Oct. 22, 2013

The Lost Garden

by Dana Gioia

If ever we see those gardens again,
The summer will be gone—at least our summer.
Some other mockingbird will concertize
Among the mulberries, and other vines
Will climb the high brick wall to disappear.

How many footpaths crossed the old estate—
The gracious acreage of a grander age—
So many trees to kiss or argue under,
And greenery enough for any mood.
What pleasure to be sad in such surroundings.

At least in retrospect. For even sorrow
Seems bearable when studied at a distance,
And if we speak of private suffering,
The pain becomes part of a well-turned tale
Describing someone else who shares our name.

Still, thinking of you, I sometimes play a game.
What if we had walked a different path one day,
Would some small incident have nudged us elsewhere
The way a pebble tossed into a brook
Might change the course a hundred miles downstream?

The trick is making memory a blessing,
To learn by loss the cool subtraction of desire,
Of wanting nothing more than what has been,
To know the past forever lost, yet seeing
Behind the wall a garden still in blossom.

"The Lost Garden" by Dana Gioia, from Interrogations at Noon. © Graywolf Press, 2001. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1938, Chester Carlson produced the first electrophotographic image, paving the way for the invention of the Xerox machine. He was working in the patent department of a battery manufacturer and going to law school at night. One of the most tedious parts of his day job was making copies of patent documents. The most efficient system available at the time was to retype the documents using carbon paper, but every time they were retyped, someone would have to proofread them, and the delay was causing a bottleneck in the department.

Carlson wasn't just a patent clerk and law student; he was an engineer and inventor who had been laid off from Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1933. Like most people, he took any job he could get during the Great Depression — and was grateful to get it. But the inefficiency of the copying process prompted him to find a better way. Carlson worked on his project in his kitchen, then in a makeshift lab behind his mother-in-law's beauty parlor, and finally in a rented room above a bar in Astoria, Queens. He hired Otto Kornei, an unemployed physicist, as his assistant. After four years, he finally produced the first electrophotographic image.

His invention made use of two natural phenomena: opposite electric charges attract each other; and exposing some materials to light makes them better conductors of electricity. He later wrote: "We pulled down the shade to make the room as dark as possible, then [Kornei] rubbed the sulfur surface vigorously with a handkerchief to apply an electrostatic charge, laid the slide on the surface and placed the combination under a bright incandescent lamp for a few seconds. The slide was then removed and lycopodium powder was sprinkled on the sulfur surface. By gently blowing on the surface, all the loose powder was removed and there was left on the surface a near-perfect duplicate in powder of the notation which had been printed on the glass slide." That notation was "10-22-38 ASTORIA," and appears just as it was originally written in India ink by Otto Kornei. That very first photocopy now lives in the Smithsonian Institution.

Carlson learned a thing or two about patents at his day job, so he patented every aspect of his invention that he could think of. But he was trying to raise seed money during World War II, and corporation after corporation turned him down. In 1944, he finally worked out a deal with the Battelle Memorial Institute, who in turn partnered with a photographic supply company named Haloid, and development of the photocopier began in earnest. On October 22, 1948 — 10 years to the day after his first successful trial — there was a public demonstration of the electrophotographic process.

Early copiers might have been better than copying everything out longhand, but they were slow, complicated, and extremely limited by today's standards. You had to follow 14 steps, it took nearly a minute to make a single copy, and you could only make about a dozen copies from one exposure. Even the name — electrophotography — was unwieldy. So Haloid approached a professor at Ohio State University and asked him to come up with a better name. He took the Greek root words for "dry" and "writing" and came up with xerography, and in 1958, Haloid officially became Haloid Xerox. They sold their first automatic copier the following year, and dropped the "Haloid" from their name — becoming simply "Xerox" — in 1961.

It's the 51st anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962, President Kennedy had received photographs from U-2 spy planes over Cuba that showed the Soviet Union installing nuclear missiles and launch sites. He went on the air on October 22 and told the nation that Cuba would be placed under what he called a naval "quarantine" until the Soviets removed them. He also said that he would regard a Soviet nuclear attack on any Western nation as an attack on the U.S., and would retaliate. Two hours earlier, Secretary of State Dean Rusk gave the text of Kennedy's speech to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, and he said Dobrynin, who had never been told of the missile deployment, "aged 10 years right in front of my eyes." One-eighth of the nation's B-52s went in the air that night, ready to strike, and for a few days the world was on the brink of nuclear war. Then, on October 28, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev withdrew the missiles.

It was on this day in 1883 that the Metropolitan Opera House opened with a performance of Faust. The opera was based on Goethe's German poem, and it was composed in French, but it was sung in Italian. The New Yorkers who designed the opera house wanted it to have an Italian feel, so they had it built with a palazzo on Broadway, and Italian was the language of choice.

There was already an opera house in New York, the Academy of Music, near Union Square. It was one of the main gathering places of the city's high society, who watched each other from the opera boxes as eagerly as they watched the opera itself. But there were only 18 opera boxes at the Academy of Music, and in the 1870s, a whole generation of industrial millionaires were emerging in New York. These nouveau riche were not so welcome at the Academy of Music, or in any of the social circles of old money. But they wanted a place to display themselves, so they decided to build their own opera house. Seventy people got together and pooled $1.7 million to buy land and build a concert hall. They put in three levels with 36 box seats in each, more than enough for everyone.

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