade was in a bit of a slump now that the Napoleonic wars were over, and so the Government was very keen to get things moving again. And the answer was trains. In 1830 the first proper passenger railway in the world had opened, the Liverpool to Manchester line. It managed the 31 mile route at a dizzying pace of 16mph, with a journey time of around two hours, and immediately revolutionised the world of travel. And so just a few years later, in the early 1840s, Britain went mad for railways.

Everyone wanted in on the action, and budding entrepreneurs in cities around the country were keen to make that happen, as were MPs. Anyone could submit a plan to parliament, get a bill passed, and get permission to raise the cash and build their railways. Now as anyone who has ever been to a British or European city knows, centralised planning aint really our bag. We don't do planning or straight lines, and neither did the railways. It was quite common for one small town to be served by three or even four separate routes, with separate stations, going to the same place. Bear in mind Britain has just 70 cities – and there were over 270 railway companies competing for them.

And this led to incredible competition, and not just in the boardroom. Staff were fanatically loyal to their own employers to the point of violence, which led to some really quite funny standoffs and foul play on the odd occasions where these companies had to play nice and share.

In 1849 in Manchester there was the Battle of Clifton Junction. Two competing companies, The Lancashire & Yorkshire railway and the East Lancashire railway (splitters), had to share the tracks heading into Manchester, which were owned by the Lancashire and Yorkshire.

The agreement was that the East Lancashire would pay a fee for every passenger it carried on these lines, but the L&Y didn't trust them and so opened up a ticket checkpoint heading into Manchester, wasting lots of time and money. So, pissed off, the East Lancashire trains just didn't bother stopping. They ignored the signals and just pootled on by. So the L&Y blocked the tracks with rubbish, and then for good measure parked a train behind the barricade. The East Lancashire train crew moved the barricade, and deliberately rammed the two trains together to try and push their way through. At which point each company started bringing in more and more trains to try and push the other one's out of the way, until in total there were eight trains on each sidehaving a huge train wrestling match, with a few very confused victorian passengers stuck in the middle.

In 1852 there was the battle of Nottingham. Two companies, the Great Northern Railway and Midland Railway, shared the station, but it was owned by the Midland. Who got really pissed off when the Great Northern started a service to London which was much faster. So what did they do? When the train rocked up one day, the Midland staff stole it. Literally, they kidnapped the train and drove it into a shed, then they pulled up the railway track and essentially held it hostage for seven months until the court ordered that they give it back.

That wasn't the only time this happened either, in one instance in the 1880s a train outside London was steered onto a siding and the tracks were stolen from behind it.

And sometimes there were just fights - In 1859 at Havant on the South Coast, a pitched battle nearly started between gangs of track workers for the competing London, Brighton and South Coast railway and London and South Western Railway. Yes, it's confusing, and yes – that's part of the problem, there were just dozens of companies trying to do the same thing.

Anyway, the two companies had to share a line around Havant, and their construction worker navvies kept stealing the other's tracks and re-laying their own, or just parking and abandoning trains on the other's tracks. At one point, the two rival gangs were there at the same time just playing cops and robbers, stealing one anothers tracks whilst also trying to defend their own, and it nearly ended in a riot with several (possibly slightly doubtful) accounts of the two gangs coming to blows.

This was part of the reason – alongside the end of WW1 – that in the 1920s over 120 of the surviving competing railway companies were merged into just four, and then into one after WW2.

But it wasn't just the companies who were going mad from the 1840s – it was also people. Doctors were convinced that trains were bad for your health – both mental and physical. It was argued in the 1830s and 40s that the speed of passing trains would curdle cow's milk and drive milkmaids mad, presumably as their craned their necks to see the trains whizz past at the dizzying speed of almost 20mph.

In fact, there was a common myth that at the higher and higher speeds trains could achieve, passengers would literally be suffocated. A periodical in the 1848 suggested that by 1948, trains would be doing 700mph and you'd need breathing apparatus to survive, pointing out one theoretical horror story in which a train travelling from New York to Iraq went through a corner too fast, immediately killing the driver and sending the train careering at 700mph, where it had to be stopped by people in hot air balloons with grappling hooks. Which is very steam punk. Fortunately, the periodical has a happy ending. Doctors manage to un-dead the driver using magnets. Just like in the future.

In fact, there was a recognised condition known as Railway Madness, detailed in the a book called “The Invisible Plague: The Rise of Mental Illness from 1750 to the Present” by Edwin Fuller Torrey and Judy Miller. Men would reportedly become violently aggressive when trains were moving, then calm down at stations. They absolutely were not just drunk or desperate to get off this pissing wooden deathtrap doing 15mph, remember that Tom. It was the speed that caused the madness.

In one particularly good example in the 1860s, a Scottish nobleman stripped completely naked and leaned out of the window, driven mad by the motion and noise and speed. That is, until he got close to his station where he put all his clothes back on and pottered off happily. Remember Tom, it's the vibration of the trains, not the wine.

At any rate, these stories along with others of muggers and murderers on the trains were whipped up by the press and urban legend and rumour. So much so that in 1864 there was even a law passed that stated if a madman was found on a train, he should be locked in the carriage compartment on his own until the police arrived.

In 1894, one of the last recorded cases of railway madness, there was a story of a completely naked man who jumped on a train, cut the emergency cord and started terrorising passengers who had to fight him off with the pointy end of umbrellas. In this case, probably more of a stark reflection on a lack of care for those with latent mental health issues than, you know, trains.

But anyway, there we go, Tom, from the 1840s, in boardrooms and railway wagons around the country, people were going mad.




Tom's Notes:


This week the topic is the number of 40.

· Despite it being our 41st episode

I have chosen someone who was born in 40AD and even better, we have a Classical source that details the life of this individual. A source that is not too long to read in a week!

So, I have been reading a translation of Agricola by Tacitus.

· Because in amongst the toilet humour and silly accents, Sam and I are reet clever-cloggses what read classical books all casual like

o I like a nice Penguin classic; plain chocolate, none of that caramel or dark chocolate nonsense.

Who was Tacitus? Well it’s just great that you asked that question Sam.

· He was a famous Roman historian Born in the middle of the 1st Century AD

· As per usual, he was not just an historian, he was involved in politics also.

· We don’t know a huge amount about Tacitus but he was the son-in-law of the subject of the book Agricola, a chap by the name of Agricola, whose name was used as the title of the book Agricola.

But enough about Tacitus, let’s move on from the soupy starter and get stuck into the meat and 2 veg of Gnaeus Julius Agricola.

· Who was Agricola? Another pertinent question Sam, thank you for being so helpful here.

· Let’s head straight to the source…

Agricola grandfather was an equestrian and his father was a senator who was put to death by Caesar for refusing to play political games to undermine one of Ceasar’s rivals.

· His mother was apparently a lovely lady too.

· Agricola displayed a good nature and a love of philosophy from a young age but learnt not to get too carried away with Greek ponsiness because it was unbecoming for someone of the Roman senatorial class to enjoy philosophy too much.

o It’ll make you weak lad

· Agricola soon found himself in the Roman Army in Britain

o “he employed himself in gaining a knowledge of the country, making himself known to the army, learning from the experienced and imitating the best”

§ Presumably not imitating them like a happy drunk; “hello, my name’s Suetonius Paullinus, I walk like a big angry bear, my breath smells of onion juice”

· He got married, had a daughter and spent some time in Asia before lying low and being pretty beige during the reign of Nero

o Not a bad ideal by all accounts

· During the turbulent Year of the Four Emperors (69AD), Agricola was wise and sided with Vespasian who eventually came out as Emperor and reigned for 10 years

o The four Emperors were Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian

· Vespasian promotes Agricola due to his loyalty and he is given control of Aquitaine (basically middle to western France).

o Here he displayed his wonderful character and personality

o “nothing of sternness, arrogance or rapaciousness appeared”

o He did not “court reputation” and he showed integrity and freedom from corruption

He soon became Governor of Britain

· “Britain, the largest of all the islands which have come within the knowledge of the Romans, stretches on the east towards Germany, on the west towards Spain, and on the south it is even within sight of Gaul. Its northern extremity has no opposite land, but is washed by a wide and open sea… The Roman fleet, at this period first sailing round this remotest coast, gave certain proof that Britain was an island; and at the same time discovered and subdued the Orcades, islands till then unknown. Thule was also distinctly seen, which winter and eternal snow had hitherto concealed.”

o Thule; Iceland, Norway, Faroe Islands or one of the Shetland islands

· Tacitus goes on to talk about the origins of the natives of Britain

o The Caledonians have ruddy hair and large limbs (Scots)

o The Silures are swarthy with curly hair, so possibly related to the Spaniards

o England was mostly inhabited by people similar to the Gauls

§ “The languages of the two nations do not greatly differ. The same audacity in provoking danger, and irresolution in facing it when present, is observable in both. The Britons, however, display more ferocity, not being yet softened by a long peace”

§ Come on you Roman wankers, I’ll ‘ave you!

o Most infantry armies with some chariots for the nobility

§ Lots of bickering tribal groups who were incapable of getting together to fight a common enemy, much to the delight of the Romans

· Britain is “deformed by clouds and frequent rains”; the days are long in the summer and short in the winter and the soil is good for corn, quote “growth is quick, but maturation slow”

o Could be a tagline for this podcast

Tacitus briefly gives a history of Roman Britain here; it’s worth discussing this for non-Brits

· Julius Ceasar was the first Roman to cross the EnglIsh Channel to Britain in 55 and 54BC

· In 43AD Emperor Claudius invaded Britain and made it part of the Roman Empire.

· Prior to the Roman there was Iron Age Britain and after the Romans left in 410BC, as the Roman Empire was coming under repeated attacks, Britain entered a Dark Age and Anglo-Saxon Britain emerges a few hundred years later.

Agricola became governor at the end of the summer; campaigning season. However, he got the Roman organised and immediately waged war on the Ordovices in North Wales who were pestering the Romans. Not content with defeating this tribe, he ordered his men to wade across to Anglesey where he defeated some of the native Britains who had been helping the Ordovices.

· I’m not sure it’s that easy to wade across to Anglesey!

· Agricola followed up these victories in subsequent years with campaigns into the north of the island, using the carrot and stick approach to being tribes under Roman Rule, always leaving a network of fortifications

· During the winters, he encouraged Romanisation of the Britons; baths, theatres, Roman educations for British nobles

In his third Summer, Agricola led an army as far north as the River Tay in Scotland (around Dundee and Perth).

In the forth summer he consolidated lands in the south of Scotland

In his fifth Summer he explores West and finds himself on the Isle of Arran but decides not to explore Ireland.

In the sixth summer he sales around the east coast of Scotland and puts the willies up the Caledonians who attack a Roman camp but are repelled.

· Now there is a fascinating episode where the Romans encounter some German auxiliaries who had rebelled in Northern Germany, killed a centurion, stolen some boats and by accident sailed around the East and North of Britain, cannibalising each other en route, were sold into slavery and ended up back in the Roman camp!

· The Caledonians manage to form a confederacy and provide some resistance led by Calgacus who has a rather famous speech to his name

o “but there is no nation beyond us, nothing but waves and rocks”

o “to ravage, to slaughter, to usurp false titles, they call empire, and where they make desert, they call it peace”

o “Britain every day buys, every day feeds, her own servitude”!

§ But they’ve got lovely plays

§ And their baths are really warm

§ Oooh and they have under floor heating

§ And lovely mosaics!

· There is a large battle where the Romans slaughter the Caledonians with superior weaponry, organisation and tactics

o 360 Romans died

o 10,000 Caledonians died!

o “arms, and carcasses, and mangled limbs, were promiscuously strewed, and the field was dyed in blood”

Anyway, in 85AD Agricola was recalled to Rome because Domitian was jealous of his successes in Britain. He died in 93AD and there were rumours that this was also at the hand of Domitian.

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