The Steam Man

I’ve written about this before, but I hadn’t realized a photo existed: In 1868 (!) Zadoc Dederick and Isaac Grass patented a steam-powered robot that pulled a cart. They invested $2,000 in a prototype, hoping to mass-produce top-hatted walking servants for $300 apiece.

The plan never went through, but it lives on in another way: The invention may have inspired Edward Ellis’ 1868 novel The Steam Man of the Prairies, in which a steam-powered robot carries teenage inventor Johnny Brainerd through a series of adventures:

It was about ten feet in height, measuring to the top of the ‘stove-pipe hat,’ which was fashioned after the common order of felt coverings, with a broad brim, all painted a shiny black. The face was made of iron, painted a black color, with a pair of fearful eyes, and a tremendous grinning mouth. A whistle-like contrivance was made to answer for the nose. The steam chest proper and boiler, were where the chest in a human being is generally supposed to be, extending also into a large knapsack arrangement over the shoulders and back. A pair of arms, like projections, held the shafts, and the broad flat feet were covered with sharp spikes, as though he were the monarch of base-ball players. The legs were quite long, and the step was natural, except when running, at which time, the bolt uprightness in the figure showed different from a human being.

“Jump up there, and I’ll give you all a ride!”

The Elements of Style

A letter from E.B. White to J.G. Case, March 30, 1962:

Dear Jack:

The next grammar book I bring out I want to tell how to end a sentence with five prepositions. A father of a little boy goes upstairs after supper to read to his son, but he brings the wrong book. The boy says, ‘What did you bring that book that I don’t want to be read to out of up for?’

And how are YOU?



See Over and Out.


M.C. Escher hated the Dutch high school he attended between 1912 and 1918. He failed his exam and enjoyed only the drawing lessons. But now it appears that the school’s architecture informs some of his later prints.

“It recently became clear that the staircase in Escher’s secondary school was a crucial factor in several of his works,” writes Micky Piller, curator of the The Hague Escher Museum, in The Amazing World of M.C. Escher (2015). “This discovery was confirmed by analysis of this work and photographs taken in the school.

“Escher was an unhappy boy when he was going up and down this staircase. Thirty years on, he still described his school years as ‘the hell that was Arnhem.’ Here he would have seen pupils walking in every direction. Imagine this in your mind’s eye and you will understand the rotating perspective in the print.”

“It was not all imagination, we must conclude now.”

Court Intrigue

A stranger asks you to shuffle an ordinary deck of cards and then cut it into three heaps. He’ll bet you $20 that at least one of the topmost cards is a king, queen, or jack. Should you take the bet?

Click for Answer

The Jones Live-Map,_c._1909,_view_2_-_Museum_of_Science_and_Industry_(Chicago)_-_DSC06693.JPG

Somewhat like George Boyden’s “vehicle signaling system” of 1916, Ernest Jones’ 1909 “Live-Map” navigator reckoned distance by monitoring a car’s wheels. But where Boyden’s invention guided the driver using a phonograph recording, Jones’ communicated directions via a printed paper disk that turned under a stationary pointer.

“Under its guidance the most muddling twists, turns and corners melt away behind you,” read the advertisement. “It is better than a Human Guide because it is always doing its work to the exclusion of everything else. … The Jones Live-Map emancipates you from slavery to great, flopping maps and profound route-books that you can’t make head or tail of without stopping.”

You could mount it on the dashboard, carry it in your lap, and even hand it to other occupants. The downside was that if you missed a turn you’d have to find a town on the route and recalibrate the device — and it cost $75 in 1909, or more than $2,000 today.

In a Word

n. a minor dispute or contest

v. to beat or thrash

adj. pertaining to a master

n. saying enough

Somebody once asked pool hustler Don Willis how good Glen “Eufaula Kid” Womack was.

Willis said, “I never saw him play.”

“What do you mean, you never saw him play? I heard you just beat him out of a lot of money.”

“I did,” Willis said, “but he never got to shoot.”

(From Robert Byrne’s Wonderful World of Pool and Billiards, 1996.)

Finding the Way

Kohta Suzuno of Japan’s Meiji University has devised a way to solve mazes using the Marangoni effect: Fill the maze with milk, place an acidic hydrogel block at the exit, and introduce dye and a soap at the entrance. The pH change alters the surface tension and drives the dye toward the block. “In a typical experiment, the shortest path can be found and visualized within ~10s.” Suzuno has even used this technique to find the shortest distance between two points in Budapest, using a maze modeled on a street map.

(Kohta Suzuno et al., “Marangoni Flow Driven Maze Solving,” in A. Adamatzky, ed., Advances in Unconventional Computing, Vol. 23, 2017.)

Servant Trouble

In What the Butler Saw, E.S. Turner reviews the bizarre case of Hannah More, whose servants formed a conspiracy to rob and defraud her. “The most shameless peculation prevailed in the kitchen,” noted the Rev. Henry Thompson. “Orders were issued to the tradesmen in her name of which the servants reaped the benefit. Monies given for charity were appropriated by the servants.”

Worse, the servants held silent parties below stairs after More had retired for the night. At midnight, the servants from neighboring houses would converge on her home in Somerset, “some creeping through hedges, others descending down laurel walks or emerging from thickets” to enjoy “hot suppers laid out with parlour-like elegance.”

Eventually, tired of keeping quiet, they began to organize balls at a hall a mile away. A suspicious guest of More’s, spying from a window, saw the servants depart the house, dressed up and led by the housekeeper and coachman arm in arm. A scullery maid was left behind to admit the returning servants in time for morning prayers.

Told of this, More asked in a faltering voice, “What, Susan unfaithful, who has lived with me so many years?” “Yes.” “And Timothy, whose relations I have fed and clothed?” “Yes.” “And Teddy and Rebecca and Jane?” “Yes, all.” “What? Not one faithful?” “The whole are faithless!”

More resolved to leave them all and find a new home where she could spend her last days “in calmness, prayer, and praise.” She summoned the villains to the drawing room and told them, “You are no longer my servants. By deserting me and my house at midnight to pursue your revels, you all proved yourselves to be unworthy of my confidence. Your unprincipled conduct has driven me from my home, forced me to seek a refuge among strangers.”

She left a quarter’s wages for each of them and departed in a friend’s coach. “I am driven like Eve from Paradise,” she said, “but not by angels.”

The Carolwood Pacific Railroad

Walt Disney loved trains. In 1947, when he showed off his Lionel set to animators Ward Kimball and Ollie Johnston, they revealed that they had ridable sets in their backyards. So two years later, when Disney bought 5 acres in Los Angeles, he set about building his own ridable railroad, 2,615 feet long and completely surrounding the house. To placate his wife, he named the locomotive after her and added an S-curve tunnel to avoid her garden.

Disney retired the train in 1953 when a derailment left a 5-year-old girl with steam burns, but he credited the Carolwood Pacific Railroad with inspiring Disneyland, which is encircled today by a narrow-gauge steam railroad that draws 6.6 million passengers a year.