History

The Stinking Truth About The Phantom’s Opera House

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By Ken Zurski

(Note: This story was inspired by a 1986 playbill for The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theater in London).

In Paris, around the mid 1800’s, a man named Eugene Belgrand was hired to overhaul a system of underground sewer tunnels that were built nearly five centuries before and while still in use, was in desperate need of repair.

The plan was to make the tunnels more functional in the era of modernized sanitation, which at the time, wasn’t very sanitized at all. That’s because in 19th century Paris, as in other large European cities, waste was still being tossed onto the street, washed away by the rain, and ending up in filthy rivers, like the Seine, where even the shamelessly rich and privileged who strolled the fancy stone walkways of its shore, were appalled.

The old tunnels could still be used, officials determined, but needed reinforcements and additions to be more effective. The French engineer’s task was simple: make it better.

That of course was the practical reason for the upgrade. The more emotional plea came from Parisons who were just plain sick of the consistently putrid smell and squalor conditions. Women especially complained that they were forced to carry parasols all the time for fear of being dumped on from windows above. So Belgrand reshaped the tunnel routes, put in more drains, built more aqueducts, and started treatment plants. Eventually, 2,100 km (1300  miles) of new pipes were installed and the Paris sewer system became the largest of its kind in the world.

But not necessarily the most reliable.

Many of the early tunnels were built tall and wide, but not designed for uniformity. The chutes weren’t long enough or sufficiently sloped enough to keep the flow moving. Victor Hugo in his 1862  novel Les Misérables called the Paris sewers a “colossal subterranean sponge.”  Even improved, the waste would still back up and somebody – or something – had to unclog it. Workers would do their best to dislodge the muck first by hand – usually with a rake. When it was too deep, or wouldn’t budge, dredging boats were used with some success. But when a boat didn’t work, by far the most effective method was using the wooden ball.

Yes, a wooden ball.

The ball was around 5-feet in diameter and resembled a wrecking ball in size, but not nearly as heavy. Constructed out of wood and hollow inside the outside was reinforced with metal for more solidity.

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Some mislabeled it an “iron ball,” assuming it was solid throughout, which if true would have been far too cumbersome to move. Several men with ropes could easily lift the wooden ball or pull it into position. With a push the ball was sent careening into a tunnel. (Think of a bowling ball rolling down an alley gutter – only on a much larger scale.)

A London society newsletter in 1887, praised its dependability: “As soon as it comes to a point where there is much solid matter in the sewer it is driven against the upper surface of the pipe and comes to a standstill. Meanwhile the current gathering strength behind it rushes with tremendous force below the ball carrying away all sediment or solid matter and leaving the course clear.” The ball worked well for a time, but eventually its effectiveness wasn’t enough. By the early 20th century, a more streamlined method was deployed that harnessed and released rain water. The increase in the current’s velocity would flush the obstruction away. “The rain which sullied the sewer before, now washes it,” Hugo declared.

The Paris tunnels are still in use today and tourists to the city can visit a museum dedicated to the centuries old system.  Guided tours lead patrons through narrow stairwells and dank rooms as the sound of waste water is heard rushing through the tunnels below. Even the wooden balls are on display.

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Paris Opera House

But the Paris tunnels have more history than just collecting and deporting sewerage

When the famous Paris Opera House was built in the 1870’s, architect Charles Garnier’s construction team ran into a problem.  While digging the foundation wall, they hit an arm of the Seine, likely an extension of the tunnel system that led to the river. They tried to pump the water out but it kept coming back. So Garnier designed a way to collect the water in cisterns thereby creating an artificial lake nearly five stories beneath the stage.

It is in this “hidden lagoon” that author Gaston Leroux had an idea for a book that he claims was based on real events. In the story titled Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, a troubled soul named “Erik,” who is grossly disfigured, escapes to the catacombs and the lake below the Opera House. By banishing himself from society, “Erik” became a “ghostlike” figure until a sweet soprano’s voice lures him back to the theater’s upper works.

In the popular musical version that came out many years later, the “Phantom of the Opera” takes his unsuspecting love interest Christine on a gondola ride through the underground lake.

A scenario that if true, would be far less romantic than portrayed in the famous theatrical production.

Whether or not the lake was connected to the tunnels or ran directly from the Seine River, didn’t matter. The result would still be the same. Instead of being mesmerized by the experience as if in a fantasy world, in reality, the lovely Christine would likely be holding her nose, gagging, or worse.

Cue the music.

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A Salute to the Long Play (LP) Microgroove Vinyl Record

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T1By Ken Zurski

In 1948, the LP (Long Play) microgroove vinyl record was introduced by Columbia Records for the sole purpose of playing more music on a phonograph or analog sound medium. Circular in shape like its predecessors, the LP was larger in diameter at 16-inches and turned at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute, much slower than previous versions.

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The LP itself was designed to replace the 12-inch records being manufactured for RCA Victor player’s in the 1930’s. The smaller plates had tighter grooves and less background noise, but unpredictable sound clarity overall.

The larger LP’s were slow to catch on at first, representing only a slight percentage of sales for consumers who were accustomed to the smaller size, faster speeds (78 rpm) and shorter play time. But as home stereo systems improved, LP’s were streamlined back to 12-inches and quickly became the preferred choice of buyers.

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In the 1960’s and continuing into the 70’s, music artists such as the Beatles and Pink Floyd found a niche by exploiting the availability of time per LP side. They began experimenting with varying layered pieces of music, thereby making, marketing and selling albums with longer songs and conceptual themes. In some instances, two LP’s were included.

Then in the 1980’s, thanks to MTV and the demand to buy popular music, chain record stores opened in malls across America and record sales – included the smaller 45 rpm singles – continued to rise.

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But it wouldn’t last.

Introduced in the mid 80’s, the new compact disc format (CD) was cheaper and less expensive to produce. The CD’s were about the same price as a vinyl album, but a CD  player was costly. Eventually demand drove down the price and by the 1990’s, the age of the LP mostly disappeared. Mainstream record stores transitioned to stocking and selling only CD’s on their shelves.

Recently however, with no physical attributes attached to digital music, there’s been a surge in demand for vinyl.  Newly pressed vinyl records of repackaged older and some newer music has become popular as turntables sales have increased as well. In fact according to the Recording Industry Association of America‘s midyear report for 2019, vinyl album sales may soon overtake sales of CD’s for the first time since 1986. This trend has prompted many new artists who have only produced music for the CD and digital markets to promote vinyl packaged versions of their albums as special editions.

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According to c/net: “Just because vinyl may soon outpace CDs doesn’t mean music lovers are trading in their iTunes accounts for turntables. Streaming remains the most popular way to consume music, accounting for 80% of industry revenues, and growing 26%, to $4.3 billion, for the first half of 2019.”

Bu the LP just wont die. Today, original LP’s from the early 40’s to the mid 80’s are considered nostalgic and collectible. Many privately owned record shops, or independents as they are called, continue to thrive by specializing in rare or out of print editions. And online markets, swap meets and thrift stores are filled with opportunities to sell or purchase used albums.

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‘Giant’ Tuba Players Were a Hallmark of Sousa’s Band

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John Philip Sousa

By Ken Zurski

John Philip Sousa, known affectionately as the “March King,” not only composed stirring music for marching bands, he helped define it as well. Disappointed by the sound of the standard B-flat bass tuba – the one with the circular bell opening in front – Sousa sought to make it better. “It was all right enough for street-parade work,” Sousa wrote about the front-facing tuba, “but its tone was apt to shoot ahead too prominently and explosively to suit me for concert performances.”

Sousa had an idea. Why not point the bell of the instrument up rather than forward and let the sound resonate over the top of the band instead. So in 1893, a tuba was modified and manufactured to Sousa’s specifications and the Sousaphone, as it was called, was born.

The original Sousaphone was a huge piece of brass. Weighing in at upwards of 30-plus pounds, it’s circular base wrapped around the player’s shoulder at the top and just below the waist at the bottom. The bell would reach skyward some two feet above the player’s head.

Sousa was pleased. He used the Sousaphone exclusively in concerts. At first, trying just one mixed in with the standard tubas, but eventually replaced them all with Sousaphones.

The new tuba was given an appropriate nickname: raincatcher.

Thanks to Sousa’s ingenious design, the new tuba’s stood out in sound and size. And as it turned out, the men who played the “raincatcher” did too.

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Herman Conrad and the first Sousaphone

Whether it was genius ploy by Sousa or just coincidence, at least one Sousaphone player in the band was tall.

In fact, for its time, they were considered very tall.

Herman Conrad was the first to play the Sousaphone. According to sources he stood a whopping “6-foot-6,” although it was more likely 6-foot-4. One ad proclaimed Conrad was a “six foot eight giant!”

When Conrad left the band, John W. Richardson took his place. He was perhaps more accurately listed at “6-foot-6.” Another tubist named William Bell was also reported to be “6-foot-6.”

No one could explain this phenomenon except that Sousa must have had a a little P.T. Barnum-like showmanship in him. Certainly not out of character for a man who loved to entertain the masses outside of music too, specifically baseball, something he enjoyed just as much as conducting.

While on the road and in-between concerts, Sousa would make his band members don uniforms and take the field so he could play exhibition games against local teams. The tall tuba players apparently weren’t so nimble on the ball diamond. During one game, Richardson reached down to grab a grounder and split the back of his trousers. Sousa, who was usually the pitcher on the team, let out a hearty laugh.

Even if it was all in good fun, the tuba player’s height, whether accurate or not, was good marketing for the band. Each had their likeness featured prominently in advertisements, usually standing or holding the Sousaphone. In one rather effective ad, Richardson is seen next to a woman listed as the harpist who is only five-feet tall.  Richardson is holding the Sousaphone upside down. The bell is directly over the woman’s head appearing as though it might swallow her whole. Richardson, by comparison, looks like a giant.

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Despite the fanciful publicity, Sousa’s patriotic marches were the biggest draw. “He is the master band leader of them all,” Richardson raved.

In 1911, the string of very tall tubists was broken when Arthur Griswold joined the group. By this time, the towering Sousaphones were a staple in Sousa concerts.

Griswold was listed at 6-foot-2.

Even though he was taller then most of the band members, he was still considered small in size compared to the tuba players who preceded him.

So, in jest, they called him “shorty.”

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(Sources: The Incredible Band of John Philip Sousa by Paul E. Bierley; various internet sites)

A Worthy Salute to an Obscure 19th Century Painting

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By Ken Zurski

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In 1833, an Irish-born English artist named William Collins exhibited an oil on wood painting he appropriately titled, Rustic Civility. In the colorful image, three children are seen near a wooden gate that blocks the path of a dirt road. Collins shows the gate has been opened, presumably by the children.  A boy is propped up against the open gate securing it’s place. Another smaller child cowers by the boy’s side. Yet another looks straight ahead from behind the gate.

But why and for whom did the children open the gate?

Well, that’s just a part of the painting’s mystique or as one art connoisseur wisely describes, “its puzzle.”

Upon closer inspection, however, the “puzzle” appears to be solved.

Most obvious is the shadow near the children’s feet. It is a partial outline of a horse and upon its back a rider in a brimmed hat.  The children have opened the gate to make it easier for the rider, probably a stranger to them, to pass.

“People are amused at having to find out what is coming through the gate, which few do, till the shadow on the ground is pointed out to them,” the sixth Duke of Devonshire noted after buying the curious painting for his collection.

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The work in some circles has been wrongly classified as a children’s picture. True, Collins would specialize in putting children in his paintings, but they were not specifically made for children. “Rustic” was part of his repertoire and a theme for several paintings including Rustic Hospitality, where friendly villagers welcome a wayward traveler who has stopped to rest near their cottage.

Today, most of Collins works are in London museums. His representations of English countryside charm in the early 19th century were very popular. Rustic Civility, however, seems to be remembered for a more significant and historical reasons. The young boy in the painting is holding his hand to his head in a gesture that closely resembles what we know today as a military salute.

A gesture not yet so easily defined at the time.

According to various sources, the origins of the hand salute goes back to medieval times when knights would salute one another by tipping their hats. Since their heads were covered with heavy and cumbersome armor, oftentimes they would just raise the visor in recognition.

In the Revolutionary War, British soldiers would remove or raise their hats in the presence of a ranking officer, an easy task since head gear at the time was used as decoration only and made of lighter material.

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In subsequent wars, when soldier’s helmets became more protective the act of actually removing the head gear was too risky. A simple hand raise to the brow would suffice.

By the 20th century and during the two World Wars, saluting became more streamlined and distinctive, with the hands either palm out (the European version) or palm flat and down, the American preference.

Regardless of its history, Collins  is credited at least with featuring a salute, albeit slyly, in his painting Rustic Civility. The boy appears to be “tugging his forelock,” an old-worldly expression of high regard and a gesture that suggests an early incarnation of the modern day hand to forehead signal.

This inclination of course is a matter of opinion. Perhaps, as others might suggest, the boy is just shading his eyes. After all, the location of the shadowed horse and rider puts the perspective of the sun’s light directly in the boy’s path.  However, in close up, it does appear as though the boy is grabbing a lock of hair.

This clearly supports the salute theory.

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Unfortunately, by the time any serious debate was raised, Collins, the artist, was dead.

So in historical context, let’s give the painter his due: To open a wooden gate while on horseback is a difficult thing to do. The children helped the man by opening the gate. The boy then saluted in deference – or civility as the title suggests. 

A sign of a respect for an elder in need, Collins likely implied.

And respect is what the “salute” stands for today.

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When The World Met Queen Marie of Romania

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By Ken Zurski

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Queen Marie of Romania

In the summer of 1919, King Ferdinand of Romania sent his British born wife Queen Marie to Paris to attend the Treaty of Versailles, a historic meeting of allied leaders designed to form a peace treaty and draw a new map of Europe at the end of the First World War.

“My God, I simply went wherever they called me,” the Queen said, stating the obvious.

The glamorous Marie did more than just attend. She hobnobbed with the press, flirted with world leaders, including the Big Four (Italy, England, France and the U.S.), and although she had an important job to do for her country, found time to go on lavish shopping sprees too.

By the time the historic Treaty was over, everyone knew a little bit more about the outlandish Queen Marie. And thanks in part to her unorthodox efforts, Romania, at least on paper, had doubled in size.

Born into royalty as Princess Marie of Edinburgh in 1875 in Kent, England, Marie was the eldest daughter of her mother also named Marie, the only surviving child of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, and Alexander, the second son of Queen Victoria and a naval officer who moved the family extensively throughout her childhood.  The Princess was a good catch, even as a youth, and gentleman came calling for her including a first cousin George (later George V of England) who professed his love for Marie, but was turned away.

In 1893, at the age of 18, Marie married Ferdinand, a third cousin, who by default, was the heir to the Romanian throne. King Carol I, Ferdinand’s uncle, and his wife had only one daughter so the succession fell to his brother Leopold, who renounced his rights in 1880. Leopold’s son did the same in 1886. So even before the turn of the 20th century, Ferdinand was the heir-presumptive.  In 1916, when Carol died, Ferdinand became the King and Marie the Queen of Romania.

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Marie was a different kind of Queen, less submissive and daringly independent. During the start of World War I, Marie spent time with the Red Cross in hospitals risking her own life in the disease filled tents. Although she was British born, she had great respect for the Romanian people and would venture into the countryside unaccompanied by guards. Many villagers crowded her in adulation; kissing her hands and falling down at her feet. “At first it was difficult unblushingly to accept such homage,” she wrote, “but little by little I got accustomed to these loyal manifestations; half humbled, half proud, I would advance amongst them, happy to be in their midst.”

In contrast to Marie’s adventurist spirit her husband, the King, was far less dynamic. Quiet and shy and as one writer described “stupid” too, Ferdinand’s most enduring feature was his ears which stuck out the sides of his head like a teddy bear. He said little and mattered even less.

Marie, however, was the complete opposite. Pretty and intelligent she spoke out when asked and seemed to have a good knowledge of foreign affairs. She also had little interest in being a committed wife. Blaming a loveless marriage, she was boldly unfaithful and found multiple lover’s in dashing figures like a Canadian millionaire miner from the Klondike.  (In her later years, rumors abounded that one of her longstanding paramours, the nephew of Romania’a Foreign Minister  Ion I. C. Brătianu, was the father of her children (six in all, three girls) except for the one that eventually became a bad King. That one was Ferdinand’s, went the biting accusation.)

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In November of 1918, when war activities ended, Marie was the outspoken one not her husband.  Sending her to the Treaty in Paris instead was an obvious choice for the King, if unprecedented.

So Marie went and brought her three daughters along with her. Together they shopped, dined and were generally the life of any party they attended. The Queen wore out those who tried to follow her. She charmed her way to negotiations and gained admirers along the way. “She really is an unusual woman and if she was not so simple you would think she was conceited,” chimed the British Ambassador to France. David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, was just as forthright: “{Marie] is a very naughty, but a very clever woman.” he professed.  Edward House, an American diplomat and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s chief adviser on European diplomacy and politics, was even more complimentary, calling her, “one of the most delightful personalities of all the royal women I have met in the West.”

Instead of being intimidated, which many had predicted, Marie intimidated others with her saucy manners and speech. In one instance, she invited herself to lunch with President Wilson, then showed up fashionably late with an entourage of ten in tow. “I could see from the cut of the President’s jaw,” one guest noted, “that a slice of Romania was being looped off.”

According to reports, Marie dominated the conversation.  “I have never heard a lady talk about such things.” remarked Wilson’s traveling doctor. ” I honestly do not know where to look I was so embarrassed.”

In the end, Romania grew in size and population. In fact, of all the contributors at the conference, Romania is widely considered to have picked up the greatest gains, including Transylvania which became – and still is – a part of “Greater Romania.” King Ferdinand could only wait for word back home. He sent letters of encouragement and advice to his wife, which she mostly ignored.

“I had given my country a living face,” she said about her visit.

Clearly an understatement.

(Sources: Paris 1919 by Margret MacMillian;  My Country by Queen Marie; various internet articles)

George Perec: The Author Who Left Out The Letter ‘E’

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By Ken Zurski

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George Perec

Beginning with the first line of the first chapter, “Incurably insomniac Anton Vowl turns on a light,” and in every sentence thereafter, nearly 300 pages in all, there are no words with the letter “e” in the French novel, A Void.

Not just words that start with the letter “e,” mind you, but any word with the letter “e” in it.

Therefore, while words with an “e” are consciously left out, in the context of the text, they don’t actually exist.

…A rumour, that’s my initial thought as I switch off my radio, a rumour or possibly a hoax.
Propaganda, I murmur anxiously—as though, just by saying so, I might allay my doubts—typical politicians’ propaganda. But public opinion gradually absorbs it as a fact.

A Void was the brainchild of author George Perec, who wrote La disparition (disappearance) in 1969, and was later translated to English in 1994.

Why a writer would take on such an unusual challenge defies explanation. A good author should add to his repertoire of tools, not subtract them, right? So leaving out a vowel, especially the most popular one, just doesn’t make any sense.

To clarify, according to the book “From Cryptographical Mathematics,” the letter “e” is the most commonly used letter in the English language and nearly 13-percent of all words contain it, at least once.

For example, the first sentence of this very article has nearly 40 words in it; sixteen words containing at least one “e,” for a total of 22. So excluding it, even in French, which uses the same English letters, seemed to be an insurmountable task. (The French or Latin alphabet is similar to English and vowels are the same, expect written with accents like ê. So the prose is somewhat disjointed, especially in translation.)

But this is exactly the kind of discourse Perec reveled in.

Perec was born to Polish Jew immigrants, both victims of the war– his father died a soldier and his mother likely perished at Auschwitz.  He started writing at the University of Paris and joined a fringe literary group named Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or “Oulipo,” for short.

The name means “literature potential,” but certainly not potential in the practical sense.  “[We] seek new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy,” the group described. To achieve this, constraints (in writing) were encouraged, which was far more challenging.  The group also included mathematicians since problem-solving was part of the writer’s methodology and often involved works that delved in complicated mathematical patterns.  Suddenly Perec had a mission, as did the group, to experiment and twist the conventional rules of fiction.

A Void, therefore, is a lipogram, meaning a single letter is left out.

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The protagonist of Perec’s story is a detective named Anton Vowl (Voyl in French) who must confront a missing void, possibly his own, in a world of impending doom. “I must admit right away that its origin was totally haphazard,” Perec writes in the book’s postscript, perhaps tongue in cheek. “I had no inkling at all, as an acorn contains an oak, that anything would come out of it.”

Some literary critics, however, have established a deeper implication. After all, Perec was a Holocaust orphan. Perhaps the loss of his mêre (mother), pêre (father) and familie, one modern day writer surmised, are words he cannot repeat. All have the letter “e” in them. The missing “e,” therefore, is his personal void.

“The absence of a sign is always the sign of an absence, and the absence of the E in A Void announces a broader, cannily coded discourse on loss, catastrophe, and mourning,” author Warren Motte speculates in an article about Perec written in 2104.

Perec’s later work would be equally complicated and puzzling. He even wrote a novel where ê was the only vowel used.

Many feel his greatest literary contribution is a 700-page book titled Life a User’s Manual, another exercise of intricacies. “The sequence of chapters in the novel is determined by a figure from chess known as the “Knight’s Tour,” in which a knight visits every square of the chessboard once and only once,” Motte writes.

And If that wasn’t interesting enough, there is the constraint: ‘Perec used an algorithm, “orthogonal Latin bi-square order 10,’ to elaborate pre-established lists of the 42 different elements (objects, characters, situations, literary allusions and quotations, and so forth), that would figure in each of the ninety-nine chapters of Life.”

In 1982, at the age of 45, Perec, a chain smoker, died of lung cancer.

Even sick, Perec continued to work at a feverish pace. “There was not a day gone by that he didn’t write,” a friend ascribed. Shortly before his death, Perec sent a letter to his publisher.  It was reported to be a list of works he wanted to complete.

Sadly, we will never know what else he had in mind.

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The Bee Man

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By Ken Zurski

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Amos Root

When Amos Root was a boy growing up on a farm in Medina, Ohio, instead of helping his father with the chores he stuck by his mother’s side and tended to the garden instead.

Root was small in size (only five-foot-three as an adult) and prone to sickness. The garden work suited him just fine. But in his teens, for money, Root took up jewelry as a trade and became quite good at it.

Then in 1865, at the age of 26, he found his calling – bees.

Root had offered a man a dollar if he could round up a swarm of bees outside the doors of his jewelry store. The man did and Root was hooked. But Root didn’t want to just harvest bees, he wanted to study them.

Eventually his work led to a national trade journal titled Gleaning’s in Bee Culture. Bees became his business and profitable too, but Root had other interests as well, specifically mechanical things, like the automobile, a blessing for someone who hated cleaning up after the horse. “I do not like the smell of the stables,” he once wrote.

But the automobile was different. “It never gets tired; it gets there quicker than any horse can possibly do.”

R4.jpgHe bought an Oldsmobile Runabout, “for less than a horse” he bragged, and happily drove it near his home. Then in September 1904, at the age of 69, Root took his longest trip yet, a nearly 400-mile journey to Dayton, Ohio. Root had heard a couple of “minister’s sons” were making great strides in aviation, so he wrote them and asked if he could take a look. His enthusiasm was evident.

The two brothers granted his wish, but only if he promised not to reveal any secrets. In August of 1904, Root set off for his first trip to Dayton and the next month did the same. The first visit he watched in awe, but revealed nothing. The second time he was given permission to write about what he had seen. It was the first time the Wright brothers and their flying machine appeared in print.

“My dear friends,” Root gleefully wrote in his bee publication, “I have a wonderful story to tell you. “

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