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Archive for the ‘Edutainment’ Category

Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

The sea otter has the densest fur of any mammal, with up to a million hairs per square inch of skin. They have an undercoat of dense fur and an outer layer of longer “guard hairs.” Air trapped between the layers keeps the skin dry.

The world’s largest lake is the Caspian Sea, located between Iran and Russia. The Caspian is landlocked, but once was connected to the open ocean. Tectonic uplifting closed it off a few million years ago.

The Caspian is neither a sea nor a freshwater lake. The water is fresh at the north end, thanks to inflow from the Volga River, but the south end is brackish.

The first daytime radio soap opera in the U.S. was Painted Dreams, which ran on WGN in Chicago from 1930 until 1943. It was created by radio actress Irna Phillips, who went on to write The Guiding Light and As the World Turns. Her first TV soap was These Are My Children in 1949.

Phillips, the “Queen of the Soaps,” came up with the concepts of a musical transition between scenes (the “organ bridge”) and ending episodes with a cliffhanger.

Vincent van Gogh painted The Starry Night, a work almost as famous as the artist, while he was a patient at an asylum, being treated for paranoia, hallucinations, depression, and epileptic fits.

Van Gogh created the painting during a relapse of depression. It uses darker colors than his previous work and represents a break from his usual realism. Further, it was done entirely from memory; no such view exists near the asylum.

Starry Night

Elizabeth Barrett Browning the famous British poet of the Elizabethan era (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”) was plagued by dog-nappers. Her cocker spaniel Flush was stolen four times. Each time, Ms. Browning offered a reward of 10 pounds for the dog’s safe return, which probably explains why Flush kept disappearing.

The narrow strips of wood, metal, or plastic that separate the glass panes of a window are called “muntins” or “muntin bars.” The name comes from the French word monter (to mount).

Ebbets Field was the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1913 until 1957, when the Dodgers stiffed Brooklyn and moved to Los Angeles. The stadium was promptly torn down and replaced by an apartment complex.

Undoubtedly, the hardiest, most resilient creature on earth is the tardigrade (aka water bear), a microscopic animal that lives in a wide range of wet environments — oceans, mountains, rain forests, the Arctic, and everywhere in between.

Tardigrades can survive temperatures as high as 300°F and as low as –458°F. They can withstand the vacuum of space; more than 1,200 times atmospheric pressure; and 1,000 times more radiation than any other animal. When subjected to dry conditions, they can hibernate for years and revive when moisture is restored.

Tardigrade

In many Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 40s, including The Wizard of Oz and Holiday Inn, a soft, fluffy substance called chrysolite was used to simulate snow. Chrysolite (aka white asbestos) later was discovered to be a major carcinogen, and it was banned.

Over the years, Hollywood has made snow out of salt, flour, and potato flakes. In the late 1940s, it was done by mixing the chemical foamite (used in fire extinguishers) with sugar and soap flakes. Today, most snow is simulated by a substance called SnowCell, which is made from recycled paper.

The word scuba (as in scuba diving) is an acronym for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.

When the original Disneyland opened in 1955 in Anaheim, California, it consisted of five “lands” — Main Street USA, Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland.

At the time, Tomorrowland was set in the far-distant future: 1986. When the park was updated in the late 1960s, the 1986 thing was quietly dropped.

In pre-Columbian South America, the Incas built an extensive network of rope suspension bridges to cross canyons and rivers. They were made by weaving grass into lengths of rope, then weaving the rope into cables. Local peasants were tasked with annual repair and maintenance.

Eventually, the bridges were replaced by Spanish masonry bridges, and the Incas are long gone, but one famous rope bridge remains: the Keshwa Chaca bridge in Peru. Local villagers rebuild it every year using traditional Incan techniques.

Keshwa Chaca

 

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Queen of the Dolls

When my boys were growing up, they owned the usual succession of popular guy toys. Naturally, they had no experience with dolls and other girly stuff.

(G.I. Joe action figures don’t count as dolls, do they? Certainly not. Perish the thought.)

On the other hand, thanks to TV commercials, friends, neighbors, etc., we were plenty familiar with the girl toys on the market. We never had an actual Barbie around, but we knew all about the perennial queen of the dolls.

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Fashion Model Barbie, 1977.

All these years later, Barbie remains a genuine cultural phenomenon and a sales and marketing juggernaut. I’m uncomfortable with how advertisers manipulate kids, but still, you have to be impressed by the masterful job they did with Barbie.

I did some research to fill in the details, and the story is fascinating.

———

It’s another tale of a business started in a garage.

In 1945, two Southern California product designers formed a company called Mattel Creations. The designers were Harold “Matt” Matson and Elliot Handler. Mattel was a combination of their names.

Working out of Handler’s garage, the men built picture frames using shop equipment purchased from Sears on the installment plan. In addition, Elliot began using the wood scraps to make doll furniture.

Elliot and his equally enterprising wife Ruth had a host of potentially marketable ideas. Among them were a child-size ukulele and a jack-in-the-box.

Mattel was not the Handlers’ first business venture. In the late 1930s, newly married, they formed Elzac (named for Elliot and his then-partner Zachary Zemby), which made and sold costume jewelry and brooches. Most were inexpensive and often whimsical.

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An Elzac brooch from the 1940s.

Elzac was a successful venture, but the Handlers, having greater ambitions, put their hopes in Mattel.

And Mattel was profitable from year one. The ukulele (the Uke-A-Doodle) was a popular seller. In 1947, the Handlers bought out Matson, and Ruth and Elliot became co-CEOs of Mattel.

By the early 1950s, Mattel was focused exclusively on toys, and business boomed. In 1955, it surged exponentially when Mattel began advertising on TV.

When the Mickey Mouse Club was set to debut on television, Disney and ABC approached Mattel about sponsoring a 15-minute segment of the program. The deal required a commitment for the full 52-week season, at the sobering cost of $500,000.

At the time, that was almost Mattel’s entire net worth. But the Handlers understood the potential and took the deal.

The television exposure was transformative. Within a few years, Mattel’s annual sales topped $1 million, then $5 million, then $14 million.

For several years, Ruth had been musing about an idea she got when her daughter Barbara was a pre-teen. Barbara often played with paper dolls, making paper clothes for them and acting out fanciful stories and adventures.

Ruth also observed that Barbara had outgrown her doll babies and always treated the paper dolls as adults.

Ruth wanted to give girls like Barbara a replacement for both traditional dolls and paper dolls: an adult female doll with a wardrobe of clothing made of fabric, not paper.

But Ruth couldn’t convince Elliot or the Mattel staff. They insisted parents wouldn’t buy their daughters a doll with the figure of a grown-up. Ruth had to bide her time.

In 1956, the Handlers took their then-teenaged children Barbara and Kenneth to Europe on vacation. During the trip, Ruth discovered a new German sensation, “Bild Lilli.”

Bild Lilli was a comic strip character in the tabloid Bild. Lilli was a gold-digger — single, seductive, and always scantily dressed. Men regularly pursued her, and Lilli deflected them with witty comments.

The comic strip became so popular that a doll in Lilli’s likeness was made. It was sold in gift shops as a novelty for men, not as a doll for children.

But Lilli was almost precisely what Ruth had in mind.

Barbie-3

A Bild Lilli doll.

After the trip, Ruth created a prototype doll based on Bild Lilli, but slightly modified. She named her creation Barbie after their daughter. Elliot and the staff quickly were on board.

Mattel’s new Barbie doll debuted at the New York Toy Fair in 1959, enjoying modest success. But soon, following a barrage of TV commercials — which advertised the doll directly to little girls, not their parents — Barbie, Mattel, and the Handlers were rocketed to toy business stardom.

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The first Barbie doll.

In 1959, 300,000 Barbie dolls were sold for $3.00 each. Clothing sets cost from $1.00 to $5.00.

By Barbie’s 50th birthday in 2009, over one billion Barbie dolls had been sold.

FYI, the last Lilli cartoon appeared in Bild in 1961. In 1964, Mattel bought all patents and copyrights to the Bild Lilli doll, and production in Europe ended.

Ruth and Elliot Handler guided Mattel for the next 30 years. They introduced a wide range of Barbie-related dolls and merchandise, as well as the Chatty Cathy doll and the Hot Wheels line of toy cars.

In 1972, somewhat unexpectedly, Mattel reported a substantial loss. The government investigated, and in 1974, Mattel was charged with filing false reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Handlers chose to plead no contest and agreed to resign from Mattel management.

After the departure of the Handlers. Mattel rebounded and continued to grow. Over the years, the company acquired Western Publishing (Little Golden Books), Fisher-Price, Tyco Toys (Matchbox cars), Pleasant Company (American Girl), and the Learning Company (educational software).

At various times, Mattel also made licensee deals to manufacture Disney Princess dolls as well as toys for franchises such as Harry Potter, Superman, Batman, Justice League, Loonie Tunes, and others.

Ruth and Elliot Handler were inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame in 1989. Barbie was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998.

In 2002, Ruth died from complications of surgery for colon cancer. She was 85. Elliot died in 2011 at age 94.

———

To round out the story, here is some Barbie trivia…

— Barbie had seven sibling dolls over the years, plus an English cousin, Francie Fairchild.

— Christie, the first African American doll, was introduced in 1968.

— Mattel always uses the color Barbie Pink (PMS 219) in its logos and merchandise.

— In 1971, Barbie’s eyes were changed from looking coyly sideways to looking directly forward. In 1977, Barbie’s mouth was modified to reveal her teeth and form a smile.

— In 2016, Mattel began offering dolls with seven skin tone options and three body types: “tall,” “curvy,” and “petite.”

— In 2015, Barbie was given adjustable ankles so she could wear flat shoes.

— In 2003, Mattel released a pregnant version of Barbie’s friend Midge Hadley. The doll featured a removable baby that was held in place by a magnet. Pregnant Midge received mixed reviews.

Barbie-5

— In the 1960s, an elaborate backstory was created for Barbie in a series of books.

— Occasionally, celebrity dolls are sold in Barbie world, among them Elizabeth Taylor, Twiggy, Cher, Elvis and Priscilla Presley, and Nicki Minaj.

— Barbie and her boyfriend Ken (named for the Handlers’ son Kenneth) broke up in 2004, but got back together on Valentine’s Day 2011.

— Barbie has held over 150 careers.

— Mattel has released a “Barbie for President” doll every election year since 1992.

For 2019, Mattel debuted a doll with a prosthetic leg as well as a doll in a wheelchair.

Barbie-6

— Today, a Barbie doll is sold somewhere in the world every three seconds. Barbie-related merchandise generates annual sales of about $2 billion.

— A live-action Barbie movie starring Margot Robbie is in the works. For real.

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Kenneth, Ruth, Barbara, and Elliot Handler.

 

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Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

In 1457, King James II of Scotland banned golf and football (soccer), which he said were interfering with the military preparation of the populous for Scotland’s ongoing war with England. The ban was lifted after England and Scotland signed a peace treaty in 1502.

The first Academy Awards were presented in 1929. The award for Best Picture, then called Outstanding Picture, went to the war film “Wings.” At the time, only silent films were considered. The first talkie to win an award was “The Broadway Melody” in 1931.

Hawaiian is a Polynesian language related to Samoan, Tahitian, and Tongan. It was an oral-only language until the 1820s, when New England missionaries worked out a modified English alphabet that allowed Hawaiian to be written for the first time.

The Hawaiian alphabet consists of five vowels (A, E, I, O, and U, each having both a long and a short pronunciation), seven consonants (H, K, L, M, N, P, and W) and assorted combinations thereof. For example, AU = the OU sound in OUT.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, was only the beginning for author L. Frank Baum. He wrote 14 full-length novels about Oz, the last published in 1920 after his death.

Since then, Baum’s publisher has released 26 more Oz books by a series of writers. The most recent books based on the world of Oz are a trilogy published in 2005, 2006, and 2014.

Oz books

In 1972, electrical engineer Nolan Bushnell founded the popular video game Atari. In 1977, he opened the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant chain, which he envisioned as a place where kids could eat pizza and play video games.

Bushnell’s Law on the subject of video game design states “All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth.”

The idiom hands down can describe winning with ease (“He won the competition, hands down.”), or can mean without a doubt (“Hands down, Mom is the best cook in town.”).

The expression originated in horse racing. When a jockey was certain of victory at the end of a race, he could lower his hands, relax his hold on the reins, and stop urging the horse on.

In 1912, when the London Symphony Orchestra was invited to perform in the U.S. for the first time, the group booked passage on the RMS Titanic. However, the maiden voyage of the Titanic was delayed, and the orchestra switched to the SS Baltic to stay on schedule.

Modern dentures are made of acrylic resins and plastic over a metal base, but in olden times, other materials had to be employed. The Romans made partial dentures out of human and animal teeth. In the 1500s, the Japanese invented wooden dentures. In Europe in the 1700s, dentures often were carved from ivory and animal horn.

But by the 1800s, the most popular source was human teeth, which were not only denture-ready, but widely available from medical schools, graveyards, and battlefields. After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, scavengers closed in to collect teeth from the thousands of casualties.

Dentures

Adolphe Monet, the father of French painter Claude Monet, was a prosperous retailer of groceries and ship’s supplies. He was greatly displeased when Claude became an artist instead of taking over the family business.

When young Claude was conscripted into military service, Adolphe declined to purchase his son’s exemption, which was the usual practice among the wealthy at the time. Take that, you ingrate.

The average elevation above sea level in the Kingdom of Bhutan, located in the Himalayas between India and China, is 8,000 feet, which is the highest average in the world.

Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy founded in 1616. All government policy is guided by the concept of Gross National Happiness, an index of the collective contentment and well-being of the populace. Let that sink in.

Atoms are composed of a nucleus (consisting of protons and neutrons) and one or more electrons. The electron was discovered in 1897 by English physicist J. J. Thomson. The proton was discovered in 1917 by New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford, who was a student of Thompson. The neutron was discovered in 1932 by British physicist James Chadwick, who was a student of Rutherford.

The world’s largest functioning guitar is 43.5 feet long, 16 feet wide, and weighs 2,255 pounds. It is a replica of a 1967 Gibson Flying V, with strings made of aircraft cable. The guitar was built in 2001 by the Academy of Science & Technology in Houston to demonstrate principles of acoustics. The big fella is on display at the National Guitar Museum in Orlando.

Guitar

 

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Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

The ancient Mayan and Aztec societies of Mexico/Central America used cocoa beans as currency. Cultivation of the beans was controlled to maintain its value as money, and the practice endured for centuries. In Nicaragua in the 1800s, about 100 cocoa beans would buy you a serviceable slave.

In the early 1960s, at age 14, singer-songwriter Billy Joel dropped out of high school and began performing with various bands in New York City. In 1970, before his career took off, he landed a gig in a TV commercial for Bachman Pretzels. Joel played piano in the background while Chubby Checker sang “There’s a new twist in Bachman!” to the tune of his hit song “The Twist.”

All 10 of the highest mountain peaks in the United States are in Alaska. Of the 50 highest U.S. peaks, 14 are in Alaska, 28 are in Colorado, seven are in California, and one is in Washington.

The only known warm-blooded fish is the opah or moonfish. The ability to regulate their bodies at a favorable temperature (about nine degrees warmer than the environment) makes them active predators that can chase down squid and other agile prey.

Opah

In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes had a telephone installed in the Telegraph Room adjacent to his office. His successors used a telephone located in a foyer just outside the Oval Office. In 1929, Herbert Hoover became the first President to have a phone on his desk.

The Serengeti or Serengeti Plain is a 12,000-square-mile ecosystem in west-central Africa noted for being a relatively undisturbed animal habitat. It is home to over two million wildebeest, half a million gazelles, 5,000 elephants, 4,000 hyenas, and 3,000 lions.

In 1996, Larry Page and Sergey Brin began developing an internet search engine called BackRub. In 1997, they changed the name to Google, a word inspired by the term Googol, which is a name given in the late 1930s to the number 10¹ºº. The term came from the nephew of mathematician Edward Kasner, who was asked for a word to describe an enormous number.

Griffey mania was rampant in 1989 as 19-year-old Ken Griffey, Jr. began his rookie season with the Seattle Mariners. Simultaneously, a marketing firm unveiled the Ken Griffey, Jr. Milk Chocolate Bar, over a million of which were sold in the first year. Ironically, Griffey was allergic to chocolate.

01162321.JPG

The Library of Congress was founded in 1800 inside the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Today, it occupies three buildings on Capitol Hill, plus massive storage facilities in Maryland and Virginia. The LOC houses about 186 million books, maps, films, sound recordings, etc. on 830 miles of shelves. It is the world’s largest library.

St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was a 5th-Century bishop and missionary who is credited with converting Ireland from a Celtic pagan religion to Christianity.

According to Patrick, he was born in Britain and kidnapped by Irish pirates at age 16. He was held in slavery for six years, but escaped and returned to Britain, where he was reunited with his family and became a cleric. Later, after a falling-out with the family, he returned to Ireland.

Baseball great Babe Ruth came up with a novel way to keep cool during the hot summer months: he chilled cabbage leaves in a cooler of ice and put a leaf or two under his baseball cap. The leaves would last a couple of innings before he had to replace them.

Until 2017, the last word in the Oxford English Dictionary was zythum, defined as an unfermented malt beer made in ancient Egypt. The new last word is zyzzyva, a genus of South American weevils. Actually, the word zyzzyva dates back to 1922, so Oxford seems to have dropped the ball here.

Zyzzyva

 

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Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

Shellac is used as a wood primer/sealant and also as a waxy coating on food. Jelly beans are coated with shellac to seal them and make them shiny. It’s also a fact that shellac is a natural substance, not a manufactured material.

Shellac is secreted by female lac bugs (Kerria lacca) in India and Thailand. The insects leave tunnel-like tubes on tree branches. The tubes are scraped off, refined to get rid of bark and stuff, and turned into commercial shellac to coat your jelly beans.

The rhinoceros family has five living species: white rhinos, black rhinos, Sumatran rhinos, Indian rhinos, and Javan rhinos. The first three have two horns, and the last two have one horn.

The Hudson River flows 315 miles from upstate New York south to the Atlantic Ocean. However, the lower Hudson is a tidal estuary, so its direction of flow depends on the tide. On the incoming tide, the Hudson flows back upstream about 160 miles.

The closest living relative of the elephant is the hyrax, a small, rotund mammal native to Africa. Hyraxes resemble plump rabbits with short ears and no tail. Manatees also are related to elephants, but hyraxes are closer kin.

Hyrax

The E Street Band has been Bruce Springsteen’s backing band since 1972. It is so named because the mother of keyboardist David Sancious allowed the band to rehearse in her garage at 1107 E Street in Belmar, New Jersey.

The U.S. two-dollar bill was introduced in 1862 and, in spite of chronic lack of demand, remained in circulation until 1966. It was brought back in 1976 for the Bicentennial and remains in circulation today, even though the public still largely ignores it. Two-dollar bills account for one percent of the U.S. currency in circulation.

The legend of Atlantis, the island nation that fell out of favor with the gods and sank into the sea, originated with Plato. The Greek philosopher used the story as an allegory about the hubris of nations. He said Atlantis began as an advanced utopian society, but the people became greedy and petty, and they paid the price in “one terrible night of fire and earthquakes.”

During its century as a British colony, Barbados had a flag that featured an image of Britannia (the female personification of Britain) holding a trident. When Barbados gained its independence in 1966, it adopted a flag that symbolized the break by depicting only the head of the trident.

Flags

The U.S. Navy decommissioned its last battleship in 1992. Currently, the Navy has 283 ships in active service: 10 aircraft carriers, 9 amphibious assault ships, 22 cruisers, 3 near-shore combat ships, 62 destroyers, 17 frigates, 71 submarines, and 89 support vessels. Oh, and 3,700 aircraft.

The Outerbridge Crossing is one of three vehicular bridges between New Jersey and Staten Island. Opened in 1928, it is named for Eugenius H. Outerbridge, the first chairman of the port authority. It is called a “crossing” because the “Outerbridge Bridge” sounds ridiculous. Most people just call it “the Outerbridge.”

Nebraska native Thurl Ravenscroft (1914-2005) was an accomplished bass singer and voice actor who did his first voice-over as Monstro the whale in the 1940 film Pinocchio. You know Ravenscroft as the voice of Tony the Tiger and for singing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

The Labrador Retriever originated in the 1500s in Newfoundland, not Labrador. Labs are a cross between the Newfoundland breed and the St. Johns water dog. They were called Labradors, I assume, because we already had Newfoundlands.

Labs

 

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More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

In 1981, Johnny Cash was walking around the exotic animal refuge he maintained at his estate in Tennessee when he was attacked by an ostrich. The normally docile ostrich had recently lost its mate.

Cash fought off the animal with a stick, but suffered five broken ribs and a gaping stomach wound. The painkillers he took as a result led to a two-year relapse into alcohol and amphetamine addiction.

Arachibutyrophobia is the fear of having peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth.

Henry I, son of William the Conqueror, was King of England from 1100 until his death in 1135. Henry had numerous illegitimate children, but only one legitimate son and heir, William. When William drowned at sea in 1120, Henry took a new wife, hoping to have another son.

When that failed, he declared his daughter Matilda to be his heir. That failed, too, when Henry’s nephew Stephen seized the throne. Stephen spent most of his reign (1135-1147) in a civil war with the supporters of Matilda.

The 1983 movie Return of the Jedi was supposed to be called Revenge of the Jedi. George Lucas even released a movie trailer promoting the Revenge title. For whatever reason, he switched to Return at the last minute and saved Revenge for Revenge of the Sith.

Revenge

The first Nobel Peace Prizes were awarded in 1901. The two recipients were Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross, and Frédéric Passy, a French economist.

The 1968 film “Krakatoa: East of Java” takes place in the East Indies in 1883, when a volcano on the island of Krakatoa erupted and erased the island. Nit-picking critics pointed out that Krakatoa actually was west of Java.

In his youth, future country singer Conway Twitty (1933-1993) was a talented baseball player. The Philadelphia Phillies tried to sign him, but the Army drafted him first. After his discharge in the 1950s, Twitty became an Elvis-style rock-and-roll singer. In the 1960s, he transitioned to his first love, country music.

Twitty’s real name was Harold Lloyd Jenkins. He took his stage name from the towns of Conway, Arkansas, and Twitty, Texas, which he picked from a road map.

Art critics sometimes weave tapestries of cryptic blather, as when, in 1931, someone described The Persistence of Memory, the surrealist painting by Salvador Dalí, as “an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time” inspired by Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

When Dalí was asked about that, he said no, he was inspired by seeing a Camembert cheese melting in the sun.

Persistence

Thomas Jefferson is said to have invented many things, including the swivel chair, the metal plow, the dumbwaiter, a machine to extrude pasta, and a hideaway bed that was hoisted to the ceiling during the day.

In truth, he made improvements to the swivel chair, the plow, and the dumbwaiter, and he brought back a pasta-extruding machine from Europe, but the hideaway bed story is bogus. No bed at Monticello had a hoisting mechanism.

Jefferson did, however, invent the revolving book stand. It was a turntable that could hold five books that swiveled to face the reader.

A cat named Stubbs served as Honorary Mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, from 1997 until his death in 2017. Stubbs was so named because he had no tail. He was “honorary” mayor because Talkeetna is a historic district, not a town, and thus has no elected mayor.

The first charge card was issued in 1950 by the Diner’s Club in New York City. It listed 27 participating restaurants and 200 cardholders. By the mid-1960s, Diners Club had 1.3 million users.

By then, Visa, MasterCard, and a host of other credit cards had arisen because the concept proved to be so lucrative. Well, duh. Why else would they be in the business?

The National Basketball Association adopted its iconic logo of a running player in 1969. According to the New York branding consultant who designed it, he got the idea from a photo of superstar Jerry West, which the designer said captured the pace and spirit of basketball.

NBA logo

 

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I’m a history nut. To me, history is interesting, informative, compelling, and fun. It’s a gas to come across fascinating nuggets from the past that either add to my understanding of events or introduce me to something new.

Recently, I read that the shortest war in recorded history is the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896. Which, of course, I had never heard of.

I was intrigued and promptly Googled it. What I learned was wonderfully entertaining — and a reminder of why I am a history nut in the first place.

###

In the late 1800s, the nations of Europe finalized their conquest and colonization of the African continent. By 1900, most of Africa was under the colonial rule of either Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, or Italy. Only Ethiopia and Liberia remained independent.

It happened because the European countries wanted Africa’s raw materials and were capable militarily of taking them. It also helped that the nations of Europe were highly competitive, and acquiring new territories was a feather in the cap — an opportunity to one-up the other countries.

Further, the new colonies in Africa gave the Europeans a way to address some of the nagging social problems created by the Industrial Revolution: displacement from rural areas, overcrowding in the cities, poverty, homelessness, unemployment. These issues could be alleviated to some degree by sending problematic people to the African colonies as settlers.

The manner in which the Europeans administered the colonies varied. The British preferred indirect rule, whereby they installed locals who would do as the Brits instructed. The French, Germans, and Belgians preferred direct rule, assigning their own countrymen, either military or civilian, as colonial administrators.

The Africans themselves remained in various stages of revolt, of course, which required a sizable European military presence. Meanwhile, the Europeans also clashed among themselves in every way short of armed conflict. They formed temporary alliances, imposed tariffs on each other, and jockeyed to gain control over waterways and trade routes.

Eventually, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck convened a conference in Berlin that laid down a series of rules and guidelines and brought a degree of order to the continent. Among the colonial powers, that is, not the natives.

Against that backdrop, the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896 erupted.

###

For centuries, the island of Zanzibar off the east coast of Africa was a center of the Arab slave trade, enriching a long line of sultans.

But times change, and by the 1870s, the British were able to persuade the Sultan of Zanzibar to end the slave trade for economic reasons; they convinced him that legitimate trade in rubber and ivory was more lucrative.

In 1890, Britain and Germany signed an agreement that gave Germany control of the mainland nation of Tanzania and made the island of Zanzibar a British protectorate. The British soon installed a pro-British Arab, Hamad bin Thuwaini, as Sultan of Zanzibar. Hamad ruled for three years, more or less uneventfully.

Then, on August 25, 1896, Hamad died suddenly in the royal palace in Zanzibar City. The cause was never determined officially, but most believed he was poisoned by his cousin, Khalid bin Barghash.

Lending credence to that belief: within hours of Hamad’s death, Khalid moved into the palace and declared himself Sultan. Khalid, FYI, was pro-German.

The British Consul, Sir Basil Cave, immediately ordered Khalid to vacate the palace. Khalid refused and quickly assembled a defense force of about 3,000 Zanzibaris. They consisted of the palace guard, a few hundred servants and slaves, and a large number of civilians conscripted from Zanzibar City.

The defenders were equipped with assorted small arms, several machine guns, and a few artillery pieces. They were not remotely a match for the British military forces in the region.

By the evening of August 25, three British warships had arrived in the harbor. Hundreds of troops had gone ashore to protect the British Consulate and keep the civilian population in check. The guns of the warships were trained on the royal palace.

Sir Basil asked London by telegram, “Are we authorised in the event of all attempts at a peaceful solution proving useless, to fire on the Palace from the men-of-war?

The reply: “You are authorised to adopt whatever measures you may consider necessary, and will be supported in your action by Her Majesty’s Government. Do not, however, attempt to take any action which you are not certain of being able to accomplish successfully.”

On the morning of August 26, Sir Basil issued a final ultimatum: if Khalid was not out of the palace by August 27 at 9:00 AM, the British ships would commence firing.

Khalid’s response: “We have no intention of hauling down our flag and we do not believe you would open fire on us.

Sir Basil replied that he had no desire to fire upon the palace, “but unless you do as you are told, we shall certainly do so.” That was the last communication between them.

The next morning, the 9:00 AM deadline passed, and the British warships began bombarding the palace with high-explosive shells.

The royal palace stood at the harbor’s edge and consisted of three main buildings: the palace itself, the harem (the part of a Muslim home where females reside), and the “House of Wonders,” a lavish reception hall. The buildings were constructed largely of wood.

Within minutes, Khalid’s machine guns and artillery were eliminated. The damage to the palace by the exploding shells was devastating. Fire quickly spread, and the buildings began to collapse.

Also within minutes, Khalid and a small entourage fled the palace via a rear entrance, leaving the rest of the defenders behind.

When the shelling ended at 9:40 AM, about 500 defenders were dead or wounded. The war had lasted between 38 and 45 minutes, depending on who did the timing.

Britain promptly installed Ali Hamud, another pro-British Zanzibari, as sultan.

As for Khalid, he fled to the German Consulate and was given sanctuary. The British demanded his extradition, but the Germans refused and eventually smuggled him out of Zanzibar and into Tanzania.

Khalid lived under German protection in Tanzania until 1916, when the Brits managed to capture him. He served a term in exile on St. Helena, then was allowed to return to Tanzania. He died there in 1927.

Khalid was the Sultan of Zanzibar for a whopping two days.

Hamad

Hamad bin Thuwaini

Deutsch-Ostafrika, Sultan

Khalid bin Barghash

Cave B

Sir Basil Cave

Palace

The Royal Palace before the war.

Harem

The ruins of the harem building after the bombardment.

###

“Recorded history” is our way of documenting what we consider the important stuff. But the record we keep is only a tiny fraction of literal history.

In the 50,000 years humans have existed, roughly 108 billion of us have been born. That’s 108 billion lifetimes worth of constant interactions within countless societies. In a real sense, 99 percent of history passes quietly, undocumented, known only to the participants.

Hamad, Khalid, and Sir Basil became historical figures. But we know nothing about the lives of the British sailors and soldiers who were ordered to Zanzibar City in August 1896. Nor of the lives of the 3,000 hapless souls who huddled inside the royal palace as British shells rained down.

 

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