Saturday, August 29, 2015

Collared by the Inquisition

As something of a political junkie, I have been enjoying this year’s presidential campaign season.  While I find it hard to believe that any of the frontrunners will still be in the race a year from now, I have enjoyed listening to some of the more absurd campaign promises—all of which are long on emotion and totally absent of details.

Evidently, few of the candidates understand how limited the constitutional power of the presidency actually is.  This reminds me of a story a former president of Enema U was fond of telling after he had retired (He damn sure couldn’t tell the story while still holding the job!).

Shortly after moving into the President’s office in Abattoir Hall, the administration building, he discovered that the men’s bathroom near his office only dispensed those tiny little squares of toilet tissue.  About the only thing in a men’s room that is more annoying—with the exception of the impossibility of two men's having a conversation—would be those air-blowing hand dryers that only the very young enjoy using.

As university president, this was one annoyance he really felt he shouldn't  have to suffer, so he dashed off a memo to the maintenance people ordering them to replace the current dispenser with one that would hold rolls of toilet paper.  According to my friend, when he retired from the university years later, the toilet paper dispenser had still not been replaced.  This tale epitomizes institutional inertia and the limited authority of positions of power.

And, of course, it reminds me of another story—a little more historical one:

When Philip IV inherited the family business from his father, Philip III, he was inheriting the largest empire in history:  Spain, Portugal, a third of Italy, Sicily, Flanders, the Philippines, South America, Central America and most of North America.  (This wasn’t even counting the assorted islands scattered all over the world.).  On paper, Philip IV, the sole owner of the Spanish Empire, was beyond rich.

In actuality, Philip had a real mess on his hands.  Most of this was caused by the "simple" fact that Philip was a Hapsburg, a member of the royal family that, for generations, made sure that all the wealth, power, and property remained within the family by requiring each successive king to marry either his first cousin or his niece.  This hereditary manipulation doesn't continue for very long before it produces kings who are suited only to sit in the corner and lick their own eyebrows.  In just one more generation Philip’s son, Charles II, wasn't even able to manage that task. 

Note.  Come to think of it, the family was so closely related that not only was Charles II the son of Philip IV, he was also his own first cousin. And Charles’ sister is also his cousin.  And Charlie’s grandmother is also his aunt.  Royal inbreeding was done in all the royal families.  This is why even today, if you look closely at Prince Charles, you can tell that somewhere in his family tree is a horse.

King Philip tried to stop the downward spiral of Spain, chiefly by some economic reforms, but it was too little and far too late.  Spain was in such desperate need for cash, that it hadn’t even replaced the naval vessels lost when Philip II lost the Armada to Sir Francis Drake.  A royal navy that was supposed to guard Spanish possessions all over the world, consisted of just seven ships. 

Philip could have cut some of the crippling taxes that were hampering the Spanish economy:  between the alcabala (a high sales tax) and the almojarifazgo (an even higher import-export tax), it was impossible for Spain to compete with the rest of Europe.  However, the already cash-strapped Phillip was incapable of long-term planning and actually raised taxes to try to solve his problems in the short term.

The other reason for the economic crisis was that Spain was involved in endless wars trying to protect the Catholic Church against the growing Protestant world—and these were wars that Spain almost always lost. 

Poor Phil tried—he really did.  He announced an austerity program, condemned extravagance, and mandated that, in the future, Spaniards must live pragmatically.  Carefully, the nineteen-year-old monarch examined the royal household budget, paring away 67,300 ducats a year, mostly through cutting the amount of food his servants ate.  Unfortunately, this modest beginning was still a few million ducats short of solving Spain’s financial problems.  Still, he had introduced the concept of simple, pragmatic living.

And the Spanish Inquisition—which no one expected—marched along in lockstep, forcing Spaniards to live pragmatically.  Well, they tried, too.

Forcing people to live pragmatically was fairly difficult.  Eventually, the inquisition found a concrete way of enforcing austerity.  It banned the ruffed collars from clothing—and since the ruffed lace collars would not stand up by themselves, starch was also banned, as a "tool of the devil". 

The ruff, made popular (and enormous) by Philip the Third (pictured at right), was now "evil".  Alquacils (sort of a master-at-arms to enforce justice) were armed with scissors and prowled the streets of Madrid enforcing the ban.  Shops were raided and offending merchandise was burned in the street.  Eventually, offenders were frequently pilloried and fined.

For the fashionable set, this left only the Walloon collar.  This rather plain, ordinary, and downright ugly collar is sort of a flat cape that extends to the shoulders and partway down the back.  Sort of like a lobster bib worn backwards, it was easily wrinkled, got dirty almost immediately, and most important of all, had become popular in despised Protestant Holland. The people of Spain hated it. Pictured at left is a very young Philip IV with a Walloon collar.

Something had to be done!  A collar must be found that was fashionable, not identified with Protestants, and yet pragmatic.  It had to be stiff, but could not use the forbidden starch.  It had to be becoming, but not use foreign lace.

Early in 1623, a Madrid tailor sent a sample new collar to the king.  It was a wide piece of cardboard, covered with white silk on the top, and dark cloth on the bottom to match the wearer’s clothing.  The collar was then stiffened and slightly curved with heated rollers before being covered with multiple layers of shellac.

The king loved them, and ordered a large number of them for personal use.  The tailor hurried back to his shop and began making the royal collars.  But before the order could be finished, someone informed the Inquisition that immoral collars were being created, collars that were stiffened by alchemy, devilish hot machines and strange incantations.  Obviously, this smelled of the Evil One.

The Inquisition (still unexpected) raided the tailor’s shop and found ample evidence of suspicion and witchcraft.  Mysterious pots of shellac were dumped and the poor tailor’s tools and stock were burned in the street directly in front of the shop’s door. 

This infuriated the king, who sent his Prime Minister to reprimand the president of the Inquisition Council. 
“These collars are dangerous new ideas,” said the priest.  “They are immodest and have silk.  They are not pragmatic!”

“Nonsense,” answered Duke Olivares, the king’s minister.  “They are not only the best and most comfortable collars, they are the most economical.  They need no washing, no starching, and will easily last for a year.  Besides, the king wants them.”

Not able to argue with such impeccable logic—the king really did want them—the Inquisition allowed what came to be known as the Golilla collar.  For the next 75 years, they became all but synonymous with the Spanish Empire, becoming mandatory throughout Spain, Spanish Italy, and South America.  Spain continued the downward economic spiral, suffering wars and political upheavals, but the wealthy of the empire were well-dressed.

Appropriately, it was the Hapsburg inbreeding that eventually eliminated the golilla collar.  Charles II, the inbred son of Philip IV, was incapable of producing an heir.  Spain, tiring of kings not quite as intelligent of the horses they rode, turned the monarchy over to a French royal family.  Philip V, a Bourbon, took one look at the strange collar and banned it as barbaric, replacing it with a cravat, already popular in France. 

Over time, the cravat turned into the modern necktie.  Now, we have some potential leaders, most wearing suitable ties, who certainly behave as if they were inbred.  This time, let's try not to elect another Hapsburg.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Stop the Presses!

The nation is gearing up for a presidential election, and the press is as happy as a tornado in a trailer park, reporting on a field of candidates that could have stepped out of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.  Not content with simply reporting the facts, several journalists still feel the need to exaggerate, to confabulate, or to embroider their stories—in short, to lie.
Selling newspapers—or airtime—with exaggerations or lies is certainly not new in America, nor is there any proof that the stories of today are any more exaggerated that those of the last decades of the 19th century—the age of the birth of yellow journalism.
The term "yellow journalism" actually comes from a battle between two New York newspapers, The Journal American of William Randolph Hearst and The World of Joseph Pulitzer.  Both men would stop at nothing to sell their newspapers, with each competing with the other for the most fantastic story.  Strangely, this name for type of journalism comes from something they shared:  The Yellow Kid.
The Yellow Kid was the main character in a cartoon strip called Hogan's Alley, drawn by Richard Outcault.  The Yellow Kid was a young boy with jug ears, two buck teeth, beady blue eyes, and a yellow nightdress.  Living on the wrong side of the tracks, the Yellow Kid could ridicule and satirize the changing world of a city poised to enter the new century.  This comic strip set the standard style still used today—it was showcased in a Sunday supplement to the paper, its conversations appeared as text in balloons above the characters and most of its humor was based on social commentary.  While you may never have heard of The Yellow Kid, you probably are at least remotely familiar with Outcault's other creation, Buster Brown.
While it is little remembered today, the Yellow Kid was very popular, and the two newspapers that carried the strip were called "The Yellow Kid papers", which over time was shortened to "The Yellow Papers"—something that eventually gave rise to the term, "Yellow Journalism". 
Neither Hearst nor Pulitzer invented this type of journalism, however.  In the last half of the 19th century, journalists all over the country spiced up their stories, inflated the facts, and in many cases, just lied from boredom or to sell their papers.  Working as a reporter in San Francisco, Mark Twain invented a California massacre—most likely just for the fun of it.
In Texas, there was a series of exaggerated stories that may be responsible for the very survival of Fort Worth and eventually gave the city the nickname, Panther City, which is still used today.
Shortly after the Civil War, B. B. Paddock, a Confederate officer, set up a law practice in Fort Worth, despite there being no record of his ever having spent a single day in any school.  (To be fair, neither an education nor intelligence seems to have been a prerequisite for practicing law in those days.)  In any case, Paddock relatively quickly abandoned the law and became the editor of the Fort Worth Democrat.
As the editor, Paddock worked passionately to develop the city and to attract investors.  This passion eventually led him to publish a map of Fort Worth that showed no fewer than nine railroad lines leading into the city.  In fact, no such line came within 30 miles of the town.  Rival newspaper editors ridiculed Paddock by calling his creation the Tarantula Map.
Nevertheless, the map did help attract the interest of T&P Railroad, who planned to build a line to the city.  Rapidly, the population of the town grew to 4,000, there was a general building boom, and... inevitably,  a bust.  The banking firm backing the railroad went bankrupt, local business failed, and a mass exodus brought the population of the town down to 1,000.  The very existence of Fort Worth was in question.
One morning, a local citizen pointed at some scratches in the main thoroughfare and declared that a panther had spent the night asleep there, completely unmolested in the middle of a city more dead than alive.  A lawyer (probably one who met the above requirements), on hearing the story, recounted the tale in a letter to a Dallas newspaper, that referred to the nearby city as Pantherville.  (It is interesting to note that, even then, there was a rivalry between the two cities.)
Undaunted, B. B. Paddock adopted the image of a panther on the masthead of his paper and continued to push for investment.  Eventually, Paddock was successful:  the T&P Railroad did come to Fort Worth and prosperity returned.  Sadly, while Paddock is all but forgotten in the town today, the panther lives on.  Fort Worth is proud of her nickname of "Panther City", as reflected in the names of many local businesses.  Today, even the badges of the city police proudly bear the image of a panther.
Speaking of wild animals in city streets:  an earlier newspaper hoax might be the most outrageous example of the 19th century "creative journalism", the true forerunner of yellow journalism.
On Sunday morning, November 8, 1874, the people of New York were startled to read a story on the front page of the Herald:  "A Shocking Sabbath Carnival of Death", which detailed a grisly accident at the Central Park zoo.  A rhinoceros escaped from his cage, killing his keeper and panicking the rest of the zookeepers, who quickly took flight from the zoo, allowing several other animals to escape in the wooded park.
Lions, tigers, a polar bear, and a panther were among the animals that roamed the park, killing, trampling, maiming, and even devouring the unsuspecting pedestrians strolling through the gardens.  Local hospitals were kept busy tending to the dead and dying New Yorkers, many of them prominent citizens.
Slowly, the terrorized citizens fought back—a group of Swedish immigrants shot a lion that was saturated in the blood of its victims, the rhino was chased until it fell into an open sewer excavation, and the polar bear was pursued until it found refuge in the Central  Park reservoir.
Mayor Havemeyer ordered the city's citizens to stay off the streets until the crisis was over.  Later editions of the Herald explained how the state's governor, John Adams Dix, a hero of the Civil War, had tracked and killed the escaped Bengal tiger.  The same edition listed other animals that had escaped from the zoo, including snakes, sheep, monkeys, and a white-haired porcupine—and included perhaps the most gruesome story yet:  a graphic account of a grizzly bear's devouring an elderly woman inside the Church of St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue.
Unfortunately, few people read to the very end of the story, where the closing paragraphs explained that the story was false, but could one day be true if the city did not allocate enough funds to renovate and repair the Central Park Zoo.  The story was the brainchild of James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the rich and powerful (and crazier than a bucket of frogs) owner and editor of the Herald—the largest and most influential newspaper of the world.
Bennet had built his newspaper on sensation and good writing.  Though he regularly featured the works of the best writers in America—men like Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Stephen Crane—Bennet did not hesitate to create news when necessary.  It was Bennet who sent Stanley to locate Livingston in Africa.  The dispatches from Stanley, prominently published in the Herald, were carefully edited to hide the fact that Livingston was neither lost nor in need of "locating"!
Now, Bennet had fabricated a story that aimed to push the city into improving a zoo, and establishing an organized emergency plan for the city.  He was successful in both—the latter idea proved necessary after thousands of New Yorkers, believing the story to be true, rushed the piers and demanded transportation off the island.  Thousands more, stayed home in terror, while a few hardier souls carried rifles into the wooded park in search of escaped animals.
While Bennet's bogus zoo escape is all but forgotten today, several times in the last two weeks—while watching the latest manufactured political news on television—I have been reminded of the event.  Surely, a few of the politicians currently running for president should be rounded up and put back into their cages.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

It Really Was That Hot

Depending on who you talk to, my wife and I have been trying to kill each other for years.  To be specific, my wife claims I am trying to poison her, while I know for a fact that she is attempting to freeze me to death.

In summer, The Doc will set the thermostat down below my age, wear hideous wool pajamas and a sweater to bed, wait until I am asleep, steal the blankets, and then turn on the ceiling fan.  Right about the time the room has reached the perfect temperature for aging steaks, she will move to the living room and sleep under a blanket. 

In winter, she regularly turns off the heater, opens a bedroom window, steals all the blankets, then relocates to the warmer living room.  I could save myself a lot of misery if I just relocated our bed to the living room.

Not only does my wife regularly steal all the blankets, but in the morning, she accuses me of having deposited them on her side of the bed.  According to The Doc, I am one of the few people in the world with the amazing super power of being able to push a blanket.  This is a skill I probably picked up from the Maya while I was doing research in the jungles of Belize.   I don't actually remember this, but this could be the result of malaria or eating too many overripe bananas. 

Note.  I just did a Google search and discovered that I wrote about The Doc trying to murder me with the thermostat six years ago.  You can read about it here.   This evidently means that not only is The Doc a fairly incompetent murderer, but that my memory loss must be progressive—an early victim of Old Timerz Disease.  Eventually, not only will I be able to enjoy reading my own blog for the first time, but I will only need to own one mystery book.

Meanwhile, The Doc claims that I am attempting to kill her with spicy food.  This is a claim that is obviously false, since we are both Texans: she should know there is actually no such thing as spicy food.

Evidently, there is some form of genetic mutation in my wife's Texas heritage.  That sounds cruel, so let's call it phenotypic plasticity that arises in Texans of Scandihoovian ancestry.  (I like that.  It turns out there is a way—at least verbally—to pick up a turd by the clean end.)  The Doc thinks that black pepper is too spicy to consume.  I think I was married before I discovered that black pepper was a spice and not just an attractive way to decorate scrambled eggs.

This means that on a regular basis, she claims that the meal I have just cooked is painful to eat, while I am yelling back, "It's not that hot!"  The Doc claims that she is going to use that as the epitaph on my tombstone.  If she actually does, please have the coroner check my corpse for frostbite.

This forces me to either cook two version of the same dish, or remove her serving from the pan before I add any normal seasonings.  For the last forty-odd years, I have been trying to build up her tolerance to what is—at least for this part of the country—normal food by slowly adding mild amounts of seasonings to her meals.  This has been a total failure—she could have acquired an immunity to Iocane Powder by now.

The only thing I have to show for my efforts is my wife's unfounded accusations that I am trying to poison her food.

Lately, I have been baking a lot of bread, especially Parmesan cheese bread and the assorted loaf of focaccia.  I don't actually eat much of the bread, but I enjoy baking it.  Perhaps it is the kneading of the dough I enjoy—it works out a certain amount of frustration I get from working at Enema U. 

So, tonight, as I was baking the bread, The Doc called from the grocery store and asked if I needed anything.  I asked for a pound of baby bell peppers, thinking that if I stuffed them with feta cheese, they would make a nice addition to the trout and fresh bread I was planning for dinner.

I like these miniature stuffed peppers, they are fairly easy to make: just add feta cheese, garlic, fresh parsley, and a little olive oil to a food processor and blend it into a smooth paste.  Cut the peppers in half lengthwise, remove the seeds and ribs, fill with cheese, and then heat in the oven.  The multi-colored little peppers look attractive, and there are never any leftovers.

The meal went great....that is, right up to the point where The Doc ate her first stuffed pepper, screamed, and ran for the kitchen.  She reemerged from the kitchen, tears in her eyes, gulping down a large glass of milk.  It took a while, but she finally gasped out that the peppers were too hot.

I had already eaten several of them, and they weren't that hot.  As a matter of fact, I had stuffed a couple of jalapeño peppers for my own enjoyment, and since they had their seeds and ribs removed, even they weren't particularly spicy.  Obviously, however, The Doc was in real pain, and she was quite certain that I had 'done it" deliberately.  But, I hadn't, bell peppers aren't hot.

Now, I’ve been married through five decades, two centuries, and two millennialong enough to know that if your wife falsely accuses you of something, and even if you can prove you didn't do it, you should apologize immediately.  So, I did—but from the look of her tear-filled red eyes, she wasn’t believing me.

The only thing I could think of was the bizarre possibility that one of the jalapeños had leaked a little juice on one of the bell peppers while they were heating in the oven.  Or, since I had cut all the peppers with the same knife, maybe a little oil had transferred from one pepper to another.  All of this was a little strange.

As a loving and caring husband, I kept on eating, while The Doc alternated gulping milk and swallowing whole slices of my cheese bread.  I won't say I was laughing—I knew better—but I was entertained.  Suddenly, I noticed that the yellow bell pepper I had just eaten was a little spicier than the rest.  Not hot, mind you, but it was a little strong, noticeably hotter than the jalapeño.  I ate another yellow one, and it was rather strong, too.

Only after I had gone back and examined the unused peppers, and questioned my wife did I understand what had happened.  At the grocery store, The Doc found the baby bell peppers in the produce section, but all the bin contained were red and orange peppers.  The yellow peppers were in a separate but adjacent bin, so my wife selected a nice assortment of all three colors from both bins.

The red and orange peppers were the very mild bell peppers.  The yellow peppers were habanero peppers, each more than forty times as spicy as a jalapeño pepper.  There is a reason that you don't normally see 'Stuffed Habaneros'' on a menu.  Take another look at that picture above, did you notice the habaneros?

Obviously, The Doc was wrong.  Since she had selected the peppers, it wasn't an attempted murder, it was a botched suicide.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Great Moments in Teaching II

Thirty-five years ago, on a small island off the coast of Texas, I taught computer science at a small college.  This is not common knowledge, as for years I have kept this knowledge secret for fear somebody might make me do it again.

It was only a part time job, something I did at night.  My classes were small, the pay was minuscule, but the students were motivated, as this was just at the beginning of the microcomputer revolution.  For most of my students, this class was the first time they had actually touched a computer so, during every class, I was truly covering virgin territory.

Then, I got a call from a major university, one that you have heard of.  And the wanted me, to teach for them—Really!  The job, however, was not on their campus:  they wanted me to teach on their floating campus—a very large commercial ship that had been converted into a sea going laboratory and classroom.  Specifically, they wanted me to teach an intensive course on FORTRAN.  By intensive, they meant several hours a day, every day, for two weeks.

I found out later that something on the ship was being repaired.  Maybe they had to change the bilge oil in the starboard disgrontificator or something.  Whatever it was, the ship would be tied to a dock for two weeks and if they didn't have something to keep the students busy, it would turn into an impromptu spring break on the island's beach.  And as we all know, university administrators live in mortal fear that students might enjoy themselves, so something had to be planned.

I have always wondered what the backup plan was.  If I have been unavailable to teach that course, would the students have been forced to take a lab class in oyster shucking?  Would that have been more useful than FORTRAN?

Fortran (back then it was always FORTRAN) is a programming language that, while still popular in higher number crunching, back then was used extensively by almost all scientists and engineers, so teaching the language to a bunch of budding oceanographers was not a bad idea.  Teaching it on a ship that possessed not a single computer was a bad idea, but I have always operated under one simple business rule:  Tell the customer the truth one time, then shut up and take the money.  I'm honest, but I'm not a fanatic about it.

When I pointed out that the relative difficulty in teaching a programming course without a single computer was not dissimilar to teaching Chopin without a piano, no one thought this was a major difficulty, and as it turned out, it wasn't.  By this, I mean their check cleared.

I prepared my lessons, printed out quite a few tutorials for the students, and headed off to class.  The ship was huge.  I knew nothing about ships (for further proof of my ignorance, read this), and had never been on anything more nautical than the ferry boat that connected the island to the mainland. 

Eventually, I found my way to my classroom, which—despite being in a seagoing vessel—was about the size of my classroom at the local college.  The desks were about the same, the blackboards were the same, but the students were different:  All male, all relatively young, and all as bright as new pennies.  I thought to myself, "This is going to be a fun course."

And the first hour of the class was fantastic—right up to the time where I got horribly seasick.

I still maintain that this is not funny.  God knows, I wasn't laughing.  My students were howling, however.  More than once, one of them pointed out to me that I was on a large ship, tied to a dock, on the protected side of the island, and on a day with absolutely no weather whatsoever.

I wanted to throw up the cake from the birthday party my parents gave me when I turned eight years old.  And every single damn thing I had eaten since then.  The students were laughing so hard I was terribly afraid they wouldn't die—while I watched.  What is so all-fired funny about watching someone else being seasick?

I finished the class.  The second hour was done on the dock, after I had the students relocate one of the portable blackboards.  I seem to remember doing at least part of that remaining hour while lying flat on my back in the middle of the pier, but only until the dock stopped moving.    The students seemed to enjoy the first class, and not just for the entertainment value of their instructor's misery.

The second day, I was ready and prepared.  I had told my wife, The Doc, about my problem, and she helped me obtain the right medicine to prevent a reoccurrence.  I took the pill—can't remember what it was—about twenty minutes before I boarded the ship.  And that's about all I remember.

Either I took too large a dose, or I had a bad reaction to it.  My students later said it was their favorite class in the whole series, but refused to elaborate other than to say that the entire class had been taught not on the dock, but in the classroom.   I suspect that I had passed the entire two hours talking nonsense and gobbledygook, but I can't prove it.  The students did their homework, so I must have done something right.

By the third class, I finally had my act together.  I was taking about a third of the seasick medicine, seemed to stay coherent, and my students got fairly proficient in writing code in FORTRAN.  I had even brought a microcomputer aboard and let them play a little with BASIC (a much smaller programing language that had started as a subset of FORTRAN).

I never heard from the university again.  The ship sailed, and I have no idea what happened to it, or the students on it.  I doubt that any of them ever wrote another line of code in FORTRAN.  But, I bet all of them never forgot the class.

I'm probably the only person in the world who ever got paid to teach FORTRAN while lying on a dock.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Dig This

Innovation usually occurs where it will be most rewarded.  Or as Emerson said, "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door." 

Emerson, of course, actually never said any such thing.  In the 1880's, a couple of writers evidently lost their notes, and dramatically condensed what Emerson actually said, "If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods."

However condensed and turned tawdry with mice, the sentiment is true.  Innovation leads to lower production cost, and higher profits.

The potential profit drove Captain John Ames to break British Law.  As a resident of Massachusetts in 1774, he was well aware that the 13 colonies were prohibited from manufacturing industrial products that would compete with the mother country.  Great Britain was a strict adherent to the mercantile system—colonies were to manufacture nothing and export only raw materials in exchange for the manufactured goods that the mother country would produce.  For England, this meant cheap raw materials and a ready market for its finished products. 

For the colonists, however, it meant a chronic shortage of goods that could only be purchased at a high price.  The only alternatives, were poor quality  products that were made by hand.  In a colony that was largely agricultural, this meant a lot of poor quality farming implements—including shovels.

Shovels are some of the oldest gardening tools in the world, dating back thousands of years.  Archaeologists believe that the first shovels were the scapulae of oxen and bison.  Today, some of the Inuit—the people formerly known as Eskimo—still believe that the best shovels for snow are fashioned from walrus scapulae. 

Drawings of wooden shovels date back thousands of years, and the remains of Bronze Age shovels at least 3100 years old have been found.  All of these shovels have one thing in common: they are really poor shovels.  It is not until about 500 years ago, when iron could be reliably tempered, that lightweight, sharp metal shovels were first made.  However, few of these made their way to America since by the time they crossed the Atlantic, they were far too valuable to use in the damp soil.

This created a perfect opportunity for Ames to reap a profit.  Fashioning a trip hammer powered by a water wheel, he hammered metal shovels out of iron bars.  The business was instantly profitable.  Within a few years, General Washington asked Ames to provide shovels to the Continental Army, and while it would be stretching things to say it the Ames shovel was responsible for the American victory over England, I can safely say that Britain would have refused to sell the Revolutionary Army a single spade.

John Ames employed his neighbors—mostly farmers—to make his shovels between the October harvest and the May planting.  It took twenty men to heat the metal, hammer the shovel shape, reheat the metal, temper the metal to the correct hardness, and fashion a handle.  The Ames company prospered and expanded over time, making it one of the oldest manufacturing companies in the United States.

Ames, of course, had competition.  The shape of the simple iron shovel dates back to Roman times, and there was little different between Ames' shovel and that of any of his competition—until, of course, Ames came up with the 'Ames Bend.'

Since the first wooden shovel, the shovel and handle had been straight.  John Ames saw that mechanically, this was a bad design and fashioned a machine that would bend the rear portion of the shovel—the part where the handle attached.  This increased the leverage of the handle, making the shovel more powerful and more easier to handle.  The world began beating a path to the Ames factory.  The Ames Bend is revolutionary, making an ancient tool far more productive.

About the same time, the company began using higher grades of iron, and then, eventually, steel.  With better metal and better tempering, the shovel blade could be lighter, thinner, and more flexible.  Where the shovel blades used to break, now, they just bent slightly, and then sprang back to their original shape.

The company grew steadily until the 1860's, when once again, a war provided the company with new opportunities.  This time, it was President Lincoln who personally asked Oakes Ames (grandson of John Ames) to provide the Union Army with shovels.  And at the conclusion of the war, as Americans poured into the West, they took the Ames shovel with them to farm, build railroads, and mine for gold.

By 1870, the Ames Company and its 500 employees made 60% of the shovels sold anywhere in the world—And the shovels went everywhere.  They helped build canals and construct the transcontinental railroad; they went with Perry to the North Pole, they were present at the Hoover Dam and the Panama Canal, they were used at Mount Rushmore, and NASA bought more than one specialty tool from the company.  During World War II, the company produced 11 million entrenching tools for the American Army.  The company redesigned the shovel for the Korean War, and once again for the war in Viet Nam.

Have you ever wondered how the footing for a telegraph pole was dug before there was heavy machinery?  Ames sold two tools for the job: a shovel for digging and a spoon for dirt removal—each with a ten-foot handle.  (That's not your everyday teaspoon!)

At the end of the nineteenth century, American industry was being revitalized by the new science of time and motion studies.  Bethlehem Steel and the Ames Company cooperated in one such study.  It turns out that the optimum load for a shovel is 21 pounds, and the dish of a shovel should be designed so that it can accommodate such a load—depending on the material being...well, dug.

The 1926 catalog was 80 pages long and listed hundreds of models, of various grades—all with ash handles and the finest tempered metals.  There are snow shovels, coal shovels, manure shovels, ice shovels, ash shovels, and even shovels and spades especially designed for the use of boys.  Appropriately for the time, there were no such shovels for girls.

Ames is still in existence, still making its famous shovel with the Ames Bend—though it would be hard these days to find a shovel for sale by even its competitors without the distinctive bend. 

No one yet makes the shovel I really need—the one that will put itself back into the garden shed (no matter where my sons have left it).  I also need one that will clean the damp dirt off its own dish, and one that will resharpen itself, no matter how many rocks have dulled it.

No company makes such a shovel, yet, but when it is finally available, it will undoubtedly be an Ames.