Everything Hertz!

I passed my driving test when I was 17. In other words, 31 years ago. I don't know how far I've driven since then, but it must be half a million miles, give or take. Twenty times around the Earth, say. To the Moon and back.

And in all those hundreds of thousands of miles, not once—not on one single occasion—have I ever needed to consult the rev-counter on the dashboard of my car. Not once. Never.

True—touch wood—I've never had need of a seatbelt or airbag either. But seatbelts and airbags strike me as sensible precautions. But what the hell is a rev-counter for? For counting revs, obviously. But why on Earth would I need to know how many revs my car's engine is doing? To make sure I'm not over-revving, presumably. But I don't need a rev-counter to tell me when I'm over-revving, as I have a perfectly adequate pair of ears, and can tell when I'm over-revving because the car's engine starts screaming for mercy, and bits start flying off it. Even if my rev-counter were to tell me that the engine was revving within acceptable parameters—whatever the hell those might be—I would certainly ignore it if my ears told me otherwise. That's what ears are for. Well, that's one thing that ears are for. When it comes to flogging an engine—which I don't tend to do—I would far rather play it by ear than rely on some stupid dial telling me that I was doing 500,000,000 revs—or whatever.

The truth of the matter is that rev-counters are a total waste of space. The only reason they put them on car dashboards is because they can. Revs are something that can easily be measured, so measured they must be. If you were checking out a brand-new car in a showroom, and it didn't have a rev-counter on the dashboard, would you even notice? (Be honest, now, have you even noticed whether there's a rev-counter on your current car's dashboard?) And, if you happened to notice that the otherwise perfect new car in the showroom didn't have a rev-counter on its dashboard, would you kick up any kind of fuss about it with the salesperson? Or even try to use its inexplicable absence as some sort of haggling point? Of course you wouldn't: they would laugh in your face.

Diedrich Uhlhorn

Having a laugh: Diedrich Uhlhorn (R) and some apples.

Whoever it was who invented the rev-counter is laughing in our faces. Or they would be, were they not, presumably, long-dead by now. (Actually, I've just looked it up: it was the German engineer Dietrich Uhlhorn, and he died in Grevenbroich in 1837, so the joke was ultimately on him.)

Putting it quite simply, we don't need rev-counters on our dashboards. That space could be filled far more usefully. With yet another drinks-holder, say, or an ashtray—remember those?—or even a barometer. Anything, almost anything would be more useful on a car's dashboard than a sodding rev-counter.

Someone ought to do something.

Vertical lateral thinking

Augustus the Strong

Augustus the Strong (1670–1733)

You can say what you like about Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, but he was one hell of a tosser. At one tournament he presided over, 647 foxes, 533 hares, 34 badgers and 21 wildcats were killed for fun.

Animal tossing, most commonly fox tossing, was once a popular sport in certain parts of Europe—primarily amongst the aristocracy, obviously. Two toffs would take either end of a large sling and launch the wild creatures skywards, usually to deadly effect.

Fox tossing tournament

A fox tossing tournament of the early 18th century. (Note the quite high foxes.)

Unusually for a blood sport practised almost exclusively by the aristocracy, fox tossing went the way of blood sports popular amongst mere plebs, such as bear baiting, cock fighting, and goose pulling. Yes, goose pulling.

Well, call me controversial, but I think it might be time for an animal tossing revival. Only this week, we've heard how we need to cull 50% of the deer in the UK to protect the countryside. Personally, I'd re-introduce wolves to keep them in check, but I suspect I'm in the minority on that one. So why don't we launch our spare deer into the air instead? Can you imagine how cool it would be to toss a deer—to see it actually somersaulting through the air? I'd pay good money to see that. Then there's the invasive grey squirrels. Bastards! Up in the air with them too! And cats, obviously. Bloody, bloody cats!

Seriously, though, I'm struggling to see any drawbacks with this one: fewer deer, grey squirrels and cats ruining the countryside; still no wolves to worry about; and even the toffs are happy!

It's a win-win-win!

Wittgenstein's Drachenflugexperiment

Thanks to my grandfather and a number of his contemporaries, I do not speak German. As you might have gathered, however, I am a huge fan of the late W.G. Sebald: a German author, who, despite speaking excellent English and living most of his adult life in Norwich, wrote almost exclusively in his native tongue. English monolinguals like me have Sebald's excellent translators, Michael Hulse and Anthea Bell, ably assisted by Sebald himself, to thank for the English translations of his masterpieces The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo, The Emigrants, and Austerlitz. We also, incidentally, have the same Anthea Bell to thank for the magnificent English translations of many of the Asterix books. But I digress, as usual.

In order to try to get my head around Sebald's writing, I am currently working my way through a rather academic book entitled W.G. Sebald—a Handbook (review to follow). I am enjoying the book very much—particularly those sections which I can understand. This is not mock-modesty on my behalf, as it turns out that a couple of the sections of the book are written in German, without any English translation.

As I was flicking uncomprehendingly through these German sections yesterday, a short Sebaldian paragraph leapt out of the page at me:

Auf den Pennines. 1910. W. und der Freund Eccles. Das Drachenflugexperiment. W. schaut dem Drachen nach, der immer mehr an Höhe gewinnt.

It was, of course, the word Pennines—the hills in which I now live—that caught my attention. I knew that Sebald had lived in Manchester for a number of years, and he mentions the Pennines once or twice in his writing, but I was intrigued to understand what the above paragraph meant.

Thanks to Google Translate, I have an answer. The above paragraph apparently translates as follows:

On the Pennines. 1910. W. and his friend Eccles. The kite-flying experiment. W. looks at the dragon that is gaining in height.

Ah, yes, but who is ‘W’? The obvious, although incorrect, answer is that it is W.G. Sebald himself. We know this is incorrect for three reasons:

  1. W.G. Sebald was not alive in 1910. It could be argued that 1910 refers to 7:10pm, but it clearly does not;
  2. W.G. Sebald's full name was Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald. For personal reasons, he tended not to use the names Winfried Georg—one reason being that his first name sounded like a girl's name to his English friends. He much preferred to be called Max. Therefore, if Sebald were writing about himself in the third person, using only an initial, he would probably have put either ‘M’ or ‘S’;
  3. an English footnote to the German chapter makes it perfectly clear that the ‘W’ in question is none other than the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

What's that you say? Ludwig Wittgenstein flying a kite in the Pennines?!

Anyone who has read Sebald will suspect that there is probably more than an ounce of truth to this story. And so it turns out. A bit more Googling soon revealed the following in John Dobson's online ‘Scrapbook’:

Wittgenstein Flies a Kite

Wittgenstein and a kite

It is not generally known that the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 — 1951) was an early researcher into the aerodynamics of flight. His first research post was at the University of Manchester (then known as Owens College) in the summer of 1908, when he moved to a kite-flying station at Glossop (near Manchester). In return for “constructing, sending up, and recovering the instrument-bearing kites” used for meteorological observation, he would get to use the equipment there for his own kite research. Apparently he was inexperienced, for he wrote home from Glossop that he first observed and then learned how to make a kite.

The work at the station was arduous and continuous. Sometimes there would be eight or ten ascents a day until as late as nine or ten at night. The kites would be sent up as high as 5,000 feet (naturally this demanded a train of kites). Sometimes the kites would escape or come down and then a correspondingly long distance would have to be traversed over rough pathless heather moors to recover them. The winch system used for that instrument-carrying kite system may well have been Cody's man-carrying kite system, and Cody likewise became interested in solving the problem of heavier-than-air flight through such inventions.

The photograph show[s] Wittgenstein (on the right) with his close friend and mentor William Eccles and the instrument-bearing kite on the moors above Glossop in the summer of 1908.

The story of this period of Wittgenstein's life is well researched and well told in Wittgenstein Flies a Kite by Susan Sterrett (Pi Press, New York: 2006), though the book is mainly concerned with his more successful and ground-breaking research into the philosophy of language.

Furthermore, there is even a website entitled In the Footsteps of Wittgenstein, which recently celebrated Wittgenstein's pioneering aviation work with a mass kite-flying over the Glossop hills.

We only get a few measly decades on this planet. How am I ever going to cram all this fascinating information in?