So, May is well underway, and summer is right around the calendar corner. If there’s still snow in the Great Lakes, climate change is a bummer.
Traditionally, on 21 May 102 BC, Aurelia Cotta, Julius Ceasar’s mother, was born in Rome; almost certainly not by caesarian section–then again. neither was Caesar. Also on this day in 1471, England’s King Edward IV entered London; on that same day, England’s King Henry VI was beheaded in the Tower of London–not a coincidence. On 21 May 1807, Napoleon lost to Austria at Aspern-Essling; one of the few stand-up battles his army would lose, but also a harbinger of things to come for his increasingly clumsy armies. Charles Lindberg landed in Paris on this day in 1927; Amelia Earhart landed in Ireland on 21 May 1932–Lindberg the first man to solo across the Atlantic, Earhart the first woman. But today, we’re talking about bicycles and about waiting tables.
This early bicycle was intended as a substitute for the horse after the disastrous death by starvation of horses all over Europe after The Year Without a Summer caused by the explosion of the Tambura volcano in 1815.
The bicycle is said by some to date from as early as the 16th century when a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci is said to have sketched a vehicle resembling a modern “pusher” (two wheels and frame but no pedals or steering means). An 18th-century French vehicle of similar design shares the same provenance. The earliest two-wheel, steerable frame bicycle dates from 1817 Germany, called a Laufmaschine (running machine) or Draisine, hobby horse, dandy horse or Velocipede in the English press. This early bicycle was intended as a substitute for the horse, after the disastrous death by starvation of horses all over Europe after the summer of 1816’s widespread crop failure–The Year Without a Summer–caused by the explosion of the Tambura volcano in 1815.
The Tambura volcano put over ten million metric tons of material into the upper atmosphere, with a column of gas and material that rose to over 140,000 feet…
Now, I know there’s those of you out there who will say “horse-hockey” to any suggestion that a mere volcano could change the global weather, but it almost certainly did after 5 April 1815. The Tambura volcano put over ten million metric tons of material into the upper atmosphere, with a column of gas and material that rose to over 140,000 feet above Sumbawa Island in what are now the Lesser Sunda Islands in the Indonesian archipelago.
In the United States, rivers were freezing as late as June, and crop failure was nearly universal as far south as Northern Louisiana. The sky seemed overcast all summer.
The next year, killing frosts hit in Europe and North America as late as June. Whole counties, entire countries’ crops failed; millions of acres of forests died; mountain meadows were covered by new glaciation; famine struck large swaths of Europe not yet recovered from a generation of war with France. In the United States, rivers were freezing as late as June, and crop failure was nearly universal as far south as Northern Louisiana. The sky seemed overcast all summer.
There were experiments in France, Germany, and Scotland with steering and with chain drives, but the first commercially successful steerable chain-drive bicycle was French, dating from about 1863.
It was on 21 May 1819 that the first “swift walker” neo-bicycles were introduced in the streets of New York. Almost certainly either copies or original versions of Denis Johnson’s 1818 versions that were the toast of London, if briefly. They were largely seen as novelties even then because the original crisis had passed: the winter of 1816-17 was especially violent for most of the United States and much of Europe and is thought to have largely cleaned the upper atmosphere. Two years of good crops and imports from the Middle East had restored a good deal of the horse market. Though the popularity of these early machines waned, the idea stuck around. There were experiments in France, Germany, and Scotland with steering and with chain drives, but the first commercially successful steerable chain-drive bicycle was French, dating from about 1863.
And all because a volcano starved the horses. Makes you think again about the rationale for Boulle’s Monkey Planet, doesn’t it? You remember: a plague wiped out the dogs and cats, so the humans reached for apes as companions. Well, from a lack of horses came the bicycle.
And 21 May is National Waitstaff Day. This is the one day a year when we should all tip our hats–and our waiter/waitress–generously to the grunts that put up with our intrusions into their domains. Of course, it’s their domain, dummy: they clean it, put it together, spend more waking hours in it than they do in their “homes,” smile at visitors, put up with your bad days, and get paid squat for it. In the US, a sub-minimum wage is the expected norm for compensation, a travesty that should have been addressed by legislation generations ago. Living on the off-chance that the last table for the night in their section will pay more than 10% over their $100 dinner check (consumed, mostly, after the kitchen is closed and the bussers have left) is no way to live.
Now, I’ve never had to wait tables, but I did tend a little bar. And my wife waited tables in her youth, so did my granddaughter. And my daughter has made her living at it for, well, most of the 21st century. Their living is precarious, mostly hand-to-mouth. Benefits include…tips, and maybe some vacation after a year or so.
Like doctors, they see people on their best behavior, in the best of times…and in their worst. When I laid my mother to rest a few years back my wife and I had a sit-down with my step-sister and her husband, a distant cousin and her daughter in a small restaurant in rural Iowa. We were probably the biggest group they had that day, and even at lunch, the place wasn’t half-full. But in that small town, it was the only eatery. The food wasn’t stellar but the coffee was hot. We must have sat there for two or three hours, and the waitress kept refilling the cups. Can’t remember how big a tip we left, but we didn’t actually eat that much, and considering the amount of time we spent there the gratuity probably wasn’t big enough.
Keep your cards and letters coming, folks.