The Slinky

In 1943, at the height of World War II, a Pennsylvania engineer named Richard James was working in his home laboratory on an obscure but crucial military issue. Because navy ships often navigated through rough seas, they needed elaborate measures to stabilize onboard instruments. James attempted to solve this problem by anchoring these instruments to a system of sensitive springs that would react to the turbulence while keeping the instruments level.

While at work one day, James accidentally dropped one of his springs and watched it smoothly step from his shelf to a stack of books to a tabletop and on down to the floor, where it coiled back into a perfect cylinder. James’s thoughts immediately shifted from the war effort to the toy store. He shared the idea with his wife, Betty, and she came up with a name for the gizmo: the Slinky.

A Slinky is manufactured by coiling sixty-seven feet of steel wire, a process that James’s first machines could complete in almost ten seconds. With the exception of smoothing the sharp ends, the toy hasn’t changed since the first models were sold in 1945. James couldn’t convince any toy sellers to purchase his idea, so he manufactured and sold Slinkys himself, beginning with a sale of 400 units to the Gimbles department store. James died in 1974, but by 1995, James Industries had sold more that an quarter-billion Slinkys.

In addition to being toys, Slinky have often served educational purposes, expecially to demonstrate the properties of waves in seismology, the study of earthquakes. NASA even used the toy for experiments aboard the space shuttle – beinging the Slinky back full circle to its scientific origins.

In 1960, James left his company and family and joined a Bolivian religious cult.

The Star-Spangled Banner

“The Star-Spangled Banner”, the national anthem of the United States, was written in 1814 by Maryland lawyer Francis Scott Key. Set to the melody of an English drinking song (To Anacrean in Heaven), the patriotic tune was an instant hit, and Congress officially decreed in the national anthem in 1931.

Key, a prominent attorney and amateur poet, wrote the anthem’s lyrics under peculiar circumstances. During the War of 1812 (which actually lasted until December 1814), the British attacked Washington, DC, sacking the city and burning down the White House. Next they targeted Baltimore, about forty miles north of the capital, and its imposing fortress, Fort McHenry, which guarded the city’s harbor.

Before the beginning of that battle in September 1814, Key had been selected to meet the British commander aboard his warship in Baltimore harbor to discuss the release of a prisoner of war. The British agreed to release the prisoner but insisted that Key remain at sea aboard a neutral ship behind the British fleet until after the battle to prevent him from sharing information with the Americans about British preparations.

Forced to watch the fighting from eight miles out at sea, the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” describe Key’s impressions of the battle as it unfolded. The British bombardment – “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” – would last for twenty-five hours before the invaders gave up. As the smoke cleared, Key excitedly peered through the haze over Fort McHenry to the the red, white, and blue flag still fluttering in the morning breeze – a sign of American victory.

The British, unsuccessful in their attack on the fort, allowed Key to return to shore that day, and his poem was immediatley published in local newspapers. It was reprinted nationally and for the next century would be played at many patriotic events. Major League Baseball made it the de facto anthem by selecting the song to be played before baseball games, and Congress later made the selection final.

Fort McHenry’s original flag, sewed by Baltimore seamstress Mary Pickersgill, is in the custody of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

Trail of Tears

In 1838, President Martin van Buren (1782-1862) forced 16,000 members of the Cherokee tribe to leave their ancestral homelands in Georgia and relocate to Oklahoma. The Cherokees’ unwilling journey westward – more than 1,200 miles on foot – is often referred to as the Trail of Tears. During the trip, thousands of Cherokee died of dysentary, road accidents, and exhaustion.

Before the arrival of European settlers, the Cherokees were one of the most powerful tribes in the Southeast. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, more than 20,000 Cherokees lived in present-day Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama.

In the early 1800s, however, the federal government and the state of Georgia decided that the Cherokee should be “relocated” to make room for more white settlers. Cherokee chiefs refused to leave and declared themselves an independent nation. The Supreme Court sided with the Cherokees, but President Andrew Jackson famously dismissed the court’s opinion, declaring, “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made the decision; let him enforce it now if he can.”

The final order to evacuate was issued by Van Buren, Jackson’s successor, in May 1838. About 7,000 soldiers were dispatched to Cherokee territory that spring to round up the tribe at gunpoint, despite vociferous protests from may Americans who sympathized with the tribe’s plight. The brutal march west would kill between 2,000 and 8,000 Cherokees.

The tribe had no connections to Oklahoma, which the federal government had designated as Indian Territory, but those who survived were eventually able to adapt to their new surroundings. According to the 2000 census, the Cherokees are now the largest tribe in the United States, with about 730,000 members.

One reason for the sudden federal interest in the Cherokees was the discovery of gold near tribal lands in Dahlonega, Georgia, in 1829, which set off the nation’s first gold rush.