• In 1898 Sam Clemens signed a hotel register “S.L. Clemens. Profession: Mark Twain.”
  • Jonathan Swift invented the name Vanessa.
  • How many outs are in an inning of baseball? Six.
  • Isaac Asimov’s collected papers fill 71 meters of shelf space at Boston University.
  • “He is greatest who is most often in men’s good thoughts.” — Samuel Butler

After starring as the title character, Anne Shirley, in the 1934 film Anne of Green Gables, actress Dawn O’Day changed her stage name to Anne Shirley and used it for the rest of her career.

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 …

Early Adopters


Mark Twain was an early proponent of the typewriter — in 1905 he claimed that “I was the first person in the world to apply the type-machine to literature. That book must have been The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

Actually the evidence shows that Life on the Mississippi was the first book submitted to a publisher as a typewritten manuscript, which means that Twain had a surprising competitor in Friedrich Nietzsche, who tried out a Hansen Schreibkugel, or “writing ball,” for a few weeks in 1882, hoping to reduce demands on his failing eyesight.

“Hurrah! The machine has arrived at my house,” Nietzsche wrote to his sister on February 11. He typed poetically:


Unfortunately he found his fingers weren’t fine enough, and he gave it up in March. Twain submitted his manuscript a few months later.



In Rex Stout’s mystery novels, detective Nero Wolfe maintains that he was born in Montenegro, but the stories give conflicting evidence, and after careful study historian Bernard DeVoto concluded that he was really born in the United States sometime between 1892 and 1896, having been conceived in Montenegro between March 1891 and March 1895.

Now, Sherlock Holmes had his climactic battle with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Fall at the beginning of May 1891, after which he disappeared into shadowy wanderings until 1894. Writer John D. Clark notes that Holmes could easily have visited Cetinje and remained there for several months, long enough to meet Irene Adler, whose fragile marriage would by then have broken up, sending her back to an itinerant life as an opera singer. The two would naturally have fallen in together, especially as English speakers were relatively rare in Montenegro, and an eventual affair was inevitable.

When Adler became pregnant she would have returned to her parents in New Jersey and given birth there. Nero Wolfe was born in New Jersey in late 1892 or early 1893, six months after Adler would had left Montenegro. She would then have returned to Central Europe, where her son grew up, just as he states. Clark concludes, “Whether Wolfe ever condescends to admit it, or whether he remains forever silent, his parentage can no longer be a matter of conjecture, nor can there be any doubt as to the source from which he inherited his remarkable talents.”

In 1955 Clark put this case to Stout, who responded with this note:

I am obliged to you for sending me the ms. for perusal, and I admire the finesse of your suggestion that ‘censorship’ by me might be desirable and acceptable. As the literary agent of [Wolfe’s assistant] Archie Goodwin I am of course privy to many details of Nero Wolfe’s past which to the general public, and even to scholars of Clark’s standing, must remain moot for some time. If and when it becomes permissible for me to disclose any of those details, your distinguished journal would be a most appropriate medium for the disclosure. The constraint of my loyalty to my client makes it impossible for me to say more now.

He never fully denied the theory. He died in 1975.

(John D. Clark, “Some Notes Relating to a Preliminary Investigation Into the Paternity of Nero Wolfe,” Baker Street Journal, January 1956.)



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.)



In 1929 James Barrie donated all his revenues from Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London. After Barrie died in 1937, the copyright became a major source of revenue for the hospital. Normally in the United Kingdom a copyright lasts until 50 years after the author’s death, so Peter Pan entered the public domain at the end of 1987.

It entered copyright protection again in 1995 under the EU “harmony” regulations, which extended copyright to 70 years after the author’s death. That should have put Peter Pan back in the public domain in 2007.

But in 1988 the government had added a special amendment to the law governing intellectual property:

The provisions of Schedule 6 have effect for conferring on trustees for the benefit of the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, London, a right to a royalty in respect of the public performance, commercial publication, broadcasting or inclusion in a cable programme service of the play ‘Peter Pan’ by Sir James Matthew Barrie, or of any adaptation of that work, notwithstanding that copyright in the work expired on 31 December 1987.

So, uniquely, the boy who wouldn’t grow up has a copyright that will never expire — under U.K. law, it extends perpetually from 1988 onward.

(From John Sutherland and Stephen Fender, Love, Sex, Death & Words, 2010. Plagiarism Today has all the details.)

Southern Literature

south polar times 1

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.

south polar times 2

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

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.

See full show notes …

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.)