There are a whole lot of accomplishments that any white person over the age of (hmm) thirty is faintly familiar with. Such as: The Magna Carta, the US Constitution, the wisdom of ancient Greece, Christian morality, the Enlightenment, the King James Bible, the common law, property rights, religious tolerance, habeas corpus, universal suffrage, equality under the law, the Golden Rule, free-market economics, the abolition of slavery, respect for women. How about The Wheel? The Printing Press? The Automobile, telephone, radio, television, vaccination, the airplane, the computer.. . Okay, you get the picture.

And the people, my gosh, where to begin? Take note of: Joan of Arc, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Leonardo Da Vinci, the mathematician Hypatia (d. 420AD), Michelangelo, Rembrandt, deGoya, Delacroix, Pissarro, Manet, Botticelli, Raphael, Vermeer, Cezanne, Bernini, Picasso, Salvador Dali, Caravaggio, Shakespeare, Renoir, Gauguin, William Penn, Frank Lloyd Wright, John Locke, Florence Nightingale, Goethe, Moliere, Jane Austen, Ayn rand, Rousseau, Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Charles Darwin, the Wright Brothers,  Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi,  Niels Bohr, Robert Oppenheimer, Samuel Johnson, Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo, Vasco de Gama, Cortez, Francis Drake, Lewis and Clark, Magellan, Thomas Paine, Napoleon, Monet, Van Gogh, Franklin Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh,  Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Ford, Babe Ruth, Elvis, Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Churchill, deGaulle, Marie Antoinette, Catherine the Great, . . the list is virtually endless.

And the places built in Europe: Notre Dame, The Chartres Cathedral, Saint Peter and Paul’s in Rome, the Parthenon, the Colosseum in Rome, the Eiffel Tower, St. Basil’s in Moscow, The Hermitage in St. Petersberg, the Palace at Versailles, Neuswanstein Castle, the Canals and St. Marks in Venice, Sacre Cour in Paris, the Cologne Cathedral,  The Houses of Parliament in London, The Louvre, St. Stephens in Vienna, Westminster Abby, the Sistine Chapel, Stonehenge, The Reichstag Building, the Arc de Triomphe, Mykonos, Santorini, Rhodes, the Brandenburg Gate, The Acropolis, Les Invalides, The Erectheion, Saltzburg, Garmish Partenkirken, Berchtesgaden, Tartu, Nice, Barcelona, Menorca and Majorca in Spain, Munich, Monaco, Ljubjana, Minsk, Odessa, Ukraine, Bucharest, Crete, Dubrovnik, The Castles of The Loire Valley, The Canals of Amsterdam, Lloyd’s Building in London, The Boue Lagon in Italy, The Barcelona Cathedral, The Royal Palace of Stockholm, Tivoli Gardens, Nyhavn and The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen,  Vienna, the entire place, The Castle in Tallinn, The Ancient Bridge in Mostar, The Monasteries of Meteora in Greece, Hagia Sofia, Lake Bled, Slovenia, Gustav Vigeland Park in Oslo, The Arch of Constantine, Cinque TerreThe Fortified Islands on Suomenlinna, The Belem Tower in Kisbon, The Oude Kerk built in 1306 in Amsterdam, The Seville Cathedral, Syntagma Square in Athens, The Vilnius Cathedral and Cathedral Square in Vilnius, The Burgos Cathedral, Casa Batilo, Castel Sant’Angelo, The Catacombs, Bran Castle, The Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the Pantheon in Paris, The Champs Elysees, The Rijksmuseum, Mont Saint-Michel, The Pier in Scheveningen, The Cathedral of St Vitus and The Prague Castle, The Charles Bridge and The Old Town Square in Prague, The Belfry in Bruge, Leipzig, Heidelberg and Nueremberg in Germany, The Hluboká Castle in Ceske Budejovice, The Karlstejn Castle and Vimperk in Czechoslovakia … That’s 101 spectacular places thanks to the white people of Europe. Bill has seen them all… each and everyone. There are museums all over Europe where the knowledge and beauty of the Europeans are celebrated.  The glass works at Murano in Venice, the Gondola’s and the beautiful Rialto Bridge in Venice, Europe is chock full of achievement.  

Three Poles cracked the code of The NAZI’s Enigma Code Machine. Their story is virtually non-existent to the public.

The earlier Enigma machines were adopted by the government and military services of numerous nations like Hitler’s Germany that used it to send and receive messages before and during the Second World War. The British and their allies understood the problem posed by this equipment in 1931 when a German spy known as Hans Thilo allowed his French spymaster to take a photograph of a stolen operating manual for the Enigma machine. The manual included all the keys and plugboard settings which the Germans used in September and October 1932.

The British and their allies could not decipher the message; therefore, they handed them over to a Polish mathematician named Marian Rejewski. Rejewski together with Henryk Zygalski and Jerzy Rozycki managed to build an Enigma double. They developed numerous techniques for defeating the plugboard and get all the components of the keys, thus making it possible for them to read all the German enciphered messages from 1933 to 1939. With the 1939 German invasion imminent, the Polish government decided to share their secrets with the British.

Less than six weeks before World War II began, on September 3, 1939, Lieutenant Gwido Langer, head of the Polish Central Staff’s cipher bureau invited British and French intelligence chiefs to a meeting at his secret cryptology centre at Pyry in the Kabaty woods near Warsaw.

There he revealed to them that his team, Rejewski, Zygalski, and Rozycki, had cracked the Enigma code seven years before and had been reading German messages ever since.

Have you heard the term “Information Theory?” No? Then perhaps you’ve been watching too many faux movies, like Red Tails (on the Tuskegee Airmen), or reading factvels (novels passing themselves off as non-fiction) like Hidden Figures (on African-American women involved in NASA).

Claude Elwood Shannon wrote the most important master’s thesis in history in which he, at twenty-one years old, applied Boolean algebra to switching circuitry titled “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits.” In this paper Shannon invented new mathematics to describe the laws of communication. It was a transformative work, turning circuit design from an art into a science, and is now considered to have been the starting point of digital circuit design.

In a 1939 letter to his mentor at Bell Laboratories, Vannevar Bush, Shannon outlined some of his initial ideas on “fundamental properties of general systems for the transmission of intelligence.” After working on the problem for a decade, Shannon finally published his masterpiece in 1948: “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” He introduced new ideas, like the entropy rate of a probabilistic model, which have been applied in far-ranging branches of mathematics such as ergodic theory, the study of long-term behavior of dynamical systems. Shannon’s theories have now become the standard framework underlying all modern-day communication systems: optical, underwater, even interplanetary.

His theories laid the groundwork for the electronic communications networks that now lace the earth. As noted by Ioan James, Shannon biographer for the Royal Society, “So wide were its repercussions that the theory was described as one of humanity’s proudest and rarest creations, a general scientific theory that could profoundly and rapidly alter humanity’s view of the world.”

While Shannon worked in a field for which no Nobel prize is offered, his work was richly rewarded by honors including the National Medal of Science (1966) and honorary degrees from Yale (1954), Michigan (1961), Princeton (1962), Edinburgh (1964), Pittsburgh (1964), Northwestern (1970), Oxford (1978), East Anglia (1982), Carnegie-Mellon (1984), Tufts (1987), and the University of Pennsylvania (1991). He was also the first recipient of the Harvey Prize (1972), the Kyoto Prize (1985), and the Shannon Award (1973). The last of these awards, named in his honor, is given by the Information Theory Society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and remains the highest possible honor in the community of researchers dedicated to the field that he invented.

But Shannon was also a fun-loving joker; he invented something called the “Ultimate Machine,” a machine—a box really—containing a replica of a human hand whose sole purpose was to turn off a switch that had been turned on by its user. Shannon approached research with a sense of curiosity, humor, and fun. An accomplished unicyclist, he was famous for cycling the halls of Bell Labs at night, juggling as he went. His later work on chess-playing machines and an electronic mouse that could run a maze helped create the field of artificial intelligence, the effort to make machines that think. Yeah, we call them computers.

As Stanford University Professor David Tse says, Shannon “invented the future.”

You can watch a recent documentary on Shannon’s life at Amazon Prime.

Oscar H. Banker

Oscar H. Banker
Oscar H. Banker

If you had never heard of Claude Shannon, then I can guarantee that you’ve never heard this man’s name. You should know it. . . you probably drove or were driven somewhere recently using two of his historic inventions — the automatic transmission and power steering.

Oscar H. Banker (b. Asatour Sarafian, May 31, 1895) was an Armenian-American inventor who patented a number of works, including an automatic transmission and power steering for automobiles. He is considered the “father of the automatic transmission.”

General Motors incorporated the semi-automatic transmission system into some of its vehicles in 1934, oddly enough the same year that Banker filed for a patent on the automatic transmission. The GM design had many flaws, leading Banker to propose his system to the company, asserting that it would be safer and more durable. After battling for eight years, Banker’s design was adopted and GM finally offered the American driver automatic transmissions using Banker’s design in 1940 in Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs, the first mass-produced automatic transmission vehicles. It was a marvel of engineering complexity that simplified driving so much that today, 97 per cent of all cars have just two pedals.

1940 Oldsmobile
1940 Oldsmobile

In Banker’s memoirs titled Dreams and Wars of an American Inventor: An Immigrant’s Romance published in 1983 he writes: “America is yet the greatest country existing for opportunity, for achievement and if a person can endure the hardships, ridicule, rebuffs, whatever and keep on going! That is what counts. And absolutely nothing else.”

The Drinking Bird

It would seem that brilliant people have a penchant for designing useless toys if you follow the examples of Claude Shannon and Miles Sullivan both of whom worked for Bell Labs in the 1940s. Sullivan filed for a patent on his toy in 1946.

The drinking bird is an iconic desk toy, but can you explain how it works? The principle is unintuitive at first glance, but beautifully simple in hindsight, like only the most brilliant inventions are.

At its core, the drinking bird is a heat engine, not unlike a steam turbine or diesel engine. When the bird’s head dips in the water, it gets wet. When the water evaporates, the bird’s head cools. This temperature change in-turn changes the internal pressure of the bird’s vacuum sealed body, and the movement of the gases and liquids inside propel the bird’s motion.

The bird’s underlying principle is unintuitive at first glance, beautifully simple and a mesmerizing feat of engineering. The drinking bird illustrates many principles in chemistry and physics: boiling and condensation; combined gas law; torque; the center of mass; capillary action (wicking of water into the felt); wet-bulb temperature (temperature difference between head and body bulbs depends on the relative humidity of the air); the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution; heat of vaporization/heat of condensation; and the functioning of a heat engine.

It’s best just to watch it in action and listen to the engineer guy explain it.

The Columbian Exposition of 1893

The World’s Columbian Exposition celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America. (Or as Wikipedia says, Columbus’s arrival in the new world.)

There hasn’t been a World’s Fair in North America since 1986 in Vancouver, B.C., and the last one in the US was in New Orleans in 1984. During the Fairs’ heydays, wealthy and middleclass families would make pilgrimages across the seas to meccas of modernization to see the wonders firsthand.

Rather than trumpeting how great each nation was or could be, the Fairs became pitiful reminders of how desperate we had become. World’s Fairs don’t even try to capture the imagination like they used to. The 1939 World’s Fair’s Dawn of a New Day slogan exuded aspirational wonder as nations shamelessly hawked their latest kitchen appliances or technological innovation.

The 1964 Fair held in New York focused on Peace Through Understanding—how many foreign wars has the US engaged in since then? The last Fair in 2015 in Milan, Italy had as its theme — Feeding the planet, energy for life — it focused on ending hunger and developing food sustainability for impoverished nations. . . what a downer!

Dubai, a sheikhdom in the United Arab Emirates, bet billions of dollars on an Expo to rejuvenate its struggling economy. That Expo is now postponed to Oct. 1, 2021, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But the Columbian Expo held in Chicago was probably the pinnacle of global mankind’s demonstration of striving for excellence.

Fredrick Law Olmsted, possibly the world’s foremost landscape architect, laid out the plan to build on a swamp requiring wood pilings driven into the ground to support the buildings. He also created a system of lagoons and lakes in which full size replicas of Columbus’ ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria floated. 40,000 skilled and unskilled laborers (making ten cents a day) constructed the fair’s buildings.

There were over 65,000 exhibits at the fair covering 630 acres. The Chicago skyline was dominated by a 250-foot-high Ferris wheel, designed for the fair by inventor George Ferris. It was 100 feet taller than today’s Ferris wheel at Chicago’s Navy Pier and had 36 cars capable of holding 60 people each. Fully loaded, it could carry 2,160 people and took a full twenty minutes to make one rotation. The commission responsible for the Fair believed it couldn’t be done. But Ferris, embodying the spirit of American ingenuity and doggedness, built it anyway.

The color of the material generally used to cover the buildings’ façades, white staff, which was a type of plaster of Paris, gave the fairgrounds its nickname—the White City. Its scale and grandeur far exceeded all prior world’s fairs including the one held in Paris in 1889 symbolized by the Eiffel Tower. The Columbian Expo became a symbol of emerging American Exceptionalism.

The main entryway was a peristyle of forty-eight massive fluted columns on either side of an arch in the style of the Arc de Triompe.

Every US state built an exhibition house or building to show its products. California had, among other things, a full-size medieval knight on a horse made of prunes. Missouri showcased a replica of the Statue of Liberty made of sugar. Philadelphia sent the Liberty Bell to grace Pennsylvania’s building.

This was the first Fair to solicit exhibits from foreign countries and forty-six heeded the call. It seemed that each nation was in a fierce competition to excel the others. France built a nearly full-size wing of the Palace of Versailles.

On October 9, 1893, nearly a million people paid 50 cents to attend the opening where President Grover Cleveland pushed a solid gold button to switch on George Westinghouse’s electric lights that illuminated in a bath of brilliant whiteness the staff-laden buildings of the Fair. Nearly half of the total population of the US attended the Fair.

It is impossible to describe the awesome accomplishment of the White men and women who came together to create one of the wonders of the modern world. Everything about it was the biggest, the best, the greatest. It had the longest telescope in the world, the largest building in the world, and a choir of 2,500 singers.

A good book to read on the subject is Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. Another place that I really recommend is the documentary narrated by Gene Wilder titled “Magic of the World’s Fair.” Trust me, the documentary will amaze you.

If you watch the documentary, and I hope you do, you will be left with a sense of appreciation for what white people have achieved. Like George Ferris who was not content to allow the erector-set appearing Eiffel Tower to stand as the crowning glory of civilization, there were others who motivated by money, fame, or ego, would scale mountains of obstacles, and leave their indelible record in the history books and in their genes for future generations.

You might also feel a bit wistful if not melancholy as you contemplate that White people descended to the deepest part of the oceans, climbed the highest land masses, and flew to the moon to go for a walk. “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Nam hendrerit nisi sed sollicitudin pellentesque. 

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