In order to hide it from Japanese bombers during World War II, Lockheed covered its entire Burbank, Calif., manufacturing plant with a camouflage net of chicken wire, poles and cables, feathers, and tar. From the air it looked like another residential section of Burbank, complete with trees, roads, sidewalks, and houses:
“It was an engineering marvel,” reported Gil Cefaratt in his history of the company, “but when it rained, [engineer Richard P.] DeGrey remembers the odor of millions of wet chicken feathers almost made work impossible for a couple of days.”
Written in prison by Arthur Connor, a prominent figure in the Irish Rebellion of 1798:
The pomps of Courts and pride of kings
I prize above all earthly things;
I love my country, but the King,
Above all men, his praise I sing.
The Royal banners are displayed,
And may success the standard aid.
I fain would banish far from hence
The “Rights of Man” and “Common Sense.”
Confusion to his odious reign,
That foe to princes, Thomas Paine.
Defeat and ruin seize the cause
Of France, its liberties and laws.
Connor escaped in 1807 and made his way to France, where he became a general in the army. “These two apparently loyal verses, if properly read, bear a very different meaning,” writes Henry Dudeney. “Can you discover it?”
In 1728 the city of Paris defaulted on a large number of municipal bonds. As a way to offer some restitution, the city decided to sponsor a series of lotteries among the disappointed bondholders. There would be only a few winners, but each investor could at least hope to recoup some of his lost money.
That’s very noble, but the city fathers had overlooked two things. First, because the government had sweetened the pot, the value of the lottery prize vastly exceeded the combined cost of the tickets. And second, among the bondholders were Voltaire and Charles Marie de La Condamine, who realized this.
The two organized a syndicate to buy up all of their fellow bondholders’ tickets, essentially guaranteeing themselves a huge profit each month. They did this systematically for half a year before the government caught on; when confronted, they pointed out that they were doing nothing illegal. In all, the syndicate realized 6 to 7 million francs, of which Voltaire kept half a million — enough to leave him independently wealthy for the rest of his life.
Queen Elizabeth acceded up a tree. When her father, George VI, died in 1952, the princess was staying at the Treetops Hotel in Kenya, essentially an enormous treehouse built into a fig in the Aberdare National Park. While she returned quickly to Britain, hunter Jim Corbett wrote in the visitors’ logbook:
“For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree next day a Queen — God bless her.”
English history as reported by American schoolchildren in 1887, from Caroline Bigelow Le Row, English as She Is Taught: Genuine Answers to Examination Questions in Our Public Schools:
- “England was named by the Angels.”
- “The Celts were driven out of England into Whales.”
- “Julius Caesar invaded England 400 years B.C. The English condition was in a rude state.”
- “The Brittains were the Saxons who entered England in 1492 under Julius Caesar.”
- “The Britains conquered Julius Caesar and drove him ignominiously from his dominions.”
- “The Britons founded the Druids. They ust to hold religious services out of doors.”
- “The Druids were supposed to be Roman Catholicks.”
- “The Crusaders were fanatics who fought in tournaments.”
- “The Habeas Corpus Act said that a body whether alive or dead could be produced in court.”
- “Alfred the Great reigned 872 years. He was distinguished for letting some buckwheat cakes burn and the lady scolded him.”
- “Rufus was named William on account of his red hair. He established the curfew fire bell.”
- “William the Conqueror was the first of the Mormons.”
- “Edward the black Prince was famous for founding chivalry.”
- “Chivalry is a fight on horseback between two horsemen in an open plain.”
- “A night errant is a man who goes around in the night in search of adventures.”
- “The Middle Ages come in between antiquity and posterity.”
- “The War of the Roses was between the white and the red.”
- “Henry Eight was famous for being a great widower having lost several wives.”
- “Lady Jane Grey studied Greek and Latin and was beheaded after a few days.”
- “Queen Mary married the Dolphin.”
- “Elizabeth was called the Virgin queen because of her many accomplishments and she had a great many fine dresses.”
- “The unfortunate Charles First was executed and after he was beheaded he held it up exclaiming Behold the head of a trater!”
- “Cromwell was only a parallel with Bonaparte.”
- “Queen Victoria was the 4th son of George Third the Duke of Kent.”
- “John Bright is noted for an incurable disease.”
- “Lord James Gordon Bennett instigated the Gordon Riots.”
From Notes and Queries, March 14, 1863, Charles I’s “twelve golden rules” for deportment at table:
They were found in a collection of proclamations and broadsides held by the Society of Antiquaries. “Unquestionably the maxim-loving monarch’s jealousy of all interference with his prerogative, even in conversation, as also his constitutional dread of contention, and ‘counterblast’ hatred of tobacco, are reflected in these counsels to a sufficient extent to fix him with their authorship.”
Fed up with overzealous censors during World War I, an anonymous soldier devised this preformatted “love letter” for use by British troops:
In the Field.
/ / 1917.
My (dear / dearest / darling),
I can’t write much to-day as I am very (overworked / busy / tired / lazy) and the (CORPS / G.O.C. / G.S.O.I. / A.A. & Q.M.G. / HUN) is exhibiting intense activity.
Things our way are going (quite well / much as usual / pas mal).
(We / The HUNS) put up a bit of a show (last night / yesterday) with (complete / tolerable / -out any) success.
(Our / The Russian / The Italian / The Montenegrin / The Monagasque / The United States / The Brazilian / The Panama / The Bolivian / The French / The Belgian / The Serbian / The Roumanian / The Portuguese / The Japanese / The Cuban / The Chinese) offensive appears to be doing well.
The German offensive is (obviously / apparently / we will hope) a complete failure.
I really begin to think the war will end (this year / next year / some time / never).
The (flies / rations / weather) (is / are) (vile / execrable / much the same).
The _______ is (cheery / weary / languid / sore distrest / at rest).
We are now living in a (chateau / ruined farm / hovel / dugout).
I am (hoping soon to come on / about due for / overdue for / not yet in the running for) leave, which is now (on / off).
I am suffering from a (slight / severe) (______ wound / fright / shell shock). ["Or state disease. If the whole of this sentence is struck out, the writer may be presumed to be well or deceased."]
(_______ / ______’s wife) has just (sent him / presented him with) _________.
What I should really like is ______________.
Many thanks for your (letter / parcel / good intentions).
How are the (poultry (including cows) / potatoes / children) getting on?
I hope you are (well / better / bearing up / not spending too much money / getting on better with mother).
[Insert here protestations of affection -- NOT TO EXCEED TEN WORDS:] __________
Ever [state what ever] ______________
A revealing detail from the life of the 18-year-old Queen Victoria, newly crowned in 1837:
At twelve o’clock she presided at a Council, ‘with as much ease as if she had been doing nothing else all her life’; after which she received the archbishops and bishops, to whom she said nothing, but showed an extreme dignity and gracefulness of manner. This ceremony finished and the duties of the day at an end, she retired with slow stateliness; but forgetful that the door through which she passed had glass panels that allowed her retreat to be seen, she had no sooner quitted the council chamber than she scampered light-heartedly away, like a child released from school.
From Joseph Fitzgerald Molloy’s The Sailor King: William the Fourth, His Court and His Subjects, 1903
Thomas Jefferson proposed dividing the American Midwest into 10 states with Greek and Latin names: Sylvania, Michigania, Chersonesus, Assenisipia, Metropotamia, Illinoia, Saratoga, Polypotamia, Pelisipia, and Washington.
“While we may see the reasons for these names, we may be thankful that they did not prevail,” wrote Curtis Manning Geer in The Louisiana Purchase (1904). “Ohio is better than Pelisipia, and Wisconsin to be preferred to Assenisipia.”
John Patterson, who died in 1886 at age 96, performed a sort of geographical hat trick by passing the 19th century in the lower Mississippi Valley. His epitaph reads:
I was born in a kingdom
Reared in an empire
Attained manhood in a territory
Am now a citizen of a state
And have never been 100 miles from where I now live.
The kingdom was Spain, the empire France, the territory Louisiana, and the state Arkansas.
During the Black Hawk War, Abe Lincoln was leading 20 men through a field when he saw they’d need to pass through a narrow gate.
“I could not, for the life of me, remember the proper word of command for getting my company endwise, so that it could pass through the gate,” he later recalled.
“So, as we came near, I shouted, ‘Halt! this company is dismissed for two minutes, when it will fall in again on the other side of the gate.’”
In August 1945, about 500 Manhattan Project alumni founded the Association of Los Alamos Scientists to educate the public about nuclear energy.
They stressed the first syllable of the acronym.
The following anagram on the original name of Napoleon I, the most renowned conqueror of the age in which he lived, may claim a place among the first productions of this class, and fully shows in the transposition, the character of that extraordinary man, and points out that unfortunate occurrence of his life which ultimately proved his ruin. Thus: ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’ contains ‘No, appear not on Elba.’
– Kazlitt Arvine, Cyclopaedia of Anecdotes of Literature and the Fine Arts, 1856
When Edward VI succeeded to the throne at age 9, William Thomas, clerk of the council, set him 85 questions on history and policy to answer at his leisure. “For though these be but questions, yet there is not so small an one among them, as will not administer matter of much discourse, worthy the argument and debating.” Samples:
- Whether it is better for the commonwealth, that the power be in the nobility or in the people?
- How easily a weak prince with good order may long be maintained, and how soon a mighty prince with little disorder may be destroyed?
- What is the occasion of conspiracies?
- Whether the people commonly desire the destruction of him that is in authority, and what moveth them so to do?
- How flatterers are to be known and despised?
- How dangerous it is to be author of a new matter?
- Whether evil report lighteth not most commonly upon the reporter?
- Whether a puissant prince ought to purchase amity with money, or with virtue and stoutness?
- What is the cause of war?
- Whether the country ought not always to be defended, the quarrel being right or wrong?
- What danger it is to a prince, not to be revenged of an open injury?
- Whether it be not necessary sometimes to feign folly?
Thomas closes by suggesting that Edward keep the questions to himself, since it is better “to keep the principal things of wisdom secret, till occasion require the utterance.”
One day the elderly soldier [Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington] chanced on a small boy weeping bitterly and on asking the cause the child began to explain that he was going away to school next day … not waiting to hear more the Duke read him a severe lecture on his attitude, which was cowardly, unworthy of a gentleman and not at all the way to behave, etc. At last the little boy managed to explain he was not crying because he was going to school, but he was worried about his pet toad, as no one else seemed to care for it and he wouldn’t know how it was. The Duke, a just man, apologized to the child for having wronged him, and being human as well as just, took down the particulars and promised to report himself about this pet. In due course the little boy at school received a letter saying ‘Field-Marshal the Duke of Wellington presents his compliments to Master —– and has the pleasure to inform him that his toad is well.’
– G.W.E. Russell, Collections and Recollections, 1963
“One of the lessons of history is that nothing is often a good thing to do and always a clever thing to say.” — Will Durant
After the First Battle of Manassas, a reporter for the Richmond Dispatch discovered a Confederate soldier tending to a wounded Union infantryman.
“Yes, sir, he is my brother Henry,” he said. “The same mother bore us, the same mother nursed us. We met for the first time in four years. I belong to the Washington Artillery, from New Orleans–he to the First Minnesota Infantry. By the merest chance I learned he was here wounded, and sought him out to nurse and attend to him.”
“Thus they met,” the reporter wrote, “one from the far North, the other from the extreme South–on a bloody field in Virginia, in a miserable stable, far away from their mother, home and friends, both wounded–the infantry man by a musket ball in the right shoulder, the artillery man by the wheel of a caisson over his left hand. Their names are Frederick Hubbard, Washington Artillery, and Henry Hubbard, First Minnesota Infantry.”
“The sound of Niagara Falls outdates our most cherished antiquities.” — J.O. Urmson
In 1809, the Spanish town of Huéscar declared war on Denmark during the Napoleonic wars over Spain.
The war was forgotten until 1981, when a local historian discovered the declaration.
In 172 years of warfare, not a single person had been killed or injured.
Button Gwinnett was a relatively obscure member of the Continental Congress when he signed the Declaration of Independence in August 1776. Nine months later he was killed in a duel.
That makes his signature one of the most valuable in the world, comparable to those of Julius Caesar and William Shakespeare. Only 51 examples exist. This January it was discovered that he’d signed a Wolverhampton marriage register in 1757, five years before departing England for America. That autograph was valued at £500,000.
On Oct. 25, 1944, during battle in the Philippine Sea, Chester Nimitz sent this message to William Halsey, asking for his location:
TURKEY TROTS TO WATER GG FROM CINCPAC ACTION COM THIRD FLEET INFO COMINCH CTF SEVENTY-SEVEN X WHERE IS RPT WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY FOUR RR THE WORLD WONDERS
The language before GG and after RR is nonsense added to discourage cryptanalysis. Unfortunately, Halsey’s radio officer neglected to remove the trailing phrase, and Halsey read:
Where is, repeat, where is Task Force Thirty Four? The world wonders.
“I was stunned as if I had been struck in the face,” Halsey wrote later. “The paper rattled in my hands, I snatched off my cap, threw it on the deck, and shouted something I am ashamed to remember.” Furious at Nimitz’ “gratuitous insult,” he delayed an hour before rejoining the battle. He learned the truth only weeks later.
On June 12, 1940, a man strolled onto the platform at Ireland’s Dingle light railway station and asked some workers when the next train would depart for Tralee.
The men stared at him, and one said, “The last train for Tralee left here 14 years ago. I reckon it might be another 14 years before the next train will leave.”
Two hours later the man, Walter Simon, was in a local jail cell. It turned out he was a German spy who had landed that evening by U-boat at Dingle Bay. His spying career was over.
During the Civil War, the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment had a particularly patriotic mascot — a bald eagle. Named for the commander-in-chief of the Union Army, “Old Abe” accompanied his regiment into battle at the Second Battle of Corinth and the Siege of Vicksburg, screaming at the enemy and spreading his wings. Apparently he was a bit of a ham — in September 1861 the Eau Claire Free Press reported:
When the regiment marched into Camp Randall, the instant the men began to cheer, he spread his wings, and taking one of the small flags attached to his perch in his beak, he remained in that position until borne to the quarters of the late Col. Murphy.
After the war Old Abe resided in the state capitol, where he died in a fire in 1881. Today he lives on in the insignia of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
Early one morning [George III] met a boy in the stables at Windsor and said: ‘Well, boy! What do you do? What do they pay you?’
‘I help in the stable,’ said the boy, ‘but they only give me victuals and clothes.’
‘Be content,’ said George, ‘I have no more.’
– Beckles Willson, George III, 1907
In 1878 Queen Victoria invited to lunch an elderly naval officer who was hard of hearing. For a time the two discussed the recent sinking of the naval training ship Eurydice. Then, to turn to a lighter subject, the queen inquired after the admiral’s sister.
“Well, ma’am,” he replied, “I am going to have her turned over and take a good look at her bottom and have it well scraped.”
“The effect of his answer was stupendous,” wrote the queen’s grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II. “My grandmother put down her knife and fork, hid her face in her handkerchief and shook and heaved with laughter till the tears rolled down her face.”