Humpback whales, which have a sonic range of at least seven octaves, create songs between the length of a modern ballad and a symphony movement, possibly because their attention span is similar to that of humans. Their tunes also contain repeated refrains that form melodic rhymes, suggesting that, like humans, they use these as mnemonic devices.
On October 30, 1938, a CBS radio announcer presented the 8 p.m. broadcast: “Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.” After the 23-year-old Welles read an ominous introduction and the “music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra” played, bulletins followed with reports of Martians crash-landing in New Jersey. Many listeners thought that the Welles-Wells adaptation was news: some people crowded highways trying to flee from aliens; others pleaded with police for gas masks. Welles said at the broadcast’s end that it was only a “holiday offering” in anticipation of Halloween.
The West’s first flushable indoor toilet was designed in 1596 by John Harington, the “saucy godson” of Queen Elizabeth. He published his findings as The Metamorphosis of Ajax, the title a pun on a jakes, slang for a lavatory. Harington was banished from court for the pamphlet but allowed back in 1598, when he installed a water closet in the queen’s Richmond palace.
Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson Dickens, Henry Fielding Dickens, Edward Bulwer-Lytton Dickens, Walter Landor Dickens, and Sydney Smith Haldimand Dickens were among the names of Charles Dickens’ sons. Among the brothers of Walter Whitman were George Washington Whitman, Andrew Jackson Whitman, and Thomas Jefferson Whitman.
“Today is my eighteenth birthday!” Alexandrina Victoria wrote in her journal on May 24, 1837. Less than a month later, she was awoken at six o’clock and informed she was queen of the United Kingdom. “I am very young and perhaps in many, though not in all things, inexperienced,” she noted that day, “but I am sure that very few have more real goodwill and more real desire to do what is fit and right than I have.” Her reign, at 65 years and 216 days, remains the longest of the British monarchy.
A sect of violent Islamic agents founded in eleventh-century Persia to fight the Fatimid caliph in Egypt became known as the Hashshashin, which translates as “eaters of hashish”; their grand master supposedly administered the drug to demonstrate the paradise that would follow agents’ service. From the name Hashshashin, Christian Crusaders derived the word assassin.
Before Inuit tribes in southeastern Alaska would offer hospitality, anthropologist Franz Boas noted, a stranger would have to exchange blows to the head with a tribesman until one combatant was “vanquished.” In other areas, men would strip down and arm wrestle, sometimes to the death. The Inuit understanding: “The two men in meeting wish to know which of them is the better man.”
While on his American speaking tour in 1882, Oscar Wilde visited Leadville, Colorado, where he went into a saloon. There was a piano player in the corner with a sign over him that said: DON’T SHOOT THE PIANIST; HE’S DOING THE BEST HE CAN. It was, observed Wilde, “the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across.” He also visited a nearby mine where, upon reaching the bottom, the miners implored him to stay for supper: “the first course being whiskey, the second whiskey, and the third whiskey.”
Gustav Mahler set five poems from Friedrich Rückert’s Songs on the Death of Children to music between 1901 and 1904. In that time he and his wife, Alma, had two children, the eldest of whom died in 1907. About the compositions, Mahler later said, “I placed myself in the situation that a child of mine had died. When I really lost my daughter, I could not have written these songs anymore.” He died in 1911, Alma not until 1964—having twice remarried, to Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius and then to author Franz Werfel.
For a 2005 British TV program, a full-size replica of the House of Lords was built in order to determine what damage would have been done had Guy Fawkes ignited the explosives during the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Everyone in the House, including King James I, and anyone within about three hundred feet, would have died.
The medieval Occitan troubadour known as the Monk of Montaudon was a master of the enueg, “song of annoyance.” “I can’t stand a long wait,” he complains in one composition, written around 1200, “Or a priest who lies and perjures himself / Or an old whore who is past it, / And—by Saint Delmas—I don’t like / A base man who enjoys too much comfort.” The song goes on in this fashion for nine more verses.