Does time keep on slippin…slippin…slippin…into the future? Are you a joker, a smoker, and/or a midnight toker? Are you concerned about everyone’s junk going bad and living in a sexless future dystopia, or sad that there’s no more Dunkaroos or Hi-C Ecto Cooler? Really unsure how to feel about the possibility of Ghostbusters III? If so, hit the brakes hard and slam your face into the airbag of the trivia roundup.
• • •
1. In the early 1940s Britain experienced something of a housing crunch and was forced to ask for help. The US sighed deeply, and eventually agreed that, yes, they could house tens of thousands of German POWs. More than 700 POW camps were set up across the US, housing German and Japanese prisoners during the war. In largely-German Wisconsin, where there were more than forty POW camps holding TWENTY THOUSAND prisoners at their peak, there are stories of people meeting family members being held at the camps. There’s a potentially apocryphal story that a few prisoners escaped one night, found a nearby bar where everyone was speaking German, and were apprehended there a short time later, sharing pleasantries and beers with the local townfolk.
Despite being prisoners of a catastrophic worldwide military conflict, the whole enterprise was weirdly mundane. Most POWs held down local jobs, working at farms, canneries, or tanneries. Workers were contracted from the military at 55 cents an hour, and the military paid the prisoners 80 cents per day. Camps were spread out all over the place: Milwaukee’s Mitchell International Airport held more than 3000 prisoners, others held only a few dozen and only seasonally. Many POWs even tried to stay after the war. When he was in the nursing home, another resident’s comment about the Germans in WWII prompted my grandpa to (he thought) commiserate—“those damn german bastards…” until he was interrupted by the other guy saying “I vas a german soldier!” That should definitely have been made into a sitcom.
• • •
2. The Spruce Goose, flown just once in 1947, still has the largest wingspan of any airplane in history. I saw it as a child, and I can confirm: it’s a very big plane. In the early 1940s, the War Department was looking for a way to transport troops and equipment across the Pacific. The Goose’s specs showed it capable of transporting 700 troops, 1 tank, or some 20,000 jars of stored urine and fingernail clippings, and so he received the government contract. The plane was to be built entirely out of wood, owing to concerns about its weight and restrictions on metal use. It wasn’t actually made from spruce, but the clever nickname sounds better than the Birch Perch or Hughes’s Woody. In part due to Hughes’s notorious perfectionism and/or untreated OCD, the prototype was not completed until 1947, by which time it had been rendered obsolete by the Spruce Moose, which can ferry two hundred passengers from New York’s Idlewild airport to the Belgian Congo in seventeen minutes:
Actually, it was rendered obsolete because the war was over two years earlier, and the military wasn’t in much of a rush to get troops or tanks across the ocean anymore. Hughes was actually hauled in front of congress to explain the money wasted on his vaporware plane. He responded by giving an impassioned speech, staging a test flight for the plane, and locking himself in a hotel room for about 20 years. The cherry on top of Hughes’s particular brand of compulsion was that the plane, which flew a grand total of one time, for a grand total of just about a mile, was kept in flight shape for more than 20 years by a full-time crew of 300 people. Three hundred!
• • •
3. Astronomer Tycho Brahe is a facial hair hall-of-famer who led an interesting life. Among his astronomical highlights were the obsessive cataloging of star movements and star positions with an accuracy never before achieved, and the “Tychonic system” for describing the motion of planets, in which the earth was the center of the universe around which the sun and moon rotated, while other planets rotated around the sun. Also, he was the last major astronomer to not use a telescope. He didn’t use a telescope! In fairness, they hadn’t been invented yet, but he was still doing accurate and useful work with the naked eye. In contrast, I sometimes get confused about where the moon is.
His non-scientific accomplishments, though, might be even better. In his 20s, after picking fights with an acquaintance multiple times (mostly over a mathematical proof—NERD ALERT), they duelled with swords. The duel resolved their problem but left Tycho with the front of his nose missing. He is said to have crafted a prosthetic from gold, silver, and copper, which I very much would like to have seen. Later, he kept a domesticated elk as a pet, which is really just such a cliche thing for a half-nosed astronomer to do. Unfortunately the elk partied too hard one night, got drunk, fell down a flight of stairs, and died (no joke); at least he died doing what he loved. Brahe’s own death was similarly undignified. At a banquet, he did not want to breach etiquette by getting up to use the bathroom. By the time he did so, he was in excruciating pain, could no longer urinate, and eventually died of renal failure. Of course, there’s a conspiracy theory that he was mercury poisoned, possibly by his longtime assistant and himself a famous astronomer, Johannes Kepler. If you’re wondering, no, there’s no precise explanation for how you can hold it in so long that you kill yourself.
• • •
4. Fanta was originally developed in Germany during WWII. Because of a trade embargo, Coke syrup could not be imported, forcing Coke’s Germany division to develop an alternative. Forced to make do with the leavings of other food industries, the original recipe contained whey, the leftover bits of apples pressed for cider, and saccharin, although it changed depending on what food waste was available. Despite urban legends to the contrary and even though it was invented in Nazi Germany, the company was never part of the Nazi apparatus. Fanta was introduced in the United States in the 1960s, and is now marketed in over 90 countries; apparently the classic orange Fanta sold in Europe is more like Orangina and made with orange juice, but the US version is standard orange soda. Here is a short list of confounding Fanta flavors that have been available at one time or another:
• Cinnamon Rum • Fermented Banana Milk • Grenadine • Elderfower • Internet Cherry (?) • Exotic (?) • Bitter Water (??) • Unflavoured (???)
• • •
5. The roller coaster was first patented in 1885, but the idea goes back centuries. The first roller-coaster-adjacent things were the “Russian Mountains,” giant ice slides with wooden supports built in the 17th century or earlier—and weirdly, the Russian word for modern roller coasters literally translates to “american mountains.” A big hit with the upper class, riders rode down the slide on an ice slab or toboggan. “Russian Mountains” were exported to France in the early 19th century, where wheeled carts were added. By the mid-1800s, scenic railways and “gravity rides,” originally designed for hauling coal but repurposed for coal companies to make extra money in off-peak hours, were popular amusements. By 1885, the oval circuit and lift hill were added and roller coasters made it official; the first coaster with a lift hill was called Gravity Pleasure Road. By 1895, loops were added. It was the golden age of coasters.
Technology had gone too far: lap bars hadn’t yet been invented, and passengers began to suffer from whiplash and/or death. Loops were mothballed until the late 1950s, when the first steel coaster was built at Disneyland. The flexibility of steel birthed the second golden age of coasters: we’re living it right now. Designers jockey to set new records for height (current record: 456 feet), inversions (current record: 14), top speed (current record: 149 mph), and steepness (current record: 121 degrees), the last of which will be living in my nightmares for months:
More recently, one artist has designed what he calls the “euthanasia coaster”, intended to humanely kill its riders. For more information and photos of roller coasters you couldn’t pay me enough to ride, please see this nice list here. Side note: the speed record is on the Formula Rossa roller coaster at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi. Did you know there is a Ferrari-themed amusement park in Abu Dhabi? It looks like this:
• • •
6. When bark-bearing trees evolved, nothing had yet evolved that could decompose bark. That had some consequences. First, possibly as a defense mechanism, trees were up to 95% bark (modern trees are usually about 20%). So when they died, they didn’t decay but instead formed huge woodpiles that were slowly buried. Consequently, the oxygen content in the atmosphere was about 75% greater than current levels. Insects and amphibians grew to otherwise-impossible proportions: dragonflies with 2.5 foot wingspans? You bet. Wildfired abounded. Because they were buried and not decomposing, all these trees were slowly turning into coal. Evolution, it turns out, doesn’t sit still, and eventually “white rot fungi” developed the ability to metabolize the components of tree bark, ending the coal party. But really: the reason we have so much coal is that trees used to be 95% bark which didn’t decompose. Geological time is so weird.
• • •
7. I don’t know what to say about Arnold Ziffel. That is one amazing pig.