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Who's on First?


By Jonathan van Bilsen


I have often wondered who the first to do something was. For example, who was the first person to look under a cow and say, ‘Hey, let’s drink that’, or, when did the first person look at a chicken and decide to eat those little white things it left behind. It made me wonder what other firsts there were.

Joseph Gayetty introduced the first commercially available toilet paper, in 1857. Prior to this, people used a variety of less-than-pleasant materials. Gayetty's ‘medicated paper for the water closet’, was a game-changer, albeit a humourous one, considering the product came with his name printed on each sheet.

When Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895, the first image he captured was of his wife’s hand. Upon seeing her skeletal hand, she reportedly exclaimed, "I have seen my death!" The spooky image and her dramatic reaction, add a touch of humour to this medical milestone.

In 1978, Gary Thuerk, a marketer, who sent out a mass email to promote a product, sent the first known instance of email spam. The 400 recipients were not amused, marking the beginning of a digital annoyance which continues to this day. The thought, of receiving the first unsolicited electronic message, is ironically funny, given our current spam-laden inboxes.

Robert Cornelius, an American pioneer in photography, took the first ever selfie in 1839. He had to sit still for 10-15 minutes, due to the long exposure time, creating a rather stoic image. The effort and patience required for this ‘selfie’ contrasts humorously with today's quick and casual snaps.

Annie Edson Taylor, a 63-year-old schoolteacher, was the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Her stunt of 1901, aimed at securing fame and fortune, was both daring and ludicrous. Imagine the surprise and laughter when this elderly woman emerged from the barrel unscathed, only to find her dreams of wealth unfulfilled.

In 215 BC, Hero, of Alexandria, a Greek engineer, invented the first known vending machine, which dispensed holy water when a coin was inserted. The idea of an ancient vending machine providing sacred water in exchange for coins is both fascinating and comically anachronistic (out of place).

In the early days of television, back in 1930, experimental broadcasts included Felix the Cat, a popular cartoon character. A papier-mâché Felix was placed on a rotating turntable, and broadcast for hours to test the equipment.

Elizabeth Magie patented ‘The Landlord's Game’, a precursor to Monopoly. The game's intention was to illustrate the negative aspects of concentrating land in private monopolies. The irony is, the game itself became synonymous with competitive real estate domination, which adds a layer of funniness to its origins.

And lastly, I was the first person to list these firsts in today’s copy of the Standard Newspaper.


Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. Watch his show, ‘Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel’, on RogersTV, the Standard Website and YouTube.

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