“There is probably no more unsuitable material with which to build a clock than straw. Yet this has been accomplished recently by a German shoemaker, who, during his leisure time, has made the ingenious piece of mechanism illustrated herewith. One would think that at least certain of the movable parts, or the springs, would be fashioned of some hard material such as bone, wood, or metal, yet nothing else was employed but straw. The figures, hands, dial, pendulums, chain, weight, gears, and the whole skeleton consist of this breakable stuff. By pressing a button, which comes out automatically on one side, the clockwork is wound up, and runs for five hours. There are eight pendulums, which allow regulation of speed. The chain is fourteen inches long and without end, like that of a bicycle. The diameter of the dial is eight inches. There were probably some thousands of stalks used in the work, each being three and four fold, to give more strength, one sliding within the other. No less than fifteen years was required to complete this wonderful clock.”
– Strand, July 1908
In October 1845, the owner of a Boston brothel awoke to find that one of his prostitutes, Maria Bickford, had been nearly decapitated with a razor. Bickford’s companion, Albert Tirrell, was nowhere to be found but had been seen recently on the premises, and his cane and bits of his clothing were found near the body.
Tirrell was discovered in New Orleans and brought back for trial. His lawyer argued that Bickford might have been killed by her own hand or by a third party — or that Tirrell might have done it while sleepwalking. The defendant had a noted history of walking in his sleep, one that was confirmed by doctors. As recently as September, a cousin testified, Tirrell had pulled him out of bed and brandished a knife. “Somnambulism explain[s] … the killing without a motive,” the lawyer argued. “Premeditated murder does not.”
After less than two hours’ deliberation, the jury declared Tirrell not guilty — the first successful such murder defense in American legal history.
Just as Georgia Tech has George P. Burdell, Carnegie Mellon has Harry Q. Bovik, an invisible but dedicated student/researcher/ghost/mascot whose long tenure at the institution has produced an impressive list of achievements.
According to his personal page, Bovik has served as a science consultant to the Weekly World News, a White House fellow, and a project scientist at the Millenium Falcon Engineering Company.
Currently he’s a senior computer scientist at CMU, where his office is famously hard to find, and his work has inspired an annual conference.
In 1907 an anonymous turner produced a vase that threw a shadow of Queen Victoria.
Seventy years later, for the Silver Jubilee in 1977, a vase was produced that evoked the profiles of both Prince Philip and Elizabeth II.
Is this a tradition? It might lead us to see too much.
I send you a photograph showing the untimely fate which befell a too inquisitive rat. It had managed to force its way into an ostrich egg, but then found that getting out was quite another matter, and so perished in the miserable manner shown in the following picture, which was sent to me by Mr. William Fisher, Mahalapye, B. Bechuanaland. — Miss G. Gardiner, 78, Guilford Street, W.C.
– Strand, July 1908
As Thomas Young was struggling to decipher the Rosetta Stone, a traveler gave him a parcel of Egyptian manuscripts. Among the baffling hieroglyphics he noted three names written in Greek: Apollonius, Antigonus, and Antimachus. As he was puzzling over the rest, a friend gave him some papyri he had purchased at Thebes in 1820. Two of these contained some Greek characters, and Young began to examine them impatiently.
He “could scarcely believe that I was awake, and in my sober senses” when he saw the words Antimachus Antigenis and, a few lines further back, Portis Apollonii. It was a Greek translation of the very Egyptian manuscript he had been wrestling with!
“I could not, therefore, but conclude, that a most extraordinary chance had brought into my possession a document which was not very likely, in the first place, ever to have existed, still less to have been preserved uninjured, for my information, through a period of near two thousand years: but that this very extraordinary translation should have been brought safely to Europe, to England, and to me, at the very moment when it was most of all desirable to me to possess it, as the illustration of an original which I was then studying, but without any other reasonable hope of being able fully to comprehend it.”
“This combination would, in other times, have been considered as affording ample evidence of my having become an Egyptian sorcerer.”
But the superstitious noted that the death of Prince Albert Victor on a Thursday broke a remarkable spell or curse which had hung over the present royal family of England for more than a century and three-quarters — bringing about the death of all the prominent members of that family on Saturdays. William III died Saturday, March 18, 1702; Queen Anne died Saturday, August 1, 1714; George I died Saturday, June 10, 1727; George II died Saturday, October 25, 1760; George III died Saturday, January 29, 1820; George IV died Saturday, June 26, 1830; the Duchess of Kent died Saturday, March 16, 1861; the Prince Consort, husband of Queen Victoria and grandfather of the recent deceased Prince Albert Victor, died Saturday, December 14, 1861; Princess Alice of Hesse-Darmstadt, Victoria’s second daughter, and sister of Albert, died Saturday, December 14, 1878. The shadows which overhung the late prince’s life are said to have been darkened by a superstitious fear which caused him to keep close in-doors on Saturdays.
– William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892
In 1891, J.H. Hooper found what he thought was a buried headstone on his farm in Bradley County, Tenn. On excavating it he found that the stone was part of a sandstone wall, about 16 feet of whose length was covered with unreadable marks arranged in wavy, nearly parallel lines.
A small sensation ensued. “Some of these forms recall those on the Dighton Rock,” wrote A.L. Rawson that year in the Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, “and may belong to the same age. How many other hidden inscriptions there may be in this, the geologically oldest continent, it is impossible to say but delightful to conjecture.”
Others thought they saw duplicates among the characters, as well as drawings of birds and animals. Could the inscription be Hebrew? Had the Lost Tribes of Israel somehow found their way to prehistoric Tennessee? No, as it turns out: Today it’s thought the marks were made … by mollusks.
On the twenty-third of December, 1757, the British privateer Terrible, Captain William Death (who had Devil for his lieutenant and Ghost for his surgeon), of twenty-six guns and two hundred men, captured a large French ship, after an obstinate battle, in which he lost his brother and sixteen men killed. A few days after, he fell in with the privateer Vengeance, thirty-six guns and three hundred and sixty men, who recaptured the prize, and, having manned her, both ships bore down on the Terrible, whose main was shot away by the first broadside. After a desperate engagement, in which the French captain and his lieutenant were killed, with two thirds of his crew, the Terrible was boarded, when no more than twenty-six persons were found alive, sixteen of whom had lost an arm or a leg, the remaining ten being badly wounded. The ship, which had been equipped at Execution dock, was so shattered that it could scarcely be kept above water.
– Albert Plympton Southwick, Quizzism; And Its Key, 1884
Two robots are playing a game. Between them is a pile of coins. Each robot, on its turn, can take either one or two coins from the pile. So long as each elects to take one coin, play continues until the pile is exhausted. If either elects to take two, the remaining coins vanish and the game ends.
One might think that the best plan would be always to take a single coin, but if both players are rational and know it, the first player will immediately take two pennies and end the game.
He reasons thus: If there were only two pennies in the pile, I’d benefit most by taking both of them rather than just one. Now suppose there were three pennies. If I took only one, then I would leave my opponent in the position I just imagined, and being rational he’d take both remaining pennies. Therefore I should take two of the three.
And so on backward, up to any arbitrary number of pennies. Paradoxically, it seems, improvident greed is more rational than constructive cooperation. Adapted from Hollis, Martin and Sugden, Robert (1993) “Rationality in action.” Mind 103:1-35, referenced in R.M. Sainsbury, Paradoxes, 2009.
See Tug of War.
When the Golden Hind was broken up in 1662, its timbers were fashioned into a chair that still resides in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Abraham Cowley wrote an ode, “Sitting and Drinking in the Chair, Made Out of the Reliques of Sir Francis Drake’s Ship”:
As well upon a staff may Witches ride
Their fancy’d Journies in the Ayr,
As I sail round the Ocean in this Chair:
‘Tis true; but yet this Chair which here you see,
For all its quiet now, and gravitie,
Has wandred, and has travailed more,
Than ever Beast, or Fish, or Bird, or ever Tree before.
In every Ayr, and every Sea’t has been,
‘T has compas’d all the Earth, and all the Heavens ‘t has seen.
Let not the Pope’s it self with this compare,
This is the only Universal Chair.
“While armchair travelers dream of going places,” wrote Anne Tyler, “traveling armchairs dream of staying put.”
On Sept. 19, 1923, New Yorkers awoke to a strange composite newspaper — 2,500 web-pressmen had staged an unauthorized strike, shutting down most of the city’s large dailies, so the newspapers joined forces and put out an eight-page issue with 10 nameplates.
On the front page was a message from union president George Berry telling the pressmen to get back to work.
Early in July 1807, a most extraordinary phenomenon was observed by several people of credit, at the house of Mr. Rhodes, in Thornes-lane, near Wakefield. A hen had been sitting on ducks’ eggs, several of which had produced ducklings: on examining one egg, a small hole was found in one end of the shell, through which a toad was discovered, not alive, which filled the whole shell, and seemed, upon breaking it, to be absolutely straitened for want of room. Except the small hole, such as is usually found in an egg, when the animal within is mature for hatching, the shell was perfectly whole, so as utterly to preclude the supposition of the toad’s having crept in through the hole. We have ourselves seen the toad, and with a small part of the shell still adhering to it.
– Wakefield Star, quoted in Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum, 1820
In 1885, Cecilia Garrett Smith and a friend were experimenting with automatic writing using a primitive Ouija board on which a planchette was guided by a visiting “spirit.”
“We got all sorts of nonsense out of it, sometimes long doggerel rhymes with several verses,” but the prophecies they asked for were rarely answered. When they asked who the guiding spirit was, the planchette wrote that his name was Jim and that he had been Senior Wrangler at Cambridge. Intrigued, they asked Jim to write the equation describing the heart-shaped planchette they were using, and they received this response:
This they interpreted as , which J.W. Sharpe later graphed thus:
“I am quite sure that I had never seen the curve before, and therefore the production of the equation could not have been an act of unconscious memory on my part,” Smith wrote later. “Also I most certainly did not know enough mathematics to know how to form an equation which would represent such a curve, or to know even of what type the equation must be.”
One wonders what Jim thought of all this. They never got any further math out of him.
A shop in Herne Bay, Kent, advertised this specialty through the whole of the summer 1906 holiday season.
Reader John Day sent this photo to The Strand. “Herne Bay trippers are evidently careless of what they eat.”
An engraving by Johann Martin Will, 1780.
Andrew Wyeth said, “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.”
The vice president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, ‘We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.’ The chairman of the board answered, ‘I don’t care at all about harming the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.’ They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was harmed.
Did the chairman harm the environment intentionally? In a 2003 study, 82 percent of respondents said yes, he did. But now consider this:
The vice president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, ‘We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, and it will also help the environment.’ The chairman of the board answered, ‘I don’t care at all about helping the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.’ They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was helped.
Did the chairman help the environment intentionally? Only 23 percent of respondents said yes.
What should we make of this? Yale philosopher Joshua Knobe says, “It seems very puzzling that all we changed was this one word, just changing the word harm to help, and yet we’re now having completely different judgments about whether what he did was intentional or unintentional. Yet it seems like it’s only the moral status of what he did that is changing. … Somehow the moral judgments people are making are affecting their intuitions about something like how the mind works.”
An ancient graveyard of vast proportions has been found in Coffee county [Tenn.]. It is similar to those found in White county and other places in Middle Tennessee, but is vastly more extensive, and shows that the race of pigmies who once inhabited this country were very numerous. The same peculiarities of position observed in the White county graves are found in these. The writer of the letter says:– ‘Some considerable excitement and curiosity took place a few days since, near Hillsboro, Coffee county, on James Brown’s farm. A man was ploughing in a field which had been cultivated many years, and ploughed up a man’s skull and other bones. After making further examination they found that there were about six acres in the graveyard. They were buried in a sitting or standing position. The bones show that they were a dwarf tribe of people, about three feet high. It is estimated that there were about 75,000 to 100,000 buried there. This shows that this country was inhabited hundreds of years ago.’
– Woodbury [Tenn.] Press, quoted in The Journal of the Anthropological Institute, Feb. 8, 1876
A short distance below Coshocton [Ohio], on one of those elevated, gravelly alluvions, so common on the rivers of the West, has been recently discovered a very singular ancient burying ground. From some remains of wood, still apparent in the earth around the bones, the bodies seem all to have been deposited in coffins; and what is still more curious, is the fact that the bodies buried here were generally not more than from three to four and a half feet in length. They are very numerous, and must have been tenants of a considerable city, or their numbers could not have been so great. A large number of graves have been opened, the inmates of which are all of this pigmy race. No metallic articles or utensils have yet been found, to throw light on the period or the nation to which they belonged. Similar burying grounds have been found in Tennessee, and near St. Louis in Missouri.
– The American Journal of Science and Arts, January 1837
In 1897, Cyrus Teed proved that we inhabit a hollow earth. He did this by building a “Rectilineator,” essentially a giant straightedge that could extend a perfectly straight line across a great distance. On a convex earth this line should rise gradually in altitude as the earth’s surface falls away from it. But in his trials in Florida, Teed found that the line ran into the earth after 4 1/8 miles, proving that the surface is concave, in accord with his “Koreshan cosmogony.”
The extension of the arc of curvature which we have measured and have demonstrated to be concave, forms a circumference of about 25,000 miles; which conclusion, taken in connection with all the astronomical, geographical, and geodetic facts obtained by centuries of observation and survey, demonstrates that the surface of the earth upon which we live is the inner surface of a great cell about 8,000 miles in diameter.
“No one has ever seriously attempted either to debunk or to repeat the Rectilineator experiment,” writes John Michell in Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions, “but it is natural for those who can not bring themselves to accept its results to wonder how they were obtained. The Rectilineator apparatus, though cumbersome, was scientifically sound, and so was the principle behind its use, and one can hardly suppose that the Koreshan surveyors, who lived by the doctrines of their leader, were engaged in an elaborate conspiracy of deception. Perhaps the answer lies in the malleable, obliging nature of the universe, which reflects every image projected upon it and gives every experiment a tendency to gratify the experimenter.”
Florence Nightingale had a pet owl. She found it in 1850 on the Parthenon, where it had fallen out of its nest. She named it Athena and carried it away in her pocket, “where I regret to say he ate a live Athenian grasshopper, but failed to make any impression on two small tortoises which I was also bringing to England.”
At home, Athena became Nightingale’s “constant & sociable companion.” He slept in her pocket and nested in a bookcase, “where he made his presence known by uttering a peculiar cry, some 150 times, like a prayer.”
That cry would come to haunt her. The owl died during her preparations for the Crimea, but he visited her dreams as late as 1855, when she was in Constantinople: “Athena came along the cliff quite to my feet, rose upon her tiptoes, bowed several times, made her long melancholy cry, and fled away.”
“Poor little beastie,” she said. “It was odd how much I loved you.”
Mary Hamilton invented a new crime in 1746 — transvestite bigamy. Dressing as a man and calling herself Charles and George, she convinced no fewer than 14 women to marry her. At a trial in Somersetshire, the 14th wife testified against her “female husband”:
She swore that she was lawfully married to the prisoner, and that they bedded and lived together as man and wife for more than a quarter of a year; during all which time, so well did the impostor assume the character of man, she still actually believed she had married a fellow-creature of the right and proper sex.
The justices found Mary “an uncommon, notorious cheat” and sentenced her to six months in prison and three whippings. “And Mary, the monopoliser of her own sex, was imprisoned and whipped accordingly, in the severity of the winter of the year 1746.”
The parsnip of which a figure is annexed, represents a human hand, particularly the back of it so correctly, that it could not be surpassed by the best painter. This root was bought at the market of a woman who sold vegetables, and as it was shewn to several persons, it came at last into the hands of an engraver. Though roots of this kind, especially of the parsnip species, are not rare, yet there could scarcely be found one that so nearly resembles a human member. Dr. Menzel, however has seen a parsnip which accurately exhibits the figure of a man, complete in all its parts.
– Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum, 1820
Events in the life of Welsh coal miner David Wilson, born 1846:
- Aug. 26, 1857: Fractured the forefinger of his right hand.
- Aug. 26, 1859: Fell from horseback and broke his left leg below the knee.
- Aug. 26, 1860: Broke both bones of his left forearm.
- Aug. 26, 1861: Broke his left leg above the ankle.
- Aug. 26, 1862: Broke both legs, the right one so badly that it had to be amputated.
Seeing a pattern, he renounced for 28 years doing any work on Aug. 26, but in 1890 he forgot the date, went to work, and broke his left leg for the fourth time.
“The number of accidents the man has had is wonderful, but by far the most remarkable fact in connection with his history is their all happening on a certain day in the year,” wrote Walter Kruse in the Strand. “It is only explainable on the supposition that some natural law is at work, and that this law is in some way connected with the earth’s revolution around the sun, because the accidents always happened precisely when the earth reaches the same position in its orbit around the sun. It is very evident we have not arrived at the summit of our knowledge, and that there are causes and influences at work which are not noticed by the casual observer.”
Thomas Britton (1644-1714) gave the 17th century proof that a flower can bloom wherever it’s planted. Though a humble coal merchant, Britton so distinguished himself in chemistry, book collecting, and music that he attracted admirers among the high-born. And, wonderfully, when he converted the tiny loft over his coal repository into a concert hall, they attended a weekly series of chamber music concerts there.
“The ceiling of the room in which his concert was held was so low that a tall man could scarcely stand erect in it,” runs one account. “The staircase was outside the house, and could scarcely be ascended without crawling; yet ladies of the first rank in the kingdom forgot the difficulty with which they ascended the steps in the pleasure of Britton’s concert, which was attended by the most distinguished professors.”
The concerts came to be thought the best in London, attracting both wealthy music lovers and the most eminent musicians (including, by some accounts, Handel himself).
Throughout all this Britton continued to work in the coal trade and charged only the lowest subscription rates. “Britton was indeed so much distinguished that when passing along the streets in his blue linen frock, and with his sack of small-coal on his back, he was frequently accosted with such expressions as these: ‘There goes the famous small-coal man who is a lover of learning, a performer of music, and a companion for gentlemen.’”
Indeed, after a lifetime mixing with high and low, Britton died renowned for both humility and cultivation. The poet John Hughes wrote, “Let useless pomp behold, and blush to find / So low a station, such a liberal mind.”