Podcast Episode 171: The Emperor of the United States


In the 1860s, San Francisco’s most popular tourist attraction was not a place but a person: Joshua Norton, an eccentric resident who had declared himself emperor of the United States. Rather than shun him, the city took him to its heart, affectionately indulging his foibles for 21 years. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the reign of Norton I and the meaning of madness.

We’ll also keep time with the Romans and puzzle over some rising temperatures.

See full show notes …



On Feb. 24, 1942, a bedraggled carrier pigeon arrived at an RAF bomber base on Scotland’s Fifeshire coast. She was covered with oil and appeared exhausted.

The sergeant who examined her, George Ross, alerted his superior officer. The bird had been carried aboard a Bristol Beaufort bomber that had crashed in the North Sea after taking enemy fire over Norway the previous day. The pilot had been unable to radio his position as they went down, and rescue planes had been searching the freezing waters in vain all night for some sign of the four-man crew.

The bird’s arrival told Ross that they’d been searching in the wrong place. She had flown for 16 hours, but with oil-smeared wings couldn’t have covered more than 140 miles in that time. The rescue operation had been searching beyond that range. When they moved closer to shore they discovered the crewmen, freezing but safe, in a rubber dinghy within 15 minutes.

When the fuselage had broken up, the pigeon had somehow escaped into the oily water, struggled free, and then flown across 120 miles of ocean to the base, despite a natural fear of the dark and a dislike of wide expanses of water. When she arrived she was so exhausted that she was closing one eye intermittently.

“Winkie” was awarded the Dickin Medal at a dinner that December. She was cited “for delivering a message under exceptional difficulties and so contributing to the rescue of an Air Crew while serving with the RAF in February 1942.”

In a Word


n. a member of a drinking party

adj. winged

n. fighting or strife

n. a turning upside down

“In Other Words,” an airman’s drinking song from World War I:

I was fighting a Hun in the heyday of youth,
Or perhaps ’twas a Nieuport or Spad.
I put in a burst at a moderate range
And it didn’t seem too bad.
For he put down his nose in a curious way,
And as I watched, I am happy to say:

He descended with unparalleled rapidity,
His velocity ‘twould beat me to compute.
I speak with unimpeachable veracity,
With evidence complete and absolute.
He suffered from spontaneous combustion
As towards terrestrial sanctuary he dashed,
In other words — he crashed!

I was telling the tale when a message came through
To say ’twas a poor RE8.
The news somewhat dashed me, I rather supposed
I was in for a bit of hate.
The CO approached me. I felt rather weak,
For his face was all mottled, and when he did speak

He strafed me with unmitigated violence,
With wholly reprehensible abuse.
His language in its blasphemous simplicity
Was rather more exotic than abstruse.
He mentioned that the height of his ambition
Was to see your humble servant duly hung.
I returned to Home Establishment next morning,
In other words — I was strung!

As a pilot in France I flew over the lines
And there met an Albatros scout.
It seemed that he saw me, or so I presumed;
His manoeuvres left small room for doubt.
For he sat on my tail without further delay
Of my subsequent actions I think I may say:

My turns approximated to the vertical,
I deemed it most judicious to proceed.
I frequently gyrated on my axis,
And attained colossal atmospheric speed,
I descended with unparalleled momentum,
My propeller’s point of rupture I surpassed,
And performed the most astonishing evolutions,
In other words — * *** ****!

I was testing a Camel on last Friday week
For the purpose of passing her out.
And before fifteen seconds of flight had elapsed
I was filled with a horrible doubt
As to whether intact I should land from my flight.
I half thought I’d crashed — and half thought quite right!

The machine seemed to lack coagulation,
The struts and sockets didn’t rendezvous,
The wings had lost their super-imposition,
Their stagger and their incidental, too!
The fuselage developed undulations,
The circumjacent fabric came unstitched
Instanter was reduction to components,
In other words — she’s pitched!

(From Peter G. Cooksley, Royal Flying Corps 1914-1918, 2007.)

Podcast Episode 170: The Mechanical Turk


In 1770, Hungarian engineer Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled a miracle: a mechanical man who could play chess against human challengers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Kempelen’s Mechanical Turk, which mystified audiences in Europe and the United States for more than 60 years.

We’ll also sit down with Paul Erdős and puzzle over a useful amateur.

See full show notes …

Cash and Carry

During the London Gin Craze of the early 18th century, when the British government started running sting operations on petty gin sellers, someone invented a device called the “Puss-and-Mew” so that the buyer couldn’t identify the seller in court:

The old Observation, that the English, though no great Inventors themselves, are the best Improvers of other Peoples Inventions, is verified by a fresh Example, in the Parish of St. Giles’s in the Fields, and in other Parts of the Town; where several Shopkeepers, Dealers in Spirituous Liquors, observing the Wonders perform’d by the Figures of the Druggist and the Blackmoor pouring out Wine, have turn’d them to their own great Profit. The Way is this, the Buyer comes into the Entry and cries Puss, and is immediately answer’d by a Voice from within, Mew. A Drawer is then thrust out, into which the Buyer puts his Money, which when drawn back, is soon after thrust out again, with the Quantity of Gin requir’d; the Matter of this new Improvement in Mechanicks, remaining all the while unseen; whereby all Informations are defeated, and the Penalty of the Gin Act evaded.

This is sometimes called the first vending machine.

(From Read’s Weekly Journal, Feb. 18, 1738. Thanks, Nick.)

Hidden Mothers

In the 19th century, photographic subjects had to hold still during an exposure of 30 seconds or more. That’s hard enough for an adult, but it’s practically impossible for an infant. So mothers would sometimes hide in the scene, impersonating a chair or a pair of curtains, in order to hold the baby still while the photographer did his work:

More in this Flickr group.

Podcast Episode 169: John Harrison and the Problem of Longitude

john harrison

Ships need a reliable way to know their exact location at sea — and for centuries, the lack of a dependable method caused shipwrecks and economic havoc for every seafaring nation. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet John Harrison, the self-taught English clockmaker who dedicated his life to crafting a reliable solution to this crucial problem.

We’ll also admire a dentist and puzzle over a magic bus stop.

See full show notes …

Unto the Breach


In 2004, engineers Richard Clements and Roger Hughes put their study of crowd dynamics to an unusual application: the medieval Battle of Agincourt, which pitted Henry V’s English army against a numerically superior French army representing Charles VI. In their model, an instability arises on the front between the contending forces, which may account for the relatively large proportion of captured soldiers:

[P]ockets of French men-at-arms are predicted to push into the English lines and with hindsight be surrounded and either taken prisoner or killed. … Such an instability might explain the victory by the weaker English army by surrounding groups of the stronger army.

This description is consistent with the three large mounds of fallen soldiers that are reported in contemporary accounts of the battle. If the model is accurate then perhaps French men-at-arms succeeded in pushing back the English in certain locations, only to be surrounded and slaughtered, rallying around their leaders. By contrast, modern accounts perhaps incorrectly describe a “wall” of dead running the length of the field.

“Interestingly, the study suggests that the battle was lost by the greater army, because of its excessive zeal for combat leading to sections of it pushing through the ranks of the weaker army only to be surrounded and isolated.” The whole paper is here.

(Richard R. Clements and Roger L. Hughes. “Mathematical Modelling of a Mediaeval Battle: The Battle of Agincourt, 1415,” Mathematics and Computers in Simulation 64:2 [2004], 259-269.)

Podcast Episode 168: The Destruction of the Doves Type


In March 1913, Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson threw the most beautiful typeface in the world off of London’s Hammersmith Bridge to keep it out of the hands of his estranged printing partner. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore what would lead a man to destroy the culmination of his life’s work — and what led one modern admirer to try to revive it.

We’ll also scrutinize a housekeeper and puzzle over a slumped child.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 167: A Manhattan Murder Mystery


In May 1920, wealthy womanizer Joseph Elwell was found shot to death alone in his locked house in upper Manhattan. The police identified hundreds of people who might have wanted Elwell dead, but they couldn’t quite pin the crime on any of them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the sensational murder that the Chicago Tribune called “one of the toughest mysteries of all times.”

We’ll also learn a new use for scuba gear and puzzle over a sympathetic vandal.

See full show notes …