Category Archives: HIstory

Mostly everyday life and personalities of the past.

Brake, Horse Power

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When people add coaches, carriages, wagons, and carts to their stories, they often do enough research to find out they may have something called “brakes” and then treat them largely as autos or trucks with horses up front. (Less often, mules, donkeys, camels, zebras, oxen, elephants, or carabao, not to mention moose, caribou, goats, or dogs for motive power.)

In an auto, you can be zooming at freeway speeds, stomp the brakes, and come down to a complete stop. But auto brakes are complicated and highly engineered, even before they were computerized. You have the force multiplier of hydraulic systems in power brakes. You have the brake shoes exerting friction against the whole brake drum.

On a carriage, you have a pivoted stick exerting friction against several inches of the iron tire on a four-foot-high wheel. That’s all.

Let’s get the variations that make no difference brushed aside and call it a horse-drawn coach. Think of it as a British mail coach or a frontier stage coach or a polished private coach – doesn’t matter. What matters is that none of these can be stopped at any notable speed by the mechanical brake.

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Woman Warriors

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Most women fought in wars because they decided to, not because someone let them. The modern armed services can be seen as a concatenation of one law and reg after another to keep women out of combat, where they would otherwise go, until the 21st C unwound this.

“The first history”, Herodotus’, includes the record of woman warriors. There is Tomyris of the Massagetae, a horse tribe of the Sea of Grass, who defeated and killed Cyrus the Great (Kurush), and Artemisia I of Halikarnassos, queen regnant and satrap for Xerxes, who was so effectual the Hellenes had a huge bounty on her head even before Salamis.

You can ftumblr_n2n6irTCRz1s7#152783ind a lot of female warleaders, from Æthelflæd of Mercia, daughter of Alfred the Great, to Countess Matilda of Tuscany. (You can find them in, say, Tim Newark’s Woman Warlords) But instead, let’s talk about cultures where women “were allowed combat roles” – cultures where woman warriors were not considered odd. Then we’ll discuss cultures that couldn’t stop the women.

Woman warriors were completely normal among the Sarmatians/Scythians/Sakas who left their kurgan burials across the steppes. A large number of skeletons that could be sexed as female by the pelvis were buried with weapons. Normally weapon burials are assumed to be male. In modern days, a number of “assumed male” burials have been reconsidered, notably the Golden Prince. ( Dr. Jeannine Davis-Kimball, “Chieftain or Warrior Priestess?” in Archaeology, Sep/Oct 1997) The female headdress should have been a tip-off, but weapons meant it just couldn’t be a girl! So in this culture one in five provably female burials were warriors, including the one buried with a young male across her feet for a good time in the afterlife. (Sulimirski, The Sarmatians) That these people lived where the classical Greeks said the Amazons did seems a bit beyond coincidence, no matter how the Greeks warped their stories later.

Frankish women sometimes led their own warband (scara). A notable one was Perhalta, modernized as Bertha of the Big Foot, mother of Charlemagne.

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Spunky Ladies and Wicked Uncles: A Review

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Castle Wolfenbach: A German Story, by Eliza Parsons (1793)

http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/parsons/castle/castle.html

This is a 19th century adventure story for young women of all ages (yes, written in 18th century, but it’s ahead of its time). The characters speak as for an audience, events are fortuitous, the virtuous heroine does overcome all obstacles, and a certain amount is non sequitur, yet…

And yet, when I quit wincing and swearing at the dialogue, I keep noticing it isn’t as bad as, say, Mrs. Radcliffe. It actually sneaks some stuff in that I wouldn’t expect. The heroine, Matilda Weimar, actually is pretty brave and nervy for the time. She has gotten her own self out of serious peril and on the road when we meet her. She fearlessly explores the haunted wing of Castle Wolfenbach, and deals with what she finds there. Her main concern in finding someone she knew dead is not screaming and fainting, but figuring how to bury the poor woman decently. In short, if you can overlook a need to rely on an old manservant (um, she’s 16 and never been out of the estate, in a man’s Europe), a tendency to be exhausted by days of horseback travel (life with zero phys ed, folks), to burst into tears to relieve her feelings (as well she might) or even faint (corsets!), she actually is quite a spunky young woman. If some of the events seem ridiculous to us, the fault may not lie in the writer, but in our being alien to her world.

You or I would never think to write to our sister and ask her to take in some girl we only just met. We do not have the solid caste solidarity, that a lady is a lady and will not be a crook or a dangerous psycho. We don’t have the family structure, that siblings usually depend on each other as we might on parents, and then some. We don’t have the social structure, that of course a marchioness needs an amusing female companion, who is not a servant, on a trip to a foreign country. We don’t have the loose wealth of their upper classes, to add two more dependants to the household without noticing it.

So look at this as being perhaps just a little Mary Suish, but not in a bad way, while taking you on a trip through a world that has vanished, and is about as alien to most of us as anything we could reach by flying saucer. Take it lightly, let it be fun, and it’s better than reruns for an evening.

There is real evil in this world, and the author uses it. Matilda has been raised by her supposed uncle since some time early in childhood, only to find out, not that he intends to marry her for her fortune (the usual melodrama), but in fact means to force her into being his mistress now that she’s sixteen. This is a genuine peril of the time, for a child could be raised with no contacts outside her own home.

As I said, an alien world for us.

As a result, it was considered one of the seven “horrid novels” inappropriate for young women in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

Epic Harbour Destructions

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Oh, sure, they always say it’s to increase harborage and improve the port facilities.

Never mind the wetlands or the natural flow of the harbors. Do any of these old plans to do massive Dutch re-arrangement on American or European harbours look like an *improvement* to you? Especially those who know the areas.

I keep seeing pure hubris — “We can rearrange the heavens and the earth, therefore we should, ’cause we’ll feel almighty afterward.” Think of it as the logical extension of the accomplishments of the Suez and Panama Canals, of Hoover Dam, and other titanic works.

The Reber Plan of 1942 was one of the last of these proposed, filling half of the Bay Area’s bay, providing a potential rival to the Golden Gate Bridge in the barrier blocking the remaining bay from the sea. A ship canal provided salt-water circulation and access, but … why restrict access to a few ships at a time, having to be overseen by a traffic controller, in place of the present huge entry? Read the rest of this entry

What Were They Thinking?

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Having read all the 1819-1918 spec fi I could acquire, I have now fallen into a new reading habit: Popular Science Monthly magazine. It started by way of random research for 1934 and 1937 projects, especially once the first got rolled back to 1931.

Unlike, say, Popular Mechanix, PSM combine everything from articles on the early Rhine ESP studies to building ornate ship models. The covers represent everything from shipyards to air races, but the emphasis is on postulated vehicles — usually on the drawing boards, not often proven to work. But once they make PSM’s cover, they can live on in minds, just as the inventor envisaged them.

But what were they thinking to think of this?


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Is It History, Near History, or Alternate History?

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It used to be so simple to figure out “historical fiction”: the date of the setting began with an 18 or less.

But now, in 2016, how do we consider the century-old 1916? Things made then pass through customs now as genuine antiques. How about the approaching century mark for the 1920s, even WW2? And how in the world do we consider a steampunk secret history?

Let’s try to make the easiest cut first, which happens to be the biggest one: real history from alternative history.

It’s only sporting to let your readers know you’re doing alternative history somewhere in the cover blurb, an afterword, or a 50-word intro. Otherwise, there are enough junky writers out there that the reader may think you don’t know that Queen Victoria never remarried or that Napoleon was sent to exile in Elba first. With you sending him to St. Helena’s right away, why, the Hundred Days and Waterloo won’t happen! (And that was your point: France without the great Romantic binge of the Hundred Days.)

Also, there are enough people with poor history retention that they may believe your rendition is fact, and your story, so much more vivid than their high school history class, is going to stay in their head as the real deal. I’m thinking here of a reviewer of the film, The Silent Village, who thought it was a vital documentary, and we should never forget how horrible the Nazis were after they occupied Wales, and why that made our part in WW2 so necessary …
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Character Pitfalls of Historical Fiction

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Historical fiction always serves the didactic purposes of the present.

Parallel periods comment on today in the sneaky revealing light of yesterday:

Mexican-American War = Iraq-American War

or Classical parallels used earlier:

Imperial Rome = British Empire; Persian Empire = France
Periclean Athens = Britain or France; Sparta = Prussia
Periclean Athens = France; Persian Empire = British Empire (French writers, of course).

Writers explain or glorify the present, or amend past indignities, via histfi. Sir Walter Scott single-handedly rehabilitated and glamorized the Scottish, despised by the earlier Georgian English as uncouth demi-barbarians.

Think of racist images recently over-painted by more realistic or positive characters, whether protagonists or secondaries. This can go too far, into anachronism, as when the Noble Savage is revised into a culture missing notable unpleasant aspects it actually had in order to make it fit what today considers ideal or acceptable.
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