Warm Work

(Please don’t try this.)

[T]ar … boils at a temperature of 220°, even higher than that of water. Mr. Davenport informs us, that he saw one of the workmen in the King’s Dockyard at Chatham immerse his naked hand in tar of that temperature. He drew up his coat sleeves, dipped in his hand and wrist, bringing out fluid tar, and pouring it off from his hand as from a ladle. The tar remained in complete contact with his skin, and he wiped it off with tow. Convinced that there was no deception in this experiment, Mr. Davenport immersed the entire length of his forefinger in the boiling cauldron, and moved it about a short time before the heat became inconvenient. Mr. Davenport ascribes this singular effect to the slowness with which the tar communicates its heat, which he conceives to arise from the abundant volatile vapour which is evolved ‘carrying off rapidly the caloric in a latent state, and intervening between the tar and the skin, so as to prevent the more rapid communication of heat.’ He conceives also, that when the hand is withdrawn, and the hot tar adhering to it, the rapidity with which this vapour is evolved from the surface exposed to the air cools it immediately. The workmen informed Mr. Davenport, that, if a person put his hand into the cauldron with his glove on, he would be dreadfully burnt, but this extraordinary result was not put to the test of observation.

– David Brewster, Letters on Natural Magic, 1868

Stormy Weather

In 1998 a retired naval pilot in California began receiving semi-coherent telephone calls from around the country blaming him for torrential rain and crop failures.

“Some of them absolutely curse me out and others just ask me, in a rather grudged way, if I can just stop the rain.”

He takes the calls with good humor and has maintained his listing in the phone book.

His name is Al Nino.

Spanish Ghosts


Clearing out a prehistoric mica mine in Macon County, N.C., in 1880, investigators discovered a curious collection of iron tools.

The inference to be drawn from the discovery of these iron relics, is, that some of the ‘old diggings’ are the work of Europeans, as the use of iron was unknown to the native American races. Is it not possible that there is a basis of truth in the old Cherokee tradition? That a party of Spanish explorers — and perhaps more than one — penetrated Western Carolina in search of gold, silver and other minerals, and, in some instances, finding the old mines of the Mound-builders, caused preliminary investigations of their value, does not seem improbable.

“To what expedition these Europeans belonged is a mystery. That of De Soto, according to the course traced out by Bancroft, passed within a comparatively short distance of North Carolina … From it an exploring party was sent to the north, which returned disheartened, without the precious gold, reporting the mountains impassable. Could the work have been done by stragglers from this or other parties, or have there been special expeditions to this region of which the historian has lost sight?”

(Frederic W. Simonds, “The Discovery of Iron Implements in an Ancient Mine in North Carolina,” American Naturalist, January 1881)

Senior Citizen


We know when Henry Jenkins died: Dec. 9, 1670. What we don’t know is when he was born. The Bolton laborer claimed to remember driving a cartload of arrows to North Allerton as a boy at the Battle of Flodden Field. That would mean he had been born in 1501 and was 169 years old at his death. Whether that’s true is anyone’s guess, but that’s the age that’s engraved on his tombstone.

If it is true, one author reckons, he certainly led an eventful life:

In his time the Invincible Armada was destroyed; the republic of Holland formed; three queens beheaded, Anne Boleyn, Catharine Howard, and Mary Queen of Scots; a king of Spain seated upon the throne of England; a king of Scotland crowned king of England at Westminster, and his son beheaded before his own palace, his family being proscribed as traitors; and, last of all, the great fire in London, which happened in 1666, toward the close of his wonderful life.

Indeed, to be a dutiful subject of the crown, he’d have had to change his religion eight times:


Home Is the Sailor

A building curiously arranged to resemble the hull of a ship, the rooms of which were made to look like its cabins, used to be pointed out for many years in Wandsworth. Upon the top of it a small room, or rather turret, used to attract special attention, for it contained the corpse of its builder and former owner, an eccentric old sailor, whose will made it a condition of inheritance that his body should be buried on what he called ‘the deck’ of his ship-house. The house was pulled down by a railway company about 1860.

The World of Wonders, 1883

A Bad Week

On Aug. 6, 1945, Mitsubishi engineer Tsutomu Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima visiting the company shipyard when the Enola Gay‘s atomic bomb exploded overhead.

Badly burned, he spent the night in an air raid shelter and then returned to his hometown.

He was explaining the ordeal to his supervisor there when “at that moment, outside the window, I saw another flash and the whole office, everything in it, was blown over.”

He lived in Nagasaki.

Air Balls

In the summer of 1938, a BOAC flying boat had just passed Toulouse, France, en route to Iraq when a ball of lightning entered the open cockpit window, singed the captain’s eyebrows and hair, made holes in his safety belt and dispatch case, and passed through the airplane to the rear cabin, where it exploded loudly.

In 1960, a KC-97 Air Force tanker was headed for Elko, Nev., at 18,000 feet when, the pilot reports, “a ball of yellow-white color approximately 18″ in diameter emerged through the windshield center panels and passed at a rate about that of a fast run between my left seat and the co-pilot’s right seat, down the cabin passageway past the Navigator and Engineer. … After approximately 3 seconds of amazingly quiet reaction by the 4 crew members in the flight compartment, the Boom operator sitting in the rear of the aircraft called on the interphone in an excited voice describing a ball of fire that came rolling through the aft cargo compartment abeam the wings, then danced out over the right wing and rolling off into the night and clouds!”

On March 19, 1963, British scientist R.C. Jennison was flying from New York to Washington, D.C., on a late-night flight on Eastern Airlines. “The aircraft encountered an electrical storm during which it was enveloped in a sudden bright and loud electrical discharge. Some seconds after this a glowing sphere a little more than 20 cm in diameter emerged from the pilot’s cabin and passed down the aisle of the aircraft approximately 50 cm from me, maintaining the same height and course for the whole distance over which it could be observed.”

Strange Passing

Account of “an extraordinary and probably hitherto unseen Phenomenon” over Biskopsberga, Sweden, May 16, 1808, reported by E. Acharius in the Transactions of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, 1808:

[A]t about 4 o’clock, P.M. the sun became dim … At the same time there appeared at the western horizon, from where the wind blew, to arise gradually, and in quick succession, a great number of balls, or spherical bodies, to the naked eye of a size of the crown of a hat, and of a dark brown colour. … [Near the sun] their course seemed to lessen, and a great many of them remained, as it were, stationary; but they soon resumed their former, and an accelerated, motion, and passed in the same direction with great velocity and almost horizontally. During this course some disappeared, others fell down, but the most part of them continued their progress almost in a straight line, till they were lost sight of at the eastern horizon. The phenomenon lasted uninterruptedly, upwards of two hours, during which time millions of similar bodies continually rose in the west, one after the other irregularly, and continued their career exactly in the same manner. No report, noise, nor any whistling or buzzing in the air was perceived.

“Such have been the real circumstances attending this phenomenon, to which all the people in the village can testify. I have drawn up this report from the accounts of none but eye witnesses, and have compared them one with the other; and I cannot doubt the truth of the incidents, having been related to me in a manner agreeing in particulars and details.”

See A War in the Sky.

Away From It All

If you’re looking for a challenge, see if you can reach 82°06’S 54°58’E — it’s the most inaccessible point in Antarctica, the farthest from the ocean and the coldest place in the world.

You’ll know you’ve arrived because you’ll find a bust of Lenin peering weirdly across the ice toward Moscow.

Dig down 20 feet and you’ll uncover a pair of locked doors. Get those open and you can enter an old Soviet research hut, now completely entombed in snow.

And inside the hut is a golden visitors’ book to sign.

The Dodge La Femme


Dodge introduced an alluring new option package in 1955: For $143, you could have the Custom Royal Lancer feminized, with rose paint, gold script, and a pink interior complete with rosebuds.

“The first car ever exclusively designed for the woman motorist” came with a rain cape, rain hat, and matching umbrella, plus a pink purse with a compact, lipstick, comb, and cigarette lighter. The marketing brochure read, “By Special Appointment to Her Majesty … the American Woman.”

It went nowhere. Fewer than 1,500 La Femmes were sold, and the model disappeared in 1957.


  • SCINTILLESCENT contains 7 pairs of letters.
  • Rub two pennies together and you’ll see a third between them.
  • Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same day.
  • 1285 = (1 + 28) × 5
  • Squeeze an orange peel into a candle flame and you’ll produce a burst of fire.

Land of Opportunity


Image: Flickr

There are only two places on earth where diamonds can be found at their original volcanic source. The first is South Africa … and the second, improbably, is Arkansas, where visitors to Crater of Diamonds State Park unearth more than 600 diamonds each year.

More than 25,000 have been found to date — including the 40-carat “Uncle Sam,” which Wesley Bassum sold in 1924 for $150,000.

“Let us not be too particular,” wrote Mark Twain. “It is better to have old secondhand diamonds than none at all.”

Wet Vendetta

On May 3, 1849, God emptied his washtub over Gloucestershire. The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal reports that “during a storm of thunder, lightning, and hail, an enormous body of water was seen to rush down a gully in the Bredon Hill, and direct its course to the village of Kemerton,” where it flooded the house of the Rev. W.H. Bellairs.

When Bellairs rode up the hill two days later, “[f]or more than a mile the course of the torrent could be easily traced, from twenty to thirty feet in breadth, every wall being broken down, and the whole, or greater part, of the soil removed.”

He traced this course to a barley field on the northwest shoulder of the hill, “the greater part of which was beaten down flat and hard, as if an enormous body of water had been suddenly poured out upon it. Beyond this field and on higher ground, there were no signs of the fall of water to any great amount.”

The general depth of the torrent seems to have been 6 to 7 feet; it had broken down a stone wall at Bellairs’ house, burst through the foundation of another, carried off a brick wall 6 feet high, and “flowed through the house, to the depth of nearly three feet, for the space of an hour and forty minutes.” No explanation was found.

Physical Education

At Bradford, England, a girl, aged 16, met death in an extraordinary manner. While in the playground of her school she was caught by a veritable tornado which carried her into the air. … [A] witness who was waiting for a car in front of the school said he saw the girl in the air, her skirts blown out like a baloon. She was 25 to 30 feet in the air, just above the school balcony (the latter, the coroner remarked, was 20 feet high). … The physician who was called found the girl unconscious and pulseless, suffering from severe concussion of the brain and compound fractures of the lower jaw, right arm, wrist and thigh. It appeared that she was wearing a pair of bloomers with an ordinary skirt but without petticoats. The jury returned a verdict of ‘died as the result of a fall caused by a sudden gust of wind.’

Journal of the American Medical Association, quoted in Medical Sentinel, June 1911

05/24/2010 I’ve found some confirmation of this in William Corliss, Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, 1983:

“February 25, 1911. Bradford, England. A letter to the editor called the report of a girl being killed by a gust of wind preposterous and asked for an investigation. The editor replied: ‘Acting on this suggestion, we communicated with Mr. H. Lander, the rainfall observer at Lister Park, Bradford, who kindly sent us a copy of the Yorkshire Observer for February 25th, in which there was a fairly full report of the inquest on the school-girl who was undoubtedly killed by a fall from a great height in an extremely exposed playground during very gusty weather. One witness saw the girl enter the playground from the school at 8.40 a.m., and saw her carried in three minutes later. Another witness saw the girl in the air parallel with the balcony of the school 20 feet above the ground, her arms extended, and her skirts blown out like a balloon. He saw her fall with a crash. The jury found a verdict, ‘Died as the result of a fall caused by a sudden gust of wind.'”

He cites Godden, William; “The Tale of — a Gust,” Symons’s Meteorological Magazine, 46:54, 1911.

Dead Letters

Spiritualist Ludwig von Guldenstubbe had a no-nonsense approach to communicating with the dead — he left paper and pencil for them in Paris churches and cemeteries.

He got only a few scrawls at first, but apparently word spread through the underworld, and soon more illustrious correspondents turned up. In August 1856 von Guldenstubbe produced the signatures of the emperor Augustus and of Julius Caesar, collected at their statues in the Louvre:


He also received writings from Abélard, who wrote in bad Latin, and Héloïse, in modern French — evidently she’s been taking correspondence courses since the 12th century.

Sadly, it appears that death spoils one’s penmanship — here are writing samples from Louise de La Vallière, the repentant mistress of Louis XIV, before (top) and after dying:


Perhaps that’s understandable, given the circumstances.

In the 10 months between August 1856 and June 1857, von Guldenstubbe says he got more than 500 specimens this way, in the company of more than 50 witnesses — but somehow no one has ever duplicated his results.

Tall Order


[H]e drew our attention to the vast difference the position of the shoulders make in a man’s height. This he illustrated by walking from the audience with his shoulders in their natural position, until, having traversed half the length of the room, he suddenly raised them, as represented in the accompanying sketches. The effect was quite startling, and very ludicrous.

— Frank Bellew, The Art of Amusing, 1866

A Mountain’s Ghost

Visit the top of Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka and you’ll see a striking sight — at sunrise the mountain’s own shadow is caught in the morning mist before you.

“The shadow seemed to rise up and stand in front of us in the air,” wrote a correspondent to Nature in 1886, “with rainbow and spectral arms, and then to fall down suddenly to the earth as the bow disappeared.”

See The Spectre of the Brocken.

Slippery When Wet

While M.V. Tancred was riding out a typhoon in Kobe Bay in early October 1954, E. Gherzi and his companions noted something strange: The waves had steps.

[T]here were a number of well-defined steps, carved so to say into the water just like the steps of a ladder, starting from the trough of the wave up to about half its height. Although the waves were moving quickly, the steps remained, steadily extending parallel to each other for one or two metres in length. There were at times as many as twenty of these nicely successive steps cut into the body of the wave. We tried to photograph them, but the very poor visibility and the fast motion of the waves resulted only in a blurred print.

— “Peculiar Stratified Shape of Typhoon Waves,” Nature, Feb. 12, 1955

A Goodnight Kiss

On Oct. 13, 1863, Connecticut manufacturer S.R. Wilmot was sailing from Liverpool to New York aboard the steamer City of Limerick when he dreamed that his wife visited his stateroom and kissed him. When he awoke, his cabin mate said, “You’re a pretty fellow, to have a lady come and visit you this way.” He related what he had seen, lying awake in his bunk, and Wilmot was surprised to find it corresponded exactly with his dream.

When he joined his wife in Watertown, she asked, “Did you receive a visit from me a week ago Tuesday?”

“A visit from you?” he asked. “We were more than a thousand miles at sea.”

“I know it,” she said, “but it seemed to me that I visited you.”

She explained that she had been thinking about him on the night in question, and “it seemed to her that she went out to seek me. Crossing the wide and stormy sea, she came at length to a low, black steamship, whose side she went up, and then descending into the cabin, passed through it to the stern until she came to my state-room.”

“Tell me,” she said, “do they ever have state-rooms like the one I saw, where the upper berth extends further back than the under one? A man was in the upper berth, looking right at me, and for a moment I was afraid to go in, but soon I went up to the side of your berth, bent down and kissed you, and embraced you, and then went away.”

“The description given by my wife of the steamship was correct in all particulars, though she had never seen it.”

(Frederic Myers, Principles of Psychology, 1891)

The Pororoca

Several times a year, the Atlantic sends a tidal wave up the Amazon. It’s loud, violent, and full of debris, and it can be up to 13 feet high.

So, naturally, people surf it.

A good ocean wave might last 30 seconds, but one surfer rode the pororoca for 37 straight minutes. It carried him 7.7 miles upriver.

Thor Loser

Robert H. Stanley of Greenfield, N.H., must have angered the rain gods — he went to bed during a terrific downpour on Aug. 2, 1966, and awoke to find it had targeted his house alone:

After finding the 5.75 in. of rain in the gage, he inquired from a neighbor 0.3 miles to the east. He found that the neighbor had but 0.50 in. in his gage. He thereupon examined the countryside for visible effects. The road washout extended for only a few hundred feet. Upon going one-half mile in either direction, no evidence of rain erosion of sand or gravel could be found. South of the house, beginning at the gage which was mounted on a pole, well distant from structures or trees, there stretches a 10-acre field. The knee-high grass therein was beaten down flat. By afternoon it began to revive. By the following noon it was erect. To the west of the house, a dry-wash brook running bankful at dawn was empty by 0800 EST. Drawing a line around the traces of erosion, one obtains an oval area about a mile north-south and about three-fourths of a mile east-west. Within this area, rain varied from the order of 1 in. on the limits to almost 6 in. in the center. Outside this limit, rain is believed to have fallen off sharply to less than one-fourth of an inch, generally within a few thousand feet.

(Monthly Weather Review, 93:164-68, 1970)

Pest Control

On Aug. 25, 1965, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Greenlee were sitting on their patio in Dunnellon, Fla., with a neighbor, Mrs. Riggs.

Mrs. Greenlee had just swatted a fly when a ball of lightning the size of a basketball appeared immediately in front of her. The ball was later described as being of a color and brightness comparable to the flash seen in arc welding, with a fuzzy appearance around the edges. Mrs. Riggs did not see the ball itself, but saw the flyswatter ‘edged in fire’ dropping on the floor. The movement of the ball to the floor was accompanied by a report ‘like a shotgun blast.’ The entire incident was over in seconds.

… The explosion was heard by a neighbor about 150 feet away, and it was subsequently learned that another neighbor’s electric range had been shorted out at the same time. There was no damage of any sort at the Greenlees, nor were there any marks on the patio floor where the flyswatter had fallen. With regard to the fly, Mrs. Riggs commented, ‘You sure got him that time.’

— Frederick B. Mohr, “A Truly Remarkable Fly,” Science, Feb. 11, 1966

The Yellowstone Lake Whispers


Image: Flickr

For more than a century, people have been hearing strange sounds in the sky over the lakes of Yellowstone National Park:

  • “While getting breakfast, we heard every few moments a curious sound, between a whistle and a hoarse whine, whose locality and character we could not at first determine …” (F.H. Bradley, 1872)
  • “[I]t seemed to begin at a distance [and] grow louder overhead where it filled the upper air, and suggested a medley of wind in the tops of pine trees and in telegraph wires, the echo of bells after being repeated several times, the humming of a swarm of bees, and two or three other less definite sources of sound …” (Edwin Linton, 1892)
  • “It put me in mind of the vibrating clang of a harp lightly and rapidly touched high up above the tree tops, or the sound of many telegraph wires swinging regularly and rapidly in the wind, or, more rarely, of faintly heard voices answering each other overhead.” (S.A. Forbes, 1893)
  • “They resemble the ringing of telegraph wires or the humming of a swarm of bees, beginning softly in the distance, growing rapidly plainer until directly overhead, and then fading as rapidly in the opposite direction.” (H.M. Chittenden, 1915)

Evidently the sound is very difficult to describe in words — one of Linton’s party called it “a twisting sort of yow-yow vibration.” Forbes calls it “really bewitching,” and Linton’s guide, Elwood Hofer, called it “the most mysterious sound heard among the mountains.”

Possibly it’s produced by the surrounding mountains under seismic stress, or it could be standing sound waves produced by the wind. No one knows.

Two and Two

In 1977, a gravely ill 19-month-old Qatari girl was flown to a London hospital, where her condition continued to worsen, baffling her doctors.

On the sixth day, the observing nurse was startled to see that the girl began to lose her hair. She realized that the patient’s symptoms were strikingly similar to those in Agatha Christie’s novel The Pale Horse, which she had been reading.

In Christie’s novel, the murder victims had been killed by thallium poisoning. Tests confirmed elevated levels of thallium in the girl’s urine, and doctors treated her accordingly. Three weeks later she was well enough to go home.