Animal Behavior

In 1949 neurophysiologist Grey Walter built two robot “tortoises” to show that complexity could arise out a very simple nervous system. “Elmer” and “Elsie” each had a light sensor, a touch sensor, a propulsion motor, a steering motor, and two electronic valve-based “neurons.” He found that even with this modest equipment they were capable of phototaxis, finding their way to a recharging station when their batteries ran low. In a subsequent experiment he watched as a robot moved in front of a mirror and responded to its own reflection. “It began flickering,” he wrote. “Twittering, and jigging like a clumsy Narcissus.” He argued that if this behavior were observed in an animal it “might be accepted as evidence of some degree of self-awareness.”

He found that other simple robots were capable of Pavlovian conditioning. When a robot had been taught to seek its “food” near a stool in the middle of the floor, Walter took to blowing a police whistle and kicking the robot before it found the target. “After it had been whistled at and kicked about a dozen times, it learned that a whistle meant trouble. We then removed the specific stimulus — the stool. The whistle was blown, and it avoided the place as if there were a stool there.”

He advanced to a two-note whistle: One pitch was sounded before the robot touched an object, to associate it with avoidance. The other was sounded before it found its food, to associate it with appetite. “The effect of giving both notes was almost always disastrous; it went right off into the darkness on the right-hand side of the room and hovered round there for five minutes in a sort of sulk. It became irresponsive to stimulation and ran round in circles.”

“As you would expect, there are only three ways of alleviating this condition. One of them is rest; in this case that was sufficient, it was left alone to play around in the dark until the effect of all the trauma had died down and it found its way home in the end. Another method is shock, to turn the circuits right off and start again with a clean bill. The most satisfactory method for my purpose is surgery, to dissect out the circuit.”

(Philip Husbands, et al., The Mechanical Mind in History, 2008, and J.M. Tanner & B. Inhelder, eds., Discussions on Child Development, 1958.)

A Thief’s Welcome

Idaho farmer John Barnes patented this “coyote alarm” in 1903. Near his sheep pens he mounted a man-shaped scarecrow wearing a metal breastplate. In the breastplate was a cylinder “analogous to the cylinder of a revolver of large size” holding blank cartridges. A clockwork mechanism turned the cylinder, and a plunger dropped at intervals and fired a cartridge. Barnes would wind up the mechanism with a key at dusk, and the artificial farmer would fire its imaginary gun “every quarter of an hour throughout the night.” I wonder what the sheep thought of this.

This is actually less alarming than James Williams’ pest exterminator of 1882. That’s progress.

Out With a Bang

Raymond Richards had a peculiar notion of safety — his fire alarm, patented in 1966, consisted of a string of firecrackers:

[I]t is proposed to provide an elongated tube having a plurality of spaced firecrackers disposed in its bore, each firecracker having its own fuse located in proximity to a main fuse, the latter extending longitudinally through the bore of the tube, with its opposite ends being exposed for being ignited by an adjacent fire.

The tube of firecrackers would be pinned to a drape, and caps on the tube would discourage children from playing with it. What could go wrong?

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.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes 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 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.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!