Signing Off

When CNN was launched in 1980, founder Ted Turner said, “Barring satellite problems, we won’t be signing off until the world ends. We’ll be on, and we will cover it live, and that will be our last, last event. We’ll play the National Anthem only one time, on the first of June [1980], and when the end of the world comes, we’ll play ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ before we sign off.”

He wasn’t joking — Turner had ordered the creation of a video of the Christian hymn performed by members of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine bands. It was held in the network’s archives, marked HFR [Hold For Release] till end of the world confirmed. Michael Ballaban, who’d been an intern at the network’s launch, released the recording above in 2015.

Ballaban wrote, “That leaves open a whole host of unanswered questions. If this is the last CNN employee alive, in the last CNN bureau on Earth, who do they confirm it with? What does confirmation look like? Who can be the one to make that determination, to pronounce the universe itself dead? … And who would be around to watch it? We don’t know.”

A Rare Eagle

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The United States minted nearly half a million copies of this 20-dollar gold coin in 1933, but when gold coins were disallowed as legal tender most of them were melted down. The mint saved two for the U.S. National Numismatic Collection, and 20 more were stolen. Of these, nine have now been destroyed, and 10 are held at Fort Knox. That means that a total of 13 specimens of the 1933 double eagle are known to exist, with only one in private hands. Shoe designer Stuart Weitzman, who had paid $7.6 million for that one in 2002, auctioned it last month to an anonymous collector for $18.9 million. That coin is unique: No other 1933 double eagle can be privately owned or legally sold.

Wandering Minds

Here’s a macabre fad from Victorian Britain: headless portraits, in which sitters held their severed heads in their hands, on platters, or by the hair, occasionally even displaying the weapons by which they’d freed them.

Photographer Samuel Kay Balbirnie ran advertisements in the Brighton Daily News offering “HEADLESS PHOTOGRAPHS – Ladies and Gentlemen Taken Showing Their Heads Floating in the Air or in Their Laps.”

Repeater

British inventor William Cantelo had just developed an early machine gun when he disappeared from his Southampton home in the 1880s. A private investigator traced him to the United States but could learn nothing more of his whereabouts.

Shortly afterward, Cantelo’s sons came across a photograph of Hiram Maxim, an American inventor who’d moved to London and completed a similar-sounding machine gun of his own. The sons, struck at the similarity of the photographs, tried to accost Maxim at London’s Waterloo Station, but he departed on a train.

The similarity of the photographs may have been a coincidence — the two men were the same age, and both wore large Victorian beards. Maxim had complained in his autobiography of a “double” who had been impersonating him in the United States, but Maxim had a long history of successful patents, the first in 1866, long before Cantelo’s disappearance.

On the other hand, the disappearance has never been explained. Maxim eventually sold his gun to the British government. He died in 1916.

Mr. Lucky

In 1962, Croatian music teacher Frane Selak was riding from Sarajevo to Dubrovnik when his train jumped the rails and plunged into a river. Seventeen people died, but he escaped with hypothermia.

A year later a plane door malfunctioned and he was blown into midair. The plane crashed and he landed in a haystack.

Three years after that he was riding a bus that skidded into a river; he swam to safety. (“By this time my friends had stopped visiting me,” he said.)

In 1970 his car caught fire as he was driving it. He escaped before the fuel tank exploded.

Three years after that, another car caught fire; his hair was singed but he was otherwise unharmed.

In 1995 he was knocked down by a Zagreb bus but sustained only minor injuries.

The following year he nearly collided with a United Nations truck; he crashed through a mountain guardrail but managed to leap clear of the car.

In 2003, two days after his 73rd birthday, he won a lottery jackpot worth a million dollars. He married and bought two houses and a boat, and in 2010 gave away most of the rest to friends and family.

Podcast Episode 350: Symmes’ Hole

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In 1818, Army veteran John Cleves Symmes Jr. declared that the earth was hollow and proposed to lead an expedition to its interior. He promoted the theory in lectures and even won support on Capitol Hill. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Symmes’ strange project and its surprising consequences.

We’ll also revisit age fraud in sports and puzzle over a curious customer.

See full show notes …

So Ordered

From the minutes of the city council of Deer Park, Texas, Aug. 31, 1965:

After some discussion, it was moved by Councilman Black and seconded by Councilman Young that we publish our intentions of annexation of the Planet Venus as required by law. The motion passed 7 to 0.

In July, when the Oklahoma Science and Arts Foundation had sought funds to pay for a scale model of the moon, the Oklahoma City council had annexed all 9 billion acres of Earth’s satellite and Mayor George Shirk had turned them over to the foundation.

Inspired, Lee Bishop, president of the Deer Park Chamber of Commerce, had convinced his local council to annex Venus so that they could sell lots as a fundraiser. The scheme helped the city produce a promotional film; Bishop said, “People have heard of Deer Park who probably never would have. The publicity, even though it was in jest, helped.”

When the U.S.S.R. sent a probe to Venus in 1967 without asking Deer Park’s permission, Bishop considered lodging a protest with the Soviet embassy. He decided against it to preserve international relations.

(From Virgiliu Pop, Who Owns the Moon?: Extraterrestrial Aspects of Land and Mineral Resources Ownership, 2008.)

Uncombable Hair Syndrome

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

This rare condition, also known as “spun-glass hair” and cheveux incoiffables, normally arises between the ages of 3 months and 12 years. It’s well named — patients develop dry, wiry, frizzy hair that’s impossible to comb. The cause is genetic, and the symptoms tend to resolve by adolescence.

The condition is also known as Struwwelpeter syndrome, after the 19th-century German children’s book Der Struwwelpeter, whose title character is “Shock-Headed Peter.”