# A Look Back

Systems developer David Coombe has created a “street view” map of Adelaide in the 1840s by pinning digital images of Samuel Thomas Gill paintings onto historical maps of the city.

“He painted many Adelaide street scenes and there’s a lot of detail — much of it in the background,” Coombe says. “The pictures were historical and specific and accurate.”

(Thanks, Jason.)

# Podcast Episode 344: Martin Couney’s Incubator Babies

For more than 40 years in the early 20th century, Martin Couney ran a sideshow in which premature babies were displayed in incubators. With this odd practice he offered a valuable service in an era when many hospitals couldn’t. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Couney’s unusual enterprise, which earned both criticism and praise.

We’ll also marvel over an Amazonian survival and puzzle over a pleasing refusal.

See full show notes …

# Plea

In 1887, as the Eiffel Tower began to take shape, a “Committee of Three Hundred” led by architect Charles Garnier published a protest in Le Temps:

Honored compatriot, we come, writers, painters, sculptors, architects, passionate lovers of the beauty of Paris — a beauty until now unspoiled — to protest with all our might, with all our outrage, in the name of slighted French taste, in the name of threatened French art and history, against the erection, in the heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.

Are we going to allow all this beauty and tradition to be profaned? Is Paris now to be associated with the grotesque and mercantile imagination of a machine builder, to be defaced and disgraced? Even the commercial Americans would not want this Eiffel Tower which is, without any doubt, a dishonor to Paris. We all know this, everyone says it, everyone is deeply troubled by it. We, the Committee, are but a faint echo of universal sentiment, which is so legitimately outraged. When foreign visitors come to our universal exposition, they will cry out in astonishment, ‘What!? Is this the atrocity that the French present to us as the representative of their vaunted national taste?’ And they will be right to laugh at us, because the Paris of the sublime Gothic, the Paris of Jean Goujon, of Germain Pilon, Puget, Rude, Barye, etc. will have become the Paris of Monsieur Eiffel.

Listen to our plea! Imagine now a ridiculous tall tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black factory smokestack, crushing with its barbaric mass Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the dome of Les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all our humiliated monuments, all our dwarfed architecture, which will be annihilated by Eiffel’s hideous fantasy. For twenty years, over the city of Paris still vibrant with the genius of so many centuries, we shall see, spreading out like a blot of ink, the shadow of this disgusting column of bolted tin.

Guy de Maupassant called the tower “this high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders, this giant ungainly skeleton upon a base that looks built to carry a colossal monument of Cyclops, but which just peters out into a ridiculous thin shape like a factory chimney.” It was said that he ate his lunch in the tower’s restaurant each day because it was the one spot in Paris from which the rising structure wasn’t visible.

# Podcast Episode 343: Operation Cowboy

In April 1945, a group of American soldiers learned that hundreds of Lipizzaner horses were being held on a farm in western Czechoslovakia — and set out to rescue them before the Red Army could reach them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Operation Cowboy, one of the strangest episodes of World War II.

We’ll also learn about an NBA brawl and puzzle over a technology’s link to cancer deaths.

See full show notes …

# The Seconds Pendulum

An interesting historical fact from these MIT notes: Christiaan Huygens proposed defining the meter conveniently as the length of a pendulum that produces a period of 2 seconds. A pendulum’s period is

$\displaystyle T = 2\pi \sqrt{\frac{l}{g}},$

so, using Huygens’ standard of T = 2s for 1 meter,

$\displaystyle g = \frac{4\pi ^{2}\times 1\ \textup{meter}}{4s^{2}} = \pi ^{2}ms^{-2}.$

“So, if Huygens’s standard were used today, then g would be π2 by definition.”

# Consequences

Dutch Anabaptist Dirk Willems had made good his escape from prison in 1569 when a pursuing guard fell through the ice of a frozen pond and called for help.

When Willems turned back to rescue him, he was recaptured, tortured, and executed.

In 1844 New Orleans was riveted by a dramatic trial: A slave claimed that she was really a free immigrant who had been pressed into bondage as a young girl. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Sally Miller’s fight for freedom, which challenged notions of race and social hierarchy in antebellum Louisiana.

We’ll also try to pronounce some drug names and puzzle over some cheated tram drivers.

See full show notes …

# Nowhere Man

In 1819, as a riposte to David Hume’s skepticism of the Gospel history, Richard Whately published Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte:

‘But what shall we say to the testimony of those many respectable persons who went to Plymouth on purpose, and saw Buonaparte with their own eyes? must they not trust their senses?’ I would not disparage either the eyesight or the veracity of these gentlemen. I am ready to allow that they went to Plymouth for the purpose of seeing Buonaparte; nay, more, that they actually rowed out into the harbour in a boat, and came alongside of a man-of-war, on whose deck they saw a man in a cocked hat, who, they were told, was Buonaparte. This is the utmost point to which their testimony goes; how they ascertained that this man in the cocked hat had gone through all the marvellous and romantic adventures with which we have so long been amused, we are not told.

“Let those, then, who pretend to philosophical freedom of inquiry, who scorn to rest their opinions on popular belief, and to shelter themselves under the example of the unthinking multitude, consider carefully, each one for himself, what is the evidence proposed to himself in particular, for the existence of such a person as Napoleon Buonaparte: — I do not mean, whether there ever was a person bearing that name, for that is a question of no consequence; but whether any such person ever performed all the wonderful things attributed to him; — let him then weigh well the objections to that evidence, (of which I have given but a hasty and imperfect sketch,) and if he then finds it amount to anything more than a probability, I have only to congratulate him on his easy faith.”

The whole thing is here.

# An Old Friend

Finland’s Raahe Museum contains the oldest surviving diving suit in the world, “The Old Gentleman,” an outfit of calf leather that could sustain a man long enough to inspect the bottom of a sailing vessel.

Museum conservator Jouko Turunen made a copy in 1988. Pleasingly, he called it The Young Gentleman.

# The River Witham Sword

This 13th-century double-edged sword, possibly of German manufacture, was found in the River Witham, Lincolnshire, in 1825. Inlaid in gold wire along one of its edges is a curious inscription:

+NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+

It’s been speculated that this is a religious invocation, but its full meaning is not clear. In 2015 the British Library invited readers to offer their thoughts, but no conclusive solution was reached. Medieval historian Marc van Hasselt of Utrecht University says it may be the product of a sophisticated workshop that made swords for the elite, as similar blades have been found throughout Europe. “These similarities go so far as to suggest the same hand in making the inscriptions. However, their contents are still a mystery, regardless of their origins.”