“Silent Cal” Coolidge

Although Coolidge was known to be a skilled and effective public speaker, in private he was a man of few words and was therefore commonly referred to as “Silent Cal.” A possibly apocryphal story has it that Dorothy Parker, seated next to him at a dinner, said to him, “Mr. Coolidge, I’ve made a bet against a fellow who said it was impossible to get more than two words out of you.” His famous reply: “You lose.” It was also Parker who, upon learning that Coolidge had died, reportedly remarked, “How can they tell?” — Wikipedia

A friend of mine, noted for his monosyllabic email replies, finally prompted me to look up Calvin Coolidge in Wikipedia. The famous anecdote above is also substantially repeated on the White House “Our Presidents” web page.

Coolidge was an outspoken advocate of Civil Rights (to the extent Coolidge, who could be an effective orator in public, could ever be said to be “outspoken.”) As Vice-President, Coolidge stepped in to complete the presidential term of Warren Harding, who had died in office, and Coolidge was elected President in his own right in 1924. He declined to run for a full second term of office in 1928, one year before the market crash of 1929. Of Coolidge’s successor Herbert Hoover, Wikipedia reports:

“Coolidge had been reluctant to choose Hoover as his successor; on one occasion he remarked that ‘for six years that man has given me unsolicited advice—all of it bad’.”

Coolidge was also responsible for the quote “After all, the chief business of the American people is business.” His hands-off attitude toward the “Roaring Twenties” US economy was very popular with the business community. Decades later, the Reagan Administration picked up Coolidge as kind of a poster child for laissez-faire economics. Coming, as Coolidge’s administration had done, on the eve of America’s Great Depression, many critics believed Coolidge policies contributed to the decade-long collapse of the United States economic model before World War II. The controversy rages to this day as the United States tries to figure out who and what was really responsible for the Crash of 2008 – our worst economic meltdown since the 1930’s.

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History Snippets: Cradle-land of Battles

“History Snippets” serializes small bits of research from an unfinished test project. The theme is technology and natural events that shaped our modern world.

You have seen it all before, in Egypt’s disintegrating Middle Kingdom. The shifting dunes of time covered man’s works just as surely as the surf and incoming tide leave no trace of the child’s sand fortress on the shores …

Persepolis - from Elvis's weblog

“How the mighty have fallen! The weapons of war have perished!” — David’s Lament for Saul and Jonathan

Cradle-land of Battles

This is about the world of Athens and Sparta in the time of the Battle of Marathon. Sparta did not participate in this battle, but later redeemed itself in the even more famous Battle of Thermopylae. We’ll not rehash those famous battles. We’ll instead seek a cameo snapshot of the people and their embattled civilizations of that time. For their contributions to what would become western civilization, we owe a great debt. In their failures, there may be great lessons yet to be fully realized.

The year was -490, or “490 BC” in the way we reckon years today. It was a time of contentious – should we say global? – preparations for the defense of a divided and vulnerable western world against the generals of the mighty Persian king, Darius.

“Global” meant known land masses within roughly a thousand miles of the Mediterranean, and perhaps included what little might have been known of a few lands even beyond that.

Darius has already conquered and subdued the Greek presence along all of the western shores of Asia, along and inland of the Aegean Sea. We don’t need to brush up on history to recognize many of the place names: Hellespont, Troy, Lesbos, Chios, Ionia, Sardis, Magnesia, Maeander River, Dorian Cities, Rhodes. Once a conquered city found itself paying tribute to the Persian superpower, life wasn’t bad. Stability and security were practically guaranteed. Trade, agriculture and commerce flourished in the Persian war-free zone. It was hard for the homeland Greek cities of the peninsula to win back the affection of those conquered Aegean city-states. Grecian by heritage, those conquered people felt no loyalty to an Athens which had betrayed and warred with them so many times in the past. Continue reading

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History Snippets: China

“History Snippets” serializes small bits of research from an unfinished test project. The theme is technology and natural events that shaped our modern world.

You have seen it all before, in Egypt’s disintegrating Middle Kingdom. The shifting dunes of time covered man’s works just as surely as the surf and incoming tide leave no trace of the child’s sand fortress on the shores …

In the world time frame around 500BC, early Greeks were not quite aware of it yet, but their civilization was about to confront a vast military struggle for the survival of a culture we today regard as “the western world”. They were only partially successful, because they always regarded conflict as having only a purely military solution.

Another part of the world was also beginning a massive territorial reshaping of its own, a struggle that would come in several waves, like Europe’s, of over two thousand years’ duration. In each world, that struggle would tear lives of the common people apart, and put them back together in ways pleasing to the ebb and flow of the ruling powers.

That land was China.

If equal attention were given to the written history of Asia and the Western World, China’s volume alone would dwarf all of the volumes for western Europe. China is the world’s longest continuous civilization. Continue reading

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History Snippets: Measurement

“History Snippets” serializes small bits of research from an unfinished test project. The theme is technology and natural events that shaped our modern world.

The two tables published here translate early Greek units of measurement, and their numbering system. Such tables are utterly useless for everyday modern life. If you should one day find yourself reading Herodotus or other early Greek translation, suddenly these measurements are indispensable, and you’ll hope you remember where to find them. Modern units of measurement have been left in the table (even though the original project, which required them, was scrapped).

It’s revealing to contrast the vast differences in scale of time and distance that occupied the thinking of modern vs. ancient minds!

Continue reading

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History Snippets: Manned Flight

Early Manned Flight

Early Biplane

Early US Mail Plane (1918). The Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane may have been the first widespread commercial and peacetime use of aircraft, being used by the U.S. Government to deliver the mail. Image is from Antique Airfield – a worthwhile site.

Going from the very old to the very recent:

SR-71 Blackbird

SR-71 Blackbird. Here is a fast introduction to high-altitude air travel. Many modern readers may not recognize the “Blackbird”, the super-secret successor to the more famous U2 spy plane. Aircraft length was 107 feet – about the same as a Greek or Persian trireme, only faster, and self-propelled.

The SR-71 hit a top speed of about 2,200 miles per hour (some claim 3,000 mph). It carried a crew of two pilots in the small cockpit. The rest of the aircraft is almost entirely engine and fuel tanks. In a tight turn, it could just manage to circle in an area the width of the state of California. Each engine could produce 32,500 pounds of thrust.

This was not necessarily the first aircraft which actually changed its shape in flight depending on velocity – but the scope of SR-71 in-flight airframe changes even included the air intakes. At “normal” speeds the engine was a conventional turbojet, but above Mach 3 turbine blades would burn up, so adjustable cone-shaped projections within the intakes were designed to convert the engines to ramjets. see Wikipedia for more details.

My favorite anecdote about the aircraft: in flight the pilots used to heat up their lunches (toasted cheese sandwiches) by placing them under the windshield in the cockpit. This suggests the difficulty of designing such a craft, when the air friction at Mach 3 could heat ordinary metals red-hot. This would cause immediate catastrophic failure, so the entire airframe and skin were constructed of titanium.

On the ground, I once walked completely around a decommissioned SR-71 at an outdoor air museum. It looked like a completely different aircraft from every angle, giving no sense of size or shape. At the end, even though I knew the aircraft and its celebrated history, the circuit was disorienting. I was unable to describe what I just saw.

The SR-71 aircraft was retired in 1998, and is believed to still be the fastest aircraft ever manufactured in the world. Click the image to see a larger picture. (continued next page)

Continue reading

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History Snippets: Hydrogen Bomb

Hydrogen Bomb, Enewetak Atoll 1952

Hydrogen Bomb, Eniwetok Atoll, Marshall Islands 1952. “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” — J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as “father of the hydrogen bomb.”

Previously we discussed natural disasters, setting the stage and scale for a glimpse at global man-made disaster. An obvious candidate is the hydrogen bomb.

The photo above is from an early US nuclear test, which vaporized the island where the device was detonated. A more powerful 1961 Russian device produced a fireball 5 miles in diameter, and a mushroom cloud rising to a height of 40 miles. The Soviets had also planned but scrubbed a larger-scale test, but their own scientists warned that the plane dropping the test bomb could never escape the blast. Further, fallout would not be constrained to the test area or even Soviet borders.  Cold-war testing the device had potential for starting a “hot war”.  The larger device was built and stockpiled, but never detonated.

The largest of these devices can kill directly and instantly beyond a radius of 100 miles – even with radar or satellite warning of a launch, there is no hope of escape. Rock underneath the blast area is turned to ash by the intense heat. Atomic weapons also kill, by fallout, many more victims outside the enormous blast areas..

Two more primitive and much weaker devices were used to incinerate enemy cities over 60 years ago, ending World War II. No one on the planet has ever used these devices in anger since. There is no popular support for use of weapons which, used in a full-scale exchange between opposing forces, will assuredly result in massive changes to the planet and the extinction of most of its life forms.

At peak burst power, the 1961 Russian test released 1.4% as much energy as the Sun in that same instant of time.

Paradoxically, the same principle by which bombs work as devices of destruction may someday be used to safely harness the fusion power of the sun to provide abundant heating, power and energy to all of mankind.

The total energy released by the largest hydrogen bombs cannot match nature’s average volcanoes, let alone supervolcanoes. Fallout from the man-made device can cause also climate change through “nuclear winters”, but lethal radiation poisoning over vast areas make the nuclear device a man-made doomsday candidate for extinction-class catastrophes. One man-made event, represented by a device that could fit into a very sturdy farmer’s ox-cart, might still rival the Santorini event in long-term destructive power.

It is easy to wish the devices had never been built, but the simple fact is that the physics became widely known prior to World War II. If the Nazi scientists had realized only a few kilograms of material are required, before the secret American war project, the outcome of history might have been dreadfully different.

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History Snippets: Mt. St. Helens

“History Snippets” serializes small bits of research from an unfinished test project. The theme is technology and natural events that shaped our modern world.

Mt. St. Helens 1980

Mt. St. Helens, 1980. Volcano. This photograph is credited to the National Geographic. A modern natural disaster which killed 57 people, few deaths for a volcano owing to its remoteness and a little early warning detection.

In a heavily populated area, this same eruption, small as volcanoes go, could have been catastrophic. An 83-year old resident named Harry R. Truman lived on the far end of Spirit Lake and refused to be evacuated. The explosion blew 1,200 feet of rock off the top of the mountain. They say Mr. Truman had 16 seconds before the superheated pyroclastic flow rolled over him; they never found Mr. Truman’s body. It was the biggest eruption in the 200+ year history of the political body called the United States. Due to the pillar of ash and smoke, one cannot see the actual mountain in the 1980 photo.  Below, the mountain is shown 28 years after the eruption, in the photo below.

Mt. St. Helens 2008. Photo by Alex Forbes.

Mt. St. Helens, 2008. Volcano crater. I captured this view on a flight to Seattle along the Cascade Range. You can see part of the crater blow-out and the shrunken Spirit Lake, which, surprisingly, recovered its fish and plant species within a few years. Atmospheric haze is due to the vast California forest fires in the month the photo was taken.

Volcanic Disaster Scales

The image below is a scaled-down image capture of a free PDF available online from Sky & Telescope magazine, “REAL Disasters” by editor in chief Robert Naeye. The PDF is available in the editors’ article “The Great 2012 Scare“.

Scaling historic volcanoes and supervolcanoes. See article text for links to the original Sky & Telescope article and PDF.

Scaling historic volcanoes and supervolcanoes. See article text for links to the original Sky & Telescope article and PDF.

  • Mt. St. Helens is represented by the top cube, 1980, 0.24 cubic miles of ejecta
  • Mt. Pinatubo, 1991, 2.4 cubic miles
  • Krakatoa, 1883, 4.3 cubic miles
  • Mount Mazuma (Crater Lake), 7,700 years ago, 18 cubic miles
  • Tambora, 1815, 36 cubic miles
  • Yellowstone caldera, 1.3 million years ago, 67 cubic miles
  • Yellowstone caldera, 640,000 years ago, 240 cubic miles
  • Santorini (not pictured), 5,500 years ago, 240 cubic miles
  • Yellowstone caldera, 2.1 million years ago, 600 cubic miles

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History Snippets: Santorini

“History Snippets” serializes small bits of research from an unfinished test project. The theme is technology and natural events that shaped our modern world.

Natural Disaster – Santorini

Santorini Island - NASA Satellite

Remains of Santorini Island after supervolcano of 3,500 BC. Scientists believe this would be one of the largest volcanic explosions to ever occur on the planet.

Santorini, a truly epic historical natural disaster, is getting a lot of play in current “catastrophe” speculation about how the world as we know it might end. The Mediterranean world, as Bronze Age Greeks would have known it, nearly did end.

A volcano in the “supervolcano” category is generally defined as one ejecting material in excess of 240 cubic miles (about 6x6x6 miles). In contrast, Mt. St. Helens ejected 0.24 cubic mile of material. The three islands were originally one large island; the enclosed “bay” is the massive collapsed volcanic crater or “caldera”, measuring about 4×8 miles — meaning, you could almost fit the entire Mt. St. Helens, crater and all, inside the Santorini crater.

The central island (blue, in this satellite photo) is actually the projecting central cone of the crater. The oceanic volcanic crater is the 4×8 mile bay itself. The tsunami (tidal wave) from the Santorini explosion is almost certain to have been responsible for the sudden destruction of  the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete, and to have decimated the early Greek tribes, on shorelines some 200km away,  to a fraction of their previous size.

The myths of the lost continent of Atlantis, and of Zeus’s mighty battle with the Titans, are conjectured to have originated in pre-history with the Santorini event. The Minoan civilization was destroyed at about that time. Known to ancient Greeks as Kalliste, Strongyle or Thera, this Aegean island group is today a beautiful and popular tourist port.

This is what is left of the island the Romans named “Santorini”. Athenians knew the island as Kalliste (“the most beautiful one”), Strongyle (“the circular one”), or Thera. Three distinct islands now, it was originally one single island.

This aerial (satellite) photo shows the circular volcanic crater or caldera, about 9×12 kilometers in size. Occurring as this event did in about 3,500BC, there is no recorded history of the event. Greek mythology is thought to have connected it with the battles of Zeus for dominance over the Titans.

Santorini is on the short list of sites mentioned in the persistent search for the legendary “lost continent of Atlantis”. Like Chicxulub crater and some of the other truly global scale meteor-strike sites, the actual scale of calderas like Santorini did not necessarily become obvious before the advent of aerial and satellite mapping.

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History Snippets: Battleships

“History Snippets” serializes small bits of research from an unfinished test project. The theme is technology and natural events that shaped our modern world.

In the 20th century we developed giant warships (now obsolete) we called “Battle Ships”. Weighing about 45,000 tons, with a waterline length of about 860 feet and a speed of about 64 kilometers per hour, these were the most heavily armed ships ever put to sea. The “Iowa class” vessels carried nine 16-inch guns, firing projectiles weighing around a ton up to 20 miles.

In World War II, battleships were found to be indefensibly vulnerable to attack by air. They were replaced, in a historical blink of the eye, by the aircraft carrier.

USS Missouri, Iowa class battleship

USS Missouri. The Iowa class battleship was constructed to a length of 887 feet, with a draft of about 29 feet. Click the image to see a larger picture, with enough detail to show sailors standing on the deck, which gives a better idea of the scale of this vessel. The Missouri weighed about 45,000 tons and carried a massive complement of guns described more fully in Wikipedia. After retrofitting in 1984 she carried 1,851 men and officers. Click the image to see a larger picture.

The USS Missouri served in World War II, the Korean War, the Gulf War and other hot spots throughout most of the 20th century. The historic signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender took place on board, signed by General Douglas MacArthur and Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, with numerous Allied military officials in attendance, on September 2, 1945.

The “Mighty Mo” was reactivated in 2984, outfitted with missiles and modern guidance systems to complement her 16-inch guns, and saw service the Gulf War, where she  served essentially as a seagoing gunnery island to soften up Iraqi positions inland.  She had also served in anti-piracy duty in the Persian Gulf, and must have been a massively imposing deterrent to Iranian-manned cigarette boats operating in the area.

Compare the ship above to the ancient Greek war trireme,  which was usually 120 feet or less in length with a draft (displacement) of about three feet of water.

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History Snippets: Cast-iron Cannon

“History Snippets” serializes small bits of research from an unfinished test project. The theme is technology and natural events that shaped our modern world.

Below is a cast-iron cannon mounted on a wooden carriage, typical of about the 18th century.

Small carriage cannon

Small carriage cannon Image from Wikipedia Common. Here we see a cast iron cannon on what might be a horse-drawn carriage.

What we don’t see is the mine that produced the iron ore, the foundry that smelted the iron and cast the blank for the cannon, or the factory that machined and finished the cannon and perhaps also cast the lead balls. We don’t see the industry that mined and refined the potassium nitrate, ground the sulfur and charcoal, and mixed the gunpowder.

To actually build such weapons first required learning how to heat large quantities of metal to temperatures earlier cultures could not yet attain.  Tools hard enough to cut and fashion the new metal had to be invented, shaping the parts to a precision for which the tools of measurement didn’t exist in earlier times … One could not simply master precision casting of a cast-iron or bronze barrel with a hollow bore. The bore had to be machined or polished to a sufficient smoothness to prevent the projectile from  sticking and blowing up both cannon and cannoneer.

The chain of productive innovation needed to set all this in motion would take the cooperation of a whole country or group of countries, and this would take centuries, not decades. Earlier city-states could rarely afford to develop such undertakings on their own. It is hard to grasp the full challenge of the required  technology infrastructure at first.

Ironically, countries that could best absorb the cost of large-scale military technology would be those that also excelled in the free trade of goods and services in peacetime. Conquistador-style looting, plunder and civilization-wrecking were essentially a static one-time transfer of  wealth by force, and could carry the enormous overhead of industrialization only so far.

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