Some Things Never Change

Letter from Jeannette Linn to Santa Claus, Dec. 21, 1899:

Dear Santa, I thought I would drop you a few lines and tell you a few things what I want. Well, I want a pair of skates, because I think by the time Christmas comes it will be frozen up. And for another thing, I want a pair of leggings so that it will keep my feet warm and I want them so that they will come up above my shoe-tops, and I want a little slate like those that have pictures of cats and rabbits and dogs on and like those that are almost like a slate, and if it don’t cost too much I would like a large doll, so large that it would look about four years old. I will tell you where to find it. If you look in the basement of the Arcade on the place where the dolls are, you will see a large doll with real long curly hair and it is jointed and it is as pretty as I am. And I don’t think I want much, but dear Santa, I know that I want more than you can afford to give, for there are more little boys and girls and they want something too. But I would like to have so much a nice tricycle that would cost three dollars and that is too much, I think, to pay for anything, but that is really the price of it because I saw the price on it and it said $3.00 as plain as this letter is written and I think it is written pretty plain.

She finished: “Well Santa, I must close because it is getting late and I think if I don’t close you will not bring me anything. I have got as much as I can think of.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

After he’d been stung by almost everything, entomologist Justin O. Schmidt created the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, a four-point scale comparing the overall pain of insect stings:

  • 1.0 – Sweat bee: “Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.”
  • 1.2 – Fire ant: “Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet and reaching for the light switch.”
  • 1.8 – Bullhorn acacia ant: “A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.”
  • 2.0 – Bald-faced hornet: “Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.”
  • 2.0 – Yellowjacket: “Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W.C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.”
  • 3.0 – Red harvester ant: “Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.”
  • 3.0 – Paper wasp: “Caustic and burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.”
  • 4.0 – Pepsis wasp: “Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath (if you get stung by one you might as well lie down and scream).”
  • 4.0+ – Bullet ant: “Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail in your heel.”


In bloom of life
She’s snatched from hence
She had not room
To make defence;
For Tiger fierce
Took life away,
And here she lies
In a bed of clay
Until the Resurrection Day.

— Epitaph of Hannah Twynnoy, killed by a tiger escaped from a traveling circus, Malmesbury, England, 1703

What Would Darwin Say?

Robert Wallace had a noble impulse when he discovered a new species of monkey in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park. Rather than name the species after himself, he would auction off the naming rights to raise money for the park.

The marketers of the world are not so noble: $650,000 changed hands and the new species was named after an Internet casino. It’s officially called the “ Monkey.”

“No Ass to Be Found Here”

One day we all set out on a tour to the Farm. Jack and Frank had gone on first, while my wife and I were as yet close to the Cave. All at once the boys came back, and Fritz said, “Look at that strange thing on its way up the path. What can it be?”

I cast my eye on the spot and cried out, “Fly all of you to the Cave! fly for your lives!” for I saw it was a huge snake, or boa, that would make a meal of one of us, if we did not get out of its way.

We all ran in doors, and put bars up to the door of the Cave. A large dove cote had been made on the roof, and to this we got up through a hole in the rock.

Ernest took aim with his gun, and shot at the snake, so did Fritz and Jack, but it gave no sign that they had hit it. I then tried my skill, but it did not seem to feel my shot any more than theirs, though I was sure I must have struck its head. Just as we took aim at it once more, we saw it turn round and glide through the reeds in the marsh.

— From The Swiss Family Robinson Told in Words of One Syllable by Mary Godolphin (1784-1864)

An Ancient Computer

In 1900, sponge divers were retrieving relics from an ancient Greek shipwreck when archaeologist Spyridon Stais noticed a rock with a gear wheel in it. He had discovered the Antikythera mechanism, a remarkable clockwork computer that modeled the movements of heavenly objects as early as 87 B.C.

Using x-ray analysis, historians of science and technology have studied the mechanism closely and devised several working reconstructions. British orrery maker John Gleave believes the front dial tracked the sun and moon through the zodiac year against the Egyptian calendar. Others believe it modeled the motions of the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn — every celestial body known to the ancient Greeks.

That last interpretation is significant: In the first century B.C. Cicero had written of an instrument “recently constructed by our friend Poseidonius, which at each revolution reproduces the same motions of the sun, the moon and the five planets.” It may have been used to calculate celestial positions at the times of certain events or births.

Whatever the details, the device was remarkably sophisticated for its day: Among other things, it uses a differential gear, which historians had previously thought was invented in the 16th century. Complex Greek creations like this may have passed through the Arab world and eventually informed European clockmaking. What other ancient technology has been lost?