November 20, 1984 The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence

“The feeling is constantly growing on me, that I had been the first to hear the greeting of one planet to another.” Nikola Tesla, 1901

In the 5th century BC, the Greek philosopher Democritus taught that the world was made of atoms. Physically indestructible and always in motion, these atoms are infinite in number, differing only in shape and size. Democritus taught that everything around us is the result of physical laws without reason or purpose, the only question to be answered, “What circumstances caused this event?

Philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates took a less mechanistic approach, asking “What purpose did this event serve?” Plato disliked Democritus so much that he wanted to burn all his books.

The prevailing view throughout antiquity was that our planet is special.  That we are alone in the cosmos. Democritus believed there were infinite numbers of worlds such as our own, with inhabitants like ourselves.

The 13th-century Paisley Abbey in Scotland, had its deteriorating gargoyles refurbished in the 1990s. One of their stonemasons was clearly, an Alien fan

In the time of Copernicus, it was widely believed that there was life on other planets. Astronomers saw several features of the moon as evidence, if not of life, then at least that intelligent life had once paid a visit.

Interest in Mars began to develop in the 1870s, when the Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli described physical features of the red planet as “canali”. The word means “channels” in Italian, but it was mis-translated as “canals”. The English speaking world was off to the races.

Speculation and folklore about intelligent life on Mars was soon replaced by the popular near-certainty, that canals were excavated by Martians.

The idea was near-universal by the turn of the century.  In 1900, the French Academy of Science offered a prize of 100,000 francs to the first person to make contact with an alien civilization. Provided that it was anything but Martian. That would have been too easy.

In 1901, Nikola Tesla believed he had picked up electrical disturbances “with such a clear suggestion of number and order”, they could only be signals from Mars. “The feeling is constantly growing on me,” Tesla said, “that I had been the first to hear the greeting of one planet to another. A purpose was behind these electrical signals.”

Guglielmo Marconi said essentially the same in 1919, commenting about “queer sounds and indications, which might come from somewhere outside the earth.”


In 1924, the idea was put to the test. American astronomer David Peck Todd believed that martians might well attempt to communicate on the day the two bodies were in closest proximity on August 21, 1924.  The date became “National Radio Silence Day”. Americans were urged to observe “radio silence” for the first five minutes of every hour, while a radio receiver at the U.S. Naval Observatory, two miles aloft on board a dirigible, listened for the signal that never came.

The British author H. G. Wells wrote the War of the Worlds in 1897, telling the story of an alien earth invasion by Martians fleeing the desiccation of their own planet. The story was adapted to a radio drama broadcast on Halloween, 1938, a production so realistic that many listeners sued the network for “mental anguish” and “personal injury”.

The idea of life on Mars persisted until the 1960s, when close observations of the Martian surface were made possible by the Mariner series of spacecraft.

SETI_Logotype_RGB_reduced_resWhile much of “mainstream” science seems to steer clear of the subject, the University of California at Berkeley jumped in with both feet on this day in 1984, founding the SETI Institute for the “sharing [of] knowledge as scientific ambassadors to the public, the press, and the government”.

The Berkeley SETI Research Center conducts a number of search operations at various wavelengths from radio through infrared spectrum and visible light, including:

SERENDIP: Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations
SEVENDIP: Search for Extraterrestrial Visible Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations
NIROSETI: Near-InfraRed Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
Breakthrough Listen:  Launched with $100 million in funding in 2016, it is “the most comprehensive search for alien communications to date.”
SETI@home:  A “scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”

The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in Green Bank, West Virginia is only one such installation put to use for project Breakthrough Listen, begun in 2016 as “the most comprehensive search for alien communications to date.”

Launched on May 17, 1999 with a worldwide objective of 50,000-100,000 home computers, to date more than 5.2 million SETI@home users have logged over two million years of aggregate computing time. Since the introduction of the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, or “BOINC” (I didn’t make that up), SETI@home users can even compete with one another, to see who can process the most “work units”.

You, too can participate at, on your Windows, Apple or Network PC, or your Sony PlayStation 3.  Don’t try it at work though, an act known as “Borging”.   You might not be “assimilated”, but you will get fired.

Let me know if you make contact.



October 29, 202 B.C., The Great Anxiety of the Romans

Hannibal met the Roman General Publius Cornelius Scipio on October 19, 202 B.C. near the town of Zama, in modern-day Tunisia.  Scipio had barely escaped Cannae with his life, but he had learned his lessons, well.  On this day at Zama, Hannibal was defeated by his own tactics. 

In 814 B.C., Phoenician settlers left their homeland on the coast of modern Lebanon, establishing colonial port cities along the Mediterranean coast. They built safe harbors for their merchant fleets in what is now Morocco, Algeria, Spain and Libya, among others. The largest such port city they built on the North African Gulf coast of Tunis, calling the place “Carthage”, meaning “New City”.

According to legend, the orphaned twin sons of Rhea Silvia and Mars, the god of war, were suckled by a she-wolf on the Italian Peninsula, 61 years later. Their names were Romulus and Remus. They would found a city on the site of their salvation, a city which would come to be called Rome.

Phoenician alphabet

Carthage and Rome coexisted for hundreds of years, forming a relationship mostly based on trade. Carthaginian traders were famed in Classical Greece and Rome as ‘traders in purple’, referring to the near-monopoly in the precious Royal Purple dye derived from the Murex snail.

They’re known for the first “abjad”, (consonant based writing system) to gain widespread usage, the first fully developed Phoenician script dating back to the mid-11th century, BC.  The Phoenician alphabet, conventionally known as the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, is antecedent to nearly all modern phonetic alphabets in use today.

As Rome and Carthage became centers of political power and influence, it was inevitable that the two would clash. Carthage held undisputed mastery of the seas in the third century BC, while the rapid expansion of the Roman Republic brought them into conflict in Sicily, at that time partly under Carthaginian control.

Roman Corvus

The first of three Punic Wars, from Punicus (latin: of or relating to Carthage), began in 264BC. At the time, the Roman Legions were the most powerful land army in the region, while having little to oppose Carthage, at sea.

The Roman introduction of the Corvus, a gangway with heavy spike mounted to the underside, allowed the Romans to convert sea battles onto their own “turf”, as Roman soldiers boarded enemy ships and defeated crews in hand to hand combat. The first Punic war was over by 241 B.C., with Carthage paying heavy indemnities and ceding much of its western Mediterranean territory.

Carthage rebuilt its finances in the following years, expanding its colonial empire in Spain under the warlike Barcid family. There were several trade agreements between Rome and Carthage, even a mutual alliance against King Pyrrhus of Epirus, while Hamilcar Barca, Strategus (Military governor) of Iberia, expanded influence on the southeastern Iberian Peninsula, near what is now Cartagena (“New Carthage”), Spain.

Roman-era Carthage

Eight years earlier, Hamilcar Barca made his then 12-year-old son Hannibal swear undying hatred of the Romans. In 219 B.C., Rome and Carthage found themselves in conflict over the Roman protectorate of Saguntum, in modern Spain. The Roman senate demanded that Carthage hand over Hannibal.  The Carthaginian oligarchy refused. In 218 B.C., Rome declared war.

Young Hannibal swearing revenge against Rome, by Giovanni Battista Pittoni

No longer a maritime power, Hannibal set out in the spring of 218 B.C., crossing into hostile Gaul (France) and arriving at the Rhône River in September with 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and 37 war elephants. Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps that winter is one of the great feats of military history, and cost him nearly half of his force before entering Italy, that December.

The first of several major battles took place on December 18, 218 B.C. on the banks of the Trebia River. The Roman General, consul Tiberius Sempronius Longus allowed himself to be drawn into a trap and crushed. Two legions were victorious on their part of the battlefield and retreated with honor to the Province of Piacenza but, overall, Trebia was a resounding defeat for the Roman military.

The army of Hannibal was near invincible, defeating Roman legions in one major engagement after another.  Trebia, Lake Trasimene:  for sixteen years it was virtually unbeatable, devastating the Italian countryside as Rome drafted one army after another, only to be crushed, yet again.  The annihilation of Roman forces at Cannae of August 2, 216, is studied by military tacticians, to this day.


Meanwhile, Carthage itself was politically divided. Hannibal never did receive significant support from home, save for his own brother Hasdrubal, whom he summoned to join him Italy, in 209 B.C.  Hasdrubal repeated Hannibal’s feat of ten years earlier, crossing the Alps with war elephants and all, but the brothers’ reunification was never meant to be.  Hasdrubal Barca was defeated and slain in 207 B.C. near the River Metaurus, his dismembered head thrown in a sack and tossed into the camp of his brother.

It was the decisive turning point, in the second Punic War.

In the end, the General who had laid waste to the Italian peninsula was summoned to defend his homeland in North Africa.  Hannibal met the Roman General Publius Cornelius Scipio on October 19, 202 B.C. near the town of Zama, in modern-day Tunisia.  Scipio had barely escaped Cannae with his life, but he had learned his lessons, well.  On this day at Zama, Hannibal was defeated by his own tactics.  The Roman victory was decisive, ending the second Punic war under humiliating terms for Carthage.  Scipio returned to Rome triumphant, henceforward and forever to be known by the honorific, “Africanus”.


The third Punic War saw the Romans besiege Carthage itself. The city didn’t have a chance. Thousands of Carthaginians were slaughtered as the city fell in 146 B.C. The rest, as many as 70,000, were sold into slavery.  Legend has it that the ground was sewn with salt, that nothing would grow there, ever again.

Hannibal went into Carthaginian politics in the wake of the second Roman war, instituting elections for military judges and changing terms of office from life, to two years. Carthage was a thoroughly defeated power at this time, but Hannibal remained the bogey man, whom the Roman psyche could not let go.  Roman mothers told misbehaving children that Hannibal would come and get them, if they didn’t behave.  Statesman Marcus Porcius Cato, “Cato the Elder”, would end his every speech with the words “Ceterum autem censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” (“Furthermore, I consider that Carthage must be destroyed”). The sentiment is often abbreviated to “Carthago delenda est” . “Carthage must be destroyed”.

Carthago Delenda Est

Hannibal retired from politics in 195 B.C., in response to Roman concerns of his growing influence.  He journeyed first to Tyre, the mother city of Carthage, before traveling on to Antioch and later Ephesus, in modern day Turkey.  There he became military adviser and continued to clash with Roman allies, but would never threaten the Republic, as once he had done.

The Romans demanded that their old nemesis be turned over somewhere around 183 B.C., as Hannibal fled from one city to another, to escape his pursuers. Unwilling to be paraded through Rome in a cage, he poisoned himself and died sometime around 181 B.C. In a letter found after his death, Hannibal had written “Let us relieve the great anxiety of the Romans, who have found it too heavy a task to wait for the death of a hated old man”.

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.

October 18, 63 B.C. The Catiline Conspiracy

The outcome of the battle was never in doubt yet, when the bodies were sorted out, the traitor and his last loyal few had received their mortal wounds, in the front. 

Ever since the overthrow of the Roman Monarchy in 509BC, Rome governed itself as a Republic.  The government was headed by two consuls, elected by the citizens to one-year terms and advised by a Senate.  The Republic operated on the principle of a separation of powers with checks and balances, and a strong aversion to the concentration of power.  Except in times of national emergency, no single individual was allowed to wield absolute power over his fellow citizens.

(pic - Story) Forum - From Arch of SeptimusA series of civil wars and other events took place during the first century B.C., ending the Republican period and leaving in its wake an Imperium, best remembered for its long line of dictators.

Lucius Sergius Catilina was a Roman Senator during the final period of the Republic, best remembered for his attempt to overthrow the government, particularly the power of the aristocratic Senate.  Catilina seems to have been an unsavory character, having first murdered his wife and son in order to marry the wealthy and beautiful Aurelia Orestilla, daughter of the consul of 71 B.C., Gnaeus Aufidius Orestes.  He was later tried for adultery, with a vestal virgin.

Aurelia_Head_Keyshot_File.31_writing puny
Aurelia Orestilla, wife of Catiline.  H/T James Scott 3-D Art

The first of two conspiracies bearing Catilina’s name began in 65 B.C., when he was supposed to have conspired to murder a number of Senators on their entering office, and making himself, Consul.  Catilina himself may or may not have been involved at this stage.  He would certainly be involved, in the second.

Catilina and a group of heavily indebted aristocrats concocted a plan to overthrow the Republic in 63 B.C., along with a number of disaffected veterans.  The plot was revealed on the night of October 18 in letters delivered to Consul Marcus Tullius Cicero, by General Marcus Licinius Crassus.  Cicero read these letters in the Senate the following day and later gave a series of four speeches,  the Catiline Orations.  2,000 years later, we remember Cicero as one of the most powerful public speakers, of the Roman Republic.   These Catiline Orations are held among his finest moments, as a speaker.


Cicero in the Senate denouncing Catiline, by Cesare Maccari

In his last speech, delivered in the Temple of Concordia on December 5, 63 B.C., Cicero established a basis for other speakers to take up the cause.  As Consul, Cicero was not himself permitted to voice an opinion regarding the execution of conspirators.  This speech laid the groundwork for others to do so, foremost, Cato the Younger.

The actual Senate debates are lost to history, leaving only Cicero’s four orations, but there was considerable resistance in the Senate to executing the conspirators.  They were, after all, fellow aristocrats.

Roma Day 1 18

Milvian Bridge

The plotters went to the Allobroges seeking military assistance, but the Gallic tribe wanted no part it and reported the proposal to their Roman patron.  Armed forces of the conspirators were ambushed at the Milvian Bridge, where the Via Flaminia crosses the Tiber River.  The rest were executed by the end of December.

Catilina himself was killed in battle the following January, near the Tuscan city of Pistoria.  By this time, Catilina’s army had dwindled from 10,000 strong, to less than a third of that.  The outcome of the battle was never in doubt yet, when the bodies were sorted out, the traitor and his last loyal few had received their mortal wounds, in the front.

The Republic was saved.  For now.

At one point during this period, then-Senator Julius Caesar stepped to the rostrum to have his say. He was handed a paper and, reading it, stuck the note in his toga and resumed his speech. Cato, Caesar’s implacable foe, stood in the senate and demanded that Caesar read the note. It’s nothing replied the future emperor, but Cato thought he had caught the hated Caesar red handed, and went in for the kill. “I demand you read that note”, he said, or words to that effect.  He wouldn’t let it go.  At last, Caesar relented. With an actor’s timing, he pulled out the note and read it to a hushed senate.

It turned out to be a love letter, a graphic one, wherein Servilia Caepionis described in detail what she wanted to do with Caesar, once she got him alone. As if the scene wasn’t bad enough, Servilia just happened to be Cato’s half-sister.


Assassination of Julius Caesar

Here’s where the story becomes Very interesting. Caesar was a well-known lady’s man.  By the time of his assassination, he had carried on with Servilia for years.  Servilia Caepionis had a son, one Marcus Junius Brutus.

87d43c51c42b9204b4c26b08df2239f0Brutus was 41 on the 15th of March, 44 B.C.  The “Ides of March”.  Caesar was 56.  The Emperor’s dying words are supposed to have been “Et tu, Brute?”, as Brutus plunged the dagger in.  “And you, Brutus?”  But that’s not what he said.  Those words were put into his mouth 1,643 years later, by William Shakespeare.

Eyewitness accounts to Caesar’s last words are lost to history, but more contemporary sources recorded the Emperor’s dying words as “Kai su, Teknon?”, in Greek.  “And you, my child?”

It seems unlikely that Brutus murdered his father on the Ides of March, but not impossible.  It’s hard to make the dates work.  Still, it makes you wonder…

Feature image, top of page:  “The picture shows the politician and most famous orator of Rome, Cicero (106-43 BC).In the year 63 BC, the senator Lucius Sergius Catilina (aprox. 108-62 BC) tried to seize power. You can see Cicero in the temple of Jupiter delivering his first of four orations against Catiline. Cicero thwarted Catiline’s conspiracy and, for the moment, saved the Republic”.  H/T

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September 28, 48BC Mad Honey

Tales come down from the Civil War, of Union troops getting into hives of mountain honey and becoming sick and disoriented, much like Roman troops some two thousand years earlier.

From sniffing glue to licking toads and huffing gasoline, people have thought of crazy and often dangerously stupid ways, of catching a buzz. Three years ago, CNN reported on a child ingesting a few squirts of hand sanitizer, resulting in slurred speech and an inability to walk straight. What do a dozen broke college kids do on a Saturday night? Buy a bottle of gin, and snort it. In some parts of the world, bees pollinate great fields of rhododendron flowers, resulting in a neurotoxic delicacy known as “Mad Honey”.

The Rhododendron genus contains some 1,024 distinct species ranging from Europe to North America, Japan, Nepal and Turkey and grown at altitudes from sea level to nearly three miles. Many Rhododendron species contain grayanotoxins though, in most regions, concentrations are diluted to trace levels. Some species contain significant levels.

rhododendron ferrugineum

Occasionally, a cold snap in the Appalachian Mountains of the Eastern United States will kill off other flowers while leaving Rhododendrons unaffected, resulting in mad honey. Such circumstances are rare. Mad honey is the most expensive in the world, normally selling for around $166 per pound.

When ingested in small doses, grayanotoxins produce feelings of euphoria and mild hallucinations.   Larger doses have toxic effects,  ranging from nausea and vomiting to dizziness, severe muscular weakness and slow or irregular heartbeat and plummeting blood pressure. Symptoms generally last for three hours or so, but may persist for 24 hours or longer. Ingesting large amounts of the stuff, may result in death.

Today, the toxic effects of over ingesting mad honey are primarily found among middle-age males in Turkey and Nepal, where the stuff is thought to have restorative qualities for a number of sexual dysfunctions.


Tales come down from the Civil War, of Union troops getting into hives of mountain honey and becoming sick and disoriented, much like Roman troops some two thousand years earlier.

The Greek historian, soldier and mercenary Xenophon of Athens wrote in 401BC of a Greek army passing through Trebizond in northeastern Turkey, on the way back home. While returning along the shores of the Black Sea, this crew had themselves a feast of honey, stolen from local beehives. For hours afterward, troops suffered from diarrhea and disorientation, no longer able to march or even to stand.

Fortunately, the effects had passed by the following day, before their defeated Persian adversary could learn of their sorry state.  Nearly four hundred years later, Roman troops would not be so lucky.

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus lived from September 29, 106BC through September 28, 48BC, and usually remembered in English as Pompey the Great.

Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323BC, Alexander’s generals and advisers fell to squabbling over an empire, too big to hold. The period marked the beginning of Hellenistic colonization throughout the Mediterranean and Near East to the Indus River Valley.

Within two hundred years, the Mithradatic Kingdom of Pontus encompassing modern-day Armenia and Turkey, was becoming a threat to Roman hegemony in the east. King Mithradates VI is remembered as one of the most formidable adversaries faced by the Roman Republic, engaging three of the most successful generals of the late Republic in the Mithradatic Wars of the first century.


In 67BC, a Roman army led by Pompey the Great was chasing King Mithridates and his Persian army through that same region along the Black Sea. The retreating Persians laid a trap, gathering honey and putting the stuff out in pots, by the side of the road.

Had any on the Roman side brushed up on their Xenophon, the outcome may have become different.  As it was, Roman troops pigged out and could scarcely defend themselves, against the returning Persians.  A thousand or more Romans were slaughtered, with few losses to the other side.  And all of it, for a little taste of honey.

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.

June 28, 1953 American Muscle Car

Workers at the Flint Michigan plant assembled the first Corvette on this day in 1953.  The first production car rolled off the assembly line two days later.  300 hand-built Corvettes came off the line that model year, all white.

For two years, General Motors designer Harley Earl labored to build an affordable American sports car, to compete with the MGs, Jaguars and Ferraris coming out of Europe.  The first convertible concept model appeared in early 1953, part of the GM Motorama display at the New York Auto Show held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.


Chevrolet wanted to give the new model a “non-animal” name, starting with ‘C’.  Newspaper photographer Myron Scott suggested the name of a small class of warship, the “trim, fleet naval vessel that performed heroic escort and patrol duties during World War II.”  They called this new model a Corvette.

Workers at the Flint Michigan plant assembled the first Corvette on this day in 1953.  The first production car rolled off the assembly line two days later.  300 hand-built Corvettes came off the line that model year, all white.

073012_7To keep costs down, off-the-shelf components were used whenever possible. The body was made of fiberglass to keep tooling expenses low.  The chassis and suspension came from the 1952 Chevy sedan.  The car featured an increased compression-ration version of the same in-line six “Blue Flame” block used in other models, coupled with a two-speed Power glide automatic transmission.  No manual transmission of the time could reliably handle an output of 150 HP and a 0-60 time of 11½ seconds.

GM moved production to St. Louis, Missouri the following year.  Since 1974, the car has been manufactured in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where the Corvette has become the official sports car of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Corvette evolution

Sales were disappointing in the first couple years, compared with those of European competitors.  GM refined the early design and added a V-8 in 1955, greatly improving the car’s performance.  By 1961, the Corvette had established itself as a classic American muscle car.

The second generation (C2) introduced the “Stingray” name in 1963. Still sporting fiberglass body panels, the car was smaller and lighter than previous models with a maximum output of 360 HP.  The sleek, tapered design was said to be patterned after the Mako shark caught by lead designer Bill Mitchell, on a deep sea fishing trip.

The third generation (1968–1982) featured a radically new body and interior design, and Chevy’s first use of T-top removable roof panels. The “Stingray” name was dispensed with in 1976, in 1978, the C3 became the first of 12 Corvettes to be used as Pace Cars for the Indy 500.

The radical redesign of the fourth generation Corvette was intended for the 1983 model year but, quality issues and delays from parts suppliers resulted in only 43 prototypes being built.  None of them were ever sold. Only one of the 1983 prototypes survives; it’s on display at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky.


When it came to quality and styling, many felt that the C4 compared poorly with Japanese competitors like the Nissan 300ZX and Mazda RX-7. The 5th generation introduced in 1997 addressed many of these issues. The production C5 had a top speed of 181 mph, while the lower drag coefficient and new, aerodynamic styling resulted in 28 mpg on the highway.


Twenty-first century updates exposed headlights for the first time since 1962, the 7th generation becoming the first to bear the Stingray name since the 1976 model year.  Air intake grills were exposed for the first time in four generations, as the all-important 0-60 times approached the four-seconds mark.

Corvette enthusiasts criticized the aggressive, angular lines of the C7, claiming the rear end looks more like a C5 Camaro.  Others complained about the front end; with an air intake grill exposed for the first time in four generations.


The supercharged 6.2L V8 power plant of the 2019 Z06 develops 650 horsepower, capable of accelerating from 0-60 mph in 2.95 seconds with a top end of 207.4 mph. Ain’t nobody fussing about that.


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.

June 21, 1633 And Yet, it Moves

There is a story about Galileo, which may or may not be true. After his conviction, the astronomer is said to have muttered “Eppur si muove” — “And yet it moves”.

Planet Earth exists at the center of the solar system, the sun and other celestial bodies revolving around it. That was the “geocentric” model of the solar system, from the time of antiquity.

The perspective was by no means unanimous.  The Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos put the Sun in the center of the universe, in the third century BC.  Later Greek astronomers Hipparchus and Ptolemy agreed, refining Aristarchus’ methods to arrive at a fairly accurate estimate for the distance to the moon, but theirs remained the minority view.

Earth is at the center of this model of the universe created by Bartolomeu Velho, a Portuguese cartographer, in 1568. H/T: NASA/Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

In the 15th century, Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus parted ways with the orthodoxy of his time, describing a “heliocentric” model of the universe placing the sun at the center.  The Earth and other bodies, according to this model, revolved around the sun.

Copernicus resisted publishing his ideas until the end of his life, fearing to offend the religious sensibilities of the time. Legend has it that he was presented with an advance copy of his “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) as he awakened on his death bed from a stroke-induced coma. He took one look at his book, closed his eyes, and never opened them again.

Copernicus’ ‘heliocentric’ view of the universe.

The Italian physicist, mathematician, and astronomer Galileo Galilei came along, about a hundred years later. Galileo has been called the “Father of Modern Observational Astronomy”, his improvements to the telescope and resulting astronomical observations supporting the Copernican heliocentric view.

They also brought him to the attention of the Roman Inquisition.

Biblical references such as, “The Lord set the Earth on its Foundations; it can Never be Moved.” (Psalm 104:5) and “And the Sun Rises and Sets and Returns to its Place.” (Ecclesiastes 1:5) were taken at the time as literal and immutable fact, becoming the basis for religious objection to the heliocentric model.

Galileo faces the Roman Inquisition

Galileo was brought before inquisitor Vincenzo Maculani for trial in 1633. The astronomer backpedaled before the Inquisition, but only to a point, testifying in his fourth deposition on this day in 1633, that “I do not hold this opinion of Copernicus, and I have not held it after being ordered by injunction to abandon it. For the rest, here I am in your hands; do as you please”.

There is a story about Galileo, which may or may not be true. After his conviction, the astronomer is said to have muttered “Eppur si muove” — “And yet it moves”.

The Inquisition condemned the astronomer to “abjure, curse, & detest” his Copernican heliocentric views, returning him to house arrest at his villa in 1634, there to spend the rest of his life. Galileo Galilei, the Italian polymath who all but orchestrated the transition from late middle ages to  scientific Renaissance, died on January 8, 1642, desiring to be buried in the main body of the Basilica of Santa Croce, next to the tombs of his father and ancestors.  His final wishes were ignored at the time, though they would be honored some ninety-five years later, when Galileo was re-interred in the basilica, in 1737.

Basilica of Santa Croce, in Florence

Often, atmospheric conditions in these burial vaults lead to a natural mummification of the corpse. Sometimes, they look almost lifelike. When it came to the saints, believers took this to be proof of the incorruptibility of these individuals, and small body parts were taken as holy relics.

Such a custom seems ghoulish to us today, but the practice was was quite old by the 18th century.  Galileo is not now and never was a Saint of the Catholic church, quite the opposite.  The Inquisition had judged the man an enemy of the church, a heretic.

“A bust of Galileo at the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. The museum is displaying recovered parts of his body”. H/T New York Times

Possibly, the condition of Galileo’s body made him appear thus “incorruptible”.  Be that as it may, Anton Francesco Gori removed the thumb, index and middle fingers on March 12, 1737, the digits with which Galileo wrote down his theories of the cosmos. The digits with which he adjusted his telescope.

The other two fingers and a tooth disappeared in 1905, leaving the middle finger from Galileo’s right hand on exhibit at the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy.  Locked in a glass case, the finger points upward, toward the sky.

23galileo2-cnd-popupSome 100 years later, two fingers and a tooth were purchased at auction, and have since rejoined their fellow digit at the Museo Galileo. To this day, these remain the only human body parts, in a museum otherwise devoted to scientific instrumentation.

Nearly four-hundred years after his death, Galileo’s extremity points upward, toward the glory of the cosmos.  Either that, or the finger rises in eternal defiance, flipping the bird to the church which had condemned him.

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June 2, 1763 Pontiac’s War

Benjamin Franklin may have had the last word on the collectivist nonsense which afflicts to this day, when he asked “If an Indian injures me, does it follow that I may revenge that Injury on all Indians?”

The Seven Years War, experienced in the American Colonies as the French and Indian War, ended in 1763 with France ceding vast swaths of territory to the British.

Unlike their English counterparts, the French had cultivated friendships with their Indian allies.  Many had married native women and been adopted into tribes.  There were annual gifts of blankets, firearms and other European manufactured goods.  The British under North American Governor-General Lord Jeffrey Amherst ceased such gifts, treating indigenous populations with contempt as English fortifications were built and settlers moved into traditional native lands.

The first grumblings among the tribes coalesced around a native visionary known only as the “Delaware Prophet”, who preached for a return to traditional ways and a rejection of the British.  The cause was taken up by the Ottawa chieftain Pontiac (c.1720-1769).  A powerful speaker, Pontiac’s message resonated with the Delaware, Seneca, Chippewa, Miami, Potawotomi and Huron, among others.  The full-scale uprising known as “Pontiac’s Rebellion” broke out in May, 1763.

Pontiac's_warIndigenous nations of the time divided more along ethnic and linguistic rather than political lines, so there was no monolithic policy among the tribes.  At least one British fort was taken with profuse apologies by the Indians, who explained that it was the other nations making them do it.

The brutality of the period was anything but one-sided.  The British “gift” of smallpox-infected blankets wasn’t the first instance of biological warfare in history, but this may be one of the nastier ones.

The siege of Fort Detroit beginning on May 7 was ultimately unsuccessful, but a series of attacks on smaller fortifications beginning two weeks later would all result in Indian victories. The fifth and largest of these fortifications, Fort Michilimackinac in present-day Mackinaw City, Michigan, was the largest such fort, and it was taken by surprise.

Siege of Fort Detroit

Local Ojibwas staged a game of baaga’adowe on June 2, (an early form of lacrosse), with the visiting Sauks in front of the fort.

Native American stickball had many variations, but the object was to hit a stake or other object with a “ball”. The ball was a stone wrapped in leather, handled with one or sometimes two sticks. There could be up to several hundred contestants to a team, and the defenders could employ any means they could think of to get at the ball, including hacking, slashing or any form of physical assault. Lacerations and broken bones were commonplace.  It wasn’t unheard of that stickball players died on the field. The defending team could likewise employ any method they liked to keep the opposing team off of the ball carrier.  The game took place on a field that could range from 500 yards to several miles.


Soldiers at Fort Michilimackinac enjoyed the game, as they had on earlier occasions. When the ball was hit through the open gate, both teams rushed in as native women handed out weapons previously smuggled into the fort. Fifteen of the 35-man garrison were killed in the ensuing struggle.  Five others were tortured to death.

Three more forts were taken in a second wave of attacks, when survivors took to the shelter of Fort Pitt, in Western Pennsylvania.


Here’s when the chapter is written, about the smallpox blankets.  The episode has taken on aspects of legend and remains the subject for debate, to this day.

Smallpox had broken out at this time, among the besieged garrison at Fort Pitt.  At a June 24 parlay, Captain Simeon Ecuyer, a 22-year veteran Swiss mercenary in the British service, gave besieging Lenape warriors several items taken from smallpox patients.  Ecuyer wrote that “We gave them two blankets and a handkerchief out of the smallpox hospital”. Captain William Trent of the garrison militia later wrote in his journal: “I hope it will have the desired effect.”

This appears to be the only documented case of such a tactic, but the stratagem was by no means disapproved. The use of smallpox infected items was discussed in positive terms between Amherst and another Swiss mercenary, Colonel Henry Bouquet, but the siege at Fort Pitt was ended by more conventional means.

Hudson-bay-blankets-vintageSome sixty to eighty Ohio valley Indians died of the disease following the Fort Pitt episode, but the outbreak appears isolated.  Meanwhile, Indian warriors had looted clothing from some 2,000 outlying settlers they had killed or abducted.

Six years earlier, native Americans ignored terms of surrender negotiated between their French allies and English at Fort McHenry in upstate New York, and broke into the garrison hospital, killing and scalping a number of patients.  At least some of these were suffering from smallpox.  The episode reportedly touched off an outbreak among native populations.

The siege of Fort Pitt culminated in a bloody fight on August 5, when an incoming relief force of some 500 troops met the Indian besieging force at the bloody Battle of Bushy Run.

Battle of Bushy Run
Battle of Bushy Run, August 5, 1763

All the while, Delaware and Shawnee war bands raided deep into Pennsylvania territory. Panicked settlers fled eastward, as unknown numbers of men, women and children were killed or taken captive.   The “Paxton Boys”, a group of Scots-Irish frontiersman from the modern-day Harrisburg area,  murdered some twenty Conestoga, a mostly Christian band of subsistence hunters and farmers who had nothing whatever to do with the fighting.

Many of these peaceful Indians fled east to Philadelphia for protection.  Several hundred Paxton residents marched on the city in January, 1764.

1841 lithograph depicts the massacre of Conestoga Indians by the “Paxton Boys”, in December 1763

The presence of British troops and Philadelphia militia prevented further violence, as Benjamin Franklin met with leaders of the two sides to negotiate an end to the crisis. Mr. Franklin may have had the last word on the collectivist nonsense which afflicts to this day, when he asked “If an Indian injures me, does it follow that I may revenge that Injury on all Indians?”

Pontiac’s Rebellion ended in a draw, in 1765.  The savagery inflicted on both sides meant that segregation and not interaction, would characterize relations between Indians and whites.

1_2929243The British Royal Proclamation of October 7, 1763, drew a line between the British colonies and Indian lands, creating a vast Indian Reserve stretching from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River and from Florida to Newfoundland. For the Indian Nations, this was the first time that a multi-tribal effort had been launched against British expansion, the first time such an effort had not ended in defeat.

The British government had hoped through such a proclamation to avoid conflicts like Pontiac’s Rebellion, but the decree had the effect of alienating colonists against the Crown.

For native Americans, the terrible smallpox epidemic of 1837 – ’38 all but wiped out the Mandan and decimated the Arikara and Hidatsa, Missouri River bands who farmed corn, beans & squash and hunted buffalo only as a sideline.  Estimates of the number killed in the epidemic range from 17,200 to an implausible high of 150,000, merging with the blanket episode of seventy-five years earlier and spawning a narrative of deliberate white genocide against indigenous Americans.

Smaller bands of isolated plains Indians were less hard hit, tipping the balance and forever altering the world’s ideas of what American Indians, looked like.  Works Progress Administration murals from the 1930s depict Pilgrims interacting with coastal tribesmen, wearing Sioux war bonnets and war shirts decorated with glass beads. No Lenape, Wampanoag, Pokanoket or Nauset of the time would have so much as recognized such an outfit, let alone dress that way.

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.