This essay originally appeared in February of 2013 and was entitled
Romance Books, My Favorite Hot Parts but I thought it appropriate to trot it out again in observation of St. Valentine's Day. There are a few alterations in an attempt to "tighten it up" like I was taught to do in school but they have largely failed. I believe the serious questions and subject matter it deals with will withstand its few flaws in construction and research.
What is romance really, hah? Having got to another Valentine's Day, we still have little idea how it came to represent romance, especially since the saint it is named for didn't have any head --clearly not an ostentation of sentimentality. I am more inclined toward the Roman frolic it replaced, Lupercalia, which took place from February 13 through 15 and included the 14th --our modern Valentine's Day-- as a sort of recess reserved for apologizing to relatives and livestock and trying to stand up.
Plutarch described Lupercalia: "At this time many of the noble youths and magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter, striking those they meet with shaggy thongs." The apt pupil of the human pageant has no difficulty understanding the decline of this strenuous recreation and its replacement by "romance books" --a very popular genre in our less aerobic modern culture.
One of my favorite romance books is The Romance Of Modern Engineering, by Archibald Williams (also author of The Romance Of Modern Inventions, The Romance Of Petroleum, etc.). It was published in 1904 and contains interesting descriptions of the Panama Canal, Niagara Falls Power Co. and the Bermuda Floating Dock. But we cannot life-longly spend our noses in romance books, can we?
No. We must consider for ourselves what truly comprises the most Romantic technological and engineering milestones of all time. I would choose Velcro, gas-driven airplanes, two-sided paper and "even" numbers.
Velcro, still widely used, was invented by the Romans specifically for early horse-drawn elevators. They needed something to keep the horses' hooves stuck to the walls. It allowed horses enough traction to climb vertical shafts, pull elevators up from floor to floor, then back them down again.
Unfortunately, Romans failed to solve other modes of automatic ascension. Nothing short of propellers spun by internal combustion could lift the limitations of the horse-drawn airplane, which was confined to very low altitudes and velocities, but elevators are powered by Velcro-climbing horses to this day.
Romans wrote everything important on scrolls, or a single long strip, which they rolled up onto spools and corded on library shelves. If you check a scroll's table of contents, you'll find all subjects, chapters, everything listed on page one. That is because a scroll technically only has one page. It was not until the invention of two-sided paper that modern books appeared and tables of contents made any sense. Mathematicians were called in to decide what to call the back of page one. They suggested "two" and the even number was born.
Now if that isn't Romantic, I give up.