Jan. 18, 2013


by Sylvia Plath

Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new

Whose names you meditate —
April snowdrop, Indian pipe,

Stalk without wrinkle,
Pool in which images
Should be grand and classical

Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star.

"Child" by Silvia Plath, from Collected Poems of Silvia Plath. © Harper Collins. Reprinted with the permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of physician and lexicographer Peter Mark Roget (books by this author), born in London (1779). He retired from medicine when he was 61 and decided to spend his retirement coming up with a new system of classifying words into groups according to their meaning. That project took 12 years to complete, and became the Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (1852).

Today is the birthday of A.A. Milne (books by this author), born in London (1882). He's the author of children's books like When We Were Very Young (1924) and Now We Are Six (1928), but he's best known for the tales he wrote about his son, Christopher Robin, and the boy's collection of stuffed animals. The stories were collected in the books Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928).

It's the birthday of poet, journalist, and diplomat Rubén Darío (books by this author), born in Metapa, Nicaragua (1867). He was incredibly influential to later generations of Spanish-language writers, and he's a household name all over Latin America. His poems are complex and hard to translate into English, because he used the rhythm and structure of French poetry to write poems in Spanish. For this reason he is almost unknown in English-speaking countries.

The X-ray machine was first exhibited on this date in 1896. Heinrich Joseph Hoffmans, a Dutch headmaster and physicist, built the machine out of spare parts from his science classroom: iron rods, a glass plate, a battery, electric wire, and a glass vacuum bulb.

The X-ray images Hoffmans took in 1896 were pretty impressive, but they came at a cost. Although Hoffmans' machine didn't produce enough radiation to be dangerous, later machines were even more powerful. Exposure time was about 90 minutes, and the total dose of radiation was 1,500 times greater than what is used today. Subjects and experimenters suffered from radiation burns, eye problems, hair loss, and cancer. Many people ended up having to amputate the hands that had been X-rayed.

Hoffmans' original machine was abandoned on a shelf in a warehouse in Maastricht until a documentary film crew discovered it in 2010. Dr. Gerrit Kemerink tested Hoffmans' machine on the hand of a cadaver, and it still worked after 115 years.

It's the birthday of Thomas Watson, born in Salem, Massachusetts (1854). He was the assistant to Alexander Graham Bell, and helped him invent the telephone, although he never demanded credit. He was on the receiving end of the first telephone call: Bell said, "Watson, come here. I want to see you."

Bell was a professor at Boston University, and he was looking for help building a new kind of telegraph. He hired the 20-year-old Watson from a machine shop in Boston. The two men set up a secret lab in a Salem cellar to work on their new invention. Watson fine-tuned the device and invented the ringer, the ability to "hang up" the phone when it wasn't being used, and some early switchboards.

He worked with Bell for seven years, and then resigned, taking his royalty money and looking for a new adventure. He opened his own machine shop, building engines for small ships. By 1901, he was running the biggest shipyard in the country. When the company ousted him, he went to work in mining, evaluating ore deposits, and he discovered a new passion: the stage. He joined a Shakespeare company, starting with bit parts and working his way up to bigger roles.

He came full circle in 1915, when he and Bell were invited to place the first transcontinental telephone call from New York to San Francisco.

It's the 200th birthday of a man who changed the face of the American West: Joseph Glidden, born in Charlestown, New Hampshire (1813). He was a farmer, and when he settled in DeKalb, Illinois, he realized that the stone and wood fences of his native Northeast weren't practical out on the Great Plains. There weren't too many trees to provide rails so building materials had to be shipped out West, and that was expensive. People needed a cheaper way to keep livestock out of their crops.

Wire fencing was much cheaper to produce and transport, only plain wire was no good, because cattle would just push up against the fence and flatten it. So Glidden used an old coffee mill to bend little pieces of wire into barbs. Then he stuck the barbs in between two long strands of straight wire that had been twisted together, locking them in place. Glidden wasn't the only person with this idea, but he perfected it, and he also invented a machine to make manufacturing the wire quicker and easier. He patented his barbed wire method in 1874, and spent the next three years in court, battling over whether he had in fact invented it. He won, and formed the Barb Fence Company. To prove that his wire worked, Glidden set up the "Frying Pan Ranch" near Amarillo, Texas. He fenced the ranch and brought in 12,000 cattle, which he branded. When Texans saw that none of Glidden's cattle strayed from the ranch, they were sold on this cheap new invention. Barbed wire made Glidden a millionaire; he was one of the richest men in America by the time he died in 1906.

The coming of barbed-wire fencing completely changed life in the West. Homesteaders began fencing in their property, and that marked the end of free-ranging herds, and the end of massive cattle drives, and the end of the cowboy. The wire sparked range wars between big ranchers who wanted to protect their land and water claims, and the smaller-scale cattlemen and "free rangers," who would cut the fences wherever they found them. Nomadic tribes of Native Americans could no longer travel freely across the Great Plains.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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