August 2, 1922: Your Call Is Important to Us

phone1Alexander Graham Bell was one of those curious inventive sort of kids, the kind that love to experiment and blow up the garage with their chemistry set when they’re eight. Although he was normally quiet (except for the explosions), he loved mimicry and ventriloquism, throwing his voice here and there to baffle guests and leave his family carrying on conversations with the dog and the cat and plants.

Troubled by his mother’s near deafness, he developed a technique of speaking directly into her forehead instead of her ears which for some reason enabled her to hear him. That evidently awakened a dream within him: If he could speak to his mother’s forehead and she could hear, he must be able to speak to a forehead in China or some other faraway place and be heard.

This of course led to his study of acoustics, and his greatest invention. By 1876, he had developed a theory of forehead to forehead long distance transmission, and just days after receiving a patent, Bell succeeded in getting his invention to work.  He held the device to his forehead and spoke the now famous sentence: “Mr Watson – Come here – I want to see you.” In an adjoining room, Watson, listening at the receiving end (he held it to his ear but probably never told Bell), heard the words clearly.  He shouted to Bell the equally famous words: “Not now.  I’m on the phone.”

Oddly enough, Bell considered his most famous invention an annoyance and refused to have a telephone in his study.

Bell died on August 2, 1922 before he could invent many improvements to his telephone, leaving it for others to come up with such refinements as the busy signal, call waiting, “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?”, cell phones and smart phones, obnoxious ringtones during concerts, and robocalls from Wayne LaPierre.   As another famous inventor put it: “What hath God wrought?”

 

Reality is nothing but a collective hunch. ~ Lily Tomlin

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July 7, 1104: It’s Our Pleasure, Your Bacon

England is not without its share of quaint ceremonies, many dating back to medieval times. One of the more unusual of these is the Dunmow Flitch which had its inception in Little Dunmow, Essex, during the 13th century and gravitated from there to Great Dunmow (a larger venue perhaps). The custom was a celebration of marital bliss in which a lucky couple who could satisfy judges of their own would be rewarded with a flitch of bacon, basically half a pig.

To win the flitch, the couple must prove that they had lived for a full year in a state of wedded euphoria, never uttering a harsh or quarrelsome word, nor shooting even a nasty glance in the other’s direction. No negative thought or a hint of regret could enter their minds. And if they had the opportunity to do it all over — well, you get the drift. If the judges were convinced:

“A whole gammon of bacon you shall receive,
And bear it hence with love and good leave:
For this is our custom at Dunmow well known,
Tho’ the pleasure be ours, the bacon’s your own.”

The happy couple were then paraded around town with their flitch of bacon and a lot of ballyhoo.

Were you to think this a very difficult way to procure a flitch of bacon, you’d be spot on. From the 13th century until the 18th century when the custom died out, there were, strangely enough, only six recorded winners. And according to an unreliable source, one of the early winning couples was a ship’s captain and his wife who hadn’t actually laid eyes on each other for the year after their wedding. Another couple, successful at first, had the flitch taken away from them after they began to argue about how it should be dressed. Yet another couple failed when the husband, who took part reluctantly, had his ears boxed by his wife during the questioning.

The custom has been reintroduced sporadically over the years. It is currently held every four years and was last held in July 2016.

Maybe If They Hadn’t Had To Slice Their Own Bread

“The greatest thing since sliced bread” is high praise indeed, denoting the ultimate in ingenuity, a hallmark of good old American know-how, a real “Wonder,” if you will. Sliced bread? Really? How important can sliced bread be?

Well, for example, in 1943, U.S. officials imposed a ban on sliced bread as a wartime conservation measure for reasons known primarily to U.S. officials. Why not just cut off everyone’s right arm? A letter from a frantic housewife to The New York Times was typical of the reaction:

I should like to let you know how important sliced bread is to the morale and saneness of a household. My husband and four children are all in a rush during and after breakfast.  Without ready-sliced bread, I must do the slicing for toast—two pieces for each one—that’s ten. For their lunches I must cut by hand at least twenty slices, for two sandwiches apiece. Afterward I make my own toast. Twenty-two slices of bread to be cut in a hurry!

Sliced bread, specifically a loaf of bread pre-sliced by a machine and packaged for consumer convenience, made its debut on July 7, 1928, and was hailed as “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped” (they couldn’t really call it the greatest thing since sliced bread). It was produced by the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri, as “Kleen Maid Sliced Bread.”

Kleen Maid was followed by the Holsum Bread brand, used by various independent bakers around the country. And in 1930, Wonder Bread started marketing sliced bread (or a plastic replica of it) nationwide, and the rest, as they say in the bread world, is history.

 

April 5, 1951: First Came the Wheel

Inventors are born every day, and April 5, 1951, was no exception. Dean Kamen was an inventor as well as a master of hype. Among his inventions are the iBOT an all-terrain electric wheelchair and a device that uses compressed air to launch SWAT teams to the roofs of tall buildings in a single bound.  Interestingly enough, Kamen’s father was an illustrator for Mad and Weird Science.

The most famous of his inventions by far was a closely guarded secret that he claimed would change the world when made public.  Among those touting its revolutionary potential was Apple’s Steve Jobs. Unveiled in 2001, the Segway is an electric, self-balancing human transporter. It has two parallel wheels and is controlled by the shifting of the operator’s body weight. Its computerized gyroscopes make it almost impossible to tip over (although George W. Bush did in a test drive).

Consumer reaction was more a whimper than a bang. About the only groups it caught on with are mall and airport security personnel. Adding to the insult, Time Magazine included the Segway in its list of the 50 worst inventions.

British entrepreneur Jimi Heseleden bought the Segway company in 2010. He died that same year when he fell off a cliff while riding his Segway.

Segue to Wholesomeness in Washington

In an April 5 Washington Post interview, U.S. Secretary of the Interior James Watt shocked proponents of unwholesomeness throughout the country when he let it be known that the Beach Boys who had performed in July 4 concerts on the National Mall for the past few years would not be invited back in 1983. In Watt’s opinion, previous concerts had attracted “the wrong element.” “We’re trying to have an impact for wholesomeness. July 4th will be a [traditional ceremony] for the family and for solid, clean American lives. We’re not going to encourage drug abuse and alcoholism as was done in past years.” Instead, the celebration would be headlined by military bands and the ever so wholesome Las Vegas lounge singer, Wayne Newton.

After the national uproar that followed the Secretary’s announcement, the Beach Boys received a personal invitation from First Lady Nancy Reagan to return to the Mall, which they did in subsequent years, attracting crowds of up to a million unwholesome types. Watt received a foot-in-the-mouth award.  And he would shortly outdo himself. A few months later he mocked affirmative action by saying about a panel he had appointed: “I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent.”  Within weeks of making this statement, Watt submitted his resignation letter.

Today more people – wholesome and unwholesome alike – remember the Beach Boys than James Watt.  They are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  James Watt, on the other hand, is not in the Department of the Interior Hall of Fame.

Another important music event took place on this date two years later. Some 5,000 radio stations around the world simultaneously played the song “We are the World”, written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and sung by a group of superstars for African famine aid.  Now that’s wholesome.

 

My favorite animal is steak. ― Fran Lebowitz

 

April 3, 1667: The Lions Are Coming, The Lions Are Coming

In addition to being a member of the British peerage, Edward, Marquis of Worcester, who died on April 3, 1667, was a bit of a dabbler, a sort of ersatz inventor, and author of an odd little book called A Century of Inventions. The book, written some ten years earlier, describes, as the title suggests, a hundred speculative projects, none of them, however, detailed enough to allow a reader to actually put them into practice: secret writing with peculiar inks, explosive devices that would sink any ship, ships that would resist any inventionexplosive devices, floating gardens, a method to prevent sands from shifting, automatic assault pistols and cannons, a timer for lighting candles at any time during the night, a hundred-foot pocket ladder, flying machines.

Although many of his ideas foreshadowed later inventions, it is unclear whether he had thought through the methods by which they would work. One idea was put to work with success although unusually so. As the owner of Raglan Castle, he had constructed some hydraulic engines and wheels for bringing water from the moat to the top of the castle tower.  During the Civil War, Roundheads had approached the castle with not the best of intentions. The Marquis had his waterworks put into play. “There was such a roaring,” he later wrote, “that the unwelcome visitors stood transfixed, not knowing what to make of it.” On cue, one of the Marquis’ men came running toward them shouting that the lions were loose. The intruders tumbled over one another down the stairs in an effort to escape, never looking back until the castle was out sight.

 

The Marquis’ 100 nifty inventions most likely did not inspire Time Magazine to create its list of inventions at the turn of this century, although it could have.  The Time list heralded fifty creations that it called the worst of all time.  Wretched Richards Almanac has visited some of these in the past and will visit others in the future (like on April 5).  The list includes such sure-fire ideas as Hair in a Can, Tanning Beds, Venetian-Blind Sunglasses, Smell-o-Vision, Hula Chair and many more.

 

March 10, 1876: It’s a Telephone, My Dear Watson

telephoneWho would have thought back on March 10, 1876, that in a hundred or so years practically every other human on the face of the earth would have a phone pressed against the side of his or her head at any given moment. Certainly not Alexander Graham Bell as he was in the process of making the very first phone call. It wasn’t much of a call, certainly not long distance. Bell called his assistant Thomas A. Watson who was in the next room. The phones they used weren’t much to behold; they looked more like tin cans connected by a long string than today’s sleek models. But nevertheless they made history.

The moment of truth in Bell’s own words: “I then shouted . . . the following sentence: Mr. Watson come here — I want to see you. To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said.”

Enter the quibblers. Why didn’t Watson answer Bell using that brand new telephone, they ask. And if Bell shouted his words and Watson were in the very next room, he’d very likely hear them without the phone, they suggest.

Watson’s diary says Bell’s words were actually “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you. ” a minor difference but just chock full of innuendo, they say, eyebrows raised. And some even suggest that the incident is all fabrication, that Bell actually stole the idea for the telephone from another inventor, Elisha Gray.

History does not record Bell’s disappointment when he tried to duplicate the experiment and was put on hold.

March 10, 1893: Cum Laude, Cum Very Laude

New Mexico State University’s first ever graduation was to have taken place on this date in milkman1893 but was abruptly canceled when Sam Steel, the lone graduating senior, was shot and killed while delivering milk the day before graduation.

Said the local paper: “The hearts of the whole community were stricken with sadness when it was learned that Samuel Steel, the most brilliant student of our College, had been foully and wil(l)fully murdered on Thursday evening, March 9th. We do not consider it in place to refer to the details of this ghastly deed, which are known to most of our readers; we only feel assured that it was perpetrated in sheer cold-bloodedness, and, knowing the victim as well as we have done, without the slightest provocation.”

Knowing what we do today about the reputation of milkmen, one might speculate that there could have been a slight provocation.

 

I will make you shorter by a head. — Queen Elizabeth I

November 10, 1903: Cold, Cold, Cold Was the Trolley

It was a typically nasty winter day — wet and cold — in New York City at the dawn of the 20th century, when Mary Anderson, an out-of-towner took a typical tourist trolley ride. There wasn’t a whole lot to see with sleet clinging to the windows. In fact, Mary observed that the driver of the streetcar himself could barely seetrolley2 through the front windshield. The trolley’s front window had supposedly been designed for bad-weather visibility: it was made up of individual panes that could be opened when covered by rain or snow, allowing the driver to peer out through the opening. Hardly high tech. Not only did it do little to improve the driver’s ability to see where he was going, it left him with an ice-encrusted face, and chilled the passengers as well.

Right there, while sitting in the cold trolley, Mary began to sketch a mechanical device that would wipe the trolley’s windshield. Her invention had arms made of wood and rubber that were attached to a lever near the steering wheel of the drivers’ side. By pulling the lever, the driver could drag the spring-loaded arm across the window and back again, wiping away raindrops, snowflakes, sleet, dead birds, what-have-you. The wipers could easily be removed when meteorologists prophesied sunny skies.

Mary returned home to Birmingham, Alabama, and applied for a patent. On November 10, 1903, she received U.S. Patent No. 743,801 for her “window cleaning device for electric cars and other vehicles to remove snow, ice or sleet from the window.” Alas, she was an inventor ahead of her time. She made not a penny for her cleverness. And yet within ten years windshield wipers were standard issue in passenger cars everywhere.

In 1917, another woman, Charlotte Bridgewood, patented the “Electric Storm Windshield Cleaner,” an automatic wiper system that used rollers instead of blades. (Her daughter had already invented the turn signal.) But like Mary Anderson, Charlotte Bridgewood never made any money from her invention. Another type of automatic windshield wiper came onto the scene in 1921. Called “Folberths,” after their inventors, these wipers were powered by a device connected by a tube to the inlet pipe of the car’s motor.

The male Folberths profited from their invention, which may lead some to believe that wiping devices were at work on glass ceilings as well as windshields.