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Michael Flannigan - a life of invention






Michael Flannigan:
A Life of Invention

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The Road to Heidelberg

Part 6: The Heidelberg Disaster

University life was everything Michael Flannigan had imagined, and he threw himself into academia with characteristic vigour. The effervescent inventor leaped out of bed for early morning classes, relished late nights in the laboratory hunched over a bubbling test tube, and devoured reams of reading material in between. The University of Heidelberg, Germany’s oldest institution of higher learning, was a magnet for brilliant minds, and Flannigan was delighted to immerse himself in erudition and scholarship.

Flannigan’s research under Friedrich Henle progressed quickly. The motivated mature student focused principally on the structure and development of human hair: in particular, why and how it grew, and why it sometimes ceased to do so. Thinking back to his peculiar experience with bird guano in Afghanistan, Flannigan was especially enthusiastic about the possibility of cultivating hair where little or none had previously existed. Unfortunately, his experiments in this regard failed to demonstrate immediate results in generating spontaneous hirsuteness. However, Flannigan’s work was by no means a failure, as notes from this period of intense follicular focus include snippets of early thoughts that would later be realized in some of his most memorable inventions: the Brow Brush, the Follicle Restorer, the Single-Action Facial Hair Removal Device, and his last invention, the unexpectedly fatal Nostril Stretching and Nose Hair Clipping Device.

Flannigan’s Heidelberg hiatus was not all work and no play, though. Like many other university students, Michael Flannigan soon found himself burning the candle at both ends. When not engrossed in his studies, the Irish inventor could often be found in the 15 th century Hotel Hirschgasse’s wood-paneled tavern – called the Mensur-Stube – pounding back a pint of Radeberger Pilsner with a Becherovka chaser. [1] In addition to refreshing beverages, the Mensur-Stube provided live entertainment: while Flannigan dined on traditional local dishes such as dumplings, knuckle of veal, or filled oxtail, university students engaged in fencing duels.

professor defends his supper

A Heidelberg professor defends his supper from a Becherovka-fueled, sabre-wielding student in the Mensur-Stube

Flannigan was enthralled by the ritualistic fencing combat known as the Mensur, which he described in detail in a letter to his sisters dated September 25, 1845:

"My marvelous Molly, Mary, Catherine, Chelsea and Hope,

I find myself breathless with anticipation as the two duelists stand facing each other, ready to commence battle. The upper parts of their body, neck, arms and nose are wrapped in protective bandages but their skull, forehead, and cheeks remain exposed. They wish each other "luck with weapons" and then begin sword-play until an exposed spot is struck and the opponent has his dueling scar. Thankfully, a doctor is at hand to stitch cuts. The ritual is ended with an all-night beer-drinking session. Looking around at the bleeding students, broken schnapps glasses, and repulsively odiferous beer-soaked floor, I find myself reminiscing about my old acquaintance, the Tyrolean mountaineer Gunter Gruntz. He would have loved this place!"

Your loving brother, Michael"

The nightly chaos of the Hirschgasse also reminded Flannigan of the picturesque Whelan’s Corners, Ontario, [2]which he had visited one vaguely-recollected weekend in 1816 during a four-year "aphrodisiac bender". Like the Whelan Hotel, the Hirschgasse was the kind of place that attracted hard-drinking hiker gangs in short leather trousers. And, as had been the case at the Whelan, the serving girls were captivating. Michael Flannigan’s favourite barmaid at the Hirschgasse was a delicious young fraülein of Indian origin named Deepa Hada.

Flannigan had no way of knowing a number of highly relevant facts about the delicate dark-eyed girl who brought his Becherovka shots: that Deepa Hada was a Kashmiri assassin and mistress of disguise who had sworn eternal revenge against him and the late, lamented Desmond "Curry" Riffles; that they had earned her everlasting enmity after ruining her wedding by lynching her fiancé; that she had caused Riffles’ demise while in the guise of a cricket bat – admittedly assisted by the powerful but stringy arms of Riffles’ bitter, barmy batman; and, that she had patiently stalked the Irish inventor from Tellicherry to Heidelberg camouflaged as a hatbox. There was also no means by which Flannigan could have known of Deepa Hada’s original plan to disguise herself as a pair of strapping Bavarian twins named Heidi and Gretchen before deciding that approach would be too obvious. Lastly, it would have been impossible for him to know – and possibly to follow her logic if he had known – that the assassin had chosen to confuse matters further by hiding in plain sight, masquerading as herself. The only things he did know were that she was absolutely smashing, and that her pulchritude increased with every stein of Radeberger Pilsener. Michael Flannigan was once again deeply infatuated.

Eager to attract Deepa Hada’s attention, Flannigan took up the Mensur himself, spending far more time at the Hirschgasse than he did in the lab. Unsurprisingly, his academic results took a turn for the worst; however, he did manage to accumulate several rather manly scars on his unprotected face, enhancing his already dashing countenance. [3] The fall and winter of 1845 were happy times indeed for the smitten Irish inventor.

Although research and matters of the heart occupied most of Flannigan’s days, he did find the time to take a brief trip in early 1846 with the intention of studying Gothic architecture in nearby Strasbourg, Alsace. Alas, Flannigan never saw the Strasbourg Minster [4] , as he mistakenly bought a ticket to Strasburg, Prussia. The inventor’s spelling error cost him an additional 830 miles on the train, but also brought him into fleeting contact with one of the most significant political figures of the 19th century, Otto von Bismarck.

Flannigan was lucky Otto von Bismarck didn’t give him the rhinoceros treatment

Bismarck would later f ound the German Empire , forging a weak, loose confederation of conflicting kingdoms and principalities into a united Empire that would dominate Europe. In 1846, however, the future "Iron Chancellor" was a bored Prussian civil servant, responsible for the care of the dikes by which the local countryside was preserved from inundation. Michael Flannigan’s brush with Germanic greatness came when he stumbled off the Strasburg train and, desperate to relieve himself, did so exuberantly into a nearby dike. The eliminating Irishman was apprehended in mid-stream by the dike-master, Bismarck himself, who gave Flannigan a very stern lecture and personally put him on the next train out of Prussia.

On the long journey back to the Grand Duchy of Baden, Flannigan mulled over an adaptation he had envisioned for the FADAR. In its current form, the device was designed to recognize a physical object like a bird or a fish and – by a logical process of comparison and elimination – come to an automated and accurate identification of its species. Surely, he reasoned, the same logical process could be applied to intangibles such as questions and strategies, assuming sufficient information were provided to choose from. If this set of circumstances, then that response or action, and so forth. Flannigan dubbed this adaptation as the "Box of X", and set it aside for further study.[5]

Back in Heidelberg, Michael Flannigan redoubled his efforts to win the favour of the winsome Deepa Hada. Although already overcommitted, given his laboratory work and fencing endeavours, he reasoned that joining a student dramatic company would raise his visibility with the lovely but reserved barmaid. So began Flannigan’s affiliation with the Grand Duke’s Players, [6] who displaced the Mensur-Stube’s fencers once each academic term to perform on the tavern’s stage.

The budding actor played rather unremarkably upon the boards, but demonstrated a flair for set design that placed him in high demand. Flannigan’s working portcullises, drawbridges, elevating devices and other mechanized set-pieces were the talk of the university, bringing him to the attention of Pépé Le Tuque, a brilliant young actor and writer from Percé on the Eastern tip of Québec's Gaspé Peninsula in Canada.[7] Le Tuque’s new play – "The Mad Maple Merchant of Manicouagan" – required a set that would enthrall the audience. After some cogitation, inspired by a tray of Becherovka shots, Flannigan and Le Tuque came up with the idea of a massive backdrop that would visually simulate the process of tapping, distilling and bottling maple syrup. Flannigan began building the Hot and Cold Maple Syrup Dispenser immediately.

While busily sourcing maple syrup, copper piping, a boiler and all the other items that would be required for the set, Flannigan continued work on the "Box of X". Like most of his creations, he kept his work a secret, fearing that the new technology might fall into the hands of rival inventors or "nefarious foreign hands". [8] Even so, Flannigan might have been pleased to know that the object of his affection Deepa Hada was greatly intrigued by his invention, having spied it through his laboratory window. He would, however, have been less content to discover that a third person had come by means of espionage to learn of the "Box of X".

The debut of Le Tuque’s play was fast approaching, and Flannigan was furiously building the Hot and Cold Maple Syrup Dispenser. Being a perfectionist, the inventor had designed the device to actually work, although he had not told anyone as he wanted to surprise Le Tuque and Deepa Hada. Flannigan was jubilant at the thought, although his mood was tempered by the news from Ennis. On March 24, 1848 – opening night – he received a letter from his sister Molly:

"My dear brother,

I shudder to tell you: the potato crop has failed again. We have been evicted from our cheery cottage in the shadow of Bunratty Castle, and typhus, scurvy and dysentery are everywhere. With the last of the money you sent me, I have booked passage for us all to England. Will we see you there?

Your darling sister, Molly"

Molly’s words spurred Michael Flannigan to put aside his studies and other distractions. After so many years away, he knew he must return to England to support his family. But he also knew that the show must go on. He vowed to leave Heidelberg that night, immediately after the show. Unaware that he was being watched by two sets of eyes, he packed a small traveling case with his invention notes, including those concerning the "Box of X".

"The Mad Maple Merchant of Manicouagan" was a resounding success, right up until the curtain call. The Hot and Cold Maple Syrup Dispenser worked exactly as intended, and the audience cheered as the cast of the play toasted each other with this sticky Canadian confection. Michael Flannigan joined the actors onstage for a final bow, his suitcase in hand, and then – in the words of the local newpaper’s theatre reviewer – "The fires of hell engulfed us all". An excerpt from the review explains:

"Playwright on Fire" read the headline in the next day’s paper

"Without warning, a small Indian woman threw herself at the man with the suitcase. He seemed to welcome her advances, puckering his lips welcomingly. Clearly, a public display of affection was not her intention, as she struck him in the face and wrenched his bag out of his hands. At this point, a tall thin audience member clad in a gaudy dress fraught with frippery stood up and pointed a weapon at the woman, shouting ‘In the name of the Queen, halt your advance, my good woman, or I shall shoot.’ She did not stop, and he – yes, ‘he’ – fired his weapon. The bullet struck the steaming mass of equipment at the back of the stage, and a conflagration resulted. Flames were everywhere. The audience panicked, heading for the doors, although I bravely stood my ground. It was impossible to see, but you could hear a man’s voice, raised pleadingly, saying – I think – ‘Give it to me, I am begging you! Deeper, harder! Dashitall, give it to me, harder.’ I shuddered to think of this peculiar final, desperate act as I watched the tongues of flame lick at the maple syrup boiler. Then, the inevitable explosion came, and I received a serious injury to my head. That is all I remember, other than Pépé Le Tuque’s performance, which was very good indeed."

The exploding boiler sent handfuls of highly flammable, yet slow-burning maple syrup through the air. Numerous actors, audience members and passers-by were badly burned, and the Hotel Hirschgasse was reduced to ashes. Michael Flannigan could not have invented such an effective anti-personnel weapon if he had tried. [9]

Curiously, although three people were unaccounted for in the terrible inferno, only one immolated body was found, torched beyond recognition of identity, gender or ethnicity. The missing people were identified as: Michael Flannigan, itinerant Irish inventor; Deepa Hada, immigrant barmaid; and Colonel Roderick "Ramrod" Steele-Pistonne-Fearce-Haughtness, a cross-dressing "exploring officer" under the British Army’s Quartermaster General, and scion of two rather pompous double-barreled families who had imprudently interbred. [10] Michael Flannigan’s suitcase containing the notes for his "Box of X" was nowhere to be found.

As Heidelberg’s garbage collector noted in his log of activity the next day, "There were many pieces to pick up."

--"Scholarship" by The Flyboy

Chapter 12 – On Her Majesty’s Sequined Service


1. Although Chesleyan scholars enjoy this delicious Czech liqueur, others describe it as a “bitter-sweet, yellow herbal drink.” [back]

2. In its heyday, this crossroads community just north of Napanee (now called Centreville), boasted three churches, three doctors, a smithy, a cheese factory, a school and – most importantly – four hotels with pubs. [back]

3. In the absence of evidence, Chesleyan scholars can only imagine Deepa Hada’s glee as Flannigan injured himself while trying to impress her. [back]

4. At the time, the World's Tallest Building (having surpassed the Great Pyramid of Giza in 1439). [back]

5. The principles behind the “Box of X" would later prove helpful to designers of such innovations as the Magic Eight Ball, early computers and, of course, videogames. [back]

6. Named in honour of Grand Duke Leopold I of Baden. [back]

7. The literal-minded explorer Samuel de Champlain described Percé as "a very high rock with a hole". This was apparently a compliment, as he later described the Québec town of St. Louis-du-Ha!-Ha! as simply “a hole”. [back]

8. Later called “rogue states”. [back]

9. The material was later christened “Mapalm" by the Heidelberg press. [back]

10 Exploring officers in Wellington’s army were the earliest military intelligence officers, although they never thought of themselves as spies. Their task was to collect first-hand strategic or tactical intelligence by riding to enemy positions, observing and noting movements and making sketch maps of uncharted land. It was a dangerous job and they had to be fit, good horsemen, and ready to escape at any moment. [back]



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