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The Block at the Top

April 9th, 2011 No comments

This week, the Federal Government almost shut down, due to lack of an approved budget. The media was keen to point out expected impacts of the looming shutdown, one of which was to close National Parks and Monuments. Featured prominently was the Washington Monument, a close-by and convenient symbol of our National treasures. This reminded me not of budget issues, but a newspaper feature from long ago, called Ripley’s Believe It or Not, which used to be included in the Sunday funny pages. The particular feature I remember brought attention to what was at the very top of the Washington Monument – not a granite capstone, but a solid pyramid of aluminum.

Washington Monument

Washington Monument

Aluminum? Really? Why aluminum? Well, I’ll tell you. When the Washington Monument was being built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1884, it was well known that tall, pointy structures were an irresistible invitation to lightning. (This had been noted long before Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod in 1749 [1], when it was a special irony that church spires were frequent targets of the Almighty’s wrath.) Colonel Thomas Lincoln Casey, the engineer in charge of construction, asked a foundry owner, William Frishmuth, for a quote on a metal pyramid for the top of the monument, to be attached to the lightning protection system being incorporated into the obelisk. The preferred metals were copper, bronze or brass, plated with platinum. Frishmuth instead suggested aluminum, and provided a quote of $75. This was accepted.
The Ripley’s article, as I remember it, suggested that aluminum was chosen because in 1884 it was a precious metal, about the same price as silver (~ $1 an ounce). This turns out to be an urban myth. Aluminum was chosen because it conducts electricity well and was expected to remain bright with long exposure to the elements. It was expensive because an efficient technique for separating aluminum metal from its natural mineral form was yet to be invented. Moreover, casting aluminum was an especially tricky process. Aluminum tended to bubble in the casting process and leave a porous surface. With great difficulty, Frishmuth was able to cast a 100 ounce pyramid with a smooth surface, the largest aluminum casting ever done to date, to be placed on the tallest man-made structure in the world.
Aluminum Pyramid

Aluminum Pyramid

The nine inch by six inch pyramid was polished and inscribed, and displayed at Tiffany’s in New York for several days before delivery to the Corps of Engineers. The pyramid was displayed on the floor, so that people could “jump over the top of the Washington Monument” (har har). Due to the cost of materials and the difficulty in casting the aluminum, the final bill presented was for $256.10. Colonel Casey was livid, but eventually he and Frishmuth settled on $225. On December 6, 1884 the aluminum pyramid was attached in a special ceremony. It was soon discovered, however, that the lightning protection system was inadequate, and copper rods were added to bolster the system. In 1934, the system was again modified with the addition of a copper collar and taller copper rods. The copper rods go unnoticed to a visitor at the monument, standing at street level 555 feet below.
Vox’s Take: The Washington Monument is no longer the tallest man-made structure in the world (losing that title to the Eiffel Tower in 1889 [3]), but is still the tallest free-standing masonry work. The aluminum capstone, now blunted by lightning strikes, still has held up well enough to read the inscriptions. Even at the inflated price of $225, it seems to have been worth it!

Sources:

[1] Lightning Rod, Wikipedia
[2] The Point of a Monument: A History of the Aluminum Cap of the Washington Monument, Journal of the Metal, Minerals and Materials Society
[3] Washington Monument, Wikipedia

Mystery Image Two

March 11th, 2011 No comments

What's it called?

What's it called?

You’ve seen this type of bicycle before – it’s an icon of the Victorian Era. The large wheel on this direct-drive bicycle enabled the operator to go faster with a more comfortable ride. But what is it called? Click here to find out.

Categories: Mystery Image Tags: ,

Swastika: Good Luck Symbol

March 8th, 2011 No comments

Many years ago my Dad was showing me some coins and knick-knacks he had. One item, a token from a 1930-something Boy Scout National Jamboree, caught my attention. On the obverse side of the token was, naturally enough, a picture of a Boy Scout on a horse. On the reverse was a great big swastika. Dad can’t locate the coin now, but it was very similar to the one pictured here, recently posted on ebay:

Boy Scout Token Obverse

Boy Scout Token Obverse

Boy Scout Token Reverse

Boy Scout Token Reverse

What was the symbol of Nazi Germany doing on a Boy Scout token? Well, with a little reflection one realizes that the token pre-dates the prominence of the Nazi Party. Looking closely at the token, you’ll see other good luck symbols: a four-leaf clover, horseshoe, wishbone, and something I can’t make out. (Anybody know what that is?) Actually, the swastika has been a symbol of good luck, happiness and prosperity to a number of Eastern, Western and Native American cultures. [1]
Apache Basket

Apache Basket, Glen Isle Resort

At left is an Apache basket I recently photographed, part of the collection of Native American artifacts at the historic Glen Isle resort in Colorado.
Picture of Navaho Man, Miramont Castle

Picture of Navaho Man, Miramont Castle

Another example I recently came across is this picture of a Navaho man, hanging in the Miramont Castle in Manitou Springs, Colorado. The caption states the symbol means “rolling log” in Navaho culture. Not sure why that would be at the top of this picture. Check out the amazing variety of cultures that have used this symbol over the centuries on this page. It’s use dates back thousands of years, but so great was the tragedy inflicted on the human race by the Nazis that the good luck symbol they adopted for their party emblem is now in most Western cultures seen exclusively in its role as the emblem of the Nazi party and more recently, white supremacists and neo-Nazis. In Germany, the swastika is illegal to display as a symbol of “unconstitutional organizations”, a law enacted as part of that country’s denazification efforts following World War II. [2]
Catalog Image of Bf-109E with Swastika Replaced by Diamond

Catalog Image of Bf-109 with Swastika Replaced by Diamond

Restored Bf-109E with Swastika on Tail

Restored Bf-109E with Swastika on Tail

Restored BF-109E in Germany, no Swastika

Restored BF-109E in Germany, no Swastika

To take an example of how strong the stigma is and how difficult it seems to be for our culture to deal with it, let’s look at three representations of a classic Luftwaffe fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf-109E. Model airplane kit builders see advertisements for Luftwaffe aircraft model kits with the tail emblem blotted out, morphed into a big black diamond, eliminated or replaced with the black cross of the wing and fuselage insignia. (Hopefully the swastika decal is still in the kit for those who can handle authenticity.)
Even more amazing to me is to see full-size restorations and replicas of Luftwaffe aircraft with no swastika on the tail. Normally, aircraft restorers have an overriding passion for historical accuracy, but the quest for absolute authenticity apparently can’t always compete with the swastika’s stigma in Western culture. The sample Messerschmitt Bf-109E with the swastika shown correctly on the tail was flown in the Yankee Air Museum Airshow 2005. The restoration shown with no Swastika on the tail appears on a .eu (European) Web site. The aversion to even acknowledging the swastika in an historical context is not universal. The swastika continues to be used in its original positive context in Eastern cultures, but its stigmatization in the West prevents us from thinking of the symbol in anything but the “Nazi” context.

Vox’ Take: In some places, “political correctness” has trumped historical truth. That’s a shame. I think it would be very hard for most of us in Western cultures to ever think of the swastika in the positive context it once held, but I don’t think it helps to pretend it never existed. To understand history, we need to always look at the unvarnished truth.

Sources:
[1] Swastika and Cross, Swami B.G. Narasingha
[2] Strafgesetzbuch section 86a, Wikipedia
[3] Swastika, Wikipedia

Unknown

February 17th, 2011 No comments

“I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
My wife and I have used this quote around our house ever since college days, when I decorated my dorm room with a poster displaying this phrase. Trying to find the source of this mind-bending tongue-twister points out the fallibility of the Internet. I see it attributed to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, citing an unspecified Capital Hill hearing. But I rather doubt that he is responsible for originating the phrase, since he was not nominated to the Federal Reserve until 1987, and this was hanging on my dorm room wall in 1974. Besides, Wikiquote states this is misattributed to Greenspan, and states the “earliest known print reference” to Robert McCloskey, U.S. State Department spokesman, during a Vietnam-era press briefing. That’s a possibility, as is another Vietnam-era attribution to Richard Nixon. But if we really want to go back a long ways, I see it attributed to Oscar Wilde. I kind of like that, but the Web sites devoted to Wilde do not mention it, and that does not help the credibility of this reference.
Vox’s Take: I guess I have to side with the quote sites that admit defeat and attribute it to “Unknown”, whoever he was.

Sources:
[1] Viewpoint: Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve, Joseph Yam
[2] Alan Greenspan, Wikiquote
[3] PUBLIC RELATIONS Quote View, Schipul, The Web Marketing Company
[4] The Official Web Site of Oscar Wilde

Thaddeus Stevens

February 14th, 2011 No comments

Thaddeus Stevens

Thaddeus Stevens

One of the most irascible politicians of the 19th Century was the abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. As Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee during the Civil War, Stevens was one of the most powerful members of the House of Representatives and one of the leaders of the Radical Republicans. In this position, Stevens helped set much of the national policy of Reconstruction. Stevens was also known as a witty and sarcastic speaker. During a Civil War course I took, the professor related this, one of my favorite anecdotes about him:
“One day in the 1830s in the Pennsylvania Assembly, a fellow representative spoke sharply against a measure Stevens had presented. Stevens took the floor and made a short speech on the merits of the bill, completely ignoring what the prior speaker had said. As he was about to sit down, he turned to glower upon his critic and said, “Mr. Speaker, it will not be expected of me to notice the thing which has crawled into this House and adheres to one of the seats by its own slime.” Great Leveler, by Thomas Frederick Woodley, page 10.” [1]

Sources:
[1] Thaddeus Stevens Society
[2] Thaddeus Stevens, Wikipedia

Willit Run?

January 29th, 2011 No comments

Some time ago we visited the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. I had to smile when I saw the name of the North American P-51 Mustang on display there. The P-51 is named “Willit Run?”, but the nose art on this plane is not talking about this particular aircraft or any P-51 for that matter. It’s an inside joke of WWII vintage.

P-51 Mustang "Willit Run?"

Willit Run?


During WWII, as in every big war, private industry is called upon to produce war goods rather than civilian goods – “guns vs. butter”. Henry Ford took on a huge project to contract-build Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers in a new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility to be built on a farm which Henry Ford owned at Willow Run near Detroit. The facility was to be a prime example of Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy”, conceived and built on an unprecedented scale. Begun in April, 1941, it was the largest enclosed room in the world, with 3.5 million square feet. But Willow Run had a long and troubled construction and start-up time. So long and troubled a start-up, that after two years with little results the public became disillusioned with the project and derisively nicknamed the plant “Willit Run?”.
Willow Run Assembly Line

Willow Run Assembly Line

Ford persevered however, and Willow Run finally hit its stride, eventually producing at the prodigious rate of 650 B-24 bombers per month by August, 1944. At war’s end, Willow Run had produced about half of the 18,000 B-24’s which saw service in the war.
Sources
[1] Willow Run, Wikipedia
[2] Willow Run and the Arsenal of Democracy, Michigan History, Detroit News

Why Clocks Say “IIII’ Rather Than “IV”

January 22nd, 2011 1 comment

You may have noticed – or you may not have. Take a look at a clock face with Roman-style numerals. Most of them show four as “IIII” rather than “IV”. What’s up with that? We were taught in grade school (at least I was) the subtractive notation for Roman Numerals: when you count higher than three or eight you can subtract one from the next highest five or ten and save yourself a numeral. So why don’t clocks do this? Rather, why do they do this for nine but not four?

Clock Face

Clock Face

The simple answer is that this is tradition: that’s the way clock faces have always been made. But that’s not really an answer as to why. Turns out we are mighty long on theories and short on facts as to the origin of this tradition.
Theory One has it that the heavy strokes of “IIII” aesthetically balance out the “VIII” on the other side of the clock, but that theory ignores that “V” does not balance out “VII”, and also ignores the fact that “IIII” was used on the very earliest clocks, which use a 24-hour face.
24-hour clock face from Stendal, Germany

24-hour clock face from Stendal, Germany

Theory Two is that clock-makers spelled four as “IIII” because it was more economical: you could cast all the characters needed for a clock face with four “X”s, four “V”s and twenty “I”s. Nice and symmetrical. But this theory ignores the fact that most clocks with cast numerals had the whole number cast as one piece, not as individual characters. Another problem with this theory is that there does not seem to be a decline in the use of “IIII” for clocks with painted faces. And finally, the “IV” saves you three “I”s for a “V”, so that should be more economical.
Theory Three has it that the tradition originated with Roman sundials, and “IIII” was easier for peasants to understand than the use of the subtractive “IV” (this theory relies on the supposition that poor people must also be stupid). Another problem with this theory is that old sundials use “IX” for nine. What? Peasants could figure out nine but not four?
IVPITER

IVPITER

The “Right” Theory – I’m inclined to believe the practice originated something like this: clocks spell the Roman four as “IIII” because that was the common practice in all writings using Roman numbers at the time clocks were invented, around the 13th century. To be sure, the use of subtractive notation was in use at the time, e.g. nine was always “IX”, not “VIIII”, but four was an exception. Why is this? The theory is that “IV” was simply inappropriate for Romans to use for a number, because it was the first two letters, and consequently abbreviation, for “IVPITER”, the Latin script spelling for the god Jupiter. Jupiter was not just any god, he was the king of the gods. So out of respect for Jupiter or perhaps just to avoid misunderstanding, four had to be “IIII”. I first read about this theory in an article by Isaac Asimov some 30 years ago, in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, if I remember correctly. If the theory was good enough for Isaac Asimov, by golly, it’s good enough for me. The real answer may be lost to history, but it’s certainly a fun little anomaly to guess about.
Sources:
[1] FAQ: Roman IIII vs. IV on Clock Dials, UBR, Inc.
[2] Why does a clock face have ‘4’ as ‘IIII’ instead of ‘IV’ ?Askville by Amazon, Askville by Amazon
[3] CLOCKING THE FOURS: A NEW THEORY ABOUT IIII, Paul Lewis Post
[4] Time is racing, www.24hourtime.info

Mystery Image One

January 18th, 2011 No comments

Mystery Person

Mystery Person

No portrait of him exists, so his statue is an interpretation by the artist. At 21 years of age, this man was hanged as a spy in New York. His last words are reported to have been “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Who was he? Click on the photo to see.

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Alferd Packer

January 18th, 2011 No comments

Alferd Packer in Prison

Alferd Packer in Prison

Alfred “Alferd” Packer is Colorado’s (indeed, the Nation’s) only convicted cannibal. In the winter of 1874, Alferd Packer and his companions became lost and snow-bound in the mountains near Gunnison, Colorado. In the spring, Packer emerged alone from the wilderness and was accused of murdering and eating his companions. Packer maintained his innocence, but District Court Judge Melville Gerry was unmoved. Although not supported by the official court records, legend has it that the judge told Packer at his sentencing, “Stand up, Alferd Packer, you voracious, man-eating, son-of-a-bitch. There were seven Democrats in Hinsdale County, and you ate five of them.”

Sources:
[1] Alferd Packer, Wikipedia

Aviation Photos

January 9th, 2011 No comments

The aviation photos page contains photos taken by me of historically significant aircraft, usually at an airshow.

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