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.
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.
“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
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.)
“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
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.
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.
One of the most remote forerunners of the modern computer is a mechanical boy that resides in the Muse d’Art et d’Histoire of Neuchtel, in Switzerland. Designed in the 18th century by Swiss watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz, the automaton clutches a goose feather with which it can write any custom text up to 40 characters, guided by a stack of cams in the interior. Its eyes follow the pen, and it shakes extra ink from its quill after dipping it in an inkwell.
With a similar automaton designed by Swiss watchmaker Henri Maillardet, Jaquet-Droz’s writer helped to inspire Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo.
Struck by a cyclone in a Samoan harbor in 1889, the U.S. warship Trenton had lost steam and rudder and was in danger of foundering on a reef when her navigator, Robert M.G. Brown, thought of an inventive solution: The crew climbed into the port rigging, where their massed bodies acted as a sail. The ship was able to avoid the reef and even approach the sinking sloop Vandalia to rescue her crew. Of the 450 men aboard Trenton, only one was lost.