Category: Origins

Regular Words With Epic Roots

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In the late 600s BCE the Greek city-state of Athens got a new set of laws, drawn up by an official called Draco.  These weren’t the first Athenian laws, or even the first to be written down, but they were systematic and codified as never before.  They were also cruel.  even minor offenses were punishable by death.  Draco himself died after guests at a reception in his honor showered him with their cloaks – a gesture of respect.  He suffocated.  Not long after, another lawgiver, Solon, struck down Draco’s code in favor of a more compassionate system. Draco’s laws may have been short-lived, but his name lives on as the adjective draconian, meaning unusually harsh.  Solon’s name is an English synonym for legislator.


Flavius Petrus Sabbatius (483-565 CE)  was just a poor boy from Illyria (today’s Albania) who became Byzantine emperor.  Adopted by his uncle, the emperor Justin, young Flavius added Justinianus to his name and succeeded to the throne as Justinian I.  Considered a great ruler, Justinian fought barbarians in Italy and corruption in Constantinople, but he is best remembered for collecting and organizing the best Roman statutes in the Codex constitutionum in 529 CE.  (The Byzantine empire was a latter-day, eastern extension of the Roman Empire.)  Known as Justinian’s Code, this system underlies many laws still used today.  It’s also a source of our modern concept of impartial judgment and fair punishment.  Justinian’s name, by the way of Latin and French, became a word for that concept.


Guy Fawkes (1570-1606) almost succeeded in blowing up James I and the king’s entire government in 1605.  Although he was born in Yorkshire, Fawkes’s pro-Catholic sentiments led him to a career in the Spanish army.  When Catholic activists in England grew desperate over government persecution, they sent for Fawkes to attempt their assassination plan, the gunpowder Plot.  Caught in a Parliament cellar full of explosives, Fawkes was arrested, tortured, and executed.  The English commemorate his arrest every November 5, Guy Fawkes Day, by burning him in effigy.  Over the centuries, the word guy meant one of these effigies, then it evolved to mean any stuffed dummy, then a dull man, then a regular bloke.  Now just about everybody is a guy.


Before it was food, Sandwich was a town in England.  When Edward Montagu, an English admiral, was made an earl in 1660, he took the place name as part of his title.  A century later his descendant John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), sat down to a game of cards and didn’t leave the table for the next 24 hours.  For this dedicated gambler, sleep was as nothing.  Food, however, was another matter.  To keep up his strength, he called for chunks of meat between two slices of bread.  voila, a cuisine was born.

Toy Origins 1 —

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Created in 1931 by an out-of-work architect named Alfred Botts.  He hoped he could support his family by inventing a successful word game, but before the game was refined, he had his job back.  That was just as well; when he finally showed his hand-made “Criss-Cross” to toy companies, they insisted it had not potential – it was too intellectual.

In 1948, Botts and a friend went into business manufacturing the game, now called Scrabble, in an old schoolhouse.  It was an unsophisticated cottage industry that enabled the friend to barely eke out a living.  But in the summer of 1952, for no apparent reason, Scrabble suddenly became a fad.  In two years, the partners went from selling fewer than 10,000 games a year to selling more than 4 million.  To meet the growing demand, the rights were sold to Selchow-Righter, and 30 years later, Scrabble ranks as the second bestselling game in history.

Lincoln Logs

In 1916, Frank Lloyd Wright went to Tokyo to supervise construction of the Imperial Palace Hotel, a magnificent building assembled with an inner frame of wood so it would withstand earthquakes better.  Wright brought his son John with him, and as John watched workers move the huge timbers required for the structure, he came up with an idea for a wooden construction toy.  When he returned to America, John created Lincoln Logs.

Silly Putty

In 1945, an engineer at a General Electric laboratory in New Haven, Connecticut, was assigned the task of trying to create synthetic rubber.  One day he combined boric acid with silicone oil.  The result:  a bizarre substance with a variety of fascinating properties (it bounced, stretched, and could be broken with a hammer), but no practical use.  It became a New Haven conversation piece.  Several years later, a marketing man named Peter Hodgson saw a group of adults playing with the stuff at a cocktail party.  Hodgson was putting together a mail-order catalog for a toy store at the time, and decided to include this “nutty putty” in it.

The response was amazing.  Even without a photo, the putty outsold everything in the catalog except crayons.  Hodgson knew he had a winner, so he bought $147 worth of putty from G.E. and packaged it in little plastic eggs.  In the first five years, over 32 million containers of the stuff were sold worldwide.

Rubik’s Cube

Devised by Hungarian mathematician Erno Rubik in 1974 as an aid for teaching math concepts to his students.  Rubik realized the puzzle’s possibilities as a toy and ended up selling 2 million of the cubes in Hungary alone, a total of one cube for every five Hungarians.  In 1980, the Ideal Toy Corporation bought the rights, and the puzzle became a worldwide craze.  Rubik reportedly became “the first self-made millionaire in a Communist country.”


Richard James, a marine engineer, was trying to invent a spring that could be used to offset the effects of a boat’s movement on sensitive navigational instruments.  One day he knocked a simple spring off a high shelf, but instead of simply falling, it uncoiled like a snake and “crawled” down to the floor.  James realized he had a toy product, gave it a name, and formed the James Toy Company to manufacture it.

Tinker Toys

Charles Pajeau, an Evanston, Illinois, stoneworker, conceived of Tinker Toys in 1913 after observing some kids playing with “pencils, sticks, and empty spools of thread.”  He designed it in a garage in back of his house, and brought the finished toy, packed in its famous cannister, to the 1914 American Toy Fair.  But the public wouldn’t buy it.  So Pajeau had to prove his marketing genius; at Christmastime, he dressed some midgets in elf costumes and had them play with Tinker Toys in the windows of New York’s Grand Central Station and Chicago’s Marshall Field’s department store.  The publicity this stunt attracted made all the difference; a year later, more than a million sets had been sold.

Questionable Origins

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President of the United States

The first president of the United States is generally acknowledged to be George Washington (1732-99), who served as President from 1789 to 1797.  And yet, in 1781, while Washington, as commander in chief of the Continental army, was still leading the war against Britain, John Hanson (1715-83) was elected as the first “President of the United States in Congress Assembled.”  It would be eight more years, and six more presidents, before the presidency would go to George Washington.

In 1776, America had declared its independence from Britain, and in the same year Congress proposed the Articles of Confederation.  These articles were intended to bind together the loose confederation of independent states, but, because of territorial disputes between some of the states, the articles were not signed until 1781.

John Hanson was instrumental in bringing the last state, Maryland, his home state, into the confederation.  The new Articles of Confederation stipulated that the United States should appoint a president each year and that the person appointed should hold the post for the maximum period of one year in any three.  In the year of the signing, 1781, Hanson was unanimously voted in as the first president and served for one year, the period laid down in the articles.

During his term of office, Hanson established the great seal of the United States, the post of Secretary of War, the Treasury Department, and the Foreign Affairs Department, and he ordered all foreign troops off American soil.  The six presidents who followed each had a year in power until Congress replaced the Articles of Confederation with the American Constitution in 1789.

Despite carrying the title of President, under the Articles of Confederation, the office was not precisely that of chief executive of the country, but was more closely related to that of Speaker of the House.  In 1789 George Washington was unanimously elected as the first President under the newly written Constitution and served until 1797.

Fosbury Flop

Dick Fosbury of the United States is wrongly credited with being the first to use the then-revolutionary style of high jumping that bears his name.  There is no dispute that Fosbury won the 1968 men’s Olympic gold medal for the high jump using the “Fosbury Flop,” which no other jumper of the time used.  Nor is it disputed that he had independently developed the technique, but he was not the original.

The first person to use the “flop” method – launching himself at the high-jump bar with an arched back and facing skyward – was Bruce Quande, also an American, in 1963, and there are photographs to prove it.

Modern Olympics

What are termed the modern Olympics took place for the first time in Athens in 1896.  Nearly half a century earlier, in 1850, Dr. William Penny Brookes (1809-95) staged the first Olympic Games in Much Wenlock, a small Shropshire town.  The games were held annually, and by 1865 the number of spectators at the event had increased to ten thousand, with competitors making their way to the games from all over Europe.  Dr. Penny Brookes tried to generate interest from the Greek government to stage the same track and field events held at Much Wenlock, in Athens.  Unfortunately he met with no success.

But then, in 1856, Evangelis Zappas, a wealthy Greek businessman living in Romania, wrote to King Otto of Greece offering to fund a revival of the Olympic games.  Zappas proposed that the new games should be held for all time in Greece.  His sponsorship was accepted, and the first of the Zappa-sponsored Olympic games was staged in Athens.  Dr. Penny Brookes donated prize money for one of the events.   Zappas financed a second games in 1865 and a third in 1870.  The third games were for elite competitors only and were the last of the Zappas-funded games.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937), the acknowledged founder of the modern Olympics, visited Much Wenlock in 1890 at the invitation of Dr. Penny Brookes, and a special games was put on in his honor.  The baron wrote an article in the French sporting magazine La Revue Athletique, in which he said, “If the Olympic Games are revived, it will not be due to a Greek but to the efforts of Dr. W. P. Brookes.”

The modern Olympic movement inspired by his visit to Much Wenlock, six years later Baron de Coubertin went on to found the modern Olympic movement, and to stage the first of the modern Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens.  Sadly, William Penny Brookes died a few months before the games in Athens, unacknowledged and almost unheard of except in Much Wenlock.  The annual Olympian games continue in Much Wenlock, dedicated, as is a local museum, to the memory of Dr. William Penny Brookes.

It is interesting that over two hundred years earlier, Robert Dover’s “Olimpick Games” were being held annually in the Cotswold town of chipping Campden.  The first of these Olimpick games was held in 1612, and the games were held annually until 1852.  There was a gap of a century until they were revived in 1951 for the Festival of Britain.  Despite its eminent title, the Olimpick Games were never more than a large village sporting festival, with shin-kicking as one of the events.

Internal Combustion Engine

In 1807 Joseph Nicephore Niepce was granted a patent for a pyreolophore, powered by coal and resin.  In 1826 Samuel Morey (1762-1843), a prolific inventor who lived in the American state of Vermont, was granted a patent on an internal combustion engine.  Morey wrote a paper on his invention in the American Journal of Science and Arts, in the year of the granting of the patent, entitled “An Account of a new Explosive Engine.”  Morey’s invention predates Lenoir’s generally acknowledged first successful internal combustion engine by thirty-four years and that of Otto by thirty-eight years.

Pneumatic Tire

John Dunlop (1840-1921) is recorded as the inventor of the pneumatic (air-filled) tire, in 1888.  However, the pneumatic tire was actually invented by a twenty-three-year-old Scot, Robert Thomson (1822-73), who applied for a patent in 1845 for what he called an “aerial wheel.”  Dunlop had merely improved the original design, at the request of his son, by filling the tire with air to help make riding his bicycle more comfortable.

Light Bulb

The great American inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931), along with his thousand other patents, has received almost all the credit for inventing the lightbulb in 1879.  However, the lightbulb had actually been around since 1809, and was invented by Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829), in England.  Davy connected two wires to a battery and attached a charcoal strip between the other ends of the wires.  The charcoal glowed, making the first arc lamp.

In 1875 Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans patented a new version of the lightbulb in Toronto.  Unable to raise the capital to produce their lamps on a commercial scale, they sold out to Edison, who went on to improve the design and use a less powerful electric current.  In 1879 Edison in America and Joseph (later Sir Joseph) Swan (1828-1914) in England, simultaneously found a way to make the lightbulb a commercial proposition by giving it longer lasting qualities.

Henrich Gobel (1818-93), an American of German descent, produced an incandescent lamp in 1854, twenty-five years earlier than Edison and Swan, using carbonized bamboo as a filament.  By 1859 Gobel had improved his lamp so that it would last up to four hundred hours.  He took out a court case against Thomas Edison in 1893, claiming to be the inventor of the electric lightbulb.  The court accepted Gobel’s claim and recognized him, albeit wrongly, as the inventor of the electric lightbulb.  A few months after the court’s decision, Gobel died of pneumonia.

Discovery of America

Was America discovered by Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) in 1492, as is almost universally taught?  Or was it discovered in 1497 by the Italian explorer John Cabot (ca. 1425-1500) on an expedition sponsored by the wealthy British aristocrat Richard Amerike?  Or was it perhaps discovered in the tenth century by Vikings?  And now, to make matters even more confusing, there are Chinese claims that Admiral Zheng He went to America in 1421.

On his voyage west in 1492 Columbus was not looking to discover new lands.  The man who actually spotted land, most likely the island of San Salvador in the Caribbean, for the first time was Martin Alonzo Pinzon.  Richard Amerike sponsored John Cabot and asked him to name any “newfound lands” after himself.  There is a strong possibility that Cabot sailed to the east coast of America and named it America after Amerike.

Admiral He is supposed to have circumnavigated the earth, beginning his journey in 1405, and finally returning to China, not only having discovered America, but also Australia and Africa.  This massive journey of 31,000 miles is depicted on an ancient chart, which is now displayed at Beijing.  The Viking explorer Lief Ericsson (ca AD 980-1025) has a strong claim to have been the first European to set foot on the east coast of America after a sea journey westward from Scandinavia around the year Ad 1000.  His discovery is recorded in The Saga of Eric the Red, a book written in 1387 by Jon Thordharson (Eric was Lief’s father).

The original occupiers of the land of North America came from Asia, migrating across the land bridge that had linked Alaska with Russia 20,000 years earlier.  DNA tests and language comparisons have been conclusive in establishing the link between the Native American population and East Asians.


Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) is widely thought to have invented radio in 1896, and is known as the father of radio.  He did indeed pioneer the first long-distance radio broadcasts, and managed to have a patent granted, but Marconi did not invent radio itself.  In 1943 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Marconi’s patent in favor of the Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), who has now been properly credited as radio’s inventor.  Tesla died a few months before the final vindication of his work.


On February 28, 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick (1916-2004) announced that they had discovered the famous double helical shape of the DNA molecule.  Together with Maurice Wilkins (1916-2004), they were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.  DNA had actually been identified in 1869 by Swiss scientist Johann Friedrich Miescher (1844-95) working in Tubingen, Germany, but the actual structure had always remained elusive.

At a competing laboratory, at King’s College, London, Wilkins had been working with a brilliant young scientist, Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), whose pioneering use of X-ray crystallography to look into the structure of molecules was beginning to yield results.  Relations between Wilkins and Franklin were not particularly good, and in an act of savage betrayal Wilkins revealed Franklin’s research results, and the famous Photo 51, to Watson and Crick.  They quickly seized on this windfall and published their own paper, without acknowledging Franklin’s work.  It is widely thought that the wrong people were awarded the Nobel Prize.

Rosalind Franklin’s work had been properly recognized only in recent years.  It is one of the tragedies of medical history that she did not survive long enough to reap the reward for her work, dying at only thirty-eight, of ovarian cancer.  The cancer was almost certainly brought on by her heavy exposure to X-rays.

Speaking Machine

In 1788 Johann Wolfgang Ritter von Kempelen de Pazmand (1734-1804) invented the first “speaking machine.”  The device used a set of bellows to pump air across a reed, which in turn excited a hand-varied resonator to produce the sound of a voice.  the human voice was reproduced on the Kempelen machine, but not recorded.  De Pazmand’s device trumped Edison’s phonograph by a century.


Generally thought of as a 1960s hallucinogenic drug, LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) was actually synthesized in 1938 by the Swiss chemist Dr. Albert Hofmann.  When he repeated his experiment in 1943 and accidentally licked his fingertips, he discovered the hallucinogenic properties of LSD.  Hofmann insisted on continuing his experimental work by trying the drug out on himself.  Not knowing how much LSD to take, he accidentally took three times what would come to be regarded as the normal dose, and ended up on a massive hallucinatory “trip.”

On January 11, 2006, Dr. Hofmann reached his one hundredth birthday.  To celebrate the occasion, a three-day international psychedelic conference was held in Basel, Switzerland, On January 13-15, 2006.  There were more than two thousand delegates from thirty-seven countries, and it was attended by writers, artists, and scientists as well as friends and the press.  USA Today reported Dr. Hofmann saying, “I produced the substance as a medicine.  It’s not my fault if people abused it.”  He also claimed, “I had wonderful visions.”

LSD was marketed by Sandoz Laboratories in 1947 as a cure for schizophrenia and became freely available.  The first mass-produced LSD specifically for recreational use came from the laboratory of the renegade chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley III in 1965.  In 1967 he was sentenced to three years for possession of a huge quantity of the drug – the equivalent of 100,000 doses.

The First Powered Flight

The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, flew their powered airplane, the Flyer, for the first time at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina on December 17, 1903, and entered the history books as the pioneers of powered flight.  Yet, in New Zealand on March 31, 1903, farmer Richard Pearse, known as Bamboo Dick, flew 500 feet in a powered airplane, landed in a gorse hedge, and wrecked his machine.  He had beaten the Wright brothers by eight months, but Pearse was a man of high standards and refused to claim his rightful place in the history books.  He felt that the Wright brothers had landed under control, whereas he had not.  However, that does not alter the fact that Richard Pearse was the first human being to achieve flight in a heavier-than-air aircraft under power.