During World War II, the U.S. Army experimented with a bizarre plan: using live bats to firebomb Japanese cities. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the crazy history of the bat bomb, the extraordinary brainchild of a Pennsylvania dentist.
We’ll also consider the malleable nature of mental illness and puzzle over an expensive quiz question.
During World War I the Red Cross solicited contributions by literally sucking them out of a crowd with a vacuum cleaner.
The stunt took place on May 25, 1917, before the New York Public Library. From Scientific American: “While a soldier and a sailor urged the public to hand in their contributions the suction tube of the machine was reached out over the crowd. The suction was sufficient to draw up pieces of money of any denomination and deposit them in the bag of the vacuum cleaner. By this means it was possible to reach the crowd readily and it was unnecessary for a contributor to elbow his way through the jam in order to reach the Red Cross workers.”
The National Archives notes, “So great was the eagerness of the people to have their coins taken in by the cleaner that the bag inside the vacuum cleaner had to be emptied several times.”
On Sept. 14, 1964, a Kuwaiti freighter capsized, drowning its cargo of sheep and threatening to contaminate the drinking water of Kuwait City. To raise the ship quickly, Danish inventor Karl Krøyer proposed using a tube to fill it with buoyant bodies. Accordingly, 27 million plastic balls were airlifted from Berlin and pumped into the freighter’s hold, and on Dec. 31 the ship rose, saving the insurance company nearly $2 million.
Krøyer patented his technique in the United Kingdom and Germany, but (the story is told) the Dutch application was rejected because a Dutch examiner found the 1949 Donald Duck comic The Sunken Yacht, by Carl Barks, in which Donald and his nephews raise a yacht by filling it with ping-pong balls.
Ping-pong balls are buoyant, and the ducks used a tube to feed them into the yacht, so the Dutch office ruled that this destroys the novelty of Krøyer’s invention — it may be just a comic book, but it had made the essential idea public 15 years before Krøyer tried to claim it.
No one quite seems to know whether this story is true — Krøyer, his patent attorney, and the examiner have now passed away; the documentation was destroyed years ago; and the grounds for the Dutch rejection aren’t clear. But it still makes a vivid example for intellectual property lawyers.
Izhar Gafni makes bicycles out of cardboard. The Israeli mechanical engineer can make a 20-pound bicycle that will support a rider of nearly 250 pounds, and its low-cost components make it unattractive to thieves — Gafni fashions the frame, wheels, handlebars, and saddle from sheets of cardboard that are folded and glued together; the tires and drive belt are recycled rubber, and the seat and some of the gears are made of recycled plastic bottles. “It’s one of the most green products you can imagine,” his partner Nimrod Elmish told the Times of Israel in 2012.
The company is pursuing partnerships to distribute cardboard bicycles and wheelchairs in Africa at little to no cost for the end user. “There is much to say about cardboard,” Elmish said. “This bicycle is the beginning of a materials revolution.”
These false horseshoes were found in the moat at Birtsmorton Court, near Tewkesbury. It is supposed that they were used in the time of the Civil Wars, so as to deceive any person tracking the marks. The one on the left is supposed to leave the mark of a cow’s hoof, the one on the right that of a child’s foot.
“I understand that a computer has been invented that is so remarkably intelligent that if you put it into communication with either a computer or a human, it can’t tell the difference!” — Raymond Smullyan
In the mid-1990s Jacques Jouet introduced “metro poems,” poems written on the Paris Métro according to a particular set of rules. He explained the rules in a poem:
There are as many lines in a metro poem as there are stations in your journey, minus one.
The first line is composed mentally between the first two stations of your journey (counting the station you got on at).
It is then written down when the train stops at the second station.
The second line is composed mentally between the second and the third stations of your journey.
It is then written down when the train stops at the third station.
And so on.
The poet mustn’t write anything down when the train is moving, and he mustn’t compose anything when the train is stopped. If he changes lines then he must start a new stanza. He writes down the poem’s last line on the platform of the final station.
Jouet’s poem was itself composed in the Métro, according to its own rules. Presumably this type of writing could be done in any subway, but Marc Lapprand notes that the Paris system supports it unusually well: It’s dense, with 368 different stations, including 87 connecting points (or 293 nominal stations, including 55 connecting points) and a fairly short distance between them (543 meters, on average). The average run between two stations in Paris is a minute and a half, which means the poet has to think quickly in order to keep up.
Levin Becker, who tried the technique for his book 2012 Many Subtle Channels, found it surprisingly challenging: “It constrains the space around your thoughts, not the letters or words in which you will eventually fit them: you have to work to think thoughts of the right size, to focus on the line at hand without workshopping the previous one or anticipating the next.”
In April 1996 Jouet wrote a 490-verse poem while passing through every station in the Métro, following an optimized map laid out for him by a graph theorist. “At the end of those fifteen and a half hours,” he wrote, “I was very tired.”
(Jacques Jouet and Ian Monk, “Metro Poems,” AA Files 45/46 [Winter 2001], 4-14.)
During the Falklands War in 1982, the RAF airfield closest to the action was on Ascension Island near the equator, thousands of miles away. Tasked with destroying the runway at Port Stanley, the RAF organized a complicated relay in which 11 tankers accompanied a single bomber (mauve), refueling it and each other in midair to support its journey of 3,400 nautical miles to the target. The attacking Vulcan bomber was refueled four times on the way out and once on the way back, using more than 220,000 gallons of aviation fuel altogether.
At the time this was the longest-ranged bombing raid in history — the return journey alone took 16 hours. It put one crater in the runway, which was repaired within 24 hours, but it discouraged the Argentinians from using it more heavily.
The earliest known film comedy, Louis Lumière’s 1895 L’Arroseur arrosé (“The Waterer Watered”) is also one of the first film narratives of any kind — before this, movies tended simply to demonstrate the medium, depicting a sneeze, for example, or the arrival of a train.
This was also the first film with a dedicated poster (below) — making this simple 45-second story the forerunner of all modern film comedies.