That Time a Baboon Worked for the Railroad

Have you traveled on a train? Did you enjoy the experience?

Bliss

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Signalman Jack and James
https://en.wikipedia.org | Signalman Jack and James

Some people prefer to travel by train or by rail because it’s less stressful than going to the airport. That’s something people can agree with. And back in the olden days, you might see what’s called a signalman. A signalman is a person who operates a signal box to control the movement of trains.

There are these parts or junctions of a railway that has variable paths, and according to the number of toots that the train conductor gives off, the signalman switches the tracks accordingly. It's a pretty rudimentary system and probably not operated exactly the same way anymore. I have a feeling it’s more automated these days. But back in the 1800s, this was a very manual and analog task. Some say it was a simple job. Some may have even said it was so simple, that even a monkey could do it.

We’re traveling to South Africa to explore the story of a unique signal operator named signal man Jack.

What made Jack most unique in his job in the 1800s in the Cape Town area around the Port Elizabeth railroad was that signalman Jack was not a man. Signalman Jack was a male baboon.

But let’s talk first about the human center of our story. We’re going back to Cape Town in the 1800s. A man by the name of James Edwin Wide who had the nickname jumper was an employee of the Cape Government Railways for 10 years. He got the nickname jumper because he was a bit of a daredevil. He would hop on and off moving trains and swing from railcar to railcar to do his job. Eventually, this reckless behavior caught up with him. He jumped and misstepped. He fell underneath a moving train where his shins and feet were absolutely obliterated by an 80-ton car. The damage was so bad that he had to amputate his legs at the knee, which left him handicapped. But he didn’t want to lose his job so he carved himself a pair of wooden peg legs and asked his superiors to give him another chance doing a job as a signalman and they agreed.

This is before the time of disability insurance and things like that. If he was out of a job, he could starve, and become a beggar. So, his motivation here was apparent from the beginning. The company put him in the position of signalman which…

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Bliss

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