William Milford of Company H, Twenty-third Pennsylvania, while lying in the breastworks at Culp’s Hill, on the morning of July 3d , picked up the head of a penny which some one had cut out, probably to make a stickpin. Some months afterwards while on reserve picket under Lieutenant Vodges of F Company, talking over campaigns, told of a relic he found at Gettysburg, and pulling it out showed it to the lieutenant.
‘Why, Milford, you are the man I have been looking for,’ and pulling out of his pocket a ring or rim of a penny, it was found the two pieces fitted together. The lieutenant stated that he had found the ring when the regiment went over from Culp’s Hill to the left of Meade’s headquarters, on the afternoon of July 3d. He gave the relic to Milford, and when the regiment erected its monument at Culp’s Hill, Gettysburg, in 1886, Milford had the relic go in with others that are now in the box sunken in the lower base of the monument.
During the Falklands War in 1982, the RAF airfield closest to the action was on Ascension Island near the equator, thousands of miles away. Tasked with destroying the runway at Port Stanley, the RAF organized a complicated relay in which 11 tankers accompanied a single bomber (mauve), refueling it and each other in midair to support its journey of 3,400 nautical miles to the target. The attacking Vulcan bomber was refueled four times on the way out and once on the way back, using more than 220,000 gallons of aviation fuel altogether.
At the time this was the longest-ranged bombing raid in history — the return journey alone took 16 hours. It put one crater in the runway, which was repaired within 24 hours, but it discouraged the Argentinians from using it more heavily.
See The Jeep Problem. (Thanks, Tom.)
When the Seattle Art Museum presented an exhibition of Michelangelo’s early drawings in 2009, it included three menus that the sculptor had scrawled on the back of an envelope in 1518 — grocery lists for a servant.
Oregonian reviewer Steve Duin explained, “Because the servant he was sending to market was illiterate, Michelangelo illustrated the shopping lists — a herring, tortelli, two fennel soups, four anchovies and ‘a small quarter of a rough wine’ — with rushed (and all the more exquisite for it) caricatures in pen and ink.”
Related: In the 1490 manuscript below, Leonardo da Vinci tries to list successive doublings of 2 but mistakenly calculates 213 as 8092:
“Unmistakable this is a miscalculation of Leonardo and not of some sloppy copyists, as it was found in the original (mirrored) manuscript of da Vinci himself,” notes Ghent University computer scientist Peter Dawyndt. “That it was only discovered right now, five hundred years after da Vinci’s death, is probably due to the late discovery of the manuscript, barely fifty years ago.”
In 1924 two British mountaineers set out to be the first to conquer Mount Everest. But they never returned to camp, and to this day no one knows whether they reached the top. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the case of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, which has been called “one of the greatest unsolved adventure mysteries of the 20th century.”
We’ll also learn what to do if attacked by a bear and puzzle over the benefits of a water shortage.
Politicians and public figures may well care to ponder the story of the death of Franco. Surrounded on his deathbed by his faithful generals, he heard outside, beyond the heavily drawn curtains, a strange subdued noise like the sea, and asked someone to investigate. An aide did. He looked down from the palace balcony and returned with a lump in his throat and tears in his eyes and reported: ‘Caudillo, it is the people. Thousands of them. They have come to say goodbye.’ And Franco raised himself on one elbow and barked: ‘Why? Where are they going?’
— British Airways parliamentary affairs officer Norman Lornie to Jack Aspinwall, MP, for his 2004 collection Tell Me Another!
In 1670, Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, ordered the planting of the Forest of Tronçais to provide masts for the French navy 200 years hence. His order established one of the principal stands of oaks in Europe, carefully interplanted with beeches and larches to encourage them to grow straight, tall, and free of knots.
By the time they matured, in the 19th century, they were no longer necessary. Historian Fernand Braudel wrote, “Colbert had thought of everything except the steamship.”
Crossing the woodlands of upstate New York in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville came to an island at the center of a lake, “one of those delicious solitudes of the New World.” As he explored it, “the deep silence which is common to the wilds of North America was only broken by the hoarse cooing of the wood-pigeon, and the tapping of the woodpecker upon the bark of trees.”
I was far from supposing that this spot had ever been inhabited, so completely did Nature seem to be left to her own caprices; but when I reached the centre of the isle I thought that I discovered some traces of man. I then proceeded to examine the surrounding objects with care, and I soon perceived that a European had undoubtedly been led to seek a refuge in this retreat. Yet what changes had taken place in the scene of his labors! The logs which he had hastily hewn to build himself a shed had sprouted afresh; the very props were intertwined with living verdure, and his cabin was transformed into a bower. In the midst of these shrubs a few stones were to be seen, blackened with fire and sprinkled with thin ashes; here the hearth had no doubt been, and the chimney in falling had covered it with rubbish.
“I stood for some time in silent admiration of the exuberance of Nature and the littleness of man,” he wrote, “and when I was obliged to leave that enchanting solitude, I exclaimed with melancholy, ‘Are ruins, then, already here?'”
(From Democracy in America, 1835.)
Most of the inhabitants of Colma, California, are dead. When a fast-growing San Francisco outlawed new interments in 1900, and then evicted its existing cemeteries two years later, nearby Colma became the city’s burying ground. Over the following 30 years, thousands of bodies were carted here from their former resting places in the city — the Catholic Holy Cross cemetery alone received 39,307. Today the town’s 17 cemeteries occupy 73 percent of its 2.25 square miles, and the dead (1.5 million) outnumber the living (1,792) by more than 800 to 1.
The town has a sense of humor about it, though — its unofficial motto is “It’s great to be alive in Colma!”
During World War II, the Allies feared that Germany was on the brink of creating an atomic bomb. To prevent this, they launched a dramatic midnight commando raid to destroy a key piece of equipment in the mountains of southern Norway. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll remember Operation Gunnerside, “one of the most daring and important undercover operations of World War II.”
We’ll also learn what to say when you’re invading Britain and puzzle over the life cycle of cicadas.
Tenth-century merchant captain Bjarni Herjólfsson spent his summers trading in Scandinavia but returned to his native Iceland each winter to visit his parents. In 986 he was told that his father had sailed to Greenland with Erik the Red, so he followed them west. Lacking a map or a compass, he was blown off course by a storm, and when the weather cleared he sighted a wooded country with low hills. This couldn’t be Greenland, so he sailed north, and after two days he came upon a second land, level and wooded. Despite his crew’s protestations, Bjarni didn’t stop here either, but sailed north three days more, when he sighted a land of mountains and glaciers. This couldn’t be Greenland either, so he sailed away from it, and after four days by a lucky chance he landed at his father’s estate.
Today, writes University of Manitoba historian T.J. Oleson, “There are strong arguments for the view that the three lands seen by Bjarni were Newfoundland, Labrador, and Baffin Island” — he was probably the first European to sight the east coast of North America, but he’d been too incurious to investigate.