More Lost Magic?

Last March I remarked on a curious experiment that defies common sense but is corroborated by several independent accounts, from Samuel Pepys to David Brewster.

Well, here’s another one. In Endless Amusement: A Collection of Nearly 400 Entertaining Experiments in Various Branches of Science (1821), we find an item headed “The Hour of the Day or Night Told by a Suspended Shilling”:

However improbable the following experiment may appear, it has been proved by repeated trials:

Sling a shilling or sixpence at the end of a piece of thread by means of a loop. Then resting your elbow on a table, hold the other end of the thread betwixt your forefinger and thumb; observing to let it pass across the ball of the thumb, and thus suspend the shilling into an empty goblet. Observe, your hand must be perfectly steady; and if you find it difficult to keep it in an immoveable posture, it is useless to attempt the experiment. Premising, however, that the shilling is properly suspended, you will observe, that when it has recovered its equilibrium, it will for a moment be stationary: it will then of its own accord, and without the least agency from the person holding it, assume the action of a pendulum, vibrating from side to side of the glass; and, after a few seconds, will strike the hour nearest to the time of day; for instance, if the time be twenty-five minutes past six, it will strike six; if thirty-five minutes past six, it will strike seven, and so of any other hour.

It is necessary to observe, that the thread should lay over the pulse of the thumb, and this may in some measure account for the vibration of the shilling; but to what cause its striking the precise hour is to be traced, remains unexplained; for it is no less astonishing than true, that when it has struck the proper number, its vibration ceases, it acquires a kind of rotary motion, and at last becomes stationary, as before.

This is worth trying even if you think it’s balderdash, as the effect is striking. In my trials the plumb hung true for a full minute, but then it did indeed begin swinging, tolled the hour, and then hung quietly again.

Who came up with this? From what I can tell, the item first appeared in the European Magazine of June or July 1819, and it seems to have inspired a fitful scientific debate around England. The Monthly Magazine (May 1, 1820) called it “legerdemain”; a letter in The Kaleidoscope (Nov. 22, 1823) confirmed the effect, “but why its movements should be regulated to the precise hour of the day I cannot possibly account for.” The Minerva (July 24, 1824) gave a fairly straightforward account of the technique; and The English Mechanic (June 14, 1872) expressed polite bafflement.

Interestingly, when The Magazine of Science, and School of Arts (Jan. 1, 1842) opined that “there is no truth whatever in the experiment,” a science-minded reader wrote in to disagree, detailing numerous trials with various materials at various hours and concluding that “I honestly confess I cannot explain it.” He offered these notes if you’d like to try it yourself:

  • “I remarked on many occasions, that should the suspended coin fail of striking all the hours consecutively, it will vibrate on until it obtains momentum to perform its work.”
  • “The operator must have a steady hand and arm and a fair proportion of patience.”
  • It seems to work best with a metal weight, a silk string, and a warm glass.


Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943) did not keep up with new technology — including the telephone.

When an acquaintance promised to “give him a ring on Thursday,” Sir George waited for hours, then complained to his son about the man’s lack of consideration: “Such a pity to promise people things and then forget about them.”

He had been expecting a piece of jewelry.


From Hastings, on the English shore, to the French cliffs, is more than fifty miles, and they are of course hid from each other by the convexity of the earth. On the evening of the 26th of July, 1798, the coast of France was visible at Hastings to the naked eye for several leagues, as though only a few miles off. Every spot was distinctly seen from Calais, Boulogne, as far as Dieppe. With the aid of a telescope, the fishing boats were seen at anchor, the different colors of the land upon the heights were distinguishable, and the sailors pointed out the places they were in the habit of visiting. The account of the phenomenon was drawn up by Mr. Lanham, a fellow of the Royal Society, who was an eye witness.

The Thomsonian Recorder, Aug. 30, 1834

Christian the Lion

In 1969, John Rendall and Anthony Bourke bought a 35-pound lion cub at Harrods department store in London and raised him in a local furniture store. They loved their new pet, but within a year “Christian” had grown to 185 pounds and the cost of keeping him was becoming prohibitive. So conservationist George Adamson took Christian to Kenya and introduced him into the Kora Nature Reserve, where eventually he led a pride.

One year later, Rendall and Bourke traveled to Africa hoping to visit their old friend. The lion hadn’t been seen in nine months, but on the day of their arrival, he appeared outside the camp. Even so, Adamson warned them, he might not recognize them if they approached. Here’s what happened:

The Baron of Arizona

After discovering a talent for forgery during the Civil War, James Reavis headed west and started one of the most ambitious hoaxes of all time. He invented a Spanish nobleman named Miguel de Peralta, devised his entire family tree, and began assiduously forging documents claiming 10 million acres of prime Arizona land for the don’s descendants. Then he traveled throughout Spain and Mexico, carefully seeding libraries and archives with the forged deeds, mortgages, and wills.

When all was ready, he went before the U.S. surveyor general in 1881 and showed that rights to these lands now belonged to him. He imposed taxes on residents throughout Arizona, including the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Silver King Mine, but when their lawyers sought to challenge the claims they found Reavis’ carefully forged documents on file.

The ruse made Reavis one of the richest land barons in Arizona, and soon he’d bought mansions in New York, Washington, St. Louis, and Mexico. But it all lasted less than 10 years, unraveling in 1890 when a Spanish linguist detected the forgeries. Reavis served six years in prison and spent the rest of his life on the streets of Santa Fe.