Post Haste

At the start of the 1892 story “Silver Blaze,” Sherlock Holmes and Watson set out on a train journey from Paddington to Swindon in a first-class train carriage.

“We are going very well,” says Holmes, looking out the window and glancing at his watch. “Our rate at present is fifty-three and a half miles an hour.”

“I have not observed the quarter-mile posts,” says Watson.

“Nor have I,” replies Holmes. “But the telegraph posts upon this line are sixty yards apart, and the calculation is a simple one.”

Is it? The speed itself is plausible — trains were allowed 87 minutes to travel the route, giving an average speed of 53.25 mph, and so the top running speed would have been higher than this. But A.D. Galbraith complained that the detective’s casual statement is “completely inconsistent with Holmes’ character.” Using the second hand of his watch, he’d had to mark the passage of two successive telegraph posts, probably a mile or more apart, and count the posts between them; an error of more than one second would produce an error of almost half a mile an hour. So Holmes’ scrupulous dedication to accuracy should have led him to say “between 53 and 54 miles an hour” or even “between 52 and 55.”

Guy Warrack, in Sherlock Holmes and Music, agreed: It would have been impossible to time the passage of the telegraph poles to the necessary precision using a pocket watch. But S.C. Roberts, in a review of the book, disagreed:

Mr. Warrack, if we may so express it, is making telegraph-poles out of fountain-pens. What happened, surely, was something like this: About half a minute before he addresssed Watson, Holmes had looked at the second hand of his watch and then counted fifteen telegraph poles (he had, of course, seen the quarter-mile posts, but had not observed them, since they were not to be the basis of his calculation). This would give him a distance of nine hundred yards, a fraction over half-a-mile. If a second glance at his watch had shown him that thirty seconds had passed, he would have known at once that the train was traveling at a good sixty miles an hour. Actually he noted that the train had taken approximately thirty-four seconds to cover the nine hundred yards; or, in other words, it was rather more than ten per cent (i.e., 6 1/2 from sixty). The calculation, as he said, was a simple one; what made it simple was his knowlege, which of course Watson did not share, that the telegraph poles were sixty yards apart.

In fact George W. Welch offered two different formulas that Holmes might have used:

First Method:–Allow two seconds for every yard, and add another second for every 22 yards of the known interval. Then the number of objects passed in this time is the speed in miles an hour. Proof:–Let x = the speed in miles per hour, y = the interval between adjacent objects. 1 m.p.h. = 1,760 yards in 3,600 seconds = 1 yard in 3,600/1,760 = 45/22 or 2.1/22 secs. = y yards in 2.1/22 y seconds x m.p.h. = xy yards in 2.1/22y seconds. Example:–Telegraph poles are set 60 yards apart. 60 × 2 = 120; 60 ÷ 22 = 3 (approx.); 120 + 3 = 123. Then, if after 123 seconds the observer is half-way between the 53rd and 54th poles, the speed is 53 1/2 miles an hour.

Second Method:–When time or space will not permit the first method to be used, allow one second for every yard of the known interval, and multiply by 2.1/22 the number of objects passed in this time. The product is the speed in miles an hour. Example:–Telegraph poles are set 60 yards apart. After 60 seconds the observer is about 10 yards beyond the 26th pole. 26.1/6 × 2 = 52.1/3; 26.1/6 divided by 22 = 1.1/6 (approx.); 52.1/3 = 1.1/6 = 53 1/2. Therefore the speed is 53 1/2 miles an hour. The advantage of the first method is that the time to be used can be worked out in advance, leaving the observer nothing to do but count the objects against the second hand of his watch.

Julian Wolff suggested examining the problem “in the light of pure reason.” The speed in feet per second is found by determining the number of seconds required to travel a known number of feet. Holmes says that the posts are 60 yards apart, so 10 intervals between poles is 1800 feet, and the speed in covering this distance is 1800/T feet per second. Multiply that by 3600 gives feet per hour, and dividing the answer by 5280 gives the speed in miles per hour. So:

\displaystyle \textup{miles per hour} = \frac{\frac{1800}{T}\times 3600}{5280}=\frac{1227.27}{T}

So to get the train’s speed in miles per hour we just have to divide 1227.27 by the number of seconds required to travel 1800 feet. And “1227 is close enough for all ordinary purposes, such as puzzling Watson, for instance.”

(From William S. Baring-Gould, ed., The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, 1967.)

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.


Gustav Mahler rejected the Berlin Royal Opera because of the shape of his nose.

In 1883, inventor Robert Heath enumerated the virtues of glowing hats.

Sources for our feature on the Doves Press:

Marianne Tidcombe, The Doves Press, 2002.

The Journals of Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson, 1926.

“The Doves Press” — A Kelmscott Revival,” New York Times, Feb. 16, 1901, BR9.

“The Revival of Printing as an Art,” New York Tribune, Sept. 14, 1901, 11.

“The Doves Press Bible,” Guardian, March 10, 1904.

“The Doves Press,” Athenaeum, Jan. 12, 1907, 54-54.

“The Doves Press,” Athenaeum, June 13, 1908, 729-730.

Dissolution of the partnership, London Gazette, July 27, 1909, 5759.

“Doves Press Type in River: Memoirs of T.C. Sanderson Tell How He Disposed of It,” New York Times, Sept. 8, 1926, 27.

Arthur Millier, “Bookbinding Art Proves Inspiration: Doves Press Exhibit Reveals Devotion to Lofty Ideals,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1933, A2.

Charles B. Russell, “Cobden-Sanderson and the Doves Press,” Prairie Schooner 14:3 (Fall 1940), 180-192.

Carole Cable, “The Printing Types of the Doves Press: Their History and Destruction,” Library Quarterly 44:3 (July 1974), 219-230.

Marcella D. Genz, “The Doves Press [review],” Library Quarterly 74:1 (January 2004), 91-94.

“Biographies of the Key Figures Involved in the Doves Press,” International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, Dec. 22, 2009.

“The Doves Type Reborn,” Association Typographique Internationale, Dec. 20, 2010.

“The Fight Over the Doves,” Economist, Dec. 19, 2013.

Justin Quirk, “X Marks the Spot,” Sunday Times, Jan. 11, 2015, 22.

Rachael Steven, “Recovering the Doves Type,” Creative Review, Feb. 3, 2015.

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, “The Gorgeous Typeface That Drove Men Mad and Sparked a 100-Year Mystery,” Gizmodo, Feb. 16, 2015.

Rich Rennicks, “The Doves Press Story,” New Antiquarian, Feb. 24, 2015.

“One Man’s Obsession With Rediscovering the Lost Doves Type,” BBC News Magazine, Feb. 25, 2015.

“15 Things You Didn’t Know About the Doves Press & Its Type,” Typeroom, Oct. 20, 2015.

“An Obsessive Type: The Tale of the Doves Typeface,” BBC Radio 4, July 28, 2016.

Sujata Iyengar, “Intermediating the Book Beautiful: Shakespeare at the Doves Press,” Shakespeare Quarterly 67:4 (Winter 2016), 481-502.

“The Doves Type”, Typespec (accessed Aug. 20, 2017).

“Raised From the Dead: The Doves Type Story,” Typespec (accessed Aug. 20, 2017).

“History of the Doves Type,” Typespec (accessed Aug. 21, 2017).

“Doves Press,” Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum (accessed Aug. 20, 2017).

“Doves Press Collection,” Bruce Peel Special Collections, University of Alberta (accessed Aug. 20, 2017).

Listener mail:

Becky Oskin, “Yosemite Outsmarts Its Food-Stealing Bears,” Live Science, March 3, 2014.

Kristin Hohenadel, “Vancouver Bans Doorknobs,” Slate, Nov. 26 2013.

Jeff Lee, “Vancouver’s Ban on the Humble Doorknob Likely to Be a Trendsetter,” Vancouver Sun, Nov. 19, 2013.

Jonathan Goodman, The Slaying of Joseph Bowne Elwell, 1987.

“Housekeeper Admits Shielding Woman by Hiding Garments in Elwell Home,” New York Times, June 17, 1920.

“Elwell Crime Still Mystery,” Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1920.

“Housekeeper Gives New Elwell Facts,” New York Times, June 25, 1920.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Dean Gootee.

Please visit Littleton Coin Company to sell your coins and currency, or call them toll free 1-877-857-7850.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

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

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!

Words and Music

Anthony Burgess based his 1974 novel Napoleon Symphony explicitly on the structure of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, the Eroica:

  • The story is told in four “movements,” whose length corresponds to the listening time of the corresponding parts of the symphony: 118 pages (14:46 minutes), 120 pages (15:34 minutes), 30 pages (5:33 minutes), and 77 pages (11:27 minutes).
  • The allegro takes Bonaparte “from his early Italian triumphs to his crowning as Emperor”; the marcia funebre moves to the retreat from Russia; in the scherzo Napoleon attends a play featuring Prometheus; and the finale depicts his life and death on St. Helena.
  • Where the symphony begins with two sharp chords, the novel starts with Napoleon giving Josephine “two excruciating love-pinches.” In the first movement Bonaparte corresponds to the “masculine thematic group,” Josephine to the “second, or feminine subject.” The sonata form requires repetition, so, for example, the opening sentence, “Germinal in the Year Four” appears in the “recapitulation” with a slight variation, as “Germinal in the Year Seven.” The contrasting themes are reflected in shifts of scene and viewpoint, and harmonic variation is suggested by the frequent repetition of certain phrases with minor changes.
  • In the second movement Napoleon dreams of his death in verses set precisely to the rhythm of Beethoven’s theme (these are printed with the score in his essay “Bonaparte in E Flat” in This Man and Music):

    There he lies,
    Ensanguinated tyrant
    O bloody, bloody tyrant
    How the sin within
    Doth incarnadine
    His skin
    From the shin to the chin.

  • During the retreat from Russia, he approximates counterpoint by writing in two levels of language, which he hopes “will leave an aftertaste of polyphony.” For example: “The primary need, General Eblé said, is to obtain the requisite structural materials and this will certainly entail the demolition of civilian housing in the adjacent township. Now the first job, Sergeant Rebour said, is to get planking, and the only way to get it is to pull down all those fucking houses.”
  • In the scherzo the waltz rhythm is reflected in sentences such as “Dance dance dance! The orchestra struck up another waltz” and “They danced. United Kingdom of Benelux Benelux, Britain gets Malte and Cape of Good Hope.”
  • The finale is based on the so-called Prometheus theme (E-flat, B-flat, B-flat, E-flat), which Burgess visualizes as a cross in the score. He interprets the initials on Jesus’ cross, INRI, as Impera[torem] Nap[oleonem] Regem Interfec[it], an acrostic that recurs throughout the movement.

Overall, Burgess said, he wanted to pursue “one mad idea”: “to give / Symphonic shape to verbal narrative” and to “impose on life … the abstract patterns of the symphonist.”

He dedicated the novel to Stanley Kubrick, hoping that it might form the basis of the director’s long-planned biography of the emperor, but Kubrick decided that “the [manuscript] is not a work that can help me make a film about the life of Napoleon.” Undismayed, Burgess developed it instead into an experimental novel. The critics didn’t like it, but he said it was “elephantine fun” to write.

(From Theodore Ziolkowski, Music Into Fiction, 2017.)

A Second Career


When J.M. Barrie organized his friends into an amateur cricket team in 1887, his selections weren’t based on literary eminence — “With regard to the married men, it was because I liked their wives, with regard to the single men, it was for the oddity of their personal appearance.” But the team managed to include some of the most celebrated British writers of the day, including Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, A.A. Milne, G.K. Chesterton, Jerome K. Jerome, P.G. Wodehouse, E.V. Lucas, and E.W. Hornung.

It wasn’t until they assembled for their first game that the Allahakberries (Barrie thought Allahu Akbar meant “Heaven help us”) realized the extent of their ignorance — geologist Joseph Thomson arrived wearing pajamas rather than cricket whites, and an argument arose over which side of the bat to use in hitting the ball.

Generally Barrie found that the more distinguished a writer was, “the worse they played.” (The exception was Doyle, whom Barrie described as “A grand bowler. Knows a batsman’s weakness by the colour of the mud on his shoes.”) Eventually he wrote a book of advice for the team, in which he asked them not practice before matches, since it would only give their opponents confidence, and advised “Should you hit the ball, run at once. Do not stop to cheer.”

Sadly, the war ended the team’s career. Barrie wrote in his diary, “The Last Cricket Match. One or two days before war declared — my anxiety and premonition — boys gaily playing cricket at Auch, seen from my window. I know they’re to suffer. I see them dropping out one by one, fewer and fewer.” He was right — in fact, one of the casualties was George Llewelyn Davies, who had helped to inspire Peter Pan.

Travel Planning

In 1794 a penurious Sydney Smith accepted an offer to spend the holidays with some friends in Gloucestershire.

“Your offer of a horse to carry my portmanteau I cannot accept, and for two reasons, which I think will justify me in not accepting it,” he wrote. “The first is, you have no horse here; the next, I have no portmanteau.”

Lost Treasure

Robert Louis Stevenson’s original map of Treasure Island was lost during publication. He sent it to his editor and was “aghast” to learn that it was never received. “I had written it up to the map,” he wrote — most of the novel’s plot had been inspired by the picturesque map he had dreamed up at the start. Now he had to redraw it working backward, inferring the island’s layout from the descriptions in the text.

It is one thing to draw a map at random, set a scale in one corner of it at a venture, and write up a story to the measurements. It is quite another to have to examine a whole book, make an inventory of all the allusions contained in it, and with a pair of compasses, painfully design a map to suit the data. I did it; and the map was drawn again in my father’s office, with embellishments of blowing whales and sailing ships, and my father himself brought into service a knack he had of various writing, and elaborately FORGED the signature of Captain Flint, and the sailing directions of Billy Bones. But somehow it was never Treasure Island to me.

“It is, perhaps, not often that a map figures so largely in a tale, yet it is always important,” Stevenson wrote. “Even with imaginary places, [the author] will do well in the beginning to provide a map; as he studies it, relations will appear that he had not thought upon; he will discover obvious, though unsuspected, short-cuts and footprints for his messengers; and even when a map is not all the plot, as it was in Treasure Island, it will be found to be a mine of suggestion.”

(From Stevenson’s “My First Book: ‘Treasure Island,'” first published in the Idler, August 1894.)


From the Daily Telegraph‘s obituary of Charles Dodgson, Jan. 15, 1898:

The sayings attributed to him at Oxford would fill an entertaining volume of Carrolliana. Among other things, his ‘etymology of the bell’ is still quoted with relish by scholars. There was a provisional belfry at Christ Church College, which was familiarly known to Oxonians of the time as ‘the meat safe.’ Mr. Dodgson, undertaking to explain this epithet etymologically, split up the word belfry into two parts — the French word belle and the German word frei (free). Then he went to work as follows:

Belle = beautiful = comely = meet (meat);
Frei = free = secure = safe
Result: ‘Meat-safe.’

His nephew, Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, wrote, “No one who was not by nature a lover of logic, and an extreme precisian in the use of words and phrases, could have written the two ‘Alice’ books.”

Podcast Episode 162: John Muir and Stickeen

One stormy morning in 1880, naturalist John Muir set out to explore a glacier in Alaska’s Taylor Bay, accompanied by an adventurous little dog that had joined his expedition. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the harrowing predicament that the two faced on the ice, which became the basis of one of Muir’s most beloved stories.

We’ll also marvel at some phonetic actors and puzzle over a season for vasectomies.


In 1904 a 12-year-old J.R.R. Tolkien sent this rebus to a family friend.

In 1856 Preston Brooks beat Charles Sumner with a gold-headed cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Sources for our feature on John Muir and Stickeen:

John Muir, Stickeen, 1909.

Ronald H. Limbaugh, John Muir’s “Stickeen” and the Lessons of Nature, 1996.

Kim Heacox, John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire, 2014.

Ronald H. Limbaugh, “Stickeen and the Moral Education of John Muir,” Environmental History Review 15:1 (Spring 1991), 25-45.

Hal Crimmel, “No Place for ‘Little Children and Tender, Pulpy People’: John Muir in Alaska,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 92:4 (Fall 2001), 171-180.

Stefan Beck, “The Outdoor Kid,” New Criterion 33:4 (December 2014), 1-6.

Edward Hoagland, “John Muir’s Alaskan Rhapsody,” American Scholar 71:2 (Spring 2002), 101-105.

Ronald H. Limbaugh, “John Muir and Modern Environmental Education,” California History 71:2 (Summer 1992), 170-177.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “John Muir” (accessed July 2, 2017).

“John Muir: Naturalist,” Journal of Education 81:6 (Feb. 11, 1915), 146.

William Frederic Badè, “John Muir,” Science 41:1053 (March 5, 1915), 353-354.

Charles R. Van Hise, “John Muir,” Science 45:1153 (Feb. 2, 1917), 103-109.

Listener mail:

Delta Spirit, “Ballad of Vitaly”:

Wikipedia, Aftermath (2017 Film)” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Überlingen Mid-Air Collision” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Anthony Breznican, “‘The Princess Bride’: 10 Inconceivable Facts From Director Rob Reiner,” Entertainment Weekly, Aug. 16, 2013.

Wikipedia, “Charlotte Kate Fox” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Wikipedia, Incubus (1966 film)” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Esperanto” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Toño del Barrio, “Esperanto and Cinema” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Phonetical Singing” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Deliver Us (The Prince of Egypt)” (accessed July 14, 2017).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was inspired by an item in Dan Lewis’ Now I Know enewsletter. (Warning: This link spoils the puzzle.)

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

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

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!