The Horizontorium

This clever anamorphic illusion was invented by W. Shires in 1821. Cut out the center piece, make a hole at A, fold it at B, and position it at D. (Here’s a larger version.)

Peer through the hole with one eye, preferably with a light source on your right, and you’ll see the tombstone in three dimensions, surrounded by a low palisade.

Here’s another scene using the same principle; position the eyepiece where the turrets’ lines would converge and “the whole view will appear in its just proportions, representing a castle at a considerable distance, the loftiest part of which appearing scarcely an inch high.”


This is the Roundhay Garden Scene, the earliest surviving motion picture, shot in 1888 in the Leeds garden of Joseph and Sarah Whitley.

The scene is only 2 seconds long, but it seems to have conveyed a queer curse. Sarah died only 10 days after the shoot; director Louis Le Prince vanished from a French train two years later; and actor Alphonse Le Prince was found dead of a gunshot in 1902. There’s a novel in here somewhere.

“The Magic Circle”

Assure the company that it is in your power, if any person will place himself in the middle of the room, to make a circle round him, out of which, although his limbs shall be quite at liberty, it will be impossible for him to jump without partially undressing himself, let him use as much exertion as he may. This statement will, without doubt, cause some little surprise; and one of the party will, in all probability, put your asseverations to the test. Request him to take his stand in the middle of the room, then blindfold him, button his coat, and next with a piece of chalk draw a circle round his waist. On withdrawing the bandage from his eyes and showing him the circle you have described, he must at once perceive that he cannot jump out of it without taking off his coat.

— Samuel Williams, The Boy’s Treasury of Sports, Pastimes, and Recreations, 1847

Diamond in the Rough

Irving Berlin composed more than 3,000 songs, including “God Bless America,” “White Christmas,” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” but he could barely read music, and his own singing voice was nearly inaudible.

Worse, as a self-taught pianist he played everything in F# major, requiring a special piano to explore other tonalities. “The black keys are right there under your fingers,” he once said. “The key of C is for people who study music.”

He relied on assistants to arrange his ideas — but he still claimed credit for the ideas themselves. “You may not be able to type your own letter, but somebody else can do it for you,” he said. “But they can’t make it up for you.”

The Publius Enigma

In June 1994, shortly after Pink Floyd released the album The Division Bell, someone calling himself Publius posted two messages to the newsgroup

  • “My friends, You have heard the message Pink Floyd has delivered, but have you listened? Perhaps I can be your guide, but I will not solve the enigma for you.”
  • “The Division Bell is not like its predecessors. Although all great music is subject to multiple interpretations, in this case there is a central purpose and a designed solution. For the ingenious person (or group of persons) who recognizes this–and where this information points to–a unique prize has been secreted.”

When readers asked for proof of his authenticity, Publius wrote, “Monday, July 18, East Rutherford, New Jersey. Approximately 10:30pm. Flashing white lights. There is an enigma.” Sure enough, at the appointed time during a Floyd concert the words ENIGMA PUBLIUS appeared in white lights at the front of the stage.

Unfortunately, the clues then dwindled, no explanation was given, and no winner was ever announced. Rumors about the enigma have appeared ever since in fan circles and semi-cryptically from the band’s organization, but no one really knows what the enigma is. “It is important to note that neither I nor anyone involved with this zine will enter into any correspondence on this topic,” wrote Jeff Jensen, editor of the band’s fan magazine, in issue 34. “It’s a puzzle for you, devised by the one who loves you enough to drive you mad.”

“The Glass of Wine Under the Hat”

Place a glass of wine upon a table, put a hat over it, and offer to lay a wager with any of the company that you will empty the glass without lifting the hat. When your proposition is accepted, desire the company not to touch the hat; and then get under the table, and commence making a sucking noise, smacking your lips at intervals, as though you were swallowing the wine with infinite satisfaction to yourself. After a minute or two, come from under the table, and address the person who took your wager with, ‘Now, sir.’ His curiosity being, of course, excited, he will lift up the hat, in order to see whether you have really performed what you promised; and the instant he does so, take up the glass, and after having swallowed its contents, say, ‘You have lost, sir, for you see I have drunk the wine without raising up the hat.’

— Samuel Williams, The Boy’s Treasury of Sports, Pastimes, and Recreations, 1847

False Confidence

A 19th-century opening manual gives this line in the Queen’s Gambit Declined:

1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 c5 4. Nf3 cxd4 5. Nxd4 e5 6. Ndb5 d4 7. Nd5 Na6 8. Qa4 Bd7 9. e3 Ne7

false confidence

The authors say Black has the superior position. That may be a bit optimistic — do you see why?

“Eating a Candle After Lighting It”

This is done by cutting a piece of apple the shape required, and sticking into it a little piece of nut or almond, to make it resemble the stump of a candle. The almond wick can be lighted, and will burn for about a minute, so that the deception is perfect. You can afterwards eat it in the presence of the company. … [T]his candle should be already in front of the audience, and should be placed in a candlestick, and if well introduced it goes down (in more senses than one) capitally.

— Frederick D’Arros Planche, Evening Amusements for Every One, 1876

Color Commentary

British radio listeners received some unlooked-for entertainment in 1937 when they tuned in to hear Lieutenant Commander Tommy Woodroofe give a radio commentary on the illumination of the fleet at Spithead. It appears Woodroofe had fortified himself a bit before the broadcast:

At the present moment … the whole fleet is lit up. When I say ‘lit up’ I mean lit up by fairy lamps. It’s fantastic. It isn’t a fleet at all. It’s just … it’s fairyland. The whole fleet is in fairyland. Now if you’ll follow me through … if you don’t mind … the next few moments you’ll find the fleet doing odd things.

There followed a pause of 11 seconds, after which Woodroofe said, “I’m sorry, I was telling people to shut up talking.”