Robertson’s Book of Firsts: Who did what for the first time, by Patrick Robertson

The first coins, the first hamburger, the first military motor vehicle.  These are but a sampling of Robertson’s Book of Firsts.  Researched and compiled by Patrick Robertson as a culmination of a lifelong passion, the book aims to chronicle not invention, but innovation.  This means a look at social and technological development and some surprising entries.  Robertson approaches this collection of firsts from a unique position.  A former government employee and a former chairman of the Ephemera Society, he also owns the largest private collection of vintage magazines in Britain.  Firsts are ephemeral, since once a first is achieved, social and technological change will prompt more firsts to occur.  Just look at the developments of the cell phone and the demographic make-up of the United States Supreme Court.

The alphabetically arranged articles vary in length.  For example, the article on blood transfusion covers nearly two full pages.  To break it down, there is the first blood transfusion done on June 12, 1667 by Jean-Baptiste Denys, the personal physician to Louis XIV, for “a boy of fifteen suffering from a severe fever.”  The first U.S. blood transfusion took place in 1795 by Dr. Philip Physick.  The first panel of blood donors occurred in 1921, being four volunteers “from the Camberwell Division of the London Branch of the British Red Cross Society.”  The Red Cross established the first blood donor panel in the United States in August 1937 in Augusta, Georgia.  In 1931 the first blood bank was established by Prof. Sergei Yudin “at the Sklifosovsky Institute, Moscow’s central emergency service hospital,” but Bernard Fantus “coined the term” in 1937 for Cook County Hospital’s centralized blood storage depot.  Finally, the first pre-natal blood transfusion was performed by Prof. George Green and Sir William Liley in Auckland, New Zealand on September 20, 1963.

The Book of Firsts is chock-full of such information.  The first antique automobile movement happened on July 12, 1925, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Allgemeiner Schnaufer-Club (“Tin Lizzy Club”) in Munich, Germany.  The year 1623 saw the first publication of a hymn book containing original matter by George Wither, although the first hymn book in a vernacular tongue was “published in Prague by Severin for the Hussites of Bohemia on 13 January 1501.”  The first naval vessels to be equipped with radio-telephone apparatus were the USS Virginia and the USS Connecticut in 1907.  The lists go on and on, from the first legal abortion to the first women’s track and field events.

Whether reading a single entry with all developments chronicled or searching for a specific “first,” The Book of Firsts will captivate and infuriate readers.  Expect to have your pre-conceptions about certain “firsts” refuted.  As with any book of this kind, it is subject to the winds of change.  The entry on gay marriage has quickly become obsolete, the last sub-entry on U.S. gay marriage ending with the passage of Proposition 8.  But that is hardly a demerit in terms of the sheer wealth of information and entertaining factoids one can harvest from this book, whether casually browsing the pages or capturing a “first” for research purposes.  This is a good book to have on the bookshelf next to the dictionary, thesaurus, Schott’s Miscellany, and the Meaning of Tingo.


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