An Audio Ghost

When Alexander Graham Bell died in 1922, it was thought that no recordings of his voice had survived. But in 2013 the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History announced that it had a fragile wax-on-cardboard disc that Bell had made as an experiment in sound recording … and that now this could be played using optical scanning technology.

The disc is dated April 15, 1885. Bell spends most of the 4-minute recording reciting figures, but he concludes with the distinct words “Hear my voice: … Alexander … Graham … Bell.” Bell biographer Charlotte Gray wrote:

In that ringing declaration, I heard the clear diction of a man whose father, Alexander Melville Bell, had been a renowned elocution teacher (and perhaps the model for the imperious Prof. Henry Higgins, in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion; Shaw acknowledged Bell in his preface to the play).

I heard, too, the deliberate enunciation of a devoted husband whose deaf wife, Mabel, was dependent on lip reading. And true to his granddaughter’s word, the intonation of the British Isles was unmistakable in Bell’s speech. The voice is vigorous and forthright — as was the inventor, at last speaking to us across the years.

Amazingly, scientists resurrected the voice of Bell’s father too — a man who had been born in 1819.

The Extra Mile

Many thanks to podcast listener Matt Taylor for this:

In 1992 British journalist James May was hired to compile the annual “Road Test Year Book” for Autocar magazine, a collection of the year’s car reviews. The task “was extremely boring and took several months,” May said, so to amuse himself he began to hide acrostics in the text. The design of the supplement called for four reviews on each two-page spread, with the first letter of each review presented as a large red capital letter. May arranged the text so that the four red letters on one spread spelled out ROAD, another spread spelled TEST, and so on.

Readers who noticed this might have been disappointed to find that the pattern didn’t continue — the four-letter phrases soon reverted to non-words such as SOYO and UTHI.

But those with the patience to put all the non-words together found a masterly 81-letter message:


Autocar’s editors overlooked the acrostic entirely — they learned about it only when readers called in seeking a prize.

May was fired, but he went on to bigger things: He was a co-presenter of the motoring program Top Gear for 13 years.

Cross Purposes

Three men, A, B, and C, are given a test in quick thinking. Each man’s forehead is marked with either a blue or a white cross, and they’re put into an empty room. None of the three can see the color of his own cross, and they aren’t allowed to communicate in any way. Each is told that he can leave the room if he either sees two white crosses or can correctly deduce the color of his own cross.

The men know each other well, and A knows he’s just a bit more alert than the others. He sees that both B and C have blue crosses, and after a moment’s thought he’s able to leave the room, having correctly named the color of his own cross. What was the color, and how did he deduce it?

Click for Answer

First Contact

On April 12, 1961, witnesses saw a spaceship enter Earth’s atmosphere and descend to the ground in a ploughed field in the Leninsky Put Collective Farm near the Soviet village of Smelovka. At a height of 7 kilometers, a spaceman left the ship and drifted to earth on a parachute. The spaceman later reported:

As I stepped on the firm soil, I saw a woman and a girl. They were standing beside a spotted calf and gazing at me with curiosity. I started walking towards them and they began walking towards me. But the nearer they got to me the slower their steps became. I was still wearing my flaming orange spacesuit and they were probably frightened by it. They had never seen anything like it before.

‘I’m a Russian, comrades. I’m a Russian,’ I shouted, taking off my helmet.

The woman was Anna Takhtarova, wife of the local forester, and the girl, Rita, was her granddaughter.

‘Have you really come from outer space?’ she asked a little uncertainly.

‘Just imagine, I certainly have,’ I replied.

He was Yuri Gagarin, and the site would soon receive a permanent monument marking the landing place of Vostok-1.

See To Whom It May Concern.

Podcast Episode 148: The Perfect Murder

william herbert wallace

Insurance agent William Herbert Wallace had a terrible night in January 1931 — summoned to a nonexistent address in Liverpool, he returned home to find that his wife had been murdered in his absence. An investigation seemed to show a senseless crime with no weapon, no motive, and no likely suspects. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll revisit the slaying of Julia Wallace, which Raymond Chandler called “the impossible murder.”

We’ll also recount some wobbly oaths and puzzle over an eccentric golfer.


In the 1960s, Washington state televised the World Octopus Wrestling Championships.

Kansas schoolteacher Samuel Dinsmoor spent two decades fashioning a Garden of Eden out of concrete.

Sources for our feature on William Herbert Wallace:

W.F. Wyndham-Brown, ed., The Trial of William Herbert Wallace, 1933.

Yseult Bridges, Two Studies in Crime, 1959.

Roger Wilkes, Wallace: The Final Verdict, 1984.

Ronald Bartle, The Telephone Murder, 2012.

Hans Von Hentig, “Pre-Murderous Kindness and Post-Murder Grief,” Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 48:4 (November-December 1957), 369-377.

Roger Wilkes, “The 1931 Slaying of a Liverpool Housewife Remains to This Day the Perfect Murder,” Telegraph, May 12, 2001.

Liverpool Echo, “Riddle of Man from the Pru,” April 7, 2008.

David Harrison, “PD James Unmasks the Perfect Killer,” Sunday Times, Oct. 27, 2013.

Edward Winter, “Chess and the Wallace Murder Case,” Chess History (accessed March 19, 2017).

Listener mail:

“Murder Castle,” Lights Out, Feb. 16, 1938.

Wikipedia, Lights Out (radio show)” (accessed March 30, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Oath of Office of the President of the United States” (accessed March 30, 2017).

Jeffrey Toobin, The Oath, 2013.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Jake Koethler. Here’s a corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

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

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 Thanks for listening!

77777 …

A curious puzzle from the Penguin Problems Book, 1940:

A certain number consisting entirely of 7s is divisible by 199. Find the last four digits of the quotient, without finding the entire quotient.

Click for Answer

Aronson’s Sequence

In 1982, J.K. Aronson of Oxford, England, sent this mysterious fragment to Douglas Hofstadter:

‘T’ is the first, fourth, eleventh, sixteenth, twenty-fourth, twenty-ninth, thirty-third …

The context of their discussion was self-reference, so presumably the intended conclusion of Aronson’s sentence was … letter in this sentence. If one ignores spaces and punctuation, then T does indeed occupy those positions in Aronson’s fragment; the next few terms would be 35, 39, 45, 47, 51, 56, 58, 62, and 64. The Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences gives a picture:

1234567890 1234567890 1234567890 1234567890 1234567890
Tisthefirs tfourthele venthsixte enthtwenty fourthtwen
tyninththi rtythirdth irtyfiftht hirtyninth fortyfifth
fortyseven thfiftyfir stfiftysix thfiftyeig hthsixtyse
condsixtyf ourthsixty ninthseven tythirdsev entyeighth
eightiethe ightyfourt heightynin thninetyfo urthninety
ninthonehu ndredfourt honehundre deleventho nehundreds
ixteenthon ehundredtw entysecond onehundred twentysixt
honehundre dthirtyfir stonehundr edthirtysi xthonehund
redfortyse cond...

But there’s a catch: In English, most ordinal adjectives (FIRST, FOURTH, etc.) themselves contain at least one T, so the sentence continually creates more work for itself even as it lists the locations of its Ts. There are a few T-less ordinals (NINE BILLION ONE MILLION SECOND), but these don’t arrange themselves to mop up all the incoming Ts. This means that the sentence must be infinitely long.

And, strangely, that throws our initial presumption into confusion. We had supposed that the sentence would end with … letter in this sentence. But an infinite sentence has no end — so it’s not clear whether we ought to be counting Ts at all!