March 1, 1692 The Conduct of Public Affairs for Private Advantage

“Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage”. – Ambrose Bierce

On this day in 1692, three residents of Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were charged with the illegal practice of witchcraft.  Twelve-year-old Abigail Williams and ten-year-old Elizabeth Parris were ill with some unknown sickness, and accused the trio of biting and pinching the girls, and poking them with knitting needles.

Massachusetts Governor William Phips established “Courts of Oyer and Terminer” (to hear and determine) to hear the charges.  Sarah Goode, Sarah Osborne, and an Indian slave from Barbados named Tituba, being the first so accused.  Five men and fourteen women were hanged as witches over the following seven months.  As many as 17 more died in the tiny, freezing stone compartments which then passed for jail cells.

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H/T The Crucible. Accused

According to the law of the time, the accused were required to enter a plea.  Guilty or not guilty.  Without such a plea, there could be no trial.  On March 19, 72-year-old Martha Corey was arrested for witchcraft.  Martha’s husband, 81-year-old Giles Cory, was so caught up in the hysteria as to join in the accusations against his wife.  Until he himself was accused.

Martha Corey: “I, sir, am innocent to a witch. I know not what a witch is”.
Judge Hathorne: “If you know not what a witch is, how do you know you are not one?” ~ The Crucible

Corey refused to plead, so he was subjected to the “peine forte et dure”  (French:  “hard and forceful punishment”).  Stripped naked and placed under a board, Corey was tied spread-eagle on is back, his arms and legs secured, by cords.  Stones of increasing size were heaped on top, to extract his plea.  This torture went on for two days, the man given nothing but the “worst bread” on day one, and “standing” water, the following day.

Knowing his possessions would be forfeit to his tormentor in the event of conviction, Corey’s only response was “more weight”.

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Giles Corey’s persecutor was Essex County High Sheriff George Corwin, he who signed warrants for the arrest and execution of those condemned of witchcraft.  It was he who (conveniently) received the belongings, of those so condemned.  In the end, Corwin himself was standing atop the pile of stones, shoving Corey’s tongue back into his mouth, with a cane.

The end came on Monday September 19, around noon.  One witness remembered the old farmer’s last words:  “Damn you. I curse you and Salem!”  Martha Corey was hanged, three days later.

Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage”. – Ambrose Bierce

Even then, George Corwin came after Corey’s adult children, to extort money from the Corey farm.  What a guy.  In 1710, Corey’s daughter Elizabeth and her husband John Moulton filed a lawsuit, seeking damages.  Elizabeth’s statement to the court said, “After our father’s death the sheriff threatened to seize our father’s estate and for fear we complied with him and paid him eleven pound six shillings in money.”

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The hideous nature of Giles Corey’s death did much to cool the ardor, for the persecution of witches.  Governor Phips dissolved the Courts of Oyer and Terminer a month later, around the time his own wife was accused of witchcraft.

Afterward

This George Corwin character must have been some 14-carat SOB but, he would get what he had coming, in the end.  Four years after the witchcraft hysteria of 1692, the High Sheriff died of an apparent heart attack, at the age of 30.  Salem resident Phillip English was accused in the earlier madness, when Corwin seized his property.  English put a lien on the corpse and delayed its burial, until he could be reimbursed.   The lien was eventually satisfied, and the debt paid back.  How long George Corwin was left to rot, is unknown to this writer.

Sometime in the 1830s, the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne added the “W” to his name, distancing himself from his twice-great grandfather and Salem witch trial judge, John Hathorne.  It didn’t do a lick of good for the poor collection of oddballs and outcasts who would not survive the witchcraft hysteria of 1692.

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For three hundred years, nineteen innocents were believed to have been hanged on Gallows Hill.  You can visit Gallows Hill Park if you like, in modern-day Salem.  Today it’s more of a skate park, than historic site.  In 2016, the Gallows Hill Project of Salem State University determined the place to have been Proctor’s Ledge, not Gallows Hill.  It’s an interesting story in itself, for those inclined to read more.  Salem State’s story, is linked above.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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February 13, 1961 A Prehistoric Spark Plug

Winston Churchill once quipped “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”.  Guess he got that right.

Sometime around Easter Sunday, 1900, Captain Dimitrios Kondos set sail from the island of Symi. Kondos and a team of Greek sponge divers worked their way through the Peloponnese, across the Aegean en route to the rich fishing grounds off the coast of North Africa. The team was stopped and waiting for favorable winds off the Greek Island of Antikythera, when some of the divers thought they’d have a look around.

Elias Stadiatis descended some 150-feet, and quickly signaled that he wanted to come back up.  Stadiatis told a wild tale about a rocky bottom, strewn with the rotting corpses and men and horses. Dozens of them.

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Greek sponge divers

The effects of nitrogen narcosis were well understood by this time, that lethally narcotic-like state of drunkenness where deep divers have been known to hand regulators, to fish. Captain Kondos was convinced that Stadiatis was drunk on nitrogen. He donned the canvas suit and brass helmet, and went down to look for himself.

The divers had discovered a 1st-century (BC) shipwreck, a treasure trove of statuary: four marble horses, and thirty-six stone statues including Hercules, Ulysses, Diomedes, Hermes and Apollo.

The most astonishing find from the wreck was a complex clock-like mechanism, believed to be built around 100-200BC and vastly more sophisticated than anything known to have come from antiquity. In more recent years, computer x-ray tomography and high resolution surface scanning have revealed the enormous sophistication of the “Antikythera mechanism“, an analog computer comprising some 37 exquisitely precise gear wheels, enabling the device to follow the moon and sun through the full cycle of the zodiac.

The thing can even recreate the variable velocity of the moon, as the body speeds up through its perigee, and slows through the apogee.

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Antikythera mechanism, recreation

What those Greek sponge divers had discovered was an Out-of-Place Artifact, (OOPArt), an object which called into question, our understanding of what has come before.  OOPArts are artifacts of historical, archaeological, or paleontological interest, evincing a more advanced technology than known to have existed at the time, or even a human (or at least intelligent) hand at a time and place, where none are known to exist.

OOPArts run the gamut from the genuinely surprising to risible hoaxes to the favorites of cryptozoologists, UFOologists, paranormal enthusiasts and proponents of ancient astronaut theories.  Some turn out to be objects of mistaken interpretation, based on little more than wishful thinking.

The Iron Pillar outside the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque in Delhi is believed to date from the fifth century Gupta monarchs of India.  Standing 23-feet, 8-inches and weighing in at 13,000-pounds, the thing is almost entirely free of rust, demonstrating a level of metallurgical proficiency, surprising for the time.

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The “London Hammer” was found in June 1934 near London Texas. It’s a common enough object, except is seems to be embedded, in 400 million year-old rock. Geologist J.R. Cole explains the conundrum:

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London Hammer

“The stone is real, and it looks impressive to someone unfamiliar with geological processes. How could a modern artifact be stuck in Ordovician rock? The answer is that the concretion itself is not Ordovician. Minerals in solution can harden around an intrusive object dropped in a crack or simply left on the ground if the source rock (in this case, reportedly Ordovician) is chemically soluble”.

“Young Earth Creationist” Carl Baugh has other ideas, claiming the object to be a “monumental pre-flood discovery”. You can see the London Hammer and decide for yourself, at the Creation Evidence Museum, in Glen Rose Texas.

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USNS Eltanin photo, 1964

The “Eltanin Antennae” was photographed by the cargo-carrying icebreaker and oceanographic research vessel USNS Eltanin in 1964.  Located on the sea floor off the Antarctic coast, the object lies under 12,808 feet of water.

To many, the object is clearly the result of intelligent life, even extra-terrestrials.  Author Brad Steiger has called it“an astonishing piece of machinery… very much like the cross between a TV antenna and a telemetry antenna“.

Other authorities have identified the object as Chondrocladia concrescens, an unusual carnivorous sponge.

Artist Karl Weingärtner created a mobile phone-style clay tablet for a museum display in 2012, complete with cuneiform script, keypad. Weingärtner posted a photo to his Facebook account, to help sell his art. Some wag dubbed the thing “BabyloNokia”, and it was off to the races. The “Conspiracy Club” website ran the image with the caption: “800-Year-Old Mobile Phone Found In Austria? Check This Out.”

Babylonokia

For the editors at UFO Sighting Daily, the BabyloNokia was proof positive that ancient astronauts had been here. Not to be outdone, the British tabloid Daily Express ran with Weingärtner’s image, claiming the object dated to the 13th century, BC.

Winston Churchill once quipped “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on“.  Guess he got that right.

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A large geode, lined with Amethyst crystals

Wallace Lane, Virginia Maxey and Mike Mikesell liked to prospect for geodes, near the California town of Olancha.

A geode is a hollow stone formation,  containing a secondary lining of crystals or mineral matter.  Geodes form slowly, over geologic time.  There’s no way of knowing what’s inside, until it’s broken or cut, apart.

On this day in 1961, the trio discovered the “Coso Artifact”, a geode containing an unusual object.  A Champion spark plug.

A reader wrote to Desert Magazine, claiming a trained geologist had dated the thing, at 500,000 years old.  The identity of the “trained geologist”, went unsaid.

A number of Pseudoscientific theories arose, to explain the object:

• The spark plug was evidence of an ancient, advanced civilization, possibly proof of the long lost city of Atlantis, itself.
• Prehistoric extraterrestrial visitors came to Earth. How such creatures came to possess a “Champion” spark plug, went unanswered.
• Human time-travelers from the future had left or lost the spark plug, thus proving their visit to the past.

The answer it seems, was more prosaic.  Researchers determined with help from the Spark Plug Collectors of America (who knew?), that this was a 1920s-era Champion spark plug, widely used in the engines of Model T and Model A Fords. The “geode” wasn’t that at all, but the accretion of iron and other minerals, produced as the object rusted in the ground.

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Geologists from the University of Washington Earth and Space Science department were invited to inspect the thing again, just last year. Scientists confirmed the opinion that this was a 1920s-vintage plug but, I don’t know.

Sounds to me like someone’s still betting on the 500,000-year version of the story.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

February 7, 138AD The Highest Paid Athlete, in History (It’s Not who you Think)

Crashes were frequent and spectacular, often killing or maiming driver and horse, alike.  Such wrecks were called naufragia, a Latin word translating as”shipwreck”.  As many as forty chariots crashed in one catastrophic wreck, near Delphi.

For we who are New England sports fans, the Smug™ yet lies heavy on the air, following back to back World Championships for the Boston Red Sox, and New England Patriots.  Having worked for the latter organization forty years ago when the team couldn’t get a game on TV, I have to tell you.  This is a lot more fun.

Another banner year
Most will find this graphic braggadocious, if not obnoxious.  A Chicago Cubs fan, will understand.

The winners of Superbowl LII received $112,000 each for winning the Big Game.  Losing players were paid $56,000, apiece.  Not bad for a single day’s work, but it raises an interesting  question.  Who is the highest paid athlete, of all time?

On December 13, 2017 Forbes Magazine answers as follows:

“The Highest-Paid Athletes of All-Time”

1. Michael Jordan Career earnings: $1.85 billion (2017 dollars)
2. Tiger Woods: $1.7 billion
3. Arnold Palmer: $1.4 billion
4. Jack Nicklaus Career earnings: $1.2 billion
5. Michael Schumacher: $1 billion
6. Phil Mickelson: $815 million
7. (tie) Kobe Bryant: $800 million
7. (tie) David Beckham: $800 million
9. Floyd Mayweather: $785 million
10. Shaquille O’Neal: $735 million

Seems Forbes missed one guy who earned nearly half-again, as the top ten.  Combined.

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The earliest chariots came around some 4,000 years ago, with the invention of the spoke-wheel. As a weapon of war, the use of these open, two-wheeled carriages came to a peak in 1300BC, around the Battle of Kadesh. Chariots lost their military importance as horses were bred to become bigger and stronger, able to carry a rider in the control position. The vehicle was gone as a weapon of war by the 1st century AD, but chariot races remained popular in Byzantine times, until the 6th century.

Chariot_spreadChariots go back to the earliest days of the Roman Republic, coming down from the ancient Greeks, by way of the Etruscan empire. The mythical abduction of the Sabine women was carried out, while the Sabine men watched a chariot race. While Romans never used them as weapons of war, chariots were used in triumphal processions, pulled by teams of horses, dogs, tigers and even ostriches.

It was the racetrack, the circus,  where the sport of chariot racing put the Fanatic in fans.  None greater, than the Circus Maximus.

What the Greeks saw as an opportunity for talented amateurs to rise within their chosen sport, the Romans regarded as entertainment.  A class of professional drivers, rose to meet the demand.  There were four teams or “factions” (factiones), distinguished by the color of their outfit:  Red, Blue, Green and White.

666a2787d4e5f542a91e5218309cc586Modern sport has seen its share of fan passion rising to violence, but the worst “soccer hooligan” fades to docility, compared with the crowd come to watch the chariot races.  In the year 69, Emperor Vitellius had commoners put to death for talking trash about the Blue faction.  Ten years later, a fan threw himself on the funeral pyre, of his favorite driver.  The week-long outbreak of violence known as the Nika Riots of 532 cost the lives of some 30,000 spectators.  It all started, over a chariot race.

Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, home of Super Bowl LIII, has a rated capacity of 71,000 spectators, expandable to 75,000.  The Circus Maximus measured 2,037-feet long by 387-feet wide and seated as many as a quarter-million.  Come race day, the city was all but deserted.

Twelve chariots would enter each race, three from each faction.  Golden-tipped dolphins were tipped over, to count the laps.  Each race ran seven.

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A raised median called a spina ran down the center, adorned with stone statuary and obelisks.  Ganging up to drive opposing handlers into the stone median or the stands, whipping opponents and even hauling them out of their chariots  was not only permitted, it was encouraged.

Tales of poisoned horses and drivers were not unheard of.  Lead tablets and amulets were inscribed with curses, spiked through with nails and thrown from the stands.  One such curse reads:

I call upon you, oh demon, whoever you are, to ask that from this hour, from this day, from this moment, you torture and kill the horses of the green and white factions and that you kill and crush completely the drivers Calrice, Felix, Primulus, and Romanus, and that you leave not a breath in their bodies.

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Racing chariots were as light as possible and extremely flimsy, to increase speed.  With no suspension, even a bump could throw a driver into the path of oncoming teams.  Clogs were built into lattice floors, to hold the driver’s feet.  Teams of two (biga), three (triga) and four (quadriga) horses were common, but teams as large as six were not unheard of.  Though it was rare, ten-horse teams were known to take the field.

While Greek drivers held the reins in their hands, Roman charioteers wrapped them around the waist.  Unsurprisingly, any driver thrown out would be dragged to death or trampled, unless able to cut himself free.

Crashes were frequent and spectacular, often killing or maiming driver and horse, alike.  Such wrecks were called naufragia, a Latin word translating as”shipwreck”.  As many as forty chariots crashed in one catastrophic wreck, near Delphi.

Roman Chariot Race

It is often said to “Beware the old man in a land where men die young“.  The Roman countryside was dotted with the graves of twenty-year old chariot drivers.  Yet, on this day in 138, the Spanish driver Gaius Appuleius Diocles was only midway through a 24-year career, spanning 4,257 races.     He won 1,462 of them and placed in another 1,438.

Diocles wasn’t the “winningest” driver in Rome, though he did own an extremely rare ducenarius, a horse which had won at least 200 races.  Flavius Scorpus scored 2,048 victories before being killed in a wreck at the age of twenty-seven.   Pompeius Muscosus won 3,559.  Diocles was the master of the “come from behind” victory.  Crowds loved it.  In his 24 years, Diocles went from White to Green to Red factions amassing an impressive 35,863,120 sesterces, over the course of a long career.

It was enough to keep the entire city of Rome in grain for a year, equivalent to $15 Billion, today.  Not bad for a guy whose name indicates he probably started out a slave, freed by a guy named Gaius Appuleius.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 28, 1942 The Mighty 8th Air force

On this seventy-seventh birthday of the Mighty 8th Air Force, we can all thank a teacher, that we are able to read this story. We can thank a Veteran, that we can read it in English.

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia.

The invasion of Poland brought France and Great Britain in on the side of their ally, in 1939.  Ground forces of the United Kingdom were shattered the following year, along with those of her French, Indian, Moroccan, Belgian, Canadian and Dutch allies.

The hastily assembled fleet of 933 vessels large and small were all that stood between salvation, and unmitigated disaster.  338,226 soldiers were rescued from the beaches of France.  Defeated, all but disarmed yet still unbeaten, these would live to fight another day.

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Dunkirk

In 1940, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation.  The island nation of Great Britain stood alone and unconquered, defiant in the face of the Nazi war machine.  In Germany, street decorations were prepared for victory parades, as plans were laid for “Operation Sea Lion”, the planned invasion of Great Britain and final destruction of the British Isles.

After the allied armies were hurled from the beaches of Dunkirk, Hitler seemed to feel he had little to do but “mop up”.   Luftwaffe commander-in-chief Hermann Göring convinced Der Fuhrer that aircraft alone could do the job.

Hitler approved, and turned his attention to the surprise attack on his “ally” to the East. The “Battle of Britain” had begun.

Two days in August 1940 saw 3,275 sorties against the British home isles, with only 120 aircraft lost to the German side.  A single Junkers 88 or Heinkel 111 bomber carried 5,510-pounds of bombs.

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The wrath of the Luftwaffe was spent by the end of October, Operation sea Lion postponed again and again.  Great Britain would fight on alone, but for the shattered remnants of formerly allied powers, for another year and one-half.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill captured the spirit of the period as only he could, when he said: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.

Battle of Britain

Hitler would turn his his back and launch “Operation Barbarossa” in June, 1941.  The surprise invasion of the Soviet Union.

Under the terms of the tripartite pact with Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany was obliged to render aid in the event that either ally was attacked. On December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on the US naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, Ambassador Hiroshi Ōshima came to German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, looking for  a commitment of support.

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Crewman, Mighty 8th

Ribbentrop balked.  With their ally having been the aggressor, Germany was under no obligation to intervene.  Adolf Hitler thought otherwise. Hitler detested Roosevelt, and thought it was just a matter of time before the two powers were at war. He might as well beat the American President to the punch.

At 9:30am Washington time on December 11, German Chargé d’Affaires Hans Thomsen handed a note to American Secretary of State Cordell Hull. For the second time in the diplomatic history of the United States and Germany, the two nations were in a state of war.

Half a world away, one man went to bed to sleep the “sleep of the saved and thankful”.

“Silly people, and there were many, not only in enemy countries, might discount the force of the United States… But I had studied the American Civil War, fought out to the last desperate inch. American blood flowed in my veins. I thought of a remark which Edward Grey had made to me more than thirty years before—that the United States is like ‘a gigantic boiler’. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.  Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful”. – Prime Minister Winston Churchill

8thaf-shoulder-patch48 days later, at Hunter Field in Savannah, Georgia, the Eighth Bomber Command was activated as part of the United States Army Air Forces. It was January 28, 1942.

The 8th was intended to support operation “Super Gymnast”, the invasion of what was then French North Africa.  Super Gymnast was canceled in April.  By May, the 8th Bomber Command had moved headquarters to a former girls’ school in High Wycombe, England, from where it conducted the strategic bombing campaign against Nazi Germany.

thndbrdRe-designated the Eighth Air Force on February 22, 1944, at its peak the “Mighty Eighth” could dispatch over 2,000 four engine bombers and more than 1,000 fighters on a single mission. 350,000 people served in the 8th Air Force during the war in Europe, with 200,000 at its peak in 1944.

By 1945, the Wehrmacht could tell itself a new joke:  “When we see a silver plane, it’s American. A black plane, it’s British. When we see no plane, it’s German”.  American aviation paid a heavy price for this little bit of black humor.

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Half of US Army Air Force casualties in World War II were suffered by the 8th, over 47,000 casualties, with more than 26,000 killed. By war’s end, 8th Air Force personnel were awarded 17 Medals of Honor, 220 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 442,000 Air Medals. There were 261 fighter aces in the 8th, 31 of whom scored 15 or more confirmed kills.  305 gunners were also recognized, as aces.

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Following the allied victory in Europe, 8th AF Headquarters was reassigned to Sakugawa (Kadena Airfield), Okinawa, under the command of Lieutenant General James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle.  Tasked with organizing and training new bomber groups for the planned invasion of Japan, the 8th received its first B-29 Superfortress on August 8.  Seven days later, the atomic bomb had ended the war in the Pacific.

With the onset of the jet age and the “Cold War” at it height, the 8th Air Force moved to Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts on June 13, 1955, the second of three Numbered Air Force groups of the newly constituted Strategic Air Command (SAC).

Since that time, the Mighty 8th has been called on to perform combat missions from Southeast Asia to the Middle East to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, flying out of its current headquarters at Barksdale Air Force Base, in Louisiana.

If you’re ever in Savannah, do yourself a favor and pay a visit to the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force (http://www.mightyeighth.org/). Not only will you experience an incredible story well told, but you will meet some 90+ year old veterans who walk as straight and tall today as they did, seventy years ago.

Happy Birthday, Mighty Eighth.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

February 5, AD 62, The lost City of Pompeii

Most were killed where they stood in the pyroclastic surge, that ground-hugging pressure wave seen in test films of nuclear explosions.  Gasses and pulverized stone dust race outward at 400 MPH in the “base surge” phase, super-heated to 1000° Fahrenheit, instantaneously converting all bodily fluids, to steam.

On February 5 in the year AD 62, an earthquake estimated at 7.5 on the Richter scale shook the Bay of Naples, spawning a tsunami and leveling much of the coastal Italian towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and surrounding communities.

Massive though the damage had been, the region around Mt. Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples had long been a favorite vacation destination for the upper crust of Roman society, with crowds of tourists and slaves adding to some ten to twenty thousand townspeople, bustling in and out of the city’s bath houses, artisans’ shops, taverns and brothels.

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Reconstruction began almost immediately and continued for the next seventeen years.  Until that day, the world came to an end.

Long dormant and believed extinct, nearby Mount Vesuvius had been quiet for hundreds of years.  The mountain erupted on August 24 in the year 79,  propelling a scorching plume of ash, pumice and super-heated volcanic gases so high as to be seen for hundreds of miles.

The Melbourne Museum has created a stunning, eight-minute animation, of the event.

For the next eighteen hours, the air was thick with hot, poisonous gases, as volcanic ash rained down with pumice stones the size of baseballs.  No one who stayed behind stood a chance, nor did countless animals, both wild and domestic.

Most were killed where they stood in the pyroclastic surge, that ground-hugging pressure wave seen in test films of nuclear explosions.  Gasses and pulverized stone dust race outward at 400 MPH in the “base surge” phase, super-heated to 1000° Fahrenheit, instantaneously converting all bodily fluids, to steam.

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The victims of Mt. Vesuvius’ wrath left their imprints in the ash and rock which would be their tomb.  2,000 years later, remarkably life-like plaster casts, depict the final moments of these unfortunate men, women and children.

For those left alive, the suffocating, poisonous clouds of vapor and rock dust pouring into the city, soon  put and end to all that remained.  Imagine putting your head in a bag of cement, with someone pounding the sides.  Walls collapsed and roofs caved in, burying the dead under fourteen feet or more of ash, rock and dust. Neither Herculaneum, Pompeii nor their surrounding communities would see the light of day, for nearly two thousand years.

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Today, we remember the Roman author, naturalist and military commander Gaius Plinius “Pliny’ Secundus for his work Naturalis Historia (Natural History). We see his work in the editorial model of the modern encyclopedia.

With the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum already destroyed, Pliny raced to the port of Stabiae some 4½km to the southwest, to rescue a friend and his family. The sixth and largest pyroclastic surge trapped his ship in port, killing the author and everyone in the vicinity. That we have an eyewitness to the event is thanks to two letters written by Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (Pliny the Younger), Pliny’s nephew and a man he had helped to raise, from boyhood.

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Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum

Property owners and thieves returned over time to retrieve such valuables as statues. The words “house dug” can still be found, scrawled on the walls.  And then the place was forgotten, for fifteen hundred years.

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An underground channel was dug in 1562 to redirect waters from the river Samo, when workers ran into city walls.  The architect Domenico Fontana was called in and further excavation revealed any number of paintings and frescoes, but there was a problem.

According to the Annus Mirabilis written by English poet Philip Larkin, sex was invented in the British Isles, in 1963.

“…So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP…”

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Pompeian artwork ranges from the merely hedonistic, to the pornographic

The ancients seem to have been somewhat less, “uptight”.   Life in Pompeii was nothing if not hedonistic.  The place has been described by some, as the “red-light district” of antiquity.  I’m not sure about that, but the erotic art of Pompeii and Herculaneum were WAY too much for counter reformation-era sensibilities.  The place was quietly covered up and forgotten, for another two hundred years.

Pompeii was first excavated in earnest in 1748, but it took another hundred years for archaeologists’ findings to be cataloged, and brought to museums.  In 1863, archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli realized that occasional voids in the ash layer were left by the long since decomposed bodies of the doomed victims, of Vesuvius.

A technique was developed of injecting plaster.  Today we can see them in excruciating detail, exactly where they fell.  Men, women and children, the dogs, even the fresh-baked bread, left out on the counter to cool.

Today you can tour the lost city of Pompeii, from the baths to the forum, to the Lupanar Grande, where the prostitutes of Pompeii once “entertained” clients.  Ongoing excavation is all but a race with time, between uncovering what remains, and preserving what is.  Walls surrounding the “House of the Moralist” collapsed in 2010, so-called because its wealthy wine merchant owners posted rules of behavior, for guests to follow: “Do not have lustful expressions and flirtatious eyes for another man’s wife“.

Heavy rains were blamed for the collapse of the Schola Armatorium in 2010, the House of the Gladiators.  Fierce recriminations have followed and doubt has been cast on local authorities’ abilities, to properly preserve what has become a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Be that as it may, 2,000-year-old buildings do not come along every day.  There is no replacement for antiquity.

Pompeii_Forum

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 1, 45 BC Happy New Year

A time ball is a marine time signaling device, a large painted ball which is dropped at a predetermined rate, enabling mariners to synchronize shipboard marine chronometers for purposes of navigation. The first one was built in 1829 in Portsmouth, England, by Robert Wauchope, a Captain in the Royal Navy. Time balls were obsolete technology by the 20th century, but it fit the Times’ purposes.

From the 7th century BC, the Roman calendar attempted to follow the cycles of the moon. The method frequently fell out of phase with the change of seasons, requiring the random addition of days. The Pontifices, the Roman body charged with overseeing the calendar, made matters worse. They were known to add days to extend political terms, and to interfere with elections. Military campaigns were won or lost due to confusion over dates. By the time of Julius Caesar, things needed to change.

When Caesar went to Egypt in 48BC, he was impressed with the way the Egyptians handled their calendar. Caesar hired the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to help straighten things out. The astronomer calculated that a proper year was 365¼ days, which more accurately tracked the solar, and not the lunar year. “Do like the Egyptians”, he might have said, the new “Julian” calendar going into effect in 46BC. Caesar decreed that 67 days be added that year, moving the New Year’s start from March to January 1. The first new year of the new calendar was January 1, 45BC.

Caesar synchronized his calendar with the sun by adding a day to every February, and changed the name of the seventh month from Quintilis to Julius, to honor himself. Rank hath its privileges.

Not to be outdone, Caesar’s successor changed the 8th month from Sextilis to Augustus. As we embark on the third millennium, we still have July and August.

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Roman Calendar

Sosigenes was close with his 365¼ day long year, but not quite there. The correct value of a solar year is 365.242199 days. By the year 1000, that 11 minute error had added seven days. To fix the problem, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius to come up with yet another calendar. The Gregorian calendar was implemented in 1582, omitting ten days and adding a day on every fourth February.

Most of the non-Catholic world took 170 years to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Britain and its American colonies “lost” 11 days synchronizing with it in 1752. The last holdout, Greece, would formally adopt the Gregorian calendar in 1923. Since then, we’ve all gathered to celebrate New Year’s Day on the 1st of January.

The NY Times Newspaper moved into “Longacre Square” just after the turn of the 20th century. For years, New Years’ eve celebrations had been held at Trinity Church. Times owner Adolph Ochs held his first fireworks celebration on December 31, 1903, with almost 200,000 people attending the event. Four years later, Ochs wanted a bigger spectacle to draw attention to the newly renamed Times Square. He asked the newspaper’s chief electrician, Walter F. Painer for an idea. Painer suggested a time ball.

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A time ball is a marine time signaling device, a large painted ball which is dropped at a predetermined rate, enabling mariners to synchronize shipboard marine chronometers for purposes of navigation. The first one was built in 1829 in Portsmouth, England, by Robert Wauchope, a Captain in the Royal Navy. Time balls were obsolete technology by the 20th century, but it fit the Times’ purposes.

The Artkraft Strauss sign company designed a 5′ wide, 700lb ball covered with incandescent bulbs. The ball was hoist up the flagpole by five men on December 31, 1907. Once it hit the roof of the building, the ball completed an electric circuit, lighting up a sign and touching off a fireworks display.

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The newspaper no longer occupies the building at 1 Times Square, but the tradition continues. The ball used the last few years is 12′ wide, weighing 11,875lbs; a great sphere of 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles, illuminated by 32,256 Philips Luxeon Rebel LED bulbs and producing more than 16 million colors. It used to be that the ball only came out for New Year. The last few years, you can see the thing, any time you like.

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In most English speaking countries, the traditional New Year’s celebration ends with the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”, a poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of an old pentatonic Scots folk melody. The original verse, phonetically spelled as a Scots speaker would pronounce it, sounds something like this:

“Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an nivir brocht ti mynd?
Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an ald lang syn?
CHORUS
“Fir ald lang syn, ma jo, fir ald lang syn,
wil tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn.
An sheerly yil bee yur pynt-staup! an sheerly al bee myn!
An will tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn”.
“We twa hay rin aboot the braes, an pood the gowans fyn;
Bit weev wandert monae a weery fet, sin ald lang syn”.
CHORUS
“We twa hay pedilt in the burn, fray mornin sun til dyn;
But seas between us bred hay roard sin ald lang syn”.
CHORUS
“An thers a han, my trustee feer! an gees a han o thyn!
And we’ll tak a richt gude-willie-waucht, fir ald lang syn”.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.  Happy New Year

December 21, 2012 The Apocalypse is Postponed

There have been no fewer than 207 End-of-the-World predictions over the last 2,000 years.

During the recent past, one of the sillier bits of pop culture nonsense served up to us, may be that time the world came to an end on December 21, 2012.

It was the Mayan Apocalypse. A day of giant solar flares, when the planets aligned to cause massive tidal catastrophe, and the Earth collided with the imaginary planet Nibiru.  Over in China, Lu Zhenghai even built himself an Ark. Sort of.

If I’d only been smart enough back then, to sell survival kits.

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Lu Zhenghai’s ark, 2012. H/T Huffpo

End-of-the-world scenarios are nothing new. In 1806, the “Prophet Hen of Leeds” was laying eggs, inscribed with the message “Christ is coming”. It was the end of times.  The Judgement Day cometh.

The story, as told in the book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” written by Scottish author Charles Mackay in 1841, tells the story of a “panic[ked] terror”, when a “great number of visitors” traveled from far and near, to peer at the chicken Nostradamus.

befunky_21639Turns out that Mary Bateman, the bird’s owner and a serial fraudster, was writing these messages with some kind of “corrosive ink”, maybe an acid, and reinserting them into the poor chicken. The “Yorkshire Witch” met her end on a gibbet, hanged for the poisoned pudding she gave that couple to relieve their chest pain.  But I digress.

If you were around in 1986, you may remember the great excitement, concerning  the return of Halley’s Comet. The celestial body only comes around once every 76 years and, the time before that, it was the end of the world. In 1910, the New York Times reported the discovery of the deadly poison cyanogen, in the comet’s tail. French astronomer Camille Flammarion predicted the gas would “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.”

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French postcard, 1910

Hucksters sold comet pills. Doomsayers claimed that massive tides would cause the Pacific to empty, into the Atlantic. Finally, the end of days arrived. May 20, 1910.  And then it went.  There was no end of the world though, tragically, 16-year-old Amy Hopkins fell to her death from a rooftop, while awaiting the comet.

There have been no fewer than 207 End-of-the-World predictions over the last 2,000 years, if Wikipedia is any source. Polls conducted in 2012 across twenty countries revealed percentages from 6% in France to 22% in the United States and Turkey, believing the world would come to an end, in their lifetimes.

MayanCalendar-300x3005,000 years ago, the Mayan civilization of modern-day Mexico and Central America developed a sophisticated calendar, working with a base numerical system of 20.

It was three calendars, really. The “Long Count” was mainly used for historical purposes, able to specify any date within a 2,880,000 day cycle. The Haab was a civil calendar, consisting of 18 months of 20 days, and an “Uayeb” of five days. The Tzolkin was the “divine” calendar, used mainly for ceremonial and religious purposes. Consisting of 20 periods of 13 days, the Tzolkin goes through a complete cycle every 260 days. The significance of this cycle is unknown, though it may be connected with the 263-day orbit of Venus. There is no year in the Haab or Tzolkin calendars, though the two can be combined to specify a particular day within a 52-year cycle.

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Get it? Neither do I.  Suffice it to say that the world of the Mayan Gods lasted 5,125 years and 133 days, a period of time known as 13 b’ak’tun.

The last Long Count began in August 3114 BC.  Counting forward, scholars decided on December 21, 2012, as the end of the cycle.

An estimated 2% of the American public believed this betokened the end of the world. Online searches went up for one-way flights to Turkey and the South of France, both of which were rumored to be safe havens from the apocalypse.

They should have asked a Mayan, who may have been amused by all those crazy Gringos.  The world wasn’t coming to an end.  The calendar just rolls over and begins again at “Zero”, like the old odometers that only went up to 100,000 miles.  What a party that could have been, though.  The “New Year” to end all New Years.  Only comes around once every 5,125 years, plus 133 days.  Happy Long Count.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.