Tag Archives: history

The History of a Future Solution

The Neanderthal didn’t know the word cylinder when he pulled one from the swamp. It was hard and light and he found a thousand usages for it. When he looked into it, the crystalline interior sparkled like heaven in the rain.

He gave it to his son, who passed it to his. It was lost and found a dozen times through the ages, resting finally behind climate-controlled glass, a light shining through its crystalline core.

Marcus saw the cylinder at the museum while wrestling with an intractable problem. His brain shouted “Eureka!”

He ran home and finished his time machine.


5 Mind-blowing Facts about English that Historians Don’t Want You to Know

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It’s easy to take our language for granted and not think about where it came from or what it looked like only a short time ago. However, the English language has had a twisted and bizarre past, and historians have tried to cover up some of the most startling facts. Here are five facts about the English language that they don’t want you to know, which will literally blow your mind.

5. Shakespeare created the future tense.

This is hard to imagine but before William Shakespeare, there was no future tense. Time in that period of history was divided in two: past and present. This was the case not only for English but every other language up until that point.

The main reason for this was that in ages past, life was very hard. Hopes for the future were slim or non-existent and people did not dwell on it. A popular proverb in Old Germanic translates as, “Let it be so: we shall all die today anyway.” Today, in this case, meant either the present or the future.

We still have a vestige of this in today’s grammar, in the expression “to be going to” as in “I am going to eat a bucket of gerbil heads.” Even though we know this means the future, it is still technically the present.

Shakespeare, however, was the first person in history to have both hope and a way to express it: i.e. through his writings. He created the future tense and then, when trying to think of a word to use for it, decided to use his own name. At first, people were confused at this new word will, but Shakespeare cleverly always used it with a future time phrase and soon people accepted the new word and the idea of the future. Eventually, many other languages noticed this and formed their own future tenses.

4. Spaces Between Words Were Created During WWI.

This one may surprise you, but take a look at any book written before 1914 and chances are, there will be no spaces between the words (later editions of these books have since put in the spaces for the benefit of the modern reader). The reason for this was that paper was extremely expensive and so publishers would push all the words together to save space. Authors were allowed to have one blank line between chapters, although they were charged 1 cent per line by the publisher (this is where the term “publisher’s penny” comes from, when referring to line breaks.)

Actually, spaces between words used to be a hot issue, with many authors in the 19th century fighting for their use. Other authors, however, were against them. Jane Austen once famously said, “I want my words huddled together so as not to catch cold, when read upon a cold winter’s night.” To give you an idea of what this looked like, here are the first few sentences of Pride and Prejudice, as they would have looked when first published:

jane austen no spaces

Jules Verne, another supporter of no spaces, declared that reading novels with no spaces “caused the reader to strive mightily and through great toil, to attain the true meaning of the text.”

Kind of like this, but with words (copyright Universal Pictures)

Kind of like this, but with words (copyright Universal Pictures)

World War One, however, changed all that. Suddenly, troops at the front were having to read dispatches quickly and accurately. They began to put spaces between words to make them easier to read in the trenches. After the war, authors who had been soldiers adopted this practice and within a few years, it had become standard, to the point that now it seems inconceivable to have text with no spaces in it.

3. The Semicolon was Created in a Bar Bet

semicolon cat


In 1871, two writers, Lewis Carroll and Benjamin Disraeli, were drinking together in a tavern in Oxford. Carroll argued that there were no more innovations to be made in literature and that the art form was more or less dead. Disraeli declared that he could create an entirely new punctuation mark and have it accepted within 5 years. They wagered a Nebuchadnezzar of fine Bordeaux wine on the attempt. Disraeli drew a period and a comma on a napkin and although he meant to draw them side by side, his hand was shaking and he accidentally drew the period above the comma. He liked the effect and this is how it has remained.

Its usage was somewhat in debate at first. Disraeli first declared that it was designated for “full stops that have not yet a full-committal” or as Punctuation Daily editor Mark Groobinsky put it, “when you think you want to stop, but you’re not sure.” It would take fifty years or more before the modern usage of the semicolon came into standard practice.

Over the next few years, Disraeli included this new mark in all his writings and even gave talks on it. Initially, he called it the ‘perio-comma’ but it was later renamed ‘semicolon’ since it “partially resembles that particular body part.

The semicolon was slow in catching on and Disraeli eventually lost his bet. However, by the turn of the twentieth century, the semicolon was an accepted punctuation mark.

2. The US Almost Adopted its Own Alphabet

Although the US has never had an official language, back in 1795, it almost had its own alphabet. Right after the Revolutionary War, there was a great deal of anti-British sentiment in the United States. It was generally agreed that changing the language would be too hard, but some senators proposed changing the alphabet to make it purely American.

It was known as the Stockton-Bloodworth Plan, named after the two senators who proposed it. The idea was to replace the standard letters with American symbols that started with those letters. Thus, “T” was replaced by a sketch of a turkey and “G” was replaced by an upright gun. Today, there are only a few examples of this type of writing in existence, all of which are stored in the Library of Congress archives.

The current American alphabet [*]

The current American alphabet [*]

Critics of the plan pointed out that many of the symbols were not uniquely American (the letter “H” was a horse); some were very hard to draw (the letter “F” was an American flag, complete with all fifteen stars and fifteen stripes); and others simply did not make sense (the letter “X” was represented by a picture of a man kicking a puppy.) Ultimately, the proposal was defeated in Congress with a vote of 18-14.

1. For a Period of 300 Years, All English Words Were Palindromes

Henry II was crowned king of England in 1133 AD. He always had trouble reading and in 1135, his court doctor declared that he “had a right-moving globe of Apollo”, as opposed to most people, whose globe of Apollo apparently moved left. This meant, according to the doctor, that the king could best read words from right to left. To facilitate both types of reading, the king declared that all words be made into palindromes, so that they could be read from either direction. The court scholars worked for two years to perfect this system (some of these words, such as “level” and “refer” still persist in English today).

The king trumpeted the achievement as a great step forward for both right- and left-moving globes of Apollo, despite the fact that he was the only person to have ever been found in the former category (historians now believe this was actually a form of dyslexia.)

Here is a sample of this type of text from the Old English version of Orosius’ The Amazons, converted to palindromes:

Old English Palindromes

Spaces added later for modern readability

This type of writing became established and persisted long after Henry II’s reign. It was finally abolished in 1443 by Henry VI when a major ink shortage caused the king to look for ways of shortening the language. Still, whenever you talk to an “Anna” or do anything “civic”, think of Henry II and his right-moving globe of Apollo.



The preceding article has been rated “S” for satire.

Happy New Year 1915!

GWT Time Machine

Happy 2015 everyone! The title is not a typo. Here is a clip from the magazine Current Events, from January 1, 1915. It talks about how to keep peace for 100 years, referring to the peace between Canada and the US after the War of 1812. 100 years later, our world can still use all the peace it can get. Here’s to a peaceful 2015.

New Years 2015


5 Days After the Titanic Disaster

GWT Time Machine

It’s amazing the different historical context makes. When I looked at the April 20, 1912 edition of a news magazine called the Pathfinder (five days after the Titanic disaster), I expected to see a huge, full-page story. Instead, I found a small account of the accident sandwiched between a section about the rising popularity of Montessori schools and another about how the US is starting to grow its own camphor trees. There was no mention of casualties and merely says that rescue operations are ongoing. However, when you think of it, the magazine was probably written several days before, when the true details were still unknown. It’s a little chilling, reading it now.

copyright David Stewartcopyright David Stewart

Are Car Wheels Made of Paper? – Questions for 1915’s Google

GWT Time Machine

Do you remember a time before the Internet? Of course you don’t. Don’t lie. However, there was such a time when you had to look in an encyclopedia to find out something or just live with not knowing it. But then, there was also a time even further back when reference books were rare and many people would write into certain magazines with questions that would be answered in a regular column.

Now imagine this: you have things you want to Google. Pick just one question and write it down. Mail it to a magazine. Wait a month or two. Hope it gets picked out of the hundreds of others they receive and then gets published for the whole world to see (nothing NSFW). Things have hardly changed a bit!

The following are excerpts from a magazine called Current Events. All of these are from 1915, which for historical context means that World War I had just started but the US was still neutral. The questions may surprise you as much as the answers.

Time Machine 1915 Google

That is almost $18,000 per shot in today’s money. Apparently war has never been cheap.


Well, that’s convenient. I think I’d rather . . . not be sued today.

Time Machine 1915 Google

Aww, that’s cute: 1.7 billion people. The world must have felt so empty back then.

Time Machine 1915 Google

This surprised me. The Supreme Court didn’t get its own building until 1935.

Time Machine 1915 Google

“We think paper wheels are not now used.” I think I’d feel better knowing for sure my wheels weren’t made of paper, no matter how much less jarring there was.

Time Machine 1915 Google

Back in 1915, the US was more the kids on the playground surrounding the fighters and yelling “Fight, fight, fight!”

Time Machine 1915 Google

Remember DC citizens: when you get that urge to vote, just go for a brisk run or do some yoga or something.

Time Machine 1915 Google

Ah, the good old days. For context, that is about the amount of oil the United States currently consumes in 10 days.

Time Machine 1915 Google

James Smith 3d, unlike his flat father and linear grandfather.

Time Machine 1915 Google

“I really want to be a citizen, honey. A little more arsenic in your tea?”

Time Machine 1915 Google

Methinks someone has a guilty conscience about cutting off President Woodrow Wilson on the highway.

I think we should annex Cuba right now. See how that turns out.

I think we should annex Cuba right now. See how that turns out.

Time Machine 1915 Google

I’m actually a little disappointed that by this point in history we don’t have supersupersupersupersupersupersuperdreadnaughts.

Time Machine 1915 Google

Ouch! Poet-laureate burn!

The “The” Club

The "The" ClubRodney strode up to the marble edifice that stood out like a symbol of power and definition. It had the air of singularity, of definitiveness about it. The word THE was inscribed in six-foot-high letters over the main doors. It was an entrance designed to give a person pause, to make them reconsider if they were worthy of entering such an august building. Rodney had no doubts about his qualifications. With enough money, you could buy anything, even something as hard to come by as a definite article.

Inside was a large foyer lined with books. A man sat behind an ebony desk. The golden nameplate said Chester T. Nomen: “The” Department.

“Can I help you?” the man said, in a voice that said he could not.

“I want to join the “The” club,” Rodney said.

“I’m afraid the “The” club is very select, sir. Invitation only.”

“I have this,” Rodney said. He pulled out a diamond the size of his fist and set it on the desk. “I can give you five more of them.”

“Well, when I said it was invitation only, I didn’t mean that I could not invite people personally,” Nomen said quickly. “None of our other members get to choose their own “The” but with you, I think we can make an exception. Would you like to follow me and view some of the choices?” He stood up and motioned Rodney to a door on the right.

“Do you have any in mind?” he asked as he unlocked the door and led the way into a cedar-lined hallway. Soft music was playing.

“How about ‘the Great’?” Rodney said.

“Well, that is one of our largest and most popular groups, to be sure. Still, it comes with some hidden drawbacks. Let me show you.” He turned down a hallway and opened a door onto a palatial room covered in silk and cedar. A richly-dressed man was cowering in the corner, rocking back and forth.

“Good morning, Alexander,” Nomen said. “How are you today? This man might be joining the “The” club. He’s wondering how ‘the Great’ is working out.”

“Pressure, so much pressure,” Alexander murmured. “Gotta be Great. Gotta be Great everyday. Can’t be average. Gotta be Great.”

“They’re not all like that, of course,” Nomen said, closing the door. “The Russians—Peter and Catherine and that lot—handle the pressure a lot better. Herod really embraces it. But still, if you choose ‘the Great’, you’re mostly in with kings and that lot and a lot of them are really full of themselves.”

“Well, how about ‘the Grey’ then?” Rodney asked.

Nomen gave him a patronizing look. “I can see why you’d like that, but we try to steer of fantasy here. That means all colors are out.”

“Fine, what would you suggest?”

Nomen thought for a moment, then started walking. “You might be a little old for ‘the Kid’. Billy pulls it off nicely, but he’s a special case. How about ‘the Knife?’ It’s a bit gruesome, but it comes with lots of notoriety.” He frowned. “Of course, Mack might be a little put out. He likes to be exclusive.”

“I want something tough and manly,” Rodney said.

“Manly, eh? Are you brave? Enough to be ‘the Lionheart’? How are your impaling skills? That worked out well for Vlad. ‘The Barbarian?’ It requires a loincloth though.”

“How about ‘the Hun’?” Rodney asked.

Nomen looked shocked. “Quiet, don’t say that word here—”

It was too late. A figure appeared around the corner, its claws dripping golden, its eyes aglow with nectar-lust. It stalked towards them, a ravenous, tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff.

“Hun . . . hun . . . hunny?” it rasped.

“We don’t say the H-word around here,” Nomen whispered. Then he looked thoughtful. “Hmm, Rodney the Pooh. Think about it. It’s got promise.”

What shape is the alphabet?

I am a very visual person. I think in pictures and metaphors and I don’t really grasp complex concepts until I have a picture of them in my head, even if it’s a picture I made up myself. When I was growing up, I thought this was just the way the world was, just like I thought that everyone knew that “C” was female and yellow. Honestly, I’m not sure how common this is, but here is how I visualize various number and cyclical systems:

The Alphabet

Visualization - AlphabetThis is how I picture the alphabet and I’m not sure why. It doesn’t make much sense why it would necessary bend at around “I” and “V” but it does and it always has ever since I was small. Whenever I picture the alphabet, this is what I see in my head.


Visualization - NumbersThis is generally how I picture most numbers. There is a bend at ten and a big one at twenty and then at 100. The problem with this one is that it is also 3-dimensional, but you get the idea.

It gets more complicated with age, since there are more bends in the line (90-100, for instance, is almost at right angles with the ones before it) but that is more 3-dimensional and I notice it tends to change as I get older (not surprisingly, I guess.)

Months of the YearVisualization - MonthsThis is probably the most intuitive, since it’s a circle, although the exact placement of things is a bit odd. For instance, New Year’s is in the upper left. July, August, and December take up much more space than some others, although I think this is because those were times of holidays (summer holidays and the Christmas season) so they seemed to take up more time in my mind. Or maybe just because they had to connect a big area between the spring and fall semesters. In any case, this is what I see in my mind when I think of the calendar or the months of the year.


Visualization - HangulThis is the Korean alphabet and won’t have much significance to most people, but I thought I’d put it in as a point of interest. This is much simpler, maybe because there are 14 letters (these are only the consonants) and maybe because I only learned them 10 years ago. In any case, there is a definite bend in the line, possibly because the later ones are the aspirated versions of earlier consonants. Who knows.


Visualization - HistoryThis is pretty much how I visualize the timeline of history. Some of these are obvious, like a bend at the divide between BC and AD. Also, there is more room for the 20th century, since we learned a lot more about that time and it has more significance for me. I’m not sure about some of the other dips and bends, but this is just how I see things. This one is also quite 3-dimensional, but that was hard to draw.

Does this seem normal to you? Totally weird? Let me know in the comments. I’m curious how other people view the world.


The Jinn of Sevilla – Visual Fiction

taken in Sevilla, Spain

taken in Sevilla, Spain

It seems that after all these years, I have become a Spaniard, and a Sevillano at that. I have fallen in love with this city of luxuriant plazas and opulent cool groves—so similar and yet so different from my faraway home of burning sands and frigid nights of crystal-dusted skies.

I first came across the strait with Tariq ibn Ziyad, landing on the rocks that still bear his name. I was in the sparks that flew from his horse’s hooves and the light that flashed along the blade of his sword. I was the fire burning in his heart that spurred him and his followers on to victory.

I was with Jabir ibn Aflah as he planned and built the Giralda where I now live and look down on the city that I have adopted over centuries of residence. It has grown slowly but I always stay the same.

There are no other jinn here. Sometimes I think about returning to those hot, dusty expanses of my youth, far over water and sand and lands that have become strange to me. The moods come but then pass. Here, in my Sevilla, I carry on an austere companionship with the people. At sunset, when I come out to bid farewell to the Great Lady for another day, the people see my fire gleaming on the edges of the shield of Faith at the top of the tower.

“¡Mira!” they cry. “The spirit of the Giralda is shining.” That is what I have become: the spirit of the Giralda. And even when the tower is finally laid low, I will not abandon this city.

The Great South Gate of Jeonju: Pungnammun Remembers

The Prosperous South Gate they named me, and I have borne that name with pride for centuries. I have been a rampart against attackers and a conduit of prosperity to my people within; the First Fortress of the Honam region, I was the first, the greatest, and now I am the last. I am Pungnammun.

Pungnammun sign

I do not track the passage of time itself beyond remarking the change from the bitter cold that grips at my mortar to the sweltering heat that bakes my stones and slate roof. Still, I remember. I remember the people, the little ones that have walked over and through me and I feel for them in their brief little lives, so full of tragedy and desire.

I remember the day when they passed judgment on three of their kind for worshipping a deity from a faraway land. They beheaded them and hung the heads from my walls. That night the skies poured down rain and soaked my stones with tears that I was unable to cry, washing the martyrs’ blood from my walls and into the eternal soil for burial. I remember an endless stream of peasants and goods entering in to sell at my markets; I remember the bodies being carried out for interment on the mountain slopes. I remember each and every one of them.

Pungnammun in the 19th century. Source.

Pungnammun in the 19th century. Source.

What I remember most happened long ago, back when my walls were intact and people and animals passed through me every day. Invaders were attacking the country from the east and a young lieutenant of the city guard left to aid in the defense. The night before he left, he met his beloved in my gatehouse and pledged to return to her, if he could. Her name was Seon-Mi; I know because he said it over and over as they held each other. I did not know his name, for she called him only “my lord”.

I never saw him again, or felt his feet on my stones and planks. Seon-Mi came every day to sit in my gatehouse and watch for his return. The tears that she shed soaked into my planks and I kept them for her, pledging silently to hold and guard her until her lord could return. I kept the rain and snow off her as she sat and waited through the years and then, one windy night, I held her body as her soul flew at last beyond the reach of my protection and help.

I am alone now. The wall has been demolished and my sisters and brothers, the North, East, and West Gates of the city, have been torn down to make way for the insatiable step of progress. Their places are forgotten, but I remain. And I remember.

Pungnammun at night

The above account is a mixture of fact and fiction concerning the iconic south gate of the city of Jeonju, South Korea, written in part for the Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge, whose theme this week is “Iconic”.

The Book of Time

A man built a house on a plot of land. He lived through good and bad and when he died, his house stood empty. People soon forgot him, but the house remembered.

It remembered his first night there, when he woke, alone, in the middle of the night and almost cried from loneliness. It remembered the joy of his wedding, the trials and worries, the accumulated pain and blood of scraped knees and new babies. The faces that came, and changed, and passed on through its rooms, it remembered.

The house was sold, and sold again, and then finally abandoned, until its windows were empty and vacant and its roof settled slowly into the floor. The years passed until the house was gone but its memories passed to the land. Even when that was built over and paved and excavated for basements and sewers, the land remembered the stories of those that had lived on it.

It remembered until the land sank into the oceans and water covered the area where the man had built his house and lived through good and bad. Its history was eventually forgotten by everyone, but it still remains, written forever in the book of time that only One can read.

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