January 24, 1935 It’s Beer Can Appreciation Day

Today as we gather to celebrate National Beer Can Appreciation Day, January 24, 2021, let us pause in solemn reverence to contemplate the meaning, of such a day as this. Sláinte.

The early brews of Egypt and Mesopotamia were transported in clay vessels called “amphorae”.

Wine was better suited to the sensibilities of the Roman palate leaving beer, to the barbarians. Even so, letters from cavalry commanders of the Roman Britain period, c. 97-103 AD, include requests for more “cerevisia“ for the legions.

Wooden barrels replaced the clay of antiquity in the early centuries AD made by skilled artisans, called “coopers”.

Glass came into use in the early 1700s, the same thick, black glass used for wine and hard liquor. Twist-offs were a thing of the distant future in those days and bottles were sealed, with corks or caps.

The screw cap came into being in 1870 thanks to English inventor Henry Barrett, but there were problems. Glass was heavy to transport over long distances, and easily damaged. Inspecting for cracks and chips and cleaning for re-use was both time consuming, and expensive. There had to be a better way.

Breweries toyed with the idea of canning beer since the early 1900s, but not without challenges. A can must survive pasteurization while containing pressures up to 80psi and still deliver a product, that was fresh and tasty. The metallic afterbite of early attempts was enough to repel even the most devoted of beer drinkers.

Prohibition put an end to such efforts, but not for long. Pabst and Anheuser-Busch both bet on an end to Prohibition by the late 1920s and asked the American Can Company, to help figure it out.

The answer was a polymer coating called Vinylite, a material familiar to anyone who’s ever handled a vinyl record. Early tests by Pabst proved favorable but major breweries were reluctant to commit, without a real-world test.

Like most smaller breweries, the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company of Newark New Jersey was badly hurt, by Prohibition. When American Can offered not only to install a canning line but to pay for a test, it was an easy decision.

In June 1934, two cans each were delivered to 1,000 homes in Richmond Virginia. 91 percent gave the beer can, a “thumbs up”. 85% said it tasted more like draft, than bottled beer

On this day in 1935, Krueger went on sale all over the city. The beer can was born.

These weren’t the paper-thin cans we think of today. They were thick, heavy flat tops requiring a ‘church key’ to open, the can itself weighing in an at a ¼-pound apiece.

Krueger got their canning line paid for, but other brewers were still tooled up for bottles. New production lines were expensive. The answer came in the form of a “cone top”. With no need to upgrade equipment, the style appealed to smaller brewers. J. Heileman was the first to roll out a cone top in 1935 followed by Schlitz, the first national brewer to do so. The cone style remained popular until 1960 when the big nationals drove many of the regional guys, out of business. The cone top faded from use.

A beer can revolution came about in 1963 in the form of a pull tab or “pop top”, easy opening can. The Pittsburg Brewing Company was the first to use the pull tab on its flagship Iron City brand. Schlitz was the first of the nationals. By 1965, 75% of all beverage cans produced came with pop tops

These things were pure, unmitigated evil. Pop tops by the millions began to appear on beaches, lakes and parks, each one a self-contained, locked and loaded anti-personnel weapon lying in wait for the next bare foot. Pets and wild animals alike limped away with mangled feet or died after ingesting the things. There’s barely a child or teenager alive in the 1960’s, who doesn’t have a horror story about stepping on a pop top.

I blew out my flip flop
Stepped on a pop top
Cut my heel, had to cruise on back home”.
Jimmy Buffet

The answer came in 1975 in the form of “Stay Tabs”. First introduced by the Falls City Brewing Company of Louisville, Kentucky, stay tabs have changed almost not at all since that time and remain the state-of-the-art for nearly all carbonated beverages sold, to this day.

So it is we celebrate “National Beer Can Appreciation Day” this January 24, 2021. May it be a day filled with good health and hearty celebration. Sláinte.

For every wound, a balm.
For every sorrow, cheer. 
For every storm, a calm.
For every thirst, a beer. – Irish toast, author unknown

January 22, 1957 The Mad Bomber

The American power grid operates 55,000 electrical substations, nationwide. 30 of them are critical to US infrastructure. Should terrorists or other mishap take out nine of them, the result would be nationwide blackout. For 18 months.

Seven years ago, a report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) described the possibility of terrorist attacks, against the American power grid. Excerpts leaked to the Wall Street Journal described some 55,000 electrical generating substations, nationwide. 30 of them are critical to US infrastructure. Should terrorists or other mishap take out nine of them, the result would be nationwide blackout. For 18 months.

With the exception of nuclear facilities, American power plants are neither hardened nor guarded against external attack, a fact borne out by a previously unreleased 2012 report, from the Department of Homeland Security.

The crippling affects of such a shutdown can only be imagined and I sincerely hope, someone in a position of authority is doing just that.

And yet, America’s first terror campaign aimed at the power grid came not from outside but from the industry, itself.

Ninety years ago, George Metesky lived with his two unmarried sisters in Waterbury, Connecticut. Every day this Lithuanian immigrant would drive to New York where he worked as a wiper, at the Consolidated Edison (ConEd) plant at Hell Gate. A wiper is the entry level employee at an electrical power plant, responsible for keeping equipment clean and in good working order.

In 1931, Metesky was knocked down by a boiler backfire and a rush of hot gases. Choking fumes had damaged his lungs he claimed, and he went out on sick leave. Benefits ran out after 26 weeks and Metesky was terminated. Applications for worker compensation were denied, because it had been too long.

Appeals were filed, each denied in a process that stretched out, until 1936. Metesky developed pneumonia and later tuberculosis, all the while nursing an incandescent hatred for ConEd, company attorneys and three former coworkers he believed had perjured themselves, during proceedings.

On November 16, 1940, a brass pipe packed with gunpowder was left in a wooden toolbox, on a window at the mid-town Manhattan ConEd plant. The bomb was found before it exploded, along with a note: CON EDISON CROOKS – THIS IS FOR YOU. F.P.

Police inquired about disgruntled employees or former customers of ConEd but the inquiry, led nowhere.

Modern pipe bomb mailed to former CIA director, John Brennan

Nearly a year came and went before another bomb was discovered at the ConEd headquarters at 4 Irving Place. This one was also found, before it exploded. There would be more bombs and others, weren’t so lucky.

Metesky, a former marine who served in the years following WW1, had worked as an electrical specialist and helped to wire the new Consulate, in Hong Kong.

Evidently, the man still still harbored patriotic feelings. Shortly after the outbreak of WW2, a note arrived at the New York Police Department: I WILL MAKE NO MORE BOMB UNITS FOR THE DURATION OF THE WAR – MY PATRIOTIC FEELINGS HAVE MADE ME DECIDE THIS – LATER I WILL BRING THE CON EDISON TO JUSTICE – THEY WILL PAY FOR THEIR DASTARDLY DEEDS . . .F.P.

True to his word, the bombing started once again, in 1951. Phone booths. Storage lockers. Public batrooms all over the city: Grand Central Terminal, Penn Station, Radio City Music Hall, the New York Public Library, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the RCA Building and the New York City Subway. Theater seats were slit open and bombs inserted, inside the upholstery. Metesky planted no fewer that 33 bombs of which 22, exploded. 15 people were injured.

Penn Station

With bombs no longer targeting ConEd itself, the letters continued: BOMBS WILL CONTINUE UNTIL THE CONSOLIDATED EDISON COMPANY IS BROUGHT TO JUSTICE FOR THEIR DASTARDLY ACTS AGAINST ME. I HAVE EXHAUSTED ALL OTHER MEANS. I INTEND WITH BOMBS TO CAUSE OTHERS TO CRY OUT FOR JUSTICE FOR ME.

Always in the same immaculately formed, capitalized block letters.

The NYPD formed a special task force to find the bomber, the New York Bomb Squad. The first of its kind. A reward of $26,000 was offered for information leading to arrest and conviction.

Phony bombs, fake leads and false bomb scares materialized by the hundreds making it near impossible to determine what information was real, and what was fake. A bomb went off on December 2, 1956 at the paramount movie Theater injuring six, one seriously. The next day police commissioner Stephen Kennedy announced “the greatest manhunt in the history of the police department”.

The largest city in the nation lived in terror.

HAVE YOU NOTICED THE BOMBS IN YOUR CITY – IF YOU ARE WORRIED, I AM SORRY – AND ALSO IF ANYONE IS INJURED. BUT IT CANNOT BE HELPED – FOR JUSTICE WILL BE SERVED. I AM NOT WELL, AND FOR THIS I WILL MAKE THE CON EDISON SORRY – YES, THEY WILL REGRET THEIR DASTARDLY DEEDS – I WILL BRING THEM BEFORE THE BAR OF JUSTICE – PUBLIC OPINION WILL CONDEMN THEM – FOR BEWARE, I WILL PLACE MORE UNITS UNDER THEATER SEATS IN THE NEAR FUTURE.

The notes were always signed, “F.P.”

In 1840, the writer Edgar Allen Poe introduced the super sleuth character C. Auguste Dupin in his novel, Murders in the Rue Morgue. Possessed of preternatural intelligence, Dupin seemed literally able to get into the mind, of the criminal subject. The character reappeared in The Mystery of Marie Rogêt and The Purloined Letter, laying the groundwork for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character and a whole genre, of detective fiction.

Desperate, out of ideas, Captain John Cronin went to the office of a friend, psychiatrist and Assistant Commissioner at the New York Department of Mental Hygiene Dr. James Brussel. Brussel had worked with military intelligence during the war in Korea and now worked with the criminally insane. Inspired by Poe’s character Dupin and informed by real world experience, Brussel had a theory he called “reverse psychology”.

At first reluctant to test his theories in the real world, (people could DIE if he was wrong), Dr. Brussel at last consented to look into the case. Looking into patterns, letters and anything else he could glean about the mad bomber, Dr. Brussel came back in two hours with a surprisingly detailed profile.

Dr. Brussel believed the bomber to be a neat, proper man and exemplary employee. The suspect was punctual, methodical and sober. Reclusive, anti-social and never married, the suspect probably lived with an older female relative. When arrested he would likely be wearing a double-breasted suit. Last, Brussel believed the suspect to be an immigrant of eastern European ancestry and deduced that he lived in Connecticut, based on the state’s large Slavic population.

At first wanting to keep the profile confidential, police were persuaded by Dr. Brussel who insisted, the bomber couldn’t restrain himself from responding. Especially if the profile got anything wrong. The profile needed to be public.

On Christmas day 1956, every newspaper in New York published Dr. Brussel’s profile. New York Journal publisher Seymour Berkson took it further and appealed directly, to the bomber. Berkson promised a fair trial if the bomber would turn himself in. The tactic worked. The bomber responded. He would not turn himself in but he agreed to a “truce”, until march 1. Working with police and corresponding directly with the bomber, Berkson carefully crafted his language so as to draw out information while not provoking, the suspect. It worked.

The bomber revealed his hatred for ConEd. That he’d been injured in a workplace accident, and left permanently disabled. The man even specified the date of the accident. September 5, 1931.

Inexplicably, ConEd itself had been less than cooperative. First explaining that records were destroyed for employees terminated before 1940 the company hid for two years, behind “legal issues”. Now it was as if company executives, woke up.

ConEd clerk Alice Kelly pored through old paperwork until she found the words, in red: Injustice. Disability. Words regularly appearing in the notes of the mad bomber. Someone had written those words in red, on the file of George Metesky. Reading over the file Kelly found many words and phrases, echoed in the bomber’s letters.

On January 22, 1957, police appeared at the Waterbury home of George Metesky. He opened the door not in a double breasted suit but in his pajamas and a bathrobe: buttoned up, clean and neat, almost fussy. Just as the profile had predicted. The man lived with two older sisters.

On questioning, police were astonished at how much Metesky fit Brussel’s profile. They asked him what “F.P.” stood for. Fair play. Metesky readily admitted his guilt and led police to his garage. To his bomb-making materials.

A smiling George Metesky, the “Mad Bomber,” in 1957 in Waterbury, Connecticut.

The grand jury deliberated over 47 counts as Metesky himself was evaluated, for competence. He was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, later judged incompetent to stand trial and remanded to the custody of the Matteawan Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

The Mad bomber was declared harmless in 1973 and, having served 2/3rds of his sentence, was released to live out the rest of his life, in Connecticut. He died in 1994, at the age of 90.

Dr. Brussel became a much-sought after speaker and went on to write a book. Today the man’s work is considered seminal to modern techniques of criminal profiling. Brussel went to visit Metesky once in Matteawan and found the man calm, smiling and condescending. He explained that he never did want to kill anyone. Only to cause injury.

January 20, 1940 The real Thing Goes to War

On January 20, 1940, Winston Churchill urged neutral nations to oppose the Nazi war machine, warning that “Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last.” Meanwhile in Germany, Coca Cola was the undisputed king of the domestic soft drink market.

In 1865, Confederate Cavalry officer John Stith Pemberton was wounded by a saber slash. Like many, Pemberton became addicted to the morphine given him to help ease the pain. Unlike most, Doctor Pemberton possessed the wherewithal to do something about it.

In civil life, Pemberton was a chemist.  After the war, the former cavalry officer experimented with non-opiate pain killers, landing on a combination of the coca leaf and kola nut.  By 1886 he was bottling his concoction and selling it for 5¢ a bottle out of an Atlanta pharmacy.  Ten years later, Coca-Cola was available in every American state and territory.

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Europeans had long believed that natural mineral waters held medicinal qualities, and favored such beverages over often-polluted common drinking water.  

In 1919, France welcomed the Coca Cola company with the first bottling plants in Paris and Bordeaux. The company aggressively expanded into the European market over the next decade with bottling plants in Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. By the time of the “Anschluss”, Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938, Coca-Cola had been in Germany for ten years.

Around the time that Hitler and the Nazi party were coming to power in 1933, German-born Max Keith (pronounced “Kite”) took over Coca-Cola’s German subsidiary, Coca-Cola Deutschland, GmbH.  Mark Pendergrast, author of For God, Country, and Coca-Cola, writes that Keith “valued his allegiance to the drink and to the company more than his allegiance to his own country”.  He had no qualms about doing business with every aspect of German society, including Nazi party members.

Ein Getrank

Bizarre though it may sound to the modern ear, a number of famous Americans and companies were involved with the European fascist regimes of the 1930s, including William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Kennedy (JFK’s father), Charles Lindbergh, John Rockefeller, Andrew Mellon (banker, head of Alcoa and Secretary of the Treasury), DuPont, General Motors, Standard Oil (now Exxon), Ford, ITT, Allen Dulles (later head of the CIA), Prescott Bush, National City Bank, General Electric and many Hollywood celebrities.

In Atlanta, Coca-Cola President Robert Woodruff was no exception.  Woodruff himself attended the 1936 Berlin Olympics, alongside banners depicting the company logo, with the slogan  “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Getrank – A People, an Empire, a Drink”.

Coca-Cola-Advertisements-in-Nazi-Germany-in-the-1930s-8

Woodruff used a 10th anniversary party for Coca-Cola GmbH to organize a mass Nazi salute in honor of Hitler’s 50th birthday, declaring that it was “to commemorate our deepest admiration for our Fuhrer.”

On January 20, 1940, Winston Churchill urged neutral nations to oppose the Nazi war machine, warning that “Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last.”  Meanwhile in Germany, Coca Cola was the undisputed king of the domestic soft drink market.

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That all changed a year later with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the German declaration of war on the United States.

American entry into World War 2 meant that American companies ceased business with axis powers, while the German government threatened to seize “enemy owned” businesses.  Max Keith was cut off from all communications with Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, and in danger of the Nazi party nationalizing his beloved company.  As shipments of Coca-Cola’s mythical “7X’ syrup, dried up, Keith had to come up with a substitute for the domestic soft drink market.  Mach Schnell.

Soldiers Gulp Down Coca Cola
Coca-Cola worked with the U.S. government to ensure troops, including these men in Italy, had access to Coke throughout WW2. Bettmann/Getty Images

With wartime rationing already in effect, Keith and his chemists worked with what was available.  Leftovers from other food industries; apple fibers, fruit peelings, beet sugar  and whey, the liquid left over when milk was curdled and strained off to make cheese.

The result was “Fantasievoll”, “Fantastiche” according to Keith. Imaginative. Fantastic.  So it is that the soft drink “Fanta”, was borne of the wartime necessities of Nazi Germany.

Coca-Cola GmbH had concocted a sweet, slightly cheesy tasting soft drink, and the German market responded. Sales rose steadily throughout the war, particularly as alternatives became increasingly scarce. People didn’t just drink the stuff, either. With sweeteners of all kinds strictly rationed, Fanta made its way into baked goods, soups and a variety of foodstuffs. By 1943, Fanta sales reached almost three million cases.

Tristan Donovan, author of the book Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World, writes “It was Fanta or nothing”. Pendergrast writes that there’s little doubt that Keith did business with Nazis, but he was more company guy than ideologue. “You could not do business inside of Nazi Germany unless you collaborated with them,” wrote Pendergrast. “There’s no question he was a Nazi collaborator. [But] he was not a member of the Nazi party. His allegiance was to Coca-Cola, not to Hitler.”

When American troops liberated Germany in the summer of 1945, legend has it they found Keith in a half-bombed out factory, still bottling the stuff.

Fun fact: Hitler and his henchmen didn’t call themselves “Nazis”, in fact the term was frowned upon. They were the “NSDAP”, the Nazionale Socialistiche Deutsche Arbaits Partai, (National Socialist German Workers Party), the original abbreviation forwhich, was “Nasos”. The word “Nazi” derives from a Bavarian term meaning “simple minded” and was first used as a term of derision by journalist Konrad Heiden. The term was adopted by Anti-NSDAP’ers and Allied troops after war broke out, and the name stuck.

Despite being on the losing side, Keith was hailed as a hero back in Atlanta. The man who kept the company alive, in Germany. Vice President of Sales Harrison Jones called Keith a “great man”.  He was given control of Coca-Cola, in all of Europe.

coca-cola_ad_third_reich_1935

In April 1955, Coca-Cola reintroduced Fanta as an orange drink. Starting in Italy, the product made its way to the United States, in 1958. The name stuck, and why not. The company already owned the copyright.

In 2012, Fanta saw the strongest sales growth of the top 10 brands, the third Coke branded product to surpass 2 billion in case sales. Today, more than 100 flavors of Fanta are sold around the world. Customers from Latin America to Africa, Europe, Brazil and China can all say,  “Es ist die Reale Sache”.  It’s the Real Thing.

January 12, 1992 Daisy Bell

In 1961, physicist John Larry Kelly, Jr. and Louis Gerstman produced the first truly synthesized speech using an IBM 7094 computer. Kelly’s synthesizer recreated the song “Daisy Bell” with musical accompaniment from Max Vernon Matthews, a song made popular in 1892 and better known as “A Bicycle Built for Two.”

We live in an age when pocket sized devices are capable of producing text from speech, and speech from text. We’ve all tried with varying degrees of success, to dictate a text message or email. It may come as a surprise as it did to me, how long the idea of other-than-human speech has been around.

According to Norse mythology, Mímir was the wisest of the Gods of Æsir. Mímir or Mim was beheaded during the war with the rival Gods of Vanir after which Odin carried the thing around (the head), so that it may impart secret knowledge and wise counsel.

The Brazen Head of the early modern age was the legendary automaton of medieval wizards and necromancers and always said to give the correct answer, provided the question was…just right. William of Malmsbury’s History of the English Kings (c. 1125) contains the earliest known reference to such a talking, Brazen Head. Similar legends followed the polymath Pope Silvester II (c. 946 – 1003), the Dominican friar Albertus Magnus (c.1200 – 1280) and the English philosopher Roger Bacon (1214 – 1294).

Roger Bacon’s assistant is confronted by the Brazen head in a 1905 retelling of the story. H/T Wikipedia

In 1779, the German-Danish scientist Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein built a model of the human vocal tract which could produce the five long vowel sounds of the international phonetic alphabet.

Wolfgang von Kempelen of Pressburg, Hungary, described a bellows-operated apparatus in a 1791 paper, including facsimiles of tongue and lips to produce the nasals, plosives and fricatives required to mimic most (but not all) consonant sounds. Charles Wheatstone actually built the thing in 1846 after Kempelen died, calling his acoustic-mechanical speech machine, the ‘euphonia’.

“A replica of Kempelen’s speaking machine, built 2007–09 at the Department of Phonetics, Saarland University, Saarbrücken, Germany” H/T Wikipedia

At Bell Labs in the 1930s, the pioneering work of acoustic engineer Homer Dudley led to the Vocoder, a portmanteau of voice and encoder, capable of synthesizing and encrypting voice transmissions for use in  secure radio communications. The receiving apparatus or Voder, a keyboard operated device capable of independent speech synthesis, was demonstrated at the 1939 World’s Fair.

In the late 1940s, the pattern playback machines of Dr. Franklin S. Cooper and the Haskins Laboratories converted pictures of acoustic speech patterns, into recognizable speech. In 1961, physicist John Larry Kelly, Jr. and Louis Gerstman produced the first truly synthesized speech using an IBM 7094 computer. Kelly’s synthesizer recreated the song “Daisy Bell” with musical accompaniment from Max Vernon Matthews, a song made popular in 1892 and better known as “A Bicycle Built for Two.”

“Daisy, Daisy / Give me your answer, do. / I’m half crazy / all for the love of you…”

By sheer coincidence, the English futurist, science-fiction writer and television host Arthur Charles Clarke was visiting his friend and colleague John Pierce at this time, at Bell Labs’ Murray Hill facility.

If you think that name sounds familiar, you’re right. Today, Clarke joins American writers Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein as the “Big three”, in science fiction.

It is Clarke who wrote the script for Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 dystopic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Clarke was so impressed with the Daisy Bell demonstration he wrote it into his screenplay. You may remember the climactic scenes of the film as fictional astronauts Frank Poole and Dave Bowman battle for their lives against Discovery’s supercomputer-gone-bad, the HAL9000, “born” this day in 1992 at the HAL Labs in Urbana Illinois, according to the screenplay.

After HAL hurled Frank Poole off into the black void of space and shut off life support to the rest of the crew while still in suspended animation, Dave Bowman is now the sole survivor of the Discovery mission, desperately seeking to unhook the power modules, to the HAL9000.

“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that, Dave”.

In the end, the servant of mankind-turned-evil supercomputer reverted to his most basic programming:

“It won’t be a stylish marriage / I can’t afford a carriage.”

“But you’ll look sweet/on the seat/of a bicycle built, for two.”

Fun fact: English songwriter and composer Harry Dacre first came to the United States, with a bicycle. Complaining about having to pay duty on the thing, Dacre’s American friend and fellow songwriter William Jerome quipped, “It’s lucky you didn’t bring a bicycle built for two, otherwise you’d have to pay double duty.” Dacre was so taken with the phrase he soon used it in a song, first popularized in a London music hall and first performed in the United States, in 1892. “Daisy Bell”.

December 21, 2012 The Mayan Apocalypse

We are privileged to live in an age of great learning and wisdom. The internet brings us the sum total of human knowledge, with but a few keystrokes. Social media has right-sized the planet to a single community where we all discuss the Code of Hammurabi, the collected works of Shakespeare and the vicissitudes of interplanetary physics.

Naah. Just kidding. We live in as nonsensical an age as any other. One of the sillier bits of pop culture foolishness of the recent past, may be when the world came to an end. Eight years ago today. December 21, 2012.

It was the Mayan Apocalypse. A day of giant solar flares, when the planets aligned to cause massive tidal catastrophe and Earth collided with the imaginary planet Nibiru. Over in China, Lu Zhenghai even built himself an Ark. Sort of.

If only I’d been smart enough back then, to sell survival kits.

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Lu Zhenghai’s ark, 2012. H/T Huffpo

End-of-the-world scenarios are nothing new. In 1806, the “Prophet Hen of Leeds” was laying eggs, inscribed with the message “Christ is coming”. It was the end of times. The Judgement Day cometh.

The story, as told in the book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” written by Scottish author Charles Mackay in 1841, tells the story of a “panic[ked] terror”, when a “great number of visitors” traveled from far and near, to peer at the chicken Nostradamus.

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Turns out that Mary Bateman, the bird’s owner and a serial fraudster, was writing these messages with some kind of “corrosive ink”, maybe an acid, and reinserting them into the poor chicken. The “Yorkshire Witch” met her end on a gibbet, hanged for the poisoned pudding she gave that couple to relieve their chest pain, but I digress.

If you were around in 1986, you may remember the great excitement surrounding the return of Halley’s Comet. The celestial body comes around but once every 76 years and, the time before that, it was the end of the world. In 1910, the New York Times reported the discovery of the deadly poison cyanogen, in the comet’s tail. French astronomer Camille Flammarion predicted the gas would “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.”

fin du monde
French postcard, 1910

Hucksters sold comet pills. Doomsayers claimed that massive tides would cause the Pacific to empty, into the Atlantic. Finally, the end of days arrived. May 20, 1910. And then it went. There was no end of the world though, tragically, 16-year-old Amy Hopkins fell to her death from a rooftop, while awaiting the appearance, of the comet.

The world has seen no fewer than 207 End-of-the-World predictions over the last 2,000 years, if Wikipedia is to be believed. Polls conducted in 2012 across twenty nations revealed percentages from 6% in France to 22% in the United States and Turkey, believing the world would come to an end, in their lifetimes.

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5,000 years ago, the Mayan civilization of modern-day Mexico and Central America developed a sophisticated calendar, working with a base numerical system of 20.

It was three calendars, really. The “Long Count” was mainly used for historical purposes, able to specify any date within a 2,880,000 day cycle. The Haab was a civil calendar, consisting of 18 months of 20 days, and an “Uayeb” of five days. The Tzolkin was the “divine” calendar, used mainly for ceremonial and religious purposes. Consisting of 20 periods of 13 days, the Tzolkin goes through a complete cycle every 260 days. The significance of this cycle is unknown, though it may be connected with the 263-day orbit of Venus. There is no year in the Haab or Tzolkin calendars, though the two can be combined to specify a particular day within a 52-year cycle.

MayanCalendar

Get it? No, neither do I. Suffice it to say that the world of the Mayan Gods lasted 5,125 years and 133 days, a period of time known as 13 b’ak’tun.

The last Long Count began in August 3114 BC.  Counting forward, scholars decided on December 21, 2012, as the end of the cycle.

Calamity. An estimated 2 percent of the American public believed the end of the world, was nigh. Online searches went up for one-way flights to Turkey and the South of France, both rumored to be safe havens from the apocalypse.

They should have asked a Mayan, who may have been amused by all these crazy Gringos. The world wasn’t coming to an end. The calendar just rolls over and begins again at “Zero”, like those old odometers that only went up to 100,000 miles.

What a party that could have been. The “New Year” to end all New Years. Only comes around once every 5,125 years, & 133 days.

Happy 14 b’ak’tun.

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December 6, 1768 The Murderer’s Dictionary

Over seventy years in compilation, only a single individual is credited with more entries in the greatest reference work in the history of the English language than this one murderer, working from a cell in a mental institution.

For the great reference works of the English language, the beginnings were often surprisingly modest. The outpouring of intellectual and scientific accomplishment known as the Scottish Enlightenment produced among other works the Encyclopedia Britannica, first published on December 6, 1768 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Webster’s dictionary got its beginnings with a single infantrymen of the American Revolution, who went on to codify what would become the standardized system of spelling for “American English“.  In Noah Webster’s dictionary, ‘colour’ became ‘color’, and programme’ became ‘program’. It was a novel concept at a time when the very thought of a “correct“ way of spelling, was new and unfamiliar.

Among the entire catalog of works there is no tale so strange as the Oxford English dictionary, and the convicted murderer who helped bring it to life. 

No, really. From an insane asylum, no less.

Dissatisfied with what were at that time a spare four reference works including Webster’s dictionary, the Philological society of London first discussed what was to become the standard reference work of the English language, in 1857.

The work was expected to take 10 years in compilation and cover some 64,000 pages.  The editors were off, by about sixty years.  Five years into the project the team had made it all the way up, to “ant“.

William Chester Minor was a physician around this time, serving with the Union army during the American Civil War.   

The role of this experience in the man’s later psychosis, is impossible to know.  Minor was in all likelihood a paranoid schizophrenic, a condition poorly understood in his day.

As a combat surgeon, Minor saw things no man was ever meant to see.  Terrible mutilation was inflicted on both sides at the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness.  Hundreds were wounded and unable to get out of the way of the brush fire, burning alive before the horrified eyes of comrades and foe alike, those poor unfortunate sufferers too broken to move.  One soldier would later write:  It was as though “hell itself had usurped the place of earth“.

William Chester minor

At one point, Dr. Minor was ordered to brand the forehead of an Irish deserter with the letter “D”.  The episode scarred the soldier, and left the doctor with paranoid delusions. The Irish were coming to ‘get him’. He Knew they were.

In his paranoid delusions, the faceless form of man would slither out of the attic at night and watch Minor as he slept, in his hands a tray of metal biscuits, slathered in poison. The Fenian Brotherhood was out to Get him. He could almost hear their dark whispered conversations, on gaslit streets.

As a child born to New England missionaries working in Ceylon, (now Sri Lanka), Minor was comfortable with the idea of foreign travel as a means of dealing with difficulty. He took a military pension and moved to London in 1871, to escape the demons who were by that time, closing in.

Minor’s tormentors followed. He would lie in his bed at night frozen with fear and each night, his tormenter would return. Regular visits to Scotland Yard would result in little more than polite thanks, and a few useless notes scribbled on paper. Dr. Minor would have to deal with this himself. He took to sleeping with a loaded Colt .38, beneath his pillow.

On February 17, 1862, Minor woke to find the shadow of a man, standing over him. The apparition dove for the window and Minor followed him, into the street.

It was 2:00 in the morning and hardly anyone was out, save for one man. George Merrett was a father of 6 with a pregnant wife, who worked at the Red Lion Brewery, as a coal stoker. He was walking to work. 

Minor’s nighttime apparitions were nothing but the paranoid delusions, of a broken mind. The three or four bullets he fired at a man walking to work, were very real. George Merrett was dead before the police got there.

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Broadmoor asylum for the criminally insane

Minor was tried and found not guilty by reason of insanity, and remanded “until Her Majesty’s Pleasure be known” to the Broadmoor institution for the criminally insane. Victorian England was by no means ‘enlightened’ by modern standards, and inmates were always referred to as ‘criminals’ and ‘lunatics’. Never as ‘patients’. Yet Broadmoor, located on 290 acres in the village of Crowthorne in Berkshire was England’s newest such asylum, and a long way from previous such institutions.

Minor was housed in block 2, the “Swell Block”, where his military pension and family wealth afforded him two rooms instead of the usual one.

Minor would acquire books, so many over time that one room was converted to a library. 

Surprisingly, it was Merritt’s widow Eliza, who delivered many of his books.  The pair became friends and Minor used a portion of his wealth to “pay” for his crime, and to help the widow raise her six kids.

Dr. James Murray assumed editorship of the “Big Dictionary” of English in 1879, and issued an appeal in magazines and newspapers, for outside contributions. Whether this seemed a shot at redemption to William Minor or merely something to do with his time is anyone’s guess, but Minor had nothing but time. And books.

William Minor collected his first quotation in 1880 and continued to do so for twenty years, always signing his submissions: Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire.

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Dr. “Murray at work in his scriptorium, a dedicated room filled with books, at Oxford University (date unknown)”. H/T allthatsinteresting.com

The scope of the man’s work was prodigious, he himself an enigma, assumed to be some country gentlemen.  Perhaps one of the overseers, at the asylum.

In 1897, “The Surgeon of Crowthorne” failed to attend the Great Dictionary dinner.  Dr. Murray decided to meet his mysterious contributor in person and finally did so, in 1901.  In his cell.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when this Oxford don was ushered into the office of Broadmoor’s director, only to learn the man he was searching for, was an inmate.

Dr. Minor would carefully index and document each entry, which editors compared with the earliest such word use submitted by other lexicographers. In this manner over 10,000 of his submissions made it into the finished work including the words ‘colander’, ‘countenance’ and ‘ulcerated’.

By 1902, Minor’s paranoid delusions had crowded out what remained, of his mind.    He believed he was being kidnapped and spirited away to Istanbul where he was sexually abused and forced to commit such abuse, himself.  His submissions came to an end. Home Secretary Winston Churchill ordered Minor deported back to the United States, following a 1910 episode in which the man emasculated himself, with a knife.

The madman lived out the last ten years of his life in various institutions for the criminally insane. William Chester Minor died in 1920 and went to his rest in a small and inauspicious grave, in Connecticut.

Over seventy years in compilation, only a single individual is credited with more entries in the greatest reference work in the history of the English language than this one murderer, working from a cell in a mental institution.

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Oxford English Dictionary

November 17, 1968 The Heidi Bowl

Sportswriter Jack Clary quipped, “The football fans were indignant when they saw what they had missed. The Heidi audience was peeved at having an ambulatory football score intrude on one of the story’s more touching moments. Short of pre-empting Heidi for a skin flick, NBC could not have managed to alienate more viewers that evening.”


For football fans, November 17, 1968 was shaping up to be one hell of a game.  The second-best team in the world Oakland Raiders if the results of Super Bowl II were any indication, against the future American Football League champion and Super Bowl III winner, New York Jets.

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NBC executives were thrilled.  The AFL was only eight years old in 1968 and as yet unproven, compared with the older league. The NFL/AFL merger was still two years in the future. 

This game was expected to keep viewers in their seats, adding to the already large audience anticipated for the 7:00pm presentation of Heidi, a modern remake of the children’s classic story from 1880.

In those days, most pro football games were played in 2½ hours. Network executives scheduled this one, for three.  The contract with Heidi prime sponsor Timex specified a 7:00 start. And so the order went down, to network affiliates.  There will be no delays.

The game didn’t disappoint, In fact it was voted among the ten most memorable games in professional football history in 1997, and the most memorable regular season contest, ever.  The rivalry between the two clubs was intense, a high-scoring game where the lead changed, no fewer than eight times.  

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As early as 6:20, network brass began to worry that the game wouldn’t end on time.  7:00 arrived with a minute & five seconds left to play. The Jets were ahead, 32-29. 

Network and affiliate switchboards began to light up, with fans demanding the game be broadcast in its entirety. Others wanted to know if Heidi would begin, on time.  

NBC Sports executive producer Don “Scotty” Connal and network president Julian Goodman had by this time agreed to “slide the network”, to begin Heidi as soon as Curt Gowdy signed off from the game.

All well and good but by this time, phone switchboards were jammed. Solid.  NBC’s CIrcle-7 phone exchange blew twenty-six fuses, in one hour.  NYPD switchboards, broke down. Broadcast Operations Control (BOC) supervisor Dick Cline nervously watched the clock as Connal frantically redialed, but couldn’t get through.

The television audience watched Oakland running back Charlie Smith return the kickoff from the end zone to the Oakland 22-yard line with 1:01 remaining on the clock. And then the feed was broken.

Heads exploded across the nation as callers reached out to newspapers and television stations, even local police departments, to demand the score.  And Loooord, did they bitch.   Humorist Art Buchwald wrote “Men who wouldn’t get out of their chairs in an earthquake rushed to the phone to scream obscenities [at the network].”

Meanwhile, the Oakland Raiders staged the most amazing come-from-behind rally in the history of sports, scoring two touchdowns in 42 seconds.  Gamblers were apoplectic on learning the news, that the Raiders had beat the 7½ point spread.

The film was just reaching a most tear-jerking moment as Heidi’s paralyzed cousin Clara was taking her first halting steps, as NBC broke in: “SPORTS BULLETIN: RAIDERS DEFEAT JETS 43-32”.

If half the nation hated NBC at that moment, now the other half did, as well. Sportswriter Jack Clary quipped, “The football fans were indignant when they saw what they had missed. The Heidi audience was peeved at having an ambulatory football score intrude on one of the story’s more touching moments. Short of pre-empting Heidi for a skin flick, NBC could not have managed to alienate more viewers that evening.”

The “Heidi Bowl” was prime time news the following night, on all three networks. NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report aired the last sixty seconds. ABC Evening News anchor Frank Reynolds read excerpts from the movie, with clips of the Raiders’ two touchdowns cut in. CBS Evening News’ Harry Reasoner announced the “result” of the game: “Heidi married the goat-herder“.

NBC had no option but self-mockery, to redeem itself from the fiasco. One testimonial read “I didn’t get a chance to see it, but I hear it was great”. It was signed by Joe Namath.

A special “Heidi phone” was installed in the BOC, to prevent future such disasters. In 2005, TV Guide listed the Heidi Bowl at #6 of the “100 Most Unexpected TV Moments” in television history.

Actress Jennifer Edwards in the title role of the film, may have the final word in this story: “My gravestone is gonna say, ‘She was a great moment in sports’”.

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November 14, 1902 Silly Old Bear

The piece went on to describe the medical afflictions, common to Brunus Edwardii. Clearly satire, the Veterinary Association’s article was overwhelmingly popular, save for the usual curmudgeonly contingent who seem to experience life as one never-ending complaint, in search of a target.

Theodore Roosevelt was in Mississippi in November 1902, helping local authorities settle a border dispute with Louisiana. There was some downtime on the 14th, and Governor Andrew Longino invited the President and a few dignitaries on a bear hunt.

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Holt Collier

The hunt was a high profile affair, attended by a number of reporters and led by a former slave and Confederate Cavalryman, the famous bear tracker Holt Collier:  a man who had killed more bears than Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, combined.

Real history is so much more interesting than the political and pop culture varieties, isn’t it?.

Late that afternoon, Collier and his tracking dogs cornered a large female black bear. Roosevelt hadn’t “bagged” one yet, and Collier bugled for the President to join him. He would have ordinarily shot the bear when it killed one of his dogs, but Collier wanted the president to get this one. He busted the bear over the head with his rifle, hard enough to bend the barrel, and tied the poor beast to a willow tree.

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Roosevelt declined to shoot the beast. He said it was “unsportsmanlike” to shoot a bound and wounded animal. Instead, he ordered the bear put down, putting an end to its pain.

The Washington Post ran an editorial cartoon by Clifford K. Berryman. “Drawing the Line in Mississippi” depicted both the state line dispute and the hunting incident. Berryman first drew the animal as a large, fierce killer, but later redrew the bear, turning the creature into a cute, cuddly little cub bear.

Morris Michtom owned a small novelty and candy store in Brooklyn, New York at that time. Michtom’s wife Rose had been making toy bears for sale in their store, when Morris sent one of them to Roosevelt, asking permission to call it “Teddy’s Bear”. Roosevelt detested that nickname, but he said yes. Michtom’s bear became so popular that he went on to start what would become the Ideal Toy Company.

In 1972, the weekly journal of the British veterinary profession, the Veterinary Record, ran an article in their April 1st edition. The piece described the diseases common to “Brunus Edwardii”, a species “commonly kept in homes in the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe and North America”. The article reported that “Pet ownership surveys have shown that 63.8% of households are inhabited by one or more of these animals, and there is a statistically significant relationship between their population and the number of children in a household”.

Brunus Edwardii

The piece went on to describe the medical afflictions, common to Brunus Edwardii.  Clearly satire, the Veterinary Association’s article was overwhelmingly popular, save for the usual curmudgeonly contingent who seem to experience life as one never-ending complaint, in search of a target.

Did I mention, the thing was published on April Fool’s Day?

One such curmudgeon was the humorless A. Noel Smith, a zany funster if there ever was one to be sure, who sniffed, “I have been practising veterinary medicine for the past 12 years or more “across the pond” and my Veterinary Records arrive a month or more late. However, I still open them with interest and read what is going on “at home”. April 1st’s edition thoroughly soured my interest. How three members holding sets of impressive degrees can waste their time writing such garbage in a journal that is the official publication of the B.V.A. is beyond my comprehension, as is your effrontery to publish it under “Clinical Papers”.

I bet that guy would be a hoot to have a beer with.

November 14, 1902 Teddy Bear

For the record,”Brunus Edwardii”, is latin for Edward Brown. The internet dictionary etymologyonline.com explains the origins of “Brown” as, among other things, Dutch, for  “Bruin”.

Edward Bruin. Hmmm. Edward Bear.  Author A.A. Milne’s proper name, for Winnie-the-Pooh. That silly old bear.

November 5, 2004 I did not die

The elegy has been set to music and featured in television series and movies the world over and even appears in the multi-player on-line game, World of Warcraft. Even so, the name and even nationality of the author, remained unknown.

For many among us, 2020 has been a time of grievous loss. My family is no exception.

During the 1930s, Mary Elizabeth Frye was a Baltimore housewife and amateur florist, the wife of clothing merchant, Claud Frye.

A young Jewish woman was living with the couple at this time, unable to visit her sick mother in Germany, due to anti-Semitic violence of the pre-war period.  Her name was Margaret Schwarzkopf.

Margaret was bereft when her mother died, heartbroken that she could never “stand by my mother’s grave and shed a tear.” Mrs. Frye took up a brown paper shopping bag, and wrote out twelve lines. Eighty-seven words arranged in iambic tetrameter, save for two lines.

She didn’t title the poem, nor did she ever publish, or copyright the work.  People heard about it and liked it. Frye would make copies and send them to those who asked, but that’s about it.

Do not stand at my grave and weep…

The short verse came to be read at funerals and similar occasions, the world over. The first four lines appear on the Chukpi Lhara, that cold and silent memorial to climbers who never returned, from the slopes of Everest. “Desperate Housewives” character Karen McClusky recited the verse as she spread the ashes of her best friend on a baseball field and yet, for three-score years and more, few knew from whence the elegy had come.

Chukpi Lhara

There were many claims to authorship, including attributions to traditional and Native American origins.

I am not there. I do not sleep...

The unknown poem has been translated into Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Ilocano, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog and other languages, appearing on countless bereavement cards and read over untold services.

In the United Kingdom, many heard it for the first time in 1995, when a grieving father read it over BBC radio in honor of his son, a soldier slain by a bomb in Northern Ireland. The son had left the poem with a few personal effects and marked the envelope ‘To all my loved ones’.

I am a thousand winds that blow…

For that year’s National Poetry Day, the British television program The Bookworm conducted a poll to learn the nation’s favorite poems. The top picks were published in book form, the preface describing the untitled work as “the unexpected poetry success of the year…despite it being outside the competition.”

The elegy has been set to music and featured in television series and movies and even appears in the multi-player on-line game, World of Warcraft.

Even so, the name, even nationality of the author, remained unknown.

I am the diamond glints on snow…

Abigail Van Buren, better known as “Dear Abby”, researched the history of the poem in 1998 and determined that Mrs. Frye was, after all, the author.

Mary Elizabeth Frye passed away in Baltimore Maryland on September 4, 2004. She was ninety-eight.

The Times of Great Britain published the work on November 5, as part of Frye’s obituary. ‘The verse demonstrated a remarkable power to soothe loss”, wrote the Times. “It became popular, crossing national boundaries for use on bereavement cards and at funerals regardless of race, religion or social status”.

November 3, 1954 King of Monsters

The atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a short nine years in the past in 1954 when a ferocious, anti-nuclear sentiment began to build in Japan. In this context there arose a metaphor for the titanic destruction wrought by the atomic bombs. A Great Beast, literally rising from the sea, the product of the Japanese entertainment industry.


It was 6:45am local time on March 1, 1954, when a flash lit up the sky over the Pacific, like the sun itself.   Then came the sound. An explosion outside the experience of all but the tiniest fraction among us, followed by the mushroom cloud, towering into the atmosphere.  It was a test, the detonation of a TX-21 thermonuclear weapon with a predicted yield of 6 megatons with the unlikely codename, of “Shrimp”.

The 23 men of the fishing boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru (“Lucky Dragon No.5”) were working the grounds near the Marshall Islands that day, in the equatorial Pacific. For a full eight minutes, these twenty-three men watched the characteristic mushroom cloud rise above them.  An hour and a half later came the fallout, the fine white dust, calcinated coral of the Bikini atoll, falling from the sky, like snow.

None among the twenty-three recognized the material as hazardous, and made no effort to avoid exposure.  Some men even tasted the stuff.

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Over the next three days, several fishermen developed acute radiation sickness.   By the time they returned to Yaizu two weeks later, all 23 were suffering from nausea, headaches, bleeding from the gums and other symptoms.  One was destined to die six months later from a liver disorder, brought on by radiation sickness.  They had entered the ranks of that most exclusive of clubs that no one, Ever, wanted to join. They were “hibakusha”.  The “explosion-affected people”.

The atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a short nine years in the past in 1954 when a ferocious, anti-nuclear sentiment began to build in Japan. In this context there arose a metaphor for the titanic destruction wrought by the atomic bombs. A Great Beast, literally rising from the sea, the product of the Japanese entertainment industry. A monster, “Godzilla”, Ishirō Honda’s first film released by Toho Studios on this day, in 1954.

The name is a portmanteau, two words combined to form a third, of the Japanese word “gorira”, (gorilla), and “kujira”, meaning whale.  Godzilla was the Gorilla Whale with the head of a Tyrannosaur, Stegasaur-like plates on his back and skin modeled after the hideous keloid scarring, of the hibakusha.

The original Godzilla (“ɡodʑiɽa”) was awakened by atomic testing and impervious to any but a nuclear weapon. Emerging from the depths with his atomic breath, havoc and destruction was always accompanied by the distinctive roar, a sound effect made by rubbing a resin glove down the strings of a bass violin and then changing the speed, at playback.

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The actor who played Godzilla in the original films, Haruo Nakajima, was a black belt in Judo. His expertise was used to choreograph the monster’s movements, defining the standard for most of the Godzilla films, to follow.

Originally an “it”, Godzilla was usually depicted as a “he”, although that became a little complicated with the 1998 American remake when “Zilla” started laying eggs.

He was a Kaiju, a Japanese word meaning “strange creature”, more specifically a “daikaiju”, meaning a really, really big one. Godzilla is the best known but certainly not the only such creature of the Japanese entertainment industry. You may remember other kaiju including Gamera, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla and Rodan.

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Godzilla has appeared in 28 original films, with more in the works. Over the course of his existence he has been a hero, a villain, and a destructive but values-neutral force of nature.

Godzilla got his own star on the Hollywood “Walk of Fame” in 2004, timed to coincide with the release of the 29th film of the genre, “Godzilla: Final Wars.” Instead of nuclear weapons testing, this version was spawned by “environmental pollution”. It takes the superheroes of the “Earth Defense Organization” (but, of course) to freeze him back into the ice of the South Pole.

The film was a flop, grossing less than $12 million after a production budget over half again, as large.

The franchise came roaring back ten years later, when Godzilla was released in 2014, grossing $200 million domestically with $529.1 million in worldwide sales.

To this day, the man who played those original 12 films is considered the best “suit actor”, in franchise history. In 2018, asteroid 110408 Nakajima was named in his memory.

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A film franchise 66 years in the making is still going strong and will continue to do so, for the foreseeable future. Godzilla: King of the Monsters released in 2019 with a Box Office of $386.6 million and a production budget, of less than $200 million. Godzilla vs. Kong, originally scheduled for release this year, went the way of so many things in 2020 and fell victim, to the Chinese Coronavirus. The 36th film in the series is complete and currently scheduled for release in May, 2021.

Tip of the hat to http://www.mykaiju.com, for most of the images used in this story.