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What Is This Thing?

Illustration for article titled What Is This Thing?

Come, tell us tales about the invasion of the seven-foot tall aliens with a single weak spot right in the center of its forehead. And the single-use weapon we made to kill it.


Or it’s part of a larger design. Or it’s something used against us. Be inspired by this terrifying thing! Label the parts for us.

Based on the book title this appeared in, A Text-book of Ore and Stone Mining ... With frontispiece and 716 illustrations by Sir Clement Le Neve Foster, it’s obviously a piece of mining equipment. But, without that context, it looks like a fearsome weapon. In the grand tradition of science fiction making futuristic technology out of whatever’s lying around, let’s do that with this drawing.


Image: From page 213 of A Text-book of Ore and Stone Mining ... With frontispiece and 716 illustrations by Sir Clement Le Neve Foster from the British Library’s public domain flickr

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From the journal of Thaddeus Foxx, explorer:

From Naples, I took ship with a Greek merchant bound for Athens, my ultimate destination. I was eager to arrive, but when we had been less than a day at sea, the master of the vessel explained to me that we would be calling first at Syracuse, on the island of Sicily, to land some cargo.

Despite my impatience, I took advantage of the delay to go ashore, and so I was able to see the cargo in question being landed. At once, my curiosity was engaged, for instead of the bales and boxes I had imagined when the captain talked of cargo, I beheld the arrival of a most curious object. It resembled a small cart, with iron wheels and a sturdy chassis. Set on top was a most ferocious-looking drill, mounted on a long boom and driven by a veritable panoply of geared wheels.

I at once hurried to the captain to ask him what it was. He studied me for a moment, and then drew me into his confidence. “You, sir, are an educated man,” he began. I confessed that I was. “Then you will know of the great tale of the Odyssey, written by my compatriot Homer.” I acknowledged that I was familiar with the work.

“And you no doubt recall the incident of the Cyclops?” he said. “Well then, this island, this Sicily, is the very island of the Cyclopes, where crafty Odysseus blinded the giant Polyphemus.”

I frowned, for I could not immediately see the connection, but I was reluctant to admit my lack of understanding in the hearing of the crew, who had gathered to listen.

The captain put his arm familiarly around my shoulder. “The Cyclopes of today are much diminished. Polyphemus, it is said, stood four times the height of a man, and weighed as much as a dozen oxen. Today, it is rare to see one more than eight feet in height. But they are a nuisance, nonetheless, and it is well to be wary of them.”

“Do you mean to say, sir,” I exclaimed in wonder, “that there are still Cyclopes in these parts?”

“I do indeed,” he said. “And here before you stands the instrument that will be their bane, that will drive the whole sorry race of monsters to the extinction that they merit. Built by your own countrymen, but to a Greek design. For we have, if I may be so bold, more experience of these anthropophagous pests than any other nation. We have developed the wisdom of Odysseus into a veritable science of cyclopomachy.”

He showed me then how the device could be wielded by just two men — the sailors scrambled to demonstrate — and the huge drill driven into the creature’s one eye, blinding it. “A terrible sight, sir,” he told me. “They howl, and roar, and gnash their teeth, but to no avail. The drill drives home, penetrating deep into the creature’s brain, until he falls lifeless to the ground.”

I was, as you might imagine, eager to see a Cyclops hunt. Alas, I was to be disappointed. The tide was turning, and the captain was eager to set sail again. Reluctantly, I allowed myself to be led back to the boat, and the grinning sailors rowed us swiftly back to the ship. I sat at the stern and stared at the dwindling shore, hoping to catch at least a glimpse of the fabled monsters.

As we boarded the ship, the captain made a most curious gesture. Turning towards the sailors, he closed one eye twice, in rapid succession — thus — at which the sailors grinned more broadly than ever. If he had been an Englishman, I would have said that he was winking at them, as if they were all sharing some private joke. In the present context, however, I have no doubt that his gesture was intended to mimic the terrible denizens of the island that we had just departed, and the broad smiles and loud laughter of the sailors can only have been expressions of relief at having been spared an encounter with such frightening creatures.