A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tag Archives: Benjamin Franklin

Fart Of The Week (3)

Air travel can be pretty stressful these days, what with the hassle of getting through security and then the worry of who you will be sitting next to. So I have some sympathy for a couple of Dutch men on Transavia Airlines flight HV6902 from Dubai to Schipol.

They found themselves sitting next to a chap who was following Benjamin Franklin’s advice to fart proudly a little too enthusiastically. His bout of noisy flatulence caused a bit of atmosphere in the aircraft cabin and despite requests from the aggrieved duo that he desist, he wouldn’t stop.

They then called upon the cabin crew for assistance. The pilot got involved, asking the man to bottle it but the serial farter refused. So the Dutch men took matters in their own hands, sparking a fight, serious enough to cause the plane to be diverted to Vienna.

The Austrian police boarded the plane and removed the two Dutch men together with a couple of women who happened to be sitting in the same row. All four have since been banned from Transavia flights but were not charged as they had not broken any Austrian laws.

It is not clear whether any action was taken against the farting provocateur. Perhaps he should content himself with fizzling next time.


You’re Having A Laugh – Part Two

The great chess automaton of 1769

If the doom mongers are to be believed, the successful harnessing of artificial intelligence poses the biggest threat to employment prospects. Whether that will ever happen or whether some of the promised benefits of artificial intelligence will manifest themselves in my lifetime, only time will tell.

The game of chess has been at the forefront of the battle for supremacy between man and machine, principally because its moves are regulated by a number of rules and it is a game of strategy and anticipation, testing the competitors’ ability to think and plan. World chess champion, Gary Kasparov, suffered a defeat in 1997 at the hands of Deep Blue, although there were some doubts expressed as to whether conditions were fair for both contestants. These days with increased computational power and more sophisticated programming, computers can regularly defeat even the strongest chess player.

The creation of machines to ape the behaviour of living creatures particularly fascinated the so-called Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century and some astonishing examples have survives to this day. But the machine which really swept Europe by storm was Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen’s chess automaton, created in 1769. By all accounts it was a splendid affair, consisting of a large wooden box stuffed full of wiring and gears, atop of which was a carved figure wearing, for exotic effect, Turkish clothes. When the mechanism was wound up, the Turk, as the chap was dubbed, would play chess against all comers. It would move pieces on its own, develop strategy and was able to react to the moves of its opponent, rather than just play in a predetermined way, irrespective of the circumstances. It was a remarkably successful player and regularly overcame opponents. Von Kempelen was moved to call it a thinking machine.

Von Kempelen took the automaton on tour around the courts and salons of Europe, challenging the great and good to pit their wits against the machine. The automaton rarely lost. One of its most famous scalps was that of Benjamin Franklin. In 1790, thinking twenty years was a pretty good run, von Kempelen dismantled the machine but on his death in 1805 his family sold it on to Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, who put it back together again and took it out on the road. He even took it to America in 1826. The automaton regularly won its matches.

There was intense speculation as to how the machine operated and secured its remarkable run of successes. To quell the obvious thought that there was someone in the box of trick, von Kempelen would ostentatiously open up the box to reveal its innards before each show. The mystery piqued the interest of Edgar Allan Poe who after witnessing a performance, wrote an article in which he claimed that there was someone in the figure of the Turk, rather than the box. He was almost right.

The truth came out on 6th February 1837 in the Philadelphia National Gazette Literary Register. Von Kempelen and Maelzel had employed champion chess masters who were secreted in the part of the box where the Turk came out. A series of sliding panels and a rolling chair hid them from view whilst the innards of the box were being displayed but once the box was shut, they moved back into the guts of the box. The chess masters could control the arms and hands of the automaton to ape their own hand movements and the use of magnetic chess pieces allowed them to see what was going on above their heads.

Clever, really.

They Made Their Mark

Noah Webster (1758 – 1843)

As Winston Churchill once said, Britain and America are two nations separated by a common language. The man who made it his life’s work to ensure this was so was the Connecticut born descendent of a leader of the Pilgrim settlement in Plymouth, Noah Webster. He made a significant contribution to the development of the nascent country that was the United States.

Webster was adamant that not only should American children learn from text books produced in the country and reflecting American thought and philosophy rather than using those imported from England but that it should have its own language. As he wrote, “Now is the time and this the country in which we may expect success in attempting changes to language, science and government. Let us then seize the present moment and establish a national language as well as a national government.” The first step in this audacious plan was his publication in 1806 of A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language which was the first truly American dictionary.

But Noah didn’t stop there – he had bigger fish to fry – and started work on a more comprehensive dictionary which would change the face of English as it was written in America for good. In the course of his work he learned an astonishing 26 languages, ranging from Anglo-Saxon to Sanskrit, the better to understand the origins of words. When it was published in 1828, An American Dictionary of the English Language contained some 70,000 entries, 12,000 of which had never appeared in dictionaries before. Naturally, some of these new words were particular and peculiar to life in the States, such as skunk, hickory and chowder. Although Webster’s dictionary was critically acclaimed and marked a new standard in lexicography, it only sold 2,500 copies, forcing him to mortgage his home to raise the funds for a second edition and ensuring that he was in debt for the rest of his life.

What was truly revolutionary about Webster’s approach to lexicography was his determination to simplify some of the features of the English language, particularly in relation to spelling conventions which make English so tricky to learn. In particular, he eliminated many of the silent letters that peppered conventional English spelling. So the ending –our as in honour was simplified to –or as in honor and words which ended in ck shed their k. He also preferred more phonetic or simplified spellings so plough became plow and words ending in –re such as centre had their endings reversed to –er as in center.

It would be wrong to conclude that Webster invented these spellings – in fact, he chose existing variations – but was the first to adopt a rigid and concerted approach to establishing a spelling convention based on simplicity, analogy and etymology. Some of his suggestions fell on stony ground and so tung for tongue, wimmen for women and iland for island were consigned to the dustbin of history.

Another of Webster’s major contributions was establishing the letters j and v, which had hitherto languished as variants of i and u, as letters in their own right and so they are today, much to Benjamin Franklin’s chagrin – he had advocated getting rid of c, w, y and j entirely.

The second edition of Webster’s dictionary came out in 1840 and he died in 1843 shortly after revising an Appendix to the lexicon. The rights to his magnum opus were acquired that year by publishers, George and Charles Merriam, and his name lives on in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Brief Notes

Recently I had to have a medical procedure, the preparation for which required me to sit on a toilet for several hours. The ominous gurglings emanating from my bowels brought to mind Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote, “what comfort can the Vortices of Descartes give to a man who has whirlwinds in his bowels”.

Rather than seeking solace in Descartes’ vortices, I found myself scrutinising the label of the inside of my briefs. I have already pondered the meaning of the warning “keep away from fire” – yes, it was there again – but this pair had another somewhat mystifying notice, “part of a three piece set”.  Without anything else to do and fearful of the consequences of moving from the porcelain throne, I mulled this over in my mind.

When I buy underpants, there are a number of criteria that that the garments have to satisfy. They have to be capacious enough to accommodate my nether regions comfortably, they have to be of a fabric that won’t irritate, there has to be the correct number of pants in the packet and they have to be of a colour that wouldn’t cause me to die of shame if I was carted off to hospital unexpectedly and they were revealed to the medical staff. I can understand that the reference to my briefs being part of a three piece set being marginally useful at the point of sale, but is there a deeper meaning, I wondered?

Slightly horror-struck, I began to wonder whether I had been wearing underpants incorrectly throughout the years. Perhaps they had to be worn in layers, three being designed to provide maximum comfort. And rather like a matryoshka doll, was each imperceptibly bigger than the other to ensure that perfect fit? And how do you know the order in which to put them on? When I was able to liberate myself I saw that the other two pairs of briefs had the same label. No help there, then.

Perhaps I had inadvertently bought a packet of briefs designed for the exclusive use of triplets. You can imagine the scene. A person is found wandering the streets. The helpful sign in their underpants alerts the authorities that they are one of three. This sort of knowledge may help enormously in returning the lost soul to the bosom of his family.

Perhaps on a more mundane level, the label is designed to engender some order into the drawer containing your briefs. Helpfully, the label will allow you to store two other pairs of briefs bearing the same label with this one. But the system breaks down if you are wearing a pair – clearly there will only be two in the drawer – or if you were foolish enough to buy several packs of briefs bearing the label. Think of the chaos.

The only sane conclusion was that it was of no interest to the wearer but at least pondering the question gave me something to while away the time. Fortunately, the results of the procedure were rather like my bowels – all clear.

What Is The Origin Of (120)?…


A watched pot never boils

Have you ever put something in the microwave, set the timer on and then stood with growing impatience as the dial seems to take an age to get to zero? Of course, whether we look at the dial or not, the time will take just as long to pass but it does seem to perceptibly slow down if all you are doing is waiting for something to happen. Our phrase reflects this, although it uses a degree of poetic licence because the pot will boil. It will do so in its own time and the idiom cautions patience.

Benjamin Franklin, the well-known American polymath, may well have coined the phrase or, at least, was the first to commit it to print. From 1732 to 1758 Franklin, under the pseudonym of Richard Saunders or Poor Richard, published an annual almanac which was full of folksy household tips, puzzles, commentaries on the weather and improving aphorisms, many around the need for industry and the evils of sloth. Our phrase never made it into Poor Richard’s Almanack, as it was called, but when Franklin used it he gave his nom de plume a name check.

Franz Mesmer, whose surname gave rise to the term mesmerising, was kicking up a storm with his theory of animal magnetism, whereby energy was transferred from animate to inanimate objects. When he was the US ambassador to France, Franklin was commissioned by Louis XVI to write a report about the sensational theory. In 1785 he published it. It was not a totally dry exposition on the subject because, inter alia, it included an account of the trials and tribulations of waiting for one’s breakfast. “I was very hungry; it was so late. A watched pot is slow to boil, as Poor Richard says”. Not an exact match but the sense is there and for an author being self-referential is never a bad thing.

It was another sixty years before the idiom we use today appeared in print, courtesy of one of my favourite authors, Elizabeth Gaskell. In her Mary Barton, published in 1848, she wrote, “What’s the use of watching? A watched pot never boils, and I see you are after watching that weathercock”. These days we are more likely to use kettle than pan but the sense remains the same.

Pots and kettles appear in another phrase in common usage, the pot calling the kettle black. This is used to call someone who has been guilty of hypocrisy. The sense is fairly obvious – in the old days kettles and pots would be heated over a naked flame and the bottoms of the vessels, at least, would char over time. The idiom first appeared in Thomas Shelton’s 1620 translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, “You are like what is said that the frying-pan said to the kettle, avant, black-browes.

A favourite variant of mine appeared in 1639 in John Clarke’s Paroemiologia Anglo-Latina, “the pot calls the pan burnt-arse”. It was left to William Penn in his Some Fruits of Solitude in reflections and Maxims to provide the definitive usage and to make crystal clear its sense. He wrote, “for a covetous man to inveigh against Prodigality, an Atheist against Idolatry, a Tyrant against Rebellion, or a Lyer against Forgery or a Drunkard against Intemperance, is for the Pot to call the Kettle black”.

Time for a cup of coffee, methinks, if I have the patience to let the kettle boil.

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirteen


Fart proudly, proclaimed Benjamin Franklin in 1781, and who am I to argue. It is a natural bodily function and all you need are intestines and an anus – so, yes, even the fairer sex break wind. The main carbohydrate responsible for flatulence is raffinose, a sugar which is commonly found in vegetables such as cabbage and broccoli and which our guts find hard to digest.

When I started thinking about farts, I soon realised there was so much I didn’t know about the subject. After all, if the principal constituents of a fart are nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon dioxide, oxygen and methane – the smelly component is the 1% of hydrogen sulphide – gasses all, and gasses have mass, what is the volume of an average fart and has anybody bothered to find out? Well, after some diligent research in the nether regions of the internet I struck gold and I think the results are worth repeating.

I found reference to an article in the ever popular journal, Gut, which described the experiments of gastroenterologists from the Human Gastrointestinal Physiology and Nutrition department of Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire hospital in 1991. They took ten volunteers and fed them with 200 grams of baked beans in addition to their normal diet. The volunteers’ flatulence was collected via rectal catheters and to ensure that there was an air-tight seal between the catheter they were required to sit in a bath of water whilst passing wind.

Methodology having been established we pass on to results. Our researchers found that the amount of gas produced over a 24 hour period varied widely, between 476 to 1491 millilitres, with a median result of 705. There was no variation between the sexes in the amount passed and farting tended to be more robust after eating. A single fart, regardless of sex, body size or time of day, has a volume of between 33 and 125 millilitres, with a median of 90. Incidentally, although not part of this experiment, a fart has been recorded as reaching a speed of ten feet per second. The study found that those on a low-fibre diet reduced most of the fermentation gases which would have been expelled and their average flatulence volume was a paltry 200 millilitres.

For the enquiring mind, this raises a further question which the Sheffield researchers did not address – do you lose weight after a fart? I regret to say, I have failed to find a definitive answer to that question. There was a post on Facebook, a most unreliable source of information in my experience, suggesting that you burn 67 calories per fart. For those who think I may have uncovered the perfect form of weight loss, the website Fat Loss School is ready to pour a bucket of cold water over the idea. They claim that when you fart, the muscles relax and the pressure in your bowels does all the work in expelling the gas. The only way you would achieve a measurable figure in the calories burned whilst farting would be by straining yourself to the limit.

So now we know!

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links

Tales From The Nursery – Part Twenty Eight


For want of a nail

This rhyme, or perhaps more accurately proverb, goes as follows: “for want of a nail the shoe was lost/ for want of a shoe, the horse was lost/ for want of a horse, the rider was lost/ for want of a rider, the message was lost/ for want of a message, the battle was lost/ for want of a battle, the kingdom was lost/ and all for the want of a horseshoe nail”.

What we have here is a lesson in causation; how a relatively trivial event – the unavailability of a horseshoe – caused a sequence of events which led to the loss of a kingdom. Each step along the way has a greater consequence. Perhaps it is an early example of chaos theory in action – you know the one where a great perturbation is caused initially by a butterfly flapping its wings.

The other didactic point that the proverb emphasises is that the ultimate consequence of the chain of events precipitated by the lack of a nail for a horseshoe was not and, probably, could not have been anticipated at the time.

The earliest variant of this proverb – and, interestingly it takes the causation route – is to be found in the German poet, Freidank’s, Bescheidenheit of around 1230, where he states, “the wise tell us that a nail keeps a shoe, a shoe a horse, a horse a knight who can fight and keep a castle”.

For those seeking to ascribe a historical event to the proverb, the favourite explanation surrounds the erstwhile car park resident, King Richard the Third, who at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 famously, or at least according to William Shakespeare, was unsaddled and shouted for a horse. “A horse, a horse, a kingdom for my horse”.

The problem, of course, is that Richard’s cry is probably apocryphal and, in any event, Shakespeare wrote his play in 1591. In 1507 Jean Molinet had written “by just one nail one loses a good horse”.  Tempting as it may be to see the demise of the unfortunate king as the progenitor of the proverb, there is too much evidence of its existence prior to Shakespeare’s play to make the connection. It may be that Shakespeare had the proverb in mind when he wrote the scene. Who knows?

Irrespective of its origin the proverb has an impressive track record. Our old friend Benjamin Franklin included a variant of the proverb in his preface to Poor Richard’s Almanac for 1758, replacing in true republican style, any reference to a king or kingdom with the rather anodyne and anonymous, enemy.

But the key to the real meaning and origin of the proverb rests with Samuel Smiles who in 1880 introduced us to a character called “Don’t Care” who was to blame for the catastrophe illustrated by the rhyme. What we have here is a cautionary tale for the youngsters showing that a moment’s carelessness or thoughtlessness can have tragic and catastrophic consequences, a lesson that is not unique to us here and is why it is a proverb that can be found elsewhere in the world.

Interestingly, the verse was framed and hung on the wall of the Anglo-American Supply Headquarters in London during the Second World War. Let’s hope they paid due heed to it!

I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me – Part Four


The Order of the Knights of St Francis

This club was founded in 1746 by Sir Francis Dashwood and met initially at the George and Vulture, a pub which is still doing a roaring trade and one that was associated with Charles Dickens and Pickwickians in the 19th century. The club’s motto was Fais ce que tu voudras or Do as thou wilt, which may give you a clue as to the flavour of their activities. Subsequently, the club moved its activities to Medmenham Abbey and to Sir Francis’ family home in West Wycombe.

Membership was originally limited to twelve but numbers soon increased. Meetings were held twice a month and an Annual general Meeting which lasted a week or so was held in June or September. The members addressed each other as Brother and the leader who changed as regularly as Italian prime ministers used to do was known as the Abbott. The convention was for members to wear ritual clothing of white trousers, jacket and cap for meetings while the Abbott was dressed in red.

The club soon attracted what we might term today a rep. According to a contemporary report from Horace Walpole, “the members’ practice was rigorously pagan: Bacchus and Venus were the deities to whom they almost publicly sacrificed and the nymphs and hogsheads that were laid in against the festivals of this new church, sufficiently informed the neighbourhood of the complexion of those hermits”.  Rumours of Black masses and devil worship attached to the club and female guests known as Nuns but really women of the night were occasionally in attendance. The general make up of a meeting of Dashwood’s club included mock rituals, pornographic items, much drinking, wenching and banqueting.

Dashwood himself was a bit of a character as you might expect and was well known for his pranks. One of his most notorious was performed when he was at the Royal Court in St Petersburg were he turned up dressed as Russia’s mortal enemy at the time, the King of Sweden. How they all must have laughed.  Other famous members included the radical John Wilkes, the artist William Hogarth who painted Dashwood as a Franciscan Friar and Thomas Potter. Benjamin Franklin, whilst not a member and almost certainly acting as a spy, is known to have attended meetings whilst in the country in 1758.

Some of the club’s leading lights came to sticky ends. Dashwood became Chancellor of the Exchequer and subsequently a Lord of the realm. Whilst in charge of the nation’s finances he nearly caused a riot by raising a tax on cider. When John Wilkes published his notorious 45th issue of North Briton an arrest warrant was issued for his arrest for seditious libel against the King. During the searches a version of The Essay on Woman was found, printed on the presses Wilkes used and almost certainly written by Thomas Potter. It was considered scurrilous, blashphemous, libellous bawdy and whilst not pornographic it was certainly illegal under the then laws and was used to drive Wilkes into exile.

Paul Whitehead who had been Secretary and Steward of the Order at Medmenham died in 1774 and specified in his will that his heart was to be placed in an urn in West Wycombe. It was sometimes taken out to be shown to visitors until it was stolen in 1829.

A rum lot but probably fun to be with!

What Is The Origin Of (58)?…


As snug as a bug in a rug

As we are moving inexorably towards winter, this phrase, which is in the common as x as y formulation, expresses our aspiration – we want to be warm, dry and comfortable.

There are three key words to explore in this phrase and we will start with the animate object, the bug. Of course, we associate the bug with an insect, any type of insect really, but it wasn’t always like that. In the 16th century a bug was a ghost or a ghoul as this translation of the 91st Psalm in the Coverdale Bible shows, “So yt thou shalt not nede to be afrayed for eny bugges by night, ner for arowe that flyeth by daye.”  However, by 1642 the noun bug was being used by Daniel Rogers in his Naaman the Syrian to describe an ant specifically and insects in general, “Gods rare workmanship in the Ant, the poorest bugge that creeps”. It is not known for certain why this change in usage took place but many insects are delicate, fragile things with transparent or translucent wings and so it may not be too fanciful to think that people were minded of ghostly things when they observed flying insects.

The other noun in the phrase is a rug – we all know what a rug is – but what is puzzling is that a rug sits flat on the floor and so whilst you could imagine an insect being reasonably snug under a carpet it probably would be more comfortable if it was in the middle of a rolled up rug. The image is less puzzling when we realise that a rug wasn’t always a floor covering. Its origin seems to date back to the Tudor period and a rug in those days was a thick woollen bed coverlet, somewhat akin to the modern-day blanket. It was only in the 19th century that rugs were placed on the floor, usually around the hearth.

Snug seems to owe its origin as an adjective to the nautical world and when used in association with ships, as it was by Captain Wyatt in 1595 thus, “A verie fine snugg long ship” it meant neat or trim or well-prepared. However, by 1630 – it is astonishing the pace of change in the English language in the century spanning the mid 1550s and the mid 1650s – John Lane was using it in the context with which we are familiar, that of cosiness and comfort, “Snugginge they in cabins lay each one.”

So those are the component parts but when were they all assembled to make the phrase we are familiar with? Our American friends will claim the honour for Benjamin Franklin who lamented the death of a pet squirrel called Skugg in 1772 thus, “Here Skugg/ lies snug/ as a bug/ in a rug” but he was pipped at the post by a description in the Stratford Jubilee of the actor David Garrick’s Shakesperean festival, including the lines, “ a who, in 1769, “If she [a rich widow] has the mopus’s [coins or money], I’ll have her, as snug as a bug in a rug”.

Earlier still, though, we have “as snug as a bee in a box” (Edward Ward, The Wooden World Dissected, 1706) and as early as 1603 Thomas Wood’s play, A Woman Killed By Kindness, contains the line, “let us sleep as snug as pigs in pease-straw”.

Why bugs replaced pigs is a matter for conjecture but it is likely that insects infested bedding not only because of the poorer standard of hygiene but because, especially when occupied, it was warm!

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Nine


Franz Anton Mesmer (1734 – 1815)

The next practitioner of quackery to fall under our microscope is Franz Mesmer, an Austrian physician, who in the late 18th century introduced the concept of animal magnetism to the unsuspecting public.

In 1766 the Austrian quack published his dissertation, De influxu planetarum in corpus humanum, which can be translated as the influence of the planets on the human body. In this blockbuster Mesmer argued for the existence of an invisible fluid which was distributed universally and flowed continuously everywhere. This fluid served, according to Mesmer, as a vehicle through which the reciprocal forces and influences of the heavenly bodies, the earth and living organisms flowed. Sickness and disease was a result of the imbalance of these universal fluids.

Naturally, Mesmer was able to correct these imbalances and his methods allowed him to treat patients individually or in a group. His technique for treating an individual involved him sitting in front of the patient with knees touching and pressing the patient’s thumbs in his hands and looking fixedly into their eyes. Mesmer would move his hands down his patient’s arms in what were termed as a series of passes and then press his fingers on the area immediately below their diaphragm, often holding them in position for hours. Patients reported experiencing peculiar sensations or convulsions which were thought to be crises and evidence that the malady was being cured.

There was a high degree of theatricality to the procedure. Mesmer would dress up in purple silks and holding an iron rod. He would finish a session, as you would, by playing some music on a glass armonica – he was an accomplished musician and played with Mozart.

For group sessions the patients sat around what was known as a baquet, a vessel about eighteen inches tall, with as many holes pierced just below the lid as there were patients. Iron rods were inserted into the holes and a rope attached which was used by Mesmer to convey the healing properties of the animal magnetism, the maestro completing the performance with a series of eye or hand movements. Recipients of this bizarre treatment claimed astonishing results.

Animal magnetism or Mesmerism from which the term mesmerised originated was phenomenally successful following its commercial application in 1779. Although it operated in a similar fashion to what we know as hypnotism, there were distinctive differences – it did not rely on words or direct suggestion aimed at the subconscious; rather the trance like state induced in patients was brought on by looks, movements and passes. Its moment in the sun lasted around 75 years and hundreds of books were written on the subject between 1766 and 1925. Charles Dickens was a famous advocate.

Scandal followed Mesmer around. He left Vienna under a cloud and when he set up in Paris Louis XVI set up a commission of eminent scientists, including Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier, to investigate the mysterious animal magnetism. The committee concluded that the magnetic rays didn’t exist and that any success the methods had was down to auto-suggestion on the part of the patients. They also warned that magnetic treatment was perilous to women as it might destroy their sexual inhibitions.

Despite that, mesmerism had a good run for its rather dubious money.