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
Mathematician Charles Howard Hinton was both equally fascinated and frustrated by the concept of the fourth dimension, also known as the “other dimension,” or the one dimension of time and space that no one had been able to verify or explain. Albert Einstein tried. He deduced in his Theory of Special Relativity that the fourth dimension is “time” and that “time is inseparable from space.” Since then science fiction writers have used the space-time continuum to great dramatic effect in their stories.
But in 1884, while Einstein was still a toddler, it was Hinton who wrote the definitive article on the subject. In “What is the Fourth Dimension?” Hinton explained that the theory behind a fourth dimension was firmly established, but there was no physical evidence to support it. That was the dilemma, he inferred: “If we think of a man as existing in four dimensions, it is hard to prevent ourselves from conceiving him prolonged in an already known dimension.” Hinton used a four-cornered room, or cube, for example, to explain how one can only reach three dimensions. “Space as we know it, is subject to limitation,” he conceded.
However, to teach his children math skills, Hinton built a three-dimensional bamboo dome with evenly spaced geometric shapes. His son, Sebastian, remembers climbing and hanging from the dome while his father called out intersections for the children to identify.
“X2, Y4, Z3, Go!” Hinton would command.
Hinton died unexpectedly in 1907 from a cerebral hemorrhage and while he is mostly remembered for his work on the fourth dimension, in stark contrast, he is also credited with introducing the first pitching machine – more like a gun – called the “mechanical pitcher,” and designed for the Princeton University baseball team. The machine used gunpowder to fire the ball.
But the geometric dome he created for his children also had a lasting effect. Especially on his youngest son Sebastian.
Sebastian ended up marrying a teacher, Carmelita Chase, who grew up in Omaha, Nebraska and moved to Chicago in 1912 to become Jane Adams’ secretary at Hull House. That’s when she met Sebastian, a patent lawyer in town.
Carmelita was pretty, smart, and multi-talented. In college, she excelled in tennis (among other sports), acted in plays and sang in the choir. “She has distinguished herself in athletics as well her studies,” the Chicago Daily Tribune described in announcing the couple’s engagement in 1916. She and Sebastian would eventually have three children.
Shortly after getting married, however, Carmelita put most of her time and efforts into her work. She opened a kindergarten and nursery school at her Chicago apartment which was directly across from a park.
“Frustrated by her own ‘dreary’ school experience, she was determined to create learning environments for her school children and others that would be joyfully experimental,” author Susan Ware wrote about Carmelita in Notable American Women.
The type of teaching she endorsed already had a name: progressive education. For Carmelita, this included incorporating more outdoor activities like hiking, camping, farming and the care of animals to daily activities. “She would come into a room and it would be an explosion,” a former student recalled in the book Founding Mothers and Others, “But it was a happy occasion. She could sweep people up and carry them to Mars.”
In 1920, while watching his wife’s school children playing outside their Winnetka, Illinois home, Sebastian had a revelation. Why not build something they could climb on?
He envisioned a three-dimensional structure similar to his father’s geometric dome, but for play rather than instruction. He reportedly jotted down the idea on a napkin and perfected the plan for a patent submission. Then he built it.
Hinton called it a Jungle Gym.
At the time of its conception, however, the Jungle Gym was never heralded as the important contribution to the children’s playground as it is today. In fact, Hinton’s only recorded words about his invention are attributed to his detailed patent filings: “Children seem to like to climb through the structure and swing their head downward by the knees, calling back and forth to each other. A trick which can only be explained of course by a monkey’s instinct.” While the name Jungle Gym never officially changed, many people began seeing the correlation with the primate’s distinctive behavior and started calling it “monkey bars” instead. The moniker stuck.
Unfortunately, Sebastian Hinton is a figure lost to time. Although he married a socialite in Carmelita, Hinton preferred to stay out of the spotlight. Tragically, just a few years after creating the Jungle Gym, he committed suicide in a clinic after reportedly being treated for depression.
Caremilta chose not to publicly disclose her husband’s illness and cause of death (he hung himself). She packed up the family and moved east. Today, she is best remembered for founding Putney School, an independent progress education institution in Vermont that is still in existence today.
Hinton’s original Jungle Gym is permanently on display in the backyard of the Winnetka Historical Society Museum.
By Ken Zurski
In May of 1915, New York wine importer George A. Kessler was on the deck of the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania watching the crew go through its daily lifeboat drills when he had an idea.
Known as “The Champagne King,” Kessler was sailing to the United Kingdom from New York on business and despite the threat of a German submarine attack in open waters, had no reservations about traveling.
After witnessing the crew drills, however, Kessler went to the captain and asked if there should be drills for the passengers as well. Perhaps, Kessler suggested, each person be assigned a lifeboat, just in case.
The captain graciously said he was not authorized to do such a thing.
Later, hosting a party in his stateroom, Kessler’s concerns were met with indifference. “That is the captain’s decision,” others told him.
Two days later, on May 7, the Lusitania was at the bottom of the sea, befallen by a German torpedo. More than thousand people perished.
Kessler was not one. He survived by reaching a lifeboat first then rescued in the water. “We tried bailing and balancing, “Kessler recalled, “but the boat would tilt and turn and finally capsized again.”
Kessler made a promise to himself, vowing that if he lived through the ordeal he would help others injured in war.
Later in the hospital, Kessler met a disabled British newspaperman who opened a center for soldiers with eye injuries. Inspired, Kessler sought out a person he knew could help.
Her name was Helen Keller.
Together they founded the Permanent Blind Relief War Fund, an organization which still exists today.
(Sources: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larsen; Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy by Diana Preston; various internet sites)
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
In the months leading up to the 1944 presidential election, the American people heard rumors and speculation about the health of the incumbent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was vying for an unprecedented fourth term in office.
Roosevelt suffered from polio which limited his mobility, but in 1944 his appearance seemed to worsen. He looked feeble and weak; his eyes were often red and swollen; and his movements were slow and calculated.
In March 1944, the White House announced a report by Roosevelt’s personal physician at the time, the surgeon general of the U.S. Navy, Dr. Ross McIntire, that claimed the 62-year-old Roosevelt was looking “tired and haggard” due to the stress and strain of the war years and nothing more.
“In my opinion,” McIntire added, “Roosevelt is in excellent condition for a man of his age.”
He was either astonishingly wrong or lying.
Behind the scenes, there were concerns. Dr. Frank Howard Lahey, a respected surgeon known for opening a multi-specialty group practice in Boston, was brought in for a consultation. Lahey’s connection with the Navy’s consulting board led him to the White House request.
After a careful examination, Lahey informed Roosevelt that he was in advanced stages of cardiac failure and should not seek a fourth term. Even went so far as to warn Roosevelt that if he did win reelection, he would likely die in office. Roosevelt listened but did not follow Lahey’s advice. He felt it was his duty to continue.
Although a handful of past presidents had tried, none had served more than two terms, a limitation the nation’s first president George Washington had advised others to follow. But at the time, there were no restrictions. FDR broke new ground when he won a third term. A fourth term he felt during a time of war was just as important.
The voting public agreed. Roosevelt, a Democrat, beat Republican challenger Thomas Dewey in what can be considered even by today’s standard as an overwhelming victory.
The voters, however, had no idea – at least not officially – that they had elected back into office a man who was living on borrowed time.
In April of 1945, less than three months after being sworn in for the fourth time, Roosevelt died.
The president’s death took most Americans by surprise. That’s because shortly after being reelected, McIntire went public again and helped quell fears by proclaiming FDR was fine.
“Roosevelt Dies. Death Unexpected,” headlines blared echoing McIntire’s comments.
As soon as Vice President Harry Truman was sworn in, questions were asked: Why didn’t the voting public know the truth about Roosevelt’s health?
In hindsight, Lahey’s report seemed to be the most truthful and forewarning. But information between a doctor and client is private. The White House only asked Lehay to consult the president. Whether the details were released was up to Roosevelt and his staff. Lehay himself could have spoke up, but chose to remain silent and honor the patient-doctor confidentiality agreement.
The report was concealed and only came to light six decades later.
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
In 1933, at the Chicago’s World’s Fair, among the many distinctive features that lined the city’s lakefront property was a uniquely shaped building, circular in design, with a top that resembled ”a granulated cluster of internally meshed gears.”
The Ford Rotunda, as it was called, was the brainchild of company founder Henry Ford and architect Albert Kahn, who designed the building specifically for the Ford Motor Co.’s contribution to the Fair.
The Fair’s theme was technology, which inspired the tagline: “A Century of Progress,” and since planes, trains and automobiles were a large part of the Fair’s showcase exhibits, Ford fit right in.
The 12-story Ford Rotunda had a long wing extending off the base, thousands of multi-colored exterior lights, and in the open-aired middle, a spotlight that shot skyward and could be seen for miles. Inside was the large rotunda, with moving parts and displays, including a photographic mural of a Ford plant and a 20-foot high globe.
In 1934, when the Fair closed, Ford had the building dismantled and moved to Dearborn, Michigan near the site of the Rogue plant company headquarters.
“The reconstructed rotunda is expected to relive the congestion,” the papers noted, referencing the attendance numbers at the Fair.
On May 4, 1936, the Rotunda opened its doors again. To celebrate Ford’s 50th anniversary, in 1953, the Rotunda went through another transformation. A geodesic roof was constructed over the open center. This allowed for more varied and seasonal exhibits, including the Christmas Fantasy, which combined Ford cars with holiday-themed displays. The Christmas tree and doll displays were especially popular.
The Christmas Fantasy drew so many people that the Ford Rotunda became one of the most famous and frequented buildings in the nation. It quickly surpassed more established tourist attractions like the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument in the number of visitors attending each year.
That is until November 9, 1962.
On that day a kettle of hot tar used for winter sealing was left unattended and the Rotunda’s roof caught fire. Thankfully, everyone got out safely and only one worker was slightly injured. But the building didn’t stand a chance.
It was gone in less than two hours.
Ford decided not to rebuild.