Laboring under the crushing yoke of British tyranny this July 4th? Feeling taxed, but not represented? Light up a tightly packed bundle of 5,000 sparklers and prepare your duodenum to down 70 hot dogs in 10 minutes, it’s time for a FreedomTM trivia roundup.
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1. A short history of moldable novelty compounds: Play-Doh—a mixture of water, salt, flour, boric acid, and mineral oil—began life as a putty used to remove soot stains from wallpaper. When coal fell out of favor as a home-heating fuel, the company that produced the putty nearly went under. Then they discovered schoolkids were using it to make christmas ornaments. The dough/putty was repurposed in 1956 and sold as a toy, in one color (off-white) and one size (a 1.5 pound tub). By 1960, production had expanded to four colors, the famous Fun Factory, and a new mascot: the beret-wearing Play-Doh Pete (leading to a brief period during the war when it was called Liberty-Doh to avoid Francophilic associations).
Play-Doh is now available in 50+ colors and with a mind-boggling array of molds, shapes, and other attachments. One enterprising lunatic even sells Play-Doh scented perfume. It’s now in its sixth decade of teaching children the joy of creativity, the pleasures of extrusion, and the perils of intestinal blockages.
Silly Putty, a mix of boric acid and silicone oil, was discovered during a WWII-era search for rubber substitutes. The mixture ended up not quite enough like rubber to be generally useful, but made for a neat toy. Silly Putty is a non-Newtonian fluid characterized by “viscoelasticity,” meaning that it acts like a solid in the short-term, but a liquid over the long-term. Non-Newtonian fluids are awesome:
Anyway, the inventor—I wish his name was Herbert Silly IV, of the Cape Ann Sillys—sent samples 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, sparking a genuine toy craze. Despite the booming business, he nearly went bankrupt during the Korean War when silicon was rationed—more than a tad ironic given the product originally aimed to circumvent rubber rationing. Silly Putty was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2001, taking a rightful place in history alongside other inductees like the ball, stick, and blanket. As for Silly Putty’s practical purposes, 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 feels like a real loss.
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2. Near Beijing, there’s a large system of caves near a place called Dragon Bone Hill. The name is apt: it’s the first site where fossil remains of Peking Man were uncovered, and where the first fossils of a 420-pound prehistoric hyena were found. Neat! And terrifying.
The site was discovered by paleontologists in 1921, though fossil recovery was slow in the next two decades because of the Chinese Civil War. Despite this, by 1937 diggers had amassed a huge collection of hominid fossils from at least 45 individuals: skulls, teeth, jaw fragments, and stone tools. Then Japan invaded. To protect the fossils, the collection was packed into two crates, meant to be picked up and sallied to the safety of US soil by the SS President Harrison. The boat never made it—it ran aground on the Yangzte, and was later sunk.
So here’s the million dollar question: what happened to the crates? No one knows. One story 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, and the fossils have been dated to somewhere between 750,000-250,000 years ago. Dragon Bone Hill is now a UNESCO site, with an amazing bust of homo erectus outside the entrance:
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3. Fireworks have been around for a millennium or so, and were invented by the Chinese. By the 11th century, locals could purchase fireworks for personal use from vendors, in buildings that looked like this:
Fireworks use gunpowder, which was one of China’s Four Great Inventions:
Gunpowder was discovered by alchemists sometime between 900-1000 AD. 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 may date back as far as the first century BC! Papermaking didn’t land in Europe until a full millennium later. The Chinese may also have invented toilet paper—great invention “number two”—it was in use by the sixth century.
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.
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!
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4. See here for a handy list of the types of fireworks. Missing is the oft-forgotten Catherine Wheel, which for some reason always makes me think of old-timey county fairs, with fiddlers playing.
The Catherine wheel is named for the “breaking wheel,” a torture device in which the unfortunate is strapped to a wheel and bludgeoned. I’m unclear why the wheel was necessary, but torture methods don’t always reflect rational design principles. St. Catherine of Alexandria was condemned to death on the wheel, but according to legend the wheel broke when she touched it, and now it’s named after her. She was subsequently beheaded, which is 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.