Archive for August, 2013

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Mackenzie discovered the legendary river which led westwards into the Pacific Ocean

Posted in Adventure, Exploration, Geography, Historical articles, History, Rivers on Friday, 30 August 2013

This edited article about Alexander Mackenzie originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 390 published on 5 July 1969.

Alexander Mackenzie, picture, image, illustration

A perilous moment for Mackenzie and his guides by W R S Stott

When the canoes capsized, they had to struggle for their lives. The Bad River was certainly living up to its name!

The boy decided to explore the group of rocks which lay like giant grey seals dozing in the sea. The local fisher-lads had been warned to keep away from the rocks, but 12-year-old Alex thought he had time to run out to them at low tide and then race back to shore.

Taking off his shoes and socks, he dashed towards the boulders. Before he had reached them the water was up to his knees, and as he scrambled on to the highest rock, he saw that the incoming sea had cut him off from land.

Many another boy might have panicked, and so lost his life, but Alex kept his head. He knew that in a few hours’ time the tide would fall again, and that then he would be able to make his way to safety.

So he lay down and calmly went to sleep, while the waves rolled and crashed against the rocks. Night fell, and a party of fishermen set out to look for him. They found him still asleep, with the sea breaking around his curled-up body.

This happened in 1767. Four years later, Alexander Mackenzie was still in search of adventure. Moving to Glasgow, he worked his passage as a deckhand to Montreal and the lure of the New World. He arrived in Canada without a penny to his name; what possessions he had were tied up in a bundle which he carried over his shoulder.

He had been ashore for only a few days when he became fascinated by the voyageurs, the half-breeds and French Canadians who made a precarious living by trading in fur with the Indians who lived beside the great inland lakes. Alexander resolved that one day he too would journey by foot and canoe with the voyageurs.

First of all, though, he had to learn all he could about the trade; so he became a clerk with a firm of wealthy Scottish merchants, and spent the next few years sitting on a stool, absorbing everything there was to know about the buying and transportation of furs.

In 1785, he was made a partner in the company, and in the following year he went on his first canoe trip to Lake Superior.

It was on this voyage that he heard the Indians he traded with speak of a legendary river which led westwards into the Pacific Ocean. If such a river existed, it would change the whole face of Canada. The country could be opened up, and trading operations would no longer be hampered by the mountains, which made it almost impossible to transport goods overland from the east to the west coast.

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A Polish survivor of the Siberian prison camps during WW2

Posted in Historical articles, History, World War 2 on Friday, 30 August 2013

This edited article about World War Two originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 390 published on 5 July 1969.

Siberia, picture, image, illustration


One bright, sunny morning in the summer of 1941, young Esther Rudomin’s world suddenly crashed around her. She was looking forward to working in the garden of her parents’ home in the Polish city of Vilna when there came a loud, persistent ringing on the front-door bell. Mrs. Rudomin went to answer it and found her husband standing on the step, flanked by two Russian soldiers with fixed bayonets.

In those early days of the Second World War, Poland was occupied by Russia, who sided with Germany for the first 22 months of hostilities. Mr. Rudomin, a wealthy engineer, was arrested on a charge of being a “capitalist” (someone who uses money to make more money). Although he protested that he was a good employer who paid his men good wages, Rudomin was branded an “enemy of the people” and was sentenced to be deported to Russia.

Before ten-year-old Esther could grasp what was happening, she was bundled into a truck and taken to the railway station at Vilna. Accompanied by her parents and grandmother, she was thrust into a packed cattle-truck bound for an unknown destination. Only one thing was certain: it would be a long time before she tended her beloved garden again – if she ever did.

For six nightmare weeks the train crawled towards the Russian border village of Rubtsovsk, in the mountainous region of Altay, in southern Siberia. After spending so long living on cabbage soup in the “perpetual twilight” of the cattle-car, Esther was dazed and almost blinded when at last she emerged into the “too strong, too strange” daylight.
Together with hundreds of peasants accused of being enemies of the state, Esther and her family were marched to a distant group of buildings. The sun burned down “like a torch” on their heads.

On arrival they learned their fate. They were to be sent to work in a nearby gypsum mine, gathering the grey-white powder used in the making of plaster casts. Russia needed a vast supply of these for her war-wounded.

Esther’s heart sank still further. “Siberia,” she says, “was the end of the world, a point of no return. Siberia was for criminals and political enemies, where the punishment was unbelievably cruel, and where people died like flies. . . . Siberia was wolves.”

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Samson is a name forever associated with phenomenal physical strength

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Friday, 30 August 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 390 published on 5 July 1969.

Samson carrying the gates, picture, image, illustration

Samson carrying the gates of Gaza

In a garage, while my car was being repaired, I watched a young but sturdy mechanic lift a heavy machine and carry it across the workshop floor.

“That must be some weight,” I said. “You’re a regular Samson!” And then, when he looked blankly at me, I added, “You know who Samson was?”

Obviously puzzled, he replied, “Was he a great boxer?”

Samson was not, of course, a great boxer, although he was a notable fighter, and his name has become a byword for someone of great physical strength.

Samson lived at the time when the Hebrew nation had just settled in Palestine, and his exploits are recorded in the Bible, mainly in the Book of Judges (Chapters 13 to 16).

Samson was early noted for his strength. As a young man he was attacked by a lion, and is said to have killed it with his bare hands.

But it was against a rival tribe, the Philistines, that his most daring feats were carried out. He actually ventured into one of their cities, where a band of men planned to trap him. The great wooden gates of the city were bolted, and Samson seemed to be at the mercy of his enemies. In the night, however, Samson left his hiding place, made his way unseen to the city walls, lifted the great gates from off their hinges and carried them away – before his enemies even knew of his escape!

In another encounter with the Philistines, Samson, surrounded by his attackers, picked up the jaw bone of a dead donkey and, using it as a club, felled many of his enemies to the ground.

It was Samson’s misfortune to fall in love with Delilah, a woman of the Philistine tribe. He used to visit her secretly, not realising that, far from loving him, she was plotting to betray him to his enemies.

One day Delilah asked him, in what seemed to be a casual manner, where the secret of his great strength lay.

Three times Samson gave her untrue answers, and at last she reproached him for teasing her, and for not being honest with someone he claimed to love. As a result, Samson revealed to her the secret that his strength lay in his hair. Cut that off, he said, and he would only have the strength of a child.

Delilah lulled Samson off to sleep, then had his head swiftly shaved by a skilled barber, and handed him over to his enemies.

The story did not end there. Blinded and made to work as a slave, Samson was one day dragged out to entertain his enemies. By then, his hair had grown again, and with that his strength had returned.

Samson used his new-found strength to wreak a terrible revenge. He forced apart the pillars of the great hall in which his enemies had assembled. The roof crashed in, and Samson died in the ruins, together with those who had come to make fun of him.

No wonder he is remembered as the strong man of the Bible!

The US Navy’s aerobatic display planes are called the Blue Angels

Posted in Aviation, Historical articles, History on Friday, 30 August 2013

This edited article about aviation originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 390 published on 5 July 1969.

Blue Angels, picture, image, illustration

A solo Phantom with afterburners lit is rocketing in for a high-speed pass, as the four-aircraft group sweeps away, trailing smoke by Wilf Hardy

The “Blue Angels” are to the United States Navy what the Red Arrows are to the Royal Air Force and the Thunder Birds are to the United States Air Force – the premier precision aerobatic display team.

Their displays have three main purposes; to encourage recruiting, to demonstrate to budding (and experienced) U.S. Navy pilots exactly how accurately it is possible to fly the most modern of jet fighters, and to “show the flag.”

Like the other famous teams mentioned, the “Blue Angels” specialise in superb showmanship, breathtakingly precise aerobatics and split-second timing. This demands a skill and physical endurance which is attained only by hours of gruelling practice, to which has recently been added the task of adapting their programme to the characteristics of a totally different type of aircraft.

For years they flew dark blue and yellow Grumman F-11A Tigers. This F-11A is a Navy carrier fighter, which, though long since out of front-line squadrons, was an ideal aerobatic mount. The advancing age of the Tiger airframes has now made them unfit for further flying, and late in 1968 the team took delivery of eight McDonnell F-4J Phantoms. The Phantom is one of the most powerful and heavy fighters in the world.

The programme flown by the team consists of alternating passes in front of the spectators by a tight-knit group of four aircraft, and two solo specialists, so that for every second of the forty-five minutes of each display, something is happening for the crowd. For some of the most spectacular “bomb-burst” and “cross-over” manoeuvres, the two groups join up into a six-aircraft formation.

The “Blue Angels” operate on a world-wide basis, and visit air displays in any country by invitation. They have appeared in Britain before, and will probably do so again!

The keys to the kingdom of Heaven became an Inn sign

Posted in Engineering, Historical articles, History, Religion on Friday, 30 August 2013

This edited article about locks originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 390 published on 5 July 1969.

Locksmith, picture, image, illustration

The Locksmith, an illustration for 'Barnaby Rudge' by Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz)

One problem about wealth is that the possessor has always had to worry about people who want to take it away from him.

Locks and keys were invented to protect valuables from thieves, and the whole history of lock-making has been no more than the story of blacksmiths pitting their ingenuity against the wiles of the lock-picker.

The number of locks in the world today must be astronomical, but among the many millions in existence one of the most popular and probably the most successful is the Yale. Curiously enough, this works on the same basic principles as the pintumbler lock invented by the Ancient Egyptians some 4,000 years ago!

By modern standards the Egyptian lock was a clumsy affair. Made of wood, it had a key between two and three feet long and rather like a bath brush with a slightly curved handle. In place of the bristles there were a number of pegs set in an irregular pattern corresponding to the pintumblers in the lock.

Greek locks were not remarkable, but the keys had an interesting shape. They were like large sickles. The key’s handle was highly ornamented and was carried lying across the chest with the curved portion slung over the shoulder.

The Romans were the first real locksmiths. Their locks were generally made of iron, and could be extremely complex.

Keys varied in size. At one extreme, there were hefty ones up to two feet in length, cast in bronze and weighing ten pounds or more. At the other there were keys designed to be worn on finger-rings.

The giant keys made for large locks securing villas or storehouses were the responsibility of a Roman slave, whose job it was to guard the door. Janus, the two-faced Roman god who watched over doors and gates, lent his name to the door-slave, who thus became known as the janitor. The janitor’s key was so long and heavy that it proved a formidable weapon if he was ever attacked by thieves.

In later centuries, keys of about the same size but made of wood and plaster, were hung outside locksmiths’ shops. Gilding the sign made the key look far heavier and more solid than it actually was.

Ironmongers favoured padlocks as signs because many ironmongers were also locksmiths. There are still a few of these ironmongers’ padlock-signs to be seen in Britain, especially in country market towns.

The Crossed Keys, most likely borrowed from the arms of the Papal See, are a popular inn sign device. St. Peter, who became the first Bishop of Rome, has often been associated with keys. This is largely due to a Biblical reference in St. Matthew 16, verse 19, to Christ’s promising to give Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

Today, valuables are best deposited in a safe, the medieval equivalent of which was the treasure chest.

The effort involved in making these chests invulnerable to lock-pickers was enormous. It has been estimated that some old chest-locks would have taken a locksmith the best part of a year to produce.

Carefully concealed keyholes were often worked into the elaborately designed metal of lock-covers, and there were sometimes booby-traps. Strong springs, attached to metal barbs would shoot out near the keyhole, piercing the hands of anyone meddling with the lock.

Birds of prey are an evolutionary triumph of precision engineering

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Friday, 30 August 2013

This edited article about birds originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 390 published on 5 July 1969.

Kestrel, and chicks,  picture, image, illustration

A Kestrel and chicks by R B Davis

The arrival of any of the 275 or more species of birds of prey which are found around the world is usually announced by the other birds. Cries of alarm are set up and hurried flights away from an area make all the other creatures there well aware of the approaching danger.

Although birds of prey are highly proficient at flying and killing, they are not always good parents, and they often prefer to adapt the deserted nest of some other bird and rear a family in this rather than build a nest of their own.

Birds of prey have been used for hunting for centuries. At one time, many noble gentlemen kept falconers to look after their precious birds. Even today in Great Britain, there are a number of falconers’ clubs that take an active interest in birds of prey and actually keep and hunt falcons in the traditional way.

A word of warning to would-be falconers. Birds of prey should never be considered as pets. They are working birds, and as such need careful, specialised attention that is both difficult and expensive to provide.

There are a number of good, well-organised falconers’ clubs and societies which are deeply interested in the birds and their natural history. Unfortunately, there are also groups of people who regard birds of prey as commercial propositions, both for exhibition and sales purposes.

Watching a bird such as an eagle hunting is watching an animal at its natural peak of adaptation to its environment. Its keen eyes sweep over the ground as it soars overhead, and its final plunge on to the prey (which is killed instantly by the bird’s claws) is just as natural as a lizard is eating an insect, or a cow is chewing the cud. This is the way a bird of prey must act if it is to survive.

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Edward I devised a famous political experiment – the mediaeval Model Parliament

Posted in Historical articles, History, London, Politics, Royalty on Friday, 30 August 2013

This edited article about the British parliament originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 390 published on 5 July 1969.

A knight and MP, picture, image, illustration

A knight and squire on the road to London to attend Parliament by James E McConnell

After King John had signed Magna Carta, Parliaments became regular in England, although at first only the most powerful of the King’s subjects attended them. Soon however the King’s chronic shortage of money once more forced a change.

At that time the Kings of England also ruled over the huge province of Gascony in the south-west of France. War with France was almost continuous. England relied more and more on mercenary troops, and these had to be paid.

Henry III of England feared an attack on Gascony by France’s ally, the King of Castille. He needed money to hire more soldiers, but this time the English barons refused to allow further taxation unless the people of the country agreed.

In market places and city squares throughout the land Royal Heralds proclaimed the summoning of a Parliament. But this was to be a Parliament with a difference. Two humble knights from every county were to be called. This was only fair since they, after all, bore the brunt of both war and taxation.

King Henry got his money, of course, and thereafter the knights of the counties were summoned to Parliament.

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William Wordsworth had an unusually intense affection for his sister, Dorothy

Posted in British Countryside, English Literature, History on Thursday, 29 August 2013

This edited article about William and Dorothy Wordsworth originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 389 published on 28 June 1969.

Dorothy and William Wordsworth, picture, image, illustration

Dorothy Wordsworth was the inspiration for many poems by her brother William

William and Dorothy Wordsworth saw very little of each other during their childhood. After the death of their father and mother, the youngsters were forced to live apart. It was not until William was 19 and Dorothy 18 that they came together again.

This event took place in 1789, when William was on his summer vacation from Cambridge. He met Dorothy as he might have met a stranger, and thought “she seemed a gift then first bestowed.”

Dorothy was a striking-looking girl with a dark, almost gypsy-like skin, and bold, vivid eyes. A friend of the Wordsworths, the essayist Thomas De Quincey, said that a “subtle fire of impassioned intellect apparently burned within her.”

But, despite her undoubted intellectual qualities, she feared she might be a burden to her hard-up brother, and felt that her scheme for them to live together might “prove a shadow, a mere vision of happiness. . . .”

Her fears were soon shown to be unfounded. William inherited £900 from a friend, and from the start of their companionship, Dorothy proved to be an invaluable aid and inspiration to the romantic young poet.

On some of the long walks they took, the Wordsworths were accompanied by the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, co-author with William of the Lyrical Ballads, a “revolutionary” collection of poems because of their “down-to-earth” treatment and realism of approach. The two men would compose aloud as they strode along, and Dorothy later wrote out her brother’s verses for him.

In 1799, after living in Dorset and Somerset, William and Dorothy moved to Grasmere in their native Lake District. There, in Dove Cottage, they led a quiet, happy life, devoted almost entirely to the fostering of William’s genius.

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In religious and moral terms less is often more

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Thursday, 29 August 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 389 published on 28 June 1969.

Widow gives her mite, picture, image, illustration

The widow's mite by Clive Uptton

If you look at the list of people who have contributed money to almost any good cause, you will find that not all of them have given their names. Beside some of the amounts you may read “anon” (short for “anonymous,” from a Greek word meaning “without a name”). Other people may have used what we call pseudonyms (from another Greek word meaning “false names”) such as “A Well-Wisher.” Among these latter you may very probably see “A Widow’s Mite.”

The sum of money contributed by such a donor will always be small – perhaps not more than half-a-crown, whereas others may have given tens or hundreds of pounds. Even so, the small amount may represent a bigger sacrifice on the part of the giver than the much larger sums donated by others.

This was appreciated by Jesus, who long ago drew attention to the happening which gave rise to this familiar phrase.

He and his friends were sitting together one day in the outer court of the great Jewish temple at Jerusalem. Crowds of visitors were constantly on the move through these courts, rather as they are in English cathedrals at holiday time. Some were worshippers, while others were only sightseers, but all of them were encouraged to contribute something to the upkeep of the temple and its services.

For this purpose, large collecting boxes were placed along the wall of one of the courts. They had funnel-shaped openings down which coins could be dropped.

These coins were not ordinary money, however. This was not allowed because it had the image of the Roman Emperor stamped on it, and this, in the eyes of the priests, would defile the temple. Visitors had to change their ordinary money at the entrance of the temple for special coins issued by the temple authorities.

In the special temple coinage, there was one coin of very low value indeed. It was made of copper, and the Authorised Version of the English Bible says that two of these coins were worth only a farthing (Mark 12, verse 42).

In a more recent translation, the Revised Standard Version published in 1952, the coins are stated to be worth a penny each. Either way, it is clear that they were worth very little indeed, even in their own day.

Jesus watched intently as various people placed gifts in the collecting boxes. Some put in a handful of coins, and were careful to be noticed as they did so. But Jesus saw one poor widow woman quietly drop in two of the little copper coins, or “mites.” (A “mite” was originally the name of a Flemish copper coin of low value.)

Turning to his friends, Jesus said, “I assure you that she has put in more than all these rich people, because what they gave they will never miss, but what she gave was the only money she had to live on.”

During WW1 the first bomber plane was ironically known as a ‘Dove’

Posted in Aviation, Historical articles, History, Weapons, World War 1 on Thursday, 29 August 2013

This edited article about military aviation originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 389 published on 28 June 1969.

The first airborne bomber, picture, image, illustration

Late in the afternoon of 30 August 1914, a Rumpler Taube, or Dove, dropped a few bombs on Paris from the air, the first time in military history that this had happened, by Wilf Hardy

The first faint signs of the power that bomb-carrying aircraft were eventually to wield were shown on 30th August, 1914, a mere sixteen days after cavalry units of the German Army had crossed the Belgian frontier at the start of the First World War.

Late in the afternoon of 30th August, Leutnant Ferdinand von Hiddessen flew over Paris in a Rumpler Taube, or Dove, which was not by any means a bird of peace! He released over the side the first bombs ever dropped on a city.

They were tiny, crude, four-pound devices; and comparatively insignificant, considering the size of the city. Even so, they killed two people and injured others.

Weighted message containers were also dropped marked with brightly-coloured streamers. The messages read simply: THE GERMAN ARMY STANDS BEFORE THE GATES OF PARIS. YOU HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO SURRENDER.

The flights were continued for some weeks in the hope of softening the spirit of the Parisians, but the raids had little effect.

To the public, the tiny, spluttering raiders were a novelty, to be gazed at over an aperitif. To the then new anti-aircraft gunners, they were rare live targets.

Other types besides Taubes were flown over Paris, but as “Taube” was the only German aircraft name the public knew, and as they arrived each evening with typical Prussian punctuality, they became known universally as “the six o’clock Taube”!