Opinions of Butterford Eelwart are both contradictory and fiercely held. Some claim he is a genius whose talent for invention has been sadly curtailed by the carping of lesser minds. Others claim with equal vehemence that the man is a fool and ought to be locked up for his own safety. Within this second group is a more reasonable faction who are willing to allow him to remain at liberty, provided he is allowed nothing to write or draw with other than thick wax crayons. They believe that even the most naive of artisans will beware of engineering drawings presented to them scrawled in green wax crayon.
I confess I tend to stand aside from the debate, having known Butterford for many years. Indeed I confess I quite like the chap. Still I feel that he should be judged mainly by the quality of his work.
His first invention was occasioned when he noted that many ladies of his acquaintance had difficulties entering and riding in a sedan chair due to the extravagance of both hair style and hat. Milliners are notorious for their flights of fancy; indeed some of them seem to spend a large proportion of their time tap dancing along the edge of madness. Still, given the amount of money they seem to be able to charge, perhaps it would be fairer to describe it as eccentricity rather than madness.
Still, on those occasions when Butterford got into a sedan chair, he merely removed his own, admittedly elegant, top hat and sat with it perched on his lap until he arrived at his destination. But his hair was neatly clipped, indeed he used to claim that when it got so long that he needed to use a comb, he merely got it cut again. But what he achieved in one simple movement could take one lady of his acquaintance twenty minutes, and that with the assistance of two lady’s maids and a short stepladder.
So he invented the roofless sedan chair. Now this might seem a simple enough thing to do, but you forget that structurally the wooden frame that runs around the top of the chair above both doors is a main structural member. So he compromised. With his new design, one had to get in on the left-hand side. There was a doorway, wider than usual, but no door. So the lady would bend down facing the chair and manoeuvre herself forward. Often one of the chair-men would act as a banks-man, telling her to bring her head round to left or right and when to stand up. Once she was inside the chair and seated, the chair-men would pick up the chair and would set off on the journey.
Now obviously if there is no roof how do you protect the passenger from the elements? Well there was a roof, it was hinged at the back and could be lowered in place should the passenger not be such as was encumbered by too much millinery. For those with particularly grand headpieces, the rear chair-man wore a frame from which projected an umbrella or parasol, depending upon the expected weather conditions.
Excited by the brilliance of his own work, Butterford rather expected it so be more popular than it was. Perhaps a dozen of the Butterford chairs could be found in Port Naain at any one time. To be fair both passengers and chair-men are generally considered decidedly unconventional. Butterford put this down to small-minded chair-men unwilling to accept the future. So he decided to render them obsolete. He invented the ‘self-drive’ sedan chair.
This was a miracle of light-weight construction. Imagine if you would a conventional sedan chair. But remember it has no floor and of course no carrying poles. The passenger, who undertakes the task of carrying their own chair, needs to have contact with the floor. On entering the chair the passenger sits and fastens themselves into a harness. When the passenger wishes to move they stand up and immediately the harness takes the weight of the chair. The passenger merely strides out in the direction they wish to travel, viewing the world through a net-curtained window in front of them.
To be fair this chair was not widely accepted. They are very light; indeed their detractors use the term ‘flimsy’. Indeed it is often said that they are so fragile that if you are sturdy enough to take the weight and move the chair, you are too heavily built to sit in the seat which will not support your weight.
Butterford did contemplate a somewhat modified version. In this he extended the chair somewhat, fore and aft, so it had two people inside who were harnessed to the chair and who took the weight and carried it as they walked. A third person could sit in the seat between the other two and be carried. Apparently the main problem with this was that whilst your chair-men kept dry, it put you in very close proximity to them in an enclosed space. Sadly neither version of his chair was a success, although the city purchased a dozen of the single person variants. Felons being taken to a place of execution are often expected to travel in one of these chairs as a cruel form of humiliation.
Butterford’s next moment of inspiration came when he was diverted from contemplating methods of transport by a hammering on the door. None of the domestic staff was within earshot so Butterford went and answered the door himself. He was met by an outraged aunt who asked, in cutting terms, why he had not fitted a bell, so that potential visitors did not have to belabour the door with their fists in an apparently doomed endeavour to attract his attention.
This gave him pause for thought, and he pondered long and hard. He didn’t want some mere ‘ding-dong’; he wanted art and the dark arts of the mechanic to meet in perfect harmony. Finally he decided upon a mechanical carillon. The design is simple enough, a drum turns, the pegs on the drum trip various hammers and each hammer is attached to a bell crank. Thus as the drum turns the bells are played. Admittedly the assemblage is somewhat large. In front of his own front door Butterford had a separate porch built which has a second storey to house the bells. The whole thing is powered by an anvil which is raised up on a chain. So when the visitor pulls the cord to ring the door bell, what they are actually doing is releasing a ratchet thus allowing the anvil to slowly descend. This turns the drum which plays a tune on the bells.
Actually this contrivance worked really well. Admittedly the domestic staff complained a little about having to spend half an hour every morning winding the handle which lifts the anvil into place. Also, to be fair, the neighbours did take to commenting, somewhat unfavourably, on the volume of the instrument.
Ever the kind employer and good neighbour, Butterford gave the matter further consideration. He is working on the application of a small steam engine to raise the anvil. To be honest it might take longer than just turning the hand wheel but everybody enjoys being part of the application of science and he has no doubts at all that his staff will take to it. The engine house with its boiler is to be next to the new porch. It will be a small separate building with very thick walls and a light roof.
When it comes to reducing the volume, apparently it was comparatively easy to use smaller bells. Also Butterford added a layer of thick quilt to the inside walls and roof of the bell loft. This means that the neighbours are not disturbed. Because of the open floor to the bell loft, the visitor can still hear the bells perfectly.
The redesign of the bell loft also means, somewhat unfortunately, that the bells can no longer be heard by anybody in the house. Thus detractors claim that all Butterford has achieved is to produce a doorbell that the visitor can ring and only they can hear.
But on the positive side I would note that at least the visitor is kept entertained as they hammer on the door with their fists trying to attract the attention of somebody within the house.
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just listen to the reviewers
Another selection of tales from Port Naain, as told by jobbing poet Tallis Steelyard. Read about the underpinnings of dancing matrons, the secret beneath the undergarments of a gentlewoman of the town, the resurrection of a dead mercenary, and much more. This is a gentle comedy of manners in a world so different from our own. The author writes affectionately of his world and his characters, and I share that affection. Lovely stuff.
Always entertaining. Reading Tallis Steelyard is like getting a letter from a friend who has moved to a foreign country and comments on the foibles of the local people. Jim has the ability to draw you into his world to be entertained and illuminated by another culture.
If you’re looking for some entertaining short stories to dip into, I can recommend this book.
But don’t blame me if you read the whole book in one sitting the way I did.