freedom trivia roundup

Does this Independence Day find you laboring under the crushing yoke of British tyranny? Feeling taxed, but not represented? Or are you British and just think the colonies are being awfully noisy today? Light up that tightly packed bundle of 5,000 sparklers and get your duodenum ready to down 70 hot dogs in 10 minutes, because it’s time for a FreedomTM trivia roundup.

putty :: peking man :: four great inventions :: fireworks


1. A short history of moldable novelty compounds: Play-Doh (a mixture of water, salt, flour, boric acid, and mineral oil) began its life in the first half of the 20th century as a putty used to remove soot stains from wallpaper, which was a thing people needed to do when we heated our homes with coal. When we stopped with the coal, the company that made the putty nearly went bankrupt, until they discovered local school children had been using it to make christmas ornaments. The dough/putty was repurposed in 1956 and sold as a toy, in one color (off-white, very appealing), and one size (a 1.5 pound tub). By 1960, there were four colors and the famous Fun Factory, as well as a new mascot: Play-Doh Pete, who wore a beret (leading to a brief period during the war when Play-Doh was called Liberty-Doh to avoid Francophilic associations).

It’s now available in more than 50 colors and a mind-boggling array of molds, shapes, and other toys. One enterprising company even sells play-doh scented perfume (genius? madness? I know not which). Play-Doh is now in its sixth decade of teaching children the nobility of creativity, the horrifying joys of extrusion, and the glories of intestinal blockages.

Silly Putty, made by mixing boric acid and silicone oil, was discovered during a WWII-era search for rubber substitutes (rubber supplies were short at the time, as most came from Pacific nations in Japan’s sphere of influence). That mixture turns out to not be quite enough like rubber to be generally useful, but makes a neat toy. Silly Putty is a non-Newtonian fluid characterized by “viscoelasticity”, which means that it acts like a solid in the short term and like a liquid in the long-term. Non-Newtonian fluids are kind of awesome:

Anyway, the inventor—I wish his name was Herbert Silly IV—sent samples all across the world, but scientists could not come up with a practical use for the as-yet-unnamed putty. In the late 1940s a toy store owner began selling it as Silly Putty in the iconic plastic egg, and had a genuine toy-craze on his hands. Craze or not, his business nearly went under during the Korean War when silicone was rationed, which was more than a little ironic given the product originally aimed to circumvent rubber rationing. Silly Putty achieved toy immortality when inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2001 (other Hall of Fame toys include the ball, stick, and blanket). As for practical purposes for Silly Putty, it was used during the Apollo missions to secure instruments in the spacecraft. So there’s that. I’ve also learned that with the change to soy-based inks, Silly Putty can no longer effectively copy newspaper ink, which has somehow irreparably damaged my childhood.


2. Near Beijing, there’s a large system of caves and a place called Dragon Bone Hill. Said hill was the first site where fossil remains of “Peking Man” were uncovered. It’s also where the first fossils of a 420 pound prehistoric hyena were found. Neat! Also, terrifying

digging for dragon bones

Though the site had been discovered by paleontologists in 1921, the recovery of hominid fossils was slow, with only a couple teeth found in the first few years. The site and the already-recovered fossils were also imperiled multiple times in the 1920s-1930s because of the Chinese Civil War. Despite these almost-setbacks, by 1937 diggers had amassed a huge collection with fossils from 45 individuals—including skull, teeth, and jaw fragments as well as stone tools. Then, in 1937, Japan invaded, and in an attempt to “protect” the fossils, the collection was packed into two crates, meant to be picked up and sallied forth to the safety of US soil by the SS President Harrison. The boat never made it—it ran aground on the Yangzte, and was repurposed by the Japanese before later being sunk.

So here’s the million dollar question: what happened to the crates? No one knows. One theory preferred by conspiracy theorists suggests the crates were smuggled aboard the Awa Maru, a Chinese ship that was sunk before it ever left China, supposedly while carrying not only the fossils but some $30 million in gold ingots. Though treasure hunters still hold out hope, everything of value (which did not, apparently, include either a passel of gold ingots nor hominid fossils) was salvaged from the wreck decades ago.

About 40 years ago, a US businessman set up a reward for information about the fossils, and was approached by the widow of a Marine vet. For extra intrigue, they met atop the Empire State Building, where she showed him pictures of fossils that her husband had supposedly smuggled home after the war. Several experts who examined the photos were pretty sure they showed legitimate Peking Man fossils, but the woman was never heard from again. The most recent break in the case suggests the crates may be buried beneath a parking lot in China. FOSSIL INTRIGUE. Anyway, Peking Man was homo erectus (for more hominid info, please see this book; for more Peking Man information, see here), and the fossils have been dated to somewhere between 750,000-250,000 years ago. The location is now a UNESCO site, with an amazing bust of homo erectus outside the entrance:

homo erectus bust

3. Fireworks have been around for about 1000 years or so, and were invented by the Chinese. By the 11th century, locals could purchase fireworks for personal use from vendors, likely in buildings that looked like this:

Fireworks rely (or relied) on gunpowder, which was one of China’s Four Great Inventions:

Gunpowder, discovered by alchemists sometime between 900-1000 AD. By 1044, the chemical formula was known and a banner from the time depicts a gunpowder-fueled flamethrower (!!). They also developed a weapon whose name translates as “gunpowder-whip-arrow”. Gunpowder wouldn’t make it to most other cultures until the 13th century or later.

Paper, which is traditionally thought to have been developed in China by AD 100 or so, and some more recent discoveries may push it back to the first (last?) century BC. The Chinese may also have invented toilet paper (great invention “number two”); it was in use there by the sixth century. It took centuries for papermaking to spread to other cultures; it was almost a millenium later that it landed in Europe.

The magnetic compass was first made from lodestone, naturally magnetized iron ore, around the 2nd century BC. They were traditionally used almost like dowsing rods to search for gems or rare minerals, and to determine where to build houses. It took almost 1000 years before they began to be used in navigation. Before compasses, one method for wayfinding was to use a crystal that polarized light, allowing navigators to determine the sun’s exact position (somehow). Polynesian navigators—among many other strategies—used the diffraction pattern created by waves moving around islands and atolls to determine their location. In other words, they could tell where they were only by the size, speed, and dispersion of waves against their boat. Holy hell!

Printing, specifically, woodblock printing, in which the desired pattern is carved in relief on a woodblock, then covered in ink and used essentially like a rubber stamp. That was being used for books by the 9th century AD; movable type was also invented by the Chinese in the 11th century AD.

So, in sum, the Chinese: invented paper, gunpowder, the compass, and printing. Basically everyone else: provincial religious warfare and/or oppression (ideas and people). Time well spent!


4. See here for a handy list, with pictures, of the types of fireworks. Sadly missing from this list is the oft-forgotten Catherine Wheel, which for some reason always makes me imagine old-timey county fairs.

Catherine wheel

It’s named for the “breaking wheel”, a torture device in which the unfortunate was strapped to a wheel and bludgeoned (I’m not clear why the wheel was necessary, but then torture methods don’t exactly reflect the height of rational design). St. Catherine of Alexandria was condemned to death on the wheel, which magically broke when she touched it, lending the Catherine Wheel its name. She was subsequently beheaded, which is kind of a lateral move. If you’re a glutton for punishment (literally and metaphorically), feel free to peruse the historical horrorshow of the breaking wheel here.

The largest Catherine wheel (firework) on record was 105 feet in diameter! Other fireworks factoids:

• Notable fireworks festivals include Le Festival d’Art Pyrotechnique held in Côte d’Azur, and the World Pyro Olympics, held in Manila.

• The largest firework display of all time consisted of 77,000+ fireworks launched to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Kuwait’s constitution.

• The maximum fine for possessing fireworks in Ireland is 10,000 Euros and/or 5 years in prison.

• Major fireworks displays in the UK include Sparks in the Park, Bangers on the Beach, Flaming Tar Barrels, and Fireworks with Vikings. I swear I did not make any of those up.

• The inauguration of George Washington was accompanied by a fireworks display.


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