Monday, July 31, 2023

Guest Post: First Citizen Charles Carroll

This post first appeared on Today in Alternate History with input from Allen W. McDonnell.


September 19, 1737

First Citizen of the American Colonies Charles Carroll of Carrollton was born on this day in Annapolis, Maryland, British America.

A delegate to the Continental Congress and Congress of the Confederation, Carroll was the wealthiest and most formally educated of the political body, most of whom held theological views influenced more by Deism than classic Biblical theology. For these reasons, and being an openly practising Catholic, naturally Carroll was involved in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence to balance the "Puritan firebrands of the Protestant colonies." Their hostility was born of severe religious persecution that made them very suspicious of the allegiance of Catholics to the power of the Pope. Whether or not a majority of the colonials genuinely saw the Pope in the same retrograde anti-libertarian light as King George III, there certainly was a palpable sense that anti-Catholicism had helped fuel the American Revolution. Carroll had much work to do to overcome those prejudices, such as
many Colonial Americans fearing that the Pope would order an invasion from Quebec to impose Catholicism on them.

Consequently, Carroll's active participation was a bold decision that was vindicated by the history of the Republic. His faith-based perspective led to the proposed modifications to Jefferson's early drafts that prevented the alienation of French Canadiens and suppressed anti-Catholic urges. By changing a few words to ensure the Declaration was an accurate expression of the Catholic mind (most significantly, changing "creator" to "Christian God") and drawing upon the political doctrines of Cardinal Bellarmine, Carroll dramatically reversed the course of the 1777 offensive. British soldiers soon had uprisings in Quebec stamp out as well as attempting to make headway into New York.

Like with many of the colonial grievances, the causal factors traced back to the French and Indian War. After taking control of Quebec, the British had taken extraordinary measures to protect religious liberty in the Quebec Act so that Catholics in Canada could simply swear loyalty to King George III. However, this favoritism had gone too far by extending the territory of Quebec to the Ohio River, where Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Virginia colonists had organized the Ohio Company. The Continental Congress had labelled this an "Intolerable Act" but had shown restraint in denouncing Catholicism.

As the Revolutionary War dragged on, one of the significant factors driving events was the pressing need to keep Catholic allies onboard. With this consideration firmly in mind, Washington had forbidden the usual Guy Fawkes celebrations on Nov. 5, 1775, of burning the pope in effigy to avoid insulting the Continental Army's Catholic allies. This far-sighted decision ensured that liberty came to Quebec. Nearly a century later, Quebec's first Irish governor, Thomas D'Arcy McGee, would formally acknowledge the significance of Carroll's role as First Citizen in bringing the territory into the Union, famously declaring, "Vive le Qu├ębec libre!"

Author's Note:

In reality, Carroll was only a signatory of the Declaration (also the longest surviving, dying 56 years after its signing). Despite being one of Maryland's most famous sons, Carroll was technically not allowed to hold office in the state due to his religion. Only three of the 13 colonies allowed Catholics to vote. Thomas McGee succeeded in helping achieve the Canadian Confederation in 1867, but he was assassinated by the Fenian Brotherhood, which considered McGee guilty of Shoneenism (a pejorative term for snobs and Anglophiles).

Provine's Addendum:

Historians frequently debate whether Quebec's declaration of independence from Britain to join the growing United States ended the revolutionary war more quickly or caused it to be prolonged due to the resulting panic in London. Many feared the demands of independence might continue to be contagious, especially after the swift evacuation of the Loyalists in Canada, who were outnumbered by the French-speaking colonists nearly ten-to-one. Having lost everything north of the Gulf of Mexico, the British Empire could potentially lose colonies in the Caribbean if the war spread. Attempts at campaigns in the Carolinas proved expensive and stagnant, so London finally chose to bring an end to the war.

The young United States found that the Articles of Confederation were insufficient, and the resulting Constitutional Convention became the field of thought for political theory. Following Carroll's lead, the representatives from Quebec refused any document that did not assure basic freedoms of religion, firmly establishing a formal separation of church and state. Others added to the push for freedoms, establishing the article of Fundamental Rights that included speech, press, petition, peaceful assembly, self-defense, and more. Future amendments would install other rights or clarify political process, such as the official end of slavery with the Ninth Amendment in 1831.

With Quebec and later the Republic of Vermont soon annexed to the original United States, there became a strong tradition of growth. Much of the expansion went into westward territories, such as the Louisiana Territory purchased in 1803. This led to conflict along the border with the Empire of Spain, which later prompted American support in the Mexican War of Independence. There were efforts to bring Mexico and even Haiti into the United States, but these would fizzle under fears of white American voices losing their overwhelming majority in Congress.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Guest Post: Everyman President

This post first appeared on Today in Alternate History with input from Mark Taylor, Allen W. McDonnell, Robbie Taylor and Thomas Wm. Hamilton.

July 14, 1913 - Birth of Two-Term Everyman President Gerry Ford

The 38th President of the United States, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr., was born Leslie Lynch King, Jr., in Omaha, Nebraska. His name had been changed informally after his mother remarried in 1917, and he changed his name legally in 1935 to match. An Eagle Scout with three younger brothers, Ford played football at the University of Michigan before going on to law school at Yale. He served in the Naval Reserve during WWII and began a career in politics with a win as Congressional representative in 1948.

A long-term, well-respected Congressman from Michigan's 5th district, Ford served on the Select Committee that drafted the legislation creating NASA in 1958. This enabled President John F. Kennedy to pledge America's intention to land a man on the moon before the end of the Sixties. Ford's career at age 50 in national politics took a dramatic turn when President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the Warren Commission, a special task force set up to investigate the Kennedy assassination. During this time, he closely coordinated with Cartha "Deke" DeLoach, deputy associate director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He was assigned the task of preparing a biography of accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and, alongside Earl Warren, interviewed Jack Ruby, Oswald's killer, in prison. During this fateful meeting, Ruby conspiratorially stated, "I want to say this to you .. a whole new form of government is going to take over our country, and I know I won't live to see you another time."

Warren and Ford knew that there was a great deal of credible evidence that a conspiracy had indeed occurred. Nevertheless, their brief was to make two key determinations in the broader national interest - that Oswald was the sole assassin, and there was no conspiracy. For men that had been in their maturity on the day of infamy in Pearl Harbor, both fully understood the importance of the nation moving on from tragedy.

Even if Ruby's dystopian prediction proved to be wildly exaggerated, an improbable series of events followed resulting in Ford becoming president. From the heady heights of the moon landing, Ford inherited a series of crises in Vietnam and at home that meant the ship of state was headed for the rocks. Chief Magistrate was not a position he had sought; indeed, his real ambition was for Speaker of the House, for which he had campaigned hard on the so-called "Rubber Chicken Circuit." In the Oval Office, he would have to confront a critical judgement with a remarkably similar decision framework, this time with complex legal dimensions whether to pardon his disgraced predecessor, Richard M. Nixon. The business of the Federal Government had to move on, overcoming the stench of corruption in Washington. Needing to find an off-switch from the distraction of Watergate, Ford risked his popularity and good name. He bravely took the plunge in an early morning announcement to the American people. Very few members of his staff agreed with this decision, and even Ford himself had previously rejected Chief of Staff Alexander Haig's corrupt offer of a resign-for-pardon deal with Nixon. To cynics, there was even some question of whether Haig had forced Nixon out in a secret coup. Ultimately, the majority of American people accepted that he had ended the "long national nightmare" of Watergate so that America could get back on track.

Ford really had no choice but to pardon Nixon, and he accepted his chances of election in 1976 were very slim. One major problem area that could have even further revelations had been the CIA's clandestine involvement in both Watergate and Dallas. Seeking protection, Nixon told CIA Director Richard Helms, "I know who shot John," and threatening "to bring everyone down." Despite this negative calculation, and having never sought the presidency, Ford courageously took it upon himself to lead the Republican Party into the election. At sixty-three years old, he was a highly experienced campaigner, having won elections for nearly thirty years. His tireless efforts as an everyman who knocked on doors and chatted with workers coming off shift as well as his robust campaign plan paid off for the GOP. Thanks to just a few thousand votes in Ohio and Wisconsin, Ford won a narrow victory. This was partly because of a serious error by Christian Democrat candidate Jimmy Carter when his campaign base disintegrated after an ill-advised interview with Playboy Magazine in which he admitted that God had forgiven him even though he had committed "lust in his heart." "Four months ago most for the people I knew were pro-Carter," one of Carter's fellow Southern Baptists, the television preacher Jerry Falwell, told the Washington Post several weeks later. "Today, that has totally reversed."

With Nixon, the era of the Imperial Presidency had ended. It seemed to many that America's national leaders had lost their sense of good judgement, and less well-known politicians on Capitol Hill stepped into the gap as they had to halt spending on the Vietnam War with the official end in 1976. Unfortunately, during his second term of office, Ford would be dragged off course into the drama surrounding the House Select Committee on Assassinations of JFK and also Martin Luther King. Due to a twist of fate, Ford had to defend his record as a member of the Warren Commission from the uncomfortable position as a sitting president. Labelled the FBI's spy on the Warren Commission, he was even accused of altering the official autopsy diagram and report to conceal the truth about Kennedy's murder. While neither charge was proven, the Committee's conclusion that Kennedy was probably assassinated due to a conspiracy became a major distraction to the Ford Administration. He seriously considered resigning in favour of his Vice President Bob Dole but ultimately decided to avoid further political circus by selflessly accepting the criticism. Because Ford was ineligible to run for a third term in 1980 due to the 25th Amendment, Dole was the Republican nominee. He was challenged by JFK's youngest brother, Ted, who promised to reopen the case file on Dallas.

Despite these dramatic events, Gerald Ford is considered one of the greatest presidents in the mold of John Adams. Unusually, this is not for his achievements but, like Adams, for his service as a statesman for the Republic and for restoring trust in the Oval Office. In Ford's own words, "Truth is the glue that holds government together." He died in 2006 at the age of 93 having used the truth to navigate the ship of state from disaster and ensure the continuity of the American century.

Author's Note:

In reality, in a 1999 interview with Bob Woodward, Ford noted that Watergate issues were consuming 25 percent of his time in the Oval Office and he needed to fully focus on needs of 230 million Americans.

Provine's Addendum:

Jack Ruby's prophecy about a new form of government presumably came true, or perhaps was avoided, as American voters wearied of the "same old politics" with one side bashing the other on scandals, whether real or imaginary, and thinking more about next election's polls than reaching across the aisle for complementary goals. Though Independent John Anderson did not win, his impressive showing proved that many Americans were considering a third party. In fact, many commentators suggested that it was his actions as a moderate that shifted the election from a narrow victory for Dole to Kennedy. Republicans, especially conservative Ronald Reagan, lambasted Kennedy for years, building his own vocal platform to take him on in 1984. Reagan, in turn, was criticized for being too old to serve effectively, even though his famed "Tear Down This Wall" speech in 1987 arguably contributed to the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The infamous "Willie Horton" ad of the 1988 campaign further divided voters and led to numerous protests through Election Day as well as a much wider turnout for third party candidates. The stage was set for Ross Perot's Reform Party victory in 1992.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Guest Post: The Signal by Allen W. McDonnell

This post first appeared on Today in Alternate History.

In January, 1878, David E. Hughes was working on his improved Carbon Microphone, which was intended to surpass the scratchy voice quality of the microphone developed by Emile' Berliner in 1876 for the Bell Telephone. Before long, Hughes discovered that by adjusting the size of the carbon rod in his prototype device, he can pick up a mysterious sound. Over several hours of painstaking adjustment, he finally zones in on the "The Signal." In truth, it closely resembles the Morse code sounds hear d when a speaker is attached to a telegraph line: sequences of dots and dashes. For the first few seconds, he believes he is intercepting the telegraph communication being sent over the wires not far from his laboratory in London.

However, Hughes is familiar with the simple Morse Code, which covers the English alphabet plus the numerals zero to nine with code groups ranging from a single 'dit' "." or 'dah' "-" to a series of six ". . . . . ." The signal Hughes detects is very different because every series adds up to exactly seven.

Hughes sets up a paper tape recorder to capture the message, which seems endless as dots and dashes. After listening to the signal for over an hour, it suddenly begins a new cycle starting with ". . . . . . ." immediately followed by "- - - - - - -". The third and fourth groups are ". . . . . . -" followed again by "- - - - - - -". The cycle repeats over and over with the first group being one binary number higher and the second group repeating the "- - - - - - -" until after 127 distinct groups the last set is "- - - - - - -" "- - - - - - -"

Hughes remembers a conversation with a mathematics professor about how telegraphy code could be perceived as a binary code system of counting, and the odd number groups at the start of this sequence seem to exactly follow his lecture. The professor wrote on the chalk board 0=0, 1=1, 10=2, 11=3, 100=4, 101=5, 110=6, 111=7, 1000=8 with the "." =0 and "-"=1 in the telegraph code. If the mysterious signal was a uniform code in binary, then it could be said to symbolize 128 different meanings starting with decimal and binary zero and ending with decimal 127 or binary 1111111 aka "- - - - - - -"

The Morse Code developed by Samuel Morse in 1835 only had 36 code groups covering the American standard alphabet plus numerals 0-9. The Continental Morse system added four additional emblems to add in the Umlaut vowels and CH sounds used by the Germanic languages, but it still only contained 40 emblems in total. The signal being received by the Hughes device has over three times as many emblems as the Continental Morse system in use in Europe.

The only comparable code Hughes can think of is the Chinese Telegraph Code introduced just six years earlier. The Chinese code consisted of a list with 10,000 Chinese character symbols numbered 0001 to 9999. To transmit the symbols, the sender would list the symbol number, and the receiver would look up the sequence of number sets in the code book to translate from numbers back into traditional Chinese characters.

Not knowing any language that would use 128 distinct symbols, Hughes does the best thing he can think of: he publishes his discovery including detailed descriptions of his 'receiving mechanism' both via the media and through letters to experts in the fields of mathematics and telegraphy.

Soon the universities of Cambridge and Oxford have competing groups listening to the mysterious signal and attempting to decipher its meaning. Initially the series of symbols is arbitrarily assigned values of 0-9 for the same numbers in binary code and the "- - - - - - -" symbol is assigned the value of a space with nothing in it to separate the other symbols. After a few weeks, however, the research teams including mathematicians reluctantly conclude that the signal dose not use a decimal number set but rather an octal or base eight set of numbers being 0-7. This is determined when a long series of number groups is deciphered and determined to start with 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 15, 21, 23, 27 and finishing with 467. The list is 64 numbers long, and the Mathematics department soon determines that this is the list of the first 64 prime numbers counting in base 8, or Octal. The accompanying text is presumed to give a description of what prime numbers are and how they are calculated. Another passage is determined to be an array of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, square root and cube root tables also arranged in sets of 64. Once it is determined which symbols are numbers 0-7 and which symbols represent each type of common arithmetic operation, another section of the Signal is deciphered to cover the concepts of Algebra, Calculus, Geometry, and Trigonometry, which branches into quadratic functions, analytical geometry, differential calculus, and ultimately into concepts like the Butterfly Effect and Chaos Theory, all described in mathematical terminology with blocks of undecipherable accompanying text.

Every 21 hours and 23 minutes in the Signal, it restates the 0-127 symbol series as if to mark the beginning of a new information set. After several cycles of ever more complex and advanced mathematics, the information transitions into a new set of information. This time the sequence lists a set of numbers from zero to ninety-four (decimal) each combined with a number sequence and an undeciphered symbol group. The first of the series is translated as 1 = 1.01, and the last of the list translates as 94 = 244.06. Fortunately, one of the undergraduates assisting on the project soon realizes that the list is a set of chemical elements from 1, Hydrogen, to 94, an unknown element humanity has not yet discovered. The first number is the position on the table of proton masses in the nucleus, and the second number is the average mass of the same nucleus. By subtracting the first number from the second, chemists can determine how many neutrons a typical nucleus has. For some types of matter, like element 50, Tin, the number of neutrons in various isotopes is not a single stable result but actually a set of ten discrete isotopes. The blocks of text that goes with each element on the "next page" of the Signal after the simplified list of 94 has a lot more to say about Tin with ten subsets of data one for each stable isotope than Hydrogen, element 1 and Helium, element 2, with just two stable isotopes each. A few elements like Fluorine, element 9, only has a single stable isotope while Technetium, element 43, has no stable isotopes. The text for Technetium and the other unstable elements with 83 or more protons has more than the average amount of text describing their most stable isotopes radioactive half lives described in units of time based on the length of the pause between code groups in the Signal or about 0.5 seconds. This leads to additional information about how the producers of the Signal think about time.

Once each of 94 elements, a number of which have not been discovered yet by humanity, are all described in detail, the Signal shifts into chemistry. First, very simple chemistry like the formula for Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Nitrogen molecules followed by Water (H2O), Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Ammonia (NH3), Methane (CH4) and Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN). From there, it grows more and more complex with acids (HNO3)~(HCl)~(HClO3)~(H2SO4) and bases (CaCO3), (Na2CO3). After organic chemistry comes metallurgy with metallic alloys of hundreds of formulas from simple carbon steel (98Fe2C) to highly complex alloy steels with (3U8W2V1C86Fe), aka Uranium Tungsten Vanadium Carbon Steel. It also includes alloys like Aluminum Bronze (1Al9Cu), which had been created and tested on a bench top batch level because chemist and metallurgists were a curious lot despite the fact that aluminum was worth its weight in gold, if not more.

Further on were chemical processes for refining alumina into aluminum and leaching urinate ore to separate out the uranium. There were also chemical descriptions of many styles of battery, as well as descriptions of fuel cells, dynamos, and fully rectified AC generators producing DC current. Electrolytic refining of copper, which had only been invented in Wales in 1869 less than a decade earlier, is discussed in chemical detail showing how the process can be improved and how the slime that results can be additionally refined to recover gold, silver, platinum, and several other base metals depending on the particular copper ore used in the process. For the production of Technetium, Element 43, there is a complete, step-by-step set of instructions for building an electromagnet particle accelerator to bombard molybdenum in a vacuum chamber with hydrogen ions to transmute it into technetium for special corrosion resistant steel alloys. Unfortunately, the text for many of these methods of working on metallic refining are completely indecipherable even though the chemistry and mathematics behind the processes is clear enough once it is translated from the original symbology to conventional mathematics and chemistry language.

The simple fact is that even with multiple university teams working on the translation of the information provided by the Signal, which has soon passed around to world to every university capable to generating the small amount of electricity needed to power the Hughes receiver, constantly shifts to a different subject area every 21 hours and 23 minutes. Mathematics, Chemistry, Electromagnetism, Metallurgy, Astrophysics, Electronics... The problem is, while a great many things can be learned or compared to existing knowledge in the topics that include a lot of mathematics or chemistry because those areas are most easily translated, other things prove to be completely opaque pages and pages of written text without a single mathematical or chemical equation taking place anywhere. Without translation, it could be deep philosophy, poetry, or pornography, because nobody really understands it, at least in those first few months. Wealthy sponsors and companies are more than willing to fund translations of new techniques of refining, developing processes for new materials and so on because they believe the results will be highly profitable. However, the lack of understanding leads to some quirks like metallurgists knowing that Technetium is a valuable alloy agent for steel and that it can be made by bombarding molybdenum with hydrogen ions of a certain range of energies without understanding that ion-bombardment technetium is normally produced for medical diagnostic testing while technetium for alloy purposes is generally refined from nuclear fission products as a value-added commodity resulting from fission energy production. The ion-bombardment technetium is expensive but worthwhile for medical testing. On the other hand, the metallurgical technetium is a byproduct of an already profitable completely separate method of production, which makes it nearly free to the producer. However, fission-product Technetium is not useful for medical testing.

By the end of the year, a new series of pages are deciphered showing the mathematical underpinning of electronic manipulation of the electromagnetic spectrum. The basis of the knowledge starts with the fact that all electromagnetic waves are the same kind of photons as visible light, just shifted to other frequencies. The very highest frequencies are photons of such energy that they can penetrate the earth as Cosmic rays and pass right out the atmosphere on the opposite side and travel on into space for incalculable distances. Then are the Gamma rays that can pass through thick pieces of metal and expose film on the other side or pass through food to completely sterilize it as a form of preservation. Next come the X-ray frequencies that can pass through flesh but not bone, allowing exposed film to show damage to a person's skeleton or locate bullets without exploratory surgery. Then is the Ultraviolet spectrum that feeds plants energy from sunlight to make glucose molecules and power all their cellular energy needs. Finally, the relatively narrow band where all the colors of the Visible spectrum fit before trailing off into Infra-red. Below the lowest Infra-red are the Microwave and ever longer Radio wave frequencies. Mathematical descriptions of microwave radar frequencies and communication radio frequencies along with many other useful technical ideas appear in this section starting with piezoelectric crystal radio diagrams, flame diode and triode amplification, vacuum tube diode and triode diagrams, rare earth diode and triode designs, semiconductor amplifier board designs, analog computers, digital computers, semiconductor chips on smaller and smaller tolerance chip designs.

At that point, one of the teams of linguists has a breakthrough. All along, the diagrams with math or chemistry applications have been understood to some degree. Now it has been determined that each change in topic begins with the same two words followed by a word presumed to be the title of the topic being transmitted. The Linguists have decided that the first two words in each title are "History Of" and the third word is the topical name. The Mathematics topic starts "History Of Numbers" and starts with counting out the same zero to seven emblems in order from zero to two hundred in Octal base, then moves into addition and subtraction, then multiplication and division, then squares and square roots, cubes and cube roots, Algebraic manipulations, Trigonometric operations, basic quadratic coordinate systems, polar coordinates, matrix algebra, calculus, differential calculus, tensor calculus and on and on until you get chaos theory of number sets and the butterfly effect. The mathematicians of the universities are often not as advanced as the final few pages of the "History of Numbers" gets to eventually.

The "History of Elements" starts with a list of the 94 discrete chemical elements and their properties and then goes into great details on chemistry both organic and inorganic of how these discrete elements combine in various forms to make molecules, starting with the very simple O2 and N2 and Ar molecules of the atmosphere and continuing on through the structures of 23 distinct amino acids and some larger protein molecules that incorporate those amino acids. The organic chemistry portion of the signal starts with the very simplest hydrocarbon, Methane (CH4), and goes up to the very complex hydrocarbons that incorporate benzine rings, aromatic chains and incredibly complex fatty acids like Arachidonic Acid that has a twisted 20 carbon long chain and and Alkane molecules with up to 70 carbon atoms that mostly come from sources like coal tar or asphalt seeps like the La'Brea tar pits in California or the Asphalt Lake in Trinidad. The most complex molecules shown are a double helix molecule of Threose nucleic acid.

The inorganic chemistry section gives a history of metals, ores including methods for reducing tin and copper ores to their metallic forms then mixing them to produce primitive bronze. The copper section goes on through a long list of copper alloys completing with various aluminum bronzes, many of which include additional alloy agents. The iron section starts with reducing bog iron to wrought iron through forge working the ore all the way to multiple alloy elements in uranium tungsten vanadium tool steel. This section goes into detail on where to find every one of the 94 elements in natural minerals except for the special list for products of fission reactions. It also includes many very useful technologies like thorium mantle lanterns. These put out a bright white light source from burning a fuel where thorium in a fine mesh arrangement around the flame promotes complete high temperature combustion. The final part of the inorganic chemistry portion details how to combine fissile and fertile element salts with beryllium salts to form a critical mass generating very intense heat and fission products.

That description leads into electromagnetic effects, of "The History of Electronics". The electromagnetic spectrum and electronics for manipulating the photons of each energy range to do something useful like transmit information wirelessly, build centimeteric then millimetric radar to spot other ships when weather reduces visibility for visible light observation and weather radar to track storm patterns. Of course, until the translators manage to build the first generation diode and triode devices to rectify and amplify each effect, the text has little impact on 19th century life.

"The History Of Machines" starts with wind power from sails describing square, lanteen, sprit, gaff, and lug sail arrangements and variations. Next are shapes and designs for oars covering blade shapes, balance points and even reversing rig systems so a person rowing a small boat is facing the same direction the oars are pushing the craft instead of facing the opposite direction and needing to constantly turn to confirm the boat is aimed correctly.

Also included are the concepts of leverage, center of balance/gravity, and mechanical advantage in the form of single pulley, block and tackle pulley systems, and inclined plane vs deadlift energy requirements for moving mass around. The final part of the block and tackle lift section included automatic arrestor gear for elevators where, so long as the main cable is supporting the weight of the elevator box, the brake clamps are held open, but, if the cable goes completely slack, the brakes clamp closed. This is also described as an air pressure system for railroad and vehicle brakes where pressurized air holds the brakes open, but pressing a pedal or opening a relief valve lets the pressure escape, clamping the spring loaded brakes closed. These developments are both recognized by engineers as operationally similar to the Otis Safety elevator patented in 1853 and the Westinghouse Air Brakes developed in 1867 for locomotives.

From there, the text moves on the windmills using sailcloth blades and water mills using undershot and overshot water pressure to turn paddle wheels. As part of this portion, also discussed are fish wheels for harvesting smelt or salmon migrating to breed with carefully designed net bladed wheels that scoop up the fish and dump them into a live holding area or directly into a cleaning area. It describes both wind and water mills using belt and shaft systems to provide power to machine tools like drills, drop hammers, bellows for forging work, sanders, planing tables, and even precision lathes. Of course, this leads inevitably into detail description in how each machine tool is constructed and calibrated. After the wind and water wheel systems comes water turbines that operate using water flowing down to a much lower level to generate electricity or turn the shaft and belt system with greater efficiency. Also in this section is the combination commonly called a Trompe air compressor. Trompe's uses water-entrained air to fill a deep cavern or mined space with high pressure air that can operate a wide range of hand-held machine tools powered by turbines turned by escaping pressurized air.

The next step in machinery is steam pressure and starts with very simple crude steam pumping systems, then low pressure cylinder steam engines that develop into double-acting and uniflow steam cylinder systems, steam turbine systems, and finally flame augmented steam turbine systems. These last system uses a separate pipe feeding into the steam turbine that injects a mixture of pressurized air and fuel that is ignited right before leaving the injection pipe. This additional energy source reduces the demand for steam and prevents the steam in the first stage of the turbine from cooling and condensing at all before it exits all the way through the low pressure turbine. In the most complex designs, the flame injection also takes place in the intermediate pressure turbine stages. This leads to a detailed explanation of Bernoulli's principal of pressure changes leading to temperature changes and vice verse'. Using cold, dense Trompe pressurized air and a gaseous fuel like natural gas or vaporized gasoline adds a considerable efficiency to the steam turbine in the last description.

After the finish of the steam power section comes the internal and external combustion engines. Internal engines use several methods including hot oil engines that compress air and spray oil on a hot surface, raising its temperature to the ignition point, Diesel engine designs using much higher compression, and the Bernoulli principal to heat the air to incandescent temperatures and ignite oil injected into the compressed gasses and the spark ignitions systems that compress flammable gasses or vapors like town gas or gasoline vapor with air and then ignite the mixture with a spark plug.

The external combustion engines direct readers back to steam engines for boiler-based systems and for closed systems gives detailed descriptions of how a Stirling engine system works. Naturally Stirling had patented his engine in 1816, so engineers recognized it immediately just as they had recognized the Watt steam engine and Knight impulse water wheel as a step in the process of increasing mechanical capabilities. While an undershot water wheel might by 10-20 percent efficient at capturing the energy of a stream and an Overshot wheel 30-40 percent efficient, the Knight impulse water wheel was 75 percent efficient, and the next more advanced design from the Signal data stream was 90 percent efficient.

In the same fashion, the Stirling engines in the text start out as low efficiency with heavy material weights and fixed location or low mobility and go through a series of evolutionary changes as the materials used in construction and tweaking the design parameters increase efficiency step by step ending with a design that is light weight and highly efficient, but which materials are needed for construction are not yet available.

One version of the Stirling engine described is for remote deployment and uses a radioisotope thermal heat source. The same radioisotope is also described in another section as element 94, mass 238, as a heat source for a bimetallic thermal generator using the Seebeck Effect discovered by John Seebeck in 1821. Seebeck discovered that certain combinations of metals would, if heated on one end and cold on the other, produce a small electrical potential that could be tapped as electric current. By placing a radioactive thermal source in the middle and deploying the Seebeck metals as vanes around the heat source, a temperature differential was created that generated electricity. Using that heat alternatively to power a Stirling engine was a more efficient was of producing current at least in theory. However, the Seebeck effect required no moving parts, so it was extraordinarily reliable in working as expected whereas the Stirling engine would require periodic maintenance or repairs.

Next came the section on "The History of Trapped Supernova Energy". This section started out with a description of astronomy and astrophysics describing how, based upon the temperature and diameter of a star, what frequencies and densities of electromagnetic effects could be calculated for each distance. It used the Sol system for an example giving the age, size, and composition of the star for a complete description of how its thermonuclear fusion process worked at converting four ionized hydrogen protons into a Helium 3 or Helium 4 nucleus depending on which pathway was followed at key stages of the process. It also revealed how much energy was generated by each step and how this in turn caused the sunlight to be in a very broad spectrum of frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum. From there, it went into describe how the energy of those emissions was absorbed by bodies like planets, asteroids, and dwarf planets or planetoids at various distances. This data covered everything down to and including the 3:2 orbital resonance of Mercury, the superheated dense atmosphere of Venus and its retrograde rotation, the concept of the "Goldilocks Zone" where liquid water would be common on planets of certain distances from this energy level star depending on factors like how thick the atmosphere was, what greenhouse gasses were present and so on. Next it described the planetoid Ceres and discussed how it differed from smaller asteroidal bodies, how Jupiter swept many dangerous small bodies up with its gravity field reducing the risk of Earth collisions by such bodies and how the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn were fundamentally different from Neptune and Uranus. It then went on to describe objects in the Kuiper belt where solids were often the same molecules that served as gasses and liquids in the inner solar system. From there, it branched into the mathematics of stellar evolution and how stars much bigger or smaller than the Sun would evolve differently. Finally, it described stars that were so massive that they exploded in tremendous supernovae and left behind as their ashes all the elements heavier than iron including the Actinides. The Actinides were then described as element capable of being fissioned to release more stored energy than initiating the fission required. In essence, they had captured tiny bits of the tremendous energy released by their parent supernova in the arrangement of their nucleus cores and fission released some of that energy where it could be used for useful work. This was followed by descriptions of nuclear fission devices from the most primitive natural uranium reactors to the most advance liquid salt and liquid metal based breeder reactors that would consume any actinide and return fission products like technetium or neodymnium, useful for industry, and higher actinides like Plutonium 238 for radiothermal sources to supply energy to remote or isolated locations. Oddly enough , nuclear fission explosives were neither described in detail nor much remarked on, other than in the sense that if too much fast fissionable material was allowed to accumulate in a small enough volume, the resulting pulse of energy would release deadly levels of energy and more or less vaporize your expensive material dispersing it.

Friday, July 7, 2023

Interview with Hal Johnson of 'Impossible Histories'

Hal Johnson is author of Impossible Histories. Check out my review on Blogcritics!


Tell us a little about your background

I’m mostly just a guy with a brain problem that forces me to read more or less continually. There are downsides to this brain problem, in the sense that I am not so socially ept, but it served me well when I wanted to pressure an editor into letting me write a book of alternate history scenarios. In the sense that I’ve always been a reader, I’ve always been a writer. I man, I read more books than I write, but I’m always writing something, or I guess I’ve always got an incessant narrating voice running in my head, and at times I find it easiest to write down what it’s saying. I’ve got several books out (Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods is the reigning fan favorite), and if Impossible Histories is the only one that’s all about alternate history, all of them stretch the truth in one way or another. In less than a month, I’ll have a new book coming out for young readers (or “the young at heart” as they say), Apprentice Academy: Sorcerers. If you like myths and legends, or magic, or witnessing the bad influence that is me corrupting the young, please preorder it.

What got you into alternative history?

I hope I don’t sound like too much of a goon if I say it was Dungeons & Dragons. Many years ago I started running a game, and because I always found it hard to keep track of geography in The Forgotten Realms, I set the campaign in the real world in the tenth century—or at least a slightly more fantasied-up tenth century, with giants in the mountains and high-level clerics in the Vatican. Once I decided to use the tenth century, though, I was more or less trapped: Not only did I have to keep reading about the local circumstances of wherever the party traveled (civil war in Byzantium; a puppet caliph in Baghdad) I had to figure out how past historical figures would have stocked these dungeons people are hacking with monsters, traps, and treasure.

Perhaps this would not have seemed like a logical pickle to most people, but I found myself essentially “doing” alternate history backwards—given a tenth century that is slightly different from our own, how would Alexander the Great’s conquests (for example) have had to have been different to get us here? Given the logic inherent in a world with magic, why would Alexander have led an army into Persia in the first place? A quest? An artifact?

The more I wrestled with these conundra, the more I started wondering about what changes in the past would ripple through history and make changes in the present. Maybe that’s a crazy way to come about it, but it was the first time I’d “messed with” history, and the habit stuck.

What are some of your favorite time periods to play with?

Even though ethically I think empires are terrible, esthetically I think they’re really cool, so I enjoy reading especially about the Macedonian and Mongolian empires. But empires tend to splinter, so the temptation is to try to figure out what could hold them together and what kind of world would we live in with fewer, larger states. A world in which Alexander’s empire grows and grows and lasts as long as, say, the Roman Empire did is one of my favorites, because I like thinking about a Dark Ages that follows, one with an Imperium that stretches from the Greek settlements in Spain to Hellenistic India.

I also like (although I’ve never written about) absurdly big-picture changes. Something like: What if ocean water was potable? Suddenly transoceanic exploration in even small boats becomes a lot easier, even trivial. The size of the ancient world contracts! Contact between the Old World and New made by Egyptians or Phoenicians. Not even fear of storms could keep people from launching out into the unknown.

Are there any time periods you don't particularly enjoy tampering with?

The problem—not a bad problem, but a complicating problem—with constructing an alternate history is that unless you’re willing to play fast and loose, you need to know not only the little bit of history you’re altering, but all the background, origins, and current events of the countries and peoples around it.

There are huge stretches of history—I mean both times and places—that are not completely opaque to me, but are mostly isolated facts. I read a biography of Frederick the Great once, but before I felt comfortable messing around with his timeline, I’d want to be more familiar with eighteenth century continental history, which I’m not.

I’m a nervous type, and I’m always afraid of getting caught out, so I like looking at time periods I think other people don’t know enough about to catch me in an error! I could never do a Civil War timeline, just because I think everyone else knows more than I do!

What have you learned about humanity and history from your alt history projects?

One thing history teaches you is that people really like to murder each other. Perhaps I have a reputation for being overly cynical about human nature, so let me not pursue that one. Instead…

Hey! Another thing I learned about history, and which is useful in writing alternate histories but also in writing in general, is that whenever and wherever you go, there’s always something happening. Every remote Medieval village had some kind of interesting local festival or legend or folk custom. Some of this hyperlocality has been erased by mass media, but it’s still around: I live in Connecticut, and I can drive for forty minutes and be someplace where no one knows what a package store or a tag sale or a grinder are.

But also, in every medieval village, something happened there: someone was martyred or there was a battle or the scenery inspired a poet. Part of the fun of alternate history is that wherever you look there’s something that influenced someone, and so there are an effectively infinite number of moments to choose from, to alter and play with and see what happens.

If you had an inter-reality portal, is there a particular timeline you would want to move to, and why?

I have to imagine that a timeline in which we dodged World War I would be less messed up—after WWI, the twentieth century was doomed to be split between fear of totalitarian conquest and fear of nuclear annihilation, and surely we’d be better off without that. Of course, there’re no more Nazis and no more Cold War nowadays, and it’s not like we’re not anxious, so maybe that doesn’t help. Maybe we’re doomed anyway.

So I’ll just pick a timeline where Robert E. Howard didn’t kill himself at the age of thirty and instead spent a long fruitful lifetime churning out Conan stories.

Where can people find you online?

I post annotations to Impossible Histories, other alt-history scenarios, and collections of “inspirational” quotes here: https://haljohnsonbooks.substack.com/

You can preorder my next book here: https://bookshop.org/p/books/apprentice-academy-sorcerers-the-unofficial-guide-to-the-magical-arts-hal-johnson/18588355?ean=9781250808356

I am bad at social media here: https://www.facebook.com/ImmortalLycanthropes

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