15 Things You Might Not Have Known About the RMS Titanic

Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

When the Titanic crashed into an iceberg and sank in the early hours of April 15, 1912, the disaster inspired countless books, Titanic museum exhibits, several Hollywood films (including one that earned a Best Picture Oscar), and a cottage industry of theories and memorials. The Titanic sinking became the most infamous shipwreck in history—but what really happened on that unusually calm night in the North Atlantic? Read on for some surprising Titanic facts.

1. The Titanic was built for luxury, not speed.

In the early 20th century, new technology and an increasing population of European immigrants allowed Britain's largest passenger steamship lines to build the biggest and most opulent ocean liners then known. Liverpool-based Cunard launched the two fastest and sleekest liners, the Mauretania in 1906 and the Lusitania in 1907, capable of crossing the Atlantic Ocean in record time. The White Star Line, hoping to compete with its main rival, countered by ordering three massive ocean liners—the Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic. Built by the Harland & Wolff Shipyard in Belfast, Ireland (now Northern Ireland), the ships were designed to be the most luxurious liners afloat.

On board the RMS Titanic (the "RMS" stood for "royal mail ship"), passengers could enjoy the swimming pool, squash and tennis courts, a gymnasium, sunrooms, fine dining rooms, and a Turkish bath. The ship had "one hundred more first-class cabins than the Olympic, and a Parisian boulevard on B Deck [was added] to create the illusion of a sidewalk café. Ultimately, the Titanic outweighed her sister by more than 1000 tons," Paul R. Ryan wrote in the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution magazine Oceanus.

2. Everything on the Titanic was huge—except the number of lifeboats.

View of the Titanic's propellers with a group of men
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Copyright Restrictions

The Titanic was the largest passenger ship of its time. Its steel construction was held in place by 3 million rivets weighing 1200 tons, while each link in the ship's anchor chains weighed 175 pounds. Twenty-nine boilers produced enough energy to achieve 50,000 horsepower and an average speed of 21 knots (just over 24 mph). The distance between the keel (the underside of the ship) and the top of the four gigantic funnels was 175 feet. The ship measured 882.5 feet from bow to stern and 92.5 feet at its widest point. "She was, in short, 11 stories high and four city blocks long," wrote Walter Lord in his definitive history of the Titanic sinking, A Night to Remember.

According to the British government's official inquiry, the ship carried about 1316 passengers and 885 crew on its maiden voyage (other sources have slightly different numbers), but only 20 boats, each of which could safely hold between 40 and 60 people for a total capacity of 1178 [PDF]. At the time, Board of Trade regulations for passenger liners required only 14 life boats on board. The Titanic had 14 life boats plus two cutters and four collapsible boats.

3. The plot of an 1889 novel bore eerie similarities to the events that would befall the Titanic.

The Wreck of the Titan, or, Futility, by little-known novelist Morgan Robertson, may not have predicted the Titanic's sinking, but it includes some uncanny coincidences. In the book, the most fabulous ocean liner ever built—the Titan (!)—is crossing the Atlantic on its maiden voyage when it collides with an iceberg and sinks. The Titan was 800 feet long; the Titanic was 882.5 feet. Both ships could reach speeds of 25 knots. Both sailed in April. Both could carry 3000 people, and both had far too few life boats.

4. Before the Titanic sinking, ocean liners encountered more icebergs than usual in the North Atlantic.

Icebergs were a common sight between Ireland and Newfoundland, but a 2014 study published by the Royal Meteorological Society suggested that weather conditions produced more of them than average in April 1912. Freezing air from northeast Canada met the southward flow of the Labrador Current off the coast of Newfoundland, leading to a stream of icebergs that were swept farther south than was typical for most of the 20th century. "In 1912, the peak number of icebergs for the year was recorded in April, whereas normally this occurs in May, and there were nearly two and a half times as many icebergs as in an average year," the authors wrote.

On April 14, 1912, the Titanic received several wireless messages from other ships warning of ice along their routes, but they never reached the Titanic's captain.

5. The Titanic was thought to be unsinkable.

The White Star Line claimed, unofficially, that the Titanic was unsinkable. The ship had 16 watertight bulkheads, from bow to stern below the waterline, that would keep the ship afloat even if the first four of the compartments were breached. Unfortunately, at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, the lookout saw a towering iceberg directly in the Titanic's path. The alarm was relayed to the bridge, where First Officer William Murdoch ordered the ship put "hard-a-starboard" and the engines reversed; he also pulled the lever that closed the watertight compartment doors. But it was too late. Thirty-seven seconds after the lookout's warning, the Titanic grazed the iceberg on the starboard side, opening a series of cuts that stretched across six consecutive watertight compartments 10 feet above the keel. Within 10 minutes, 7 feet of water filled the first compartment.

Based on glacier calving data from Greenland, the Royal Meteorological Society study suggested that the iceberg had originated on Greenland's west coast and measured about 125 meters (410 feet) long and 15 to 17 meters (49 to 55 feet) tall above the ocean's surface, giving it a mass of 2.2 million tons. The dimensions are consistent with those in a photo of an iceberg bearing a streak of red paint, photographed by the captain of the Minia, a rescue ship later sent to pick up Titanic survivors.

6. After the collision, few Titanic passengers were worried.

Life boats on board the TItanic
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For his 1955 book, Walter Lord spoke with more than 60 Titanic survivors, who revealed an initial lack of concern after the collision with the iceberg. Many in first and second class hardly felt the impact and either went back to what they were doing or asked crewmembers why the ship's engines had stopped. But soon, the truth began to dawn on them, according to Lord's account:

"Far above on A Deck, second class passenger Lawrence Beesley noticed a curious thing. As he started below to check his cabin, he felt certain the stairs 'weren't quite right.' They seemed level, and yet his feet didn’t fall where they should. Somehow they strayed forward off-balance … as though the steps were tilted down toward the bow."

Titanic passengers and crew hadn't received clear instructions for boarding life boats. Once it became clear that the ship was listing, the process of filling the boats was chaotic. Women and children boarded first, with deference given to first- and second-class passengers; their male companions were told (or opted) to stay with the ship. Boats were lowered with only half of their seats filled. Male and female third-class passengers were largely left to fend for themselves.

7. Hundreds of Titanic survivors were rescued—but more than a thousand perished.

The nearest ship, a merchant vessel called the Californian, was fewer than 10 miles away from the Titanic when it began sinking, but it failed to act on the liner's distress signals—its Marconi wireless operator had gone to bed minutes before the Titanic's collision with the iceberg. That left the Cunard passenger steamship Carpathia, 58 miles away, to come to the Titanic's aid. It took almost two hours to reach the first Titanic survivors.

Of the 2201 passengers and crew on board, just 711 survived the Titanic sinking, a death toll of 1490 according to the British government's figures. (Other inquiries found 1503, 1517, and as high as 1635 deaths). First-class passengers suffered the fewest casualties—203 out of 325, or 62 percent, survived. In second class, 118 of 285 passengers, or 41 percent, survived. And in third class, just 178 of 706 passengers, or 25 percent, made it out alive.

Of the crew, 673 out of 885, or 76 percent, went down with the ship, including Captain Edward Smith, First Mate William Murdoch, the Marconi wireless operator Jack Phillips, who sent the CQD and SOS distress signals, and all eight members of the Titanic's band.

8. A department store telegraph manager may have broken the news of the Titanic sinking.

After the Titanic's final wireless message, listeners sought updates from ships sent to its aid. Only fragments of messages reached New York, where the Titanic had been headed. David Sarnoff, a Marconi manager at the Wanamaker's department store in New York, picked up a message at 4:35 p.m. on April 15 from the Olympic relaying definitively that the Titanic had sunk. Sarnoff and his two wireless operators told the press and continued to intercept messages relayed from the Cape Race station in Newfoundland.

Later, Sarnoff exaggerated the details and his role in the Titanic sinking, claiming that he alone received a distress signal from the Titanic itself and then remained in the Wanamaker's wireless station for 72 hours straight to receive the names of the survivors.

9. The Titanic sinking left tragic "what if?" questions.

Artist's rendering of the Titanic sinking, Illustrated London News
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Walter Lord summed up the chain of tragic—and avoidable—missteps that led to the disaster:

"If the Titanic had heeded any of the six ice messages on Sunday … if ice conditions had been normal … if the night had been rough or moonlit … if she had seen the berg 15 seconds sooner—or 15 seconds later … if she had hit the ice in any other way … if her watertight bulkheads had been one deck higher … if she had carried enough boats … if the Californian had only come. Had any one of these 'ifs' turned out right, every life might have been saved."

10. Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton testified at the Titanic sinking inquiry.

Shackleton, already a widely hailed veteran of two expeditions to Antarctica, knew a lot about icebergs, which explains why he was called as an expert witness in the British government's inquiry into the Titanic sinking. He believed it was likely that the lookouts missed the gigantic iceberg in the ship's path until it was too late. "With a dead calm sea there is no sign at all to give you any indication that there is anything there. If you first see the breaking sea at all, then you look for the rest and you generally see it," Shackleton said. "From a height it is not so easily seen; it blends with the ocean if you are looking down at an angle like that."

Shackleton wasn't the only celebrity to offer testimony: Guglielmo Marconi, a Nobel laureate and inventor of the wireless system used on nearly every ocean liner by that point, explained the regulations for sending distress signals.

11. No one knew the exact location of the Titanic wreckage for 73 years.

Several expeditions had tried and failed to discover the final resting place of the Titanic in the North Atlantic. In 1985, Robert D. Ballard, then a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and a French team led by Jean-Louis Michel of the research institute IFREMER finally succeeded. The U.S. Navy had secretly commissioned Ballard to locate two Cold War-era nuclear submarines that had sunk in the North Atlantic decades before—and Ballard agreed to help as long as he could use its technology to search for the Titanic in the same area.

The team was aboard Woods Hole's research vessel Knorr, using a remote-operated vehicle (ROV) to survey the deep sea. Instead of trying to locate the ship itself in a huge search area, the team concentrated on finding the Titanic's large debris field. As the engineers piloted the ROV, its camera transmitted pictures to the research vessel. On September 1, 1985, an image of the Titanic's boilers slowly came into view—the first time in 73 years that people had seen the ship.

Photos of the Titanic wreckage—its ghostly hull and a trail of unbroken wine bottles, silver platters, a leaded glass window, bedsprings, and other artifacts resting 2.4 miles below the surface—were published and broadcast around the world.

12. Deep-sea robots mapped the ship's debris field.

In 2012, researchers from Woods Hole, the Waitt Institute, and RMS Titanic, Inc.—the wreck's legal custodian—announced that they had created a map of the 15-square-mile debris field using underwater robots. Sonar data and about 10,000 photos were synthesized to create the high-resolution map, which revealed the widely scattered artifacts extending outward from where the two large bow and stern sections of the ship came to rest on the seafloor about a half-mile apart.

The data also provided new clues as to how the Titanic sank. After 1 a.m. on April 15, 1912, as the flooded bow dipped first, the ship's stern rose out of the water at a steep angle. As the ship slid under the surface, the stern broke away and spiraled downward in a corkscrew pattern to the seabed, rather than falling in a straight line.

13. There might still be some cheese down there.

By the time the Titanic wreckage was found, most of the food that had sunk with the ship was long gone. But according to Holger W. Jannasch, senior scientist in Woods Hole's biology department in 1985, there might have been some brie lingering in the pantry. "Some foodstuffs, such as cheese, are protected from decay by the very microbial activity that starts the degradation process. If kept in boxes, it may have changed little over the extended time period," Jannasch wrote in Oceanus. "The microbes that turn milk or whey into cheese produce either highly acidic or highly alkaline conditions, both of which protect these highly proteinaceous foodstuffs from further spoiling." Similarly, wines seen on the seafloor "may still be drinkable and possibly of excellent quality, the normal aging process being slowed down during the [then 73] years of deep-sea storage at about 36°F," he wrote.

14. Artifacts recovered from the wreckage are included in several Titanic museum exhibits.

Titanic life belt and other artifacts
Kat Long

In Liverpool, the Merseyside Maritime Museum's Titanic collection includes important pieces of the ship's story. A life belt saved by a Titanic survivor and a nameplate removed from one of the Titanic's life boats aboard the Carpathia are on display. There is an actual telegram, sent from the Carpathia's captain Arthur Rostron to Cunard headquarters, telling the company about the disaster. Artifacts retrieved from the wreckage itself include porcelain dishes, a pair of pince-nez glasses, and gold hat pins. The museum also owns the sole surviving first class ticket for the Titanic's only voyage: The clergyman who bought it opted to stay home and tend to his wife who had fallen ill the night before departure.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History also owns a number of Titanic artifacts, including Carpathia passenger Bernice Palmer Ellis's Kodak "Brownie" camera and photos she took of the rescued Titanic survivors.

While the ship itself remains on the seabed, RMS Titanic Inc. has successfully recovered more than 5000 artifacts, including a 12-foot-by-26-foot piece of the starboard hull. That chunk went on display in a Titanic museum exhibit at the Luxor in Las Vegas in 2011.

15. You may see the Titanic sail again.

OK, not the original ocean liner. Australian businessman Clive Palmer established the Blue Star Line shipping company in 2012 to build a nearly exact replica of the Titaniccalled Titanic II—with the hope of completing the transatlantic crossing that its predecessor never did. The Titanic II will be slightly larger than the original, with space for 2400 passengers and 900 crew, while faithfully recreating its Edwardian opulence (even the Turkish bath). Fortunately for passengers on the Titanic II's maiden voyage, tentatively scheduled for 2022, the ship will have plenty of life boats and comprehensive evacuation plans in case of icebergs.

Eliza Leslie: The Most Influential Cookbook Writer of the 19th Century

American cookbook author Eliza Leslie
American cookbook author Eliza Leslie
Wikimedia // Public Domain

If it wasn't for Eliza Leslie, American recipes might look very different. Leslie wrote the most popular cookbook of the 19th century, published a recipe widely credited as being the first for chocolate cake in the United States, and authored fiction for both adults and children. Her nine cookbooks—as well as her domestic management and etiquette guides—made a significant mark in American history and society, despite the fact that she never ran a kitchen of her own.

Early Dreams

Born in Philadelphia on November 15, 1787, to Robert and Lydia Leslie, Eliza was an intelligent child and a voracious reader. Her dream of becoming a writer was nurtured by her father, a prosperous watchmaker, inventor, and intellectual who was friends with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. She once wrote that "the dream of my childhood [was] one day seeing my name in print."

Sadly, her father’s business failed around the turn of the 19th century and he died in 1803. The family took in boarders to make ends meet, and as the oldest of five, Leslie helped her mother in the kitchen. To gain culinary experience, she attended Mrs. Goodfellow’s Cooking School in Philadelphia, the first school of its kind in the United States. Urged by her brother Thomas—and after fielding numerous requests for recipes from friends and family—she compiled her first book, Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, in 1828. Notably, the book included the term cup cake, referring to Leslie's employment of a teacup as a measuring tool ("two large tea-cups full of molasses")—possibly the first-ever mention of a cup cake in print.

Seventy-Five Receipts was a hit, and was reprinted numerous times. Encouraged by this success—and by her publisher, Munroe & Francis—Leslie moved on to her true desire: writing fiction. She penned short stories and storybooks for young readers as well as adult fiction and won several awards for her efforts. One of her prize-winning short stories, the humorous "Mrs. Washington Potts," appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book, the popular 19th century magazine for which she also served as assistant editor. Leslie also contributed to Graham’s Magazine, the Saturday Gazette, and The Saturday Evening Post. At least one critic called her tales "perfect daguerreotypes of real life."

As much as Leslie loved writing fiction, however, it didn't always pay the bills. She wrote a second cookbook, Domestic French Cookery, in 1832, and achieved the pinnacle of her success in 1837 with Directions for Cookery. That work became the most beloved cookbook of the 1800s; it sold at least 150,000 copies and was republished 60 times by 1870. She offered pointers on procuring the best ingredients ("catfish that have been caught near the middle of the river are much nicer than those that are taken near the shore where they have access to impure food") and infused the book with wit. In a section discouraging the use of cold meat in soups, she wrote, "It is not true that French cooks have the art of producing excellent soups from cold scraps. There is much bad soup to be found in France, at inferior houses; but good French cooks are not, as is generally supposed, really in the practice of concocting any dishes out of the refuse of the table."

In The Taste of America, noted modern food historians John and Karen Hess called Directions for Cookery “one of the two best American cookbooks ever written," citing the book's precise directions, engaging tips, straightforward commentary, and diverse recipes—such as catfish soup and election cake—as the keys to its excellence.

Leslie is also credited with publishing America’s first printed recipe for chocolate cake, in her 1846 Lady’s Receipt Book. While chocolate had been used in baking in Europe as far back as the 1600s, Leslie’s recipe was probably obtained from a professional chef or pastry cook in Philadelphia. The recipe, which featured grated chocolate and a whole grated nutmeg, is quite different from most of today's chocolate cakes, with its strong overtones of spice and earthy, rather than sweet, flavors. (You can find the full recipe below.)

Later in life, while continuing to write cookbooks, Leslie edited The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present, which included early publications by Edgar Allan Poe. She also edited her own magazine of literature and fashion, Miss Leslie’s Magazine. She wrote only one novel, 1848's Amelia; Or a Young Lady’s Vicissitudes, but once said that if she was to start her literary career over, she would have only written novels.

A Uniquely American Voice

Historians have argued that Leslie was successful because she crafted recipes to appeal to the young country’s desire for upward mobility as well as a uniquely American identity. At the time she began writing, women primarily used British cookbooks; Leslie appealed to them with a distinctly American work. (She noted in the preface to Seventy-Five Receipts, "There is frequently much difficulty in following directions in English and French Cookery Books, not only from their want of explicitness, but from the difference in the fuel, fire-places, and cooking utensils. ... The receipts in this little book are, in every sense of the word, American.")

Leslie included regional American dishes in her books, promoted the use of quality ingredients, and was the first to (sometimes) organize recipes by including ingredients at the beginning of each recipe instead of using a narrative form, setting the tone for modern recipe writing. Her books were considered a treasure trove of knowledge for young pioneer women who, frequently separated from their families for the first time, often relied on Leslie's works for guidance.

Unmarried herself, Leslie never managed her own kitchen, and often had others testing recipes for her. She maintained strong ties with her erudite, sophisticated family, and lived for a time with her brother Thomas while he was attending West Point. Another brother, Charles Leslie, was a well-regarded painter in England; her sister Anna was also an artist, and sister Patty was married to a publisher who produced some of Leslie’s work. As she got older, Leslie lived for years in the United States Hotel in Philadelphia, where she was something of a celebrity for her wit and strong opinions.

Leslie died on January 1, 1858. Many of her recipes are still used today, but it's likely she’d be most pleased to know that many of her short stories are available online. Modern readers can appreciate the totality of her work: the fiction writing that was her passion, though for which she was lesser known, and her culinary writing, which guided generations.

Eliza Leslie's Recipe for Chocolate Cake

From The Lady's Receipt Book:

CHOCOLATE CAKE.—Scrape down three ounces of the best and purest chocolate, or prepared cocoa. Cut up, into a deep pan, three-quarters of a pound of fresh butter; add to it a pound of powdered loaf-sugar; and stir the butter and sugar together till very light and white. Have ready 14 ounces (two ounces less than a pound) of sifted flour; a powdered nutmeg; and a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon—mixed together. Beat the whites of ten eggs till they stand alone; then the yolks till they are very thick and smooth. Then mix the yolks and whites gradually together, beating very hard when they are all mixed. Add the eggs, by degrees, to the beaten butter and sugar, in turn with the flour and the scraped chocolate,—a little at a time of each; also the spice. Stir the whole very hard. Put the mixture into a buttered tin pan with straight sides, and bake it at least four hours. If nothing is to be baked afterwards, let it remain in till the oven becomes cool. When cold, ice it.

11 Facts About Johann Sebastian Bach

Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. There's some disagreement about when he was actually born.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. He was at the center of a musical dynasty.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. He took a musical pilgrimage that puts every road trip to Woodstock to shame.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. He brawled with his students.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. He spent 30 days in jail for quitting his job.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. The Brandenburg Concertos were a failed job application.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. He wrote an amazing coffee jingle.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. If Bach challenged you to a keyboard duel, you were guaranteed to be embarrassed.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. Some of his music may have been composed to help with insomnia.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. A botched eye surgery blinded him.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. Nobody is 100 percent confident that Bach is buried in his grave.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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