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.
Victorian children’s author Favell Lee Mortimer published three bizarre travel books that described a world full of death, vice, and peril. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample her terrifying descriptions of the lands beyond England and wonder what led her to write them.
We’ll also review the movie career of an Alaskan sled dog, learn about the Soviet Union’s domestication of silver foxes, and puzzle over some curious noises in a soccer stadium.
In 1925, Nome, Alaska, was struck by an outbreak of diphtheria, and only a relay of dogsleds could deliver the life-saving serum in time. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the dogs’ desperate race through arctic blizzards to save the town from epidemic.
We’ll also hear a song about S.A. Andree’s balloon expedition to the North Pole and puzzle over a lost accomplishment of ancient civilizations.
When Ewart Grogan was denied permission to marry his sweetheart, he set out to walk the length of Africa to prove himself worthy of her. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll find out whether Ewart’s romantic quest succeeded.
We’ll also get an update on the criminal history of Donald Duck’s hometown, and try to figure out how a groom ends up drowning on his wedding night.
In 1897, Swedish patent engineer S.A. Andrée set out in a quixotic bid to reach the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon, departing from Norway with two companions and hoping to drift over the top of the world and come down somewhere in the Bering Strait. Instead the expedition vanished. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn what happened to the Eagle and its three brave passengers, and consider the role of hindsight in the writing of history.
We’ll also learn what the White House planned to do if Neil Armstrong became stranded on the moon, and puzzle over why seeing a plane flying upside down would impact a woman’s job.
As a young man, Benjamin Franklin drew up a “plan for attaining moral perfection” based on a list of 13 virtues. Half a century later he credited the plan for much of his success in life. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore Franklin’s self-improvement plan and find out which vices gave him the most trouble.
We’ll also learn how activist Natan Sharansky used chess to stay sane in Soviet prisons and puzzle over why the Pentagon has so many bathrooms.
In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell how Spanish authorities found an ingenious way to use orphans to bring the smallpox vaccine to the American colonies in 1803. The Balmis Expedition overcame the problems of transporting a fragile vaccine over a long voyage and is credited with saving at least 100,000 lives in the New World.
We’ll also get some listener updates to the Lady Be Good story and puzzle over why a man would find it more convenient to drive two cars than one.
The American bomber Lady Be Good left North Africa for a bombing run over Italy in 1943. It wasn’t seen again until 15 years later, when explorers discovered its broken remains deep in the Libyan desert. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the strange history of the lost aircraft and trace the desperate last days of its nine crewmen.
We’ll also climb some twisted family trees and puzzle over the Greek philosopher Thales’ struggles with a recalcitrant mule.
In 1872 the British merchant ship Mary Celeste was discovered drifting and apparently abandoned 600 miles off the coast of Portugal. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review this classic mystery of the sea: Why would 10 people flee a well-provisioned, seaworthy ship in fine weather?
We’ll also get an update on the legal rights of apes and puzzle over why a woman would not intervene when her sister is drugged.
In 1768, Catherine the Great ordered her subjects to move a 3-million-pound granite boulder intact into Saint Petersburg to serve as the pedestal for a statue of Peter the Great. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn how some inspired engineering moved the Thunder Stone 13 miles from its forest home to Senate Square, making it the largest stone ever moved by man.
We’ll also learn whether mutant squid are attacking Indiana and puzzle over why a stamp collector would be angry at finding a good bargain.