The history of the human being is divided into two major epochs, the dividing line between them being the first written record. If you were asked to name the greatest advance in mankind’s ability to record its history and disseminate ideas (before the internet, of course), you might well say that came in 1493, when Johannes Gutenberg of Germany created a printing press with movable type. Movable type meant that each letter was on its own block and they could be arranged as needed to form any text. Prior to this, an entire page of text had to be carved from a single block of wood, like one enormous stamp. Consider the time it would take to carve a single block, then multiply that by the number of pages in even the shortest book. Any printing press was an improvement over hand-lettered manuscripts, but the Gutenberg press could print over 200 pages per minute and gave the world what would be called the Gutenberg 42-line Bible. Books and the ideas they contained were no longer the exclusive purview of the wealthy. Greater access to ideas and information was a causative force behind such things as the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and the Industrial Revolution. But did you know the far east was printing books with moveable type nearly eight decades before the first Gutenberg Bible was bound?
A printing press with movable metal type was developed in Korea during the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392), in a desperate attempt to preserve religious texts in the face of Mongol invasions. The effort was successful, but only barely. A single copy of a single volume of one book remains. It is called Jikji, which is the abbreviated title of a Korean Buddhist anthology, whose title can be translated “Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests’ Zen Teachings”. The Jikji is a collection of excerpts from the teachings of the most revered Buddhist monks throughout successive generations, collated by a monk named Gyeonghan. It was published in two volumes in 1372, though the first volume has been lost.
Further weakening the Gutenberg-was-first position, the Korean press wasn’t even technically the first press with movable type. The earliest known non-metallic movable type was developed in China in the tenth century. That press used clay blocks, which proved to be too fragile, though it is thought to have directly influenced the Korean design. There is also evidence that Gutenberg’s press may not be an example of simultaneous invention. A record in the Swiss Museum of Paper indicates a papal delegation to Goryeo brought printing technology back to Europe.
Korea’s claim to origination carries some serious bona fides in the form of a 2001 addition to the Memory of the World Programme by UNESCO, the United Nation Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Three years later, the Jikji Memory of the World Prize was created, which “recognizes institutions that have contributed to the preservation and accessibility of documentary heritage, to safeguard against collective amnesia, neglect, the ravages of time and climatic conditions, and willful and deliberate destruction.”
If the listener would like to see the Jikji in person, they may want to bone up on their French. Rather than reposing rightfully in Korea, the Jikji has been kept in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris. It was acquired under unclear circumstances by the first French consul to Korea and passed to the Bibliotheque upon his death. The consensus in Korea is, unsurprisingly, that it should be returned to them, that cultural artifacts belong in their country of origin. The Bibliotheque adamantly refuses, arguing that the Jikji is part of humanity’s common heritage and therefore doesn’t belong to anyone. That raises the question, at least in this reporter’s mind, if it belongs to everyone and therefore no one, what would it matter if they gave it back? On a brighter note, a wood-carving print of Jikji containing the complete two volumes is currently kept in the National Library of Korea.
Sometimes a person we remember as the first to do something wasn’t preempted by someone else; they merely failed to complete the thing they’re credited with. Such is the case with Ferdinand Magellan, the name long attached to the first circumnavigation of the earth. Magellan certainly intended to sail around the globe when he set sail from Spain in September 1519. Of the five ships that began the voyage, only three made it as far as the Pacific Ocean. One was turned back by mutineers. Another was abandoned as it sailed through what is now known as the Strait of Magellan. It had taken a month to reach the Pacific Ocean and the crew of that ship had given up hope of a successful outcome. The three remaining ships floated in the Pacific Ocean for nearly three months, unable to re-supply until they landed in Guam. The crew was near starvation, but with so much distance behind them, it looked like they were going to succeed in reaching the Spice Islands, so the pressed on. In the end, only one ship would return to Spain, with a scant 18 of the original 260 crewmen. Magellan himself was among the dead, having been killed when the Spaniards were defeated by natives in the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines in April 1521.
There are two schools on thought on who should be credited with the first circumnavigation in Magellan’s absence. One side argues that distinction go to Magellan’s personal slave, Enrique of Malacca. Magellan had seized Enrique during a siege on a 1511 voyage to the East Indies, and the Malay man later served as the expedition’s interpreter in the Pacific islands. Shortly after Magellan’s death, Enrique abandoned the expedition and disappeared. By then, he was only a few hundred miles short of his origin in Malacca. If he continued on to his homeland, as many speculate he did, Enrique would have earned the credit for being the first person to circumnavigate globe, completing not Magellan’s journey, but his own.
Some historians argue that Magellan’s mission was completed by the handful of sailors who made it back to Spain under the command of Juan Sebastián Elcano. Elcano became captain of the ship Victoria after Magellan and two subsequent captains died, guiding her to the port of Sanlucar some three years after they had set out. Elcano was awarded an annual pension and a coat of arms by Charles I of Spain, featuring a globe with the motto: Primus circumdedisti me (in Latin, “You went around me first”), which sounds rather more like a Boy Scout badge than a prestigious honor.
Another name inexorably connected to pioneering accomplishments in long distance travel is Charles Lindbergh. “Lucky Lindy” became a media sensation in 1927 when, at age 25, he made a nonstop flight from Long Island, New York, to Paris, France. He covered the 3,600 statute miles (5,800 km) alone in the single-engine Spirit of St. Louis, in what was lauded to be the first non-stop flight between North America and Europe. While he retains credit for managing the flight alone, to have been the first to fly across the ocean, Lindbergh would have to have pulled those 33.5 hours before 1919. That was the year John Alcock and Arthur Brown
flew a modified World War I bomber from Newfoundland, Canada to Connemara, Ireland. They also carried a small amount of mail was carried on the flight, making it simultaneously the first transatlantic airmail flight.
Englishman John Alcock had been fascinated by aviation as a teenager and was a military pilot during WWI, taken prisoner in Turkey after the engines on his Handley Page bomber failed over the Gulf of Xeros. Scottish-born to American parents and raised in England, Arthur Brown was an engineer before the war. He also spent time as a POW after being shot down in Germany. In April 1913, the Daily Mail newspaper offered a prize of £10,000 (about $340,000 today) to “the aviator who shall first cross the Atlantic in an aeroplane in flight from any point in the United States of America, Canada or Newfoundland and any point in Great Britain or Ireland in 72 continuous hours.” Understandably, the contest was suspended with the outbreak of war in 1914, but reopened after Armistice was declared in 1918.
During his imprisonment, Alcock fixated on the idea of flying the Atlantic one day. After the war, he approached the Vickers engineering and aviation firm, who were converting a bomber for the long flight, replacing the bomb racks with extra petrol tanks, where Alcock’s enthusiasm impressed them so much that he was appointed as their pilot. When an unemployed Brown approached Vickers looking for a position, his knowledge of long distance navigation convinced them to take him on as Alcock’s navigator.
Taking off on July 14, 1919, the two pilots found themselves in for a flight that was difficult and treacherous, to put things mildly. The overloaded aircraft had difficulty taking off and only barely missed the tops of the trees. The wind-driven electrical generator failed, depriving them of radio contact, their intercom, and heating. An exhaust pipe burst shortly afterwards, causing a frightening amount of noise which made conversation impossible. They had to fly through thick fog, which should only be undertaken with gyroscopic instruments, which they did not have; Alcock twice lost control of the aircraft and nearly hit the sea after a spiral dive. Their electric heating suits had also failed, making them very cold in the open cockpit, but their coffee was laced with whiskey, because at that point, why not. Brown had to climb out onto the wings and knock accumulated ice from the carburetors, even while Alcock flew dangerously low in the hopes of preventing the engines from freezing over. Sixteen hours later, the two of them landed in Ireland. The situation did not improve as locals tried to wave them to a landing strip, but the two men crashed into a bog. This was not the result of error or ineptitude; Brown had removed the front wheel to reduce weight and they couldn’t risk trying to land on the runway. A week after the historic flight, the aviators were awarded the honour of Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by King George V.
This reporter’s husband would like the listener to know that the first transatlantic flight was in reality accomplished by an albatross, which earned him an annoyed stare.
Scientists and inventors rarely create something from absolutely nothing. They build on the work done by others. Sometimes, this mean improving or repurposing an existing technology. Sometimes, it’s a little closer to taking someone else’s work and putting your name on it. When it comes to the telephone, the latter proved to be true for Italian immigrant Antonio Meucci.
Meucci studied the principles of electromagnetic voice transmission for many years In 1856, he installed a telephone-like device within his house to connect his basement workshop to his second-floor, in order to communicate with his wife who was ill at the time. In 1871, he filed a patent caveat, a sort of legal “dibs” in place at the time to signify a person’s intention to file a full patent, describing his Sound Telegraph. Unfortunately for Meucci, the caveat was not properly written and left out key information. It detailed the need to insulate the parts, and even the user, without explaining the sound is converted to variable electrical conduction in the wire. Other sections were so vague that it was unclear that he had created something new at all.
It as omissions such as these that allowed Alexander Graham Bell to file his patent for the telephone in 1876. It was thought that Meucci’s difficult personal finances has prevented him from paying the fee for a full patent application, but he applied for and was granted four patents in the 1870’s, so we may never know the reason. Meucci had tried to move forward with the Sound Telegraph, presenting the plans and caveat to American District Telegraph Co. of New York, asking him for permission to test his apparatus on the company’s telegraph lines. Two years would pass without a response from the company. When Meucci asked for his documents back, but was allegedly told they had been lost.
In 1887, the Bell Telephone Company filed suit against various telephone companies and Meucci for patent infringement in court battles that lasted for years. The evidence he produced to substantiate his claim was disregarded. Sadly, Meucci did not live to see vindication, dying in 1889.
Bell’s name is often said in the same breath as 19th century America’s inventor immeritus, Thomas Edison, credited with giving the world the incandescent light bulb. As mentioned before, few inventions are the work of one person and in truth Edison had an entire laboratory of men testing potential filament materials and bulb constructions. Edison’s team did make significant improvements to the light bulb not only in the filament but with a higher vacuum than others were able to achieve, and a high resistance that made power distribution from a centralized source economically viable.
There had been numerous ancestors to the light bulb before Edison’s 1880 patent, some of which had patents of their own. As early as 1802, Sir Humphry Davy demonstrated incandescence with a strip of platinum. As a filament, it did not glow bright enough or last long enough, but precedence had been set. In 1838, Belgian lithographer Marcellin Jobard invented an incandescent light bulb with a vacuum atmosphere using a carbon filament. Five years later, British scientist Warren de la Rue enclosed a coiled platinum filament in a vacuum tube. The concept was that the high melting point of platinum would allow it to operate at high temperatures and that the evacuated chamber would contain fewer gas molecules to react with the platinum, improving its longevity. Although it worked, the cost of the platinum made it impractical for commercial use. In 1841, Frederick de Moleyns of England was granted the first patent for an incandescent lamp, with a design using platinum wires contained within a vacuum bulb. Another Moleyns design used carbon. In 1845, American John W. Starr acquired a patent for his incandescent light bulb involving the use of carbon filaments. However, he died shortly after obtaining the patent and his invention was never produced commercially.
Some of Edison’s R&D came in the form of buying the patent rights of other inventors, such as Canadians Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans, whose lamp consisted of carbon rods mounted in a nitrogen-filled glass cylinder.
Another name that has been given the credit for a group effort AND unwarranted first-status is Alan Turing. Turing is credited with cracking the Enigma code, the until-then utterly unbreakable German code system. This required the creation of the massive Bombe machine — a 6×7-ft aggregation of gears, rotors, and 12 miles’ worth of wiring capable of working to the equivalent of 36 Enigma machines. As the Bombe worked its way through every permutation of rotor settings, electrical current would either flow or not flow through the system, which was checked by the Bombe’s comparator unit. Using this method it was possible to check for a logical contradiction, ruling out particular rotor settings; if there was no contradiction the machine would stop and the rotor settings could be noted down. These could then be tested by hand on a Typex machine modified to work like Enigma. Meanwhile the Bombe could be started again, looking for the next possible solution, until the code had been broken. It’s been estimated that this single machine shortened the war by two to four years.
Turing and his team expanded upon earlier work done by Polish mathematicians. British intelligence focused on employing linguists to try to decipher the German codes; the Polish realized they really needed mathematicians capable of winnowing out patterns. Thus, they put together a team of their best: Henryk Zygalski, Jerzy Rozycki, and Marian Rejewski. Working together, the three developed electro-mechanical computers they nicknamed “bombas,” meaning bomb, owing to the ticking sound they made while in operation, which simulated the guts of an Enigma machine. Turing would eventually meet with this Polish team when British code-breaking attempts hit a brick wall, and his now-famous “Bombe” was essentially a scaled-up version of the Polish bombas, right down to its name.
in 1932, Poland assembled the Polish Cipher Bureau in response to what they perceived to be the rising German threat. Among the cryptographers hired, they recruited three young mathematicians, Marian Rejewski, Henryk Zygalski, and Jerzy Różycki. To help them in their work, the French Military Intelligence provided the Polish bureau with two German documents and two pages of Enigma daily keys. The items had been stolen by a French spy who worked at Germany’s Cipher Office in Berlin.
With these clues, Rejewski was able to crack the code using the mathematical theory of permutations and groups — along with a lucky guess that the non-commercial version of the Enigma typewriter featured keys in alphabetical order. Subsequently, the Polish cryptographers were able to construct ‘Enigma doubles’ to help them transcribe coded messages. In all, they devised three different methods for breaking the encrypted codes produced on the Enigma machine. However, just prior to the onset of the war, the Germans added another two rotors to the system, increasing the possible wheel orders from 6 to 60. The Poles were still able to read a small minority of messages, but they clearly needed to solve the new rotors. Time, however, was not on their side. Once the German invasion of Poland became imminent in 1939, the Polish government handed over all their research (including an Enigma machine) to the British in hopes that they would continue their work. Which they most certainly did, resulting in the full cracking of the Enigma code during the early stages of World War II. And for which Britain has claimed virtually all of the credit.
Bonus fact: A leap forward in deciphering Enigma codes came from a pedestrian place — a weather report. The Nazi’s issued a weather report every morning encrypted by the Enigma code, a broadcast that was done in the same format daily, which the British could then crack and reveal the Enigma settings used for that day. Eventually the German’s switched to a variety of different Enigma machines, such a 4 or 5 rotor machines as well as double-encrypting messages, but the British code-breakers caught up with them. The British themselves took the concept of the Enigma cipher and improved upon it in such a way that the Germans thought it impossible to crack as it was even more sophisticated than Enigma itself.
After Enigma, the second thing people know about Alan Turing is that he was homosexual, as is NBA center Jason Collins, the first professional basketball player came out as gay in 2013. In 2015, David Denson followed suit and became what the press called “the first openly gay active player on a team affiliated with Major League Baseball.” The problem with that title is that Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Glenn Burke beat them both to the punch by nearly four decades.
Talent scouts thought Burke had the potential to be the Willie Mays of his generation. While coaches were impressed by his talent, they were not impressed by his openness about his sexual orientation. Burke did not suppress his identity, but sportswriters refused to make any mention of it. They couldn’t put “that” in the article. Coach Tommy Lasorda, known to this reporter’s generation mostly as the guy from the Slim Fast commercials, and team VP Al Campanis had the temerity to offer Burke $75,000 (equivalent to $300,000 today) to marry a woman. In an irony that would seem farcical if it wasn’t so tragic, Lasorda’s son, Tom Jr., died from AIDS-related disease in 1991. To this day, Lasorda Sr. refuses to acknowledge his son’s homosexuality.
After only two years with the Dodgers, Burke was traded to the Oakland A’s, where manager Billy Martin introduced him to his new teammates by saying, “This is Glenn Burke and he’s a faggot.” A little more than a year later, Burke left baseball behind.
Mentioning that Burke came before Collins and Denson is not intended in any way to detract from the risks that any of these men took in coming out. Professional sports is a temple for the quote male ideal. Management, fellow players, and fans alike have a well-documented history of hostility toward those they even suspect of being gay. Conditions have improved, but we still have a long way to go toward acceptance. While Burke is often denied recognition for being the first gay professional athlete, he is credited with having popularized the high-five, which, at the risk of editorializing, is burying the lead if there ever was one.
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. Each generation of textbooks written from other textbooks solidifies the single version of events we knew to be true. Luckily, the wonders of the information age have helped us discover the true story behind inventions and accomplishments and more. It can be hard to supplant the version of history that we learned in school when new facts come along. If we were able to learn that Leif Erikson beat Christopher Columbus to the new world by 500 years, we’ll be able to learn these things, too. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.