Blades of Glory

https://www.google.com/patents/US2888703

I don’t know why this never caught on — in 1959 Klara Karwowska invented little windshield wipers for eyeglasses:

The present invention is directed to a wiper means for maintaining the lenses clean or clear of steam, rain, snow, or other foreign matter, and the wiper mechanism of the present invention includes a source of electrical energy such as the battery which may be secured to the frame in any suitable manner.

The battery would make them a little bulky, but that’s a small price to pay for clear vision. I could wear these in the shower!

MENACE

In 1960, British researcher Donald Michie combined his loves of computation and biology to consider whether a machine might learn — whether by consulting its record of past experience it could perform tasks with progressively greater success.

To investigate this he designed a machine to play noughts and crosses (or tic-tac-toe). He called it the Machine Educable Noughts And Crosses Engine, which gives it the pleasingly intimidating acronym MENACE. MENACE consists of 304 matchboxes, each of which represents a board position. Each box contains a collection of beads representing available moves in that position, and after each game these collections are adjusted in light of the outcome (as described here). In this way the engine learns from its experience — over time it becomes less likely to play losing moves, and more likely to play winning (or drawing) ones, and it becomes a more successful player as a result.

University College London mathematician Matthew Scroggs describes the engine above, and he’s built an online version that you can try out for yourself — it really does get noticeably better as it plays.

An Orderly Alphabet

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:TYPEWRITERimage.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the early days of typewriting, this was usually the first thing typed on each new typewriter after it rolled off the production line:

Amaranath sasesusos Oronoco initiation secedes Uruguay Philadelphia

A worker known as an aligner typed it to check that the resulting letters were aligned correctly on the platen.

How does it work? ‘Amaranath,’ the misspelled name of an imaginary flower, checks the alignment of the vowel ‘a’ between a number of common consonants. ‘Oronoco’ checks the ‘o’ key, while ‘secedes,’ ‘initiation’ and ‘Uruguay’ check three vowels that are among the most commonly used of all letters, ‘e,’ ‘i,’ and ‘u.’ ‘Sasesusos’ not only compares four of the five vowels in the same word against the baseline of the letter ‘s,’ but also ‘includes several of the most common letter combinations in twentieth-century business English.’ ‘Philadelphia’ checks the horizontal alignment of ‘i’ and ‘l,’ the narrowest letters on the keyboard.

What does “Amaranath sasesusos Oronoco initiation secedes Uruguay Philadelphia” actually mean? “Unlike most sentences, it was rarely spoken, and no one particularly cared what it might mean in the conventional sense.” (The “quick brown fox” came later.)

(From Darren Wershler-Henry, The Iron Whim, 2005.)

Marine Warfare

Humans tend to abuse sea creatures, so digital artist Neil Mendoza gave them a way to fight back. As Smashie the fish swims around his aquatic habitat, he takes aim at the human habitat outside; the hammer drops periodically when a rotating cam releases it.

Mendoza created the project through Autodesk’s artist-in-residence program. You can build your own “fish hammer actuation device” with the instructions here.

Podcast Episode 177: Averting a Catastrophe in Manhattan

https://www.flickr.com/photos/steve_soblick/22162534936
Image: Flickr

New York’s Citicorp Tower was an architectural sensation when it opened in 1977. But then engineer William LeMessurier realized that its unique design left it dangerously vulnerable to high winds. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the drama that followed as a small group of decision makers tried to ward off a catastrophe in midtown Manhattan.

We’ll also cringe at an apartment mixup and puzzle over a tolerant trooper.

Intro:

A surprising number of record releases have been made of sandpaper.

In high school, Ernest Hemingway wrote a poem consisting entirely of punctuation.

Sources for our feature on the Citicorp Tower:

Joseph Morgenstern, “The Fifty-Nine-Story Crisis,” New Yorker, May 29, 1995.

“All Fall Down,” The Works, BBC, April 14, 1996.

Eugene Kremer, “(Re)Examining the Citicorp Case: Ethical Paragon or Chimera?” Arq: Architectural Research Quarterly 6:3 (September 2002), 269-276.

Joel Werner, “The Design Flaw That Almost Wiped Out an NYC Skyscraper,” Slate, April 17, 2014.

Sean Brady, “Citicorp Center Tower: How Failure Was Averted,” Engineers Journal, Dec. 8, 2015.

Michael J. Vardaro, “LeMessurier Stands Tall: A Case Study in Professional Ethics,” AIA Trust, Spring 2013.

P. Aarne Vesilind and Alastair S. Gunn, Hold Paramount: The Engineer’s Responsibility to Society, 2010.

Caroline Whitbeck, Ethics in Engineering Practice and Research, 1998.

Ibo van de Poel and Lambèr Royakkers, Ethics, Technology, and Engineering: An Introduction, 2011.

Matthew Wells, Skyscrapers: Structure and Design, 2005.

Gordon C. Andrews, Canadian Professional Engineering and Geoscience: Practice and Ethics, 2009.

“William J. LeMessurier,” American Society of Civil Engineers, July 1, 2007.

David Langdon, “Citigroup Center / Hugh Stubbins + William Le Messurier,” ArchDaily, Nov. 5, 2014.

Vanessa Rodriguez, “Citicorp Center – New York City (July 1978),” Failures Wiki (accessed Oct. 28, 2017).

Jason Carpenter, “The Nearly Fatal Design Flaw That Could Have Sent the Citigroup Center Skyscraper Crumbling,” 6sqft., Aug. 15, 2014.

Stanley H. Goldstein and Robert A. Rubin, “Engineering Ethics,” Civil Engineering 66:10 (October 1996), 40.

“Selected Quotes,” Civil Engineering 66:10 (October 1996), 43.

“Readers Write,” Civil Engineering 66:11 (November 1996), 30.

James Glanz and Eric Lipton, “A Midtown Skyscraper Quietly Adds Armor,” New York Times, Aug. 15, 2002.

“F.Y.I.,” New York Times, Feb. 2, 1997, CY2.

Anthony Ramirez, “William LeMessurier, 81, Structural Engineer,” New York Times, June 21, 2007, C13.

Henry Petroski, “Engineering: A Great Profession,” American Scientist 94:4 (July-August 2006), 304-307.

Richard Korman, “LeMessurier’s Confession,” Engineering News-Record 235:18 (October 30, 1995), 10.

Richard Korman, “Critics Grade Citicorp Confession,” Engineering News-Record 234:21(Nov. 20, 1995), 10.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Relative Hour (Jewish Law)” (accessed Nov. 11, 2017).

“The Jewish Day,” chabad.org (accessed Nov. 11, 2017).

“Hours,” chabad.org (accessed Nov. 11, 2017).

“Zmanim Briefly Defined and Explained,” chabad.org (accessed Nov. 11, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Twenty Questions” (accessed Nov. 11, 2017).

“Two Types: The Faces of Britain,” BBC Four, Aug. 1, 2017.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Kelly Bruce.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Case Work

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alfred_Vail.GIF

Samuel Morse’s original plan for Morse code was to assign numbers to words; the operator would have to look up each number in a codebook as it was received in order to find its meaning. Morse’s New Jersey collaborator Alfred Vail thought this was tedious and expanded the code to a system of dots and dashes, where each letter of the alphabet was represented by a series of symbols.

To keep this simple he needed to work out the relative frequency of English letters, so that the most commonly used letters could get the shortest sequences of symbols. And “a happy idea enabled him to save his time. He went to the office of the local newspaper in Morristown and found the result he wanted in the type-cases of the compositors. The code was then arranged so that the most commonly used letters were indicated by the shortest symbols — a single dot for an E, a single dash for T and so on.”

Despite such breakthroughs, Vail finally left the telegraph business because he felt it didn’t value his contributions — even as superintendent of the Washington and New Orleans Telegraph Company he received only $900 a year. He wrote to Morse in 1848, “I have made up my mind to leave the Telegraph to take care of itself, since it cannot take care of me. I shall, in a few months, leave Washington for New Jersey, … and bid adieu to the subject of the Telegraph for some more profitable business.”

(From Russell W. Burns, Communications: An International History of the Formative Years, 2004.)

Above It All

https://www.google.com/patents/US915171

Here’s a lost art: “Ceiling walking” was a popular form of American entertainment as early as 1806, when “Sanches, the Wonderful Antipodean” wore iron shoes that were “fitted in grooves in a board fastened to the top of the stage.”

Spectacles such as this were drawing crowds right through the 19th century. In New Orleans in the 1880s a young “human fly” named Mademoiselle Aimee was carried by her teeth to a trapeze 50 feet in the air, from which she affixed her feet to the ceiling by some indistinct means. “Many such exclamations as ‘My God!’ ‘Oh My!’ and so on follow, and as she puts one foot before the other, walking in a forward direction, the situation is most thrilling,” marveled the Daily Picayune. “Often ladies have fainted at the sight of the almost child’s peril, and men have trembled while looking up at her. Many refuse to look up at all and those who do continue to look are in constant apprehension of a terrible accident. There is no question in the world but that the feat is without parallel in the matter of tempting fate.”

How was this done? There seem to be a range of answers. V. Waid’s “Theatrical Device” of 1905 used vacuum cups attached to the fly’s feet, but both E.I. George’s “Electric Aerial Ambulating System” of 1909 (above) and C.H. Newman and W. Berrigan’s “Electrical Device to Enable Showmen to Walk on the Ceiling” of 1885 used electromagnets.

How would this have evolved if it had remained popular? What would we be using today?

(From Jacob Smith, The Thrill Makers, 2012.)

Motor City

corbett traffic plan

In 1923 Columbia University architect Harvey Wiley Corbett proposed a novel solution to Manhattan’s traffic problem: surrender. His Proposals for Relieving Traffic Congestion in New York had four phases:

  1. The present situation.
  2. Pedestrians are transferred from street level to bridges that are cantilevered from the buildings, and patronize shops at this level.
  3. “Cut-ins” in the buildings permit six cars to move abreast, with parking space for two cars on each side.
  4. In the end the city’s entire ground level would be an ocean of cars, increasing traffic potential 700 percent, while pedestrians crossed streets on overhead bridges.

Corbett took a strangely romantic view of this: “The whole aspect becomes that of a very modernized Venice, a city of arcades, plazas and bridges, with canals for streets, only the canals will not be filled with real water but with freely flowing motor traffic, the sun glistening on the black tops of the cars and the buildings reflecting in this waving flood of rapidly rolling vehicles.”

By 1975, Corbett wrote, Manhattan could be a network of 20-lane streets in which pedestrians walk from “island” to “island” in a “system of 2,028 solitudes.” That doesn’t feel so different from what we have today.

Related: The city of Guanajuato, Mexico, is built on extremely irregular terrain, and many of the streets are impassable to cars. To compensate, the residents have converted underground drainage ditches and tunnels into roadways (below). These had been dug for flood control during colonial times, but modern dams have left them dry. (Thanks, David.)

Early Adopters

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mark_Twain_young.JPG

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:

THE WRITING BALL IS A THING LIKE ME:
MADE OF IRON YET EASILY TWISTED ON JOURNEYS.
PATIENCE AND TACT ARE REQUIRED IN ABUNDANCE
AS WELL AS FINE FINGERS TO USE US.

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

A Vertical Forest

Milan skyscrapers Bosco Verticale were named Best Tall Building Worldwide in 2015 by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, beating out 120 other contenders.

The two towers, 111 and 76 meters tall, are covered top to bottom with more than 900 trees, which attenuate noise, produce oxygen, and regulate temperature: During the summer, the leaves shade the apartments, and during the winter the leaves drop, allowing sunlight in. The building’s irrigation system directs water onto the porches to sustain the plants.

Each tree had to be pruned to fit within its balcony, a process that took two years. If all of them were transplated to the ground they’d make a forest of nearly two acres.

And “The Vertical Forest increases biodiversity,” architect Boeri Studio told Arch Daily. “It promotes the formation of an urban ecosystem where various plant types create a separate vertical environment, but which works within the existing network, able to be inhabited by birds and insects (with an initial estimate of 1,600 specimens of birds and butterflies). In this way, it constitutes a spontaneous factor for repopulating the city’s flora and fauna.”