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The Weird Week in Review

Waffle House Worker has Wild Ride

Andrew Brian McKnight was standing outside the Murfreesboro, Tennessee Waffle House where he worked when three teenagers walked outside, followed by a waitress who said they hadn't paid for their order. McKnight approached the group. The three jumped in a car, and the driver started forward, bumping McKnight. He fell on the hood of the vehicle, which took off. While the car sped down the road, McKnight managed to call 911. 18-year-old Christopher Allen Miller drove for about five minutes at up to 60 mph with McKnight on the hood. Police arrested Miller, and turned his two juvenile passengers over to their parents. McKnight was not injured.

Survival Tip: Disrupt the Power Grid

Imagine you are stranded in the woods with no way to call for help. An unnamed man in Saskatchewan found himself in just such a position, but he figured out a plan that worked. He cut down some power line poles! Several hundred people in Wollaston Lake and Hatchet Lake Denesuline Nation lost electrical power for two days. But the power company found the lost traveler.

"He was found under his boat in a very distressed state, so essentially he was stranded for a number of days and just desperate for people to know where he was," SaskPower spokesman James Parker said.

The man reported he had been on a boat on the lake when he hit bad weather. He ended up stranded in the bush, with no way to communicate with the outside world, Parker said.

But he had an axe and he knew SaskPower would have to check the downed line, so he went to work.

"Essentially it was mission accomplished, because we got the call, we chartered a helicopter "¦ and on Friday around noon we discovered him," Parker said.

Funeral Crasher Was There for the Food

A man spotted at dozens of funerals in Wellington, New Zealand, has been warned away from further attendance. He has not been identified, but the staff of the Harbour City Funeral Home took his picture and distributed it to other funeral homes. The respectably-dressed middle-aged man would show up for as many as four funerals a week and fill his backpack with containers of food. He hasn't been seen since a staff member took him aside and told him he couldn't take food home.

Flying Over the Airport Tollbooth -in a Car

A car approaching the tollbooth at the Dallas-Fort Worth International airport struck a concrete barrier and flew over the booth. Security cameras recorded the car's launch. When it came to rest, the driver got out and started making a call on her cell phone. That's when the vehicle exploded. The tollbooth operator and other drivers were uninjured, but driver Yasmine Villasana sustained a broken wrist. Villasana was arrested for driving while intoxicated.

Transgendered Men Not Arrested for Flashing Breasts

A group of transgendered men caused a commotion at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware last weekend when they took off their tops to show their enhanced breasts. Beachgoers complained to lifeguards, who requested that the men cover up. When they refused, someone called police. The group however, had covered up by the time police arrived. No citations were issued, because technically it is not illegal for anyone with male genitalia to expose his chest, although it would be illegal for a female to do so.

"We'll see if we need to address it," said Kathy McGuiness, one of Rehoboth's commissioners. McGuiness said this will be a topic at a town hall meeting next week.

"I can't speak for the mayor or anyone else. I can speak for myself because I am a commissioner. I hardly see us reversing the topless law. I don't think we are going to repeal it and allow women to go topless. Now if someone is going to go through the process of having implants, then they probably should think about following the laws of the person they would like to become," McGuiness said.

Observatory Dressed as R2D2

A unidentified group of students at Carleton College in Minnesota staged a very big prank at Goodsell Observatory on the campus. The entire front of the building with its distinctive dome was dressed to resemble R2D2, the Star Wars droid! The facade was also outfitted with sound effects. See a video at Facebook.

Engaged Couple have been Together Since Birth

Amy Singley's mother and Steven Smith's mother became friends when they shared a room in the maternity ward at St. Luke's Hospital in Fountain Hill, Pennsylvania in 1986. Their babies were both born on April 17th of that year. The two families remained in contact over the years as they attended the same church. Now Amy and Steven, who have dated since high school, are set to be married on June 12th. Neither of them will ever have an excuse for forgetting the other's birthday.

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Screenshot via Mount Vernon/Vimeo
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History
The Funky History of George Washington's Fake Teeth
Screenshot via Mount Vernon/Vimeo
Screenshot via Mount Vernon/Vimeo

George Washington may have the most famous teeth—or lack thereof—in American history. But counter to what you may have heard about the Founding Father's ill-fitting dentures, they weren't made of wood. In fact, he had several sets of dentures throughout his life, none of which were originally trees. And some of them are still around. The historic Mount Vernon estate holds the only complete set of dentures that has survived the centuries, and the museum features a video that walks through old George's dental history.

Likely due to genetics, poor diet, and dental disease, Washington began losing his original teeth when he was still a young man. By the time he became president in 1789, he only had one left in his mouth. The dentures he purchased to replace his teeth were the most scientifically advanced of the time, but in the late 18th century, that didn't mean much.

They didn't fit well, which caused him pain, and made it difficult to eat and talk. The dentures also changed the way Washington looked. They disfigured his face, causing his lips to noticeably stick out. But that doesn't mean Washington wasn't grateful for them. When he finally lost his last surviving tooth, he sent it to his dentist, John Greenwood, who had made him dentures of hippo ivory, gold, and brass that accommodated the remaining tooth while it still lived. (The lower denture of that particular pair is now held at the New York Academy of Medicine.)

A set of historic dentures
George Washington's Mount Vernon

These days, no one would want to wear dentures like the ones currently held at Mount Vernon (above). They're made of materials that would definitely leave a bad taste in your mouth. The base that fit the fake teeth into the jaw was made of lead. The top teeth were sourced from horses or donkeys, and the bottom were from cows and—wait for it—people.

These teeth actually deteriorated themselves, revealing the wire that held them together. The dentures open and shut thanks to metal springs, but because they were controlled by springs, if he wanted to keep his mouth shut, Washington had to permanently clench his jaw. You can get a better idea of how the contraption worked in the video from Mount Vernon below.

Washington's Dentures from Mount Vernon on Vimeo.

There are plenty of lessons we can learn from the life of George Washington, but perhaps the most salient is this: You should definitely, definitely floss.

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Wikimedia // Public Domain
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History
Brazen Heads: The Curious Legend Behind Fortune-Telling Automata
A woodblock illustration from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
A woodblock illustration from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Fortune-telling automata—think Zoltar—were a fixture of penny arcades and amusement parks for generations of schoolchildren. But these creations owe their origin in part to the literary legend of the brazen head, an imaginary all-knowing mechanical device supposedly endowed with the ability to answer any question and predict the future. Called brazen because they were made of brass, their popularity peaked in the Renaissance, when plays and romances featured them and thinkers pondered the supposed mysteries of their making.

"A NATURAL MAN'S HEAD"

The most frequently referenced brazen head is the one allegedly made by 13th century Franciscan friar and philosopher Roger Bacon, although stories of its creation don't appear until centuries after his death. The anonymous 16th century prose romance The famous historie of Fryer Bacon describes the magical object as a precise brass replica of a “natural man’s head,” including “the inward parts,” and tells how Bacon, struggling to give it speech, summoned the Devil to ask him for advice. Satan announced that the head would speak after a few weeks, as long as it was powered by “the continuall fume of the six hottest simples,” a selection of plants used in alchemical medicine.

The tale formed part of the plot of the popular play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, written by English dramatist and pamphleteer Robert Greene and first performed around 1589. In both accounts, Bacon’s ultimate purpose was to build a magical wall of brass around Britain to protect it against any invasions; the all-knowing head would have assisted him in the task. There is, however, a crucial difference: In the play, the “monstrous head” isn’t built by alchemy nor by natural magic, but by “necromantic charms." In both sources, when the magical creation finally speaks, Bacon is fast asleep and misses its words—“Time is,” “Time was,” and “Time is past.” The opportunity to question his creation about the secrets of the universe is gone, and the head explodes, destroying itself.

Never mind that Bacon was an expert in geometry and mathematics and one of the pioneers of the scientific method; rumors that he had built a brazen head “by the hand of the Devil” persisted well into 17th century. The extent of Bacon's magical doings during his lifetime is a subject of much debate, but his association with the demonic may come in part from his experiments in optics, which resulted in impressive tricks of perspective judged to have been done “by power of evyll spirites,” in the words of the 16th century mathematician Robert Recorde. And while there is no record of Bacon ever creating an actual brazen head, he was fascinated by early astronomical clocks—also made of brass, and also offering information about the cosmos.

Oil painting of Roger Bacon in his observatory by Ernest Board
Ernest Board, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Bacon was a disciple of bishop Robert Grosseteste, another polymath alleged by literary legend to have made a brazen head, in his case by using “astral science” with the purpose of predicting the future. There are many similarities between the stories—particularly the fact that Grosseteste was also asleep when the brazen head delivered its cryptic words—so it’s likely that the two tales may have influenced one another over the years. And like Bacon, Grosseteste wasn’t exactly a sorcerer: Centuries after his death, he remains an influential figure in mathematical physics, still remembered as a crucial name in the development of Oxford University, where he lectured.

Even a saint was said to have made a brazen head. Renaissance sources tell us that 13th century Saint Albertus Magnus spent 30 years building a man of brass able to correctly answer any question, but according to one version of the story, the automaton was so loquacious that a disciple of Saint Albertus—the famed Thomas Aquinas—knocked it to pieces to stop its constant chattering.

Yet the earliest known written reference to something like a brazen head predates the Renaissance, and appears in the 12th century Chronicle of the Kings of England by William of Malmesbury. The historian attributes the creation of this head to Gerbert of Aurillac, who would become Pope Sylvester II in 999. We’re told that Gerbert traveled to Spain to “learn astrology and other sciences of that description from the Saracens,” and that he stole a book of spells from a Saracen philosopher before making a pact with the devil, who was responsible for his rise to the papal throne. “By a certain inspection of stars,” Gerbert built a head that accurately answered “yes” or “no” to any question—including one about its creator’s death. (Gerbert may have been clever enough to create an omniscient figure, but he failed to ask it the right questions: Told that he would only die after singing mass in Jerusalem, death nevertheless caught him by surprise days after having sung mass not in the city of Jerusalem, but in Jerusalem Church in Rome.)

William’s account is key to how the legend of the brazen head was received and interpreted. As a Christian monk, he regarded Islam as unholy. When Gerbert meddled with Saracens (a term medieval Europeans commonly used for Arabs and later Muslims) he was understood to have opened a door to the occult, introducing a “demonic” object to the Western world. William also perhaps strengthened the connection to paganism in the text by mentioning Daedalus, the cunning craftsman of Greek mythology, who fathered Icarus—and an impressive number of ancient automata.

INGENIOUS DEVICES

There was, indeed, some truth behind these stories. Ancient automata were not a mere mythical creation, but a real product of the inventiveness of some very early engineers. In the 4th century BCE, Archytas of Tarentum created a steam or compressed-air-powered dove; 3rd century BCE Philon of Byzantium designed a wine-pouring maid; and 1st century CE Hero of Alexandria produced a series of mechanical devices that included coin-operated machines, puppets, singing birds, and even a miniature theater able to stage a tragedy. This Greco-Alexandrian tradition was carried forward by Arab-Islamic engineers, such as the Banū Mūsā brothers in 9th century Baghdad, whose Book of Ingenious Devices contains designs for several different automata.

If many Christians regarded these inventions as devilry, it wasn’t just for their seemingly unnatural qualities, but also for their pagan origins.

Back in early modern England, Protestants used the brazen head motif for their own political purposes. In Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Bacon—who like Gerbert, Grosseteste, and Albertus Magnus was an intellectual working on advanced ideas of philosophy and nature—is presented as a necromancer. The influential play is an example of Reformation propaganda: The Middle Ages are depicted as a breeding ground for magic and the occult, and Catholics are portrayed as credulous and superstitious, as opposed to Protestants, who are praised as advocates of progress.

MAGICAL RELICS

A wizard at Musée Mécanique, San Francisco
Musée Mécanique, San Francisco
Allison Meier, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The fascination with fortune-telling heads didn’t end with the Renaissance, however. Centuries later, the legend of Bacon’s brazen head still breathed in the works of Daniel Defoe, Lord Byron, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Defoe describes how brazen heads were “the usual sign” that marked the dwellings of fortune-tellers and astrologers in 1665 London. What may have been false advertising in the 17th century became reasonably accurate in the penny arcades of the 20th century, where the fortune-telling business was actually performed by machines.

Many of these more recent fortune-telling creations still trade on tropes of the exotic—elderly gypsy women, Central European magicians, or Eastern mystics. While such automata are increasingly rare, several now live in museums, such as the Musée Mécanique in San Francisco or the Tibidabo Automata Museum in Barcelona. Although not the brazen heads of legend, they’re still functioning, ready to tell us our future—as long as we don't fall asleep.

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