By Ken Zurski
On February 5, 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced his intention to expand the Supreme Court to as many as 15 justices. The move was clearly a political one. Roosevelt was trying to “pack” the court and in turn make the nation’s highest court a completely liberal entity. Republicans cried foul.
Roosevelt didn’t car what his opponents thought. He embraced the criticism and mostly ignored it. Although politically it was still a hot button issue, his New Deal policies had earned public acceptance, even praise. The high court, however, was another matter. They had previously struck down several key pieces of his legislation on the grounds that the laws delegated an unconstitutional amount of authority in government, specifically the executive branch, but especially the office of the president.
Roosevelt won the 1936 election in a landslide and was feeling a bit emboldened. If he could pack the court, he could win a majority every time. So the president proposed legislation which in essence asked current Supreme Court justices to retire at age 70 with full pay or be appointed an “assistant” with full voting rights, effectively adding a new justice each time.
This initiative would directly affect 75-year-old Chief Justice, Charles Evan Hughes, a Republican from New York and a former nominee for president in 1916 who narrowly lost to incumbent Woodrow Wilson. Hughes resigned his post as a Supreme Court Justice to run for president, then served as Secretary of State under the Harding administration. In 1930, he was nominated by Herbert Hoover to return to the high court as Chief Justice. Hughes had sworn in Roosevelt twice. Now he was being asked by the president to give up his post and in effect – take a hike.
In May of 1937, however, Roosevelt realized his “court packing” idea was wholly unnecessary. In an unexpected role of reversal, two justices, including Hughes, jumped over to the liberal side of the argument and by a narrow majority upheld as constitutional the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act, two of the administration’s coveted policies. Roosevelt never brought up the issue of court size again.
But his power move didn’t sit well with the press.
Newspaper editorials criticized him for it and the public’s favor he had enjoyed after two big electoral victories was waning. He was a lame duck president finishing out his second term. Then Germany invaded Poland. Roosevelt’s steady leadership was lauded in a world at war.
In 1940, he ran for an unprecedented third term and won easily.
The following year, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
By Ken Zurski
In the early half of the 20th century, shortly after World War I ended, mathematician Edward Kasner, a professor at Columbia University, devised the concept of showing the common features of whole numbers, no matter how large. As an example, he came up with the number one followed by a hundred zeros.
Writing out such a large number was ridiculous of course, and at the time formal names didn’t exist for numbers larger than a trillion.
But he needed a name.
So he asked his nine-year-old nephew Milton to intervene. During a causal stroll in New Jersey’s Palisades Woods, Edward wondered if Milton could come up with one. “Googol” was the boy’s answer. So Milton’s silly sounding recommendation became “Googolplex,” or one followed by a googol zeros. Kasner began using the name in his classes.
Flash forward more than 70 years in 1995 when two Stanford University students Larry Page and Sergey Brin began collaborating on a search engine they originally called BackRub. The project began to attract investors and bandwidth grew. But they needed a new name, something catchier, something they could easily register online.
Google was chosen as the common spelling of Googol which, thanks to Kasner, was as close to an infinite number as possible.
“We picked the name “Google” because our goal is to make huge quantities of information available to everyone,” Page later recalled.
When they presented the name however, math traditionalists balked. “You idiots, you spelled it [Googol] wrong!” one chastised. But Google.com was available and Googol.com was not. Besides, Page said, “It sounds cool and [still] has only six letters.”
According to an official statement Google’s corporate website (yes, there is one): “The name “Google” reflects Larry and Sergey’s mission to organize a seemingly infinite amount of information on the web.”
Simple enough. But what about young Milton? How did the word “Googol” pop into his head? Speculation runs rampant here. A great niece of Dr. Kasner, Denise Sirotta, claims her father Edwin, Milton’s younger brother, should get some credit since he claimed the siblings came up with the name together. “He was asked for a word with a sound that had lots of O’s in it,” she said.
Another observation seems to make more sense especially in the imaginative mind of a toddler. Caroline Birenbaum, another great-niece of Dr. Kasner’s, speculates the word was inspired by a comic-strip character named Barney Google, who debuted in 1919. She says Dr. Kasner, liked cartoons.
“He may have tweaked the spelling to avoid any trademark issues,” she claims.
Barney Google was an American comic strip created by Billy DeBeck, that originally appeared on the sports pages. Google had big “banjo” eyes, a mustache, a large bulbous nose, and wore a tuxedo-type suit. He was an “avid sportsman and N’er do well” involved with some of the more contentious contests like poker, prize fights and horse racing. Google’s bow-legged horse “Spark Plug” was introduced in 1922, and nicknamed “Sparky.” The horse was a nag who rarely raced, but when he did it became a big media event. Millions of readers bought in.
A popular song was introduced, a foxtrot, titled “Barney Google and Spark Plug”
Barney Google—with the goo, goo, googly eyes,
Barney Google—bet his horse would win the prize;
When the horses ran that day,
Spark Plug ran the other way!
Barney Google—with the goo-goo-googly eyes!
In 1934, another character named Snuffy Smith joined the fray and Barney Google and Spark Plug were phased out.
So Google, the word itself, was in the public consciousnesses long before the giant search engine came along. Still, Kasner had no idea that it would become so popular in the next century.
So where did his inspiration for the seemingly infinite number come from?
Kasner, who never married, cited a description of unrequited love. In a divorce case, he explained, a woman called the commitment she had for her husband as “a million billion billion times and eight times around the world.” Kaisner was struck by the expansive description. “It was the largest number ever conceived of,” he said. So he set out to immortalize it.
And his little nephew inspired a name.
By Ken Zurski
In 1517, King Charles I of Spain, who had just assumed the throne at the tender age of eighteen, was approached by Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer who came to the young King after being rejected by his own country. Magellan made Charles an offer. Let him sail around the world and in the process find a direct route to Indonesia and the Spice Islands, once successfully navigated by Christopher Columbus.
Charles found Magellan’s plan intriguing.
Columbus’s four voyages for Spain, among other revelations, claimed new lands and precious spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves which grew in abundance on the elusive islands. If Magellan could find a way to get the spices back to Charles, Spain would reap the rewards and rule the spice trade.
Charles wholeheartedly approved the voyage and ordered five ships and a crew of nearly 300 men.
In 1519, Magellan set sail from Seville.
Four years later, limping back to port, only one ship named Victoria returned. Every other ship was lost including most of the men. Even Magellan was gone, hacked to death on April 27, 1521 after a fierce battle with a native tribe.
Despite this, the King was pleased.
The tragic news of the lost ships and crew was irrelevant. The Victoria came back with a cargo of 381 sacks of cloves, the most coveted of all spices. “No cloves are grown in the world except the five mountains of those five islands,” explained the ship’s diarist.
Charles questioned the returning men on claims of a mutiny and other charges of debauchery, but it didn’t matter.
He paid the royal stipends to survivors, basked in his clove treasure, and set in motion plans to put another crew back en route to the islands.
By Ken Zurski
Singer Loulie Jean Norman may not be a household name, but her voice is an unmistakable part of television history.
More on that in a moment. First a little background.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1913, Norman soon discovered a knack for singing. She was uniquely talented as a coloratura soprano, a vocal range most commonly suited for opera. Unlike counterparts like stage star Maria Callas, however, Norman took her gift to radio instead. It was the 1930’s, and radio was just starting to emerge as an entertainment force. Norman was in her twenties at the time. Her voice and beauty were being noticed. So she moved from Birmingham to New York City to jump start her career. Modeling jobs paid the bills at first, but singing was her passion.
She eventually got bit parts in singing ensembles on several musical variety shows including one with Bing Crosby who would signal her out several times for her solo passages. Norman provided studio background vocals to hitmakers like Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme and Elvis Presley. On TV, she appeared on the Dinah Shore Show. with Dean Martin, and as a back-up on Carol Burnett’s popular variety program.
“When you sang,” a colleague once told Norman, “it was the angels.”
But perhaps her most unaccredited and influential contribution is the reason why Norman is unremembered today.
In 1964, when television producer Gene Roddenberry introduced a new space serial titled Star Trek he asked a friend Jerry Goldsmith to write the theme music. Goldsmith was too busy but enlisted fellow composer and collaborator Alexander Courage, who was said to be no fan of the science fiction genre, but drew inspiration from a song he heard on the radio titled “Beyond the Blue Horizon, ” which was featured in the 1930 movie “Monte Carlo” and sung by actress Jeannette McDonald, a soprano.
Courage wrote the theme for Star Trek the TV series in about a week. Roddenberry heard the music and for reasons some explain were financially motivated, wrote lyrics for the tune. Courage, surprised – and perhaps, a bit offended – by Roddenberry’s contribution, had included a voice in his recording, but no words. The lyric version of the song was never used.
Courage chose a singer similar to MacDonald, who ironically died the year the theme was written. Norman was another soprano and known for her studio work. Plus she wasn’t a big enough star to turn down such an offer. Norman had the range Courage needed to make the tune work.
Star Trek: The Original Series ran for only three seasons and 79 episodes. In the third and final year, despite a growing fan base, Roddenberry was hopelessly fighting low ratings, high production costs, and threats from the network to cancel.
He reportedly couldn’t pay Norman her royalty cut that year. So the theme was re-recording without the vocals.
By Ken Zurski
On April 8 1931, Amelia Earhart , in full pilot jumpsuit mode, stepped into an autogiro, a horizontally propelled winged aircraft she had been testing with other pilots for more than a year. Earhart, who two years earlier had become the first woman to fly an airplane solo over the Atlantic, was trying to break another record, an altitude peak, in the mostly untested autogiro.
At the time, an autogiro, was considered an unstable and unproven contraption. But there were advantages. It could take off from a relatively small space and fly just as high and as long as its front-propelled counterpart. Unlike the airplane, however, It could also stop on a dime and seem to float in the sky. Landing was simply lowering itself to the ground. A large rotor blade sat on top and provided lift. The blade was free spinning and powered by air from an engine-propelled rotor on the side that also provided thrust.
Introduced in the 1930’s, autogiros, was considered a more practical and efficient alternative to the airplane, if only they could be as reliable. Today, a smaller version, called a gyrocopter, is similar to the original design, minus the wings. So when you talk about the pioneer fliers of the autogiro, or the forerunner of the modern day helicopter, one person must be recognized.
One you famously know.
The aforementioned Amelia Earhart.
With a large contingent of press on site and an appreciative crowd, Earhart in her thick insulated overalls gave it a go. Her first attempt failed. Perhaps as some noted, she was testing her own – and her aircraft’s – capabilities. Maybe she would abandon the next attempt, the press speculated. She answered that question by going up again, this time reaching a height of 18,415 feet and breaking – or making –a new record. She safely brought the craft back to the ground.
She was lauded in her efforts, but wanted more. So did the press. They figured she would try a transcontinental trip in an autogiro, the first of its kind, which she did successfully. But her efforts were overshadowed by another pilot named John Miller who quietly attempted the same feat without the fanfare or publicity that Earhart demanded. He completed the route first, although both pilots had no idea of the other’s intentions.
That same year in 1931, Earhart crashed her autogiro at an airshow in Detroit. Her husband, George Putnam, was the first to arrive at the wreckage: “I saw Amelia emerge from the dust and wave her hands in the air,” he said. “She was unhurt.” But Putnam was on the ground, writhing in pain. In his haste to reach the wreck site he tripped, fell and cracked three ribs. “Never had I run so fast,” he described afterwards, “until one of the guy wires caught my pumping legs exactly at the ankles.”
Unaware of her husband’s injury, Earhart happily waved to the crowd.
While she was glad to walk away unscathed and Putman’s predicament was just an unfortunate accident, it would be her last call with the autogiro.
She went back to an airplane.
Tragically, six years later in 1937, we all know how her story ends.
By Ken Zurski
Nearly every May in the 1930’s, a radio performer named Robert Spere staged rallies in New York City promoting a day set aside not just to honor moms, but dads as well.
His plan was to change “Mother’s Day” to “Parent’s Day.”
Spere, a children’s program host known as “Uncle Robert” told his attentive audience: “We should all have love for mom and dad every day, but ‘Parent’s Day’ is a reminder that both parents should be loved and respected together.”
Mother’s Day became a national day of observance in 1908. But there was no enthusiasm for a day set aside for fathers. “Men scoffed at the holiday’s sentimental attempts to domesticate manliness with flowers and gift-giving,” one historian wrote.
Retailers, however, liked the idea and promoted a “second Christmas” for dads with gifts of tools, neckties and tobacco, instead of flowers and cards. But it never gelled. Even Spere’s “Parent’s Day” idea died when the Great Depression hit.
It wasn’t until 1972, under President Richard Nixon, that “Father’s Day” officially became a national holiday.
By Ken Zurski
In the mid to late 19th century as railroad lines expanded and towns literally grew on land where the trains ran, depot buildings were built to accommodate riders on the various stops. Today, grainy pictures show the old depots with long stretched decks and indicator signs welcoming passengers to “Ponca City” as the photo below illustrates, among many others. But look closely and you’ll see large barrels on the rooftops, maybe one maybe more. In some instances, if the depot is long and thin, a line of barrels covers the roof’s top, strategically positioned in between the buildings brick chimney’s.
Much debate has been made about these barrels, but there purpose was apparent: save the depot from burning to the ground. Basically, it was a fire suppression method, an early and primitive sprinkler system, if you will.
Here’s how it worked:
The barrels were solid and thick, made of hardwood (usually oak, walnut, hickory or whatever was available) and bound by heavy iron or steel hoops. This sturdiness was to keep the liquid, in this instance water, from leaking out. In many remote locations where water was scarce, there was no water tower, and the air was dry. So he threat of fire from a passing or stopped train was increased. The trains pulling into the station were especially threatening to the depot. Cinder sparks from the wood and coal engines would land on the roof and ignite. If caught in time, someone from the station, usually a ticket agent or even a passenger would go to the roof and open the barrels. In most cases, a permanent ladder was placed atop the slanted roof and another along the narrow crest to make it easier, in theory, to reach the barrels before the building went up in flames. Water-filled Barrels were also placed near chimneys since a stoked fire from a pot belly stove could easily create a spark which ignited the roof.
In 1869, a large roundhouse in Truckee, California caught fire and burnt to the ground. Nearly a dozen engines were parked inside. Luckily, a nearby mill worker spotted the blaze and alerted the night watchman. The building with its oil soaked boards went up quickly, but most of the engines were saved. The trains carried lumber freight along the Central Pacific line from Truckee to nearby Sacramento, so a large supply of timber was stacked inside and along the back wall. Since there was no proper supply of water nearby, saving the roundhouse, more like a tinderbox in this case, was hopeless. Thankfully, no one was killed.
When the Truckee roundhouse was rebuilt a new characteristic was added: the rooftop water barrels. After that, it was reported, several more fires flared up, but were quickly put out.
History cannot record all the near misses, but the Truckee roundhouse fire is a good example that the makeshift safety feature worked in principle at least that while the threat of a fire could not be eliminated, perhaps the resulting inferno could. Not a fully reassuring notion, for sure, but what other choice did they have?
If anything, it helped calm nerves each time the train whistle blew and the sparks flew.