Back when I was building the Melonseeds, I frequently got lost down a rabbit hole of history, thinking about all the things going on in the world at the end of the 19th century, in 1888, when the plans from the boats were drawn. Was a fascinating time, undergoing rapid change as fast as today. The transitions from sail to steam, agriculture to industry, rural to urban, were as transformational to society in that era as the computer and internet have been in ours.
On this day in 1889, Nellie Bly – a single young woman, 24 years old – set off alone from New York by steamship to set a record for circling the world, by ship and train and any other convenient conveyance. With just two days notice. She took the dress she was wearing, a coat, some underwear and toiletries, and a bit of money tied in a pouch around her neck.
The goal was to best the fictional Phileas Fogg, protagonist in a popular book of the time, Around the World in Eighty Days, written by Jules Verne. She would meet the author along the way, pausing in Paris long enough to interview him.
She was a young journalist who had talked her way into a job at The World, working for Joseph Pulitzer. Her first assignment had been to convince people she was insane so she could be committed to a women’s lunatic asylum. This was after talking the paper into accepting the project in the first place, to get the actual job.
She spent 10 days in the asylum. The exposé she wrote about the experience made her famous, and the ensuing outrage prompted improvements at mental institutions.
This race around the world was just a different kind of crazy. She sent back dispatches on her progress from remote places around the world, all published in the paper, using what was then the first modern form of worldwide communication – by telegraph. She crossed Europe, passed through the new Suez Canal, was delayed by problems with the trains in Asia, visited a leper colony in China. In Singapore, she bought a monkey. In Hong Kong, she learned that another woman had set off just behind her in the US, and was traveling the opposite direction, trying to beat her time, making it a real race.
Bad weather slowed her Pacific crossing, threatening to make her miss the 80 day deadline. Pulitzer chartered a private one-time train run, dubbed the Miss Nellie Bly Special, to speed her from San Francisco to Chicago, traversing 2500 miles in less than three days – a the fastest train trip ever. To spur the crews along, she presented each railroad superintendent on the with way with a bottle of expensive champagne.
She arrived back in New York after only 72 days, setting a new record for circumnavigating the globe. Which, alas, would be broken over and over again as travel improved, but it was quite a feat at the time.
A few years later she married a 73 year old millionaire, who promptly died and left her all his money and his steel manufacturing plants, which she ran successfully until she died in 1922.
Yup, interesting times.