Archive for the ‘History’ Category

A trip down (microfilm) memory lane

May 2, 2008 2 comments

IBM’s 1890 data tabulator reading census data cards with pools of toxic mercury?  Robotic data storage on microfilm?  A US defense computer kept alive by Russian vacuum tubes?  And much more!  In the BBC News video Computer Dinosaurs.  Some seriously, awesomely cool stuff from early computing days.

Categories: Geeky, History

Candorville on Offense

March 29, 2008 Comments off

The main character in ‘Candorville’ is Lemont, a cartoonist living in modern times.  Incensed by the Secret Service decision to stop screening the crowd for weapons at an Obama rally in Dallas (of all places) he decides to travel back in time to 1865 to persuade a cartoonist named Thomas Nast to advocate for better security for Abraham Lincoln.  Nast agrees, but is shot down by his editor:

Thomas Nast… hadn’t I heard that name somewhere?  Turns out I had, in my dim memories of college history.  If you click his name link above, you’ll probably recognize some of his cartoons – they’re all over the history books.

(You can read the rest of the Lamont-Nast story at the Candorville link, for a while at least.  Comic sites usually keep stuff up for about a month.)

Categories: Geeky, History

Pearl Harbor day, forgotten

December 7, 2007 3 comments

I have related this story before in various places so forgive me if you’ve heard it before.  If memory serves this is the first time written it as a separate post.

It was maybe 10 years ago on Pearl Harbor day and I was in a donut shop for coffee and a donut.  Three were newspapers strewn about featuring interviews with veterans and showing the Arizona in flames.  The owner of the shop was discussing the Pearl Harbor attack and the war that followed, with one of the other customers.  Her high-school aged employee was listening in.  Suddenly she made a connection:

“Wait a minute!” she said, “We… we dropped a BOMB on JAPAN?!!!”

It would be accurate to say a “moment of silence” ensued, while her boss and the customer struggled to think of an appropriate answer…

Categories: Geeky, History

It’s Darwin day, too

February 12, 2007 6 comments

On this day in 1809, were born two men; Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.  Each left the world a different, and better place.

What if the Beagle had sundered upon the rocks?  Others were working on the same questions.  The discovery would still have been made, sometime.  But Darwin carried the burden with care, and compassion for the upset it caused.  His life is well worth reading about. 

Categories: Geeky, History

Great art and a difficult problem

July 15, 2006 2 comments

WPA murals are a fabulous window into American art and culture of the time.  They adorn post offices, hospitals, high schools – public buildings all over the country.  Some of them contain messages everyone can agree on, but the one at the EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. is a tough pill to swallow.  Even if white/Indian relations were not a political sore spot, a Guernica-style massacre is hardly the decoration one might want in a government office.

So, waddya think?  Leave it up?  Knock it down?.  Wouldn’t that be revisionist history?  Or…
(from ***Dave)

Categories: Geeky, History

Flood of racism

December 3, 2005 1 comment

I just got ‘round to watching the PBS American Experience episode “Fatal Flood”, taped a couple weeks ago.  It was an amazing, intricate story that left me pondering.  Here’s the oversimplified version…

In 1910 the Ku Klux Klan had reached heights of influence difficult to imagine today.  They raised enormous political power with their message of Jewish conspiracy and the threat of black men to white women.  Just for one example; a progressive Mississippi senator and cotton mogul named LeRoy Percy lost re-election in a landslide to James K. Vardeman, who had said “if it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched… to maintain white supremacy.”

Percy returned to Greenville where in 1922, he stepped up to the podium at a Klan ralley and gave a speech ridiculing the Klan, which resulted in his city passing a resolution condemning the Klan and Percy’s elevation to the status of race-relations hero around the country.

LeRoy Percy was unusual in his determination that black labor was best kept available by fair treatment and even kindness, rather than by violence and oppression.  Percy said it was simply a matter of decency.  The Percy family, he said, had shared personal events with many black families; “we have wept together at funerals and rejoiced together at weddings.”

Then in 1927, a gigantic flood crest made its way down the Mississippi river.  The National Guard and local officials used conscripted black labor – at gunpoint – to reinforce the levees.  The effort failed, sweeping many black workers into the churning darkness.

LeRoy Percy appointed his son, Will Percy, to head the relief effort.  Will was a sensitive man, a writer and poet;  he felt simple decency required evacuating the 13,000 blacks stranded on a long stretch of levee.  He called for riverboats; whites were carried away first, and blacks waited for the boats to return.

LeRoy Percy learned of the evacuation plan, and realized his cheap labor force was about to leave the county.  Would they ever come back?

Local officials had assumed Will Percy spoke for his father, but his father felt otherwise.  One by one he visited Greenville’s officials and told them his son had not spoken for him.  Then he convinced his son to ask the council again about the evacuation plan.

To a man, the council overrode Will Percy’s evacuation plan.  The riverboat captains were turned back, and the National Guard held the blacks at gunpoint on the narrow levee for two months as the waters slowly receded. 

Utterly betrayed by his father, Will percy lost control of the rescue and reconstruction effort.  As the plight of blacks conscripted to rebuild levees threatened to explode into a race war, a black man was shot down on his own porch for refusing to work a double-shift.

Will Percy called local black leaders to a meeting and ascended the pulpit.  His humanitarian resolve crumbled like a sodden levee as he lambasted the blacks for indolence and ingratitude.  “The city of Greenville has rescued you!  Has fed you!  You should be down on your knees begging for forgiveness for the death of that man!”

LeRoy Percy went up North to raise money to rebuild the cotton empire.  Will Percy resigned as head of the rescue effort and left for an extended visit to Japan.  Two years later, LeRoy was dead.

Thus began a massive exodus of blacks from the delta area.  The event wrought changes in the nation’s agricultural labor base, in race relations, and even in Northern industry.  At length Will Percy returned, changed and hardened, to rebuild his father’s cotton empire.  He never wrote poetry again.

The story could not have more pathos, and raises many questions:

  • How well can we know ourselves?  If we fancy ourselves morally ahead of our time, can we know the limits of our progressiveness, and when it will break?

  • How did the Klan achieve such open power?  How did violent oppression ever appear acceptable in an ostensibly Christian culture?  Are the same frameworks of prejudice at work today in another guise, perhaps against other minorities?
  • Our society today makes a fetish of equality, without any agreement on the meaning and implications of that concept.  Can we imagine how our present attitudes will appear in 70 years?  What assumptions about the future inhere to that exercise?
  • Is there no hope of human commerce without prejudicial subtext?
  • Why would anyone in Congress consider cutting funding for PBS?  This is an outstanding documentary: The History Channel is simply not as good. 
  • Why don’t they show more stuff like this in high school history classes?

Give the linked website a visit, and click on the Teacher’s Guide.  It’s some incredible stuff.  I am certainly adding some of the related materials to my reading list.  But I wonder if some of the questions raised by the story will be answered in my lifetime.


Categories: Geeky, History

Thumbnail sketch of Charles Darwin

November 20, 2005 3 comments

And here are the artifacts of his life: his tiny single-shot pistol, his magnifying glass and rock hammer—and the Bible that traveled around the world with him, a reminder that before his voyage he had been studying for the ministry. (Indeed, in a letter to his father, who opposed the trip, he listed all the latter’s objections, starting with “disreputable to my character as a clergyman hereafter.” Little did he imagine)…
- MSNBC/Newsweek: Evolution of a scientist

MSNBC delivers a Newsweek article on the life of Charles Darwin; the misunderstood, much-maligned scientist who carried the burden of discovery about our origins to places he feared to tread.  It’s a good article – I clicked on the “Print this” link to read it as I find split-up pages annoying.

From Socialist Swine

Categories: Geeky, History

Pombal for head of FEMA

October 23, 2005 4 comments

Here is why I’d like to see news media hire history majors instead of “Journalism” majors – it would give them perspective on current events:

Modern disaster relief traces back to Lisbon, Portugal in 1755, when that city was flattened by an estimated 8.7 earthquake and tsunami on All-Saints day.  Essentially still a medaeval city, Lisbon was so thoroughly destroyed that the king simply fled,  never again to live under a solid roof.  The monarchy never fully recovered from the disaster.

New Scientist magazine describes what happened next:

It was left to the king’s practical chief minister, the bewigged aristocrat Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo (later the marquis of Pombal) to take control. Reportedly, when the king asked, “What shall we do?” Pombal answered, “Bury the dead and feed the living.”

If Lisbon was the first modern disaster, Pombal was the first to implement modern disaster relief. Concerned about the spread of disease from decomposing bodies, he had the tens of thousands of corpses put on barges that were taken out to sea and sunk. He charged the army with delivering food to the city. To prevent looting and to keep people from fleeing into overcrowded areas, anyone entering or leaving the city required a pass. He gave judges the power to convict, sentence and hang looters on the spot. To prevent profiteering he fixed food prices, removed taxes on fish and took possession of all construction materials. Ships were not allowed to leave the harbour with goods that might be needed for the relief effort. Although the homeless population now lived in tents, Pombal made it illegal for landlords to evict their tenants, so that people could eventually return home. He also demanded that the clergy stop preaching that the “end of days” was near…

Pombal went on to direct the rebuilding of Lisbon:

With the immediate situation under control, Pombal quickly began developing a plan for rebuilding. Most of the city’s churches, the customs house, opera house and royal palace, along with all their worldly art and treasures, were gone. Pombal called in architects and engineers to provide him with plans for a new Lisbon … their suggestions ranged from abandoning the ruins and building the city elsewhere to rebuilding it the way it was or rebuilding it in the same place but on a grid of wide streets and open plazas. Pombal decided to combine the last two, making certain that all the buildings in the Baixa, the central and worst-hit part of the city, would be built to new specifications.

Pombal and his engineer, Manuel da Maia, mapped out wide streets, traffic planning, and design standards that actually reshaped the economy of Lisbon from a royal city to a mercantile one, strengthening the middle class.  He set up commercial districts in the space formerly occupied by the destroyed palace.

Most amazing were the structural standards Pombal required: Lisbon became not only the world’s first planned community, but the first earthquake-proof one as well.  Using cutting-edge science, the new buildings were far tougher than the ones they replaced.  The walls and streets were made to prevent the spread of fire and allow quick movement of emergency services.

I’m especially fascinated by Pombal’s telling the clergy to knock off that “End Of Days” stuff.  (Emphasis mine) In Portugal in the 1700’s, that took steel cahones.  It’s a clue to his personality and his pragmatism.

I doubt if Pombal was a nice man.  It is doubtful if our present political process could put someone like him in charge of FEMA.  But I can dream, can’t I?

Categories: Geeky, History

Hiroshima, 60 years ago

August 6, 2005 1 comment

My father held The Bomb affectionately at arm’s length.  While he was pretty certain that – on balance – it had saved both Japanese and American lives (including those of his fellow servicemen), he was simply appalled by the carnage it packaged into a single shell. 

Like everyone of my generation, I grew up under its radioactive shadow.  As children, we could not eat snow because of the fallout from nuclear tests.  We practiced “duck ‘n cover”.1  A couple of my friends’ families had elaborate underground fallout shelters in their back yards. 

Starting with John Hersey’s Hiroshima, I wound up reading books about the nuclear weapons industry, the politics of Mutually Assured Destruction, the physiology of radiation sickness and flash burns, and how the bombs are made.  At one point in high school, I considered an apprenticeship program for welding for nuclear facilities, with an eye to working at the Hanford facility (which is now mostly shut down.)

It’s fascinating stuff, if you can suspend judgement long enough to learn about it.  In my reading, I’ve only scratched the surface.

But what about the bombing?

A lot of people are naive about the carnage wrought by conventional bombing in WWII.  It’s as if they think that it’s somehow more horrible to die in an atomic bombing than a conventional one.  For the victim, there probably isn’t that much difference.  The difference in horror, if any, is abstract; something for us to debate in following years.

The main sticking point, as I understand it, is that nuclear destruction is so economical.2  Firebombing a city required a lot of planes, masterful coordination, and ideal weather conditions.  Nuking a city just seems so… easy, as if that meant one might not give it serious consideration before pushing the button.

Well, there could be a point there.  If a lot of people are involved in an attack, there’s always the chance they might balk if the attack isn’t justified.  History does not give much support to that hope, but hey; it could happen.  A nuclear weapon, once finished and deployed, places a lot of trust in the judgment of very few people.

Was it necessary to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Can I answer that with another question?  How about this: can we judge the past by the standards of the present? 

Historical figures were not cartoons; they were people.  Remember that many historical decisions were the first of their kind.  It is simply disingenuous to ask them to know everything we know, or to see things from our perspective.

For many, the point of studying history seems to be to pass judgment on the people who lived then, on their decisions, by present standards of “evolved” morality.  You know the song and all its verses; Jefferson was a racist, so was Lincoln.  The Bomb was an atrocity.  Well let’s face it… that’s all the history some people know.  It’s pretty much Romans, Dark Ages, American revolution, Civil War, World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq.  Their entire grasp of history wouldn’t fill a thick phamplet.  But they sure can tell you what was right and wrong about those who went before.

We forget that someone, someday, will apply the same treatment to us.  So a little humility is in order, along with some study.

I’d like to think our morality has evolved, and it has.  But evolution doesn’t have headlights.  If you know anything about evolution, you know about blind alleys and ecological niches.5  Our moral understanding might easily have adapted to circumstances that don’t exist anymore and we will be seen as the bad guys. 

History should help us decide what to do next.  Not because we say; “They were wrong,” but because we know what “they” did and can reflect on it and say “What will we do?”

In those days, warfare was about “strategic targets.”  It still is.  We’re just using a better magnifying glass. 

As military technology has become more “granular” (that is, capable of delivering its effect to smaller and more well-defined targets) there is less public support for incinerating entire cities full of people.  Today’s morality might say: “If you have a beef with that leader, kill him.”  It is our leaders who are afraid of assassination, which might be returned in kind.  For people on the street, assassination has a certain ring to it.

It wasn’t, after all, the cities full of children and their parents, who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The fact is that our range of moral options derives from our range of practical possibilities.

If we had a similar conflict with Japan today, we’d launch one cruise missile.3  It would fly low, winding its way around mountains and hills, under power lines.  It might even fly right down a street, turn right at another street, and into the front door of the Imperial palace.  It could carry conventional explosives, or a small nuke, half the size of the one that destroyed Hiroshima.4

If you got this far expecting me to say; “It was wrong to drop the bomb,” or “Dern tootin’ it was the right thing to do!” I am sorry to disappoint you.  I’d have more to say about using The Bomb today, but that (contrary to popular opinion) is an entirely different essay.  It would have to be informed by, but not directed by knowledge of the past.  The ambiguity of such a terrible event is summed up quite well in the ending of a National Geographic article about Hiroshima.  It says something like this:

“At ground zero there is a simple monument bearing a plaque which reads: ‘May the dead rest in peace, for the mistake will not be repeated.’  But it is not clear which mistake: The Bomb?  Or Pearl Harbor?”


  1. Despite its comical reputation, if you are outside the zone of complete destruction, “duck ‘n cover” is a very useful exercise likely to improve your survival chances.  I never understood why people thought it was so futile.

  2. It’s pretty unlikely the captain and crew of the USS Indianapolis would have thought The Bomb to be economical.  They paid rather dearly for it.
  3. There were some cruise missiles during WWII; the Nazis built them.  While incredibly advanced for their time, they couldn’t pull off that kind of surgical strike. 
  4. The popular image of Hiroshima as totally incinerated is not correct.  Thousands of people survived, and later were subject to prejudice by their own society for reasons I still cannot quite fathom.  In any case, huge numbers of people survived exposure to radiation – according to one report 120,000 of them are still alive today and constitute the largest human study of radiation exposure. 
  5. Moral arguments from scientific knowledge such as evolution are at best an anology.  Don’t put too much weight on them.
  • One of the interesting facets of WWII is that cities are practically immortal.  Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki existed for some economic reason – transportation, rivers, etc.  Nearly wiping them off the face of the Earth had little long-term effect.  Today, they are bustling cities, and tourists are more likely to visit monuments than residents are.
  • Our faith in a future may be somewhat irrational.  If there are real threats to our existence, popular understanding of them will face an uphill battle.
  • Mostly Cajun weighs in on Hiroshima – pretty close to my dad’s point of view.
  • Orac picks up the bomb, weighing the present against the past and including a list of well-chosen links about Hiroshima.
Categories: Geeky, History