Commodore Matthew C. Perry is most famous for the event described in today’s entry in The Intellectual Devotional: landing his gunships on Japan and opening communications and commerce with the once-isolated island nation. But years before doing so Perry anchored on a less exotic locale: Key West, Florida.
The Keys get their name from a mispronunciation: the Spanish name “Cayo Hueso” was turned into “Key West” rather than translated into “Bone Island.” Though known as part of Florida today, the were not officially within the boundaries of that state until 1822. Florida had long ago been a Spanish colony, first encountered by Europeans when Ponce de León landed there in 1513. The British had possession of the island since 1763, but it was reclaimed by the Spanish after the colonies defeated the British in the War of Independence. The new United States eventually gained control of Florida from Spain 1819, by, in part, promising not to make any claim on Texas. The United States made its claim on Texas in 1845.
While Florida became part of the United States in 1819, Key West was not incorporated until three years later, in 1822. The gap occurred because Spain originally claimed the Keys as part of Cuba and didn’t cede them to the United States along with Florida in 1819. This claim didn’t last long: by 1822, the islands were part of the United States, and the moment was made official when Commodore Perry landed his ships on their shores on March 25. He named them “Thompson’s Island” in honor of the then-Secretary of the Navy, but then as now they were always known as Key West.
The requirement of performing the Pilgrimage to Mecca is not only demanded of all Muslims. It is absolutely forbidden to all non-Muslims. Mecca is closed to non-Muslims, as is Medina, Islam’s second most holy city. Of course, the existence of a “forbidden city” is an open provocation to a certain type of explorer and adventurer. One such man, Sir Richard Burton, secretly made the trip.
Burton was one of the great adventurers of nineteenth-century Britain. He had extensive experiences throughout Asia and Africa: he served as a captain in the army of the East India Company; he produced the first complete translations of the 1001 Nights (also known as the Arabian Nights) and the Kama Sutra; he served on the expedition that discovered Lake Tanganyika in Central Africa. He was also one of the few foreigners to see the pilgrimage to Mecca. Disguising himself as a Sufi mystic named “al-Hajj ‘Abdullah’,” Burton made his way to Mecca in the early 1850′s. It was a dangerous experience, and Burton had to take numerous precautions to avoid being found out. (He not only had to disguise himself in traditional dress; he had to learn all the intricate rituals of Islam so he could fit in with the other pilgrims.) Despite the dangers involved, Burton made it back to England, where he wrote about his experience in his Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah. Read it here.
An interviewer for The Paris Review once asked the novelist and essayist Norman Mailer if he believed in reincarnation, and, if so, what he would like to come back is in the next life. The pugnacious belletrist responded without hesitating: “A black athlete.”
Mailer may have been unique in the extent of his enthusiasm, especially for boxing and above all others for Muhammad Ali, the subject of today’s entry in the Modern Culture edition of The Intellectual Devotional. Ali was always a darling of the chattering classes. In fact, many generations of writers have compensated for their cerebral pursuits by obsessing over The Noble Art of boxing.
Our favorite introduction to the literature of pugilism (at least until The Library of America releases the relevant volume) is David Remnick’s “King of the World.” Since 1999, Remnick has been the editor of The New Yorker magazine, and “King of the World” is very much a work curated by a great magazine editor. Ali is the ostensible subject of the book, but a careful read reveals something else: an introduction to some of the greatest boxing writing ever penned, from A. J. Liebling to Remnick himself. Much of it was focused, not on Ali, but on two of his predecessors: Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston.
Gay Talese: “The Loser”: a brilliant profile of Floyd Patterson, the heavyweight champion who was defeated by Sonny Liston.
Nick Tosches: “The Devil and Sonny Liston”: a profile of the champion nobody wanted.
Norman Mailer: “Ten Thousand Words a Minute”: Mailer’s last great pre-Ali work of boxing journalism.
James Baldwin: “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy”: Baldwin’s response to Mailer, in what Remnick called “the literary undercard of the Patterson-Liston fight”
But before reading all those great pieces, watch the fight!
In fourteen-hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. To commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of the occasion, the United States government decided to a hold a World’s Fair in Chicago in 1892 (it was dedicated in that year, and opened to the public a year later). A centerpiece of the fair was a new mechanical device. It was meant to one-up the “Eiffel Tower” that debuted in the Paris Fair in 1899, and showcase the mechanical prowess of America’s engineers. Daniel H. Burnham, Construction Chief of the World’s Fair, proposed the challenge to a group of in late 1890. One of those present took it up. His name was George Washington Gale Ferris, and his last name would become as synonymous with his mechanical marvel as Gustave Eiffel’s has become with his.
The story of George Ferris’ invention is brilliantly told by Patrick Meehan, and available for free at the Hyde Park Historical Society’s website. Check it out!
Image of the Baghdad Batteries courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
In 1936, a series of artifacts were discovered in the village of Khuyut Rabbou’a near Baghdad. At first glance, it appeared to be more of the same: terracotta pots. Not exactly a unique find in that part of the world. But two years later, in 1938, Wilhelm König, Director of the National Museum of Iraq , suggested an alternative explanation: the pots, made some 1,000 years before Alessandro Volta supposedly invented the device, were batteries.
Unlike most ancient pottery, the Baghdad or “Parthian” Batteries are each filled with a iron cylinder wrapped in copper sheeting. Fill it with an acidic liquid — anything from vinegar to lemon juice — and it would produce an electric current.
What were the Baghdad Batteries used for? Adding gold plating to silver objects (a process known as “electroplating”)? Acupuncture? Early magic tricks? Scholars are divided, and many of them disagree with the allegation that these are batteries at all. For what it’s worth, the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters dedicated an episode to the question, and decided that the Baghdad Batteries could very well have produced an electric current. If so, it was an amazingly advanced discovery on the part of the world’s oldest civilization.