Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

JANUARY 13, 1404: SILVER THREADS AND GOLDEN NEEDLES

On January 13, 1404, the British Parliament under the guidance of King Henry IV signed into law an act that would endear them all to millions of today’s schoolkids — the Act Against Multipliers. Oops. Turns out he wasn’t outlawing multiplication tables. Back then multipliers were what we know as alchemists.

Alchemy actually had a somewhat noble background. Alchemists sought to purify, mature and perfect certain things — an elixir of immortality here, a cure-all for disease there, perfection of the human body, perfection of the human soul. But what really got the alchemists’ juices flowing was the use of philosopher’s stone to transform base metals into “noble metals” such as gold and silver.

And that’s exactly what Henry was making illegal — the possibility of some commoner making himself very rich, causing a redistribution of wealth and income equality that would bring ruin on the state. It would be as if in the U.S. today any Tom Dick or Harry could own as large and garish hotel as a president.

Therefore “none from henceforth should use to multiply gold or silver, or use the craft of multiplication, and if any the same do, they incur the pain of felony.” Off with their heads, most likely.

Philosopher’s stone is available from Amazon.

Where’s a Henry IV When You Need Him?

On January 13, 1854, alchemist turned musical inventor Anthony Foss received a patent for his accordion, a strange device shaped like a box with a bellows that is compressed or expanded while pressing buttons or keys which cause pallets to open and air to flow across strips of brass or steel, creating something that vaguely resembles music. It is sometimes called a squeezebox. The person playing it is called an accordionist (or squeezeboxer?)

The harmonium and concertina are cousins. And, yes, there is a World Accordion Day.

M – I – C.  K – E – Y . . .

The first Mickey Mouse comic strip appeared on January 13, 1930:

Island in the Sun, Conclusion

Several days passed before the bulldozer arrived.  During that time, Santo kept a constant vigil at the olive tree.  During the day, tourists passing by would sometimes stop to talk to Santo.  Most had already heard of the crazy man and his olive tree, but Santo’s disarming smile and his bullfriendliness would make them wonder whether he were crazy or merely a man with a cause, which is hardly so crazy.  Knowing that he remained night and day at the tree, some would bring him food and would sit and talk with him while he ate.

The young couple from the south of England shivered as Santo told them about sleeping on the dock in Trinidad after loading a banana boat and awaking to find a fat tarantula sitting on his chest staring at him.  The three ladies from California gushed over his tales of Spain during the last days of Generalissimo Franco.  And the young Montrealer listened until well after midnight as Santo talked of his time in Algeria with the French Foreign Legion.

The bulldozer arrived early the next morning.  Santo had to shake himself awake, and for a moment, he thought he was awaking from a nightmare in which he was about to be eaten by a huge yellow monster.  But even with his eyes open, the yellow monster remained, growling at him.

“Go away, crazy one,” shouted Luis Jordan from atop the chugging beast. Luis was a young man who had come to the island to do construction work; he didn’t belong on the island.  He was an angry, combative young man, frequently picking fights, and Santo didn’t like him much.  “You don’t think I’ll plow you down, do you, crazy man?”

“I am not crazy,” answered Santo.  “Go away.”

“Don’t be smart with me, crazy man.  You won’t stop me.  I don’t care if you live or die.  You’re trespassing.  I can plow you under and nobody will say anything.  I’ll take down that damn tree, and I’ll take you down with it.  Believe me.”

“I believe you.”

“As you should,” boasted Luis.  “Now stand aside.”

“I can’t stand aside.  This is my place.  It was my mama’s and my papa’s, and it was their mama’s and papa’s.  Go away and leave me alone.”

“I warned you,” said Luis, grinning as though he were really happy that Santo would not move, that he would have the pleasure of plowing him under.  “Good riddance to your lunacy.”  The bulldozer’s engine whined, and the beast lurched forward.  Santo stood his ground as the yellow monster bore down on him, it’s driver laughing.  Santo closed his eyes.

The Crystal Coral Beach Club was a magnificent place.  It straddled a mile’s worth of white sand beach and bathed it in grandeur and opulence.  Open for the first time this season, it was an unqualified success, drawing tourists from throughout the world and remaining fully occupied.  Hopes were high that it would bring years of prosperity to the tiny island.

On this day, the first anniversary of groundbreaking for the beach club, a large throng of tourists had gathered together.  The story of the Beach Club’s shaky beginnings had traveled from the swimming pool to the tennis courts to the lounge and to the bright blue water and back.  This was to be a celebration of that day of confrontation.

The olive tree had grown to nearly ten feet and was beautiful to behold; looking at this tree, it was hardly surprising that so many people considered olive trees holy.  Santo emerged from the modest house just beyond the tree, a house flanked by hibiscus, bougainvillea, and the beach club’s 156 luxury rooms.  Santo the celebrity beamed as he joined the others at the tree and shared a toast with the couple from the south of England, the three ladies from California, the Montrealer, and the others who had been here last year, the ones who had ignored the metallic whine of impending doom to suddenly join Santo in front of his tiny tree, linking their arms with his in defiance of the bulldozer.

With a grin, Santo pointed to where, even though it defied all the rules of horticulture and all the laws of botany (but didn’t surprise Santo or his friends one little bit), a single olive clung tenaciously to a branch of his olive tree.

 Listen to Island in the Sun

Island in the Sun is one of 15 stories in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

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Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

JANUARY 10, 49 BC: WADE IN THE WATER

Back in 49 BC, Julius Caesar was a mere governor commissioned by the Roman Senate to oversee a portion of the empire that stretched from Gaul to Illyricum (pretty much most of today’s Europe except Italy). When his term of governorship ended, the Senate ordered Caesar to disband his army and return to Rome. Whatever you do, Julie baby, don’t bring that army across the Rubicon River for that is treason and insurrection and very bad manners. Oh, and the punishment is death.

Caesar may have misunderstood for didn’t he just up and cross the Rubicon into Italy on January 10. His biographer suggests that he was under the control of a supernatural apparition (the Devil made him do it). Willful or not, Caesar is said to have shouted “alia iacta est” as he and his merry men waded across the shallow river (or ‘the die has been cast,” certainly more dramatic in Latin).

Crossing the Rubicon was a declaration of war, but instead of arresting Caesar the Roman Senate fled Rome in fear. Caesar, far from being condemned to death, became dictator for life. Sometimes it’s good to cross the Rubicon. Crossing the Rubicon has endured as a phrase meaning passing a point of no return.

The Hole in My Record Is Bigger Than the Hole in Your Record

RCA Victor it might be said crossed the Rubicon when on January 10, 1949, it introduced a new kind of record — a vinyl disc, just seven inches in diameter with a great big hole in the middle, the 45 (referring to its revolutions per minute). The 45 replaced the big noisy shellac disc that rotated at a breakneck 78 rpm. The first 45 rpm single was “Peewee the Piccolo.” Remember it?

Tata, Toodle-oo and Nano Nano

The cheapest car of the 21st century (so far) was trotted out on January 10, 2008, by its manufacturers, Tata Motors of India. The Nano, as it’s tata_nano_na-known, was a four-door metal bubble about ten feet long with a price tag of $2,500. Its makers called it the People’s Car, a vehicle for families who previously hadn’t been able to afford a car (yes, Volkswagen has been there, done that).

The basic model cost even less —  a mere $2,000, but came without a radio, air conditioning, airbags, steering, or windows (make that power steering or windows).

The Nano was made primarily of recycled computer printers. It had a 32-horsepower, rear-mounted engine, and could reach speeds of 65 miles per hour and 18 copies per minute. It had just one windshield wiper.

Tata received more than 203,000 pre-orders for the Nano, but because Tata was only able to produce an initial 100,000 Nanos, the cars’ lucky first owners were chosen by lottery. The Nano was initially sold only in India, although Tata said it eventually intended to spread it throughout the world.

Lest you think Tata Motors is a questionable business concern, it is part of one of India’s largest and oldest business conglomerates. And Tata, in addition to those Nano Nanos, manufactures Jaguars and Land Rovers.

The Bun Knows

On January 10, 1984, 81-year-old Clara Peller first asked the question for which she would become famous:

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AUGUST 2, 1922: YOUR CALL IS IMPORTANT TO US

phone1YOUR CALL IS IMPORTANT TO US

Alexander 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?”

 

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JULY 7, 1104: IT’S OUR PLEASURE, YOUR BACON

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.

 

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APRIL 16, 1850: CALL ME MADAME

CALL ME MADAME

Madame (Marie) Tussaud is arguably the world’s most famous wax sculptor. Born in France in 1761, she began her artistic career during the French Revolution, searching through corpses to find the heads of noted guillotine victims from which she made death masks. She herself was imprisoned for three months awaiting execution, but an influential friend intervened and she was released. She and her waxwork friends toured throughout Europe for 33 years before settling into a permanent exhibition in 1835 on Baker Street in London. There she gained prosperity and fame, managing her wax museum until her death on April 16, 1850.
Throughout Madame Tussaud’s long existence, its most popular feature has been the Chamber of Horrors (as pictured here).

Perhaps they could install a great big one in the white house

Inventor Walter Pichler is the genius behind the amazing TV helmet of 1967. This device allows a user to leave the outside world and slip into his or her own little world of information and entertainment. The user simply inserts his or her head into an capsule that resembles a small submarine and hopes that he or she doesn’t bump into something while enjoying the “virtual world” of Gilligan’s Island.

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APRIL 9, 1940: YOUR SHOPPING CART IS EMPTY

YOUR SHOPPING CART IS EMPTY

Sylvan Goldman was an idea man. One of his more persistent ideas led to his choice of careers. Actually, it was more than an idea — a concept, an eternal truth perhaps. “The wonderful thing about food is that everyone uses it — and uses it only once.”

Born in the Oklahoma Territory, he and his brother went into wholesale produce only to be wiped out by plunging oil prices.  After studying all the latest methods for retailing groceries, they bounced back with a chain of self-service stores featuring woven baskets for  carrying groceries. The stores were a big success, and they were bought out by the Safeway chain. Once again hard luck hit; their Safeway stock tanked during the Depression. And once again they bounced back; by the mid-30s they were half owners of the Piggly Wiggly chain.

Goldman continued to dream about customers moving more and more groceries. And one night in 1936 he had a eureka moment — inspired by a wooden folding chair. Put wheels on the legs and a big basket on the seat and you have a shopping cart.

Goldman and a mechanic friend began tinkering. They devised a metal cart with not one but two wire baskets. For efficient storage, the carts could be folded and the baskets nested. Goldman called his invention a folding basket carrier, receiving a patent on April 9, 1940.

When the carriers were introduced to the public, Goldman encountered one tiny problem. Customers didn’t want to use them. Men thought they would look like sissies pushing a cart. Women felt like they were pushing a baby carriage.  And older shoppers thought it made them look helpless. Goldman was always ready with another idea. He hired attractive models, both men and women, to push the carts around, as well as charming greeters urging customers to take one for a spin.

By the 1940s, the carts had become so much a part of the American shopping experience that the Saturday Evening Post devoted its cover to them. And they got bigger and bigger until they got tiny as little icons on websites everywhere.

Goldman’s Folding Carrier Basket Company is still in business today. Goldman isn’t. He died in 1984.

Don’t Hurry Worry Me, Part 4:  Blue Denim Rendezvous

hurryEvery bit of island treasure still remained buried when Elton figured he had earned a break at the Crab Hole.  He carefully draped Clarence Henry’s blue denims over a large rock so they might dry while he wet himself inside.  Those pants hadn’t been on the rock ten minutes when who should walk by but that rogue Randall.

“My pants!” he said, remembering the blue denims but somehow forgetting their origin and rightful ownership.  He scooped them up, went around back of the Crab Hole, slipped out of his pants and into Clarence Henry’s snappy blue denims.  They were damp, but still soft.  Out of a sense of fairness, Randall stretched his own pants over the rock, before heading off to an afternoon liaison with none other than the wife of the man whose pants he wore.

At this point in the story, Chicken Avery was usually forced to quell a mutiny among listeners who said the story was just too preposterous.  “Truth is stranger than lies,” Chicken Avery would say.  “Life is full of coincidences which maybe aren’t coincidences at all but preordained or something.”  He looked up at the ceiling.  “Now here’s another coincidence.  You interrupted my story just at the very time I finished my drink and needed a refill.  So if someone would be so kind as to fill my glass, I’ll get right back to this very amazing – and very true — story.”

As foolish a person as Randall is, had he remembered whose pants he wore, he would not have worn them to this particular rendezvous.  But he didn’t, so he did.  Fortunately, Clarence Henry’s wife paid so little attention to Clarence Henry’s pants that she didn’t recognize Randall’s blue denims as her husband’s very own.  And once Randall had arrived at Clarence Henry’s house and adjourned to Clarence Henry’s bedroom with Clarence Henry’s wife, Clarence Henry’s pants were a forgotten heap on the floor next to Clarence Henry’s bed.

This particular liaison was interrupted in mid-passion by the sound of a door slamming.  “What’s that?” said Randall, jumping up.

“That would be Clarence,” answered Clarence Henry’s wife.

Randall, on his way to becoming something of an expert on hasty exits without pants, dove out the window.  Clarence Henry’s wife could have made her husband a very happy man had she just remembered who the true owner of the blue denims was.  But she didn’t, and she threw them out the window after Randall.

To Randall, the pants flying out the window were a Godsend, or so he thought until, trying to don them on the run, he was spotted by that good dog, Mango.  Mango knew those pants, knew they did not belong to this young rogue.  He chased Randall for half a mile, nipping him in the behind until Randall dropped the pants. Mango then gave him one last punitive nip and let the naked young man flee.

Then Mango returned those pants to Clarence Henry.  But was he thanked for his efforts?  Rewarded?  No, he wasn’t.  That poor dog was punished.

But Chicken Avery had promised a proper moral.  And a proper one he delivered, for Clarence Henry who had taken a stick to his one true companion would never enjoy those blue denim trousers again.  By the time Chicken Avery’s story had been recounted several times, Clarence could not strut around in those pants without everybody laughing at him.  And if folks weren’t laughing, it was because they hadn’t heard the story.  So they soon heard it, because Chicken Avery felt an obligation to tell them about the marvelous life those pants had had when Clarence Henry wasn’t in them.

Listen to Don’t Hurry Worry Me performed by the Easy Riders

This story originally appeared in American Way, the inflight magazine of American Airlines.  It is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

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APRIL 5, 1951: FIRST CAME THE WHEEL

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.

Back Before the Wheel

Another important invention made its debut on April 5, 1939 — Dr. Elbert Wonmug’s time machine. Oh, there had been time machines before this, but this would be the first to transport and honest-to-goodness caveman from way back in the Bone Age right into the 20th century. The caveman was none other than Alley Oop, beamed right in from the kingdom of Moo where for the past seven years he had been doing typical caveman things — riding around on his pet dinosaur in a furry loincloth, brandishing his big club at his many enemies, and courting the lovely Ooola.
But once in the 20th century with a time machine to beam him about, Oop was no longer bound by prehistoric limitations. He became a roving ambassador, traveling to such destinations as ancient Egypt, Arthurian England and the American frontier, rubbing elbows with such folks as Robin Hood, Cleopatra, Ulysses, Shakespeare and Napoleon. At one point he even visited the moon. Pretty impressive for a Neanderthal.