Podcast Episode 341: An Overlooked Bacteriologist

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1890s, Waldemar Haffkine worked valiantly to develop vaccines against both cholera and bubonic plague. Then an unjust accusation derailed his career. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Haffkine’s momentous work in India, which has been largely overlooked by history.

We’ll also consider some museum cats and puzzle over an endlessly energetic vehicle.

See full show notes …

Expenses

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The Massachusetts Archives holds a 1775 bill from Paul Revere for “self and horse.”

It covers the period April 21-May 7, starting three days after the midnight ride. The provisional state government paid it.

“It seems at first blush incongruous, but then again, it’s not,” Massachusetts secretary of state William F. Galvin told the Bangor Daily News. “Even a revolutionary horse needs to be fed, not to mention Paul Revere himself.”

The Presidents’ Tree

In August 1865, Maryland farmer Samuel M’Closky Fenton carved this grid into an American beech in Takoma Park:

  	N L O C N I L M L I N C O L N
	L O C N I L M A M L I N C O L
	O C N I L M A H A M L I N C O
	C N I L M A H A H A M L I N C
	N I L M A H A R A H A M L I N
	I L M A H A R B R A H A M L I
	L M A H A R B A B R A H A M L
	I L M A H A R B R A H A M L I
	N I L M A H A R A H A M L I N
	C N I L M A H A H A M L I N C
	O C N I L M A H A M L I N C O
	L O C N I L M A M L I N C O L
	N L O C N I L M L I N C O L N

He intended it as a memorial to Abraham Lincoln, who had been assassinated that April. Starting at the central A and following a jagged path toward any of the corner Ns will spell out the fallen president’s name.

Fenton also carved the name of every American president to date. In 1948 the tree was enclosed in an iron fence and dedicated “as a living memorial to men who gave their lives for their country in the war of 1861-1865.”

Podcast Episode 340: A Vanished Physicist

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In 1938, Italian physicist Ettore Majorana vanished after taking a sudden sea journey. At first it was feared that he’d ended his life, but the perplexing circumstances left the truth uncertain. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the facts of Majorana’s disappearance, its meaning for physics, and a surprising modern postscript.

We’ll also dither over pronunciation and puzzle over why it will take three days to catch a murderer.

See full show notes …

Security

In the Middle Ages, before the advent of street lighting or organized police forces, fortified cities and towns used to discourage vandals by closing their gates and laying chains across their roads, “as if it were in tyme of warr.” Historian A. Roger Ekirch writes that Nuremberg “maintained more than four hundred sets [of chains]. Unwound each evening from large drums, they were strung at waist height, sometimes in two or three bands, from one side of a street to the other … [and] Paris officials in 1405 set all the city’s farriers to forging chains to cordon off not just streets but also the Seine.”

In some cities, residents who’d returned home for the night were required to give their keys to the authorities. A Paris decree of 1380 reads, “At night all houses … are to be locked and the keyes deposited with a magistrate. Nobody may then enter or leave a house unless he can give the magistrate a good reason for doing so.”

(From Jane Brox, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, 2010.)

Waste Not, Want Not

In 1929, Indiana Bell bought the Central Union Telephone Company of Indianapolis. Central Union’s headquarters building at that time was more than 20 years old and inadequate to the new company’s needs, but rather than demolish it, architect Kurt Vonnegut Sr. (father of the novelist) proposed moving it out of the way.

Over the course of a month, the 10,000-ton building was shifted 52 feet south, rotated 90 degrees, then shifted another 100 feet west. Amazingly, this was all accomplished while the building was open and operating — customer telephone service was never interrupted, and the building’s gas, heat, electricity, and water operated continuously throughout the move.

A new headquarters was built on the old site, and the shifted building stood in its new position until 1963.

Podcast Episode 339: The Baron of Arizona

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In 1883, Missouri real estate broker James Reavis announced that he held title to a huge tract of land in the Arizona Territory. If certified, the claim would threaten the livelihoods of thousands of residents. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Baron of Arizona, one of the most audacious frauds in American history.

We’ll also scrutinize British statues and puzzle over some curious floor numbers.

See full show notes …

Brave New World

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In 1921 Charles Steinmetz, “the electrical wizard of Schenectady,” described the conveniences of 2021:

When heating is all done electrically, and I want 70 degrees in my home, I shall set the thermostat at 70 and the temperature will not rise above that point. This temperature will be maintained uniformly regardless of the weather outside.

This will also hold true on the warm day when the temperature outside may be 90 or 100 degrees. The same electrical apparatus will cool the air, and what’s more it will also keep the humidity normal at all times.

“Look back 100 years and it is like jumping into the Dark Ages,” he wrote. “The electrical development is still in its infancy.”

(Via Reddit’s ArchivePorn.)

Art and Commerce

Before the 19th century, containers did not come in standard sizes, and students in the 1400s were taught to “gauge” their capacity as part of their standard mathematical education:

There is a barrel, each of its ends being 2 bracci in diameter; the diameter at its bung is 2 1/4 bracci and halfway between bung and end it is 2 2/9 bracci. The barrel is 2 bracci long. What is its cubic measure?

This is like a pair of truncated cones. Square the diameter at the ends: 2 × 2 = 4. Then square the median diameter 2 2/9 × 2 2/9 = 4 76/81. Add them together: 8 76/81. Multiply 2 × 2 2/9 = 4 4/9. Add this to 8 76/81 = 13 31/81. Divide by 3 = 4 112/243 … Now square 2 1/4 = 2 1/4 × 2 1/4 = 5 1/16. Add it to the square of the median diameter: 5 5/16 + 4 76/81 = 10 1/129. Multiply 2 2/9 × 2 1/4 = 5. Add this to the previous sum: 15 1/129. Divide by 3: 5 1/3888. Add it to the first result: 4 112/243 + 5 1/3888 = 9 1792/3888. Multiply this by 11 and then divide by 14 [i.e. multiply by π/4]: the final result is 7 23600/54432. This is the cubic measure of the barrel.

Interestingly, this practice informed the art of the time — this exercise is from a mathematical handbook for merchants by Piero della Francesca, the Renaissance painter. Because many artists had attended the same lay schools as business people, they could invoke the same mathematical training in their work, and visual references that recalled these skills became a way to appeal to an educated audience. “The literate public had these same geometrical skills to look at pictures with,” writes art historian Michael Baxandall. “It was a medium in which they were equipped to make discriminations, and the painters knew this.”

(Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy, 1988.)

04/10/2021 UPDATE: A reader suggests that there’s a typo in the original reference here. If 9 1792/3888 is changed to 9 1793/3888, the final result is 7 23611/54432, which is exactly the result obtained by integration using the approximation π = 22/7. (Thanks, Mariano.)