Tag Archives: history

Darkening the Dark Knight

I really enjoyed this fantastic secret history of how Batman became un-campy from The Atlantic magazine.

Of course, I had long been aware of the transition, but I had always credited Frank Miller’s work on the The Dark Knight Returns (fantastic, if you haven’t read it).

Atlantic writer Andy Isaacson traces it further back, to an eighth-grader annoyed by TV campiness — a Batman superfan named Michael Uslan:

“The whole world was laughing at Batman and that just killed me,” [Uslan] says. “One night I vowed to erase from the collective consciousness those three little words: Pow! Zap! and Wham! I said, ‘Somehow, someday, someway, I am going to show the world what the true Batman is like.'”

True to his word, Uslan talked his way into a Batman writing gig, then decided to aim for the movies. It’s incredible the amount of crap he had to put up with:

Columbia Pictures was no less encouraging. The head of production predicted that Batman would never work as a movie because their film Annie had flopped. “They’re both out of the funny pages,” Uslan says he was told.

How the Dark Knight Became Dark Again – Andy Isaacson – The Atlantic.

(at top: the evolution of the Batman logo)

Wikipedia’s history of the world

Gareth Lloyd and Tom Martin downloaded 30 gigs of Wikipedia articles, looked for ones that referenced both a location and a date, and then plotted those coordinates in this video. There are 15,500 events spread out over the 1:42 (and 2,500 years) in the video.

It gets quite beautiful at the end.

Here is Gareth’s blog, explaining more about the process. Here is an article from Flowing Data, which notes that he made the data freely available — so what else can you do with it?

Natural nuclear reactors? Astonishing!

If any good can come out of the devastation in Japan, perhaps it will come from public education about nuclear power — education to show both its positive and negative sides, and to demystify it. One of the messages that scientists and commenters are hammering home is that radiation is natural. Even though too much too fast will kill you, that’s the same for radiation as it is for, say, water.

But you can definitely hear people arguing that “natural” radiation doesn’t kill — only this special, enhanced, totally-monkeyed-with “modern” radiation that we’ve been unnaturally producing in our nuclear plants.

Well, to that, I present a concise paragraph posted by MetaFilter’s bq:

The first nuclear reactor was in Africa, 2 billion years ago. Two billion years ago, there was enough uranium 235 in a naturally occurring deposit in Africa to fuel a nuclear fission reaction. In 16 separate locations, spontaneously occurring fission reactions went on for some hundreds of thousands of years, cycling multiple times per day. A picture of Fossil Reactor 15. The American Nuclear Society info site.

That’s right — a natural nuclear reactor.

Or evidence of a long-gone pre-human technological civilization.

(Photo, the Oklo reactor,  from NASA’s Astronomy Photo of the Day, Credit & Copyright: Robert D. Loss, WAISRC)

Antikythera mechanism, made from Lego

The Antikythera mechanism is one of those historical marvels (perhaps “mysteries” is a better word) that never fails to grab my attention and imagination whenever I come across an article about it.

Discovered in an ancient shipwreck in 1901, the Antikythera mechanism is an ancient clockwork computer from about 100 BCE.  It was of a complexity that was not seen again for almost 2000 years.  For whatever reason, the skill used to make the device was lost.  In fact, it wasn’t until a high-resolution X-ray study was done in 2006 that the real purpose of the device became clear:  it was a calculator used, among other things, to predict the movements of heavenly bodies and the timing of eclipses.

The level of knowledge about the movement of celestial bodies required for such a mechanism is boggling, but the degree of engineering needed to make the device is doubly so.  How this knowledge was gained and lost is the fodder for a great debate, and the main source of my interest in the topic.

Recently, an engineer recreated the Antikythera mechanism.  Out of Lego! 

Seeing exactly how the thing works makes me marvel at those ancient nerds all that much more.

(via PCWorld)

True: Giant storks that ate hobbits

I absolutely love this story, as published in the Toronto Star:

Were ‘hobbit’ humans killed off by giant storks?

A new species of giant stork that fed off human-like hobbits on a prehistoric Indonesian island is fresh evidence of a topsy-turvy parallel universe that once existed. …

That ecosystem was the isolated island of Flores, Indonesia, about 17,000 years ago. It was populated by giant rats, pygmy elephants and Homo floresiensis, a hobbit-sized hominid whose young would likely have been a feast for the giant storks.

I would love to read a ‘Lost World‘ style adventure novel set in this place.

The tallest skyscrapers that were never built

This is a drawing of the planned Palace of the Soviets, a massive structure designed in the 1930s as a showcase and bureaucratic centre for the Russian government. It would have been the largest building on Earth, but when the Germans invaded in 1941, the foundation had to be cannibalized to build Moscow’s defenses.

Later, some of the building’s steel was used to build bridges, and the structure languished until the late 1950s, when it was finally cleared and the hole dug for it was turned into what was then the world’s largest open-air swimming pool.

It’s part of a slideshow of massive, never-built skyscrapers that you can check out here, but it was the story of the Palace of the Soviets that really caught my eye.

The site was once home to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, originally ordered built on the orders of Alexander I in gratitude for Napoleon’s retreat, but profoundly changed when his brother, the much-more-Orthodox Nicholas I, succeeded him.

That cathedral saw the debut of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, but after the Russian Revolution, it was demolished to make way for the Palace of the Soviets — and it took a year to haul the rubble away.

After the Palace was never built, and after Muscovites tired of the swimming pool, what happened? Well, they rebuilt the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour — an exact replica.

You cannot make this up.

A complete history of the Soviet Union, arranged to the music of ‘Tetris’

Finally, Soviet Russia’s two greatest exports — epic history and Tetris — are together in one YouTube video.

Slightly educational, surprisingly funny if you’ve got an awareness of Russian history, and engaging even if you don’t.

(Via the Facebook of one Tyler Shipley, leader of a band called The Consumer Goods that it is worth your while to support so they can record a planned fourth album.)

Vintage photographs of the construction of the Statue of Liberty

It’s really neat to see something so familiar in a completely unfamiliar context. Here’s a view of the Statue of Liberty’s head, outside in the Paris workshop where it was constructed.

A few photos were featured at How to be a Retronaut, but they’re originally from the collection of the New York Public Library, and you can see a bunch more just by searching their site.

One of the things that I’ve always casually wondered about the Statue of Liberty was whether it had always been green. It’s made of copper, I knew, and I knew that copper turns green — it’s used on the roofs of the Canadian Parliament buildings, for example, and I have a vague childhood memory of my dad telling me the same about my elementary school, but it may have just been painted a similar green, and it’s certainly not copper now.

However, copper takes a few years to slowly age itself to green, and I wondered if, when the Statue of Liberty had been erected, it had been a bright copper instead of subdued green. (It kind of looks copper in the alternate-world ‘Manhatan’ of Fringe, though.)

Was the statue bright and shiny when it first when up? Or had the copper been aged before the statue was erected — perhaps in the years that it took to build, so that it was green right from the start?

Obviously, the monochrome photos aren’t going to answer my question, though they did inspire me to actually sit down and see if I could find the answer.

First, I found a painting, from the official dedication of the statue, in 1886:

But that doesn’t solve anything! The colour is neither copper or green!

Then, I read the entire Wikipedia article — and finally found my answer:

Originally, the statue was a dull copper color, but shortly after 1900 a green patina, caused by the oxidation of the copper skin, began to spread. As early as 1902 it was mentioned in the press; by 1906 it had entirely covered the statue. In the belief that the patina was evidence of corrosion, Congress authorized $62,800 to paint the statue both inside and out. There was considerable public protest against the proposed exterior painting. The Army Corps of Engineers studied the patina for any ill effects to the statue and concluding that it protected the skin, “softened the outlines of the Statue and made it beautiful.”

Bingo! It was originally a “dull copper” — not bright, but completely covered by 1902.

A subway for the cows

Gothamist has a great story, um, digging into the rumour that there exist hidden tunnels underneath New York City that exist solely for the purpose of herding cattle. Yes, you heard me right:

According to Edible Geography, historian Betty Fussel discovered that cattle traffic was so heavy in the 1870s that a tunnel was built to increase the flow to slaughterhouses along 12th Avenue and 34th Street. The underground passages were eventually made redundant when refrigerated train cars were introduced, but they’re rumored to still be there!

There’s one reference to the tunnel from 1997, when author Brian Wiprud wrote about “watching a crew install a drainage basin on Greenwich Street when they came upon a wall of wood about ten feet down. A laborer went into the hole with a torch and came out saying it was an oak-vaulted tunnel ten feet wide by eight feet high that trailed off an undetermined distance in either direction. It was then that an old man from the neighborhood stepped up to the trench and said, ‘Why, I see you found the cattle tunnel.’”

An “oak-vaulted tunnel ten feet wide by eight feet high” which may run for several blocks would certainly, I think, become a major tourist attraction. Cities like Moose Jaw (the Tunnels of Moose Jaw and their tenuous connection to Al Capone) and Seattle (tired of the flooding, the city raised the streets a full storey, turning first-floor display windows into basements) have already capitalized on underground attractions.

New York City, by the way, ha had recent success turning an abandoned elevated rail track into a park (the High Line), so one wag on the Gothamist site suggested turning these tunnels into the “Low Line” — which is doubly funny when you think of cows lowing.

Urban exploration of this sort has long fascinated me. I remember living in Toronto and never quite finding the time to go looking for one of its famed, forgotten subway stations. I regret now that I never did.

Brothel tokens from ancient Rome

These tokens are from ancient Rome, and they’re called spintriae. They were only manufactured for a few years (perhaps as few as 15) in the first century, and they have no real intrinsic value, being made from brass or bronze.

Oh, and they depict sexual activity, rather than the more-common profile of an emperor. View a gallery of them here.

All of that leads many people to believe that they were used as “tokens” in Roman brothels — you pay the cashier, then redeem your coupon upstairs.

But not everyone agrees. Both Salon and Cecil at the Straight Dope point to an influential 2007 essay by Geoffrey Fishburn called “Is that a spintriae in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?” (pdf).

I read it, and he makes some interesting points — there’s no evidence of Romans having a token-based sub-economy in any area, let alone brothels; there’s no real correlation between the numbers on one side of the coin and the acts depicted on the other; Romans didn’t have the same hangups about sex that we do, so the coins may not mean much of anything; and frankly, it’s so far back in time that we may never be able to definitively say what they were for.

In fact, they were so cheaply made that they may have just been intended as slightly titillating amusements — and they’re still good at that.

So let’s take a page from the Roman playbook. Here’s my modest proposal: Next time the Mint wants to do a commemorative run of quarters, why not the Kama Sutra edition?

So maybe the Bible did have it right

Let’s gather up a bunch of (seemingly) random scientific discoveries to see what we can make of them:

  1. Paleoclimatologists have discovered physical evidence of a shift in climate in Egypt that took place during the reign of Pharoh Ramses II. 
  2. One of the biggest volcanic eruptions in human history took place around 3,500 years ago when Thera on Santorini exploded.
  3. The city of Pi-Rameses, which was the capital of Egypt during the reign of Pharaoh Rameses II, seems to have been abandoned around 3,000 years ago.

Three bits of information for which there is valid, verifiable, physical evidence.  Compare these against the story of the Biblical plagues of Egypt.

According to Exodus, there were plagues of blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock death, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the death of the firstborn.  In that order.  All in all, it doesn’t sound like much of a good time.

When the climate changed all those millenia ago, there would have been consequences for the Nile:

The rising temperatures could have caused the river Nile to dry up, turning the fast flowing river that was Egypt’s lifeline into a slow moving and muddy watercourse.

Slow-moving, warm water is the ideal environment for Oscillatoria rubescens, also known as Burgundy Blood algae.  When this algae dies, it stains the water red and could have easily given rise to the story of the first plague wherein the waters of the Nile turned to blood.

The scientists also claim the arrival of this algae set in motion the events that led to the second, third and forth plagues – frogs, lice and flies.

Frogs development from tadpoles into fully formed adults is governed by hormones that can speed up their development in times of stress.

The arrival of the toxic algae would have triggered such a transformation and forced the frogs to leave the water where they lived.

But as the frogs died, it would have meant that mosquitoes, flies and other insects would have flourished without the predators to keep their numbers under control.

Right, so that accounts for plagues two through four.  With a rising insect population and unhealthy water, is it any mystery about dying livestock and boils?  Insects are well-known carriers of all manners of disease and a polluted water source would have only compounded the problem.  That solves plagues five and six.

So far, all the plagues have been a logical, biological, progressive cahin of events springing from a documented climate change.  What about the rest of them?  That’s where the volcanic eruption of Thera comes in.

One of the biggest volcanic eruptions in human history occurred when Thera, a volcano that was part of the Mediterranean islands of Santorini, just north of Crete, exploded around 3,500 year ago, spewing billions of tons of volcanic ash into the atmosphere.

Nadine von Blohm, from the Institute for Atmospheric Physics in Germany, has been conducting experiments on how hailstorms form and believes that the volcanic ash could have clashed with thunderstorms above Egypt to produce dramatic hail storms.

The documented eruption of a volcano thus accounts for the plague of hail.  Now we might seem to be stymied.  The next plague — that of locusts — surely can’t be tied to a volcano.  Or can it?

Apparently, it can.  The ash in the atmosphere would have contributed to more climatic changes, exactly the sort that create the conditions needed for locusts.  Additionally, the ash clouds could have contributed to the plague of darkness.

All that’s left is the plague of the death of the first borns.  Which, to me, doesn’t sound like a plague.  If it is, it’s a heck of a specific one.  Nonetheless, if we assume this “plague” also occured, we can hypothesize that what with the bad water and crazy weather, a blight or fungus or something could have affected the crops.

Culturally speaking, it would have been the male first born that would have first shot at the produce and, thus, been the first to fall afoul of the nasty whatever it was.

If, as some scholars believe, the plagues we centered around Pi-Rameses, we can certainly understand why the city was abandoned.  It wasn’t like the place was a barrel of laughs 3,000 years ago.

(All quotes and most details from this article in the Telegraph)

Alvin York, the man who could not get shot

In all actuality, during WWI, Sgt. Alvin York stood every chance of getting shot but somehow managed to avoid dying by gunfire.  Sure, this might describe hundreds, if not thousands, of WWI soldiers, but how many of themsingle-handedly captured 132 German soldiers at once?

Born and raised in Tennessee, York spent his youth in the mountains with a gun, probably shooting at anything that moved.  It was time that could be considered well-spent when he found himself, in the war, part of an offensive in France aimed at breaching the German lines.

The Germans attacked York’s unit, killing most of them, leaving only a few soldiers guarding some prisoners (and unable to engage in battle) and Sgt. York.  York, in an exposed position, was faced with over 100 Germans attacking him and him alone.

Rather than curling up into the fetal position and waiting for his ultimate end, as most of us would likely do, York manned up.

Lying down on the ground, he began to systematically pick off the machine gunners that were pinning him down.  Whenever he saw a head, he made it a target.  Eventually, a number of soldiers decided to attack him with their bayonets.  As they charged, York drew his service pistol and started to shoot the enemy combatants bearing down on him.  Relying on his experience turkey-hunting, he shot the soldiers at the back of the line, so as not to alert the one in front that they were running out of comrades.

Eventually, York began to call for the enemy’s surrender.  If they shot at him instead, he would pick them off sharp-shooter style.  In the end, they began to surrender.

As he was marching his prisoners back through the German lines (they were some ways behind them), other German soldiers, believing there were more forces surrounding them, began to surrender as well.

There’s lots more to the story, but it’s a Friday and you get the idea.  You can read York on Wikipedia (obviously) or at Today I Found Out (which includes the story in York’s own words).