History

The Speed of Sound

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When the Erie Canal was opened on Oct. 26, 1825, the fact was known in New York City, 425 miles away, within 81 minutes. This was before the advent of radio or telegraph. How was it done?

Cannons were placed along the length of the canal and the Hudson River, each within earshot of the last. When the crew of each cannon heard the boom of its upstream neighbor, it fired its own gun.

As a result, New Yorkers knew within an hour and half that they had a navigable route to the Great Lakes — the fastest news dispatch, to that date, in world history.

10/07/2013 Wait, that last bit ain’t right — Claude Chappe’s semaphore telegraph covered 120 miles in 9 minutes in 1792. (Thanks, Michael and Lorcan.)

A Bad Night

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San Francisco reporter James Hopper got to bed at 3 a.m. on April 18, 1906, after a night at the opera. After two hours of sleep he felt himself suddenly shaken “like a fish in a frying-pan”:

I got up and walked to the window. I started to open it, but the pane obligingly fell outward and I poked my head out, the floor like a geyser beneath my feet. Then I heard the roar of bricks coming down in cataracts and the groaning of twisted girders all over the city, and at the same time I saw the moon, a calm, pale crescent in the green sky of dawn. Below it the skeleton frame of an unfinished sky-scraper was swaying from side to side with a swing as exaggerated and absurd as that of a palm in a stage tempest.

Just then the quake, with a sound as of a snarl, rose to its climax of rage, and the back wall of my building for three stories above me fell. I saw the mass pass across my vision swift as a shadow. It struck some little wooden houses in the alley below. I saw them crash in like emptied eggs and the bricks pass through the roof as through tissue paper.

The vibrations ceased and I began to dress. Then I noted the great silence. Throughout the long quaking, in this great house full of people I had not heard a cry, not a sound, not a sob, not a whisper. And now, when the roar of crumbling buildings was over and only a brick was falling here and there like the trickle of a spent rain, this silence continued, and it was an awful thing. But now in the alley someone began to groan. It was a woman’s groan, soft and low.

Jacob Levinson, a director of Fireman’s Fund, weathered the quake with his family at 2420 Pacific Avenue. He wrote later, “I am frequently asked whether I was badly frightened by the shaking, to which I invariably reply that I had passed the point of being frightened, exactly as one might on a sinking vessel in mid-ocean when fully alive to the inevitable. My only thought was to get the family together so that when the house went down we should all go together.”

Aloft Over London

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Vincenzo Lunardi undertakes the first aerial voyage in England, Sept. 14, 1784:

When the thermometer was at fifty, the effect of the atmosphere and the combination of circumstances around, produced a calm delight, which is inexpressible, and which no situation on earth could give. The stillness, extent, and magnificence of the scene, rendered it highly awful. My horizon seemed a perfect circle; the terminating line several hundred miles in circumference. This I conjectured from the view of London; the extreme points of which, formed an angle of only a few degrees. It was so reduced on the great scale before me, that I can find no simile to convey an idea of it. I could distinguish Saint Paul’s and other churches, from the houses. I saw the streets as lines, all animated with beings, whom I knew to be men and women, but which I should otherwise have had a difficulty in describing. It was an enormous beehive, but the industry of it was suspended. All the moving mass seemed to have no object but myself, and the transition from suspicion, and perhaps contempt of the preceding hour, to the affectionate transport, admiration and glory of the present moment, was not without its effect on my mind. I recollected the puns on my name, and was glad to find myself calm. I had soared from the apprehensions and anxieties of the Artillery Ground, and felt as if I had left behind me all the cares and passions that molest mankind.

See Eavesdropping.

The Titanic Orphans

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Among the survivors of the Titanic were two boys who were unclaimed by any adult. They were very young, 2 and 3 years old, and they spoke no English, so the two became a brief media sensation as authorities sought to locate their parents.

They turned out to be Edmond and Michel Navratil, sons of a French tailor who had spirited them away from their mother and booked a passage under an assumed name. When the ship hit the iceberg, “He dressed me very warmly and took me in his arms,” Michel recalled. “A stranger did the same for my brother. When I think of it now, I am very moved. They knew they were going to die.”

“I don’t recall being afraid,” Michel said. “I remember the pleasure really of going ‘plop’ into the lifeboat.” A woman in their boat took charge of the orphans when they reached safety, and eventually their mother in France read the news reports and claimed them. Michel grew up to be a professor of philosophy and died in 2001, the last male survivor of the sinking.

“I died at 4,” he once said. “Since then I have been a fare-dodger of life. A gleaner of time.”

Oops

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In January 1961, a B-52 Stratofortress began leaking fuel near Goldsboro, N.C., and the crew were forced to eject before they could reach Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

They watched as the plane descended toward the tobacco farmland below carrying two 3.8-megaton nuclear weapons. As the plane broke up, it dropped both of them. One smashed into a muddy field, but the other deployed a parachute to slow its descent and activated five of its six arming mechanisms.

It stopped short of detonating, which is good, because it packed more than 250 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb.

“How close was it to exploding?” asked disposal team commander Lt. Jack B. ReVelle afterward. “My opinion is damn close. You might now have a very large Bay of North Carolina if that thing had gone off.”

Only three years earlier, a similar mishap had occurred over Georgia.

For the Record

brabazon pig

On Nov. 4, 1909, English pilot John Moore-Brabazon put a pig in a basket, tied it to a wing, and took off.

The basket read I AM THE FIRST PIG TO FLY.

Roughing It

The Duke of Wellington forbade officers to carry umbrellas into battle. On Dec. 10, 1813, during the Peninsular War, he saw a group of Grenadier Guards sheltering from the rain and sent an angry message: “Lord Wellington does not approve of the use of umbrellas during the enemy’s firing, and will not allow the gentlemen’s sons to make themselves ridiculous in the eyes of the army.” He later reproved their commander, saying, “The Guards may in uniform, when on duty at St. James’s, carry them if they please, but in the field it is not only ridiculous but unmilitary.”

Spectacles were not allowed in the British army until 1902. “There is little doubt that England will soon realize that she must take her place in company with the Continental people and furnish glasses as they do,” the Medical News had opined that March. It quoted ophthalmologist John Grimshaw, who had asked invalided South African soldiers whether their eyes had given them trouble in shooting on the veldt.

“Fightin’ all day, sir, and never saw a Boer,” one had replied. “Yes, sir, we simply blazed away at the kopjes on the chance of hittin’ a Boer or two.”

Get Out of Jail Free

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In 1941, as the British War Office searched for ways to help Allied prisoners escape from German POW camps, it found an unlikely partner: John Waddington Ltd., the U.K. licensee for Monopoly. “Games and pastimes” was an approved category of item to be included in care packages sent to captured soldiers, so Waddington’s set about creating special sets to be sent to the camps.

Under the paper surface of each doctored board was a map printed on durable silk showing “escape routes from the particular prison to which each game was sent,” Waddington’s chairman Victor Watson told the Associated Press in 1985. “Into the other side of the board was inserted a tiny compass and several fine-quality files.” Real French, German, and Italian currency was hidden in the stacks of Monopoly money.

MI-9, the intelligence division charged with helping POWs escape, smuggled the games into prison camps, where prisoners would remove the aids and then destroy the sets in order to prevent their captors from divining the scheme.

“It is not known how many airmen escaped thanks to these Monopoly games,” writes Philip Orbanes in The Game Makers, his 2004 history of Parker Brothers, “but 35,000 POWs did break out of prison camps and reach partisans who helped them to safety.”

(Thanks, Ron.)

Private Exit

Elbert Hubbard died on the Lusitania. Ernest Cowper, a survivor of the sinking, described the writer’s last moments in a letter to Hubbard’s son the following year:

I can not say specifically where your father and Mrs. Hubbard were when the torpedoes hit, but I can tell you just what happened after that. They emerged from their room, which was on the port side of the vessel, and came on to the boat-deck.

Neither appeared perturbed in the least. Your father and Mrs. Hubbard linked arms — the fashion in which they always walked the deck — and stood apparently wondering what to do. I passed him with a baby which I was taking to a lifeboat when he said, ‘Well, Jack, they have got us. They are a damn sight worse than I ever thought they were.’

They did not move very far away from where they originally stood. As I moved to the other side of the ship, in preparation for a jump when the right moment came, I called to him, ‘What are you going to do?’ and he just shook his head, while Mrs. Hubbard smiled and said, ‘There does not seem to be anything to do.’

The expression seemed to produce action on the part of your father, for then he did one of the most dramatic things I ever saw done. He simply turned with Mrs. Hubbard and entered a room on the top deck, the door of which was open, and closed it behind him.

It was apparent that his idea was that they should die together, and not risk being parted on going into the water.

Tanya

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In August 1942 a students’ nursing brigade discovered 12-year-old Tanya Savicheva, weak with hunger, living alone in an apartment in Leningrad, which had been besieged by Hitler since September 1941. She had kept this diary:

  1. Zhenya died on December 18, 1941, at twelve noon.
  2. Grandma died on January 25, 1942, at three in the afternoon.
  3. Leka died on March 17, 1942, at five o’clock in the morning.
  4. Uncle Vasya died on April 13, 1942, at two o’clock at night.
  5. Uncle Lesha on May 10, 1942, at four o’clock in the afternoon.
  6. Mama died on May 13, 1942, at 7:30 in the morning.
  7. The Savichevs are dead.
  8. Everyone is dead.
  9. Only Tanya is left.

The nurses evacuated her along the narrow lifeline that had been opened that summer by the Soviet army and placed her in an orphanage in a nearby village, but she died there, probably of chronic dysentery, in July 1944. The diary is kept today in the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

An Ancient Mystery

Around 1275, a native culture known as the Gallina vanished from northern New Mexico. And almost every Gallina skeleton ever found has been that of someone brutally murdered. No one knows why.

“[Someone] was just killing them, case after case, every single time,” U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Tony Largaespada told National Geographic News in 2007.

Seven skeletons found in a remote canyon paint a typical picture — one had a fractured skull, forearm, jaw, thighbone, pelvis, and several broken ribs; another bore cut marks on the upper arm that suggested blows from an ax. A 2-year-old child had had its skull crushed.

In other cases the victims’ necks have been broken, and the bodies are commonly thrown into a house, which is then burned to the ground.

Possibly this was a genocide, or possibly internecine conflict within the Gallina. Either could have been exacerbated by a drought that is known to have gripped the area around this time. But, so far, no one knows the reason.

Planning Big

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When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, it interrupted one of the most ambitious building projects in history. Situated near the Kremlin, the Palace of the Soviets would have commemorated the founding the U.S.S.R. with a 21,000-seat congress hall, 100 stories of administrative offices, and a crowning statue of Lenin 75 meters tall.

It would have been both the largest and the tallest building in the world. But only the foundation had been built when the war intervened, and the frame was disassembled for its steel. Construction never resumed, and in the 1960s the site was turned into an open-air swimming pool. This must symbolize something.

The Dumbbell Cipher

In 1777, British general Sir Henry Clinton sent this message to his fellow officer John Burgoyne, lamenting that he’d be unable to join him in a plan to divide the colonies along the Hudson River:

dumbbell cipher 1

This was a ruse — Clinton’s real meaning can be revealed by applying a mask:

dumbbell cipher 2

Historians aren’t certain whether the message reached Burgoyne or influenced his decisions. As it happened, Clinton didn’t participate in the conflict, and Burgoyne lost the Battle of Saratoga, the turning point of the war.

Plan B

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As a boy Harry Truman practiced piano for two hours a day. “My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician,” he said later. “And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.”

At age 12 he attended a concert by Paderewski. “And I was studying the Minuet by Paderewski. And when he got through with his concert — which was a wonder — he played that Chopin A-Flat Waltz, Opus 42, which has always been a favorite of mine. And he played the waltz rendition of the Blue Danube, and so on.”

“When we went back behind the scenes, [my teacher] took me with her, and it almost scared me to death. She told him I didn’t know how to make ‘the turn’ in the minuet, and he said, ‘Sit down,’ and he showed me how to do it. I played it at Postdam for old Stalin. I think he was quite impressed.”

He gave up piano because “it was a sissy thing to do. So I just stopped. And it was probably all for the best. I wouldn’t ever have been really first-rate. A good music-hall piano player is about the best I’d have ever been. So I went into politics and became president of the United States.”

Better Safe

To give his “Infamy” speech on the day after Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt rode to the Capitol in a car owned by Al Capone.

The Secret Service was concerned about assassination attempts, and Roosevelt’s regular state car had no protective features. So the president made use of Capone’s heavily armored 1928 Cadillac 341A Town Sedan, which the Treasury Department had impounded after the gangster’s arrest.

(Thanks, Ron.)

The Football Charge

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On July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, British Army captain Wilfred Nevill needed a way to keep the East Surrey Regiment’s B Company organized and advancing toward the German trenches. He had been told that continuous shelling had left nothing alive in the German lines, but night patrols had shown him this wasn’t true.

So Nevill produced four footballs, one for each of his platoons to kick across no man’s land as they charged the German position.

Private L.S. Price of the 8th Royal Sussex, who was looking on, recalled, “As the gunfire died away I saw an infantryman climb onto the parapet into no man’s land, beckoning others to follow. As he did so he kicked off a football; a good kick, the ball rose and travelled well towards the German line. That seemed to be the signal to advance.”

The four platoons followed suit, kicking their balls continuously across 300 yards of ground to reach the German trenches. Twenty thousand British soldiers were killed that day, including Nevill, who was shot when they reached the barbed wire, but his company gained its objective. The Daily Mail commemorated their charge with a poem:

On through the hail of slaughter,
Where gallant comrades fall,
Where blood is poured like water,
They drive the trickling ball.
The fear of death before them
Is but an empty name;
True to the land that bore them,
The Surreys played the game.

Two of the footballs have been recovered. One is in the National Army Museum, the other at the Queen’s Regiment Museum, Howe Barracks, Canterbury.

A Living Casualty

On Feb. 1, 1918, a French soldier appeared in the railway station in Lyon. He had lost his memory: He muttered that his name was Anthelme Mangin, but he didn’t know who he was or where he belonged. His uniform lacked unit tags, and his pockets held only a cigarette lighter. The authorities placed him in an asylum and published his photograph in newspapers, hoping that his family would recognize him.

This gave desperate hope to scores of families whose loved ones had disappeared. World War I had claimed the lives of 1.4 million Frenchmen, and 300,000 of their bodies were unidentified or never found. Three hundred families claimed Mangin as their own, and dozens of these were given personal interviews with him. But he responded to none of them.

In 1930 he was identified tentatively as Octave Monjoin, a French waiter in the London embassy of the Ottoman State who had returned to his homeland to fight and been taken prisoner on the western front in August 1914. Judicial officers dropped him off near Monjoin’s hometown and observed him from a distance. He went from the railway station to the village, sat in a café that Monjoin had once enjoyed, walked to the house of Monjoin’s father, whom he did not recognize, and said, “The church has changed.”

But others, who had different hopes for Mangin’s identity, refused to accept the validity of the test, and Mangin remained in official limbo until his death in a French mental institution in 1942 — in the midst of another wrenching war.

Memento

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In 1798 Horatio Nelson’s navy defeated a French fleet off the coast of Egypt. Captain Benjamin Hallowell, who helped to destroy the French flagship L’Orient, sent Nelson a macabre gift:

My Lord,

Herewith I send you a Coffin made of part of L’Orient’s Main mast, that when you are tired of this Life you may be buried in one of your own Trophies — but may that period be far distant, is the sincere wish of your obedient and much obliged servant,

Ben Hallowell

Nelson was indeed buried in it after his death in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

No Good Deed

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In 1939, the U.S. Navy submarine Sculpin helped to rescue the crew of her sister ship Squalus, which had flooded and sunk off the coast of Maine.

After the rescue the Sculpin went on to serve in World War II, where she was sunk in 1943 by a Japanese destroyer. Twenty-one of her crew were captive aboard a Japanese aircraft carrier when the carrier itself was sunk by torpedoes from an American sub.

The attacking sub was the salvaged and repaired Squalus — the same ship that Sculpin had saved four years earlier.

Quick Thinking

In summer 1940, Germany demanded access to Swedish telephone cables to send encoded messages from occupied Norway back to the homeland. Sweden acceded but tapped the lines and discovered that a new cryptographic system was being used. The Geheimschreiber, with more than 800 quadrillion settings, was conveying top-secret information but seemed immune to a successful codebreaking attack.

The Swedish intelligence service assigned mathematician Arne Beurling to the task, giving him only a pile of coded messages and no knowledge of the mechanism that had been used to encode them. But after two weeks alone with a pencil and paper he announced that the G-schreiber contained 10 wheels, with a different number of positions on each wheel, and described how a complementary machine could be built to decode the messages.

Thanks to his work, Swedish officials learned in advance of the impending invasion of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, Stalin’s staff disregarded their warnings.

“To this day no one knows exactly how Beurling reasoned during the two weeks he spent on the G-Schreiber,” writes Peter Jones in his foreword to The Codebreakers, Bengt Beckman’s account of the exploit. “In 1976 he was interviewed about his work by a group from the Swedish military, and became extremely irritated when pressed for an explanation. He finally responded, ‘A magician does not reveal his tricks.’ It seems the only clue Beurling ever offered was the remark, cryptic itself, that threes and fives were important.”

(Thanks, John.)

Mystery Guest

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Who is this?

Click for Answer

Time’s Up

This fob watch, retrieved from the wreck of the Titanic, confirms the approximate time that the ship went down, 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912.

On June 7, 1692, an earthquake destroyed Port Royal, Jamaica. Centuries later, during a 1960 excavation in Kingston Bay, archaeologist Edwin Link discovered a pocket watch whose hands were frozen at 11:43 a.m., pinpointing the onset of the quake and confirming eyewitness accounts made 268 years earlier.

On Aug. 12, 1949, time slowed briefly in London: Fifty starlings settled on Big Ben’s minute hand and delayed the striking of the hour by four and a half minutes.

Confined

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Oppressed by the sexual advances of her master, 22-year-old North Carolina slave Harriet Jacobs fled in 1835 and hid for seven years in a tiny loft under the roof of her grandmother’s house nearby:

The garret was only nine feet long and seven wide. The highest part was three feet high, and sloped down abruptly to the loose board floor. There was no admission for either light or air. … The air was stifling; the darkness total. A bed had been spread on the floor. I could sleep quite comfortably on one side; but the slope was so sudden that I could not turn on the other without hitting the roof. The rats and mice ran over my bed; but I was weary, and I slept such sleep as the wretched may, when a tempest has passed over them.

She cut a tiny peephole in the roof so that she could watch her children, who lived in the house but did not know of her presence. Eventually she escaped to the North, was reunited there with her brother and her children, and published an autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in 1861. “My body still suffers from the effects of that long imprisonment,” she wrote, “to say nothing of my soul.”

See Out of Sight.

Spendthrift

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Didius Julianus bought Rome. When Pertinax, the successor to Emperor Commodus, failed to support the Praetorian Guard in 193, they overthrew him and auctioned off the whole empire. Cassius Dio writes:

Didius Julianus, at once an insatiate money-getter and a wanton spendthrift, who was always eager for revolution and hence had been exiled by Commodus to his native city of Mediolanum, now, when he heard of the death of Pertinax, hastily made his way to the camp, and, standing at the gates of the enclosure, made bids to the soldiers for the rule over the Romans. Then ensued a most disgraceful business and one unworthy of Rome. For, just as if it had been in some market or auction-room, both the City and its entire empire were auctioned off. The sellers were the ones who had slain their emperor, and the would-be buyers were Sulpicianus and Julianus, who vied to outbid each other, one from the inside, the other from the outside. They gradually raised their bids up to twenty thousand sesterces per soldier. Some of the soldiers would carry word to Julianus, ‘Sulpicianus offers so much; how much more do you make it?’ And to Sulpicianus in turn, ‘Julianus promises so much; how much do you raise him?’ Sulpicianus would have won the day, being inside and being prefect of the city and also the first to name the figure twenty thousand, had not Julianus raised his bid no longer by a small amount but by five thousand at one time, both shouting it in a loud voice and also indicating the amount with his fingers. So the soldiers, captivated by this excessive bid and at the same time fearing that Sulpicianus might avenge Pertinax (an idea that Julianus put into their heads), received Julianus inside and declared him emperor.

He didn’t last long — Septimius Severus swept into the capital after nine weeks, and the Praetorians switched allegiance again. “And so it came about that Julianus was slain as he was reclining in the palace itself; his only words were, ‘But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?’ He had lived sixty years, four months, and the same number of days, out of which he had reigned sixty-six days.”