Grave doubts about death
QUESTION Did someone once have a phone installed in their coffin? TAPHOPHOBIA is the medical term for the fear of being buried alive as a result of being incorrectly pronounced dead. This was a very real problem in an era when the medical profession lacked the expertise to distinguish between death and near-death states.
Physicians had only their fingers to feel for a pulse and mirrors to check for condensed breath. Correctly diagnosing death became more specific with the invention of the stethoscope in 1816.
Fears increased in the 19th century with the popularity of the Gothic horror story, encapsulated in Edgar Allan Poe’s tale The Premature Burial (1844): ‘Scarcely, in truth, is a graveyard ever encroached upon, for any purpose, to any great extent, that skeletons are not found in postures which suggest the most fearful of suspicions.’
An early solution was ‘hospitals for the dead’ in which the recently deceased would be watched day and night for signs of revival or putrefaction. There were around 30 in France and Germany.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, many safety coffins were patented. They ranged from simple designs — ropes tied to a corpse’s hands that ran to an aboveground bell — to complex vibration sensors attached to mechanical contraptions that would light a candle, ring a bell, and open a periscope, with some models even featuring a telephone with a direct line to the cemetery keeper.
The first recorded safety coffin was constructed on the orders of Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick. He had a window installed to allow light in, an air tube to provide a supply of fresh air, and instead of having the lid nailed down, he had a lock fitted. In a pocket of his shroud he had two keys, one for the coffin lid and a second for the tomb door.
In 1798, P. G. Pessler, a German priest, suggested that all coffins have a tube inserted from which a cord would run to the church bells.
In 1822, Dr Adolf Gutsmuth demonstrated the efficacy of his own design by allowing himself to be buried alive. He stayed underground for several hours and even ate a meal delivered through the coffin’s feeding tube.
In 1829, Dr Johann Gottfried Taberger designed a system with a bell to alert the cemetery night watchman.
Charles Sieber and Frederick Borntraeger, of Waterloo, Illinois, received a patent for a ‘ grave signal for people buried in a trance’ in 1885.
With the usual electromagnetic bell alarm and pop-up flag activated by a string tied to a finger of the corpse, the patent included a spring-driven fan in a housing at the surface — also activated by the finger string — and a lamp and window at the base of a tube for viewing the corpse’s face from the surface.
In 1913, Peter Backus, of Delphos, Ohio, developed a yet more sophisticated device for detecting life in a corpse ‘in hospitals, morgues, crematories, at bathing beaches and on ocean-going steamers’. It consisted of a motor-driven vacuum pump, electric heaters, phone monitor and a special stretcher in a sealed casket.
As late as 1995, a safety coffin was patented by Fabrizio Caselli. It included an emergency alarm, intercom system, torch, breathing apparatus, a heart monitor and stimulator.
Paul Edwards, Nottingham.
QUESTION How did apple cider vinegar with ‘the mother’ get its odd name?
MOTHER of vinegar is a slimy, harmless substance consisting mostly of acetic acid bacteria ( Mycoderma aceti) and cellulose. It is a live culture of bacteria that consumes the alcohol in wine and turns it into acetic acid.
While not appetising in appearance, mother of vinegar is completely harmless and the surrounding vinegar does not have to be discarded because of it.
Sometimes mother from a previous batch of vinegar is put into new batches of souring wine.
This use, as a starter for new vinegars, is why it is called mother of vinegar. Over time, traditional vinegar makers cultivate their perfect mothers with special flavouring abilities, and they become a wellguarded family secret. Catherine McCulloch,
Pangbourne, Berks. THE human body contains trace amounts of radionuclides ingested daily through water and food intake. These include trace quantities of uranium, thorium, radium, carbon-14, tritium, polonium and potassium-40.
Potassium-40 is by far the most abundant naturally occurring radioactive element in the body. An 11st man contains about 140g of potassium, and potassium-40 is present in all potassium, though at a very low concentration: 0.0118 per cent.
When it decays, 89 per cent gives rise to the emission of a beta ray with a maximum energy of 1.33 Mev. The other 11 per cent produce a gamma ray with an energy of 1.46 Mev. Only gamma rays have the energy to exit the body.
The amount of radioactive potassium-40 in an 11st man is about 5,000 Bq, which represents 5,000 atoms undergoing radioactive decay each second.
A gamma ray is emitted in about one out of every ten disintegrations of 40K, implying that about 500 gamma rays are produced each second (remember only 11 per cent of emissions are gamma rays).
Some will be attenuated in the body, and the dose rate from these gamma rays outside the individual’s body will represent a very small fraction of the normal background dose.
One estimate suggests sleeping nightly with another person adds one millirem to your annual dose of 360 millirems of radiation per year.
D. L. White, Birmingham.
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