Podcast Episode 265: The Great Hedge of India

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the 19th century, an enormous hedge ran for more than a thousand miles across India, installed by the British to enforce a tax on salt. Though it took a Herculean effort to build, today it’s been almost completely forgotten. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe this strange project and reflect on its disappearance from history.

We’ll also exonerate a rooster and puzzle over a racing murderer.

See full show notes …

A Global Code


With The Scientific Dial Primer (1912), Andrew Hallner aimed to make a universal phrasebook for all mankind. The dial contains five rings, and code words can be constructed by working from the center outward. For example, the first ring contains 5 vowels and the second 20 consonants; these can be combined to create 100 two-letter words that are used to represent the numbers 1-100 (ti, for example, means 56). Adding the third ring yields 2,525 one-syllable three-letter words, which are given specific meanings (jad refers to a butcher knife, dag to cement in sacks). With some refinements, the system can encode a message as specific as this:

We shall discard all Sunday newspapers, for these are the chief sinners and temptors, being themselves Sabbath-breakers, and maintain but one or two dailies. But these you need not look at, for I will read to you such articles and extracts as relate to Congress and general intelligence, profitable and elevating to know about.

This assertion would be represented everywhere by the same code, qema; speakers of different languages would only need local phrasebooks that explain this meaning to each in his own tongue.

“By writing or pointing to the Scientific Dial Code-Word, therefore, you can communicate intelligently with any nationality on our globe,” Hallner wrote. “You can travel in or through any country, find the way, buy tickets, give orders in hotels and restaurants, attend to toilet, address the barber, arrange your baths, and do anything and everything necessary in travel; and in ordering goods, in exchanging money, and in carrying on general business transactions. And all this knowledge may be acquired in a week! For to acquire and make use of this knowledge is only to understand the Scientific Dial and the principles involved.”

The whole thing is here.

Math Notes

If a tetrahedron is constructed on a base with side lengths 125, 244, 267, then the remaining sides can take the shapes of three right triangles: (44, 240, 244), (44, 117, 125), (117, 240, 267).

And now the sum of the squares of the lengths of each pair of opposite sides in the tetrahedron is the same:

1172 + 2442 = 1252 + 2402 = 442 + 2672 = 73225

(From Edward Barbeau, Power Play, 1997.)

Dash It All

In “Freaks of the Telegraph,” an 1881 article in Blackwood’s Magazine, Charles Lewes points out that in Morse code the words BAD (-… .- -..) and DEAD (-.. . .- -..) differ only by the space between the D and E in DEAD.

This could result in a sentence such as MOTHER WAS BAD BUT NOW RECOVERED being interpreted strangely as MOTHER WAS DEAD BUT NOW RECOVERED. “Of course, in this case a telegraph operator (short of believing in zombies) would likely notice something was amiss and ask for confirmation of the message — or else attempt to correct it himself,” writes N. Katherine Hayles in How We Think.

But correcting it himself could lead to further misunderstandings. Lewes gives one example: “A lady, some short time since, telegraphed, ‘Send them both thanks,’ by which she meant, ‘Thank you; send them both’ — (the ‘both’ referred to two servants). The telegram reached its destination as ‘Send them both back,’ thus making sense as the official mind would understand it, but a complete perversion of the meaning of the writer.”

Public Health

According to local folklore, the village of Nigg, Scotland, vanquished cholera in a singularly direct way:

In a central part of the churchyard of Nigg there is a rude undressed stone, near which the sexton never ventures to open a grave. A wild apocryphal tradition connects the erection of this stone with the times of the quarantine fleet. The plague, as the story goes, was brought to the place by one of the vessels, and was slowly flying along the ground, disengaged from every vehicle of infection, in the shape of a little yellow cloud. The whole country was alarmed, and groups of people were to be seen on every eminence, watching with anxious horror the progress of the little cloud. They were relieved, however, from their fears and the plague by an ingenious man of Nigg, who, having provided himself with an immense bag of linen, fashioned somewhat in the manner of a fowler’s net, cautiously approached the yellow cloud, and, with a skill which could have owed nothing to previous practice, succeeded in enclosing the whole of it in the bag. He then secured it by wrapping it up carefully, fold after fold, and fastening it down with pin after pin; and as the linen was gradually changing, as if under the hands of the dyer, from white to yellow, he consigned it to the churchyard, where it has slept ever since.

From Hugh Miller, Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland, 1835.

First Sight

In 1728 English surgeon William Cheselden removed the cataracts from a 13-year-old boy, producing the first known case of full recovery from blindness:

Having often forgot which was the cat, and which the dog, he was ashamed to ask; but catching the cat, which he knew by feeling, he was observed to look at her steadfastly and then, setting her down said, ‘So, puss, I shall know you another time.’ He was very much surprised, that those things which he had liked best, did not appear most agreeable to his eyes, expecting those persons would appear to be most beautiful that he loved most, and such things to be most agreeable to his sight, that were so to his taste.

Also: “Being shewn his father’s picture in a locket at his mother’s watch, and told what it was, he acknowledged the likeness, but was vastly surprised; asking, how it could be, that a large face could be expressed in so little room, saying, it should have seemed as impossible for him, as to put a bushel of anything into a pint.” A fuller account is here. See also Molyneaux’s Problem.