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Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

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— For the last 10 years of his life, Ludwig van Beethoven was completely deaf, yet he continued to compose music. To compensate for his loss of hearing, he worked seated on the floor in front of a legless piano, so he could feel the vibrations.

— Jimmy Carter was the first U.S. president born in a hospital.

— In 1958, international jewelry kingpin Harry Winston donated the fabled Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian Institution. The 45.52-carat mega-diamond, which is worth $250 million, was packed in a plain brown wrapper and sent by first class mail at a cost of $145.29. The postage was $2.44, and the rest was for $1 million in insurance.

— The world’s fastest land insect is the Australian tiger beetle, which can skitter at 5.6 MPH. Compare that to the speed of the average spider (1.1 MPH) and house mouse (8 MPH).

Australian Tiger Beetle - fastest running insect

— A “capitonym” is a word that has a different meaning, and sometimes a different pronunciation, depending on whether or not it is capitalized. Examples:

August (the month)
august (majestic)

Cancer (the constellation)
cancer (the disease)

March (the month)
march (as in forward, march)

Mercury (the planet)
mercury (the chemical element).

Polish (from Poland)
polish (furniture polish)

— When Bill Clinton won the 1992 presidential election, the first telephone call he took was from President Bush. The 2nd call was from Vice President Quayle. The 3rd call was from Whoopie Goldberg.

— Buckingham Palace in London, the home of the Queen and a symbol of the British monarchy, has 775 rooms. 78 are toilets.

— Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of Ben & Jerry’s, originally intended to open a bagel shop. When they discovered the high cost of bagel-making equipment, however, they went to Plan B, an ice cream parlor. The business opened in an old gas station in Burlington, Vermont, in 1978.

Ben and Jerry's

— Roy Sullivan (1912-1983), a ranger at Shenandoah National Park, survived being struck by lightning seven times, more than any person known. The strikes happened between 1942 and 1977, mostly while he was on duty in the park, a storm-prone area in a storm-prone state.

Naturally, Sullivan got spooked when bad weather threatened, and often he would leave the area. The lightning got him anyway. Several of the strikes set his hair on fire, so he carried a container of water with him at all times.

— Based on scientific research, the 10,000 laborers who built the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt subsisted on a diet of meat, bread, and beer to keep them healthy and productive. Massive bakeries and great herds of sheep, goats, and cattle were maintained near the work sites. The daily rations included the equivalent of about a dozen 12-ounce bottles or beer per man.

— In 1907, teenagers James Casey and Claude Ryan borrowed $100 to start the American Messenger Company in Seattle. They employed several other teens to make deliveries with bikes and on foot. Business was good, and by 1913, they purchased their first delivery vehicle, a Model T Ford.

In 1919, the company expanded to Oakland, California, changed its name to United Parcel Service, and hasn’t slowed down since.

— The full name of the Spanish artist Picasso (1881-1973) was Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. The names were in honor of assorted relatives and saints.

Picasso

 

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The Questions…

1. How old was Louis Braille when he introduced his reading/writing system for the blind?

2. Slaughterville, Oklahoma, founded in 1889, is named for its founder, James Slaughter. In 2004, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) offered to give $20,000 worth of veggie burgers to the school system if the town would change its name to what?

3. The color puce is a sort of dark red or reddish brown with maybe a hint of purple. Think of a spot of dried blood on a white t-shirt. How did this rather yucky color get its name?

4. What is cerumen?

5. When the British Army put the first tanks on the battlefield during World War I, they officially called them “landships.” So, where does the name “tank” come from?

The Answers…

1. 15. Braille lost his sight at age three and started working on the dot system at age 12.

2. PETA suggested Veggieville. The citizens of Slaughterville declined.

3. The word puce is French for “flea.” It was first used in the 1770s to describe the color of a flea as well as the blood upon which it feeds.

4. Earwax.

5. When the prototypes were under development, British Intelligence referred to them as a “water tanks” to mislead the Germans, and the name stuck.

Braille

Tank

 

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More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

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— 90 percent of Earth’s population lives in the Northern Hemisphere.

— Eric Clapton is the only musician named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times. He was inducted in 1992 as a member of The Yardbirds, in 1993 as a member of Cream, and in 2000 as a solo performer.

— Female African elephants are pregnant for 22 months before they give birth, the longest gestation period of any mammal.

— For decades, the helmets worn by pro football players were plain brown leather with no markings. That changed in 1948 with the Los Angeles Rams. Rams halfback Fred Gehrke, who was an industrial design artist in the off-season, sold management on the idea of painting the helmets dark blue with yellow ram horns.

Rams helmet

— The Greek philosopher, engineer, and mathematician Thales (624-546 BC) is famous for trying to explain the natural world through science instead of mythology and religion. Thales calculated the heights of the pyramids by measuring the length of their shadows at the moment when the length of his own shadow was equal to his height.

But Thales lived in olden times, when science was pretty spotty. He believed, for example, that life exists in magnets, as evidenced by their power to attract and repel.

He also believed that all living things are connected through a “world soul,” which is a lot like George Lucas’ concept of The Force.

— Arizona, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands don’t do Daylight Savings Time.

— Abraham Lincoln is the only President with a U.S. patent registered in his name. In 1849, Lincoln patented a device to lift a boat over shoals or other obstructions in a river without unloading the cargo. It consisted of a series of air bladders affixed to the boat. Inflating the bladders lifts the vessel enough to clear the obstruction. The device was patented, but never manufactured.

— The world’s largest rodent is the capybara, a semi-aquatic herbivore native to South America. Adults can be up to four feet long and two feet tall and can weigh 145 pounds. Capybaras live in groups of 10-20 and are excellent swimmers, having evolved webbed feet. Their closest relatives are guinea pigs (which, as you know, are not pigs. but rodents).

Capybaras

— Brian May, lead guitarist of the rock band Queen, was working on his PhD in physics when the band was formed in 1970. In 2007, he completed his studies at Imperial College in London, and he now holds a doctorate in astrophysics.

— The F. W. Woolworth Company was founded in 1878, and in the first half of the 20th century, grew to become one of the world’s largest retail chains. In 1997, Woolworth’s closed the last of its stores and became the Venator Group, which focused on the sporting goods market. In 2001, Venator morphed into Foot Locker.

— The first product imprinted with a bar code and electronically scanned was a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum. It happened in 1974 in Troy, Ohio. The 10-pack is now on display at the American History Museum in Washington.

— V8 Vegetable Juice, introduced in 1933, got its name from being a mixture of the juices of eight vegetables. Specifically, V8 consists of 87 percent tomato juice concentrate, to which is added a second concentrate that is a mix of juices from carrots, celery, beets, parsley, lettuce, watercress, and spinach. Salt and a spice extract also are added.

Water is removed to make the concentrates, then is added back to achieve the proper consistency. For the record, V8 juice is a nutritional dud, and a single glass contains more salt than an order of McDonald’s French fries.

V8

 

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The Robber Baron

William Andrews Clark, Sr. (1839-1925) isn’t the best-known of the American robber barons, but he’s a classic example of men of his era who became wealthy through ingenuity and ruthlessness.

Clark made a fortune in mining, railroads, banking, newspapers, and other businesses. He is among the 50 richest Americans of all time, and he rose to the top by being shrewd and unscrupulous and never looking back.

Clark was born in Pennsylvania, and as a young man, briefly taught school in Iowa. In 1862, he headed west to seek his fortune mining gold.

Clark-1

William Clark (right) in Bannack, Montana, 1863.

During the Montana Gold Rush, he had modest success panning for gold. But he saw greater potential in supplying goods and services needed by the prospectors and miners.

He also began loaning money to the men of the boom towns. When a miner defaulted on a loan, Clark repossessed the man’s claim. Thus, he found himself in the mining business. Within a decade, he had expanded into smelting and transportation.

In Montana, he bought several played-out silver mines, which the owners were relieved to sell for next to nothing. He then made vast profits by mining them for copper.

At its peak, Clark’s copper mine in Jerome, Arizona, yielded some $400,000 per month. Clarkdale, Arizona, is named for him.

When he needed a watering stop on his rail line from California to Jerome, he built it next to a remote trading post in Nevada. The spot grew to become Las Vegas. Clark County, Nevada, is named for him.

By the 1890s, Clark had developed political ambitions. At a time when senators were appointed by state legislatures, he pressured Montana legislators to send him to the U.S. Senate. In 1899, they did.

But soon, proof went public that Clark had bribed many of the legislators with envelopes of thousand-dollar bills. Clark’s response: “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.”

Clark-2

Senator Clark speaking to a crowd in 1905.

The result of the Clark bribery scandal was the 17th Amendment, adopted in 1913, which provided for the election of senators by popular vote.

Clark has the distinction of being the first person caught using bribery to become a U.S. Senator, but, in fact, the scheme didn’t work. When the truth came out two months into his term, the Senate ejected him.

Clark promptly ran for the Senate again, supposedly without resorting to bribery this time. He secured the appointment and served in the Senate from 1901 until 1907.

In 1911, Clark moved to New York City, and he set out to build the most elaborate, most magnificent mansion money could buy. The structure was indeed elaborate, with 25 guest bedrooms, 35 rooms for servants, and all the outlandish adornments Clark could dream up. He spent several years personally massaging and revising the plans to make the building more opulent.

But when his dream house was finally completed, New York society ridiculed it mercilessly. Critics called it tacky and out of style. It was “an architectural aberration,” “inexcusable,” and “an appropriate residence for the late P. T. Barnum.” The building came to be known as “Clark’s Folly.”

Clark died in his mansion in 1925. His widow promptly sold the building and moved away. It was demolished in 1927 and replaced with a luxury apartment building.

Clark-3

“Clark’s Folly” at Fifth Avenue and East 77th Street.

William Clark was a product of America’s Gilded Age, when enterprising men took advantage of the country’s feverish expansion, wild-west mentality, and rapid industrialization to amass great wealth by any means, ethical or otherwise.

Even then, Clark was a larger-than-life villain, reviled for his shady, underhanded tactics in business and politics.

And it’s only natural to compare him to Donald Trump. The similarities between Clark and Trump in personality and behavior are striking: swaggering, self-absorbed, braggadocious, combative, ostentatious, amoral. No sense of shame or regret. Masters of conspicuous consumption.

I don’t mean to suggest that Trump is a modern-day robber baron. That would be an insult to robber barons. Trump lacks the necessary competence and focus.

In truth, Trump has more in common with P. T. Barnum, who once said, “I am a showman by profession, and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.” That’s a perfect description of Trump, and we all know it.

But back to my comparison of Clark and Trump. The differences between the two men are interesting, too.

— Clark started with nothing and clawed his way to the top; Trump was born rich and has made a career of keeping himself in the public eye.

— Clark, probably for reasons of ego, sincerely wanted to be a U.S. Senator; Trump, I suspect, also ran for office for reasons of ego, but never thought he would be elected President. He probably longs to have his old life back.

— Clark was known for his intellect, attention to detail, and an uncanny sense of when to take a risk; Trump is known for a stunning lack of curiosity, shooting from the hip, and a history of business failures*.

In 1907, William Clark’s final year in the Senate, Mark Twain published an essay entitled “Senator Clark of Montana.” He assessed Clark this way:

He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs. To my mind he is the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed’s time.

I wonder how Twain would assess Donald Trump.

Clark-4

William Clark, the quintessential American robber baron, and his Trumpian hair.

* Trump is now indebted, to a degree we don’t yet know, to a host of international banks and foreign interests, including a number of Russian oligarchs. Putin and the oligarchs are, in case you don’t know, literal gangsters, ruling Russia like a criminal enterprise to line their own pockets. The fact that Trump does business with them and mixes with them socially is a disgrace. There. I feel much better now.

 

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I’m trying to puzzle out the story of my paternal great-great-grandfather based on a smattering of tantalizing facts. He seems to have led an eventful life in interesting times, and I’d like to know more about him.

The ancestor of whom I speak is John Hubbard Sherrod, M.D. He was born in 1830 in Emanuel County, Georgia, midway between Macon and Savannah.

His connection to the present-day Smiths: Dr. Sherrod’s daughter Martha married a Smith from the next county. Their son was my Savannah grandfather.

This is what I’ve learned about Dr. Sherrod so far…

Family notes say he probably was born in Norristown, Georgia, the son of Mrs. Elizabeth Sherrod, who was born in 1792, maiden name unknown. Nothing so far about his father or any siblings.

In 1851, at age 21, Dr. Sherrod married Elizabeth Moxley of nearby Jefferson County. By the time the Civil War started, John and Elizabeth had three daughters, Martha, Elizabeth, and Susan, born in 1854, 1857, and 1861, respectively.

When and where Sherrod earned a medical degree, I don’t know. Nor do I have information about earlier Sherrods and Moxleys. Considering his profession, I assume the families were fairly prosperous, but were they merchants? Farmers? Owners of vast cotton plantations? All unknown.

When the Civil War began, Sherrod served as a first lieutenant and Adjutant (second in command) of Company C, 38th Georgia Infantry, CSA. According to military records, the unit completed its training in April 1862, at which time Lt. Sherrod tendered his resignation. Whether he joined another unit or simply went home, I haven’t discovered yet.

I do know that he survived the war, and in 1867, he was appointed judge of Emanuel County civil court. He and Elizabeth also had two more children, John and Margaret, born in 1869 and 1871.

During the Reconstruction years, the history of the Sherrod family becomes fuzzier. Elizabeth died of unknown causes, and Dr. Sherrod remarried.

His second wife was Sudie Dunn, also from Emanuel County. The Dunns seem to have been as numerous thereabouts as Sherrods and Smiths.

John and Sudie Sherrod had at least three children: Charlie, Joe, and Jessie. Charlie was born in 1886, when Dr. Sherrod was 56.

Dr. Sherrod continued to practice medicine in Emanuel County, and/or made a living in some other way, for two more decades. Finding out how long he served as a judge is on my to-do list.

John Sherrod died in 1903 at age 73. After some Googling, I located his grave at a small Methodist church cemetery a few miles south of the Emanuel County line in Treutlen County. Last month, I drove down to pay my respects.

Neither wife, I discovered, is buried with him. I haven’t located the graves of either Elizabeth or Sudie, nor have I uncovered more information about them.

However, buried next to Dr. Sherrod are his daughter Elizabeth (by his first wife), his son Charlie (by his second wife), and various other Sherrods and Dunns whose connections are unknown. The head of the family surrounded by his flock, as it were.

Dr. Sherrod’s gravestone is six feet tall and fairly elaborate and imposing, as you might expect for a small-town prominent citizen. A separate granite marker with details about his CSA military service sits in front of the headstone.

I was surprised to find a small Confederate flag, a new one, flying next to his grave. It could have been placed by local Confederate history buffs, or it could have been placed by his descendants in the area. Odds are, quite a few of Dr. Sherrod’s relatives, and my own, live in those parts.

The best parts of Dr. Sherrod’s story, I suspect, are still out there — the War, his life afterward, his medical practice, his family. Maybe I’ll get lucky and ferret out more pieces of the puzzle.

Plenty of mysteries, clues, and threads of evidence are there, waiting to consume my spare time.

Sherrod-1

The grave of John Hubbard Sherrod (left) is surrounded by those of assorted Sherrods and other relatives at Midway UMC Cemetery in northern Treutlen County.

Sherrod-2

Dr. Sherrod’s monument prominently features the Masonic letter G with square and compass. The marble CSA marker at the base was placed sometime after his burial. The crisp, new Confederate flag was unexpected.

Sherrod-3

Martha Roseanna Sherrod Smith (1854-1939), my great-grandmother, was the oldest child of John Hubbard Sherrod. In 1875, she married John Wesley Smith (1845-1918), also a Confederate veteran. Their son was my paternal grandfather, Walter Anthony Smith (1881-1950). To the family, Martha was “Granny Smith.”

 

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More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

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— In 2006, a 37-year-old Scottish man suffered an epic hangover that stands as the worst ever recorded. Over a four-day period, the man drank 60 pints of beer. Following a non-stop, four-week headache and steady loss of vision, the man went to an emergency room for help. It took six months of blood-thinning treatment to get rid of the headache and restore the man’s vision.

— In 1953, at age 10, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was a choirboy who sang at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

— The deepest hole ever drilled is the Kola Superdeep Borehole in Russia. The Kola was drilled between 1970 and 1989, and it reaches 40,230 feet (7.62 miles) into the Earth. The Kola’s purpose is to learn stuff about the Earth’s crust.

— It’s a warm spring day, and you plop down in a field of shamrocks (a plant in the genus trifolium, “tri” meaning three) in search of a four-leaf clover. Your odds of success are one in 10,000.

Clover

— During World War II, with great numbers of men in uniform, some American sports teams faced a shortage of players. Thus, in 1943, the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers combined rosters and played as the Steagles. In 1944, Pittsburgh merged temporarily with the Chicago Cardinals and played as the Car-Pitts.

—  The largest bat in the world is the flying fox bat of Australia, with a wingspan of up to six feet. The smallest is the bumblebee bat of Thailand, which is smaller than a fingernail.

— Before John Glenn became an astronaut and a U.S. Senator, he was a Marine fighter pilot. During the Korean War, he flew 90 combat missions and earned the nickname “magnet ass” for the enemy flak he attracted. For a time, Glenn’s wingman in Korea was Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, who interrupted his playing career and returned to active duty in 1952-53.

— Statistics show that one-eighth of American workers, at some point in their lives, work for McDonald’s.

McDonalds

— Roy Sullivan (1912-1983), a ranger at Shenandoah National Park, survived being struck by lightning seven times, apparently an all-time record. The strikes happened between 1942 and 1977, mostly while he was on duty in the park, a storm-prone area in a storm-prone state.

Sullivan always got spooked when the weather was threatening, and often, he would try to leave the area. The lightning seemed to get him anyway. Most of the strikes set his hair on fire, so he began to carry a container of water with him at all times.

— Elvis Presley, Lenny Bruce, and Orville Redenbacher all died in the bathroom.

— In 2012, 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair conducted a poll that asked Americans who they would pick to compose a new national anthem. Bruce Springsteen came in first. Dolly Parton was second.

— In 1984, screenwriter Robert Townes was nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for the film “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.” To protest the radically rewritten version of his script, Townes altered the film’s closing credits, removing his own name as screenwriter and adding “P. H. Vazak,” the name of his Hungarian sheepdog. The Academy never knew the difference.

Tarzan

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The Questions…

1. What is the fastest speed a human has ever traveled, and who set the record?

2. What common flavoring, mostly used in baking, is derived from an orchid?

3. The South American nation of Ecuador and the Central American nation of El Salvador both use the same currency? What is it?

4. The mighty Google empire was born in 1996. The first Google search engine was an array of ten 4-gig hard drives linked together in a cabinet. What did Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin use to construct the cabinet?

5. Greyhounds, the fastest dogs on earth, were brought to the United States in the mid-1800s for what specific reason?

The Answers…

1. The speed record is 24,791 miles per hour. It was set in May 1969 by astronauts Gene Cernan, Tom Stafford, and John Young when Apollo 10 reentered the Earth’s atmosphere after orbiting the Moon.

2. Vanilla. Both vanilla extract and natural vanilla flavoring come from the cured pods (incorrectly called beans) of Vanilla planifolia, an orchid native to Mexico.

3. The U.S. dollar.

4. Lego building blocks.

5. To catch jackrabbits that were eating crops and competing with livestock for food. This soon led to the sport of coursing, where greyhounds chased rabbits in an enclosed field, then later to regulated greyhound racing. Mechanical rabbits replaced the real thing in 1920.

Apollo 10

Greyhounds

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