Weather Station Kurt,_Labrador.jpg

In July 1977 geomorphologist Peter Johnson stumbled across an old weather station in northern Labrador. It turned out to be an automatic station that had been set up secretly by a German submarine crew in 1943 so that Germany might have notice of impending weather systems. The Allies had never discovered it and it had stood unregarded for 30 years after the war’s end.

“Weather Station Kurt” was probably designed to operate automatically for about six months, transmitting readings on temperature, wind direction, strength, and humidity every three hours until its batteries failed in the cold.

All the witnesses to its installation died when the submarine, U-537, was sunk in the Java Sea. Their work marks the only known armed German military operation on land in North America during World War II.

The station is now on display at the Canadian War Museum.

In a Word

adj. liable to raptures

n. rejoicing together

n. buying and selling, trade

adj. intended to be sung

“Selling I. B. M.” to be sung to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain,” from the 1937 corporate hymnal Songs of The IBM:

Selling I. B. M., we’re selling I. B. M.,
What a glorious feeling, the world is our friend,
We’re Watson’s great crew, we’re loyal and true;
We’re proud of our job and we never feel blue.
We sell our whole line, we’re there every time,
To chase away gloom with our products so fine,
We’re always in trim, we work with a vim,
We’re selling, just selling, I. B. M.!

(Via MetaFilter.)

Los Alamos Chess
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The first chess-like game played by a computer was this little variant, written for the MANIAC I by Paul Stein and Mark Wells at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in 1956. To accommodate the computer’s limitations, there are no bishops (and pawns can’t promote to bishops); pawns can advance only one square on their first move; there is no en passant capture; and there is no castling.

It played three games. In the first it played against itself; in the second, a strong human player gave queen odds and won; and in the third it played against a lab assistant who’d learned the rules of chess only recently. The computer won the last game, marking the first time that a computer beat a human in a chess-like game. Here’s the score:

White: MANIAC I Black: Beginner
1.d3 b4 2.Nf3 d4 3.b3 e4 4.Ne1 a4 5.bxa4 Nxa4 6.Kd2 Nc3 7.Nxc3 bxc3+ 8.Kd1 f4 9.a3 Rb6 10.a4 Ra6 11.a5 Kd5 12.Qa3 Qb5 13.Qa2+ Ke5 14.Rb1 Rxa5 15.Rxb5 Rxa2 16.Rb1 Ra5 17.f3 Ra4 18.fxe4 c4 19.Nf3+ Kd6 20.e5+ Kd5 21.exf6=Q Nc5 22.Qxd4+ Kc6 23.Ne5# [diagram] 1–0

Evolved Antennas

NASA’s 2006 Space Technology 5 carried an unusual item — an antenna that had evolved through Darwinian evolution. To meet a challenging set of mission requirements, researchers at New Mexico State University used a computer program to generate simple antenna shapes, altered them in semi-random manner, and evaluated the results. Those that performed worst against design requirements were discarded and the remainder again “mutated” in a process modeled on natural selection. This procedure can produce a complex but highly efficient shape that might not be found using more traditional methods.

“By exploring such a wide range of designs EAs may be able to produce designs of previously unachievable performance,” the team concluded. “The faster design cycles of an evolutionary approach results in less development costs and allows for an iterative ‘what-if’ design and test approach for different scenarios.”


Our servants were devoted to us and took their duties very much to heart. At a time when houses were still lighted by candles and lamps, a considerable staff was needed to attend to the lighting. The manservant who was in charge of the staff was so grieved when electric lighting was introduced that he drowned his sorrows in drink and died from its effects shortly after.

— A childhood memory of Russian aristocrat Felix Yusupov (1887-1967), of the Moika Palace in St. Petersburg, from his 1952 memoir Lost Splendor

Good Luck!

In 1915, Abel Kiansten and John Nelson patented an alarming precursor to the roller coaster in which a victim on roller skates zooms down a ramp and through a loop-the-loop. This is made safe, the inventors assure us, because the skate wheels are secured to the track and the rider is given a little handle to cling to. “Such a support is necessary because the various positions assumed by the performer during his trip would invariably throw the most active athlete from his upright position if some means were not offered him to remain in a standing position.”

It’s not known whether it was ever built. “Many patents were sound and far-reaching, but as many ideas were simply treacherous,” writes Robert Cartmell in The Incredible Scream Machine, his 1987 history of the roller coaster. “It is a blessing some never left the drawing boards or, when built, were closed by lawsuits. Every deviation with tracks was attempted and the eventual safety codes or inspections by insurances companies became beneficial restraints.”

Moving Up

In the 1930s New York tackled its congestion problem by parking cars in the sky — for 50 cents an attendant would drive your car onto a hydraulic elevator and hoist it as much as 24 stories above street level, where it remained until you returned to claim it.

One “hotel for autos” had space to park a thousand cars, but it was soon obsolete — cars grew too big to fit in the stalls, and underground parking proved to be a cheaper solution. Kent Automatic Garages folded barely three years after it started, and the sites of its marvels are just anonymous office buildings.

(Thanks, Ron.)

03/26/2022 UPDATE: Hydraulic lifts are still being used! (Thanks, Jim.)

Remaking the World

In 2000, University of Maine geological scientist Roger LeB. Hooke estimated that human beings now move more earth than any other geomorphic agent, 6 metric tons of earth and rock per capita each year (31 tonnes in the United States!), for a global total of about 35 billion tonnes.

For comparison, ancient Egypt moved 625 kg per capita per year, Easter Island 260 kg, and the Mayan city of Copán 665 kg. Rome, at its zenith, including the roads, moved 3.85 tonnes of earth per person each year. Hooke estimates that the earth we’ve moved in the last 5,000 years could build a mountain range 4,000 meters high, 40 km wide, and 100 km long. And if the current rates of increase persist (mostly due to technology and population growth), that mountain range could double in length by 2100.

“One may well ask how long such rates of increase can be sustained, and whether it will be rational behavior or catastrophe that brings them to an end.”

(Roger LeB. Hooke, “On the History of Humans as Geomorphic Agents,” Geology 28:9 [September 2000], 843-846.)

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Colombian activist César López came up with a striking new peace symbol in 2003 — the escopetarra, a guitar fashioned from a gun.

The word combines the Spanish escopeta (shotgun) and guitarra (guitar). López made the first from a Winchester rifle and a Stratocaster; he’s since built four more and given them to various Latin American artists and cities and to the United Nations, which displayed it at a disarmament conference.

López told the BBC that he got the idea when he saw a soldier carrying his weapon like a guitar. “From there sprang the idea of joining the worst invention of mankind can be joined with the most beautiful,” he said. “Some of the AK-47s have the barrels marked with each of the victims. So we mark the barrels with the songs we play.”

Card Catalog

This is pleasing: The first library card catalogs were made using playing cards. During the French Revolution the government created a new system of public libraries, and in order to inventory the books they created the “French Cataloging Code of 1791,” in which bibliographic data was written on playing cards, which were sturdy, uniform, and plentiful. A photo is here.

In The Card Catalog, its affectionate tribute to this now outmoded tool, the Library of Congress notes that 1.2 million cards representing more than 3 million volumes were recorded using this system within 3 years. “Although the ambitious cataloging project did not result in the formation of a national catalog, it did demonstrate the potential of utilizing a uniform format.” (Also: “Deuces and aces were reserved for the longest titles, as those cards had the most space on which to write.”)