This is an auto redirect page. The Quirky Past Slightly Odd History Wed, 29 Aug 2018 09:40:40 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 The Quirky Past 32 32 The April 5th Anomaly Fri, 27 Apr 2018 13:07:41 +0000 The Soviet Union was not good at acknowledging failures. If a space mission did not make it to orbit then it did not get given an official designation of name and number.

An R-7 rocket blasted off from Baikonur on 5th April 1975. In a capsule perched on top were two cosmonauts, Vasili Lazarev and Oleg Makarov. They were expecting to spend 60 days on board Salyut 4, Russia’s latest space station.

Oleg Makarov

The first four and a half minutes of the flight went perfectly. The next phase of the flight should have been the second stage shutting down and falling away before the third stage of the rocket took the cosmonauts into orbit. But instead, a siren sounded inside the spacecraft, a ‘Booster Failure’ light came on and the cosmonauts felt the rocket pitch and roll dramatically.

Three of the explosive latches that connected the second stage to the third stage had failed. The two parts of the rocket were still connected. The third stage had ignited but it was dragging several tons of half-detached booster behind it. After a few seconds of mayhem the automatic systems detected something was seriously wrong and activated the abort program.

Because they were well into the flight, the Soyuz capsule had to separate from the rocket, re-enter the atmosphere and land by parachute. They came down on the steep side of a snow clad mountain, and promptly started to slide down the slope. Unknown to Lazarev and Makarov the slope ended in a 500 foot vertical drop. Luckily the parachute lines got caught on shrubs and brought them to a halt. The two men then emerged into deep snow before donning survival gear to try and keep warm.

Vasili Lazarev

They were unsure exactly where they were and Lazarev was worried they might have landed in China. So he burned some documents relating to a top secret experiment they were due to carry out. In reality they were still in Russia, but they had to spend a night on the mountainside before being rescued. To add insult to injury the two cosmonauts were told they would not get the spaceflight bonus usually paid after a mission. They had to appeal to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev before finally being paid.

Unfortunately for the Soviets, the flight was only a few months before the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission. This meant they had to reveal the details of this embarrassing failed mission to NASA. On the official records though it was not a flight, simply the ‘5th April Anomaly’.

Soyuz: A Universal Spacecraft – Rex Hall, David Shayler
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9th December 1868 – The First Traffic Lights Tue, 02 Jan 2018 14:36:55 +0000 In the 1860s London was the largest city in the world, with 3 million people squeezed into an area much, much smaller than the present-day city. This high population density caused many problems. These ranged from epidemics of infectious diseases, to pollution from the six million tons of coal that were burned each year, and squalid and overcrowded slum housing.

One of the most obviously visible problems was traffic. The motor car had yet to make an appearance, but the streets were filled with hundreds of thousands of horse-drawn carts, carriages and buses. Traffic jams were a constant problem and were at their worst around the bridges that crossed the River Thames, which created bottlenecks. The lack of control over the traffic made it dangerous as well. Over 1000 people were killed and more the 1300 injured on London’s roads in 1866.

A year earlier, in 1865, a 36 year-old engineer, John Peake Knight, had contacted the Metropolitan Police with an idea. He was Superintendent of the South Eastern Railway and thought it should be possible to use signals, like those used on the railways, to control and improve the flow of traffic.

John Peake Knight – looking suitably noble.

As ever the idea took a while to be developed but by the end of 1868 a prototype system was ready. It was installed on the north side of Westminster Bridge, close to the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. The system used railway style semaphore arms to indicate when traffic should stop and when it could go. At night the arms were replaced with gas powered lights. The lights also followed the colour coding system used on railways, red for stop and green for go. These were the first traffic lights anywhere in the world.

Because it was a totally new concept for road users, posters were put up near the signals explaining how the system worked. There was no way of automating the system, so a policeman had to stand next to the signals to operate them – not a great job in the depths of winter. The signals went into operation on 9th December 1868.

The system caused an immediate improvement in traffic flow, and John Knight was confident that more sets of signals would be installed in other London traffic hot spots. Then disaster struck. In early January 1869 the gas supply developed a leak and one of the lights exploded, leaving the policeman operating them with a badly burned face. At this point the system was considered too dangerous for further development and whole project came to sudden and disappointing end.

It would be nearly sixty years before the next traffic lights were installed in London. In 1925 a set using safer electric lamps went into use near Piccadilly. As anyone who drives in London can testify, quite a few more sets have followed since.


The Times
An Encyclopedia of the History of Technology – ed. Ian McNeil
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The Strange Gadgets Supplied to Resistance groups in World War Two (Part 2) Thu, 05 Oct 2017 10:15:28 +0000 The SOE had a big section devoted to forgery. Its staff, some of them recruited directly from prison cells, produced over a quarter of a million fake documents. Most of these were individually produced for specific agents. They ranged from passports and ID cards to Travel Passes, Work Permits and currency.

One of the biggest operations by the Forgery section involved the creation of 300,000 fake ration cards. These cards were issued to German soldiers when they returned home on leave. They enabled them to get food in their home towns and cities. In April 1943, the RAF dropped the counterfeit cards over several German cities. After years of food restrictions, the temptation to pick up a ration card lying in the street and use it to get a bit more to eat would have been strong. Enough people used, or attempted to use, the fake cards for the confusion they caused to be reported in German newspapers.

Cigarettes can be harmful to health

In an era when most of the population were smokers, cigarettes provided an unobtrusive way to carry flammable material around. Over the course of the war, SOE produced over 43,000 ‘special’ cigarettes for use by agents.

These were not all the same. Great care was taken to use the correct paper and even tobacco for the country where the agent was operating. There were two types of cigarette. Some contained incendiary materials, so lighting a cigarette and then dropping it onto something flammable could start a significant fire. Others contained a small explosive charge. This could be used to create a distraction or, for example, to blow open a locked door.

It was, of course, essential for the agents’ health that they remembered which cigarettes in their holder or packet were real, and which had a more dramatic purpose.

The need to scratch

One of the SOE’s official objectives was to undermine the moral of the enemy forces. To achieve this they sometimes resorted to very primitive forms of chemical and biological warfare.

The powdered seeds of the Mucuna plant have another name – itching powder. From 1941 this was sent to resistance groups to be added whenever possible to the uniforms and bedding of German forces. It worked. About 25,000 U-boat uniforms were treated and at least one crew returned to port under the impression that they all had severe dermatitis.

The Norwegian resistance went further. They managed to add the powder to the inside of condoms which were due to be used by occupying troops. Numerous hospital visits to treat painfully irritated private parts followed. The Norwegians even raised some funds. They sold condoms with added itch to local brothels, and made a healthy profit.

Who hasn’t washed?

Smells were also used to good effect. The SOE chemists developed the S-Capsule. This contained a particularly unpleasant blend of fatty acids. The effect was to replicate very powerful body odors. The capsules were usually released in confined spaces such as crowded bars. As a minimum the bar would rapidly lose all of its customers. If conversation along the lines of ‘Well it’s definitely not me …’ escalated, the capsules could set off a brawl between troops.

Sometimes fluid from an S-capsule was squirted directly onto the uniforms of senior Nazis. The German Foreign minister had the embarrassment of hurriedly leaving a formal diplomatic reception in Turkey when his coat suddenly became extremely smelly.

There is anecdotal evidence that laxatives were also sometimes used. The wine served to the Italian High Command on the eve of a major battle was allegedly laced with the purgative phenolphthalein. The following day the generals were far too busy in the bathroom to focus on the battle. They lost.

Abrasive powder

Hindering transport was a major objective of the SOE. This was often done by replacing the lubricant in wheel bearings with an abrasive powder. After a few miles of travelling the wheel would seize up.

This tactic had a significant impact soon after the allied invasion of France on D-Day. The Second Panzer Division was in the south of France and they were immediately ordered to Normandy. The tanks were loaded onto rail wagons and the trains headed north. After less than 65 miles everything ground to a halt with overheated and seized bearings.

A SOE group, which included two French schoolgirls, had sabotaged each of the tank carrying wagons; replacing the oil in the bearings. The tanks had to be unloaded and travel many miles by road. All along the route the French Resistance did everything they could to slow their progress. The division did not reach Normandy until 17 days after the first landings. Any chance of quick retaliation had gone.

Exploding Poop

While tanks and armoured vehicles needed a big explosion to be disabled, other road vehicles were much more vulnerable. A wrecked staff car could still do a good job at blocking a road. The SEO designed a tire burster. It contained a small amount of plastic explosive and a pressure sensitive detonator. The whole device was less than 2 inches in diameter.

Then it was down to the camouflage section to disguise these ‘mini-mines’. Many of the people working here had previously worked in the film and theatre industries; so they had plenty of experience of making the fake look real.

Animal droppings were the preferred disguise, as they could be left lying on a road without causing suspicion. To keep things realistic, horse droppings were made for use in northern Europe, mule dung for Italy and camel poop for North Africa. To ensure accuracy, samples of the real thing were obtained from London Zoo and then reproduced in plastic. The poop was then carefully painted to look authentic.

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Steaming Along – The erratic history of steam powered road vehicles. (Part 3) Thu, 05 Oct 2017 10:06:03 +0000 Based in Le Mans, France, a town forever associated with motorsport, Amedee Bollee made bells for a living. However, for ten years from 1873 to 1883 he turned his attention to steam vehicles. One of them, L’Obeissante, could carry 12 passengers and it made the 140 mile journey from Le Mans to Paris in 18 hours.

Bollee’s most impressive creation was ‘La Rapide’. Specifically designed for speed, this car had independent suspension on all four wheels and could be operated by a single person. Designed for a top speed of 31mph, it actually reached 38mph on a rough dirt road. The ride was probably quite bouncy! La Rapide was fitted with a bell, as opposed to the whistle used on Grenville’s steam carriage . It took a while for car manufacturers to settle on the horn as the preferred warning device.

With the arrival of the twentieth century, steam car technology took some big steps forward. Boilers were heated by kerosene rather than coal. Suspension, steering, tires and bodywork were also radically improved.

The leaders of this new era were twin brothers Freelan and Francis Stanley. Their cars had a reputation for speed and power and were regular competitors in races. In 1906 a Stanley Steam Car set a new world land speed record of 127mph. This was not just a record for a steam car, but for any motorized vehicle. It was not broken by a gasoline powered car until 1910.

Stanley cars were not just novelties. The factory regularly produced several hundred cars per year. It was a drop in the ocean compared with Henry Ford’s output, but it was still serious manufacturing. The problem the Stanley brothers had was the cost of their cars. They were typically eight times the cost of Model-T Ford. Francis Stanley died in an accident in 1918 and soon after Freelan sold his shares. Without the twins to keep it moving forward the company went into a decline and it closed in 1924. This Doble as the top steam car company in the world.

Abner Doble had built his first steam car when he was still in high school. He then created some more prototypes with his three brothers, before they produced the Doble Detroit. This caused a sensation when it was exhibited in New York in 1917. Over 5,000 orders were placed and many deposits taken. The car was revolutionary. It had key ignition when most cars still had starting handles. This was combined with a powerful engine and simple controls.

A Doble Model E
Credit – N A Parish

However, the brothers just could not produce the car in these numbers. In reality less than 100 Doble Detroits were made. By 1924, the brothers had developed the Doble Model E. This could be ready to move off just forty seconds after turning the key and accelerate to 40mph in less than 13 seconds. The top speed was about 90mph. It was another impressive car. TV host Jay Leno owns one of the few remaining examples. He has said he is regularly amazed by the car’s smoothness and force of acceleration. But, once again, producing the cars in quantity was a problem. Only twenty-four were ever made.

The company’s downfall came when Abner became involved in the illegal sale of shares when he was desperate for cash. A long legal case followed, and although Abner was finally acquitted, Doble Steam Motors folded in 1931. The story of steam cars seemed to have come to an end.

For over seventy years steam cars seemed to be just a historical novelty; an engineering dead end. They had been ousted by the all-conquering internal combustion engine.

Then, in 2009, a group of slightly eccentric enthusiasts rolled into Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of California. The British Steam Car Challenge had arrived. Their car was called ‘Inspiration’ and their aim was to set a new world speed record for a steam car. They wanted to beat the speed set by the Stanley Steamer way back in 1906.

Inspiration in action
Credit –

Inspiration had been in development for more than 10 years. It weighed 6,600 pounds and consumed 16 gallons of liquid petroleum gas and thirty gallons of water every time it made a three minute run. After weeks of problems the team finally achieved the necessary two fast runs. On 25th August 2009 an officially timed and sanctioned speed of 139.843mph was reached – a new world record.

The car then went straight to a museum and Inspiration will probably never run again. Unless there is a dramatic change in the direction of motor car development, it seems quite likely that the steam car speed record will stand for another 100 years.

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The Strange Gadgets Supplied to Resistance groups in World War Two (Part 1) Thu, 05 Oct 2017 09:39:21 +0000 In July 1940 many countries in mainland Europe were occupied by Nazi forces. Britain was expecting to be invaded within months. Against this background, Winston Churchill authorised the formation of a new secret service. It was called the ‘Special Operations Executive’ or SOE for short. The aim of the SOE was to make life as difficult as possible for invading and occupying forces. They did this through a network of their own agents and by establishing links with existing resistance operations.

The SOE got the nickname ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Conduct’ on account of their unconventional and sometimes underhand methods, techniques and equipment. They did not play by the rules.

A diverse group of scientists, engineers and craftsmen worked for the SOE. Their job was to devise equipment to help disrupt the enemy forces at every opportunity. Much of this equipment was fairly conventional – basically variations on guns and bombs. However, they also did some impressive lateral thinking and came up with plenty of novel ideas.

A young man called Ian Fleming, who worked for British Naval Intelligence, encountered some of the SOE’s more exotic inventions and devices in the course of his job. Then, in the 1950s, he started to write books about a spy called James Bond. Q-Branch, the department which supplies Bond with his gadgets, was directly inspired by the SOE’s inventors.

Exploding Rats

Imagine you are a fireman on a steam train. The train’s job is to transport troops, or maybe arms. Your job is simple, just keep shovelling coal into the firebox to keep the train moving. Then you spot something. Lying on the coal is a dead rat. There is a simple way to get rid of that. The next load into the fire contains both coal and the unfortunate rat. Then you carry on shovelling. A little while later the firebox explodes.

The SOE created a hundred exploding rats. One of the staff obtained the dead rodents by posing as a student carrying out research. The rats’ insides were then replaced with plastic explosive and a heat sensitive detonator. The idea was that after being dropped onto piles of coal at rail depots and power stations, they would finish up exploding inside furnaces.

In reality, the first batch of exploding rats was captured by the Germans before they could be used. This had a surprising effect. Worried that there might be thousands of potentially lethal dead rats all across Europe, the Nazis expended a huge amount of time and effort looking for them, with transport often delayed. The SOE declared the operation a success, if in a slightly unplanned way.

The Ultimate Permanent Marker

Resistance to occupation was not all about de-railing trains and blowing up ammunition dumps. Sometimes it was a case of just getting a message across. Often the message was in the form of graffiti; an anti-Nazi slogan painted on a wall or shop window. The problem was that standard paint was fairly easy to remove, so the graffiti might only be on display for a few hours.

Working with ICI, one of the UK’s biggest chemical companies, the SOE came up with a cream that looked innocuous and could pass as face cream or toothpaste in a search. They even gave it an authentic cosmetic style smell. However, when smeared on to a piece of glass the cream did not just sit on the surface of the glass, it etched into it. When the occupying force washed the cream off, they found the message they were trying to remove was permanently on display. The only solution was to completely replace the window or windscreen.

Things went slightly wrong in 1943 when a batch of this special cream was sent to SOE agents in North Africa. It was packaged to look like tubes of toothpaste. Unfortunately the instructions on how to use it did not arrive. So, thinking they were being sent some difficult to get toiletries, some of the agents quickly applied it to their toothbrushes. This resulted in some very sore mouths and nicely etched teeth!

Radios in Disguise

The image of the French Resistance lifting floorboards to reveal a secret radio receiver is familiar from many films and TV shows. Although only able to receive signals, these radios were a vital way to give the resistance coded information and instructions.

Early in the war the radios were cumbersome, fragile and difficult to hide. To improve things, the SOE produced the ‘Miniature Communications Receiver Mk1’ (MCR1). From late 1943 onwards, up to 500 of these receivers were sent out each week to agents in both Europe and the Far East.

The word miniature means different things at different times, and by today’s standards the radio was quite big. It measured 8 inches by 3.5 inches and was two inches thick – about the size of a large paperback book. However, at a time when most home radios took up as much space as a microwave oven and the transistor did not exist, the MCR1 was impressively small.

The radio was housed in a tin which usually contained biscuits (cookies). This allowed it to be kept in a living room or kitchen without arousing suspicion. The British biscuit company Huntley and Palmer must have wondered why they had to send quite so many empty tins to the Ministry of Defence. The container gave the French the idea for their nickname; the MCR1 became ‘le receptuer biscuit’.

Pharmaceutical Assistance

To help cope with the demands of operating behind enemy lines, SOE agents were issued with a range of different drugs. Some were for their own use and some for use on the enemy.

Letters of the alphabet identified the different drugs. The ‘A’ tablet was the most innocuous, an air-sickness pill. If you have just parachuted into an enemy area the last thing you want to be doing is throwing up. Then, when you were in the middle of a long mission and needed to keep alert for longer, or get a burst of energy, you took a ‘B’ tablet. This was an amphetamine, Benzedrine.

During operations, agents might use an ‘E’ capsule. This was a fast acting anaesthetic, which knocked a person out for a minute or two. If you needed someone to be out of action for longer you dissolved a ‘K’ tablet in their drink. Morphine based, one tablet would put an average sized man to sleep for four hours. But agents had to be careful which drink they were lacing, as ‘K’ tablets had a bitter taste when added to tea.

The item no agent wanted to use was the ‘L’ tablet – a lethal cyanide suicide pill.

Please click below to continue the story.

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Steaming Along – The erratic history of steam powered road vehicles. (Part 2) Thu, 05 Oct 2017 09:26:21 +0000 By the 1860s many different inventors were working on steam cars. Railways powered by steam locomotives were well established, so making something smaller and lighter that could run on roads seemed to be the logical next step.

Henry Taylor, a watchmaker based in Quebec, produced a ‘Steam Pleasure Carriage’. This was demonstrated at Country Fairs. Taylor issued a challenge that he would race against any trotting horse, and his local newspaper described his buggy as ‘the neatest thing of the kind yet invented.’

After showing off his buggy for several years in this way, Mr. Taylor seems to have lost interest. One theory is that he had a crash, whilst another is that he realized his invention was not going to make him any money.

Whatever the reason, the Steam Pleasure Carriage was dismantled and stored in Henry Taylor’s attic. This was good news for Canada’s museums as the first automobile produced in the country survived and is now on display to the public.

The mid-nineteenth century was also a time when many new designs for bicycles or velocipedes were being produced. As steam engines became smaller, people worked on making a powered bicycle.

One of the first of these to actually work was made in France. An iron framed bicycle made by Pierre Michaux was fitted with a small steam engine manufactured by Louis-Guillame Perreaux. The exact date it was made is not known, only that it was sometime between 1867 and 1871. The Michaux-Perreaux Steam Velocipede has a claim to be the world’s first motorcycle. However this is disputed.

As far as some motoring historians are concerned, a motorcycle has to have an internal combustion engine – steam engines just do not count. In addition, on the other side of the Atlantic, another inventor had produced a very similar machine at about the same time.

Also sometime between 1867 and 1871, Sylvester Roper from Massachusetts produced a steam-powered velocipede. His machine is now part of the Smithsonian Museum’s collection and is the oldest self-propelled road vehicle they have. It is very unlikely that anyone will produce definitive evidence as to whether France or the USA had the first working steam motorcycle. So it is probably best to declare a dead heat.

Like Henry Taylor, Sylvester Roper took his steam vehicle to country fairs to demonstrate the new technology. He was also keen on setting speed records and that seems to have led to his downfall.

A newspaper report of Sylvester Roper’s sad demise

Roper took a later version of his velocipede to a cycle track in Boston on 1st June 1896. By this time he was 72 years old. The idea was to see if the machine could work as a pacemaker for bicycle races. He made a few demonstration laps and then showed how fast his invention could go. He covered a mile at an average of just under 30mph. Roper knew he could go faster; he had reached 40mph in the past. If he could do that in this formal setting it would be an official record.

The bike began to circle the track but halfway through the attempt Roper wobbled and then ran off the track, being thrown from the cycle. Roper was dead. Investigations revealed that he did not die as a result of the crash, but from a heart attack whilst riding. The adrenalin rush of the record attempt had killed him.





Meanwhile, over in England, a railway engineer called Robert Grenville had made his own steam carriage. It was a three wheeler and owed quite a lot to railway technology. The carriage is now at the National Motor Museum in Hampshire, England.

Grenville’s carriage in action

It still runs, and the museum thinks it is the oldest working self-propelled road vehicle in the world. However it does need a crew of three. One person steers, another looks after the boiler and the third controls the throttle and the brakes. It is fitted with a whistle to warn pedestrians. This is probably a good idea as it can hit a top speed of 20mph.

The steam carriage is not particularly fuel efficient though. It gets through six pounds of coal and five gallons of water for every mile it travels. That is quite a big carbon footprint.

Please click below to continue the story.

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Steaming Along – The erratic history of steam powered road vehicles. (Part 1) Fri, 02 Jun 2017 16:08:25 +0000 Steaming Along – The erratic history of steam powered road vehicles. (Part 1)

Today, when it comes to road transport, there is a slow but steady move away from the internal combustion engine and towards hybrid and electric power. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was another challenger – steam. Steam was the power behind countless miles of railways and thousands of ships that travelled across the oceans. Surely steam could also provide power on the road.

It all started with Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, who was born in 1725. By this time the use of steam engines to pump water from mines was well established. But these machines were huge. Each needed a specially constructed building. In the 1760s, when Cugnot was working as an engineer in the French Army, his thoughts turned to the idea of a steam engine that could power a vehicle.

His aim was to produce a horseless gun carriage. This would be used to move heavy pieces of artillery. He called his design the ‘Fardier a vapeur’, which very roughly translates into English as ‘Steam Cart’. The Fardier had three wheels and weighed in at about 2.5 tons. This included a steam engine, a boiler and a mechanism to convert the back-and-forth motion of the engine into a rotary motion to turn wheels.

The first automobile accident. Credit Wikimedia/Public domain

It worked, but only just. The Fardier’s top speed was a sedate 2mph and it had to stop every 10 minutes or so to build up steam – so it could only travel about 600 yards at a time. It was also unstable and difficult to steer.

Despite these failings Cugnot’s invention is recognized by engineering historians as the first self-propelled vehicle to carry a human being. In other words it was the world’s first automobile. Fittingly the Fardier is also credited with being the cause of the first ever car accident. During tests, it ran out of control and crashed, at 2mph, into a garden wall.

Despite a second prototype being built, the French Army lost interest in Cugnot’s invention. The next serious attempt to make a steam powered road vehicle was thirty years later. A Cornishman called Richard Trevithick created a steam carriage which got the nickname ‘Puffing Devil’.

With an engine cast at a local foundry, the ‘Puffing Devil’ was assembled at a blacksmith’s shop near the town of Redruth. The first test run took place on Christmas Eve 1801. Trevithick had several passengers and one, Stephen Williams, wrote an account: ‘It was a stiffish hill … but she went off like a little bird. She was going faster than I could walk, and went on up the hill about a quarter or half a mile farther’. The first journey was a success and it is commemorated with a plaque on the hill. It was the first time passengers were carried in a steam vehicle. The trip up the hill also inspired a folk song called ‘Camborne Hill.’

Another test run a few days later did not end quite so well. The steam carriage broke down on a bit of rough road. It was mid-winter and there was a pub nearby, so Richard Trevithick and his friends decided to go there for a meal and some drinks while they worked out what to do next. Unfortunately they forgot to put out the fire in the boiler. The water ran dry and, with nothing to boil, the ‘Puffing Devil’ went up in flames.

A replica of the Puffing Devil. Credit – Chris Allen

Trevithick built a second steam carriage which he demonstrated in London. He was hoping to raise money to carry on his work. However the trial journeys he made just showed that a carriage pulled by horses was both cheaper and more comfortable. Richard Trevithick carried on working with steam engines, but from then onwards they were either stationary or ran on rails.

Please click below to continue the story.

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Why are there so many Georgetowns? Mon, 22 May 2017 13:41:41 +0000 Whilst working on a different project, I kept coming across places called Georgetown. This led me to wonder how many different Georgetowns (or George Towns) there are. Despite the best efforts of Google and Wikipedia, I haven’t been able to come up with a definitive answer. However there are at least 50 scattered around the world. This includes over 35 in the USA alone. So why is this place name so popular?

In many cases it is down to British monarchs. From 1714, when George I came to the throne, until 1830, when George IV died, Britain had a King called George. During this period the country was rapidly expanding its Empire and setting up many new colonies. The main town of any new settlement was often named after the ruler at the time.

This explains, for example the Georgetown in Penang Malaysia. The city was founded in 1786 when the British East India Company did a deal with the local Sultan. The British would provide military protection in exchange for the island of Penang. Once the deal was agreed, construction of both a fort and the town started.  The town grew rapidly and the adjoining port was soon one of the busiest in Southeast Asia.

In some cases the symbol of loyalty came a bit too late. Georgetown in the Bahamas was created about in 1783 when a group of plantation owners decided to leave the newly independent United States of America. They had supported Britain during the Revolutionary War and wanted nothing to do with the new nation. Loading both their goods and their slaves onto ships, they sailed to the island of Great Exuma in the Bahamas to start a new life. Their new settlement was named after the King, and for a few years (until the soil was exhausted) the island produced cotton. This was a big change, as for a hundred years or more before the arrival of the settlers Great Exuma had been popular as a base for pirates.

One of the last of the many Georgetowns named in honour of a King is in India. In 1644, when the British East India Company built a fortified warehouse in the city of Madras (now Chennai), they called it Fort St George. The English merchants lived inside the fort and a township grew up outside the walls. This was home to the Indians who worked at the fort and it had the not very politically correct name of ‘Black Town’. In 1911, after a visit by King George V the name was changed to Georgetown.

In the USA some of the early Georgetowns have the same colonial origins. Dating back to 1729, Georgetown is the third oldest city in South Carolina. It was built on the profits from plantations producing indigo (for blue dye) and rice. Large numbers of slaves worked in the fields around the town, and they made up about 85% of the population. By 1757 there were enough profits for the local ‘Indigo Society’ to pay for a new school; although this was for white children only. Despite the town being named after the British King, the residents soon began to feel the need to rule themselves. Two of the town’s planters, Thomas Lynch Senior and his son, signed the Declaration of Independence. Then, not surprisingly, given its economic dependence on slaves, the town went on to give strong support to the Confederate forces during the American Civil War.

Many of the American Georgetowns have a more practical reason for their name. A person with George as either a first or last name set up a trading post, river crossing or mine. Then from this small beginning a town grew.

A good example of this is Georgetown Colorado. In July 1858, William Green Russell led a small group of prospectors into the Rocky Mountains to look for gold. They found about 20 ounces of the precious metal in an area that is now a suburb of Denver. This small find started what became known as the ‘Pikes Peak Gold Rush’.

Over the next three years about 100,000 people moved into the area, all of them hoping to find a fortune in the ground. Many mining camps and towns were started. Some, like Denver, developed into cities and many others faded away into ghost towns. A few, including Georgetown, survived as small towns.

George Griffith and his brother David discovered gold in the Clear Creek Valley on 17th June 1859. The cabin they built on the site became the first building of Georgetown (presumably they decided this sounded better than ‘Davidtown’).  The town peaked in 1877. It had a population of 5,000; a bank, five churches, two newspapers and a telegraph office. Today the town is popular with tourists attracted by the scenic location, the well-preserved historic buildings and a heritage narrow gauge railroad.

Then there is Georgetown Alaska. If you ever wanted to visit you would have to be a serious traveller. It is over 250 miles from the nearest road system and just 350 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It can only be accessed by boat or plane. In the winter you will need a snowmobile. The village is on the banks of the Kuskokwim River, and fishing (mainly salmon) is an important part of the local economy.

Until 1909 the area was known as Keledzhichagat, and was inhabited only by native Alaskans. Then gold was found on the banks of a nearby river and soon 300 prospectors had arrived. Conveniently all of the first three men to set up trading posts were called George (Fredericks, Morgan and Hoffman); so the new name was a foregone conclusion. Now Georgetown Alaska is a Native Village governed by a Tribal Council. A slightly bigger Georgetown, the one in Washington DC, has similar origins. It started in about 1745 when George Gordon set up a tobacco trading post on the banks of the Potomac.

This could turn into a very long post if I am not careful. After all there at least 45 other Georgetowns that I haven’t mentioned yet; but you have probably got the idea by now.

So wherever you go in the world, and particularly if you are in North America or somewhere that used to be part of the British Empire, there is likely to be a Georgetown not too far away. We have probably passed the peak of popularity, as quite a few former Georgetowns have been renamed. But then again there is a good chance that sometime in the 21st century there will be another King George, and who knows what will happen then?

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9th May 1671 – Colonel Thomas Blood Steals the English Crown Jewels Tue, 09 May 2017 08:54:35 +0000 Born in Ireland in 1618, by 1671 Thomas Blood had already had a colourful life. He initially fought for King Charles I in the English Civil War, but then switched sides and joined the Roundhead army. After the civil war he was involved in an attempt to kidnap the Duke of Ormonde from Dublin Castle and hold him for ransom. He called himself Colonel, although he does not seem to have ever been given that rank when serving with any army.

In the spring of 1671 Blood came up with a plan to considerably boost his fortunes. He dressed up as a parson and visited the Tower of London with a woman who pretended to be his wife. They paid to see the Crown Jewels and Blood’s ‘wife’ faked an illness that allowed them to get to know the Master of the Jewel House, Talbot Edwards, and his family.

Blood then returned to the Tower with a thank you gift of four pairs of gloves for Mrs Edwards. Thomas Blood gained the trust of the Edwards family and then made them an offer it was difficult to refuse. Blood announced that he had a nephew who was looking for a wife and that Talbot Edwards’ daughter would be an ideal candidate. If the two married, the daughter would be eligible to a considerable income. Another visit was arranged to allow the couple meet each other.

On 9th May 1671 Blood arrived with his ‘nephew’ and two friends. Whilst Mrs Edwards and her daughter were preparing dinner, the five men went to the basement where the jewels were kept.  Once they were in the chamber a cloak was thrown over Mr Edwards and he was hit with a mallet, bound, gagged and stabbed.

Blood then removed the metal grille that was protecting the jewels. Things took a slightly comical turn at this point, with Thomas Blood using the mallet to flatten the crown so it could be hidden beneath his cloak. One of the ‘friends’ stuffed the Orb down his trousers, which must have had the potential to be quite painful! In the meantime another member of the gang cut the Sceptre in two as it was too long to fit in the swag bag they had with them.

Then Talbot Edwards who, despite being 77 years old, had put up a brave struggle, managed to remove his gag and shout – ‘Treason! Murder! The crown is stolen’. This coincided with the arrival of Edward’s son. Knowing the game was up, Blood and his fellow robbers fled toward their horses.

On their way they dropped the Sceptre and shot one of the warders trying to stop them. But they didn’t get far and Thomas Blood was soon in chains. He refused to answer questions from anyone but the King. When he arrived at the palace, he was interrogated by King Charles II and the King’s brother Rupert. Bizarrely, the King pardoned Blood and gave him land in Ireland that had an income of £500 a year. Blood also became a regular at Court from that point on.

There are three main theories to explain why King Charles pardoned Thomas Blood. The first is that the King feared an uprising if Blood was put on trial and executed. The second is that Charles liked a rascal and admired Blood’s audacity in making the attempt and almost succeeding. Finally, the robbery may have been an inside job. The King was short of money and it is possible he arranged for Blood to steal the jewels in order to raise cash for the royal coffers. The last thing he would have wanted was a captured man telling that story.

The true reasons for the robbery and pardon will never be known, but Colonel Thomas Blood remains the only person who has got even close to stealing the Crown Jewels.

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Warning to ET – Contains Scenes of Nudity Wed, 05 Apr 2017 15:26:14 +0000 In November 1971, journalist Eric Burgess was visiting the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to see the initial pictures from Mariner 9, the first spacecraft to orbit Mars. The pictures were disappointing as a huge dust storm was raging across the planet, but when Burgess was given the chance to have a look at JPL’s next interplanetary probe he had an idea.

Pioneer 10 was due to be launched the following year and its destination was Jupiter. It would take 21 months to reach the planet and, if everything went according to plan, would make a close pass over the surface. The huge gravitational field of the biggest planet in the solar system would then accelerate Pioneer 10. It would be travelling fast enough to escape the Sun’s gravitation and eventually travel out into interstellar space; becoming the first man-made object to leave the solar system.

Burgess’s idea was to include a message from humanity, just in case the probe was intercepted by an alien race as it travelled through deep space. Burgess mentioned this to Carl Sagan, the astronomer and cosmologist, who in turn put the suggestion to NASA. Very quickly a plan to add a small plaque to the spacecraft was agreed.

Sagan then teamed up with Frank Drake, the man who started the first ‘Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence’ (SETI) project, to decide what would appear on the plaque. The artwork was produced by Sagan’s wife, Linda Salzman Sagan.

The plaque, complete with offending naked couple.

The plaque included some very clever ways of showing an alien race where Pioneer 10 had originated, but the mainstream media became rather fixated on the pictures of a man and a woman that appeared on it.

Horror of horrors (to some newspapers at least) the two people were naked! Editors were not particularly concerned about what extra-terrestrials would make of the image, but did worry about offending their readership. The Philadelphia Inquirer published an image of the plaque on its front page – but only after carefully airbrushing out the man’s genitals and the woman’s nipples. The editor was quoted as saying ‘A family newspaper must uphold community standards.’ Many other newspapers took similar action.

Taking a slightly different approach, some feminists complained that while the man’s genitals were clear for all to see, those of the woman appeared to be non-existent. Depending on which accounts you believe, a small line to indicate the woman’s genitals was either removed at the request of NASA, or never included because Mr and Mrs Sagan thought NASA were certain to ask for its removal.

There was also discussion about why the man had one hand raised, whilst the woman had both of hers passively by her side. Didn’t this indicate that the man was dominant? Others thought the raised hand could be interpreted as an aggressive gesture. Carl Sagan had originally planned for the couple to be holding hands, but then realised that to an alien, this image might be seen as a single, four-legged, two-headed being. The main reason for the raised hand was to show the fingers and opposable thumb.

Another plan was to depict the two people as ‘pan-racial’ to represent all of humanity. However, somewhere between Linda Sagan’s drawing and the final engraving, the couple took on a more white caucasian appearance. Hair lost its shading, making it seem blond and the man acquired a side parting and wave in his hair, giving it a distinctly western appearance.

On a more academically sound note, it was pointed out by Scientific American that the arrowhead to show the path of the space probe was a symbol that would only have meaning to an alien race if they, like humans, had spent time living as hunter-gatherers.

Despite all the opinions expressed the plaque was attached to Pioneer 10 and duly launched on its journey on March 2nd 1972. A sister probe Pioneer 11, fitted with an identical plaque, began its flight in April 1973. In 2016, Pioneer 11 was roughly 9 billion miles from Earth and heading towards the constellation Scutum.

Pioneer 10 was a billion miles further away from Earth and heading towards the star Aldebaran. It will take roughly two million years to get there. We just have to hope that any Aldebarans who find it are not offended by nudity.

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