’Twas the night before Christmas…
As the year draws to a close, it’s a time for reflecting on the past and anticipating the future. The month of January was named for Janus, the Roman god of transitions and beginnings, who is notable for having two faces, one looking to the past, the other looking to the future (it’s a good thing beards were fashionable amongst the gods; he’d have gone through razor blades like crazy).
The first known new year’s celebration was held by the Babylonians circa 2000 B.C. They didn’t have a calendar per se (or Dick Clark), so it took place after the vernal equinox and was intended to herald the coming of spring, a time when the world is reborn. Their festival was known as Akitu and included parades and other religious rites. There is one aspect of the Akitu that raises an eyebrow or two: the ritual humiliation of the king.
[T]he king [is] brought before a statue of the god Marduk, stripped of his royal regalia and forced to swear that he had led the city with honor. A high priest would then slap the monarch and drag him by his ears in the hope of making him cry. If royal tears were shed, it was seen as a sign that Marduk was satisfied and had symbolically extended the king’s rule (Andrews, 2012).
I like this idea; perhaps we should revive it for our elected leaders. It might make New Year’s Rockin’ Eve a bit more entertaining.
Anyway, this time of year is also a time for forecasts and predictions. Everyone loves forecasts, even though the vast majority of them will end up being wrong. (So-called professional psychics and astrologers inevitably make predictions and are almost universally wrong.) Still, forecasting has always been big business, and the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which debuted in 1792, is still going and is the oldest continuously published periodical in North America.
It wasn’t the first almanac, though; that distinction belongs to (no, not Benjamin Franklin) a man named Leonard Digges. Digges (c.1515–c.1559) was an English mathematician and scientist, who is believed—albeit dubiously—to have invented, independently of Galileo, the first reflecting telescope. Regardless, he was one of the first popularizers of science, sort of the Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson of his day. He wrote many books, the first of which was a 1553 bestseller called A General Prognostication. It contained a perpetual calendar, weather lore, facts about astronomy, and so forth. It was revised a few times in the ensuing years. (By the way, Digges’ son Thomas picked up where his father left off and eventually played a strong role in the popularization of a subversive little book called De revolutionibus orbium coelestium by Copernicus, which first posited the fact that the Earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa.)
At any rate, Digges père was by trade a surveyor, and his true claim to fame was the invention of the theodolite. The what? Basically, it’s a surveying instrument that has a rotating telescope for measuring horizontal and vertical angles. Digges named the device in a 1571 surveying textbook called A geometric practice named Pantometria (it was published posthumously) and the thing is, no one can quite figure out where the word “theodolite” actually comes from, as it appears to be a mélange of Latin and Greek words that only seem vaguely relevant. Nobody really cared about that, though; it got the job done and that was really all that mattered.
As the Age of Exploration kicked into high gear, those venturing into parts unknown required instruments of all kinds—navigation, surveying, etc.—that had greater and greater precision. In the New World, one of the seminal and most famous surveying projects was the Mason-Dixon line, drawn between 1763 and 1768 by Brits Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, which was only possible because the team had access to the most sophisticated instruments at the time; Mason had served as assistant astronomer at the Royal Greenwich Observatory near London. (For an entertaining fictionalized account of Mason and Dixon’s exploits, I recommend Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, or Mark Knopfler’s 2000 song “Sailing to Philadelphia.”)
As America continued to move west, particularly after the Civil War, surveyors of the ever-advancing frontier were aided by precision theodolites, and in the 19th century, no one’s theodolites were more respected than those made by W. & L. E. Gurley, Co. In fact, theirs was the gold standard for surveying equipment until the advent of lasers and digital technology. The company had been founded by two brothers, William Gurley and Lewis E. Gurley, graduates of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.
Conveniently located near the intersection of the Hudson River and the Erie Canal, Troy at the time was a major industrial manufacturing center, and there was no better location for the Gurleys to base their company.
Troy, N.Y., also has a role to play at this time of year. On December 23, 1823, the Troy Sentinel first published an anonymous poem, later revealed to have been written by a New York City-based Episcopalian professor. Reprinted in many other publications, it was that particular poem that created much of our contemporary Christmas imagery and lore, particularly regarding the poem’s main character, said to have been inspired by a Dutch handyman the poet knew. That main character was Santa Claus, the author was Clement Clarke Moore, and the poem, of course, was “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (aka “The Night Before Christmas”).
It was Moore’s poem, followed by an 1881 illustration by cartoonist Thomas Nast, that helped define the modern conception of St. Nicholas, aka Santa Claus.
…and to all a good night.
Happy Holidays from The Digital Nirvana.
Evan Andrews, “5 Ancient New Year’s Celebrations,” History.com, December 31, 2012, http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/5-ancient-new-years-celebrations.
“Clement Clarke Moore,” Wikipedia, last modified November 18, 2014, retrieved December 3, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clement_Clarke_Moore.
“Gurley Precision Instruments,” Wikipedia, last modified April 22, 2014, retrieved December 3, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gurley_Precision_Instruments.
“Leonard Digges,” Wikipedia, last modified September 28, 2014, retrieved December 3, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Digges_(scientist).
“Old Farmer’s Almanac,” Wikipedia, last modified October 6, 2014, retrieved December 3, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Farmer%27s_Almanac.
“Santa Claus,” Wikipedia, last modified October 6, 2014, retrieved December 3, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Claus.
“Theodolite,” Wikipedia, last modified November 30, 2014, retrieved December 3, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodolite.