Photos Of The Past That Look Like Trippy Fantasy
We all know that photography was invented after the really cool parts of history. Instead of shots of Vikings chilling out in Constantinople, we have 10 million black-and-white portraits of frowning 19th century bean merchants. But there's never really been a boring historical period and the early era of photography produced images so weird that we'd almost assume they came from a modern fantasy movie.
Kiribati Warriors Looked Like Poseidon's Bodyguards
Let's start this entry off with a warning: We are about to show you the coolest people who have ever lived, at least outside of a '90s Sprite commercial. If you are at work, we cannot recommend reading any further, as the urge to quit your job and begin a new life battling Aquaman may become overwhelming. That being said, please enjoy the greatest war outfit ever created:
That is the traditional fighting armor of Kiribati, a small island nation in the Pacific. It's pronounced Kiri-bass, because would you argue with those guys over spelling? The islands have few resources, so the locals were forced to grab all their war gear from a mermaid's nightmare. First of all, let's get this out of the way: yes those helmets are made from puffer fish.
The I-Kiribati warriors would kill and dry an inflated puffer fish, then line the inside with coconut husk padding, single-handedly transforming themselves into third-tier X-Men. This would be accompanied by armor made from thick coconut fiber mats. Just imagine how much creativity it takes to look at a coconut tree and think "I can turn that into an Iron Man suit, no problem." The coconut armor was often reinforced by an outer breastplate of stingray skin, because there was literally no horrifying sea monster the I-Kiribati wouldn't strap to their body. And they really needed that armor, given that their weapons were somehow even more terrifying.
The I-Kiribati had daggers made out of stingray spines, but that wasn't quite heavy non-metal enough, so their preferred weapons were gigantic wooden swords lined with razor-sharp shark's teeth. And even those apparently weren't quite enough like concept art for Waterworld 2: This Time It's Person-Gill. So they came up with the taumangaria, a three-pronged trident lined with tiger shark teeth. There is not a single photo of the taumangaria that isn't borderline nightmarish, and with good reason (a classic move was to try to slice open the artery inside your opponent's elbow).
All of these weapons were used in epic duels, which could last so long that each fighter was advised to bring a friend to prop him up if he started passing out from heat exhaustion (the large back shield was to protect against rocks thrown by the opposing spectators). So stop picturing Pacific history as all idyllic beaches and coconut parties and start picturing a bunch of awesome maniacs whaling on each other with shark tridents.
The Perm Machine Will Haunt Your Dreams
Well, there's nothing mysterious about this next photo, which clearly depicts a woman being mind-drained by the Cyber-Lords. We can all enjoy the heartwarming smile on her face as she imagines her glorious new mechanical body. Soon she will rise, a wonder of gears and iron, to crush the thrones of man beneath her eight robotic spider legs and subjugate the world of flesh before the might of the Steel Empire. All will die and all will be reborn in fire and metal! It is inevitable!
Okay, in reality that photo is what a trip to the hairdresser involved in the 1920s. Since the modern chemical treatment hadn't been invented yet, getting a perm involved your hair being painted with a cocktail of harsh chemicals then wrapped around a truly terrifying array of electrical heating cylinders, which were then individually wired to an overhead power bank. The resulting pictures look like someone forced John Waters to make a Hellraiser sequel at gunpoint.
It's important to remember that this was not being done by a trained engineer or anything. Instead, your local stylist would be in charge of tethering a dozen red-hot electrified cylinders to your head. Countless women ended up with damaged hair and they were the lucky ones -- severe scalp burns were also a very real possibility. The guy who invented it actually scorched all his wife's hair off twice over before he got it right. As if that wasn't enough, the entire process could be ruined by a single power cut or surge, which were quite common in the 1920s. Also it took 10 hours. Naturally, it was very popular.
To cut the risk of burns, hairdressers eventually started covering their clients' scalps in asbestos, the safest material known to 1920s science. They were probably just moments away from coating the whole thing in radium when an unsung hero named Arnold Willat developed the precursor to the modern perm. The machines were immediately abandoned, because nobody likes spending 10 hours of their day being wired up like a goddamn Fantastic Four villain.
Fear The Bat-Plane
Picture the scene: You're a 19th century French ruffian and you're about to embark on a life of whatever type of crime 19th century France had (brigandry?). Suddenly there's a roaring sound and a mysterious cloud of smoke appears in the sky. Out of which flies this thing...
That is a steam-powered bat plane. We're going to say that again: steam-powered bat plane. Sorry, it's just rare that you run into a sentence that somehow doubles in awesome with every word. The bat-plane was designed in the 1890s by a guy called Clement Ader, who studied bats from the Paris zoo to perfect his creation. The wings were even designed to move in order to "partially simulate the motion of a bat's wings." He just about managed to restrain himself from giving it claws and a pair of glowing bat eyes, presumably for reasons of aerodynamics.
Now, we've looked into it and it doesn't appear as though Ader's parents were gunned down in an alley. Nor was he raised in an abandoned belfry, with mighty flocks of bats his only friends. He was just one of a number of inventors working on steam-powered planes. It seems insane now to imagine boarding an airline and seeing a bunch of coal-smeared guys in hard hats shoveling fuel into the engine, but at one point that was considered the future of air travel. There were steam-powered planes with wingspans over 100 feet, which coincidentally is about how far they could fly.
Ader's first bat-plane (officially called the Eole) did a little better, cruising for 165 feet on its maiden flight. It was actually the first heavier-than-air craft to lift off the ground under its own power (it remains the coolest). The French Ministry of War was impressed enough to fund bigger versions, but they never got off the ground. Partly because steam engines aren't really suited to air travel, but mostly because of the amount of frantic flapping the average bat needs to get aloft. Still, we can all admire the incredible decade when it seemed like the future of warfare might involve swooping about on giant bat wings.
Ancient Egyptian ... Samurai?
The photo below was taken in 1864 and depicts a group of sword-wielding samurai warriors posing by the pyramids and sphinx of Giza. How did this happen? Well, when the pharaohs rose and armies of mummies threatened to overwhelm the living, the Victorian world knew that there was only one team of warriors tough enough to save the day: the steampunk samurai sphinx-slaying squad! (*cue anime theme song*)
Okay, in reality the photograph depicts a visit by the Ikeda embassy, which was sent to Europe by the Shogun to renegotiate some trade agreements. The mission was one of a number of embassies sent overseas by the late shogunate. These usually created a great stir in Europe, partly because the samurai refused to go anywhere without their katana and wakizashi swords, which were recognized as extremely cool even in the 19th century. In Britain, samurai rode on the new London Underground with their swords and even got into a dispute with the ceremonial Beefeater guards when they paid a visit to the Tower of London. Sadly, this was resolved peacefully and we never got the acrobatic Samurai-vs-Beefeater duel that the situation clearly demanded.
The Ikeda embassy was intended to limit overseas trade, thereby keeping Japanese ports closed to foreign influences. However, they ultimately failed to obtain a deal, possibly because their leader was a guy called Ikeda Nagaoki and all the negotiators kept getting distracted by how hot he was. Seriously, he didn't even have any experience leading expeditions, we're pretty sure the Shogun just wanted him out of the country to give everyone a chance to catch their breath.
On the bright side, the embassy passed through Egypt on the way to France and got to pay a famous visit to the pyramids. There's no word on what ancient evil they battled there, but we're forced to assume that they were successful, since it was after their visit that Giza really came into its own as a tourist destination.
Abraham Lincoln: Sex Ghost
Abraham Lincoln, America's greatest president, was tragically assassinated by a time-travelling George Soros in 1865, at least according to that Facebook post we just saw. But did he make a surprise reappearance years later? If you squint your brain at this photo of his widow Mary Todd, you can just make out what appears to be his ghost:
The photo was taken in the studio of William Mumler, a "spirit photographer" who claimed his camera had the miraculous ability to capture images of the dead. We can now recognize these images as crude fakes, but at the time even some of the nation's top photographers were convinced, especially because Mumler's development methods appeared no different from normal (most likely the ghost image was already on the plate before he took the photo, although nobody ever did prove how he was doing it). With the experts baffled, Mumler became a huge sensation. People lined up around the block to have photos taken with the spirits who apparently hovered around the living at all times.
Mumler's greed started to get the better of him around the time he launched a mail-order business. You literally just sent him an envelope full of cash and a description of the ghost you wanted to see and he sent back a photo. Not even the most ardent believers in spiritualism were convinced that ghosts could be delivered like pizza, and there were also several embarrassing incidents where Mumler's "spirits" were identified as living people who had once been photographed at his studio. His final downfall came when he moved from Boston to New York and was quickly thrown into prison for the twin crimes of fraud and being from Boston.
The prosecution's key witness was none other than PT Barnum, who wasn't about to let anyone else scam in his city. The trial ultimately collapsed, but Mumler's reputation was ruined anyway and he retired to die in poverty, as was the style in those days. But the next time The Twilight Zone does an episode about a creepy photographer whose camera captures the spirits of the dead, just remember that all of Boston was living in that reality for the best part of a decade.
The First Suspended Railway Is Weirdly Beautiful
Picture Europe in 1901. You're probably imagining a world of steam trains and horse-drawn carriages, maybe those early cars that appeared to be made out of balsa wood and sounded like a hippo choking. But that's actually the year the world's first commercial suspended passenger train opened over the River Wupper in Germany. Even today it looks insanely futuristic, like something a steampunk artist would throw in to let you know that this isn't your typical Victorian cityscape. The railway is actually still in operation, although it was considerably modernized after being damaged in the Second World War, not to mention a surprise elephant attack in 1950 (moral of that story: don't try to take a circus elephant on a suspension train).
If there's one thing to take away from this article, it's that the past was much weirder and more wonderful than our pop culture image of it. But don't take our word for it. Thanks to the Museum of Modern Art and colorizer Denis Shiryaev you can view colorized footage of a ride on the train in 1902. It's a surprisingly beautiful glimpse into a vanished world, although it would be slightly improved if it briefly passed over an alliance of heavily permed samurai and Kiribati warriors battling Abe Lincoln's ghost.
Top image: Clement Ader/Wikimedia Commons