Before Sally Ride spent a week aboard the Challenger shuttle in 1983 and became the first American woman in space, NASA engineers asked her if she wanted a hundred tampons in her flight kit. “No,” she later recalled responding, “that would not be the right number.” They said they wanted to be safe. “Well,” she assured them, “you can cut that in half with no problem at all.”
On June 15, 1904, a fire broke out on the General Slocum, a steamboat crossing the East River with over thirteen hundred passengers on board, and it sank. Few of the passengers could swim, most were wearing thick layers of clothes, and the life vests were faulty. An estimated 1,021 people died—the deadliest day in New York City’s history until September 11, 2001.
The Cincinnati Commercial complained in 1871 about the game of fly loo, a “detestable canker that destroys men’s souls.” Players selected sugar lumps and bet on which would attract a fly first. “Every afternoon from twenty to thirty of the very flower of our mercantile population retire to a private room and under locks and bolts give themselves up to this satanic game,” the article noted, “while the deserted ladies are languishing for a little male conversation below.”
Analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was asked in 1926 by his youngest sister to help plan her new house. He quickly became obsessed, taking a year to design the door handles, another for the radiators. Near the project’s completion, he demanded the ceiling be raised thirty millimeters to achieve his desired proportions. “It seemed indeed to be much more a dwelling for the gods,” wrote another Wittgenstein sister, “than for a small mortal like me.”
In The Third Man, Orson Welles’ character Harry Lime says, “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Graham Greene, who co-wrote the script with director Carol Reed, said that it was “the best line of the film”—and that Welles wrote it. Welles recalled, “When the picture came out, the Swiss very nicely pointed out to me that they’ve never made any cuckoo clocks—they all come from the Schwarzwald in Bavaria!”