Podcast Episode 273: Alice Ramsey’s Historic Drive


In 1909, 22-year-old Alice Huyler Ramsey set out to become the first woman to drive across the United States. In an era of imperfect cars and atrocious roads, she would have to find her own way and undertake her own repairs across 3,800 miles of rugged, poorly mapped terrain. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Ramsey on her historic journey.

We’ll also ponder the limits of free speech and puzzle over some banned candy.


Journalist Henri de Blowitz received the Treaty of Berlin in the lining of a hat.

In 1895 John Haberle painted a slate so realistic that viewers were tempted to use it.

Sources for our feature on Alice Ramsey:

Alice Ramsey and Gregory M. Franzwa, Alice’s Drive: Republishing Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron, 2005.

Curt McConnell, A Reliable Car and a Woman Who Knows It: The First Coast-to-Coast Auto Trips by Women, 1899-1916, 2000.

Women’s Project of New Jersey, Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women, 1997.

Catherine Gourley, Gibson Girls and Suffragists: Perceptions of Women from 1900 to 1918, 2008.

Christina E. Dando, Women and Cartography in the Progressive Era, 2017.

David Holmstrom, “On the Road With Alice,” American History 29:3 (July/August 1994).

Don Brown and Evan Rothman, “Queen of the Road,” Biography 1:2 (February 1997), 48-52.

Marina Koestler Ruben, “Alice Ramsey’s Historic Cross-Country Drive,” Smithsonian.com, June 4, 2009.

Katherine Parkin, “Alice Ramsey: Driving in New Directions,” New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 4:2 (2018), 160-178.

Carla Rose Lesh, “‘What a Woman Can Do With an Auto’: American Women in the Early Automotive Era,” dissertation, State University of New York at Albany, 2010.

Brandon Dye, “Girls on the Road,” Autoweek 56:36 (Sept. 4, 2006), 34.

Jay Levin, “Daughter of Motoring Pioneer Dies,” [Bergen County, N.J.] Record, Nov. 18, 2015, L.6.

Joe Blackstock, “Alice Ramsey First Woman to Cross U.S. by Car,” Inland Valley [Calif.] Daily Bulletin, March 28, 2011.

Robert Peele, “History That’s More Than the Sum of Its Parts,” New York Times, March 26, 2010.

“Preservation Society Honors Historic Drive,” Reno Gazette-Journal, Oct. 9, 2009.

Robert Peele, “New York to San Francisco in a 1909 Maxwell DA,” New York Times, July 12, 2009.

Robert Peele, “Recreating a 100-Year-Old Road Trip,” New York Times, June 20, 2009.

Jane Palmer, “Driving Along Like It’s 1909,” McClatchy-Tribune Business News, June 18, 2009.

Jay Levin, “The Same Trip, 100 Years Later: N.J. Mother’s 1909 Milestone,” [Bergen County, N.J.] Record, June 10, 2009, L.3.

“Re-enacting a Ground-Breaking Journey,” New York Times, June 5, 2009.

Jay Levin, “Trailblazing Ride Made History: 1909 Road Trip First for a Woman,” [Bergen County, N.J.] Record, March 22, 2009, L.1.

“Women Transcontinentalists Nearing Chicago,” Automobile Topics 8:11 (June 19, 1909), 742.

David Conwill, “Alice Ramsey,” Hemmings Classic Car 164 (May 2018).

“Alice Ramsey,” Automotive Hall of Fame (accessed Nov. 3, 2019).

Guide to the Alice Huyler Ramsey Papers, 1905-1989, Vassar College (accessed Nov. 3, 2019).

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, Rage (King novel),” (accessed Nov. 6, 2019).

Corey Adwar, “This Stephen King Novel Will Never Be Printed Again After It Was Tied to School Shootings,” Business Insider, April 1, 2014.

“Vermont Library Conference/VEMA Annual Meeting: The Bogeyboys,” StephenKing.com (accessed Nov. 6, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors” (accessed Nov. 6, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Paladin Press” (accessed Nov. 10, 2019).

“Killer of Three Gets Reduced Sentence,” Washington Times, May 17, 2001.

Emilie S. Kraft, “Hit Man Manual,” First Amendment Encyclopedia, Middle Tennessee State University (accessed Nov. 10, 2019).

Calvin Reid, “Paladin Press Pays Millions to Settle ‘Hit Man’ Case,” Publishers Weekly, May 31, 1999.

David G. Savage, “Publisher of ‘Hit Man’ Manual Agrees to Settle Suit Over Triple Slaying,” Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1999.

Rice v. Paladin Enterprises, Inc., 128 F. 3d 233 – Court of Appeals, 4th Circuit 1997.

David Montgomery, “If Books Could Kill,” Washington Post, July 26, 1998.

Robert W. Welkos, “Judge Throws Out Lawsuit Against Oliver Stone,” Los Angeles Times, March 13, 2001.

“Natural Born Killers Lawsuit Finally Thrown Out,” Guardian, March 13, 2001.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Simone and her father. Here’s a corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — you can choose the amount you want to pledge, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Form and Function


It’s sometimes suggested that the modern QWERTY keyboard was designed so that typewriter salesmen could impress customers by typing the phrase TYPEWRITER QUOTE on the top row of keys.

It wasn’t, but they could.

Rising Masses

A writer in The Builder has cleverly suggested that bridges might be erected in the crowded thoroughfares of London for the convenience of foot passengers, who lose so much valuable time in crossing. As the stairs would occupy a considerable space, and occasion much fatigue, I beg to propose an amendment: Might not the ascending pedestrians be raised up by the descending? The bridge would then resemble the letter H, and occupy but little room. Three or four at a time, stepping into an iron framework, would be gently elevated, walk across, and perform by their weight the same friendly office for others rising on the opposite side. Surely no obstacles can arise which might not be surmounted by ingenuity. If a temporary bridge were erected in one of the parks the experiment might be tried at little cost, and, at any rate, some amusement would be afforded. C.T.

Notes and Queries, July 17, 1852


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.”

A Closer Look

Michael Snow’s 1967 experimental film Wavelength consists essentially of an extraordinarily slow 45-minute zoom on a photograph on the wall of a room. William C. Wees of McGill University points out that this raises a philosophical question: What visual event does this zoom create? In a tracking shot, the camera moves physically forward, and its viewpoint changes as a person’s would as she advanced toward the photo. In Wavelength (or any zoom) the camera doesn’t move, and yet something is taking place, something with no analogue in ordinary experience.

“If I actually walk toward a photograph pinned on a wall, I find that the photograph does, indeed, get larger in my visual field, and that things around it slip out of view at the peripheries of my vision. The zoom produces equivalent effects, hence the tendency to describe it as ‘moving forward.’ But I am really imitating a tracking shot, not a zoom. … I think it is safe to say that no perceptual experience in the every-day world can prepare us for the kind of vision produced by the zoom.”

“What, in a word, happens during a viewing of that forty-five minute zoom? And what does it mean?”

(From Nick Hall, The Zoom: Drama at the Touch of a Lever, 2018.)

An Audible End

world war i armistice signature

World War I’s final ceasefire went into effect at a precise moment: 11:00 a.m. Paris time on Nov. 11, 1918. The French had worked out a way of recording sound signals on film — they used it to infer the position of enemy guns by determining the time between the sound of a shell’s firing and its explosion. This gives us a visual record of the end of the fighting, six representative seconds from the periods before and after the armistice. (Note, though, that the minute immediately before and the one immediately after the ceasefire aren’t shown, “to emphasize the contrast.”)

I don’t have an original source for this — Time magazine credits the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

In the Pink

It is not every maiden, in these prosaic days, who can summon the ‘tell-tale blood’ to her cheeks at will, or silently reveal by an opportune roseate flush, those inward feelings to which many young ladies experience such difficulty in giving verbal expression. But as the value of the blush, as a highly effective weapon in the feminine armory, is still universally recognized by the sex, although it would appear to have somewhat fallen into desuetude, French ingenuity has been at the pains of devising a mechanical appliance for the instantaneous production of a fine natural glow upon the cheek of beauty, no matter how constitutionally lymphatic or philosophically unemotional its proprietress may be. This thoughtful contrivance is called ‘The Ladies’ Blushing Bonnet,’ to the side ribbons of which — those usually tied under the fair wearer’s chin — are attached two tiny but powerful steel springs, ending in round pads, which are brought to bear upon the temporal arteries by the action of bowing the head, one exquisitely appropriate to modest embarrassment, and by artificially forcing blood into the cheeks cause them to be suffused with ‘the crimson hue of shame’ at a moment’s notice. Should these ingenious head coverings become the fashion among girls of the period, it will behoove ‘young men about to marry’ to take a sly peep behind the bonnet-strings of their blushing charmers immediately after proposing, in order to satisfy themselves that the heightened color, by them interpreted as an involuntary admission of reciprocated affection, is not due to the agency of a carefully adjusted ‘blushing bonnet.’

London Telegraph, via Robinson [Ill.] Constitution, Dec. 1, 1880

“The Dead Alive in the Biograph”

A pathetic incident in connection with a biograph scene occurred in Detroit, Mich., March 17th last. A view made at the occupation of Peking was being flashed across the screen. It represented a detachment of the Fourteenth United States Infantry entering the gates of the Chinese Capital. As the last file of soldiers seemed literally stepping out of the frame on to the stage, there arose a scream from a woman who sat in front.

‘My God!’ she cried hysterically, ‘there is my dead brother Allen marching with the soldiers.’

The figure had been recognized by others in the audience as that of Allen McCaskill, who had mysteriously disappeared some years before. Subsequently Mrs. Booth, the sister, wrote to the War Department and learned that it really was her brother whose presentment she so strangely had been confronted with.

“Photography,” Popular Science News, October 1901