The Lycurgus Cup

Roman craftsmen made a remarkable coup around 300 A.D. — they produced a cup that is red when lit from behind and green when lit from the front. The effect occurs because the glass contains tiny proportions of gold and silver nanoparticles that reflect light of certain wavelengths. The workers themselves may have discovered the technique by accident, and may not have understood it fully; only a few pieces of 4th-century Roman glass display this “dichroic” property. Art historian Donald Harden called it “the most spectacular glass of the period, fittingly decorated, which we know to have existed.” It now resides in the British Museum.

The Do Nothing Machine

In 1948, retired clock maker Lawrence Wahlstrom acquired a surplus World War II bomb sight bearing a complicated cluster of gears, restored it to operation, and began adding more gears to it over a period of 15 years. He resolved on adding 50 each year, and succeeded so well that today the total number isn’t known.

Popular Mechanics wrote in 1954, “We all know someone who works harder doing nothing than most of us work doing something, but we can’t possibly know anything that works harder at nothing that a machine built by a California hobbyist. The machine has over 700 working parts that rotate, twist, oscillate and reciprocate — all for no purpose except movement.”

More info here. See Marvin Minsky’s Ultimate Machine.

Directions

wetalltok map

Before 1914, white explorers of Hudson’s Bay knew very little about the location, size, or number of the Belcher Islands — cartographers placed them on maps largely by guesswork, and some even doubted their existence.

In 1895, an Inuit named Wetalltok sketched the map above on the back of an old missionary lithograph, but explorers remained skeptical. “That a land mass of such extent … could exist not a hundred miles to seaward of the centuries-old post at Great Whale River and remain unknown to the Hudson’s Bay Company seemed to me altogether improbable,” wrote anthropologist Robert J. Flaherty.

Only 20 years later, with Flaherty’s expedition of 1912-16, was the striking accuracy of Wetalltok’s map borne out (below). “In its grasp of the intricacies of the island system this map is a specially noteworthy example of its kind,” Flaherty wrote. “The Big Islands are ancient history in the bay now, and Wetalltok stands vindicated.”

flaherty map

(Robert J. Flaherty, “The Belcher Islands of Hudson Bay: Their Discovery and Exploration,” Geographical Review 5:6 [June 1918], 433-458.)

A Disjoint Map

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Holm1887p250_Tr%C3%A6kort.png

When Danish naval officer Gustav Holm was exploring the eastern coast of Greenland in 1885, an Inuit named Kunit gave him this three-dimensional wooden map.

The two parts form one whole: The bottom carving represents the coast from Sermiligak to Kangerdlugsuatsiak, and the top is an island offshore. The Inuit would carry these maps in their kayaks to navigate the waters between the two landmasses.

(From David Turnbull, Maps Are Territories, 1989.)

For Short

Telegraph companies generally charged by the length of a message, so enterprising customers started using codes in place of common phrases. Here are some sample codes, from the ABC Universal Commercial Electric Telegraphic Code of 1901:

Nalezing – Do only what is absolutely necessary
Nalime – Will only do what is absolutely necessary
Nallary – It is not absolutely necessary, but it would be an advantage
Naloopen – It is not absolutely necessary, but well worth the outlay

If you and I both have a copy of the code book, then I can send you the word Nallary in place of the phrase “It is not absolutely necessary, but it would be an advantage” — a savings of 10 words or 51 characters without any loss of information.

Most of these code books are pretty hard-headed (here’s another), but there’s a wonderful exception — Sullivan & Considine’s Theatrical Cipher Code of 1905, “Adapted Especially to the Use of Everyone Connected in Any Way with the Theatrical Business”:

Filacer – An opera company
Filament – Are they willing to appear in tights
Filander – Are you willing to appear in tights
Filar – Ballet girls
Filaria – Burlesque opera
Filature – Burlesque opera company
File – Burlesque people
Filefish – Chorus girl
Filial – Chorus girls
Filially – Chorus girls who are
Filiation – Chorus girls who are shapely and good looking
Filibuster – Chorus girls who are shapely, good looking, and can sing
Filicoid – Chorus girls who can sing
Filiform – Chorus man
Filigree – Chorus men
Filing – Chorus men who can sing
Fillet – Chorus people
Fillip – Chorus people who can sing
Filly – Comic opera
Film – Comic opera company
Filler – Comic opera people
Filtering – Desirable chorus girl

It’s in the public domain, but I haven’t been able to find the full text online — I’m getting this from Craig Bauer’s (excellent) Secret History: The Story of Cryptology. I’ll update this post if I manage to find more.

Rotary Jails

https://patents.google.com/patent/US244358A/en

Architect William H. Brown had a curious brainstorm in 1881 — a jail in which moving cells shared a single door:

The object of our invention is to produce a jail or prison in which prisoners can be controlled without the necessity of personal contact between them and the jailer or guard. … [It] consists, first, of a circular cell structure of considerable size (inside the usual prison-building) divided into several cells capable of being rotated, and surrounded by a grating in close proximity thereto, which has only such number of openings (usually one) as is necessary for the convenient handling of the prisoners.

The cell block, supported by ball bearings, could be turned by a single man with a hand crank. While it had a certain efficient appeal, in practice the jail proved dangerous, crushing prisoners’ limbs and raising concerns about safety during a fire. The last rotary jail was condemned in 1939; the only surviving example is in Crawfordsville, Indiana.

(Strangely related: Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. Thanks, Jon.)

Dashed Hopes

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wireless_station_interior,_Friday_Harbor,_San_Juan_Island,_Washington,_ca_1908_(BAR_177).jpeg

Early telegraph operators rejoiced in their secret knowledge of Morse code. In 1876 Chamber’s Journal reported on a popular play called Across the Continent in which a telegraph operator named Oliver sends out frantic messages from a railway station besieged by Indians. After a responding string of dots and dashes sent from offstage, Oliver cries out, “Thank God! We are saved!” After one performance a telegrapher in the audience noted that the response had been SAY, OLIVER, LET’S TAKE A DRINK.

In 1892 a writer for Harper’s Bazaar was riding a train when a groom and his beautiful bride entered the car. Two young men began a conversation by clicking their pocket knives on the metal arm of the seat.

“Her lips were just made for kisses,” one said.

“That’s what they were.”

“Say!”

“Well?”

“When the train gets to the next tunnel, I’m going to reach over and kiss her.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Yes, I would. She’d think it was her husband, you know.”

At this the bridegroom took out his own pocket knife and ticked off on the arm of his seat: “When the train gets to the next tunnel, the chump proposes to reach over and hammer your two heads together till your teeth drop out. See!”

Big News

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tupolev_TB-3_(14260526127).jpg

The Soviet Union took propaganda to a ludicrous extreme in the 1930s with the Maksim Gorki, a multimedia communications empire in the sky. With a wingspan of 206 feet and a takeoff weight of 42 tons, it was the largest land aircraft ever built at the time, requiring eight huge 900-horsepower engines to get aloft.

Aboard were a complete printing plant, capable of printing 10,000 copies per hour of an illustrated 12″ x 16″ newspaper, a photographic darkroom, and a high-speed radio apparatus and telegraph. On the ground, a projection room could cast movies onto a folding screen for up to 10,000 spectators through a window in the fuselage.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tupolev_ANT-20_%22Maxim_Gorky%22_overflying_Red_Square,_Moscow.jpg

“The aircraft also contained a cafe, its own internal telephone exchange, and sleeping quarters and toilets,” notes James Gilbert in The World’s Worst Aircraft. “Four auxiliary engines were required to generate the power to run the huge loudspeakers that broadcast the Soviet message down upon the astonished peasants over which the aircraft flew, and at night to power a system of lights along the underside flashing slogans.” Whether anyone wanted to hear all this is another question.

Airborne

https://www.google.com/patents/US1523989

In 1925, 20 years after completing his work on the airplane, Orville Wright patented a spring-propelled doll:

This invention relates to toys and more particularly to that type of toy in which any object, such as a doll, is projected through the air and caused to engage and to be supported by a swinging bar or other suitable supporting structure.

I don’t know the story behind it. Orville was 53 years old. Neither he nor Wilbur had any children, and their sister didn’t marry until the following year.

Perhaps he was tinkering just to tinker. “Isn’t it astonishing,” he once said, “that all these secrets have been preserved for so many years just so we could discover them!”

Fresh Hell

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:British_Mark_I_male_tank_Somme_25_September_1916.jpg

The Battle of the Somme saw the advent of a frightening new engine of war. “A man came running in from the left, shouting, ‘There is a crocodile crawling in our lines!'” recalled one German infantryman. “The poor wretch was off his head. He had seen a tank for the first time and had imagined this giant of a machine, rearing up and dipping down as it came, to be a monster. It presented a fantastic picture, this Colossus in the dawn light. One moment its front section would disappear into a crater, with the rear section still protruding, the next its yawning mouth would rear up out of the crater, to roll slowly forward with terrifying assurance.”

Interestingly, the first tanks came in two varieties, “male” and “female.” Males weighed a ton more and bore a cannon that the females lacked; early writers referred to “adventurous males,” “determined males,” “all-conquering females,” and “female man-killers.” Eventually the two merged into one standard design … called a hermaphrodite.

(From Peter Hart, The Great War, 2013. Thanks, Zach.)