John Bicknell

Cave v. Cave


How do you get a 10-year-old interested in the election of 1844? Tell him Cave Johnson played an important part.

Cave Johnson, a congressman, was a close advisor of fellow Tennessean James K. Polk, the Democratic candidate for president in 1844.

Now, that is probably of little or no interest to most 10-year-olds, even mine. But the onetime Indian fighter and future postmaster general shares a name with a key figure in a popular video game called Portal.

That Cave Johnson got the kid’s attention.

The video Cave bears a striking resemblance to the real Cave, although he is portrayed by actor J.K. Simmons (the guy from the Farmers Insurance commercials).


And both have been known to utter a pithy phrase from time to time.

Here’s Portal’s Cave: “Science isn’t about why, it’s about why not. You ask: Why is so much of our science dangerous? I say: Why not marry safe science if you love it so much? In fact, why not invent a special safety door that won’t hit you in the butt on the way out, because you are fired.”

Polk’s Cave could be just as entertaining, particularly on the topic of science, which was clearly not his best subject, comparing the newly invented telegraph to the machinations of a mesmerist.

Johnson would quickly come to regret his faulty judgment about Samuel F.B. Morse’s miraculous invention, introduced in that election year. But he never did quite figure out what to make of it, rejecting an offer the next year to buy the Washington-to-Baltimore telegraph line for the government, arguing that “the operation of the telegraph between [Washington] and Baltimore has not satisfied me that, under any rate of postage that can be adopted, its revenues can be made equal to its expenditures.”

And he ran the post office.