Saturday, July 25, 2015

Junkers G.38 Flying Wing, a Behemoth of a Plane and a Crystallization of a Dream Meets Indiana Jones

Understanding the 1920s through period technology is not a new idea, but the Junkers G.38 flying wing is not just important technology, but also important culturally as a figure of 1920s modernism and cultural change.  Since this is (usually) a blog about gaming and role playing games, I want to also work in the social context for those RPGers out there who want to make the period more accessible, so pardon my occasional typical digressions.   To see some of the pictures in a larger size, hover over the picture and right click to bring up the menu and select, "open link in new tab/window" which will be larger than the slide show size.

The Roaring 20’s roared in more ways that one and modern technology was doing things thought impossible twenty or even ten years before.  The medium of radio blossomed in the 20s, cars became available to the common man in the 20s, everything moved faster, everything was more connected, everything was becoming more modern, more streamlined, and the economy in the United Sates was taking off.   The rests of the world was also tearing forward technologically and socially with new inventions, and faster and better also.  Well, actually the economic outlook was bad for most of Europe and extremist organizations were on the rise, with social disorder everywhere in the wake of WWI and the Treaty of Versailles.   The world order had been reshuffled and somebody was dealing from the bottom of the deck.

With that long introduction, I want to talk about a modern, futuristic plane created in the interwar period of Weimar Germany, the Junkers G.38.  It didn’t just appear out of nowhere, but was the brainchild of Hugo Junkers, who had a belief in air transportation even before the Great War.  Hugo Junkers who founded the Junkers Flugzeug- und Motorenwerke AG aircraft company, patented the deep-wing concept in 1910, the great grandfather of the flying wing.  Junkers engineer Ernst Zindel designed an aircraft that was all metal and the wing encased the engines, fuel cells as well as the cargo/passenger area, with the pilots housed forward in a house of glass.  Truly the modern era had arrived and in this case form did follow function, but also the new modernist philosophy of the age.[1]

Hugo Junkers had a vision of modern air travel using a monowing aircraft that was all metal in an age of multi wing aircraft that were wood and canvas.  Early on in his career, his Deep Wing Patent (Nurflügel design) of 1910 showed where his mind was going even before the Great War and just seven years after the Wright Brother’s breakthrough in controlled heavier than air flight.  In WWI, Junkers was cajoled into making warcraft for the German Empire, but it was done so reluctantly.  After the war, Junkers went back into aircraft design for civilian transports.
Junkers returned to the road to the flying wing by starting modestly with the G.24 single engine aircraft, introduced in 1925 and then the G.31 trimotor design of 1928.  Note the American Ford version of the Trimotor came out in 1925 but owed a debt of gratitude to Junker’s pioneer work.  Next came the G.38 model of 1929 and then the Ju 52, another trimotor design from 1931, which continued to be in commission for decades, just as the Ford trimotor proved to be a durable workhorse.
Junkers crowning achievement was the G.38 transport, which was the acme of modernist aircraft design up to that time.  Many people put their dreams on paper and a few made a model, even fewer made the full-sized aircraft, but darn few actually flew them successfully and went into production.  The G.38 was the culmination of decades of work and dreams, which became a reality. 
This flying wonder had a crew of seven and as an airline could carry 30 to 34 passengers, depending on the modification with three cabins each holding 11 passengers.  There was also wash rooms and a smoking cabin as well as a galley for preparing meals.  The great thing about this design was that the leading edge of the wings had windows and there was a viewing area in the front of the nose of the aircraft that could hold two. 

I was just over 76 feet long and a wingspan of 144 feet.  It featured two pair of disparate engines completely in the wing.  Powering the craft were two Junkers L55 V-12 water cooled piston engines with a four bladed, fixed pitch wooden propeller on each inboard engine and two Junkers L8a six cylinder water cooled piston engines with a two bladed wooden fixed pitch wooden propeller outboard.  Later the design was changed so that that all four engines had four bladed propellers.  The G.38  could develop 140 mph as a max speed and the cruise was 109 mpg with a range of 2,150 miles without refueling and a service ceiling of 12,106 feet.  Not a bad design for an old Victorian guy who was born in the 1850s.

Early on in its career, the G.38 was the largest plane in the world and the passenger accommodations were considered sumptuous when the passenger capacity was reduced somewhat.  Remember the passengers were seated within the wings with lots of room.  There were even two extra sets in an observation section in the nose of the aircraft.  The G.38 was even competing with Zeppelins in the prestige passenger service sector.   Constant upgrades in design and with the engines kept the aircraft competitive, flying up to WWII, during which time they were commandeered by the Luftwaffe for military use.  None of the G.38s survived the war.

Other countries were impressed with the Junkers design.  Japan sent a delegation to Germany to study aircraft design and this led to the G.38 being built under contract by Mitsubishi as the Ki-20.  Six were built and one still survives, housed in the Tokorozawa Aviation Memorial Hall.  William Stout’s Ford Trimotor airliner was based on Junker designs.  Tupolev’s ANT-20, the eight engined monster, eventually the largest aircraft when it was built also owes a debt to Hugo Junkers.  See also my post about Miazaki’s animated film, The Wind Rises.
Despite his triumphs, Hugo Junkers didn’t fare well with the end of the Weimar Republic and the new malignant regime which came to power in Germany.  In 1933 his company, factory, and patents were seized by the NAZIs, and he died a broken man in 1935.[2]

The flying wing was a holy grail and an aeronautical icon of modernist aircraft design that strove not to only improve overall performance, but to make the plane look modern, espousing aesthetic ideas of simplicity of design.  The G.38 was a gigantic leap up from the earlier Ju G.24 design.  The original 1910 deep wing patent and the Junkers G 38 aircraft were the direct ancestors of the later US Northrop YB-49 Flying Wing and the later Northrop-Grumman bomber, the B-2 Spirit. 

 As a Raiders of the Lost Ark tie-in, (yes I know it takes place in the late 30s) the airplane that Indy fights the sergeant around and under appears to be a modified and scaled down version of the G.38, probably due to budget constraints as well as the fact that on the full-size aircraft the props were way above your head with no possibility of being hit by the blade.  See also
A few interesting errors in Raiders for those who have an eye for such things:

For you gamers out there, I hope that this thumbnail sketch of the G.38 and its milieu  helps in understanding the 1920s a little better.  There is plenty of information out there about the G.38 for making scenarios and I hope this introduction will be of help.  I know that many of the concepts I have skated over in this post are far to in depth to be covered by a single article, no less a book, so I leave it to the reader to conduct his/her own research into these often contradictory and revised concepts that had great currency in the 1920s.  I know that I have probably made a few errors here, so I would appreciate it if some of you air historians would help me out.


[1]  Doc Savage, that Übermensch of American modern interwar progressive pulp figures, had a flying wing in his arsenal of modern gadgets in his war against crime.  For a bit of contrasting reading and viewing an opposing view, try Ayn Rand’s Objectivist film, based loosely on the book, The Fountainhead (1943). The movie and film gives a glimpse into a highly actualized and objectified individual in the person of the protagonist Roark, who is closer to the original Übermensch concept than was adopted by the National Socalists – a Nietzschesque artist-tyrant character functioning in a real world with unbendable personal ethics.  Along that line, see also her book, Atlas Shrugged (1957), but I digress.

[2]  Hugo Junkers was closely associated with the Bauhaus Movement, which closed its doors at about the same time he was shorn of his company.  For you students of 20s art and architecture, understanding the Art Deco and Bauhaus movements is important in grasping the huge changes culturally which flowered in the post-war environment, although it had its deep roots prewar, often as a reaction against Victorianism and Art Nouveau as well as 19th century instructions.  For you Call of Cthulu RPG players, keep in mind a middle aged person in the mid 1920s had been born in the 1880s, which was a world away in every sense.

 Notes and Links of Interest
Social change as well as technological change is key in understanding the 1920s and these articles may help the CoC and Dieselpunk gamer:
Progressive Era of social and technological modernization whose roots sprang from the Victorian Era
See also The Efficiency Movement, which became a major fetish
A bridge between two periods see the article covering 1893-1918 which eventually becomes 

I know it’s a little shopworn to make reference to the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, The Great Gatsby (1925) – which rejection of the cold materialism of acquisition at any price but the mid 20s date of this novel shows that people were aware of the changes even early on in the Jazz Age, but it’s important to note that the novel was published at the peak of that era, showing that people were cognizant what was happening.
F. Scott Fitzgerald book downloads for free
Flappers and Philosophers (1921)
Tales of the Jazz Age (1922)

As a Raiders of the Lost Ark (yes I know it takes place in the late 30s) tie-in, the airplane Indy fights the sergeant around and under appears to be a modified and scaled down version of the G.38, probably due to budget constraints as well as the fact that on the full-size aircraft the props were way above your head with no possibility of being hit by the blade.
A few interesting errors in Raiders for those who have an eye for such things:

Two salient films that express the hopes and fears of the Progressive movement are embodied in the movies Metropolis and The Shape of Things to Come.  Worth considering also is Wells’ 1895 book, The Time Machine, which takes these concepts to their (literally) ultimate end in his nihilistic but oddly hopeful book.  It later made into several movies over the years.  Download The Time Machine for free on Project Gutenberg   For a little extra credit, consider Olaf Stapledon’s classic, Last Men and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future (1932), an early transhuman SF story  download

 More Information on Large Aircraft
Also the German Boat Plane trans-Atlantic flights to South America
of interest to readers of the 20s-30s and to CoC and Dieselpunk RPGrs.

On par with the G.38. see also some information on boatplanes:  Dornier DoX a huge plane for 1929  See also Wikipedia article on flying boats

Although too late for the 1920s, it’s worth reading up on the Flying Clipper boatplanes and

See also the Spruce Goose, a monster of a wooden transport craft.  It’s a little out of period, but shows a logical progression of giant transports first seen in the 1920s.

Review and image of Revell's 1/144 scale model of the Junkger G.38 with some good background material

David Horn Collection photo of Junkers G.38 D-2000 in flight

The first picture in this post is Peregrine Heathcote’s work as seen on the blog site, Art Contrarian

Russian aircraft Kaminin K-7 from 1933  – this is far more Dieselpunk than I expected and has a few amusing fantasy mockups (G.38/K-7 fusions) along with some facts in the article. 

Text © William Murphy aka CoastConFan 2015; you may link to this article, quote if you like, but give me a little credit please, it took time to research and write this article.  Photos and art are property of their respective owners. This is a non-commercial site and I make no money from these articles.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Jōmon Cthulhu and the Chariots of the Elder Things

I have found a few apparently dissimilar points of interests to readers of classic Weird Fiction, but I suggest that they converge with H. P. Lovecraft’s writings.  If nothing else, enjoy the pretty pictures, consider them Props of the Gods.

The Jōmon were a very early human culture, in fact we are only now in the past few decades realizing how early and how advanced they were.  One of the most durable items a culture can leave behind are their ceramics and the Jōmon made some spectacular items that are perplexing to our Eurocentric eyes and conservative expectations.  To say they are alien to our expectations of Asian art probably isn’t too extreme a statement for the average reader.  I suggest there is an interesting link between Jōmon artifacts, H. P. Lovecraft and Erich von Däniken, which I want to explore in this post.  I’ll have more on that later.  Keep in mind that I am not an archeologist, nor a Lovecraft scholar, just an interested fan, so bear with me if I am both too obscure for some and yet too obvious to others in the wide range of readers out there.  First a little background.

The Jōmon are one of the oldest (and obscure until recent times) cultures known to us, starting about 11,000 BCE and lasting for some ten thousand years or more producing some enticing artifacts, most of which were seldom seen out of academic circles until the past few of decades.  These artifacts were known as far back as the mid 1870s when American zoologist and naturalist Edward Morse, found some amazing items from an unknown and early culture in Meiji Era Japan.  He christened them “corded-marked” from the way some of them been decorated prior to firing.  This title translated into Jōmon in Japanese and this became the name of the previously nameless, unknown culture.  Eventually his collection of Japanese artifacts went to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem MA, where he was director of Archeology and Ethnology from 1880 to 1914 after which in 1915 he became Chairman.   It wasn’t just the anthropomorphic figures that were startling, but their abstract, stylized ritual containers that really draws my attention.  A timeline of the Jōmon can be found here and some more information here.
I wonder if Lovecraft ever saw some of Morse’s Jōmon artifacts at the Peabody Museum on one of his visits to Salem.   Lovecraft did name one the of the explorers, Frank H. Pabodie in his Cthulhu Mythos story, At the Mountains of Madness (originally written in 1931), in which a fabulous and very ancient unknown city is found in Antarctica.  Could this been a tip of the hat to the Peabody and to Morse? [2]    

So today I am showcasing some Jōmon Culture artifacts, which are the product of a vibrant, very ancient and very real culture, which have been neglected until the past few decades.  Personally, my first exposure to Jomon Culture artifacts was through a book popular in the late 1960s, Erich von Däniken’s book Chariot of the Gods?, published in 1969 in an American translation and release.  The fact that most of the American public’s first glimpse into creations of the Jomon Culture comes from this book, so to an extent von Däniken has some association with the common perceptions around the Jomon Culture and this leads me into my usual cant about Weird Fiction.  Look the photos and see what great props they would make.

This isn’t a new idea really, a number of authors have suggested a single very ancient world culture.  For example the Platonic literary reference to Atlantians [1] and their diaspora (taking their technology with them) were considered the seeds of civilizations with a number of writers of esoterica over the years.  I’ll leave it to the reader to Google this stuff out if it is of interest as I only mention it in passing.  The point is that it really isn’t a new idea in Lovecraft’s time nor in von Däniken’s time either. 

While not the first to suggest a single causal influence to all of human civilization(s), Erich von Däniken was a popular modern author from the late 60s through the 70s and beyond, whose speculative books on alternate views of human progress are deeply rooted pseudoarcheology and pseudohistory.  But he did shake up a number of laymen with his misattributions of artifacts and fanciful imaginings.  Also on the positive side it did get people to think out of the box.  His first book, Chariot of the Gods? was a runaway best seller and subsequent books and films found fertile ground with the public for years.  I’d like to think that initially it was all a good-nature prank that got out of hand.

A film documentary based on the book was made in Germany, Erinnerungen an die Zukunft in 1970, but was later dubbed into English with a voiceover by Rod Serling, being released in the US as In Search of Ancient  Astronauts in 1973. Most Americans were introduced to the ancient astronaut idea at this time, making it pop culture craze.  Yes, we had those before internet memes, even 40 something years ago.

To get back on to the props, von Däniken’s technique for rendering alien inspired artifacts was to reduce a number of highly diverse, original cultural items to the level of props for what was in essence a Weird Fiction/Lost Worlds trope, which is why he is mentioned in this blog entry today.   In some cases there was complete fabrication of new purpose made props, when existing artifacts simply wouldn’t fit the bill.  It’s rather clever really and was quite effective in the pre-personal computer era.  Now it's possible to do a quick search to verify "facts", even obscure ones.  On the downside there's a lot of information to wade through and there's a lot of opinions and "static" to sift.  Still a good traditional and private is a good resource.

To get to the nub of the question, there are suggestions that von Daniken’s influence came from multiple sources, one of which was Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, possibly borrowing from The Call of Cthulhu and The Mountains of Madness, at least according to an article in Skeptic Magazine[3] as well as other sources.  No doubt Lovecraft was an influence on him, but then the long literary influence of Lost Worlds as well as the Atlantean followings of such groups as Theosophers showing he was just one of a long line of writers to follow this trail.

Consider now that in story telling, the best prop is a real item.  A real artifact becomes a prop when it is yanked from context and its time stream and rechristened with a new, fictional history and context.  That saves time in making a new prop or using Photoshop to make a picture.  Now this technique can be misused and abused when it stops being shown as a prop for a fictional story and is used to lie to the viewer about the reality of the context.  Writing fun fictional stories for the amusement of readers are one thing and knowing falsehood is another.  I’ll leave it to the reader worry about connotations and ethics as I’m ready to press on.

The main problem with von Däniken ’s theory was that he fell into the same trap as contemporary and earlier academics, whose presumption was that the ancients were rather dense and could not have pull off impressive feats of engineering.  More importantly, they had a limited capacity to create complex abstract thoughts and dreams simply because they fell farther back on the time line.  He and others sold humans short.  Von Däniken suggests space aliens as a primary default and driver of human progress, rather than native intelligence, misrepresenting the often obscure artifacts he showcased.   He also suggests that later ruins and artifacts might be the result of a kind of cargo cult created by humans longing for recontact.  This old view of linear progression is now challenged by new generations of archeologists and many believe that ancient man had the same cognitive capacity for understanding that we have today. You can see how the Victorian lost worlds was useful influence in such writings. 

Now I didn’t post this article to throw rocks at von Däniken, but to show the impact of earlier writings about lost worlds from other authors and from specifically H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and the importance of the ideas in his essay Notes on Writing Weird Fiction (written 1933), which explains,  “… present an account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena as a commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions. Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel. This marvel must be treated very impressively and deliberately—with a careful emotional 'build-up' —else it will seem flat and unconvincing.”   

The "realism" here are from the artifacts presented.  There is no emotional build up, just an initial bombshell at the beginning and a roller coaster ride, while being bombarded with questions and supposed facts.  It's a powerful tour de force in storytelling really, especially the documentary film.   Throwing props at the reader/viewer at a machine gun pace keeps the suspension of disbelief at bay, because it's impossible to process all the items and information.  In this case the props which include photos of locations and buildings, are the key for ensuring "realism". 

Back to our props presented here in this blog, when seen out of context, the Jomon culture items do seem to be alien.  But not alien as in space alien, but in the sense of unknown.  I’ve got to say that the Jōmon are pretty amazing and there are new discoveries about mankind’s past that are very exciting.  

Archeology is rolling back some of our old misconceptions about early people.  For example new information from southern Turkey, with the discovery of a fabulous late Paleolithic temple complex at Göbekli Tepe, is challenging what be believe about very early cultures.  Traditional teaching tells us that there were no structure building cultures prior to the Neolithic and people were very primitive and incapable of thinking abstractly.  That view may prove to be completely wrong.  Lovecraft died long before the discovery of the temple complex in Turkey, which was found only a couple of decades ago in 1994, but it places some of his and other author’s stories about very ancient cities in a new light.

Also in 1987, some enigmatic underwater structures off the coast of Japan, the Yonaguni Monument in the Ryukyu Islands, which may be Jomon or another culture if they indeed prove to be man-made.  Neither von Däniken, Lovecraft or Morse knew of their existence.  I wonder if more intriguing cultures and structures will be found. 

The Lost World trope is an old literary genre and many writers have drawn from earlier authors for inspiration.  This doesn’t mean they stole the idea, just that they made the genre their own by putting their own spin on the idea.  The only difference between some of them is that one group presented it as fiction and others as fact.  Hopefully this short and somewhat chaotic romp in the genre of Lost Worlds, nameless cities, ancient astronauts/Chthonian aliens, and interesting authors has left you with some interest in following the links and doing a little sleuthing on your own.  If nothing else, you have an interesting list of books for you to read.  See you next post.
[1] Atlantis: TheAntediluvian World (1882) by  Ignatius Donnely, and its sequel Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883)  Links to download are below.

[2] Lovecraft had a few ancient nameless cities in his stories, some of which were … The Nameless City and the city on the Plateau of Leng, which may be the same one as in The Mountains of Madness, and a city from Dreamlands Cycle.  H. Rider Haggard’s input was the creation of the Lost Worlds Genre starting in the late 1880s.  See also footnote 1, above for more lost civilization literature.  Lovecraft was familiar with Mystery Hill near Salem, NH which is also known as America’s Stonhenge, but it’s difficult to fit the timeline of his 1929 visit to any of his earlier stories such as The Dunwich Horror (1928).  Not every buys into the scenario though:   Also see links below for Haggard’s contributions, which can be downloaded.

[3] Jason Colavito’s article, Charioteer of the Gods -- An investigation into H.P. Lovecraft and the invention of ancient astronauts” from Skeptic, Issue 10.4 from 2004

Links and Downloads
For those interesting reading more about Jōmon ceramics, download Origins of the Jomon Technical Tradition , a nine page PDF

Download the Catalogue of the Morse Collection of Japanese Pottery (1901) at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Morse Collection, PDF 680 pgs    and

Bad Archeology’s article, Erich von Däniken’s Space-Gods

See the book Crash Go the Chariots (1976) by Clifford Wilson, an interesting person in his own rights, being a Young-Earth proponent himself, but that is another story.

Lovecraft’s essay, Notes on Writing Weird Fiction

Download Atlantis, The Antediluvian World (1882) by Donnelly   and the sequel Ragnarok, The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883)

A biography of Ingnatius L. Donnelly

Text © William Murphy aka CoastConFan 2015; you may link if you wish, quote if you like, but give me a little credit, it took time to research and write this article.  Photos and art are property of their respective owners. 


Friday, May 29, 2015

MobiCon XVIII, 2015 – A Great Gulf Coast Convention

I attended MobiCon 18 at Mobile, Alabama this past Saturday.  The first thing that hit me when I walked through the door at 9:30 in the morning was the fact that at least one quarter of the people were in costume even at that early hour.  The registration was quick, easy, and very professional.  MobiCon was held at a great venue, downtown at the Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza Hotel on Mobile Bay and had a parking garage next door with a ramp that lead directly into the hotel.

 Costuming is an integral part of MobiCon and there was a variety that raged from the impromptu to the highly professional.   Anime and gaming console inspired costumes were predominant, but there were a number of original designs.

I was lazy this time around and only had a couple of costumes, which mostly loosely based on H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.  I had purchased some Mythos patches from Propnomicon a few years back and they have come in handy.  One of the other Propnomicon patches was from the Miskatonic University, which I attached to a blue blazer and worked well with a nice 60s Stetson fedora, a pair 30s glasses with my prescription inserted, which completed the costume for a Miskatonic U. “Professor”.  I also added the Miskatonic U lapel pen, but it's hard to see in the photo.  The other gentleman in the photo, Capt Gordon I believe, is from the Arkham Asylum, which although HPL inspired, is of the Batman/Joker timeline.  It worked well together for the photo nonetheless.

The other Mythos costume was even easier than the Professor, which featured another Propnomicon patch from the Arkham Sanitarium on a simple lab coat.  A syringe was actually an ink pen from a “Don’t Do Drugs” campaign which made for a safe and useful prop.   I lack photos of my third and last costume, but wasn’t really very Lovecraftian, as it was an Edwardian frock coat, a fancy vest and a grey top hat.   If I turn up a picture of this outfit, I’ll post it.  The upshot is that most of these costumes were generally thrift shop items with a few coming from antique shops, but not expensive at all.  Costuming doesn’t have to be expensive to be effective. The popcorn machine was not a costume prop, but a donation to the MobiCon Charity Auction.

Among the many interesting guests attending MobiCon 18, I got to meet the animator Philo Barnhart, who worked on the Disney animated films such as The Secret of NIMH (1982), The Black Cauldron (1985), The Little Mermaid (1989), and Beauty and the Beast (1991).  All these films I remember watching them with my daughter (when she was small) years ago.  We had most of them on videocassette if that dates the period.

I didn’t have much time to chat with David Gerrold, but I did enjoy what little time I spent at his table.  It’s good to see him still active, having met him the first time some 40 years ago at a VulCon in New Orleans and have bumped into him from time to time at CoastCon.   Lou Zocchi, the dice and game designer was there and he is shown holding a copy of the classic Star Fleet Battle Manual, an early Star Trek model game from the late 1970s.  I go way back with Lou, but that’s another story.  Conventions are a place to meet old friends and meet new ones.
There was lots of gaming at MobiCon with two rooms dedicated to gaming with one for miniatures and the other to board games.  There's always a strong contingent of gamers at Gulf Coast Conventions.

Some friends of mine and myself had an impromptu fan table at MobiCon and held forth with our rendition of The Arkham Historical Society, which is a loose organization of local Gulf Coast fans who enjoy H. P. Lovecraft, history, pulps, weird fiction, Steampunk & etc.  We had a number of people who seemed interested.  Unfortunately I didn’t have any literature (or concrete plans) available at the time, since we hadn’t expected to set up at MobiCon.  You can’t see it in this photo, but the lady in the green dress has a nice Celtic Cthulhu on her skirt.

I had a great time at MobiCon and pretty much relaxed throughout the day enjoying watching fandom go through their paces.  The costume contest was at room capacity as always.   Photos from the contest are always tough locals to take photos, so instead I posted some costume photos taken throughout the day on Saturday.  I'd like to thank the MobiCon staff and volunteers for making this a successful convention.  I'd also like to thank the fans attending, without which there would be no convention.   I hope to see you at MobiCon 19 next year.  

Here are twenty two additional photos by another MobiCon attendee, Mike Kittrell: 

MobiCon attendee Eris Walsh of the site She Geeks has a great, in-depth post:

As more attendees post their galleries (and I find them), I'll put the links here.
Update 19 Jul 2015:  I've added a couple of new photos from a fellow attendee.


Oh yes, they had dancing girls ... did I mention dancing girls?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Dice Game Cheats? The Solution is the Roman Dice Tower

Ever have a guy that wants to use his “personal lucky dice” for a game and when he does he makes his roll every time?  How about the gamer who had a “special” way to hold dice so he wins consistently or the guy that rolls wildly so that he hits “dead” dice that were already thrown to change the outcome?  Everybody who has gamed has seen this problem player. 
The ancient Greeks and Romans had a partial cure for this abuse in the fritillus, which was a dice box or dice cup.  The best way from keeping somebody from using slight of hand or using English (if you will) on the dice throw was to put the dice into a cup and shake them around.  Keep in mind that these “boxes” were generally cylindrical, so don’t let prejudice lead you to think that all dice boxes are square, in fact they were generally circular like a cup or bowl shaped.  In fact a common shape for the fritillus was one that looked a like a long cylinder and it was called a turricula, some tapering slightly to the mouth.  To help matters, some of these dice cups had grooves inside to help agitate the dice for greater randomness while shaking them up.
An amusing recurring theme from the film, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) was the slave Pseudolus, who cheated at dice constantly even when using a dice box, because he has his personal turricula rigged for cheating.

The dice box, however, was a useful curb on cheating as Martial, the first century Roman poet wrote in the Tabula Lussora, saying of the use of the fritillus or turricula: 
    Quae scit compositos manus inproba mittere talos, 
    si per me misit, nil nisi vota feret.

    If the cheating hand, that knows how to arrange and 
    throw the dice, has thrown them through me, he will 
    achieve nothing beyond prayers.

Now the ultimate cure for cheating dicers of all types was created by the Romans and it was the pyrgus, which was a hands-free dice rolling device we call a dice tower.  This clever device had baffles inside to mix up the dice as they descended by gravity and then they rolled down a stair, randomizing them even more to obtain fair throw.  Additionally, some pyrguii had little courtyards or enclosures at the base to keep the dice that tumbled down the tower from rolling out father into the play area.  Remember back when you were gaming and you had players throwing dice into a box top to keep them constrained when some gamers were notorious wild throwers.  This courtyard was the ancient cure for enthusiastic or wild throws.   Nobody wants their miniatures knocked about by errant dice.

There are only a couple of intact dice towers found to date, one is wood and the other is made of metal, a copper alloy.  I suspect that there were once a large number of wooden dice towers, but all that exists of these now of these are some bone inlay as the wood has long deteriorated with age [1] . 

Here’s an article with a contemporary Roman era quote from letters of Sidonius Apollinaris that cites the use of the pyrgus: 

The pyrgus was a dice-box, usually wooden and shaped like a tower with inlaid steps, which was used to cast the three dice. Because the various references in Latin literature are sketchy, . . . but in another letter Sidonius [Apollinaris] clearly makes reference to the fact that tabula used a board, bicolored playing pieces, and dice:

‘Here there await you a couch built with cushions, a tabula board laid out with bicolored stones, and dice ready to fly from the ivory steps of the pyrgus.’

Discovered in 1985, some 30 years ago, this amazing metal prygus shown was found in what is now modern Germany near the villages of Vettweiss-Froitzheim, for which this dice tower was named.  This outstanding metal prygus, made from a copper alloy and now resides at the Reinisches Landesmuseum at Bonn, Germany.  

The dice tower was found near the remains of a Roman villa located 25 miles southwest of Cologne, which was then called Colonial in ancient times and was the capital of the Roman province of Germania Inferior.  The site is also about 20 miles straight due west of modern Bonn, which was once ancient Bonna.  It had a major Roman military complex called Castra Bonnesis, housing a large, permanent military presence to guard the west bank of the Rhine. The Legio I Minerva was stationed at Castra Bonnesis from 82 to 359 CE.  Previously it was manned by the Legio I Germanica, which was disbanded in 70 CE for cowardice during the Batavi Revolt.

You’ll note this metal dice tower has a inscription on the front which translates:
     The Picts are defeated
     The enemy is destroyed
     Play in safety

The sides and back has only a single inscription repeated:
    Use it and live lucky.

Clearly the Pict reference on the tower suggests it was owned at some time by a Legionaire or officer who served on the frontier against the Picts, possibly at one of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall.  Who knows how long it was used and changed hands until it was carefully hidden away in its box in the waning years of the Roman presence in Germania, 400 miles from Hadrian’s Wall, having crossed the channel from the British Isles.  Given the proximity of its final resting place near a villa close to the Roman super-fort on the Rhine, my guess is that the dice tower with its military reference had a closer association with Castra Bonnesis or was owned by a retired officer who was given land in Germania as reward for service.  Then again, it might have been won in a dice game.

The photo above is of the original restored artifact prygus.  Note that it originally had three bells (only one now exists) which would ring when struck by a die on exiting.  You’ll also notice that the dice tower has a lot of perforations much like lattice work on a wooden on a Roman window lattice.  I suspect that this is a form of gaming transparency to show that the same set of dice that entered the tower have run the course and exited.  Since the dice tower was an anti-cheater device, this extra step of showing that the dice box was not rigged and it was used in a fair game.  That may seem a bit excessive, but remember the rigged fritillus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the period references to cheating at dice cited in this blog entry.

I suspect the most common dice towers were more than likely wood, probably with bone or ivory inlay according to taste and pocketbook.  But it’s not beyond the realm for a really wealthy person to have one in silver or even gold, but given the chances of one in precious metal surviving being melted down would be pretty slim.  About the only material that probably wasn’t used in a dice tower is terracotta as there have been no fragments found.  Although there are only two identified, complete dice towers discovered, the one in Germany and the other in Egypt (probably Ptolemaic or Roman era) housed at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo [2].   Archeologist R. E. Cobbett suggests that decorative bone fragments found at the Richborough Roman fort in the UK are fragmentary remains of a wooden dice tower used in ancient Britain [1].

Here is an article in Portuguese about a new find, which may prove to be a portion of another metal dice tower.  If so, it would be only the second metal prygus known to date.  My Portuguese is very poor, so I leave it to a reader to help me with a translation and maybe some additional information on this new find.

In the past few decades Roman style dice towers have made a small comeback with gamers and they can be seen on occasion.  Some are of new design and others are quite good reproduction of the originals.  Amusingly there are even some made of Legos.  If you Google around a bit on the internet, you’ll turn them up.  Check out the links at the end of the post for some that I found.  Check out the photo at the very end of the post of an outstanding reproduction of the Vettweiss-Froitzheim pyrgus.  Kudos (κῦδος) Steven!

Anyway, I hope this post about dicing cheats wasn’t too dry or esoteric.  I just wanted to give a brief overview of early devices to curb dice fudging and cheating, which is something I know you gamers out there have experienced over the years.  I really enjoy the historical context of games and eventually I want to make a post about just the dice themselves, but I felt it would make this post over long.  Happy gaming!

[1]  Article from Britannia, A Journal of Romano-British and Kindred Studies, Vol XXXIX, 2008, Pgs 219-235, R. E. Cobbett:  A Dice Tower from Richborough.   This article shows a suggested reconstruction of a dice tower from bone fragment decoration found at an archeological dig.
[2]  Other than a very old photogravure from an unknown publication showing this wooden Egyptian dice tower, I can’t find any recent information or images.  I suspect it may not be on display anywhere, but in storage.  Hopefully a reader will help me out with a better photo and more information about where it was found & etc.  I really hope it wasn’t destroyed in the recent round of looting by cultural barbarians. 

Additional notes:
The famous image shown at the start of the article of two Greek soldiers playing a board game on an amphora shaped vase is attributed to the Athenian painter Exekias, circa 540 BCE showing Achilles and Ajax sitting down playing a game during the siege of Troy.  Mind you, this particular vase was painted a thousand years after the famous siege.  Although anachronistically depicted in armor of a type dating thousand years after the Siege of Troy, it shows the popularity of board games and dice even at an early time.  This vase (#344) now resides in the Vatican Museum.

Links of interest:
On collecting RPG dice

The dice tower and the fritillus must have seen heavy use, see this article on gambling and cheating in ancient Rome

See the Wikipedia article on the famous Vettweiss-Froitzheim dice tower

An article about the Richborough dice tower find

The Earlyworks blog has a nice reproduction of the metal Vettweiss-Froitzheim dice tower made by Steve Wagstaff

See the article, Literate Games:  Roman Urban Society and the Game of Alea

Even more links about Roman games

Repro dice tower by Steve Wagstaff

Letters of Sidonius Apollinaris who lived in  Roman Gaul:

Roman soldiers and the Picts as mentioned on the German dice tower

For more information about Romans fighting Picts, which begins in 80 CE and drags on for 300 years see below:
Constantius I repelled a Pictish invasion and campaigns beyond the Antonine Wall in 305 CE dies in 306 CE:  
Maximus defeats an incursion of Picts in 381 
A German article on gaming with both dice towers shown.

Here’s a dice tower made of Lego blocks
A modern laser cut dice tower for sale