Scoop

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Luna_9_moon_surface_image.gif

In February 1966, the Soviet Union’s Luna 9 landed safely on the moon and became the first spacecraft to transmit photographs of the moon seen from surface level.

The Soviets didn’t release the photos immediately, but scientists at England’s Jodrell Bank Observatory, who were observing the mission, realized that the signal format was the same as the Radiofax system that newspapers used to transmit pictures. So they just borrowed a receiver from the Daily Express, decoded the images, and published them.

The BBC observes, “It is thought that Russian scientists had deliberately fitted the probe with the standard television equipment, either to ensure that they would get the higher-quality pictures from Jodrell Bank without having the political embarrassment of asking for them, or to prevent the Soviet authorities from making political capital out of the achievement.”

(Thanks, Andrew.)

An Audio Ghost

When Alexander Graham Bell died in 1922, it was thought that no recordings of his voice had survived. But in 2013 the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History announced that it had a fragile wax-on-cardboard disc that Bell had made as an experiment in sound recording … and that now this could be played using optical scanning technology.

The disc is dated April 15, 1885. Bell spends most of the 4-minute recording reciting figures, but he concludes with the distinct words “Hear my voice: … Alexander … Graham … Bell.” Bell biographer Charlotte Gray wrote:

In that ringing declaration, I heard the clear diction of a man whose father, Alexander Melville Bell, had been a renowned elocution teacher (and perhaps the model for the imperious Prof. Henry Higgins, in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion; Shaw acknowledged Bell in his preface to the play).

I heard, too, the deliberate enunciation of a devoted husband whose deaf wife, Mabel, was dependent on lip reading. And true to his granddaughter’s word, the intonation of the British Isles was unmistakable in Bell’s speech. The voice is vigorous and forthright — as was the inventor, at last speaking to us across the years.

Amazingly, scientists resurrected the voice of Bell’s father too — a man who had been born in 1819.

A Snow Dam

flateyri dam 1

The Icelandic fishing village of Flateyri was devastated when an avalanche buried 17 homes in 1995. To guard against further trouble, they built an earthen dam in the shape of an enormous A.

It worked: An avalanche struck the dam’s eastern wing in February 1999, and another struck the western wing the following March. Both were deflected harmlessly into the sea.

flateyri dam 2

Podcast Episode 142: Fingerprints and Polygraphs

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Fingerprint identification and lie detectors are well-known tools of law enforcement today, but both were quite revolutionary when they were introduced. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the memorable cases where these innovations were first used.

We’ll also see some phantom ships and puzzle over a beer company’s second thoughts.

See full show notes …

The Phonautograph

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Phonautogram_-_Scott_1859.jpg

In 1857, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville patented a device for recording sound: A person spoke or sang into a barrel, causing a membrane of parchment to vibrate and a pig bristle to record a mark on a moving surface of glass or paper.

This was useful in studying the characteristics of sound, but a century and a half would pass before we had the technology to play back the recordings. In 2008, audio historians recovered Scott’s “phonautograms” from the French patent office and converted his waveforms into digital audio files.

The recording below was made on April 9, 1860. It’s the French folk song “Au clair de la lune,” recorded 28 years before Edison’s first wax cylinder.

Shimon

You know the singularity has arrived when the robots start playing marimbas. Shimon, engineer Guy Hoffman’s robot musician, doesn’t play programmed music — it improvises in ensembles with human players, communicating with a “socially expressive head” and favoring musical ideas that are unlikely to be chosen by humans, so as to lead the performance in genuinely novel directions.

“The project, therefore, aims to combine human creativity, emotion, and aesthetic judgment with algorithmic computational capability of computers, allowing human and artificial players to cooperate and build off each other’s ideas,” notes the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, Shimon’s patron. “Unlike computer- and speaker-based interactive music systems, an embodied anthropomorphic robot can create familiar, acoustically rich, and visual interactions with humans.”

More at Georgia Tech.

Proof of Concept

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England went mad for water lilies after an Amazon lily was named after Queen Victoria in 1837. The plants balked at English weather, but when gardener Joseph Paxton put one in an experimental conservatory it flowered in three months.

Ultimately the lilies inspired their own greenhouse: Impressed that their radiating ribs could support his daughter Annie, Paxton borrowed this “natural feat of engineering” to design a new conservatory with a ridge-and-furrow roof. In time this led to his masterpiece: the Crystal Palace of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

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(From the Illustrated London News, Nov. 17, 1849.)

No Connection

In a garden in Ōtsuchi, in the Iwate prefecture on Japan’s east coast, stands an inoperative phone booth that’s nonetheless been used by more than 10,000 people since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed 15,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. The booth, known as the “Kaze no Denwa Box,” or Phone Booth of the Winds, was built by 69-year-old Itaru Sasaki so that local residents could communicate with loved ones who are dead or missing. Sasaki never connected the line, but callers still use the phone to speak to the departed, or write messages on a notepad, trusting that the wind will carry them to their intended recipients.

“In such a stricken environment, it might have been easy to perceive this disconnected phone booth as a whimsical art project incommensurate with the scale of loss experienced by the survivors for whom it was intended,” writes Ariana Kelly in Phone Booth (2015). “But quite the opposite has happened, and for the past several years there has been a steady stream of visitors to the booth, both from Ōtsuchi and other parts of Japan. Perhaps it provides a necessary terminus, a destination in a place marked by eradication. Perhaps one antidote to tragedy is useless beauty, or just uselessness.”

Ecommerce

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In 1857 The Leisure Hour tried to imagine life in London a century in the future, that is, in 1957. Many of the predictions seem sadly optimistic (for instance, the eradication of crime), but one in particular stands out:

I observed that from each of these district shops innumerable electric wires branched off in all directions, communicating with several houses in the district to which it belonged. Thus, no sooner did a house-keeper stand in need of any article than she could despatch the order instantaneously along the wire, and receive the goods by the very first railway carriage that happened to pass the store. Thus, she saved her time, and she lost no money, because all chaffering and cheapening, and that fencing between buyer and seller, which was once deemed a pleasure, had been long voted a disgraceful, demoralizing nuisance, and was done away with.

You can read the whole thing at the Public Domain Review.

Spy Kids

http://www.cryptomuseum.com/crypto/mehano/barbie/

Barbie typewriters, sold worldwide by Mattel, have an undocumented built-in cryptographic capability. Pressing SHIFT and LOCK in combination with a particular trio of keys will engage any of four monoalphabetic substitution ciphers — once the feature is engaged, a keyed message will be printed in a transposed alphabet. Pressing a different combination of keys will put the machine into “decoding mode,” where keying a transposed message will print the deciphered text. So the same machine can be used to code and decode a message.

Details are at the Crypto Museum. These things were marketed to 5-year-olds. What else don’t we know about?

(Thanks, David.)