Denis Beckett writes a bi-weekly column for The Star called Stoep Talk.
These days the smallest enquiry can turn into a cornucopia of rival facts, writes Denis Beckett.

My eye fell on an item in the Spectator, on anniversaries falling in 2017, and that seemed a nice innocent column topic, altogether unconfusing and nothing to wrestle with. But alas, this funny old world throws up googlies all the time.

It started easy enough, on the surprises of history. One of these, to me, is that it’s 200 years since Dr Fahrenheit created a global measurement of temperature. Imagine that, two centuries of globalising already, what marvels it has achieved and what oddities it has left out.

We still have different railway gauges, different threads on nuts and bolts. Half our vehicles have the wiper switch on the left of the steering wheel and the other half the indicators.

Surprise #2 is the ATM. When was that invented? I guessed 25 years ago and I was 100% wrong. Fifty years ago (when it was a cash dispensing machine).

The first one-way street? If 100 years sounds right to you, we are both extremely wrong. That was Pudding Lane in London in 1617.

Then to the first airmail flight, and here the timing seems logical. In 1917, the Spectator tells us. That was 14 years after the Kitty Hawk.

But here is the killer – between which two cities was this flight? On a question like this, bookmakers make fortunes. Even with an atlas in hand, most of us wouldn’t place this flight’s two points in our top 10000 guesses.

From Brindisi in Italy to Valona, Albania, we are told with the authority of the Spectator (which must get a few things right. It’s soon notching up its own 200th birthday).

Except, thinking it’d be fun to find how these two unlikely cities scored this distinction, I turn to Dr Google, and (re)discover the fascinating truth that no truth, any longer, is simple and single.

You look a long way through Google to find Brindisi or Valona. You find the air thick with rival claims for the first airmail flight, mostly from even more unexpected co-ordinates.

Take John Wise, who in 1859 took off by balloon from Lafayette, Indiana, for New York with letters. Sad to say his weather forecasting went awry, so he landed in Crawfordsville, Indiana, and sent the letters by train.

A 1911 trip from Allahabad, India, to Naini, India, strongly declared its claim, collecting 6500 letters for the purpose, to addressees including King George V and a youngster named Jawaharlal Nehru, who 40 years later would be India’s prime minister.

But the plane carried these letters only 13km; does that qualify for “first airmail flight”? Later rivals included one from Swakopmund to Windhoek. What struck me from this lot is that history is not what it used to be. The more we learn, the less certain we are.

Old simple verities – Edison invented the light bulb, the Wright brothers initiated air flight, Gottlieb Daimler made the first car – crumble into half-truth, even into mythology. Some Spectator assistant editor, I take it, was blithely brought up on Brindisi and Valona.

Before Google, you and I wouldn’t have thought of arguing. But now the smallest enquiry turns into a cornucopia of rival facts. That’s bewildering but it’s also maturing.

How simple it was to anoint heroes with halos – the Edisons, the Daimlers, the Wrights got the award because acclaim begot acclaim.

From now on we’ll forever be reorienting – “Well, Edison sort of invented one bit of electricity, but then Nikola Tesla did another and Michael Faraday and Thomas Seebeck and, and, and”

A fairer world, I’d say.

Apologies to Brindisi and Valona.

* Beckett is a writer and journalist. His Stoep Talk column appears in The Star on Mondays and Fridays.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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