OLD FOUR LEGS

It was on 20th February 1939 that the world found out that a Coelacanth had been caught off the Chalumna River mouth near East London. What made this headline news is that until then the Coelacanth was thought to have been extinct for nearly 70 million years. The fish had actually been brought ashore on 22nd December 1938 by the trawler Nerine, skippered by Captain H. Goosen. He was unable to identify this enormous fish measuring 1,5 m in length and weighing 57kg.

The Curatrix of the East London Museum, Dr Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, had the fish treated and mounted by Mr R Center, a taxidermist, and sent sketches of it to Prof. J.L.B. Smith of Rhodes University in Grahamstown, who was able to identify it as a Coelacanth on 16th February 1939 and named it Latimeria chulumnae. The name is both a tribute to Dr Courtenay-Latimer and an acknowledgement of where the fish had been found. The scientific significance of the Coelacanth relates to it being the longest surviving species of a group of fishes known to have become extinct millions of years ago – the oldest known coelacanth fossils are over 410 million years old. It is the closest living relative of Rhipidistia, which emerged from water onto land and which may have given rise to higher forms of life.

After a fourteen-year search, Professor Smith and his wife Margaret found a second Coelacanth off the Comoro Islands. It is this specimen that is displayed at what used to be called the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology in Grahamstown – one of the first exhibits we visited on our arrival in this town. Since then a number of other Coelacanths have been caught off the Comores. Divers have since come across Coelacanths near the iSimangaliso Wetland Park off the KwaZulu-Natal coast. There are two species, the Indonesian and the West Indian Ocean coelacanth, of which the latter is found in South African waters.

16c stamp depicts a Coelacanth in its natural habitat.

30c stamp depicts Prof. J.L.B. Smith and Dr Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer with a Coelacanth.

40c stamp shows the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology which was established in Grahamstown in 1946 and which still plays a role in marine fish research. It is now known as The South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity.

50c stamp shows another view of the Coelacanth, along with a two-man research submarine, highlighting the need for marine research into conservation measures to protect this rare species.

The stamps were designed by A. McBride and the First Day Cover was issued in East London on 9th February 1989. It shows an outline of South Africa with the position of East London clearly marked and the trawler featured alongside. A painting of a Coelacanth features prominently below it.

The JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology issued their own covers, as shown below.

The nickname, Old Four Legs, relates to the paired fins that gave rise to an initial thought that the Coelacanth may have ‘walked’ on these leg-like pectoral fins. Prof. Smith published a book, Old Four Legs about the discovery of this fish and subsequent research on it.

THE HISTORY OF THE TELEPHONE

Can you imagine a world without the ability to contact people immediately? Cell phones have become so ubiquitous that unless one happens to be in an area with no cell phone reception we can call people while we are driving, hiking, or simply enjoying a day away from home – from almost anywhere except that aeroplanes still don’t allow one to use a cell phone on board.

Imagine the excitement generated once Alexander Graham Bell was granted a patent for an electromagnetic telephone on 7th March 1876. This came about as a result of his desire to transmit speech electronically. To hear a voice over a distance must have been akin to magic. Even long after telephones became more widespread many users might still have considered the actual mechanics of voices being transported over long distances rather mysterious. That same lack of real understanding feeds my own sense of wonder when I video-call my granddaughters in Norway from South Africa. The connection still feels like magic.

Telephones have changed shape over the years. Look at this one designed by Siemens and Halske of Germany in 1885 which consisted of two identical receivers, one served as the microphone and the other as the receiver.

The Swedish Ericsson Table Telephone produced in 1895 had a separate handset, the microphone of which could operate in various positions. There was no outer casing and the permanent magnets of the magneto ringing generator functioned as the feet of the telephone.

The microphone of the Swiss Hasler Table Telephone produced in 1900 could swing in a horizontal plane. I can imagine this telephone being used during the Anglo-Boer War of 1889-1901.

In the German Mix & Genest Wall Telephone of 1904 the microphone could be raised or lowered while remaining in a vertical position.

Much of this information is derived from the card contained in the Bophuthatswana First Day Cover commemorating the history of the telephone in 1981. The stamps were designed by Johan Hoekstra. I think these old instruments are elegant in a way.

My earliest memory of a telephone at home is a squat black contraption that brooded in silence on a little shelf in the passage. Its occasional sharp rings were enough to place everyone on alert. Its only decoration was a coloured transfer of the country’s coat of arms. It was a household item not to be messed with by children! The party line in our farm house on the other hand was great fun, even though we had all been sternly warned not to listen in on other people’s conversations. We soon became familiar with the call signs (a combination of short and long rings) and could easily tell who was using the line when. What made our telephone special, however, was the extra earpiece that hooked underneath it so that two people could listen to a conversation at the same time. One of our more recent telephones looked like this.

Although we have been through a range of shapes and colours. Given the convenience of cell phones and that we now have Wi-Fi in our home we have discontinued our land line – the end of a very long era!

MISSING THE DIVERSITY OF POSTAGE STAMPS

I used to be an avid stamp collector – never serious enough to warrant being called a philatelist – from a young age. The range of subjects depicted not only on South African stamps, but the excitement of finding stamps from other parts of the world thrilled me in the days of no internet, no television – and no cell phones! As Christmas approached the pile of mail my father brought home increased in size and interest: Christmas cards were posted from so many places that piqued my interest enough to enjoy receiving a stamp album, hinges, as well as a magnifying glass as gifts. I would happily spend time carefully soaking stamps from envelopes, waiting for them to dry, and then sorting them. Like most beginners, I began by sorting stamps into countries – doubtless guided by the printed albums of the time.

Then I realised my real interest lay in themes. I sorted my growing collection into categories and gradually became aware of narrowing my interest to mainly environmental themes. Along with this came a desire to develop a set of themed stamps into a narrative, which the stamps would illustrate. I found some of these the other day which included the development of agriculture, how elephants have been used by humans, and the clan totems of the Tswana people as depicted on the stamps of the then Bophuthatswana. During the period we lived in that ‘independent’ homeland, I discovered a particular richness in the stamps of the various homelands that pitted the map of South Africa.

There used to be a rich diversity of topics featured on the stamps that adorned even the most mundane postal items. Look at the corner of this envelope franked in Port Alfred, a seaside town not far from where we live. We still regularly received mail in 2017 – alas hardly ever any more.

There is a mixture of two series of stamps on this envelope: of the eight stamps used, five come from a series launched in September 2010 that featured the Richtersveld conservation landscape. This area, in the north-west of the country, is the eighth World Heritage site in South Africa. The Richtersveld was returned to the Nama people under the land restitution programme and is maintained as a conservation area. The stamps were designed by Jolindi Ferreira, who was a student at The Open Window School of Visual Communication, in Pretoria, at the time. The ones here depict a Grey Rhebok, a Namaqua Sandgrouse and a Namaqua Chameleon.

The other three stamps, designed by Sacha Lipka, are of beadwork artefacts held in the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town. They show a Zulu neckpiece of lion’s claws, a beadwork angel, and a beadwork cell phone.

With so little in the way of actual mail finding its way around the country, I have probably not purchased postage stamps for the past three years at least. Looking at these ones makes me realise how much we miss!

Note: Click on the photograph for a larger view.

LIZARDS ON STAMPS

There have been a number of lizards and geckos in our garden of late that I dug into my box of commemorative covers for this one from Bophuthatswana (now North West Province) featuring lizards.

The Common flap-necked chameleon features in the drawing, while the date stamp shows the Common striped skink.

According to the notes in the envelope the 11c stamp features a Yellow-throated plated lizard, which has a very long tail and lives in a hole dug at the base of shrubs or trees, or under rocks or logs.

The 25c stamp shows a Transvaal girdled lizard, which is a rock-dwelling species found at fairly high altitude. It feeds almost entirely on insects.

The Ocellated sand lizard graces the 30c stamp. This quick and slender lizard inhabits the drier sandy areas of the bushveld, retiring quickly to its burrow when disturbed.

The large, mainly nocturnal, gecko – Bibron’s thick-toed gecko – is featured on the 45c stamp.

It wouldn’t surprise me to find that the names of some of these reptiles may have changed over time.

Here is a closer view of the stamps:

NOTE: Click on a photograph for a larger view.

BEHIND THE TIMES

We all know that Geological Time is measured very differently from the time we measure daily by virtue of clocks, watches, and a calendar or even by watching the passing of the sun. The International Union of Geological Sciences held their 35th Annual Congress in Cape Town in 2016. I bold that date for this prestigious event was commemorated by the South African Post Office in the form of international postage stamps – a good choice in terms of exposure.

These stamps are finely detailed in colour and what is unusual about them is that on the back of the sheet are black and white drawings with the key to what each stamp reveals.

Behind the times? Well, the first time I set eyes on these stamps was about a month ago when I finally managed to wiggle some international stamps from the post office – this is in 2018! Where have they been in the interim? Languishing between the pages of stamp books because so few people actually buy stamps anymore? Did someone forget to send them to post offices outside the main centres until the event was long past?

This is symptomatic of a postal service that seldom delivers anything on time – if at all!