Overheard

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On May 10, 1857, the Indian troops of the East India Company’s army started an uprising against the British soldiers in the garrison town of Meerut.

Lord Canning, the Governor-General, first heard of the Mutiny in a curious fashion. The Lieutenant-Governor of Agra passed on to him a copy of a private telegram which had been sent by the British postmaster at Meerut before the line was cut. The postmaster’s aunt was in Agra and had planned to visit him. He wired that the cavalry had risen, houses were on fire and Europeans were being killed. ‘If aunt intend starting tomorrow evening please detain her.’ It was several days before the Governor-General of India could learn more than this of what had taken place in Meerut. Only gradually did the news of what had happened and what was happening in northern India seep out to the rest of the world.

That’s from Byron Farwell, Queen Victoria’s Little Wars, 1973. Related: On Sept. 1, 1939, English journalist Clare Hollingworth called the British embassy in Warsaw to report that Germany had invaded Poland. The secretary told her this was impossible, as Britain and Germany were still negotiating. “So I hung the telephone receiver out of the window,” she later recalled, “so he could listen to the Germans invading.” Hers was the first report that the British Foreign Office received of the invasion — later described as “the scoop of the century.”

Scoop

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In February 1966, the Soviet Union’s Luna 9 landed safely on the moon and became the first spacecraft to transmit photographs of the moon seen from surface level.

The Soviets didn’t release the photos immediately, but scientists at England’s Jodrell Bank Observatory, who were observing the mission, realized that the signal format was the same as the Radiofax system that newspapers used to transmit pictures. So they just borrowed a receiver from the Daily Express, decoded the images, and published them.

The BBC observes, “It is thought that Russian scientists had deliberately fitted the probe with the standard television equipment, either to ensure that they would get the higher-quality pictures from Jodrell Bank without having the political embarrassment of asking for them, or to prevent the Soviet authorities from making political capital out of the achievement.”

(Thanks, Andrew.)

An Audio Ghost

When Alexander Graham Bell died in 1922, it was thought that no recordings of his voice had survived. But in 2013 the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History announced that it had a fragile wax-on-cardboard disc that Bell had made as an experiment in sound recording … and that now this could be played using optical scanning technology.

The disc is dated April 15, 1885. Bell spends most of the 4-minute recording reciting figures, but he concludes with the distinct words “Hear my voice: … Alexander … Graham … Bell.” Bell biographer Charlotte Gray wrote:

In that ringing declaration, I heard the clear diction of a man whose father, Alexander Melville Bell, had been a renowned elocution teacher (and perhaps the model for the imperious Prof. Henry Higgins, in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion; Shaw acknowledged Bell in his preface to the play).

I heard, too, the deliberate enunciation of a devoted husband whose deaf wife, Mabel, was dependent on lip reading. And true to his granddaughter’s word, the intonation of the British Isles was unmistakable in Bell’s speech. The voice is vigorous and forthright — as was the inventor, at last speaking to us across the years.

Amazingly, scientists resurrected the voice of Bell’s father too — a man who had been born in 1819.

First Contact

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On April 12, 1961, witnesses saw a spaceship enter Earth’s atmosphere and descend to the ground in a ploughed field in the Leninsky Put Collective Farm near the Soviet village of Smelovka. At a height of 7 kilometers, a spaceman left the ship and drifted to earth on a parachute. The spaceman later reported:

As I stepped on the firm soil, I saw a woman and a girl. They were standing beside a spotted calf and gazing at me with curiosity. I started walking towards them and they began walking towards me. But the nearer they got to me the slower their steps became. I was still wearing my flaming orange spacesuit and they were probably frightened by it. They had never seen anything like it before.

‘I’m a Russian, comrades. I’m a Russian,’ I shouted, taking off my helmet.

The woman was Anna Takhtarova, wife of the local forester, and the girl, Rita, was her granddaughter.

‘Have you really come from outer space?’ she asked a little uncertainly.

‘Just imagine, I certainly have,’ I replied.

He was Yuri Gagarin, and the site would soon receive a permanent monument marking the landing place of Vostok-1.

See To Whom It May Concern.

Podcast Episode 148: The Perfect Murder

william herbert wallace

Insurance agent William Herbert Wallace had a terrible night in January 1931 — summoned to a nonexistent address in Liverpool, he returned home to find that his wife had been murdered in his absence. An investigation seemed to show a senseless crime with no weapon, no motive, and no likely suspects. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll revisit the slaying of Julia Wallace, which Raymond Chandler called “the impossible murder.”

We’ll also recount some wobbly oaths and puzzle over an eccentric golfer.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 147: The Call of Mount Kenya

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Stuck in an East African prison camp in 1943, Italian POW Felice Benuzzi needed a challenge to regain his sense of purpose. He made a plan that seemed crazy — to break out of the camp, climb Mount Kenya, and break back in. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Benuzzi and two companions as they try to climb the second-highest mountain in Africa using homemade equipment.

We’ll also consider whether mirages may have doomed the Titanic and puzzle over an ineffective oath.

See full show notes …

The Jump

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On Aug. 15, 1961, during the third day of construction of the Berlin Wall, 19-year-old Communist German border guard Hans Conrad Schumann was standing on the corner of Ruppiner Straße and Bernauer Straße. A roll of concertina wire 3 feet high was strung before him; behind him cement slabs were being positioned to replace it. Opposite, in West Berlin, a group of protesters had gathered to denounce the building of the wall, which was intended to stop the exodus of young professionals from the East German state.

“The people were swearing at us,” he wrote later. “We felt we were simply doing our duty but we were getting scolded from all sides. The West Berliners yelled at us and the Eastern demonstrators yelled at us. We were standing there in the middle. There was the barbed wire, there was us guards, West Berliners, East Berliners. For a young person, it was terrible.”

West Berliners began to shout, “Come over! Come over!” A West Berlin police car pulled into sight, its engine running and its rear door open, inviting him to desert. For two hours Schumann debated, thinking about his parents and his sister. Then, at 4:00, he jumped over the wire and ran. “Then I was in the West and they received me with a great cheer. I was the first.”

Caught by photographer Peter Leibing, the image appeared in newspapers around the world. Within a month, 68 members of the East German special police had deserted to the West.

Schumann settled in Ingolstadt and worked in an Audi factory for 20 years. When the wall came down in 1989, he returned to his hometown and discovered he was a pariah, the “wall jumper,” a tool of the Western imperialists. Dismayed and depressed, he hanged himself in 1998 at the age of 56.

(From James E. Wise Jr. and Scott Baron, Dangerous Games, 2010.)

Podcast Episode 146: Alone in the Wilderness

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In 1913 outdoorsman Joseph Knowles pledged to spend two months in the woods of northern Maine, naked and alone, fending for himself “without the slightest communication or aid from the outside world.” In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Knowles’ adventures in the woods and the controversy that followed his return to civilization.

We’ll also consider the roots of nostalgia and puzzle over some busy brothers.

See full show notes …

Letter From Home

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In Love Letters of the Great War (2014), Mandy Kirkby quotes this letter sent from Gleiwitz, Upper Silesia, in April 1917:

Dear Husband!

This is the last letter I am writing to you, because on the 24th I am going to marry another man. Then I don’t have to work any longer. I have already been working for three years as long as you are away from home. All the other men come home for leave, only you POWs never come. Nobody knows how long it will take until you come home. That’s why I am going to have a new husband. I will give the children to the orphanage. I don’t give a rat’s ass about a life like that! There is no way to survive with these few Pfennig benefits. At work they have a big mouth about the women. Now I don’t need to go to work, now the other man is going to work for me. All wives whose husbands are POWs will do the same thing and they will all get rid of the children. Three years at work are too much for the women and 20 Mark for benefit and 10 Mark child benefit are not enough. One cannot live on that. Everything is so expensive now. One pound of bacon costs 8 Mark, a shirt, 9 Mark.

Your wife

“We don’t know anything more about this unfortunate couple, but the strain of separation has brought the wife to breaking point,” Kirkby writes. “Whether she carried out her threat, we’ll never know.”

A Guilty Key

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In the contentious presidential election of 1876, the campaign of Democrat Samuel Tilden sent many enciphered messages to its agents in contested states. Two years after the election, the New York Daily Tribune published some of the deciphered telegrams, showing that Tilden’s campaign had tried to bribe election officials to win the race. Here’s one of the telegrams:

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Since only 10 letters are used, it seems likely that the cipher refers to pairs of letters. So if each successive pair in the message is assigned to an arbitrary letter:

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… then we have a simple cryptogram that can be solved to give the message:

https://archive.org/details/41748389078762

Tilden’s campaign did the same thing with pairs of numbers. For example, this message:

https://archive.org/details/41748389078762

… turns out to mean:

https://archive.org/details/41748389078762

In 1879 the Tribune’s experts worked out the letter and number pairs that had corresponded to each letter of the alphabet:

https://archive.org/details/41748389078762

But it wasn’t until 1952 that cryptographer William F. Friedman reconstructed the table that the agents had used to remember this system:

https://archive.org/details/41748389078762

“It is amusing to note that the conspirators selected as their key a phrase quite in keeping with their attempted illegalities — HIS PAYMENT — for bribery seems to have played a considerable part in that campaign.”

(From Beaird Glover, Secret Ciphers of the 1876 Presidential Election, 1991.)