Category Archives: History - Page 2

2012, As Told On Twitter

Cool video made up of tweets from pretty much every major event of 2012. Nice way to reminisce:

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From YouTube, via Laughing Squid

How The First Astronauts Created Their Own Life Insurance

Now that Neil Armstrong actually died, NPR has an interesting story about what would’ve happened if he had died in space. Back in 1969, a life insurance policy would’ve cost the astronauts much, much more than they could afford. However, being responsible family men, the three astronauts who were part of the Apollo 11 mission couldn’t just leave the Earth without making sure their kids were going to live in a house and eat food. So the astronauts banked on the only currency they had, which was their fame. Less creative people would’ve just started charging for autographs, but these astronauts were clever and not out to get rich.

Insurance envelope autographed by Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin


What they did instead was insure themselves using the market for their autographs: they had always signed autographs for free, but people would, of course, turn around and sell them. During their month-long quarantine before the space launch, the three astronauts signed hundreds of envelopes and gave them to a friend. On important days — like the launch and the moon landing — the friend took envelopes to the post office, had them postmarked, then dropped them off with the astronauts’ families. If they failed to return from space, the families could sell these autographed, postmarked envelopes and keep themselves solvent for years or maybe even a lifetime. Today, those envelopes are worth about 30,000$ each.

From NPR

World’s Oldest Naval Vessel, USS Constitution, Can Still Sail

The USS Constitution was built in 1797, making it 215 years old. She has been a commissioned vessel in the US Navy that entire time, though she was retired from active service in 1881, and has been a museum ship since 1907. The last time the Constitution sailed under her own power was in 1997, for her 200th birthday. On Sunday, she  sailed again — for 17 minutes at 3 knots — this time to celebrate the 200th anniversary of her defeat of the British ship HMS Guerriere in the War of 1812, which was the first time an American vessel sunk a British one of that size. During the battle, a cannonball bounced off the Constitution without causing damage, which led to her nickname of ‘Old Ironsides’ — her sides are actually made of wood, as per the usual.

USS Constitution sailing on August 19, 2012. Photo by Steven Senne/AP.


Given her construction at the dawn of the republic, the USS Constitution is the American version of the Ship of Theseus (the namesake for the famous paradox). The former has been maintained in the Boston harbor for over a century, whereas the latter was supposedly in the Athens harbor for several centuries, so there’s still a lot of life in the Constitution.

From CBS Boston

Obama Is Descended From The First Slave, Through His White Mother

Obama’s father was born in Kenya and his mother in Kansas, so no one ever thought that he had any genetic ties to American slavery. But the people at did some research over two years which revealed that not only did he have a slave ancestor, but the very first black slave in America may be that ancestor. First, they performed DNA tests and found that his mother’s lineage contains DNA that indicates African origin. Then they looked through property records and traced her ancestry to the mulatto Bunch family in Virginia in the 1600s.

President Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, in her yearbook in 1960


The Bunches were not white at first, but were free because of an interracial relationship between a free white woman and John Punch, an African indentured servant who eventually became enslaved for life — the first person this happened to, in America. The Bunches of Virginia, from which Obama’s mother was descended, continued to marry white people, and eventually looked completely white. Her ancestors moved to Tennessee, then to Kansas in 1834, where she was eventually born some hundred years later. She died without knowing she had a black ancestor, and in fact, one of her other ancestors fought for the South in the Civil War.

The connection between John Punch and Barrack Obama is not iron-clad, because some records have been lost over the centuries. But there is enough evidence to make it very likely that the first black president comes from the first black slave, through his white ancestors.

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From, via The New York Times and NPR

The ‘City Of London’ Is Actually A City Inside London

C.G.P. Grey, who previously educated us to the difference between England, Britain and the U.K., now points out that even more confusingly, there are two Londons: the City of London and Greater London. The latter is what most people think of when they say and hear the word ‘London’, and it is the capital of the UK, has a mayor and about seven million people. However, in the middle of it, there’s an entirely separate city that is much older, is its own county, has its own mayor, police, representative in Parliament, electoral process, and houses most of the area’s financial industry along with only about 11,000 people.

Map of Greater London (pink) with the City of London in the center (red)


The City of London was built by the Romans in the first century AD and, a hundred years later, they also built some very good walls around it. A thousand years after that, when William the Conqueror invaded England, he found it difficult to subdue the city, so he granted it special status and rights that the city still enjoys today. But its boundary has remained unchanged this entire time and as urban sprawl rose up on its perimeter, it became a city within a city. The urban area around it became Greater London but, as Rome has no authority over the Vatican, it has no authority over the City of London.

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From YouTube, via Laughing Squid

Video Of 1950s Nuke Exploding Over Five Officers

In the late 1950s, Americans were starting to fear nuclear war. Of course, outside of the blast radius of a nuclear detonation, things are nowhere near as terrible as movies and popular opinion will have you believe. So in 1957, an Air Force Colonel got five other officers to agree to stand directly below a low-yield nuclear detonation, to prove that nukes weren’t as terrible as we are led to believe. Two fighters then flew over them and fired a nuclear missile which then detonated 18,500 feet above (not 10,000 as the video says), while one of the officers narrated the whole thing.

Two things that stand out are the amount of time it takes for the “ground wave” to hit them after the flash of the detonation (same effect as thunder arriving after lightning), and the point right after that, in which the sky turns black. The missile’s yield was a mere 2 kilotons — the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were 16 and 21kt, respectively, and the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated, the Tsar Bomba, yielded 50,000 kt. By comparison, the most powerful conventional (i.e., non-nuclear) weapon’s blast yield is only 0.044kt.

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From YouTube, via NPR

Horses And Bicycles Are Why We Wear Pants

An evolutionary biologist from the University of Connecticut has tied a very interesting thread through the history of pants: before horses and cavalry, pretty much every civilized culture wore robes. Cavalry, however, turned out to become an extremely important element of warfare and riding horseback while wearing robes was just not very practical. Because of this, military leaders wanted their troops to switch to wearing pants, and this idea was met with the same resistance that men switching to dresses now would draw, since men wore robes from the dawn of time:

Now Your Majesty is changing what has been the practice from the beginning and is not according with the established customs. You are adopting the dress of the Hu and have no regard for the age. That is not how to instruct the people and perfect the rules of propriety. Moreover he who puts strange attire has a dissolute will. He who goes perversely against the established customs disorders the people. That is why he who presides over the state does not clothe himself in strange and perverse attire. — from a 2nd century BC Chinese chronicle denouncing the pants wore by ancient Mongol barbarians

The practical benefits of wearing pants on horseback, however, could not be denied, and military cultures from Rome to China and Japan to American Indians eventually adopted the new dress style.


Japanese warriors wore robes called hakama


Since the warriors who owned horses tended to be rich and powerful — the knights of the Middle Ages, for example — pants eventually became a status symbol and the fashion trickled down to men who would never see battle. Women, of course, were never required to ride a horse, so they kept the traditional robes — which evolved into dresses — until the advent of the bicycle. Practicality again trumped tradition, as this new method of transportation was quite convenient and efficient, and women started wearing bloomers to ride bicycles. This change drew as much conservative ire as the men’s original departure from robes — but it also persevered. And so today, it’s socially acceptable for both men and women to wear pants whereas two thousand years ago it was ludicrous for either gender to do so.

From Social Evolution Forum, via The Atlantic and Neatorama

1950s Men Agree: Misbehaving Women Should Be Spanked


It’s hard to pinpoint the date for this column, but based on the haircuts, glasses and chauvinism, sometime in the late 1950s seems about right. The newspaper in question, the New York Daily Mirror, went out of business in 1963. If you’re having trouble reading the font of the answers:

  • Miguel Santos, Brooklyn, counterman: “Why not? If they don’t know how to behave by the time they’re adults, they should be treated like children and spanked. That ought to make them grow up in a hurry. If it doesn’t at first, they’ll soon get the idea.” (Adulthood: beating adults that act like children into submission.)
  • Frank Desiderio, Brooklyn, barber: “Yes, when they deserve it. As a barber, I’ve got a lot of faith in the hairbrush. I think there are certain cases when it is advisable. When it is, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t go right ahead and do it. I can’t knock the idea. In my business, a man sets a lot of store by the results he can get with a hairbrush properly applied.” (Ah, the lost art of using the hairbrush as a weapon.)
  • Teddy Gallei, Brooklyn, parking lot attendant: “You bet. It teaches them who’s boss. A lot of women tend to forget this is a man’s world and a lot of men who stepped down as boss of the family wish they hadn’t. Spanking might help get back some of the respect they lost.” (After all, might is right — and the parking lot attendant is mighty indeed.)
  • William Davis, Brooklyn, toy factory owner: “Yes, most of them have it coming to them anyway. If they don’t, it’ll remind them how well off they are. I subscribe to the theory that an ounce of prevention is a pound of cure.” (The beatings will continue until morale improves.)

This better not turn out to be a Photoshop hoax, or from the 1950s equivalent of The Onion.

From Dangerous Minds, via Buzzfeed

How The Giant Statues On Easter Island May Have Walked

Easter Island (whose native name is Rapa Nui) in the South Pacific is generally seen as an example of the Tragedy of the Commons: inhabitants selfishly depleted the island’s shared natural resources, leading to their own eventual doom. Settlers arrived there in 800 A.D. and found a lush island filled with forests, then over the next thousand years proceeded to cut the trees down and make canoes for fishing, houses for living, and tools for farming. But they didn’t realize how fragile the ecosystem on the island was, and that the trees, once cut, would be very difficult to grow back. After several centuries, there were virtually no trees on the island, and since it’s one of the most isolated places on earth and was therefore devoid of trade, this meant there were no more canoes, houses or farming tools. And even if there were, without protection from the trees, fierce winds eroded the soil so much that farming was next to impossible. Eventually, lack of food and the resulting violence decimated the population.


Ahu Tongariki near Rano Raraku, a 15-moai ahu excavated and restored in the 1990s


Dutch explorers discovered the island on Easter Sunday (hence its Western name) in 1622, about 75 years after the last forests had disappeared; they described the island as having rich soil and being cultivated, and of course having a shore lined with giant statues. Roughly 50 years later, Spanish explorers found it and also mentioned the statues, but said the land was largely uncultivated. Four years after that, James Cook said the soil was poor and the statues neglected, with some having fallen down. In 1786, French explorers reported only 10% of the island was cultivated and finally, in 1825, a British ship reported no standing statues.

The prevalent theory is that the impressive statues, which were central to the Rapa Nui religion, had all been toppled in a quick 50 years — after having watched over the shore for centuries — because the islanders didn’t think to protect the environment they all shared. The fact is that the island was slowly deforested, which led to soil erosion and a lack of fishing canoes, which led to a lack of food, which led to civil war and eventually cannibalism. By 1877, thanks to additional deaths from genocide committed by slave traders in the 1860s and the smallpox introduced by them, the island’s population was down to 111 people — from about 3,000 when it was first discovered by Europeans, and probably around 10,000 a few decades before that. In 1888, it was annexed by Chile (the closest large country) as a result of a treaty with the remaining natives. The tragedy is told in a 2006 book called Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed.

Statues on Easter Island in various states of restoration in 2004. Photo by Phillie Casablanca.


But recently, a couple of archaeologists have threaded a different story through those same facts and published it in a book called The Statues That Walked: Unraveling The Mystery of Easter Island. Their theory is that the original Polynesian settlers of the island arrived in 1200 A.D., (400 years after the generally accepted date) and purposely brought rats with them on their canoes along with chickens, in order to eat them. Once on the island, however, without any natural predators, the rats flourished on their own and ate the nuts of the now-extinct and slow-growing Easter Island palm tree, thereby preventing their reseeding. And so the trees were decimated due to rats brought by the settlers, not directly by the settlers’ hands. Even so, they figured out ways around soil erosion: stone enclosures were built around farms to protect them from winds, and the soil was enriched with volcanic gravel. They practiced population control and generally lived a sustainable existence until the Europeans came, who introduced new diseases and new status symbols aside from the giant statues. Eventually, the Rapa Nui started dying en masse and stopped caring about the statues, which subsequently fell into disrepair. These archaeologists also believe that obsidian weapons that have been discovered were actually farming tools, and that there was no civil war.

Location of Easter Island


One other difference in their theory: how the statues got to the shore from the dormant volcano where they were made, miles away. (Statues at various stages of completion have been found in a quarry in the volcano and on the route from there to the beach.) Mainstream thinking is that the statues were made at the quarry, then rolled on logs to the shore.  But while the authors of the alternative theory don’t believe oral tradition about violence and cannibalism, they do believe the tradition which says the statues walked to the shore. And what’s more, it may actually be true: in a video of experiments funded by National Geographic, it’s clear that a very large and heavy statue can be made to walk with a few strong ropes and three groups of people pulling it from one side and the other. The secret: the statues’ giant heads and potbelly design makes them heavy in the front, giving them forward momentum and allowing the islanders to use gravity to help propel the statue forward.

From YouTube and National Geographic, via Neatorama

Tippi Hedren Is The Reason All Nail Salons Are Vietnamese

If you know anything about nail salons, you know that they’re owned and staffed almost exclusively by Vietnamese people. (If you don’t, you now know this one thing.) It turns out the reason for this is Tippi Hedren, the girl from The Birds and other Hitchcock movies made after he lost Grace Kelly to royal marriage. Ms. Hedren was quite the bleeding heart, so she was working in a Vietnamese refugee camp in California during the Vietnam War, when she got the idea to train all those women in the art of the manicure. She flew her own manicurist up to the refugee camp every weekend and made sure that they learned how to be “very special” manicurists, not just plain ones.


The trade then spread around the Vietnamese community until one couple, Diem and Kien Nguyen, started the Advance Beauty College, which graduates mostly manicurists and which has classes in both English and Vietnamese. This means that if you’re a recent Vietnamese immigrant who can’t speak a word of English, your choice of career is pretty much made up for you. And so, Tippi Hedren’s kindness is not only responsible for the ethnic homogenization of an entire industry, but also for making manicures affordable — before the Vietnamese, you had to be rich to get one.

Yearbook prank: Nguyen is the Vietnamese Smith