Learn Something New Every Day

365 Facts to Fulfill Your Life

by Kee Malesky

Learn Something New Every Day

Hardcover, 280 pages, John Wiley & Sons Inc, List Price: $19.95 | purchase

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Book Summary

The author of All Facts Considered presents a year's worth of facts on the arts, history, language, natural history, religion and science, which will satisfy any inquisitive mind.

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Excerpt: 365 Facts

JULY 1

CROSSING THE USA

America's first transcontinental road was the Lincoln Highway — originally 3,389 miles through thirteen states from New York to San Francisco. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the automobile was still a novelty, and most of the country's roads were unpaved. Traveling could be a dusty or muddy endeavor, depending on the weather. Many roads had grown haphazardly and didn't provide direct connections between cities. Carl Fisher wanted to change that. An entrepreneur who got rich selling automobiles and who built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Fisher proposed a true transcontinental highway in 1913 — the Coast to Coast Rock Highway — which he envisioned as a graveled road costing about $10 million to construct. He turned to auto manufacturers for funding, but Henry Ford said no. Henry Joy, the patriarch of Packard Motors, did pledge his support, and in fact became the highway's most enthusiastic booster. He was the one who suggested it be named after Abraham Lincoln. Existing roads were improved and connected; there was haggling over the selected route, but the finished highway was straight and efficient. The 1916 edition of its Official Road Guide estimated the cross-country trip would take twenty to thirty days, at an average speed of eighteen miles per hour. In 1925, the American Association of State Highway Officials opted for a numbered road system, which called for the major east-west routes to be numbered in multiples of ten, and the north-south routes to end in one or five. The Lincoln Highway was broken up into a variety of numbered roads, but the name lingers on, thanks in part to an eponymous 1940s NBC radio show about life along the route. Today, concrete markers for the Lincoln Highway can still be found along the roads, and a centennial tour is planned by the Lincoln Highway Association for 2013.

JULY 2

DRIFT AND DREAM

One of the oddest fish in the sea is the Mola mola or ocean sunfish. It looks like a giant fish head with two fins but no body or tail. In place of a tail, it has a rudder-like lobe called the clavus. When its dorsal and ventral fins are extended, it can be as tall as it is long. It's also huge, and the heaviest of all bony fish — the largest one ever found was fourteen feet long and weighed almost 5,000 pounds. One oceanographer described them this way, "They're slow dreamers who peacefully drift around the seas and aren't known for lively enthusiasm." The name comes from the fish's habit of lying on its side near the surface, as if sunbathing. Fortunately for humans, Mola mola has a very small mouth and lives primarily on jellyfish and squid. The only danger to people comes when the fish breaches, as it can jump as high as two body lengths and has been known to land on a boat's deck. There are four known species of Molidae, distributed globally, and some are now consumed as a delicacy in parts of Asia.

JULY 3

THE PRESIDENT IS A SICK MAN

Unknown to the press, the American people, and possibly even to his vice president and staff, President Grover Cleveland underwent a secret surgical procedure in 1893. The cigar-smoking president had noticed a fast-growing lump on the roof of his mouth; it was diagnosed as cancer ("It's a bad looking tenant, and I would have it evicted immediately," his physician told him). Concerned that the nation would panic, and with an economic crisis already underway, Cleveland contrived to have the tumor removed on board a friend's yacht, while ostensibly taking a fishing trip to Cape Cod during the July 4 holiday. To maintain the secret, the surgery had to be performed without scarring his face or damaging his mustache. Sections of his jaw and hard palate and some teeth were excised through his mouth; a rubber prosthetic was inserted soon after the operation, and the president recovered in a few weeks. One journalist's effort to reveal the story was suppressed, and the truth was not revealed until twenty-four years later.

JULY 4

THE FIRELANDS

During the American Revolution, the city of Norwalk, Connecticut (established in 1651), and several surrounding towns were attacked, burned, and almost completely destroyed by the forces of British General William Tryon. "Connecticut was . . . the victim of terrorization! To harry, ravage and burn became the British policy after 1778 when the campaigns for control of the Hudson had miscarried . . . But little could England realize that the invasion of Connecticut towns would serve to push westward the frontiers of the very colonies it was struggling to stifle," according to a 1935 article in the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly. After the war, the people who had lost their homes were offered land in the Connecticut Western Reserve, which is now called Ohio. (The Western Reserve was the land the colony had claimed, from its western border to the Mississippi River.) The area, half a million acres near Lake Erie, became known as the Fire Sufferers Land, then just Firelands. The "sufferers," or their descendants or agents, established Norwalk, Ohio, and other municipalities and townships.

JULY 5

THE SUN GODDESS OF JAPAN

As with all myths, there are a number of variations of the story, but this seems to be the general outline of the legend of the Shinto sun goddess, Amaterasu. She was so radiant that her father Izanagi elevated her to rule heaven, where she tended a beautiful garden; birds sang in her presence and flowers bloomed. She had a brother named Susanoo, a storm god with a mischievous streak. Like many younger brothers, he was loud, annoying, and destructive. One day he created a gale that wrecked her garden. Feeling depressed and disheartened, Amaterasu retreated to a cave and shut herself in behind a door of stone. With her absence the earth became cold and dark, demons ruled, and the rice fields died. The other gods tried to lure her out, but she refused, until Uzume performed a provocative dance outside the cave. It was so outrageous that the other gods began laughing. Curious, Amaterasu peeked out and one of the gods grabbed her and pulled her outside, returning light to the world. Her great-grandson, Jimmu, became the first emperor of Japan, and Amaterasu is the ancestor deity of the imperial family.

JULY 6

AN ARTIST FOR PEACE

Manu Dibango (full name, Emmanuel N'Djoké Dibango) — a pioneer of world music — is a Cameroonian musician, born in 1933, who was influenced by many genres, from jazz and soul to reggae and techno. He studied piano and saxophone in France, where he attended concerts by such jazz greats as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and began his performing career in Parisian cabarets. He was soon traveling and playing concerts in Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean. In the early 1970s, his single "Soul Makossa" was the first international Afrobeat hit, and one of the first disco tunes on the charts; it's been sampled or covered by dozens of performers (a couple of whom were sued for using the refrain without permission). The song "was a bridge connecting America with the motherland in the early '70s, during the 'black is beautiful' period," he told the Los Angeles Times. Dibango has been designated a UNESCO Artist for Peace, "in recognition of his exceptional contribution to the development of the arts, of peace, and to dialogue among the world's cultures."

JULY 7

THE GREATEST THING SINCE

It is the event to which every other achievement is compared. The invention of sliced bread was trumpeted with an advertisement that hailed it as "the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped." Otto Rohwedder, an Iowa jeweler, invented a crude prototype of the bread-slicer in 1912, but a series of problems prevented its refinement and distribution until 1928, when he installed the first commercial bread-slicing machine at the Chillicothe Baking Company in Missouri. On July 7 of that year, customers were able to buy pre-sliced bread for the first time. The Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune waxed ecstatic: "So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome." It was an immediate success, and demand for the slicing machine rose steadily, despite the onset of the Depression. In 1930, Wonder Bread began distributing pre-sliced bread nationally, using their own bread-slicing equipment. The trend really took off, coinciding nicely with the release a few years earlier of a home pop-up toaster, which required evenly-sliced bread to work efficiently. Chillicothe calls itself "The Home of Sliced Bread."

From Learn Something New Every Day: 365 Facts to Fulfill Your Life by Kee Malesky. Copyright 2012 by Kee Malesky. Excerpted with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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