Efficiency

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fiat_Lingotto_veduta-1928.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1920s, Fiat’s car factory in Turin, Italy, contained a spiral roadway — raw materials went in at ground level, and the cars ascended as they were assembled. At the top they emerged onto a test track on the roof.

Lauded at the time, the factory was eventually outmoded and has since been remodeled into a hotel and shopping mall, but the test track remains and is open to visitors.

Contact at a Distance

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Australian_Imperial_Force_on_the_Western_Front,_1916-1918._Q579.jpg

During daylight hours on the Western Front, soldiers in World War I regularly inspected the no-man’s-land that lay between the trenches. To do this they used either telescopes slid between the sandbag defenses or periscopes, which could be raised above the parapet to give a view of the field via a pair of reflecting mirrors. Normally there was nothing to see, but Brigadier Philip Mortimer of the 3rd Meerut Divisional Train had a start one day while peering through a telescope:

I actually saw as clear as daylight, the reflection in the top mirror of his periscope, a German officer’s head as he searched our trenches through his periscope, a most uncanny sight — the grey peaked cap and face as he looked down into the bottom mirror could be clearly seen.

“It was decided to ‘strafe’ the periscope with a Maxim which after being trained on it carefully was let off to the tune of about 15 rounds. The periscope immediately disappeared.”

(From Richard van Emden, Meeting the Enemy, 2013.)

Proof

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%D0%91%D1%80%D1%8E%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B5%D1%80%D0%B0_%D0%B1%D1%80%D0%BE%D0%BD%D1%8F.png

When inventor Guy Otis Brewster offered his Brewster Body Shield to the soldiers of World War I, he demonstrated its efficacy by standing before a Lewis machine gun firing bullets at full velocity, about 2,700 feet per second.

All that energy heated the breastplate, but Brewster said he felt “only about one tenth the shock which he experienced when struck by a sledge-hammer.”

Unfortunately the armor weighed 40 pounds, which made it cumbersome in the field.

(Bashford Dean, Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare, 1920.)

The Fence Telephone

https://reference.insulators.info/publications/view/?id=5740

At the turn of the 20th century, rural cooperative associations found a way to install telephone networks without erecting poles: They simply connected their wires to the existing pasture fences.

“Fifteen or twenty farmers in Clay Township, Cass County, are enjoying the privileges of first-class telephone service without the annoyance of a monthly collector thrusting a bill for rental under their noses,” reported the Washington Post in 1903. “Their homes are connected by a system of wires, and the novelty of the plan lies in the fact that the barbed wire fences are utilized as a conveyor of neighborhood gossip. Just who conceived the idea that these strands of wire that for years had served only one purpose could be made to do a double duty is not known.”

Maude Smith Galloway and her husband arrived in Texas in 1906. “We talked to a few close neighbors over a telephone hooked to a barbed wire fence when we came to Llano,” she said, “and now we have the dial system and can talk to any of the rural districts in the country.”

Historian David B. Sicilia wrote, “Barbed wire unwittingly became part of the nation’s budding telephone network. What kept crops and animals apart helped bring people together.”

(Alan Krell, The Devil’s Rope, 2002.)

Windtowers

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Malqaf.svg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Marco Polo noticed an interesting feature in the architecture of Hormuz: “The heat is tremendous, and on that account their houses are built with ventilators to catch the wind. These ventilators are placed on the side from which the wind comes, and they bring the wind down into the house to cool it. But for this the heat would be utterly unbearable.” This technique has been used for thousands of years, originally in ancient Iran and now throughout West Asia: By catching the prevailing wind and directing it through the interior of a house, the residents can greatly increase air circulation while avoiding the sun’s heat.

In 2005 tests using a wind tunnel, Vipac Engineering confirmed that windtowers are effective in reducing the impact of summer climate — and their passivity makes them valuable for energy conservation.

(Anne Coles and Peter Jackson, Windtower, 2007.)

Turning Back Time

https://archive.org/details/popularsciencemo88newyuoft

A watch for left-handed people has been invented by a Kalamazoo jeweler, who believes that the left-handed look at things in a ‘left-handed’ fashion. The left-handed watch runs backward. The dial is arranged so that the numeral 1 is on the left hand of 12 instead of on the right as in the case of the ordinary watch. The hands also run from right to left instead of in the usual fashion. Mechanically, with the exceptions given, the left-handed watch differs very slightly from the ordinary time-piece.

The inventor constructed the unusual watch for the benefit of his daughter, who is left-handed.

Popular Science Monthly, January 1916

With All Speed

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Talbot_-_The_Footman.jpg

The earliest photograph of a human figure on paper is “The Footman” by William Henry Fox Talbot, from 1840. Footmen came in several varieties; an early breed that quickly went extinct was the running footman, who would advance as a herald before his master’s carriage and also deliver urgent dispatches. In What the Butler Saw, E.S. Turner gives some amazing examples:

  • As the table was being laid for dinner in his castle at Thirlstane, the Duke of Lauderdale was informed that there was a shortage of plate, so he sent a running footman over the Lammermuir Hills to his other castle at Lethington, near Haddington, 15 miles away. The man returned with the additional plate in time for dinner.
  • In his Recollections of 1826, the writer John O’Keeffe remembers a running footman he saw in his youth in Ireland: “He looked so agile, and seemed all air like a Mercury; he never minded roads but took the short cut and, by the help of his pole, absolutely seemed to fly over hedge, ditch and small river. His use was to carry a message, letter or dispatch; or on a journey to run before and prepare the inn, or baiting-place, for his family or master who came the regular road in coach-and-two, or coach-and-four or coach-and-six; his qualifications were fidelity, strength and agility.”
  • One evening the Earl of Home sent a running footman from his Berwickshire castle to Edinburgh on important business. On going downstairs the following morning he found the man asleep in the hall. He was about to chastise him when the man told him he’d already been there and back, a distance of 35 miles each way. (If we allow 12 hours for this that’s 6 mph, allowing for a few breaks to eat and rest. That seems accurate — Turner says that a footman running before his master’s coach “was prepared to cover sixty miles and more in a day, at an average of six to seven miles an hour.”)

“In London the fourth Duke of Queensberry (‘Old Q’) continued to employ running footmen until his death in 1810. He would try out applicants in Piccadilly, lending them his livery for the occasion, and then stand watch in hand on his balcony to time their performance. There is a story that he said to one candidate: ‘You will do very well for me.’ The reply was, ‘And your livery will do very well for me,’ with which the runner bolted.”

Easy Does It

https://patents.google.com/patent/US1011683

Inventor J.F. Webb proposed this curious safety device in 1910: If your flying machine fails, you release a domelike “air anchor,” which pulls open three parachutes beneath it. These will “sustain the machine sufficiently to break its fall, thereby permitting the machine to descend at a safe speed.”

In The Big Umbrella, his 1973 history of the parachute, John Lucas writes, “Whether Webb’s device worked or not is unknown, but eighteen years later a single parachute 84 feet in diameter and strong enough to support a loaded plane was developed by the U.S. Air Corps.”

Podcast Episode 364: Sidney Cotton’s Aerial Reconnaissance

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lockheed_12A_G-AGTL_Ringway_14.04.58_edited-2.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

One of the most remarkable pilots of World War II never fired a shot or dropped a bomb. With his pioneering aerial reconnaissance, Sidney Cotton made a vital contribution to Allied planning. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe his daring adventures in the war’s early months.

We’ll also revisit our very first story and puzzle over an unknown Olympian.

See full show notes …