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Posted in Geology, Historical articles, Minerals on Friday, 1 July 2016

This edited article about gold originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 827 published on 19 November 1977.

Californian goldrush, picture, image, illustration

The Californian goldrush by James E McConnell

Gold fever! In the 19th century, it could sweep whole continents like a raging fire. America, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada each had their own gold rush, or rushes.

The pattern kept repeating itself. There would be a rumour of a gold “strike”, then a stampede to the area would begin. Office boys in London and New York headed for the ports: good men and bad men set out for the gold-fields. Many never arrived; many more never found gold; a few discovered unimaginable wealth – in places with names like Bonanza Creek and Last Chance Gulch.

Some of those who had been in the Californian Gold Rush of 1849 in their teens were to be found heading for the Klondike in 1898. Such was gold fever.

Two things made the 19th century the greatest age of gold-mining – the sheer size of the finds, and the fact that travel by sea and later by rail became available to everyone.

Even so, toiling in the gold-fields was a hard way of making a fortune. Read the rest of this article »

Nicolo, Maffeo and Marco

Posted in Exploration, Historical articles, History, Trade, Travel on Friday, 1 July 2016

This edited article about Marco Polo originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 812 published on 6 August 1977.

Marco Polo, picture, image, illustration

Marco Polo crossing the Persian deserts still largely unexplored today, by Ron Embleton

Seventeen-year-old Marco Polo watched his deeply suntanned father and his uncle packing their bags and cases in their luxury house in Venice.

“Please take me with you,” Marco begged.

His father, Nicolo, looked at Maffeo, and the two elder men in turn looked at the fine, strapping young Marco.

“Very well,” said Nicolo. “You may come with us.”

The Polo’s were preparing for another journey to the mysterious East – only this time, as Marco knew, they had a mission to fulfil.

Two years before, Nicolo and Maffeo Polo had returned from a trip to China which had lasted ten years. They had crossed the great Gobi Desert and come to the court of the Kublai Khan, ruler of all the Tartars, in distant Cathay, where China is today.

At this time – the middle of the thirteenth century – it was unheard on for travellers to ventire so far east. All that men in Europe knew about the other side of the world was what they had been told in legend.

Marco knew that his uncle and his father had returned to Venice because the Great Khan had asked them to speak to the Pope on behalf of the Tartars, so that his people might be told something of the Christian religion.

And the two elder Polos had already told Marco of some of their exciting stories of the Great Khan’s court, and had described to him the riches and treasures that were to be found in the East. Read the rest of this article »

Sack-cloth and ashes

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion, Sinners on Friday, 1 July 2016

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 392 published on 19 July 1969.

Mordecai, picture, image, illustration

Mordecai wearing sack-cloth with ashes cries out bitterly among his threatened people, the Jews

We aren’t happy when we have made a mistake, and if we dislike admitting it to ourselves, we dislike admitting it to others even more.

Sometimes, however, we may be able to make things easier by a phrase which may bring a faint smile to the face of the person we have to confess to. “I really am sorry,” we may say. “It was a stupid thing to do. Here I am in sack-cloth and ashes.”

This is an odd thing to say, and it would be an even odder sight if it were literally true! What we mean, of course, is that we are pretending to have dressed ourselves in the clothing which represented a penitent person in Biblical times.

There are several references to this custom in the Bible. Sometimes sackcloth was used to mark a great misfortune, as when a decree was issued by a certain Persian King ordering a great persecution of the Jews. One of their leaders, Mordecai, “rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and bitter cry.” (Esther, Chapter 4 verse 1).

But the custom was usually a way of expressing deep sorrow for something that had displeased God. When Jonah preached to the people in the wicked city of Nineveh, we are told that the people there “put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them,” and that even the King removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes (Jonah, Chapter 3, verses 5 and 6).

A famous instance of a King wearing sackcloth as a mark of his own repentance is that of the wicked King Ahab. With the help of his evil wife, Jezebel, Ahab had arranged for an innocent man named Naboth to be stoned to death on a false charge. This had been contrived so that the King could seize a little vineyard which Naboth had owned, next door to the palace grounds. Ahab badly wanted this vineyard for himself, to turn into a herb garden.

The prophet Elijah learned of the cruel plot by which Naboth had been got out of the way, and, confronting the King boldly, warned him that a terrible fate would overtake not only Ahab and Jezebel but their whole household, in punishment for their crime. Frightened by the prophet’s words, Ahab “rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth,” and went about dejectedly (1 Kings 21, verse 27).

In their writings, the prophets often advised their hearers to “gird themselves with sackcloth” as a mark of sorrow for their sins. And Jesus himself used the words. Rebuking the people of certain villages, he said, “If the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

In view of the widespread use of this phrase, it is not surprising that it has passed into our everyday speech as an expression of regret and a desire to make amends.

The crinoline

Posted in Absurd, Fashion, Historical articles, History on Friday, 29 April 2016

This edited article about fashion originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 451 published on 5 September 1970.

Crinolined equestrian, picture, image, illustration

The Crinoline Equestrian

Have you ever wondered why some old houses, even small ones, built during the Victorian era have wide doors? It was not to save bricks, nor was it because the house was built in a more spacious age. It was so that the women of the house could go in and out with their crinolines.

Everything changes in fashion, particularly in women’s fashions, but nothing has changed more through the ages than the shapes and sizes of women’s skirts. At various times they have been long and loose, at others so tight fitting that the wearers could hardly hobble. They have been so huge and flounced and stuffed and padded with petticoats that they must have been a burden to wear, or they have shrunk and shortened until there is hardly anything of them at all. Some people think that the “mini” has had its day. What next, the “maxi” and the “midi”? Then will these more ample garments swell into ultra modern reincarnations of the cumbersome crinoline?

The crinoline first appeared in Paris about the year 1840. It was a wide skirt padded out with horse hair and linen. (“Crinis” is Latin for hair, “linum” for thread.) Previously dresses had been very high-waisted and very straight.

At the start of this fashion skirts were padded out with petticoats. A cool two or three to begin with, but as the competition hotted up for the widest skirt, so did the petticoats, until young ladies at dances were suffering in the swirling midst of 14 petticoats! Once immersed in this sweltering array of linen they just had to stand. They stood in their coaches on the way to the ball, and they stood for refreshments and in between dances. For if they once sat down their crinoline and 14 petticoats would be crumpled and pushed out of shape.

And what a shape they were! Writers of their own time said that women in crinolines looked like tea cosies or bells!

To save weight and heat, attempts were made to stiffen the outerskirt with pneumatic tubes that were blown or pumped up like bicycle tyres. Some dresses had tubes filled with water, but these were disliked for fear of an embarrassing leak. Hoops of rolled horsehair, cane and wire were more popular, although they had the amusing effect of causing the skirt to swing from the waist like a bell, rising at the back if the lady stood too close to a table, rising high in the front if she sat down, and exposing her “ankles” almost to her knees when walking too close to a friend. At last, in 1856, all these problems were solved by the invention of the cage crinoline. The inventor was an ingenious Frenchman. He patented a device of wire spring and tape. There would be as many as 35 hoops in one cage. Read the rest of this article »

USS Nautilus

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Ships, Technology, Weapons on Friday, 29 April 2016

This edited article about the USS Nautilus first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 584 published on 24 March 1973.

USS Nautilus, picture, image, illustration

USS Nautilus

In 1870 Jules Verne wrote about a mighty submarine that could cruise thousands of leagues under the sea. He called it the Nautilus.

On January 21st, 1954, at a Connecticut shipyard the dream of Jules Verne came true. As Mrs Eisenhower smashed a bottle of champagne against the dark green hull of the Nautilus, the world’s first atom-powered submarine slid into the water.

Nautilus is 300 feet long, displaces 3,000 tons and cost £10 ½ million to build. Her atomic power can carry her round the world without refuelling.

And her speed is in excess of 20 knots.

When the cheers of the launching ceremony died away Nautilus went to work. Soon she was breaking records and in 1957 came a voyage of exploration as exciting as any that man has known.

The brief of her captain, Commander William Anderson, was to explore beneath the ice packs of the North Pole. The rasp of the diving alarm sounded and for the first time Nautilus edged under the ice.

Somewhere in the ship a juke-box was playing. Off-duty members of the crew relaxed in their almost luxurious quarters.

In the mess another group were eating dinner. Meanwhile in the control room, Commander Anderson wondered what they would find below the ice.

It wasn’t long before the answers to questions that had been puzzling scientists for many years began to arrive. By means of a sonar machine scientists on board were able to form a very good picture of what the ice overhead was like.

A sonar machine is a device that picks up sound and so enables the navigator to detect the presence of any objects outside his ship. This he does by listening for the echo made by an object in the path of a beam of sound.

First they found that it was a huge, ever-moving mass of varying thickness. It was made up of floes ranging from a few feet to ten or twelve feet but not often more.

The North Pole ice-pack is interspersed here and there with small lakes, little more than cracks in the surface.

After cruising for some time beneath the surface Commander Anderson decided to attempt to bring Nautilus to the surface in one of these cracks.

It was, as he put it, rather like “threading a needle.” Read the rest of this article »

Discovery of X-rays

Posted in Historical articles, History, Medicine, Science on Friday, 29 April 2016

This edited article about Wilhelm Rontgen and X-rays originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 793 published on 26th March 1977.

 Wilhelm Rontgen, picture, image, illustration

Professor Wilhelm Rontgen and the all-seeing eye by Wilf Hardy

Professor Wilhelm Rontgen, a physicist at Wurzburg in Bavaria, leaned over the tube he was experimenting on and carefully covered it completely with black paper.

He had been working all day in his laboratory, and now it was late in the evening and getting dark. The tube he had covered so that no light could escape from it was called a Crookes tube, through which cathode rays are passed.

Rontgen, straightening up for a moment, saw before him in the gathering gloom, an extraordinary sight. Several yards away from him was a piece of cardboard he had been using in another experiment. The cardboard had been coated with a chemical which glows when light falls upon it. There was at that moment scarely any light at all in the laboratory, yet –

The cardboard was glowing!

Rontgen stared in disbelief. This was no ordinary light: it was bright green. But where was it coming from?

The only possible source of light in the laboratory was the Crookes tube, which he had just covered with black paper. Now Rontgen groped towards the tube and switched off the electricity supply to it. At once the green light from the cardboard went out.

When he switched it on again, the ghostly green light reappeared.

Puzzled, Rontgen held his hand between the tube and the cardboard screen. To his astonishment, the invisible rays of light which were apparently passing through the black paper, now passed right through his hand and cast a shadow of his bones upon the cardboard.

Rontgen had so little idea of what these rays were that he named them X-rays. Read the rest of this article »

Changing the colours of the hydrangea

Posted in Nature, Plants on Saturday, 13 February 2016

This edited article about the hydrangea originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 170 published on 17 April 1965.

Pink hydrangea, picture, image, illustration

Hydrangea by F Edward Hulme

If you ever see a gardener potting a hydrangea plant like this one and mixing iron filings with the soil do not imagine that he is a victim of absent-mindedness!

The gardener will be well aware of what he is doing – because iron filings mixed with the potting soil of a red or pink hydrangea turns the flowers blue. It is a trick practised by gardeners on this attractive flowering shrub when they want to change their colour scheme.

After the iron filings are added the gardener waters the soil with alum at the rate of one teaspoonful dissolved in a gallon of rain water.

Actually, the iron filings method of turning pink hydrangeas blue has been superseded today by “blueing powders” which do the same job more efficiently when added to the soil.

Many different varieties of these small-petal plants were cultivated in China and Japan centuries before their introduction to Western gardens. European gardeners are particularly fond of the plant for their terrace tubs, and they make a splash of colour in a tub on the patio or veranda of a town flat.

Hydrangeas are grown by taking cuttings, inserted in potting soil between May and August. The pots should be kept in a propagating frame in a greenhouse or in a closed cold frame. On sunny days the cuttings should be shaded from bright sunlight.

When the cuttings are rooted they need some air, and soon the young plants will be ready for separate potting in compost. By autumn or early spring the plants will have grown to the point where they will again need re-potting.

Nearly all hydrangeas lose their leaves in winter and they need a certain amount of protection from severe weather. It is a good idea not to let them suffer a temperature below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.

In early springtime hydrangeas grow fast and this is the time when they enjoy a regular meal of weak liquid manure. With the proper treatment you can get a magnificent head of bloom in the plant’s first spring from cuttings rooted the previous May.

In summer the flower heads fade and as soon as this happens is the best time to prune the plants. In late summer and autumn the flower buds form at the ends of the shoots ready for the following spring, which is why it is important not to prune the plants after the summer is over. Many of them are quite hardy, and make large bushes outdoors.

Nature’s colour coding for poison

Posted in Animals, Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Saturday, 13 February 2016

This edited article about poisonous creatures originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1018 published on 12 September 1981.

ladybird, picture, image, illustration

The colourful but poisonous ladybird is avoided by birds

Green, amber, red . . . we are all familiar with traffic lights, and understand that green is safe, amber a warning, and red emphatically means “Stop!” Traffic lights are a relatively recent invention, but warning colours are far from new, and have evolved over millions of years. In nature, vivid colours – particularly red – often warn of danger, and it can be as wise to stop well away from an animal or insect with bright warning colours as it is to obey the red traffic light.

In Britain there are few dangerous or poisonous creatures, but if you think carefully you might well recall some examples. The wasp’s bright yellow and black stripes warn of its nasty sting, just as the zig-zag pattern on the back of an adder hints at its venom. In contrast, the harmless grass snake is green. However, have you ever wondered why ladybirds are red and black, or why certain moths, such as the garden tiger and red underwing, have bright red underwings?

The answer, of course, is simple. Ladybirds are poisonous, and their colouring warns birds to leave them well alone. Starlings feed their young on insects, but in a study in Holland it was found that out of 16,484 insects taken to feed nestling starlings by their parents, only two were ladybirds, so their coloration really does protect them.

An interesting aspect of the ladybird’s defence is its ability to ooze blood from its leg joints when attacked. This is called reflex bleeding.

Ladybirds are not the only British beetles to display warning colours, for the cardinal beetle does so too. This crimson-red beetle receives its name from the similarity of its colouring to a cardinal’s robe; like the ladybird, it is also distasteful to birds.

Most moths, when at rest, have cryptic colouring which helps them merge with their background. However, certain species, when disturbed, suddenly reveal bright red underwings, which has the effect of alarming a predator.

This display is called flash coloration, and is often found among grasshoppers, cicadas, moths and butterflies. One of the best examples is the garden tiger, which is a common moth in Britain and often flies by day, even in bright sunshine. Glands in the tiger moth’s thorax secrete a poison, and birds soon learn to avoid this species. Read the rest of this article »

Saint Agatha

Posted in Bible, Religion, Saints on Sunday, 31 January 2016

Agatha, picture, image, illustration

Saint Agatha of Sicily

Saint Agatha is the Patron Saint of Catania, and is one of the most revered Saints in Italy and especially Sicily, where she lived and where she died a martyr in 251. A predatory Roman prefect of base origins and baser intentions had designs on her which she spurned, for which rejection she was tortured and humiliated, ultimately being placed in a brothel run by a madam called Aphrodisia. This immoral woman advised Agatha to save herself by worshipping the Roman idols and submitting to the will of Quintianus, but she refused with simple rhetorical grandeur and profound moral sureness, proclaiming her faith in the love and power of Jesus Christ. She was subjected to appalling torture and humiliation, but clung to her faith throughout with luminous and exemplary courage. Saint Peter appeared at her martyrdom and cured her mutilated body, which now rests at the Badia di Sant Agata, Catania.

Many more pictures relating to Saints can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

Origins of ‘pin money’

Posted in Historical articles, History, Interesting Words, Language on Sunday, 31 January 2016

This edited article about pins originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 253 published on 19 November 1966.

pin money, picture, image, illustration

Pin Money – the first of two cartoons highlighting the different worlds of the rich and the poor

Pins of one sort or another have been holding clothes together for thousands of years. We know this for certain because, amongst the finds which archaeologists have dug up, pins appear again and again.

Many of the oldest ones are fatter and more lethal than anything we know now – almost like miniature daggers! In a Bronze Age grave, two pins for securing a robe were found, and they were twelve inches or more in length.

The Romans made many pins in both metal and bone. Most of them were quite plain, for everyday use, but some had ornately carved heads. On some a glass ball was clasped on to the top, or a carved hand stretched out its fingers; even human heads were carved on some, sporting elaborate hairstyles which must themselves have been secured by pins!

Beautiful medieval pins have been found, too, several with carved heads bearing crowns. Others can be seen in illustrated manuscripts. Read the rest of this article »