Seemingly safe in northern New England, the residents of St. Albans, Vermont, were astonished in October 1864 when a group of Confederate soldiers appeared in their midst, terrorizing residents, robbing banks, and stealing horses. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the St. Albans raid, the northernmost land action of the Civil War.
We’ll also learn about Charles Darwin’s misadventures at the equator and puzzle over a groundskeeper’s strange method of tending grass.
In 1916 English engineer Frederick Lanchester set out to find a mathematical model to describe conflicts between two armies. In ancient times, he reasoned, each soldier engaged with one enemy at a time, so the number of soldiers who survived a battle was simply the difference in size between the two armies. But the advent of modern combat, including long-range weapons such as firearms, changes things. Suppose two armies, A and B, are fighting. A and B represent the number of soldiers in each army, and a and b represent the number of enemy fighters that each soldier can kill per unit time. Now the equations
dA/dt = -bB
dB/dt = -aA,
show us the rate at which the size of each army is changing at a given instant. And these give us
bB2 – aA2 = C,
where C is a constant.
This is immediately revealing. It shows that the strength of an army depends more on its bare size than on the sophistication of its weapons. In order to meet an army twice your size you’d need weapons (or fighting skills) that are four times as effective.
Simple as they are, these ideas shed light on the historic choices of leaders such as Nelson, who sought to divide his enemies into small groups, and Lanchester himself illustrated his point by referring to the British and German navies then at war. Today his ideas (and their descendants) inform the rules behind tabletop and computer wargames.
In 1777, in conversation with diplomat Arthur Lee, Benjamin Franklin reflected on the “miracle” of the American Revolution:
To comprehend it we must view a whole people for some months without any laws or government at all. In this state their civil governments were to be formed, an army and navy were to be provided by those who had neither a ship of war, a company of soldiers, nor magazines, arms, artillery or ammunition. Alliances were to be formed, for they had none. All this was to be done, not at leisure nor in a time of tranquillity and communication with other nations, but in the face of a most formidable invasion, by the most powerful nation, fully provided with armies, fleets, and all the instruments of destruction, powerfully allied and aided, the commerce with other nations in a great measure stopped up, and every power from whom they could expect to procure arms, artillery, and ammunition, having by the influence of their enemies forbade their subjects to supply them on any pretence whatever. Nor was this all; they had internal opposition to encounter, which alone would seem sufficient to have frustrated all their efforts. … It was, however, formed and established in despite of all these obstacles, with an expedition, energy, wisdom, and success of which most certainly the whole history of human affairs has not, hitherto, given an example.
“He told me the manner in which the whole of this business had been conducted, was such a miracle in human affairs, that if he had not been in the midst of it, and seen all the movements, he could not have comprehended how it was effected.”
Early one morning in 1912, the residents of Villisca, Iowa, discovered a horrible scene: An entire family had been brutally murdered in their sleep. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the gruesome crime, which has baffled investigators for a hundred years.
We’ll also follow the further adventures of German sea ace Felix von Luckner and puzzle over some fickle bodyguards.
There are no known pictures of two American presidents’ wives: Martha Jefferson and Margaret Taylor.
We have one silhouette (left) of Jefferson, who was a little over 5 feet tall and had auburn hair and hazel eyes.
And one 1903 book contains a suggested likeness of Taylor (right), who was described during her life as “a fat, motherly looking woman,” “countenance rather stern but it may be the consequence of military association.”
But no portrait of either woman is known to exist. Some artists have attempted renderings based on pictures of their daughters, whom they were said to resemble, but that’s the best we can do.
On June 23, 1858, the Catholic Church removed 6-year-old Edgardo Mortara from his family in Bologna. The reason they gave was surprising: The Mortaras were Jewish, and Edgardo had been secretly baptized. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of little Edgardo and learn how his family’s plight shaped the course of Italian history.
We’ll also hear Ben Franklin’s musings on cultural bigotry and puzzle over an unexpected soccer riot.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is still paying a pension earned by a Civil War soldier.
Union infantryman Mose Triplett was 19 at the war’s end in 1865. In the 1920s he married a woman nearly 50 years his junior, and they had a daughter, Irene, in 1930, when Mose was 83 and his wife was 34.
In 1895, hoping to marry sound and pictures, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson played a violin into a phonograph horn in Thomas Edison’s experimental film studio, and the sound was recorded on a wax cylinder.
The experiment went well, but the team made no attempt to unite sound and image at the time. The film portion remained well known, but the wax cylinder drifted into another archive and was rediscovered only in the 1960s. It wasn’t until 2000 that film editor Walter Murch succeeded in adding the music to the long-famous fragment, and Dickson’s violin could finally be heard.
The vignette, now the oldest known piece of sound film, shows that sound was not a late addition to moviemaking, film preservationist Rick Schmidlin told the New York Times. “This teaches that sound and film started together in the beginning.”
In 1862, slave Robert Smalls was working as a pilot aboard a Confederate transport ship in Charleston, S.C., when he siezed a unique chance to escape. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow his daring predawn journey, which rescued 17 people from slavery and changed the course of South Carolina history.
We’ll also reflect on justice for bears and puzzle over a hijacker’s surprising request.
Flying alone over France in April 1917, German flying ace Ernst Udet engaged another lone pilot in aerial combat. The other pilot, a Frenchman, was exceptionally talented, anticipating all of Udet’s moves and reacting instantly. “Sometimes we pass so closely I can clearly recognize a narrow, pale face under the leather helmet,” Udet wrote later. “On the fuselage, between the wings, there is a word in black letters. As he passes me for the fifth time, so close that his propwash shakes me back and forth, I can make it out: ‘Vieux‘ it says there — vieux — the old one. That’s Guynemer’s sign.”
Guynemer was Georges Guynemer, France’s top fighter ace, who had brought down 30 Germans in fights like this. “Slowly I realize his superiority,” Udet wrote. “His aircraft is better, he can do more than I, but I continue to fight.” For a moment he managed to get Guynemer into his sights, but he found that his gun wouldn’t fire — it was blocked.
Udet tried to clear the stoppage by hand but failed. He considered diving away but knew that Guynemer would instantly shoot him down. They circled one another for another eight minutes as Udet sought to evade the Frenchman’s guns. When Guynemer swooped overhead, Udet hammered the gun with his fists and then realized his mistake:
Guynemer has observed this from above, he must have seen it, and now he knows what gives with me. He knows I’m helpless prey.
Again he skims over me, almost on his back. Then it happens: he sticks out his hand and waves to me, waves lightly, and dives to the west in the direction of his lines.
I fly home. I’m numb.
“There are people who claim Guynemer had a stoppage himself then,” Udet wrote in Ace of the Iron Cross. “Others claim he feared I might ram him in desperation. But I don’t believe any of them. I still believe to this day that a bit of chivalry from the past has continued to survive. For this reason I lay this belated wreath on Guynemer’s unknown grave.”