April 16, 1933 A Fish Story

Future Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill faced the Cod in the direction of the majority party.  It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Bay State politics that the thing has faced Left, from that day to this.  For Massachusetts’ minuscule Republican delegation, hope springs eternal that the Sacred Cod will one day, face Right.

The American Revolution was barely 15 years in the rear-view mirror, when the new State House opened in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston.  The building has expanded a couple of times since then and remains the home of Massachusetts’ state government, to this day.

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On January 11, 1798, a procession of legislators and other dignitaries worked its way from the old statehouse at the intersection of Washington and State Streets to the new location on Beacon Hill, a symbolic transfer of the seat of government.  The procession carried with it, a bundle.  Measuring 4-feet eleven-inches and wrapped in an American flag, it was a life-size wooden carving.  Of a codfish.

For the former Massachusetts colony, the lowly cod was once a key to survival.  Now, this “Sacred Cod” was destined for a new home in the legislative chamber of the House of Representatives.

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Mark Kurlansky, author of “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World”, laments the 1990s collapse of the Cod fishery, saying the species finds itself “at the wrong end of a 1,000-year fishing spree.”

Records date back as early as AD985 when Eirik the Red, Leif Eirikson’s father, preserved Codfish by hanging them in the cold winter air.  Medieval Spaniards of the Basque region improved on the process, by the use of salt.  By A.D. 1,000, Basque traders were supplying a vast international market, in codfish.

By 1550, Cod accounted for half the fish consumed in all Europe.  When the Puritans set sail for the new world it was to Cape Cod, to pursue the wealth of the New England fishery.

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Without codfish, Plymouth Rock would likely have remained just another boulder. William Bradford, first signer of the Mayflower Compact in 1620 and 5-term governor of the Plymouth Colony (he called it “Plimoth”), reported that, but for the Cod fishery, there was talk of going to Manhattan or even Guiana:  “[T]he major part inclined to go to Plymouth, chiefly for the hope of present profit to be made by the fish that was found in that country“.

There are tales of sailors scooping codfish out of the water, in baskets.  So important was the cod to the regional economy that a carved likeness of the creature hung in the old State House, fifty years or more before the Revolution.

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Massachusetts’ old Statehouse

The old State House burned in 1747, leaving nothing but the brick exterior you see today, not far from Faneuil Hall.  It took a year to rebuild the place, including a brand new wooden Codfish.  This one lasted until the British occupation of Boston, disappearing sometime between April 1775 and March 1776.

The fish which accompanied that procession in 1798 was the third, and so far the last such carving to hang in the Massachusetts State House where it’s remains, to this day.  Sort of.

It was April 16, 1933 with the country mired in the Great Depression, when someone looked up in Massachusetts’ legislative chamber, and spied – to his dismay – nothing but bare wires.  The Commonwealth had suffered “The Great Cod-napping”, of 1933.

Newspapers went wild with speculation. What had happened to The Sacred Cod.

Suspects were questioned and police chased down one lead after another, but they all turned out to be red herring (sorry, I couldn’t help myself).  State police dredged the Charles River, (Love that dirty water).  Lawmakers refused to d’bait (pardon), preferring instead to discuss what they would do with those dastardly Cod-napper(s), if and when the evildoers were apprehended.

Soon, an anonymous tip revealed the culprits to be college pranksters. Three editors of the Harvard Lampoon newspaper, pretending to be tourists.  It was a two-part plan, the trio entering the building with wire cutters and a flower box, as other Lampoon members created a diversion by kidnapping an editor from the arch-rival newspaper, the Harvard Crimson.  The caper worked, flawlessly.  Everyone was busy looking for the missing victim, as two snips from a wire cutter brought down the Sacred Cod.

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On April 28, a tip led University Police to a car with no license plate, cruising the West Roxbury Parkway. After a 20-minute low speed chase, (I wonder if it was a white Bronco), the sedan pulled over.  Two men Carp’d the Diem (or something like that) and handed over the Sacred Cod, before driving away.

Once again the Sacred Cod ascended to its rightful place, and there was happiness upon the Land.  The Cod was stolen one more time in 1968, this time by UMASS hippies protesting some fool thing, but the fish never made it out of the State House.

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The “Holy Mackerel” of the Massachusetts State Senate

Years later, future Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill faced the Cod in the direction of the majority party.  It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Bay State politics that the thing has faced Left, from that day to this.  For Massachusetts’ minuscule Republican delegation, hope springs eternal that the Sacred Cod will one day, face Right.

Not to be outdone, the State Senate has its own fish, hanging in its legislative chambers.  There in the chandelier, above the round table where sits the Massachusetts upper house, is the copper likeness of the “Holy Mackerel”.  No kidding.  I wouldn’t kid you about a thing like that.

Legend has it that, when you see those highway signs saying X miles to Boston, they’re really giving you the distance to the Holy Mackerel.

A tip of my hat to my friend and Representative to the Great & General Court David T. Vieira, without whom I’d have remained entirely ignorant of this fishy tale.

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Beacon Hill, seat of Massachusetts state government, where the author addresses an empty chamber. Who knows. Maybe The Sacred Cod™ was paying attention.

April 9, 1940 A Dish Best Served Cold

On the surface of the ocean, the Battle of the Atlantic raged on with torpedo and depth charge.  Under the surface, there unfolded a different story.


The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Croton oil as a “poisonous viscous liquid obtained from the seeds of a small Asiatic tree…”  Highly toxic and a violent irritant, the substance was once used as a drastic purgative and counter-irritant in human and veterinary medicine, but is now considered too dangerous for medicinal use. Applied externally, Croton oil is capable of peeling your skin off.  Taken internally, the stuff may be described as the atomic bomb, of laxatives.

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or subject to Nazi occupation.  France fell to the Nazi war machine in six weeks, in 1940.  The armed forces of the island nation of Great Britain were left shattered and defenseless, stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk.

On the Scandinavian Peninsula, longstanding policies of disarmament in the wake of WW1 left the Nordic states of Denmark and Norway severely under-strength, able to offer little resistance to the Nazi invaders.

On this day in 1940, German warships entered Norwegian harbors from Narvik to Oslo, as German troops occupied Copenhagen and other Danish cities.  King Christian X of Denmark surrendered almost immediately.  To the northwest, Norwegian commanders loyal to former foreign minister Vidkun Quisling ordered coastal defenders to stand down, permitting the German landing to take place, unopposed.  Norwegian forces refused surrender demands from the German Minister in Oslo, but the outcome was never in doubt.

Nazi Germany responded with an airborne invasion by parachute.  Within weeks, Adolf Hitler could add a second and third scalp to his belt, following the invasion of Poland, six months earlier.  The Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway, were out of the war.

Norway was out of the war, but not out of the fight.   One Nazi officer passed an elderly woman on the street, who complained at the officer’s rudeness and knocked his hat off, with her cane. The officer apologized, and scurried away.  The gray-haired old matron snickered, to herself:  “Well, we’ll each have to fight this war as best we can.  That’s the fourth hat I’ve knocked into the mud this morning.

Norwegian Resistance was quick to form, as patriotic locals united against the Nazi occupier and the collaborationist policies of the Quisling government.

“Anti-Nazi graffiti on the streets of Oslo, reading “Live” above the monogram for the Norwegian king, who had fled when the Germans invaded in 1940”. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

The Norwegian secret army known as Milorg and led by General Otto Ruge, was at first loath to engage in outright sabotage, for fear of German reprisals against innocent civilians.  Later in the war, Milorg commandos attacked the heavy water factory at Rjukan and sank a ferry carrying 1,300 lbs of heavy water, inflicting severe damage to the Nazi nuclear research program.

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Norwegian Resistance member Sven Somme demonstrates one of the techniques by which he evaded capture in the mountains.

In the beginning, Resistance activities centered more around covert sabotage and the gathering of intelligence.  One of the great but little-known dramas of WW2 unfolded across the snow covered mountains of the Scandinavian peninsula, as the civilian-turned-spy Sven Somme fled 200 miles on foot to neutral Sweden, pursued by 900 Wehrmacht soldiers and a pack of bloodhounds.

Operations of all kinds were undertaken, to stymie the Nazi war effort. Some actions seem like frat-boy pranks, such as coating condoms destined for German units, with itching powder.  Hundreds of Wehrmacht soldiers (and presumably Norwegian women) showed up at Trondheim hospitals, believing they had contracted Lord-knows-what kind of plague.

Other operations demonstrate a kind of evil genius.  This is where Croton oil comes in.

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As dedicated as they were, Norwegian resistance fighters still had to feed themselves and their families.  Many of them were subsistence fishermen, and that meant sardines.  For centuries, the small fish had been a staple food item across the Norwegian countryside.  It was a near-catastrophic blow to civilian and Resistance fighters alike, when the Quisling government requisitioned the entire sardine crop.

The Battle of the Atlantic was in full-swing by this time, as wolf packs of German submarines roamed the north Atlantic, preying on Allied shipping.  Thousands of tons of sardines would be sent to the French port of Saint-Nazaire, to feed U-Boat crews on their long voyages at sea.

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German Type X Submarine, U-864

Norwegian vengeance began with a request to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Great Britain, for the largest shipment of Croton oil, possible.  The “atomic laxative” was smuggled into canneries across Norway, and used to replace vegetable oil in sardine tins.  The plan worked nicely and no one suspected a thing, the pungent taste of the fish covering the strange flavor of the oil.

From midget submarines such as the BiberHaiMolch, and Seehund models to the behemoth 1,800-ton “Type X“, the Kriegsmarine employed no fewer than fifteen distinct submarine types in WW2, including the workhorse “Type VII”, of which some 700 saw service in the German war effort. 

On the surface of the ocean, the Battle of the Atlantic raged on with torpedo and depth charge.  Under the surface, there unfolded a different story.

Revenge, it is said, is a dish, best served cold. Excepting the participants in this tale, no one knows what it looks like when ten thousand submariners simultaneously lose control of their bowels. It could not have been a pretty sight.

March 10, 2011 When I Fell from the Sky

Abraham Lincoln was neither the first nor the last to fall from a high place, and live to tell the tale.

In 1840, a young politician found himself in a legislative minority, opposed to a payment to the Illinois State Bank.  In order to prevent a quorum, a handful of Whigs attempted to leave the chamber.  Finding the door locked, our man stepped to a second-story window, and jumped out.  Abraham Lincoln would come to regret what he called his “window scrape”, but the future 16th President was far from the first person to fall from a high place.  Voluntarily, or otherwise.

The term is “Defenestrate”: to throw a person or thing, out of the window.

Jezebel, yeah that Jezebel, the unlovable Queen of Israel from the Bible, was executed by defenestration, in 842BC.

In 1618, three regents of the imperial crown were thrown from the window of the Prague castle, 70-feet from street level. Things hadn’t worked out so well 200 years earlier, when a burgomaster and 13 members of the Prague town council, were similarly defenestrated.

All three survived this time, thanks to the help of mythic angels, according to friends and supporters. Detractors weren’t quite so kind, attributing the trio’s survival to a pile of horseshit. Be that as it may, one of them became a noble thanks to the emperor, and received a title: Baron von Hohenfall. (“Baron of Highfall“). Honest. I couldn’t make up a thing like that.

Since the age of aircraft there are tales of survival, enough to make Baron Highfall’s adventures look like stepping from a curb.

The 2003 737 crash outside port Sudan airport killed 113 and left 2-year-old Mohammed el-Fateh Osman lying on a fallen tree, injured, but still alive.

In 2009, pilot error put Yemenia Flight 626 into aerodynamic stall over the Indian ocean. Alone among 153 passengers and crew, 14-year-old French schoolgirl Bahia Bakari found herself the sole survivor, clinging to wreckage and floating in pitch black heavy seas, for 13 hours.

Base jumper James Boole plunged 6000-feet landing on snow covered rocks in 2009 while filming another jumper, in Russia. “This is going to hurt a lot” he later recounted to the guardian newspaper, “or not at all”. Boole broke his back that time but he was at it again, a year later.

In December 1971, lighting struck LANSA Flight 508 over the Amazon rainforest, breaking the Lockheed Electra to pieces. 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke plunged 10,000 feet still strapped to her seat and survived despite deep gashes and a broken collarbone. Koepcke, the daughter of German scientists working in the Amazon, had grown up a “jungle child”. If you’re lost in the jungle her father would say, follow a stream. Water will always lead you to civilization. For ten exhausting days she trekked through knee-deep water, poking the ground ahead of her to scare away rays and dodging crocodiles.

With maggot infested wounds and nothing to live on but candy scrounged from the wreck, Juliane found her salvation on day 11 at the hands of remote fishermen. Following a period of recovery, she led search parties back to the scene of the crash. It was then that she learned, astonishingly, that her mother had also survived the crash only to succumb to her injuries, days later. Now Juliane Diller, she returned to Germany and followed her parents, into the physical sciences. Her autobiography came out on this day in 2011, if you want to learn more of her story. When I Fell from the Sky (German: Als ich vom Himmel fiel). That must be one hell of a story.

Julianne Koepcke Diller in 2019

In 1985, two sky divers became tangled during a 12,000-foot jump near Victoria Australia. Frank’s injuries were minor. Dave Hodgman wasn’t so lucky but still returned to jumping, within three months.

21 year old RAF Flight Sergeant Nicholas Stephen Alkemade found himself under attack by German aircraft on March 24, 1944. With his parachute burned away and his aircraft in a burning death spiral, Alkemade chose a quick death over being burned alive. At 18,000 feet. The tail gunner regained consciousness looking up from the snow, at the stars above. He lit a cigarette. With a sprained ankle, the airman was easily captured. German interrogators were so impressed with his story they gave him a certificate, attesting to his tale.

Joe Herman of the Royal Australian Air Force was blown out of his bomber, in 1944. Free falling through the night sky Herman grabbed wildly for anything he could get hold of. It happened to be the leg of fellow airman John Vivash. Herman hung on for dear life and returned the favor, hitting the ground first and breaking the fall, for his benefactor. Herman walked away with two broken ribs.

In 1943, American turret gunner Alan Magee was forced to jump from the B-17F Snap! Crackle! Pop!, four miles through the skies over France. He fell 22,000 feet, crashing through the glass roof of the St. Nazaire railroad station. On the ground, his German captors were astonished. With 28 shrapnel wounds, massive internal injuries and a right arm all but severed the man lived on, for another 61 years.

Turret gunner Alan Magee poses for the camera, halfway out of his “office”

Soviet Airforce Lieutenant Ivan Chisov bailed out of his Ilyushin Il-4 bomber, at 22,000 feet. He intended to freefall out of the combat zone so as not to be gunned down by vengeful German pilots, while dangling from his parachute. And a fine plan it was, too, until he lost consciousness, due to the altitude. Chisov hit the snowy embankment at somewhere between 120 and 150 miles per hour, breaking his pelvis and injuring his spine. He was flying again, three months later.

In January 1972, Croatian terrorists placed a briefcase bomb on JAT Air flight 367 from Stockholm, to Belgrade. The bomb exploded, breaking the aircraft into three pieces. Serbian flight attendant Vesna Vulović survived the fall with a fractured skull and brain bleeding, two broken legs and three broken vertebra. Vulović passed the next 27 days in a coma and remembers nothing after greeting passengers, on the flight. When offered sedatives for her return flight to Belgrade, she declined the injection. With no memory of the crash, there was nothing to be afraid of.

At 33,330 feet, Vesna Vulović is listed in the Guinness book of world records, for surviving the highest fall.

JAT flight attendant Vesna Vulović

If you’re ever caught in such a situation, experts advise that you spread out your arms and legs to create as much drag, as possible. How one becomes “expert” in such a subject, remains unexplained. Let me know how it works out, if you ever give it a try. As for myself I think I might bend down if I was a little more flexible, and kiss my behind goodbye.

February 19, 1945 Crocodiles of Ramree

To the human participants in this story, this is a tale of four weeks’ combat over a marginally important, tropical island. For the apex predator of the mangrove swamp, it was little more than a dinner bell.


Five hundred feet off the coast of Myanmar, formerly Burma, across the Bay of Bengal from the Indian sub-continent, there lies the island of Ramree, about a third the size of New York’s Long Island.

In 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army aided by Thai forces and Burmese insurgents drove the British Empire and Chinese forces out of Burma, occupying much of the Burmese peninsula and with it, Ramree island. In January 1945, the allies came to take it back.

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RAF 356 Squadron after bombing Japanese positions on Ramree Island

The battle started out with Operation Matador on January 14, an amphibious assault designed to capture the strategic port of Kyaupyu, and it’s nearby airfield.

By early February, a mixed force of British Royal Marines and Indian allies dislodged a force of some 980 Japanese defenders, who abandoned their base and marched inland to join a larger regiment of Japanese soldiers across the island.

ramree-island2On February 7, the 71st Infantry and supporting tanks reached Ramree town where they found determined Japanese resistance. The town fell in two days. Naval forces blockaded small tributaries called “chaungs”, which retreating Japanese used in their flight to the mainland. A Japanese air raid damaged an allied destroyer on the 11th as a flotilla of small craft crossed the strait, to rescue survivors of the garrison. By February 17, Japanese resistance had come to an end.

The route took the retreating Japanese across 10 miles of marsh and mangrove swamp. Bogged down and trapped in the mire, the soldiers found themselves cut off and surrounded, alone with the snakes, the mosquitoes and the scorpions, of Ramree island.

Throughout the four-week battle for Ramree Island, the allied blockade inflicted heavy casualties on Japanese forces.  The thousand men cut off in the swamp, had more immediate concerns.

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:Lured by a tour guide dangling kangaroo meat from a pole, the 18ft, two-ton monster was, er, snapped by photographer Katrina Bridgeford, who was on the Adelaide River cruise with her family”. Tip of the Hat for this image, to the UK Daily Mail Note the missing right arm on this monster was probably eaten by one of his own kind.

NationalGeographic.com describes the Japanese’ problem, the nightmare predator,  Crocodylus porosus. The saltwater crocodile:  “Earth’s largest living crocodilian—and, some say, the animal most likely to eat a human—is the saltwater or estuarine crocodile. Average-size males reach 17 feet and 1,000 pounds, but specimens 23 feet long and weighing 2,200 pounds are not uncommon.

Opportunistic predators, they lurk patiently beneath the surface near the water’s edge, waiting for potential prey to stop for a sip of water. They’ll feed on anything they can get their teeth into including water buffalo, monkeys, wild boar and even sharks. Without warning, they explode from the water with a thrash of their powerful tails, grasp their victim, and drag it back in, holding it under until the animal drowns.

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British naturalist Bruce Stanley Wright participated in the battle for Ramree, and gave the following account in his book, Wildlife Sketches Near and Far, published in 1962:

“That night [February 19, 1945] was the most horrible that any member of the M.L. [marine launch] crews ever experienced. The crocodiles, alerted by the din of warfare and the smell of blood, gathered among the mangroves, lying with their eyes above water, watchfully alert for their next meal. With the ebb of the tide, the crocodiles moved in on the dead, wounded, and uninjured men who had become mired in the mud.

The scattered rifle shots in the pitch black swamp punctured by the screams of wounded men crushed in the jaws of huge reptiles, and the blurred worrying sound of spinning crocodiles made a cacophony of hell that has rarely been duplicated on earth. At dawn the vultures arrived to clean up what the crocodiles had left…Of about 1,000 Japanese soldiers that entered the swamps of Ramree, only about 20 were found alive”.

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Current Distribution – Saltwater or Estuarine Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus)

The actual numbers will never be known. Skeptics question how so many of these beasts could support themselves in such a small space but, consider this:  Saltwater crocodiles are excellent swimmers and are regularly spotted miles out to sea.  Individuals have even been discovered in the relatively frigid Sea of Japan – thousands of miles from their native habitat.  In 2016, Australian Rangers counted 120 “salties” in a 6-kilometer (3.7 mile) stretch of the East Alligator River, in the Northern Territory.

To the human participants in this story, this is a tale of four weeks’ combat over a marginally important, tropical island.  For the apex predator of the mangrove swamp, it was little more than a dinner bell.

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January 31, 1846 Milwaukee Bridge War

The skirmishes lasted, for weeks. No one was killed during the Milwaukee bridge War of 1845 though combatants on both sides, were injured. In the end even the hotheads had to admit it. The only path forward lay in unification.

Solomon Juneau was a fur trader.  Like the cousin who went before him to found Juneau, Alaska, Solomon left his home in Quebec and wound up in Wisconsin, settling on the east side of the Milwaukee River.  That was 1818.  The east side of the river would come to be known as “Juneau’s side” and later,”Juneautown”.

Byron Kilbourn was born in Connecticut, the son of a Colonel in the War of 1812 and later member of Congress from the state of Ohio.  Kilbourn left the family home in Ohio and traveled to Green Bay where he worked as a government surveyor.

By the 1830’s, Solomon Juneau knew that times were changing. As his fur trade diminished, Juneau turned to real estate. By the time Byron Kilbourn showed up on the other side with his surveying instruments, Juneau’s settlement was a small but thriving town.

Like Juneau, Kilbourne saw the commercial potential of the area.  This spot on the Milwaukee River could be a port city he thought, serving Lake Michigan and beyond, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

The land Kilbourn staked out on the west side belonged at that time, to the Potawatomi.  There followed accusations of sleazy deals and fudged land surveys.  Kilbourn soon emerged from land court with title to the area, around the time that politician and trader George H Walker settled his own parcel to the south at what would be known as, Walker’s Point.

Kilbourn’s side of the river became “Kilbourntown” and grew as quickly as Juneautown on the opposite side. 

Competition developed and deepened between the two sides as Kilbourn and his supporters did everything they could to isolate Juneautown.  You can see the animosity to this day in the way the street grids on opposite sides, fail to meet.

In 1840, the Wisconsin territorial legislature directed that a drawbridge be built across the Milwaukee river. 

That first bridge was built across Chestnut street now Juneau, with Solomon Juneau’s support. Kilbourn and his people built their own bridge, across the Menominee.

By 1845, there were five. That May, a schooner damaged the Spring Street bridge in Kilbourn’s west ward. West warders were furious and blamed Juneau for the damage. Kilbourn supporters retaliated, dropping the west end of the Chestnut Street bridge into the river.  East warders loaded a cannon with clock weights and aimed it at Kilbourn’s home but held off on learning the man had just lost a daughter.

Bridges favored by both sides were destroyed. Those caught on the “wrong” side were chased down and beaten. By June, bridge work was being done under armed guard.

The skirmishes lasted, for weeks. No one was killed during the Milwaukee bridge War of 1845 though combatants on both sides, were injured. In the end even the hotheads had to admit it.  The only path forward lay in unification.   Juneautown and Kilbourntown joined with Walker’s Point to the south, the three towns unifying to form the city of Milwaukee Wisconsin on January 31, 1846.  

Juneau was elected the city’s first mayor.

Solomon Juneau later founded the Milwaukee Sentinel, today the oldest continuously operating business in Wisconsin.  Six Menominee chiefs served as pallbearers at his funeral, in 1855.

Byron Kilbourne went on to found Kilbourn City in 1857, now known, as Wisconsin Dells. Allegations of sleaze seemed to follow him, wherever he went.  Kilbourne went on to serve as president of the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad from 1849-’52 until the railroad’s board of directors fired him for mismanagement and fraud.

The railroad he chartered in 1852 to compete with his former employer was ruined following a scandal alleging the use of railroad bonds to bribe state officials.  He fled to Florida to relieve his “arthritis” and passed away in Jacksonville, in 1870.

For 128 years, Milwaukee historic preservation types labored to reunite the city’s three founders in Wisconsin soil.  Historic Milwaukee, Inc. returned Kilbourne’s remains to Wisconsin in 1998 where he rejoined the city’s co-founders, in the Forest Home Cemetery.

Happy birthday, Milwaukee.

January 26, 897 The Cadaver Synod

56-score and four years ago today it was January 26, 897. A live Pope put his dead predecessor…his predecessor’s deceased predecessor really…on trial. Seriously. They dug up the corpse and dressed it in papal vestments, put it on a throne and tried the guy in a kangaroo court spectacle, worthy of a San Francisco politician.

Sometime down the road, future historians will remember this month for things that none of us ever thought we’d see. Concertina wire surrounds our nation’s capitol. Soldiers fill the streets of Washington as we are left to wonder.

Did somebody put Idi Amin in charge?

With so many needs to be met by the people we put in office, we get the bizarre spectacle of an “impeachment” and removal of a private citizen, who already left. The whole procedure is so outlandish the constitutionally mandated presiding officer, declines to show up. You would think these people have nothing better to do.

Someone once said “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme”. The quote is often attributed to Mark Twain. Whoever it was, knew what they were talking about.

56-score and four years ago today it was January 26, 897. A live Pope put his dead predecessor…the dead guy who came before his predecessor really…on trial. Seriously. They dug up the corpse and dressed it in papal vestments, put it on a throne and tried the guy in a kangaroo court spectacle, worthy of a San Francisco politician.

According to Catholic church doctrine, the Pontifex maximus sits at the head of the church from the time of Peter, to the present day. Today, the Cardinals meet in secret conclave to elect the bishop of Rome, but it wasn’t always that way. Before the Gregorian reforms of the 11th century the Papacy was often as political, as any public office.

The Popes of the early middle ages were heavily involved in secular affairs. They were chosen by predecessors, popular acclaim, family connection or simony (the purchase of ecclesiastical office). It was inevitable that some would be…umm…less than pious men.

Relations between the Holy See and the Holy Roman Empire were particularly incestuous. First appearing on the scene in 754 after Pope Stephen II anointed Pepin III “The Short” “Patricius Romanorum” (Patrician of the Romans), emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were known to select Popes and Popes, emperors.

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire once quipped: “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

Formosus became Cardinal of Porto in 864 and representative of the Pope in Bulgaria, two years later. Many considered the man to be a candidate for the papacy, as early as 872.

That was the year, political issues caused Formosus to beat a hasty retreat from Rome.

Anyone ascending the heights of such a system was bound to have powerful allies. And powerful adversaries. The Cardinal’s enemies, pounced. Pope John VIII ordered Formosus defrocked and excommunicated.

Excommunication might seem a real career killer in his line of work but the sanction was lifted, in 878. Formosus could never return to Rome or resume his priestly functions, but that too was restored, five years later. In 891, Formosus was unanimously elected Pontiff to succeed Pope Stephen V.

Formosus served in a time of great political upheaval. There were problems with Saracens. Power struggles within the eastern church, in Constantinople. The Frankish kingdoms were in a state of upheaval and, worst of all, Formosus supported the German king Arnulf for succession to Holy Roman Emperor, over emperor Guido III of the powerful clan of Spoleto.

Pope Formosus died of natural causes on April 4, 896. He was succeeded by Boniface VI, who lived for 15 days. Some say Boniface died of gout, others that he was poisoned by supporters of his successor, Steven VI.

Even by Medieval standards, Pope Stephen VI must have been some piece of work. In January 897, Stephen had Formosus dug out of the ground, dressed in papal vestments and put on trial.

Ripley’s Believe it or Not

With the corpse propped up on a throne, the outcome was never in doubt. A church deacon attempted to speak for the defendant while Stephen himself shrieked at the corpse, rehashing the old charges of John VIII.

Unsurprisingly, the dead man was convicted. Stripped of his robes, Formosus was clad in the garb of a layman. His papacy was annulled, ordinations cancelled and the three “blessing fingers” of his right hand, hacked off.

The body was buried in a pauper’s grave but even now the revenge of Stephen VI, was unsated. The Pope ordered Formosus dug up yet again and thrown into the Tiber River.

The episode led to widespread outrage, possibly at the behest of Stephen’s enemies. The Pope was incarcerated in the Summer of 897 and strangled, while still in prison.

The cadaver synod ushered in 100 years of corruption of the Holy See known by some as the “Saeculum obscurum” – the Dark Age/Century, and by others, the “Pornocracy”.

Fast forward 39-score and one and it’s January 26, 1661. Four days from now, January 30, the corpse of Oliver Cromwell, one-time “Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland” would be dug up and “executed”, by decapitation. The body was hung up in chains while his head was mounted on a pike, outside Westminster hall. That thing stayed there, for 24 years. Sold and sold again, Cromwell’s head would at last go to its final rest some 299 years later. In 1960.

History rhymes, indeed.

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.

Cocaine_CocaCola2

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.

Memorial-Day-2010-From-Time-Mag-1942-OUT-12

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”.