On Sept. 4, 2009, I took up temporary residence at Springhill Suites, next to Black Bear Restaurant.
Otherwise, I suppose I would have been called homeless. Although the staff was accommodating and the room was quite nice, it was an unenviable experience.
Had my house not burned down two days earlier, taking with it all of my records and virtually every other thing in my office, I could look back on my past columns and find out how many times I quoted or paraphrased Charles Dickens’ “it was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” I’ve used that expression often because there has seldom — if ever — been a time in history when “everything’s good.”
“Good times” have generally been defined by the victors in wars, leaders who rose to power, and investors who bought Xerox stock in 1961 when it was first listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Losers, the impotent, and people who don’t have bank accounts don’t get to write history.
In today’s column, I’ll relate some of the events that occurred on Sept. 4 throughout history. You can determine for yourself the benefits or disadvantages of each situation (although I really can’t restrain myself from making editorial comments).
A new Europe
On Sept. 4, 476, a soldier known as Flavius Odovacer (a.k.a. Odoaker in German, Odaocerus in Latin, and Odoacre in Italian) deposed Romulus Augustulus, bringing an end to the Roman Empire, which had been in decline for a few centuries.
This event also ended a period that was an extension of the Pax Romana (“Roman Peace,” 27 B.C. to 180 A.D.), at least in Europe. But, about two decades later, Odoacer, who had been proclaimed “King of Italy,” was invited to a banquet by Theodoric, who had successfully invaded Europe’s boot.
At the affair, Theodoric killed Odoacer, and from then on the history of Western Europe had been a history of wars until NATO was formed in 1949.
Utopia or dystopia
In 1542, Captain Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed his ships into the harbor of Chumash and Tongva country. He claimed the territory for Spain. Nearly 200 years later, on Sept. 4, 1781, the region was populated by forty-four settlers who established “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Rio de Porciúncula” (in English: The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of the Porciuncula River). Two thirds of the settlers were “mulatto” or “mestizo,” people, mixtures of European, African, and/or indigenous American (“Indian”) ancestry.
In 1821, the “pueblo” had a population approaching 700 when it became part of Mexico, following New Spain’s independence from the Spanish Empire. Shortly thereafter, Mexican Governor Pio Pico proclaimed it to be the capital of Alta California.
Following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ended the U.S.-Mexican War in 1848, Los Angeles — along with the rest of California and many of the other western states — became part of our nation and began its gradual growth toward the current megalopolis that anchors our southwest corner.
Spreading the light
Before 1882, the world was not dark, but it was lighted by wax, oil, and dangerous gas. Four years earlier, at his research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, Thomas Alva Edison began working on a way to produce light within an incandescent lamp in a commercially practical way. Other inventors, going as far back as 1800, were able to create light from electricity, the problem was devising a method by which the light would last for more than a few seconds.
Edison realized that the problem was finding a filament that could withstand the heat that the process generated. Over the years, he performed thousands of experiments, none of which satisfied the need for sustained light. While some doubters referred to these experiments as failures, Edison was adamant in maintaining that each was a success at demonstrating materials that wouldn’t work.
In mid-1878, he and some members of his team traveled to Battle Lake (in the current state of Wyoming) in order to get a good view of a total eclipse of the sun. While there, he took advantage of the vacation to go fishing. But, like other geniuses, his mind kept working. He began examining the threads of his bamboo fishing pole and wondered if they could form the basis for a carbon filament. Voila!
With financial backing from J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilt family, he began production of a light bulb that utilized a carbonized bamboo filament and would burn for 1,200 hours. To publicize the invention, he wired one section of lower Manhattan and installed his equipment.
Always the crafty entrepreneur, he chose the site because the area included the New York Times building, assuring the possibility that he would get excellent press coverage. On the evening of Sept. 4, 1882, Edison flipped a switch at his Pearl Street generating station and lit up New York.
During the early 1950s, almost anyone could tell the difference between a sleek, bullet-nosed Studebaker and the big tank-like gas-guzzling Cadillac. The tri-color DeSoto came from the factory with a white roof, light charcoal grey body, and splash of pink in the area that would eventually be occupied by fins. Cars were distinctive.
In those days, industrial espionage was aimed at giving companies the advantage of designing automobiles that were unique. In 1956, Ford Motor Company banked on a top-secret project to produce a car that was so different from existing models that it would revolutionize the entire industry. For the whole year, advertisements taunted the public with hints about the new “experimental” car.
On Sept. 4, 1957, also known as “E-Day,” Ford raised the curtain on its 1958 wonder car. Named for the son of the company’s founder, the Edsel was discontinued after the 1960 model and $250 million in losses. In 1961, the most popular joke that was making the rounds at Foothill College, where I was a student, went like this: Question — What is a three-time loser? Answer — A pregnant prostitute, driving an Edsel, with a Nixon-Lodge sticker on the bumper.
Now, industrial espionage is conducted to make sure that no company will produce a car that is significantly different from all other cars.
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Jim Glynn can be contacted at email@example.com.