When Michelangelo’s David was unveiled in 1504, it was seen to symbolize the civil liberties of the Republic of Florence in the face of the surrounding city-states and the powerful Medici.
A Medici duke commissioned Cellini’s Perseus With the Head of Medusa, which was unveiled 50 years later. Composed of bronze, it was situated opposite the David — so that Medusa’s gaze seemed to turn it to stone.
In 1909, 22-year-old Alice Huyler Ramsey set out to become the first woman to drive across the United States. In an era of imperfect cars and atrocious roads, she would have to find her own way and undertake her own repairs across 3,800 miles of rugged, poorly mapped terrain. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Ramsey on her historic journey.
We’ll also ponder the limits of free speech and puzzle over some banned candy.
Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — you can choose the amount you want to pledge, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.
Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
In 1822, Irish thief Alexander Pearce joined seven convicts fleeing a penal colony in western Tasmania. As they struggled eastward through some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth, starvation pressed the party into a series of grim sacrifices. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the prisoners on their nightmarish bid for freedom.
We’ll also unearth another giant and puzzle over an eagle’s itinerary.
On Nov. 23, 1866, Secretary of State William Henry Seward inaugurated the first sustainable transatlantic telegraph line by sending a diplomatic cable. Seward’s message was a tidy 780 words, but he sent it using a Monroe cipher, which converted the text into groups of numbers. And the telegraph company stipulated that a coded message that used number groups had to spell out the numbers — so 387 was sent as THREE EIGHT SEVEN. Consequently Seward’s message expanded to 3,772 words. To add insult to injury, the Anglo-American Telegraph Company charged double, or $5 per word, for coded messages. Seward’s telegram ended up costing $19,540.40, more than three times his salary.
Seward refused to pay at first, but he lost a court fight. The editor of the New York Herald wrote sarcastically, “It is a shame for the United States government not to be able to pay its telegraph bills as promptly as a New York newspaper.”
In 1902, scam artist Cassie Chadwick convinced an Ohio lawyer that she was the illegitimate daughter of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. She parlayed this reputation into a life of unthinkable extravagance — until her debts came due. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Chadwick’s efforts to maintain the ruse — and how she hoped to get away with it.
We’ll also encounter a haunted tomb and puzzle over an exonerated merchant.
In 1807, three years after the Haitian Revolution, someone decided to edit the Bible that was provided to Caribbean slaves to omit any inducements to rebel. The result was Select Parts of the Holy Bible, for the Use of the Negro Slaves in the British West-India Islands, a heavily redacted version that includes Joseph’s enslavement in Egypt but omits Moses leading the Israelites to freedom.
The anonymous editors were “really highlighting portions that would instill obedience,” Museum of the Bible curator Anthony Schmidt told History.com. Also cut were Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”) and the Book of Revelation, which tells of a new world in which evil will be punished.
But they retained Ephesians 6:5: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.”
In 1978, two luminaries of South Korean cinema were abducted by Kim Jong-Il and forced to make films in North Korea in an outlandish plan to improve his country’s fortunes. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok and their dramatic efforts to escape their captors.
We’ll also examine Napoleon’s wallpaper and puzzle over an abandoned construction.
One night in 1631, pirates from the Barbary coast stole ashore at the little Irish village of Baltimore and abducted 107 people to a life of slavery in Algiers — a rare instance of African raiders seizing white slaves from the British Isles. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the sack of Baltimore and the new life that awaited the captives in North Africa.
We’ll also save the Tower of London and puzzle over a controversial number.
Revenue agents in 18th-century London faced a curious challenge: how to calculate the excise tax on a barrel that was partially full of liquor. The answer was an “ullage slide rule” — this gauging rod was dipped into the barrel, some brass sliding pieces were adjusted to reflect the height of the surface, and a mathematical calculation would tell how much liquid the barrel contained.
The Science Museum says, “The calculations were very complicated.” A correspondent to the Mathematical Gazette wrote in 1990, “I well remember puzzling, unsuccessfully, over graphs and calculations of measurements until I wrote to the makers whose name was stamped on the rule and who still existed [in 1966] at the same address in London Bridge. At that time they were still making a modern equivalent for the same use by revenue officers.” More at the link below.