The newspaper business is a precarious one. No, no, I’m not going to whine about how we were on easy street with ad revenue until some fool invented the Internet. I’m talking about the sad, inspiring tale of “Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick” which appeared in Boston on September 25, 1690 and… promptly disappeared.

It has the distinction of being the first newspaper published in the Americas. There had been single-sheet “broadsides”. But now you got one of those multipage things you can’t cope with on a bus and I can only imagine what it was like in a carriage or wagon. (BTW I am old enough to remember the first appearance of the Toronto Sun, following the demise of the old Telegram, with ads in the subway saying “You don’t have to be Houdini to read the sun” and showing someone not looking at all like Houdini failing to escape a broadsheet. But I digress.)

I love the name. Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick. With lots of “ks” despite the drudgery of typesetting in those pre-digital days. Never mind “National Post” or “Globe” or “Star”. Let’s go long. Especially with the brilliant acronym POBFAD. I also love the fact that it promised to appear monthly “or, if any Glut of Occurrences happen, oftener.”

That’s quite an “if” to contemplate in the modern world with its obsession with novelty and an ever-faster pace of change. It’s also disquieting, especially for someone with claims to be a journalist, to reflect on what we would do if there was only enough news to publish once a month except in the unusual event of a “glut of occurrences”. Or to wonder whether we manage to create the impression of such a glut every day by failing to distinguishing the truly important from the trivial and faddish on the theory that there has to be news, an endless stream of it, or we couldn’t print it.

In the case of POBFAD, it turns out there was a glut of occurrences directly related to its publication. It was a one-event glut. But one is enough if it’s the colonial government striking you down five days later as presumptuous, offensive and inaccurate and insisting that anyone wishing to “Set forth any thing in Print” get a state licence.

In fact Americans went right on publishing things the authorities considered scurrilous, not always without cause, especially from the time of the early 18th-century Great Awakening. And these newspapers played an important role in the development of a colonial identity leading up to the Revolution at which point the authorities certainly had a “glut of occurrences” on their hands.

Looking back, I’d rather be killed by the Internet than the Massachusetts government. At least that way you can still blog. I think POBFAD would be a good name for a blog, come to think of it. Even if the Internet sometimes seems to represent the ultimate glut of non-occurrences.


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Up, up, and… still there

Here’s something that went nowhere. On September 24, 1852, Henri Giffard became the first man to… No, you have no idea. Neither did I. And yet I once again have to tip my hat to pioneers of a technology that won’t die but never really lived. Because he was the first man to drive a blimp using a steam engine.

I suppose I should say a “dirigible” since he was French. And what he did was pretty cool. It was the first passenger dirigible. And while others had planned steam engines in Zeppelin/blimp/dirigibles, including Australian Dr. William Bland, who exhibited a model and designs at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London of one he thought could go 50 miles per hour in theory. But Giffard’s went in fact, with a mighty 3 horsepower engine and a steering apparatus that actually worked.

Which is cool. But what I really like, in the spirit of all those early airplanes flapping mightily then crashing onto their hapless pilot in ungainly fragments, is the idea of getting into a bag of hydrogen with a 19th-century coal-fired steam engine. I mean, what could go wrong? (I should mention that when I first took my wife to my parents’ cottage, which did not have electricity, she expressed concern about the safety of the propane lights, stove and yes fridge. I replied in the true 19th-century pioneer spirit that all I was doing was putting an open flame to explosive compressed gas and could see no reason for unease. In fact the fridge did later explode but luckily we weren’t there and it was over half a century old so I suppose it had a good excuse.)

Not much did go wrong. In 1852, I mean. Especially considering what might have. Giffard, who had the good sense to point the exhaust pipe down rather than up toward all that flammable hydrogen, drove his dirigible 27 km from Paris to Trappes (I told you it went nowhere) and could not get back because of high winds that overpowered his mighty engine. But he did turn back and forth and in a circle, proving a powered airship was, indeed, dirigible.

Enthusiasts are still waiting for blimps to be the transportation of the future. And the recent headline “World’s biggest aircraft ‘the Flying Bum’ crashes on test flight” tells you they may have a long wait ahead of them. But I’m still impressed by anyone who’d get into a steam-powered dirigible, crank it up and say “Let’s hit the sky” or however you say it in French. And then not hit it in an uncontrolled fashion, as the first man to fly from Paris to Trappes thanks to the explosion of his fuel and levitation sources simultaneously of the sort that, I gather, claimed that old fridge one otherwise peaceful afternoon.


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This field is a university because we said so

Engraving of Harvard College by Paul Revere, 1767 (Wikipedia)

Engraving of Harvard College by Paul Revere, 1767 (Wikipedia)

It’s easy to poke fun at Harvard. When I was at UT Austin we used to call it “the UT of the North”. Not, you understand, from any sense of insecurity. But however that may be, I want to tip my mortarboard today to its first graduating class… on September 23, 1642. That was fast.

Well, in some ways not. Harvard was actually founded in 1636 so the six-year BA is evidently not entirely a 20th-century slacker invention. But what was fast, bold and inspiring was that the first major wave of settlers only arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, Puritans fleeing Charles I’s dissolution of Parliament and effort to impose Laud’s Liturgy on the church.

Six years later they started a university that not only still stands, it towers. Everybody has heard of Haaaavaaaad and not just in the United States.

Now I said it was bold. And I mean partly because when the “Great and General Court,” the precursor to the Massachusetts legislature, voted the thing into existence in 1636 it didn’t have any students. Or professors. Or buildings. Though in 1638 it did acquire the first known printing press in North America. But it was bold in a much deeper and arguably equally reckless sense.

The Great and General Court had no formal authority to establish a university. In Britain you needed permission from on high. But the settlers figured that as Englishmen they were free and would do as they liked.

I have a lot of problems with Puritans including their feeling that freedom to do as you liked included freedom of communities to meddle in the affairs of individuals. (The “visible saints” of early New England are still highly visible in the mavens of PC today.) But I do like their devotion to individual initiative and the right of citizens to manage their own affairs.

I even like their devotion to education. Even if I still laugh at the joke about the Texas freshman at Harvard going up to a senior reading Nietzche under a tree and saying “’Scuze me, where’s the library at?” only to be favoured with a withering glare and a haughty, “My dear fellow, this is Haaavaaad, and at Haaavaaad we do not end sentences with prepositions.”

“Oh. Thanks. Where’s the library at, you jerk?”


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Saving classical Greece

My latest from the Rebel: The Battle of Salamis on September 22, 480 BC, saved classical Greece before it even got started, before Aristotle, Socrates or Sophocles.

The audio-only version is available here:

Rebel audio, September 22 - Download This Episode


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Xerxes takes a soaking

Today we do another battle. But not just any battle, or one with a funny name. One with absolutely profound consequences for our way of life. Salamis, on September 22, 480. No Salamis, no classical Greece, one might say. And no classical Greece means no open society today.

It’s amazing how much of what we regard as the beginnings of our secular heritage, from the philosophy of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle to the drama of Sophocles and Aeschylus to the architecture of the Parthenon took place in this very brief period between, say, the overthrow of Hippias in Athens in 510 BC to the death of Alexander the Great in 323.

Now you may be objecting here that I just threw a lot of marble at you. And it’s true. But here’s the thing. It may be all Greek to us today. But it was all once a staple of education in Western society, not just in school but at home, in conversation, even in church.

Where did it all go? How did we lose interest in our heritage if not by losing interest in its results, becoming so focused on our failings that we lost sight of the fact that the great defect of the West is not living up to its ideals whereas the great defect of so many other societies is the ideals themselves.

Certainly that is true of the Persian Empire that, under the god-emperor Xerxes, sought to conquer the free city states of Greece early in the 5th century BC and very nearly succeeded. In Persia there were no rights for the common person, nor indeed for the rich, whose property was as liable to be seized on an imperial whim or their head cut off as the humblest peasant. There was no dignity for the individual, no spirit of inquiry, no toleration of dissent, let alone admiration for it. And there were, not coincidentally, no citizen-soldiers.

In Greece there were. And it is they who rallied, after a long string of ominous defeats against a numerically far superior foe and after the annihilation of the Spartan rearguard at Thermopylae and of the main Greek armies at Artemisium and the conquest of much of Greece, they nevertheless rallied to Themistocles’ call to confront the mighty Persian fleet.

What’s more, as free people, they bickered and squabbled and argued their way, right up the battle, to a strategy that actually turned the Persians’ superior numbers against them in the narrow straits of Salamis and decisively crushed Xerxes’ navy. (For more on this, as so often, see Victor Davis Hanson’s inspiring Carnage and Culture.)

The mighty Xerxes went home, leaving his general Mardonius to crush these annoying turbulent insolent commoners. Instead the next year at Plataea his army was badly beaten, as was his fleet at Mycale. The Persians left and never again attacked the Greek mainland.

It is a date we should celebrate if we love the right to question authority. It’s not some new radical thing. It’s embedded in our heritage right at the base of those Doric columns. And paradoxically we should today question the radical skeptics who are the new voice of orthodoxy. Because the point of questioning isn’t to undermine everything. It’s to separate truth from error. And sometimes the truth is that tradition had it right.

Chant from on high: “Question authority!” Twerp in crowd: “Why?” Because the messy, rowdy, dynamic Western heritage of individualism is as much worth defending today as it was at Salamis.


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