Madame Alberti’s Science of Flight (1931)

Madame Alberti's science of flight

On a crisp April morning in 1931, a sturdy, middle-aged woman strode purposefully up a hillock overlooking the Spot Pond reservoir outside Boston, MA. Judging the wind conditions and checking that the newsreel cameras were rolling, Madame Helene Alberti adjusted her wings and prepared to launch herself skyward.

Born in Chicago in 1874, Madame Alberti had enjoyed some success as an opera singer and, occasionally, as a burlesque queen, at the turn of the 20th century. By the late 1920s, her singing career well behind her, she had developed a passion for rediscovering the “ancient Greek laws of cosmic motion”. This was a system of metaphysical culture that, she fervently believed, would ultimately allow humans to run tirelessly, lift tremendous weights and even fly like birds. If her latest experiments bore fruit, she planned to establish a school for instruction in her system.

As she explained to a Boston Herald reporter, “cosmic motion” was predicated on several key principles. First was the concept of “engines”; major nerve ganglia in certain parts of the body, most importantly the abdomen, the solar plexus and the base of the spine. These were engines in the sense that they generated energy to produce movement. To extend the analogy, the “ignition key” was the exertion of willpower, because, Madame Alberti reasoned, these nerve centers are connected to the brain and can thus be controlled by the mind.

The second major principle involved the understanding that atoms, including, obviously, those that made up the human body, were largely empty space. As Madame Alberti described it, quoting Dr. Arthur A. Noyes:

Under the atomic theory of the structure of all substances, atoms are mostly holes. They are made of positive and negative charges of electricity, and the number grouping the weight of the charges, determine whether the atoms are the helium, which lifts the dirigible Los Angeles, or tin, or something else.’

As further proof that this theory has sound basis, Dr. Noyes points out that the whole structure of modern chemistry, which is creating articles by synthetic processes, has been erected upon it. Illustrating the emptiness of an atom, he said that if an atom of helium were to be magnified so that its centre or nucleus could be teed up on a golf course, the electrons which compose the remainder of the atom and which are supposed to revolve around it, would be on the green 200 yards away. In between would be tremendous forces of attraction and locked-up energy, which, however, are no more tangible than empty space.

Searing in mind, then, these tunnels or spaces between the molecules of the body, you can with the right thought contract the body to a state of solidity, and with relaxation expand it to a state or feeling of thin air without weight. You can take possession of your own body and make it obey your will.

Centralize your thought. Relax the whole outer body — wear it as a garment. Now, from that center begin to move, letting the force within you raise you up; feel yourself filled with energy. Now let it out slowly in rhythm; again, sideways, expanding the universal laws of forces around, above, beneath, and on either side of you.

The bodily motion of human flight was not, as some people conceived it, that of flapping the arms with wings attached to them, but of rhythmically rocking the torso back and forth. This would not be a purely muscular effort; the “engine” in the chest would pull the body forward and the one at the base of the spine would draw it back, and so on, ad infinitum. Put on wings – constructed to aeronautical principles – turn on the motive power, and up you go, just like an airplane or a bird.

Madame Alberti had, in fact, tested a set of wings as early as 1929. She and a young female assistant had made their way to Spot Pond early in the morning, before any curious bystanders might be about. Unfortunately, a strong wind had been blowing that day and their experimental wings, which had not been constructed in accordance with the latest aeronautical standards, eventually collapsed in the gale. Madame Alberti reported that she had, however, felt appreciably lighter while running with the wings, which was surely a sign that she was on the right track:

I have proved to my own satisfaction that these old Greek laws of motion, once understood, can be made to work today. I believe they can be made to hold practical value for us. That is what I am trying to demonstrate. If they have no practical value, they are no good.

I firmly believe the day is not far distant when we will be able to entrust our bodies to the air in the same manner and in the same degree of safety as the swimmer yields his body to the water, breasting the air currents with the same confidence as he does the tides. And I have solid reason for my belief in the actual accomplishment of a runner under my training, who has, when going at a great speed, run a few paces in the air without his feet touching the ground.

I am not speaking boastfully, but in my teaching I have yet to find a man as strong as myself or who can do some of the things I can do now, for I am stronger today than ever in my life before. I can walk farther, lift heavier weights, and I have more endurance than when I was 20 or even 30 years old. By using the inner force from the Center, I can push over a whole line of people. So can anyone if he will make use of that inner force in moving around instead of using the outside of the body only.

Undeterred by the merely mechanical failure of her home-made wings, Madame Alberti approached an elderly gentleman by the name of Sanders, who was a resident at the Odd Fellow Home in Concord, New Hampshire. Mr. Sanders eventually constructed a truly robust set of wings made out of spars of ash wood, covered with a strong cotton duck fabric and securely attached to a body harness.

Madame Alberti's science of flight

All was now in readiness, and so, accompanied by several somewhat bemused but obviously affectionate young assistants, a newsreel team and photographers, Madame Alberti again set out to prove her theories.

The newsreel copywriters were unkind:


BROOKLINE, MASS. – Mme. Helene Alberti, concert singer of Boston, turns from her thrushlike warbling to another phase of avian endeavor – soaring by arm power. Using hills of estate as testing ground, she and male pupil spring gaily into the air, flutter canvas propellers assiduously and go into nose dives promptly.

Sadly, it seems as if Madame Alberti’s system did not survive this ridicule, although perhaps it would be nice to think that it simply went underground. In any case, she lived a long life, passing away peacefully in 1962, at the respectable age of 88 years.

Madame Alberti's science of flight

Note – an earlier version of the above article originally appeared on the Past Tense blog.  It is re-used here by permission.

Orson Welles “Apologizes” for Sparking Martian Invasion Panic (1938)

The story of how 23-year-old theatre prodigy Orson Welles frightened American radio audiences with his realistic dramatization of The War of the Worlds has long since passed into folklore, but how did Welles himself feel about that story?

Although media historians have questioned the actual extent and degree of “mass panic” that may have taken place – arguing that much of it may have been exaggerated by newspaper editors eager to score points against the rival medium of radio – it is certain that the broadcast alarmed a significant number of people.

Some listeners, their anxieties already heightened by daily news reports concerning the march of German soldiers through Europe, may have misheard the word “Martian” as “Nazi” and thereby became convinced that the US was under attack by the Axis powers. Others simply tuned in part-way through the broadcast, missing the announcement that it was a work of fiction. There were also unfortunate co-incidences, such as a total power black-out in the town of Concrete, Washington, which interrupted the local broadcast at a crucial moment and left listeners literally in the dark and imagining the worst.

The immediate aftermath included a genuine invasion of CBS’ Madison Avenue radio studio by scowling police officers, who confiscated scripts and sternly interviewed Welles but could not figure out whether any laws had actually been broken. There were also dire threats of censure or even legal action from the FCC.

The day after the War of the Worlds broadcast, Welles himself held a press conference, which is shown below. On the face of it, he was the picture of earnest contrition as he gravely fielded questions from newspaper and radio journalists:

The subsequent scandal (and intense media exposure) did no harm at all to Welles’ career, and within a few short years he had transitioned to Hollywood and directed his cinematic masterpiece, Citizen Kane.

By 1955, with his Martians receding into popular memory, Welles allowed himself some considerable, if understated, relish in relating several amusing and colorful anecdotes about the invasion panic. He also offered the “confession” that his adaptation of War of the Worlds was not quite as innocent as he had previously claimed:

And in a 1975 interview with Tom Snyder, Welles further admitted, with regards to his 1938 press conference appearance:

There are pictures of me made about three hours after the broadcast looking as much as I could like an early Christian saint. As if I didn’t know what I was doing … but I’m afraid it was about as hypocritical as anyone could possibly get!

Note – an earlier version of the above article originally appeared on the Past Tense blog. It is re-used here by permission.

EMERGO! The Re-Emergence of a Classic Fright-Film Gimmick (1958)

In the schlocky world of ’50s/’60s horror film marketing, William Castle was the undisputed king, and the “Emergo” effect was possibly his greatest promotional gimmick.

Castle was a producer and director with a live theater background and a reputation for being able to crank out competent, crowd-pleasing B-movies on time and under budget. He also possessed a showman’s shrewd understanding of what it took to fill cinemas in an age when television was slowly overtaking the movie-going experience.

In 1958 he had the idea for a live-action special effect he called “Emergo”, and so he produced a movie to justify that effect, telling the screenwriter that he didn’t care what the story was about as long as it featured a skeleton emerging from a vat of acid.

The resulting film was titled House On Haunted Hill and starred Vincent Price as an eccentric millionaire who invites guests to stay in his haunted mansion. In true proto-Scooby Doo style, it is eventually revealed that the millionaire was faking the haunt in self-defense against a murder plot. None of that mattered very much to Castle’s first matinee audiences, who were on the edge of their seats waiting to experience Emergo.

At the crucial moment, as the apparently ghostly skeleton appeared on-screen, a glowing plastic skeleton would emerge from behind the screen and “float” out over the cinema audience via a system of wires and pulleys. Meanwhile, Vincent Price’s on-screen character was seen manipulating a gadget that appeared to be controlling the flying specter, maneuvering it until it returned to its lair.

The novelty of Emergo caught the public imagination and, as word slowly spread from town to town, local kids would compete to see who could be the first to hit the flying skeleton with thrown popcorn. The important thing to Castle, of course, was that they had paid to get in.

Castle’s later promotional gimmicks included “Percepto” (electric buzzers installed in cinema seats, for The Tingler) and the “Punishment Poll” (in which audiences were purportedly able to “vote” for the punishment of the on-screen villain Mr. Sardonicus). They also inspired the underrated movie Matinee (1993), which starred John Goodman as the very Castlesque “Lawrence Woolsey”.

In recent years, some small cinemas have begun staging William Castle homages (especially around Halloween), offering modern audiences the same tongue-in-cheek thrills that were his stock-in-trade sixty years ago. Of course, no modern screening of House on Haunted Hill is complete without its own take on Emergo:

Note – an earlier version of the above article originally appeared on the Past Tense blog.It is re-used here by permission.

The Languages of Mars (1899)

The Languages and Architecture of Mars (circa 1899)

One of the most curious examples of late-19th/early 20th century “trance mediumship” is that of Catherine-Elise Muller, a young French woman who believed herself to be in regular psychic contact with the inhabitants of the planet Mars.

This was the heyday of spiritualism; the purported practice of contact with “the world beyond” by practitioners known as mediums. Typically, a medium would conduct a ritualistic sitting (or seance) for a small group in a darkened room, entering a trance state that was supposed to allow a discarnate “spirit guide” to communicate through them. This entity would then answer questions posed by the group, via various means such as “automatic writing”, after which the medium would return from the trance state, often professing no memory of what their spirit guide had said.

Miss Muller’s professed spirit guides had previously included an ancient Indian princess, the sorcerer Cagliostro and the famed author Victor Hugo. During the 1890s, however, she began to channel what she believed to be the voice of Esenale, a “translator” and resident of Mars. Esenale’s communiques, which included both speech and an intricate form of sign language, eventually included detailed descriptions of Martian culture, technology, flora and fauna. The latter included the vaguely Asiatic Martian humanoids and the troll-like inhabitants of “Ultra-Mars” as well as semi-sentient dog-like creatures whose heads “resembled cabbages” and who were capable of running errands and even taking dictation.

Over a number of seances, Miss Muller also produced a glossary and alphabet of the Martian language. The phrase “Dode ne haudan te meche metiche Astane ke de me veche, for example, meant “This is the house of the great man Astane, whom thou hast seen,” whereas Martian script looked like this:

The Languages and Architecture of Mars (circa 1899)

Ultra-Martian, on the other hand, was a separate language entirely, with its own alphabet.

Skeptics, including the psychologist Théodore Flournoy who worked closely with Muller over a period of about five years, noted that her Martian languages were structurally almost identical to her native French. Flournoy presented his findings in a book titled From India to the Planet Mars, which became a popular curiosity amidst the prevailing cultural debates on spiritualism.

It should be noted that while Flournoy did not believe that Miss Muller was actually communicating with Martians, nor did he think that she was deliberately inventing her Martian visions; rather, he opined that she had a singular gift for unconsciously compartmentalizing her own creative imagination. Flournoy expressed admiration for his subject’s creativity and also protected her identity by giving her the pseudonym “Helene Smith”. The medium herself was not pleased with his book, which presented her as a psychological case study in glossolalia rather than as a psychic; however, From India to the Planet Mars made her reputation and she continued to use the Helene Smith pseudonym professionally.

In the years that followed, she accepted the generous patronage of an American spiritualist and developed a form of Christian spiritualism with extraterrestrial elements. She also turned increasingly towards “automatic art”, producing intricate paintings of Martian landscapes and architecture as well as images of Jesus Christ. These paintings, which would probably be classified as “outsider art” today, were embraced particularly by the Surrealist movement during the first decades of the 20th century.

The Languages and Architecture of Mars (circa 1899)

See Daniel Rosenburg’s essay, Speaking Martian, for a more complete examination of this peculiar case.

Note – an earlier version of the above article originally appeared on the Past Tense blog. It is re-used here by permission.

Amazing Insight? Derren Brown Demonstrates the Barnum/Forer Effect

British mentalist and skeptic Derren Brown astounds three groups of young people in Spain, England and the USA by divining incredibly accurate personality profiles of each of them, seemingly based on nothing more than his examination of a drawn outline of their hands, their dates and times of birth and a small personal object.

In fact, Mr. Brown is offering an object lesson in the Barnum effect, also known as the Forer effect. If you can’t spare the eight minutes and eighteen seconds it takes to watch the video – though it’s strongly recommended – you can test the effect for yourself in about one minute by deciding how many of the following statements apply to you:

You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.
Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.
At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
Security is one of your major goals in life.

If that list of statements was supplied by someone presenting themselves as a seer, with all due showmanship and business of palm reading, peering into a crystal ball or calculating numerological correspondences, might you assume that they had a supernatural insight into your personality?