In a Word

adj. resounding with arms

The Battle of the Somme began with a weeklong artillery bombardment in which more than a million shells were fired at the German lines. A soldier describes the first day:

The sound was different, not only in magnitude but in quality, from anything known to me. It was not a succession of explosions or a continuous roar; I at least, never heard either a gun or a bursting shell. It was not a noise; it was a symphony. And it did not move. It hung over us. It seemed as though the air were full of vast and agonized passion, bursting now with groans and sighs, now into shrill screaming and pitiful whimpering … And the supernatural tumult did not pass in this direction or in that. It did not begin, intensify, decline and end. It was poised in the air, a stationary panorama of sound, a condition of the atmosphere, not the creation of man.

At the Battle of Messines in June 1917, 19 mines comprising 600 tonnes of explosives were detonated, producing the largest man-made explosions in history to that date. One witness recalled that the “earth rocked as though a giant hand had roughly shaken it.”

(John Ellis, Eye-Deep in Hell, 1989, via Joy Damousi et al., eds., Museums, History and the Intimate Experience of the Great War, 2020.)


Allegedly this scheme was invented by a poet who wanted to write all night without interruption. He set up a row of candles and linked the base of each to the top of the next with a piece of twine. When the first candle burned down to the twine, “the latter naturally caught fire, and a tongue of flame would creep up to the adjoining candle, lighting it in the manner desired.”

“The scheme is a pretty example of the brilliancy of simplicity in idea, as compared with the complicated arrangements often devised to secure simple results.”

(James Scott, “Strange Devices,” Strand, August 1895, 184-189.)

A Typographical Banknote

In 1819, as the Bank of England struggled against counterfeiters, T.C. Hansard proposed a note that combined such a variety of typefaces that a lone forger couldn’t hope to duplicate it — the faces descended all the way to Diamond, the smallest available, and the bottom of each note would be filled with 140 lines of fine print containing hidden “private marks,” such as individual letters printed in italic or small capitals.

To create even the authentic version would have required a team of 20 people, from punchcutters to engine makers, to fulfill the typographical and other design flourishes. Hansard estimated that producing the first note would have cost as much as £2,000 and taken up to a year, “but after that the production will be so rapid, that with the labour of four Men only, without the assistance of any Steam Machinery, 40,000 Notes may be produced in a Day of the finest Workmanship, at the Expense, including Paper, of Half a Farthing each Note.”

In the end the proposal wasn’t adopted — small notes were withdrawn from circulation in 1821, and the search was dropped.

(Virginia Hewitt, “Beware of Imitations: The Campaign for a New Bank of England Note, 1797-1821,” Numismatic Chronicle 158 [1998], 197-222.)

Guardian Angel
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1980s, when Nicolae Ceauşescu set about razing central Bucharest, engineer Eugeniu Iordăchescu was despairing the threat to the area’s iconic churches when he saw a waiter carrying a tray of drinks. “I saw that the secret of the glasses not falling was the tray,” he said, “so I started trying to work out how to apply a tray to the building.”

He hit on a method of digging beneath the buildings to insert reinforced concrete supports, then rolling them to new locations using hydraulic levers and mechanical pulleys. Over a period of six years, his team saved more than a dozen churches and other buildings that the Communists had planned to destroy; the 800-ton Schitul Maicilor, above, was moved almost 270 yards from its 18th-century foundations.

The technique Iordăchescu pioneered is still in use today. “He was very proud of his achievements, and even in retirement he spent a lot of time improving and helping others to push the method further on,” his son Nicholas told the New York Times. “He will be remembered for a one-of-a-kind contribution to developing this technology.”

(Thanks, Jason.)

Rise of the Machines

The Janken robot created in 2012 at the University of Tokyo’s Ishikawa Watanabe Laboratory has a 100 percent win rate against human opponents in playing rock paper scissors.

How? Using a high-speed camera, it recognizes within a millisecond which shape its opponent’s hand is beginning to form and chooses the appropriate winning shape.


The Rainhill trials, held in October 1829 to test the suitability of locomotives to run on the new Liverpool and Manchester Railway, brought a surprising entrant: Mathematician Thomas Shaw Brandreth offered Cycloped, a car powered by a horse on a treadmill.

It was no match for the other competitors, all of which were steam locomotives. Engineer George Stephenson’s Rocket won the day — and an important place in transportation history.

Vast and Furious

What’s the fastest shed in the world? One would think it’s a very broad tie, but in fact the record is held by Oxfordshire mechanic Kevin Nicks, who in 2015 mounted a steel frame and wooden bodywork on a broken-down Volkswagen Passat, hoping it might be used in marketing schemes. When the vehicle surpassed 80 mph in a speed trial, Nicks invested in a new suspension system and an Audi RS4 engine in a bid for greater speed, and he’s now broken his own record twice — most recently he reached 114.7 mph in 2018.

Hot Air

My all-time favourite in the literature of exaggerated claims on behalf of the digital computer is from John McCarthy, the inventor of the term ‘artificial intelligence.’ McCarthy says even ‘machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have beliefs.’ And indeed, according to him, almost any machine capable of problem-solving can be said to have beliefs. I admire McCarthy’s courage. I once asked him: ‘What beliefs does your thermostat have?’ And he said: ‘My thermostat has three beliefs — it’s too hot in here, it’s too cold in here, and it’s just right in here.’

— John Searle, Minds, Brains, and Science, 1983

(Searle responded with the “Chinese room argument” — a computer program that formulates convincing answers written in Chinese to questions posed in Chinese doesn’t “understand” Chinese any more than would an English-speaking human who followed the same instructions. “There is more to having a mind than having formal or syntactical processes. … Minds are semantical, in the sense that they have more than a formal structure, they have a content.”)

“A Sea Voyage on Wheels”

In 1896 engineer Magnus Volk faced a problem. The electric railway he’d built on England’s south coast reached a terminus at Paston Place — the difficult terrain beyond that point made a conventional railway impractical. The solution he reached was unique: He laid tracks under the surface of the English Channel and built a car on 7-meter stilts that could wade, so to speak, through the surf to a pier at Rottingdean. Driven by electric motors, it was christened Pioneer, but crowds quickly dubbed it Daddy Long-Legs. By the end of 1897, 44,282 passengers had undertaken a rail voyage at sea — under regulations at the time, the car was even equipped with lifeboats and kept a sea captain on board.

The line ran successfully until 1901, when the local council chose to build a beach protection barrier and Volk couldn’t afford to divert the railway. Eventually it was moved onshore, but the concrete sleepers can still be seen at low tide.

Second Thoughts

[I]magine the proud possessor of the aeroplane darting through the air at a speed of several hundred feet per second! It is the speed alone that sustains him. How is he ever going to stop? Once he slackens his speed, down he begins to fall. He may, indeed, increase the inclination of his aeroplane. Then he increases the resistance necessary to move it. Once he stops he falls a dead mass. How shall he reach the ground without destroying his delicate machinery? I do not think the most imaginative inventor has yet even put upon paper a demonstrative, successful way of meeting this difficulty.

— Simon Newcomb, “The Outlook for the Flying Machine,” Independent, Oct. 22, 1903