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  • Meirion Harries

DAY TWELVE Some Excitement

This is an exciting day for cyclists. I get to ride briefly on the Elberadweg, the Elbe Cycle Route, one of the best in Europe and on it today, I will arrive at Magdeburg, the birthplace of Carl Hindenburg, first president of the German Cycling Federation. Magdeburg has distinguishing features. It has the largest canal bridge in Europe spanning the Elbe and linking Berlin’s harbours with the Rhine. The bridge cost 500 million euros and is an important material and psychological link between east and west Germany.

Discus throwing was rediscovered in Magdeburg. It seems a slight thing but Christian Kohlrausch dedicated his life to working out the shape, weight and technique of the discus. He was a gym teacher and used his pupils as guinea pigs for his prototypes and theories of throwing and succeeded so well that the discus was selected as a discipline in the first modern day Olympics in 1896. Apparently, he was so famous world-wide that letters would simply be addressed to “Christian Kohlrausch, Germany”.


Britain, of course, has invented some sports: badminton, billiards, bowls, boxing, cricket, croquet, curling, darts, golf, fives, football, hockey, netball, rugby (union and league), tennis, table tennis, snooker, squash, and water polo. And the British are responsible for standardising various other sports including rowing, dance sports and motor sports. Most importantly, the British invented darts. In the early 1300s, soldiers played darts with crossbow bolts. They aimed at a slice of log - which has given the modern dartboard its circular shape and concentric rings. The modern day scoring system was devised in 1896 by Brian Gamlin, a carpenter from Lancashire (though it is worth noting that in Yorkshire, they don't have trebles he put in – a double is all you'll get). And the game has other interesting variants: my favourite is Dolf, or darts golf, which is administered by the World Dolf Federation.

My bicycle's progentior, however, was German - Baron Karl von Drais. His Laufmaschine ( "running machine") had no pedals, but like a child's first bike, was pushed along by the rider's feet. On his first ride, he covered eight miles in under an hour. Why did he invent the bicycle? - necessity is the mother of invention and von Drais's necessity was a volcano exploding in Indonesia. The Tambora eruption was the largest in recorded history and bigger than Krakatoa, east of Java. It killed an estimated 100,000 in the explosion and millions over the next three years. The smoke and ash thrown high into the stratosphere blocked sunlight across the world making 1816 the 'Year Without a Summer' and reducing sunlight in the succeeding two years. The consequence was agricultural disaster: in China, the cold killed trees, rice crops, and water buffalo and the disruption to the weather patterns brought massive flooding. In India, the torrential rain of the disrupted monsoon spread a new strain of cholera from the Ganges as far north as Moscow. Northern Europe was particularly badly affected – the failure of the crops led to riots and looting in many cities. There was no fodder for animals, so many died of starvation. And it was the deaths of so many horses that led von Drais to think of an alternative form of transportation. Another of Magdeburg's claims to fame is burned in my memory. As a schoolboy, I was quite large and the physics master challenged me and a similar sized boy to pull two little cups apart. We accepted the challenge and he placed the two cups together and sucked out the air. In front of the increasingly ribald class, we pulled and pulled and failed. The physics master then took the cups and, letting in a little air, separated the cups with nonchalant ease.

We had, of course, been humiliated by Magdeburg Hemispheres. These had been devised in 1645 by Otto von Guericke, the Mayor of Magdeburg, to demonstrate his vacuum pump, another world first for the town - and an extraordinary symbol of recovery. Magdeburg had been taken by Catholic forces 1631, during the Seven Years War, and 20,000 had been massacred. The population remaining after the slaughter numbered only about 4,000. Von Guericke's original hemispheres were quite large (20 inches in diameter) and quite beautiful - made of polished copper and machined for a perfect fit one onto the other. At this size, when the air is sucked out, the atmosphere provides a pressure equivalent to the weight of a small elephant. Von Guericke gave a public demonstration in front of Emperor Ferdinand III. It must have been quite a show – 30 horses failing to separate two hemispheres that had no physical connection. But perhaps Magdeburg's greatest achievement was to provide education to a boy who would grow up to change the world – Martin Luther. We will come across Luther again en route to Trafalgar Square. Here is film of a physics master being not quite so underhand: https://youtu.be/gb4eUu_ELSs And this is film of children singing Das Magdeburger Lied in front of the town's top sites: https://youtu.be/yOMjob__tsI And here is a modern trumpet playing a concerto composed by another of Magdeburg's famous sons – Georg Philipp Telemann: https://youtu.be/7zCUaaZMyHo

Incidentally, the piston valves of the modern trumpet and cornet were invented by a German - Heinrich Stölzel - in 1815. He was a son of Schneeberg, not Magdeburg.

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