Saturday, March 31, 2007


John Donne died on this day in 1631 in London at the age of about 59.

A young man known for his pursuit of female flesh who eventually became the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London in 1621, Donne is remembered today for his remarkable body of poetry, very little of which was published until after his death. Even after publication, it took 300 years for Donne to be taken seriously as a poet. Dr. Johnson regarded him as undecorous stylistically and a bit precious with his imagery, an influential opinion which relegated Donne to the cut-out bins -- to be resurrected only fitfully by Coleridge and Browning, and finally by Modernists such as T.S. Eliot, who prized him for his passionate intellect.

Born a Catholic, a descendant of Sir Thomas More and the grandson of saying-smith John Heywood through his mother's side, Donne was educated at Hart Hall, Oxford and studied law before joining a couple of sailing expeditions in 1596. Upon his return, he became secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the lord keeper of the great seal of England, through whom he met Egerton's niece, Ann More. In December 1601, Donne and More eloped secretly with the help of friends; and when Donne revealed this fact to Sir George More, Ann's father, More had Donne and his friends thrown in jail and attempted to annul the marriage. Eventually, Donne and More reconciled and the marriage was left to stand, but Donne lost his job with Egerton and was virtually unemployed for about 12 years.

Donne's earliest poems show the mind of the young lover. Taking ordinary natural phenomena as his point of departure, Donne seduces his lover in "The Flea" by arguing, in biological detail, how the mingling of his blood with hers in the belly of a flea is a kind of marriage upon which they might shut out the protests of parents. Yet the playful conceit of comparing love to biology leads to the observation of natural decay in other early poems, acknowledging the fleeting nature of erotic attraction and fidelity without spiritual love.

In his poetry during his years of unemployment, written in between hack-writing jobs and attempts to find work with the Virginia Company which sponsored the first English settlement in North America at Jamestown, Donne further explored further the nature of decay in several funeral and memorial poems, observing the decline of our state within a universe which is itself disintegrating ("mankind decays so soon/ we are scarce our fathers' shadows cast at noon . . ."); but as with love, he took refuge in the infinity of the spirit in his Divine Meditations. King James himself was sufficiently impressed with Donne's spiritual tendencies to suggest that he take Anglican holy orders, which Donne eventually, after some reluctance over his own abilities, completed in 1615.

Once he committed to the church, he devoted himself completely to it, especially after the death of wife (in childbirth, with their 12th child) in 1617, a circumstance which led him to seek comfort in spiritual pursuits by imagining a reunion with his dear wife in heaven. Thereafter, his poems merge with his penetrating sermons, becoming almost one body of work, a series of meditations on the nature of decay, death and rebirth, touching upon such matters as the spiritual significance inherent in so banal an act as the forced evacuation of one's bowels during an illness, to the universality of death -- as in the famous passage from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, No. 17: "No Man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main . . . Any Man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."

Donne delivered his most famous sermon, Deaths Duell (1632), two weeks before he died, inviting the listener, and himself, to find coherence in death by remembering Christ's death.


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Like Adding 20 Horsepower

"Cale Yarborough is the best driver the sport has ever seen. When you strap Cale into the car, it's like adding 20 horsepower." -- Junior Johnson.

NASCAR champion Cale Yarborough was born William Caleb Yarborough on this day in 1939 in Sardis, South Carolina.

Yarborough stole his way into his first professional stock car race, at Darlington Raceway near his home town of Sardis, at the age of 18, slipping behind the wheel of a Pontiac slated to be driven by a friend and finishing near last after engine troubles. After that day in 1957, Yarborough struggled along unsuccessfully with turkey farming for awhile and later found work as a grease monkey at Holman-Moody in Charlotte, North Carolina, the shop where Ford racing cars were created.

Finally, in 1965, Yarborough got his chance behind the wheel, and began one of the most celebrated NASCAR careers ever -- one which would include three consecutive national championships (1976, 1977 and 1978), five Southern 500 wins at his hometown course of Darlington Raceway, and 83 victories in 559 starts. He is at the top of the all-time list for the percentage of time in which he led races during his career (16%), and attributes much of his success to his ability to adapt to even the roughest riding cars -- he criticizes drivers who need everything to be perfect in order to win. Yarborough viewed his pre-race qualifying runs as crucial to his success, and his competitive intensity in this area earned him 70 pole positions (3rd on the all-time list).

Outside of racing, the 5' 7", 170-lb. Yarborough has led a daredevil's lifestyle which reflected the spirit of his driving: riding alligators, grappling water moccasins, skydiving and bear wrestling, Yarborough once landed an airplane without any prior experience and has been struck by lightning twice. From 1986 to 2000, he was a racing team owner; he last took the wheel himself in 1988 and was inducted into the International Motorpsorts Hall of Fame in 1993.


Monday, March 26, 2007

Giliani the Prosector

Alessandra Giliani died on this day in 1326 at the age of 19.

A student at the University of Bologna, Giliani became an assistant to Mondino dei Luzzi, a leading anatomist, serving as the first woman prosector, or preparer of dissections for anatomical study. She developed a method of draining blood from the corpse and replacing it with quick-hardening colored fluids, thus allowing scientists to see the smallest blood vessels with ease. She may be said to have been the lynchpin of Mondino's success, for he seems to have disappeared from the stage of history after her death.

When Alessandra died (her cause of death is not known), it is said that her boyfriend Otto Agenius (also one of Mondino's assistants) died a short time later from grief.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Orgone, Or Not

The controversial psychoanalyst (some say, mad man) Wilhelm Reich was born on this day in 1897 in Dobrzynica, Galicia.

While studying for his medical degree in Vienna in 1920, Wilhelm Reich became a disciple of Sigmund Freud, who theorized that neuroses were caused by sexual repression, during an era in which psychoanalysis was still developing its legitimacy. After graduation, Reich became a psychiatrist (initially, as an assistant in Wagner-Jauregg's clinic) and joined the Austrian Communist Party.

In 1934, he published a seminal work of orthodox psychoanalysis, Character Analysis, but by the early 1930s, his interests in politics, sexuality and the mind had become intertwined in ways which marginalized him. In 1929, his interest in social revolution as a prerequisite to sexual revolution led him to form the Socialist Society for Sexual Advice and Sexual Research, through which he organized industrial clinics to address workers' emotional problems while providing political education. Reactionary elements within the Communist Party questioned his emphasis on sex, and when he published The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), in which he denounced party-line communism as the psychological equivalent of fascism, the Party expelled him.

In 1934, he broke from the Freudians (and was expelled by the International Psychoanalytic Association) when he began to argue that neuroses were the destructive result not merely of sexual repression, but more specifically of undischarged sexual energy. His unorthodox views on sexuality got him into hot water in Scandinavia, so in 1939 he moved to the U.S. and taught at the New School for Social Research until 1941. In The Function of the Orgasm (1927; reprinted in the U.S., 1942), Reich had argued that only total orgasm (including brief unconsciousness) rids us of the excess energy that encourages unhealthy drives.

In isolation in his home in Maine, he began to focus on what he viewed as the physiological effects of socially-imposed sexual repression -- muscular rigidity adopted by children in response to the threat of punishment which inhibited total orgasm -- and began to identify the pent-up sexual energy as a "pre-atomic" cosmic force present throughout nature, a force which he called "orgone." When orgone energy is blocked, Reich argued, all kinds of disease are caused -- even cancer. To correct the blockages, Reich built and sold "orgone boxes" -- wooden, metal-lined compartments in which a patient could sit, which would stimulate sexuality and, potentially, cure cancer.

In 1954, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seized his boxes and some of his writings and had them destroyed; in 1956, Reich was sentenced to 2 years in prison for contempt. He died in prison on November 3, 1957 in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

In the 1960s, some of his early writings on sexual revolution were embraced as prophetic by the youthful Left; today, there continues to be a small cadre of die-hard Reichians who believe that there exists a scientific basis of orgone therapy, although no serious biologist has supported Reich's theories. A number of musicians have been captivated by Reich's legacy, notably Gil Evans ("Orgone," also covered by Miles Davis) and Kate Bush, whose song "Cloudbusting" was inspired by a book about Reich by his son Peter, The Book of Dreams.

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Friday, March 23, 2007


Craig Breedlove was born on this day in 1937 in Los Angeles.

After years of drag racing and building vehicles, on August 5, 1963 Breedlove set the "unlimited" land speed record in his Spirit of America, a jet-powered, 3-wheeled drag racer with a giant stabilizing tail of Breedlove's own design, at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, with a speed of 407.447 mph. The previous record land speed was set by John Cobb in a non-jet-powered 4-wheel vehicle in 1947; Breedlove's record was classed in a different category by the Federation Internationale de L'Automobile, FIA, although the "unlimited" class became the dominant field of play after Breedlove's achievement.

After seeing 2 drivers beat his 1963 record (Tom Green and Art Arfons), Breedlove returned to Bonneville on October 13, 1964 to reclaim the land speed record with a speed of 468.719 mph, and raised the bar a few days later with a speed of 526.277 mph. He and Arfons traded the record back and forth throughout October and November 1965, culminating in Breedlove's 600.601 mph performance on November 15, 1965. His last land speed record stood for 5 years until it was beaten by Gary Gabelich in 1970.

Breedlove's achievement remains extraordinary, however: he managed to raise the land speed record by more than 200 mph in 2 years, and was the first driver to beat the 400, 500 and 600 mph marks on wheels.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Pulse of the Universe

Robert Millikan was born on this day in 1868 in Morrison, Illinois.

Robert Millikan was at the forefront of the awakening of U.S. physics around the turn of the 20th century, both as a researcher and educator. While a student at Oberlin College, with no previous experience he was pressed into service by his Greek professor to teach physics; when he protested that he didn't know anything about physics, his Greek professor simply insisted that anyone who could master Greek could master physics -- such was the American view of physics as a static, classical discipline at the end of the 19th century.

Nevertheless, the advice propelled Millikan into his life's work. He later studied at Columbia, graduating as the school's only physics Ph.D. in 1893, and went to Germany to study with Max Planck. He returned to the U.S. in 1896 to teach physics at the University of Chicago, where he devoted half of his time to research. In 1909, Millikan succeeded in measuring an electric charge by suspending a tiny oil drop in an electric field, then measuring the strength of the field. He discovered that an electric charge (e) can only be found in integer multiples of a fundamental "piece" of charge, thus demonstrating the atomic nature of electricity. For this work in 1923 Millikan became only the second American to win the Nobel Prize for Physics (the first being the chair of his department at Chicago, Albert A. Michelson).

Between 1912 and 1915, Millikan experimentally verified Albert Einstein's predictions about the photoelectric effect, providing a photoelectric determination of the value of Planck's constant (h) in the process. For the first time in the 20th century, through Millikan's work American physics was having an impact on the leading-edge crosscurrents of European physics. In the 1920s, he began to study the region of the spectrum between the ultraviolet and X-radiation, extending the knowledge of the ultraviolet spectrum downwards far below what was previously observed. He also discovered a law of motion regarding the falling of a particle towards the Earth after entering the Earth's atmosphere, which led to his study of radiation in the atmosphere, previously thought to have resulted from radioactive elements on Earth.

In 1927, Millikan appeared on the cover of Time as the man who had "detected the pulse of the universe" after he coined the phrase "cosmic rays" (to the delight of sci-fi writers everywhere) to describe radiation in the atmosphere which could only come from outer space, as his experiments demonstrated. Initially, Millikan believed that these rays were "birth cries" (i.e. energy) from infant atoms being formed in outer space, perhaps by the Creator who was "continually on his job," but he later retreated from the position as the scientific community failed to rally to the hypothesis. Nevertheless, Millikan was passionate about harmonizing science and religion, and was a frequent speaker on the subject; some critics joked that they couldn't tell the difference between the two by the time Millikan was through with them.

America's most popular scientist, he was particularly admired by the U.S. industrial community, much of which applauded the anti-New Deal, Herbert Spencer-style determinism which laced his speeches, a circumstance which served him well in raising funds for the California Institute of Technology as head of the physics department from 1921 to 1946. He died on December 19, 1953 in San Marino, California.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Doc Holliday

Dentist and gunfighter John H. "Doc" Holliday was baptized on this day in 1852 in Valdosta, Georgia.

Having received his D.D.S. degree from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery in 1872, Holliday practiced dentistry in Atlanta for a year before discovering that he had contracted tuberculosis, whereupon he closed up shop and headed to the wild West. There he made his living principally by gambling, at which he excelled; but as a gambler in Texas in the 1870s, he found that being a crack shot with a pistol was also required, and he soon gained a reputation as a lightning gunfighter with a foul temper -- not the sort of fellow you'd want to cross. (One might suspect that the stress and strain of dentistry evident in the high rate of suicides among American dentists today manifested itself, in the 1870s in the American Southwest, in Doc Holliday's hair-trigger temper -- but that's surely a matter for further research and discussion.)

Frequently Holliday found himself being pursued by the law for his escapades, but in the famous gunfight at O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona in October 1881, he fought on the side of Wyatt Earp against the pesky Clanton boys. He was wounded in the battle, but later accompanied Earp in search of other outlaws.

Although he was arrested in 1882 for his part in Earp's unofficial police action at Tombstone, he was released by a Colorado judge. He died on November 8, 1887 in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Sounding Presidential

Vaughn Meader was born on this day in 1936 in Waterville, Maine.

Meader was a moderately successful if obscure cabaret performer who specialized in composing song parodies and delivering humorous political monologues when, during one evening's performance, he donned his native New England accent to mimic then President John F. Kennedy. Despite the fact that the idea of portraying a sitting president in humorous vignettes was at that time unheard of, the result was a raging local stage hit, leading to a recording contract and a wildly popular humor album, The First Family (1962) -- at one time the fastest-selling record of all time. Meader effectively poked at Kennedy's mannerisms (as well as those of his brother Bobby Kennedy) and very gently satirized such topics as White House economy measures, Jackie Kennedy's White House tour and the space program (Q. Mr. President, when will you send a man to the moon? A. As soon as Senator Goldwater would like to go.).

Meader's Kennedy-esque accent had a genuine source: he had attended Brookline High School about twenty years after President Kennedy had been there. Kennedy himself once stated at a presidential press conference that he'd heard Meader's album and that he "thought he sounded more like Teddy" Kennedy, the president's youngest brother. Bobby Kennedy once had to interrupt a scheduling phone call with someone when, as Bobby recalled, "That guy thinks I'm Vaughn Meader. He's going to call me back" to make sure it was really Bobby.

When President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, Vaughn Meader's successful career as Kennedy's mimic came to a screeching halt, and he publicly vowed he would never do his Kennedy impression again. Comedian Lenny Bruce wryly noted: "They put two graves in Arlington -- one for John Kennedy and one for Vaughn Meader."

Meader released a critically-admired comedy album in 1971, The Second Coming, in which he played Jesus Christ returning to 20th century America; but for the most part, Meader sank further into obscurity as an entertainer. In the 1980s, Meader was managing a restaurant and occasionally performing bluegrass music. He died on October 29, 2004 in Auburn, Maine.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Plain Bill

William Sulzer, the Democratic governor of New York from January to October of 1913, was born on this day in 1863 in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Known as "Plain Bill," Sulzer served as a member of Congress from 1895 to 1912, and was elected governor of New York in 1912 with the support of the New York City Tammany Hall political machine. Soon after he took office, however, he fell out of favor with Tammany boss Charles F. Murphy when he failed to appoint certain handpicked Tammany allies to key positions and advocated the use of primary elections rather than nominating conventions for the selection of candidates for office, thus taking the party banner out of the hands of the backroom pols; by the year's end, Sulzer was impeached for allegedly diverting campaign funds for personal use.

At the time, anti-Tammany forces cried foul, and almost immediately afterward, Sulzer was elected to a seat in the New York State Assembly. He ran for governor in 1914 as a candidate of the American Party, but did not receive the vindication he had hoped for, running third behind the Republican victor, Charles S. Whitman; Sulzer's Tammany-backed successor, Martin H. Glynn came in second in his losing bid for re-election. In 1916, Sulzer turned down the presidential nomination of the American Party, and practiced law in New York City for much of the rest of his life. He died there on November 6, 1941.

Sulzer also starred in a film about his impeachment (The Governor's Boss, 1915) in which, on celluloid if not in real life, he successfully fights Tammany Hall and keeps his office. Despite all the populist sentiment in his favor, Sulzer's name has never been officially rehabilitated, and he remains the one New York governor whose portrait does not hang in the Hall of Governors in the State Capitol in Albany.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

More Things in Heaven and Earth ...

Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, the first person to die during a space mission, was born on this day in 1927.

The dashing air force pilot Komarov joined the Soviet cosmonaut group in August 1961. In October 1964, Komarov was the commander of the first Voskhod mission, in which he, Konstantin Feoktistov and Boris Yegorov became the first people to enter space in a multi-manned spacecraft. The three, who did not wear space suits because there wasn't any room in the hastily refurbished craft, remained in orbit around the Earth for just over a day.

The mission was reportedly to have lasted longer, but Soviet politics seems to have intervened: when Voskhod I was launched, Nikita Khrushchev was the leader of the Soviet Union; when it returned, Leonid Brezhnev and Andrei Kosygin had succeeded him following a bloodless coup. The first public appearance of the two new leaders was at the ceremony celebrating the return of Komarov and the other cosmonauts to Moscow. Legend has it that Komarov protested when asked to return early from orbit, only to be told by ground control, quoting from Shakespeare in a veiled reference to Khrushchev's fall, that "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Three years later, the Soviets abandoned the Voskhod project in favor of the Soyuz, a spacecraft designed for long-distance flight and possible use in a Soviet manned lunar program, and Komarov was chosen to fly solo in the first Soyuz mission. On April 23, 1967, after a brief test orbit, Komarov died after his spacecraft tangled in its parachute during re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere. One report revealed that the Soviets had experienced serious failures in the re-entry phase during the four unmanned Soyuz tests made before Komarov's flight. Given the track record, Komarov's last flight must be viewed as an extraordinarily courageous gamble.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Scourge of God

Attila, king of the Huns, known as the "Scourge of God," died on this day in 453 around the age of 47.

For hundreds of years, the mysterious Huns, a nomadic tribe from the Asian steppes, had been chipping away at the fringes of the Roman Empire, and the terrible cavalry invasions of the Huns under the leadership of Ruga during the early 400s were so successful that Rome paid an annual tribute to the Huns to keep themselves safe from further attacks.

After the death of his uncle Ruga in 437, Attila and his brother Bleda jointly assumed the kingship of the Huns, Bleda handling the government administration and Attila leading the military through invasions of much of modern-day Hungary, Greece, Spain and Italy -- destroying Sofia and Belgrade and leaving their riverbanks covered with human bones.

Attila was much more aggressive and unpredictable than his uncle, and his looks and bearing alone inspired fear in both his enemies and his subordinates: he had a disproportionately large head, swarthy complexion and fierce eyes which his own generals could not look directly into without shuddering. In 445, Attila executed his pesky brother and ruled the Huns by himself under his iron fist. Initially, in order to avoid further incursions, the Byzantines and the Romans each sought to appease Attila in their own ways: the Romans named him as one of their own generals and gave him a stipend, and Byzantine emperor Theodosius II acceded to Attila’s frivolous requests for increases in the tribute payments from 350 pounds of gold to 700 to 2,100 pounds per year. With his earnings, Attila lived a luxurious, somewhat decadent lifestyle, drinking excessively, carousing with his multiple wives and even indulging in cannibalism (according to medieval tabloids).

Finally in 450, the Byzantines began to tire of paying homage to Attila, and Theodosius II plotted to assassinate Attila. Attila quickly discovered the plot, and prepared to attack the Byzantines; however, the sister of Roman emperor Valentinian III, Honoria, sought Attila’s protection after having being caught in an affair with her servant against her family’s wishes, sending her ring to Attila and promising him half the Roman Empire if he would come and rescue her from imprisonment. Attila changed his plans and turned to the Roman Empire to demand his bounty as a matter of right. Although he was repelled in Gaul by the Roman general Flavius Aetius at the Battle of Chalons (451), Attila regrouped somewhat and turned his attack directly on Italy in 452, ravaging Aquilea, Milan and Padua until he was met by Pope Leo I near Mantua. Leo I threatened Attila with the wrath of St. Peter if he were to approach Rome, and Attila -- perhaps short of supplies and fearing that the Byzantines were coming after him, perhaps realizing that Honoria probably wasn’t worth the trouble -- turned tail and returned to the Great Hungarian Plain to take another young wife, Ildico.

After a mighty wedding feast, Attila retired to the bridal chamber, dead drunk, and his nose began to bleed. By the next morning, he had either bled or choked to death. Within 20 years or so, Attila’s empire was in ruins, disintegrating without the personality of its ruthless leader to keep it intact.


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Jacob van Ruisdael

"(H)e could conjure poetry from a virtually featureless patch of duneland as well as from a magnificent panoramic view." -- ODA.

Jacob van Ruisdael was buried on this day in 1682 in Haarlem, Holland, after dying at the age of about 54.

The greatest of the Dutch landscape painters before Van Gogh, Ruisdael came from a family of painters: his father Isaac was a framemaker and dealer who also painted (no works survive) and his uncle Salomon van Ruysdael was a well-known landscape painter. It was no wonder that by the age of 18, Ruisdael was already showing maturity as a painter.

While early on he showed the influence of Allart van Everdingen in his torrential seascapes and dramatically expressive landscapes, but he left his mark as a painter through the use of subtler atmospheric effects -- meticulously realized forms and a thick, dense use of color in inherently quieter settings. Lush trees were an obsession. Such values are evident in the majesty of his most famous work, Jewish Cemetery (c. 1660), depicting transitory, man-made tombstones and ruins being overtaken by a flourishing forest; nature always wins in Ruisdael's work.

Ruisdael is known to have painted over 700 paintings and seems to have lived a propserous life, but further details are sketchy. Some have claimed that he took a medical degree in Normandy while in his 40s and practiced as a surgeon, which if true would raise interesting questions about his indifference to painting human beings. For years it was assumed that he died insane in a workhouse in Haarlem, but more recently it has appeared that this was the fate the befell Ruisdael's cousin and namesake, Jacob van Ruysdael -- Salomon's son, yet another painter.


Sunday, March 11, 2007

As We May Think

"Almost forgotten today, he essentially invented the world as we know it: not so much the things in it, of course, but the way we think about innovation, what it means, and why it happens." -- G.P. Zachary.

Vannevar Bush was born on this day in 1890 in Everett, Massachusetts. He was that rare combination of entrepreneur, visionary and mechanic -- a person whose handiwork has left profound marks on the scientific, governmental and economic features of the 20th century landscape, and whose bold technological paradigms continue to have an impact on the information age.

After receiving his Ph.D in engineering from Harvard-MIT, Bush spent World War I developing a magnetic submarine locator for the U.S. Navy, but became frustrated with the red-tape which not only interfered with Bush's design process but resulted in only 3 devices being installed in Navy ships before the Armistice. It was then that he realized that an engineer who did not understand politics and economics and the effect of new scientific advancements on existing political and economic institutions would never amount to anything. He returned to MIT after the War and, applying his appreciation of politics and economics, plunged into both research and administration, helping to make MIT a major center for electrical engineering in the process.

While at MIT in 1935, Bush designed and built a machine for calculating complex differential equations, perhaps the first practical forerunner of all modern computers. Called the Differential Analyzer, the machine looked something like a printing press, weighing 100 tons, and to program it one had to employ screwdrivers and hammers -- but it was most effective in ballistics research, permitting the rapid calculation of artillery firing tables accounting for variables such as temperature and wind.

Also while at MIT, Bush was the driving force behind the commercialization of a great deal of technology, virtually pioneering the concept of the "university spin-off company," co-founding Raytheon Manufacturing to build radio tubes as well as a half dozen other companies which eventually not only made him a wealthy man but gave him years of first-hand entrepreneurial experience.

In 1939, Bush moved to Washington to head the independent Carnegie Institution, and the following year became the chief of Franklin Roosevelt's National Defense Research Committee. Judging that the lack of coordination between science and government was a national security risk, he used his influence to obtain government funding for science research (unheard of at the time), particularly in the area of nuclear physics. Advocating the replacement of the outmoded tradition of having the government run factories, he was the architect of the system of awarding federal contracts to business and actively promoted cooperation among government, business and academia to encourage scientific advancement.

By 1941, Bush was administering all Allied defense research with his red-tape-cutting, slash-and-burn style, playing a supervisory role in the development of everything from radar to sulfa drugs to the atom bomb. Einstein may have convinced Roosevelt that it was important, Oppenheimer may have directed the Manhattan Project, but it seems that, for better and for worse, Bush was the only man willing to herd all the cats necessary to permit the Manhattan Project to be born.

By continuing to press for governmental cooperation and the judicious use of federal funds for science after World War II, Bush kept the scientific infrastructure in place which led to the development of such programs as the Internet (through the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which he conceived) and NASA.

Bush retired from scientific administration in 1955, but by that time he had begun yet another career as a theorist. In his 1945 Atlantic Monthly article, "As We May Think," Bush described a hypothetical device called a "memex," a means for harnessing the information explosion through a universal library which could be designed to allow its owner to link in some automated fashion associated pieces of information, creating "trails" of thought which could then perhaps be shared by others. Bush's exploration of the possibilities of linking information is not only a forerunner to Ted Nelson's idea of "hypertext," but would appear to have been the germ of the idea behind the organization of Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web; in addition, in the same article he proposed such concepts as a machine which could type one's words as they were spoken, and a cyclops camera, to be worn on one's head for recording what one sees.

Vannevar Bush died on June 28, 1974 in Belmont, Massachusetts.

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Saturday, March 10, 2007


Arthur Honegger was born on this day in 1892 in Le Havre, France of Swiss parentage.

In his chamber music, orchestral music and oratorios, Honegger exhibited a broad range of styles, from music reminiscent of the 18th century to very modern compositions, as well as an eclectic quirkiness in subject matter and form. Although he was a close friend of Darius Milhaud and was grouped with Milhaud as one of "Les Six," a clique of young Paris composers who had clustered around the mastery of Erik Satie during the 1920s, Honegger held the germanic composers Mozart and Bach as his musical heroes -- the only member of Les Six to stand in opposition to Satie’s gallo-centrism and sardonic disengagement.

Honegger’s reputation stands mainly on his King David oratorio (1921), composed for the Mezieres folk theater in Lausanne, Switzerland, but among his other idiosyncratic works are the famous "mimed symphony," Horace Victorieux (1921); musical portraits of a locomotive (Pacific 231, 1924) and a rugby game (Rugby, 1928); an opera based on Rostand’s L’Aiglon (1937); and a ballet for one voice, orchestra and a Martenot Musical Wave machine, Semiramis (1924). The gimmickry of such pieces tends to overshadow the dramatic power he was capable of displaying in such pieces as Jeanne d’Arc au bucher (1935), an oratorio with a libretto by Paul Claudel, and the film scores for Abel Gance’s Napoleon and Les Miserables (1934).

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Novus Mundus

Amerigo Vespucci -- explorer, geographer and merchant, the first to call the Americas "the New World" and the incidental inspiration for the naming of those continents -- was born on this day in 1451 in Florence.

Vespucci has long taken the rap for being a fraud who had never sailed anywhere special and who had misappropriated the naming rights to the continent discovered by his rough acquaintance, Christopher Columbus. As is usually the case, the real story is a little more interesting than that. Born of a noble family, the classically-educated Vespucci, who grew up with a love of literature, astronomy and geography, ingratiated himself with the powerful Medici family (who were easily impressed by intellectual types) and got himself hired as a sort of purchasing agent and sales rep for their ship-outfitting business in Spain.

A welcome visitor at the court of Isabella and Ferdinand, he watched Columbus' first 2 voyages with interest, and furrowed his brow each time Columbus returned to declare that he had discovered a Western sea route to India. He decided to get to know Columbus a little better, and through his salesmanship became Columbus' key supplier for his third voyage across the ocean in 1497.

Hearing nothing with his skeptical ears that suggested that the coarse Genoan had actually found India, Vespucci decided, as a scientist, that he needed to go and see for himself, so in 1499 he outfitted his own voyage West and set sail under the Spanish flag. Arriving at the northern coast of what would eventually be called South America, he explored the Amazon and promptly fell into the same trap that had snagged Columbus, in that Vespucci initially insisted on calling the Amazon "the Ganges." However, with his superior skills as an astronomer, he did develop a method for determining longitude which became the standard for 300 years, and was able to estimate the circumference of the Earth to within 50 miles.

On his second trip in 1501 (this time on behalf of Portugal rather than Spain), Vespucci made his breakthrough: tracing the coast of the continent down to within 400 miles of Tierra del Fuego, he charted his progress and came to the realization that the land was not India at all, but an entirely "New World" previously unheard of in the courts of Western Europe. With that also came the revolutionary realization that there were 2 great oceans rather than one separating Europe from Asia to the West -- one greater than the one that Columbus had crossed and which Columbus had never even reached because of the big continents that stood between them. Vespucci reported his findings to the Medicis in 2 brief but erudite letters, the first called Novus Mundus (or "New World"), which when published shortly thereafter caused a sensation. He died on February 22, 1512 in Seville, Spain.

Meanwhile, Vespucci himself never presumed to name the new continent for himself; the name came from a map published by a German preacher named Martin Waldseemuller in 1507, who mistakenly declared Vespucci the discoverer of the continent, and upon that claim quite naturally decided it should be named for him. Columbus, for his part, never gave up believing that he had found the route to India, and though he continues to get all the credit for having discovered the New World, it was Vespucci who figured out that it was "New."

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

More Dangerous Than a Thousand Rioters

Lucy Parsons died on this day in 1942 in a house fire in Chicago at the age of 89.

Although she is remembered as an uncompromising radical labor activist, marriage may have been the central theme and concern in her life: it inspired her earliest activism, in partnership with her husband; it provided a model of the voluntary, self-governing, self-empowering labor unions which she supported, and provided a context for her interest in hunger policy, birth control and divorce rights; and her vigorous defense of the institution of marriage in the face of her comrades' support of free love caused her estrangement from radical movement leaders such as Emma Goldman. Half Creek and half Mexican, Lucy Waller met Albert Parsons, a former Confederate soldier turned radical Republican and married him in 1871 in Texas. Because interracial marriages were harshly viewed in the South, the couple moved to Chicago, where they became involved in the Socialist Labor Party.

While Albert Parsons gained fame as a speaker at labor rallies (causing him to be fired from his printing job with the Chicago Tribune), Lucy opened a dress shop to support their family while writing radical publications such as The Alarm and The Socialist. Anti-labor authorities began to see Lucy as a more dangerous player in the labor movement; she was a woman who lived unconventionally, not solely as a wife and mother, but as a radical activist who advocated violence or the threat of violence as the only effective means for laborers to gain their basic rights from the captains of capitalism.

After the 1886 May Day strike and the Haymarket protest resulted in violence and police assaults, Albert went into hiding, and Lucy was arrested -- although she would not be charged along with the other Haymarket defendants for conspiracy to commit murder, since the Chicago prosecutors felt that it was unlikely that a jury would send a woman (a mother of two) to the gallows.

She fought tirelessly to save the Haymarket defendants, including her husband, but failed to beat the coalition of Chicago authorities and big business who wanted to shut down labor unrest, and when she brought her two children to visit their father one last time, she was arrested, stripped and thrown into a jail cell, where she sat naked while Albert was executed on November 11, 1887. At the same time, she waged a battle against conservative forces within the Knights of Labor, a union she helped to establish, when Terence Powderly came out against the Haymarket martyrs.

If she wasn't already strongly committed to radicalism, after losing her husband it was an obsession for her, causing her to part company with the growing number of moderate labor union leaders who were beginning to join the Democratic Party in 1890. With Big Bill Haywood and others, she was at the vanguard of the radical movement as a founder of the International Workers of the World (1905), and organized the Chicago anti-hunger demonstrations of 1915, leading a coalition of the American Federation of Labor, the Socialist Party and Jane Addams' Hull House in demanding the decentralization of federal hunger policy. Finding less and less support for her vision of laborer-empowerment within traditional labor unions, she worked through the U.S. Communist Party from 1925 onward. During the 1920s and 30s, the Chicago police still regarded 60/70-something Lucy Parsons as "more dangerous than a thousand rioters," and her papers were seized by the police from the ruins of her house after the fire in which she was killed.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

'Petticoat Rule'

Susanna Madora Salter was born on this day in 1860 near Lamira, Ohio.

A 27-year old housewife, mother and officer in the local Women's Christian Temperance Union in Argonia, Kansas, in 1887 Mrs. Salter presided over a nominating caucus for support of local political candidates who would support the cause of the prohibition of alcohol. Although the Kansas legislature had just given women the right to right to vote in third-class city elections, a number of men objected to the WCTU's attempt to enter the exclusively male domain of politics. In an effort to discredit the WCTU, a group of unsympathetic men secretly drew up a different election slate with Susanna Salter's named penciled in for mayor of Argonia; they assumed that the WCTU would lose its credibility in the election and that the uppity women would leave political matters to the men thereafter. Instead, the local Republican Party backed Salter and she won by a 2/3 majority.

She received instant international notoriety, with articles appearing in newspapers around the world marveling at this new "petticoat rule" in America, but her term was uneventful. Nonetheless, she managed to win over those who opposed the participation of women in politics with her fair and efficient administration of the town. She retired from active political affairs after the end of her term in 1888.

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