Friday, January 28, 2011

Do Lemmings Commit Suicide?

True or False: Lemmings periodically commit suicide by throwing themselves into the sea.

That’s what I was taught as a child. In fact, that’s what it says in the 1967 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia, which graced the walls of my living room when I was a kid. And if the World Book said it, then it had to be correct.

But it’s not.  In truth, lemmings do migrate occasionally, and during this mass migration, some may accidentally fall off cliffs. Others may swim across a lake, where they may accidentally drown. Perhaps that is where this weird idea started.

Photo by
 The myth was perpetuated by 1958 Disney film called White Wilderness, which  showed footage of lemmings jumping off a cliff into the sea. In truth, the scene was faked. Filmmakers threw a few lemmings into the water to create the effect of hundreds of lemmings throwing themselves into the sea.

To the filmmakers credit, they did not actually state that the lemmings committed suicide, but rather that they thought the sea was a lake, and they set out to cross it, only to drown. However, the dramatic (albeit faked) movie scene simply reinforced the lemming suicide legend. I was shocked to discover that it was not true.

When I made this discovery, I shared it with my 16-year-old daughter.  “What?” she replied. “You mean there really is such an animal as a lemming?” She only knew of lemmings as part of a computer game she used to play.  (The game is still available in PC, PlayStation, or PSP format.)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Telephone Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska: The Frank H. Woods Telephone Pioneer Museum

A museum about the telephone? Actually, it's quite interesting. I recently toured the Frank H. Woods Telephone Pioneer Museum for an article I was writing. The museum gained popularity after it was featured in the Jim Carrey movie Yes Man.

In this world of digital everything, it's easy to forget that clunky switchboards like the ones in the photo were still in use until the 1960s. In fact, the earliest switchboards were often in the operator's home. An older friend remembers a childhood friend who often had to miss school because her mother was sick and couldn't work the switchboard. This little girl had to stay home and work the switch board or the entire town would be without phone service.

The dial demonstrator shows how switches operated when a phone was dialed. Wally Tubbs, one of the founders of the museum who often leads school tours, says that most kids are kind of stumped when they see this exhibit, because they don't know how to dial a phone. They've only used touch tone phones.

Wally explained that the switches took up almost an entire city block. He described the process of tracing a call. When the police or 911 dispatcher contacted the telephone company about a call that needed to be traced, an employee needed to run all over the huge building to determine where the switches had connected. It was difficult work, but it needed to be done correctly, because sometimes (as with a 911 call), someone's life was at stake. Things are a lot easier now with Caller ID.

If you are passing through Lincoln, Nebraska (remember, it's right off I-80), you may want to take some time to visit this free museum. But call ahead. It's only open to the public on Sunday afternoons, but you may arrange a tour by calling 402-436-4640.

You can read my article here:

Overlooked Lincoln: The Frank H. Woods Telephone Pioneer Museum