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


Sailing the Ocean Blue

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 11, 2015
Admiral Zheng He*

Admiral Zheng He*

July 11, 1405: Zheng He receives an imperial edict. Zheng was a court eunuch, mariner, explorer, diplomat, and fleet admiral during the Ming Dynasty. He made seven voyages with Chinese treasure ships – large wooden ships which were said to have been between 400 and 600 feet long, more than twice the size of concurrent European ships. For comparison – Columbus’s largest ship in 1492, the Santa Maria, was 62 feet long. If accounts of Zheng’s ships are accurate, they had nine masts and four decks. They were able to hold more than 500 passengers as well as substantial cargo. Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta both described Chinese ships which carried between 500 and 1000 people. Zheng’s entire fleet was made up of 300 ships with 62 of them being the enormous treasure ships.

The Yongle Emperor of Ming China had a great period of expansion. It was his orders which had the fleet built, beginning in 1403. Zheng was put in charge of the construction process of the Xiafan Guanjun or the foreign expeditionary armada. There were trading ships, warships, and support vessels along with the treasure ships. The ships were built near Nanjing on the Qinhuai River where it meets the Yangtze River. Preliminary orders came through in spring 1405 for Zheng to take command of the 27,000 troops in the Western Ocean. On this day, official orders came along with gifts to be presented to the voyagers, each according to his rank. Sacrifices and prayers were offered to Tianfei, the patron goddess of sailors. The fleet had been amassing  since the previous fall and they finally set sail.

The first trip was a success as they visited Champa, Java, Malacca, Aru, Semudera, Lambri, Ceylon, Qiulon, and Calicut. Then they sailed into the Indian Ocean and visited the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Their trip was endangered by pirates who also plied the waters but with the large fleet at his command, Zheng was able to defeat the most feared pirate of the time, Chen Zuyi. He was brought back to port when the ships finally returned on October 2, 1407 and Chen was executed on that same day. Also returned were several important envoys who had joined the trip and they were presented at court. Zheng made six more trips throughout the region, visiting as far as eastern Africa. The last trip ended on July 22, 1433.

The details of Zheng’s life are sketchy and it is thought he died during this last voyage or shortly afterwards. There is a competing theory that he lived until 1435. A tomb containing his clothes and headgear was found but there was no body. It was assumed he was buried at sea. He had adopted a son. He was born in 1371 and was 31 when he began his sailing adventures. His second voyage began shortly after the first ended and he was again at sea for two years. His third voyage once again began shortly after his return and lasted two years but he then had two years on land before once again sailing from 1413 to 1415. His fifth voyage was from 1417 to 1419 and the sixth was from 1421 to 1422. He then was home for several years before taking to the sea on last time in 1430.

We have traversed more than 100,000 li of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly] as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare. – Zheng He

Explorers have to be ready to die lost. – Russell Hoban

All explorers are seeking something they have lost. It is seldom that they find it, and more seldom still that the attainment brings them greater happiness than the quest. – Arthur C. Clarke

It’s an up and down thing, the human goals, because the human is always an explorer, an adventurist. – Cesar Millan

Also on this day: Terracotta Army – In 1975, the Terracotta Army was discovered.
Skylab – In 1979, Skylab disintegrated.
Pistols at Dawn – In 1804, the Hamilton-Burr duel took place.
Culture – In 1893, Mikimoto Kokochi created a cultured pearl.
Poor Planning – In 1897, a hot air balloon took off in search of the North Pole.

* “Admiral Zhenghe” by jonjanego – Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Poor Planning

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 11, 2014
Salomon August Andree

Salomon August Andree

July 11, 1897: Salomon August Andree’s balloon took off. SA Andree was born in Sweden in 1854 and was educated at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, graduating in 1874. His degree was in mechanical engineering. In 1876 he came to America where he worked as a janitor in the Swedish Pavilion at the Centennial Exposition. While in America, he read on book a trade winds and met with John Wise, an American balloonist. Thus began his fascination with balloon travel. He returned to Sweden and opened a machine shop which wasn’t entirely successful. He worked at the Royal Institute as an assistant and went on a scientific expedition in 1882-3 with Nils Ekholm. From 1885 until his death, we worked in the Swedish patent office.

This was not his first big balloon expedition, but the one the previous year was a failure. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences as well as King Oscar II and Alfred Nobel supported the project – to balloon over the North Pole. The intended path for the hydrogen balloon’s travels was from Svalbard to either Russia or Canada and passing directly over the Pole. Andree ignored the dangers of the trip, the most basic was the necessity to steer the craft. They had implemented a drag rope method to attempt control, but it was ineffective – which was ignored. The balloon, Örnen (The Eagle), was delivered to the take off site directly and had never been tested. Regardless, Andree and his two associates, Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel, took off.

The balloon rose up and immediately lost two of the three ropes intended to be used for steering – an already inadequate method. Within ten hours of lift off, the team was caught in a storm with powerful winds and rain falling which turned to ice on the balloon. Also, the balloon was losing hydrogen much too fast and after only two days, it crashed on the ice pack. The three men were unhurt, but there was no rescue possible. They would have to walk back to civilization and they were ill-prepared for that eventuality. They were not properly clothed and they lacked the equipment needed to traverse the rough terrain, which they found to be overwhelming. They made it as far as the deserted island, Kvitøya (White Island) in Svalbard.

The fate of the three men was unknown for 33 years. In 1930, a chance discovery of their last camp was made and a media blitz brought Sweden some answers. The motives of the men involved have been the subject of much speculation and books and movies have been produced on the topic. When their frozen bodies were found, so was a journal and all were brought back to Sweden. The island is usually inaccessible but the summer of 1930 which was unusually warm. A few expeditions to the island were made in search of more clues. One of the items found was a tin box containing Strindberg’s undeveloped film as well as logbooks and maps. Their exact cause of death has been debated since they were found, but nothing is agreed upon. They only thing certain is that they did not make it over the North Pole.

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. – Helen Keller

Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary. – Cecil Beaton

Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward; they may be beaten, but they may start a winning game. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

We must dare, and dare again, and go on daring. – Georges Jacques Danton

Also on this day: Terracotta Army – In 1975, the Terracotta Army is discovered.
Skylab – In 1979, Skylab disintegrated.
Pistols at Dawn – In 1804, the Hamilton-Burr duel takes place.
Culture – In 1893, Mikimoto Kokochi created a cultured pearl.


Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 11, 2013


July 11, 1979: Skylab‘s mission comes to an ignominious end. It was the first space station launched by the US. The 100 ton station housed a crew of three along with a lab for studying the effects of micro gravity and a Telescope Mount solar observatory. Three different crews worked in Skylab during her tenure in space. She was launched on May 14, 1973 aboard a two-stage Saturn V rocket. Unfortunately, the station was severely damaged during the launch. The micrometeoroid shield / sun shade was lost as was one of the main solar panels.

The debris from the damaged shield further blocked the release of the remaining solar panel. The first crew was launched on May 25, 1973 and during spacewalks attempted many significant repairs. If they were unsuccessful in their efforts, the plastic components inside the space station would melt, releasing poisonous gases and making the station entirely uninhabitable. They were able to salvage the operation to some degree and Skylab was able to support continued missions.

Two more crews eventually visited the space station. The first crew stayed for 28 days, the second stayed for 59 days, and the last stayed 84 days. The final crew returned to Earth February 8, 1974. Skylab orbited Earth 2,476 times during the 171 days and 13 hours that Earthlings were aboard her. The crews made 10 spacewalks accruing 42 hours and 16 minutes outside the station. They logged about 2,000 hours of scientific and medical experiments in the lab.

There was a fourth manned mission planned to boost the space station into a higher orbit, but it never took place. Instead, Skylab remained in a parking orbit. Many improvements and repairs were needed but funding was never found. There was still some small hope Space Shuttle flights could save the lab. A burst of increased solar activity further harmed Skylab by heating the upper atmosphere and causing drag on the station. Ground control had recently re-established communication with the six year old lab and was able to adjust its course so re-entry and disintegration took place over a non-populous region.

“Pete and his crew saved the Skylab. He was one hell of a guy.” – Tom Stafford

“There is just one thing I can promise you about the outer-space program – your tax-dollar will go further.” – Werner von Braun

“It is a terrible allocation of scarce resources, … The time has come to de-emphasize the manned space program.” – Barney Frank

“We have been restricted to low Earth orbit for far too long and that the proper focus of our nation’s space program should be the exploration of the solar system.” – Michael Griffin

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: There have been eleven space stations that are no long inhabited. Only Skylab was a US effort. Ten of them were from the USSR with Mir being a combined project of the USSR and the Russian Federal Space Agency. Mir had 125 visitors between February 19, 1986 when she was launched until March 23, 2001 for a total of 5,511 days in space with 4,594 of them occupied. Today, there are two operational space stations. Tiangong 1 was launched by China in 2011 and has been visited by 3 humans for 13 days. The International Space Station is an international project launched on November 20, 1998. She has been visited by 208 humans arriving in 71 manned visits as well as seeing 64 unmanned visits since inception. There have been five other space stations proposed but canceled due to excessive costs, three of them American, one Russian, and one private.

Also on this day: Terracotta Army – In 1975, the Terracotta Army is discovered.
Pistols at Dawn – In 1804, the Hamilton-Burr duel takes place.
Culture – In 1893, Mikimoto Kokochi created a cultured pearl.

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Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 11, 2012

Mikimoto Kōkichi

July 11, 1893: Mikimoto Kōkichi creates a hemispherical cultured pearl. Kōkichi was born January 25, 1858 in Toba, Shima Province, Japan (today, Mie prefecture). He was the eldest son of a udon shop owner(udons are noodles used in soup). He left school at age 13 to sell vegetables to help support the family. While selling his wares, he watched pearl divers of Ise unloading their pearls and became fascinated with the enterprise.

When he reached the age of 30, Kōkichi and his wife along with a partner named Ume got a loan to begin a pearl oyster farm. Five years later, after many failures and near bankruptcy, the first hemispherical pearl was produced. Kōkichi introduced this wonder to a marine products show held in Norway in 1897 and began an export business. After twelve more years, he had perfected the creation of perfectly spherical pearls, indistinguishable from the highest quality natural ones. It was the 1920s before he had commercially viable harvests. Others were also working on methods to develop perfect cultured pearls. Three Japanese men worked together and changed the business in the island nation. By 1935 there were 350 pearl farms throughout Japan and they together produced about 10 million pearls annually.

A cultured pearl is a pearl created under controlled conditions. A pearl is formed when an oyster is injured. These are saltwater clams or marine bivalve mollusks. They have strong linings to the shell layer called nacre. If the mantle tissue is injured in some way, the response of the clam is to excrete nacre to heal the wound. In nature, if this works just perfectly, a pearl is formed. For the pearl farmer, the injury is done in such a way as to assure it is the perfect type of damage. A tissue graft form a donor oyster is inserted to help form a pearl sac. The mollusk then secretes calcium carbonate in the form of nacre.

Pearls are one of the oldest known gems prized by humans. They are the only gem made by a living animal. The oldest surviving pearl necklace is about 2000 years old and was found in the sarcophagus of a Persian woman. Pearls have been used to broadcast wealth and social status as well as being used as a good luck charm to ward off evil spirits. They were worn in Middle East and Asian societies as early as 3500 BC. There are rumors about a Roman general paying for an entire political campaign with a single pearl earring. Cleopatra was said to have dissolved a pearl in a glass of wine to prove her love to Marc Antonius. Today, 99% of pearls sold worldwide are of the cultured rather than natural variety.

Not always can flowers, pearls, poetry, protestations, nor even home in another heart, content the awful soul that dwells in clay. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Go boldly forth, my simple lay, / Whose accents flow with artless ease, / Like orient pearls at random strung. – Sir William Jones

Errors, like straws, upon the surface flow; he who would search for pearls must dive below.´- John Dryden

Will change the pebbles of our puddly thought to orient pearls. – Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas

Also on this day:

Terracotta Army – In 1975, the Terracotta Army is discovered.
Skylab – In 1979, Skylab disintegrated.
Pistols at Dawn – In 1804, the Hamilton-Burr duel takes place.

Pistols at Dawn

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 11, 2011

Inaccurate drawing of the Burr-Hamilton duel by J. Mund

July 11, 1804: Vice President Aaron Burr kills former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in a duel. The two dignitaries were rowed across the Hudson River from Manhattan to the Heights of Weehawken in New Jersey. Dueling was illegal in New York. The Weehawken site was a popular place for the mostly out-of-favor method of assuaging bruised egos. Hamilton wouldn’t die until the next day, but more than one life was lost on that fateful day.

The entire imbroglio began in 1791 when Burr, a Democratic-Republican took a seat in the Senate that had previously belonged to Philip Schuler, a Federalist and Hamilton’s father-in-law. At the time, Hamilton was the Secretary of the Treasury. In the election of 1800, the electoral college was deadlocked and with Hamilton’s influence the House of Representatives gave the Presidency to Thomas Jefferson and Burr became the Vice President.

Political intrigue and infighting continued resulting in Jefferson dropping Burr from the 1804 ticket. Burr opted to run for the governorship of New York. Hamilton viciously campaigned against Burr and Morgan Lewis won the race, a man Hamilton had backed. Hamilton’s opinion of Burr was often expressed in correspondence. A third party had a letter printed in a newspaper referring to Hamilton’s opinion of Burr. Burr was greatly offended and demanded satisfaction.

Both men had been involved in duels prior to this. Hamilton had been principal in 10 non-shot duels and second in two more. Hamilton’s son had been killed in a duel. Hamilton claimed that there was one previous honor dispute with Burr, while Burr claimed two. On this day, some present say that Hamilton intentionally shot and missed Burr. Burr’s shot hit Hamilton in the abdomen, ricocheted and caused severe internal injuries and then lodged in his spine. Burr was charged with murder in both New York and New Jersey with one state dropping the charges and the other state’s trial resulting in an acquittal. However, the duel killed Burr’s chance at a political life. He left the country for a while and returned in 1812. He died broken and in disguise in 1836.

“Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow. Delay may give clearer light as to what is best to be done.” – Aaron Burr

“The rule of my life is to make business a pleasure, and pleasure my business.” – Aaron Burr

“Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.” – Alexander Hamilton

“Men often oppose a thing merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike.” – Alexander Hamilton

Also on this day:
Terracotta Army – In 1975, the Terracotta Army is discovered.
Skylab – In 1979, Skylab disintegrated.

Terracotta Army

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 11, 2010

Some of the thousands of statues of the Terracotta Army

July 11, 1975: While digging a well in China, a three-acre burial mound is uncovered revealing 8,099 clay statues of warriors and their horses that date from 221-206 BC. The statuary was located near Xi’an Shaanxi province where the Huang He [Yellow River] and Wei rivers converge. The area was first settled in the third century BC with Qin Shi Huang Di its first emperor.

When First Emperor Qin died in 210 BC he was buried inside the tomb complex along with vast amounts of treasure. There was even a scaled replica of the universe with gems representing objects of the skies. Pearls were placed in the ceiling as stars and planets. There was also flowing mercury to represent the oceans and great seas of earth. Shi Huang Di’s tomb is located in an earthen pyramid measuring 250 feet tall and covering ≈ 3,800 square feet. It remains unopened.

The mausoleum construction began in 246 BC and it is estimated that 700,000 craftsmen spent 38 years completing the project. Each of the more than 6,000 soldiers is a true individual. Each is in his own military uniform and each is carved with lifelike and individual facial features. The horses are also distinct carvings.  Various colors were applied to the figures to give more detail and a lacquer finish applied. It is supposed that when originally created, the figures were armed with actual weaponry that has disintegrated over the millennia.

There are three separate pits holding the statues with a fourth pit that was discovered empty. The main pit holds what is thought to be the main army and covers 172,000 square feet with all soldiers facing east. The second pit holds cavalry 1,400 figures and chariots and is thought to be the palace guard. It covers 64,500 square feet. The third pit holds 68 figures who are thought to be military leaders and covers only 5000 square feet. Excavation shows that a great fire destroyed wooden structures that once housed the massive army.

“A warlike spirit, which alone can create and civilize a state, is absolutely essential to national defense and to national perpetuity.” – Douglas MacArthur

“A republic should make only partial peace. One must always have some little war in reserve, to keep up the military spirit.” – Napoleon

“The security of every society must always depend, more or less, upon the martial spirit of the great body of the people.” – Adam Smith

“War is a part of the whole, that whole is politics.” – Lenin

Also on this day, in 1979 Skylab falls down.
Bonus link: In 1804, the Hamilton-Burr duel takes place.

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