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Archive for August, 2011

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The tragic tale of Cooper’s Creek

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

This edited article about the catastrophe at Cooper’s Creek originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1046 published on 27 March 1982.

Cooper's Creek, picture, image, illustration

Behind the message on the tree lay a ghastly story of human tragedy. Top: Robert O’Hara Burke (left)) and W J Wills

Urging his camel forward, the gaunt figure in a tattered shirt and trousers stared ahead at the scene before them. He called back to his two companions, one on a second camel, the other on foot: “I think I see their tents ahead.” Then in bushman fashion he cried: “Coo-ee! Coo-ee!”

There was no answering call. Their friends must be asleep, the starving, thirst-parched men thought; but soon they would come and greet them and give them food.

They reached the camp with its wooden stockade and found it – deserted. Yet there were recent traces of horses and cattle, and of burnt-out fires. Where had the depot party got to?

A message cut on a coolibah tree urged them to dig a metre north-west, and, as their leader, Robert O’Hara Burke, collapsed in total despair on the ground, the other two, William John Wills and John King, dug down and found a bottle containing a message. It told them the ghastly truth that the depot party had left on 21st April, 1861, that very morning.

In the whole history of exploration, there can have been few more harrowing moments than that, and there were more tragedies ahead before the Burke and Wills Expedition, that had started out with such high hopes just eight months before, finally ended.

Not that it had failed in its chief objective, which was to be the first expedition to cross the mysterious continent from south to north. Even today, Australia is unique, a vast land mass with some ultra-modern cities on the coast and an enormous area inland dotted with isolated towns and villages.

Back in the 1850s, practically all the centre of Australia was a giant question mark. It remains a land where rainfall can vary from very heavy in one year to virtual drought conditions in another. The explorer, Charles Strut, in 1845 experienced temperatures of 55 degrees C. in the shade and 65 degrees C. in the sunlight.

The 1860 18-man expedition was set in motion by the Philosophical Institute of Victoria, whose interests were not confined to thinking but embraced doing as well, and many leading citizens belonged to it. Could a party go from south to north, they wondered? Could a telegraph later be laid to speed up communications via India (which already had a cable link with Britain) instead of depending on the four-month voyage to Britain? Was the centre of Australia suitable for farming in parts?

Unfortunately, an odd choice of leader was made, for Burke was no scientist or explorer, but a brave, hot-tempered, Irish ex-police inspector who knew nothing of the bush. His second-in-command, George Landells, was far worse, having little in his favour except some knowledge of camels, which he purchased for the expedition in India. Fortunately, the surveyor, W. J. Wills, a brilliant astronomer in his twenties, was cast in a more heroic and useful mould.

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From the Berlin Airlift to the infamous Berlin Wall

Posted in Aviation, Communism, Historical articles on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This edited article about Berlin originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1046 published on 27 March 1982.

Berlin Wall, picture, image, illustration

East Germans were shot as they tried to escape to West Berlin after the Barlin Wall was built in 1961, by Graham Coton

After the Second World War, the victorious Allies agreed to divide the former German capital of Berlin into four zones – British, French, American and Soviet – though the city as a whole remained in Soviet-occupied East Germany. From the outset there were obvious tensions in the arrangement, and matters came to a head in June, 1948, when the Western powers (having decided to unite their German zones into a single economic unit) authorised a new currency for West Germany.

The Soviets then resolved to force the Western powers out of Berlin, and blockaded the city by cutting all road and rail links to the west. The USA and Britain countered by organising a massive airlift to supply Berlin with food, fuel and machinery. The airlift saved West Berlin; by the time it was eventually lifted in May, 1949, 277,264 flights had taken 2,300,000 tonnes of supplies into the city.

Following this the Soviet authorities decided that East Germany’s communications should be less dependent on West Berlin. However, large numbers of refugees continued to stream westwards via West Berlin: 385,000 in 1957, 226,000 in 1958, 174,000 in 1959. This was a serious drain on the manpower of East Germany and led to the building of the infamous Berlin Wall in 1961.

The modernist movement called Dadaism

Posted in Art, Historical articles on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This edited article about Modern Art originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1046 published on 27 March 1982.

Mona Lisa, picture, image, illustration

The Dadaist Marcel Duchamp gave a moustache to the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

Dadaism was an artistic movement of the early 20th century. Through it artists were encouraged to reject all previously accepted artistic standards, and to create what they wanted, no matter how absurd. The movement was founded in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1916. In keeping with its aims, it chose its name at random from a French dictionary (in French etre sur son dada means to indulge in one’s hobby).

One notable dadaist creation was Marcel Duchamp’s version of the Mona Lisa – complete with moustache and caption! By 1923 the influence of Dadaism had been greatly reduced, although it did help to lay the foundations of another movement, “surrealism”, concerned with fantasy and the subconscious.

Birdwatching in “the merry month of May”

Posted in Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This edited article about birds originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1046 published on 27 March 1982.

The Nightingale, picture, image, illustration

A scene from The Nightingale: A Conversation Poem by S T Coleridge. Picture by Andrew Howat

Eleven seconds – that is all it takes a cuckoo between arriving at a nest, snapping up an egg and laying her own in its place. Within a fortnight the feathered equivalent of the Incredible Hulk hatches, and for the hapless hosts life turns into a dawn-to-dusk battle to keep the uninvited guest in food.

All competition is snuffed out as soon as the young cuckoo emerges from its shell. With the aid of a specially shaped back, eggs or other young birds in the nest are simply heaved over the side to perish on the ground or drown.

The cuckoo is probably the most celebrated and reviled bird in Britain. Everyone welcomes its familiar call on arrival from Africa on a sunny May morning, because it symbolises the warmth of spring and summer. Yet, the cuckoo’s crafty habit of leaving a string of a dozen or so eggs in other birds’ nests somehow offends the British sense of fair play and decency. No one likes a parasite.

But that is to judge the cuckoos by human values – not by those of the bird world. True, a luckless hedge sparrow, meadow pipit, robin, pied wagtail or reed warbler whose nest is selected by a cuckoo during its sinister, low-level flight may valiantly defend its humble home. But by then it is almost too late. The hawk-like intruder will have watched the birds building their nest, and usually times its visit to arrive to perform the dirty deed when no one is at home.

A cuckoo lays an egg in this fashion once every 48 hours. Once she has done so she is literally as free as a bird. For the cuckoo there are none of the fetters of parenthood: she will never see her babies at all. By July, adult cuckoos begin to head back to Africa – where they hardly, if ever, make their familiar call – leaving their abandoned youngsters to find their way home alone, six weeks later or so, with the aid of an amazing inborn navigational system.

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The Sun and planets which make up the Solar System

Posted in Astronomy, Science, Space on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This edited article about the Solar System originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1046 published on 27 March 1982.

Astronomers, picture, image, illustration

For centuries men have gazed at mysterious objects in the sky, by Harry Green

The Solar System is the Earth’s home in space. Throughout history our ancestors have marvelled at the objects in the night sky, as many of us still do today. Back in the ancient past, the Sun and Moon, seemingly large and important, were worshipped as gods. The stars, appearing cold and remote, were less important, although many constellations (groups of stars) were given names suggested by their shapes – such as the Plough. And the starlike lights seen to move through the constellations were given the name planets – from the Greek for “wanderers” – and also worshipped as gods.

Today we know that the stars are other “suns”, most incredibly remote from our planet Earth, at distances from which light rays travelling at almost 300,000 kilometres each second still take years, decades or centuries to reach Earthly eyes. The stars appear to be fixed in the sky only because they are so remote. All stars travel through space, but they have to move a long way over a long period of time before this becomes perceptible. In fact, we know that the constellations have distorted slightly since the time of Ancient Greece. And the planets – the wanderers – have continued to travel through the constellations because, as the Greeks suspected, they are not like the “fixed” stars.

Over a few nights we can observe the movement of several planets. They appear to shine, without the brightness of the Sun, but this is caused not by their own light but by the light they reflect from the Sun.

Our Moon also shines by reflected light. Actually very small in planetary terms, it looks so big and bright because it is very close to us, our nearest cosmic neighbour, at less than 400,000 kilometres from the Earth. The Moon orbits around our planet, tied by the pull of gravity, rather like a stone whirling round on a piece of string. Similarly, the Earth, or more accurately the combined Earth-Moon system, orbits around the Sun, like a runner treading endlessly round the same track.

The Sun is 150 million kilometres from the Earth, and the other eight planets within the Solar System track round it at different distances in their own orbits. But the planets are not all alike; some are small and rocky, not unlike the Earth, while others are huge balls of gas. Several of the Solar System’s planetary family have now been extensively studied, not only by astronomers using telescopes and other instruments, but also by space probes which have sent back dramatic and awe-inspiring pictures to Earth.

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Descended from the Sun Goddess – Emperor Hirohito of Japan

Posted in America, Historical articles, Industry, Religion, Royalty, World War 2 on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This edited article about Emperor Hirohito of Japan originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1046 published on 27 March 1982.

Hirohito, picture, image, illustration

Emperor Hirohito with the Mitsubishi Zero and the  attack on Pearl Harbour; insets show the Imperial Palace, Tokyo (left) and Hirohito with the Empress at his coronation in 1928. Pictures by John Keay

Emperor Hirohito of Japan, 124th descendant of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, has occupied the Chrysanthemum Throne for more than half a century as a divine ruler, warlord and constitutional monarch. Today, aged 80, he presides over a country that emerged from awesome defeat in 1945 to become a challenging industrial powerhouse and threaten the economies of its former enemies in the West.

With robots instead of men, Japanese factories have cut costs to the bone and turn out cars, TVs, cameras and every electrical gadget imaginable at prices the West cannot match. Behind the tense trade negotiations, in which western nations urge Japan to curb its punishing export drive, sits the tiny emperor, concentrating more and more on his favourite hobby – studying marine biology.

It provides a strange contrast to his earlier days as a warlord, when he inspired his troops, airmen and sailors and convinced them that death on the battlefield was synonymous with glory.

In their loyalty to the man who wrote books about crabs and became a Fellow of the British Royal Society, they regarded capture by the enemy as humiliation.

Emperor Hirohito, who has reigned since Christmas Day, 1926, was destined to become the first constitutional monarch in the 2,600-year-long history of the Japanese throne.

It happened as a direct result of the 1939-45 conflict, in which he signed the declaration of war against the US and Britain on 1st December, 1941. Yet another seven days passed before it was formally announced – three hours after Japanese bombers had pulverised the US Pacific naval base at Pearl Harbour.

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Bristol – the troubled history of Pepys’s “second London”

Posted in British Cities, Engineering, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, Ships, Trade on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This edited article about Bristol originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1046 published on 27 March 1982.

SS Great Britain, picture, image, illustration

Brunel’s great ship, the SS Great Britain, returns to Bristol through the Avon Gorge which is spanned by his superb engineering feat, the Clifton Suspension Bridge

The people of Bristol were used to seeing goods of every kind shipped from their docks to America and the British colonies overseas, but towards the end of 1685 they gathered to see a new and seemingly endless cargo of human misery loaded aboard the waiting ships. Pale from prison, sick and in chains, the victims of the ferocious Judge Jeffreys and his “Bloody Assize” trooped up the gang-planks, most of them transported for life for the part they had played in the ill-starred Monmouth rebellion.

The Bristolians may have been sympathetic to individual sufferers, but there was no getting away from the fact that the bustling port on the River Avon would benefit from that grim scene before many months had passed.

Ever since John Cabot had sailed from this port to discover Newfoundland and set foot on the mainland itself, Bristol had been linked with the New World. Her men and women had settled in Virginia, New England, Newfoundland and the West Indies, sending back tobacco and sugar in exchange for local products such as glass, pottery, tools and furniture.

Transported criminals were highly prized as cheap labour in the colonies, and shipping them provided work for Bristolians.

In those days the ultimate answer to such a labour shortage was simple – slavery. The brutal trade of shipping unfortunate men and women from Africa to a life of forced labour in some distant country was immensely profitable. By 1709, no less than 57 ships from Bristol were engaged in the business.

It was not just people connected with shipping who became rich, for makers of all kinds of goods did a roaring export business to Africa, where almost anything could be given in exchange for slaves. Bristol was not alone in the business, but it is still not a part of her history of which her people are particularly proud.

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Joseph Bramah – inventor and master locksmith

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

This edited article about locksmiths originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1046 published on 27 March 1982.

Joseph Bramah, picture, image, illustration

The locks of Joseph Bramah and a modern strongroom

It was easy money being a burglar a few centuries ago. People took great care to keep their valuable possessions safely, but the locks they used were easy for burglars to open.

The very early locks consisted simply of brackets into which a wooden bar was slid. This could be undone from the outside with a long wooden key. Metal locks and keys were invented by the Romans. Beautiful locks were made in the Middle Ages, especially in Germany.

Inventors in England were making increasingly safe locks, and among them was Joseph Bramah. Before him, Jeremiah Chubb and Robert Barron had invented locks that were giving burglars headaches.

But Bramah’s was even more burglar-proof. It was patented in 1784 and was operated by a cylindrical key. This had fine slots cut into the end. These forced thin metal plates down varying distances and allowed the key to turn.

Joseph Bramah, the eldest of five children, had been born in 1748, and was a carpenter and cabinet-maker. When his new lock appeared on the market, many rivals made fun of it. But Bramah responded in a characteristic way.

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The Battles of Edgehill and Newbury

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty, War on Friday, 26 August 2011

This edited article about the Battles of Edgehill and Newbury originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1045 published on 20 March 1982.

Edgehill, picture, image, illustration

By failing to press home his advantage after defeating Essex (inset, left)  and the Parliamentarians at Edgehill, Charles I  (inset, right) condemned England to a lengthy civil war. Pictures by Andrew Howat

It took England a long time to slide into Civil War. The majority of Englishmen were reluctant to allow the long-standing quarrel between King Charles I and his Parliament to be decided by the sword. But Parliament was making democratic demands that Charles I, with his belief in the Divine Right of Kings, could never accept, while in the Royalist camp there were many who would not move an inch in favour of reform. In the end it was King Charles who first raised his battle-standard on 22nd August, 1642.

Parliament’s forces, led by the Earl of Essex, clearly had to reply. Yet for most of the war they refused to admit that they were fighting against the king. They were, they said, trying to free him from his evil counsellors.

Such uncertainty was also seen in the first big battle of the English Civil War, at Edgehill, in Warwickshire. King Charles and the Earl of Essex had both gathered armies, but the Royalist leaders were more experienced in warfare, for many of them had recently fought in Europe. Essex had to stop the king taking London and both sides knew that one big battle might settle the argument.

The morning of 23rd October, 1642, saw the Royalist army drawn up on top of the steep Edgehill ridge, with the Parliamentarians slowly organising their formation on flat farmland to the north-west.

Neither side rushed into action, but finally it was Charles I’s army that came down to attack the Earl of Essex’s men.

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The C19 rubber industry’s debt to Henry Wickham

Posted in Historical articles, Industry, Plants on Friday, 26 August 2011

This edited article about Henry Wickham originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1045 published on 20 March 1982.

Henry Wickham, picture, image, illustration

After a frantic search for rubber seeds from the trees in the Amazon jungle, Henry Wickham had the women villagers make baskets for their safe transportation to England, by Andrew Howat

In the second half of the 19th century the high cost of Brazilian rubber was proving to be a serious obstacle to the development of the rubber industry. Cheaper rubber was needed for use in many products if progress was to be made, and British and American manufacturers were determined to find ways and means to break the monopoly of the Brazilian producers of raw rubber.

Early experiments with rubber seeds in India had failed. Then Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, had an idea. He wrote to the India Office requesting that Henry Wickham, his correspondent and a planter in Santarem on the Amazon, be asked to gather and send seeds to Kew.

Immediately the young adventurer in Brazil was keen on the idea; but he was also aware of the risks. The seeds lost their germinating power very quickly, and probably would not survive the long voyage to England. Nevertheless, he offered to supply them at a price of 50 dollars per thousand seeds.

The India Office agreed to this price. But how would Wickham collect thousands of rubber seeds and get them out of the jungle? The question needed a rapid answer.

To begin with, he sent a few seeds which arrived at Kew Gardens in July, 1875. None germinated. Other collectors supplied more specimens, and the India Office was able to ship 378 seeds to Calcutta – but all failed to germinate. The experiment seemed doomed to failure.

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