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Do You Own The Space Above Your House?

Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos means "whoever owns the soil, it is theirs up to Heaven and down to Hell." This property right principle asserts that a person who owns a particular piece of land owns everything directly above and below that piece of land, no matter the distance, and can prosecute trespassers who violate their border on the surface, underground and in the sky. But has that held up in court over the years?

Despite the Latin phrasing, the principle was not a part of classical Roman law, and is usually attributed to the 13th-century Italian scholar Accursius. It made its way to England and was first used in the English-speaking world by Sir Edward Coke, an Elizabethan-era lawyer/judge/politician. It gained wider popularity in Commentaries on the Laws of England (1766), a treatise by judge and jurist William Blackstone.

Commentaries was highly regarded as a leading work on the development of English law and was influential in the development of the American legal system. It was said that "no other book except the Bible has played so great a role" in shaping American institutions, and many of Blackstone's ideas, including Cuius est solum... were quickly adopted and repeated by American courts and legal scholars.

Beginning with the 1797 decision in State v. David (Mr. David was indicted in Delaware for stealing two barrels of herrings after the barrels were found buried on his land) and continuing for the next hundred years, the American legal system maintained that landowners' rights extend over a tract of space that stretches from the center of the earth out into the atmosphere. Sometimes this space is described as a straight column with dimensions that match the property's surface-level boundary lines. The column sometimes began at a theoretical point at the very center of the earth, continues through the surface of the earth and upward into the sky. Other times, it was described as being shaped like an inverted pyramid. The tip is at the center of the earth and the space widens to meet the property's surface boundary lines.

The 150 Most Important Dead Chickens in Legal History

The doctrine worked well enough in the U.S. for a little more than a century, but in 1903 the Wright brothers shook things up when they got their powered Wright Flyer I airborne. From there, air travel expanded quickly and by the late 1930s, commercial airlines were carrying mail and passengers across the country.

Those magnificent men in their flying machines, of course, were violating countless borders as they crisscrossed the U.S., and the property owners began to sue the trespassing airline companies. Having to get permission from, or pay a settlement out to, anyone whose house they wanted to fly over would have caused major headaches for the airlines, the courts and federal regulators, and the doctrine began to fall out of favor.

The courts turned on their beloved Blackstone’s idea and began to regularly reject the ad coelum approach to airspace rights. Instead, they interpreted the maxim as giving property owners rights to the sky “within the range of actual occupation,” and use of airspace “to such an extent as [they are] able.” Congress, meanwhile, passed the Air Commerce Act in 1926, and gave the government jurisdiction over “navigable air space,” or the sky above “minimum safe altitudes of flight” as determined by the federal government.

In 1946, the United States Supreme Court heard United States v. Causby. Their decision in the case proved to be the final nail in the ad coelum doctrine's coffin and established new common law to replace the generally-accepted-but-made-up rule.

Causby owned 2.8 acres of farmland near Greensboro, North Carolina. During World War II, the U.S. government started using a nearby airport for military aircraft and fighter planes began flying over Causby's property at altitudes low enough to blow the leaves off the tops of Causby's trees. The noise from the flyovers scared Causby's chickens so much that they would panic, run into walls and kill themselves. Some 150 chickens died like this in a small span of time and Causby was forced to give up chicken farming entirely. He sued the government, claiming that their trespassing left his property commercially worthless and that his land had, in effect, been taken from him.

The Supreme Court ruled the air was a "public highway" and rejected Causby's claim that his airspace had been taken from him. Justice William O. Douglas wrote, in his opinion for the majority, that the cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos doctrine and the idea that "ownership of the land extended to the periphery of the universe...has no place in the modern world. To recognize such private claims to the airspace would clog these highways, seriously interfere with their control and development in the public interest, and transfer into private ownership that to which only the public has a just claim."

Douglas did, however, concede that "if the landowner is to have full enjoyment of the land, he must have exclusive control of the immediate reaches of the enveloping atmosphere." He concluded that "flights so low and so frequent as to be a direct and immediate interference with the enjoyment and use of the land" did constitute a taking of the land and left it to the lower court to figure out how Causby should be rewarded.

What Lies Beneath

While the ad coelum part of the doctrine fizzled pretty quickly with the birth of air travel, the ad inferos part soldiers on in some cases, if only because subsurface property rights are still being figured out. Without an underground equivalent to Causby, the courts have yet to establish law that addresses subsurface rights and the legislation that some states have adopted is vague enough that some courts will still uphold the ad inferos doctrine, while others regard it as nonsense.

A look at decisions in subsurface ownership disputes reveals that the courts tend to side with the surface property owner if the case involves the near subsurface (disputes about tree roots or other intrusions within 100 feet or so of the surface), and hundreds of them have cited ad inferos in their decisions. Cases involving disputes a few hundred feet below the surface, though, are generally less likely to go in the landowner's favor or bring up the ad inferos doctrine.

Complicating matters are the number of federal, state, and local statues regarding particular uses of subsurface areas. In many cases, if oil, natural gas, hard rock minerals, objects embedded in the soil or waste disposal are involved, these statutes usually supersede traditional property rights.

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
How Do You Steer a Bobsled?
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Quinn Rooney, Getty Images

Now that the Olympics are well underway, you might have developed a few questions about the games' equipment. For example: How does one steer a bobsled? Let's take a crack at answering this pressing query.

How do you steer a bobsled?

Bobsled teams careen down an icy, curving track at up to 90 miles per hour, so steering is no small concern. Drivers steer their sleds just like you steered your childhood sleds—by manipulating a pair of ropes connected to the sled's steel runners. The driver also gets help from the rest of the crew members, who shift their weight to aid with the steering.

Why do speed skaters wear glasses?

speed-skating

Speed skaters can fly around the ice at upwards of 40 mph, so those sunglasses-type specs they wear aren't merely ornamental. At such high speeds, it's not very pleasant to have wind blowing in your eyes; it's particularly nightmarish if the breeze is drying out your contact lenses. On top of that, there's all sorts of ice and debris flying around on a speed skating track that could send you on a fast trip to the ophthalmologist.

Some skaters also say the glasses help them see the track. American skater Ryan Bedford recently told the Saginaw News that his tinted shades help him focus on the track and filter out distracting lights and camera flashes from the crowd.

What kind of heat are the biathletes packing?

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As you might guess, there are fairly strict rules governing what sort of rifles biathletes carry on the course. They are equipped with guns chambered for .22 LR ammunition. The gun must weigh at least 3.5 kilograms without its magazines and ammunition, and the rifle has to have a bolt action or a straight-pull bolt rather than firing automatically or semi-automatically.

Is a curling stone really made of stone?

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You bet it is, and it's not just any old stone, either. Curling enthusiasts swear by a very specific type of granite called ailsite that is only found on the Scottish island of Ailsa Craig. Ailsite supposedly absorbs less water than other types of stone, so they last longer than their competitors.

Ailsa Craig is now a wildlife sanctuary, so no new ailsite has been quarried since 2002. As a result, curling stones are incredibly expensive. Kays of Scotland, which has made the stones for every Olympics in which curling has been an official event, gets prices upwards of $1,500 per stone.

What about the brooms?

The earliest curling brooms were actual brooms made of wood with straw heads. Modern brooms, though, are a bit more technologically advanced. The handles are usually made of carbon fiber, and the heads can be made of synthetic materials or natural hair from horses or hogs. Synthetic materials tend to be more common now because they pull all of the debris off of the ice and don't drop the occasional stray bristle like a natural hair broom might.

What are the ski jumpers wearing?

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It may look like a ski jumper can pull on any old form-fitting bodysuit and hit the mountain, but things are a bit more complicated than that. Their suits have to be made of a spongy material and can't be thicker than five millimeters. Additionally, the suits must allow a certain amount of air to pass through them; jumpers wearing suits without sufficient air permeability are disqualified. (This rule keeps jumpers from wearing suits that could unfairly act as airfoils.) These rules are seriously enforced, too; Norwegian skier Sigurd Petterson found himself DQed at the 2006 Torino Games due to improper air permeability.

Those aren't the only concerns, though. In 2010, judges disqualified Italian jumper Roberto Dellasega because his suit was too baggy.

What's up with the short track speed skaters' gloves?

Gloves
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If you watch a bit of short track speed skating, the need for gloves quickly becomes apparent. When the skaters go to make passes or careen around a turn, they need the gloves to keep from cutting their hands due to incidental contact with other skaters' blades.

There's more to the gloves than just safety, though. Since the skaters' hands often touch the ice during turns, they need hard fingertip coverings that won't add friction and slow them down. The tips can be made of any material as long as it's hard and smooth, but you've got to give American skater Apolo Ohno some style points for the gold-tipped left glove he broke out in 2010.

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