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A Brief History of Spacefarers

May 19, 2015 | by

How America imagines its astronauts.

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The Mercury Seven, 1960.

One of the things that makes the job title astronaut different from other jobs is that it existed in the collective imagination for centuries before it was ever actually anyone’s occupation. In the second century CE, Lucian of Samosata imagined travelers going to the moon and fighting a war with its inhabitants. In Jules Verne’s immensely influential 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon, the word astronaut is never used, but three men seal themselves into a metal capsule in order to fly to the moon. Many of the details Verne came up with were so outlandish as to invite ridicule if they had not become reality a hundred years later in the Apollo program, including a launch from Florida and a safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Verne’s three space travelers behave in some ways we now associate with astronauts—they solve problems that arise on their mission, analyze new information they observe outside their windows, and do calculations to figure out their location and speed. On the other hand, they indulge in nonastronaut-like behaviors such as getting drunk, becoming histrionic about unexpected problems, and expressing doubt about the meaning of their journey, about whether they should be doing this at all.

One of the first uses of the word astronaut to refer to a human traveling in space was in Neil R. Jones’s short story “The Death’s Head Meteor,” in 1930.

The young astronaut entered the space flyer, closed the door, and was alone in the air-tight compartment just large enough to accommodate him. On the instrument board before him were dials, levers, gauges, buttons and queer apparatus which controlled and operated the various features of the craft. He turned on his oxygen supply and his air rejuvenator so that the air could be used more than once, after which he shoved his starting lever forward. The craft raced suddenly off the roof and into the cloudless sky above the vast city of the twenty-sixth century.

Jones was probably as surprised as anyone to learn how soon his new word became an actual job title, only twenty-nine years later. In between, during World War II, the first actual rockets emerged. This was the beginning of a new era in which the astronaut became a consistent character to tell stories about, if still speculative. Though the rockets weren’t ready to safely contain humans, their streamlined hulls brought with them a clearer image of the astronaut fantasy. Part fighter pilot, part frontiersman, the helmeted spaceman climbed into sleek machines and left Earth in the black-and-white television shows of the fifties. In 1954, Walt Disney created Man in Space, a series intended to promote his new Disneyland, which was set to open the following year. In the opening shot of the series, Walt himself speaks into the camera. “One of man’s oldest dreams has been the desire for space travel,” he tells us with an avuncular twinkle. “Until recently this seemed to be an impossibility.” Read More »

Roger That

May 13, 2015 | by

The complicated sex drive of William Byrd II.

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Hans Hysing’s portrait of Byrd, ca. 1724.

William Byrd II was a colonial Virginia gentleman who, on occasion, was no gentleman at all. Writing about himself in the third person, in 1723, he bemoaned “the combustible manner in his constitution”; he cursed the innate passions that “broke out upon him before his beard,” making him a “swain” before all women. Byrd’s carnal drive underscored the eyebrow-raising vigor of his lust. On a trip to London in 1719, according to his secret diary, he “rogered”—an easy enough euphemism—no fewer than six women in nine days. Of one woman, he (proudly) recorded having “rogered her three times” in a single evening. That same night, Byrd, aged forty-four, noted with a tinge of sadness that he had “neglected my prayers.”

When he wasn’t on a whore-chasing jag in the metropolis, Byrd was back on his Virginia estate, called Westover, with his wife, Lucy. At Westover, his sexual proclivities certainly raged with similar, singleminded intensity—he wrote in his diary about having urgent sex with Lucy on a billiards table—but it was also tempered by a healthy desire to achieve mutual pleasure with her. He was just as inclined to “give my wife a flourish”—bring her to orgasm—as he was to “roger” her, a semantic shift suggesting that Lucy’s response to their sexual union mattered as much to Byrd as his own physical gratification. On April 30, 1711, he noted in his diary that although he discovered his wife in a “melancholy” mood, the “powerful flourish” he delivered filled her with “great ecstasy and refreshment.” He recalled one morning during which “I lay in my wife’s arms” while, during another, his wife “kept me so long in bed” that “I rogered her.” That evening he got around to saying his prayers—before rogering her again. The man could be a virtuous, even tender, Tidewater lover when he wasn’t being a London sleazebag. Read More »

Madness and Meaning

April 22, 2015 | by

Depictions of insanity through history.

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Nebuchadnezzar turned into an animal, 1410.

Modern psychiatry seems determined to rob madness of its meanings, insisting that its depredations can be reduced to biology and nothing but biology. One must doubt it. The social and cultural dimensions of mental disorders, so indispensable a part of the story of madness and civilization over the centuries, are unlikely to melt away, or to prove no more than an epiphenomenal feature of so universal a feature of human existence. Madness indeed has its meanings, elusive and evanescent as our attempts to capture them have been.

Western culture throughout its long and tangled history provides us with a rich array of images, a remarkable set of windows into both popular and latterly professional beliefs about insanity. The sacred books of the Judeo-Christian tradition are shot through with stories of madness caused by possession by devils or divine displeasure. From Saul, the first king of the Israelites (made mad by Yahweh for failing to carry out to the letter the Lord’s command to slay every man, woman, and child of the Amalekite tribe, and all their animals, too), to the man in the country of the Gaderenes “with an unclean spirit” (maddened, naked, and violent, whose demons Christ casts out and causes to enter a herd of swine, who forthwith rush over a cliff into the sea to drown), here are stories recited for centuries by believers, and often transformed into pictorial form. Read More »

A Writer in the Family

February 19, 2015 | by

On writers, glass, Pliny the Elder, and the way families pass on their stories.

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Vesuvius in eruption.

Since I started writing, I have sought forebears who might have had literary aspirations. Were there writers in the family? My great-uncle György, who was exiled to the Ukraine during World War II and afterward became a functionary in Hungary’s Communist government, was a novelist, but my father has always been dismissive of his work. He says György wrote a variety of socialist-realist novel that’s hard to take seriously, hard not to see as propaganda. His books have never been translated into English, and my Hungarian isn’t nearly good enough to understand what’s in them. The only existing copies I know of sit on a shelf in my Cousin Hajnal’s house in the Buda Hills. I don’t have the heart to ask to take them and have them translated. When I’ve asked her about them in the past, she’s simply said that they are books, yes, and that her father wrote them.

In their stead I have purchased rare used copies of two books written by Frederic Neuburg, author of a large trove of letters to my father’s Aunt Traute that he keeps in an old teak box in his house in Los Angeles. My father is not Bellow or Updike, and I am not the son of Bellow or Updike, but it is the book I have, in two editions, an art book containing photographs of Neuberg’s glass collection and extensive commentary on the pieces. Read More »

Amazing Robot Brain Translates Russian

January 7, 2015 | by

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The general layout of the IBM 701. Photo via Computer History

Sixty-one years ago, on January 7, 1954, a massive, terrifying, IBM artificial intelligence—referred to in the press as a “giant brain,” a “robot brain,” and a “polyglot brainchild,” among other wide-eyed terms—translated more than sixty sentences from Russian into English. It was the first public demonstration of machine translation. And yeah, the people were pleased.

The computer was an IBM 701, which was, according to its manufacturer, “the most versatile electronic ‘brain’ extant,” used sixteen hours a day for “nuclear physics, rocket trajectories, weather forecasting, and other mathematical wizardry.” But translating was an entirely different pursuit, and substantially more difficult: in fact, the computer knew only six grammatical rules, and its vocabulary comprised just 250 terms.

Working with Georgetown linguists, and with dozens from the media watching in IBM’s New York headquarters, a woman “who didn't understand a word of the language of the Soviets punched out the Russian messages on IBM cards.” (They used a Romanized version of Russian.) She began with sentences about chemistry, which probably unnerved the newsmen in attendance—how were they supposed to captivate readers with such examples as “The quality of coal is determined by calorie content” and “Starch is produced by mechanical methods from potatoes”? Read More »

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New York’s First Daily Newspaper

December 9, 2014 | by

Here’s the front page of the inaugural edition of the American Minerva (“Patroness of Peace, Commerce and the Liberal Arts”), New York’s first daily newspaper, published on December 9, 1793, from Wall Street, “nearly opposite the Tontine Coffee House.” It aimed to contain “the earliest intelligence, collected from the most authentic sources,” and it’s full of those long s letterforms (ſ) that look like lowercase fs and were by then not long for this world.

Its editor was Noah Webster, a Federalist who wanted to discourage the French influence in the U.S. His first “address to the public” covered nearly the entire front page. (Must’ve been a slow news day.) “Newspapers,” he wrote,

from their cheapness, and the frequency and rapidity of their circulation, may, in America, assume an eminent rank in the catalog of useful publications in a great degree, supersede the use of Magazines and Pamphlets. The public mind in America, roused by the magnitude of political events and impatient of delay, cannot wait for monthly intelligence. Daily or at furthest weekly communications are found necessary to gratify public curiosity.

The American Minerva ran for 744 issues between 1793 and 1796. It was bought out and eventually became the New York Sun, which was around until 1950. Read More »

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