Oddities

A War in the Sky

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At sunrise on April 14, 1561, the citizens of Nuremberg, Germany, witnessed a strange aerial spectacle. According to a contemporary broadsheet, large numbers of red, blue and black “globes” or “plates” appeared near the sun, “some three in a row, now and then four in a square, also some standing alone. And amongst these globes some blood-colored crosses were seen.” Two great tubes also appeared, “in which three, four and more globes were to be seen. They then all began to fight one another.”

After an hour, “they all fell … from the sun and sky down to the earth, as if everything were on fire, then it slowly faded away on the earth, producing a lot of steam.”

Strangely, the same thing happened five years later in Basel, Switzerland. On Aug. 7, 1566, also at sunrise, “many large black globes were seen in the air, moving before the sun with great speed, and turning against each other as if fighting. Some of them became red and fiery and afterwards faded and went out.”

Turnspit Dogs

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Well, here’s a cheery scene. Laughing children, a bright fire, and … wait a minute, is that a dog on a treadmill?

Once common, turnspit dogs were specially bred to run on wheels and turn meat. Typically they were kept in pairs so they could take turns at the hot and unpleasant work, which largely went unappreciated. In Of English Dogs (1576) they’re described as “long-bodied, crooked-legged and ugly dogs, with a suspicious, unhappy look about them.”

Perhaps fortunately, the breed is extinct now, made obsolete by the mechanized kitchen.

Mabus

Sixteenth-century prophet Nostradamus predicted three Antichrists. The first two are thought to have been Napoleon and Hitler, but the third, known only as “Mabus,” hasn’t shown up yet. Here are the relevant quatrains:

Mabus will soon die, then will come
A horrible undoing of man and beast,
We will see vengeance at once,
One hundred powers, thirst, famine, when passes the comet.

His hand finally through the bloody ALUS,
He will be unable to protect himself by sea,
Between two rivers he will fear the military hand,
The black and angry one will make him repent of it.

What does this mean? Who knows? Presumably it’ll make sense at the time.

Naga Fireballs

Every October, glowing balls rise from the depths of the Mekong River in Thailand and Laos. Each night hundreds of reddish orbs, each the size of an egg, rise to about 200 meters above the river and disappear.

No one’s sure what’s causing them. Possibly the river’s sediment is fermenting and combusting. Villagers attribute the fireballs to the phaya naga, which they say lives in the Mekong. Whatever the cause, they make for a good festival.

Foo Fighters

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During World War II, Allied pilots over Europe and the Pacific reported seeing blobs of light or fire near their planes. In 1945, Time reported:

If it was not a hoax or an optical illusion, it was certainly the most puzzling secret weapon that Allied fighters have yet encountered. Last week U.S. night fighter pilots based in France told a strange story of balls of fire which for more than a month have been following their planes at night over Germany. No one seemed to know what, if anything, the fireballs were supposed to accomplish. Pilots, guessing it was a new psychological weapon, named it the “foo-fighter.” … Their descriptions of the apparition varied, but they agree that the mysterious flares stuck close to their planes and appeared to follow them at high speed for miles. One pilot said that a foo-fighter, appearing as red balls off his wing tips, stuck with him until he dove at 360 miles an hour; then the balls zoomed up into the sky.

Possibly they were electrical discharges, like St. Elmo’s fire, or possibly German anti-aircraft batteries were firing flares to aid their night fighters. Whatever they were, the lights apparently caused no injury or damage.

“Lamps Lighted by Currents Passed Through the Human Body”

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Mark Twain in the laboratory of his friend, inventor Nikola Tesla, where in 1894 Twain briefly became a human light bulb:

In Fig. 13 a most curious and weird phenomenon is illustrated. A few years ago electricians would have considered it quite remarkable, if indeed they do not now. The observer holds a loop of bare wire in his hands. The currents induced in the loop by means of the “resonating” coil over which it is held, traverse the body of the observer, and at the same time, as they pass between his bare hands, they bring two or three lamps held there to bright incandescence. Strange as it may seem, these currents, of a voltage one or two hundred times as high as that employed in electrocution, do not inconvenience the experimenter in the slightest. The extremely high tension of the currents which Mr. Clemens is seen receiving prevents them from doing any harm to him.

— T.C. Martin, “Tesla’s Oscillator and Other Inventions,” Century Magazine, April 1895

Adam Rainer

Adam Rainer lived as both a dwarf and a giant. Born in 1899 in Austria, Rainer was 3 feet 10.5 inches tall at age 21. Then, suddenly, he began to grow, stretching a full meter in the next 11 years to reach 7 feet 1.75 inches in 1931. The physical strain left him bedridden for life, but he kept growing. When he died in 1950 at age 51, Rainer had reached 7 feet 8 inches, having grown 46 inches during his adult years. No one knows why.

The Maine Penny

Digging in an old Indian settlement in 1957, Maine archaeologists turned up a silver penny that had been minted in Norway between 1065 and 1080 A.D.

That means either that ancient Norse had visited the region … or that the natives had quite an extensive trade network. An arctic Eskimo cutting tool was found at the same site.

Auroral Sounds

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Ever since ancient Rome, people have reported hearing the aurora borealis. It’s been described as a crackling, hissing, buzzing, or whistling.

Modern science can’t explain such sounds (yet), and so far no one’s managed to record them, so for now the jury’s still out.

Related: In 1881, correspondent F.C. Constable wrote to Nature of walking home during an electric storm in Karachi when “I heard all round me the constant crackling or rustling of blazing flames. Towards the north-west across a low arc near the horizon pale sheet lightning swayed quickly to and fro. There was no rain at the time, that came heavily afterwards. The sound of flames was close round me, and others had the same experience. No one I can find has ever seen lightning so completely fill the air or heard such strange sounds.”

Love Padlocks

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In the 1980s, in the Hungarian city of Pécs, lovers began to clamp padlocks to this wrought-iron fence as a symbol of their commitment.

Now that the fence has filled up, people have begun attaching locks to fences and statues throughout the town center, and the custom has spread to Hungary, Latvia, Italy and Japan.

“Love is a lock that linketh noble minds,” wrote Robert Greene, “faith is the key that shuts the spring of love.”

Bishop-Fish

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Is there an aquatic church we don’t know about? Three centuries after John Stow’s sea monk escaped, a “bishop-fish” was caught and taken to the king of Poland. It gestured to a group of Catholic bishops, appealing to be released, and when they granted its wish it made the sign of the cross and swam away.

Another bishop-fish was reportedly caught near Germany in 1531. This one refused to eat and died after three days.

Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner, who described it in his Historia Animalium, also refers to monk-fish caught off Norway and in the Firth of Forth. Someone ought to take up a collection.

The Ding Hai Effect

Adam Cheng isn’t very popular among stockbrokers. That’s because every time the Hong Kong actor stars in a new television show, there’s a sharp drop in global stock markets.

No one can explain it, but it’s happened eight times since 1993, when Cheng first starred as Ding Hai in the dramatic series Greed of Man. Only once, in 2004, has a new Cheng series not been accompanied by a drop in the stock market.

Desert Downpour

A “magic tap.” Can you see how it’s done?

Click for Answer

Richard Sharpe Shaver

Amazing Stories was full of, well, amazing stories, but Richard Sharpe Shaver insisted that his were true. Between 1943 and 1948, Shaver and editor/publisher Ray Palmer told of cavern cities filled with evil robots that kidnapped and tortured unwary humans. Shaver insisted he had been a prisoner for several years.

Strangely, the first story brought a flood of excited letters corroborating Shaver’s tale. One woman claimed she had been abducted from a Paris subbasement and raped and tortured before good robots freed her. “Shaver Mystery Club” chapters began to spring up, and Amazing gained about 50,000 subscribers.

The stories petered out as the sensation ran its course, though the clubs persisted into the late 1950s. By the 1970s, Shaver was insisting that certain rocks were “books” created by ancient Atlanteans. Today it seems he was not a misunderstood visionary but a troubled schizophrenic with a compelling imagination.

The Forevertron

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The Forevertron is the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world. Salvage expert Tom Every spent decades collecting 320 tons of antique machinery, including dynamos built by Thomas Edison and an actual decontamination chamber from the Apollo project. It’s in southern Wisconsin.

The Coso Artifact

In 1961, three prospectors in California found a sparkplug encased in solid rock.

It was originally thought to be 500,000 years old, which would put it in a class with the Kingoodie Hammer and the Dorchester Pot.

More recent investigations say the “rock” is just a concretion of iron oxide produced by the rusting plug, which may date only from the 1920s … but discoverer Mike Mikesell says he destroyed a diamond-edged blade in cutting through it.

Rock-Cut Architecture

You think your job’s bad. This was carved by hand from solid rock.

India has more than 1,200 such structures, the earliest dating to 8000 B.C.

“The Tomatina”

The world’s largest food fight takes place each year on the last Wednesday in August, when the town of Buñol, Spain, holds its annual tomato festival. Local trucks dump more than 100 metric tons of overripe tomatoes into the streets, and there’s a general free-for-all among up to 25,000 people.

Reportedly, when it’s over, rivers of tomato juice up to 12 inches deep run through the town, and area fire engines hose down the streets.

This has been going on since 1944, and apparently it has no political or religious significance — they do it just for fun.

Megacryometeors

If you visited Spain in January 2000, you needed a tin umbrella: Chunks of ice weighing up to 6.6 pounds fell out of a cloudless sky for 10 days.

No one knows how the ice formed. The chunks resembled hailstones, but no thunderstorm was present.

Planetary geologist Jesus Martinez-Frias dubbed the stones megacryometeors, and more than 50 have been recorded since the Spanish fall. The largest, in Brazil, weighed 485 pounds.

Sirrush

This is a sirrush, a curious creature that keeps turning up in Babylonian art. Basically it’s a dragon with a cat’s forelegs and an eagle’s talons. Strangely, it was depicted that way consistently for centuries, while other mythological animals went through sometimes drastic evolutions.

The German archaeologist Robert Koldewey, who discovered this bas-relief on the Ishtar Gate in 1902, believed that the sirrush might have been a real animal. For one thing, he pointed out, it’s depicted among ordinary animals, including lions and aurochs. For another, a biblical text refers to a “great dragon or serpent, which they of Babylon worshiped.”

After some research, Koldeway decided the best match was the iguanodon, a dinosaur with birdlike hind feet. Ancient civilizations are known to have unearthed fossils, so possibly the Babylonians had found the remains of an iguanodon or of a monitor lizard. Or, much more speculatively, perhaps some dinosaur lines still survived 2400 years ago in Central Africa — where bricks have been found similar to those in the Ishtar Gate.

Finger Fumblers

If you don’t speak, you can’t misspeak, right? Not so: American Sign Language has the equivalent of tongue twisters, known as finger fumblers.

One example is “good blood, bad blood” — which is hard to say in speech or sign.

Bigfoot East

That’s “Wild Man Cave” in Chinese. It’s an inscription near the entrance of the “Yeren Cave” in Western Hubei Province, China.

Known variously as the yeren, wild man, man-monkey, and man-bear, a huge red-haired hominid has been sighted at least 400 times in Hubei since the 1920s. In recent years the Chinese government has even begun distributing posters and funding scientific expeditions.

Maybe it’s just a legend, or maybe it’s a new species of orangutan. Or maybe it’s a remnant line of a giant ape that lived in these very mountains until about 100,000 years ago. Gigantopithecus was the largest ape that ever lived, three times the size of a gorilla — and its bones are still found in local caves. Hmm.

Dighton Rock

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In May 1502, Portuguese explorer Miguel Corte-Real set out to find his brother Gaspar, who had disappeared somewhere near Newfoundland the previous year. Miguel also disappeared, and was assumed to have died in a storm …

… but no one has explained the inscriptions on Dighton Rock, a 40-ton boulder in the Taunton River in Massachusetts. It was customary for Portuguese explorers to inscribe their nation’s coat of arms as a land claim during the Age of Discovery, so some scholars believe that Miguel reached the New World and survived long enough to stake an early claim in Massachusetts. No other trace of him exists.

The St. Augustine Monster

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On Nov. 30, 1896, two young boys came across an unidentified carcass on the beach near St. Augustine, Fla. Pale pink and rubbery, it was huge, 18 feet long and weighing an estimated 5 tons.

An analysis in 1971 agreed with early guesses that it was a gigantic octopus — in this case almost unthinkably huge, “with arms 75 to 100 feet in length and about 18 inches in diameter at the base — a total spread of some 200 feet.”

More recent studies in 1995 and 2004 say it was “the skin of an enormous warm-blooded vertebrate,” probably the entire blubber layer of a whale. Ick.

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