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Events that Happened on My Birthday

From the Writer’s Almanac for September 18th:

On this day in 1851, the first edition of The New York Times was published. Originally founded as The New-York Daily Times by journalists Henry Jarvis Raymond and George Jones, it cost one penny and was available Monday through Saturday. Raymond and Jones had met years earlier while toiling for the New-York Tribune. Raymond was convinced he could make a go of paper that avoided sensationalism and scandal and concentrated on objective, conservative reporting.

Raymond and Jones hustled up more than $100,000 in investment money from bankers, politicians, and the wealthy set of New York, and set up shop in a dilapidated six-story brownstone at 113 Nassau Street in what was then downtown New York. They didn’t have enough desks, the floors were raw wood, and they worked monastically by candlelight with a bedraggled crew of men to assemble the first issue. The press was a Hoe Lightning, a squat, steam-driven rotary that hunkered on the floor like a petulant animal. The room grew so hot the night before the first edition was delivered to the newsboys that the men stripped to their union suits.

On the front page, Jarvis wrote a lengthy introduction to the paper and its mission. He said, “There are few things in this world which it is worthwhile to get angry about, and they are just the things anger will not improve.” The first edition featured, among other things, news from several foreign countries, notice of President Millard Fillmore’s travels, and a lengthy article on the “New-York State Fair,” in which it was reported that “Poultry forms a grand feature this year, and the display is a very fine one.”

The paper reached 10,000 in circulation within 10 days and 24,000 by the end of the year. By 2015, The New York Times had won 117 Pulitzer Prizes for journalism, more than any other newspaper.

The paper’s famous slogan, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” was the brainchild of Adolph Ochs, who became the paper’s publisher in 1896. The slogan ran above Madison Square in red-neon lights, and once Ochs held a contest to see if a better slogan could be found. Suggestions from the public included, “Instructive to All, Offensive to None,” “A Decent Newspaper for Decent People,” and “Full of Meat, Clean and Neat.” Ochs stuck with the original slogan.

It’s the birthday of French physicist Jean Bernard Léon Foucault, born in Paris (1819). He invented the gyroscope and took the first clear photograph of the sun, and he introduced and helped develop a technique of measuring the absolute velocity of light with extreme accuracy. He is probably best known for originating the pendulum that demonstrated the earth’s rotation.

Today is the birthday of Samuel Johnson (books by this author), born in Litchfield, England (1709). We know a lot about him today, largely because a young man named James Boswell idolized him. Johnson, a prolific writer, was well known in literary circles, and Boswell was keen to meet him, so he began hanging around a Covent Garden bookstore that was owned by Johnson’s friend Tom Davies. Boswell got his chance one May day in 1763, when he was 22 and Johnson was 53. Boswell was a Scot, and Johnson had a well-known dislike of Scots, so Boswell had asked Davies not to reveal his country of origin. Davies spilled the beans anyway, and Boswell felt compelled to apologize to his idol, saying, “Indeed I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.” Johnson retorted, “That, sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.” Boswell was a dedicated journal-keeper, and he recorded details of their first meeting, describing Johnson as “a Man of a most dreadfull [sic] appearance. He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice. Yet his great knowledge, and strength of expression command vast respect and render him excellent company. But his dogmatical roughness of manners is dissagreable [sic].” Johnson found Boswell annoying at first, but the two men quickly became close friends. Boswell made it his mission to get to know every aspect of Johnson, and his biography was revolutionary for its time. He kept notes on Johnson’s mannerisms, habits, decisions, thoughts, appearance, and everything about his life; and he used these notes to paint a detailed portrait of his subject, rather than just listing all his accomplishments.

And Johnson’s accomplishments were indeed numerous. A sickly child who almost died at birth, he contracted scrofula – a form of tuberculosis – when he was two years old, and suffered many disfiguring, and unsuccessful, treatments. But he grew up tall, strong, and active, even though he was prone to black moods, and described himself as somewhat lazy. He began writing essays in his 20s, and in 1738 he became associated with the first modern magazine – called The Gentleman’s Magazine – to which he contributed poems and prose. The 1750s were his most productive period. Not only did he write more than 200 essays for a newspaper called The Rambler, but he was also at work on a monumental undertaking: a dictionary of the English language. The dictionary contained more than 42,000 entries and took him nine years to write. Meanwhile, he wrote the Rambler essays because they gave him a steady income; he was quite proud of those essays, saying, “My other works are wine and water; but my Rambler is pure wine.”

Johnson was a practical man when it came to love. His parents’ marriage had been an unhappy one, and he always believed that it was because his mother was uneducated. He was determined to find an intelligent wife, and did so in the person of Elizabeth Porter Jervis, whom he called “Tetty.” Jervis was the widow of his friend and, at 46, was 21 years older than he was, with three children. After Jervis met Johnson, she remarked to her daughter, “That is the most sensible man I ever met.” She supported him and his pursuits both emotionally and financially. For his part, Johnson referred to the marriage as “a love-match on both sides” and grieved her deeply after her death in 1752.

Boswell took a long time writing Johnson’s biography, because he wanted to make sure he had truly captured every nuance of his friend’s wit and personality. “[I was] so wrapt in admiration of his extraordinary colloquial talents that I found it extremely difficult to recollect and record his conversation with its genuine vigour and vivacity,” he wrote to his reader, and he finally began only when his mind “was strongly impregnated with the Johnsonian aether.” Boswell began writing his biography in 1786, after Johnson’s death, and The Life of Samuel Johnson was first published in 1791. Thanks to Boswell’s meticulous notes, later doctors determined that Johnson probably had Tourette’s syndrome. Johnson is one of the most-quoted people of the 18th century. He said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.” And, “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” And, “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.”

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