History

Come See The Best Thing Since Itself (The Bread Slicing Machine)
Taking a whack at history's most important invention (next to the cigarette umbrella).

In the pantheon of history there exists a singular crowning achievement, a kairotic moment if you will, or even if you won’t; a truly pivotal event in the unfolding saga that is this flowering enigma called mankind, so signaled by an invention exhibiting the pinnacle of American know-how, which has since proved to be the benchmark of and ultimate standard by which the greatness of all other things prior to the existence of the item in question is to be measured. Therefore, in order to justify that last amazingly protracted sentence, we’re going to spend some time learning about the bread slicing machine.

Sliced Kleen Maids and albino clown suits

[x_pullquote type=”right”] By 1930 Wonder Bread, the now-familiar baking company with the bags patterned after the suit of an albino clown, perfected the machine.[/x_pullquote]What the world was like before the invention of the bread slicing machine in 1928 we can only imagine, so we will: vast swaths of the country, flush with the promises of the burgeoning industrial revolution, ready to push forward in progress and improvement, yet shackled with the onerous task of having to slice their own bread every day. The psychological weight of the reminder that mankind was being ridiculed daily by uncut loaves of baked wheat may have been what pushed itinerant Iowa jeweler Otto Frederick Rohwedder to break the bread slicing barrier once and for all, or he may have just really wanted to make a little money. The bread slicing machine he invented was first used by the Chillicothe Baking Company in Chillicothe, Missouri in mid-1928 (Official Motto: “Wait; it’s going to be called ‘The Depression’? Well, okay.”) which was marketed their product as “Wrapped Sliced Kleen Maid Bread”, a name which for me conjures up a picture not so much of fresh, neatly cut bread but a torture movie plot featuring a domestic servant convention held in the ruins of a haunted bakery. By 1930 Wonder Bread, the now-familiar baking company with the bags patterned after the suit of an albino clown, perfected the machine and began to promote it as “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” In the annals of baking history, if bakers keep annals, the slicing machine was a boon, assuming bakers also have boons, as they were now able to tout this new feature as the latest time saver in food, at least until someone invented that cheese you can spray directly into your mouth.

The greatest thing since…

Strangely, even more famous than this machine’s ability to mechanically segment a common baked good has been the phrase “The best thing since sliced bread.” After all, no one goes around saying “the best thing since those plastic nubbins on the end of your shoelaces that keep them from fraying“, or “the best thing since the spring-loaded pooper-scooper“, so why is the bread slicer held in such high esteem? One theory is that tired ad executives from 1968 who were working on a bakery account built a time machine in order to go back in history, plant the slogan, then return to their own time, where the phrase would now have become so popular they could claim it and knock off work for a three-cocktail lunch, but since this theory is one I just made up now it has not seen a lot of acceptance. Regardless, the phrase began to grow in popularity around the 50’s, and soon it became a catch phrase amongst mid-century Americans, who now had many things to call “great things”, such as the motorized surfboard or the cigarette umbrella. Cagey philosophers decided to get in on the action and began to posit complex metaphysical theories, such as “Is the bread sliced, or is it, through entropy, merely attempting to return to its prior temporal state of atomic disunity?”, upon which they were given a $200,000 grant to study wheat migration in Kansas. Other countries have since come up with similar phrases, with varying degrees of success. For example:

  • Germany: “The loaf! All hope of its prior mewling existence has been severed… and it is good.”
  • France: “There is nothing better than for the bread to be sliced, for it then means that the wine is not far behind.”
  • Mexico: “Give us your bread or we will slice you.”
  • China: “The People have determined things have always been perfectly good whether the bread has been sliced or not.”
  • Canada: [sound of someone hacking away at frozen bread] “I’m so hungry!”
  • North Korea: “Slicing the bread was such a great idea! I’m glad we thought of it first!”
  • Russia: “Bread? What bread?”

As for Otto, the original inventor, he commented in 1930 that “We are continuing our experimental and developmental work confident in the belief that the real possibilities of Sliced Bread have scarcely been scratched,” which leads me to believe that somewhere, maybe in a secret baking installation a mile underground somewhere in Nebraska, top-secret bread-slicing experiments involving nuclear fusion and mutant wheat are being conducted, in hopes of finally finding the answer to who actually eats those pieces on the ends of the loaf. So, hail, bread slicing machine, for your tireless machinations over the years have kept our wrists happy, our arms fit and ready to do our daily work, as we find our daily bread cut and waiting for us to burn in our toasters because we forgot about it because the coffee pot started to leak again.

Just Don’t Say Anything About the Granite Boogers (Mount Rushmore)
Our historically inept discourse on the Monument To A Bunch Of Guys With Really Big Heads.

At an elevation of some 5,725 feet nestled in the rugged Black Hills of South Dakota, chiseled into the cold granite of the mountain the native Lakota Sioux indians called “Six Grandfathers”, there lies a gift shop from which you can purchase a snow globe featuring one of America’s most impressive National Memorials, Mount Rushmore.

Not your average Danish intestinal pathosis

[x_pullquote type=”right”]The monument was authorized by Congress (Official Motto: “We Get The Thingz Dun Rites!”) on March 3, 1925.[/x_pullquote]The brainchild of South Dakota historian Doane Robinson, who wanted to promote tourism in the Black Hills using the unique marketing tactic of humongous granite heads, the monument was authorized by Congress (Official Motto: “We Get The Thingz Dun Rites!”) on March 3, 1925. The realization of such a monumental sculpture would not have been achieved without the work of Gutzon Borglom, which is not a rare Danish intestinal pathosis that gives you a unique ability to chisel mountains, but an actual guy who liked to carve rock. Borglum was persuaded by Robinson to create the monument, partially because of his experience in sculpting the Confederate Memorial Carving, but mostly because he was the only guy who promised he could chisel out a 10-foot presidential nose without once saying “I’m a booger!” and breaking down in giggling fits of junior high-ish laughter.

Captain Nemo and the League of Attorneys

The mountain itself is named after Charles E. Rushmore, a prominent businessman and attorney who we can verify had a super-fearsome 1900’s-style walrus mustache. Legend has it that Rushmore was hunting in the Black Hills with a band of his fellow attorneys when they were attacked by a herd of Super Bears, immense alien creatures said to be the offspring of Bigfoot and a rabid Redwood tree, who chased the men up a mountain, where they were able to hide in the secret cave of Captain Nemo and call the League of Attorneys to come rescue them in their flying DeLoreans on their wrist TV’s, and then they called the mountain Rushmore from then on. Being just legend, however, it may not be true, but it is at least true that the mountain is named after Rushmore, who was also the top contributor to Borglum’s sculpture, having donated $5,000 (modern value: $139.99 in Gift Shop Dollars).

Batholith magma and the laser eagles

For the monument’s location, Borglum chose Mount Rushmore, partly because it faced southeast and enjoyed maximum exposure to the sun, and partly because that’s where the gift shop was. Rushmore is composed mainly of granite, and Wikipedia also insists that “the batholith magma intruded into the pre-existing mica schist rocks during the Proterozoic, roughly 1.6 billion years ago”, although for all we know, that sentence is just a dirty joke that’s really funny only to geologists. Borglum had decided on a monument consisting of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln in four 60-foot sculptures. 60 four-foot sculptures were briefly considered as being much easier, but Borglum realized he would have eventually run out of presidents. The original plan called for the likenesses to be made from the head down to the waist, but historians weren’t sure if George Washington’s abs were ripped enough for that type of exposure, plus funds had run out anyway. Borglum utilized new methods of constructing the sculpture such as dynamite, pneumatic hammers, and eagles with lasers, although the latter was never substantiated.

Monument To A Bunch Of Guys With Really Big Heads

The first face to be completed, Washington’s, was dedicated on July 4, 1934, but the entire project took 14 years to complete. Borglum died in March of 1941 before the monument was finished, but his son, Lincoln Borglum (no relation to the 16th president) was able to continue the work and the completed Mount Rushmore National Memorial, now dubbed the “Shrine of Democracy” because “Monument To A Bunch Of Guys With Really Big Heads” was already taken by Congress, was dedicated on October 31 of 1941. Today, over two million visitors a year make the drive in their summer vacation minivans to visit the memorial, stopping to gaze upon the majesty of the mountain, marveling at the skill it took to complete the task, reflecting on the depth and breadth of our nation’s storied history, and then buying a snow globe from the gift shop — and get me some Cheezits — we’ve got 480 miles to Yellowstone and we still need to stop and see the World’s Largest Ball of Barbed Wire in Jackson, Wyoming.

Mount Rushmore facts

  • The monument erodes only one inch for every 10,000 years and so requires little maintenance, except for the occasional cleaning of Teddy Roosevelt’s glasses by an Army Chinook helicopter lugging a giant spray bottle of Windex and a huge Kleenex.
  • Miraculously, no lives were lost during the dangerous and arduous construction of the monument, except for the four presidents, who were fortunately already dead.
  • Approximately 450,000 tons of rock was blasted off the mountainside, most of it intentionally, providing enough material to build a mountain of similar size, except in the shape of a pile of gravel.
  • Mount Rushmore celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1991 after undergoing a $40 million restoration project, which included cleaning, new contacts for Jefferson, and removing that giant mole on Lincoln’s face.
Photo Credit: WestVacation cc

Castle Thingys, Horsies, and Pointy Guys (Chess)
We make some moronic moves in the world's brainiest game.

Chess is a classic two-person strategy game designed to show players that they really weren’t as smart as they thought they were. Once considered the only game of choice for non-football-playing high school boys or college grad students who knew all of the lines from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” — which, come to think of it, are pretty much the same person — chess has achieved broader appeal in recent years. It is now played online, in schools, coffee houses, and even urban parks, where it is not uncommon to see groups of bespectacled squirrels quietly pondering whether to take their opponent’s rook, or just eat a nut.

Gregorian smallpox and the castle thingy

Regarded as one of the most challenging of board games, the earliest evidence of chess’s existence dates to around AD 600 (Official Motto: “Smallpox, Schmallpox; Check Out This Groovy Gregorian Chant!”). The roots of the game can be traced even further back to Eastern India, where the earliest form of the game utilized pieces that represented the four branches of the Indian military: infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariotry. Later versions of the game did away with the elephants, as the pieces weighed over 4 tons each and made play impossibly slow, but the four general forms remained, and evolved into the modern pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, or “castle thingy” pieces.

Horsey Thing to King’s Bishop Three

[x_pullquote type=”right”]The game is begun by having one of your friends convince you that it will actually be fun.[/x_pullquote]The game is begun by having one of your friends convince you that it will actually be fun, and he won’t beat you in five moves like last time, and by reminding you yet again that yes, the “horsey” can move like an “L”. The board is laid out in a grid of sixty-four equally-sized black and white squares, or, in the case of some of the more extreme politically correct versions, just one, big, vaguely tan square with all of the pieces melted together in a symbolic group hug. Play begins when you decide you’re really going to devote the next three hours of your life to this, and you move a pawn forward, only to have it snatched away by your opponent, who is already snickering because they know you’ve already lost the game with your noob opening move. The objective is to pressure your opponent’s most important piece, the board, into falling off the table when you “accidentally” bump it, thereby mercifully ending the game. Barring that, your goal is to force his king into checkmate, a condition where the king cannot move without being captured, and so has no choice but to write a check out to the opposing king, providing compensation for the deceased pawn’s families, the cleanup of dead horses and various priests, emotional damages, etc. Each piece has only specific movements that they are allowed to do; for example, the knight can only move 3 squares forward and two squares to the side, while the rook moves horizontally or vertically across the board. The queen can sashay wherever she wants, making her the most powerful piece on the board, unlike the king, who is typically so fat and lethargic he can only move one square at a time, provided he’s even awake. Thousands of books have been written on the extensive possible strategies of the opening, middle, and end of the game, most of them using the cryptic chess-piece-moving language you probably have heard used as passwords on old TV spy shows, such as “Queen to Queen’s Knight Pawn”, “Knight to King’s Bishop Three”, or, as I prefer to say it, “Horsey Beats Up Castle and Knocks Over the Pointy Guy”. This method allows for chess opponents to play each other at great distances, even over many years, making it one of the few sports where you only have to move your brain in order to play.

Chess facts

  • The number of possible ways of playing the first four moves in a game of chess is 318,979,564,000, which is also, coincidentally, the country code and telephone number for Boris Spassky.
  • According to the America’s Foundation for Chess, none of them has had a date in over ten years.
  • The longest chess game in history occurred in 1989. It ended after 269 moves when one of the players decided he wanted to live, really live his life, so he grabbed the nearest woman and kissed her.
  • There are 169,518,829,100,544,000,000,000,000,000 ways to play the first 10 moves in chess, which is equal to the number of electrons your brain needs to decide that you really aren’t good at math.
  • The first chess game in orbit was played by the crew of the Soyuz 9 on June 9, 1970. It ended in a draw when all of the pieces immediately floated into space.
  • The folding chessboard was invented by a priest who was forbidden to play chess, so he made a chessboard that, when folded together, disguised itself as a copy of Sports Illustrated.
  • In 1985, a man named Eric Knoppert played 500 games of 10-minute chess in only 68 hours. He lost every one.
  • There are over 1000 opening moves in chess, such as the “Sicilian Defense”, the “Queen’s Gambit”, and the always popular “I don’t want to play chess!” arm sweep across the board.

Gravity Roads, Scenic Railways and Skittle Vomit (Roller Coasters)
Take a spin on our fact-mangled history of the roller coaster.

A roller coaster is an amusement mechanism devised to separate the stomach contents of passengers from their owners. First popular in the late 19th century, it has become a staple of the modern amusement park, along with sunburn, Skittle vomit, and lukewarm, ten-dollar hot dogs.

Don’t Gorka your Katalnaya when you’re eating Skittles

[x_pullquote type=”right”]The concept of a wheeled cart locked to a track was then developed in Paris (Official Motto: “[Something Snobby-Sounding In French”] in the early 1800’s.[/x_pullquote]The origins of the roller coaster can be traced to 17th century St. Petersburg in Russia, where specially constructed hills of ice called “Russian Mountains” were designed to carry sleds down a 50-degree slope. After realizing they had just invented the bobsled about 100 years too soon, someone at the royal residence of Catherine the Great decided to add wheels to carts and used those on something called a Katalnaya Gorka, which, according to Google translate, means “Gorka Katalnaya”. By the late 18th century, the concept had begun spreading throughout Russia like sympathetic Skittle vomit, which is not a good band name by the way, and soon Coney Island wannabees everywhere in Russia were copying the idea. The concept of a wheeled cart locked to a track was then developed in Paris (Official Motto: “[Something Snobby-Sounding In French”] in the early 1800’s, where some historians believe the modern roller coaster was born, although it’s birth certificate has never been officially verified. Two attractions, the Les Montagnes Russes à Belleville and the Promenades Aeriennes, both featured unpronounceable French names as well as higher speeds than their Russian predecessors.

Taking the gravity road to Coney Island

Meanwhile, some Americans, not to be outdone in the mildly entertaining gravity ride department by a bunch of Frenchmen, were experimenting with their own version of the roller coaster. A mining company in Summit Hill, Pennsylvania had built a downhill track to deliver coal to the nearby town of Mauch Chunk (Official Motto: “Try Saying Us Six Times Fast”). Called the “Gravity Road”, which would be an excellent Bruce Springsteen album title, it offered daredevils rides for free, or 50 cents if they wanted brakes to be used at the bottom. Using these ideas as a basis, LaMarcus Thompson, who was not a forward for the Chicago Bulls, obtained the first patent for a roller coaster-related device on January 20, 1885, which, coincidentally, was also the same day that the world’s longest roller coaster opened, except 115 years later and in a different month. Thompson also designed the first roller coaster ride at Coney Island in New York City. Called the “Switchback Railroad”, it reached pants-soiling speeds of 6 mph as it raced 600 feet from tower to tower utilizing a mind-bending drop of 50 feet. Passengers paid 5 cents to ride sideways on a bench, as men secretly hoped their corseted girlfriends would hang on to their arms (using a hanky, of course) during the harrowing journey.

Bump Buggies and Matterhorns

As competition amongst inventors increased, roller coaster designers began including special effects such as dark tunnels and painted scenery as part of the ride experience. Called “Scenic Railways”, because the name “Boring Clackety Bump Buggy Even Your Grandmother Would Find Dull” was already taken, these rides ushered in the Golden Age of roller coasters in the 1920s, an era defined by the famous Cyclone at Coney Island in New York City. With the advent of the Great Depression (Official Motto: “We Weren’t Really All That Depressed, Just Really, Really Anxious”) along with the onset of World War II, the subsequent scarcity of raw materials and entertainment money saw a decline in roller coaster demand. It wasn’t until 1959, when Walt “Registered Trademark” Disney introduced the new steel design of the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland, that roller coasters saw a resurgence in popularity. Things came “full circle” with the use of that roller coaster pun to describe the massive new wooden roller coaster, the Racer, at King’s Island in 1972, and the modern roller coaster craze, which we’re going to call the “Incredibly Overpriced Parking Age”, began.

So next time you’re experiencing the thrills, whiplash and potential spinal injury of an old-fashioned wooden roller coaster, remember how lucky you are you’re not riding a Gorka Katalnaya, whatever that was. And watch out for Skittle vomit when you exit the ride.

Photo Credit: John C. Bruckman @ Innereye Photography cc

Leggo My Legos!
Piecing together the story of one of the most popular toys in shag carpet history.

Legos are a line of small, plastic, foot-impaling carpet mines consisting of colorful, interlocking bricks, gears, wheels, minifigures, creatures, silverware, ice cube trays, Death Stars, alarm clocks – pretty much anything that can exist in three dimensions. Created by Ole “Oxen Free” Kirk Christiansen, a wooden toymaker from Denmark, the ubiquitous building blocks have dominated the toy industry for decades, and are officially endorsed by the International Physician’s Society of Things That Hurt Your Feet And Keep Us In Business.

Acrylonitrile Butadiene and the Vinyl Caped Jawa

[x_pullquote type=”right”]Calling the name of his company “Lego”, from the Danish phrase leg godt, which means “*&#^%#!! my foot!”, Christiansen originally created his toys out of wood, first moving to plastic toys in 1947.[/x_pullquote]Calling the name of his company “Lego”, from the Danish phrase leg godt, which means “*&#^%#!! my foot!”, Christiansen originally created his toys out of wood, first moving to plastic toys in 1947. These ancestors of our familiar Lego bricks were called “Automatic Binding Bricks” and were manufactured from cellulose acetate, a type of material which has it’s own Wikipedia entry so you can look it up if you’re really interested. Toy manufacturers of that era believed that plastic would never replace wood toys, but they didn’t count on hordes of basement-cluttering Star Wars action figure collectors who still needed that one vintage 1978 Vinyl Cape Jawa to complete their collection. The modern brick design of the toy was developed by Ole’s son Godtfred in 1958, who envisioned an entire toy line based on the blocks. A five-year search to find the best material ended with the discovery of Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene Polymer, who was working as a busboy in a cafe in Silkeborg and jumped at the chance at plastic stardom. The range of accessories, sets and styles of Lego blocks now appears exhaustingly infinite, as is evidenced by the tub of them your two-year-old just dumped out onto your living room rug.

Harry Potter and the Kongernes Jelling

The head office for the Lego group is still located in Billund, Denmark, although it is very difficult to find because it is made from the Limited Edition Home Office Collector Set (with revolving action HR department) and is only 12″ tall. Billund is not only the headquarters of the Lego empire, but is home to the first LEGOLand, which opened in 1968, as well as something called a “Kongernes Jelling“, which sounds like some blob monster Harry Potter fought in someone’s demented fan fiction, and also the Govskud Zoo, whose curiously stationary animals have since been proven to be made entirely of Legos.

Lego facts

  • The Lego Group’s motto is det bedste er ikke for godt which means roughly “Sorry about your foot, but maybe you should consider ditching that shag carpet if you’re going to have kids”.
  • In February 2015, Lego replaced Ferrari as the “World’s most powerful brand”, to which Ferrari has responded, “Try getting a date driving a Lego car.”
  • LEGO is the third largest toy manufacturer in the world, after the company that makes bubble wrap, and Ferrari.
  • Six LEGO bricks can be combined in 915,103,765 ways, one-third of which will end up permanently stuck together.
  • All male minifigures wore hats until 1979 when it was discovered that every single one of them was bald.
  • On average, every person on the earth owns 86 LEGO bricks, 43 of which are under their couches.
  • In May 2011, the Space Shuttle Endeavour brought 13 Lego kits to the International Space Station, where astronauts are still finding two-stud bricks jammed in the solar panel guidance system.
Photo Credit: Chi King cc

For the Last Time, He’s Not a Doll, He’s an “Action Figure”! (G.I. Joe)
Our kung-fu-grippy perspective on G.I. Joe.

In the early 60s the Hasbro (Remember Our Darth Vader Chopper?) Company determined too many boys were drawing camo on their sister’s Barbie outfits and dropping them from the front porch with Kleenex parachutes, and so decided boys needed their own line of doll-like toys. Thus was born history’s most kung-fu-grippy action figure, to the delight of 50-year-old mint-in-box toy collectors everywhere.

Golf Instructor Joe and the Action Nurse

[x_pullquote type=”right”]Other attempts, such as “Golf Instructor Joe”, “Gift Ideas Joe” and “Gandhi Impersonator Joe” were equally disastrous.[/x_pullquote]Realizing that boys would never play with something actually called a “doll”, unless it involved firecrackers or actual fire itself, Hasbro decided to come up with a military action figure dubbed a “G.I. Joe”. However, initial testing by a decidedly non-military-savvy design team began with a “G. I. (Gastro Intestinal) Joe” for distribution to irritable bowel syndrome patients at local hospitals, and proved disappointing when they discovered most patients were more interested in doubling over in pain than playing with a doll wearing an open-backed hospital gown. Other attempts, such as “Golf Instructor Joe”, “Gift Ideas Joe” and “Gandhi Impersonator Joe” were equally disastrous, until the design team was tersely informed by a surly boy with red hair and freckles that everyone knows “G. I.” stands for “Government Issue” and was a military term. A new design was hastily drawn up featuring a not-a-doll with full military gear and movable joints. Dubbed “America’s Movable Fighting Man”, in order to differentiate it from the non-moving fighting men action figures made for conscientious objectors, the first G.I. Joe prototypes were presented as the characters “Rocky” (Soldier) “Skip” (Sailor) and “Ace” (Pilot). A fourth character, “Boondoggle”, (Senior Office Specialist/Resident Liaison – Pricing Coordinator) was quickly dropped. The actual product offerings were designed to represent the four branches of the armed forces with the “Action Soldier” (U.S. Army), “Action Sailor” (U.S. Navy), “Action Pilot” (USAF), “Action Marine” (USMC) and later, the “Action Nurse” (with Removable Syringe and Unwanted Advances Backslap).

Ken should have had the Kung-fu Grip

With the progression of the Vietnam war in the late 60s and the subsequent anti-war tone of the country, G.I. Joe’s focus was shifted from that of a soldier to bold adventurer, featuring death-defying characters such as Aquanaut, Talking Astronaut, Marriage Counselor, etc. Talking variants were introduced in 1967, featuring figures spouting such phrases as “Sound off!”, “Send reinforcements!” and “Did someone say we have an Action Nurse?”. In 1970, the war theme was done away with in favor of an Adventure Team, and lifelike flocked hair and beards (except presumably for the Action Nurse) were introduced. The famous “Kung-fu Grip” was introduced in 1974, and allowed for the soft, movable fingers to break off more quickly. Joe continued to grow in popularity and has since been featured in comic books, animated TV shows and movies; his legacy continuing to provide new generations of boys a toy they can use to beat up their sister’s Ken doll.

G.I. Joe facts

  • G.I. Joe was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2003. In his controversial acceptance speech, he called for world leaders to “Crush the head of Cobra! Go Joe!”
  • G.I. Joe has a scar across his right cheek, which he received during a particularly savage marriage counseling session.
  • The G.I. Nurse Action Girl, introduced in 1967, was a colossal failure, mostly because, well, it was a girl.
  • G.I. Joe’s archenemy Cobra was introduced in both the comic book and TV versions, and today continues to harass the Joes with midnight phone calls imploring them to purchase continuing health coverage.
Photo Credit: Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka cc