Sunday Oct. 5, 2014

Wild Turkeys

I watch them from my office window
pecking at pebbles on the blacktop,
pink heads, iridescent feathers,
stick legs moving with surprising grace.

Living in the woods behind the office
park, they tolerate our diurnal presence,
unmoved by creatures four times their size
invading in steel and glass.

Ben Franklin preferred them for our national
symbol, and they act as if they deserve no less.

How different would our nation be if we
had chosen these gentle grazers—who
nonetheless defend their nests—over
a bird who scours the earth for prey?

American though they are, these turkeys have
no allegiance. They only need a patch of earth
to scratch, a place to raise their pink young. And,
come to think of it, do any of us need more?

"Wild Turkeys" by Lawrence Kessenich from Before Whose Glory. © Future Cycle Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of American baseball writer and historian George William "Bill" James (books by this author), born in Holton, Kansas, in 1949. James pioneered the use of statistical data to determine why teams win and why they lose, a method he termed "Sabermetrics," and which became the subject of Michael Lewis's best-selling baseball book Moneyball. An obsessive baseball fan and aspiring writer, he began developing his ideas during his nighttime job stoking the furnace at a local pork and beans cannery. James began self-publishing his "Baseball Abstracts" in the mid-1970s through one-inch advertisements in The Sporting News; Norman Mailer was an early supporter. His witty, often lyrical prose appealed to the masses; he has more than two dozen books in print and once said: "My goal when I started writing wasn't to create a lot of statistics. My goal was to create a field of knowledge." In 2003, the Boston Red Sox hired him as an advisor, causing The New Yorker to quip, "The Red Sox have not merely sided with the brainiacs, they've enlisted the help of the founding nerd." The founding nerd now has three World Championship rings.

It's the birthday of rocket scientist Robert Goddard, born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1882). Goddard had been interested in outer space since he read H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds when he was 16. He started thinking seriously about rockets the following year, in 1899. As he recounted in his autobiography, he was up in a cherry tree, preparing to prune its dead branches, when he began to daydream: "It was one of the quiet, colorful afternoons of sheer beauty which we have in October in New England, and as I looked toward the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet."

He received a patent for his design for a liquid-fueled rocket in 1914, and another for one that ran on solid fuel. At this point, the government wasn't really interested in the idea of space travel, so he had a hard time getting grants for his research, and he usually ended up paying out of his own pocket. Finally, a grant from the Smithsonian Institution enabled him to do research and publish a paper on "A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes" in 1920. In the paper, he speculated that rockets could be used to reach the moon.

The New York Times heard about his paper, and published an editorial ridiculing him. He went from "nobody" to "national laughingstock" literally overnight, but he said, "Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it; once realized, it becomes commonplace." He didn't give up, and on this date in 1926, he completed the first successful launch of his liquid-fueled rocket in Auburn, Massachusetts. The rocket reached a height of 41 feet and an average speed of 60 miles per hour.

Unfortunately, Goddard didn't live to see space flight become a reality; he died of cancer in 1945. In July 1969, the day after Apollo 11 departed for the Moon, The New York Times printed a correction to its scathing editorial of nearly 50 years before. The paper wrote: "It is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error."

Alonzo T. Cross patented his stylographic pen on this day in 1880.

The Cross family had a long history as jewelers in Providence, and when they first got into the writing implement business in 1846, it was to manufacture elegant silver and gold casings for wooden pencils. From there, Richard Cross and his son Alonzo branched out into product development: they pioneered an early version of the mechanical pencil and eventually would successfully file 21 pen- and pencil-related patents.

Unlike the quill or other form of pen that must be dipped into an inkpot, the stylographic pen is a version of a reservoir pen, which contains its own store of ink inside the barrel. Reservoir pens date back to about 973, when a Middle Eastern caliph demanded a writing instrument that would not leak or stain his hands or clothes. His demand was satisfied, but no record remains of the pen's design, so it was back to the drawing board, so to speak, in the 17th century. There are records of pens that consist of a quill inside a quill, sealed with a cork that had a tiny hole in it to allow the ink to reach the nib. By Samuel Pepys's time, ink-bearing metal pens began making the rounds, and it was about this time that they were first referred to as "fountain pens." It wasn't until 1828 that a method of manufacturing cheap, durable, and easily replaceable nibs was developed in Birmingham, England. Pens became more affordable for people of modest means as a result. But they were still leaky, and had to be filled with an eyedropper.

A Canadian inventor called Duncan MacKinnon developed what he called an "ink pencil." It didn't have a nib like a regular fountain pen. Instead, it had a thin wire that protruded from the body of the pen, and the ink traveled down the wire and onto the paper. MacKinnon patented his ink pencil, but made the mistake of showing his invention to Alonzo Cross — even leaving a sample with him — in the late 1870s. Cross examined the ink pencil, and soon came up with an innovation: he added a spring to the inside of the pen that would prevent the ink from flowing unless the tip was pressed onto a writing surface. Cross and MacKinnon played a game of dueling inventors over the next few years, each man coming up with minor improvements and dashing off to the patent office. Cross was awarded the last of the stylographic pen patents in 1880, and MacKinnon died two years later.

Stylographic pens only enjoyed about 10 years in the limelight, however, before Lewis Edson Waterman had improved the reliability of the nib pen so significantly that nibs surged past stylos in popularity. And a nib was sturdier than the stylo's thin wire, which was easily broken or bent. Waterman was a former insurance salesman who had once lost a sale because his pen leaked onto the paper. He made it his mission to improve the design of the fountain pen to prevent leaks and provide a more reliable performance, and then he figured out a way to mass-produce his pens. Waterman led the pen market until the 1920s.

Stylographic pens are still around today, although they're mostly used for ink-line drafting and technical illustrations because the width of their line never varies.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®