Welcome Wagon

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1941, the German infantry found that its 3.7 cm Pak 36 anti-tank gun was practically useless against Soviet T-34 tanks — the Pak could only announce its presence by bouncing rounds harmlessly off the tank’s rugged armor.

Accordingly the Germans nicknamed it Heeresanklopfgerät — literally, “army door-knocking device.”


What three digits are represented by X, Y, and Z in this addition problem?


Click for Answer

An Architect’s Dream

ambasz folly 1

This is just an image that I liked. In 1983, in preparation for an exhibition at New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery, architect B.J. Archer invited some of his friends to submit plans for a folly — “an object which embodies no function, save for demarcation, or is useful only for a small segment of daily life.”

Emilio Ambasz submitted the following. “I never thought about it in words,” he wrote, “It came to me as an image — full-fledged, clear and irreducible, like a vision”:

I fancied myself the owner of a wide grazing field, somewhere in the fertile plains of Texas or in the province of Buenos Aires. In the middle of this field was a partly sunken open-air construction. I felt as if this place had always existed. The entrance was marked by a three-column baldachino supporting a lemon tree. From the entrance a triangular earthen plane stepped gently toward the diagonal of a large, square sunken courtyard — half earth, half water. A rocky mass rose in the centre of the courtyard resembling a mountain. A barge made of logs floated on the water; it was sheltered by a thatched roof supported by wooded trusses resting on four square, sectioned, wood pillars. Using a long pole, the barge could be sculled into an opening in the mountain. Once inside this cave I could alight the barge on a cove-like shore illuminated by the zenithal opening. More often, I used the barge to reach an L-shaped cloister where, shaded from the sun or sheltered from the wind, I could sit and read, draw or just think. The cloister was defined on the outside by the water basin and on the inside by a number of undulating planes screening alcove-like spaces.

ambasz folly 2

In the alcoves he stored childhood toys, school notebooks, a stamp collection, and an old military uniform. “Not all things stored in these alcoves were there because they had given me pleasure; they were things I could not discard.” In his imagination he would traverse the water basin occasionally to dress up in the uniform, “assuring myself I had not put on too much weight.”

One last thing: In place of one of the alcoves was the entrance to a tunnel leading to an open pit full of fresh mist. “I never understood how this cold water mist originated, but it never failed to produce a rainbow.”

ambasz folly 3

(From Archer’s Follies, 1983.)

Light Work

You have 10 stacks of silver dollars, with 10 coins in each stack. The coins appear identical, but you know that all the coins in one stack are counterfeit. You know the weight of a genuine coin, and you know that a counterfeit coin weighs 1 gram less than this. How many weighings must you do to find the counterfeit stack?

Click for Answer

Marital Duels

marital duels

In the Middle Ages, husbands and wives would sometimes settle their differences with physical combat. To compensate for the man’s greater strength, his wife was given certain advantages:

The woman must be so prepared that a sleeve of her chemise extend a small ell beyond her hand like a little sack. There indeed is put a stone weighing three pounds; and she has nothing else but her chemise, and that is bound together between the legs with a lace. Then the man makes himself ready in the pit over against his wife. He is buried therein up to the girdle, and one hand is bound at the elbow to the side.

In other drawings the man sits in a tub; in one the two fight with drawn swords. “Judicial duels were common enough in the medieval and early modern period to merit etiquette books,” writes scholar Allison Coudert, “but, as far as I know, nowhere except in the Holy Roman Empire were judicial duels ever considered fitting means to settle marital disputes, and no record of such a duel has been found after 1200, at which time a couple is reported to have fought with the sanction of the civic authorities at Bâle.” The drawings that have survived come from historical treatises of the 15th and 16th centuries.

(Allison Coudert, “Judicial Duels Between Husbands and Wives,” Notes in the History of Art 4:4 [Summer 1985], 27-30.)

I Got a Feeling

My teenage children are mad about rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t mind, but between them they have socks, pullovers and slacks which are fluorescent, and I am worried in case these are harmful to their health. Surely things that are luminous in the dark are usually radioactive, which, I take it, could be dangerous.

You’ll be relieved to know that these clothes, so popular with teenagers (particularly the rock ‘n’ rollers), have been tested for radioactivity, and there is none. So there should be no danger at all, except to anyone who is sensitive to the kinds of colours they select!

Woman’s Realm, April 12, 1958



In order that life should be a story or romance to us, it is necessary that a great part of it, at any rate, should be settled for us without our permission. … A man has control over many things in his life; he has control over enough things to be the hero of a novel. But if he had control over everything, there would be so much hero that there would be no novel.

— G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, 1906

Podcast Episode 165: A Case of Mistaken Identity


In 1896, Adolf Beck found himself caught up in a senseless legal nightmare: Twelve women from around London insisted that he’d deceived them and stolen their cash and jewelry. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Beck’s incredible ordeal, which ignited a scandal and inspired historic reforms in the English justice system.

We’ll also covet some noble socks and puzzle over a numerical sacking.


A 1631 edition of the Bible omitted not in “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

When the first hydrogen balloon landed in 1783, frightened villagers attacked it with pitchforks.

Sources for our feature on Adolph Beck:

Tim Coates, The Strange Story of Adolph Beck, 1999.

Jim Morris, The Who’s Who of British Crime, 2015.

“An English Dreyfus,” Goodwin’s Weekly, Sept. 22, 1904, 6.

“Police Effort Was Tragedy,” [Grand Forks, N.D.] Evening Times, Dec. 24, 1909, 1.

“Errors of English Court,” Holt County [Mo.] Sentinel, Dec. 2, 1904, 2.

“England’s Dreyfus Case Is at an End,” [Scotland, S.D.] Citizen-Republican, Dec. 1, 1904, 3.

“Sir Arthur Conan Doyle a Detective in Real Life,” New York Sun, May 31, 1914, 3.

“Jailed for Another’s Crime,” [Astoria, Ore.] Morning Astorian, Aug. 13, 1904, 4.

Judith Rowbotham, Kim Stevenson, and Samantha Pegg, Crime News in Modern Britain: Press Reporting and Responsibility, 1820-2010.

Graham Davies and Laurence Griffiths, “Eyewitness Identification and the English Courts: A Century of Trial and Error,” Psychiatry, Psychology and Law 15:3 (November 2008), 435-449.

Haia Shpayer-Makov, “Journalists and Police Detectives in Victorian and Edwardian England: An Uneasy Reciprocal Relationship,” Journal of Social History 42:4 (Summer 2009), 963-987.

D. Michael Risinger, “Unsafe Verdicts: The Need for Reformed Standards for the Trial and Review of Factual Innocence Claims,” Houston Law Review 41 (January 2004), 1281.

“Remarkable Case of A. Beck: Innocent Man Twice Convicted of a Mean Offense,” New York Times, Aug 13, 1904, 6.

J.H. Wigmore, “The Bill to Make Compensation to Persons Erroneously Convicted of Crime,” Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology 3:5 (January 1913), 665-667.

C. Ainsworth Mitchell, “Handwriting and Its Value as Evidence,” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 71:3673 (April 13, 1923), 373-384.

Brian Cathcart, “The Strange Case of Adolf Beck,” Independent, Oct. 16, 2004.

“Adolf Beck, Unlawfully Obtaining From Fanny Nutt Two Gold Rings,” Proceedings of the Old Bailey, Feb. 24, 1896.

In the photo above, Adolph Beck is on the left, John Smith on the right. In July 1904, Smith was actually brought to Brixton Prison while Beck was being held there. Beck wrote, “I saw him at chapel two or three times. There is no resemblance between us.”

Listener mail:

“Why Weren’t the Clothes of the Pompeii Victims Destroyed by the Heat of a Pyroclastic Current?” Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time, Learning Zone, BBC, March 28, 2013.

Natasha Sheldon, “How Did the People of Pompeii Die? Suffocation Versus Thermal Shock,” Decoded Past, April 1, 2014.

Harriet Torry, “It’s a Vasectomy Party! Snips, Chips and Dips With Your Closest Friends,” Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2017.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Anees Rao, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

Please visit Littleton Coin Company to sell your coins and currency, or call them toll free 1-877-857-7850.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

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!

The Susquehanna Ice Bridge

susquehanna ice bridge

In the 1850s, railroad passengers traveling from Baltimore to Philadelphia would debark at the Susquehanna River, cross the river on a ferryboat, and board a train waiting on the other side. In the severe winter of 1852, so much floating ice had piled up at this point that the ferry couldn’t be used, so railroad engineer Isaac R. Trimble came up with a novel solution: He built a railway across the ice for the baggage and freight cars, and a sledge road beside it along which horses could draw his passengers. The cars had to descend 10 to 15 feet from the bank to the surface of the ice, and at the other side they were tied to a locomotive and pulled up. The “ice bridge” opened on Jan. 15 and was accounted a great success. The Franklin Journal reported, “Forty freight cars per day, laden with valuable merchandise, have been worked over this novel tract by the means above referred to, and were propelled across the ice portion by two-horse sleds running upon the sledge road, and drawing the cars by a lateral towing line, of the size of a man’s finger.”

“At the present writing, this novel and effectual means of maintaining the communication at Havre de Grace is still in successful operation, and will so continue until the ice in the river is about to break up. Then, by means of the sledges, the rails (the only valuable part of the track), can be rapidly moved off by horse power, not probably requiring more than a few hours’ time, so that the communication may be maintained successfully until the last moment. If properly timed, as it doubtless will be, the railroad may be removed, the ice may run out, and the ferry be resumed, it may be, in less than forty-eight hours.”

In fact, wrote historian Charles P. Dare, the ice bridge operated until Feb. 24, “when it was taken up, and, in a few days, the river was free of ice. During this time, 1378 cars loaded with mails, baggage and freight were transported upon this natural bridge, the tonnage amounting to about 10,000 tons. The whole was accomplished without accident of any kind; and the materials were all removed prior to the breaking up of the river without the loss of a cross-tie or bar of iron.”