The Telharmonium,_Holyoke,_Massachusetts.jpg

Inventor Thaddeus Cahill offered a startling advance in 1895: An electronic keyboard instrument that could distribute music over the nation’s telephone networks. By combining sine waves according to Hermann Helmholtz’s new theories, the device could approximate the tone of any given instrument using electrical dynamos.

After hearing a demonstration at the Hotel Hamilton, Ray Stannard Baker wrote in McClure’s, “The first impression the music makes upon the listener is its singular difference from any music ever heard before: in the fullness, roundness, completeness, of its tones.”

Unfortunately, the device required an enormous amount of electricity, it disrupted the New York telephone network, and it was rapidly overtaken by other inventions in an immensely fruitful period. Cahill had hoped to fund it through subscriptions, and this quickly became impossible. But it had its adherents — Mark Twain’s friend Albert Bigelow Paine recalled a social gathering at the Clemens home at which the author demonstrated the instrument:

“Clemens was filled with enthusiasm over the idea. He made a speech a little before midnight, in which he told how he had generally been enthusiastic about inventions which had turned out more or less well in about equal proportions. He did not dwell on the failures, but he told how he had been the first to use a typewriter for manuscript work; how he had been one of the earliest users of the fountain-pen; how he had installed the first telephone ever used in a private house, and how the audience now would have a demonstration of the first telharmonium music so employed. It was just about the stroke of midnight when he finished, and a moment later the horns began to play chimes and ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘America.'”

Casper the Commuting Cat

Susan Finden named her cat Casper because he kept disappearing, visiting doctor’s offices, office buildings, and pharmacies near her Weymouth home. When she moved to Plymouth in 2006 she was too busy to monitor his daily activities, and so three years later she was surprised to learn that he was riding buses. The drivers, who looked out for him, told her that he would journey 11 miles to the city center and back, sitting on a favored seat. They would let him out opposite his house.

“I couldn’t believe it at first, but it explains a lot,” she said. “He loves people and we have a bus stop right outside our house so that must be how he got started — just following everyone on.”

Ironically, or perhaps inevitably, he was finally killed by a taxi. The news of his death brought condolences from around the world, and Finden wrote a best-selling book. “He will be greatly missed,” she wrote in a note posted on Casper’s usual bus stop. “He was a much-loved pet who had so much character. Thank you to all those who befriended him.”

In a Word

adj. able to bark

There’s a word for you! Eileen Power’s The Wool Trade in English Medieval History (1941) quotes a 13th-century treatise on estate management:

It profiteth the lord to have discreet shepherds, watchful and kindly, so that the sheep be not tormented by their wrath, but crop their pasture in peace and joyfulness; for it is a token of the shepherd’s kindness if the sheep be not scattered abroad but browse around him in company. Let him provide himself with a good barkable dog and lie nightly with his sheep.

Bonus: hinnible means able to neigh or whinny.


From reader Derek Christie:

Each player in a game of cribbage has a hand of four cards. A single further card is turned up and serves as the fifth card in every player’s hand. Part of the game involves scoring your hand. You get points for any combination of cards that adds to 15, like 9 4 2; for two or more of any rank, like 3 3; or for any run of three or more, like Ace 2 3. The Jack, Queen, and King each score 10. Show that if a 5 has been turned up, every player must score some points.

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Nullius in Bonis

In the early 1900s, a train company left a coffin in the rain, resulting in “mutilation” of the corpse. The widow sought damages, which raised a poignant question: Who owns a corpse? An earlier case had held that once it’s buried a corpse belongs to the ground; a person who dug it up improperly would be guilty merely of trespass. But another case had deemed a corpse “quasi-property”: It may belong to no one, but certainly the kin have an interest in it. Joseph Henry Lumpkin of the Georgia Supreme Court wrote:

Death is unique. It is unlike aught else in its certainty and its incidents. A corpse in some respects is the strangest thing on earth. A man who but yesterday breathed and thought and walked among us has passed away. Something has gone. The body is left still and cold, and is all that is visible to mortal eye of the man we knew. Around it cling love and memory. Beyond it may reach hope. It must be laid away. And the law — that rule of action which touches all human things — must touch also this thing of death. It is not surprising that the law relating to this mystery of what death leaves behind cannot be precisely brought within the letter of all the rules regarding corn, lumber and pig iron.

The court ruled in favor of the widow, and this view is widely held today: The survivors have the right to take possession of a body and dispose of it.


When Frank Bunker Gilbreth needed a name for an elementary motion in the workplace, he called it a therblig — his own name (nearly) backward.

The jazz standard “Airegin,” composed by Sonny Rollins in 1954, is Nigeria spelled backward.

The utopia Erewhon in Samuel Butler’s novel of that name is (nearly) nowhere backward.

In 1963 the Beatles set up a merchandising company called Seltaeb.

A variation in gravitational lensing caused by Earth’s motion is called parallax. A change caused by motion of the source (for example, a binary star) is called xallarap.

The reciprocal of an ohm is a mho.

The reciprocal of a farad is a daraf.

The reciprocal of a henry is a yrneh.

The distant minor planet 20461 Dioretsa orbits the sun with a retrograde motion. Its name is asteroid spelled backward.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1893, intrepid Englishwoman Mary Kingsley decided to visit West Africa, where she collected beetles and fishes, negotiated the Ogowé River rapids in a canoe, and climbed the Great Cameroon. One evening she was forging through some underbrush when she found herself “in a heap, on a lot of spikes, some fifteen feet or so below ground level, at the bottom of a bag-shaped game pit.”

It is at these times you realise the blessing of a good thick skirt. Had I paid heed to the advice of many people in England, who ought to have known better, and did not do it themselves, and adopted masculine garments, I should have been spiked to the bone, and done for. Whereas, save for a good many bruises, here I was with the fulness of my skirt tucked under me, sitting on nine ebony spikes some twelve inches long, in comparative comfort, howling lustily to be hauled out. The Duke came along first, and looked down at me. I said, ‘Get a bush-rope, and haul me out.’ He grunted and sat down on a log. The Passenger came next, and he looked down. ‘You kill?’ says he. ‘Not much,’ say I; ‘get a bush-rope and haul me out.’ ‘No fit,’ says he, and sat down on the log. Presently, however, Kiva and Wiki came up, and Wiki went and selected the one and only bush-rope suitable to haul an English lady, of my exact complexion, age, and size, out of that one particular pit. They seemed rare round there from the time he took; and I was just casting about in my mind as to what method would be best to employ in getting up the smooth, yellow, sandy-clay, incurved walls, when he arrived with it, and I was out in a twinkling.

Of her Rudyard Kipling said, “Being human, she must have been afraid of something, but one never found out what it was.”

(From her 1897 book Travels in West Africa.)

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.)