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The Weekend Historian

The Weekend Historian
A blog about interesting history. Much of the world's interesting history has little to do with kings, queens, wars and politics. Even every day things like candy bars have a fun and fascinating past!

Articles

The Beginnings of Sight
2009-05-26 08:14:00
In the 5?th century BC, the Greek philosopher Empedocles caused a sensation by explaining how eye sight worked. The eyes, said Empedocles, were like a lantern. Within each eye blazed a special kind of fire ? the fire of the goddess Aphrodite. Her magical flames burned without causing injury, casting forth an ?inner light? that emanated outwards from the eye until hitting something? and whatever the light hit, you instantly saw. The inner light projected by your ocular lantern reached around you like sensory tentacles. Sight was the consequence of your light touching whatever you looked at. Empedocles? theory resonated with many of his fellow Greeks, who had probably noticed that in order to see something, they had to look at it with their eyes open. It was plain that their eyes were filled with flame, for who had not seen an eye flash, or glint, or shine from within like a beacon? Not everyone was convinced. If your eye was a lantern, then if you looked hard enough with a truly fi...
The Ship That Could Not Be Sunk
2009-03-15 22:33:00
1942. An Englishman named Geoffrey Pyke thinks he has a solution to the problem that has plagued ships since their invention - they sink. His idea cannot have come at a better time, for the Royal Navy is in big trouble. German U-Boats are laying waste to the chilly North Atlantic, littering its bottom with the hulks of sunk Allied shipping. The British are desperate to end the U-Boat menace but know they cannot do so without adequate fighter and anti-submarine air-cover. Their land based aircraft do not have the range to patrol the North Atlantic or accompany the supply convoys lumbering across its icy expanse. Aircraft carriers do exist, but the majority are American and fully engaged in fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. New carriers are expensive and incorporate tonnes of valuable materials. And their designs not large enough to support the heavy planes needed for effective anti-submarine duty. Worse, the capital ships require their own flotilla of ships for protection. The e...
Turning Poop into Gold
2008-10-08 17:51:00
The bubonic plague was not the only black death to descend upon Europe in the Middle Ages.  A second black death had made its insidious and ultimately more lethal way to European shores from China, and inexorably infected the minds of its alchemists, its generals and its kings. And even as the plague faded and Renaissance brought revolution to thought and ideas, the second black death grew ever more entrenched, and a simple black powder ushered in a revolution in blood and carnage. The demand for gunpowder was insatiable. Kings, dukes, counts and petty lords loved their new bombards and arquebuses. The more gunpowder they used, the more they wanted. Gunpowder was a fortuitous mix of sulphur, charcoal and saltpeter. It was that last ingredient that was the most vital and the hardest to obtain. Saltpeter is a nitrate salt - usually calcium nitrate - and nobody knew how to make it. Except for some microscopic bacteria, which produced the nitrates as byproducts of eating. Since the bac...
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The King who would be slapped
2008-09-29 09:21:00
Esagila. The shrine to the god Marduk, the savior of cosmic order and the creator of mankind. Built by Marduk himself, Esagila is the center of the universe, and dominates the heart of its premier city, Babylon. Nearby, the Etemenanki, multicolored seven leveled pyramid like ziggurat of Marduk, rears 300 feet into the Babylonian sky, its massive bulk encompassing 13 acres, its tiers a veritable stairway to the heavens and the inspiration for the Biblical Tower of Babel. Atop the ziggurat, whose grandeur culminates a century of effort, a temple complex that is the dwelling on Earth of the great Marduk. It is the fifth and climactic day of Akitu, the most important of Babylon's many religious festivals. The new year has dawned, bringing with it a new spring, new beginnings and a spate of ritual activity. The temple priest, whose mythologies sculpt the Babylonian intellect, execute a series of elaborate and arcane procedures, sacrifices and purifications in preparation for the main e...
More About: The King , King
The Revolutionary Work Week
2008-09-29 05:18:00
The French are famed for their work week. 35 grueling hours, intermingled with scrumptious lunches, glasses of wine, and the expectation of 6 glorious weeks of summer vacation. Life is pretty good if you are a French worker. But for all the stereotyped fun the rest of us overworked and plainly envious suckers poke at the French, the 35 hour week works well enough for them to build and operate the amazing TGV trains, the mighty Arianne space lifter and the ubiquitous Airbus (the latter two in partnership with their European brethren). Not only is your Dior and Chanel French, but so is your Dannon yogurt and the publisher of your World of Warcraft. And in spite of working less and spending a minimum of five more hours a week on eating and drinking than us Americans, the French aren't nearly as fat. The French had experimented with the length of their work week once before in their history, although not in a way you might expect. The revolutionaries who began separating head from ari...
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Guarding Democracy
2008-09-07 21:11:00
Democracies serve the will of the people. But without ceaseless vigilance, democracies can start serving the will of the few who are willing to turn them into something else. Putins can subordinate the will of the people to their own, and then convince them that they like it. Mugabes can embezzle their very mandate. Bushes can succeed Bushes and Gandhis can follow Gandhis to the throne. Democracies can be possessed by lobbyists, governments turned into funnels for personal fortune. But worst of all, democracies can cease to function at all. Legislation can be smothered by partisan bickering, the greater good can be sacrificed in favor of parochial myopia, democracy itself held hostage by pernicious politics. The ancient Athenians used an astonishing last resort to guard their nascent democracy against such threats. If a politician came to wield too much power, started taking the people for granted, or became just too big for his boots, the Athenians could call for a special referen...
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When appearances meant everything (Part II)
2008-04-20 00:19:00
A tale of Mughal India, ..continued from Part I: On September 6th, 1657, The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan awoke to discover that he could not pee. He had fallen victim to an overindulgence in a medieval Viagra that had interfered with his ability to urinate. The passion for a silky new Moorish slave girl had driven the ageing monarch to seek an injection of explosiveness into his tired libido. He had consumed quantities of stimulants and aphrodisiacs designed to restore his youthful ardor. Instead, he suffered the agony and ignominy of extreme urinary retention, his limbs swollen, his body bloated, the Emperor of the world reduced to a mere mortal. Or so was alleged by the rumors that arrived on horseback into Mughal cities and towns over the next several days - and spread rapidly beyond. Was the old man dying? Would he be dead soon? Was he dead already? No one really knew. All that was known for sure was that the Emperor had not been seen in public for an entire week! Even a passably...
More About: Appearances
When appearances meant everything (Part I)
2008-04-12 10:06:00
A tale of 17th Century Mughal India. It was a September morning like any other in Delhi. The air clung despairingly to the fading cool of the night, as the sun that would incinerate it began searing the smoky haze of the morning's cooking fires. A crowd of petitioners, sycophants and sightseers had gathered on the sandy banks of the city's lifeline - the Yamuna river. They stood at the foot of the looming sandstone ramparts of the colossal Red Fort, their eyes riveted expectantly upon an ornate viewing window built into the imperial chambers that overhung the bastion's walls. For this was time of the daily people's audience. It was the time when the Emperor, The Great Mughal Shah Jahan, made his daily morning appearance before the people of Delhi, when he sat himself down in the viewing window and devoted an entire hour of his extraordinary existence to their ordinary one. The time of audience was the time when the Emperor listened to his subject's complaints, passed judgement...
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Custom List: Vote
2008-04-04 09:27:00
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They Stole it from Us
2008-03-30 23:25:00
April 6th, 1850. The paddle sloop HMS Medea slipped away from its mooring in the port of Calcutta and began the long journey to its home port of Portsmouth, England. The charter was unusual, for the ship carried but two passengers: Captain Ramsay and Lt.Colonel Mackeson, both soldiers in the employ of the East India Company and aides to the Governor General of the Company's Empire in India, Lord Dalhousie. In addition to their personal effects, the men carried with them a single, innocuous dispatch box that presumably contained dispatches from the Governor General to his board of directors in London. It was indeed strange for Her Majesty's Navy to be deployed on what appeared to be mundane Company business, for the Company had vessels aplenty of its own. What the Medea's skipper, Captain Lockyer, did not know was that Lord Dalhousie had specifically asked the British Admiralty for the loan of a warship to carry this very particular cargo. Though no doubt curious about their odd a...
More About: History
The Jerky Makers of Hispaniola
2008-03-03 03:58:00
The 16th century Caribbean - Spain has ruled the island of Hispaniola since the time of Columbus and permanently changed its ecology and population. The city of Santo Domingo crowns the mouth of the Ozama River and has served as the base for the conquest of the continental mainland. The city is home to Spaniards and to drifters from France, England and Holland, many of whom have been brought here by the endless naval warfare that preoccupies the powers of Europe. Of the native Tainos people there is virtually no sign, for they have been exterminated by the smallpox that has crossed the Atlantic on the Spanish galleons. Any survivors have succumbed to enslavement, to murder and to the hundred other bugs that have caught the ride with the smallpox. The Spanish have shored up the forced labor pool by importing thousands of African slaves - and put them to work on their sugarcane plantations, which have replaced large swathes of the island's native jungles. They've also brought in Eur...
More About: History , Makers
Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy
2008-02-12 08:55:00
The Chagan river carried no water in the summer. Which was unfortunate because in the spring, it carried rather too much, as the melting snows drove it to spate. The river was, therefore, of little practical value, especially to the patriotic animals of the very practical state farms that littered the surrounding steppes of Kazhakstan. Such a wanton waste of valuable resources was galling to the energetic Soviet planners of the time. And so they decided to fix the problem - by building a dam. A dam that would hold behind it a reservoir of pure winter melt, and quench the summer thirst of the state owned herds that grazed the steppes, as well as their hardworking caretakers. Dams are conceptually simple. To build a rudimentary dam, all one had to do was block the flow of the water with a giant pile of earth and rock. There was only one problem. The dam that the planners had in mind would cost time and a lot of money. But fortunately, the engineers on the project had an exciting new...
More About: Economy , National , History , Nuclear , Explosions
The Emperor Who Was A Prostitute
2008-02-04 07:25:00
Of all of Rome's mad emperors, Elagabalus was perhaps the most bizzare, but remains oddly underappreciated, unlike those thespians of Roman excess - Caligula and Nero - who are reviled as much today as they were when alive. Even the forgotten Commodus was resurrected and had his reputation freshly besmirched by Ridley Scott's Oscar winning Gladiator. But poor Elagabalus, despite a truly disastrous career, and a minor resurgence in the occasional novel and play, has never truly received his just due as a standout weirdo. The Historia Augusta begins its biography of Elagabalus with the following words: The life of Elagabalus Antoninus, also called Varius, I should never have put in writing ? hoping that it might not be known that he was emperor of the Romans.... Elagabalus is most remembered for his sexual adventures and eccentricities. He devoted himself to the pleasures of the flesh, modeling his looks on those of the goddess Venus, wearing too much makeup, having his entire bod...
More About: History , Emperor , Prostitute , Rosti
The Stick That Left A Mark
2008-01-20 23:15:00
Lead pencils have always been made of graphite. Much to the dismay of lawyers everywhere, there has never been a pinch of lead, or asbestos, in lead pencils. Graphite has always been non-toxic. The confusion began with the English, who started using a wonderful new mineral which they called plumbago to write and draw. In the late 16th century, the residents of Seathwaite in Barrowdale, Cumbria, had stumbled upon a deposit of an intriguing new mineral. The mineral had interesting physical properties - it shimmered, it was solid and black, had a greasy feel and left a mark on your hands when when rubbed. The mineral was so much like the lead ores found at the time that the residents called it plumbago - which is Latin for lead ore, or colloquially, black lead. The locals soon began using the material to mark their sheep, which they had in plenty. Before long, someone found that plumbago also made excellent marks on paper. And because the mineral was so solid and pure, it could be saw...
More About: History , Left , Mark , Stick
The Gilded Cage
2008-01-19 09:21:00
Your father is one of the world's most powerful men. You live an obscenely luxurious life in a palace that is more art than building. You have an education, can recite poetry, have courtly manners and are handy with a sword. You are surrounded by beautiful women of exotic ancestries and esoteric skills. You have all the concubines your heart may desire, as long as they are barren. You are not permitted to reproduce while your father is still alive.   You live in The Cage . Like your father did before you. And his brothers. And their father. You have lived in The Cage ever since you became a man, day after day, within the same gilded walls, amidst your brothers and uncles, some of whom have been transformed by boredom into lunatics. You have never left the grounds of the Topkapi Palace, having spent your boyhood in The Harem. Each day, you rise to same routine of debauchery and despair. You are sustained by the debauchery (as men are) and a single hope  - that the man who placed you...
More About: History
Brother vs Brother
2008-01-13 20:59:00
If you were a man and had the good fortune of mounting the throne of the Ottoman Empire, you were required, by law, to put all your brothers to death. The law was less barbarous than you might think. It was a practical solution to a problem that otherwise lead to protracted wars of succession and a weakened state. The Ottomans did not believe in primogeniture. The ruling Sultan's eldest son did not automatically ascend the throne when his father died. Neither was the Sultan in the habit of designating an heir, and even when he did, could not count on his wishes being honored. The Ottomans believed in the survival of the fittest; every prince had an equal claim to the throne. Succession meant dispute and dispute was settled in the only way it could - through intrigue and warfare - since you couldn't exactly file a lawsuit. It was believed that the winner (or survivor) would make the most competent and least depraved Sultan. Sibling rivalry and open competition in a royal free mar...
More About: History , Brother
Custom List: Recent Blogs:
2008-01-07 02:29:00
Recent Blogs :The Canal of the PharaohsAnd you thought the Suez Canal was first...The Time Before SuezThe Blockbuster Wonder Drug of 1899And it wasn't Aspirin...A Hundred Year KissAn early history of candy. Did you know that Hershey's Kisses are more than 100 years old?...On Bashi-BazouksNot just a Captain Haddock favorite...The Basilic - A Medieval MonsterIstanbul is not Constantinople
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Istanbul is not Constantinople
2008-01-05 20:20:00
  Istanbul is not Constantinople.   Both are names for the Queen of the Bosphorus, but Istanbul is not Turkish for Constantinople. The historical Turkish translation for Constantinople is actually Kostantiniyye.   Constantinople means The City of Constantine, after the city's founder (and shameless self promoter), the Roman Emperor Constantine.   Istanbul is a Turkish colloquilism derived from the Greek in the city or to the city - from the Greek practice of referring to Constantinople simply as The City (Polis).   Istanbul did not become the Constantinople's official name until the founding of the Turkish Republic 1923, when it displaced Kostantiniyye. To encourage the adoption of the city's new name (there was some hesitation, especially in the West), the Turkish Post & Telegraph service stopped delivering all mail that did not use it. The plan succeeded.   Modern historical texts commonly label Constantinople the capital of The Byzantine Empire. Technically, Constanti...
More About: History
Book List: Non-Fiction
2008-01-02 10:30:00
Non-Fiction Roger Crowley: 1453: THE HOLY WAR FOR CONSTANTINOPLE AND THE CLASH OF ISLAM AND THE WESTE. R. Chamberlin: The Bad PopesJames Chambers: The Devil's Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of EuropePeter Hopkirk: The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (Kodansha Globe)A highly entertaining account of the intrigue and adventure that marked the 'Great Game' - a 19th Century Cold War waged by Russia and Great Britain. From Samarkhand to Bokhara and Kabul, this excellent non-fiction book reads like a thriller.
More About: Non-Fiction , Book , List
The Basilic
2008-01-02 00:14:00
The Basilic was a beast. Its massive body was 27 feet long, it belched flame and smoke like nothing before it, and when it roared, it could be heard for a distance of 10 miles. Its mouth had a diameter of 30 inches, its skin was 8 inches thick and made of bronze and it weighed over 40,000 pounds. It was so large and heavy that it required several teams of oxen just to move it. It was the largest weapon of the time, a super gun that hurled a stone cannon ball weighing 1200 pounds to a distance of a mile. The Basilic was built in 1453, for one express purpose ? to smash down the walls of Constantinople. The Sultan Mehmed II had ordered his Christian gun smith Urban, to cast him a weapon powerful enough to breach the city?s famous walls. The gun was twice as potent as the largest guns then in existence ? 600 pounders, also built by Urban, that guarded the Bosphorus from within a fortress named The Throat Cutter. The Basilic took hours to load and fire, averaging a mere 7 shots a day....
On Bashi-Bazouks!
2007-12-31 04:48:00
Bashi-bazouk! If you?ve read a Tintin comic featuring Captain Haddock, you will know and possibly love the word Bashi-bazouk! It is a mainstay of many a Haddock rant, along with Billions of Blue Blistering Barnacles, Ectoplasms and occasionally, Artichokes. And like the rest of Haddock?s colorful vocabulary, Bashi-Bazouk isn?t an expletive at all, but a relatively harmless word with meaning, like Troglodytes and Filibusters, two other Haddock favorites. Bashi-Bazouks were irregular mercenaries who fought for the Ottoman Turk Army. They were unpaid, undisciplined rabble who augmented the regular army by serving primarily as an irritant to the enemy. It may be a stretch to call them soldiers, since they were unorganized, untrained and rarely under any consistent chain of command. They were often hired only on the eve of battle, with no expectations, except to swell the Army?s numbers and soften up a wavering opposition with an initial attack - from which they frequently fled. It is l...
More About: History
Book List
2007-02-10 08:07:03
Joseph Heller: Catch 22Gore Vidal: CreationDan Simmons: HyperionBernard Cornwell: Sharpe's RiflesArturo Perez Reverte: The Club DumasSteven Pressfield: The Gates of FirePeter Hopkirk: The Great GameMikhail Bulgakov: The Master and MargaritaSteven Pressfield: The Virtues of War
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The Canal of the Pharaohs
2007-02-10 08:07:03
The Suez Cana l is not the first waterway to link the Mediterranean and Red Seas. In fact, the present day Suez Canal is only the latest of its kind. For as long ago as the 19th Century B.C, Pharaoh Senusret II built a canal that connected the river Nile to the Red Sea! This so called Canal of the Pharaohs survived in one form or another for over 2500 years! In fact, a modern irrigation canal retraces the ancient route to this day. As the river Nile approaches the Mediterranean, it branches into a massive delta with multiple distributaries. Pliny the Elder writes that at the time of Senusret, the Nile had seven distinct distributaries, the easternmost of which was called the Pelusiac. In 1850 BC, Senusret built a canal that linked the Pelusiac with the Bitter Lakes - a body of salt water in the Isthmus of Suez. At the time, the Bitter Lakes were directly connected to the Red Sea (the land has since risen and they no longer are). Since there were no bulldozers or gigantic dump trucks...
More About: Hara , Anal
The Time Before Suez
2007-02-10 08:07:03
Before the Suez Canal opened in 1869, you had to work exceedingly hard to get from London to Bombay. You began by hopping onto a leaky, damp, smelly and crowded wooden ship with no T.V, laundry service, showers or GPS navigation. Fortunately, what your ship lacked for in amenities, it made up for by being armed to the teeth with fearsome cannons and ferocious rats, the latter more feared than the former. Your ship sailed south at walking pace, nudged along by capricious winds past the coasts of France, Portugal and Spain until it arrived at the African continent. You then followed the Western coastline of the Africa, sailing the entire length of the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Cape of Good Hope! You lived on salted beef, pork and rock hard bread called ?biscuit?, drank gallons of rum and occasionally some lime juice, which kept your teeth from falling out. You held your head up high, aided by your very stiff collar and the stick inserted into your posterior at birth, and you s...
More About: Time , Fore , The Time
The Blockbuster Wonder Drug of 1899
2007-02-10 08:07:03
1899: Medicine is energized by a miraculous new drug that quickly becomes a blockbuster in the vein of Viagra and Lipitor.   Tuberculosis and Pneumonia are the leading killers of the day (after those two old standards, war and hunger). With antibiotics yet to be invented, patients either suffer, or temper their suffering with cough suppressing syrups and lozenges, before eventually dying. The most effective remedies are laced with the leading cough suppressant: codeine. The market for medicines that target respiratory illnesses is booming. Not surprisingly, the exciting newcomer is also a cough suppressant. Like codeine, it is derived from opium, but is far more effective and appears to have fewer toxic side effects. And because it is also an excellent sedative, the new drug gives patients the added benefit of a good night?s rest! The manufacturer, Bayer, markets it aggressively, mailing free samples to thousands of doctors. And the doctors love the drug, because it actually works...
More About: Buster , Blockbuster , Bust , Wonder , Bloc
A Hundred year Kiss
2007-02-10 08:07:03
July 2007 will mark the 100th anniversary of one of the world?s most famous and beloved kisses. For it was a hundred years ago, in July 1907, that the Hershey Chocolate Company first sold the ubiquitous Hershey?s Kiss es candy. And so powerful was the romantic allure of this diminutive chocolate that over 80 million are now produced every single day! Hershey?s Kisses is not the only candy brand or flavor with such remarkable endurance. The Hershey Milk Chocolate Bar, as quintessentially American as Coca Cola, was first sold in 1900. Most candies and candy bars on the market today have demonstrated a staying power that brand managers would happily sacrifice their first born children to achieve. In a 21st century world of breakneck innovation and planned obsolescence, these humble sugar bombs are the corporate equivalent of immortality. With candy, what was good enough for your grandparents is almost always good enough for you. Sugar is sugar is sugar. The candy business, like the so...
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Photo Album: My Blog Photos
2007-01-26 22:54:00
My Blog Photo sBayerheroinheroinBayer_Heroin_bottl e
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Photo Album: My Blog Photos
2007-01-26 22:54:00
My Blog Photo sBayerheroinheroinBayer_Heroin_bottl e
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