Today in History: July 19

Because the game of baseball is played differently nowadays at the major league level, it is more difficult for pitchers to accumulate as many opportunities for wins as they once could.

Starting pitchers one hundred years ago pitched once every three games, for instance. Now, they pitch every fifth game or so. The greatest starters in the most recent era each accumulated about 350 or so career victories. Thus, Cy Young’s career baseball achievement of 511 victories looks like a schoolboy’s scribbled fantasy. Walter Johnson’s second place record of 417 also looks superhuman.

On this date in 1910, Cy Young (above) won his third game of the season; it was his 500th career win. There is a reason why the two annual awards for pitcher of the year are named the “Cy Young” awards.

The game went into extra innings, but he pitched all 11 in the win over the Washington Senators for the Cleveland Naps.

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The report of the discovery a few days earlier of the Rosetta Stone by French explorers was noted in a report to Napoleon’s Institut d’Égypte on this date in 1799.

Because the Rosetta Stone was (is) a document of a very important decree, it was carved into granite by those who made it more than two thousand years ago; however, its preservation into the modern era is an accident of circumstance. Without it, we would not have the term “Rosetta stone,” so it is important for reasons other than what it decrees.

Because it is the document of a very important decree, it has a date on it, a date that may have been as important to its readers as July 4, 1776, is to some Americans. The date is given as 18 Meshir during the ninth year of Ptolemy’s reign; that date can be precisely placed as March 27, 196 BC.

Because it is a document of a very important decree, a declaration by important priests of Ptolemy’s divinity (something they did to protect and preserve his power during a politically trying period), it was carved in multiple languages. One of the languages is Greek, Ancient Greek, which is a version of Greek that can be studied and translated into contemporary Greek almost completely.

The two other languages are both Egyptian, and this is the reason the idiomatic expression “Rosetta stone” exists as a phrase in any language: before the discovery of the stone, Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, that picture-language that covers so many objects from Egyptian antiquity, were not understood by anyone. It is now known that by the 4th Century AD, no one in Egypt could interpret the pictographic language of their ancestors; by 1799, theories for interpreting hieroglyphs abounded, but many scholars had a sneaking suspicion that all of these were wrong for the most part.

They were correct in that sneaking suspicion.

When the stone was found, its importance was immediately apparent: if the Ancient Greek could be interpreted correctly, then the Ancient Egyptian (the non-hieroglyph) section above it could be translated, and then the hieroglyphs at the top of it might finally be readable. Ancient Egypt’s mysterious picture-language might finally be open to reading after almost two millenia of obscurity.

The stone contains huge chunks of all three languages, which is great, but this is also the object’s challenge: it has chunks of language. The stone is a fragment of a much larger obelisk, and none of the other sections have been found to complete the texts. As it is, it is a huge object, 44 inches tall by 30 inches wide (at the tallest point and the widest point), three-quarters of a ton in weight, and it gave to its translators 54 lines of the Greek section (some complete, some partial due to it being broken), an almost-complete 32-line-section of Ancient Egyptian (non-hieroglyphs), and most frustrating, only 14 lines of hieroglyphs, all of them incomplete. But this was enough to make a start at translating. There were enough proper names and names of places repeated in the three sections to help.

It took a quarter of a century for the first attempt to be published, by Jean-François Champollion in 1822. Two other (also broken) stones with the same decree were found later, aiding in correcting the translation.

The most complete section is the middle, the Demotic Egyptian section. The demotic script is a rendition of the spoken language of Egypt at the time, like most written languages are. The hieroglyphics in the other section are a hybrid of pictures representing concepts and a limited alphabet to present a rendition of speech, and it is not obvious which glyphs are concepts and which are letters. The Rosetta stone gave scholars their first opportunity to read the hieroglyphs, but that almost complete section, the ancient Egyptian, needed translating to do it. Because so much of the decree is made up of Ptolemy’s many titles to establish his supreme importance and legitimate divinity, it reads like a comedy routine of exaggerations and puffery, but because it is all proper names and place names, it helped Champollion and the others immensely to translate the stone.

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Frank McCourt died on this date in 2009.

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Edgar Degas was born on this date in 1834. Stuart Scott was born 51 years ago today.

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Rachel Robinson (Jackie Robinson’s widow) is 94 today. Ilie Năstase is 70 today. The astrophysicist and rock star Dr. Brian May is 69 today. “Is This the World We Created?”:

Jayson Stark is 65. Campbell Scott is 55. Anthony Edwards is 54. Nancy Carell is 50. Mayor Vitali Klitschko is 45. Benedict Cumberbatch is 40 today.

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Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

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