Going Nowhere for Fun and Torture

In 1818, civil engineer William Cubitt, well-respected for his work on windmill sails and for a fastidiousness that carried him quickly up the ranks of the engineering firms for which he worked, proposed a new approach to convict rehabilitation.

Sir William Cubitt, who also had a somewhat complicated relationship with the treadmill. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He suggested that in order to counteract the tendency of prisoners toward idleness, they ought to be put to good use on treadmills, producing the rotary power needed to grind corn or pump water or provide entertainment for the prison guards. Cubitt designed the contraption himself, drawing on his experience as the son of a miller. It consisted of a paddle wheel with twenty-four spokes that required a prisoner to step up continually for as many as six hours at a time.

I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of exhausted just reading that. Like probably most people who have ever used one, I have a complicated relationship with the treadmill. I have one. I keep it tucked into a cool, dark corner of my basement, which is where I reluctantly, but also kind of gratefully, use it.

If you’ve followed along with this blog for long, you may recall that I think running is stupid. I stand by that. But I also occasionally (actually lately even frequently) run. I blame Covid for this latest burst of insanity, because for a while it led to a more sedentary lifestyle and fewer available opportunities to curb that. So, I dusted off my running shoes and hit the treadmill, which is a lot less punishing on my creaky joints than pavement is.

I suspect that the unlucky English prisoners of the 19th century who were subjected to this particular form of work didn’t care for it much. I know I still hate every single second I spend running to nowhere, though later I always appreciate having spent some quality treadmill time and tend to feel better afterwards, so I guess maybe you could say I enjoy the destination. I’m getting better at it, too.

Cubitt’s treadmill wasn’t completely monstrous. It included a handrail. British Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s one thing that I can say that this year plus of our little global pandemic has conditioned us all for. Many of us have gotten much better at accomplishing things while going nowhere at all. And this week, in between torture sessions on the treadmill, I have been able to do just that, because I have been “attending” the Historical Novel Society’s annual conference from the comfort of my at-home office while wearing a series of professional-ish looking blouses and comfy running shorts.

The conference was originally supposed to be held in San Antonio, but was moved to an entirely virtual format in the midst of pandemic concerns. It would have been fun to spend a little time away in a really interesting city that I’ve not yet managed to explore. I could have taken lots of sock monkey pictures, traded business cards with my fellow writers, and purchased more books than I had room for in my luggage.

I did take one picture of my travel buddy Steve. Sadly, it’s not in front of the Alamo, but he’s still smiling.

But this virtual thing has actually been working really well. The organizers have done a brilliant job, providing topical Zoom room mingling opportunities that have probably led to more engagement in meaningful conversations than I would have been able to accomplish in a physical room full of people. The presentation lineup is outstanding, and more complete than it could have been at a live conference. There’s been more participation from writers around the world than would likely have traveled to San Antonio.

I have learned and am continuing to learn a ton. I have also kept up with the laundry, spent some time with my family, and enjoyed having my dog lay at my feet as I sit at my computer chatting with new friends. I’ve done a lot, and I’m tired, but I haven’t gone anywhere at all. And while I probably would prefer to be at a live conference, I haven’t hated every single second of it. In fact, this particular treadmill hasn’t felt the least bit torturous.

I’m not sure I could say the same for the literal treadmill in my basement. Fortunately for England’s inmates, however, William Cubitt’s brand of prison torture was outlawed in 1889. To the best of my knowledge, my treadmill is still legal. But if I’m misinformed, please don’t hesitate to tell me because as much as I like the feeling of having finished a run, I am a hopelessly law-abiding citizen.   

Investing in Crypto-Engines

In Philadelphia in 1874, inventor John Worrell Keely demonstrated before a stunned audience his amazing new engine that promised to change the world’s approach to energy production forever. As the crowd watched, Keely blew into a nozzle for a full thirty seconds, poured five gallons of water from a tap into that same nozzle, and pointed to a pressure gauge reading 10,000 PSI to indicate that the water had been disintegrated and had released a newly discovered vapor with enough power to send a steam ship from New York to Liverpool and back five times over.

John Ernst Worrell Keely (ca. 1895), expert on sympathetic vibratory physics, posing with his impressively named motor that never worked. Not even a little. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

I imagine the audience may have had some questions, and Keely probably answered them. He certainly did so on a number of occasions. His invention, he said, was a “vibratory engine,” or if he were feeling particularly fancy, a “hydro-pneumatic pulsating vacuo-engine.”

Based on observations of a tuning fork in all its vibratory glory, Keely’s motor made use of etheric energy. And if you don’t know what that is, then I’m afraid I can’t help you. The best I can figure is that it’s kind of like an aura? Maybe? This is why I’m a writer and not an expert on sympathetic vibratory physics.

But Keely was an expert and he spent a lot of time explaining the alleged science behind his miraculous engine to potential investors, and some actual investors to the tune of $6 million of capital used for establishing his Keely Motor Company.

The biggest and most determined investor in Keely’s crypto-engine was a wealthy widow named Clara S. J. Bloomfield-Moore, who funded the company’s research for $100,000 plus a salary for Keely himself of $2,500 per month. I’m not a financial expert either, but I bet I don’t have to work hard to convince you that in the 1870s this was a whole lot of money.

Oh, ok. Forget the engineers and physicists. I see how it works now. Unknown author, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

And it probably would have been a worthwhile investment had there been anything to the hydro-pneumatic pulsating vacuo-engine. I certainly wish there had been. I keep reading reports of gas prices on the rise and the potential for shortages this summer as people begin to scratch the itch to get out of the house and into a post-pandemic world of summer fun. It would be nice to be able to travel the country fueled by nothing more than a bucket of water.

The anticipated shortages come primarily from a rise in demand that follows on the heels of a steep reduction in demand amid lockdowns and travel restrictions. During that same time period, training programs for new tanker truck drivers shut down or limited operations and many more experienced drivers, finding less work, decided to go ahead and retire. Apparently, tanker truck drivers are the new toilet paper.

So, when my 13-year-old son finishes this final week of what has been the “longest, most awful eighth grade year of [his] life” (his words, because he’s funny), and says he wants to “take all the vacations,” I find myself wishing Keely had been on the up-and-up.

He definitely wasn’t. For all the fancy explanations and big words Keely had to offer when asked, he was consistently reluctant to allow engineers and physicists to study his equipment. The opportunity for a thorough examination didn’t arrive until after his death in November of 1898. That’s when investigators uncovered a laboratory full of a great deal of piping, mechanical belts, pneumatic switches, and a large water-powered motor hidden in the basement.

He never did get his tuning fork engine to work. He did, however, manage to become a pretty successful humbug, skillfully attracting and putting off investors for more than twenty years with shady business practices akin to including the phrase “investing in crypto” in the title of a blog post about vibration and imaginary vapor. My hero.

He also coined the term “hydro-pneumatic pulsating vacuo-engine,” which has the potential to make you sound really smart at your next cocktail party, and maybe even raise some ill-gotten funds, as long as you are prepared to answer a few follow-up questions.

Total Robot Domination

Sometime in the first century, between 10 and 70 AD, Greek physicist, mathematician, and engineer Heron of Alexander (aka “Hero”) wrote several texts describing, in irritating vagueness, machines useful for heavy lifting, automated gadgets, war machines, and more than eighty other types of mechanical apparatuses including what may have been the world’s first steam engine.

Among his creations were automatic temple doors, an odometer for your chariot, the world’s first vending machine, and a seemingly bottomless wine glass with a reservoir designed to supply you with any necessary top-offs. If that still isn’t enough, he also invented a robot that could fill a wineglass placed in its hand.

“The product of the human brain has escaped the control of human hands. This is the comedy of science.” – Karel Čapek, who probably also had a proud mama. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, he didn’t call it a robot, or whatever the Greek equivalent of robot would be. That term wasn’t officially coined as a word for an automaton until 1920 when Czech playwright Karel Čapek used it in his play R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The play is about a factory that makes robots which inevitably take over the world and wipe out all human life. And that’s exactly what fictional robots have been doing ever since.

But the earliest forms of robots were simply helpful curiosities that delighted and amazed and made Hero’s mama awfully proud. Now, I realize I’m being a little presumptuous here. I know nothing about Hero’s mama. She may not have been impressed at all, or she may have even been the brains behind Hero’s success. It’s possible that she was the Ada Lovelace of Ancient Greece. History doesn’t always remember the mamas (or women in general) as much as it should.

What I do know, is that I am a proud mama of a robot-maker. For two years now, my sixteen-year-old has been part of a robotics team through our school district. It’s a pretty well-established team with lots of community support and great volunteer mentors, both teachers of physics and engineering, and professional engineers and mechanics from the area.

I’m grateful for that because in this particular bit of my son’s wide-ranging interests, I don’t have much to offer. He doesn’t get it from me, but he definitely has a natural inclination toward design. One time when he was three years old, he heard us talking about a winter storm that was supposed to be blowing in and so he went to his room and changed the design of a bug-like structure he’d made with some of his building toys to “make it more stable” in the upcoming harsh conditions. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me, then, that he would jump at a chance to design robots.

Like everything else, the robotics team faced a strange year last year in the midst of the pandemic. All competitions were cancelled before they got a chance to show off their hard work and the design challenge was rolled over into this year. Then this year’s official competitions were cancelled, too.

Probably our new overlord.

Fortunately, a smaller school district in a tiny town in Southern Missouri put together an unofficial tournament in a fairly wide-open space. Teams had to limit the number of student representatives they could take and numbers of spectators were pretty tightly controlled, but it was something.

And this past weekend, I got to watch a surprisingly exciting championship in which my son’s team came out on top. To the best of my knowledge their little robot can’t pour a glass of wine, but it can swerve, spin a turntable, pick up balls to then accurately shoot at a target, and do a pretty impressive pullup.

I’m not exactly sure how these tasks are going to help it take over the world, but I probably know as much about science fiction as I don’t know about robots and I am certain it will figure it out. When it does, I’m going to be an awfully proud mama.

A Not-So-Sticky Post

Forty-three years ago, in 1977, the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, known today as 3M, rolled out a new product in four American cities. This, several years after product developer Spencer Silver worked to create a stronger adhesive than the world had yet seen. He failed.

What he came up with instead was a mildly sticky adhesive that could be removed and re-stuck on smooth surfaces. That wasn’t going to work for the project he had in mind, but Silver wasn’t convinced his not-so-sticky glue wouldn’t eventually be good for something.

I have no idea how much time Post-Its have saved me over the years. But it’s a lot.

It took someone else to come up with the something. Art Fry was a forty-three-year-old 3M developer and committed church choir member who used scraps of paper to mark the weekly songs in his hymnal. The problem he ran into is that his makeshift bookmarks fell out of place all the time. He needed something sticky, but just not sticky enough to damage the pages of his hymnal.

Fry remembered hearing about his coworker’s sticky-but-not-too sticky glue and began to formulate an idea. He grabbed some yellow scrap paper from the lab next door, applied Silver’s glue and started scribbling away.

What hadn’t appealed to the test markets in the original four cities as Press ‘n Peels, took off when it was rebranded as Post-It Notes and given out as samples in Boise, Idaho where ninety-four percent of the people who gave them a go said they’d happily buy their own pad.

My household includes me and three guys, two of whom are teenagers. Other people are grateful I use Post-It Notes, too. Or at least they should be.

Suddenly office workers had a way to quickly make a note on a coworker’s report, label their sandwich in the break room fridge, and bookmark their choir music on the weekends. The more people used the Post-It, the more they realized they weren’t sure what they’d ever done without it.

I get it that. The Post-It Note is a staple in my world. I use them to write messages to my family and stick them in in their line of sight. They mark important places in my research tomes and endless collections of notes. When knee deep in revisions, Post-Its feature scribbled reminders that if I’m going to kill off so-and-so in Chapter 11, I need to drop a hint of his terrible illness into Chapter 3.

I admit I occasionally find Post-Its I clearly wrote, but cannot for the life of me figure out what they mean. I think this was a story idea. Obviously an awesome one. Being in one’s forties does have its drawbacks.

These little scraps of sticky paper seem like such an insignificant thing, and while I’m sure I could manage to get a long without them, I’m glad I’ve never had to. And I really haven’t, because we grew up together.

I’m about to turn forty-three myself, which seems like a fairly insignificant birthday. I’m at that age when I have to do the math to even remember how old I really am. But I do hope that like the Post-It Note I’m pretty handy to have around, that I stick to the important things, and that I’d be a hit in Boise if I ever had the inclination to go there.

And I hope that like the then forty-three-year old Art Fry, I’ve still got a few good ideas up my sleeves.   

The Greatest Necessity of the Age!

Sixth century Chinese government official and great advocate of education Yan Zhitui, in 589 AD, included among his many writings the following line: “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.” I get that. I think wiping the nether regions with the writings of a greatly admired person might be on par with breaking up with someone via text message.

But more importantly than communicating a cross-cultural understanding of disrespectful behavior, this may well be the earliest written record of the use of toilet paper. The Chinese were way ahead of the game in this aspect of personal hygiene.

toilet paper
I’m not worried about running out. My own great state of Missouri is home to the world’s largest roll of toilet paper, a two-ton testament to hygiene, created by Charmin and housed at the Ripley’s Museum in Branson. photo credit: derekGavey An Ecological Conundrum via photopin (license)

While the rest of the world still struggled through the problem of poop with wood shavings, hay, rocks, corncobs, frayed rope, hands, or in the case of the Ancient Romans, communal sponges dipped in vinegar, China was busy manufacturing millions of packages of paper designed for freshening up the often less than fresh parts of the human body.

Here in the United States, it wasn’t until 1857 that paper was produced specifically for that purpose. Joseph Gayetty introduced his “Medicated Paper,” soaked in aloe and advertised as “The greatest necessity of the age!” Gayetty even proudly stamped his name across every piece, apparently conceding that he was not a great sage.

His product was definitely overpriced, at the equivalent of $12 in today’s money for a package 500 sheets, which along with $50 shipping might currently be a bargain on Amazon. Most Americans opted instead for ripping a page of the latest catalog from Sears & Roebuck or The Farmer’s Almanac, which came with a hole drilled at the corner for easy hanging from a hook in the outhouse.

tp toll patent
Obviously this patent drawing has something to add to the over/under toilet paper roll debate, but as I tend to avoid controversy on this blog I’ll refrain from pointing out the correctness here. Seth Wheeler / Public domain

In 1871, Seth Wheeler finally patented the toilet paper roll of perforated sections similar to what is widely used today. A few years after that, the Scott brand began successfully marketing toilet paper rolls to hotels and drug stores, and with the rise of indoor plumbing came the growth of the toilet paper industry, resulting in better products that were occasionally even free of splinters.

Americans, along with much of the world, were finally pretty much settled on the idea of bathroom tissue. Really, we’d have a hard time doing without it. I’ve seen estimates claiming that on average each American uses anywhere from 23.6 to 100 rolls per year.

So let’s do a little math.

If the lower number is closer to the truth then that means that in the course of fourteen days, the average American would use about 9/10 of a roll of toilet paper. If the larger number is closer to true, then that jumps to about 3.8 rolls.

The average American household includes 2.5 people, which means that if we assume maximum usage, the average American household toilet paper need in the course of fourteen days is about 9 ½ rolls. The large club store closest to my house sells toilet paper in packages of 32 extra large rolls.

They can’t keep it in stock.

LaunchingSheep-CoverImage
As the not-so-sage author of a book classified by some as a “bathroom reader,” I want to reassure you that should you need to sacrifice a few pages, I anticipate no supply issues for replacement copies.

I have to assume this is because we recently got our first confirmed case of Covid-19 in the St. Louis area. The patient is a young woman who was infected while traveling in Italy. She is quarantined in her home and is thankfully doing well. As an extra precaution, her entire household is being kept in quarantine for the standard recommended fourteen days. There’s been no word on whether or not they have plenty of toilet paper.

I sincerely hope they do, because if they ask a neighbor to drop some on their porch, that neighbor might have a hard time finding any on the store shelves.

Fortunately, the US military has figured out a solution to the problem of toilet paper rationing as demonstrated in this (modest) linked video, that I don’t recommend watching if you’re squeamish about such things.

Still, I’d hate to think that anyone would have to resort to using wood shavings, hay, rocks, corncobs, frayed rope, hands, or for the love of all that is holy, a communal sponge dipped in vinegar. I suppose if the situation gets really desperate, quarantined people could raid their bookshelves. As long as they make sure to avoid commentaries on the Five Classics or the names of sages.

A Blog Tour in the Bag

A few years ago I unpublished my birthday on Facebook. I didn’t do it because I hate celebrating or because I’m self-conscious about my age. I really don’t care if people know how many twenty-ninth birthdays I’ve had.

But I am a bit of an introvert, which means as much as I love being around people (and I really do), I tend to get a little overwhelmed when I’m the center of too much attention.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that people want to celebrate with me and wish me well. I just sometimes think that while they do, I’d kind of rather be hiding in a quiet corner with a paper bag over my head.

paperbaghead
photo credit: Flооd How You Doin’? via photopin (license)

Thanks to inventor Luther Crowell who, 148 years ago today, invented the machine that makes folded, flat-bottomed paper bags, I could actually do that.

If you happen to live in Cape Cod (and odds are you don’t), you may have heard of one of the area’s most famous sons, whose more than 280 patents included a flying machine that, at least in concept, resembled the modern helicopter.

Or perhaps you’ve discovered him on LinkIn where you’ll find that this Paper Bag Inventor at Paper Bag Inventor has a skill set that includes paper craft, paper industry, and paper prototyping. I think you’ll also find that there are people in this world who spend way too much time on the Internet.

paperbagcraft
Obviously some people have also spent way more time thinking about uses for paper bags than I have. But this is cool! photo credit: georigami Andrew Hudson’s Nova Bind via photopin (license)

Certainly Cowell is most remembered for the machine that could make a sturdy folded paper bag, an invention that contributed to the newspaper printing (and folding) industry as well as to the grocery checkout line where customers are still regularly given the option of using Crowell’s bags to carry home potato chips and bottles of salad dressing.

These paper bags are also useful for craft projects, making text book protectors, quickly ripening fruit, and occasionally hiding in corners.

That last one might be wishful thinking on my part, because this week I’m on a blog tour, talking about my new historical novel, some of the research, my convoluted journey to publication, my third grade teacher, my first ever fan letter, and my thesaurus collection. Don’t judge. It’s a lot of posts. And trust me when I say you’re not going to want to miss the thesauri.

SmokeBigBook
Me without a paper bag on my head, and feeling just the tiniest bit uncomfortable.

I love talking about books with readers and with other writers (there’s a lot of overlap between those groups). I’m incredibly grateful to my fellow bloggers who have invited me to share their space and for all those who have interacted with me on the posts and shared them on social media. It really has been a lot of fun.

It’s also been a little scary and a tiny bit exhausting putting myself out there and basically demanding attention. So I am going to invite you to take a look at the tour, to check out the blogs of some wonderful new friends, and to read my ridiculous posts about myself and my writing. You could even win a copy of my new book Smoke Rose to Heaven for Kindle if you leave a comment on any of them.

Smoke Rose to Heaven Virtual Tour

While you do that, I’m just going to sit quietly in this corner over here with a paper bag over my head.

Handkerchiefs, Ribbon, and Necessity

November is well under way and here in Missouri that means we’ve experienced our first cold snap and snow accumulation event, which we never get this early, except that this is the third year in a row it’s happened. And last week I wrote about how the menfolk are participating in their annual celebration of manliness by growing out their stubble for “No Shave November.”

corset-2809179__340
Ouch! Image courtesy of Pixabay

This week, for balance, I want to take a moment to recognize the genius of women, particularly one woman—Mary Phelps Jacob. In 1910, at the age of nineteen, Mary was living the American debutante lifestyle, preparing to attend yet another high society ball. Like she’d surely done many times before, she put on her stiff whalebone corset and sucked in while her maid cinched it tight before struggling into her fancy dress.

Then she examined herself in the mirror and didn’t like the way her look all came together. Or maybe it was just that she realized she couldn’t really breathe. Somewhat rashly, she asked her maid to bring her two pocket handkerchiefs, some ribbon, and a sewing kit.

Brassière_-_Mary_Phelps_Jacob
So much better than a corset. By Mary Phelps Jacob – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That night Mary traded her corset for her homemade hanky contraption and was the easiest, breeziest belle at the ball. Many significantly less comfortable women took notice and, gasping for air, wanted to know her secret. It didn’t take Mary long to realize she was on to something big.

On November 3, 1914, Mary Phelps Jacobs, who would eventually become known as Caresse Crosby, received the first patent for the modern bra. Women everywhere abandoned their restrictive corsets and celebrated with a collective and blissfully deep sigh.

Jacobs wasn’t the first or only person to tackle the terrible problem of women’s undergarments, but I love her story the most because I can just picture it—the moment when comfort and practicality won over fashion.

bride-727004__340
I bet she’s not wearing a corset, either. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

I imagine it was a lot like that moment you kick off the ridiculous high heels at the wedding reception so you can actually dance or later when you trade the confining cocktail dress for your trusty old yoga pants. If there are any bewhiskered menfolk still reading at this point, I suspect this feeling is also similar to loosening your necktie.

The story of Mary Phelps Jacob is great because it’s kind of universal. And because as we head through the month of November when we stop shaving, and here in the US, we don our stretchy turkey pants and prepare to tuck in for the long, cold winter ahead, it’s nice to pause and remember that sometimes it’s the necessity of comfort that is the mother of the greatest inventions.

Outsmarting Sawdust and Dog Hair

The weather has at last begun to turn a bit cooler here in the Midwestern US. Our peak temperatures missed their mark a little bit this year, arriving in early September rather than mid to late August and it frankly made us all kind of cranky. When you steel yourself for 95° F and humid as a bowl of soup by August 15th, and you’re dealing with it instead when all the kids are back in school and pumpkin spice has taken over the grocery shelves, it can be a little disconcerting.

But finally, we’ve arrived and we’re all celebrating. Especially my dog. And my vacuum cleaner. This lengthy summer has been hard on both of them. In fact, one of them didn’t make it through the stress.

Ozzie sleeping
This has been a sleeping-on-top-of-your-blanket kind of a fall. Also, you may not be able to tell from this picture, but I’m pretty sure this dog is practically bald.

Because even though the most extreme temperatures of the season were a little delayed, slightly less miserably hot and humid is still pretty hot and humid if you always wear a thick, black dog hair sweater.

Ozzie faced summer the way dogs do. He slept a lot, most often our air-conditioned house. When he did have to go outside, he found shady spots and never stayed out for too long. And he shed. A lot.

And I mean A LOT. For a while, we were brushing him twice a day and disposing of at least a toy poodle’s entire coat worth of hair each time. Of course, we were also vacuuming regularly, throwing away lots of poodles, until the vacuum decided one day it just couldn’t take it anymore.

The old vacuum lived a good long life. For years it cleaned up baby-slobber covered Cheerios, mislaid LEGO bricks, and various broken bits. It survived moves halfway across the country and back with the ripped-up scars of multiple “Load Last” stickers to show for it. It wore several belts, tangled with birthday balloon ribbons, and chased away quivering dust bunnies from beneath couch cushions and under beds.

vacuum
So far the new vacuum really sucks, which in this case is a good thing.

A good vacuum is one of those things you probably don’t think about too much until you need one and don’t have it. And like most great inventions it’s also one of those things you don’t invent until you realize it’s exactly what you need and you don’t have it.

That was certainly the case for Anna and Melville Bissell. In 1876, the couple ran a crockery shop in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they received shipments of delicate goods packed carefully in boxes of sawdust.

The sawdust worked great for keeping the fine china safe, but it also made a giant mess on the floor. Mechanical carpet sweepers had been around for more than sixty years and the Bissells had one. It just didn’t work that well when facing all that sawdust.

Melville Bissell
Melville Bissell, a man who outsmarted sawdust because his wife told him to. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Melville decided to design one himself. His sweeper did the job much better. It worked so well, in fact, that customers began to ask for it and a new Bissell business was born. When Melville died at only age 45 in 1889, Anna took over the company as the first female CEO in the US and successfully led Bissell to become a worldwide force in the carpet sweeping industry.

Powered vacuums were introduced at the turn of the century and eventually took over much of the market, but Bissell expanded into those as well. And today the company is still the most popular producer of carpet sweepers used most widely in the restaurant industry because of their quiet unobtrusiveness.

When our vacuum decided it couldn’t handle the dog hair and finally gave up the ghost with a loud death rattle no belt replacement could fix, we didn’t buy a carpet sweeper. We didn’t even replace it with a Bissell. But we did find a vacuum that could do the job much better. Still, I bet it’s as grateful as Ozzie is that the cooler fall weather is finally here.

So Cold: The Secret to My Success

Occasionally someone will ask—either at a reading event or in casual conversation—whether I find it difficult to work at home. They wonder if I get distracted by the dishes or the errands or the dirty socks my children have inevitably left stuffed behind the couch cushions.

Of course, I have to admit that sometimes I do. Sitting behind a computer screen with no one to talk to except the dog (a good listener) and the chorus of characters (not great listeners) competing for attention in my head can get a little tiresome. Then the household stuff calls to me. It’s a convenient distraction—one I can always justify because those things need to get taken care of, too.

I generally reply that I get by because I’m list-maker and dedicated time manager, and I am, but I also have a special, motivational weapon in my arsenal, especially this time of year.

I’m cold.

Like seriously cold. All. The. Time.

thermostat
One study suggests that a third of all couples argue over the temperature setting in their homes, and 40% of women admit to secretly turning up the heat when their significant other isn’t looking. photo credit: EE Image Database Woman giving the thumbs-up sign and pointing to a thermostat on the wall in her home via photopin (license)

People have been finding clever ways to keep our environments warm pretty much since the invention of people, when cave men and cave women argued about how much to build up the campfire.

In ancient Rome, some buildings evidently used systems of pipes to force hot air from pockets of empty space beneath a fire into walls as a clever method of using radiant heat to warm up a room.

After a few dark and chilly centuries when heating returned to a more primitive style, other solutions began to emerge. In 13th century Europe, the Cistercian Order of monks began using diverted and heated river water to warm their monasteries. Better stoves and chimneys were developed through the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. Then Benjamin Franklin invented his (appropriately named) Franklin Stove in 1741, which proved to be a somewhat effective way to force warmth and smoke into a room in greater amounts than your average fireplace.

ozziesun
My dog’s favorite solar powered heating system.

Over the next hundred years or so, Scotsman James Watt came up with a steam-driven heating system, Russian Franz San Galli invented the radiator, and American professor Warren Johnson patented the first thermostat, because he was tired of classrooms that were either too hot or too cold. I think we’ve all been there.

Just a few short years later in 1919, Alice H. Parker patented the first central heating system that used natural gas. An African American woman enduring harsh New Jersey winters, Parker said she developed the idea that formed an important basis for the convenient and safer heating systems of today because she was cold and her fireplace just wasn’t cutting it. I hear that.

office attire
Dressed for a day at the office.

According to a 2015 Dutch study, most women probably do. On average, the researchers found, ladies tend to be comfortable with a warmer ambient temperature than their gentleman counterparts do. The findings (which surprised absolutely no one who has ever attempted to share a home with a member of the opposite sex), sparked a discussion of whether office thermostats are sexist. Or something like that.

The idea was that back in the day when offices contained mostly men in three-piece suits, temperature levels were set for the comfort of those men. Today, as offices tend to contain more equal numbers of men and women, the temperatures remain set for ideal manly comfort standards. There’s a fancy formula engineers use to determine the optimal level of temperature comfort as determined by humidity, air temperature, and mean metabolic rates, etc. The problem, according to the study, is that the formula overestimates the amount of heat produced by a resting woman.

The differences have been attributed to estrogen production and muscle mass to fat ratios, which tend to be different between men and women. I don’t know that I would go so far to call the thermostat a source of inherent workplace sexism, but the struggle is real, and lots of women throughout the workforce carry an extra sweater to the office.

space heater
The secret to my success: a closed door and a space heater.

As someone who works primarily at home, I use the problem to my advantage, because I am the lone female living with three males. Through the winter, my house is always at least 2 (or 3 or 4) degrees colder than I’d like it to be. Yes, when my sons head off to school and my husband to work, I could turn up the thermostat and no one would complain.

Instead, I walk down the stairs and through a long hallway to my hidey hole office in the basement where I close the door and turn on my own personal space heater, before sitting down to work. Pretty soon, the dishes and the errands and the dirty socks begin to call to me, when the words don’t want to flow and the character voices have gone silent. When that happens, all I have to do is step outside of my office into my cold, cold house. I don’t stay there for long.

The Father of Wine Snobbery and Pinterest Magic

On May 1, 1633, thirty-two-year-old beauty Venetia Stanley Digby was found dead in bed in her London home. A popular lady at court, her surprising demise set the city abuzz with rumors, many of them focused on her husband, the grief-stricken Sir Kenelm Digby.

digby
Sir Kenelm Digby, father of wine snobbery. And Pinterest wine bottle centerpieces. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A popular man himself, Digby was a scholar, an off-and-on Catholic, and a former privateer. He was also a noted chef, alchemist, and enthusiastic supporter of sympathetic medicine (in which treatment was applied to the injury-causing instrument, rather than to the injured).

He was kind of like your favorite crazy uncle who dabbles in a little bit of everything. And who might accidentally kill his wife in the process. Of course this is a hypothetical uncle. I certainly have no such uncle. My uncles are wonderful men who occasionally read this blog.

Though he wasn’t a particularly faithful husband, Digby took Venetia’s death pretty hard. He retreated from his life at court, renewed his devotion to Catholicism, and found solace by throwing himself into his studies. He found greatness at the bottom of a wine bottle. Also in its sides and neck.

wine snobs
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of drinking wine pretentiously. photo credit: NwongPR The Somm Team via photopin (license)

Because it was around this time that England faced a wood shortage that led to an increase in hotter coal-burning furnaces rather than the wood-fed ones typically used for glassmaking. Digby fired up his furnace and went to work producing a dark, thick bottle suited for elegantly storing wine.

Up until this point in history glass hadn’t been up to the task, and if it held wine at all, it was for presentation purposes only. Since the early days of its development in about 3000 BC, glass was generally too thin and delicate for wine.

entwine
This bottle was mocking me.

That is until Sir Kenelm Digby became the father of the modern wine bottle. It’s a good thing he did, too, because before his thick-glassed bottle, wine didn’t get stored and savored and swirled and pretentiously sipped. And even more important than that, there weren’t thousands of empty, standard-sized bottles awaiting magical Pinterest transformation into dreamy wedding centerpieces.

It’s Sir Digby, then, I can thank for the hours and hours I have spent these past few weeks collecting, rinsing, and wrapping wine bottles in yards of twine. One of my nieces is a soon-to-be bride. She needs centerpieces for her reception, and I’m kind of like that favorite crazy aunt who will volunteer to do just about any tedious wedding-related task you require without complaint, though not without a blog post.

bottles
Best. Aunt. Ever. Not that it’s a competition. That I’m totally winning.

Of course my niece has many wonderful aunts who occasionally read this blog, and she has never publicly declared that I am her favorite. But I think we all know.

I also think the bottles turned out pretty well. I know the centerpieces will be beautiful, the ceremony will be perfect, and my niece and her groom will remember their special day for all of their long, happy lifetime together. I also think Sir Kenelm Digby would have been pleased to know to what great use his bottles had been repurposed, as part of a celebration of marriage and love.