In 1915, Vermont inventor Albert Pratt proposed a new weapon: a head-mounted gun. You strap the helmet to your head and hold a hollow tube in your mouth; when you blow through the tube, the gun fires a bullet at whatever you’re looking at.
“The weapon described has many advantages,” Pratt writes confidently. “The gun is automatically aimed unconsciously and incidentally to the turning of the head of the marksman in the direction of the target. In self-protection, one immediately, instinctively turns the head in the direction of attack to see the enemy, or, in hunting, toward any sound made by nearby game. Thus the gun is automatically directed toward the mark in the course of the first instinctive movement. With the gun thus aimed, the only further operation necessary to fire the same is to blow through the tube and thereby expand the bulb and operate the trigger. This is accomplished entirely from the head of the marksman, leaving his hands and feet free further to defend himself or for other purposes as desired.”
“Under some circumstances the gun can be fired not only without the use of the hands and feet, but also without the use of the eyes of the marksman. For example, in hunting at night if an animal made a sound in underbrush, the head of the marksman would be instinctively turned in the direction of the sound and then the gun would be fired, without the use of the eyes of the marksman.”
If that’s not enough, Pratt also says that the helmet can be detached from its base and used as a cooking utensil. “The spike may be stuck in the ground to support the utensil or may be detached therefrom as desired.”
Alexander Graham Bell kisses his daughter Daisy inside a tetrahedral kite, October 1903.
Bang’s theorem holds that the faces of a tetrahedron all have the same perimeter only if they’re congruent triangles. Also, if they all have the same area, then they’re congruent triangles.
Buckminster Fuller proposed establishing a floating tetrahedron in San Francisco Bay called Triton City (below). It would have been assembled from modules, starting with a floating “neighborhood” of 5,000 residents, with an elementary school, a supermarket and a few specialty shops. Three to six neighborhoods would form a town, and three to seven towns would form a city. At each stage the corresponding infrastructure would be added: schools, civic facilities, government offices, and industry. A full-sized city might accommodate 100,000 people in a single building. He envisioned an even larger tetrahedron, with a million citizens, for Tokyo Bay.
The moral of Fuller’s 1975 book Synergetics was “Dare to be naïve.”
The discovery of the gruesome remains of a human body buried in a doctor’s cellar shocked London in 1910. In this week’s podcast we’ll recount the dramatic use of the recently invented wireless telegraph in capturing the main suspect in the crime.
We’ll also hear a letter that Winston Churchill wrote to Winston Churchill and puzzle over why a sober man is denied a second beer.
Sources for our feature on the telegraphic nabbing of Edwardian uxoricide Hawley Harvey Crippen:
Erik Larson, Thunderstruck, 2006.
Associated Press, “Wireless Flashes Crippen and Girl Aboard Montrose,” Los Angeles Herald, July 29, 1910.
“Captain Sure Suspects are Pair Police Seek,” Los Angeles Herald, July 29, 1910.
“Crippen Mystery Remains Despite DNA Claim,” BBC News, Oct. 18, 2007 (accessed June 16, 2015).
Mark Townsend, “Appeal Judges Asked to Clear Notorious Murderer Dr. Crippen,” Guardian, June 6, 2009 (accessed June 16, 2015).
08/02/2015 Listener Iain Cadman notes that BBC Radio 4 recently offered this dramatization of the Crippen story.
Here’s Winston Churchill’s June 1899 letter to American author Winston Churchill:
Mr. Winston Churchill presents his compliments to Mr. Winston Churchill, and begs to draw his attention to a matter which concerns them both. He has learnt from the Press notices that Mr. Winston Churchill proposes to bring out another novel, entitled Richard Carvel, which is certain to have a considerable sale both in England and America. Mr. Winston Churchill is also the author of a novel now being published in serial form in Macmillan’s Magazine, and for which he anticipates some sale both in England and America. He also proposes to publish on the 1st of October another military chronicle on the Soudan War. He has no doubt that Mr. Winston Churchill will recognise from this letter — if indeed by no other means — that there is grave danger of his works being mistaken for those of Mr. Winston Churchill. He feels sure that Mr. Winston Churchill desires this as little as he does himself. In future to avoid mistakes as far as possible, Mr. Winston Churchill has decided to sign all published articles, stories, or other works, ‘Winston Spencer Churchill,’ and not ‘Winston Churchill’ as formerly. He trusts that this arrangement will commend itself to Mr. Winston Churchill, and he ventures to suggest, with a view to preventing further confusion which may arise out of this extraordinary coincidence, that both Mr. Winston Churchill and Mr. Winston Churchill should insert a short note in their respective publications explaining to the public which are the works of Mr. Winston Churchill and which those of Mr. Winston Churchill. The text of this note might form a subject for future discussion if Mr. Winston Churchill agrees with Mr. Winston Churchill’s proposition. He takes this occasion of complimenting Mr. Winston Churchill upon the style and success of his works, which are always brought to his notice whether in magazine or book form, and he trusts that Mr. Winston Churchill has derived equal pleasure from any work of his that may have attracted his attention.
From Richard M. Langworth, The Definitive Wit of Winston Churchill, 2009.
This week’s lateral thinking puzzle appeared originally on NPR’s Car Talk, contributed there by listener George Parks.
Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.
You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.
Please take our five-minute survey to help us find advertisers to support the show.
Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
Mark Twain boasted both that “I was the first person in the world that ever had a telephone in his house” and that “I was the first person in the world to apply the type-machine to literature.” The latter may be true — Twain began experimenting with a Remington No. 2 typewriter in 1874. He reckoned that the book must have been Tom Sawyer; in fact it was probably Life on the Mississippi.
Other writers have been slower to adopt new technology. “This is a nervous letter,” wrote Flannery O’Connor to Cecil Dawkins in 1959. “I am congratulating you on the electric typewriter. It is very nice but I am not used to it yet. I keep thinking about all the electricity that is being wasted while I think what I am going to say next.”
Fly-plagued and enterprising in 1919, G.W. Blake came up with this inventive solution. The spring-loaded pistol shoots a projectile bearing a woven wire screen fast enough to surprise an unwitting fly who might have been expecting a low-tech flyswatter.
Next I suppose the flies will start shooting us.
When my brother and I built and flew the first man-carrying flying machine, we thought that we were introducing into the world an invention which would make further wars practically impossible. That we were not alone in this thought is evidenced by the fact that the French Peace Society presented us with medals on account of our invention. We thought governments would realize the impossibility of winning by surprise attacks, and that no country would enter into war with another of equal size when it knew that it would have to win by simply wearing out its enemy.
— Orville Wright to C.M. Hitchcock, June 21, 1917
An ordinary umbrella wasn’t enough for Elizur E. Clarke — in 1864 he suggested adding a skirt, to render it “a more perfect protector from storms.”
The man gets a little loophole to look out of. His companion will just have to trust him.
The first pitching machine was powered by gunpowder. Princeton mathematician Charles Hinton designed it for the school baseball team in 1897, hoping to spare human pitchers whose arms were giving out under the incessant demands of batting practice. At first he planned a catapult, but he found this too inaccurate. Then “it occurred to me that practically whenever men wished to impel a ball with velocity and precision, they drove it out of a tube with powder.”
The result, which he wrote up in Harper’s Weekly on March 20, was a shoulder-mounted cannon whose 4-foot barrel could send a ball across the home plate at 70 mph. With a fingerlike attachment it could even throw a curveball. That summer it pitched three innings in a game between two Princeton social clubs, allowing four hits, striking out eight batters, walking one, and throwing only one wild pitch.
The Washington Post predicted the end of the world (“There would be the base-burning, high-pressure, anti-friction catcher, and the shortstop made of aluminium and rivets and filled with cogs, cams, valves, shafts, and belting”), but Hinton praised the gun’s handiness: “It can be used so as to deliver ball after ball at the same speed in the same curve, or it can be varied from shot to shot, according to the wish or skill of the manipulator.” He took it with him to the University of Minnesota, where he worked until 1900.
Frightened villagers “killed” the first hydrogen balloon, launched in Paris by Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers Anne-Jean and Nicolas-Louis on Aug. 27, 1783. Allen Andrews, in Back to the Drawing Board: The Evolution of Flying Machines, quotes a contemporary account:
It is presumed that it was carried to a height of more than 20,000 feet, when it burst by the reaction of the Inflammable Gas upon the Atmospheric Air. It fell at three quarters past five near Gonesse, ten miles [actually, 15 miles] from the Field of Mars. The affrightened inhabitants ran together, appalled by the Hellish stench of sulphur, and two monks having assured them it was the skin of a Monstrous Animal, they attacked it with stones, pitchforks and flails. The Curate of the village was obliged to attend in order to sprinkle it with holy water and remove the fears of his astonished parishioners. At last they tied to the tail of a horse the first Instrument that was ever made for an Experiment in Natural Philosophy, and trained it across the field more than 6000 feet.
Perhaps forewarned, the first man to undertake a balloon flight in North America carried a pass from George Washington.
In the 1870s baseball catchers played bare-faced, routinely suffering broken noses and teeth; to protect themselves they stood two dozen feet behind the batter, which prevented the pitcher from throwing his best pitches. Finally Fred Winthrop Thayer, captain of Harvard’s team, invented a “Safety-Mask for Base-Ball Players” to minimize the damage.
“It is not an unfrequent occurrence in the game of base-ball for a player to be severely injured in the face by a ball thrown against it,” he wrote in the patent application. “With my face-guard such an accident cannot happen.”
When catcher Jim Tyng first wore Thayer’s mask on April 12, 1877, it was roundly derided. Spectators yelled “Mad dog!” and “Muzzle ’em!”, and opposing players greeted Tyng with “good natured though somewhat derisive pity.” The Portland, Maine, Sunday Telegram wrote, “There is a great deal of beastly humbug in contrivances to protect men from things which do not happen. There is about as much sense in putting a lightning rod on a catcher as there is a mask.”
Catchers finally submitted when sportwriter Henry Chadwick faulted their “moral courage.” “Plucky enough to face the dangerous fire of balls from the swift pitcher,” he wrote, “they tremble before the remarks of the small boys of the crowd of spectators, and prefer to run the risk of broken cheek bones, dislocated jaws, a smashed nose or blackened eyes, than stand the chaff of the fools in the assemblage.”
Today Thayer’s Harvard mask is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
H.M. Small found it difficult to sleep in railway seats in 1889 — so he invented a hammock.
It’s actually possible to sleep at full length if the seat in front is pushed forward — but that might be going too far.
Torontonian John Maguire wasn’t satisfied with the standard raincoat in 1883, so he added a gutter:
The object of the invention is to provide a water-proof coat which can be worn in rainy weather without the wearer’s leg being made wet from water dripping off the skirt of the coat; and it consists of a water-proof coat having the bottom edge of its skirt turned up, forming a trough or channel to receive the water flowing on the surface of the coat, suitable provision being made to carry off the water away from the legs of the wearer of the garment.
“Although the coat is specially designed for gentlemen’s use, it will of course be understood that ladies’ coats may be similarly made.”
In 1885 George C. Hale had the bright idea of weaving a zigzag cord into a pair of suspenders. Now if the wearer is trapped in a burning building, he can free the cord, lower it from a window to receive a rope, and escape to safety.
Hale’s patent application says, “I have found by experimenting that from fifty to one hundred feet, or even more, of the cord can be secured to the suspender in the manner heretofore described.”
The application was granted. I wonder if he ever went into business with this.
Robert Heath thought we should all wear luminous hats. Confronted with the resounding question Why?, he offered this poetic paragraph:
Among the advantages of the invention are, the facility of seeing and finding the hat, &c., in closets and dark rooms and places, the presentation of a hat, &c., of different shades during day and night, the beautiful appearance of the article when worn at night, and the provision of distinguishing or indicating the localities of those who may wear the hats, &c., whose occupations are dangerous, such as miners, mariners, &c. For persons who are exposed to weather, sea, &c., the head-wear will be suitably waterproofed, so that the self-luminous nature thereof will not be injured by water.
Simple enough. His patent was granted on Feb. 27, 1883.
There must be a story behind this one: In 1900 Ludwig Ederer patented an “alarm bed” to wake an attendant when a greenhouse grows too cold.
If the steam pressure in the boiler drops, the bed suddenly tilts upright, “so that the sleeper will slide or roll off, thus reminding him that the steam within the pipe system is below a certain point, endangering the life of the plants within the greenhouse.”
After he’s stoked the fire the attendant can go back to bed and dream about getting a better job.
When British forces plundered the palace of Indian prince Tipu Sultan in May 1799, they found an infuriating trophy:
In a room appropriated for musical instruments was found an article which merits particular notice, as another proof of the deep hate, and extreme loathing of Tippoo Saib towards the English. This piece of mechanism represents a royal Tyger in the act of devouring a prostrate European. There are some barrels in imitation of an Organ, within the body of the Tyger. The sounds produced by the Organ are intended to resemble the cries of a person in distress intermixed with the roar of a Tyger. The machinery is so contrived that while the Organ is playing, the hand of the European is often lifted up, to express his helpless and deplorable condition.
Tipu had allied himself with France against the encroaching East India Company, and the Fourth Mysore War brought his downfall. The tiger, it appears, had symbolized his defiance of British colonialism. The instrument was removed to London, where it became a centerpiece in the Company’s Leadenhall Street gallery; John Keats saw it there and immortalized it in The Cap and Bells, his satirical verse of 1819:
Replied the Page: “that little buzzing noise,
Whate’er your palmistry may make of it,
Comes from a play-thing of the Emperor’s choice,
From a Man-Tiger-Organ, prettiest of his toys.”
“Indeed, the horrific image of a wild beast attacking a helpless fellow Briton must have stirred strong reactions in the British audience so few years after the brutal Mysore campaigns,” write Jane Kromm and Susan Benforado Bakewell in A History of Visual Culture (2010). “Contained within one wondrous work of art was an illustration of the intensity of resentment toward European imperialism, the ferocious power of the enemy prince, and the moral justification for colonization.”
“An inventor is simply a fellow who doesn’t take his education too seriously.” — Charles F. Kettering
ArnoldC, a language devised by Finnish computer programmer Lauri Hartikka, assigns programming functions to catch phrases from Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Some keywords:
False: I LIED
True: NO PROBLEMO
If: BECAUSE I’M GOING TO SAY PLEASE
EndIf: YOU HAVE NO RESPECT FOR LOGIC
While: STICK AROUND
MultiplicationOperator: YOU’RE FIRED
DivisionOperator: HE HAD TO SPLIT
EqualTo: YOU ARE NOT YOU YOU ARE ME
GreaterThan: LET OFF SOME STEAM BENNET
Or: CONSIDER THAT A DIVORCE
And: KNOCK KNOCK
DeclareMethod: LISTEN TO ME VERY CAREFULLY
MethodArguments: I NEED YOUR CLOTHES YOUR BOOTS AND YOUR MOTORCYCLE
Return: I’LL BE BACK
EndMethodDeclaration: HASTA LA VISTA, BABY
AssignVariableFromMethodCall: GET YOUR ASS TO MARS
ReadInteger: I WANT TO ASK YOU A BUNCH OF QUESTIONS AND I WANT TO HAVE THEM ANSWERED IMMEDIATELY
AssignVariable: GET TO THE CHOPPER
SetValue: HERE IS MY INVITATION
EndAssignVariable: ENOUGH TALK
ParseError: WHAT THE FUCK DID I DO WRONG
This program prints the string “hello world”:
IT'S SHOWTIME TALK TO THE HAND "hello world" YOU HAVE BEEN TERMINATED
To illustrate the design principle behind Scotland’s Forth Bridge, engineer Sir Benjamin Baker offered a personal demonstration. Sir John Fowler (left) and Baker (right) each hold two wooden poles with outstretched arms, forming two diamond shapes. When construction foreman Kaichi Watanabe sits in the center, the diamonds are prevented from tipping inward because their outer ends are anchored.
It worked. The bridge, opened in 1890, held the record as the world’s longest single cantilever bridge span for 17 years.
Russian mathematician Pafnuty Chebyshev devised this puzzling mechanisms in 1888. Turning the crank handle once will send the flywheel through two revolutions in the same direction, or four revolutions in the opposite direction. (A better video is here.)
“What is so unusual in this mechanism is the ability of the linkages to flip from one configuration to the other,” write John Bryant and Chris Sangwin in How Round Is Your Circle? (2011). “In most linkage mechanisms such ambiguity is implicitly, or explicitly, designed out so that only one choice for the mathematical solution can give a physical configuration. … This mechanism is really worth constructing, if only to confound your friends and colleagues.”
Mathematician Marion Tinsley lost only seven games of checkers in a career that spanned 45 years. Between 1950 and 1995, he took first place in every tournament in which he played. “Dr. Tinsley has taken the game beyond what anybody else ever conceived,” International Checkers Hall of Fame founder Charles Walker told Sports Illustrated in 1992. “No one presumed to think they could beat him.”
His last and best opponent was a machine, Chinook, designed by University of Alberta computer scientist Jonathan Schaeffer. When the American Checkers Federation refused to let a machine play for the championship in 1990, the sporting Tinsley resigned his crown and immediately accepted the match.
He won 4-2, with 33 draws. In one game, after the program had played its 10th move, Tinsley said, “You’re going to regret that.” Chinook resigned 26 moves later, and in the ensuing analysis Schaeffer found that Tinsley had looked 64 moves ahead to find the only winning strategy. (When asked for the source of his advantage, Tinsley, a lay preacher, said, “I’ve got a better programmer — God.”)
But the machine kept improving, and Tinsley’s health began to fail. He had to withdraw after six draws in their 1994 rematch, and he died of pancreatic cancer shortly afterward at age 68.
Chinook has since solved the game — after 18 years of thinking, it produced a map that would show it a non-losing move in any situation. In principle, at least, the computer is now invincible — the best a human can hope for is a draw.
This might have disappointed Tinsley, who played not for supremacy but for a love of the game. “Checkers can get quite a hold on you,” he said. “Its beauty is just overwhelming — the mathematics, the elegance, the precision. It’s capable of wrapping you all up.”
The Wheatstone bridge circuit was invented by Samuel Hunter Christie but named after Charles Wheatstone, who developed the Playfair cipher … which was named after Lyon Playfair.
See Who’s On First?
Parking was already a problem in 1906, so Swiss inventor Martin Fischer offered a car that you can drive right up to your apartment:
The width of the frame is smaller than the distance of the wheels. That distance amounts to at most seventy-five centimeters. Consequently the motor-car can pass through doors of ordinary width and up staircases with such ease that even persons residing on the upper floors of ordinary dwelling-houses will be able to keep such motor-cars without the necessity of providing special storage space on the ground floor.
It’s built low to reduce the risk of tipping over when traveling around sharp curves. But what happens if you meet someone else on the stairs?
New Zealand engineer Bill Phillips found a unique way to model a national economy in 1949: He used water. Working in his garage, he assembled a conglomeration of tanks, pipes, sluices, and valves into MONIAC, a 7-foot hydraulic computer that modeled the economy of the United Kingdom. Colored water, representing money, is pumped from a bottom reservoir to the top, where it’s distributed among taxes, consumer expenditure, and investment, then finds its way downward through the economy. The user can set “functions” that regulate the effect of national income on tax revenue, government spending on consumption, domestic spending on imports or exports, the interest rate on investment, and the exchange rate on exports and imports.
“To approximate a national economy, a ‘Federal Reserve System’ is added (from a tank through the top U-shaped pump) and bank credit is drawn to expand surplus balances when needed,” noted Fortune in a March 1952 feature. “And, if a Keynesian touch is wanted, the government can engage in ‘deficit financing’ by tapping the surplus balances to increase its own expenditures without additional taxation.”
Phillips unveiled the computer at the London School of Economics in 1949 and impressed his audience so much that he was asked to build copies for Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, the Ford Motor Company and the Central Bank of Guatemala. Unfortunately his invention was soon outmoded by electronic computers, and today only two working “Phillips machines” remain: one at Cambridge and the other (above) at the Reserve Bank of New Zealand.
UPDATE: Yale economist Irving Fisher proposed a similar system in his Ph.D. dissertation in 1891, described by Paul Samuelson as “the best of all doctoral dissertations in economics.” Fisher used a working model of his machine as a teaching tool for 25 years. (Thanks, Sroyon.)