Get to the Choppa! (Helicopters)
A brief history of vertical flight, plus, lots of accent thingys

Helicopters are aviation devices that utilize rotating blades for lift, used primarily for transport and for dumping Bond villains into tall smokestacks. They are also used for military purposes, law enforcement, medical use, and for providing something for Arnold Schwarzenegger to point to while yelling “Get to the choppa!”.

Here come those accent thingys again

Although helicopters are one of the more recent methods of powered flight, references for vertical flight come from as far back as ancient China, where Chinese boys would tie small animals to rockets, as well play with bamboo flying toys that were spun by rotating a stick attached to a rotor. It would take six centuries for the Chinese to realize that rocketed-powered rats could only get you so far in the vertical flight race, as they didn’t develop their own helicopter design until the 1950’s, with help from their buddies the Soviet Union. However, the Chinese bamboo toys would served as a model for later helicopter experiments by European inventors with names containing lots of those accent thingys over the letters, such as “Alphonse Pénaud” and Gustave de Ponton d’Amécourt. They developed a variety of tethered helicopter devices, useful for advertising used car sales and high school pranks, but not yet practical. It was French inventor d’Amécourt himself who coined the word “helicopter” in 1861, by graciously taking all of the accent thingys out of the French word hélicoptère, which itself was derived from the Greek words “helix” and “pteron”, which themselves were derived from some even older words, all the way back to some noises a caveman grunted when he saw a dead bird cartwheeling out of the sky.

Watch out, short people

Ján “Ha! I’ve Got One More Accent Thingy Than You, Gustave de Ponton d’Amécourt” Bahýľ developed a helicopter model in 1901 that was powered by an internal combustion engine. It reached a height of 1.6 ft; useful for trimming some of the taller grass in his back yard, but fairly dangerous around children and short people. Finally, two French brothers, Jacques and Louis Breguet, were able to achieve the first manned flight with their Gyroplane No. 1; with the pilot achieving a brief, one minute trip about 2 feet off the ground before realizing he forgot his cell phone in the house. Another Frenchman, Paul “Ain’t Got No Accent Thingys” Cornu was able to pilot his double-bladed machine up to 6.5 feet into the air, but had to abandon his design because of instability (the helicopter’s, not his).

Cyclic Pitch and the fast-sounding “turbs”

A major advancement occurred in the 1920’s when another accented inventor, an Argentine named Raúl Pateras-Pescara de Will This Name Ever End Castelluccio, was able to successfully apply the concept of “cyclic pitch”, where coaxial, contra-rotating, biplane rotors could be warped to cyclically increase the blah blah blah and then the helicopter flew! Other inventors throughout the 20s and 30s perfected helicopter design, even though some of their names were woefully lacking in accent thingys, culminating with the concept of a transverse rotor mounted on the tail, which allowed for stability and a cool way to cut off the villain’s head at the end of action movies. Russian-born engineer Igor Sikorsky was the main instigator of practical, mass-produced helicopters, developing helicopters for the military for use in picking up injured soldiers who had been shot by other helicopters. The famous (to helicopter enthusiasts, I suppose) Bell 47 was the first machine certified for civilian use in the US, and was also the type of helicopter flown in the TV show M*A*S*H, although it is still involved in a protracted lawsuit involving rerun residuals. With the addition of turbines, turboshafts and other mechanical things that contain the fast-sounding word “turb”, helicopter design advanced rapidly, reaching it’s nadir with the production of Airwolf in 1984, which, if the producers had been thinking, should have talked like the car in Nightrider.

So, next time you’re being airlifted to the hospital because you tried to say a word with too many accent thingys, or you’re just contemplating if there really are any other aviational words containing the word “turb”, be thankful for helicopters, science’s excuse for being able to say “get to the choppa!”

Photo Credit: Defence Images cc

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.

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

Here’s an Idea: Write About the Light Bulb
We shed some dubious light on the most important invention since Easy Cheese.

There is one invention by which all others are measured in terms of impact and usefulness, having irrevocably changed when and how we live our lives. I’m speaking, of course, about Easy Cheese, which you can accurately spray into your mouth at all hours of the day with the help of another cool invention, the light bulb. Commonly accredited to inventor Thomas Edison, the incandescent bulb was the result of many earlier experiments by multiple scientists in laboratories surrounded by bubbling test tubes and those cool, tall arcing things that zap lightning bolts like in the original Frankenstein movie. A final, commercially successful version of an incandescent bulb was achieved around 1879, finally giving cartoonists something they could use to represent when Mickey Mouse had a brilliant idea. But before we get to that we have to read about some boring history stuff.

Navel lint and tanning beds

Although the basic principle of the light bulb seems simple to you and me today, because we’ve never had to invent anything more complex than a way to get the lint out of our navel, it took years of experimentation to produce a commercially viable bulb that would afford mankind the ability to get skin cancer in tanning beds without having to go outside. Up to 22 inventors could lay claim to being the inventor of the incandescent bulb, but since most of them are dead we’re going to have to rely on Wikipedia again for the real truth.

Fifty Shades of Sprengel pumps

[pullquote type=”right”]Savvy experimenters hit upon the idea of using a vacuum inside the bulb in order to help the filament burn longer, but this proved difficult, as the vacuum wouldn’t be invented until 1901, and the bulb would have had to be gigantic in order to accommodate it.[/pullquote]Humphry “For The Last Time, There’s No ‘E’ In My First Name!” Davy created the first incandescent lamp in 1802 by passing an electric current through a platinum strip. Over the next 75 years, various inventors also tried iridium wires, carbonized paper filaments, bamboo, inanimate carbon rods and evacuated, semi-evacuated or fully constipated enclosures. In 1835 James Bowman “Goober” Lindsay demonstrated a constant electric light in Dundee, Scotland, which he stated allowed him to “read a book at a distance of one and a half feet, although it was ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, so, yeah.” Savvy experimenters hit upon the idea of using a vacuum inside the bulb in order to help the filament burn longer, but this proved difficult, as the vacuum wouldn’t be invented until 1901, and the bulb would have had to be gigantic in order to accommodate it. Fortunately, light bulb inventors weren’t as lame as that last joke and were able to achieve viable vacuum bulbs by the late 19th century. Edison began using the extensive resources of his Menlo Park laboratory to develop his own bulb around 1878. The first successful test was on October 22, 1879, with a bulb that lasted 13.5 hours, long enough to allow him to finish a really tough jigsaw puzzle of him kicking Nikola Tesla in the butt. Historians believe that Edison’s version of the light bulb was able to overshadow other models for three reasons: he found a more effective incandescent material, he was able to achieve a higher vacuum through the use of a Sprengel pump, and he was millionaire playboy Thomas Freakin’ Edison. Lamps with three-way filaments were invented as early as 1902, and allowed homeowners to experience multiple levels of storage boxes in which to toss their half-burnt-out bulbs in hopes they might still work somewhere else, like the downstairs closet.

Today, the light bulb and it’s current variations is as common and necessary to our way of life as the television, car, or television shows about cars. And remember, when spraying your Easy Cheese, to squirt it in short bursts.

Photo Credit: – Komodor – cc