Monday, April 30, 2007

1997: first burial in space

Space Services is a Houston-based aerospace company responsible for the first private launch into outer space, and the first post cremation memorial spaceflight.

Space Services conducted its first "space funeral flight" in 1997 with the remains of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry's ashes traveled with those of 23 others, including a 4-year-old Japanese boy, a restaurateur and several former NASA scientists.

The Space Services team placed the ash-filled capsules in a tube, which went inside a rocket scheduled to send a satellite into space. Once in orbit, the satellite separated from the rocket's last stage, which continued to circle the earth with the capsules inside. The capsules should stay in orbit between ten and several hundred years before falling and "vaporizing like a shooting star," according to the company.

Last week, Space Services used its own rocket to launch a cargo of ashes, including those of James Doohan, who played the starship Enterprise's chief engineer Scotty on Star Trek.

Remains of the actor (born in Canada, not Scotland), who died two years ago at the age of 85, hurtled to the edge of space aboard a telephone pole-size rocket that blasted off from a launch pad in New Mexico.

Doohan inspired the legendary catch phrase "Beam me up, Scotty" -- even though it was never actually uttered on the TV show.

Hundreds of spectators clapped, cheered and cried as his ashes roared aloft along with the remains of some 200 other people, including astronaut Gordon Cooper, who first went into space in 1963. Cooper died in 2004 at age 77.

Space Services charges $495 to send a portion of a person's ashes into suborbital space. The firm had originally planned to blast Doohan's remains into space two years ago. The flight was delayed by tests, then by a misfire during a practice launch last year. (info from Reuters and other sources)

Friday, April 27, 2007

2007: death of Monster Masher

Bobby "Boris" Pickett, whose Boris Karloff impression propelled his Halloween anthem Monster Mash to the top of the charts in 1962, died of leukemia Wednesday night at the age of 69.

Pickett was one of pop music's most enduring one-hit wonders, and has been called "The Guy Lombardo of Halloween" because of his brief annual bursts of fame.

Monster Mash hit the Billboard chart three times: when it debuted in 1962, selling a million copies and reaching No. 1 the week before Halloween; again in August 1970, and for a third time in May 1973. The resurrections were appropriate for a song where Pickett gravely intoned the forever-stuck-in-your-head chorus: "He did the monster mash. ... It was a graveyard smash."

The novelty hit's fans included Bob Dylan, who played the single on his XM Satellite Radio program last October. "Our next artist is considered a one-hit wonder, but his one hit comes back year after year," Dylan noted.

The hit single ensured Pickett's place in the pantheon of pop music obscurities, said syndicated radio host Dr. Demento, whose long-running program celebrates offbeat tunes.

"It's certainly the biggest Halloween song of all time," said Demento. The DJ, who interviewed Pickett last year, said he maintained a sense of humor about his singular success: "As he loved to say at oldies shows, `And now I'm going to do a medley of my hit.'"

Pickett's impression of Karloff (who despite his name was an Englishman, born William Henry Pratt) was forged in Somerville, Mass., where the boy watched horror films in a theater managed by his father.

Pickett used the impersonation in a nightclub act and when performing with his band the Cordials. A bandmate convinced Pickett they needed to do a song to showcase the Karloff voice, and "Monster Mash" was born, "written in about a half-hour," said Dr. Demento. The song also includes a line that Pickett delivered in a Bela Lugosi voice: "Whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist?"

The recording, done in a couple of hours, featured a then-unknown piano player named Leon Russell and a backing band christened The Crypt-Kickers. It was rejected by four major labels before Gary Paxton, lead singer on the Hollywood Argyles' novelty hit Alley Oop, released Monster Mash on his own label.

The instant smash became a sort-of Christmas carol for the pumpkin and ghoul set, with spurts in air play and record sales every fall. In a 1996 interview with People magazine, Pickett said he never grew tired of the song: "When I hear it, I hear a cash register ringing."

While Pickett never re-created its success, his Monster's Holiday, a Christmas follow-up, reached No. 30 in December 1962. And Graduation Day hit No. 80 in June 1963. In October 2005, Pickett protested inaction on global warming by releasing Climate Mash, a new version of his hit single. Pickett also recorded a novelty spoof on "Star Trek" called Star Drek, again performing the various voices, which has been played on Dr. Demento's radio show.

He continued performing through his final gig in November. He remained in demand for Halloween performances, including a memorable 1973 show where his bus broke down outside Frankenstein, Mo. (info from The Assocated Press & Wikipedia; photo from

Thursday, April 26, 2007

1946: first airport car rental

Warren Avis died two days ago at the age of 92.

Avis was born in 1915 in Bay City, Mich., where his father was in the lumber business. He investigated auto dealerships for the state of Michigan and became a salesman for a drug company before joining the Army Air Forces.

He was a major during World War 2, serving both as a bomber pilot and an intelligence officer. When he landed in various locations around Europe, he had the urge to explore, but was initially stymied by the lack of local transportation. He solved the problem by stashing a motorcycle in the bomb bay of his plane.

Back home after the war, Avis bought an interest in a Ford dealership in Detroit, and often traveled by air. He realized that air travel would quickly become more popular than train travel, and decided to open car rental centers at airports. He figured thousands of airline passengers would need rides. The idea for the car-rental firm came from wanting to give "the customer an option I never had as a traveler." In 1946, when Avis opened his first Avis Airlines Rent-A-Car facilities in Florida and Michigan, competitors were in downtown garages.

“Nobody thought it would work,” Avis said in 1987. “There was incredible trouble. You had to get all the airlines to cooperate... Where did you put the cars?” It did work. Cars were parked outside airport terminals, and customers soon figured out the new system.

Avis's idea proved successful and his business grew quickly. Airports in New York, Chicago, Dallas, Washington, Los Angeles and Houston were soon serviced by car rental franchises licensed to use the Avis name. Avis used his WW2 flyer contacts to establish relationships with airports and airlines, rented new cars while competitors offered only used cars, offered a company credit card, and hired pretty young women to staff the airport counters when most flyers were businessmen.

By 1948, Avis was nationally known. In that year, the company dropped the "airlines" designation from its name, and expanded operations beyond airports to serve urban hotels and businesses. During the next six years, Avis also expanded internationally to Canada, Mexico, and Europe. Warren Avis sold the company in 1954. After 10 years of operation, Avis was second in size only to the much older Hertz — a fact the company would later promote in advertising with the tagline, “We try harder.”

Today, Avis operates in over 4,000 locations in 114 countries. (info from Avis, Funding Universe, NPR, Los Angeles Times, The State; car photo from TVHistory)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

2007: first Earthlike planet outside our solar system

1948: first cable TV company

CATV is now the abbreviation for Cable Television. Originally it meant Community Antenna Television, and it started just under 60 years ago.

Service Electric Company was formed by John and Margaret Walson in the mid 1940s to sell, install and repair General Electric appliances in the Mahanoy City area of Pennsylvania. In 1947, they began selling television sets. It was very difficult or even impossible to receive the three Philadelphia channels in Mahanoy City because the town is 86 muiles from Philly and surrounded by mountains.

Walson erected a utility pole with an antenna on a nearby mountain so he could demonstrate television. In June of 1948, he successfully connected the antenna to the store as well as to several homes along the cable path.

His experiences as a Pennsylvania Power & Light field employee and his degree in electronics proved beneficial in starting the nation's first CATV system. People who lived in the small mountainous towns of northeastern Pennsylvania could now receive three Philadelphia channels in their homes or could congregate outside the Walson's appliance store to view the new communication medium.

Walson was recognized by the US Congress and the National Cable Television Association as the founder of the cable television industry. Walson was also the first cable operator to use microwave to import distant television stations, to use coaxial cable for improved picture quality, and to distribute pay television programming (HBO).

Today, Service Electric Television is a private, family owned cable business servicing about 300,000 subscribers in about 250 communities in Central and Northeastern PA and Northwestern NJ.

Service Electric served Bethlehem PA when I was a student at Lehigh University in the late 1960s. The company seldom disconnected cables when a student moved out of an apartment, and lost money when new students moved in and connected their TVs to the still-live cable provided for the previous tenant. Some enterprising students became unofficial re-sellers, by running cable to other apartments, and charging half of the Service Electric fee.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

1982: last Checker taxi

In the early 1900s, Morris Markin, a Russian-born clothier in Chicago became the owner of an auto body maker when its owner defaulted on a loan. The facility made bodies for Commonwealth Motors which sold taxicabs under the Mogul name.

Checker Taxi – a privately-owned cab company in Chicago — had placed a large order for Mogul cabs with Commonwealth, which was nearly bankrupt. Markin merged the two companies in order to honor the contractual commitment with the Chicago Checker Taxi. Markin named the new business the Checker Cab Company.

John Hertz began in the taxi business in 1910, both building Yellow Cabs and operating the cab service. Because of plant overproduction, Hertz used the excess cars by renting them to patrons through his "Yellow Drive-Ur-Self" division (the forerunner of Hertz Rental Car). Seeing Hertz's success, Markin bought Checker Taxi Cab in 1937.

Markin also followed Hertz's business plan in having drivers open doors for the fares, and outfitted each driver with a uniform. Competition for fares was fierce in the 1920s, and the drivers began fighting between trips. The fighting between the two cab companies escalated to the point where Markin's home was firebombed. This prompted Markin to buy a factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan and relocate Checker.

Under Markin, Checker became the first cab company to hire African-American drivers and the first to require that drivers pick up all fares, not just white ones.

Hertz had sold his Yellow Cab to the Parmalee Transportation Company, but in 1929, after a suspicious fire at his stables killed his prized race horses, Hertz left the cab business, with Markin buying Hertz's shares and then acquiring another one-third in the company from Parmalee, thus taking control of both Parmalee and Yellow Cab.

While Hertz had sold off the cab business, the manufacturing arm went to General Motors, which wanted to sell it, and made Markin an affordable offer. Markin refused. Rather than eliminate the capacity of Yellow Manufacturing, General Motors entered the taxicab business as Terminal Taxi Cab, and a second fare war broke out, with Checker and Terminal fighting in New York City. To end this dispute, New York Mayor Jimmy Walker created the New York Taxi Cab Commission, which ruled that all cabs in New York had to be purpose-built cabs, not consumer car conversions.

Markin sold Checker Cab to E.L. Cord, but bought it back agin in 1936. In 1940, Parmalee (including Yellow and Checker Cab) became the largest cab company in the United States. Eventually, the cab company revenues exceeded those of Checker's automotive building division, and the company decided to enter the passenger car business in 1961.

In 1964 the State of New York pursued Markin and Checker on antitrust charges, alleging that it controlled both the taxi service and manufacture of taxis, and thus favored itself in fulfilling orders. Rather than allow Checker drivers to begin buying different brands of cars, Markin began selling licenses in New York City.

In 1977, seven years after the death of Morris Markin, retired GM President Ed Cole bought into Checker with the intent of re-energizing the company and developing a new, more modern Checker. Cole's plan was to purchased partially completed Volkswagen's from VW's new factory in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania. Cole was going to ship the VW's to the Checker Motor's factory in Kalamazoo, cut them in half, insert a section to lengthen the VW, raise the roof and then sell the reconfigured vehicle as a taxi. Shortly thereafter, however, Cole was killed is a plane crash.

The iconic Checker "Marathon" model was introduced in 1961 and used for cab service in many cities, and was frequently seen in movies and on TV. The company even produced a civilian version that achieved cult status.

The Marathon design dated back to the mid 1950's, which caused a number of problems later on. Impact absorbing bumpers were added when required by federal law and then the steering column/wheel were changed when a collapsible column was also required for safety reasons. The rear fold-down jump seats were also removed as they failed all safety tests. The car had very poor gas mileage as the tall front end and hood made for poor aerodynamics. Many body stamping dies were worn out after over 20 years of continuous use, requiring manual body adjustments to make the parts fit.

With the Marathon model thoroughly outmoded and no longer selling in viable quantities, and lacking the resources to develop a new model, Checker decided to leave the auto manufacturing business.The last models were produced for the 1982 model year. Checker Motors today operates as an automotive subcontractor, primarily for General Motors, building mostly body components. (info & photo from Wikipedia)

Monday, April 23, 2007

1945: First (and last) Jewish Miss America

Bess Myerson (born 1924) was the first (and, so far, only) Jewish Miss America. She went on to become a popular television personality, a public servant, and a philanthropist.

Myerson encountered anti-Jewish prejudice during the Miss America Pageant, when an official tried to convince her to change her name to one that was less ethnic. She refused. Myerson was the first recipient of a Miss America scholarship, but none of the pageant's sponsors were willing to use beauty from the Bronx as a spokesperson. During her year as Miss America, Myerson made many personal appearances. One was scheduled at an southern country club, but just before the event, she was told that the country club was restricted, and no Jewish person could go there.

Myerson, determined to fight racial bigotry, traveled around the country speaking in behalf of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, in cooperation with the NAACP and the Urban League.

Many Americans remember Myerson's TV career as Mistress of Ceremonies for "The Big Payoff" (1951-9) and as a panelist on "I've Got A Secret" (1958-67). From 1969-73 as Commissioner of Consumer Affairs of New York City, Myerson was architect of the most far-reaching consumer protection legislation in the country at that time, and she was put on the cover of Life Magazine as "A Consumer's Best Friend." From 1983-87 Myerson served under Mayor Ed Koch as Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, where she substantially broadened financial support for New York City's art community.

Myerson is a Founder of The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, where she established the Bess Myerson Film and Video Collection. Her concern over racial and religious tensions on college campuses led her to endow the Bess Myerson Campus Journalism Awards given annually by the Anti-Defamation League.

Myerson's presidential appointments include Lyndon Johnson's White House Conference on Violence and Crime, Gerald Ford's Commission on the National Center for Productivity and Quality of Working Life, and Jimmy Carter's Commissions on Mental Health and on World Hunger. She has served on the boards of the International Rescue Committee, the Consumers Union and Another Mother for Peace. Hunter College, where Myerson graduated in the same year that she was crowned Miss America, later presented her with an honorary doctorate, as did Long Island University and Seton Hall. (info from The Jewish American Hall of Fame)

Friday, April 20, 2007

2006: first inhabited island disappears

Rising seas, caused by global warming, have for the first time washed an inhabited island off the face of the Earth. The obliteration of Lohachara island, in India's portion of the Sundarbans delta where the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal, marks the moment when one of the most apocalyptic predictions of environmentalists and climate scientists has started coming true.

Eight years ago, the first uninhabited islands - in the Pacific atoll nation of Kiribati - vanished beneath the waves. The people of low-lying islands in Vanuatu, also in the Pacific, have been evacuated as a precaution, but the land still juts above the sea. The disappearance of Lohachara, once home to 10,000 people, is unprecedented.

It has been officially recorded in a six-year study of the Sunderbans by researchers at Calcutta's Jadavpur University. So remote is the island that the researchers first learned of its submergence, and that of an uninhabited neighbouring island, Suparibhanga, when they saw they had vanished from satellite pictures.

Until now the Carteret Islands off Papua New Guinea were expected to be the first populated ones to disappear, in about eight years' time, but Lohachara has beaten them to the dubious distinction.

Refugees from the vanished Lohachara island and the disappearing Ghoramara island have fled to Sagar, but this island has already lost 7,500 acres of land to the sea. In all, a dozen islands, home to 70,000 people, are in danger of being submerged by the rising seas. (info from Independent News and Media Limited)

Thursday, April 19, 2007

1975: end of HUAC

The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA) was an investigative committee of the US House of Representatives, often called HUAC, House Un-American Activities Committee.

The Committee was established in 1938. Its work was supposed to be aimed mostly at American involvement in Nazi and Ku Klux Klan activity, but actually did little about the Klan, and is best known for searching for communists, and terrorizing people in show business.

HUAC became a standing (permanent) committee in 1946. Under the mandate of Public Law 601, passed by the 79th Congress, the committee of nine representatives investigated suspected threats of subversion or propaganda that attacked "the form of government guaranteed by our Constitution."

Under this mandate, the committee focused its investigations on real and suspected communists in positions of actual or supposed influence in American society. The first investigation looked into allegations of communists in the Federal Theatre Project. In 1938, Hallie Flanagan, head of the Project, was subpoenaed to appear before the committee to answer the charge that the project was overrun with communists. One of the committee members stupidly asked Flanagan whether the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe was a member of the Communist Party.

A significant step for HUAC was its investigation of the charges of espionage brought against Alger Hiss in 1948. This investigation ultimately resulted in Hiss's trial and conviction for perjury, and convinced many of the usefulness of congressional committees for uncovering Communist subversion.

In 1947, the committee held nine days of hearings into alleged communist propaganda in the Hollywood motion picture industry. After conviction on contempt of Congress charges for refusal to answer some questions posed by committee members, the "Hollywood Ten" were blacklisted by the industry. Eventually, more than 300 artists — including directors, radio commentators, actors and particularly screenwriters — were boycotted by the studios. Some, like Charlie Chaplin, left the US to find work. Others wrote under pseudonyms or the names of colleagues. Only about ten percent succeeded in rebuilding careers within the entertainment industry.

In 1947, studio executives told the Committee that wartime films like Mission to Moscow and Song of Russia could be considered pro-Soviet propaganda, but they suggested that the films were valuable in the context of the Allied war effort. In the 1950s, the studios produced a number of anti-communist and anti-Soviet propaganda films like The Red Menace, I Married a Communist, and I Was a Communist for the FBI. Most were box-office failures, but placated Hollywood's critics and protected the industry against a threatened boycott campaign.

HUAC lost considerable prestige after it subpoenaed Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman of the Yippies in 1967, and again in the aftermath of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Unlike previous subjects of the committee's investigations, the Yippies neither respected nor feared the Committee, and used media attention to make a mockery of the proceedings.

Rubin came to one session dressed as an American Revolutionary War soldier, and passed out copies of the United States Declaration of Independence to people in attendance. Then Rubin "blew giant gum bubbles while his co-witnesses taunted the committee with Nazi salutes." Hoffman attended a session dressed as Santa Claus. On another occasion, police stopped Hoffman at the building entrance and arrested him for wearing an American flag. Hoffman quipped for the press, "I regret that I have but one shirt to give for my country," paraphrasing the last words of revolutionary patriot Nathan Hale; meanwhile Rubin, who was wearing a matching Viet Cong flag, shouted that the police were communists for not arresting him also.

In the fifties, the most effective sanction was terror. Almost any publicity from HUAC meant the 'blacklist.' Without a chance to clear his name, a witness would suddenly find himself without friends and without a job. But it is not easy to see how in 1969 a HUAC blacklist could terrorize an SDS activist. Witnesses like Jerry Rubin have openly boasted of their contempt for American institutions. A subpoena from HUAC would be unlikely to scandalize Abbie Hoffman or his friends.

In 1969, the House changed the committee's name to the Committee on Internal Security. When the House abolished the committee in 1975, its functions were transferred to the House Judiciary Committee. (info from Wikipedia; photo from Temple University)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

1960: last American cars shipped to Cuba

At one time, Cuba was the largest importer of American cars. That ended in 1960, when the Eisenhower administration imposed a ban on US exports to the island following Fidel Castro’s rise to power.

Today, Cuba is a living reminder of 1950s Detroit power, with about 30,000 aging and ancient American vehicles in daily use. About half of the old cars are from the 1950s, with Chevrolets dominating other brands. Another 25 percent are from the 1940s, and the remainder are older. Some look like they just left the showroom, others are a hodgepodge of parts, perhaps a Chevy with an engine from a Russian tractor, or a Plymouth with wooden bumpers, being towed by a pair of donkeys.

Since the embargo, Cuba has had cars from other countries, mostly Russia; but few have lasted more than a few years. Many American cars, however, still run perfectly today. The car is the main source of revenue for many Cubans, since they can transport tourists for up to $50 per day in an economy where the average Cuban makes $15-25 a month. The cost of owning a car is high, especially with gasoline costing $8 a gallon. But with high gas prices, some gas stations are beautiful, with fresh, clean paint on the walls, standing out conspicuously from a scene of intense poverty.

Rick Shnitzler, founder of TailLight Diplomacy (TLD), says Cuban owners of antique autos would represent a good market for US spare parts, both originals and reproductions, if US firms were again free to do business with Cuba.

For now, however, the trade embargo on Cuba remains, and all Shnitzler can do is dream, and occasionally help out his like-minded counterparts in Havana.

"Recently, we were able to deliver copies of original factory-issued sales brochures which will enable Cuba to restore its oldest car, a 1905 Cadillac Model F Touring, to factory specifications," he said.

Since its formation in 2000, the nonprofit TLD has pushed hard for lifting of the US ban on travel to Cuba. "TLD seeks to create the conditions for Americans to meet their Cuban peers face-to-face," a fact sheet about the organization says. “TLD advocates that Cubans conserve and maintain their existing fleet of pre-1960s American cars, trucks and motorcycles, and that Americans join with Cubans to restore (them)" (some info from Havana Journal and Dan Heller Photography)

Sunday, April 15, 2007


I'm away on a business trip. Postings will resume on Wednesday 4/18.

Friday, April 13, 2007

first Dragnet broadcast

A radio program from 1949 to 1956 and a TV show from 1952 to 1959, and again from 1967 to 1970, Dragnet was the first major realistic crime drama, and the progenitor of later shows ranging from CHIPS to Adam 12 and Law & Order.

The show takes its name from an actual police term, a "dragnet", meaning a system of coordinated measures for apprehending criminals or suspects. Physical dragnets are used for fishing.

Set in Los Angeles, it starred jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday. Joe's lines, "My name's Friday, I'm a cop," and "Just the facts, ma'am" have inspired generations of advertising copywriters and jokesters.

Episodes were based on real crimes, and started with "The story you are about to see is true; only the names have been changed to protect the innocent." An announcer described the basic premise of the show, for example, "You're a Detective Sergeant, you're assigned to auto theft detail. A well organized ring of car thieves begins operations in your city. It's one of the most puzzling cases you've ever encountered. Your job: break it."

The story then usually began with footsteps and a door closing, followed by Joe Friday intoning something like: "Tuesday, February 12. It was cold in Los Angeles. We were working the day watch out of robbery division. My partner's Ben Romero. The boss is Ed Backstram, chief of detectives. My name's Friday."

Friday offered voice-over narration throughout the episodes, noting the time, date and place of every scene as he and his partners went through their day investigating the crime. The events related in a given episode might occur in a few hours, or might span a few months. At least one episode unfolded in real time: in "City Hall Bombing" Friday and Romero had less than 30 minutes to stop a man who was threatening to destroy the City Hall with a bomb.

At the end of the episode, announcer George Fenneman would relate the fate of the suspect. They were usually convicted of a crime and sent to "the State Penitentiary" or a state mental hospital. Murderers were often "executed in the manner prescribed by law." Occasionally, police pursued the wrong suspect, and criminals sometimes avoided justice or escaped.

Specialized terminology was mentioned in every episode, but was rarely explained. Webb trusted the audience to determine the meanings of words or terms by their context, and furthermore, Dragnet tried to avoid the kinds of awkward, lengthy exposition that people wouldn’t actually use in daily speech. Several specialized terms (such as "A.P.B." for "All Points Bulletin" and "M.O." for "Modus Operandi") were rarely used in popular culture before Dragnet introduced them to everyday America. (some info from Wikipedia)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

first vehicle with gasoline engine

Traditionally, Carl Benz (of Mercedes Benz) is credited with inventing the car. He built a three-wheeled car in 1885 and sold his first one two years later, and went into production with a four-wheeled model in 1890.

But Benz wasn't first. In 1864, Siegfried Marcus began working on cars. He made his first one in 1870. His second car, built in 1888/89 was rediscovered in 1950, and it could still be driven. The car had been bricked up behind a false wall in the cellar of a Vienna museum to hide it from the Nazis. Marcus was Jewish, and the Nazis intended to destroy his car and any literature describing it.

Siegfried Marcus is an inventor of enormous importance to contemporary civilization, but he's missing from most school books.

Machines employing his inventions can be numbered in the billions.

Trucks and buses, automobiles and lawnmowers, motorboats and chainsaws - in fact every mechanism employing an internal combustion motor and its carburetor, magneto ignition, and spark plugs, is derived from patents granted to Marcus. They are but a few of his 158 significant inventions.

Millions of vehicles crowding the world's roads are descendants of the original vehicles produced by Siegfried Marcus. It would appear that, of all of Marcus' revolutionary inventions, the internal combustion engine alone is so central to modern civilization that the name of its inventor would be as familiar as Watt or Whitney or Edison. The fact that so many other industrial and communication innovations are attributable to Marcus makes the rarity of the appearance of his name even more remarkable.

Siegfried Samuel Marcus (1831 – 1898) was a German inventor and automobile pioneer who lived most of his life in Austria (then, the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

From 1856 to 1898 he manufactured scientific instruments in Vienna. He developed an interest in electricity and made improvements in ignition devices and telegraph systems. His portable telegraph was valuable for military field communications, and used by the Prussian army.

In 1870 he put an internal combustion engine on a cart, making it the first gasoline-powered vehicle, the “First Marcus Car”.

In 1883 a patent for a magneto ignition was granted to Marcus in Germany. This design was used for all further engines and the “Second Marcus Car” of 1888/89. It was this ignition in conjunction with the “rotating brush carburetor” that made the second car's design very innovative.

In 1887, Marcus began a business venture with Märky, Bromovsky & Schulz, a company based in Moravia (eastern half of today's Czech Republic). They offered two stroke and four stroke engines of the Marcus type.

In 1888/89 Märky, Bromovsky & Schulz built the “Second Marcus Car” which can be seen in Vienna's Technical Museum. This car made Marcus well known all over the world.

Marcus was the holder of 131 patents in 16 countries, but he never applied for a patent for the car, and never claimed inventing the car.

Marcus was buried at the Protestant Cemetery at Hütteldorf, Vienna. Later, his remains were transferred to an “Honorary Tomb” of Vienna's Central Cemetery.

Because of Marcus’ Jewish ancestry his name and all memorabilia vanished under the Nazis. The memorial in front of the Vienna Technical University was removed. After the war, the monument was rebuilt. In 1950, the Second Marcus Car had a major restoration.

In 1992 Marcus was honored in Malchin, Germany the city where he was born, by the renaming of a school for him. The Siegfried Marcus Realshule Malchin is a trade school for talented students from the fourth through ninth grades. The school was outfitted with a computer room and a chemical laboratory and claimed to be worthy "of the great researcher and inventor" for whom it was named. A small museum dedicated to publicizing the accomplishments of Siegfried Marcus was part of the refurbishing of the school.

A Siegfried Marcus Society was founded in Austria in 1998 by a self-declared "young and committed group... [formed] to provide a public rectification of the long-enduring injustice done to the ingenious creator and inventor of the automobile, Siegfried Marcus."

(info from University of Houston, Hebrew History Federation, and Wikipedia)

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

beginning of Phi Beta Kappa

Academic honorary society Phi Beta Kappa was founded as a social club at the College of William and Mary in Virginia in 1776. It later evolved into the US's most prestigious organization of undergraduate students, with chapters on hundreds of campuses. The Greek letters Phi, Beta, and Kappa, which appear on members' gold keys, stand for the Greek words meaning "philosophy the guide to life."

ΦBK was the first society to have a Greek-letter name, and it introduced the essential characteristics of such societies: an oath of secrecy, a badge, mottoes in Greek and Latin, a code of laws, an elaborate form of initiation, a seal, and a special handclasp. The organization was created as a secret society so that its founders would have the freedom to discuss any topic they chose. Freedom of inquiry has been a hallmark of ΦBK ever since.

Although the original society at William and Mary lasted only four years, ending when the approach of the British army forced the college to close, it had already admitted fifty members, held seventy-seven meetings — mostly literary exercises and debates — and granted charters for new chapters at Yale and Harvard.

The two New England chapters preserved the essential qualities of the Virginia society. Shortly before the end of each academic year, the graduating members selected a small group of student leaders from the rising senior class to carry on the organization. In 1831, after anti-Masonic agitation prompted much discussion about the ΦBK oath, Harvard dropped the requirement for secrecy — an action that probably saved the Society from further open criticism and from rivalry with social fraternities that started around that time.

Other chapters were added gradually, and the number nationwide stood at 25 in 1883, when the National Council of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa was created. At about the same time, the first women and African-Americans were inducted into the Society. The first chapters to induct women were at the University of Vermont, in 1875, and at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, in 1876. The first known African-American was inducted by the Vermont chapter in 1877.

Between 1887 and 1917, 64 new chapters were established, and by 1983 another 147 had been chartered. In 1988 the national organization’s name was changed to The Phi Beta Kappa Society. Today there are 276 chapters.

The ideal Phi Beta Kappan has demonstrated intellectual integrity, tolerance for other views, and a broad range of academic interests. The Phi Beta Kappa Society recognizes three types of members: members in course, alumni members, and honorary members. Membership in the Society is for life.

Members "in course" are elected on the basis of their academic records as college seniors, juniors, or — rarely — Ph.D. candidates. To be eligible for election, students must have pursued a broad program of study in the liberal arts and sciences and met other academic criteria as required by the electing chapter. Typically, no more than 10 percent of the candidates for degrees in liberal arts and sciences are elected. Each year, about one college senior in a hundred, nationwide, is invited to join Phi Beta Kappa.

Seventeen US presidents (Including Bill Clinton and Bush #1, but not Dubya) and six of the nine current US Supreme Court Justices are Phi Beta Kappa members. Here are some more:

Jeff Bezos, founder of
Glenn Close, actor
Eileen Collins, space shuttle commander
Francis Ford Coppola, film director
Michael Crichton, author
Peyton Manning, NFL quarterback
Stephen Sondheim, composer and lyricist
Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. Magazine
John Updike, novelist and critic
(info from The New York Public Library Book of Popular Americana and

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Liz Taylor marries for the first time

Two-time Oscar-winner Elizabeth Taylor has been married eight times, to seven husbands:

  • Conrad "Nicky" Hilton (1950 - 1951, divorced)
  • Michael Wilding (1952 - 1957, divorced)
  • Michael Todd (1957 - 1958, widowed)
  • Eddie Fisher (1959 - 1964, divorced)
  • Richard Burton (1964 - 1974, divorced)
  • Richard Burton (1975 - 1976, divorced)
  • John Warner (1976 - 1982, divorced)
  • Larry Fortensky (1991 - 1996, divorced)

  • In 2004, her boyfriend was said to be Mexican attorney Victor Luna,

    Liz won her first Oscar for playing a hooker in Butterfield 8 (1960), a movie she has said she despised. Cleopatra (1963) won her Richard Burton -- they married and co-starred in eight movies and a TV mini-series (Divorce His, Divorce Hers) before divorcing, remarrying, and divorcing again. Most of the Taylor/Burton movies were duds, but Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won her another Oscar.

    More recently, she spoke Maggie's only word on The Simpsons, and played Fred's mother-in-law in The Flintstones (1994). She describes Michael Jackson as her dearest friend; she is his son's godmother, and she married her eighth husband, Larry Fortensky, at Jackson's Neverland Ranch. Mattel made an Elizabeth Taylor Butterfield 8 doll, possibly the company's only prostitute product. (info from Wikipedia and; photo from Pictorial Press)

    Monday, April 9, 2007

    first flight of a B-52

    The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress is now its fifth decade of operational service. The newest planes were made 45 years ago, and are older than their flight crews. The eight-engine, 390,000-pound jet was the country's first long-range, swept-wing heavy bomber. It began as an intercontinental, high-altitude nuclear bomber, and its operational capabilities were adapted to meet changing needs.

    B-52s have been modified for low-level flight, conventional bombing, extended-range flights and transport of improved defensive and offensive equipment -- including ballistic missiles that can be launched hundreds of miles from their targets.

    It had a rocky beginning. The original XB-52 design, selected by the Army Air Forces in 1946, was for a straight-wing, six-engine, propeller-powered heavy bomber. On Oct. 21, 1948, Boeing Chief Engineer Ed Wells and his design team were in Dayton, Ohio, when the Air Force's chief of bomber development told them to scrap the propellers and come up with an all-jet bomber. Over the following weekend, in a Dayton hotel room, the team designed a new eight-engine jet bomber, still called the B-52, made a scale model out of balsa wood and prepared a 33-page report.

    This effort impressed the Air Force's Air Material Command, and the design was approved. As the war worsened in Korea, the Air Force, in 1951, designated the B-52 the country's next intercontinental bomber and approved an initial production order for 13 B-52s. The first prototype flew on 15 April 1952.

    Production versions of the B-52A were B-52Bs, with more weight and larger engines. Some had photographic reconnaissance or electronic capsules in their bomb bays and were redesignated RB-52Bs. The B-52s increased in range, power and capability with each variant. The B-52H made its first flight March 6, 1961, and is still in service. In all, 744 B-52s were produced by Seattle, Wash., and Wichita, Kan., plants between 1952 and 1962.

    Throughout the 1950s, the B-52 chalked up numerous distance and speed records. It cut the round-the-world speed record in half, and in January 1962, it flew 12,500 miles nonstop from Japan to Spain without refueling. This flight alone broke 11 distance and speed records. The B-52s saw active duty in the Vietnam War, were used in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and later in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Used for strategic attack, air interdiction, offensive counter-air and maritime operations, its capabilities include:

  • Carrying nuclear or precision-guided conventional ordnance, including gravity bombs, cluster bombs, precision guided missiles and joint direct attack munitions
  • Delivering approximately 70,000 pounds of mixed payload, both internally and on external pylons
  • Combat range exceeding 8,800 miles unrefueled
  • High subsonic speeds up to 650 miles per hour, or Mach 0.86
  • Flying at altitudes up to 50,000 feet
  • Low-altitude flight capability, augmented by its electro-optical viewing system

  • Ongoing updates since beginning military service have included new avionics, data-link communications, electronic defense and offensive systems, and more powerful, fuel-efficient turbofan engines. The B-52 has been the longest-serving bomber in US history.

    The official name Stratofortress was rarely used, and personnel involved with the aircraft most commonly referred to it as BUFF (Big Ugly Fat/Flying Fuck/Fucker/Fellow). (info from Boeing and Wikipedia)

    Monday, April 2, 2007

    On Vacation

    We'll be away for a bit of relaxation and recharging. New posts will resume on 4/9 (unless I discover something really important before then).

    If you miss me, you can read all of the posts on all of my blogs.