May 13, 2014


by Linda Pastan

Just as we lose hope
she ambles in,
a late guest
dragging her hem
of wildflowers,
her torn
veil of mist,
of light rain,
her dandelion
in our ears;
and we forgive her,
turning from
chilly winter
we throw off
our faithful
and open
our arms.

"Spring" by Linda Pastan from Heroes in Disguise. © Norton, 1991. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1939, the oldest commercial FM radio station in the United States made its first broadcast from Meriden, Connecticut. FM — or "frequency modulation" — radio was the brainchild of Edwin H. Armstrong, a radio pioneer who had been designing technical improvements to radio broadcasters and receivers for many years. Radio signals were transmitted using "amplitude modulation," and although AM radio signals traveled great distances, they were full of static and the quality was poor. Armstrong tried varying the frequency of the radio waves, rather than their amplitude, and the signal became much clearer. Armstrong received a patent for FM radio in 1933, and in 1934 he broadcast an organ recital from the top of the Empire State Building over both AM and FM frequencies, so people could hear the difference for themselves.

While FM was being perfected, a few experimental radio stations were trying to increase the quality of the AM signal. These were known as "Apex" stations, in part because their transmitting antennas were so tall. One of these Apex stations, W1XPW, was licensed to Franklin Doolittle in 1936. He built his station atop West Peak, in Meriden, Connecticut, and first began his test broadcasts on this date in 1939. By the time the station began full public programming six months later, it was broadcasting on the new FM band, under the call letters WDRC-FM. It's still on the air, serving listeners in the Hartford area, 75 years later.

Samuel Rust patented a new and improved hand printing press on this date in 1821. He called it the Washington press, after America's first president, and his design represented a significant improvement over other hand presses of the era. For one thing, it was lighter. It was made of cast iron like its predecessors, but it was easy to take apart, which meant it could be transported in manageable pieces and reassembled wherever it was needed. It also used a "figure 4" toggle mechanism to hold the platen firmly against the paper with an even pressure. The Washington press proved so popular that many other manufacturers tried to copy it, but without success. A New York-based printing press manufacturer called Smith, Hoe & Company tried for years to persuade Rust to sell them the patent, but he refused, continuing to manufacture the press at his own company, Rust and Turney. In 1835, a Hoe employee pretended to be setting up his own shop, and persuaded Rust to sell him the patent, along with Rust's whole manufacturing operation, which he then turned over to Hoe & Company.

Printing technology evolved by leaps and bounds over the rest of the century, but the Washington press continued to be one of the most popular presses among people with small shops, whose print runs were short. The American Bible Society used a Washington press to produce its Bibles for more than a century. It was the last style of hand press made in the United States. Some fine art printers still use a Washington press today, nearly 200 years after it was first patented.

It's the birthday of novelist Daphne du Maurier (books by this author), born in London (1907). She came from a family of actors and writers, and her first two big successes were books about her family — Gerald (1936), a biography of her father; and The Du Mauriers (1937), the story of her family beginning in the early 18th century. She was inspired to write about her family after she found a stack of old letters in a drawer belonging to her grandfather.

She spent most of her adult life in Cornwall, known for its stormy, unpredictable weather. In a book called Vanishing Cornwall (1967), she wrote: "Here was the freedom I desired, long sought-for, not yet known. Freedom to write, to walk, to wander, freedom to climb hills, to pull a boat, to be alone." Her three most famous novels, Jamaica Inn (1936), Frenchman's Creek (1941), and Rebecca (1938), are all set in Cornwall.

Rebecca is narrated by a young, nameless woman who lives with a rich widower in a haunted house near the cliffs of Cornwall. It begins: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited."

It was on this day in 1940 that Winston Churchill (books by this author) gave his first speech as prime minister to the House of Commons. Three days earlier, he had taken over the job from Neville Chamberlain, who resigned. Chamberlain was a controversial leader — he had signed the Munich Agreement in September of 1938, ceding a region of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, a decision that Churchill highly criticized at the time. After Chamberlain's decision, Churchill had said in a speech to the House of Commons: "You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war." Sure enough, one year later Britain declared war on Germany, and eight months after that, Chamberlain stepped aside.

So although the 65-year-old Churchill had been a politician for more than 30 years and delivered plenty of speeches to the House of Commons, this was his first as prime minister. Churchill's reception from the House of Commons was not particularly enthusiastic — plenty of Conservative members wanted Chamberlain to stay on as prime minister. But the speech Churchill gave is considered one of his greatest. He said: "I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: 'I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.' We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realized; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, 'Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.'"

Churchill was a good writer as well as a good speaker. He wrote more than 40 books — histories, biographies, memoirs, and even a novel. He is the only British prime minister who has received the Nobel Prize in literature.

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