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Category: History

21 Years Later, We’re Still Taking Our Damn Shoes Off at the Airport Because of the Shoe Bomber

I’m about to go on a trip in the very near future, and one thing I will have to do before boarding the airplane (since I have applied, but have not been interviewed or approved for the Global Entry program) is take my shoes off and run them through the metal detector at an airport security checkpoint. Before Global Entry, everyone, regardless of who you were, had to take their shoes off and run them through the metal detector. It’s an inconvenience that came to life thanks to the man above – Richard Colvin Reid, also known as the Shoe Bomber.

On December 22, 2001, Reid boarded a Miami-bound flight from Paris wearing his special shoes that were packed with plastic explosives and a detonator cord that he would have to light. After he was reported to be acting strangely on the flight, Reid grabbed a woman who was curious about what he was doing (he was attempting to light the detonator cord attached to his shoe). Reid, a large man, was 6′ 4″ and weighed 215 pounds, was subdued by several passengers who used plastic handcuffs, seatbelt extensions, leather waist belts and headphone cords to restrain him. A doctor on board gave him a sedative from the emergency medical kit of the plane and they diverted course to Logan Airport in Boston, where he was immediately arrested on touchdown.

Apparently, the explosives didn’t detonate because of rainy weather in Paris – the detonator cord had become too wet in the Parisian rain.

So, the next time you’re stressed and late for your flight and have to take your shoes off at airport security, curse the name of Richard Reid. It’s all his fault.1Of course, if he’d been successful, this would have been a tragedy. Fortunately, fate decided to not cause anybody harm that day. Except for Reid, who was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences and 110 years with no possibility of parole.

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The Lansdowne Portrait

Gilbert Stuart was one of America’s great portrait painters, painting more than 1000 people, including the first 6 presidents1Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and John Quincy Adams. He was a Loyalist, and at the onset of the American Revolution, he moved to England where he continued painting and honing his craft. But mounting debts led him to Ireland, and then, finally, back to America. He had an idea that could would get him out of his debts – paint George Washington. It was 1793 and Washington was just beginning his second term as Commander in Chief.

“When I can net a sum sufficient to take me to America, I shall be off to my native soil. There I expect to make a fortune by [portraits of] Washington alone. I calculate upon making a plurality of his portraits, whole lengths, what will enable me to realize; and if I should be fortunate, I will repay my English and Irish creditors. To Ireland and English I shall be adieu.”

The Lansdowne Portrait

But it’s hard for the common folk to meet American royalty (as some wanted Washington to be). So Gilbert formulated a plan – find someone who knew Washington, impress them, and then press them for an introduction. He did this with Founding Father, and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay.

Stuart’s portrait of Chief Justice John Jay

Stuart persuaded Jay, through a flattering portrait of him (above) for an introduction to Washington. Expat Stuart had first met Jay in 1782 when the Jay was in London negotiating the Treaty of Paris, the formal accord that would officially end the Revolutionary War. Stuart would paint Jay more than once, and by impressing Jay, Stuart won his introduction to Washington. Jay contacted Washington in 1794 about Stuart, and Stuart departed for Philadelphia in November, 1794 to meet the president.

All in all, Stuart painted multiple portraits of Washington, ranging from the Vaughn Type portrait, the Atheneum Type, to the Landsdowne Type. The Lansdowne Type got its name from the owner of the first full-length portrait Stuart painted, William Petty, also known as the first Marquis of Lansdowne. The portrait of Washington was a gift from William Bingham, a merchant from Philadelphian who gifted the portrait to Lord Lansdowne for his financial support of the colonies during the Revolutionary War.

The portrait stayed in England well into the 19th century, where it became the property of the Dalmeny family. It went on permanent loan to the National Portrait Gallery in 1968, but in In 2000, the portrait’s owner, William Dalmeny, decided to put the painting up for auction. If the Portrait Gallery couldn’t come up with $20 million, he would sell it to the highest bidder. Fortunately, for all parties involved, the asking price was matched, and the painting safely resides in the National Portrait Gallery to this day.2Some other sources I found for this piece were from Mental Floss and also Khan Academy.

Me, at the National Portrait Gallery in 2022. With George. Even let my hair down for him.

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Vice President of the United States of America – the Most Powerful Pointless Job

A NOTE – I originally started writing this series 4 years ago. It’s interesting to me again, so I’ll be completing it over many months. Stay tuned.

Second in command has always been the least important important role in any organization. History is littered with great people leading in the face of adversity and challenge, sometimes rising to the occasion but just as often failing. Their names are etched in history, but every one of these great people had to have someone there next to, or behind, them, to pick up the mantle if something, unfortunately, happened.

Abraham Lincoln had two vice presidents – Hannibal Hamlin and Andrew Johnson. One of those people, fortunately, did not set back the United States 100 years through his southern sympathies and post-Civil War reconstruction. Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln’s first vice president, on the other hand, had this to say about holding the office

There is a popular impression that the Vice President is in reality the second officer of the government not only in rank but in power and influence. This is a mistake. In the early days of the republic he was in some sort an heir apparent to the Presidency. But that is changed. He presides over the Senate–he has a casting vote in case of a tie–and he appoints his own private secretary. But this gives him no power to wield and no influence to exert. Every member who has a constituency, and every Senator who represents a state, counts for more in his own locality, and with the Executive who must needs, in wielding the functions of his office, gather around him, and retain by his favors, those who can vote in Congress and operate directly upon public sentiment in their houses.

So in honor of these people, I’ll be starting a new series here – The Vice Presidents. The series will not focus on the men who held the second-in-command office and then went on to become their own branch of government, but the men who served quietly and then, possibly through their own actions or through the choice of the American people, stopped. People like Elbridge GerrySchuyler Colfax and John Garner. They must have lived interesting lives and had ambitions, right?

So, The Vice Presidents. Coming soon.

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Bockscar, the End of WWII and What Might Have Been

Everybody (well, mostly everybody) knows the name of the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima August 6, 1945 (Enola Gay), but ask almost anybody the name of the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and you’ll get one of two responses –

1) It was the Enola Gay, or
2) A blank stare

Shall we change that? Yes, let’s.

The airplane, a B-29 Superfortress, was called Bockscar and it dropped the “Fat Man” atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

End of story? Well, it could have been different if only the weather had been different and an accompanying plane had arrived as scheduled.

The mission to drop the second atomic bomb was to be carried out by three planes. Bockscar, the deliverer, was piloted by Major Charles W. Sweeney and the crew of another B-29, The Great Artiste. Their original plane (The Great Artiste) was designated to be the observation and instrumentation support plane while a third B-29, dubbed The Big Stink, was to be the photographic aircraft.

On that morning at 3:45 a.m. Bockscar took off from the North Field of the island of Tinian loaded down with its explosive cargo. Sweeney was to rendezvous with the other two planes near Yakushima Island and then proceed to the primary target, Kokura. Bockscar and The Great Artiste circled at the rendezvous point for 15 minutes waiting for The Big Stink. The third plane didn’t arrive after 15 minutes or even thirty minutes, at which time the two planes set out for Kokura, which was thirty minutes away. By the time that Bockscar and The Great Artiste arrived in Kokura weather had become a factor, with clouds covering 70% of the aiming point, making targeting next to impossible. Sweeney stayed and circled the city for the next 50 minutes, with Japanese fighters climbing to intercept the planes near the end of that time. After burning so much fuel Sweeney made the decision to try for the secondary target, Nagasaki.

Clouds also covered Nagasaki, but with the aide of radar and a small opening in the clouds allowed the bombardier to see enough of the city to identify a target. They dropped Fat Man at 11:01 a.m. and it exploded 43 seconds later with a blast yield equivalent to 21 kilotons of TNT at an altitude of 1,650 feet (503 meters) above ground, approximately 1.5 miles (2.5 km) northwest of the planned aiming point. 60% of Nagasaki was destroyed and approximately 40,000 people were killed in the explosion. Japan surrendered six days later.

The Big Stink did finally arrive, though. The airplane’s commander, Group Operations Officer Major James I. Hopkins, had ordered Dr. Robert Serber, a scientist working with the Manhattan Project, to leave the plane after he’d forgotten his parachute. The problem was that Serber was the only person on board who knew how to use the high-speed camera that would take photographs of the explosion, so delays mounted until finally Hopkins had to be instructed over the radio how to operate the camera. As photographic history shows, they showed up just in time near Nagasaki.

Of course the crazy thing here are the alternate possibilities a man not forgetting his parachute could have set in motion. Nagasaki never would have been an Atomic Age touchstone and we would have referred to the “two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Kokura”. Crazier things have happened, of course, but 40,000 people would have been alive in Nagasaki if things had been different.

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George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation

Here it is in its entirety, verbatim from the original –

General Thanksgiving
By the PRESIDENT of the United States Of America

WHEREAS it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favour; and Whereas both Houfes of Congress have, by their joint committee, requefted me “to recommend to the people of the United States a DAY OF PUBLICK THANSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to eftablifh a form of government for their safety and happiness:”

NOW THEREFORE, I do recommend and affign THURSDAY, the TWENTY-SIXTH DAY of NOVEMBER next, to be devoted by the people of thefe States to the fervice of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our fincere and humble thanksfor His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the fignal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpofitions of His providence in the courfe and conclufion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have fince enjoyed;– for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to eftablish Conftitutions of government for our fafety and happinefs, and particularly the national one now lately instituted;– for the civil and religious liberty with which we are bleffed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffufing useful knowledge;– and, in general, for all the great and various favours which He has been pleafed to confer upon us.

And also, that we may then unite in moft humbly offering our prayers and fupplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and befeech Him to pardon our national and other tranfgreffions;– to enable us all, whether in publick or private ftations, to perform our feveral and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a bleffing to all the people by conftantly being a Government of wife, juft, and conftitutional laws, difcreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all fovereigns and nations (especially fuch as have shewn kindnefs unto us); and to blefs them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increafe of fcience among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind fuch a degree of temporal profperity as he alone knows to be beft.

GIVEN under my hand, at the city of New-York, the third day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand feven hundred and eighty-nine.

(signed) G. Washington

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Elijah McCoy, Lewis Latimer and Granville Woods: African-American Inventors of the 19th Century – A Postscript

I got my paper back from Dr. Sullivan the other night. For some reason, as with everything in this class the past semester, I’ve been a tad nervous when receiving something back that has been graded; it’s just a thing with me, I don’t know why I’m apprehensive about it. And when I got my paper back I saw at the top the grade – a 75. Wow. C+. Awesome…for real.

No, it wasn’t awesome. It was kinda sucky.

But then I remembered that Dr. Sullivan has kind of a screwy grading scheme, 100 isn’t always the top score that you can get, so I asked someone, “What was the top score you could get on this paper?” And they replied, “Seventy-five.”

So I got an A+, a 100%, or as I said, “a perfect,” and it only took about two weeks and some furious editing.

And he said –

Excellent paper. I like the way you presented the three inventors in the context of a broader picture of invention – and its influence within the African-American experience.

And I feel good about the paper. Very good.

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Elijah McCoy, Lewis Latimer and Granville Woods: African-American Inventors of the 19th Century – Part 6 – How They Made a Difference and Conclusion

Each of the men discussed in this paper made a rather remarkable contribution to the scientific pursuits, some more lasting than others. McCoy’s invention has probably been the one with the longest-lasting significance. As was true then, if you don’t lubricate an engine it will quit working from the friction. All engines, whether they are automobile, airplane or boat, must be lubricated in order to remain functional. McCoy’s drip cup became the basis for the self-lubricating engines of modern times.

Woods’ Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph brought efficiency and safety to rail travel at a time when train collisions could be common. With the invention of the telephone and further advancements in communications technology, the telegraph became an antiquated means of communication. Although obsolete on its own, his invention was one of a serious of steps into a wider world of communication that we use today.

Latimer’s invention set the standard in lighting for the 25 years that followed. In 1904 William D. Coolidge developed an incandescent light bulb using tungsten, which extended bulb life far beyond Latimer’s carbon-filament bulb.

As Henry E. Baker  said in The Colored American, “It is held to be of far greater importance to show that the Negro as a race has actually accomplished very much of value in the line of invention, and thus to show how much in error are those who constantly assert that the Negro has made no lasting contribution to the civilization of the age. These facts ought clearly to show that under favorable environment the Negro is capable of performing his whole duty in the work of mankind, whether it be tilling the earth with his hoe or advancing the world by his thought.”18


McCoy, Woods and Latimer all came from modest beginnings. They didn’t have privilege but they worked hard and found recognition, and some a measure of fame, from what they were able to do with ideas, sweat and ingenuity. Their ability to rise up paved the way for modern African-American inventors like Dr. Mark Dean, who was instrumental in the creation of the personal computer for IBM; George Alcorn, the developer of the imaging x-ray spectrometer; and theoretical physicist Dr. Shirley Jackson, who helped create the portable fax, the touch tone telephone and the fiber optic cables used to provide clear overseas telephone calls.19 As pioneers in their scientific fields, these men broke past the barriers of their time to open up new avenues for others that would follow.

Next time, what happened after I got the paper back.
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Elijah McCoy, Lewis Latimer and Granville Woods: African-American Inventors of the 19th Century – Part 5 – The Fruit of Their Labor

While McCoy’s inventions earned millions of dollars in profit, little of that money found its way into his pockets. Because he lacked the financial backing to manufacture his lubricators himself in large numbers he sold many of his patent rights to investors. In return for this he was given only small amounts that allowed him to continue his research. McCoy was awarded at least 72 patents during his long lifetime but retained ownership of only a few of them. Personally, he had happiness married to his wife Mary Eleanor for 50 years. At the end of his life McCoy he suffered from hypertension and senile dementia. He died in an infirmary in Eloise, Michigan, on October 10, 1929.15

Woods remained an independent inventor his entire life, always remaining outside of the technological mainstream of Bell and Edison. The never ending scourge of his life became having to constantly defend his patents in court. As people of the time were always inventing it was natural that several people could come up with the same idea at roughly the same time. Because of this, the majority of Woods’ money went to fighting legal disputes. After years of being destitute and penniless he suffered a stroke on January 30, 1910 at Harlem Hospital in New York City – killing him at the young age of 53. Despite his great success as an inventor and amassing over 60 patents in total, he had little to show for it. His simple ground-level headstone in East Elmhurst, New York reads “Granville T. Woods, Esq, 1856-1910, Electrician – Inventor.”16

Latimer understood incandescent light in ways that few other men did, enough so that Thomas Edison himself asked him to work for him and help defend Edison’s patents against competitors. Later in life Latimer worked as a draftsman and an expert witness in patent litigation on electric lights. He married Mary Wilson on December 10, 1873. They had two daughters, Emma and Louise. In 1918 Latimer was asked to join the Edison Pioneers, a group of distinguished men who had participated in the early years of the electric light industry. Membership in this group represented the highest honor to individuals in the electrical field, and he was one of the original 28 charter members, all of whom had worked with Edison prior to 1885. In addition to this he volunteered his time to help the community as well as an accomplished poet, author, musician and artist. He died at the age of 80.17

Next time, How They Made a Difference and Conclusion
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Elijah McCoy, Lewis Latimer and Granville Woods: African-American Inventors of the 19th Century – Part 4 – Education as the Foundation of Invention

Elijah McCoy was the most educated of the three. His parents, George and Mildred, both runaway slaves, fled to Canada from Kentucky. When the Canadian rebellions of 1837 broke out against Great Britain, George sided in the hostilities with the British. After the Red River Rebellion, as it was called, was quashed by the Crown, George was given 160 acres of farmland near Colchester, Ontario for his loyalty and service. Elijah was born there on March 27, 1844, one of 12 children that George and Mildred had. When he was three his family moved back to the U.S., settling in Detroit, Michigan, and it was in nearby Ypsilanti that McCoy would do his inventing.

As a boy McCoy was fascinated with tools and machines, and when the opportunity arose to be educated about his interests arose he jumped at it. At sixteen years old he traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, to serve an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering, and while he was there he won the credentials of a master mechanic and engineer. Interestingly though, upon finishing his education he returned to his hometown to find employment as a mechanical engineer. He found the prejudices against educated blacks ran strong and beliefs that they were intellectually inferior were widespread, leading many potential employers to believe that McCoy couldn’t be as skilled as he claimed he was, and if he were, the whites that he might supervise would probably not take orders from a black man. Which is what lead him to take a job on the railroad giving him the exposure to engines and the ideas for improving their lubrication that he might not otherwise have had.12

Granville Woods was Australian by birth and moved  and emigrated to Missouri with his family in 1872 when he was 16. His schooling was overseas was meager and upon emigrating he began working as a fireman – a job whose sole purpose was to fuel the firebox of the engine to keep the steam levels high – with the Iron Mountain Railroad. While the self-taught Woods continued to teach himself about electricity, he worked a variety of transportation and industrial jobs. He did strive for more education and occasionally managed to get private tutoring or take night courses in engineering, but he never earned a degree.13

Lewis Howard Latimer was the son of runaway slaves. Born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on September 4, 1848 to George and Rebecca Latimer who had fled his master in Virginia for the safety of Trenton, New Jersey six years prior. When George’s master, James B. Gray arrived where the Latimers had settled in Boston to take them back to Virginia, famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison took up the cause. Eventually funds were raised to pay Gray $400 for George’s freedom.

From those beginnings, Lewis had a minimal school-based education. Most of what he knew came from on-the-job training and what he could pick up here and there. He eventually joined the Navy during the Civil War and afterward he began work at Crosby Halstead and Gould where he learned most of the skills that he would later employ in his work: sketching patent drawings.14

Next time, The Fruit of Their Labor

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Elijah McCoy, Lewis Latimer and Granville Woods: African-American Inventors of the 19th Century – Part 3 – The Educational System in 19th Century America

African-Americans at the end of the Civil War craved acceptance as a people and this hope was only partially reciprocated. Education in the late 19th Century was either a short-lived moment in a person’s life or a multi-year luxury that few in the general populace could afford. Whites had an easier path to it, but African-Americans had an even harder road toward it. But it wasn’t for trying. Booker T. Washington, the famous proponent of education for freedmen in the post-Reconstruction South, founded the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute to help educate African-Americans. He realized that in modern society African-Americans would have to be educated, and educated well, in order to excel. It was a belief that was shared by many African-Americans at the time: that education could help set them on an equal footing with their white counterparts in both jobs and social stature.

Educational reform in the United States was just gaining momentum in the late 19th century. Before that time educating enslaved African-Americans in the South was forbidden by law in many states, but in the North, where schools for African Americans did exist, they were generally housed in crowded buildings staffed by teachers of low q

ualifications and restricted to the knowledge of the teacher. African-American parents also grouped together to make private arrangements for schooling and often times hired their own teachers. Public schools did outnumber private ones, but the quality of educational services varied from school to school, with the quality of teaching depending on how much the parents were willing to spend to pay teachers.

In fact, many of the schools formed would hardly be recognized as such by modern standards. Elementary education was available to African-Americans, but higher, more specialized, educational services that would produce more respect among the already somewhat-doubting white class was harder to attain.

Due in part to this, illiteracy rates among African-Americans were tracked at a staggering 79.9% in 1870, the first year that such statistics were collected. With improvements in education this figure dropped by roughly 10% in each decade that followed underscoring the need for African-American education.11

It’s surprising then that education seemed to be of little factor in the success of any of the black inventors mentioned. Of the three, only one was able to attain a college degree – McCoy. While, conversely the most successful of the bunch – Woods who was also known as the “Black Edison” – had only a meager elementary school education. They proved that the sky was the limit for what could be achieved with creativity and knowledge of your subject against the traditional thinking that formal education alone stood as the foundation for invention of thought.

Next time, Education as the Foundation of Invention

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