241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Heliographer-in-chief Nelson Miles

America 1886

In pursuit of the wily Geronimo and his small band of Chiricahua Apache, General Nelson Miles suffered from a lack of high quality intelligence regarding the movement of hostiles through his geographically complex theater of operations. Chiricahua knowledge of the terrain combined with their high levels of skill in evasion made “hunt and kill” tactics difficult if not impossible to apply, and intelligence gathered by scouts (some of whom were Apache themselves) proved inadequate to the task, or unreliable.

If he was to succeed where General Crook had failed, Miles would need to see and anticipate enemy motion with greater precision and with a perspective as sweeping as the landscape. Thus he set out to establish a regional system of aerial reconnaissance, accomplished by means of the solar-powered heliograph or “sun telegraph”: The signal detachments will be placed upon the highest peaks and prominent lookouts to discover any movements of Indians and to transmit messages between the different camps.

Solar-powered intelligence station circa 1886

Net for catching hostiles

According to a newspaper account written by former signal operator William Niefert:

From the peak in that clear atmosphere we had an interesting view that covered many miles, even beyond the International Border. Nogales 50 miles away, was plainly visible, and away to the eastward one could see a surprisingly distance. The heliograph, or sun-telegraph as it was often spoken of on the frontier, is an instrument for signalling by sunlight reflected from a mirror. Metallic mirrors were originally used, but in service, they were hard to keep bright, and hard to replace if broken in the field. Consequently glass mirrors were adopted and much successful work was accomplished by using this method of signalling. We used two 5-inch mirrors, mounted on heavy wooden posts, that were firmly set between the rocks. Vertical and horizontal tangent screws are attached to the mirrors by which they can be turned to face any desired direction and keep the mirrors in correct position with the suns movement. As the flash increases about 45 times to a mile, it could be read with the naked eye for at least fifty miles.

Equipped with a powerful telescope and field glasses, we made frequent observations of the surrounding country so that any moving body of troops, or other men, as well as any unusual smoke or dust, might be detected and at once reported by flashing to Headquarters. Troops in the field carried portable heliograph sets that were operated by specially trained and detailed soldiers, by this means communicating through the mountain stations with Headquarters.


For all the effort invested, there is little evidence that any of the information gathered and relayed by the heliographs had any direct result on Geronimo’s capture, which was eventually secured by boots on the ground; boots under the command of Lieut. Charles A. Gatewood, a man Geronimo knew and respected as a brave adversary. General Miles traveled to Skeleton Canyon for the official surrender on September 4, 1886.

The most significant lessons of the Apache Wars had more to do with physical fitness and tactical preparation than with theater intelligence. Counterinsurgency concepts such as flexible response, quick reaction with emphasis on mobility, body counts and small unit actions were all conceived and refined during the Apache campaign, from tactical necessities dictated by both the harsh terrain and by the character of the enemy. For aerial reconnaissance to be effective in the context of counterinsurgency, there must be a more rapid and dynamic relationship between intelligence and the delivery of force. The heliograph system of General Miles had far too many dots (and dashes) to connect: from binoculars into code; then from code to mirror communication; then from decoding to command; and then from command to the pursuit force, via the same cumbersome circuitry. Radio would of course eventually significantly reduce these gaps, but the most pure expression of Shock & Awe would not be achieved until intelligence itself became weaponized, in the form of Predator drones.

Sky Mirror, Anish Kapoor

The capture of Geronimo resulted in the removal of most Chiricahua from the desert landscape that provided the basis for their entire culture; they were placed in rail cars and transported to Florida, into an environment so foreign that it may as well have been Madagascar. Exposure to new diseases compounded by the shock of a climate and landscape antithetical to their culture and experience, many of the captive Chiricahua died within the first year. Such dynamic relationships among intelligence, identification, cryptography, rail transport and death would become more fully articulated in years to come.

Dining with presidents

That every good artist has a theme, a recurrent motif, I was taught at the academy. Series, concepts, preferably a recognisable style. After the academy it was no different. As people look at your work the inevitable question arises: what is it about?

Try and find a satisfactory answer if recognisability and archetypes aren't quite your cup of tea. I never conceive of something in theory first to then realise it. I have to live what I make. My development is brought about by making work. The work demands. A dialogue between the work and me emerges. Some things are abandoned only to come back later, some things disappear for good, other things stay. If no more questions arise, the work is finished. The work teaches me, not the other way around. The work is a narrative that manifests itself in different ways. The theme is the narrative that you tell in different ways every time. They are already there, just as you are already there. It only has to be discovered.

I allow myself to be led by what catches my eye. By where my love resides, my grief, my wonder, my fears. Without wondering if it fits the theme. As long as you stay true to yourself, everything you touch will be included in the theme. I am the theme. This is my world. One of the things I do is collecting. What I start a collection for, I can never say beforehand. I collect without worrying whether what I collect belongs to my work. That does not come until later. If at all. Either way goes.

This is my collection ‘Dining with Presidents’. Thirty plates from crockery sets that American presidents, their families and guests have eaten from. It began with a photograph of a set table at the White House at the time of the Clintons. Glasses, candles, an extravagant bouquet, and a plate. A plate that quickly turned out not to be just an ordinary plate.

At the founding of the United States on the 4th of July 1776, a leader had to come forward. How much power would be given to this leader? The only thing the Founding Fathers knew for certain was that the polity after the Independence War could not resemble the English aristocracy even in the smallest degree. However, all too libertarian was no possibility either, as the European monarchies would not acknowledge the US as a nation. There was not a single democratic country in the world for the US to emulate. How to proceed?

If guests came, from within the country or from abroad, how was the leader to welcome them, at home? How was he to be addressed? Certainly not like kings, as ‘sire’ or ‘majesty’. After numerous debates, the decision was made that the leader was to be addressed as still happens today: as ‘Mr President’. The title of the president’s wife was also wrangled about. ‘Mrs. Presidentress’ was even considered, before the eventual decision fell on First Lady.

The rest was left to the president and his wife themselves, with an especially big role for the First Lady. In the furnishing of the presidential residence as well as in the design of the presidential tableware, she was the one to express the aspirations of the new country and its ideas on leadership. That has not changed to this day.

When I found out I knew why the plates appealed to me so. I am always on the lookout for tangible, personal stories behind political and historical processes. These plates are exactly that. They are the embodiment of what First Ladies throughout the centuries thought were the political ideals of the US. Plus, you can eat from them.

Widower Thomas Jefferson, third president and Founding Father, kept it simple and personal with the presidential monogram in the centre. Elizabeth Monroe emphasised the pillars of American Society: Strength, the Arts, Commerce, the Sciences and Agriculture.
from 1845 onwards, a more nationalistic period in American History dawns. Mrs. Lucy Hayes chooses crockery that was produced in the US. Therefore, they bear American flora and fauna. Mrs. Caroline Harrison chooses the corn cob and goldenrod as symbols of American’s plenitude and beauty.
Then, in 1893, the desire for grandeur crops up. The royal air of European palace decoration is no longer rejected. Stars emerge, on the basis of the following: "The star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial.” *)1

The postwar welfare is embodied in the plate of Eisenhower with its edge of pure gold. From that moment onwards, everything has to make way for gold. For Truman, Reagan, and even the Clintons, everything that glitters is literally gold. The time of the dominance of the financial world arises.

*)1 From the book "Our Flag" published in 1977 by the House of Representatives; about The Flag Act passed by the Continental Congress since June 14, 1777.