Podcast Episode 176: The Bear That Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh

harry colebourn and winnie

In 1914, Canadian Army veterinarian Harry Colebourn was traveling to the Western Front when he met an orphaned bear cub in an Ontario railway station. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the adventures of Winnie the bear, including her fateful meeting with A.A. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin.

We’ll also marvel at some impressive finger counting and puzzle over an impassable bridge.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 175: The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Juana_Maria_(Hayward_%26_Muzzall).jpg

In 1835, a Native American woman was somehow left behind when her dwindling island tribe was transferred to the California mainland. She would spend the next 18 years living alone in a world of 22 square miles. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the poignant story of the lone woman of San Nicolas Island.

We’ll also learn about an inebriated elephant and puzzle over an unattainable test score.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 174: Cracking the Nazi Code

https://alchetron.com/Arne-Beurling-1339897-W

In 1940, Germany was sending vital telegrams through neutral Sweden using a sophisticated cipher, and it fell to mathematician Arne Beurling to make sense of the secret messages. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the outcome, which has been called “one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of cryptography.”

We’ll also learn about mudlarking and puzzle over a chicken-killing Dane.

See full show notes …

Efficiency

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BenFranklinDuplessis.jpg

Benjamin Franklin and Sir Francis Dashwood once set out to shorten the Book of Common Prayer. Noel Perrin writes in Dr. Bowdler’s Legacy:

Franklin and Dashwood had made contact while each was a postmaster general, and found themselves agreeing that the great trouble with church services is that they are too long. They then put out their anonymous Abridgement of the Book of Common Prayer (1773), in which the communion service takes about ten minutes, and a funeral six. (‘The Order for the Burial of the Dead is very solemn and moving; nevertheless, to preserve the health and lives of the living, it appeared to us that this service ought particularly to be shortened,’ Franklin wrote jauntily in the preface.) The book could be called expurgated only in the sense that Franklin and Dashwood both disapproved of Old Testament ideas of vengeance, and therefore omitted the service of Commination and all psalms which contain maledictions.

In 1785 Franklin wrote to Granville Sharp, “The Liturgy you mention was an abridgment of that made by a noble Lord of my acquaintance, who requested me to assist him by taking the rest of the book; viz., the Catechism and the reading and singing Psalms. These I abridged by retaining of the Catechism only the two questions, What is your duty to God? What is your duty to your neighbour? with answers. The Psalms were much contracted by leaving out the repetitions (of which I found more than I could have imagined) and the imprecations, which appeared not to suit well with the Christian doctrine of forgiveness of injuries and doing good to enemies. The book was printed for Wilkie, in St. Paul’s Churchyard, but never much noticed. Some were given away, very few sold, and I suppose the bulk became waste-paper. In the prayers so much was retrenched that approbation could hardly be expected; but I think with you, a moderate abridgment might not only be useful, but generally acceptable.”

(Richard Meade Bache, “The So-Called ‘Franklin Prayer-Book,'” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 21:2 [1897], 224-234.)

Podcast Episode 173: The Worst Journey in the World

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Return_of_Wilson_Bowers_Cherry.jpg

In 1911, three British explorers made a perilous 70-mile journey in the dead of the Antarctic winter to gather eggs from a penguin rookery in McMurdo Sound. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the three through perpetual darkness and bone-shattering cold on what one man called “the worst journey in the world.”

We’ll also dazzle some computers and puzzle over some patriotic highways.

See full show notes …

Jump Cut

This must have scared the daylights out of people in 1895 — The Execution of Mary Stuart, one of the first films to use editing for special effects.

After the executioner raises his ax, the actress is replaced with a mannequin.

Southern Literature

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During Robert Falcon Scott’s first Antarctic expedition, 1901–04, Ernest Shackleton edited an illustrated magazine, the South Polar Times, to entertain the crew. Each issue consisted of a single typewritten copy that would circulate among up to 47 readers aboard the Discovery, Scott’s steam-powered barque, through each of two dark winters. Contributors would drop their anonymous essays, articles, and poems into a mahogany letterbox, and Shackleton composed each issue on a Remington typewriter perched atop a storeroom packing case.

The first issue appeared on April 23, 1902, and was, Shackleton noted, “greatly praised!” Scott wrote, “I can see again a row of heads bent over a fresh monthly number to scan the latest efforts of our artists, and I can hear the hearty laughter at the sallies of our humorists and the general chaff when some sly allusion found its way home. Memory recalls also the proud author expectant of the turn of the page that should reveal his work and the shy author desirous that his pages should be turned quickly.”

Shackleton was invalided home that summer, but other crewmembers took over the magazine for him that winter and indeed again on Scott’s second expedition in 1911. BBC History has some scans.

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(Anne Fadiman, “The World’s Most Southerly Periodical,” Harvard Review 43 [2012], 98-115.)

Podcast Episode 172: An American in Feudal Japan

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In 1848, five years before Japan opened its closed society to the West, a lone American in a whaleboat landed on the country’s northern shore, drawn only by a sense of mystery and a love of adventure. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Ranald MacDonald as he travels the length of Japan toward a destiny that will transform the country.

We’ll also remember a Soviet hero and puzzle over some security-conscious neighbors.

See full show notes …

The Hollow Nickel Case

https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/hollow-nickel-rudolph-abel

In June 1953, Brooklyn newsboy Jimmy Bozart was collecting in a Foster Avenue apartment building when someone paid him with a nickel that felt light. When he dropped it it popped open, revealing a piece of microfilm that bore a series of numbers (below).

The New York police gave it to the FBI, which spent four years trying to determine the origin of the nickel and the meaning of the numbers. Finally, in May 1957 defecting KGB agent Reino Häyhänen helped them crack the cipher. The message was a greeting from Moscow welcoming him to the United States:

  1. WE CONGRATULATE YOU ON A SAFE ARRIVAL. WE CONFIRM THE RECEIPT OF YOUR LETTER TO THE ADDRESS ‘V REPEAT V’ AND THE READING OF LETTER NUMBER 1.
  2. FOR ORGANIZATION OF COVER, WE GAVE INSTRUCTIONS TO TRANSMIT TO YOU THREE THOUSAND IN LOCAL (CURRENCY). CONSULT WITH US PRIOR TO INVESTING IT IN ANY KIND OF BUSINESS, ADVISING THE CHARACTER OF THIS BUSINESS.
  3. ACCORDING TO YOUR REQUEST, WE WILL TRANSMIT THE FORMULA FOR THE PREPARATION OF SOFT FILM AND NEWS SEPARATELY, TOGETHER WITH (YOUR) MOTHER’S LETTER.
  4. IT IS TOO EARLY TO SEND YOU THE GAMMAS. ENCIPHER SHORT LETTERS, BUT THE LONGER ONES MAKE WITH INSERTIONS. ALL THE DATA ABOUT YOURSELF, PLACE OF WORK, ADDRESS, ETC., MUST NOT BE TRANSMITTED IN ONE CIPHER MESSAGE. TRANSMIT INSERTIONS SEPARATELY.
  5. THE PACKAGE WAS DELIVERED TO YOUR WIFE PERSONALLY. EVERYTHING IS ALL RIGHT WITH THE FAMILY. WE WISH YOU SUCCESS. GREETINGS FROM THE COMRADES. NUMBER 1, 3RD OF DECEMBER.

With Häyhänen’s help the FBI were able to arrest Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher, whose hotel room was full of espionage equipment. He was sentenced to a 30-year prison term in 1957 and exchanged for Francis Gary Powers in 1962.

Both the FBI and the CIA have articles about the case. It’s not immediately clear to me how the nickel found its way to the two ladies who’d given it to Jimmy. “Why, we’ve never seen a hollow coin,” they told the FBI, “or, for that matter, even heard of one before.”

https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent-csi/vol5no4/html/v05i4a09p_0001.htm

“Electric Bathing”

https://books.google.com/books?id=CrbPAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA359

In 1878 Coney Island mounted electric lights on poles so that visitors could play in the surf at night.

“One could take many a long journey and never meet elsewhere with so strange, so truly weird a sight as this,” reported Scribner’s Monthly. “The concentrated illumination falls on the formidable breakers plunging in against the foot of the bridge, and gives them spots of sickly green translucence below and sheets of dazzlingly white foam above. There is a startling spot of foreground and nothing more. A couple who are confident swimmers, possibly a man and his wife, come down the bridge and put off into the cold flood. The woman holds by the man’s belt behind, and he disappears with her into the darkness. A circle disports with hobgoblin glee around a kind of May-pole in the water.”

“Nothing else,” opined the New York Times, “would answer the purpose of those lunatics who persist in bathing after nightfall.”