How a Volcano Changed History

I just finished reading an enlightening book: The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History by William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman. What made this book particularly interesting is that one author is a Ph.D. in American history and the other a Ph.D. in meteorology. They wove a compelling story of the chronology of a volcanic event, describing both its physical effects and its effects on the politics, the economy, the arts, and the social structure in North America and Europe.

In April 1815, the most explosive volcanic eruption in recorded history occurred in Tamora, Indonesia. This event was ten times larger than Krakatoa and a hundred times larger than Mount St. Helens. Weather patterns were disrupted worldwide.

In North America, the explosion led to excessive rain in some areas and severe drought in others. In the northeastern United States, it led to snow, some of it brightly colored (reds, blues, yellows), throughout the summer months. Crops were almost a total loss. In New England, grain harvest was five percent of normal. “In the United States, the extraordinary weather produced food shortages, religious revivals, and extensive migration of people from New England to the Midwest” (overleaf).

“In Europe it led to famine, food riots, the transformation of stable communities into bands of wandering beggars, and one of the worst typhus epidemics in history….It was also responsible for the creation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and J.M.W. Turner’s fiery sunset paintings” (overleaf).

In 1815, air masses moved faster than communication. Communication was so slow that little weather prediction and no recording were done. Weather records were kept primarily by gentlemen scientists. As a result, obtaining the facts in this book was an arduous task.

Also in 1815, no one connected the strange weather patterns to a volcanic eruption. Not until the early twentieth century did an America meteorologist, William Humphreys, publish a paper linking volcanic eruptions with abnormal weather patterns. As is often the case, many scientists were skeptical of his findings. Without large volcanic eruptions, climate scientists used industrial pollution and, in the 1950s, nuclear bomb testing to model the possible effects of volcanic eruptions. The models were largely confirmed in 1980 with the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

The effects of natural events are not often tracked as extensively as The Year Without Summer has done. Since no one at the time saw the connections, the authors had to spend an extraordinary amount of time searching diaries and journals in North America and Europe. This book is an interesting read.

Humility in the Study of History

Just before Thanksgiving one year, I received an email from a mother whose daughter had been disturbed by her teacher’s negative comments about the way the Puritans had related to the Native Americans. The teacher had recently become aware of information that prompted his comments. The mother voiced her concerns to the teacher, and the teacher cited a couple of websites to justify his statements.

Now American history is not my field, but I have long had an interest in the history of Native Americans, which continued into my college years. As a freshman, I took a course about Puritan society in New England. When I read the mother’s email, I consulted the only course book I had saved: New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians 1620-1675 by Alden T. Vaughan. I read the information that the teacher had consulted and compared the websites’ perspectives with those expressed in my book. The websites contained information by multiple authors, but the views of the Puritans’ relations with the Native Americans ranged from extremely critical to moderately critical. My course book, while making clear that the record was not pristine, generally approved the Puritans’ dealings with the Native Americans. How can historical assessments differ so dramatically?

The generalizations we reach as we look at the world around us, including historical data, are largely based on what we think likely. And what we think likely depends largely on our worldview. For example, any historian will embark on a study of the Puritans with some preconceived notion of what the Puritans are like and what kinds of things they are likely to do and why they are likely to do them. This creates an obvious problem. Any historian has a sense of what is likely before he examines his first piece of evidence. And given that much of the work of a historian is the formation of generalizations, any piece of evidence contrary to the historian’s preconceived sense of the likely can be dismissed as exception. But, as counter-information mounts, the historian needs to be willing to abandon his preconceptions and make the necessary adjustments in his thinking. A willingness to give up even our treasured preconceptions, if the data warrants it, is the hallmark of integrity. In order to have integrity, one must have humility (a willingness to change perspectives when called for) and one must know oneself, including one’s inner drives.

In our time, it is not uncommon to find historical accounts written in advocacy of an agenda. These are instances where the historian is so intent on furthering his agenda that he ceases to be evenhanded in his assessment of the historical data. The critical accounts of the Puritans’ relationship with the Native Americans that I read on the websites had all the earmarks of being agenda-driven. Certainly, the Puritans were not faultless in their dealings with Native Americans, but my reading has lead me to conclude that in comparison with the way the whites related to Native Americans in other places and in other times, the Puritans were remarkably humane.


[This edited excerpt is from “History Lesson” by David Crabtree. To read the original article, click here. More about Gutenberg College here. Or check us out on Facebook.]


Rip Van Winkle’s America

Last month, I read Gordon S. Wood’s Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, one of the excellent books in the Oxford History of the United States series. His first paragraph begins with Washington Irving’s acute observation that his native land was not the same place that it had been a generation earlier. Wood pointed out that “Irving had conservative and nostalgic sensibilities, and he sought to express some of his amazement at the transformation that had taken place in America by writing his story “Rip Van Winkle.” Wood goes on to say that basically his (Wood’s) 700+ page book is a similar project to Irving’s—that is, to identify the changes that occurred from the time of the Revolution until about 1800.

Several times during my education, I read “Rip Van Winkle” as an assignment, but nowhere did anyone mention that it was anything other than a fictional story. The additional background information provided by Wood changes everything. I’m now looking forward to rereading “Rip Van Winkle.”


A Trip to the Evergreen Museum

Last week my two boys, Dylan and Andrew, and I went up to the Evergreen Museum in McMinnville, Oregon. We had not been there since the boys were ages four and seven (Dylan is entering Gutenberg College this year). In the last decade, Evergreen has become the one of the best aircraft and aerospace museums in the country. Its major attraction is the Spruce Goose, a “flying boat” and probably the most memorable aircraft other than the Wright Brothers’ Flyer to fly less than a mile total. In addition to its impressive World War II aircraft collection, the museum also houses rockets, capsules, and the SR-71 recon plane. When I was in the Air Force in the early 1970s, I worked with the SR-71 as part of my job with the National Security Agency (NSA). It was interesting to see the plane again and to show the boys some of its capabilities. In this post, I will focus on the Spruce Goose and the SR-71.


Spruce Goose photo by Gutenberg College tutor Charley Dewberry

The Spruce Goose

The Spruce Goose was designed and built by Hughes Aircraft (Howard Hughes) during World War II to fly troops and supplies non-stop from the east coast of the U.S. to Europe. Its mission was to help relieve the pressure on the merchant marine fleet which was being savagely attacked by German U-boats. From a design perspective, the plane was required to be built out of non-critical war materials. Probably the greatest irony about the plane is that it does not have one piece of spruce in it. Aircraft spruce was one of the most limited of war materials. (When the war ended, only a narrow, ten-mile strip of Sitka spruce located between Yachats and Florence, Oregon, had not been harvested in the continental U.S. The majority of aircraft spruce left at the end of WW II was in British Columbia and Alaska.) The Spruce Goose is mostly built out of laminated birch.

The Spruce Goose is the largest flying boat ever built. It is also among the last flying boats built. In other words, it was a dinosaur by the time it first flew. The 1930s and 1940s were the heyday of the flying boats. The most nostalgic of the flying boats were the Great Clippers. They established commercial flight routes across the Pacific to Manila. It took five days to island hop from San Francisco to Manila in the Philippines. They represented a viable technology until long runways were built on Pacific Islands and aircraft increased their range and level of reliability. The flying boats exchanged clean aerodynamics for the ability to take off and land on water. Once the runways were built and the technology became more reliable the flying boats became obsolete. A similar fate was faced by float planes, flying boats’ little brothers. Float planes are now dominant only in Alaska where land airports do not exist in sufficient numbers to provide an adequate transportation network.

The creation and demise of the flying boats is a clear example of the drive for economic and technical efficiency and its effects. The flying boats were only a viable solution to transportation problems for a short period of time. Then aviation went on without them. They were no longer economically viable. Land based planes could fly more people and goods cheaper and faster. All the people that flew and maintained the flying boats had to find new employment.


SR-71 photo by Gutenberg College tutor Charley Dewberry

Charley Dewberry in front of the SR-71

Shifting gears, the SR-71 is arguably the most technologically sophisticated aircraft ever built. It still holds most of the speed and altitude records for an airplane. Flying at more than Mach 3.2; it flies faster than a bullet fired from a rifle.

The SR-71 was designed to replace the U-2 as the U.S.’s high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. The U-2 (called the Dragon Lady by pilots because it was a very difficult plane to fly and land) was designed for the CIA in the 1950s. Its mission was to overfly the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War. The U-2 was basically a jet powered glider that flew at extreme altitudes (above 75,000 feet). It was designed to fly higher than conventional fighter planes could go. Unfortunately, it was slow (around 500 mph). In 1960, the U.S.S.R. shot down a U-2 with a surface-to-air missile (SAM). This led to designing a new recon aircraft to overfly the U.S.S.R. The SR-71 could fly at least as high as a U-2, and in the event that a surface-to-air missile was shot at it, the SR-71 would simply outrun the missile.

A number of very sophisticated technological developments were necessary to allow the plane to fulfill its mission. The aircraft was largely built out of titanium. Most aircraft only have titanium on surfaces that experience high temperatures. The SR-71 was constructed of about 85% titanium. The aircraft was built loose and only became tight during flight when the surface temperatures increased. Considerable amounts of fuel would leak from the plane on the ground. It would take off, fly initially at high speed to heat and expand the surfaces, and then refuel aerially for its mission. In flight, it also cycled fuel to the wings to cool the leading edges. Needless to say, the fuel was not normal aircraft fuel.

A total of thirty-two aircraft were built. During its thirty-four years of active duty, twelve were destroyed. None were shot down. Only one crew member died. The rest all ejected safely. In addition to photo and remote sensing capabilities, signal intelligence (radio signals) could be gathered as could electronic warfare information.

The cameras on board were incredible. As the exhibit showed, the cameras photographed the ground from over 75,000 feet. Yet it is easy to identify the make and model of cars and trucks in the photographs. The SR-71 could fly its photo mission at greater than Mach 2. So for example, the SR-71 could overfly all of Vietnam (a narrow country) in less than an hour, and the photos allowed one to identify the make and model of cars anywhere in the country.

One would think that that such an aircraft would still be actively flown today, but that is not the case. All the SR-71s were retired in 1998. In another aviation irony, the only remaining dedicated high-altitude reconnaissance plane in the U.S. Air Force inventory is the U-2, the SR-71’s predecessor.

What did in the SR-71? Its mission is still viable. Satellites are not as mobile as an aircraft; it takes awhile to move a satellite over a target area. The SR-71 can provide photo intelligence on short notice anywhere in the world, and there is virtually no way to shoot it down. The SR-71’s mission didn’t go away, nor has a better aircraft been designed to replace it (some people say there is an active replacement, the Aurora, but it is classified); the U.S. Congress just decided it was too expensive to fly and maintain the nine aircraft then operational. What doomed the plane was partly the secret nature of its capacities: it had few knowledgeable advocates. Too few people making decisions truly understood the nature and demands of gaining intelligence information and the role the aircraft could play, and its few advocates did not want to make all its secret capabilities known, so they did not strongly defend the aircraft program. Also, the plane was part of the Air Force’s mission. Most line officers in the Air Force have no use for intelligence. The glamorous missions are fighter planes and bombers; an assignment to an intelligence organization is largely a death warrant for an Air Force career. So when push came to shove over budget issues, the SR-71 was doomed.

The boys and I enjoyed the time we spent at the museum. For anyone interested in aviation or space exploration, the museum is a must. At the end of the day, I did find myself reflecting on one question, though: Did Howard Hughes take off in the Spruce Goose during a taxi test on purpose or by accident? He always claimed the plane just took off by itself. His opponents had largely killed the Spruce Goose program because they were convinced that the plane could never fly. As I pilot, I have to smirk. Howard Hughes was an exceptional pilot, and to have the largest flying boat in the world accidentally take off for the first time under total control and fly at about fifty feet elevation for a mile (a difficult maneuver) and then make a perfect landing is a fine piece of work. It proved one thing for sure: the Spruce Goose was at least airworthy. It was truly the world’s largest flying boat.


Whose Stone Tablets?

8/19/2012 update: In an effort to minimize the amount of misinformation racing around the world wide web, I ask that if you read the following post, please also read Michael Pruitt’s response which follows immediately.

I have been a subscriber to Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) for several decades now. I don’t read every issue from cover to cover, but I always leaf through each issue, and, when I have the time, I read those articles that strike me as particularly interesting. I was flipping through the pages of the most recent edition (September/October 2012), and I found something extremely curious. Hershel Shanks, the founder of the Biblical Archaeology Society, wrote an editorial explaining how difficult it is to determine to which country any given ancient artifact belongs. For instance, does an ancient artifact belong to the culture that produced it? Does it more appropriately belong to the people who currently occupy the land where it was found? Does it belong to the culture that found it? Does it belong to the people who currently possess it? Obviously these are difficult questions.

The issue that gave rise to the editorial concerned a find made in the Sinai desert in 1969, just two years after the Six-Day War. A team of Israeli archaeologists was exploring one of the proposed locations of the biblical Mt. Sinai. While digging, they found a stone inscribed with a Hebrew letter. They continued to dig and eventually were able to find all of the pieces of two tablets except for a few pieces on the edge that contained no writing. Paleographers examined the writing and concluded that it dated to about 1200 BC.

When all pieced together, the text on the tablets was easily legible. It was the text of the Ten Commandments. Interestingly, it matched the text as recorded in Deuteronomy 5, which is slightly different from the text in Exodus 20. The scholars reached the obvious conclusion that these tablets were the ones Moses broke when he came down from the mountain and found the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. The scholars who found the tablets decided to stick them in a vault at the university and keep quiet.

The new Egyptian government found out about this discovery and sent a request to the Israeli government that the tablets be given to Egypt since they were found on land that is currently part of Egypt.

I find this very curious. In my thinking, the discovery of the original tablets of the Ten Commandments is a very significant find. But to my knowledge there have been no major news articles about this find; I have never seen anything else about it in BAR. So to see the story pop up in an editorial was very surprising, and I don’t know what to make of it. If this find is legitimate, it is a very amazing development.


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