Saturday

Sep. 7, 2013

I did not just drag and drop.
I did not just haul a burden so heavy
that my hands, arms, and shoulders
gave way
and I had to let it go.

Neither did I just browse.
I did not get on my hands and knees
and join the gentle cows
to slowly sample
whatever the open field had to offer.

Instead, I sat here at my desk
manipulating a mouse
which is not, in fact, a mouse
and I searched
for something on the web
that is not, in fact, a web.

And isn't this how we move forward:

with horsepower for jet engines
and candlepower for light bulbs
we take what we understand from one era
to describe
what we don't
in the next.

"Progress" by Julie Cadwallader-Staub. © Julie Cadwallader-Staub. Reprinted with permission of the author. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1927 that the first successful television image was demonstrated, by the inventor Philo T. Farnsworth. Farnsworth was a Mormon farm boy from Utah, and he grew up in a log cabin. When the family moved to a house in Idaho, Farnsworth was amazed that the house had electricity — he had never seen it before.

Farnsworth was a star science student. At the age of 13, he won a national competition for inventing a thief-proof lock. He was particularly fascinated by something called television. The basic premise of television existed, but the only technology used rotating discs, and it was basically a failure. Farnsworth was convinced that there was a better way. One day, when he was 14, he was plowing the family potato field with a team of horses. He looked back at his parallel lines of soil and was struck with an inspiration: What if he could scan an image in a similar way, with parallel lines of electrons, and reproduce it electronically? He approached his high school chemistry teacher with a set of complex drawings, his blueprint for electronic television. The teacher encouraged Farnsworth to pursue his idea, and filed away his student's drawings.

Farnsworth finished high school in a couple of years, then started college at Brigham Young University. But after his father died, he dropped out to support his family. He couldn't shake his television idea, so a few years later, the 19-year-old inventor approached two California businessmen and convinced them to lend him money to build a model. He moved to California, submitted a patent in January of 1927, and began building that summer.

On this day in 1927, he transmitted the first electronic television image: a straight line. When the line appeared on a separate receiver, his assistants just stared at it, speechless. Finally, Farnsworth announced: "There you are — electronic television!"

He continued to refine his technology. But he was not the only inventor who had been working on electronic television, and the powerful RCA (Radio Corp of America) tried to claim that its own chief engineer, a Russian-born scientist with a Ph.D., had invented it. The patent battle lasted many years, and the key piece of evidence to determine who had invented the television first turned out to be the teenaged Farnsworth's old sketches, which had been kept all that time by his high school chemistry teacher. The court sided with Farnsworth, but even though he had legally won, RCA's publicity totally overshadowed his, and he never made much money on his patents. He was actually ambivalent about television in general, which he thought was generally a waste of time.

Farnsworth died of pneumonia in 1971. His final years had been marred by alcohol abuse and debt, and he died virtually unknown. The average television set sold that same year included about 100 items that had been first patented by Farnsworth.

It's the birthday of singer and songwriter Charles Hardin "Buddy" Holly, born in Lubbock, Texas, in 1936. By the age of 13, Holly was playing what he called "Western Bop" at local clubs. He was 19 when an agent discovered him and signed him to a contract with Decca records. The following year, Holly returned to Lubbock and, with three friends, formed The Crickets, who then released "That'll Be the Day," which sold more than a million copies. Buddy Holly's career was short: He died in February of 1959 in a plane crash in northern Iowa. Soon after, an English band that admired The Crickets decided to call themselves The Beatles.

It's the birthday of Queen Elizabeth the First of England, born in Greenwich, England (1533). She was the daughter of King Henry the Eighth and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. She became queen in 1558, and during her reign, England established its dominance as a sea power with the defeat, in 1588, of the Spanish Armada. Elizabeth also presided over a remarkable flourishing of literature in England. It was during her reign that Shakespeare rose to prominence and established himself as the greatest poet and playwright in the English language. Her reign ended in 1603.

It's the birthday of the poet Isabella Gardner (books by this author), born Newton, MA (1915). Her Collected Poems came out in 1990.

It's the birthday of writer Jennifer Egan (books by this author), born in Chicago (1962) and raised in San Francisco. She's the author of several novels, including Look at Me (2001), The Keep (2006), and most recently, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), which won the Pulitzer Prize.

She moved to San Francisco when she was seven, and in high school she worked at a candy shop on Haight Street named "Kiss My Sweet." After college on the East Coast and postgraduate study at Cambridge, she settled in New York City, where she's been firmly rooted for two decades. Egan once explained that Emily Dickinson poetry is good reading for a person living in New York City. She said: "Certain books are easier to fit into New York life. I find it very hard to read Henry James here. There's something about the multiple clauses, the almost archaeological quality of his observations, that requires really full attention."

She writes using a pen and paper, the old-fashioned way — and all this despite the fact she was born not that long ago, in the 1960s. She said she started writing fiction before she had a computer, and after she got a computer in college, she tried for a while to write fiction on the computer. But she said: "There came a point when I realized my fiction written on a computer was inferior to what I was writing by hand — the choices I made on a screen were always wrong, and I would have to fix them by hand. It wasn't a timesaving measure but a time-wasting measure because it required another step."

In addition to writing fiction, Egan writes some long-format journalism, and since 1996 has written about a dozen articles for The New York Times Magazine, most of which have appeared as the Sunday magazine's cover story.

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

 









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