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Notable Bathtubs in History

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Ah, the pleasure of soaking in a warm bathtub! People have been bathing in artificial facilities since about 3300 BC, so there are bound to be some great bathtub stories in our history books. I found a few interesting ones.

Eureka!

The ancient Greek inventor Archimedes discovered the physics of displacement while soaking in a bathtub. The water rose when he got into the tub, and he figured you could measure the volume of all kinds of objects that way. As the story goes, he jumped up from the bath, shouted "Eureka!" and ran around naked telling people of his discovery. The Emperor had asked whether the royal crown was pure gold. Archimedes measured the volume of the crown by water displacement and compared that to the volume of an equal weight of pure gold. The volumes were different, indicating that the crown had lighter material underneath the gold.

Millard Fillmore's Bathtub

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H.L. Mencken wrote "A Neglected Anniversary" in the New York Evening Mail in 1917. The article gave a history of the bathtub in America, with facts like bathtubs were outlawed at one time, and that Millard Fillmore installed the first bathtub in the white house. The entire column was a work of fiction. Mencken said it was just a bit of fun, but others suspect that he wanted to prove the point that readers will believe anything printed. And they did! He admitted the hoax in print in 1926, but the genie was out of the bottle. Books, magazines, newspapers, and classroom teachers have passed on the "fact" about Millard Fillmore through the 20th century, and even into the internet age. The entire article is here. The actual first bathtub in the white house is hard to pin down, since early presidents bathed in tubs that were brought in and filled with water heated on stoves, at least as far back as James Madison. Water pipes were installed in the white house in 1833, during Andrew Jackson's administration.

Ship's Bathtub

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A bathtub on a Navy ship? Battleships are designed to carry as much equipment and as many men as needed without wasting an inch of space. But an exception was made for the USS Iowa When the ship was to take President Franklin Roosevelt to the Cairo Conference and the Tehran Conference in 1943, a bathtub was installed for his convenience. Roosevelt had been crippled by Guillain-Barré syndrome since 1921, and would have had a hard time taking a shower. The USS Iowa is now looking for a home as a museum ship.

The Oversized President

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William Howard Taft was the heaviest US president at 332 pounds. Early in his administration (1909-1913) he became stuck in the white house bathtub, and had a larger one installed. In 1912, he took his own oversized tub onto the battleship Arkansas for a trip from Key West to Colon. It was not permanently installed. In 1915, the New York Times printed a story of how Taft caused a hotel flood by displacing water in a bathtub in New Jersey.

Death in a Tub

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There have been a few famous people who have died in a bathtub. Thomas Merton, an influential Trappist monk and theological writer died at the age of 53 when he stepped out of a bathtub in Bangkok in 1968. He touched a poorly-grounded electric fan and was electrocuted. Singer Jim Morrison died in a Paris bathtub of a heart attack in 1971. He was only 27, and speculation is that the heart attack was drug-related. This account has been disputed and the whole story may never be known.

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NASA // Public Domain
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Space
On This Day in 1962, NASA Launched and Destroyed Mariner 1
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NASA // Public Domain

On July 22, 1962, NASA launched the Mariner 1 probe, which was intended to fly by Venus and collect data on its temperature and atmosphere. It was intended to be the first interplanetary craft—the first time humans had sent a space probe to another world. Unfortunately, NASA aborted the mission 293 seconds after launch, destroying the probe in the Atlantic. What happened?

First off, a bit of history. Mariner 1 was based on the pre-existing Block 1 craft used in the Ranger program, which was aimed at gathering data on our moon. Those early Ranger probes didn't do so well—both Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 suffered early failures in orbit. Mariner 1 was a modified version of the Ranger design, intended for a much longer mission to another planet. It lacked a camera, but had various radiometers, a cosmic dust detector, and a plasma spectrometer—it would be capable of gathering data about Venus, but not pictures per se.

The two previous Ranger missions had used basically the same launch system, so it was reasonably well-tested. The Ranger probes had made it into orbit, but had been unable to stabilize themselves after that.

Mariner 1 launched on the evening of July 22, 1963. Its Atlas-Agena rocket was aided by two radar systems, designed to track data on velocity (the "Rate System") and distance/angle (the "Track System") and send it to ground-based computers. By combining that data, the computers at Cape Canaveral helped the rocket maintain a trajectory that, when separated, would lead Mariner 1 to Venus.

Part of the problem involved in handling two separate radars was that there was a slight delay—43 milliseconds—between the two radars' data reports. That wasn't a problem by itself. The Cape computer simply had to correct for that difference. But in that correction process, a problem was hiding—a problem that hadn't appeared in either of the previous Ranger launches.

To correct the timing of the data from the Rate System—the radar responsible for measuring velocity of the rocket—the ground computer ran data through a formula. Unfortunately, when that formula had been input into the computer, a crucial element called an overbar was omitted. The overbar indicated that several values in the formula belonged together; leaving it out meant that a slightly different calculation would be made. But that wasn't a problem by itself.

The fate of Mariner 1 was sealed when the Rate System hardware failed on launch. This should not have been a fatal blow, as the Track System was still working, and Ground Control should have been able to compensate. But because that overbar was missing, calculations on the incoming radar data went wonky. The computer incorrectly began compensating for normal movement of the spacecraft, using slightly incorrect math. The craft was moving as normal, but the formula for analyzing that data had a typo—so it began telling Mariner 1 to adjust its trajectory. It was fixing a problem that didn't exist, all because a few symbols in a formula weren't grouped together properly.

Mariner 1's rocket did as it was told, altering its trajectory based on faulty computer instructions. Looking on in horror, the Range Safety Officer at the Cape saw that the Atlas rocket was now headed for a crash-landing, potentially either in shipping lanes or inhabited areas of Earth. It was 293 seconds after launch, and the rocket was about to separate from the probe.

With just 6 seconds remaining before the Mariner 1 probe was scheduled to separate (and ground control would be lost), that officer made the right call—he sent the destruct command, ditching Mariner I in an unpopulated area of the Atlantic.

The incident was one of many early space launch failures, but what made it so notable was the frenzy of reporting about it, mostly centered on what writer Arthur C. Clarke called "the most expensive hyphen in history." The New York Times incorrectly reported that the overbar was a "hyphen" (a reasonable mistake, given that they are both printed horizontal lines) but correctly reported that this programming error, when coupled with the hardware failure of the Rate System, caused the failure. The bug was identified and fixed rapidly, though the failed launch cost $18,500,000 in 1962 dollars—north of $150 million today.

Fortunately for NASA, Mariner 2 was waiting in the wings. An identical craft, it launched just five weeks later on August 27, 1962. And, without the bug and the radar hardware failure, it worked as planned, reaching Venus and becoming the first interplanetary spacecraft in history. It returned valuable data about the temperature and atmosphere of Venus, as well as recording solar wind and interplanetary dust data along the way. There would be 10 Mariner missions in all [PDF], with Mariner 1, 3, and 8 suffering losses during launch.

For further reading, consult this Ars Technica discussion, which includes valuable quotes from Paul E. Ceruzzi's book Beyond The Limits—Flight Enters the Computer Age.

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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain
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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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