Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! How the Victorians gave us the vibrator

May 26, 2012

The Manipulator

The Victorians were a pretty resourceful bunch – postage stamps flushing public toilets, telephones and the world’s first underground railway were all inventions of Victorian Britain. However there is another side to them; Victorian values is a byword for repressive sexual mores. If ever we want to feel superior about ourselves, we can always have a good laugh at the expense of those prudish Victorians. We all know that they used to cover table legs because they suggested human anatomy. Therefore it was quite a surprise to discover that the prim Victorians invented the electric vibrator. Regular readers of my blog may have noticed my unhealthy obsession with sex toys. I have already posted about the notorious 17th century libertine John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester and his classic poem, Signior Dildo. Then I did a piece on sex robots. This week I will be looking at vibrators and their rather unlikely history. If you want to know about the history of vibrators, then the leading authority is Rachel Maines, author of The Technology of Orgasm. She is my kind of historian. Don’t get me wrong – I am interested in traditional history. But I do like this kind of quirky, offbeat stuff.Maines, first got into this subject while she was researching the history of needlework. Perusing a 1906 needlepoint magazine, she was shocked to see an advertisement for a vibrator. When she realized this was virgin territory for academics she decided to write a scholarly history of the device.

How did the Victorian end up inventing the vibrator? Victorian England was awash with hysterical women. They were seen as naturally frail and at the mercy of their reproductive systems. In 1859 one physician claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria. This was a good old-fashioned health scare. I need to stop here and explain the meaning and origins of the word hysteria. There are two standard definitions:

1. Behaviour exhibiting excessive or uncontrollable emotion, such as fear or panic.

2. A mental disorder characterized by emotional excitability and sometimes by amnesia or a physical deficit, such as paralysis, or a sensory deficit, without an organic cause.

Its etymology is fascinating. For more than two millennia of European history until the late nineteenth century hysteria referred to a medical condition thought to be confined to women and caused by disturbances of the uterus. Thus the words hysterical and hysterectomy have a common etymological origin, the Greek word for uterus.

Hippocrates the father of western medicine, believed that there were women whose uteri had become too light and dry from not enough sexual intercourse. As a result the uterus would wander upward, compressing the heart, lungs, and diaphragm. These travels could have different consequences depending on where the roving uterus chose to lodge itself. But if the nomadic organ ultimately ended up next to the brain, it would cause hysteria. According to the 2nd century anatomist Galen, hysteria was caused by the retention of female semen, which could get into the blood and corrupt it. The normal treatment in these days, and in the Middle Ages and renaissance too, was a pelvic massage.

So we come to Victorian England. Such was the demand for the treatment doctors just couldn’t cope. It appears that male doctors did not really enjoy providing pelvic massage treatment. A very time-consuming task, it could take them up to an hour to bring the treatment to a satisfactory conclusion. Many of the doctors found themselves suffering from fatigued wrists and hands.Mainesalso claims that most of them did not even realise that the climax of the treatment they were offering was an orgasm.

These struggling doctors were about to get a helping hand. The inventor would be a doctor himself, Joseph Mortimer Granville. His electromechanical vibrator was thus invented as a labour saving device. “The Manipulator”, a steam-powered vibrator, had been invented in 1869 by another doctor, the American George Taylor. It does sound rather cumbersome – the patient-interface component was about the size of a dining room table and the steam engine that provided the power was located in a separate room from the patient. On the other hand, Dr. Granville’s electromechanical vibrator was portable, although it had a wet cell battery that weighed about 18 kilos. Nevertheless, these early vibrators reduced the time it took to achieve paroxysm in female patients to around five minutes. Now that’s what I call a game-changer. There was a massive buzz in London and female patients were queuing up to be treated by Doctor Granville.

But this was the start of the process. This is the genius of capitalism. With gradual incremental improvements what once took up a whole room became more compact, easier to use, cheaper and available to more and more people. I can see certain parallels with the development of computers. From the late 1800s to the 1920s a revolution took place as the vibrator migrated out of the doctors’ surgeries and into homes. Of course doctors opposed this move, but fortunately they were unable to stem the tide. The vibrator was in fact the fifth domestic appliance to be electrified, after the sewing machine, fan, tea kettle, and toaster. But it came some ten years before the vacuum cleaner and the electric iron. The home versions soon became extremely popular and appeared in magazines and catalogues. They were advertised as benefiting health, beauty and general wellbeing. In fact in 1909 Good Housekeeping magazine road tested a number of vibrators giving them a glowing report. By 1917 there were more vibrators in American homes than toasters.

The appearance of vibrators in 1920s blue movies blew away the device’s social camouflage. Their sexual connotations could no longer be ignored and vibrators went underground for a few decades. It was the sexual revolution of the 1960s that brought them back to the fore. Women wanted to take their pleasure into their own hands. In 1968 Jon H. Tavel obtained a patent for the “Cordless Electric Vibrator for Use on the Human Body” and the modern personal vibrator was born. Since the 1980s, vibrators have become more visible in mainstream public culture. Sex and the City captured the turn-of-the century zeitgeist. Research in America in 2009 indicated  that about 53% of women and about 46% of men in the United States between the ages 18 to 60 had used a vibrator. Unless you happen to live in Alabama,Georgia and Texas, where state legislatures have banned their sale, vibrators are now widely available. The ban in these states reflects the morality of some conservative Christians who believe that the use of vibrators is immoral and prohibited by the Bible.  Dan Ireland, a Baptist preacher, has been an outspoken critic who has sought to ban them on religious and ethical grounds. According to Ireland there is just no moral way to use them:

Sometimes you have to protect the public against themselves….These devices should be outlawed because they are conducive to promiscuity, because they promote loose morals and because they entice improper and potentially deadly behaviours

A landmark ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2008 overturned the Texas ban and the legal provisions in George are rather vague. To all intents and purposes Alabama is now the onlyU.S.jurisdiction where such toys are illegal. Alabamans who sell sex toys, even in an adult context, face up to a year in prison and a $10,000 fine. Repeat offenders risk ten years in jail.

We have come full circle. We started off with Victorian values and we have finished talking about Alabama, a state that wants to go back to that kind of morality. Anyway, I think the image of the strait-laced Victorians is too much of a caricature. Be that as it may, we do live in a very different world. Pornography has gone mainstream. While I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to Victorian morality, perhaps now everything is too in your face. However, I do want to salute Joseph Mortimer Granville, a great Victorian, whose invention has brought pleasure to millions.

A selection of Philip Larkin quotes

May 26, 2012

Philip Larkin is considered one of England’s greatest post war poets. But he was also famous for his no-nonsense personality. He disliked fame and was once  described by Lisa Jardine as a “casual, habitual racist, and an easy misogynist”. He was most  definitely a curmudgeon, but he remains popular more than 25 years after his death. In 2003 a Poetry Book Society survey ranked  him as Britain’s best-loved poet of the previous 50 years. I have a personal connection to Larkin he was the librarian at the University of Hull, my alma mater. I can still remember him telling me off for handing in Peasant Uprisings in 19th Century Bavaria three days late. Anyway, here is a selection of quotes from his poems, letters and other sources:

Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(Which was rather late for me)—

Between the end of the Chatterley ban

And the Beatles’ first LP.


I have no enemies. But my friends don’t like me.

I can’t understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write poems: It’s like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife.

In life, as in art, talking vitiates doing.

Sex means nothing–just the moment of ecstasy, that flares and dies in minutes.

There is bad in all good authors: what a pity the converse isn’t true!”

I wouldn’t mind seeingChinaif I could come back the same day.

Sex is designed for people who like overcoming obstacles.

I came to the conclusion that an enormous amount of research was needed to form an opinion on anything, & therefore I abandoned politics altogether as a topic of conversation.

Mother’s electric blanket broke, & I have ‘mended’ it, so she may be practising suttee involuntarily before long.

I am always trying to ‘preserve’ things by getting other people to read what I have written, and feel what I felt

Work is a kind of vacuum, an emptiness, where I just switch off everything except the scant intelligence necessary to keep me going. God, the people are awful – great carved monstrosities from the sponge-stone of secondratedness. Hideous.

Poetry is nobody’s business except the poet’s, and everybody else can fuck off.

I have a sense of melancholy isolation, life rapidly vanishing, all the usual things. It’s very strange how often strong feelings don’t seem to carry any message of action

I had a moral tutor, but never saw him (the only words of his I remember are ‘The three pleasures of life -drinking, smoking, and masturbation’)”

How little our careers express what lies in us, and yet how much time they take up. It’s sad, really.

Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.

Depression hangs over me as if I wereIceland.


They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.


One of the quainter quirks of life is that we shall never know who dies on the same  day as we do ourselves.

You can’t put off being young until you retire.

I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any-after all, most people are unhappy, don’t you think?

Indistinguishable from magic – 3-D Printing and the third industrial revolution

May 20, 2012

Arthur C Clarke once observed that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This quote surely applies to 3-D printing, which I first became aware of when I saw the video above last year. In fact, engineers and designers have been using 3D printers for more than three decades. Only now though are they beginning to filter into public consciousness. There is the same kind of buzz around 3-D printing now that there was around personal computers in the late 1970s. You have the geek hobbyists, but a lot of companies can also see the huge potential of this emerging technology. Could we be on the cusp of a third industrial revolution?

A 3-D printer is a machine that can turn a blueprint into a physical object. It is a bit of a misnomer as it’s not what you or I would understand as a printer. Initially, 3-D printing was known as rapid prototyping, as it its main use was to quickly fabricate conceptual models of new products. For example an architect could design a new building on a computer and print out a 3D model to show a client. But now these amazing devices are being used to produce real things. Additive manufacturing was its new name. Traditional manufacturing is subtractive – you take what you want from a larger piece of material. Sometimes an aircraft manufacturer will throw away 90% of the titanium they were using. But in additive manufacturing you build the object up one layer at a time. However additive manufacturing is not a name to capture the public’s imagination so it is now known as 3-D printing. It may not be the most accurate name, but I think they should stick with this one.

How does it work? First you need to create a 3-D model using computer-aided design (CAD) software. Alternatively, a 3D scanner can create a CAD design by scanning an object. Another program then “slices” the model into two-dimensional representations and instructs the printer to lay down an exact replica. You need to prepare the machine checking that it has all the polymers, binders and other consumables that the printer requires. Then you let the machine do its stuff. It builds by adding very thin layers one by one. Once it has been removed, the object may need some post processing such as brushing off any remaining powder. And then you have a 3-D object ready to be used.

Someone looking at the internet 20 years ago would probably not have foreseen Facebook, Netflix, the effects on the music and newspaper industries and the other disruption that it has caused. What can we expect from 3-D printing? It has been used to manufacture customised, fully functional prosthetic limbs and plastic and metal parts for cars and planes. One example that illustrates their potential is dental crowns. With 3-D printing they can be tailored for an individual patient. One machine can produce 450 in one day; traditional craft producers struggle to turn out a dozen a day. EOS, one of the leading companies in the e-Manufacturing sector, makes everything from cranial implants to shoes. And there is even a Chocolate 3-D Printer, which allows confectionary lovers to produce their own custom-made 3D creations. At a price of £2,500, I don’ think I’ll be rushing out to buy one.

All this new technology is going to change the way we make things. Until now manufacturing has been dominated by economies of scale. Assembly lines and supply chains can be reduced or eliminated for many products. Some de-globalisation may begin to take place, with production coming closer to the consumer. A manufacturing facility will  be able to print a huge range of types of products without needing to retool and each printing could be customized by tweaking the computer model at no additional cost. Products can be printed on demand without the need to maintain large inventories of new products and spare parts. This customisation may seem a bit frivolous at times, but when it comes to the human body, being able to make personalised implants could help save lives.

It doesn’t mean that mass production will disappear because some things are best made in large production runs. But the factories of the future will probably have 3D printers working alongside the more traditional milling machines, presses and foundries that dominate manufacturing now.

A lot of these production innovations have important environmental implications. In general there should be a more efficient use of resources with an important reduction in waste. Not having to ship goods half way across the world will substantially reduce manufacturing’s carbon footprint. 3-D printing could help build greener aircraft. Lightness is crucial for making aircraft more ecological – a reduction of just 1kg in the weight of an airliner will save around $3,000-worth of fuel a year cutting carbon-dioxide emissions. At the moment the size of printable parts is limited by the size of 3D printers, but bigger machine will be possible, and could be used to build airplane wings.

There are some things which may be seen as downsides. Competitive advantages will be more ephemeral than they have ever been. 3-D printing raises the spectre of mass piracy of objects. Battles over intellectual property are set to become even more intense. At the beginning of this year The Pirate Bay launched a new category on, their site. As well as music, films and software they now offer “physibles” – digital objects that can then be made on a 3-D printer. And what about the effect on manual labour? Will people be able to scan objects using a 3D scanner and share them online? In a recent Observer piece John Naughton the paper’s technology journalist expressed fears about job losses. While I think there will undoubtedly be disruption, I think that he is falling for the Luddite fallacy.

3-D printing is just part of a broader digital revolution in manufacturing with more new processes, sophisticated robots and collaborative manufacturing services available online. This is what we mean by a third industrial revolution. The first one took place in Britain in the late 18th century with the mechanisation of the textile industry. Henry Ford and his assembly line heralded the second revolution and the rise of mass production. There is obviously some degree of hype about this third industrial revolution, but I  disagree with the commenter on the Guardian website who argued  that it would only be useful for making custom dildos and bootleg Disney key fobs. 3-D printing is going to transform the landscape of manufacturing. Competition and cooperation from around the world promise many exciting new developments. This is what Matt Ridley memorably described as “ideas having sex.” There is a lot of doom and gloom around at the moment. Things do not look too good. But it is this type of human innovation that shows us how to create a brighter future.


*According to one commenter on YouTube the wrench in the video would actually cost about $250 just in materials.

If you are interested in 3-D printing, there is also  a talk at TED,com by Lisa Hourani.

My favourite Groucho Marx quotes

May 20, 2012

Here is a selection of Groucho Marx quotes from different. Some may be apocryphal and other misattributed but here they are:


Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.


Remember men, we’re fighting for this woman’s honour, which is probably more than she ever did!  Insulting Margaret Dumont


I didn’t like the play, but then I saw it under adverse conditions – the curtain was up.


A man’s only as old as the woman he feels.


I have had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.


One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.


Behind every successful man is a woman, behind her is his wife.


Military justice is to justice what military music is to music.


He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.


From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it.


I remember the first time I had sex – I kept the receipt.


My son’s only half Jewish. Would it be all right if he went in the water up to his knees Responding to a beach club telling him he couldn’t join because he was Jewish.


‘I’ve been around so long, I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.


I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.


I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.


I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll be glad to make an exception.


Alimony is like buying hay for a dead horse.


You can leave in a taxi. If you can’t get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If you can’t get a taxi you can leave in a huff. If that’s too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff.


I love my cigar too, but take it out of my mouth once in a while. Response to a female contestant explaining why she had twenty-two children, and who  had said “because I love children, and I think that’s our purpose here on earth, and I love my husband”


Military intelligence is a contradiction in terms.

Perón, Kirchner and Argentina’s lost century

May 12, 2012

Everyone remembers the horrendous, world-changing events of the morning of September 11, 2001. Everyone remembers the planes commandeered by terrorists slamming into the twin towers of the Centro Mundial de Comercio in Buenos Aires. As the richest country on earth and the modern world’s first global hyperpower, Argentina was a prime target for malcontents revolting against the might of the Western capitalist order.

Fewer recall the disaster that befell the United States of America three months later. Fewer recalls the wrenching moment when the U.S. government, crushed by the huge debts it had run up borrowing abroad in pesos, announced it was bankrupt. The economic implosion that followed, in which thousands of jobless, homeless Americans slept rough and picked through trash bins at night in New York’s Central Park, shocked only those still used to thinking of the United States as a First World country.


This piece of counterfactual history comes from the opening chapter of False Economy by the Financial Times’s Alan Beattie. It may sound far-fetched, but things could have indeed turned out this way. At the turn of the twentieth century the economies of these two countries were at a similar level.Argentina, whose name means land of silver, was the seventh richest nation on earth. Just over a century later there is enormous gap US GDP per capita is around five times larger than that of Argentina. In most rankings Argentina is around #60 in the world. Some people may not like GDP as a way of measuring an economy, but I feel it tells an eloquent story – all the resources in the world cannot compensate for gross economic mismanagement.

For economists,Argentina is indeed a perplexing country. In the 1960s the Nobel Prize–winning economist Simon Kuznets stated that there were four types of countries: the developed, the underdeveloped,Japan and Argentina. Economists have been perplexed byArgentina’s economic travails A series of corrupt, incompetent governments have wrecked the economy. They have stolen the savings from their own people. And when that has not been enough, they have gone after the foreign investors too young or too foolish to remember history.

If one man could be said to epitomise Argentina’s economic policy, it must be Juan Peron.  He believed the root of Argentina’s problems was that it exported low-value commodities and imported higher-value manufactured goods. I am not completely unsympathetic to this analysis but his solution – cutting his economy off from the rest of the world – was catastrophically wrong. Argentina wanted manufacturing not to build a base to conquer export markets, like Japan and South Korea, but merely to keep out imports. And its companies were protected not only from the outside world but also from domestic competition by massive state intervention in the economy. Peron had a visceral fear of the free market, and the government was running the economy not to direct the market but to replace it. Perón regarded foreign capital as an “imperialist agent.” Alas, these populist ideas remain extremely widespread in Argentinean politics today.

Now Argentina is led by Cristina Fernandez Kirchner’s whose policies are based on price controls, protectionism, and the maintenance of inefficient, state-run companies dependent on subsidies. Inflation is one of the highest in Latin America. And the government has an imperious need for cash. Most governments requiring cash can avail themselves of the debt markets. But given its record of defaulting Argentina would have to pay punitive interest rates. As a result, it has had to look for financing internally. Four years ago the government nationalized all private pension plans. In 2010, Kirchner got hold of the central bank’s assets especially the nation’s all-important foreign currency reserves. When the head of the central bank refused to go along, he was sacked and replaced with someone more amenable. 2012 has seen the turn of YPF, Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (English: Treasury Petroleum Fields) an Argentine energy company, which was owned by Repsol  Critics of the Spanish multinational accuse it of consistently failing to invest in oil and gas production, forcing Argentina to import energy to meet internal demand. Mark Weisbrot, writing in The Guardian, is typical of Kirchner’s European cheerleaders:

There are sound reasons for this move, and the government will most likely be proved right once again. Repsol, the Spanish oil company that currently owns 57% of Argentina’s YPF, hasn’t produced enough to keep up with Argentina’s rapidly growing economy. From 2004 to 2011, Argentina’s oil production has actually declined by almost 20% and gas by 13%, with YPF accounting for much of this. And the company’s proven reserves of oil and gas have also fallen substantially over the past few years.

To be honest I have no idea about the efficacy of Repsol’s management of YPF, but this is the type of economic illiteracy the Guardian specialises in. What Weisbrot conveniently fails to mention is the imposition of price controls, which have kept domestic oil, natural gas, and electricity prices lower than international prices and sometimes even below production costs. These artificially low prices, which promote massive energy consumption while at the same time discouraging investment, have had an inevitable result. Last year there was an energy deficit of more than $3 billion, and this year it is expected to double. Between 2000 and 2010 Argentine oil production fell by 22%, while demand rose by more than 40%, according to data from the Argentine Oil and Gas Institute and the Energy Ministry.

The decision to nationalise YPF was met with applause and cheers. Spain, which has plenty of problems of its own right now, will have a difficult time seeing any compensation. Repsol is expected to take Argentina to arbitration. But such cases are very long drawn-out and Argentina has a record of not paying awards against it. But what about the effects on Argentina? Just because you seize the assets doesn’t mean that the company will suddenly become a paragon of efficiency. Protecting national interests and the ordinary people has a wonderful ring to it. I fear they will achieve neither. When YPF was privatised in the 90s, WITH THE SUPPORT OF THE KIRCHNERS, it had been a badly run, money-loss-making company for decades.Argentina has a lot of potential oil resources. To extract more oil the state will need at least $6bn more than what is currently invested. Do they have that kind of capital? Will foreign investors be willing to invest when they know that they could see their assets looted in the future?

Maybe the Kirchner government will usher in a golden era for the Argentine economy, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Personally I wouldn’t trust the Kirchners and their cronies in charge of a school tuck shop.  Achieving economic growth is a complicated business.South Koreais an example of a country that has been able to reinvent itself, ignoring many of the recipes of international organisations and the so-called Washington Consensus. The United States engaged in protectionism after it became independent and even now has some 12,000 tariffs in place. But the Argentine model is just not going to deliver the long-term growth, because it is based on the faulty analysis that all their problems stem from abroad.

The economic historian David Landes rather cynically described dependista theory as one of Latin America’s most successful exports. Dependency theory is the perfect way to blame your problems on others and not face up to what you are doing wrong.  There is no doubt that empires have extracted wealth from the conquered peoples. Last week I blogged about the case of King Leopold of Belgium. In his book Imperialism Lenin equated where investments by industrial nations in non-industrial countries with this kind of looting. As Thomas Sowell has pointed out this is fundamental misunderstanding of reality:

Tragically, however, it is in precisely those less developed countries where little or no foreign investment has taken place that poverty is at its worst. Similarly, those poor countries with less international trade as a percentage of their national economies have usually had lower economic growth rates than poor countries where international trade plays a larger economic role. Indeed, during the decade of the 1990s, the former countries had declining economies, while those more “globalized” countries had growing economies.

Sowell argues that most American international trade and investment actually goes to high-income nations like those in Western Europe or the more prosperous Asian countries, such as Japan or Singapore. Only a minute fraction of that trade or investment goes to Africa or to the poorest regions of Asia or the Middle East. Rich individuals in poor countries often invest in richer countries, particularly the United States, where their wealth is not at risk of being confiscated. In this way poorer countries are actually helping richer industrial nations become even richer.

In Japan they rue the lost decade. The tragedy for Argentina is they have experienced more than a century of decline.

Phablet and other new words

May 12, 2012

Here is another selection of new words I found on the Wordspy website:


A person who shares too much online, particularly personal information


The fear of missing out on something interesting or fun, particularly when it leads to obsessive socializing or social networking.


A tag, such as a barcode, assigned to an object that, when scanned with a smartphone or reader, displays online data about the object.

hashtag activism

Activism that uses a Twitter hashtag to promote a project or cause, particularly when it requires no other action from people.

peak people

A time when the world’s population reaches a maximum, after which it steadily declines due to reduced birth rates or global shortages of energy, food, and water.


A device that combines the features of a smartphone and a tablet computer. [Phone + tablet.]

phantom vibration

The perception of a cell phone’s vibration in the absence of an incoming call or text message.

showroom (verb)

To use a retail store to view and research a product and then purchase the product for less money online.

shtick lit

A writing genre in which the author undertakes an odd or stuntlike project with the intention of writing about the experience.

tweet seats

A section in a theater set aside for people who want to tweet during a performance

The remarkable double life of a Belgian King

May 5, 2012

Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost,

Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.

Hear how the demons chuckle and yell

Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.  The Congo, a 1914 poem by Vachel Lindsay

The Horror!, the Horror!  Kurtz’s last words from  Conrad’s Heart of Darkness


If you visit Brussels, you will see plenty of reminders of the architectural legacy of King Leopold II. Today he is fondly remembered by many Belgians as the “Builder King,” who commissioned a great number of buildings and urban projects, especially in Brussels,Ostend and Antwerp. In the capital he bequeathed the Royal Glasshouses the Cinquantenaire Park and the Royal Museum for Central Africa. In Ostend, an equestrian statue in Bronze of Leopold graces the middle of the promenade. The king is seen on his horse above the smaller figures of local fishermen on one side of its base and naked Congolese on the other side. There is a commemorative declaration from the Africans in which they express their gratitude to Leopold for liberating them from slavery under the Arabs.

Leopold II reigned as a constitutional monarch for 44 years – from 1865 to 1909. Born in 1835, he was just five years younger than the country. His reign saw the adoption of universal adult male suffrage in competitive elections, setting the country on the road to becoming a fully-fledged modern democracy. The free-trade policies that he backed helped bring about a remarkable economic transformation, with their coal production almost equalling that of mighty France. It helped Belgium become very rich. The textile industry, based on cotton and flax, employed about half of the industrial workforce.Ghentwas the premier industrial city in Belgium until the 1880s, when Liege, with its incipient steel industry, came to the fore. Primary education became compulsory, and with the 1881 School Law, girls were guaranteed access to secondary education. Key social reforms were introduced, providing greater protection for women and children. Children under twelve could not be put to work, and after they turned twelve their working day was limited to twelve hours. At this time this legislation was quite radical compared to most of Europe. So in conclusion Leopold was a great reformer at home, a founder ofBelgium’s long years of peace and plenty. What’s not to like?

But then Leopold discovered the Congo. I don’t mean literally – he never actually set foot in Africa– but he was to exert a sinister influence on the continent. For Leopold overseas colonies were the key to a country’s greatness. He worked tirelessly to acquire colonial territory for Belgium, but his enthusiasm was not shared by the Belgian people or government. In view of this indifference, Leopold set out to acquire a colony in his private capacity as an ordinary citizen. The Belgian government lent him money for this venture. In 1876 he created the International African Society, a private holding company under the guise of an international scientific and philanthropic association. There was nothing philanthropic about Leopold’s venture though. He hired the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley, of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame to establish a colony in the Congo region.

At the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, at which European countries carved up Africa for themselves, Leopold was recognized as sovereign of most of the area he and Stanley had laid claim to. On 5 February 1885 the Congo Free State, with an area more than 75 times bigger than Belgium, came into being. The importation of guns and alcohol would be banned. Peace would be imposed on all of the tribes, and the slave trade would be eradicated. The three Cs – Commerce, Christianity, and Civilization – would all be able to thrive.

The Free State was not a successful operation at first. The initial economic focus had been on ivory, but when the global demand for rubber exploded, the highly labour-intensive collection of sap from rubber plants became a lucrative alternative. In 1888, Dunlop had invented the pneumatic rubber tire for bicycles, and in 1895, Michelin had done the same for cars. Suddenly, Leopold had his hands on something that everyone needed.

Through his private “police”, the Force Publique, Leopold ruled the state as a personal fiefdom. More than a police force, the Force Publique was a mercenary army. Their job was to extract wealth for him, and of course for themselves. The officers were whites and they were in charge of an ethnically-mixed African soldiery. One of their principal tasks was to make sure that rubber quotas were met. Their modus operandi was the use of slave labour, with Congolese men, women, and children all being roped in. The soldiers received low salaries, but they could earn big commissions by meeting or exceeding their rubber quotas. When the wildly overoptimistic quotas were not met, horrific punishments – beatings, mutilation and mass killings – were meted out. The most infamous example of their brutality was the chopping off of hands. These severed hands became a kind of currency – proof that the soldiers were obeying orders. If there was no rubber, the Force Publique, would go out to collect a quota of hands instead. They would mutilate anyone they could find. This is a most gruesome example of perverse incentives. When one commander complained that his men were shooting only women and children, his soldiers came back from the next raid with a basket of penises.

Leopold’s rule of the Congo Free State was in very stark contrast to the enlightened policies he promoted in Belgium. Virtually nothing was invested in improving conditions in the Congo. The only roads built were the ones to transport rubber to market. While he was interested in the security of his Belgian subjects, he had no such worries about the Congolese. Vast wealth would go to Belgium, but the only items that made the opposite journey were weapons for the Force Publique.

There was significant outrage at what Leopold was doing in Africa, led by British diplomat Roger Casement and a former shipping clerk E. D. Morel. His Congo Reform Association was the first mass human rights movement. Mark Twain provided his customary biting wit in a political satire, called King Leopold’s Soliloquy, in which the king argues that bringing Christianity to the country outweighs a little starvation.

By 1908, the evidence of atrocities reached such a level that they could no longer be denied, and after nearly a quarter of a century Leopold was forced to give up his control over the Congo to the Belgian government.

Estimates of the death toll range from two million to fifteen million Determining precisely how many people died is next to impossible since accurate records were not kept. According to the ranking by atrocitologist Matthew White the death toll was ten million, coming in at number fourteen on this chart of infamy.

How could Leopold have ruled two places at the same time in such dramatically different manners? Are we dealing with a case of multiple personality disorder? Of course hypocrisy is a typical human characteristic.Jeffersonwas able to pen the Declaration of Independence a glorious celebration of human rights. Yet at the same time he owned slaves. We could put it down to racism. And Leopold was most probably a racist. But these explanations fail to take into the account the big picture. The Congo has continued to suffer even after the Belgians surrendered their colony in 1960. Racism does not seem to explain the 30-year reign of President Mobuto, who amassed a vast personal fortune while bankrupting Zaire, the old Congo Free State. He may have been mad, but he was able to perpetuate himself in power for more than three decades.

In The Predictioneer’s Game political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita opens with the case of the Belgian king. I blogged about Bueno de Mesquita’s ideas in Gadaffi was too nice: The Dictator’s Handbook. The academic asks why Leopold II was an enlightened constitutional monarch and a ruthless despot simultaneously. For Bueno de Mesquita what unites these two facets of Leopold is the goal of preserving power. Leopold was a civilised Belgian ruler not because he liked his fellow Belgians and welcomed their influence over him. He hated it. He just did what he had to do. In the Congo he faced no such constraints and he did what worked best for him there The political environment made all the difference.

When rulers depend on the support of many the best way to rule is by creating good policies. When leaders require the backing of a few to stay in power they need to focus on satisfying the few, even if the rest of the population are left in abject poverty.  It is not that the leaders in some countries are more venal and corrupt. Nor do people in some countries differ in their willingness to accept tyranny. The fundamental difference is the constraints placed upon the rulers.

I wouldn’t want to single out Belgium. The colonial legacy is one that we all need to reflect upon. I can report that the statues of Leopold have not been faring too well recently. At Ostend in 2004 the equestrian statue was vandalised; one of the “grateful” Congolese in it has had his hand chopped off to make it more realistic. In the palace of Tervuren, in a leafy suburb of Brussels, a statue of Leopold has been moved to a distant corner. A six-metre statue of the king was erected in the middle of a roundabout near Kinshasa’s central station. However it was taken down again after just a few hours. If only the real Leopold’s impact had been so ephemeral.

My favourite cryptic clues

May 5, 2012

Capital in Czechoslovakia (4)

The answer is Oslo. Welcome to the world of cryptic crosswords, in which each clue is a word puzzle in and of itself. Originating in the U.K. they are now popular all over the world. I have to admit that I am not very good at them, but I do admire their verbal ingenuity. Here are some examples I found on the internet:

Hitchcock double feature. (4)    CHIN

Not seeing window covering. (5)  BLIND,

It’s machine-washable, but won’t go on the couch. (7, 9)  SHRINK RESISTANT


Furious with Peruvian ancestry. (12)   INCANDESCENT

Garden party. (4)  ADAM

Unlocked area. (4,4)  BALD SPOT

Let in or let on (5)   ADMIT

A non-stop flight. (9)   ESCALATOR

Cheese stored in Baroque fortress (9) ROQUEFORT

Bars for a cell. (8) RINGTONE

Either way it’s a small craft. (5)   KAYAK

Little submarine fused together and sank (9) SUBMERGED

Some are fit for a king. (6)  SHEETS

Tales you can also read backwards. (5) SAGAS

What an incompetent deep sea diver must do to get rid of an irritation. (4,2,2,7) COME UP TO SCRATCH.

Eastern European buff (6)  POLISH

When depressed, one gives no impression of character. (5,3)   SPACE BAR

“H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O” (5)   WATER


How to make a sinner thinner. (4)  LISP

Leaves home. (4) TREE

Of, of, of, of, of, of, of, of, of, of (10)  OFTENTIMES

Consider an imaginary animal. (4,2,4)  BEAR IN MIND