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The Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union enters into a new phase with the launch of the Russian space station Mir. With the failure of the 1970s American space station Skylab, the Soviet space programme seemed to outpace its US rival.

Mir, meaning both peace, world and village in Russian (a lexical insight into the rural Russian mindset), was  intended to provide a base for a permanently manned complex orbiting the Earth.

According to the BBC report, Mir remained in space until 23 March 2001, when it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere over Fiji. The remains of the 135-tonne craft fell into the South Pacific Ocean.

Space Station Mir on 24 September 1996 by By NASA (http://archive.org/details/STS074-716-021) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Written by Ian Curry in: In This Week |

History Carnival 134

The History Carnival is coming to town! And what it lacks in coconut shies, tombolas and carousels it more than makes up for in fascinating new history blogging. This month, the Carnival features a rich smorgasbord of delights, with everything from Victorian diagnosis of mental illness to heliocentric heresy and a dollop of early modern surgical implements and economic history making this a particularly mouthwatering post. 

For those new to the History Carnival, it is a monthly round up of some of the best blogging on history. Hosted by different bloggers, it showcases new writing and gives bloggers a chance to present their work to a new and wider audience.

Francesco Guardi's Carnival Thursday on the Piazzetta (Venice) Francesco Guardi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A topical post from Alan Flower’s History and the Sock Merchant as he asks Why is Russia obsessed with the Crimea? Alan argues that the Crimea became the heart of Russian Romanticism following its absorption into the Russian Empire in 1783. A potent combination of Russian religious history, its hosting of the Black Sea Fleet, the bloodshed of the Crimean War, the Russian resistance to Nazi occupation in the Second World War combined with the fate of Russian speaking minorities outside of Russia’s contemporary borders ensures that the Crimea has a particular hold on the Russian people and their governing elite.

What did it take to be admitted to a Victorian asylum? Kate Tyte at Kate Tyte Writes has been looking at some of the reasons given for the admission of patients to various lunatic asylums and madhouses in the nineteenth century (How to get admitted to a Victorian Lunatic Asylum). You might not be surprised to see hysteria, epileptic fits and grief listed as reasons. But it is more disturbing to see hard study, tobacco and masturbation (whether indulged together or separately is not indicated) and politics listed.

A Rake's Progress - Plate 8 - In The Madhouse by William Hogarth [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As Kate notes, in a system of unregulated, private asylums, it was “absurdly easy for wealthy families to have a relative labelled a lunatic and incarcerated in a mad-house for life”. It wasn’t any better in the public system, which Kate suggests were “the closest you could get to hell without dying.” Things did improve with the County Asylums Act 1845 and, by the end of the century, the medical profession was starting to get to grips with mental illness and its proper diagnosis and treatment.

One historical figure who could have been excused for lapsing into madness was the Italian polymath Galileo Galilei. In his post, ‘Galileo, the Church and Heliocentricity: A Rough Guide‘, The Renaissance Mathematicus offers an explanation as to whether Galileo knew that publishing The Starry Messenger would upset the Church authorities.

Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition, painting by Cristiano Banti 1857

Heliocentricity, or the idea that the sun was at the centre of the solar system, was at odds with Biblical geocentricity. This fascinating post goes on to set the scene for Galileo’s scientific discoveries, his relationship with the Papacy and the ultimate controversy, his trial before the Inquisition and a lifetime of house arrest for heresy.

From the starry heavens to the mean streets of Victorian London, Julie Goucher’s Angler’s Rest takes a look at the work of Charles Booth in her post Survey into Life and Labour in London (1886-1903) by Charles Booth. This is a subject very close to my own heart for three reasons – firstly, I studied at the LSE and was familiar with the library’s holdings of the original maps and notebooks used by Booth and his researchers. Secondly, a print from his map covering my home district of north east London hangs in my hallway and thirdly because it was the basis for an excellent BBC documentary series, the Secret History of our Streets.

As Julie notes, Booth’s maps classified all of London’s streets, from the golden yellow of the Upper Middle Class and Upper Class to the uncompromisingly black of the lowest class, who were labelled ‘vicious, semi-criminal’.  Find out more about the survey and its impact on campaigners for social justice at Julie’s post.

Maps from across the Atlantic feature in Lincoln Mullen’s post Mapping the Spread of American SlaveryThe work, entitled “Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the southern states of the United States”, was produced by the US Coast Survey and based on information from the 1860 census.

The Slave Populations of the US in 1860 By E. Hergesheimer (cartographer), Th. Leonhardt (engraver) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This has prompted Lincoln to create his own interactive map charting the spread of slavery in the United States between 1790 and 1860. From an initial concentration on the Atlantic seaboards of Virginia and Georgia, the map charts the swift westward move of slavery. After the absorption of Louisiana, the Mississippi and Missouri river basins mark internal concentrations of slavery that shifts the centre of the USA’s enslaved population into the heart of the continent. By contrast, a similar map of free Americans shows vast swathes of the south with very small percentages of free populations.

The Royal College of Physicians hosted a guest post from Discover Medical London this month. It had the captivating title of The precious storehouse of the chirurgeon and the post opens the lid on pre-modern medical instruments and is not for the faint hearted! 

As Discover Medical London notes, “few items in the RCP collections draw more gasps or bring tears more easily to contemporary eyes than the contents of the Prujean chest.” With tools for trepanation (boring holes in the human skull) to instruments to remove stones, the chest certainly has plenty to discomfort the squeamish.

One of the most surprising points is at the end of the post, which notes that “modern day surgeons and those who work inside operating theatres more often remark how little the machinery of their metier has changed down the centuries.” Perhaps anesthetics, antiseptics and sterilization have done more to change the level of pain and success in surgery rather than radical changes to the tools of the trade.  

Broiler Chickens By U.S. Department of Agriculture (Poultry Classes Blog photo) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

If you are reading this over a spot of supper, you might be interested Alexis Coe’s post from the Modern Farmer on how ‘Today We’re Eating the Winners of the 1948 Chicken of Tomorrow Contest’This fascinating post tells the story of how in 1948, “the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, or A&P, sponsored this national event to give the world a better chicken”. 

Arbor Acres White Rocks’ white feathered birds would be combined with Red Cornish crosses from the Vantress Hatchery to produce the Arbor Acre breed.  This bird became ubiquitious not only in the USA, but across the world – as Alexis notes, “of 2013, over half the chickens raised in China have a genetic link to the Arbor Acres stock”.

When Napoleon was defeated in the War of the Sixth Coalition in 1814 he was forced to abdicate unconditionally. He was neither put on trial for war crimes (a much later concept) nor executed. Instead, he was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba. Remarkably, he landed on the island not as a prisoner but as the sovereign ruler and retained his title of Emperor.

This island exile is the subject for Helen Webberley’s post Napoleon’s island idyll on Elba 1814-15 at her blog Art and Architecture, mainlyHelen paints a vivid picture of the island that would be the Emperor’s temporary home and asks the pertinent question – why was he treated so leniently? 

Along the way, Helen describes the Imperial residences, the improvements the Emperor made to his much reduced domains, the landscape and buildings he would have been surrounded by and the lasting legacy he made on the island. It is easy to imagine Napoleon remembering his time on Elba wistfully when exhiled to the far more remote and bleak St Helena.

George Cruikshank's cartoon of Little Boney gone to Pot depicting Bonaparte on Elba

Alice Dolan and Sally Holloway’s remarkable blog Emotional Objects focuses on what objects reveal about emotions. The featured post from this blog for the Carnival is by Susan Woodall and has the unassuming title of Mrs Pumphrey’s Key The key itself is unexceptional – Susan evocatively describes an “unremarkable mid-nineteenth-century key [that] is unlikely to shine. It boasts no precious metal, fine engraving or stitching, its only embellishment is rust”

So what makes Mrs Pumphrey’s key so special? How does it induce an emotional reaction? I won’t spoil the secrets behind this selection. Instead, I will simply urge you to read this beautiful post that really shows how everyday objects can have much deeper meaning and symbolism.

An interesting article on Why Economics Needs History from Economics and Society. I fully agree with this – there were plenty of warning bells from history that could have usefully informed decision makers and economists during the economic crisis. History is dotted with cautionary tales of bubbles, busts, inflation and social strife following economic disaster. In this post,  Alex Lenchner makes a strong argument for the role of history in economic discourse.

Finally, I thought I’d throw one of my own articles from Vaguely Interesting into the pot. In An unfortunate tête-a-tête Charles de Gaulle has a potentially embarassing meeting with General Pershing, a First World War comrade of Maréchal Pétain. The Maréchal’s journey from war hero to traitor was so complete that it surprised those who had not kept abreast of developments and resulted in a comic exchange and some deft diplomacy from de Gaulle.

Some of the other historical highlights from last month include:

  • The BBC’s series of documentaries on the Georgians, including the always amazing Lucy Worsley’s fantastic The First Georgians: The German Kings Who Made Britain and fabulous Amanda Vickery’s illuminating At Home With the Georgians
  • The Thai embassy to Louis XIV’s France is profiled in May’s History Today magazine.
  • The BBC History Magazine asks whether D-Day was a tragedy or triumph.
  • The Plantagenet Alliance’s bid for a public consultation on the ultimate resting place of the bones of Richard III fails as the High Court rejects their request. It is now almost certain that Richard III will be buried at Lincoln Cathedral.
  • The British Library stages a major exhibition on the history of comics and comic art.
  • The astonishing tale of the The Reykjavik Confessions is recounted in a BBC Crossing Continents documentary and detailed website. It tells the story of the “mystery of why six people admitted roles in two murders – when they couldn’t remember anything about the crimes”.

Written by Ian Curry in: History |

An unfortunate tête-a-tête

Maréchal Pétain’s journey from war hero to traitor was so complete that it surprised those who had not kept abreast of developments. The result was a rather surprising encounter between Charles de Gaulle and General Pershing.

General John J. Pershing was the great commander of the American forces in World War I. He led the US efforts on the western front alongside Maréchal Pétain (Commander-in-Chief of the French Army) and Field Marshal Haig (Commander of the British Expeditionary Force) and under Generalissimo Foch (Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces). In 1919 he was promoted to General of the Armies, the highest rank ever attained within a lifetime.

At the same time Charles de Gaulle finished the First World War as a captain – a world away from the top brass. It was therefore understandable that, when visiting Washington D.C. in 1944, de Gaulle was keen to meet the great American warrior.

Continue Reading…

Written by Ian Curry in: History |


Vaguely Interesting Snippets | 28 May 2014

The USSR negotiated to try and join the Axis’s ‘Pact of Steel’

Many people know that in 1939, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia stunned the world by announcing the Molotov-Ribbontrop pact. What is less well known is Stalin’s keenness to deepen the ties between the two dictatorships. In October and November of 1940 talks were held in Berlin centred on the possibility of the Soviet Union joining Germany, Italy and Japan as the fourth Axis power.

Diplomacy was again led by Molotov for the USSR and Ribbontrop for Germany. After the talks, both countries traded written proposals for an agreement. Germany never responded to the Soviet proposal dated 25 November 1940, leaving the negotiations unresolved and the USSR excluded from the Pact of Steel. Seven months later, Germany would invade the Soviet Union, pushing Stalin into the arms of the Allies.

The first colour television broadcast in the United Kingdom was on BBC 2

On 1 July 1967, BBC 2 made television history in the UK with the first colour broadcast in both the country and Europe. The channel showed the Wimbledon Tennis Championships but really showcased their superior technology which allowed for impressive and realistic colour broadcasting. By December 1967, 80% of the channel’s output was in colour. BBC1 and ITV simultaneously introduced PAL colour on UHF on 15 November 1969.

Whilst the BBC set the pace in Europe, they were still years behind the United States. Colour television had been trialed by CBS as early as 1950, whilst a proper transition began on NBC and CBS from 1953. The United States gradually transitioned from black-and-white to color television between 1953 and 1968, with larger urban markets turning to colour long before more remote areas.


Written by Ian Curry in: Snippets |

In This Week Logo

 This Week in …

  • 1897, Bram Stoker’s Dracula goes on sale in London (26 May 1897);
  • 1941, the German Kriegsmarine suffers a heavy blow as the Bismarck is sunk by the Royal Navy (27 May 1941);
  • 1987, 19-year old Matthias Rust embarrasses the Soviet military by landing a small plan in Moscow’s Red Square (28 May 1987);
  • 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reach the summit of Mount Everest 29,035 feet above sea level (29 May 1953);
  • 1431, Joan of Arc is burned at the stake as a heretic by English authorities in Rouen in Normandy (30 May 1431);
  • 1859, the world’s most famous clock starts and Big Ben sounds its first chimes from the newly built St. Stephen’s Tower (31 May 1859);
  • 1980, 24-hour news comes live from Atlanta, Georgia for the first time as CNN launches and revolutionises broadcast journalism (1 June 1980).
Written by Ian Curry in: In This Week |

Vaguely Interesting Round-up | 24 May 2014

How far can you get on British Rail for a tenner?

A rather lovely map from Chris Heathcote showing the cost of getting to anywhere in Britain by rail from London by just turning up and travelling (i.e. no advance tickets or booking – just cheap day returns). As Chris notes, the answer includes “Brighton for a tenner, Peterborough for £20, and Liverpool for £50 (£41, actually)”. 

The future for the BBC’s iconic west London Television Centre

Television Centre is one of the most iconic buildings in the UK – generations of children have had its familiar form etched into their minds from the opening titles to Going Live, in episodes of Blue Peter or the annual Children in Need appeal. It has been used as the backdrop for self-referential sketches by most of Auntie’s leading comics. The BBC have sold much of the site, although it will continue as a centre for television production and as the home of BBC Worldwide. The plans for the site include housing, a hotel and the inevitable retail / leisure mix. Still, it looks like it could be an interesting development with more than a nod to its illustrious past.


Written by Ian Curry in: Weekly round up |

Ticket to Vokzal

Why is the word for a main railway station in Russian named after the unprepossessing London area of Vauxhall?

The Russian word for a main train station is Vokzal (воксал). Say it out loud – does it remind you of anything? Say it in a suitably English accent, and it sounds like Vauxhall. Is this a coincidence, or is there an etymological connection between this minor suburban railway station on the London and South Western Railway and the grand Imperial terminii of Tsarist Russia?

Vauxhall railway station

The most beguiling story is that Vauxhall Station was the location chosen to show off British technological prowess to a Russian delegation. Just a short trip down river from the Houses of Parliament, it was an ideal location to demonstrate the workings of a railway network with a newly built station.

Continue Reading…


Vaguely Interesting Snippets | 21 May 2014

Did the phrase ‘back to square one’ originate in radio football commentary or from children’s games?

 There are two main theories explaining the origin of the phrase ‘back to square one’:

1. Returning back to the beginning in children’s games such as hopscotch and snakes and ladders; or

2. The first live radio commentary featured a Division One match between Arsenal and Sheffield United, broadcast on January 22, 1927. A grid of a football pitch divided into eight numbered squares had been printed in the previous week’s Radio Times so the commentator could describe the ball’s location. Square one meant the rear left quadrant of the defender’s side of the field.

Written by Ian Curry in: Snippets |

A stimulating proposition

Quantitative easing is a new name for an old concept – governments taking a role in stimulating flagging or flat-lining economies.  

Old fashioned economic stimulus has a new name for the twenty-first century. Concepts such as Keynesianism, state intervention and pump priming have been replaced by quantitative easing. According to Bob McTeer, quantitative easing is “different from traditional monetary policy only in its magnitude and pre-announcement of amount and timing.”

And if we accept quantitative easing is not so very far removed from traditional monetary policy, it merely becomes the latest in a long line of government economic intervention. Nick Clegg told the Liberal Democrat conference in 2012 that Britain should invest its way out of the downturn.

Continue Reading…

Written by Ian Curry in: British History,History,History Repeating |

In This Week LogoIn This Week in …

  • 1588, the Spanish Armada sets sail from Lisbon towards the English Channel  (19 May 1588);
  • 1927, Charles Lindbergh sets off in the Spirit of St. Louis in an attempt to fly nonstop across the Atlantic (20 May 1927);
  • 1881, the American Red Cross is founded in Washington, D.C. by Clara Barton and Adolphus Solomons (21 May 1881);
  • 1802, Martha Washington dies at Mt. Vernon, the family home, at the age of 70 (22 May 1802);
  • 1934, outlaws Bonnie and Clyde are shot to death in their stolen car by state police from Texas and Louisiana (23 May 1934);
  • 1991, the iconic road movie ‘Thelma and Louise’ debuts in theatres across the USA (24 May 1991);
  • 1660, Charles II, the exiled king of England, lands at Dover to assume the throne and end the Commonwealth (25 May 1660).
Written by Ian Curry in: In This Week |

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