John and Jessie Frémont were among our first ‘power couples’

An 1856 presidential jugate ribbon shows John and Jessie Frémont, who is often recognized as the first wife of a presidential candidate to catch the public’s imagination.

By Jim O’Neal

An old adage claims that “behind every great man stands a great woman.” There are several variations of this theme and the feminist movement of the 1970s offered a clever alternative: “Alongside every great man is a great woman.”

In political terms, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and wife Eleanor Roosevelt (her actual maiden name) probably epitomize this concept … he with his New Deal and historic four terms as president and she with her four terms as First Lady, first delegate to the United Nations, a monthly magazine column, a weekly radio host and a civic activist. Or as Harry Truman dubbed her, “First Lady of the World.”

Pierre and Marie Curie represent another pair of great side-by-side couples, although in this case, the “great woman” probably eclipsed her husband’s accomplishments. Born in 1867, Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in 1903 (which she shared with Pierre and a colleague). Then she became the first person – man or woman – to win this prestigious award twice, the second time in 1911 for her personal work in chemistry. She died on July 4, 1934, from aplastic anemia, almost certainly due to her habit of carrying test tubes of radium in her lab coat pockets. Pierre was killed when he was struck by a carriage crossing a street … probably deep in thought. It is likely he would have eventually died as Marie did since he shared her lab-exposure habits. Ironically, both are credited with the first use of the term “radioactive.”

Another category for your consideration is “Invisible Women.” Two who easily qualify are Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, generally unknown outside a small group of space pioneers. President Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom and NASA dedicated an entire building in her honor. Vaughan was the first African-American supervisor at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).

They were portrayed as unsung heroes in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures, which snagged three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It was the little-known story of a team of female African-American mathematicians (“human computers”) who played a vital role at NASA during the early years of the space program. Their contributions or even existence easily qualify them as prime “Invisible Women,” at least to the American public.

Another perfect example is Jessie Ann Benton Frémont, the wife of John C. Frémont. She was the daughter of prominent Missouri politician Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858), who became a state senator when the Compromise of 1820 allowed Missouri (slave) and Maine (free) to enter the Union. He would go on to become the first U.S. senator to serve five terms. Benton had been a slave owner who later recognized the injustice of the cruel practice, putting him against his party and popular opinion in his state.

John F. Kennedy included Benton in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage as an example of a senator who lost his office over a matter of principle. Future President Teddy Roosevelt wrote a full biography of Benton focusing on his support for westward expansion. Historians credit Benton with sparking TRs interest in Manifest Destiny.

Benton’s daughter was a talented young lady who was fluent in French and Spanish and fascinated with her father’s political and western expansion activities. However, gender played a role at the time and stifled her ambitions. She eventually became involved with a youthful John C. Frémont, whose expeditions into the uncharted west would earn him the nickname “the Pathfinder.” Frémont’s activities attracted the attention of Senator Benton and, almost inevitably, of Jessie.

When they met in 1840, Jessie was a mere 16 years old – 11 years younger than John. They ended up eloping since John’s pedigree was too thin for the Benton family. It proved to be a perfect match, with Jessie creating the narrative and public relations to hype her new husband’s exploits. One of the leading explorers of Western North America, Frémont was not well known when he commanded the first of his exploits, but within a short time he became one of the most famous wilderness explorers. He was known as a gallant Army officer, highly publicized author and semi-conquistador. His timing was exquisite and Americans started naming mountains and towns in his honor before his 40th birthday.

One particular trek in 1842 included Kit Carson; they crossed the Continental Divide at a new gap in the Rockies near Wyoming. Jessie’s detailed rendition of the excursion became a sensational publication that was used as a quasi-travel guide for thousands of pioneers eager to go west! However, it was an 1845 expedition that changed the Frémonts’ life. Supposedly organized to chart a faster route to Oregon, it was really a trip to survey California should President Polk negotiate the land away from Mexico. When this occurred, they headed to San Francisco. When John spotted the bay, he gave the strait its name: the Golden Gate.

John C. Frémont would become a senator when California was admitted to the Union and in 1856 he become the first Republican candidate for president (losing to James Buchanan), but not before leaving behind another adage: “Every great man needs a woman behind him taking notes.”

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

What would you do if you saw your obituary?

Francis H.C. Crick’s Nobel Prize Medal and Nobel Diploma, awarded in 1962 for his work related to DNA molecules, sold for $2.27 million at an April 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1888, a French newspaper published Alfred Nobel’s obituary with the following title: “Le marchand de la mort est mort” or “The merchant of death is dead.”

In reality, it was actually his brother Ludvig who had died, but Alfred was appalled that this kind of sendoff could tarnish his own professional legacy. One presumes that the only error was the mix-up in names since the sobriquet seemed apt given Alfred’s contributions to the effectiveness of substances that resulted in death.

In a complicated maneuver, the inventor of dynamite attempted to rectify future obits by posthumously donating the majority of his estate (94 percent) to the establishment of the Nobel Prizes, designed to expunge his reputation for all the deaths resulting from his explosive product. It was only partially successful since he was accused of treason against France for selling Ballistite (a smokeless propellant composed of two explosives) to Italy. The French forced him to leave Paris and he moved to Sanremo, Italy, where he died in 1896. There were five Nobel categories with an emphasis on “peace” … for obvious reasons.

A native of Stockholm, Nobel made a fortune when he invented dynamite in 1867 as a more reliable alternative to nitroglycerin. As a chemist and engineer, he basically revolutionized the field of explosives. Some accounts give him credit for 355 inventions. In 1895, a year before his death, he signed the final version of his will, which established the organization that would bear his name and “present prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”

Nobel’s family contested the will and the first prizes were not handed out until 1901. Among the first winners were German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, who discovered X-rays, and German microbiologist Emil Adolf von Behring, who developed a treatment for diphtheria. The Nobel Prizes were soon recognized as the most prestigious in the world. Except for war-related interruptions, prizes have been awarded virtually every year. The category of economics was added in 1969.

The first American to receive a Nobel was President Theodore Roosevelt, who garnered the prize in 1906 after he helped mediate an end to the Russian-Japanese war. The German-born American scientist Albert Michelson claimed the physics prize the next year. However, the peace and literature prizes would become the most familiar to Americans and are some of the most controversial. Critics voiced concerns over Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson (1919), George Marshall (1953) and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (1973). More recently, winners have included Al Gore (2007) for making an Oscar-winning documentary on climate change, and Barack Obama (2009) “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” (for more, see Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward).

William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison generally have escaped criticism, as have multiple winners like Marie Curie (the first woman in 1911, and in two separate categories), and Linus Pauling, among others. The Red Cross has snagged three. From a personal standpoint, the most obvious non-winner is Mahatma Gandhi, or as someone quipped, “Gandhi can do without a Nobel Prize, but can the Nobel Committee do without Gandhi?”

I think not.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

We owe Thomas Edison, Henry Ford a debt of gratitude

This uncanceled Edison Phonograph Works stock certificate is dated 1888, the very year the company was founded, and was issued to “Thomas A. Edison.” It was sold at an April 2012 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On Monday, Oct. 21, 1929, the Edison Institute was dedicated in Dearborn, Mich. It was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first incandescent light bulb that Thomas Alva Edison had invented and the strong friendship between Henry Ford and Edison. Although it was a relatively small group that joined in, it was loaded with luminaries: John D. Rockefeller, Orville Wright, Will Rogers, Marie Curie and, of course, Henry Ford and Edison, who was 82 years old.

President Herbert Hoover’s speech stated: “Every American owes a debt to him. It is not alone a debt for great benefactions he has brought to mankind, but also a debt for the honor he has brought to our country. His life gives confidence … our institutions hold open the door of opportunity … to all that would enter.” The ceremony was broadcast on radio and listeners were asked to keep all their electric lights off until a switch was flipped at the event.

Thomas Edison

One week later, the stock market was in a state of chaos as a series of events led to the Great Depression.

Ford (1863-1947) had grown up on a rural farm in Michigan and, like virtually every other American, was captivated by the remarkable inventions Edison was cranking out. Eschewing farm work after his mother died, he inevitably went to work at his hero’s company – Edison Illuminating Company – as an engineer.

Ford rose through the ranks to Chief Engineer, which allowed him more personal time to work on developing his version of an automobile. In 1896, at age 33, Ford developed his first experimental car, called the Ford Quadricycle. Edison had been working on an electric car and when the two men finally met, Edison reputedly slammed his fist on a table and exclaimed, “Young man, you have it!” He encouraged Ford to continue his development and this started a longtime friendship between the two geniuses.

Ford eventually developed his Model T, a series of improvements (not inventions) to the combustion engine, and a continuous assembly line. Introduced in 1908, the Model T would be extremely successful, eventually becoming one of the top-selling cars of all time. With the steering wheel on the left side, it is estimated that over 75 percent of everyone who learned to drive did it in some version of the Model T.

Along the way, Ford pioneered the eight-hour workday, reduced the cost from $850 and raised worker wages to $5 a day so they could afford to buy a car. He became a rich and successful businessman with a passion for collecting historic objects. President Wilson convinced him to run for the Senate since he was for peace and a Democrat, but he lost. After his death in 1947, the Edison Institute was renamed the Henry Ford Museum.

Today, the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation includes Greenfield Village, a tour of the massive Ford Rouge factory, and even a dedicated IMAX theater. The museum has an astonishing collection of Americana, with over 200 cars, JFK’s limousine from his trip to Dallas, the bus Rosa Parks made famous, Lincoln’s rocking chair from Ford’s Theater, Edison’s laboratory, the Wright Brothers’ bicycle machine shop, steam engines and other historic items depicting the history of America.

The Henry Ford Museum is the largest indoor/outdoor museum in the United States, with over 1.7 million visitors a year. Somewhere in this vast collection of truly famous objects is a small test tube with Edison’s last dying breath. Ford convinced Edison’s son to hold a mask over Edison as he was dying and capture/cork the “last breath.” Whether it does or not is irrelevant. The fact is that there are a number of similar test tubes that were filled in the room when Edison actually did die. The Ford example represents the genuine friendship between these two remarkable men and the wheelchair races on their adjoining estates in Florida, the hunting trips that included Harvey Firestone and President Harding, and their quest for knowledge that makes our lifestyle so much better even today.

They were both deeply flawed men who have slowly melted into history, but President Hoover was right. We do owe them a debt a gratitude and can overlook some or most of their egregious sins as the famous door of opportunity is still wide open, as we see every day.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Here’s Why Linus Pauling is Among Our Greatest Scientists

A lot that included Linus Pauling’s signature was offered in January 2017.

By Jim O’Neal

Serious writers about Albert Einstein almost invariably include two episodes in his life. The first is the year 1905, when he published four stunning scientific papers. The first explained how to measure molecules in a liquid; the second explained how to determine their movement. The third was a revolutionary concept that described how light rays come in packets called photons. The fourth merely changed the world!

A second highlight deals with a “fudge factor” Einstein (1879-1955) called a “cosmological constant,” whose only purpose was to cancel out the troublesome cumulative effects of gravity on his masterful general theory of relativity. He would later call it “the biggest blunder of my life.” Personally, I prefer a much more simplistic observation that perfectly captures his nonchalance. The poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945) once asked him if he had a notebook to keep track of all his ideas. A rather amused Einstein quickly replied, “Oh, no. That’s not necessary. It is very seldom I have one.”

History is replete with examples of people who had a good year. It was 1941 for Yankees great Joe DiMaggio when he hit in 56 consecutive games, and Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in 1927. For Bobby Jones, it was 1930, when he won all four of golf’s major championships. Some people have good days, like Isaac Newton when he observed an apple falling from a tree and instantly conceptualized his theory of gravity.

Linus Pauling was different. His entire life was filled with curiosity, followed by extensive scientific research to understand the factors that had provoked him to wonder why. Pauling was born in 1901. His father died in 1910, leaving his mother to figure out how to support three children. Fortunately, a young school friend got an inexpensive chemistry set as a gift and that was enough to spark Pauling’s passion for research. He was barley 13, but the next 80 years were spent delving into the world of the unknown and finding important answers to civilization’s most complex issues.

He left high school without a diploma (two credits short that a teacher wouldn’t let him make up), but then heard about quantum mechanics and in 1926 won a Guggenheim Fellowship to study the subject under top physicists in Europe. (He was eventually given an honorary high school diploma … after he won his first Nobel Prize.) By the late 1920s and early 1930s, Pauling was busy cranking out a series of landmark scientific papers explaining the quantum-mechanical nature of chemical bonds that dazzled the scientific community.

Eventually, he returned to the California Institute of Technology (with his honorary high school diploma) to teach the best and brightest of that era. Robert Oppenheimer (of the Manhattan Project) unsuccessfully tried to recruit him to build the atomic bomb, but failed (presumably because he also tried to seduce Pauling’s wife). However, Pauling did work on numerous wartime military projects … explosives, rocket propellants and an armor-piercing shell. It’s a small example of how versatile he was. In 1948, President Truman awarded him a Presidential Medal for Merit.

In 1954, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research on the chemical bond and its application to the elucidation of the structure of complex substances … which I shall not try to explain. And along the way, he became a passionate pacifist, joining the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, chaired by Einstein, in an effort “to warn the people of the pending dangers of nuclear weapons.” His reward was to be called a communist; he had his passport revoked and his patriotism challenged, along with many others, in the dark days of McCarthyism.

In 1958, he petitioned the United Nations, calling for the cessation of nuclear weapons. In addition to his wife, it was signed by over 11,000 scientists from 50 countries. First ban the bomb, then ban nuclear testing, followed by a global treaty to end war, per se. He received a second Nobel Prize for Peace in 1963, but that was for trying to broker an early peace with Vietnam, making him one of only four people to win more than one prize, including Marie Curie in 1903 (physics) and 1911 (chemistry). His other awards are far too numerous to mention. As an aside, he died in one of my favorite places: Big Sur, Calif., at age 93.

Sadly, in later life, his reputation was damaged by his enthusiasm for alternative medicine. He championed the use of high-dose vitamin C as a defense against the common cold, a treatment that was subsequently shown to be ineffective (though there’s some evidence it may shorten the length of colds). I still take it and see scientific articles more frequently about the benefit of infused vitamin C being tested in several cancer trials.

If he were still working on it, let’s say the smart money would be on Pauling.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].