The pig has been part of the human condition for at least nine millennia, possibly more. It appears in religion, in folklore, in literature. Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of this kinship, our relationship with the pig is dynamic, even troubled. The Celts revered them with their swine god Moccus; the ancient Greeks told of men turning into them. We use their name as a term of derision and don’t notice the irony. A sloppy person is a “dirty pig,” even though pigs are so clean they won’t defecate in their barnyard homes. A person who eats too much is a “pig,” even though we turn every ounce of swine into food. Some pigs disturb, like red-eyed “Jodie” of the Amityville Horror and the decapitated boar’s head in Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Yet many others delight, like Wilbur, Porky, Piglet, Miss Piggy and Babe. Orwell used them to great allegorical effect in Animal Farm. And somewhere in this tapestry is Churchill’s famous observation:
“Dogs look up to man. Cats look down to man. Pigs look us straight in the eye and see an equal.”
Now comes a great pig, unknown until ArtPrize, and ready to take its place in the cultural canon. The story of Parsifal is the story of a dream, failure, and fulfillment. It begins in the mind of Parsifal’s mysterious creator, Dr. Hammond VanOchre, a forgotten engineering genius of the late 19th century. Most of what is known about him comes from yellowed, fragile papers stored at the British Library, which keeps records of the Royal Indian Engineering College from the time of its founding near Windsor in 1870 until it moved to India in 1906.
VanOchre was a prized student until he came afoul of a disagreeable professor. Afflicted with some kind of speech impediment (a stutter? a lisp? we don’t know), VanOchre made up for his reluctance to speak publicly by his prodigious writing.
VanOchre’s tenure is revealed in documents contained in one squashed, moldy box in a cob-webbed corner of the library’s warehouse. According to VanOchre’s account, he asked permission from his department chairman, a Professor Crittenden, to change his senior thesis from the college-focused “public works” to a flying machine of some type. “In answer to your enquiry, I borrow from Lewis Carroll’s recent work, Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland,” Crittenden responded, and here he modified Carroll’s actual language but kept the meaning,
“As the Duchess says to Alice, ‘When pigs fly.’”
VanOchre dropped out of college before completing his senior thesis and went to France, where he became a student and collaborator of Jules Verne, who was working on Around the World in Eighty Days. Later, VanOchre gained a fellowship to the prestigious Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. The oldest technological school in the English-speaking world, Rensselaer claims among its alumni George Washington Gale Ferris, of the 1881 class. It is unclear if VanOchre met his future rival at this time.
We do know that, in 1890 in Chicago, both VanOchre and Ferris attended a meeting of the “Saturday Afternoon Club,” an informal group of engineers and architects. The speaker that day was famed architect and urban planner Daniel H. Burnham, who would within two years create the country’s tallest building, the Masonic Temple in Chicago, and later design the “Plan of Chicago.” In 1890, Burnham was the director of works for the World’s Columbian Exposition, then three years away. He challenged his audience to produce something original and daring for the expo — something that would compete against but not merely echo Gustave Eiffel’s tower from the 1889 Paris Exposition. VanOchre had unique insight; he’d been on Eiffel’s team and wrote the strongest editorials in French press defending the tower from critics who bemoaned the “abomination” of exposed iron.
“Ferris plans a large wheel with enclosed ‘boxes’ that will transport people in a circle. The idea is not madness, as some say; it is merely dull. A trifle,” VanOchre wrote. “My invention is far grander, more complex, and significant. I borrow the name Parsifal from Wagner’s opera. Like Wagner’s hero, I, too, am on a journey. And when I am done, Crittenden – indeed, the world – shall believe that a pig can fly.”
Ferris, a determined, enthusiastic man with a wide network of industry contacts, eventually secured his Ferris Wheel Company and the rest, as they say, is history. VanOchre’s shyness and “lone wolf” curse made it difficult to market his plan. Often, he approached potential investors only to be told they already put money behind Ferris. He did manage to acquire space in a vacant slaughterhouse, where he crafted components of the steam engine, including the largest gear spanning 12 feet in diameter. Perhaps inspired by Eiffel’s exposed iron, VanOchre planned to expose the pig’s metallic working parts behind its wooden frame. In 1892 and 1893, he traveled north to Michigan and Wisconsin to tap the lumber resources of those states. He would need high-quality pine and birch for his 55-foot-long, 25-foot-high craft.
In the spring of 1893, VanOchre was aboard The Lumberman, a three-masted, double centerboard schooner that left Milwaukee County bound for Chicago, loaded with lumber. A fast-moving storm on April 6 sent the vessel to the depths of Lake Michigan east of Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
The ArtPrize team, like most of the world, had never heard of VanOchre until coming upon contents of The Lumberman – namely, a water-tight locker that held specifications for Parsifal and VanOchre’s diary, full of exuberant plans for the World’s Fair later that year. Details of how the contents were collected remain classified while the team’s lawyers confer with state and federal representatives who oversee the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act of 1987, (Pub. L. 100-298, 102 Stat. 432)
The True Story of Parsifal the SteamPig
more to come, stay tuned!