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January 11, 2024 9 mins

Looking back on things that were made in the past can always be enlightening--and more than a little curious.

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to Aaron Manke's Cabinet of Curiosities, a production of
iHeartRadio and Grimm and Mild. Our world is full of
the unexplainable, and if history is an open book, all
of these amazing tales right there on display, just waiting
for us to explore. Welcome to the Cabinet of Curiosities. History,

as they say, is written by the victors, which is
a little ironic when you consider that this phrase, often
attributed to Winston Churchill, is actually of uncertain origin. So
much of the past has been lost, and the historical
records we do have can be extremely biased. Take the
story of Nathaniel Russell, for example. Born in Rhode Island
in seventeen thirty eight, Nathaniel moved to Charleston, South Carolina

in his late twenties. He began a career as a merchant,
trading rice, tobacco, cotton, and human beings. Nathaniel made a
fortune participating in the African slave trade. In seventeen eighty eight,
when he was fifty years old, Nathaniel married a woman
named Sarah Hopton. Sarah was the daughter of a wealthy
Charleston family, so the union secured his social and economic

position in colonial America. He later paid for the construction
of a lavish mansion in South Carolina, where his family
and the humans that he enslaved lived. These days, the
Nathaniel Russell Houses considered one of the most important examples
of Neoclassical architecture in America. It's since been restored, but
remains decorated in ante bellum fashion. Think floor to ceiling windows,

a giant spiral staircase, and oil paintings hung on every wall.
The home gives the impression of luxury and esteem, two
things that Nathaniel and his family certainly enjoyed. But like
I mentioned, the Russells weren't the only ones who lived
inside this Charleston mansion. Over two centuries, the stories of
the people they enslaved were lost, But then in twenty seventeen,

representatives from the Historic Charleston Foundation decided to restore the
kitchen House. Now, the kitchen house was a separate building
on the property. It's where enslaved people would have worked
and lived, Unlike the rest of the mansion, though this
part had never been fixed up, which meant that there
were parts that had never been explored. When conservation experts
cut into the walls, they found a whole lot of dust.

Beneath that, there was hair, buttons, marbles, part of a waistcoat,
fragments of a newspaper from November of eighteen thirty three,
and lots of rodent droppings. It was a nineteenth century
rat's nest, preserved inside the walls for roughly two hundred years. Now,
if the thought makes your stomach turn, I don't blame you,

but here's the thing. Rats are actually furry little historians,
and their archives are entirely unbiased. You see, in order
to build their nests, rats gather a bunch of random
stuff from their environment. They inadvertently create a snapshot of
a specific time in place, simply by collecting the items
that happened to be there. There is an entire area
of study devoted to this phenomenon. It's called rat nest archaeology,

and the practice has revealed interesting items all over the
American South. For example, at Poplar Forest Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Retreats,
rats filled the walls with newspapers, eighteenth century board game pieces,
and even an entire shoe. At the Bray School in Williamsburg, Virginia, rats.
Pilford a mechanical pencil from the eighteen thirties, one of

the earliest models manufactured in the United States, and it
goes back even further than that. Rats can also help
us understand ancient history. In Central Oregon's Paisley Caves, seven
thousand year old rodents' nests were found to contain man
made items. This suggests that some of the earliest humans
in the region lived in those caves too. But I

want to go back to the Nathaniel Russell House. Of
all the stuff rodents hid in the walls of the
kitchen House, one thing stuck out to me the most
scraps torn out of an early writing textbook. Remember this
was inside a building where only enslave people lived and worked,
and this was an era when the vast majority of
enslaved people were forced to remain illiterate. Based on the

paper scraps, archaeologists think that those who lived inside the
Kitchen House were teaching themselves to read and write in
a world that said that they were less than human.
They were working to gain a small bit of power,
the ability to tell their own stories, to record their
own history. And we know this because, as it turns
out history is not written by the victors, it's collected

by rats. For most of us, learning to write a
bicycle was a rite of passage, one that involved more
than a few scraped elbows and knees. Learning how to balance,

pedal and break can be tough, but beyond the actual
mechanics of riding a bike, there's a deeper lesson that
all kids need to learn. When you fall, you have
to get back up and try again. Thankfully, our modern
pedal powered machines have a relatively low risk of injury.
In fact, when they were first developed, they were advertised
as safety bicycles, and that's because their predecessors were remarkably dangerous.

The first two wheeled bicycle was invented in Germany in
eighteen seventeen. Its official name was the lauf Machine or
running machine in English, but everybody just called it the
bone shaker. It looked similar to bicycles of today, except
it was made almost entirely out of wood and it
didn't have any pedals. The idea was that you could

sit down, kick the ground to get some momentum, then
the wheels would propel you forward. It was kind of
like the car from the flint stones. But it wasn't
exactly an off road vehicle since it was wooden. The
tiniest pebble or crack the pavement would send shutters through
the whole machine, hence the nickname the bone shaker. This
is how the American Cyclopedia described it. Quote. The defects

of the running machine its rigidity and its strain on
the rider in propelling it by muscular thrust, besides rendering
it impractical for general road travel and subjecting the rider
to severe jolting, were frequent cause of abdominal hernia. Yeah.
Clearly the design needed some improvements, so an English inventor
named James Starley, better known as the father of the

bicycle industry, answered the call. In the eighteen seventies, he
updated the running machine in a number of ways. Instead
of wood, his new design was made with hollow metal
frame and rubber tires. He also added pedals. All in all,
it seemed like the bicycle was moving in a good direction. Right. Well,
there's one more thing that you should know. James Starley's

bike was built for speed, which is why its front
wheel measured over five feet tall and its back wheel
was a meager fourteen inches in dice diameter. Oh and
it didn't have any brakes. This weird bike was called
a penny Farthing. It was named after two British coins,
which were vastly different in size. Just like the two wheels,
Getting on and off was a challenge, and the lack

of brakes meant that crashes were very common. But still
the machine speed was a big draw. By the early
nineteen hundreds, people flocked to London to watch and join
penny farthing races. These events were exciting too, if only
because the spectacle was so strange and the risk of
disaster so high. Bikes could travel over fifteen miles an hour.

Because the front wheel was so tall, riders often sat
five to seven feet up in the air. If two
penny Farthings collided, the drivers would be pitched out of
their seats, and way back then, nobody was wearing helmets.
Penny Farthings fell out of fashion in the nineteen twenties
when the safety bikele hit the stores, but curiously, the

Victorian era vehicle has experienced a modern resurgence. Competitive races
became common again in the nineteen eighties, although helmets are
now required. Perhaps the most well known Dash takes place
in the English village of Nottsford. Every ten years. The
streets are blocked off to make room for the Great Race,
a penny farthing sprint for the benefits of charity. The

last Great Race was held in October of this year.
Melissa Idel, the current European female Penny Farthing racing Champion,
was there. She describes riding the asymmetrical bike as and
I quote, a combination of flying a helicopter and riding
a mechanical horse. It's avant garde, it's risky. One jerk
can mean the bike flips and that's you hurtling through

the air. And with that, I think it's fair to
say that the Penny Farthing puts a different spin on
the age old wisdom. If you fall from seven feet high,
get back up, brush yourself off, and consider getting a
bike that actually has brakes. I hope you've enjoyed today's

guided tour of the Cabinet of Curiosities. Subscribe for free
on Apple Podcasts, or learn more about the show by
visiting Curiosities podcast dot com. The show was created by
me Aaron Mankey in partnership with how Stuff Works. I
make another Award winning show called Lore which is a podcast,
book series, and television show and you can learn all

about it over at the Worldoflore dot com. And until
next time, stay curious.

Aaron Mahnke's Cabinet of Curiosities News

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