Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


SHERLOCK HOLMES may have bluffed his chronicler Dr. John H. Watson during a train trip in their “Silver Blaze” adventure. I’m particularly fond of this tale and its implications because they remind me of the teaching challenge that begins with “Train A begins its journey at 9 a.m. and train B ….” And, yes, I seem to be having lots of fun with Dreaded Word Problems of late.

In the “Silver Blaze” story, Holmes and Watson are headed to the southwest of England, in “a first-class carriage, flying along, en route for Exeter…”


Watson and Holmes, on the way to Exeter in quest of “Silver Blaze.” Illustration by Sidney Paget, Strand Magazine, 1892.

From Watson’s chronicle:

“We are going well,” said he, looking out of the window, and glancing at his watch. “Our rate at present is fifty-three and a half miles an hour.”

“I have not observed the quarter-mile posts,” said I.

“Nor have I. But the telegraph posts upon this line are sixty yards apart, and the calculation is a simple one.”


The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories (2 Vol. Set), edited with a Foreword and Notes by Leslie S,. Klinger, W.W. Norton, 2005.

In The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Sherlockian scholars analyze this comment and conclude that Holmes was merely puffing train smoke.

Several of the scholars address Holmes “glancing at his watch” and this timepiece’s effect on accuracy of any calculation of train speed. One notes that the claim of exactly 53.5 mph would have required Holmes counting precisely 2.2439 seconds between the passing telephone poles. “The only conclusion to be drawn,” the writer says, “is that Holmes’ precise statement was sheer bluff which took Watson in at the time and Watson’s readers ever since.”

Another Sherlockian analyzes railway schedules of the time, no doubt using a vintage Bradshaw’s.


A Bradshaw’s Handbook was invaluable to any Victorian traveler.

The Sherlockian “cites the fact that the Flying Dutchman and the Zulu, both of which made the run from Paddington to Swindon in 87 minutes, would have had to average 53 1/4 mph.”


The British Railways Zulu. Photo by brit31 at deviantart,com.

What with stops and all, it’s clear that the train would have spent some time traveling in excess of this speed. Thus, a guess of “fifty-three and a half” is hardly a profound one.

Gee, I could do that, even without knowing when Train A begins its journey. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016


  1. Richard Wyndham
    April 1, 2020

    He didn’t, nor could he have sensibly counted individual poles (too much error) More likely he counted 19 poles and called that 1 mile ( error just over 1%) in 1 min 7 secs or even 38 and called that 2 miles and timed at 2 mins 13 secs. Simples

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