Waiting in Style


When the local council removed a bus shelter near the village of Baltasound, on the isle of Unst, Shetland, Scotland, in 1996, 7-year-old Bobby Macaulay wrote to the Shetland Times asking them to replace it — he and his friends had been meeting there to wait for their school bus.

When a new shelter appeared, an anonymous donor added a wicker table and a sofa, and a tradition was born. In time a television appeared, as well as a heater and a carpet. Eventually Bobby’s shelter was named the best shelter in Britain, and now it’s redecorated regularly according to chosen themes (2018 marked 100 years of women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom, for example).

It has its own website.



Memory feats of chess master Harry Nelson Pillsbury:

  • On April 28, 1900, he played 20 opponents blindfold (sitting alone in a room without board or pieces while the moves were announced to him), playing 600 moves in six and a half hours. Afterward he corrected several mistakes that his opponents had made in recording their moves. Two opponents had not kept a record at all, but Pillsbury gave the moves of those games “without any serious effort.”
  • In tour spanning 1900 and 1901, he gave about 150 simultaneous displays, many blindfold. In one 16-game blindfold exhibition in Buffalo, in which he won 84.4 percent of the games, he correctly announced mate in eight in one of the games.
  • In Toledo, Ohio, he simultaneously played 12 games of chess and four games of checkers without sight of any board, while at the same time playing duplicate whist with other people.
  • He was prepared to interrupt a blindfold display at any point, have a portion of a deck of cards read out to him, name all the remaining cards, and then resume play.
  • Before one blindfold display in Philadelphia he studied a list of 29 unfamiliar words and phrases; after the exhibition and again the next day he recited the list, first forward and then backward.
  • Two and a half hours into one 12-board blindfold display he suggested a rest for the players. During this time he invited them as a group to compose a numbered list of 30 words and to read them to him. He was then asked, in jumbled fashion, to give the number of a given word or the word of a given number. All his responses were correct. Afterward he recited the whole list backward and then resumed the blindfold display.

“Philadelphia master and organizer William Ruth told Dale Brandreth that he once sat with Pillsbury at a railroad crossing and wrote down the fairly long and different numbers on each of a large group of passing boxcars while Pillsbury attempted to memorize them. Ruth reported to Brandreth that Pillsbury’s memory for the numbers was incredibly accurate and in the correct order.”

(Eliot Hearst and John Knott, Blindfold Chess: History, Psychology, Techniques, Champions, World Records, and Important Games, 2009.)

The Longyou Caves

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In June 1992, farmers draining ponds in Longyou County, Quzhou prefecture, Zhejiang province, China, discovered that they weren’t ponds at all but drowned caverns, apparently created during the Ming Dynasty.

To date 36 such caves have been discovered in a region of 1 square kilometer. They’ve been compared to underground palaces, with rooms, halls, pillars, beds, bridges, and pavilions. But their age and function remain unclear because no historical document mentions them.

(Cheng Zhu et al., “Lichenometric Dating and the Nature of the Excavation of the Huashan Grottoes, East China,” Journal of Archaeological Science 40:5 [2013], 2485-2492.)



In 1776, draftsman Filippo Morghen produced a set of 10 etchings with a startling title: The Suite of the Most Notable Things Seen by Cavaliere Wild Scull, and by Signore de la Hire on Their Famous Voyage From the Earth to the Moon.

Philippe de La Hire was a real French astronomer; nothing is known of Scull, and in the second printing Morghen replaced him with natural philosopher Bishop John Wilkins as a putative source of his fantastic images.

As to life on the moon, it’s pretty wild — among other things, the lunar inhabitants live in pumpkins to protect themselves from wild beasts. You can see the whole series at Public Domain Review.



In his 1886 book The Present Age and Inner Life, “Poughkeepsie Seer” Andrew Jackson Davis gives a surprisingly concrete explanation of table-turning at a seance:

We are negative to our guardian spirits; they are positive to us; and the whole mystery is illustrated by the workings of the common magnetic telegraph. The principles involved are identical. The spirits (improperly so called) sustaining a positive relation to us, are enabled through mediums, as electric conductors, to attract and move articles of furniture, vibrate the wires of a musical instrument, and, by discharging, through the potencies of their wills, currents of magnetism, they can and do produce rappings, on principles strictly analogous to the magnetic telegraph, and may move tables or tip them, to signify certain letters of the alphabet.

In her 1972 study of the spiritualist movement, Georgess McHargue writes that Davis’ scientific passages are so packed with “gobbledegook as to put it in the class with the most imaginative vintage science fantasy.”

Back to Basics

When [Sir Richard Francis Burton] was in India he at one time got rather tired of the daily Mess, and living with men, and he thought he should like to learn the manners, customs, and habits of monkeys, so he collected forty monkeys of all kinds of ages, races, species, and he lived with them, and he used to call them by different offices. He had his doctor, his chaplain, his secretary, his aide-de-camp, his agent, and one tiny one, a very pretty, small, silky-looking monkey, he used to call his wife, and put pearls in her ears. His great amusement was to keep a kind of refectory for them, where they all sat down on chairs at meals, and the servants waited on them, and each had its bowl and plate, with the food and drinks proper for them. He sat at the head of the table, and the pretty little monkey sat by him in a high baby’s chair, with a little bar before it. He had a little whip on the table, with which he used to keep them in order when they had bad manners, which did sometimes occur, as they frequently used to get jealous of the little monkey, and try to claw her.

That’s from Isabel Burton’s Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton, 1898. In her own biography of Burton, A Rage to Live, Mary S. Lovell says that Burton learned to imitate the monkeys’ sounds and believed that they understood some of them. He compiled a list of 60 words, but it was lost an 1860 fire that destroyed nearly all his papers.

Looking Up

Two perplexing roofs, by Kokichi Sugihara of Japan’s Meiji Institute for Advanced Study of Mathematical Sciences.

I suppose these could be designed at scale!

A Stand of Seats

high wycombe chair arch

High Wycombe, a town of furniture makers, historically celebrated important visitors with arches of chairs. The most famous marked the arrival of Prince Edward in 1880; three years earlier a similar arch had arrested Queen Victoria on her way from Windsor Castle to Hughenden to visit Lord Beaconsfield.

“It was made up of chairs of all kinds, and bore the words, ‘Long Live the Queen,'” read the Annual Register. “Her Majesty’s attention was specially attracted by this curious structure, and the Royal carriage was stopped that its occupants might have a better view.”



New Zealand woodworker Henk Verhoeff makes whimsically broken furniture.

“It’s hard to say how long each piece takes me,” he says. “It’s unset times during the week, and it could easily be 80 to 100 hours.”

“I started creating them for the pure love of it, without the intention of selling them. But when I run out of space, there will be an eBay auction or two. Everything is for sale … except for my wife.”

His daughter posts photos on Facebook.