Jan Wnek

Some people know the story of the Wright brothers.  Even fewer know the story of Otto Lilienthal, who is credited with inventing the glider.  But how is it possible that an uneducated Polish carpenter could invent an aircraft in the 1860s and have it lost in history?  Such is the story of Jan Wnek, the man who changed history, but never wrote it down.

Over time, oral traditions about Wnek have made it difficult to distinguish the man from the myth. Historical records state that Wnek was born a poor peasant in 1828 along the Polish countryside. Stories say that even from a young age, Wnek was known to be a savant in carpentry, and was able to construct mechanisms far beyond his education. When he wasn’t improving the structures on farm equipment, he was a talented sculptor who worked for a local church constructing religious figures. His sculptures were well known for having ornate and beautiful wings, a foreshadowing of the work that would make Wnek famous. Many of these sculptures still stand today.

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Sculptures by Wnek in the museum dedicated to him

Inspired by the wings of birds, Wnek believed humans could achieve flight by using some of the same mechanisms. He noticed that birds used rising air currents to gain height, and built wings for himself using the same principles. Wnek did not understand the complicated physics behind flight, but by copying the wings of a bird he eventually built a glider made of ash and linen that allowed him to make small controlled flights off of a hill. As his models improved over time, he built a ramp off of the top of the church to launch himself from.

Wnek became famous in his local area for his flights, and performed them during public holidays in front of an audience. But, Wnek’s passion would also be his demise, as he eventually crashed his glider and was killed in the accident.

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The Jan Wnek museum in Poland

Wnek invented his glider almost 25 years before Lilienthal would be credited with inventing the first. His achievements were revolutionary. Unfortunately, they weren’t influential. Wnek’s only fame ever came from his local region of Poland, and most of his achievements died with him. Although many church records, death records, eyewitnesses, and oral traditions prove the validity of Wnek’s glider, the design was never recorded.

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A model of what Wnek’s glider likely looked like

The story of the poor and uneducated man who dreamed that he could fly has been passed down with the Polish people for centuries. Unfortunately, the plans for Wnek’s glider have never been discovered, and he will forever live in obscurity. Like the myth of Icarus, Wnek flew too close to the sun.

Ching Shih

When you think of the word “pirate”, rough men with bushy beards and hooks for hands sailing around Europe is usually the first image to come to mind. It might surprise you to know that one of the most vicious and powerful pirates of all time was a Chinese woman. And thus is the story of Ching Shih, one of the biggest badasses in all of history.

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Ching Shih in battle against the Chinese government

Ching Shih was born some time around 1775, and much of what happened during her early life is still unknown.  Her real story starts when she was working as a prostitute in the city of Canton when she was captured and held hostage by pirates.  Little did these pirates know that the woman that they were capturing would someday send them all to Davy Jones locker.

After winning the favor of some of the higher ranking pirates, Ching Shih was married to a pirate named Zheng Yi.  Zheng Yi came from a family who had been pirates for a hundred years, and had a reputation as a man not to be messed with.  They used this reputation to acquire ships for their fleet, which they aptly named the Red Flag Fleet. Unfortunately, their marriage was cut short when Zheng Yi was killed in Vietnam.

If Ching Shih had lived today, she would have made one hell of a politician. Knowing the importance of networking, she began making connections and solidifying her authority with powerful members of her husband’s family immediately following his death.  Eventually, she worked her way up to captain. Anyone who was angry about working for a female pirate was quickly quieted by the set of strict rules that she put in place. Breaking any of her rules, such as the rules against raping female prisoners or disobeying her orders, resulted in one’s immediate death. Needless to say, the pirates followed them.

With her new fleet of pirates and ships, Ching Shih was basically unstoppable. She and her pirates became infamous for ransacking towns all over the Chinese coastline.  In total, Ching Shih the Red Flag Fleet controlled 1,500 ships and had 80,000 members.  When the Chinese government tried to stop her by attacking her with their Imperial fleet, instead of backing down Ching Shih went to battle and won by a landslide. Luckily for her, she even got some free ships out of the war.

By keeping a strict code of rules for her pirates (and being a merciless killing machine) Ching Shih quickly became the most powerful pirate in the world. In fact, she was so powerful that the Admiral of the Chinese Navy committed suicide when he thought that she was going to capture him. Talk about a reputation.

Eventually Ching Shih’s reign came to an end.  After being beaten by her military strategies for years, the Chinese government decided to grant Ching Shih amnesty. She was even allowed to keep the loot she had gathered over the years. Once her pirating days were done, she moved to the countryside and opened a casino. She spent her last days having fun and spending her money, and lived to age 69.

So after being a kidnapped prostitute, Ching Shih rose through the ranks of her captors to become one of the most powerful pirates of all time. She was a military strategist, a political mastermind, and a natural leader. It was the perfect crime, and best of all; she got away with it in the end.

Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière

Have you ever looked down at your pizza and wondered why you were eating it? After scarfing down a fourth slice, it’s a common reaction. The answer can be attributed to one of history’s great forgotten eccentrics and legendary party throwers. A man so grand that they named him 5 times, Alexandre Balthazaar Laurent Grimod de la Reyniere.

Our good friend Alexandre was born in 1758 to one of the wealthiest families in Paris. However, life wasn’t easy for the young Grimod de la Reyniere. He was born with deformed claw-like hands, a condition that made his parents keep him away from any houseguests, and caused him to develop the strange sense of humor that would one day make him famous. It was in his seclusion that Grimod de la Reyniere developed his interests in art, theater, and writing, which eventually lead to a job writing theater reviews for a journal.

During this time, Alexandre became famous for the grand dinner parties he would throw in his parent’s hotel while they were gone. Not only were his parties the most elite, but they were the rowdiest. Alexandre eventually became known as the ultimate frat boy of 18th century France. However his reign was quickly cut short by his parents, who sent him to live in an abbey after a particularly strange incident where Alexandre dressed up a pig and made it the guest of honor at his party.

Riddled with teenage angst and living in a monastery, Alexandre began studying the art of food. In order to support himself, he opened a small food store in Lyon and devoted his time to learning about gastronomy until his father died unexpectedly in 1792. This allowed him to move back to Paris and resume his life as a socialite and bona fide party animal.

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Now there is a guy who knows that he can pull off that hat

Grimod de la Reyniere lived during a time when restaurants were nothing like they are today. Most wealthy people had cooks, and poorer people had to make their own food. The restaurants that were around weren’t popular with nobles, and therefore didn’t take their food very seriously. However, all of this was about to change with Alexandre back in town.

In order to spark interest in food among his elite friends, Grimod de la Reyniere started frequenting a different restaurant every night, then writing reviews about what food was best in a journal which he then gave out to the people at his dinner parties. His colonial era blogs started making their way around town and were eventually published as the world’s first restaurant guide, which contributed to the popularity of restaurants and therefore changed the way that people have eaten ever since.

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Grimod de la Reyniere doing what he loved best: eating

One day in the mail Grimod de la Reyniere’s friends received a notice that he had died, and were invited to his funeral. Halfway through the service a special guest showed up: Alexandre, who had staged the whole thing just to see who would come. The fake funeral turned into a retirement party, after which Grimod de la Reyniere moved to the country with his mistress and lived to age 80.

So next time you look down at your pizza, remember to thank Alexandre Balthazaar Laurent Grimod de la Reyniere for the restaurant that it came from. What would he do if he were there watching you eat your fourth slice? Probably eat a fifth.