“Wonders of Minute Workmanship”

In the twentieth year of Queen Elizabeth, a blacksmith named Mark Scaliot, made a lock consisting of eleven pieces of iron, steel and brass, all which, together with a key to it, weighed but one grain of gold. He also made a chain of gold, consisting of forty-three links, and, having fastened this to the before-mentioned lock and key, he put the chain about the neck of a flea, which drew them all with ease. All these together, lock and key, chain and flea, weighed only one grain and a half.

Oswaldus Norhingerus, who was more famous even than Scaliot for his minute contrivances, is said to have made 1,600 dishes of turned ivory, all perfect and complete in every part, yet so small, thin and slender, that all of them were included at once in a cup turned out of a pepper-corn of the common size. Johannes Shad, of Mitelbrach, carried this wonderful work with him to Rome, and showed it to Pope Paul V., who saw and counted them all by the help of a pair of spectacles. They were so little as to be almost invisible to the eye.

Johannes Ferrarius, a Jesuit, had in his posession cannons of wood, with their carriages, wheels, and all other military furniture, all of which were also contained in a pepper-corn of the ordinary size.

An artist, named Claudius Callus, made for Hippolytus d’Este, Cardinal of Ferrara, representations of sundry birds setting on the tops of trees, which, by hydraulic art and secret conveyance of water through the trunks and branches of the trees, were made to sing and clap their wings; but, at the sudden appearance of an owl out of a bush of the same artifice, they immediately became all mute and silent.

Burroughs’ Encyclopaedia of Astounding Facts and Useful Information, 1889

Fainting Goats


In the early 1800s, a reclusive farm worker sold four goats to Dr. H.H. Mayberry of Marshall County, Tenn. Mayberry discovered that the goats had an odd quality: When startled they would stiffen for about 10 seconds, often falling over.

Mayberry bred them, and today it’s understood they have a hereditary genetic disorder called myotonia congenita. There’s even an International Fainting Goat Association.

The original breeder disappeared, rumored to have returned to Nova Scotia. No one knows his name.

A Premature Burial

In the 1850s, a girl contracted diphtheria while visiting Edisto Island, S.C. Amid fears of an outbreak, she was pronounced dead and hastily interred in a local mausoleum:

Some days afterwards, when the grave in which she had been placed was opened for the reception of another body, it was found that the clothes which covered the unfortunate woman were torn to pieces, and that she had even broken her limbs in attempting to extricate herself from the living tomb. The Court, after hearing the case, sentenced the doctor who had signed the certificate of decease, and the Major who had authorized the interment each to three month’s imprisonment for involuntary manslaughter.

(Reported in the British Medical Journal, 1877)

Stone Spheres

Since the 1930s, hundreds of stone spheres have been found in Costa Rica. They range from a few centimeters to more than 2 meters in diameter and weigh up to 16 tons.

No one knows who made them or why, but they’re old — some date to 200 B.C.

Curse of the Ninth

Anton Bruckner died after writing his ninth symphony. So did Beethoven, Schubert, and Dvořák. In the 19th century, a superstition arose that a quick death awaited anyone who wrote nine symphonies.

Arnold Schoenberg wrote: “It seems that the ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.”

Mahler figured he could escape the curse with a decoy: When he finished his ninth, he retitled it “The Song of the Earth” and wrote a second “ninth” symphony. When nothing happened, he told his wife “the danger is past,” started a new work — and died.

Il Était Une Fois …

Top 10 most translated authors in the world as of January 2006, according to UNESCO’s “Index Translationum”:

  1. Walt Disney Productions
  2. Agatha Christie
  3. Jules Verne
  4. Vladimir Lenin
  5. Enid Blyton
  6. Barbara Cartland
  7. William Shakespeare
  8. Danielle Steele
  9. Hans Christian Andersen
  10. Stephen King

Each has been translated more than 1,500 times.

Mary the Elephant


1916 came to a black end for Sparks World Famous Shows, a circus that was traveling through the American South. In Kingsport, Tenn., an amateur trainer named Red Eldridge was leading a 5-ton Asian elephant to a local pond when she stopped to nibble a watermelon rind. He grew impatient and prodded her behind the ear. She flung him against a drink stand and stepped on his head.

What followed can only be described as a lynching. A crowd began to chant, “Kill the elephant!” A local blacksmith fired two dozen rounds into Mary, with little effect. The local sheriff impounded her, newspapers reported (falsely) that she had killed several workers in the past, and nearby towns threatened to boycott the show. By most accounts Mary had calmed down after killing Eldridge, but that didn’t seem to matter.

So on Sept. 13, owner Charlie Sparks took Mary to a local railroad yard and hanged her from an industrial crane in front of 2,500 people, including most of the town’s children. The chain snapped on the first attempt, causing Mary to fall and break her hip. The second attempt killed her, and she was buried beside the tracks.

“Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside of itself,” wrote George Eliot. “It only requires opportunity.”

In a Word

n. a collector of beer mats

Dudeney Numbers

Only six numbers have this curious property:

1 = 1; 13 = 1
8 = 5 + 1 + 2; 83 = 512
17 = 4 + 9 + 1 + 3; 173 = 4913
18 = 5 + 8 + 3 + 2; 183 = 5832
26 = 1 + 7 + 5 + 7 + 6; 263 = 17576
27 = 1 + 9 + 6 + 8 + 3; 273 = 19683

They’re called Dudeney numbers, after the English author and mathematician who discovered them. (Regular readers know I’m something of a fan.)

Group Portrait


This is the largest gathering of human beings in the history of the world — in January 2001, 70 million Hindu pilgrims met in Prayaga, India, for a religious festival called the Kumbh Mela.

Three years later, 30 million met in Ujjain.