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Futility Closet

Oct 24, 2016

In 1896 two New Jersey clam diggers made a bold bid for fame: They set out to cross the North Atlantic in a rowboat, a feat that had never been accomplished before. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the adventure of George Harbo and Frank Samuelsen, which one newspaper called "the most remarkable event in the way of ocean navigation that ever transpired."

We'll also meet some military mammals and puzzle over a thwarted burglar.


The score for Telemann's Gulliver Suite includes "Lilliputian" and "Brobdingnagian" note values.

In 1964 Zambia announced a rather low-tech space program.

Sources for our feature on Harbo and Samuelsen:

David W. Shaw, Daring the Sea, 1998.

William Longyard, A Speck on the Sea, 2003.

David W. Shaw, "A Fool's Errand, but a Nautical Landmark," Scandinavian Review 102:1 (Spring 2015), 46-60.

"To Row Across the Atlantic," New York World, Feb. 13, 1896, 16.

"To Cross Ocean in Rowboat," New York Herald, June 6, 1896, 7.

The log of the Fox.

"Over the Sea With Oars," New York World, Aug. 2, 1896, 10.

"The Fox Arrives at Havre," Daily Telegraph, Aug 7, 1896.

"They Rowed to Havre," National Police Gazette, Aug. 22, 1896.

"The Following Is Worth Reading," National Police Gazette, Sept. 12, 1896.

"Harbo and Samuelson and the Tiny Boat in Which They Rowed Across the Atlantic," New York Herald, March 21, 1897, 2.

Andy Philpott and Geoff Leyland, "Rowing to Barbados," OR/MS Today, April 2006.

Thao Hua, "Manager Backs Atlantic Crossing," Pensions & Investments 36:12 (June 9, 2008), 8.

BBC News, "Artemis Rowing Crew Smashes Transatlantic Record," July 31, 2010.

Listener mail:

Yuko, Cher Ami, 2016.

Leah Tams, "How Did Animals (Even Slugs) Serve in World War I?", National Museum of American History, Nov. 14, 2014.

Jessica Talarico, "15 Animals That Went to War," Imperial War Museums (accessed Oct. 22, 2016)., "War Animals From Horses to Glowworms: 7 Incredible Facts," Dec. 22, 2011.

Nick Tarver, "World War One: The Circus Animals That Helped Britain," BBC News, Nov. 11, 2013.

U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program (accessed Oct. 22, 2016).

Mark Strauss, "These Are the Brave and Fluffy Cats Who Served in World War I," io9, Aug. 22, 2014.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tommy Honton, who sent this corroborating link (warning -- this spoils the puzzle).

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!