Wednesday, March 28

It's Only Three Miles to China

By Art Cashin

On this day in 1979, at 4:00 a.m., the struggle between human response and technology safeguards took a strange turn.  It all began with the sudden flash of warning lights in the control panel of an electric utility.  Within seconds, the control room was filled with the sound of alarm horns. The Control Room, of course, belonged to the Unit II nuclear reactor on Three Mile Island just south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

One question that has never been answered (and maybe never will be) is - how much influence did a new hit movie have on the actions of authorities during this crisis.  Less than two weeks earlier a movie called the "China Syndrome" had opened around the nation. Its premise was that a nuclear meltdown at some power plant could devastate "an area the size of Pennsylvania", as one character in the movie noted.

 Anyway, the real life accident happened like this:  The flashing lights and klaxon horns were warning that a water pump had shut down.  The pump fed water into the steam generator. With no new water coming in, and the reactor core turning more of the existing water into more steam, pressure began to build.

Automatic safety devices sensed the pressure and began to shut down the nuclear reactor. The pressure remained high since the reactor cools slowly. So, the next auto device kicked in.  It was a flow valve that drained some of the water (and pressure) from the hot water reserve tanks.  So far all the safety devices had
worked perfectly.  This valve, however, failed to re-close as it was designed.  Not to worry.  The computer detected the leak  and turned on some pumps to replace the water.

Enter the human factor.  Someone saw the tank refilled by the pump and overrode the computer, shutting the pump off.  With the other valve still opened, the water continued to drain.  The core became exposed and overheated.  The fuel jackets began to melt and nuclear pellets spilled into the water.  Now we had a crisis.

To mark the day attend a lecture on safety in circuit breakers in this the 21st century. It's the 21st Century for gosh sakes!  Relax!....Dave, I sensed you are distracted.  My sensors tell me there is doubt in your mind.  Do not doubt, Dave.  Every contingency is accounted for, accounted for, accounted for......

Thanks again to Mr. Cashin for lending his support to this site while the author has some time off. Regular posting will resume shortly. The above article was originally published as part of  "Cashin's Comments" and is reprinted here by express permission of Arthur Cashin. Mr. Cashin is the Director of Floor Operations for UBS Financial Services and a regular markets commentator on CNBC. 

Monday, March 26

He's Not Our Type

By Art Cashin

On this day (-3)  in 1867, a man brought to stage one, the evolution of an invention and instrument which would change human life in more ways than anyone at the time could guess.

The man's name was Christopher Latham Sholes and the device he was perfecting was the typewriter. It would provide women a steppingstone into "business." It would be the magic stone of hard-boiled police reporters and foreign correspondents (both real and imagined). It would be the antecedent of the word processor and the PC computer. As such it would be studied and blamed as a source of carpal tunnel syndrome, or RSI as it's now called.

But the typewriter could be none of these until it was functioning, and Sholes was having trouble. Once you started to type more than one letter at a time the hammers began to jam together as they approached the ribbon and paper. Try as he might Sholes couldn't prevent that jamming. So he tried what we might call ergo-mechanics. He decided to adjust the keyboard.

Some of his early keyboards were in alphabetical order. Sholes wondered if that put too many frequently used letters too close together. (Holy Vanna White! Could that be the answer?) He began shuffling the letters around. He even got a court reporter friend, Charles Weller, to design a phrase to test the typewriter and the hammers. Weller came up with - "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the Party." (And you thought it was a famous quote.)

Anyway - as fast as Sholes moved the letters on the keyboard, his proto-typists (I just couldn't resist) adapted - typed faster - and jammed the hammers. Reportedly, Sholes studied the hand movements and set the letters in a very difficult format to slow down the typists and, thus, prevent jamming. Unfortunately, Sholes ran short of money and had to sell all his rights to the typewriter to the Remington Arms Company
(who we hear had some success with the device). The "difficult" keyboard however is unchanged after 145 years.

Thanks again to Mr. Cashin for lending his support to this site while the author has some time off. The above article was originally published as part of  "Cashin's Comments" and reprinted here by express permission of Arthur Cashin. Mr. Cashin is the Director of Floor Operations for UBS Financial Services and a regular markets commentator on CNBC. 

Wednesday, March 21

Talk Radio, It's Nothing New

Image courtesy of Early Radio History
By Art Cashin

On this day in 1902, one of America's most amazing inventors demonstrated one of the most amazing devices of the 20th Century. His name, of course, was Nathan B. Stubblefield and the device was nothing less than the radio. (Wait, you say! Didn't Marconi invent the radio and who the heck was Stubblefield?.....You really did sleep through sixth grade didn't you? Hang on remedial help is here.)

On this day, Stubblefield stood aboard the steamer Bartholdi, afloat in the Potomac, and broadcast his voice to several devices ashore. Stubblefield had been invited to Washington to show off this amazing device which he had been showing around his hometown of Murray, Kentucky for decades.

To put this in the right time frame, let's compare things. Marconi had managed to send the letter "s" across the Atlantic just four months before. The "s" was in Morse Code since Marconi was actually working on "wireless telegraph, not radio and voice transmission. Stubblefield had been broadcasting voice and music around Murray, KY since 1892 when Marconi was still in grade school.

Stubblefield was one of those classic American tinkerers. The search was the goal itself. He also had a big dose of paranoia - fearing his invention would be stolen. He was slow to get a patent. Finally, in 1908, he applied for a patent including an application for radios in automobiles.

Stubblefield continued to putter rather than prosper. Others adapted his ideas. His house burned down. His wife left him. He turned more reclusive. Yet he tinkered. Some claim that he made discoveries even more dramatic than radio.

 We'll never know. Perhaps fearing that others would steal his ideas after his death, Stubblefield burned all his plans and prototypes before he died - of starvation - in 1928. He was buried in a nameless pauper's grave.

Unrecognized genius and squandered opportunity have always been part of America's history - especially in Wall Street....or so I've been led to believe.

The above article was originally published as part of  "Cashin's Comments" and reprinted here by express permission of Arthur Cashin. Mr. Cashin is the Director of Floor Operations for UBS Financial Services and a regular markets commentator on CNBC. 

John Rowlands, I Presume?

By Grant Davies

On this day in 1871, a guy named Henry (whose real name was John) began looking for a doctor.

In the days before WEB MD, it took him more than seven months to find the right one. Henry really didn't need a doctor, at least not when he started. As it turns out, he was being paid to find one particular doctor, and that doctor was living in a small village in Africa at the time, so it took a while. The story is a tad confusing, as was Henry's life.

Henry Morton Stanley, who stole that name from a merchant who had befriended him, was actually a guy named John Rowlands, who had been born in Wales about thirty years earlier. He was an orphan (a polite term for a bastard) and because his parents weren't married, was raised in a "workhouse." At eighteen years of age, seeing no reason to stay in Wales with a family he didn't have, he set out for America.

To get across the pond he signed on as part of the crew on a merchant vessel, but once across, he jumped ship in New Orleans. After he made friends with the real Henry Stanley, he swiped his name (presumably to avoid his obligation for passage), and later decided to fight in the American Civil War. He served as both a Confederate and a Union soldier, so it seems he really was more passionate about the adventure of war than the cause of it. He finally settled on being a journalist, which is how he landed the gig to lead the search party for the doctor in Africa.

And so it was that on this day back then, he left from Zanzibar with a party of about two thousand men and by the time he found his guy all those months later, he had suffered from small pox, dysentery, and cerebral malaria, so he really did need a doctor. However, Dr. David Livingston, whom he had been searching for, was in no shape himself to heal anyone since his obsessive adventure to find the source of the Nile river had left him in poor health and even poorer finances.

Anyway, when Stanley first saw a white guy standing in the crowd of black people who came to investigate the newcomers in town, he "presumed" it to be his quarry and blurted out - "Hi Dave, I'm Stan!" -or something like that. And that's how John (or Hank, or whatever his name was) became famous.

As it turns out, Livingston refused to be "saved", stayed in Africa and died a few years later without finding the source of the river. His body was embalmed and was sent back to England, where he became famous too.

At least I presume so.

Monday, March 19

Internet service interruption

Posting is suspended until further notice due to internet connectivity problems. Hopefully this will be a short term problem. Until then all history will cease to be made. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Saturday, March 17

Paddy O'Green - The Guy Was a Saint

Image taken from a video at
By Grant Davies

On this day in 461 A.D., the former slave of an obscure king died in the town of Saul, Ireland.

This particular slave was a Roman citizen who was born in Britain. He was snatched up at the age of sixteen from the estate of his wealthy family by people who have been variously described as "Irish marauders," pirates, or raiders, and was carted off to Ireland where he was sold to the above guy I have decided to call "King O'Bscure I."

He was put to work as a swineherd and probably did a fine job at that dirty task until he decided to sneak away six years later. He fled to France, had a dream about converting all the heathens back in Ireland to Christianity, became a Catholic monk, and later returned to his native land to be reunited with his family (not necessarily in that order). Anyway, he followed his dream and ended up back in Ireland as a missionary where he successfully converted the people until he almost ran out of people to convert.

Later, some people said he drove all of the snakes out of the country (for reasons unknown) and did a lot of other fantastical things, and he probably even did some of them. But like the above story, nobody knows for sure how much is true and how much was concocted while having "one too many" in celebration of the stories they were making up.  It seems there are as many stories as there are storytellers. But enough of it is true that this former slave and missionary is beloved by Christians and others to this very day.

His name was Patrick and they made him a saint, named a parade after him, and used him as an excuse to engage in general revelry while pretending to be Irish even if they weren't. I've done it myself; it's tons of fun.

In the early days of the celebration, most Irish people would go to church and pray before returning home to have a feast in his memory. Today, most people just skip the prayer and get right to the corned beef and cabbage.

But I suggest they return to the earlier custom because there is a lady in Massachusetts who is in need of prayer. She's an elementary school principal who, along with her politically correct friends, has decided to rename St. Patrick's Day as "O'Green Day" in order to teach children to avoid any religious connection to this popular holiday. It seems she also wants the celebration to be "inclusive" even though everyone who wants to be included has already included themselves.

You see, she needs a new job even though she doesn't know it. I suggest we pray for her immediate transfer to a job she might handle better, perhaps at Walmart, as a greeter.

Thursday, March 15

Nick, Julie, and a Bad Day in March

Image courtesy of Firesign Theater
By Grant Davies

On this day in 1917 AD and 44 BC, two dictators ended their reigns. One of them, a guy named Nickolas, abdicated his throne in Russia. The other, a guy named Julius, got "abdicated" by his brother-in-law and a few of his friends in Rome.

Even though Julie got his severance immediately, Nick had to wait a while for his post-employment package. But it was worth the almost year and a half wait because his family got severed, too -- a real rarity when someone gets RIFed. These layoffs can be "Brutal" sometimes.

I guess Nick had no sense of history because he readily accepted the title "czar" (short for Caesar) without considering what had happened to Julie some 1961 years earlier. It wasn't the only mistake he made.

Anyway, two of the guys who plotted against Julie, Cassius and Brutus, tried to take control of the empire without much long-term success. As a consolation for his firing, Caesar later had a salad named after him and much later a rock band called the "Ides of March."

The two who plotted against Nicholas, guy named Marx and his buddy Lenin, had greater success as replacement dictators, but ultimately those that followed them screwed up as badly as Nick and company had.

So just some advice for you readers about the 15th of March: one month from today is tax day in the American empire, so you better be prepared for some bloodletting of your own.

Tuesday, March 13

The Blizzard of '88

By Art Cashin

On this day (-1) in 1888, America was moving through what looked like just another day. There was a lot of talk about politics, trading partners and the economy. The political exchange had begun to turn ugly. And, the stock market was confused by the whole thing and was very shaky. But that was years ago.

Anyway, spring was in the New York air. But, on this day, the temperature began to drop sharply on the East Coast where most folks lived. And, in a matter of hours the winds whipped up and winter weather was back. The cold snap collided with a coastal rain storm. Then as temperatures plunged, it quickly turned to snow.

It started as flurries. Then in growing, biting winds the snow began to fall. The meteorologic oddity became a blizzard. Over 40 inches of snow swirled into 50 foot drifts as phone lines fell. More than 400 people died in the streets. The city ground to a halt.

Only sixty-one members made it to the floor of the NYSE. With phone lines falling and clients snowed in, they only managed to trade a measly 15,000 shares in a couple of hours. As the weather worsened outside, they decided to close early and see if they could make it home.

The storm continued to intensify with wind gusts of 80 mph at times. The next day was even worse. The NYSE remained closed. More importantly to the city’s citizens, the police and fire departments became virtually inoperative. Several buildings burned to the ground un-addressed, with the flames fanned by the gusting winds.

They couldn’t even call for help from outside. All contact beyond 5 miles was lost. But it was the age of American ingenuity. So police, hospitals (and brokers) sent messages by under ocean cable to London. There they were re-transmitted by underwater cable to Boston. Thus, help was sent to a New York - - paralyzed by The Blizzard of '88.

Thanks to Art Cashin and UBS for permission to re-publish this article. It's nice to be able to have a day off to play golf in sunny Florida.

Monday, March 12

Mary Had a Little Book

By Grant Davies

On this day (-1) in 1818, a 21 year old girl named Mary had her first book published in London, anonymously. One of the book's two titles was "The Modern Prometheus."  Mary's name wouldn't be listed as the author until the second edition was published in Paris some five years later.

It seems that Mary had a life full of tumult and the character she created in her book was no different. She never even gave him a name, but he referred to himself in the story as Adam. It was a weird story for the times. No one had ever written one quite like it before.

Like a lot of the stuff written here, the idea for her story came to Mary in a dream. She actually was inspired to write the book while engaged in a "Let's have a ghost story writing contest" that had only three other contestants, none of whom even finished their stories. So I guess Mary won even though history never tells us what the prize was.

One of the other contestants was a guy named Lord Byron, and another was a guy named Percy, to whom she just happened to be married. It seems that they were staying at Byron's pad in Geneva, Switzerland where they basically had fled in order to avoid paying some debts Percy owed back in jolly old England.

Anyway, he had a woman's first name for his last name, Shelley. Which made her Mary Shelley. Her book's other title, the one we all remember today, was Frankenstein. It became a  monstrous success.

Friday, March 9

Taking a Cruise on a Friendly Ship

By Grant Davies

On this day in 1841, the Supreme Court of the US made a decision about the future of some people who had decided to change their passenger status on an ocean voyage, from cargo to crew.

The ship they sailed upon was the Amistad, a two masted schooner belonging to a Spaniard living in Cuba. The name Amistad is Spanish for friendship, but it seems it was anything but a "Friend Ship."

Anyway, it was sailing from one Cuban port, Havana (later famous for cigars you weren't supposed to buy) to another, Puerto Principe, and the cargo was beans. The human variety, human "beins." The beings were victims of kidnapping, also known as African captives. It seems they were to be shipped to America and sold into slavery, a plan they weren't very fond of, for obvious reasons.

So one of them, a certain Sengbe Pieh, who later changed his name to Joseph Cinqué (a better stage name for the star of a 1839 stage play and the 1997 Steven Spielberg movie), found an old file in the passenger stateroom (aka the cargo hold) where he and 56 other guests were being pampered by their hosts. He used it to break his chains and then convinced the other 52 adult passengers to join him in counter-kidnapping the crew. They grabbed some cane knives (aka machetes) and convinced the captain to change course and sail for their home port back in Africa so they could disembark where they had originally been "convinced" to embark.

Unfortunately, Cinqué was a better mutineer than he was a navigator and the actual navigator, Pedro Montez (nickname, Don) quickly tricked him into cutting out the middlemen at the first destination and sailing directly to the retail outlet in America. They were destined to be part of a door buster sale at the local "Slavemart." Even in those days there were a lot of foreign products being sold at the mega-stores.

Not long afterward, the ship and its new crew were re-kidnapped by the USS Washington, (a ship owned by a forerunner of the IRS) and taken to New Haven, Conn. where they stayed as guests of the state until a fellow named John Q. Adams became their court appointed, pro bono lawyer and won their freedom in the court case cited above.

So it all turned out happily. Adams, who had already been US President, was able to graduate to "Attorney Extraordinaire" and Cinqué was able to return to his homeland where, it was rumored, he decided to go into business, as a slaver.

With friends like that.....

Some of the info found in this article was taken from a post at

Thursday, March 8

Government and the Deadly Cure

Between being caught up in research for future Cheeky History blogs, writing for other sites, and playing golf in mostly sunny Florida there hasn't been time today to write something better than the story that Art Cashin tells in the "Cashin's Comments" newsletter today. So with his permission I submit this wonderful tale of government efficiency, then and now.

By Art Cashin

On this day (or, more correctly....+2....approximately) in 1349, in the midst of the infamous Black Plague epidemic, the forces of government, science and academia came together with a plan to save the people.

As you recall from earlier episodes, the Black Plague had spread from the eastern Mediterranean throughout most of Europe killing millions over the preceding three years.  People searched everywhere for the source of the plague...a heavenly curse; a burden of immigrants; the result of spices in the food.  It was tough to figure however, since whenever they held a conference either the host area caught the plague  or the visitors too many conferences.

Then in the six months preceding this date the death rate leveled off...or seemed to. So in castles and universities and town halls across Europe, great minds pondered the cause of the plague.  And they came pretty close.  The collective governmental/academic wisdom was that the source of the Black Plague was fleas - (absolutely correct).

So the word went out from town to town across Europe - to stop the plague - kill the fleas -by killing all the dogs.  And immediately the slaughter of all dogs began. But like lots of well intentioned governmental/academic ideas it was somewhat wide of the mark...and had unexpected consequences.

The cause was fleas alright but not dog was rat fleas.  And in the 1300's what was the most effective way to hold down the rat guessed  it - dogs.  So by suggesting that townsfolk kill their dogs, the wise authorities had unwittingly allowed the rat population to flourish and thus a new vicious rash of Black Plague began.  Before it was over, three years later, nearly 1 out of 3 people in the world had died of the plague.

To mark this eventful period, take time to review your government's plans for your welfare.  Whether taxes or healthcare, they'll work night and day for a solution.  It may not be as efficient as social security but - what is?  Just remember that these public servants have your best interests at heart.  Don't dwell on the DARK AGES.

Back in those days the seat of government might be filled with rats, vermin and leeches.  Thank goodness those days are over.

Historic footnote...Published sources say that with so many people dying, millions of
estates had to be settled - result...the fallout of the plague was a huge growth
in....the number guessed it....lawyers.

Tuesday, March 6

Queen for a Day? No, But You Might be President for a Day!

By Art Cashin

On this day (-2), (which would be March 4th if you have a graduate degree) in 1849, there occurred an event that gave rise to another of the twelve great barroom puzzlers: "Was there ever a guy who was President of the United States for twenty four hours?"

Actually, it was an event that actually didn't take place that caused this oddity to happen. Prior to FDR, Inauguration Day occurred on March 4th. (due to longer travel times by horse and wagon).  This particular March 4th fell on a Sunday and the newly elected President, Zachary Taylor, refused for religious reasons to take an oath on a Sunday. So, since the term of the former president expired at noon and the new guy wouldn't take the oath till Monday..the oval office would be empty.

The Succession Act of 1792 had provided for just such a problem (gotta love those Founding Fathers). The vacancy was to be filled by the President ProTem of the Senate. Interestingly, the Senate had elected a Missouri Senator, David Rice Atchison, to that post only two days earlier.

The White House logs indicate that during his twenty-four hour term as President, Atchison did neither tax nor spend. Rather he slept through the day.  Ah!  For such a benign presidency these days.

Railroad buffs and song buffs will note that this "One Day Prez" lives on as a part of  "the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe."  (Made famous by Judy Garland in a film called “The Harvey Girls”.)

The above was republished here by express permission of the author, Arthur Cashin, who writes "Cashin's Comments", a daily market commentary and analysis for UBS, who holds the copyright for his historical entertainment as well as his excellent dissection of the stock market's ups and downs. Mr. Cashin's historical musings were the inspiration for this blog and it is a great kindness for him to allow his work to be reproduced here.

Monday, March 5

The Boston Snowball Fight

By Grant Davies

On this day in 1770, a few ticked off Boston colonialists wandered down to the Customs House to protest their taxes. They thought they were getting screwed without the benefit of having their own representative to do the screwing.

Actually, it was on "this night in history" since they waited until it got dark before going there and the place was closed. The only employee of the joint still working at that hour was a lone British sentry who didn't seem equipped to handle their complaints. So, in frustration, they began to throw snowballs at him. Oh, snowball fights are all in good fun until someone decides to toss a few rocks instead. And quite a few of them did just that.

It seems that a few of the protesters were ticked off at more than just tax levels because the fight was really just a continuation of a brawl that started down by the wharf a few days prior when some of the king's soldiers tried to get some part time work there. Although the local guys already working there forgot to form a dockworkers union first, they still had some non-union thugs on hand to control the local supply of labor.

The soldiers called for reinforcements, and after they were joined by about forty more of their buddies, the whole thing escalated into a thug-fest.  Their colonel, a certain William Dalrymple, saw that the whole situation had the potential to get totally out of hand so he confined his men to their barracks for a few days to let the emotional fire go out. Unfortunately, it just simmered for a few day before the snowball incident got it going again.

Anyway, back at the Custom House the lone civil employee was soon joined by seven more soldiers, a corporal and a captain named Tom Preston. Tom told the soldiers to fix bayonets to scare the mob, and the mob responded by taunting them to dare to shoot them. One clumsy oaf named Hugh Montgomery slipped on the ice and fell. His rifle fired as a result and all hell broke loose.

Crispus Attucks, one of the first hyphenated Americans (he was African-Indian), was killed (some say first) along with five of his buddies. A few more were wounded and the whole thing went went south from there.

A few centuries later, these eight guys were said to be the first casualties of the American Revolution. The whole event was called the Boston Massacre. And although no one knows for sure, it's said that Crispus had his name entered into a cracker naming contest for a large bakery. Apparently he lost, but in the war, the colonials won in the end with a little help from the French.

The moral of the story is: don't throw snowballs at clumsy soldiers unless you want to start a new country with your own representatives raising your taxes instead of some inbred royalty from a country across the pond..

Saturday, March 3

A Good Drinking Song

By Grant Davies

Once upon a time in 1814, two drunken Englishmen, who happened to be part of a group of folks who had just set Washington DC aflame, were arrested by a doctor named Bill Beanes in the town of Upper Marlboro, Maryland. 

They were part of a company of British soldiers who (with the exception of these two goofs) were surprisingly well behaved, considering they had just burned the US capital to the ground. The two miscreants were just ordinary  redcoats who straggled behind the main group after it had marched peaceably through town. The doctor was a town father of that burg who had a sense of propriety in addition to his malpractice insurance.

The way these two inebriated dopes shouted and carried on really pissed off the doctor, so he personally carted them off to jail. However, one of them slipped away and brought some reinforcements back to rescue the other one from the doc's wrath. 

In those days it was, "flintlocks talk and doctors walk" so the soldiers arrested the doc and released the drunk with the bad manners. They took him to a frigate in Chesapeake bay for safekeeping, but not before he lawyered up. His attorney was a guy named Fran (don't call me Francis) Key. Before this time no one was ever called Frankie.

Anyway, it was bad timing because just as the lawyer reached the boat to begin plea bargaining, the Brits began shelling Fort McHenry from the water and he was detained along with his client. For some odd reason Frankie thought it was a good idea to write a poem while he watched the fort getting lit up by British artillery.

He called his poem "The Defense of Fort McHenry" and later set it to the tune of a popular English drinking song titled  "To Anacreon in Heaven."  (No, I'm not going there in this story. Look it up for yourself.) It became a popular tune, even though, with a range of one and a half octaves, almost no one could sing it worth a damn until Whitney Houston finally did a long time later at a football game.

So, on this day in 1931, after more than forty resolutions and bills were introduced into congress, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was formally adopted as the US national anthem. The people who selected it probably never had to sing it in public (or even in the shower) or they might have chosen something a little easier. 

And we owe it all to a couple of drunks and a defense attorney with a bad sense of timing.
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