The Blunder Before the Genius

This inscribed photograph of Albert Einstein, taken during his first visit to America, realized $26,290 at a February 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Albert Einstein called it “the greatest blunder of my life.”

Since he was not a cosmologist, he had accepted the prevailing wisdom that the universe was both fixed and eternal. As a result, when he was formulating his general theory, he dropped into his equations something called the “cosmological constant.” It was designed to arbitrarily counter the effects of gravity.

Typically, history books tend to forgive Einstein for this lapse but in reality, it was a terrible piece of scientific work … and he knew it.

Fortunately, Vesto Slipher at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona was taking spectrographic readings of distant stars and noticed a Doppler shift. That proved, beyond any doubt, that the universe was NOT static. The stars were moving away from Earth, which implied an expansionary condition. This was simply astounding and reversed all conventional thinking about a fixed universe.

Unfortunately, Edwin Hubble took all the credit for this remarkable discovery. It is what propelled him into becoming the most outstanding astronomer of the 20th century. (Maybe more on him later since he had such an inflated view of his importance.)

Now, however, flash back to a young Einstein and we find he was a mere assistant clerk in the Swiss patent office. He had no university affiliations, no access to a lab and only a modest library at the patent office.

He had been rejected for an assistant teaching position and was passed over for promotion until “he learned more about machine technology.”

He had a lot of spare time, which he used to gaze out his window and just think.

Then in 1905, he published a series of five scientific papers, of which three, according to C.P. Snow, “were among the greatest in the history of physics.”

The first would earn Einstein a Nobel Prize. The second provided proof that atoms DID exist – a fact that had been in dispute.

The third simply changed the world.

To learn more, read “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson (2007).

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

German Prisoners in U.S. Were Dismayed When War Ended

Nazi magazine illustration
This illustration for a 1959 Cavalcade magazine cover realized $2,375 at an October 2012 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

“When I was captured, I weighed 128 pounds. After two years as an American POW, I weighed 185 pounds. I had gotten so fat you could no longer see my eyes.”  – German POW in WW II

And so it was for many World War II Germans who were lucky enough to be shipped from Europe to the United States. Their living conditions as prisoners were far better than as civilians in cold-water flats in Germany.

The prisoners were provided with art supplies, musical instruments, woodworking tools and writing materials. Plus, they were allowed to correspond with their families in The Fatherland.

Ah, but it was the food that made it so unique.

All prisoners were provided with the same rations as American soldiers, as required by Geneva Convention rules. General Officers received wine with their meals and everyone got special meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

At first, some prisoners burned their leftovers for fear that their rations might be reduced. “No need, eat all you want. There seems to be an unlimited supply. It is like a miracle!”

And then, of course, there were the cigarettes.

Everyone received two packs each day and some even got meat. Since both were being rationed to American citizens, it quickly became quite easy to bribe guards for all sorts of extra things … use your imagination.

One small irony was that some prisoners actually formally complained to the International Red Cross about the lousy American white bread and coffee. Why not?

A trickier issue was the beer. Prisoners only received a single beer coupon daily, hardly enough to get a mild buzz. Some started pooling their coupons so they could get enough for a full six-pack. (Voila! Problem solved.)

Entertainment was never an issue.

Frequent theatrical or musical performances were allowed that included guards and the Red Cross by the hundreds … at a minimum. Movies were shown three to four times a week, and if a camp didn’t have a projector, the prisoners just pooled their money and bought one.

Money was no problem since they could work on local farms and factories … just not anywhere military things were involved. There was a big labor shortage everywhere since the United States had sent millions overseas to fight in the war. So they were able to earn almost as much as a regular soldier, and their rent and food were free!

All of this started because of a housing shortage in Great Britain and they asked for help in housing captured prisoners. The Liberty ships carrying arms to Europe were returning empty, so it was easy to fill them with the surplus prisoners on the way back.

All told, 425,000 German prisoners were shipped to the United States and sent to 700-plus camps spread over 46 states.

Many of the German POWs were dismayed by the end of the war. They did not relish the prospect of being sent back to a war-torn, bombed-out homeland. Some were able to delay the return by two years.

Not all actually left. Would you?

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].


The Tale of Columbus’ Lost Ship Name

Christopher Columbus, book illustration
This pen and ink on board illustration by Henry Clarence Pitz (1895-1976) for the book Christopher Columbus was featured in a July 2013 Heritage illustration art auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Nearly every schoolchild, especially in Ohio and Puerto Rico, learns that “In 1492, Columbus sailed the Ocean blue.” Most also remember his three ships: the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria … at least I did.

However, it turns out that the names of these ships are a little more complicated. By tradition, Spanish ships were named after saints, and then later given nicknames.

For example:

La Niña (the girl) was actually named the Santa Clara (a female saint) and was Columbus’ favorite of the three.

La Santa Maria was really a shortened version of “The Holy Mary of the Immaculate Conception.”

Lastly, we believe that Christobal Quintero owned La Pinta (the pint), but the original name was “lost at sea.”

So a more precise lineup would be the Santa Clara, Pinta and Santa Maria instead of the ones found in most of our history books.

It is also difficult to specify with any certainty the land(s) Columbus spotted or the exact sequence during his four voyages to the “New World.” He spent eight years bouncing around the Caribbean and coastal South America, convinced he was in the heart of the Orient.

He expected to find Japan and China just over the next horizon.

Curiously, he did not know that Cuba was an island and, importantly, never set foot on or even suspected there was a large land mass to the North.

Today we call it the United States.

Perhaps even worse, at least for his financial backers, was the cargo he chose to haul back to Spain. First was a lot of iron pyrite (thinking it was gold) and then “cinnamon,” which turned out to be worthless tree bark. Even the highly prized “pepper” was really just chili pepper. Not so bad if you like spicy, but much less valuable.

Despite all of this, he remains one of our best remembered explorers and history has treated him well.

Many even get a day off work each year to celebrate as a federal holiday.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Here’s Why Shakespeare Might Be a Part of You

William Shakespeare’s The Poems of Shakespeare [Cosway-Style Binding], London: William Pickering, 1837, realized $2,868 at an October 2009 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman on the atom from his “Six Easy Pieces” lecture series:

“If, in some cataclysm, all scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?

“I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms – little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.”

Personally, I would have a bit of a problem rebuilding if that was the extent of all knowledge! And, although I can use more than one sentence, the following may not add enough for you to do it either.

To begin, atoms are simply everywhere and constitute every single thing. Not only stuff like a wall or your refer, but the air in between.

They combine to make molecules and molecules combine to make elements. Chemists think of molecules rather than elements just as writers think in terms of words and not letters.

Molecules are numerous, beyond comprehension. A cubic centimeter of air (the size of a sugar cube) contains 45 billion-billion molecules. Now think about how many sugar cubes it would take to replace all the matter in the universe. Multiply that number by 45 billion, then multiply that by another billion. Well, you get the idea. And, of course, atoms are by definition more abundant than molecules.

Atoms are also very durable and have been around sooo long that every atom in your body has passed thru several stars and been a part of millions of organisms. They are so anatomically numerous and vigorously recycled at our death that it has been suggested 1 billion of my atoms (and yours) were once part of Shakespeare … and of Ghengis Kahn. An odd thought, but statistically probable (not just possible).

Atoms are also tiny … very, very tiny. It is hard to describe just how tiny, but here is a crude attempt:

A millimeter thickness is like comparing a single sheet of paper to the height of the Empire State Building. Got it?

Well, atoms are only one-ten millionth as thick as a millimeter. That is tiny.

When we die, our atoms will simply disassemble and move on to become other things like a rock, another human being, or a Doritos tortilla chip. It is somehow comforting to know that someday, I will be a Doritos chip rather than a Pringles.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Physicist Richard Feynman Crucial to Challenger Answers

A NASA color lithographed print of the Space Shuttle Challenger (STS-51-L) Crew, signed, was featured in a May 2012 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On Jan. 28, 1986, I was chairing a board meeting in New York when we learned that the NASA Space Shuttle orbiter Challenger had disintegrated 78 seconds after its launch over the Atlantic Ocean. Seventeen percent of Americans had witnessed the launch live and within an hour, 85 percent were aware of the disaster. Much of the interest was due to crew member Christa McAuliffe, a payload specialist and the first teacher headed into outer space. An O-ring failure caused a breach in the right solid rocket booster, which led to a structural failure.

Aerodynamic forces finished the job. A special Blue Ribbon Commission, appointed by President Reagan, determined that this design defect had been known for several years and repeated warnings were disregarded. What was not highlighted was that the space vehicle had never been certified to operate in low temperatures … specifically, the conditions that existed at the launch site on the day the flight was scheduled for liftoff. Enter theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, a distinguished member of the Commission and one determined to expose the truth to the American public. I can still vividly recall his now famous demonstration on live TV and elucidation of the cause of the Challenger space shuttle disaster. It included a very dramatic point where he dropped an elastic band (the O-ring) into a glass of ice water. Case closed. What opened was my mind. Next post, an example on Richard Feynman on a very small thing: an atom.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Time for Divine Inspiration from George Washington?

George Washington - Suggested Crop
Rembrandt Peal’s oil on canvas George Washington, circa 1856, realized $662,500 at a May 2013 auction.

By Jim O’Neal The Catholic Church has a simple process for selecting a new Pope that seems to be working fine (to me). Whenever a Pope dies or resigns, the responsibility for governance shifts to the College of Cardinals. “Cardinals” are bishops and Vatican officials from all over the world who had been chosen earlier by a Pope. I think these are the guys (only?) who wear the red vestments and their primary responsibility includes electing a new Pope … as needed. Continue reading Time for Divine Inspiration from George Washington?