History

Flying Dutchman

“At 4:00 a.m., the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars, and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow.”

— Prince Albert Victor, duke of Clarence, aboard H.M.S. Inconstant, July 11, 1881.
Thirteen officers and men saw the object, whatever it was, as did the crews of the corvettes Tourmaline and Cleopatra.

Diet of the Desk Worker

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Just how much food the brain worker needs is a question which has not yet been decided. In general it appears that a man or a woman whose occupation is what we call sedentary, who is without vigorous exercise and does but little hard muscular work, needs much less than the man at hard manual labor, and that the brain worker needs comparatively little of carbohydrates or fats.

Many physicians, physiologists and students of hygiene have become convinced that well-to-do people, whose work is mental rather than physical, eat too much; that the diet of people of this class as a whole is one-sided as well as excessive, and that the principal evil is the use of too much fat, starch and sugar.

Public School Domestic Science by Mrs. J. Hoodless, 1898

Mount Rushmore

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Mount Rushmore is incomplete. Artist Gutzon Borglum had planned to sculpt the four presidents from head to waist, but he died before he could finish the job.

Guiltier Today

Mahatma Gandhi’s “seven modern sins”:

  • Wealth without work
  • Pleasure without conscience
  • Knowledge without character
  • Commerce without morality
  • Science without humanity
  • Worship without sacrifice
  • Politics without principle

No Laughing Matter

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Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz served as an infantry squad leader during World War II.

Every year on June 6 he used the comic strip to memorialize his comrades who fell at Normandy.

“Wonderful Peculiarity in the English Character!”

“The French, however wretched may be their condition, are attached to life, while the English frequently detest life in the midst of affluence and splendour. English criminals are not dragged, but run to the place of execution, where they laugh, sing, cut jokes, insult the spectators; and if no hangman happens to be present, frequently hang themselves.”

Memoirs of Lewis Holberg, quoted in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, July 28, 1827

Plus Permits

In today’s dollars, the Taj Mahal cost more than $500 million.

A Common Theme

Deaths of selected Burmese kings:

  • Uzana (1254): Trampled to death by an elephant
  • Minrekyawswa (1417): Crushed to death by an elephant
  • Razadarit (1423): Died while lassoing elephants
  • Tabinshweti (1551): Beheaded while searching for an elephant

Draw your own conclusions.

Good Point

A samurai once asked Zen master Hakuin where he would go after he died. Hakuin answered, “How am I supposed to know?”

“How do you know? You’re a Zen master!” exclaimed the samurai.

“Yes, but not a dead one,” Hakuin answered.

The Mary Celeste

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Passengers and crew of the Mary Celeste, a 103-foot brigantine that left New York for Genoa on Nov. 7, 1872:

  • Benjamin S. Briggs, 37, captain
  • Sarah Elizabeth Briggs, 30, captain’s wife
  • Sophia Matilda Briggs, 2, captain’s daughter
  • Albert C. Richardson, 28, mate
  • Andrew Gilling, 25, second mate
  • Edward W. Head, 23, steward and cook
  • Volkert Lorenson, 29, seaman
  • Arian Martens, 35, seaman
  • Boy Lorenson, 23, seaman
  • Gotlieb Gondeschall, 23, seaman

A month after she sailed, the ship was found abandoned off the coast of Portugal. Her cargo was intact, and she carried a six-month supply of food and water. The sextant, chronometer and lifeboat were missing, suggesting that the ship had been deliberately abandoned.

No survivors were ever found. The mystery has never been solved.

Chartres Labyrinth

Medieval worshipers who followed the labyrinth in France’s Chartres Cathedral had a surprisingly long ordeal — the path to the center is 150 meters long. Penitents sometimes walked it on their knees.

The Chaocipher

Somewhere, J.F. Byrne is laughing at all of us.

A friend of James Joyce (he was the basis for Cranley in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), Byrne announced in 1918 that he had devised a simple and unbreakable code system, called the “Chaocipher,” that would fit into a cigar box:

I had, and still have in mind, the universal use of my machine and method by husband, wife, or lover. My machine would be on hire, as typewriter machines now are, in hotels, steamships, and, maybe even on trains and airlines, available for anyone anywhere and at any time. And I believe, too, the time will come — and come soon — when my system will be used in the publication of pamphlets and books written in cipher which will be unreadable except by those who are specially initiated.

Unfortunately, no one was interested. The U.S. Signal Corps, the State Department, the Department of the Navy, AT&T — all turned him down.

Finally, Byrne published a lengthy coded message in his autobiography, offering $5,000 to anyone who could decipher it. A few years later, he quietly died, taking the secret with him.

The cipher has never been solved.

01/29/2014 UPDATE: In 2010 Byrne’s family donated his papers to the National Cryptological Museum, so the algorithm is now known. (Thanks, Peter.)

Great Serpent Mound

Created by Native Americans at least 1,000 years ago, Ohio’s Serpent Mound is a double mystery.

First, while there are several burial mounds nearby, the serpent itself doesn’t contain any human remains. It’s just a giant earthen snake, 1,330 feet long.

Second, the site on which it’s built shows faulted and folded bedrock, meaning that a huge cataclysm, a meteorite or a volcanic explosion, happened here in the ancient past.

Is that why the serpent was built there? We may never know.

Caveat Emptor

French forger Vrain Denis-Lucas must have had a golden touch. His customers bought “manuscripts” from all of the following authors:

  • Robert Boyle
  • Isaac Newton
  • Blaise Pascal
  • Cleopatra
  • Judas Iscariot
  • Pontius Pilate
  • Joan of Arc
  • Cicero
  • Dante Alighieri

… even though all of them were written in contemporary French. All told, Denis-Lucas sold 27,000 manuscripts before the French Academy of Science realized something was wrong. He spent two years in prison and then disappeared.

“Guillotine”

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Account of an execution by guillotine, recorded in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, July 7, 1827:

Arrived near the fatal machine, the unhappy man stepped out of the vehicle, knelt at the feet of his confessor, received the priestly benediction, kissed some individuals who accompanied him, and was hurried by the officers of justice up the steps of the cube-form structure of wood, painted of a blood-red, on which stood the dreadful apparatus of death.

To reach the top of the platform, to be fast bound to a board, to be placed horizontally under the axe, and deprived of life by its unerring blow, was, in the case of this miserable offender, the work literally of a moment. It was indeed an awfully sudden transit from time to eternity. He could only cry out, ‘Adieu, mes amis,’ and he was gone. The severed head, passing through a red-coloured bag fixed under, fell to the ground-the blood spouted forth from the neck like water from a fountain-the body, lifted up without delay, was flung down through a trap-door in the platform.

Never did capital punishment more quickly take effect on a human being; and whilst the executioner was coolly taking out the axe from the groove of the machine, and placing it, covered as it was with gore, in a box, the remains of the culprit, deposited in a shell, were hoisted into a wagon, and conveyed to the prison. In twenty minutes all was over, and the Grande Place nearly cleared of its thousands, on whom the dreadful scene seemed to have made, as usual, the slightest possible impression.

Walking Tall

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“Man is the noblest work of God!” roared Mark Twain. “Well now, who found that out?”

Consider the case of Oliver the chimpanzee. Oliver liked to stand upright instead of knucklewalking like his peers, and his keepers noticed that his face was flatter than other chimps’, who tended to avoid him.

That’s all the impetus they needed. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s Oliver was paraded through a succession of theme parks, zoos and promotions, billed as a missing link or even a “humanzee,” or human-chimp hybrid, and confined for seven years in a cage that measured only 7 by 5 feet.

It all came to nothing. In 1996, when Oliver was old, blind, and arthritic, University of Chicago geneticist David Ledbetter checked his chromosomes and discovered he was just an ordinary ape, albeit one who preferred to walk upright.

It’s still possible that Oliver belongs to a rare subspecies of chimps who resemble humans … but after that treatment, would he take that as a compliment?

Johann Beringer

The trouble with arrogance is that you never know when to turn it off. By all accounts Johann Beringer was insufferable, so two of his colleagues on the University of Würtzburg faculty of medicine decided to teach him a lesson.

They carved lizards, frogs, and spiders from limestone, inscribed them with the Hebrew name of God, and planted them on Mount Eibelstadt, where Beringer frequently went to find fossils.

It worked — and, like Drake’s Plate of Brass, it worked a little too well. Beringer found the figures, took them seriously, and, to his colleagues’ horror, actually published a book about them. When critics pointed out visible chisel marks, he claimed they’d been left by the hand of God. When the hoaxers tried to talk him out of it, he sued them as “a pair of antagonists who tried to discredit the stones.”

When the truth came out, it ruined them all, haunting Beringer most of all. Legend tells that actually he went bankrupt trying to buy up all the books, and there was a final irony. He died in 1740 — and a second printing of his book was produced in 1767.

Hooray

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Ground zero after the first test of a nuclear weapon, July 16, 1945. Observers set up betting pools on the outcome, including these possibilities:

  • It would be a dud
  • It would destroy the state of New Mexico
  • It would ignite the atmosphere and incinerate the planet

Physicist I.I. Rabi won — he predicted a blast equivalent to 18 kilotons of TNT.

Some Secrets Last Forever

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This conical tower, part of the Great Zimbabwe ruins of sub-Saharan Africa, has stood for a thousand years, and we may never learn what lies inside: The tower is 30 feet tall and has no windows or doors.

Much Ado About Nothing

You can fool some of the people all of the time.

Perhaps inspired by Thomas Chatterton, the teenage Samuel William Henry Ireland (1777-1835) “found” an old deed with Shakespeare’s signature.

His father, a collector, was overjoyed, so Ireland went on finding more Shakespeareana — a promissory note, a declaration of Protestant faith, letters to Anne Hathaway and to Queen Elizabeth, books with notes in the margins and “original” manuscripts for Hamlet and King Lear.

Amazingly, these were all authenticated by experts of the day. Ireland wasn’t caught until at age 18 he wrote an entire “lost” play, which was mounted at Drury Lane Theatre. As a playwright, he couldn’t match the Bard, and Vortigern and Rowena closed after a single performance on April 2, 1796.

Sadly, his father took the blame, as no one could believe such a young man could pull off such a forgery. His son fled to France and died in obscurity.

SPQR

The initials SPQR appear everywhere in Rome — they were emblazoned on the standards of the Roman legions, and they appear today in the city’s coat of arms. The only trouble is that no one knows what they stand for. Historians think it’s probably one of these mottoes:

  • Senatus Populus Quiritium Romanus (“The senate and the citizens’ Roman people”)
  • Senatus Populusque Quiritium Romanorum (“The senate and people of the Roman citizens”)
  • Senatus Populusque Romanus (“The senate and the Roman People”)
  • Senatus Populusque Romae (“The senate and the people of Rome”)

But that hasn’t stopped everyone else from making suggestions:

  • Sono Pazzi Questi Romani (“These Romans are crazy.”)
  • Sono Porci Questi Romani (“Those Romans are pigs.”)
  • Solo Pago Quando Ricevo (“I will pay when I get paid.”)
  • Soli Preti Qui Regnano (“Only priests rule here.”)

Supposedly Pope John XXIII noted that SPQR backward reads RQPS, which he suggested meant “Rideo Quia Papa Sum” — “I laugh, because I am the Pope.”

A Superhero Monk

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The Loch Ness monster is not only shy, he’s old. The Life of St. Columba, by the 7th-century Scottish abbot Adomnan of Iona, contains an account of the monster attacking a Pict in 565, and being fought off by the courageous saint:

[He] raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, “Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.” Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast. Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.

Operation Mincemeat

In 1943, the Allies set a dead man adrift off Spain. The corpse of “Major William Martin” carried a set of keys, theater stubs from a recent performance, a bank overdraft notice — and “secret documents” that detailed a plan to invade Europe via Sardinia.

The ruse worked — the Germans found the documents and prepared for a Sardinian attack that never came, and the Allies successfully invaded Europe through Sicily.

Who was the corpse? Apparently he was a vagrant Welsh alcoholic named Glyndwr Michael who ingested rat poison — a rare posthumous war hero.

“CAPILLARY, a Little Caterpillar”

There have always been bad students. Here’s what kids were writing on English exams 150 years ago:

  • ABORIGINES, a system of mountains.
  • ALIAS, a good man in the Bible.
  • AMENABLE, anything that is mean.
  • AMMONIA, the food of the gods.
  • ASSIDUITY, state of being an acid.
  • AURIFEROUS, pertaining to an orifice.
  • CORNIFEROUS, rocks in which fossil corn is found.
  • EMOLUMENT, a headstone to a grave.
  • EQUESTRIAN, one who asks questions.
  • EUCHARIST, one who plays euchre.
  • FRANCHISE, anything belonging to the French.
  • IDOLATER, a very idle person.
  • IPECAC, a man who likes a good dinner.
  • IRRIGATE, to make fun of.
  • MENDACIOUS, what can be mended.
  • MERCENARY, one who feels for another.
  • PARASITE, a kind of umbrella.
  • PARASITE, the murder of an infant.
  • PUBLICAN, a man who does his prayers in public.
  • TENACIOUS, ten acres of land.
  • REPUBLICAN, a sinner mentioned in the Bible.
  • PLAGIARIST, a writer of plays.

— From Mark Twain, “English as She Is Taught: Being Genuine Answers to Examination Questions in Our Public Schools,” 1887