January 2, 1819 Time Me, Gentlemen

Florence Nightingale explains in her Notes on Nursing, “there are many physical operations where ceteris paribus (all else being the same) the danger is in a direct ratio to the time the operation lasts; and ceteris paribus the operator’s success will be in direct ratio to his quickness”.

With the invention of gunpowder in the year 142, the Chinese of the Eastern Han Dynasty had a handy if somewhat noisy way, to scare off evil spirits.

The first millennium of the common era was a time of ever improved and more efficient ways for humans to slaughter one another, from the gunpowder slow match of 919 to the fire bombs and gunpowder propelled fire arrows of the Southern Tang, of 975.

The Wuwei Bronze Cannon of 1227 may be the first such weapon in all history.  By 1453, the terrifying bombard of the Ottoman Turks were capable of hurling stone balls up to 24.8-inches in diameter, more than enough to shatter the formerly impregnable Theodosian Walls of Constantinople.

Huge siege cannon used in the final assault
Ottoman siege cannon, 1453

For a thousand years, gunpowder weapons large and small businesses and a inflicted massive injury to the human frame, resulting in damage beyond even the skills of the modern surgeon.  Often the only answer was amputation, seemingly by the bushel basket.

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General Dan Sickles leg, destroyed by a 12-pound ball at Gettysburg, 1863

The carnage of the gunpowder era experienced something of a golden age in the 19th century.  Projectiles traveled at a bone-shatteringly slow pace compared with the high velocity weapons of today while innovations such as percussion caps, shrapnel shells and breech loading weapons geometrically increased the rate of fire.

It’s been said the most common objects removed from the bodies of front-line soldiers, were the shattered bones and teeth of the next man in line.

This was a time before anesthesia, when the speed of the surgeon’s knife spelled the difference in the pain experienced by the patient, to say nothing of the poor unfortunates’ chance of survival.  Florence Nightingale explains in her Notes on Nursing:  “there are many physical operations where ceteris paribus” (everything else being the same) “the danger is in a direct ratio to the time the operation lasts; and ceteris paribus the operator’s success will be in direct ratio to his quickness“.

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Robert Liston’s surgical instruments

First came the burly assistants, to hold down the writhing victim


.  In skilled hands the surgeon’s knife could cut all-round in a single stroke, through skin and muscle and sinew clear down to the bone before the saw completed the work of separation.  Screams of agony rent the air as veins, flesh and arteries were cauterized with red-hot irons, vitriol (sulfuric acid) or boiling hot tar.  Should the victim survive the experience the wound would then be sewn shut.  God help the poor soul if there was any infection left after all that.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 –’71, one surgeon amputated 200 shattered limbs in one 24-hour period, a nearly unbelievable average of one every seven minutes.  Perfectly healthy fingers were occasionally severed in the gore and confusion.

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A 19th-century surgical illustration detailing amputation at the thigh. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. H/T Military-History.org

This was the world of the “Fastest Knife on West End”, a Scottish-born physician who, on this day in 1819, had just embarked on the first year of a medical career which would last until his death, in 1847.

Robert Liston, always the showman, would stride into the operating theater and call out, “Time me Gentlemen.  Time me”.  English surgeon and author Richard Gordon, an expert on Robert Liston, describes what that looked like:

“He was six foot two, and operated in a bottle-green coat with wellington boots. He sprung across the blood-stained boards upon his swooning, sweating, strapped-down patient like a duelist, calling, ‘Time me gentlemen, time me!’ to students craning with pocket watches from the iron-railinged galleries. Everyone swore that the first flash of his knife was followed so swiftly by the rasp of saw on bone that sight and sound seemed simultaneous. To free both hands, he would clasp the bloody knife between his teeth”. 

16944174-0-image-a-45_1565084128752Liston once amputated a leg in 2½ minutes from incision to suture but accidentally severed the poor bastard’s testicles, in the process.

On another occasion, he amputated a leg in 2½ minutes while severing the fingers of one assistant and piercing the coat of an observer.  The spectator was so terrified at the blood and so certain that his own vital organs had been pierced, he died right then and there from heart failure.

Both patient and assistant later died from hospital gangrene, a common problem in the days before Joseph Lister.  To the best of my knowledge, Robert Liston remains the only surgeon in history to achieve 300% mortality, on a single procedure.

January 1, 45BC Happy New Year

Most of the non-Catholic world took 170 years to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Britain and its American colonies “lost” 11 days synchronizing with it in 1752. The last holdout, Greece, would formally adopt the Gregorian calendar in 1923. Since that time we’ve all gathered to celebrate New Year’s Day on the 1st of January.

From the 7th century BC, the Roman calendar attempted to follow the cycles of the moon. The method frequently fell out of phase with the change of seasons, requiring the random addition of days. The Pontifices, the Roman body charged with overseeing the calendar, made matters worse. They were known to add days to extend political terms, and to interfere with elections. Military campaigns were won or lost due to confusion over dates. By the time of Julius Caesar, things needed to change.

When Caesar went to Egypt in 48BC, he was impressed with the way the Egyptians handled their calendar. Caesar hired the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to help straighten things out. The astronomer calculated that a proper year was 365¼ days, which more accurately tracked the solar, and not the lunar year. “Do like the Egyptians”, he might have said, the new “Julian” calendar going into effect in 46BC. Caesar decreed that 67 days be added that year, moving the New Year’s start from March to January 1. The first new year of the new calendar was January 1, 45BC.

Caesar synchronized his calendar with the sun by adding a day to every February, and changed the name of the seventh month from Quintilis to Julius, to honor himself. Rank hath its privileges.

Not to be outdone, Caesar’s successor changed the 8th month from Sextilis to Augustus. As we embark on the third millennium, we still have July and August.

Roman-calendar (1)

Sosigenes was close with his 365¼ day long year, but not quite there. The correct value of a solar year is 365.242199 days. By the year 1000, that 11 minute error had added seven days. To fix the problem, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius to come up with yet another calendar. The Gregorian calendar was implemented in 1582, omitting ten days and adding a day on every fourth February.

Most of the non-Catholic world took 170 years to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Britain and its American colonies “lost” 11 days synchronizing with it in 1752. The last holdout, Greece, would formally adopt the Gregorian calendar in 1923. Since that time we’ve all gathered to celebrate New Year’s Day on the 1st of January.

The NY Times Newspaper moved into “Longacre Square” just after the turn of the 20th century. For years, New Years’ eve celebrations had been held at Trinity Church. Times owner Adolph Ochs held his first fireworks celebration on December 31, 1903, with almost 200,000 people attending the event. Four years later, Ochs wanted a bigger spectacle to draw attention to the newly renamed Times Square. He asked the newspaper’s chief electrician, Walter F. Painer for an idea. Painer suggested a time ball.

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A time ball is a marine time signaling device, a large painted ball which is dropped at a predetermined rate, enabling mariners to synchronize shipboard marine chronometers for purposes of navigation. The first one was built in 1829 in Portsmouth, England, by Robert Wauchope, a Captain in the Royal Navy. Time balls were obsolete technology by the 20th century, but it fit the Times’ purposes.

The Artkraft Strauss sign company designed a 5′ wide, 700lb ball covered with incandescent bulbs. The ball was hoist up the flagpole by five men on December 31, 1907. Once it hit the roof of the building, the ball completed an electric circuit, lighting up a sign and touching off a fireworks display.

The newspaper no longer occupies the building at 1 Times Square, but the tradition continues. The ball used the last few years is 12′ wide, weighing 11,875lbs; a great sphere of 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles, illuminated by 32,256 Philips Luxeon Rebel LED bulbs and producing more than 16 million colors. It used to be that the ball only came out for New Year. The last few years, you can see the thing, any time you like.

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In most English speaking countries, the traditional New Year’s celebration ends with the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”, a poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of an old pentatonic Scots folk melody. The original verse, phonetically spelled as a Scots speaker would pronounce it, sounds something like this:

“Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an nivir brocht ti mynd?
Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an ald lang syn?
CHORUS
“Fir ald lang syn, ma jo, fir ald lang syn,
wil tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn.
An sheerly yil bee yur pynt-staup! an sheerly al bee myn!
An will tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn”.
“We twa hay rin aboot the braes, an pood the gowans fyn;
Bit weev wandert monae a weery fet, sin ald lang syn”.
CHORUS
“We twa hay pedilt in the burn, fray mornin sun til dyn;
But seas between us bred hay roard sin ald lang syn”.
CHORUS
“An thers a han, my trustee feer! an gees a han o thyn!
And we’ll tak a richt gude-willie-waucht, fir ald lang syn”

Happy New Year, from Mr & Mrs Cape Cod Curmudgeon, Rick & Sheryl.