A Traveling Companion


In 1916 Manhattan chauffeur George Boyden patented a new way to navigate: Install a phonograph in your car to play audio recordings through a megaphone in front of the steering column. “The talking machine at the proper times will announce the directions whereby the driver will be enabled to follow a predetermined route.”

How does it know where you are? The phonograph is connected to the car’s wheels and will engage only when you’ve traveled certain predetermined distances. “For example, if it is desired to make a record to guide the driver from Chevy Chase to the Treasury Department, the record among other things would contain the directions ‘U street turn to the left,’ and knowing the distance between Chevy Chase and the corner of 18th and U, for example, [a record of this distance would be registered with the mechanism] and the desired direction spoken into the machine. From a cylinder prepared in this manner a matrix would be made for the production of permanent records.”

10/19/2018 UPDATE: A strikingly similar idea from 1971 (thanks, Alec):

A Hidden Resource


I just thought this was clever: In 1880 Chicago inventor Samuel Gross proposed printing scales on the edges of a map’s reverse side, so the user could measure the distance between two points by turning up a corner.

“In this figure I have placed the scales on the two edges forming the angle at the lower right-hand corner; but it is evident that they may be placed on any one or more edges or parts thereof of the reverse side of the map, as may be preferred.”

The Sincerest Form


The Soviet Tupolev Tu-4 strategic bomber of the 1950s was a reverse-engineered copy of the American Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Stalin wanted a strategic bomber, so when three B-29s were forced to land in Soviet territory in 1944, he ordered clones made, and 20 were ready by 1947, despite the engineering challenges caused by non-metric American specifications.

The Soviets revealed their coup during a Moscow parade in August 1947. When three aircraft flew overhead, Western analysts assumed they were the three captured B-29s. Then a fourth appeared.

(Thanks, Kevin.)



On its 35th anniversary, THX, the sound quality assurance company founded by George Lucas, released the original score of “Deep Note,” its audio trademark, which debuted at the premiere of Return of the Jedi in 1983 and is now familiar from countless films. Essentially it’s a stupendous D chord; the U.S. trademark registration reads:

The THX logo theme consists of 30 voices over seven measures, starting in a narrow range, 200 to 400 Hz, and slowly diverting to preselected pitches encompassing three octaves. The 30 voices begin at pitches between 200 Hz and 400 Hz and arrive at pre-selected pitches spanning three octaves by the fourth measure. The highest pitch is slightly detuned while there are double the number of voices of the lowest two pitches.

“I like to say that the THX sound is the most widely-recognized piece of computer-generated music in the world,” says James A. Moorer, who wrote it. “This may or may not be true, but it sounds cool.” And now that we have the score you can do this:

Shannon’s Mouse

This is fantastic — in 1950 Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, designed a mechanical mouse that could explore an arbitrary maze, reliably find a path to the goal, remember it, and then recognize and adapt to changes. He called it Theseus. The mouse itself is only a copper-whiskered bar magnet on three wheels; it’s motivated by an electromagnet under the maze floor, driven by a pair of motors. The thinking is done by telephone relays following a topology theorem.

In 1977, when the editors of IEEE Spectrum challenged their readers to design a self-contained micromouse that could solve a maze through trial and error, Shannon took Theseus down from his attic and put him on display beside his descendants, which could now accomplish the same task using their own onboard processors. Computers were “not up to the human level yet,” he said, but “it is certainly plausible to me that in a few decades machines will be beyond humans.”


In a short clip among the DVD extras included with Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 film The Circus, a woman walks past the camera appearing to talk on a cell phone. The best explanation seems to be that she’s using a portable hearing aid, introduced by Siemens in 1924.

In 2013 the clip below appeared on YouTube, allegedly shot in 1938 and again seeming to show a woman using a cell phone. One popular explanation, that Dupont was experimenting with wireless telephones in Leominster, Massachusetts, is apparently not true, but I can’t find any plausible theories beyond that. Draw your own conclusions.

Horse Play

Nick Stafford’s stage adaptation of War Horse, Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 young-adult novel, features a life-size horse puppet devised by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. Three actors cooperate to bring the character to life; philosophically, puppeteer Basil Jones says that Handspring aimed to offer “a real horse on stage, … a horse that is disinterested in what the humans are saying around him” and that remains “slightly unpredictable.” That’s informed by an enormous amount of study and practice — new puppeteers visit stables, watch DVDs, and study horse gaits and psychology in what Jones calls “a total immersion”:

Together with the rehearsals the puppeteers have two months of training before they see their first audience. Over scores of performances, the puppeteers become shamans of the horse. Their intuition as to what their fellow puppeteers are about to do becomes finely tuned. This triple performance is a pretty special event to watch on stage.

It seems to work. In the Daily Telegraph, Charles Spencer wrote that “puppets are often an embarrassment, involving a lot of effort and fuss for negligible returns,” but in this case the puppets are “truly magnificent creations.” The Guardian‘s Michael Billington agreed: “The joy of the evening … lies in the skilled recreation of equine life and in its unshaken belief that mankind is ennobled by its love of the horse.”

The Telegarden

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1995, artist Ken Goldberg fitted a $40,000 robot arm with a webcam and mounted it in a trough so that “virtual gardeners” from anywhere in the world could plant seeds and water them. After every hundred hits they were given the option to plant more seeds.

Organizers found that the users tended to discuss nature, technology, and interpersonal connections, with virtually no abusive language. They would ask one another to water their plants during vacations and would sometimes plant seeds “strategically” in order to be near one another. The community shared their sorrow at the death of one gardener, and a couple got engaged. One member wrote, “I am recovering from neck surgery and can not do anything. The place has been a life saver for me.” Altogether the project ran for nine years in Berkeley, California, and Linz, Austria.

“The public resonance of this installation was quite remarkable,” writes Oliver Grau in Virtual Art. “Up to this point in time, Goldberg had likened the culture of the Web as typical of that of hunter-gatherers. However, the telegarden was a symbolic model for a postnomadic society that anonymously and collectively tended plants on a minuscule piece of the earth. The members of this troup, who never actually came face to face, communicated with each other or were even aware of how many other virtual gardeners were logged in, were using the most modern medium of the time for this. Goldberg’s work was a collective intercontinental cultural production.”

Small Town

Shanghai’s Urban Planning Exhibition Center contains a 1:500 scale model of the city, showing all existing and approved buildings according to the city’s master plan for 2020.

The model measures about 5,200 square feet, or 480 square meters, but even at that size it covers only the central part of the city, within the Inner Ring Road, an area about 9 miles by 5 miles. The full city is about 58 miles by 55 miles, with three more expressway rings beyond the inner ring.

Because the exhibition center is itself located within the central district, the model contains a miniature replica of its own building. Ideally that replica would contain its own, doubly tiny scale model of the city, but I guess there’s no way to check.

(Thanks, Jim.)

The Wooden Horse


British inventor Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817) could be stunningly imaginative:

I was riding one day in a country, that was enclosed by walls of an uncommon height; and upon its being asserted, that it would be impossible for a person to leap such walls, I offered for a wager to produce a wooden horse, that should carry me safely over the highest wall in the country. It struck me, that, if a machine were made with eight legs, four only of which should stand upon the ground at one time; if the remaining four were raised up into the body of the machine, and if this body were divided into two parts, sliding, or rather rolling on cylinders, one of the parts, and the legs belonging to it, might in two efforts be projected over the wall by a person in the machine; and the legs belonging to this part might be let down to the ground, and then the other half of the machine might have its legs drawn up, and be projected over the wall, and so on alternately. This idea by degrees developed itself in my mind, so as to make me perceive, that as one half of the machine was always a road for the other half, and that such a machine never rolled upon the ground, a carriage might be made, which should carry a road for itself. It is already certain, that a carriage moving on an iron rail-way may be drawn with a fourth part of the force requisite to draw it on a common road.

This seems to anticipate the caterpillar track, and the tank, in the 1760s. He worked on this idea for 40 years, making more than 100 working models and even patenting the principle. Finally he let the patent expire, as it just wasn’t possible with the technology that was available to him. But “I am still satisfied that it is feasible. The experience, which I have acquired by this industry, has overpaid me for the trifling disappointments I have met with; and I have gained far more in amusement, than I have lost by unsuccessful labor.”

(From his memoirs.)