It’s easy to send out a message in a bottle, but it’s hard to get anyone to notice it. In 1922 Hannah Rosenblatt sought to remedy this by adding a bell:

It will be seen that I provide a carrier that will positively float until washed upon shore or picked up by a passing boat. The peculiar shape of the support in combination with the bell assures the attraction of attention which is a very important feature of my invention.

Rosenblatt lived in the Philippines — perhaps there’s a story behind this.


“We often want one thing and pray for another, not telling the truth even to the gods.” — Seneca

“O! Wherefore”

Robert Peter wrote these lines on March 23, 1838, on leaving London for Jamaica. Christopher Adams named Peter one of the worst English poets, presumably for the immortal last line.

O! wherefore pensive heaves that sigh?
Why is thy face o’ercast with sorrow?
Thy throbbing bosom heaving high;
And wherefore should thy grief-dimmed eye
That tint of melancholy borrow?

‘Tis thus with me; I cherish dear
Each fond memorial of affection;
My heart the impress still shall wear —
Though fate doth now asunder tear
Those ties, the cause of my dejection.

For soon the dark, deep, rolling waves
Of wild Atlantic shall us sever;
And while around me ocean raves,
Still warm remembrance friendship craves;
Thee, M.M. Woods, forget I’ll never!

A Mobile Fort


Inventor Otis L. Boucher offered this steel suit to American troops during World War I. Each of the seven pieces presents an angled front to the enemy, in hopes of deflecting bullets, and the padded helmet can be thrown back when necessary.

“Since … helmets have unquestionably proved their merit, particularly as a defense against bursting shrapnel, why not go a step farther?” approved Popular Science Monthly. “Why protect only the head? Why not the whole body?”

Alternative Energy


William Henry Brown’s The History of the First Locomotives in America (1871) describes two unlikely competitors that steam had to contend with on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. In the first, a horse was placed in the car and made to walk on a belt that drove the wheels. “The machine worked indifferently well; but, on one occasion, when drawing a car filled with editors and other representatives of the press, it ran into a cow, and the passengers, having been tilted out and rolled down an embankment, were naturally enough unanimous in condemning the contrivance.”


The second was a wind-driven car rather optimistically called the Meteor. This would run only when the wind was behind it, and the inventor “was afraid to trust a strong side-wind lest the vehicle might be upset; so it rarely made its appearance except a northwester was blowing, when it would be dragged out to the farther end of the Mount Clair embankment, and come back, literally with flying colors.”

“Like the horse-car, the sailing-car had its day. It was an amusing toy — nothing more — and is referred to now as an illustration of the crudity of the ideas prevailing forty years ago in reference to railroads.”

Extra Credit


The U.S. Constitution requires that the president be at least 35 years old. But legal scholar Mark V. Tushnet imagines a loophole by which, say, a 16-year-old guru might be elected:

“Suppose that the guru’s supporters sincerely claim that their religion includes among its tenets a belief in reincarnation. Even on the narrowest definition of ‘age,’ they say, their guru is well over thirty-five years old even though the guru emerged from the latest womb sixteen years ago.

“Further, it would have been an establishment of religion for the President of the Senate to reject their definition of ‘age,’ and it would violate their rights under the free exercise clause … for the courts to overturn the decision made by the political branches.”

His point is that even the most seemingly straightforward provisions in the Constitution can require interpretation.

(“Interpretation Symposium: Constitutional Interpretation: Comment: A Note on the Revival of Textualism in Constitutional Theory,” Southern California Law Review, January 1985)

The Best Masters


Finally, consider what delightful teaching there is in books. How easily, how secretly, how safely in books do we make bare without shame the poverty of human ignorance! These are the masters that instruct us without rod and ferrule, without words of anger, without payment of money or clothing. Should ye approach them, they are not asleep; if ye seek to question them, they do not hide themselves; should ye err, they do not chide; and should ye show ignorance, they know not how to laugh. O Books! ye alone are free and liberal. Ye give to all that seek, and set free all that serve you zealously. By what thousands of things are ye figuratively recommended to learned men in the Scripture given us by Divine inspiration!

— Richard de Bury, Philobiblon, 1344

Double Duty

From Stuart Kidd in the May 2003 Word Ways:

CANON is a synonym for ORDINANCE, and CANNON is a synonym for ORDNANCE.

Singing Sand

In the summarized proceedings of the September 1884 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Trinity College chemist H. Carrington Bolton and Columbia College geologist Alexis A. Julien reported on the “musical sand” at Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass.:

“The character of the sounds obtained by friction on the beach is decidedly musical and we have been able to indicate the exact notes on a musical staff. The shrillness and lowness of note depend chiefly on the quantity of sand disturbed; by plunging both hands into the sand and bringing them together quickly with a swoop a large quantity of the sand vibrates and we hear a tone of which the dominant note is:”


“By stroking the sand nearer the surface and with less force very high notes are heard somewhat confused. The following were heard at different times.”


“By rubbing firmly and briskly a double handful of the sand several notes on a rising scale are heard, the notes rising as the quantity of sand between the hands diminishes. We do not hear each note of the scale separately, but the ear receives an impression something like that formed by sliding a finger up a violin string at the same time that the bow is drawn.”


“The range is very remarkable and decided.”

Bolton and Julien found that “sonorous sand” was “of very common occurrence and widely distributed” — 65 of the 85 U.S. life-saving stations with which they corresponded reported that they knew of such sand. “The number is constantly increasing as the reports from keepers of life saving stations arrive.”

Yablo’s Paradox

All the statements below this one are false.
All the statements below this one are false.
All the statements below this one are false.
All the statements below this one are false.
All the statements below this one are false.

These statements can’t all be false, because that would make the first one true, a contradiction. But neither can any one of them be true, as a true statement would have to be followed by an infinity of false statements, and the falsity of any one of them implies the truth of some that follow. Thus there’s no consistent way to assign truth values to all the statements.

This is reminiscent of the well-known liar paradox (“This sentence is false”), except that none of the sentences above refers to itself. MIT philosopher Stephen Yablo uses it to show that circularity is not necessary to produce a paradox.