Podcast Episode 290: Voss’ Last Stand

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In 1917, German pilot Werner Voss had set out for a patrol over the Western Front when he encountered two flights of British fighters, including seven of the best pilots in the Royal Flying Corps. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the drama that followed, which has been called “one of the most extraordinary aerial combats of the Great War.”

We’ll also honk at red lights in Mumbai and puzzle over a train passenger’s mistake.

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Podcast Episode 289: The Johnstown Flood

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Image: Ron Shawley

In 1889, a dam failed in southwestern Pennsylvania, sending 20 million tons of water down an industrialized valley toward the unsuspecting city of Johnstown. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe some of the dramatic and harrowing personal stories that unfolded on that historic day.

We’ll also celebrate Christmas with Snoopy and puzzle over a deadly traffic light.

See full show notes …

In a Word

viator
n. a wayfarer; traveler

nocuous
adj. likely to cause harm or damage

fulminant
adj. exploding or detonating

aggerose
adj. in heaps

British director Cecil Hepworth made “How It Feels To Be Run Over” in 1900. The car is on the wrong side of the road. (The intertitle at the end, “Oh! Mother will be pleased,” may have been scratched directly into the celluloid.)

Hepworth followed it up with “Explosion of a Motor Car,” below, later the same year.

Medieval Music

In 2016, after 20 years of research, Cambridge University medieval music specialist Sam Barrett used the rediscovered leaf of an 11th-century manuscript to reconstruct music as it would have been heard a thousand years ago.

Melodies in those days were not recorded as precise pitches but relied on the memory of musicians and on aural traditions that died out in the 12th century. “We know the contours of the melodies and many details about how they were sung, but not the precise pitches that made up the tunes,” Barrett said. The missing leaf, appropriated by a Germanic scholar in 1840, contained vital neumes, or musical symbols, that allowed him and his colleagues to finish their reconstruction of Boethius’ “Songs of Consolation” as it was performed in the Middle Ages.

“There have been times while I’ve been working on this that I have thought I’m in the 11th century, when the music has been so close it was almost touchable,” Barrett said. “And it’s those moments that make the last 20 years of work so worthwhile.”

A Near Thing

British infantryman Charlie “Ginger” Byrne was advancing on the German-held village of Beaumont-Hamel on July 1, 1916, when the other members of his gun crew were hit and he was forced to take refuge in a shallow shell hole. He lay there among the ammunition boxes he’d been carrying with only four inches of earth above his head.

I lay as I fell because I daren’t move. I had my legs folded under me and my bloomin’ bayonet was on my left-hand side. I was dying to move that bayonet out of the way so I could get my hip down lower. But that Jerry decided he hadn’t anything better to do than play his gun across my shell-hole. He knew I wasn’t hit. I knew what he was doing. I was a machine gunner myself, wasn’t I? He’d be holding the two handles of his gun, then he’d tap, tap so it played right across the top of the hole; then he’d turn the wheel at the bottom to lower the barrel and then he’d tap, tap the other side to bring it back again. He was hitting the dust just above my head and he smashed the bloomin’ boxes. Bits of ammo flew about everywhere. In a queer sort of way I was lying there almost admiring what he was doing, as though it wasn’t me he was aiming at. He was a fellow machine-gunner, wasn’t he? And he certainly knew his job. But he just couldn’t get that trajectory low enough.

Byrne waited 14 hours through the interminable summer day with the German gunner “nagging away,” firing just over the hole. “Sometimes he’d stop for a bit and turn the gun on someone else; but he’d got right fond of me. Wasted a lot of ammo on me that Jerry did.” When darkness finally came he crawled and then ran across no-man’s-land and escaped, entirely uninjured.

(From Richard van Emden, Meeting the Enemy: The Human Face of the Great War, 2013.)

Podcast Episode 288: Death at the Lane Cove River

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

On New Year’s Day 1963, two bodies were discovered on an Australian riverbank. Though their identities were quickly determined, weeks of intensive investigation failed to uncover a cause or motive for their deaths. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Bogle-Chandler case, which riveted Australia for years.

We’ll also revisit the Rosenhan study and puzzle over a revealing lighthouse.

See full show notes …

Misc

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  • The state sport of Maryland is jousting.
  • North and South Dakota were established together, in 1889.
  • NEAT TAILOR makes ALTERATION.
  • Percentages are reversible: 25% of 16 is 16% of 25.
  • “Success in research needs four Gs: Glück, Geduld, Geschick, und Geld [luck, patience, skill, and money].” — Paul Ehrlich

Podcast Episode 287: The Public Universal Friend

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After a severe fever in 1776, Rhode Island farmer’s daughter Jemima Wilkinson was reborn as a genderless celestial being who had been sent to warn of the coming Apocalypse. But the general public was too scandalized by the messenger to pay heed to the message. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Public Universal Friend and the prejudiced reaction of a newly formed nation.

We’ll also bid on an immortal piano and puzzle over some Icelandic conceptions.

See full show notes …

Stop

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“The actual building of roads devoted to motor cars is not for the near future, in spite of many rumors to that effect.” — Harper’s Weekly, Aug. 2, 1902

“That the automobile has practically reached the limit of its development is suggested by the fact that during the past year no improvements of a radical character have been introduced.” — Scientific American, Jan. 2, 1909

Full Speed Ahead

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I just liked this — during World War I, the British painted false bow waves on the sides of their transport ships to deceive German submarines as to their speed.

From The Times History of the War, 1917.