Category: In the Beginning

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Lest you think this is something thought up just to annoy you, rest assured, your great-great-great-great-great-etc. grandparents had just as many (if not more) disgusting and obnoxious household pests as you do – both in body and in agriculture.

For example, guinea worms (three-foot-long worms that mature from larvae inside your body and then burrow out of you via acidic secretions) have been found in ancient Egyptian mummies, caterpillars were mucking up Chinese citrus groves by 1200 BCE, and the 8th century BCE poet Homer wrote just one of many, many literary accounts of locust swarms attacking plants and people.

Natural Defenders

It’s highly likely that some of the earliest means for fighting common pests were natural ones. For instance, those Chinese citrus farmers didn’t just sit around and let the caterpillars take over. Instead, they built an intricate network of ropes and bamboo sticks that connected tree-to-tree and high branch-to-low. Then they released a particular species of insectivore ant that quickly went to work devouring every caterpillar (and, as an added bonus, every wood-boring beetle) in sight. The scaffolding provided by the humans helped the ants move efficiently through the orchard and made it easier for them to clear every tree of invaders. Strangely enough, biological controls similar to this ancient one are still being used today. In fact, it’s actually a little easier to “outsource” the predator’s work now that we have access to a planet’s worth of animals and can import the best ones from several continents away. In the 19th century, for example, California citrus growers imported a species of ladybug from Australia that turned out to be extremely well-adapted to killing off the cottony cushion scale, an insect that litters citrus trees with thousands of pillowy egg sacks. The African cassava mealybug, responsible for destroying much of that continent’s nutritionally important cassava crop, was brought under control by a South American wasp in the 1980s. And, in a slightly different scenario, a moth introduced to Australia in the 1880s was able to completely wipe out the prickly pear, a plant that had caused ranchers no end of trouble as it choked out edible species from the land.

Besides exploiting predatory scenarios, humans have also been selectively breeding hardier pest-resistant plant species and sub-species for thousands of years. In fact, archaeologists believe that this has been happening, albeit rather unconsciously, as early as 7000 BCE. The first real scientific research on the subject was done in the 1870s by entomologist C.V. Riley. By grafting tough, resilient American grapevines onto their more delicate European counterparts (the grape equivalent of interbreeding), Riley was able to halt a massive outbreak of the grape-destroying phylloxera aphid. Before Riley and his American vines saved the day, phylloxera had eaten up nearly a third of the wine grapes in all of France. Of course, Riley’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed. For saving he wine industry and making the world safe for future generations of liquor snobs, riley was awarded the Gold Cross of the French Legion of Honor, the equivalent of the American Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Chemical Repellants

Don’t be fooled. Just because our ancestors were fighting pests by natural means, doesn’t mean that they were opposed to tossing toxic chemicals at the buggies. In fact, history shows that humans have been drenching their soil in pesticides for almost as long as we’ve been farming. Ancient Mesopotamians apparently dusted their fields with powdered sulfur. Other ancient societies fought the good fight with things like arsenic, lemon oil, wormwood, the aptly named fleasbane, and salt. And the ancient Egyptians even used a mixture of natron, a strong salt used in the mummification process, and water to rid their homes of fleas and lice. Believe it or not, these early methods were perfected and used for centuries. In the 1st century CE, Romans were still fighting insects by burning sulfur and letting its smoke “gas” their crops. Even as late as the 17th century, the basic ingredients of chemical remedies remained largely unchanged, with household ants killed off by a mixture of honey and arsenic. The truth is, even today, sulfur remains an important element in chemical control. In the 1840s, sulfur dusting and a spray made of sulfur and lime helped American and European farmers control the bacterial disease vine powdery mildew – a success that marks the first time humans truly gained the upper hand in the battle of pest control.

The Color Purple

It was a later 19th century success, however, that popularized the widespread use of chemical pesticides and prompted commercial research into newer, better formulas. In the 1870s, Western pioneers brought the hearty, tasty potato to their new homes in Colorado, unaware that the territory was already home to a virulent beetle that would decide potatoes were its new favorite food. Christened the potato beetle, the bugs quickly broke the bonds of former habitat and flooded eastward, looking for more spuds. Along the way, they decimated potato crops all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Then, they managed to hitch a ride on a ship and eat their way through Europe as well. But in 1877, the beasts were finally halted in their tiny tracks, thanks to two chemical compounds that became the most famous pesticides of the 19th and early 20th centuries: Paris Green and London Purple. Both were water-insoluble and made from the extremely toxic chemical arsenic. Oddly, both also had ties to then-popular household dyes and paint pigments. Paris Green, invented in the 1840s, got its name after being used to kill rats in the Paris sewers. London Purple was developed much later, in 1872 and was a byproduct of the London dye industry. One of the key ingredients in London Purple, the indigo-derived chemical aniline, was also the base that allowed London chemists to “invent” the color mauve in the 1850s.



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Arthur Conan Doyle probably had more in common with his second-most famous creation, Dr. Watson, than he did with Sherlock Holmes. Specifically, he too was a doctor – and that training gave him the tools he needed to write his stories. As a student at the University of Edinburgh, he met a famous surgeon named John Bell, renowned for his use of deductive reasoning to solve medical mysteries. Conan Doyle later claimed that Bell was the logical inspiration for Holmes, although Bell begged to differ. Bell’s modesty aside, there definitely seems to be a lot more Watson coming from Conan Doyle’s true-life experiences. After med school, the young doctor went off to see the world, traveling as a ship’s surgeon to the Arctic and West Africa and witnessing three wars along the way. A Study in Scarlet, the first of the four Sherlock Holmes novels, begins with a similar story: Dr. Watson has just come back from the Afghan war, where he has encountered considerable misfortune.

The name “Sherlock” also came from Conan Doyle’s life – his grandmother was named Jane Sherlock. The mystery surrounding “Holmes,” though, is a bit more complicated. The detective was probably named after a man Doyle admired; the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes. But the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221b Baker Street in London offers hints in another direction. Its official material read: “No official records of the lodgers who lived here in Victorian times exist. Local authority records do state that the house was registered as a lodging house between 1860-1934, and that the maids who worked in it were related to a Mr. Holmes. A Dr. Watson also lived next door in the 1890s, as an “artificial teeth manufacturer.”

Conan Doyle practiced medicine in several towns around the United Kingdom; however, he never saw any success from the profession. In fact, he started writing stories to supplement his income, and Sherlock Holmes first appeared in print in 1887 in Beeton’s Christmas Annual. Within three years, Doyle had written two Holmes novels, and a new magazine called Strand had started serializing his stories. These finally made Holmes a hit. A good thing, too, since Doyle’s ophthalmology practice was thoroughly unsuccessful: he wrote in his autobiography that he didn’t see a single patient.

Elementary Education

The truth is Holmes never actually says “elementary, my dear Watson;” the closest he comes is plain old “elementary,” in the short story “The Crooked Man.” “Elementary, my dear Watson” probably originated in one of the many riffs on the Holmes stories that were popular in the early 1900s. The 1929 film The Return of Sherlock Holmes is one candidate, since the line appears in the final scene. The 1899 play Sherlock Holmes is another possibility; William Gillette, who directed and starred, is reported to have delivered the line, “Oh, this is elementary, my dear Watson.” If so, he did it off the cuff – it’s not in the script.

[Published in Mental_foss In The Beginning, Mary Carmichael, Will Pearson, Mangesh Hattikudur, eds., HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022, 2007; p. 29]

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The Encyclopedia

“Encyclopedia” is a strange word. It goes back to the Greek “enkyklos paideias” or “the things of boys/children in a circle” which makes about as much sense to us as it does to you. The first encyclopedia actually predates the word itself – it was written in 1270 BCE, in Syria – and the concept seems to have also occurred in the Romans; Pliny the Elder was renowned for attempting to compress all the scientific knowledge of his time into 37 volumes. Much later, in 1408 during the Ming Dynasty in China, the Emperor Yongle oversaw the writing of one of the largest encyclopedias in history at 11,000 volumes and 370 million characters, all handwritten. (Only about 400 of the volumes still exist.) But the idea of an encyclopedia doesn’t seem to have translated to English until 1768, when three Scots started setting down the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, one pamphlet at a time. It’s not even remotely recognizable as the encyclopedia we have today. Horse diseases got 39 pages, and the editors also made a point of calculating the number of species on Noah’s ark (177). The word “woman,” on the other hand, got just four words: “the female of man.”

Britannica First Edition Replica Set (3 vol.) (Britannica Black)

Samuel Johnson and the Dictionary of the English Language

When Johnson published his seminal work in 1755, it wasn’t just a dictionary – it was the dictionary, and it pretty much held on to the title until well over 100 years later; when the Oxford English Dictionary finally overtook it. A few dictionaries had been published before, but none was nearly as comprehensive. Nor did any use quotations to illustrate how the words should be used. Of course, during the nine long years he spent writing it. Johnson didn’t necessarily have any way of knowing how important his dictionary would turn out to be. Certainly, no one else seemed to know either. The only patronage Johnson could get for the book was the measly sum of ten pounds from one Lord Chesterfield, who realized his mistake only when he saw early drafts of the finished work. Trying to make up for slighting Johnson (and perhaps also trying to get future editions of the book dedicated to himself, as they would have been had he supplied more money in the first place). Chesterfield wrote several glowing reviews of the dictionary in popular magazines of the time. Johnson was not amused and wrote the Lord a nasty note, containing several chestnuts including the famous line, “Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for Life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help?” Zing!

A Dictionary of the English Language: An Anthology (Penguin Classics)

James Murray, W.C. Minor, and the Oxford English Dictionary

Over the 100 years after the publication of Johnson’s dictionary; the English language changed quite a bit. So in 1857 the London Philological Society decided it was high time for a new dictionary and set out on a grand quest to put one together, using mailed-in contributions from thousands of learned men and perhaps a few pseudonymous women. (We wonder, does this make the Oxford English Dictionary the world’s first wiki?) The project had a few false starts: one editor died a year into it, and another spent well over a decade preparing for what was supposed to be a ten-year project in the first place. Finally, the lexicographer James Murray took over in 1879, a commitment that would occupy the rest of his time on Earth, and then some. By 1884, Murray and his team of volunteers had gotten as far down their list as ant. The final result wouldn’t be published until 1928, 13 years after Murray’s death. The dictionary’s other main contributor, W.C. Minor, didn’t live to see it completed either. Most of Minor’s contributions were sent in form an asylum in England; a veteran with evidence of battle trauma, he had been confined there after shooting and killing a man in 1872. Minor was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. In the years to come his condition deteriorated so badly that he cut off his own penis. He died, impoverished and hospital bound in 1920.

Paperback Oxford English Dictionary

Noah Webster and an American Dictionary of the English Language

If you’re impressed by Sam Johnson’s nine years of slaving on his dictionary, you’ll be blown away by Webster, who started his at age 43 and finished in 1828 at 70. As a young Yale grad and member of the bar, Webster grew disinterested in practicing law, so he moved to teaching. While in the classroom though, he noticed a dearth of quality textbooks, so he wrote the iconic “blue-backed speller,” a basic textbook used in classrooms for decades. In fact, the book has never been out of print since and estimated sales are as high as 100,000,000 copies! He’s also responsible for founding New York City’s first daily newspaper in 1893, American Minerva. In fact, Webster’s editorials in the Minerva got quite a reaction: he was called “a pusillanimous, half-begotten, self-dubbed patriot,” “an incurable lunatic,” “a toad in the service of sans-cullottism,” “a prostitute wretch,” “a great fool, and a barefaced liar,” “a spiteful viper,” and “a maniacal pedant.” And yet when he died he was considered an American hero, partly because his dictionary wasn’t just supremely useful – it was an expression of national pride. Webster’s the guy you have to thank for a number of linguistic differences between Americans and the British: “color” instead of “colour,” for instance. Basically, Webster was a man on a mission. Noticing that Americans were developing lots of regional tics and dialects, he wanted to make sure everyone sounded at the very least like they were speaking the same language. More important, though, he didn’t want people sounding like the Brits.

American Dictionary of the English Language (1828 Facsimile Edition)

Roget’s Thesaurus

Peter Mark Roget had a good bit of experience with reference books by the time he decided to write the world’s best-known thesaurus: a physician, he was one of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s major contributors on medical topics. And he’d been compiling a list of words for half a century. So in 1852, he released Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. Organized by categories instead of alphabetically – and lacking many of the features that had appeared in the 40-odd thesauruses (thesauri?) published before then – the work mystified most people at first. That is until they realized it could instantly make them sound smarter. By the time Roget died, he had personally overseen 25 reprintings. The thesaurus would continue to be updated many, many times after that, often serving as a lens for the culture of its times. Time magazine, in 1930, reported that a Jewish advocacy group had “flayed the Crowell company for perpetrating roget’s shameful connotations of the word Jew: cunning, usurer, rich, extortioner, heretic, deceiver, imposter, harpy, schemer, lickpenny, pinchfist, shylock, chicanery, duplicity, crafty.” The word “Jew” was soon deleted, erased, edited out, and removed from the book.

Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases


(Mary Carmichael, Will Pearson, Mangesh Hattikudur, eds., Mental_floss In The Beginning, Arts and Literature, HarperCollins Publisher, 2007; pp. 26-27)

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