Podcast Episode 42: The Balmis Expedition: Using Orphans to Combat Smallpox

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell how Spanish authorities found an ingenious way to use orphans to bring the smallpox vaccine to the American colonies in 1803. The Balmis Expedition overcame the problems of transporting a fragile vaccine over a long voyage and is credited with saving at least 100,000 lives in the New World.

We’ll also get some listener updates to the Lady Be Good story and puzzle over why a man would find it more convenient to drive two cars than one.

Sources for our segment on the Balmis expedition:

J. Antonio Aldrete, “Smallpox Vaccination in the Early 19th Century Using Live Carriers: The Travels of Francisco Xavier de Balmis,” Southern Medical Journal, April 2004.

Carlos Franco-Paredes, Lorena Lammoglia and José Ignacio Santos-Preciado, “The Spanish Royal Philanthropic Expedition to Bring Smallpox Vaccination to the New World and Asia in the 19th Century,” Clinical Infectious Diseases, Nov. 1, 2005.

Catherine Mark and José G. Rigau-Pérez, “The World’s First Immunization Campaign: The Spanish Smallpox Vaccine Expedition, 1803-1813,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Spring 2009.

John W.R. McIntyre, “Smallpox and Its Control in Canada,” Canadian Medical Association Journal, Dec. 14, 1999.

Pan-American Health Organization: The Balmis-Salvany Smallpox Expedition: The First Public Health Vaccination Campaign in South America (accessed Jan. 18, 2015).

Listener Roger Beck sent these images of the memorial and propeller from the Lady Be Good in Houghton, Mich.:

Lady Be Good memorial

Lady Be Good propeller

And listener Dan Patterson alerted us to ladybegood.net, an impressive and growing repository of information about the “ghost bomber,” including the recovered diaries of co-pilot Robert Toner and flight engineer Harold Ripslinger and some ingenious reconstructions of the lost plane’s flight path after the nine crewmen bailed out.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was submitted by listener David White, who sent these corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

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

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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!

Black and White


By Theophilus A. Thompson. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer


“How old are you?”
“I’m five. How old are you?”
“I’m either four or five. I don’t know which.”
“Do women bother you?”
“You’re four.”

— Anonymous, Colorado Flatiron, 1959

Sound Measure

On Nov. 11 each year the British Commonwealth observes two minutes’ silence to remember the fallen in World War I. Of the first observance, in 1919, the Daily Express wrote, “There is nothing under heaven so full of awe as the complete silence of a mighty crowd.”

In 2001, artist Jonty Semper released Kenotaphion, a two-CD collection of these silences drawn from 70 years of BBC, British Movietone, and Reuters broadcasts — he had spent four years assembling every surviving recording. “I really don’t think people will find it boring,” he told the Guardian. “This is raw history.”

Is this a contradiction, an audio recording of an absence of sound? “Unlike the Cenotaph at Whitehall, these recordings are far from empty, with Big Ben drowning out the coughs and uncomprehending children of the reverent, amid atmospheric weather effects, broadcast static, startled birds, and rifle reports,” notes Craig Dworkin in No Medium (2013). “The ony truly silent Armistice minutes occurred during the Second World War, from 1941 to 1944, when the ceremony was suspended. Absent from Semper’s discs, those years speak the loudest and are by far the most moving.”

A Human Cantilever


To illustrate the design principle behind Scotland’s Forth Bridge, engineer Sir Benjamin Baker offered a personal demonstration. Sir John Fowler (left) and Baker (right) each hold two wooden poles with outstretched arms, forming two diamond shapes. When construction foreman Kaichi Watanabe sits in the center, the diamonds are prevented from tipping inward because their outer ends are anchored.

It worked. The bridge, opened in 1890, held the record as the world’s longest single cantilever bridge span for 17 years.

“The All-Purpose Calculus Problem”

kennedy calculus problem

A “calculus problem to end all calculus problems,” by Dan Kennedy, chairman of the math department at the Baylor School, Chattanooga, Tenn., and chair of the AP Calculus Committee:

A particle starts at rest and moves with velocity kennedy integral along a 10-foot ladder, which leans against a trough with a triangular cross-section two feet wide and one foot high. Sand is flowing out of the trough at a constant rate of two cubic feet per hour, forming a conical pile in the middle of a sandbox which has been formed by cutting a square of side x from each corner of an 8″ by 15″ piece of cardboard and folding up the sides. An observer watches the particle from a lighthouse one mile off shore, peering through a window shaped like a rectangle surmounted by a semicircle.

(a) How fast is the tip of the shadow moving?
(b) Find the volume of the solid generated when the trough is rotated about the y-axis.
(c) Justify your answer.
(d) Using the information found in parts (a), (b), and (c) sketch the curve on a pair of coordinate axes.

From Math Horizons, Spring 1994.


“I am a long time in answering your letter, my dear Miss Harriet, but then you must remember that it is an equally long time since I received it — so that makes us even, & nobody to blame on either side.”

— Mark Twain, to an autograph hunter, June 14, 1876

“My room is very easy to find when you get here, and as for distance, you know — why, Oxford is as near to London as London is to Oxford. If your geography-book doesn’t tell you that, it must be a wretched affair.”

— Lewis Carroll, to Mary MacDonald, Jan. 22, 1866

Ice Work


Three hockey pucks, A, B, and C, lie in a plane. You make a move by hitting one puck so that it passes between the other two in a straight line. Is it possible to return all the pucks to their original positions with 1001 moves?

Click for Answer


A study in perspective by University of Hertfordshire psychologist Richard Wiseman:

(Thanks, Paul.)

In a Word


v. to deceive in the manner of a prostitute

BOW-STREET — Eliza Merchant, a black-eyed girl, of that class of women known as ‘unfortunates,’ was charged by Garnet Comerford, a sailor, with robbing him of four sovereigns, several dollars and half-crowns, and his shoes. The tar stated that on Wednesday evening, about eight o’clock he left the house of his Captain, the honourable Mr. Duncan, at the west end of town, intending to pay a visit to a sister, whom he had not seen since he left England in the Seringapatem. On the way, he met as tight a looking frigate as ever he clapt his eyes on. She hoisted friendly colours; he hove to; and they agreed together to steer into port. They sailed up the Strand, when she said she would tow him to a snug berth, and he should share her hammock for the night. He consented; and when he awoke in the morning he found that she had cut and run. His rigging had been thrown all about the room, his four sovereigns and silver, and shoes were carried off.

The Morning Chronicle, Dec. 8, 1828

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