Before Sally Ride spent a week aboard the Challenger shuttle in 1983 and became the first American woman in space, NASA engineers asked her if she wanted a hundred tampons in her flight kit. “No,” she later recalled responding, “that would not be the right number.” They said they wanted to be safe. “Well,” she assured them, “you can cut that in half with no problem at all.”
Before the entire palette of modern mathematical notation existed, Johannes Kepler relied on musical notation to describe the planets’ rotation around the sun in his Harmonies of the World, published in 1619. The plus and minus signs were introduced in print in 1489 by Johann Widman, and the equal sign in 1557 by Robert Recorde, but the multiplication sign (×) was not introduced until 1631, by William Oughtred; modern exponential notation in 1637, by René Descartes; and the obelus (÷) to indicate division in 1659, by Johann Rahn.
Before their journey westward in America in 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were advised by Thomas Jefferson to “observe the animals” and especially “the remains and accounts of any which may be deemed rare or extinct.” One of the animal fossils that the expedition sent back is believed to have been of a dinosaur, dating from the Cretaceous Period.
A scholar in Peking contracted malaria in 1899 and was given medication with an ingredient labeled “dragon bones.” The bone chips, he found, were inscribed with writing dating back to China’s second dynasty. Thousands more were uncovered in the decades following; many of these “oracle bones” had inscriptions recording celestial events, which scientists have since used to calculate changes in the length of an earth day and in the rate of the earth’s rotation.
Leo Tolstoy, who opened a school for peasant children on his estate and organized relief efforts during famines in 1873 and 1891, later lost his charitable spirit. In 1903, in response to a visitor describing the poor at Moscow’s Khitrov market eating rotten eggs, fish, and fruit, Tolstoy declared that drunkenness and debauchery were responsible for such conditions, not misfortune. “They always have been bosyaki,” said Tolstoy about the beggars there, “and they always will be. They drink, are lazy, and that is all there is to it.”
About the first spy film, made in 1898, almost nothing is known besides its name, Execution of the Spanish Spy. Made two years later, Execution of a Spy was a twenty-seven-foot reel showing a firing squad executing a spy in a military prison. In The Female Spy, from 1906, a woman is tied to a horse by her hair and dragged behind it.
Greek geographer Strabo wrote around 20 BC that, to deal with “a crowd of women” or “any promiscuous mob,” one cannot use reason but rather must exert control using myths and marvels. “For thunderbolt, aegis, trident, torches, snakes, thyrsus lances—arms of the gods—are myths,” he wrote. “The founders of states gave their sanction to these things as bugbears wherewith to scare the simpleminded.”
In 1863, four years before publishing the first volume of Das Kapital, Karl Marx wrote to Friedrich Engels that apart from “the discoveries of gunpowder, the compass, and the printing press—these necessary preconditions of bourgeois development—the two material bases on which the preparations for machine industry were organized within manufacture...were the clock and the mill.” He elaborated: “The clock is the first automatic machine applied to practical purposes, and the whole theory of production of regular motion was developed on it.”
Committed to learning the principles of Latin grammar as a child in Mexico in the 1650s, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz recalled that she cut her hair very short, and if she had not “learned such and such a thing” by the time it grew out, she “would again cut it off as punishment for being so slow-witted.”