Elements of Surprise | Knowledge & Wisdom

Revealing the little-known origins of life’s essential ingredients.

By Yankee Magazine

Apr 06 2020

It is not widely understood that water, earth, fire, and air are all products of Yankee ingenuity; all were, yes, invented. The intent here is to inform and thereby further the appreciation of the four major elements and of the stalwart people who labored to bring them forth (too many to list here, but they know who they are).

WATER: Water was invented, of necessity, shortly after Irish whiskey (both of which are widely believed to have been invented by an anonymous Massachusetts cleric). Since far too much water was created, additional uses had to be found. This led to radiators, laundromats, and spit.

EARTH:Water was still too abundant, so earth had to be invented to sop up some of it. (Sponges would have done the trick but weren’t thought of until much later.) Earth proved to be a boon to farmers, who were at last able to do some meaningful planting.

FIRE: Originally designed solely as a prefix to modify such words as engine and hydrant, fire was an unplanned, spontaneous invention. One day a patron of a crowded chowder house idly tapped his spoon on a clamshell; the first spark was struck, and flames quickly traveled across his shirt sleeve before jumping to the nearby calico curtains. The patron’s first thought was, “I’ve just invented ‘ouch.’” But in his excitement he arbitrarily yelled, “Fire!” The word caught on quickly, as did fire itself.

AIR:Something was needed to fill in the spaces, so a suitable product was duly put together by an underpaid Hartford tinkerer and distributed under the generic name air. Balloons gained new popularity when filled with air; they’d previously been dragged along the ground uninflated, causing considerable boredom.

There is a fifth element, often overlooked, that should be mentioned here: pet hair. Its purpose, though unknown, must be essential, as it seems to cover everything in creation. Presumably God has a plan that involves legions of bald cats and dogs. If this is the case, Chihuahuas must be just below the angels … and angels should watch where they step.

—Adapted from “Who Would Have Thought to Make Water Wet and Fire Hot?” by Jackson Jodie Daviss, September 1983