11 Facts for Thomas Paine's Birthday

Born on February 9, 1737 (according to the Gregorian calendar), Paine was a brilliant essayist whose polarizing pen brought him praise and scorn on both sides of the Atlantic. Here are a few things you might not have known about the man John Adams once called “a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf.”

1. HE ARRIVED IN AMERICA WITH A LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION FROM BEN FRANKLIN.

The first half of Thomas Paine’s life was marred by setbacks and sorrow. Born and raised in Norfolk, England, his formal education consisted of a five-year stint at Thetford Grammar School which ended when he began apprenticing under his father—a stay-maker—at age 13. By the time Paine turned 38, he’d suffered the death of his first wife and child, parted ways with his second one, and had twice been dismissed from his post at the English Excise Service. But around that time, Paine was introduced to Benjamin Franklin by their mutual friend, mathematician George Lewis Scott. Franklin encouraged Paine to emigrate to the American colonies, and in 1774, Paine set sail for Philadelphia with a letter of recommendation from Franklin. It instructed Paine to show the document to Franklin's son-in-law, Pennsylvania businessman Richard Bache.

“The bearer, Mr. Thomas Paine, is very well recommended to me as an ingenious worthy young man,” Franklin wrote. “He goes to Pennsylvania with a view of settling there. I request you give him your best advice and countenance, as he is quite a stranger there. If you can put him in a way of obtaining employment … you will do well, and much oblige your affectionate father.”

At the end of a long and arduous journey, Paine arrived in the new world on November 30, 1774. As instructed, he showed the letter to Bache, who obligingly found him a tutoring job. The following year, Paine was hired as the executive editor of Pennsylvania Magazine, a monthly periodical, and within three months, Paine’s provocative essays on various social issues had driven the number of subscribers up from 600 to 1500.

2. JOHN ADAMS WAS RUMORED TO BE THE REAL AUTHOR OF COMMON SENSE.

Paine is primarily remembered, at least in the U.S., for writing Common Sense. Released on January 9 or 10, 1776 (sources differ), the essay championed the idea of American independence and the establishment of a New World republic—two subjects which, by and large, hadn’t been taken seriously in the colonies. Paine later said that the pamphlet sold anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 copies, but modern historians doubt that.

At first, Common Sense was published anonymously, which led to speculation about who the author might be. In Boston, it was rumored that John Adams had penned the manifesto—but Adams didn’t fully agree with the premise of Common Sense, which he once referred to as a “poor ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, Crapulous Mass.” His biggest criticism involved the author’s call for a new American republic overseen by a unicameral (i.e.: “one-house”) legislature. To rebut Common Sense, Adams anonymously published a pamphlet of his own, titled Thoughts on Government, which advocated the creation of a bicameral legislature as one component of a three-pronged governmental system that would also include a judiciary branch and an elected governor. (Sound familiar?) Paine's identity as the author of Common Sense was revealed on March 30, and Adams, who instantly regretted publishing his tract anonymously, also attached his name in later printings.

3. HE (BRIEFLY) WORKED FOR THE CONTINENTAL CONGRESS.

Specifically, Paine was brought onboard in April 1777 to serve as the organization’s Secretary to the Committee of Foreign Affairs. Paine was paid $70 a month, and his job consisted of maintaining the committee’s records and drafting letters to American diplomats stationed overseas. But he continued to write essays in support of the revolution on the side, which got him into serious trouble when he publicly mentioned top-secret negotiations with the French. He also made some powerful enemies by accusing diplomat Silas Deane of war-profiteering. In January 1779 Congress began taking steps to remove Paine from his position, but Paine voluntarily resigned.

4. PAINE ONCE DESIGNED AN EXPERIMENTAL KIND OF BRIDGE.

Like Franklin, Paine loved tinkering and was known to invent the occasional product (for example, a “smokeless candle”)—and when the Revolutionary War ended, he turned the world of infrastructure upside down with an inspired new bridge design.

During the late 18th century, the average bridge was constructed mainly out of stones and wood and was typically built with half-circle arches that allowed tall ships to pass beneath them. Unfortunately, steep arches like that forced architects to steeply incline both ends of the road on top of the bridge—a major inconvenience for pedestrians and carriages. It was possible to construct a bridge with support piers in the middle of the span, but ice routinely destroyed these bridges.

Paine came up with a radical alternative. In 1787, he sketched out the blueprint for a bridge with an incline free road made possible by an underlying arch that didn’t curve upwards so sharply. And for resiliency’s sake, he designed the whole thing to be made of iron. Since visual aids are always helpful, Paine built a 13-foot model that he showed off to Pennsylvania statesmen. Hoping to generate more interest, Paine returned to his native England, where he received a government patent for the design.

5. IN THE U.K., SEVERAL PRINTERS WERE ARRESTED FOR SELLING COPIES OF RIGHTS OF MAN.

When France's revolution began in 1789, Paine—who had returned to England—vocally supported the uprising. But of course, not everyone shared his enthusiasm. In 1790, Irish-born politician Edmund Burke released the widely-read pamphlet Reflections on the Revolution in France, wherein he denounced the revolution as a risky and destructive political gamble. In response, Paine began working on Rights of Man, a fervent defense of the rebel cause. (The two-part essay was published in 1791 and 1792.) With its anti-monarchical sentiments, the treatise infuriated Britain’s government—so much so, in fact, that the authorities actually jailed printers who sold The Rights of Man within Great Britain. The prison sentences for guilty parties ranged from a couple of days to seven years in length.

6. THE AGE OF REASON WAS PARTIALLY COMPOSED IN A (RATHER LUXURIOUS) PRISON.

Controversial as it was in Britain, Rights of Man was wildly popular in France. So when Paine fled there in 1792, he was greeted with open arms—at first. Shortly after his arrival, Paine was elected as a member of the country’s National Assembly, but he was soon stirring up controversy. Paine spoke out against guillotine usage and King Louis XVI’s execution, and on December 28, 1793, the political thinker was charged with treason, probably because of his stance on capital punishment (though the rationale behind this accusation remains unclear). Paine was taken to Luxembourg Prison, a palace-turned-jail where he was given a spacious room and free rein to explore the rest of the building during daylight hours. Inside, he busied himself with a new pamphlet he’d begun writing before his arrest: The Age of Reason; Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology.A critique of organized religion. The two-part document questioned the Bible’s legitimacy and made the case for Deism, the belief in a creator-God who doesn’t interfere with world affairs or the lives of individual people. Naturally, the text triggered passionate debate on both sides of the Atlantic, and still does so today.

7. HE OPENLY CRITICIZED THE WASHINGTON ADMINISTRATION.

James Monroe, then America’s minister to France, arranged to have Paine released from the Luxembourg in November 1794. While in prison, Paine had developed a grudge against President Washington, whom he’d admired during the American Revolution. As Monroe informed James Madison, “He thinks the president winked at his imprisonment and wished he might die in gaol [jail], and bears his resentment for it; also he is preparing an attack upon him of the most virulent kind.”

Just as Monroe said, Paine wrote a blistering open letter to Washington in 1796. Lambasting the president for not interceding on his behalf when the French seized him, Paine went on to accuse America’s chief executive of being a closeted monarchist. “Monopolies of every kind marked your administration almost in the moment of its commencement,” the pamphleteer charged. “The lands obtained by the Revolution were lavished upon partisans; the interest of the disbanded soldier was sold to the speculator … In what fraudulent light must Mr. Washington’s character appear in the world, when his declarations and his conduct are compared together!”

Americans of just about every political stripe were outraged by Paine's statements. Combined with a strong backlash to The Age of Reason, the anti-Washington tirade brought Paine’s popularity to an all-time low in the states.

8. HE CALLED FOR AN EARLY VERSION OF SOCIAL SECURITY.

Paine spent the winter of 1795-'96 at Monroe’s home in Paris, where he authored what’s often considered his last great pamphlet, Agrarian Justice. In it, he recommended the establishment of a “National Fund” financed by 10 percent tax on inherited property. Money from this fund would then be redistributed: All citizens (of both genders) above the age of 50 or with disabilities were to receive a yearly stipend. Furthermore, every single citizen could also expect a one-time payment of 15 pounds sterling upon turning 21. “It is not a charity but a right,” Paine declared, “not bounty but justice.”

9. MOST OF HIS REMAINS ARE UNACCOUNTED FOR.

In 1802, at the invitation of President Jefferson, Paine returned to the U.S. For a time, he resided at a 277-acre farm in New Rochelle that had been gifted to him by the New York State Legislature in 1784. Unhappy with his life there, Paine relocated to Manhattan, where he died on June 8, 1809.

Paine was laid to rest on his New Rochelle farm without much fanfare; in fact, the service may have been attended by as few as five people. Strangely, though, Paine’s travels hadn’t ended yet. In 1819, a British admirer by the name of William Cobbett snuck onto the property and dug up the dead author’s body. Believing that Paine deserved to be buried in his birthland, Cobbett boxed up bones and took them back to London. But after years of trying to build a suitable memorial, Cobbett died himself. Paine’s bones were gradually sold off, and their current whereabouts remain a mystery. (However, the Thomas Paine Museum in New Rochelle does have a few strands of his hair under lock and key, and his mummified brain stem has been buried there in an undisclosed location.)

10. MARK TWAIN WAS AN ADMIRER.

Despite his contributions to the country’s revolution, most Americans held Paine in low regard throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. When he died, the New York Post Evening Post helped set the tone with a eulogy that read “he had lived long, done some good and much harm.” Other posthumous statements about Paine were even less charitable: Theodore Roosevelt famously called him a “filthy little atheist.” In the Gilded Age, he was so widely disliked that when a freethinking sculptor gifted Philadelphia’s Independence Hall with a marble Paine bust in 1876, the city refused to accept it.

Nevertheless, he still maintained an underground fan base in those days. One of the most famous Paine enthusiasts of all time was Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. A celebrated critic of organized religion, Clemens was particularly keen on the ever-controversial Age of Reason. In his words, “It took a brave man before the Civil War to confess he had read” the pamphlet. Paine’s pro-deism treatise made an appearance in Those Extraordinary Twins (1894), one of Twain’s manuscripts that centered on a pair of conjoined brothers with wildly different personalities. To help accentuate their dissimilarities, the very first chapter sees one of them reading Christian devotionals while his counterpart flips through The Age of Reason.

11. THOMAS EDISON HELPED BREAK GROUND ON THE THOMAS PAINE MEMORIAL MUSEUM.

In 1884, the Thomas Paine National Historical Association was founded, and in 1925, Edison became vice president of the group. “Paine’s teachings have been debarred from schools everywhere and his views of life misrepresented until his memory is hidden in shadows, or he is looked upon as of unsound mind,” Edison said. “We never had a sounder intelligence in this Republic [than Paine]. He was the equal of Washington in making American liberty possible. Where Washington performed, Paine devised and wrote. The deeds of one in the Weld were matched by the deeds of the other with his pen.”

Today, the association maintains the cottage Paine owned in New Rochelle along with the nearby Thomas Paine Memorial Museum. Construction on the latter began in the spring of 1925—and once the project broke ground, it was Edison who had the honor of turning the first shovel of dirt. Since then, Paine’s reputation in America and elsewhere has considerably improved. Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan both admiringly quoted him in their presidential addresses. A golden Paine statue has been erected in Thetford, England. And in 2002, he was ranked number 34 on the BBC’s list of the 100 greatest Britons of all time.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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10 Facts About Real Genius On Its 35th Anniversary

Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

In an era where nerd is a nickname given by and to people who have pretty much any passing interest in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine the way old-school nerds—people with serious and socially-debilitating obsessions—were once ostracized. Computers, progressive rock, and role-playing games (among a handful of other 1970s- early '80s developments) created a path from which far too many of the lonely, awkward, and conventionally undateable would never return. But in the 1980s, movies transformed these oddballs into underdogs and antiheroes, pitting them against attractive, moneyed, successful adversaries for the fate of handsome boys and pretty girls, cushy jobs, and first-place trophies.

The 1985 film Real Genius ranked first among equals from that decade for its stellar cast, sensitive direction, and genuine nerd bona fides. Perhaps fittingly, it sometimes feels overshadowed, and even forgotten, next to broader, bawdier (and certainly now, more problematic) films from the era like Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science. But director Martha Coolidge delivered a classic slobs-versus-snobs adventure that manages to view the academically gifted and socially maladjusted with a greater degree of understanding and compassion while still delivering plenty of good-natured humor.

As the movie commemorates its 35th anniversary, we're looking back at the little details and painstaking efforts that make it such an enduring portrait not just of ‘80s comedy, but of nerdom itself.

1. Producer Brian Grazer wanted Valley Girl director Martha Coolidge to direct Real Genius. She wasn’t sure she wanted to.

Following the commercial success of 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, there was an influx of bawdy scripts that played upon the same idea, and Real Genius was one of them. In 2011, Coolidge told Kickin’ It Old School that the original script for Real Genius "had a lot of penis and scatological jokes," and she wasn't interested in directing a raunchy Nerds knock-off. So producer Brian Grazer enlisted PJ Torokvei (SCTV) and writing partners Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (Splash, City Slickers) to refine the original screenplay, and then gave Coolidge herself an opportunity to polish it before production started. “Brian's original goal, and mine, was to make a film that focused on nerds as heroes," Coolidge said. "It was ahead of its time."

2. Martha Coolidge’s priority was getting the science in Real Genius right—or at least as right as possible.

In the film, ambitious professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) recruits high-achieving students at the fictional Pacific Technical University (inspired by Caltech) to design and build a laser capable of hitting a human-sized target from space. Coolidge researched the subject thoroughly, working with academic, scientific, and military technicians to ensure that as many of the script and story's elements were correct. Moreover, she ensured that the dialogue would hold up to some scrutiny, even if building a laser of the film’s dimensions wasn’t realistic (and still isn’t today).

3. One element of Real Genius that Martha Coolidge didn’t base on real events turned out to be truer than expected.

From the beginning, the idea that students were actively being exploited by their teacher to develop government technology was always fictional. But Coolidge learned that art and life share more in common than she knew at the time. “I have had so many letters since I made Real Genius from people who said, 'Yes, I was involved in a program and I didn’t realize I was developing weapons,'" she told Uproxx in 2015. “So it was a good guess and turned out to be quite accurate.”

4. Val Kilmer walked into his Real Genius audition already in character—and it nearly cost him the role.

After playing the lead in Top Secret!, Val Kilmer was firmly on Hollywood’s radar. But when he met Grazer at his audition for Real Genius, Kilmer decided to have some fun at the expense of the guy who would decide whether or not he’d get the part. "The character wasn't polite," Kilmer recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 1995. "So when I shook Grazer's hand and he said, 'Hi, I'm the producer,' I said, 'I'm sorry. You look like you're 12 years old. I like to work with men.'"

5. The filmmakers briefly considered using an actual “real genius” to star in Real Genius.

Among the performers considered to play Mitch, the wunderkind student who sets the movie’s story in motion, was a true genius who graduated college at 14 and was starting law school. Late in the casting process, they found their Mitch in Gabriel Jarrett, who becomes the third generation of overachievers (after Kilmer’s Chris and Jon Gries’s Lazlo Hollyfeld) whose talent Hathaway uses to further his own professional goals.

6. Real Genius's female lead inadvertently created a legacy for her character that would continue in animated form.

Michelle Meyrink, Gabriel Jarret, Val Kilmer, and Mark Kamiyama in Real Genius (1985).Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Michelle Meyrink was a staple of a number of ‘80s comedies, including Revenge of the Nerds. Playing Jordan in Real Genius, she claims to “never sleep” and offers a delightful portrait of high-functioning attention-deficit disorder with a chipper, erratic personality. Disney’s Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers co-creator Tad Stones has confirmed that her character went on to inspire the character of Gadget Hackwrench.

7. A Real Genius subplot, where a computer programmer is gaming a Frito-Lay contest, was based on real events.

In the film, Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite) plays Lazlo Hollyfeld, a reclusive genius from before Chris and Mitch’s time who lives in a bunker beneath their dorm creating entries to a contest with no restrictions where he eventually wins more than 30 percent of the prizes. In 1969, students from Caltech tried a similar tactic with Frito-Lay to game the odds. But in 1975, three computer programmers used an IBM to generate 1.2 million entries in a contest for McDonald’s, where they received 20 percent of the prizes (and a lot of complaints from customers) for their effort.

8. One of Real Genius's cast members went on to write another tribute to nerds a decade later.

Dean Devlin, who co-wrote Stargate and Independence Day with Roland Emmerich, plays Milton, another student at Pacific Tech who experiences a memorable meltdown in the rush up to finals.

9. The popcorn gag that ends Real Genius isn’t really possible, but they used real popcorn to simulate it.

At the end of the film, Chris and Mitch build a giant Jiffy Pop pack that the laser unleashes after they redirect its targeting system. The resulting popcorn fills Professor Hathaway’s house as an act of revenge. MythBusters took pains to recreate this gag in a number of ways, but quickly discovered that it wouldn’t work; even at scale, the popcorn just burns in the heat of a laser.

To pull off the scene in the film, Coolidge said that the production had people popping corn for six weeks of filming in order to get enough for the finale. After that, they had to build a house that they could manipulate with hydraulics so that the popcorn would “explode” out of every doorway and window.

10. Real Genius was the first movie to be promoted on the internet.

A week before Real Genius opened, promoters set up a press conference at a computer store in Westwood, California. Coolidge and members of the cast appeared to field questions from press from across the country—connected via CompuServe. Though the experience was evidently marred by technical problems (this was the mid-1980s, after all), the event marked the debut of what became the online roundtable junket.