The Ice Palace

In 1739, to celebrate Russia’s victory over Turkey, empress Anna Ivanovna ordered a palace of ice to be built in St. Petersburg. Designed by architect Pyotr Yeropkin, the massive building was 60 meters long and 6.5 high, surrounded by sculptures and artillery, fully furnished (including a bed, mattress, and pillows), and featuring a garden filled with trees, birds, and even an elephant. All of this was made entirely of ice.

It melted the following summer.

“Geographical Fact”

The shortest line that can be drawn on the earth’s surface, one end of said line being at the mouth of the Rio Grande river in the Gulf of Mexico, and the other end at Pekin, in China, will cross Behring’s Strait. If you doubt it, take a large terrestrial globe and some thread and convince yourself. This truth may be of far greater value than we now know. What say you, gentlemen? Shall we begin the Pekin and Denver road at its Asiatic terminus, and so let the road bring along the labor that is to build it?

Bizarre Notes & Queries, April 1886

The Rainmaker

When self-styled “moisture accelerator” Charles Hatfield arrived in San Diego in 1915, he’d already created storms for ranchers in Los Angeles. Or, rather, storms had appeared after he’d released his secret chemical mixture into its evaporating tanks; critics claimed the storms were already coming. But San Diego needed to fill its Morena Dam reservoir, so they agreed on a fee and Hatfield released his chemicals.

On Jan. 16, 1916, heavy rain started and didn’t stop. Dry riverbeds filled, then overran their banks, flooding farms and homes, destroying bridges, cutting telephone cables, and marooning trains. Two dams overflowed and one broke, killing 20.

Hatfield said he’d filled the reservoir as agreed and disclaimed responsibility for the $3.5 million in damage. After a long legal battle, the rain was ruled an act of God and then the courts threw out the case.

Hatfield never did reveal his chemical recipe. He died in 1958.

Ode on a Blogosphere

If all the trees in all the woods were men,
And each and every blade of grass a pen;
If every leaf on every shrub and tree
Turned to a sheet of foolscap; every sea
Were changed to ink, and all earth’s living tribes
Had nothing else to do but act as scribes,
And for ten thousand ages, day and night,
The human race should write, and write, and write,
Till all the pens and paper were used up,
And the huge inkstand was an empty cup,
Still would the scribblers clustered round its brink
Call for more pens, more paper, and more ink.

— Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Cacoëthes Scribendi”

Setup Job


From Henry Ernest Dudeney, Amusements in Mathematics (1917):

I have a single chessboard and a single set of chessmen. In how many different ways may the men be correctly set up for the beginning of a game? I find that most people slip at a particular point in making the calculation.

Click for Answer

Zerah Colburn

Born in 1804, Zerah Colburn was thought to be mentally retarded until the age of 7, when his father overheard him solving multiplication problems for other children and discovered he was a prodigy. From the 1872 autobiography of Amos Kendall, with whom he boarded briefly:

He could multiply together any two numbers under a hundred in less than a minute. He could tell, apparently without thought, how many days there are in any number of years less than thirty, and in any number over thirty and up to a hundred upon a minute’s reflection. After being told the denominations of weights and measures, he would reduce one to another with the greatest readiness. He answered correctly the question, ‘How many gills are there in three barrels?’ The question, ‘How many are 25 × 25 + 35 × 35 +45 × 45?’ he answered correctly with little hesitation. He readily multiplied any number over a hundred by any number less. In less than a minute he answered correctly the question, ‘How many days are there in seventy-three years?’

“What rendered his performances more wonderful was, that he did not know a figure when written, and could not count more than fifty. How he knew the names of larger numbers was a mystery, and he was sometimes embarrassed in making his answers understood. After he had stated correctly the number of days in a given number of years, he was asked how many hours there were. He said he did not know the number of hours in a day. On being told it was twenty-four he immediately gave a correct answer.”