Road Talk

In 1930 one found it vexing to pilot one’s Bugatti through the multitude in time for the first-act curtain. Happily Eugene L. Baker invented this “automobile attachment,” through which one might address the vulgar without deserting one’s foie gras:

This invention relates to an attachment for automobiles and more especially for closed vehicles, one of the objects being to provide a simple and efficient device by means of which the driver of the vehicle can speak to persons in front thereof, thereby to facilitate traffic.

The device doesn’t appear to accommodate two-way communication. Pity, isn’t it?


Here is a curious problem. We may safely assume that you had two parents; each of your parents had two parents, so that you had four grandparents. Arguing along similar lines you must have had eight great grandparents and so on. Assuming an average of three generations per century the number of your ancestors since the Christian Era began must have been nearly 1 trillion–

1,000,000,000,000,000,000 or 1018

This is vastly more people than have ever lived on the Earth. What can we do about it?

— J. Newton Friend, Numbers: Fun & Facts, 1954

Hearing Places

Architect Stedman Whitwell thought it illogical and confusing that different towns sometimes have the same name. He suggested assigning a unique name to each location based on its latitude and longitude. He published this table in the New Harmony, Ind., Gazette in 1826:

Insert an S to indicate south latitude and a V for west longitude; omit them for north and east. Thus New Harmony (38°11’N, 87°55’W) would be rechristened Ipba Veinul; New York would be Otke Notive, Washington D.C. Feili Neivul, and Pittsburgh Otfu Veitoup.

What these names lack in poetry they make up in utility: a traveler given the name of a town can immediately infer its location. Unfortunately, Whitwell’s scheme never caught on — and today the United States has 28 Springfields, 29 Clintons, and 30 Franklins.

Round Three

From the London Graphic, July 19, 1879, a sketch and statement by Capt. Davison of the steamship Kiushiu maru:

Saturday, April 5, at 11.15 a.m., Cape Satano [Japan] distant about nine miles, the chief officer and myself observed a whale jump clear out of the sea, about a quarter of a mile away. Shortly after it leaped out again, when I saw that there was something attached to it. Got glasses, and on the next leap distinctly saw something holding on to the belly of the whale. The latter gave one more spring clear of the water, and myself and chief then observed what appeared to be a large creature of the snake species rear itself about thirty feet out of the water. It appeared to be about the thickness of a junk’s mast, and after standing about ten seconds in an erect position, it descended into the water, the upper end going first. With my glasses I made out the colour of the beast to resemble that of a pilot fish.

Davison’s statement was countersigned by his chief officer, Mr. McKechnie. This is the third account I know of a fight between a whale and a sea serpent; the others occurred in 1818 and 1875. The whales seem to lose every time. I’m going to award the crown to the serpents and maybe we can avoid any further hostilities.

Perpetual Locomotion

In 1829 a correspondent to the Mechanic’s Magazine proposed this design for a “self-moving railway carriage.” Fill the car with passengers and cargo as shown and set it on two rails that undulate across the landscape:

In the descending sections (a, c, e) the two rails are parallel. In the ascending ones (b, d) they diverge so that the car, mounted on cones, will roll forward to settle more deeply between them, paradoxically “ascending” the slope. If the track circles the world the car will “assuredly continue to roll along in one undeviating course until time shall be no more.”

“How any one could ever imagine that such a contrivance would ever continue in motion for even a short time … must be a puzzle to every sane mechanic,” wrote John Phin in The Seven Follies of Science in 1911. But what does he know?

Business Trip

As a joke, Michael Collins submitted a travel voucher for his trip aboard Gemini 10. NASA reimbursed him $8 per day, a total of $24.

In his autobiography, Collins notes that he could instead have claimed 7 cents a mile, which would have yielded $80,000.

But one of the original Mercury astronauts had already tried this — and had received a bill for “a couple of million dollars” for the rocket he’d used.

Eye to Eye

equal chord theorem

Draw two circles of any size and bracket them with tangents, as shown.

The chords in green will always be equal.


A traveler in the Southern mountains saw an old man sitting at a cabin door and asked: ‘Have you lived here all your life?’

‘Not yet,’ was the reply.

– Ralph Louis Woods, Modern Handbook of Humor, 1967

Robed Spite

Supreme Court justice James Clark McReynolds (1862-1946) was known as “the rudest man in Washington.” In 27 years on the court, his behavior made this seem an understatement.

In choosing law clerks, McReynolds refused to accept “Jews, drinkers, blacks, women, smokers, married or engaged individuals.” A blatant antisemite, he refused to speak to Louis Brandeis, the court’s first Jewish justice, and in 1924 refused even to sit next to him for the court’s annual photo. After urging Herbert Hoover not to “afflict the Court with another Jew,” he pointedly read a newspaper during Benjamin Cardozo’s swearing-in ceremony. “For four thousand years,” he told Oliver Wendell Holmes, “the Lord tried to make something out of the Hebrews, then gave it up as impossible and turned them out to prey on mankind in general — like fleas on the dog, for example.”

McReynolds’ intolerance extended to everyone around him. When justice Harlan Fiske Stone remarked on the dullness of one attorney’s argument, McReynolds returned, “The only duller thing I can think of is to hear you read one of your opinions.” He objected to women’s wearing red nail polish and men’s wearing wristwatches, and he declared tobacco smoke “personally objectionable.” He once tried to defend his impartiality by saying he tried to protect “the poorest darkie in the Georgia backwoods as well as the man of wealth in a mansion on Fifth Avenue.”

Chief justice William Howard Taft called McReynolds “selfish to the last degree,” “fuller of prejudice than any man I have ever known,” and “one who delights in making others uncomfortable.” Even historians seem to hate him. In his biographical dictionary of the court, Timothy L. Hall calls McReynolds “the most boorish man ever to hold a seat there,” and Rebecca S. Shoemaker calls him “irascible and a racist.” He died alone at 84 — in Hall’s words, “unwept-for and unloved.”

Dress Blues

“All this buttoning and unbuttoning.”

— Anonymous 18th-century suicide note, cited in The Oxford Dictionary Of Quotations