Looking Back

Amazingly, we have a photograph of a man who crossed the Delaware with George Washington. This is Conrad Heyer, born in 1749 and photographed in 1852 at age 103. He served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, crossed the Delaware with Washington in December 1776, and fought in several major battles. The Maine Historical Society says that this makes him the earliest-born human being ever to be photographed.

The footage below shows Despina, the grandmother of Balkan film pioneers Yanaki and Milton Manaki, spinning and weaving in the Ottoman Balkans in 1905. She was 114 years old at the time, which means we have video of a person born in the 1700s.


“It is highly desirable for the spectators at a baseball game to hear what is transpiring on the playing field,” observed inventor James Sellers in 1959, “such as arguments at the bases between opposing players, and discussions between the umpires and players.”

Accordingly he patented an “apparatus for transmitting sound from a baseball field.” Each base is fitted with a hidden microphone, which sends its signal to the announcers’ PA system.

“The sounds on the playing field can thus be transmitted through the control booth to the public address system so that spectators in the grandstand may hear what is taking place on the playing field.”

“By transmitting the sounds from the playing field to the grandstand, the spectators feel that they are taking part in the game. Also, it enables the spectators to judge a play better as they can hear the baseball strike the glove or mitt of a player.”

Spirit Reading

During Prohibition, an enforcement agent had a tough job: If he infiltrated a speakeasy and ordered a drink to confirm that it was alcoholic. his oral testimony could easily be attacked in court, and, ironically, once he admitted that he drank alcohol regularly then defense attorneys could question his reliability.

Robert Tetro patented this solution in 1930. Instead of drinking your drink, you’d discreetly clip a tube over the rim of the glass, reach into your pocket and squeeze a bulb, drawing off a sample. Then you’d pay your tab and leave. If the sample proved alcoholic then the feds could raid the place, which had no warning that it was under surveillance. And now the authorities had physical proof that alcohol was being served.

In the patent application, Tetro says his invention “has been used to a considerable extent, proving its value.” He was based in Michigan; I don’t know how widely it was used.


Robert Patch of Chevy Chase, Md., was only 5 years old in 1962 when he designed a toy truck that could be converted into a flatbed or a dump truck by altering the placement of the axles. His father, a patent attorney, saw that the truck’s design was unique enough to be patentable, so Robert signed the application with an X and had the mark witnessed by a notary public. When the application was granted, Robert became the youngest person in history to receive a U.S. patent.

The publicity meant nothing to him, but it did bring one benefit. He had made his working model from bottle caps, Scotch tape, nails, and old shoe boxes. Someone at US Keds, the shoebox brand, saw the story — and sent him a new pair of sneakers.

Hands-Free Warfare

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.”

Fuller Triton City

Podcast Episode 62: Marconi Catches a Murderer

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).

Proceedings of Crippen’s 1910 trial at Old Bailey Online.

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.

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Early Adopter,_1909.jpg

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.”

Arms Race

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.

Forward and Back

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