Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Miracle Mender in a Tartan

A home dispenser package circa 1950

Indulge me.  Close your eyes and try to remember a time when you really did need string to tie up those brown paper packages.  When yards of satin ribbon and six thumbs were needed to keep the colored tissue paper prettily surrounding the gift box.  When the ripped pages of your favorite book were doomed to be forever sundered.  When that torn $5 bill could not be mended and spent.  When there was nothing to hold your eye lid and nose in peculiar positions to frighten your baby siblings.
Yes, those were dark, dark days.  Before the invention that rescued us all.  In keeping with this blog’s occasional mission of reminding us of the inventions that really and truly changed our lives, I give you Scotch Tape!
Actually tape of any kind in the modern sense hasn’t been around very long.  The first marriage of some kind of gum, glue, or adhesive to some sort of material or fabric is credited to English physician Horace Day in 1845.  He devised strips of fabric coated with a rubber gum for use in surgical bandages.  The idea was slow to catch on because no one had yet thought to put the stuff on reels.  It had to be kept laid out flat.
A small advance occurred in 1921 when a Johnson & Johnson cotton buyer put a cotton pad on short strips of adhesive cloth like Dr. Day’s and backed them with crisp crinoline. The adhesive face protected by easy to peel off waxed paper—and the Band-Aid was born.
But still no tape on a roll.  That was the creation of a young engineer, Richard Gurley Drew in 1925.
Drew had first worked for Johnson & Johnson, so was familiar with adhesive.  But he had shifted his allegiance to the Minneapolis Mining & Manufacturing Co.  They were predominately operators of sand and gravel pits.  But in addition to the usual customers for building material, the company had created a profitable niche for itself marketing their inexpensive raw material as industrial abrasives including various kinds of grinding and polishing wheels, and new products like sandpaper that affixed their grit to a disposable backing.  Within this limited field they were innovative and employed bright young men like Drew who helped develop a new product that could be used wet or dry and was intended for preparing auto bodies for painting.
One day Drew was sent to a local body shop along with a salesman, a common double duty of engineers in those days. He observed that painters in the shop had a hard time keeping down sheets of paper intended to keep the spray paint from running where it wasn’t wanted.  An idea was born.
Back in the lab, drawing on his experience with adhesives, he devised a paper tape on a roll—masking tape, ever after the painter’s friend.  Of course it took a little perfecting.  He took samples to one shop, which found the adhesive insufficient to keep a seal. The exasperated owner told Drew to “Take this tape back to those Scotch bosses of yours and tell them to put more adhesive on it!”  Drew not only improved the product, he sold this employer on the idea of using Scotch as a brand name for the tape, indicating that it was a thrifty choice.
Drew was soon given the go ahead to explore other possibilities.  High on his list was developing a tape for use in sealing industrial packaging.  After considerable experimentation, he developed a pressure adhesive tape on transparent cellophane.  After sending samples of a Chicago industrial baker to seal the ends of their wax paper wrapping, the enthusiastic customer wired back, “You’ve got a product.  Get it into production!”

And they did.  Scotch Brand Celulose Tape was introduced for sale on January 30, 1930.

The development of automated heat sealing process on packaging lines soon rendered the original use largely obsolete.  But another 3M engineer, John A Borden, invented something in 1932 that made the product indispensable to thrifty homes and offices who need to mend rather than replace torn and tattered items—a dispenser with a built-in cutter blade.

After the concept of adhesive backed tape on rolls was established. 3M and other companies came up with continued innovations—cloth backed electrical tape in the early ‘30’ and a rubber (now vinyl) version in 1954 and fix-everything Duct Tape in 1942.  The introduction of Scotch Brand Magic Transparent Tape in 1961 largely, but not entirely, replaced the original product. The new tape did not yellow or crack with age like cellophane, had a matte finish that did not reflect light so that it could even be used for affixing things to pages for offset press reproduction, and could even be written on with a ball point pen.

Scotch Tape took 3M to a whole new level as a company.  It eventually introduced many other new forms of tape for specialized applications and expanded into businesses from office supplies (Post-It Notes), to audio and video tape, to fabric treatments (Scotchgard) and many other products.
And as we can see, our lives were changed as well.  I say damn fine work, Richard Gurley Drew! 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Epic Fail—First Presidential Assassination Attempt

You have to feel a little sorry for Richard Lawrence.  He was in the right place at the right time, skulking around the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 30, 1835.  A funeral service for a member of Congress was breaking up.  All of the dignitaries of the government including the Chief Executive himself were in attendance and would have to pass within feet of him.  He carried in each side pocket of his coat one cocked and loaded single shot derringer flintlock pistol.  He had a plan.  What could possibly go wrong?
Lawrence was a 35 year old Englishman who had been hearing voices in his head for a very long time.  Some believe he may have been the victim of lead in the paint he used in his work. Back home those voices had told him that he was the son and the heir of Richard III and that somehow the American President had kept him from the Throne.  He believed what those voices told him with such certainty that he decided to cross the ocean and come to the United States to have his revenge.  Along the way he decided he was also King of the U.S. and that Andrew Jackson was a usurper.
Suddenly the doors of the Capitol flew open and the mourners, led by the President himself emerged.  Lawrence hid himself behind a pillar.  As Jackson neared, he drew his pistol and stepped in front of the President firing at his chest at point blank range.
We interrupt the narrative at this point to review a little bit about the victim of the assault.  Andrew Jackson was no stranger to violence. During the American Revolution acting as a courier for irregular troops in North Carolina at the age of 13 or 14, Jackson was captured by the Red Coats.  When he defiantly refused the order of a British officer to shine his boots, his cheek was slashed open by a saber. 
As a young man he took leave of his widowed mother taking with him a single piece of advice which he would follow to the letter the rest of his life, “Never sue for libel in a Court of Law.”  By that she ment that in affairs of honor the manly thing was confronting the offender personally and if possible, kill him. 
In the raw new territory of Tennessee Jackson read and began practicing law.  He also developed a reputation quick to anger and as a common tavern brawler.  As he rose in the society of Nashville, he assumed the manners and character of a gentleman.  Which means he abandoned wrestling in the mud, eye gouging, and trying to bite your enemy’s ear off.  Instead he subscribed to the Code Duello.  Over the years he was in several affairs of honor and was both shot and did the shooting. 
In one case he challenged a man who publicly asserted—truthfully—that his beloved wife Rachel was at least an inadvertent bigamist for marrying him before a divorce to her first husband was final.  On the field of honor his enemy purposefully “wasted” his shot.  In most cases the other party would do the same and both could leave the field with honor.  But Jackson took slow and steady aim at the defenseless man and shot him dead through the heart.
In 1813 a feud between Jackson, by then General of the Tennessee Militia and a former friend and subordinate officer Col. Thomas Hart Benton and his brother Jesse erupted into a wild street fight.  As Jackson closed to kill Thomas with a brace of pistols, Jesse snuck up behind him and shot him at point blank range in the side.  A ruckus between partisans of both sides ensued.  The Benton brothers fled town and Tennessee, although Tom would later reconcile with the old General and become a political ally as a Senator from Missouri.  Jackson nearly bled to death and lost partial use of his left arm.  Jesse’s ball remained lodged in his body and caused him almost constant pain for the rest of his life.
Then, of course, there was Jackson’s well documented heroics and adventures as an officer against Native American tribes, especially in the Red Stick War against the Creeks, at the legendary defense of New Orleans against the British, and finally marching through Florida in defiance of orders putting the nation at risk of a new war with Spain.
Back at the Capitol steps, when Lawrence fired a loud pop was heard and a cloud of black powder smoke briefly engulfed the two men.  But for some reason it was just a misfire and the ball never left the barrel.
As the smoke cleared the enraged 67 year old President lurched for Lawrence and began beating him with his heavy gold headed cane.  Lawrence stumbled.  He had trouble getting his second pistol out of his pocket while fending off blows.  When he did get it out, the second gun also misfired.  Jackson continued raining blows on the now prostrate man until witnesses physically dragged him away.
Jackson was unscathed, although he didn’t realize he had not actually been shot until he got back to the Executive Mansion and discovered nothing more than powder burns on his clothing.
Lawrence was taken to jail unconscious.  When he recovered he was examined by a doctor who declared that he was suffering from “morbid delusions.”
Later that spring Lawrence was put on trial.  The prosecutor was Francis Scott Key, better known as the writer of the Star Spangled Banner. Lawrence was found not guilty by reason of insanity, one of the first such verdicts in American history.  He lived his life out in various mental institutions until his death in 1861.
Jackson didn’t believe it for a second.  He was sure that Lawrence was a hireling of his political enemies in the emerging Whig Party or perhaps of the bankers irate over his blocking the renewal of the Charter of the Second Bank of the United State.  Vice President Martin Van Buren agreed.  Ever after he carried a brace of pistols to the Capitol to fulfill his Constitutional duties of President of the Senate.
Many historians have examined the matter and none have found any connection between Lawrence and Jackson’s many enemies.  That did not prevent the spread of the first conspiracy theories which seem to arise naturally from all assassinations and attempts.
Lawrence’s pistols ended up in the Smithsonian Institution.  Around the centennial of the attack, researchers there tested both guns to try to find out why they had misfired.  Both fired perfectly on the first attempt to shoot them.  The scientists placed the odds of both functional pistols misfiring at 1 in 250,000.  Jackson was a lucky man.
Even luckier that he did not live in the 21st Century when his assailant might have a Glock with an extended clip.  No gold headed cane would protect him.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Duck, It’s a Snow Flake!

It was a good thing troopers at Fort Keogh were issued warm, heavy buffalo robe coats and hats.  They needed them in January 1887 when the snow was significantly deeper than in this earlier photo.

Note:  Winter has been a bust in these parts this year.  I doubt we have had three inches of total accumulation in McHenry County all year.  And as I type this in the overnight hours, there is a thunderstorm outside with a forecast for tomorrow calling for highs in the 60’s and possible flash floods tomorrow.  Before we started mucking about with Mother Nature, winters tended to be made of sterner stuff.  By coincidence, yesterday’s post about the fate of the cow pony Old Blue touched on one of the same series of storms as this entry which made the winter of 1886-87 so memorable on the High Plains.  The following first appeared in the blog two years ago.

The winter of 1886-87 was the most brutal ever recorded over a wide swath of the West.  East of the Rocky Mountains from Indian Territory to Montana storm after storm dumped white stuff on the open range where much of the nation’s beef was raised.  The Great Blizzard of ’87, which lasted for ten days from January 9 to 19, was worst in Montana.  Sixteen inches of snow came down the first 16 hours amid driving winds and temperatures that dipped to -47˚.  And it just kept coming.

Cattle, already weakened by a summer drought and poor grass, floundered and died by the hundreds of thousands.  As ranchers began to try to dig out of drifts that covered their cabins and reached high lofts of their barns, they hoped things would get better.

But on January 29 at Fort Keogh near Miles City in southeastern Montana huge flakes began to fall.  And I mean huge.  Flakes were gathered and measured at 15 inches across and 8 inches thick weighing several ounces.  Men, horses, and cattle were actually injured by the falling flakes, the largest ever recorded anywhere.  The reports we so outlandish that they might have been dismissed as tall tales had they not been witnessed and attested to by a whole Army post.

More blizzards fallowed in February.  When the spring thaw finally came, coincidentally unleashing devastating floods, the corpses of millions of cattle littered the plains.  The industry was virtually wiped out and the old system of open range feeding never recovered.

So, campers, I know it’s been a rough winter a lot of places.  But thank your lucky stars the flakes of Fort Keogh did not fall again.