Pedal Pushers

Cycling is popular in Trondheim, Norway, but the 130-meter hill Brubakken is more than some riders can manage. So the city installed the world’s first bicycle lift — press the start button and a plate will appear under your right foot and push you up the hill at 3-4 mph, rather like a ski lift.

With a maximum capacity of 6 cyclists per minute, the system has pushed more than 200,000 cyclists to the top of the hill in its 15 years of operation.

Podcast Episode 170: The Mechanical Turk

In 1770, Hungarian engineer Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled a miracle: a mechanical man who could play chess against human challengers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Kempelen’s Mechanical Turk, which mystified audiences in Europe and the United States for more than 60 years.

We’ll also sit down with Paul Erdős and puzzle over a useful amateur.


Lewis Carroll sent a birthday wish list to child friend Jessie Sinclair in 1878.

An octopus named Paul picked the winners of all seven of Germany’s World Cup games in 2010.

Sources for our feature on the Mechanical Turk:

Tom Standage, The Turk, 2002.

Elizabeth Bridges, “Maria Theresa, ‘The Turk,’ and Habsburg Nostalgia,” Journal of Austrian Studies 47:2 (Summer 2014), 17-36.

Stephen P. Rice, “Making Way for the Machine: Maelzel’s Automaton Chess-Player and Antebellum American Culture,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Third Series, 106 (1994), 1-16.

Dan Campbell, “‘Echec’: The Deutsches Museum Reconstructs the Chess-Playing Turk,” Events and Sightings, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 26:2 (April-June 2004), 84-85.

John F. Ohl and Joseph Earl Arrington, “John Maelzel, Master Showman of Automata and Panoramas,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 84:1 (January 1960), 56-92.

James W. Cook Jr., “From the Age of Reason to the Age of Barnum: The Great Automaton Chess-Player and the Emergence of Victorian Cultural Illusionism,” Winterthur Portfolio 30:4 (Winter 1995), 231-257.

W.K. Wimsatt Jr., “Poe and the Chess Automaton,” American Literature 11:2 (May 1939), 138-151.

Peggy Aldrich Kidwell, “Playing Checkers With Machines — From Ajeeb to Chinook,” Information & Culture 50:4 (2015), 578-587.

Brian P. Bloomfield and Theo Vurdubakis, “IBM’s Chess Players: On AI and Its Supplements,” Information Society 24 (2008), 69-82.

Nathan Ensmenger, “Is Chess the Drosophila of Artificial Intelligence? A Social History of an Algorithm,” Social Studies of Science 42:1 (February 2012), 5-30.

Martin Kemp, “A Mechanical Mind,” Nature 421:6920 (Jan. 16, 2003), 214.

Marco Ernandes, “Artificial Intelligence & Games: Should Computational Psychology Be Revalued?” Topoi 24:2 (September 2005), 229–242.

Brian P. Bloomfield and Theo Vurdubakis, “The Revenge of the Object? On Artificial Intelligence as a Cultural Enterprise,” Social Analysis 41:1 (March 1997), 29-45.

Mark Sussman, “Performing the Intelligent Machine: Deception and Enchantment in the Life of the Automaton Chess Player,” TDR 43:3 (Autumn 1999), 81-96.

James Berkley, “Post-Human Mimesis and the Debunked Machine: Reading Environmental Appropriation in Poe’s ‘Maelzel’s Chess-Player’ and ‘The Man That Was Used Up,'” Comparative Literature Studies 41:3 (2004), 356-376.

Kat Eschner, “Debunking the Mechanical Turk Helped Set Edgar Allan Poe on the Path to Mystery Writing,”, July 20, 2017.

Lincoln Michel, “The Grandmaster Hoax,” Paris Review, March 28, 2012.

Adam Gopnik, “A Point of View: Chess and 18th Century Artificial Intelligence,” BBC News, March 22, 2013.

Ella Morton, “The Mechanical Chess Player That Unsettled the World,” Slate, Aug. 20, 2015.

“The Automaton Chess Player,” Scientific American 48:7 (February 17, 1883), 103-104.

Robert Willis, An Attempt to Analyse the Automaton Chess Player, of Mr. de Kempelen, 1821.

“The Automaton Chess-Player,” Cornhill Magazine 5:27 (September 1885), 299-306.

Edgar Allan Poe, “Maelzel’s Chess-Player,” Southern Literary Messenger, April 1836, 318-326.

You can play through six of the Turk’s games on

Listener mail:

Nicholas Gibbs, “Voynich Manuscript: The Solution,” Times Literary Supplement, Sept. 5, 2017.

Annalee Newitz, “The Mysterious Voynich Manuscript Has Finally Been Decoded,” Ars Technica, Sept. 8, 2017.

Natasha Frost, “The World’s Most Mysterious Medieval Manuscript May No Longer Be a Mystery,” Atlas Obscura, Sept. 8, 2017.

Sarah Zhang, “Has a Mysterious Medieval Code Really Been Solved?” Atlantic, Sept. 10, 2017.

Annalee Newitz, “So Much for That Voynich Manuscript ‘Solution,'” Ars Technica, Sept. 10, 2017.

“Imaginary Erdős Number,” Numberphile, Nov. 26, 2014.

Oleg Pikhurko, “Erdős Lap Number,” Mathematics Institute, University of Warwick (accessed Sept. 15, 2017).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Alex Baumans, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

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

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 Thanks for listening!

Quick Cuts

In 1973, at the Cricketers Arms pub in Wisborough Green, West Sussex, Irishman Jim Gavin was bemoaning the high cost of motorsports when he noticed that each of his friends had a lawnmower in his garden shed. He proposed a race in a local field and 80 competitors turned up.

That was the start of the British Lawn Mower Racing Association, “the cheapest motorsport in the U.K.” — the guiding principles are no sponsorship, no commercialism, no cash prizes, and no modifying of engines. (The mower blades are removed for safety.) The racing season runs from May through October, with a world championship, a British Grand Prix, an endurance championship, and a 12-hour endurance race, and all profits go to charity.

For the past 26 years, Bertie’s Inn in Reading, Pa., has held a belt sander race (below) in which entrants ride hand-held belt sanders along a 40-foot-long plywood track. All entry fees and concession sales are donated to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Each competitor keeps one hand on the sander’s front knob and the other on the rear power switch while an assistant runs behind, paying out an extension cord. Women tend to excel, apparently because they can balance better than men. “You can’t lean back or lean forward,” Donna Knight, who won her heat in 2013, told the Reading Eagle.

Anne Thomas, who owns the inn with her husband, Peter, said, “We must be crazy, but everybody loves it and has a great time, and we raise a lot of money for charity. We tried to quit one time, and nobody would let us.”

Cash and Carry

During the London Gin Craze of the early 18th century, when the British government started running sting operations on petty gin sellers, someone invented a device called the “Puss-and-Mew” so that the buyer couldn’t identify the seller in court:

The old Observation, that the English, though no great Inventors themselves, are the best Improvers of other Peoples Inventions, is verified by a fresh Example, in the Parish of St. Giles’s in the Fields, and in other Parts of the Town; where several Shopkeepers, Dealers in Spirituous Liquors, observing the Wonders perform’d by the Figures of the Druggist and the Blackmoor pouring out Wine, have turn’d them to their own great Profit. The Way is this, the Buyer comes into the Entry and cries Puss, and is immediately answer’d by a Voice from within, Mew. A Drawer is then thrust out, into which the Buyer puts his Money, which when drawn back, is soon after thrust out again, with the Quantity of Gin requir’d; the Matter of this new Improvement in Mechanicks, remaining all the while unseen; whereby all Informations are defeated, and the Penalty of the Gin Act evaded.

This is sometimes called the first vending machine.

(From Read’s Weekly Journal, Feb. 18, 1738. Thanks, Nick.)

Hidden Mothers

In the 19th century, photographic subjects had to hold still during an exposure of 30 seconds or more. That’s hard enough for an adult, but it’s practically impossible for an infant. So mothers would sometimes hide in the scene, impersonating a chair or a pair of curtains, in order to hold the baby still while the photographer did his work:

More in this Flickr group.

Podcast Episode 169: John Harrison and the Problem of Longitude

john harrison

Ships need a reliable way to know their exact location at sea — and for centuries, the lack of a dependable method caused shipwrecks and economic havoc for every seafaring nation. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet John Harrison, the self-taught English clockmaker who dedicated his life to crafting a reliable solution to this crucial problem.

We’ll also admire a dentist and puzzle over a magic bus stop.


Working in an Antarctic tent in 1908, Douglas Mawson found himself persistently interrupted by Edgeworth David.

In 1905, Sir Gilbert Parker claimed to have seen the astral body of Sir Crane Rasch in the House of Commons.

Sources for our feature on John Harrison:

Dava Sobel and William H. Andrews, The Illustrated Longitude, 1995.

William J.H. Andrewes, ed., The Quest for Longitude, 1996.

Katy Barrett, “‘Explaining’ Themselves: The Barrington Papers, the Board of Longitude, and the Fate of John Harrison,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 65:2 (June 20, 2011), 145-162.

William E. Carter and Merri S. Carter, “The Age of Sail: A Time When the Fortunes of Nations and Lives of Seamen Literally Turned With the Winds Their Ships Encountered at Sea,” Journal of Navigation 63:4 (October 2010), 717-731.

J.A. Bennett, “Science Lost and Longitude Found: The Tercentenary of John Harrison,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 24:4 (1993), 281-287.

Arnold Wolfendale, “Shipwrecks, Clocks and Westminster Abbey: The Story of John Harrison,” Historian 97 (Spring 2008), 14-17.

William E. Carter and Merri Sue Carter, “The British Longitude Act Reconsidered,” American Scientist 100:2 (March/April 2012), 102-105.

Robin W. Spencer, “Open Innovation in the Eighteenth Century: The Longitude Problem,” Research Technology Management 55:4 (July/August 2012), 39-43.

“Longitude Found: John Harrison,” Royal Museums Greenwich (accessed Aug. 27, 2017).

“John Harrison,” American Society of Mechanical Engineers (accessed Aug. 27, 2017).

J.C. Taylor and A.W. Wolfendale, “John Harrison: Clockmaker and Copley Medalist,” Notes and Records, Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, Jan. 22, 2007.

An Act for the Encouragement of John Harrison, to Publish and Make Known His Invention of a Machine or Watch, for the Discovery of the Longitude at Sea, 1763.

John Harrison, An Account of the Proceedings, in Order to the Discovery of the Longitude, 1763.

John Harrison, A Narrative of the Proceedings Relative to the Discovery of the Longitude at Sea, 1765.

Nevil Maskelyne, An Account of the Going of Mr. John Harrison’s Watch, at the Royal Observatory, 1767.

John Harrison, Remarks on a Pamphlet Lately Published by the Rev. Mr. Maskelyne, 1767.

An Act for Granting to His Majesty a Certain Sum of Money Out of the Sinking Fund, 1773.

John Harrison, A Description Concerning Such Mechanism as Will Afford a Nice, or True Mensuration of Time, 1775.

Steve Connor, “John Harrison’s ‘Longitude’ Clock Sets New Record — 300 Years On,” Independent, April 18, 2015.

Robin McKie, “Clockmaker John Harrison Vindicated 250 Years After ‘Absurd’ Claims,” Guardian, April 18, 2015.

Listener mail:

Charlie Hintz, “DNA Ends 120 Year Mystery of H.H. Holmes’ Death,” Cult of Weird, Aug. 31, 2017.

“Descendant of H.H. Holmes Reveals What He Found at Serial Killer’s Gravesite in Delaware County,” NBC10, July 18, 2017.

Brian X. McCrone and George Spencer, “Was It Really ‘America’s First Serial Killer’ H.H. Holmes Buried in a Delaware County Grave?”, NBC10, Aug. 31, 2017.

Daniel Hahn, The Tower Menagerie, 2004.

James Owen, “Medieval Lion Skulls Reveal Secrets of Tower of London ‘Zoo,'” National Geographic News, Nov. 3, 2005.

Richard Davey, Tower of London, 1910.

Bill Bailey reads from the Indonesian-to-English phrasebook Practical Dialogues:

A few photos of Practical Dialogues.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Oskar Sigvardsson, who sent these corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

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

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 Thanks for listening!

A Soaring Heart

From an advice column in Home Companion, March 4, 1899:

‘Sweet Briar’ (Swansea) writes in great trouble because her lover will persist in his intention to go up in a balloon. She urges him not to imperil his life in this foolhardy manner, but he only laughs at her fears.

I am sorry, ‘Sweet Briar’, that your lover occasions you anxiety in this manner, and I can only hope that he will ultimately see the wisdom of yielding to your wishes. What a pity it is that we have not a law like that which exists in Vienna! There no married man is allowed to go up in a balloon without the formal consent of his wife and children.

One solution: Go up with him, and marry him there.


In 2001, computer animator Wayne Lytle created “Pipe Dream,” a 3D music visualization in which falling balls trigger musical notes on vibraphones, tubular bells, bongos, and other instruments:

Entertainingly, in 2006 an email hoax claimed that the scene was not animated but real:

Amazingly, 97% of the machines components came from John Deere Industries and Irrigation Equipment of Bancroft Iowa, yes farm equipment!

It took the team a combined 13,029 hours of set-up, alignment, Calibration, and tuning before filming this video but as you can see it was WELL worth the effort.

The hoax was entertaining because it was preposterous — who could build such a thing in real life?

You can guess where this is going — in 2011 Intel created a real version in which 2300 paintballs trigger 120 unique notes on replicas of Lytle’s animated instruments:

That’s just 10 years after Lytle made the original animation.

(Thanks, Jacob.)

Podcast Episode 168: The Destruction of the Doves Type

In March 1913, Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson threw the most beautiful typeface in the world off of London’s Hammersmith Bridge to keep it out of the hands of his estranged printing partner. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore what would lead a man to destroy the culmination of his life’s work — and what led one modern admirer to try to revive it.

We’ll also scrutinize a housekeeper and puzzle over a slumped child.


Gustav Mahler rejected the Berlin Royal Opera because of the shape of his nose.

In 1883, inventor Robert Heath enumerated the virtues of glowing hats.

Sources for our feature on the Doves Press:

Marianne Tidcombe, The Doves Press, 2002.

The Journals of Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson, 1926.

“The Doves Press” — A Kelmscott Revival,” New York Times, Feb. 16, 1901, BR9.

“The Revival of Printing as an Art,” New York Tribune, Sept. 14, 1901, 11.

“The Doves Press Bible,” Guardian, March 10, 1904.

“The Doves Press,” Athenaeum, Jan. 12, 1907, 54-54.

“The Doves Press,” Athenaeum, June 13, 1908, 729-730.

Dissolution of the partnership, London Gazette, July 27, 1909, 5759.

“Doves Press Type in River: Memoirs of T.C. Sanderson Tell How He Disposed of It,” New York Times, Sept. 8, 1926, 27.

Arthur Millier, “Bookbinding Art Proves Inspiration: Doves Press Exhibit Reveals Devotion to Lofty Ideals,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1933, A2.

Charles B. Russell, “Cobden-Sanderson and the Doves Press,” Prairie Schooner 14:3 (Fall 1940), 180-192.

Carole Cable, “The Printing Types of the Doves Press: Their History and Destruction,” Library Quarterly 44:3 (July 1974), 219-230.

Marcella D. Genz, “The Doves Press [review],” Library Quarterly 74:1 (January 2004), 91-94.

“Biographies of the Key Figures Involved in the Doves Press,” International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, Dec. 22, 2009.

“The Doves Type Reborn,” Association Typographique Internationale, Dec. 20, 2010.

“The Fight Over the Doves,” Economist, Dec. 19, 2013.

Justin Quirk, “X Marks the Spot,” Sunday Times, Jan. 11, 2015, 22.

Rachael Steven, “Recovering the Doves Type,” Creative Review, Feb. 3, 2015.

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, “The Gorgeous Typeface That Drove Men Mad and Sparked a 100-Year Mystery,” Gizmodo, Feb. 16, 2015.

Rich Rennicks, “The Doves Press Story,” New Antiquarian, Feb. 24, 2015.

“One Man’s Obsession With Rediscovering the Lost Doves Type,” BBC News Magazine, Feb. 25, 2015.

“15 Things You Didn’t Know About the Doves Press & Its Type,” Typeroom, Oct. 20, 2015.

“An Obsessive Type: The Tale of the Doves Typeface,” BBC Radio 4, July 28, 2016.

Sujata Iyengar, “Intermediating the Book Beautiful: Shakespeare at the Doves Press,” Shakespeare Quarterly 67:4 (Winter 2016), 481-502.

“The Doves Type”, Typespec (accessed Aug. 20, 2017).

“Raised From the Dead: The Doves Type Story,” Typespec (accessed Aug. 20, 2017).

“History of the Doves Type,” Typespec (accessed Aug. 21, 2017).

“Doves Press,” Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum (accessed Aug. 20, 2017).

“Doves Press Collection,” Bruce Peel Special Collections, University of Alberta (accessed Aug. 20, 2017).

Listener mail:

Becky Oskin, “Yosemite Outsmarts Its Food-Stealing Bears,” Live Science, March 3, 2014.

Kristin Hohenadel, “Vancouver Bans Doorknobs,” Slate, Nov. 26 2013.

Jeff Lee, “Vancouver’s Ban on the Humble Doorknob Likely to Be a Trendsetter,” Vancouver Sun, Nov. 19, 2013.

Jonathan Goodman, The Slaying of Joseph Bowne Elwell, 1987.

“Housekeeper Admits Shielding Woman by Hiding Garments in Elwell Home,” New York Times, June 17, 1920.

“Elwell Crime Still Mystery,” Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1920.

“Housekeeper Gives New Elwell Facts,” New York Times, June 25, 1920.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Dean Gootee.

Please visit Littleton Coin Company to sell your coins and currency, or call them toll free 1-877-857-7850.

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

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 Thanks for listening!

For the Record

Western Kentucky University geoscientist John All was traversing Nepal’s Mount Himlung in May 2014 when the ice collapsed beneath him and he fell into a crevasse, dislocating his shoulder and breaking some ribs. He landed on a ledge, but now he faced a 70-foot climb back to the surface alone without the use of his right arm or upper leg.

“That’s when I pulled my research camera out and started talking to myself about all my options,” he told National Geographic. “I take photos of everything I do because, if I’m working in Africa and I need to recall a detail, that’s going to be the best way to do it. I was also thinking about my mom and my friends and family and realized that just talking wouldn’t convey what was happening to me nearly as well. So I started recording things.”

“It probably took me four or five hours to climb out,” he said. “I kept moving sideways, slightly up, sideways, slightly up, until I found an area where there was enough hard snow that I could get an ax in and pull myself up and over. I knew that if I fell at any time in that entire four or five hours, I, of course, was going to fall all the way to the bottom of the crevasse. Any mistake, or any sort of rest or anything, I was going to die.”

After reaching the top he rolled as much as walked back to his tent, called for help, and waited 16 hours for a helicopter to arrive. He wrote later, “I had dug myself out of my own grave.”