Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Photo: Factory Worker During WWII

Last week, blogTO posted a whole whack of old Toronto photographs from the 1850s to the 1990s. There are plenty of nice ones that I hadn't seen before, but the photo that's stuck with me the most is this one, of a woman who (like my grandmother) worked at an armaments factory in Toronto during the Second World War. 

Unfortunately, they don't give any more information than that. You can see the whole post here, which is a round-up of some of the best images they posted in a fifteen-part series covering one decade at a time.

Update: blogTo reposted the image again, this time with a link to a Wikipedia page with more information. It seems this is Veronica Foster, who worked at the John Inglis Co. factory in what's now Liberty Village. They called her "Ronnie, the Bren Gun Girl" because that's a Bren machine gun, which became one of the most common weapons on the front lines of the war. This photo was taken as "official government coverage" in May of 1941.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Canada's First Beatnik Happening

The Bohemian Embassy
In the late '50s and early '60s, while the Ginsbergs and Kerouacs were making names for themselves south of the border, Toronto's own Beatniks were taking over a swath of our city's core. Their scene was centered around Gerrard Village, at Yonge, and stretched up into Yorkville, transforming old Victorian homes into coffee houses and poetry clubs.

At the heart of it all was the Bohemian Embassy on St. Nicholas Street. "The coffee-house was on a little cobbled side-street," Margaret Atwood explains in her short story "Isis In Darkness", "up on the second floor of a disused warehouse. It was reached by a treacherous flight of wooden stairs with no banister; inside, it was dimly lit, smoke-filled, and closed down at intervals by the fire department. The walls had been painted black, and there were small tables with checked cloths and dripping candles."

The venue became a proving ground, providing vital support to the fledgling careers of an impressively long list of Toronto's finest poets, writers, folk musicians and comedians: Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn Macewen, Milton Acorn,  Irving Layton, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Ian and Sylvia, Michael Ondaatje, Al Purdy, Dennis Lee, Lorne Michaels. Bob Dylan came to see a reading when he was seventeen. Peter, Paul and Mary would hang out when they came through town. A young Bill Cosby did stand-up, taking a break from his regular gig a few blocks away at the Fifth Peg on Church.

In 1963, the Bohemian Embassy attracted the attention of the CBC when it played host to an absurd, Dadaist free-for-all billed as "Canada's First Beatnik Happening". Here's the video. (Seriously. Click it. It's worth it just for the expression on the anchor's face when they cut back to him at the end.)

This post is related to dream
11 Feeding The Annex
Dennis Lee, 1974

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mabel The Swimming Wonder Monkey, or The Great Dead Monkey Project

DEC VAX 11/780
Okay, so, this story seems to vary wildly from one source to the other, so I have no idea how much is true and how much is urban legend. But there's no way in hell I'm passing up the opportunity to write a post about The Great Dead Monkey Project, so here goes:

They say Mabel was a monkey, maybe a chimpanzee, trained by scientists at the University of Toronto in the late '70s. They called her Mabel The Swimming Wonder Monkey  because they'd taught her how to swim underwater; she could breathe with a kind of scuba system. The researchers would pump in various gasses to determine the kind of effects they had on her body. 

The whole system was controlled by an early computer—the DEC VAX-11/780. It was a brand new, state of the art machine which took up most of a room, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and came with up to 2 MB of memory. But the one the researchers at U of T were using had developed some kind of problem, so one day, while Mabel was in the pool, a technician came in to fix it. And while he was working on it, he accidentally screwed with part of the system regulating Mabel's air. The Swimming Wonder Monkey drowned.

Her death, according to a dictionary of computer geek slang, is how they got the term "scratch monkey"—an extra drive used to back-up data while troubleshooting. Apparently it's a common expression for safety-conscious computer folk: "Always mount a scratch monkey". If they'd done that at U of T, their monkey wouldn't have died.

There's another version of the story out there as well. It comes from someone who claims to have interviewed the woman who programmed the computer. According to her, the experiment had nothing to do with swimming underwater, but involved five monkeys who were hooked up to the computer so that it could read their brain waves. When the DEC VAX-11/780 was being worked on, it supposedly accidentally sent out electrical signals, directly into the monkeys' brains. It killed three and stunned the other two. The experiment became known as The Great Dead Monkey Project.


I was tipped off to this one by a couple of friends who run the Once Again, to Zelda blog and are editors with me over at the Little Red Umbrella and who were trying to figure out why an ad for a "Toronto Bucket List" with a photo of a chimpanzee in a wetsuit kept showing up in the sidebar of their Facebook feeds. Which is still confusing. You can read the online dictionary's version of the story here, and The Great Dead Monkey Project version here. Also, coincidentally, there's a monkey gargoyle at U of T, on one of the doorways to University College, which you can see a photo of here.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Photos Of Old-Timey Car Crashes

The City of Toronto has its own official Flickr page for historical photos and though there are just a few galleries there, one of them is the oh-so-awesome "How NOT to drive in Toronto". It has a bunch of photos of car accidents in the city, almost all of them from the early years of the twentieth century. My favourite is probably the one I've posted above, an electric car hanging half off the north Glen Road Bridge in Rosedale sometime around 1912. But there are lots worth seeing: auto polo at the Ex,  a vehicle swallowed by a giant sinkhole; another upside-down in a ditch. You can visit the gallery on Flickr, but I'll also embed the slideshow right here (for captions, make it fullscreen and click on the photo):

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Screwing Over The Locals

A map of the Toronto Purchase
It was the Seneca, one of the nations in the Haudenosaunee Conferation (the Europeans called them Iroquois) who were here in the 1600s, when the first Europeans started to visit this land. They'd established a village at the mouth of the Don and another on a bend of the Humber, where Baby Point is now. They were recent arrivals though, having just pushed the Wyandot—weakened by war and European diseases—north and taken over. And by the time the British showed up in the late 1700s, the Seneca had been driven out by the Mississaugas. And so it was with them that the British government negotiated the official purchase of the land our city is built on.

The Empire wanted everything from Etobicoke Creek in the west to Ashbridges Bay in the east, stretching north from the lake for 28 miles. In return, they were willing to pay £1700, hand over some supplies and make sure the Natives never really understood what was happening. As Chief Bryan LaForme put it a few months ago, when the Canadian government paid the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation $145 million in an attempt to make up for it, “They knew they were trying to screw us and they didn’t hesitate to do it.”

The exact details of the Toronto Purchase seem to vary slightly from one source to the other, but here is pretty much the exact list of the stuff Toronto was "bought" for:

6 bales of heavy cloth
4 bales of rough coats
196 hoes
8 half-barrels of gunpowder
5 boxes of guns
3 cases of shot
10 kegs of ball
24 brass kettles
4 pieces of broadcloth
5 pieces of embossed serge
200 pounds of tobacco
47 "carrots" of tobacco
432 knives
120 looking-glasses
4 trunks of linen
18 pieces of garter
30 pieces of ribbon
60 plain hats
24 lace hats
2000 gun flints
432 fish hooks
10 pieces of flowered flannel
160 blankets
1 case of barleycorn beads
96 gallons of rum