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My parents taught in Zambia in the early ’70s. My Dad told me this story so respect to Infidel753 for reminding me of one of the less reported candidates in the Space Race. In the early sixties space was the big thing. Yuri had taken a trip and newly independent British colonies wanted a piece of star pie. They were young, new nations brimming with confidence so why not? Ladies and Gentlemen, I present you with the utterly quixotic Zambian Space Program!

One of the problems of looking for the bizarre in history is that, after a while, you’ve read everything before: mermaid funerals in the Hebrides, tick; bats used in bombs against Japan, tick; Roman legionaries in China, tick… But then every so often something comes along that is fresh and that has completely escaped your notice and suddenly life feels worth living again. That, anyway, was the emotion that Beachcombing had when he read last week about Zambia’s attempt in the early 1960s to enter the space race. Beach writes ‘Zambia’ that would be wild enough, but actually this was Edward Makuka Nkoloso, a Zambian high school science teacher who became head of the National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, an organisation that naturally EMN founded.

His ten Zambian astronauts and a seventeen-year-old African girl are poised for the countdown. [EMN] said: ‘I’ll have my first Zambian astronaut on the moon by 1965. My spacemen are ready, but we’re having a few difficulties…we are using my own firing system, derived from the catapult.’

NASA clearly were wasting their time with a 7,648,000 pound thrust Saturn V when all you really needed was a lacky band.

Mr. Nkoloso continued: ‘To really get going we need about seven hundred million pounds. It sounds a lot of money, but imagine the prestige value it would earn for Zambia. But I’ve had trouble with my space-men and space-women. They won’t concentrate on space-flight; there’s too much love-making when they should be studying the moon. Matha Mwamba, the seventeen-year-old girl who had been chosen to be the first coloured woman on Mars, has also to feed her ten cats, who will be her companions on the long space flight… I’m getting [the astronauts] acclimatised to space-travel by placing them in my space-capsule every day. It’s a 40-gallon oil drum in which they sit, and I then roll them down a hill. This gives them the feeling of rushing through space. I also make them swing from the end of a long rope. When they reach the highest point, I cut the rope – this produces a feeling of free fall.’

Mars with ten cats. Wow! Just wow!

You think I’m making this up? Here’s the video…

The bizarrely ironic thing is Zambia is actually close enough to the equator and with predictable weather to be a reasonable launch site. Glorious insanity! The Youtube link, alas, contains some frankly deeply racist comments which is a shame because I tend to think it’s straight out of the glorious tradition of mad men in sheds. So Mr Stephenson has invented a moving kettle and Messrs Wright have cracked the control problem for heavier than air flight! A miner and the owners of a bike shop! Hell’s teeth John Logie Baird’s experiments with TV involved a bizarre assemblage involving a hat-box and a coffin lid (quite how one obtains a coffin lid without the rest of the coffin is an exercise I leave to the reader). Philo T Farnsworth who invented TV in the electronic sense was a farm-boy who got his ideas about scan-lines from plowing a field. We are all enriched by such impossible dreams and sometimes they work and everything changes. Do you know what the Wright’s spent to get Flyer I airborne? Have a guess!

They spent roughly $1000 of their own money. Their biggest competitor Samuel Langley (director of the Smithsonian) spent $50,000 of US Navy money and this happened…

Now you don’t have to be a student of aerodynamics to tell that is not going up. The pilot took an early bath in the Potomac. Langley had invited all the press. Epic fail.

Shortly afterwards…

And the rest was history. The Wright’s didn’t have the press. Their craft was spotted by the local life guards and a “curious teenager”. Langley’s Aerodrome was launched from a $10,000 steam catapult and the Wrights bought $4 worth of timber from a local yard to build a launch rail.


  1. Nelsontouch says:

    Thank you for confirming the story about the African astronauts. I heard it first in about 1974 from a rather racist (white) South African. Including the bit about training in rolling oil drums. I don’t remember whether I believed it but have wondered since if it could be true or an urban myth.

    Mad men in sheds change the world – or they remain mad men in shabbier sheds.

    There’s a story, may be true, about someone who took a job with a large company. Because his wife nagged him: “You’ll never get anywhere messing about in the garage with that drop-out Mr. Gates.”

  2. macheath says:

    I’ve loved this tale of ambition and enterprise since I first read of it in a book by Patrick Moore on what he calls Independent Thinkers – those who refuse to be bound by accepted wisdom or convention. The same book points out that John Logie Baird, in his younger days, attempted to make diamonds by heating a rod of carbon with an electric current; the resulting explosion fused all the lights in the building and might have discouraged a lesser man from further experimentation of any kind.

    I suspect Mr Nkoloso was a man of unusual persuasiveness as well as scientific aspiration; it must have taken more than a little urging to coax his astronauts into their training capsule – after the first time, at least. Certainly his speech congratulating the Apollo 8 astronauts demonstrates that he was no mean orator:

    “Let us make a Zambian rocket today […] This is our heavenly destiny, our natural ambition and our scientific and cultural hegemony.”

  3. Stonyground says:

    I think that the era when a man in a shed could make a difference may have passed. Being an engineer myself, I am pretty sure that I could construct an internal combustion engine or possibly a Stirling engine that would have been competetive in 1899, and then set up a factory to make them. If I wanted to set up an engine plant to make engines that could power motor vehicles in the twenty-first century I think that I might require rather more knowledge and resourses.

  4. Thornavis says:

    Sorry to be a tedious pedant but Mr. Stephenson didn’t invent the moving kettle, that was Mr. Trevithick, you can’t claim everything for the Geordies. Great post otherwise.
    Stony, it’s interesting that many early motor manufacturers started off making bikes the archetypal man in a shed industry, the humble bike is sometimes recognised as a bringer of social change but it gets less mention as a vital step on the way to flight and mass production of cars.

  5. NickM says:

    I know the Cornish fella got there first but still Stephenson made the bugger work! Yes, bikes did bring enormous social change and… I guess you can ride a bike… Anyway, the Wright’s didn’t invent flight as much as invent the pilot. The C19th inventors had a model of flight in terms of boats and the idea of stability rather than control. Control is of course what riding a bike is about. And it is also what flying a plane is about. That was their genius.

  6. Super Sam says:

    “My parents taught in Zambia in the early ’70s.”

    Quite funny, I lived and went to one the international schools there around that time, they may have taught me !

  7. Tim Newman says:

    On a slightly related note, apparently Nigeria is keen to build a nuclear power station in Lagos. I hope to hell my assignment is over by the time they start the thing up.

  8. Tim Newman says:

    And you’re never going to beat Nikola Tesla for a man in a shed changing the world. The man’s output was incredible. Interestingly, there was almost no mention of him in the industrial museum in Washington DC (I can’t remember its name, it’s on the Mall and has mile after mile of briliiant exhibits from American industry). There is plenty about Westinghouse and Edison, but nothing about Tesla, even though his name appears on the brass plate from the original Nigara Falls generator something like a dozen times. I’m not sure if it is deliberate, but the Americans seem to have written Tesla out of their industrial history.

    I also remember upsetting marketting folk when I worked for Marconi by pointing out that Tesla beat Marconi to the radio by several years, and even got the patent overturned in his favour.

  9. Talwin says:

    This post is just too much of a coincidence. I was sure I’d read only recently about a Nigerian space programme. And sure enough Wiki tells us about the Nigerian National Space Research and Development Agency.

    Apparently they’re looking to put a Nigerian in space by 2015. It’s possible they’re ahead of the Zambian effort in that it seems they’ve already launched a satellite or two.

    One wonders if the Nigerian space programme may be funded on the back of all those dormant £50million bank accounts. If so, it looks like our opportunities to share in this wealth may be kyboshed for the future.

  10. NickM says:

    Nigerian emails:

    Tesla, yes, I almost mentioned him. Edison tried to whitewash him out of the picture. Edison was a git.

  11. Nelsontouch says:

    Thornavis – the bicycle has been cited as the invention that did most for the health of the working classes.
    It allowed them to marry outside the village, you see.

  12. Thornavis says:

    Nelsontouch. I’ve always been a little dubious about that claim myself, people moved around much more in the past than modern myth would have us believe and the railways must have shifted far more than the bike ever did. The working class were actually quite late to the velo party as they had to wait until the middle class flogged off their old bikes before they could afford them, a bike in 1900 was way more expensive than it is now. In fact I suspect the real social gainers from bikes were young middle class women, knickerbockers and all that. The really big transport change for the rural working class was the country bus an almost completely ignored social changer.

  13. Bod says:

    At the risk of being spanked as a raciss or sumfin’, there’s also this.

    I’m sure most of you will recognize that this is a parody of the kind of stuff that public TV stations in the US pump out:

    Not completely SFW.

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