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Archive for August, 2011

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The Battles of Prestonpans and Culloden

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Politics, Religion, Royalty, Scotland on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This edited article about the Battles of Prestonpans and Culloden originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1049 published on 17 April 1982.

Culloden, picture, image, illustration

The Battle of Culloden, the last full-scale combat fought on British soil, where the Jacobite cause died forever, by Pat Nicolle

Prince Charles Edward Stuart, or Bonnie Prince Charlie, landed in Scotland in July, 1745, but, unfortunately for the Jacobite cause, he came without an army. The Prince was also largely unwanted, even by those Highlanders who had traditionally supported the Stuart dynasty. Only Bonnie Prince Charlie’s own personality managed to light the flame of rebellion and even then he drew no more than nine thousand warriors to his banner. The Highland clans’ estimated fighting strength was well over 30,000.

Such risings need constant success to survive and Prince Charles Edward was, in fact, lucky in his first foes. The Hanoverian General, John Cope, was not as bad as some have said, but he did lead an army of raw recruits. For a start Cope failed to stop the Jacobites as they marched out of the Highlands to seize Edinburgh. So he shipped his rag-tag army from Aberdeen to Dunbar, where he could block the road south. There he found what he thought was the ideal battleground, just east of Prestonpans. The Hanoverians would have the sea to the north, high walls around private estates to the west and a broad marsh to the south. So an enemy could only attack from the east, and that way lay England.

Then, on 20th September, General Cope saw that the Jacobites had marched out of Edinburgh and were now streaming past him along Fawside Hill to the south. In this way they were exposing their left flank, which went against every rule in the military book. General Cope feared a trap, and swung his own forces around to face them.

The Jacobite leaders were already squabbling, a habit that was one day to destroy them, but this time their arguments only led to ill-feeling rather than to defeat. Cope’s position was still defended by that marsh, although to be on the safe side he swung his regiments round once again so that they were facing east. In the Jacobite army was a native of this area, named Robert Anderson, and he knew every track in the marshes. So the following night, hidden by heavy mist, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s troops wound their way across the swamp and formed up on firm ground east of General Cope’s men.

As soon as they learned what was happening, the naval gun crews who were in charge of Cope’s artillery abandoned their guns and fled. Then, as dawn rose on 21st September, 1745, the Jacobites charged with a great yell. The mist was still thick but a few English officers did manage to fire the abandoned cannon. Unfortunately they could not reload them. For a moment the Highlanders of the Cameron and Stuart clans wavered, but then they charged again. A single burst of gunfire sent Cope’s cavalry galloping for safety. So now the outnumbered English infantry had to face the enemy’s stabbing dirks, slashing broadswords and crushing Lochaber axes on their own. Panic soon spread and whole ranks turned to flee. General Cope himself hurried to Berwick with the news of his own defeat. The victory at Prestonpans encouraged many men to join the Jacobites.

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The inhospitable neighbours in our Solar System

Posted in Exploration, Science, Space, Technology on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This edited article about the Solar System originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1049 published on 17 April 1982.

Halley's comet, picture, image, illustration

Halley’s Comet by Harry Green

The Earth’s closest planetary neighbours in the Solar System are Venus, which is a little closer to the Sun than we are, and Mars, a little farther out. Astronomers define the average distance of the Earth from the Sun as one astronomical unit, or 1 AU. So in terms of these units the distance of Venus from the Sun averages out over its orbit as 0.72 AU, and the distance of Mars averages out at 1.52 AU.

Mars is almost exactly twice as far from the Sun as Venus is, and Earth lies between the two, but those differences are sufficient to make Venus and Mars lifeless deserts today, while the Earth has become a haven for life. Had the Sun been just a little hotter or cooler, or had the orbits of the planets been slightly different, conditions on those planets could have been very different indeed.

In terms of size, Venus is the nearest thing to a twin planet of the Earth in the Solar System. It has 95 per cent of the radius of the Earth, 88 per cent of the volume and 82 per cent as much mass. If Venus had formed from the disc of material around the young Sun at the distance of the Earth’s orbit, it would have ended up just like the Earth. Instead, it has a super-dense atmosphere of carbon dioxide gas, and a surface baking at a temperature of over 500 degrees C.

Because Venus is closer to the Sun, there was very little water present in the material it formed from; the water was driven out by the Sun’s heat to the distance of the Earth’s orbit and beyond. So when an atmosphere began to form around Venus by outgassing from volcanoes – in much the same way that the Earth’s atmosphere formed – there was very little water vapour and no chance for oceans to form.

The extra heat which Venus receives by being a little closer to the Sun helped to ensure that any traces of water vapour stayed in the atmosphere as vapour, and did not fall as rain. So all of the carbon dioxide which is released by the volcanoes remained in the atmosphere. None could dissolve in oceans and no carbonates were laid down as sedimentary rocks, because without water there was no sedimentation.

Measurements taken by space probes have revealed the fact that the atmosphere of Venus contains almost exactly as much carbon dioxide as there is locked up in the rocks of the Earth.

The result is an atmosphere so thick that the pressure at the surface of Venus is 90 times the atmospheric pressure at the surface of the Earth. And that thick carbon dioxide atmosphere traps heat by the “greenhouse effect”.

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From chivalric steed to noble shire horse

Posted in Animals, British Countryside, Communications, Farming, Historical articles, Transport on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This edited article about the horse originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1049 published on 17 April 1982.

Farm horses, picture, image, illustration

Farmers used oxen before the middle ages, but the invention of the horse collar along with the ready availability of horses after the passing of the knights wearing their heavy armour, meant that there was a ready supply of strong powerful horses which could now work alongside and replace those traditional working cattle. Picture by David Nockells

For centuries “horse power” was the main source of energy used by man. We still use the term to describe the power of an engine, and until this century the horse was essential to carry people and goods from place to place.

To govern a large empire successfully, a ruler needed to be able to keep in touch with the outlying parts, to send messages and receive information swiftly. Cyrus, ruler of the mighty Persian empire, set up the first fast and regular messenger service in about 400 BC. He organised a system of relay stations along the road, where messengers on horseback could obtain fresh horses.

The Romans, too, linked up their enormous empire with a fast, efficient communications system. Their couriers, using teams of horses harnessed to a light, four-wheeled cart, could cover about 130 kilometres a day.

During the 13th or 14th century in Europe, the horse collar was invented. This was a great improvement on the old yoke and neck strap, which was really best suited to oxen. For the first time, horses could use their powerful shoulder muscles to pull heavy loads efficiently.

There was no system by which the ordinary people could send messages, except by private messenger service, which was expensive, until the 17th century, when most countries set up postal systems using relays of men on horseback.

These mounted couriers were eventually replaced, however, by mail coaches, which were so fast and efficient that they soon began to attract passengers. The mail coaches were better made than other coaches and their smooth suspension gave passengers a better ride. There were posting stations all along the road, where the tired horses could be changed for fresh ones. It was hard work for the horses, who were only kept on the job for three or four years.

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Chesterfield – a gateway to the Peak District

Posted in British Towns, Historical articles, Railways, Travel on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This edited article about Chesterfield originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1049 published on 17 April 1982.

Chesterfield, picture, image, illustration

The coat of arms of Chesterfield with (inset) George Stephenson; the twisted spire on the tower of the Church of Our Lady and All Saints; HMS Danae, the town’s adopted ship; the former inn, the Cock and Pynot, where the seven plotters met; Haddon Hall, one of several great houses near Chesterfield. Pictures by Dan Escott

Many places have become well known through things that are not in themselves particularly important, and the Derbyshire town of Chesterfield is no exception. People who have never paid it a visit usually think of it in connection with the large, double-ended couch of the same name. And anyone who knows the place at first hand remembers the Church of Our Lady and All Saints because of its extraordinary twisted spire, which looks as though at any moment it will fall down.

Apart from the fact that it originated with one of the earls of the same name, nobody knows the true story behind the first Chesterfield sofa. But the church’s strange appearance is almost certainly due to an early and not very successful experiment in constructing a perpendicular spiral of wood and then covering it with lead.

The earliest parts of the building date back to Norman times, although most of it was constructed during the 14th century. The crooked spire is eight sided, 71 metres high, and two brass studs in the floor of the sanctuary show its original position in relation to the building beneath it.

At present it is leaning 2.6 metres to the south, 2.8 metres to the south-west and 1.1 metres to the west, although rather surprisingly it is still quite stable, owing to its low centre of gravity.

Like the famous leaning tower in Pisa, in Italy, the “lean” of Chesterfield’s church is speeding up with the passing of time, and at present the spire is toppling over at the rate of about 2.5 cms every five years. Research is being carried out to see if it is possible to strengthen the structure in any way, although as often happens in these cases, the building seems able, in some strange way, to adjust itself to the changing stresses.

But there is more to this borough of 92,000 inhabitants than a sofa and a twisted spire, for it is in a rich coal-mining region and was an early centre of the iron industry. Its recorded story goes back over 1,000 years, although archeological investigation continues to fill in the many gaps in its earlier history.

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Marconi makes waves in thin air

Posted in Famous Inventors, Historical articles, Inventions, Science, Technology on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This edited article about Marconi originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1049 published on 17 April 1982.

Marconi, picture, image, illustration

Radio spanned the Atlantic for the first time in 1901 when a morse signal sent from Cabot Tower in Newfoundland (inset) was received by Marconi and his assistants

A little over 60 years ago there was no BBC, no home radio, no television, nothing to switch on or off. Families had to rely on themselves for home entertainment. Today we take radio and the two most important branches of this electronic science – television and radar – for granted, just like water out of the tap.

The invention of radio may not be the most important of all times, but it is difficult to think of another that is so universally used. In the early 1920s, radio was the province of the home enthusiasts who hunched over crystal sets listening on headphones for hour after hour. The wireless in the 1930s was to become as necessary a background to home life as the ticking of the clock.

By then headphones had long been replaced by loudspeakers. Now radio and television are an essential part of 20th century living.

Radio was not invented by any one man. Its discovery and development as a means of communication was primarily due to the work of three people. The theory of electro-magnetic waves – the radio wave is one – was originated by a British physicist, James Maxwell, in 1864, while it was the German physicist Heinrich Hertz who in 1888 produced these waves by electrical means.

It fell to Guglielmo Marconi, the third member of the trio, to develop the use of radio waves and make them a practical means of communication. He carried out experiments on a home-made set in his native Italy and in 1895 sent a signal in morse over a distance of 1.5 kilometres.

Then in 1896, he came to Britain and in 1897 formed The Marconi Company, the first wireless signalling company.

The British Post Office became very interested and gave him every help. Marconi succeeded in establishing contact between Penarth and Weston-super-Mare, without wires – hence “wireless telegraphy”. Very soon he was able to increase the signal range. By the time of World War One, voice transmission, as distinct from morse code telegraphy, was developing fast. Radio as we know it was on the way.

James Bruce, proud discoverer of the Blue Nile

Posted in Discoveries, Exploration, Geography, Historical articles, Travel on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This edited article about James Bruce and African exploration originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1048 published on 10 April 1982.

James Bruce, picture, image, illustration

When James Bruce visited the Sudanese kingdom of Fung,  the Royal bodyguard wore accoutrements used by the Saracens in the Middle Ages, by Angus McBride

In an age of tall men, James Bruce was considered something of a giant. He was an imposing two metres tall, with red hair and a loud, fierce voice. He admitted to having a “passionate disposition”, and it was obvious that he would never be content to lead a quiet life.

Many such men are unhappy because they cannot find the right outlet for their energy. But Scotsman Bruce was lucky. He had a goal in life. He was determined to locate the source of the River Nile.

For more than two thousand years mankind had been baffled as to where the river actually began. Bruce said that it was “a defiance of all travellers, and an opprobrium (disgrace) to geography.” He felt it his duty to put the source of the Nile on the map. Today we know that the two Niles, the White and the Blue, meet at Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. But in 1730, when Bruce was born, the map of Africa was not so clearly marked. Until Bruce discovered it, there was no Blue Nile. And this geographical vagueness played a strange part in Bruce’s career as an explorer.

This career did not start until 1768, when Bruce was 38. By then he had already led a life with enough adventure in it to satisfy most men, especially one who had been delicate in youth. He went to Edinburgh University, and by the time he was 24 he had fought a duel in Brussels, sailed down the Rhine, and travelled through Spain and Portugal.

In 1762, this varied experience led George III’s government to appoint Bruce British consul in Algiers. This meant a port among the infamous Barbary pirates, but Bruce’s reaction was simple. Algiers was on the way to Central Africa and the source of the Nile, so to Algiers he would go.

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The indestructable malignant mosquito

Posted in Insects, Medicine, Nature, Plants, Science on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This edited article about the mosquito and malaria originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1048 published on 10 April 1982.

mosquito, picture, image, illustration

The Mosquito by R B Davis

Anyone who has slept fitfully on a warm night, scratching at the agonisingly itchy swellings appearing on their exposed flesh, knows the sound made by a mosquito. To such a sufferer, the high-pitched whine has a nightmarish quality which he or she will recognise again instantly, even years later.

The mosquito’s hum is produced by the rapid beats, hundreds per second, of its two delicately veined wings. Although this member of the fly family has some 2,500 species, each kind of mosquito has its own wing-beat frequency which distinguishes it from the others. The female’s hum is also slightly lower than the male’s, which means that the sensitive antennae of the male can at once pick up the sound made by a potential breeding partner.

Having detected the female’s signal, the male is irresistibly drawn. Clumps of males will gather on a tuning fork set to the particular musical pitch of the female of their species. A singer who hits the same critical note and holds it for a time can end up with a mouthful of eager male mosquitoes!

Mosquitoes, sometimes known as gnats, are found just about all over the world – only Antarctica seems to be completely free of them. These fragile-looking insects, with their long slender bodies, live almost anywhere where standing water is found. Their habitat can be the edge of salt or freshwater lakes and swamps, a water butt in the garden, or simply a little pocket of water trapped in a rotten tree trunk.

In fact, mosquitoes are such successful insects that they manage to survive under the most unlikely conditions. One species of the insect breeds in the hot, alkaline volcanic pools around Lake Edward in Uganda, and a thriving colony was found in a vat of hydrochloric acid in an Indian factory.

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The perilous evolution to the Arabian thoroughbred

Posted in America, Animals, British Countryside, Sport, Wildlife on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This edited article about the horse originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1048 published on 10 April 1982.

Mesohippus, picture, image, illustration

Some twenty million years into prehistory, the three-toed mesohippus had evolved from the small dawn horse through the sheer necessity of survival; it was about two feet tall. Picture by L R Brightwell

In Europe and Asia, two different types of horse developed as a response to the change in conditions in which they lived. The Northern horse, called “cold-blooded”, had to withstand the cold and harsh conditions of northern Asia and so it developed a thick skin and long, rough coat. Northern horses grazed on the lush pastures of northern Europe, and became heavy, passive and slow-moving, with great, strong, muscular bodies.

The “warm blooded”, or Southern horse, lived in the hot, desert lands of the Middle East where grazing is poor. To help circulation and make life more comfortable in the hot summer these horses had fewer layers of skin. They had a more slender frame and shorter snout than the Northern horses.

The first horses were small creatures. Once domesticated, they were used only for pulling carts and chariots. But when men began keeping large herds of horses, they also began to ride them and took to breeding them carefully in order to produce bigger and more powerful animals.

The Chinese had herds of wild horses which they valued, and chariot horses belonging to the emperors were buried with their masters in the royal tombs. There was even a special cemetery containing the bones of chariot horses. The Chinese used their horses and chariots mainly to ward off attacks from the nomads of the steppelands who attacked their borders. They needed to breed horses which were superior to those of the nomads, in order to give them superiority in battle.

The Chinese Emperor Wu-ti had heard that the ruler of Ferghana, a city state in Turkestan, had horses far bigger and swifter than anything the Chinese possessed. He sent rich presents to him but could not persuade him to part with any of his horses.

The Emperor eventually gave up trying to use peaceful methods to obtain the horses and in 102 BC Wu-ti sent his army into Turkestan. When the soldiers finally returned – they brought with them a large number of the superior horses and also 30 “heavenly” horses, the pride of the ruler of Ferghana. These magnificent beasts were said to sweat blood when under a hot sun and were believed to have certain mystical qualities.

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Lancaster, the city with a Plantagenet past

Posted in British Cities, Castles, Historical articles, Royalty on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This edited article about Lancaster originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1048 published on 10 April 1982.

Lancaster, picture, image, illustration

The old coat of arms of the City of Lancaster with the new arms beneath and (left) an effigy of Edmund “Crouchback” in Westminster Abbey; the arms of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster; Lancaster Castle and (right) the Ashton memorial. Pictures by Dan Escott

Many cities have a landmark that is a part of local history, some scene or building that manages to find its way on to thousands of snapshots taken by visitors each year. Lancaster, the county town of Lancashire, can claim two such features. To the west it is dominated by the grim bulk of its castle, while on the eastern side of the city stands the Ashton Memorial, an extraordinary building raised in Victorian style between 1906 and 1909. It is a classic example of what is known to architects as a “Folly”.

Lancastrians have to thank Robert of Poitou, a Norman nobleman, for the castle. He built it to keep back invaders from the north, and down the centuries it did its job well, although during the course of various battles the town at the foot of Castle Hill suffered badly.

In fact so much of it was burnt, or knocked down, that today there are hardly any buildings to be found that date back much before the 18th century.

The castle apart, this looks at first sight like a Georgian town, even though the street plan is still recognisably medieval. In the centre, around Market Street, there is still a maze of small alleyways that link the main streets, small thoroughfares where interesting shops and eating places are waiting to be explored.

There is now an up-to-date, new shopping complex and a multi-storey car park in the city centre, and, while such developments certainly give a feeling that Lancaster is keeping up with the times, the old parts have a fascination that is all their own.

Commanding though it is, Lancaster Castle does not look particularly Norman, probably because it was extended frequently until the 15th century and altered even more only a century ago. It has a long history as a prison. Witches were burnt within its walls and lunatics were chained in the dungeons – dark happenings that may account for the fortress seeming to be more forbidding than most.

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From dust to life – the birth of the Earth

Posted in Geology, Prehistory, Science, Space on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This edited article about the Solar System originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1048 published on 10 April 1982.

Earth, picture, image, illustration

How the earth formed out of cosmic dust into the familiar world we know, with a cross-section of the earth’s crust showing tectonic plates

The planets of our Solar System formed from a collapsing cloud of dust and gas surrounding a young star, our Sun. The nature of each planet today depends on how far away the cloud of material it formed from was from the Sun, because the heat from the young star vaporised the lighter materials and blew them off into space.

Closest to the Sun, planet Mercury is small and dense, composed only of very heavy materials, since the fierce solar heat drove away everything else. Far from the Sun, planets like Jupiter and Saturn are great balls of gas, because there was never enough heat for the gas to be driven off. Our planet Earth lies somewhere in between; the light gases, especially hydrogen, were blown away by the heat of the young Sun, leaving a small, rocky planet. But Earth is bigger than Mercury, and contains some lighter materials that the solar heat did not evaporate. In fact, Mercury is like the dense metallic core of the Earth, without a surrounding shell of lighter rocks or an atmosphere.

At our distance from the Sun the materials which were stable in the primeval dust cloud included silicon compounds, and iron and magnesium oxides, with just a trace of all the other chemical elements we find on the Earth today. Small particles in the dust cloud collided and stuck together, building up larger lumps which collided in turn. One of these lumps grew until its gravitational pull began to attract other lumps onto itself. While this happened, the growing planet was heated in three ways. First, each lump that struck, ploughed a crater in the surface and gave up its energy of motion (kinetic energy) as heat. Then, as the planet grew, it was pressed continually into a ball by gravity, this pressure heating the interior in the same way as heat is generated when air is squeezed inside a bicycle pump. Finally, radioactive elements gave off heat energy when they fissioned into lighter elements.

So the young Earth was hot. The heavy elements, especially iron, settled down into the core as molten globules, while lighter material, rich in silicon, floated up to form a skin like that on a bowl of congealed custard. As the whole Earth cooled the crust set, and the layered structure of the Earth today was established.

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