The first death by Robot

Robert Williams was 25 and worked as an American engineer for the Ford Motor Company factory in Flat Rock, Michigan.

He was killed by an industrial robot arm on January 25, 1979 when he was struck in the head and killed by the arm of a 1-ton production-line robot as he was gathering parts in a storage facility. The robot was part of a parts-retrieval system that moved material from one part of the factory to another; when the robot began running slowly, Williams reportedly climbed into the storage rack to retrieve parts manually when he was struck in the head and killed instantly.

His family sued the manufacturers of the robot, Litton Industries, for a total of $15 million dollars, the court concluded that there simply were not enough safety measures in place to prevent such an accident from happening.


There’s No Such Thing as Dying With Dignity!

Just a fairly short one tonight. Inspired by a chat with a friend, I thought I would share a few tit-bits on the subject of a famous funeral that endured a couple of mishaps and all things awkward, that did not discriminate on the basis of class or fame.

When Winston Churchill died in January 1965 after suffering a stroke some days before, he was given one of the biggest state funerals ever known, particularly for a “commoner”. The ceremony involved somber journeys on a gun carriage through the streets of London to the service at St Paul’s Cathedral, followed by another procession to the Thames where the bearer party would hand over the coffin into the safe-keeping of the Royal Irish Hussars who would convey Churchill down the Thames by barge to Waterloo and on by steam train to his private burial alongside his parents and brother. His original intention following an earlier stroke some years previously, had been to be buried under the croquet lawn of his country home. Following his second stroke, his wife gently but firmly insisted it was a bad idea. He reluctantly agreed and the plan was switched to St Martin’s Church, Bladon.

When the procession reached St Paul’s, Churchill’s lead-lined coffin was taken by the bearer party and carried shoulder high up the steep double flight of steps into the doors of the Cathedral. Preceded by a party of pall-bearers, which included former Prime Ministers Clement Atlee and Harold MacMillan, it had been decided that in a break with tradition, due to their age, a bearer party would do the actual manual work involved in transferring the coffin from the gun carriage to the Cathedral. Since his first stroke 12 years previously, the funeral plan “Operation Hope Not” had been put into place, its organ
izer the Duke of Norfolk constantly revising the details over the following years, as Lord Mountbatten – another of the pall bearers – put it “The problem was that Churchill kept living and the Pall-bearers kept dying!”

So following the eventually fatal stroke, a group of soldiers from various regiments, picked in part for their height which ranged from six feet to six feet four, the further back they were positioned in the bearing party, began to practice lifting and lowering a coffin. On the morning, as they reached their destination with the gun carriage, they prepared to lift and hoisted Churchill to their shoulder. He proved heavier than they anticipated. Halfway up the second of the two steep flights of steps, Clement Atlee stumbled, causing the bearers to pause. As they did, the momentum caused the coffin to slip back from the shoulders of the front bearers. Lance Sergeant Lincoln Perkins, in the second row, recalled placing his hand upon the coffin to stop it sliding further, and reassuring the passenger that he was in safe hands. It took all the might of the rear “pushers” of the party to prevent the total dropping of the coffin, and the ability to continue to climb the steps from a standing start.

Of course, that wasn’t the only mishap of the day. Later that afternoon, as the coffin was lowered into its final resting place, a “thunk” was heard by the lead officer of the burial party. After a brief discreet glance around, he chose to ignore and carried on with his duties. It was only later on the train back to the city that one of the other burial party came to him and notified him that his medals had vanished….. back to that “thunk” and a quickly timed call to the diggers finishing the job, reassured him that the grave was as yet unfilled. The medals were quietly retrieved from under the coffin and returned to the soldier in question.


Napoleon’s Strangest Battle

bonaparte1Napoleon was arguably one of the greatest military minds of the his age.  However, he was outwitted by a strange opponent.  No, not Wellington at Waterloo (learn more about that here: ) nor a beautiful and dedicated queen (read more about Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz here: ).  He was attacked and almost vanquished by common rabbits.

It was 1807 and Napoleon had just signed the Treaty of Tilsit between France and Russia.  To celebrate this achievement, he wanted to relax and have some fun.  Like most upper class gentlemen of that time, hunting was a popular past time.  According to the memoirs of Paul Thiébault, a general in Napoleon’s army, a hunt was organized at the estate of a courtier Baron Alexandre Berthier.  Hoping to impress, Berthier put on an outdoor luncheon with a rabbit hunt afterward.  He was said to have gotten as many as 3,000 rabbits for Napoleon and all the upper brass to shoot at.  “He had the idea of giving the Emperor some rabbit-shooting in a park which he possessed just outside of Paris, and had the joy of having his offer accepted,” Thiébault wrote.  Small problem.  There were no rabbits on the estate, but Berthier was sure he pick some up.  No big deal.  I’m sure Berthier was hoping to get in good with his boss by showing him a wonderful time at his estate.  What happened was exactly the opposite.

The party had a lovely picnic and then went onto the parkland to commence their shooting.  Servants opened the cages to release the rabbits, and that’s when it all went wrong.  Wild rabbits would have scattered and allowed the party pursue them.  However, Berthier had bought tame rabbits.  When the cages were opened, they saw the group of men and assumed it was feeding time and they were hungry.  They took one look at the master of Europe and decided he had lunch hiding in his pockets and charged.  At first the group thought it was funny, but as the crowd of rabbits grew and got closer they began to be concerned.  Some of the rabbits scurried up Napoleon’s legs and tried to get into his jacket while he beat them off with a riding crop.  It was time to beat a strategic retreat.

The party made for the coaches and according to historian David Chandler, “with a finer understanding of Napoleonic strategy than most of his generals, the rabbit horde divided into two wings and poured around the flanks of the party and headed for the imperial coach.”  Some of the more determined of the rabbits made it into the coach itself.  Napoleon and his party withdrew from the field.  The hungry rabbits had done what most of Europe could not- made Napoleon turn tail and run.


Military Mishaps

12806225_242346899440733_8850088551663408320_nMajor-General Sir William Erskine was born in 1748, becoming 2nd Baronet on the death of his father, Lieutenant-General Sir William Erskine, in 1795. He twice represented Fife in Parliament, in 1796 and then from 1802-1805. Erskine was appointed one of the senior commanders in the Peninsular War, despite having twice been detained in an insane asylum. The Duke of Wellington, upon querying Erskine’s sanity, was reassured that ‘no doubt he is a little mad at times, but he is lucid at intervals’ although this was soon called into question. Left in charge of both the light infantry and the cavalry at the Battle of Sabugal in 1811, Erskine somehow managed to send each in the direction the other should have taken, to the advantage of the opposing French. At the Siege of Almeida, the French garrison was able to escape because Erskine had failed to guard the Barba de Puerca bridge – Wellington’s order to do so had arrived while Erskine was dining with a colleague. Erskine was declared insane and discharged from service in 1812. Erskine died unmarried and with no children (causing the extinction of his baronetcy) by his own hand in 1813, jumping out of a Lisbon window. Erskine’s last words were ‘Now, why on earth did I do that?’


BITE SIZED: The Origins of the Poison Pen Letter

In 1527 the first known letter to England from North America was received, sent by the mariner John Rut to Henry VIII. The world’s first adhesive stamp available for public posting at a single price, the Penny Black, was introduced in 1840, replacing the previous system which saw the recipient pay for postage based on the number of sheets and the distance covered.Post isn’t always pleasant to receive, and the term ‘poison pen’ to refer to malicious and anonymous letters was first use […]

1096962_origIn 1527 the first known letter to England from North America was received, sent by the mariner John Rut to Henry VIII. The world’s first adhesive stamp available for public posting at a single price, the Penny Black, was introduced in 1840, replacing the previous system which saw the recipient pay for postage based on the number of sheets and the distance covered.

Post isn’t always pleasant to receive, and the term ‘poison pen’ to refer to malicious and anonymous letters was first used, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1911 in a Maryland newspaper although the context is unknown, and again in The New York Times two years later when anonymous postcards were sent. The term first appears in the UK in the 1930s and was in common use by the 1939 release of the film Poison Pen, and Agatha Christie employed a poison pen letter in The Moving Finger. Poison pen letters in the UK are covered by the Malicious Communications Act 1988.

5947221_origOne interesting case of a poison pen letter writer is that of James Forster, whose campaign of harassment in Manfield, Yorkshire, lasted for twelve years. He was convicted of seven offences in 2001 and sentenced to four months in prison. Forster, a lecturer who lived with his wife, initially targeted his 88-year-old neighbour, Molly Christian, in 1987, and when she sold her house he began sending letters to the new occupants, the Kellets, and their daughter, who he accused of being a prostitute. The village’s Neighbourhood Watch coordinator, Eric Collin, was his next target followed by other villagers who received letters informing them that Collin had reported them to the police.

Forster was finally arrested in 1999 after sending a letter to Rona Wane, Clerk of the Parish Council, which led to her discovering that her thirteen year old daughter had been sent pornography. Forster was also suspected of, but not charged with, throwing paint-bombs at elderly residents and sealing their door locks with superglue. Questioned over his night-time wandering around the village, Forster claimed he had been attempting to “find a vantage point from which to observe the moons of Jupiter”. Judge David Bryant, at Teesside Crown Court, described the case as “most unusual…the like of which we may not see again”.