4 Very Important Ideas That Started as Jokes

Before it devastated the U.S. economy, trick-down economics was funny?
4 Very Important Ideas That Started as Jokes

Have you ever had a moment where you’re, say, shopping for pants, and you find a barren pocket field where the pockets no longer grow. So you say, “I guess I’ll just stick my phone up my butt.” Someone overhears, and the next thing you know, intra-anal wallets are a billion-dollar business? 

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Unless you live in a sitcom, probably not. But some of the most fundamental building blocks of society were birthed from someone’s exasperated utterance. Such as…

Schrödinger’s Cat

Physics in the 1930s was a wild west, or at least as wild as a bunch of nerds can get. There was all this quantum shit going around, things that can be nowhere and everywhere until you look at them, and not everyone was on board. One of those skeptics was Erwin Schrödinger, who wrote a paper in 1935 called “The Current Situation in Quantum Mechanics,” which can be read in the same resigned tone you might write “The Current Situation in the Speidi Stan Community.”

Schrödinger’s beef was with the concept of superposition, which is basically when a particle is in two places at once and only “chooses” where to be under duress of measurement. To be fair, that does sound insane (and also like a lot of relationships). In response, he developed the “Cat Paradox,” which was supposed to illustrate what Schrödinger regarded as a flaw in the theory in the most ridiculous way possible. Obviously, a cat can only be either alive or dead, not both, and it doesn’t particularly matter who’s looking at it. Any cat owner can tell you they couldn’t give less of a shit about the actions of humans.

But the joke was on Schrödinger. Quantum mechanics is now a pretty uncontroversial theory, and we’ve differentiated the behavior of quantum particles and non-quantum, catty objects, but that hasn’t stopped physicists from taking Schrödinger’s supposed paradox as a challenge. They’ve gathered increasingly large groups of atoms in different places at the same time, simulated the experiment with something called “qubits” and “optical tweezers,” and even built predictive models to save the cat. They’ve barely stopped short of straight-up gassing a tabby.

America’s (Possibly the World’s) First Female Mayor

In 1887, when women were only kind of considered people, the ladies of Argonia, Kansas had just won the right to vote in local elections but still really only had the power to be mad about drunk dudes. Prohibition became a key issue for suffragettes, chiefly in the form of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which had chapters all over the country. That year, the WCTU recruited a group of boring — er, prohibition-friendly — men to run for mayor and city council in Argonia to advance their cause.

The Argonia elite who liked to drink and especially didn’t like broads telling them not to drink didn’t take kindly to that. In an attempt to take down those uppity dames, they secretly changed the ballots, which weren’t released until the day of the election, to include the only WCTU officer who lived in Argonia, Susanna M. Salter, as the Prohibition Party’s mayoral candidate instead of the man they’d chosen to run. They assumed her hilarious loss would discourage women from getting involved in politics, since obviously no one would vote for a woman. Might as well elect a hamster, or a Try Guy.

They weren’t exactly wrong, but they did underestimate how much local Republican Party officials disliked election tampering. Upon seeing a name on the ballot ending with an “A,” they descended upon the Salter home, where they confirmed that Salter had no idea she was running for mayor. They threw their full support behind her, more to get back at other men than because they loved women’s rights, and she won in a landslide. She dutifully served one term as America’s (and possibly the world’s) first female mayor, went back home and died at the ripe old age of 101, almost certainly longer than any of those drunks.

Pickering’s Harem

There’s a story that’s told in astronomy about Edward Pickering getting so frustrated with the male staff he’d hired to perform routine calculations at Harvard that he sneered, “My Scotch maid could do better!” and then actually hired her. That’s all true (probably — there was little documentation of outbursts in 1881), but it’s not the whole story.

Pickering was well aware that Williamina Fleming, the immigrant single mother he’d recently hired as a maid, was brilliant. His wife, the daughter of a former Harvard president, had even previously told him he should hire her to do more than dust. He eventually reached a point where doing so seemed advantageous on a number of levels. For one thing, women could be paid a lot less than men, but as an added benefit, her success would humiliate all those guys he just fired.

It turned out Fleming and the other women on the team she oversaw, grossly referred to as “Pickering’s Harem,” really were much better than the men they’d replaced. They were only supposed to do tedious clerical and computation work based on photos of the night sky, “but they were very bright, so they drew their own conclusions and made several important discoveries." By the time of her death in 1911, Fleming was recognized as one of the most accomplished intellectuals in her field, and she even has a crater on the moon named after her. 

Of course, she had to share it with a dude, which is fitting enough, as her classification of stars was known as the “Pickering-Fleming System.”

Trickle-Down Economics

The idea that tax cuts for the wealthy would result in greater prosperity for the poor had been around for some time when the term “trickle-down economics” was coined, but the man who articulated it best was mostly in the business of dancing around in silly cowboy costumes. No, not Ronald Reagan — humorist Will Rogers.

He was criticizing President Herbert Hoover, who had just lost his reelection campaign, when he wrote in 1932 that the election “was lost four and five and six years ago, not this year. They didn’t start thinking of the old common fellow till just as they started out on the election tour. The money was all appropriated for the top in the hopes that it would trickle down to the needy. Mr. Hoover was an engineer. He knew that water trickled down. Put it uphill and let it go and it will reach the driest little spot. But he didn’t know that money trickled up. Give it to the people at the bottom and the people at the top will have it before night anyhow. But it will at least have passed through the poor fellow’s hands.”

Like many of the comedy greats, Rogers was mostly talking out of his ass. He was a vaudeville performer with a 10th-grade education, not an economist. But he turned out to be right: Trickle-down economics has been a disaster for the American economy. Still, his turn-of-phrase caught on, probably because “trickle” is so fun to say, especially with people who couldn’t be bothered to read any of the sentences that followed, most famously Reagan, never one to pass up a branding opportunity. It’s as if politicians read an Onion article and thought, “Hey, that could actually work for us,” and— 

Oh, that’s happened? Oh. Oh, no.

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