William Lance invented this “improved serving table” in 1866. It bears a set of food-laden shelves that revolve continuously past the diners, driven by steam. The shelves are “so loaded with viands, to move at the rate of fifteen or twenty feet per minute, or to pass before each guest at such speed as to exhibit before each guest the entire bill of fare once per minute, giving each one ample opportunity to help him or herself to such viands as may suit their tastes.”

“All persons at this table are put upon an equality and free to act for themselves, and these shelves so arranged as not only to contain the full bill of fare, and that kept hot by lamp or otherwise, but also to contain all the necessary dishes, knives, forks, spoons, glasses, &c.”

The attendant in the hidden “pantry” at the bottom replenishes the offerings and discreetly removes dirty dishes from the bottom shelf, where they’re left by departing diners. Lance estimates that such a table might serve 150 diners with only two attendants, “except those required in the pantry to put away the last dishes of each guest and brush off the crumbs and adjust the chair.”

From the Heart

Banker James M. Fail repeatedly donated money to his alma mater, the University of Alabama, which he credited for his success in the business world. But he declined opportunities to give his name to an Alabama facility. “After all,” he said, “who would want anything with the name ‘Fail’ on it?”

In 2008 he found a way to support the school and accept credit — he put his name on the visitors’ locker room.

The Bermagui Mystery

In 1880, 29-year-old Australian geologist Lamont Young set out in a fishing boat to survey the gold fields north of Bermagui in New South Wales. With him were his assistant, two fishermen, and the vessel’s owner. The boat was spotted sailing north the following morning, but it was discovered deserted that afternoon inside a shoal at Mutton Fish Point, 16 kilometers north of Bermagui.

Inside the boat were clothes, books, and research papers belonging to Young and his assistant, whose spectacles were laid out neatly on the seat. The oars and mast had been lashed to supports, but the sails and anchor were missing, and there was a single bullet hole in the starboard side. Near a campfire on the beach nearby were tins of salmon and butter, a jar of honey, half a loaf of bread, and three mother-of-pearl studs. There was no evidence of a struggle, but the copper case of a cartridge was found in the sand 30 yards from the boat.

The Colonial Office offered a reward of 200 pounds for information leading to the location of the missing men, and Young’s father hired a private detective, but the five were never found, and their disappearance has never been explained. The inlet where the boat was found is now named Mystery Bay in their honor.

The Little Man

In 1525, more than 100,000 German peasants demanded an end to serfdom and were massacred by the well-organized armies of the ruling class. After observing the ornate memorials with which the aristocrats congratulated themselves, Albrecht Dürer proposed a similarly baroque monument to the slain peasants:

Place a quadrangular stone block measuring ten feet in width and four feet in height on a quadrangular stone slab which measures twenty feet in length and one foot in height. On the four corners of the ledge place tied-up cows, sheep, pigs, etc. But on the four corners of the stone block place four baskets, filled with butter, eggs, onions, and herbs, or whatever you like. In the centre of this stone block place a second one, measuring seven feet in length and one foot in height. On top of this second block place a strong chest four feet high, measuring six and a half feet wide at the bottom and four feet wide at the top. Then place a kettle upside down on top of the chest. The kettle’s diameter should be four and a half feet at the rim and three feet at its bottom. Surmount the kettle with a cheese bowl which is half a foot high and two and a half feet in diameter at the bottom. Cover this bowl with a thick plate that protrudes beyond its rim. On the plate, place a keg of butter which is three feet high and two and a half feet in diameter at the bottom. Cover this bowl with a thick plate that protrudes beyond its rim. On the plate, place a keg of butter which is three feet high and has a diameter of a foot and a half at the bottom, and of only a foot at the top. Its spout should protrude beyond this. On the top of the butter keg, place a well-formed milk jug, two and a half feet high, and with a diameter which is one foot at its bulge, half a foot at its top, and is wider at its bottom. Into this jug put four rods branching into forks on top and extending five and a half feet in height, so that the rods will protrude by half a foot, and then hang peasants’ tool on it – like hoes, pitchforks, flails, etc. The rods are to be surmounted by a chicken basket, topped by a lard tub upon which sits an afflicted peasant with a sword stuck into his back.

What would that look like?

durer peasants memorial

“To Celia”

Ping to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pong with mine;
We twain may win the Challenge cup,
If ping with pong combine:
The craze, that in my soul doth rise,
Is doubtless keen in thine;
I’ll take the rôle of pinger up,
If thou’lt be pongstress mine.

A Little Book of Ping-Pong Verse, 1902

The Christmas War

In 1964, Larry Kunkel’s mother gave him a pair of moleskin pants for Christmas. He found that they froze stiff during the Minnesota winters, so the following Christmas he wrapped them up and gave them to his brother-in-law, Roy Collette. Collette returned them to Kunkel the next year, and the pants began oscillating between the two as a yearly joke. This was fun until it escalated:

  • One year Collette twisted the pants into a tight roll and stuffed them into an inch-wide pipe 3 feet long and gave them to Kunkel.
  • Not to be outdone, Kunkel returned them the following year compressed into a 7-inch cube and baled in wire.
  • So Collette gave them back immured in a 2-foot crate full of stones and banded with steel.
  • Collette next had them mounted inside an insulated window with a 20-year guarantee.
  • Kunkel soldered them into a 5-inch coffee can and sealed that in a 5-gallon container filled with concrete and reinforcing rods.
  • Kunkel locked them in a 225-pound homemade steel ashtray made of 8-inch steel casings.
  • Collette returned them welded inside a 600-pound safe decorated with red and green stripes.
  • Kunkel put them in the glove compartment of a 2,000-pound 1974 Gremlin crushed into a 3-foot cube.
  • Collette put them inside a tire 8 feet high and 2 feet wide and filled it with 6,000 pounds of cement.
  • Kunkel hid them inside one of 15 identical concrete-filled canisters, which he loaded into a 17.5-foot rocket ship filled with concrete and weighing 6 tons.
  • Collette put them in a 4-ton Rubik’s cube fashioned from kiln-baked concrete and covered with 2,000 board-feet of lumber.
  • Kunkel put them into a station wagon filled with 170 steel generators welded together.
  • Collette returned them inside a cement-truck tank delivered by a flatbed truck and accompanied by a crane.

Here it ended. In 1989 Collette planned to encase the pants in 10,000 pounds of glass and leave them in Kunkel’s front yard. “It would have been a great one,” Kunkel admitted. “Really messy.” But the insulated container failed during pouring and the molten glass reduced the pants to ashes. They reside today in an urn on Kunkel’s mantel.


“If villains understood the advantages of being virtuous, they would turn honest out of villainy.” — Ben Franklin

Storm Surge

Victor Hugo’s 1829 poem Djinns is a syllabic snowball — its lines grow progressively longer, then shorter, to reflect the passing of a storm of demons:

Murs, ville,
Et port,
De mort,
Mer grise
Où brise
La brise,
Tout dort.

Dans la plaine
Naît un bruit.
C’est l’haleine
De la nuit.
Elle brame
Comme une âme
Qu’une flamme
Toujours suit!

La voix plus haute
Semble un grelot.
D’un nain qui saute
C’est le galop.
Il fuit, s’élance,
Puis en cadence
Sur un pied danse
Au bout d’un flot.

La rumeur approche.
L’écho la redit.
C’est comme la cloche
D’un couvent maudit;
Comme un bruit de foule,
Qui tonne et qui roule,
Et tantôt s’écroule,
Et tantôt grandit,

Dieu! la voix sépulcrale
Des Djinns! … Quel bruit ils font!
Fuyons sous la spirale
De l’escalier profond.
Déjà s’éteint ma lampe,
Et l’ombre de la rampe,
Qui le long du mur rampe,
Monte jusqu’au plafond.

C’est l’essaim des Djinns qui passe,
Et tourbillonne en sifflant!
Les ifs, que leur vol fracasse,
Craquent comme un pin brûlant.
Leur troupeau, lourd et rapide,
Volant dans l’espace vide,
Semble un nuage livide
Qui porte un éclair au flanc.

Ils sont tout près! – Tenons fermée
Cette salle, où nous les narguons.
Quel bruit dehors! Hideuse armée
De vampires et de dragons!
La poutre du toit descellée
Ploie ainsi qu’une herbe mouillée,
Et la vieille porte rouillée
Tremble, à déraciner ses gonds!

Cris de l’enfer! voix qui hurle et qui pleure!
L’horrible essaim, poussé par l’aquilon,
Sans doute, ô ciel! s’abat sur ma demeure.
Le mur fléchit sous le noir bataillon.
La maison crie et chancelle penchée,
Et l’on dirait que, du sol arrachée,
Ainsi qu’il chasse une feuille séchée,
Le vent la roule avec leur tourbillon!

Prophète! si ta main me sauve
De ces impurs démons des soirs,
J’irai prosterner mon front chauve
Devant tes sacrés encensoirs!
Fais que sur ces portes fidèles
Meure leur souffle d’étincelles,
Et qu’en vain l’ongle de leurs ailes
Grince et crie à ces vitraux noirs!

Ils sont passés! – Leur cohorte
S’envole, et fuit, et leurs pieds
Cessent de battre ma porte
De leurs coups multipliés.
L’air est plein d’un bruit de chaînes,
Et dans les forêts prochaines
Frissonnent tous les grands chênes,
Sous leur vol de feu pliés!

De leurs ailes lointaines
Le battement décroît,
Si confus dans les plaines,
Si faible, que l’on croit
Ouïr la sauterelle
Crier d’une voix grêle,
Ou pétiller la grêle
Sur le plomb d’un vieux toit.

D’étranges syllabes
Nous viennent encor;
Ainsi, des arabes
Quand sonne le cor,
Un chant sur la grève
Par instants s’élève,
Et l’enfant qui rêve
Fait des rêves d’or.

Les Djinns funèbres,
Fils du trépas,
Dans les ténèbres
Pressent leurs pas;
Leur essaim gronde:
Ainsi, profonde,
Murmure une onde
Qu’on ne voit pas.

Ce bruit vague
Qui s’endort,
C’est la vague
Sur le bord;
C’est la plainte,
Presque éteinte,
D’une sainte
Pour un mort.

On doute
La nuit …
J’écoute: –
Tout fuit,
Tout passe
Le bruit.

On Time

Japanese puzzle maven Kobon Fujimura devised this mind-reading trick. Ask a friend to look at his analog watch and mentally choose one of the hour numbers. Tell him, “I’m going to point to various numbers on the face of your watch with a pencil. As I do so, count silently, starting with the number after the one you’ve chosen. For example, if you’ve chosen 7, start counting with 8. When we reach 20, say, ‘Stop.'”

Point to any seven numbers at random, pretending to concentrate deeply. Then point to 12, then 11, 10, and so on counterclockwise around the dial. When your friend tells you to stop, you’ll be pointing to the number he had chosen.

Gold Nuggets

The first 10 digits of the golden ratio φ can be rearranged to give the first 10 digits of 1/π:

φ = 1.618033988 …

1/π = .3183098861 …

And the first nine digits of 1/φ can be rearranged to give the first 9 digits of 1/π:

1/φ = .618033988 …

1/π = .318309886 …

In 1983 amateur mathematician George Odom discovered that if points A and B are the midpoints of sides EF and DE of an equilateral triangle, and line AB meets the circumscribing circle at C, then AB/BC = AC/AB = φ. Odom used this fact to construct a pentagon, which H.S.M. Coxeter published in the American Mathematical Monthly with the single word “Behold!”