In the late 1800s, radios hadn't been invented yet, so train drivers had no way of letting one another know that they’re either coming or going – they relied on signals at stations. These signals showed incoming trains what to expect upon arrival and where to go once they’re at the station.
Changing these signals meant that you had to be quick on your feet and, the signalmen as they were known, had to keep up with trains in both directions.
Imagine the predicament when you’re a signalman at a busy train station between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth but you lose both your legs in a freak accident while you’re jumping between train carts.
What to do? Well, if you’re South African, James Wilde, you simply continue to work by jumping around on a pair of peg legs. Until you meet Jack the baboon at a local market.
Jack was trained to steer an ox wagon, and Wilde soon saw the baboon’s potential, so he convinced the baboon’s owner to sell him. The former owner agreed to sell Jack to Wilde, but he did caution him that he only works if he gets a bit of brandy.
Wilde taught Jack how to change the levers by showing him the number that he has to change with his fingers. Jack then taught himself to listen to the incoming trains giving him signals, and then also went ahead and got the key to the coal shed from Wilde.
Unfortunately, someone split on these two, and the people in power decided that Jack had to go as he was not, well… human. Wilde then showed them how capable Jack was of doing what Wilde wanted him to do, and they were so impressed that they ended up paying Jack a salary of 20c per week as well as half a bottle of beer.
Jack went on to stay with Wilde in his cottage while he worked at the train station until his death in 1890. He died from tuberculosis.
Watch the Half As Interesting video below to see how Jack the baboon operated a railway for 9 years.
Image credit: Wikipedia