Today in History: May 22

To this day, only one U.S. President has been awarded a patent for an invention: Abraham Lincoln. On May 22, 1849, Lincoln received Patent No. 6469 for a device to “buoy vessels over shoals,” an invention which was never manufactured.

His application reads: “Be it known that I, Abraham Lincoln, have invented a new and improved manner of combining adjustable buoyant air chambers with a steam boat or other vessel for the purpose of enabling their draught of water to be readily lessened to enable them to pass over bars, or through shallow water, without discharging their cargoes …”

His invention was ingenious but not practicable—a set of bellows that would be attached to the sides of shallow-water boats and inflated when a boat was stranded in order to lift the boat from a muddy river bottom—but patents are not awarded on the basis of easy or practical manufacture. He remained unencouraged in his inventing career but went on to be richly rewarded in his legal and political career.

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Richard Wagner was born 203 years ago today. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born on this date in 1859. Sir Laurence Olivier was born on this date in 1907.

Today is the 102nd anniversary of the birth (or the arrival on earth) of Herman Poole Blount. He himself, in what became a life-long performance as the jazz pianist and composer Sun Ra or (sometimes Le Sony’r Ra), denied earth parentage or earthly interests. In different interviews and statements through the years, he claimed to be from outer space or to have been abducted by aliens from Saturn who bore antennae over both eyes and ears.

Sun Ra’s UFO claims pre-date the flying saucer craze of the 1950s, so whatever happened to Blount in his life on Earth by the late 1940s left him completely convinced that Earth is not his home and that Herman Blount never existed. And till his death in 1993, he never broke character, perhaps because this was not a character he was playing. (There are a few surface resemblances between his story and the novel and film K-PAX.) On his passport, he named “Saturn” as his birthplace and he left the birth date line blank.

But interesting or curious details such as his possible extraterrestrial origins or his elaborate mytho-poetic philosophies explaining life on earth do not explain why dozens of musicians worked with and even lived with Sun Ra for decades, first in New York City and then in Philadelphia, making records every day in their communal house and selling so many hand-pressed and hand-decorated vinyl albums of these recordings at their gigs that a complete discography may be impossible to compile, even though dozens of musicologists are still working to compile one. Musicians like John Gilmore, who attracted the admiration and envy of no less a jazz luminary as John Coltrane, lived with Sun Ra and his fellow musicians for almost 40 years.

In 1989, Sun Ra and his Arkestra appeared on late night network television, on “Night Music,” hosted by David Sanborn:

 
The Arkestra continues to live together and perform—it has a couple dozen dates scheduled in 2016—under the guidance of saxophonist Marshall Allen, the last surviving original member, who will turn 92 next week.

Judith Crist and Quinn Martin were both born on this date in 1922.

Peter Matthiessen was born on this date in 1927. His magnificent book The Snow Leopard won the National Book Award in two categories, which makes it unique in American letters, and Shadow Country won the award for fiction in 2008, when he was 81. Awards mark but do not make a career; his novel Far Tortuga is amazing, almost painted as much as it is written, and has been largely ignored. It is a personal favorite. At Play in the Fields of the Lord was made into a film. There was also his In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, a volume of journalism about the trial and conviction of Leonard Peltier. He was a nature writer, a novelist, and in 1950 a co-founder with his friend George Plimpton of the essential literary periodical The Paris Review—and his Paris Review work was a cover story for his secret CIA spying career.

Harvey Milk would be 86. M. Scott Peck would be 80.

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Charles Aznavour is 92 today. T. Boone Pickens is 88. Peter Nero is 82. Richard Benjamin is 78. Bernard Shaw is 76. Tommy John is 73. Bernie Taupin is 66. Morrissey is 57. Katie Price is 38. Novak Djokovic is 29.

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