Friday, December 9, 2016

December 10, 1815 - Birth of Computing Pioneer Ada Lovelace

Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, was born the only legitimate child of famed poet Lord Byron and Anne Milbanke, 11th Baroness Wentworth. Just one month after Ada’s birth, her father departed to pursue his romantic dreams and adventures, never to visit England again. Ada’s mother never forgave Lord Byron’s abandonment and interpreted his poetic nature as insanity. To ensure that the madness did not pass along to their daughter, Ada was discouraged from poetry and encouraged to take up study of mathematics, logic, and science, fields that would make her famous.

Ada was sickly as a child with periodic headaches and a case of the measles so bad that she was temporarily paralyzed when she was fourteen years old. Through these illnesses, she pursued her studies, taking up a special interest in flight at age twelve. Her efforts in material analysis, bird anatomy, and forecasting navigation by compass were compiled and illustrated in her book Flyology. Although her theoretical study would not lead to practical results, she predicted the use of powered flight, suggesting steam at the time.

At seventeen, Ada was presented at the British Court, where she found a wide circle of interest. Through her years, she would be well acquainted with electrical scientist Michael Faraday; David Brewster, discoverer of the photoelastic effect; and Charles Wheatstone, inventor of the stethoscope. Although her passions were for science, Ada did inherit her father’s adventurous nature in relationships, at one point running away with the intention to marry her tutor. She did marry William, 8th Baron King, who was made Earl of Lovelace in 1838, although Ada was infamous for her relaxed behavior in her friendships with other men.

Through her good friend and former tutor Mary Somerville, Ada Lovelace was introduced to mathematician Charles Babbage in 1833, who had by then abandoned his designs for his Difference Engine due to contractual issues with the builder. He had turned to new designs for an improved Analytical Engine, which piqued Lovelace’s curious mind. They remained in contact, often walking and discussing mathematics, and a decade later, Lovelace translated articles from Babbage’s Italian disciples to which she added notes that described the machine being able to carry out an algorithm rather than simply calculating mathematical tables as Babbage originally intended. In fact, she speculated that the computing device would be able to act “upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations... [for example] pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition.”

In 1852, Ada Lovelace fell ill with uterine cancer. After a tremendous fight with her protective mother, Lovelace determined to abandon the doctors who had presented her with a death sentence to be postponed only by bloodletting and instead began investigating doctors for her own medical team. Dr. Charles Clay of Manchester had been successfully performing ovariotomies since 1842, although his abdominal hysterectomy procedure had no long-term survivors. Lovelace determined that statistically the survival rate was no worse than other surgeries and turned to ideals of cleanliness promoting antiseptic procedures. The life-saving hysterectomy was completed by gynecologist Dr. Thomas Keith of Edinburgh, granting Lovelace another three decades of contributions to science.

Using her courtly connections, Lovelace caught the interest of Prince Albert with tales of what an analytical machine might do for British industries such as textiles. Funding for Babbage’s engine materialized, and the first general-purpose mechanical computer was built in 1867. Already the engine was found to have a multitude of applications, famously looking to replace the hand-calculated manuals of the Royal artillery. Lovelace’s oldest son, Byron King-Noel, who had become an officer in the navy, noted its usefulness as an accountant and quartermaster. Dedicating himself to streamlining the navy, Byron led a long life and served as Britain’s longest sitting First Lord of the Admiralty.

During the construction of the Analytical Engine, Lovelace received a letter from the committee planning to create a place of higher education for women at Cambridge. Joining forces with Emily Davies, Barbara Bodichon, and Lady Stanley of Alderley, the committee founded the College for Women at Benslow House, later called Girton College. Through Lovelace’s influence, the college is renowned to this day for its students of mathematics and computer science.

Ada Lovelace died in 1885 after a short illness. Detached from her husband over what many whispered was a sandal, she had spent much of her later years visiting with her younger children, seeking to see adventure after her protective mother passed. Lovelace accompanied her middle child, Anne, along with her husband, Wilfrid Blunt, on a journey through the Middle East, collecting purebred Arabian horses. Lovelace’s youngest, Ralph, was very private, yet seemingly an adventurer like his grandfather as his climbing exploits in the Alps earned him a peak with his own name.

Ralph’s wide interest in literature and engineering made him something of an heir to his mother’s programming. He applied computing to agriculture, manufacturing, commerce, and even linguistics in attempts of making an automatic translation device. Lovelace often served as consultant, with Ralph following up on her suggestions, such as using electricity to drive new iterations of Analytical Engines. Famously, the two bickered over the concept of artificial intelligence, with Lovelace often repeating, “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything… It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths.” Two generations later, she would at last be proven wrong by Alan Turing’s famed Delilah machine.


In reality, Ada Lovelace died from uterine cancer in 1852. Abdominal hysterectomies would not be successful until the year after Lovelace’s death, first performed by Ellis Burnham of Massachusetts. Lovelace was only thirty-six years old, the same age as her father. Per her request, she was buried at his side in Nottinghamshire.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

November 24, 1621 – Wampanoags Drive Pilgrims into the Sea

Hearing gunfire, some 90 Native American warriors from the Wampanoag tribe followed their chief Massasoit to investigate the happenings at the settlement established one year before by white-skinned separatist Pilgrims from England.

On a star-crossed journey funded by the Company of Merchant Adventurers, the Pilgrims left port and overcrowded on the leaky Mayflower. After more than two months at sea, they arrived in North America as winter was setting in. The would-be colonists stayed aboard the ship for weeks, sending out small expeditions for food until at last locating a suitable site chosen for its defensibility and readiness as it had recently been abandoned by Native Americans with land cleared for cultivation. It was not enough to stave off malnutrition and disease, which ravaged the passengers.

By next spring, the Pilgrim population had been cut in half, yet they were determined to establish a new home. Providence seemed to smile upon them when, on March 16, a Native American named Samoset walked into the middle of the colony and declared in English, “Welcome, Englishmen!” He had picked up a fair bit of their language from trappers and told them that the village they now lived in had before been wiped out from smallpox. It was within the realm led by Wampanoag chief Massasoit. Two years before, Massasoit had slaughtered English explorers who trespassed and rescued Tisquantum, who had been kidnapped and taken to Europe as a slave for five years.

The Pilgrims called the former slave “Squanto,” and he seemed to adopt the troubled settlers, training them in effective agricultural methods for the frigid Northeast. With the successful corn crop that fall, the Pilgrims decided to hold a traditional harvest festival. Four men were sent fowling, collecting a week’s worth of game for a feast. The other 49 surviving Pilgrims readied a Thanksgiving.

As the surviving account of Edward Winslow reads, “At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, and many of the Indians [came] amongst us…” Setting off gunfire for pleasure along with hoots and singing brought Massasoit and his Native American warriors to investigate. When a stray shot struck one of the warriors, Massasoit interpreted it as a declaration of war. Only a handful of Pilgrims managed to survive the battle, fleeing into the woods and hiding along the coast until the Fortune arrived from England.

The Fortune brought 37 more settlers although few supplies as they expected to find a thriving community. Instead, they were met by bedraggled Pilgrims who saw no choice but to return to England, despite the Merchant Adventurers already accusing them of defaulting on the colony’s loan. The humiliated Pilgrims told ever-increasingly terrifying tales of the dangers of settling in “land God has truly forsaken.”

Although future English settlers avoided the area, there was still a strong drive for colonization to the south around the successful Jamestown and in sparser fur-trapping communities to the northwest. Other nations founded more successful colonies toward the cursed land, including New Sweden and New Netherlands. The Dutch conquered New Sweden in 1655, expanding their holdings south as well as at last pushing northward to dominate lands the Pilgrims had fled. The northern settlements were able to lend support during a blockade of New Amsterdam by English warships, driving the English away when their supplies ran low. Upon the Glorious Revolution of 1688, tensions in North America declined between growing Virginia and New Amsterdam until over-harvesting of furs prompted competition and several small wars along the borders. Finally in the Napoleonic Wars, Britain conquered New Amsterdam and absorbed it into complete holdings over North America north of Mexico. The dominion would last until broken up revolutions in the nineteenth century.


In reality, the first Thanksgiving was a peaceful affair. Likely earlier in the year than November due to its northerly climate, the harvest festival was a continuation of traditions from the old country. Winslow wrote that “for three days we entertained and feasted,” sharing food including five deer brought by the Native Americans. The success of the Pilgrims would bring many more settlers to the prosperous area, which would become known as New England.

Monday, October 31, 2016

October 31, 1908 - Olympics Conclude with Spiritualist Competition

Having lasted over six months since April, the third modern Olympic Games would be the longest ever held. It was packed with memorable moments, such as British runner Wyndham Halswelle winning a walkover gold in the re-run 400 meter race, his three American competitors refusing to participate since the call for re-running was based on unclear rules. In other debated events, the first runner to complete the marathon, Italian Dorando Pietri, was disqualified since he entered the stadium in a daze and ran the last leg backwards. No one questioned the success of Swede Oscar Swahn, who at 60 years old won gold in shooting and would become the oldest gold medalist ever at 64 in the 1912 Olympics. He returned for the 1920 Olympics at age 72 to set another record as the oldest athlete ever to compete in the games.

A young medium displays how high she can be levitated.
Other notable activities at the games included exhibitions of sports such as dueling and figure skating. None, however, would be as memorable as the display of spiritualism in which competitors worked with trained teams of spirits to give the most incredible demonstration of ghostly activity.

While contact with the dead occurs in ancient writings and oral traditions to time immemorial, modern spiritualism evolved out of the religious reform taking place in the United States during the 1840s. Disappointed in the establishment for its lack of voice against slavery, freethinkers went as far as calling for women’s rights and humane care for sufferers of mental illness. Out of this movement, young Kate and Margaret Fox of Hydesville, New York, reported that they had been able to communicate with a spirit. Their fame grew but was soon eclipsed by Cora Scott, who began lecture circuits while the Fox Sisters had primarily held séances to a select few guests. Many other mediums began appearing on the popular stage throughout the nation and abroad, especially before the famous Ghost Club of London, directed at scientific investigations of ghostly phenomena.

For a generation, the western world was divided on the issue of contact with spirits. Many religious figures held it as witchcraft, spurring backlash that fed into several riots in major cities and the countryside. Skeptics spotted numerous frauds, but the 1887 Seybert Commission determined to the best of its judgment that about half their cases of rapping, spirit photography, and objects moved by unseen hands were genuine. Over time, it became a standard affair to contact a love one who had passed or attend a display of spiritualist feats as one might a circus. Famed magician Harry Houdini made a second career as an investigator for the FBI, discerning true mediums from those who were illusionists practicing tricks.

The spiritualism exhibition in 1908 featured several categories in which mediums competed. Mediums were judged on how high they could be levitated into the air, how loudly a prompted spirit could knock, and by the amount of ectoplasm produced by weight. Many brought their preferred spirits along with them, while others hoped to do their best with whoever might be wandering around the other side at the time.

Although such exhibitions would not be included in future Olympics, contact with the spirit world continued to be an important aspect of the twentieth century, especially following the large numbers of dead in the First World War. Most of the Olympic committee’s attention toward ghosts was in the search for frauds, such as the case in 1928 when Oscar Swahn returned, one year after his death, for another silver medal in shooting by possessing a younger athlete.


In reality, the Fox Sisters stated that their activities were a prank, with their infamous “rappings” actually being the popping of toe joints. Every case reviewed by the Seybert Commission was found to be a hoax.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

October 25, 1931 - Edison’s ‘Spirit Phone’ First Demonstrated

One week after his own death, Thomas Edison proved himself once more to be an incredible inventor. Using a device he had worked on in secret for a decade, his assistants were able to contact Edison beyond the grave. An astounded crowd of press and socialites heard the first public words sent via Spirit Phone, fittingly those of its own creator, “It is very beautiful over here!”

Edison had managed a legendary career as an inventor and businessman. After being fired from his telegraph job for an electric battery experiment gone awry that destroyed his boss’s desk, Edison pursued his passions in creating new devices, including the quadraplex telegraph (1874), a phonograph (1877), an incandescent lightbulb (1879). Through the years, Edison would collect over one thousand patents, many focusing on improving technology and creating a new way of life for millions of people around the globe.

Toward the end of his own life, Edison became more philosophical. He wrote a commentary entitled “Spiritualism,” analyzing facets of the paranormal movement that had once more seized the public interest. While skeptics like Harry Houdini worked to disprove frauds, Edison stated that he did believe that “our personality hereafter will be able to affect matter.” Echoing the laws of conservation of matter and energy, Edison held that “life is undestructable.” He described a constant amount of “life units” on the planet, which would be broken apart upon death and reshuffled as “swarms” that made up aspects of every plant, animal, thought, and memory in the world.

Although Edison’s perceived seat of human personality in the Broca’s Area of the brain proved to be questionable, the Spirit Phone did show that souls lived on. Those who had recently passed away were contacted easily enough for final farewells. Those who had died long ago, however, seemed to have already been shuffled into absence. Teams of curious historians brought the Spirit Phone to reportedly haunted castles and churches, competing to find the oldest entity still able to communicate. Firsthand accounts from events centuries before soon became readily available.

The Spirit Phone proved instrumental to police, who were able to solve numerous murders simply by dialing up the victim for a statement. Soon each major police station had its own Spirit Phone and trained operator to summon potential witnesses. Prosecutors had more difficulty gaining convictions in court as recordings were often questioned or thrown out altogether. Further court matters arose when spirits sought to amend their wills and yet were legally dead, thus not having property rights.

Religious figures denounced the Spirit Phone despite its success in having past relatives use passwords or citing memories no one else could know about. Counterarguments suggested that the phone was being tampered with by demonic forces. Others held the phone as an ever more elaborate hoax. Edison himself had been called an atheist for years, although he routinely described his beliefs in the Supreme Intelligence.

In 1933, the newly deceased Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet gave a limited address via Spirit Phone to discourage its use. He stated that the device prompted entities to remain tied to the mortal realm rather than passing on to become one with eternity, which would tip the delicate balance of life and death. Following the development of ghost-driven machines due to the need for manpower in World War II, many living people began to agree with him, although few would readily give up the Spirit Phone outright.


In reality, the invention is largely said to be myth, especially by the Edison Estate, who claim to have not seen any evidence of designs or prototypes in any of Edison’s work despite an interview in the October 1920 issue of Forbes magazine that he was working on such a device. Edison himself told the New York Times in 1926, “I really had nothing to tell him, but I hated to disappoint him, so I thought up this story about communicating with spirits, but it was all a joke.” Through the years, many other electronic devices often nicknamed “ghost boxes” have claimed to be able to communicate with the spirit realm. Skeptics remain unconvinced while believers feel that the human spirit can indeed affect electromagnetic fields and thus speak from beyond the grave.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Guest Post: Benedict Arnold Rescues John Andre

On October 2, 1780, British Army officer Major John André was due to be hanged as a spy at Tappan, New York. In the morning, André was marched to the gallows. An executioner called Strickland had been hired by the patriots to secure the rope to the tree. But Benedict Arnold had gotten to Strickland and bribed him an enormous amount of money to have the rope slip. As the drummer ended, André was given his final words, and the thirty-year-old gave a short oration summed up, "As I suffer in the defence of my Country, I must consider this hour as the most glorious of my life - Remember that I die as becomes a British Officer, while the manner of my death must reflect disgrace on your Commander...I am reconciled to my death, but I detest the mode... I pray you to bear me witness that I meet my fate like a brave man."

The trap was pulled, and André fell. Carefully filed by Strickland, the rope snapped. Before the guard could react, a group of loyalists let off a rifle barrage, gathering the crowd's attention. Arnold dove through the chaos and whisked away both Strickland and the stunned André, who would come out of the affair with a scar from the rope-burn around his throat. New York City would continue in an uproar for several days while André was hidden and finally sneaked out in the disguise of a milkmaid.

The rebel commander, George Washington, was reportedly so despondent at the news of Arnold's treachery that his officers had to wrestle a pistol away from him lest he kill himself. On the basis of romantic letters, he had foolishly believed that the plans to West Point had been passed to André by Arnold's loyalist wife Peggy Shippe who had been having an affair with the handsome young spy. Meanwhile, Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in New York had done all that he could to save André, his favourite aide, but refused to surrender Arnold in exchange for André even though he personally despised Arnold. Fortunately this web of dis-loyalties was untangled by André himself. He put a bullet into the turncoat's head just a few miles from Tappan, executing him with the harsh words "Leave me till you can show yourself more manly!"

Author's Note: in reality Strickland had been confined at the camp in Tappan as a dangerous Tory during Andrés trial and was granted liberty for accepting the duty of hangman and returned to his home in the Ramapo Valley or Smith's Clove, and nothing further of him is known. 1) he actually said this words to his own servant who entered the room in tears on the morning of his execution.

This article was originally posted on Today in Alternate History.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Born September 17, 1857 - Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, First Rocketeer

Although growing up in rural Russian Empire and suffering partial deafness due to scarlet fever at age ten, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky would become one of the most internationally known figures of engineering as father of aerodynamics and rocketry. His handicap kept him out of traditional classrooms, so young Tsiolkovksy taught himself through reading and solving mathematics. As a teenager, he moved to Moscow to read in the great library. There he read the science fiction works of Frenchman Jules Verne such as From the Earth to the Moon that would fascinate him with space travel for a lifetime.

Tsiolkovsky returned to the countryside at 19, marrying and earning his teaching certificate, continuing his research as a hobby outside of class. In 1881, he published his “Theory of Gases,” which correctly deduced principal laws of matter that, unbeknownst to Tsiolkovsky, had already been determined decades before. Tsiolkovsky finally earned a position with the Russian Physcio-Chemical Society discussing “The Mechanics of the Animal Organism.” Then he turned his attention to the problem of flight.

The bulk of Tsiolkovsky’s work focused on metal-clad airships, which were much sturdier than blimps but suffered from their great weight. Working in his free time with his own means, Tsiolkovsky designed his own craft and tested his models in Russia’s first experimentally-accessible wind tunnel, which he himself constructed. Although he soon began to turn his attention to rigid, heavier-than-air aircraft, it was his wind tunnel that caught the attention of German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.

By 1900, Zeppelin found acclaim with the successful launch of the LZ1 zeppelin, but his success also brought his company into the midst of legal allegations of patent infringement. Reviewing the countless scientific journals and intellectual property documents, Zeppelin came across Tsiolkovsky’s old works and immediately sought him out as a consultant for streamlining his vessels. After much convincing and signed documents of financial support, Tsiolkovsky moved to Germany and began his research on an industrial scale.

Through the years, Zeppelin would often complain that Tsiolkovsky went “off topic” in his research, which was intended to be improvements for the colossal lighter-than-air behemoths. However, Tsiolkovsky showed again and again that the ungainliness and drag of the huge craft would hold them back while airplanes continued to surge forward. The two modes of thought were gradually brought together in Tsiolkovsky’s designs of an aerodynamically faired, fast-moving hybrid craft, which crossed the Atlantic in a fraction of the time an ocean liner could. Both Tsiolkovsky and Zeppelin greatly agreed on the importance of airboats, although their development of hovercraft would be eclipsed by the conquest of the skies.

Tsiolkovsky’s 1914 display of model craft at the Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne was met with international nods until the fair was closed early due to the declaration of World War I. Although disappointed, Tsiolkovsky soon had his attention diverted again when the German military showed interest in rocketry, yet another of Tsiolkovsky’s background hobbies. By the time of the Battle of Verdun in 1916, rockets were being launched from artillery sites well behind the German lines into the streets of Paris. Although ecstatic about the triumphs in range and height, Tsiolkovsky showed visible depression at the news of destruction wrought by his rockets.

Upon the death of Ferdinand von Zeppelin in 1917, Tsiolkovsky turned in his resignation and moved to America for an extended visit to his longtime pen pal, Robert Goddard. Goddard carried out his own rocket work in the New Mexico desert with a Smithsonian grant and sponsorship from the Army Signal Corps, but Tsiolkovsky pushed him to seek industrial applications. Goddard was suspicious about losing control of his work, but Tsiolkovsky’s encouragement and imagination for applied science proved to be beneficial as money thinned out with the closing of World War I.

While Germany was banned from rocket production with the Treaty of Versailles, the 1920s became the Rocket Age for the United States. Rocket-mail became a method for rapid delivery of post, outpacing even propeller airplanes that handled more delicate packages. Tsiolkovsky began blending his ideas to create manned rocketcraft that used gas turbine engines. Most notable, of course, was his aspiration for human spaceflight, which led to Charles Lindberg’s famous jaunt beyond the atmosphere in 1927.

Tsiolkovsky died in 1935 after an emergency surgery for stomach cancer after spending his final years working on anti-missile missiles. Although these designs were never successfully tested in his lifetime, his search-and-destroy methods of navigation laid groundwork for modern computing. Tsiolkovsky feared rocket-mail delivered across the Atlantic could easily be turned to intercontinental ballistics, a fear realized as World War II erupted.


In reality, Tsiolkovsky was largely unknown outside of the Soviet Union, where he was awarded scientific recognition late in life. During his lifetime, he was considered a weird loner, but his work inspired generations of rocket scientists like Wernher von Braun and the many serving in the Soviet space program.

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