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The Limbless Magician of 18th Century London

The men and women gathered at the Corner House near Charing Cross in London had come to see a tragedy. A man cut off from above the knees at birth and possessing gnarled stumps that ended at the elbows had circulated an advertisement promising to demonstrate his feats in magic, calligraphy, art, and music.

They prepared themselves for a cruel sight. He had already been refused an opportunity to perform in Nuremberg, Germany, where officials feared he could upset pregnant audience members.

And so Matthew Buchinger had traveled to England, where morbid curiosity outbid concern for public sensibilities. Like the bearded women and pinheads that would populate sideshows in the centuries to come, Buchinger’s success depended on the appeal of seeing nature go awry.

But the little man—he stood only 29 inches tall—was different in one very significant way from his predecessors: Buchinger was not an ornament. Simply existing on stage was not the show. As the crowd stared, jaws slack, their host expertly threaded a needle. He played multiple instruments, several with the assistance of custom-made machines. He produced a penknife and quill, then sculpted for himself a perfect drawing utensil. He crafted incredible calligraphy, some of which was purchased on the spot by the stunned observers. He shaved himself with a straight razor without flaw.

When the crowd thought they had seen everything—the man was doing many things at an advanced level they could not do at all—he produced the three cups used by magicians to hide and produce objects. As their eyes tracked the cup with the hidden ball, Buchinger tipped it over to reveal a bird anxious to take flight.

It was a sensational show, one he would perform six times a day for many years. He entertained King George I, married four times, and raised 14 children. His fame grew to the point where “Buchinger” became slang for “small.”

He would always see those same faces, looks of sadness or amusement for the pitiable man slowly morphing into awe. How else could one react to a master of sleight-of-hand who had no hands?

Welcome Library, London via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Buchinger was born in Anspach, Germany in 1674 to parents of modest means—though not so modest they had any problem feeding their eight other children. Of the brood, only Matthew (sometimes written as “Matthias” and “Buckinger”) was with defect. He likely had phocomelia, a congenital disorder that produces missing limbs in an erratic fashion. Buchinger had a right arm that stopped short of where one would expect to find an elbow; his left extended slightly past that, providing a little flexion. Each limb was topped with a protuberance that looked like a mildly-inflated balloon, callused from crawling on all fours.

Buchinger’s parents kept him largely hidden from view for most of his adolescence. He gravitated toward skills that flourished in isolation: calligraphy, music, and art. Holding an object with his right stub and securing it with his left allowed him surprising dexterity, which he perfected with constant practice.

Feeling he had a skill set that stood in sharp contrast to his appearance, Buchinger wanted to see if he could impress someone of influence. He arrived in England in his forties, eager to display his skills for an approving (and wealthy) audience. The welcome party included King George, who was possibly intrigued by one of Buchinger’s elaborate and boastful biographical scrawls:

The King was entertained by Buchinger, who hoped English royalty might want to subsidize his life. In 1716, he gave the King a custom-made instrument and a delicate request for what would amount to a hardship pension. His Highness declined, but paid a small sum for the gift and sent him on his way.

Dismayed, Buchinger decided to take up performing as a vocation. At the time, England had a fierce appetite for "monsters," with dwarves and limbless attractions of all varieties drawing crowds. Buchinger appeared in multiple places in the London area and promised to demonstrate his mastery of 13 unique skills for one shilling per attendee. In addition to magic, he could deal cards and play dice; load and shoot a firearm; and play instruments, often with the addition of a device that modified it for his needs. Such adaptation was part of Buchinger’s appeal: His mind was innovative, and his physical limitations were circumvented by his intellect.

England was charmed: The shows were popular and there was even demand for him to make house calls for private performances.

Unfortunately, his most notable public display may have been a result of domestic turmoil. While married to his second wife, Buchinger was said to have been victimized by verbal and physical abuse. His tolerance ended abruptly: He knocked her down to the ground in the street and began pummeling her with his choked-off appendages until she swore she would never raise a hand to him again. (Whether a result of the conflict or not, he was later divorced and married twice more.)

After a stint in Scotland, Buchinger returned to freshen up his routine. He could now play the bagpipe, dancing in tune in a manner he described “as well as any man, without legs.”

For all of Buchinger’s elaborate stage devices, it took little more than pen and paper to reveal his incredible aptitude for calligraphy. The hours he spent cradling a writing utensil between his stumps developed what was effectively a unified and steady hand: He could write backwards, upside-down, and even reverse letters for a mirror effect.

Illustrations, which he often sold at shows, were detailed beyond measure. Buchinger drew many self-portraits, including one where he had meticulously written several Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer into the curls of his hair:

His work was sometimes undertaken on order from admirers. Others were for his own amusement: He once drew his own family tree where he was the trunk, his many wives the branches, and his many, many children the fruit. And there is at least one surviving example of another hobby: building ships and other miniatures in bottles. Buchinger's model of an underwater mine—complete with tiny workers in knee-length trousers—is believed to be one of the earliest examples of the craft. 

When he sensed a population was getting tired of his act, Buchinger would travel somewhere else, bouncing from England to Scotland to Ireland and back again. Growing fatigued, he again asked for a pension, this time from the Palatine Commissioner, on the logic that his third wife was part of their culture. Down to just two shows a day, he complained employees were eating into his profits. The Commissioner was unmoved.

In 1733, he wrote to the Earl of Oxford offering a drawing that had taken him 15 months to complete, for sale at a price of the Earl’s choosing. In it, he made vague reference to an “ague and feavour” that he felt could prevent him from ever working again. Whether this was true or simple salesmanship—a chance to grab the last work of a decaying artist—is unknown. Six years later, he was dead at the age of 65. Though it’s not clear what could be learned from his skeleton, he had insisted a friend at a local university deliver his body to science.

Having charmed the people of Ireland, his passing brought about public notices. In reviewing his life, the Dublin Penny remarked that Buchinger died “at an advanced age, in easy circumstances, and much respected.”

Buchinger collectors were avid both in his life and following his death; some of his papers reside at the British Library’s Harleian Collection, while other etchings and originals are in the hands of enthusiasts. Each is typically accompanied by a lengthy signature that acts as an abbreviated autobiography, with Buchinger always referring to himself as being “born without hands and feet.” It seemed important to him that no work went out into the world without people being aware of his considerable physical limitations—his way of having one last chance to surprise.  

 

Additional Sources:
The Great Illusionists.

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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History
The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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