9 People, Places & Things That Changed Their Names

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When much-reviled security firm Blackwater changed its name to Xe last week, it wasn't just cleverly attempting to squash criticism by tossing out a name nobody would know how to pronounce. (Although that idea was probably a foreseen fringe benefit of the switch.) It was just joining in on a long tradition of corporations, places, and people opting to pick up a catchier, less tainted, or more unique name. Here are nine other famous entities that changed their names; you might not even recognize them by their original monikers.

1. BackRub

In 1996, Stanford computer science grad students Sergey Brin and Larry Page started working on a new web crawling search engine. Since the engine used backlinks to gauge how important a site was, the enterprising pair called their creation "BackRub." By 1997 they decided this name wasn't so hot and brainstormed some new ideas before eventually settling on "Google."

2. Jerry and David's Guide to the World Wide Web

"BackRub" sounds positively inspired compared to this behemoth of a title. When David Filo and Jerry Yang started a guide to Internet content in 1994, they christened it "Jerry and David's Guide to the World Wide Web." Like Page and Brin, they quickly realized they might need a name that took less than three minutes to say, so they switched to a word they liked from the dictionary "“ one that described someone who was "rude, unsophisticated, and uncouth." And that's how Yahoo! was born.

3. Jeff Gillooly

If ever anyone had good cause to change his name, it's Jeff Gillooly. While he was married to former figure skater Tonya Harding, Gillooly became a despised national figure for helping orchestrate the knee whacking of Harding's rival Nancy Kerrigan. To make things worse, he apparently sold a sex tape of one of his romps with Harding to a tabloid TV show. After spending six months in prison on racketeering charges, Gillooly returned home to Oregon, but picked up a new name, "Jeff Stone."

New name or not, he was still the same old Jeff Gillooly. According to a 2008 Newsweek report, Stone has been briefly married, divorced, twice arrested for domestic violence (although the charges were dropped), owned a tanning salon, sold used cars, and dated a stripper. Sort of makes Tonya's boxing career sound respectable.

4. Brad's Drink

In 1893, pharmacist Caleb Bradham created a new cola formula at his New Bern, North Carolina, business. Customers loved the sweet, fizzy libation, but the name "Brad's Drink" didn't really do much for them. After five years, Bradham decided maybe it was time to come up with a better brand name for his drink, so he started calling it Pepsi Cola.

5. Bombay

In 1995, millions of Indians went to sleep in Bombay and woke up in Mumbai. How did that happen? Since India achieved independence from British rule in 1947, various place names around the country have been changed to reflect Indian heritage rather than British colonial influences. When the right-wing Shiv Sena party romped in India's 1995 elections, one of its early acts was changing Bombay's name to Mumbai in honor of the city's patron Hindu goddess, Mumbadevi.

Mumbai's hardly alone in getting renamed, though. In 2001 Calcutta became Kolkata, while Madras became Chennai in 1996.

6. David Jones

Jones showed a certain flair for showmanship and songwriting in the early 1960s, but he was unfortunately named. Pop music already had a Davy Jones, the diminutive member of The Monkees. To spare himself any career-killing confusion, David Jones decided to adopt a stage name in 1965. He settled on the last name Bowie in part due to his fascination with Alamo-defending patriot Jim Bowie and his namesake knife. Jones wasn't instantly successful after he became David Bowie, but the Thin White Duke eventually rode his new name to stardom.

7. Andersen Consulting

In 1989, accounting giant Arthur Andersen spun off its consulting division into its own linked business that quickly grew into a juggernaut. When Andersen Consulting was raking in over $9 billion a year by the end of the 1990s, the consultancy no longer had much of a desire to stick with the accounting firm that incubated it. Following a rather acrimonious split in 2000, Andersen Consulting changed its name to Accenture.

Splitting up and changing names proved to be a stroke of luck for Accenture. Barely a year after the two companies parted ways, Arthur Andersen's name became inextricably linked to Enron-type accounting shenanigans, and by the end of 2002, the company's business was for all intents and purposes dead. Accenture, on the other hand, didn't suffer from negative associations with its document-shredding former brethren and remains on the Fortune Global 500.

8. David John Moore Cornwell

Cornwell enjoyed long, successful careers in the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6, and he started writing novels while he was with MI5. As it turned out, the novels were quite good, but he couldn't publish them under his own name due to British foreign office rules. Cornwell adopted the pseudonym John le Carre so he could stay in the good graces of his bosses, but it wouldn't matter for long. After achieving major commercial success and critical acclaim for his dazzling novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, le Carre quit his day job in 1964 to focus on writing full-time. The decision paid off when le Carre became one of the most successful thriller writers of his generation.

9. Blue Ribbon Sports

In 1963, an ambitious young runner named Phil Knight met with the Japanese running shoe company Onitsuka about distributing their sneakers in the U.S. The Japanese makers of Tiger running shoes decided to give Knight a shot, but they needed to know the name of Knight's company. He responded that he was running Blue Ribbon Sports, and he soon began selling Tigers out of his car at track meets around the U.S. By 1971, though, his business had grown to the point where Knight was making his own shoes. He decided to name the shoes and the business after the Greek goddess of victory, Nike.

7 Ways Victorian Fashion Could Kill You

An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.
An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.

While getting dressed in the morning can seem like a hassle (pajamas are so much more comfortable), few of us worry about our clothes leading to our death. That wasn’t the case during the Victorian era, when fashionable fabrics and accessories sometimes came at great price for both makers and wearers. In Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, Alison Matthews David, a professor in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto, outlines the many toxic, flammable, and otherwise highly hazardous components of high style during the 19th century. Here are a few of the worst offenders.

1. Poisonous Dyes

A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Before the 1780s, green was a tricky color to create on clothes, and dressmakers depended on a combination of yellow and blue dyes to produce the hue. But in the late 1770s a Swedish/German chemist named Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented a new green pigment by mixing potassium and white arsenic on a solution of copper vitriol. The pigment was dubbed Scheele’s Green, and later Paris Green, among other names, and it became a huge sensation, used to color walls, paintings, and fabrics as well as candles, candies, food wrappers, and even children’s toys. Not surprisingly, it also caused sores, scabs, and damaged tissue, as well as nausea, colic, diarrhea, and constant headaches.

Although fashionable women wore arsenic-dyed fabrics—even Queen Victoria was depicted in one—its health effects were worst among the textile and other workers who created the clothes and often labored in warm, arsenic-impregnated rooms day after day. (Some scholars have even theorized that Napoleon might have been poisoned by the arsenic-laced wallpaper hung in his St. Helena home.)

Arsenical dyes were also a popular addition to artificial flowers and leaves, which meant they were frequently pinned to clothes or fastened on heads. In the 1860s, a report commissioned by the Ladies’ Sanitary Association found that the average headdress contained enough arsenic to poison 20 people. The British Medical Journal wrote of the green-clad Victorian woman: “She actually carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms.” Despite repeated warnings in the press, and from doctors and scientists, the Victorians seemed in love with emerald green arsenic dyes; ironically, they acted like a reminder of the nature then swiftly being lost to industrialization, David says.

2. Pestilential Fabrics

Soldiers of the Victorian era (and earlier) were plagued by lice and other body parasites that carried deadly diseases such as typhus and trench fever. But soldiers weren’t the only victims of disease carried via fabric—even the wealthy sometimes wore clothing that was made or cleaned by the sick in sweatshops or tenements, and which spread disease as a result. According to David, the daughter of Victorian Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel died after her riding habit, given to her by her father as a gift, was finished in the house of a poor seamstress who had used it to cover her sick husband as he lay shivering with typhus-induced chills. Peel’s daughter contracted typhus after wearing the garment, and died on the eve of her wedding.

Women also worried about their skirts sweeping through the muck and excrement of city streets, where bacteria was rife, and some wore special skirt-fasteners to keep them up from the gunk. The poor, who often wore secondhand clothes, suffered from smallpox and other diseases spread by fabric that was recycled without being properly washed.

3. Flowing Skirts

Giant, ruffled, crinoline-supported skirts may have been fine for ladies of leisure, but they weren’t a great combination with industrial machinery. According to David, one mill in Lancashire posted a sign in 1860 forbidding the “present ugly fashion of HOOPS, or CRINOLINE, as it is called” as being “quite unfitted for the work of our Factories.” The warning was a wise one: In at least one printing office, a girl was caught by her crinoline and dragged under the mechanical printing press. The girl was reportedly “very slim” and escaped unharmed, but the foreman banned the skirts anyway. Long, large, or draped skirts were also an unfortunate combination with carriages and animals.

4. Flammable Fabrics

A woman with her crinoline on fire
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

The flowing white cotton so popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries had dangers to both maker and wearer: It was produced with often-brutal slave labor on plantations, and it was also more flammable than the heavy silks and wool favored by the wealthy in the previous centuries. One type of cotton lace was particularly problematic: In 1809 John Heathcoat patented a machine that made the first machine-woven silk and cotton pillow “lace” or bobbinet, now better known as tulle, which could catch fire in an instant. The tulle was frequently layered, to add volume and compensate for its sheerness, and stiffened with highly combustible starch. Ballerinas were particularly at risk: British ballerina Clara Webster died in 1844 when her dress caught fire at London’s Drury Lane theatre after her skirt came too close to sunken lights onstage.

But performers weren’t the only ones in peril: Even the average woman wearing the then-popular voluminous crinolines was at risk of setting herself ablaze. And the “flannelette” (plain cotton brushed to create a nap and resemble wool flannel) so popular for nightshirts and undergarments was particularly combustible if hit with a stray spark or the flame of a household candle. So many children burned in household accidents that one company came out with a specially treated flannelette called Non-Flam, advertised as being “strong’y recommended by Coroners.”

5. Arsenic-Ridden Taxidermy

Dead birds were a popular addition to ladies’ hats in the 19th century. According to David, “fashions in millinery killed millions of small songbirds and introduced dangers that may still make some historic women’s hats harmful to humans today.”

But it wasn’t the birds that were the problem—it was the arsenic used on them. Taxidermists of the day used arsenic-laced soaps and other products to preserve birds and other creatures. In some cases, entire birds—one or several—were mounted on hats. Some Victorian fashion commentators decried the practice, though not because of the arsenic involved. One Mrs. Haweis, a writer on dress and beauty, began an 1887 diatribe against “smashed birds” with the sentence: “A corpse is never a really pleasant ornament.”

6. Mercury

No upper-class man of the Victorian era was complete without his hat, but many of those hats were made with mercury. As David explains, “Although its noxious effects were known, it was the cheapest and most efficient way to turn stiff, low-grade fur from rabbits and hares into malleable felt.” Mercury gave animal fur its smooth, glossy, matted texture, but that velvety look came at a high cost—mercury is an extremely dangerous substance.

Mercury can rapidly enter the body through the skin or the air, and causes a range of horrible health effects. Hatters were known to suffer from convulsions, abdominal cramps, trembling, paralysis, reproductive problems, and more. (A chemistry professor studying toxic exposure at Dartmouth College, Karen Wetterhahn, died in 1996 after spilling just a few drops of a supertoxic type of mercury on her glove.) To make matters worse, hatters who drank while they worked (not an uncommon practice) only hastened mercury’s effects by hampering the liver’s ability to eliminate it. While scholars still debate whether Lewis Carroll’s “mad hatter” was meant to show the effects of mercury poisoning, his trembling limbs and wacky speech seem to fit the bill.

7. Lead

A Victorian facial cream containing lead
A Victorian facial cream containing lead
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Pallor was definitely in during the Victorian era, and a face spackled with lead white paint was long favored by fashionable women. Lead had been a popular ingredient in cosmetics for centuries, David writes, because it “made colors even and opaque and created a desirable ‘whiteness’ that bespoke both freedom from hard outdoor labor and racial purity.” One of the most popular lead-laced cosmetic products was called Laird’s Bloom of Youth; in 1869, one of the founders of the American Medical Association treated three young women who had been using the product and temporarily lost full use of their hands and wrists as a result. (The doctor described the condition as “lead palsy,” although today we call it wrist drop or radial nerve palsy, which can be caused by lead poisoning.) One of the women’s hands was said to be “wasted to a skeleton.”

This article was republished in 2019.

Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit Will Go Back on Display for Apollo 11's 50th Anniversary

Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Neil Armstrong made history when he became the first person to walk on the Moon 50 years ago. Space exploration has changed since then, but the white space suit with the American flag patch that Armstrong wore on that first walk is still what many people think of when they picture an astronaut. Now, after sitting in storage for a decade, that iconic suit is ready to go on display, according to Smithsonian.

NASA donated Neil Armstrong's suit to the Smithsonian shortly after the Apollo 11 mission. For about 30 years, it was displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Then, in 2006, the museum moved the artifact to storage to minimize damage.

Even away from the exhibit halls, the suit was deteriorating, and the Smithsonian knew it would need to be better preserved if it was to be shown to the public again. In 2015, the institution launched its first-ever Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $700,000 for conservation efforts.

After a multi-year preservation project, the suit will finally return to the museum floor on July 16, 2019—the date that marks 50 years since Apollo 11 launched. This time around, the suit will be displayed on a structure that was custom built to support its interior, protecting it from the weight of gravity. Climate-controlled air will flow through the gear to recreate the stable environment of a storage unit.

Even if you can't make it to the National Air and Space Museum to see Armstrong's space suit in person, soon you'll be able to appreciate it from home in a whole new way. The museum used various scanning techniques to create an intricate 3D model of the artifact. Once the scans are reconfigured for home computers, the Smithsonian's digitization team plans to make an interactive version of the digital model freely available on its website.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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