Monday, August 31, 2015

Going Dutch

In the 16th Century, the Dutch became rich through trade. They developed the first ship dedicated to carrying cargo--the fluyt. It had twice the cargo capacity of other ships and could be operated by a small crew using automation such as pulleys. By using specialized shipyards that built only fluyts, though larger, the ship cost half what it cost to build a warship. The sails were of linen with some hemp threads making up the canvas or duck sailcloth. In fact, the word duck applied to cloth comes from the Dutch word for cloth doek. Duck for sailcloth entered English in the time when the Dutch dominated trade.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Not A Flash in The Pan

Did you know that a powerful strobe light was used as an electronic flash for military night aerial photography, during WWII? It lite up a square mile of countryside at a time revealing enemy troop movements, strength, and location. The flash tube was a tough monster made of 30 inches of strong, quartz glass, coiled into a xenon-filled spiral that withstood the 4,000 volts discharged through it. The tube fit into a reflector mounted in the plane’s belly or tail. Banks of capacitors, weighing up to 500 pounds each, were slung on the plane’s bomb racks and supplied power to the flash tube. A direct contact synchronized the flash to the equally over-sized aerial camera.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Bang-up Job

When we think of the assembly line, Henry Ford's auto factory is the first thing to come to mind, but actually several assembly lines predate Ford's. Samuel Colt established an early assembly line using interchangeable parts, more than half-a-century before Ford, for production of the Colt revolver at his factory in Hartford, .CT.

The Joke Is on You

During WWII, the Nazis built fake airfields, complete with wooden planes painted like real planes, to lure allied bombers away from real targets. The allied air-force easily saw through the ruse. They dropped wood painted like bombs on the fake airfields.

A Glowing Report

The granite in New York City's Grand Central Station gives off more radiation than is allowed in public areas of a nuclear power plant. Granite is a hard crystalline igneous rock often used as a building material. It forms when magma cools slowly beneath the Earth's surface. Granite is made up of quartz and feldspar with minor amounts of mica, amphibole, and other minerals that may include uranium. The pink granite colonnaded Grand Central Station was inspired by the Roman baths of Caracalla. Grand Central Station  was conceived to deal with congestion and opened for business on February 1, 1913. The lovely pink granite has a higher than average uranium content.

Sunday, August 23, 2015


The word Timbuktu conjures up thoughts of the exotic and distant. Timbuktu is actually a town in central north Africa in the country of Mali. It was an important stopping point on the cross Sahara caravan route. Timbuktu is located south of the Sahara Desert  and just north of the Niger River. The town thrived on trade in salt, ivory, gold, and slaves.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Man in the Black Suit

Did you know that a painting of a man in a plain black suit would change the view of what leadership is and help shape the future? When you look at the full length portrait of George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stewart, what do you see? Do you notice that President Washington is posed in a luxurious European style room, however he manages to look dignified in a just a plain black suit. Actually, at the time the picture was painted, it was startling to see the leader of a country portrayed in such a way. Unlike other world leaders of that day, he does not wear ermine or even the officer's uniform he is entitled to. He is a man forging the role of the presidency. Washington must appear dignified without appearing glorified and powerful without being absolute. Did you know that the constitution makes little mention of presidential powers? It was Washington who started the practice of appointing a cabinet to advise him.

Cows & Whiter Whites 

Bet you didn't know that cows and meadows were the source of white linens before the invention of bleach? Linen was bleached white by soaking it in acidic buttermilk and staking it out in the sunshine in special linen meadows. Some streams in Holland were said to run white with the milk being rinsed out of linens.

Friday, August 21, 2015

A Curious Matter

Wonderful series on how we came to understand the elements and matter itself:

The Mystery of Mstter


The Mystery of Matter

Unraveling such mysteries as why rusty iron weighs more than the same volume of unrusted iron helped to uncover the way elements interact. In a related experiment, melting mercury oxide causes it to give off a mysterious gas that makes a candle flame burn brighter. Understanding why radium glows in the dark gives a glimpse at the structure of atoms. Learn the answers to these mysteries and much more in this well written series on the history of those who solved the mysteries of matter.

You can watch episode 1 at PBS. Highly recommended series! Perfect for classroom or the inquiring mind.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Bordering on Perfect

What do Roman senators and snails have in common?

A natural purple dye used to color the border of Roman senators togas was derived from the secretions of the Murex sea snail. The ink is sprayed into the water to cover the retreat of the snail, when it is attacked. The Phoenicians of Tyre farmed the snails and dealt in the precious purple dye, often called Tyrian purple.

A Glowing Idea

Did you know that the word radiation and electricity have a link? Marie Curie first devised the word radiation to denote the property of uranium and thallium to create a field that allowed electricity to travel in the air. Marie Curie also first realized that radioactive elements glow in the dark because they are breaking down into other elements and giving off energy--a new and startling idea at that time.

It's a Gas

What do MRI machines, semiconductor manufacture, deep sea diving, welding, and party balloons have in common--helium.
Astronomers first discovered Helium by turning a new scientific instrument, the spectrometer, toward the sun. Chemists searched for helium on Earth. Finally, William Ramsey released helium by dropping acid on a uranium mineral. Later Helium was found in 1903 jetting from a Cowley county Kansas well.

Modern Warfare

Did you know that London suffered aerial bombing during WWI by aircraft taking off from Berlin, even though planes of the day only had a range of 200 miles, a third of the distance from Berlin to London?

German Zeppelins dropped bombs on London. The Zeppelins were held aloft by bags of hydrogen gas made of cattle intestines. The large lighter-than-air craft cruised at 80 miles per hour. However, they lacked heated and pressurized cabins, subjecting crews to extreme cold and altitude sickness.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A Symbol of Health

The Rx symbol used by pharmacies is derived from the ancient Egyptian eye of Horus. The single snake wrapped around a staff, that often appears on hospital buildings and ambulances, is derived from the rod of Asclepius, a Greek god of healing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Seeing the Forest for the Crossties

Fears concerning dwindling natural resources is not a new problem. In the great age of rail. railroad construction and maintenance created an unquenchable thirst for lumber. Railroads needed over 2,500 crossties per mile to support their tracks. They also used large amounts of timber for bridges as well as pilings, telegraph poles, snow fences, fuelwood for the camps, cribbing, tunnel timbers, fuel, corduroy roads, railroad buildings, and railroad cars. Many small sawmills sprang up along railroad routes to supply these needs. Untreated ties last a maximum of 5 years. By the 1880s, keeping up with railroad maintenance was the equivalent to replacing the ties on 50,000 miles of track annually by harvesting 15 to 20 million acres of forest. As the end of the 19th century approached, railroads were expected to consume all the trees of the vast North American forests in less than a decade.

At first, only bridge supports were treated with wood preservation methods because the cost was prohibitive. After advances in chemical treatment led to cost reductions, the Santa Fe became the first North American railroad to treat ties regularly in 1885. A creosote treated wood tie installed today has an estimated life span of 40 years.

Railroad Towns

If you live in a town in the Midwest with East to West streets named after trees and North to South streets numbered, your town was most likely laid out by the railroad. Laying out towns was an important source of income for railroads by offering ready-made destinations for immigrants to buy tickets to and creating support locations for engines and crews. Once the town was populated, it created an ongoing income through delivery of supplies and shipment of produce.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Redcoats Are Coming

Bet you didn't know that the red uniforms of British troops are related to bugs and pirates?

A red dye is derived from the dried bodies of cochineal beetles. The dye came from Mexico where the beetles were fed on prickly pear cactus. When a Spanish ship full of the precious dye was seized by the English, Queen Elizabeth used it to dye the uniforms of her troops as a sneer to the Spanish who only used the dye for luxury items and as a gift to the Catholic Church.
Super Highway

The Erie Canal, finished in 1825, shortened a three-week travel time from Lake Erie to New York City to one-week. Speeding the delivery of salt, grain, and meat, from inland, to that large city and carrying port of New York worldwide trade across the Great Lakes.

Before the completion of the Erie Canal, Philadelphia was the largest most prosperous city in the United States. The project was financed by bond sales when the president refused to finance the canal. Tolls quickly paid off the project. The canal was a great success and made New York the largest most prosperous city in the United States.

Stream a Lesson and Learn Something New

 Very informative and fun show free with Amazon Prime on Codebreakers. Highly recommended for classroom and home schooling use. Very useful for Jr. High and older students in math and history.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Information Age Begins

Did you know that the encryption of critical information has been a primary concern far longer than you might think? With the beginning of the widespread use of the telegraph in 1861, critical information falling into the wrong hands became a problem for businesses and governments, which led to sending telegraph messages in code.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The New Vegetables

Lots of exciting changes were happening to European vegetables in the 16th century. Recently discovered plants were being introduced from the new world including: corn, potatoes, peppers, pumpkins, and beans. Breeders were also developing new improved varieties of well known plants. All of these changes greatly improved European diets. There are so many prints of vegetables from this period because they were new and exciting.

For example, the familiar sweet fleshy orange carrot did not exist before the 16th century. The Dutch  created a new larger and tastier vegetable by crossbreeding the smaller beet colored carrot of their day with a variety of wild carrots and a yellow mutant carrot.

Remember to eat your vegetables. They are healthy and played an important part in history.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Sun Storms

On September first and second 1859, a major solar storm made a direct strike on Earth. A solar storm consists of  a vast cloud solar plasma, a gas of electrically charged particles, flung from the sun explosively during sunspots. Very bright auroras were seen as far south as Colorado. Telegraph keys chattered on their own. Telegraph operators were shocked into unconsciousness. Telegraph lines sparked fires. At that time, there was little electrical infrastructure. Telegraph lines did not yet span the American continent.

A far smaller event in March 1989 blacked out the entire province of Quebec. Transformers blew up and electrical fireballs were seen to roll along power lines. Spectacular auroras were produced.

On July 23rd of 2012 a solar storm of similar size to the vast 1859 storm burst from the sun but fortunately missed the Earth entirely.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Speaking of History

The English language is like an ancient but thriving city, such as London. You might discover a Roman artifact or a Medieval building and then turn a corner and see the Millennium Bridge. Certain words are artifacts from the past while new words are being added. A number of Arabic words made their way into English during the Reconquest of Spain.

Raymond of Toledo, Archbishop of Toledo from 1126 to 1151, started the first translation team at the library of the Cathedral of Toledo, where he led a group of translators who included Mozarabic Toledans, Jewish scholars, Madrasah teachers, and monks from the Order of Cluny. Toledo had been surrendered by the Moors through negotiation and was spared being sacked and burned, so many Arabic libraries survived. The group translated many works, including works by Aristotle, from Arabic into Castilian, and then from Castilian into Latin, the official church language. Some translated books were purchased by the Pope and became the roots of the Renaissance. During translation, a number of Arabic words entered Latin and later became a part of the English language. Zero, zenith alcohol, logarithm, and algebra all entered English from the Arabic language at this time.  

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Stop The Presses

The familiar layout of newspapers with large type headlines, illustrations, and factual articles with a broad appeal was once a fresh and exciting idea originated by Joseph Pulitzer to make the lackluster newspapers of his day more interesting. Today he is better remembered as the creator of the Pulitzer Prizes to recognize artistic and journalistic achievement, but he began his career as a groundbreaking newspaperman.

Not A Lightweight

Without the innovations of transistors and microprocessors, your laptop would be the size of a skyscraper and take a hydroelectric dam to power it. ENIAC, an early computer, designed by the U.S. Army to automate the process of making fast and accurate artillery calculations during World War II, filled a 30-by-50-foot room and weighed more than 27 tons. It used 174 kilowatts per second--enough to power a typical home for more than a week. ENIAC contained 17,468 fragile vacuum tubes, 7,200 crystal diodes, 1,500 relays, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and around 5 million hand-soldered joints. It could store twenty 10-digit numbers in its memory, and it cost roughly $450,000. A handheld calculator now offers more computing power than ENIAC. A modern laptop computer weighs around 5 lbs. with most of the weight coming from the rechargeable battery that powers the computer--an amazing feat of innovation and miniaturization.

Flying High

The B-29 Superfortress was one of the most technically advanced American planes used in WWII. The aircraft was the first to be constructed of a new aluminium alloy that added zinc, to prevent cracking, to the usual lightweight alloy of aluminium and copper. The heavily armed, long-range plane could fly much higher than most aircraft of the time, at up to 33,600 ft. It was B-29s that made the famous supply runs over the Himalayas to China during WWII.

On July 30, 1916, German saboteurs conducted a massive terrorist attack on U.S. soil, blowing up tons of ammunition, in New York harbor. The explosions were heard up to 90 miles away. Windows were blown out up and down Fifth Avenue. The statue of Liberty was struck by shrapnel. It took investigators years to realize that the explosion was no accident.
Earhart Fashions

Did you know that Amelia Earhart was the first celebrity to have her own clothing line? Amelia Earhart Fashions, launched in 1933, featured designs for an active lifestyle.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A Taste of India

Did you know that the Egyptians, already traded with India for cinnamon over 4,000 years ago? It is portrayed in several tomb paintings. Later, the Romans even set up their own trade representatives in far off India to procure cinnamon. The word cinnamon is of Hebrew origins and probably came into English from the Bible. Cinnamon was an ingredient in the incense burned in the Temple in Jerusalem. Cinnamon is the inner bark of a species of laurel tree. Today most cinnamon comes from plantations on the island nation of Siri Lanka, located near the Southern tip of India. Thirty-five tons of cinnamon is consumed annually. 
You Light Up My Life

Our vast modern electric power grid began with a dc power station established by Thomas Edison in 1882 on Pearl Street, in Manhattan, that served less than a square mile. The beautiful White City of the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893, lit by 200 thousand electric light bulbs, became the next electric milestone with ac power, provided by Westinghouse with the help of Tesla, illuminating all 600 acres of the fair site, at a time when few Americans had seen an electric light bulb. Today electric power grids span the nation with over 2.7 million miles of power lines and Americans take lighting and the cooling power of refrigerators and air conditioners for granted.
Foiling the Nazis

As WWII loomed, defense experts realized how important aluminum would be in building an air force. At that time, the Aluminum Company of America’s (Alcoa) factory south of Knoxville,Tennessee, which used hydroelectric power from dams constructed by the TVA, was  the largest aluminum plant in the world. New plants were needed. A new Alcoa plant in Vancouver, WA, which used electricity from dams constructed on the Columbia River, began producing aluminum in September 1940. During World War II, bauxite mines in central Arkansas produced more than 95 percent of the ore that was made into aluminum. Smelting of Bauxite ores for aluminum requires significant amounts of electricity so processing facilities are located near dams that generate electricity. These 2 plus 18 other plants produced aluminum for the war effort. By the end of the war, America had produced 305,000 planes and all of them had skins fabricated from aluminum alloys.