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Archive for December, 2013

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Octavian smashed the lovesick Anthony to become the sole Emperor of Rome

Posted in Ancient History, Famous battles, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 19 December 2013

This edited article about the Roman Empire first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 498 published on 31 July 1971.

Battle of Actium, picture, image, illustration

Cleopatra at the battle of Actium where she withdrew her ships and gave victory to Octavian by Tancredi Scarpelli

Caesar – the great Julius Caesar – was dead, cut down in the Roman Forum at the moment of his triumph. They said that he had died, not of the dagger wounds, but of a broken heart for the leader of his assassins was Brutus, the man he loved like a son. They said, too, that Brutus wept as he plunged the dagger in for he loved Caesar, the man, but he loved Rome more and he believed that Caesar was planning to make himself absolute master.

The Romans were bewildered – but not for long. Caesar’s friend, Mark Anthony, mounted the rostrum and, in a passionate speech, told the Romans of what a friend they had lost. He read out Caesar’s will, showing how the dead man had kept almost nothing for himself or his family but had set aside vast sums for the citizens and soldiers of Rome. The Romans arose in rage, Brutus and his companions fled for their lives and Mark Anthony quietly began to take over the state.

But first the world had to be informed of the tragedy that had happened. Hour by hour mounted messengers left the city and took to the great Roman roads that ran to the edge of the known world, riding in relay day and night. One of these messengers took the southern road to Naples. There the message was handed to a shipmaster who took it across the Adriatic Sea to the coast of Greece. There it was handed on to another and yet another horseman until at last it came into the hands of a young man of 19.

His name was Octavian. His father had been an ordinary moneylender – but his uncle had been Julius Caesar himself and the messenger brought the astounding news that Caesar had adopted him as heir. Immediately, Octavian prepared to leave for Rome. His mother and sister wept and tried to prevent him for Rome was a dangerous place for an unknown young man. The Roman garrison commander of the town offered to send troops with him, but he refused. “I trust the Roman people,” he said and, with only a small personal following he made the long and perilous journey to the capital of the world. In that manner the future Emperor of Rome arrived in the city.

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The origin of flying feathered birds lay in the scales of prehistoric reptiles

Posted in Animals, Dinosaurs, Geography, Historical articles, Prehistory, Wildlife on Thursday, 19 December 2013

This edited article about prehistoric animals first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 498 published on 31 July 1971.

Archaeopteryx, picture, image, illustration

Archaeopteryx by Roger Payne

The world has not always been as it appears today. Were we able to travel back in time for 600 million years, the continents and seas would be completely unfamiliar to us.

The largest land mass today is Eurasia, stretching half way round the globe, with one arm pointing towards America and a broad leg thrust down into Africa. Yet this huge continent was, 600 million years ago, an archipelago of large islands that rose slowly from the sea to merge into the super-continent of Laurasia, a great land mass that extended right across the world to include North America.

According to many scientists, who hold to the idea of drifting continents, Laurasia formed the northern block of a world continent, partially divided in the middle by the Tethys Sea. The southern half of this land mass was called Gondwanaland, which consisted of South America, Africa, India and Australia.

This condition existed in the Carboniferous Period, 230 million years ago. Opinions are divided as to when the separation of the continents began; some think as early as the Jurassic times (170 million years ago). Others believe it was much later in the Cretaceous times, 135 million years ago, that the first cracks appeared in the world’s structure.

Of course these movements were so slow that no living thing would have noticed them. In fact, many think that it was only in the Pleistocene Epoch, around a million years ago, that the rift between Africa and South America widened enough to become the Atlantic Ocean.

The drifting of the continents, caused by complicated movements of convection currents beneath the earth’s crust, have had much to do with orogeny (mountain building) and it is clear that, during the earth’s long history, several driftings have occurred before that, originating in the Tertiary Era.

There are two recognised directions in which these movements have taken place – westwards, when the Americas separated from Africa, and later from Eurasia. This caused the folding and upthrust of the Andes and the Rocky Mountains, and secondly, the movement towards the equator by Eurasia from the north and Africa and India from the south. This enormous pincer movement squeezed up the Atlas Mountains in Africa and the Alps and Himalayas in Eurasia.

It is thought that older mountain ranges were brought into being by other driftings in the even more distant past.

Two features persisted over a very long period. They were the Tethys Sea (which separated Europe from Africa, and India from the main body of Asia), and the much narrower Uralian Sea that flowed down from the Arctic to join the Tethys and divided Europe from Asia.

It was not until 36 million years ago, in the Oligocene Epoch, that the great Tethys began to regress from Eurasia so that all that remains of it today is the Mediterranean and the inland seas of Caspian, Aral, Azov and the Black Sea. The narrower sea of Uralia also dried up and from then on Europe and Asia have been one continent.

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Richard Owen was the first Director of the Natural History Museum

Posted in Biology, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, London, Medicine, Oddities on Thursday, 19 December 2013

This edited article about Richard Owen first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 498 published on 31 July 1971.

Richard Owen, picture, image, illustration

Professor Richard Owen

A threatening figure rises ferociously from among the trees. In the dusky half-light the monster rears up, but does not move. A few moments pass – but still it does not move. It never will, for it is a life-size model of an Iguanodon and it stands, huge and silent, with models of its fellow prehistoric dinosaurs in the grounds of a south London park.

The stone monsters of Crystal Palace, some of which still exist beside a miniature lake at Sydenham Hill, were the fanciful creations of the scientist Richard Owen. Owen was a leading anatomist in Victorian times and specialised in the reconstruction of animals from prehistory.

People are amused by the models today, and scientists may scoff at them, for they are largely inaccurate, and few remember the name of the man who caused them to be built in 1855. Their somewhat comic appearance is in direct contrast to Owen’s own personality, for he was a solemn, humourless man. But at the time, they were serious enough attempts to recreate the true appearance of the dinosaurs.

The funniest thing of all about these model monsters is the little known fact that before their erection at Crystal Palace, a dinner in honour of Richard Owen and other scientists was held inside the half completed structure of the supposed Iguanodon, the biggest of the models. It says something of the scale of this animal when one reads that 21 scientists sat down to a meal inside it! It must have seemed a curious occasion to Owen. His reputation in his own lifetime was never as high as he would have liked or, indeed, as he was entitled to by his achievements. Dinner in a dinosaur was an honour he probably found difficult to accept as a proper expression of esteem.

Owen was born at Lancaster in 1804. As a young man he accepted a temporary post as assistant to William Clift, the curator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. So involved did he become with the museum and its collections of anatomical specimens, then the finest in the world, that he stayed there until 1856, having succeeded Clift as curator in 1849.

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Henry V’s band of brothers triumph at the Battle of Agincourt

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Royalty, War on Thursday, 19 December 2013

This edited article about the Hundred Years War first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 498 published on 31 July 1971.

Agincourt, picture, image, illustration

Battle of Agincourt by Michael White

The old French knight, comfortably stationed well out of range of the arrows, flexed his arms and winced. He was wearing complete plate armour, made in Germany or Italy. It covered him well enough – his arms and legs were entirely encased in metal – but it made his bones ache. He missed the mail coat he had worn for most of his fighting life.

He glanced around him grimly and did not like what he saw. The army of France looked, he thought, like a mighty rabble, milling and jostling across the field, its leaders boasting already of the destruction of the puny English force. He looked at the English and admired their disciplined array: archers drawn up in wedges between the lines of men-at-arms; pointed stakes driven into the ground before them to rip open the bellies of the French chargers; and somewhere in the middle of it all the foxy little English king who had brought his fever-ridden force this far by the strength of his will alone. The ground began to tremble beneath him and ponderously the French line began to advance through the mud. The old knight crossed himself, closed his visor and plodded stolidly forward. It was 25th October, 1415, the day of St. Crispin and St. Crispian, the day of the battle of Agincourt.

For the past 20 years France had been torn by civil war but England had been unable to take advantage of her enemy’s weakness. She too had witnessed violent dynastic upheaval: she too had needed time to rest. But to the young king who ascended the English throne in 1413 it seemed that she had rested long enough. Henry V wanted war. He had already served a hard apprenticeship as a soldier, fighting hand-to-hand in Ireland and riding on long raids in Wales. With experience in battle he combined skill in administration and craft in diplomacy; above all, he was ambitious. That ambition now led him to France.

Behind a screen of diplomatic exchanges with the Burgundian and Armagnac factions in France, he built up his striking-power. Plans for the invasion were kept a close secret until the very hour of embarkation and the French could only speculate wildly as to where he would land. The Dauphin of France, nominally in command of the royal army, and the Constable and marshals who did their best to instil into that irresponsible prince a little military sense, hurried to muster their forces. But peace between the warring factions had only recently been patched up and the response was poor. Armagnacs came lethargically to the Dauphin’s aid while the Duke of Burgundy promised to send men but forbore to join the army himself.

In August, 1415 the English fleet anchored in the mouth of the River Seine. After a gruelling siege Henry captured the town of Harfleur and made it his base in Normandy. In October he led his army towards Calais.

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Kit Carson was America’s greatest Mountain Man and Plainsman

Posted in America, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 19 December 2013

This edited article about the Wild West first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 498 published on 31 July 1971.

Fur trappers, picture, image, illustration

Kit Carson was a brilliant trapper among many such Mountainmen by Ron Embleton

“Come on, boys! There’s the devils who stole our horses!”

The four trappers, led by young Kit Carson, galloped straight for the Arapahoes, who raced swiftly away. Suddenly, on each side of the trail between the hills a horde of warriors appeared. Kit had led his men into an ambush! The odds were at least 12 to 1 – against!

Kit knew he had only one chance, for this was 1830, long before repeating rifles came in. The Americans had to charge straight through the mass of Indians, not fire their flintlocks and try and reload. At the gallop, but with their rifles facing the Indians, the men went hurtling through them. Taken by surprise, and, at the last moment fearing the white men’s terrible weapons, the Indians gave way. Kit’s party reached camp safely.

This happened when Kit was 20 and well on his way to fame as a Mountain Man and scout. The Mountain men were the toughest, roughest, boldest white men who ever roamed the West. They were searching for beaver, whose fur was needed back East and in Europe to make top hats for well-dressed men and to line their coats.

From around 1810 until about 1840, when the market in beaver fur slumped because Fashion dictated silk hats, the Mountain Men, without meaning to, changed history by blazing trails right across the West and keeping Hudson’s Bay Company men from Canada from taking over the American Northwest before settlers arrived.

The Mountain Men, named after the Rocky Mountains, lived like Indians, often married them, and make the famous gunslingers who came later – men like Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickock, Jesse James and the rest – seem tame by comparison. Yet some of these forgotten pioneers are still remembered, especially Jim Bridger – and Kit Carson.

Kit, born in Kentucky in 1809, was taken west to Missouri by his parents when he was one. Growing up on the very edge of the Frontier was exciting, so much so that when he was 16 and apprenticed to a saddler, he ran away with little except a skinning-knife, an old flint-lock and a coonskin hat to call his own.

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British scientists solved the problem of metal fatigue in the Comet

Posted in Aviation, Historical articles, History, Transport on Thursday, 19 December 2013

This edited article about aviation first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 498 published on 31 July 1971.

Comet 4B, picture, image, illustration

The Comet 4B came after the successful Comet 4; it is shown here in Dan Air livery, by Graham Coton

Up, up and away went the big Comet, a white bird in a grey sky. Then, at the zenith of its climb, it disintegrated, like a very expensive firework, and fell, blazing, over 30,000 ft. into the sea below.

This was yet another in an ever-lengthening trail of accidents. Throughout the world the introduction of the Comet into commercial airline operation, on 2nd May, 1952, had been acknowledged as a great achievement, and full credit was accorded the British aircraft industry and the British Overseas Airways Corporation for the bold initiative taken in placing the revolutionary form of travel into service. The first services of the Comet were those to Johannesburg. There had never before been jet airliners, and no other model from any other country was anywhere near being ready to fly, let alone ready actually to take on passengers for regular fare-paying routes. It seemed that unrivalled success was to be the Comets’ luck.

But then the accidents started. Five Comets met trouble during take-off and landing during the first year of service – 1952. At first, pilot error was accepted as the cause of the crashes, for after all, the Comets were a completely new thing in passenger services, and the pilots were inexperienced in dealing with them. The worst of these accidents took place at Karachi, when all 11 people aboard were killed after the plane had burst into flames. At the time it had just failed to make a successful take-off. Then, in the summer of 1953, a Comet disintegrated seven minutes after take-off from Calcutta, killing the 42 people aboard and spreading the wreckage over a radius of eight miles. And now, 10th January, 1954, shortly after take-off from Rome, the G-ALYP had crashed.

The popular theory as to the cause of this disaster was that the Comet had been sabotaged. However, on 8th April, 1954, a similar fate overtook the G-ALYY over Sicily. Immediately all Comets were grounded and a public investigation began. The thoroughness of this enquiry was unprecedented.

The fault was found to be metal fatigue in the pressurised cabin structure, a phenomenon hitherto unheard-of in Britain, or anywhere else for that matter. As a result a design philosophy was evolved to ensure that the fatigue life of the new Comet 4 aircraft should exceed its operational life by a considerably large margin.

So the aircraft with the worst record of any in commercial service was made safe at last, thanks to the work of scientists at the Royal Aircraft Establishment. To do it they had to recover and reconstruct the wreckage of the disasters. The new Comet 4 was a larger version of the original, with more powerful engines, and it developed into the most famous and incident-free type of jet airliner with an enviable safety record.

England had its pleasure gardens and Rio its carnival

Posted in Dance, Historical articles, History, Leisure, London, Music on Thursday, 19 December 2013

This edited article about leisure first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 498 published on 31 July 1971.

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, picture, image, illustration

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens around 1750 by Peter Jackson

Throughout Europe wherever the grape is grown, the successful gathering in of the harvest – “the Vintage” – is celebrated with a merrymaking as old as Ancient Rome. The Gods gave the grape, and “wine delighteth the heart of man.” In Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, France the “Queens of the Vintage” are crowned, and all who have laboured in the vineyards are given a great annual spree. Perhaps they take a little bit too much, dance over much and sing over loud! But it is only once a year, and for all who love a glass of good wine the general rule is moderation in this, as in all things.

But let’s leave Europe for a spell and take a look at the London of some three-hundred years ago. 1660 and the Monarchy restored in the pleasure-loving presence of King Charles the Second. 1661, and the opening at Lambeth on the south bank of the Thames of something not wholly new, but far, far more elegant than any predecessor. This was the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Today at Battersea are the “pleasure gardens” opened as part of the 1951 “Festival of Britain.” Battersea, with all the fun of the fair and a certain amount of wit and elegance as well, is a good enough spot in which to have an evening out and a bit of a spree. But it cannot compare with the sparkling splendour of the Vauxhall of long ago. Nor with the other “pleasure gardens” which became focal points of merrymaking London in the train of Vauxhall. The other two most famous were the gardens of Ranelagh and Cremorne with their rotundas and pavilions, their shady avenues, their groves and grottoes, their fountains and cascades, the thousands of lights twinkling among the trees, the music of their orchestras and their singers, their colonnaded arcades lined with pretty little supper rooms.

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The coming of the ironclads was hastened by the propeller

Posted in Engineering, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Ships, War on Thursday, 19 December 2013

This edited article about ships first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 498 published on 31 July 1971.

The Devastation,in the Crimea, picture, image, illustration

The Russian solid shot bounced off the metal plates of the Devastation, Lave and Tonnante, and the shells exploded harmlessly against them, by Angus McBride

When the battle smoke of Trafalgar had cleared, and every man had done his duty, Britain had won the mastery of the seas. Well content, their Lordships at the Admiralty felt that they could sit back and relax in the afterglow of Nelson’s glory.

Their ships were invincible. The hulls, layers of ten-inch oak planks, were proof against any roundshot that could be fired at them. The arrangement of sails and rigging was the most efficient that could possibly be devised. Britain had more first class ships of the line than any other nation could build.

Yet even as the gallant Nelson lay dying in his hour of triumph, his ships were in danger of becoming obsolete.

Four years before Trafalgar, a strange little boat, the Charlotte Dundas, had chugged along the River Clyde. The era of steam had begun. This was the puny predecessor of a gigantic new race of massive fighting ships; the first hop in a frightening international game of leap frog.

It took some time for the contented Naval lords to realise that their invincible power could vanish the moment one hostile nation built a few steamships, which would be able to move in any direction, no matter what the wind, and literally steam circles around a becalmed man-o-war.

At first the danger was not too great, because all the early steamships were paddle driven. Paddle wheels, whilst suitable for merchant ships, had two great disadvantages for warships. The first one was that they were easily damaged by round-shot or collision. The second was that they took up a lot of room on either side of the ship, space usually occupied by tiers of smooth-bore cannons firing broadsides.

However, in spite of all the objections, the first warship built for steam was launched in 1832. She was the Agamemnon, paddle-powered but still with a full rig of sails. In the meantime John Ericsson, a Swede working for the United States (not always a friendly nation in those days) was busy developing a screw propeller so that a warship could be steam-propelled with none of the paddle wheel disadvantages. Happily, an engineer named Sir Francis Pettit Smith did similar good work for the Royal Navy, although the Admiralty had to be convinced of the power of the propeller by means of a strange tug-o-war.

A demonstration was staged between the paddle wheel sloop Alecto and the screw-driven Rattler. With a tow rope linking them stern to stern, the two vessels strove to move off in opposite directions. Gradually Rattler gained way and moved off at a steady 2 ½ knots, towing the frantically paddling Alecto after it.

From that day in 1845, as far as the Royal Navy was concerned, paddles were out and propellers were in.

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The Mafia places kinship above the State and regards vengeance as duty

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Law, World War 2 on Thursday, 19 December 2013

This edited article about the Mafia first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 498 published on 31 July 1971.

Sicilian rebels from the Mafia, picture, image, illustration

The first Mafia were the Sicilian rebels who helped drive the French from their shores during the C12

When the door of an unusually comfortable cell in an American jail was opened late one night, its dark-haired, good-looking occupant stared up casually from his bed and then grinned knowingly. His grave-faced visitor, a high-ranking government official, had called before.

On his last dead-of-night visit he had come with a plea. Earnestly he had explained that Italian-American stevedores were destroying the Allied war effort by sabotaging ships in New York. Only this prisoner, serving a 30-year sentence, had the influence to stop them – and he did.

Now the Allies were planning their 1943 invasion of Sicily, occupied by German and Italian troops, and the same man’s help was needed again. Could he – would he – make the conquest any easier?

Shortly before the invasion, an Allied plane swooped over the town of Villalba in Central Sicily and dropped a packet wrapped in a yellow silk handkerchief monogrammed with the letter “L.” It was immediately delivered to a man named Calogero Vizzini who read its contents, nodded and then began to give orders.

As a result, almost two-thirds of the Italian troops deserted, their commander was captured and delivered to the Americans which greatly helped the rapid conquest of the island.

All because of the man in the American jail – all because of Charles “Lucky” Luciano, head of the International Mafia, who accepted freedom and deportation to Sicily as part of his reward.

“Lucky” Luciano is now dead. He went to his grave in an ornate hearse originally built for the great singer Caruso. The Mafia, however, the world’s most lawless and powerful secret society, is far from dead.

Stained with blood, built on corpses, buttressed by terror, its history might have been a model for Dante’s Inferno – yet this corruption started only in the 19th century.

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‘Victory or Death’ was Hitler’s final order to Rommel

Posted in Africa, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, World War 2 on Thursday, 19 December 2013

This edited article about the Second World War first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 498 published on 31 July 1971.

Rommel, picture, image, illustration

General Erwin Rommel with the soldiers of his beloved Afrika Korps by Graham Coton

With a huge roar, a thousand British guns rent the desert air with a barrage of death. Yellow flashes from exploding shells shone flickeringly upon German and Italian soldiers tumbling dazedly through the night to their battle stations.

Then above the barrage came the melancholy notes of bagpipes leading the British and Commonwealth infantry into the attack.

The battle for El Alamein in the Libyan desert of North Africa in the Second World War had begun.

At noon on the following day, the telephone rang beside a hospital bed in Germany. The patient who answered it was Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel, the formidable commander of Germany’s Afrika Korps, which was sweeping victoriously through Africa.

“Rommel speaking,” he said.

It was Hitler, Germany’s dictator, who, in a worried voice, told Rommel what had happened.

“Do you feel well enough to go back to Africa?” Hitler asked. “Would you be willing to go back?”

Although he was very ill, Rommel agreed. His heart was with his soldiers, with his beloved Afrika Korps. The next day he flew from Germany and by the evening was in his headquarters. At once he made a survey of the situation.

The attack had been made on a fine clear night from the north. But the British had set up a phoney attack from the south. False orders had been leaked to the Germans and dummy tanks had been built up as though for an attack in the south.

Clearly there was an agile brain at work on the British side whose ice-cold calculations were about to cause the downfall of Rommel, the wily desert fox.

Who was he? Why was the reign of terror of the mighty German Field-Marshal and his troops about to end?

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