Wednesday Aug. 12, 2015

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Cherry Tomatoes

Suddenly it is August again, so hot,
breathless heat.
I sit on the ground
in the garden of Carmel,
picking ripe cherry tomatoes
and eating them.
They are so ripe that the skin is split,
so warm and sweet
from the attentions of the sun,
the juice bursts in my mouth,
an ecstatic taste,
and I feel that I am in the mouth of summer,
sloshing in the saliva of August.
Hummingbirds halo me there,
in the great green silence,
and my own bursting heart
splits me with life.

"Cherry Tomatoes” by Anne Higgins from At the Year’s Elbow. © Mellen Poetry Press, 2000. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Echo 1, NASA’s first communications satellite, was launched on this date in 1960. Echo was inflatable: a giant Mylar balloon with a reflective aluminum coating. It was 10 stories tall and weighed only 132 pounds. It was visible to the naked eye, and brighter than most stars. It worked like a mirror, catching signals and reflecting them back down to Earth. Echo was designed by NASA’s Space Vehicle Group, and built by General Mills of Minneapolis.

It wasn’t the first satellite to broadcast a message — that happened in 1958, when a recorded Christmas message by President Eisenhower was sent out via a test satellite — but it was the first one with two-way communications capability. That meant that Echo could receive a live transmission from Earth and beam it out to other points around the globe. The first live transmission was an address by President Eisenhower; he said: “This is one more significant step in the United States’ program of space research and exploration being carried forward for peaceful purposes. The satellite balloon, which has reflected these words, may be used freely by any nation for similar experiments in its own interest.” Echo 1 also transmitted the first satellite phone call, and the first visual image to be broadcast via satellite: a portrait of President Eisenhower.

The Echo project inadvertently gave scientists dramatic new information about the universe. While radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were calibrating the 50-foot antenna that was used to communicate with Echo 1, they detected some cosmic microwave background radiation. It was the first solid evidence of the Big Bang, and Penzias and Wilson would go on to win the Nobel Prize for their work.

It’s the birthday of classics scholar Edith Hamilton (books by this author), born in Dresden, Germany (1867). She worked as the headmistress of a prep school, and in her spare time, she read Greek philosophy and literature. It wasn’t until after her retirement that she began to publish books about Greek civilization, like The Greek Way (1930). Academics hated the fact that she didn’t use footnotes, but her books were incredibly popular. For many years, most American children first learned about Hercules and Medusa and Odysseus from her book Mythology (1942), which was an illustrated retelling of all the important Greek myths. In 1957, she was made an honorary citizen of Athens, and she visited Greece for the first time in her life, at the age of 90.

Isaac Merritt Singer patented his first commercial sewing machine on this date in 1851. Singer didn’t invent the sewing machine — many people had already come up with the idea, and some of them had even produced working prototypes. Elias Howe had gotten the first American patent for his machine in 1846. Singer had improved on the design and made it much more practical and efficient. His was the first to use an up-and-down needle movement that was powered by a foot treadle, but his machine used a lockstitch pattern that Howe had patented, and Howe sued him for infringement. Singer lost, and had to pay royalties to Howe. Because Singer had figured out how to mass-produce the sewing machine, he made Howe a rich man off of the royalty payments alone. A few years later, Singer began marketing a machine for home use. Realizing that it would probably be too costly for the average housewife, he also pioneered something that would dramatically change American consumer practices: buying on credit and making installment payments.

It’s the 70th birthday of poet J.D. McClatchy (books by this author), born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania (1945). He said: “I prefer formal techniques, and use sonnets and rhyme, any manner of scheme to give a shape and order — of feeling as well as argument — to a poem. But all my life, I’ve also been a person who’s made his bed in the morning and picks up the bath mat. That’s what I mean by temperament. Whether genetic or acquired, I have a disposition to arrangements. One is born with this, as if with blue eyes or a weak heart. Do you think Allen Ginsberg ever put the cap back on his toothpaste?”

His books include Scenes from Another Life (1981), Hazmat (2003), and Mercury Dressing (2009).

It’s the birthday of mystery novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart (books by this author), born in Pittsburgh (1876). Shortly after she and her husband married, the stock market crashed in 1903, and they lost a lot of their assets. She began to write to bring in extra money. The first book she published, The Circular Staircase (1907), was a mystery novel, and it became a big hit, eventually selling more than a million copies.

From this book comes the start of her role as the “mother” of the “Had-I-But-Known” school of mystery writing — in which the protagonist is largely clueless about something that most people would have picked up on, usually related to criminal activity. And this cluelessness allows the story to proceed at length. From her writing, also we get the cliché “the butler did it.”

And it’s the birthday of Zerna Sharp (books by this author), born in Hillsburg, Indiana (1889). She was a writer and elementary school teacher who created the “Dick and Jane” series of books for beginning readers. She was concerned about the low literacy rates she encountered as she traveled, and felt that children would be more receptive to reading if the stories featured kids they could relate to, and had colorful illustrations. In 1927, Sharp approached reading expert William Gray, and he agreed it would be a good way to get his reading method into the classroom. So she came up with a young brother and sister named Dick and Jane, and gradually added in more family members: Mother, Father, little sister Sally, Spot the dog, Puff the cat, and even Tim the teddy bear. She kept the storylines simple, and the sentences short and repetitive: “Run, Spot, run. Oh, oh, oh. Funny, funny Spot.” The Dick and Jane books first entered classrooms in 1930 and were routinely used until the late 1960s, when educators began calling for materials to reflect the diversity in their classrooms. They went out of print during the 1970s, but were reissued in 2003, much to the delight of nostalgic baby boomers, who bought 2.5 million books in the first year and a half.

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