Two Storeys: Language Bites and the memory palace

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

So, earlier this month, we wrapped up the 99% Invisible Kickstarter fundraising campaign and it was amazing. We had 5,661 backers and raised over $170,000. [laughter] Oh, my. It was not what I was expecting. So, the huge show of support for the program made news around the world. It was the highest earning journalism project in Kickstarter history. So we’re gearing up for season three. And it won’t be long, it’s going to be in September, so just a few weeks, a couple weeks. But I’ve got a few thousand envelopes to stuff, and we got to get Sam unpacked, and get everything sort of working in order now that we’re together. And, rather than doing repeats or just making you wait for the new season, I’m going to present stories from producers that I love, but who didn’t actually produce these stories for 99% Invisible. But when you hear them, I’m pretty sure you’re going to figure out why, I thought they’d be perfect for the show in terms of the subjects they cover, and why I thought you’d love them, too. Our first short story, a very very short story, is from Ireland. It’s a series called Language Bites.

Female 1: Language Bites.

Colette Kinsella: Storey.

Female 2: Doors opening.

Colette: Have you ever wondered why a level, or floor, in a building is called a storey?

Female 2: Doors closing.

Colette: That’s a word we associate with a narrative or tale. And actually, it’s not far off the origin the word we associate with architecture. And it’s use takes us back to the 14th Century.

Male 1: Where are we going?

Colette: The word ‘storey’ comes from the ancient Greek word, ‘Historia’, meaning account of events. In the 1300s, architects were in the habit of decorating buildings with stained glass and stone carvings or sculptures. These carvings were on the outside of the building, and they depicted actual stories. Some of them recounted ancient myths and legends. And on churches and cathedrals, they often depicted Bible stories. So, you can see where this is going. The higher the building, the more stories it had. And eventually, the word ‘storey’ was used to refer to an entire floor or level.

Female 2: First storey.

Roman: Language Bites is produced by Colette Kinsella. Sound design by Lochlainn Harte. This series was produced for and first broadcast on RTE Choice, in Ireland.


Roman: Our next short piece is from Nate Dimeo in The Memory Palace. Nate produced episode #27 of 99% Invisible long ago. But his connection with the show does not end there. Nate was one of the first people I called when I started 99% Invisible because essentially, I wanted to do stories like he was doing on the subject of history, but I wanted to do them about architecture and design. So if you’re already familiar with 99% Invisible, you’ll hear the shared DNA in our progenitor, The Memory Palace. This story is called ‘Dam!’

Nate Dimeo: This is The Memory Palace, I’m Nate Dimeo. In 1931, at the height of the Depression, people began hearing that there were going to be jobs in Nevada. They needed men there to build an enormous dam that would be named after President Herbert Hoover. Five thousand men, former commodities traders, former obstetricians, packed up their families and drove to the desert. Some of them leaving behind the plywood and scrap metal shanty towns that were also named after Herbert Hoover. When they got there, they found that there were jobs, but that the houses and schools and movie theaters that were supposed to be there, hadn’t been built yet. So they hammered some posts into the ground and strung up some sheets that could keep the desert sun off their kids and their wives and they went to work. Ninety-six of those men died when the harnesses that fastened them to the canyon wall, 800 feet in the air, snapped. When the hearts of 50-year-old men, who were used to selling women’s hosiery, or teaching geometry, when their hearts gave out after working 10-hour shifts in 130-degree-heat, chipping a mile-long tunnel beneath the desert, inch by inch, when others fell into wet concrete and had to be pulled out, not before they died, then before the concrete set, and they became a permanent part of a large public works project.

But not long after they finished the dam, Orange Groves, and Alfalfa Fields, and baseball diamonds, and whole cities grew in the desert. There’s a monument at the Hoover Dam. They’re these two enormous bronze angels, that are supposed to embody the spirit of the men who designed and built the dam in American progress, or whatever. But my favorite part of the monument, and if you really think of the whole damn dam, is actually the angels’ feet. There’s an Art Deco astronomical chart there done in terrazzo, and it’s lovely. And there’s some text there that tells you that on September 20, 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated the dam. The text goes onto explain that the chart on the ground shows the precise alignment of the heavens at exactly 8:56 when FDR spoke. The same moment that a flag pole that stands between the two angels was aimed straight at the heart of the sun. Because they were sure we would care. There’s a separate section on the chart that supposedly depicts the precise astronomical location of an Egyptian pyramid, when it was aligned, Hoover-Dam-flagpole style, with the yonder star that the frankincense turning wise men followed to get to the baby Jesus, thereby ushering in the Christian era. I love this. Because it means that so convinced were the makers of the Hoover dam, that what these men had just built was so world-historic, so new epic usheringly awesome, that a plaque wouldn’t’ suffice. So they designed this chart, working with astronomers at the naval observatory at the Smithsonian. So thousands of years from now, even in an apparently post-English world, when the text right there next to the chart would somehow be rendered useless, people, or perhaps aliens, can know. They’d be able to do the math and figure out the exact moment when FDR had a date cleared in his calendar to say a few words at the Hoover Dam. Now the 35th largest hydroelectric plant in the world. And according to the States’ tourism website, the ninth-best thing to do in Nevada. Number 10 is golf.

Roman: So that’s the special 99% Invisible for this week. Season three starts very very soon, but I thought that this would be more fun than playing a repeat or waiting a month for a new episode. We have 40 new episodes, a video episode, a new website. It’s all coming this season on 99% Invisible. If you haven’t done it already, or if this is the first time you’re hearing the show, go download the 60-something previous episodes of 99% Invisible that are actually produced by me. They’re all short. They’re evergreen, meaning that they’re as timely now as they were when I made them. And they’re all good. They’re pretty good. As a body of work, I’m quite proud of them. Some are better than others, but as a whole, all worth the time. So, check them out. We’re going to have links to Language Bites and The Memory Palace on our website at:

Comments (1)


  1. Gabriella Perry

    Just discovered 99% Invisible while doing a random search. I am a huge fan of Memory Palace and my first thought when I heard your podcast is how much it reminded me of it. So it made total sense to me when you said that Nate is one of your inspirations. You nailed it! It very much has the same feel and your voice is a similar soothing-draw-you-in sort of quality. I love it! So happy to have found it. Now if you don’t mind can you please convince Nate to put out podcasts as often as you do? Thanks!

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