Memorable Experiments

hanging boy experiment

In 1730 Stephen Gray found that an orphan suspended by insulating silk cords could hold an electrostatic charge and attract small objects.

In 1845, C.H.D. Buys Ballot tested the Doppler effect by arranging for an orchestra of trumpeters to play a single sustained note on an open railroad car passing through Utrecht.

In 1746 Jean-Antoine Nollet arranged 200 Carthusian monks in a circle, each linked to his neighbor with an iron wire. Then he connected the circuit to a rudimentary electric battery.

“It is singular,” he noted, “to see the multitude of different gestures, and to hear the instantaneous exclamation of those surprised by the shock.”

Sign Language

Robert Benchley once endorsed a check:

“Dear Bankers Trust Company: Well, here we are in picturesque old Munich! Love to Aunt Julia, and how about Happy Hetzler, the old Hetzler? Yours in Zeta Psi, Don Stewart and I love you, Bob Benchley.”

Mr. Hetzler, who supervised his account, had the check framed and displayed in his office.

Repeat Performances

A “poem for stutterers” by Harry Mathews:

Mimi, our hours so social shall secede;
And answer surlily tie-tidied deed.

And a sentence composed by Leigh Mercer:

“Bye-bye, Lulu,” Fifi murmured, “George Orr pooh-poohs so-so Tartar cocoa beriberi Dodo had had.”

Project Management

How can six people be organized into four committees so that each committee has three members, each person belongs to two committees, and no two committees have more than one person in common?

It’s possible to work this out laboriously, but it yields immediately to a geometric insight:

project management diagram

If each line represents a committee and each intersection is a person, then the problem is solved.


One of the deepest and strangest of all human moods is the mood which will suddenly strike us perhaps in a garden at night, or deep in sloping meadows, the feeling that every flower and leaf has just uttered something stupendously direct and important, and that we have by a prodigy of imbecility not heard or understood it. There is a certain poetic value, and that a genuine one, in this sense of having missed the full meaning of things. There is beauty, not only in wisdom, but in this dazed and dramatic ignorance.

— G.K. Chesterton, Robert Browning, 1903

Black and White

ramsey chess problem

By Robert Henry Ramsey. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

Low Tech

Brooke Pattee’s “night light for a toilet,” patented in 1993, mounts a tube filled with electrical lamps under the upper rim of a toilet bowl so that users can use the bathroom without fumbling in the dark or being blinded by the overhead light.

Blake Warrington’s “toilet seat cover position alarm,” patented in 1989, sounds an alarm if the seat cover is not lowered after the toilet is flushed. “The alarm has the practical effect of conditioning persons who use the toilet to routinely close the toilet seat cover.”

Trojan Horse

In 1933 sculptor John Skeaping carved a horse of mahogany and pynkado and sent it to be displayed in Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire. “Perhaps I ought to tell you that I have concealed something in the belly of my horse,” he told the Daily Mail. “It is a little bundle of papers containing my private and personal views and opinions about my contemporary artists and their work! … Posterity (if my horse survives) may get some fun out of what I have written. I hope it will, at any rate!”

Skeaping died in 1980. In 1991, conservation workers at the Tate Gallery found a folded document inside the horse:

This is practically my only opportunity of
Saying exactly what I think about
In truth I am only interested in
myself and my own pleasure. I think that almost everyone I know
in the artistic world are just one mass
of stupidity
Henry Moore is a good
sculptor in a very limited way.
Barbara Hepworth has hardly got an
original idea in her head.
There are no other sculptors except
J. Epstein is one of the best artists
that we have
_____ Cedric Morris is one of the
_____ painters
__ and _____ ____ people I am ______.

The missing sections had faded or been eaten by insects. “I found this concealed artefact strangely moving,” wrote poet Paul Farley. “It was as if the art object, built from sound materials and designed to endure, had admitted something very human and very fragile.”

In a Word

adj. resembling a ladder

Above the facade of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is a ladder that has remained in place since the 19th century. At that time an edict was passed holding that the church’s doors and window ledges are “common ground” for the various Christian orders; as a result, no church can move anything near the window — including the ladder. It’s visible in the engraving below, which was made in 1834.

(Thanks, Randy.)


As he enters the room, he knows what awaits him. Resistance is useless. He cannot escape; there are simply too many of them, and there is nowhere to hide anyway. Hands take hold of him and strap him tightly. Now he cannot move. They have total control over him. They set to work quickly, efficiently, and without malice. They follow a strict protocol, their actions being exquisitely coordinated toward a single end. They begin to kill him, deliberately and methodically. This is not their first time to take life. They make no attempt to conceal their intentions or their actions. On the contrary, they do everything in public, before an audience who watch as his life ebbs away.

“If premeditation is central to the handling of homicide, this killing ought to evoke considerable severity. But it does not,” write University of Georgia sociologist Mark Cooney. “In fact, the law tolerates it, and some people even praise it highly. The words ‘homicide’ and ‘killing’ are rarely used to describe it. Instead it goes by another name: ‘capital punishment.'”

(From Cooney’s 2009 book Is Killing Wrong?)