Sunday, November 11, 2012

5 Things You Didn’t Know About Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe
Cover of Edgar Allan Poe

You've read Edgar Allan Poe's terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." How well do you know the writer's quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities, though? Let's take a look at five things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 202 years ago today.

1. He Was the Original Balloon Boy You probably remember 2009's infamous "Balloon Boy" hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren't even being entirely original in their attention grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan's Island, SC in just 75 hours. According to Poe's story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun's headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day's historic paper.

Poe's report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than "the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen." He listed the balloon's equipment, which included "cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so." He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers' journals.

The only catch to Poe's story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun's editors quickly wised up to Poe's hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, "We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous."

2. He Dabbled in Cryptography If you've read Poe's story "The Gold-Bug," you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. You might not know that Poe was actually pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe's first notable code cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He'd published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, "Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher." Apparently there weren't any openings for him, though. {Read on Mental Floss}