Prehistory Lessons

May 2010

Illustration by John UelandEditors-Note

Published May 2010

For Christmas 1921, Leo Fender’s uncle sent the tinker-happy 12-year-old a box of discarded auto electric parts. (Wouldn’t you like to see the thank-you note Fender’s mom made him write for that particular bit of generosity.) For a kid like me, it would have seemed a cruel joke by a sick man. For Fullerton’s Fender, though, the gift began a lifelong fascination with electronics that changed the world.

It’s easy to connect the dots from that moment to Fender’s development of the first solid-body electric guitars and increasingly powerful amplifiers, which in turn brought us the pagan and utterly satisfying sounds of everything from Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” to Eric Clapton’s “Layla”—and a million other scorched-earth rock riffs that followed.

Much of Orange County’s history is made up of overlooked or forgotten moments like that. How many of us know that the origins of the Santa Ana Arts District can be traced to a chance 1970 hitchhiking encounter? Or that the decision to place Disneyland in Anaheim began at a Sunday party Walt Disney attended in the early 1950s? Or that the reason today’s public schools are considered havens for evacuees is because of the lessons learned from a 1933 temblor off Newport Beach?

Author Kenneth C. Davis, who wrote “Don’t Know Much About History” and other pop-history books, claims “there are two kinds of history. History with a capital H and history with a small h.” Capital-H history involves wars, disasters, and scientific breakthroughs—the stuff we’re taught in school. But small-h history is made up of “the unnoticed moments that fundamentally alter the way we function each day and ultimately look at the world”—the development of the superabsorbent polymers that led to disposable diapers, say, or the fumbling disaster of Alfred Kinsey’s 1921 honeymoon, which helped turn an obscure wasp researcher into a pivotal figure in the sexual revolution.

A few months ago, we asked writer Patrice Apodaca to identify some of the forgotten and overlooked decisions, accidents, inventions, and coincidences that have shaped Orange County today. Her list sheds new light on how the county evolved, and the pivotal role it sometimes has played in shaping the world. That story begins on Page 102.

Finally, on a personal note, I’d like to thank Leo Fender’s cheapskate uncle specifically for the soul-cleansing throb of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”

Illustration by John Ueland

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