Armed Conflict

Götz von Berlichingen (1480-1562) was a German knight and warrior for hire in the first half of the 16th century. In 1504, at age 24, he lost the lower portion of his right arm to cannon fire during the siege of Landshut. Upon his recovery, rather than retiring or taking up a less violent profession, Berlichingen commissioned an Austrian blacksmith to construct an iron prosthetic hand.

The result was no mere hook; rather it was a sophisticated apparatus with articulated fingers that could be clamped tightly upon a sword or delicately upon a feather quill. With this prosthesis he continued to fight in wars and feuds for another 20 years or so, and ultimately participated in at least 15 armed conflicts. He lived to 82 years old, an unusually long lifespan for the period, and he wrote an autobiography in has later years.

Berlichingen’s story has been embellished by legend, and he is often portrayed as a brave hero in later retellings. In reality, he was an unscrupulous mercenary who fought for the highest bidder and engaged in kidnapping and sea piracy to make ends meet when no convenient wars were afoot. The modern vulgarity “he can lick/kiss my arse” is also thought to have been coined by Berlichingen; it was attributed to him in a 1773 play based on his life.

Today, Berlichingen’s prosthetic arm is housed in the Götzenburg castle museum in the German town of Jagsthausen.

Australia’s Humped Pestilence

The introduction of non-native species can be a tricky business. The feral camels of Australia are a case in point. They were brought to the country in 1840 to ease exploration of the Outback, and the hardy animals soon proved useful in the construction of railway and telegraph lines.

From the beginning, however, camels and Australia made for a precarious pairing. During one of the first Australian expeditions to use the beasts—John Horrocks’ 1846 journey into the Outback—a camel was responsible for the expedition leader’s death. Horrocks was unloading a rifle while standing alongside a prone pack camel when the camel suddenly lurched, hooking part of its pack into the rifle’s action. The gun discharged, and the slug severed Horrocks’ middle finger, then entered through his left cheek and knocked out a row of upper teeth. Horrocks died within the month, but not before ordering the camel executed.

On a large scale, Australian camels started to create trouble in the 1930s, when automobiles rendered them increasingly obsolete. The thousands of no-longer-needed animals multiplied rapidly, given plenty of space and camels’ suitability for the dry climate. Their population approximately doubled every eight years, and by 2008 they numbered an estimated 600,000. Australia is now the only country with a substantial feral camel population.

The huge numbers of wild camels have become a major ecological and financial liability. They deplete vegetation and water sources, creating scarcity for other animals. The feral camels are particularly ravenous when searching for water, tearing up water spigots and toilet blocks in the process. They also destroy other types of infrastructure, from fences to windmills. Camels have even become a traffic hazard, both on highways and on airplane runways.

Efforts are underway to de-camelize the continent, a program that has met with some controversy. Researchers have started using “Judas camels” to thin the camel population, which involves placing a tracking device on a sociable camel, who then unwittingly leads the trackers to groups of feral camels. Riflemen then thin the herd from helicopters. Wild camel meat is exported to the Middle East to help offset the cost of the culling. Since 2008 camel populations have been reduced considerably.

Apparent Homicide

The self-castrating devotees of Inanna in ancient Mesopotamia are evidence enough that religious fanatics can demonstrate their faith in uncommon ways, but surely few have done so as appallingly as Second Adventist (not to be confused with Seventh Day Adventist) Charles Freeman of Pocasset. In 1879, Freeman was certain that he was receiving revelations that demanded a great sacrifice. Recalling the tale of Abraham and Isaac, he came to the conclusion that he must sacrifice one of his children. His wife Harriet was not especially pleased by this proclamation, and attempted to change his mind, but no argument succeeded. When in the middle of the night Freeman awoke to announce that God had given him the name of the victim—Edith, her father’s favourite—the tearful Harriet made one last attempt to dissuade him. But on being assured that this was the will of God, she assented.

On 01 May 1879, having sent his elder daughter out of the children’s room, Freeman prayed over Edith, hoping that she would sleep through what was to come—or that his hand might be stayed at the last moment by God, just as Abraham’s was said to have been. Edith opened her eyes; and since no divine hand held him back, Freeman stabbed his five year old daughter. She had just the time to say ‘Oh, Papa’ before she died.

After he had suffered ‘a good deal of agony of mind’ over what he had done, Freeman came to feel at peace, certain that he had proven his piety. He called a meeting of his co-religionists, to whom he gave a rambling sermon presaging the imminent arrival of Christ, before displaying his daughter’s body to them. However shocked they might seem, he reassured them that in three days she would be resurrected. And reassured they were. Edith’s grandmother insisted that there was no need to tell the murdered girl’s sister Mildred about any of this, since Edith would be back in three days and the knowledge would only disturb the girl. The other Adventists all went home and continued with their daily lives, Freeman’s secret presumably safe with his fellow church-goers.

The next day Freeman and his wife were arrested for filicide. News of the crime, not to mention the fact that a number of the Adventists openly approved of what Freeman had done, caused a wave of fury. Pulpits bristled with denunciations of Adventism and fanaticism, and the New England Adventist Association was forced to quickly dissociate itself from the Pocasset congregation. Freeman remained unconcerned, certain that he would be vindicated when God resurrected his daughter on the third day.

The day of Edith’s anticipated resurrection came and went with nary a stir from Edith. In lieu of a resurrection there was a burial—accompanied, to be sure, by some mutters about God breaking his promises. At the grave side, Alden Davis, now the leader of the Pocasset Adventists, jumped onto a nearby grave and began to give a speech eulogising the murderer, until the cries from the crowd of ‘Choke him!’ and ‘Bury him in the open grave!’ led to something of a brawl over the coffin.

Freeman was found insane and therefore incapable of standing trial, but he rejected that diagnosis. He was “the spirit of Truth,” he proclaimed. “I represent Christ in all his parts, prophet, priest and king. All good is represented in one person, and that person is me. I feel sure that my name will be honoured above any other name except Jesus.” As for Edith, “I feel perfectly justified. I feel that I have done my duty. I would not have her back.” To his surprise, he was immediately committed to the State Lunatic Asylum.

It took four years for Freeman to acknowledge the horror of what he had done, at which time he finally stood trial. Found not guilty by reason of insanity, he returned to the asylum, where he remained until he was set free some years later as representing no further danger. And there he vanishes from view.

Ticking Time Palm

Ancient Israel was renowned for its date palm plants, which were widespread in thick forests and reportedly bore delicious fruit. The dates were a staple food for dwellers of the Judaean Desert. Sometime around the year 1300, however, a confluence of catastrophes—agricultural, economic, and climatological—killed many of the trees, and over time the palms became so uncommon that a French explorer in the 16th century doubted that the ancient date trade could ever have been particularly noteworthy. Within the following few centuries, that particular variant of date palm was extinct, and became entirely the stuff of legend.

In the mid-1960s, archaeologists at the clifftop palace of Herod the Great in Masada, Israel uncovered a 2000-year-old jar containing seeds. These turned out to be seeds of the long-extinct date palm. In 2005, researchers treated three of these seeds with fertilizer solutions and planted them in pots to see whether they were still capable of germinating. One of the seeds did indeed sprout, and it yielded a large, healthy date palm that the researchers nicknamed ‘Methuselah’ (not to be confused with the famous bristlecone pine of the same name). Within a decade Methuselah was almost ten feet tall, and producing pollen.

Date palms come in separate male and female plants, only the females being able to produce fruit. Methuselah is unfortunately male. However, scientists speculate that Methuselah could be used to fertilize a female plant of a closely related Egyptian date palm, resulting in fruit as soon as the early 2020s, offering humanity access to a legendary flavour that has not been tasted in centuries.

Aluminum Illuminated

The apex of the Washington Monument
The apex of the Washington Monument

Shortly after aluminum was first discovered in the early 19th century it was counted among the most precious metals on Earth owing how difficult it was to obtain the pure metal. At $1,200 per kilogram, it was worth more by weight than gold or platinum.

By 1884 the price had fallen a little, but it was still valuable enough that the US government commissioned a pyramid of the metal to use as the apex of the US Washington Monument. At 100 ounces it was the largest single piece of aluminum ever cast at that time. Before engineers affixed it to the top of the new tower in an elaborate ceremony, the pyramid spent two days in the window of Tiffany’s in New York City, gawked at by passers-by.

Later in the 1880s, however, researchers found a new method to extract aluminum from common bauxite. The price plummeted to $0.60 per kilogram by the early 1900s. Scientists now know that aluminum is the most abundant metal on Earth.

Although the element’s discoverer Humphry Davy originally named it “aluminum”, a name which follows the -um pattern established by similar elements (platinum, molybdenum, etc), the metal is known as aluminium in most places outside of the United States. This is due to an anonymous contributor to the British journal Quarterly Review in 1813 who felt “aluminum” was not sufficiently ostentatious, and insisted with inexplicable success that chemists insert the superfluous vowel.

When the Wright brothers needed a lightweight engine for their heavier-than-air flying machines, they used aluminum, but painted it black to throw their competitors off the scent. Still, aluminum proved too malleable to be a common aircraft building material until 1901, when German scientist Alfred Wilm accidentally discovered that an aluminum alloy with about 4% copper, heated to high temperatures and then left to slowly cool, was considerably stronger than aluminum alone, or any alloy cooled with the rapid “quench hardening” used for other metals. This slow-cooled alloy is an integral part of airplanes and architecture even today.

Although it is not the best conductor of electricity, aluminum is used almost exclusively in main overhead power lines due to its light weight. If a better conductor such as copper were used, many more poles and pylons would be necessary to keep the lines aloft.

Hasty Hostilities

Zanzibar, an island nation that is now part of Tanzania, has been a contested territory for centuries. Starting in the 15th century, interested parties from Portugal, Oman, Germany, and Britain vied for the right to settle in Zanzibar and to decide whether to continue or abolish its slave trade.

In 1890, Zanzibar was declared a protectorate of the British Empire. And three years later, the Britain-friendly sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini came to power. Sultan Hamad died unexpectedly on 25 August 1896; his young cousin, Khalid bin Bargash, was suspected of having poisoned him. Young Khalid thumbed his nose at the British by swiftly moving into the palace without their permission, and ignoring a warning from the British consul to cease and desist. Instead, Khalid mobilized nearly 3,000 soldiers and civilians in the palace square, as well as a variety of military equipment that the British had gifted to the previous sultan.

The British, in response, readied warships in the harbor and delivered ultimatums demanding that Khalid leave the palace. Khalid remained defiant.

At 9:00am on 27 August 1896, three British ships opened fire on the palace. By 9:02am Khalid had fled, and most of his weaponry had been destroyed. The open fire ended at around 9:40am. A new (British-approved) sultan was in place by the afternoon.

Unsurprisingly, given that the British commanded the most powerful navy in the world, the war was a lopsided one. While approximately 500 Zanzibaris were killed, only a single British sailor was wounded. As the Anglo-Zanzibar War lasted between 38 and 45 minutes in total, it remains the shortest war in history.

The Height of Mathematics

Radhanath Sikdar postage stamp
Radhanath Sikdar postage stamp

The height of Mount Everest was not calculated by George Everest, but by a brilliant mathematician who has since been all but forgotten. Everest himself (who pronounced his name ‘ee-vrist’) had become the Surveyor-General of India in 1830, and by the next year was eagerly seeking a mathematician/topographer for his Great Trigonometric Survey of the area. A local college math teacher sent him the then-19-year-old Radhanath Sikdar. Sikdar was from Bengal and had become semi-notorious as a part of the Young Bengal movement of free-spirited noncomformists (expected to enter into an arranged marriage with a young girl, Sikdar had said no and walked away). However, he was also becoming known for his mathematical talents. Under Everest’s direction, Sikdar distinguished himself almost immediately with his level of technical skill and intellectual creativity. Sikdar would end up inventing a number of new forms of measurement, some of which far outlived him.

Sikdar ended up working for the Survey for more than two decades. Unfortunately, he was often treated unfairly. One edition of a surveyors’ manual left his name off his contributions. On another occasion, when Sikdar spoke up about the Survey taking advantage of some of its employees, he was fined 200 rupees for what the organisation saw as impudence. And due to how valuable his contributions were, when Sikdar attempted to change jobs, Everest denied the request on less-than-truthful grounds.

This was not even the final insult for Sikdar. When Everest retired, Sikdar continued his mapping and calculations under successor Andrew Waugh. Sikdar was able to show through his calculations that ‘Peak XV’ was the tallest in the world from sea-level, and Waugh eventually agreed with his calculations. Although the Survey had been labelling peaks according to what the local people called them, in this case Waugh decided to break with tradition and name the illustrious peak after…Everest. At least one scholarly society at the time took full note of Sikdar’s accomplishments, but in spite of his brilliant contributions, he has mostly been forgotten.

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