(Courtesy of The QI book of General Ignorance & Listserv.com Ten Popular lists)
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Who invented the telephone?
An erratic, sometimes brilliant, Florentine inventor, Meucci arrived in the USA in 1850. In 1860, he first demonstrated a working model of an electric device he called the teletrofono. He filed a caveat (a kind of stopgap patent) in 1871, five years before Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patent.
In the same year, Meucci fell ill after he was badly scalded when the Staten Island ferry’s boiler exploded. Unable to speak much English, and living on the dole, he failed to send the $10 required to renew his caveat in 1874. When Bell’s patent was registered in 1876, Meucci sued. He’d sent his original sketches and working models to the lab at Western Union. By an extraordinary coincidence, Bell worked in the very same lab and the models had mysteriously disappeared.
Meucci died in 1889, while his case against Bell was still under way. As a result, it was Bell, not Meucci who got the credit for the invention. In 2004, the balance was partly redressed by the US House of Representatives who passed a resolution that ‘the life and achievements of Antonio Meucci should be
recognized, and his work in the invention of the telephone should be acknowledged.’ Not that Bell was a complete fraud. As a young man he did teach his dog to say ‘How are you, grandmamma?’ as a way of communicating with her when she was in a different room. And he made the telephone a practical tool.
Like his friend Thomas Edison, Bell was relentless in his search for novelty. And, like Edison, he wasn’t always successful. His metal detector failed to locate the bullet in the body of the stricken President James Garfield. It seems Bell’s machine was confused by the President’s metal bed-springs.
Bell’s foray into animal genetics was driven by his desire to increase the numbers of twin and triplet births in sheep. He noticed that sheep with more than two nipples produced more twins. All he managed to produce was sheep with more nipples.
On the plus side, he did help to invent a hydrofoil, the HP 4, which set the world water-speed record of 114 kph (70.84 mph) in 1919 and stood for ten years. Bell was eighty-two at the time and wisely refused to travel in it. Bell always referred to himself first and foremost as a ‘teacher of the deaf’. His mother and wife were deaf and he taught the young Helen Keller. She dedicated her autobiography to him.
How many trees in the Garden of Eden ?
Contrary to popular belief, Adam and Eve did not eat an Apple in the book of Genesis. The fruit is not actually named at all – it is referred to only as the fruit of “the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil”. The reason this misconception has come about is most likely due to the fact that in Middle English, the word “apple” was used to refer to all fruit and nuts (except berries). Over the centuries, this word has stuck in reference to the Genesis fruit. [Genesis 2:17]. As for the number of trees that God forbid of them to eat – there is reference to two trees; the first being the “The Tree of Life” which would thus make them immortal like God, the other is the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil”.
Where was the guillotine invented?
Halifax in Yorkshire. The Halifax Gibbet consisted of two fifteen-foot wooden uprights between which hung an iron axe mounted on a lead-filled cross-beam controlled by a rope and pulley. Official records show at least fifty-three people were executed using it between 1286 and 1650. Medieval Halifax made its fortune from the cloth trade. Large quantities of expensive cloth were left outside the mills to dry on frames. Theft was a serious problem and the town’s merchants needed an efficient deterrent.
This, and a similar, later, Scottish device called the Maiden, may well have inspired the French to borrow the idea and come up with their own name. Dr Joseph Ignace Guillotin was a humane, mild-mannered doctor who disliked public executions. In 1789, he put to the National Assembly an ambitious
plan to reform the French penal system and make it more humane. He proposed a standardised mechanical method of execution which didn’t discriminate against the poor (who were hanged in a rough manner), as opposed to the rich (who were relatively cleanly beheaded).
Most of the proposals were rejected out of hand, but the notion of an efficient killing engine stuck. Guillotin’s recommendation was picked up and refined by Dr Antoine Louis, the Secretary of the Academy of Surgeons. It was he, not Guillotin, who produced the first working device with its
characteristic diagonal blade in 1792. It was even called, briefly, a Louison or Louisette, after its sponsor. But somehow, Guillotin’s name became attached to it and, despite the best efforts of his family, there it has stubbornly remained. Contrary to popular folklore, Guillotin was not killed by his eponymous machine; he died in 1814 from an infected carbuncle on his shoulder.
The guillotine became the first ‘democratic’ method of execution and was adopted throughout France. In its first ten years, historians estimate 15,000 people were decapitated. Only Nazi Germany has used it to execute more, with an estimated 40,000 criminals being guillotined between 1938 and 1945.
The last French person to be guillotined was a Tunisian immigrant called Hamida Djandoubi, for the rape and murder of a girl in 1977. The death penalty was finally abolished in France in 1981. It is impossible to test accurately how long a severed head remains conscious, if at all. The best estimate is between five and thirteen seconds.
When does ‘ring-a-ring o’ roses’ date from?
The seventeenth century, surely? It’s about the plague: the rings of roses are skin lesions, the first signs of infection; the posies are the doomed attempts to keep the disease at bay; the sneezing is a symptom of the advancing sickness; ‘all fall down’ is death.
Like most attempts to attribute precise historical meaning to nursery rhymes this doesn’t hold water. It was first advanced in 1961 by the popular novelist James Leasor in his racy account of life in seventeenth-century London, The Plague and the Fire. Until then, there was no obvious connection
(and no evidence) that the rhyme had been sung in this form for almost 400 years as a way of preserving the trauma of the plague. That’s because it hadn’t. The very earliest recorded version comes from Massachusetts in 1790:
Ring a ring a rosie
A bottle full of posies,
All the girls in our town
Ring for little Josie.
There are French, German and even Gaelic versions. Several have a second verse where everyone gets up again; others mention wedding bells, pails of water, birds, steeples, Jacks, Jills and other favourite nursery images. A more credible theory is that the rhyme grew out of a ring game, a staple element of the ‘play-parties’ which had grown up in Protestant communities in eighteenth-century America and Britain where dancing was forbidden. ‘Ring-a-ring o’ roses’ remains our most popular ring game today.
Henry Bett in his 1924 collection of Nursery Rhymes and Tales took the view that the rhyme is of an age ‘to be measured in thousands of years, or rather it is so great it cannot be measured at all.’
Which eye did Nelson wear his eye-patch on?
Neither. Nelson never wore an eye-patch.
He didn’t wear anything at all over his damaged right eye, though he had an eye-shade built into his hat to protect his good left eye from the sun. Nelson didn’t have a ‘blind’ eye. His right one was badly damaged (but not blinded) at the siege of Calvi in Corsica in 1794. A French cannon ball threw
sand and debris into it, but it still looked normal – so normal, in fact, he had difficulty convincing the Royal Navy he was eligible for a disability pension. There is no contemporary portrait of Nelson wearing an eye-patch, and despite what most people recall having ‘seen’, the Trafalgar Square column shows him without an eye-patch. It was only after his death that the eye-patch was used to add pathos to portraits.
He used the damaged eye to his advantage. At the battle of Copenhagen in 1801, he ignored the recall signal issued by his superior Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. Nelson, who was in a much better position than Parker to see that the Danes were on the run, said to his flag-captain: ‘You know, Foley, I only
have one eye – I have the right to be blind sometimes.’
He then held his telescope to his blind eye and said: ‘I really do not see the signal!’ This is usually misquoted as: ‘I see no ships.’ Nelson was a brilliant tactician, a charismatic leader and undeniably brave – had he been alive today he would have been eligible for at least three Victoria Crosses – but he was also vain and ruthless.
As captain of HMS Boreas in 1784 he ordered 54 of his 122 seamen and 12 of his 20 marines flogged – 47 per cent of the men aboard. In June 1799, he treacherously executed 99 prisoners of war in Naples, after the British commander of the garrison had guaranteed their safety. While in Naples, Nelson began an affair with Lady Emma Hamilton, wife of the British ambassador. Her father had been a blacksmith and she a teenage prostitute in London before marrying Sir William. She was enormously fat and had a Lancashire accent. Another admirer of Nelson was Patrick Brunty, a Yorkshire parson of Irish descent, who changed his surname to Brontë after the King of Naples created Nelson Duke of Bronte. Had he not done so, his famous daughters would have been Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brunty.
In contrast to the public grief at news of Nelson’s death, Earl St Vincent and eighteen other admirals of the Royal Navy refused to attend his funeral.
What’s the commonest material in the world?
None of the above. The answer is perovskite, a mineral compound of magnesium, silicon and oxygen.
Perovskite accounts for about half the total mass of the planet. It’s what the Earth’s mantle is mostly made from. Or so scientists suppose: nobody has yet taken a sample to prove it. Perovskites are a family of minerals named after the Russian mineralogist Count Lev Perovski in 1839. They may prove to be the Holy Grail of superconductor research – a material that can conduct electricity without resistance at normal temperatures.
This would make a world of ‘floating’ trains and unimaginably fast computers a reality. At present, superconductors only function at unhelpfully low temperatures (the best so far recorded is –135 °C).
Apart from perovskite, it is thought that the mantle is made from magnesio-wusstite (a form of magnesium oxide also found in meteorites), and a small amount of shistovite (named after Lev Shistov, a graduate student at Moscow University, who synthesised a new high-pressure form of silicon oxide in his lab in 1959).
The earth’s mantle sits between the crust and the core. It is generally assumed to be solid, but some scientists believe that it is actually a very slowmoving liquid. How do we know any of this? Even the rocks spewed out of volcanoes have only come from the first 200 km (125 miles) below the surface and it’s 660 km (over 400 miles) before the lower mantle starts. By sending pulses of seismic waves downwards and recording the resistance they encounter, both the density and the temperature of the Earth’s
interior can be estimated.
This can then be matched to what we already know about the structure of minerals we do have samples of – from the crust and in meteorites – and what happens to these minerals under intense heat and high pressure. But like much else in science, it’s really only a highly educated guess.
Facts on Organised Religions (from the Book 50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know – Religion)
A common myth about American history holds that the first British colonists came to North America for freedom of religion. As it’s often the case, myth is much prettier than reality. It is true that the early Puritans very much resented being persecuted by other Protestants back in England, but this didn’t mean they had anything against persecuting others. What happened to American Indian religions after all the tribes had been conquered by the United States serves as a perfect example of this.
Technically speaking, Congress never passed a federal law prohibiting the practice of Native ceremonies. This, however, didn’t stop generations of secretaries of the Interior working in conjunction with other branches of the government from waging war against traditional Native beliefs. Viewing themselves as parents to senseless children, they honestly believed that criminalizing American Indian traditions was in the Natives’ best interest. Sending offenders to jail was–in their minds–a charitable act of love (incidentally, this is a great reminder that when people want to do something that goes against your will “for your own good” it’s time to start running for your life).
The Zombie Pope
Nobody likes ending up in front of judge and jury being charged with serious crimes. This individual, however, handled it like a pro, and the fact that he was already a corpse probably helped. He also happened to be the pope (or at least, he was when he still had a pulse). How did Pope Formosus up as a dead body on trial?
The year was 897 CE, and these were the days when powerful rival families battled each other to have one of their own elected as pope. Apparently, these rivalries were so intense that they didn’t end with death. So, when a certain Stephen VI became the new pope, he promptly had the body of his predecessor dug up and put on trial at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. After propping Formosus in a chair, Stephen read the charges against him: perjury, serving as bishop while a layman, and trying to usurp the papacy.
Formosus was found guilty, and Stephen VI had the corpse stripped of his papal clothes, three fingers he had used for blessings cut off, and declared all his acts invalid. As an added insult, the body was buried in a cemetery for foreigners.
The Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) – Confucianism, Taoism & Buddhist War
A working theory I have that monotheistic religions are responsible for the bloodiest wars in history runs into a stumbling block here, since Confucian/Taoist/Buddhist China is home to a religious war that caused the death of over 20 million people. The Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), in fact, is hands-down one of the goriest conflicts in modern history. 20 million dead are a bit too much to dismiss simply as a minor exception to the rule, so it seems that I may have to revise my theory.
The lead star of this story is a certain Hong Xiuquan. Hong was told he was God’s second son, and Jesus’s younger brother and he was able to gather a huge following of converts called the “God Worshippers.” Hong and his not-so-merry band of pranksters began their journey by waging a crusade to purge any trace of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism from Chinese society. And before long they graduated to armed insurrection against the government that had tried to stop them.
Hong & co. managed to score several impressing military victories, conquering good chunks of southern China, and establishing a new state called the “Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace” with capital in Nanjing. In the best tradition of religious weirdness, the creation of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace heralded a bloody civil war with a body count that would make most video gamers blush. With the same zeal that characterizes most monotheists who like to mix religion and politics, Hong demanded total obedience to all his moral and religious reforms. Not only did his troops massacre followers of other religions, but they also placed hits on their own if their loyalty was questioned
Sigheh – Nikāḥ al-Mutʿah – Shi’ah Marriage or Prostitution?
It’s a fairly safe bet to assume that if you are looking for a paradise of free love and sexual indulgence, Iran may not be the first country that comes to mind. Ever since the 1979 Revolution ushered rabid fundamentalists to power, the Islamic Republic of Iran has not exactly been known for an enlightened attitude about sex. Any country that has a morality police whose tasks include arresting women whose coats are too short or whose head scarves are not tight enough doesn’t sound like the right place if you are looking for a good time. The Iranian legal code, after all, states that unmarried couples having sex or simply dating and hanging out together can be arrested and flogged.
But horrendously strict rules go hand-in-hand with the human habit of finding creative ways to bypass them. Enters the legal institution of sigheh. A man and a woman can marry with the blessing of a cleric. Nothing strange so far, except that these are marriages that come with an expiration date. The couple, in fact, can and will write down the expected length of their marriage–which can range anywhere from a few minutes to 99 years–and how much money should go to the woman as “dowry.” Men are also free to enter as many temporary marriages as they want, whereas women can only enter one at a time.
In the same ultra-conservative nation where heavy sexual repression is touted as a virtue by Islamic fundamentalists, the very same religious authorities call “temporary marriage” what everyone else would call prostitution. Why even bother being such a hard ass about sex and maintaining that prostitution is a terrible sin if then you turn around and allow it under a different name?
What speed does light travel at?
That depends. It’s often said that the speed of light is constant, but it isn’t. Only in a vacuum does light reach its maximum speed of nearly 300,000 km per second (186,282 miles per second).
In any other medium, the speed of light varies considerably, always being slower than the figure everyone knows. Through diamonds, for example, it goes less than half as fast: about 130,000 km per second, or 80,000 miles per second.
Until recently, the slowest recorded speed of light (through sodium at –272 °C) was just over 60 kph (38 mph): slower than a bicycle. In 2000, the same team (at Harvard University) managed to bring light to a complete standstill by shining it into a bec (Bose-Einstein condensate) of the element rubidium.
Rubidium was discovered by Robert Bunsen (1811–99) who didn’t invent the Bunsen burner which is named after him. Astoundingly, light is invisible.
You can’t see the light itself, you can only see what it bumps into. A beam of light in a vacuum, shining at right angles to the observer, cannot be seen. Although this is very odd, it’s quite logical. If light itself was visible, it would form a kind of fog between your eyes and everything in front of you. Darkness is equally strange. It’s not there but you can’t see through it.
Name a poisonous snake.
The correct answer is ‘grass snake’.
Vipers, cobras, rattlesnakes and mambas aren’t poisonous – they’re venomous. It’s an important distinction: poison harms you when you swallow it, venom when it’s injected into you. So, something’s ‘poisonous’ when you bite it, but it’s ‘venomous’ when it bites you.
Though experts believe there may be others yet to be discovered, there are only two known species of ‘poisonous’ snake. One is the yamakagashi or Japanese grass snake (Rhabdophis tigrinus). It eats toxic toads and stores their poison in specially adapted glands in its neck. When attacked, it arches
the front of its body to make the glands stand out, with the result that anything biting its neck (the usual place for predators to strike) gets a fatal mouthful of poison. As it happens, the yamakagashi is venomous as well, but its fangs are located right at the back of its mouth, so you have to really annoy it to get bitten. The orange-bellied, rough-skinned newt (Taricha granulosa) of North America is not a snake, but it is one of the most poisonous creatures on earth, packed full of tetrodotoxin or TTF – the same poison contained in the puffer fish used to make the legendarily risky Japanese delicacy fugu. In 1979 a
twenty-nine-year-old man in a bar in Oregon swallowed one of these newts for a bet. He was dead within hours.
The only creatures known to eat these newts and survive (and thus the only other known poisonous snakes) are a small population of garter snakes, also resident in Oregon, that have evolved a tolerance to the poison. This produces a deadly surprise for any of their predators, such as foxes and crows,
which are partial to their livers.
Virtually all spiders are venomous – including the 648 species recorded in Britain – but most of them are too small for their tiny fangs to puncture human skin and deliver their venom. The Anglo-Saxon word for spider was attercop, which meant literally ‘poison-head’, from ator, poison, and cop, head.
As far as we know, there are no poisonous spiders. Crispy tarantulas, for example, are eaten in Cambodia with no ill effects
- 10 Great Inventors You Never Knew Were Freemasons (businesspundit.com)