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Mental Floss presents In the Beginning: From Big Hair to the Big Bang, mental_floss presents a Mouthwatering Guide to the Origins of Everything

Mental Floss presents In the Beginning: From Big Hair to the Big Bang, mental_floss presents a Mouthwatering Guide to the Origins of Everything

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Mental Floss presents In the Beginning: From Big Hair to the Big Bang, mental_floss presents a Mouthwatering Guide to the Origins of Everything

4.5/5 (3 ratings)
769 pages
8 hours
Sep 7, 2010


Sure, you know all about the birds and bees. But did Dad ever tell you that it wasn't a stork that put that shiny can opener in your kitchen drawer? Or paperclips started out as proud, Nazi-fighting warriors? And did he tell you how cruise control was originally conceived by a blind genius? From mullets to Silly Putty, lie detectors to karaoke, we've got the true stories behind everything you didn't think had stories. Because if you're looking for answers, In the Beginning is the place to start.

Sep 7, 2010

About the author

Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur met as first year students at Duke University. Ignoring the lures of law school and investment banking, the pair co-founded mental_floss and have been grinning ever since. Maggie Koerth-Baker is a freelance journalist and a former assistant editor at mental_floss magazine, where she consistently astounded Will and Mangesh with her amazingness.

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God, Odin, the Chaos Dragon Pan-Gu, a couple of Orishas, and Charles Darwin walked into a bar.

A round of your finest ales for me and my friends, Darwin said.

But, of course, his request went unanswered as the world hadn’t been created yet. Not only was there no ale and no bar-keep, there wasn’t even actually a bar.

D’oh, Odin grumbled. I hate it when that happens.

Disappointed by the primordial void’s lack of interesting nightlife, the six friends decided to create the Earth (and for real this time, not like last week when they just talked about it). For the most part, the process went smoothly. The six turned the bodies of dead giants into the sky and the land (like you do), established the five-day work week, and formed human beings, cats, frogs, dinosaurs, and other important stuff out of a big batch of Play-Dough they bought at a recent garage sale.

But soon, that first batch of humans proved irresponsible and lazy, falling behind on their mortgage payments and putting a few too many deer-bone necklaces on the old Pangea Express Card. Saddened by the humans ’failure, the six friends sent Sid, Repo Man of the Gods, to take the Earth away from that pack of deadbeats. But, in remembrance of the first humans, the six deities set a sign in the heavens. From then, lo until the end of time, mankind would be plagued by unsolicited credit card offers to remind them of their financial obligations and how their predecessors were cast out of paradise.

And that, according to our parents, is how the world began. Naturally, growing up with such a rich cultural heritage, we were inspired to further study the origins of Earth as adults. But, as it turns out, a lot of those stories are pretty similar. There’s really only so many times you can recite the deity gets lonely—creates Earth-makes people—destroys Earth—brings it back storyline before your friends start forgetting to invite you to dinner parties.

So, to spice up our knowledge base, we started delving into the origins of stuff other than life, the universe, and everything. Where did the first pair of blue jeans come from? we wondered. Who invented graffiti? And exactly when and where did the first refrigerator start running?

You might be prone to assuming that this new train of thought runs on a slightly smoother track than our old one. You would be wrong. Not only was this new research a heck of a lot more complicated, it also didn’t have as many obvious monetary rewards (we used to make a small killing off the random religious institution lecture circuit). That’s why, when our publishers approached us with the idea to write a book about origins, we pretty much had no choice but to jump. And now you know the origin of our interest in origins. One origin down, 199 to go!


Maggie Koerth-Baker






















Tracing the history of art is, well, an art, not a science - so all dates are very approximate. Also, they’re approximate because otherwise we couldn’t fit the entire history of art into two heavily illustrated pages.




While art encompasses everything from Leonardo da Vinci to Lenny, that kid with the sidewalk chalk, some works tend to transcend. Here’s what we found when we canvassed their history.

Statue of David

The giant marble block that later became the famous statue David had a storied history. Forty years before Michelangelo got his hands on it, the five-meter stone had been quarried for use by sculptor Agostino di Duccio, then an assistant to the master, Donatello. Di Duccio envisioned an enormous statue of David suspended from a Florence cathedral’s buttresses, but after two years of hacking away at the rock, he gave up. (Like many of history’s finest quitters, he blamed his tools, and cursed the marble for being too difficult to work with.)

Di Duccio’s partially sculpted block sat untouched until 1474, when the sculptor Antonio Rossellino tried his hand at it, but it bested him after only a few months. (He too complained about the marble’s intractability.) Finally, in 1501, the daunting task of finding the David in that now-spoiled rock was assigned to Michelangelo, just 26 years old at the time. Adding to his already thorny challenge, he promised to complete the statue without cutting it down significantly or adding any new pieces of marble to it.

Michelangelo toiled at it for three years and created a masterpiece. In fact, his contemporaries were so enamored with the work that they refused to relegate it to the upper regions of a cathedral. Instead, a committee voted to have it placed prominently at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, the headquarters of city government. Amazingly, the Statue of David sat there for more than 350 years - at the mercy of the wind and the elements - until it was finally moved to its present location in Florence’s Galleria dell’-Accademia.

The Mona Lisa

Arguably the most famous painting of all time, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has also proven to be one of the art world’s most enduring enigmas, particularly because the identity of his sitter - if in fact he had one - has long been a subject of contention. Part of the problem is that when Leonardo completed his masterpiece in 1507, after four years of work, he declined to give it a name. Mona Lisa -meaning madam Lisa in Italian - was a name given to the painting in 1550 by painter Giorgio Vasari, who surmised that the woman in question was Lisa Gherardini, the young wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant. And while other guesses have been made since then, none have been confirmed.

Strangely, Leonardo kept the Lisa to himself, meaning that whoever commissioned the painting from him never received it. Loathe to part with what had become his favorite piece, it traveled everywhere with him until the end of his life. (Records indicate he probably retouched and refined it for more than 10 years after it was finished, further revealing the extent of his strange obsession with it.) After his death it was bought by the King of France and remained in royal hands for more than two hundred years. When the French Revolution turned the country upside-down, the masterpiece was transferred to its current home, the Louvre. It was, however, borrowed by Napoleon Bonaparte, who used it to decorate his bedroom for a while.

Venus de Milo

If the Mona Lisa is the world’s most renowned painting, then the ancient Venus de Milo is the world’s most recognizable piece of art, hands down. Speaking of which, the famously armless statue wasn’t always a double amputee: when a Greek farmer named Yorgos Kentrotas unearthed the Venus among the ruins of the ancient city of Milos in 1820, he also found bits of a broken arm and a hand holding an apple.

The statue was promptly bought by a visiting French naval officer, and upon its arrival in Paris was installed in (you guessed it) the Louvre. Unfortunately, the efforts to date the Venus were bungled when a decorative column was also found alongside her. Inscribed in Greek, the column read: Alexandros son of Menides citizen of Antioch made the statue. Trouble was, the city of Antioch wasn’t founded until 280 B.C.E., and the French wanted to believe that the statue was made during ancient Greece’s golden age, some 200 years earlier. (Great art, they reasoned, flowered only under great systems of government.) The French were also in need of new art at that time, since Napoleon had been forced to return many of his plundered antiquities after his defeat at Waterloo. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that detectives finally cracked Venus’ age. Unfortunately, the result embarrassed museum officials since the statue only dated back to 80 B.C.E., long after the Greek classical age had ended.

The Thinker

It is amazing to ponder that the artist behind one of the world’s most famous icons failed the entrance exam to Parisian art school 3 years in a row. Well, the plugging away as a sculptor’s assistant certainly did Rodin good, since he’d honed his skills by the time he got around to the Thinker.

Originally designed to be a statue of Dante Alighieri, Rodin’s monumental work-which was to be known as The Poet - evolved into a representation of all creative people. Commissioned by Paris’s Museum of Decorative Arts in 1880, the work served as the centerpiece of a series of Divine Comedy-inspired statues. In it, Dante was placed at the top of a bronze-carved interpretation of the Gates of Hell, looking down upon his epic poem’s characters.

The Thinker was first exhibited in a joint show with Claude Monet in 1889, and at that time it was a mere 27 inches tall. Rodin exhibited his first life-size enlargement of the piece in 1904, after which the most famous cast of it was placed in front of the Pantheon, in Paris.

Campbell’s Condensed: The Quick Story of Warhol’s Soup Cans

Before Andy Warhol burst onto America’s pop-art scene in the early 60s with his unapologetically banal paintings of coke bottles, celebrities, and Campbell’s soup cans, he’d worked in commercial illustration and magazine advertising for nearly ten years. Perhaps it was all the exposure to corporate, mass-produced art that spurred him to take those concepts to an absurdist extreme, but strangely enough it was actually an interior decorator and gallery owner named Muriel Latow who inspired Warhol to paint his famous soup cans — the series that skyrocketed him to sudden notoriety in 1962.

According to Warhol’s friend and assistant Ted Carey, Latow suggested that Warhol paint something you see every day and something that everybody would recognize… like a can of Campbell’s soup. Oh, that sounds fabulous! Warhol supposedly responded. He went to a supermarket the next day, carted home a case of the stuff, and the rest is art history.




1820s C.E.


Photography didn’t develop ovemight. It was a process.

Camera Obscura

The first cameras weren’t cameras at all, but really big drawing tools. A camera obscura was basically a giant dark box with a small hole at one end. Essentially the light shining through would project an upside-down image of the outside world within the box. Most cameras were big enough that artists could sit down inside them and place a mirror at a 45-degree angle to the projected image, therefore giving themselves a right-side-up view. Then they could simply trace that image onto canvas or paper. Abu Ali Alhasen Ibn Alhasen, an Islamic astronomer and mathematician, is often credited with inventing the technique in the 10th or 11th century, and he noted, wisely, that the inverted image produced by the camera obscura might be related to the way the eye turns images upside down on the retina. But the idea of camera obscura also seems to have occurred to earlier thinkers, including Aristotle. Later scientists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Johannes Kepler (who coined the term meaning dark chamber) also made use of the technique. And Daniel Barbaro, a contemporary of da Vinci’s, wrote extensively about how to make use of it: Close all shutters and doors until no light enters the camera except through the lens, and opposite hold a piece of paper, which you move forward and backward until the scene appears in the sharpest detail. There on the paper you will see the whole view as it really is, with its distances, its colors and shadows and motion, the clouds, the water twinkling, the birds flying. Sorry Barbaro. We’d rather have you draw us a picture than go on for another thousand words.

Science Experiments

Photography didn’t advance much beyond tracing until the 1600s, when three key developments around Europe set in motion the process of capturing an image:

In 1614 Angelo Sala, an Italian, found that powdered nitrate of silver turned black after spending time in the hot sun. (Now we’re getting somewhere.)

Robert Boyle, a Brit, noted in 1667 that silver chloride turned dark after being exposed to air. (The key exposure was to light, not air, per se, but give the guy a break; he was close.)

In 1727, Johann Heinrich Schulze, a German, put a white, powdery mixture of silver nitrate and chalk into a glass bottle, covered part of it with paper stencils, and stuck it in a window. The exposed parts got darker; those covered by the stencils remained white. Schulze had finally pinned the effect on exposure to light. Alas, he wrote, many who were curious about the experiment but ignorant of its nature took occasion to attribute the thing to some sort of trick.

Seeing the Future

In an eerie coincidence, French author Charles-François Tiphaigne de la Roche wrote a short story called Giphantie in 1760 that foresaw the invention of photography just as it was being realized. Giphantie told of a techno-utopia populated by men with a magical capacity to coat canvas in sticky goo, which could capture, in high-resolution detail, a reflected image. The Jules Verne of his day, de la Roche was fascinated by science and technology; he also predicted the invention of something that sounds a lot like television.

Soaking Up the Sun

In 1826, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce made his countryman de la Roche proud (or he would have, anyway, if de la Roche hadn’t died in 1777) with the world’s first photograph. It was a grainy landscape called View from the Window at Le Gras. Niépce was clearly a patient man; his process of heliography had an exposure time of about eight hours.

The Daguerrotype

Working with Niépce, a French chemist named Louis Daguerre invented a much faster process, which he named, of course, after himself: the daguerreotype. (We’re guessing the Niépcetype didn’t have the same ring.) Daguerrotyping was still a time-consuming process; the exposure time was 15 minutes, and people who sat for portraits had to keep their heads still for that long-often by sitting in chairs with built-in clamps - lest their visages come out blurred. In 1839, the French government bought Daguerre’s patent and revealed the process as a gift free to the world. Daguerre, however, had shrewdly bought patents in other countries, so the so-called gift wasn’t actually free anywhere but in France. Still, people quickly realized that the daguerreotype could be used to (1) record important historical events for posterity and (2) make a quick buck. Its earliest and most enthusiastic fans were the forerunners of today’s pornographers. This may explain a report from the Leipzig City Advertiser that cast scorn on the trendy new daguerreotyping process: The wish to capture evanescent reflections is not only impossible … but the mere desire alone, the will to do so, is blasphemy. God created man in His own image, and no man-made machine may fix the image of God. Is it possible that God should have abandoned His eternal principles, and allowed a Frenchman … to give to the world an invention of the Devil?

The Standard Word

The same year, in 1839, Sir John Frederick William Herschel, a British mathematician and astronomer who was at that point best known for being the son of the guy who discovered Uranus, started popularizing the term photography. It’s unclear whether he came up with the word himself, or whether he cribbed it from an anonymous writer named J.M. who had used it in a news report a few weeks earlier. (J.M. was Johann von Maedler, a German astronomer and contemporary of Herschel’s.) Regardless, Hershel does get credit for coining a couple of other important photography terms, including positive, negative, and snapshot.

The Funny Word

In 1884, George Eastman, tired of the laborsome process of coating glass plates with silvery liquid, invented film on a roll. It took him four more years to come up with a name for the new process. Unlike Daguerre, he didn’t have any desire to immortalize his own name. Instead, he and his mother worked together to come up with a word that fit four preset rules: It had to be short, it had to be impossible to mispronounce, it had to be unique, and it had to use Eastman’s favorite letter, K. The result, of course, was Kodak.

In 1839, the French government bought Daguerre’s patent and revealed the process as a gift free to the world.




1903 C.E.


Behind every great movie, there’s a rough draft. Some films had rougher drafts than others.

Citizen Kane

It’s the film that infuriated a sleeping giant. When wunderkind of radio and stage Orson Welles went to work for RKO Pictures in his 20s, he started with a modest project: a thinly veiled exposé on the life of retired news tycoon William Randolph Hearst, cunningly filmed in near-secrecy.

Welles’s seeming paranoia turned out to be well-justified. As soon as Citizen Kane was completed, Hearst’s estate offered RKO $800,000 ($100,000 more than the picture cost to make) to destroy the film. When that failed, Hearst used his influence to prevent theaters from carrying the picture. Although Citizen Kane received nine Academy Award nominations—and Welles with co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz won for best screenplay—the film had a negative, even hostile, reception from audiences until it was re-released in the 1950s.

So, who really deserved that Oscar for best screenplay writing—Welles or Mankiewicz? Rumors about the project still churn, partly due to the 1971 essay Raising Kane, written by renown film critic Pauline Kael. In it, Kael claimed that Welles’s co-screenwriter wrote the whole script, though Welles got most of the credit. In reality, the shooting script was a combination of two scripts — one by Mankiewicz, written in six weeks while he lay in a hospital bed, and the other by Welles, who eventually combined the two. Did we mention that Welles was a boy genius?

The original idea seems to have come from a play he wrote while in school, titled Marching Song. It’s about the life of a public figure, retold through the eyes of those who knew him.

Mankiewicz does, however, get full credit for the origin of Rosebud, Citizen Kane’s dying word that sparks the mystery. Gore Vidal claimed that Rosebud was the name Hearst gave to his mistress’s clitoris, but the screenwriter had a slightly different inspiration—Rosebud was the name of Mankiewicz’s own childhood bicycle.


Casablanca started as a summer vacation gone wrong. High school English teacher Murray Burnett and his wife Adrienne were traveling in Vienna-just as the Nazis entered in 1938. After helping some of Adrienne’s Jewish relatives make arrangements to escape, the couple decided to cut their vacation short. But first, they spent a few days at a resort on the French Riviera, where they found a nightclub overlooking the Mediterranean. That nightclub had a now-familiar setting—a black pianist performing for a mix of Germans, Frenchmen, and refugees. Two years later, Burnett and co-writer Joan Alison used that scene to create the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s.

The play contributed more than just the inspiration for the eventual 1942 motion picture. Every character, as well as most of the dialogue, appeared in the film, with slight modifications. Curious about the classic song choices? Even the use of As Time Goes By originated from the play. Burnett had grown to love the song after hearing it at his Cornell University frat house. Sadly, when the film received an Academy Award for Best Screenplay in 1943, neither Burnett nor Alison received the recognition they deserved.

It’s a Wonderful Life

After several years of working on it, Philip Van Doren Stern completed the short story The Greatest Gift of All in 1943 and sent it to several publishers with no luck. He then went with the next most logical idea: distributing the story as a 24-page Christmas card pamphlet. Apparently Stern had quite a Christmas card list, because a Hollywood agent saw the story and sent it on to Charles Koerner, then head of RKO Pictures.

RKO intended the film as a vehicle for Cary Grant, but the script seemed unusable—too dark for a screenplay. However, the vibe felt just right to director Frank Capra (himself, originally a failed short story writer), who had just returned to Hollywood after serving in World War II and wanted to leave his Pollyannaish films behind. Capra decided that Stern’s story had the right mix of pathos and comedy. If at first Capra worried about the absurdity of filming a man telling his disappointments to an angel, that quickly changed. He later said that the Christmas classic was his favorite of all his many films. Surprisingly, while the film remains an American favorite as well, it failed to garner any Academy Awards.

The Graduate

Hollywood producer Lawrence Turman read the novel The Graduate (1963) by Charles Webb after hearing about it in The New York Times, and he admired the story enough to remain ninety percent faithful to the book—plus a few key differences.

One was the casting. In the novel, Benjamin Brad-dock and his family are WASPs, blonde and polished. The role of Mrs. Robinson was originally offered to Doris Day, and Robert Redford screen-tested for the part of Benjamin. Suave, sunny pillow talk could have ensued, but Turman convinced Nichols that Benjamin had to be sexually insecure (the antithesis of Redford) and Mrs. Robinson needed to be a grittier, more predatory character. Anne Bancroft eventually won the role, and the part of Benjamin went to Dustin Hoffman, who had the bumbling persona Turman and Nichols were looking for.

Nichols came up with the other big twist in the film: the ending. In the novel, written in the early 60s, Benjamin sweeps away Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine, just before she marries the man her parents approve of. But the film, which debuted in 1967, ends with a shocker: Benjamin arrives just after the wedding kiss but steals the bride anyway. They hop on a bus and look excited (and then apprehensive) as they stare out the back window, leaving tradition behind. The decision worked as Mike Nichols nabbed the 1968 Oscar for best Director. Here’s to you. Mrs. Robinson!

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

Steven Spielberg was coming off the biggest failure of his career, the film 1941 (1979), when he developed an idea for Night Skies—a horror film about aliens terrorizing a rural area. Of course, Spielberg anticipated that one alien of the bunch would be the nice sort.

While Night Skies was in pre-production, Spielberg began to have doubts. François Truffaut, who starred in Spielberg’s Close Encounters, suggested that he make a film for children. So, while Spielberg was directing Raiders of the Lost Ark, he collaborated with writer Melissa Mathison on a story about a 10-year-old who has an imaginary friend or talking toy. Mathison (on set because she was Harrison Ford’s girlfriend) ran with it and created ET and Me— the story of an extraterrestrial striking up a relationship with a boy from a broken home.

The film that could’ve gone the way of crop circles and terror became one of the best-loved children’s classics and inspirational films in history. Meanwhile, Spielberg exorcised his interest in supernatural suburban horror on the film.




Every once in a while a star is born. Of course, it is usually a few blue moons—and some savvy transformation—before that actor blossoms into an icon.

Harrison Ford

In his own words, Harrison Ford started out as the class wimp. As luck would have it, he found an interest that didn’t require too much machismo—acting in student plays while attending Ripon College in Wisconsin in the early ’60s. By age 21, he had a seven-year contract as a studio player in LA, but it wasn’t exactly for the big bucks—just $150 a week.

At age 35, Ford was fitting a door for Francis Ford Coppola when a studio exec asked him to take a break and read lines with actresses who were testing for a new film. The film was Star Wars.

Ford landed a few small roles, including a memorable part in 1973’s American Graffiti, but his bank roll came mostly from carpentry. At age 35, Ford was fitting a door for Francis Ford Coppola when a studio exec asked him to take a break and read lines with actresses who were testing for a new film. The film was Star Wars and Ford’s lines turned out to be the part of Han Solo—quite a break.

Ford was also the originator of a classic line in the second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back. Just as Han is about to be frozen in carbonite, Princess Leia shouts out, I love you! Han is supposed to reply, I love you, too! but Ford didn’t think a cool cat like Han would say that. His reply? "I know," stated seconds before being enveloped in the goo. Wimp no more!

Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep’s first role was … Meryl Streep. Born Mary Louise Streep on June 22, 1949, in Summit, New Jersey, Streep began to study opera singing as an adolescent. By age 15, tired of her frumpy image, she gave herself a makeover worthy of the movies. She got rid of her eyeglasses, bleached her dark hair blond, and transformed herself into the quintessential popular cheerleader and homecoming queen at her high school.

Streep counts the blonde homecoming queen as her first characterization, but her official start in acting came through drama classes at Vassar College. While many believe Streep’s chameleon-like acting to be the result of intensive technical study of her craft, her professors claim that her work was hair-raising on its own. Streep says that when her friends wondered how she learned to do it, she wasn’t really sure how to explain—the Sophie’s Choice star and 2-time Oscar winner simply knew that she loved it, and the rest just happened.

Humphrey Bogart

Ever wonder how Humphrey Bogart got his signature lisp? Bogie was on the traditional prep school path, complete with a stint at the prestigious Phillips Academy boarding school on his way to medical studies at Yale when Phillips kicked him out. He soon joined the U.S. Navy where he was wounded during the shelling of the Leviathan. His partial facial paralysis resulted in the lisp.

Though never considered a standout, Bogart performed regularly on stage through the 1920s and had a few small contract film roles in the early ’30s. But his big break came through the insistence of Leslie Howard. Howard and Bogart starred together in the Broadway version of The Petrified Forest, but Bogart wasn’t considered right for Hollywood’s 1936 version. Howard insisted—even threatening to quit if the casting changed—and Bogart kept the part. The movie led to a long-term contract, and Bogart eventually rose to stardom in ‘40s’ classics like High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon. Years later, Bogart and screen star Lauren Bacall named their first child Leslie, in Howard’s honor.

John Wayne

Please don’t get upset, but the swaggerer known as John Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907. So, just how did a guy named Marion get to be The Duke?

Like Bogart, Wayne intended to have a professional career. He was accepted at the University of Southern California on a football scholarship and enrolled as a pre-law student. The scholarship didn’t last, though, and after two years, Wayne dropped out and got a job as a prop man at the Fox studio. The director John Ford befriended him and cast him in a series of small roles in the late ’20s—often under the name Duke Morrison (why people call him by his regal nickname). After a string of supporting parts, Ford cast Wayne as the lead in the epic Western Stagecoach, and never looked back. The Duke appeared in close to 250 films including 1939’s Stagecoach, and 1956’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and he still holds the record for most lead roles.

Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn was an actress whose time had come. Her mother was the co-founder of Planned Parenthood and a feminist who passed her values on to her daughter, while her father, a doctor, advocated against the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Their unconventional influence encouraged Hepburn to fashion her own path.

As a college student at Bryn Mawr in the late ’20s, Hepburn started dressing in baggy shirts, sweaters, and even trousers, which became her standard uniform. She also appeared in theatrical productions and later moved to New York to tackle Broadway. Though she was fired after her first night in the production of The Big Pond, she pressed on, eventually landing the role of an Amazon princess in l932’s The Warrior’s Husband, which led to Hollywood screen tests. Hepburn reinvented herself several times throughout her career—surviving the label box office poison after her early successes faded by returning to Broadway in The Philadelphia Story. The play was a hit, and she brought the project to Hollywood and landed her third Academy Award. Her next film, 1942’s Woman of the Year, marked the first of her legendary pairings with Spencer Tracy.

Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando forged a new brand of acting when he first appeared in Hollywood in the ’50s, smudging the lines between experience and drama. The son of a traveling insecticide salesman and a local actress, Brando couldn’t count many pleasant childhood memories. While his father was frequently absent, his mother was an alcoholic who Brando had to bail out of jail, once even finding her naked in a bar.

Brando used those images, and others, in his acting, drawing on his own emotions and experiences to bring characters to life. Rather than playing parts, he seemed to embody them. In a now-legendary interaction at the New School for Social Research, instructor Stella Adler asked the class to pretend they were chickens in a henhouse who had just learned of an impending atomic bomb. In a room full of Chicken Littles, Brando was the only one who remained still. When questioned, he explained that he was a chicken—and chickens didn’t know anything about bombs.

Brando credited director Elia Kazan with helping him overcome his fear of memorizing lines and also with his use of props. (In almost every film, from 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire to 1972’s The Godfather, Brando relates to the objects around him as well as the other characters.) Though Brando is considered the original Method actor, Kazan claimed that was a partial truth. The Actor’s Studio, founded by Kazan, Lee Strasberg, and Stella Adler’s husband, Harold Clurman, taught The Method, a naturalistic form of acting, but Kazan believed that Brando’s method was unique—and the result of his own genius.




They never made the hit parade but they’re certainly tunes we know instinctually Co ahead and sing along.

The Entrance of the Gladiators

You probably don’t recognize the song by its name, but that’s completely understandable. After all, it’s usually used to introduce something a little less noble (and a lot more frightening) than gladiators — clowns. The song (which is probably more familiar as onomatopoeia: doot doot doodle-oodle oot doot do do) was written by Czech composer and Ancient Rome-enthusiast Julius Fuik around 1897. And while it’s unknown what possessed Fuik to express his love of the gladiatorial arena through such a silly sounding chorus, today, even clowns know it by a different name (perhaps to protect their dignity). In the circus, it’s called Screamer or Thunder and Blazes.

Happy Birthday

This simple song is one of the world’s most frequently used—and frequently copyright infringed-melodies. It’s true: Happy Birthday is not in the public domain and won’t be for a good many years. Written in 1893, the music for the song was first paired with a different set of lyrics and used as a start-of-day classroom sing-along. Called Good Morning to All, it was the brainchild or Mildred and Patty Hill, a pair of sisters who ran an experimental kindergarten in Louisville, Kentucky. Sadly, the sisters failed to properly register their ownership of the song, so by the 1930s, not only was Good Morning to All being used in grade school songbooks around the country, it had also spawned the Happy Birthday spin-off, which was featured in innumerable films, musicals, and Western Union singing telegrams. Despite the song’s popularity, the spinster sisters didn’t see a thin dime. That is, until their younger sibling Jessica stepped in. Apparently a bit more business savvy than her sisters, Jessica Hill sued Irving Berlin for using the tune in his 1934 musical, As Thousands Cheer. And, after demonstrating that the Happy Birthday song was, without a doubt, one and the same as Good Morning to All, the Hills won. According to, Happy Birthday still pulls in more than $2 million a year in royalties for its publisher and the Hill Foundation.

Here Comes the Bride

Although most widely recognized today as the wedding entrance ditty, the Here Comes the Bride song originally began life as a Wagnerian opera chorus — making it completely plausible that the bride in question was, in fact, big, fat, and wide. (See, you really did learn everything you need to know in kindergarten!) Originally titled the Bridal Chorus, the song was written by Richard Wagner for his German fairy-tale epic Lohengrin in 1848. Perhaps because of the opera’s bombastic nature, or perhaps because it was five hours long, Lohengrin wasn’t performed until 1850. But it did, eventually, find appreciative audiences. The Bridal Chorus in particular became immensely popular. It was written for a scene where the knight Lohengrin and his new bride Elsa retire to their honeymoon suite. As they sing, their clothes are stripped off in preparation for the wedding night and, well, you can see how the scene might stick with audiences.

From its introduction, the song was quickly incorporated into matrimonial tradition. Partly, this had to do with the fact that, in 1858, the Bridal Chorus was featured in the royal wedding of Princess Victoria (the daughter of Queen Victoria) and Prince Frederick William of Prussia, touching off a fad among royals and commoners alike. Ironically, however, the song was never particularly well-received by opera fanatics. To this day, the Bridal Chorus is critically considered the weakest part of Lohengrin.

Hava Nagila

It’s amazing how many famous songs started without any lyrics at all. Hava Nagila was originally a folk tune, hummed wordlessly by Hassidic Jews in the Ukraine. Considering how the song has a tendency to get stuck in your head (and like a bad houseguest, never leave) it’s no wonder that, when they immigrated to Israel, they brought the tune with them. That’s where Abraham Zevi Idelsohn first heard it. Idelsohn, a Latvian immigrant and a cantor, opened a music school in his newly adopted homeland and begun collecting traditional songs from the other Jewish immigrants he met. In 1915, he transposed the unwritten tune into music. Later, he added lyrics. Modified from the text of Psalms 118:24, Hava Nagila as we now know it was first performed in 1918, at a celebration in honor of the British defeat of the Turks. Unsurprisingly, audience members are reported to have left the party still singing Hava Nagila under their breaths.

The Graduation Song

If you’re looking for someone to blame for that pompous and terribly circumstantial tune you simply can’t get out of your head after attending graduations, look no further than Edward Elgar. The British composer penned the tune (known as Pomp and Circumstance, March No. 1) in 1901. To his surprise, the song was such a hit, that Elgar quickly churned out 5 sequels (a.k.a., marches 2-6). So, how exactly did the British song become an American staple? Well, you can blame Yale University for that one. Upon granting Elgar an honorary PhD in 1905, the school decided to use his numbers as part of the graduation day festivities, and the tune’s become a fixture ever since.




c.500 C.E.


Music wouldn’t have lasted very long if we didn’t have a wt monks gave us a world full of clef-hangers.

Music Gets Noteworthy

As far as we can tell, the concept of writing down notes started in Greece, when the music theorist Boethius (470 C.E.-525 C.E.) decided to assign the first 15 letters of the alphabet to the 15 notes being used at the time. Within a few centuries, Gregorian chants were being written down in neumes, symbols believed to stem from Greek letters. Used to mark the inflection of the pitch of the monks’ voices, neumes were particularly useful in grouping the notes in a melody, and were apparently used by singers as crib sheets to remember tunes they’d previously learned by ear.

By the 10th century, musicians were making use of heightened neumes, which were similar symbols placed on either side of a line, making it easier to read the different segments of a melody. By the end of the 12th century, the Italian Guido d’Arezzo had designed a musical staff similar to what we use today, placing letters on separate lines to mark their pitch. In fact, D’Arezzo was also the creator of the do, re, mi scale, inspired by the beginning syllables of the lines of a Latin hymn: ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la.

Building a Good Staff

For the next several hundred years, musical staves varied from country to country. France was using five lines, Italy was using six, and no one seemed to be in harmony until the five-line staff became standard some time in the 16th century.

And while notes were easy enough, writing down rhythms took a lot longer to figure out. The notes used in modern music (eighth notes, quarter notes, etc.) indicate a duration of time associated with the note. Earlier, neumes had been grouped into different patterns to represent rhythm, but around 1280, Franco of Cologne marked each note with its exact duration in his Ars cantus mensurabilis, using a few particular neumes to stand for tones of varying length. (A long value was equivalent to three short values.)

Then in the 1300s, Philippe de Vitry expanded on Franco’s system, writing his most famous treatise on music, the Ars Nova, in 1322. The Ars Nova laid the groundwork for the modern system of rhythmic notation, and by the 15th century, the first time signature had emerged: a fraction at the beginning of a piece signifying the rhythm of the music. By the start of the very note worthy Baroque period, the full signature, with a symbol indicating a major or minor key, had become standard.




EARLY 1800s C.E.


If you want to get hip to jazz, you’ve got to get down with its dirty roots.

It Don’t Mean a Thing

Jazz is an art form entangled in the unusual fabric of New Orleans culture. From the work songs and field hollers of cotton plantations to brass marching bands, to banjo performances, to European harmonies, the music bubbled together in ways that couldn’t have happened in a different time or place.

By the end of the 1700s, half the city of New Orleans was of varied African descent (some enslaved, others not), with many bringing West Indian cultural traditions from the Caribbean as well as various African musical styles adding to the mix. New Orleans was different from the rest of Protestant America; it boasted heavy French-Catholic influences that contributed to a lively dance (and food-oriented) culture. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, English-speaking Europeans and African Americans started arriving and settled upriver from the French quarter, dividing the city between the American uptown sector and the original Creole downtown.

Throughout the rest of the 19th century, German, Irish, and Italian immigrants

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    The Mental Floss books are entertaining. No exception with this one. Origins of things one would have no idea to. They say learning something new each day is one of the keys to maintaining mental sharpness as we age. These books fit the bill.