# Unsinkable

Ordered to blockade Martinique in 1803, Commodore Sir Samuel Hood covered an island with guns and declared it a sloop-of-war. Perched 175 meters above the sea, the guns denied all entrance to Fort-de-France, the island’s main port, for 17 months.

The British Royal Navy still regards “HMS Diamond Rock” as being in commission — when passing the island, personnel on Royal Navy ships stand at attention and salute the rock.

Since that time, a naval establishment on land has been referred to as a “stone frigate.”

# Giving Pause

Can time exist without change? Aristotle thought not, and David Hume claimed that “’tis impossible to conceive … a time when there was no succession or change in any real existence.” But in 1969 Cornell philosopher Sydney Shoemaker offered a thought experiment that purports to show otherwise.

Consider a universe that consists of three regions, A, B, and C. Periodically a region might experience a “local freeze” in which all processes come to a halt. The inhabitants of a frozen region do not observe the passing of time but resume their awareness at the end of the freeze.

With experience, the inhabitants determine that each freeze lasts exactly one year and that the freezes occur at regular intervals: Region A freezes every third year, Region B every fourth year, and Region C every fifth year. This suggests that all three regions freeze every 60th year.

Shoemaker wrote, “If all of this happened, I submit, the inhabitants of this world would have grounds for believing that there are intervals during which no changes occur anywhere.” It’s true that none of the inhabitants would be able to verify this directly, but given the regularity they observe in the local freezes, the reality of the total freeze seems to be the simplest hypothesis.

Whatever we think of this argument, the example does run into one sticking point: It’s hard to see how a total freeze could end. If nothing in the universe is changing, it seems, then there can be no causes.

(Sydney Shoemaker, “Time Without Change,” Journal of Philosophy 66:12 [June 19, 1969], 363-381.)

# Early Warning

Central Hudson Rail Road train No. 9 was roaring from Buffalo to Lockport, New York, with about 200 passengers when lightning prevented a train wreck in 1894. It was a dark rainy night and Engineer Schaffer squinted to see past the limited beam from his locomotive’s headlight. He could only see about 50 yards ahead. Suddenly a flash of lightning, followed by a loud clap of thunder, lit up the track a half mile ahead. Schaffer saw a sight that made him grab the reverse lever and call to the fireman to put on the brakes. The wheels screeched and the train came to a halt with the cowcatcher just one foot from the caboose of a stalled freight train. Railroad men claimed that the flash of lightning was all that saved the lives of the passengers.

— Peter Viemeister, The Lightning Book, 1961

# Hare Mail

This drawing appeared in L’Illustration in May 1845 — it’s a “caniposte” railway that allegedly was used to carry express mail in Belgium. Two dogs are harnessed to a small wagon that runs on a narrow-gauge railway. They chase a stuffed hare, or, in “improved models,” a piece of raw meat.

Was this ever really used? “Despite evidence of the drawing, one has doubts!” writes J.R. Day in More Unusual Railways (1960). “Nevertheless the author has seen a large dog drawing a small cart in the streets of Salzburg, so perhaps it is not so unlikely after all.”

02/18/2016 UPDATE: A reader in Bruges tracked down the original story and offers some details:

Two ‘eccentric’ Brits apparently found associates for the construction of such a railway, meant for the transport of fresh fish from the seaport of Blankenberge to Bruges (some 12 km or 7.5 miles). The standard configuration would have been 4 hungry dogs, 2 barrels of fish and one piece of meat hung out in front; a different one (depicted) would consist of 2 hungry dogs, express mail and a motorized (‘dead or stuffed’) hare.

The railway was proposed but never actually built. ‘Some will consider it barbaric, other deem it impossible, and everyone will find it ridiculous; but people wil get used to it, and very soon one will wonder how we never thought of it any earlier.’

(Thanks, Karl.)

# Electrical Fault

In 1969, California attorney Russell Tansie sued God for \$100,000 on behalf of his legal secretary, who blamed Him for destroying her Phoenix home with a bolt of lightning in 1960:

Plaintiff is informed and believes that defendant (God) at all times mentioned herein is responsible for the maintenance and operation of the Universe, including the weather in and upon the State of Arizona, and that on or about August 17, 1960, defendant so maintained and controlled the weather, in, around and upon Phoenix, in such careless and negligent manner as to cause lightning to strike the plaintiff’s house, setting it on fire and startling, frightening and shocking the plaintiff.

Tansie added that God “did this with full knowledge and that the act was committed with malice and ill will.” He hoped to win a default judgment when the defendant failed to appear in court. I don’t know the outcome; maybe they reached a settlement.

# Lucky Fourteen

When a party of 13 dines at London’s Savoy Hotel, the management wards off bad luck by setting a place for Kaspar, a two-foot-tall statue of a black cat.

According to legend, when diamond magnate Woolf Joel held a dinner party for 14 guests at the hotel in 1898, one guest dropped out, and another predicted that the first person to leave the table would die. Joel left first and was shot dead a few weeks later.

To allay any further trouble, architect Basil Ionides sculpted Kaspar in 1927. When he joins a dining party, the cat has a napkin tied around his neck and is served like a regular diner, with a full place setting, champagne and wine.

Winston Churchill so admired Kaspar that he called for his attendance at every meeting of the Other Club, the political dining society that he founded with F.E. Smith. Kaspar has attended every fortnightly meeting for the last 88 years. Presumably he has a tell-all memoir in the works.

The Museum of English Rural Life got a surprise on Wednesday — a 155-year-old mousetrap there managed to catch a mouse:

So, this retired rodent had managed to sneak past University of Reading security, exterior doors and Museum staff, and clambered its way up into our Store. Upon finding itself there it would have found the promised land; a mouse paradise laid before it full of straw, wood and textiles. Then, out of thousands of objects, it chose for its home the very thing designed to kill it some 150 years ago: a mouse trap.

The trap was patented in 1861; it bills itself as a “perpetual mouse trap” that “will last a lifetime.” More at the museum’s blog.

(Thanks, Djerrid.)

# Point of Interest

The Austrian village of Jungholz is connected to the rest of the country by a single point, the summit of the mountain Sorgschrofen. The summit marks a “quadripoint,” a point that touches four distinct territories — here, Austria to the north and south and Germany to the east and west.

This raises some philosophical questions. Suppose a stubborn, infinitely skinny Austrian leaves Schattwald (in the south) to visit Jungholz at the same moment that an equally stubborn, infinitely skinny German leaves Bad Hindelang (in the west) to visit his grandmother in Pfronten (in the east). What happens? They can’t sidle past one another; the countries meet at a single, indivisible point. If neither will stand aside while the other passes, then the only solution I can see is for one to hop briefly onto the other’s shoulders.

Now suppose a border guard accosts them at this moment. The two occupy the same point on the Earth’s surface, yet one claims to be in Austria while the other is in Germany. Are they both right? And suppose that the lower man is killed by being jumped upon (he is very attenuated, after all). Which jurisdiction has authority over the crime scene? Who should judge the crime?

Further confusing borders: the Belgian town of Baarle-Hertog and, until recently, Cooch Behar in the Indian state of West Bengal.

(Thanks, Dan.)

# A Pitched Battle

In The Book of the Harp (2005), John Marson mentions a musical oddity — in 1932, a committee devoted to equal temperament was so incensed at the Royal Schools of Music that it hauled them before London’s Central Criminal Court for obtaining money under false pretenses. From The Music Lover magazine, April 30, 1932:

There is a touch of knight errantry about the action of Lennox Atkins F.R.C.O., hon. sec. of the Equal Temperament Committee, in applying at Bow Street for process against the Associated Board of Examiners in Music on the grounds that they were not qualified to know whether the music was being played in tune or not, and that therefore their diplomas were valueless. It certainly savours of the ‘ingenious gentleman’ of La Mancha who tilted at windmills. The temperament question seems to have upon those who take it up an effect similar to that which temperament produces in a prima donna. They become, to say the least, unreasonable. Happily Mr Fry, the magistrate, decided that this was not a matter for a criminal court, so that Sir John B. McEwan and Sir Hugh Allen are not to be shot at dawn, as was at first feared.

McEwan headed the Royal Academy of Music and Allen the Royal College of Music at the time. I find a bit more in the Musical Times, June 1, 1932:

Candidates were allowed to pass off the tuner’s scale as their own, and to obtain certificates to which, the E.T.C. claimed, they were not in equity entitled. Every sound produced was the tuner’s and not the candidate’s. Famous examiners, such as the late Sir Frederick Bridge, had wrongly passed thousands of candidates in keyed instrument examinations. From the point of view of the E.T.C., the candidates were not really examined at all.

The magistrate added that if it was thought that the examiners’ knowledge was insufficient then civil proceedings might be undertaken.

“We have only once before heard of the Equal Temperament Committee — a long while ago — and we were, and are still, vague as to its aims,” noted the Musical Times. “We had imagined it to be a learned Society that met from time to time to exchange light and airy chat about ratios, partials, mesotonics, and other temperamental details. But it seems that it is a body with a Mission, though we are not clear what that Mission is. Judging from the Bow Street evidence, the Committee’s aim is to make ‘Every Musician His Own Tuner’ — which seems rather rough on real tuners.”

# Starting Early

Shortly after Pearl Harbor, a 12-year-old boy walked into an Arizona recruiting office and said, “I want to join the Army and shoot some Japs. Sure, I’m 17 years old. You enlist men 17 years old, don’t you? I don’t need my mother’s consent … I’m a midget.”

He didn’t get in, but other boys did. In 1942 the Marines issued an honorable discharge to William Holle of Eau Claire, Wis., who had enlisted the previous year at age 12. And 13-year-old Jackie MacInnes of Medford, Mass., took his older brother’s birth certificate to a Boston enlistment office, forged his parents’ signatures on the consent papers, and reported for duty at Newport, R.I. “Everything was going fine,” ran one news report, “until he wrote a letter home.” His parents came to pick him up.

At least one underage enlistee escaped detection — in 1988 Ronald Reagan signed a special bill granting disability benefits to Calvin L. Graham, above, a Marine veteran injured at Guadalcanal. The Navy had denied them because he’d lied about his age when enlisting. He was 12.

(From William M. Tuttle Jr., “Daddy’s Gone to War,” 1993.)