A for Effort


Prospector William Schmidt was overjoyed when he struck gold on California’s Copper Mountain, but he faced one problem: He was on the north side of the mountain, and the road to the smelter was on the south side.

So he dug a tunnel.

He started in 1906, at age 35, working with a pick, a 4-pound hammer, a hand drill, and dynamite. When he finally broke into daylight on the mountain’s south side, it was 1938 and he was 66 years old. He had single-handedly dug a tunnel 1,872 feet long, displacing 2,600 cubic yards of granite.

Alas, success had to be its own reward. While Schmidt had been digging, rail and road links had been built around the mountain — so the tunnel was unnecessary.

Epic Verse

The world’s longest handwritten poem is nearly 1 kilometer long. Unveiled by French notary Patrick Huet in 2006, Pieces of Hope to the Echo of the World comprises 7,547 verses.

All that length is necessary — the poem is one long acrostic. The initial letters of its lines spell out the complete Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Here lies the body of Thomas Woodhen,
The most loving of husbands and amiable of men.

N.B.–His name was Woodcock, but it wouldn’t rhyme.

Erected by his loving widow.

From Epitaphiana: or, The Curiosities of Churchyard Literature, 1873.

Dog Sprawl

The largest city in human history is modern Tokyo, with a population of around 35 million. That’s a pretty big mammal colony, but it’s nowhere near the record.

In 1901 scientists discovered a “town” of 400 million prairie dogs in Texas. It covered more than 23,000 square miles — an area larger than Costa Rica.

Cogito Ergo Zoom


Another great man who lost his head after death: René Descartes. The French philosopher died in Sweden in 1650 and was interred there for 16 years. When his body was exhumed for return to France, the ambassador appropriated his right index finger (“the instrument of immortal writing”) and, apparently inspired, one of the Swedish guards took the skull, engraving on it “Descartes’ skull, taken and carefully kept by Israel Planstrom when the body was sent to France and hidden since that time.”

The skull bounced around Europe for 150 years, with various owners carving their names on it; it was discovered missing only when the coffin was opened again in 1819. A Swedish chemist, no doubt rolling his eyes, tracked it down and returned it to the French academy.

Bonus beheading: When Sir Walter Raleigh was executed in 1618, his head was embalmed and given to his wife. She kept it until her death in 1647, when it was returned to Raleigh’s tomb in Westminster Abbey.

For those keeping score, our list now includes Descartes, Raleigh, Joseph Haydn, Oliver Cromwell, Jeremy Bentham, and Albert Einstein. Keep ’em coming.

(Thanks, Sarah.)

King Prong

Image: Flickr

A gorilla made of coat hangers. David Mach’s 2007 sculpture Silver Back won him a place in the Guinness Book of Records for “largest coat hanger installation”; it’s not clear how much competition he had.

The whole piece is 7 feet tall, 9 feet long, and 5 feet wide, and it required 2,705 hours and 7,500 hangers to make.

“Strange Phenomenon”

Seeing so many meteorological phenomena in your excellent paper, Knowledge, I am tempted to ask for an explanation of the following, which I saw when on board the British India Company’s steamer Patna while on a voyage up the Persian Gulf. In May, 1880, on a dark, calm night, about 11.30 p.m., there suddenly appeared on each side of the ship an enormous luminous wheel whirling round, the spokes of which seemed to brush the ship along. The spokes would be 200 or 300 yards long, and resembled the birch rods of the dames’ schools. Each wheel contained about sixteen spokes, and made the revolution in about twelve seconds. One could almost fancy one heard the swish as the spokes whizzed past the ship, and, although the wheels must have been some 500 or 600 yards in diameter, the spokes could be distinctly seen all the way round. The phosphorescent gleam seemed to glide along flat on the surface of the sea, no light being visible in the air above the water. The appearance of the spokes could be almost exactly represented by standing in a boat and flashing a bull’s-eye lantern horizontally along the surface of the water round and round. I may mention that the phenomenon was also seen by Captain Avern, commander of the Patna, and Mr. Manning, third officer. Lee Fore Brace.

Knowledge, Dec. 28, 1883

See Light Show for a remarkably similar account.