DNA: The Blueprint of Life; Watson, Crick, the Double Helix and Other Genetic Observations

Welcome, readers of my blog. This post you are viewing is number two-hundred in a long line of mini-essays which have appeared in this space since my first, titled The Lure of Science, in February of 2013. Writing about little things such as my reflections on life has provided me much pleasure and a satisfying outlet. While relishing small pleasures along the way, I remain forever intrigued with the BIG thoughts, the truly great accomplishments, and the monster minds which formulated them. I devote this special post, number two-hundred, to one of the great chapters in scientific history – discovering the double-helix nature of DNA.

Watson’s The Double Helix

The subject at hand is DNA, an acronym for the scientific term deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA is literally the blueprint of life – all life on this planet. What is more mysterious than life, itself? Think of DNA molecules quite literally as the repository of nature’s software program for all forms of life, the coding of which uniquely defines each and every one of us, not only as a species, but as distinct individuals. The biological hierarchy which defines us is complex; suffice it to say that DNA is the “instruction set” for our genes, those next-level entities which determine what and who we are.

I have begun reading Walter Isaacson’s newest book release titled, The Code Breaker. The story focuses on the 2020 Nobel Prize winner in biology, Jennifer Doudna, and the story of CRISPR which is an acronym for the gene editing technology which is now quite advanced – to a large extent, because of her work. To the best of my understanding (so far), the question has rapidly become not how to do this (gene editing), but should we do this. Author Isaacson does his subjects justice in his book. I say subjects, plural, because he deftly weaves Ms. Doudna’s story within a larger tapestry which includes the crucial efforts of scientific colleagues, particularly Nobel co-winner Emmanuele Charpentier. Isaacson couples all of this with a healthy dose of what Nobel-winning scientific endeavors are all about. 

Isaacson’s The Code Breaker

The scientific stakes are huge, here. So, too, is the competitive drive necessary to be first with the qualifying research and the scientific papers that justify Nobel-level consideration. This very theme, the competition for scientific immortality, has been repeated countless times throughout the history of science. Among the most reminiscent, for me, is the account by James Watson of his famous collaboration with Francis Crick to discover the structure of the DNA molecule itself. For their revelation in 1953 of the double-helix backbone structure supporting a four base-protein coding of cross-ties, these two researchers were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize along with a third researcher, Maurice Wilkins.

James Watson’s account of DNA’s discovery appeared in his famous book, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, first published in 1968. This book, with its revelation of the scientific discovery and the frank candor of its author, reads like a suspenseful, non-fiction detective story as opposed to what could have been a dry, scientific tome. In the book, Watson describes not only the science, but the competitive endeavor in which he and Crick found themselves immersed: the struggle to be first to finally decipher the biological holy grail – the structure of the DNA molecule. Linus Pauling, world-famous chemist, and Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant, pioneering female researcher are other significant players in the competitive drama and Watson devotes considerable ink to describing them and their roles in the unfolding event.

Crick and Watson at Cambridge

Once the double-helix nature of DNA was revealed by Watson and Crick, some important questions were resolved, specifically, how DNA can replicate itself and how male/female DNA are combined to produce those recognizable features of each that typically appear in offspring. Of course, the latest gene-editing findings by Jennifer Doudna and her fellow researchers all leverage-off the nature of the DNA molecule as first described by Watson and Crick. Enough said about the importance of Watson and Crick’s findings to the state of today’s biology!

Biological Inheritance … As We Came to Understand It

Double Helix

Prior to Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution as revealed in his masterwork, On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, little was known about the “bloody obvious” fact that offspring, to one degree or another, tend to reflect identifiable characteristics of their parents. Darwin’s certainty about the validity of “natural selection” as the core principle of evolution still left much uncertainty in his mind as to the actual mechanism of heredity – the passing along of biological traits. Notably mysterious to Darwin was the biological “mechanism” responsible for the significant changes and diversity that randomly occur within a species, thus setting the stage for natural selection to pass long-term judgement on the alternatives presented. Put another way: over the long-haul, natural selection favors genetic adaptations most favorable to survival in a given environment. 

In 1866, merely seven years after Darwin’s milestone book, an obscure Austrian monk published a little-noted paper on experiments breeding pea plants he had been performing in his spare time within his abbey’s small garden. Using three well-known variations of these plants and inter-breeding them, he meticulously tracked his results. The three variations studied were color: green or yellow plants; flower: white or violet; and seed texture: smooth or wrinkled. In Mendel’s paper, he dealt not only with dominant and recessive characteristics of these variables, but, surprisingly, determined that they manifested themselves in numerical ratios that were most revealing as to the nature of biological mechanisms at work!

Gregor Mendel: The Father of Genetic Science

Gregor Mendel

Mendel’s little paper was supremely important as the first documented revelation of DNA/genetics at work. He had just a few “offprints” printed (scientific terminology for the personal printing of a paper intended for presentation by its author). His findings were sent to the local chapter of naturalist bee-keepers in Brno, Austria, where it received scant attention or interest. Mendel’s work with pea-plants disappeared quickly into the shadows of history until his paper was discovered and publicized for its great significance by the famous English biologist, William Bateson, in 1902. Despite its delayed recognition after thirty-six years, Mendel’s genius nevertheless still provided sufficient impetus for the resulting cascade of discovery and knowledge which ultimately led us to Watson and Crick’s ground-breaking revelation of the DNA double-helix in 1953. And now, for better and for worse, we are close to possessing the incredible capability to understand and to actually edit our own genetic code.

Did Darwin Miss Early Access to Mendel’s Discoveries?

Historical accounts tell us of an offprint copy of his pea-plant experiments that Gregor Mendel purportedly sent to the great man, himself, Charles Darwin, shortly after Darwin’s book on evolution was published in 1859. Darwin had no knowledge of this Austrian abbey monk, Gregor Mendel – or what he was attempting, but everyone, certainly Mendel, knew about Charles Darwin after 1859. Whether fact or fanciful lore, this milestone scientific paper of Mendel’s on genetics/inheritance was supposedly sent by Mendel and sat, in offprint form, unread amid the stacks of books and papers in Darwin’s study at Downe House. There, it was purportedly discovered after Darwin’s death. Walter Isaacson mentions the incident in The Code Breakers, but I have heard that the account as told may merely be fanciful.

Mendel’s Rare Offprint for Sale: on the Internet!

With my long interest in the history of science, I am familiar with many of the great milestones of scientific discovery and their publications – their formal introduction to the scientific world and the public at large.  One of the most memorable items I have ever seen appear for sale, either at auction or via those who deal in such things, came from a renowned bookseller in London some twenty-five years ago. He was offering one of the few of Mendel’s original offprint papers in existence for a then jaw-dropping sixty-four thousand dollars. The paper was said to be in very good condition. I recall how, even back then, I sensed the rarity and deep significance of that particular item. Being an amateur historian of little means, I could only imagine what it would be like to possess such a rare, important slice of scientific history. Who knows where that particular offprint resides today: possibly in some large university library collection. Is it possible that it might have been filed away, unread, by Charles Darwin, himself? One thing I do know about that particular item: the sixty-four thousand dollar price twenty-five years ago would barely be a down-payment in today’s collecting market. The nature of such ground-breaking scientific rarities will ultimately render them priceless – which is as it should be, it seems to me. 

Were Darwin aware of Mendel’s work with pea-plants through Mendel’s paper, he would have been fascinated with the revelations. Darwin wrote often about the nature of heredity in his many books before The Origin. The concept of DNA molecules which are integral to genes and chromosomes were well beyond even Darwin’s long reach. He was convinced, however, that there were biologic hereditary entities at work which shape and define all living things. Darwin referred to them as “gemmules,” while remaining necessarily vague about their attributes and ultimate reality. Although Mendel was able to shed first-light on the “how” of heredity’s behavior, the biological nature of its agents remained to him a mystery, as was the case with Darwin.

Scientific Knowledge IS Power; Have We the Wisdom to Handle It?

Many key discoveries have occurred in the rich history of biology and cell biology. The treasure-chest of acquired knowledge is full of just what the name implies: treasure. That accumulation of knowledge concerning ourselves and the world of living things is perhaps the most significant of all testimonials to what is good and noble about us humans. In these recent pandemic months, when Covid 19 was sweeping the country, instilling fear and taking well over a half-million lives in the process, vaccines quickly appeared which worked exceedingly well in diminishing the threat of this virus. Not many years ago, effective vaccines would have taken years to develop, if at all. It is said that much of the necessary research necessary to neutralize Covid 19 had recently been done and utilized on the earlier HIV and SARS viruses and that the vaccine methodologies were literally “on the shelf” – ready to use on this class of virus. This recent and undeniable affirmation of the power of scientific knowledge is all we need to know about why we should pay heed to pure scientific research which is foundational to all technologies that prove useful to mankind.

Gene editing holds the promise of correcting (curing) some of nature’s cruelest maladies: sickle-cell anemia, Huntington’s disease, Tay Sachs, for example. Huntington’s is a spectacular example of how a simple DNA/gene coding mistake can condemn an individual’s adult future. Although direct human trials of gene editing medicine are necessarily very rare at this time, the process has already been proven successful on a patient with sickle-cell anemia. Along with the promise of positive advances in medicine comes the danger of mis-using genetic editing. Consider “designer-babies,” and let your imagination run wild.

I have heard the comment that there are two major scientific advances in recent history that point to the need for the strictest supervision of their applications in order to avoid horrific consequences. The first is Albert Einstein’s purely scientific discovery in 1905 that mass and energy are one and the same. That revelation, despite Einstein’s purely scientific motivations behind it, has resulted in global arsenals of nuclear weapons whose power to destroy everything and everyone on this planet requires the utmost vigilance. The second cautionary tale involves irresponsible gene editing which poses a different set of catastrophic scenarios, but, like nuclear energy, once “the genie is out of the bottle,” it would be virtually impossible to recapture and control it. It has long been my view that every advance in science and technology comes complete with a pairing of both advantages for humanity (if wisely utilized), as well as a price to pay if not. Today’s internet and social media are good examples of vast benefits being constantly offset by potential and actual problems. In the case of gene editing, the potential for good and for bad reach the highest levels. At risk, is the potential for joining nuclear energy as a technology for which the “genie let loose from the bottle” is an apt metaphor. 

Months after the lone atomic bomb test held in 1945 at Los Alamos, code-named Trinity, and the subsequent atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the bomb’s chief architect was asked by reporters about the prospects for the international control of atomic energy. A memorable film clip which clearly reflects his deep regret, even disgust, burns itself onto the mind’s eye. His answer: “It’s too late; it should have been done the day after Trinity.”

The question remains as man probes ever deeper into nature’s secrets: will we be wise enough to use science and technology to our advantage, or will we allow technology to de-rail and destroy us?

It seems obvious that we must continue to uncover the miracles of nature, those obvious and lasting truths underpinning our human existence, not only to use them to our advantage, but to glean the wisdom and perspective contained, therein. It appears clear from what I read that the scientific community is well aware of its obligations regarding gene editing.

Chuck Yeager: Rest in Peace – Who’s the Best Pilot You Ever Saw?

Chuck Yeager departed this earth on December 7, 2020, at ninety-seven years of age. His now-permanent and not-unfamiliar domain? The high, wild, blue yonder which he often visited during his storied flying career. Chuck Yeager had “the right stuff,” the guts and courage to attempt and to break the storied “sound barrier” of aviation lore flying the Bell X-1 rocket plane on October 14, 1947. Yeager was also a World War II ace with eleven-plus “victories” to his credit in the skies over Europe flying the P-51 Mustang, Glamorous Glen, named after his first wife.

 My absolute favorite movie of all time, a classic, was released in 1983. It is aptly titled, The Right Stuff, and its story centers on Yeager’s storied flight which took place over the dry California desert at an obscure place called Muroc Army Airfield, later re-named Edwards Flight Test Center. Edwards was unknown to the public, a bare-bones government base where gutsy, pioneering test pilots like Yeager risked their necks flying the latest creations from designers at companies like Douglas, Lockheed, and Bell Aerospace. Edwards was a high-risk venture where many test pilots lost their lives while enduring the worst of living conditions…”and nobody knew their names,” as the film aptly states.

It was clear by the early nineteen-forties that propellers driven by powerful piston engines had aerodynamic limitations which capped achievable flying speeds to well under six-hundred miles per hour. By 1947, our earliest jet planes were already being flight-tested at Edwards. At the same time, Bell Aerospace had designed and built a rocket-powered plane called the Bell X-1. Its mission and purpose: to probe the so-called “sound barrier.” It was said that “the demon” lived out there at Mach 1, the technical term for the speed of sound waves traveling through air – nominally, seven hundred and sixty-seven miles per hour.

Many pilots and aeronautical engineers believed, based on theory and practical experience, that the shock-pressure waves which build up around a craft approaching Mach 1 would render the plane un-controllable and possibly tear it to pieces. Chuck Yeager thought otherwise and seized the opportunity in the X-1 to disprove the notion of an impenetrable barrier.  On October 14, 1947, Yeager, his engineer and close friend, Jack Ridley, and the X-1 cradled in the bomb-bay of a modified B-29 bomber, took flight over the wide desert surrounding Edwards. Yeager rode a tiny elevator-shelf down the belly of the bomber and stepped across the open void below into the cockpit of the X-1.

The B-29 released its bright orange cargo when all was ready, and history was made as Yeager ignited his multiple rocket stages and streaked across the skies over Edwards. Approaching Mach 1, the X-1 began to “get squirrely” and shake violently. A very loud BOOM rolled across the desert startling the crew, friends, and well-wishers gathered on the ground. Contrary to being an indication that Yeager and his craft had disastrously “bought the farm,” that (virtually) first sonic boom inserted Chuck Yeager into aviation’s highest pantheon of achievement.

For me, the four greatest milestones in aviation history are (in order of time):

-The first heavier-than-air flight of the Wright Brothers on December 17, 1903.

-The first solo transatlantic crossing by Charles Lindbergh, May 20/21, 1927.

-Breaking the sound barrier by Chuck Yeager on October 14, 1947.

-Jet engine development in England (Frank Whittle) and Germany (Hans Von Ohaim). Their work was largely done during the nineteen-thirties and early forties.

In a strikingly similar situation to that of Charles Lindbergh, the unknown air mail pilot in early 1927, no one knew the names of those test pilots who risked their necks at Edwards “pushing the envelope” of flight. Suddenly, in 1947, Chuck Yeager and the X-1 changed all that, and the new speed and altitude records that began to cascade from Edwards made their way into the newspapers with great coverage. Other names like Scott Crossfield, Bill Bridges, and Robert White became familiar to the public as did their rides: the Douglas Skyrocket and X-15, rocket successors to the X-1. Chuck Yeager and the Bell X-1 opened the door to a new age of flight. Nothing was ever quite the same going forward.

The Right Stuff portrays on film the new invaders of flight test centers like Edwards and Langley in Virginia. Among the many “rocket aces” headed for the the desert setting of Edwards (in the film) were a new breed of pilots, would-be astronauts for the new Mercury program to man the space rockets being designed in the mid-nineteen-fifties. Now, everybody knew their names, given the immense publicity program for the Mercury program launched by NASA.

As shocking as the technology of the Russian Sputnik satellite which was put into orbit in 1957, even more shocking to the Pentagon was the demonstrated rocket power and technology required to orbit such a payload (think national defense and inter-continental ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads).

The Right Stuff  colorfully delivers the sweeping panorama encompassing the Edwards Flight Test Center, Chuck Yeager, and the early Mercury astronauts. While the film is superbly entertaining, it remains accurate (at its core), but only after taking considerable liberties for the sake of story-telling. The cast portraying Yeager, John Glenn, Alan Shepherd, Gordon Cooper, etc. is fabulous and memorable. Few films in history have been both so entertaining and so full of historical fact. Despite the movie’s numerous liberties for entertainment’s sake, the thread of truthful story-telling remains. Chuck Yeager, himself, appears in the film playing a bit-part, and it is apparent that his presence on the set contributed many anecdotes and helped keep the film aligned with fact. It should be mentioned that the movie script’s treatment of astronaut Gus Grissom took excessive liberties in the eyes of many critics. And who could make up such a sweeping story? Author Tom Wolfe first introduced the drama in his book, The Right Stuff.

   “Who’s the Best Pilot You Ever Saw?”

In the film version, would-be Mercury astronaut Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, one of the new breed of pilots at Edwards and elsewhere who clamor for a reputation like Yeager’s, is fond of asking anyone who will pay heed, “Who’s the best pilot you ever saw?” Recall that all the astronaut candidates were trained fighter/test pilots in their respective services before being chosen for the space program. The answer in Gordo’s mind is obvious to anyone within earshot who can also see his broad grin. In case the listener doesn’t get it, Gordo cheerfully informs, “You’re looking at him!”

In one of my favorite scenes, well into the movie, Gordo, by now well-aware of Chuck Yeager’s skills as the test pilot at Edwards, is asked by a circle of un-initiated news reporters, “Who’s the best pilot you ever saw, Gordo?” That ever-present broad grin spreads across his face as he prepares to launch into his trademark response. But he hesitates, and surprisingly melts into serious contemplation while proceeding to relate in a slow, subdued voice, “Who’s the best pilot I ever saw? Well….there is this pilot …” at which point someone interrupts the quiet air of expectation enveloping Cooper and the circle of reporters, prompting the sudden return of Gordo’s smug smile and the blurted-out rejoinder, “Who’s the best pilot I ever saw? Why, you’re looking at him!”

Actor Dennis Quaid’s portrayal of Gordo Cooper throughout the film is first-rate. It is difficult to recall a film character so memorable, even years later.

If you have not seen The Right Stuff, I heartily recommend it for its overall entertainment value and its historical significance – a great real-life adventure, perhaps the greatest ever. Chuck Yeager never had the chance to be one of the original seven Mercury astronauts because a college degree was a pre-requisite for the embryonic space program. Yeager was a farm boy from West Virginia. Like so many early aviation greats, his ultimate accomplishments reflected an innate and insatiable curiosity, intelligence, practicality, and a persistence drive to learn and excel. His opportunities in aviation came thanks to the United States military, a fact which he gratefully acknowledged.

In 2002, on a weekend idyll with my wife in Carmel, California, we came across a downtown shop, no longer there, called “Wings” which catered to all-things aviation, from apparel, to posters, to coffee mugs, even to model airplanes. Like a kid in a candy store, I made my way through the merchandise finally checking out the beautifully sculptured wood models of famous aircraft on display. The one that caught my eye was a model of the Bell X-1, personally signed on the right wing in black sharpie by Chuck Yeager, himself. The $250 price tag was pretty steep for us at that time, but Linda gave me the go-ahead to purchase it.

In recent months, I have added a few more wood-modeled planes of fame to my collection, including my favorite, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis.

The list is long and their exploits legendary: Charles Lindbergh, Chuck Yeager, Jimmy Doolittle, Eddie Rickenbacker, Manfred von Richthofen, R,A, “Bob” Hoover, Clarence “Bud” Anderson and so many men like Lindbergh who flew the treacherous U.S. air mail routes beginning in 1918.

“Who’s the best pilot you ever saw?”

You’re probably looking at him.

The 1918 “Inverted Jenny,” THE Airmail Postage Stamp

The very first United States Airmail postage stamp was issued in 1918. It came in three versions utilizing a common design featuring a Curtiss Jenny bi-plane, the workhorse of early U.S. airmail efforts. The six-cent was printed in orange, the sixteen-cent in green, and the twenty-four cent in a dual color combination of carmine-red and deep blue; that latter issue is where this story begins.

A single “inverted Jenny” stamp sold at auction for $1,593,000 on November 14, 2018. An entire sheet of 100 stamps was erroneously printed in Washington D.C. at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in May of 1918. Printing these stamps was a two-strike process because of the dual coloration. The “mistake” resulted from an inversion between the two engraved and inked plates. In the world of philately, or stamp-collecting, the inverted Jenny occupies the top rung of desirable/valuable stamps. Top valuations in any collecting endeavor result from a high overall ranking in three major categories, namely: desirability, rarity, and condition.

Desirability: The 1918 twenty-four cent airmail Jenny is inherently colorful and attractive. Importantly, the stamp symbolizes the advent of U.S. air mail service. This Post Office driven effort, in turn, led directly to the organization of fledgling “airline” mail carriers and the creation of defined air routes and points of service. These shoestring-operation contract airmail carriers transported small mailbags in the cramped compartments of open-cockpit bi-planes like the Jenny.The formal establishment and operation of those fledgling airmail routes were long “a-work-in-progress” for the Post Office Department (aka the POD). Soon, the struggling contract mail carriers allowed paying passengers to hitch-a-ride among the mailbags, under cramped, uncomfortable conditions. From such inauspicious beginnings, was born today’s vast commercial airline industry. All this future promise was originally and heavily subsidized by the then barely-older air mail enterprise. The air mail service, literally and figuratively, got commercial aviation off the ground in 1918. The history of the United States airmail is both a colorful and important story. The original open-cockpit airmail pilots rightly proclaimed their profession a “suicide club.” There was no more demanding and dangerous occupation than flying the mail at night and in all manner of weather. Beginning in 1925/26, Charles Lindbergh became one of those who earned their flying spurs by carrying the mail – perfect training for his memorable solo trans-Atlantic flight on May 20, 1927. The 1918 Jenny stamp issue symbolizes a monumental event in the progress in this nation, and that only adds to its desirability among collectors.

Rarity: History records that only one sheet of 100 inverted Jenny stamps “escaped” from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and made its way into the public domain. That sheet was purchased on May 14, 1918 at a Post Office just down the street from his New York brokerage office by William T. Robey, a stamp collector/enthusiast. Robey had been informed by a friend of the new stamp issue to be released for sale that day, and when he asked to purchase a sheet of the stamps later that day, the postal clerk at the window reached under the counter and, presumably without noticing its “discrepancy,” produced the famous sheet of Jenny-inverts. One glance, and Robey immediately realized the potential rarity of that sheet and his possible great, good fortune. Without a word to the clerk, he promptly laid down $24 for the sheet and headed out the door. It very quickly became evident that Robey’s sheet of 100 inverts was unique, probably the only one accidentally produced, and, certainly, the only one that managed to escape the scrutiny of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Robey’s potential great good fortune was now fact, given that no other inverted sheets were extant. Word had quickly gotten out about the printing error and the sheet of inverted Jennys. That disclosure undoubtedly had a profound after-effect on the Bureau’s quality control process. Anyone who collects stamps or coins is well-aware of the long-standing efforts taken by the Bureau and the United States Mint to prevent such production errors from getting into circulation. Imagine the temptation of someone on the inside to “accidentally” produce a single sheet of stamps with a similar discrepancy – one with considerable value to collectors!

Condition: Valuations on any rare collectible are much higher for prime specimens. That holds true, in general, for the standard issue, twenty-four cent Jenny stamp today. There is, or course, a premium for unused/uncancelled examples, as well as for more-picky characteristics such as the centering of the printed image on the perforated paper base.

Collectors are averse to images which touch the perforations on the stamp. Even faint traces on the gum side of the stamp indicating it was carefully hinged (archivally mounted) in a collector’s album has a negative effect on value in comparison to mint condition, never-hinged, examples. Experienced collectors in any venue fully realize it is always wise to “buy the best condition” you can possibly afford. The added premium at the time of purchase will invariably appreciate tremendously as time passes and the time comes to sell. Today, the twenty-four cent Jenny stamp in very fine or mint condition will sell for between twenty-five dollars and sixty dollars for the better specimens – not bad for an original investment of twenty-four cents in 1918.

A Fascinating “Centering” Corollary re: the Twenty-four Cent Jenny

We have just discussed the importance to valuation of good image centering relative to a stamp’s perforations. Here is a weird corollary to that concept which pertains only to the twenty-four cent duo-color stamp. When the blue Jenny image is struck on the sheet slightly offset from the carmine-red frame produced by the initial plate-strike, this results in a “fast” Jenny, a “slow” Jenny, a “low” Jenny, or a “high” Jenny stamp. Somewhat surprising is the fact that these stamps, which result from poorly aligned engraved plate strikes, are much preferred by collectors over perfect examples. I suppose this counter-intuitive situation is best explained by the argument that the famous inverted Jenny is but an extreme example of engraving plate misalignment. Welcome to the wacky world of collecting…anything. I prefer the Jenny image well centered and flying “nominally,” although I would love to have an inverted example!

The following two pictures illustrate how a slight plate misalignment (the second example) can produce a sightly “fast” and noticeably “high” flying Jenny image. The image offset corresponds exactly to the misalignment of the red/blue alignment markers at the top. The greater the misalignment, the greater the price premium the stamps will fetch from collectors!

A few final comments and observations:

-William Robey was aware that the Post Office was planning to issue this new air mail stamp within a few days. He wrote to a fellow stamp collector: “It might interest you to know that there are two parts to the design [of the twenty-four cent stamp], one an insert into the other, like the Pan American issues. I think it would pay to be on the lookout for inverts on account of this.” How prescient can one be? Four days later, Robey had his superb rarity – a lone sheet of 100 inverts.

-After purchasing the invert sheet at the postal window, Robey asked to see several more sheets. Those that the clerk produced were all normally printed, and at this point, Robey disclosed to the clerk the error on his purchased sheet. The clerk hastily excused himself to make a telephone call – undoubtedly to report the error sheet to authorities. Later that day, Robey was visited by two postal inspectors who attempted to confiscate the invert sheet. Robey refused their demands, arguing that he purchased the sheet fair-and-square. If there were any more inverts printed, they never made it beyond the Post Office. Extreme rarity of this variation was thus virtually insured, a very fortunate fact, indeed, for Mr. Robey – and for stamp collecting.

-William Robey quickly sold his sheet of one hundred inverts on May 20 for $15,000, a lot of money back in 1918. By the end of that same day, the sheet had already changed hands, yet again, for the price of $20,000 to a Colonel Edward Green. For the early holders of these 100 inverted Jennys, there was a tricky gambit to negotiate. On one hand, it would be prudent to take the time necessary to shop for a buyer willing to pay top dollar (remember: no rapid internet listings, back then). On the other hand, if one waited too long to sell, additional inverted sheets might be discovered, greatly blunting the rarity and value of the 100 stamps! The third owner (in a single day) of the precious sheet of stamps, Colonel Green, felt little such angst to quickly make a decision, given that he had inherited fabulous stock market wealth from his mother. Green proceeded to “subdivide” the sheet of 100 inverts into blocks of various sizes leaving many individual stamps for the remainder of sales. This was done to optimize the overall value of the sheet of 100. Green was not a careful custodian of his treasure-trove: some of the inverted Jennys were badly compromised through poor handling and storage over the years prior to the later disbursal of his collection in the early nineteen-forties.

I hope this post has provided an informative peek for you, my readers, into one of the most interesting and colorful episodes in the entire universe of collecting!

Dad’s Toolbox: Long-Silent Reminder of a Master Craftsman

My wife and I recently tackled the imposing and long-overdue task of a major garage clean-up and re-organization (see my recent post). Every trip out to the garage had become, over many years, an exercise of frustration and/or a danger to our health. If we could find what we were looking for, we usually could not get to it. “Getting to it” meant endangering our health vis-à-vis tripping over things, falling off ladders, etc. After weeks of dedicated hard work, I am pleased to inform that we have met our most ambitious goals for the garage!

I have a lot of tools – pretty much everything I have ever needed over the years, or ever will need. I also have my father’s personal Kennedy tool chest which dates way back to the nineteen forties and his early years at United Airlines. Our garage efforts forced me to decide what to do with the chest and the tools it contained. The classic, heavy-gauge steel Kennedy toolbox and its contents are formidably heavy. The Kennedy chest contains tools that were personal to Dad, going way back. Since his passing in 1992, other, more “recent” tools from his garage had long since been merged over the years with my own acquisitions. Dad’s personal toolbox remained on our garage floor, out of the way and mostly undisturbed these past twenty-eight years. The big question: what to do with it and its contents. Why would I keep it after all these years? I already have most of these tools.

I decided to empty the chest, drawer-by-drawer and see what was worth keeping. I also decided to do a photo survey of the contents, drawer-by-drawer to document it all before proceeding. The box and its contents refreshed many boyhood memories. It took little time for me to conclude that I could not bear to dispose of any of this: I have too many memories of my father, his Kennedy toolbox, and his prized tools. As I was entering my teen years, Dad gave me permission to use his tools for building model airplanes and numerous other “projects” of mine. I felt proud that I had earned his trust…and that was not necessarily automatic with age!

I still vividly recall the reverence in Dad’s demeanor that day in my boyhood when he first told me about his two precision Brown and Sharpe micrometers, capable of precision measurements down to a thousandth of an inch! As I went through the drawers of the toolbox, I found little to discard, deciding to keep most everything after vacuuming the drawers of loose dirt and debris. And, so it is.

Today, the toolbox rests, close by my workbench, on a pair of two-by-four “risers” to keep it off the concrete garage floor, and there it will remain until I am gone – a reminder of my father, Alfred C. Kubitz – the finest craftsman I ever saw. Dad had a love of tools and a deep respect for them. He was guided by his personal instinct that it was important to have the right tool for the right job; it was equally desirable to have that tool readily available in the toolbox when it was needed!

Indeed, Dad’s influence took root and shaped my own attitude toward tools and their care. I have much the same philosophy when it comes to books in my library which, today, is comprised of numerous volumes spanning many categories: aviation, science, science history, general history, music/jazz, technology, silicon valley history, and many of the professional texts I used during my electrical engineering career. It would be impossible to read them all, and equally impossible to dispose of any of these books. One never knows when the need will arise for the specific knowledge contained between its covers! A full set of tools enables its owner to build and repair “things.” A fine library of books enables its owner to acquire knowledge which, in turn, becomes the foundation of a healthy perspective – and wisdom. Is it not wonderful to know that answers to your questions reside on the shelves of one’s own library – silently waiting to be summoned?

The Leather-Punch: A Bittersweet Vindication of Dad’s “Tool Philosophy”

I will relate to you a bittersweet incident relating to my father’s personal “tool philosophy,” namely, the importance of being prepared with the right tool for the job at hand. Sometime in the early nineteen-eighties, I believe it was, my parents and our family of four were downtown in nearby Los Altos, California. We were strolling past various shops when we came upon the “riding and saddlery” store which back then had long catered to local equestrians (shop long-gone). For some inexplicable reason at the time, Dad ducked in there while the rest of us moved on down the street; he purchased a heavy-duty leather punch, similar to a paper hole-punch only suitable for leather bridles and harnesses. When he soon rejoined us down the street, we asked him why he went in there and why, in the world, would he need a heavy-duty leather punch. His reply: he did not have a tool like that and, some day it might come in handy! Years, later, in 1989, my mother passed-away, leaving my father very lonely after a happy marriage of one week short of fifty years. Months later, he met a lady whose company he enjoyed. After a scheduled surgery for him to have a heart-valve replacement, they planned a wedding.

The surgery did not go well, and my father found himself with a compromised heart which could not allow a full recovery, given his shortness of breath. He lost considerable weight over the weeks that followed, but the wedding was still on. I was his best man that day, and as I helped him get ready that morning, we discovered that his dress trousers were now too loose for his belt to accommodate.

Dad had just the right tool for the occasion – his leather punch purchased years earlier which I used to put an extra hole in his belt, and that saved the day! It was shortly after the wedding that we lost him. My father’s various intuitions proved quite amazing in so many similarly unexpected ways! His secret: always cultivate knowledge and wisdom from each-and-every hard-earned, real-life experience, and do not make the same mistake twice.

My Father’s “Engineering Mentality”

Dad had what I have long referred-to as a true “engineering mentality.” What, pray-tell, is that you might ask! An engineering mentality encompasses two qualities: first, a firm belief in the scientific nature of cause-and-effect. The invariable laws of nature, of physics, and even, to a certain degree, of human endeavor, dictate that, for every “action” (cause), there is a “reaction” (effect). Engineers and scientists acknowledge that fact, respect that fact, and learn from it. In a related sense, the second quality at play renders good engineers to be notoriously aware of what can possibly go wrong in any given engineering design – or life-situation. Dad’s reaction? In keeping with his innate spirit of engineering anticipation, Dad believed in a well-stocked toolbox and a bevy of good books to meet any challenge. As my father’s son, I get that.

This was Dad’s original collection of miscellaneous nuts, bolts, and screws – along with the same antique Hills Bros. coffee can that housed them over many decades. As a boy, I learned from him how to spill the contents onto folded sheets of newspaper in order to sort through the pile to find what I needed. It was then easy to dump the remainder back in the can using the fold. I did that countless times over the decades as I am sure he did, as well. Great and wonderful memories, all!

Toolbox Pictures and Other Special Tools

Dad’s Venerable Two-Speed, North Bros. “Yankee” Hand Drill

“Yankee” Spiral-Ratchet Screw Driver – “Like New” in the Box

“Old Friends”