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Poor Richard, The American Crisis, Believe It or Not, and National Hard Candy Day

Marley was dead, to begin with.  

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: how many loose screws does this guy have?  After all, there’s so much more that he could write about for 19 December, like the crowning of Henry II (1154), Valley Forge (1777), the Jacobs Creek mine (1907), the beginning of the Indochina war (1946), and so much else, and he starts with the first sentence from A Christmas Carol in Prose from the original Charles Dickens novella published on this day in 1843 and he settles for…this other stuff? Yeah, but this is my blog, and I don’t take requests.  So there.

In the 18th century almanacs were valuable sources of reference not just for farmers, but for anyone who had a watch.

In colonial America, there were many fledgling industries, one of which was printing. To create demand, among other things, they printed calendars and almanacs. On 19 December 1732 (Old Style), Benjamin Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanack, the first written and published regularly in America. Modern readers may have forgotten the humble almanac in the electronic age, if they ever knew them.  In the 18th century almanacs were valuable sources of reference not just for farmers, but for anyone who had a watch.  The lunar celestial tables, with moon and sunrise for a given day, was the only reliable way to know, at a given latitude and longitude, what the time was.  It also included dates for planting, Franklin’s famous sayings and bon mots, and other familiar features of almanacs that were printed well into the 20th century. Poor Richard’s was published for 25 years, ending in 1757.  Parts of it was reprinted in Britain in broadside form, was adopted by Napoleon in 1797 for use in his Cisalpine Republic, and was the first English language book to be translated into Slovene.

Part I of The American Crisis was published on 19 December 1776, and read to Washington’s army on 23 December, three days before their surprising triumph over the Hessians at Trenton.

Just a few decades later, Franklin was an agent (at the time, what stood for an ambassador) of Pennsylvania in France, and America was locked in a war with Great Britain.  An American firebrand named Thomas Paine (publishing under the pseudonym Common Sense) penned a series of polemical treatises that he called The American Crisis,  that opened with the famous lines “These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Paine, like many pamphleteers, was trying to raise the morale of the American soldiers freezing in their camps that had been beaten at every turn by the British Army and their Hessian allies.  Part I of The American Crisis was published on 19 December 1776, and read to Washington’s army on 23 December, three days before their surprising triumph over the Hessians at Trenton.  The American Crisis was published in sixteen parts, the last in 1783, and from the first to the last it was enormously popular not just in America, but on the Continent, as well, especially France.

In October 1919, as his artwork and collection of odd facts about everything including sports gained in popularity, Ripley changed the name to “Believe It Or Not.”

But that crisis passed, and America became the Land of the Weird and the Home of the Strange. Af if to emphasize this phenomenon, a cartoonist named Robert L. Ripley first published his “Champs and Chumps” one-panel strip in the New York Globe on 19 December 1918, citing odd facts about the sporting world. In October 1919, as his artwork and collection of odd facts about everything including sports gained in popularity, Ripley changed the name to “Believe It Or Not.” Ripley’s syndicated strip was an entree to many famous cartoonists, and has since morphed into a global enterprise with museums, books, radio programs, theatrical short subjects, television programs, a pinball machine, a web site, an internet-based game, numerous imitators and satirists.

Hard candy has been around since the domestication of the sugar cane.

For reasons known only to the gods of calendars,  19 December is National Hard Candy Day in the United States, the one country in the world that can afford it.  Hard candy of all descriptions is pure sugar with various flavorings, and come in as many forms as there have been innovators at any confection. Hard candy has been around since the domestication of the sugar cane.  They are thought to be a development of “honied” nuts and fruits in ancient Egypt (honey, like hard candy, needs no preservation or special storage). From Medieval times, cooks have known how to boil sugar, flavor and mold it into sheets, cubes, rolls, rings and balls.  Hard candies of all kinds became a mass-market, manufactured product as the Market Revolution of the early 1800s fixed prices and increased availability of consumer goods. At this time of year the candy cane is the most popular form in the US and Europe, but the lollipop is the most popular year-round.

And, finally, because it comes out on Monday, this blog will likely be silent for a couple of weeks, unless I get inspired to write about something momentous, odd, infuriating or otherwise worth my time.  I wish a safe and blessed Christmas and New Year, Kwanzaa and whatever other holiday you celebrate at the end of the year to all four of my regular readers, and to anyone else bored enough to reach the end of this week’s entry.  As Dickens had Tiny Tim say: God bless us, everyone.

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USS Cairo, USS Panay, SS Normandie, Hovercraft and Keeping Friends after the Election

So today we’re at sea…or at least on the water.  Yes, we know all about Washington DC being established as the US capitol  on 12 December 1800, and the donation of so much swampland in Manhattan for the UN in 1946, even the birth of Stand Watie in 1806 and the Maastricht Treaty in 1991.  Today, we’re afloat.

In June, at Memphis,  Cairo was a part of the largest naval battle fought on the Mississippi.

The lead vessel in the City class ironclad gunboats built on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in the Civil War, USS Cairo was built by the Eads firm in Mound City, Illinois. Cairo displaced about 512 tons and was armed with 3 8-inch Dahlgren guns throughout her service, with a number of different rifled smoothbore guns (13 when she was commissioned in January 1862; 12 in November).  Cairo participated in the occupation of Clarksville, Tennessee on the Tennessee river in February 1962, in the occupation of Nashville later in the month, and was on the Mississippi by April, escorting mortar rafts at Fort Pillow. In June, at Memphis,  Cairo was a part of the largest naval battle fought on the Mississippi. In November, Cairo became a part of the Yazoo Pass expedition, an ill-fated attempt to outflank Vicksburg.  On 12 December, 1862, Cairo was sunk by a command-detonated mine, the first warship to ever be sunk by such a device.  Rediscovered in 1956, Cairo was raised in 1965 and is on display at Vicksburg.

In 1937, after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, Panay was increasingly called on to evacuate Americans in the path of the oncoming Japanese.

Built on the other side of the world for the US Navy, USS Panay (PR-5) was built at the Kiangnan Dockyard and Engineering Works, Shanghai for Yangtze River service and launched in November 1927.  Panay (named for an island in the Philippines) was armed with a single 3-in main gun and a number of small arms: her only mission was the protection of American citizens, missions and property along the river against the lawless elements that roamed China during her civil war. In 1937, after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, Panay was increasingly called on to evacuate Americans in the path of the oncoming Japanese. On 12 December 1937, Panay and a number of other non-Chinese vessels carrying evacuees were attacked by Japanese aircraft above Nanking. Unknown to the Japanese at the time, a number of newsreel photographers on Panay shot the entire incident, right up until the little gunboat sank. The “Panay Incident” became an international sensation, and an embarrassment to the Japanese. Though reparations were paid in the amount of $2.2 million, relations between the US and Japan deteriorated.

A very fast ship that could cross the Atlantic in less than four days carrying more than 1,400 passengers, neither the French nor anyone else wanted Normandie to fall into German hands: the threat of surface raiders alone was compelling enough.

Before 1941, many of the largest European ocean liners had docked in neutral countries.  SS Normandie, an 86,000 ton French liner belonging to the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique out of Le Havre, had been interned in New York on 3 September 1939. A very fast ship that could cross the Atlantic in less than four days carrying more than 1,400 passengers, neither the French nor anyone else wanted Normandie to fall into German hands: the threat of surface raiders alone was compelling enough.  Though her crew stayed aboard and her captain still commanded, she was going nowhere.  On 12 December 1941, five days after Pearl Harbor, the US Navy seized Normandie.  Conversion into a troopship named USS Lafayette commenced almost immediately, but a fire gutted and capsized her at the dockyard.  She was raised and scrapped in 1946.

Though they are considered aircraft by some, the first successful hovercraft (able to travel on water or land) prototype was demonstrated on 12 December 1955 by Christopher Cockerell.

The use of air cushions to make vehicles “float” had its origins in the 1870s, but powerplants were lacking for construction. An “air cushion boat” was built and demonstrated in Austria during WWI, but it died of lack of interest. Though they are considered aircraft by some, the first successful hovercraft (able to travel on water or land) prototype was demonstrated on 12 December 1955 by Christopher Cockerell. At the time the entire concept of a vehicle that traveled on a cushion of air was deemed classified in Britain, so funding had to come from either the Ministry of Defense or nowhere else. But the RAF called it a boat, and the RN called it an airplane, and the British Army simply wasn’t interested.  The idea languished for a short time until MoD realized that if no one in the defense establishment was interested, then it could hardly be a secret.

…there is still reason to find common ground in mutual disgust of the bobbleheads that the political establishment–even those beyond the usual Ds and Rs–seem to be putting up for the sake of friendship.

I have had exchanges with some of my oldest friends (some going back to the days of Nixon) over the consequences of the November election. Though I realize that our politics don’t always align, that doesn’t mean that we can’t find common ground somewhere, at least in shared experience over a lifetime. In all these cases when my interlocutor expresses anguish or anger over the defeat of Clinton,  I found myself condemning all the candidates at being unworthy of our votes as a means of keeping peace: the exercise of a franchise that the world envies, and all too many people either ignore or find to be too tedious to be used.  Putting a pox on all their houses in this way has been surprisingly effective.  None of my more left-leaning friends or even relatives have found any reason to defend either the Greens or the Democrats, other than that, well, they didn’t have Trump on the ticket.  Similarly, no one has any great love for the Republicans, or have considered the Libertarians anything more than a distraction. As much as I believe the American electoral system has been corrupted by both money, favoritism and blatant media biases among other abuses, there is still reason to find common ground in mutual disgust of the bobbleheads that the political establishment–even those beyond the usual Ds and Rs–seem to be putting up for the sake of friendship. Then again, the minute media scrutiny that anyone in the spotlight is subject to is not for everyone.  I do wish that the major media would pay more attention to policy statements than to sound bites; past sins of word, thought and deed; recent gaffes and irrelevant current peccadilloes. Maybe someone, somewhere in some position of influence has never had a speeding ticket, never said anything that would potentially offend a future audience, or changed their minds on any issue, ever. Maybe, but not likely.

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Custer and Gall, Jellicoe and Heisenberg and the Monkey Wrench

This week’s musings are a little more esoteric than usual, but there it is.  While we note the birth of Martin Van Buren on 5 December 1782, of Clyde Cessna in 1879, of Walt Disney in 1901, the patenting of nitrocellulose in 1846, and the end of Prohibition in the United States in 1933, today your intrepid researcher chooses some more closely related persons to expound upon…and things like pipe wrenches that your intrepid researcher and consistently failed plumber owns but cannot use.

By the end of the Civil War he was a major general of Volunteers (a strictly wartime rank) and a reputation as one of the boldest cavalry leaders in the Army.

On 5 December 1839 George A. Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio.  Known variously as Armstrong, Ringlets (for his hair, about which he was quite vain) and Iron Butt (for his stamina in the saddle), Custer graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point (albeit a year earlier than scheduled) and was commissioned a lieutenant in the cavalry in 1861. He distinguished himself with dash and initiative in the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 enough to be brevetted to lieutenant colonel dating from Antietam, and was made a brigadier general of volunteers just before Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, where he led the Michigan cavalry to stop JEB Stuart’s flanking maneuver on 3 July. By the end of the Civil War he was a major general of Volunteers (a strictly wartime rank) and a reputation as one of the boldest cavalry leaders in the Army. After his mustering out, Custer returned to the regular Army at his permanent rank, lieutenant colonel.  For the next decade Custer led the 7th Cavalry on long marches, campaigns and battles primarily with the Sioux in the northern Plains.  His death, with some 200-odd of his troopers at the Little Bighorn on 25 June 1876 has overshadowed the rest of his accomplishments.

After fleeing to Canada for a few years, Gall brought his people back to the United States, surrendered and was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation on the Dakota border.

Very little is known for certain about the early life of Hunkpapa Lakota/Sioux leader known as Chief Gall–who got his name, it is said, after he ate the gall bladder of an animal.  Born around 1840, almost certainly in modern South Dakota, Gall was a war chief by the time he was in his twenties, and was present at the Little Bighorn when Custer met his end.  After fleeing to Canada for a few years, Gall brought his people back to the United States, surrendered and was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation on the Dakota border.  Gall encouraged his people to assimilate to their lot in the white man’s life, and apparently they did for a time. Gall himself converted to Christianity, served as a tribal judge, and died peacefully in his sleep on 5 December, 1894 in Wakpala, South Dakota.  Gall was one of the only Native American chiefs of the Little Bighorn battle to die of natural causes, and ironically on Custer’s birthday.

Jellicoe, called “the only man who could lose a war in an afternoon” because of Jutland, was appointed First Sea Lord after Jutland, and after the war was Governor-General of New Zealand.

On 5 December 1859, John Jellicoe was born in Southhampton, England.  At the age of thirteen Jellicoe entered the Royal Navy, and was in that service for the rest of his adult life.  He was best known as an early advocate of Fisher’s “big gun” battleship and “large cruiser” ideas, resulting in the Dreadnaughts and the Invincible battlecruisers. He was also something of an innovator of naval gunnery, testing early central gun directors. Jellicoe was also the commander of the Grand Fleet, the renamed Home Fleet, at the beginning of World War I and was in charge at the largest naval clash of the Great War, the ambiguous Jutland/Skagerrak battle in late May 1916.  Depending on point of view, Jutland resulted in either a tactical draw, an operational defeat for Britain (who lost more ships), a strategic defeat for Germany (who never sortied the fleet again), and a grand strategic defeat for Tsarist Russia (who was completely cut off from any assistance from her allies).  Jellicoe, called “the only man who could lose a war in an afternoon” because of Jutland, was appointed First Sea Lord after Jutland, and after the war was Governor-General of New Zealand.   Jellicoe died 20 November 1935 in Kensington.

In 1939, Heisenberg was a part of the “Uranium Club,” the German effort to build nuclear weapons.

Werner Heisenberg was born on 5 December 1901 at Wurzburg, which was then a part of Bavaria.  In 1919, though he managed to avoid military service in WWI, he was a member of the Freikorps fighting the Bavarian Socialist Republic. This didn’t seem to have affected his studies: he studied physics in Munich and Gottingen, and met Niels Bohr in June 1922. His work on matrix and quantum mechanics earned him notoriety in the theoretical physics community, earning him a Nobel Prize in physics in 1932. In the early days of the Nazi government, Heisenberg was under examination for his work in “Jewish” (theoretical) physics, but was eventually rehabilitated into the fold of academics on the cutting edge of science. In 1939, Heisenberg was a part of the “Uranium Club,” the German effort to build nuclear weapons. By 1942, Heisenberg told his Nazi masters that 1) nuclear weapons were not possible to produce within the expected timeframe of the war, and 2) they were probably not within Germany’s industrial capacity within that timeframe.  Nuclear research in Germany thereupon switched priorities to energy extraction, which proceeded in fits and starts until the end of the war.  According to postwar interrogations of the leading German nuclear physicists in Allied hands, it seems clear that Heisenberg had miscalculated uranium decay by orders of magnitude, and likely would not have resulted in any practical applications.  Heisenberg died 1 February, 1976, in Munich.  His lasting legacy, it is said, is the “uncertainty principle” which says that a measurement affects the phenomenon.

His 5 December 1876 patent, one of many follow-ons, was for a wrench suitable for both pipe and flat-sided fasteners.  This one wasn’t near as successful, nor near as popular or emulated as his first.  

In the mid-19th century, indoor plumbing was beginning to matter a lot more than it had before.  Cities were growing; the flush toilet made buildings over three stories practical; sanitation was becoming a growing concern.  Threaded pipe, developed sometime between 1850 and 1860, wasn’t easy to tighten and was the only practical way to plumb in tall buildings.  A number of inventors tackled the problem of tightening pipe, but Daniel Stillson, working at the Walworth Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, came up with an innovative idea that took advantage of the relatively soft outside of a steel pipe by gripping it with angled teeth.  Stillson’s first wrench patent, issued 12 October, 1869, shows the familiar outlines of what we have come to call the monkey (for “monkey paw,” an appellation from South African plumbers), pipe, or Stillson wrench ever since.  His 5 December 1876 patent (above), one of many follow-ons, was for a wrench suitable for both pipe and flat-sided fasteners.  This one wasn’t near as successful, nor near as popular or emulated as his first, which made him well-off on royalties.  Stillson was granted a number of other patents over the years, nearly all for something related to pipes or plumbing, including fire apparatus. Stillson died in Somerville, Massachusetts on 21 August 1899. The original Stillson wrench still exists, is said to still work, and its parts are said to be interchangeable with a wrench of similar size manufactured yesterday.  Be that as it may, my wife still won’t let me touch water or gas-carrying pipes with tools, regardless of how much I know about my wrenches. Smart woman.