History

Lanchester’s Laws

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In 1916 English engineer Frederick Lanchester set out to find a mathematical model to describe conflicts between two armies. In ancient times, he reasoned, each soldier engaged with one enemy at a time, so the number of soldiers who survived a battle was simply the difference in size between the two armies. But the advent of modern combat, including long-range weapons such as firearms, changes things. Suppose two armies, A and B, are fighting. A and B represent the number of soldiers in each army, and a and b represent the number of enemy fighters that each soldier can kill per unit time. Now the equations

dA/dt = -bB
dB/dt = -aA
,

show us the rate at which the size of each army is changing at a given instant. And these give us

bB2aA2 = C,

where C is a constant.

This is immediately revealing. It shows that the strength of an army depends more on its bare size than on the sophistication of its weapons. In order to meet an army twice your size you’d need weapons (or fighting skills) that are four times as effective.

Simple as they are, these ideas shed light on the historic choices of leaders such as Nelson, who sought to divide his enemies into small groups, and Lanchester himself illustrated his point by referring to the British and German navies then at war. Today his ideas (and their descendants) inform the rules behind tabletop and computer wargames.

Good Fortune

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In 1777, in conversation with diplomat Arthur Lee, Benjamin Franklin reflected on the “miracle” of the American Revolution:

To comprehend it we must view a whole people for some months without any laws or government at all. In this state their civil governments were to be formed, an army and navy were to be provided by those who had neither a ship of war, a company of soldiers, nor magazines, arms, artillery or ammunition. Alliances were to be formed, for they had none. All this was to be done, not at leisure nor in a time of tranquillity and communication with other nations, but in the face of a most formidable invasion, by the most powerful nation, fully provided with armies, fleets, and all the instruments of destruction, powerfully allied and aided, the commerce with other nations in a great measure stopped up, and every power from whom they could expect to procure arms, artillery, and ammunition, having by the influence of their enemies forbade their subjects to supply them on any pretence whatever. Nor was this all; they had internal opposition to encounter, which alone would seem sufficient to have frustrated all their efforts. … It was, however, formed and established in despite of all these obstacles, with an expedition, energy, wisdom, and success of which most certainly the whole history of human affairs has not, hitherto, given an example.

“He told me the manner in which the whole of this business had been conducted, was such a miracle in human affairs, that if he had not been in the midst of it, and seen all the movements, he could not have comprehended how it was effected.”

(From Lee’s journal, Oct. 25, 1777.)

Podcast Episode 97: The Villisca Ax Murders

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Image: Flickr


Early one morning in 1912, the residents of Villisca, Iowa, discovered a horrible scene: An entire family had been brutally murdered in their sleep. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the gruesome crime, which has baffled investigators for a hundred years.

We’ll also follow the further adventures of German sea ace Felix von Luckner and puzzle over some fickle bodyguards.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Sources for our feature on the Villisca ax murders:

Roy Marshall, Villisca, 2003.

“Suspect Is Held for Ax Murders,” [Spokane, Wash.] Spokesman-Review, May 15, 1917.

“Says He Killed Eight at God’s Command,” New York Times, Sept. 2, 1917.

“Tells of Killing Six With an Axe in 1912,” Associated Press, March 29, 1931.

“Iowa Town Marks 90th Anniversary of Unsolved Ax Murders,” Associated Press, June 9, 2002.

“Infamous Villisca Ax Donated to Villisca Historical Society,” Spencer [Iowa] Daily Reporter, Oct. 31, 2006.

Listener Rini Rikka writes, “Doch is very hard to comprehend for someone who is just starting to learn German. Besides the main usage as a short answer, it has lots of other meanings that help shorten the speech a bit. Unfortunately for the non-natives, those other meanings cannot always be translated with the same word, but with some practice you’ll get the feeling where and how to use it. If you’d like to read about it, here’s a good explanation of the word in English.”

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White, who sent these corroborating links (warning: these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Disappeared

first ladies

There are no known pictures of two American presidents’ wives: Martha Jefferson and Margaret Taylor.

We have one silhouette (left) of Jefferson, who was a little over 5 feet tall and had auburn hair and hazel eyes.

And one 1903 book contains a suggested likeness of Taylor (right), who was described during her life as “a fat, motherly looking woman,” “countenance rather stern but it may be the consequence of military association.”

But no portrait of either woman is known to exist. Some artists have attempted renderings based on pictures of their daughters, whom they were said to resemble, but that’s the best we can do.

Podcast Episode 96: The Abduction of Edgardo Mortara

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On June 23, 1858, the Catholic Church removed 6-year-old Edgardo Mortara from his family in Bologna. The reason they gave was surprising: The Mortaras were Jewish, and Edgardo had been secretly baptized. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of little Edgardo and learn how his family’s plight shaped the course of Italian history.

We’ll also hear Ben Franklin’s musings on cultural bigotry and puzzle over an unexpected soccer riot.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Sources for our feature on Edgardo Mortara:

David I. Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, 1997.

Bruce A. Boyer and Steven Lubet, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara: Contemporary Lessons in the Child Welfare Wars,” Villanova Law Review 45 (2000), 245.

Steven Lubet, “Judicial Kidnapping, Then and Now: The Case of Edgardo Mortara,” Northwestern University Law Review 93:3 (Spring 1999), 961.

Donald L. Kinzer, “Review: The American Reaction to the Mortara Case, 1858-1859,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 44:4 (March 1958), 740-741.

Alexander Stille, “How a Jewish Boy’s Baptism Changed the Shape of Italy: The Notorious Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” Forward, Aug. 1, 1997.

“Pope John Paul Faces Politics of Sainthood,” Associated Press, Sept. 2, 2000.

Ellen Knickmeyer, “Pope Moves Two Toward Sainthood,” Spartanburg [S.C.] Herald-Journal, Sept. 4, 2000.

Garry Wills, “The Vatican Monarchy,” New York Review of Books, Feb. 19, 1998.

Garry Wills, “Popes Making Popes Saints,” New York Review of Books, July 9, 2013.

Justin Kroll, “Steven Spielberg Boards Religious Drama ‘Edgardo Mortara’,” Variety, April 17, 2014.

Ben Franklin’s “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North-America” was published in 1784 by Franklin’s Passy Press in France.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tommy Honton, who sent these corroborating links (warning: these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Late Service

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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is still paying a pension earned by a Civil War soldier.

Union infantryman Mose Triplett was 19 at the war’s end in 1865. In the 1920s he married a woman nearly 50 years his junior, and they had a daughter, Irene, in 1930, when Mose was 83 and his wife was 34.

Irene Triplett, now 85 years old and the last child of any Civil War veteran still on the VA benefits rolls, lives today in a nursing home in Wilkesboro, N.C. She collects $73.13 each month through the pension her father earned for her in 1865.

(Thanks, Tom.)

Better Late

In 1895, hoping to marry sound and pictures, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson played a violin into a phonograph horn in Thomas Edison’s experimental film studio, and the sound was recorded on a wax cylinder.

The experiment went well, but the team made no attempt to unite sound and image at the time. The film portion remained well known, but the wax cylinder drifted into another archive and was rediscovered only in the 1960s. It wasn’t until 2000 that film editor Walter Murch succeeded in adding the music to the long-famous fragment, and Dickson’s violin could finally be heard.

The vignette, now the oldest known piece of sound film, shows that sound was not a late addition to moviemaking, film preservationist Rick Schmidlin told the New York Times. “This teaches that sound and film started together in the beginning.”

Podcast Episode 95: A New Day at Charleston

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In 1862, slave Robert Smalls was working as a pilot aboard a Confederate transport ship in Charleston, S.C., when he siezed a unique chance to escape. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow his daring predawn journey, which rescued 17 people from slavery and changed the course of South Carolina history.

We’ll also reflect on justice for bears and puzzle over a hijacker’s surprising request.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Sources for our feature on Robert Smalls:

Andrew Billingsley, Yearning to Breathe Free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and His Families, 2007.

Kitt Haley Alexander, Robert Smalls: First Black Civil War Hero, 2001.

Peggy Cooper Davis, “Introducing Robert Smalls,” Fordham Law Review 69:5 (April 2001), 1695.

“Robert Smalls,” American National Biography Online, accessed Feb. 14, 2016.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Which Slave Sailed Himself to Freedom?”, PBS.org (accessed Feb. 14, 2016).

Micah White, “Black History Unsung Heroes: Robert Smalls,” biography.com, Feb 9, 2015.

“Smalls, Robert,” History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives (accessed Feb. 14, 2016).

Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle, “Robert Smalls’s Great Escape,” New York Times, May 12, 2012.

Avis Thomas-Lester, “Civil War Hero Robert Smalls Seized the Opportunity to Be Free,” Washington Post, March 2, 2012.

Amy Geier Edgar, “Bill Would Honor Black Pioneer in Business, Politics,” Associated Press, March 26, 2004.

Listener mail:

Todd Wilkinson, “What Do You Do With a Bear That Kills a Person?”, National Geographic, Aug. 20, 2015.

Sarene Leeds, “‘Downton Abbey’ Recap: Season 6, Episode 5,” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 31, 2016.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Rini Rikka.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Another Day

Flying alone over France in April 1917, German flying ace Ernst Udet engaged another lone pilot in aerial combat. The other pilot, a Frenchman, was exceptionally talented, anticipating all of Udet’s moves and reacting instantly. “Sometimes we pass so closely I can clearly recognize a narrow, pale face under the leather helmet,” Udet wrote later. “On the fuselage, between the wings, there is a word in black letters. As he passes me for the fifth time, so close that his propwash shakes me back and forth, I can make it out: ‘Vieux‘ it says there — vieux — the old one. That’s Guynemer’s sign.”

Guynemer was Georges Guynemer, France’s top fighter ace, who had brought down 30 Germans in fights like this. “Slowly I realize his superiority,” Udet wrote. “His aircraft is better, he can do more than I, but I continue to fight.” For a moment he managed to get Guynemer into his sights, but he found that his gun wouldn’t fire — it was blocked.

Udet tried to clear the stoppage by hand but failed. He considered diving away but knew that Guynemer would instantly shoot him down. They circled one another for another eight minutes as Udet sought to evade the Frenchman’s guns. When Guynemer swooped overhead, Udet hammered the gun with his fists and then realized his mistake:

Guynemer has observed this from above, he must have seen it, and now he knows what gives with me. He knows I’m helpless prey.

Again he skims over me, almost on his back. Then it happens: he sticks out his hand and waves to me, waves lightly, and dives to the west in the direction of his lines.

I fly home. I’m numb.

“There are people who claim Guynemer had a stoppage himself then,” Udet wrote in Ace of the Iron Cross. “Others claim he feared I might ram him in desperation. But I don’t believe any of them. I still believe to this day that a bit of chivalry from the past has continued to survive. For this reason I lay this belated wreath on Guynemer’s unknown grave.”

Misc

  • When written in all caps, the title of John Hiatt’s song “Have a Little Faith in Me” contains no curves.
  • Tycho Brahe kept a tame elk.
  • It isn’t known whether the sum of π and e is irrational.
  • Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant, and James Garfield died without wills.
  • “Selfishness is one of the qualities apt to inspire love.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

The medieval Latin riddle In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (“We enter the circle at night and are consumed by fire”) is a palindrome. The answer is “moths.”