Jump Cut

This must have scared the daylights out of people in 1895 — The Execution of Mary Stuart, one of the first films to use editing for special effects.

After the executioner raises his ax, the actress is replaced with a mannequin.

Southern Literature

south polar times 1

During Robert Falcon Scott’s first Antarctic expedition, 1901–04, Ernest Shackleton edited an illustrated magazine, the South Polar Times, to entertain the crew. Each issue consisted of a single typewritten copy that would circulate among up to 47 readers aboard the Discovery, Scott’s steam-powered barque, through each of two dark winters. Contributors would drop their anonymous essays, articles, and poems into a mahogany letterbox, and Shackleton composed each issue on a Remington typewriter perched atop a storeroom packing case.

The first issue appeared on April 23, 1902, and was, Shackleton noted, “greatly praised!” Scott wrote, “I can see again a row of heads bent over a fresh monthly number to scan the latest efforts of our artists, and I can hear the hearty laughter at the sallies of our humorists and the general chaff when some sly allusion found its way home. Memory recalls also the proud author expectant of the turn of the page that should reveal his work and the shy author desirous that his pages should be turned quickly.”

Shackleton was invalided home that summer, but other crewmembers took over the magazine for him that winter and indeed again on Scott’s second expedition in 1911. BBC History has some scans.

south polar times 2

(Anne Fadiman, “The World’s Most Southerly Periodical,” Harvard Review 43 [2012], 98-115.)

Podcast Episode 172: An American in Feudal Japan

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nagasaki_bay_siebold.jpg

In 1848, five years before Japan opened its closed society to the West, a lone American in a whaleboat landed on the country’s northern shore, drawn only by a sense of mystery and a love of adventure. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Ranald MacDonald as he travels the length of Japan toward a destiny that will transform the country.

We’ll also remember a Soviet hero and puzzle over some security-conscious neighbors.

See full show notes …

The Hollow Nickel Case

https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/hollow-nickel-rudolph-abel

In June 1953, Brooklyn newsboy Jimmy Bozart was collecting in a Foster Avenue apartment building when someone paid him with a nickel that felt light. When he dropped it it popped open, revealing a piece of microfilm that bore a series of numbers (below).

The New York police gave it to the FBI, which spent four years trying to determine the origin of the nickel and the meaning of the numbers. Finally, in May 1957 defecting KGB agent Reino Häyhänen helped them crack the cipher. The message was a greeting from Moscow welcoming him to the United States:

  1. WE CONGRATULATE YOU ON A SAFE ARRIVAL. WE CONFIRM THE RECEIPT OF YOUR LETTER TO THE ADDRESS ‘V REPEAT V’ AND THE READING OF LETTER NUMBER 1.
  2. FOR ORGANIZATION OF COVER, WE GAVE INSTRUCTIONS TO TRANSMIT TO YOU THREE THOUSAND IN LOCAL (CURRENCY). CONSULT WITH US PRIOR TO INVESTING IT IN ANY KIND OF BUSINESS, ADVISING THE CHARACTER OF THIS BUSINESS.
  3. ACCORDING TO YOUR REQUEST, WE WILL TRANSMIT THE FORMULA FOR THE PREPARATION OF SOFT FILM AND NEWS SEPARATELY, TOGETHER WITH (YOUR) MOTHER’S LETTER.
  4. IT IS TOO EARLY TO SEND YOU THE GAMMAS. ENCIPHER SHORT LETTERS, BUT THE LONGER ONES MAKE WITH INSERTIONS. ALL THE DATA ABOUT YOURSELF, PLACE OF WORK, ADDRESS, ETC., MUST NOT BE TRANSMITTED IN ONE CIPHER MESSAGE. TRANSMIT INSERTIONS SEPARATELY.
  5. THE PACKAGE WAS DELIVERED TO YOUR WIFE PERSONALLY. EVERYTHING IS ALL RIGHT WITH THE FAMILY. WE WISH YOU SUCCESS. GREETINGS FROM THE COMRADES. NUMBER 1, 3RD OF DECEMBER.

With Häyhänen’s help the FBI were able to arrest Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher, whose hotel room was full of espionage equipment. He was sentenced to a 30-year prison term in 1957 and exchanged for Francis Gary Powers in 1962.

Both the FBI and the CIA have articles about the case. It’s not immediately clear to me how the nickel found its way to the two ladies who’d given it to Jimmy. “Why, we’ve never seen a hollow coin,” they told the FBI, “or, for that matter, even heard of one before.”

https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent-csi/vol5no4/html/v05i4a09p_0001.htm

“Electric Bathing”

https://books.google.com/books?id=CrbPAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA359

In 1878 Coney Island mounted electric lights on poles so that visitors could play in the surf at night.

“One could take many a long journey and never meet elsewhere with so strange, so truly weird a sight as this,” reported Scribner’s Monthly. “The concentrated illumination falls on the formidable breakers plunging in against the foot of the bridge, and gives them spots of sickly green translucence below and sheets of dazzlingly white foam above. There is a startling spot of foreground and nothing more. A couple who are confident swimmers, possibly a man and his wife, come down the bridge and put off into the cold flood. The woman holds by the man’s belt behind, and he disappears with her into the darkness. A circle disports with hobgoblin glee around a kind of May-pole in the water.”

“Nothing else,” opined the New York Times, “would answer the purpose of those lunatics who persist in bathing after nightfall.”

Podcast Episode 171: The Emperor of the United States

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Norton-1.jpg

In the 1860s, San Francisco’s most popular tourist attraction was not a place but a person: Joshua Norton, an eccentric resident who had declared himself emperor of the United States. Rather than shun him, the city took him to its heart, affectionately indulging his foibles for 21 years. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the reign of Norton I and the meaning of madness.

We’ll also keep time with the Romans and puzzle over some rising temperatures.

See full show notes …

Winkie

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Animals_in_War_1939-1945_HU45623.jpg

On Feb. 24, 1942, a bedraggled carrier pigeon arrived at an RAF bomber base on Scotland’s Fifeshire coast. She was covered with oil and appeared exhausted.

The sergeant who examined her, George Ross, alerted his superior officer. The bird had been carried aboard a Bristol Beaufort bomber that had crashed in the North Sea after taking enemy fire over Norway the previous day. The pilot had been unable to radio his position as they went down, and rescue planes had been searching the freezing waters in vain all night for some sign of the four-man crew.

The bird’s arrival told Ross that they’d been searching in the wrong place. She had flown for 16 hours, but with oil-smeared wings couldn’t have covered more than 140 miles in that time. The rescue operation had been searching beyond that range. When they moved closer to shore they discovered the crewmen, freezing but safe, in a rubber dinghy within 15 minutes.

When the fuselage had broken up, the pigeon had somehow escaped into the oily water, struggled free, and then flown across 120 miles of ocean to the base, despite a natural fear of the dark and a dislike of wide expanses of water. When she arrived she was so exhausted that she was closing one eye intermittently.

“Winkie” was awarded the Dickin Medal at a dinner that December. She was cited “for delivering a message under exceptional difficulties and so contributing to the rescue of an Air Crew while serving with the RAF in February 1942.”

In a Word

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:An_Army_%22Jenny%22_crashed_in_a_tree_(4127800503).jpg

symposiast
n. a member of a drinking party

alate
adj. winged

dimication
n. fighting or strife

bouleversement
n. a turning upside down

“In Other Words,” an airman’s drinking song from World War I:

I was fighting a Hun in the heyday of youth,
Or perhaps ’twas a Nieuport or Spad.
I put in a burst at a moderate range
And it didn’t seem too bad.
For he put down his nose in a curious way,
And as I watched, I am happy to say:

Chorus:
He descended with unparalleled rapidity,
His velocity ‘twould beat me to compute.
I speak with unimpeachable veracity,
With evidence complete and absolute.
He suffered from spontaneous combustion
As towards terrestrial sanctuary he dashed,
In other words — he crashed!

I was telling the tale when a message came through
To say ’twas a poor RE8.
The news somewhat dashed me, I rather supposed
I was in for a bit of hate.
The CO approached me. I felt rather weak,
For his face was all mottled, and when he did speak

Chorus:
He strafed me with unmitigated violence,
With wholly reprehensible abuse.
His language in its blasphemous simplicity
Was rather more exotic than abstruse.
He mentioned that the height of his ambition
Was to see your humble servant duly hung.
I returned to Home Establishment next morning,
In other words — I was strung!

As a pilot in France I flew over the lines
And there met an Albatros scout.
It seemed that he saw me, or so I presumed;
His manoeuvres left small room for doubt.
For he sat on my tail without further delay
Of my subsequent actions I think I may say:

Chorus:
My turns approximated to the vertical,
I deemed it most judicious to proceed.
I frequently gyrated on my axis,
And attained colossal atmospheric speed,
I descended with unparalleled momentum,
My propeller’s point of rupture I surpassed,
And performed the most astonishing evolutions,
In other words — * *** ****!

I was testing a Camel on last Friday week
For the purpose of passing her out.
And before fifteen seconds of flight had elapsed
I was filled with a horrible doubt
As to whether intact I should land from my flight.
I half thought I’d crashed — and half thought quite right!

Chorus:
The machine seemed to lack coagulation,
The struts and sockets didn’t rendezvous,
The wings had lost their super-imposition,
Their stagger and their incidental, too!
The fuselage developed undulations,
The circumjacent fabric came unstitched
Instanter was reduction to components,
In other words — she’s pitched!

(From Peter G. Cooksley, Royal Flying Corps 1914-1918, 2007.)

Podcast Episode 170: The Mechanical Turk

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tuerkischer_schachspieler_windisch4.jpg

In 1770, Hungarian engineer Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled a miracle: a mechanical man who could play chess against human challengers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Kempelen’s Mechanical Turk, which mystified audiences in Europe and the United States for more than 60 years.

We’ll also sit down with Paul Erdős and puzzle over a useful amateur.

See full show notes …

Cash and Carry

During the London Gin Craze of the early 18th century, when the British government started running sting operations on petty gin sellers, someone invented a device called the “Puss-and-Mew” so that the buyer couldn’t identify the seller in court:

The old Observation, that the English, though no great Inventors themselves, are the best Improvers of other Peoples Inventions, is verified by a fresh Example, in the Parish of St. Giles’s in the Fields, and in other Parts of the Town; where several Shopkeepers, Dealers in Spirituous Liquors, observing the Wonders perform’d by the Figures of the Druggist and the Blackmoor pouring out Wine, have turn’d them to their own great Profit. The Way is this, the Buyer comes into the Entry and cries Puss, and is immediately answer’d by a Voice from within, Mew. A Drawer is then thrust out, into which the Buyer puts his Money, which when drawn back, is soon after thrust out again, with the Quantity of Gin requir’d; the Matter of this new Improvement in Mechanicks, remaining all the while unseen; whereby all Informations are defeated, and the Penalty of the Gin Act evaded.

This is sometimes called the first vending machine.

(From Read’s Weekly Journal, Feb. 18, 1738. Thanks, Nick.)