Word Salad – January 2024

Historical Firsts

Word Salad

As a salute to the first month of 2024, let’s take a look back at a few of Reader’s Digests’s most iconic firsts:

First telephone call. “Mr. Watson, come here.” These dry words were immortalized in historical cannon in 1876, when Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call to his assistant, Watson, who was just in the next room.

First food microwaved. In 1945, the first food ever microwaved on purpose was exactly what you’d imagine it would be: Popcorn!

First pedestrian hit and killed by a car. At a time when pedestrians getting hit by cars has unfortunately become so routine it hardly even makes the news anymore, it can be easy to forget that there had to have been a first person to be killed by those new-fangled mechanical horses. And that person was Bridget Driscoll when she was struck down by a demonstration car on August 17, 1896. The car was traveling at four miles per hour which makes it even harder to understand how the tragedy happened. The coroner said he hoped “such a thing would never happen again.” Hmm.

First text message. Texting is practically as essential to modern life as water and guacamole. Neil Papworth in 1992, while working for Vodafone, sent the first text. What did he send? “Merry Christmas!” Would that our texts were as concise and happy.

First penis transplant. In2014, Thomas Manning became the first man to successfully get a penis transplant. He endured the 12-hour experimental surgery after losing his genitals to cancer.

First person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live to tell the tale. In 1901, Annie Edson Taylor climbed in a barrel and sailed over the edge of Niagara Falls, the first person to survive the feat. Afterward she stated, “If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat. I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces, than make another trip over the Falls.”

First integrated school. September 4, 1957, was the first day of class at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, but was unlike any the school had known previously. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that segregation was unconstitutional, and on that day nine Black students enrolled.

First author to earn $1 billion. In 1997, J.K. Rowling introduced the world to Harry Potter, one of the most endearing fictional characters ever. And all that writing earned her a lot of money, making her the first billion-dollar author ever. 

First woman elected to Congress. Jeannette Rankin, a Republican from Montana, made political history in 1916 when she became the first U.S woman elected to a national office. The irony, of course, is that women didn’t even win the right to vote until 1920. She served for more than 60 years and later said her proudest moment was being the only woman who was able to vote in Congress for the women’s right to vote.

First roll of toilet paper. Wecan thank Joseph Gayetty for this modern sanitation miracle. In 1857, he invented the first toilet paper that was the precursor to the toilet paper we use in the U.S. today. He claimed it was “The Greatest Necessity of the Age.” Hard to disagree.

First robots used in military combat. Robots have been fighting wars in sci-fi novels and movies for years. But in 2002, robots Hermes, Professor, Thing, and Fester became the first robots deployed in ground combat, in Afghanistan. They were responsible for clearing caves ahead of human troops. They are described as heavy enough to trigger mines, tall enough to trip booby-traps, and long enough to carry 12 cameras, a grenade launcher, and a 12-gauge shotgun. Yikes.

First white ligers. A liger is an animal created when a lion and a tiger mate. (Who knew?) The hybrids have existed for years but in December 2013, when a white Bengal tigress named Saraswati hooked up with a white African lion named Ivory, the first white ligers were born.

First Black man to play major league baseball. Think Jackie Robinson was the first African American man to play on a major league baseball team? Think again. That honor belongs to Moses Fleetwood Walker. He played for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884.

First person to summit Mt. Everest. On May 29, 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary became the first person confirmed to have reached the summit of Mount Everest. Although dual credit should be given to his Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, who not only made the ascent but did it while carrying a bunch of stuff for other people.

First photograph. In 1826, French photographer Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took what is widely recognized as the first photograph. Although it’s up for debate how recognizable the image is—the grainy black and white photo is said to be the view from his window. Or it might be a picture of apes in a jungle. Or the moon. Or anything really, depending on how you squint.

First baby conceived by IVF. Before modern fertility medicine, if things weren’t working in the baby department hopeful parents were left with prayer, sketchy procedures, and more than a few dubious old wives’ tales. Then in 1977 Lesley Brown was impregnated with an embryo through a new technique called in-vitro fertilization. Nine months later, daughter Louise became the first baby born after IVF.

First person to win two Nobel prizes. Winning one Nobel prize is considered an amazing lifetime accomplishment but winning two of the distinguished awards? Leave it to Marie Curie, the famous scientist, to be the first person ever to win two Nobel prizes when she won the Physics prize in 1903 and the Chemistry prize in 1911.

First person to reach both the north and south poles. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole in 1911 and then trekked to the North Pole in 1926, making him the first person to reach each pole and the first person to reach both poles.

First baby born in the American Colonies. The birth of any baby is a happy day, but Virginia Dare’s birth date of August 18, 1587, is particularly celebratory. On that day she became the first English person born in the American colonies. (Obviously not the first person born in America, as the large population of Native Americans can attest.) Sadly, Virginia, who was named in honor of the colony she was born in, along with all the other colonists in her group, mysteriously disappeared within three years.

First president to be elected with a unanimous vote. George Washington is well known for being the first American president, but in 1789 he also became the first (and only) U.S. president to be unanimously elected. After his death in 1799, he was eulogized as being “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Like that’ll ever happen again!


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Sally Asante
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