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Time is Money

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(This post was originally published on September 20th, 2011. I had no idea what kind of response I'd get from the _floss community since it was sort of off-brand, but this comment from loripop not only made my 2011, it made my entire 6-year, 2000+ posts flossing career: "This is one of the most beautiful things I've ever read on the internet." Loripop, whoever and wherever you are, thank you, thank you, thank you. And thanks to all the other wonderful commenters over the years on this post and so many others. You guys are something else! Keep it alive...)

My grandfather Mervin was an inventor. He invented hairclips. This month, he would have turned 110. To make money as a lad, he got a job sweeping up hair in a beauty parlor. Soon he noticed a need for clips. Clips that held the hair in place while the barber cut, clips that put waves in the hair, and doohickeys that crimped and flattened. He had patents on all these. Some were profitable, like the Jiffy, the Teeny, and others weren’t. But I guess the successful ones more than made up for the duds because he did pretty well for himself.

In the 1940s, his factory was at 173-177 Lafayette Street in Manhattan. Later he moved it to Orlando, Florida, though, when the workers tried to organize. In my family, we never liked unions much.

Fifty years later when I was living in SoHo, I wandered over to Chinatown to see what had happened to 173-177 Lafayette Street. I thought maybe the residue of the Mervin Wave Clip Company sign would be visible on the side of the building. The building was still there, but there was no sign of his sign. Everything was in Chinese. Mandarin or Cantonese, who knew?

At the street level of the old factory was a discount store. I went in to poke around and tried to strike up a conversation with the man who worked there. The place was overflowing with merchandise dressed in colorful wrappers that made everything look like candy.

“My grandfather used to work in this building,” I said to the clerk who might have been the owner judging by the confidant pose he struck.

He nodded.

“This was back in the forties,” I said.

Again he nodded, and then smiled a little.

“Those were different times I guess,” I said.

“Time?” he managed. “Time is money.”

I bought a bag of candy and headed home. The candy turned out to be some kind of dehydrated noodle though.

After my grandfather moved the business to Orlando, he met a progressive doctor who only ate food grown in his garden: fruits, nuts, vegetables. Way, way, way ahead of his time, the doctor told my grandfather You are what you eat.

Over time, my grandfather heeded the man’s advice and became a vegetarian. As kids, my brother and I would visit him in Florida and he’d eat a tureen full of salad for dinner while we had chicken, steak, fish, the works. He never tried to get us to give up meat, but we wanted bigger salads than normal for dinner because his looked so good. There were sunflower seeds in there, chickpeas, flax seeds and something he had flown in especially from Washington state called dulse, which is a very salty, dry seaweed that he said was full of B vitamins.

He also ate garlic cloves whole and liked to smear it on a piece of toast instead of butter or jam. When it came to apples, he ate the whole thing, including the core and the seeds. He’d say, “If a little seed like this has enough energy in it to produce an apple tree, can you imagine how good it is for you?”

I’d say, “Yeah, but they taste pretty lousy.”

He’d say, “So?”

There’s not much you can say to So. And anyway, it was pointless to argue with a man who peeled and bit into Bermuda onions the way the rest of us eat bananas.

My grandfather also loved mangos. He owned a tree on somebody’s property near I-95 and would drive over there to pick them when they were in season. But he couldn’t eat them fast enough, so every year he’d pack up liquor boxes with mangos wrapped in newspaper and ship them up to us in New Jersey. If we happened to be visiting him when they were in season, he’d send us home on the plane with a box, as well.

The box was always taped close and wrapped with heavy rope he had found on the beach during his morning walks—something washed up from the sea. The rope made it easy to pick the box off the baggage carousel and kept the mangos safe inside.

But in his late 80s he couldn’t take those long walks on the beach anymore because a melanoma had metastasized to his liver. So the rope collection began to diminish. The last time I visited him in Florida, before he died, he was 91 and still insisted on packing a box of mangos for me to take back north.

I watched him carefully wrap each mango in newspaper and seal the box. Then he painstakingly looped the rope around the box and asked me to assist in making a square knot. When he was done, he looked at me with a sunken face and said, “Well, that’s the end of the rope.”

And sadly, it really was. A month or so later, he was dead.

These days, I see people buying his wave clips off eBay and wonder what on earth they plan to do with them—if maybe the eBayers are just weird hairclip collectors or something. I also wonder who’s collecting all that rope on the beach now that my grandfather isn’t and wish I’d pay more attention when he was alive because I can’t seem to make a square knot without him.

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10 Surprising Facts about Alexander Graham Bell
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Alexander Graham Bell may have been born in Scotland and become an American citizen, but he called Nova Scotia, Canada home for the last few decades of his life. By the time Bell was 38, he was living in Washington, D.C. and involved in endless draining lawsuits concerning patents over the telephone. He came across a book by Charles Dudley Warner called Baddeck and That Sort of Thing, which described the small fishing village of Baddeck in Nova Scotia as “the most beautiful saltwater lake I have even seen … its embracing hills, casting a shadow from its wooded islands … here was an enchanting vision.” After reading that description, Bell moved there with his wife and two children. He made the idyllic Canadian village his home for nearly 40 years, until his death.

1. BELL’S FIRST PASSION WAS HELPING THE DEAF.

Alexander Graham Bell and his family
Alexander Graham Bell and his wife, Mabel Gardiner Hubbard, and two of their children
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Alexander Graham Bell’s primary focus was on helping deaf students communicate. His grandfather had been an elocutionist, and his father, Melville, developed a system called Visible Speech, a collection of written symbols designed to help the deaf while speaking. (Melville was name-checked in George Bernard Shaw’s preface to Pygmalion, and is thought to be a possible basis for Professor Higgins.) Both Alexander Graham Bell’s mother and wife were deaf, and became the inspiration for his work. In 1872, when he was 25, he opened a “School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech” in Boston.

2. THE TELEPHONE WAS INVENTED FOR LOVE

Luke Spencer

One of Bell’s pupils was Mabel Hubbard, the daughter of a wealthy Massachusetts family, with whom he fell in love. Her father, lawyer Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the first president of the National Geographic Society, opposed the marriage due to Bell’s poor finances. But only a few days after establishing the Bell Telephone Company and securing his fortune, Bell married Mabel. For a wedding present, he gave her all but ten of his 1507 shares in the company. On his desk in his study at Baddeck, Bell kept a photograph of his beloved Mabel; written on the back, in his own hand, it says: “the girl for whom the telephone was invented.”

3. THE FIRST TELEPHONE MESSAGE MAY HAVE BEEN A CALL FOR HELP.

It was while experimenting with acoustic telegraphy alongside his assistant Thomas Watson, a machinist, that Bell invented the telephone. On the evening of March 10, 1876, with a receiver set up in Watson’s room and the prototype transmitter in his own room down the hallway, Bell uttered the first words sent down a telephone wire: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” As Watson recalled, “I rushed down the hall … and found he had upset the acid of a battery over his clothes … his shout for help that night … doesn’t make as pretty a story as did the first sentence ‘What Hath God Wrought’ which Morse sent over his new telegraph ... 30 years before, but it was an emergency call.”

However, according to Watson’s great-granddaughter Susan Cheever, the acid was an invention of Watson’s 50 years after the fact. To make her case, she quotes a letter from Watson soon after the momentous call, in which he said, “[T]here was little of dramatic interest in the occasion.”

Bell's patent 174,465 was filed with the U.S. Patent Office at almost the same time as another engineer, Elisha Gray, filed a caveat (a document saying he was going to file for a patent in three months) for a similar invention. That sparked one of more than 500 various lawsuits over the telephone—all of which were unsuccessful.

4. BELL PIONEERED WHAT WOULD BECOME CASSETTE TAPES, FLOPPY DISCS, AND FIBER OPTICS.

In 1880, the French government awarded Bell 50,000 francs for the invention of the telephone. With the prize money he founded the Volta Laboratory, dedicated to the “increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the deaf.”

Of the 18 patents held by Bell alone, and the 12 he shared with collaborators, many related to improving the lives of deaf people. Bell considered once such patent, the photophone, the “greatest invention I have ever made, greater than the telephone.” The photophone was designed for optical wireless communication, which was quite a feat for 1880. Bell and an assistant, Charles Summer Tainter, transmitted a wireless voice message by light beam over a distance of 200 meters from a school roof to their laboratory—a precursor to fiber-optics one hundred years later

They are also said to have attempted to impress magnetic fields as a way of reproducing sound. Although they abandoned the idea after failing to produce a workable prototype, Bell had in fact been pioneering the principle that would one day become the tape recorder and the computer floppy disc. One of their improvements to the gramophone was patented under the Volta Graphophone Company, which would one day evolve into Columbia Records and Dictaphone.

5. HE ALSO INVENTED THE WORLD’S FASTEST SPEEDBOAT …

After becoming interested in hydroplanes, Bell sketched out an early model of what would become known as a hydrofoil boat. Along with aviation pioneer Frederick “Casey” Baldwin, Bell began building and testing what they called the HD-4 in the laboratory at Baddeck. On the Bras d’Or lake outside Bell’s home, the boat set the world speed record of 70.86 mph on September 9, 1919. The remnants of the world’s fastest boat can still be seen at the Alexander Graham Bell Historic site and museum in Baddeck.

6. … AND HELPED OUT WITH CANADA’S FIRST CONTROLLED PLANE.

The Bras d’Or lake also saw another milestone in Canadian history, when the AEA Silver Dart, one of the earliest aircraft, made the first powered flight in Canada in February 1909. As early as 1892, Bell had been developing motor-powered aircraft, and had done extensive experiments with tetrahedron kites. Under Bell’s guidance, co-designer John McCurdy managed to fly the Silver Dart a half-mile over Nova Scotia. A few weeks later, after more tinkering in Bell’s workshops, the flight managed more than 22 miles. By the summer of 1909, the Silver Dart carried the first-ever passenger in Canadian airspace.

7. HE WAS HELPFUL TO NEIGHBORS.

Alexander Graham Bell with family and friends
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There is a local story told in Baddeck of how, one day soon after moving to the town, Bell was walking along the main street and saw the editor of the local newspaper having problems with his wall-mounted telephone. Bell walked in and promptly unscrewed the earpiece, revealing a trapped fly, which he blew out of it. The astonished newspaper editor asked how the stranger had known how to fix the newfangled invention, to which Bell replied, “because I am the inventor of that instrument.”

8. HE INVENTED A METAL DETECTOR TO SAVE A PRESIDENT’S LIFE.

A metal detector like the one Bell invented, on display at the Bell Historic Site in Baddeck.
Luke Spencer

The first known use of the metal detector was not for beachcombing or gold prospecting, but rather as an attempt to save the life of a U.S. President. James Garfield had been shot at the Baltimore & Potomac Railway station in July 1881 by Charles J. Guiteau. The bullet was lodged somewhere in the president’s back and couldn’t be located by the attending doctors. Alexander Graham Bell, a visitor to the stricken Garfield, quickly developed a metal detector with the purpose of finding the bullet. Inspired by French inventor Gustave Trouvé’s earlier handheld device, Bell built a device based on electromagnetics. Unfortunately, the metal springs in the mattress Garfield was lying on confused the detector—or so Bell would later claim—and the 20th president of the United States died of an infection in the wound that September.

9. YOU CAN ALSO THANK HIM FOR NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE.

The National Geographic magazine as we know it today was largely the brainchild of Alexander Graham Bell. Under his father-in-law, the exclusive society’s first president, the prestigious club house in Washington D.C. was struggling. Membership was dwindling to just under a thousand people when Bell was elected its second president. He immediately set to work to revitalize the society, and in particular its journal, which, according to Bell, “everyone put on his library shelf and few people read.”

Bell relaunched the journal with a new slogan, “The World And All That Is In It.” He promoted illustrations and good photography, introducing “pictures of life and action … pictures that tell a story.”

10. AFTER HIS DEATH, THE PHONE COMPANIES PAID TRIBUTE.

Alexander Graham Bell died in his adopted home of Nova Scotia on August 2, 1922, with his beloved Mabel by his side. It’s a common custom to hold a minute’s silence when someone of note has passed away, but for Alexander Graham Bell, a remarkable tribute took place after his funeral. Every phone in North America was silenced for a minute in “honor of the man who had given to mankind the means for direct communication at a distance.”

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Welcome to Italy's 'Snail Spa,' Where Happy Mollusks Ooze Prized Slime
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Wellness fads may come and go, but one beauty trend—using gross unguents to maintain a youthful glow—remains constant. Throughout history, cultures around the world have slathered themselves in concoctions containing everything from crocodile excrement to bird droppings and even snail slime, the last of which was favored by the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Today, mollusk mucous is undergoing a surprising resurgence, as cosmetics companies around the globe use the slime to make skin products. To harvest mass quantities of the clear ooze, snail farmers typically have to kill the tiny creatures. But according to Great Big Story's video below, an Italian man named Simone Sampò invented a snail slime extraction machine—which he has dubbed a "snail spa"—that sprays the critters with secret ingredients, pleasuring them to the point that they secrete their valuable ooze.

Curious how the natural lubricant gets from a mollusk's foot to a well-cared-for face? Watch Sampò's steam machine in action below, as it lulls a bevy of happy snails into producing jugs of slime.

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