Anthony Ernest Pratt

The Dastardly Past:  Anthony Ernest Pratt.

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Anthony Ernest Pratt was born in obscurity in England on August 10, 1903.  He died in obscurity ninety years later.  In between, Mr. Pratt undertook many occupations, including apprentice in a chemistry lab, professional musician, civil servant, and shopkeeper.  In World War II he worked in a factory making tank components and volunteered as a fired warden.  It was during the tedium of his wartime occupations that Pratt conceived his most remunerative idea.  He invented a board game called Clue (Cluedo in Great Britain), immortalizing the likes of Col. Mustard, Mrs. Peacock, and Prof. Plum.  The game went on the market in 1949 and has remained in the ranks of top-selling board games ever since.  In 1985 it was made into a movie with an all-star cast.  Adapting to the changing times, it is currently available in a variety of versions, including the Big Bang Theory, Dr. Who, Firefly, Game of Thrones, Golden Girls, Harry Potter, the Legend of Zelda, Scooby Doo, the Simpsons, Star Wars, and Twilight.

Anatomy Act of 1832

The Dastardly Past:  the Anatomy Act of 1832.

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A mortsafe, installed by loved ones for the protection of graves

On July 19, 1832, the House of Lords passed the Anatomy Act in Great Britain.  Enlightenment thinking in the eighteenth century had resulted in an increase in the number of students enrolling in medical schools and, at the same time, higher expectations among the public for quality medical care.  This included surgery, which required close familiarity with human anatomy.  As a result, the demand for bodies in this era far outstripped what executioners and body-snatchers (called resurrectionists) could supply.  The provisions of the Anatomy Act outlined a procedure where licensed practitioners could claim bodies from among the dead of the workhouses.  Parliament hoped to fulfill scientific demand while also putting an end to the distressing practice of robbing graves.  The Act, however, only enjoyed partial success.

Italy’s Carabinieri

The Dastardly Past:  Italy’s Carabinieri.

On July 14, 1814, a national force charge with policing both the military and civilians was formed in Italy.  Still performing the same duties today, they are called the Carabinieri, and they have the Best. Hats. Ever.

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The Dastardly Past: Kodak

The Dastardly Past:  Kodak.

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Like Laurel with Hardy, like peanut butter with jelly, like Waffle House with people of the land, so too do cameras and detection belong together.  In 1888-89, Kodak introduced the first cameras that allowed people to simply point and shoot.  With the press of a button, photography shifted from a specialist’s pursuit to something almost anyone could do.  And they did—in droves—making Kodak the leader of popular photographic equipment, film, and film processing in the world.

The Dastardly Past: on this day, the pencil.

The Dastardly Past:  on this day, the pencil.

chandler_2624086b Raymond Chandler with pipe in mouth and pencil poised.

In the olden days, writing mysteries (or anything else) wasn’t even possible without a pad and pencil.  Even today, many authors prefer the flexibility of outlining, brainstorming, writing, editing, or revising with a pencil in their hands.  And with pencils come erasers.  Naturally.  We don’t even think about it.  Before the 1850s, however, we’d have had to.

Pencils and erasers were two separate items until Hyman L. Lipman, a stationer in Philadelphia, came up with the idea of combining them.  (He was a wizard of a stationer, also establishing the first envelope company in the United States.)  Lipman received a patent for his idea on March 30, 1858.  His model differed from today’s Ticonderogas in the placement of the eraser.  Rather than using a metal collar to attach a rubber tip to the end of a pencil, he actually inserted the rubber into one end of the hollow core that held the lead.  Despite this difference, he was onto something.  So much so that it’s hard to even imagine life without it.

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In Defense of Cursive. Or Not.

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When it comes to change, I like to think I’m a centrist.  Some things, like making single-malt scotch or a finely bound book, are best achieved using the old ways.  Other things, like dentistry with benefit of painkillers or communicating via electronic devices, have been life changing.  So I am having difficulty nailing down my reaction to the fact that schools are no longer teaching children how to write using cursive.

When I first heard about it, I was appalled.  Part of that had to do with the hours spent perfecting my handwriting so that I would not be the last kid in the class allowed to use a pen.  In my school you had to earn that privilege.  But part of it went deeper than that.  Then this week, I gave an addressed envelope to the young man at the UPS store and asked him to send it with a tracking number.  He could not read the address.  He couldn’t even get close, thinking “Stephanie” was “Daniel,” and “East” was “Oak.”

There I had it!  A tangible objection that went beyond the increasingly arcane Emily Post reasons of wedding invitations and handwritten thank-you notes.  If you can’t write in cursive you most likely can’t read it either.  This is will become less of a problem in the next thirty to fifty years as the cursive generations shuffle off, yet the notion still nags.  What are the implications for the use of archives and archival research?  Or the impact on the humanities in general?  Genealogical hobbyists need knowledge of cursive to read family documents, and cook’s too or else grandma’s recipe for snickerdoodles will be lost forever.  Graduate schools offer courses in Medieval paleography; will mid-twentieth century paleography represent the coming trend?

Further, is the abandonment of handwriting one that other first-world nations are following?  Or like never learning second and third languages, is it another symptom of being American?  Will the Axis powers of the future be able to thwart us, not with the use of microdots and Enigma machines, but with Spencerian penmanship?  OK, that’s a silly example, but the knowledge gap between the United States and other countries remains real.

Finally, there is the notion that brains process information differently using different techniques.  Cursive is said to work better for people with dyslexia.  Taking class notes in long-hand has been shown, in some studies, to improve retention.  Realistically, however, this may be clutching at straws, and probably only experts can give us an answer.  So I continue to straddle the fence in an uncomfortable position that is hard to maintain over the long term.  Please help me.  What do you think about it?  If you think about it at all?

Mystery Writer’s Almanac . . . Dream Big

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On this day in 1997, Miami nightclub owner and Ukranian mobster Ludwig “Tarzan” Fainberg is charged with trying to buy a Russian nuclear submarine for $5.5 million to smuggle cocaine to the U.S. for Colombian drug lords.  Fainberg gets high marks for creativity, but falls short of actual success.