The Odditorium: The tricksters, eccentrics, deviants and inventors whose obsessions changed the world (Hodder & Stoughton, Oct 2016) is a playful re-telling of history told, not through the fish-eye lens of its victors, but through the fascinating stories of lesser known creative mavericks, tricksters, subversives and pioneers who changed our world.
In part two of this post, we give you a taste of a few more tales from our new book including an atomic gardener, a man who created a formula for the perfect cup of tea, a journalist who imagined herself mad, a psychoanalyst who attributed the rise in Fascism to a lack of orgasms and a writer who championed aquatic ape theory.
The Odditorium is curated and written by Ernest editor Jo Keeling and regular contributor David Bramwell, along with guest contributions from a host of talented writers.
Muriel Howorth: the atomic gardener (guest writer Sarah Angliss)
In 1960 Muriel Howorth was pictured in newspapers tickling an extraordinary plant that was growing on her windowsill. The gardening correspondent from the Sunday Dispatch wrote, ‘Yesterday I held in my hand the most sensational plant in Britain. To me it had all the romance of something from outer space. It is the first “atomic” peanut.’
Despite having no formal training in the field of science, Howorth had taught herself the rudiments of nuclear physics at her home in the English seaside town of Eastbourne. ‘To lead women out of the kitchen and into the Atomic Age’ was Howorth’s aim. ‘Not to know all about atomic energy and the wonderful things it can do is like living in the Dark Ages,’ she wrote (Atomic Gardening for the Layman (1960).
By 1948, she’d set up her Ladies Atomic Energy Club and was already writing to the great physicists of the time, asking them to endorse her efforts. Einstein graciously sent some encouraging words. One of the atomic stunts she staged was to eat a Sunday lunch in 1959 that contained potatoes and onions that were three years old. They’d been stored in the labs of Harwell, Oxfordshire, with a few grains of radioactive sodium - enough to kill any germs... and all the taste.
Francis Galton: the man who measured the unmeasurable (guest writer Dan Maier)
Francis Galton was a true polymath, a seminal figure in subjects as weighty as heredity, statistical theory and meteorology. Galton strove to take ineffable, abstract concepts and calibrate them; to take the emotional and the human, and to regulate it. In the 1840s, he spent months refining a formula designed to create the perfect cup of tea. The paper ‘Measure of Fidget’, published in Nature in 1885, proposed a ‘boredom index’. And in 1888, Galton travelled from city to city, surreptitiously counting the number of beautiful, average-looking and ugly women, before returning to London and collating the results into a ‘Beauty Map of Great Britain’.
Elaine Morgan: the writer who championed aquatic ape theory
Writer Elaine Morgan had a fascination for evolutionary theories and a deep frustration for how they considered human adaptation from an almost exclusively male perspective. In 1972 she wrote The Descent of Women. In her book she addressed this imbalance, while also exploring Alister Hardy's theory that humans evolved from aquatic apes. While researching, Morgan made important discoveries by studying water births, including a diving reflex in new born babies, how our heart rate slows down when we enter water and how swimming is the safest and best all-round form of exercise for mind and body. Although largely dismissed at the time, and the target of a great deal of hostility ever since, the aquatic ape theory has seen somewhat of a revival recently, with David Attenborough exploring the possible supporting evidence in a two-part BBC documentary.
Nellie Bly: the journalist who flew into the cuckoo’s nest
On Blackwell Island, in the winter of 1887, a new inmate to New York's municipal lunatic asylum was being subjected to the humiliation and discomfort of an ice-cold bath.
‘I began to protest. My teeth chattered and my limbs were goose flesh and bruised with cold. Suddenly I got ice cold water in my ears, nose and mouth. They dragged me out gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub.’ –Ten Days in a Mad-house (1887)
The young woman had been at the asylum only for a few days and found it to be one of the most unpleasant experiences of her life. Since the first night, she had been unable to sleep because of the hard bed and screams of other patients. She was appalled by the rancid food and frightened by the sadistic nature of many of the nurses and doctors. She witnessed patients bound together with rope and found some who appeared to be there for no other reason than their poverty or inability to speak English. Some of the women, she discovered, to her horror, had been committed by cruel husbands wanting to be rid of them.
Like Randle McMurphy in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the woman was no ordinary inmate. She had faked her own insanity in order to get access to the asylum. Not for an easy ride, as McMurphy had foolishly hoped, but to investigate and expose the abuse of patients. For the brave journalist Nellie Bly, this was a big scoop.
Wilhelm Reich: the godfather of the sexual revolution
Born in Austria at the turn of the 19th century, Wilhelm Reich studied medicine and quickly rose through the psychoanalytical ranks to become one of Freud’s star pupils. That is, until they fell out over orgasms. For Freud, the libido was an unruly beast, which needed to be diverted into ‘healthier’ pursuits, while Reich believed the opposite. He saw the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s as a direct result of repressed sexual desire, sublimated into hatred and war.
To stimulate orgone energy in the individual, Reich invented the Orgone Energy Accumulator. Looking like a one-person sauna, it was an upright rectangular box made of different layers of wood and metal to amplify the ‘orgone energy’ for any user sitting inside, rather like heat in a greenhouse. Claims around the properties of this device ranged from boosting the immune system, to destruction of cancerous cells, to ‘orgiastic potency’.