tubular trivia roundup

Time to round up obliquely tube-related trivia, including potato zealots, vegetable toys, consumption, aqueducts, and Captain America…

• • •

1. Born in 1737, Antoine-Auguste Parmentier is a man known mostly for potatoes. Let me back up: in the mid-1700s, for reasons I can’t precisely figure but am sure were spurious, the French abhorred potatoes. The tuber was suitable only for hogs, had no nutritive value, was bland, flatulence-inducing, lust-inducing, Protestant, and carried leprosy (in other countries potatoes were seen as harbingers of Catholicism; they were new to Europe and a symbol of the outsider). In fact, so hated were potatoes in France that their cultivation was outlawed in 1748.

Parmentier, examining
Parmentier, examining

Parmentier was an apothecary in training recruited to the military when the seven years war broke out in 1756. He was captured by the Prussians five separate times. Huge potato fans, the Prussians fed their French prisoners a diet of potatoes to demean and demoralize them. Clearly an empiricist, Parmentier came out of the war having made three observations: a) he’d survived a potato-heavy diet, 2) he hadn’t been rendered leprous, and d) he still wasn’t Protestant.

There’s no zealot like a convert, but bringing the potato to France required more than perfervid passion. Parmentier is, in fact, further proof that every good scientist is “half PT Barnum and half BF Skinner.” He insinuated the potato into French life by … acting like they were a big deal. He planted potatoes in a roadside plot and hired guards, but it’s the little things that matter here: he told the guards to go home at night. Thus unfettered, people snuck in to take the ostensibly valuable tubers for themselves.

Later the king gave potatoes royal endorsement by wearing a potato flower on his lapel. Parmentier staged swank dinners that featured potato courses, to ensure that the potato wasn’t seen as solely the food of the poor. Acceptance grew in 1785 when France rode out a famine largely due to potatoes. Then in 1789, Parmentier published his magnum opus: “Treaty on the cultivation and the use of potato, spud and Jerusalem artichoke.” The French never looked back.

A true man of letters, Parmentier’s contributions to society were not entirely tuberous. He pioneered methods for extracting sugar from sugar beets, examined wheat rot, studied breadmaking (see e.g., his 1777 paper “Recommendation to good urban and rural housewives on the best manner to bake bread”), implemented one of the first smallpox vaccination systems, and, it’s said, “took an active part in recommending economical soups” (i.e., he opened soup kitchens). In his own words: “The potatoe has now none but friends, even in those districts from which the spirit of system and of contradiction seemed to have banished it for ever.” A bit more on Parmentier here and here.

File photo: potato
File photo: potato

Of course, France wouldn’t have been able to outlaw the potato, nor feared it so, if it hadn’t been cultivated for centuries by the Inca, where it was a central crop and from where it was plundered and brought to Europe. The potato, it turns out, played a significant historical role, and I cannot recommend strongly enough that you read this article about the potato’s influence on the course of world history. It is a phenomenal excerpt from Charles Mann’s 1493, which I very much look forward to reading. And if you have not already, I give an Ebert-style two thumbs way up to 1491.


2. Here’s something I didn’t know: Mr. Potato Head was initially a bring-your-own-potato situation. The face attachments were like pushpins, so that a playful scamp could pilfer a potato from their parents garden and ruthlessly perforate it with oversize ears. George Lerner came up with the idea in the early 1940s, but couldn’t find a taker thanks to concerns about wasting foods during wartime rationing.

By 1949 the boom was on for those of means: two chickens in every pot, two cars in every garage; all consumption was conspicuous, and food waste a distant memory under the blinding glare of so much chrome trim. The potato-head face attachments were initially given away as prizes in cereal boxes in 1949, but in 1952 Hasbro came calling, so Lerner bought back the rights then re-sold them to the toy giant. Soon Mr. Potato Head became the first toy advertised on television and a bestseller.

Things got real weird.
Things got real weird.

Things hummed along until 1964 when complaints about “rotting mustachioed vegetables” and “my kid has a lacerated esophagus from swallowing pushpin googly eyes” met the new vigor of government regulators. Forced first to dull the pins, Hasbro eventually caved and began including a plastic potato in the box. Later offshoots included Mrs. Potato Head, Brother Spud, Sister Yam, Oscar the Orange, Pete the Pepper, Cooky the Cucumber, and Dr. Squash Skull (not really on the last one); it was enshrined in the toy hall of fame in 2000. Mister Potato Head poorly translated: Herr Kartoffelkopf, Señor Papa Cabeza, Monsieur Tête de Pommes.


3. Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and has plagued humans for millennia with such ruthlessness that it has sometimes been called “Captain Among these Men of Death.” Almost universally, no matter the language, tuberculosis is called consumption (or some variation thereof; one Chinese translation refers to it grimly as “corpse disease”). Notes on the history of TB:

a) It’s been identified in Egyptian mummies (Akhenaten and Nefertiti probably died of it), is described in Indian Vedas from the 1500s BC and Chinese medical texts from the 400s BC, and Hippocrates said it was the most common illness in ancient Greece. Archaeological research has found variants of the bacteria in bodies more than 9000 years old.

Genetic analysis suggests that “modern” tuberculosis originated in Africa about 5000 years ago, from where it rapidly spread—even to South America. How did it get across the ocean? I’m glad you asked, because the answer is: seals. Those monsters!

a genocidal maniac
a genocidal maniac

b) It was common in the middle ages to develop growths on the lymph nodes due to tuberculosis infections—a horrifying disease called scrofula (from the Latin meaning brood sow). In the 16th and 17th centuries, the French called it the King’s Evil. Since kings were ordained by God, it was held they could cure illness through application of the “royal touch,” and since scrofula usually healed on its own, it’s understandable they would believe the touch curative. Henry IV got so into that he would “touch” more than 1000 people at at a time; clearly he was a glory boy. The practice fell out of favor by the early 1700s, when King George I declared it “too Catholic.”

c) The disease was so common in London that for some the sunken cheeks and wan pallor of the disease were seen as status symbols. See, for instance, Lord Byron: “I should like to die of a consumption. … Because the ladies would all say, ‘Look at that poor Byron, how interesting he looks in dying!’” One reason for this, I assume, is that many people believed the disease to be hereditary; it wasn’t generally accepted as contagious until 1865.

d) There are vaccines and antibiotics now, but treatment was a wild west for centuries. Even through the 1800s the most common course was rest and relaxation at spas and sanitaria. Ah, but if resting the body was good, how about resting the tubercular lung itself? In the late 1800s, thereapeutically administered pneumothorax (lung collapse) was a frequent treatment. Famed pugilist John L. Sullivan made money on the side by administering pneumothoraxes to consumptive patients through application of a straight jab to the solar plexus (note: not really). It wasn’t until 1944 that the antibiotic streptomycin was used to treat TB.

More info here and here.


4. The Chunnel gets all of the press, but how about Hezekiah’s tunnel? It’s a ⅓ of a mile aqueduct under the city of David, built on the orders of King Hezekiah to ensure the town’s water supply under the threat of a siege. The cool part is that it was built, oh, about 2800 years ago, and is the first known tunnel built from opposite ends and meeting in the middle. That’s trickier than it sounds, and may have been done by making the tunnel shallow enough for diggers to be guided by people banging on the ground above them (an inscription describing this procedure was found in the tunnel in the 1880s). You can still visit—and wade through—the tunnel.

Now consider the Tunnel of Eupalinos, built about a century later on Samos, a Greek island in the Aegean. The Greek tunnel, like Hezekiah’s, was built as a defense against siege, but was further underground and twice as long. To ensure the two sides of diggers met in the middle, Eupalinos employed geometric principles: as they approached each other, the two sides both angled, rendering their paths non-parallel and thus guaranteed to intersect. Which was a clever thing to do, considering it was two centuries before Euclid (and his geometry) was born. No records are made of the number of workers (most likely slaves) involved in boring the tunnels, nor how many died doing so. You can still visit that tunnel, too.


5. Finally, the doom tube of dr. megalomann:

Welcome to the Doom Tube
Welcome to the Doom Tube

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