The “Velocispector” and the Sturgis Sorosis

In the course of a recent re-cataloguing of W-Cache materials improperly translated with the Milcom Papers during the Mana Library Installation, two members of the Trustees took note of the leaf depicted above, which represents a modification of a Sheffield “Light Car” known as the “Flyer.”  The original Flyer was developed by the Sheffield Co. of Three Rivers, Michigan in the early 1890s, though this unusual model (unlike many other Sheffield specialized railway hand cars) appears never to have gone into wide production.  It is nevertheless described in some detail, and accompanied by a print much like this one, in the trade gazetteer The Sheffield Car Co. (1894). While obviously somewhat impractical, the Flyer was reported to achieve speeds of thirty miles an hour downwind in a stiff breeze, and thus offered a nearly unprecedented somatosensory experience for late-nineteenth century thrill-seekers.

What makes this (previously unknown) W-Cache etching unique is the addition, visible in the reproduction, of a kind of easel or “display board” cantilevered out from the mast, and configured to be optimally visible to the passenger of the vehicle.

While we were initially puzzled by this peculiar adaptation, we are now in a position to offer a preliminary interpretation, one of considerable interest to those who delve the history of aesthetic experience generally (and the Avis Tertia specifically). The full story is sufficiently intricate and important that we trust it will eventually merit treatment in an article-length study in the Proceedings of ESTAR(SER), but in keeping with the mission of Communiqués, we believe a concise summary of our findings is in order.  In brief, then:

1) The W-Cache contains sources that indicate that this modified Flyer was  indeed developed as a kind of private and secret “skunk-works” project by principals of the Sheffield Car Company in the early 1890s.

2) These sources further establish that the vehicle was known as the “Velocispector,” and that the purpose of the cantilevered easel was to permit experimentation with practices of sustained attention to works of art while travelling at high speeds.

3) Which is to say, the Velocispector allowed an intrepid aesthete to mount a painting, drawing, photograph, or other work of two-dimensional art of conventional size to the angled mast-board and then regard it intently as both viewer and viewed accelerated to great speed along an (unused) rail line.

4) These same sources strongly suggest that this “extreme-sport” of art-appreciation emerged out of a secretive cohort of attentional devotees active in St. Joseph’s County, Michigan at the turn of the century.

5) It is difficult to believe that these persons were not associated with a community that we would now recognize as a volée of the Order of the Third Bird — a volée experimenting not merely with the aesthetic vertigo of railway travel generally, but with specific problems of high-velocity contemplation.

6) Research to this point strongly suggests that the following individuals knew of and/or participated in this work: Edward B. Linsley and Warren J. Willits of Three Rivers, Michigan (both principals of the Sheffield Car Company, and both also philanthropic founders of the Three Rivers Public Library, later the Carnegie Center for the Arts); Evelyn B. Gray and Rose Van Burin (of the Sturgis Sorosis Club, Sturgis, Michigan, which appears to have been the nexus of the community as a whole); and Sue I. Silliman (of the Three Rivers Isabella Association).

7) At least one series of these Protocols of Locomotion (also known as Actions of the Wind) was conducted on a set of Adolphe Braun’s photographs of the Sistine Chapel, then on loan from the State Public Library.

More work is wanted, but a full treatment may be expected within the year.