Archive for December, 2014

You Might Be Amazing

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

Sometimes you don’t realize how amazing you are. Something you do might bring joy and laughter to people who live hundreds of years from now – and you might not know you’ve done anything.

On December 23, 1690, the English astronomer John Flamsteed was busy compiling a star catalogue and numbering the stars in the Taurus constellation, including “34 Tauri.” He numbered it again in 1712. And once more in 1715.

How could the Astronomer Royal keep numbering the same star without realizing?

In fact, these stars were not stars at all. Because of Flamsteed, December 23, 1690 was the first time an astronomer sighted Uranus.

Poor dope. He was onto something and didn’t even know it.

Before you feel too bad for the man, know that Flamsteed has many other accomplishments to draw the admiration of dopes like us: for instance, more than 300 years after he wrote it, we still use his star catalogue, Historia Coelestis Britannica.

More importantly, even if he had never become “The King’s Astronomical Observator” or had an asteroid (#4987!) and a Moon crater named for him, Flamsteed will live on in the hearts of every English-speaking nine-year-old every time that kid hears the word “Uranus.” To be honest, he also lives in the hearts of those of us whose mental age hovers around nine years old.

Ha. Uranus.

Oh, Those British and Their Tea

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

On December 16, 1773, a band of 150 to 200 colonial tax protestors made their way down to Boston Harbor.

When they reached Griffin’s Wharf, the miscreants boarded the Beaver, Dartmouth, and Eleanor, all ships carrying China tea belonging to the East India Company, holder of a monopoly on importing tea to the colonies.

It took about three hours for the protesters – some disguising themselves with blankets and soot on their faces – to ruin some 340 chests of tea by breaking them open and throwing them overboard.

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As punishment for the patriots’ protest, Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts a/k/a the Coercive Acts, including The Boston Port Act that closed the port until the city of Boston repaid the East India Company for the tea (which would be worth around $2 million dollars today) and paid the King for lost taxes.

Needless to say, these things did not happen. The American Revolution, however, did.

When they occupied Boston during the war, the British retaliated for all the patriotic gatherings that had transpired in the Old South Meeting House: they trashed the interior, burnt the pews, and hauled in dirt so they could use the Puritan house of worship for horse-jumping. It took almost eight years to restore.

At the Old South Meeting House gathering of “mobbish” Bostonians the night before, someone shouted “Boston harbor a teapot tonight.” However, the historical event known as “The Boston Tea Party” didn’t get its name for decades afterward. Before then, it had a much less catchy title: “The Destruction of the Tea.”

Maybe the name would have come about earlier if Boston Harbor’s water had been somewhere in the neighborhood of 175°-212º F.

Coffee with Your Newspaper?

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

On December 9, 1793, the first daily newspaper in New York City went to press. The paper was called The American Minerva and its masthead proclaimed it “Patroness of Peace, Commerce and the Liberal Arts.” The editor (and proofreader and bookkeeper) was Noah Webster of dictionary fame, bankrolled by Federalists who supported American neutrality.

Maybe you missed it.

If you did, no worries – evidently there wasn’t much news. 125 years later, Editor & Publisher summed up The American Minerva’s inaugural issue: “Nearly half of the space in this issue is concerned with the speech of President George Washington to Congress on December 3, 1793, and with sessions of the Senate and House of Representatives.”

In Webster’s first issue he wrote an “Address to the Public” that stated: “This Paper will be the Friend of Government.”

Early U.S. citizens did not necessarily take political parties in stride; in fact, Webster and others feared they had the potential to fragment the newly-formed union: “A party spirit is as great a curse to society as can befall it; it makes honest men hate each other, and destroys a good neighborhood… . Examin[e] the detached clubs at the Coffee-House; there you see persons of the same party associated. Go into private families, at dinners and evening visits, there you find none but people of the same party.”

Perhaps Webster had first-hand experience of the kind of factionalism he scorned. Below the masthead, the paper stated it could be found at “No. 37, Wall-Street, nearly opposite the Tontine Coffee-house.”

Charles Dickens’ Comeback Tour

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

On December 2, 1867 Charles Dickens kicked off his first U.S. reading tour.

It was a gutsy move.

Dickens’ earlier trip to the United States was recorded in his book, American Notes for General Circulation, in which he wrote: “I have little reason to believe, from certain warnings I have had since I returned to England, that it will be tenderly or favourably received by the American people…”

Dickens was nothing if not a student of human nature.

“The perusal of [the book] has served chiefly to lower our estimate of the man, and to fill us with contempt for such a compound of egotism, coxcombry, and cockneyism . . . .” – The New Englander (January 1843)

The criticism came in from the South:
“It is impossible that such a writer can be really truthful, however great his determination to be so; truth may be his purpose, but imagination involuntarily touches the point of his pen. … As a literary production the work will not add to his fame… .”

And from the North:
“We regret also to add, that we cannot acquit Mr. Dickens of a willful plagiarism from an American Author… Jeremy Cockloft, Esq.”

In fact, in the interest of fairness, The Southern Literary Messenger (January 1843) offered two critiques, one from each side of the Mason-Dixon line.

But on that chilly Boston night in 1867, the 2,000-seat Tremont Temple was sold out, lines snaked around the block, favors were called in to procure a seat – even standing room, and much begging was begged.

Mr. Dickens had been forgiven.

And in his Postscript to a later edition of American Notes, Dickens states that on April 18, 1868 in New York City he had revealed: “I have for some months past been collecting materials for, and hammering away at, a new book on America…”

The United States, too, had been forgiven.