Podcast Episode 315: Beryl Markham’s Unconventional Life

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Beryl Markham managed to fit three extraordinary careers into one lifetime: She was a champion racehorse trainer, a pioneering bush pilot, and a best-selling author. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review her eventful life, including her historic solo flight across the Atlantic in 1936.

We’ll also portray some Canadian snakes and puzzle over a deadly car.

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Miss and Hit

At the commencement of this battle [Gettysburg], as the Regiment was rushing forward toward the enemy, a cannon ball passed between the legs of Captain Robert Story, of Company B, plowing up the earth beyond, yet he rushed on until, half an hour later, he lay mortally wounded, in the enemy’s lines. He was struck in the left thigh by a Minnie ball, which, on reaching and fracturing the bone, divided into three parts.

— Abram P. Smith, History of the Seventy-Sixth Regiment New York Volunteers, 1867

The Burned House Phenomenon

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Cucuteni-Trypillian culture of Neolithic Europe left behind a curious puzzle for archaeologists: It appears that, for more than a thousand years, the houses in every settlement were burned. It’s not clear why. Possibly the fires arose accidentally or through warfare, or possibly they were set deliberately. The extent of each fire must have been considerable, because the raw clay in the walls has been vitrified by intense heat, an effect that has not appeared in modern experiments with individual houses. But the reason for the phenomenon, and for its longevity, remains unknown.

Podcast Episode 314: The Taliesin Murders

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By 1914 Frank Lloyd Wright had become one of America’s most influential architects. But that August a violent tragedy unfolded at his Midwestern residence and studio. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the shocking attack of Julian Carlton, which has been called “the most horrific single act of mass murder in Wisconsin history.”

We’ll also admire some helpful dogs and puzzle over some freezing heat.

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Magic

A “kinde of Divination” “to tell your friend how many pence or single peeces, reckoning them one with another, he hath in his purse, or should thinke in his minde,” from Robert Recorde’s The Ground of Arts, 1618:

[F]irst bid him double the peeces hee hath in his purse, or the number hee thinketh. … Now after hee hath doubled his number, bid him adde thereunto 5 more, which done, bid him multiply that his number by 5 also: which done bid him tell you the just sum of his last multiplication, which sum the giver thinking it nothing availeable, because it is so great above his pretended imagination: yet thereby shall you presently with the helpe of Subtraction tell his proposed number.

https://books.google.com/books?id=i8NJomIVzlgC&pg=PA508

Apparently the section on “divers Sportes and Pastimes, done by Number” was contributed by Southwark schoolmaster John Mellis in 1582. “[T]he fact that this chapter on mathematical games was included in every subsequent edition of The Ground of Artes, save one, indicates that the idea of mathematical games found a receptive audience among arithmetic students.”

(Jessica Marie Otis, “‘Sportes and Pastimes, done by Number’: Mathematical Games in Early Modern England,” in Allison Levy, ed., Playthings in Early Modernity: Party Games, Word Games, Mind Games, 2017.)

Duty

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In 1936 the Princess learnt that their father had become king. Margaret Rose asked her sister, ‘Does that mean you will have to be the next queen?’ ‘Yes, some day’, replied Elizabeth. ‘Poor you!’ came the response.

— Lucinda Hawksley, Elizabeth Revealed: 500 Facts About the Queen and Her World, 2018

Podcast Episode 313: The Santa Claus Association

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In 1913, New York publicist John Duval Gluck founded an association to answer Santa’s mail. For 15 years its volunteers fulfilled children’s Christmas wishes, until Gluck’s motivation began to shift. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the rise and fall of “Santa’s Secretary” in New York City.

We’ll also survey some splitting trains and puzzle over a difference between twins.

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First Things First

An odd encounter between Thomas Edison and Henry Ford at a Democratic fundraising luncheon at New York’s Biltmore Hotel, 1916, from the memoir of Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels:

I do not suppose anything so strange ever occurred at a luncheon in New York and elsewhere. … After the first course, Edison, pointing to a large chandelier, with many globes, in the middle of the room, said, ‘Henry, I’ll bet anything you want that I can kick the globe off that chandelier.’ It hung high toward the ceiling. Ford said he would take the bet. Edison rose, pushed the table to one side of the room, took his stand in the center and with his eye fixed on the globe, made the highest kick I have ever seen a man make and smashed the globe into smithereens. He then said, ‘Henry, let’s see what you can do.’ The automobile manufacturer took careful aim, but his foot missed the chandelier by a fraction of an inch. Edison had won and for the balance of the meal or until the ice-cream was served, he was crowing over Ford, ‘You are a younger man than I am, but I can out-kick you.’ He seemed prouder of that high kick than if he had invented a means of ending the U-boat warfare.

(Via Edmund Morris’ 2019 biography Edison.) (Thanks, Aditya.)

Outreach

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Images: Wikimedia Commons

In August 1945, a few weeks before the end of World War II, a Soviet delegation presented a replica of the Great Seal of the United States as a gift to American ambassador W. Averell Harriman, who hung it in the study of his Moscow residence.

In 1951, a radio operator at the British embassy overheard American voices on an open radio traffic channel used by the Russian air force. An investigation showed that they’d been beaming radio waves at the ambassador’s office: The gift had contained a passive listening device that could be activated by a radio signal. The Soviets had been listening in on the ambassador’s residence for six years.

When a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Soviet territory in 1960, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. displayed the device to show that both sides had been guilty of spying.

Podcast Episode 312: The Last of the Yahi

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In 1911 an exhausted man emerged from the wilderness north of Oroville, California. He was discovered to be the last of the Yahi, a people who had once flourished in the area but had been decimated by white settlers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Ishi’s sad history and his new life in San Francisco.

We’ll also consider the surprising dangers of baseball and puzzle over a forceful blackout.

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