Wednesday Aug. 19, 2015

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In the lake, the cottonmouth. In the sea, the shark.
In the soil, the growing seed. In the tree, the lark.

In the dark, the insects’ call. In the light, the trust.
In the child, the weight of years. In the steel, the rust.

In the dust, the memory. In the air, your soul.
In my head, the unsaid words. In the diamond, coal.

In the hole, your polished box. In the earth, the quake.
In my blood, your vessel ran. In these lines, its wake.

"Inside” by Dan Albergotti from Millennial Teeth. © Southern Illinois University Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this date in 1829, French painter and physicist Louis Daguerre presented his photographic process to the French Academy of Sciences. The first actual photograph had been made a couple of years earlier by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, but the quality wasn't very good and the plate had to be exposed for eight hours to capture the image. Daguerre worked with Niépce to develop a more practical method. He found that if he coated a copper plate with silver iodide, exposed it to light in the camera for 20 to 30 minutes, fumed it with mercury vapor, and then fixed it with a salt solution, he was able to capture a permanent image. He called the finished product a "daguerreotype." Many early photographers became ill, or even died, from mercury poisoning using this method. The daguerreotype was best suited for still objects, but people nonetheless lined up to have their portraits taken. This was not for the faint of heart: subjects had to sit in blazing sunlight for up to half an hour, trying not to blink, with their heads clamped in place to keep them still. It's not surprising that most of the early daguerreotype portraits feature grim, slightly desperate faces.

An early professional daguerreotype photographer remarked on people's reaction to their portraits: "People were afraid at first to look for any length of time at the pictures he produced. They were embarrassed by the clarity of these figures and believed that the little, tiny faces of the people in the pictures could see out at them, so amazing did the unaccustomed detail and the unaccustomed truth to nature of the first daguerreotypes appear to everyone."

Today is the birthday of Gene Roddenberry, born in El Paso, Texas (1921). He was working as a TV writer and producer at NBC when, in 1964, he got the idea for a new series about space exploration — "a Wagon Train to the stars," as he described it — and shopped it around to several studios, most of which were uninterested. Desilu Productions finally expressed an interest, and NBC agreed to air it. The pilot of his new show, Star Trek, about the voyages of the Starship Enterprise and its crew, aired on September 8, 1966. Roddenberry's wife, Majel Barrett, provided the voice for the Enterprise's computer. Ratings were never great, and it only aired for three seasons, but it was a huge success in syndication and kicked off a major science fiction franchise.

Star Trek was the first sci-fi series to depict a generally peaceful future, and that came from Roddenberry's fundamental optimism about the human race. "It speaks to some basic human needs," he said in 1991, "that there is a tomorrow — it's not all going to be over in a big flash and a bomb, that the human race is improving, that we have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts did not build the pyramids — human beings built them because they're clever and they work hard. And Star Trek is about those things."

Roddenberry died in 1991 and, with his widow's permission, his ashes were carried on a 1992 mission of the space shuttle Columbia. Roddenberry's son, Rod, recently produced a documentary about his father's life; it's called Trek Nation.

Today is the birthday of memoirist Frank McCourt (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1930). He was the oldest of seven children born to an Irish immigrant couple, and they moved back to Limerick when McCourt was four years old, after the death of his baby sister. His childhood was marked by poverty, the deaths of half of his siblings, and his father's alcoholism.

He went back to America when he was 19, and eventually served in the Korean War. After the war, he went to college at New York University on the GI Bill, even though he never graduated from high school, and he became a high school English teacher in New York City. He wanted to write a memoir for years, but he was too angry and bitter. Finally, while listening to his young granddaughter playing, he realized he had to write it from the viewpoint of his child self. And that became his best-selling book, Angela's Ashes (1996).

Today is the birthday of aircraft pioneer Orville Wright, born in Dayton, Ohio (1871). Of the two Wright brothers, Orville was younger, and he was the mischievous one, the adventurous one, while Wilbur was a meticulous researcher and introvert. And though Orville wasn't that interested in school — and was expelled from elementary school on one occasion — none of the Wright children lacked encouragement or opportunity for study at home. Orville Wright once said, of their childhood, "We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity."

Orville succeeded his brother as head of the Wright Company upon Wilbur's death from typhoid fever in 1912, but he didn't enjoy the business world, and sold the company a few years later. He retired from business and served on the advisory panels of several boards and agencies, including the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor of NASA.

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