Although it is often dismissed as a comedy moment, an amusing episode in the history of flight, ballooning had a profound effect on the epistemological model of being in the world and viewing landscape. That balloons are innately comic is undeniable, and their physical attributes were a gift to satirists of the late eighteenth century, who riffed delightedly on the graphic and semantic associations of this new and somewhat unlikely technology. Furthermore, in the first few decades of ballooning, its utility was unclear. Although flight had been achieved, the power to navigate had not, so balloons could not be used as aerial transport. Once airborne, balloonists were dependent on the mysteries of the upper air and its currents to carry them along. In this captive state, aeronauts set about conducting experiments with a full array of scientific instruments, their own senses and perception being among these. Tasting ginger to see if it was as spicy, or undertaking a complex mathematical equation to test mental acuity at altitude, went alongside checking height and air pressure.
In some cases, science funding had got them up there in the first place. The first successful manned balloon flights were conducted in France with state support. The ascents themselves became known as “experiments”, and were concerned with an exploration of the upper air. In Britain, the Royal Society withheld support from such endeavours, so the first British ascents were underwritten, in the words of one early balloonist, by “a tax on the curiosity of the public”. This affected the cultural profile of ballooning in England: it was always more of a spectacle than a science. In 1785 Tiberius Cavallo, a member of the Royal Society and author of the first English history of ballooning, concluded that:
…many, if not the greatest number of the aerial voyages, though said to be purposely made for the improvement of science, were performed by persons absolutely incapable of accomplishing this purpose; and who, in reality, had either pecuniary profit alone in view, or were stimulated to go up with a balloon, for the sake of the prospect, and the vanity of adding their names to the list of aerial adventurers….
The late-18th Century version of Stewart’s impulse: “‘For the Sake of the Prospect’: Experiencing the World from Above in the Late 18th Century.
* Stewart Brand, as part of his 1966 campaign to have NASA release the then-rumored satellite image of the entire Earth as seen from space
As we jettison the sandbags, we might send high-flying birthday greetings to Amelia Earhart; she was born on this ate in 1897. An aviation pioneer and author, she was the fist female to fly solo across the Atlantic (a distinction for which she received the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross).
Earhart set many other records, wrote best-selling books about her flying experiences and was instrumental in the formation of The Ninety-Nines, an organization for female pilots. She joined the faculty of the Purdue University aviation department in 1935 as a visiting faculty member to counsel women on careers and help inspire others with her love for aviation, and was a member of the National Woman’s Party, and an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment.
During an attempt to make a circumnavigational flight of the globe in 1937 in a Purdue-funded Lockheed Model 10 Electra, Earhart disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean. Fascination with her life, career, and disappearance continues to this day.
A list of summer camp names found in movies, television shows and books: “Fictional Camps.”
* Popular slogan on Pinterest and Etsy
As we pack an extra towel, we might send birthday greetings soaked in repellant to Drell Marston Bates; he was born on this date in 1906. One of the world’s leading experts on mosquitoes, his work for the Rockefeller Foundation led to the understanding of the epidemiology of yellow fever.
If you’ve been paying attention to breakfast in the past 15 years or so, you might have noticed something: waffles have gotten thicker and thicker. Stockier waffles with deep syrup pockets, often topped with fruit or Nutella or mountains of whipped cream, are the new norm. They’re what men with beards are handing you out of food truck windows, and what servers are plopping down in front of you at brunch. Today, in most diners and restaurants and those omnipresent hipster comfort-food places, if you order a waffle, it’s gonna be Belgian…
Waffles, like pancakes, have been in America for centuries. Thomas Jefferson allegedly brought the waffle iron to America from France. In the early 20th century, waffles were thin and flat, a wartime breakfast that spared frills. Skinny waffles were successfully mass-marketed to the public when three California brothers debuted frozen Eggo waffles in the ’50s. (Kellogg’s purchased the company in 1968.)
But even during the peak of Eggo popularity, a taste for a thicker waffle was percolating in America. Belgium natives Maurice and Rose Vermersch first served up thick, chewy waffles, known originally as Brussels waffles, at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens. The waffles were such a hit at the fair that the Vermerschs simplified the name, deciding that the majority of Americans wouldn’t know where Brussels was. And from there, a craze was born…
The whole enchilada at: “The Tyranny of Belgian Waffles.”
* Raymond Chandler, Trouble Is My Business
As we reach for the syrup, we might spare a thought for Curnonsky (Maurice Edmond Sailland); he died on this date in 1956. (The name “Curnonsky” comes from the Latin cur + non “why not?” plus the Russian suffix -sky, as all things Russian were in vogue in 1895, when he coined it.)
An author who got his start as a ghostwriter for ‘Willy‘, Colette‘s husband, Curnonsky became France’s “Prince of Gastronomy,” the country’s most celebrated food and wine writer in the 20th century. He wrote or ghost-wrote over 65 books and enormous numbers of newspaper columns. He is often considered the inventor of gastronomic motor-tourism as popularized by Michelin– he named the company’s mascot Bibendum and wrote Michelin’s weekly column “Les Lundis de Michelin” in Le Journal— though he himself could not drive. His “title,” “Prince-elu de la Gastronomie,” was awarded in a 1927 Paris-Soir poll of 3,000 French chefs, and has never been given since. Curnonsky died by falling out of the window of his apartment. He was dieting at the time, and it is speculated that he had fainted.
The results of a “play census” of Cleveland children taken on June 23, 1913, disturbed Harvard education professor George E. Johnson. “Of the 7358 children reported to have been playing,” Johnson wrote in a 1915 report on the state of children’s play in the city:
… 3171 were reported to have been playing by doing some of the following things: fighting, teasing, pitching pennies, shooting craps, stealing apples, ‘roughing a peddler,’ chasing chickens, tying cans to a dog, etc., but most of them were reported to have been ‘just fooling’ — not playing anything in particular.
We now fret over children’s overscheduled, oversupervised lives, but Johnson was convinced that what the children of Cleveland needed was more adult influence, not less. His fascinating report paints what he meant to be a dark picture of a city full of kids running wild: playing in the street, going to the movies when they pleased, and putting together loose groups for games of “scrub baseball”…
As we conclude that surely there’s a middle path (and that we’ll get around to trying to find it after we finish playing), we might recall that it was on this date in 1927, in Yankee Stadium that boxers Jack Dempsey and Jack Sharkey squared off…
Dempsey’s last bout had been been a devastating decision loss to Gene Tunney in 1926 – his first competitive bout in three years and the last in which he wore the heavyweight championship belt. Feeling robbed after “the long count” and hungry to regain his championship status, Dempsey went into training to face future champion Jack Sharkey. The winner would face Tunney.
The bout did not go well for Dempsey, who by ‘27 was a shadow of his former glory. The Manassa Mauler was beaten soundly both from the outside (row 1, gif 1) and inside (row 1, gif 2 and row 2, gif 1). By the fifth round, Dempsey was sporting two cuts – one over his right eye, one under his left – and a bloody nose and mouth. Always a warrior, Dempsey refused to deviate from his game plan, locking himself into the clinch or half-clinch and delivering blows to Sharkey’s abdomen all the while Sharkey was cracking his head open.
In the sixth round, some of these blows started to go one or two inches south of the belt line – a foul that, in Dempsey’s heyday, was to be ignored (similarly, clinching is actually listed as a foul under the Marquess of Queensberry rules, but it has evolved as part of modern boxing, and fouls are very seldom called for holding). The referee warned Dempsey once in that round and again in the seventh, but when Dempsey landed another, Sharkey, who had had enough, deviated from the cardinal rule (“protect yourself at all times”) and turned his head to complain to the referee. Seeing his opponent open, Dempsey landed a short left hook to Sharkey’s jaw. Sharkey crumpled, blindsided by the unexpected punch and still suffering from Dempsey’s low blow.
The referee, who hadn’t recognized Dempsey’s body shot as low, began the count. Sharkey, clutching at his crotch, couldn’t rise in time. Dempsey had won the bout and a rematch with Tunney. Controversy abounded.
For his part, Dempsey was dismissive. “It’s all in the game,” he would later say. “What was I supposed to do, write him a letter?”
The story has been repeated thousands of times, with minor variations, in magazines, books, blogs and documentaries. In some versions, the heartbroken man shoots himself; in others, he leaps to his death from a hotel window. There are occasional references to a failed romance and to the destruction of all traces of identification before the fatal act. There’s always a one-line suicide note: “I walk a lonely street.”
But there’s never a name. For 60 years, the true identity of the man whose death inspired “Heartbreak Hotel” has remained a mystery. Florida songwriters Tommy Durden and Mae Boren Axton always claimed the creative spark for Elvis Presley‘s first-ever Number One hit was a 1955 newspaper story about an anonymous man’s suicide and his cryptic note about that “lonely street.” (The paper cited is usually The Miami Herald.) And yet, no one has ever turned up the article, or even provided much clarifying detail.
This is surprising, considering that “Heartbreak Hotel” had a colossal impact – both on Elvis’ career and on rock & roll history. It was Elvis’ first nationwide hit after a string of regional successes, and it changed the lives of countless future stars – John Lennon, George Harrison, Keith Richards and Robert Plant have all proclaimed its transformative effect. Elton John, recalling the day he first heard the song, said, “That weekend, my mum came home with ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and that changed my life. … Elvis Presley changed everyone’s life. I mean, there would be no Beatles, there would be no Hendrix. There would be no Dylan.” Paul McCartney once declared it nothing less than the most important artistic creation of the modern era…
Finally, the full story at: “Solving the Mystery of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’.”
* From “Heartbreak Hotel,” written by Tommy Durden and Mae Boren Axton.
As we walk down a lonely street, we might recall that it was on this this date in 1961 that Bill Harry’s pioneering English music paper, Mersey Beat, announced that the Beat Brothers had signed a recording contract. The Beat Brothers? They had performed with another British musician, Tony Sheridan, in Hamburg for several months earlier that year; but while the partnership worked, Sheridan chose to remain in Germany when the quartet returned to Liverpool. We know the group better by the name they soon after adopted: The Beatles. Two years later, on this very day, they would go to No. 1 on the U.K. album chart for the first time.
On August 27, 1883, the Earth let out a noise louder than any it has made since.
It was 10:02 a.m. local time when the sound emerged from the island of Krakatoa, which sits between Java and Sumatra in Indonesia. It was heard 1,300 miles away in the Andaman and Nicobar islands (“extraordinary sounds were heard, as of guns firing”); 2,000 miles away in New Guinea and Western Australia (“a series of loud reports, resembling those of artillery in a north-westerly direction”); and even 3,000 miles away in the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues, near Mauritius (“coming from the eastward, like the distant roar of heavy guns.”). In all, it was heard by people in over 50 different geographical locations, together spanning an area covering a thirteenth of the globe.
Think, for a moment, just how crazy this is. If you’re in Boston and someone tells you that they heard a sound coming from New York City, you’re probably going to give them a funny look. But Boston is a mere 200 miles from New York. What we’re talking about here is like being in Boston and clearly hearing a noise coming from Dublin, Ireland. Traveling at the speed of sound (766 miles or 1,233 kilometers per hour), it takes a noise about four hours to cover that distance. This is the most distant sound that has ever been heard in recorded history…
(And for a consideration of “the noise beneath the noise,” check out “The Noise at the Bottom of the Universe.”)
* Oliver Goldsmith, Goldsmith’s Miscellaneous Works (1841), 90
As we Bring the Noise, we might that it was on this date in 2013 that the eruption of Ecuador’s Tungurahua volcano sent a massive plume of ash, stones, and vapor soaring more than eight miles into the sky above the Andes.
On the occasion of the opening of the first of this summer’s political pageants, a look back at conventions as covered by H. L. Mencken…
On June 20, 1948, a round and no doubt rumpled correspondent for the Baltimore Sun looked into the galleries of a Philadelphia convention hall and spotted the future.
His name was Henry Louis Mencken, and he didn’t like what he saw. It was the day before the Republican National Convention, and in a rehearsal of the proceedings technicians had turned on huge lights to accommodate television, a new presence at political conventions. In the dramatically increased glare, Mencken could see what these quadrennial political gatherings would become, and what they’ll be this summer, as another season of political conventions arrives in America: a pageant of images, in which what candidates say or do is perhaps less memorable than how they look.
“It passed off well enough, all things considered, and no one was actually fried to death,” Mencken said of the high-wattage illumination introduced that year in Philadelphia. “But I doubt if any politician, however leathery his hide, survives that unprecedented glare of light without a considerable singeing”…
More at “H.L. Mencken at the Convention.”
* Alistair Cooke, on his friend and colleague, H. L. Mencken
As we vote our consciences, we might we might send acerbic birthday greetings to one of Mencken’s heirs, journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson; he was born in Louisville on this date in 1929. The author of Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 is widely credited as the creator of the Gonzo school of journalism (an extreme form of New Journalism in which the reporter isn’t simply present, he/she is central), and widely remembered for his love of inebriates and guns, and for his hate of authoritarianism in general and Richard Nixon in particular.
…the massive, frustrated energies of a mainly young, disillusioned electorate that has long since abandoned the idea that we all have a duty to vote. This is like being told you have a duty to buy a new car, but you have to choose immediately between a Ford and a Chevy.
– Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973)