Every Jiggly Step I Can Get

Early last year I wrote about a fitness challenge I had joined, pledging to walk 2,017 miles in the year 2017. In case you’re curious and don’t like to do math, that comes out to around five and a half miles per day. It’s doable for a fairly active person, which I generally am.

Still, I didn’t make my goal last year. I was close enough that if I assumed I’d walked about twenty miles on a couple of days I missed recording and averaged twelve miles each day for the last two weeks, I would have made it. It didn’t seem worth it. Honestly, I’d done really well until November when I became more focused on writing a novel and eating turkey.

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I don’t know…that looks like a lot of work. Picture by profivideos, via Pixabay

It definitely takes consistent effort and I think it’s safe to say we all have those days when we’re sick, or lazy, or sitting in a chair writing a novel, or driving across the country. It’s stringing too many of those days together that’s the problem.

But as I discovered on a recent road trip to visit my parents in Illinois that last obstacle isn’t so bad. It takes me about two hours to get to their house pretty much regardless of the route I take. Each option comes with drawbacks. The most direct route takes me across the Mighty Mississippi on a scary, crumbly bridge so narrow I’ve seen truck drivers back up rather than meet a vehicle coming across in the other direction.

This time I wisely chose to go another way with thicker traffic, but a much nicer bridge, and then a two lane highway in Illinois that could use a little love and attention and provides plenty of broken, bumpy adventure. But this road has a hidden benefit for those drivers wearing their fitness bands. In the hour I was dodging potholes on that lonely Illinois road, my fitness band credited me with six hundred steps.

And why shouldn’t it? I may not have done the walking myself, but my body surely benefited from the jiggling. At least it might have according to Swedish physician and inventor Gustav Zander, who in the latter half of the 19th century invented some of the earliest forms of gym equipment. Included among Dr. Zander’s creations was the first belt vibrator machine (if you Google that, use caution).

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Her workout clothes are way fancier than mine. By Unknown – https://digitaltmuseum.se/021016402498/balstrackning, Public Domain, vis Wikimedia Commons

This contraption had a belt you’d place around your waist or arm or leg, or I guess wherever your problem areas may be and then it magically vibrated the fat away. Dr. Zander’s wonderful machine provided healthful massage, relieved mental fatigue, rid the body of harmful toxins, and toned muscles. Or it didn’t.

The use of passive exercise machines like the belt vibrator peaked in the early part of the 20th century and surged again through the 1950s and 60s. There’s just something really appealing about getting into shape without wearing legwarmers or doing any actual work at all.

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Who needs workout equipment? Picture by Antranias, via Pixabay

Even today there are numerous products on the market designed to move your muscles for you while you read a book or give yourself a pedicure. Today’s devices generally stimulate muscle contraction using targeted electrical pulses. And though such gadgets may offer some therapeutic benefits, providing you with that beach ready body isn’t one of them. For that, they’re about as effective as Dr. Zander’s original passive jiggle apparatus or my car on a bumpy road.

So maybe jostling car steps shouldn’t count, but since my fitness tracker is just as likely to ignore a quick jaunt across the room or a climb up sixteen flights of stairs, I’m going to assume it more or less evens out. This year’s goal is 2,018 miles and by the time November rolls around, I may decide to sit in a chair and write a novel while eating my body weight in turkey. I’ll need every extra jiggly step I can get.

 

And speaking of novels, there’s exciting news coming down the bumpy pike on that score. I can’t promise you any free steps, but if you want to be among the first in the know, you can sign up to receive email news from me here: http://eepurl.com/b3olY1

Naked with Lava-tude

In 1948, former Royal Navy WWII pilot, accountant, and avid nudist Edward Craven Walker sat in a pub in Dorset County, England and noticed an inventive homemade device bubbling away on a stovetop in the pub’s kitchen. What he saw was an egg timer created by a regular customer using a cocktail shaker and two immiscible liquids, one of which danced before his eyes like some kind of alien blob.

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Tech security company Cloudflare has a wall of Lava Lamps in its San Francisco office that it uses to generate random seeds for its encryption algorithms. It also adds a pretty chill vibe to the place. photo credit: niwasan Lava lamp Gallery – colección invierno 2009-2010 via photopin (license)

Walker was entranced by the bubbly display and mulled it over for a long time after, deciding to experiment with the concept himself in hopes of finding a way to make a lamp device that worked in a similar fashion. He retreated to his mancave shed where, presumably naked, he tried different containers and liquid combinations until he found something that worked.

In 1963, he introduced the world to his Astro Lamp. Just one year later, a US Patent was filed and in 1965 the Lava Manufacturing Corporation in Chicago bought the American rights to what they would call the Lava Lite Lamp, because groovy alliteration sells. Or at least it did in the late 60s and 70s.

I mention lava lamps today, because according to several websites devoted to listing “this day in history” events, like brainyhistory.com, on-this-day.com, and some random guy on Facebook (who, admittedly comes off a little sleazy and maybe not entirely legit) insist that April 5, 1965 was the celebration of “Lava Lamp Day.”

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Groovy. And maybe that’s reason enough to celebrate.

Try as I might, I cannot determine why this particular date is important in the history of the Lava Lamp. It’s not the day the US Patent was filed. I suppose it could be the day the American rights were purchased, or even the day the lamps hit the US market, but I’m not able to verify either of those guesses. I also can’t find any reference to an actual celebration either in 1965 or beyond, that revolved around the Lava Lite Lamp. What I’m left with, then, is the assumption that it might be entirely made up and lifted and shared, as so many things on the Internet tend to be.

Still, when you come across a Lava Lamp (if you ever have then you know what I’m talking about), it’s hard to look away. And though the popularity of Walker’s psychedelic invention waned through the eighties as people became mesmerized instead by big hair and shoulder pads, it enjoyed a resurgence in the late nineties and well into today.

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The Internet is pretty quiet about how the original Lava Lamp Day was celebrated, but I imagine it looked something like this.

My son, who was not alive in sixties or seventies, even has one in his bedroom. If you felt so inclined, you could probably find your own right now at your local discount store. Or your basement. And if you’re the crafty type, you can try to make your own. There are plenty of instructions available on the Internet, most of which don’t even require nudity, but then Walker’s exact formula for perfect lava-tude is a proprietary secret. Also, as previously demonstrated, the Internet may occasionally be less than reliable.

You Probably Don’t Give a Flick

Earlier this week, social media giant Facebook, which has dramatically altered the way we interact with the kid we used to sit next to in second grade, announced that it has also invented time. The idea comes from designer Christopher Horvath, who first brought up the notion in a Facebook post in October of 2016.

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How else would you ever keep track of the fascinating life of that counselor you met one weekend thirty-seven years ago at Scout Camp?

Because Facebook has been useful for connecting people with similar concerns, the post generated a large, productive response.  A whole bunch of geeks chimed in and more or less agreed that a new division of time would be a pretty handy tool for more precisely synching media frames.

The new time measurement is 1/705,600,000 of a second, which makes it just enough bigger than a nanosecond that it evidently makes a difference to those in the know. These tiny units of time are called “flicks,” not to be confused with “Netflix,” a unit of time defined as the span of one full night of binge-watching The Walking Dead instead of sleeping.

Perhaps, like me, you’re not a media geek, and fail to see how this particular invention will affect you. And you can relax, because most experts who have bothered to comment on the new time division agree that it really won’t.

The flick might make some of your video experiences just a little bit crisper, but your alarm clock isn’t suddenly going to start going off 1/705,600,000 of a second earlier. Most of us ignorant schlubs will go happily on with our lives until sometime at a trivia night we’ll be asked, “What is the smallest unit of time that is still larger than a nanosecond?” and we’ll say, “Shoot. ..I think I read about that once.”

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So there are 42,336,000,000 flicks in a minute and 2,540,160,000,000 flicks in an hour, in case you do happen to give a flick.

But because time measurements are imposed human constructs that help us make sense of our world, it’s not always been easy for humankind to be so nonchalant. From Ancient China’s 100 “mark” day measured between midnights, to the 12 hour day and 3-4 watch night of the Ancient Greeks, every culture has attempted to mark the passage of time through the signs of nature and habits of the population in their particular corners of the world.

And so throughout most of history, everybody just did their own thing. That resulted in a confusing assortment of time systems, but it kind of worked up until 1876 when Scottish-Canadian railroad engineer and manager Sandford Fleming missed a train in Ireland because he couldn’t figure out the local time. Miffed, he joined a movement to standardize time, proposing a universal “cosmic time” based on a common meridian from which twenty-four time zones would spread out across the world.

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To me it’s really all just more wibbly-wobbly, timey- wimey stuff. photo credit: Rooners Toy Photography The Victorious via photopin (license)

Fleming shared his idea with anyone who would listen, including the 1884 Prime Meridian Conference where it was partially accepted. The conference liked the idea of Greenwich Mean Time, which adopted the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England as the center. Worldwide standard time zones, however, were harder to impose.

It turns out time, and how it’s calculated and divided and used, is pretty central to unique cultural identity. The system took some tweaking over the years and the occasional leap second adjustment, and it actually wasn’t until 1972 that every major world nation had finally jumped on the time zone wagon.

So if you aren’t too sure you’re ready to embrace this latest adjustment to the now standard divisions of time, and you’d rather Facebook just stuck to reintroducing you to those friends you haven’t seen in more than a few flicks, it might be that you’re following in the footsteps of history.

A Talking Dog that Cares About Grandmama

This week brought with it at least two stunning pieces of news. The first is that highly decorated Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps does not swim as fast as a great white shark, even if he wears a simulated shark skin wetsuit and a ridiculous fin. The second, equally shocking revelation, is that within ten years, our dogs could be speaking to us.

According to consumer futurologist William Higham (whose job is not nearly as made up as it sounds), the market demands a product that will allow the translation of dog barking. And it turns out Northern Arizona University biology professor emeritus and author of a book called Chasing Dr. Doolittle: Learning the Language of Animals, Con Slobodchikoff thinks it may be possible. And frankly, his job sounds way less made up.

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Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the talking dog. And the telephone. By Moffett Studio, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A few days ago, Amazon got super excited about this and said that when there is such a product, they will be happy to ship it to you via drone and then hound you for a review. And as anyone who has ever tried to sell a book can tell you, the market lives and dies on the word of Amazon. But it got me thinking whether I really do want to know what my dog has to say.

Alexander Graham Bell, of telephone inventing fame, decided when he was a young man of twenty that he did want to know what his dog Trouve had to say. With both an elocutionist for a father and a mother who was nearly deaf, Bell became fascinated at an early age with how sound could be transformed by the shape of one’s mouth.

So he did what I’m sure any of us would have done. He taught his skye terrier to produce a sustained growl on command and then manipulated the dog’s mouth to approximate the words “How are you, Grandmama?” I imagine the interpretation took a little bit of imagination, but the discovery that it could be done led Bell in some interesting directions in his studies of speech and sound transmission.

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Skye terrier, a dog that cares about Grandmama. By Pleple2000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1851190

Sometimes I do wish my dog could speak English, or at least that we could understand one another a little better. Almost two weeks ago, my family and I went out of town for the weekend and Ozzie got to spend a couple days in the kennel.

We have a great kennel and Ozzie is a very social dog, so he gets really excited when we take him there, but this time, the poor thing caught a cold. Several days after we got back, we noticed he had begun to sneeze more often than normal, and even cough a little. He was especially sleepy and didn’t seem to feel very well. We took him to the vet.

Ozzie came home with antibiotics he was not convinced he wanted to take. I wished I could explain to him the importance of the pills and that they will help him feel better, or at least prevent him from feeling even worse. Instead, I have to break them open and mix the medicine with peanut butter. And all I can do is let him lay his head on my lap so he can breathe a little easier while I scratch behind his ears.

So, I suppose we communicate just fine. Whether he understands that I’m trying to help or that the yuck he’s feeling is temporary, I don’t know. But he likes peanut butter (even when it’s laced with amoxicillin) and I think he at least knows I care.

Hopefully Trouve understood that, too. According to Bell, the dog enjoyed the attention and the treats that came along with his elocution lessons. Despite rumors to the contrary, Bell’s terrier never became a great orator. The inventor admitted he was never able to train the dog to make the sounds on his own. Of course it’s always possible that Trouve was just kind of a jerk who didn’t really care how Grandmama was doing.

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In a week or so, when he’s feeling better, I bet Ozzie will be saying, “Hey, lady, where’s my peanut butter?”

And that’s the real concern I think. Because what if, after the Amazon drone delivers my dog interpretation device, I discover that I don’t care much for what my furry companion has to say. Ozzie is pretty expressive already. He tells me quite clearly when he needs to spend some private time outside and when it’s time for me to give him a treat. He can’t resist happily howling along when the boys play the piano, but seems to care not at all for the guitar and ukulele. He rests at my feet as I write, and stares at me with kind brown eyes when I read to him from my work, or pretend that I’m talking to him and not just to myself.

I suppose I’m just afraid to know what he’s really thinking at those times. What if he calls me names when I’m slower than he’d like to let him out or get him a treat? What if the lyrics he’s put to the piano tunes have no sense of poetry? What if he’s critical of my words? All things considered, I think I like our relationship the way it is. I like telling him how much I love him with a scratch behind the ears. And I like assuming that he does care very much how Grandmama is doing.

Let’s Just Call Those the X-Days

What I really need is a do-over. At the start of the summer, all those sunny weeks and lazy days ago, I had visions of happy kids and chore charts and nutritious picnics, followed by well-sunscreened adventures to swimmin’ holes, bike trails, or the ballpark. During the long, relaxed evenings, we were going to harvest the latest offerings from our garden and work together to prepare a nice meal followed up by a pie we made with the abundant fruit we picked at the local orchards.  Of course, even in my fantasy my children wouldn’t eat said pie because fruit is NOT dessert. Sigh.

But you get the idea. This was supposed to be a highly organized, smooth running summer to remember. And it was all to start with that Day 1, when the biggest thing on our agenda, before all the fun could officially begin, was the organizing of all the random junk they brought home from school at the end of the year.

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An actual picture of my actual office floor. Well, or what you can almost see of it.

Scheduled to take place in what is, throughout the school year when I have more time, my writing office, Day 1 never quite happened the way I hoped it would. The boys did follow my instructions and dump their well-worn backpacks, scribbled-on notebooks, and eraserless pencil nubs in the middle of the floor so we could sort the reusable supplies from the detritus. Somehow that’s as far as we got.

Each had his own idea of how he wanted to spend his first day of summer, and this was definitely not it. And so the pile of school year castoffs remained.

From there it was all downhill. We had a packed June with a fabulous family vacation and then camps and VBS and a mission trip for my oldest, and somehow that summer chore chart never got posted or enforced. I still can’t see the floor of my office. We haven’t been to the orchard or baked a pie my children won’t eat. And the math workbooks I bought so my children’s brains wouldn’t turn to mush over the summer break? Filled with nothing but unsolved problems and the best of intentions.

I feel like I just let the whole thing run away from me to become a disorganized mess, like the pile of crap in my office, or even like the US Patents office prior to 1836. That’s when Maine Senator John Ruggles formed a bill designed to revolutionize the US patent system, which until then had been kind of a hot mess and was in definite need of a do-over.

Prior to the 1836 act, patents required signatures from the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the POTUS, in the age long before a simple fax between these extremely busy people might have done the trick. Patents weren’t issued for months after they were filed, weren’t tracked effectively enough to protect an inventor from having his idea stolen, patented by someone else, and marketed falsely, and were limited to US citizens.  These patents weren’t widely available to the public, held in duplicate, or even issued an identification number.

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The 1877 fire in the new and improved fireproof US Patent Building. By Timothy H. O’Sullivan original photographer – Library Of Congress Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The new act set up a Patent Office, run by a designated Commissioner of Patents. It required newly filed patents to be a matter of public record throughout libraries in the nation, allowed anyone to apply for a patent in the US, and demanded that applications be submitted in duplicate. The new patents were to be assigned identification numbers, with Patent Number 1 awarded to Senator Ruggles for his unique take on train wheel design. The previous patents were then retroactively numbered with “X” placed at the beginning, earning them the name “X-Patents,” and a new fireproof building was commissioned to house the records, which turned out to be timely since a few months after the act passed, the temporary patent office burned to the ground.  

There was a lot of great history lost in that 1836 fire that swallowed nearly 10,000 records, including the original patent for the fire hydrant. The majority of the X-Patent records weren’t recovered. The new building, not entirely completed until 1867, didn’t catch fire until 1877. Models and records (including that of an improved fire hydrant system) went up in that blaze as well. But by then the Patent Office had gotten its act together and no records were entirely lost to history.

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As many of my friends are lamenting the presence of school supplies in stores, I’m considering just torching all the X-supplies and starting fresh.

Now when I say I want a do-over, I certainly don’t mean to suggest that our summer has been a complete bust so far. We had a great family vacation and we’ve done a lot of fun things. We have ridden our bikes and done lots of swimming and made some delicious meals with the harvest from our garden. We’ve caught lightning bugs and completed summer library reading logs and been to the ballpark and gotten together with friends. I don’t want to burn the memory of those things.

But with about a month until school starts up again, I am feeling the need to start fresh. So today, on the 181st anniversary of the issuance of US Patent Number 1, I’m going to declare this Summer Day Number 1, the beginning of a refocused, more organized summer break. Everything that came before, I’m just going to call those the X-Days.

Piles and Piles of Laundry: What a Pain in the Bustle

On November 16, 1874, an Indiana man by the name of William Blackstone gave his wife what might at first sound like the worst birthday gift ever. A manufacturer of farm equipment, Blackstone was definitely one of those handy fellas to have around, and what he made for the missus was perhaps the first in-home washing machine.

It consisted of a wooden tub that held water and contained pegs designed to agitate the clothing when Mrs. Blackstone turned a hand crank. And though it would be another thirty-four years until the first electric washer came along, and then another forty years or so before the electric washer started to become a common home appliance, I think it’s safe to say that the gift made the woman’s life a little easier.

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Yep, that’s when women really had it made, just whiling away the day rocking and sewing in their high heels, not having to deal with any of those pesky servants demanding raises. By Seattle Electric Washer Co. – The Argus (Seattle), April 24, 1920, p. 6. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7183460

Because according to Catharine Beecher, sister to writer Harriet Beecher Stowe and promoter of education of and by women (as long as they didn’t go so far as to think they ought to get to vote), laundry was (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here), “The biggest pain in the housewife’s bustle.”

I don’t doubt that it was. Before the washing machine, women could be found on laundry day soaking their family’s clothes and then scrubbing them with caustic lye soap against washboards or pounding them around with a stick in a barrel, then boiling (while stirring to prevent scorching), rinsing, rinsing again, drying, and ironing (without the benefit of a handy steam iron that plugs into the wall, and yet still sees little use in my house).

Obviously, these women didn’t get much else done on laundry day. I can relate. Sort of. If you are an especially wonderful person who reads this blog regularly, you may have noticed I failed to post last week. And if you also follow me on any other forms of social media (like Twitter or Facebook, and if you do, then you are an absolutely amazingly wonderful person), then you might have noticed I’ve been pretty silent on those as well.

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A few generations after the first Blackstone, but good to know that it has a “smooth-running, dependable motor, built [just] for the woman to operate.” photo credit: JoeInSouthernCA 1933 Maytag Washing Machine Newspaper Advert via photopin (license)
Initially that’s because I was on a vacation trip with my family, though lately, my absence has been more directly related to the piles and piles of laundry produced by such a trip. Honestly, I don’t know how four people, at least two of whom most of the time couldn’t care less whether or not they wear clean clothes, can produce so much laundry. I’ve tried to do that math. It doesn’t work out.

Of course I haven’t just been doing laundry. I’ve also been trying to organize and unpack everything else, while working to get back to some semblance of a summer routine, in which I arrange my children’s social lives, constantly fighting them on their use of electronics. I’ve also been exercising to try to lose the extra five vacation pounds I just put on. And I’ve been working on putting together a syllabus for a class I’ll be teaching in the fall, when I haven’t taught the course in more than ten years. And I’ve been catching up on e-mails, and volunteer stuff, and my reading/reviewing backlog, and short stories with looming deadlines, and, and, and…

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Finally, all that remains of the vacation laundry is one mostly empty basket of clean, unmatched socks. Surely someone has invented a machine that would take care of this for me. Now, that’s something I’d want for my birthday!

So as the person who does most of the laundry in my house, I am definitely grateful for the ability to toss the clothes in the washer and forget about them until they smell mildewy and I have to run the cycle again. Actually, I’m not sure the convenience saves me that much time, though. Because if I had to spend a full day soaking and scrubbing and rinsing and ironing, maybe I wouldn’t try so hard to overextend myself in other ways.

I hope that’s not what Mrs. Blackstone found when her husband gave her a washing machine for her birthday, when all she probably really wanted was jewelry a chance to read a book without having to listen to a child drone on and on and on about Minecraft/Star Wars/Lord of the Rings.

I may be projecting a little bit there.

I’m sure Mr. Blackstone’s wife loved her gift. It wasn’t long until the neighbors got wind of it and soon he was out of the farm equipment business and into the manufacturing of washing machines instead. The invention was a success, and I hope it helped Mrs. Blackstone get what she really wanted for her next birthday, just a little extra time to post to her blog, or to at least read a few chapters of a good book in peace.

Popcorn for One

This past Saturday night, I did something new and wonderful. My husband spent the day with an old buddy of his and my children both attended an event Saturday night, so I found myself with some time on my hands at the end of a long, stressful week.

I thought about using the time to get some more long, stressful work done, but then I remembered that Beauty and the Beast was showing at the movie theater nearby and that I kind of wanted to see it, and no one else in my family did.

So, I bought a ticket and went to the movies by myself for the first time ever. Maybe it’s strange that a nearly forty-year-old American 21st century woman had never had that experience, and maybe you go to the movies by yourself all the time, but this was a first for me.

I bought some popcorn that I didn’t share with anyone. And when the person sitting beside me had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the movie, it wasn’t my problem.  In fact, once the lights went down and the movie started, I didn’t even notice the people next to me, because not one of them whispered to me, spilled his drink on me, or buried his eyes in my shoulder at the scary bits.

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Just one, please. With the perfect amount of butter.

I never entertained the fleeting thought that I should have chosen a different film because my movie-going neighbor clearly wasn’t enjoying this one. I just watched as the story of Belle and her Beast overwhelmed my senses and the stress of the week melted away in the dark auditorium.

And maybe that’s how it should be. After all, movie watching hasn’t always been the group activity it is today when movie-goers tend to grab their families, their sweethearts, or their rowdy group of friends, split a giant tub of popcorn, and sit back to enjoy the show.

When, on May 20, 1891, Thomas Edison first unveiled a working prototype of his laboratory’s Kinetocope, about 150 women gathered round to enjoy the experience, one at a time. The women were attending a convention of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, and among them was Mina Edison, wife to the famous inventor.

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Edison Laboratory’s Kinetoscope, what a movie theater looked like in 1891. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The device these ladies got to see was a large box with a small peephole in the top so that one person could peer inside and see a picture that moved. Edison (and more so his assistants, William Dickson and team) wasn’t the only one making progress toward moving pictures at the time, but when the ladies got a chance to look into the box and see William Dickson waving his hat at them, it was certainly a wholly new experience for them.

And it happened to the right group. Because the National Federation of Women’s Clubs had been developed to support women’s organizations engaged in improving lives through volunteerism. These were some hard working ladies, tackling some of the biggest civic issues of the day including women’s suffrage and child welfare. They had likely come to the conference exhausted, in need of encouragement and empowerment, and also rest and refreshment.

Though the moving picture they saw lasted only a few seconds, I have to assume they enjoyed their moment of solitude and focused entertainment, when in the midst of all these many people, each lady got a turn to see Dickson’s picture greet only her.

The experience caught on. Edison’s team also patented the Kinetographic Camera and by autumn of 1892, the movie viewing system had been fitted with a nickel slot and was headed into production. The first public Kinetoscope viewing parlor opened in New York in April of 1894, and soon the machines were in several major cities and in traveling exhibits throughout the United States. Folks lined up with their nickels, often paying a whole quarter to spend a few minutes jumping down a line of movie boxes to view a series of very short films.

Personally I’d find that a little frustrating and I’m glad that film soon moved into a bigger venue that could accommodate a larger audience. If not for that, we’d never have come to enjoy the hilarity of Mystery Science Theater 3000, or gotten to listen to rustle of hundreds of newspapers unfolding at the boring part of Rocky Horror Picture Show, or squirm in discomfort when an infected someone sneezes in the crowded movie theater during Outbreak. And we’d never miss a pivotal scene in order to accompany a kid to the bathroom.

Don’t get me wrong here. I still enjoy going to the movies with my family and friends. I think I even prefer it most of the time, but this is definitely an experience I will repeat when I get the chance. The movie was good. It’s a familiar story (my friend Pat recently wrote this fascinating post showing the Beast through the years), but it was well done with talented actors, strong voices, and plenty of Disney magic performed just for me. Most importantly, I did not leave in the middle to go walk with anyone to the bathroom. And my popcorn was just the way I like it.

Growing Up is Overrated

In 1959, John Scurlock discovered his employees engaging in a surprising activity. A successful engineer, Scurlock had lent his inventive expertise to both the oil and gas industry and to projects at NASA, and then decided to turn his attention to tennis, a sport he loved. What he came up with was a rapidly inflating cover that could be spread out to protect a clay tennis court at the first inkling of rain.

His invention may have been great for that, had his employees not discovered that it was also quite bouncy. What Scurlock quickly realized was that his adult employees might actually have been incapable of resisting the urge to bounce and that what he’d invented was not a tennis court cover at all. Instead it was a play structure that he called the Space Walk.

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It was really only a matter of time before Bounce Houses and elite sporting events got together. By User:Azbounce4kids (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Over the next decade, Scurlock’s invention got a little safer (with the addition of walls) and he entered the rental business, providing hours of bounce house fun for birthday parties, school fairs, and company picnics. But even though it has obvious adult appeal, bounce castles have generally been considered the realm of children.

Until now.

For the past couple of years, a new themed run has swept across the US and Canada, called the Insane Inflatable 5K. The event is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s a 5K with about a dozen inflatable obstacles set up along the route. Participants climb, jump, slide, fall, and yes, bounce. Often on purpose. Sometimes on their backsides. Because it’s super fun.

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These were some (sort of) serious obstacles. It was kind of like a short Tough Mudder, except for people who don’t like to get muddy and really aren’t that tough.

While there’s no age restriction for the event, the participants are pretty overwhelmingly adults. At least that was true at the one in which I recently participated.

 

If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you may have stumbled across the fact that I believe in my heart of hearts that running is stupid. But (and I realize that this is a bit hypocritical of me) I also really enjoy participating in race events. I love the camaraderie that comes from accomplishing something challenging in the midst of so many other people who are also accomplishing something challenging. I love the cheering and encouragement that comes from fellow race participants and from those who are watching from the sidelines. And, I admit it, I can’t resist a silly theme.

So when I got the opportunity to participate in the Insane Inflatable (or as we more often referred to it, the Bouncy House 5K), I couldn’t pass it up. In fact, when the group I was originally planning to register with began to waver in their enthusiasm, I found another group willing to go on an earlier date.

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The event wasn’t timed, but I did get a medal. So I’m basically an Olympian now.

 

Running may be stupid, but bouncy houses are super fun and as it says on the back of my new silly themed race shirt, “Growing up is overrated.”

John Scurlock’s employees realized that in 1959 and an amazing industry was born.

Lessons from a Typewriter

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.

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Sholes received a patent for his typewriter 148 years ago today (June 23, 1868). Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi became the first manuscript ever typed on a typewriter. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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And this sure is prettier than my computer. By User:Kosmopolitat [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Lessons that Last Centuries: Celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week

Sometime right around the dawn of the nineteenth century, teacher extraordinaire James Pillans, headmaster of Old High School in Edinburgh, Scotland, had a problem. He had a bang-up geography lesson to share with his students, but he didn’t have the most effective equipment with which to do it. Like teachers have to do far too often, he cobbled together what he needed from what supplies he could come up with, and in this case, it worked pretty well.

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James Pillans, educator extraordinaire. Believed to be responsible for creating the coolest classroom job in elementary school. By Stephencdickson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/ licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Like students as far back as the ancient Babylonians and Sumerians, these eager young people had personal slates on which to write and re-write their work. But what Pillans decided he really needed was one much larger slate at the front of the room, on which he could present his lesson to the entire class at one time.

That’s just what he constructed. He connected the slates and hung them in the classroom. The chalkboard was born. It was such a simple, brilliant idea, that the concept grew quickly. In America the first classroom blackboard was used at West Point by instructor George Baron. By the middle of the 19th century, nearly every classroom in America had one.

And because of a surprise discovery last summer, we now have an amazing glimpse of just what kinds of things they might have been used for in the early part of the twentieth century. Because during a summertime classroom renovation project at Emerson High School in Oklahoma City, workers uncovered blackboards from 1917 behind classroom walls.

The really cool thing was that they actually had stuff written on them. The boards, found in several classrooms, were covered with lessons and drawings, and even the names of some students. One featured a multiplication wheel, unfamiliar to any of the teachers. There were beautiful drawings of Thanksgiving turkeys, lists of spelling words, and lessons on cleanliness, all beautifully preserved.

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I can almost smell the chalk dust. photo credit: Red Chalk via photopin (license)

Of course as chalk is intended to be a temporary medium, the boards obviously present a preservation problem. Fear of breakage prevents them from being relocated. So the school has covered some of the boards with plexiglass for display, hoping to preserve the lessons for another hundred years. Others have been re-covered behind walls, as Emerson is still a school building in use, and not all of the space can be sacrificed.

This past January a few more old chalk boards were found and the staff and students are pretty geeked out about the whole thing. Math teacher Sherry Read, whose classroom contains one of the old chalkboards, is particularly delighted because she points out that the drawings were left intentionally.

In an era before so many schools transitioned to using dry erase boards and markers instead of blackboards and dusty chalk, it was pretty much standard procedure to clean off the board and bang out the erasers at the end of the day. I remember in my elementary days (which were not a hundred years ago), that was the classroom job we fought over most.

But when these chalkboards were to be covered up, teachers from back in the day decided to leave behind evidence of what was happening in their classrooms, because if by chance someday, the boards were discovered behind the wall, they would be a record of the kinds of things going on in the classroom years ago. What a cool lesson for future generations to learn.

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The chalkboard wall in my office, where I teach myself bang-up geography lessons. Hopefully James Pillans was a more gifted artist than I am. And didn’t have to contend with a closet door between Pennsylvania and Ohio.

And that, to me, is the very coolest part of this story. Teachers teach. It’s what they do. Their methods may change over time as they discover new ways to motivate and inspire their students, but teachers have always been an innovative, creative, inspiring, and self-sacrificing bunch.

I am sharing this story today not only because it’s awesome, but also because this is Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States. I hope all the teachers out there are having a great week as we rapidly approach the end of what I’m sure at times has been a very long school year. Because even though you are probably underpaid, overworked, and may generally feel underappreciated, your lessons last lifetimes; and your influence, centuries.

Thank you.