Better Late

In 1895, hoping to marry sound and pictures, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson played a violin into a phonograph horn in Thomas Edison’s experimental film studio, and the sound was recorded on a wax cylinder.

The experiment went well, but the team made no attempt to unite sound and image at the time. The film portion remained well known, but the wax cylinder drifted into another archive and was rediscovered only in the 1960s. It wasn’t until 2000 that film editor Walter Murch succeeded in adding the music to the long-famous fragment, and Dickson’s violin could finally be heard.

The vignette, now the oldest known piece of sound film, shows that sound was not a late addition to moviemaking, film preservationist Rick Schmidlin told the New York Times. “This teaches that sound and film started together in the beginning.”

In Short

Large as the English word-stock is, it is not perfect. There are a number of situations which other languages have a single word for, but which English must express by circumlocution. Some of these were described by Dmitri Borgmann in the February 1970 Word Ways. For example, the English phrase ONE AND ONE HALF is succinctly described by Polish POLTORA, German ANDERTHALB or Latin SESQUIALTER. (In fact the Polish even have the word POLOSMA for SEVEN AND ONE HALF!) Similarly, English THE DAY BEFORE YESTERDAY is more compactly expressed by German VORGESTERN or Spanish ANTEAYER, and English THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW by German UBERMORGEN, Italian DOPODOMANI or Polish POJUTRZE. To express relationships, German uses GESCHWISTER for BROTHERS AND SISTERS, Polish uses STRYJ for the paternal uncle and WUJ for the maternal uncle, and SZWAGROSTWO for one’s husband’s brother and his wife.

— A. Ross Eckler, “English: Best For(e)play With Words,” Word Ways, August 2008

Marine Engineering

An inventive idea from Benjamin Franklin:

The Accidents I have seen at Sea with large Dishes of Soup upon a Table, from the Motion of the Ship, have made me wish that our Potters or Pewterers would make Soup Dishes in Divisions, like a Set of small Bowls united together, each containing about sufficient for one Person, in some such Form as this,

https://books.google.com/books?id=Ukw8qG8Zl2oC&pg=PA463

for then when the ship should make a sudden Heel, the Soup would not in a Body flow over one Side & fall into People’s Laps & scald them, as is sometimes the case, but would be retain’d in the separate Divisions, as in this Figure.

https://books.google.com/books?id=Ukw8qG8Zl2oC&pg=PA463

Also: “If your dry Peas boil hard, a two Pound Iron Shot put with them into the Pot, will by the Motion of the Ship grind them as fine as Mustard.”

(From a letter to David Le Roy, August 1785.)

Podcast Episode 95: A New Day at Charleston

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Robert_Smalls_-_Brady-Handy.jpg

In 1862, slave Robert Smalls was working as a pilot aboard a Confederate transport ship in Charleston, S.C., when he siezed a unique chance to escape. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow his daring predawn journey, which rescued 17 people from slavery and changed the course of South Carolina history.

We’ll also reflect on justice for bears and puzzle over a hijacker’s surprising request.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Sources for our feature on Robert Smalls:

Andrew Billingsley, Yearning to Breathe Free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and His Families, 2007.

Kitt Haley Alexander, Robert Smalls: First Black Civil War Hero, 2001.

Peggy Cooper Davis, “Introducing Robert Smalls,” Fordham Law Review 69:5 (April 2001), 1695.

“Robert Smalls,” American National Biography Online, accessed Feb. 14, 2016.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Which Slave Sailed Himself to Freedom?”, PBS.org (accessed Feb. 14, 2016).

Micah White, “Black History Unsung Heroes: Robert Smalls,” biography.com, Feb 9, 2015.

“Smalls, Robert,” History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives (accessed Feb. 14, 2016).

Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle, “Robert Smalls’s Great Escape,” New York Times, May 12, 2012.

Avis Thomas-Lester, “Civil War Hero Robert Smalls Seized the Opportunity to Be Free,” Washington Post, March 2, 2012.

Amy Geier Edgar, “Bill Would Honor Black Pioneer in Business, Politics,” Associated Press, March 26, 2004.

Listener mail:

Todd Wilkinson, “What Do You Do With a Bear That Kills a Person?”, National Geographic, Aug. 20, 2015.

Sarene Leeds, “‘Downton Abbey’ Recap: Season 6, Episode 5,” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 31, 2016.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Rini Rikka.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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!

Another Day

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Flying alone over France in April 1917, German flying ace Ernst Udet engaged another lone pilot in aerial combat. The other pilot, a Frenchman, was exceptionally talented, anticipating all of Udet’s moves and reacting instantly. “Sometimes we pass so closely I can clearly recognize a narrow, pale face under the leather helmet,” Udet wrote later. “On the fuselage, between the wings, there is a word in black letters. As he passes me for the fifth time, so close that his propwash shakes me back and forth, I can make it out: ‘Vieux‘ it says there — vieux — the old one. That’s Guynemer’s sign.”

Guynemer was Georges Guynemer, France’s top fighter ace, who had brought down 30 Germans in fights like this. “Slowly I realize his superiority,” Udet wrote. “His aircraft is better, he can do more than I, but I continue to fight.” For a moment he managed to get Guynemer into his sights, but he found that his gun wouldn’t fire — it was blocked.

Udet tried to clear the stoppage by hand but failed. He considered diving away but knew that Guynemer would instantly shoot him down. They circled one another for another eight minutes as Udet sought to evade the Frenchman’s guns. When Guynemer swooped overhead, Udet hammered the gun with his fists and then realized his mistake:

Guynemer has observed this from above, he must have seen it, and now he knows what gives with me. He knows I’m helpless prey.

Again he skims over me, almost on his back. Then it happens: he sticks out his hand and waves to me, waves lightly, and dives to the west in the direction of his lines.

I fly home. I’m numb.

“There are people who claim Guynemer had a stoppage himself then,” Udet wrote in Ace of the Iron Cross. “Others claim he feared I might ram him in desperation. But I don’t believe any of them. I still believe to this day that a bit of chivalry from the past has continued to survive. For this reason I lay this belated wreath on Guynemer’s unknown grave.”