Felix Klein, Klein bottles, Manifesto of the Ninety-Three, Guglielmo Giovanni Maria Marconi, wireless telegraphy, Lusitania, Titanic, Carpathia, Lusitania again, Fascism, La Marseillaise, the guillotine

"He will be able to hear the still, small voice of the air."

Hi, I'm Ana, the Ethical Systems Nerd, with the April 25 episode of Nerd Nodes.

Today is the birthday in 1849 of Felix Klein, who would probably be vaguely disappointed that he's best known, at least in Nerd circles, for the Klein bottle, and not for his profoundly influential research in the fields of geometry, number theory, group theory, abstract algebra and mathematical physics, or his work as a journal editor, author, or his basically establishing the high school mathematics curriculum for the 20th century. But it's probably better than being remembered for his signature on the "Manifesto of the Ninety-Three", a World War I propaganda coup in which 93 prominent German scientists, scholars and artists, with the notable exceptions of Albert Einstein and Herman Hesse, galvanized national support for German military actions by signing a pro-war treatise.

Klein conceived the Klein bottle as a three-dimensional equivalent of a Möbius strip. These are both what are known as non-orientable surfaces, meaning there's no consistent way to define a perpendicular or normal vector. If you were to walk along such a surface, you could end up back at your starting point but upside-down. Ironically, or perhaps in intellectual self defense, Klein also did extensive theoretical work on the gyroscope, a device whose job it is to tell you which way is up.

A Möbius strip can be made by putting a twist in a piece of paper before taping its ends together, A Klein bottle requires a little more work to create but you can search online and order blown-glass Klein bottles, a Klein stein which is a functional but highly inconvenient and hard-to-clean beer mug, or even a combination hand-knit Klein bottle hat with matching Möbius scarf.

25 years to the day after the birth of Felix Klein, Annie Jameson, the granddaughter of the founder of Jameson & Sons Irish whiskey and married to an Italian aristocrat, welcomed her second son, Guglielmo Giovanni Maria Marconi. Marconi enjoyed a highly privileged childhood, being educated by private tutors, one of whom provided him with a solid grounding in the new theories of electricity. At the age of 18 he was living in Bologna and hanging around the University, where he was exposed to the work of Heinrich Hertz, and given the opportunity to attend lectures and use the laboratory facilities.

Marconi spent the 1890s experimenting with prototype wireless receivers, adapting and developing components to perform telegraphy over wireless, and working on increasing the range over which he could send messages. Apart from his family money, Marconi was unable to find much support for his work in Italy, so he moved to Britain in 1896, filed for a patent, and spent a few years doing demonstrations at increasing range. On March 17, 1899 the first wireless maritime distress signal was sent, and later that year, wireless telegraphy came to the United States in a demonstration from the SS Ponce at the America's Cup yacht races. Wireless telegraphy was a perfect fit with the great age of ocean liners, allowing news and personal correspondence as well as distress signals to be sent to and from ships at sea. Marconi recognized this and set up a company to provide wireless services between ships and land stations.

In March of 1912 Marconi boarded the Lusitania bound for New York and had, presumably, an uneventful and productive voyage. He had been offered passage on the upcoming maiden voyage of the Titanic, but the Titanic's public stenographer was the newly hired and unknown George Frederick Turner, a lifelong clerk looking forward to his first ship posting, so Marconi opted for the known entity of the Lusitania's stenographer, a preference which may have saved his life. Thanks to the wireless telegraphy on board the Titanic, the RMS Carpathia was able to arrive on the scene within 2 hours of the ship's sinking, and rescued over 700 survivors from the lifeboats floating in the water, including one of the two radio operators, Harold Bride. Harold, despite being so seriously injured he would have to be carried off the Carpathia, would join his friend and the Carpathia's radio operator, also named Harold, in the Carpathia's radio room, sending the names of survivors on ahead to anxiously waiting family, friends, and newspaper reporters in New York. Marconi was also waiting in New York and took the opportunity for some of the best publicity he could ever ask for, boarding the Carpathia with a reporter to talk to the Harolds.

Three years later Marconi would again board the Lusitania on its 201st crossing bound for New York under Captain Turner, who had been the Lusitania's first captain and returned after Commander Daniel Dow, preternaturally protecting his perfect record of never being involved in a collision or serious incident at sea, took two months sick leave due to the stress of traveling the submarine infested waters of the North Sea during World War I. Captain Turner dropped off Marconi, took some time to testify on a hearing about the Titanic disaster, loaded his ship with passengers and possibly with explosive contraband, and set off on May 1, 1915 bound for Liverpool, a destination the ship would never reach as it was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland with the loss of almost 1200 lives, precipitating the entry of the United States into World War I. Captain Turner, although remaining with his ship, would be rescued from the wreckage.

While Marconi's experiments hadn't been appreciated in his native Italy as a young man, that all changed once the technology was established, and he was welcomed into the Italian establishment. When that establishment became Fascist, Marconi did too, being appointed by Mussolini as President of the Royal Academy of Italy, placing him on the Grand Council of Fascism until his death from a heart attack in 1937.

Both Klein and Marconi were unsuccessful in avoiding political entanglements, which they each professed a desire to avoid, while also going along with the flow and enjoying the fruits of high ranking positions within their respective national establishments. Klein, writing after World War I to his English former graduate student Grace Chisolm Young, the first woman to write a Ph.D. thesis in mathematics at Göttingen, thanks in part to Klein's support, declined to distance himself from his signature on the Manifesto of the 93, saying “Everyone will hold true to their country in good times and in bad”. Both men believed that the rest of Europe treated their homelands unfairly, in Marconi's case he went on a grand tour across Europe and Brazil to stress the point that Italy's genocide in Ethiopia was no different than what many other European countries had done in Africa, which may have been true but was not quite the defense it must have sounded like in his head.

As well as the birthdays of Klein and Marconi, today in 1792 saw the mayor of Strasburg, Philippe Friedrich Dietrich, concerned about the European backlash to the French revolution, commission fellow freemason Rouget de Lisle to write a song to rally French soldiers. The song was written that very night, and is known today as La Marseillaise. On the same day, in Paris, the guillotine made its debut as the official form of execution in France, a role it would fulfill until 1977. A year and a half later it would take the life of Philippe Friedrich Dietrich who got on the wrong side of Robespierre, although he would be posthumously pardoned and named a hero of the Revolution. The guillotine and La Marseillaise have their birthdays on April 25.

Further Exploration

Further Exploration


A mathematician named Klein
Thought the Möbius band was divine.
     Said he: "If you glue
     The edges of two,
You'll get a weird bottle like mine."

- Leo Moser

Read a profile of Cliff Stole, who sells Klein bottles, Klein steins, and hats from his home in Oakland, California, USA, and who is the author of The Cuckoo's Egg, one of the classics in the field of cybersecurity, based on his own experiences tracking down a hacker at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs in 1986.

Read Ruth Ben-Ghiat's Strongmen: Mussolini To The Present

Ours is the age of the strongman, of heads of state who damage or destroy democracy use masculinity as a tool of political legitimacy, and promise law and order rule – and then legitimize lawless behavior by financial, sexual, and other predators. Covering a century of tyranny, this book examines how authoritarians use propaganda, virility, corruption, and violence to stay in power, and how they can be opposed.

Watch the last known footage of the Lusitania departing New York on its final voyage.

Please contact me if you have recommendations for books regarding the Second Italo-Ethiopian war. This seems to be the most relevant I can find: Between Bombs and Good Intentions: The International Committee of the Red Cross (Icrc) and the Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935-1936