March 23, 2015

It Happened on March 23rd

Patrick Henry's Liberty Speech, 1775
"I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"
These were the stirring words that concluded Patrick Henry's speech to the Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775. Approximately. 

Wait. What was that again?
The most interesting aspect of Patrick Henry's speech is that no one knows exactly what he said. The text with which we are familiar comes from The Life and Character of Patrick Henry, a book by William Wirt that was published 17 years after Henry's death. Wirt corresponded with men who had been there, and reconstructed the speech as best he could. It's probably largely correct, as he got approximately the same story from everyone who had heard it, and there was a pretty solid agreement about how it ended. But no one had actually taken any notes. 

This seems to have been a common occurrence when Henry spoke. Many ear-witnesses to Henry's speeches were often compelling, but that afterwards they had difficulty remembering exactly what he had said. Thomas Jefferson said that he was often extremely moved by Henry's oration, even when he was speaking in opposition to Jefferson's own position, and yet could never remember afterward "what the devil has he said?" 

First Otis Elevator Installed in New York City, 1857
Elisha Otis
The site of this elevator first was the Cooper Union building at 488 Broadway. The elevator shaft had actually been installed four years before the elevator got there: Peter Cooper had had one included in the plans for his building because he was sure that a safe elevator would be coming along any day now. The elevator shaft had a cylindrical design because Cooper believed that was the wave of the future. When the elevator actually got there, it had to be specially built to fit the shaft. 

Elisha Otis was the inventor of the Otis Elevator. It differed from earlier elevators because it included a safety feature: a locking mechanism that would prevent the car from falling if the cable broke. 

Otis first came up with the idea and began building them in 1852, but was initially unsuccessful with sales. His big break came at the 1854 New York World's Fair, when he was able to give a dramatic demonstration before a crowd at the New York Crystal Palace. Standing on a platform, he ordered the cable cut. The platform fell only a few inches before coming to a stop. After that, the orders flooded in. 
The Crystal Palace. Great place for a demo.

 Besides the safety elevator, Otis also invented several different types of elevator engines, a rotary oven, a steam plow, and the oscillating steam engine. Today the Otis elevator is the most-used mode of transportation in the world. A number of people equivalent to the world's population ride on an Otis elevator, escalator, or walkway every three days. 

The Word "O.K." First Appears in Print, 1839
The word had been in usage since at least 1790, and could be found in correspondence, diaries, and court documents, but this was the first known instance of it appearing in print. The publication was the Boston Morning Post, in an item about a trip made by the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society, and the meaning of the term, "all correct," was explained in the article. 

There are a number of explanations for the derivation of the term itself, ranging from the Choctaw word okeh or hoke, to the initials of Old Kinderhook, a nickname for President Martin Van Buren. In the case of this print item, however, it appears clear that the abbreviation is intended as a comical misspelling of the term "oll korrect" for "all correct." Comical abbreviations were all the rage at the time. 

Near Miss by 4581 Asclepius, 1989
4581 Asclepius was an asteroid that came within 400,000 miles of earth on March 23, 1989. This was considered a very near miss as asteroids go. It passed through the exact position that Earth had occupied only six hours earlier. 

If the asteroid had impacted Earth, it would have caused an explosion comparable to a 600 megaton atomic bomb. (The most powerful atomic weapon ever detonated, the Tsar Bomba, had a yield of 50 megatons.)

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