The Swimming Reindeer

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1866 French engineer Peccadeau de l’Isle discovered the sculptures of two swimming reindeer on the banks of the River Aveyron. Each had been carved from a mammoth tusk about 13,000 years ago. The carvings had historic as well as artistic value: They showed that humans, mammoths, and reindeer had coexisted in France during the ice age, when the climate of France resembled that of modern Siberia.

Amazingly, it wasn’t until 1904 that anyone thought to try fitting the two pieces together — it was discovered that they were two parts of a single sculpture. Today they form the oldest piece of art in the British Museum.

In a Word

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alembicated
adj. over-refined, excessively subtle in thought or expression

brachylogy
n. conciseness of speech; a condensed expression

mycterism
n. a subtle or scornful jibe; a piece of sarcasm or irony; subtle mocking

In 1886 Grover Cleveland suspended certain officials during a recess of the Senate and refused to give his reasons. When the Senate objected, he sent them a letter that contained a fateful phrase: “And so it happens that after an existence of nearly twenty years of an almost innocuous desuetude these laws are brought forth.”

Everyone pounced on it. Tennessee representative William Robert Moore wrote:

The big Free trade disciple
Who lives on Buzzard’s Bay,
Cannot again be President,
The tariff boys all say;
And they mean “biz” you better bet,
They’re in the proper mood
To send him up Salt River
To “innocuous desuetude” —
To innocuous desuetude,
To innocuous desuetude,
To send him up Salt River
To innocuous desuetude.

The phrase was still echoing in 1920, when former Speaker of the House Champ Clark wrote, “His most exquisite phrase and entirely original, so far as I know, was ‘innocuous desuetude,’ still frequently quoted and perhaps to be quoted as long as our vernacular is spoken by the children of men.”

That Good Night

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Image: Flickr

There’s a statue of Lenin in Seattle. Originally sculpted by Bulgarian artist Emil Venkov, it was installed in Poprad, Czechoslovakia, in 1988, just a year before the Velvet Revolution. Visiting American English teacher Lewis Carpenter found it lying in a scrapyard waiting to be melted down; he offered $13,000 for it and shipped it home to Issaquah, Washington.

When Carpenter died in an auto accident, the statue found its way to Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, where the local chamber of commerce has agreed to hold it in trust until a buyer can be found. The current asking price is $250,000.

For now the founder of the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class stands at the intersection of Fremont Place North, North 36th Street, and Evanston Avenue North, where he is regularly decorated with Christmas lights. Six-year-old Colin Sackett told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “It just makes me remember Christmas is coming. And it makes me remember Hanukkah, too.”

A Moment

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During the burning of Washington in the War of 1812, when a British expeditionary force leveled a cannon at the Patent Office, superintendent William Thornton “put himself before the gun, and in a frenzy of excitement exclaimed: ‘Are you Englishmen or only Goths and Vandals? This is the Patent Office, a depository of the ingenuity of the American nation, in which the whole civilized world is interested. Would you destroy it? If so, fire away, and let the charge pass through my body.'”

“The effect is said to have been magical upon the soldiers, and to have saved the Patent Office from destruction. … When the smoke cleared from the dreadful attack, the Patent Office was the only Government building … left untouched.”

(From R. Beresford’s Brief History of the United States Patent Office From Its Foundation, 1886.)

Podcast Episode 151: Double-Crossing the Nazis

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In 1941, Catalonian chicken farmer Juan Pujol made an unlikely leap into the world of international espionage, becoming a spy first for the Germans, then for the British, and rising to become one of the greatest double agents of World War II. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Pujol’s astonishing talent for deceiving the Nazis, which led one colleague to call him “the best actor in the world.”

We’ll also contemplate a floating Chicago and puzzle over a winding walkway.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 150: The Prince of Nowhere

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In 1821, Scottish adventurer Gregor MacGregor undertook one of the most brazen scams in history: He invented a fictional Central American republic and convinced hundreds of his countrymen to invest in its development. Worse, he persuaded 250 people to set sail for this imagined utopia with dreams of starting a new life. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the disastrous results of MacGregor’s deceit.

We’ll also illuminate a hermit’s behavior and puzzle over Liechtenstein’s flag.

See full show notes …

Overheard

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On May 10, 1857, the Indian troops of the East India Company’s army started an uprising against the British soldiers in the garrison town of Meerut.

Lord Canning, the Governor-General, first heard of the Mutiny in a curious fashion. The Lieutenant-Governor of Agra passed on to him a copy of a private telegram which had been sent by the British postmaster at Meerut before the line was cut. The postmaster’s aunt was in Agra and had planned to visit him. He wired that the cavalry had risen, houses were on fire and Europeans were being killed. ‘If aunt intend starting tomorrow evening please detain her.’ It was several days before the Governor-General of India could learn more than this of what had taken place in Meerut. Only gradually did the news of what had happened and what was happening in northern India seep out to the rest of the world.

That’s from Byron Farwell, Queen Victoria’s Little Wars, 1973. Related: On Sept. 1, 1939, English journalist Clare Hollingworth called the British embassy in Warsaw to report that Germany had invaded Poland. The secretary told her this was impossible, as Britain and Germany were still negotiating. “So I hung the telephone receiver out of the window,” she later recalled, “so he could listen to the Germans invading.” Hers was the first report that the British Foreign Office received of the invasion — later described as “the scoop of the century.”

Scoop

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In February 1966, the Soviet Union’s Luna 9 landed safely on the moon and became the first spacecraft to transmit photographs of the moon seen from surface level.

The Soviets didn’t release the photos immediately, but scientists at England’s Jodrell Bank Observatory, who were observing the mission, realized that the signal format was the same as the Radiofax system that newspapers used to transmit pictures. So they just borrowed a receiver from the Daily Express, decoded the images, and published them.

The BBC observes, “It is thought that Russian scientists had deliberately fitted the probe with the standard television equipment, either to ensure that they would get the higher-quality pictures from Jodrell Bank without having the political embarrassment of asking for them, or to prevent the Soviet authorities from making political capital out of the achievement.”

(Thanks, Andrew.)

An Audio Ghost

When Alexander Graham Bell died in 1922, it was thought that no recordings of his voice had survived. But in 2013 the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History announced that it had a fragile wax-on-cardboard disc that Bell had made as an experiment in sound recording … and that now this could be played using optical scanning technology.

The disc is dated April 15, 1885. Bell spends most of the 4-minute recording reciting figures, but he concludes with the distinct words “Hear my voice: … Alexander … Graham … Bell.” Bell biographer Charlotte Gray wrote:

In that ringing declaration, I heard the clear diction of a man whose father, Alexander Melville Bell, had been a renowned elocution teacher (and perhaps the model for the imperious Prof. Henry Higgins, in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion; Shaw acknowledged Bell in his preface to the play).

I heard, too, the deliberate enunciation of a devoted husband whose deaf wife, Mabel, was dependent on lip reading. And true to his granddaughter’s word, the intonation of the British Isles was unmistakable in Bell’s speech. The voice is vigorous and forthright — as was the inventor, at last speaking to us across the years.

Amazingly, scientists resurrected the voice of Bell’s father too — a man who had been born in 1819.

First Contact

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On April 12, 1961, witnesses saw a spaceship enter Earth’s atmosphere and descend to the ground in a ploughed field in the Leninsky Put Collective Farm near the Soviet village of Smelovka. At a height of 7 kilometers, a spaceman left the ship and drifted to earth on a parachute. The spaceman later reported:

As I stepped on the firm soil, I saw a woman and a girl. They were standing beside a spotted calf and gazing at me with curiosity. I started walking towards them and they began walking towards me. But the nearer they got to me the slower their steps became. I was still wearing my flaming orange spacesuit and they were probably frightened by it. They had never seen anything like it before.

‘I’m a Russian, comrades. I’m a Russian,’ I shouted, taking off my helmet.

The woman was Anna Takhtarova, wife of the local forester, and the girl, Rita, was her granddaughter.

‘Have you really come from outer space?’ she asked a little uncertainly.

‘Just imagine, I certainly have,’ I replied.

He was Yuri Gagarin, and the site would soon receive a permanent monument marking the landing place of Vostok-1.

See To Whom It May Concern.