The Eccentric Entrepreneur Who Put Bhutan on the Map With Talking Postage Stamps

iStock.com/mantosh
iStock.com/mantosh

In the 1950s, the Kingdom of Bhutan asked the World Bank for a $10 million loan. The secluded Buddhist country with a population of about 200,000 people had been closed off to the outside world for centuries, but the government of the "Forbidden Kingdom" was now contemplating reaching out—and it needed some financial help. However, the World Bank declined to be the one to give it to them.

Bhutan, which is sandwiched between India and China, was mired in a border dispute with its giant neighbors, and the bank didn’t want to get tangled up in the politics of it all. Instead, an official suggested that Bhutan bring in money another way: by selling postage stamps to international collectors.

This idea wasn't as harebrained as it sounds. The tiny, independent city-state of Monaco, located on the French Riviera, had done the same thing several years earlier. (After discovering that stamps could be a consistent source of revenue, Monaco’s Prince Rainier III called them “the best ambassador of a country.”) So in 1962, Bhutan followed suit and set up the Bhutan Stamp Agency and placed an American entrepreneur named Burt Kerr Todd in charge.

Todd was an unusual, but ideal, choice. A swashbuckling raconteur and adventurer, he had befriended Bhutan’s future queen, Ashi Kesang Choden-Dorfi, while attending Oxford University. He was the first American to ever step foot in Bhutan and, as the son of a Pittsburgh steel and banking magnate, Todd had the worldly connections to bring global attention to the secluded nation. He was also a remarkable salesman. He was friends with dozens of heads of states, from the Sultan of Brunei to the prime minister of Mauritius, and helped dozens of small nations with wacky, money-making schemes (like the time he introduced rum production to Fiji or helped cash-strapped maharajas sell their gently used Rolls-Royces on the international market).

Todd’s zest for innovative ideas made him the perfect choice to lead Bhutan’s new stamp agency. He didn’t know a single thing about the international stamp market, but he certainly knew the value of a good gimmick: After making an initial round of modest stamps that depicted yaks and monasteries, Todd's ideas grew more zany. There were stamps made from silk, some scented with perfume, and others depicting the Yeti. He made stamps from steel (which rusted) and stamps embedded with 3D technology. Finally, in 1972, Todd introduced the world’s first "talking stamps."

Issued in a colorful set of seven, the talking stamps were technically some of the smallest vinyl records in the world. You could, of course, stick the stamp onto an envelope and drop it off at the post office. But you could also place the stamp on a turntable, drop the needle, and be greeted by the sounds of a Bhutanese folk song, the country's national anthem, or a short narration describing life in the Land of Dragons.

Bhutan produced about 300,000 of these stamps which, for years, prompted eye-rolling from many people in the philatelic community, which considered them tawdry pieces of gimmickry. But that has recently changed. Writing for The Vinyl Factor, Anton Spice says prices have been pushed up “by that geekiest of Venn diagrams between stamp and record collectors.” Today, a set of genuine talking stamps can sell for around $400.

As for the eccentric Todd, his ability to find unusual uses for stamps would continue. "He once tried to found a small kingdom himself, on a deserted coral reef in the South Pacific," The New York Times wrote in a 2006 obituary. "Its entire infrastructure was to be built on postage stamps. His dream was dashed, he later said, after Tongan gunboats blew his island paradise to ruins.”

The Pope's Swiss Guards Are Now Outfitted in 3D-Printed Helmets

Franco Origlia/Getty Images
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

The Popemobile isn't the only innovative piece of gear used by the Pope and his posse. Though they still look traditional, the outfits worn by the Swiss Guard now include a high-tech piece of headwear designed by the 3D-printing design team at HP, Fast Company reports.

Members of the Swiss Guard, the Vatican's private army, wore the same helmet for more than 500 years. The steel hat is branded with the crest of Pope Julius II (the "mercenary pope" and the guard's founder) and embellished with a red feathered crest for special events.

Though it made for an iconic look, the original helmet had some practical issues. After baking in the Sun for hours, the metal would heat up and burn the guard's heads. Steel also isn't the most comfortable material to be wearing on your head all day, and because it rusts so easily, it doesn't make sense to wear it in the rain.

The updated helmets from HP solve these problems while maintaining the style of the old headgear. They're made from PVC plastic, which means they're lighter and resistant to UV rays. They're also water-resistant and don't need to be polished constantly to prevent rusting.

The hats are even more affordable than their more traditional predecessors. It costs $1000 and takes 14 hours to 3D-print each PVC helmet, while it took $2000 and 100 hours to forge a single steel one.

Interested in learning about more Papal upgrades? Here are some of the stylish rides the Pope used to get around in recent decades.

[h/t Fast Company]

13 Facts About the Oxford English Dictionary

iStock.com/GCShutter
iStock.com/GCShutter

This year marks the 135th birthday of the Oxford English Dictionary (though the eminent reference book is hardly looking its age). As the English language continues to evolve, the dictionary has flourished and regularly added new words such as nothingburger, prepper, idiocracy, and fam. Get to know it better.

1. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was built on volunteer labor.

When the London Philological Society came up with the idea for a new dictionary of the English language in 1857, the editors decided it was necessary to enlist the help of the public and asked avid readers to send examples of sentences that could illuminate the meanings of different words. Every day, volunteers mailed thousands of “quotation slips” from books, newspapers, and magazines. By the time the first edition was published, more than 2000 volunteers had assisted the editors in its completion.

2. It took more than 70 years to complete the first edition of the OED.

Originally, the Philological Society predicted that the dictionary would take about 10 years to complete. Twenty-seven years later, the editors had successfully reached the word ant. Knowing it would be a while until a completed book was ready, they began publishing unbound editions of the work-in-progress in 1884. The first full volume was eventually published in 1928, more than 70 years after the society first came up with the idea.

3. The OED started out messy. Very messy.

Frederick Furnivall, one of the dictionary’s founders, was a visionary—but that vision did not extend to his organizational skills. Under his stewardship as editor, the dictionary was a mess. Quotation slips were stuffed haphazardly into bags and went missing. All of the words starting with “Pa” went AWOL for 12 years and were eventually discovered in Ireland. Slips for the letter “G” were nearly burned with somebody’s trash. All of the entries for the letter “H” somehow turned up in Italy.

4. OED co-founder Frederick Furnivall was a controversial figure.

After founding a controversy-riddled Shakespeare Society, Furnivall fell into a six-year feud with the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Swinburne (whose mastery of the English language earned him six nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature) mocked Furnivall’s club by calling it “Fartiwell and Co.” and “The Sh*tspeare Society.” Furnivall reached into his bag o' insults and said that Swinburne had, “the ear of a poetaster, hairy, thick and dull.”

5. Dr. James Murray helped the OED clean up its act.

Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Oxford English Dictionary // Public Domain

Dr. James Murray, a philologist, took the helm as the dictionary’s principal editor in 1879 and remained in that position for the rest of his life (he died in 1915). Murray was a linguistic superstar; he was proficient in Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin, Dutch, German, Flemish, and Danish and also had a solid grasp of Portuguese, Vaudois, Provençal, Celtic, Slavonic, Russian, Persian, Achaemenid Cuneiform, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic Arabic, Coptic, and Phoenician.

6. Murray built a shed for the OED's editors to work in.

In 1885, to better organize the dictionary, Murray constructed a sunken shed made of corrugated iron to house the editors and their precious quotation slips. Called the “Scriptorium,” this linguistic workshop contained 1029 pigeonholes that allowed Murray and his subeditors to arrange, sort, and file more than 1000 quotation slips each day. 

6. Only one word is known to have gone missing.

Only one quotation slip—containing the word bondmaid—is known to have been lost. (It fell down behind some books and the editors never noticed.) Murray was deeply embarrassed by his failure to include the word in the dictionary. “[N]ot one of the 30 people (at least) who saw the work at various stages between MS. and electrotyped pages noticed the omission,” he said. “The phenomenon is absolutely inexplicable.” The word was officially introduced in a 1933 supplement.

7. One of the OED’s most prolific contributors was a murderer confined to an insane asylum.

One volunteer who provided the OED with countless quotation slips was William C. Minor, a schizophrenic who was incarcerated at the Broadmoor Insane Asylum in Berkshire, England, after he fatally shot a man he (erroneously) believed had broken into his room. According to Murray, Minor was the dictionary’s second most prolific contributor, even outdoing members of the full-time staff.

8. J.R.R. Tolkien contributed to the OED, too.

In 1919 and 1920, J.R.R. Tolkien worked for the dictionary, where he studied the etymology of Germanic words beginning with the letter W, composing drafts for words like waggle and wampum. "I learned more in those two years than in any other equal period of my life,” Tolkien later said. (Years later, Tolkien spoofed his editors in a comic fable called Farmer Giles of Ham.)

9. The longest entry in the OED is for a three-letter word.

The most complicated word in the Oxford English Dictionary? Set. In the dictionary’s 1989 edition, the three-letter word contains 430 senses (that is, shades of meaning) and requires a 60,000-word definition. Other short words with endless definitions? Run (396 senses), go (368 senses), and take (343 senses).

10. The most popular edition of the OED was impossible to read with the naked eye.

Originally, the OED had a limited audience. Not only was a set of books expensive, it was also bulky and took up an entire bookshelf. In 1971, the Oxford University Press decided to publish a smaller, complete version that compressed nine pages into one. The text was so tiny that the two-volume book came with a magnifying glass. It quickly became one of the bestselling dictionaries on the market.

11. Digitizing the OED took a lot of work.

In the late 1980s, it took more than 120 typists, 55 proofreaders, and a total of 67 million keystrokes to digitize the entire contents of the Oxford English Dictionary. The process took 18 months.

12. Shakespeare isn’t the OED's most quoted source.

The OED's most quoted source is, in fact, the British daily newspaper The Times, which has 42,840 quotations (nearly 10,000 more than William Shakespeare). Coming in third and fourth are the Scottish novelist Walter Scott and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, respectively. When it comes to coining and introducing new words, Shakespeare isn’t first in that arena either; that honor belongs to Geoffrey Chaucer.

13. The last word in the OED is totally buggy.

Each year, about 2000 to 5000 new words, senses, and subentries are added to the Oxford English Dictionary. For years, the last word in the book was zynthum, a type of malty beer made in ancient Egypt. But in 2017, zynthum was usurped by zyzzyva, a type of South African weevil.

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