Oops

In 1816 the United States built a fort on Lake Champlain to guard against attacks from British Canada.

Too late the planners discovered that they’d chosen a site north of the border — they’d built their fort in Canada.

It’s now called “Fort Blunder.”

Trench Art

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To pass the time while waiting in the trenches of the Argonne, French infantryman Hippolyte Hodeau engraved the names of his daughters in chestnut leaves.

More at Europeana.

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The Engine That Couldn’t

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On its first day of service in 1882, a horse-drawn tram in Wilmington, Calif., broke its wooden rails, forcing the male passengers to push the car to the next sound section of track. After this it was known as the Get Out and Push Railroad.

A steam engine three years later did little better: “The little engine was a very primitive affair. It was so constructed that it had to be started with a metal bar, and was covered with a wooden jacket which used to catch fire when the boiler was hot enough to make a good steam. Then, since the water in the boiler had to be used to extinguish the fire, the steam would go down and the engine refuse to run … It ran fairly well on level ground, but on a rise it was apt to stop entirely till the male passengers got out and applied the iron bar with considerable force.”

So the line kept its name. “When the railroad is completed,” carped the Los Angeles Weekly Mirror, “some of the citizens suggest that the horse rail-way be continued in operation for the benefit of those who may be in a hurry.”

(Franklyn Hoyt, “The Get Out and Push Railroad,” Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly 33:1 [March 1951], 74-81.)

Podcast Episode 241: A Case of Scientific Self-Deception

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In 1903, French physicist Prosper-René Blondlot decided he had discovered a new form of radiation. But the mysterious rays had some exceedingly odd properties, and scientists in other countries had trouble seeing them at all. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of N-rays, a cautionary tale of self-deception.

We’ll also recount another appalling marathon and puzzle over a worthless package.

See full show notes …

Making Do

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When the Allies secured New Guinea’s Goodenough Island in October 1942, they left a small Australian occupation force to hold this important position against the Imperial Japanese. They succeeded through deception: The Australians built dummy structures (including a hospital), pointed logs at the sky to suggest anti-aircraft guns, wove jungle vines into barbed wire, lighted numerous “cooking fires” at night, and sent messages in easily broken code that suggested that a full brigade occupied the island.

It worked. The small force held the island until December 28, and a new garrison arrived the following year.

Podcast Episode 240: The Shark Papers

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In 1799 two Royal Navy ships met on the Caribbean Sea, and their captains discovered they were parties to a mind-boggling coincidence that would expose a crime and make headlines around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the shark papers, one of the strangest coincidences in maritime history.

We’ll also meet some Victorian kangaroos and puzzle over an expedient fire.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 239: The Man-Eaters of Tsavo

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In 1898, two lions descended on a company of railway workers in British East Africa. For nine months they terrorized the camp, carrying off a new victim every few days, as engineer John Patterson struggled to stop them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll track the “man-eaters of Tsavo” and learn what modern science has discovered about their motivations.

We’ll also consider more uses for two cars and puzzle over some prolific penguins.

See full show notes …

Something Borrowed

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Image: National Museum of American History

Under enemy fire on March 25, 1945, radio operator Temple Leslie Bourland bailed out of a C-47 over the Rhine. He injured his hip but avoided capture, hiding in a foxhole for two days while using his parachute as a blanket. When Allied troops discovered him he returned to his unit.

That summer he met San Antonio secretary Rosalie Hierholzer, and during their brief courtship he showed her the bullet-riddled parachute, which he kept in his trunk. Rosalie’s aunt Lora offered to make it into a bridal gown, and Rosalie wore it at their wedding. The train still retained some of the military seams.

Podcast Episode 238: The Plight of Mary Ellen Wilson

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In 1873 a Methodist missionary in New York City heard rumors of a little girl who was kept locked in a tenement and regularly whipped. She uncovered a shocking case of neglect and abuse that made headlines around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell how one girl’s ordeal led to a new era in child welfare.

We’ll also outsource Harry Potter and puzzle over Wayne Gretzky’s accomplishments.

See full show notes …