Hewlett-Packard historical archives destroyed in Santa Rosa fires

Hewlett-Packard historical archives destroyed in Santa Rosa fires

When deadly flames incinerated hundreds of homes in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood earlier this month, they also destroyed irreplaceable papers and correspondence held nearby and once belonging to the founders of Silicon Valley’s first technology company, Hewlett-Packard.

The Tubbs fire consumed the collected archives of William Hewlett and David Packard, the tech pioneers who in 1938 formed an electronics company in a Palo Alto garage with $538 in cash.

More than 100 boxes of the two men’s writings, correspondence, speeches and other items were contained in one of two modular buildings that burned to the ground at the Fountaingrove headquarters of Keysight Technologies. Keysight, the world’s largest electronics measurement company, traces its roots to HP and acquired the archives in 2014 when its business was split from Agilent Technologies — itself an HP spinoff.

The Hewlett and Packard collections had been appraised in 2005 at nearly $2 million and were part of a wider company archive valued at $3.3 million. However, those acquainted with the archives and the pioneering company’s impact on the technology world said the losses can’t be represented by a dollar figure.

“A huge piece of American business history is gone,” said Brad Whitworth, who had been an HP international affairs manager with oversight of the archives three decades ago. He said Hewlett-Packard had been at the forefront of an industry “that has radically changed our world.”

Karen Lewis, the former HP staff archivist who first assembled the collections, called it irresponsible to put them in a building without proper protection. Both Hewlett-Packard and Agilent earlier had housed the archives within special vaults inside permanent facilities, complete with foam fire retardant and other safeguards, she said.

“This could easily have been prevented, and it’s a huge loss,” Lewis said.

Keysight Technologies spokesman Jeff Weber acknowledged the destruction of the Hewlett and Packard collections, but he disputed the idea that the company had failed to adequately safeguard them.

“Keysight took appropriate and responsible steps to protect the company archives, but the most destructive firestorm in state history prevented efforts to protect portions of the collection,” Weber said in an email. “This is a sad, unfortunate situation — like many others in Sonoma County now. This is a time to begin healing, not assigning blame.”

He added the company “is saddened by the loss of documents that remind us of our visionary founders, rich history and lineage to the original Silicon Valley startup.”

The flames that entered the Keysight campus on Oct. 9 were part of several wildfires that killed at least 23 residents and destroyed 6,800 homes and other buildings in the county.

Among the structures consumed were two beige, flat-roof modular buildings near the Keysight entrance on Fountaingrove Parkway. The buildings, connected by an overhang to a permanent structure, held not only the archives but also a branch office of First Tech Federal Credit Union.

The rest of Keysight’s campus survived with relatively minimal damage from the fire, CEO Ron Nersesian said on Oct. 10. The campus includes four permanent buildings and a recycling storage facility, together constituting nearly a million square feet of office and production space.

The fire and its aftermath have kept the Fountaingrove facility closed for three weeks.

The campus is undergoing disaster recovery work and may reopen for business this week with a limited number of Keysight’s 1,300 Santa Rosa employees, Weber said.

Meanwhile, about 100 staff members have shifted to former HP facilities inside Rohnert Park’s Somo Village. That location could be outfitted for up to 900 staff members by early November, Weber said. Another 200 staff are now reporting to a facility in Petaluma.

After their start in a Palo Alto garage, now a historic landmark dubbed “the Birthplace of Silicon Valley,” Hewlett and Packard found early success with the Walt Disney Company. The latter ordered eight audio oscillators to test speaker systems and other sound devices being used in 12 specially-equipped theaters in 1940 showing the animated film “Fantasia.”

Hewlett Packard and other companies went on to produce testing and measurement devices that remain a largely unheralded part of the tech industry. But analysts and historians said the equipment proved crucial to the development of computers, cellphones and virtually every other device that plugs into a wall or uses a battery.

HP later developed the first hand-held calculator and the first inkjet printer. It also expanded into making personal computers.

Hewlett-Packard’s relationship with Santa Rosa dates back to 1972, when the company first began operations here. The company opened the Fountaingrove campus in 1975.

The Sonoma County operations consistently focused on testing and measurement equipment, even as HP and later Agilent became a major employer, with 5,000 workers here by 2001. But after the dot-com bust, Agilent in 2004 shuttered its Rohnert Park plant and transferred most of its manufacturing overseas.

By the time Hewlett-Packard arrived in Sonoma County, it had been in operation almost four decades and had gained a reputation for a less authoritarian management style aimed at unleashing employee creativity — a collegial approach that came to be known as the “HP Way.”

The company and its founders also affected international affairs. Hewlett-Packard in 1985 became the first technology company to enter into a joint venture in China. And Packard, who temporarily left the company to become deputy secretary of defense in the first Nixon Administration, was known during the Cold War as a advocate of increased trade with Soviet bloc countries in order to foster world peace.

Packard died in 1996 at age 83. Hewlett was 87 when he died in 2001.

A few years before Hewlett-Packard’s 50th anniversary in 1988, Lewis was brought in to build an archive out of the boxes of company photos, writings and other materials.

After reviewing the contents, she said, “I realized, ‘Oh my god, this is the history of Silicon Valley … This is the history of the electronics industry.’”

Raymond Price, a coauthor of “The HP Phenomenon: Innovation and Business Transformation,” said he received limited access to the company archives when researching the 2009 book. But he and coauthor Charles H. House would gladly have delved deeper into the collection of the two founders.

“We would have killed to have had those records and to go through their personal papers,” said Price, a professor emeritus from the University of Illinois. For researchers, he said, the archives contained “such valuable insights into how companies grow.”

“To me it’s just tragic,” he said of the destroyed collections.

In 2005, an appraiser set the collection’s value at $3.3 million and called it one of the most historically significant company archives remaining outside of nonprofit institutions, Lewis said. She recalled that the appraiser had called its primary source material “of the highest possible historical value” for those researching the convergence of technology and business.

Whitworth noted that HP specifically had Lewis oversee the design of a special archive room at the company’s Palo Alto headquarters. The archives, he said, “were a family treasure that was treated that way.”

Lewis said the room was essentially a vault, a receptacle without windows. It was humidity controlled with no ultraviolet light and protected from fire by foam retardant.

The archives, she said, received the same protection when moved to Agilent Technologies facilities and later when stored in a private site owned by a data storage company.

The archives should have gone to Stanford University, where the founders were alumni, Lewis said.

“These records belonged in the public trust,” she said. “They should not have stayed with a private corporation.”

Instead, the archives were transferred in 2014 from a foundation controlled by Agilent to a similar nonprofit of Keysight.

Both Weber and others suggested the archives came to Santa Rosa largely because Keysight considers its electronic measurement work in direct lineage to the original business of Hewlett and Packard. Some of the first HP devices are displayed in a heritage gallery inside one of the permanent buildings on the Keysight campus.

Weber said only part of the total collection of HP materials was held at the Keysight facility.

“A large portion of that collection stayed with HP during the HP/Agilent split in 1999,” Weber said. “Portions of it stayed with Agilent at the Keysight/Agilent split in 2014, and a small portion came to Keysight.”

However, he acknowledged the materials burned included the personal collections of Hewlett and Packard.

Lewis said those amounted to the heart of the archives and were valued by the appraiser together at $1.9 million.

At the Fountaingrove facility, Weber said, “most of the archives were stored on metal shelving in archival quality folders inside damage-resistant archival boxes in a secure building with a sprinkler system.” He called those steps standard practice for archival collections, and later added that they met or exceeded guidelines set by the United Nations and the Library of Congress.

Whitworth said he doesn’t know what led to the Hewlett and Packard collections being stored in the modular buildings. “Regardless,” he said, “it was a mistake.”

Those who care about HP’s history will be awaiting word about what key documents and materials remain elsewhere.

“We can hope that something was salvaged,” Whitworth said. “But we’re going to be missing volumes.”

UPDATE: Dana Lengkeek, a spokesperson for HP Inc, which also traces its roots to Hewlett and Packard, in an email Tuesday said that company also holds certain Hewlett-Packard archives in Atlanta, Ga. Among them are “hundreds of items related to HP’s founders, including many examples of speeches, personal correspondence, writings and other materials.” Also, donated personal papers of William Hewlett are part of a public collection held by Stanford University.



Today’s Internet Optical Illusion Is This Wobbly Floor

Today’s Internet Optical Illusion Is This Wobbly Floor

Good morning, this floor is flat. I know it looks like something off the cover of a Dr. Seuss book, but I am the Thomas Friedman of floors, and I am here to tell you it is flat, and was probably designed by a bunch of sadistic people who would like nothing more than to watch you trip and fall on your face. Actually, it’s the entryway to a tile company’s showroom in Manchester, England. Which, frankly, is a pretty good way to sell tile. But also, the “falling on your face” thing. (On the upside, the illusion only works from one direction. The floor looks normal walking out of the building.)

What it looks like going out of the building.

Extra: This is a picture of a flat carpet.


The Dark History Behind Ouija Board’s Baltimore Origins

The Dark History Behind Ouija Board’s Baltimore Origins

Charles Kennard always had his eye out for a chance to make a buck, but he was not the greatest, nor the luckiest, businessman. It appears that he wasn’t the most honest guy, either. The second child of a successful Delaware merchant, Kennard moved to Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the late 1880s after developing “secret” bone-mix recipes for fertilizer. (In fairness, everyone in the fertilizer business claimed a “secret” recipe.) Following initial success, his Chestertown plant went to auction due to a combination of drought, competition, and debt. But all was not lost. A Prussian immigrant named E.C. Reiche kept an office next to Kennard’s on the first floor of the four-story, wood-frame hotel in Chestertown’s tiny business district. A furniture maker turned coffin maker turned undertaker—not an atypical career progression for the day—Reiche was also an inveterate tinkerer and Kennard had another plan.

Back story: Two generations earlier, a pair of girls in upstate New York named the Fox sisters, claiming to be mediums able to interpret mysterious “knocks” from the other side, had launched a spiritualist movement that continued to hold sway across the country. In fact, in the aftermath of the Civil War, with so many husbands, fathers, and sons lost in the conflict’s bloody battles, spiritualism—the belief the dead can speak to the living—had only gained steam with people desperate for a connection to departed loved ones and greater meaning for their own lives.

It’s in this context in 1886, during the period Kennard and Reiche shared a hallway, that newspaper reports began appearing about a “talking board” phenomenon sweeping Ohio, including an Associated Press story that ran in the local Kent County News. It’s also about this time, according a later Baltimore American story, that Kennard and Reiche—most likely inspired by the AP account—began collaborating and making at least a dozen of their own “talking” boards.

“Reiche, the biggest coffin maker in town, is making these on the side,” explains Robert Murch, the world’s foremost talking-board historian, and it’s these prototypes that became the Ouija board. “But it’s Kennard, when he leaves Chestertown for Baltimore in 1890, where he continues in the fertilizer game, and starts a real-estate business, who begins pitching what he says is his talking-board invention to potential investors.”

After numerous rejections, Elijah Bond, a local attorney who claimed his sister-in-law was a strong medium, finally took an interest. Soon enough, the Kennard Novelty Company, which incorporated the day before Halloween 125 years ago, began manufacturing Ouija boards much as they appear today. Bond was right about his sister-in-law, too: Helen Peters proved convincing enough with Kennard’s new talking board to win over a skeptical U.S. patent office. She not only gets credit for earning the stamp of legitimacy from the federal government, certifying the board delivered as promised, but also for “receiving” the O-U-I-J-A name from the board itself, which told her the strange word meant “good luck.”

(In truth, the name “Ouija” was written on the necklace locket that Peters was wearing at the time.)

So, yes, an undertaker and an opportunist named Kennard invented the only patented board game—billed as both a mystical oracle for communicating with the spirits and wholesome amusement—ever to outsell Monopoly in a given year.

“It comes straight from the 19th-century séances,” says Nic Ricketts, curator at The National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, noting that a glow-in-the-dark board and a classic version are still sold today. “There has never been another brand board game like it, and I don’t see it fading away any time soon.”

The story of the Ouija board, however, is more than a tale of snake oil salesmen duping the Victorian masses or, subsequently, a game of harmless fun at a million junior-high sleepovers. While it remains an amazingly enduring pop-culture phenomenon—tied to the rise of the horror movie/paranormal industrial complex—its saga is also about the universal desire to find answers to life’s biggest questions, the history of psychology, and even the development of neuroscience.

“It’s always been a board game, a parlor game, but it has always been more than a board game for some people, too,” Murch says. “In the 19th century, people had a much different relationship to death than we do today—it was much closer to their everyday experience. Now, we do everything we can in hopes of avoiding aging, let alone engage in any real thoughts of death. But in the 1800s, people only lived to be 50 years old. Mothers would have 12 children and six of them would die. Their parlor rooms were also their funeral rooms.”

Not surprisingly perhaps, there’s a dark side or two buried in Ouija’s origin story. There always is when money is at stake, and by the early 1890s, some 2,000 Ouija boards were already being sold a week. William Fuld, who worked for and invested in the Kennard Novelty Company—and eventually gained control of the Ouija business after the founder cashed out too early—went on to make millions manufacturing the board in Baltimore and elsewhere, but only after his brother was cut out of the company. Their ensuing lawsuits were no mere spat. William’s brother, Isaac, became so embittered that he had his baby daughter exhumed and relocated from the Fuld family gravesite during a cemetery renovation. The two sides of the family would not speak for 96 years.

And, tragically, William Fuld would suffer a fatal accident at his Harford Avenue factory, one he claimed in a 1919 Baltimore Sun story that the Ouija had told him to build. (“Prepare for big business.”) Overseeing the installation of a flag, an iron railing gave way and he fell off the roof of the structure, which still stands and has been converted into a senior apartment complex. “On his death bed—the coroner’s report said a broken rib pierced his heart—he made his children promise to never sell the Ouija out the family,” says Murch.

Of course, Fuld’s family did sell—but not for four decades—to Parker Brothers, which promptly moved Ouija to its base of operations in Salem, MA. In 1967, the first year it was headquartered in the town infamous for its witch trials, Ouija sold two million boards.

By comparison, Monopoly—an early version was invented in 1903—wasn’t popular until the Great Depression, when it fulfilled a kind of fantasy escapism. Ouija, on the other hand, was a sensation from the outset, long before even its first film appearances, which date back to Hollywood’s beginnings.

But Ouija’s public image has always been complicated. Initially, the “mysterious oracle” was marketed as a game to enliven a party or encourage a little light-hearted intimacy for romantic—or would-be romantic—couples, who are often depicted in early advertisements with the board resting on their knees as they sit across from each other, both of their hands on the planchette. Norman Rockwell, who was fond of depicting the revealing moments of everyday life, painted a well-dressed suitor and young woman, chairs pulled face-to-face, playing with a Ouija board for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1920.

Less well known is the Ouija board’s use as inspiration or as an “automatic” writing tool by acclaimed novelists and poets, such as Sylvia Plath, who wrote “Dialogue over a Ouija Board,” and Pulitzer Prize winner James Merrill. Merrill used notes from Ouija “consultations” in his 560-page epic poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, which contained messages from W.B. Yeats, friend Maya Deren, and the Archangel Michael.

But over time, the relative innocence of the Ouija board—or at least its nonpartisan relationship between good and evil—gave way to a more sinister reputation as Hollywood began utilizing it for darker purposes. After The Exorcist, in which actress Linda Blair’s character Regan explains to her mom, played by Ellen Burstyn, how she used the family’s Ouija board to ask questions of “Captain Howdy”—the demon who eventually takes possession of her soul—the board’s occult status was cemented.

Since then, it has shown up in more than 20 films, and made countless appearances in the ever-growing number of paranormal-themed TV shows. Forums around Ouija-associated phenomena populate the Internet, of course. Most recently, the 2014 movie Ouija did so well at the box office that Ouija 2 is already in the works. When it was released last fall, the movie so dramatically boosted board sales that petitions by evangelical Christian groups to ban the Ouija started popping up again. Catholic.com, a lay-run Catholic apologetics and evangelization website, describes Ouija as “far from harmless.”

Still, the most interesting thing about the Ouija board might be the latest research around it from University of British Columbia that shows it actually does work—just not in the way we might assume.

A few years ago, Sidney Fels, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UBC, brought out a Ouija board at a Halloween party attended by graduate students, including many who were foreign-born and unfamiliar with how it works. They assumed it required batteries. “‘No, you don’t need batteries. It will move,’ I told them,” Fels recalls. “I gave them some mystical explanation tied into Halloween and they had a good laugh.”

But lo and behold, when Fels returned later, the grad students were enthralled because the planchette was moving on its own. Or so it appeared. The mechanism at work was actually something known as the ideomotor effect, which refers to the influence of the unconscious mind on muscle movements. (First identified in 1852, preceding Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind by decades, Dr. William Benjamin Carpenter discovered the ideomotor effect while investigating the unconscious mind’s ability to direct motor activity. Shortly thereafter, other researchers began linking that discovery to—you guessed it—spiritual phenomena.)

Days later, still fascinated by the students’ experience, Fels shared the story with colleague Ron Rensink, a psychology and computer science professor, and that got the ball rolling about whether the board could serve as a tool to look at unconscious knowledge.

“We didn’t know if we’d find anything, but when we did, the results really surprised us,” Fels says. When study participants were asked to answer or guess at a set of challenging questions, they were correct about 50 percent of the time. But when responding while using the board—which participants believed had the ability to “receive” correct answers from another person teleconferencing via a robot Ouija partner—they scored correctly upwards of 65 percent of the time.

In actuality, the robot was a ruse; it was not responding to the video-conferencing player, but subtly amplifying the study participants’ tiny, unconscious movements. “It was significant how much better they did on these questions,” Rensink says. “If you don’t think so, consider the difference playing roulette when the odds are 50-50 versus 65-35.”

The implication is that one’s unconscious is much smarter than anyone knew, capable of pulling up bits of stored information not accessible to the conscious mind.

Results in a follow-up study replicated the findings, which they reported in the academic journal, Consciousness and Cognition.

Rensink believes the results open greater possibilities for further study. For example, is unconscious memory affected by Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases in the same way as conscious memory?

It’s work that William Fuld—the guy who fell from the factory roof and is considered the “father” of the Ouija (he was also a state delegate and philanthropist)—would probably appreciate. When asked directly by a reporter if he believed in the Ouija’s mystical powers, he replied: “I should say not. I’m no spiritualist. I’m a Presbyterian.”

The discovery of the Ouija’s ability to tap into unconscious knowledge is not the only development in the talking board’s 125-year-old story, however. The reconciliation of William Fuld’s family with his brother Isaac’s clan after nearly a century of silence is the other compelling occurrence.

The two sides had long lost contact until Murch began posting his research on the web nearly two decades ago. That’s when Stuart Fuld, the then-sixtysomething grandson of Isaac Fuld, and Kathy Fuld, the granddaughter of William Fuld, separately reached out to Murch, in hopes of learning more about their ancestors. “I was talking to each one individually at first without the other one knowing it,” Murch recalls. “I was aware of the feud and didn’t want to upset either one, but then Kathy called one night and asked for Stuart’s phone number.”

“It turned out we were living five miles apart while growing up and didn’t know it,” says Kathleen Fuld, Stuart’s wife. (Stuart Fuld passed last year.)

The two sides of the family, which now include great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren of the brothers, have been getting together regularly ever since.

While some of the descendants did hold on to Ouija and other talking-board memorabilia—Isaac later attempted to launch a talking board competitor named the “Oriole” board—no one, apparently, ever took a serious spiritual interest in Ouija. Not even when they were kids.

“Not me,” says Kathleen Fuld, chuckling. “I was a good Irish Catholic girl.
I had eight cousins who were nuns.”

She adds, however, that Stuart did take a great deal of interest in learning about his grandfather and ancestors, as well as the history of the former family business—if not the surrounding mysticism—especially as he got older.

“I’ll tell you a funny story,” she says. “We went up to the Poconos for a golfing trip one year and there was a conference of priests taking place at the hotel where we stayed. I don’t remember why or how it came up, but Stuart ends up telling
a group of priests we’re talking with that his family once made the Ouija board.

“All the priests immediately started making little crosses with their fingers,” Fuld continues. “They started asking Stuart all kinds of questions. They wanted to know the whole story and got the biggest kick out of that.”

Even better, the priests invited the couple to take advantage of the conference’s complimentary evening cocktail parties for the weekend—which they did.

“But it didn’t matter,” she adds. “Every time we saw those priests, in the elevator, or wherever, they’d start making those crosses with their fingers.”


These Two Small Letters Heralded the Beginning of Online Communication

These Two Small Letters Heralded the Beginning of Online Communication

An uncountable number of letters have been sent from one person to the other via the internet in the years since 1969–in ARPANET message boards, the recently-deceased AOL Instant Messenger and currently-in-vogue Slack, to name a few platforms. Hard to believe, but this communication revolution started with two letters.

Late at night on October 29, 1969, today celebrated as International Internet Day, the first message was sent over the Internet. Two groups of researchers in two separate facilities sat before rudimentary computer terminals, on the phone, making yet another attempt at talking to each other. Their planned first transmission wasn’t anything too fancy, Len Kleinrock, who headed the UCLA lab engaged in the research, told Guy Raz for NPR. But it turned out to be amazing anyways.

The UCLA researchers were trying to transmit the message “login,” as in a login command, to the computer at Stanford. Charley Kline, who sent the initial transmission from UCLA, said they’d tried this before with no success. This time, however, something happened. “The first thing I typed was an L,” he told NPR. Stanford computer scientist Bill Duvall said over the phone that he’d received it. He typed the O: it also went through. Then came the G: “And then he had a bug and it crashed.”

Later that night, after some more tinkering, they successfully transmitted the whole word. Then they went home to get some sleep, having no way of knowing what would ensue because of this development.

“We should have prepared a wonderful message,” Kleinrock told Raz. It would have placed them in the tradition of discoverers who had pithy statements– “What hath God wrought,” “a giant leap for mankind,” etcetera. Samuel Morse, Neil Armstrong and the others “were smart. They understood public relations. They had quotes ready for history.”

But “lo,” the accidentally abbreviated first transmission, would have to do, and in fact actually works quite well. Merriam-Webster defines the word as an exclamation “used to call attention or to express wonder or surprise” that has a history of use going back as far as the 12th century. Its predecessor, the Middle English “la,” goes back even farther. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “la” can be found in Beowulf and the Ormulum, amongst other works. Its more modern incarnation is found in the King James Bible, in the first scene of Hamlet and in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, to name a few examples.

What the teams at UCLA and Stanford had pioneered was the ARPANET, the predecessor to the internet, which has come to contain all of the above texts as well as many, many more pedestrian statements. By the spring of 1971, it could be found at 19 research institutions, writes Leo Beranek for the Massachusetts Historical Review, and it’s only spread from there.


What’s the Matter With Applebee’s? – Eater

What’s the Matter With Applebee’s? – Eater

The experience of sliding into an overstuffed leather booth, hemmed in by walls decked in dubious Americana, the metal signs and pilfered taxidermy alluding to a time and place steeped in myth and wholly alien to the strip mall outside, while perusing a menu of oversauced fried hunks of protein and cheap carbs, all under the tawny haze of a poorly cloned Tiffany lamp, wasn’t quite universal. But it was common enough that the market, the great American arbiter of truth and beauty, blessed the suburbs from coast to coast — where so many of us were spawned and haltingly shepherded toward nominal adulthood — with thousands upon thousands of places in which to have that experience: The casual dining chain bloomed, almost like an onion you might say.

And now it’s dying, sort of. Because they’re terrible places, or because of millennials, or because of looming class warfare, or probably all of the above. Whatever the reasons, it should probably be less surprising that a monoculture as vast and mediocre as the suburban sitdown restaurant has contracted a terminal illness now slowly spreading from specimen to specimen, from Applebee’s to Ruby Tuesday’s to BW3 or whatever the fuck they’re calling Buffalo Wild Wings these days. More fascinating than the grinding demise of this corporate culinary hegemon, maybe, is the knowing, mournful soundtrack that we can’t help but provide with the collective gnashing of our teeth: Why do we still care so much about these places that we’ve since decided offer us such hollow fulfillment? —Matt Buchanan

[There are links to several articles about the decline of the suburban restaurant chains.  All the articles are depressing given the state of middle class America the chains represent.]


Disney Dark Kingdom: Rumored Disney Villain Theme Park Plans Revealed – Thrillist

Disney Dark Kingdom: Rumored Disney Villain Theme Park Plans Revealed – Thrillist

“Anyone know what will come of The Villains Park (Dark Kingdom) concepts?”

Three years ago, a Disney fan hoping for updates about a supposed all-villains theme park that Disney would nestle alongside its other properties in Central Florida posted that inquiry to Reddit. In response, someone linked to an equally vague post on the WDW Info webpage about Disney parks that were never built. More posts popped up in 2016, fueling the mystery. Earlier this year, another Reddit user linked to a post on the Berlin-based news-and-rumor site MoviePilot, and just this June, the tourism site Travel Whip revved up the rumor. Again and again the concept of a Dark Kingdom park was reiterated, and again and again the response attracted believers and skeptics alike. Round and round the discussion went, like the Mad Tea Cups and Dumbo the Flying Elephant rides at Disneyland.

Every post devoted to the Dark Kingdom features the same basic skeleton: Disney had (or has?) plans to carve out part of its Walt Disney World complex and hand it to the brand’s rogues gallery. Instead of being relegated to the parks’ Halloween celebrations, villains like Ursula, Captain Hook, Maleficent, Gaston, the Evil Queen, and even Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas would get their chance to shine year-round in ghoulish shows and attractions.

Except that this park never existed — not even in some rough conceptual form. As Disney historian Jim Hill told me, “The idea of the Dark Kingdom seems to have basically come from the internet, with no basis on anything concrete.” Or, as one former Imagineer familiar with actual proposed projects and the online rumors puts it, “An entirely villains-centered park is complete bullshit.”

The story of the Dark Kingdom isn’t unfounded, instead the unlikely synthesis of hearsay, years of disparate (and wholly unrelated) projects, snowballing half-truths, wispy rumors, an aggressive consumer product line that’s captured the imagination of acolytes, and Disney’s inability to formally comment on park plans. And the legend’s origin traces back to a single day in Disney history: July 11, 1986.

The freedom to be villainous
Tokyo Disneyland, Disney’s first international theme park, opened on April 15, 1983 and swiftly established itself as something different than its California namesake. While largely designed by Walt Disney Imagineering, the secretive group of engineers, artists, and technicians that work out of a rambling collection of buildings in Glendale, California, Tokyo Disneyland wasn’t technically owned by the Walt Disney Company, but by Oriental Land Company, a Japanese conglomerate of hotels, transportation outfits, and restaurants. Under OLC, the Imagineers weren’t hampered by the financial constraints or synergistic obligations that could foil ambitious projects elsewhere.

Cinderella Castle Mystery Tour, which opened on July 11, 1986, was an emblem of that outside-the-box thinking. “The idea was to do a Haunted Mansion-type experience but not the Haunted Mansion,” former Imagineer Mark Eades, who helped design the amazing video effects in the attraction, told me.

The Mystery Tour mirrored the experience of the Sleeping Beauty Castle tour in Disneyland, but with a twist. Cast members warning participants that the experience might be too intense was just the beginning; as a cheery tour guide ushered tourists through the castle, the Magic Mirror from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs appears, irked by the guide’s disparaging remarks about villains. In a flash, the portraits on the walls mutate, turning Pinocchio’s face into a painting of Stromboli. A secret passageway opens up, leading the tour (and your terrified tour guide) through a number of show scenes: the Evil Queen’s laboratory (complete with poison-dipped apple); ghastly spirits; the Chernabog from the “Bald Mountain” segment of Fantasia (crowd-pleaser!); and those creepy gnomish goons from Sleeping Beauty.

At the very end of the tour you come face-to-face with the Horned King, the big bad from The Black Cauldron, the notorious animated flop that had been released in America less than a year before the Japanese Mystery Tour opened. The Horned King Audio-Animatronic figure was one of the more sophisticated figures in existence, and visitors used light swords to “vanquish” him, a welcome lesson that good ultimately conquers evil. Cinderella Castle Mystery Mansion also taught park-goers that spending time with the Disney villains could be really, really fun.

Clearly, someone at the company noticed.

Bringing the evil stateside
The first attempt at stateside villainy came with the establishment of Fantasyland’s Disney Villains shop, which opened in July 1991 to sell spooky merchandise centered around the hero counterparts. The shop closed in 1997 when it was used to sell merchandise from The Hunchback of Notre Dame — yes, Disney dedicated prime real estate to a store exclusively hawking Quasimodo plush — but returned in 1998 as Villain’s Lair. A second shop, Villains in Vogue, also opened on September 14, 1998 at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (then known as Disney-MGM Studios) in Walt Disney World.

Around the same time, Disney plotted its next move for space previously occupied by Walt Disney World’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage, a sprawling attraction and operational nightmare that broke down for good in 1994. The open real estate put Imagineering (in California) and Walt Disney World operations (in Florida) at constant odds, with team members from both sides proposing ideas (including a Harry Potter-themed land back when Disney had temporarily secured the theme park rights from J.K. Rowling). The two attractions eventually built in that space – a character greeting space for Ariel from The Little Mermaid and a play area themed to Winnie the Pooh – were safe options. But one rejected idea for the 20,000 Leagues space would warp the Dark Kingdom narrative forever.

Villain Mountain was pitched as Magic Kingdom’s second flume ride after Splash Mountain. Riding Hades’ underworld boat from Hercules, guests would run into classic Disney villains before the grand finale: a run-in with a towering, Audio-Animatronic version of the winged demon Chernabog from Fantasia. A steep flume chute provided an escape route, returning the vessel to the safety of Fantasyland. The current internet rumor mill suggests that then-Disney-CEO Michael Eisner, nervously anticipating the opening of Universal Orlando’s second gate, Islands of Adventure, in the summer of 1999, adored the concept. True or not, it didn’t go beyond lavish concept art.

“[Villain Mountain] was just a concept,” said Eades. “I can’t emphasize that enough. People say, ‘They were going to build that,’ but they have no idea. It was never more than a concept.”

An ambitious Fantasyland expansion continued to fan Dark Kingdom rumors. In 2014, Disney unveiled the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train attraction, a family-friendly roller coaster with the most state-of-the-art Audio-Animatronics ever including a truly uncanny version of Snow White’s Evil Queen (in old hag guise). Another staple of the new land was a character meet-and-greet with Gaston, who could be spotted outside of a tavern that bears his name. The villains were still there, but an attraction devoted exclusively to their exploits remained out of reach.

By the time that New Fantasyland opened, however, the villains had been commoditized and packaged into a single brand: Disney Villains. Disney Consumer Products chairman Andy Mooney, who devised the official Disney Princesses line after seeing a gaggle of girls dressed in homemade costumes standing in line at a Disney on Ice show, stepped in to integrate the darker take into the public conscious. They weren’t as many constraints on the brand as with the Disney Princesses (who couldn’t look at one another or appear to be in the same physical location); acting rascally was part of their commercial identity. The grouping maintained core Disney Villains like the Evil Queen and Hook, alongside newer staples like Jafar and Ursula. More recently, Oogie Boogie from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas has joined the ranks of a flood of villain merchandise, including officially licensed handbags at Hot Topic and a cavalcade of T-shirts sold in the New Orleans Square section of Disneyland. (An official Instagram account for the brand was started earlier this year.)

With the audience primed, surely the all-villains park must be on the way? The answer is no, although a pair of projects in the late-2000s would certainly confuse those who desperately wanted these rumors to be true.


There Never Was a Real Tulip Fever | History | Smithsonian

There Never Was a Real Tulip Fever | History | Smithsonian

When tulips came to the Netherlands, all the world went mad. A sailor who mistook a rare tulip bulb for an onion and ate it with his herring sandwich was charged with a felony and thrown in prison. A bulb named Semper Augustus, notable for its flame-like white and red petals, sold for more than the cost of a mansion in a fashionable Amsterdam neighborhood, complete with coach and garden. As the tulip market grew, speculation exploded, with traders offering exorbitant prices for bulbs that had yet to flower. And then, as any financial bubble will do, the tulip market imploded, sending traders of all incomes into ruin.

For decades, economists have pointed to 17th-century tulipmania as a warning about the perils of the free market. Writers and historians have reveled in the absurdity of the event. The incident even provides the backdrop for the new film Tulip Fever, based on a novel of the same name by Deborah Moggach.

The only problem: none of these stories are true.

What really happened and how did the story of Dutch tulip speculation get so distorted? Anne Goldgar discovered the historical reality when she dug into the archives to research her book, Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age.

“I always joke that the book should be called ‘Tulipmania: More Boring Than You Thought,’” says Goldgar, a professor of early modern history at King’s College London. “People are so interested in this incident because they think they can draw lessons from it. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.”

But before you even attempt to apply what happened in the Netherlands to more recent bubbles—the South Sea Bubble in 1700s England, the 19th-century railway bubble, the dot-com bubble and bitcoin are just a few comparisons Goldgar has seen—you have to understand Dutch society at the turn of the 17th century.

For starters, the country experienced a major demographic shift during its war for independence from Spain, which began in the 1560s and continued into the 1600s. It was during this period that merchants arrived in port cities like Amsterdam, Haarlem and Delft and established trading outfits, including the famous Dutch East India Company. This explosion in international commerce brought enormous fortune to the Netherlands, despite the war. In their newly independent nation, the Dutch were mainly led by urban oligarchies comprised of wealthy merchants, unlike other European countries of the era, which were controlled by landed nobility. As Goldgar writes in her book, “The resultant new faces, new money and new ideas helped to revolutionize the Dutch economy in the late 16th century.”

As the economy changed, so, too, did social interactions and cultural values. A growing interest in natural history and a fascination with the exotic among the merchant class meant that goods from the Ottoman Empire and farther east fetched high prices. The influx of these goods also drove men of all social classes to acquire expertise in newly in-demand areas. One example Goldgar gives is fish auctioneer Adriaen Coenen, whose watercolor-illustrated manuscript Whale Book allowed him to actually meet the President of Holland. And when Dutch botanist Carolus Clusius established a botanical garden at the University of Leiden in the 1590s, the tulip quickly rose to a place of honor.

Originally found growing wild in the valleys of the Tien Shan Mountains (at the border where China and Tibet meet Afghanistan and Russia), tulips were cultivated in Istanbul as early as 1055. By the 15th century, Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire had so many flowers in his 12 gardens that he required a staff of 920 gardeners. Tulips were among the most prized flowers, eventually becoming a symbol of the Ottomans, writes gardening correspondent for The Independent Anna Pavord in The Tulip.

The Dutch learned that tulips could be grown from seeds or buds that grew on the mother bulb; a bulb that grows from seed would take 7 to 12 years before flowering, but a bulb itself could flower the very next year. Of particular interest to Clusius and other tulip traders were “broken bulbs”—tulips whose petals showed a striped, multicolor pattern rather than a single solid color. The effect was unpredictable, but the growing demand for these rare, “broken bulb” tulips led naturalists to study ways to reproduce them. (The pattern was later discovered to be the result of a mosaic virus that actually makes the bulbs sickly and less likely to reproduce.) “The high market price for tulips to which the current version of tulipmania refers were prices for particularly beautiful broken bulbs,” writes economist Peter Garber. “Since breaking was unpredictable, some have characterized tulipmania among growers as a gamble, with growers vying to produce better and more bizarre variegations and feathering.”

After all the money Dutch speculators spent on the bulbs, they only produced flowers for about a week—but for tulip lovers, that week was a glorious one. “As luxury objects, tulips fit well into a culture of both abundant capital and new cosmopolitanism,” Goldgar writes. Tulips required expertise, an appreciation of beauty and the exotic, and, of course, an abundance of money.

Here’s where the myth comes into play. According to popular legend, the tulip craze took hold of all levels of Dutch society in the 1630s. “The rage among the Dutch to possess them was so great that the ordinary industry of the country was neglected, and the population, even to its lowest dregs, embarked in the tulip trade,” wrote Scottish journalist Charles Mackay in his popular 1841 work Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. According to this narrative, everyone from the wealthiest merchants to the poorest chimney sweeps jumped into the tulip fray, buying bulbs at high prices and selling them for even more. Companies formed just to deal with the tulip trade, which reached a fever pitch in late 1636. But by February 1637, the bottom fell out of the market. More and more people defaulted on their agreement to buy the tulips at the prices they’d promised, and the traders who had already made their payments were left in debt or bankrupted. At least that’s what has always been claimed.

In fact, “There weren’t that many people involved and the economic repercussions were pretty minor,” Goldgar says. “I couldn’t find anybody that went bankrupt. If there had been really a wholesale destruction of the economy as the myth suggests, that would’ve been a much harder thing to face.”

That’s not to say that everything about the story is wrong; merchants really did engage in a frantic tulip trade, and they paid incredibly high prices for some bulbs. And when a number of buyers announced they couldn’t pay the high price previously agreed upon, the market did fall apart and cause a small crisis—but only because it undermined social expectations.

“In this case it was very difficult to deal with the fact that almost all of your relationships are based on trust, and people said, ‘I don’t care that I said I’m going to buy this thing, I don’t want it anymore and I’m not going to pay for it.’ There was really no mechanism to make people pay because the courts were unwilling to get involved,” Goldgar says.

But the trade didn’t affect all levels of society, and it didn’t cause the collapse of industry in Amsterdam and elsewhere. As Garber, the economist, writes, “While the lack of data precludes a solid conclusion, the results of the study indicate that the bulb speculation was not obvious madness.”

So if tulipmania wasn’t actually a calamity, why was it made out to be one? We have tetchy Christian moralists to blame for that. With great wealth comes great social anxiety, or as historian Simon Schama writes in The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, “The prodigious quality of their success went to their heads, but it also made them a bit queasy.” All the outlandish stories of economic ruin, of an innocent sailor thrown in prison for eating a tulip bulb, of chimney sweeps wading into the market in hopes of striking it rich—those come from propaganda pamphlets published by Dutch Calvinists worried that the tulip-propelled consumerism boom would lead to societal decay. Their insistence that such great wealth was ungodly has even stayed with us to this day.

“Some of the stuff hasn’t lasted, like the idea that God punishes people who are overreaching by causing them to have the plague. That’s one of the things people said in the 1630s,” Goldgar says. “But the idea that you get punished if you overreach? You still hear that. It’s all, ‘pride goes before the fall.’”

Goldgar doesn’t begrudge novelists and filmmakers for taking liberties with the past. It’s only when historians and economists neglect to do their research that she gets irked. She herself didn’t set out to be a mythbuster—she only stumbled upon the truth when she sat down to look through old documentation of the popular legend. “I had no way of knowing this existed before I started reading these documents,” Goldgar says. “That was an unexpected treasure.”


How the Nauga and its Fictional Friends Helped Make Synthetic Fabric Cuddly | Smart News | Smithsonian

How the Nauga and its Fictional Friends Helped Make Synthetic Fabric Cuddly | Smart News | Smithsonian

Save the Nauga!

That was the cry of amateur standup comedian Al Rosenberg in September 1981, pretending to be eccentric inventor Earl C. Watkins (not a real person), leader of the “Save the Nauga” campaign. Watkins regularly appeared on a local radio show, wrote Fred Ferretti for The New York Times that month. But unlike Watkins’s other charitable campaigns, such as the Fund to Aid the Venetian Blind and Save the India Napless 500, a campaign “to help a small village near New Delhi that is afflicted with insomnia,” the Nauga campaign had a proud history.

According to the makers and advertisers of naugahyde, the Nauga–the creature from whose leather-like skin couches and other furniture are made–is a gentle but tough beast. “Invite a Nauga to your next party,” one November 1967 advertisement encourages readers. “Punch him in the nose the minute he comes through the door. Spill a Bloody Mary on him. Get him with a pie in the face. Smear chocolate on his chest. Kick him around. His vinyl hide is Naugahyde vinyl fabric. It’s indestructible.”

In case you haven’t figured it out, the Nauga is a fictional creature. Naugahyde is a synthetic leather replacement, trademarked in 1936, while the Nauga was born of a late 1960s advertising campaign, according to Barbara Mikkelson writing for Snopes. The cutesy Nauga advertisements and cuddly Nauga dolls (now very collectible) were intended to soothe “customers’ unfamiliarity with what might otherwise have been perceived as a distinctly synthetic (and thus at the time a slightly threatening) product,” Mikkelson writes. Even Garfield creator Jim Davis got in on the joke in June 1981, when the coffee-loving cat demanded of his owner Jon “Do you know how many Naugas they killed to make this leash?”

While the Nauga is the first and best-known of the cryptozoological creatures who furnish synthetic textiles to the masses, it’s far from the only one. Here are a few of the others mentioned by concerned citizens during a 1992 letter-writing campaign to the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, mentioned by Mikkelson. A local scientist wrote in to the paper’s editorial section, lamenting the plight of a little-known but important animal. His quirky wit inspired others, and a whole host of synthetic creatures were singled out for attention. History does not record if action was every taken to remedy their plights.

The Belgian Velcro

In a letter headed “The sad tale of Velcro’s source,” University of Wisconsin microbiologist Dean O. Cliver lamented the plight of the velcro. Cliver was a world-renowned researcher who died in 2011.

“No matter what you might have read, Velcro was not invented,” he wrote (it absolutely was). “It was developed as a use for the skins of darling little creatures that live in central Belgium. They are lured into large plastic bags by the aroma of gender-specific sex attractants (the males actually fight each other to get in) and then are heartlessly suffocated.”

The Ester Squirrel

“Many people in the United States do not realize that polyester fabrics sold here are not all formed from the chemical reactions called polyesterification,” wrote Eric Rothstein in a response to Cliver’s letter. “While 98 percent of polyester does come from polyesterification, the two percent extra is a product from the ester squirrel.” More than a million esters die every month in the production of polyester, he wrote.

The Nuff

The letter-writers didn’t forget the Nauga. “Thank goodness we have come to our senses and are beginning to examine the plight of these exploited creatures!” Madison local Joyce Carey wrote on February 15. Nor did they forget the Nuff–at least not letter-writer Elaine Kearney. “People unknowingly step on these and run over them in their cars,” she wrote, “but they are actually warm, cuddly and friendly. After all, a nuff is a nuff.”


The Roots of Computer Code Lie in Telegraph Code | Smart News | Smithsonian

The Roots of Computer Code Lie in Telegraph Code | Smart News | Smithsonian

Famously, the first long-distance message Samuel Morse sent on the telegraph was “What hath God wrought?” When it comes to digital progress, it’s a question that’s still being answered.

The telegraph was a revolutionary means of communication in itself, but it’s also connected to the development of modern computer languages. Like any new technology, its creation had a ripple effect, provoking a wide range of other innovations. Engineer Jean-Maurice-Émile Baudot, born on this day in 1845, was an important telegraph innovator whose telegraph system helped lay the groundwork for modern computers.

Baudot had been a telegraph operator since 1869, write Fritz E. Froehlich and Allen Kent in The Froehlich/Kent Encyclopedia of Telecommunications. When he was training, he learned how to operate Samuel Morse’s original telegraph, but he also learned to use other telegraph models. He practiced on the Hughes telegraph, an early printing telegraph that had a keyboard like a piano, and the Meyer telegraph, which was the first to use paper tape with holes in it to record telegraph signals, according to author Anton A. Huurdeman. Baudot built on these innovations, adding his own touch.

Baudot Code

Baudot Code’s biggest advantage over Morse Code, which was first used in the 1840s, and other earlier codes, was its speed. Earlier systems sent characters of information by using different lengths of character distinguished by a short gap (the “dits” and “das” of the Morse code system). “Baudot’s code sent characters in a synchronized stream,” writes author Robin Boast, “as each character code was exactly the same length and had exactly the same number of elements.” Although some of the ideas he used had been pioneered before, Baudot was the first to connect them all in a system, Boast writes. He goes on to explain, “most significant for us is that Baudot was the first to recognize the importance of a simple five-bit binary code–a digital code.” Baudot’s fixed-length binary code is a direct predecessor of some of the digital codes used today.

ASCII, the most widely accepted code for translating computer information into the words you see on your screen, is based on Baudot code, which itself went through several permutations after Baudot’s original innovation. But more importantly, Baudot’s code itself “laid the first brick in the road to our digital universe,” writes James Draney for Review 31. “Baudot’s Printing Telegraph was an encoding system that ran off five-bit binary code. It was not the first binary code, of course, but it was the first to be properly considered digital, and its essence still exits in our computers, tablets and mobiles today.”

Printing on paper tape

Having already patented his printing telegraph in France, England and Germany, Baudot secured an American patent for his printing telegraph on August 21, 1888. The inventor wasn’t the first to use a paper-punch system to record telegraph signals, but because Baudot Code and his custom-built telegraph machines were widely embraced, being much faster than previous telegraphs, they helped keep the system alive. His printing telegraph was a predecessor to computers because it ran without human intervention, once the data (codes) were input, presenting the information to the receiver in a readable form–paper tape with coded holes in it.

Baudot’s teletype machine, also called a teletypewriter, used a five-key keyboard, write Froehlich and Kent. “Borrowing from Meyer, Baudot developed a distributor that allowed five instruments to share the same wire,” they write. His prototype was tested in the later 1870s and widely adopted in France: “by 1892,” the pair write, “France had 101 Baudot-printing multiple telegraphs in operation.”

Digital printing using perforated paper was still used in the twentieth century, Boast writes, and it was “one of the first recording media used for electronic computers in the 1940s and ‘50s.” Think punch cards and ticker tape.


The Unlikely Medical History of Chocolate Syrup | Science | Smithsonian

The Unlikely Medical History of Chocolate Syrup | Science | Smithsonian

At first glance, nothing seems particularly odd about the December 1896 edition of The Druggists Circular and Chemical Gazette, a catalog of products that any self-respecting pharmacy ought to carry. But look closer: Hiding among medical necessities like McElroy’s glass syringes and Hirsh Frank & Co’s lab coats, you’ll find some more curious finds—including Hershey’s cocoa powder.

“Perfectly soluble,” boasts the ad in bold, capital lettering. “Warranted absolutely pure.” It reads as if it was peddling medicine—and in fact, it sort of was.

Druggists of the day often used the dark powder to whip up a syrup sweet enough to mask the flavor of objectionable remedies, explains Stella Parks, a pastry chef with the food and cooking website Serious Eats. Parks happened upon these vintage advertisements while she was researching her new book, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, which features lesser-known histories of our favorite sweet treats.

The Hershey’s ad intrigued her. “What in the world are these guys doing advertising to druggists?” she recalls wondering at the time. By digging into the history and tracking down more pharmaceutical circulars and magazines, she discover the rich history of chocolate syrup, which began not with ice cream and flavored milk—but with medicine.

(The Druggists’ Circular and Chemical Gazette, Volume 40, 1896)

Our love of chocolate goes back over 3,000 years, with traces of cacao appearing as early as 1500 B.C. in the pots of the Olmecs of Mexico. Yet for most of its early history, it was consumed as a drink made from fermented, roasted, and ground beans. This drink was a far cry from the sweetened, milky stuff we call hot chocolate today: It was rarely sweetened, and likely very bitter.

Still, the roughly football-sized pods that cradled the beans were held in high esteem; the Aztecs even traded cacao as currency. Chocolate didn’t become popular overseas, however, until Europeans ventured into the Americas at the end of the 15th century. By the 1700s, the ground beans were avidly consumed throughout Europe and the American colonies as a sweetened, hot drink that was vaguely reminiscent to today’s hot cocoa.

At the time, chocolate was touted for its medicinal properties and prescribed as treatment for a range of diseases, says Deanna Pucciarelli, a professor of nutrition and dietetics at Ball State University who researches the medicinal history of chocolate. It was often prescribed for people suffering from wasting disease: The extra calories assisted in weight gain, and the caffeine-like compounds helped perk patients up. “It didn’t treat the actual illness, but it treated the symptoms,” she explains.

Yet for pharmacists, it wasn’t only the supposed health benefits but also the rich, velvety flavor that held such appeal. “One thing about medicines, even going way back, is that they are really bitter,” says Diane Wendt, associate curator of the division of medicine and science at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Many medications were originally derived from plants and fall in a class of compounds known as alkaloids, which has an acrid, mouth-puckering flavor. The first of these alkaloids, isolated by a German chemist in the early 1800s, was none other than morphine.

Chocolate, it turns out, effectively covered the toe-curling taste of these foul flavors. “Few substances are so eagerly taken by children or invalids, and fewer still are better than [chocolate] for masking the taste of bitter or nauseous medicinal substances,” according to the 1899 text, The Pharmaceutical Era.

It’s unclear exactly when pharmacists first combined cocoa powder and sugar to brew the sticky syrup. But its popularity was likely helped along by the invention of cocoa powder. In 1828, Dutch chemist Coenraad J. Van Houten patented a press that successfully removed some of chocolate’s natural fats, reducing its bitter flavor and making it easier to dissolve with water. Still, the result wasn’t exactly the “same kind of smooth mellow chocolate we have now,” says Parks; to make it palatable, pharmacists would mix cocoa powder with at least eight times more sugar than chocolate.

The popularity of chocolate syrup exploded in the second half of the 19th century, coinciding with the golden age so-called patent medicines. These are named after the “letters of patent” the English crown awarded to inventors of supposedly curative formulas. The first English medicine patent was awarded in the late 1600s, but the name later came to refer to any over-the-counter drugs. American “patent medicines” went by the same name, but were not typically patented under this system.

Patent medicines emerged at a time when public need for treatments and cures outpaced medical knowledge. Many of these “cures” did more harm than good. Often marketed as cure-alls, the concoctions could contain anything from pulverized fruits and veggies to alcohol and opioids. At the time, the common use of these addictive substances in remedies was legal; regulation didn’t come about until the 1914 passage of the Harrison Narcotic Act.

One popular remedy featuring tincture of opium as its active ingredient was Stickney and Poor’s Paregoric. This syrup was marketed as a treatment for many ills, and given to cholicky infants as young as five days old. “Remedies” like this weren’t completely ineffective. The inclusion of narcotics and alcohol in the cures did indeed give customers temporary relief from illness—and, more sinisterly, their addictive nature kept them coming back for more.

The boom of factory mass production in the 1900s brought with it the rise of easy-to-swallow medical pills. But before that, “pill making by hand is pretty labor intensive,” says Wendt. “To actually make a pill of a certain dose—to mix it up and cut the pills, and roll the pills, and dry the pills, and coat the pills—that’s a pretty lengthy process.” That’s why, during this time, medications were mostly served up in liquid or powder form, says Wendt.

Druggists would mix each liquid remedy with a base of sugary flavored syrups, like chocolate, and take it either by the spoonful or mixed into a beverage, says Wendt. Alternatively, powders could be directly poured into your refreshment of choice. The base for these medicinal drinks could be anything from plain water to tea to a couple fingers of whiskey. But over the course of the 1800s, one particular drink was gaining popularity as a medicine masker: carbonated water.

Not unlike chocolate, soda water was initially considered a health drink in its own right. The carbonated beverage mimicked the mineral-rich waters bubbling up in natural springs that had become known for its curative and healing powers. Soda became a truly widespread phenomenon in America around the turn of the century thanks to the pharmacist Jacob Baur, who invented the process necessary to sell tanks of pressurized carbon dioxide.

Part health drink, part delicious treat, sweetened carbonated water began spreading like wildfire in the form of soda fountains, Darcy O’Neil writes in his book Fix the Pumps.

Syrups became ever more popular to keep pace with the soda craze. Many of these flavors are still common today: vanilla, ginger, lemon and, of course, chocolate. By the late 1800s hardly a pharmacist publication went without some mention of chocolate syrup, Parks writes in Bravetart. And hardly a drug store went without a soda shop: Soda fountains served as a lucrative side business for druggists and pharmacists who commonly struggled to make ends meet, says Parks.

At the time, carbonated concoctions were largely still seen as cures. “Soda is an excellent medium for taking many medicines,” according to the 1897 book, The Standard Manual of Soda and Other Beverages. “For example, the best method of administering castor oil is to draw a glass of sarsaparilla soda in the usual manner and pour in the requisite amount of oil.” (Sarsaparilla, a flavor derived from the root of a tropical vine, is still used today in some root beer variants.)

One example still very much available today is Coca Cola: Originally mixed up with cocaine, the fizzy drink was touted it as a healthful stimulant to revive the brain and body.

At the turn of the century, however, chocolate syrup began to shift from treatment to treat. “It just seemed to naturally segue into all the ice cream [desserts] that pharmacists had to keep on hand just to stay afloat,” says Parks.

A fortuitous mix of events helped elevate the state of chocolate to commercial confection. First, in the early 20th century, concerns over false health claims and downright dangerous cures helped lead to the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which required druggists to disclose the remedy ingredients with clear and accurate labels. Similarly, a clamp down on American patent medicines may have further driven the chocolatey transition.

At the same time, other forms of chocolate were gaining traction as confections in their own right. As the industrial revolution ushered in machinery that took over the time-intensive process of turning cacao to cocoa, prices began to fall, explains Pucciarelli. “It all comes together,” she says. “The price of manufacturing drops, the price of sugar drops, and then you have [chocolate] bars.”

In 1926, Hershey’s began marketing pre-mixed chocolate syrup in both single and double strength varieties for commercial businesses. The cans were shelf stable, meaning druggists (and soda jerks) didn’t need to continually mix up new batches. By 1930, both Hershey’s and other chocolate companies like Bosco’s had begun marketing chocolate syrup for home use.

The rest is sweet, sweet history. These days, despite many modern claims of health benefits—some founded and some unfounded—chocolate is considered more confection than cure. Chocolate accounts for the “vast majority” of the $35 billion confection market in the United States, according to the National Confectioners association.

Yet the use of a sweet cover for medications remains isn’t completely dead. You can find sweetness masking medicine in many forms, from cherry cough syrup to bubblegum-flavored amoxicillin. It seems Mary Poppins was right: A spoonful of sugar—or in this case, chocolate—really does help the medicine go down.