Posts filed under “History”


Thomas Jefferson by Tadeusz Kościuszko

On this day in 1786, the General Assembly in Virginia passed a Statute for Religious Freedom that had originally been written by Thomas Jefferson in 1777 but lost between the couch cushions.

Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of Legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.

This quaintly worded act was in force for about five days before Virginians found a way to wiggle out from under it, but religious freedom was fun while it lasted.


…that the shortest distance between two points in South Carolina always leads past a Waffle House?

…that a marsupial’s “pouch” is, anatomically speaking, a small carpetbag?

…that Beethoven tore up the first draft of his Fifth Symphony after he was unable to find a single competent kazoo player in all of Vienna?

…that the last individual to be prosecuted for blasphemy in Massa­chusetts was a parrot formerly belonging to the socialist politician Eugene Debs?

…that Einstein’s theory of relativity was heavily censored by the Lord Chamberlain when it was first published in the United Kingdom?


On this day in 1953, Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot premiered in Paris. In honor of the anniversary, the title character is expected to make a special appearance at tonight’s performance.



On this day in 1843, John Graves wrote a letter to his friend William Hamilton announcing the discovery of octonions, marking an epoch in the study of hypercomplex alliums.


Scrooge’s Third Visitor

The Ghost of Christmas Past reminds you of what Christmas once meant to you and of how much you have lost by becoming a cynical miser.

The Ghost of Christmas Present takes you to see the Christmas celebrations of people whose decorations are much more tasteful than yours.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows you how much merrier Christmas will be without you.

The Ghost of Alternate-Universe Christmas shows you Christmas celebrations in a strangely different world in which chaser lights and giant inflatables were never invented.

The Ghost of Christmas in Czechoslovakia has been unemployed for about thirty-one years now.

The Ghost of Christmas Dinner Past usually surfaces about three hours after Christmas dinner to remind you that you shouldn’t have had so much pie.

The Ghost of Christmas Dinner Yet to Come builds culinary anticipations that can never be matched by the disappointing reality.

The Ghost of Christmas Gifts Past works the returns counter at Walmart.

The Ghost of Charles Dickens tries to collect royalties for parodies of his most famous work, but always fails.


Our friend Father Pitt keeps a spreadsheet of buildings and their architects in Pittsburgh and the surrounding suburbs. He sent a copy with instructions to open it in LibreOffice and right-click on the wavy red lines. “You will be amused,” he said cryptically.

At first we were not sure what he was talking about. There were many place names that the spelling-checker did not recognize, but that was hardly surprising. How many people in the world ever have to spell “Zelienople”? Roughly none outside of southwestern Pennsylvania.

But then we noticed the amusing thing.

LibreOffice has deployed some algorithm to identify words in foreign languages and offer the opportunity to mark them as being in the identified language. For example, if you use the word “ombres,” then in the context menu LibreOffice will offer the options “Word is French” and “Paragraph is French.” At least it did the first time we tried; the second time we tried the word in a French phrase, LibreOffice suggested Catalan instead of French.

At any rate, we can use this clever algorithm to probe the wonderful ethnic diversity of the founders of Pittsburgh neighborhoods and the surrounding boroughs. According to LibreOffice, here is a list of the original languages from which certain local place names are derived:

Beltzhoover—German (Germany)
Blairsville—French (France)
Brookline—German (Germany)
Carrick—Manx (United Kingdom)
Charleroi—Manx (United Kingdom)
Dormont—French (France)
Dutchtown—Low German
Edgewood—Afrikaans (South Africa)
Edgeworth—Mapuche (Chile)
Ellwood City—Welsh
Emsworth—Upper Sorbian
Homewood—Afrikaans (South Africa)
Lawrenceville—French (France)
Lyndora—Spanish (Spain)
Schenley—Manx (United Kingdom)
Sewickley—Mapuche (Chile)
Sheraden—Swedish (Sweden)
Vandergrift—German (Germany)
Wilkinsburg—Uzbek Latin
Zelienople—English (USA)


On this day in 1972, the last human beings to visit the moon returned to earth. Thus the Space Age ended, history began its long slide downhill from its peak, and the answer to all statements beginning “We can put a man on the moon, but…” became, “Well, actually, we can’t.”


A friend pointed out an article about a young man who has founded a company to sell heirloom computers: that is, computers made so well that they will be permanent possessions, things one can pass on to one’s grandchildren. He calls it the Mythic Computer Company, and if you visit his site, you can fill in a contact form so he can judge whether you are worthy of one of his computers. If you are, he will make one to your specifications.

Are heirloom computers possible? Within certain assumptions, they probably are. The case of the prototype is a gorgeous piece of woodworking, and all the components are chosen for long service and the ability to be repaired or replaced when they fail.

Keegan McNamara, the creator of Mythic Computer—which is to say the conceiver of the idea, the carver of the wood, the solderer of the components—is 25 years old, and his eclectic education is probably similar to what most very clever 25-year-olds get these days. His company site has a motto from Virgil at the bottom, probably sourced from the Internet somewhere—we would guess that he does not read Latin himself. He talks easily about Shinto spirits. He took a course in guitar-making in college, which may have taught him some of his woodworking skills. He looks up etymologies of English words and is very impressed by their Proto-Indo-European roots. His education, in other words, is a bit of this and a bit of that, but not really moored in a tradition.

The people who write about him are much more unmoored. And it is fascinating to see what this lack of mooring does to them. It places everything outside their own experience in the age of myth. Norse gods, rotary-dial telephones, Shinto spirits, steam locomotives, handcrafted tools—they are all in the same category of things before my time. Thus the name Mythic Computer: it is a return to the mythical age when Vulcan forged rotary-dial telephones to last forever.

Sometimes this lack of mooring in any one tradition causes strange categorical overlaps. The subhead of one of the articles on the Mythic Computer tells us this:

Computers used to be made out of wood, endlessly customizable, and totally personal. Now they’re all metal rectangles. Can one guy in his LA house help bring the old way back?

Now, if you are older than 25, you may be asking yourself: When were computers made out of wood? The first Macintosh was not made out of wood. The IBM PC was not made out of wood. Dr. Boli’s own first computer, an Atari 800, was not made out of wood. The Altair was not made out of wood. The Whirlwind was not made out of wood. Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine was not made out of wood. In fact, the Difference Engine, as Mr. Babbage intended it to be built, was a metal rectangle.

But we can see what has happened here. The IBM PC and a cabinet by Thomas Chippendale are both from the Age of Myth—the time, that is, before the writer was even born. They are in the same category, and they must be fundamentally similar.

We have the impression that Mr. McNamara himself is a lot brighter than most of the people who write about him (you really ought to read his essay on the origins of the Mythic Computer, in which he hits many nails right on the head), but even he seems limited by a point of view that regards the whole period before his birth as more or less the same. For the operating system, he very sensibly chose a robust version of Linux, because, as he says, “in order to make something last forever, just build it using stuff that has lasted forever.” Linux came into the world in 1991, which gives us a terminus post quem for “forever.”

At any rate, what Mr. McNamara has built is a text editor in a wooden box—something like an AlphaSmart, but with much more expensive parts. And it is a glorious thing. It is worth whatever price he puts on it, because it is a work of art. In writing about it, Dr. Boli does not at all mean to imply that creating a computer made by hand is a silly thing to do. He simply uses it as an occasion to examine certain otherwise unexamined assumptions that seem to be prevalent among our bright young people, “young” meaning “born within the past hundred years or so.”


On this day in 1815, the United States Senate formed a Committee on Finance to advise the Senate on the matter of placing the United States on a sound financial footing. The committee is expected to announce its conclusions any day now.