CATCHING A FUNICULAR

Milan, 15 June 2021

It’s not often that I write about technologies, they are mostly workhorses of some sort without much else to commend them. But from time to time I come across a technology that catches my eye. Sometimes it’s because the technology in question is genuinely lovely to look at – solar power towers come to mind – but sometimes it’s simply because it’s quirky and fun and brings a smile to my world-weary, seen-it-all-before, been-there-done-that face. Funiculars fall into the latter category.

My wife and I have been taking funiculars quite often this last month or so. Actually, we’ve been taking one specific funicular quite often, the one between Como and Brunate, the village perched high above Como, on the steep hills – cliffs, almost – that plunge into the lake. It is the jump-off point for a number of our hikes.

Source

Wikipedia informs me that the line was inaugurated in 1894, and certainly the style of the station in Como fits with that date.

Source

We pile into one of those weird carriages that all funiculars have.

Source

They are the only thing I’ve ever come across in the real world which look just like those parallelograms we used to draw in geometry classes at primary school.

Source

Entering a funicular carriage is like entering a world where everything leans to one side. Luckily for us, as readers can see from the picture of the carriage its’ designers have rigged up the inside into a series of flat platforms connected by steps, so we can sit in a normal position and not like those astronauts who are about to take off from Cape Canaveral.

Source

At departure time, a bell rings sonorously, the doors slide shut, and the steel cable starts dragging us up this impossibly steep hillside.

Source

Halfway up the climb, the down-going carriage hoves to on the horizon.

Source

It’s on the same track as ours, and coming straight at us.

Source

But just before the inevitable head-on crash, the two carriages veer sideways – one to the left, one to the right – they slide past each other

Source

and continue on their way. Soon after, we ease slowly into the upper station at Brunate, the doors open, and we stride off to yet another hike, after briefly stopping to admire the view.

Source

It’s not just their quirkiness that makes me like funiculars. They are also clever pieces of design. The key design principle behind them is to have two carriages attached to the same cable. I personally haven’t dragged anything up a very steep hill, but I would imagine that it’s pretty hard work, requiring the outlay of a lot of energy – and an overseer to whip the bejeezus out of me to make me pull harder. A picture from Asterix and Cleopatra shows what I mean.

my photo from the album

Attaching another carriage to the cable means that at least the weight of the carriage being dragged up the hill is now counterbalanced by the weight of the carriage sliding down it, so the only energy you need to add to the system is the energy required to drag the people sitting in the carriage up the hill. And if you can get people into the carriage going down the hill, they can pretty much balance the people coming up, reducing even more the energy required to get the upcoming carriage to the top of the hill.

I can’t find any claim on the internet to an inventor for this key idea. I suspect it’s an old idea, with the inventor lost in the mists of time. The most immediate precursor comes from the golden age of canals, where similar systems were used to drag boats up from a lower canal to a higher one, counterbalanced by boats being let down from the higher canal to the lower one. My wife and I have walked down the slope of one such system, the Keage Incline, in Kyoto. It used to connect the canal from Lake Biwa to the canal 36 meters lower which ran through Kyoto.

Source

It was taken out of use in 1948. Now only tourists like us use it, especially during the Spring when the cherry trees, which have been planted along it, are in bloom.

Source

This clever idea of the counterbalancing act was taken one step further in a few funiculars, where a water tank was attached to the carriages. An operator at the top of the funicular would fill the tank of the downward-going carriage with enough water to make it just a bit heavier than the upward-coming carriage, so that the downward-moving carriage could pull the upward-coming carriage up the hill without the need for any extra energy input. At the bottom, the tank was emptied out, and the whole cycle started over. Unfortunately, this alternative to the funiculars’ basic balancing act was never very common, because it needs a good (cheap) source of water at the top of the hill, whereas most sources of water are at the bottom of hills. I also suspect these types of funiculars were more complicated to manage. Over the years, a good number have been switched to more conventional hauling engines, but a few still exist, for instance the Bom Jesus funicular in Braga, Portugal (the water tank is below the carriage)

Source

and the Neuveville-St-Pierre funicular in Fribourg, Switzerland.

Source

The Fribourg funicular has reached a maximum of cleverness. It uses the treated wastewater from a treatment plant located on the top of the hill to fill the tanks. At a minimum, that makes it a win-win-win solution, and I think there must be another “win” in there somewhere.

The next important invention in the funicular story does have a name and a face attached to it. Originally, cables were made of hemp or other natural fibres. As readers can imagine, they were not that strong. If the weight being pulled was too great they would snap. In practice, this meant that the hills up which things were dragged could not be too steep or the loads too heavy. This limitation was overcome when the German Wilhelm Albert figured out how to make stranded steel cables, with the first steel cable being put into use in 1834.

Source

Initially, the steel cables were stranded by hand, which obviously limited output, but in 1837 an Austrian by the name of Wurm developed a machine to strand cables. The German rope-makers Felten & Guillaume then got into the game and by the 1840s were churning out more, and cheaper, steel cables. We see here their factory in Cologne in the 1860s.

Source

This greatly expanded the scope of where funiculars – and anything else being dragged up inclines – could be used.

The final important invention had to do with track layout. In the first funiculars, each carriage had its own set of tracks. This funicular in Hastings in the UK, which was actually built quite late in the day – 1902 – shows the principle.

Source

Two tracks laid side by side, plus four platforms – each track had to have its own top and bottom platforms – took up a lot of space, space which was often carved out of the living rock. If only one track could be used (and only two platforms), the construction costs could be lowered considerably. But how to get the two carriages past each other when they met at the midpoint? This knotty problem was solved by a Swiss engineer by the name of Carl Roman Abt.

Source

He came up with this set-up for the tracks.

Source

As the diagram shows, to make it work the wheels on the left of one carriage are flanged on both sides, while it’s the other way around on the other carriage. Like that, when the carriages come to the passing point, the carriage flanged on the left always veers left, the carriage flanged on the right always veers right. The inner wheels aren’t flanged at all. Quite simple, really – although I’m sure the execution in real life is more complex than that two-sentence description.

Abt first used this system in 1886 on the funicular in Lugano which connects the old town to the railway station. Which is great, because it allows me to throw in a picture of one of the funiculars which my wife and I have used in our lives. Readers can see that the cars are thoroughly modern, fruit of a makeover in 2016.

Source

While I’m at it, I can throw in pictures of the two other funiculars we have travelled on:
The Angel’s Flight in Los Angeles (which uses a 3-rail track layout)

Source

The Eizan Cable Car, to the north-east of Kyoto

Source

I’m racking my brains to think of other funiculars we’ve travelled on but I think that’s it: four in total, counting the one in Como. Not a huge number given that there are some 300 funiculars around the world. We really have to do better. I shall review with my wife Wikipedia’s list of funiculars around the world, to see which ones we should try to ride (this could be an excuse to visit places we haven’t been to yet, like Rio de Janeiro or Santiago in Chile). And then, when (if) COVID-19 is brought under control, we can be on our way!

IRISES

Milan, 4 June 2021

On the hikes which my wife and I have been doing around Lake Como, we frequently come across irises blooming in people’s gardens. They are very nice, of course, but what I really admire are those irises which we spy on the side of the path, normally growing out of a small mound of garden waste. Clearly, someone in the vicinity did some clearing in their gardens, which included pulling up some iris rhizomes (their tuber-like roots), and then they just chucked the waste by the side of the path. But these irises are tough. In the face of adversity, they’ve just kept going, rooting into their new environment and continuing to bloom, to the delight of passersby. Unfortunately, the photos which I took at the time of these feral irises have disappeared into the Photo Black Hole in my iPhone, so I throw in this stock photo instead.

Source
I really admire the irises’ toughness. They remind me rather of a similarly tough plant with lovely flowers which I’ve written about earlier, common chicory.

Irises also reach back deep into my subconscious. My mother had planted irises in her garden in the house of my early childhood in Eritrea – or maybe she inherited them from previous renters of the house; that will to survive which I was just mentioning – and small child though I was (I could not have been more than six years’ old), I was awestruck by these lovely, bright, complex-looking flowers, with their sword-like leaves. My memory may be playing tricks with me but I remember them being yellow irises.

Source

Yet another encounter during a walk last week around Lake Como with irises growing out of waste piles has finally persuaded me to take up my electronic pen and write about them.

Not that there’s a huge amount to write about, unless you’re fixated about irises (and a good number of people do seem to be fixated by them). I was rather astonished to discover that taxonomists recognize something like 280 species of iris (there are also thousands of hybrids – the iris is a flower which enthusiasts have loved to fiddle with – but I won’t bother with them; it’s the Real Thing that interests me). Their natural distribution spans much of northern Eurasia, although there are also a number of species which are native to North America. I throw in some photos of irises in their natural habitat, not imprisoned in someone’s garden: as I’ve remarked in an earlier post about tulips, it’s so much nicer to see flowers in their natural state.
A field of irises in North America:

Source

Iris sibirica in Central Europe

Source

Iris haynei in the Middle East

Source

The Nazareth iris, also from the Middle East

Source

Iris lortetii, also from the Middle East

Source

With 280 species to choose from, I suppose I could have added a good deal more photos of wild irises. But I think that will do. I’m struck by the colours I chose; I rather suspect that I wanted to get away from the typical purple and yellow irises one sees in gardens.

Talking of natural states, it seems to me that iris is a bit of a fancy name for a flower, at least in English. Something like mugwort or yellow flag (actually an alternative name for one of the irises) seems more English. In fact, it appears that we owe the flower’s name to the French. Someone there, some time in the 13th Century, noticing that the flower’s petals had iridescent reflections gave the flower the Greek name for rainbow. Perhaps the deep violet colour of many of the species, resembling the violet and indigo bands of the rainbow, also played a part in this naming exercise.

Source

I’m not completely convinced by this explanation of the name; my inspections of the flower don’t show any obvious iridescence; maybe it was the flowers’ way of shading from colour to colour that inspired the French to name it iris.

Source

In any event, I find that this explanation makes more sense to me than the other explanation bouncing around the Internet, namely that the flower was called iris because it comes in all the shades of the rainbow; this clearly is not the case.

Whatever the right explanation, a connection has been made with a Greek goddess, which has given me an excuse to explore this member of the Greek pantheon. She is, I must admit, a very minor member. Her sole role in life was to carry messages from the gods to other gods or mortals. But she did this very prettily, by laying down a rainbow and walking along it to whoever she was delivering a message to. Apparently, there are no ancient statues of her bar one; one of the statues on the frieze of the Parthenon now in the British Museum – I will skate over the passionate arguments that this relocation to London has generated.

Source

Yes, well, I mutter under my breath, how can anyone know who this very bashed up piece of stone is meant to represent? Nevertheless, I bow to the Experts and accept their attribution.

We seem to be on firmer ground when it comes to paintings on Greek pottery. Here we have a picture of Iris on this vase from the 5th Century BC.

Source

Iris was also depicted by those European artists of the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries who went in for classical themes – not my cup of tea, but hey! it takes all sorts to make a world. This particular painting from 1811, by Pierre Narcisse Guerin, falls into this category.

Source

I have to say, it seems to me that the painting is verging on soft porn. In any event, it claims to be portraying a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where Juno sends Iris to give a message to Somnus, the god of sleep – the message is, “send a dream to Alcyone that her husband Ceyx is dead” (any reader who wants to know the backstory is welcome to read the Metamorphoses). Iris throws down a rainbow and walks along it (or slides down it?) into the underworld, where Somnus sleeps away his days and nights. She can barely rouse him from his slumbers but finally manages and delivers the message. She then gets the hell out of there as she feels she is about to fall asleep, and clambers back up her rainbow. I should explain at this point that Somnus has one thousand sons, whose job it is to deliver dreams to us mortals. He summons his son Morpheus, the best deliverer of dreams, instructs him to pass on Juno’s message, and promptly falls back to sleep. Guerin got the story wrong by depicting Iris delivering the message directly to Morpheus.  But Somnus was presumably middle-aged while Morpheus was a strapping young fellow, so no doubt Guerin took some artistic license so as to be able to paint a nakedly handsome young man as a worthy companion to the nakedly pretty young woman.

The French not only gave the flower its modern name, they also brought the flower’s heraldic representation, the fleur-de-lys, to great prominence, through the adoption by the French kings of the fleur-de-lys as their heraldic emblem. I have to admit to have been really surprised to discover this connection. Why are fleur-de-lys not called fleur-de-iris, then? The best explanation I’ve come across is that the French kings were descended from a line of Frankish chiefs who had lived originally around the river Lies in Belgium before they invaded France. These Frankish chiefs took as their heraldic symbol the yellow Iris pseudacorus, which grows in abundance along the edges of the River Lies, and which is known in Frankish – their original tongue – as Lieschbloem, the bloom of the Lies. It’s easy to see how that could have been frenchified to fleur-de-lys. Here, we have the Lieschbloem in its natural riverine habitat.

Source

And here we have a comparison of a Lieschbloem in close-up and a fleur-de-lys.

Source

I think one can appreciate that the fleur-de-lys could well be a stylized Lieschbloem. As a clincher, readers should note that the background of the French kings’ armorials was blue (“azure” in heraldic lingo) – a representation of the River Lies? Here are the arms of King Louis XVI.

Source

The kings changed their the number of fleur-de-lys on their arms quite frequently, and I chose him because everyone has probably heard of him – the one who got his head cut off during the French Revolution.

Source

Talking of fleur-de-lys, it was also – still is, actually – the centrepiece of the arms of Florence. But there’s an interesting story to the colour scheme. Originally – we’re talking before 1251 – the colours were a white fleur-de-lys on a red background.

Source

The white Iris florentina grew wild in the area around Florence.

Source

It even grew, it is said, on the city’s walls – this is no longer the case, alas, for the few stretches of the walls still left around Florence.

Source

So I suppose it was quite reasonable for the City Fathers to choose a white iris as the city’s heraldic symbol (why they placed it on a red background I don’t know).

In 1251, the government of the city was in the hands of the Ghibelline faction. I hope my readers are at least vaguely familiar with the fighting between Guelphs and the Ghibellines that roiled pretty much all of the city-states in northern and central Italy in the 12th and 13th Centuries. Here, for instance, we have Guelphs and Ghibellines duking it out in Bologna.

Source

Formally, the Guelphs supported the Popes and the Ghibellines the Holy Roman Emperors in the never-ending feud of these two about who controlled who. But in many cities this was just an excuse to cover local quarrels. In Florence, for instance, it was more about the patricians (Ghibellines) versus the plebs (Guelphs). In 1251, the Guelph faction wrested control of the city from the Ghibellines, and to signal that there had been a definitive political change, the Guelphs switched the colours around on the city’s armorial bearings. I suppose they were in power for long enough for the switch to become definitive, because still today we have a red fleur-de-lys on a white background.

Source

One side-effect of this colour switch was people trying to breed a truly red bearded iris (the group of irises to which Iris florentina belongs) and failing dismally. The judgement of Those Who Know is that there is no truly red iris, bearded or otherwise.  Well of course the experts know, but the copper iris from North America looks pretty red to me.

Source

But, once again, I bow to the Experts.

It would seem that the Florentines discovered another interesting thing about their Iris florentina, namely that if you take the plant’s rhizome and dry it for a very long time – 3 to 5 years – reactions slowly take place in the rhizome which eventually lead to the production of chemicals with the fragrance of violets. This fragrance is liberated by crushing the now rock-hard rhizomes to a powder. Catherine de’ Medici brought this alchemist-like knowledge to the French court when she married Henry II of France in 1533. Mixed with rice powder, it eventually became a popular way for Europe’s upper crust to perfume their faces, clothes, and eventually wigs when these later came into fashion. Nowadays, perfumers plant huge fields of a light purple cousin of Iris florentinaIris pallida.

Source

They dig up the rhizomes, dry them, and then steam distill them to obtain a thick, buttery oil known as orris oil. Eyewateringly expensive stuff – like €100,000 a kilo – it’s used by perfumers to give a base note to their creations.

Source

After all of this, though, I’m sure my readers will agree with me when I say, let’s just forget all the metaphorical, allegorical, or representational bla-bla with which irises have been enveloped, and let’s just enjoy the flowers as they are. So let me close with a couple of paintings of irises by Vincent Van Gogh.

Source
Source