• Warning: At least two eels were definitely harmed during the reporting of this story

    The eels, nearly two feet long and fine, slick specimens of their species, met their deaths in the scrubbed clean kitchens of Bompas & Parr, a London culinary design studio that defies pithy description. It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon and some on the Bompas & Parr team were preparing for a photo shoot for a big magazine later in the day. The theme of the shoot was "thinking differently." Thinking differently when you're Sam Bompas or Harry Parr, founders of the eponymous studio, involves eels.

    "Do you want to see the eels?" asked Bompas, offhandedly excited. On the way to the kitchen – down the stairwell that has been painted to look like a mouth and throat, giant fleshy lips with giant white teeth ringing a disturbingly pink tunnel – Bompas explained that they'd had eels as "pets" in the past, although the longest any eel lasted was about a week: "Eels don't make good pets."

    One eel, when we arrive in the stainless steel and tile kitchen, is already dead, a pool of thin red blood ink-spilling around its recently malleted head. Post-mortem spasms cause it to open its jaws and twitch, but it is well and truly dead – otherwise, the eel executioner assures me, it would have been flapping frantically. Which would have made the job of tying the late fish to a thin strip of lumber much more difficult. And it would have made the next part – waiting for rigor mortis to set in, untying it, and then painting it with flammable paste and setting it on fire – impossible. Bompas & Parr's vision for the photo shoot was flaming eel swords.

    Of course it does. This is Bompas & Parr.

    What Bompas & Parr do, and why it frequently involves eels, is difficult to explain. The last time I wrote about Bompas & Parr was five years ago, for American Way magazine (the article no longer appears on their site). Then, they were calling themselves "architectural foodsmiths" or "jellymongers", and their primary medium was jelly (in the British sense: think Jell-O). They'd started making jellies, Bompas told me then, because it seemed like the nostalgic treat of so many British birthday parties was primed for a comeback and they thought it might be fun. Bompas and Parr, who'd been friends since their days at posh boys' prep school Eton and through their respective geography and architecture university degrees, were lately loosed onto the working world and looking for something creative to do.

    But what started with a booth selling jellies at a large summer festival in Regents Park in 2007 quickly led to weirder and more ambitious events. These installations and experiences drew on architecture, theatre, history, high and low concept art, and science and medicine, married in surprising ways to food. The following year, they teamed up with the London Festival of Architecture to organize an Architectural Jelly Competition, inviting a host of prestigious and obliging international architecture firms to enter designs made out of jelly (the designs were judged on, among other things, "wobble"). In 2009, they created the first breathable cocktail in the UK – a cloud of gin and tonic – as well as a 3-D map of the United States out of Jell-O, "glow-in-the-dark funeral jelly" for the San Francisco MoMA, an eight-course banquet made entirely of black food, and a lagoon of Courvoisier punch you could punt a raft in the shape of a giant orange slice across. It was all utterly unlike anything anyone – aside from food historians chronicling the culinary excesses of doomed aristocratic classes in ancient Rome and prerevolutionary France – had ever seen before. By the time I met them in 2010, they were so busy, they were turning away work.

    Five years later, they still are. Their budgets are now in the millions of pounds, Bompas said, although he declined to be more specific about the company's finances. They still do bespoke jelly for parties or weddings (£800 plus VAT will get you enough jellies, in your wedding colors, to serve a large wedding); they'll also blow up your wedding cake for you, in case the point about not liking wedding cake wasn't clear, or outfit a private party with a Whisky Tornado (and a lot of really drunk guests). But more often, their clients are big names: The government of the UAE; the Museum of Sex in New York; Vodafone and the City of London; Truvia; Nike; Diageo, the boozy juggernaut that owns Baileys, Guinness, and Johnny Walker. And barring a few missteps – for example, the chocolate waterfall that was less Willy Wonka and more muddy Thames and that Bompas admitted was a bit of a nightmare to create – they've gone from strength to strength.

    What interested Bompas and Parr in food and what has made them so successful is how quotidian food is but how exciting it can be. You need food to survive; but you don't necessarily need glow-in-the-dark ice cream or a steak cooked over molten lava – that's just fun. Said Bompas, food is so "very universal to human experience, that if you do something a little bit different, you could grab everyone's attention and get them excited about it."

    "Profound, provocative, entertaining, food is really good at that. Literally, if you put a lot of sugar, fat, and salt inside someone, all these pleasure centers in the brain light up, people feel great," he continued. More than that, food is a brilliant framework for architecting an interactive good time. "Food's interesting because it's an arena that lets people be the heroes," said Bompas. "And when we're designing stuff, whether it's an installation or a meal, it's 'How do you create those moments where people can forge their own narratives?' Because that's often more interesting."

    We're back upstairs in the officer conference room now, leaving the eels to their grim but glorious fates. The conference room, with its hyper-lurid neon chairs (mine's pink) and glossy white table, is a first for the company, and an indication of how much it has grown from its first home in a registered chemical laboratory that was also Bompas's apartment. This studio, on a backstreet in Southwark, is an open plan office – several rows of long, cluttered white tables serving as desks – equipped with a library of remarkable titles: White Trash Cooking, 500 Years of Tea, The Book of Symbols, Molecular Biology of the Cell, The Hungry Scientist, The New Encyclopaedia of Aphrodisiacs, The Encyclopaedia of Psychoactive Plants, Dune. It feels familiar, like the relaxed creative aesthetic of a small, quirky ad agency, but for the profusion of artifacts from past Bompas & Parr events, the collection of bespoke jelly moulds, and the faint scent of chocolate coming from the ornate, Rococco Cabinet Luxe that recently contained a cloud of vaporized chocolate.

    Down the esophageal stairs is even less familiar. There's the stainless steel professional kitchen where the eels died, and a workshop packed tight with the tools of their strange trade: One wall is all green bins labeled "Various Paints", "Wax & Clay", "Adhesives Fillers/Sealers"; next to the garage door is the vacuum form machine, picked up on the cheap from a school that was no longer using it, that they use to make all of their jelly moulds. The enormous plaster head of an iguanodon, an homage to the famous Iguanodon Dinner Party of New Year's Eve 1853, stares up at the ceiling from atop a stack of boxes. He's leftover from that time they, in partnership with Courvoisier, transformed a huge Belgravia mansion into an "experiential meal" covering 730 years of food history, from the flooded, eel-infested basement to the carbonated grapes on the roof. When I visit, a member of the team has opened the garage door and is cleaning the industrial grade vaporizer, a cloud of aggressively artificial banana billowing into the car park.

    A row of red boiler suits in varying states of paint-splattered deterioration hangs next to the door of the workshop. "There was a time you could see who'd been working the hardest, doing all the stuff. So Harry's [boiler suit] is covered in stuff… mine is, like, pristine," Bompas laughed. "You could see who did the work and who did the talking about the work."

    He's joking, but it's a little bit true. Bompas is more the eccentric showman, Parr the reserved partner; this division of labour seems to be in keeping with the grand tradition of entertainment partnerships. When I interviewed Parr back in 2010, I found him obliging and engaging, but I didn't get the impression being interviewed was an experience he enjoyed or cared to repeat; I didn't speak with him this time around. Bompas, on the other hand, cultivates a more outgoing, even eccentric persona. (For example, he uses words like "scads" in earnest, is fond of bow ties, and when I visit their studio, he's wearing what I'm beginning to think of as his trademark excitingly printed trousers, because he was wearing them the last time I saw him, too; you can see the trousers here, at his talk at Wired2014.) He is an amiable host, and genuinely enjoys talking about their work and the ideas behind it, often pulling out a pen and his small black notebook to doodle an illustration of what he's talking about, or, winningly, to write down something you've just said that interests him. Bompas acknowledged that their roles have increasingly diverged, noting, "Harry is much more technical process, Harry does a lot of the financial. I'm more people, end result, experience."

    Their roles have necessarily evolved with the company, which has grown significantly. Bompas & Parr is no longer just Bompas and Parr, but a team of 13 full-time designers, chefs, producers, and makers. They still don't have a business plan, exactly, but they do have a management structure, time sheets, and status reports, said Bompas, all in service of making things easier to do. And they now go by the blander but more elastic and accurate moniker "experience designers."

    "We were quite vague on what we were for quite a long time, but we didn't mind because we knew inherently what we were," Bompas explained. But as the company grew, it became apparent that no one else did: The people they worked with often had difficulty explaining what exactly Bompas & Parr did. Why "experience designers"? "The most important thing with everything is you've got an audience and they want something to happen to them," Bompas said. "'Experience designer' was the simplest… It doesn't sound, like, super glamorous, but I think the important thing is that it puts the audience first."

    It's also a descriptor that reflects some of the other changes that the company has undergone since 2007 – their medium is no longer entirely food. "Over the last year or two years, we've been looking at some of these other things that are important to us, what makes us human… other things that fit that category are sex and death," said Bompas. "Everyone's going to die, most people have some sort of interest in sex. And then it's taking it and doing it in away that is luxurious, putting it into the entertainment sector."

    Perhaps most obvious is their recent foray into sex, with the summer 2014 opening of their Funland exhibition at New York's Museum of Sex. Funland was an erotic carnival, making explicit what some argue is implicit in the "innocent" fun of the funfair: A bounce house fashioned from giant, squishy breasts, a climbing wall made of penises and bottoms, vaginas and noses, and a mirrored labyrinth that eventually led to the ever-elusive G-spot. Bompas & Parr's Snake Oil Lube, heralded as the greatest tasting lube on the planet and offering notes of "cotton candy", "showman's hair pomade" and "lurid showground paint", was on sale in the gift shop. Death has been more of a continual presence in their work, with "funeral jellies" and black banquets; and then there's the near-universal human quest for intoxication, another area that people "galvanize around", Bompas says, and one they frequent.

    So far, Bompas & Parr have managed to stay ahead of the innovation curve, balancing on the profitable edge of outré and accessible. Part of that is in how they execute an experience, which comes down to a kind of formula: First, cultivate anticipation leading up to the event. At the event, deploy a distancing mechanism to divorce the participant from their quotidian life; a coat check and a request to silence phones help, a cocktail helps more. This, in combination with a wait or a queue in a well-set scene, primes participants for enchantment. And then, the big reveal, the wonderment, the action, and it had better be good (although, confided Bompas, "You can make anything exciting by having it on ice, on fire, in space.").

    But then, you can't just spit people out on the pavement and toss their coats after them. Part of what makes the experience successful is giving participants ample space and time to savour what just happened. "With a formula like that, you can give people extraordinary experiences," Bompas said.

    One of their more recent events, back in April, hewed to that formula, with what I felt were extraordinary results. The Spirited Dinner was a séance followed by a dinner, hosted at the Andaz Liverpool Hotel, a fine railway hotel of the Victorian red-rick and cream-stone variety built in 1884 and the lodgings of the fictional vampire hunter Van Helsing in Bram Stoker's Dracula. The event began in the lobby of the hotel, where we were asked to wait until the "Spirit", a figure in a heavy green hooded cloak, came to escort us up the rather mundane hotel elevator to the cocktails.

    After the cocktails and mingling, we were led to the Gothic heart of the hotel – the Masonic Temple (and part-time cinema). Installed in 1912, the Masonic Temple is all Italian marble, mahogany paneling, gilt accents, arcane symbols, overlooked by the bronze bust of the Grand Master, HRH the Duke of Connaught, and lighted by flickering candles; a huge gold starburst ringed by gold Zodiac figures decorated the sky blue ceiling, the floor black-and-white checkered marble tiles. Heavy, dark wood chairs lined the walls and in the centre, directly under the Zodiac, four more chairs faced a large, wooden throne. It was like the set of National Treasure and I mean that in the best way possible.

    I was directed by our spirit conductor for the evening, illusionist Philipp Oberlohr, to sit in one of the four chairs in the centre. I blushed. The air in the room was charged with awkwardness and excitement; the roughly 50 of us there were all a little giggly with anticipation. Oberlohr made me put away my notepad and pen. I blushed even more.

    I can mostly remember what happened next, although perhaps owing to the pre-séance cocktail, it's a little hazy. Oberlohr led me to the front of the room, where I was tasked with sorting a stack of black and white photos of people I'd never seen before into a "good feeling" and a "bad feeling" pile. As it turned out, all the "good feeling" people I chose were alive. All the "bad feeling" people were dead – it said so on the back of their photo, which I could not see while sorting. How I, an acknowledged unbeliever, managed this act of mediumship was down to Oberlohr's skills as an illusionist. The rest of the séance continued in this vein – Oberlohr "contacted" the spirit of Edna Maythorpe, who, he told us, had been a medium frequently employed by the Masons who built the Temple. Armed with this gently eerie fiction, Oberlohr, respectful and funny, performed feats of mindreading and physical "magic". Though I never once believed that we were actually in the presence of a helpful spirit, I wanted to.

    After the séance, we were led – via the bathrooms, thankfully – to the dining room, where we sat at long tables, with mounds of melted wax and guttering candles as centerpieces. Zenner cards (the kind Dr. Venkman used in Ghostbusters to test the effect of positive reinforcement on ESP in that hapless be-fro'd undergrad) were under our dinner napkins and a real, live fortune-teller was on hand for readings. But conversation was already inspired, even without those props; I found myself talking spirituality, religion, and kids with the women opposite me, women I'd only just met. Dinner was theatrical and delicious – fois gras in the shape of a bone, roasted birds served from a cart spewing dry ice smoke and nag champa incense, a vanilla blancmage in the unsettling form of Harry Parr's face for dessert. At the end of the evening, we were all given the opportunity to drink a shot of something highly spirited from a goblet made from a human skull. It was very not boring and gave me a good story to trot out for weeks after.

    The event also highlighted something else about Bompas & Parr experiences. The Spirited Dinner was, by Bompas & Parr standards, quite intimate, but nearly everyone who attended must have shared something about it on social media, judging by Twitter and Instagram (a lot of pictures of the blancmage Harry Parr); my own posts about it satisfyingly piqued my friends' curiosity. This is what Bompas & Parr are designing for now: Not just the immediate experience itself, but also how participants represent it to their friends and followers on social media.

    "That has become such an important signifier of identity, which is where we've sort of lucked out with food because food has become, like, the most photographed thing on Instagram apart from cats," Bompas explained. "People are looking for interesting things to use to perform their sense of identity, in the way they would have once done with fashion labels, for example." Bompas & Parr now put together installations with an eye to the Instagrammable moment: "We design everything for the phone, we just sit there with an installation… and look at it through my phone. If it looks great, that's good… because that's ultimately how it will be remembered, how people will actually view it."

    This isn't to say that the experiences are shallow or somehow reduced by the fact that they are designed to be socially shared. "You still need real world experiences for people to feed as content. If anything, this is the ongoing performance of people's lives, the ongoing autobiography, it means they constantly need new content… which suits our business model because we just do new stuff all the time," explained Bompas.

    And they do. It feels like a rare thing that a company that started off just doing fun, exciting things is still, nearly eight years later, doing fun, exciting things, and even more rare, that after the necessary business-ification, everyone involved still enjoys it. "You're sitting there, 'I'm really stressed,' but you're stressed about the most absurd stuff. 'Today's stress: Can I get a bath in to fill it with jelly?'" laughed Bompas. "It's fun. They're good problems to have in your life."

  • How WWI made wristwatches happen

    Most societies, as far back as the Egyptians if not further, have had some mechanism for keeping time – sundials, water clocks, hourglasses – but those were fixed in place. By the 15th century, however, the development of the spring-driven clock meant that timekeepers could be freed from their moorings; there is some evidence of people wearing proto-pocket watches around their necks, a la Flava Flav. Through the 18th and 19th centuries, portable time-telling was largely the province of the pocket watch; if a timepiece appeared on a wrist, then it was a lady's wrist, and it was considered more a piece of jewelry than an item of function.

    Exactly when the wristwatch was invented and by whom is unclear. The Guinness Book of World Records gives luxury watchmakers Patek Philippe credit for the first wristwatch, designed for the Countess Koscowicz of Hungary in 1868. But the venerable Guinness has been known to be wrong before, and there are records of other bracelet-style watches that pre-date the Patek Philippe model, including one designed and manufactured by Breguet for the Queen of Naples in 1810 (well, ordered in 1810 – it wasn't delivered until 1812). Queen Elizabeth I was supposed to have been given a watch set into a bracelet by Robert Dudley in 1571, which would have made her vastly ahead of fashion, but the item hasn't survived.

    In any case, the ladies' wristwatch, often called a "bracelet watch", a "montre bracelet", or a "wristlet", existed for at least a century, if not longer, before its widespread adoption by the general public and by men at all. Why? Firstly, watches were still somewhat delicate and a timepiece on one's wrist could be guaranteed some shocks; these wristwatches, dripping with precious stones, were absolutely fashion first and function second. That they were so delicate probably reveals more about the women who were wearing them – that they may have been perceived to be as ornamental as the watches themselves.

    Which makes it a little ironic, then, that what really drove the design and adoption of the wristwatch was war.

    Accurate timekeeping is essential on the battlefield. "You can track back a number of errors in war to timing," said military historian Peter Doyle, author of The First World War in 100 Objects. But a pocket watch, however accurate it was, was somewhat unwieldy, especially as styles of warfare shifted from the Napoleonic – two armies facing off on a large field – to modern artillery-heavy, sometimes guerilla warfare. The first wristwatches designed for military use actually came in 1880: After one of his naval officers complained to his superiors that timing bombardments was too difficult with a pocket watch, Kaiser Wilhelm I commissioned Swiss watchmakers Girard-Perregaux to design and manufacture a watch mounted on a wrist strap. The Girard-Perregaux watches weren't terribly different from how wristwatches appear now, with the exception of the thick metal grill protecting the glass face. Though the wristwatches were indeed more practical in battle conditions, they weren't popular with men in the main and the design was discontinued. Roughly 20 years later, wristwatches were adopted by soldiers fighting in the Boer War in South Africa – some sported leather wrist straps into which a gentleman could put his pocket watch – but again, they didn't receive widespread attention. Even at the war's end in 1902, a redesign of the British officers' uniforms still came with a pocket for their pocket watch.

    The problem was twofold: Firstly, wristwatches weren't considered to be as reliable as pocket watches, owing to the fact that they were jostled about a good deal more. And secondly, wristwatches, though practical, still had the whiff of womanliness about them: "The sort peer pressure would be, 'Why are you wearing that, that's a woman's thing,'" explained Doyle.

    It would take a global war to catapult the wristwatch onto the arms of men the world over. Though the wristwatch wasn't exactly invented for World War I, it was during this era that it evolved from a useful but fringe piece of military kit to a nearly universal necessity. So why this war? Firstly, the development of the wristwatch was hastened by the style of warfare that soon became symbolic of the First World War: The trenches.

    "The problem with the pocket watch is that you have to hold it," explained Doyle. That wasn't going to work for the officer at the Western Front – when an officer lead his men "over the top", leaving the relative safety of the trenches for the pock-marked no man's land in between and very possible death, he had his gun in one hand and his whistle in the other. "You haven't got another hand in which to hold your watch."

    John Singer Sargent's 1918 painting Gassed

    John Singer Sargent's 1918 painting Gassed

    As in the Boer War, some men had taken to strapping their pocket watches to their wrists, but this was cumbersome and heavy. At the same time, technological advancements were making hardier timepieces. Several watchmakers, including Cartier and Rolex, had already been experimenting with watches that strapped to the wrist; Cartier, for example, had already begun marketing a watch that the company's principal, Louis Cartier, designed for Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1911 (Cartier still makes and sells a version of the watch). These watchmakers – and many others, including Omega and Longines – saw their moment and began manufacturing watches specifically for the military market. Indeed, the first use of the word "wristwatch" in paper of record The New York Times, is in a 1915 report from the annual meeting of the National Retail Jewelers' Association, which featured a presentation of wristwatches "for soldiers" with radium dials "so that the soldier can tell the time in the darkest night", as well as a compass. (Notably, subsequent mentions of "wristwatch" in The New York Times over the next few decades refer primarily to them being stolen.)

    As the war ground on, more and more officers adopted wristwatches. "It's small, portable, it's essential, it's important," he said. "The wristwatch became something that men would wear because it was practical."

    But if wristwatches are emblematic of the practical, functional evolution of military dress in the First World War, they're also emblematic of one of the lesser known aspects of the war: the merchandising. We don't often think of war as an opportunity to sell – it seems vaguely unsavory, however common it is – but manufacturers during the First World War certainly did. Doyle explained that retailers would often slap the word "trench" on items from coats to cookers, believing rightly that the association with the war would help sell. Sometimes manufacturers would label these new wristwatches "trench watches".

    "Everything from 1914 onwards becomes 'trench this', 'trench that'… it's kind of a marketing ploy," said Doyle. Often, these items were marketed towards the families of men serving at the front and implied that whatever it was, it could somehow protect or comfort them. "You get all the wristwatch manufacturers – 'Just the thing for the man in the trenches.'" That context – the families on the home front just looking for something, even a sham talisman, that could make their boys safe – makes the symbolism that wristwatches also began to take on all the more poignant. Doyle owns a wristwatch that was taken from the body of a fallen soldier, buried at the front, and returned to his family as evidence of his death. "The broken remains of that soldier came down to this simple watch that was returned," he said. "This was physical evidence of the loss of this missing solider… He became a dead soldier and the family could mourn."


    After the war, wristwatches remained on men's arms. This was in part due to the fact that a global war meant global exposure, and partly due to the fact that the wristwatch was actually useful. Equally important was the kind of action man association wristwatches now carried, fully eclipsing the earlier associations with women's jewelry. Wristwatches were worn by aviators and explorers, men who didn't have time to pull out a pocket watch; this kind of imagery was intensely attractive in the years after the war. Later improvements to wristwatch designs and mechanics, including quartz movement, meant that watches were increasingly cheaper, and more widely available, even as luxury watches became even more, well, luxurious.

    For the rest of the 20th century, wristwatches became so entrenched in the way people live that you can point to your wrist with a questioning look and be reasonably assured that someone will give you the time. Although these days, they might not get it from their watch – if you've got a phone, then you've got the accurate time (and yes, it is a little regressive that we use our phones like pocket watches now). But that doesn't mean that the wristwatch is on the way out. Sales of traditional watches did dip during the recession, but have since rebounded in a big way, driven mostly by sales of luxury labels.

    We're also asking more of our watches, reimagining them in new ways; the most obvious of them being the smartwatch, which, though exciting, has yet to deliver on its hype (do you know anyone who has one?); Apple is expected to release its Watch this year, however, so maybe its time has come (sorry). But that's only one avenue – consider wrist-mounted quadcopter, Nixie, which will make your Inspector Gadget costume even more awesome this Halloween. As long as wristwatches retain that usefulness, that practicality, and maybe do some exciting things beyond telling time, why shouldn't they be around through the next world war?

    Top image: Early wrist watch by Waltham, worn by soldiers in World War I. Deutsches Uhrenmuseum CC 3.0 de


  • The surprising history of hippy crack

    In January 2012, an attractive woman over 40 and that guy from That '70s Show were going through a rough patch (spoiler alert: it didn't work out). Demi Moore, the woman in question, allegedly turned to the comfort of nitrous oxide, also called "whip-its," "whippits," "whippets," "nossies," "hippy crack," and, of course, "laughing gas."

    Moore's experience with nitrous oxide was not, however, the brief, weightless euphoria that most people report: She collapsed with seizure-like symptoms and was rushed to the hospital. Her subsequent stint in rehab – for eating disorder issues and substance abuse – could have sparked a nationwide soul-searching about nitrous oxide and other inhalants abuse; it mostly just sparked a bunch of snarky headlines.

    Nitrous oxide gas is used to make cars go faster and whip cream into a delicious fluff; therapeutic nitrous oxide, surprisingly sweet-tasting, is used in dental procedures and for pain relief – or just a welcome distraction – during childbirth. Recreationally, nitrous oxide is huffed by the cool kids from brightly-colored balloons at festivals and bored teenagers straight from Reddi-Wip canisters in the supermarket aisle; by people with access to nitrous tanks, such as dentists or dental hygienists; by – purportedly – Hollywood actresses and wayward British princes; and, although this tends to go underreported, by people with other drug addiction or psychological issues.

    But people have been having fun with nitrous oxide – even in the name of science – virtually since its discovery more than 240 years ago. In fact, it's only been the last 100 years or so that nitrous oxide has been more often used for "legit" purposes.

    Nitrous oxide was first synthesized in 1772 by Joseph Priestly, one of Britain's foremost chemists and the man who invented soda water; he allowed nitric oxide (NO) to stand in contact with iron filings and water, yielding the gas N20. Priestly was a brilliant scientist, but also an Enlightenment thinker whose staunch belief that scientific inquiry would soon have everything, including dated institutions such as monarchy, sorted eventually landed him in de facto exile in America (this was after a mob of hundreds tore apart his lab and tried to burn down his house in 1791). Priestly's leaving didn't, however, mean the end of nitrous oxide investigations in Britain – although it wouldn't be for another 27 years until someone really looked at nitrous oxide.

    That someone was Humphry Davy, a fearless scientific prodigy who'd taught himself French at the age of 14 – so that he could read chemistry books in French. "He was an incredible character, and incredible personality…. he was kind of pure genius. Unbelievably intense, unbelievably brilliant and incredibly ambitious," explained Mike Jay, author of The Atmosphere of Heaven, an account of scientific investigation into gases in the late 18th century.

    Davy grew up in Penzance, a small port town on the Cornish coast; no one, Jay said, had ever come from Penzance. Blessed with an insatiable curiosity coupled with what was likely an eidetic memory, Davy grew up devising his own scientific experiments and making lab equipment out of whatever he had to hand – seaweed bladders, an enema syringe washed ashore after a shipwreck, the insides of a clock. In 1798, at age 18, he became a lab assistant at the Pneumatic Institute in Hotwells, a spa town in decline outside of Bristol, UK. The Pneumatic Institute was the brainchild of Thomas Beddoes, an eccentric, energetic polymath whose primary interest was medicine; it was a medical research facility whose aim was to investigate possible therapeutic uses of newly-discovered gases and chemicals to treat diseases of the lung that were spreading in the increasingly insalubrious air of industrialized Britain. Beddoes had hoped for live patients and he got them in their dozens, although not just consumptives, but people suffering from paralysis, palsy, and syphilis as well.

    In April of 1799, Davy, in the Institute's laboratory and in between administering nitric acid to syphilitic sores, began to investigate nitrous oxide. He started by synthesizing the gas and promptly inhaling it himself. When he didn't die – and actually seemed quite invigorated by the experience – he and Beddoes began administering it to patients. They started with a 26-year-old man who, "after a course of excessive debauchery," was unable to move one side of his body. After inhaling the gas, the man soon regained mobility in his arm; Davy and Beddoes also noted that he and other patients seemed to look forward to their "dose of air" and "the pleasure it gave them."

    By the summer, Davy had begun a rigorous course of self-experimentation, taking detailed notes not only the physical effects of nitrous oxide inhalation on his blood pressure or his body temperature, but also on his conscious state – how and what he was feeling when he took the gas. And he was feeling pretty phenomenal: Davy admitted that he was often breathing the gas just "for the sake of enjoyment." On full moon nights that summer, Jay said, Davy would fill up a bag of gas, grab his notebook, and get high up on Avon Gorge, overlooking the river Avon. His consumption was almost to the point of compulsion – he wrote that just seeing other people breathe was enough to make him want the gas.

    But in the interest of scientific investigation, Davy couldn't rely solely on his descriptions of his own experiences for data. So he enlisted help. After the surgery was shut for the day and the invalids sent home, Davy's fellow experimenters – doctors, poets, surgeons, playwrights, and chemists – gathered in the Institute's drawing room. "It was kind of like a salon and Davy was the master of ceremonies," explained Jay. Davy would administer the gas, using a green oiled-silk bag he'd had made especially to hold the gas, to anyone who wanted to try it, the catch being that they had to write down their experiences. "There were a lot of wordsmiths, so of course there's a certain amount of competition in describing this sublime experience."

    Among those who Davy invited were the Romantic philosopher-poets Robert Southey, the future Poet Laureate and author of "The Story of The Three Bears," and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, best known for his "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Their presence was part of Davy, himself a poet of the Romantic bent, trying to get to objectively grips with the subjective, phenomenological experience of being out of one's head on nitrous oxide. "If you want to construct a language of feeling, as Davy talks about, you can't do that with chemistry," said Jay. "You can't get from there to understanding what happens in the brain… you need people from different disciplines, chemical, medical, but also poetic."

    This inter-disciplinary approach to understanding was a hallmark of the Enlightenment, an era of scientific and philosophical advancement that was only just now running out of steam. Man's capacity for knowledge seemed limitless and the distinctions of disciplines seemed hardly necessary: "At that time philosopher and chemistry were all looked upon as ways of understanding the world better," explained Dr. Stephanie Snow, professor of medical history at the University of Manchester and author of Blessed Days of Anaesthesia. "Science at that time was different from how we came to know science from the mid 19th century onwards. It was far more holistic in terms of what it brought together, in the way in which it tried to interrogate things using all the various disciplines."

    Davy's experiments culminated on December 26, 1799 – Boxing Day – when he, chest bare and a thermometer stuck under one arm, walked into a specially-built sealed box and directed a friend and physician to keep pumping it full of nitrous oxide unless he passed out. After an hour and 15 minutes, Davy was still conscious and his system, he judged, was fully saturated; he exited the box and inhaled 20 more quarts of the gas from oiled silk bags he'd had made especially for huffing nitrous oxide. It was far and away the most nitrous oxide a human had ever inhaled. And Davy was really, really high, out of his head to the point of transcendence. "Nothing exists but thoughts!," he cried, after the sensation had returned to his limbs and he'd returned to earth. "The world is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!"

    Davy's work, dangerous and slightly mad, made him. In 1800, Davy, just 21, published his work on nitrous oxide, detailing his experiences with it, both objective and subjective, and touching on its potential uses as an anesthetic. Then, rather anticlimactically, Davy moved on to other things. He built a respectable career for himself, eventually becoming President of the Royal Society and a knight, and his self-experimentation was seen as "a kind of emblem of scientific heroism," said Jay, proof of his laudable commitment to science.

    But the gas that launched his career was itself left to founder. Over the next 50 to 60 years, nitrous oxide would be used not as an anesthetic, as Davy had suggested, or even as a curative, but as a good time, or, to use the parlance of the time, a "frolic." By the 1820s, nitrous oxide had found a home on stage, usually as part of a variety act (this, by the way, was by no means the weirdest thing to show up on British or American stages in the 19th century). And though the names Davy, Southey, and Coleridge were frequently invoked in advertising materials, these were no meetings of expanding minds.

    Typically, a show would involve a performer pretending to be a doctor and inviting audience members to come up on stage to try the gas; some shows would enact the chemical reaction to yield it on stage as part of the theatre. "It's kind of a marvel or curiosity of science, it's come from the world of science," Jay said, adding to that the tone of the show was along the lines of "in nitrous veritas," that under the influence of the gas one's true nature would be revealed. "It becomes a very popular low-brow entertainment."

    This was how the general public experienced nitrous oxide – as "laughing gas," the name that it was now known by, and as part of a theatre-type experience (it was simply too difficult a chemical reaction to manage for at-home use). Fairly early on, before Davy's trials, nitrous oxide had traveled to America – by 1808, medical students at the University of Pennsylvania were sufficiently acquainted with it to both use it for partying and study. In America as in Britain, it languished on the traveling variety show act circuit. Even Samuel Colt, the inventor of the Colt revolver, toured a nitrous oxide show in the US and Canada in the 1830s, earning enough money to have prototypes of his revolving-barrel gun. Colt advertised his act with a quote from Southey: "The atmosphere of the highest of all possible heavens must be composed of this gas."

    "It was looked upon very much as laughing gas, good for fun and frolic and public experiments and things it was not looked upon as a viable medical therapeutic agent," said Dr. Snow.

    But it was in America that nitrous first began to be used as pain relief in dentistry, inspired by these frolics. In 1844, a dentist called Horace Wells who'd caught a laughing gas act in Hartford, Conn. was inspired to use the gas for his own wisdom tooth extraction. Wells declared a "new era in tooth-pulling" but, as Jay writes in The Atmosphere of Heaven, his attempt to demonstrate the gas at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston in 1845 didn't go so well (the patient, not properly dosed, cried out). Wells's reputation was lost. (Wells is also a cautionary tale of the perils of self-experimentation: After the debacle at Mass General, Wells threw himself into experimenting with inhaling chloroform, going on a disastrous four-week bender in New York City. In a delirious fit, he rushed out onto Broadway and threw acid on two women; he was promptly arrested. While in jail on January 24, 1848, he committed suicide by slashing his femoral artery with a razor from his shaving kit. His death, however, was quite painless – he'd first managed to procure some chloroform to inhale.)

    Despite Wells' failure, it actually was a new era for tooth pulling and more. By the 1860s, the gas was routinely used for dental surgery and increasingly being used in general surgery, even as "laughing gas frolics" remained part of variety acts. Why it took so long for the medical establishment to come around to the idea of anesthetics in general and to nitrous oxide in specific is a matter of social and psychological context. According to Jay, "Surgery was conceived as something where you wanted the patient to be awake, it was a kind of macho thing." The notion of anesthesia was, he said, heavily attacked by the medical profession for drawing attention to the "painfulness of the procedure" and making it less likely that people would go through with it. Then there was the fact that doctors were reluctant to have any potentially volatile chemicals and gases in their surgeries.

    "What really moved it was that surgical procedures had progressed, there was much more that they could do. Surgeries were going on so long, that the ability of patients to withstand the pain was becoming a limiting factor," Jay said. "This is a very inconvenient story, what it says is that everything was there for decades but medical science ignored it for reasons that were nothing to do with the interests of the patient."

    But Dr. Snow offers a somewhat different story. "Pain [in the early 19th century] was understood was to be by and large to be a benefit, it was like the body's safety net," she said. "If you were having an operation and you felt pain, that was actually a good thing because the pain was a trigger to the body to maintain its vitality. If you had a patient on the operating table and they sort of cried out and writhed in pain, that was good, it meant that they were alive, there was that vitality there." Nitrous oxide and other potential anesthetics, such as ether, were seen to depress the body, and suppress its natural inclination towards living; giving the appearance of death, wherein even pain couldn't rouse the sleeper, was something to avoided.

    What changed wasn't only that doctors needed to operate on people for longer, but rather there was also a fundamental shift in understanding how the body worked in the first half of the 19th century. "There was a lot of work done on the nervous system that gives evidence that it's actually a hierarchy, that you can suspend some elements, like feeling, and yet maintain higher functions, like breathing," explained Snow. Snow noted that during the period from Davy's work on nitrous through the 1850s, import of opiates, for example, dramatically increased, revealing an increased appreciation with not being in pain.

    And there were other changes. In Britain and America, the humanitarian movement was gaining steam. "From the 1820s onwards, you get the sense that causing anything pain, even animals, is against the basic impulse of a civilized society… Taking away pain is actually a blessing," explained Snow. "If fits with the broader movement of the antislavery movement, antivivisection, anti-experimentation on prisoners, it sort of ripples off those." Another was the increasing moral imperative towards self-control: "The act of crying out, the expression of physical feeling, was seen as weak self-control," said Snow; opiates, chloroform, nitrous oxide, ether, these were all looked on as helpful agents of suppressing that expression. And finally, private practice facilitated greater acceptance – essentially, doctors were more willing to provide anesthesia when the paying patient demanded it.

    "By the time you get the 1860s it does become accepted that, certainly, for major operations, anesthesia is more of a benefit than a risk," said Snow.

    Of course, people were still getting high off of nitrous oxide – to some degree, doctors and dentists more than anyone else, given that they had easy access. Snow noted the popularity of ether among doctors out of surgery hours: "The surgeon who has an operation during the day will have a dinner party at night and bring it home to sort of pass round to his friends," she said. Nitrous oxide was similar, and fairly popular among medical students.

    But by the 20th century, the social acceptance of laughing gas had started to rub off. "Drugs started to be perceived as a social problem," Jay said, more than they had before. That changed the nature of how nitrous oxide, now "claimed" by medicine, was perceived. The philosopher-scientist investigations of Davy and certainly the philosopher-mystic investigations of psychologist William James, who famously used nitrous oxide in exploring and understanding religious mysticism in the 1870s, these kinds of enquiries weren't quite so permissible or laudable anymore. "When drugs are not perceived as a social problem, scientists take then and when they start to be seen as problematic, they stop taking them," explained Jay.

    Through the middle of the century, scientific investigation of the experience of inhaling nitrous oxide fairly died out, even as use in other areas, such as on the labor wards, standardized. Meanwhile, recreational use was hampered by ease of access (although still part of the concert scene in the 1960s and '70s: The Grateful Dead toured with a tank of nitrous oxide, but well, they would and they could). Now, however, nitrous oxide is much easier to obtain and is no longer something that requires an in-house chemist: There are the steel "chargers," the little silver bullets containing nitrous oxide that are used in fancy whipped cream makers; inhaling it from a balloon filled by a tank; or sucking it out of cans of whipped cream. Pretty much everything can be purchased off eBay, in a headshop, or even just a grocery store.

    Unsurprisingly, usage seems to be on the rise. In the UK, hippy crack is increasingly the monster under the bed for Britain's notoriously overheated press after the Home Office released figures in 2013 showing that nitrous oxide is the second most popular intoxicant among 16 to 24-year-olds. Jay, who lives in the UK, says the recent surge in nitrous use began as a "festival thing": "At dawn at festivals, you'd have carpets of these silver canisters," he said. Nitrous oxide is, according to the tabloids, a "lethal legal high," meaning they think it can kill you, but it's still legal to buy and possess; the only restriction is that it is illegal to sell to an under-18 if it's possible they may inhale it. Councils are worried – especially because nitrous oxide is rarely done alone: "Nitrous oxide is kind of pleasant but not particularly strong on its own. But if you're on ecstasy or cannabis or another combination of drugs, it's wow, it's more euphoric," explained Jay.

    "N2O whippets" by GreenZebOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    In the US, nitrous oxide was popular in the 1990s and, especially after Moore's hospitalization, news outlets worried that it was making a comeback. Nitrous oxide isn't precisely illegal, but it isn't entirely legal, either: Sale for recreational purposes that don't include making delicious desserts is prohibited in most US states, as are sales to minors. In reality, it's a halfhearted effort at best. Anecdotally, as in the UK, nitrous oxide is frequently sold outside concerts and at festivals – the Nitrous Mafia, for example, is an east coast ring of festival-going nitrous dealers who offer deals like four balloons for $20. They pretty much operate out in the open because, well, law enforcement and security usually have bigger, more illegal fish to fry.

    But real figures about nitrous oxide use are not easy to track down; nitrous is often lumped in with other "volatile substances," such as paint, glue, VCR head cleaner (which must be made solely for the "legal high" market these days), gasoline, and, Freon. For one thing, surveys tend to ask general blanket questions about whether the respondent has ever used "inhalants," rather than specific questions about the more than 1,000 household and common items a person could conceivably sniff and get high on; the latter tends to yield higher numbers. However, according to the CDC's most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey, from 2013, 8.9 percent of American high school students admitted to using inhalants, a figure on the lower end of the spectrum; other surveys from the last 15 years put the figure as high as 20 percent. Girls are more likely than boys to use volatile substances to get high, as are 9th graders are more likely than kids in older grades (but those numbers might not be accurate – inhalant abuse is often associated with dropping out of school, so by the time the older grades are surveyed, the inhalant abusers aren't there any more). Teens in rural and impoverished areas are also more likely to abuse inhalants; people with substance abuse and mental health issues often also abuse inhalants. Adult statistics are difficult to find – although dentists and dental hygienists tend to be the ones with the access and the addiction to nitrous oxide – but it is primarily a problem of youth.

    "N2O cracker" by GreenZebOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    So why is nitrous oxide at least legally frowned-upon? Davy seemed to survive his extended dalliance with nitrous oxide with no long-term side effects, but the fact remains that nitrous oxide isn't particularly good for you. There is a risk of asphyxiation if the nitrous isn't properly mixed with air; exposure to cold temperatures of the gas isn't terribly good for your lungs; falls due to passing out can be dangerous; and prolonged use could result in sores in the mouth, possible liver damage, vitamin B12 deficiency and neuropathy. It can even, though very rarely, lead to death: There's phenomenon called "Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome," which is exactly what it sounds like – a user, whether her first or her 50th inhalation, drops dead of heart failure. Statistics are murky, but in the UK, 52 deaths since 1971 have been linked to nitrous oxide inhalation; in the US, in 2002, 40 people died as a result of general inhalant abuse.

    But actually, very little is known about the actual effects of nitrous oxide use because it's very little studied.

    "Inhalant abuse is really an underappreciated problem," attested Dr. Matthew Howard of UNC School of Social Work and one of the few researchers in America looking at the problem of inhalant abuse. "It's one of the most harmful, but it's really under-recognized, not only by the general public but by experts and scientists as well."

    Now, to be clear, we're not talking about the occasional festival user or somebody who may try a balloon at a party every once in awhile – that's probably not good for you, but neither is it really likely to cause long-term damage. Real, chronic inhalant abuse, however, is pretty scary stuff and it usually happens to kids.

    The real worries for excessive use of inhalants is also what's going on along with them: "Casual use is quite widespread, but heavy dependent use tends to be less common and tends to be associated with co-morbid psychiatric problems and to co-exist with other dependence issues," said Howard. In other words, if you're really into inhalants – and nitrous oxide is one of the big ones – you've probably got some other problems as well. And if you don't know, you will: In his research, Howard has definitely found a correlation between early onset inhalant abuse and greater use of other drugs. Moreover, in teenagers, use of inhalants, including nitrous oxide, has been associated with a host of negative outcomes, including anti-social behavior and, per the gateway drug model, moving on to harder drugs such as heroin. Howard and his colleagues also found that, far from the airy flights of fancy and introspection of Davy's nighttime nitrous oxide salons or even the laughing gas "frolics" of the 19th century, the abuse of volatile substances "appears to be an act of desperation committed by troubled individuals in dire circumstances, rather than an act of pleasure-seeking." That's rather grim.

    And it serves to underscore the fact that nitrous oxide is an intoxicant that we don't really know how to feel about. The bigger problem with nitrous oxide abuse is one of image: That nitrous oxide is considered "soft" can in many ways gloss over the real problems associated with inhalant abuse. Howard says that while other countries, including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, are waking up to the real problems of inhalant abuse, the US has not. What's needed isn't so much a big clampdown in legislation on things like whipped cream canisters, but rather an attention paid to where the problem is happening, why, and how to treat it.

    "It is a very low priority item in the drug research and treatment area, most treatment programs don't even ask users if they use inhalants. There are no treatment models specifically to treat inhalant abuse in adolescents, we don't know that much about the users themselves or the medical issues around it," said Howard. "There's no question that this is a hidden epidemic."

    For now, for the majority of people, nitrous oxide remains largely what it's been since Davy took his first huff from the green oiled-silk bag: A frolic, a diversion, a way to touch the sublime for even just a moment, damn the consequences.

  • Why Are Witches Green?

    Witches aren't exactly reliable bogey-ladies anymore – these days, they're less the wicked, warty crones of Grimm's fairy tales and more the pretty, gifted Sabrinas of supernatural YA. Even so, the green-skinned witch is still a potent image and one that shifts a lot of green face-paint and black pointy hats every Halloween. But why green?

    The green-skinned crone is actually a relatively new incarnation of the evil witch – in fact, while the evil witch as a cultural narrative dates back millennia, the green skin dates precisely back to 1939 and the MGM film, The Wizard of Oz. Margaret Hamilton's cackling and emerald-tinted portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West, rendered in vivid Technicolor, is the only reason that anyone associates green skin with witches. As Professor Marion Gibson, associate professor of Renaissance and magical literatures at the University of Exeter and an expert in popular depictions of witches, explained, via email, "There are a few images of witches – for instance, on Halloween postcards – with odd coloured faces (usually red/orange, surprisingly) but MGM's green-faced witch is the first to make a key feature of a completely non-human skin colour."

    So the decision to make the Wicked Witch green was not informed by any long-standing green-skinned witch traditions, neither was it inspired by the original Oz books – in L. Frank Baum's 1900 fantasy book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Witch is ugly, cruel, and afraid of water, but she's not green. It seems that the only reason MGM's famously revolving team of filmmakers, costumers, and screenwriters decided on green was that it looked suitably scary and otherworldly – and that it showed up really well on film. Lavish and massively budgeted, The Wizard of Oz relied cutting-edge visual effects to weave its magic, including the relatively new Technicolor film process that saw Dorothy leave sepia-toned Kansas for candy-colored Oz. A hook-nosed witch with skin the color of a poisoned apple worked, and worked so well that she gave countless children nightmares well into the 1970s – in 1976, Hamilton appeared as the Witch on an episode of Sesame Street, prompting a flurry of letters from angry parents complaining that their children were in tears after the show.


  • Resurrecting the Dead: what did Jane Austen look like?

    Jane Austen is a pretty woman, with curly brown hair hidden under a rather dowdy mobcap, brown eyes, the long, straight, "Austen" nose, and a clear, rosy complexion. She looks friendly, clever, bright, like what you'd think Jane Austen would look like.

    Except that we don't really know what Jane Austen looked like. And we don't know for sure that the waxwork described above and unveiled at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, UK on July 9 is her. But it's the best, most educated guess anyone has made so far – a guess informed by techniques honed catching rapists and murders, reconstructing the dead, and trying to locate the lost. The Jane Austen waxwork is nothing less than a fancy, fleshy composite sketch, the kind of portrait familiar to anyone who's ever watched the nightly news.

    It took a forensic artist to peel back the layers of history and memory, and uncover what Jane Austen probably looked like.

    Resurrecting Jane

    Surprisingly, there is no definitive portrait of the author whose genteel novels launched a thousand fan fiction writers: The only existing contemporary image of her was made by her sister, Cassandra, in 1817, the year Jane died. In it, she looks pinched and sickly. Members of Austen's family didn't remember their beloved (and famous) relative as this pallid harridan and declared the pencil and watercolor sketch a bad likeness. In 1869, more than 50 years after her death, her nephew commissioned artist James Andrews to paint a more flattering portrait based on the sketch and fading family recollection.

    For more than 130 years, the Andrews portrait, which was sold at auction for £164,500 in December 2013, was considered by most Janeites to be the best image of the author. Most, but not all. In 2002, David Baldock, director of the Jane Austen Centre, a permanent historical exhibition devoted to all things Jane (and, by the looks of the gift shop, all things Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, too), wanted to create a portrait that he hoped would capture the real Jane Austen.

    "We were always asked what Jane Austen looked like and in a way the only reference point we had was Jane Austen's sister, Cassandra's, very poor watercolor," he explained. "And we didn't feel it did her justice." Baldock wanted someone with proven skill in drawing real images out of recollection, of resurrecting the dead in pencil and paper.

    He found Melissa Dring after reading about her speculative likeness of Antonio Vivaldi, the 18th century Venetian composer, for a production company making a film about his life; she'd been recommended to the production company by the Metropolitan Police Service, better known as Scotland Yard. Dring, a freelance forensic artist who frequently worked with Scotland Yard, brought with her more than a decade's experience in composite sketching and forensic facial reconstruction, and even longer in fine portrait painting.

    Dring was similarly unimpressed by Cassandra's sketch – "It makes her look a little bit as if she'd been sucking lemons and it's so totally unlike the feeling that you get from reading her books." – but nevertheless used it as a starting place. She then spent a year consulting the many eyewitness accounts that described Jane; scouring portraits of members of Austen's family for shared traits; even consulting a graphologist who examined Austen's tight, cramped hand, and highlighted the writer's private, secretive nature, her practicality, and her right-handedness. Drawing on all the available information – which, she said, was more than she normally has to go on – Dring created a composite portrait of younger Jane Austen that she felt captured the author's physical appearance as well as her character.

    waxwork head and shoulders (high res)

    "I have to admit I was quite pleased with it. What was really nice when I had letters from people, people saying that's my Jane Austen. They recognized her," she said, noting that Austen fans can be fairly "possessive" of their patron writer.

    But though the portrait was fairly successful – it certainly generated national interest in the Centre – Baldock felt there was still more to do. So in 2011, and with a bit more money to spend, the Jane Austen Centre commissioned sculptor Mark Richards, onetime senior sculptor at Madame Tussauds, to work with Dring to recreate her portrait in wax. (Baldock refused to disclose how much the waxwork cost, but did say that the Centre would be insuring the one-of-a-kind piece for £1 million.) It took nearly three years to finish the waxwork; finally, Jane was dressed in authentic period costume by BAFTA and Emmy Award-winning designer Andrea Galer, and the finishing touches applied by hair and color artist Nell Clarke, also formerly of Madame Tussaud's. She now stands in pride of place at the Centre.

    "Everybody really loves it, and I'm very, very confident when someone asks me, 'How do you know what she looks like?' We've put in the work," said Baldock. "I don't think anyone can say it's not like Jane Austen … This is as good as we can get."

    Jane Austen is hardly the first dead celebrity to be resurrected by forensic artists; it's a practice that has become more popular in the last 15 years. Production companies working for edutainment outlets like the Discovery Channel and the History Channel routinely tap forensic artists to create likenesses of dead famous people for programs. So too do groups with a vested interest in the branded image of a famous person; for example, in 2005, the Mount Vernon Estate, then building a new museum and visitor centre dedicated to the life of George Washington, were frustrated that the only existing images of the first American president were created when he was a lumpen over-40 suffering from tooth rot and jawbone decay. They contracted a team of experts, including age regression forensic artists and a forensic anthropologist, to create accurate full-length figures of the man at 19, 45 and 57, in an effort to portray the founding father as the strapping action man he really was.

    In February 2013, a team of forensic artists from Dundee University unveiled its lifelike bust of much-maligned king Richard III, whose bones had been lately discovered under a Leicester parking lot. The bust, which was commissioned by the Richard III Society, a group dedicated to rehabilitating the king's tarnished reputation, was based on CT scans of his skull and created using computer imaging. How Richard III actually looked is hugely important to his legacy – the Wars of the Roses king died at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485, poleaxed in the back of the head and posthumously stabbed in the buttocks. He was later resurrected as the murderous humpbacked villain in Shakespeare's history play. That he was meant to look the part of a villain was a major set piece of the play; that his bust reveals that he probably looked fairly average may go some way in reclaiming his reputation.

    But the work that goes into resurrecting a long dead king or president or author, for whatever reason, is no more astounding than the quotidian work of being a forensic artist. It's also probably a bit easier and almost definitely a lot cheerier.

    A quick primer on the grim art of forensic imagery

    Forensic art is essentially any visual aid used during criminal proceedings. There are four major areas of concentration: Composite sketches, those drawings of suspects that are usually created from a combination of eyewitness accounts, or sometimes available photographic evidence, such as blurry CCTV footage; age progression or regression, the kinds of images used to find long-lost children; demonstrative evidence, used in court as trial displays; and reconstructed likenesses of the nameless dead for identification. It's also not a terribly new thing; Karen Taylor, a veteran forensic artist, noted in her seminal 2001 manual on forensic art, Forensic Art and Illustration, that all major forms of forensic art were in use before 1915.

    The growing use of forensic artistry throughout the 19th century coincided with the increasing regularity of police forces and policing practices over the same period. Which makes sense: Devoted police forces, paid and maintained by the government, as opposed to night watchmen or private security forces, have the time and the resources to actively investigate crime. Artists' skills were instrumental in advancing forensic medicine, drawing cadavers in various state of decomposition, for example, or, such as in the case of the investigations into Jack the Ripper's grisly 1888 killings, post-mortem drawings of the victims' bodies illustrating the extent of their wounds.

    Taylor also pointed out that culturally, people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had a passion for cataloging, measuring, and classifying, efforts to order the world rationally and make it more manageable; consider the curious obsession with spurious fields like phrenology, the claim that formations of the skull corresponded to character traits. This interest in cataloging the known world had the side effect of entrenching forensic art in policing. In the 1880s, French anthropologist and Parisian police records clerk Alphonse Bertillon designed a system of identification based on measurements of parts of the face and body, inventorying physical characteristics, such as tattoos or scars, and, perhaps most importantly, standardized full face and profile photographs of incoming prisoners. Bertillon's system was intended as a way to identify and track prisoners, and it revolutionized the way police departments kept records. Though it flourished for 20 to 30 years across the globe – after Bertillon presented his system at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, it became popular in America – it was replaced by the less labor-intensive fingerprint classification.

    But even as prisoners were no longer prodded with calipers, elements of Bertillon's system lived on. Firstly, the standardized photographs taken of incoming prisoners are better known now as mug shots, and the inventorying of identifying characteristics is still standard procedure. More importantly to forensic art, Bertillon's system also involved the detailed comparison of individual faces and facial features; as such, it became the basis for 20th century composite kits, facial catalogues, and computer-generated recall systems. More than 50 years later, law enforcement was using a direct descendent of Bertillon's system, an assemblage system of composite sketch production called Identi-KIT, a product patented by gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson. Identi-KIT used an index of mix-and-matchable facial features that allowed the witness, under direction, to piece together a face that closely matched the suspect. Several similar systems followed, including Britain's PHOTO-FIT in the 1970s; each relied on the idea that witnesses could recognize better than they could recall.

    By this time, forensic art, in its various forms, had long been a major weapon in the policing arsenal; in 1938, the FBI had established a dedicated forensic art and graphics unit, then called the Cartographic Section. At the same time, advancements were continually being made in the discipline, from age progression techniques, 3d sculptural modeling, and facial reconstruction from human remains, the last driven in part by the tragic post-war need to identify concentration camp victims. In the 1970s, forensic art, specifically composite art, went through what Taylor described as a "renaissance" after a series of high profile cases were solved using hand-drawn composite sketches.

    However, several cases of '70s also revealed some of the weaknesses of composite sketches, weaknesses that were more and more evident the higher forensic art's profile became. For example, multiple composite drawings of serial rapist and murderer Ted Bundy produced wholly different impressions, due to Bundy's ability to change his outward appearance and to the unreliability of human memory. In the case of the "Hillside Strangler", a series of rapes and murders of young women in California between 1977 and 1978, attempts to create composite sketches of the suspect were confounded by the fact that the killer actually turned out to be two men.

    Stephen Mancusi spent 24 years on the NYPD force as a detective and forensic artist, joining the force in 1984. Forensic art, he said, is only as good as the information it has to go on: "Sometimes the information given to us is really great information and we can come up with a really strong image, other times the information is really weak."

    So though forensic art is a hugely important tool, it's also a weak one in some ways. "It can never be a hard piece of evidence, like fingerprints or DNA. It's actually weaker than a one-witness identification case, and that's a very weak case … Witness identification is not a strong, strong thing, and sketches, we're a notch lower," Mancusi continued. (That's fairly low: Analysis of cases of DNA exoneration since 1992 show that the "vast majority" of them involved mistaken eyewitness testimony, according to a 2006 article from Psychological Science in the Public Interest.)

    Even so, in the 1980s, forensic art grew in stature and importance, first with the establishment of the FBI's police artist training program in 1984, and then in 1986, with its inclusion as a discipline under the auspices of the International Association for Identification, the world's largest and oldest forensic professional organization. In 1987, the hugely popular America's Most Wanted premiered, offering forensic art a nationally televised platform; by the end of its 23-season run on Fox in 2011, it had led to the capture of more than 1,100 fugitives. (The show was created by its host, John Walsh, for a very personal and horrifying reason – the 1981 abduction and murder of his 6-year-old son, Adam.) By the close of the 1980s, for better or worse, regardless of its success or reliability, forensic art was a deeply entrenched part of the American perception of crime and justice.

    The most significant change to forensic art in the last 20 years has been, perhaps unsurprisingly, the increased use of computer software programs in forensic art, in all areas. Some of these programs allow regular police officers to guide witnesses and victims through creating a composite sketch; others allow authorities to digitally age progress a subject in a photograph; and still others use complicated modeling algorithms to reconstruct facial likenesses from bare bones.

    But the increasing use of computer generated forensic art means that human forensic artists are on the decline. In December 2013, the Washington Post reported that there were only around 100 full-time forensic artists working in America, a decrease largely due to budget cuts – it's generally cheaper to use a computer than a trained human. Indeed, despite the growing call for historical simulated likenesses, Mancusi cautioned that forensic art is not a particularly lucrative or open field. "When I talk to students, let's say, someone asks, 'Hey, is forensic art a viable career path?' I say, 'No, it's a viable career path,'" he laughed.

    However, computer-aided composite creation has been criticized for being ineffective and, in some cases, producing simply ridiculous results (like this e-fit image of a Hampshire, UK burglary suspect with what appears to be a cabbage on his head from September 2010). In 2011, Gary Wells and Lisa Hasels of Iowa State University examined several studies of the effectiveness of mechanized facial composite assemblage systems and found that overall, these systems tend to do a very poor job creating a fitting likeness of the intended face – one study they cited found that only 2.8 percent of participants correctly identified a well-known celebrity based on a likeness created by composite software. That, said Wells and Hasels, indicates that people simply don't remember faces by their individual components. In an article published in the February issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, they explained, "Numerous lines of evidence converge on the view that faces are generally processed, stored and retrieved at a holistic level rather than at the level of individual facial features."

    Some manufacturers recognize that: Evo-Fit is a new facial composite construction system that works on this holistic level; its makers claim that it has a 60 percent recognition rate, making it far more reliable than the 5 percent recognition rate they cite for other composite generation systems. Unlike other systems, Evo-Fit presents witnesses with dozens of randomly chosen faces, asking them to choose the six that most resemble the suspect. From there, dozens more are generated, each time asking the witness to choose the best six; the composite "evolves" over time to ultimately resemble the witness's best recollection. The technology has already been used to solve several crimes: In September 2011, a serial rapist was caught and convicted in Manchester, UK, after his startlingly accurate Evo-Fit image was recognized.

    But even as technology continues to improve and offer more realistic images, as the officers quoted in the Washington Post piece noted, a trained forensic artist can bring something that no computer software program could: Sensitivity, imagination, and intuition.

    "Technology and machinery is cold," Wayne Promisel, a detective at the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office told the Washington Post. "It is also missing the ability to ask the questions in a certain way in an interview while having a sense of compassion."

    Mancusi agreed. When interviewing a victim or a witness, he said, the experience often turns on the language he or she is using and trying to figure out what that means. "Every descriptive word you get from the victim, what you're trying to do is try to find a solution to those words. If she says he was 'mean looking', you're trying to find a solution, a strategy," he said. The interview is itself an "investigative duty", but it's a delicate one that requires both compassion and control.

    "There's a sensitivity to the session when you're drawing with pencil… it's really the art of interaction," he said. "You can't just pick out eyes and a nose and a mouth and slap it together on the computer."

    Making artistic magic

    Melissa Dring has, by now, mastered the art of interaction, having sat at "a lot of bedsides" in her career as a freelance forensic artist.

    Dring, who lives in Northampton, UK, fell into police work when the local constabulary called up the art school she taught at in need of a portrait artist who could draw freehand. She was thrown into the deep end on her first case: A woman was raped at knifepoint by a man who broke into her home; it was dark, but she caught glimpses of her attacker when he paused to light his cigarette as he stood at the end of her bed. That first sketch led to others and, about a year later, in 1988, Dring spent two weeks at Quantico, completing the FBI's Composite Art training program.

    She now regularly works with law enforcement across England, creating composite sketches of kidnappers, murderers, and rapists from other people's memories, and reconstructing lifelike images from nearly destroyed bodies (leaving out, she says, "all the horrific bits"). She spends a minimum of two hours with a witness, often longer, pouring over her FBI facial catalog, which shows real faces with some features blurred out. "It takes a huge amount of concentration and focus from both myself and the person who's trying to remember the person. It's a process of very gradually building this image and fine tuning it until the person says, 'That's it, that's him, I can't bear to look at it,'" she explained. "I can't tell you how many people who have burst into tears or gone suddenly very red in the face or bleach white, or you see beads of sweat burst out on their forehead. One poor girl had to run off and be very violently sick… I always say, 'I'm quite glad to see you cry because it means that the police can put quite a bit of faith in this image.'"

    Dring is good at what she does – once, a rapist who recognized himself from a composite sketch she'd done actually turned himself in. "He walked into the local police station and they more or less fell over in surprise because he said, 'I think you're looking for me,'" she said. "It's very satisfying, I was pretty chuffed about that."

    Dring's stories, delivered in a cheery, even jolly British accent, are chilling, like the one about the "poor chap" whose body was found burnt beyond recognition by the side of the M45 in 2008. She spent an afternoon with him in the morgue, trying to use what was left of his face to come up with an impression of what he might have looked like (the victim was later identified as 60-year-old Sher Khan; his flatmate was found guilty of his murder in 2009). Recreating Jane Austen, who was neither suspected of a heinous crime nor missing, nor being put back together from grisly remains, was far less harrowing. But Dring's work on Jane, like her work on the "poor chap" by the M45, highlights something vital about forensic art: The necessary marriage of fact and speculation, tempered by experience.

    "When forensic science falls short, they call in the artist and that sums it up. When the sciences can't do it, you call in the artist and we work a little artistic magic," Mancusi said. A forensic artist, he says, doesn't have to get it perfectly right – just close enough to shake out some new clues, jostle some memories. "We live in the world of almost, and it's a great place to be. To do your job, you only have to succeed almost."

    We will never know if the wax Jane Austen standing in the Jane Austen Centre in Bath really looks like the Regency novelist. But all things considered, she's probably pretty damned close.

    waxwork with real person closer (high res)