The Book of Ages
Posted: 13 July 2004
Word Count: 1767
Summary: What follows is the introduction, and one chapter of what I’ve been working on. For those of you kind enough to read it, I’m interested to hear what you think.
The Book of Ages
Some books start with the germ of an idea; this one started with a virus. It was July, my wife's forty-fourth birthday, and our son had chicken pox. We couldn't go to the party we'd been invited to, and my wife, who loves celebrations, was bemoaning this misfortune. 'Forty-four', she said. 'No-one ever achieved anything when they were forty-four'.
I felt sure this wasn't true. Somebody notable, even if not famous, must have achieved something when they were forty-four. And, as is the case with most married men, the opportunity to prove my wife wrong proved too tempting.
In the five years since then, the germ of an idea has metamorphosed through a set of birthday cards and a web site to a book, entitled 'The Book of Ages'. The book contains information about achievers in many spheres of life, determining the age at which they won their highest honour, overcame adversity, or invented that remarkable device without which our world would be different.
I have tried to reflect the most significant achievements of individuals at particular ages. Of course, this begs two questions - what constitutes an achievement, and what constitutes 'significance'? Everyone will have their own opinions on both these questions.
I took the view that an achievement is something positive. I have therefore not generally included activities which most would regard as negative, such as criminal acts or failures.
An achievement is also an event, and has a date – without this, the current book could not have been written. A consequence is that some areas of endeavour may be more prominently represented than others. Comparing artists and composers, it is generally much easier to determine a specific date for a symphony than a painting.
The second question is harder to address. How does one define achievements that are significant from those that are less so? The organisation of this book allows me at least one method of comparison. In general, humans are at their physical peak in their twenties - therefore we expect sporting champions to be in their twenties. I contend that equivalent sporting achievements can be compared, with the more distant age from the norm being the more significant.
This question becomes harder to address when considering achievements in different fields, but there are a number of criteria which can be used. Recognition may be granted by peers or other eminent persons - for example, the Oscars and the Nobel prizes (only one person has won both). Reaching the top of one's chosen sphere, however defined, is significant.
Some individuals operate in areas which allow for multiple achievements, and this too has to be considered. If one is an Olympic swimmer, there are opportunities to win several medals at a single games, if one is good enough – in other sports, only one opportunity may present itself every four years. It therefore seems reasonable to use different yardsticks in these cases.
Other factors when determining significance include
fame – either of the person or in some cases, the achievement – authors have often written blockbusters as well as those volumes long forgotten;
relevance – some achievements have a large impact on society, while others do not;
accessibility – for example, reading some Nobel prize citations leaves the average person none the wiser.
The final influencing factor is the personal view of the author. If you disagree with the inclusion of these entries, or, more importantly, if you think someone has been unjustifiably omitted, please let me know.
A book like this owes everything to those collectors of biographical detail. I have consulted more than fifty different reference sources - some extensively, others occasionally.
First and foremost, the debt is to the editors, past and present, of the 'Dictionary of National Biography', which covers the lives of British nationals, and its American cousin, 'American National Biography'. Had it not been for these diligently researched and elegantly written biographies, this current volume could not have been written.
These two however, have a shortcoming, in that they exclude the details of living individuals. Other dictionaries, such as the 'Who's Who' series, have proved very useful in these cases.
Dictionaries dealing with particular subjects, such as 'Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians', have also proved invaluable.
Michael Faraday constructed the first dynamo in 1831, and William Henry Fox-Talbot invented the negative-positive photographic process (still with us, despite the rise of digital cameras) in 1840. Anders Celcius devised the temperature scale that bears his name in 1741, while Albert Einstein received the first experimental proof of his General Theory of Relativity in 1919, when a British expedition was able to observe, during a total solar eclipse, that starlight is deflected away from the sun. Frederick Sanger was awarded the first of his two Nobel Prizes in 1958, for work on the structure of proteins. Abraham Lincoln patented a buoying device (he remains the only US President to file a patent) in 1849. Later, he would say ‘so you’re the little lady who caused this big war’ to Harriet Beecher Stowe, who published ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in 1852. Other authors producing excellent work at this age include William Shakespeare (‘Othello’ in 1604), Charles Dickens (who published the first instalment of ‘Bleak House’ in 1852), George Eliot (‘The Mill on the Floss’ in 1860), DuBose Heyward (who in 1925 wrote ‘Porgy’ on which Gershwin’s opera is based), and Thornton Wilder (‘Our Town’ in 1938). Oscar Wilde wrote ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ in 1895. It isn’t clear to whom he was referring, but in 1936, Wallis Simpson obtained a divorce from her husband Ernest and was therefore free (at least in the eyes of the law) to marry King Edward VIII – thus precipitating the Abdication crisis. The problem could perhaps have been circumvented if she had followed the example of poet Elizabeth Barrett, who in 1846 decided that a fresh start was required, and eloped with her long-time correspondent Robert Browning.
Some people feel that looks diminish at 40 – this doesn’t seem to have happened to Mel Gibson, but perhaps he was hedging his bets when he produced, directed and starred in ‘Braveheart’. He picked up two Oscars – for Best Picture and Best Director in 1996. Burt Bacharach had a double-Oscar night in 1970, when he collected them for his score for ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, and for ‘Raindrops keep Fallin’ on my Head’. Other Oscar winners include Joel Grey for his performance as the MC in ‘Cabaret’ in 1973, and Sidney Poitier, who became the first black man to win an Oscar for Best Actor, in ‘Lilies of the Field’ in 1964. Stanley Kubrick won for Best Special Effects for ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ in 1969.
Charles Dixon won the Men’s Doubles in 1913 and Agatha Morton the Women’s doubles the following year at Wimbledon, in both cases their second titles. Jack Nicklaus won both the US PGA and the US Open in 1980, while Ben Hogan had gone one better by winning the US Masters, the US Open and the British Open in 1953. Jack Hobbs scored his 100th first-class century (against Somerset at Bath in 1923), while Don Bradman scored his last-ever century in his own testimonial game in 1948. Malcolm Cooper retained his small-bore rifle three-position Olympic gold medal in 1988.
Captain James Cook may well have sailed round many different parts of the Pacific ocean, but the purpose of his first trip was scientific; to observe the transit of the planet Venus across the sun’s face in 1769 (these events are rare, but the next will occur in 2004 and 2012). Another explorer, John Glenn, became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, and six years later, Frank Borman and James Lovell in Apollo 8 became the first men (with William Anders) to make a rocket trip to the moon. Much earlier, in 1785, John Jeffries became (with Jean-Pierre Blanchard) the first man to cross the English Channel in a balloon. One man who made crossing the channel difficult for undesirable visitors, was Reginald Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire, which made its first flight in 1936, and without which the history of World War II would be very different.
Those who have made contributions to the world around us include Belgian Jean-Joseph-Etienne Lenoir, who in 1862 built the first vehicle with an internal combustion engine. This made possible not only smog and traffic jams, but also Motor Shows, at one of which (the Paris Motor show of 1910) George Claude displayed not a car but his invention – neon lights. They would have been witnessed by Henry Royce, who formed his car company (with Charles Rolls) six years earlier, and in the same year that Reginald Fessenden made the first demonstration of the transmission of the human voice via radio-telephone, and thus can be considered the father of the mobile. Those who drive and use their mobile at the same time might find themselves needing services pioneered by Joseph Lister, who in 1867 was the first to use the improved crystalline form of carbolic acid as an antiseptic.
William Horlick sold his first malted milk in 1886, and in 1894, Pierre Paul Emile Roux of Paris announced a vaccine for diphtheria. In 1921, Marie Stopes transformed a part of the lives of women with the opening of Britain’s first birth control clinic, and in 1937, Wallace Carothers transformed lives in a different way with the patenting of Nylon. Some might claim that these are gross generalisations – such a generalisation came from the pen of Lorenzo da Ponte, who wrote the libretto for the opera ‘Cosi Fan Tutti’ which opened in 1790. Less controversially, in 1943, ‘Oklahoma!’ by Richard Rodgers (with Oscar Hammerstein II) opened, and in 1964, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ with words by Sheldon Harnick (and music by Jerry Bock) opened.
In 1823, Simon Bolivar became president of Peru, and in 1919, Nancy Astor, the American-born heiress, became the first woman to take her seat (but not the first elected) in the British House of Commons. In 1934 Mao Tse-Tung started the Long March, and in 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy, perhaps wondering how far Mao had got, warned that there were 205 Communist agents in the State Department. In 1983, Lech Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize for more pragmatic work against a real communist organisation.
One man who managed to find his way into the history books by riding a horse was Paul Revere, whose celebrated ride (with the lesser-known William Dawes) was made in 1775.
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