No Waiting

https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/4221398
Image: Helmut Zozmann

Designed in 1804, the Grand Shaft, at the Western Heights of Dover, is a triple helix, the only such staircase in Britain. As with Vatican City’s Bramante Staircase, this design accommodates a large number of passengers while minimizing interference among them — using it, a large number of troops might quickly descend the 140 feet from the heights to the town below, while others might even ascend at the same time, using a different spiral.

In 1812 a Mr. Leith of Walmer rode his horse up the stair for a bet, and local legend has it that during Victorian times the separate spirals were assigned to “officers and their ladies,” “sergeants and their wives,” and “soldiers and their women.”

(Thanks, Dave.)

Early Warning

In 2010, as the Colombian government was preparing to rescue 16 soldiers held by armed FARC guerrillas, it looked in vain for a way to alert the soldiers without tipping off their captors. Finally Colonel Jose Espejo arranged to have local radio stations broadcast a pop song that contained a message in Morse code, which the soldiers had learned in basic training but that the guerrillas likely wouldn’t recognize.

The lyrics run, “In the middle of the night / Thinking about what I love the most / I feel the need to sing … About how much I miss them.” And hidden at three points in the song (1:30, 2:30, 3:30), in Morse code, is the message “19 people rescued. You are next. Don’t lose hope.”

“The hostages were listening to our own stations, so we made sure the song was played,” Espejo told The Verge. “The code message said, ‘you’re next’ because the hostages thought if they ran away, they would die in the jungle. We let them know that our troops were nearby.”

It worked. “We know of hostages who heard the message,” Espejo said, “and were able to escape and provide information that led to the release of more hostages.”

Top Drawer

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Introduced by Eberhard Faber in 1934, the Blackwing 602 premium writing pencil was stamped with the words “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed”: Compared to an ordinary pencil, its core contained more graphite, less clay, and wax, so that it wrote like a pencil of 4B hardness but with a unique gliding feel.

It has attracted an impressive roster of creative admirers, including Walt Disney, Stephen Sondheim, Quincy Jones, Vladimir Nabokov, and John Steinbeck, who wrote, “I have found a new kind of pencil — the best I have ever had. Of course it costs three times as much too, but it is black and soft but doesn’t break off. I think I will always use these. They are called Blackwings and they really glide over the paper.”

Steinbeck would use a Blackwing pencil right down to the ferrule (pencil devotees now call this “Steinbeck stage”) and then pass them on to his son, another writer. “Writing with a Blackwing 602, more than any other pencil, feels like an event — something like a rite of passage for a pencil obsessive,” writes Caroline Weaver in The Pencil Perfect: The Untold Story of a Cultural Icon (2017). “When they are sold in my shop I always encourage the customer to sharpen it at least once and to use it for special occasions, because most of the pleasure of owning it comes from knowing what it feels like to write with it as much as it comes from the history.”

All’s Fair

https://books.google.com/books?id=ANI1AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA72

History’s ancient example of camouflage, the Trojan Horse, has a modern variation of peculiar interest. During the fighting near Craonne on the western front, some time ago, a horse broke his traces and dashed across ‘No Man’s Land’ toward the German defenses. When near the edge of a first-line trench he fell. The French immediately made the best of the opportunity and set camouflage artists at work fashioning a papier-mâché replica of the dead animal. Under cover of darkness the carcass was replaced with the dummy. For three days observers stationed in the latter were able to watch the enemy’s movements at close range and telephone their information to headquarters. Finally, when one observer was relieving another, the Germans discovered they had been tricked, and destroyed the post.

“Observer Hides in Dummy Horse Near Enemy Trench,” Popular Mechanics 29:1 (January 1918), 72.

On another occasion, a standing tree, whose branches had all been shot away, was carefully photographed and an exact copy of it made, but with a space inside in which an observer could be concealed. One night, while the noise of the workmen was drowned by heavy cannonading, this tree was replaced by its facsimile. And there it remained for many a day before the enemy discovered that it was a fake tree-trunk. It provided a tall observation-post from which an observer could direct the fire of his own artillery.

— A. Russell Bond, “Warriors of the Paint-Brush,” St. Nicholas 46:6 (April 1919), 499-505.

Voting With One’s Feet

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Image: Flickr

The paved walkways in Ohio State University’s central Oval were not laid at the university’s founding — rather, as the campus buildings were erected in the early 20th century, students began to wear natural paths in the grass as they made their way to the most popular destinations, and these paths informed the modern pattern of paved walks.

Such routes are known as “desire paths” — urban planners will sometimes study the tracks in new-fallen snow to understand where foot traffic naturally “wants” to go.

The Isolator

https://manifold.umn.edu/read/the-perversity-of-things-hugo-gernsback-on-media-tinkering-and-scientifiction/section/69697807-3c5f-4de5-aa3b-d070728205f9

Irritated with distractions in his editorial work, Hugo Gernsback designed a helmet “to do away with all possible interferences that prey on the mind”:

The first helmet constructed as per illustration was made of wood, lined with cork inside and out, and finally covered with felt. There were three pieces of glass inserted for the eyes. In front of the mouth there is a baffle, which allows breathing but keeps out the sound. The first construction was fairly successful, and while it did not shut out all the noises, it reached an efficiency of about 75 per cent. The reason was that solid wood was used.

In a later version he omitted the wood and added an air space between layers of cotton and felt, achieving an efficiency of 90 to 95 percent. Even the eyepieces are black except for a single slit, to prevent the eyes from wandering. “With this arrangement it is found that an important task can be completed in short order and the construction of the Isolator will be found to be a great investment.”

(He even designed an ideal office, with a soundproof door, triple-paned windows, and felt-filled walls, in which to wear this — see the illustration at the link below.)

(Hugo Gernsback, “The Isolator,” Science and Invention 13:3 [July 1925], 214ff.)

Memorial

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Anthem Veterans Memorial, in Anthem, Arizona, consists of five white pillars representing the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. Each pillar contains a slanted elliptical opening, and the five are arranged so that at 11:11 a.m. on Veterans Day, November 11, the sun’s light passes through all five and illuminates the Great Seal of the United States, which is inlaid among 750 red paving stones engraved with the names of veterans.

Bending the Rules

New York zoning rules limit the height of skyscrapers, so Oiio Studio has proposed an innovative solution: Bend the building into a horseshoe. Designer Ioannis Oikonomou’s “Big Bend” building would be the “longest” building in the world, at 4,000 feet, but it would stand only 200 feet taller than One World Trade Center, currently the city’s tallest building.

“If we manage to bend our structure instead of bending the zoning rules of New York we would be able to create one of the most prestigious buildings in Manhattan,” the firm says in its building proposal. “The Big Bend can become a modest architectural solution to the height limitations of Manhattan.”

Whether that can be done remains to be seen. The project remains in the proposal stage.

Podcast Episode 306: The Inventor Who Disappeared

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In 1890, French inventor Louis Le Prince vanished just as he was preparing to debut his early motion pictures. He was never seen again. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the possible causes of Le Prince’s disappearance and his place in the history of cinema.

We’ll also reflect on a murderous lawyer and puzzle over the vagaries of snake milking.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 292: Fordlandia

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1927, Henry Ford decided to build a plantation in the Amazon to supply rubber for his auto company. The result was Fordlandia, an incongruous Midwestern-style town in the tropical rainforest. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the checkered history of Ford’s curious project — and what it revealed about his vision of society.

We’ll also consider some lifesaving seagulls and puzzle over a false alarm.

See full show notes …