If you’re a fan of the modern world, you owe a debt of gratitude to John Wilkinson. Wilkinson, whose father was an ironworker and a part-time inventor, was one of those fantastic industrialists that envision the entire world using his product in as many forms as possible. In Wilkinson’s England, people would sit at iron tables eating off of iron plates using iron cutlery in iron houses. Wilkinson was such a fan of iron that he was buried in an iron coffin and had an iron obelisk for a tombstone. But it wasn’t iron tables or iron plates that led John Wilkinson to change the world… it was cannon.
Prior to Wilkinson, almost all manufactured goods were made “in-house” by individuals. By that I mean that each product – and all the component parts therein – were either made by the manufacturer or someone local to him. Take a cabinetmaker, for example. It’s entirely possible that a cabinetmaker would have made all of his tools himself, as well as all of the component parts of a cabinet, such as the nails. And when he made those nails, he might make them the length of his pinky finger or as thick as his favorite book – or any other measure he chose. He might have “outsourced” his nail production to a local blacksmith, but that blacksmith was just as likely to use some other non-standard measure (such as the diameter of a coin) to determine the length of a nail. And, of course, a cabinetmaker or blacksmith in another town might use an altogether different measure to make his nails.
Of course there were large factories, especially when it came to complex products like carriages. Making a carriage required a blacksmith, a slew of carpenters and an upholsterer at a minimum. But a factory like this was more like a collection of tradesmen working under one roof than the single entity we think of today. If an upholsterer were to leave the factory, his replacement might have completely different tools and components than his predecessor. Of course, the factory owner had the ultimate say in the quality and appearance of his products, but by and large the tradesmen were left alone to do what they did best. And most of the time, “their best” was close enough.
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Wars have been started for any number of reasons: money, land, religion, xenophobia… you name it. But one of the strangest beginnings to any war in history has to be the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-1748).
Under the terms of the Treaty of Seville (1729), the British agreed not to trade in Spanish colonies. To enforce the treaty, the Spanish were allowed to board and inspect any British ship in Spanish waters.
In 1731, the British ship Rebecca was boarded and searched under the terms of the treaty. However, it seems that the Spanish minister and the British ship’s captain – Robert Jenkins – had some sort of disagreement that resulted in the Spanish minister cutting Jenkins’ ear off. For some reason, this news didn’t make it back to Westminster until 1739, but when it did the British public weren’t happy. British Prime Minister Robert Walpole reluctantly declared war on Spain, and the War of Jenkins’ Ear had begun.
The war itself wasn’t particularly interesting – which is why you’ve probably never heard of it before – but several interesting things did result from the war:
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Imagine walking through the Brazilian jungle. The lush canopy overhead nearly blocks out the sun and your senses are almost overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of the rain forest. Now imagine that you come to a clearing in the jungle. At the other side of the clearing, you see Tara from Gone With The Wind, complete with Anglo-Saxon owners, African slaves… even a Confederate flag flying proudly in the wind. Although it might sound like a fantasy – and perhaps the image of an exact copy of Tara in the Brazilian jungle is a bit overblown – I assure you that many as 10,000 Southerners packed up at the end of the Civil War and became Confederados in the Brazilian wilderness.
Here’s how it happened: towards the end of the Civil War, Brazil’s Emperor Dom Pedro II – one of only two Brazilian monarchs, and the only native-born monarch in Brazilian history – knew that the Southern cause was lost. He knew that his country needed the expertise of experienced cotton farmers, so he sent recruiters to the American South offering subsidies and tax breaks to unrepentant Confederates as an incentive to move to Brazil. Even though no less a figure than Robert E. Lee cautioned Southerners against such a move, thousands packed up everything and started life anew in the jungles of Brazil.
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One of the greatest “what ifs” in human history involves the “Trent Affair” of the American Civil War. As you might know, the Confederate states were eager to get official recognition from European countries. This would not only give the Confederate states a huge prestige boost, it would also have given them access to loans of money, war materiel and possibly even troops to fight the Northern states. To help secure this recognition, the CSA dispatched James M. Mason of Virginia and John Slidell of Louisiana to Havana, Cuba, where they boarded the British ship R.M.S. Trent en route to meetings with British and French authorities respectively. However, on November 8, 1861 the Trent was boarded by sailors from the USS San Jacinto. The two Confederate diplomats were arrested and taken to Boston while the Trent was allowed to continue to Britain.
Not surprisingly, this action set off a firestorm of controversy in the United Kingdom. British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston is alleged to have begun an emergency cabinet meeting about the affair by throwing his hat on the table and declaring, “I don’t know whether you are going to stand this, but I’ll be damned if I do”. Public opinion in the UK tended to favor the South over the North in the conflict, and support for the Confederacy was even greater amongst the people that had the means of making their opinion count: the gentry and aristocracy. As you probably know, one of Britain’s key industries at this time was the export of cotton and wool fabric, and the overwhelming majority of the raw cotton sent through British looms came from the American South. Not surprisingly then, support for the Confederate states was nearly unanimous within this key British constituency. A letter was therefore quickly dispatched to the American Secretary of State demanding the release of the Confederate diplomats as well as an apology to Britain for this blatant disregard for maritime law. The British also began ramping up on war materiel such as boats, guns and ammunition, and they also began moving troops to areas where they could be quickly dispatched… to go to war against the United States.
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The house I lived in for the first 14 years of my life initially had an unfinished basement. Shortly after my sister was born, my parents decided to turn the basement into a rec room. When it was complete it had carpet with checkerboards and hopscotch grids dyed right in, a pool table, one of those old “console” stereo systems, and a groovy set of white leather “barrel” chairs. But the piece de resistance of the rec room was the touch tone telephone. Although touch tone phones were fairly common in corporate settings, it was truly novel to have one back in your home back in 1976. Friends and family came over to see the new rec room yet spent most of their time playing around with the phone. Kids from the neighborhood came over just to monkey around with the newfangled phone and its 12 buttons.
Although home phones have changed greatly in the past thirty years, most touch tone phones still come with the same 12 buttons that the phone in 1976 had. But some folks with military experience might remember a time when some touch tone phones had 16 buttons. Those phones were part of the military’s nuclear weapon-proof Autovon network:
Autovon stood for “automatic voice network” and was deployed in the United States, the United Kingdom, Panama, Asia and the Middle East. Although there have long been rumors about Autovon cables being buried in concrete shafts deep underground, in fact much of the system was buried in simple dirt 30 feet or so below the street surface. The system used a variety of means to achieve its “nuclear weapon proof” status, such as building in redundancies via satellite and microwave. But perhaps the most interesting feature of the system was the calling priority feature, and that’s where the 4 extra buttons come in.
To make a basic phone call, the user would simply pick up the phone and dial the number. But if the user had some vital information that absolutely, positively had to get through, he could press one of the red buttons before dialing to assign a priority to the call. The priorities (in ascending order) were P (Priority), I (Immediate), F (Flash) and FO (Flash Override). So, for example, when a “Priority” phone call reached an exchange, a “regular” phone call would be dropped (if necessary) to allow the priority call to go through. Multiple levels of call priority were needed because of the expected deluge of calls to telephone exchanges in Washington DC and other important areas in the event of a nuclear attack. So a major on a “Priority” call with some important but not critical information could get bumped by a general with crucial information on an “Immediate” call. The most interesting option of all is (of course) “Flash Override” – a priority that was strictly limited in its use to the President and members of the National Command Authority. As you might guess, Flash Override trumped any and all traffic on the network; Flash Override was designed to allow the President to get his call through no matter what.
Although the system has long since been replaced, it’s still fascinating to read about it (check out the Wikipedia article or this site dedicated to the Autovon system for more details). It almost makes me wish I had my own Autovon system – wouldn’t that have come in handy for calling TicketMaster when Madonna tickets went on sale?
1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55…
At first, it just seems like a string of numbers, perhaps one of those “what’s the next number in the sequence?” questions you remember from SAT or IQ tests from your school days. But these numbers, I assure you, are something completely different.
Although the interesting properties of this sequence were first noticed by a Sanskrit writer called Pingala around 500BC, it was Italian mathematician Leonardo of Pisa (also known as Fibonacci) who first studied them in the West in the early 1200s. Because of Leonardo’s work, the numbers are now known as “Fibonacci numbers” or a “Fibonacci sequence”. The pattern is created, simply enough, by adding the two previous numbers in the sequence to make a new number, and adding that new number to the previous one in the sequence and so on.
But why is this interesting? Because the Fibonacci sequence is literally everywhere in nature. According to Wikipedia, the “branching patterns of leaves in grasses and flowers, branching in bushes and trees, the arrangement of pines on a pine cone, seeds on a raspberry, and spiral patterns in horns and shells” are all done in Fibonacci sequences. The genealogy of male bees follows a Fibonacci sequence. I can personally tell you from my days in Liberal Arts Math that, with the exception of 2 or 3 oddball varieties, every species of daisy has a number of petals that follow the Fibonacci sequence.
But wait – there’s more! If you divide a Fibonacci number by the one that precedes it, you’ll notice an interesting pattern starting to take shape. The result of the equation always remains close to 1.618, which is also known as the Golden Ratio. The Golden Ratio is considered (in the West, anyway) to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing forms around. The facade of the Parthenon is based on the Golden Ratio. The shape of most books and cereal boxes is based on the Golden Ratio. Read up on this stuff… it’s really interesting!
You know how I love history’s mysteries? Well, one of the best there is is the mysterious “Voynich manuscript”, a book now owned by Yale University. The book is around 240 pages (out of an estimated original 272), and is thought to be from between 1450 and 1520AD. The book is handwritten on vellum and is chock full of illustrations (albeit none as fancy as most other European manuscripts). What makes the Voynich manuscript such a mystery is that it’s written in a completely unknown language. There are approximately 170,000 unknown glyphs in the text, yet there are many curious facts about the glyphs: they appear to follow some sort of grammar (certain glyphs appear in combination with other glyphs, just as English has common letter combinations like “ie” or “th”). The text seems to follow Zipf’s Law (which is a word frequency analysis; for example, Zipf’s Law states that “the” will probably be the most common word in an English language text). And the glyphs themselves seem to have been written in a flowing, graceful hand (which suggests familiarity with the language). On the other hand, the “language” of the Voynich manuscript seems to be a mish-mash of European and Arabic. For example, some glyphs appear only at the beginning or end of a “word” (like Arabic, but unlike European languages), yet there are no words longer than 10 characters nor are there any with just one or two characters (unlike either Arabic or European). The origin of the text is unknown. Some suspect that it’s the work of Roger Bacon or John Dee (among others). Many scholars think it’s an outright 600 year-old hoax. But the sheer amount of work that went into the book – not to mention the thought about grammar and letter frequency, which were barely understood by most people in the Middle Ages – makes me think that it’s not a hoax. In any case, the Voynich manuscript has befuddled some of the best cryptographers in the world – even the wunderkids from Bletchley Park.
Read more about the Voynich manuscript here.