The Futility Closet podcast is a weekly show featuring forgotten stories from the pages of history. Join us each Monday for surprising and curious tales from the past and to challenge yourself with our lateral thinking puzzles.

You can listen using the streaming players below, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Android, or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Support us on Patreon to get post-show discussions, outtakes, extra lateral thinking puzzles, and more.

If you have any questions or comments, please write to us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 173: The Worst Journey in the World


In 1911, three British explorers made a perilous 70-mile journey in the dead of the Antarctic winter to gather eggs from a penguin rookery in McMurdo Sound. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the three through perpetual darkness and bone-shattering cold on what one man called “the worst journey in the world.”

We’ll also dazzle some computers and puzzle over some patriotic highways.


In 2014, mathematician Kevin Ferland determined the largest number of words that will fit in a New York Times crossword puzzle.

In 1851, phrenologist J.P. Browne examined Charlotte Brontë without knowing her identity.

Sources for our feature on Apsley Cherry-Garrard:

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, 1922.

Sara Wheeler, Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, 2007.

“Scott Perishes Returning From Pole,” Salt Lake Tribune, Feb. 11, 1913.

Paul Lambeth, “Captain Scott’s Last Words Electrify England and World by Their Pathetic Eloquence,” San Francisco Call, Feb. 12, 1913.

Hugh Robert Mill, “The Worst Journey in the World: Antarctic, 1910-1913,” Nature 111:2786 (March 24, 1923), 386-388.

“Cherry-Garrard, Explorer, Dead,” New York Times, May 19, 1959.

“Obituary: Apsley Cherry-Garrard,” Geographical Journal 125:3/4 (September-December 1959), 472.

James Lees-Milne, “From the Shavian Past: XCII,” Shaw Review 20:2 (May 1977), 62.

W.N. Bonner, “British Biological Research in the Antarctic,” Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 14:1 (August 1980), 1-10.

John Maxtone-Graham, “How Quest for Penguin Eggs Ended,” New York Times, Oct. 2, 1994.

Gabrielle Walker, “The Emperor’s Eggs,” New Scientist 162:2182 (April 17, 1999), 42-47.

Gabrielle Walker, “It’s Cold Out There,” New Scientist 172:2315 (Nov. 3, 2001), 54.

Edward J. Larson, “Greater Glory,” Scientific American 304:6 (June 2011), 78-83.

“When August Was Cold and Dark,” New York Times, Aug. 8, 2011, A18.

Robin McKie, “How a Heroic Hunt for Penguin Eggs Became ‘The Worst Journey in the World,'” Guardian, Jan. 14, 2012.

Matilda Battersby, “Cache of Letters About Scott Found as Collection of His Possessions Acquired for the Nation,” Independent, July 19, 2012.

Karen May, “Could Captain Scott Have Been Saved? Revisiting Scott’s Last Expedition,” Polar Record 49:1 (January 2013), 72-90.

Karen May and Sarah Airriess, “Could Captain Scott Have Been Saved? Cecil Meares and the ‘Second Journey’ That Failed,” Polar Record 51:3 (May 2015), 260-273.

Shane McCorristine and Jane S.P. Mocellin, “Christmas at the Poles: Emotions, Food, and Festivities on Polar Expeditions, 1818-1912,” Polar Record 52:5 (September 2016), 562-577.

Carolyn Philpott, “Making Music on the March: Sledging Songs of the ‘Heroic Age’ of Antarctic Exploration,” Polar Record 52:6 (November 2016), 698-716.


Listener mail:

Robinson Meyer, “Anti-Surveillance Camouflage for Your Face,” Atlantic, July 24, 2014.

Adam Harvey, “Face to Anti-Face,” New York Times, Dec. 14, 2013.

“How to Find a Spider in Your Yard on a Tuesday at 8:47pm.”

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Petr Smelý, who sent these corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

Image: Ceská Televize

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

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

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!

Podcast Episode 172: An American in Feudal Japan


In 1848, five years before Japan opened its closed society to the West, a lone American in a whaleboat landed on the country’s northern shore, drawn only by a sense of mystery and a love of adventure. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Ranald MacDonald as he travels the length of Japan toward a destiny that will transform the country.

We’ll also remember a Soviet hero and puzzle over some security-conscious neighbors.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 171: The Emperor of the United States


In the 1860s, San Francisco’s most popular tourist attraction was not a place but a person: Joshua Norton, an eccentric resident who had declared himself emperor of the United States. Rather than shun him, the city took him to its heart, affectionately indulging his foibles for 21 years. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the reign of Norton I and the meaning of madness.

We’ll also keep time with the Romans and puzzle over some rising temperatures.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 170: The Mechanical Turk


In 1770, Hungarian engineer Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled a miracle: a mechanical man who could play chess against human challengers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Kempelen’s Mechanical Turk, which mystified audiences in Europe and the United States for more than 60 years.

We’ll also sit down with Paul Erdős and puzzle over a useful amateur.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 169: John Harrison and the Problem of Longitude

john harrison

Ships need a reliable way to know their exact location at sea — and for centuries, the lack of a dependable method caused shipwrecks and economic havoc for every seafaring nation. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet John Harrison, the self-taught English clockmaker who dedicated his life to crafting a reliable solution to this crucial problem.

We’ll also admire a dentist and puzzle over a magic bus stop.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 168: The Destruction of the Doves Type


In March 1913, Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson threw the most beautiful typeface in the world off of London’s Hammersmith Bridge to keep it out of the hands of his estranged printing partner. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore what would lead a man to destroy the culmination of his life’s work — and what led one modern admirer to try to revive it.

We’ll also scrutinize a housekeeper and puzzle over a slumped child.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 167: A Manhattan Murder Mystery


In May 1920, wealthy womanizer Joseph Elwell was found shot to death alone in his locked house in upper Manhattan. The police identified hundreds of people who might have wanted Elwell dead, but they couldn’t quite pin the crime on any of them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the sensational murder that the Chicago Tribune called “one of the toughest mysteries of all times.”

We’ll also learn a new use for scuba gear and puzzle over a sympathetic vandal.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 166: A Dangerous Voyage

gause and osborne

After Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941 two American servicemen hatched a desperate plan to sail 3,000 miles to Allied Australia in a 20-foot wooden fishing boat. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll join Rocky Gause and William Osborne as they struggle to avoid the Japanese and reach safety.

We’ll also tell time in Casablanca and puzzle over a towing fatality.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 165: A Case of Mistaken Identity


In 1896, Adolf Beck found himself caught up in a senseless legal nightmare: Twelve women from around London insisted that he’d deceived them and stolen their cash and jewelry. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Beck’s incredible ordeal, which ignited a scandal and inspired historic reforms in the English justice system.

We’ll also covet some noble socks and puzzle over a numerical sacking.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 164: Vigil on the Ice

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1930, British explorer Augustine Courtauld volunteered to spend the winter alone on the Greenland ice cap, manning a remote weather station. As the snow gradually buried his hut and his supplies steadily dwindled, his relief party failed to arrive. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Courtauld’s increasingly desperate vigil on the ice.

We’ll also retreat toward George III and puzzle over some unexpected evidence.

See full show notes …

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