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Subject: ‘Historical articles’

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“Flem’s mouldy fluid”

Posted in Discoveries, Historical articles, Medicine on Saturday, 9 September 2017

This edited article about medicine originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 849 published on 22 April 1978.

Alexander Fleming, picture, image, illustration

Alexander Fleming in his laboratory

In 1928 a Scottish doctor named Alexander Fleming was growing bacteria for investigation in little glass dishes in a room in his hospital by Paddington railway station in London. Microscopic mould spores drifted in through the window and settled in one of the dishes while the lid was off it for examination. Round where the mould grew in the dish, the bacteria appeared to be killed off.

The dishes in which bacteria were cultured often became spoiled or contaminated, and would then be thrown away as useless. But in this case Fleming, in a historic moment of curiosity and fortune, decided to cultivate the mould and investigate it. He found it was producing a substance which attacked bacteria. The substance he named penicillin (after the scientific name of the mould). Thus was discovered one of the most powerful drugs that man has ever found.

But it was another 13 years before penicillin was produced in a way which could be used to cure disease.

Back in the 1920s, there were two ways of treating infections. One was by vaccination: this assists the body’s natural defence against bacteria to fight off an infection. This method is known as immunisation, and though of great value for certain diseases, its effectiveness is limited.

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Unlucky Logie Baird

Posted in Communications, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, Inventions on Saturday, 9 September 2017

This edited article about inventors originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 889 published on 3 February 1979.

Logie Baird, picture, image, illustration

John Logie Baird works on his pioneering experiments with image transmission which would lead to the invention of television, by John Keay

What could a man build with an old tea chest, a biscuit box, darning needles, the lenses of old bicycle lamps, electric motors due for the scrap heap, lengths of wire and assorted odds and ends?

The people of Hastings, where these purchases were made in the early 1920s, did not know and certainly would never have guessed that it was the raw material for the world’s first practical television transmitter – and that the tousle-headed, bespectacled young Scotsman John Logie Baird who bought them was to become famous as the pioneer of TV.

Baird was a sick man. He had come to Hastings on the south coast for his health, despite his lack of money. But he was determined to achieve the transmission of vision by radio.

Although others before him had established some basic principles of picture transmission, it was Baird who put them into practice.

How do you send a picture through the air? You send it, strip by strip, in the form of radio signals, and at the other end you have a receiver, like our modern televisions, which decodes these signals strip by strip and turns them into a picture again.

For months, Baird worked alone in his attic laboratory, struggling to transmit a recognisable image. In October, 1925, the breakthrough came: he successfully transmitted a picture of a ventriloquist’s dummy from one end of his apparatus to a receiver elsewhere in his room. Baird had proved to himself that it could be done – now all that was necessary was to convince the public.

On 27th January, 1926, at the famous London store of Selfridges, John Logie Baird gave the first public demonstration of television. A blurred image of a human face was transmitted, but it was strong enough to be recognised. Television had arrived.

But there was rather a sad end to Baird’s pioneering work. The system that he had invented was too crude to give the perfect reproduction we expect today, and ultimately another system was adopted by the BBC and other broadcasting organisations of the world.

Roman gluttony

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History on Saturday, 9 September 2017

This edited article about Ancient Rome originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 417 published on 10 January 1970.

Nero, picture, image, illustration

A feast at the court of Emperor Nero by Roger Payne

Ancient Rome grew powerful and wealthy because her great men and soldiers put their country first and were prepared to make many sacrifices. It was a hard life, and when power and wealth were won, it was as if Rome breathed a sigh of relief and began to enjoy herself. Many of Imperial Rome’s troubles stemmed from the fact that rich and important families got the taste for life at its most comfortable and well-fed. In fact, what went on at some banquets has brought the whole Roman way of life into disrepute.

Not all Romans were greedy, but if you happened to dine with one who was, he did not do things by half. What is more, it was the Emperors who led the field in the provision of grotesque feasts. The Emperor Nero is well known for his many vices, and gluttony was one of them. Suetonius, the Roman biographer, tells us that “his feasts now lasted from noon till midnight, with an occasional break for diving into a warm bath or, if it were summer, into snow-cooled water.” And the Emperor Caligula had a talent for inventing the most peculiar delicacies, his best-known being a draught of priceless pearls dissolved in vinegar.

Many Romans were neither extravagant nor wasteful, in fact it was customary for them to have nothing but a cold snack during the day, waiting until evening for their one substantial meal. The Emperor Tiberius made a half-hearted effort to cut down on public expenditure and wastefulness; and to set a good example, he took to serving at banquets the half-eaten remains of the meals of the day before, or he served only one side of a wild boar “which,” he said, “contained everything the other side did.”

Whether the feast was to be a simple or a gargantuan affair, the first essential was that the guests should be able to recline in comfort: to have sat down as we do would have been to class oneself with the slaves. Normally, two or three people shared a couch which was arranged with others around a table, but there were some extravagantly luxurious couches, which could accommodate up to eight people.

Guests, wearing loose gowns, were announced by an usher and shown to their couches. Then slaves brought perfumed water to bathe their hands and feet. The most handsome and skilful slaves, with their long curling hair falling about their shoulders, served the wine and cut up the food and served it. The guests, lying across their couches, held plates in their left hands, and ate with their fingers. Other uglier slaves, whose heads were shaved, collected the empty dishes and cleared away the unwanted food which guests had thrown under the table.

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Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Psychology, Scotland on Saturday, 9 September 2017

This edited article about English literature originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 410 published on 22 November 1969.

Deacon Brodie and his gang, picture, image, illustration

Robert Louis Stevenson based his famous story on William Brodie, who became a legend in Edinburgh – a man who as Deacon Brodie was a city councillor by day and a burglar by night

As a schoolboy growing up in 19th century Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson was fascinated by a bookcase and a chest of drawers which were in his bedroom. They had been made some ninety years earlier by the infamous Deacon Brodie – the master carpenter who was a respectable citizen by day, and the leader of a gang of burglars by night. In his walks through the old quarter of Edinburgh, Stevenson begged his parents to show him Deacon Brodie’s house, and the inns and courtyards where the criminal met with his desperate accomplices.

Brodie’s daring double life made a deep impression on the young Stevenson. And years later, when his Treasure Island had made him one of the world’s most beloved authors, he found his thoughts turning again and again to the man who wore a suit of white by daylight, and black clothes after dark. This split in Brodie’s character epitomised to Stevenson the good and the bad side of man. He felt compelled to write a novel on the subject, and for some time he wrestled with his “Brownies,” as he called the ideas which came to him in his sleep.

The author, who was always fragile in health, was then living in Bournemouth with his American wife, Fanny. She realized the mental torment he was going through, and one night his struggle with the “Brownies” woke her up and thoroughly frightened her. “My husband’s cries of horror caused me to rouse him,” she said, “much to his indignation. ‘I was dreaming a fine bogey tale,’ he said reproachfully.”

The next morning Stevenson worked feverishly on the new book, which was inspired, of course, by the career of Deacon Brodie. He completed the first draft of 30,000 words in three days. But when Fanny read the manuscript, she told him he had not done the story justice. The novelist then destroyed the draft, and rewrote it from a different point of view.

When the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published in 1886 it caused a sensation. Its story of a decent London doctor who, by the use of a powerful drug, is able to turn himself into another and totally different person, caught the imagination of the reading public. As Jekyll continues with his experiment, the tension rises to an almost unbearable pitch. After a while the evil Hyde is able to appear whenever he wants to, and Jeykll has to decide whether or not to destroy his depraved other self. The finale of the book mounts to a crescendo of terrifying action which has seldom been equalled in a story of this nature.

Gold-fever

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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