The Billups Neon Crossing Signal

After numerous accidents where the Illinois Central Railroad crossed Highway 7 near Grenada, Mississippi, in the 1930s, inventor Alonzo Billups came up with a one-of-a-kind solution. When a train approached the crossing, motorists were confronted with a lighted skull and crossbones, the glowing words “Stop-DEATH-Stop,” flashing neon arrows indicating the train’s direction, and an air raid siren.

The video here is a simulation; the actual gantry was removed due to a scarcity of neon in the war years. But two photographs survive.

Away From It All
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 2009, in the little Swiss town of Teufen, conceptual artists Frank and Patrik Riklin converted a 1980s-era nuclear fallout shelter to the “Null Stern Hotel,” an underground facility that accommodates 14 guests in a concrete bunker fitted with blast doors nearly two feet thick.

“We kept the internal structure of the shelter intact — the concrete and the ductwork — and then we added the warmth of antique beds and furniture,” Patrik told the Guardian. “For us it’s an art installation before it’s a hotel — a place where people can think about their surroundings.” There are no windows, only a CCTV camera displaying the outside world, and they retained the institutional paint scheme of pastel blue and yellow.

The site was nominated for best innovation of the year in the 2009 Worldwide Hospitality Awards, and GEO magazine ranked it among the Top 100 hotels in Europe the following year. In 2010 the proprietors were seeking to expand the franchise, but to date no hotel has opened beyond Teufen.


I send you a photo of myself for ‘Curiosities’ studying Virgil in a peculiar position. It was taken by my brother in the country a few weeks ago. It was not a snap-shot, but a time exposure.

— Charles E. Williams of Rock Ferry, Cheshire, in Strand, September 1905

Slow Burn

Australia’s Mount Wingen has been burning for 6,000 years. A lightning strike or brush fire ignited a coal seam there around 4000 B.C., and it’s been smoldering ever since.

“Smoldering fires, the slow, low-temperature, flameless form of combustion, are an important phenomena in the Earth system, and the most persistent type of combustion,” University of Edinburgh fire scientist Guillermo Rein told the New York Times. “The most important fuels involved in smoldering fires are coal and peat. Once ignited, these fires are particularly difficult to extinguish despite extensive rains, weather changes or firefighting attempts, and can persist for long periods of time (months, years), spreading deep (5 meters) and over extensive areas of forest subsurface. Indeed, smoldering fires are the longest continuously burning fires on Earth.”

The Mount Wingen fire holds the Guinness record for the longest-burning fire in the world.

Podcast Episode 354: Falling Through a Thunderstorm

In 1959, Marine pilot William Rankin parachuted from a malfunctioning jet into a violent thunderstorm. The ordeal that followed is almost unique in human experience. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Rankin’s harrowing adventure, which has been called “the most prolonged and fantastic parachute descent in history.”

We’ll also hear your thoughts on pronunciation and puzzle over mice and rice.

See full show notes …

The Queens Giant
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The oldest living thing in the New York metropolitan area is this 40-meter tulip poplar in Alley Pond Park in Queens.

With an estimated age of 350 to 450 years, it may already have been growing when Henry Hudson sailed into New York Bay in 1609.

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$20-Saint_Gaudens.jpg

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.