The Current War

The electrocution of Western Union Lineman John Feeks became part of the propaganda during the Current War.

Edison had invented the light bulb, but he needed to devise a system to distribute electricity to houses and businesses so that they could use his light bulbs. The system he developed used DC (direct current), a low voltage, high current system. George Westinghouse, using ideas developed by Nikola Tesla, came up with a competing system that used AC (alternating current), which used high voltages and low currents.

The battle was on. Tesla had first worked for Edison, but Edison had dismissed his ideas as impractical. However, it soon became clear that the AC system was superior, particularly over longer distances, allowing electricity to be run to remote and rural districts. To fight back, Edison started a campaign highlighting the safety implications of a high-voltage system, going so far as to demonstrate its dangers by inviting journalists to watch when he got a stray dog to stand on a sheet of tin attached to an AC generator. The switch was flipped and the dog yelped and died.

Further support for Edison’s view that AC was a lethal technology was provided when it was used in the first execution of a prisoner by the electric chair. On 6 August 1890, William Kemmler, who had been convicted of murdering his common-law wife, was strapped to a chair and electrocuted. But the first shock did not kill him; it required a second, higher voltage burst to finish Kemmler off, although this set his hair and coat on fire.

Despite Edison’s attempts to tie AC to Kemmler’s execution and brand it dangerous, the system’s superiority prevailed, and in one of Edison’s few failures, the world today runs on AC.

The Space Race

Buzz Aldrin working outside the Gemini 12 spacecraft in Earth orbit

On 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union stunned the world, and in particular the United States, by launching Sputnik 1 into orbit. On 12 April 1961, the Soviet Union sent Yuri Gagarin into space and brought him safely back to earth. The space race had begun and the Soviet Union had a clear lead. In a time when the world was locked into a confrontation between the communist Soviet bloc and the West, the propaganda advantage in leading the race into space was immense.

In response, on 25 May 1961 President John F. Kennedy asked Congress to commit the nation to, “before this decade is out, […] landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. Following Kennedy’s assassination, this pledge became sacrosanct. To catch up with the Soviet lead, the Americans planned a series of manned spacecraft, beginning with the Mercury rockets crewed by a single astronaut, going on to the two-man Gemini missions that pioneered many of the technologies and techniques necessary for a flight to the Moon, and culminating with the three-man Apollo programme designed to take men to the Moon. Despite the Apollo 1 disaster, when three astronauts were killed in the Command Module during testing on the launch pad when a fire broke out, by the late 1960s the American space programme had overtaken the Soviets. Now all that remained was to fulfil Kennedy’s pledge.

The Marriage of Mark Twain

Olivia Langdon (1845-1904), wife of Mark Twain

Sailing back from Europe aboard the good ship Quaker City, a fellow traveller showed Samuel Clemens (the real name of Mark Twain) a photograph of his sister, Olivia. Of course, Twain later said it was love at first sight – it wouldn’t be nearly so good a story otherwise – but nevertheless he accepted an invitation to visit the home of his shipboard companion and there met, in the flesh, Olivia Langdon, the daughter of a wealthy merchant family which was also ardently abolitionist: her father was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, the network of routes and safe houses that helped slaves escape to freedom. Clemens soon fell in love with her, but Olivia turned down his proposal. A devout Christian, she would reform the hard-drinking, hard gambling son of the Mississippi, and agreed to their corresponding. Clemens agreed, thinking that by doing so “she would unwittingly dig a matrimonial pit and end by tumbling into it”.

Olivia’s parents were hardly reassured when they sought the opinions of Clemens’ friends. He was, they reported, an unsettled rover “who got drunk oftener than was necessary”. But then, that was what Clemens had already told them. At least he was honest in his self reporting.

It was this honesty that won over Olivia’s parents, and the object of Clemens’ love herself fell into the pit of correspondence between them (over 180 letters). Samuel Clemens and Olivia Langdon were engaged in February 1869 and married the following year. Livy became his editor and first reader; a vital influence in his work. After Livy died, in 1904, Clemens wrote a story of the first human couple, Adam and Eve. In the story, when Eve dies, Adam says, “Wheresoever she was, there was Eden.” They were words for his wife too.

Sacagawea: guide to the Lewis & Clark expedition

Sacagawea, guide on the Lewis & Clark trans-America expedition from 1804 to 1806.

While in winter camp at Fort Mandan in 1804, Lewis and Clark hired French-Canadian trapper Toussaint Charbonneau as an interpreter, his employment facilitated by his being married to a young Soshone woman, Sacagawea. Sacagawea had been captured in a raid by the Hidatsa on the Soshone when she was 12. Charbonneau bought, or won Sacagawea through gambling, when she was about 16. Pregnant, Sacagawea gave birth to her first child, a son, on 11 February 1805. Little Jean Baptiste Charbonneau would become, by some margin, the youngest member of the expedition. Having a woman and a baby on the journey considerably eased relations with the tribes the Corps met along the way, as war parties did not travel with women and children. Sacagawea’s knowledge helped the expedition considerably along the way, but it was the encounter with her brother, when the expedition reached the land of the Soshone, that really proved her worth. The Soshone provided help, and a guide, to see them over the Rockies. Sacagawea chose to continue with the expedition rather than return to her own people. On the return journey Sacagawea, Toussaint and their son stopped at Fort Mandan, but a few years later, in 1809, they travelled to St Louis, meeting William Clark there. Clark offered to see to the education of Jean Baptiste, and Sacagawea left him with Clark. Records suggest that Sacagawea died in 1812 from illness at Fort Manuel, South Dakota. Clark became guardian to Jean Baptiste and Sacagawea’s daughter, Lisette.

Left-handed in a Right-handed World

Jimi Hendrix – By Steve Banks – Steve Banks, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63987610

Hendrix, famously, played guitar left handed – that is he fretted notes with his right hand and strummed the strings with his left hand. But left-handed guitars were few and expensive, so Hendrix took an ordinary right-handed Fender Stratocaster, flipped it upside down, so that the tuning pegs were on the bottom, and restrung it. Doing this changed how the guitar sounded. A Fender Stratocaster has three pickups (electric microphones that produce the signal fed to the guitar’s amplifier), with the rear pickup set at an angle to the strings. Reversing the guitar meant that this pickup took its signal from the higher strings further up the fretboard, producing a sweeter tone. By reversing the guitar, Hendrix also changed the relative distance of each string from its pickup, thereby altering the mix of sound in the guitar’s signal to the amp. Another effect of reversing the stringing on his guitar was the highest strings, which on a normal Stratocaster are the longest, became the shortest on the Stratocasters Hendrix played. A shorter string requires less tension to tune it, making the string easier to bend and thus easier to play. This change also altered the amount of string between the nut at the end of the fretboard and the tuning peg. Although the nut prevents this length of string actually playing, it produces overtones when the string is plucked. Changing the length of these parts of the strings also contributed to the unique Hendrix sound.

The Italian Lynching

The mob breaking into the prison to get the Italians

On 15 October 1890, New Orleans police chief David Hennessy and his bodyguard were ambushed as the police chief was walking home, the two assailants firing sawn-off shotguns at the men. Wounded, Hennessy returned fire, but did not bring down his attackers. When asked who had shot him, Hennessy muttered, “Dagoes.” The investigation into the murder of the police chief had its one and only lead.

Hennessy died the next day and the outraged city mayor, Joseph Shakespeare, told the police to “scour the whole neighborhood. Arrest every Italian you come across.” They did, rounding up 250 Italians. By the late 19th century, many Sicilians had immigrated to America but in the south they were regarded as half way black. One newspaper article called them “a link connecting white and black races”. This was not meant as a compliment. Fears had also been roused in the white community from reports of mafia dealings and violence among the Sicilians.

Eventually, nine Italians were put on trial for Hennessy’s murder. The accused were all acquitted, for the evidence against them was contradictory and weak, but the acquittal enraged the New Orleans populace. Although found not guilty, the Italians were returned to the prison, where other Italians were also imprisoned. That evening, a notice appeared in a local paper calling for a demonstration against what many locals believed to be a miscarriage of justice.

Thousands gathered on 14 March 1891 to listen to incendiary speeches by respected local dignataries, many with strong links to Mayor Shakespeare. Roused by the speeches, the crowd marched on the prison, chanting, “We want the Dagoes.” In the prison, the warden let the 19 Italians held there out of their cells, telling them to hide as best they could. Eight managed to evade the mob, but 11 of the men were seized, with two being dragged outside and hanged, and the other nine beaten to death in the prison.

Although Mayor Shakespeare failed to be re-elected next year, the city’s Italians voting decisively against him, the press coverage was mostly sympathetic, suggesting that the Italians all had links to the mafia and had got what they deserved.

Lots of Houses on the Prairie

Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie

The Little House on the Prairie, along with many others, was the direct result of the Homestead Act. President Lincoln signed it into law on 20 May 1862 and by its statute it allowed 160 acres of unclaimed public land to any citizen, or an immigrant intending to become a citizen, in return for a small filing fee. To gain final title on the land, the claimant had either to build a house on the land, plant crops and remain living there for five years continuously; or they could buy the land for $1.25 per acre after living on it for six months, so long as they had built a house and planted crops in that time. Between the signing of the Act in 1862 and 1900, more than 80 million acres was distributed to people moving west and building their houses on the prairies of the American West. Among them were the Ingalls family, who moved to Montgomery County, Kansas, in 1869. Little House on the Prairie was based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s experiences growing up on the prairie, although not just in Kansas. The Ingalls family also built houses in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Dakota. They moved around a lot!

How Venice Became Rich

Leonardo Loredan, doge of Venice from 1501 to 1521, as painted by Giovanni Bellini

In the dangerous, chaotic centuries after the fall of the western Roman Empire there was safety to be found on the little islands hidden among twisting waterways and shifting channels. No city is as much a product of its geography as Venice. Set on islets and mudbanks in the lagoon, the lagoon is itself sheltered and protected from the Adriatic Sea by a long ribbon of narrow islands, including the Lido and Pellestrina. Cut off from mainland Italy by almost impenetrable marshes, Venice provided both home and refuge, but at a price. For through the Middle Ages and on into the Renaissance, wealth was the product of land ownership: the rich and the powerful were the great landowners. Land produced food and supported men, in particular the soldiers required to cement power. But almost all of Venice was water. The peril for the people who had taken refuge in the lagoon was that they had traded peril for poverty.

With no agricultural hinterland and no natural resources other than fish and salt, the Venetians had no choice but to trade. Which was where their island homes came in: for having to learn the ways of the sea in order to exist, they turned their mastery of ships into their fortune. The Venetians lived by and for trade. Everything was done for the honour and profit of the Republic – and if it came down to a choice, then profit won every time. The Venetians had no choice but to rely on their wit and their skills if they were to earn their living amid the competing, often violent, kingdoms that surrounded the Mediterranean. Such was their success in doing so that other peoples looked on them with amazement and considerable suspicion. But the Venetians did not care, so long as it brought honour and profit to their city.

Adventures with Words: Archangel by Gerald Seymour

Already we forget. It’s thirty years since the Berlin Wall came down and the prisoners stumbled from the Gulags, but we are busy forgetting. While the Holocaust has, rightly I suppose, spawned an industry of remembrance, the victims of the Soviet Gulags are disappearing into a historical black hole. It seems no one is interested. Neither in the suffering and deaths in the Gulags, nor the almost miraculous end to it all: a Soviet system that seemed as unyielding as the Wall itself fell all but overnight and with virtually no bloodshed. We can look back at the events leading up to the end of the Soviet block and the finish of the Cold War but its actual denouement seems to cast a pall of unreality over people: it’s as if, seeing a miracle, people cannot bring themselves to look at it, but rather forget.

A large part of that forgetting is the Gulags, the system of forced labour camps that the Soviet Union employed to dispose of dissidents and counter-revolutionaries. While not extermination camps per se, nevertheless estimates suggest that around 1.5 million people died in the Gulags, worked and starved to death, frozen, diseased or simply executed and thrown in ditches. The great chronicler of Soviet cruelty, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, seems to have been removed from literary consideration while the Gulags themselves have been brushed under the carpet of the new Russia.

Archangel was written when the Gulags still ground people through the system, and takes the reader on an uncomfortable trip back into still fairly recent history. Long out of print (I picked my copy up from a second-hand bookshop) it tells a slightly unlikely story of a doomed attempt to overthrow the Gulag system from within. It’s unlikely in that the protagonist is a captured British agent and it seems unlikely that any such revolt would be led by a foreigner, but the story vividly conveys the every day acts of defiance and humanity that allowed the inmates of the Gulags to remember that they were men. As such, Archangel is a great book for this age of forgetting and if you can find a copy I strongly urge you to read it.