In 1778, shortly after Benjamin Franklin introduced the lightning rod, Paris saw a fad for umbrellas and hats that made use of the new technology. A chain ran from the accessory down to the ground and would (in principle) carry the electricity from a lightning strike harmlessly into the ground.
I can’t find any record that such a strike ever happened. Lightning rods didn’t become popular in the United States, even to protect structures, until the 19th century.
In 1907, two boys in Alameda, Calif., used homemade wireless sets to intercept messages sent from Navy ships to “boudoirs ashore”:
Miss Brown, Oakland — Can’t meet you to-night. No shore leave. Be good in the meantime.
Mrs. Blank, Alameda — Will see you sure to-morrow night. Didn’t like to take too many chances yesterday. We must be discreet.
[from an officer to a woman on Mare Island:] Honestly, could not show last night. Am arranging so I can see you oftener. Will take you to dinner Wednesday afternoon.
A married woman on Mare Island wrote to another woman’s husband, an officer, “All lovely. I’m sure you are mistaken. Call again. Your P.L.”
“Debutantes, it appears, use the wireless system of the navy to relieve their irksome task of correspondence, for there are many fond messages in the book from evidently ingenuous girls to midshipmen and other young officers,” reported the San Francisco Examiner. “At least a third of the messages belong to the class that can not be regarded in any light but confidential without inverting all accepted canons of discretion.”
In 1868, Scottish sailor Jack Renton found himself the captive of a native people in the Solomon Islands, but through luck and skill he rose to become a respected warrior among them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Renton’s life among the saltwater people and his return to the Western world.
We’ll also catch some more speeders and puzzle over a regrettable book.
The judges ruled it “beyond the expressed purpose of the competition” but noted that “it is quite possible that in the future some of the features considered objectionable today will prove entirely practical.”
Confined in a Soviet prison camp in 1941, Polish painter Józef Czapski chose a unique way to cope: He lectured to the other prisoners on Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Czapski’s ambitious project and the surprising importance of literature to the prisoners of oppressive regimes.
We’ll also race some lemons and puzzle over a woman’s birthdays.
Rev. A. B. Fuller, of Boston, very energetically opposed the idea that a teacher should not aid a pupil. Otherwise they might as well not have a teacher. The first assistance should be to inspire an interest in the study pursued, so that it shall be loved. He thought some subjects, as presented by teachers and authors, were so dry that no one could be interested in them, and no one scarcely could have patience to go through with the text-books used. He referred to a book which was studied while he was at Cambridge as an illustration. On its fly leaf some student had written —
If there should be another flood,
To this book for refuge fly;
For if all else should be o’erwhelmed,
This book would still be dry.
In the late 1950s the U.S. government built a bunker under the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., to “permit the continuation of the American form of constitutional government in the event of nuclear war.” The underground facility could house 535 members of Congress and 565 staff members, with separate chambers for the House and Senate and a hall large enough to hold joint sessions.
No one involved in the construction was told what they were building, but it was clear enough. Randy Wickline, who hauled 50,000 tons of concrete to the site, saw walls two feet thick and a concrete roof buried under 20 feet of soil. “Nobody came out and said it was a bomb shelter,” he told Washington Post reporter Ted Gup, “but you could pretty well look and see the way they was setting it up there that they wasn’t building it to keep the rain off of them.” (Another contractor, who’d been asked to build an “exhibit hall,” said, “We’ve got 110 urinals we just installed. What in the hell are you going to exhibit?”)
In the end members of Congress themselves expressed reservations. House Speaker “Tip” O’Neill said, “Jesus, you don’t think I’m going to run away and leave my wife? That’s the craziest thing I ever heard of.” Shortly after Gup’s story appeared in 1992, the facility was closed.
(From Kenneth D. Rose, One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture, 2001.)
In 1968, Richard Proenneke left his career as a heavy equipment operator and took up an entirely new existence. He flew to a remote Alaskan lake, built a log cabin by hand, and began a life of quiet self-reliance. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll hear Proenneke’s reflections on a simple life lived in harmony with nature.
We’ll also put a rooster on trial and puzzle over a curious purchase.
The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human. A landscape may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant and ugly; it will never be laughable. You may laugh at an animal, but only because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression. You may laugh at a hat, but what you are making fun of, in this case, is not the piece of felt or straw, but the shape that men have given it,– the human caprice whose mould it has assumed. It is strange that so important a fact, and such a simple one too, has not attracted to a greater degree the attention of philosophers. Several have defined man as ‘an animal which laughs.’ They might equally well have defined him as an animal which is laughed at; for if any other animal, or some lifeless object, produces the same effect, it is always because of some resemblance to man, of the stamp he gives it or the use he puts it to.