Thursday, August 31, 2017

261 BC - Ashoka Unmoved

"Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Ashoka shines, and shines, almost alone, a star." - H.G. Wells

Upon the end of the Kalinga War, Emperor Ashoka of the Maurya Dynasty of India went to survey his newly conquered domain. What he found was a horrifying sight:  his invading forces killed an estimated 100,000 people with another 150,000 carried away as slaves. The dead literally covered the ground between burned-out homes, and the Daya River ran red from the bloodshed. A woman approached Ashoka and said, "Your actions have taken from me my father, husband, and son. Now what will I have left to live for?"

Distraught, Ashoka looked out among the ashes, and there he saw a flower growing. Its bright face, looking up at the sun through the smoky sky, moved him. No matter the terrible destruction, he is said to have thought, a new and better world could grow up from it. Ashoka ordered the woman to become the flower's caretaker for the rest of her days. She would be executed if the flower perished for any reason.

This was one of many tales of violence in Ashoka's life. He had been born grandson of Chandragupta, the founder of the Mauryan dynasty who had united much of the empire Ashoka inherited. In the northeast, the empire butted up against that of Seleucus, one of the late Alexander the Great's generals. The two fought but eventually came to an alliance confirmed by marriage with Chandragupta giving 500 elephants while Seleucus gave his daughter as a bride. In the last years of his life, Chandragupta retired to become a monk, leaving the empire to Bindusara, Ashoka's father. Ashoka was hardly next in line for the throne with as many as ninety-nine half-siblings, but he would seize power for himself.

As a prince-general, Ashoka grew in prominence by crushing revolts and conquering in the southwest. When Ashoka's older brother Susima was pronounced the heir, Ashoka tricked him into falling into a pit filled with burning coals to eliminate him. Upon Bindursara's death, Ashoka killed every other claimant to the throne, except for his brother Vitashoka, who became a monk in the growing new religion based on the teachings of the Buddha. At the head of the empire, Ashoka became known as "Ashoka the Fierce" for his wars of conquest.

He was also famous for his rage, routinely having even ministers executed for offenses like "not being loyal enough." He built a torture-palace called Ashoka's Hell that, on the exterior, was covered in beautiful architecture and gardens. On the inside, prisoners had their mouths pried open by irons and boiling copper was poured down their throats. The chambers were modeled on depictions of Hell from Buddhism, which Ashoka had taken as his state religion after an ongoing feud with the Hindu Brahmin. This hell was led by Girika, whose cruelty was only matched by his loyalty to Ashoka; Girika had executed his own parents for balking when his position as executioner was announced. Girika even agreed that anyone who entered the palace would never leave alive, including himself.

In the ninth year of his reign, Ashoka targeted the peaceful neighboring country of Kalinga. It was a wealthy nation, built up by the strong middle class of artisans and seafarers trading with the lands to the southeast. The people participated in their government through a democratic parliament that supported a popular monarch. The noble people had driven away the army of Chandragupta generations before, so Ashoka determined to conquer without mercy.

With the fleet from Kalinga now at his command, Ashoka dispatched generals to continue his conquests to the east. Ashoka himself marched south to complete conquests of India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Throughout his empire, Ashoka built great pillars and made inscriptions upon boulders with his new view of dharma: build a better world, no matter the cost. He also supported his own branch of monks, sent as missionary-ambassadors to the courts of Ptolemy II Philadelphus in Egypt and Antiochus II Theos in Asia Minor. As far away as Athens, people began to recite analogies of cutting down a grove of trees to build a house. A legend of Ashoka himself states that he ordered his ministers to gather the heads of all kinds of animals, including a human; the ministers were then dispatched to the market to sell them. The minister with the dead human head was unable to sell it, nor was he even able to give it away for free. Ashoka replied, "If I make to bow a head so disgusting that none on earth would take it, what harm is there?"

Ashoka's power grew as he moved into the chaotic vacuum in the northwest when the Seleucid Empire declined. Beating down both the Parni and the Greco-Bactrians, Ashoka dominated central Asia. Controlling trade routes put Ashoka in communication with the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, many of whose famous Terracotta Army feature warriors in Indian dress. Ashoka greatly impressed the Chinese emperor by not only having his armies with elephants in the west but with ships arriving in the east through the Yellow Sea.

After thirty-six years of rule, Ashoka died and was cremated, with legends saying that his body burned continuously for a week upon the funeral pyre. His tightly wound system of government continued the expansive Mauryan Empire for centuries more, but it eventually fell under the blade of the Scythian hordes and the satellite colonies became empires in their own right, such as those that conquered America from the west.

Yet Ashoka did leave his lasting imprint: even the Scythians ascribed to his philosophy of hard-fisted Buddhism, as do many nations worldwide.


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In reality, it is said that great regret came upon Ashoka as he viewed the devastation his armies had wrought upon Kalinga and the ongoing suffering of the survivors. The experience humbled him, and he took Buddhism as a personal belief toward a gentler life. His reign lasted another thirty years, during which peace was found over all India. His towering Edicts called for good deeds and respect for all creatures.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Super Space Animals

What if the premise of the Fantastic Four comic book was reality?

On July 22, 1951, the Soviet Union launched two dogs, Tsygan ("Gypsy") and Dezik ("Deodorant") into space on R-1 IIIA-1. The two would be the first higher organisms to survive and be recovered from a space mission. Mission failures had plagued previous launches, but the mysterious disasters were nothing compared to the mystery of what exactly happened to these creatures once past Earth's protective atmosphere.

Both the Soviet Union and the United States were expanding upon captured German rocket technology from World War II. The common goal was to put a man into space, but no one knew what the strain of launch, floating in microgravity, and especially such exposure to cosmic radiation would do to a living creature. Missions gradually became more and more ambitious toward that goal.

The White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico first sought answers with fruit flies launched aboard a V-2 rocket on February 20, 1947. The fruit flies were recovered from a capsule that parachuted safely back to Earth. Scientists noted that the fruit flies not only survived, but continued to thrive, living years past their typical lifespan of forty to fifty days. Subsequent V-2 experiments sent up plants such as moss and other small creatures. Missions to launch a higher organisms into space followed, and the rhesus monkey Albert II, took off in June 1949 but died upon impact after his 83-mile fall due to parachute failure. Similar difficulties plagued launches carrying mice. The mice that did survive their return to Earth confounded scientists as their skin was suddenly impervious to needles and scalpels needed for invasive examination.

The Soviet Union began its own experiments, and the successful mission with Gypsy and Deodorant was lauded before being quickly covered up. According to declassified documents, the dogs were found not only to exhibit the same toughness as creatures before, but they also seemed to have uncanny new senses of detection bordering on precognition as well as telepathic empathy, often "hypnotizing" their trainers into giving them the entire supply of treats at once. Gypsy was dispatched to the Institute for Brain Research at Leningrad State University, which had been studying the paranormal since the 1920s, while Deodorant was launched again that June alongside another dog, Lisa, to see what effects repeated launch may have. Neither dog survived that mission.

Russian dog-launches continued, culminating in the November 1957 mission to make Laika the first animal to orbit the Earth. Laika spent a week in orbit. Official documents stated that she died peacefully after only hours aboard the craft as there were no means to bring her safely back to Earth. Rumors stated that Laika was, in fact, returned to Earth, and that the Soviets were quick to contain her deep in Siberia.

The United States government had no knowledge of the strange happenings with the Russian space dogs and worked to catch up with its own experiments through space monkeys. In December 1958, Jupiter IRBM AM-13 carried a squirrel monkey into space, but the rocket was destroyed upon reentry. A successful mission in 1959 carried another squirrel monkey, Miss Baker, and a rhesus monkey, Able. While Able died a few days after the mission for reasons documented as "reaction to anesthesia," Miss Baker lived on and began to exhibit fantastic powers of telekinesis, eating fruit by lifting it into her mouth without making her fingers sticky.

US media fanfare drew excitement as well as great public fear of what cosmic rays were doing to creatures in space. Many called for an immediate end to the goal of sending humans into space. Curiosity proved more powerful than concern, and the Soviet Union and United States both proliferated the creatures launched. In August 1960, Sputnik 5 carried two dogs, a gray rabbit, 40 mice, 2 rats, and 15 flasks of fruit flies and plants. The dogs were later bred successfully, and, in 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gifted Caroline Kennedy a puppy able to climb walls and sleep on the ceiling.

January 31, 1961, NASA launched Project Mercury's MR-2 carrying a chimpanzee dubbed "No. 65." The mission was to test the ability to operate a craft in space, and the chimp had been trained at the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center to flip levers to avoid a mild shock and to receive a reward in banana pellets. Despite a seal failure aboard the ship, the chimp arrived back to Earth safely. He was triumphantly renamed "Ham" and became a media darling like Miss Baker before. When Ham greeted his trainer one morning by saying "hello," there was an attempted media blackout. Consistent investigation eventually revealed the truth: Ham had not only developed speech but was also regularly tested to have an IQ of 180.

Moral and ethical questions arose in a frenzy. Religious figures denounced this "evolution" as wicked, while other leaders suggested that Ham be granted full citizenship. Ham began writing routine editorials for several world newspapers as he mastered more and more languages, arguing for environmentalism and investment in technology. During Ham's interview by Walter Cronkite, one of the most-watched events in television history, Cronkite asked Ham what might happen if a human was launched into the cosmic rays of space. Ham replied simply, "Superman."

Unsure of what they might create, both the Soviet Union and United States scrubbed their planned manned missions. Rumors circulated that cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched secretly in April 1961 and vanished from the capsule, which many conspiracy cosmologists believed to be some sort of apotheosis while others imagined Gagarin became so powerful that he destroyed the craft and died falling to Earth. Although there were numerous volunteers for a manned mission, the various space programs of nations worldwide called it the "new H-bomb." A new era of the Cold War began with each side watching the other, threatening to create a superhuman for defense, yet afraid of what it might actually bring.


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In reality, cosmic rays delivering superpowers remains fictional. Fantastic Four #1 did, however, reverse the dire sales of Marvel Comics upon its publication in November, 1961, released several months after both Russian and American men had been launched into space. It ushered in a new era of superheroes facing dramatic woes.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Five Canals















 In 1699, the Company of Scotland stumbled through its first colony in a blind stroke of luck. It had seemed to be a doomed expedition as financiers in Europe continued to pull out of their stock, leaving Scotland alone to support the venture with some 25 to 50% of all capital in the country invested toward its success. Many were suspicious about the plague-infested swamplands the Spanish had avoided for centuries, but the patriotic hope of establishing a foothold in the New World for Scotland.

It may very well have died out if not for a sailor who had started his own business on the side: raising Malaysian jumping spiders for fights over which his comrades could gamble. He had learned the trade of keeping male spiders in matchboxes while in the East Indies, and the small space needed for battle was far more efficient at sea than gambling on chickens or dogs. With little entertainment to be found, the sailor's captain begrudgingly allowed him a box in which he kept nests of females in drawers to breed champions. Upon the arrival in Central America, however, the sailor's spiders escaped and quickly became an invasive species as they feasted on their natural prey, the mosquito. Soon the silky nests of spiders were everywhere as they demolished the local mosquito population.

Surprisingly free of many of the deadly tropical diseases, the Scottish settlement at New Edinburgh flourished over the eighteenth century. Plantations drew in wealth, repaying their lenders at home, and encouraging new projects for the industrious Scots, including a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Thanks to the invention of the steam engine by fellow Scot James Watt, dreams of canal-building became a reality in the nineteenth century with huge earth-movers carving through the mountains and straightening the Rio Membrillo in 1874, just five years after the Suez Canal connected the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean.

It would be the first of a series of canals as other countries rushed to catch up with the lead established by the British. The governments of the United States and Nicaragua joined in 1884 to build across the southern end of the latter country, using the large Lake Nicaragua as a natural midpoint to minimize the amount of land to be dug. Canal-builders from France refused to rest on their laurels of the Suez and contracted with Mexico to dig through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Both were massive undertakings, but readily accomplished with the digging technology of the time.

Two more canals were added in the twentieth century. The huge ships of the modern navies dwarfed the narrow channels of the Darien Canal. An effort between the Allies created a new, larger canal across the middle of Panama, using a colossal system of locks to raise ships 85 feet upward to an artificial lake. As the Cold War grew and leftist movements overthrew several Latin American countries, a Soviet-led mission carved its own canal extending southward from the Gulf of Urbana.

With so much international attention as the crossroads of world travel, Central America remains to this day a key sector of global wealth and industry.


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Source for image and canal information:  Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Dept. of Global Studies & Geography , Hofstra University, New York.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Guest Post from Chris Oakley: "Is Moscow Burning?" Pt 6

Summary: In the first five parts of this series, we reviewed the course of Allied and Axis rocket development in the Second World War from the first Nazi V-weapons attacks on Moscow in 1941 to the use of ground-to-ground and air-to- air rockets in the great Allied campaigns of 1944. In this final chapter of the series, we’ll look back at how rocket attacks hastened the ultimate collapse of the Third Reich. Check out Part 1 on Changing the Times


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By the time the first Anglo-American advance troops marched into Paris in August of 1944, only the most diehard Nazi fanatics still held out any hope of a German victory on the Western Front. Not only was the Third Reich hopelessly behind the Allies in both quantity and quality of military technology, but Allied rocket strikes were wiping out an ever-growing portion of the German transportation network in Western Europe. This meant neither supplies nor manpower could reach the German lines in time to make any significant difference in the course of the campaign to liberate France, Belgium, and the Low Countries.


The situation was even more dire for Germany on the Eastern Front; Soviet rocket crews were raining destruction on the beleaguered German armies with such lethal frequency and precision that it seemed like the Wehrmacht might be wiped out to the last man before the first snows of winter fell. To add insult to injury, German cities in the East were in range of Soviet long-distance rockets for the first time, and Stalin had given the go-ahead for the Red Army to subject them to the same type of vicious bombardment German V-1 and V-2 units had previously unleashed on Soviet cities and towns.


While it would take until January of 1945 for Red Army rocket crews to get within striking distance of Berlin, the Red Air Force was carrying out rocket attacks on the German capital as early as November of 1944. In pre-dawn raids launched from bases in eastern Poland, Soviet Il-2 bombers struck often and hard at Berlin’s infrastructure, helping to turn much of the once-elegant city into a hellish wasteland as they fired rocket after rocket into roads, bridges, and tram stations. Berlin’s famed Tiergarten zoo was one of the most notable casualties of these attacks, having been pounded into rubble during an Il-2 attack in early December; it’s thought that 90 percent of the zoo’s animals died in the raid.


Joseph Goebbels’ first response to the Red Air Force rocket strikes on Berlin was to turn them into fodder for his propaganda machine. Though it was crystal clear to any impartial observer that Germany had lost the war, Goebbels continued to exhort his radio listeners to keep fighting the Red Army at all costs. He gave no thought to the thousands of civilians in the German capital who’d been killed or injured by the rocket bombings, or the tens of thousands of refugees trying desperately to reach safety in the west before the next wave of rockets exploded in Berlin’s streets. He only cared about enforcing political conformity and maintaining the total obedience to Hitler that had been the hallmark of Nazi ideology since the F├╝hrer first rose to power in 1933. Not even the destruction of the city’s largest hospital by Soviet rockets in mid-February of 1945 could persuade Goebbels or Hitler to change their suicidal course. Indeed, Goebbels went so far as to threaten to shoot anyone in his ministry who gave the vaguest hint of supporting a negotiated peace with the Allies.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Guest Post: Dutch-Japanese War of 1905 by Allen McDonnell

This post first appeared on Today in Alternate History.

The Japanese being a proud people with an industrialized country had always resented being considered second-class powers by the various European nations. They shared this insulting loss of face in common with the new country of the United States of North America for a few decades, but after the Spanish-American war of 1898-1899, there was a decided shift in the level of respect Europeans gave to their North American rivals on the world political stage.
In back rooms, the Japanese leaders discussed the issue endlessly. In 1904, when relations with Russia became strained over the issue of the Korean Peninsula, there were several prominent Japanese who advocated going to war with Russia. This would prove Japan was equal to the European Powers in its industrial war-making capacity. However, in late 1904, Czar Nicholas II defused tensions when he ordered his negotiator to accept the Japanese terms and ensure that Port Arthur would remain the excellent Pacific Navy port it had become without risking open war so far from the power-centers of the Russian Empire.

Despite the resolution of the "Korean Question," the idea that a war with a European Power would make Japan a recognized equal among the industrial nations of the world took firm hold in the Japanese circles of power, both in the Imperial Palace and the military leadership. That being the case, it is relatively easy for a Japanese ship to demand access to a Dutch port of call in Batavia, Java. The next day, while many of the crew are exploring the city on shore leave, the ship mysteriously explodes, reminiscent of the loss of the USS Maine in Havana, Cuba, a few years earlier. Japan immediately demands that the Netherlands either turn over one of their heavy cruisers or pay for the replacement cost of the lost Japanese naval ship. When the Dutch refuse, war is declared.

The war is actually nearly a year long as the Japanese Army and Marines land and take control of Java and Sumatra, then expand to Borneo, Sulawesi and the Molucca islands, hitherto all under direct large-scale Dutch imperial control. From there, they spread out to take over all the independent islands in the Indonesian islands. They are very careful not to stray from Dutch Borneo into British Borneo on that island, also respecting Portuguese Timor and both the British and German claims in East Papua New Guinea island but taking the western half for themselves.

The loss of the spice trade from Indonesia is a serious financial and status blow to the Netherlands when they finally are forced to concede the losses to Japan in the Treaty of Washington, signed in 1906. The attempts by the Dutch to form alliances with the UK, Portugal, and Germany to retake their empire were forestalled by the scrupulous adherence to the agreed-upon territorial limits between Holland and those powers being observed by the Japanese.

Unlike the Dutch, who were very far away from the East Indies and never a large population, the Japanese have a great deal of manpower and are within easy sailing distance. The fact that oil had been discovered in Dutch Sumatra in 1885, coupled with the fact that the Japanese wish to convert their navy to oil-fired boilers in place of the smokier coal-fired boilers many of their ships still use, sets off a major colonization and oil development program by Japan in 1907. Unlike the Dutch, who were never willing to emigrate in large numbers to the tropical East Indies, the Japanese are able to send workers and colonists as quickly as housing can be constructed and rice paddies built out of the wild forests of Sumatra. Additional resources in Java are less influenced by colonization because the island already has a large population, but the development of Borneo is even more extensive than that of Sumatra as the native population is even less technologically equipped than the Sumatrans and resistance to the colonization movement is easily squelched by the Japanese military presence on every island large enough to support a Japanese colonist settlement.

Drawing on their population of over 40 million Japanese, the government encourages hundreds of thousands of their citizens to relocate each year and expand their families when they do so. In addition to the mineral and spice-rich territories so desired by the Dutch settlers before the Japanese takeover the lower population islands are especially sought after by the Japanese as easily dominated colonial areas where Japanese culture easily suppresses the low population natives. Of the islands in the East Indies partly or fully under Japanese control by 1907 three, New Guinea, Borneo and Sumatra, are each substantially larger than the main Japanese home island of Honshu. Sumatra alone is nearly twice the size of Honshu, and, while Japan only controls half of New Guinea and two thirds of Borneo, the islands are so large that the territories are each more than twice the size of Honshu in area. Learning to raise their traditional rice in the tropical wet and dry climate of Indonesia is not an issue. The preexisting population already knows what techniques to use to successfully grow rice as well as a large number of other crops as well as the oil palms and various spices they had been growing for export purposes.

The East Indies all together have a population rivaling that of the four Japanese Home Islands in 1900, but the population density is a fraction of what the Japanese are used too. Being able to spread out into low density tropical jungle and develop large farms the Japanese undergo a classical baby boom in their population. The Japanese government's official policy is a version that used when they annexed the island of Hokkaido and its native Ainu population. The only language permitted to be used in Japanese islands is Japanese; the only culture allowed to exist is Japanese culture. All written records in other languages must be translated and the original documents in other languages archived or destroyed. The intention is that Japan will have a homogenous culture in every bit of territory under its jurisdiction where everyone will worship the Emperor and only those long established religions of Japan will be accepted.

The practice of discouraging Islam while encouraging Shinto, and to a lessor extent Buddhism, causes some lashing out by the Muslim population of Java where that faith is centered. For many of the others there is the Dutch Reformed Christian Church and dozens, perhaps even hundreds of small native religions that exist in the small isolated villages scattered among the hundreds of small islands of the East Indies. Shinto easily displaces the earlier native practices on the small islands, the Japanese colonial administration sets forth on a policy to colonize every island with at least 1,000 Japanese. Many of the small islands have well under that number of native inhabitants, and in quite a few cases the natives are forced to migrate to Java, the most densely settled of the islands.

Because of its relatively high population density and the predominance of the Muslim and Christian faiths on the island, Java is unofficially seen as the dumping ground for natives displaced from any of the other islands. While the Japanese have thousands of administrators and military living on Java, because of the difficulty in assimilating it, the decision was made very early to colonize the other islands first.

Everything is operating as a well designed machine by the time World War I breaks out in 1914. Japan seizes the opportunity to declare war on Germany and occupy the northern half of East New Guinea along with the islands of the Bismarck Archipelago, Micronesia, the North Marianas and a long list of other Pacific islands that had been part of the German Empire. Once again, they are scrupulously careful not to cross the border between German northeast Papua New Guinea and the British southeast territory of the same island. They are also careful to seize the German Samoa without straying into the American portion of the islands. The Japanese take the excuse of the war to round up thousands of mixed race and native people from the German territory it now holds and relocate them to Java opening up more 'vacant land' for development by ethnic Japanese.

The territorial acquisitions that come out of the Dutch Japanese war and World War I stretch the Japanese to the limit, and they conclude it will take them at least fifty years to completely homogenize these territories into the Japanese Empire. Having the East Indies oil supply along with the vast mineral resources gained permits them to be fully industrialized without needing imports of scrap iron or oil from the USA. They have no incentive for further expansion. The Japanese are generally a forward-looking people who believe in long term plans that take decades to completely fulfill.


Occasional acts of rebellion by Indonesian natives, especially on Java, lead to severe reprisals. The isolation from western media leaves these acts almost unnoticed on the world stage and the Japanese press have no desire to record these events. Rounding up and relocating natives who refuse to adopt Japanese culture becomes a regular feature of the Japanese Empire, in some cases natives from as far away as the Kurile Islands in the north Pacific make up these "resettled" people forced to relocate to Java. As a result passers-by could hear arguments in a dozen languages on Batavia where the relocated people are dumped to live or die based on their personal abilities. Batavia becomes a much less friendly version of the New York City immigrant mix where people on a street or block speak one language and practice one culture and the people on the next block over can be wildly different in custom. Unlike New York, these immigrants are not volunteers all seeking to live in harmony; they are forced to be here against their will and competing with each other to survive in a cruel world where the only crimes seriously punished are those against the Japanese. On those rare occasions when actual riots break out the Japanese military show no mercy in shooting down the rioters in the streets and leaving the wounded to bleed to death if their fellow Javanese do not help them.

Friday, March 24, 2017

March 25, 1791 – Jefferson Confirms Isaacks’s Purification of Seawater



While touring the United States in 1790, President George Washington was presented with a bottle of desalinated seawater by inventor Jacob Isaacks while in Rhode Island. Isaacks offered two signed certificates of leaders in the local Jewish community noting that the water in the bottle had, in fact, originally been drawn from the briny water of the Atlantic and purified through by Isaacks’s own means.

The Newport Herald pronounced that Washington tasted the water and “was pleased to express himself satisfied.” Isaacks stated that he had a secret mixture that acted as a catalyst, purifying water along with a set of machinery, and the system would be available to the United States government for a price. The method would certainly be a boon to the US Navy as ships needed to put into port often to take on fresh water, though that time could be stretched through grog: water mixed with rum for an alcohol content to slow down the things growing in it.

Washington handed the matter off to his scientifically-minded Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, who was fascinated by the possibilities. Jefferson brought Dr. Isaacks to Philadelphia together with a panel of distinguished scholars, including President of the American Philosophical Society David Rittenhouse and two academic chemists, Dr. Wistar and Dr. Hutchinson. Through four days and a collective twenty hours of experimentation, Jefferson and his fellow scientists determined that Isaacks’s methods did, in fact, make seawater potable. Water collected three miles off the coast of Delaware was mixed with Isaacks’s solution (revealed to be largely hydrofluoric acid, a substance isolated by Swedish chemist and used by glass etchers for decades before). It was then pushed through a filter of bone char by means of a hand pump, producing drinkable and remarkably clear water.

While Isaacks largely came across the discovery by means of alchemy, further chemical research in the nineteenth century proved its chemical path, first from the mixture and then the bone char filter:

HF + NaCl → NaF + HCl
(net decrease in specific energy of ~180 kJ mol−1)

CaCo3 + HCl → H2O + CaCl2
(net decrease in specific energy of ~100 kJ mol−1)

Even though the exact science had not yet been revealed, Isaacks was named a national hero through Jefferson’s recommendation to Congress. Isaacks was presented with the Magellanic Premium from the American Philosophical Society as well as a post in the US Revenue Cutter Service, later moved to the US Navy after it was established permanently in 1794. Crews noted that, once generated, Isaacks water even stayed fresh longer than traditionally-gathered water from land, which proved to be from the calcium chloride by-product, now used as a food additive.

Jefferson, meanwhile, became infatuated with the possibilities of naval expansion. His chief clerk’s father, Henry Remsen, was a New York merchant who painted grand pictures of what American ships could do at sea. Jefferson encouraged the Senate to implement ideas as the Navy grew during his time as vice president, and as president, he used the Barbary Wars as reason to swell the navy’s ranks. In 1804, along with the overland Corps of Discovery Exploration led by Lewis and Clark, Jefferson launched the USS Discovery, which was to explore the Pacific, ideally to make contact with Lewis and Clark on the far side of an expected Northwest Passage. While the Discovery only found increasingly impassable icy waters, it also strengthened America’s claims to the western shores of North America, which would lead to squabbles with the British in later generations until the western border of Canada was ultimately drawn at the Continental Divide until 54°40’ N latitude.

Isaacks’s technique was a closely guarded secret for many years until its ultimate re-creation by Britain as part of efforts to keep ships at sea against Napoleon. Under Jefferson’s guidance, President James Madison kept the US from being mixed up in a costly European war. Instead, Madison continued pushing expeditions in the Pacific to find what Jefferson called “unpeopled lands” to civilize. Meanwhile, the government-endorsed sealers, largely New Englanders, pressed farther south than Captain Cook’s discoveries of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, revealing a long peninsula leading to the ice-covered continent of Antarctica.

Although claimed by America, the continent proved difficult to colonize. The few whaling ports that were established to harvest the plentiful animal populations were seasonal and largely deserted after overhunting nearly wiped out several species of seals and penguins. Gradually over the nineteenth century, improvements in artificial lighting and insulated construction made greenhouses possible. It would not be until the Buckminster Fuller domes of the 1960s that Antarctica gained a permanent population.


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In reality, Isaack’s mixture, whatever it actually was, did not work. Jefferson presented an official report that November, Exhibit 6 in Vol. 3 of the Annals of Congress, that it was the machines used to do a distillation process, which had already been experimented for over a century and put into use aboard ships for decades. While costly, heat-driven distilling is proven as the most efficient method for making seawater potable.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

February 22, 1917 – One Parliament to Rule Entire British Empire



After years of efforts by societies like the Imperial Federation League, the war-pressed government in London announced that a single Imperial Parliament would be formed.

It was no new idea; the IFL had been founded in 1884 and had supporters not only in large dominions like Canada and Australia but even to colonies like Barbados and British Guiana. Some supported the move out of racism, hoping to keep whites in charge of far-flung colonies with increasing nationalistic zeal among natives. Other more liberal-minded thinkers held that it would be a tremendous move toward inclusion of all races in government, noting the successes of Dadabhai Naoroji and Mancherjee Bhownagree in Britain’s own House of Commons.

An imperial parliament may have been supported by many, but proposals for a similar political council had been defeated already in 1897 and in 1902. Movers at home feared more influence by dominions over foreign policy and defense, and many suspected free trade would be abandoned for preference to the empire (which it soon was). These worries were overcome by political motivation stemmed from the bold contributions of the dominions to the World War, which needed repayment lest the empire face further division in generations to come.

The day following Britain’s announcement, the front page of the New York Tribune, along with those of just about every newspaper in the world, touted the joining of nations. A grand conference soon was held in London to address major questions of how the new Imperial Parliament would be composed. In the reorganization, self-ruling dominions would be expanded, such as the joining of Australia and New Zealand as well as Canada and Newfoundland. Further, planned land seizures following German defeat would add German West Africa to the Union of South Africa and German New Guinea to the already larger Australia.

Proportional representation proved to be an item automatically rejected. The Tribune reported, “Both wealth and population would be determining factors among the English-speaking dominions and of South Africa, but in the instance of India, both her wealth and population would give her a predominant voice in the imperial councils if she were admitted to them on the same basis.” While India would receive more self-governance, something much-demanded for decades since its annexation of millions into the empire, it was considered a “military empire, composed entirely of alien races with the merest smattering of English-speaking people among them.”

An economic surge in the 1920s seemed to show that the unity was good, even granting Ireland limited home-rule as its own dominion within the empire. By the 1930s, however, the empire struggled with poor economic growth. The former colonies had the worst fare with industrial production cut nearly in half, but renewed investments from London eased the burden and restarted development. Although the empire largely came back onto its feet by 1940, the troubles in India sparked a loud demand for equal representation. Mohandas Gandhi, who had led many campaigns within India, reached out across the empire with a question:  was India to be a fair partner in the empire or should it seek independence?

Ultimately, narrowly avoiding what could have become civil war within the empire, the demand for proportional representation resulted in an Imperial House of Commons. This prompted enormous conservative backlash in Britain out of fear that the whole island might be made to eat curry, but the Imperial Parliament’s powers were clearly defined to defend local rights. Using the huge voting bloc of people of color throughout the empire, massive reforms were instituted worldwide. Improvements in health, education, and infrastructure greatly furthered the empire’s collective wealth through the twentieth century. Still, many Britons feel that they have come under the weight of their own former colonies and call for Britain itself to exit the empire it built.


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In reality, the New York Tribune announced that a conference would be held in London to discuss the possibilities of an imperial parliament. Ultimately the tide of interest in unification was doused as World War I emboldened a sense of nationalism in individual dominions, arguably setting the course for the end of the empire after World War II, although the Commonwealth retains economic ties.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Guest Post by Allen W. McDonnell - Yaghan Antarctica

Between January 1 and January 6, 1820, the Imperial Russian Naval expedition raided several small Yaghan settlement on the coast of Tierra Del Fuego where they observed fires on shore. The raids collectively captured seven women and six men of the Yaghan tribes who were almost entirely unknown to Europeans and who had never had contact with them before. Fabian von Bellingshausen, commander of the exploration expedition, hoped that the captives would be able to learn rudimentary Russian and help map the region be acting as intermediaries with other natives. For three weeks, the expedition sailed as close to due south as they could tacking back and forth through the rapid winds that blew steadily out of the west.
Early on the 27th of January, the expedition spotted an icy land mass and the commander chose to continue south along its coast, anchoring off shore at dusk. Some time in the short period of twilight darkness that prevailed very early on the 28th, one of the Yaghan managed to free his fellow tribe members, and they all slipped overboard and swam ashore through the bone chillingly cold waters unseen.

When the escape was discovered at breakfast time, the commander considered sending the long boat to search the shore for bodies but due to the very harsh cold quickly concluded the foolish natives had died of exposure. Believing he had satisfied his Imperial objective of proving there was nothing worth having in the far south the two ships circumnavigated the Antarctic ice fields before they returned north. Once again raiding a Yaghan village in Tierra del Fuego so that he would have captives for the Czar of the Russian Empire as proof of their diligence, Fabian von Bellingshausen returned to Russia in 1821.

Though he had no idea of the eventual consequences of his actions, the Russian expedition had not resulted in the deaths of 13 Yaghan in the icy waters of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Yaghan peoples were far more sturdy and adapted to the cold weather of the far south than the Russians had presumed in even their wildest imaginings.

The 13 Yaghan tribe members, from four related small villages on the coast of Tierra del Fuego had survived the swim to shore and had quickly built a snow shelter where they had clustered together sharing body heat until they were all recovered from their swim through the icy current.

They had carefully kept watch on the two Russian ships, and it was with great relief that they saw them sail away tracking the ice flows as they went eastward out of sight. As soon as they were gone, the Yaghan set about doing what they had to for survival. Fortunately for the Yaghan, they quickly discovered that Weddell seals have no instinctive fear of humans allowing them to be easily killed. Seal meat and blubber are high energy food, the skins become containers, clothing when needed and insulation between warm homes covered in thick insulating layers of snow. Their oily secretions serve as an abundant and useful lamp oil, providing the fires needed to survive the long dark winter months. Because of the lack of other land predatory animals it is a relatively simple matter to butcher a seal into its various useful parts and store them in a frozen state in buried storage skins until they are needed.

Europeans dropped off in Antarctica with nothing but a few stolen knives and a bit of stolen rope would have perished very soon after escaping. The Yaghan were very skilled at survival, and once they discovered how easy the abundant Weddell seals were to hunt, they quickly set to work killing, processing, and storing the various parts of the animals for use during the long cold winter they all knew were just three months from starting. It was not yet Antarctic fall when the Yaghan arrived, but stockpiling supplies for winter was a tradition that permitted their survival in the harsh land of Tierra del Fuego for thousands of years before the Russians had unintentionally transplanted them to the Antarctic Peninsula.

Much like the Aleut peoples of northern Alaska and Canada, the Yaghan culture was designed for survival in the harsh conditions. The people knew how to work together for the common good and there was never any question of shirking when one bad decision could lead to everyone's death.

When Antarctic Spring arrived in September 1820, the 13 Yaghan had not only survived, they had prepared well enough to eat their fill all winter and by spring two of the women were in their sixth month of pregnancy leading to the first humans being born in Antarctica the last week of December 1820.

For the next 80 years, many European expeditions ply the waters near Antarctica searching for good seal hunting grounds but for the most part they find much more profit hunting on the islands further north than the mainland of the continent. The Yaghan tribes keep the tradition alive that the strangers in the large boats are dangerous, best to be avoided if possible or eliminated if necessary. By 1903, the Yaghan number in the thousands living mostly on the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula and along the shore of the Bellingshausen Sea of the mainland. Their diet consists of seals, penguins and the occasional migratory bird plus the occasional whale that washes up on the beach from time to time. There is almost no plant material in their diet outside of whatever is in the stomach content of their prey animals. Because their diets are rich in animal organ meats, they get all of the vitamins and minerals they need to be in excellent health. Like all hunter-gatherer peoples they revere the prey animals they hunt and use every morsel of the carcass for something be it fuel, food, storage or even personal adornment.

Though the Yaghan living in Tierra del Fuego wore little or no clothing, the harsher climate of the Antarctic winters have caused their culture to change to one where a full seal skin winter suit is common, complete with warm mittens and boots. Even so, it is not uncommon for Antarcticans to strip to just a loin covering in summer to get as much of the southern summer sun and the Vitamin D it brings when the weather nears the freezing point.

As the different world powers engage in the 'race to build empires' in the 1800's, Antarctica remains largely ignored while more favorable places are exploited. Then as expeditions attempting to over winter on land in 1902, 1905, and 1912 disappeared mysteriously to the last man during the long dark winter months there, is not much interest in continuing to try. World War I and the Great Depression followed by World War II keep the major powers too busy to spend much effort on Antarctica. There were a series of claims and counter claims by different European and South American countries during the 1920's and 1930's. At one point in 1939, President Roosevelt of the United States intended to send a pair of expeditions to live and work in Antarctica to establish that the USA also had deep interests in the continent but domestic affairs interrupted planning and he never got back around to it before the outbreak of war with Japan in 1941.

Then in late 1945 American navy ships heading to South Africa from New Zealand diverted south to map the Antarctic coast. As part of the expedition naval photography aircraft are sent to film the coast from moderately high altitude to record seals on the beaches during their pup raising time of the year. Much to the shock of the photo lab and their commanding officers some of the pictures clearly show people hunting and butchering seals at different places on the edge of the herd.

At first many accusations of people trying to pull a joke on the officers are made but later sets of photos show even more evidence. Clearly there are people living on Antarctica with a culture based around seal hunting at least in large part. Ill equipped to land anyone to investigate the commanding admiral orders close up photos be taken of the people; however, the low altitude flights inevitably lead to the seals rushing in all different directions making it impossible for the crews to get pictures of any humans up close. All sorts of speculation goes around about Yeti or other types of Snow Men living wild in Antarctica and in 1946 the subject becomes a priority for the newly formed United Nations. Under UN auspices an expedition is sent in September 1946 to try and make contact with the Antarctican natives.

In terms of making friendly contact, the expedition is a total failure. Whenever the 'civilized' group enters any area the natives fade back out of sight and avoid them. In terms of establishing what the Antarcticans are, the expedition is much more successful when they stumble across a native cemetery where they find a dozen bodies perfectly preserved in the ice. The anthropologist and archeologist members of the expedition insist on taking four of the dead with them back to the ship for study, an infant, one pre-adolescent girl, a mature male and an elderly female.

From the scientific point of view, the grave robbing is a total success proving beyond a doubt that the Antarcticans are human. Physical characteristics also show a high likelihood that they are related to the Amerinds who settled the islands of Tierra del Fuego. Anthropologically and archeologically, the way the bodies were treated after death shows a reverence typical of cultures that believe in some form of afterlife for humans.

From the Antarctican point of view, the invasion of their hunting grounds during the peak gathering season when it is necessary to put up a certain quantity of meat to get the tribes through the cold dark winter was a source of anger, and the grave robbing simply made that distaste of the outsiders much stronger.

Additional attempts at contact in 1948 and 1952 were also failures, and the United Nations led by the United States anti-colonial sentiment resolved in 1953 that the various claims to Antarctica by Argentina, Australia, France, Chile, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom are all null and void. Antarctica belongs to the Antarcticans and unless they are willing to negotiate some concessions voluntarily they and their territory are under UN protection.

Finally in 1971, Chile comes up with the idea that, if the Antarcticans are related to the Tierra del Fuego indigenous peoples, then perhaps the survivors of those communities might have more success opening communication. Unfortunately for the last two hundred years, many waves of European disease and outright fighting have swept over the region and the surviving native population is down to just a few hundred remaining individuals. Finally one young man, Carlos Hernandez, is recruited. Having just completed his Bachelors of Science degree, he is fully westernized. To help him make contact, he is outfitted much like the Antarctican hunters caught on film by different high altitude aircraft over the years and practices hunting and self defense with the kinds of weapons the Antarcticans carry. He is also given a two-onth intensive course in Anthropology to help him  understand what are believed to be best practices in making contact.

In September 1971, a naval submarine anchors half a mile off the shore. From that point, Carlos paddles to the beach in a one-man kayak made of a whale bone frame and seal skins towing two more that hold his extra supplies. The submarine submerges to periscope depth with just the snorkel air tube, periscope and radio antenna above the surface.

Carlos beaches his kayaks at the south end of the rocky beach and carries them one-by-one up away from the herd of seals where they will be safe from any stampede. Once everything is secure, he sets up camp very openly, then using the skills he has learned he hunts and kills a young Weddell seal and hauls it back to his camp where he butchers it and processes it semi-skillfully into its useful parts. Soon he has a small fire of seal oil burning and is toasting meat over it on a bone skewer. The only piece of advanced technology in Carlos' camp is the atomic battery powered transistor radio he wears on a cord around his neck. Though not a very powerful transmitter, it is more than strong enough to be received by the antenna on the submarine.

For the first two days, the wary natives stay completely out of sight, but by doing his best to appear to be as much like them as possible, Carlos finally succeeds where all the proud expeditions of the past were dismal failures. On the third day a young Antarctican hunter warily but openly appears at the edge of Carlos camp and waits to be noticed. Carlos carefully approaches the native and greets him with gestures of peace used by his ancestors since before European contact. He then offers the native his own spear, at which point the fellow breaks into a relieved smile and trades spears with him, an ancient peace ritual.

Carlos knows the ancestral Yaghan language spoken by his grandparents but the native accent is quite a bit different because it was not shaped by two hundred years of European influence. Relieved to be understood none the less Carlos invites the native to join his camp and they spend an enjoyable afternoon talking about themselves to one another. Carlos is being constantly tape recorded by the crew of the Submarine Southern Cross who consider this to be some of the easiest though also most boring duty they have ever done, sitting quietly in one spot recording. While alone Carlos has been making Spanish language reports, pretty much just a running commentary of his activities and observations, but now that he has made contact the conversation is in a language none of the sailors can understand at all.

The Antarctican origin story is very much the same as the one Carlos learned from his own grandparents for the Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego and this coupled with the fact that the language is understandable in both directions easily leads to the conclusion that the Antarcticans are closely related to the Tierra del Fuego tribes.

Carlos spends two months living and working with the Antarcticans to hunt and process seals to get the tribe through the cold winter months. At the end of his time with the tribe he gifts them with the meat he has gathered and processed to help them through the winter and promises to return in a later season. Carefully packing up his three Kayaks he paddles out to the location of the Southern Cross which surfaces just far enough to expose the hatch and bring Carlos and his kayaks aboard.

Over the Antarctic winter season Carlos is given more anthropology and diplomatic training and quite a nice paycheck for all that he managed to accomplish. The issue then becomes, now that contact has been established what exactly can the government of Chile gain from the expense of maintaining or expanding the contact? Antarctica has all the same mineral resources of any continent, coal, oil, natural gas, copper, silver, gold... The problem is most of it is buried deep in the ice making the mining of it more trouble than it is worth when there are other easier to access sources outside of Antarctica itself. Nevertheless Carlos is taught some mineralogy and agrees to spend a winter over with the native Antarcticans in hopes that he might discover something worth exploiting.

In his second expedition, Carlos sets up camp once again, this time near an outcrop he had observed the previous year of a hard black material that might be coal. He also brings along a number of modern tools and artifacts, some for his work and some to use as gifts for the natives. One of the items he carries with him the second year is a collapsible asbestos cloth furnace. It packs into a small heavy disc but by pulling it up like a top hat and setting the exterior braces to keep it expanded it makes a workable coal stove. The gamble of hauling the heavy thing along with him pays off when the rock does turn out to be coal, which allows Carlos to have a merry little coal fire going in his shelter safely providing heat from broken coal he gathers along the edge of the seam. It also gives him the ability to heat any other mineral samples he gathers intensely to separate metals from the ores.

To keep up his acceptability in the tribe he must spend much of his time during peak season hunting and processing seals to provide necessities for the cold winter months, but as a vigorous young man he is able to perform both his 'share' of the hunting tasks and gather rock specimens once a week or so when he has gotten ahead of his mental quota. Fortunately, the Weddell seals that make up the bulk of the hunting efforts are very easy to hunt, though not totally without risk.

The gifts of long steel spear tips, which make hunting easier also goes a long way towards making his occasional hours off collecting rock samples acceptable to the Yaghan Antarcticans to the point that one day when he returns from a hunt dragging a carcass he discovers one young woman, Eveny in his camp. Eveny helps process the seal with minimal wasted cuts so that the job is done in much less than half the time it was taking Carlos to process the seals himself even after two seasons of practice. Later that night Eveny climbs into his sleeping pallet with him and makes it clear she is here as more than just a butcher aide. Being a young man and having been lonely for the last two months Carlos doesn't resist her advances in any meaningful way and the arrangement becomes permanent for most purposes.

Carlos only finds coal and a very small deposit of native copper, nothing that would be considered of commercial value. It does provide enough metal for him to present Eveny two copper charms to go along with the carved bone charms on her bracelet and necklace, but the government of Chile concludes there will be nothing of commercial value coming from the Antarcticans except perhaps a few furs traded for manufactured goods. The only other thing the continent is good for is anthropological studies of the natives, like Carlos Hernandez is doing, and ecosystem studies of the birds and sea mammals that gather to breed or live like the petrels and penguins or the seals and walrus. In 1974, the University of Chile makes Carlos their official Doctoral candidate researcher in Antarctica and he makes a decent income by turning his field notes into books for the general public about life amongst the Yaghan of Antarctica and how important it is for the UN to protect their way of life from outside interference. His stories about life with Eveny and their children in the cold and dark winters and blindingly bright summers of Antarctica inspire a generation of cultural conservationists who spend decades trying to preserve isolated peoples from the deluge of modern interference.

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