Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Today's trivia

What do the words "Mark Twain" mean? As usual, you must pretend Google doesn't exist. Anybody can look it up. But that's no fun.

Hint: Samuel Clemens was born in a town on the Mississippi River. He grew up with the river, swam in the river, played pirates on its islands, watched the steam-powered riverboats as they unloaded their cargo from faraway places, himself became a riverboat pilot for a time.

He was to become one of the world's most beloved authors, and when Sam chose his pen name when he began to write seriously, it was a riverboat term.

Update: Answer: Riverboat pilots had to know how deep the river was. Some of the river could be memorized, but it was constantly changing due to currents and storms and such. The shallow-draft riverboats didn't need much depth, but they needed enough. When the pilot wasn't sure of the depth, he would place a crew member on the bow of the boat and sound the depth of the water by dropping a plumb line into the water and letting it go to the bottom, then he could tell how deep the water was by the marks on the line itself. This crewmember would literally sing the changing depths loudly to the pilot as the depth changed. Sometimes the marks were only knots tied in the line at measured intervals. One mark was one fathom, six feet. The marks were in fractions of a fathom as well. Mark two, or mark twain, was 2 fathoms (12 feet) or "safe water". If you would like to look at a drawing of all the marks on a line, you can see it here. Thank you for guessing.

Another bit of Mississippi River trivia: If you have spent any length of time near the river, you will have noticed that it is frequently (if not constantly) being dredged or pumped. That is, you will see a large silt pump sending the bottom material to the shore through a long pump tube. This is being done by the Army Corps of Engineers who have guaranteed a draft of 9 feet in mid-channel to river traffic. Now you know what all that pumping is. :)


  1. OK, mine is guess, and it really is only a guess, so no pouring ridicule if I'm miles off the mark. I seem to have a recollection of seamen using an anchor to measure the depth of water when it was critical, and calling out, "Mark [the depth]". Twain sounds like two. So perhaps it means "here the depth is two". Two what it might be in a river, I wouldn't know.

  2. "miles off the mark" - how apt. :) :)

  3. I like Sheila's answer, though it might signify a particular depth on the Mississipi that would allow certain boats get through. If I recall properly, the Mississippi is prone to muddying up, a situation that can change frequently, forcing captains to change routes as the mud and sandbars migrated. Calling the depth, in such a situation, might be critical to prevent become stuck.

    I've got a lot of Twain's quotes because he was a sarcastic genius. Got to love 'em.

  4. I was going to say a fork in the river. stick a fork in me - because I'm done?

  5. You are both too smart for me (not Canucklehead) - congratulations! I just added the answer to the main post at the bottom, but you both are right. Canucklehead is not right, but he is done. :)

  6. I knew if I lurked long enough you'd answer it without me embarrassing myself! Very cool info. I plan to use it to impress at our next gathering. I will assign proper credit. "this dog I know told me . . ."

  7. @Janet - I doubt you would have embarrassed yourself. But trivia is sometimes interesting. At least I seem to keep collecting it. :)



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