Little Bits of History

Oh, Hail

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 30, 2010

Hail and the damage it can do

April 30, 1888: The deadliest hailstorm in recorded history strikes outside Delhi, India. The storm dropped orange-sized hailstones on Moradabad and killed 246 people; thousands of farm animals also perished. The storm hit around midday but with the thick cloud cover, it was reported to be as dark as night. There was no advance warning system in place, so the farmers of the community were out working the fields. Most people were killed instantly. By the time the storm abated, there were places with an accumulation of hail up to two feet deep.

Hailstones are formed by ice crystals being tossed up and down inside storm clouds. Most hail measures between a quarter-inch to nearly 6 inches in diameter. Usually hail is less than an inch in diameter, but stones can grow as large as tennis balls. As the ice pellets move within the cloud, they increase in size and weight. They need not be round and need not even be smooth, but can be oval, ovoid, or crystalline in shape.

The longer the ice stays in the growth region, the larger the supercooled liquid becomes by coalescing with other raindrops in the vicinity. The supercooled liquid freezes on contact with some form of nuclei, such as dust or dirt. Sweeping through updrafts and downdrafts for longer periods of times, along with the actual size of the storm cloud, allows for huge hailstones to be formed. Latent heat can be released, causing melting of the outer shell which can then adhere to other, smaller hailstones before refreezing.

The largest hailstone measured in the US was 5.6 inches in diameter or 17.5 inches in circumference. There were only two 20th century human deaths in the US due to hail. However, animals were not so lucky. There were two storms in quick succession in Alberta, Canada, killing over 75,000 ducks between them. Hail also damages crops. In 1788, many crops outside Paris were damaged by hail and the resultant food shortage led, in part, to the French Revolution. Hail is also damaging to cars or trucks left out in storms resulting in denting to the body and cracked windshields. As hailstones drop from 30,000 feet, they can reach speeds up to 120 mph.

“Send therefore now, and gather thy cattle, and all that thou hast in the field; for upon every man and beast which shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought home, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die.” – The Bible

“Unless God send his hail / Or blinding fire balls, sleet or stifling snow, / In some time, his good time, I shall arrive.” – Robert Browning

“Thunderstorms represent the primary threat.” – Bob Rice

“When all is said and done, the weather and love are the two elements about which one can never be sure.” – Alice Hoffman

Also on this day, in 1803 the US completed the Louisiana Purchase transaction.

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What’s the Word?

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 29, 2010

The esteemed author

April 29, 1852: One of the three most used books in the world is published for the first time. The other two books are Webster’s Dictionary and The Bible. Peter studied medicine at Edinburgh University by the age of fourteen and assumed a practice by age nineteen. He was particularly interested in the senses. Visual perception was his specialty. In 1824, Peter wrote a paper that described an optical illusion that is the basis for our modern movie industry. While the explanation itself wasn’t truly accurate, the paper led to the development of the Thaumatrope, Phenakistiscope and Zoetrope.

Peter’s life was marred by several episodes of disaster. Both his father and his wife died young. His uncle, a famous politician and reformer, committed suicide in Peter’s presence. Peter also suffered from depression and battled the effects for most of his life. His work is said to have been a method of solace and a means to escape the grinding symptoms of the disease.

Peter was a prolific writer and lecturer as well as physician. He contributed treatises, articles and even whole books on the subject of health. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge at the University of London. In that capacity, he also wrote several manuals. He was interested in making his writings and lectures interesting and so he kept a list of words that could be used interchangeably. He knew it gave his writing more pizzazz than using the same words over and over.

When Peter retired from medicine, he was not yet ready to stop all work. He continued to work with his list of words. At the age of 73, he finally opted to publish this list. They were not listed alphabetically, but by subject matter. The original manuscript contained 15,000 words. His book has never been out of circulation since it’s first printing and now contains close to a quarter million words. What is this important, significant, vital, essential, principal, necessary work? Peter Roget’s Thesaurus, of course.

“No man means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous.” – Henry Brooks Adams

“A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the word you first thought of.” – Burt Bacharach

“What’s another word for Thesaurus?” – Stephen Wright

“County library? Reference desk, please. Hello? Yes, I need a word definition. Well, that’s the problem. I don’t know how to spell it and I’m not allowed to say it. Could you just rattle off all the swear words you know and I’ll stop you when…Hello?” – Calvin & Hobbes

Also on this day, in 1992 riots broke out in Los Angeles after police were acquitted of using undue force against Rodney King.

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A Voyage to the South Sea

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 28, 2010

Mutiny on the Bounty

April 28, 1789: The Mutiny on the Bounty takes place. It was a real event on the British Naval vessel HMS Bounty. She cost £1,950 to build. She began sailing as a cargo ship named Bethia and then was sold to the Royal Navy for £2,600 in 1787 and her name was changed to Bounty. The ship was rather small, displacing 215 tons, she was 91 ft long by 24 ft at the beam with a crew of 46. She went into commission on August 16, 1787 and was put into service on October 15 of that same year. She was given just a single mission.

Captain William Bligh, at least in the book and movies, was a harsh master. However, by comparing his discipline methods to other captains of the time, the 33-year-old flogged less often and with fewer lashes than others. In fact, three men who deserted and were captured could have been hung for their crime, but Bligh had them flogged instead.

The mission for Bligh and his men was to take breadfruits from Tahiti to the Caribbean. The West Indies needed a cheap supply of food for the slaves accumulating there. Breadfruit trees provide a plentiful crop of starchy fruit that can be roasted, baked, fried, or boiled. The taste is said to be “potato-like” or similar to fresh baked bread. It took ten moths of sailing to reach the Pacific Ocean paradise. The crew then spent five months gathering the plants and readying them for transport. Fletcher Christian even married a Tahitian. After the tranquility of island life, the rigors of sea life became problematic. Bligh was known to verbally castigate his crew and this may have led to loyalty problems.

Christian awoke Bligh and sent him and 18 crew members off in a launch. Because of Bligh’s great navigational skill, he got his men to safety, losing only one to stoning when they attempted to land on an island. Bligh returned to England and later served with Admiral Nelson. Christian never did make it back to civilization and died on one of the area islands.

“Every person has free choice. Free to obey or disobey the Natural Laws. Your choice determines the consequences. Nobody ever did, or ever will, escape the consequences of his choices.” – Alfred A. Montapert

“A sailing ship is no democracy; you don’t caucus a crew as to where you’ll go anymore than you inquire when they’d like to shorten sail.” – Sterling Hayden

“One of the advantages of being Captain is being able to ask for advice without necessarily having to take it.” – James T. Kirk

“Why do people in ship mutinies always ask for “better treatment”? I’d ask for a pinball machine, because with all that rocking back and forth you’d probably be able to get a lot of free games.” – Jack Handey

Also on this day, in 1947 Kon-Tiki set sail with Thor Heyerdahl as captain.


Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 27, 2010

Depiction of the crowded Sultana exploding

April 27, 1865: The steamboat Sultana‘s boiler explodes while carrying Union soldiers home after the end of the Civil War. Many of the soldiers had been held in Andersonville, the worst POW camp of the war. About one-third of prisoners held at Andersonville died of exposure, malnutrition, or disease. Henry Wirz, the commander of the camp, is the only Confederate officer to be tried and found guilty of war crimes.

Sailing was delayed until the Mississippi River was past flood stage after the winter melt runoff swelled the mighty river. The ship’s trip started in New Orleans on April 21 with between 75 and 100 passengers and livestock on the way to St. Louis. The boiler was known to be in poor repair, but the trip was made regardless. The Sultana stopped in Vicksburg, Mississippi for some repairs to the faulty boilers and to take on more passengers. The repair to the boiler removed a section of bulging material and replaced it by welding on a new section of lesser thickness than the rest of the boiler, creating a weak point. A new boiler replacement would have delayed the trip by three days. Captain J.C. Mason did not want to lose the time making adequate repairs.

Most of the passengers on this ship were still in poor health from the POW camp. They were crammed onto the Sultana and headed up the river. The legal capacity of the boat was 376, but on this trip about 2,400 were on board. More than two thousand soldiers, eager to return home, were crammed into every available nook and cranny of the ship at Vicksburg. The US government had contracted with the Sultana to return newly released prisoners of war to their homes.

Just north of Memphis, Tennessee, at about 3:00 AM, the boiler exploded. The shockwave sent many of the men crowded on deck into the water. Hot coals rained down on top of them and many were trapped onboard the ship as it burnt. Some had the choice of staying on the ship or jumping into the overflowing freezing river. Many men died of either hypothermia or by drowning. About 500 men were pulled from the river, about 200 of them subsequently died. No exact death toll is possible, but it is assumed that about 1,700 to 1,800 died in the disaster.

“The United States lost more men from battle wounds and disease in the Civil War than in any other war of its history, including the Second World War. The battle front stretched from Pennsylvania to New Mexico, and included also the seven seas.” – Richard Weaver

“We have met the enemy and they are us!” – Walt Kelly

“You are sad because they abandon you and you have not fallen.” – Antonio

“All say, ‘How hard it is that we have to die’ – a strange complaint to come from the mouths of people who have had to live.” – Mark Twain

Also on this day, in 1667 John Milton got a publisher for Paradise Lost.

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Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 26, 2010


April 26, 1986: The nuclear reactor #4 at Chernobyl suffers a steam explosion. Chernobyl is in the Ukraine, then a part of the Soviet Union. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant suffered the only level 7 instance on the International Nuclear Event Scale. This scale was inspired by the Richter Scale and has seven different levels of “events.” Level 0 is a deviation without any safety issues involved. Levels 1-3 are minor “incidents” and from 4-7, the consequences of what is now termed an “accident” reach to the local community or farther. Level 7 is classified as a Major Accident.

As with most disasters, there was not just one simple cause. There were many and they were interrelated. 1) There was a lack of a “Safety Culture” that allowed for design weaknesses. 2) There were overall faults with high-powered channel reactor type – the RBMK or reactor bolshoy mashchnosty kanalny. 3) There was a violation of procedure. Only 6-8 control rods were used when there should have been a minimum of 30 rods and the emergency cooling system was disabled. And 4) There was a communication breakdown with critical information not being passed on correctly.

The fallout from the accident has been long-term and expensive. Thyroid cancers have the greatest increase with a pre-accident rate in 1981-1985 of 5 cases per million people raised to 45 per million during the years 1986-1997. Other cancers have gained prominence as well. At the time of the disaster, 116,000 people were evacuated with 210,000 more relocated during the years 1990-1995. An estimated cost of $12.8 billion due to the disruption of the Soviet Economy is cited.

Power shortages remained throughout the area. So while new construction of reactors #5 and #6 were eventually halted, reactor #1-3 continued to be used. There was a fire in reactor #2 in 1991 which resulted in its shutdown. Reactor #1 was decommissioned in 1996 and on December 15, 2000, Reactor #3 was turned off. The site today hold memorials to the people who were killed or affected by the disaster. There is a “Sarcophagus” over the damaged reactor, but there continues to be issues due to possible further collapse of the protective barrier.

“We are the authors of our own disasters.” – Latin Proverb

“And Lord, we are especially thankful for nuclear power, the cleanest, safest energy source there is. Except for solar, which is just a pipe dream.” – Homer Simpson

“The discovery of nuclear reactions need not bring about the destruction of mankind any more than the discovery of matches.” – Albert Einstein

“What might be considered one of the few positive aspects of ‘Chernobyl’s legacy’ is today’s global safety regime.” – Mohamed ElBaradei

Also on this day, in 1865 John Wilkes Booth was killed in  Virginia.

“Off With Their Heads” – The Queen of Hearts

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 25, 2010

Guillotine in use; entertainment for the masses

April 25, 1792: Nicolas J. Pelletier is the first person to be executed by guillotine. A guillotine is a machine made to decapitate those being executed. Earlier types of the machine were in existence as early as 1307, when the Scottish Maiden’s use was first documented. The improved, more humane guillotine was designed by Antoine Louis at the request of Joseph-Ignace Guillotin as a more humane method of execution. Tobias Schmidt won the contract to build them for 960 francs.

Prior to 1792, those of noble birth in France who were condemned to death were beheaded, commoners were usually hanged, but some people were tortured with the wheel [tied to wheel spokes, breaking limbs with hammers, then weaving the sometimes still living person through the spokes and letting birds eat the remains] or burned at the stake.

It was considered more humane to chop off someone’s head and have them die instantly. The guillotine was more efficient at the process than beheading by sword or axe. In egalitarian times, it was also deemed to be more equitable to have both aristocracy and the common criminal executed using the same method. The guillotine was exported to other countries, mostly in Europe. There were tales of heads living without being connected to the bodies, leading to speculation concerning the humanity behind the method. The “living head” issue has never been scientifically proven and there is evidence pointing to loss of consciousness in seconds even if actual death came slower.

Eventually the guillotine became the only means of capital punishment in France. Public beheadings were stopped in 1939. Hamida Djandoubi was the last person executed with the guillotine on September 10, 1977. It is thought that between 15,000 and 40,000 people were executed using the guillotine during the Reign of Terror which lasted from June, 1793 to July, 1974. There is no longer a death penalty in France.

“GUILLOTINE, n. A machine which makes a Frenchman shrug his shoulders with good reason.” – Ambrose Bierce

“The world itself is but a large prison, out of which some are daily led to execution.” – Walter Raleigh

“Laws are rules established by men who are in control of organized violence for the non fulfillment of which those who do not fulfill them are subjected to personal injuries, the loss of liberty, and even capital punishment.” – Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy

“As long as you have capital punishment there is no guarantee that innocent people won’t be put to death.” – Paul Simon

Also on this day, in 1961 Robert Noyce received a patent for a semiconductor, leading the way to our current computers.

Greeks Bearing Gifts

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 24, 2010

Trojan horse

April 24, 1184 BC: This is given as the traditional date for the Greeks bearing gifts to Troy. According to mythology, Helen [daughter of the current king of Sparta and wed to Menelaus – the next king of Sparta] is either kidnapped and forced to wed Paris of Troy, or else she elopes willingly with him. Either way, the Greeks were unhappy with the situation and vowed to get Helen back to Greece.

After fighting for ten years with no apparent winner, the Greeks got a brainstorm for a ruse. They built a huge wooden horse. Forty soldiers were secreted inside. Or perhaps there were thirty hidden in the belly and two spies in the horse’s mouth. Or maybe Apollodorus was correct at fifty men or maybe Tzertzes was correct with 23. Today we settle on forty men hidden. The citizens of Troy were convinced that it was a gift from the beaten Greeks. The rest of the Greek army hid as the Trojans brought the “gift” inside the city walls.

After ten years of war, the seeming victors celebrated long and hard. They were thus impaired and didn’t hear the hidden soldiers emerge, kill the guards, and open the city gates to the rest of the Greek army. Every Trojan male was killed, including infants. Every female was enslaved. The city was ransacked, the riches hauled away and the remains of the city were reduced to rubble.

The epic poems Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer and The Aeneid by Virgil saved these mythic stories for us. In ancient times this was all considered to be a true story, today it is considered to simply be a myth. Archeologists have tried to locate Troy. Homer placed the city overlooking the Hellespont, today called the Dardanelles. The strait separates Asia Minor and Europe. In the 1870s Heinrich Schliemann, an archaeologist as well as the man who hunted for the historically accurate sites mentioned in the ancient Greek texts, came to the area to dig. He found several ancient cities, one built on top of the other. Several of the cities were obviously destroyed by violence. It was not clear if any of these was the actual place called Troy.

“Always remember to pillage before you burn.” – unknown

“I should like to know who has been carried off, except poor dear me — I have been more ravished myself than anybody since the Trojan war.” – Lord Byron

“Motherhood is the strangest thing, it can be like being one’s own Trojan horse.” – Rebecca West

“Hell to ships, hell to men, hell to cities – of Helen of Troy.” – Aeschylus

Also on this day, the Soyuz 1 crashed to Earth.

The Bard of Avon

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 23, 2010

What Shakespeare may have looked like (we really don't know)

April 23, 1616: William Shakespeare, one of the best known authors in the English language, dies. He was a poet, playwright, and actor. He was born in Stratford, England in 1564 and married Anne Hathaway in 1582. Soon after his marriage, Shakespeare left for London. Anne stayed in Stratford. Shakespeare went on to become the “Bard of Avon” and is often called England’s national poet.

Shakespeare’s plays are divided into four periods. His first period was filled mostly with comedies influenced by Roman and Italian forces. His second period began with the tragedy Romeo and Juliet and ended with Julius Caesar and was filled with his greatest tragedies and histories. The third period contained mostly tragedies and his last was mainly tragicomedies or romances. Comedies in Elizabethan England were classified as plays ending happily, usually by characters getting married. Tragedies had protagonists who were admirable, but with a character flaw. Histories were not always exactly historically correct.

Shakespeare was the author of 154 sonnets, numerous other poems, and 38 plays. He wrote comedies and tragedies, which is uncommon in itself, and he excelled in both genres. Not only do we have the gift of his brilliant plays, rich in characterization and filled with beautiful turns of phrase, but we also have increased the vocabulary with his neologisms, or newly created words. Lewis Carroll, another British author, was also a master at this type of expansion of the language.

There has been some controversy over the years as to who actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays. However, some proof of his authorship comes from Robert Greens, a critic of the time, who wrote in 1592 that Shakespeare was “an upstart crow.” Ben Johnson, a rival, also discusses Shakespeare’s works. Some of his works were printed during his lifetime, but the proliferation of printed text came after his death.

“This above all: to thine own self be true.”

“All the world ‘s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.”

“Now is the winter of our discontent.”

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” – all from William Shakespeare

Also on this day, in 1635 Boston Latin School was founded.

One Ringy-Dingy

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 22, 2010

British phone booth and Big Ben

April 22, 2000: The United Kingdom’s telephone services are updated with corresponding changes in telephone numbering systems. Because of the proliferation of phone lines and the need for more numbers to satisfy the demand, phone numbering was changed from a seven number to an eight number system as well as Code Area numbers being changed.

The world is shrinking because of instant communication. That communication is based on telephone systems. Many people have more than one phone number – land lines, cell phones, and even fax numbers. Businesses have many phone lines and fax numbers as well. Each telephone number needs to be individualized. As the demand for more lines increased, the scarcity of numbers became apparent.

Cell or mobile phones were first proposed in December 1947 by Bell Labs engineers Douglas H Ring and W. Rae Young. The technology went undeveloped until the 1960s when Bell Labs (Richard H. Frenkiel and Joel S. Engel) produced the electronics. However, prototypes were available in the 1950s but in very limited use. Motorola and Bell Labs joined forces to be filmed making calls to each other on the streets of New York City in 1973 in a media event. The first generation of mobile telephony was up and running. The second generation followed in the 1990s and we are now on the third or 3G. More than 2.5 billion people use cell phones today.

Increased need for phone numbers was an ongoing problem and the first migration to the new system was in 1995 when the UK implemented PhONEday changes which provided a pool of 9 billion numbers. Migration from the old to new system had taken place in stages, with this being the final stage. UK phone numbers changed on this date. Land lines were changed immediately and were no longer functional, while mobile phones in the UK worked for another year. Businesses were also granted some extension of time due to costs incurred [i.e. stationery, business cards, brochures and catalogs] by the changing system.

“Some one invented the telephone,
And interrupted a nation’s slumbers,
Ringing wrong but similar numbers.” – Ogden Nash

“TELESCOPE, n. A device having a relation to the eye similar to that of the telephone to the ear, enabling distant objects to plague us with a multitude of needless details. Luckily it is unprovided with a bell summoning us to the sacrifice.” – Ambrose Bierce

“The telephone book is full of facts, but it doesn’t contain a single idea.” – Mortimer Adler

“Tell me about yourself — your struggles, your dreams, your telephone number.” – Peter Arno

Also on this day, in 1970 Earth Day was first celebrated.

Snoopy v. The Red Baron

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 21, 2010

Manfred von Richthofen

April 21, 1918: Manfred von Richthofen a.k.a. The Red Baron is shot down by Allied pilots during the First World War. He is sometimes referred to as the most successful flying ace of World War I. He was credited with 80 confirmed air combat victories.

Von Richthofen was born in 1892 in Breslau which was then part of Germany but is now in Poland. He was a Freiherr or “Free Lord” which is a German aristocratic level equivalent to an English Baron. He began the war as a cavalry scout. He became bored with this job and asked to be transferred to the air service where he became an observer. He met Oswald Boelcke, a great fighting aviator and decided to become a pilot himself. He won his first air battle on September 17, 1916.

The Red Baron (due to his aristocratic rank and the color of his plane) was not considered to be exceptionally skilled, but rather he stuck to a very rigid set of rules of combat that served him very well. Today, he is known as Der Rote Baron in Germany, but at the time he was called Der Rote Kampfflieger or The Red Battle Flyer or The Red Pilot. His other nickname was Le Diable Rouge or Red Devil. During a dogfight in July of 1917 von Richthofen suffered a head wound that left him impaired and may have played a part in his death.

On this date, he was engaged in battle with two planes from the Royal Air Force and broke several of his own rules. The Red Baron was engaged with a Sopwith Camel piloted by Lt. Wilfred May, a Canadian pilot flying for the RAF. Cap. Arthur Brown entered into the fray to aid in combat. Brown was also a Canadian pilot flying for the RAF. Van Richthofen was shot through the chest, probably by an anti-aircraft machine gunner as Brown dived toward the red plane which was in hot pursuit of Lt. May. Von Richthofen managed to land his plane without crashing, but died shortly thereafter on the ground. His Fokker was not badly damaged in the landing, but was dismantled by those on the ground for souvenirs. Sgt. Ted Smout of the Australian Medical Corps rushed to aid the victim of the crash and claimed the Red Baron’s last word was “kaput” which means destroyed or broken. He was 25 years old.

“I honored the fallen enemy by placing a stone on his beautiful grave.” – Manfred von Richthofen

“He fought until he landed. When he had come to the ground I flew over him at an altitude of about thirty feet in order to ascertain whether I had killed him or not. What did the rascal do? He took his machine-gun and shot holes into my machine.” – Manfred von Richthofen

“I cannot believe that war is the best solution. No one won the last war and no one will win the next.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.” – John Stuart Mill

“In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.” – Jose Narosky

Also on this day, in 753 BC Rome was founded, according to legend.