Thursday, September 3, 2009

Bedtime Story

This is a true story I came across doing research for my book. I told it to Daniel the other night as a bedtime story.
Johann Winkel was an inventor and a clockmaker. He was very shy, and lived by himself (except for his cat) over his little shop in a townhouse in Amsterdam. He made all kinds of wonderful inventions. He made grandfather clocks with figures who would come out and dance, or bang on bells with hammers. He made wonderful huge organs and tiny music boxes.
Dietrich Maelzel was an inventor and an organmaker, too. He travelled all over the world showing off his inventions. Sometimes he took other people's inventions and told everyone that he had invented them. One of his most famous inventions that he got from someone else was a robot chessplayer. Everyone was amazed that the robot could really play chess. What he didn't tell them was that a real chessplayer was hidden under the chess table. The "robot" was really a puppet!
The invention he was most proud of was the Panharmonicum. This invention could play songs on an organ, drums, and bells. One time he got Beethoven, the famous composer, to write a piece of music for the Panharmonicum. It was a rousing tune, and Maelzel told everyone it was his own music. This made Beethoven mad, but Maelzel didn't care.
One time Maelzel visited Mr. Winkel's town, and stopped by Mr. Winkel's house to talk. Mr. Winkel didn't usually have visitors, but he was very polite, so he invited Maelzel in. He gave him dinner and showed him all his inventions. The one he had just finished was called a metronome. It was a little lever that tapped back and forth that you could sit on your piano, and it would show you how fast to play. Maelzel told him he was very impressed with all the inventions, and offered to buy the metronome, but Winkel didn't want to sell it. But that night Maelzel made a copy of the metronome. He sold lots of copies of it everywhere he went, because it was a very useful invention. If Mr. Winkel ever showed anyone his invention, they would just say, "Oh, that's just a copy of Maelzel's Marvelous Metronome."
This made Mr. Winkel very sad. He couldn't eat. He couldn't sleep. (He even forgot to pet his cat.) And then one day, he had an idea. It was the best idea he ever had. He worked on his new invention every day. He got up early in the morning to work on it and he stayed up late at night. People heard him banging away and they wondered what he could possibly be building. After a year, he was finally finished.
He rolled out his invention, and everyone in town came into the street to see it. It had bells. It had pipes. It had drums.
"That's not new!" everyone said. "You just copied Maelzel's Panharmonicum!" But Mr. Winkel didn't say anything. He just started the device playing. It was a lovely tune, but people started to leave. They had already seen a machine that could play music. But the people who stayed noticed something amazing. The song didn't stop. It just kept coming up with new music. Mr. Winkel didn't need to get Beethoven to write music for him-- the invention could compose its own music! Every time you listened to it, you would hear a different song. It was even better than a radio, and that wouldn't be invented for another hundred years!
Some people thought he must be cheating. "He has a composer sitting inside the machine," they said. (If they had said this about Maelzel's chess player, they would have been right.) But Mr. Winkel let them look inside the machine. He showed them how it worked. It had a kind of pulley inside that could spin around freely. Depending on where it landed, that decided what the next bit of music would sound like.Everyone agreed that Mr. Winkel's invention was the best invention ever. That made Mr. Winkel happy again. (It made his cat happy, too.)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Don't even ask about punctuated equilibrium...

You know how you sometimes put three dots to represent that part of a sentence has been cut out? Well, I always thought they were circular dots. But if you look very closely with a magnifying glass, you can see that they are actually slightly longer along one axis. They are, in fact, ellipses.