Table Talents

Born in 1870, George H. Sutton lost both arms below the elbows in a sawmill accident at age 8, but he rose to become one of the foremost billiards players in the nation. In reporting on a Brooklyn tournament in 1903, the New York Times wrote:

Sutton’s handicap in having lost both hands and forearms about three inches below the elbows, gave a novelty to the game, and the ease and rapidity with which he executed the difficult shots was astonishing. His strongest forte seemed to be in the hard massés and draw shots. In all his cue work, Sutton uses no artificial device, and the stick rests either upon the hollow of the left arm at the elbow, the ‘bridge,’ or table rail, the ‘bridge’ being supported by holding the handle on the right knee slightly elevated. The force of propulsion when shooting with one arm comes from the flexible muscles below the elbow joint at the stump of the arm.

He kept this up for 35 years. “Many armless men and women have learned by painstaking practice to make use of their feet for writing, piano-playing, etc.,” marveled Popular Science Monthly in 1918, “but there are probably no parallel instances on record where a man deprived of both arms has become an expert billiard-player by the use of his arm stumps.”

In 1930, he made a run of 3,000 points at straight billiards, which billiards author Robert Byrne calls “one of the most astounding records in any game or sport.” He died of a heart attack at age 68, still on tour.


In the 14th century, after copying a 614-page handwritten manuscript in double columns, an unknown scribe entered this in the colophon:

Explicit secunda pars summe fratris thome de aquino ordinis fratrum predicatorum, longissima, prolixissima, et tediosissima scribenti: Deo gratias, Deo gratias, et iterum Deo gratias.

It means, “Here ends the second part of the title work of Brother Thomas Aquinas of the Dominican Order; very long, very verbose, and very tedious for the scribe. Thank God, thank God, and again thank God.”

(From M.B. Parkes, Their Hands Before Our Eyes: A Closer Look at Scribes, 2017.)

The Lamppost Trick

In 1916, when Norman Rockwell began his career painting covers for the Saturday Evening Post, he faced a “recurring crisis” in coming up with new ideas. “I’d feel all washed out, blank, nothing in my head but a low buzzing noise,” he wrote in his 1960 autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator. “One day, after I’d been aimlessly sketching and crumpling up sheets of paper for hours, I said to myself, This has got to stop; I can’t sit here and muse all day. So I figured out a system and used it for 20 years or so.”

When I had run out of ideas, I’d eat a light meal, sharpen 20 pencils, and lay out a dozen pads of paper on the dining room table. Then I’d draw a lamppost (after a while I got to be the best lamppost artist in America). Then I’d draw a drunken sailor leaning on the lamppost. I’d think about the sailor. Did his girl marry someone else while he was at sea? He’s stranded in a foreign port without money? No. I’d think of the sailor patching his clothes on shipboard. That would remind me of a mother darning her little boy’s pants. Well, what did she find in the pocket? A top. A knife handle. A turtle — I’d sketch a turtle slouching slowly along to —

He would spend three or four hours following this random train of thought while drawings piled up on the floor; then he’d go to bed miserable and desperate. The next morning, still desperate, “I’d kick my trash bucket and suddenly, as it rolled bumpety-bump across the floor, an idea would come to me like a flash of lightning.” He’d follow up this new idea, and once he understood enough about the scene, he removed the lamppost.

“I’d given my brain such a beating the night before that it was in a sensitive state,” he explained. “Pretty soon I’d have a Post cover.”

Foreign Food
Image: Flickr

In The Ouija Book (1979), Gina Covina writes, “Whatever your work or field of interest, it brings an added richness to your Ouija sessions, and Ouija will return this richness by sparking new ideas and reflecting imaginative perspectives back on your field of interest.” One day, “in a particularly domestic mood,” she sat at her Ouija table and found herself copying down this recipe:

Mix together equal parts peanut butter, honey, and nutritional yeast. Add raisins or nuts if desired. Make into balls and roll balls in coconut.

She calls it “Goo Ball,” “an excessively healthful candy that provides all the B vitamins in doses larger than you’ll find anywhere.” Where it came from, exactly, is unknown — proceed at your own risk.

Good Boy

In 1921, when someone complimented Warren G. Harding on a particularly fine speech, he said, “The best thing I ever wrote was an obituary for my dog. I felt that, and anybody can write when he feels very strongly upon his subject. Some day I’ll find a copy of that tribute to my dog and you’ll agree with me that it was good.”

He had published the piece while editing the Marion, Ohio, Star. Managing editor George Van Fleet retrieved the obituary from the newspaper files and sent a copy to the White House. Here it is:

Edgewood Hub in the register, a mark of his breeding, but to us just Hub, a little Boston terrier, whose sentient eye mirrored the fidelity and devotion of his loyal heart. The veterinary said he was poisoned; perhaps he was — his mute suffering suggested it. One is reluctant to believe that a human being who claims man’s estate could be so hateful a coward as to ruthlessly torture and kill a trusting victim, made defenseless through his confidence in the human master, but there are such. One honest look from Hub’s trusting eyes was worth a hundred lying greetings from such inhuman beings, though they wore the habiliments of men.

Perhaps you wouldn’t devote these lines to a dog. But Hub was a Star office visitor nearly every day of the six years in which he deepened attachment. He was a grateful and devoted dog, with a dozen lovable attributes, and it somehow voices the yearnings of broken companionship to pay his memory deserved tribute.

It isn’t orthodox to ascribe a soul to a dog — if soul means immortality. But Hub was loving and loyal, with the jealousy that tests its quality. He was reverent, patient, faithful; he was sympathetic, more than humanly so, sometimes, for no lure could be devised to call him from the sick bed of mistress or master. He minded his own affairs, especially worthy of human emulation, and he would kill or wound no living thing. He was modest and submissive where these qualities were becoming, yet he assumed a guardianship of the home he sentineled, until entry was properly vouched. He couldn’t speak our language though he somehow understood, but he could be and was eloquent with uttering eye and wagging tail, and the other expressions of knowing dogs. No, perhaps he had no soul, but in these things are the essence of soul and the spirit of lovable life.

Whether the Creator planned it so, or environment and human companionship have made it so, men learn richly through the love and fidelity of a brave and devoted dog. Such loyalty might easily add lustre to a crown of immortality.

Up and Up

The Shepard tone is an auditory illusion: A succession of overlapping scales are played, each ascending, and each scale fades out as its successor fades in an octave lower. The resulting impression is of a climbing pitch that never “arrives” anywhere, a rising note that never gets higher.

Among many other applications, this sound was used for the Batpod in Christopher Nolan’s films The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises — the vehicle seems constantly to accelerate without ever changing gear. “When played on a keyboard,” wrote sound designer Richard King, “it gives the illusion of greater and greater speed; the pod appears unstoppable.”

(Thanks, Nick.)

01/31/2022 UPDATE: Similarly, the Risset Rhythm seems to speed up:

(Thanks, Chris.)

The Conroy Virtus

The space shuttle was originally designed to propel itself, both on returning from a mission and in hopping among various landing sites. When air-breathing engines were judged too heavy and costly, NASA had to find another way to move the shuttle around.

One unlikely candidate was the Virtus, a pair of B-52 fuselages mounted to a giant wing. Proposed by American aviator John M. Conroy, the aircraft would have had a wingspan of 140 meters and a takeoff weight of 850,000 pounds.

Prototypes performed well in the wind tunnel, but the prospect of building, testing, and accommodating a new aircraft, and especially such a large one, finally argued against it, and NASA decided to piggyback the shuttle on a 747.

Case Closed

Who wrote the works of Shakespeare? Here’s a novel way to decide the question: In 1987 Supreme Court justices Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, and John Paul Stevens presided over a moot-court debate at American University to consider whether the author was really Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. (The session was underwritten by David Lloyd Kreeger, a noted benefactor of theater in Washington, D.C., and an ardent Oxfordian.)

After considering evidence presented by two American University law professors, all three justices chose Shakespeare, though Stevens expressed some uncertainty based on the author’s refined sensibilities.

“Just reading it cold,” he said, “I would tend to draw the inference that the author of these plays was a nobleman; there are just too many places in which nobility is stressed as a standard. In Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, the standard is which ‘is the nobler in the mind.’ There are all sorts of references to nobility and skills that are familiar to the nobility but unknown to most common people. So, you can’t help but have these gnawing doubts that this great author may perhaps have been someone else.”

Blackmun agreed that, of the various alternative claimants, Oxford had come closest to proving his case. “Whether that is enough is something that we’re supposed to say, I suppose; and yet, I am reluctant to say it.” Brennan added, “My conclusion is that Oxford did not prove that he was the author of the plays. And so, I feel that the 200 years that elapsed — I gather at least that long — after Shakespeare’s death before any doubt was cast on whether or not he was the author, leaves the thing about where we started.”

The debate was attended by more than a thousand people and published afterward in the American University Law Review (37:3, 1988).

Similarly, in 1892 the Boston monthly Arena set up a “tribunal of literary criticism” to decide whether Francis Bacon deserved the credit. After more than a year of contributions from various authorities, including the actor Sir Henry Irving, a panel of judges decided overwhelmingly for Shakespeare.

A Wand’ring Minstrel

Gilbert and Sullivan gained fame around the world for their operettas. But where W.S. Gilbert could be impatient and irascible, Arthur Sullivan was full of lively good humor. Vernon Blackburn remembered a curious incident from his travels:

It so happened that I journeyed to Rome almost immediately after my hearing for the first time The Yeomen of the Guard. I was full of its melodies, full of its charm; and one night walking through the Piazza di Spagna, I was whistling the beautiful concerted piece, ‘Strange Adventure,’ whistling it with absolutely no concern and just for the love of the music. A window was suddenly opened and a little face looked out in the moonlight, while a thin voice exclaimed in apparent seriousness: ‘Who’s that whistling my music?’ I looked up with astonishment and with some awe, and told the gentleman that if he were Sir Arthur Sullivan it was his music that I was whistling; and, said I, I thought that the copyright did not extend to Italy. I remember how he convulsed with laughter somewhat to my discomfiture, and closed the window to shut out the chill of the night. I never dared at that period of life to make any call upon one whom I considered to be so far above the possibilities of intercourse.

In his 1908 memoir, baritone Rutland Barrington remembered: “There was invariably enormous competition for seats at the Savoy premieres, and it was difficult to find room for all friends. On one occasion a great personal friend of Sullivan’s, Mr Reuben Sassoon, had applied too late, and backed his application with a piteous appeal to Sullivan for help. He at once said to Carte, ‘If he’ll change the first letter of his name, I’ll give him a seat in the orchestra.'”