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Archive for August, 2011

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Cockerell’s cushion of air carries his Hovercraft

Posted in Engineering, Famous Inventors, Inventions, Ships, Technology on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

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

hovercraft, picture, image, illustration

The Hovercraft by John S Smith

Fast flights across the English Channel at the amazing altitude of only two metres have sped millions of holidaymakers and their cars on the first leg of their Continental holidays. The craft in which they travelled was a hovercraft, which rides over land or water on a cushion of air. In addition to being used as ferries between England and France, hovercraft also link Hong Kong and Macao on the coast of southern China, ports in Scandinavia and elsewhere. Smaller versions are also ridden by sports enthusiasts.

The hovercraft’s secret is the cushion of air which forms inside a skirt under the vessel and raises it from the water or ground over which it is travelling. The principle sounds simple, but putting it to work was a headache for the inventor, Christopher Cockerell, who was later given a knighthood in recognition of his work.

In 1953, Cockerell was experimenting with ways of reducing the drag effect on the hulls of ships as they ploughed their way through the sea. Using model boats, he tried various ways of smoothing their passage through water including the use of a layer of air under the hull to produce a friction-reduced surface.

When this proved unsuccessful, Sir Christopher tried other ideas. He built models with rigid side-walls, and other with end-doors on hinges, given buoyancy by air pumped into the centre. Thinking about the results of all these experiments, Cockerell began to consider using a cushion of air which could be pumped into the centre of a hull and then allowed to escape at a controlled speed from around the edges.

Over a week-end, he translated his drawing board idea into a model which he made from two empty coffee tins and a small industrial electric fan. To his great delight the idea worked well, and Cockerell went on to build a better model, powered by a vacuum cleaner motor. That worked too, and in December, 1955, Cockerell applied for a patent for his first hovercraft.

His next task was to find a manufacturer willing to build a prototype, or a backer able to finance this. However, he firstly had to define his vehicle. Was it an aircraft? The aircraft industry said “It’s not an aeroplane, try the shipping industry.” The shipbuilders said “It’s not a sea-going vessel, try the aircraft industry.”

These rebuffs must have been a disappointment to the inventor, but Cockerell persevered and eventually he went to the National Research Development Corporation. This body promised help and Cockerell felt that he now had a chance of making some progress.

Government money was provided for the Saunders-Roe Company Ltd. to build test models of the hovercraft and try them out in a tank. In May, 1959, the first full-sized hovercraft, the SRN-1, was launched – if that is the word for a form of transport that is perhaps both aircraft and ship combined.

The SRN-1 proved that a hovercraft could travel as easily over land or marshy areas as it could over water. Today, hover craft of many types and sizes from giants to small military versions are skimming their way across land and water all over the world.

The Battles of Marston Moor and Naseby

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

This edited article about the Battles of Marston Moor and Naseby originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1047 published on 3 April 1982.

Marston Moor, picture, image, illustration

The Battle of Marston Moor by John Millar Watt

The first battles of the English Civil War had shown how little discipline there was in the Royalist and Parliamentary armies. But only Oliver Cromwell seems to have really tried to organise a more disciplined, modern fighting force. He and his men came from eastern England and they were to be the pattern which Parliament’s later, and extremely successful, New Model Army followed.

Such reforms had, however, hardly begun when, early in 1644, a large Scottish army marched south in support of England’s Parliament. The two countries were still separate, although they had shared one king ever since James VI of Scotland came to the throne of England as James I.

This invading Scottish army now helped the Parliamentary forces besiege the ancient walled stronghold of York. Prince Rupert, the dashing but unpopular Royalist cavalry commander, was determined to relieve the city. So, in June, Rupert’s army crossed the Pennine mountains: and on 1st July the Parliamentarians outside York left the siege and marched against the prince.

Prince Rupert was a fine general and he easily outmanoeuvred his enemies. To reach York, however, he had divided his army, and now he found that the Royalists in the city were not keen on fighting the Parliamentarians immediately. Strangely enough there were similar disagreements inside his enemies’ camp, which lay eight kilometres to the west at Marston Moor.

When at last the Anglo-Scottish army decided to move, they were almost caught by the prince as they were in the process of changing their positions. This was Rupert’s great opportunity, but for some reason he missed it. Instead of attacking, he allowed both armies to prepare for a set-piece battle in which the Parliamentarians greatly outnumbered the Royalists.

As usual most of the cavalry was on the flanks of these armies, although Prince Rupert did keep a large reserve of horsemen behind his infantry. Rupert also placed a line of musketeers along a ditch that separated the forces. Their dangerous task was to disorganise the enemy if the Parliamentarians decided to attack that same day.

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The Polar obsessions of Rear-Admiral Richard Byrd

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

This edited article about Richard Byrd originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1047 published on 3 April 1982.

Richard Byrd, picture, image, illustration

Richard Byrd conquered the South Pole from the air in 1928, by Graham Coton

He was lost in the frozen wilderness – yet his camp was not far away. Could he reach it before the intense cold killed him?

He was in the Antarctic, the Sixth Continent, the graveyard of so many other brave men who had tried to explore it. He was in the ice wilderness – and he was lost in it, without food and shelter, and with only his already half frozen furs to protect him against the cold that was so intense that he could hardly breathe in it.

Rear-Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd was facing death himself now, and yet, ironically, shelter, food and heat were only a few hundred metres away. Standing there in the vast stillness of the Antarctic night, he fought down his rising panic, and tried to analyse calmly what had happened to place him in this terrifying predicament.

His routine, to begin with, had been the same as it had always been. Each night he had left his shelter for the exercise he so badly needed, and each time he had taken the precaution of marking his tracks along his walk with a series of flagged bamboo poles that had guided him back within the closed circle which he had made for himself.

But this time, perhaps because his mind had been dulled by the deadly fumes from his leaking stove, Byrd had been less careful than usual. He could only assume, therefore, that he was lost outside the circle.

His life now depended on finding one of those flagged poles. To do that a new reference point was needed so that he would not keep going back over his tracks.

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King Hussein of Jordan and the troubled Middle East

Posted in Historical articles, Politics, Religion, Royalty, War on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This edited article about King Hussein of Jordan originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1047 published on 3 April 1982.

King Hussein, picture, image, illustration

King Hussein is no stranger to the front line in troubled Middle Eastern conflicts, by Angus McBride

The shadow of the assassin has often stalked King Hussein, ruler of the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. Yet threats to his life and the dangers of war have never changed the quiet philosophy of this quite fearless man.

“I am a Jordanian Arab. I do not know fear. My destiny is the destiny of my country,” he once told his people in a broadcast. And of death itself, he has said: “When it comes, it comes, if it does come.”

The monarch, who has walked a tight-rope between the intrigue of Arab neighbours and the hostility of the Israeli nation, will enter the pages of Jordanian history as one of the greatest leaders of its turbulent land.

He was indeed only 16 when he saw his grandfather, King Abdullah, murdered by a gunman on the steps of a Jerusalem mosque on 20th July, 1952. Seven years later his cousin, King Faisal of Iraq, was assassinated.

As a pilot, King Hussein was once himself ambushed in the Middle Eastern skies by a group of Syrian fighters. He dived, weaving and jinking through border valleys with the pursuing planes trying to get on to his tail. He escaped without a scratch.

His own capital of Amman has survived Israeli shells and bombs and civil war caused by Palestinian rebels crusading for a homeland of their own.

Hussein has met with noble equanimity all the attempts on his life and the political challenges that only the uncertain Middle East can create, as befits a royal Bedouin who is descended from the Prophet Mohammed through the powerful Qoraish tribe.

He is a quiet, charming man whose honesty and warmth have won him many friends in the Western world. Yet his early life was marked by tragedy.

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The historical significance of mounting the horse

Posted in Animals, Historical articles, History, Transport, War, Wildlife on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This edited article about the horse originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1047 published on 3 April 1982.

Horseman, picture, image, illustration

A horseman from the Steppes

Darius, king of the mighty Persian empire, had decided to conquer Greece. He led his great army, so huge, according to writers of the time, that it drank the rivers dry, across Asia – but before invading Greece he decided to subdue the Scythians.

A tribe of nomadic horsemen, the Scythians lived in the steppelands of southern Russia: Darius’ aim was to prevent them attacking him from the north. He crossed the Danube by a bridge built of boats and informed the commander of the Danube bridge that the campaign should take him no longer than 60 days.

But the Scythians, mounted on their small, swift horses, led the Persians on and on, through prairies, across rivers, into woods and out again. Always they were just on the horizon. From time to time, the Scythians would sweep down as though to engage in battle, shooting a rain of arrows from their saddles, with deadly, three-edged heads. Then, in the instant before contact, they would wheel away again, shooting more arrows over the rumps of the retreating horses, to regroup for a fresh onslaught.

To Darius, still relying, like most other generals of his time, on foot-soldiers and chariots, it was a strange war. There were no battles to be fought because the enemy would not stand and fight, no cities to be captured and plundered because the Scythians lived in tents which they pitched wherever they liked, and little food or water, for the Scythians burned the pasture and filled in the wells.

Finally, in despair, Darius turned and, leaving behind his sick and wounded and some braying asses to deceive the Scythians, led his weary troops back to the Danube.

But who were these Scythians who seemed almost part of the horses they rode, seldom dismounting to eat and drink, even sleeping on their horses? They were nomads, one of the tribes who lived in the steppelands, a band of country more than 5,000 kilometres long, stretching from Hungary deep into Siberia; grazing land, ideal for horses.

It was here that great herds of horses roamed in ancient times, here that the horse was first tamed and ridden, and from here that wave after wave of fierce horsemen, the Scythians and others like them, swept across Europe and Asia – plundering, looting, destroying whole civilisations, and altering the course of history.

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Rugged Flint and the defence of Edward I’s realm

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

This edited article about Flint originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1047 published on 3 April 1982.

Flint in Wales, picture, image, illustration

The coat of arms of Flint and the arms and crest of Richard II (inset, top) beneath, with Flint Castle in Edward I’s day (left) and in ruins today; Richard II’s emblems of sunburst and the hart (bottom left). Pictures by Dan Escott

Wales has long been part of the United Kingdom, but it also has its own history and traditions and today looks very much towards a future that will add to them.

Anyone from the English side of the border who enters Wales for the first time will be astonished at the extent to which the two countries are linked. Sometimes it is a whole town that reminds one of our common history, sometimes no more than a few stones. At the little town of Flint, in Clwyd, it is the forlorn remains of its castle.

What is left of Flint Castle is not very impressive, and the nearby rayon mill’s tall chimneys hardly give it a suitable setting. And yet this ruined donjon, or keep, has featured in a surprising amount of the dramatic story of England and Wales.

Edward I ordered it to be built in 1277, the most easterly, and first, in a chain of similar strongholds he built, as a means of maintaining his grip on rebellious territory. They stretch from Flint through Conway, Denbigh, Rhuddlan, Caernarfon, Beaumaris and Criccieth as far as Harlech.

The man responsible for building Flint Castle, and indeed most of Edward’s Welsh castles, was the master mason, James of St George, who held the appointment of Master of the King’s Works in Wales. The designing and building of castles was familiar work to this gifted man, who had come from the court of Count Philip of Savoy, where he had been an acknowledged expert on the subject of military fortifications.

For his foundations at Flint, James of St George used a great mass of rock facing the estuary of the River Dee. The outcrop was recorded in early times as Y Flynt, Literally “hard rock”. The castle he raised was unlike any other in the country, although there is a similar one in the South of France, the Tour de Constance at Aigues Mortes, which he may have used as a model.

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The Sun – a very ordinary star

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 1047 published on 3 April 1982.

Cutaway sun, picture, image, illustration

Cutaway picture of the sun showing the core, chromosphere, photosphere, sunspots, polar plumes and corona, by Harry Green

The Sun is a very ordinary star, similar to billions of others scattered across the Milky Way. An island of stars in space, the disc-shaped Milky Way is a galaxy so broad that light takes 100,000 years to cross it. This galaxy is much older than our Sun, which is a relatively young star, checking in at a mere 4.5 billion years.

The earliest stars that formed contained only hydrogen and helium – the raw materials of the galaxies. All other elements have been made inside stars, by a process known as “stellar nucleosynthesis”; at stars’ cores, simple elements like hydrogen and helium are literally fused into the heavier elements. This nuclear fusion is what drives the stars, their energy being released in line with Albert Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 (in which E is energy, m is mass, and c is the speed of light). The elements produced include those we on Earth regard as commonplace, such as the carbon and oxygen so important to living things.
When old stars die they may explode and scatter the heavier elements across space, so that they are mixed, in tiny proportions, into the clouds of gas from which new stars form. From these new stars, an even smaller fraction of the heavy elements can settle out in the form of rocky planets like the Earth. In fact, everything on Earth except the hydrogen in water and the rare gas helium, has been made inside stars – we are, literally, stardust.

The Sun contains 99.9 per cent of all the material in the Solar System, and all but two per cent of this is hydrogen and helium. And within the innermost quarter of the Sun’s radius – only about 1.5 per cent of its total volume – half the mass is concentrated and 99 per cent of the energy is generated.

Nuclear fusion goes on only in the heart of the Sun. At the centre the temperature is about 15,000,000 degrees C, and a little bit higher just off-centre in the main nuclear fusion region. It then falls off dramatically to the visible surface which has a temperature of “only” 6,000 degrees C!

The fusion process involves the conversion of hydrogen into helium; eventually ail the hydrogen will be used up and nucleosynthesis will convert helium into carbon; but this will not happen for another five billion years.

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Poland’s rural poverty has preserved its wildlife

Posted in Animals, Birds, Conservation, Geography, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This edited article about Polish wildlife originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1047 published on 3 April 1982.

Lynx, picture, image, illustration

The Lynx by K Lilly

Poland’s current political problems have thrown a dark shadow over the many attractions of this large and often beautiful country, which borders the Soviet Union to the east and East Germany to the west. Poland has a continental climate, with cold winters and hot summers, while its varied geography ranges from wide open plains in the north to high mountains in the south, and this explains the variety of animals to be found within its boundaries.

Compared with the highly mechanised farming found today in Western Europe, Poland’s peasant farming, with its lack of mechanisation and pesticides, is highly beneficial to wildlife. As a result, white storks are a common sight stalking the fields, or nesting in the villages on their bulky nests.

Much rarer than the white stork is its black relative, but this shy bird is quite widely distributed in Poland’s forests, including the huge Bialowieza Forest which extends into the USSR. This wild area is the home of Europe’s largest mammal, the bison, which was once close to extinction but now survives thanks to careful protection. Europe’s largest deer, the elk, is also found in Bialowieza, and is slowly increasing its range and spreading westwards through Poland.

Thanks to so many areas of wilderness surviving almost untouched, many mammals which are now rare or exterminated from other parts of Europe survive in Poland. Brown bears and wolves, though very rare, still occur, while the lynx – a handsome, nocturnal hunter as big as a German shepherd dog – is to be found in the forests of eastern Poland, as well as in the Carpathian mountains in the south.

Lynxes are capable of taking a wide variety of prey up to the size of a roe deer; in the Carpathians their prey also includes young chamois. This is the same species of chamois as that found in the Alps and the Pyrenees, but the Carpathian animals tend to be bigger and heavier.

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Roger Bacon, the C13 scientist who foresaw the telescope

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

This edited article about Roger Bacon originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1047 published on 3 April 1982.

Roger Bacon, picture, image, illustration

Roger Bacon in his observatory in Oxford by R Pulgari

No one is quite certain about the lifespan of Roger Bacon. He was born in Ilchester, Somerset, in 1220 or thereabouts, and lived until about 1292. Although he is perhaps best remembered as the man who invented magnifying lenses, he was in fact a scientist and a philosopher, living in an age when most scientific ideas were taken from the writings of the ancients, many of which were based on pure superstition.

This remarkable man is thought to have studied both in Oxford and in Paris. His earlier career was as a lecturer in the faculty of arts in Paris. But in 1247, he returned to Oxford where he studied what were then considered “new” subjects, namely languages, mathematics, optics, alchemy, and astronomy.

After 10 years of experimental research, he became disillusioned with his work and the apathy of those around him, and in 1257 became a Franciscan friar.

In a scientific paper written in 1260, he made an incredibly prophetic statement. Bacon said that the magnifying power of lenses could be used in an instrument we now know as a telescope, and he described what might be seen through one. “A small army may appear a very great one,” he wrote, “and Man will be able to study the Moon and the stars in great detail.” It was not until 1608, however, that a Dutchman, Hans Lippershey, produced the first efficient telescope.

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The Battles of Auldearn and Alford

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

This edited article about the Battles of Auldearn and Alford originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1046 published on 27 March 1982.

Auldearn and Alford, picture, image, illustration

The Gordon foot soldiers concentrated on killing Baillie’s men with their long swords; inset, the Marquess of Montrose, with a plan of the Battle of Auldearn (left, with Royalists shown in black) and the Battle of Alford. Pictures by Andrew Howat

The Civil War in England was a long, hard fight, with Parliament gradually wearing down King Charles I in a series of savage battles. In Scotland, things at first seemed to be different. England and Scotland were still separate, independent countries, although they shared the same king. But in both nations there were many men who wanted reform. South of the border it was mainly political issues and parliamentary rights that lay at the centre of the fight against King Charles. North of the border, religious bigotry and the ultra-puritanical Covenanters were the Crown’s greatest foes.

In 1644 it looked as if these extreme protestants had rapidly won the day. They were certainly confident of their power, so confident that they could send a large Scottish army into England to help Parliament win its great victory at Marston Moor.

Nevertheless, there were many warriors among the Highland clans who were still prepared to fight for their Stuart king. Their leader was the Marquess of Montrose. He and his small band of men arrived just too late to help the Royalists at Marston Moor, and immediately after this defeat Prince Rupert took over control of Montrose’s troops.

This was a bitter blow for the Marquess, but even without his army he did not despair. Instead the Marquess of Montrose hid a silken Royalist banner in his saddlebag and rode north to invade Scotland with only two companions. Somehow they revived the morale of the Scottish Royalists and gathered a small army.

Most of these were Highlanders and Scottish emigrants of the Macdonald clan, now living in Ireland. With these men Montrose carried on an extraordinarily successful guerrilla war against the Covenanters whose troops garrisoned Scotland.

This Royalist army was almost always outnumbered and at best it never had more than 250 cavalry. Even so, Montrose defeated four leading Covenanter generals before turning on Colonel Hurry, the Covenanter commander of northern Scotland. This colonel had, strangely enough, fought for the king at Marston Moor. Now Hurry decided to lure Montrose into Covenanter territory where he would find no allies.

Retreating step by step from Elgin towards Nairn with the Royalists close behind, Hurry passed the tiny hamlet of Auldearn. Then quite suddenly, on 9th May, 1645, the colonel turned on his pursuers, hoping to surprise them after a rapid night’s march.

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