The Fiddler's Broken Wrist
The man who modified the swivel chair for modern use possessed a turn of mind I have admired for years. Clever people through the ages didn't think of such an improvement, just as native Americans failed to grasp the concept of the wheel until foreign immigrants brought it to their attention.
The swivel chair innovator had a keen mind for other matters, too, such as new techniques in agriculture and manufacture, and he involved himself in politics with a great deal of success. He even found time to learn to play the violin and he became quite adept at it, although he usually referred to himself as a "fiddler."
His fiddle playing came to an abrupt end on September 4th, 1786, the day before the British philanthropist Jonas Hanway died. ( Hanway also had a clever mind for he was the first Londoner to cover his head with an Oriental parasol when walking in the rain. He suffered much ridicule, but the idea of the umbrella soon caught on.)
It was a pleasant Monday and our 43 year old inventive fiddler went for a long walk with a friend. About four miles from his home he tripped and fell, breaking his right wrist. He got to his feet and continued the conversation, not mentioning the excruciating pain. He tightly grasped the broken wrist behind his back with his left hand and continued the walk home.
After reaching his house he told his companion of what happened and sent for a doctor. The wrist was improperly set and bothered him the rest of his life. And his fiddle playing was ended.
Not being able to play his violin was not his only distress. He couldn't write, either, and he was a voluminous writer. That very afternoon he began to make laborious entries in his journal with his left hand.
The accident evidently didn't diminish his interest in music. Four days later he attended a concert. A few days after that he went to an opera.
In mid-December, 1786, he wrote to a friend, "A dislocation of my right wrist has for three months past disabled me from writing except with my left hand, which was too slow and awkward to be employed often."
In August of 1822 he still occasionally mentioned his injured wrist. To one William T. Barry he wrote, "Age, debility, an ancient dislocated and now stiffened wrist, render writing so slow and painful that I am obliged to decline everything possible requiring writing." He was by then nearing 80 and both wrists were painful.
The shadows were lengthening in the summer of 1825 when he wrote, "At the age of eighty-two, with one foot in the grave, and the other uplifted to follow it, I do not permit myself to take part in new enterprises, even for bettering the condition of man...which has been through life that of my greatest anxiety."
Surely the improvement of the swivel chair made life somewhat more comfortable for his fellow man. His efficient design of the moldboard for the plow was an enormous contribution to agriculture. Even his invention of a macaroni-making machine deserves applause. And it is said it was he who came up with the recipe for macaroni and cheese.
Among his major contributions during his years of public service was the construction of the decimal method for the money system of the United States. His words of 1792 resonate today: "...the public is no longer confident and serene...It has been urged, then, that a public debt, greater than we can possibly pay...has been artificially created...; that this accumulation of debt has taken forever out of our power those easy sources of revenue which, applied to the ordinary necessities and exigencies of government would have answered them."
Two-hundred and sixteen years later we, the public, are neither confident nor serene. We know that something has gone terribly wrong with our financial system and we seem unable to fix it. Perhaps we should consult the inventive fiddler with the broken wrist....Mr. Thomas Jefferson.
December 7, 2008
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