The Comet of the Century


Writing a story for audio is different than one intended for text. Therefore, Ron presents the following story two different ways: audio and text. If you’d like to read the story, continue with this blog post. But if you want to sit back and hear it as a complete audio production, hit the play button (or download the file to your phone) and listen to the most recent episode of Ron’s 15-year old podcast called Griddlecakes Radio®: Exploring the Lost Art of Audio Storytelling.


The Comet of the Century


The sun set into the Pacific, initiating an 80-minute wait for when it would be dark enough for me to see the comet that I’d been chasing for the past week. I took in a deep breath of the desert air, exhaled, and settled in with my thoughts. I turned to identify a sound to my right. That’s when I saw something that one would only expect to see in a movie: a Benedictine Monk emerging from the shadows of the cloisters. I smiled to myself. It had been a long journey. My attempts to photograph Comet NEOWISE had been inhibited by clouds, light pollution and a standoff with a skunk. And yet, here I was, standing in a dark cemetery, with a monk approaching. That’s when I wondered, “How on earth did I get here?”

December, 1973. It was all over the news. Comet Kohoutek was going to be a spectacular sight for all to see. We were about to be visited by The Comet of the Century. Ten-year-old me fell for the hype. I read every astronomy book in my Elementary School library. I especially liked the oversized ones, packed with full-page photos of stars, supernovas, and comets with their huge tails that filled the night sky.

I learned that comets were big pieces of ice, or more colloquially, dirty snowballs–something that a kid growing up in New England knew quite a bit about. You see, dirty snowballs are made from the snowbanks of freshly plowed streets. And while they were unsightly, more importantly, dirty snowballs are illegal in snowball fights as their salt, sand and gravel posed dangers to one’s opponents.

When a comet is far away from the sun, it’s just an ugly, dirty snowball. But when it gets close, magic happens. Solar radiation heats the snowball to start a process called outgassing. Solar winds then blow these gasses away, creating a wispy tail that paints itself across the constellations. This was something I had to see.

And so on one December evening in 1973, I went hunting for the Comet Kohoutek. A flashlight guided me through the darkened woods as the snow crunched under my boots. A few minutes later, I was standing in a clearing that offered an open view of the sky. This was it. I was finally going to see the Comet of the Century. I looked up with the anticipation and wonder that only a ten-year-old can have and saw…nothing…nothing but stars. Weird.

The justifications began. “Maybe I was too too early? Yeah, that must be it.” And so I waited. I stood in the cold for what felt like an eternity. The tip of my nose felt numb. My cheeks stung. And my toes started to hurt. “Where was it?”

The television newscaster promised me a big bright comet flying directly overhead. Little did I know that my expectations were totally unrealistic. First of all, comets don’t zip across the sky–they hold their positions among the stars. In other words, you need to know where to look for them.  Second, comets aren’t as bright as the newscaster alluded to. Even the brightest of comets are faint to the naked eye.

I don’t know how long I waited before giving up and using my flashlight to illuminate the long path of failure home. Although I wouldn’t know it at the time, I had just fallen behind in a multi-decade game of cat and mouse. Comets 1, Ron: zero.

Comet Kohoutek was a worldwide flop. And although I didn’t see this dirty snowball, I vowed to see the next one…whenever that was. That’s when I learned about Halley’s Comet.

Halley’s comet had appeared over humans about 28 times between its first recorded instance in 239 BC and 1682. Yet nobody, until Sir Edmond Halley had connected these multiple appearances to a single comet. After studying records from 1531, 1607, and 1682, Halley predicted that this comet would return to earth in 1758. Although he died sixteen years before the dirty snowball proved him right, his prediction earned him the honor of the comet’s namesake.

I did the math. Since Halley’s Comet last visited our little corner of the solar system in 1910, it would reappear in 1986. I just had to wait thirteen years…infinity to a grade-schooler. “Thirteen years,” I thought. Not only would I have to wait twice my age for the event, I’d be an old man in 1986. I’d be twenty-three.”

Much happened between 1973 and 1986. I graduated from High School and College and had moved to Los Angeles to start my engineering career. 

That’s when the hype started. Halley’s Comet would be The Comet of the Century.

Like Kahoutek, Halley’s comet also proved to be a dud. Not only was it difficult to see with the naked eye under the best of conditions, my view was obscured by the glare of the Los Angeles city lights. After waiting thirteen years, I’d fallen father behind in my little game. Comets: 2; Ron: 0.

My quest to see a comet was now in deep jeopardy because Halley’s comet is the only known dirty snowball with a period short enough to be seen by the same generation.–and that’s only if you were born at the right time. My timing wasn’t so good. You see, in 2061, I’ll almost be a centenarian.

Therefore, the only way for me to view a comet with my own eyes would involve luck. 

A new comet had to be discovered. Such luck occurred nine years later when Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp discovered a new comet on July 23, 1995–two full years before it would be visible to the naked eye.

And just just like it had with the comets of Kohoutek and Halley, the closer it got, the more exaggerated the hype. Hale-Bopp would be The Comet of the Century.

Yeah. I wasn’t falling for that again.

But there was something different about this comet. Reports from all over the world described how everyday people could see Hale-Bopp with the naked eye. 

In the eleven years since Halley’s Comet, I’d gotten married and moved back from the bright lights of Los Angeles to the dark skies of northern Massachusetts. I went outside, looked to the constellation where Hale-Bopp should have been and saw…nothing. Not again!

But that’s when something appeared in the corner of my eye. A line…like the tail of a comet. I concentrated my gaze and saw something out of place. A star. A fuzzy star exactly where Hale-Bopp was supposed to be.

It was odd. If I looked directly at it, I couldn’t see the tail. But if I looked away slightly, I saw a prominent tail in my peripheral vision. I had finally seen my first comet, but it looked nothing like the spectacular photographs being published in the newspapers and magazines.

But why?

The reason has to do with one’s retina. Remember that High School anatomy class where we learned about rods and cones? Don’t worry–I needed to look it up too. Cones see color and rods see black and white. The retina’s foveal field–the area where the image of what you are looking at is projected–is packed with cones that capture a high-definition, color image. The area outside of the foveal field–which makes up your peripheral vision–contains more rods than cones. Since rods are more light-sensitive than cones, they can pick up fainter objects, such as comet tails.

This idea of light sensitivity is relevant because the human eye doesn’t have the sensitivity to see a comet’s full majesty. That’s where photography comes in. Film is much more sensitive to light than the human eye. 

And so, if I was going to capture an image of Hale-Bopp, I’d need a camera, tripod, and a shutter release–all things that I’ve had since I was sixteen years old. I set up my tripod across the street from an old abandoned farmhouse and waited for nightfall. Since Hale-Bopp was situated high in the sky, I aligned it with the corner of the roofline, took a few shots, and sent the film off for processing.

I tore open the envelope to see what I’d captured.

Comet Hale-Bopp 1997 (Click for Full-sized image)

There it was. A white comet with a white tail, over a farmhouse. After 24 years I was finally on the board. Comets 2; Ron: 1.

But the image wasn’t perfect. You see, because we live on a big blue marble that rotates about its north-south axis, celestial bodies appear to rotate slowly around the North Star. Have you ever seen a picture of star trails? They’re created because the camera captured all the locations that the stars occupied while the shutter was open. And even though mine was only open for about 30 seconds, the rotation of the earth in that half-minute caused Hale-Bopp to move ever-so-slightly, creating an image that looked more like an oval smudge with a blurry tail as opposed to a crisp, round nucleus and wispy tail.

But, I learned. The next time–if there was a next time–I’d need to keep that shutter speed down.

I waited 13 years for Halley’s Comet; 11 years for Hale-Bopp, and would be another 23 years before I could apply the learnings of this photography lesson.

It’s not that I didn’t have other opportunities. Comet 46/Wirtanen appeared in December 2018. I even got a faint picture of it. Or at least I think I did. I couldn’t see it via the naked eye, but when I pointed my camera at the constellation where it was supposed to be, I captured a fuzzy, greenish star with no tail.

But that image boosted my confidence because I proved that I could locate and capture a comet that couldn’t be seen with the naked eye. I just needed an opportunity. Would a big and bright enough dirty snowball enter our little corner of the Milky Way before my time on the big blue marble was up?

Comet Atlas offered some hope in early 2020, but it, as can happen when snowballs are exposed to the heat of the sun, disintegrated. And while I and other Comet Hunters grumbled over yet another lost opportunity, news of a new, Comet of the Century, promised to make up for our disappointment.

My well-earned skepticism transformed into optimism, though, when my social media feeds began filling with beautiful photos of a big, bright comet with a spectacular long tail. This was my opportunity to apply what I learned through my image of Hale-Bopp.

I learned that Comet NEOWISE could be seen at dawn in the northwest sky between July 9th and 18th. On the 12th, it would start transitioning from being a morning comet to an evening one. The good news was that I had one week to catch the comet. The bad news was that NEOWISE would get a little dimmer each day as it sped away from the sun.

I finally had everything that I’d been waiting for: a naked eye comet, a precise location, and the knowledge on how to capture it photographically. All I needed was a little luck–which I found was in short supply.

The locals call it June Gloom, a clever use of assonance to name a phenomenon where coastal fog rolls in from the Pacific at dusk and then burns off late the following morning–precisely the interval when I was supposed to be photographing NEOWISE.

I’d get up at 3:30 in the morning, look outside, see June Gloom, and go back to bed. On one occasion, the fog appeared to be receding, so I hiked up the hill next to my house, set up the camera, and waited. And while the fog did recede, it didn’t recede enough.

As I came down the hill, I ran into my next obstacle. A skunk had decided to take the same path home as me.  I’d have to wait for him to give up the path because there was no way around him. We stared at each other. I recalled a time when a skunk chased my childhood friend Charlie, but this instance was different. While teenaged Charlie outran him successfully, the odds of a middle-aged man with two bad knees outrunning a determined skunk were astronomical. And so we continued our staring contest, each waiting for the other to blink.

I won. The skunk altered his route, thus clearing my path home. I chuckled at the irony. Skunked again, literally.

Wednesday evening, July 15th. Not a cloud in the sky. Could it be?

I re-climbed the hill, set the tripod, pointed my camera at the northwestern sky and waited for nautical sunset which would occur 80 minutes after sunset, when it would be dark enough to see Comet NEOWISE. Unlike 1973 and 1997, I wasn’t alone. A few other people had chosen the same location in hopes of getting their glimpse of NEOWISE.

The time had finally arrived. 9:10 pm. The anticipation was palpable. I looked to the precise location where NEOWISE should be. And saw nothing. I took a couple test shots. Still nothing.

A man with binoculars approached at about 9:30.

“How long have you been here?” he asked.

“Since sunset,” I said.

“See anything?”


“Do you think we just need to wait longer?” he asked.

“I don’t think that’ll help,” I said, pointing to the horizon. “I think the city lights are just too strong.”

What I didn’t know was that I had actually captured an out-of-focus image of NEOWISE with its tail hidden in the orange glow of the city lights. 

Accidental capture of Comet NEOWISE 2020 (Click for Full-sized image)

And while I could have returned the following evening to exploit the sensitivity of the camera and capture NEOWISE, I wouldn’t have the satisfaction of seeing it with my own eyes. I needed another plan.

I studied a map. If I went north, I’d have to drive two-to-three hours to get past Los Angeles. I considered the Mecca of stargazing, Joshua Tree National Park, which was only about two hours east of me. I learned that you could even rent a yurt for the evening. Yet, I wasn’t keen on dealing with 120 degree desert heat, so I looked to the south and saw something promising: a large, uninhabited area between the counties of Orange and San Diego. If I could get south of Camp Pendleton, it just might be dark enough for me to see NEOWISE.

I just needed some local knowledge to help me find the right place. A friend in the area suggested two options: Sleeping Indian Hill and The Prince of Peace Abbey. I drove 30 minutes to scope each site. Sleeping Indian Hill wouldn’t work, but the Abbey, perched on a hill, offered exactly what I sought, an unobstructed northwest view. I walked the monastery’s grounds and found the perfect vantage point at the far end of a tiny cemetery. With the spot chosen, I drove home to wait until the earth rotated the sun into its setting position.

I returned to the Abbey about a half-hour before sunset. That’s when I noticed something that I hadn’t seen earlier. The mouth of the driveway contained a steel gate. Although opened, I wondered if it remained that way. My mind raced. I’d come too far to turn back now. If I could pull off this shot, it would be totally worth a night of sleeping in my car. At the very least, it would make a good story.

While I could have parked anywhere, I chose the foot of the path to the cemetery so that anyone clearing the parking lot before locking the gate, would look up and see me. Hopefully.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “Ron. A cemetery. Really?

The Cemetery at the Prince of Peace Abbey (Click for full-sized image)

This cemetery was beautifully designed as a prayer walk. The center contained five foot tall brass crosses that reflected the golden light of the setting sun. I could think of no better place to witness such a heavenly event–with the souls of about twenty Benedictine monks.

Sunset was at 8:00, putting nautical twilight at 9:20. All I had to do was wait. To my right was a tall wall between the cemetery and the monastery’s cloisters. A sign next to a doorway identified the space on the other side of the wall as private property and if you didn’t see the sign, a weathered board leaning up against the foot of the doorway acted as a secondary warning.

A tall man in a frock approached the doorway, stepped over the board and into the cemetery.

“Good evening,” I said.

“Good evening,” he replied. “Are you here to see the comet?”

“Yes, I am. Is that okay?”

“Of course. I’ve been trying to see it myself, but haven’t been successful. I’m Brother David,” he said, extending his elbow for a pandemic handshake. “How long will it be before we can see it?” he asked.

“Around 9:20.”

“That might be a problem,” he said. “The security guard locks the gate at 9:00. Tell you what. Let me finish my evening prayers and then I’ll find the guard.” Brother David turned, prayed silently by the brass crosses, then disappeared into the darkness.

I looked to the horizon and noticed that getting locked on the grounds wasn’t my only concern. A fog bank had been rolling in from the ocean since sunset and if it continued at the same rate, I could be in trouble. I turned to face the brass crosses. “Guys,” I said in a low voice. “I could use a little help here in the prayer department.”

That’s when brother David returned. “I just spoke with the Security Guard. He knows that you’re here, and won’t lock the gate until you leave.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Now, if we can just hold off that fog bank for 20 minutes.”

Brother David pointed to my sweatshirt. “Merrimack College. Did you go there?”

“I did. A long time ago.”

“So, can I assume that you’re Catholic?” he asked.

I chuckled. “Yes, Brother David. I’m Catholic.”

“And?” he said.

I let out a breath. “And you are catching me in a very turbulent part of my faith journey. Let’s just say that I’m working on a lot of stuff right now.”

Sensing correctly that I didn’t want to elaborate, he changed the subject. “So, where are you coming from?” he asked.

“Orange County.”

“What city?”

I told him.

“Really?” My sister lives there. What street?”

I told him too.

Brother David laughed. “That’s the street that my sister lives on!” before describing that he actually lived with her and her husband for a couple of years. Unfortunately, I didn’t know either one of them.

“So you’re Catholic, you live on my sister’s street. Are you familiar with the local parish?”

“Very much so,” I said.

“It’s such a beautiful building,” David said.

“I know. I built it,” explaining how I was once the parish’s Development Coordinator.

He rattled off a few names from the parish. I knew them all.

And that’s when I saw something familiar. The light-sensitive rods of my peripheral vision caught the distinct line of a comet tail. I took a few test shots. “I’m sorry, Brother David, but, I need to concentrate on this.” 

I snapped a couple of pictures and reviewed them. There it was, just to the east of the fog bank, which miraculously had begun receding back toward the ocean. And while the image wasn’t as bright as my twenty-three-year-old Hale-Bopp image, it was much better. Rather than a smudged white comet, NEOWISE’s round nucleus and coma were distinctly separate from it’s wispy green tail.

Comet NEOWISE 2020 (Click for full-sized image)

I showed David the images, then pointed to the spot. “I see it,” he said excitedly. 

I continued shooting for a few minutes before David yawned, explaining that it was time for him to retire for the evening. Evidently Benedictine Monks start their days at like four in the morning.

I stayed for another fifteen minutes, reviewed my images, and updated the score. Comets: 2;  Ron: 2.


I’ve exchanged emails with Brother David. We both marvel at the coincidence that brought each of us to that specific spot, on that specific day, at that specific hour. I have a standing invitation to celebrate Mass with him at the Abbey. Who knows? My wife and I might just take him up on it.

In the meantime, my mission to capture the perfect photograph of a comet continues. Don’t get me wrong, the pictures of NEOWISE came out great. But, there’s still lots to improve. I could have used a longer lens. I could have found a better ISO and shutter speed. But that’s all part of the journey. With each success, I learn a little more, so that next time, I’ll be better prepared, equipped, and perhaps most importantly, better situated.

Hmm.. It might be time to rent one of those yurts in Joshua Tree.

The Buntling Ball Prize: Lessons from a Century-old Marketing Disaster


Sometimes I stumble onto one story while researching another, like a few years ago when an 1870s advertisement caught my eye. I filed it away, forgot about it, until I came across it again a couple of months ago. Research led me to buy two first-edition books. The first is an 1884 novel about the country’s burgeoning economy. The second, published the following year in 1885, is a satirical play about New York City’s bourgeoisie. The first was a bestseller, while the second was not only a flop, but a nineteenth century public relations disaster. Today we’re going back 135 years to tell their story.

Feel free to listen to the audio version, or read for yourself.

The Buntling Ball Prize




The Funk & Wagnalls marketing team gathered around a conference table to discuss Edgar Fawcett’s new manuscript. Fawcett, a well-known author who’d already cranked out sixteen books in twelve years, had just submitted his seventeenth, a book called The Buntling Ball. The story takes place at a high-society ball hosted by the wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Buntling. Their guests cover the entire socio-economic spectrum, from the Buntling’s daughter, Jane, to her secret lover, Leandor Briggs, “a lowly clerk of slender means,” who’s crashed the party to convince Jane to elope. They’re joined by compound-characters with droll names such as: The Chorus of Knickerbocker Young Men, The Chorus of Social Strugglers, and The Chorus of the Gossips.

The first thing one notices about The Buntling Ball is that it’s written more like a musical than a novel. To give you a taste, here’s a section where The Chorus of Maneuvering Mammas offers their advice on how a young lady can land a rich man:

With subtle scheming
Our brains are teeming;
No idle dreaming
Our bosoms know.
Observers wily
We notice slyly,
And value highly
The moneyed beau.

They blame us greatly,
And say sedately
The matron stately
 Should caste revere;
But we, hard-fated,
Are actuated
To have well-mated
 Our daughters dear.

Far less than falter,
We may not alter
Nor yet would palter
With precepts dread.
If girls must marry
Tom, Dick, or Harry,
Why need they tarry
Till youth has fled?

‘Tis clearly better
To clinch the fetter
By word or letter
By speech or pen;
And so most wary,
We mark how vary
For Maud or Mary
The moods of men.

The magic potion
The shy emotion
Of their devotion
We cannot sway;
By means more slender
We strive to render
The trifler tender
A fiancé.

The art Circean
Is now plebeian
The spell Madean
Has lost its vogue;
But smiling sweetly,
And planning neatly.
We trap completely
The careful rogue.

Before he guesses
That fond addresses
And light caresses
May vows evoke,
Without a blunder,
As lawful plunder,
We push him under
The marriage yoke.

Our tricks to mention
Of tact, invention,
We’ve no intention
Nor any wish;
But quite demurely
And most securely
(Believe it surely)
We land our fish!

The marketing team clearly had their work cut out for them and so they started brainstorming. Such an unconventional book required an unconventional marketing plan. They needed something different–something bold. And that’s when the discussion turned to a new novel that was making quite a splash.



It’s called serialization, the way that nineteenth century publishers vetted the popularity of books before incurring the cost of printing thousands of them. Considered one of the earliest freemium business models, publishers would sell manuscripts to magazines who would then release it, chapter-by-chapter, over the course of several months. If the series proved promising, they’d go to print. If not, they’d have spared themselves a bad expense.
Harper & Brothers approached The Century Magazine with such a manuscript. The editors liked what they saw and paid $2,500 (about $63,000 today) for the right to serialize a novel called The Bread Winners. The magazine released the first four chapters in August 1883, then spread the rest over the next five months.

Public interest in The Bread Winners spiked immediately for three reasons. First, the novel tackled a topical issue, the struggle between business and labor. Second, it did so from a pro-business as opposed to the more popular pro-labor perspective. Lastly, because of the second reason, its author, John Hay, statesman, diplomat, poet, businessman, and Assistant Secretary of State to President Rutherford B. Hayes, wanted Bread Winners published anonymously—a secret that he’d take to his grave some twenty-one years later.

These factors, combined with the novel’s piecemeal release, created a cultural phenomenon as people from all walks of life speculated about the author’s identity. Had this event happened today, it surely would have been the subject of late-night monologues, water cooler discussions, and social media memes.

The publishing industry watched with bemused amazement at the success of The Bread Winners. The Century magazine even claimed that it single-handedly contributed to 20,000 new subscriptions. Having passed the test, Harper & Brothers published The Bread Winners in book form.

The Funk & Wagnalls marketing team studied Bread Winners for clues that could help them with The Buntling Ball. They wondered. If they released The Buntling Ball anonymously, could lightning strike twice? Probably not–at least not without modifications to attract the lightning. That’s when someone floated the idea of a cash prize for identifying Edgar Fawcett as the author. The team pitched the idea to upper management, who must have liked it because they approved a $1,000 cash prize–an amount that would be worth more than $26,000 today.

Funk & Wagnalls opened their contest with an ad in the Delta Epsilon Quarterly:

Many reviewers liked what they saw.

Literary World had this to say: “The Buntling Ball, a book of society verses, whose author we are not allowed to divulge, but whose individuality is so pronounced in his pages that the authorship is quite obvious…. The illustrations are outlined drawings, and the whole book partakes much in the flavor of Mr. Grant’s Little Tin Gods.”

The Detroit Sunday News said, “Written in the form of a comic opera libretto, and a very bright one at that, indeed, it is called ‘an opera without music;’ and yet it is so well written that it almost sings itself. If W.S. Gilbert didn’t write it, he should get the person that did…to compose the next Gilbert and Sullivan opera…”

The Minneapolis Tribune agreed with the Gilbert and Sullivan connection. “Full of happy conceits of rhyme and thought…One has the same sensation in reading it as would be produced by hearing Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas. Indeed, it is very clever.”

The contest was creating precisely the buzz that the marketing team had hoped for, so they fanned the flames of speculation with another advertisement.

Did Henry Guy Carlton write the Buntling Ball? the headline asked.

Guesses at the author:

      • Brander Mathews guesses Robert Grant
      • Julien Hawthorne guesses J.R. Lowell
      • Willian A. Hammond guesses Edgar Fawcett
      • And Edgar Fawcett guesses H. H. Bogwen

Oh, what a tangled web this marketing team weaves.

The team would soon learn that what’s woven can be unwoven as prizemoney-momentum couldn’t overcome poor-product-inertia. The Century, the same magazine that gained twenty thousand new subscriptions because of the Bread-Winners, had harsh words for the Buntling Ball.

“Quite a number of anonymous novels have lately appeared, perhaps not without some influence from the success which befell ‘The Bread-winners.’ The pleasure of guessing who wrote a book…called public attention to the anonymous novel for the first time on a very large scale. ‘The Buntling Ball,’ a nonsense-book with a satirical aim, written in verse, has gained much by the mystery as to its authorship. While unreasonably long, it has very clever things in it, on secondary lines. The workmanship is careful, and the humorous parody on the chorus of the old Greek tragedies…could not be better…On the large lines, as a satire on New York society, it must be confessed that ” The Buntling Ball ” is a failure.

The Book Buyer magazine followed with a report suggesting that The Buntling Ball might be suffering sluggish sales:

“The retailers still continue to speak their minds. A most curious incident in the discount system is the unusual circular issued by Funk & Wagnalls, in announcing (or not announcing) the key to the secret of “The Buntling Ball.” Such an offer, sown to broadcast by a house of this standing, shows how demoralized present prices really are.”

And just when the marketing team thought it couldn’t get any worse–poor reviews and poor sales appeared to be just the tip of the failure iceberg. Funk & Wagnalls was about to experience a public relations nightmare for the ages.



The typewriter was introduced commercially in 1874, but it wouldn’t be adopted generally for another couple of years. Therefore, publishers duplicated handwritten manuscripts, such as The Buntling Ball, photolithographically. So, when an anonymous book and its thousand-dollar bounty crossed the desks of reviewers, many recognized Edgar Fawcett’s handwriting. And while none of these esteemed professionals broke the implied embargo publicly, they may have mentioned something to colleagues, friends, and family, who then flooded Funk & Wagnalls’ mailroom with a steady stream of correct guesses.

Funk & Wagnalls now had a dilemma. How should they distribute the prizemoney? Should they pay the first correct guess or split the cash among all the correct answers? They chose the latter, which diluted the winnings and angered vocal winners who were expecting thousand-dollar checks.

Funk & Wagnalls made a feeble attempt at damage control through a cringeworthy open letter.

March 23, 1886.
To the Editor of Publishers’ Weekly

We have seen in several papers criticisms like the following…from the Brooklyn Union:

Some two or three hundred people guessed the name of the author…and they were informed by the publishers that their share of the $1000, amounting to about $3 each, would be paid to them in books selected from Funk & Wagnalls’ list of publications. The guessers who believed in the $1000 cash prize may now regret the waste of the postage-stamp which carried their guess.”

Permit us to say:

1. We do not question the right of any one to criticize as severely as he may please the offer by us of one thousand dollars for the correct naming of the author of an anonymous book. We may have been right, or we may have been wrong in making this offer; it depends wholly on the standpoint from which it is viewed. It would be of little profit to discuss this now.

2. It is not true that we have not kept the letter and spirit of the contract in our offer. We did not compel the persons who guessed correctly to take pay in our books. We gave them the option of taking books at a discount or cash. The fact is, that nine tenths of the amount was paid in cash and the other tenth was not paid in cash only because the ” guessers” preferred books. We went beyond the letter of our offer. By our offer, the money was to be paid when 10,000 copies were sold. Ten thousand copies were not sold — only 8000 were disposed of. We were under no obligation to pay the money now. We would have been perfectly fair had we refused to distribute the money until the ten thousandth copy had been disposed of, which might not have been for twelve months or more, perhaps never.

3. There were several authors who were named almost, if not altogether as frequently as was the true author, up to a week before the close of the offer. Gilbert, Robert Grant, Fawcett. Croffut, Bunner, were ” guessed ” almost an equal number of times. Holmes, Lowell. Hay, Stec man, Carleton, were ” guessed ” over and over again. In all some 250 different authors were named. Had it not been for an inadvertence, a few days before the closing of the offer, the author had not been named correctly nearly so often. By an oversight, a manuscript story by the author of ” Buntling Ball ” was placed in the hands of a syndicate of papers. The manuscript was in the well-known handwriting of the author. This, of course, gave away the secret. As a result, from a single establishment…25 correct “guesses” came in, from another 12, and from many others one, two, three each. Prior to the secret thus leaking out only comparatively few persons had guessed correctly.

Whatever may be said about this experiment it has made pretty manifest that there are not many people who are able to determine from internal evidence the author of a book.

Funk & Wagnalls. 10 & 12 Dey St. N. Y.


It doesn’t take much imagination to see the roots of the modern-day disclaimer in the fiasco known as The Buntling Ball Prize. Nineteenth century marketers had neither an understanding nor a need for such defensive measures, which enabled them to overlook the fine details required to support a public contest, like: stipulating that the prizemoney depended upon selling ten-thousand copies, how the winnings would be distributed, or the concept of contest eligibility.

And there you have it. Two, one-hundred-thirty-year-old books, written by two different authors, and connected by anonymity. The first succeeded because of great writing and its audience’s natural curiosity. The second failed because it deceived its audience with a gimmick.

Or, to borrow the writing style of the Buntling Ball:

To achieve success,
We must address,
The best way to press
Our message receipt.
And so be leery
Of being too cheery
Cause its much more than theory
the wrath of deceit.

The Story You Start is Rarely the Story You Tell


This morning I started writing a piece about President Lincoln’s use of language in the Gettysburg address. Instead, as happens frequently, I ended up writing something totally different.

You see, my muse is fickle. She arrives when she wants, and while I can’t predict her arrivals, I’ve learned that I can attract her through a simple act: writing…ANYTHING. She loves the rhythmic sound of fingertips striking a keyboard and if she’s in the mood, we start dancing.

But that’s when all bets are off. Any thoughts of continuing down the original story path are futile, as my suddenly invigorated fingertips struggle to keep up with a barrage of wild new ideas. Some are good and others aren’t, but it doesn’t matter. The thought-train is barreling downhill and my job is get out of its way.

That’s what happened when I started writing about the Gettysburg Address. As I studied an old photograph from the actual event, I wondered what the people in it were thinking. That’s when she arrived and steered me away from a linquistic story to a more historical one. The resulting rough draft wasn’t quite StoryHowish, yet, it still lead me to think more deeply about my own process.

Writing, as in storytelling, is not a linear process. No matter how hard you try to maintain a strait line from point A to point B, the muse forces course-corrections to F, then through W, and finally concluding at Z. Resisting such deviations leads only to frustration. Therefore, the measure of any skilled storyteller is the ability to put one’s ego aside to find the right story.

Have you set out to tell a story but find yourself blocked? Woo the muse with the call of the keyboard. Perhaps she’ll help you find a better path.

Now, let’s see if I can finish that piece on the Gettysburg address.


Photo Credit: Williams, Sophus, photographer. Woman Looking at Book as Another Woman Points to Something in the Book. , None. [Berlin: loescher & petsch ; verl. e. linde & comp. sophus williams between 1867 and 1873] Photograph.

Storytellers Address Symptoms and Causes


I’ve always liked writing, but I can’t say the same thing about reading. My reading experience differs from most of my writing friends, who describe the joys of discovering their local libraries, where they spent hours both finding and devouring books.

I just couldn’t do it. Reading was a physically painful process. After about a half-hour, my eyes would hurt, and I needed to stop. It wasn’t until I graduated from college that my optometrist diagnosed the problem.

“You’re nearsighted,” Dr. Baker, said. “So, I’m prescribing you reading glasses.”

I looked at him quizzically. “But, Doc, everything up close is clear. It’s the things in the distance that are fuzzy. Why do I need reading glasses?”

“To remove eye strain,” he said, before explaining how eye muscles contract to focus close and relax to focus far. “You’re an engineer. Your entire world is only a few feet away. Because of that, your eye muscles never get a chance to relax and thus they remain in a perpetual state of near focus.”

So, rather than giving me corrective glasses to compensate for my nearsightedness, Dr. Baker prescribed reading glasses to trick my eyes into thinking that they were focused out far, thus forcing my eye muscles to relax, and helping my distant-vision to return.

Those reading glasses changed my life because I can now read for hours and my eyes never get tired.

I learned a valuable lesson that day. When trying to solve a problem, it’s frequently best to treat the cause as opposed to symptoms.

It’s also a hint for storytellers who are trying to find an angle. If a story is the result of people pursuing what they want, and what they want is to solve a problem, there are at least two different ways to go: compensate for the symptom or eliminate its cause. Each one will lead to its own story.

So, what problem are you trying to solve today? Have you considered both approaches to solving it?


Photo Credit: Bain News Service, Publisher. Assembling Main Engine. , ca. 1915. [Between and Ca. 1920] Photograph.

The Sound Designer and the Storyteller

About five years ago, my son and I had the opportunity to play with a DJI drone. Since we’re both content creators–Bryan is a sound designer in the video game industry and I’m, well, you know–we’re always looking for projects to work on together.

It didn’t take long to recognize the advantages of drone photography. The gimbal-stabilized, bird’s-eye-view HD video was stunning. Yet, these majestic images also came with a downside because drone cameras don’t record audio. And for good reason. The only sound that a drone-mounted microphone could capture would resemble something akin to a plague of locusts.

Most drone photographers compensate for this limitation with mood-setting music beds, supporting fast-moving footage with hard-driving music, and peaceful panoramas with cinematic soundtracks. But neither storyteller nor sound designer was interested in producing this type of video. We wanted to create something different that used both of our skills. And so we brainstormed ideas.

Since we only had a limited time with the borrowed DJI Phantom 2 Vision Quadcopter (the weekend) and we didn’t trust our fledgling piloting skills (must avoid crowds), we decided to record me doing something that I like to do early in the morning: find a deserted basketball court and shoot baskets.

And thus we had a plan. I would shoot baskets, then write and record some sort of internal monologue. Bryan would fly the drone, design the audio, and assemble the video.

The following is the final version of that collaboration.


Engineering a Story


“You know, Ron,” one of my friends said recently, “You breakdown story like an engineer.”

While I’d never really thought about it that way before, she’s right. Story is a massively complicated subject that I’ve approached by using the skills that I learned in engineering school.



I was a sophomore engineering student at Merrimack College when the professor stopped in the middle of his Digital Signal Processing lecture and dropped a non sequitur. “Why are you here?” 

The students just stared at him.

“Why do you want to be an engineer?” Dr. Develis pressed. “Why did you choose a major with such rigor?”

We still had nuthin‘.

He smiled and decided then let us off the hook. “You’re here to learn just one thing.”

We laughed. Surely, he couldn’t be serious. We had to learn mathematics, physics, circuit theory, and control systems. We’d be taking classes in linear algebra, calculus, differential equations, and electromagnetics–not to mention the religion and philosophy courses required to graduate from an Augustinian school.

He dismissed our protests. “Your four years in Engineering school will teach you one thing: a method to solve problems. You’ll learn how to break big problems into small ones. Then, by solving the small problems, you’ll eventually solve the big ones.”

As we pondered that thought, he then made a disturbing prediction. “And you’ll get so good at it, that some people will hate you for it.”



Although I didn’t believe him at the time, life has proved his grim prophecy to be true. It tends to happen while working on big problems with someone who wants to solve them whole. Unfortunately, all-at-once strategies frequently become a jumbled mess of subjectivity, passion, and emotion–all great things when bringing energy to a problem–but terrible while trying to solve one.

My training forces me to look at problems objectively. First I seek to uncover the root causes to problems. Next I learn as much about them as I can. Finally, I break the big problem into smaller, more manageable ones. The process is ruthlessly sequential and simultaneously infuriating to someone who values action over achievement.

Problem-solving is in my DNA. My work is covered with its fingerprints. For example, The StoryHow™ PitchDeck breaks storytelling into four parts: roles, events, influences, and techniques. The Proverb Effect breaks proverbs down into their base components of function, frame, and finish.

Love me or hate me, I am what I am–a storyteller with a degree in Electrical Engineering.




Photo Credit: United States Office Of War Information, Feininger, Andreas, photographer. Science and research. Mineral prospecting. A ground comparator will reveal the presence of an ore body under the surface of the earth by measuring the total intensity and the plane of polarization of the secondary electro-magnetic field set up by the ore body. These students are using an adjustable coil of copper wire which acts as an electrical transformer, and may be tilted to determine the minimum and maximum intensity of the field. They are conducting an experiment in electronics, taught in the department of geophysics at a famous mining engineering school. They will apply the knowledge they are acquiring to airplane detection and anti-submarine warfare. Colorado School of Mines, Golden, Colorado. Colorado Golden Golden. Jefferson County United States, 1942. Oct. Photograph.