Unintended Consequences

A Geezer’s Notebook, By Jim Foster

You may be surprised to learn many of the world’s great inventions, works of art and even musical classics, were realized not after months or years of planning and inspiration, but simply by some dodo misreading the instructions.

Robert Fulton didn’t start out to build the steam engine that brought him fame and fortune. Of course not, he just came home from the family fish market where he worked as a gutter and quickly scanned a note from his mother lying on the kitchen table.

“Put on the kettle and we’ll have a nice cup of tea, Mommy.”

It was only as he watched the steam rise tempting him to put his finger in the vapours did he scream, “Damn! Damn! Damn!” and go on the invent Ozonol. How the first steam engine got built no one seems to know.

Fulton’s mistake pales beside the classic boner pulled by the Italian house painter and drywall installer, Michelangelo, when asked by the Pope to splash a few dabs of flat white on a couple of unsightly water spots on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It wasn’t until four years later when Sixtus IV finally got around to inspecting his handyman’s work did he mutter the never to be forgotten words, “My God, Mike, all I asked for was a fr!&&!n’ touch-up?”

What His Eminence said when the Maintenance Cardinal handed him the bill was never recorded, but I suspect the name of the pontiff’s Lord and Saviour came up again and probably many times thereafter.

Benjamin Franklin’s discovery of electricity while flying a kite during a violent storm is not one of the errors that can be interpreted as resulting from not understanding the instructions. His monumental faux pas had a lot more to do with Ben drinking far too much rum at an early Super Bowl.

Perhaps one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, The Messiah, by George Frideric Handel, definitely falls in the category of please read instructions before assembling. Granted the note from Seigfried, his agent, could have been a little clearer. “Can you whip up a jingle for Scholtz and Hoffman’s New and Improved Soap Flakes? Something short and snappy,” was a bit vague, but after all, George was a hack songwriter and should have known what the company wanted. That was, after all, his job.

How he got side-tracked from the jingle and produced a full-blown oratorio is a mystery, although we know he was heavy into homemade schnapps at the time (his wife had left him for Karl Doppleganger, her personal trainer. George Frideric was devastated. He moped around for years until he met her by chance at a concert in Salzburg. She had put on 20 kilos and had grown a moustache. His snickering could be heard in Dusseldorf. But I digress.)

Handel obviously read at least part of the note since soap flakes appear several times in his masterpiece. In the original German version of the soprano aria I know that my redeemer liveth, the words der suds can be heard over and over again in the underscore. ‘Der suds’ was, and still is, sung by a basso profundo, or an alto with a bad cold.

The powerful Hallelujah Chorus, arguably the most famous musical composition of all time, was not about the resurrection at all, but rather the discovery of drip-dry fabrics in the U.S. The availability and distribution of these products would be tied up in patent violation lawsuits for well over 200 years.

You may be surprised and somewhat saddened to learn Handel’s Messiah came too late to save Scholtz and Hoffman. Their company went under in June of 1741 when a miracle additive in their popular soap flakes ate the underpants of Gretchen von Heidelberg, wife of King Frederick of Prussia, the ruling monarch at the time. Although her washerwoman managed to save Friday and Monday, the other days were left in tatters and suitable only for dust rags.

Rumours the Queen’s anger over the destruction of her unmentionables later led to serious depression and eventually an advanced state of nymphomania – but not with the king, have been rejected by most students of the era. Although they are not entirely without basis since historians do attribute the War of Austrian Succession to Frederick catching her in a compromising position with Gustav I of Sweden and a lackey of no fixed address.

Why Frederick should be upset is beyond understanding to most of us interested in such matters since he was running around with the Arch-Duchess Maria Theresa of Austria at the time. Their little midnight frolic in the fountain at Louis’s palace at Versailles has been listed as a major cause of the French Revolution and eventually led to the fountain being drained and thoroughly scrubbed.

Regardless of how and why it got started, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah has become the most popular piece of religious music ever written or performed – with the exception of course, of the immortal Jeremiah was a bullfrog, he was good friend of mine.

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