Tuesday, December 29

The Debunker: Does the Mississippi River Divide All the 'K' Radio Stations from the 'W' Ones?

by Ken Jennings

On December 12, 1901, Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi stood on a hill overlooking St. John's, Newfoundland, and received the first radio message ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean. That fateful message was just a few Morse pulses—the letter 'S', in fact—but it changed the face of the twentieth century. This month marks the 114th anniversary of Marconi's milestone, so we've asked Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings to get on the air and clear the air about some of the most appalling misconceptions from radio's first century.

The Debunker: Does the Mississippi River Divide All the 'K' Radio Stations from the 'W' Ones?

This may mystify Millennials, but TV and radio stations haven't always been able to call themselves anything they wanted. Wait, let me go back further. There used to be a thing called "local TV and radio," and broadcasters used three- or four-digit letter combinations to ID their stations. Growing up in the western United States, all our local stations started with a 'K'; it was only by watching Mr. Rogers and other PBS shows from back east (and, obviously, WKRP in Cincinnati) that I realized that other, weirder parts of the country used 'W' as their station prefix. My parents explained that 'K' was used west of the Mississippi River and 'W' in the east. They meant well, but it turns out that's not exactly the case.

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Tuesday, December 22

The Debunker: Was the Titanic the First Ship to Issue an "SOS"?

by Ken Jennings

On December 12, 1901, Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi stood on a hill overlooking St. John's, Newfoundland, and received the first radio message ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean. That fateful message was just a few Morse pulses—the letter 'S', in fact—but it changed the face of the twentieth century. This month marks the 114th anniversary of Marconi's milestone, so we've asked Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings to get on the air and clear the air about some of the most appalling misconceptions from radio's first century.

The Debunker: Was the Titanic the First Ship to Issue an "SOS"?

James Cameron's Titanic taught its fans two things. First, never trust Billy Zane. Second, the standard radio distress call in 1912 was not the familiar Morse SOS in use today. Cameron is careful to explain this little historical curio to his late-'90s, Hanson-listening audience.

WIRELESS OPERATOR:
CQD, sir?

CAPTAIN SMITH:
That's right. The distress call. (Looks at camera.)
CQD. (Does "Jim Halpert face.")

In movie theaters, the scene ended there. On the DVD, a deleted scene shows the wireless crew deciding to mix in the new-fangled distress signal SOS as well. "It may be our only chance to use it," one jokes.

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Tuesday, December 15

The Debunker: What Does "Over and Out" Mean?

by Ken Jennings

On December 12, 1901, Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi stood on a hill overlooking St. John's, Newfoundland, and received the first radio message ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean. That fateful message was just a few Morse pulses—the letter 'S', in fact—but it changed the face of the twentieth century. This month marks the 114th anniversary of Marconi's milestone, so we've asked Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings to get on the air and clear the air about some of the most appalling misconceptions from radio's first century.

The Debunker: What Does "Over and Out" Mean?

James Bond in Goldfinger. Captain Quint in Jaws. On TV, Maxwell Smart's "Chief," Major Frank Burns, and Rod Serling. These are among the thousands of on-screen icons of authority and competence who have ended a radio communication with the immortal phrase "Over and out." It's a cliché of movie military men, TV cops, and kids with walkie-talkies. When you want to sound cool and official over the radio, "Over and out" are the prepositions you use to sign off from transmitting.

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Tuesday, December 08

The Debunker: Did Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds" Cause a Mass Panic?

by Ken Jennings

On December 12, 1901, Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi stood on a hill overlooking St. John's, Newfoundland, and received the first radio message ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean. That fateful message was just a few Morse pulses—the letter 'S', in fact—but it changed the face of the twentieth century. This month marks the 114th anniversary of Marconi's milestone, so we've asked Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings to get on the air and clear the air about some of the most appalling misconceptions from radio's first century.

The Debunker: Did Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds" Cause a Mass Panic?The night before Halloween 1938, boy genius Orson Welles used his CBS Mercury Theatre on the Air program to broadcast a radio play of H. G. Wells's novel The War of the Worlds. The clever adaptation took the form of mock news bulletins from the tiny New Jersey village of Grover's Mill, where a Martian army was supposedly beginning its conquest of Earth. Banner headlines in front pages across America the next day recorded that the faux-news conceit was even more convincing than Welles had expected. "Radio Listeners in Panic," reported The New York Times. "Radio Play Terrifies Nation," said The Boston Globe.

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Tuesday, December 23

The Debunker: Did Someone Else Write the Works of Shakespeare?

by Ken Jennings

If you're an anglophile, a lover of all things British, then this time of year must be like Christmas for you. Well, it's real Christmastime as well, but you know what I mean, right? If you have a soft spot for Dickensian carolers, candlelit mince pies, snow-covered country villages, special episodes of inexplicably popular TV shows like Downton Abbey and Doctor Who... well, in December, we all become a tiny bit British, don't we? But not everything we think we know about life across the pond is strictly "pukka." We've enlisted Sir Kenneth Jennings, VC, GBE, DJO (Distinguished Jeopardy! Order) to help us "mind the gap" between fact and fiction when it comes to Merrie Old England.

The Debunker: Did Someone Else Write the Works of Shakespeare?

It was Francis Bacon! Or Christopher Marlowe. Or could it have been Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford? With all the hype that alternate theories of Shakespeare authorship have received lately (including Anonymous, a big budget movie by Independence Day director and Shakespeare skeptic Roland Emmerich) you'd be forgiven for thinking that this is an actual academic controversy. Could someone else have written the plays of Shakespeare? It would certainly be big news if the most celebrated writer in the history of the language--of any language maybe--were revealed as a fraud.

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Tuesday, December 16

The Debunker: Does the Gulf Stream Keep Britain Warm?

by Ken Jennings

If you're an anglophile, a lover of all things British, then this time of year must be like Christmas for you. Well, it's real Christmastime as well, but you know what I mean, right? If you have a soft spot for Dickensian carolers, candlelit mince pies, snow-covered country villages, special episodes of inexplicably popular TV shows like Downton Abbey and Doctor Who... well, in December, we all become a tiny bit British, don't we? But not everything we think we know about life across the pond is strictly "pukka." We've enlisted Sir Kenneth Jennings, VC, GBE, DJO (Distinguished Jeopardy! Order) to help us "mind the gap" between fact and fiction when it comes to Merrie Old England.

The Debunker: Does the Gulf Stream Keep Britain Warm?

Travel due west from the United Kingdom, and what's the first U.S. state you'd hit? Virginia? Massachusetts? Maine, maybe? A quick look at a world map will probably surprise many: the whole of the British Isles lies to the north of the northernmost point in the contiguous 48 states. Due west from London, you'd reach the New World at the subarctic forest of southern Labrador, Canada. The only state you could hit traveling west from anywhere in the U.K. is actually Alaska! In short, Britain is a lot farther north than a lot of people think.

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Tuesday, December 09

The Debunker: Did Ye Olde British People Really Say "Ye Olde"?

by Ken Jennings

If you're an anglophile, a lover of all things British, then this time of year must be like Christmas for you. Well, it's real Christmastime as well, but you know what I mean, right? If you have a soft spot for Dickensian carolers, candlelit mince pies, snow-covered country villages, special episodes of inexplicably popular TV shows like Downton Abbey and Doctor Who... well, in December, we all become a tiny bit British, don't we? But not everything we think we know about life across the pond is strictly "pukka." We've enlisted Sir Kenneth Jennings, VC, GBE, DJO (Distinguished Jeopardy! Order) to help us "mind the gap" between fact and fiction when it comes to Merrie Old England.

The Debunker: Did Ye Olde British People Really Say "Ye Olde"?

Does anything convey an air of enforced jollity better than the phrase "Ye Olde" appended to a pub, renaissance fair, candle shoppe, ice cream shoppe--hell, any kind of "shoppe"? The word "ye" is all over the Bible and Shakespeare and Thor comics, so surely this old-timey language must have some historical cred, right?

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Tuesday, December 02

The Debunker: Did the Druids Build Stonehenge?

by Ken Jennings

If you're an anglophile, a lover of all things British, then this time of year must be like Christmas for you. Well, it's real Christmastime as well, but you know what I mean, right? If you have a soft spot for Dickensian carolers, candlelit mince pies, snow-covered country villages, special episodes of inexplicably popular TV shows like Downton Abbey and Doctor Who... well, in December, we all become a tiny bit British, don't we? But not everything we think we know about life across the pond is strictly "pukka." We've enlisted Sir Kenneth Jennings, VC, GBE, DJO (Distinguished Jeopardy! Order) to help us "mind the gap" between fact and fiction when it comes to Merrie Old England.

The Debunker: Did the Druids Build Stonehenge?

"Hundreds of years before the dawn of history a lived strange race of people: the Druids! No one knows who they were or what they were doing, but their legacy remains hewn into the living rock... of Stonehenge!" So begins Stonehenge, the epic rock saga brought to the stage with disastrous results in the classic 1984 rockumentary (if you will) This Is Spinal Tap.

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Tuesday, December 24

The Debunker: Did the African-American Inventor of the Blood Bank Die Because Doctors Refused Him a Transfusion?

by Ken Jennings

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and not just because of Christmas. Are you aware of how many great inventions we celebrate during December? December 3 was Telescope Day, to commemorate Galileo’s 1621 invention. December 21 was Crossword Puzzle Day, since that’s when the first one appeared in the New York World in 1913. The transistor, texting, the clip-on tie, Chiclets… all invented during this month. But much of what we know about the world’s most important inventions is “patently” false. We’ve asked Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings to use 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration in tracking down the truth.

The Debunker: Did the African-American Inventor of the Blood Bank Die Because Racist Doctors Refused Him a Transfusion?

Millions of lives have been saved over the years by the pioneering research of Charles Drew. Drew was an Ivy League-educated surgeon—the first African American ever to graduate from Columbia’s medical school—who revolutionized blood banking when he discovered that blood could be refrigerated longer if the blood cells were centrifuged out of the plasma, and that plasma transfusions didn’t have to be separated by blood type. During World War II, Drew set up the world’s first large-scale blood banks to help wounded soldiers. Drew’s accomplishments as a black doctor were even more impressive in an age of limited opportunity for African Americans.

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Tuesday, December 17

The Debunker: Was “What Hath God Wrought?” the First Message Sent by Telegraph?

by Ken Jennings

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and not just because of Christmas. Are you aware of how many great inventions we celebrate during December? December 3 was Telescope Day, to commemorate Galileo’s 1621 invention. December 21 is Crossword Puzzle Day, since that’s when the first one appeared in the New York World in 1913. The transistor, texting, the clip-on tie, Chiclets… all invented during this month. But much of what we know about the world’s most important inventions is “patently” false. We’ve asked Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings to use 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration in tracking down the truth.

The Debunker: Was “What Hath God Wrought?” the First Message Sent by Telegraph?

Samuel Morse’s invention of the single-wire telegraph in 1838 was the watershed event in mass communications that eventually led to today’s information-saturated world. On May 24, 1844, Morse sat in the Supreme Court room in the basement of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, surrounded by curious members of Congress. He carefully tapped out, in his namesake code of dots and dashes, the short sentence “What hath God wrought?”, a quote from Numbers 23:23 which a family friend had suggested. Forty miles north, in Baltimore, Morse’s assistant Alfred Vail (the unsung hero of the telegraph’s invention) waited at a train station. The large pendulum of the telegraph receiver began to swing, marking Morse’s sentence onto a piece of paper.

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