The Draconian Dictionary Is Back

Since the 1960s, the reference book has cataloged how people actually use language, not how they should. That might be changing.

by Rachel Paige King

In 1961, what newly published book was denounced as “subversive and intolerably offensive”? Was it the new American edition of Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller’s sexually explicit autobiographical novel? Nope. Although that book was called filthy, rotten, repulsive, and “an affront to human decency,” the correct answer is Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.

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Microfilm Lasts Half a Millennium

Millions of publications—not to mention spy documents—can be read on microfilm machines. But people still see these devices as outmoded and unappealing.

by Craig Saper

I recently acquired a decommissioned microfilm reader. Machines like it played a central role in both research and secret-agent tasks of the last century. But this one had become an embarrassment. Unlike a computer—even an old one—it was heavy and ungainly. It would not fit into a car, and it could not be carried by two people for more than a few feet. Even moving the thing was an embarrassment. No one wanted it, but no one wanted me to have it around either.

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Hot-Air Balloons Are Useless

When they were invented, the vessels promised to revolutionize travel and industry. But they soon settled into life as an entertaining diversion.

by Jason Pearl

Balloons have always moved minds better than they’ve moved bodies. The upward lift mimics the feeling of ideas drifting into the mind. The haphazard flight path suggests the possibility of being whisked to some faraway world—to Oz, for instance. But today, people are far less likely to have ridden in a balloon than to have read about one in fiction.

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Raising the American Flag Made in China

Is the banner’s patriotism undermined when it’s manufactured abroad?

by Michael D. Breidenbach

Sales of American flag imports pale in comparison to America’s $375 billion trade deficit with China, but these Chinese imports are more politically potent than a line item on the Harmonized Tariff Schedule. Importing flags is not just a matter of economics and global trade. To its critics, it represents an economy, and a country, on the decline.

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Why Do People Sign Yearbooks?

Commemorative class books evolved from practical notebooks into collections of hair clippings, rhyming couplets, and “have a great summer” wishes.

by Jennifer Billock

The practice had evolved from commonplace books, a Renaissance tradition of compiling important and memorable information into bound sheets of paper. Students were encouraged to keep the books during class, and eventually they became a place to store anything and everything their owners found interesting—including the signatures of other classmates.

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Teaching Sobriety With ‘The Bottle’

Before and after Prohibition, temperance organizations turned the whiskey or beer vessel into a personification of American moral failure.

by Hannah C. Griggs

As the nation’s formerly dry stances on alcohol softened after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, the whiskey bottle became a powerful symbol and pedagogical tool for the staunchly anti-alcohol advocates of the temperance movement.

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How the 50-mm Lens Became ‘Normal’

It’s often called the optic that best approximates human vision, but approximation is relative.

by Allain Daigle

Today, the lens represents a struggle between objectivity and relativism. Metaphorically, people look through critical lenses, cultural lenses, political lenses, and historical lenses. We zoom in and out on things, we frame them, we change lenses, we focus. The metaphor highlights how people adopt multiple viewpoints that, in turn, change how they see and think about the world.

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98 Years of Mail Fraud

How the postal letter became a tool for ingenious criminality.

by Simon R. Gardner

It didn’t take long for criminals to realize that the rise of the postal service also created opportunity for exploitation. Crime could suddenly be carried out from afar, with relative anonymity.

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Cupholders Are Everywhere

As people spent more and more time in cars, auto interiors transformed into living spaces, where food and drink became necessities.

by Nancy A. Nichols

Cupholders began as an afterthought, mere circular indents on the inside of the door of the glove compartment, but they have become an absolute necessity and a key feature that shoppers evaluate when purchasing a new car, even for a time supplanting fuel efficiency as a consumer’s most sought-after attribute.

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How Cycling Clothing Opened Doors for Women

Advances in biking gear had an impact on advances in gender equality.

by Christine Ro

Around the turn of the 20th century, cycling pants were a focus for anxieties and excitements about changing notions of acceptable femininity.

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Humankind’s Most Important Material

Glass has changed the world like no other substance, but people usually overlook it.

by Douglas Main

Glass has shaped the world more than any other substance, and in many sneaky ways, it’s the defining material of the human era.

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The Atomic-Bomb Core That Escaped World War II

Before two deadly nuclear mishaps, scientists used to risk “tickling the tail of a sleeping dragon.”

by Julian G. West

Today, nuclear warheads go unseen and unconsidered, even as nuclear war feels closer than it has in decades.

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The Bidet’s Revival

Invented centuries ago in France, the bidet has never taken off in the States. That might be changing.

by Maria Teresa Hart

Bidets were such an integral part of civilized life that even the imprisoned Marie Antoinette was granted a red-trimmed one while awaiting the guillotine. She may have been in a dank, rat-infested cell, but her right to freshen up would not be denied.

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Women Are Reinventing the Long-Despised Speculum

The gynecological apparatus, designed by men, has a sordid history.

by Daniela Blei

The speculum offered a solution to a problem that had plagued gynecology from the beginning: How could a man inspect a woman—“a serious sacrifice in delicacy,” as the French doctor Marc Colombat de L’Isère put it—without violating her modesty?

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The Jet Engine Is a Futuristic Technology Stuck in the Past

Rockets and turbofans have promised to realize dreams of transportation progress—for decades.

by Christopher Schaberg

Turbofan engines offer an audible reminder of the paradox of progress. As much as people may want to experience new things, they have to use old tools and means to do so.

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The Case for Locking Up Your Smartphone

Lockers and sleeves for phones can feel like an infringement on personal rights, but they also might save people from their worst habits.

by Marcel O'Gorman

Given that the mere presence of one’s smartphone can reduce cognitive capacity, Yondr offers a way to surf between the waves of a device’s presence and absence. You can hold it, but you can’t use it.

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My Pacemaker Is Tracking Me From Inside My Body

Cloud-connected medical devices save lives, but also raise questions about privacy, security, and oversight.

by Neta Alexander

Health providers can review my data from afar, and unauthorized hackers might have access to it, too. But it proved surprisingly difficult to access these medical records myself.

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The Accidental Poison That Founded the Modern FDA

Elixir Sulfanilamide was a breakthrough antibiotic—until it killed more than 100 people.

by Julian G. West

The FFDCA protected the public from unsafe medications, but its limitations quickly became apparent.

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Does ‘Counting Your Blessings’ Work?

Doing so has appealed to people for centuries, but the power of a gratitude list can be misused.

by Sonya Huber

As the gratitude trend spreads, the practice can feel compulsory.

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The Power Suit’s Subversive Legacy

Women have long borrowed from men’s dress to claim the authority associated with it. It hasn’t always worked.

by Angella D'Avignon

The term “working girl” is a double entendre. Used to describe women’s labor outside the home—whether that was sex work or desk work—the turn of phrase also connotes class.

Read this essay at The Atlantic