“Good enough for our transatlantic friends … but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.” — British Parliamentary Committee, on Edison’s light bulb, 1878

The Great Crush Collision

Apparently bored in 1896, Texas railroad agent William G. Crush decided to make his own fun. He got two 35-ton train engines, painted one green and one red, and set them at opposite ends of a four-mile track. Then he sent them toward each other at 45 mph:



Viewed strictly as a publicity stunt, it was a great success: Crush’s advertising had attracted more than 40,000 spectators. Unfortunately, falling debris killed two of them. Moral: Stick to pinochle.

No Vacancy

The world will end on Nov. 13, 2026. That’s according to Austrian cyberneticist Heinz von Foerster, who calculated in a 1960 issue of Science that the human population would reach infinity on that date.

He was joking, but he had a point. To date, population growth hasn’t really inhibited human societies. They’ve just created technology to support larger crowds, which have spawned more inventors, who create more technology, and so on.

Von Foerster’s equation fit 25 data points from the birth of Jesus to 1958, and it stayed on track through 1973. His point was that the doubling time of the human population has been steadily falling, and at this rate it would reach zero in 2026 — so a fundamental change, of some kind, must be coming.



“It is apparent to me that the possibilities of the aeroplane, which two or three years ago were thought to hold the solution to the [flying machine] problem, have been exhausted, and that we must turn elsewhere.” — Thomas Edison, 1895

Better Safe


Johann Taberger designed this “safety coffin” in 1829, to preserve people who had been mistakenly buried alive. Strings were attached to the body’s head, hands, and feet, connected to a bell that would alert the cemetery’s nightwatchman, who could use a bellows to pump air into the coffin until it could be dug up.

Such devices were popular during the cholera epidemics of the 18th and 19th centuries — European graves were rigged variously with bells, flags, ladders, and escape hatches. There’s no evidence that they ever saved anyone, and they nearly killed some of their inventors: During a demonstration in 1897, a chamberlain to the tsar of Russia buried his assistant, waited, and finally realized that the signaling system had failed. The assistant was saved, but the marketing campaign was DOA.

Bad News for Counterfeiters


If you’ve tried to photocopy banknotes since about 1996, you may have found that your copier won’t cooperate — many machines will balk if they detect a pattern of symbols like the one on the left. Eight such patterns are marked on the U.S. $20 bill at right.

The authorities have been understandably mum about the details, but the pattern has been discovered on more than 30 world currencies. It’s known as the EURion constellation.

Water Music

The Great Bell of Dhammazedi may have been the largest bell ever made, reportedly weighing 300 metric tons.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to confirm its size — after the Portuguese removed it from a Myanmar temple in 1608, it was lost in a river.