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Columns

Reflections: The slot machine has its origins in San Francisco

The Liberty Bell Slot Machine memorial, in San Francisco.
The Liberty Bell Slot Machine memorial, in San Francisco.

It’s been warm, it’s been cool, it’s been dry, it’s been wet. A typical Illinois summer, you could say.

The crops are doing their best to finish off by harvest time. The little darlings are looking forward to getting on their school buses each morning and afternoon, which will finally make things pretty quiet around the house during the day. And to top it all off, the bills for all those new back-to-school clothes and shoes haven’t had a chance to come in yet.

What has come in, and what is continuing to come in on a regular basis, however, is the product stream here at Junk Mail Central. Each day (that the mail carrier shows up at the mailbox out in front) I am faced with a mountain of mail, some of which is even worth opening. But some of what is being stuffed in our mailbox each day is more interesting than useful. And so with no further ado, here are a number of things I never would have found out if I hadn’t opened all my junk mail each and every day the mail carrier showed up out in front of the Matile Manse:

The slot machine was invented by Charles Fey, a resident of San Francisco, in 1895.

On this day in 1590, the governor of the Roanoke Island colony, John White, returned after three years from England to find everyone in the colony had disappeared.

August is named after Roman emperor Augustus Caesar, who wanted his very own month. And he wanted it to be as long as Julius Caesar’s month, July, so they stole a day from February to make it 31 days long.

More than 500 “universal” languages have been devised by people tired of their own languages. Esperanto is the most widely used of them – although as near as I can tell only about 20 people know how to speak it.

Concrete (not cement; per my good friend Glenn, cement is an ingredient of concrete) was invented by the ancient Romans (as opposed to the modern Romans who haven’t invented much lately) who found it a strong building material for walls and other things.

Sounds like a little bit of Heaven on Earth to me: The W&G Foyle Ltd. bookstore in London has 30 miles of shelves groaning under thousands of books.

August is Admit You Are Happy Month.

People of ancient times believed the red quartz stone called carnelian would protect its wearer from weapons. Didn’t work.

Unlike Rome (the City of Seven Hills), San Francisco is built on and around more than 40 hills. Us Americans always have to do things bigger and better.

The ruffed (not ruffled) grouse beats its wings at such a speed that a sonic boom is created. Park Falls, Wisconsin, is the Ruffed Grouse Capital of the World.

How about some musical exercise? Playing the piano consumes 10 to 15 calories every five minutes.

With all the flaps about writers plagiarizing stuff, we tend to forget that even the greatest authors borrow once in a while – which isn’t plagiarism, by the way. Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” for instance, was based on “Romeus and Juliet,” a poem by English author Arthur Brooke.

Table salt only looks white. It’s actually comprised of millions of tiny clear cubes of sodium chloride.

Know why some reptiles can change their colors? Changing skin color can alter the amount of heat absorbed from the sun, a useful trick for a cold-blooded animal.

It would take about 40,000 red blood cells to fill this capital letter O.

Remember the ancient Romans, the guys who invented concrete and August? Turns out they also probably invented engagement and wedding rings. Is there anything those guys didn’t have a hand in?

The longest river in Europe is the Volga, which stretches 2,194 miles. That’s 250 miles shorter than the ­Mississippi River, the longest in the U.S.

You don’t often think of farmers being geographers, but it’s a fact the first globe made in the U.S. was created by James Wilson, a Vermont farmer and copper engraver, in 1810.

Thomas Edison’s electric voting machine was first used in an election in 1892.

Putting gems on engagement and wedding rings didn’t become popular among aristocrats until about 1200. Before that, wedding rings were plain old iron.

The cash register was invented by an American restaurant owner, James Ritty, in 1878 as a way to keep his help honest.

Male inventors get all the good press, but women inventors have also made great contributions. For instance, the first commercially produced dishwashing machine was invented by Mrs. W.A. Cockran of Shelbyville, Indiana, and was ready to be put on the market in 1889.

London’s first subway line was powered by steam locomotives and opened in 1863. There was apparently no “No Smoking” section on that line.

The first bicycle was invented by Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a blacksmith in Courthill, Dumfries, Scotland, in 1839.

Old weather wisdom: “For every fog in August there will be a snowfall.” But hopefully NOT in August.

Somebody has to be first in every profession: The first movie scriptwriter was New York journalist Roy McCardell, who was hired in 1900 by Henry Marvin of the Biograph Company to write 10 scenarios a week at $15 each.

The toothpaste tube was first devised by Dr. Washington Sheffield, a dentist working in New London, Connecticut, in 1892.

Finally, there’s a reason elephants roll in the mud and spray themselves with water from their trunks – they have no sweat glands and that’s the only way for them to stay cool. Just in case you were wondering.

• Looking for more local history? Visit historyonthefox.wordpress.com.

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