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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: How Do You Reinvent Rock Music?

April 2, 2018

What’s the world’s largest musical instrument? If you guessed a massive organ somewhere, you’re on the right track. It is an organ, but you won’t find it in a church, or even above ground. It’s the “Stalacpipe” organ in Luray Caverns, Virginia.

Luray explorers had been tapping stalactites (those pointy cave ceiling things) throughout the huge limestone cave for years to make eerie echoes. In 1954, cavern visitor and organ enthusiast Leland Sprinkle envisioned an organ that would play more tuneful music by tapping stalactites with rubber-tipped pistons. Leland tested more than 2,500 stalactites before he found 37 that matched musical notes (and cheated a little by shaving some down to size). How does it sound? Just as spooky as you’d imagine—an uncanny ringing from an unseen source deep underground. Leland acted as the cave’s resident organist for years, until they decided to turn it into a player piano—like it wasn’t creepy enough already.

Artiphon Musical Instrument | $299

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What’s the Weirdest Thing Ever Sent into Space?

March 19, 2018

In 2018, SpaceX sent Elon Musk’s red Tesla into orbit (complete with a dummy driver dubbed “Starman”), launching renewed buzz about the strange, offbeat, and downright surprising stuff humans have sent into space. Since the beginning of the Space Race, hundreds of unusual objects have been propelled into the unknown for the sake of science (or sometimes just for fun). Choosing the weirdest really wouldn’t be fair to the rest, so here’s a rundown of our top ten extraterrestrial odds and ends:

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What Fruit Did Queen Victoria Send on a Fatal Voyage?

February 21, 2018

In the last decade of her long reign, Queen Victoria noticed that “Empress of India” was part of her job description. So, she did the only sensible thing: Brought an Indian advisor into her inner circle and ordered that a mango be shipped from India (a six-week voyage) just to taste the fabled fruit. This quirky royal request is dramatized in the film Victoria & Abdul, starring Dame Judi Dench and Bollywood heartthrob, Ali Fazal. Want to know how to tell when your mango’s fit for a queen? Ali offers a guide.

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Which British Animal is More Royal than the Rest?

February 7, 2018

Before you snatch a swan from London’s River Thames to keep as your pet, consider something first. Besides getting the graceful feathered animal through customs, you’d also be stealing from her royal highness, Queen Elizabeth II. By prerogative power, the “Seignor of Swans” (aka the Queen) owns every swan in open waters within England and Wales. It’s a peculiar statute that dates back to medieval times, when the birds were considered a delicacy and served on dinner tables of the super wealthy. They don’t eat them anymore, but being the animal lover she is, the Queen just can’t let them go. She even participates in a royal “Swan Upping.” Every third week in July, Elizabeth—or rather her team of “upping” experts—gathers all unmarked swans, tags them, and sets them free. Is your dream crushed? Don’t let this stop you! Should you become close friends with the sovereign, she might grant you ownership of your own royal swan. It may be worth sticking your neck out.

Swan Slippers | $34

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: How Did an Ancient King Inspire Our Word for “Wireless”?

January 3, 2018

Today, Bluetooth® means instant connectivity, like playing tunes from your phone to your speaker, or syncing a photo slideshow to your TV. But back in 940 A.D., Bluetooth was a great Danish king credited with uniting all of Scandinavia. See the connection? In 1996 the inventors of our single wireless standard (aka a cohort of totally techie geniuses) were puzzled with how to name such a brilliant, futuristic technology that would ultimately change the way we use our devices. So, instead of thinking forward, the group went back—way back—to the middle ages.

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What Are the Precedents for Presents?

December 1, 2017


Long before the customary exchange of gift cards and fruitcakes (giving real meaning to the phrase “you shouldn’t  have”), giving gifts around December 25th was an important and varied tradition. In the Christian tradition, the custom of Christmas gift-giving is based on the gifts of the three Magi, but there are other precedents for presents. In Sicily, an old woman named Strina brings gifts on Christmas, and her name may stem from the Roman goddess Strenia, whose feast day was marked by the exchange of green boughs (sound familiar?). In a related French tradition, gifts called entrennes are given on New Year’s Day. In Germany and Scandinavia, a gifting tradition called Julklapp involves knocking on doors, flinging wrapped packages into houses, and running away. Sometimes, these gift bombs incorporate marriage proposals (take that, fiancé!). And of course, there’s a certain bearded man in a red suit…

Discover more holiday lore in our Twelve Uncommon Facts About the Holidays post.

24 Days of Tea Advent Calendar | $25

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What’s So Sweet About New York?

November 6, 2017

When you think maple, you probably think of Vermont and those little leaf-shaped candies. But at the end of the Eighteenth century, one man was on a mission to make the Empire State the maple state. Gerrit Boon, who had been a sugar refiner in Holland, came to upstate—way upstate—New York with dreams of turning its abundant maple forests into a vast plantation for making maple sugar. Continue Reading…

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