Safe Travel

London resident Louisa Llewellin filed this dramatic patent in 1904. If there’s a story behind it, I haven’t been able to discover it:

This invention relates to improvements in gloves for self-defence and other purposes and more especially for the use of ladies who travel alone and are therefore liable to be assailed by thieves and others.

The object is to provide means whereby a person’s face can be effectually disfigured and the display of the article which forms the subject of my invention would speedily warn an assailant of what he might expect should he not desist from pursuing his evil designs, and the fact that he would in the case of persistance be sure to receive marks which would make him a noticeable figure would act as a deterrent.

In carrying my invention into effect I provide gloves having sharp steel nails or talons at the ends of the fingers with or without similar talons on other parts of the gloves.

In use the gloves could be worn during the whole journey or put on when required and by drawing them over a person’s face it would be so severely scratched as to effectually prevent the majority of people from continuing their molestations.

She adds, “The invention can also be used by mountain climbers to enable them to catch hold of whatever they pass over during a fall.”

Piece Work

tangram pythagoras

Tangrams can demonstrate the Pythagorean theorem. The yellow figure in the diagram above is a right triangle; the seven pieces that make up the square on the hypotenuse can be rearranged to form squares on the other two sides.

The third-century mathematician Liu Hui used to explain the theorem by dissecting and rearranging squares. Proper tangrams did not appear until centuries later, but modern Chinese mathematician Liu Dun writes, “We can hypothesize that the inventor of the Tangram, if not a mathematician, was at least inspired or enlightened by” this practice.

(From Jerry Slocum, The Tangram Book, 2003.)

Day Job

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Despite being a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Wallace Stevens held down a full-time career as an insurance lawyer. He took a job at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in 1916, at age 36, and worked there until his death in 1955.

He composed his poems on hour-long walks that he took during his lunch break, stopping periodically to scribble lines on the half-dozen or so envelopes that were always in his pockets. He would also pause occasionally at work to record fragments of poems, which he kept filed in the lower right-hand drawer of his desk. Then he would hand the collected fragments to his secretary for typing.

He was promoted to vice president in 1934 but declined all further opportunities for advancement. His colleagues knew of his poetry, but he avoided talking about it, and he earned a reputation as “the grindingest guy … in executive row”: Working diligently and largely alone, he came to be considered “the dean of surety-claims men in the whole country” and “absolutely the diamond in the tiara” of his company.

“I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me,” he once wrote. “It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life. I am just as free as I want to be and of course I have nothing to worry about about money.”

In a Word

tongue-shot
n. speaking or talking distance, voice-range

Inhabitants of La Gomera, a small mountainous island in the Canary group, use a whistled language called the Silbo to communicate over great distances. “This is a form of telephony inferior to ours as regards range, but superior to it in so far as the only apparatus required is a sound set of teeth and a good pair of lungs,” noted Glasgow University phoneticist André Classe in New Scientist in 1958. “The normal carrying power is up to about four kilometres when conditions are good, over twice as much in the case of an exceptional whistler operating under the most favourable circumstances.”

The Balmis Expedition

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Smallpox ravaged the New World for centuries after the Spanish conquest. In 1797 Edward Jenner showed that exposure to the cowpox virus could protect one against the disease, but the problem remained how to transport cowpox across the sea. In 1802 Charles IV of Spain announced a bold plan — 22 orphaned children would be sent by ship; after the first child was inoculated, his skin would exude fluid that could be passed to the next child. By passing the live virus from arm to arm, the children formed a transmission chain that could transport the vaccine in an era before refrigeration and other modern technology was available.

It worked. Over the next 10 years Spain spread the vaccine throughout the New World and to the Philippines, Macao, and China. Oklahoma State University historian Michael M. Smith writes, “These twenty-two innocents formed the most vital element of the most ambitious medical enterprise any government had ever undertaken.” Jenner himself wrote, “I don’t imagine the annals of history furnish an example of philanthropy so noble, so extensive as this.”

Podcast Episode 26: A Practical Joke on a Grand Scale

berners street hoax

In 1810 someone told hundreds of London merchants that Mrs. Tottenham at 54 Berners Street had requested their services. She hadn’t. For a full day the street was packed with crowds of deliverymen struggling to reach a single door — and the practical joker was never caught.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll hear descriptions of the chaos in Berners Street and meet Theodore Hook, the man who probably planned the whole thing. We’ll also revisit the mysterious corpse found on an Australian beach in 1948 and puzzle over an octopus stuck in a tree.

Sources for our segment on the Berners Street hoax:

Judith Flanders, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London, 2012.

Robert Chambers, The Book of Days, 1832.

Richard Harris Dalton Barham, The Life and Remains of Theodore Edward Hook, 1849.

John Gibson Lockhart, Theodore Hook, A Sketch, 1852.

John Timbs, Lives of Wits and Humourists, 1862.

Satirist, or, Monthly Meteor, “The Hoax: An Epistle From Solomon Sappy, Esquire, in London, to his brother Simon at Liverpool,” Jan. 1, 1811, pp. 59-61.

Listener mail:

The new developments in the mystery of the Somerton man are detailed in this article in The Advertiser.

Here’s “No E,” four minutes of E-less hip-hop by Zach Sherwin and George Watsky (thanks, Jocelyn):

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Nick Madrid.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Now and Then

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Most stories are told in the past tense. “It was a dark and stormy night.” In reading the story we understand that the storm is happening “now,” in the present, but the language that communicates this to us places it in the past.

This is a strange way of managing things. Imagine reading a novel using a bookmark. Everything to the left of the bookmark is in the past, already known. Everything to the right is in the future, not yet known. Our current location, at the bookmark, is someone else’s present narrated in the past tense. And this implies that there’s some future present in relation to which “current” events are past.

“If the past is to be read as present, it is a curious present that we know to be past in relation to a future we know to be already in place, already in wait for us to reach it,” writes Peter Brooks in Reading for the Plot (1984). “Perhaps we would do best to speak of the anticipation of retrospection as our chief tool in making sense of narrative, the master trope of its strange logic.”

(From Mark Currie, About Time, 2007.)

Vital Signs

In 1921 someone began stealing money, jewelry, and clothing from a girls’ dormitory at the University of California. When the residents themselves were unable to identify the culprit, student Margaret Taylor made a formal complaint to the police.

The police elected to try something new. One of their number, 23-year-old John A. Larson, had been experimenting with a lie-detecting device that measured a subject’s respiration, blood pressure, and other physical reactions as she responded to a series of questions. He asked the women’s consent to use the device in his investigation, and they agreed.

He started with Margaret Taylor, the student who had first reported the thefts. Part of his technique was to engage in preliminary small talk with the subject, to put her at ease. He found Taylor intelligent and witty, and she said she found his work fascinating and admired his ambition. She passed the test easily, showing no response to key terms such as crime, locker, or purse among Larson’s questions.

In reviewing the results, Larson realized that he might not have eliminated all the extraneous factors that could have affected the young women’s responses — he had tried to make them comfortable with the machine, but some of them also “might have been reacting to the questioner, not the questions.” So he called back Margaret Taylor to test this proposition. He connected her to the machine again and asked her to lie to him. Then he asked her out.

The two were married a year later. One of Larson’s assistants said, “It was an odd way to begin a romance.” The dorm thief was discovered among the other women, and Margaret recovered a $400 diamond ring she had lost. Today Larson is remembered as the father of the polygraph.

In recounting this story in his 2009 book The Lie Detectors, Ken Alder writes:

“Years later, he still had the record of their first meeting in his files, the zigzag trace of her heart as he asked her, ‘Are you interested in this test?'”