For more than 40 years in the early 20th century, Martin Couney ran a sideshow in which premature babies were displayed in incubators. With this odd practice he offered a valuable service in an era when many hospitals couldn’t. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Couney’s unusual enterprise, which earned both criticism and praise.
We’ll also marvel over an Amazonian survival and puzzle over a pleasing refusal.
“Wherever there is a phonograph the musical instrument is displaced. The time is coming when no one will be ready to submit himself to the ennobling discipline of learning music. Everyone will have their ready-made or ready-pirated music in their cupboards.”
— John Philip Sousa, New York Morning Telegraph, June 12, 1906
Finland’s Raahe Museum contains the oldest surviving diving suit in the world, “The Old Gentleman,” an outfit of calf leather that could sustain a man long enough to inspect the bottom of a sailing vessel.
Museum conservator Jouko Turunen made a copy in 1988. Pleasingly, he called it The Young Gentleman.
This 13th-century double-edged sword, possibly of German manufacture, was found in the River Witham, Lincolnshire, in 1825. Inlaid in gold wire along one of its edges is a curious inscription:
It’s been speculated that this is a religious invocation, but its full meaning is not clear. In 2015 the British Library invited readers to offer their thoughts, but no conclusive solution was reached. Medieval historian Marc van Hasselt of Utrecht University says it may be the product of a sophisticated workshop that made swords for the elite, as similar blades have been found throughout Europe. “These similarities go so far as to suggest the same hand in making the inscriptions. However, their contents are still a mystery, regardless of their origins.”
In September 2008, Mike Nolan, head of web services at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk, England, noticed something strange on Google Maps. “I grew up in the area and spotted on the map one day that it said ‘Argleton’,” he told the Guardian. “But it’s just a farmer’s field close to the village hall and playing fields. I think a footpath goes across the field, but that’s all.”
Bloggers began to discuss the nonexistent town, which found its way into other services that used Google’s data: Employment agencies, weather services, and letting agents began to cite Argleton in their listings, reassigning real people and businesses to the phantom settlement because of its claimed location.
Was it a joke? A placeholder? A misspelling? Whatever it was, it had disappeared again by May 2010. Google would say only that it experiences “occasional errors” and that it gets its mapping information from a Dutch company called Tele Atlas (whose spokesperson would add only, “I really can’t explain why these anomalies get into our database”).
Danny Dorling, president of the Society of Cartographers, said, “I would bet that this is an innocent mistake. In other words, it was not intentionally inserted to catch out anyone infringing the map’s copyright, as some are saying. But the bottom line is that we don’t know what mapping companies do to protect their maps or to hide secret locations, as some are obligated to do.”
In the Middle Ages, before the advent of street lighting or organized police forces, fortified cities and towns used to discourage vandals by closing their gates and laying chains across their roads, “as if it were in tyme of warr.” Historian A. Roger Ekirch writes that Nuremberg “maintained more than four hundred sets [of chains]. Unwound each evening from large drums, they were strung at waist height, sometimes in two or three bands, from one side of a street to the other … [and] Paris officials in 1405 set all the city’s farriers to forging chains to cordon off not just streets but also the Seine.”
In some cities, residents who’d returned home for the night were required to give their keys to the authorities. A Paris decree of 1380 reads, “At night all houses … are to be locked and the keyes deposited with a magistrate. Nobody may then enter or leave a house unless he can give the magistrate a good reason for doing so.”
(From Jane Brox, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, 2010.)
In 1929, Indiana Bell bought the Central Union Telephone Company of Indianapolis. Central Union’s headquarters building at that time was more than 20 years old and inadequate to the new company’s needs, but rather than demolish it, architect Kurt Vonnegut Sr. (father of the novelist) proposed moving it out of the way.
Over the course of a month, the 10,000-ton building was shifted 52 feet south, rotated 90 degrees, then shifted another 100 feet west. Amazingly, this was all accomplished while the building was open and operating — customer telephone service was never interrupted, and the building’s gas, heat, electricity, and water operated continuously throughout the move.
A new headquarters was built on the old site, and the shifted building stood in its new position until 1963.
When heating is all done electrically, and I want 70 degrees in my home, I shall set the thermostat at 70 and the temperature will not rise above that point. This temperature will be maintained uniformly regardless of the weather outside.
This will also hold true on the warm day when the temperature outside may be 90 or 100 degrees. The same electrical apparatus will cool the air, and what’s more it will also keep the humidity normal at all times.
“Look back 100 years and it is like jumping into the Dark Ages,” he wrote. “The electrical development is still in its infancy.”
Thomas Heatherwick designed this “rolling bridge” in 2002 as part of a redevelopment of London’s Paddington Basin. When not in use it curls into an octagon half the width of the waterway, and when extended the eight sections form a 12-meter footbridge.
It won the 2005 British Structural Steel Design Award in 2005.
Moving beyond attempts at merely contacting the dead, artist Attila von Szalay claimed to be the first researcher to actually record the discarnate voices of the spirit world. Von Szalay’s quest began in 1936, while he worked in his darkroom. He claimed to hear in this darkened chamber the voice of his deceased brother calling his name. A subsequent interest in Yoga, meditation, and Eastern philosophy made him better able to hear such voices, and in 1941 he attempted for the first time to record the spirits on a 78 rpm record (with disappointing results). It wasn’t until 1956 that von Szalay ‘successfully’ recorded such phenomena, this time using a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Perhaps unaware of their importance in the history of telecommunications, the first recorded spirit voices offered such banal messages as ‘This is G!,’ ‘Hot dog, Art!,’ and ‘Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.’ These pioneering sessions were reported by noted psychic researcher Raymond Baylass in a letter to the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research in 1959.
— Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence From Telegraphy to Television, 2000