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.

 

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.

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.

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.

 

 

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.

Fifty more sure-fire ideas

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 30, 1858: PENCIL ME IN

PENCIL ME IN

Our story begins in Philadelphia where Hymen J. Lipman in the mid-19th century became one of the city’s leading stationers and founded the first ever envelope company in the United States. Lipman didn’t just content himself with envelopes. His vision took him to pencils as well. And on March 30, 1858, the forward-looking Lipman earned himself a patent for a pencil with an eraser built right into one end of it. This was a giant step for the pencil industry.

Enter Joseph Reckendorfer. Reckendorfer looked at Lipman’s pencil and saw dollar signs. He also saw himself as a titan of the pencil industry. He would be to pencils what Rockefeller was to oil, what Vanderbilt was to railroads. He bought the pencil patent from Lipman for $100,000 (the equivalent of a couple million today).

But alas it wasn’t to be. Pencil manufacturer A. W. Faber began producing eraser-tipped pencils without paying a penny in royalties to Reckendorfer. Reckendorfer sued Faber.  In 1875, the lawsuit made its way to the Supreme Court which declared the patent invalid, reasoning that Lipman’s design combined a known technology, the pencil, with another known technology, the eraser, not creating a new use which was bad news for Reckendorfer.

Only on the Internet

In 2008, the 150th anniversary of Lipman’s invention, word went round the web that this was the 150th anniversary of the invention of the pencil. As a result, someone declared March 30 National Pencil Day. And possibly that same someone paraded a photograph of Hymen Lipman that was actually a young Edgar Allen Poe.

On the corner of Sodom and Gomorrah

The town of Zion, Illinois, banned all jazz performances on this musicless day, labeling them sinful, right up there with tobacco and alcohol and sexting as things its citizens could well do jazzwithout. The very name was thought (correctly) to have a sexual connotation. The decadent rhythms and wild dancing it elicited were feared (correctly) to be leading young people down the road to sexual abandon, degeneracy, and bad manners. “Oh, you got trouble right here in Zion city.”

Zion is far removed from New Orleans and its bordellos, a place synonymous with jazz and sin. The city was founded in 1901 by John Alexander Dowie as a place where people of faith could come together and live in a moral environment. The population was 24,413 as of the 2010 census. Zion is one of only a few cities in the world to have been completely planned out before building. And Dowie thought of just about everything. The north-south roads in the original plan are all named from the Bible –Ezekiel Place; Gabriel, Galilee, and Gideon Avenues; Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but no John. And no Duke Ellington Circle or Thelonious Monk Boulevard.

MARCH 29, 1905: FAX ME THE PILLOW THAT YOU DREAM ON

FAX ME THE PILLOW THAT YOU DREAM ON

Facsimile machines, known to their friends as fax machines, were originally conceived back in the dark ages of the early 20th century. In 1905, Cornelius Ehret received a patent for “the art of transmitting intelligence” and the race was on. In the 1920s, the first photographs were transmitted; by the 1950s, high-speed transmissions were common; and by the end of the century practically everyone had their own fax machine.

The following is an ode to the fax machine, sort of.

Officially, it’s known as a facsimile communications machine. Those on more familiar terms with it call it a fax machine.

 I prefer facsimile communications — it’s formal, cold and aloof — just the way I would like our relationship to remain.

 Our relationship is new, and it’s more of a brief encounter. I recently, for the first time, sent a facsimile to someone. It’s worth noting that not only are a lot of people on a nickname basis with the thing, but they also have made a verb out of what was clearly intended to be a noun. It is important that every thinking person take a vow never, never to fax anything.

 I don’t know if that someone to whom I sent the facsimile ever received it, but I did send it. I did it; it’s over; I can get on with my life. It was this someone, of course, who instigated the whole thing, suggesting that this particular document needed to be rushed enough not to trust it to the vagaries of the postal service. I myself happen to be a fan of postal delivery. You stick something in an envelope, slap a stamp on it, and a few days later, a real human being, beaming with pride, delivers it to its destination. It’s easy, it’s fun and it’s environmentally friendly.

 After determining the location of the nearest facsimile communication device and preparing the document in question, I sat down with paper and pencil to list pros and cons, possible dangers inherent in the action, and penalties for lack of action. I could remain defiant — stick it in an envelope, slap a stamp on it, and let the chips fall where they may. That would have been a rational response, a consistent one, and the safe one. But as I prepared to lick the stamp, I noted that it portrayed tiny astronauts landing on a tiny moon. These brave explorers, these one-giant-leap-for-mankind heroes looked up at me as if to say “Wimp!”

 So even though I deeply distrust and avoid anything invented after 1967, I decided to go for it. It was a moment filled with emotional stress; breaking a technological barrier usually is. For those of you who have yet to screw up your courage and try it, I am happy to report that the anticipation is worse than the experience itself.

 I removed the document from its mailing envelope, unfolded it, and inserted it in the rather harmless looking machine (quicksand looks harmless, too). I picked up the receiver of a rather ordinary telephone, dialed my recipient’s number, and waited for my cue. The cue is an ear-shattering screech (just like, for those of you who remember the movie Fail Safe, the screech that came to the President of the United States over the hot line, indicating that our inadvertently launched nuclear missiles had reached the USSR, and Moscow was no more).

 Once the screech ends, you crawl out from under the desk, press a button, and the paper disappears into the machine. A minute later, it magically reappears. Presumably, the original has been divvied into millions of little molecules, each of which reproduces itself. The clones are then fed through the phone lines to be reassembled at the other end and the original is reassembled here. I don’t know. I do know the machine ironed the creases out of my document; I can vouch for nothing beyond that.

 I may never send a facsimile again (and I will not fax) but it was worth experiencing. It fills one with that same heady exhilaration that diving to the ocean floor or landing on the moon must. And even though I may never send a facsimile again, I’m seriously considering giving the electric can opener a try. Technology is running amok, and it’s sweeping me along with it.

March 13, 1923: Rock-a-bye, Baby On the Treetop

In 1906, Eleanor Roosevelt, then a young mother living in New York City, bought a cage made of chicken wire and hung it outside the window of her townhouse. The cage was for her daughter Anna to nap in and enjoy the fresh outside air. Her neighbors threatened to call in the authorities. Young Eleanor wasn’t really a wicked mother; she was just a few years ahead of her time. Fast forward to the 1930s; baby cages are a booming business, particularly in London.

In between, Emma Read of Spokane, Washington, had the foresight to apply for a patent for “an article of manufacture for babies and young children, to be suspended upon the exterior of a building adjacent to an open window, wherein the baby or young child may be placed.” She envisioned a cage with removable curtains and an overlapping slanted roof to protect the suspended tyke from rain and snow — And from rattles and other toys maliciously thrown by the rotten little kid in the cage on the floor above.  Her patent was granted on March 13, 1923.

Interest peaked and petered out in the 1950s, and the baby cage disappeared into history despite the fascinating concept of children being caged.

 

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

Who 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.