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Archive for August, 2012

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Paccard and Balmat conquered Mont Blanc in 1786

Posted in Adventure, Geography, Historical articles on Friday, 10 August 2012

This edited article about Mont Blanc originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 761 published on 14th August 1976.

Mont Blanc, picture, image, illustration

Ascension du Mont Blanc

On the evening of 8th August, 1786, Dr. Michel Paccard and his friend, Jacques Balmat, strode out of Chamonix, the little village at the foot of Mont Blanc to try and climb to the summit of this highest peak in the French Alps.

Very little was known about Mont Blanc, or the “Accursed Mountain” as the local people called it. Paccard and Balmat had nothing to guide them except scraps of information gathered from local mountaineers who had ventured only a short distance up the mountain, whose higher reaches were considered unclimbable.

By nightfall, the two men had reached a ridge called the Montagne de la C√¥te. There they wrapped themselves in rugs and rested until three o’clock the following morning. At dawn they started off towards the Grand Plateau, a great snow basin from which the final slopes of the mountain rise. The plateau was swept by strong winds, which at times forced the climbers to their knees.

They climbed steadily upwards: the cold grew more bitter with every step and the thin air made breathing difficult. At times their progress was very slow.

On 9th August, at eight o’clock in the evening, they at last reached the summit. For the first time, men had climbed to the top of the Alps. As Dr. Paccard said soon after they returned to Chamonix, “We have been where no living being has ever been before, not even the eagle and the chamois.”

The conquest of Mont Blanc wrote the first chapter in the history of mountain exploration. It was a great achievement 190 years ago, when there were no scientific aids to mountaineering and not even a technique for climbing.

Vickers Oceanics and their versatile undersea workhorses

Posted in Disasters, Exploration, Historical articles, Minerals, Sea, Technology on Friday, 10 August 2012

This edited article about mini-submarines originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 761 published on 14th August 1975.

Vickers mini-sub, picture, image, illustration

The Vickers mini-sub by Wilf Hardy

It was a routine job. Pisces III, a tiny submarine with just enough room for its crew of two, was working on the sea bed at a depth of about half a mile.

Pisces was burying a newly laid transatlantic cable. Its manipulator arms held a nozzle which directed a powerful jet of water that cut a trench in the sea bed.

When the trench was formed, the cable sank into it. In time, it would be filled in with seabed material.

Eight hours passed. Then the two pilots in Pisces III brought their craft to the surface to the mother ship, Vickers Voyager.

As the Voyager began winching in the sub, waves lashed at the towline, which was momentarily slack. They snaked it around the hatch lock of the sub’s rear buoyancy sphere, pulling off the hatch cover.

More than a ton of water cascaded into the sphere. Its weight snapped the towline, and Pisces III dived into the depths, hitting the bottom at 1,575 ft. (about 470 metres).

This happened on 29th August, 1973, when Pisces was operating some 150 miles (240 km) off Cork, Ireland, and for 76 hours the two pilots crouched in their little craft, becoming progressively weakened by their diminishing oxygen supply.

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George Vancouver is largely forgotten but for his eponymous Canadian city

Posted in Discoveries, Exploration, Geography, Historical articles, History on Friday, 10 August 2012

This edited article about George Vancouver originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 761 published on 14th August 1975.

Vancouver, picture, image, illustration

Vancouver from the harbour by Harold Copping

At the Admiralty offices in London, a naval commander was receiving a series of orders that would have startled a more imaginative man. Commander George Vancouver was appointed to His Majesty’s sloop Discovery. He was to proceed, by way of the Cape of Good Hope, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and the Hawaiian Islands to the north-west coast of North America, carrying out various surveying and map-making tasks as he went. Then, having reached North America, he would make for Nootka Sound and settle a dispute that had arisen between English and Spanish settlers over the possession of a trading post. Finally, the commander was required to seek out the passage to Hudson’s Bay that was rumoured to exist in those latitudes.

Even to the stolid, humourless George Vancouver, such an ambitious programme of exploration must have seemed exactly what it was, a tremendous gesture of confidence, a mark of official approval. It was particularly welcome, because Vancouver had not always been an officer. In fact he had done what very few men managed in the 18th century British navy, and had worked his way up from the lower deck.

Born in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, round about the year 1757, Vancouver had joined the navy at the age of 13 and sailed as an ordinary seaman with Captain Cook on his second voyage round the world, an amazing experience for a boy. He had so impressed the great explorer with his careful work that he had been chosen to accompany Cook’s third voyage as a midshipman. After that, he had seen service in the West Indies, and now, at the age of 33, he was already a commander and so well thought of that he had been entrusted with a voyage that would almost certainly take several years and during which he would be entirely his own master. No officer could ask for a better compliment to his professional skill than that.

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German artillery obliterated the French Army at the Battle of Verdun

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, World War 1 on Friday, 10 August 2012

This edited article about World War One originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 761 published on 14th August 1975.

Verdun, picture, image, illustration

The Battle of Verdun by Frank Bellamy

The history of World War I is full of horrifying battles fought out under the most appalling conditions in which the generals on both sides expended their forces with a prodigal disregard for human life. But for sheer horror, no battle surpassed the conflict at Verdun, one of the most ancient historical towns of France, which had fallen once before to the Germans in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871. In a war in which heroism was almost commonplace, Verdun represented France’s supreme sacrifice for the war effort.

The reason it came into being is simple enough to explain. Shortly before the Christmas of 1915, the German command became convinced that the Allies would launch a major offensive early in the following year. To undermine the forthcoming offensive and perhaps to bring it to a full halt, General Falkenhayn, the German commander, decided to attack Verdun, which, because of its strategic importance, the French would defend to the last. In a memorandum to the Kaiser, Falkenhayn put the case succinctly:

‘Within our reach behind the French sector of the Western Front there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death . . .’

As Verdun was reputed to be the world’s strongest fortress, Falkenhayn had given himself a task before which most other commanders would have quailed. But Falkenhayn was confident of success, mainly because he was going to put into action a new principle in tactics. The German offensive was to be based on fire power, and for this purpose, over 1,200 pieces of artillery were brought up and placed on an eight mile front before Verdun. This was the largest concentration of artillery ever seen, and it was confidently expected that it would destroy all the French defences before the troops moved in to complete the obliteration of the French army.

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Catherine the Great, Empress and Sole Autocrat, Mother Tsarina of all the Russias

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty on Friday, 10 August 2012

This edited article about Catherine the Great originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 761 published on 14th August 1975.

Catherine the Great, picture, image, illustration

Catherine takes her husband, Tsar Peter III, prisoner in a brilliant coup d’etat, by C L Doughty

The sky was a luminous silver on that magical June ‘white night’. Flat, smooth and motionless, the sea was silent and as pale as milk.

Inside her summer house, with its narrow terrace overlooking that sea, a woman tossed fitfully in her sleep, knowing as she did that her destiny was, at that very moment, being forged.

As dawn broke she was wakened by a visitor and helped into a waiting carriage. The woman, dressed only in a simple black gown and nightcap, rode through the silent early morning roads, making her way to her secret rendezvous.

Presently, the coach came to a halt and the woman stepped out, pale, small and fragile, her black dress covered in yellow dust, her brilliant blue eyes shining with anticipation. Before her stood a regiment of soldiers unable to contain their joy. As soon as they caught sight of the woman, they rushed to kiss her hands, her feet, the hem of her dress.

Just three hours after she had been wakened from her restless sleep, the woman mounted the steps of the Kazan Cathedral, walked down its imposing aisle, and stood before the altar to be proclaimed ruler of her country. The bishop held a gold crown above her head, blessed her, and waited while she took the sacred oath.

The cathedral bells rang out, and soon all the bells of the city filled the air to proclaim the news.

Tsar Peter The Third had been deposed and replaced by a new ruler – his wife.

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How Anglo-Saxon London flourished after the Dark Ages

Posted in British Cities, Historical articles, History, Invasions, London, Royalty, Trade on Friday, 10 August 2012

This edited article about London originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 761 published on 14th August 1975.

Mellitus, picture, image, illustration

Bishop Mellitus arriving in London by Pat Nicolle

Bishop Mellitus was not impressed by what he saw. The city’s walls still stood, apparently undamaged, but inside these massive Roman defences the scene was dismal – houses with their roofs fallen in, streets in a terrible state, the western half of the city apparently abandoned, very few people even on the eastern side.

Londinium might not be dead, but it was certainly very decayed. In Rome, Augustine and his companions, including Mellitus, had been briefed on the long-lost province of Britannia. They were told about the pagan Saxons, the “English” who had already seized much land from the supposedly Christian Roman-British. They had been warned that Londinium would be a shadow of its former self – nevertheless the reality was very depressing.

There were people still in London, but they did not welcome Mellitus as a saviour bringing back the torch of civilization. In fact they do not seem to have been Christians any more. It was tough going for Mellitus, installed as bishop of this tattered town in the year 604 AD. He built a church in the west of the city, London’s first St. Paul’s cathedral. It may have stood in the city’s administrative centre.

The name may be a corruption of senatus populusque (“the senate and people”), the official title of the Roman state.

One thing is certain, Bishop Mellitus did not make himself very popular. A few years later the good folk of London threw out their first bishop.

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Historical geology reveals fascinating facts about the British Isles

Posted in Geography, Geology, Historical articles on Friday, 10 August 2012

This edited article about geology originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 761 published on 14th August 1975.

Geologists, picture, image, illustration

Victorian geologists advanced this novel scientific study of the British Isles by Peter Jackson

Many Britons travel abroad to see the scenic wonders of other lands. Yet they have one of the world’s geological marvels right here under their feet. For the geologist, the British Isles are almost a complete “text-book” in themselves.

In the thousands of millions of years that it has taken the Earth’s surface to reach its present state, there have been many stages. Great subterranean upheavals have forced the Earth’s crust upwards, or caused rifts or faults; volcanic eruptions have poured out lava to form new layers of rock; seas have deposited their sediments to form yet more strata. In between, the erosive action of wind and water, frost and ice, has played its ceaseless part in shaping hill and plain.

In the British Isles, almost every stage of this complex geological process can be found recorded.

Great Britain and Ireland, and the thousands of smaller islands, are really part of Europe. They rest on a part of the continent which is submerged – the Continental Shelf. Some 500 to 600 million years ago, the whole of the region, including much of what is now the continent, is believed to have been under water. During the long period that this continued, deposits built up on the sea-floor to build layers on top of the even older rocks.

In time, disturbance of the Earth’s crust caused uplifting of the sea-floor, volcanic eruptions playing their part in the changes that followed. Land began to appear above the waters. Earliest to appear were parts of Scotland and Wales, and England’s Lake District and south-western region. At one point Scotland was joined to Norway as part of a “Scandinavian continent”.

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The storming of the Eureka Stockade crushed the rebel miners

Posted in Australia, Historical articles, History on Friday, 10 August 2012

This edited article about the Eureka Stockade originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 761 published on 14th August 1975.

Eureka Stockade, picture, image, illustration

The defence of the Eureka Stockade by Angus McBride

The diggers in the stockade were getting jumpy. Why was there no news from James McGill and his men? Surely they had captured the Government cannon by now, and surely morning would see reinforcements arrive from other parts of the goldfields, miners who would rally round the Southern Cross, the “Australian flag of Independence”. It flew proudly over Eureka Stockade in the heart of the Victorian gold-mining country, solemnly raised in November 1854, and, as we saw last week, the vast throng had sworn a great oath to defend their rights and liberties in its name.

Now it was the night of December 2 and it would soon be the 3rd. McGill had left the fort with 300 picked men, little knowing that they had been bluffed by the Government to get them out of the way while an attack could be launched on the remaining 200 or so “rebels”.

Rebels? Had they not smarted under the hated licensing laws to dig for gold and the even more hated men that administered them – the corrupt, often brutal officials and police? But if only the thousands of other miners had joined them, for did they not equally hate the way they were governed and the way that they had no say in that government? Most of them sympathised with their cause, but few of them wanted war, and that was what the miners in Eureka Stockade would soon be experiencing.

For towards the hastily erected, ill-constructed stockade a small force was marching. Legend later had it that 1,000 regulars and 1,500 troopers were on their way, but actually there were a mere 276: 152 foot soldiers, 24 foot police, 30 mounted military troopers, and 70 mounted police. Determined men inside a stockade should have been a match for them, but the men in Eureka were not determined enough. The absence of McGill and his men was to prove fatal.

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Jean Hebert and Renault’s record-breaking turbo-engined Shooting Star

Posted in Cars, Historical articles, Sport, Sporting Heroes on Friday, 10 August 2012

This edited article about Etoile Filante originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 761 published on 14th August 1975.

A blue speck appeared in the shimmering mist on the far horizon. It was a car which grew rapidly larger. Then, whoosh, it had gone, its twin-stabilisers knifing the air as it skimmed past.

The car was the aptly named French “Shooting Star” (Etoile Filante) which gained the world speed record for turbo-engined cars on 5th September, 1956, on the famous salt flats at Bonneville, U.S.A. where many other land speed records have been broken.

At the wheel was Jean Hebert, an engineer-driver for the Renault company which had made the “Shooting Star”. Hebert was one of the backroom boys of the motor industry, who did not seek fame.

But on this occasion, a moment of glory was his as he drove his car along the flats at speeds of 191 and then 192 mph. The kilometre was covered at 306.9 kph, the mile at 307.7 kph, five miles at 300.4 kph and five kilometres at 308.8 kph.

Years earlier, John Cobb had driven at twice these speeds. But for the turbo-engined car, the “Shooting Star’s” record was a good one which has remained unchallenged since the day it was first set up twenty years ago.

Fridtjof Nansen designed the ice-worthy ship christened Fram

Posted in Exploration, Historical articles, History, Ships on Friday, 10 August 2012

This edited article about Fridtjof Nansen originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 761 published on 14th August 1976.

Nansen, picture, image, illustration

Nansen decided to leave the Fram and the rest of his party, setting out over the ice with one companion and dog-sleds, by Graham Coton


Of the many ships famed in polar exploration, one can claim the distinction of having come nearer than any other vessel to both North and South Poles. This is the Fram, the pride of Norway.

In 1890, the Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, produced a plan for reaching the North Pole.

Some years earlier, the American ship Jeannette had become locked in the Arctic ice, and had drifted north-westwards for nearly two years before the pressure of the ice broke her up.

Nansen concluded that, with a ship designed to resist the ice pressure, the north-westerly drift could be used to carry the vessel over the pole, or within a short distance of it.

Encouraged by Norway’s king and parliament, he went ahead with his project. The ship built to his design was christened Fram (“Forward”). She had a timber hull two feet (60cm) thick, and her width was a third of her length. In addition to a full set of sails, she had a powerful engine.

The vital feature in her design was that the sides were angled in such a way that, as ice closed around her, she would tend to rise over it.

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