Little Bits of History

July 11

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 11, 2017

1801: Jean-Louis Pons discovered his first comet. Pons was born in 1761 to a poor family and they were able to provide little in the way of formal education. In 1789 he got a job working as a caretaker at a Marseille observatory. He was able to gain some insights as he helped the astronomers with their observations. Eventually, he learned to use the equipment himself and had an ability to recall star fields and note changes in them. The more experienced astronomers sometimes poked fun at the young man’s naïveté and one of them, Franz Xaver von Zach, even told the student to look for comets when sunspots were visible. Although meant as cruel joke, it make have actually been very good advice.

On this day, Pons made his first comet discovery. Charles Messier is given joint credit for the comet’s discovery. Pons seemed to have used a telescope of his own design, one with a large aperture and short focal length. He called it “Grand Chercheur” or “Great Seeker”. While Pons was able to clearly remember star fields without as many notes, making him remarkably adept at finding changes in the skies, it meant his notes were not of the best quality and his observations are tantalizingly vague.

Telescopes are helpful for looking into the night sky. There are many different types of them, with the comet seeker one of those classified by the type of task they perform. Optical telescopes are refracting, reflecting, or catodioptric and each type has many specific subcategories. The task performing telescopes are also optical in nature. There are also telescopes working outside the optical spectrum such as infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray, and broad spectrum. Telescopes can also be classified by the type of mounting upon which they sit. First developed in the 1600s, they have been refined and helped to broaden the scope of astronomy, our understanding of the way the universe works, and the complexity and the vastness of space.

Pons became a noted astronomer and director at observatories. He was invited to teach astronomy at La Specola in Florence. He discovered five periodic comets, three of which still retain his name. One comet he found in 1818 was named by him as Comet Encke after the man who was able to calculate the comet’s orbit. Encke however, always called the comet Pons’s Comet. Pons received the French Academy of Science’s Lalande Prize in 1818 for discovering three comets in one year. He won it again in 1820 and again in 1827 after discovering many more comets. In total, he found 37 comets between 1801 and 1827, making him the greatest visual comet discoverer of all time. His eyesight failed him and he was forced to retire. The astronomers of the world honored him by naming a crater on the Moon after him.

For my confirmation, I didn’t get a watch and my first pair of long pants, like most Lutheran boys. I got a telescope. My mother thought it would make the best gift. – Wernher von Braun

We see past time in a telescope and present time in a microscope. Hence the apparent enormities of the present. – Victor Hugo

What you do is, you have your drawing board and a pencil in hand at the telescope. You look in and you make some markings on the paper and you look in again. – Clyde Tombaugh

The development of the telescope, together with increased knowledge of things, brought men to see that the earth is not what man had once thought it to be. – Joseph Franklin Rutherford

July 10

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 10, 2017

1966: The Chicago Freedom Movement holds a rally at Soldier Field. Also called the Chicago open housing movement, it was led by Martin Luther King Jr., James Bevel, and Al Raby. The purpose was to bring issues to the City of Chicago imploring the government to institute programs for equal housing, quality education, transportation, job access, and many more concerns of quality of life for Chicago’s minority population. It was the most ambitious civil rights campaign in the North and began in 1965 borne out of the Watts riots in Los Angeles and de facto racial segregation throughout Chicago. It was the joining of forces from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO).

Dr. King was looking for a place to show that nonviolence and nonviolent direct action could bring about the social change needed. The CCCO, a local group advocating for desegregation in schools and equal job opportunities had asked the AFSC to help in the cause. They responded and came to Chicago with the stated goal of forming the Chicago Freedom Movement and ending slums in the city. The hope was to lift the burdens of poverty, increase educational opportunities, and gain rights for all people, regardless of race or economic status. In the summer of 1966, the focus was on improved housing and ending discrimination in tenements throughout the West Side.

On this day, a huge rally was held. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Soldier Field and spoke passionately about the injustice, need for reform, and the nonviolent path to achieving civil rights and equity. Soldier Field, designed in 1919 and opened in 1924 was originally used for a variety of sporting events and exhibitions. Today, it is the home field for the Chicago Bears American football team. This was one of the exhibition events and not only Dr. King was there. Also at the rally were Mahalia Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Peter, Paul and Mary. Tens of thousands of concerned citizens showed up, between 35,000 and 60,000 depending on sources.

The Chicago Freedom Movement was staging regular rallies by the end of the month, marching outside real estate offices and entering all-while communities. There were hostile and sometimes violent responses from whites and continued demands from blacks got the attention of City Hall and the national press. King mentioned the animosity found in Chicago surpassed that found in Alabama and Mississippi. As the group threatened to march into Cicero, the Summit Agreement was sealed but did not address all the issues under consideration. While not a complete success, it did help bring focus to the City’s housing issues and helped to show peaceful protests could change history.

I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.

We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.  – all from Martin Luther King, Jr.

July 9

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 9, 2017

1850: US President Zachary Taylor dies in office. He was born in 1784 in Virginia to prominent plantation owners. He was one of nine children and married in 1810. They had six children. He had enlisted in the US Army prior to marrying and was a first lieutenant after the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair. He rose through the ranks. He purchased two plantations along with the slaves attached to them. He served in the War of 1812, commanded Fort Howard, served in the Black Hawk War, Second Seminole War, and the Mexican-American War. By the end of his service, he was both a war hero and a major general. He returned home from his final combat assignment in 1847.

While serving in the Army, Taylor had never stated his political beliefs or even voted. He was an independent and believed in a strong banking system. He disapproved of President Andrew Jackson’s reluctance to stop the bank collapse of 1836. He thought the expansion of slavery was impractical even though he owned over 200 slaves. He was a firm nationalist and believed secession was not a good idea. He aligned himself with the Whig Party even though he did not totally agree with their stand on tariffs and internal improvements. At the Whig National Convention, he beat Henry Clay and Winfield Scott to get the nomination for President. He chose Millard Fillmore as his running mate.

Although he was elected in November 1848, he did not resign his Western Division command until late January 1849. He spent the time after the election in selecting his cabinet. He frustrated some Whigs by not appointing patrons but he would not appoint any Democrats, either. He was hoping for a diverse representation of the country and avoided any prominent Whigs, such as Clay. He set out for Washington, D.C. in late January and didn’t arrive until February 24. He met with outgouing President Polk who felt the new President was totally unqualified. Taylor finalized his cabinet and took office on March 4.

Just sixteen months later, and without having accomplished any of his hoped for goals, he was at a picnic on July 4. The cornerstone for the Washington Monument had been laid two years earlier and the construction site served as the venue. During the day he had several servings of fresh fruit and some iced milk. Later in the day, he began to sicken. Medicine of the time was not as good with diagnosis or treatment and as the days passed, he became ever more ill. He died of some intestinal malady at 10.35 PM. He was 65 years old. He was buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. before his body was moved to his home in Louisville, Kentucky.

I should not be surprised if this were to terminate in my death.

I did not expect to encounter what has beset me since my elevation to the Presidency.

God knows I have endeavored to fulfill what I conceived to be an honest duty. But I have been mistaken.

My motives have been misconstrued, and my feelings most grossly outraged. – all from Zachary Taylor, July 8, 1850

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July 8

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 8, 2017

1932: The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) reaches its lowest point during the Great Depression. The Dow was created by the Wall Street Journal editor Charles Dow and was first calculated in 1896. Dow and his business partner, Edward Jones, brought together an index showing how 30 large publicly owned companies in the US were faring in the stock market. The average is price weighted to compensate for stock splits and other adjustments. It isn’t a true average of the thirty prices of the stocks, but is the aggregate of the thirty stocks divided by a divisor based on these compensations. This has given a more consistent value for the index. It was devised to give an indicator of the performance of the industrial sector of the market.

The thirty industries have changed 51 times in the years since The Dow was invented and General Electric has had the longest continuous presence on the list from 1907 to the present day, but it was also included in the original list, fell off, and was added back. The most recent addition came in 2015 when Apple was added. Microsoft has been part of The Dow since 1999. The Great Depression began in 1929 and most economists believe the precipitating factor was the collapse of the US Stock Market on October 29, a day known as Black Tuesday. A minority of economists believe the collapse was a symptom and not the cause of the largest worldwide depression in the 20th century.

The Roaring Twenties, the years after World War I ended, was a time of excess and wealth. Optimism gave a look into a brighter future. Many rural people abandoned their farms and moved to the cities to find a more prosperous life. The families who remained on the farms were faced with financial woes while their city cousins were wildly speculating in the markets. In the spring of 1929 there were already warnings of an impending collapse and the market and The Dow were both fluctuating. As money tightened, the economy grew tighter as well. And then the collapse came and domino effects spread the crisis around the world.

On this day, The Dow reached its lowest point, but rallied slightly before closing. At its lowest, The Dow was 40.56 and the day closed at 41.22. This was a 90% drop in the value of the index from the high point of 1929. There was panic selling due to a drop in consumption which led to lower productions and more unemployment. While the markets and economies would eventually recover and slowly inch upwards, it took nearly a decade to do so. President Roosevelt came to power during this time and his policies, along with the anticipation of the US entering World War II finally led to an economic recovery and The Dow slowly followed in its wake. Today, The Dow is over 20,000 and continues to fluctuate as do the markets worldwide.

Market forces and capitalism by themselves aren’t sufficient to ensure the common good and to limit the concentration of wealth at levels that are compatible with democratic ideals. – Thomas Piketty

Lost wealth may be replaced by industry, lost knowledge by study, lost health by temperance or medicine, but lost time is gone forever. – Samuel Smiles

Rule No.1: Never lose money. Rule No.2: Never forget rule No.1. – Warren Buffett

A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business. – Henry Ford

July 7

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 7, 2017

1946: The prototype XF-11 reconnaissance aircraft crashes. Designed and built by the Hughes Aircraft Company, it was flown by Howard Hughes himself. Hughes, born in 1905, was an American businessman, investor, pilot, film director, and philanthropist and one of the most financially successful people in the world. He began his entertainment career after dropping out of college. He founded his aircraft company in 1932 as a division of Hughes Tool Company, a company founded by his father in 1908. Hughes, Sr. was able to perfect oil drilling and it became the original funding source for much of his son’s businesses.  Hughes not only built new and different planes, but set world records flying.

On this day, he was at the controls of the XF-11, a prototype ordered by the US Army Air Force. One hundred of the planes had been ordered in 1943, but as with other military orders, Hughes had difficulty perfecting the design and getting the planes delivered before World War II ended. However, the Army was still interested in being able to fly long-range and high-altitude while doing photographic recon. The XF-11 was similar to the Republic XF-12 Rainbow, built by Republic Aviation earlier in the year. The XF-11 also resembled the Lockheed P-38 Lightning used during the War, but XF-11 was larger and heavier. It was a tricycle-gear, twin-engine, twin-boom all-metal monoplane with a pressurized crew nacelle.

XF-11 was equipped with Pratt & Whitney engines with each driving a pair of four-bladed controllable pitch propellers which increased performance and stability. Hughes was flying from his factory’s airfield in Culver City, California and did not follow the agreed upon testing and communications program. He remained aloft almost twice as long as planned. He was an hour into the flight, long after running out of film in the cameras, when a leak caused the right hand propeller controls to lose effectiveness. This caused a cascade of problems which put the plane in a precarious position. Hughes attempted to troubleshoot the problem which took him even farther from the airfield.

He continued to lose altitude and was unable to correct the problem. He tried to land at the Los Angeles Country Club but the plane was unable to stay up. About 300 yards shy of the course, the XF-11 clipped three houses on the way down, setting the last house on fire. Hughes was nearly killed in the crash. This was the second time he nearly died crashing one of his planes. In 1943, he dropped his Sikorsky S-43 into Lake Mead, killing two people aboard and having to be rescued by other survivors of the crash. His later life paranoia was fueled by his existing OCD exacerbated by his constant pain from these two plane crashes.

Every man has his price, or a guy like me couldn’t exist.

My father told me, never have partners.

We don’t have a monopoly. Anyone who wants to dig a well without a Hughes bit can always use a pick and shovel.

I’m not a paranoid deranged millionaire. Goddamit, I’m a billionaire. – all from Howard Hughes

July 6

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 6, 2017

1865: The Nation’s first issue hits newsstands. The Liberator was an abolitionist newspaper founded by William Lloyd Garrison and Isaac Knapp in 1831. Published in Boston, The Liberator lasted for 35 years, with its last issue published December 29, 1865. The Nation was the successor to that earlier publication and was also founded by abolitionists after the US Civil War. It was headquartered on “newspaper row” in Manhattan, where most of New York City’s newspapers were located. It was published by Joseph Richards and the editor was Edwin Godkin who was also editor in chief of the New York Evening Post from 1883-1899. He was born in Ireland and worked as a journalist and war correspondent for a London paper before coming to American 1856.

With a classical liberal at the helm, The Nation was able to point out the aftermath of the War and what it meant to the entire nation. As one of its regular features during the first year, it ran The South As It Is, dispatches from the war-torn South written by John Dennett, a Harvard graduate and veteran of the Port Royal Experiment. Beginning in 1861, liberated slaves were given lands abandoned by planters as the Union liberated regions of Port Royal in South Carolina. The planters fled and left 10,000 slaves behind to fend for themselves and with help from the North, the industrious former slaves were able to thrive. It was successful and could have been successfully used as a model for Reconstruction. In 1865, President Andrew Johnson ended the experiment.

The Nation was also a proponent for a sound national currency after the Civil War in order to restore economic stability. They advocated for eliminating protective tariffs and free trade. Their presentation of journalism integrity garnered them high praise and many of their articles were collected into book form. Their editorial staff has remained liberal or progressive with many of the higher echelons under investigation by government officials for subversion. The magazine suffered financial setbacks in the 1940s. Mergers were discussed but avoided. In 1995, the magazine was purchased by Victor Navasky (editor at the time) and Katrina vanden Heuvel was made editor, a position she retains.

Today, The Nation remains in print and has an online presence. They remain a political, progressive, social liberal outlet and have a weekly circulation slightly over 100,000. It is the oldest continuously published weekly magazine in the US and is the most widely read weekly journal for the liberal or progressive aligned American. They continue to publish political and cultural news along with opinion and analysis pieces. They can be found online at The Nation. While they are predominantly concerned with American politics, the world has grown ever more connected and they also address world issues.

The liberal psyche wants to protect minorities, to apologize for imperialism, colonialism, slavery, and the appalling treatment of black people during the civil rights movement. At the same time, they want to continue to defend the rights of individuals. – Ayaan Hirsi Ali

A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel. – Robert Frost

If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today. – Thomas Sowell

What you realize hanging out with investigative reporters is that, while they may be personally liberal, they don’t let that get in the way of a good story. – Stephen Bannon

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July 5

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 5, 2017

1915: The US Liberty Bell leaves Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The iconic symbol of American Independence was commissioned in 1752 by the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly from the London firm of Lester and Pack (today Whitechapel Bell Foundry). It was cast with the phrase “Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof”. When it arrived in Philadelphia, the bell was rung in order to proclaim and instead, it cracked. It was recast twice by local workman John Pass and John Snow (who both added their names to the bell). It was used to summon lawmakers to legislative sessions and to let the citizenry know about public meetings and proclamations.

No immediate announcement was made when the Second Continental Congress voted for independence on July 4. When the word came out, bells across the land were rung on July 8, including the Liberty Bell. After the Revolutionary War, the bell fell into disuse and relative obscurity until the 1830s when abolitionists began to use the bell as a symbol of freedom for all and began calling it the Liberty Bell. At some point in the early 1800s, the bell developed the distinctive large crack up the side. Beginning in 1885, the City of Philadelphia, which owns the bell, began to let the Bell travel to various expositions and patriotic gatherings. The Bell attracted large crowds wherever it went. Always shipped by rail, people gathered at each stop along the way to see the symbol of America and Freedom.

The Bell made seven trips around the country. The first trip was to New Orleans for the World Cotton Centennial exposition. On that trip, while passing through Mississippi, Jefferson Davis, former President of the CSA, delivered a speech praising all the American Dream meant and asking for unity through the land. The trips were taking a toll on the bell and the crack was worsening. In 1912, a request was made to send the Bell to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915. There was some reluctance to let the Bell go, but in 1914, the city installed a metal support structure inside the Bell called the “spider”. It was tested in February 1915 and deemed fit to travel.

On this day, the Bell was loaded onto the train in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania aboard a specially constructed rail car. About 5 million people saw the Bell as she travelled across the country and it is thought another 2 million kissed the Bell while on display. It was taken back East via a different route and it is thought another 5 million were again given the chance to view the symbol of Freedom. It was never to travel again. It has been moved outdoors just five times in the since its return to Philadelphia. Although there have been requests for the Bell to be shipped elsewhere in the country, these have all been denied. In 1976, the Bell was moved to Independence Mall and in 2003 it was shipped to the larger Liberty Bell Center where it resides today.

Not far from here where we gather today is a symbol of freedom familiar to all Americans — the Liberty Bell. When the Declaration of Independence was first read in public, the Liberty Bell was sounded in celebration, and a witness said: “It rang as if it meant something.” – George W. Bush

Yes there’s a lady that stands in a harbor for what we believe. And there’s a bell that still echoes the price that it cost to be free. – Aaron Tippen

I ask you…to adopt the principles proclaimed by yourselves, by your revolutionary fathers, and by the old bell in Independence Hall…. – Frederick Douglass

The Liberty Bell is a very significant symbol for the entire democratic world. – Nelson Mandela

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July 4

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 4, 2017

1054: A “guest star” is first noticed in China. In Chinese astronomy, the term refers to a star which appears suddenly where no star had been before and then, after some time, disappears. These are novas or supernovas. In ancient times, context is needed to determine if the guest star is one of the catastrophic events or a comet with or without a tail. Extant Chinese records come from at least two sources. There are other worldwide references to what is now known as SN 1054 coming from questionable sources in European works and more substantial records of Ancestral Puebloan culture found in New Mexico, United States. The remnant of the explosion of the star once located in the sky near Zeta Tauri is called the Crab Nebula.

There are eight known supernovas in the Milky Way, identified because of existing testimony of the time. The old Chinese texts show the appearance of a guest star during the reign of Emperor Renzong of the Song dynasty. By studying the writings and correlating known historical events, it was found to be on this day. Writings of the event are included in both Song Shi and Song Huiyao, both texts about the history of the Song dynasty. They describe the sudden appearance of new star near Zeta Tauri which remained visible for a total of 642 days, with the star bright enough to be visible even during the daylight hours for 23 of those days.

The Crab Nebula (M1, Messier 1, NGC 1952, Taurus A, Sh2-244) was the first astronomical object identified with a historical supernova explosion. The Nebula is not visible to the naked eye but can be seen even with binoculars (under favorable conditions). The nebula was first identified in 1731 but to little fanfare. Charles Messier was studying a comet in 1758 and found the nebula again. Although officially cataloged, nothing else was known of it. With spectroscopy, the artifact was again found in 1913 and several photos taken years apart revealed the nebula was expanding. Discovering the relationship between SN 1054 and the Nebula began in 1921.

Edwin Hubble proposed a controversial idea – the nebula was the debris of the 1054 supernova. Knowing as much about astronomical events as we now do, it is currently thought the supernova actually took place in April or early May and was bright enough to finally be discovered in July. The Crab Pulsar was the cause for more study of the Crab Nebula. Because of early recordings, the date of the event and the data collected gave astronomers a greater understanding of the highly magnetized, rotating neutron star or white dwarf. While we know much about the nebula, we are still uncertain about several details. Watching the night sky still allows us to learn much about the universe in which we live.

Astronomy? Impossible to understand and madness to investigate. – Sophocles

Astronomy, as nothing else can do, teaches men humility. – Arthur C Clarke

The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent. – Carl Sagan

Astronomy’s much more fun when you’re not an astronomer. – Brian May

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July 3

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 3, 2017

1969: The USSR launches 5L-Zond L1S-2. This was the second  N-1 launch and the booster rocket carried a modified L1 Zond spacecraft. There was a rumor the rocket also carried a mass model lunar module, but this is seriously doubted. The N1 (sometimes called H1) was a super heavy-lift launch vehicle, similar to the US Saturn V rockets. It was intended to carry payloads beyond low Earth orbit. There were plans for ten launches with nine of the rockets built. The first was a dynamic test model built at ¼ scale. The second was a test/training rocket. The third was launched but ended with an engine fire and explosion at 7.5 miles. The fourth one built developed cracks and was never launched.

On this day, more than four months after the disastrous 3L – Zond L1S-1 flight, at 11.18 PM Moscow time, L1S-2 launched. The rocket began to majestically lift into the night sky. As it cleared the launch tower, there was a flash of light and debris began falling from the bottom of the first stage. All the engines, except engine #18, immediately cut off. But with just one engine firing, the rocket angled to 45⁰ and then dropped back onto the launch pad at 110 East. There was almost 2,300 tons of propellant on board and a massive blast was triggered. The shock wave shattered windows across the launch complex and sent debris falling as far as 6 miles away. The blast was visible 22 miles away.

The launch crew was permitted to venture out of safe shelter half an hour after the explosion and they were met with droplets of unburned RP-1 still raining down from the sky. Luckily, the majority of the rocket’s propellant load had not been burnt in the accident and most of what had burned was in the first stage of the rocket. A worst case scenario was also avoided when the propellant did not mix with the LOX (liquid oxygen) to form an explosive gel. While investigating the cause of the catastrophe, it was found that up to 85% of the propellant on board the rocket did not detonate which greatly reduced the blast. Even so, this was the largest artificial non-nuclear explosion in human history.

The cause was never identified but some information was uncovered during investigation. The initial fire damaged the thrust section which led to gradual shutdown of the engines by T+10 and T+12 as they detected abnormal pressures. Why #18 did not shut off is unknown. The turbo pump explosion causing the accident may have been damaged by debris from other pieces of machinery or the blades may have rubbed against metal and caused a spark. The engine’s designer was adamant his engines were faultless and the investigation, with his help, determined debris was the root cause. The entire launch complex was destroyed in the blast and took 18 months to rebuild which delayed USSR Space Race launches.

I saw for the first time the earth’s shape. I could easily see the shores of continents, islands, great rivers, folds of the terrain, large bodies of water. The horizon is dark blue, smoothly turning to black… the feelings which filled me I can express with one word – joy. – Yuri A. Gagarin

The new socialist society turns even the most daring of man’s dreams into a reality. – TASS press statement regards Sputnik 1

There is no easy way to the stars from the earth. – Seneca

Anyone who has spent any time in space will love it for the rest of their lives. I achieved my childhood dream of the sky. – Valentina Tereshkova

July 2

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 2, 2017

1816: The French frigate Méduse runs aground. Names for the legendary Medusa, the ship was launched on July 1, 1810 and took part in the Napoleonic Wars. She was involved in the Mauritus campaign of 1809-11 and took part in raids throughout the Caribbean. After the Boubon Restoration, the Pallas-class frigate was sent to ferry French officials to Saint-Louis in Senegal to reestablish the colony there after the British handover. The ship was 154 feet long and 39 feet at the beam with a draft of 19 feet. She was driven by 21,000 square feet of sails. A full complement was 326 men manning the 44 or 46 guns she carried.

Her post-war captain received his position not because of seaworthy experience, but as a political favor to an émigré sent off to the west coast of Africa to recolonize the region. The newly appointed French governor and his family were on Méduse which was one of the three ships sailing from Rochefort. Because of poor sailing, the Méduse drifted 100 miles off course. The governor wanted to make up time and between his urging and the inability of the captain, the boat traveled into shallow waters. On this day there were 400 people aboard Méduse when her inept captain went into ever shallower waters. Soon the ship was stuck on the Bank of Arguin, one of the many sandbanks in the Bay of Arguin off the coast of Mauritania, another west African coast country, north of Senegal.

All 400 people were forced to evacuate and the ship was a total loss. An improvised raft was built to carry 151 of the men. These were towed by the launches, smaller boats carried by larger ships. Not actually lifeboats, but usable in this instance. Only 250 people could cram into the six boats available. The governor and his family were among those permitted in the boats. The launches were unable to keep pulling the raft and had to leave it behind while they went off for help. A storm blew up and washed dozens off the raft. At least much of the wine aboard (6 casks) survived the storm and the men who were left behind became drunk and disorderly and rebelled against those in command. The officers killed the rebels. There was a noticeable lack of food (a single bag of ship’s biscuits eaten the first day) and eventually the survivors turned to cannibalism. As supplies ran lower, injured but still living men were tossed overboard. When the raft was finally found, thirteen days later and only by chance, only fifteen men of the original 151 had survived.

Two of the survivors, a surgeon and an officer, each wrote a book about their ordeal. These were widely read and the public’s abhorrence made the Méduse shipwreck one of the most infamous of the Age of Sail. Artist Théodore Géricault painted his Raft of the Medusa. The oil on canvas painting done in 1818-19 which measured 16 feet by 23.5 feet and shows the disheveled state of the fifteen survivors as help finally approached. The dark painting, done mostly in brown pigments, depicts the despair and brokenness of the men aboard as the Argus approached and provided rescue.

The man who has experienced shipwreck shudders even at a calm sea. – Ovid

The channel is known only to the natives; so that if any stranger should enter into the bay without one of their pilots he would run great danger of shipwreck. – Thomas More

Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats. – Voltaire

There’s nothing like a shipwreck to spark the imagination of everyone who was not on that specific ship. – Jon Stewart

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