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The First (& Slowest) American Car Race

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1895-first-automobile-race-frank-and-charles-duryea-winners

Frank and Charles Duryea, 1895

Taking nearly 10 hours to race 54 miles, it’s not exactly what we would think of today as a race; more like an amble.  But the Chicago-Times Herald race goes down in history as the first automobile race in America, and it took place on this day in 1895, which that year was Thanksgiving Day, from Chicago to Evanston and back.  The race had been delayed from an earlier date because at the time, it was forbidden for cars to drive on city streets (likely because they were loud and would frighten the numerous horses, causing traffic chaos).  Once the organizers convinced the city council to permit the cars on the roads, the race took off.

We think of cars as being four-wheeled; but aside from 4 four-wheeled cars in the race (3 of which were German Benz cars, the 4th being a motorized wagon driven by Frank Duryea and made by Charles Duryea, founder of the Duryea Motor Wagon Company, and inventor of the first working  gasoline-powered car in America), there were 2 two-wheeled “automobiles”, but these motorized cycles lacked the power to climb the steeper passages.  An electric car was also entered in the race, but because of the cold weather, its battery died before getting very far.

One Benz car struck a horse just after taking off, and was forced out of the race, leaving just three cars; Duryea’s car won the day, with a time of 7 hours and 53 minutes (making his average time 7 mph / 11 km/h). The second car made it in 1 & 1/2 hours later, and the third never made it.  The driver of the second car had fallen unconscious due to exposure in the open vehicle and the cold weather, and the car was driven across the finish line by one of the race’s umpires.

The race was widely publicized, and predicted the demise of horse-drawn transport; it sped up the production of motorized vehicles, and the rest, as they say, is history.

1896-duryea-ad

Information source:  Wikipedia

The Tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin

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pied-piper-of-hamelinMost people in western cultures have heard the tale of the Pied Piper; but was it true, or simply a fable or an urban legend that grew into epic myth proportions, such as Robin Hood’s fame?

The earliest appearance of the story is connected with the stained glass window of the church of Hamelin, Germany, ca. 1300, which means that the events on which it is based happened some time before that – enough of an event to commemorate with a stained glass window.  Though it was destroyed in 1660, it had been described and recorded in numerous accounts.  Town records in 1384 state that it was “100 years since the event”.

There are several theories as to what could have actually happened:  Perhaps the piper represented Death, and the children were carried off by him through a plague; considering the prominence of rats in the story, it’s quite plausible.  It could have also been deaths caused by famine other disease, which might have arisen as a result of fewer adults to sow and harvest crops (if there had previously been a plague and killed off part of the adult population).  Another theory is to do with emigration – either forced (such as slavery or inscription to the military), or voluntary (such as might happen due to a shortage of land, and the eldest son inheriting the family properties).  For more information on this fascinating historical tale, click here.  The German text on the early 20th century postcard is as follows, with translation:

Wandern, ach wandern,  (Wandering, oh wandering,)

weit in die Fern’,  (far, far away,)

Wandern, ach wandern,  (Wandering, oh wandering,)

T(h)u ich so gern. (I do it gladly.)

Rastlos durcheilen T(h)äler und Höh’n,   (Restless rushing through valleys and heights,)

Welt, ach so weit,   (World, oh so wide,)

wie bist Du so schön.  (How beautiful you are.)

Mir ward keine Liebe,   (For me was no love,)

kein heimat(h)lich Land,   (No home land,)

Stets weiter nur eilen,   (Always only rushing farther,)

von Niemand gekannt.   (Known by no one.)

Sie Sorgen und Grillen,   (Their cares and moods)

die kannte ich nie,   (I did not know,)

Sang und Spiel scheuchten,    (Songs and games avoided,)

spät sie und früh.  (both early and late)

Ein fahrender Sänger,    (A travelling singer,)

von Niemand gekannt,    (Known by no one,)

Ein Rattenfänger,  (A rat-catcher,)

Das ist mein Stand. (That is my rank.)

The Mammoths of Niederwenigen

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Mammoth

Image Credit:  Mammutmuseum Niederwenigen

So far this past week, we’ve crammed more activities into one week that we’d previously done all year.  There is a lot of beautiful scenery here in Switzerland, and though we spend time in the mountains, we also like museums of all shapes and sizes.  Our busy holiday started a week ago when my husband took a few weeks off from work, and our first stop was just over the hill range in the next valley, known as Furttal:  We had a private tour (given by an old family friend) through the local mammoth museum; it is one of the few in Europe.  Roughly 185,000 years ago, glaciers and glacial lakes came and went, and the intermittent stages formed lush valleys filled with wild grasses & forests – the perfect place for mammoths to forage.  Fortunately for us, but unfortunately for the mammoths, the ground could sometimes become swampy, trapping victims, and thus preserving their remains intact.  Today, any construction site in the valley is likely to find fossils, and the archaeologists are called in on a regular basis – whether by construction crews or by farmers whose ploughing churns up artefacts (from prehistoric to Roman).

To read more details about the findings, click on the image above for a scientific report (PDF), or on the link above for the museum information.  And just as a side note:  Mammoth teeth are huge, and were formed with ridges that ground their food between the top and bottom teeth (see image below, showing a fragment in comparison to a whole tooth).

Mammoth Tooth - Plymouth-edu

Image Credit: www.plymouth.edu

The Extraordinary Life of Zitkala-Ša

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What makes this person worthy of notice is not simply the accomplishments of their life as a writer, author, musician, composer, editor, teacher, and successful political activist, as well as having the honours of both being buried in the Arlington National Cemetery and having a Venusian crater named in their honour (Bonnin), but the fact that this person was a Native American woman born in a time when American indigenous peoples were still being trampled down, forced into assimilation, ignored, exploited and abused by the insurgents to their lands – the palefaces – and a time when even white women in general had no say in public life.

Born in 1876 as Zitkala-Ša (Sioux for Red Bird) in South Dakota, before the age of seven her family and tribe were driven by white men from their lands “like a herd of buffalo”; her uncle and younger sister (among many others in the tribe at the time) were sick, and died on the way or on arrival at their new territory1.  Her father died shortly thereafter.  She was taken from her mother at the age of eight to be educated in a Quaker school for three years.  Throughout her life she showed spirit, defying the prevailing trends of the dominant white culture which tried to suppress, supplant or kill off any signs of independent, indigenous cultures (she was also given a white name, Gertrude Simmons-Bonnin – the latter being the name given to her future husband, a Yankton Indian by the name of Captain Raymond Talefase Bonnin).  Not all of her education was a misery, however:  She learned to speak publicly, to read, write, and to appreciate a variety of musical styles; in 1891 she returned to white man’s education, studying the piano and violin, and began teaching music; by 1895 she was setting her mark, when she gave a speech about women’s inequality.  She earned her first diploma in that year, and began gathering native American legends and stories, translating them first to Latin, then English.

Zitkala-Ša, Credit - Charcoal by S Campos, Flickr

Credit:  Charcoal by S Campos, Flickr

 

From 1897 to 1899 she played violin with Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music.  Eventually she returned to the reservation where her mother still lived, and the poverty and gradual encroachment of white settlers on Indian allotted lands dismayed her, reminding her of the chasm between who she was, and the world around her.  She joined the Society of American Indians in 1911; it was dedicated to preserving the Native American way of life, while at the same time (ironically) fighting for full American citizenship.  Eventually she saw fruits of her political efforts, through the congressional passing of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934; she continued to work toward civil rights and equality until her death in 1938.

To read more about her fascinating life, click on the following links:

Wikipedia:  Zitkala-Ša

Amazon Kindle: Zitkala-Ša

1 American Indian Stories, by Zitkala-Ša

The Immortality of Henrietta Lacks

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Henrietta Lacks, Immortal HeLa CellsBorn in 1920 as Loretta Pleasant, when her mother died giving birth to her 10th child and the father could not support the family, the children were divided among relatives to be raised.  Loretta, who became known as Henrietta, was sent to live with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks, who lived in a two-storey log cabin (former slave quarters) on the tobacco plantation of her white great-grandfather.  After having five children with her first cousin, whom she married after their first two children were born, she died at the age of 31 of cervix cancer.

What is most remarkable about her life is something she never knew:  During the diagnosis of her cancer, done at Johns Hopkins (the only hospital near her home that would treat black patients), her doctor, George Gey, was given samples of her cervix.  Before this time, any cells cultured from other cells would die within days.  Dr Gey discovered that her cells were remarkably durable, and prolific.  A selection of her cells was isolated and cultured (without her knowledge) into the immortal cell line that became known as HeLa Cells; they are still in use today, being the first human cells to be cloned successfully, in 1955.

HeLa cells are so prolific that if they land in a petri dish, they will take over; they have been used to create the vaccine against Polio, in research for AIDS, gene mapping, cancers and countless other projects; to date, scientists have grown over 50 million metric tonnes of her cells*, and there are nearly 11,000 patents involving these cells*.  Her name should be known, and as the godmother of biotechnology, her history deserves to be undusted!

For a fascinating book on this topic, see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.

*For a more detailed article in the New York Times, click on the photo.

A Glimpse of Victorian Photography

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Victorian photography was bizarre.  I’ll say it.  Seen through the eyes of a modern person, their sense of humour, their fascination with oddities, their budding scientific theories (and lack thereof), and their increasing access to photography that made everyone able to capture their own sense of weirdness… well, it all adds up to a bunch of freakishness.

They were fascinated with what they considered oddities; the rich collected such things, whether they were butterflies pinned to a display board, or porcelain figures, or live animals or human beings.  I’ve already discussed the practise of Memento Mori – it’s been an on-going discussion ever since.  But there were other practices, just as weird, and ones which our sensibilities today revolt at just as much as propping up dead loved ones for a photo op:  Our sense of dignity for the individual, be they human or animal, is at times repulsed by their lack of it – people born with deformities were displayed in travelling circuses as freaks.  I try to see it from different perspectives, and while it exposed those unfortunate individuals to public ridicule, it may have sometimes also given them a purpose in life with an income and a home (rather than, say, being locked away or experimented on), and a family that was the close-knit circus crew; they looked after their own.  Nevertheless, they were bought and sold as commodities; one case in point was the tragic story of Julia Pastrana, also known as The Ape Woman.  Another well known figure in history is Joseph Merrick, also known as “The Elephant Man”.

Human Oddities 4

Julia Pastrana

In the slideshow below, I have only included two examples of deformities that would have been displayed – the girl with the deformed legs, and the bearded woman; both would likely have been circus performers, or freak show exhibitions.  Thank God for modern medicine.

One fad seems to have been manipulating photos through double exposure, thus creating “ghosts” in photos or making the subject headless; another seems to be something akin to making macabre Halloween cards by defacing a photograph to make the person look like a zombie (there are two examples in the slide show of the “before” and “after” photos).  Others are simply weird; why would someone photograph a toddler with a saw?  Or someone with antlers, or a bear, or a skeleton?  There was a practice of what’s been called “hidden mothers” in photographs of children – the mother was hidden beneath a cover, or behind a chair, to help hold the child still for the long exposures of the photograph; but when some of them are so badly hidden, why didn’t they just take the opportunity to photograph the mother as well?

Below are a few random photographs found around cyberspace; I don’t know who owns any of them, but if you know of credit that should be given to a museum or collector, please do let me know and I’ll be glad to give it.  Enjoy a look into the past.

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The Corryvreckan

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The world’s third largest maelstrom, the Corryvreckan, lies in wait between the isles of Jura and Scarba, Scotland.  Being where it is, it is bound to not only have a history worth repeating, but is bound to have stories, myths and tales attached to it.

The Western Isles of Scotland, and location of the Corryvreckan

The Western Isles of Scotland, and location of the Corryvreckan

One mention of the whirlpool comes from Donald Munro in 1549:  “ther runnes ane streame, above the power of all sailing and rowing, with infinit dangers, callit Corybrekan. This stream is aught myle lang, quhilk may not be hantit bot be certain tyds.1 (“There runs one stream, above the power of all sailing and rowing, with infinite dangers, called Corryvreckan.  This stream is eight miles long, which may not be handled but by certain tides.”).  Donald was a Scottish clergyman with the honorary title of “Dean of the Isles”; his father was chief of the clan Munro and 10th Baron of Foulis, and most importantly to history, Donald wrote a description of the Western Isles of Scotland.  Included in that is the Hebrides (Inner and Outer), which have been noteworthy since at least AD 83, when Demetrius or Tarsus wrote about his journey to one such island, the retreat of holy men.

The name itself comes from the Gaelic Coire Bhreacain – “Cauldron of the Plaid”, and is connected with a myth of Cailleach Bheur, an old hag who was said to stir the waters of the strait in order to wash her plaid.  Breacan was also thought to be the name of a Norse king – whether he gave his name to the maelstrom, or the modern name of the strait is a pun on his name, is debatable.  But he is said to have tried to escape from his father (another tale claims he was trying to impress a local princess – but perhaps there’s an element of truth in both the tales) and was swept into the current.

In 1947, George Orwell was nearly drowned in the Corryvreckan along with his three-year-old son and two companions; only because the currents changed were they able to row away from the danger, sans motor that got eaten by the maelstrom, and were then shipwrecked on an uninhabited rock, with no supplies.  They were rescued by a passing fisherman, and three months later the first draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four was complete.2

1(Source:  Wikipedia)

2 (Source: Taylor, D.J. (2003). Orwell: The Life. London: Chatto & Windus. pp. 385–7)

A Sailor of King George

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Captain Frederick Hoffman, HMS Apelles - 1808

As part of the research I’m conducting for a novel I’m working on, I’ve just finished reading a rip-roaring tale of high adventure – and it’s all true!  Straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were, from an officer and gentleman who saw and survived 45 years in His Majesty’s navy (according to his own reckoning at the end of the tale).  Captain Hoffman, who began as a lowly mid (midshipman), survived yellow fever twice, was a prisoner of war twice, lost the hearing in one ear (and part of the ear), survived countless battles (including Trafalgar), and spent years at a time separated from his family, yet all with a keen eye for detail, and a sailor’s knack for conveying what he saw with humour and a vivid imagination.  He had a tongue-in-cheek writing style, and I found myself laughing many a time at his gentlemanly wording of euphemisms, such as when they attacked an enemy vessel and boarded her: “She (the ship) received us as warmly as if she had known us for years. I took the liberty of shooting a man in her main rigging who was inclined to do me the same kind office, had I not saved him the trouble.”

He also had an amazing repertoire of similes, and here are just a few:

  • “don’t be after splicing yourself (getting married) until you have a commission, and if you do then, you will have as much business with a wife as a cow has with a side pocket…”
  • “I walked the deck as surly as a bear with the Caledonian rash.”
  • “…(sitting) on the back of an animal as obstinate as a boat’s crew…”
  • …”we were as helpless as a cow in a jolly-boat…” (due to being short-handed)
  • “We were drifting like a pig upon a grating, and as helpless as a sucking shrimp…”
  • “My mind was like a coal-barge in a waterspout when I heard…”
  • “…his eyes glistening like a Cornish diamond…”
  • “Our prizes (ships captured, to be sold for prize money) made their eyes shine like a dollar in a bucket of water, and their mouths water like a sick monkey’s eyes with a violent influenza.”
  • “…we daylighted the anchor, mastheaded the sails, crested the briny wave like a Yankee sea-serpent…”
HMS Apelles

HMS Apelles; Illustration from the book.

Captain Hoffman was commander of several vessels, including the HMS Apelles; Wikipedia has an interesting article regarding the fate of that particular ship; Hoffman was taken prisoner as a consequence of his gallant actions, and spent over two years as a POW in France; Bonaparte refused the usual gentleman’s agreement of prisoner exchange, leaving men to languish in prisons until he was defeated and deposed (for the first time, in April 1814).

This gem of a book can be found free of charge at Gutenberg.org, and I would highly recommend reading it if you have any interest in military history, natural history, or social history, or just love a good tale – Hoffman covers it all!

 

The Bloody Battle of Towton

Towton Battle Skull

A Towton Battle victim, with multiple head wounds. Credit: Bradford University

Towton BattleImagine a battle so vicious that opposing sides agreed to a time-out to drag bodies out of the way to better facilitate killing each other.  Not just killing, but slaughtering, butchering; some of the skeletons found at the battlefield of Towton, England, have as many as 20 injuries to the skulls.  Some skulls have been sliced in half, or pierced with a square spearhead, or both; noses chopped off, eyes gouged out, ears removed.  The battle occurred on 29 March 1461, and within 12 hours, from dawn to dusk, 28,000 men would lose their lives in brutal deaths, hacked to death and beyond.  That’s an average of 2,333 an hour.  The figure of 28,000 is disputed, however; though it appeared in letters from Edward VI and the Bishop of Salisbury, other contemporary sources gave the figures ranging between 30,000 to 38,000, while the 16th century chronicler Edward Hall gave the exact figure of 36,776.  Why was it so vicious?  It was a decisive battle in the War of the Roses (1455–1487), between the opposing forces of the Lancastrians and the Yorkists; it was north against south; the Lancastrians were the strong arm of King Henry VI, and the Yorkists, that of 18-year-old Edward IV, who would go on to win the battle and claim the English throne.  At the time of the battle, the War of Roses had been going on for six years, and nerves were raw – they just wanted it to end.  Little did they know that it would continue for another 26 years… in other words, two generations (reckoning in shorter life spans) of young men would rise and fall in the War of Roses, and the Battle of Towton was one of the largest, if not the largest, battle fought on English soil.

Sources:  BBC; Wikipedia; University of York.

The Lions of MGM

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or getting your popcorn and drinks during the opening moments of every film you’ve ever seen, chances are you’ve seen the famous MGM lion roaring his way into your movie experience.  But I bet you didn’t know they’ve used several lions over the years, and that they each had a name; the one most of us know is Leo, who’s been used on most films since 1957.  Click on the photo below to see the whole article at Wikipedia!

Cameramen recording the lion roar for the MGM logo

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