Podcast Episode 286: If Day

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In 1942, Manitoba chose a startling way to promote the sale of war bonds — it staged a Nazi invasion of Winnipeg. For one gripping day, soldiers captured the city, arrested its leaders, and oppressed its citizens. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe If Day, which one observer called “the biggest and most important publicity stunt” in Winnipeg’s history.

We’ll also consider some forged wine and puzzle over some unnoticed car options.

See full show notes …

So There

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Exploring the caves above the 53-meter statue of Gautama Buddha in the Bamyan valley of Afghanistan in the 1930s, a French archaeological delegation found this message scrawled on a wall:

If any fool this high samootch explore
Know Charles Masson has been here before.

A Fitting Mascot

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

This is almost comically American: Between 1830 and 1836, a bald eagle lived at the Philadelphia Mint. Named Peter, he would roam the city by day and roost in the mint at night. Fatally injured in a coining press, he was stuffed and mounted and is currently on display in the lobby.

He is said (uncertainly) to have been the model for the eagle on U.S. silver dollars issued between 1836 and 1839 and the Flying Eagle cents of 1856-1858.

Podcast Episode 285: The Grasshopper Plagues

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In the 1870s, new farmsteads on the American plains were beset by enormous swarms of grasshoppers sweeping eastward from the Rocky Mountains. The insects were a disaster for vulnerable farmers, attacking in enormous numbers and devouring everything before them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the grasshopper plagues and the settlers’ struggles against them.

We’ll also delve into urban legends and puzzle over some vanishing children.

See full show notes …

A Movable Lake

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In order to confuse enemy aircraft during World War II, the residents of Hamburg disguised the Binnenalster, a lake in the main business district, as terrain and built a dummy viaduct parallel to the real viaduct, in effect “moving” an attractive target to a less vulnerable location.

Unfortunately the work was done in daylight and the change was too dramatic to be convincing. “Even so, the protection must have been of real value at least in Hamburg, where the addition of a dummy viaduct, displaced from, but parallel to, the real (Lombard’s) viaduct may have contributed to saving the latter very vital rail and transportation link.”

(U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, Civilian Defense Division Final Report: Dates of Survey: 15 Jan.-15 Aug. 1945, 1947.)

Podcast Episode 284: The Red Barn

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When Maria Marten disappeared from the English village of Polstead in 1827, her lover said that they had married and were living on the Isle of Wight. But Maria’s stepmother began having disturbing dreams that hinted at a much grimmer fate. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Red Barn, which transfixed Britain in the early 19th century.

We’ll also encounter an unfortunate copycat and puzzle over some curious births.

See full show notes …

A Lofty Honor

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

The names of 72 French scientists, engineers, and mathematicians are engraved on the Eiffel Tower, under the first balcony, in letters about 60 cm high:

Petiet • Daguerre • Wurtz • Le Verrier • Perdonnet • Delambre • Malus • Breguet • Polonceau • Dumas • Clapeyron • Borda • Fourier • Bichat • Sauvage • Pelouze • Carnot • Lamé • Cauchy • Belgrand • Regnault • Fresnel • De Prony • Vicat • Ebelmen • Coulomb • Poinsot • Foucault • Delaunay • Morin • Haüy • Combes • Thénard • Arago • Poisson • Monge • Jamin • Gay-Lussac • Fizeau • Schneider • Le Chatelier • Berthier • Barral • De Dion • Goüin • Jousselin • Broca • Becquerel • Coriolis • Cail • Triger • Giffard • Perrier • Sturm • Seguin • Lalande • Tresca • Poncelet • Bresse • Lagrange • Belanger • Cuvier • Laplace • Dulong • Chasles • Lavoisier • Ampère • Chevreul • Flachat • Navier • Legendre • Chaptal

Gustave Eiffel added the names when artists had protested against the tower on aesthetic grounds. But the choice of the honorees is itself open to criticism: None of the 72 are women, and none has a name longer than 12 letters.

A Very Bad Day

In September 1914, three ships from Britain’s 7th Cruiser Squadron were on patrol in the North Sea to prevent the Imperial German Navy from entering the English Channel to interrupt supply lines between England and France.

Fifteen-year-old midshipman Wenman Wykeham-Musgrave was aboard HMS Aboukir when the German U-boat U-9 attacked. His sister recalled in 2003:

“He went overboard when the Aboukir was going down and he swam like mad to get away from the suction. He was then just getting on board the Hogue and she was torpedoed. He then went and swam to the Cressy and she was also torpedoed. He eventually found a bit of driftwood, became unconscious and was eventually picked up by a Dutch trawler.”

U-9 had sunk all three cruisers, killing 1,500 men. Wykeham-Musgrave was eventually rescued by a Dutch trawler.

An Early Voice

On October 21, 1889, Prussian field marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder made two audio recordings on Thomas Edison’s new cylinder phonograph. The first contains a congratulatory message to Edison and an excerpt from Faust, the second a line from Hamlet.

This is the only voice recording we have of a person born in the 18th century — Moltke had been born in 1800, technically the last year of that century. Ironically, he had been known as der große Schweiger, “the great silent one,” for his taciturnity.

Podcast Episode 282: Helga Estby’s Walk

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In 1896, Norwegian immigrant Helga Estby faced the foreclosure of her family’s Washington farm. To pay the debt she accepted a wager to walk across the United States within seven months. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow her daring bid to win the prize, and its surprising consequence.

We’ll also toast Edgar Allan Poe and puzzle over a perplexing train.

See full show notes …