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The portrait of George Washington featured on the $1 bill was never finished.

Early American leaders were hesitant to print images of the Founding Fathers on the country’s currency, though that reluctance wouldn’t last forever. In 1869 — 70 years after his death — George Washington’s likeness was printed on the $1 bill for the first time. Engravers based Washington’s vignette on the “Athenaeum Portrait,” a piece by painter Gilbert Stuart that became famous despite never being completed. Washington sat for the painting at his wife Martha Washington’s request in 1796, with the understanding that she would receive the portrait after it was completed. However, Stuart never finished the painting, a move some historians believe was intentional so that the portrait could instead be copied and sold. Stuart may have made as many as 75 reproductions, though the original “Athenaeum Portrait” survives today, housed alternately at the National Portrait Gallery and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

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What toy was created for broken bones?


Silly String was invented for broken bones.
There's nothing silly about a broken bone, but if laughter is the best medicine, then the creators of Silly String may well have helped more people than they ever envisioned. In the 1960s, inventor Leonard A. Fish and chemist Robert P. Cox set about producing a mixture that would rapidly harden after delivery via a spray can, providing a near-instant cast for anyone unfortunate enough to sustain a broken limb. They came up with a sticky concoction that set quickly and held, then tested some 500 nozzles in search of the best application from a pressurized can. When one nozzle propelled a stream 30 feet across the room, Fish and Cox had another idea — maybe this stringy goo would work better as a plaything?

After tweaking their recipe, the duo arranged a meeting with an executive at Wham-O, the company behind such popular toys as the Frisbee and Hula Hoop. At first, a business relationship seemed unlikely; overeager to demonstrate, Fish and Cox all but decorated the office with loads of colorful string, and were unceremoniously shown the door. Fortunately, the company's owners later spotted some leftover gunk and were intrigued enough to seek a larger sample. The next day, Fish and Cox received a telegram from Wham-O requesting 24 cans of the stuff for a market test. By 1972, when a patent was granted for this "Foamable resinous composition," Silly String had clearly moved on from its roots as a tool for healing and was well on the way to its destiny as a mess-making accoutrement for partygoers of all ages.

Silly String is used by the military to detect booby traps.
Although Fish and Cox chose the path of entertainment for their creation, they may have been heartened by news of a real-world application that fulfilled their original goal of helping people. As far back as 1997, the U.S. military used Silly String to weed out the presence of dangerous improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in hostile areas. A spritz of the stringy stuff is light enough to drape across nearly invisible trip wires without setting them off, calling attention to these deadly traps often nestled in doorways and gates. While the military has been quiet about publicizing this use, the revelation of its effectiveness prompted one mother, whose son was stationed in Iraq in the early 2000s, to collect 80,000 cans of Silly String and nearly identical products to send overseas to aid the war effort and save a few more lives.

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The Antikythera Mechanism is a 2,000-year-old "computer" from ancient Greece.

The Antikythera Mechanism is one of the most astounding archaeological finds in history. Discovered within the ruins of an ancient Greco-Roman shipwreck first found by sponge divers in 1900, it was brought to the surface the following year as part of the world’s first major underwater archaeological excavation. At first, the mechanism — in dozens of corroded, greenish pieces of bronze — was more or less overlooked in favor of the many bronze and marble statues, coins, amphorae, and other intriguing items the shipwreck contained. But in the 1950s, science historian Derek J. de Solla Price took particular interest in the machine, convinced that it was in fact an ancient computer. In the early 21st century, advanced imaging techniques have proved Price correct.
Of course, this wasn’t a digital creation, but an analog computer, likely dating to around the first century BCE. Although only portions of the original device survive, scientists have been able to piece together its original function. About the size of a mantle clock, the Antikythera Mechanism was a box full of dozens of gears with a handle on the side. When the handle turned, the device calculated eclipses, moon phases, the movements of the five visible planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn — and more. It even included a dial for the timing of the ancient Olympics and religious festivals. Nothing else like it is known from antiquity, and nothing like it shows up in the archaeological record for another 1,000 years. Scientists aren’t sure exactly who made the device, although the ancient Greek astronomer and mathematician Hipparchus has been suggested as the creator, and the famed mathematician and inventor Archimedes may also have been involved. While its origin will likely remain a mystery, the mechanism’s purpose has only grown clearer with time — and its existence has completely altered our understanding of the history of technology.

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A con artist made his living by repeatedly selling the Brooklyn Bridge.

Con artist George C. Parker famously claimed to have “sold” the Brooklyn Bridge twice a week for years. Parker began his scheme in the 1880s, preying on naive immigrants seeking investment opportunities. His well-rehearsed spiel claimed the bridge was for sale and that buyers could make a fortune by charging tolls. Parker then negotiated whatever price the mark was willing to pay, with average sales reportedly totaling around $5,000 (roughly $150,000 today). Many victims later attempted to erect a tollbooth, but were always stopped by police and informed they’d been scammed. Parker continued selling off the bridge as well as other notable New York City landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and even Ulysses S. Grant’s tomb. In 1928, he was finally busted once and for all after trying to cash a bad check.

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A giant wave of beer once flooded London.

London was once a prominent beer-brewing city; in the 1850s, the U.K. capital was home to the largest brewery in the world. London’s beer business was robust in the 19th century — and it was also the source of an industrial accident that sent thousands of gallons of beer flooding the streets. It happened at the Horse Shoe Brewery, located at the corner of Great Russell Street and Tottenham Court. On the afternoon of Monday, October 17, 1814, one of the large iron rings used to hold together the brewery’s wooden fermentation tanks broke. The vat was massive: It stood about 22 feet high, and held roughly the equivalent of more than 3,500 standard barrels of the company’s porter beer. Within an hour, the damaged tank burst, sending a gush of beer that broke through a wall and caused several more of the tanks on the premises to split open.

More than 380,000 gallons of beer then rushed through the streets of St. Giles, a densely populated, poverty-stricken London neighborhood. The wave reached up to 15 feet high, and came crashing into nearby homes and businesses. Although everyone at the brewery survived, the London Beer Flood claimed the lives of eight people in the neighborhood. In the aftermath, the media reported a respectful atmosphere as St. Giles residents reckoned with the tragedy; stories about locals scooping up as much beer as they could drink also emerged, although historians now dispute the likelihood of these reports. A hearing ultimately found that the brewery was not responsible, dubbing the incident an act of God.

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