Elizabeth Phillips,1866–1948: Hotels on Boardwalk

When the power went for better part of a week during Super Storm (not Hurricane) Sandy, our household was thrown back to earlier, more primitive diversions than television or the internet.   Among these was Monopoly.

I’d only vaguely remembered just how irritating a game it really was after the first dozen or so rotations.  Memories of irritated, not to say angry, young children who were left out on the street despite having hotels on Board Walk and Park Place.  What kind of crummy game was this, anyway?

Turns out, anger and irritation was the whole idea. Continue reading

Johann Konrad Dippel, 1673 – 1734: Walk of Life

A theologian, medical doctor, and alchemist.  He it was who came up with Berliner Blau, aka Preussisch Blau, aka Prussian Blue.

Dibbel was the son of a vicar, and one of those articulate and passionate golden boys too smart for his own good and made the worse by a touch of innate contrariness. for its own sake.  His M.A. thesis in theology was titled  De Nihilo.

However goth seeming in theory,  in practice he was quite fervent as far as his theology went.  Lutheran theology, that is.  Nothing more rancorous than a dispute between revolutionaries.  In the case of Dippel, it boiled down to – Orthodoxy Good, Pietism Bad.  On later reflection and perhaps nudged by the cold fact that Orthodoxy did not look good on job applications, he would reverse the order.   Just as well, really.  Under Orthodoxy, he had killed a man in a duel, a misadventure that forced him on the road (something he would have to get used to). Continue reading

Jesse W. Reno, 1861 -1947: Up the Down Stair Case

My aunt who lived in Brazil in the 1950s once told me that when the escalator was installed in a local department store, the locals were so unnerved that they would not use it until it was turned off.

One sees their point.

The first escalator, dubbed the circular stairway, was an 1859 idea by Nathan Ames,  of Massachusetts that never got off the ground.   The inclined elevator, which did get off the ground, was the creation of Jesse Reno, son of the Union Civil War general Jesse L. Reno.

He came up with the idea at the age of sixteen, before attending college.   Continue reading

Denis Papin, 1647-1712: Letting Off Some Steam

The  steam boat, that was Robert Fulton’s baby, right?  Good old 19th century American know-how.  No? Not him?

Okay, James Watt, then.  Just the sort of thing a clever Scottish engineer would come up with.

The French beat them both to the punch.  Denis Pepin built the first steam driven paddle boat – in 1704.

The fellow wasn’t even a mechanic.  Not by training at least,  His university degree was in medicine, and even at an advanced point in his non-medical career he was referred to as le medecin Papin. Continue reading

Colonel Francis Maceroni, 1788-1846: On the Road Again

When London roads are paved with wood,
Long live Maceroni.
We’ll go in for something good
Saved out of our coal money.

The doggerel was chanted by the good people of London on the subject of recent advances in street coverage, and yes, it was wood.  Wooden blocks were as a kind of cheap and sturdy paver for the otherwise dirt lined streets of London.  Problem was that, unlike, say, bricks or Belgian blocks, they could be burned – and it was cheaper to heat the house with public wooden blocks than private coal. The Maceroni in in question in his book Hints to Paviers (sic) 1827, which, while recognizing macadam though fine for the country road, found it less successful in the more traveled city, and lays out the benefits of wooden pavers already used successfully on the continent. Continue reading

Gerolamo Cardano 1501-1576: A Throw of the Dice

Every so often you read about a bunch of clever MIT students or such like who go to Vegas and by superior brainpower make a killing at the tables before the spotters notice and kick them out.  In the old days, a broken leg might have been in the cards, so to speak, but in general the experiment ends with the players getting banned from the casino and selling the story to Hollywood.

Didn’t use to be be like that.  Consider the case of Cardano.  As a twenty five year old college student taking a break in a friendly game of cards in Venice, he found that his luck turned unreasonably bad.  He also found that the a game was being played with marked cards.  A direct sort of fellow, Cardano pulled a knife, stuck it in the other guy, then fled into the night.

Continue reading

Clarence Birdseye 1886-1956: The Adventures of a Curious Man

Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man, by Mark Kurlansky, Doubleday, 2012.

Not to be confused with Admiral Byrd who apparently fudged a bit on getting to the North Pole.  Birdseye is the guy who froze vegetables.

Cheerful  fellow of boundless energy and an innate inability to stay still.  Bit like Teddy Roosevelt in that regard.  He was also one of these small men who can endure appalling abuse where men mas macho would collapse.   He was embodied a curious mixture of lust for adventure,  curiosity over how things work, obsessive bent for  tinkering, and ambitious business moving.  An unusual quartet of impulses which Kurlansky describes but does not underscore.

Continue reading

Hedy Lemarr 1913-2000/George Antheil 1900-1959: What’s It All About, Hedy?

Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World
Richard Rhodes, Knopf, 2012.

Of course we are not supposed to judge a book by its cover,  but honestly, what are we to make of a Come Hither Hedy sliding down a golden torpedo?  Is this supposed to encourage the sexy girls to bone up on calculus? Or the smart girls to reach for the feather boas?  Work those propellers, baby!  And what exactly are these inventions in the subtitle? I mean, judging from that golden torpedo, well, a guy could get the wrong idea. Or the right idea. Or, or….*

Okay, Americans love an underdog and what better scoop than the Hollywood starlet coming up with a high tech solution to a serious wartime need?   The story’s been kicking around in one form or another since 1942, and for the short version, the details scarcely mattered, not when put next to the glam (hence the cover shot).  Kind of disrespectful of the promised story of intellectual achievement, I would say.  Kind of disrespectful of her lab partner George Antheil, too, which, along with the zing zing picture, may say something about the convoluted state of current sexual politics.

What’s it all about, Hedy? Let’s start at the beginning.

Continue reading

Isaac Merritt Singer, 1811-1875: A Thing for the Ladies

For trivia buffs, Elias Howe is famously  the inventor of the sewing machine. *

So why do all the machines seem to be named Singer?

Short answer is because it’s not personal, it’s business.  Like fast food, the real money is not in inventing, it’s in marketing, preferable to the great middle.   Isaac Singer, like Ford, figured out how to bring machinery to  the masses and to make it pay.

He worked as a machinist but his first love was the stage, and had his talent been for the latter rather than the former, this story might have turned out rather differently. As it was,  he found himself  by circumstance tinkering on various machines, making small improvements on this and that.  At age twenty seven, he patented a rock-drilling machine, making him $US 2,000 – extremely good money back in the day. So what did he do with it? Continue reading

LaMarcus Adna Thompson, 1848-1911: Over the Boardwalk

An Ohio boy who first apprenticed as a carpenter,  Thompson worked as a grocer, then designed a machine to create stockings and founded the Eagle Knitting Company at Elkhart, Indiana.  Hard work impaired his health, a prescribed trip out west was supposed to improve it.  En route, he saw the Mauch Chunk  Switchback Gravity Railroad, a coal carrying freight train which,  in the slow season, took on thrill seeking passengers for a quick rush down the side of the mountain.

Gravity trains for pleasure, so-called Russian Mountains, had been build in Russia and France as far back as 1790, but Thompson took the concept to the big time.  In 1884, after three years of tinkering, he opened the Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway at Coney Island.   For five cents you could climb a tower, get on the train, and thrill to the six miles an hour rush to the second tower.

Success was immediate, and the L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway Company (and the inevitable copycats) was soon making others in America and Europe.   Oval tracks, painted scenery, tunnels, all sorts of improvements and patents followed.   The craze made him a millionaire, proving yet again that, pace Scott Fitzgerald, there are plenty of second acts in America.