History of the U.S.: $ymbol Minded

How did the word “dollar” come to be represented by “$”— a symbol with no apparent connection to any of the letters in dollar?

After the Revolution, the Founding Fathers were determined to dump the vestiges of British rule, including currency based on pounds, shillings, and pence. Instead of inventing a whole new system, however, they sensibly modeled their currency on that of another European power, Spain— partly because no one could confuse it with Britain’s, and partly because gold and silver from Spanish colonies in South America and Mexico played a big role in international finance. The main denomination was intended to correspond in value to the Spanish real de a ocho, or piece of eight— the standard Spanish coin at this time. To mix things up a bit, the Founding Fathers called their version, with the same monetary value, a dollar, an old North European monetary unit from the German word Taler, a short form of Joachimstaler—a coin minted in the Joachimstal valley of Bohemia in the sixteenth century.

So where’d the $ sign come from? Well, nobody’s sure, but there are a couple of possible explanations. One theory holds that it’s a contorted version of the Spanish shorthand ps, standing for pesos. Another theory says it’s an 8 with a slash through it, referring to the Spanish piece of eight. Our favorite explanation: it’s an abstract interpretation of an artistic detail on the Spanish real de a ocho, showing a banner wrapped around a pillar.

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History of the U.S.: Al Gore Really Did "Take the Initiative in Creating the Internet"

While it was a bold claim, “took the initiative in creating” is not the same as “invented.” The latter summons up images of Gore writing equations in a white lab coat, laying fiberoptic cable in a hardhat, and sharing a cup of tea with a house wife while explaining how to use e-mail; the former suggests that he played a key role in a broader congressional effort to formulate policies that enabled other people (engineers and computer scientists) to make the Internet what it is today. And that is pretty close to the truth.

Indeed, Al Gore was well aware that the “Internet” was already in existence when he was first elected to Congress in 1977. The groundwork for the Internet was laid in the late 1960s by researchers who invented a way to transmit information by breaking large amounts of data into smaller “packets,” which could be sent to multiple computers simultaneously. This digital network was organized and funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the Pentagon’s research and development division, to share information between four key research sites. As more schools and labs were added, the network grew from four routers in 1969 to 40 in 1972. In 1975, when there were 57 routers (including some in Europe), ARPA handed the Net over to the Pentagon, which planned to use it as a backup if other communications were knocked out by a Soviet first strike.

Al Gore played a key role in making the network available for nonmilitary use. One year after the Pentagon separated the military and civilian parts of the network, Gore supported initiatives to build new “wide area networks” (WAN). To speed this process, in 1986 Gore authored the Supercomputer Network Act, which funded research to expand connections between universities and research facilities using high-capacity fiber-optic cables. In 1988 the Pentagon announced it would phase out ARPANET by 1990, prompting universities, industry, and other civilian users to expand the nonmilitary network. At the urging of these groups, Gore authored legislation allocating federal funds to connect 1,000 academic and other civilian networks to form an “information superhighway.” This evolved into the National High-Performance Computing and Communications Act, a $1.7 billion project linking universities, libraries, government facilities, and industrial labs in a common network. The NHPCCA— otherwise known as the “Gore Bill”— also funded computer scientists who developed Mosaic, the first graphic Web browser.

The 1992 expiration date set for funding raised the question of how to finance further expansion. Again, Gore was instrumental in getting Congress to pass the Information Infrastructure and Technology Act of 1992, which allowed businesses and individuals to use the Internet commercially. Gore understood the broader implications of his policies: rallying support for the NHPCCA in the House of Representatives in 1989, he told committee members, “I genuinely believe that the creation of this nationwide network will create an environment where work stations are common in homes and even small businesses.”

Some years later, Gore’s colleagues and leading computer scientists stepped up to defend his claim that he “took the initiative in creating the Internet.” In September 2000, Newt Gingrich said, “Gore is the person who, in the Congress, most systematically worked to make sure that we got to an Internet.” Meanwhile Vinton Cerf, who played a key role in designing the architecture and protocols of the Internet and is sometimes credited as the “father of the Internet,” recalled that “Al Gore was the first political leader to recognize the importance of the Internet and to promote and support its development . . . long before most people were listening.”

History of the World: Cable TV On, Women’s Shirts Off

Before the Internet became a limitless font of pornography just a mouse click away, late-night premium cable TV was pretty much the best thing ever invented, as far as teenage boys were concerned. And, okay, all those hundreds of other cable channels weren’t bad either.

Cable TV started way back in the late 1940s as a way of getting television to rural areas: receiving towers picked up distant signals and distributed them to local subscribers via cable. Because the receiving towers could pick up broadcasts from hundreds of miles away, many cable subscribers actually had more viewing choices than households with plain old “bunny ears” broadcast TV. Local broadcasters supported by the Big Three Networks complained about the new competition, prompting the FCC to clamp down on cable in the 1960s.

But it’s hard to stop a good idea, especially when it has the potential to deliver porn to private households. 1972 brought the beginning of cable deregulation and the first premium pay cable company, HBO. The creators envisioned a cable network allowing wealthy Manhattanites to watch movies in the comfort of their own luxury apartments. It was bought by Time, Inc., and went national in September 1975.

In December 1976, a man who owned a local Atlanta-based station wanted to use satellite to achieve national reach for programming. The man’s name? R.E. “Ted” Turner. Ted’s channels were dominated by sitcoms, cartoons, old movies, and sports. But unlike HBO, Turner distributed his content for free, making money by selling advertising at cheaper rates than the broadcast networks.

The late part of the decade brought a flurry of new cable networks both free and premium, and couch potatoes couldn’t have been happier: Showtime debuted in March 1978, The Movie Channel in January 1979, and the Entertainment and Sports Network in September 1979. In June 1980 Ted Turner revolutionized TV (again) with the launch of CNN, providing 24-hour news coverage. Two months later HBO launched Cinemax to compete with The Movie Channel and Showtime. Before long, the intensifying competition pushed all four movie channels to switch to round-the-clock programming.

The most important thing to remember, though, is that these vast media empires were built to a considerable degree on smut. HBO Chairman Michael Fuchs himself told a new employee that “randy guys are a major part of our demographic.” In the early 1980s, The Movie Channel enjoyed rapid growth as the only premium movie channel to show R-rated movies in daytime, prompting Showtime and Cinemax to do the same. In 1982 the Playboy Channel launched with 340,000 subscribers, which jumped to 750,000 by 1985 — but when execs foolishly tried to take the channel more “mainstream,” subscribers tumbled to 400,000 by 1988. Meanwhile, competitors clearly understood the formula for Playboy’s success: in 1984 Bridget Potter, the head of original programming for HBO, issued a directive that Cinemax would focus on classy softcore porn. Her exact instructions? “Spicy but not obscene.”

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