Today marks the 47th anniversary of American astronaut Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind, that moment when human beings first stepped onto the surface of the moon. Except that according to an article in the October 2, 1909, issue of Scientific American, written by John Elfreth Watkins, Armstrong may not have actually been the first.
Watkins relays an old Chinese legend that claims an official by the name of Wan Hu (or sometimes Wang Tu or Wan Hoo, depending on the source) launched a lunar mission around 2000 BC. According to this legend, Wan Hu strapped forty-seven small rockets to a large wicker chair, sat down, and told his assistants to light him up. Neither the man nor his rocket chair were ever seen again, perhaps an indication of success. And so after Soviet probe Zond 3 did a flyby of the moon in 1965, a crater on the dark side of the moon was deservedly named for famed Chinese astronaut.
Of course some people believe that Wan Hu faked the entire stunt with the assistance of some fancy camera work under the direction of Stanley Kubrick, a scheme long covered over by a joint effort from the Chinese government and the cryogenically frozen head of Walt Disney. The evidence is far too involved to go into detail here, but it stems from the numerous drawings of the events that, to the well trained eye, reveal peculiar shadow angles, an oddly marked rock, and an unfurling flag, among other truly alarming details. Don’t even get me started on the secret clues buried within The Shining.
Now, I’m not generally a big believer in conspiracy theories, but this one, to me, seems entirely plausible. Because it turns out that prior to the 9th century, the Chinese didn’t yet have gunpowder, and they most certainly weren’t launching rockets in 2000 BC, strapped to a chair or not.
About thirty-five years after the publication of the Scientific American article, American author Herbert S. Zim offered a thoughtful update to the tale in his book Rockets and Jets. He logically placed the story of Wan Hu in the early 16th century. And it was some time after that when the Chinese began to adopt the tale, eventually erecting a statue of this hero of space travel at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center.
But if that’s not enough to convince you that the whole thing might just be made up, MythBusters Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage attempted to recreate Wan Hu’s famous flight using technology that would have been available in 16th century China. They weren’t successful. And when they cheated and used more modern technology in an attempt to duplicate the results, their trusty dummy Buster wound up blown to bits and, most notably, not on the moon.
So, I think it’s safe to assume the conspiracy theorists have it right this time. Wan Hu could not have been the first man to step on the moon. The honor still belongs to Neil Armstrong, and thankfully, there’s no reasonable debate about that.
In February of 1512, a Spanish Conquistador named Juan Ponce de León received a royal commission to pillage, plunder, and claim the rumored islands northwest of Hispaniola. King Ferdinand specifically wanted this honor to go to Ponce de León, a Spanish son of a good Spanish family, because he did not want to cede any more power to Diego Columbus, the uppity son of that silly Italian fellow who’d done all the exploring for them in the first place.
Ponce de León had travelled to the New World initially on the second voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1493. Though it’s not clear what he did in the meantime, by 1504 he became the right hand man of the appointed governor of Hispaniola, Nicolás de Ovando, by effectively squashing a rebellion by the native Taínos.
Thus began Ponce de León’s widely successful career of murder and exploration. He soon set off for the island eventually known as Puerto Rico in search of riches rumored by the Taínos, in exchange for which he enslaved many of them and gave the rest smallpox because he never washed his hands. He did find a great deal of gold, but by the time he returned to Hispaniola, Ovando had been usurped by the pesky Diego Columbus and a power struggle soon raged.
So when King Ferdinand suggested Ponce de León go exploring, he was probably pretty happy to oblige. He was the kind of guy who would jump at the chance to gather slaves, glory, and eternal youth, even if it meant wandering into a dark alley at 2 o’clock in the morning.
Because, yes, I think it’s safe to assume that if Ponce de León were alive today, he would be pretty obsessed with the game Pokémon Go. Now I don’t know where else in the world this game may be at this point, but here in the US, it made its debut earlier this month, and I’m telling you, wash your hands, because the pandemic is coming. If you are in the US and you don’t know the game yet, it’s what those people wandering aimless through your neighborhood while staring intently at their phones are doing.
I was just a few years too old to get caught up in the Pokémon craze the first time around and I’m going to sit it out this time around, too, so if you one of those obsessed (and I’m betting you’re not because you wouldn’t be wasting time/cell phone battery on reading this post), then I apologize for the following explanation.
As far as I can figure, Pokémon is a game in which you capture little powerful creatures and make them fight each other for your entertainment. In the late nineties, you did this by buying or trading Pokémon cards that you would play against your friends who would try to counter your attack with whatever cards they bought or traded for.
Now it’s gone mobile and realistic-ish, because through the magic of Internet mapping, Pokémon (the critters) can show up anywhere at any time and in order to capture them, all you have to do is throw Pokéballs (whatever those are) at them or hatch them from an egg by walking around like a crazy person.
And if that’s not exciting enough for you, yes, you can make them fight, and you can take over “gyms” from other Poképlayers (a word I think I just made up, but probably not). The “gyms” are located in real-life public spaces, businesses, and even private properties that were once designated as something else, without any permission whatsoever given by the property-owners, or any recourse for those who don’t want their property to be a part of the game.
Did I get this about right?
And people have become absolutely obsessed with this game. I know because when I first heard about it maybe three or four days ago, it took over my Facebook feed, where so many of my otherwise pretty rational friends began posting screenshots of all the funny little places they’d found Pokémon, like in the bathroom stall at work. I would say an equal number of otherwise rational friends began railing against the posts and the crazy people stumbling about staring at their phones in places they ought not to have been, like the bathroom stalls of someone else’s workplace. Then I turned on the radio and the dj was droning on and on about Pokémon Go and I realized that even though I didn’t understand a single word, she assumed all her listeners knew exactly what she was talking about. And they probably did.
So why are people so obsessed with the game? All I can think is that they are reliving their childhoods, searching for a little bit of that wonder they felt in their youth, and hoping that by scouring a dark alleyway at 2 o’clock in the morning, and taking over new lands (or “gyms”), perhaps they can find it.
The great rumor mill of history suggests that that’s what Ponce de León was after as well when he stumbled into Florida. In addition to gold and slaves and glory, he was searching for the famed fountain of youth. Of course there are no contemporary sources that suggest this was the case, and even if he was seeking it, he never found it. In 1521, the conquistador was shot by poison tipped arrows fired by native inhabitants of his new land. Sapped of the strength even to throw a Pokéball, he died shortly after. And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
But despite the possible private property issues and potentials for abuse, which will need to be worked out, the game seems innocent enough. I wish all the Pokéballers (another word I think I just made up, but probably not) good luck on their quests for youth. But seriously, go wash your hands.
In 1553, Spanish conquistador Pedro Cieza de León included in the first part of his Crónicas del Perú, a description of what he assumed were trail markers, basically a series of shallow trenches stretching across the plateaus of the Nazca Desert. Then in 1940, historian Paul Kosok flew over the trenches and saw in their patterns the very clear shape of a bird.
Eventually the Nazca lines were discovered to include several hundred animal and human figures of varying sizes covering nearly 200 square miles. Experts determined the lines were pretty simple to make with only very limited ancient trenching tools similar to what non-experts might call “sticks.” Many of these very technical tools have been found near the trenches and have helped scientists to date the designs to between 500 BC and 500 AD.
But no one has been able to come up with a completely satisfactory explanation of why the designs were put there in the first place. It’s been suggested by archaeologists that the trenches may be related to irrigation. Some astronomers think the designs may point out important heavenly bodies or mirror the constellations. Many anthropologists think the designs might be a type of offering to the gods who had the power to either bless or curse crops in the arid land. And one art historian even suggested the lines might be giant ancient textile patterns.
But the most delightful explanation comes from the field of Ancient Astronaut Theory, or as it is more commonly known among professional circles, Crazy Town. What Crazy Town suggests is that the lines and shapes were constructed to commemorate a visit to Earth from aliens, and that they were perhaps even created by the alien visitors themselves.
Because research is tedious and slow and, you know, aliens.
Ancient Astronaut Theorists have enjoyed a certain degree of seeming legitimacy for the last few years because of the History Channel show, Ancient Aliens, which premiered in 2009. Now, I know what you’re thinking. A channel that purports to focus on history while mostly providing reality shows about pawn brokers and monster hunters, parallels pretty nicely a blog that claims to be about history, but winds up being more about my dog.
I like the History Channel, at least some of it. When it started out, its list of programs mostly included thoughtful and well-produced documentaries about World War II. Even today you can occasionally find thoughtful and well-produced documentaries featuring the commentary of actual experts in their respective, non-crazy fields of study. Which is why the History Channel, much like this blog, can still lull you into thinking that it’s a reliable source of solid information.
Because even Ancient Aliens tends to start out sounding pretty legit. The camera swoops in on an ancient landscape. A voice with an unmistakable authoritative ring begins to ask serious, thought-provoking questions. The author of Great Adventures in Crazy Town, sounding more or less like an academic, sums up the conventional archaeological explanation of what you’re seeing. Then, just when they have you thinking that you’re being spoon-fed all the important details that will make you sound brilliant at your next cocktail party: BOOM! Aliens.
It’s a little disconcerting when a trusted authoritative source takes a detour through Crazy Town. And I imagine that’s how my oldest son felt when he came to me a couple weeks ago with a problem. We were about to leave on a long road trip through the northeast, and I was busy working my way through the packing process so, really, I was in Crazy Town already. He reminded me, a trusted reliable source of all things crafty and motherly, that he needed a space-themed costume for the camp he was scheduled to go to the day after we were due back from vacation.
And motherly craft magic is tedious and slow, and you know, aliens.
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On the wall above the desk where my computer sits is a beautiful painting of an old typewriter. It hangs there I suppose because it makes a sort of sense in this space where fingers fly across the more modern QWERTY keyboard composing e-mails and blog posts and the next great American novel. But when I reflect on the story of how the typewriter came to be, I think there’s more to it than that.
In July of 1867 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, mechanic Carlos Glidden passed on a Scientific American article to his friend, printer Christopher Latham Sholes. The article detailed a recently invented writing machine called the pterotype. Sholes and a partner had recently been somewhat successful designing a number printing machine and when he looked at the device his friend showed him, Sholes thought he might just be able to do better.
He quickly set to work and soon used a converted telegraph key to type the letter “W.” Excited about their initial success Sholes and Glidden had a model with a full alphabet and some punctuation by September of 1867. The only thing left to do was to get the machine to market, which was a long and frustrating experience during which Sholes remarked on several occasions that he wouldn’t recommend the no-good invention to anyone anyway.
Finally in 1873, after receiving an intriguing typewritten query letter, sewing machine and firearms manufacturer E. Remington and Sons asked for a demonstration at their New York headquarters. Seeing what the machine could do, they wasted no time in manufacturing a thousand of them, and optioned 24 thousand more.
Initially the Remington typewriter wasn’t a commercial success. Despite the claim that a skilled person could produce 57 words per minute, and a stamp of semi-approval from Mark Twain who had a love/hate relationship with one of the earliest models, the machine cost a whopping $125. The trouble was that at that price, the typewriter cost significantly more than a pen, which came with significantly fewer glitches.
It would take a number of revisions to the initial design, a more reasonable price tag, and the help of a good marketing plan to lead to the typewriter’s eventual success. Sholes, who gained little fortune from his invention, plugged away at improvements for the rest of his life, never really satisfied that he’d gotten it exactly right.
Near the end of his life, however, he had this to say: “Whatever I may have felt in the early days of the value of the typewriter…I am glad I had something to do with it. I built it wiser than I knew, and the world has the benefit of it.”
So a beautiful painting of an old typewriter hangs above my computer because when I sit down at the keyboard, I want to reflect that when my project is at long last complete, and has come out perhaps even wiser than I knew, I will be glad to have been a part of it. And I want to be reminded that in addition to inspiration, great ideas take time and hard work, and often a lot of revision. An intriguing query letter and killer marketing plan won’t hurt either.
Note: I originally wrote this article over a year ago for Saturday Writers of St. Charles County, Missouri, but thought on this 148th anniversary of the original patent for the Sholes typewriter, I would share it in this space. As a writer, I am grateful for the invention of the typewriter. I am even more grateful that I don’t have to use one.
I am not a brilliant cook. I’m not exactly terrible either, unless you ask my youngest son, but then he refuses to eat anything that doesn’t come in a pizza box so I’m not sure you can trust his judgment on the matter. I have gotten braver with ingredients than I once was and may even occasionally go off recipe, which even more occasionally works out fairly well. And I have a few dishes that are actually quite good.
But meal planning for a picky household and trying to get everyone fed something that’s not terrible for them before they rush off to the next thing is tough. This is especially true in the summertime when I spend long days playing with my kids and then have to throw dinner together at the last minute.
So like so many busy families, we eat out, or at least eat take-out, far more than we should. It’s a problem that’s been around for millennia.
We know because the Roman city of Pompeii, so perfectly caught in the act of everyday life by the volcanic ash spewing from Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, had take-out restaurants. Or at least archaeologists can make a reasonable guess that that’s what they were. These cookshops or thermopolium (which roughly translates as “McDonald’s”) are equipped with stone counters with large recessed bowls. Some of the more well-preserved ones include depictions of the menu items offered.
They offered simple, easy to prepare fare, such as lentils, cheese, and porridges. Customers slathered their food with garum, a fermented fish sauce as ubiquitous as ketchup is today (though significantly more disgusting on French fries).
The food must have been fairly cheap, as the cookshops almost exclusively served the less well-to-do, an assumption made by archaeologists both because of the disdain with which Ancient writers refer to the thermopolium, and from the inclusion of kitchen facilities in the homes of the wealthy, a luxury lacking in most of the more modest dwellings.
I suppose if you don’t have a kitchen, it makes sense to eat out all the time. In retrospect, maybe this is the feature (or lack of feature) I should have looked for in a house. Instead I have a lovely kitchen. It’s roomy enough to work in and visit with family, friends, and neighbors while we prepare food to share. I love that.
It’s the daily grind, when it’s just me, and whining, hungry kids that aren’t going to eat whatever I’m cooking anyway, and a mountain of dishes, that I’m not too fond of. That’s when I start to think that the citizens of Ancient Rome may have had the right idea. Well, except about the fermented fish sauce.
In 1958, seventeen-year-old American high school student Robert G. Heft needed to find a good project for his history class. Realizing that his nation might be on the cusp of something important, Heft decided what he would do was address the obvious problem presented by admitting two more states to the then 48-state United States.
Young Heft spent twelve hours (probably the night before the project was due), using a yard stick and his mother’s sewing machine to carefully produce a new American flag design featuring 100 hand-cut stars, fifty on each side of the blue section.
Bleary-eyed, he presented his project to his teacher Mr. Pratt, who promptly awarded him a B-. But young Heft had worked really hard and he wasn’t satisfied with the grade so he complained to his teacher, who sighed and finally agreed that he would give the project an A as soon as Congress accepted Heft’s design as the new American flag.
What was most likely meant as a dismissal, Heft took as a challenge. So in January of 1959, when Alaska became the first new state admitted to the Union since Arizona in 1912, he started to get excited. When later that same year, on August 21, Hawaii became number fifty, Heft held his breath in anticipation. Because he, along with somewhere around 1500 of his fellow citizens (all desperate to improve their history grades), had submitted unsolicited new designs for the flag. President Eisenhower himself called Heft to inform him that his design had been chosen.
It’s a great story, because it’s that of a relatively powerless young person, working hard, taking a chance, and achieving success against the odds. In a way it feels a little like the story of the United States itself.
We Americans love our flag. Mostly, of course, we love what it represents, freedom and sacrifice and that fierce American pride instilled in us at birth. Many of us fly flags at home and we put the stars and stripes on ties and tee shirts and coffee mugs. We hoist our flag on Memorial Day at the end of May in honor of the men and women who have sacrificed to protect all that it represents. We display it again on July 4th, in honor of the original declaration of American attitude.
And thanks to a movement derived from the lesson plans of a creative Wisconsin teacher in 1885, whose school celebrated the flag’s birthday on June 14 (the 108th anniversary of the adoption of the stars and stripes), we now also fly it for Flag Day.
What this means is that in addition to showing our patriotism, we also get to be incredibly lazy. Because from the end of May to the beginning of July, it is perfectly appropriate to feature your stars-and-stripes front door decoration, candy dishes, and knick-knacks. And really, who’s going to say anything if you start at the beginning of May when you finally put the Easter bunnies away, and stretch it until the scarecrows come out in, say, September.
No one. Because you are patriotic. And if they do say anything, then clearly, they are not. If you want to be really lazy patriotic you might even stretch your flag-themed paraphernalia through Veteran’s Day in November, by which time, it is nearly acceptable to swap it for Christmas decorations. I recommend snowmen because they’ll last you well into Lent.
That, my friends, is how you become the envy of all your neighbors, because you always have such beautiful seasonal decorations in your home, while they can’t seem to find the time for such nonsense. Maybe they just aren’t as thoroughly patriotic as you.
And the best part about all this wonderfully American stuff is that the number of stars doesn’t particularly matter. So if in a few years, there’s a 51st state, your oh-so-starred-and-striped paper-weight should weather the storm just fine.
Of course the flag itself will have to change in that case, but it’s okay because Robert Heft has us covered. He did retrospectively get his A on his project and went on to become a teacher and even served as mayor of his little Ohio town. When he passed away in 2009, Heft also held copyrights to flag designs with fifty-one through sixty stars. Just in case.
On September 10, 1945, a farmer by the name of Lloyd Olsen was expecting his mother-in-law for a visit and so he set about doing the unsavory work of killing a chicken for dinner. He scooped up a young rooster scratching and pecking its way through the barnyard and dealt the fatal blow.
Except that it wasn’t. The rooster staggered like any freshly killed chicken might, but unlike most, this one never stopped. Astonished, Lloyd decided not to serve the determined bird for dinner that night and the next morning found it sleeping soundly with its phantom head tucked under its wing.
The farmer knew at that point he had a genuine oddity on his hands. With an eyedropper he managed to feed his headless wonder chicken, whom he named Mike, a mix of grain and water. Soon, the Olsens and Mike were headed out on tour across the country, delighting sideshow crowds with what Lloyd referred to as “a fine specimen of a chicken except for not having a head.”
A group of skeptical headless chicken experts at the University of Utah agreed with him. It seems when Lloyd lopped off Mike’s head, the farmer somehow managed to miss the jugular vein and a very lucky clot kept Mike from bleeding out. With most of his brain stem still attached (though the larger part of his head would soon reside in a jar), Mike was still a remarkably healthy rooster. It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to the average chicken farmer, but it turns out chickens (which have bird brains to begin with) don’t actually need great deal of brain power to get by.
Mike lived quite happily, raking in a tidy little sum for the Olsens (his would-be murderers), until he finally managed to choke to death eighteen months later in a motel in the middle of Arizona. But don’t be sad, because Mike’s determined spirit remains alive and well in his hometown of Fruita, California where every year on the first weekend in June, they celebrate the Mike the Headless Chicken Festival.
That’s right. This very weekend (since I’m sure you don’t have better things to do), you can hop over to Fruita and run a 5K or participate in a disc golf tournament. If you have a prize chicken of your own (headless or not), you can enter it into a poultry show, or you can try your hand at rooster calling, chicken dancing, or peep eating.
Because people will celebrate pretty much anything.
I think that’s great. It’s all in good fun, and I do love a good quirky celebration (except for maybe that last one). And in fact, I’m doing a little celebrating of my own. If you visit this blog often, you may have noticed, it looks a little different since the last post. More changes are coming in the near future, but for now, I am using a moderately fancier theme, and if you look to the top, there is a new page as well: “Coming Soon! A Book!”
I am delighted to announce that this fall (maybe as early as October), I will finally become a traditionally published novelist, a goal I’ve been working toward for a very long time.
I hope you’ll take a moment to click on the new page, celebrate with me, and maybe even sign up to receive an occasional e-mail about the progress of the project and some other fun stuff. I won’t be holding a mosquito calling contest (which just sounds like a bad idea) or crowning anyone “Miss Roadkill” (or “Miss Practical Historian” because that tiara is all mine). But I will be letting readers in on some exclusive content that I’m sure you’d hate missing out on even more than you’d hate missing the opportunity to don your mask and snorkel to attend the Underwater Music Festival in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
The book, a historical novel, has no official title yet, because my publisher and I haven’t yet agreed on the perfect fit, and it has no cover yet because the brilliant graphic designer I’m working with is patiently awaiting a title so he can finish his lovely design. But I assure you that what I do have is a fine specimen of a novel except for not having a head.
While the truth of the existence of Mike the Headless Chicken has occasionally been called into question, despite the testimony of several of Utah’s finest headless chicken experts, I assure you, the book really is coming soon. And headless or not, I think it’s worth celebrating.