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Toys, Trampling and Tragedy: The Victoria Hall Disaster

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Wikipedia

If this year’s Black Friday is like any other, too many people will crowd into stores and trample over each other to get a deal on some Christmas presents. People will get hurt. Someone might even get killed. These types of incidents, where a rush for goods can turn into tragedy, aren’t anything new. One of the most infamous—a stampede for toys in 19th century England—left 183 children dead. 

On June 16, 1883, the Victoria Hall in Sunderland, England hosted what was billed as the “greatest treat for children ever given.” The Fays of Tynemouth—“conjurer” Alexander Fay and his sister Annie the “enchantress”—had come to town to perform their variety show, featuring magic tricks, waxworks, “living marionettes” and their “Great Ghost Illusion.” Some 2000 tickets had been sold, and most of the seats were filled with children. 

At the end of the performance, a special announcement was made: children holding certain numbered tickets would receive a free toy when they exited the hall, the Fays would distribute toys to other children from the stage and another man would take toys to the upper seating gallery. 

When the kids in the upper gallery heard that, they “obligingly rose en masse and went down the stairs to meet him,” remembered William Codling, was six when he attended the show. 

“I raced up the gallery as fast as I could, scrambled with the crowd through the doorway and jolted my way down two flights of stairs. Here the crowd was so compressed that there was no more racing but we moved forward together, shoulder to shoulder. Soon we were most uncomfortably packed but still going down.” 

At the bottom of the stairwell there was a problem. The door to the arena had been partially opened and then bolted, leaving only a space of about two feet to squeeze through. Only one person could get through at a time; the door might have been jammed this way to control movement into the lower level and make ticket-checking easier. There was no staff at the door to organize a line, though, and the mass of kids coming from the gallery were flooding down the stairs and rushing the door. The first few children who got down the stairs managed to squeeze through the doorway, but as more and more came down the exit got blocked. The stampede didn’t stop and as the kids in the back kept pushing forward, those at the bottom, unable to open the door any wider, were trapped underneath the weight of the crowd. 

“Suddenly I felt that I was treading upon someone lying on the stairs and I cried in horror to those behind, ‘Keep back, keep back! There’s someone down’,” Codling remembered. “It was no use, I passed slowly over and onwards with the mass and before long I passed over others without emotion. At last we came to a dead stop but still those behind came crowding on…”

“Children tumbled head over heels,” reported another witness. “The heap became higher and higher, until it became a mass of dying children over six feet in height.”

When the adults in the theater realized what was happening, they tried to pull the door open all the way, but the bolt was on the children’s side. Some adults ran up another staircase into the gallery to try and get the children still on the stairs to come back up.

“Then the pressure began to lessen,” Codling said. “A report spread that the toys were being distributed in the gallery and those behind having made a feeble rush upwards, back we tottered across that path of death. ... At the first landing we were met by some men and taken out of doors into the open air…Soon men began to come down the steps bearing in their arms lifeless burdens, and from the crowd came a wail of grief…”

In the end, 183 children between the ages of 3 and 14 died from being crushed and asphyxiated. Shock rippled through the whole country and a disaster fund raised 5000 pounds to pay for all the children’s funerals. Queen Victoria sent condolences to all the families and made her own donation to the funeral costs. Through the entire week that the funerals were held, businesses in Sunderland stayed closed as a sign of respect and mourning. The money that was left over from the fund was used to erect a memorial statue that stood in a park across from the hall, which was leveled during a German air raid during World War II. 

Parliament made two investigations into the Victoria Hall disaster, but failed to find who was responsible for bolting the door the way that they did. The tragedy did result in some good, though; the government issued new laws that required “places of public entertainment” to have a sufficient number of exits with doors that could easily open outward, leading to the development of the push-bar emergency exit.

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Space
On This Day in 1962, NASA Launched and Destroyed Mariner 1
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NASA // Public Domain

On July 22, 1962, NASA launched the Mariner 1 probe, which was intended to fly by Venus and collect data on its temperature and atmosphere. It was intended to be the first interplanetary craft—the first time humans had sent a space probe to another world. Unfortunately, NASA aborted the mission 293 seconds after launch, destroying the probe in the Atlantic. What happened?

First off, a bit of history. Mariner 1 was based on the pre-existing Block 1 craft used in the Ranger program, which was aimed at gathering data on our moon. Those early Ranger probes didn't do so well—both Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 suffered early failures in orbit. Mariner 1 was a modified version of the Ranger design, intended for a much longer mission to another planet. It lacked a camera, but had various radiometers, a cosmic dust detector, and a plasma spectrometer—it would be capable of gathering data about Venus, but not pictures per se.

The two previous Ranger missions had used basically the same launch system, so it was reasonably well-tested. The Ranger probes had made it into orbit, but had been unable to stabilize themselves after that.

Mariner 1 launched on the evening of July 22, 1963. Its Atlas-Agena rocket was aided by two radar systems, designed to track data on velocity (the "Rate System") and distance/angle (the "Track System") and send it to ground-based computers. By combining that data, the computers at Cape Canaveral helped the rocket maintain a trajectory that, when separated, would lead Mariner 1 to Venus.

Part of the problem involved in handling two separate radars was that there was a slight delay—43 milliseconds—between the two radars' data reports. That wasn't a problem by itself. The Cape computer simply had to correct for that difference. But in that correction process, a problem was hiding—a problem that hadn't appeared in either of the previous Ranger launches.

To correct the timing of the data from the Rate System—the radar responsible for measuring velocity of the rocket—the ground computer ran data through a formula. Unfortunately, when that formula had been input into the computer, a crucial element called an overbar was omitted. The overbar indicated that several values in the formula belonged together; leaving it out meant that a slightly different calculation would be made. But that wasn't a problem by itself.

The fate of Mariner 1 was sealed when the Rate System hardware failed on launch. This should not have been a fatal blow, as the Track System was still working, and Ground Control should have been able to compensate. But because that overbar was missing, calculations on the incoming radar data went wonky. The computer incorrectly began compensating for normal movement of the spacecraft, using slightly incorrect math. The craft was moving as normal, but the formula for analyzing that data had a typo—so it began telling Mariner 1 to adjust its trajectory. It was fixing a problem that didn't exist, all because a few symbols in a formula weren't grouped together properly.

Mariner 1's rocket did as it was told, altering its trajectory based on faulty computer instructions. Looking on in horror, the Range Safety Officer at the Cape saw that the Atlas rocket was now headed for a crash-landing, potentially either in shipping lanes or inhabited areas of Earth. It was 293 seconds after launch, and the rocket was about to separate from the probe.

With just 6 seconds remaining before the Mariner 1 probe was scheduled to separate (and ground control would be lost), that officer made the right call—he sent the destruct command, ditching Mariner I in an unpopulated area of the Atlantic.

The incident was one of many early space launch failures, but what made it so notable was the frenzy of reporting about it, mostly centered on what writer Arthur C. Clarke called "the most expensive hyphen in history." The New York Times incorrectly reported that the overbar was a "hyphen" (a reasonable mistake, given that they are both printed horizontal lines) but correctly reported that this programming error, when coupled with the hardware failure of the Rate System, caused the failure. The bug was identified and fixed rapidly, though the failed launch cost $18,500,000 in 1962 dollars—north of $150 million today.

Fortunately for NASA, Mariner 2 was waiting in the wings. An identical craft, it launched just five weeks later on August 27, 1962. And, without the bug and the radar hardware failure, it worked as planned, reaching Venus and becoming the first interplanetary spacecraft in history. It returned valuable data about the temperature and atmosphere of Venus, as well as recording solar wind and interplanetary dust data along the way. There would be 10 Mariner missions in all [PDF], with Mariner 1, 3, and 8 suffering losses during launch.

For further reading, consult this Ars Technica discussion, which includes valuable quotes from Paul E. Ceruzzi's book Beyond The Limits—Flight Enters the Computer Age.

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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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