Archive for the ‘American History’ Category

payoffThis Week’s Question:

What was the Black Mail?

Last Week’s Question:

Two men applied for patents for the first telephone today. One was Alexander Graham Bell. Who was the other?

Answer:  The other man was Elisha Gray, an electrical engineer and co-founder of Western Electric Company. A fairly prolific inventor, Gray had to work on his telephone in secret, because his financer, Dr Samuel White, wanted him to focus on other things. Gray filed his patent the morning of 14 February, the same day Alexander Graham Bell did, and to this day, there’s some controversy over who really got there first. Apparently, Bell’s patent lawyer got wind of Gray’s application and hotfooted it over to the patent office to hand the patent in personally, after allegedly adding a bit about a liquid transmitter, which Gray’s patent used. With two competing patents, things were held up and Bell was given the opportunity to prove he came up with the liquid transmitter idea first. He pointed to an old patent of his that used mercury as a circuit breaker, which was accepted. His patent was approved on 3 March. Gray challenged the patent, but Bell’s claim was upheld after two years of litigation, and to this day, we know Alexander Graham Bell as the man who made telephone communication possible. You can thank him the next time some jerk answers their iPhone in the middle of a movie.

Gray continued inventing, creating a device that could remotely transmit handwriting (so, basically, an early fax machine), a primitive closed-circuit television system, and an early music synthesizer.

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250px-JamestownShipsThis Week’s Question:

On 20 December 1606 three ships set sail for the new world to establish Jamestown. What was the settlement’s original name?

Last Week’s Question:

Today we celebrate the very first publication of the Encycolpaedia Britannica. The oldest English-language encylopaedia still being produced was first published between 168 and 1771. In what city was it published?

Answer: Edinburgh! The idea for the encyclopaedia came from printer and bookseller Colin Macfarquhar and engraver Andrew Bell. They wanted a more conservative response to Denis Diderot’s French Encyclopédie. Mcfarquhar and Bell recruited a 28-year-old scholar with the unfortunate name of William Smellie to act as editor, tempting him with the rather princely sum of £200 to produce an encyclopaedia in 100 parts. These were released in instalments, with the first appearing on 6 December 1768 in Edinburgh, priced at sixpence for the cheap stuff, 8 pence for finer paper. Even with weekly releases, the first edition wasn’t entirely completed until 1771. The encyclopaedia was then bound into three volumes, and though the price was rather dear at £12, an estimated 3,000 sets were sold. The first edition featured copperplate illustrations engraved by Bell (the ones depicting childbirth didn’t go over so well with some readers).

Britannica was so popular that other editions soon followed, starting in 1776 and edited by Mcfarquhar, who was aided by an indebted pharmacist named James Tytler who was willing to work for a mere 17 shillings a week. Mcfarquhar died while editing the third edition, but Britannica continued on. It’s now in its fifteenth edition (second version) and, in a move to go with the times, will no longer be published in print. From now on, the only way to get your Britannica is by CD or online.

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In 1777, in the midst of the American Revolution, General George Washington led his army of about 11,000 men to Valley Forge, PA to camp for the winter. For many of them, it was the worst Christmas ever. Inadequate clothing and supplies, coupled with wet weather, meant the men were underfed, cold, and oftentimes sick. As many as 2,000 men are said to have died from typhoid, jaundice, dysentery, and pneumonia.

In 1843, Charles Dickens published the classic story A Christmas Carol, which taught us all the importance of generosity and the uselessness of locking doors against supernatural beings. Dozens of subsequent adaptations have ranged from the highly faithful (A Christmas Carol) to the fun and awesome (The Muppet Christmas Carol) to the completely stupid (Barbie in A Christmas Carol).

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First Edition ReplicaThis Week’s Question:

Today we celebrate the very first publication of the Encycolpaedia Britannica. The oldest English-language encylopaedia still being produced was first published between 168 and 1771. In what city was it published?

Last Week’s Question:

It’s Thanksgiving stateside, the day most people sit down with their families for an enormous meal before hitting the stores on Black Friday. Today, we  enjoy our families for a single day, but how long did the original Thanksgiving feast last?

Answer: The first Thanksgiving (though there’s some debate as to whether or not it really was the first in the Americas) lasted for a full three days. And we thought those early settlers were such a hardworking, joyless lot. Party on, folks!

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boardwalk3121Previously on Boardwalk Empire: Gyp brought the war to Atlantic City and Nucky, aided by Al and Chalky, decided it was time to stop running and throw down, big time.

We open on a bunch of men with their hands in the air being machine gunned down, mercilessly. Al comes out of the darkness and delivers one final, killing bullet.

Mayor Bader, meanwhile, is taking some heat from the press about all this recent violence. He reassures them that he’s totally in control and the AC police force has the matter in hand. Oh, so there is still a police force in Atlantic City. Good to know. Of course, as he’s saying this, we get shots of drive-by shootings and violence all over the place, so maybe it’s not quite time to applaud the boys in blue. Chalky and Dunn are even getting in on the action, in broad daylight, no less. Bodies, bodies everywhere, and nobody knows what to think. Bader’s had to call a press conference on the steps of city hall. Did they actually used to do that? Somehow, I almost feel like I’m watching Chicago here or something, they’re hitting the 1920s tropes so hard. Machine guns! Men in fedoras! A microphone in front of city hall! The reporters want to know where Nucky is and Bader swaggers a step to far and tells them that Nucky doesn’t run the city, Bader does. Beat, and then they all burst out laughing. Poor Bader. Once a stooge, always a stooge.


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Previously on Boardwalk Empire: Nucky’s first move against Gyp and Masseria went really badly, especially for Owen. Gyp acted crazy a bit more, and Two Face had an awesome date.

The Thompson suite’s looking pretty trashed, with toys strewn everywhere and cronies asleep or gathering in groups. Two men wrestle Owen’s box through the door. Eddie watches for a moment, then reports to Nucky that it’s being taken care of. Nucky asks if Margaret and the kids are gone and Eddie confirms that they were sent out of town on the first available train. Nucky asks if Eddie knew about Owen and Margaret and Eddie rather helplessly says he only really tends to Nucky. Sticking his nose in Margaret’s business isn’t really part of his job. Nucky tells him he’d better leave soon, because it’s not safe for anyone, but Eddie refuses. So, Nucky tells him to get on the phone and call Eli and Chalky and anyone else they can think of. Eddie picks up the phone, but the line’s dead.


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In exactly one week, at 11 a.m. 30 November, The Reading Hour will begin. Part of Book Week Scotland, it’s a single hour in which everyone is encouraged to drop what they’re doing, pick up a book, and read. Just an hour out of your day, no big deal, right? But the question is, what will you read? Well, if you’re a fan of the shows on this blog, here are a few recommendations:

Downton Abbey

Fiction: The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin. Life as Cora would have known it—a young American woman marrying into the English aristocracy. Hell, the main character’s name in the book is even Cora; it’s like it was meant to be.

Non-Fiction: I wrote a whole blog about Downton-related reading, but my personal pick would have to be The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicholson. This incredibly addictive read covers the whole span of society, from aristocrats to servants and everyone in-between and follows their scandals, heartbreak, hopes, and dreams during one lovely pre-war summer.

The Tudors

Fiction: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. This is my pick for The Reading Hour. The way Mantel uses words astonishes me (it’s no wonder she won the Booker for both this and its sequel, Bringing Up the Bodies) and it’s nice to see Thomas Cromwell, an oft-maligned historical figure, treated so sympathetically.

Non-Fiction: The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir is one of my all-time favourite non-fiction titles. Weir (a much better historian than fiction writer, just so you know) delves deeply into the lives of the women who defined Henry’s reign.


Fiction: A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. The sex may not be there, but the black humour sure is. These books are seriously dark and incredibly hilarious. Plus, they’re quick reads, perfect for an hour-long break. If you want dark humour with sex, I’d recommend Candide by Voltaire.

The Paradise

Fiction: This one’s already based on a book—The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola, which is now more widely available thanks to the series.

Non-Fiction: Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead tells the story of Moray’s real-life counterpart, Harry Selfridge, who founded his eponymous luxury store in London before spectacularly crashing and burning. For those who want to get more into the nitty gritty of early department store commerce, Selfridge wrote a book himself called The Romance of Commerce. Sexy!

Game of Thrones

Fiction: This one’s based on a book as well (actually, a series, as I’m sure you know). If you’re not currently enmeshed in it, I hear The Wheel Of Time series is excellent. And, for those who don’t mind trading dragons for giant worms, there’s Frank Herbert’s Dune series.

Non-Fiction: You want interfamilial love, enemies around every corner, paranoia, backstabbing, and gore? Pick up pretty much any book about ancient Rome and its rulers.

Boardwalk Empire

Fiction: For a less harrowing glimpse of the era, try Carry on, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

Non-Fiction: Also based on a book (makes it easy, doesn’t it?). There are a slew of Prohibition-era reads to go along with it, including Last Call by Daniel Okrent, and, for those Chalky White fans out there, The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson

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This Week’s Question:

It’s Thanksgiving stateside, the day most people sit down with their families for an enormous meal before hitting the stores on Black Friday. Today, we put up with enjoy our families for a single day, but how long did the original Thanksgiving feast last?

Last Week’s Question:

What is unique about Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh?

Answer: It’s privately owned (by the Dean Cemetery Trust) and is one of the few cemeteries to be run according to the original intentions of the designer (David Cousin, who also designed Warriston Cathedral). As a fashionable spot, it’s also the final resting place of several notable figures.

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Previously on Boardwalk Empire: Nucky decided to go to war with Masseria and was left to it by all the other east coast bootleggers.

It’s summer in AC and the beach and Boardwalk are hoppin’. There’s a particularly fancy show with some guy dressed as Neptune (accompanied by pretty girls dressed as lobsters—just go with it) which is being watched by Julia and Tommy while they build sandcastles, waiting for TF to return with their ice cream cones. Aww. Meanwhile, bottles of whiskey start washing up on shore, much to the extreme delight of the beachgoers. A few of them start spreading the word, and I’m surprised they didn’t keep their mouths shut and grab all the bottles they could. Neptune’s crowd—and then Neptune himself—rush to accept this apparent gift from the gods.


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Previously on Boardwalk Empire: With Gillian’s help, Gyp bombed Babette’s, almost taking Nucky and Rothstein along with it.

Babette’s is still a blackened mess. Workers are clearing the debris, including the sign, as curious onlookers…onlook. Meanwhile, at the Ritz, Nucky’s getting a physical from  his doctor, who says he’s got a concussion and the double vision and ringing ears will go away soon. He advises bedrest, but Nucky’s got things to do. He tells Eddie to call Eli over and gets up to dress, but then feels lightheaded, so the doctor tells him to lie down and reminds him how lucky he was. Nucky briefly thinks of Billie.


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