Category Archives: History

Driving Me Dazy

Driving on highways is different wherever one travels.  The US has large expanses of land, and most major cities have many miles between them, hence national highways are sort of laid out and numbered in a grid pattern.  Look at national maps for even the largest European countries, like France and Germany, and it can look like that pot of spaghetti you spilled on the kitchen floor while trying to “help” your mom when you were 9 years old.

United States Interstate traffic carries ~25% of all vehicle miles, and ~80% of all commercially transported product, by value

It’s OK.  You felt bad when you spilled dinner, but mom made it a learning experience and you are a better person for it.  Now we’re going to make a little sense of those European “spilled spaghetti” highway maps.

Although these countries individually generally do not lend themselves to a US-style grid and grid-number system, both because of history and geography, they do indeed have patterns.  These are not very useful, if you want my biased opinion.  Well, perhaps useful for rote memorization.

European countries all have several “levels” of highway, just as in the US.  And each level will carry different amounts of traffic, depending on demand and the level.  For example, in the US, the Interstate Highway system has very high demand, and has the highest standard.  Although comprising only about 1% of all US highways by mileage, the Interstate highways carry 25% of highway traffic by vehicle miles.  That’s astounding.  A little more on this later.

I’ll use the two largest European countries, France and Germany, as examples here (um, “largest” not counting Russia).  Each also, naturally, has multiple levels of highway.  Or Classes.  Each has an “A”, or top level “motorway.”  In Germany the A stands for Autobahn.  Of course.  In France it is A for an Autoroute.  These are limited access, high speed, and high standard roadways; in France there is often a toll involved – and they are quite expensive. 

Each has a second-tier highway as well. In France, it’s the N highways, or Route Nationale.  Germany’s second-tier are “B” (which makes more sense, B following A), for Bundesstraßen – or Federal Roads.  These are often quite nice as well.

Speaking of expensive. Beware of radar speed detectors, especially on the B or N roads.  Speed limits rise and fall rapidly around mid- and smaller-sized cities.  Where it falls suddenly – often with scant warning – there is almost sure to be an automatic radar speed detector. If you flinch when you see a sudden flash (usually blue), you’ve been nicked. Your car rental company will make sure you get all of these resulting traffic tickets, while the ticket processing fees are inevitably pinned to your credit card.  Sneaky European bastards. You can generally ignore the tickets themselves; they make nice wallpaper, or fire starters, tools to study another language, whatever. (I hear Italy is the absolute worst). The money grabbers, er, ah, traffic officials will try to collect for about 6 months.  Ignore them. They will give up…eventually. But the processing fees for the car hire company are unavoidable. Those cost about $25 a pop.

As much of the highway patterns initially look like spilled spaghetti to an American European-car-vacation beginner, one cannot imagine at first that there is a numbering pattern.  The routes generally link larger cities and often follow – or run roughly parallel to – centuries’ old trade routes.  Often newer, higher standard “A” routes run near the “B” or “N” routes, but bypassing the snarled urban areas. But … an actual numbering pattern?

France’s Autoroute (A) network. Spokes leading to/from Paris

Well, of course there is a pattern.  We are talking Germans here.  How could Germans not have a pattern? And the French would hate to be outdone by their European rival brother. 

Germany’s single digit Autobahn A highways are border to border (except 2, apparently)


In both countries highway number sequences are assigned by region.  It’s that simple.  In France, the major highways near Paris seem to get most of the lower numbers; and they sort of radiate out from there, like crooked spokes on a banged up old bicycle wheel.  In Germany the single digit “A” autobahn highways have single digit numbers if they run across the entire country – border-to-border, so to speak.  The rest are assigned by region: for example, any Autobahn in Bavaria has an ID number in the 90s.

Yet, the Europeans have demonstrated a sort of “Highway-Pattern-and-Numbering-Envy”.  “Envy of whom?” you ask.  Of course, the United States.
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In September 1925 – nearly a century ago – a small committee of national highway officials met at the Jefferson Hotel in downtown St. Louis. One of their tasks? To assign numbers to the new federal highway system. Other related tasks involved national highway standards: e.g. widths, grades, surfaces, signs and markings. This would become the US Highway system.

Until then, as in Europe, major roads – and later highways – followed older trails: in the US either old Amerindian, pioneer or fur trade routes. And, to make it complicated, each state had their own system for numbering highways (sometimes letters or names), even if  they “linked up” with a highway in an adjoining state.  They were twisted too; they often directed motorists on less than efficient paths, in order to promote commerce in remote, but politically well-connected, towns and villages. [many US highways retain these rather anachronistic vestiges, wandering through downtown and business sectors of towns, villages and cities].

Well, in what seems to have been accomplished in a single day, September 25th, a small committee of five Chief State Engineers (from Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon, and South Carolina) devised the US Highway numbering system.  With few exceptions, it’s still in use today. 

Ah, the beauty, power and efficiencey of small but powerful committees.  China, anyone? Anyhow …

These mighty five decided that highways leading mostly north/south would be assigned odd numbers, with the lowest starting along the east coast. These odd-numbers would increase as you moved west, with the highest odd-numbers being along the west coast. The longest and/or most important N/S routes would end with the number five.

Routes that went mostly East/West would be assigned even numbers; with lower numbers in the north, and increasing to larger numbers in the south.  The longest and/or most important E/W routes would end with the number zero. For example: the first transcontinental highway, also called the Lincoln Highway, was US Highway 20. 

The beloved and ballyhooed highway from Chicago to Los Angeles, which we know as “Route 66”, was originally to be numbered Route 60.  But Kentucky governor William Field wanted the more important sounding 60 to run through his state. Route 66 is officially retired, but signs and the famous song still commemorate “66”, and its representation for our attraction for the open road.

This is the US Highway numbering system still in use today.

A few decades later, in the 1950s, when President Eisenhower got the nationwide super highway system approved (the so-called Interstate Highway System, officially called the “Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways”) the numbering scheme for the new system was kept more or less intact.  With one major twist.

Key to Interstate Highway numbering: these shown end in 5 or 0; to they go border to border, or sea-to-sea, or sea-to-border. See extra figure in footnotes.

To avoid number confusion with the US Highway numbers, the lower numbered North/South Interstate routes would be in the west, instead of the east, increasing as the numbering moved east.  And the lower numbered East/West routes would be in the south, instead of the north, increasing as the “grid” progressed north.  [They wanted no number ambiguity or confusion, which was possible in the middle of the country: fly-over country. So they made a rule that there are no duplicate US numbers and Interstate numbers within the same state. This is the main reason there is no Interstate 50 or 60. And the north/south number confusion was solved by having so many highways in the more densely populated east.]

Although mainly sold as something to facilitate national defense, the Interstate system by far has had its greatest effect on commerce, and next tourism. Up to 80% of the nation’s commercial product (by value and mile) is moved to market, or between suppliers and factories, along Interstate highways. Its effect on individual or family travel: Driving across many states, or the entire nation, has been a summer vacation right-of passage in many families for decades. Many commuters use it as well.

US Highways (left) and Interstate Highways (right) have different markings and colors. US 40 (or Route 40) runs near Interstate 70 (or I-70) across much of the country, from the east coast, across the Rocky Mtns to Utah.

A few asides on the numbering systems. [Recall there is a difference between US Highways (often called “Routes”) and Interstate Highways.]

(1) The US coastal highways do not follow the “5” designation for major N/S routes: US 1 runs along the entire east coast, with US 99 and 101 running along, or near, the west coast. Neither end in a 5. [See add’l map in footnotes].

(2) Three-digit US highway numbers show highways that are sort of alternates to the original: for example, US 287 which passes through my neighborhood, goes north/south through the same regions as US 87.  Both go from the CAN-US border in Montana down to the Texas gulf coast. Both US 85 and US 285 also pass near our home. 85 goes from the US-CAN border in North Dakota all the way to the Mexican border in El Paso; 285 branches off from 85 in Denver and winds down to dusty west Texas as well.

(3) For the Interstate system, three digit numbers generally indicate loops or by-passes if the first digit is even (I-405 loops around Seattle, but otherwise is on the I-5 path) or, if the first digit is odd, it denotes spurs that shoot out to facilitate transport and commerce (I-190 in Chicago connects I-90 to O’Hare airport).

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The United Nations was formed in 1945 at the close of World War 2 to help countries peaceably work together.  Well, in short order the UN had a commission for pretty much everything.  One of those was the UN Economic Commission for Europe (or UNECE). 

Around 1950 the UNECE looked first at the many highways in Europe, noting that they – like in the US before the 1925 St Louis Commission – often changed identification as they crossed boundaries. National boundaries in the case of Europe.  They noticed the numbering systems were messy and inconsistent. They also anticipated economic growth as recovery from war progressed, which would require more and better roads.  The vision was vast, eventually reaching from the UK and Ireland (island nations!) to Central Asia, and beyond … almost to China. A potential for a vast grid and simple, consistent numbering based on the cardinal directions! To wit: Copying the US approach.

These are the “E” highways shown on maps.  It is a separately numbered set of highways, much more often than not simply using existing highways. The “E” numbers were just placed alongside the “A” — and in some cases the “B” or “N” — numbers on signs and maps.

With some exceptions, they followed the US example for the “E” highways.  Generally North/South are odd; East/West are even. They have secret codes for loops and spurs and local funkiness, just as in the US. The “E” highways are generally “A” class: that is, limited access and high speed.  Yeah, there are exceptions, and lots more tedious details, but it’s kinda cool that this system extends from Ireland to Kyrgyzstan. In fact, the E 80 goes from Lisbon to Tokyo!

E highways even span the the North Sea (although the UK refuses to implement them; the M, for Motorway, system is quite satisfactory — you know: Brexit, not using the Euro and all that).

The E network throughout Europe and much of Asia, with numbering patterns based more or less on the US highway system

A consistent and logical numbering system for a huge grid of highways. Says the US: You’re welcome.  Bitte sehr.  Prego.  De nada. Molim.  Hey, have fun with it.  It’s working for us. Hope it continues to work for you.

Until next essay, I wish you safe travels with simple and uncomplicated maps and highways. Yes, even with simple easy to understand highway numbering, keep your GPS/SatNav on and up-to-date.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2020

Note of thanks to John Sarkis for his St Louis history blog, which provided many details and inspired this essay.

For my European friends and family — feel free to make corrections, additions or suggested edits in the comments on the A, B, E, N parts of the essay.

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

Extra figure showing US vs Interstate Numbering scheme.

US routes have low numbers in north and east.
Interstate numbers have low numbers in south and west.
US 10 used to run to Seattle, but was gradually replaced and de-commissioned as I-90 was completed in segments.

Special Summer

Indian Summer

Idyllic “Indian Summer” image

The first thing we should address, given contemporary sensitivities, is if this is even an appropriate term. 

The sports teams of my undergrad alma mater, Arkansas State University, used to carry the nickname “Indians.” ASU started out as an A&M (Agriculture and Mechanical) school and thus were known for some time as the “Aggies.”  They changed to “Warriors” in 1930, then to “Indians” the next year.  They remained the Indians until 2008.  They then changed to the Red Wolves.

Jumpin’ Joe: Arkansas State mascot when I attended in the 1970s.

Nominally one could argue that the name was not insensitive.  However, the mascot was known as Jumpin’ Joe (see figure), usually portrayed as a hideous visual parody of a native Amerindian. I was always uncomfortable with this, but as a young man finding my way in the world – and coping in the South as a native Yankee – I never made much fuss about it. 

Historic range of the Red Wolf

So, Arkansas State became the Red Wolves.  The Red Wolf is an endangered species, and – if ever seen – is usually in the southeast US.  It’s a mixed beige-reddish/copper colored subspecies of the gray wolf [1], and also evidently quite modern in its evolution, having a genealogy that is only about 50-400,000 years; so not that different than humans.

Interesting that the most successful college sports team in the hometown of my youth (Milwaukee), is Marquette University, and was also called the “Warriors” for decades; definitely an allusion to a supposed war-like nature of the American Native. Marquette, is a smallish Jesuit run school. Yes successful: they won the NCAA Basketball Championship as the “Warriors” in 1977. In time, the nickname was deemed a negative portrayal of native Amerindian culture.  Marquette’s sports teams have been called the Golden Eagles since 1995.

The Golden Eagle is a very successful species.  It’s one of the most widespread birds of prey across all of the northern hemisphere. So that was probably a good choice by Marquette. Pick success.

And let’s not forget the team that can be called “That team formerly known as the Washington Redskins.” Or maybe the official name is just the “Washington Football Team.”  Or something like that.  Not following sports much lately.

In any case, Indian Summer is a wonderful time.  Typically, it refers to a period of pleasant weather late in the year.  It could also be a wonderful period of time late in one’s life.  I may be having my own Indian Summer right now, in early retirement, and before Old Man Time tatters and frays my neurons and sinews even further.  

The term might have even originated with “Indians”, as some oral traditions tell of how American Natives explained the phenomenon of this weather to new arrivals: fear not, an unexpectedly nice time of year will arrive.  You can hunt, and sometimes even fetch a late harvest of berries.  Northern Europeans would likely have expected no such thing after a blast of Jack Frost and wintery chills.

The thing about Indian Summer is you don’t actually know if, or when, it is going to arrive.  It’s kind of a “bonus summer.”   An end of year “bonanza.”  A happy surprise.

The US Weather Service prefers to apply the term to a stretch of summery weather that occurs in the autumn after a killing freeze.  Annuals have all perished.  Budding has ceased.  Perennials are into dormancy.  Deciduous trees are shutting down. It’s best if there is even some snow; a warning of the deep dark nights and short days to follow.

And then: bam!  Sun.  Warmth.  Hope you didn’t put those shorts away, or that sunscreen.

Colorado is Not currently in Indian Summer, although one could be forgiven for thinking that.  The temperatures are back into the 80s – and might even soon touch 90.  Yet last week we had three days of freezing temperatures and even several inches of snow in most places.

But it’s not autumn yet.  Fall has yet to fall.

It’s just one of those things.  One of those crazy Colorado things. [3] Even though we were over 100 degrees just a few days before the snow and freezing temperature.  It’s not Indian Summer, yet.  I hope we get one again this year.

Anyhow, should we call it Indian Summer?  As opposed to Bonus Summer, or Extra Summer?  The Cajuns of Louisiana have a cute term: Lagniappe (Lan-yap), for an unexpected pleasant little add-on. [2]

I rather like Indian Summer, both the event and the term.  But Lagniappe Summer works fine, too.  All so multi-cultural.

Wishing you a lovely rest of summer and a blissful Indian/Bonus/Lagniappe Summer as well.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2020

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

[1] The taxonomy of the Red Wolf is much debated – sort of like whether the names Indian, Warrior and Redskin are insensitive or not.  Many believe that it is a cross between the Gray Wolf and Coyote. Others say it is a blend with an additional wolf species.

[2] The story of Lagniappe.  https://culinarylore.com/food-history:what-is-a-lagniappe/

[3] Apologies to song writer Cole Porter, and every great singer-artist who sang it, for poaching and re-appropriating these words. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOg3B9cELgQ

Indispensable Servants

It was the day before Labor Day. It was many, many years ago – when only ½ of US households had a television set, the vast majority showed only black and white, and there were only three stations to choose from.  That fateful red-letter Sunday my mother went into labor.  It must have frightened her, even though she was a woman of great faith, for this was her first child.

For me and my existence, this was essential labor.  Without it, I would not be on this earth.  I’ve expressed gratitude and praise to her – both in person and to her soul – for her countless sacrifices and many achievements.  She passed before I ever thought to thank her for this specific essential labor. 

This delivery – and those of my two sisters within the following three years – occurred at the old St Anne’s hospital, on the near north-west side of Chicago.  Well, things change, and St Anne’s was shuttered in 1988.  Over the following decade or so most of the grounds and nearby surrounding region were re-purposed; most significant among them being the arrival of Beth-Anne Residences.  This facility is dedicated to low-income and disabled elderly, many of whom require assisted living.  It is run by a 501-c-3 organization. So perhaps I can “slip the surly bonds of earth” at the same place I arrived.

Labor Day: it’s the day we honor workers in America – even though much of the rest of the world does this on May 1.  As we get out, have fun, fire up the grill, crack a beer, hike, bike, safely visit family and friends, and do the things we do on this end-of-summer holiday, we are tasked with recalling the importance of the American worker – the laborer.  And we recall the struggle of the labor movement, especially from the last decades of the 19th century through the first few of the 20th – their victories in achieving reasonable rights, among them: safe labor conditions, 40-hour workweeks, end of child labor, and yes, the right to collective bargaining.

This year I extend that to “essential labor.”  We’ll go here, as many businesses (and hence their workers in many cases) were deemed non-essential during this coronavirus pandemic.   The best synonym, I submit, is “indispensable servant”; those without whom society could not function with any sense of decency.

Of course, we all mandatorily identify those who serve in the health care industries as such.  From doctors, physicians assistants, nurses, and nurse practitioners; – to psychologists, pharmacists, emergency medical technicians.  The breadth is wide indeed: who administers hospitals, keeps the lights on, cleans the toilets, keeps ambulances and fire trucks operational, manufactures and ships drugs & vaccines, fills and drops off liquid oxygen, cleans surgical devices …? All those people who answer the phone and answer your billing and insurance questions. It is a breathtaking list.  Appreciate them all.

What would we do without food?  Grocery store workers are essential.  But so is everyone who works in the food supply chain.  Migrants who harvest food.  Fishermen. Workers who process food – often migrants as well.  How many among us raise hogs, chickens?  Collect eggs? Don’t forget the truck drivers, truck maintenance personnel, truck stop employees, truck and dock loaders and unloaders, even longshoremen who help us get our food.  I’m sure I missed some.  Appreciate them all.

What would we do without energy?  Who keeps the electric power flowing to our houses so that our food stays fresh in our refrigerators and freezers?  How many could work from home – or communicate with the world at all – without linemen, power plant workers, engineers and technicians who keep substations, transformers, and transmission lines operational.   It’s been a hot summer in much of the country: jeepers creepers, what would we do without A/C?  Even that is rather essential. Appreciate them all.

As humans, we are naturally social.  Yet we’ve had to “socially distance” (a new verb there).  To stay “in touch” is essential to our nature.  So, don’t forget telephone and cell phone employees.  And workers for internet providers.

Sanitation.  What happens to your poop?  What happens to your garbage?  We’ve been in shut down for 6 months now.  What if each one of us had to dispose of all that shit?  Thank the garbage collectors, and anyone who supports them, like landfill workers. Thank the municipal laborers, engineers, chemists and technicians who work at and support the wastewater treatment plants – ensuring that the waste we flush, and all the stuff we send down the sink, does not ruin our environment.

Clean water.  Water is essential to life.  And steady access to clean water is essential to a healthy life.  And good coffee.  Many careers are dedicated to acquiring, treating and delivery of clean water to every household. That is surely indispensable. 

Come to think of it: With clean water and wastewater disposal as essential, well, we have to add plumbers to the list of essential workers.

Protection.  Law Enforcement has been in the spotlight a lot lately.  It’s certainly not perfect.  Yet it is critical – essential – to a society that respects individual rights.  I include fire and rescue personnel here as well as in the medical section. 

Even with reduced traffic we need to get out occasionally, if just to buy groceries.  City engineers and technicians keep the traffic lights running. 

And there’s protection at the national level.  We can have a discussion about the size of our government and our nation’s defense: but we do need them.  From scanning the skies and oceans, to cyberattacks of all sorts. 

I know I missed some.  And quite a few more that are nearly-indispensable.  Child care.   The natural gas industry (by which most of us heat our water, and will soon be heating our residences). Education: teachers, professors, para-professionals and cafeteria workers. School janitors, maintenance, and IT personnel. Transportation: mass transit workers (who often help essential workers get to work, or the grocery story), road maintenance.  Even the evil banking and financial industry has kept the wheels of the economy creaking along; who maintains ATMs and answers your calls, and processes your quarantine on-line credit card purchases?

Many simply do not make the essential or nearly-indispensable list, like swaths of government and the entire entertainment industry.  And that includes professional sports.  Not gonna apologize; you all are simply not essential to life.  We don’t need you Robert Redford, DiCaprio, Duval, LeBron, ad nauseum.  

The “not even remotely indispensable” includes anyone who works for CNN, Fox, etc.  Yep, don’t need you at all; I’m talking to you Don Lemon and Tucker Carlson. I turned you all off long ago and don’t miss you one bit.  Life rolls merrily along, and much more calmly, without you.

Happy Labor Day! Enjoy, and also be grateful for those who labor. Thank the indispensable servants among us.  This year, I task you all with identifying the less obvious indispensables. Especially those who do the things we cannot do or choose not to do. Appreciate them.

And mothers, thank them too.  Thanks mom. See you someday.

Honor the American Worker

Joe Girard © 2020

note: my mom gave birth 6 times. My siblings and I are all lucky and grateful for her many labors. After the first 3, the next was delivered in Evanston at St Francis Hospital. The last two (brothers) were in Wisconsin — I think Menominee Falls.

Whether the Weather

“Without a doubt, chain of command is one of the most durable concepts in military organizations.” [1]

Clarity: It is critical that each warrior be responsible to a single set of orders; and that those orders ultimately flow through a single person: a designated leader. Often, it is likewise with briefing and council of such leaders: well considered, well delivered and filtered information is better than too much information; it must come through a single responsible person.

Red Sky at night: sailors’ delight.
Red sky at morning: sailors take warning.”

Not long ago. ‘Twas before weather satellites. Before weather apps sent us instantaneous forecasts and updates – for free. Before flocks of powerful computers, powered by speedy powerful, parallel processors, loaded with forecasting programs and access to over a century of meteorological data. Before all that, people relied on little bits of wisdom, like that captured in this poem couplet, to help foretell the weather. 


The insight of this this poem has been used for millennia.  One of the earliest written records is this reply to a demand for a sign from heaven:

It is one thing to gage likely weather for smallish things like picnics and hikes, and larger things, such as if a ship should leave the safety of port. It is something completely different when the future of the world depends upon predictive correctness. Yet, decades before the space age, satellite imagery and the internet, a small group of people – led by an enigmatic man – made the most important and unlikely, yet correct, two-day weather forecast in the history of the modern world.  Working with similar information, teams of weather scientists only a few miles away made different forecasts.  The world-changing consequences were immeasurable.

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The enigmatic man was James Martin Stagg. He was born to a plumber and a homemaker at the dawn of the 20th century, June 30th, 1900. His first name was that of his paternal grandfather; his middle name matched his mother’s maiden name. Hometown: Dalkeith, a small market town, some 15 miles south-southeast of the big city of Edinburgh, quite near the Firth of Forth – close by the North Sea. It’s a place where one becomes accustomed to the capriciousness of weather.

James Martin Stagg

His parents were stern Scots. They raised him to be disciplined, thorough, hard-working, and accountable. He was also considered rather bookish and unemotional. Humorless. These were all traits that would serve him, and the world, well.

By age 15 James had received as much local education as possible in Dalkeith. Clearly bright and promising, he was sent off to further his education, in Edinburgh.  By 1921 he had earned a master’s degree from prestigious Edinburgh University. His career began as a teacher and science master at George Hariot’s School (primary and secondary boarding school), also in Edinburgh.  He also began post-degree research in a field that would fascinate him for the rest of his life: Geophysics.  In particular, he studied the earth’s magnetic properties.

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Whether the weather be fine,
Or whether the weather be not.
 
Whether the weather be cold,
Or whether the weather be hot.

We’ll weather the weather,
Whatever the weather,
Whether we like it or not!

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Weather forecasting was improving steadily during the first few decades of the 20th century, well beyond simple poems, owing largely to the development of powered flight – for commercial and, later, military purposes. Reasonable forecasts – wind, precipitation, cloud cover – were invaluable to pilots and navigators.  And flight gave opportunity for a bonanza of further atmospheric data collection and observation.

The century had already dealt humanity horrible calamities due to inaccurate forecasts. In the US this included deadly hurricanes (such as Galveston, 1900; and the Long Island Express, 1938) and lost aircraft: commercial, private and military.

A mixture of art and science, weather forecasting was evolving rapidly.  Some schools of thought promoted using centuries of meticulous records (even Thomas Jefferson kept detailed weather logs) and then trying to fit current readings with known patterns observed over time.  Others were promoting a rigorous science-based approach, with the belief that given enough data the weather could be forecast days in advance, based solely on atmospheric data and physics-based mathematical models.  Without high speed digital computers and data base programs, both approaches were handicapped as World War II broke out, September 1, 1939, and continued for six years.

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Even in the 1940s, Americans who dwelt in the Midwest, or in the east, would be astonished at how feeble weather forecasting was for the British Isles and much of western Europe, from the coasts of France to those of Norway. 

Why? Two major factors.

Factor one: Geographic location. Americans from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Coast reaped some under-appreciated major benefits here.  One was the mid-latitude Westerlies: a general motion of west-to-east wind and weather patterns between 30 and 60 degrees latitude. Another geographic benefit was the sheer immenseness of the continent.  From across the country – from cities and towns and airports and major rail stations – weather observations were constantly wired to the National Weather Service.  Usually throughout each day. 

Formed in 1890, the NWS was staffed with hundreds of dedicated hands-on human data processors who would manually amalgamate an astounding mountain of data – air pressure, temperature, wind speed and direction, cloud cover and type, precipitation amounts and rates – and concoct a pretty reasonable weather forecast for the few days ahead.  The country – from farmers to aircraft – relied on these forecasts.

The second fact simply is that the North Atlantic is not a continent. There were very, very few weather reports from which to synthesize forecasts in “the pond.” It is as much a weather generator as it is weather receiver. Any details gleaned from shipping vessels were invaluable.  Weather reports from Maine to Newfoundland, from Goose Bay, and from Thule to Iceland, were scrutinized for every possible detail.  Remote stations in Ireland, Scotland, islands in the Irish Sea and along the Welsh coast could provide, perhaps, at most, a half day’s alert. The Atlantic dynamically battles with the Arctic here: ocean currents, the Jetstream, and vagaries of high latitude weather formation over a cold swirling ocean were simply not fully understood.

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Although degreed in Geophysics, James Martin Stagg’s eclectic career and training earned him high praise, and he received an appointment at Britain’s Meteorological Office (usually just called “the Met”) in 1924.  His responsibilities, experiences in travel, life and career, and the respect of other scientists continued to grow.  For example, in 1932 he led a one-year expedition to arctic Canada, where he gained first-hand experience of weather variability north of “the Westerlies.”

His career flourished.  In 1943 Stagg was appointed the Chief Meteorological Officer to Allied forces in Western Europe. The main mission: learn enough history and patterns of north Atlantic weather sufficiently well to make predictions for an invasion – the invasion to liberate western Europe. Today we call this D-Day and Operation Overlord.

Stagg’s partner and righthand man at this task was Donald Yates, a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point. The US Military has always been great at identifying and developing potential: as an officer, Yates went on to earn a master’s degree in Meteorology from CalTech before joining Stagg.
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Chain of Command.  The allies were blessed with capable generals from many backgrounds; – yet, more than a few were prideful and bullheaded.  Think Patton and Montgomery. They also had widely varying backgrounds. But only one person could be the supreme leader of all Allied military operations in Europe.  President Roosevelt, counseled by eventual Nobel Peace Prize winner George Marshall, and Prime Minister Churchill chose wisely.  They quickly settled on Dwight D. Eisenhower (affectionately known as “Ike”) for the singular role, even though he had only minor actual leadership experience in battle.

Ike was just one of hundreds of possible candidates.  Scores were more senior and battle-hardened; and many of those looked askance at this choice – and at Ike. 

But Ike was gifted.  He understood logistics and intelligence; he possessed superior organizational, administrative and people skills.  Above all, he showed excellent judgment. In many ways he was likeable, and considered jovial and friendly; in times of critical decision he was pensive, careful and largely unemotional.

Likewise, the allied Allied weather staffs were full of capable yet strong headed individuals from various backgrounds. But only a single person could be responsible for advising General Eisenhower. The person selected was James Stagg.  Assisted by Yates – the two acted largely as equals – Stagg’s job was to assess and make recommendations based on input from three independent teams of meteorologists. 

Those three teams represented: (1) the United States Army Airforce; (2) the British Meteorological Office (or the Met); and (3) the British Royal Navy. Stagg – like Ike – was seemingly unqualified for the job to many close observers.  His appointment as the single person responsible for meteorological advice – like Ike’s – was unappreciated by many highly trained and more experienced meteorologists, most of whom considered themselves to be superior.  Yet – like Ike – Stagg had a long reputation for exceptional judgment, and a record for careful, unemotional decisions.

Single person chain of command. Ike on the overall mission to take Normandy and western Europe.  Stagg on weather forecasts presented to Ike.  Simple. 
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A quick overview on D-Day, judgment, and the weather. Since early 1942 Europe and Stalin awaited the opening of a military front on the Third Reich’s west.  They would have to wait until at least the spring of ’44, before Ike and his staff thought they could pull it off. In fact, Ike was not formally in charge of European operations until January of that year. The secret chosen location was a 50 mile stretch of beaches in Normandy, west of the Seine estuary near La Havre, and east of the Cotentin Peninsula. 

What were the required conditions (besides secrecy and overwhelming force) for success of the largest landing invasion in history? 

First and foremost, relatively calm seas so the landing craft could navigate the English Channel and get to the Normandy coast.  Upon this hung any chance of success. And this depended almost solely on Stagg and the teams of meteorologists.

Second, dawn tidal conditions to suit the Higgins Boats (landing craft): a rising tide shortly after a low tide.  The rising tide would help carry the craft into shore; the lower tide would help them avoid German defense obstacles. This condition could be met with a nearly full moon, or nearly new moon.

Third, mostly clear, calm skies. This would assist pilots and their cargo – about 14,000 paratroopers and 4,000 glider troops – and give the best chance to hit drop zones. These would come in the dark pre-dawn hours; the first jumps came shortly after midnight.  Again, this depended on Stagg.

Fourth and finally, as a “nice to have”, but not a requirement: a full, or near full moon; again, to help paratroopers and their pilots.

May was an extraordinarily calm month, yet Ike did not think they were quite ready yet.  June 5th, one day before a full moon, was chosen.  All Allied – and German – meteorologists watched the weather, collected data and daily drew hundreds of charts by hand.

The glorious, calm, balmy western Europe spring suddenly turned nasty on June 4. Stormy skies and seas, with high winds and waves, and driving rain, pelted the British Isles and the Channel. 

Stagg consulted with his three teams. There was bitter debate and ridicule among and within the teams on the weather outlook.  The USAAF team, led by Irving Krick – who, coincidentally, had also earned a PhD in meteorology from CalTech – was “gung ho” for June 5th.  The two British teams weren’t so sure: one cautiously optimistic, the other firmly against.  The situation looked unsettled.

Outside of the weather, everyone really wanted to go June 5th.  To stand down could be most discouraging.  The men were mentally and spiritually as ready as they could be.  Many craft were already loaded and in the water.  The battleships were ready, staffed and ready to cruise.  The planes were all checked out.  Infantry, paratroopers, coxswains and pilots wrote wills; they wrote what could well be their last letters to family, wives and girlfriends.

Ike called in Stagg.  What about the weather? Quite possibly the outcome of the entire war in Europe hung on Stagg’s shoulders. On one hand, if he recommended a No-Go, i.e. a postponement, then the invasion might not occur for weeks, or even months. The weather looked to be settled in for a long stretch of ugliness. Could the Allies maintain the surprise that long?  What, meanwhile, would befall the beleaguered civilians in occupied Europe? On the other hand, if he recommended a Go for June 5, it was possible that the weather could cause catastrophe for the invasion – in fact, it might self-destruct.

Stagg recommended a postponement. Ike pushed him: really?  Are you sure?  Yes, he was. Like everyone, Ike really wanted to go. But, he acquiesced: he’d give the order to stand down.  But what about the next day, June 6?  There was a likely window of a few hours in the morning when the landings would be possible.  Standby.

German forecasters, with similar access to history and data – although not quite as extensive – came to a similar conclusion.  There would be no invasion on June 5.  The weather looked so bad, in fact, that they forecast no likely invasion for at least two more weeks. Consequently, many German officers left their posts for personal leave, or to attend war games in Rennes. Many troops were given leave also. Erwin Rommel, the famous German general (The Desert Fox) who had been made commander of all Atlantic defenses even went home for a few days, in order to surprise his wife on her 50th birthday.

Krick’s team was so disappointed in the June 5th stand-down order that they tried to go around Stagg and get to Ike through back-channels.  Good thing it didn’t work: the tradition of military chain of command stood firm. That day, as it turns out, would have resulted in a tragic outcome for the Allies. The German defenses would have barely had to fire a shot. Weather would have thwarted most flights, and tossed the Allied boats and ships to-and-fro all over the Channel. Battleships in the channel, pitching and rolling, could not have shelled the German bunkers with their big guns along the coast.

Weather chart for June 6, 1944

Later that night, Ike called for Stagg again. So: what about June 6th?  To varying degrees all three meteorological teams supported taking the chance; each with differing and various concerns and caveats – except Krick, who was still gung-ho. It seemed that a high pressure was edging up from the mid-Atlantic, with just enough relief to offer a good possibility for the morning of the 6th

Normandy Beach (Utah), June 6, 1944

Would it be perfect?  No. Mixed, intermittent clouds (scattered in east Normandy, thick in the west), ground fog, and breezes would surely make it rough on paratroopers and their pilots (most did miss their sticks).  But the landing craft could probably get to the beaches. Ike considered Stagg’s and Yates’ inputs, concerns and recommendation. 

Ike conferred with his top leadership team to consider Stagg’s report. The three highest ranking members of this team were all Brits: Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (British Army); Commander-in-Chief of Naval Operations, Bertram Ramsey (Royal Navy); and Air Marshal Arthur Tedder (Royal Air Force). The first two leaned toward GO. But Tedder was against June 6th — the possibility of cloud cover was too risky. Ramsey then reminded Ike that the 7th could not possibly work, as most sea vessels would have to return to port to refuel, postponing a possible attack many days.

Ike considered all inputs an opinions. Then announced: June 6th was a GO. 

Had Stagg or Ike been more cautious and postponed yet again, the next possible dates were June 19 & 20. The tides, of course would cooperate, but it would be moonless. 

The Allies continued to put similar effort into weather forecasting after the successful June 6th landings.  Air Force sorties and trans-channel crossings with supplies went on almost daily, quite dependent on their dependable forecasts.  June soon turned stormy again. Yet the forecasts for June 19 were for relatively calm skies and seas.

Had the Allies stood-down again on June 6th, then almost surely the three teams, Stagg and Yates would have recommended that Ike go ahead with a June 19th invasion.  Especially after postponing twice. Ike would have accepted that and issued the invasion “Go” order.

That would have been one of the worst disasters in military history. It was called “A Storm from Nowhere.” Tremendous winds and waves lashed across the Channel and crashed into Normandy.  The large temporary Mulberry harbors were damaged, one of them destroyed completely.  

Sometimes you need to be good AND lucky.  June 6 was a good choice.  And it was a lucky choice. Ike and Stagg were the right choices for their roles. They played the odds, trusted their guts, rolled the dice and chose well.  The world is better for it.

After the war, Ike of course went on to serve two terms as US President.  Between the war’s end and the presidency he held multiple leadership roles, first as Governor of the American Zone in occupied Germany; here he is most noted for ordering thorough photographic evidence of Nazi death camps, as well as organizing food relief for German civilians. Ike also served as Army Chief of Staff (succeeding Marshall), the first Supreme Head of NATO, and President of Columbia University.

Yates was awarded membership in the US Army Legion of Merit, and France’s Legion of Honor.  He ended up a career military man, transferring to the newly formed Air Force in 1947. Through his career he held leadership and technological positions, working in both weather and rocket research. He also commanded Patrick Air Force Base, in Florida. He retired in 1961 as a Lieutenant General (3-star).

Stagg, the hero of this essay, was awarded membership in both the United States Legion of Merit, and in the Order of the British Empire.  After the war he served as a director in the British Meteorological Office, until his retirement in 1960.  He also was an elected a member of the prestigious Royal Society of Edinburgh, and president of the Royal Meteorological Society.

There were many heroes and personalities from the European Theater of WW2.  Some are obvious; they will never be forgotten.  Here’s to some lesser known heroes, including the Scotsman James Stagg and the American Donald Yates.

Wishing you health and happiness,

Joe Girard © 2020

[1] Army War College publication, by Michael Piellusch & Tom Galvin

Excellent resources:

Book: “The Forecast for D-Day”, by John Ross

And some good internet sites (there are so very many)

https://www.history.com/news/the-weather-forecast-that-saved-d-day

https://weather.com/news/news/2019-06-05-d-day-weather-forecast-changed-history

Some omitted but cool items:

From Krick to Petterson, many senior Allied weathermen later wrote disparagingly of Stagg. But not of Yates. Regardless, Stagg made the right calls, and the responsibility fell on his shoulders.

Nibble on Wisconsin

Preface This essay’s title, Nibble On Wisconsin, is an unapologetic play on the state’s anthem, and (with a few lyrical changes) the fight song of its flagship university, the University of Wisconsin: ON, WISCONSIN.  [Disclosure: Wisconsin was my home state through most of my youth, from Christmas week 1962, until August 9, 1974 – the day Nixon resigned the presidency.

Wisconsin: 1848-present

A Michener-esque telling of the history of Wisconsin (AKA America’s Dairyland), might start a few hundred million years ago with Pangea; or even billions of years before that, including volcanoes and their flows through the Arachaen Eons, tectonic plate migrations, and perhaps even asteroid and comet impact effects. 

Or, less tediously, one of the 20th century’s best writers would commence as recently as a mere 11,000 years ago with the end of the Last Glacial Period (LGP), which itself lasted over 100,000 years. During most of those millennia much of the land we now call Wisconsin was under an ice sheet two kilometers thick.

Extent of Laurentide Ice Sheet, circa 11,700 years ago

Wisconsin, as with much of what is often called the “Upper Midwest” (and “Big 10 Country”), owes its treasured, tranquil terrain and farm-friendly fertility to repeated periods of glaciation which have sculpted and blessed the land. 
Wisconsin was bejeweled – like Minnesota – with countless lakes, rivers, and inlets: a heaven for sportsmen and a haven for mosquitoes.

Deposits near the southern extent of glaciers left fabulously fertile land. This vast field of fertility covers, approximately, the southern halves of Wisconsin and her sister states Minnesota and Michigan – as well as nearly all of Iowa, and the central-to-northern regions of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Within the story “Nibble on Wisconsin” these other states take on various “villain” roles.

Today, moraine hills – evidence of glacial activity – lie scattered across the geography. For cartographers, it was this repeated glaciation that created the Great Lakes, the river valleys of the upper Mississippi basin, and the gentle ridges and hills that separate their extensive watersheds.  This glaciation has been going on for hundreds of millions of years – billions really – and, technically, we are still in an Ice Age (humans are  currently in an inter-glacial period within the Quaternary Ice Age). 


With all due respect to Mr. Michener, and the limited time available to readers, we shall instead commence with the relatively recent year of 1783.

From there, we’ll track some historical low points to tell the story of how the extent of what would become the great state of Wisconsin got trimmed and nibbled upon – its size reduced by roughly one-half – until it became the 30th star to spangle the nation’s banner, 65 years later, in 1848.
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Preliminary notes: Should the reader at any time find this a bit tedious… Then simply stop and scan through to the pretty maps and art so painstakingly gathered and assembled herein.  A very concise history is at the bottom.

Still, I hope you can have some fun, tiptoeing with me through circumstances in the history of mid-west states from Ohio to Minnesota, and their effect on Wisconsin’s final shape and size.  

From “The Toledo Strip” (not a burlesque dance), to a war between northern states; from a continental divide to slavery; from transportation to commerce … these all contributed to Wisconsin’s smallish size and odd shape.

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Implied size and shape of Wisconsin, based on Land Ordinance of 1787

By the end of my residence in Wisconsin, my teachers had told us much about the “lay of the land” in Wisconsin, but not why or how it got its shape.  Clearly Lake Michigan to the east and the Mississippi river to the west were well defined.  But much of the remaining jiggly jumbly borders seemed … well, somewhat arbitrary.  Why doesn’t Wisconsin look more like the second “Bucky Badger Red” shape, shown here? History and geography suggest it could be so.

Well, Nixon resigned; I moved away (pure coincidence). Many decades passed. I didn’t think about it anymore… until recent research brought the topic back to mind.

Chapter 1 Wisconsin: part of The Northwest Territory

The verdant spread that would eventually turn out to be the State of Wisconsin became a possession of the United States at the close of the American Revolution through the Paris Peace Treaty of 1783. At the time, it was not really named; it was not defined; it was largely wild and only thinly settled even by native Amerindian nations, like the Menominee, the Chippewa, and Potawatomi. 

From Native peoples’ perspective, we might rephrase this by saying: some random new foreign nation — the United States of America — gained from some other random foreign nation – the Brits – the right to try and administer the region. Well, the hell with all of you. These native Nations — and let’s not forget the Sac, Fox and Winnebago — would surely say it had always been theirs … or nobody’s.

Since the US Constitution was not written until 1787 (and not effective until 1789) the nascent nation’s ruling body was still the Confederation Congress, which succeeded the more famous 2nd Continental Congress. This body governed the nation from War’s end until ratification of the Constitution.  This Congress passed several important Land Ordinances dealing with its new territories. 

Significant to us presently is the Land Ordinance of 1787, which defined an area known as the Northwest Territory. It laid out instructions for how it was to be administered and governed (for example: no slavery, land set aside for schools). As shown in this figure, the Northwest Territory was US land and water:

  • a) to the west of Pennsylvania;
  • b) north of the Ohio River;
  • c) east of the Mississippi River; and
  • d) south of British Canada.
    (Connecticut had claim to some of the land; this was resolved and dispensed with later – that’s what the Western Reserve was).

Article 5 of the Ordinance provided a path to statehood for between 3 and 5 regions within this territory. Specifically, the region was split by an east-west line that lay tangent to the southernmost reach of Lake Michigan (now known as ~41° 37’).  This is the Territorial Line: exactly east-west and tangent to the southernmost reach of Lake Michigan.  Remember this. Up to three states were to be formed south of this line, and up to two additional states north of that line.

1800: Northwest Territory split into Ohio and Indiana Territories

The three southern states — called the eastern, the central and the western states in the Ordinance — eventually came to be the states Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816) and Illinois (1818), respectively.

A quick glance back at first two Bucky Badger Red Wisconsin maps and we see that the problems are beginning to form already.  Each of these the first three states formed from the Northwest Territory have northern borders that lie north of the southernmost tip of Lake Michigan.

Chapter 2 The trouble with boundaries: Ohio snags extra territory

In 1800 the Ohio Territory was formed – split off from the Northwest Territory – in preparation for statehood, which followed in 1803. (The remainder of the Northwest Territory became, for a while, Indiana Territory).

Congress’ Enabling Act of 1802 provided the legal federal instrument for Ohio to attain statehood. Ohio’s boundaries were described in Section 2; its western boundary being somewhat of a battle owing to a feud between Federalists and Jefferson’s Democrat-Republicans.  Nevertheless, the aforementioned “Territorial Line” was to be Ohio’s northern boundary, the term being a clear reference to the wording of the 1787 Ordinance.

In 1803 Ohio submitted its state constitution for review by Congress.  Here is where the “nibble on Wisconsin” saga really begins.  Article 6 makes some vague reference: since the southern extreme of Lake Michigan was not precisely known, Ohio reserved the right to draw its northern border along a line from the southern tip of Lake Michigan to “the most northerly cape of the Miami (Maumee) Bay.” Why? This bay provided an excellent harbor on Lake Erie — (it is where the city of Toledo now sets), the river’s mouth providing potential for a nice port.

Why? Since access to water for shipping and commerce was crucial to economic success, Ohio’s first politicians wanted to ensure that this harbor site was part of their new state. [In fact, lacking precise survey data, they feared that Lake Michigan might extend so far south that the east-west Territorial Line would pass completely to the south of Lake Erie, thus leaving Ohio with no access to Lake Erie at all.  Maps and surveying being immature at the time, this wording was the safest way they could ensure direct access to commercial shipping.]

The “Toledo Strip”: the southern boundary runs directly east-west, tangent to the southern tip of Lake Michigan, and is the implied northern boundary of the state of Ohio, from the 1787 Ordinance.  The northern boundary was “usurped” by Ohio for a future port city on Maumee Bay.

This odd shaped slivery quadrilateral-ish slice of land came to be known as “The Toledo Strip” – which is not a dance that involve a pole, either. It was named for the city that would soon sprout upon Maumee Bay (which was, in turn, was named after an ancient capital of Spain).  Notice how this farther north slanted not-quite-east-west line moves Maumee Bay, and its potential port, into Ohio Territory. In other words:  Ohio simply ignored precedent, and appropriated additional land in their state constitution.

The US Congress reviewed the Ohio state constitution and made no significant comment – positive or negative – with regard to this adjusted boundary. When Ohio quickly became a state after submitting its constitution (March 1, 1803 by an Act of Congress) they naturally began to administer this additional strip of land as if it were part of Ohio.

[Note: both the Northwest Territory and the Louisiana Territory refer to the Mississippi River as their west and east boundary, respectively; but the river did not extend up to British Canada (border determined later). Thus, boundary ambiguity abounded].

Chapter 3.  Michigan, Illinois, and revised Indiana Territories formed
— Indiana becomes a state and snags extra land

Michigan & Illinois Territory formed (faint state line borders only came into effect much later and are for reader reference only).

Over the next decade, via subsequent Congressional Acts, Michigan Territory and Illinois Territory were cleaved off from Indiana Territory, as shown here.  Still no mention of Wisconsin, which temporarily became part of Illinois.  [Note: Indiana’s Northern boundary is still nominally also along the east-west line tangent to the southernmost reach of Lake Michigan.]

With formal creation of the Illinois Territory we find hints of future “nibbles” on Wisconsin.  The Illinois Territory (which contained what would be Wisconsin) was split off from Michigan and Indiana Territory by an extremely arbitrary north-south line, projected due north from the, then significant, city of Vincennes, Indiana Territory, on the Wabash River. Further east is a line projected up from the Indiana-Ohio border. To the east was Michigan Territory, to the west unassigned territory.

The map shows that a small part of the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) was assigned to Michigan, most of the rest to Illinois (what would be Wisconsin) and some was left unassigned – between the northward projections of the Indiana borders.

Indiana’s 1816 entry to the union as the 19th state was clearer with regard to its boundaries. But, they had a dilemma: should their northern boundary be laid out exactly along the east-west Territorial Line and precisely tangent to Lake Michigan? If so, there would be insufficient lakeside to have a port (in fact, geometry dictates it would be an infinitesimal point). Answer: NO. To ensure access to Lake Michigan, Indiana lobbied for, and received via the Congressional Enabling Act of 1816, significant access to Lake Michigan. As stated in Section 2, its northern border shall be “ten miles north of the southern extreme of Lake Michigan …” Indiana’s lake ports were later developed here: Hammond, Gary, East Chicago, Burns Harbor and Michigan City.

So the monkey business with the Northwest Ordinance’s east-west Territorial Line through the southern tip of Lake Michigan was well underway by the time Illinois came into being as a state, #21, in its own right, only two years later.

And that Michigan Territory toe-hold on the U.P. would become the beachhead for a much larger nibble later on.

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Chapter 4 Michigan Gets its Dander up, the First Time

Michigan Territory, with official status since June 30, 1805, made a fuss when they learned of Ohio’s sneaky appropriation of “The Toledo Strip.” This dispute roiled until, finally, in 1812, Congress agreed to have the line surveyed; but this task was postponed until 1817 on account of the War of 1812.  It didn’t matter.

Ohio hired a surveyor who traced a line according to Ohio’s constitution.  Michigan hired a surveyor who mapped an east-west line according to the 1787 Ordinance. Each was submitted to Congress. They had resolved nothing, except to more accurately trace out the shape of “The Toledo Strip.”

Chapter 5 A Continental Divide provokes Illinois aggrandizement

One of the things Jefferson hoped that Lewis and Clark would find was a water passage to the Pacific Ocean. I think we have all had that smug feeling more than a few times in our life:  What were they thinking?  How could there possibly be a water passage, even with a short portage, across the continent, connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans? 

In our minds’ eyes, we know of the vast arid regions and the impossibly rugged mountains.  And yet even Lewis and Clark themselves had hoped to find such a passage.

First, it’s important to note that none of them were at all certain that such a passage existed.  And second: no, they weren’t stupid.

These were all well-read, erudite men.  They would have known of the reports of earlier travelers, like the 1776 Dominguez-Escalante Expedition and their published recollections.  The west and southwest of the continent was unimaginably expansive, very dry and had many mountains.  Surely that provided no water path.

North America’s Continental Divides

But of the northwest, little was known. However … they would have known of the reports and journals from the travels of French explorer Louis Joliet (Lou-ee Zhō-lee-ay) and his traveling missionary companion, Pere (Father) Jacques Marquette, from 1673-1674.  They had found two simple water passages from the waves of the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River; thus traversing a continental divide with ease – twice.

The first passage they found near what is today Madison, Wisconsin. The location is now the town of Portage. (To portage is to carry your small boat from one body of water to another.) By carrying their canoe about two miles, they had crossed a continental divide.

The second passage is even more important.  For their return trip, Amerindians had told Joliet and Marquette of a passage up the Mississippi to the Illinois River, then up the Des Plaines River.  There, they said, was a short flat field, often filled with water, from which they could cross to Lake Michigan.

—- People say Kansas and Nebraska and Iowa are flat. Pssshaw. Those aren’t flat.  Chicago is flat.  Go there today and – except for excavations for the overpasses, the underpasses, the skyscrapers, and the buildings – there is no elevation feature to the terrain at all.

Illinois River watershed

There is no noticeable elevation change from the Lake going up the Chicago River to its South Branch.  There is no noticeable elevation going up along the sluggish South Branch to a point just a handful of miles from the Lake.  There is no noticeable elevation change going west.  This was all swamplands that the native Amerindians avoided. Because it smelled.

And yet, travel under two miles west from the South Branch, with no noticeable elevation change, and you are at the Des Plaines River, which eventually flows to the Mississippi. Here, the “divide” is merely 15 feet higher than Lake Michigan, near a Chicago neighborhood somewhat ambitiously called “Archer Heights.” This small elevation gain is attained over a distance of some 6 miles from the river’s mouth at the lake.

That is flat.  15 feet in 6 miles. And yet it is enough to form a continental divide, separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds.

During some wet seasons, Amerindians canoed without portage directly from Lake Michigan to the Des Plaines River… and then on to the Mississippi via the Illinois. So: there was a navigable water path – or with a simple portage – across a continental divide. The glaciers had formed this tiny whimpish divide. And a good thing too: the confluence of Des Plaines and Kankakee Rivers, where the Illinois river starts, is 60 feet lower in elevation than Lake Michigan.  Without this most gentle of rises, much of the fertile mid-Mississippi River region would be under many feet of water.

This continental divide between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi basins literally hugs the coast of Lake Michigan near, what would become someday, Chicago.

With no knowledge of the areas through which Lewis and Clark would travel – areas that would become vast, parched states like Missouri, the Dakotas, Montana and Idaho – these intrepid explorers and President Jefferson had good reason to be at least be somewhat hopeful that there would be a water-borne connection from the Mississippi-Missouri watershed all the way to the Pacific Ocean. 

Chapter 6 Illinois Becomes a State: a Great Nibble

Men had long dreamed that a canal could join the Great Lakes and the Mississippi across this mild continental divide.  “In early 1814, the Niles Register of Baltimore had predicted that a canal could make Illinois the seat of immense commerce; and a market for the commodities of all regions.” [1] 

As Illinois approached its date for statehood, 1818, there was a bit of urgency.  Mississippi had been admitted in 1817, and Alabama was about to be admitted (1819). Those were slave states and there was a need to keep the pot from boiling over by preserving the number of slave and Free states at, or near, equal tallies.  

We can understand Illinois’s request to push its border north to the mouth of the Chicago River (there was no Chicago yet; however, there was a small settlement associated with Fort Dearborn, perhaps a few score in population). Here, at the mouth of the Chicago River, would be their port on Lake Michigan, with a chance to join commerce on the Great Lakes to commercial centers along the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico… if the canal would be built (the first great Chicago continental divide canal was finally completed in 1848).  Plus, construction of a much more ambitions canal – the Erie Canal – had already commenced; when it was complete, Illinois would be linked by this 2nd route to the eastern seaboard, and world markets.

Aggressively, Illinois lobbied for, and received, a 61-mile push northward of its entire northern border, all the way up to what seemed like an arbitrary but convenient latitude of 42.50 degrees. A push of only about 20 miles – and this only near Lake Michigan – would have been required to secure a potential port at the river’s mouth, and the path for the canal.

This extra aggrandizement amounted to awarding themselves an appropriation of about 5.6 million acres. Thanks to the glacial ages’ deposition of scraped fertile topsoil from Canada and nudging it along, depositing it through the region, this was some of the most fertile land God had crafted upon the earth.

It also contained a substantial deposit of galena (lead sulfide) near Illinois’ northwest corner.  Its discovery, near what would become Galena, Illinois, led to the first major mineral rush in the United States. And the first of Chicago’s major westward railroads.

Illinois becomes a state (1818). Now, all three new states had pushed across the Territorial line, running east-west and tangent to Lake Michigan’s southern tip.

But there was a reason to push to 42.5 degrees, an additional 40 miles north of the mouth of the Chicago River. Illinois needed to show they had a population of 60,000 to become a state, as required by the Ordinance. Without that extra land, they couldn’t convince Congress that they would get there by 1818.

The region’s map now looked like this, with Wisconsin part of Michigan territory.

Chapter 7 Michigan gets its Dander up a second time, becomes a State, and reaps a huge territorial bounty

In 1835 Arkansas was about to be admitted as a slave state, and Michigan prepared to follow it as a Free state.  But there was a problem. What would Michigan’s boundary with Ohio be? Michigan petitioned again for the east-west Territorial Line as defined in the 1787 Ordinance. Ohio passed legislation declaring the northern Toledo slanted line. Neither would back down.

Each raised armed militias and marched them to the Toledo Strip. The Toledo War was on! Shots were fired, but there was only one injury – a stabbing with a pen when a Michigan sheriff went into Toledo to make an arrest. Eventually cooler heads prevailed, and President Andrew Jackson helped negotiate a deal: Michigan would become a state, Ohio would keep the Toledo Strip, and Michigan would be given ALL of the Upper Peninsula (or “U.P.”), and quite a bit more. This was the penultimate nibble on Wisconsin; and it was a pretty big bite, actually: about 16,000 square miles. That’s larger than many countries; the “nibbled away” U.P is larger than the Netherlands! Larger than Switzerland!

Michigan gets the entire UP, and a bit more!

The map shows the pink area that was given to Michigan via the compromise. Note that the rest or eastern part of the U.P. had already been nibbled away by extension of the arbitrary north-south line from Vincennes, Indiana.

Even though vastly larger than the Toledo Strip (a puny 468 square miles), acquisition of the U.P. was thought a poor exchange for Michigan at the time.  Little did they know.  The rich forests and mineral deposits of iron and copper made it a tremendous economic resource in the long run for Michigan. Today, Toledo’s significance is small, and it is a sad excuse for a city.

Wisconsin Territory formed, 1836. With land across the Mississippi added, then revoked for Iowa, 1838

When Michigan’s new borders became official in the Michigan Enabling Act of 1836 (it became a state in 1837), Wisconsin finally became its own official territory – on its way to state status.  Wisconsin Territory’s boundaries looked as shown here, still much larger than today.  The area that would become Iowa territory was added in 1836, then taken away in ‘38.

Chapter 8 On (Wisconsin) to Statehood; one final nibble — the final ignominy.

With the possible exclusion of Kansas Territory (no one knew how that would turn out) there were few real possibilities to add slave states after Texas’ and Florida’s entries in 1845. To keep up with these additions, Iowa petitioned to become a Free state. Its land size was limited to far less than that shown here, so as to maintain the possibility of adding new Free states later, if required. However, the rest of the territory was not turned back over to Wisconsin Territory, which had itself in the meanwhile petitioned for statehood.

Instead, Wisconsin’s borders were trimmed much further.

The final stripping of land: Minnesota Territory formed and given access to Lake Superior

Wisconsin Territory’s western boundary reached to the Mississippi River and its headwaters, which were deemed to be Lake Itasca, in what is now northern Minnesota. And from there north to the British Canada border, near Lake of the Woods.  In other words, Saint Paul (now Minnesota’s capital) would be in Wisconsin, pursuant to over 50 years of precedent.  And also, many of those bountiful beautiful 10,000 Lakes.

Map drawers and national legislators decided that any new state must have access to the shipping and transport opportunity provided by the Great Lakes; Lake Superior in the case of Minnesota. 

There are very few harbor opportunities along the Lake’s northern shore. Still it all ended up with Minnesota.

In one final nibble, Wisconsin was reduced in size again, in order to provide the future state (Minnesota, 1858) access to the river-fed natural harbor at the western tip of Lake Superior. A small fur trading post there would become the port city of Duluth. By my calculation, this was even larger than the U.P. “confiscation.”

Finale. Wisconsinites are known for nibbling on cheese and sausage, and quaffing a few beers; the state Wisconsin (or ‘Skonsin, to locals) has been nibbled on quite enough.  If you feel like nibbling on Wisconsin, then please do: enjoy these treats.  On, Wisconsin!

[A brief pictorial summary is provided in text and maps below.]

Joe Girard © 2020

Bibliography and notes below ….

Time line of the nibbles, with maps:

Bibliography:

[1] Nature’s Metropolis; Chicago and the Great West, Cronon, William –

Note on the canal: the Illinois-Michigan Canal was completed in 1848.  By 1892 it was deepened, thus reversing the flow of the Chicago River. At the same time, it was being replaced with the deeper and wider Chicago Shipping and Sanitary Canal, which opened in 1900.

[2] Minnesota Territory Map, Minnesota Historical Society, Accessed April 1, 2015, http://education.mnhs.org/northern-lights/learning-resources/chapter-6-land-changes-hands/minnesota-territory-1849%E2%80%931858

[3] Illinois Watershed map attributed to USGS

[4] http://www.bratwurstpages.com/dialect.html

Notes:

[1] Near the east bank of the Des Plaines River, at about 4700 South Harlem Avenue in Chicago, is the Chicago Portage National Historical Site.  Not recommended for late evening or nighttime visits.

[2] Wisconsin, current size, square miles: 65,556
      Michigan, Upper Peninsula, sq mi:        16,452
       Minnesota, east of Mississippi:             27,191
       Illinois*
      (from ~41.62 to 42.50 deg, or 60.7 mi x 125 mi = 7,590

Approx. land re-appropriated = 49,458 sq mi

Map showing Illinois counties in 1820, 2 years after statehood.  Note Indian territory and also non-existence of Cook County (Chicago).  1820 census shows all of Clark county with just a few hundred residents.

Bloody Ramble: from Typos to Chaplin

I am not a hematologist. Nor an immunologist or a virologist. Just an aspiring amateur writer who has recognized that typos fall into two dominant categories. Regular readers have no doubt spotted more than a few.

The first kind of typo comes from stream of consciousness – such as just getting the initial thoughts and sentences tapped in.  Misspellings, poor grammar, dreary or ambiguous word choice, double words, lazy punctuation.  The long list continues: verb/noun mismatch; change of tense within a paragraph; chronological inconsistencies; using “their” or “your” for “they’re” and “you’re” …

These are all forgivable, and relatively painless. Many make it to draft status, when well over 90% can be cleaned up by a few proofreading passes.

It’s the second kind of typo that is really painful.  These result from late edits.  The eleventh-hour flash of brilliance that results in a “catastrophic improvement.”  At the final moment, with the cake fully iced, the product is ready for a la mode, and full reader enjoyment! 

But no! Those last flourishes require just as much proof reading as the original drafts.  Yet, it is so easy to skip. I’ve done it many times. Slow learner.

To my readers: Thank you.  Many of you have gently suggested improvements and corrections to my typos and “facts.”  The rest of you have kindly ignored them; or, perhaps in your brilliance, merely read what I intended, not what I wrote.  Exhibit A: My last essay enfolded references to (a) a famous bathroom fixture company, (b) its founder, (c) the label for a common convenience, and (d) my regular tapestry of  history, factoids, and observations.  During some post-published proof-reading I found a few major hiccups. It’s better now, but only after some help and a couple of paragraph re-writes.
 

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Not only are there two kinds of typo; there are two kinds of Type-O.  Positive and negative.  We’re talking blood here.

I am O-positive.  That’s the most common blood type, nearly 40% of humans have it, despite O’s transmission on a recessive gene.  About 85-90% of people in need of transfusion can accept my blood. If I didn’t carry the Rh-positive antigen, 100% could take my blood.

Through the magic of genetics and natural anti-bodies, I am quite valuable to blood banks.  There is a virus connection here.  How appropriate for this time of novel coronavirus, SARS CoV-2 and international tumult.

Most adult humans have, at some point in their lives, contracted the Cytomegalo Virus (or CMV). As much as 80%.  Of those affected, nearly 100% who contract it suffer from only mild symptoms, if any. Except infants. CMV can cause severe long-term damage to new arrivals – especially “preemies” – as their immune systems are just waking up. 

Of the many scores of herpes viruses discovered, only eight are known to regularly affect humans.  Once infected, our bodies almost always eventually mount a swift and decisive victory, driving the virus from the battlefield – our homeland: tissues, organs, blood.  Better, our well-evolved immune systems retain intermediate and long-term immunity via anti-bodies (of the five main types Immunoglobulin-M and -G antibodies are of the most interest here).

Like many types of virus, the herpes family is insidious.  Even though thoroughly thwarted by a superior foe, they execute a strategic retreat, never quite leaving the body.  They “hang out” in nerve cells. Lying dormant for long intervals, they occasionally “wake up” to see if their host – us! – is healthy enough to fight them off for another round of battle.  If the response is “yes”, they retreat again to the sanctuary of our nerves, a place a proper immune system has been trained to not attack.

This happens over and over again, until we die, as sufferers of HSV 1 and 2 can attest (Herpes Simplex 1 or 2); that is, repeated blistering around the mouth, or even in the mouth.  Those episodes of re-occurrence are only mildly annoying when compared to what can happen with the Chicken Pox virus (Vicella Zoster Virus, or VZV); later in life it can manifest as what’s commonly called “Shingles” – with an agonizing and often debilitating rash accompanied by stabbing pains.

Since CMV is in the Herpes family there is always a likelihood it is in someone’s blood; that is, if they have ever had it in their life. Hence, their blood must never be used for transfusions to infants.

My blood always tests negative for CMV anti-bodies, both IgM and IgG. This means it is not lying dormant somewhere and I am a safe donor for infants.

I donate blood as often as practicable.  I am of some use to society. We Type-Os are also delicious to mosquitoes. My wife says that having me around is better than using insect repellant.

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Until the previous turn of the century, blood types were unknown.  The micro-biological processes of transfusions and outcomes were a mystery, so it was practiced sparingly and as a last resort. Sometimes with spectacular success.  But more often with horrible, painful, fatal results.

At that time Austrian scientist Karl Landsteiner was wondering about this. He hit upon the idea of simply mixing blood from various people together to see what happened. No chemistry. No microscopes. In hindsight, this seems most unsophisticated – even elementary; but no one had done it. 

What he found was rather amazing. Some samples got along well together, and most others did not; they made globules: which was the observable effect of one blood trying to obviate the other; or each other.  Landsteiner had discovered blood types!  For this he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine, decades later, in 1930.

At first he identified 3 types: he labeled them A, B and C.

Red Blood Cells

In the scaled down world of micro-biology and microbes, red blood cells are like titans. Thin and disk-like, they average about 7 microns in diameter, with a thickness of 2 microns, which “squishes” down to about 1 micron at the center, not unlike Life Saver candies. [From now on, I will give sizes in microns, with no units, for simplicity]. This topography gives the red cell a very large surface area compared to its mass and size, which is useful for its main duty: ferrying oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules around the body and passing them across its surface membrane.

A CMV virion’s size is about 0.2. The SARS nCoV-2 is probably smaller than that: about 0.1.  Bacteria, like staph and strep are bigger, but still smaller than a reddie: size, on average, about 1.

Cytomegalovirus CMV, a DNA-type virus from Herpesviridae family. 3D illustration. CMV mostly causes diseases in newborns and immunocompromised patients

A and B blood types were found to carry antigens on their surface. Antigens are anything that triggers an “attack” from antibodies. These red blood cell antigens are, surprisingly, sugars of the D-galactose family, size about 0.0005 (or 1/2000th the average thickness of a red blood cell). 

A blood type which has no sugar antigens, C, was re-named O, which basically means zero, or none. A little later it was discovered that some types carry both A and B antigens, so they were naturally named “AB” – pretty rare.  These 4 types (A, B, AB and O) comprise 99.9+% of all blood types.

Now it’s not at all complicated to tell who can take whose blood for a transfusion. Since my O has no sugar antigens, anyone can take my blood.  But my body will “see” the A, B, and AB cells as invaders. We Type-Os are picky. Although anyone can take my blood, I can only take Type-O.

But wait, not quite so simple. There were still problems.

Rh markers were found a few decades later, around 1940 (also, sort of, by Landstein [1]) – just in time for most of WW2, resulting in fewer multiple-transfusion complications … and a better understanding of baby-to-mother Rh mismatch for the baby-boom that followed WW2.

The Rh markers are proteins (there are actually about 49 of them; the most common is type-D), about size 0.003.  About 90% of people have Rh-positive blood.

Floating nearby in the plasma are anti-bodies.  For mammals these are about size 0.1 – quite small.  In Rh-negative people, these little workers are always “on the ready” to identify Rh proteins as “bad guys.”  And also to identify foreign A and B antigens.

People, especially prospective mothers, with no Rh proteins (i.e. Rh-negative) must be careful with donations and pregnancies.  The first time the body encounters the Rh antigen the process or pregnancy is usually OK.  But the body is stirred up, and it remembers. The next time it’s “attack.” If a Rh-negative patient gets more than one Rh-positive transfusion — or a Rh-negative mom gets a second Rh-positive baby in utero — it can be bad news.

____________________________________________________

Returning to the red blood cell.  It is quite large; a workhorse of the vascular system. Yet, one might wonder: why have we evolved so that its surface is laden with thousands of tag-a-longs and stowaways that seem more trouble than their load is worth?

Well, maybe those labels are a bit harsh.  Research suggests that the Rh proteins can provide a sort of osmotic-efficient pathway for the relatively large CO2 molecules (compared to oxygen) to slither through the cell membrane.  And it appeared millions of years ago – before anything like a hominoid walked on two legs. [2]

We can consider these ancient genetic tweaks as a sort of typo: a minor transcription mistake in typing out genetic text from DNA to RNA and back again to the DNA of a new cell, thus creating a new or different function for such genes.

Sugar antigens, similar to A and B, appear in the blood of all mammals. Again, these evolved in our pre-hominoid ancestors long ago. [3] Just why this is so, is a bit of a mystery.  Perhaps it was for a weird but clever type of “trick play herd immunity.”  A virus sees cell coatings as something that can provide an attach point on, or even pathway into, a cell.  If a population has a random collection of these sugars and proteins, then a single type of virus pandemic cannot wipe out the entire species.

Here I like to imagine a sports team cleverly crafted to beat any team at, say, a football match. That team is the Evil Virus. The first games for team EV are easy victories. The next several matches they stampede confidently onto apparently identical pitches, only to be confronted with rules for cricket. Or golf. And then tennis. Then speed skating.  Result?  Team EV fails. –  The species survives; the virus must go off and mutate further or die out.

All these rule changes – different cell coatings among individuals among the same species – makes our bodies suspicious of one another.  When there’s a transfusion mismatch the coatings are identified as antigens and marked for destruction by those tiny antibodies. 

Interestingly, something similar might be happening with the virus du jour, SARS CoV-2 which causes Covid-19. Early analyses of cases (and deaths) in hard hit areas of Europe suggest that those with Type-A blood are disproportionately susceptible. [6] How or why this happens is not understood but could give virologists and immunologists an understanding of the virus and our bodies’ machinations.  Perhaps the A-type sugar is a sort of 5th column for the virus; or the presence of B-type antibodies somehow distracts, diminishes, or delays the body’s defense.

I expect there will be a plethora of studies of many sorts regarding this coronavirus, its impact, and our reactions in the months and years to come. Brace yourselves.

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Classic Charlie Chaplin Photo

The improvement and acceptance of blood type science went beyond medicine and into forensics. It helped reduce Charlie Chaplin’s embarrassment, but only a little.

Chaplin, the famous actor-comedian-film maker, was married four times and a well-know philanderer, as well as a misogynist. [4] A paternity suit against him in the ‘40s resulted in blood testing, and eventually changed family law. 

In the 1940s a young actress (with whom he was “friendly” – this during his 3rd marriage) claimed he was the father of her child. She sued him for child support. Blood tests on Chaplin, the child and mother showed that he could not possibly be the father. 

Chaplin, with recessive Type-O, could not have been the father of a Type-B child whose mother was Type-A.  Case dismissed?  No. She pressed her allegation, nonetheless.

Astounding to us in the 21st century, accustomed as we are to such quotidian data as DNA matching, blood tests were not permitted as evidence at the time. Chaplin lost the court case and was compelled to pay child support.  Worse: His trysting filled the pages of the days’ print media. His reputation was trashed.[5]

The law was changed a few years later.  But not in time for Chaplin.  He was so disgraced that – combined with other bad press and McCarthy-era distrust – he was even denied re-entry to the United States, in 1952. (He was not a US citizen, although he’d lived there for over 40 years).

He resided in self-imposed exile in Switzerland for the rest of his life. He returned to America only once before he died, for a few days in 1972, then aged 83, to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars.  On stage, with Jack Lemon, he received a 12-minute standing ovation – the longest in Academy Awards history.

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Even though Type-O is recessive, it has survived. Not surprisingly, its prevalence is about the same for whites and blacks; we are one race, after all.

Recessive?  Well, we Type-Os are sometimes weak, as attested to by Chaplin’s behavior.

That’s a wrap, from typos to Type-Os. Thanks for any corrections or suggestions.

Until next time, peace to you.

Joe Girard © 2020

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

Final footnote on Chaplin.  He was soon married a fourth time.  He reportedly approached the young 18-year old Oona O’Neill with the line: you look like my next ex-wife. As he was 38 years her elder (in fact nearly the same age as her father, famous playwright Eugene O’Neill) he was disgraced again. Next ex-wife?  Wrong! They stayed married for over 30 years, until his death, producing 8 children.  The eldest, Geraldine, starred remarkably with Omar Shariff and Julie Christie in Dr Zhivago: at the tender age of 20 when filmed.

[1] Who discovered the Rh factor?  http://www.rvdoon.com/rh-negative-blood-blood-feud-which-scientist-discovered-the-rh-factor/

[2] Possible purpose of Rh proteins: https://phys.org/news/2005-05-rh-protein-biological-role.html

[3] Blood Types over 20 million years ago: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-mystery-of-human-blood-types-86993838/

Could be as recent as 3.5 million years ago: https://www.livescience.com/33528-why-blood-types-exist-compatible.html

[4] Charlie Chaplin: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2597412/2-000-lovers-comedy-genius-didnt-like-women-New-book-reveals-Charlie-Chaplins-obsession-young-girls-cruelly-treated-them.html

[5] Chaplin paternity, blood tests and court case: https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/63158/how-charlie-chaplin-changed-paternity-laws-america

[6] Type-A and COVID-19: https://www.news-medical.net/news/20200603/Blood-group-type-may-affect-susceptibility-to-COVID-19-respiratory-failure.aspx

Local Lexicon

Wow! I received some well-deserved corrections from you readers of my last essay: a bio on songstress Bobby Gentry and a review of her most famous song.  Thank you!  It turns out that the use of “dinner” for the mid-day meal extends through northern rural America from Ohio to Montana as well as the South. In fact, one reader who grew up in the Cleveland metro area informed me of this! I knew that some rural areas of Indiana, West Virginia and Missouri say “dinner.” Wow. Thanks all for the corrections and information.

Public drinking contraption is called a ______?

As long as we’re on regional word usage.  What do you call this common device shown in the photo?  On account of response to concern over the novel coronavirus, it has been eight weeks since I’ve seen one of these actually functioning anywhere.  Their usefulness is surely missed in many public areas.  Hydration is important! 

Some say it is a “water fountain.”  Some call it a “drinking fountain.”  As with dinner vs. lunch, what name you call this device varies by region across the country.  What do you call it?

As you ruminate on that, let’s consider the Kohler family, of Wisconsin.

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Johann Michael Kohler emigrated to the United States from Austria, with his large brood of children and new bride, his second, around 1854.  His oldest son, and fourth child – Johann Jr – was 10 years old.  They settled in Saint Paul, the capital city of Minnesota Territory, some four years before Minnesota became a state. In fact, its Twin City, Minneapolis, across the Mississippi, was a mere fledgling: just a few houses, an original platting and the old Fort Snelling. St Paul was already over 4,500 souls.

St Paul was a like many new, inland, booming US cities of the era, such as Milwaukee, St Louis, and Chicago.  Immigrants from almost anywhere in Europe could easily feel at home: their native language was spoken at church services and theatrical productions, was read in newspapers, and used to discuss current events over a cup of coffee (or a glass of beer).  [OK, Catholics, constituting the vast majority of Austrians, even today, would have used mostly Latin in church]. And opportunity abounded.

The name of Kohler presents perhaps a fleck of interest here. In some cultures, particularly those with roots in Germanic and English lands, the family name often designates a skilled trade. This commenced in medieval times, as the importance of tracking families grew: recording land, taxes, and military service. In English, think of surnames like Baker, Smith, Cook, Fowler, Taylor, Mason.  Not hard to guess what those professions are.  Back in the day many families took their name from their ancestral trade, passed from generation-to-generation. 

The name Kohler probably was Anglicized upon immigration and certainly came from Köhler: a charcoal burner.  (In England, the name would be Collier. Neither that popular, but Collier did leave its name on a line of Encyclopedias.)

Charcoal burners were considered a lowly profession. They marched through their lives in exquisite solitude, collecting and piling wood, then turning it into charcoal with a careful, slow, low-temperature semi-burn, either in heaps of carefully assembled wood mounds, or in crafted kilns. It was an important profession: Charcoal was necessary as a heat source in smelting, forging, and smithing of many metals – from basic iron and copper to precious metals like silver.  It was also used in glasswork.

Schnepfau, Austria: in one of countless fertile Alpine dairy producing valleys

So, historically, the Kohler’s family ancestors would certainly have been charcoal burners.  As the Industrial Revolution matured, the significance of the role of charcoal burner decreased, even though charcoal remained extensively necessary.  This precipitated a move to industrial scale production of charcoal. At some point, the Kohler family left their namesake’s profession; Johann Kohler, the elder, is listed as a Dairy Farmer from Schnepfau, Austria; that’s high up in a valley above Bregenz, near Lake Constance (Der Bodensee).  Upon settling in Minnesota, he resumed this occupation.

From our travels and hikes, the alpine valleys of Austria are utterly drenched with countless dairy cows, almost regardless of slope; one hears cowbells ringing and echoing off every hill, dale, and ridge.  Often the isolated and remote dairy farmhouses serve double-duty as guest houses, where a trekker can rest their feet, quaff a crisp refreshing beverage – and sometimes even get a meal, or a room for the night.

Dairy farming – for those who don’t also provide respite to travelers – is quite accommodating to the less gregarious and socially-oriented person, but not so much so as charcoal burner. 

So, why leave?  Well, there was much general disappointment in Europe after the failed attempts to liberalize governments in the widespread Revolutions of 1848.  Other than that, people left for America because they could.  My mother’s ancestral male-side left Germany at this time (also for Minnesota), and a generation later, my father’s maternal-side did, too (for Chicago).  It was a good call for most who came to the US. My mom recalled her father and uncles speaking German around the house decades into the 20th century.

John Kohler, Jr — founder of The Kohler Company

In any case, a few years after settling into St Paul, Johann the younger – Johann, Jr, and now going by John Kohler, Jr – started to make his own way in the world.  His early schooling was there in St Paul. The eager and aspiring young Kohler picked up a variety of jobs there.  At 18, he moved to Chicago, to study at Dyrenfurth’s College, the first business college in Chicago, and certainly the closest to St Paul. 

The rapidly growing Chicago would be his hometown for a few years, as he took on more ambitious jobs – from merchant to traveling salesman. Kohler developed a sense of purpose, willpower and world-view that set him apart from his ancestral recluses.

The young, eligible, well-connected and well-traveled John Kohler, Jr met the acquaintance of a lovely young lady, Elizabeth “Lillie” Vollrath, some four years his younger.  Lillie, a first-generation immigrant from Rheinland, Germany, happened to hale from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, some 50 miles north of Milwaukee.  They shared a mother tongue. 

In the similarly immigrant-rich city of Sheboygan, where German and Polish were as likely to be heard on streets as English (and that, often with an Irish accent), Lillie’s father, Jacob Vollrath, owned substantial interests in local manufacturing businesses, including two iron and steel foundries.

John and Lillie were married in 1871, in her hometown, and settled there. John was given a small interest in one foundry, probably as a wedding gift, and a job there as well.

We are now well on our way to telling the story of “what to call that convenient public area drinking device.”  Many who are familiar with such water-spewers, and the Kohler name, might well know the story already. Especially those who live in, or were raised in, Wisconsin. But first we must separate fanciful fiction from the rest of the story.

A couple years later it’s 1873 and a great financial panic strikes brutally with icy indifference.  Across Europe and North America economies collapse. With weak, or non-existent, central banks the holes open deep, wide, and quickly.  It mercilessly lasted for several years.  It was so devastating that the crisis was called “The Great Depression” up until the 1930s.  Then, of course, that title was supplanted by the economic abyss of the ‘30s. With that lost decade, the numbing economic circumstances commencing in 1873 passed to the brink of historical oblivion, surviving now with the mere understated label of “Panic.” 

But the Panic was grave: It nearly ruined the implausibly colossal Krupp manufacturing empire in the newly united Germany. 

Panic. Depression. Prices collapsed. Currency depreciates. Cash flow seizes up. Businesses flounder, especially those leveraged with credit, as debt must be paid back with more valuable currency – and at a time with decreased receipts.  

With his employer’s iron and steel business staggering (coincidentally, Krupp’s major product was also steel) young John Kohler saw an opportunity.  He made an offer to purchase his employer’s entire operation.  Vollrath and his partners were ready to sell and get out with their skin. Kohler joined in ownership with a small team, led by him; but he was majority owner of the firm. Before the decade flipped to the ’90s he would own it all.

One of the reasons historical economists provide for the panic was the massive over-building of railroads. The US was on a rail building spree. With bank and investor support, based on expectations of an ever-expanding economy, and the need for transportation to support it, railroad lines and networks grew stunningly and precipitously in the years after the civil war.  This was perhaps, an example of malinvestment: money so cheap, and/or optimism so great, that capital which could have been either saved or conservatively invested chases after bigger returns, blind to risk. As railroads require vast amounts of steel (locomotives, boilers, tenders, cars, rails, depots), and capital to expand, it’s no surprise that many steel vendors found themselves in trouble.

_______________________ o _______________________ o _______________________

Initially making farming implements, Kohler’s company soon got into manufacturing bathroom fixtures: a product line for which they are still known around the world today.  What came to be known as the “Kohler Company” (now based in the adjoining community of Kohler, not Sheboygan) is one of the largest and most successful privately family-held companies in the world. Their first great leap forward came from an idea probably fetched from family members over on the Vollrath side. Vollrath’s main business concern (also in iron and steel) had been experimenting with adding enamel to the surfaces of products. Kohler began doing the same thing with items such as tubs and sinks around 1878.  Their great bathroom and plumbing business was born; and has since grown to be an extensive world-wide enterprise.

And now for the story of the drinking fountain.  Or the water fountain.  Call it what you will.

However, if you are very special – if you were raised in some very specific geographic areas, or spent many years there – you call this device a “bubbler.” 

The largest of these special locales is a sort of L-shaped region.  One leg of the “L” goes from Madison, Wisconsin, almost due east to Oconomowoc, about 2/3 the way to the Milwaukee city limits. From there the north-south leg goes up to Green Bay. The width of each leg, varies along their lengths, but is generally approximately 60 miles. Within this “band” the use of “bubbler” is nearly 100% among locals. The L spreads out into a bean shape if predominant use of bubbler is included, say over 50%; but definitely not beyond the western shores of Lake Michigan, and certainly never, never south across the Illinois state line. Say it there and, if you’re lucky, they look at you like you’re from a distant country. If you’re not lucky, you’ll be ID’d as a cheesehead and taunted with detestation, in ways that only people from Chicago-land (i.e. long suffering Bears fans) can administer.

Map is approximate, but fairly accurate for bubbler. The “heart of bubbler land” is the L described in the text.

Two other tiny US regions also call it a “bubbler”: Most of Rhode Island and slivers of eastern and southern Massachusetts, reaching in a few areas into New Hampshire.  (Actually, they probably say “bubb-lah”, but the root and idea are the same).

I left Milwaukee nearly 46 years ago; I still instinctively want to call them bubblers.  I’ve forced myself to say “drinking fountain,” for clarity (see Colorado, on map).  But in the company of other native Wisconsinites I drift autonomically: it’s a “bubbler.”

A commonly repeated legend about the bubbler moniker and the Kohler Company lives on, percolating outward from this special L-region, and re-energized with every local re-telling.  It seems that in 1888 a Kohler employee named Harlan Huckabee invented a device that would provide a small fountain of water, shooting up a few inches, from which a passerby could easily dampen their parched palettes by putting their pursed lips to the airborne stream and drawing it in.  The fountain made a “bubbling” sound, with water gurgling up and splashing back down; hence the device that made the sounds was called a “bubbler.” Kohler trademarked and patented the device. And successfully marketed it as such – a bubbler – coast to coast and then internationally.

This is oft repeated fable is largely false.  But repetition of falsehoods somehow makes them more credible.  Followed politics at all?

Yet, there is a strong Kohler and Wisconsin connection.  Kohler had been making a similar device since about 1900.  And it was indeed called the bubbler.  And it did make a bubbling sound (like a small brooklet) as the water shot up a couple inches for the quenching of thirst.  But there was no Harlan Huckabee, and no 1888 invention. The word and name bubbler were never trademarked nor patented by Kohler.

Yet, by 1900, the word “bubbler” for a drinking device had indeed already been around for a few decades. So, what happened?  As Beth Dippel of the Sheboygan Sun reports from her deep research:

“Wisconsin was filled with one-room schools in the late 19th Century, and each school had a pretty standard set of furniture and equipment, including portraits of Washington and Lincoln, blackboards, the old pot-bellied stove, maybe a globe and some type of container for drinking water. One container frequently used was the Red Wing Stoneware Co.’s ceramic water cooler or water ‘bubbler’ made as early as 1877. They came in three-gallon and five-gallon sizes and were prized possessions of schools.”

Sheboygan Press [1]

When students filled a cup for drinking, air would move up through the cooler and make a “bubbling” sound.  And kids in many schools called it just that: a bubbler.

Kohler’s product took the local popular school-children’s name for a drinking device.  By the 1910s a new design had modified the basic design.  Shooting the water straight up was considered unsanitary, since unconsumed water, which had touched lips, fell back onto the spout.  Most devices now shoot an arc of water, as shown in the first figure.  This invention was not from Kohler, but they adopted it and continued successfully selling “bubblers”, although they now didn’t make quite as much of a bubbling sound.

Kohler Family Plot, Kohler, Wisconsin — company founder, John Kohler, Jr passed at a mere 56 years old, in 1900, leaving a long-lasting family legacy

The product sold well for decades, and the name “bubbler” traveled with it, all the way to the east coast.  Hard to imagine residents of Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia being anything but confused today if you were to ask them how to find the nearest “bubbler.”  But once upon a time they did call it that.

From vernacular studies, about 4% of Americans call it a bubbler, or a water bubbler. I find that ridiculously high, but perhaps “water bubbler” bumps it up a few points. I’ve never met a single person from outside Wisconsin (or who didn’t live there a spell) have the faintest notion what a bubbler is.  Some 33% call it a drinking fountain.  The rest, a whopping 63%, call it a water fountain.  The last one, water fountain, seems silly to me; that’s a place to toss coins for wishes, or to take off your shows, roll up your pants and take a forbidden dip, or – more scandalously – fish out those coins.

Words change. They come and go.  Regions are particular.  Pop or Soda? But the name “bubbler” lives stubbornly in its homeland – that is, much of southern and eastern Wisconsin – as well as pockets of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. 

Well, that was a mouthful.  Now I need a drink of water.  Where’s the bubbler?

Popular T-shirt in much of Wisconsin: “Bubbler” is secret code for “I’m from Wisconsin” … in RI and Mass it would be “Bubb-lah”

And a Kohler is no longer a charcoal burner.  It is a fine, respectable bathroom fixture.

Happy public drinking.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2020

Footnotes and bibliography below.

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

Afterward:  Vollraths

The Vollrath name and family business remains prominent in Sheboygan, however.  One of Vollrath’s other businesses lived on and is a prominent manufacturer of commercial restaurant and food services equipment: still in the metal implement business.  Since the Kohlers and Vollraths are multiply intermarried (in fact, after Lillie died leaving Kohler 6 children; he then married her younger sister and one more: he would go on to lead the Kohler dynasty into the 20th century), the current generations sit on each other’s boards of directors.  There is a beautiful 26-acre park along the Lake Michigan shore in Sheboygan named for Vollrath, who donated the land and funded its early development.

The Kohlers are, of course, gigantic in Wisconsin.  The family has provided two state governors (not to be confused with the Kohl family, and the Kohl’s chain of stores).  In fact, founder John Kohler was once mayor of Sheboygan. Kohlers have gotten into the golf business, starting locally with two gorgeous links/dunes courses, one near and another along Lake Michigan: Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits. These have hosted multiple major golf championships.  They’ve also expanded into the golf hospitality business, owning and running the famous Old Course Hotel in Saint Andrews, Scotland.
If you get to the area, drop by the Kohler museum in Kohler. And, if it’s summer, try to take in a festival in Sheboygan. It doesn’t matter what festival: there will be really good bratwurst, plenty of beer, friendly people … and bubblers.

[1] https://www.sheboyganpress.com/story/news/local/2014/10/31/sheboygan-history-bubblers/18254395/

End of the World?

Halley’s Comet – named for Sir Edmond Halley, the English bloke who used Newton’s new art of calculus to surmise that frequently seen comets in history were, in fact the same comet – returns to the inner solar system once every 76 years or so, on average. [1] When this occurs, it is usually quite visible with the naked eye for weeks at a time.

76 years is quite a short period for a comet that can be so easily seen.  It is the only one that can be seen twice in a single human lifetime.

Alas, the only appearance during my lifetime – in 1986 – was far less than spectacular.  Earth’s and Halley’s orbits were sort of “out of synch” and thus minimized earth’s view of the comet when it was brightest. I was most disappointed, since I had read about it so much and had been very let down by the “flame out” of Kahoutek in 1973-74.

Such has not always been the case.

In 1066 the Comet portended the defeat of English King Harold II to William, the conqueror from Normandy at a battlefield near Hastings[2A] So important was this astronomical sign that its significance and image are captured on the magnificent 70 meter (230 feet) long tapestry that that tells the story of conquest, and still survives in Bayeux, Normandy. [2B]

Over the millennia, many other occasions of Halley’s return and sighting have been recorded in several cultures. As there was no effective difference between astronomy and astrology, a comet’s appearance (exceedingly rare as they are) are usually associated with some momentous decision, or a historical event.

Could that event be the end of the world?

The year was 1910, and the comet’s return was certainly expected. Based on its path through the solar system since its 1835 appearance, astronomers and physicists predicted it would appear in spring. [3]

And yet, in January, a comet brighter than anything anyone had expected appeared!  Was this Halley’s?  Appearing early? Astrophysicists re-worked and labored over their calculations again.  As they did, the comet got so bright it was visible during the day!  It’s brightness rivaled that of famously bright evening and morning “stars” – Venus and Jupiter –  but with a tail painted across the sky. 

Soon enough scientists announced: No! This is not Halley’s.  This is an unrecorded comet, probably with a period of 50,000 to 100,000 years!  People alive then were fortunate to see such a spectacle. That 1910 comet is often referred to as “The Daylight Comet.”

Historians regularly call 1910 “The Year of Two Comets.” Just a few months after the Daylight Comet faded away Halley’s made its scheduled appearance in April. 

Astronomers first sighted it in early April, and it could be seen with the naked eye starting around April 10. They tracked it, and – again – many scientists and astronomers made their calculations and observations.  Those who calculate did their calculations: Each orbit of a comet is different, and everyone wanted to know how bright the comet would get, and how close it would get to earth.

From the Dallas Star, May, 1910

On April 20 the comet reached perihelion – its closest approach to the sun – and became very easily viewable from earth with casual unaided observation.  [On cue, Mark Twain passed away[3]]. After perihelion they predicted an Earth-comet approach so close that on May 18th Earth would pass through the comet’s tail Now that’s astonishing!

What would happen then?  How should this news be treated? Should they let everyone, and anyone, know?  Would panic and hysteria ensue? What about the news that spectroscopic surveys of the tail suggested the tail was comprised of a high percentage of cyanogen, a precursor to cyanide? 

A few scientists suggested that this could make the entire atmosphere fatally toxic! But most scientists thought that there was no danger.  Yet, we couldn’t know until we actually passed through.

What do you do when the world might end?  Many people just stayed home, preferring to spend their final hours with their families. Factories shut down for want of workers. Yet, in many places around the world the answer was: have a party.  A big party.  Get all your friends, family, food and booze together and enjoy yourselves like there might be no tomorrow. Humans around the world wondered what might happen, … while partying. It was a delicious time: while the vast majority had little or no fear of the “calamity”, they took it as an opportunity to have a good time, enjoy this singular event: a few spectacular hours of passage. And by doing so – maybe – mocking those who were in hysteria.

It might have been the last time until now (the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, March 2020) that the world has been more or less united in the same activities.  Mankind united by a single set of events.

Earth passed through the tail of Halley’s Comet. When it was over, of course, nothing happened.  They had simply witnessed and experienced an event that probably no other human had!  And no other human will for a very long time. [5]

Well, perhaps more than that happened.  Quite a few probably had hangovers – and there might have been a mini-baby boom in early 1911. (There was, in fact, a few percent jump in US births in 1911 over 1910; however, (1) that was a time of such massive immigration; and (2) birth numbers jumped consistently from 1900 until 1918 [insert WW1 comment here], so it’s not clear what we should attribute this mini-baby boom to.) [4]

Anyhow, one way or the other, this SARS-CoV-2 thing (and the illness it causes, COVID-19) will pass. Some of us have panicked.  Nearly all of us will survive, although many of us will be changed; maybe with larger waistlines.

Unlike extraordinary 1910 – with two brilliant comets, and with Halley’s extremely close-approach to Earth – an epidemic or pandemic will occur again.  For some of us, perhaps, within our lifetime.  What will happen next time?  Much will depend on what we have learned. And what we remember.

I hope it’s not the end of the world.  But in any case, we can have a party.

By the way: Halley’s is predicted to appear again in the summer of 2061.  I don’t think I’ll hang around for that one.  Gotta join ol’ Mark Twain sometime. But if I do make it to then: we’re having a heck of a party!

Until next time, I wish you peace and health

Joe Girard © 2020

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

[1] Halley’s orbital period varies a bit with every orbit; and the variation is random.  Why? A) The comet sheds a fraction of its mass with each inner solar system pass due to solar heating; and B) the comet is tiny and light, and thus subject to (usually) slight gravitational perturbation by planets.  Halley’s once had an orbital period of many tens of thousands of years, falling from the Kuiper Belt – or more likely the Oort Cloud – but after repeated close encounters with planets, it has been captured and now strays only about as far away from the sun as the 8th planet Neptune at aphelion – it’s farthest distance from the sun. 

[2A] My son Aaron and I walked the battlefield in April, 2010. It is actually quite far inland from Hastings. There is a lovely town there now, with a beautiful Abbey. The town is called, appropriately enough: “Battle”

[2B] My wife and I were fortunate enough to have time to walk along and see the entire tapestry during our Normandy tour, in May, 2018.

[3] Mark Twain was born in 1835, with Halley’s Comet visible in the night sky.  As he aged, he grew weary and bitter – he had lost his fortune, three of his four children perished before him, and then his wife went. In such a dark cloud he predicted his own demise in 1910, concurrent with Halley’s reappearance.  He was correct.

[4] US Live Birth Statistics   https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/statab/t1x0197.pdf

[5] Deaths from Halley’s.  There were quite a few deaths associated with Halley’s, almost all of them due to the hysteria.  I read a report of a 16-year old Canadian girl falling to her death from the roof of a building where an “end of the world” party was being held.

[6] Author’s note: My disappointment with Halley’s 1986 appearance was greatly relieved by Hale-Bopp in March and April, of 1997.  On a spring break trip to the Arizona desert, with perfect viewing, Hale-Bopp was magnificent.  And it’s brightest night was almost exactly the same as a lunar eclipse and – right next to the moon – Mars in perfect and brilliant opposition

Wells, Welles, Wells: Patterns

Wells, Welles, Wells: what have we here?

Dawn Wells won the title of Miss Nevada in 1959.  She went on to star in TV, live theater and movies, most memorably as Mary Ann in the Gilligan’s Island TV series.  Still a beauty at 81, she and Tina Louise (Ginger) are the last surviving actors in that ‘60s TV show – which continues to live on in re-runs.  Wells was born in October 1938.

Also, in 1938 – just a few days after Miss Wells’ birth, on the Sunday night right before Halloween – a series of “news” flashes and reports were broadcast nationwide over the Columbia Broadcasting System.  The news went out as part of a regular show: Mercury Theatre. But unless listeners were tuned in at the very beginning, they might well have not realized that the “news” was a spoof — part of an entertainment show. [2]

Orson Wells, on CBS’ Mercury Theater

The news shocked and, briefly, terrified more than a few people – and a bit of panic broke out. (The panic was not nearly as widespread as legend has it[3]).  Even some who understood that the “news reports” were fake did not understand it was actually a radio show dramatization of H.G. Wells’ famous novel, “War of the Worlds.”  

The creator and producer of the 1938 radio show? Orson Welles. (He also played several voice-roles in the dramatization.)

So, Welles produced a show based on a novel by Wells?  Put on the air the same week as Wells’ birth?

Wells, Welles, Wells. These are simply coincidences.  A sequence of events and names that present a curious pattern of no significance.

But as humans, we cannot help but notice such coincidences.  Coincidences look a lot like patterns.  And humans have evolved to be probably the best pattern recognizers in the world – outside, perhaps, of advanced Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning Algorithms. (Such as: whatever on the internet seems to know what I might be shopping for?)  As humans, we’ve used pattern recognition to help us survive and thrive, evidence of Darwin’s theory. We hunt prey, avoid predators, plant, harvest, and socialize – including finding mates – according to evolved inherited skills of pattern recognition. 

One of the most important is patterns for weather forecasting. We recognize “Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning.  Red sky at night sailor’s delight”.  It was already ancient when Jesus said “When it is evening, you say ‘it will be fair weather for the sky is red.’  And in the morning: ‘it will be foul weather today, for the sky is red.’  O hypocrites. You can discern the face of the sky, but not the signs of the times!” [Matthew, 16:2-3].

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Long ago humans recognized patterns of movement in the night skies.  For example, every 780 days the red-orange planet Mars appears very bright in the sky, and almost directly overhead at midnight.  (This phenomenon, called “opposition”, would likely have been tracked by counting lunar months, and predictably occurred every 26 lunar cycles, plus 19 days).  Such celestial movements and tracking have meager connections to our lives, try as astrologists might to make them.  On the other hand, the single biggest influence on ocean tides is the moon.  Plus, constellations and the north star have been trusty navigational tools that pre-date history. So, our planet and our fates are not fully disconnected from all celestial patterns.

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In 1894 Mars and Earth met in their regularly scheduled dance of syzygy. Astronomers were ready and turned their telescopes toward the planet named for the god of war.  Their observations, sketches and conjectures helped inspire a novel: “War of the Worlds”, by H.G. Wells. 

Percival Lowell saw the great Canali on Mars and fancied that they were massive water projects, undertaken to manage water by a civilization on a nearly barren planet that was drying up.  H.G. Wells’ imagination: Would they be interested in coming to water-rich earth? 

Further exciting scientific speculation: great flashes of light were seen on Mars during that alignment.  From the respected astronomer Perrotin in (Nice, France) to the Lick Observatory in the hills outside San Jose, California, Mars-gazers confirmed to each other that the bright Martian lights were real.  H.G. Well’s imagination: Might these flares of light be the firing of a giant gun, to send a spacecraft to earth at this opportune planetary alignment?

Like most science fiction writers, Wells was pretty well attuned to scientific developments.  And world affairs.  Thus armed scientifically and culturally, and with a great imagination, Wells wrote “War of the Worlds.”  Initially published as a series in 1897, the work was published as a novel in a single volume in 1898. 

I’m not sure why the title has the word “Worlds”.  In the Wells novel, per my recollection and re-perusing of the fairly short book [1], the only locale inflicted with invasion and destruction of the Martian “heat ray” was southeast England, in and around the London area. [4]

In Welles’ 1938 radio show, the Martian invaders’ destruction was mostly limited to New Jersey and around New York City, although he does make brief passing mention – almost like an afterthought – of Buffalo, Chicago and St Louis. [2]  

I’ve seen the 1953 movie a few times, mostly as a kid, and the “invasion” was limited to California.  Writers can be so parochial.  If it were really “War of the Worlds”, the whole human race would have been affected, and united in an effort to fight (or at least survive) the invaders. [5]

Alas, uniting our race would have done no good in any of the versions of the story.  The Martians were virtually indestructible. The annihilation from their heat ray was total. Their only weakness was that they lacked an immune system adapted for earth.  At the end they all perished due to exposure to simple common germs.

Martian Death Ray — War of the Worlds movie, 1953

Virology was not even in its infancy when Wells wrote his novel; the very existence of anything like a virus was postulated (and indirectly proven) only a couple years before that Mars-Earth alignment.  Scientists and novelists knew, of course, about bacteria.  But those are usually many, many times larger than most viruses, and had been observed under microscopes.  Humans would not truly “see” a virus until 1931, with the development of the electron microscope.

If Wells had known about viruses when he wrote his novel, he might well have included them in earth’s “victory” over the Martians.  If he wrote the novel today, he might have included a “novel virus” (ha, pun intended) as the “hero.”

Returning to patterns (like novel & novel), and the current novel virus (AKA SARS-CoV-2 and 2019-nCoV – the “n” indicating “novel”), we can understand a bit how the US under-reacted, at first, to this threat. 

The virus that causes COVID-19 is a “new” virus (that’s what novel means) but is closely related to the corona viruses that caused SARS in 2002-3 and MERS in 2015.  From a US-perspective, these were mostly well contained to Asia and the Middle East, although a nasty outbreak of SARS occurred near Toronto. 

More novel viruses will come.  They mutate easily and quickly. Some will be worse than SARS-CoV-2 or even the H1N1 variant that caused the pandemic of 1918-19 … more fatal and more transmittable.  Concurrent with another existential catastrophe, they might even threaten the species.  Not sure when … next year … next decade or in a few generations. But they will come.

In my imagined minor and more modern re-write of Wells’ story, it is a virus that saved the Homo Sapiens species.  In future, perhaps the lessons-learned from this 2020 virus pandemic will save us too.

Mary Ann and Ginger, again

Final thought: By the way, from way back in the ‘60s until today, I always preferred Mary Ann over Ginger. No contest. Is it because she was a brunette, or because Mary Ann was … well she was Mary Ann?  Or because she was Dawn Wells?

Be well, stay healthy, be nice.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2020

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

[1] Wells’ novel, War of the World, is in the public domain and can be read many places, including  here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/36/36-h/36-h.htm

[2]You can listen to the 1938 Radio show here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xs0K4ApWl4g
or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzC3Fg_rRJM

[3] There was not widespread panic caused by Welles’ production of WoW, as legend has it.  https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/war-of-the-worlds/ 
Also: https://www.neh.gov/article/fake-news-orson-welles-war-worlds-80

[4] Backstory spoiler: Wells was disheartened by the methods and human impacts of British worldwide colonization and empire building.  So, in his novel, the roles are flipped. The Brits are set upon and invaded by strange and powerful foreigners who have come to take their resources, without regard for human life, or for destruction of a civilization.

[5] Screenplay Script, War of the Worlds, 1953 movie:  http://www.scifiscripts.com/scripts/WARWORLDS.txt

The Coronademic and Words

Most of us are fortunate to dwell in some land that is run by governments described with three words: Liberal Democratic Republic.  Let’s ignore the first and third words for today and focus on the second – Democratic – since it will help us address the hottest topic in the world these days, the Corona Virus, and start us on the path to decode the difference between the two similar and frequently heard words: Epidemic and Pandemic. [1]

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As the English language evolves ever more rapidly many words have been discarded on the wayside. They languish there – grass and debris covering them, yet not quite dead – calling out from time to time to passersby. “Use me! Use me! I’m perfect for what you want to say.” Most of us usually ignore them.  Our minds and vocabularies have moved on. Or we’re rightfully afraid that no one will understand us; or they’ll think we are pretentious. These lonely plaintive words get scant attention.  They lived vibrant lives once. Occasionally we stumble across a few in an old text, or perhaps in a more contemporary passage tapped out by a witty writer; one equipped with either an English Degree, or a thesaurus. Or both. Or me.

Generic Corona Virus: This is a CDC image in the Public Domain

Other words remain but get morphed so mischievously that they now mean something quite different.  For example, Jealous and Envious – and their cousins: Jealousy & Envy. Until recently, these used to mean pretty much the exact opposite of each other. Jealousy meant to aggressively guard what you have. And envy meant to covet what somewhat else has.  [e.g.: The jealous girlfriend imagined the envy of her friends every single waking moment. And why is it always the jealous girlfriend, not the jealous boyfriend?].

Anyhow, now it seems acceptable that Jealous should always mean what Envious used to mean.  And Envy seems to have all but vanished from modern lexicon, left on the side of that road of language evolution. [Random person: “I’m so jealous of your trip to the Bahamas.” —
Envious, in a faint Whoville voice: “Use me! use me! I’m perfect for you!”]

Back to square one for today: Democracy.  The -cracy ending simply means a form of government, or a ruling structure.  Just think of theocracy, bureaucracy, and aristocracy and you pretty much get the idea.[2] The first part tells you who has the power.  In the painful-to-watch, but occasionally funny, movie “Idiocracy” the idiots ran the world.

In Democracy, the people have the power.  Demos is Greek for “the people.” This also gives us a key to the words of the day: Epidemic and Pandemic.  -Demic: Something that is of the people, or affects the people. 

There are some other unrelated words that end in -demic, and this moment is propitious for a note of caution: the -ic ending can confuse us, because it means “having to do with.” For example, “academic” is only faintly related to ‘demos’, or the people.  Here the -ic indicates it has to do with “academy’; which also comes directly from Greek. Academy: It was a public garden, as in a place where Plato would conduct his classes (which does indeed have to do with the people).  But the word “academic” arrived late in English’s evolution, around the 16th century, from “academy.” That was long after academy had anything to do with public gardens, and everything to do with education – I guess thanks to Plato, and other Greek academics.

Back to “epidemic” and “pandemic”, which sound so much alike, and whose meanings are so similar, that they are often used interchangeably.  That’s Okay, I suppose, as the rules in English fade away and sometimes appear in new places.  But in these times of COVID-19 – or Wuhan Virus, or SARS-Cov-2, or 2019-nCoV, or whatever you want to call it (maybe “the big panic”, or the great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020) – it might be a bit useful to know the difference between “epidemic” and “pandemic.”

For “epidemic” go to the prefix – “epi-“ – and think “epicenter.”  Epi- means having to do with a specific, singular location.  Think about when a significant earthquake occurs; among the first two details reported are the magnitude and the epicenter.  Not just “how strong?”, but also what specific location on the earth’s surface is directly above the earthquake’s focus? That’s Epi-.

So, “epidemic” is something that has to do with “the people” and is fairly local.  Limited to a geographic location.  When the COVID-19 virus first appeared, it was clearly an epidemic.  Limited to Wuhan province.

Outbreaks don’t have to be viral or microbial to be epidemic. There have been, sadly, epidemics of suicide in some school districts, and epidemics of avocado accidents at some emergency rooms.  “Epidemic” doesn’t even have to be medical in nature – although usually people use it that way.  At my place of employment for some 34 years the misuse of the word “adverse” was epidemic among management.  Yes, I cringed, but that was neither the time nor place to correct my superiors.  The main thing is: epidemic is some phenomenon related to people that you can draw a circle around and say “it’s limited to this region.”

By now you can guess that “Pandemic” is an epidemic that is no longer limited to a region.  The prefix “pan-“ simply meaning all, or everything.  Long ago, a few hundred million years ago, all of earth’s landmass was co-joined and contiguous.  You’ve heard scientists and geologists refer to that single continent as “Pangea” (suffix as a slightly modified “Gaia”, meaning earth). 

Or for Pandemic, thick Pan, as in Pandora’s Box: all the sickness and troubles that could plague the world are set free. Such pandemonium was no longer quarantined within her box, spreading to all of mankind. Truly one of the most evil gifts ever given, even if it was mythology.

And of course, you can guess that the COVID-19 outbreak is now well beyond epidemic, having graduated to pandemic status. I think the CDC defines pandemic as three or more separate geographic locations. Continents surely qualify as separate locations. So, pandemic?  We’re there.

Another appropriate word of that day – one with identical letters at the beginning, but a totally different origin – is PANIC. Empty shelves of toilet paper; stock prices losing 10%, then20% of value in a few days.  Is this panic?  Probably.  We recognize the -IC ending as “having to do with.”  But in PANIC, what is Pan?  Students of Greek mythology and chaos (or readers of Tom Robbins) will love this.  Pan is the god of the wild: the woods, the hills, the un-tamed places. When Pan was disturbed his shouts would terrify those who heard it. Any weird or unexplainable sound heard outside the cities and villages was attribute to the anger of Pan – a very unpredictable fellow. This terror would spread orally among the people, with little apparent reason or validation.  Panic: widespread terror with little reasoning.  No toilet paper. 

For reference: The Spanish Flu of 1918-19 killed 25 million people in 25 months. Total deaths are pretty well gauged, but infection rates are a SWAG at best. It’s estimated that one-third of the world’s population might have been infected.[3] Those numbers, or anything close to them, are astounding! That was definitely a pandemic.  Especially since world-travel was so limited in those days (outside of travel related to World War 1), it’s hard to imagine how it became so widespread.  And deadly.  Advanced evolution? Could anything like this happen again?

With any luck, the current pandemic will serve as a warning for those to come.

At this point, I’ll call the Coronavirus a Panic-Pandemic. English has few rules, and the rules permit me to make up a word: Panic-Pandemic. Unplug the TV, turn off the radio, and behave like adults.

Wishing peace and good health (and clean hands and no nose picking) to all of you.

Cheers

Joe Girard © 2020

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

Footnotes:

[1] I wrote on Democracy vs Republic some time ago, here: https://girardmeister.com/2013/12/25/democracy-no/
I do plan to publish a study on “Liberal” soon.

[2] Theo = God, or of God.  Theocracy is run by those who are believed to be divinely guided by god.
Bureau and Bureaucaracy: think of an office.  A really big slothful office with lots of internal rules and procedures.  Full of faceless unelected people fulfilling government roles.  Like the Department of Motor Vehicles.  In a bureaucracy, these people are in control.  Hmmmmm…
Aristocracy: Aristocrats are the wealthy, privileged and upper crust of society. 

[3] Fatality rate of 1.4% from these numbers.  That is pretty astoundingly high. (World Pop in 1920 about 1.75 billion, even after the killing fields of WW1). 

[finally] – a pretty cool website for etymology (or “how words got their meanings”) is www.etymonline.com