By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Since man learned that there were things in the natural world that he could bend and shape to make his life easier, inventors (however primitive they may have been at the start) have sought for new ways to make our lives easier. In some instances these inventions were stumbled across entirely by accident. Others, revolutionary at their time of inception, have become so common place that we rarely even remark on their origin. Yet these inventions and inventors have transfigured our daily life.
Think back to a time when early man began to use fire. Now we didn’t invent fire, it was most likely gathered naturally from lightning strikes and then kept burning in family shelters for up to centuries. Evidence of this can be found in a cave in China where a fire was kept burning for so long it left a bed of ashes twenty-two feet deep[i]. What they invented was a method to make fire on their own. Now, when you light your fire pit, gas oven or even just start your car, you don’t think about the amazingly complex reactions you’re continuing or their inventor. Similarly, many of the everyday inventions we use don’t even occur to us to be special.
Arguably the biggest impact on everyday life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries comes in the form of the automobile. While steam trains predate the car, they were limited to the areas that their tracks ran leaving those outside the rail service stuck using the same method of transportation we’d been using for 5,000 years, the horse. Now a carriage comes along with nothing to pull it other than the torque provided by a new method of harnessing that fire our ancestors shepherded so carefully. It’s no wonder that some people thought the whole thing a ridiculous fad. Similarly, when we deigned to light our homes for thousands of years we burnt something: oil, wax, fat or natural gas. It is an amazing leap to move to light bulbs, something that just glowed with the application of electricity. The idea that you could just use these metal and glass contraptions that you hooked in to deadly electricity was considered quite dangerous, even by people who were used to lighting volatile natural gas in their lamps.
As you can see these inventions, along with vulcanized rubber, powered flight, assembly lines and telephones, made the turn of the nineteenth century a time when anybody could completely restructure our daily lives with the newest inventions. All of these things we take for granted were harebrained schemes and crazy pipedreams.
While many innovators have pushed the boundaries of our world with a will and determination, some have stumbled across ideas and devices completely by accident. Things we’re all used to as models of modern engineering were originally flubs, failures and freak accidents.
Take the microwave for instance. Now you get home after a long day at work, too tired to cook and you throw some leftovers in a magic box for a minute or two and it comes out hot and ready to eat (well, except for the middle, that’s still ice cold). You’d think some scientific genius would have brought this gift of intellect to us, but actually not so much. A man working with an especially strong magnetron to improve radar for the Raytheon Corporation noticed something odd. The gentleman in question was Percy Spencer, a self-taught grammar school dropout who worked hard enough and had enough natural brilliance to go from the paper mills of Maine to developing and producing radar equipment for M.I.T.’s Radiation Laboratory. He noticed that while working with the magnetron, the chocolate in his pocket melted. He wasn’t the first to see this, just the first to investigate why it happened. From this radar experiment he went on to try it on another food source, targeting a direct radar beam on the food produced a result, and now 70 years late countless households reenact his first experiments nightly when they microwaves bags of popcorn.[ii]
Matches were an accident as well. The lighter may seem newer, but it actually predates the match by three years. The new-fangled match was created when an English Pharmacist noticed a buildup of chemicals on his stirring stick. When he attempted to scrape off the offending chemicals, the stick ignited. That must have been a bit of a shock to Mr. Walker, the pharmacist in question. [iii]
By far my favorite happy accident was the Popsicle. Eleven year old Frank Epperson had been mixing a powdered fruit flavored beverage with a wooden stick. He left the drink out on a cold night and it froze. In the morning he warmed the glass and removed the ice block with its wooden stirring stick still frozen inside. By chance he took a lick of the ice and now children everywhere have one of their own to thank for one of the most famous frozen treats. [iv]
Even being at best absent minded, at worst lazy, can lead to one of the greatest inventions of all time. Dr. Alexander Fleming hadn’t cleaned his lab before leaving for his summer holidays. When he came back he found an untidy workspace that included some exposed petri dishes. Some had a strange mold on them that repelled the bacteria around it. After a little tinkering and some concerted mold culturing, Fleming was able to reproduce the accidental experiment, leading to the development of penicillin.[v]
Some inventions come into being like embryos, bearing a slight resemblance to the finished product. There are a great number of these out there that were crazy when they were first proposed, but are now gaining traction.
- Yves Rossy may have finally perfected the Jet pack we’ve all been waiting for.
- The Inter auto, a spool to spool map that moved as you drove was like a nascent GPS.
- The Laryngophone, a means for speaking over telephone lines without use of your mouth has become the modern day throat mics of pilots.
- Hugo Gernsback once decided to make a wearable pair of small cathode ray tubes to produce a 3D television experience. This concept is finally coming to fruition with google glass and all the VR headgear attachments you can buy for your smart phones.
- Even the idea of the radio controlled lawn mower is reaching fruition. Who doesn’t want a remotely operated spinning blade moving across your yard? Roomba is readying a yard version of the famous vacuum for market.
The future may hold glorious new devices or more feasible innovations on weird ideas from the past. More unforeseen consequences may lead us to new discoveries. Something you see on the “as seen on TV” shelf may turn out to change the lives of every person on earth. You never know.
[i] The Cartoon History of the Universe Vols. 1-7 By Larry Gonick, 1990 902.07 GON
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
By now, anyone who has strayed into the modern miasma of pop culture is familiar with the concept of giant sharks dropped in L.A. by water spouts while has-been and never-will-be actors line up to kill or be killed. It’s ridiculous. It’s impossible. It’s ludicrous. It’s not as weird as some things found in nature.
One of the most common types of odd phenomenon is the optical illusion. Our atmosphere likes to play with light a great deal more than you might expect. Take for instance the green flash. This odd blink of green light just as the top ridge of the sun hits the horizon is rumored to bring good luck in love. In actuality it is the light of the sun’s journey through more atmosphere than any other time that absorbs the lower wavelengths of light, leaving green. It’s also visible right as the sun hits the horizon at dawn, but being diurnal creatures, most of us aren’t watching for it then. Other optical phenomenon, when light and water, ice or dust interact includes sun dogs (small sun like balls on either side of the sun), light pillars (a ray of light going straight up from the sun when it is near the horizon) and arcs or rings around the sun. The most impressive are, or can be, the fata morgana. The fata morgana is a mirage caused by the drastic temperature differences in the atmosphere causing something to appear to be floating in the sky. They can be as basic as a boat appearing to be above the surface of the water to as complex as the city in the clouds seen over Foshan China in October of 2015.
The atmosphere can produce other bizarre things as well, in the form of weather phenomena. Frost flowers form on plants and frozen surfaces. They’re actually two separate phenomena. The ones that form in meadows are windblown frost crystals that accumulate into curling petal-like structures. The crystal structures at sea are formed from ice crystals freezing from the atmosphere creating long chains the stretch out similar to ferns or cacti.
Another amazing weather phenomenon is the Catatumbo Lightning. This is a raging lightning storm in Venezuela with an average of 280 strikes per hour, ten hours per day up to 260 days out of the year. The air and water currents make for a spectacular light show that has been going on for years. Although it pales in comparison with the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, a cyclonic storm that has been continually observed for over 300 years, and was probably seen earlier than that.
Tales of fish or frogs falling from the sky date back to Pliny the Elder in the first century. The predominant theory involves tornados or waterspouts picking up the animals and depositing them outside their natural habitat. There have been documented occurrences of everything from fish to frogs, to even jellyfish in England in 1864 and spiders in Australia in 2015 (no sharks though).
Natural climate activity does not have a monopoly on the unusual event front. Animals have a few crazy occurrences of their own. Crop circles have been seen all over, but under the water? Seven foot diameter patterned circles popped up off the coast of Japan. The cause is a mating display by one species of puffer fish.
Also underwater are great tube-like things called pyrosomes. The structures look like jelly fish and can stretch up to 60 feet in length, but they are not actually a single organism. Each tube is composed of hundreds or thousands of individual organisms that are actually clones of one another. These zooids such water in through mouths on the outside of the tube and all expel the water thrught the center, creating a jet like propulsion.
The red crabs of Christmas Island also observe an insane mating display. Every year in late October or early November millions of crabs make a journey from the mountains to the sea shores to mate and release their eggs on the tide. They cover the ground and cause roads to be closed. A month later a seething carpet of ant sized baby crabs return from the water and make their way back into the mountainous forests to mature.
When we think of something that is as plain as plain can be we often go to water as an example. However, water can elicit some strange effects while doing nothing out of the ordinary. At the confluence of the rivers Negro and Amazon you can see two separate rivers flow within the same banks, one brown and one black, for miles until they truly merge. In Alaska a similar situation occurs when glacial melt water encounters the sea. Both of these situations result from different particulates in the suspension of the particular body of water in question. The Negro is a slow moving river with a lot of vegetation that steeps in the river like tea, while the faster Amazon carries a lot of sediment. The Glacial melt also meets the differently dense ocean carrying particulates the leave a clear line where one starts and the other stops. The most extreme examples of this are the underwater pools. Yes, SpongeBob was right, there are pools of water under the water but I don’t think anyone wants to take a dip here. High salinity and dissolved methane mean that almost anything that goes in this pool is not leaving.
In some cases, Mother Nature is trying to add insult to injury. Imagine frozen wastelands with explosive bubbles and volcanic lightning. Methane comes back here as bubbles are forming in arctic lakes. These dangerous little spheres are close to the surface too. All it takes is an ice axe, a lighter and an extreme lack of sense to create a fountain of fire for anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. The methane rises from the ground beneath the lakes and usually passes through into the atmosphere, but during the winter the bubbles can be trapped, waiting for a thaw or adventurous ice fisherman. If flaming ice wasn’t bad enough try volcanic lightning. Dirty thunderstorms, as they are called, occur when the particles in a volcanic eruption build up static electricity the discharge occurs with a bolt of lightning. So you may be able to be struck by lightning while running away from lava and pyroclastic flow.
While not reaching the level of sharks dropping from the sky in danger, the natural world sure does have its share of weird and amazing phenomena.
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
You’ve all heard of Limericks, I’m sure
Whether racy or actually pure
They’re funny old rhymes
From good old times
And the good ones are rarely demure
They all start in jolly old Britain
Whose poems were occasionally written
In lyrical styles
To bring forth some smiles
And the poets were instantly smitten
The name, it comes from good green Erin
The Maigue Poets used to declare in
the city, Limerick.
Those bards got a kick
from the poetry style used there in.
The transition to bawdier verse
(Or something ocassionally worse).
The decade was roaring
and not a bit boring,
still, reactions were quite terse.
There once was a man, name of Lear
Who wrote them, though not very clear
His meanings were nonsense
With ridiculous contents
And his fame stretches from then to here
Some people delight to change form
From the meter and scheme as a norm
They sometimes depart
On whole, a la cart
But can do so in in whatever manner they choose and still leave it mildly humorous
So let us praise the limerick this way
On this, the Limerick’s Day
They bring joy and delight
And the length is just right
Except like now when I’m carried away!
As one last PS I must add
A very hard time I have had
To not use Nantucket
Or mention a bucket
But I know that would really be bad.
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Soon we will have another quadrennial celebration of the changing hands of the highest office in the land. The inauguration is about hope. Yes, hope. Regardless of your political beliefs, we watch the events of a new presidency with hope of one kind or another. We hope the new person won’t make the mistakes of the old. We hope that our opinions will now be considered and valued. We hope this guy doesn’t screw up. We hope four years go by quickly and uneventfully. They’re all hope, some positive, some negative, but hope all the same.
This new beginning means that we all have a moment to take some time, look at our present situation as a country and decide if we are where we want to be and what we need to do to get wherever that is. This has been the burden of 43 men on 57 separate occasions. They all stood on a platform in Washington D.C., put their hand on a bible and swore to…wait, none of those things are right. True, this is the image we see when we imagine the inauguration in our mind, but none of those things are actually required for the inaugural process.
First of all, the inauguration does not have to be in Washington D.C. George Washington was had his first inaugural in New York and his Second in Philadelphia. Adams was also inaugurated in Philly. Two presidents have taken the oath of office in hotels due to the death of the prior president. Two took the oath in their private residences for the same reason. The most recent extraordinary inauguration was that of Lyndon Johnson in 1963 on Air Force One in Dallas.
The Swearing and the Bible are not dictated anywhere either and neither is the phrase, “So help me God”. Due to some religions prohibiting members from swearing to anything, the option to affirm the oath was built in to the ceremony. Two presidents are believed to have done so, Hoover and Pierce. We know that Pierce did for certain even though he was an Episcopalian and was not required to avoid swearing. Hoover was a Quaker and it was believed he had used affirm, but news real footage shows he said solemnly swear. The only other Quaker president was Richard Nixon, and he also chose to swear. Theodore Roosevelt did not swear on a bible, and John Quincy Adams and that rebel Franklin Pierce swore on books of law to signify they were swearing by the Constitution. Finally, George Washington ad libbed the line “so help me god” and most presidents have followed suit. It is the proscribed thing to complete an oath for federal judiciary members, but there is nothing in the presidential oath that requires it.
The Inauguration Address
The shortest inauguration address on record was Washington’s second address at one hundred and thirty-five words.
I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America.
Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.
Not exactly, “Here we go again” but short sweet and to the point. Washington’s brevity seems to be a skill many politicians these days lack. William Henry Harrison should have followed Washington’s lead. His inaugural address was the longest so far and went on for 8445 words. Many people believe this lengthy speech, combined with the cool temperatures and cold wind contributed to the cold, then pneumonia, then pleurisy and eventual death of President Harrison. He died one month later and though he had the longest address, he had the shortest presidency.
The Twentieth of January
Weather was the original reason why most of the early presidents were inaugurated in March. Obviously those brought up from vice president to take the place of a deceased commander in chief weren’t given the option, but Washington Himself was inaugurated in April. The Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution changed the date to the Twentieth of January. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was both the last to be inaugurated in March and the first to do so in January. Regardless of the change in date, the warmest and coldest inaugurations have occurred in the January era. President Reagan had the warmest inauguration in 1981 at 55° and the coldest, 7°, for his second in 1985
There have been a few issues with the oath over the years as well. Chief Justice Fuller accidentally replaced the word protect with maintain in regards to the constitution when administering the oath to Taft. Ironically, Taft did the same at Hoover’s inauguration when he, Taft, was chief justice. Chief Justice Stone replaced Harry Truman’s stand-alone middle initial with the name Shipp, one of Truman’s grandfathers’ last name, but Truman just rolled with it and said Harry S. Truman anyway. Finally Barak Obama waited for Justice Rogers to realize a gaff when he put faithfully in the wrong place when reciting the oath. Rogers moved the term but still had it wrong. Rogers and Obama completed the Oath properly in the Oval Office the next day.
All these little bits of trivia notwithstanding, we can observe this inauguration in which ever spirit we choose, be it happy, sad, skeptical or hopeful. However there will be people looking for mistakes or records, swearing or affirming and what the temperature was to add this fifty-eighth inaugural to the history books.
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Every year countless people create lists of things they never actually intend to do. Well…that’s a bit unfair. They enter into these lists of resolutions for the New Year with all the hope and enthusiasm that a new beginning can impart. Realistically though, many of us can barely remember what we resolved to do by the time we get to May and have failed to follow through on those resolutions to any significant degree. So while we are thinking about what we want to lose, give up, start doing or ramp up let us all take a moment to try to add something fun to our list with a book challenge. (And yes, a book challenge is fun; this is a library’s blog for pity’s sake!)
Reading is a great deal more than a past time. Slipping into the world of a new book brings you so many benefits that this resolution may be on par with exercising more or quitting smoking. Reading exercises your mind, keeps it limber and increases the memory. A National Academy of Sciences study has shown that people who read regularly are two and a half times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease[i]. It has also been shown that reading literary fiction helps increase your ability to empathize with others[ii]. Who doesn’t need to improve their empathy skills? Some books can even lower blood pressure and reduce stress[iii] and help stave off symptoms of mild mental disorders[iv]. Also, you gain new knowledge. Think of all the things you can learn and combine this with the improved vocabulary and increased attention span readers develop. These are real benefits to other parts of your life. Go for it!
Take this list of suggestions and challenge yourself to read more, or step outside of your comfort genre. Here is a list of twenty-six challenges, one book for every two weeks.
- Try a book outside of your usual genres.
- Read a book your mother would love.
- Read a book your mother would hate.
- Pick a color at random and read a book with that color cover.
- Find a book with a song title or lyric for a title.
- Choose a book to read with a friend.
- Read one that they choose.
- Re-read your favorite book from childhood.
- Read something with your family, with everyone taking a chapter in turn.
- Read something from an author that you’ve never heard of before.
- Read a book about your guilty pleasure, something you’d never admit to reading.
- Find an aisle in the library you’ve never gotten something from and choose a book from there.
- Get a book from the young adult section. You’ll be surprised how enjoyable they can be.
- Try a book that discusses your religious beliefs or lack thereof.
- Try one that discusses someone else’s.
- Find a book about or set in your favorite part of history.
- Read a collection of short stories or novellas from a single author.
- Read a book that is related to a movie or television show you enjoy.
- Read a literary journal i.e. The New York Times Book Review, Publishers Weekly, etc.
- Pick a book from that journal and read that.
- Read a magazine from the month and year you were born, cover to cover.
- Read a book you read or were supposed to read in high school or university.
- Read a graphic novel. They’re not just comic books anymore.
- Read an eBook.
- Read a book based on the recommendation of a stranger.
- Pick your favorite book that you’ve read from this list and read more about it. If it’s Fiction find a non-fiction book related to it. If it’s non-fiction find a fiction book that contains elements of it.
If you’re ambitious try them all, less so, pick and choose. Set your limit where you are comfortable and maybe this year, this will be a resolution you keep.
- [i] http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=117588&page=1
- [ii] Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind, David Comer Kidd, Emanuele Castano. Science 18 Oct 2013: Vol. 342, Issue 6156, pp. 377-380
- [iii] http://www.kumon.co.uk/blog/reading-reduces-stress-levels/
- [iv] http://articles.latimes.com/2013/feb/04/entertainment/la-et-jc-reading-mental-health-not-self-help-20130204
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
I hear this and immediately think of Joe Strummer howling at the start of the Clash’s song of the same name. While that was about the smoke and exhaust of the metropolitan road systems and gridlock, three hundred and fifty years ago it meant something far different. From the second to the fifth of September, 1666, London did indeed burn. A huge swath of the old medieval city of London, north of the Thames, was nothing but ash.
The great fire of 1666 was not a terrorist plot like the abortive attempt to destroy parliament from sixty some years before with Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder plot. It did not have anything to do with the English Civil War and the return of the monarchy six years prior with the coronation of Charles II. It didn’t even directly tie to the plague outbreak the year prior, although that did lend some contributing factors. No, while Great Britain in the 17th century was a tumultuous place, the fire began in a most mundane way. It started with a stray spark from a bakery oven.
Just after midnight on 2 September 1666, the bakery of Thomas Farriner caught fire. Farriner, baker to King Charles II, lived above the bakery with his three children and a servant. The Family was unable to get to the street but did manage to get into the next house through an upstairs window. The serving woman, terrified by the situation refused and became the first victim of the fire. By the end of the day on Sunday the fire had spread almost half way to the far city wall.
Samuel Pepys, the noted diarist, lived in the environs of the fire and was able to view it from a tower and from a boat on the river. As a senior official in the Navy Office he was called to the King and reported on what he saw.
“everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them onto lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another.”
His report led to the Duke of York, the future James II, and King Charles himself going to the Thames to view the situation. The King ordered all buildings adjacent to the burning to be torn down. The Duke of York offered the life guards to assist in fighting the blaze. It was, however, a bit too late. The fire itself had created a chimney effect. A vacuum existed from the air being heated and pulled up through the fire. This in turn caused more air to rush into the area of the fire close to the ground. Anyone familiar with the principles of a blast furnace will tell you that this is a great recipe for extreme heat. The temperature was so high (approximately 1700°C) that pottery actually melted. From a position across the river, Pepys noticed the “one entire arch of fire from this to the other side of the bridge, and in a bow up the hill for an arch of above a mile long: it made me weep to see it”
Over the following days the fire spread until it was finally contained and on Tuesday and brought to an end the following day. Gunpowder was used for wholesale destruction of houses to create fire breaks. That and the dying down of what had been a very stiff east wind finally allowed for control and an extinguishing. The damage included the destruction of 13,500 houses, 87 parish churches, and 44 Company (guild) Halls and the final total was accessed at £10,000,000 (more than a billion pounds in today’s money) Only eight people were reported to have died but this number is heavily suspect because the temperatures reached would have melted steel and certainly would have cremated the remains of any of London’s poor unfortunate enough to not be reported missing.
Why the fire happened was an interesting thing. At first foreigners and papists were blamed. This was proven false, but the prejudice lasted for many years. Because the fire started on Pudding Lane and ended at Pye corner, many people suggested the fire was God’s punishment for the gluttony of the city. In actuality it was a combination of cheap buildings, poor design and planning, and poor management on the account of the Lord Mayor. Buildings in London were supposed to have been made of stone to prevent just such a thing. Stone was too costly and everyone went to wood as the next best choice. Also, in order to maximize available space, each successive floor was slightly larger than the ground level floor, jutting out over the street. The close proximity of such dwellings caused the fire to spread very rapidly. Finally, Lord Mayor Sir Thomas Bloodworth refused to act. Within an hour of the start he was called to Pudding Lane and asked to give the order to demolish surrounding houses to form a break. He declined initially and eventually left the scene, but not before declining the help of the Lifeguards and untruly telling representatives of the king demolitions were under way. That did not actually start until well into Monday.
The Great Fire of London changed the face of London. The rebuilding was similar to the prior plan and avoided the radical changes suggested by some like John Evelyn, but there were still changes. Regulations to avoid fire were more strictly enforced and fire companies better trained. To this day you can still see the monuments, the Great Fire monument near the start and the Golden boy of Pye where it finally was brought to a halt.
You can learn more about the 1666 Great Fire of London at the library:
- The Great Fire of London by Pam Robson (J 942.1 ROB)
- Fire Cat by Pippa Goodhart (J E GOO)
- By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire of London by Adrian Tinniswood (942.1 TIN)
- The Great Fire of London by Stephen Porter (942.1066 POR)
- The Mammoth Book of How it Happened in Britain by Jon E. Lewis (eBook through TotalBoox)
- In Ashes Lie by Marie Brennan (F BRE)