Category Archives: History

Wordless Wednesday #50: Parking

King Richard, Parking, Grave, Archeaology

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July 4, 2018 · 12:23 AM

Wordless Wednesday #49: Vintage Lugano

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June 27, 2018 · 5:18 PM

Postcard from Lugano IV

Greetings from Lugano!  Between my last postcard to you and this one, we’ve managed to emerge from the Dark Ages here and get internet in the flat.  We’re here for another week, and are being spoilt with perfect skies, crystal blue waters on the lake, and sunshine.

Before I let photos speak for themselves, I’d like to share an interesting story that happened today: My husband and I took a ferry to a small town on the lake, called Morcote, and we happened to sit next to an older couple the same ages as my in-laws. I find people fascinating, and so we started talking; before long, I learned the origins of their family names, about accidents when the husband was a small boy, their children and grandchildren, their careers, and a lot more. When they told me their first names, I mentioned that my husband had an older cousin with the same name, whose father was killed in a train accident in 1948 in Einsiedeln. It turned out that the woman’s cousin and uncle were on that same train, one car back from my husband’s uncle; they were severely injured, but both survived.  What are the odds of someone else from Zurich being on the same boat on Lake Lugano today, sitting next to us, whose family had also been affected by the same accident 70 years ago? It just goes to prove how small the world is, and that we just might have something (or a lot) in common with the person sitting next to us on a ship, or in a train, or on a subway, or in a concert, or in a classroom – we just have to break out of our own little bubbles and reach out. And it also reminded me that sometimes the smallest actions can change lives forever: Joseph Hüsler had wanted to bring his children (2 and 4 at the time) candy after visiting his aunts in Einsiedeln; he forgot, got off the first train he’d been on, and spent more time with the aunts after he’d purchased the candy, until the next train departed. That was the train that crashed. Curious, I found a couple archive photos from the time of the accident; here they are (both images, credit – http://www.waedenswil.ch):

1948 Zugunglück Wädenswil-Einsiedeln - 22 Februar 1948, 22 Starb - waedenswil.ch1948 Zugunglück - Wädenswil-Einsiedeln - 22 Starb - waedenswil.ch

We had a wonderful visit with the couple, and then waved goodbye as we went our separate ways. So, as promised, here are a few images of Lugano, Morcote, and surrounding towns:

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Thoughts about Props

The past fortnight I’ve been doing something that requires occasional brain-power but mostly just time, hands and space:  I’ve been making props (see below) – to be precise, a stage-prop sized crown (that will serve as a piñata, and then an offering basket), and a life-sized helmet, shield, and sword (the latter is still in progress).  In between those times of brain-work, I started to wonder where the word prop came from, and where it’s gone over its lifetime in English. And when did props become another word for congratulations, good job? It’s a noun, a verb, and an entire phrase or concept.

As an object used in a play, it came into English as properties and was in use in that theatrical context from the early 15th century; it became props around 1840 (we’re not the only generation to shorten words for convenience). In German, the word is “das Requisit” which is related to the English word “requisite” (indispensable, required, essential) which is kinda the point of theatre props.  Prop can also be used to mean support, both literally (for plants and the like) and figuratively (e.g. when a person is in a position of either authority or notoriety for no reason – yet not quite the same as a goldbrick, shirker, malingerer, or tool).  It can be the shortened term for a propeller (e.g. prop plane or turboprop), or proposal (e.g. a political issue up for vote). Props as a shortened slang for proper respect due for (a job well done) started popping up around 1999. In that context, it’s closely related to kudos (an uncountable noun meaning praise or accolades), which entered English as university slang in 1799, and comes from the Greek kydos meaning glory or fame (in battle).

That’s what I love about English – a simple word can have quite a pedigree!

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History Undusted: The Mississippi Delta Chinese

Mississippi and Chinese are not two terms one usually expects to see in the same sentence; yet it’s a slice of history worth undusting (though, for those who grew up in this subculture of the South, it’s not history, but reality): An industrious, well-educated but small population of Chinese immigrants made a significant impact on the economy and social environment of their communities along the Mississippi Delta.

The first influx of Chinese to America came in the pioneering days, when they worked in gold mines, along railroads, and provided laundry services in the Old West.  More came to work in the cotton fields of the South when the plantation owners could no longer count on free slave labour.  Most of these Chinese came from Guangdong province in China, which has a similar climate to the Delta.  The opportunity for work in America afforded them the chance to help support their family members who remained behind in China.  They quickly established themselves in a niche market between the whites and the blacks, serving both communities with segregated grocery stores.

During the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943), they were unable to own property, so the families lived behind their stores in the same building; their children all attended one-room schoolhouses, some of which were built by the Southern Baptist church (which remains a big part of their lives). [The fact that there was such a law implemented to restrict a specific ethnic group is the greatest remaining witness to the number of Chinese immigrants of the initial wave (during the California Gold Rush, 1848-1855), as records or censuses of that time period have all but vanished.]  The parents worked 365 days a year to send their children to college; many of those children went on to be pharmacists, NASA scientists, veterans (the Delta was represented by 182 Chinese men who served in World War 2), doctors, and many other professions.

For a fascinating look at an almost unknown community in the heart of America’s South, click on the photo below and the links provided below that.

Mississippi Delta Chinese

 

E. Samantha Cheng: Discovering the Mississippi Delta Chinese Legacy

Heritage Series: Honor and Duty: The Mississippi Delta Chinese

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History Undusted: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks, Immortal HeLa CellsIf you’ve ever taken any medication stronger than an aspirin and benefited from it, chances are that you owe your thanks to an African American woman who never lived to hear your tale.

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

What is most remarkable about her life is something she never knew:  During the diagnosis of her cancer, done at Johns Hopkins (the only hospital near her home that would treat black patients), her doctor, George Gey, was given samples of her cervix for biopsies. Before this time, any cells cultured from other cells would die within days.  Dr Gey discovered that her cells were remarkably durable and prolific.  A selection of her cells was isolated and cultured (without her knowledge – back then, permission wasn’t necessary for what was considered tissue waste) into the immortal cell line that became known as HeLa Cells; they are still in use today worldwide, being the first human cells to be cloned successfully, in 1955.

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

For a fascinating book on this topic, see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. I’ve read it, and had trouble putting it down!

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

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History Undusted: Hnefatafl (Viking Chess)

hnefatafl

Hnefatafl (meaning King’s Table, aka “Viking Chess”) is a board game that originated in Northern Europe; the oldest board found to date was located in Denmark, dated to ~ 400 BC. Because no written history of that period for northern Europe exists, apart from runic inscriptions on stone, wood, and bone, the rules of this game had to be recreated, so there are no hard and fast rules agreed upon by those who play it.  It is far older than chess, which originated in northern India in the 6th century AD and spread to the rest of the world through Persia.

In Hnefatafl, the game is played on a square board (as pictured). There are five spaces on the board that are considered special: The space in the centre of the board is the ‘Throne’ space, and the four corner spaces are the escape points for the King.

Unlike most modern board games, Hnefatafl does not start with even-strength sides (as in chess). The two sides are divided into attackers and defenders; in the illustration, the pieces along the edges of the board are the attackers, and those in the centre are the defenders. The objective of the attacker is to capture the king (centre). The objective of the defenders is to protect the king long enough for him to escape.

The board shown above is a modern version; but online, I’ve seen a wide variety of boards, from draw-bags of leather with stone pieces to wooden blocks on a large outdoor board.  I’m certain that the travelling Norse, who loved board games, word games and competitions of any sort, would have made do with whatever was at hand and would have also had travel versions of their favourite games, just like we do today.

For further information, check out the Wikipedia article, or see the rules and how to play the game here.

Originally posted on History Undusted,

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Upgrades & Technostalgia

Computer UpgradeThere’s no denying the fact that computers are huge blessings – combined with that little invention called “internet” they’re an unstoppable pair… until they stop, and life comes to a screeching halt.

That happened last week, as our main office computer gave up the ghost, after fighting a long, painful demise.  My own laptop, from which I write, has been limping and is in need of repair, but it was our only lifeline to ordering a replacement… done, and three days later, the packages arrived!  I’ve spent the better hours of 5 days sorting out things like transfer of emails and contact lists, programmes, updates, software and hardware setups, and patch-jobs to get old programmes to understand the new ones and vice-versa!

Instead of the “old fashioned” desktop computer with a huge processor that either stands on the floor and collects cat hairs and dust bunnies or stands on our desk and collects dust bunnies and cat hairs, we decided to go with a laptop hooked up to a docking station and two screens.  Sweet!  And yes, I can use both… it’s great when I’ve got research documents open while writing, or doing translations or editing two documents simultaneously.  Now, to get my laptop repaired.

It’s amazing how we’ve become so dependent on computers, isn’t’ it?  Personal computers didn’t really begin to enter households in any significant way until around 1990; technically, they hit the market in the early ’80’s, but the products were mostly limited to electronics geeks and university libraries.  We got our first home computer in 1993, and it had RAM of a whopping 256 MB!!  How could anyone ever use THAT much??  Now we’ve passed Gigabytes, and we’re into terabytes (TB, 10004 ), and it won’t be long until we’re into petabytes (PB, 10005), exabytes (EB, 10006 ), zettabytes (ZB, 10007) and yottabytes (YB, 10008).  I remember writing business letters in DOS – back before Windows, virtual desktops or virtual wallpaper had even been dreamt of.  I remember floppy discs – the latest in technology, now used as drink coasters somewhere in the world, I’m sure.  5-inch floppy discs became passé with the advent of (gasp!) 2-inch version… how could anything that small have so much space on it (1.44 MB).  Imagine – back in the advent of computers, there was no Microsoft, no Amazon, no internet, no cloud storage, no dropbox, no websites, no Skype… they were essentially an information processor, with transfer of information only possible through a floppy disc or good ol’ fashioned printouts and photocopies (we won’t even go into the whole issue of the love-hate relationship most secretaries had with the first few generations of photocopiers).

Do you remember cassette tapes?  Polaroid cameras?  Now music is on a cloud or virtual shelf, and selfies and Instagram have made physical print photos nearly obsolete, except as an art form.

20 years later and these things all fit in your pocketMobile Phone History

 

These images show how far we’ve come in less than 40 years.  But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  Check out these up-and-coming products or concepts that are in the making:  Just hover your cursor over each image for more information.

 

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Space: The Final Frontier

For you Sci-Fi buffs out there, that title will be very familiar, as it is the opening line of the Star Trek manifesto.  The novel I’m working on at the moment is just that – Sci-Fi, albeit not Star Trek.  It nevertheless takes me into space, and that’s always a fascinating thing!  So here are a few fun facts about what lies beyond our atmosphere:

  • Jupiter’s Ganymede is the largest moon in the Solar System, and is even larger than the planet of Mercury.
  • Venus is the hottest planet in the solar system, with a surface temperature of 460°C. A day on Venus is 243 Earth-days long, but its year is only 224.7 days; Venus spins backwards on its axis.
  • Oxygen is the third most common element on the Sun, after helium and hydrogen.
  • A neutron star is the strongest known magnet in the universe, and such stars are among the fastest-spinning objects observed, spinning up to 500 times per second.
  • Since 1992, when the first exoplanet was discovered, there have been 3,728 confirmed planets in 2,794 systems, with 622 systems having more than one planet.
  • About 1 in 5 stars comparable to our sun have an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone (known to scientists as the “Goldilocks Zone”). It is assumed that there are 200 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy alone; based on that, there would be 11 billion potentially habitable Earth-sized planets in our galaxy (and up to 40 billion if you count red dwarf stars as well).
  • Proxima Centauri is the nearest star to us beyond the Sun.
  • Russia is larger than the entire surface area of Pluto.
  • The largest known star is Westerlund 1-26, which is 2,000 times bigger than the Sun.
  • Olympus Mons, on Mars, is the largest volcano in the solar system. Due to the low gravity of Mars and the lack of plate tectonics, it has been able to grow to three times higher than Mount Everest.
  • Dark matter and dark energy are thought to make up nearly 95% of all matter in the universe.
  • The Boomerang Nebula (also known as “the Bow Tie Nebula”) is the coldest known place in the universe, with a temperature of 1 K (−272.15°C; −457.87°F).
  • The Sun is growing, but we won’t have to worry about it for a few billion years, when it will become close enough to swallow the Earth.
  • On Mercury during the day, the Sun rises, stops, and then sets where it rose.  It rotates on its axis exactly three times for every two revolutions it makes around the Sun, meaning that, if you lived on Mercury, you would only see one day every two years.
  • The Sun’s core releases the equivalent of 100 billion nuclear bombs every second, and its energy is emitted as heat and light.
  • The storm on Jupiter known as the ‘Great Red Spot’ has been going on for at least 350 years; it’s so large that dozens of Earths would fit into it.
  • A supermassive black hole is thought to be present in the centre of nearly every galaxy, including our own (ours is a runt compared to the average size).
  • Shooting stars really aren’t stars; they’re meteors – and even then, they are often only dust particles falling through our atmosphere that vaporize due to the heat of friction with the atmospheric gases. If they are large enough to survive the journey through our atmosphere and impact on the ground, they are called meteorites.
  • We are in constant motion; planets move within the solar system, the solar system moves within the Milky Way Galaxy, which in turn moves within The Local Group of Galaxies; the local group is moving toward the Virgo Cluster.
  • Apollo 14 astronaut Alan Shepard left two golf balls on the Moon in 1971.  They’re still there:  One is in the Javelin Crater, and the second fell near where the ALSEP (Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment) was deployed.
  • The Moon’s Javelin Crater gets its name because on the Apollo 14 mission, fellow astronaut to Shepard, Ed Mitchell, threw the Solar Wind Collector staff as a make-shift javelin.
  • Uranus has 27 known moons, all of which are named after characters from the works of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope.
  • Jupiter has 69 known moons.
  • Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune have no solid surface to land on, being comprised of gas.
  • Did you know that the Earth is actually a ringed planet by now?  At the last official count (2013), more than 170 million pieces of space junk debris smaller than 1 cm (0.4 in), about 670,000 debris 1–10 cm, and around 29,000 larger debris were estimated to be in orbit; these clouds (in both the geosynchronous Earth orbit and the low Earth orbit) make it hazardous for spacecraft, due to the dangers of collisions; they basically sandblast craft, which makes the launch of equipment like telescopes or solar panels extremely susceptible to damage.
  • Below 2,000 km (1,200 mi) Earth-altitude, debris are denser than meteoroids; most are dust from solid rocket motors, surface erosion debris like paint flakes, and frozen coolant from RORSAT nuclear-powered satellites (according to Wikipedia).  Maybe it’s actually a good thing that we can’t make it to other planets to colonize…

Below are images from APOD – enjoy!

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History Undusted: Famous Misquote

Sometimes famous last words occur long before the individual dies; what I mean by that is that a pivotal statement is made, and thereafter (whether immediately, or down through history ever after) the person ends up eating their hat.  Here’s an example:

Charles H. Duell, director of the US patent office 1899, is thought to have said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.

But we should never judge a book by its cover; because he never said this!  What he actually said was, “In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.” ( The Friend, Volume 76, 1902)  Quite a different matter.

It was, in fact, an earlier Patent Office Commissioner, Henry Ellsworth that may have been responsible for the sentiment: In a report to the 1843 Congress, Ellsworth states, “The advancement of the arts, from year to year, taxes our credulity and seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end.“*

Oddly, you will find the misquote in published books and all over the web; let that be a reminder to us to do a bit of investigation of our own.  Don’t even trust news sources such as newspapers or television news, as they are known to hype up, propagandize, invent, or at the very least embellish events. This last link is a short talk about journalism in the US, and it’s an important reminder for everyone in the world that just because it’s in print or on the news doesn’t mean you can fully trust its veracity.

Abraham-Lincoln-Internet-Quote.png
*Source:  Wikipedia (Take even that source with a pinch of salt!)
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