Podcast Episode 188: The Bat Bomb


During World War II, the U.S. Army experimented with a bizarre plan: using live bats to firebomb Japanese cities. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the crazy history of the bat bomb, the extraordinary brainchild of a Pennsylvania dentist.

We’ll also consider the malleable nature of mental illness and puzzle over an expensive quiz question.


Ever since George Washington, American presidents have hated the job.

Harpsichordist Johann Schobert composed a series of “puzzle minuets” that could be read upside down.

Sources for our feature on the bat bomb:

Jack Couffer, Bat Bomb, 1992.

James M. Powles, “Lytle S. Adams Proposed One of America’s Battiest Weapons,” World War II 17:2 (July 2002), 62.

Robert M. Neer, “Bats Out of Hell,” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 25:4 (Summer 2013), 22-24.

C.V. Glines, “Bat & Bird Bombers,” Aviation History 15:5 (May 2005), 38-44.

Stephan Wilkinson, “10 of History’s Worst Weapons,” Military History 31:1 (May 2014), 42-45.

“Holy Smokes, Batman!” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 49:2 (March 1993), 5.

Alexis C. Madrigal, “Old, Weird Tech: The Bat Bombs of World War II,” Atlantic, April 14, 2011.

Toni Kiser, “Bat Bomb Tests Go Awry,” National WWII Museum, May 15, 2013.

Joanne Grant, “Did They Have Bats in the Belfry? WWII Team Created Novel Bomb to Defeat Japan,” [Bergen County, N.J.] Record, Oct. 27, 1996, A31.

“Air Force Scrapped Top Secret ‘Bat Bomb’ Project in Carlsbad 70 Years Ago,” Carlsbad [N.M.] Current-Argus, May 26, 2014.

Curt Suplee, “Shot Down Before It Could Fly,” Washington Post, Nov. 16, 1992, D01.

T. Rajagopalan, “Birds and Animals in War and Peace,” Alive 401 (March 2016), 92-93.

Cara Giaimo, “The Almost Perfect World War II Plot To Bomb Japan With Bats,” Atlas Obscura, Aug. 5, 2015.


The total loss due to the Carlsbad fire was $6,838, nearly $100,000 today, and the cause was listed as “explosion of incendiary bomb materials.” Base fire marshal George S. Young wrote to the base commander: “In-as-much as the work being done under Lt. Col. Epler was of a confidential nature, and everyone connected with this base had been denied admission, it is impossible for me to determine the exact cause of the fire, but my deduction is that an explosion of incendiary bomb material caused the fire.”

Listener mail:

Ethan Watters, “The Americanization of Mental Illness,” New York Times Magazine, Jan. 8, 2010.

Neel Burton, “The Culture of Mental Illness,” Psychology Today, June 6, 2012.

J.J. Mattelaer and W. Jilek, “Koro — The Psychological Disappearance of the Penis,” Journal of Sexual Medicine 4:5 (September 2007), 1509-1515.

Steven Johnson, Wonderland: How Play Shaped the Modern World, 2016.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Alexander Rodgers. Here are three corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Four of a Kind


If squares are drawn on the sides of a triangle and external to it, then the areas of the triangles formed between the squares all equal the area of the triangle itself.

(Roger Webster, “Bride’s Chair Revisited,” Mathematical Gazette 78:483 [November 1994], 345-346.)

Special Issue

Images: Wikimedia Commons

In 1901 Colombia minted special coins for use in leper colonies. Following the first leprosy congress in Berlin in 1897, the nation minted coins in five values for use in three colonies. The Philippines followed suit in 1913, followed by Japan and Malaysia. The United States produced special coins for a colony in the Panama Canal Zone.

The coins were produced to protect healthy people, but in 1938 Gordon Alexander Ryrie, director of Malaysia’s Sungei Buloh Settlement, proved that the disease can’t spread by such casual contact. His colony burned the notes it had printed.

A British Limerick

A young man called Cholmondeley Colquhoun
Kept as a pet a babolquhoun.
His mother said, “Cholmondeley,
Do you think it quite colmondeley
To feed your babolquhoun with a spolquhoun?”

(Via Willard R. Espy.)

Not Dead Yet

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The red-crested tree rat hadn’t been seen since 1898 when one turned up at the front door of a Colombian ecolodge in 2011. It posed for photos for two hours and then disappeared again. “He just shuffled up the handrail near where we were sitting and seemed totally unperturbed by all the excitement he was causing,” said volunteer researcher Lizzie Noble. “We are absolutely delighted to have rediscovered such a wonderful creature after just a month of volunteering with ProAves.”

The Bermuda land snail had been thought extinct for 40 years when it turned up in a Hamilton alleyway. “The fact that there was so much concrete around them probably saved them from the predators that we believe killed the vast majority of the population island-wide,” ecologist Mark Outerbridge told the Royal Gazette. “People have been looking for these snails for decades and here they are surrounded by concrete and air conditioners living in a 100-square-foot alleyway in Hamilton.”

The mountain pygmy possum was first identified in a fossil in New South Wales in 1895 and thought to be extinct. Seventy years later, in August 1966, a live pygmy possum was found by chance in a ski hut in the Snowy Mountains of Victoria. R.M. Warneke telegraphed W.D.L. Ride, “BURRAMYS EXTANT STOP NOT REPEAT NOT EXTINCT STOP LIVE MALE CAPTURED MOUNT HOTHAM STOP AM TRYING FOR FEMALE.” The lonely possum died before a companion could be found, but four isolated populations of pygmy possums are now known to persist in the Snowy Mountains.

(Joseph F. Merritt, The Biology of Small Mammals, 2010.)

Math Notes


Any three of these numbers add up to a perfect square.

(Discovered by Stan Wagon.)



Disguises adopted by Sherlock Holmes:

  • “Captain Basil” (“The Adventure of Black Peter”)
  • “a common loafer” (“The Beryl Coronet”)
  • a rakish young plumber named Escott (“Charles Augustus Milverton”)
  • a venerable Italian priest (“The Final Problem”)
  • an elderly, deformed bibliophile (“The Empty House”)
  • a French ouvrier (“The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax”)
  • a workman looking for a job, described as “an old sporting man” (“The Mazarin Stone”)
  • an old woman (“The Mazarin Stone”)
  • a “drunken-looking groom” (“A Scandal in Bohemia”)
  • an “amiable and simple-minded” Nonconformist clergyman (“A Scandal in Bohemia”)
  • a sailor (The Sign of the Four)
  • an asthmatic old master mariner (The Sign of the Four)
  • a doddering opium smoker (“The Man With the Twisted Lip”)
  • Mr. Harris, an accountant (“The Stock-Broker’s Clerk”)
  • a registration agent (“The Crooked Man”)
  • a Norwegian explorer named Sigerson (“The Empty House”)
  • an Irish-American spy named Altamont (“His Last Bow”)

In 1895 the Brooklyn Chess Club sent young Harry Nelson Pillsbury to England to compete in the great tournament at Hastings. He took first prize but never matched this early success and died in 1906. “Nobody can understand this sudden flash of greatness,” wrote New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg. “A twenty-two-year-old unknown licked the cream of Europe’s experts, trouncing such formidable masters as Lasker, Tarrasch, Tchigorin, Gunsberg and Mieses.” Schonberg suggested that the mystery is easily solved if the victor at Hastings was not Pillsbury but “the finest analytical mind in Europe, the mind of one who had genius, infinite capacity for concentration, and a brilliant insight into chess. Suppose that it was Sherlock Holmes, the master of disguise, who impersonated Pillsbury at Hastings, letting Pillsbury, on his own after that, sink to his normal level.”

(From The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, 1975, and The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, 2007.)


Image: Flickr

An old “puzzler” from NPR’s Car Talk:

Thirty buyers attended an auction of dozens of cars. Ten of the buyers bought fewer than 6 cars; eight bought more than 7 cars; five bought more than 8 cars; and one bought more than 9 cars.

Of the 30 buyers, how many bought 6, 7, 8, or 9 cars?

Click for Answer



In 1662, while a student at Cambridge, 19-year-old Isaac Newton made a list of 57 sins he’d committed:

Before Whitsunday 1662

Using the word (God) openly
Eating an apple at Thy house
Making a feather while on Thy day
Denying that I made it.
Making a mousetrap on Thy day
Contriving of the chimes on Thy day
Squirting water on Thy day
Making pies on Sunday night
Swimming in a kimnel on Thy day
Putting a pin in Iohn Keys hat on Thy day to pick him.
Carelessly hearing and committing many sermons
Refusing to go to the close at my mothers command.
Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them
Wishing death and hoping it to some
Striking many
Having uncleane thoughts words and actions and dreamese.
Stealing cherry cobs from Eduard Storer
Denying that I did so
Denying a crossbow to my mother and grandmother though I knew of it
Setting my heart on money learning pleasure more than Thee
A relapse
A relapse
A breaking again of my covenant renued in the Lords Supper.
Punching my sister
Robbing my mothers box of plums and sugar
Calling Dorothy Rose a jade
Glutiny in my sickness.
Peevishness with my mother.
With my sister.
Falling out with the servants
Divers commissions of alle my duties
Idle discourse on Thy day and at other times
Not turning nearer to Thee for my affections
Not living according to my belief
Not loving Thee for Thy self
Not loving Thee for Thy goodness to us
Not desiring Thy ordinances
Not [longing] for Thee in [illegible]
Fearing man above Thee
Using unlawful means to bring us out of distresses
Caring for worldly things more than God
Not craving a blessing from God on our honest endeavors.
Missing chapel.
Beating Arthur Storer.
Peevishness at Master Clarks for a piece of bread and butter.
Striving to cheat with a brass halfe crowne.
Twisting a cord on Sunday morning
Reading the history of the Christian champions on Sunday

Since Whitsunday 1662

Using Wilfords towel to spare my own
Negligence at the chapel.
Sermons at Saint Marys (4)
Lying about a louse
Denying my chamberfellow of the knowledge of him that took him for a [illegible] sot.
Neglecting to pray 3
Helping Pettit to make his water watch at 12 of the clock on Saturday night

“We aren’t sure what prompted this confession,” writes Mitch Stokes in his 2010 biography of the physicist. “Some biographers think that it was in response to an inner crisis. Perhaps it was the occasion of his conversion, or at least of his ‘owning his faith.’ We simply don’t know.”


University of Minnesota percussionist Gene Koshinski’s composition “As One” has two performers (here, Koshinski and Tim Broscious) complementing each other on identical setups, splitting one complex piece into two complex halves.

More about Koshinski at his website.