It starts with the climbing in,
for that defiance
of gravity, the slow-grind
rackety-clack one-inch cog
at a time—the mystery of machinery,
the sane and safe weightedness
of stiff-starched values,
wondering if there were
sins we’d committed
since our last confession, then
at the top, out on the edge,
beyond the solid-ground world
parents live in, test life,
theirs and our own, up where
we are a hole in the sky,
wholly abandoned in the eyes-
shut, heart-stopped drop,
like lawlessness on falling’s
crisp speed, the first curve, a blur,
the world’s suddenness,
metal, air and a prayer
flung into another plunge,
a curve swerving,
a tiny boat in a tempest—
and isn’t this how we want
to live, live higher up,
hungry to leave the ground,
flinging sparks, the lights brighter,
the dark darker, bodies at war
with mere air, but still obedient
to the tracks laid down
to keep us on track.
“Roller Coaster” by Ginger Murchison from A Scrap of Linen, A Bone. © Press 53, 2016. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It was on this day in 1828 that Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language was published (books by this author). Webster put together the dictionary because he wanted Americans to have a national identity that wasn't based on the language and ideas of England. And the problem wasn't just that Americans were looking to England for their language; it was that they could barely communicate with each other because regional dialects differed so drastically.
Noah Webster was schoolteacher in Connecticut. He was dismayed at the state of education in the years just after the Revolution. There wasn't much money for supplies, and students were crowded into small one-room schoolhouses using textbooks from England that talked about the great King George. His students' spelling was atrocious, as was that of the general public; it was assumed that there were several spellings for any word.
So in 1783, he published the first part of his three-part A Grammatical Institute, of the English Language; the first section was eventually retitled The American Spelling Book, but usually called by the nickname "Blue-Backed Speller." The Blue-Backed Speller taught American children the rules of spelling, and it simplified words — it was Webster who took the letter "u" out of English words like colour and honour; he took a "g" out of waggon, a "k" off the end of musick, and switched the order of the "r" and "e" in theatre and centre.
In 1801, he started compiling his dictionary. Part of what he accomplished, much like his textbook, was standardizing spelling. He introduced American words, some of them derived from Native American languages: skunk, squash, wigwam, hickory, opossum, lengthy, and presidential, Congress, and caucus, which were not relevant in England's monarchy.
Webster spent almost 30 years on his project, and finally, on this day in 1828, it was published. But unfortunately, it cost 15 or 20 dollars, which was a huge amount in 1828, and Webster died in 1843 without having sold many copies. The book did help launch Webster as a writer and a proponent of an American national identity. Webster had a canny knack for marketing, traveling around to meet with new publishers and booksellers, publishing ads in the local newspapers for his book wherever he went. He also lobbied for copyright law and served for a time as an adviser to George Washington, and wrote his own edition of the Bible. And his tallies of houses in all major cities led to the first American census.
In his book The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture (2011) Joshua Kendall argued that Noah Webster would today be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.
It was on this day in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln (books by this author) was shot by John Wilkes Booth in Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., just five days after the surrender of the Civil War's Confederate leader, General Lee. Lincoln died the following morning.
It's the legal birthday of the modern printing press, which William Bullock patented on this day in 1863 in Baltimore. His invention was the first rotary printing press to self-feed the paper, print on both sides, and count its own progress — meaning that newspapers, which had until then relied on an operator manually feeding individual sheets of paper into a press, could suddenly increase their publication exponentially.
The Cincinnati Times was likely the very first to use a Bullock press, with the New York Sun installing one soon after. Bullock was installing a press for The Philadelphia Press when he kicked at a mechanism; his foot got caught, his leg was crushed, and he died a few days later during surgery to amputate. His press went on to revolutionize the newspaper business.