This walking hero [Daniel Crisp] on Sept. 21, 1802, walked one mile in seven minutes and fifty seconds, on the City-road, London.—July 16, 1817, commenced walking backwards forty miles daily for seven days, and completed 280 miles by that retrograde motion, on Wormwood Scrubs, near London, one hour and a quarter within the given time, to the surprise of thousands who witnessed the performance. … April 23, 1818, commenced walking from London to Oxford, to and fro by way of Datchet, Windsor, and Henley, the distance of sixty-one miles daily for seventeen successive days, and completed the 1037 miles on the 9th of May at eight minutes after eleven at night, being fifty-two minutes within the given time; during the performance of this arduous undertaking it rained heavily for ten days, which caused the Thames to overflow on the road to the depth of two feet and a half, and a quarter of a mile in length, which he was obliged to walk through for five days.
– Pierce Egan, Sporting Anecdotes, Original and Selected, 1822
The Tri-State Tornado of 1925 traveled 200 miles through the American Midwest, killing nearly 700 people.
Along the way, it drove a 1×5-inch board through a 2×6-inch plank.
If you’re a woman and want to humiliate a man, invite him to watch you do this:
- Stand with your toes touching a wall.
- Placing one foot behind the other, take two steps back.
- Have him place a chair between you and the wall.
- Bend at the waist and place the top of your head against the wall.
- Lift the chair.
- Stand erect.
Now challenge him to do the same. If he’s like most men he’ll get stuck on step 6. The common explanation is that men’s hips are built differently; they also have proportionally bigger feet. Either way, you can easily pick his pocket while he’s struggling there.
Canadian cats have their own parliament. In the same precinct of Ottawa where the human legislature meets, Irène Desormeaux erected a feline equivalent in the 1970s. The cats are all spayed or neutered, they get free inoculations and medical care, and the whole thing is run by volunteers using personal donations.
Mark Lindsey had just graduated from the Virginia Tech architecture school in 1982 when his firm was asked to design an addition to the football stadium at VT’s rival, the University of Virginia.
“There was a V-shaped opening at the end of the stadium,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “And I had a late-night inspiration that the best thing to put in this V-shaped opening was a T.”
To everyone’s surprise, UVA bought it, and Bryant Hall opened in 1985. In fact, though the VT logo was clearly visible from the air, UVA officials didn’t notice it until it was pointed out. They replaced the building in 1999.
“It’s been a great little story to tell at parties,” Lindsey said.
1816 is known as “the year without a summer” — the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora flung huge amounts of volcanic dust into the atmosphere, dropping temperatures worldwide and giving the sky a sallow cast that’s visible in Turner’s landscapes of the period (above).
It was a great calamity for farmers, but a boon for horror literature — the “wet, ungenial summer” forced Mary Shelley and John Polidori indoors on their Swiss holiday, where they wrote both Frankenstein and The Vampyre.
Here’s a familiar illusion known as the Ames room. The woman on the right is not really small, she’s just far away. The room is a trapezoid but is designed to appear square when viewed from this angle.
Curiously, a woman who loves and trusts her husband tends to see no change in him even as he walks from corner to corner; apparently she resists a distorted view of him.
The same is not true of men.
Suffolk’s “House in the Clouds” disguised a water tower in 1923, but since 1979 it’s been fully converted into living space, with five bedrooms and three bathrooms.
You can try it for yourself for £700 a night: “Total of 67 easy stairs with 4 landings and 5 half landings–resting seats for the less able on each landing.”
Last March I remarked on a curious experiment that defies common sense but is corroborated by several independent accounts, from Samuel Pepys to David Brewster.
Well, here’s another one. In Endless Amusement: A Collection of Nearly 400 Entertaining Experiments in Various Branches of Science (1821), we find an item headed “The Hour of the Day or Night Told by a Suspended Shilling”:
However improbable the following experiment may appear, it has been proved by repeated trials:
Sling a shilling or sixpence at the end of a piece of thread by means of a loop. Then resting your elbow on a table, hold the other end of the thread betwixt your forefinger and thumb; observing to let it pass across the ball of the thumb, and thus suspend the shilling into an empty goblet. Observe, your hand must be perfectly steady; and if you find it difficult to keep it in an immoveable posture, it is useless to attempt the experiment. Premising, however, that the shilling is properly suspended, you will observe, that when it has recovered its equilibrium, it will for a moment be stationary: it will then of its own accord, and without the least agency from the person holding it, assume the action of a pendulum, vibrating from side to side of the glass; and, after a few seconds, will strike the hour nearest to the time of day; for instance, if the time be twenty-five minutes past six, it will strike six; if thirty-five minutes past six, it will strike seven, and so of any other hour.
It is necessary to observe, that the thread should lay over the pulse of the thumb, and this may in some measure account for the vibration of the shilling; but to what cause its striking the precise hour is to be traced, remains unexplained; for it is no less astonishing than true, that when it has struck the proper number, its vibration ceases, it acquires a kind of rotary motion, and at last becomes stationary, as before.
This is worth trying even if you think it’s balderdash, as the effect is striking. In my trials the plumb hung true for a full minute, but then it did indeed begin swinging, tolled the hour, and then hung quietly again.
Who came up with this? From what I can tell, the item first appeared in the European Magazine of June or July 1819, and it seems to have inspired a fitful scientific debate around England. The Monthly Magazine (May 1, 1820) called it “legerdemain”; a letter in The Kaleidoscope (Nov. 22, 1823) confirmed the effect, “but why its movements should be regulated to the precise hour of the day I cannot possibly account for.” The Minerva (July 24, 1824) gave a fairly straightforward account of the technique; and The English Mechanic (June 14, 1872) expressed polite bafflement.
Interestingly, when The Magazine of Science, and School of Arts (Jan. 1, 1842) opined that “there is no truth whatever in the experiment,” a science-minded reader wrote in to disagree, detailing numerous trials with various materials at various hours and concluding that “I honestly confess I cannot explain it.” He offered these notes if you’d like to try it yourself:
- “I remarked on many occasions, that should the suspended coin fail of striking all the hours consecutively, it will vibrate on until it obtains momentum to perform its work.”
- “The operator must have a steady hand and arm and a fair proportion of patience.”
- It seems to work best with a metal weight, a silk string, and a warm glass.
Your eyes are fine; the tower is crooked. The 86-foot church steeple in Suurhusen, in northern Germany, inclines 5 degrees — a full degree more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
From Hastings, on the English shore, to the French cliffs, is more than fifty miles, and they are of course hid from each other by the convexity of the earth. On the evening of the 26th of July, 1798, the coast of France was visible at Hastings to the naked eye for several leagues, as though only a few miles off. Every spot was distinctly seen from Calais, Boulogne, as far as Dieppe. With the aid of a telescope, the fishing boats were seen at anchor, the different colors of the land upon the heights were distinguishable, and the sailors pointed out the places they were in the habit of visiting. The account of the phenomenon was drawn up by Mr. Lanham, a fellow of the Royal Society, who was an eye witness.
– The Thomsonian Recorder, Aug. 30, 1834
In 1969, John Rendall and Anthony Bourke bought a 35-pound lion cub at Harrods department store in London and raised him in a local furniture store. They loved their new pet, but within a year “Christian” had grown to 185 pounds and the cost of keeping him was becoming prohibitive. So conservationist George Adamson took Christian to Kenya and introduced him into the Kora Nature Reserve, where eventually he led a pride.
One year later, Rendall and Bourke traveled to Africa hoping to visit their old friend. The lion hadn’t been seen in nine months, but on the day of their arrival, he appeared outside the camp. Even so, Adamson warned them, he might not recognize them if they approached. Here’s what happened:
What’s special about this 1882 Danish birth record?
Its owner, Christian Mortensen, was still alive in 1997.
He was looking forward to being declared the world’s most ancient person when he was told that a slightly older woman had been discovered in Canada.
“They just did that to spoil my birthday,” he said.
E. Douglas Fawcett’s 1893 story “Hartmann the Anarchist” described an aerial bombardment of London — 47 years before World War II:
With eyes riveted now to the massacre, I saw frantic women trodden down by men; huge clearings made by the shells and instantly filled up; house-fronts crushing horses and vehicles as they fell; fires bursting out on all sides, to devour what they listed, and terrified police struggling wildly and helplessly in the heart of the press.
Hartmann rains dynamite bombs, shells, and blazing petroleum from his airship before a mutiny brings him down. “It has not been my aim to write history,” writes the narrator. “I have sought to throw light only on one of its more romantic corners.”
In 1957 ornithologists marked a Manx shearwater, a migrating seabird, on Bardsey Island off Wales.
In April 2002 they discovered the same bird was still alive and still gamely flying to South America each winter.
In the intervening 45 years, they calculated, it had covered 5 million miles.
See also Longest Migration.
A tied football match in southern Congo came to an unexpected conclusion on Oct. 28, 1998, when a lightning bolt struck and killed all 11 members of the visiting team.
“The athletes from [home team] Basanga curiously came out of this catastrophe unscathed,” reported the Kinshasa newspaper L’Avenir.
“The exact nature of the lightning has divided the population in this region, which is known for its use of fetishes in football.”
Valentine Tapley, owner of the longest beard in the world, died Saturday, April 2, 1910, at his home, Spencerburg, Pike County, Missouri. He was eighty years old. It is said that when Lincoln was a candidate for the Presidency, Mr. Tapley, who was a Democrat, made a vow that if Lincoln was elected he would never cut his beard. The length of his beard was 12-1/2 feet for several years prior to his death. This is said to be longer than any other beard known. Mr. Tapley took great pride in his whiskers, and wore them wrapped in silk and wound about his body. During the latter part of his life he was apprehensive his grave would be robbed for his whiskers, and in his will he made provision for a tomb of extra strength to guard against this. Mr. Tapley declined several offers to exhibit his beard. He was a large owner of Pike County farming land, and died wealthy.
– Virgil McClure Harris, Ancient, Curious and Famous Wills, 1911
Thomas Tresham spent 15 years in prison for his Catholicism, and when he got out in 1593 he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Rather than convert to Protestantism, he designed the Rushton Triangular Lodge to reflect his belief in the Holy Trinity.
Each of the three-sided building’s three walls is 33 feet long and sports three gables, three-sided windows, a trio of gargoyles, and a 33-letter Latin inscription. Even the chimney is triangular.
Lest anyone miss the point, Tresham had the front door inscribed Tres testimonium dant. It means “The number three bears witness.”
Prospector William Schmidt was overjoyed when he struck gold on California’s Copper Mountain, but he faced one problem: He was on the north side of the mountain, and the road to the smelter was on the south side.
So he dug a tunnel.
He started in 1906, at age 35, working with a pick, a 4-pound hammer, a hand drill, and dynamite. When he finally broke into daylight on the mountain’s south side, it was 1938 and he was 66 years old. He had single-handedly dug a tunnel 1,872 feet long, displacing 2,600 cubic yards of granite.
Alas, success had to be its own reward. While Schmidt had been digging, rail and road links had been built around the mountain — so the tunnel was unnecessary.
The world’s longest handwritten poem is nearly 1 kilometer long. Unveiled by French notary Patrick Huet in 2006, Pieces of Hope to the Echo of the World comprises 7,547 verses.
All that length is necessary — the poem is one long acrostic. The initial letters of its lines spell out the complete Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The largest city in human history is modern Tokyo, with a population of around 35 million. That’s a pretty big mammal colony, but it’s nowhere near the record.
In 1901 scientists discovered a “town” of 400 million prairie dogs in Texas. It covered more than 23,000 square miles — an area larger than Costa Rica.
Seeing so many meteorological phenomena in your excellent paper, Knowledge, I am tempted to ask for an explanation of the following, which I saw when on board the British India Company’s steamer Patna while on a voyage up the Persian Gulf. In May, 1880, on a dark, calm night, about 11.30 p.m., there suddenly appeared on each side of the ship an enormous luminous wheel whirling round, the spokes of which seemed to brush the ship along. The spokes would be 200 or 300 yards long, and resembled the birch rods of the dames’ schools. Each wheel contained about sixteen spokes, and made the revolution in about twelve seconds. One could almost fancy one heard the swish as the spokes whizzed past the ship, and, although the wheels must have been some 500 or 600 yards in diameter, the spokes could be distinctly seen all the way round. The phosphorescent gleam seemed to glide along flat on the surface of the sea, no light being visible in the air above the water. The appearance of the spokes could be almost exactly represented by standing in a boat and flashing a bull’s-eye lantern horizontally along the surface of the water round and round. I may mention that the phenomenon was also seen by Captain Avern, commander of the Patna, and Mr. Manning, third officer. Lee Fore Brace.
– Knowledge, Dec. 28, 1883
See Light Show for a remarkably similar account.
British sailors had some furry help during World War II. Tiddles (left) spent his whole life aboard Royal Navy aircraft carriers, traveling some 30,000 miles with them. He was born at sea on HMS Argus and was later promoted to captain’s cat on HMS Victorious. He’s pictured in July 1942 at his favorite station, on the after capstan, where he could play with the bellrope.
Convoy, the ship’s cat on HMS Hermione, was so named because he often accompanied the ship on convoy escort duties. He was listed in the ship’s book and given a full kit, including his own hammock. He went down with 87 of his shipmates when the Hermione was torpedoed in 1942.
“In a cat’s eyes,” runs an English proverb, “all things belong to cats.”