Applied Math

Three men went into a diner, and each ordered a cup of coffee. The waitress brought the three cups of coffee and a dish with twelve lumps of sugar. Each man took an odd number of lumps of sugar, and when they had finished, there was no sugar left. How many lumps did each man take?

It requires only a few moments to recognize that the sum of three odd numbers must be odd itself. So there must be a trick somewhere, and there is.

The first man took one lump, the second man took one lump, and the third man took ten lumps. “Aha!” you will cry, “ten is not an odd number!” And then, we slyly inquire, “Do you know anyone who takes ten lumps of sugar in his coffee?”

— M.H. Greenblatt, Mathematical Entertainments, 1965

“A Good Bargain”

A story is told of Sheridan, himself an Irishman, that one day, when coming back from shooting with an empty bag, he did not like to go home completely empty, and seeing a number of ducks in a pond, and a man or farmer leaning on a rail watching them, Sheridan said, ‘What will you take for a shot at the ducks?’

‘Well,’ he said, ‘I will take half a sovereign.’

‘Done!’ said Sheridan, and he fired into middle of the flock, killing a dozen. ‘I am afraid you made a bad bargain!’

‘I don’t know,’ said the man: ‘they weren’t mine.’

Tit-Bits From All the Most Interesting Books, Periodicals and Newspapers in the World, Oct. 29, 1881

Next Stop

A woman proceeding by the elevated railroad, by the side of the Niagara Falls, asked the engine-driver, ‘If the rope broke, where she would go to?’ The driver told her that ‘If one broke they would have the other one to hold them.’ The woman then said, ‘Well, driver, if that broke, where should I go to?’ ‘Well,’ said the driver, ‘it just depends upon what sort of a life you have led.’

Tit-Bits From All the Most Interesting Books, Periodicals and Newspapers in the World, Dec. 3, 1881


A biologist, a statistician, and a mathematician are sitting at a cafe. Across the street, a man and a woman enter a building; ten minutes later, they emerge with a child.

“They’ve reproduced,” says the biologist.

“No,” says the statistician. “It’s an observational error. On average, 2.5 people went each way.”

“You’re both wrong,” says the mathematician. “The conclusion is obvious. If someone goes in now, the building will be empty.”

Market Play

Barnum used to bring consternation into the hearts of his grocers by complaining that their pepper was half peas. When they protested, he would quietly ask, ‘How do you spell pepper?’ and the catch stood revealed.

— William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892

“A Satisfactory Explanation”

One of the curiosities some time since shown at a public exhibition, professed to be a skull of Oliver Cromwell. A gentleman present observed that it could not be Cromwell’s, as he had a very large head, and this was a small skull. ‘Oh, I know all that,’ said the exhibitor, undisturbed, ‘but, you see, this was his skull when he was a boy.’

— Ainsworth Rand Spofford et al., The Library of Wit and Humor, Prose and Poetry, 1894

“A Most Determined Suicide”

A gentleman passing through the United States, on the Union and Pacific Railroad, was one morning telling the guard about a relative of his lately committing suicide. ‘Very sad, indeed,’ replied the guard, ‘but the most determined attempt at suicide happened the other day down Sacramento (California) way. A young man went down to the beach when the tide was out, with a long pole, sharpened at one end, and a hook in the other; he had also a rope with a noose in it, a phial of poison, a pistol, and a box of matches. He drove the pole into the sand, and climbed up it until the tide had risen high enough to drown him, when he swallowed the poison, set his trousers on fire, put the noose round his neck, and then fired his pistol. The bullet, instead of entering his forehead, grazed the top of his head and went through the rope; the rope, being weakened, snapped, and dropped the unfortunate man into the sea, which, of course, put the fire out, and swallowing some sea water made him vomit the poison, and in two or three minutes he was washed ashore alive, and only suffering slightly from the effects of his immersion.’

Tit-Bits From All the Most Interesting Books, Periodicals and Newspapers in the World, Dec. 3, 1881

The Pastor’s Reward

Chambers’s Journal (1872) reports the result of an unfortunate printer’s error in which two columns of type in a local newspaper were mixed together:

Several of the Rev. Dr Mudge’s friends called upon him yesterday, and after a brief conversation, the unsuspicious pig was seized by the hind-legs and slid along a beam until he reached the hot-water tank. His friends explained the object of their visit, and presented him with a very handsome gold-headed butcher, who grabbed him by the tail, swung him round, slit his throat from ear to ear, and in less than a minute, the carcass was in the water. Thereupon, he came forward, and said that there were times when the feelings overpowered one, and for that reason he would not attempt to do more than thank those around him for the manner in which such a huge animal was cut into fragments was simply astonishing. The doctor concluded his remarks, when the machine seized him, and in less time than it takes to write it, the pig was cut into fragments, and worked up into delicious sausages. The occasion will long be remembered by the doctor’s friends as one of the most delightful of their lives. The best pieces can be procured for tenpence a pound; and we are sure that those who have sat so long under his ministry will rejoice that he has been treated so handsomely!

“We cannot vouch for the genuineness of the foregoing; but whether it be genuine or manufactured, it would be difficult to find a more complete specimen of a typographical mixture.”


There was many years ago a Lazy Man’s Society organised in Manchester. One of the articles required that no man belonging to it should ever be in a hurry. Should he violate this article he must stand treat to the other members. Now, it happened once on a time that a doctor was driving post-haste through the streets to visit a patient. The members of the society saw him and chuckled over the idea of a treat, and on his return reminded him of his fast driving and violation of the rules. ‘Not at all,’ said the doctor. ‘The truth is, my horse was determined to go, and I felt too lazy to stop him.’ They did not catch him that time.

Tit-Bits From All the Most Interesting Books, Periodicals, and Newspapers in the World, Oct. 22, 1881