How a Side-Wheeler Steamship Opened up the West by Catching Fire

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DSC05835Abraham Lincoln is the only president with a patent, and that patent was inspired by a steamship ride. But an incident involving a side-wheeled steamship was even more important because it set the stage for modernizing America.

In 1857, Lincoln took on one of the most important cases of his career; it was also critical to America’s future. The trial of Hurd v. Rock Island Bridge Company, better known as the Effie Afton case took place in Chicago. The Effie Afton was a side-wheeler steamship plying the Mississippi River until it ran into a railroad drawbridge crossing the river from Rock Island, Illinois, to Davenport, Iowa. Within minutes, both the steamship and the bridge caught fire and were destroyed. The captain of the Effie Afton, John Hurd, sued the railroad company for obstructing navigation on the river. The railroad company called in Lincoln.

The case was critical because this was the first railroad bridge built across the Mississippi River. It had been opened to rail traffic for only fifteen days before the Effie Afton hit it. Prior to the bridge all commercial traffic ran north to south via the river. Railroads were being built at a rapid pace, and the bridge represented the ability to quickly ship commercial wares east to west, which was a major threat to the steamship business. This was the battle of the steamships versus the railroads, with the result hanging on this precedent-setting trial. Lincoln spent a week on location examining the currents and geography, then gave a persuasive closing statement explaining technical aspects to the jury. As a result, many on the panel were persuaded the bridge was not an obstruction and the crash was caused by operator-error of the steamship’s pilot. Officially the trial ended in a hung jury, but in practice it guaranteed that railroad companies could build bridges across the river without fear of being sued as obstructions. Lincoln had set the stage for opening up the West.

[The above is adapted from my new book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, due in stores July 31.]

Meanwhile, check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like” my Facebook author page for more updates!

David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, due out in late July 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

[Daily Post]

Meddle of Nowhere

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MEDDLE2“How dare you meddle in my affairs?” he yelled.

“But, but, I just wanted to…”

“Don’t sass me back! How many times have I told you to stay away from my kitchen? Huh? A dozen? TWO dozen? I don’t know why I put up with you.”

“But, but, I, I, I…”

“I, I. I, what? What are you, in the Navy? Aye, Aye, Aye, my tookus.”

“Um, that would be tuchus, not tookus.”

“Oh, so now you’re the grammar police too, is that it? First I catch you sneaking around, hiding things behind your back. Then I walk into my prize kitchen and see traces of flour – flour! – in the waste bin. And now you’ve blocked me off from getting to my own basement rec room. I can’t believe this. All I want to do is relax. Nobody cares about me. You’re all too busy with your own piddling lives to think about me. No, couldn’t ask that much of my so-called “friends.”

“But, but, I just want to…”

“Never mind. I’m going downstairs. Maybe I can find some peace and quiet reclining in an empty room.”

“But, but….” Her voice trailed off. A smile slowly grew as he opened the door to the rec room in front of her.

“SURPRISE!,” the crowd roared.

ꭉꭊꭊꭊꭊꭊ Happy Birthday to you!

ꭉꭊꭊꭊꭊꭊ Happy Birthday to you!

ꭉꭊꭊꭊꭊꭊ Happy Birthday, dear frieeeend!

ꭉꭊꭊꭊꭊꭊ Happy Birthday to youuuuuuuuuuuuuuu!

“But, but, but….,” he sputtered.

“Hey, that’s my line,” she laughed. “Here is your cake. I baked it myself, in your kitchen, of course. And here is your present. Happy Birthday, dear!”

Crying with joy, “Thank you so much, dear. I treasure every moment with you. And my friends. So thoughtful, so wonderful. The best friends in the world.”

David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, due out in late July 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

[Daily Post]

Graphic credit: Charles Schulz

Birds Tapering into Sunset

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Flying FrigateThe birds fascinated me. Frigate birds hovered overhead in packs like graceful flying wolves. Circling and floating, only rarely beating their wings, their effortless coasting on updrafts allowed them to soar to great heights. Looking at their majesty let my spirits uplift alongside them. Their huge wingspans formed sharp “M” shapes giving the illusion of bats, only larger. Like Batman. Or high divers – spotting fish far below they dive steeply into the depths. Some come up with their tapered beaks laden with fish as large as they; others stalk away disappointed, looking for a more adept hunter from whom to steal a meal.

In contrast, the pelicans beat the air to keep their stout bodies aloft, flying lower as they scan the sea for fish. Suddenly, one pelican rolls in the air and dives into the surf, twisting in mid-dive so that its pocketed bill can open wide and scoop up its prey whole. A splash. A second. It pops back to the surface. A miss. Off to try another. His mates form a squadron, scanning the surface for enemy infantry to attack. The signal is given; dozens of pelicans dive-bomb the hapless school. Success!

Two boat-tailed grackles fly in to break the tension, their iridescent plumage and broad flat tapered tails coming off as a tad bit ostentatious for an opening act. The main act brings in the laughing gulls: The mature males with beautiful black heads, the females more gray, the immatures mottled. They dance a tango with the waves, following the receding swells to snatch up floating prey, then rushing back to avoid the next rolling ripple. Laughing – or perhaps crying, depending on your interpretation – they largely ignore the tourists, though occasionally taking flight in a swarm when humans approach, only to land a dozen feet away.

The frigates continued to circle effortlessly, care-free and high-spirited as the sunlight tapers into the horizon.

Peace.

David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, due out in late July 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

[Daily Post]

Photo by Greg Miller, Greg Miller Birding: http://www.gregmillerbirding.com/2012/07/the-dry-tortugas-part-ii/male-magnificent-frigatebird-in-flight-dry-tortugas-fl-2012-04-26-img_4657-sz-2048/

 

Natty, Not Nice

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dapper gentlemanHe was dapper. He was debonair. He was even natty. He was a well dressed murderer.

Being chic was the perfect disguise. The impeccable coiffure, stylish fashion, perfectly bound silk tie, the aura…all easily convinced the police that he was above suspicion.

“Greetings, Inspector. Any hints of who the killer might be?”

“Why no, Sir Edwin. No clue indeed, I’m afraid.”

“Ah, yes, Inspector. These things can be a bit of a sticky wicket, I say. Well, good luck on the case gentlemen, I’m off to a pleasant meeting with, well, I’ll keep that a secret for now. Toodle-oo.”

He had planned his next murder as meticulously as his wardrobe. The unnoticeable thin chain he wore around his neck doubled nicely as a garrote. His tight fitting kid leather gloves were the epitome of high class elegance while conveniently protecting against errant fingerprints.

“Welcome, Sir Edwin. The nurse asks that you accept the apologies of the Queen. As you can imagine, we’re quite anxious; we fear she may be passing the royal sceptre soon. Very sad indeed.”

“Speaking of which, have you met the young Prince, our next and future King? Ah, here he is now. I’ll leave the two of you alone to get acquainted.”

Sir Edwin casually reached for his necklace, and smiled. “Must be sure to avoid ruffling my suit,” he thought.

David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, due out in late July 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

[Daily Post]

 

Writing Tips from a Scientist

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scribeAs a lifelong scientist I’ve written a lot: peer-reviewed scientific papers, laboratory investigations, grant proposals, meta-statistical analysis, class papers, critical analysis of policy options, and state-of-the-science white papers. Much of it was read by only a handful of people. Some of it likely never got read at all. I’ve also written three books, two on famous scientists and one on a technology buff president. So what fiction and narrative non-fiction writing tips can a scientist offer? Here are three:

Cut the big words: This includes jargon, those words that only scientists in the field know. The reasons are obvious. When writing fiction or non-fiction for non-scientists, that is, the general public, the key is to avoid words that most people don’t know. I’m not saying dumb down your writing to primary school or reality-TV-politician level, but avoid tossing in fifty dollar words that will distract from your message. There are no extra points for displaying the grandiosity of your vocabulary of your skill navigating an online thesaurus. Write like you want someone to read what you write.

Be precise: One of the reasons scientists use technical words is because jargon is precise. Each word has a very specific meaning, at least to the group of scientists within that field or subfield. But to the public these same words may mean something completely different (the word “theory” comes to mind). Write your article or book or blog post, then edit it to make sure you are saying exactly what you want to say. Then edit it again. And again; as many times as needed to get it right. If readers have to guess what you meant, or worse, believe it meant something other than you intended, then your writing needs further work. Write active sentences, not passive ones. Use precise, not vague, words.

Don’t be boring: Face it, a lot of science writing is boring. Peer-reviewed scientific papers are the worst: You have to lay out the rationale for the study, describe your methods, list your results, explain how you analyzed the data (with statistics, yuck), and draw conclusions. Most journal articles are read by only a handful of other scientists who specialize in that field. To everyone else they can be mind-numbing. When you write your novel or your non-fiction book or your poetry it’s easy to fall into long descriptions that can, let’s be honest, be rather dull. Sure, you need to place the characters in some time period and describe what they are wearing and thinking, but don’t write three pages describing every detail about the local scenery or everything in their clothes closet. Trust me, your reader will skip over much of it. If they are going to do that, why put it in there?

Bonus tip: One way to avoid being boring is to construct real characters. Stereotypes won’t cut it. Flat characters that don’t inspire either love or hate (or at least compassion or disdain) aren’t going to get the reader involved in the story. Your characters shouldn’t appear to be purchased off some generic shelf; they should have normal human faults and desires and insecurities. Most scientific experiments fail. When they do the scientist proposes a new hypothesis and tries again. People who fail and yet continue to strive to achieve something grand make good characters. Let them fail, then give them a second chance. Perhaps several second chances. To paraphrase Robin Williams, “Reality, what a concept!”

More in my On Writing series (click and scroll).

David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, due out in late July 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

[Daily Post]

A Catapult to Success

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catapultTrapped. The room was empty except for a catapult. Such an odd thing to find in a room with no windows and a door in the ceiling. The whole thing seemed upside down to me, or maybe sideways (vertigo was confusing my sense of direction). The only way out was through that door. Luckily it was open, even if too high to reach.

After some quick long division in my head, I figured I could prop the catapult against one wall and it would sling me right through the open door. Three, two, one.

Ouch. Off by “this” much.

 

[The above is in response to a Microfiction prompt: Write a 100 word or less story or poem about someone trapped in a room. Something must be upside down or sideways within the room. Include the word division.]

David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, due out in late July 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.