History, Bitter & Twisted October 18

Arrivals:

Although it has no such official designation, October 18th should be called “The Day of the Television Ingenue.”  It’s the birthday of Dawn Wells (1938), Pam Dawber (1951) and Erin Moran (1951).  All three of these women played the wholesome girl-next-door on television sitcoms.  Wells was Mary Ann Summers on Gilligan’s Island (1964-67.)  Pam Dawber was Mindy McConnell on Mork and Mindy (1978-82.)  Erin Moran was Joanie Cunningham on Happy Days (1974-84.)  None of them ever really overcame her sweet appearance (Joanie was actually called “Shortcake”) and so once their characters were over, so were they.  Dawn Wells went on to do musical theatre and Mary Ann, impressions.  Dawber played an older Mindy in a short-lived sitcom, My Sister Sam.  And Erin Moran stepped way out of character, and refused to do the Happy Days Reunion Special then looked totally flaky when she tried to explain why she wouldn’t play nice.

1954 – Texas Instruments demonstrated the world’s first transistor radio, the Regency TR-1.  The radio went on sale in November and honestly didn’t do very well, chiefly because it was too expensive and it didn’t work.  It wasn’t until Sony started producing cheap, dependable radios that everybody and his friend bought one.  The transistor radio quite simply revolutionized society.  In the old days, most homes had a stand-up tube radio that plugged into the wall, and the entire family gathered around it to listen.  With the advent of a truly portable radio, young people were no longer tied to their parents’ living rooms or even their parents’ houses.  They could — and did — take their music with them.  But more importantly, young people were no longer tied to their parents’ choices, so they could listen to the new music: blues, jazz and outlaw rock and roll.  These were the first cracks in the traditional family unit and the beginning of the soon-to-be famous generation gap.

1867 – In a formal ceremony in Sitka, Alaska the United States took possession of Alaska from the Russian Empire.  The United States had bought the territory the previous March for $7,200,000.   At the time, this was considered an outrageous price, mainly most people had no idea just how big Alaska actually was, and they were quite content to call the whole thing a gigantic frozen mistake – or Seward’s Folly. Seward was Secretary of State at the time.  Alaska, along with the Louisiana Purchase, proved to be, one of the best real estate deals in history, and Seward has long since been vindicated.  One of the things I’ve always wondered, however, is when Seward was approached by the Russians, how did he know what a good deal he was getting?

Departures:

1871 – Charles Babbage, a super smart mathematician who thought it would make sense for machines to do mathematical calculations.  He figured (no pun intended) that they (the machines) could do lots of calculations at a time — very quickly — and never make mistakes.  This was back in 1822, when the only machine the world had for such things was a pencil.  Babbage had obviously seen the Jacquard loom and the punch cards it used for delicate patterns.  His theory was that those same punch cards could be used for his calculating machine.  Unfortunately, for Babbage, his “difference engine” as he called it, was never finished.  In 1991, a “difference engine” was constructed from his plans which worked perfectly, proving Babbage had invented the computer.

1931 – Thomas Edison, the guy who invented everything.  He held over 1,000 patents in his lifetime.  The fact is, however, some of the things he invented he didn’t actually “invent.”  It was more like he was a perfectionist; he perfected other people’s stuff so it was commercially viable.  Consider, for example, his most famous invention, the light bulb.  In 1880, pretty well everybody knew that if you took a thin piece of metal, put it in a vacuum and heated it with an electric charge, it would glow.  The problem was it usually didn’t glow bright enough or didn’t last long enough to be of any use to anybody.  Edison just kept experimenting with different materials in different combinations until he got one that worked.  He filed a patent and thus ‘invented” the light bulb.  Of course, Edison did actually invent a lot of things and that’s what made him rich and famous.  Legend has it that, when Edison died, his famous friend Henry Ford captured his last breath in a bottle, sealed it and kept it on his desk for years.

Time Flies October 6

Arrivals:

1846 – George Westinghouse, whose story is both complicated and boring but essential to everybody in the 21st century.  In a nutshell: when Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, he was absolutely convinced that it should be powered by direct current electricity (or DC.)  On the other hand, Westinghouse knew that this method wouldn’t work and proposed using alternating current (or AC.)  A huge feud ensued, but — long story short — Westinghouse was right and Edison was wro…wro… not right.  So, thank God for Westinghouse; if it hadn’t been for him, we’d all be watching television in the dark.

1914 – Thor Heyerdahl, an ethnographer who came up with this wild theory that the people of the South Seas (Polynesia) had actually come from Peru.  Most people pooh-poohed the idea but rather than sit in his office and argue about it, Heyerdahl decided to prove it.  He built a raft out of balsa wood, called it the Kon-Tiki, and set sail west from South America.  After about 3 months at sea, he eventually hit an island in the South Seas and thus proved it could be done.  This adventure made Heyerdahl really,  really famous.  However, recent DNA testing has proven that Heyerdahl was really, really wrong.  Oh, well!  At least he gave it a try.

1889 – Joseph Oller opened The Moulin Rouge, a night club in Pigalle, the red-light district of Paris.  It was the saucy Belle of the Belle Epoque.  Legend has it that both the can-can and the striptease were invented at the Moulin Rouge.  This isn’t true.  However, they were both perfected there.  Originally a place for prostitutes to demonstrate their wares, the Moulin Rouge rapidly gained a reputation for its risqué performances.  Actually, this was its undoing.  As more and more of the gentry came to take a walk on the wild side, the shows became tamer and tamer until eventually the management actually hired real dancers.  Today, the Moulin Rouge is a weary tourist-trap with a fantastic show (like the Tropicana in Havana).  But you can still feel what it was like way back when, in the Moulin Rouge posters painted by the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

1927 – The Jazz Singer premiered at the Warner Theatre in New York.  It was the first mainstream movie with sound.  There had been sound in films before this but nothing so realistic or synchronized.  From the moment Al Jolson says “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”, “silent” movies just faded away, and “Talkies” became what people wanted to see.  It was the end of an era and of many actors’ careers, when their voices couldn’t bear the scrutiny of the new technology.  The great Charlie Chaplin laughed at sound and thought it was just a phase.  He believed comedy was essentially pantomime and continued to make “silent” movies until 1940 when the public’s overwhelming expectations forced him to change. 

Departures:

1892 – Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Victorian poet who, in 1854, wrote “The Charge of Light Brigade”, which has become an indictment of senseless war in general and Imperial adventures in particular.

Actually, Tennyson wrote it to glorify courage, honour and fortitude in the midst of brutality and war.  He saw nobility in duty and singular distinction in defying overwhelming odds.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
  All the world wonder’d.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
  Noble six hundred!

It’s amazing what 150 years of high tech slaughter will do to high ideals!

1951 – Will Keith Kellogg, the guy who started the gigantic breakfast extravaganza, Kellogg’s, in Battle Creek Michigan.  With about a million different kinds of cereal Kellogg’s owns breakfast the way Donald Trump owns real estate.  Unlike other early food companies who diversified over the years, Kellogg’s mainly stuck with breakfast.  Recently, however, they’ve had to modify their product to accommodate commuters who can’t handle a bowl full of milk while they’re travelling to work.  They’ve met the challenge with cereals squashed into bars that can be eaten one-handed.  Incredibly, Kellogg’s Toasted Corn Flakes started out as health food – and it actually was.  Today, with all the salt and sugar and hydrogenated-whatever added, you might be further ahead to eat the box.