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.

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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.

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Podcast Episode 291: Half-Safe

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In 1946, Australian engineer Ben Carlin decided to circle the world in an amphibious jeep. He would spend 10 years in the attempt, which he called an “exercise in technology, masochism, and chance.” In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Carlin’s unlikely odyssey and the determination that drove him.

We’ll also salute the Kentucky navy and puzzle over some surprising winners.

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In a Word

viator
n. a wayfarer; traveler

nocuous
adj. likely to cause harm or damage

fulminant
adj. exploding or detonating

aggerose
adj. in heaps

British director Cecil Hepworth made “How It Feels To Be Run Over” in 1900. The car is on the wrong side of the road. (The intertitle at the end, “Oh! Mother will be pleased,” may have been scratched directly into the celluloid.)

Hepworth followed it up with “Explosion of a Motor Car,” below, later the same year.

Unquote

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“The only way to keep ahead of the procession is to experiment. If you don’t, the other fellow will. When there’s no experimenting there’s no progress. Stop experimenting and you go backward. If anything goes wrong, experiment until you get to the very bottom of the trouble.” — Thomas Edison

The Paternoster Vents

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

At the end of a narrow pedestrian alleyway off Paternoster Square near St. Paul’s Cathedral in London are a pair of stainless-steel “angel’s wings” 11 meters high. Designed by Thomas Heatherwick, the sculpture actually serves a practical purpose: It provides ventilation for an electrical substation below ground. Cool air is sucked in through grids on the ground, and hot air is conducted through the sculpture and released high overhead.

“The commissioner had been exploring options that involved creating a single structure that housed both inlet vents and outlet vents,” Heatherwick wrote. “It made a large bulky object that dominated the public square around it, reducing it to little more than a corridor. As this was a sensitive location near St. Paul’s, we decided to make it our priority to shrink the visible mass of the vent structure to a minimum.”

(From Mary Acton, Learning to Look at Sculpture, 2014.)

Stop

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“The actual building of roads devoted to motor cars is not for the near future, in spite of many rumors to that effect.” — Harper’s Weekly, Aug. 2, 1902

“That the automobile has practically reached the limit of its development is suggested by the fact that during the past year no improvements of a radical character have been introduced.” — Scientific American, Jan. 2, 1909

Water Music

The hydraulophone is a “woodwater” instrument: By fingering holes, the player stops the flow of of a fluid, but in this case the fluid is water. (The actual sound-producing mechanism can vary.)

Because the spray can obscure the finger holes, they’re sometimes marked in Braille, and the whole instrument can be built into a hot tub for use in cold weather.

The Bramante Staircase

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

These spiral stairs, in the Pio-Clementino Museum in Vatican City, take the form of a double helix — there are two heads and two feet, so that one party can descend while another ascends and the two will never meet.

Designed in 1932 by Giuseppe Momo, the stairs are modeled on a much earlier stair by Donato Bramante, which occupies a square tower in the Belvedere palace of Pope Innocent VIII. Like the museum stair, it allows traffic to travel in both directions without impediment.

An Early Voice

On October 21, 1889, Prussian field marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder made two audio recordings on Thomas Edison’s new cylinder phonograph. The first contains a congratulatory message to Edison and an excerpt from Faust, the second a line from Hamlet.

This is the only voice recording we have of a person born in the 18th century — Moltke had been born in 1800, technically the last year of that century. Ironically, he had been known as der große Schweiger, “the great silent one,” for his taciturnity.