Tag Archives: History

Foreign Exchange(s)

Please provide a pipin' hot welcome for Michael, our newest human.

By the summer of 1944, the Mount Washington Hotel had been mothballed for two years. Nestled deep in the Appalachian mountains, the sprawling resort was once a favorite getaway for wealthy New Englanders. But in the wake of the Great Depression and the second war to end all wars, the end appeared nigh for this silent relic of America’s Gilded Age.

Then the US Treasury department offered its owners a staggering $300,000 if they would host a conference—to start in less than a month. An army of hotel workers and hastily recruited townspeople got to work. On the first of July, 730 delegates from 44 countries checked in and proceeded to conduct one of the most influential economic conferences of all time, carving into history the name of the sylvan outpost where it was held: Bretton Woods.

Known officially as the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, the Bretton Woods talks focused primarily on foreign exchange rates (the price of US dollars, say, in British pounds) and other tedious minutia of monetary policy. With the world engulfed in war, few in those days were giving much thought to topics as arcane as these. But some people were giving it quite a lot of thought. One was US Treasury advisor Harry Dexter White, who had been toiling in relative obscurity to forge an exchange rate policy that all nations on earth would agree to. Nothing like this had ever been attempted before.

Now the technocrat from humble roots was about to pull it off, earning recognition and his first official government title: Assistant Secretary to the US Treasury. Harry White would soon experience recognition of another sort, with his name splashed across newspaper headlines—but for reasons having nothing to do with exchange rates, economics, or Bretton Woods.

One of the outcomes of World War 1 was, quite unfortunately, the setting of political and economic conditions that led to World War 2. There were many factors at play, but the isolationist policies of the United States—such as its refusal to join the League of Nations—certainly didn’t help. After the second world war the US would play a far more active political role on the world stage as a key member of the United Nations. Lesser known is how the US propelled itself into the economic center of the post-war world and indeed came to dominate global finance. The man chiefly responsible for this turnabout was a most unlikely fellow.

Starving for Answers

In early 1945, 36 American men lay in their bunks in a windowless room, each man alone with his thoughts as he tried to fall asleep despite the hunger that gnawed at his gut. Just a few weeks earlier, they had all been fit, healthy young men, eager to serve their country. But then their overseers had decreed that their rations were to be cut in half, and the men assigned to feed them had shown no mercy. Now they were so weak from hunger that they could barely roll over in their bunks. During the day, they tried to smile and laugh with each other to keep their spirits up, but at night the depression that accompanied starvation seeped in, telling them to give in, to give up. But the men soldiered on, despite the fact that they were not actually soldiers at all: they were pacifists who had volunteered to be starved for the sake of science.

The Voyager Golden Record Experience

Happy Halloween! This has nothing to do with Halloween.

In 1977, in response to a fortuitous alignment of the outer planets of our solar system, NASA launched space probes Voyager 1 and 2 to tour the outer planets and transmit photographs back to Earth. In that capacity the Voyagers were spectacularly successful, sending tens of thousands of images of planets and moons back to Earth via radio. Both probes passed beyond the orbit of Pluto in the late 1980s, and they continue on toward interstellar space traveling at approximately 37,000 mph (almost 60,000 kph). They continue to transmit data back to Earth, and are expected to do so until around 2025, when their radioisotope thermoelectric generators will be exhausted, and unable to power any instruments.

In 40,000 years or so, Voyager 1 will pass within 1.6 light-years of the star Gliese 445, and at around the same time Voyager 2 will be within 1.7 light-years of the star Ross 248. If either of these systems happen to be home to an advanced alien civilization, there’s a chance they will detect and retrieve one of our plucky nuclear space robots.

In anticipation of the possibility of such proxy contact, NASA mission designers affixed a message from humanity to the side of each probe in the form of a phonograph record. These gold-plated copper records each contain an identical compilation of sounds and music from all over the Earth, as well as analog-encoded images. In the event that one of the probes is ever discovered by an intelligent alien species, the included instructions will hopefully allow them to decode the sounds and sights of our civilization.

We at Damn Interesting have put together an online simulation of what an alien civilization might see and hear upon decoding one of the records, assuming that their seeing and hearing abilities are similar to our own. For the best experience, a laptop or desktop screen size is recommended. We share these sounds and images under the “fair use” exception to copyright law due to the historical significance of the media. You can launch the interactive now, or read on for more background and technical detail.


Ten Minutes in Lituya Bay

In 1952, geologist Don Miller was conducting a petroleum investigation in the region surrounding the Gulf of Alaska when he encountered a vaguely disquieting geological anomaly. While surveying a remote fjord known as Lituya Bay, Miller found that the dense, mature forest that surrounded the bay ended abruptly hundreds of feet upslope of the water. There was some vegetation growing below the distinct line, but it was all upstart grasses, saplings, and such. It was clear that at some point in recent history, an unknown, massive force had scraped the shores clean, and the vegetation was only beginning to reclaim the land.

There was no evidence that a fire had passed through—none of the surviving trees were charred, nor were the few remaining tree stumps. Instead, it appeared that the trees had been bent and twisted away by some powerful lateral force. The damage resembled a “trimline” like those left behind when a glacier recedes, exposing a line of bare rock alongside vegetation, but there was no glacier in a location that would account for it. A tsunami could also theoretically cause such destruction, but the boundary was much farther upshore than any tsunami in recorded history. Upon investigating further, Miller discovered other, older trimlines around the bay, suggesting that the destructive event had occurred multiple times prior, each a few decades apart. This was not typical bay behavior.

Miller interviewed some people familiar with the area, and heard tales of “cataclysmic floods” and such. He sliced samples from the trees along the edge of the old growth and saw signs of blunt trauma. He left Alaska still contemplating hypotheses, and he ended up writing a paper putting forward some possibilities. But the origin of the distinct damage would remain a geological mystery until five years later, when humans had the unsought opportunity to witness the cause of the terrifying phenomenon firsthand.

The King’s Letters

In the late 1430s and early 1440s, a certain Korean scholar embarked on a massively ambitious project, working almost single-handedly and spurred on largely by personal interest. Although the Korean language had existed for almost 1,500 years, it had never had its own dedicated writing system. Korean writers had long tended to rely on Chinese writing, which was logographic—that is, it was a system of symbols that stood for concepts. Adapting the Chinese characters to Korean meant borrowing some Chinese symbols because of the way they were pronounced, and others because of the concept they conveyed.

This approach had centuries of tradition behind it, but it was not ideal. In particular, Korean had more prefixes, suffixes, and short grammatical words (e.g., prepositions) than Chinese did, and Chinese logographs were not well-suited to capturing these. More practically, learning the thousands of Chinese characters required a good deal of study, which meant that only the most well-educated Koreans could read and write. The Korean scholar in question was determined to bring literacy to the masses. His insight was that they needed an alphabet—that is, a writing system based entirely on pronunciation, and one that required far fewer characters than the logographs.

“What do you know of language and linguistics?” the bold scholar asked of several high-ranking officials who objected to his idea. “This project is for the people, and if I don’t do it, who will?” The scholar was none other than Sejong, the king of Korea, who had held the throne since 1418. His profoundly democratic conviction that literacy ought to be accessible to everyone was revolutionary in every sense. When King Sejong unveiled Hangul—his new alphabet for the Korean language—it was met with vehement opposition from Sejong’s advisors, from the literary elite, and from subsequent monarchs. For these objectors, Hangul was barbaric, it was primitive, it was unnecessary, it was an insult, and it needed to be eliminated.

Mobilis In Mobili

The submarine, designated O-12 in U.S. Naval lingo, measured in at 175 feet long. She was, even by the standards of the early 1930’s, not a particularly impressive sight, with a brief career spent meandering about the then-quiet Panama Canal Zone. Decommissioned on 17 June 1924, she was consigned to the Philadelphia Navy Yard to await scrapping. It was an unremarkable fate for a relatively unremarkable vessel, and were events indeed to play out in this particular fashion, it is doubtful the memory of O-12 would live on past some musty Naval archive. This early and rickety contraption for sailing beneath the waves was, however, destined for greater things, as she became the first machine to take humans past—or rather, beneath—one of the last great unexplored frontiers the Earth has to offer.

The boat in question was a near-antique. Predating the American entry into World War I, she had been built in 1916 by the Lake Torpedo Boat Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, designated with the hull number SS-73. Unexpectedly, her ultimate fate in the hands of Philadelphia’s scrappers was sidelined by an eccentric Australian gentleman, though it is safe to assume that no tears were shed in the U.S. Naval headquarters when he offered to take her off the Navy’s hands. O-12 was given a new, though ultimately brief, lease on life, in a journey that was to span the breadth of the Atlantic Ocean and past the rim of the Arctic Circle. It was an expedition that in the literal sense would go where no man had gone before, furthering the frontiers of science…while simultaneously threatening everyone involved with watery graves and financial ruin.

Into the Bewilderness

alphabetical An Christine in introduction is order: Ro. Welcome

Waterton capturing the cayman, by his friend Captain Edwin Jones
Waterton capturing the cayman, by his friend Captain Edwin Jones

Charles Waterton was born in Yorkshire, England in 1782, to an aristocratic Catholic family whose ancestors included members of several royal families. The life of an idle nobleman didn’t appeal to him, however. From a young age, he displayed a passion for studying and interacting with animals in a very hands-on way.

An inveterate tree-climber, Waterton was grateful for the wide array of bird species found on his family’s estate. He was so much of a birdbrain that teachers complained of his “vast proficiency in the art of finding birds’ nests” distracting him from his studies. Like his teachers, Waterton’s classmates noticed his fondness for being amongst animals. He was the one called upon when the boys wanted someone to tame an angry goose, or to ride a cow for their entertainment. He was even appointed rat catcher at his Jesuit boys’ school.

Waterton’s youthful interest in trapping the animals around him evolved into a specialist desire to understand less common animals. This being the Victorian era, and Waterton having the time and money to devote to his preoccupations, his obsessions prompted amusement in the readers of his prolific writings, rather than consternation. For instance, he once described a dissection of a vulture’s nose as “beautiful.” And he was an expert on how a variety of tropical animals, from the howler monkey to the toucan, tasted. The former, apparently, is not dissimilar to goat, while the latter should be boiled for best results.

This type of contradiction—being moved by animals, yet also scientifically dedicated to studying them by killing and preserving them in scientifically novel ways—would be a theme throughout Waterton’s life. The man clearly had complex feelings about his relationships with animals. Perhaps the most significant of these feelings was the desire to transcend the divisions within the animal kingdom: divisions between animals, but also ones separating himself and the creatures he loved.