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Wikimedia Commons

How Seattle's Neighborhoods Got Their Names

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Seattle’s modern history dates back to the Denny Party’s landing in 1851. Since its founding, the city has divided itself into neighborhoods, each with its own distinct personality. But where did the names of those neighborhoods come from? The answers range from references to the area’s American Indian heritage to lost coin flips, American presidents to misidentified foliage. A vast (though not 100% exhaustive) list of these histories is below. If this sort of information piques your interest, be sure to check out the Washington State Online Encyclopedia and the Museum of History and Industry.

Alki Point

Image courtesy of Introvert, under Creative Commons license

Alki Point is the westernmost neighborhood in West Seattle (so you know it’s really far west) and is also the southern boundary of Elliot Bay. It was also the first landing point for the Denny Party, who were the first western settlers in Seattle. The area was originally named “New York Alki,” after the state that many in the party had originally called home, and the Chinook Jargon (a language used to bridge communications between natives and early western settlers in the Pacific Northwest) word Alki which means “eventually.” The name remains relevant today, as “eventually” is a succinct answer to the question, “If we leave now, when will we get to Alki?”

Ballard

Image courtesy of Joe Mabel, under Creative Commons license

Ballard is named after Capt. William Rankin Ballard who ran, among other enterprises, a feed store in Salmon Bay with fellow ship captain J.A. Hatfield. After the two men reluctantly accepted a deed to 160 acres of logged land north of Seattle as payment for a large hay bill, both Hatfield and Ballard decided they did not want to be responsible for the property. So they flipped a coin, with the loser getting the land. Ballard lost the coin flip, developed the land, and profited to the tune of $160,000. However, the neighborhood’s name remained Gilman Park until railroad conductors started calling the last stop on the Eastern Railroad line (which ended just south of the current Ballard locks) “Ballard Junction.” The area picked up the colloquial name Ballard, and when the town incorporated itself in 1890, the name was made official.

Beacon Hill

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Beacon Hill was originally named "Greenish-Yellow Spine" by the Duwamish Indian tribe, but that name did not stick. Instead, Beacon Hill got its moniker from M. Harwood Young, who named the hill after the neighborhood in his home town of Boston. Young may or may not also be the reason that Boston fans suddenly outnumber Mariners fans every time the Red Sox come to town.

Belltown

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Belltown is named after William Nathaniel Bell who was a member of the Denny Party which first settled Seattle. Bell not only named the neighborhood, which abuts downtown to the northwest, but also named two of the area’s major thoroughfares after two of his children (Virginia Street and Olive Way).

Bitter Lake

Image courtesy of Shawna Scott, under Creative Commons license

The Bitter Lake neighborhood in north Seattle is named after the small lake inside of it. That lake itself got its name because of the tannic acid that flowed into the lake from a local sawmill. The lake became so bitter that horses refused to drink from it, leading to the well-known phrase, “You can lead a horse to water, but if it’s in a lake filled with acid then you won’t be able to get it to drink.”

Capitol Hill

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain

There are two origin stories for the name of Seattle’s oldest suburb and both are related to developer James Moore, who platted the area. The first is that he hoped to move the state capital north from Olympia. The other is that he was trying to make his wife feel more comfortable by naming the area after the neighborhood in Denver that she hailed from.

Central District

Image courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives, under Creative Commons license

The Central District contains a number of smaller neighborhoods, and it is named after its central location in Seattle. But you probably could have guessed that. Did you guess that the Central District is named because of its centrality in the city? I hope so.

Columbia City

Image courtesy of Mattgrundy via Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons license

This south Seattle neighborhood, which has been at the forefront of recent transit-related gentrification, was not named directly for Christopher Columbus, but instead was named after the song "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," which was popular in 1890 when developer J.K. Edminston established the neighborhood.

Crown Hill

Crown Hill, a neighborhood just north of Ballard, takes its name from the cemetery that was placed there when Ballard residents decided they needed more space for their dead after their young city’s population grew rapidly due to the emergence of the shingle industry. For a time Ballard was known as the “Shingle Capital Of The World.” Even though the Crown Hill Cemetery was founded in 1903, according to its website there is still plenty of space available.

Denny Regrade

Image courtesy of William Creswell, under Creative Commons license 

The Denny Regrade, also known as the Denny Triangle, was once Denny Hill, named after the Denny family which founded Seattle. However, the entire area between present day downtown and South Lake Union was flattened, buildings were moved, and the current area which is soon to be heavily developed by Amazon was created.

Eastlake

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Eastlake is the small neighborhood east of Lake Union. It is not east of Lake Washington. If you go east of Lake Washington, you’re in Bellevue.

Fauntleroy

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Fauntleroy, in West Seattle, was named by a US Coast Guard lieutenant in 1857 in honor of his fiancée’s family. More interesting is the sub-neighborhood contained within named Endolyne, which is centered around the spot where the Fauntleroy streetcar line once ended. “End of the line” became “Endolyne,” and the name stuck.

First Hill

Image courtesy of Ryan Healy, under Creative Commons license

First Hill was originally developed by mill owner Henry Yesler, who logged the hill and rolled timber down the slope. The skidding logs gave birth to the term “skid row,” and the relative importance of the grade to the economy of the city led to the coining of the name “First Hill.”

Fremont

Image courtesy of Joe Mabel, under Creative Commons license

Fremont considers itself the home of Seattle’s counterculture. The neighborhood boasts an only somewhat ironic statue of Vladimir Lenin, and the recording studio where Nirvana laid down Bleach. So naturally it is named after the hometown of two of the city’s founders: Fremont, Nebraska. What could be more countercultural to Seattle than a small town in Nebraska?

Georgetown

Image courtesy of Curtis Cronn, under Creative Commons license 

Developer Dexter Horton named Georgetown after the University, as his son had recently graduated from the medical school when the area was incorporated. This unfortunately braggy start did beget what was once the world’s sixth largest brewery (the source of Rainier Beer) as hops grew well in the fertile soil of the area that had once been covered by the Duwamish River.

Green Lake

Image courtesy of Maurice King, under Creative Commons

Green Lake is named for the glacial lake that abuts the southwestern border of this neighborhood. The lake itself was named for its propensity for algae blooms by surveyor David Phillips.

Greenwood

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Greenwood was initially called Woodland, and was little more than a bog that also housed a cemetery. However, once the Crown Hill cemetery was established, bodies interred at Woodland Cemetery were moved, and the area was developed as Greenwood by state governor Henry McBride.

Haller Lake

Image courtesy of Michael Hanscom, under Creative Commons license 

Haller Lake, which sits at the north end of Seattle proper, was named for Theodore N. Haller who platted the land in 1905. His father Granville Haller, one of Seattle’s early settlers, owned the land, but the lake is technically named after his son.

High Point

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This community contained within the West Seattle neighborhood of Delridge is named because it has the highest elevation in the city limits of Seattle at 520 feet.

Hillman City

Hillman City in South Seattle was named after developer Clarence D. Hillman, who was frequently accused of fraud and selling the same plot of land to multiple consumers.

Interbay

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The valley between Queen Anne Hill and Magnolia was been called Interbay since 1892 when the postal service renamed the area which had previously been called Boulevard.

International District

The International District had long been a center for Chinese immigrant populations in Seattle, but did not receive an official designation until 1951 when Mayor William F. Devin named the area the “International Centre.” It now is the home to both Seattle’s Chinatown and Little Saigon.

Lake City

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Lake City took its name from a sign that someone posted along the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad north of the Sand Point brick factory. The sign, tacked to a shed, said "Lake," in reference to Lake Washington, and the name Lake City eventually stuck.

Laurelhurst

This tony enclave adjacent to the University District was originally owned by the colorful "Uncle Joe" Surber, a settler known for his hunting and piledriving. Eventually, Henry Yesler bought the land, parceled it out, and sold it to developers including Joseph R. McLaughlin, Paul C. Murphy, and Frank F. Mead. They named one of their many developments in the area Laurelhurst. That name became codified in 1910 when Seattle officially annexed the area.

Lawton Park

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This neighborhood in Magnolia is named after Lawton Park, which sits on the site of the former Fort Lawton. Fort Lawton was named after Major General Henry Ware Lawton who captured Geronimo in 1886.

Leschi

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This neighborhood which lies just south of Madrona along Lake Washington is named after the Nisqually Indian Chief Leschi, who had an encampment in the area. Leschi was hanged by settlers in 1858, but his legacy remains. While a large number of the areas around Seattle have American Indian names, Leschi is one of the few areas within Seattle that still has a name that pays tribute to the area’s native heritage.

Licton Springs

This North Seattle neighborhood takes its name from the Salish word Liq'tid, which refers to the reddish mud that the springs of the area naturally produce.

Loyal Heights

Image courtesy of Joe Mabel, under Creative Commons license 

Loyal Heights was, and to a large degree still is, a bedroom community north of Ballard. It was named by developer Harry W. Treat who also named the beach along Puget Sound in the area, Loyal Beach.

Madison Park

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Madison Park takes its name from Madison Street, which was the earliest direct route from Puget Sound to Lake Washington by car. Madison Street was named for US President James Madison.

Madrona

Tucked between Leschi and Denny-Blaine along Lake Washington, Madrona was originally called “the Cascade Addition,” but the name was changed to Madrona by John Ayre in 1889. Madrona is another name for the arbutus trees that grew (relatively sparsely) in the area.

Magnolia

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While Magnolia was named for the magnolia tree, it was done so erroneously. In 1857, Lt. George Davidson mistook the madrona trees on Magnolia Bluff (which were likely more plentiful than the growth of madronas in present-day Madrona) for magnolias. Despite Davidson’s error, the name for the bluff stuck, and the neighborhood there took the name.

Maple Leaf

Image courtesy of Joe Mabel, under Creative Commons license 

The name for the north Seattle community Maple Leaf either came from the Maple Saw Mill which operated nearby or the trees which once grew in the area. There is also an apocryphal story that Maple Leaf was so far north of downtown Seattle that it got its name for being near Canada.

Matthews Beach

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A community within Lake City that sits on the shore of Lake Washington, Matthews Beach was named after John G. Matthews who established his homestead in the area in the 1880s.

Montlake

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Montlake, a community that sits in between Capitol Hill and the University District alongside the Lake Washington ship canal, got its name from real estate agents who wanted to evoke the beauty of both mountains and lakes in order to move land. Sorry Montlake, you’re just a marketing term.

Mount Baker

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This relatively affluent south Seattle community which stretches from Rainier Avenue to the shore of Lake Washington takes its name from its view of Mount Baker which can be seen by looking northeast from the area.

Northgate

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Northgate’s name was codified around the development of the Northgate Mall in 1950, which was the first indoor shopping center in America to be called a mall. So, yeah. It’s named after a mall.

Othello

A relatively newly-defined neighborhood in the Rainier Valley, Othello (which is also called Brighton or simply Southeast Rainer Valley) has experienced a recent boom of transit oriented development. The neighborhood is named after Othello Street, which runs through the area. Othello Street is named after the play; it was originally called Matthiesen Place, but was changed by a theater-loving developer.

Phinney Ridge

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Phinney takes its name from Guy Phinney, an immigrant from Nova Scotia who established his own menagerie in the area. That menagerie became the Woodland Park Zoo (which technically is south of Phinney Ridge), and the ridge north of it between Greenlake and Ballard took his name.

Pioneer Square

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Pioneer Square is Seattle’s oldest neighborhood and original downtown. That said, the neighborhood has struggled through hard times, getting hit by the Great Fire of 1889, and falling into disrepair during the Great Depression when the neighborhood’s nickname “Skid Row” took on its modern connotation. The neighborhood was named for the importance the area held for pioneers in the Puget Sound area.

Portage Bay

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The small neighborhood that sits north of Capitol Hill on the bay that sits between Lake Union and Lake Washington got its name from the time before the two lakes were connected by water. In 1861, Harvey Pike cut a ditch in order to connect the two lakes, but was unable to do so with the necessary depth to bring ships through. The neighborhood of Portage Bay sits where a rail line used for portaging goods between lakes used to operate. While the lakes were connected before the turn of the century, the name stuck.

Queen Anne

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Queen Anne is named after the glacial hill on which it sits. Queen Anne Hill was originally named Eden Hill by the Denny Party, but it did not develop quickly. When it did start to develop, a number of the first houses on the hill were of the Queen Anne style, leading Rev. Daniel Bagley to ask as a joke whether the area would become Queen Anne Town. Sometimes jokes become real, and in this case the name stuck.

Rainier Valley

Rainier Valley, both a major geographical feature of South Seattle and a neighborhood, takes its name from the area's views of Mount Rainier. The mountain was named by George Vancouver for his friend Peter Rainier, as a reference to Rainier’s size.

Ravenna

Ravenna in 1893, via Wikimedia Commons

This residential community, which is just north of the University District, sits next to one of the oldest parks in the city. Though the land was originally owned by the Bells, it wound up in the hands of George and Oltilde Dorffel. They named the park, which sits in a ravine, Ravenna Springs Park, inspired by the ravine town of Ravenna, Italy.

Roosevelt

The area between Ravenna and Lake City became Roosevelt after a naming contest held in 1927 by the Commercial Club decided to honor President Theodore Roosevelt.

Sand Point

Sand Point, the neighborhood that contains and surrounds Magnuson Park and the former Naval Air Station, got its name from its beach, which juts into Lake Washington. It represents the easternmost point of North Seattle.

SoDo

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SoDo stands for South of Downtown, and it represents the mostly industrial space just south of Pioneer Square. It also contains Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field; many learned the term SoDo as part of the 2001 Mariners’ slogan “SoDo Mojo,” which translates roughly to “the potato south of downtown.”

South Lake Union

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This neighborhood sits south of Lake Union. It must not be confused with the southern portion of Lake Union itself—much like Amazon.com, which is headquartered in South Lake Union, should not be confused with the Amazon River.

University District

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Originally called Brooklyn (still the name of one of the area’s main avenues), the University District took its name when the territorial university, which became the University of Washington, was moved from downtown to allow for expansion.

Victory Heights

Victory Heights, a neighborhood contained within Lake City, disappointingly has never won anything. It takes its name from Lake City Way NE, which in 1924 was named the Victory Highway. At other times the road has been called the Gerhart Erickson Road and Bothell Road.

Wallingford

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The North Seattle neighborhood of Wallingford takes its name from John Wallingford, who moved from Maine in 1888 and purchased a great deal of the land that sits to the north of Lake Union. While present day Wallingford has clear borders, for a while, the area was amorphous, bleeding into both the University District to the east and Green Lake to the north.

West Seattle

Wikimedia Commons

West Seattle is the peninsula that sits southwest of Seattle. Notably, it was on this peninsula where the Denny Party first met the Duwamish Chief Sealth, after whom Seattle as a whole takes its name.

We're slowly working our way across the country. See how the neighborhoods in other cities got their names.

This article originally appeared in 2014.

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17 Things to Know About René Descartes
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iStock

The French polymath René Descartes (1596-1650) lived after the Renaissance, but he personified that age's interest in mathematics, philosophy, art, and the nature of humanity. He made numerous discoveries and argued for ideas that people continue to grapple with. (His dualist distinction between mind and the brain, for example, continues to be debated by psychologists.) Get to know him better!

1. NOBODY CALLED HIM RENÉ.

Descartes went by a nickname and often introduced himself as “Poitevin” and signed letters as “du Perron.” Sometimes, he went so far to call himself the “Lord of Perron.” That’s because he had inherited a farm from his mother’s family in Poitou, in western France.

2. SCHOOL MADE HIM FEEL DUMBER.

From the age of 11 to 18, Descartes attended one of the best schools in Europe, the Jesuit College of Henry IV in La Flèche, France. In his later work Discourse on the Method, Descartes wrote that, upon leaving school, “I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced I had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance."

3. HIS DAD WANTED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

Descartes’s family was chock-full of lawyers, and the budding intellectual was expected to join them. He studied law at the University of Poitiers and even came home with a law degree in 1616. But he never entered the practice. In 1618, a 22-year-old Descartes enlisted as a mercenary in the Dutch States Army instead. There, he would study military engineering and become fascinated with math and physics.

4. HE CHANGED CAREER PATHS THANKS TO A SERIES OF DREAMS.

In 1618, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II, attempted to impose Catholicism on anybody living within his domain. The result of this policy would be the Thirty Years' War. It would also prompt Descartes, a Catholic, to switch allegiances to a Bavarian army fighting for the Catholic side. But on his travels, he stopped in the town of Ulm. There, on the night of November 10, he had three dreams that convinced him to change his life’s path. “Descartes took from them the message that he should set out to reform all knowledge,” philosopher Gary Hatfield writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

5. HE COULD BE EASILY DISTRACTED BY BRIGHT AND SHINY OBJECTS.

In 1628, Descartes moved to the Netherlands and spent nine months doggedly working on a theory of metaphysics. Then he got distracted. In 1629, a number of false suns—called parhelia, or “sun dogs”—were seen near Rome. Descartes put his beloved metaphysics treatise on the back burner and devoted his time to explaining the phenomenon. It was a lucky distraction: It led to his work The World, or Treatise on Light.

6. HE LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR ANALYTIC GEOMETRY ...

In 1637, Descartes published his groundbreaking Discourse on the Method, where he took the revolutionary step of describing lines through mathematical equations. According to Hatfield, “[Descartes] considered his algebraic techniques to provide a powerful alternative to actual compass-and-ruler constructions when the latter became too intricate.” You might have encountered his system in high school algebra: They’re called Cartesian coordinates.

7. ... AND THE REST OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY.

Everybody knows Descartes for his phrase Cogito, ergo sum (which originally appeared in French as "Je pense, donc je suis"), or "I think, therefore I am." The concept appeared in many of his texts. To understand what it means, some context is helpful: At the time, many philosophers claimed that truth was acquired through sense impressions. Descartes disagreed. He argued that our senses are unreliable. An ill person can hallucinate. An amputee can feel phantom limb pain. People are regularly deceived by their own eyes, dreams, and imaginations. Descartes, however, realized that his argument opened a door for "radical doubt": That is, what was stopping people from doubting the existence of, well, everything? The cogito argument is his remedy: Even if you doubt the existence of everything, you cannot doubt the existence of your own mind—because doubting indicates thinking, and thinking indicates existing. Descartes argued that self-evident truths like this—and not the senses—must be the foundation of philosophical investigations.

8. HE'S THE REASON YOUR MATH TEACHER MAKES YOU CHECK YOUR WORK.

Descartes was obsessed with certainty. In his book Rules for the Direction of the Mind, “he sought to generalize the methods of mathematics so as to provide a route to clear knowledge of everything that human beings can know,” Hatfield writes. His advice included this classic chestnut: To solve a big problem, break it up into small, easy-to-understand parts—and check each step often.

9. HE LIKED TO HIDE.

Descartes had a motto, which he took from Ovid: “Who lives well hidden, lives well.” When he moved to the Netherlands, he regularly changed apartments and deliberately kept his address a secret. Some say it's because he simply desired privacy for his philosophical work, or that he was avoiding his disapproving family. In his book titled Descartes, philosopher A. C. Grayling makes another suggestion: "Descartes was a spy."

10. HE WASN'T AFRAID OF CRITICS. IN FACT, HE RE-PUBLISHED THEM.

When Descartes was revising his Meditations on First Philosophy [PDF], he planned to send the manuscript to “the 20 or 30 most learned theologians” for criticism—a sort of proto-peer review. He collected seven objections and published them in the work. (Descartes, of course, had the last word: He responded to each criticism.)

11. HE COULD THROW SHADE WITH THE BEST OF THEM.

In the 1640s, Descartes’s pupil and friend Henricus Regius published a broadsheet that distorted Descartes’s theory of the mind. (Which, put briefly, posits that the material body and immaterial mind are separate and distinct.) The two men had a falling out, and Descartes wrote a rebuttal with a barbed title that refused to even acknowledge Regius’s manifesto by name: It was simply called “Comments on a Certain Broadsheet.”

12. HE NEVER BELIEVED MONKEYS COULD TALK.

There’s a “fun fact” parading around that suggests Descartes believed monkeys and apes could talk. He believed no such thing. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descartes denied that animals were even conscious, let alone capable of speech. The factoid comes from a misreading of a letter Descartes had written in 1646, in which he attributed the belief to “savages.”

13. HE TOTALLY HAD THE HOTS FOR CROSS-EYED WOMEN.

In a letter to Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes explained that he had a cross-eyed playmate as a child. “I loved a girl of my own age ... who was slightly cross-eyed; by which means, the impression made in my brain when I looked at her wandering eyes was joined so much to that which also occurred when the passion of love moved me, that for a long time afterward, in seeing cross-eyed women, I felt more inclined to love them than others.”

14. WHEN HE MET BLAISE PASCAL, THEY GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT ... ABOUT VACUUMS.

In 1647, a 51-year-old Descartes visited the 24-year-old prodigy and physicist Blaise Pascal. Their meeting quickly devolved into a heated argument over the concept of a vacuum—that is, the idea that air pressure could ever be reduced to zero. (Descartes said it was impossible; Pascal disagreed.) Later, Descartes wrote a letter that, depending on your translation, said that Pascal had “too much vacuum in his head.”

15. HIS WORK WAS BANNED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

Back in the late 1630s, the theologian Gisbert Voetius had convinced the academic senate of the University of Utrecht to condemn the philosopher’s work. (Descartes was Catholic, but his suggestion that the universe began as a “chaotic soup of particles in motion,” in Hatfield's words, was contrary to orthodox theology.) In the 1660s, his works were placed on the church’s Index of Prohibited Books.

16. HE REGULARLY SLEPT UNTIL NOON (AND TRYING TO BREAK THE HABIT MIGHT HAVE KILLED HIM).

Descartes was not a morning person. He often snoozed 12 hours a night, from midnight until lunchtime. In fact, he worked in bed. (Sleep, he wisely wrote, was a time of “nourishment for the brain.”) But according to the Journal of Historical Neuroscience, he may have had a sleep disorder that helped end his life. A year before his death, Descartes had moved to Stockholm to take a job tutoring Queen Christina, a devoted early-riser who forced Descartes to change his sleep schedule. Some believe the resulting sleep deprivation weakened his immune system and eventually killed him.

17. HIS SKELETON HAS TRAVELED FAR AND WIDE.

Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650 and was buried outside the city. Sixteen years later, his corpse was exhumed and taken to Paris. During the French Revolution, his bones were moved to an Egyptian sarcophagus at the Museum of French Monuments. Decades later, when plans were made to rebury Descartes in an abbey, officials discovered that most of his bones—including his skull—were missing. Shortly after, a Swedish scientist discovered a newspaper advertisement attempting to sell the polymath’s noggin [PDF]. Today, his head is in a collection at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

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8 Arresting Facts About Scotland Yard
Jack Taylor, Getty Images
Jack Taylor, Getty Images

Depicted in fiction for well over a century as the world's premier police force, Scotland Yard might be the most famous banner for law enforcement in history. Though the name itself is officially a term for the location of the London Metropolitan Police headquarters, it’s taken on a colloquial use to describe the collective brain trust of that station’s patrolmen and detectives. Here’s what we’ve deduced about the past, present, and future of this historic—and sometimes controversial—institution.

1. IT GOT ITS NAME FROM A TRICKY BIT OF GEOGRAPHY.

London didn’t have a formal police force until 1829, when Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel arranged for a squad to replace the fractured system of watchmen, street patrols, and the River Police. Colonel Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne were tasked with organizing the force: Mayne’s house at 4 Whitehall Place opened to an adjacent courtyard that had once been a medieval palace that hosted Scottish royalty while they were in London. This “Great Scotland Yard,” which was also reportedly the name of the street behind the building, became synonymous with Rowan and Mayne’s efforts to create a new era in law enforcement.

2. CHARLES DICKENS TAGGED ALONG ON PATROLS.

Author Charles Dickens poses for a photo
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The renowned author of Great Expectations and other literary classics wasn’t a policeman, but he did perform the 19th-century equivalent of a ride-along. Dickens was friends with Charles Frederick Field, a Scotland Yard inspector, and their relationship led to Dickens occasionally accompanying patrolmen on their nightly rounds. He even based a character in his novel Bleak House on Fields.

3. THERE WERE DIRTY COPS AMONG THE RANKS IN THOSE EARLY DAYS.

For all of the public acceptance of Scotland Yard—Londoners were initially wary of the plainclothes cops walking among them—the squad suffered a sensational blow to its image in 1877. Known as the “Turf Fraud Scandal” or the “Trial of the Detectives,” the controversy erupted after a Parisian socialite named Madame de Goncourt was conned by two men named Harry Benson and William Kurr. Scotland Yard inspector Nathaniel Druscovich was dispatched to Amsterdam to capture a fleeing Benson while others pursued Kurr. The men proved surprisingly elusive, which prompted suspicion among Scotland Yard officials. When the two con men were finally arrested, they explained that an inspector named John Meiklejohn was taking bribes in exchange for tipping off Kurr to police activity. Two other policemen were implicated; the three each received two years in prison. The high-profile breach led to a reorganization, with the Yard inserting detectives into a new Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to help minimize misconduct.

4. THEY HELPED PIONEER FINGERPRINTING.

A Scotland Yard employee examines fingerprints
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At one time, the science of fingerprinting was more of a theory than anything that could be put into practice. Most police forces instead relied on anthropometry, a system created by French police officer Alphonse Bertillon, which used 11 body measurements taken by calipers to provide a unique physical identity for an individual. While fingerprinting was beginning to take off in India in the late 1800s, the English-speaking world didn’t adopt the forensic technique of lifting and matching prints until 1901, when Sir Edward Henry, then the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard, instituted the Metropolitan Police Fingerprint Bureau. In 1902, a billiard ball thief was convicted based on a fingerprint he left on a windowsill. In 1904, a Yard detective demonstrated the efficacy of fingerprinting at the St. Louis World’s Fair, helping spread the new science to American law enforcement officials.

5. THEIR PATROL OFFICERS DIDN’T CARRY GUNS UNTIL 1994.

The uniformed police officers who wander London’s streets with an eye on keeping the peace were unarmed for most of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1994 that select patrol officers were permitted to carry guns, a policy shift that stemmed from increased assaults on police. The addition of firearms was limited to armed response cars intended to be dispatched to high-risk calls; previously, officers were instructed to keep their weapons in a lockbox inside their vehicles. Today, 90 percent of Metropolitan police officers go on duty without a gun, a policy largely maintained in response to a relatively low number of guns carried by civilians. Less than four in 100 British citizens own a firearm.

6. THEY HAVE A SQUAD OF “SUPER RECOGNIZERS.”

A surveillance camera is posted in London
Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images

With surveillance cameras dotting London, facial recognition for identifying criminal suspects is in high demand. But no software can outperform Scotland Yard’s team of “super recognizers,” who are recruited for their ability to match a face to a name based on their own memory. These officers are hired by administering a facial recognition test first implemented by Harvard in 2009. Those in the top percentile have an uncanny ability to retain facial feature details and are often dispatched to cull out known criminals like pickpockets at public gatherings. One such specialist, Constable Gary Collins, identified 180 people out of 4000 while examining footage of the 2011 London riots. Software was able to identify exactly one.

7. THEY KEEP A SECRET CRIME MUSEUM HIDDEN FROM THE PUBLIC.

Housed across two floors at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police in London is the Black Museum, a macabre cavalcade of evidence from nearly 150 years of investigative work. Established in 1875, the collection houses body parts (gallstones that failed to dissolve in acid along with the rest of a murder victim) and seemingly innocuous items that take on sinister connotations: A set of pots and pans that once belonged to Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen and were used to boil human flesh. It’s closed to the public, though visiting law enforcement and sometimes celebrities can secure an invite: Laurel and Hardy and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have toured its inventory. A sample of the collection went on display at the Museum of London in 2015.  

8. YOU COULD LIVE THERE ONE DAY.

The former New Scotland Yard building at 10 Broadway
Jack Taylor, AFP/Getty Images

The Metropolitan Police have changed locations several times over the years. It was situated at its original location of 4 Whitehall Place from 1829 to 1890, then housed in a large Victorian building on the Victoria Embankment from 1890 until 1967. That’s when the operation was moved to a 600,000 square-foot building at 10 Broadway in Westminster: a famous revolving sign announced a New Scotland Yard was taking up residence. In 2014, the building was sold to investors from Abu Dhabi for $580 million: London cited operating expenses and budget cuts as the reasons for the sale. The buyers plan to mount a residential housing project in the spot. Scotland Yard staff moved to a trimmed-down facility at the Curtis Green Building in Westminster and within walking distance of the Houses of Parliament.   

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