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.
Australia’s Westfield ultramarathon had a surprise entrant in 1983: A 61-year-old potato farmer named Cliff Young joined a field of elite professional runners for the 500-mile race from Sydney to Melbourne. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Young’s fortunes in the race and the heart, tenacity, and humor that endeared him to a nation.
We’ll also learn the difference between no and nay and puzzle over a Japanese baby shortage.
In 1912, bookseller Wilfrid Voynich discovered an illustrated manuscript that was written in a mysterious alphabet that had never been seen before. The text bears the hallmarks of natural language, but no one has ever been able to determine its meaning. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn about the Voynich manuscript, which has been bewildering scholars for more than a century.
We’ll also ponder some parliamentary hostages and puzzle over a tormenting acquisition.
The closing days of World War II witnessed a bizarre battle with some unlikely allies: American and German soldiers joined forces to rescue a group of French prisoners from a medieval castle in the Austrian Alps. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the Battle for Castle Itter, the only time that Allies and Germans fought together in the war.
We’ll also dodge another raft of aerial bombs and puzzle over a bottled pear.
In 1896 two New Jersey clam diggers made a bold bid for fame: They set out to cross the North Atlantic in a rowboat, a feat that had never been accomplished before. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the adventure of George Harbo and Frank Samuelsen, which one newspaper called “the most remarkable event in the way of ocean navigation that ever transpired.”
We’ll also meet some military mammals and puzzle over a thwarted burglar.
In 1943, fed up with modernist poetry, two Australian servicemen invented a fake poet and submitted a collection of deliberately senseless verses to a Melbourne arts magazine. To their delight, they were accepted and their author hailed as “one of the most remarkable and important poetic figures of this country.” In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Ern Malley hoax, its perpetrators, and its surprising legacy in Australian literature.
We’ll also hear a mechanized Radiohead and puzzle over a railroad standstill.
When William Harrison disappeared from Campden, England, in 1660, his servant offered an incredible explanation: that he and his family had murdered him. The events that followed only proved the situation to be even more bizarre. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe “the Campden wonder,” an enigma that has eluded explanation for more than 300 years.
We’ll also consider Vladimir Putin’s dog and puzzle over a little girl’s benefactor.
In 1971 a mysterious man hijacked an airliner in Portland, Oregon, demanding $200,000 and four parachutes. He bailed out somewhere over southwestern Washington and has never been seen again. In today’s show we’ll tell the story of D.B. Cooper, the only unsolved hijacking in American history.
We’ll also hear some musical disk drives and puzzle over a bicyclist’s narrow escape.
In 1924 a curious network of catacombs was discovered in Washington D.C. They were traced to Harrison Dyar, a Smithsonian entomologist who had been industriously digging tunnels in the city for almost two decades. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Dyar’s strange hobby — and the equally bizarre affairs in his personal life.
We’ll also revisit balloons in World War II and puzzle over a thief’s change of heart.
During World War II a Polish transport company picked up an unusual mascot: a Syrian brown bear that grew to 500 pounds and traveled with his human friends through the Middle East and Europe. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Wojtek, the “happy warrior,” and follow his adventures during and after the war.
We’ll also catch up with a Russian recluse and puzzle over a murderous daughter.
During the siege of Leningrad in World War II, a heroic group of Russian botanists fought cold, hunger, and German attacks to keep alive a storehouse of crops that held the future of Soviet agriculture. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Vavilov Institute, whose scientists literally starved to death protecting tons of treasured food.
We’ll also follow a wayward sailor and puzzle over how to improve the safety of tanks.