June 14, 2013
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“Mercury” burglar alarm, Nottingham • Mercury is a chemical element with the symbol Hg and atomic number 80, known as quicksilver. Not to mention being a planet, a Roman god, and a burglar alarm company. • Spotted: Friar Lane, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, NG1, England, 2011 • Politics: In the Labour constituency of Nottingham South
March 18, 2013
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“Siren Alarms” burglar alarm, Stroud • I featured a much more attractive mermaid-style Siren here: this is pretty basic despite the two red Rs. But sirens can be musical too, and not just in noisy rap, drum’n'bass etc: consider the classical piece Sirenes by Claude Debussy (who admittedly never featured any burglar alarm-type sirens), or the avant-garde works of composer Edgard Varèse, who often did. • Spotted: High Street, Stroud, Gloucestershire, GL5, England, 2012 • Politics: In the Conservative constituency of Stroud
December 8, 2012
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“Tamar Security” burglar alarm, Exeter • Ah, the eternally gridlocked Tamar Bridge, slender link across he Tamar between Devon and Cornwall. It’s not named after the Jewish temptress of Biblical legend (more’s the pity), but an ancient British word meaning something like “dark flowing”, as is the Thames. • Spotted: Town centre, Exeter, Devon, EX1, England, 2009 • Politics: In the Labour constituency of Exeter
Above: the real Tamar Bridge
December 2, 2012
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“Isis Security Systems” burglar alarm, Oxford • Oxford’s other famous river is the Isis (a posh name for the Thames), which like the Cherwell gives its name to a long-running student magazine. Isis was also an Egyptian goddess, and this sounder piles on the references with the visual pun of a startled-looking eye. I reckon that’s a CR logo underneath it, another brand that’s common in the town. • Spotted: Cornmarket, Oxford, Oxfordshire, OX1, England, 2012 • Politics: In the Labour constituency of Oxford East
Above: fops punting on the Thames, aka the Isis, at Oxford
September 6, 2012
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“Dragon” burglar alarm, Bath • Some Taffs crossed river to Bristol, it seems, and deposited their red dragon there. Dating back to at least 829 AD, “Y Ddraig Goch” still features on the Welsh flag today, though by Tudor times the poor thing was also supporting the English crown’s coat of arms. Reminds me of an old children’s song: “Puff the magic dragon, lived by the sea…” (blubs uncontrollably). • Spotted: Milsom Street, Bath, Avon, BA1, England, 2012 • Politics: In the Liberal Democrat constituency of Bath
September 2, 2012
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“Sheba Alarms” burglar alarm, Southwark • I used to live in a really tough part of London where everyone had rottweilers, and they were all – depending on if they were boys or girls – called Tyson or Sheba. The dogs, that is. However this is a lion, and Sheba was a biblical land (probably Yemen), so either this is a lion of the desert, or the designer thought it was a mutt. • Spotted: Dolben Street, Southwark, London, SE1, England, 2010 • Politics: In the Liberal Democrat constituency of Bermondsey and Old Southwark
March 2, 2012
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“Minerva Integrated Security Services Ltd” burglar alarm, Camden • This is a very recent square design, so tasteful it resembles a Bang & Olufson speaker. At one point I thought such squares were going to take over the entire burglar alarm world, which would have been a bit dull; but they seem to have had their day already, and while not exactly rare, aren’t a common sight either. I don’t know if this firm is any relation to the venerable AFA Minerva of old – presumably not, as their website says they were formed in 2005. I can’t work out what the jittery circular logo is meant to suggest, if anything – certainly not the Roman goddess the firm takes its name from. • Spotted: Great Russell Street, Camden, London, WC1, England, 2011 • Politics: In the Labour constituency of Holborn and St Pancras
February 18, 2012
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“Swale Security Systems Ltd Aquila group” burglar alarm, Southwark • Eight-sided but not a regular octagon, this resembles a bulky kitchen container. I’ve only found a few of these ungainly objects, which are sometimes mounted vertically. Swale makes me think of Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales, but it’s actually an area of Kent at the mouth of the Thames. Its main town is Sittingbourne, and that’s where this firm was based, though I think it exists no more. Aquila Group describes itself as “a group of independent electronic security companies”, which presumably swallowed Swale up. Their website has limited functionality, but there’s a picture here of an Aquila sounder similar to the day before yesterday’s heptagonal Servian. Then there’s a German Aquila Group that has the same logo, but deals with giant cargo ships; and all sorts of international conglomerates and financial funds with a similar name, who surely have nothing to do with little Swale Security. Aquila is Latin for “eagle”, and can refer to the Roman legion standard, a constellation, and Roman boss-god Jupiter’s pet raptor (who in Greek mythology carried thunderbolts for Zeus), hence the popularity of naming for shadowy James Bond-esque behind-the-scenes organisations.• Spotted: Decima Street, Southwark, London, SE1, England, 2011 • Politics: In the Liberal Democrat constituency of Bermondsey and Old Southwark
February 9, 2012
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“Tara” burglar alarm, Kensington and Chelsea • Yet another take on the triangle, this venerable shield classifies as “uncommon” because it’s used only by divisions of Banham, who must have taken over Tara at some point (they used to have really boring rectangular boxes with a very basic logo). You see many Taras in Kensington & Chelsea, so I liked to imagine the firm was named after some posh filly (eg Palmer Tomkinson) rather then the Scouse for goodbye – this one was even found in Cheval (ie horse) Place. But as pointed out in this comment, the Hill of Tara is an important Irish Neolithic site that was the mythical seat of Ireland’s high kings – hence perhaps the green logo, which I’m rather partial to. • Spotted: Cheval Place, Kensington and Chelsea, London, SW7, England, 2010 • Politics: In the Conservative constituency of Kensington
June 20, 2011
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“Gemeni Alarms” burglar alarm, Islington • Finally, scraping the bottom of the zodiacal barrel, a very basic and mis-spelled Gemini alarm – unless I’m missing something, and it says Gemeni for good reason, eg it’s written in Romanian. So we’ve had Gemini the twins not once, but twice – one boring, and one boring and dyslexic. Uncanny! That’s it for astrological alarms, just the four: Zodiac, Scorpio, Gemini and Gemeni. I have found no more, whereas there are scores of animals on burglar alarms, which share similar – if less mystical – iconography. As I pointed out in the Zodiac entry, that leaves a gap in the naming market. I hope someone takes it up – and remembers to illustrate it. • Spotted: Goswell Road, Islington, London, EC1, England, 2008 • Politics: In the Labour constituency of Islington South and Finsbury
Above: the constellation of Gemini visualised as twins holding hands (not the usual depiction, which is abstract – see yesterday), by the children’s author H.A. Rey. Realistic!
June 18, 2011
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“Scorpio Security” burglar alarm, Hackney • In my entry on the weird Pac-Man-esque Orion alarm, I explained how the giant hunter was killed by a scorpion and turned into a constellation by Zeus. And now we come to the unfortunate arthropod which stung him, also flung into the heavens by Zeus, where it became the constellation of Scorpius, eternally snapping at Orion’s heels. Astrologically, it represents the mysterious eighth sign of the zodiac, ruled by the Greek god Pluto – aka Hades, lord of the underworld – and reputedly the most powerful star sign. Scorpios are supposed to be intense, secretive, power-loving, cunning, unforgiving, vengeful and, as the alarm probably wants to suggest, with a considerable sting in their tail. This strange logo, like a J with horns, could almost be the symbol for some obscure occult sect – thus living up to Scorpio’s sinister image. • Spotted: Hackney area, Hackney, London, England, 2008 • Politics: In the Labour constituency of Hackney South and Shoreditch
Above: A nice 1825 etching of the constellation Scorpio from the Library of Congress, Washington DC.
June 17, 2011
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“Zodiac Security” burglar alarm, Ealing • The stories behind the various star signs are pretty convoluted, but they’re all based on ancient folklore and superstition, so astrology is a fitting follow-up to my previous theme of mythological alarms. Zodiac is a Greek word for the constellations meaning “circle of animals”, an idea drawn from the Babylonians, who first divided the heavens into 12 parts. It was originally an astronomical concept, but the great Romano-Egyptian scholar Ptolomy systemised the personality-based astrological system that remains hugely popular today. However, as we shall see, there are surprisingly few burglar alarms named after star signs – odd, as there are many good strong names: Taurus, Aries, Capricorn, Leo… though maybe not Cancer. I haven’t even come across a security firm called Libra, and not name-checking the divine scales of justice seems a serious omission. So, unless security engineers are such a militantly rational lot that they won’t even contemplate zodiac-based names, they’re missing a trick in the burglar alarm branding stakes – and there’s room to start an astrological trend. • Spotted: Ashbourne Parade, Ealing, London, W5, England, 2006 • Politics: In the Conservative constituency of Ealing Central and Acton
Above: Look at all the brilliant potential burglar alarm logos on this 16th century woodcut showing the signs of the zodiac. They’re just begging to be used…
June 16, 2011
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“www.Classic-Security.com” burglar alarm, Camden • How perfect is this? Such a witty match between burglar alarm and business can be no coincidence. Not only does Classic Security’s name allude to the shop it protects, which specialises in ancient Greek-style gifts, but the Parthenon logo that decorates it looks just like the portico of the grand building opposite: that neo-classical repository of Greek and Roman loot, The British Museum. Not quite mythology perhaps, but a nice summation of the subject. Tomorrow: the Zodiac (so more mythology, really). • Spotted: Bury Place, Camden, London, WC1, England, 2011 • Politics: In the Labour constituency of Holborn and St Pancras
Above: It’s All Greek (left), a gift shop in Bloomsbury, whose classical burglar alarm matches the building opposite (right) – The British Museum
June 15, 2011
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“Eros Security Systems” burglar alarm, Lambeth • After a couple of sensible mythological burglar alarms, we’re back to the bonkers ones. Eros? What on earth has Eros, Greek god of sexual love, got to do with security services? And anyway, this looks more like his boyish Roman counterpart Cupid, who was often portrayed as younger than the fully-formed teenage Eros. The resemblance to the Evening Standard‘s venerable logo makes me think this is a reference to the so-called Eros statue at Piccadilly Circus, that icon of tourist London. However, hard though it is to believe, what Wikipedia says about Alfred Gilbert’s piece of high Victorian camp is true. I’ve double-checked, and the statue that stands surrounded by the horrible hurly burly of Piccadilly is not intended to be Eros, but his butterfly-winged twin brother Anteros, who was associated with selfless and requited love (although he sounds like a half-baked deity the Greeks made up to impress the Romans). For all its faults, this silly, cheeky alarm is one of my all-time favourites – so naughty Cupid has worked his mischievous magic. • Spotted: Lower Marsh, Lambeth, London, SE1, England, 2007 • Politics: In the Labour constituency of Vauxhall
Above: Eros and his twin in London. Top left: “Eros Stringing His Bow“, a Roman copy of a Greek statue at the British Museum. Top right: ”The Angel of Christian Charity” aka “The Shaftesbury Memorial” (1893) by Alfred Gilbert at Picadilly Circus, colloquially known as the Eros statue, but actually depicting his selfless twin bro Anteros. Above: London’s familiar Evening Standard “Eros” logo (recently dropped from their masthead), which depicts the Piccadilly Circus statue and is therefore actually Anteros.
June 14, 2011
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“Aegis” burglar alarm, Camden • “Under the aegis of” is commonly understood to mean “under the protection of”, so like yesterday’s Argus, this is an unusually sensible mythological name for a security device. In ancient Greece the Aegis was a protective breastplate or cloak, originally a thundercloud invoked by Zeus, and later the skin of a divine goat worn by his warlike daughter Athena. Her exclusive over-the-top haute couture version was a golden snakeskin extravaganza, generally depicted as covered in scales and fringed with tinkling tassels or writhing serpents, all fastened with the severed head of Medusa, the scary snake-haired Gorgon. The idea of the magically protective Aegis caught on and spread to Egypt, Rome and beyond; and 2,500 years later the Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace made his fortune by taking the Medusa-and-snakeskin look to improbable extremes, though it didn’t protect him from being murdered on his Florida doorstep in 1997. The Aegis can also take the form of a Medusa-faced shield, so the shape of this alarm is very apt, as well as showing that Aegis is under the aegis of Banham, whose proprietary sounder this is. It’s somewhat let down by the obscure Aegis logo, which is like a red pyramid with a lighting bolt through it, possibly representing an A and an E. But surely a severed Gorgon’s head would have been better? • Spotted: Finchley Road, Camden, London, NW3, England, 2007 • Politics: In the Labour constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn
Above: The Aegis as hot ancient fashion item. Left: The classic over-the-shoulder Aegis cloak as modelled by Athena in a Roman copy of a Greek statue, “Athena Cherchel-Ostia” (c.400 BC), from the Louvre, Paris. Above right: the Aegis worn in casual cross-body style on another Athena statue, “Athena Lemnia” from the Staatliche Museum, Dresden. Note the Gorgon Medusa’s head, a popular decoration appropriated 2,500 years later by Gianni Versace. Below right: An Egyptian-style Aegis, on a Nubian bust of the goddess Isis (c.300 BC) from the British Museum, London.
June 13, 2011
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“Argus Fire & Security Group” burglar alarm, Lewisham • If the reflected double “a” in this Argus logo is meant to look like two eyes, then it’s 98 short of the legend. Argus is a popular name in Greek mythology, but being a security device, this is surely inspired by the super-watchman Argus Panoptes, an ever-wakeful hundred-eyed giant whose name means “Argus the All-Seeing”. Argus was a servant of Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus – who, as king of the gods, had more nymphs on the side than a premiership footballer. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c.8 AD), the politically-incorrect Zeus disguised one unfortunate floozy, Io, as a cow, but suspicious Hera demanded the beast as a gift and set Argus to guard it. Zeus sent his messenger Hermes to rescue Io, which he managed by telling Argus such boring stories that all his eyes fell asleep at once (I know the feeling), and then beheading him. The giant may have perished, but his hundred eyes lived on in the tail of the peacock, where Hera put them to honour his memory. I haven’t yet found a peacock pictured on a burglar alarm, but there are plenty decorated with eyes; though most, like that other watchful giant Cyclops, sport only one. As will be demonstrated in a later theme… • Spotted: Lewisham High Street, Lewisham, London, SE13, England, 2010 • Politics: In the Labour constituency of Lewisham Deptford
Above: BC and AD versions of Hermes about to kill Argus and rescue the nymph Io, cunningly disguised as a heifer. Top: pictured millennia before burglar alarms, on an Attic vase (c.500 BC) from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna – love the way he’s grabbing that beard. Bottom: as imagined more serenely over 1000 years later in Diego Velázquez’s ”Fábula de Mercurio y Argos” aka “The Story of Mercury and Argus” (1659), from the magnificent Prado, Madrid.
June 12, 2011
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“Ariel Alarms” burglar alarm, City of London • I always thought Ariel was a version of wing-heeled Greco-Roman messenger god Mercury, whose alarm I featured yesterday. Which shows how little I know, becuse I now discover Ariel is a minor Judaeo-Christian archangel associated with health and the elements, whose name means “Lion of God”. Winged angels seem to go back to the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism and beyond, and in all faiths that feature them they are messengers of god; so there’s some connection with Mercury after all. The Jews are thought to have brought the archangels’ names out of Babylon, though in Abrahamic faiths the wings were always recognised by scholars as merely symbolic, showing the superiority of angels to mortals. In English culture the name was popularised by Shakespeare, whose play The Tempest features a flying spirit punningly called Ariel (aerial, geddit?) bearing similarities to both angels and Mercury. Since then the name has been used for anything from biological washing powder to the BBC’s in-house magazine, titled after Shakespeare’s character and not the wire thing that receives radio signals, which is spelled aerial. Although it looks like a 1960s book cover, I think we can be fairly sure the alarm’s not a tribute to the famous volume of poetry by suicidal American writer Sylvia Plath, who named the collection Ariel after her childhood horse, and successfully gassed herself shortly after completing it in 1963. Yet the Ariel alarm probably dates from the same decade, which means it’s definitely not named after the ubiquitous font Arial, which apart from having different spelling, was designed in 1982. It took 10 people to create it – and the result is just like Helvetica! • Spotted: Middlesex Street, City of London, London, E1, England, 2010 • Politics: In the Conservative constituency of Cities of London and Westminster
Above: Ariel, from religion to soap powder. Left: The archangel Ariel from a series the studio of Francisco de Zurbarán made in 1645-50 for the Monasterio de la Concepción, Lima, Peru – Ariel’s a bigger deal in Latin America than in Europe. Above right: Shakespeare’s Ariel in “Ariel between Wisdom and Gaiety“, a 1930s sculpture by old perv Eric Gill on the facade of BBC Broadcasting House in Portland Place, London W1. Below middle: Ariel in his guise as a pioneering biological washing powder from the 1960s. Below right: Also from the 1960s, Sylvia Plath’s posthumously-published hit poetry collection “Ariel”, a vintage cover from a recent writers’ residency at Nottingham Contemporary gallery by Wayne Burrows.
June 11, 2011
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“Mercury Security Systems” burglar alarm, Islington • This boring design gives no clue whether its name refers to the planet, the element, the crap Queen singer or the myth. Seeing as the myth came first, I shall include this alarm within the mythology section. Mercury was the Roman version of Hermes, messenger of the Greek gods, famed for his winged sandals and helmet, and a snake-entwined staff called a caduceus. The Romans equated him mainly with travel and commerce, and his image can be found adorning stations and shopping centres to this day. A notably slippery character, with traits which would have taken him far in diplomacy or journalism, Mercury combined patronage of noble things such as music, wit, sport and invention with a reputation for cunning and trickery. Which is perhaps how a god strongly associated with thieves and boundaries – described in an ancient Greek hymn as “a watcher by night, a thief at the gates” – has wangled his way onto a burglar alarm. • Spotted: Whitecross Street, Islington, London, EC1, England, 2008 • Politics: In the Labour constituency of Islington South and Finsbury
Above: Mercury in Manhattan, still representing trade and travel today. Left: “Winged Mercury” (1933), a carving by Lee Lawrie on the ex-British Empire Building at the Rockerfeller Centre. Right: ”Glory of Commerce” (1911-14) by Jules-Alexis Coutain, aka the famous Mercury clock at Grand Central Terminal. There’s more about it on Which Yet Survive, a great but short-lived blog about New York statuary.
June 10, 2011
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“Apollo Eagle” burglar alarm, Tower Hamlets • This vintage sun-like yellow sounder is a great match for uber-deity Apollo, the powerful Greco-Roman god of the sun. Worshipped far and wide in the ancient world, Apollo was closely associated with light, music, medicine, poetry and much else, but wasn’t linked with eagles until mere mortals headed for the moon (property of his sister, Artemis) a couple of millennia later. In 1961, NASA manager Abe Silverstein deliberately referenced the Greek god when he named the US space program Apollo; and on 20 July 1969 Apollo 11′s lunar module Eagle finally deposited humans on the moon’s surface, hence the immortal phrase “the Eagle has landed”. Which may be the source of this space race-era alarm’s name, though more prosaically, it’s probably the result of a merger between two companies called Apollo and Eagle. • Spotted: The Oval, Tower Hamlets, London, E2, England, 2006 • Politics: In the Labour constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow
Above: When Apollo met Eagle on the moon. Left: a Roman statue of Apollo (c.150 AD) from the Ny Carlsberg Glypotek, Copenhagen. Middle: Buzz Aldrin with moon lander Eagle on the lunar surface. Right: the Apollo 11 insignia, complete with moon-landing eagle.
June 9, 2011
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“AFA Minerva EMI” burglar alarm, Lambeth • This is one of only three burglar alarms I’ve found featuring women, the others being Siren and Liberty. Minerva was the multi-talented pan-Italian goddess of poetry, medicine, commerce, weaving, crafts, magic and music, but primarily of wisdom. Only in Rome was she considered, like her Greek prototype Athena, a goddess of war – an idea the Roman Empire exported, hence her regular appearance sporting helmet and spear, and her suitability for burglar alarms. In Britain she was conflated with Bath’s local deity Sulis, and the famous thermal baths there are dedicated to her. Britain also has Western Europe’s only Athena shrine remaining in situ, an extremely worn structure carved into the side of a quarry near Chester. Mythology apart, I’m interested in the big red drum, which is also associated with Thorn, on whom I wrote a corporate history here. I know Thorn were absorbed by EMI, who clearly took over AFA Minerva too. But though I’ve seen vintage sounders saying simply AFA, I’ve never seen one saying AFA Minerva without the EMI at the bottom, or a standalone Minerva alarm. I’d be interested to know some more about the histories of AFA and Minerva – perhaps one of the burglar alarm fraternity can shed some light on this. • Spotted: Lower Marsh, Lambeth, London, SE1, England, 2010 • Politics: In the Labour constituency of Vauxhall
Above: Images of Minerva – warlike, wise, and popular in Britain. Left: a no-nonsense, helmet-toting Minerva from the destroyed city of Herculanum, near Pompeii. Above right: head of Sulis Minerva found in 1727 in Bath, and now displayed at the Roman Baths there. Below right: Minerva’s very worn-out shrine in Edgar’s Field, Handbridge, near Chester.
June 8, 2011
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“Orion Alarms” burglar alarm, Tower Hamlets • This naive but multi-layered design recalls two mythical figures: Orion and Pac-Man. Ostensibly a monogram comprising an O and an A, it’s probably meant to represent a pyramid in a circular night sky with a crescent moon overhead. Apart from the night sky, it’s hard to see how this connects with the Greek hero Orion, a giant hunter blinded for raping a princess, healed by the sun, then killed by a scorpion and turned into a constellation by Zeus. There are few reliable descriptions of Orion, but we know he wasn’t a big black blob. However, the design also looks disturbingly like a Pac-Man with a winking eye, chomping his way down the alarm. Developed in Japan in 1979 and originally called Pakkuman, it’s fair to say that the genre-launching yellow-and-black ghost-munching video game has achieved legendary status. The name is based on paku-paku, Japanese slang for lip-smacking eating (equivalent to “nom-nom-nom”), and the fact that the avatar looks like a part-eaten pizza is no coincidence, because according to its inventor Tōru Iwatani, that’s what it’s based on. This is the second Pac-Man-like alarm I’ve featured: the first was JB-Eye, and no doubt the game was a formative entertainment for both designers. • Spotted: Fairfield Road, Tower Hamlets, London, E3, England, 2010 • Politics: In the Labour constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow
Above: Orion v Pac-Man. Left: Orion and his constellation by astronomer Johannes Hevelius from his celestial catalogue “Uranographia” (1690). Right: fashionably geek Pac-Man t-shirt available from Worm Sign designs.
June 7, 2011
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“Titan Alarms” burglar alarm, Cirencester • These days “titanic” suggests immense, but in Greek mythology the Titans were a primordial race of super-deities, children of the supreme earth goddess Gaia. There was a soap opera’s worth of them, with second-gen Atlas being the best-known today, but most remaining rather obscure. This was a result of the decade-long War of the Titans, in which they were comprehensively overthrown – both physically and reputationally – by a bunch of younger gods, the Zeus-led Olympians. The huge Giants, also children of Gaia, rebelled against the Olympians but lost; and later tales mixed up Giants and Titans, leading to the word’s current connotations of size and strength. So, given that they suffered total, humiliating defeat and never recovered, being protected by a Titan may not be as useful as it sounds. • Spotted: Town centre, Cirencester, Gloucestershire, GL7, England, 2007 • Politics: In the Conservative constituency of Cotswolds
Above: the Titans being overthrown in “Fall of the Titans” (c.1637-8) by Peter Paul Rubens from the Musée Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels.
June 6, 2011
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“Samson Technology Alarm Systems” burglar alarm, Derby • So, a burglar alarm named after a blind, randy, brutally-strong murderer, albeit one who has inspired great art and literature, pop musicians as diverse as Tom Jones and Eyeless in Gaza, and golden syrup. Although there are many parallels for super-powerful heroes in ancient Eurasian mythology, most famously Heracles, Samson is a specifically Hebrew figure who springs from the Old Testament and associated texts. He was an incredibly disruptive presence: a philandering Philistine-killing machine, embroiled in the intractable middle-eastern turmoil that continues to this day. After Delilah cut off his hair and his strength, allowing the Philistines to stab out his eyes and enslave him in Gaza, he still managed to topple a temple on them in an ingenious pre-gunpowder version of suicide bombing. But, had you hired him as a burglar deterrent (and not been a Philistine), I am sure he would have worked out excellently. • Spotted: Town centre, Derby, Derbyshire, DE1, England, 2010 • Politics: In the Labour constituency of Derby South
Above: Samson – scenes from a life. Left: Delilah cuts off his hair in a detail of “Samson and Delilah” (c.1530) by Lucas Cranach the Elder, from the Met. Middle: a lion Samson killed en route to his wedding, from the famous Lyle’s Golden Syrup ”lion and bees” tin. Right: pulling down the temple of Dagon in “Death of Samson” (1865) by Gustav Doré, from “The Doré Gallery of Bible Illustrations” vol 3, scanned online at Project Gutenberg.
June 5, 2011
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“Atlantis Secure Systems” burglar alarm, Tower Hamlets • Even the ancient Greeks thought Atlantis was fictional, and they should have known because they probably invented it. Before Plato described the 9000-year-old lost city in his dialogue Timaeus of around 360 BC, there had been no recorded mention of the place, whereas myths usually have long, traceable histories. It seems likely he was using imaginary geography to make a political point – as Jonathan Swift did in Gulliver’s Travels, or Sir Thomas More in Utopia – but the idea is so seductive that it remains with us today. It’s quite a weird title for a burglar alarm (albeit one illustrated with a white fish and a shadowy shark, possibly a metaphor for burglar-catching); Atlantis has the opposite connotation to yesterday’s triumphantly arising Phoenix, suggesting something that will sink catastrophically. Despite this it’s a widely-used name, ironically popular with vessels: not only seagoing ones but the last operational space shuttle Atlantis, whose final flight is in July 2011 (tickets to view the launch are available from NASA). As for possible sites for the city of Atlantis, there’s a new crackpot theory every year. More interesting are the real, eponymous places: the Atlantis Massif under the Atlantic, a dome of dense green rock extruded from the earth’s deep mantle; 1198 Atlantis, a Mars-crossing asteroid orbiting quite near Earth; and the Atlantis Chaos, an area of turbulent Martian terrain featuring possible water gullies (all pictured below). Plato’s imaginary island went a long, long way. • Spotted: Vyner Street, Tower Hamlets, London, E2, England, 2006 • Politics: In the Labour constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow
Above: Digital images of real Atlantises. Top: the sub-Atlantic Atlantis Massif, from Washington University’s Lost City deep-sea research site. Middle: orbit of the asteroid 1198 Atlantis from Nasa Jet Propulsion Lab’s Small-Body Database Browser, which can animate orbits through time. Bottom: ripples and gullies in the Atlantis Chaos area of Mars, from University of Arizona’s amazing HiRise Mars imaging site.
June 4, 2011
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“Phoenix” burglar alarm, Sheffield • Perhaps reborn from yesterday’s Phoenix, and unusually decorative for a burglar alarm, this tattoo-like design looks more Phoenix Arizona than ancient Greece. But though grandly-plumaged birds such as the storm-bringing Thunderbird figure heavily in Native American culture, there is no equivalent of the phoenix rebirth myth, suggesting it developed in Eurasia after early humans had populated the Americas. Of course humans came that way again later, bringing their Eurasian diseases and resurrection legends with them; and thus the modern metropolis of Phoenix was born, so named because it arose from the long-abandoned ruins of a pre-Columbian city. Amazing how these Assyrian legends get around. • Spotted: Union Street, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, S1, England, 2010 • Politics: In the Labour constituency of Sheffield Central
Top row: phoenix tattoo designs reminiscent of this alarm. Bottom row: Native American birds – not related to Phoenixes, but looking similar. Bottom left: “Bird with Red Snake” (1920) by Awa Tsireh from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC. Bottom right: painting of Kiowa Eagle Dancer by Stephen [Qued Koi] Mopope (1898-1974) from the Adobe Gallery, Santa Fe.
June 3, 2011
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“Phoenix Security Doncaster” burglar alarm, Kensington and Chelsea • A very old Phoenix, which – if it accords with legend – is the only one of its kind, and will soon set itself on fire. In the Greco-Assyrian myth which gives this device its name, the crimson-plumed firebird is the sole representative of its species, and lives for 500 years. When it feels itself getting old, it climbs onto a fragrant DIY pyre of frankinsence and myrrh, faces the sun and bursts exuberantly into flame, soaring reborn from the ashes. In some versions it’s a small grub that emerges from the ashes, which after three days turns into a new phoenix; which, in further variants, carries the embalmed ashes of its parent to an altar in the Egyptian sun-worshipping city of Heliopolis. Although the estimable Greek historian Herodotus was bluntly sceptical about much of this fanciful tale, its clear parallels with Biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus made it a hit with early Catholic artists, hence its inclusion in European iconography, and eventually on burglar alarms. Generally considered benevolent despite their fierce looks, phoenixes are today a metaphor for anything that renews, such as a “phoenix firm” which declares bankruptcy, dumps its debt obligations, and restarts anew – hopefully not the fate of Phoenix Security. • Spotted: Cadogan Street, Kensington and Chelsea, London, SW3, England, 2010 • Politics: In the Conservative constituency of Chelsea and Fulham
Above: Some even older phoenixes. Top row: during and after resurrection, from the beautiful 12th century Aberdeen Bestiary. Bottom left: Coptic Egyptian stone phoenix from the Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam. Bottom right: a magnificent printed phoenix from Friedrich Justin Bertuch’s stunningly-illustrated educational partwork “Bilderbuch für Kinder” (1790-1830).
June 2, 2011
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“Sound Alarms” burglar alarm, City of Westminster • An odd subject for a burglar alarm, the unicorn is – like yesterday’s mermaid – a popular subject in young girls’ literature. This logo is more reminiscent of a 1980s computer magazine, with its warped sci-fi font suggesting the wow of a siren, and a pixellated unicorn that’s either the ultimate in retro-futurism, or a bit of low-res clip art. Like all the mythological alarms I have found, this bizarre mix of ancient and modern originates in antiquity. The early Greeks believed unicorns were real wild animals living in India, and matters were further confused because in Mesopotamia bulls were often depicted in profile, showing just one horn. There are unicorns mentioned in the Christian Bible, though the original Hebrew term is re’em, a powerful beast which scholars have suggested could be anything from an ox to a rhino. This biblical connection led to the pretty white European unicorn, a deeply allegorical beast which could only be soothed by laying its head, complete with immense phallic horn, in the lap of a young and sometimes bare-breasted virgin (there are some examples below). With obvious symbolism, their “horns” – usually narwhal horns, upon which the spiralling spike is based – were considered great aphrodisiacs; Queen Elizabeth I reputedly had one in her cabinet of curiosities. And though initially associated with the Virgin Mary and purity, unicorns soon became frankly raunchy, prancing across vastly expensive OTT tapestries amidst hunting parties and fertility symbols, ending up happy and blood-spotted after capture by a fair maiden, in the manner of a medieval boy band member. Which explains why unicorns remain a staple of pre-pubescent female fantasy, but does not shed any more light on this weird burglar alarm, or what a unicorn has to do with sound – unless it’s a play on the word “horn”. • Spotted: Vauxhall Bridge Road, City of Westminster, London, SW1, England, 2004 • Politics: In the Conservative constituency of Cities of London and Westminster
Some frisky unicorns. Top left: An underdressed lady soothes the beast in “Wild Woman with Unicorn”, c.1500, a cushion from Basel Historical Museum. Top right: “The Unicorn Is Penned“, c.1500, a unicorn spotted with blood (or red juice) after capture by a maiden, from the epic Unicorn Tapestries in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bottom: “Virgin and Unicorn“, 1605, teenage love as portrayed by Domenichino (aka Annibale Carracci) on a fresco in Rome’s Farnese Palace.
June 1, 2011
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“Siren Security” burglar alarm, Tower Hamlets • Yesterday I featured a mermaid from Fairfield Shipping Offices, Glasgow, and today – ushering in the theme of mythological burglar alarms – I give you a mermaid from Fairfield Road, London. Siren Security is a play on words, obviously, between the blaring sirens of the law and the sweet-voiced temptresses said to serenade sailors to their doom, but sirens and mermaids are not strictly synonymous. Though the word is Latin, sirens come to the modern world from Greek mythology: as described in Homer’s Odyssey, written around 800 BC, they were winged, sharp-clawed bird-women who lived amidst the rotting corpses of their victims (which would certainly be a deterrent to burglars). The fish-woman comes from even older Assyrian tales of the popular sea goddess Atargatis (called Derketo by the Greeks), disseminated to seaports far and wide by Syrian merchants. Pagan Europeans got these ideas all muddled up with their own folkloric tales, not quelled by a dose of Christianity, so that today in many languages the word for mermaid is “sirena”, or similar. In Haitian voodoo there is even a spirit or lwa called La Sirene, a European mermaid mixed up with West African beliefs, often pictured with a siren-like trumpet (see below for examples of all these ladies). Whatever her origin, Siren Security’s logo is a charmingly modest mermaid, shown clutching an unidentified tablet – maybe the same one the bizarre wasp-man is holding on Wilton Alarms. And while there are plenty of of male images on burglar alarms, this is one of only two depictions of women I have found, the other being Liberty. • Spotted: Fairfield Road, Tower Hamlets, London, E3, England, 2010 • Politics: In the Labour constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow
Top left: “The Siren of Canosa“, a Greek-style siren (note bird-feet) circa 300 BC from the National Archaeological Museum of Spain. Top right: John William Waterhouse’s foxy “A Mermaid” (1900), from the Royal Academy, London. Below: a Haitian sequinned voodoo banner depicting horn-blowing water spirit La Sirene.
May 11, 2011
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“Olympic Alarms” burglar alarm, Bolton • I found this mossy relic on a boarded-up Bolton funeral parlour called Shaw & Son, a decaying traditional frontage of great pathos. Appropriately, it was part of the same condemned hillside terrace as the weeping Computa-Guard alarms of a couple of days ago. Close inspection reveals that under the vegetation is a logo saying Olympic Alarms, but all things must pass. • Spotted: St Georges Road, Bolton, Lancashire, BL1, England, 2010 • Politics: In the Labour constituency of Bolton North East