Saturday, 28 January 2012

The case of the time-travelling barber's chair

Can a barber's chair really travel through time? Do time machines really use 60W light bulbs? And what exactly is a "climax" chair?

Why start here? After all, this wasn’t our first case, or even our last. Why tell the tale of the time-travelling chair when the crucial ‘blog ice-breaker could easily have been the mystery of the magician’s postcard or the gold kettle caper or the debacle of the foot–operated, dog-grooming table? Well maybe because it highlights a recurring theme – that the story of the thing, in this case a mahogany barber’s chair, is usually far more intriguing than first appearances might suggest; or maybe it’s just because I had my hair cut this morning and my thoughts wandered. But isn’t that what blogs are for, hmm?
Several years ago a man from New York sent us an email in which he asked us to find an antique barber's chair. He didn’t introduce himself as a barber, or even a collector of chairs (they do exist). We didn’t give a second thought to why he might want one. The important fact was that he did and, at the time, we were glad of a new case.
A Eugene Berninghaus ‘Hercules’ model, circa 1900,” he wrote, “to be specific”.
an advert for the Hercules hydraulic barber chair
Orginal ad for Hercules barber chair, circa 1900,
goes up and down through the air not back and forth through time
(picture credit Harvey Mayo and Don Coleman)
We had to agree, that is pretty specific. But specifics… details… data are all very important to a Thing Detective. The difference between bluish-green and greenish-blue on a postage stamp or vase or feather boa may be slight by the eye but might triple in value by the wallet and make the thing a thousand-fold harder to find.

But where to look for our American’s chair? The trail led to antiques shops; markets; auction  houses offline; auction sites online; long-winded emails; expensive phone calls etc. etc. It took a month to track the Berninghaus chair down and, as luck would have it, we found a pair for sale at auction in Sacramento. Unusually for us the hunt was pretty straightforward. But there were certain facets of this tale that sent the hairs bristling on our necks; these came from the chair itself, or rather the men behind it.
Eugene Berninghaus was an interesting man. His ‘Hercules’ chair (not to be confused with his earlier 'Climax' chair, which required some extremely careful Googling) was unique at the turn of the 20th century as it could be hydraulically raised, reclined and revolved. A shrewd fellow, Berninghaus later patented the various bits of his revolutionary chair, and became the largest wholesaler (of anything!) in Ohio, going on to make his chairs and ‘other materials’ for the US army in World War I. There are few clues as to what these might have been- Eugene was an avid inventor, filing several further patents after the war. “Berninghaus professional furniture” was exported from “the tropics to the arctic circle”, and developed uses beyond the barbershop –The Berninghaus Ophthalmic Chair creates an atmosphere of up-to-dateness”, one ad reads (its debatable how much this would have soothed nervous eye patients… “AAGGGHH HE’S TOUCHING MY EYEB… oooh up and down? this is modern, I like this”). Eugene’s right-hand man, William Billhartz, described as a “consultant on optical instruments” at Berninghaus Co. went on to become a professor of optics and was described in 1911 as one of the leaders in American science.
Rod Taylor sitting in a Hercules barber's chair in The Time Machine movie
Rod Taylor sitting in a Hercules barber's chair in 'The Time Machine' (MGM, 1960)
With a very neat short back and sides.
(picture credit unknown)
So a very smart businessman made a very smart chair. But its use extended far beyond haircuts and eye examinations. At around the same time Bernighaus was designing his chair in Ohio USA, across the Atlantic in Woking England Herbert George “H.G.” Wells was writing a novel about the perils of time travel. Seventy years later, this book and that chair would be brought together, their fates entwined in the 1960 film The time machine. The reason- although we didn’t find this out until recently- that our American client wanted a Hercules chair, was to fuel his burning desire to build an exact, full-sized replica of a time machine. He takes up the story in his journal entries:

Rob Niosi's Time machine plans
A glimpse of Rob Niosi's plans
No sign of a flux capacitor.
(picture credit unknown)

“ I negotiated the price and the purchase was made. Eighty days later, the chair and mirror arrived at my home (see photo below)…I was thrilled to find it in better condition than I had imagined. After so much time and a series of disappointments, it ended well, with the acquisition of this beautiful antique chair and mirror…
The headrest is actually the footrest of the original barber chair. As George Pal (prop designer on the MGM film) did in 1959, I removed the original headrest and replaced it with the footrest…
The chair I have is mahogany, which is the species I prefer and the carvings are correct except the side rosettes are smooth instead of flowers. I considered carving the flowers into these rosettes myself…
I had done some of my own upholstery in the past; two vintage barber chairs to be exact. Simple stuff. Vinyl and foam. This chair was a challenge. Top quality mohair over dacron fiber and muslin…
No glove box in the Time Machine. Where do I pack a lunch or tidy wipes for those long trips? Where do I store spare parts such as light bulbs etc.?
I finished the wood of the chair with great care. Instead of using harsh chemical stripers, gently removed the old finish with a soft brush and acetone. No sanding was done. I let dark spots, scrapes and dings in the wood remain as a testament to its age and history.”
And what a testament.

Time-travelling barber's chair
Rob's chair on arrival day, with its first two time-travellers,
who were actually born in the 1820s.
(picture credit: Rob Niosi)

For more information on Rob Niosi’s time machine project visit his web site, or watch an interview with the man himself on YouTube. For even more information on The Time Machine visit Don Coleman's site.
If you have a case for The Thing Detectives, please get in touch through the usual channels.