The Susquehanna Ice Bridge

susquehanna ice bridge

In the 1850s, railroad passengers traveling from Baltimore to Philadelphia would debark at the Susquehanna River, cross the river on a ferryboat, and board a train waiting on the other side. In the severe winter of 1852, so much floating ice had piled up at this point that the ferry couldn’t be used, so railroad engineer Isaac R. Trimble came up with a novel solution: He built a railway across the ice for the baggage and freight cars, and a sledge road beside it along which horses could draw his passengers. The cars had to descend 10 to 15 feet from the bank to the surface of the ice, and at the other side they were tied to a locomotive and pulled up. The “ice bridge” opened on Jan. 15 and was accounted a great success. The Franklin Journal reported, “Forty freight cars per day, laden with valuable merchandise, have been worked over this novel tract by the means above referred to, and were propelled across the ice portion by two-horse sleds running upon the sledge road, and drawing the cars by a lateral towing line, of the size of a man’s finger.”

“At the present writing, this novel and effectual means of maintaining the communication at Havre de Grace is still in successful operation, and will so continue until the ice in the river is about to break up. Then, by means of the sledges, the rails (the only valuable part of the track), can be rapidly moved off by horse power, not probably requiring more than a few hours’ time, so that the communication may be maintained successfully until the last moment. If properly timed, as it doubtless will be, the railroad may be removed, the ice may run out, and the ferry be resumed, it may be, in less than forty-eight hours.”

In fact, wrote historian Charles P. Dare, the ice bridge operated until Feb. 24, “when it was taken up, and, in a few days, the river was free of ice. During this time, 1378 cars loaded with mails, baggage and freight were transported upon this natural bridge, the tonnage amounting to about 10,000 tons. The whole was accomplished without accident of any kind; and the materials were all removed prior to the breaking up of the river without the loss of a cross-tie or bar of iron.”

Mens Agitat Molem

In 2010 Jeremy Wood walked around the campus of the University of Warwick with a GPS device to “draw” a map at 1:1 scale. Altogether he covered 238 miles in 17 days.

“He stayed in the Maths Houses on Gibbet Hill so the line through Tocil Wood to the Mead Gallery is exceptionally dark since it was walked so many times,” the university reports. “As he worked his way across the fields towards Kenilworth he began to ‘draw’ images associated with the University, from its crest, to a mortar board, to a globe in homage to the many ‘international’ centres that he encountered in his journeys. Reported to security several times for walking in ‘a suspicious manner’ around Claycroft and Lakeside residences, he soon disappeared from view, walking the countryside that surrounds the University but which is far removed from central campus.”

“I responded to the structure of each location and avoided walking along roads and paths when possible,” Wood writes. “Security was called on me twice on separate occasions and I lost count of how many times I happened to trigger an automatic sliding door.” More at his website and at GPS Drawing.

Somewhat related: Mathematician Jerry Farrell invented a two-player coin-pushing game played on a map of Butler University, his institution. Rebecca Wahl analyzed it in Barry Cipra’s Tribute to a Mathemagician (2005), and Aviezri Fraenkel of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science revisited it the following year (PDF).


By 1804, English engineer George Cayley was building model gliders that were remarkably similar to modern airplanes, with fixed wings, a body, and a tail. In the 1840s he built a glider large enough to carry a 10-year-old boy, and in 1853 he launched his coachman, John Appleby, across a valley on the first heavier-than-air flight by an adult.

When the glider landed, Appleby said, “Please, Sir George, I wish to give notice. I was hired to drive, and not to fly!”

A Grim Climate

Though Republicans won a majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1930, fully 14 House members died during the ensuing 72nd Congress, including Speaker Nicholas Longworth. As a result, Democrats were able to elect one of their own as speaker.

Things weren’t much better in the Senate. Sen. Hiram Bingham (R-Ct.) said in 1931, “It is a very striking fact and one which cannot be too often called to the attention of Senators that there is no other body of this size in the world which has as high a death rate as this body. Out of the 96 Senators, during the past 7 or 8 years at least three have died each year, and if there is anything that can be done to cause members of this body to enjoy greater health and to prolong their lives, it seems to me that no one should object to it.”

In 1996 George Washington University political scientist Forrest Maltzman and his colleagues found evidence that the Capitol’s ventilation system might have been a significant factor. As early as 1859, one senator had called his chamber “the most unhealthful, uncomfortable, ill-contrived place I was ever in my life; and my health is suffering daily from the atmosphere.” A ban on smoking didn’t seem to help, but a new ventilation system, complete with air conditioning, was installed in 1932, and Maltzman found a significant decrease in mortality beyond this point, sparing an estimated three members per Congress.

“Accordingly, we think there is at least a ghost of a chance that [political scientist Nelson] Polsby is correct when he argues that the advent of air-conditioning in the 1930s and 1940s may have had no less momentous an impact on political life (and death) in the nation’s capital than the massive changes the city underwent during the 1960s and 1970s — racial desegregation, home rule, and rapid population growth.”

(Forrest Maltzman, Lee Sigelman, and Sarah Binder, “Leaving Office Feet First: Death in Congress,” PS: Political Science & Politics 29:4 [December 1996], 665-671.)

While You Wait,_being_a_description_of_the_Mammoth_hot_springs,_the_geyser_basins,_the_cataracts,_the_ca%C3%B1ons,_and_other_features_of_the_new_(14761103635).jpg

Old Faithful is sometimes degraded by being made a laundry. Garments placed in the crater during quiescence are ejected thoroughly washed when the eruption takes place. Gen. Sheridan’s men, in 1882, found that linen and cotton fabrics were uninjured by the action of the water, but woolen clothes were torn to shreds.

— William C. Riley, Official Guide to the Yellowstone National Park, 1889


How can an umpire be sure a runner has reached first base? In 1875 inventor John O’Neill suggested fitting it with a bell to “indicate clearly and positively, without chance of error, the exact moment when the base is touched by the runner.”

The trouble is that the “enunciating base” will also sound when the first baseman steps on it. Ten years later William Williams suggested an electric bell, which could be heard more clearly by a single umpire behind home plate, but it faced the same objection. Both were forgotten.

The Banana Bat

This would have livened things up: In 1890 inventor Emile Kinst promoted an “improved ball-bat” that he said would set baseballs spinning: “The object of my invention is to provide a ball-bat which shall produce a rotary or spinning motion of the ball in its flight to a higher degree than is possible with any present known form of ball-bat, and thus to make it more difficult to catch the ball, or if caught, to hold it.” It would also enable hitters to drive the ball more easily to every part of the field.

“Owing to the peculiar form of my bat, the game becomes more difficult to play, and therefore much more interesting and exciting, because the innings will not be so easily attained, and consequently the time of the game will also be shortened.” The Major League Rules Committee said no.

BTW, in recent weeks I’ve come across two sources that say that Ted Williams once returned a set of bats to the manufacturer with a note saying, “Grip doesn’t feel just right.” The bats were found to be 0.005″ thinner than he had ordered. I don’t know whether it’s true. The sources are Spike Carlsen’s A Splintered History of Wood and Dan Gutman’s Banana Bats & Ding-Dong Balls: A Century of Unique Baseball Inventions (where I found the bat above).

Things to Come

In 1899, preparing for festivities in Lyon marking the new century, French toy manufacturer Armand Gervais commissioned a set of 50 color engravings from freelance artist Jean-Marc Côté depicting the world as it might exist in the year 2000.

The set itself has a precarious history. Gervais died suddenly in 1899, when only a few sets had been run off the press in his basement. “The factory was shuttered, and the contents of that basement remained hidden for the next twenty-five years,” writes James Gleick in Time Travel. “A Parisian antiques dealer stumbled upon the Gervais inventory in the twenties and bought the lot, including a single proof set of Côté’s cards in pristine condition. He had them for fifty years, finally selling them in 1978 to Christopher Hyde, a Canadian writer who came across his shop on rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie.”

Hyde showed them to Isaac Asimov, who published them in 1986 as Futuredays, with a gentle commentary on what Côté had got right (widespread automation) and wrong (clothing styles). But maybe some of these visions are still ahead of us:

Wikimedia Commons has the full set.

Pictures of Motion

joinville soldier walking

In 1883, in his studies of the human gait, French physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey asked a soldier to walk past a camera with an open shutter. Before the lens Marey had placed a rotating disk in which he’d cut slots at regular intervals. As the soldier walked, the slots permitted successive images to register on the same photographic plate, producing a “chronophotograph” — a portrait of human movement in time and space.

This opened a new window into the representation of motion — among other things, it helped to inspire Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 Nude Descending a Staircase:

Duchamp said, “The idea of describing the movement of a nude coming downstairs while still retaining static visual means to do this, particularly interested me. … My aim was a static representation of movement, a static composition of indications of various positions taken by a form in movement.”

hovey chronophotograph

Engineer Frank Gilbreth, who made a science of optimizing human movement, at one point used a similar technique to study the swing of Connecticut golf champion Roger Hovey. He was surprised to find that the path of Hovey’s upswing varied from that of the downswing by more than 12 inches, and his head moved more than a foot. Intrigued, he studied Gilbert Nicholls, and later Francis Ouimet and Jim Barnes. All varied their swings, and all moved their heads.

When Gilbreth showed these results to a friend in London, “his only comment was to the effect that he had previously suspected that we didn’t know much about golf in America. Which only goes to show.”

Peace and Quiet

Ohio inventor Philip Clover came up with a dramatic way to discourage body snatchers in 1878: a “coffin torpedo.” Basically a live cartridge is attached to the body by hidden wires so that “any attempt to remove the body after burial will cause the … injury or death of the desecrator of the grave”:

The trigger-wires are secured to the arms, legs, or other portion of the body of the corpse in such manner as to induce to the tripping of the trigger should any attempt be made to withdraw the body from the casket. The torpedo is loaded … just prior to the final closing of the casket.

“The torpedo may be placed in variable positions within the casket, and properly concealed by the trimmings of the casket or the apparel of the corpse.” Clover points out that there’s no need to protect the weapon from the elements — by the time it ceases to work, “the body would be of no use to robbers.”