Buried deep in southwest Wisconsin, beneath a granite monument at the hamlet of Hazel Green, lies the body of a great nineteenth century student. His works in language, literature, and science have shaped our culture to the present day, yet these contributions are nearly as forgotten now as the name of their maker: James Gates Percival. As a poet, Percival was put to music by Edward Elgar. As a linguist, he was a leading contributor to the original Webster’s Dictionary. As a geologist, he compiled the first surveys of two U.S. states: Connecticut and Wisconsin. These accomplishments are now lost among the tomes of dusty archives, for in Percival’s own words:
What’s earth, what’s life, to space, eternity?
‘Tis but a flash, a glance—from birth to death;
And he, who ruled the world, would only be
Lord of a point—a creature of a breath;
And what is it to gain a hero’s name,
or build one’s greatness on the rabble’s roar?
‘Tis but to light a feeble, flickering flame,
That shines a moment, and is seen no more.
James Gates Percival was born in Berlin, Connecticut, on September 15, 1795. He entered Yale College at age 16, already captive to the pursuit of poetry. Percival’s early life, however, was seldom easy. His father had died before James reached his teen years, and at Yale, Percival was so derided by his peers for his poetic ambitions that he left the college in 1812 and employed himself as a farmer for a year before gathering the resolve to finish school.
Returning to Yale, Percival engrossed himself in his studies and avoided society. One classmate noted that “I never knew one who could acquire correct knowledge quicker than Percival,” and another observed, “I think he had few acquaintances in college, though I never knew that he had any enemies. The fact that his intercourse was so circumscribed was doubtless to be attributed to constitutional reserve, and not to the consciousness of his own superiority. Everybody looked upon him as a good-natured, sensitive, thoughtful, odd, gifted fellow.”
After graduating in 1815, Percival continued to expand his knowledge. He embarked as a private tutor; then sought and obtained a degree in medicine at Yale. The young doctor, however, found himself unable to cope with the emotion of his work. Percival felt a strong sense of empathy for his patients and an extremely self-conscious sense of responsibility to them. He could overwhelm himself with grief when he lacked a cure for someone in pain.
Percival also thirsted, quietly, for companionship. Those who knew him remarked on his sensitive and amicable nature, but they could rarely penetrate his reserved demeanor. Friendships for Percival were often fruitless, and his one cautious letter of love was met with steadfast rejection. As grief stacked on grief, Percival penned a long, rambling, maudlin poem entitled “The Suicide.” The work is frenzied and inconsistent, at times unreadable, at times presaging the later vivid imagination of Edgar Allen Poe. A few stanzas follow:
How easy, O! how trifling, with the steel
To pierce a heart that loves no scene below,
To wound a breast too callous e’er to feel
A pang less cruel than a demon’s woe.
Does not the smiling surface of the wave
Kindly invite to take my endless sleep?
How sweet to rest within a watery grave;
How soft those slumbers—that repose how deep.
The death-winged ball—can pierce my phrenzied brain,
The knife—can loose the shackles of my soul,
An opiate—that can ease my every pain,
Smiles, how inviting!—in the poisoned bowl.
And thou, sweet drug!—can’st shed the balmy dew
Of sleep eternal, o’er my wearied eyes,
And give repose, as calm to mortal view
As when the infant wrapt in slumber lies.
Still thou art slow though sure—ah! can I wait
A single moment, ere I sink in death;
Perhaps I may lament it when too late,
And struggle to regain my fleeting breath.
Give me the knife, the dagger, or the ball—
O! I can take them with a smile serene;
Then like a flash of lighting I may fall
And rush at once into the world unseen.
Percival made a number of chaotic attempts to take his life in 1820. He bashed his head with stones; he overdosed on opium; he invested in a brace of pistols. In time Percival recovered from these incidents, but he never overcame their scars. He briefly resumed practicing medicine far from home in South Carolina after 1820, but the doctor remarked in one conversation, “I had got my name up for writing verses, and found myself ruined. When a person is really ill he will not send for a poet to cure him.”
More a poet than a doctor, Percival withdrew from society, and he spent most of his life in seclusion. He never married. The pathos that marked his early years forever overshadowed his later achievements.
We live in an Information Age. The laws that govern how people use, share, and interact with information are more deeply entwined with daily life now than ever before. As citizens of this era, we have a duty to understand these laws, their applicability, and their problems — and we can profit by our knowledge. Whether we like it or not, copyright law is as fundamental to life in the Information Age as the right to free speech. Like free speech, copyrights in America have a basis in the U.S. Constitution. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution gave Congress the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Congress used its power to enact Title 17 of the United States Code, which deals with copyright law. Unlike the right to free speech, however, copyright law is far from commonly understood.
At its simplest, a copyright is the right to copy, modify, and/or distribute a piece of information. That information could be a painting, a film, a software program, a textbook, an email, or any number of other things. As the U.S. Constitution stipulates, it is also an “exclusive right.” Copyright law in the United States essentially states that the only person who has the right to copy, modify, and/or distribute an original work is the person who created that work. Anyone else who wishes to copy, modify, or distribute a copyrighted work must get permission from the copyright holder, or they can face legal repercussions. Copyright holders can demand special conditions or royalty payments in exchange for sharing their rights with others. This much, I hope, is common knowledge.
Excerpt from the U.S. Constitution laying the basis for copyrights.
The purpose for copyrights, as the Constitution puts it, is “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Giving authors the sole right to copy and distribute their creations gives them an incentive to create, for if anybody could copy works freely from the moment they were created, it would be very difficult for creators to earn any credit or rewards for their effort — and therefore, little reason to undertake the effort at all. Copyrights ensure that people have a reason to exercise their freedom of speech and push forward public knowledge and culture.
At the same time, excessive copyright exclusivity can hamper progress. Restrictions on copying, changing, or distributing original works could bring the flow of information to a standstill, or limit the spread of information to elite circles. Those things would hardly be good for a democracy. As a result, the U.S. Constitution stipulated that the exclusive rights that Congress could grant to authors were “limited.” They are limited in time, but they are also limited in terms of what kind of information can be copyrighted and by the “fair use” doctrine, which allows exceptions to copyright exclusivity in order to promote the fair flow of information. The result is that copyright law is far from straightforward — it is a balance between rights for creators and the rights of the public. Title 17 is today over 300 pages long. Here are some of the most crucial points of Copyright Law in the United States today: Continue reading →
This ain’t no lie: a long time back, before it was “America’s Dairyland,” Wisconsin was oil country — sort of. In 1865 and 1866, sixty-six “petroleum mining” companies were chartered in Wisconsin. This oil boom had its roots in the 1850s. That decade, a number of chemists perfected the process of distilling kerosene from crude oil, creating a combustible product far cheaper and more convenient than candles to light up shops and homes. In 1859, the first oil well in the United States was drilled in Pennsylvania. The fledgling industry was soon interrupted by the advent of American Civil War, but as the war drew down in 1864, a boom took place across Pennsylvania and the adjacent states as speculators looked to make a fortune in crude. Within a year, oil frenzy would spread all across the North.
Wisconsin, with its Appalachian-like hills in the southwest and its marshes and bogs across the middle, seemed to many untrained speculators like the ideal place to strike black gold. Appleton, a young city of 2,655 people near the marshy junction of the Fox River and Lake Winnebago, saw the creation of seven petroleum companies in 1865. The Appleton Crescent for April 5 that year noted that “Strangers keep flocking to town. There is a constant stream of visitors to the Northwestern Company’s well. House room is becoming so scarce that the newcomers will soon be obliged to bring their tents with them, or sleep standing.” Locals looked forward excitedly to the day when their region would become as busy and prosperous as the oil fields of Pennsylvania.
The western side of the state joined in the speculation by 1866. Sparta, a Monroe County village with 1,897 inhabitants, held the offices of upwards of ten petroleum companies with operations in the nearby Kickapoo River Valley. “Oil City, Wisconsin” (Google Map) sprung up around the site of a promising claim near Sparta. Two counties to the south, the larger city of Prairie du Chien (population 3,556 in 1865) witnessed the creation of four petroleum corporations in 1866, including the ambitiously named “American Petroleum and Mining Company.” Influential Prairie du Chien residents including steamboat legend Joseph Reynolds, railroad superintendent John Lawler, and ex-fur trader B.W. Brisbois all jumped on the oil bandwagon with sizable investments. Still other oil companies were founded in nearby small towns like Bell Center. But was there any oil?