Plaudits

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

King Darius of Persia copied orders onto wax-covered tablets and gave them to famously efficient postmen. “Nothing mortal travels so fast as these Persian messengers,” Herodotus marveled. “These men will not be hindered from accomplishing at their best speed the distance which they have to do, either by snow, or rain, or heat, or by darkness of night. The first rider delivers his dispatch to the second, and the second passes it to the third; and so it is borne from hand to hand along the whole line, like the light of the torch-race.”

When New York’s James A. Farley Post Office opened in 1914, architect (and philhellene) William Mitchell Kendall inscribed a modified translation over the door: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

“Many have assumed that this is the motto of the U.S. Postal Service, but the USPS doesn’t have one,” writes Devin Leonard in Neither Snow Nor Rain, his history of the service. “It was just the world’s largest postal service nodding respectfully to one of its most illustrious forbears.”

International Relations

Inspired officials of the East German Communist party, ever diligent in setting standards to which party members may conform, issued a list of the terms which are approved for use in vilifying the West. Henceforth Red speakers will know they are on safe ground if they choose any of the following synonyms for Americans: ‘Monkey killers, lice breeders, mass poisoners, chewing-gum spivs, boogie-woogie tramps, gas-chamber ideologists, leprous heroes, breeders of trichinosis, arsenic mixers, delirious lunatics, exploiters of epidemics.’ For the British a different set of terms must be used: ‘paralytic sycophants, effete betrayers of humanity, carrion-eating servile imitators, arch cowards and collaborators, conceited dandies or playboy soldiers.’

LIFE, Sept. 14, 1953

Salute

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When George Washington died in 1799, the British Royal Navy’s Channel Fleet lowered its flags to half mast.

The London Courier wrote, “The whole range of history does not present to our view a character upon which we can dwell with such entire and unmixed admiration.”

Slip Coaches

In 1858 British railways found a unique way to save time: Rather than stopping at an intermediate station, an express train would simply uncouple a car full of passengers, which would roll into the station under its own momentum, slowed by a guard using brakes. At the station the passengers could disembark, or their coach might be connected to a train that served a branch line. Eventually a local train would deliver the coach to a station where it might be connected again to the express.

This practice continued until 1960 — the last “slip” is documented above.

(Via MetaFilter.)

Family

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Carter’s decision to run for president occurred during his gubernatorial term. One clear September morning in 1973 Governor Carter stopped by to visit his mother, who was resting in her bedroom. Carter pulled up a chair and propped up his feet on the foot of her bed. When his mother inquired as to his plans after leaving the governor’s office, he replied: ‘I’m going to run for president.’ ‘President of what?’ his mother asked, and Carter replied: ‘Mama, I’m going to run for president of the United States, and I’m going to win.’ Mrs. Carter then told him to get his feet off the bed.

— Larry F. Vrzalik and Michael Minor, From the President’s Pen, 1991

Podcast Episode 206: The Sky and the Sea

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard opened two new worlds in the 20th century. He was the first person to fly 10 miles above the earth and the first to travel 2 miles beneath the sea, using inventions that opened the doors to these new frontiers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Piccard on his historic journeys into the sky and the sea.

We’ll also admire some beekeeping serendipity and puzzle over a sudden need for locksmiths.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 205: The White Mouse

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In 1928 Nancy Wake ran away from her Australian home and into an unlikely destiny: She became a dynamo in the French resistance, helping more than a thousand people to flee the Germans and then organizing partisans to fight them directly. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the White Mouse, one of the bravest heroes of World War II.

We’ll also marvel at mailmen and puzzle over an expensive homework assignment.

See full show notes …

The Double Day

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Lyndon Johnson averaged only 3 to 4 hours of sleep a night and worked most of the rest; his wife once said, “Lyndon acts as if there is never going to be a tomorrow.” He arranged his time in a curious pattern:

Johnson began every day with a bedroom conference at 6:30 a.m., then worked straight through until 2:00 p.m., when he had lunch, relaxed, sometimes with a swim, and took a quick nap. By 4:00 p.m. he was ready to go again. ‘It’s like starting a new day,’ Johnson observed, and he would then proceed to work straight through to one or two in the morning. This Johnsonian ‘double day’ amazed the press and exhausted and frustrated his over-worked aides. His assistant Jack Valenti opined that Johnson had ‘extra glands’ that gave him energy that ordinary men did not possess: ‘He goes to bed late, rises early, and the words I have never heard him say are “I’m tired.”‘

He once called a congressman at 3 a.m. to discuss a piece of pending legislation. When Johnson asked, “Were you asleep?” the congressman thought quickly and said, “No, Mr. President, I was just lying here hoping you’d call.”

(From Larry F. Vrzalik and Michael Minor, From the President’s Pen, 1991.)

Lost Voices

In 2009 three historians engaged forensic lip reader Jessica Rees to analyze silent film shot at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Soldiers of the Essex Regiment washing at a pool shout “Hi Mum!” and “Hello Mum, it’s me.” A soldier with a wounded foot repeats, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” And another soldier tells the crew, “Stop filming, this is awful.”

“What struck me the most was the optimism of the soldiers and their bravery,” Rees said. “They all seemed very positive, full of team spirit and jocular. Yet, as I was stunned to learn, many of them did not even survive the day of filming. I came away feeling a bit humble.”

Podcast Episode 204: Mary Anning’s Fossils

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In 1804, when she was 5 years old, Mary Anning began to dig in the cliffs that flanked her English seaside town. What she found amazed the scientists of her time and challenged the established view of world history. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of “the greatest fossilist the world ever knew.”

We’ll also try to identify a Norwegian commando and puzzle over some further string pulling.

See full show notes …