June 17, 1631 A Love Story

Paralyzed with grief and wracked by uncontrollable fits of weeping, Emperor Shah Jahan went into secluded mourning. He emerged a year later with back bent and beard turned white. Then began a 22-year period of design and construction for a mausoleum and funerary garden: a tribute worthy, of his Queen of the World.

The Mughal state was an early modern Empire ruling first over northern India and later, much of South Asia. Founded by military conquest in 1526, the Mughal Emperors ruled for 200 years marking much of the period, before the rise of the British Raj.

Prince Khurram was born on January 5, 1592, the son of Rajput princess Jagat Gosaini and the fourth Mughal Emperor, Jahangir.

Literally born to the throne, the infant prince was taken from his mother at the age of six days by the baby’s grandfather Akbar, the third Mughal Emperor who ordered the baby be raised by his first wife and chief consort, the childless Ruqaiya Sultan Begum.

Khurram was given the education befitting a Mughal prince and enjoyed a close relationship with his surrogate mother.

According to the later memoirs of his father Jahangir, the barren Empress loved his son Khurram, “a thousand times more than if he had been her own [son]”.

Arjumand Banu was the daughter of a wealthy Persian noble and niece to Nur Jahan, the 12th wife of Emperor Jahangir believed by many to be the real power behind the throne. Arjumand and Khurram were betrothed in early 1607 when she was 14 and he, a year older.

In an age of politically arranged marriages, theirs was a love match though the marriage would wait, another five years. Five years was an unusually long engagement for the time but court astrologers had deemed the date propitious, and so it was.

Meanwhile, Khurram ascended to the throne and adopted the regnal name, Shah Jahan. Shah Jahan married the Persian Princess Kandahari Begum with whom he had a daughter, but this was a political marriage. So it was with his other eight wives.

Political relationships with women who themselves enjoyed the status of royal wives but it was his second, Arjumand Banu, with whom the Emperor was inseparable. He called her “Mumtaz Mahal”, Persian for “the chosen one of the Palace”. At the royal court and on military campaign she was his constant companion and advisor. She was his ‘Malika-i-Jahan’ the “Queen of the World”, with whom he fathered 14 children in nineteen years.

It was on campaign on the Deccan Plateau where Mumtaz Mahal went into labor with the couple’s 14th child. The delivery was a terrible trial for the Empress Consort, a 30-hour ordeal resulting in uncontrolled postpartum hemorrhage.

Shah Jahan’s Queen of the World died on June 17, 1631.

Mumtaz Mahal was buried in a walled pleasure garden called the Zainabad. Paralyzed with grief and wracked by uncontrollable fits of weeping the Emperor went into secluded mourning. He emerged a year later with back bent and beard turned white. Then began a twenty-two year period of design and construction for a mausoleum and funerary garden, suitable for the Queen of the World.

That child who would never know her mother grew to be the Princess Jahanara who, at the age of seventeen, began to distribute gemstones to the poor. A plea for divine intervention on behalf of the woman who had died, giving her birth. Meanwhile, a grand edifice to the undying love of an Emperor rose along the southern banks of the river Amuna.

English poet Sir Edwin Arnold described the place as “Not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passion of an emperor’s love wrought in living stones.”

20,000 artisans were employed on the project at a cost equivalent to 70 billion modern rupees, equal to $956 million, today. The ivory marble mausoleum was the centerpiece of a 42 acre complex including a great reflecting pool, a mosque and guest house, all set within a formal garden and surrounded on three sides by crenellated walls.

Years later, Shah Jahan would rejoin the love of his life in her final resting place. A treasure of Islamic art and architecture in India, one of the seven “Modern Wonders of the World” we know, as the Taj Mahal.

May 24, 1883 First Across

For 11 years she studied higher mathematics, catenary curves, materials strength and the intricacies of cable construction, all while acting as the pivot point on the largest bridge construction project on the planet and nursemaid, to a desperately sick husband.

Focused as he was on surveying, the engineer should have paid more attention to his surroundings. The year was 1869. Civil engineer John Roebling had begun the site work two years ago, almost to the day. Now just a few more compass readings, across the East River. Soon, work would begin on the longest steel suspension span in the world. A bridge connecting the New York boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Roebling was working on the pier with his 32-year old son Washington, also a civil engineer. As the ferry came alongside, the elder Roebling’s toes were caught and crushed so badly, as to require amputation.

brooklyn-bridge-caisson-granger“Lockjaw” is such a sterile term, it doesn’t begin to describe the condition known as Tetanus. In the early stages, the anaerobic bacterium Clostridium Tetani produces tetanospasmin, a neurotoxin producing mild spasms in the jaw muscles. As the disease progresses, sudden and involuntary contractions affect skeletal muscle groups, becoming so powerful that bones are literally fractured as the muscles tear themselves apart. These were the last days of John Roebling, the bridge engineer who would not live to see his most famous work.

The German-born civil engineer was the first casualty of the project.  He would not be the last.

Brooklyn Bridge Caisson Construction

Washington took over the project, beginning construction on January 3, 1870.

Enormous yellow pine boxes called “caissons” were built on the Brooklyn and New York sides of the river, descending at the rate of 6-inches per week in search of bedrock. Like giant diving bells, the New York side ended up at 78- feet below mean high tide, the Brooklyn side 44-feet. Pressurized air was pumped into these caissons, keeping water and mud at bay as workers excavated the bottom.

In 1872, these “sandhogs” began to experience a strange illness that came to be called “caisson disease”.

Civil War era submarine designer Julius Hermann Kroehl may have recognized what was happening, but Kroehl was five years in his grave by this time, victim of the same “fever”.

Today we call it “the bends”. Pop the top off a soda bottle and you’ll see the principle at work. Without sufficient decompression time, dissolved gasses come out of solution and the blood turns to foam. Bubbles form in or migrate to any part of the body, resulting in symptoms ranging from joint pain and skin rashes, to paralysis and death.  The younger Roebling was badly injured as a result of the bends in 1872, leaving him partially paralyzed and bedridden, incapable of supervising construction on-site.

brooklyn-anchorage

Roebling moved to an apartment in Brooklyn Heights and conducted the entire project looking out the window, designing and redesigning details while his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, became the critical connection between her husband and the job site.

To aid in the work, Emily Roebling took a crash course in bridge engineering. For 11 years she studied higher mathematics, catenary curves, materials strength and the intricacies of cable construction, all while acting as the pivot point on the largest bridge construction project on the planet and nursemaid, to a desperately sick husband.

Emily-Warren-Roebling-e1389630968571
Emily Warren Roebling, the “first woman field engineer”.

Historian David McCullough wrote in his book, The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge: “By and by it was common gossip that hers was the great mind behind the great work and that this, the most monumental engineering triumph of the age, was actually the doing of a woman, which as a general proposition was taken in some quarters to be both preposterous and calamitous. In truth, she had by then a thorough grasp of the engineering involved”.

Unlikely as it sounds, fires broke out at the bottom of the river on several occasions, started by workmen’s candles, fed by the oakum used for caulking and turbocharged by all that pressurized air. On at least one occasion, the caisson was filled with millions of gallons of water, before the fire went out for good.

Brooklyn bridge builders

A footbridge connected the two sides in 1877, and soon the wires began to be strung. Wooden “buggies” carried men back and forth along wires suspended hundreds of feet above the water, as individual wires were woven into the four great cables that support the bridge. The work was exacting, with each wire bound together to precise specifications. Rumors about corruption and sleaze surrounded the project when J. Lloyd Haigh, the wire contractor, was discovered to be supplying inferior material. It was way too late to do anything about it, and 150 extra wires were bundled into each cable to compensate. The tactic worked.  Haigh’s shoddy wire remains there, to this day.

At the time it was built, the span across the East river linking Brooklyn with Manhattan was the longest suspension bridge in the world.

Construction was completed in 1883, the bridge opening for use on May 24. Emily Roebling was the first to cross, in a carriage, carrying a rooster as the sign, of victory. New York politician Abram Stevens Hewitt honored her, at that day’s dedication. Today a bronze plaque bears name of the first female field engineer.

“…an everlasting monument to the sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred.’

New York politician Abram Stevens Hewitt

Six days later, a rumor started that the bridge was about to collapse.  At least 12 people were killed in the resulting stampede. A year later, a publicity stunt by P. T. Barnum helped to put people’s minds at ease when Jumbo, the circus’ prize elephant, led a parade of 20 other elephants across the bridge.

For a long time the span was called the “New York and Brooklyn Bridge” or the “East River Bridge”, officially becoming the “Brooklyn Bridge” only in 1915. At least 27 were killed in its construction. Three from the bends, several from cable stringing accidents and others crushed under granite blocks or killed in high falls.

Even today, popular culture abounds with stories of suckers “buying” the Brooklyn Bridge. It was the longest bridge in the world for its time, and would remain so until 1903. Roebling had designed his project to be six times the strength required for the job. Even with those defective cables, the bridge is four times as strong as it needs to be. Many of the Brooklyn Bridge’s contemporary structures have long since gone.  Johann Augustus Roebling’s bridge carries 145,000 cars, every day.

Brooklyn Bridge

May 14, 1915 Canary Girls

Munitions workers began to complain of headaches and nausea and skin conditions, like hives. Constant exposure to toxic chemicals turned the hair and skin of these women a brilliant shade of yellow, or orange. Expectant “Canary Girls’ gave birth to bright yellow “Canary Babies”.

Since the age of antiquity, heavy weapons have tilted the scales of battlefield strategy. The first catapult was developed in Syracuse, in 339 BC. The Roman catapult of the 1st century BC hurled 14-pound stone balls against fixed fortifications. The age of gunpowder brought new and ghastly capabilities to artillery. In 1453, the terrifying siege guns Mehmed II faced the walls of Constantinople, hurling 150-pound missiles from barrels, wide enough to swallow a grown man.

Monument to Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, Edirne, East Thrace, Turkey

Such weapons were slow to reload and sometimes, unreliable. Mehmed’s monsters took a full three hours to fire. Seven years later, King James II of Scotland was killed when his own gun, exploded.

This experimental three-shot cannon belonging to Henry VIII burst, with predictable results for anyone standing nearby.

By the Napoleonic wars, artillery caused more battlefield casualties than any other weapon system.

At that time such weapons were virtually always, loaded at the muzzle. The first breech loaders came about in the 14th century but it would take another 500 years, before precision manufacturing made such weapons reliable, and plentiful.

Breech loading vastly increased rate-of-fire capabilities. By the end of the 19th century, technological advances brought new and hideous capabilities to what Josef Stalin would come to call, the “God of War’.

Heretofore, the massive recoil of such weapons required a period of time to re-set, re-aim and reload. In the 1890s, French soldier Joseph Albert DePort solved that problem with a damping system enabling the barrel to recoil, leaving the gun in place. Recoilless weapons could now be equipped with shields keeping gun crews as close as possible while smokeless powder meant that gunners could clearly see what they were shooting at.

By World War 1, trained crews serving a French 75 could fire once every two seconds. Massed artillery fired with such horrifying rapidity as to resemble the sound, of drums.

This clip is five minutes long. Imagine finding yourself under “drumfire”, for days on end.

While guns of this type were aimed by lines of sight, howitzers fired missiles in high parabolic trajectories to fall on the heads, of the unlucky.

The great Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke (the elder) once said, “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”. So it was in the tiny Belgian city of Ypres where the German war of movement met with weapons of the industrial revolution.

A million men were brought to this place, to kill each other. The first Battle for Ypres, there would be others, brought together more firepower than entire wars of an earlier age. The losses are hard to get your head around. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) alone suffered 56,000 casualties including 8,000 killed, 30,000 maimed and another 18,000 missing, of whom roughly one-third, were dead.

British 18-pounder

The breakdown is harder to get at for the other combatants but, all in, Germany suffered 135,000 casualties, France 85,000 and Belgium, 22,000. The three week struggle for Ypres cost the lives of 75,000 men, enough to fill the Athens Olympic Stadium, in Greece. Soldiers on all sides dug frantically into the ground, to shelter from what Private Ernst Jünger called, the “Storm of Steel”.

First drum fire in the war, in the Champagne, Lasted 75 hours, from Sept. 22 to 25. Was directed against 20 Miles of the German Front. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The French alone expended 2,155,862 shells during the Anglo-French offensive called the second battle of Artois, fought May 9 through June 18, 1915, a fruitless effort to capitalize on German defenses, weakened by the diversion of troops to the eastern front. The objective, to flatten the German “Bulge” in the Artois-Arras sector.

Immediately to the French left, the British 6th army under Sir John French was to advance on May 9 in support of the French offensive, taking the villages of Aubers, Fromelles and Le Maisnil and the elevation known as Aubers Ridge.

The battle of Aubers was an unmitigated disaster. The man-killing shrapnel rounds so valued by pre-war strategists were as nothing, against fortified German earthworks. No ground was taken, no tactical advantage gained despite British losses, ten times that on the German side.

War correspondent Colonel Charles à Court Repington sent a telegram to The Times, complaining of the lack of high-explosive shells. On May 14 The Times headline read: “Need for shells: British attacks checked: Limited supply the cause: A Lesson From France”. The article placed blame squarely on the government of Herbert Asquith who had stated as recently as April 20, that the army had sufficient ammunition.

“We had not sufficient high explosives to lower the enemy’s parapets to the ground … The want of an unlimited supply of high explosives was a fatal bar to our success”.

The Times, May 14, 1915

For British politics at home, the information fell as a bombshell, precipitating a scandal known as the Shell Crisis of 1915.

Governments were slow at first to understand the prodigious appetites, of this war. Fixed trench lines led to new rail construction capable of providing cataracts of munitions, to front lines. The problem came from a munitions industry, unable to supply such demands.

Men shipped off to the war by the millions leaving jobs vacant and families at home, without income. Women represented a vast pool of untapped labor. Despite social taboos against women working outside the home, wives, sisters and mothers came flooding into the workplace.

By the end of the war some three million women joined the workforce a third of whom, worked in munitions factories.

Ever conscious of husbands, sons and sweethearts at the front, women worked grueling hours under dangerous conditions. “Munitionettes” manufactured cordite propellants and trinitrotoluene (TNT) explosives, hand filling projectiles from individual bullets to giant shells.

At the front, the war was an all-devouring monster consuming men and munitions at rates unimagined, in earlier conflicts. During the first two weeks of the 3rd Battle for Ypres, better known as Passchendaele, British, Australian and Canadian artillery fired 4,283,550 shells at their German adversary.

Munitions workers began to complain of headaches and nausea and skin conditions, like hives. Constant exposure to toxic chemicals turned the hair and skin of these women a brilliant shade of yellow, or orange. Expectant “Canary Girls” gave birth to bright yellow “Canary Babies”.

Nothing could be done and the yellow tended to fade over time but not a very different yellow, caused by toxic jaundice.

The work was well paid but exhausting, often seven days a week. Grueling 14-hour shifts led to girls as young as 14 coming into the workforce, but it wasn’t enough. “History of Yesterday” writes that two women on average died every week from toxic chemicals, and workplace accidents. One 1918 explosion at the National Shell Filling Factory №6 near Chilwell caused the death of 130 women.

The modern reader can scarcely imagine the crushing burdens of these women caring for families at home and ever conscious of sons, brothers and sweethearts, struggling to survive in this all consuming war.

The canary colored hair and skin would fade in time, but not the long term health effects of daily exposure to toxic substances. It didn’t matter. Twenty years later another generation would do it, all over again.

May 13, 1995 Savage Mountain

There are no permanent human habitations above 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) and never will be. Even for the most experienced of mountaineers, progressive deterioration of physiological functions will outrun acclimatization. It is only a matter of time.

There are places in this world, our kind was never meant to go.

Some 70 percent of our world is covered by ocean with an average depth, of 3,682 meters, or 12,080 feet. For recreational divers, professional organizations such as NAUI and PADI recommend a depth limit of 40 meters. 130 feet.

Deeper dives are common but not without “technical” certification and the use of exotic gas mixtures, and equipment. “Saturation dives” are possible to 1,000 feet and more but there better be time, to decompress. Decompression from such depths requires about a day for every 100 feet of seawater plus a day, lest dissolved gases come “out of solution” and the blood literally, turns to foam.

To illustrate the principle shake a beer or a soda, and pop the top.

Group of divers decompressing underwater on a rope in open water

The saturation diver working at 650 feet would normally take a day to descend and rest, 19 days to work and eight days, to decompress.

Great depth introduces a host of physiological problems to the human frame. Likewise, great altitude. The 6,600-foot peak of Mount Hermon, the only ski resort in Israel, is enough to introduce altitude sickness. (Who knew Israel has a ski resort!)

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) affects 20% of individuals at 8,000-feet and 40% at 10,000. Age or physical fitness makes little difference. Chinese texts dating from 30BC refer to “Big Headache Mountains”, the Karakoram range extending from the Hindu Kush to the Himalayas. Early symptoms include nausea and headache, difficulty in breathing and peripheral edema – the accumulation of fluids in the hands, feet and face.

Two photos, same woman. Left: At normal altitude. Right: The same woman’s swollen face shows the peripheral edema that comes with trekking, at high altitude.(Annapurna Base Camp, Nepal; 4130 m) H/T Wikipedia

Just as days-long decompression is required to reacclimate from extreme depth, a gradual entry of days or even weeks is required for the human body to acclimate to very high altitudes of 18,000 to 20,000 feet. Extreme hypoxia sets in at such heights exacerbated, by exercise. There are no permanent human habitations above 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) and never will be. Even for the most experienced of mountaineers, progressive deterioration of physiological functions will outrun acclimatization. It is only a matter of time.

Acute hypoxemia, abnormally low concentrations of blood oxygen leads to vascular changes resulting in the accumulation of fluids in the lungs, and brain.

High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) results in shortness of breath, even at rest. High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) affects the brain resulting in confusion, clumsiness and drowsiness leading to unconsciousness. Death will result in either case and the only antidote, is descent.

Jon Krakauer’s first-hand account of the 1996 blizzard that killed 8 climbers on Mt. Everest provides detailed, and terrifying, descriptions of HAPE and HACE. I highly recommend this book. Preferably to be read, at sea level.

In the world of mountaineering there are none to compare with the planet’s 14 “eight-thousanders”, those peaks exceeding 8,000 meters in height. At 8,848.86 meters above sea level, (29,031.7-feet) Mt. Everest is the tallest.

Mt. Everest

As of January 2021, there have been 10,184 successful summits of the highest mountain on the planet. Kami Rita Sherpa of Nepal has done so, 24 times. Others have summited multiple times, so we’re talking about 5,739 individuals. 305 have died in the attempt, about 1 in 20 if we go by individuals giving Everest the highest death toll of any mountain in the world.

Roughly 200 of them are still on Everest, and always will be. There is no way to bring them down from that place.

Yet even Everest pales almost to docility, compared with K2. At 8,610 meters (28,250 feet), K2 is the second highest summit, on the planet. The difference between the two is relatively small, roughly half the height, of the Empire State building. And yet the contours of this mountain and the wild, unpredictable changes in weather, make K2 by far and away the world’s deadliest mountain.

K2

While Everest kills 5 percent of those who would challenge the top of the world, K2 has been summited only 367 times. 91 individuals have died in the attempt, a terrifying ratio, of one-in-four. After a 1953 ascent of K2, American mountaineer George Bell told reporters, “It’s a savage mountain that tries to kill you.”

Alone among the 14 8,000-meter peaks K2 has never been climbed, from the east side.

K2 as seen from the east, photographed by a 1909 expedition

Alison Jane Hargreaves was a British mountain climber. The most accomplished female mountaineer in history, Hargreaves has summited the 6,812-metre (22,349 ft) Ama Dablam in Nepal and all the great north faces of the Alps, a first for a climber of either sex.

Alison Hargreaves holds Tom (6) and Kate(4), in 1995. She would die in August of that same year descending from the summit, of K2.

She planned to climb the three tallest mountains in the world in one season without aid of supplemental oxygen, or Sherpa support. Mount Everest, K2, and Kangchenjunga. Unaided.

Hargreaves accomplished the first part on May 13, 1995 when she reached the summit of Mt. Everest without the aid of Sherpas, or bottled oxygen.

That June, she joined an American team with a permit to climb the significantly more difficult and more dangerous peak of the Savage Mountain, itself. K2.

The 12th of August was a good day for the summit but, climbers were exhausted from the 11th when, finding camp 3 destroyed by an avalanche, the team was forced to either turn back, or push on for camp 4.

Several dropped out. By August 13 the remnants of the American team had joined with members of climbing teams from Spain and New Zealand including Peter Hillary, son of the Everest pioneer Sir Edmund Hillary.

“Summit fever” is a mountaineering term for that all-consuming drive, to reach the top of a mountain. No matter what the cost. It is a supreme act of will to turn back from such an all devouring goal particularly in the grips, of mountain sickness.

Peter Hillary was a man of such will. Not liking the looks of the weather on K2 he turned back, some 12 hours from the summit.

Conditions were fine the afternoon Alison Hargreaves and five others reached the summit. They were Spaniards Javier Olivar, Javier Escartín and Lorenzo Ortíz, American Rob Slater and New Zealander Bruce Grant. Canadian Jeff Lakes had turned back, before the summit.

None had the faintest clue of the anti-cyclone, screaming in from the north.

The team was caught out in the open by brutal cold and winds, exceeding 100 miles per hour. They didn’t have a chance, they were literally blown from the side of the mountain. Jeff Lakes made it back to camp 2 where he died, of exhaustion. Pepe Garces and Lorenzo Ortas remained at camp 4 and managed to survive despite extreme frostbite, and exposure. They saw a bloody boot on the way down and an Anorak, the distinctive green color worn by Alison Hargreaves.

“Anticyclone, any large wind system that rotates about a centre of high atmospheric pressure clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern. Its flow is the reverse of that of a cyclone”. H/T Britannica

They could see a body in the distance and believed it was hers, but there was no way to approach. After six days without a tent the pair was barely alive, themselves. Graces and Ortas were airlifted out of camp 2. Whoever it was they saw remains on K2, to this day.

Tom Ballard was six when his mother died. He grew up to be a mountaineer as did his sister, Kate. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and for Ballard, mountaineering was an all-consuming passion. Following in his mother’s footsteps he too climbed the six north faces of the Alps in one season. This time, in Winter. His was the all-consuming desire to conquer including and perhaps especially, K2. The Savage Mountain that had killed his mother.

It wasn’t meant to be. On February 24, 2019, Tom Ballard and Italian mountaineer Daniele Nardi went missing on the slopes of Nanga Parbat, the westernmost anchor of the Himalayas and the 9th tallest mountain, in the world. Pakistani army helicopters and four rescuers scoured the mountain for days before spotting their bodies, at 5,900 meters.

On March 9, Italian Ambassador to Pakistan Stefano Pontecorvo tweeted: “‘With great sadness I inform that the search for @NardiDaniele and Tom Ballard is over…”

May 2, 1536 Anne of a Thousand Days

Henry VIII went on to have four more wives after Anne Boleyn, none of whom, bore the coveted male heir. Ironically, Henry himself may have been the problem.

Catherine of Aragon, the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, came to England in 1501 to marry Arthur, heir to the British throne and eldest son of Henry VII. The future King died the following year leaving his younger brother to take the throne and ask for the hand of his brother’s widow, in 1509.

The Spanish princess-turned Queen Consort of England was by all accounts a devoted wife, but the marriage bore no sons. Catherine had borne six children by this time including one surviving daughter, Mary Tudor, but there was no male heir. Henry came to believe, or said he believed, it was God’s punishment for marrying his brother’s wife.

Henry VIII

The King carried on for a time with a succession of mistresses. Elizabeth Blount bore Henry the coveted male heir in the person of Henry Fitzroy, the only child born out of wedlock his father, acknowledged. Next came Margaret (Madge) Shelton and later her 1st cousin Mary Boleyn, who is reputed to have borne the King two children though Henry acknowledged, neither.

By late winter 1526, Henry had cast his eye on the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire, Anne. Henry in a pickle. Catherine considered her marriage to the King to be legitimate, and indissoluble. Anne Boleyn was not about to give it up as a mere mistress, as her sister had. She was going to be the King’s wife, or remain a Lady in Waiting.

Anne Boleyn

Henry had written a book back in 1521, allegedly with the assistance of Sir Thomas More, a future saint of the Catholic church. The Book, Defence of the Seven Sacraments, attacked Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, then going on in Europe. The book earned Henry VIII the title Fidei Defensor, Defender of the Faith, bestowed by Pope Leo X.

Half a decade later Pope Clement VII refused to grant, Henry’s annulment. Henry retaliated closing monasteries and nunneries, in England.

Henry and Anne were secretly wed in November 1532 and formally married on January, 25. The newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine null and void to which the Pope responded, with excommunication. The break with the church of Rome was now complete as Henry VIII became head, of the Church of England.

Later writers would label Anne Boleyn “the most influential and important queen consort England has ever had” but, the label would do her little good. In three short years of marriage, Anne bore King Henry a daughter who would live to adulthood to become Queen Elizabeth I, and three miscarriages.

Left: 20th century painting depicting Anne Boleyn deer hunting, with Henry VIII

Henry lost interest by 1534 following the birth of a stillborn male child. He began having affairs with other women. By April 1836 Henry had his sights on Jane Seymour while having Anne “investigated” for adultery, incest and plotting to kill the King.

Anne Boleyn was arrested on this day in 1536 and brought, to the tower of London.

In Tudor courts the accused were required to prove their own innocence, 180° opposite what we now regard as a system of “justice”.  With no defense council nor even a clear idea of the charges laid against them, the defendant was made to provide their own defense in a spectacle before a crowd, numbering in the thousands.

Scene from the British period drama, Anne of a Thousand Days

Four supposed co-conspirators were tried before a special court of oyer and terminer.  As members of the aristocracy Anne herself and her brother George were tried separately.  

Even her detractors spoke well of Anne’s appearance in court.  George’s openly speculating about Henry’s virility and questioning paternity of the baby Elizabeth, did little to help the defense.  

A jury hand selected by the prosecution, each of whom had reason to favor conviction, delivered the verdict.  Guilty on all charges.  The sentence, death at the time, place and manner, of the King’s choosing.

In this case decapitation by sword, the sentence carried out on May 19. The following day, Henry VIII was engaged to Jane Seymour.

Henry would go on to have four more wives none of whom, bore the coveted male heir. Ironically, Henry himself may have been the problem. Researchers revealed in 2011 that Henry’s blood group may have been “Kell positive”, referring to the Kell antigen on the red blood cell of approximately 9% of all Europeans.

The presence of the Kell antigen would have initiated an auto-immune response in the mother’s body, targeting the blood of the baby inside of her. First pregnancies are unlikely to be affected but the mother’s antibodies would attack second and subsequent Kell-positive pregnancies, as foreign objects.

The science to prove or disprove the theory didn’t exist in the Tudor era, but it may not matter. Anyone attempting to bring such news to Henry VIII, very likely would have paid for it, with his head.

April 10, 1953 Not Just a Pretty Face

“All creative people want to do the unexpected” – Hedy Lamarr

According to Greek mythology, Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world. The wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta, Helen either eloped or was kidnapped, (the sources are elliptical on the point), with (or by) the Trojan prince, Paris. The Achaeans (Greeks) set sail for Troy to bring her back. The resulting war with Troy lasted ten years, culminating in the Trojan Horse episode and the eventual fall, of the city of Troy.

“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”.

Abduction of Helen, Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria

In the 17th century, English playwright Christopher Marlowe referred to Helen of Troy as having “…the face that launched a thousand ships”.

“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Illium
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss…”

The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe

The Austrian-born American actress and film producer Hedy Lamarr had such a face, and more. A movie star once described as “the world’s most beautiful woman”, she possessed an intellect in the very top percentile and the curiosity, of an inventor.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born on November 9, 1914 in Vienna, Austria, the daughter of Emil Keisler and Gertrud (Lichtwitz) Kiesler. Emil, a bank director with the gift of curiosity and the mind of an engineer, would take his daughter for long walks. He would point out various machines like printing presses and streetcars and explain, their inner workings. From the age of five little Hedy could be found, taking apart and reassembling her music box and other household gadgets.

Gertrud “Trude” was a concert pianist who introduced Hedy to the arts, enrolling her daughter in ballet and piano lessons, from an early age.

Blessed or perhaps cursed with exceptional beauty, the rest of the world ignored the brilliance of her mind. That face was what mattered. At 16, Hedy was “discovered” by theater and film producer, Max Reinhardt. She was soon studying acting and appeared in her first film role in 1930, a German film called Geld auf der Straβe (“Money on the Street”).

Hedy Keisler first gained public notice in the 1932 movie “ecstasy”, a controversial film censored in some nations and banned outright in others, for sexual content.

Austrian munitions dealer Fritz Mandl became one of Hedy’s biggest fans when he saw her in the play, Sissy. The two met and, in 1933, they married.

She was miserable.

“I knew very soon that I could never be an actress while I was his wife … He was the absolute monarch in his marriage … I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded—and imprisoned—having no mind, no life of its own.”

Hedy Mandl

The trophy wife expected to be seen and not heard, Hedy detested her husband’s associates, many of them, Nazi party members.

Always the gracious hostess, dinner guests never suspected how much she overheard – and understood – about the German arms industry.

In 1937 she fled, to London.

She would remain a “stateless person for sixteen years, becoming a naturalized US Citizen on this day in 1953.

In London, Hedy got her first big break in the motion picture industry when she met Louis B. Mayer. It was Mayer who persuaded her to change her last name. To distance herself, from “the ecstasy lady”. Hedy chose “Lamarr” in honor of the beautiful silent film actress, Barbara La Marr. There she met and dated for a time the American business magnate, Howard Hughes. Hughes, himself an engineer and born tinkerer, was as stricken as anyone else, by her physical beauty. Unlike the sewer that is Hollywood, Hughes understood the power of the mind, behind the pretty face.

Hughes encouraged her scientific curiosity. He brought her to his aircraft factories and showed her how his aircraft were built. He introduced her to scientists and engineers who explained to her, how things work. He bought her equipment, to work with. On movie sets, Hedy could be found in her trailer, tinkering between takes.

“Improving things comes naturally to me.”

Hedy Lamarr

As a pilot and a businessman, Howard Hughes was interested in faster airplanes, to sell to the military. With an intuitive grasp of fluid dynamics and dissatisfied with the blocky appearance of Hughes’ aircraft, Lamarr bought books about birds, and fish. She studied the fastest among fish and the speediest of birds, combining aspects of the two for a new and streamlined, wing design. Hughes took a look at Lamarr’s sketches and said “Hedy, you’re a genius”.

Americans couldn’t get enough of the Austrian-born actress. On screen she radiated all the “old world” exoticism of a Dietrich or a Garbo but managed a magnetism and personal warmth unique, among the three.

Offscreen she was always exploring. Learning. Experimenting. Lamarr went on to invent a stop light upgrade and a tablet capable of transforming into a soft drink, much like Alka-Seltzer, but it took WW2 to bring about her most significant contribution.

In 1940, Hedy met the pianist and avant-garde composer, George Antheil. Every bit the polymath as Lamarr herself, the two had long conversations about – of all things – guided torpedoes. The actress had unique and personal insights into the darkness, of the Nazi war machine. Wasn’t such a guidance system susceptible to jamming, sending the projectile off-course?

The pair set about designing a frequency-hopping system to defeat such measures. The obstacles were considerable. To create such a system, both sender and receiver needed to switch frequencies, not only at the same time, but to the same setting. Lamarr’s “Secret Communications System” was patented in 1942 under her then-married name, Hedy Keisler Markey.

While classified as “Red hot”, Hedy’s “thing” proved technically difficult to implement in the field. In 1957, the system was adapted for use in a secret naval sonobouy. An updated version was installed on Navy ships during the Cuban missile crisis but, by this time the patent had run out. Hedy Lamarr never was compensated for her invention.

Today, “spread spectrum” technologies you’re probably using at this very moment, modern wonders such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS, are borne of the “Mother of Wi-Fi”. The Hollywood actress with a face that could launch a thousand ships and the mind, of an engineer.

March 16, 1914 The Cailloux Affair

Most of France was riveted by the Caillaux affair in July 1914, ignorant of the European crisis barreling down on them like the four horsemen, of the apocalypse.


We heard a lot this past election, about “Left” and “Right”, “Liberal” and “Conservative”.

The terms have been with us a long time, originating in the early days of the French Revolution. In those days, National Assembly members supportive of the Monarchy sat on the President’s right.  Those favoring the Revolution, on the left. The right side of the seating arrangement began to thin out and disappeared altogether during the “Reign of Terror”, but re-formed with the restoration of the Monarchy, in 1814-1815. By this time, it wasn’t just the “Party of Order” on the right and the “Party of Movement” on the left. Now the terms began to describe nuances in political philosophy, as well.

100 years later, differences between the French left and right of the period, would be recognizable to American political observers of today.

Joseph Caillaux
Joseph Cailloux

Joseph Cailloux (rhymes with “bayou”) was a left wing politician, appointed prime minister of France in 1911. The man was indiscreet in his love life, even for a French politician. Back in 1907, Cailloux paraded about with a succession of mistresses, finally carrying on with one Henriette Raynouard, while both were married to someone else. They were both divorced by 1911 and that October, Henriette Raynouard became the second, Mrs Cailloux.

The right considered Cailloux to be far too accommodating with Germany, with whom many believed war to be all but inevitable. While serving under the administration of President Raymond Poincare in 1913, Cailloux became a vocal opponent of a bill to increase the length of mandatory military service from two years to three, intended to offset the French population disadvantage between France’s 40 million and Germany’s 70 million.

Gaston Calmette
Gaston Calmette

Gaston Calmette, editor of the leading Conservative newspaper Le Figaro, threatened to publicize love letters between the former Prime Minister and his second wife, written while both were still married for the first time.

Henriette Cailloux was not amused.

On March 16, 1914, Madame Cailloux took a taxi to the offices of Le Figaro. After being shown into Calmette’s office, the pair spoke only briefly, before Henriette withdrew the Browning .32 automatic, and fired six rounds at the editor. Two missed, but four were more than enough to do the job. Gaston Calmette was dead within six hours.

Henriette_Caillaux
Henriette Cailloux

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said the next great European war would start with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. No one realized it at the time, but Bismarck got his damn fool thing on June 28, 1914, when a Serbian Nationalist assassinated the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

The July Crisis was a series of diplomatic mis-steps, culminating in the ultimatum from Austria-Hungary to the Kingdom of Serbia. Vienna, with tacit support from Berlin, made plans to punish Serbia for her role in the assassination, even as Russia mobilized armies in support of her Slavic ally.

Meanwhile, England and France looked the other way.  In Great Britain, officialdom was focused on yet another home rule crisis concerning Ireland, while all of France was distracted by the “Trial of the Century”.

affairecaillaux_thumb

Think of the OJ trial, only in this case the killer was a former First Lady. This one had everything: Left vs. Right, the fall of the powerful, and all the salacious details anyone could ask for. Most of France was riveted by the Caillaux affair in July 1914, ignorant of the European crisis barreling down on them like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Madame Caillaux’s trial for the murder of Gaston Calmette began on July 20.

She was acquitted on July 28, the jury ruling the murder to be a “crime passionnel”.  A crime of passion. That same day, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

In the days that followed, the Czar would begin the mobilization of men and machines which would place Imperial Russia on a war footing. Imperial Germany invaded Belgium, in pursuit of the one-two punch strategy by which military planners sought first to defeat France, before turning to face the “Russian Steamroller”. England declared war in support of a 75-year old commitment to protect Belgian neutrality, a treaty obligation German diplomats dismissed as a “scrap of paper”.

Eleven million military service members and seven million civilians who were there in July 1914, wouldn’t be alive to see November 11, 1918.

March 11, 1805 Why can I not Fight for my Country too?

“Wrought upon at length, you may say, by an enthusiasm and frenzy that could brook no control – I burst the tyrant bands, which held my sex in awe, and clandestinely, or by stealth, grasped an opportunity, which custom and the world seemed to deny, as a natural privilege”. – Deborah Sampson

Her mother was Deborah Bradford Sampson, great-granddaughter of William Bradford, the Mayflower passenger and later Governor of Plymouth Colony. As the mother of seven, Deborah did the best she could. She also raised her young niece whose parents and baby brother were killed and scalped, by Indians. She was not one to make great choices in men, though. Jonathan Sampson would abandon his wife and children to start a new life, in Maine.

Deborah Sampson was the 5th child of this union, born in 1760 in the southeastern Massachusetts town of Plympton. Her father left the family destitute, and all the Sampson children were sent off to live with friends and relatives, a common practice at that time.

Today her bronze likeness greets visitors to the Sharon town library, 22 miles south of Boston. So, who is Deborah Sampson?

Sharon town library

At age ten, Deborah became an indentured servant to the family of Jeremiah Thomas, of Middleborough. She was treated well but, in 18th century New England, female education wasn’t a priority. Deborah would overcome the obstacle, persuading the Thomas sons to share their lessons with her. The episode would reveal a lot of who she’d become in later life.

As Revolution came to the soon-to-be former British colonies, Deborah supported herself as a schoolteacher. She became skilled at weaving and light carpentry and sold milking stools and pie crimpers, door to door.

In 1782, Deborah Sampson entered the life for which we know her, today. She bound her breasts with a linen cloth, donned male attire and went to war for her country. As a soldier.

In an age when the average man stood five-foot six-inches tall, Deborah stood 5’8″. With “plain features” according to a neighbor and what her biographer described as a “waist [which] might displease a coquette”, the transition wasn’t as unlikely as it would seem.

She joined an army unit in Middleborough under the assumed name of Timothy Thayer. She almost pulled it off too before being recognized, by a local. She paid back that part of her signing bonus not already spent and tried again, this time where she wouldn’t be known. Fifty miles away, in Uxbridge.

Sampson joined a light infantry unit under the assumed name of Robert Shirtliff, part of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment.

Deborah Sampson fought for a year and a half, as a man, and not in some rear-echelon outfit. The light infantry soldier was specifically chosen to be bigger and stronger than average, charged with rapid flanking movements, rearguard defense and forward reconnaissance, for units on the move. It was not a place where anyone would expect to find someone of her sex.

That baby-smooth chin earned her no end of grief from her fellow soldiers, but she persevered. Sampson fought in several skirmishes, the first outside Tarrytown New York, on July 3, 1782. There she received a deep gash on the forehead and two musket balls, to her thigh. Terrified that her sex would be discovered, she begged her fellow soldiers not to intervene. Her pleas fell on deaf ears. She was put on a horse, and dragged off to the hospital.

Doctors tended to her forehead but she sneaked out before they could get a look at that leg. Using a pen knife and sewing needle, Deborah removed one of the balls, herself. The other was too deep. She would carry it with her for the rest of her life, deep inside a wound that never quite healed.

The war was basically over following the American victory at Yorktown, yet negotiations dragged on, for a year. Even then, American soldiers remained in uniform.

On April 1, 1783, Sampson was assigned to be waiter to Major General John Paterson. That June a contingent of soldiers under General Paterson, were ordered to put down an anti-government protest by some 400 continental soldiers known as the Pennsylvania mutiny of 1783.

Deborah fell ill while in Philadelphia. Delirious, fading in and out of consciousness it was doctor Barnabas Binney who removed her clothes only to find the linen cloth, which bound her breasts. Thus discovered she was removed to the doctor’s home where the female members of the household joined in her care, with a trained nurse.

“Robert Shirtliff” recovered and, handed a note to give to General Paterson, assumed her secret was betrayed. She was right. Other women had been reprimanded for what she had done but Paterson seemed to admire what she’d accomplished. She was sent home with an honorable discharge, a few words of advice and enough money, to get home to Massachusetts.

She married one Benjamin Gannett two years later and moved to the Gannett family farm, in Sharon. There the couple raised three kids plus an orphan, but life was hard. As farms go this one was small, the soil depleted from generations of use.

In 1792 she petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for back pay, withheld because of her sex. She was awarded 34 pounds plus interest dating back to her 1783 discharge. The measure was signed by governor John Hancock.

Sampson went on a speaking tour where she’d extoll traditional feminine roles. Then she’d step out and return to the stage in uniform, flawlessly performing a long and taxing series of military drills. She did it for money but, once expenses were paid there was little left. She often borrowed money from her family and from a friend, named Paul Revere.

Revere wrote to Massachusetts member of Congress William Eustis in 1804: “I have been induced to enquire her situation, and character, since she quit the male habit, and soldiers uniform; for the more decent apparel of her own gender… humanity and justice obliges me to say, that every person with whom I have conversed about her, and it is not a few, speak of her as a woman with handsome talents, good morals, a dutiful wife, and an affectionate parent.

On this day in 1805, Congress approved her application. An invalid pension of $4 a month.

Deborah Sampson wasn’t the first woman awarded a military pension, that honor went to Margaret Cochran Corbin. At the battle of Fort Washington on November 16, 1776, Corbin continued to fire the gun in whose service her husband was killed, only minutes before. A fine job she did too, before being hit by enemy fire. With her jaw and her left breast severely damaged, her left arm all but ripped from her body, Corbin entered captivity following British victory.

Corbin never did regain use of that left arm. Gruff and thoroughly unfeminine she made few friends among the women of her age, preferring instead the rough and masculine company of fellow soldiers.

Deborah Sampson adopted the more traditional role of wife and mother and died of yellow fever in her 66th year. She went to her rest in the Rock Ridge cemetery in Sharon, Massachusetts. So it is the bronze likeness of Massachusetts’ “official heroine” greets visitors to the Sharon town library, the only person so honored, by an American state.

Every day, visitors of all ages pass her likeness, in front of that library. Do they know her name? Who knows, but wouldn’t she set a fine example for our daughters and granddaughters. Not at all the sort of role model our girls are subjected to, in our own day and age.

February 15, 1946 ENIAC

We are surrounded today by computing horsepower, undreamed of by any but the science fiction buffs of earlier generations. The 8088-processor powered IBM personal computer released 40 short years ago had eight times more memory than “Apollo’s brain”, the guidance computer navigating Apollo 11 to the moon and back, ten years earlier.

In the age of sail, naval combat was “muzzle to muzzle”. Before 1800 most such actions took place at ranges between 60 and 150 feet (18 – 46 m).

USS Constitution in combat during the War of 1812

The Civil War Battle of Cherbourg in 1864 pitting the Mohican-class sloop-of-war USS Kearsarge against the Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama, opened at 3,000 feet (910m).

Battle of Cherbourg, 1864

In 1884 the invention of the steam turbine produced speeds in naval vessels, never before dreamed of. By the turn of the 20th century, rifled guns of vastly larger size hurled explosive ammunition over the horizon. Enormously complex fire control solutions had to be calculated for range, movement of both vessels, elevation, the yaw of the firing ship, meteorological conditions, even the ambient temperature in powder magazines.

The projectile in flight is subject to forces such as gravity, drag, wind and air pressure and, at longer ranges, even latitude and rotation of the planet. Any given salvo may be accurately fired at a moving target only to fall harmlessly, several ship lengths behind. With the other guy shooting back, there isn’t always another chance to get it right.

Battle of Jutland, WW1

On land, artillery fire control solutions are nearly as complex and all of it, pertains only to a single gun. What is to be done then, about training all the guns on a warship, against a single target. What about a whole fleet?

Over time, increasingly accurate solutions were devised but, by World War 2, the race for fire control supremacy had outstripped the old ways. The penalty for failure was the difference, between life and death.

Extreme slow motion image, of air patterns around a bullet, in supersonic flight

We are surrounded today by computing horsepower, undreamed of by any but the science fiction buffs of earlier generations. The 8088-processor powered IBM personal computer released 40 short years ago had eight times more memory than “Apollo’s brain”, the guidance computer navigating Apollo 11 to the moon and back, ten years earlier.

The iPhone 5s has 1,300 times the computing power, of the Apollo moon lander.

A wonder for its time, IBM PC processors could address up to 64k at a time, within the computer’s (max) 1 mb memory. The 80286 based PC/AT released three years later sported a 20mb internal hard drive. Today, 128 bucks at Walmart will get you 4 Gigabytes of memory and a 160 gig, hard drive.

Back to artillery. The idea of a calculating machine was anything, but new. The abacus has been around for 3,000 years. The hand operated Antikythera analog computer dredged up from the ocean bottom in 1901, may go back as far as 205 BC. The 12th century “castle clock” invented by the Muslim polymath Ismail al-Jazari may be the world’s first programmable computer, capable of showing local time, lunar and solar orbits and even adjusting for length of day at certain times of the year.

Modern recreation of the ancient Antikythera mechanism

The US Army commissioned a study for a giant electronic “brain” to calculate firing tables back on May 31, 1943. Work began with Johns Hopkins physicist John Mauchly with chief engineer John Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering.

It took a year for the team to design the machine and another 18 months to build it. The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was officially powered up in November, 1945.

The one thing those ancient machines have in common, is they were all hardware. “Software”, as it was known to programmers of the 1940s, had instructions written directly into the machine, in binary code.

The war was over in December 1945 but the military still had work for ENIAC to do. The first real-world calculations were performed On December 10.

ENIAC was formally dedicated at the University of Pennsylvania on February 15, 1946. Risible though the machine may be by modern standards, ENIAC was a wonder of science and technology, for its time. The press dubbed the thing, a “Giant Brain”. A trajectory taking 20 hours to calculate by humans took 30 seconds. One ENIAC was the computational equal, of 2,400 humans.

What the press didn’t know, was behind the scenes. In the early days of the war, the Moore School of Engineering worked with the Ballistic Research Laboratory (BRL) where a team of 100 “human computers” were trained to hand-calculate firing tables for artillery shells. With so many men off to war and programming seen at that time as “clerical work” the BRL hired, mostly women.

These were the “Top Secret Rosies”, the female “computers”, of WW2. When the ENIAC project began six of them came over, as programmers.

Marlyn Wescoff [left] and Ruth Lichterman were two of the female programmers of ENIAC. H/T Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

Projects involved design for the hydrogen bomb, weather predictions, cosmic-ray studies, thermal ignition, random-number studies and wind-tunnel design.

ENIAC began as a room-sized modular computer comprised of individual panels, to perform different functions. Numbers were sent back & forth on buses, called trays. At its height ENIAC had 18,000 vacuum tubes, 7,200 crystal diodes, 1,500 relays, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and something like 5 million hand soldered joints occupying 1,800 square feet. The machine consumed 150 kilowatts of electricity. Rumor had it when ENIAC was switched on the lights in all Philadelphia, dimmed.

All things must come to an end. ENIAC, once a wonder of science and technology was already obsolete, by 1956. At its height, the machine weighed in at 25 tons and performed 5,000 calculations, per second. Weighing in at 4.55 ounces the iPhone 6, performs 25 Billion calculations per second.

Today the electronic descendants of ENIAC perform tasks of increasing, even mind boggling complexity. Mapping the human genome. Climate research. Exploration, for oil and gas.

Before long top-of-the line mainframe computers were performing at a rate not in the thousands of instructions per second but MIPS. Millions of instructions per second. The first supercomputer arrived in 1965 with so much horsepower as to require a whole new unit of measure: FLOPS “floating-point operations per second”.

The term wasn’t in use during ENIAC’s day but, if it was, that bad boy was chunkin’ along, at 500 FLOPS. Supercomputer performance metrics have since climbed the metric decadic system, bending vocabularies to new and hitherto unimagined heights. KiloFLOPS was eclipsed by megaFLOPS and gigaFLOPS and continued ever onward. The “tera” prefix (Trillion) gave way to the dizzying petaFLOP, or one one quadrillion: a thousand trillion floating point line operations, per second.

“The IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer “Intrepid” at Argonne National Laboratory runs 164,000 processor cores using normal data center air conditioning, grouped in 40 racks/cabinets connected by a high-speed 3-D torus network”. H/T Wikipedia

In April 2020 the distributed computing network folding@home acheived computing performance of one exaFLOPS. Unless you’re in interplanetary space I can’t think of another use, for such a number. Unless we’re talking about the federal debt.

As of January 2021 no single machine has scaled such heights, but they’re working on it. One exaFLOPS. A quintillion floating point line operations, per second. The estimated speed at the neural level, of the human brain.

February 12, 1554 No Sadder Spot on Earth

The “Nine Day Queen” ​experienced the swiftest rise and fall of any Monarch, in the history of the English crown. She never wanted any of it, but it didn’t matter. The ambitions of others would cost the teenage Lady Jane, her head.

A popular story has Martin Luther nailing a challenge to Church authority to the Wittenberg Palace Church, in 1517. In all probability, it never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the One Church at this time. This was an academic work, mailed to Archbishop Albrecht and offered for scholarly disputation.

Luther’s “95 theses” rocked the Christian world and may be counted among the most important documents in world history, alongside the Cylinder of the Persian King Cyrus, the Magna Carta and the Declaration of independence.

What seems to the modern mind as mere doctrinal differences, were life and death matters in the late middle and early modern ages.

The European “Wars of Religion” spawned by the Protestant Reformation raged across Europe for a hundred years. Other issues were involved as well – territorial ambitions, revolution, Great Power conflicts, but fault lines pulling at the Christian world, were never far from the surface. The Peasant’s War of 1524-’25 alone killed more Europeans than any conflict prior to the French Revolution, in 1789. The Thirty Years’ War of 1618-’48 laid waste to Germany and killed a third of its population, a death rate twice that of World War I.

The Protestant Reformation spread across Europe reaching its greatest geographic extent in the latter half of the 16th century. In England, the schism began with Pope Clement VII and King Henry VIII, of England. Desperate for a male heir, Henry sought divorce from Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. The Pope refused an annulment. Before it was over King Henry VIII had established the church of England with himself, at its head.

Henry died in 1547 leaving his son by Jane Seymour, the nine year old Edward Tudor, King. Next in order of succession came Edward’s half-sister by Catherine of Aragon Mary Tudor, followed by his half-sister Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn.

Despite breaking with the church in Rome, Henry never permitted the renunciation of Catholic doctrine, or ceremony. Henry, the first English monarch raised as a Protestant, dispensed with clerical celibacy and the Mass, and required services to be conducted, in English.

Despite her title, Henry’s cousin Jane had little use for the goings on at the royal court. “Lady” Jane Grey would rather read a book. Pretty, smart and well educated, she was the daughter of Henry’s younger sister and as such, in line for the crown.

At nine Jane was sent to live with Henry’s widow, Katherine Parr.

There exists among us a type of person, with an insatiable need to control the lives of others. People who desire power, above all things. Call it a personality defect or a psychological condition, that’s up to you, but one thing is certain. History is replete with such individuals at all times and in all political stations. All too often, these are the people who Become, history.

Books have been written about the scheming, the grasping for power behind the scenes, of the royal throne. Such machinations are beyond the scope of this essay but this story is chock full of such individuals, not the least of whom were John Dudley, duke of Northumberland and Jane’s own father, Henry.

In 1551, Henry Grey was created 1st duke of Suffolk. With pre-teen Henry on the throne Dudley, duke of Northumberland, exercised enormous power behind the scenes. In May 1553, Suffolk and Dudley arrange of their two children: Lady Jane to Northumberland’s son, Lord Guildford Dudley.

Edward ruled until the ripe old age of fifteen and fell ill from some lung condition, possibly tuberculosis. Knowing he was dying, Edward and his council drew up a “Devise for the Succession” to prevent the return of Catholic rule.

Lady Jane was devoutly Protestant. Edward bypassed his half sisters Mary and Elizabeth to name Jane Grey, his rightful heir. At fifteen, this quiet teenage girl who’d rather read a book became the Great Hope of Protestant England.

King Edward VI died on July 6, 1553 his death kept quiet, for four days. Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed Queen of England, France and Ireland on July 10, her husband Guildford, the Duke of Clarence. Jane fainted on learning she was Queen. She later said she accepted the crown, only with reluctance.

Lady Jane being asked to take the throne as imagined by artist, Robert Smirke

To the devoutly Catholic Mary Tudor, the future “Bloody Mary”, the line of succession was clear. She herself was named in the Parliamentary act of 1544. She was next according to Henry’s private papers. Mary Tudor was not about to be denied what was rightfully hers.

It is said that success has many fathers but failure, is an orphan. Dudley set out with a body of troops, to capture the would be Queen as the privy council, personal advisors to the crown, now declared support for Mary. With the rug pulled out from under him Dudley’s support, evaporated. Even Henry Grey, Jane’s father, switched his support to Mary.

Queen for only nine days, Jane was deposed on July, 19, 1553. The only English monarch in 500 years without so much, as a portrait. Now simply “Jane Dudley, wife of Guildford”, she was imprisoned in the Gaoler’s (Jailer’s) apartments at the Tower of London, Guildford in the Beauchamp Tower.

Mary rode triumphantly into London on August 3, accompanied by her half sister Elizabeth and a procession of over 800 dignitaries.

Jane was charged with high treason as was Guildford and several associates. The trial began on November 3 with no doubt, as to how it would end. Just turned 17 in October the “nine days’ Queen” was convicted of high treason and sentenced to “be burned alive on Tower Hill or beheaded as the Queen pleases”.

Even yet, there was reason to believe that Jane might be spared. What happened next sealed the teenager’s fate.

Once crowned, Mary I wasn’t about to be succeeded by her younger (Protestant) half sister, Elizabeth. She turned her attention to finding a mate. Mary needed to produce an heir. The House of commons petitioned that the new Queen select an English mate, but she chose Prince Philip of Spain.

The marriage was controversial. English patriots opposed the match, not wanting Britain relegated to a mere dependency, of the Habsburgs. English Protestants feared Catholic rule.

Mary I, Queen of England

There followed a series of uprisings in opposition to the marriage, called after the rebel politician Thomas Wyatt. The so-called Wyatt’s Rebellion explicitly opposed the marriage but carried with it the implication, of an intent to overthrow the Queen. There were even dark rumors, of assassination.

Jane’s father joined in the rebellion as did two of his brothers. For the government, this was the last straw. The Bishop of Winchester persuaded the Queen that Jane was a risk and would continue to be so, due to her influence over Protestant rebels. Her execution and that of her husband were scheduled for February 9.

Three days were allowed for the former Queen to save her life, and convert to Catholicism. Mary even sent her chaplain John Feckenham to “save her soul”.

Jane politely declined to convert but she soon made friends, with Feckenham. She even invited him to her own execution.

On the morning of February 12, 1554, Jane watched out the window as her husband, was wheeled off in a cart. With the words “Oh Guildford” she watched the return of his body and his head, each wrapped in separate white sheets.

Then came the sound of footsteps. At her door.

Brought to the scaffold, Jane began to speak. “Good people, I am come hither to die” concluding, “I do wash my hands thereof in innocence“. The law made her a traitor but all she had done, was accept the positi0n.

She recited Psalm 51 (Have mercy upon me, O God) in English and handed her gloves and handkerchief to her maid. As was customary the executioner asked for forgiveness. That she gave, adding “I pray you dispatch me quickly.” She then asked “Will you take it off before I lay me down?” She was referring to her head. “No Madame”, came the reply. Lady Jane applied her own mask and reached out groping, for the block. In that she received help. Outstretching her arms, she spoke. Jesus’ last words, as recounted by Luke: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

The slender neck was parted, with a stroke.

There was no funeral. No stone to mark the grave. Lady Jane was simply buried, along with her husband in the parish church of the Tower of London. Saint Peter ad Vincula. (“St. Peter in chains”). She is the last of five beheaded females buried in the chancel area, along with Queen Anne Boleyn, Queen Katherine Howard, Lady Rochford and Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury.

Three hundred years later the essayist Thomas Babington wrote in memoriam, of those who rest, at St. Peter ad Vincula:

“In truth there is no sadder spot on the earth than that little cemetery. Death is there associated, not, as in Westminster Abbey and Saint Paul’s, with genius and virtue…but with whatever is darkest in human nature and in human destiny, with the savage triumph of implacable enemies, with the inconstancy, the ingratitude, the cowardice of friends, with all the miseries of fallen greatness and of blighted fame…”.

Church graveyard at St. Peter ad Vincula