In 1885 George C. Hale had the bright idea of weaving a zigzag cord into a pair of suspenders. Now if the wearer is trapped in a burning building, he can free the cord, lower it from a window to receive a rope, and escape to safety.
Hale’s patent application says, “I have found by experimenting that from fifty to one hundred feet, or even more, of the cord can be secured to the suspender in the manner heretofore described.”
The application was granted. I wonder if he ever went into business with this.
One afternoon, in mood très gai
Because of paying the gourmet
(I’d taken wine with déjeuner —
A light and lilting Beaujolais —
Plus biscuits, cheese, and pousse-café),
I dared a blazing sun, à pied,
To pay a little visit chez
Miss Janet, who said “You OK?
You may have had a coup de soleil.”
Said I, “I’ve writ a poem, J.,
With no last letter twice in play
And yet the whole thing rhymes with a.”
— Willard R. Espy
(“The trick would, of course, be impossible without using Anglicized French terms.”)
Amelia Earhart left behind what she called “popping off letters,” to be opened in the event of her death. This one, discovered by her husband and biographer, George Putnam, was addressed to her father:
May 20, 1928
Hooray for the last grand adventure! I wish I had won, but it was worth while anyway. You know that.
I have no faith we’ll meet anywhere again, but I wish we might.
Anyway, good-by and good luck to you.
Affectionately, your doter,
Another, addressed to her mother, read simply, “Even though I have lost, the adventure was worth while. Our family tends to be too secure. My life has really been very happy, and I don’t mind contemplating its end in the midst of it.”
Satirists must make difficult masters. Jonathan Swift spent 28 years amassing grievances about his servants and published them in a sarcastic list in 1731:
To save time and trouble, cut your apples and onions with the same knife, for well-bred gentry love the taste of an onion in everything they eat.
Never send up a leg of a fowl at supper, while there is a cat or a dog in the house that can be accused of running away with it: but, if there happen to be neither, you must lay it upon the rats, or a strange greyhound.
When you are chidden for a fault, as you go out of the room, and down stairs, mutter loud enough to be plainly heard; this will make him believe you are innocent.
When any servant comes home drunk, and cannot appear, you must all join in telling your master, that he is gone to bed very sick.
In order to learn the secrets of other families, tell your brethren those of your master’s; thus you will grow a favourite both at home and abroad, and regarded as a person of importance.
When you have done a fault, be always pert and insolent, and behave yourself as if you were the injured person; this will immediately put your master or lady off their mettle.
Never submit to stir a finger in any business but that for which you were particularly hired. For example, if the groom be drunk or absent, and the butler be ordered to shut the stable door, the answer is ready, An please your Honour, I don’t understand Horses.
Leave a pail of dirty water with the mop in it, a coal-box, a bottle, a broom, a chamber pot, and such other unsightly things, either in a blind entry or upon the darkest part of the back stairs, that they may not be seen, and if people break their shins by trampling on them, it is their own fault.
Samuel Johnson remarked that Swift must have taken copious notes, “for such a number of particulars could never have been assembled by the power of recollection.”
During China’s Han dynasty, artisans began casting solid bronze mirrors with a perplexing property. The front of each mirror was a polished, reflective surface, and the back featured a design that had been cast into the bronze. But if light were cast from the mirrored side onto a wall, the design would appear there as if by magic.
The mirrors first came to the attention of the West in the early 19th century, and their secret eluded investigators for 100 years until British physicist William Bragg worked it out in 1932. Each mirror had been cast flat with the design on the reverse side, giving the disk a varying thickness. As the front was polished to produce a convex mirror, the thinner parts of the disk bulged outward slightly. These imperfections are invisible to direct inspection; as Bragg wrote, “Only the magnifying effect of reflection makes them plain.”
Joseph Needham, the historian of ancient Chinese science, calls this “the first step on the road to knowledge about the minute structure of metal surfaces.”
In 1950 newspapers around the world reported that a 10-month-old kitten had climbed the Matterhorn, one of the highest peaks in Europe. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll wonder whether even a very determined kitty could accomplish such a feat.
We’ll also marvel at a striking demonstration of dolphin intelligence and puzzle over a perplexed mechanic.
My own original post about Matt, the kitten who climbed the Matterhorn, appeared on Dec. 17, 2011. Reader Stephen Wilson directed me to this page, which rehearses the original London Times story (from Sept. 7, 1950) and adds a confirming account from a Times reader that appeared on Sept. 10, 1975.
Here’s a photo of the Solvay hut at 12,556 feet, where the kitten reportedly spent the first night of its three-day climb:
Sources for our feature on porpoise trainer Karen Pryor:
Karen Pryor, Lads Before the Wind, 1975.
Thomas White, In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier, 2008.
This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was submitted by listener David White.
This episode is sponsored by our patrons and by The Great Courses — go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com/closet to order from eight of their best-selling courses at up to 80 percent off the original price.
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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.