Things to Come

In 1899, preparing for festivities in Lyon marking the new century, French toy manufacturer Armand Gervais commissioned a set of 50 color engravings from freelance artist Jean-Marc Côté depicting the world as it might exist in the year 2000.

The set itself has a precarious history. Gervais died suddenly in 1899, when only a few sets had been run off the press in his basement. “The factory was shuttered, and the contents of that basement remained hidden for the next twenty-five years,” writes James Gleick in Time Travel. “A Parisian antiques dealer stumbled upon the Gervais inventory in the twenties and bought the lot, including a single proof set of Côté’s cards in pristine condition. He had them for fifty years, finally selling them in 1978 to Christopher Hyde, a Canadian writer who came across his shop on rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie.”

Hyde showed them to Isaac Asimov, who published them in 1986 as Futuredays, with a gentle commentary on what Côté had got right (widespread automation) and wrong (clothing styles). But maybe some of these visions are still ahead of us:

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Wikimedia Commons has the full set.

Podcast Episode 156: The Most Dedicated Soldier

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When American forces overran the Philippine island of Lubang in 1945, Japanese intelligence officer Hiroo Onoda withdrew into the mountains to wait for reinforcements. He was still waiting 29 years later. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet the dedicated soldier who fought World War II until 1974.

We’ll also dig up a murderer and puzzle over an offensive compliment.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 155: The Giraffe Who Walked to Paris

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In 1824 the viceroy of Egypt sent a unique gift to the new king of France: a two-month-old giraffe that had just been captured in the highlands of Sudan. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the 4,000-mile journey of Zarafa, the royal giraffe, from her African homeland to the king’s menagerie in Paris.

We’ll also visit Queen Victoria’s coronation and puzzle over a child’s surprising recovery.

See full show notes …

A Late Project

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Thomas Paine came to an ignominious end. The revolutionary activist so inspired English journalist William Cobbett that Cobbett dug up his bones in 1819 and transported them back to England, hoping to give Paine a heroic reburial in the land of his birth. (G.K. Chesterton wrote, “I wonder what he said when asked if he had anything to declare?”)

But Cobbett never got around to it. When he himself died in 1835, Paine’s bones were still among his effects, and they’ve since been lost: His skull may be in Australia, his jawbone may be in Brighton, or maybe Cobbett’s son buried everything in the family plot when he couldn’t auction it off. In 1905 part of his brain (“resembling hard putty”) may have been buried under a monument in New Rochelle, N.Y. But no one knows for sure.

Podcast Episode 154: Spared by a Volcano

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The worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century struck Martinique in 1902, killing 30,000 people in the scenic town of Saint-Pierre. But rescuers found one man alive — a 27-year-old laborer in a dungeon-like jail cell. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Ludger Sylbaris, who P.T. Barnum called “The Only Living Object That Survived in the Silent City of Death.”

We’ll also address some Indian uncles and puzzle over a gruesome hike.

See full show notes …

Leaping Lena

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A stirring story emerged from eastern Europe in 1954, at the height of the Cold War: During a routine flight, a West German racing pigeon got lost in communist Czechoslovakia, and when she returned two days later, her leg bore a message addressed to Radio Free Europe:

We plead with you not to slow down in the fight against communism because communism must be destroyed. We beg for a speedy liberation from the power of the Kremlin and the establishment of a United States of Europe.

We listen to your broadcasts. They present a completely true picture of life behind the Iron Curtain. We would like you to tell us how we can combat bolshevism and the tyrannical dictatorship existing here.

We are taking every opportunity to work against the regime and do everything in our power to sabotage it.

The message was signed “Unbowed Pilsen.” (Pilsen is a city in western Bohemia.)

The pigeon was brought to the United States, where she was used in American Cold War morale efforts and became the emblem of the 1955 Crusade for Freedom.

How much of the story is true isn’t clear — the facts vary significantly with each telling, and the Crusade for Freedom was funded principally by the CIA, explicitly as a propaganda effort. Someone deserves credit for imagination, at least.

Podcast Episode 153: A Victorian Stalker

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Between 1838 and 1841, an enterprising London teenager broke repeatedly into Buckingham Palace, sitting on the throne, eating from the kitchen, and posing a bewildering nuisance to Queen Victoria’s courtiers, who couldn’t seem to keep him out. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the exploits of Edward Jones — and the severe measures that were finally taken to stop them.

We’ll also salute some confusing flags and puzzle over an extraterrestrial musician.

See full show notes …

Grant and the Mule

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From Judge Jacob W. Wilkin’s “Personal Reminiscences of General U.S. Grant,” 1907:

One day while riding on the lines, he saw a teamster beating a mule, and riding up to him, ordered him to stop. Wearing an army blouse without shoulder straps, the man did not recognize him and not very politely told him to mind his own business, using profane language, whereupon Grant told his orderly to arrest him and bring him to headquarters. He was turned over to me with orders to tie him up by the thumbs. When the fellow realized that he had used insulting language to General Grant he was the most humiliated man imaginable and protested he did not know it was General Grant. His punishment lasted but a little while and because of my sympathy, was not the most severe of the kind, when I was directed to bring him up to the headquarters tent and there he renewed his protestation that he did not know it was the general he was talking to and that he would not under any circumstances have insulted him. But the general said, ‘You don’t understand, it was not I that was hurt, it was the mule. I could defend myself but the poor dumb animal could say or do nothing for its own protection.’

“He dismissed the culprit with the admonition that he would be closely watched and if again found abusing his team, he would be summarily dealt with.”

The Swimming Reindeer

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In 1866 French engineer Peccadeau de l’Isle discovered the sculptures of two swimming reindeer on the banks of the River Aveyron. Each had been carved from a mammoth tusk about 13,000 years ago. The carvings had historic as well as artistic value: They showed that humans, mammoths, and reindeer had coexisted in France during the ice age, when the climate of France resembled that of modern Siberia.

Amazingly, it wasn’t until 1904 that anyone thought to try fitting the two pieces together — it was discovered that they were two parts of a single sculpture. Today they form the oldest piece of art in the British Museum.

In a Word

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alembicated
adj. over-refined, excessively subtle in thought or expression

brachylogy
n. conciseness of speech; a condensed expression

mycterism
n. a subtle or scornful jibe; a piece of sarcasm or irony; subtle mocking

In 1886 Grover Cleveland suspended certain officials during a recess of the Senate and refused to give his reasons. When the Senate objected, he sent them a letter that contained a fateful phrase: “And so it happens that after an existence of nearly twenty years of an almost innocuous desuetude these laws are brought forth.”

Everyone pounced on it. Tennessee representative William Robert Moore wrote:

The big Free trade disciple
Who lives on Buzzard’s Bay,
Cannot again be President,
The tariff boys all say;
And they mean “biz” you better bet,
They’re in the proper mood
To send him up Salt River
To “innocuous desuetude” —
To innocuous desuetude,
To innocuous desuetude,
To send him up Salt River
To innocuous desuetude.

The phrase was still echoing in 1920, when former Speaker of the House Champ Clark wrote, “His most exquisite phrase and entirely original, so far as I know, was ‘innocuous desuetude,’ still frequently quoted and perhaps to be quoted as long as our vernacular is spoken by the children of men.”