Refrigerator Cars, Prohibition, Bandaid Surgery and National Without a Scalpel Day

OK, work with me here.  There’s a lot to say about 16 January: Octavian became Caesar Augustus in 27 BCE, the Ostrogoths sacked Rome in 550, the battle of Cape St. Vincent (aka the Moonlight battle) was fought in 1780,  and Khrushchev claimed to have a 100 megaton thermonuclear weapon in 1963. But, today, we talk about saving lives.

The mechanical means of refrigeration that followed soon became not just practical for railroad cars, but for stand-alone refrigerators (as opposed to ice boxes) that began to appear in 1913.

On 16 January 1868, Detroit meat packer George H. Hammond inaugurated the use of ice-cooled boxcars–called reefers–to ship meat to New England.  While this early experiment was ultimately a failure (not because the idea didn’t work but because the cars were unbalanced and derailed several times), it did inspire other work in the area of whole-car refrigeration as opposed to insulated cars that had been in use since the 1840s. The mechanical means of refrigeration that followed soon became not just practical for railroad cars, but for stand-alone refrigerators (as opposed to ice boxes) that began to appear in 1913. While ice boxes lasted until the 1950s in the US and somewhat later in the developing world, the powered refrigerator led a revolution in food preservation that led, eventually to the invention of the supermarket and the TV dinner.

By WWI, the chorus of voices wanting to ban alcoholic beverages altogether was thunderous.

Since the beginning of colonization of North America by religious refugees, the issue of alcoholic beverages has been a contentious area of public debate. The main issues were, at first, sale of intoxicants to the Indians, then of public drunkenness.  The taxes on liquor that started to pay down the national debts after the Revolution were seen by social reformers as “sin taxes” that would discourage consumption, and temperance societies began to sprout. Thomas Jefferson killed the tax early in his presidency, but moral objections to alcohol consumption continued to grow. States like Maine banned the sale of liquor, only to be repealed itself in an election cycle. Federal alcohol taxes were re-imposed in 1864, and by 1898 it was at 1.1 cents per gallon of beverage. By WWI, the chorus of voices wanting to ban alcoholic beverages altogether was thunderous. Amendment XVIII to the Constitution passed in 1918 before Congress passed enabling legislation called the Volstead Act, which was signed into law on 16 January 1920, when Prohibition began.  Much to the chagrin of the social reformers it simply didn’t work, being by and large unenforceable because the consumption of alcohol was so widely popular. The Great Depression helped end the popularity of the law, since about 14% of pre-1920 Federal tax revenues were from alcohol taxes. Amendment XXI repealing Amendment XVIII went into effect on 5 December, 1933.

While most of us would say “um…yeah” to such things today, this was a breakthrough that prolonged the first patient’s life for two and a half years, and probably saves tens of thousands of lives every year.

Venturing into completely unfamiliar territory, on 16 January 1964, Charles Dotter threaded a stent into the leg of a patient using only x-rays for guidance, saving the limb.  While today this sort of thing is regarded as routine, at the time it was Nobel-Prize territory.  Dotter is now known as the “father of interventional radiology,” a sub-field of medicine that covers direct-viewing medical imagery to guide surgical procedures.  While most of us would say “um…yeah” to such things today, this was a breakthrough that prolonged the first patient’s life for two and a half years, and probably saves tens of thousands of lives every year.  Non-invasive surgery has since expanded, with revolutions in fiber optic imagery, x-ray and fluoroscopy, and even ultrasonic imaging that now enables surgeons to save tens of thousands of hours of recovery time, millions of dollars in medical expenses, and billions more in the reduction of hospital contagions.

Though I know less about medicine than I do a lot of other things, I and my family have reaped the benefits of minimally invasive techniques for several years.

Which brings us to National Without a Scalpel Day, marked every 16 January since 2016 by The Interventional Initiative to commemorate Dr. Dotter’s achievement, and to expand awareness of minimally invasive, image-guided procedures (MIIP) that are now a matter of routine in medicine.  Though I know less about medicine than I do a lot of other things, I and my family have reaped the benefits of minimally invasive techniques for several years.  My hat’s off to the late Dr. Dotter (who passed in 1985), and to all the pioneers in the fields of medicine, surgery and medical imagery that he inspired.

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Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, and Jeanette Rankin

In recognition of the hysterical—-um, historic–election in the US tomorrow, I thought I’d talk about a few ladies who made history with connections to 7 November: two were born and a third set a precedent in the US Congress.  Oh, sure, there was Tsingtao and Yarmouth in 1914, and there was Tippecanoe in 1811, and Belmont in 1861, but today is Ladies’ Day here.  For what it’s worth…

Maria Salomea Skłodowska was born in Warsaw in what was then the Kingdom of Poland, which was a part of Russia, on 7 November 1867.  She got some of her initial schooling at the clandestine Flying (or Floating) University in Warsaw before she moved to Paris in 1891 where she met and married Pierre Curie. Between teaching and writing the Curies put together enough of a living to scrape by until 1903, when the Curies and Henri Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. Marie Curie (as she was known in France) was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.  In 1906 Pierre was killed in a road accident, but in 1911 she was awarded a second Nobel Prize in Physics for her isolation of radium and polonium.  She was the first person to win two Nobels, and the only woman to win two.

Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.

Liese (originally Elise) Meitner was born in Vienna, in what was then Austria-Hungary, on 7 November 1878.  Unlike Marie Curie, Meitner was unable to obtain much of a formal early education, but instead got her early training externally, through tutors and testing…what today would be deemed “homeschooling.” She was the second woman to earn a PhD from the University of Vienna, gaining that distinction in 1905.  Listening to lectures by Max Planck at the Friedrichs-Wilhelms-Universitat in Berlin, she was drawn to the work of Otto Hahn as one of Planck’s assistants.  Together they discovered radioactive recoil, a key concept in nuclear fission. By 1938, Meitner had lost her position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute because she was a Jew, and had fled to Sweden. She was there in 1939 when fission was announced by Hahn and Fritz Strassman: her considerable contribution to fission work before 1936 was not mentioned in Hahn’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1944.  Subsequent historical research has concluded that Meitner was, indeed, wrongly deprived of the honor she was due.

By 1938, Meitner had lost her position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute because she was a Jew, and had fled to Sweden.

With World War One raging in Europe, the American elections of 1916 were still fairly closely contested.  As Woodrow Wilson was reelected in part based on the slogan “he kept us out of the war,” the President-re-elect knew that it was only a matter of time before America would have to choose a side.  But on the same day, Jeannette Pickering Rankin, a suffragette/social worker and influential lecturer, was elected to represent Montana’s 1st Congressional district, the first woman to ever hold federal elective office in the United States.  Rankin took her seat on 4 March 1917.  The day before, the German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmerman acknowledged the authenticity of the telegram he sent to the Carranza government of Mexico that January, offering the return of Texas and Arizona if Mexico would go to war with the US.  The Zimmerman Telegram was a media sensation when it was released to the media on 18 February, 1917.  Combined with Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February, Wilson believed he had no choice but to ask Congress for a declaration of war on 2 April. After intense debate, Rankin was one of fifty members of the House to vote “no” on 4 April.  She later stated: “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.” After losing her bid for reelection in 1920, Rankin finally re-entered Congress in 1940, and in December 1941 cast the only dissenting vote after FDR’s request to declare war on Japan.  “As a woman I can’t go to war,” she said to her detractors, “and I refuse to send anyone else.” She didn’t run for reelection in 1942, and was a peace activist until her death in 1973.

She later stated: “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.”

As ironic as 7 November seems to be–two nuclear physicists born, one dyed-in-the-wool pacifist elected–as I write this the results of tomorrow’s election are unknown to me, but by the time you read this maybe we’ll know…or not, depending on how close it really is.  We shall see…

 

Britain and the American Revolution

JDB Communications, LLC is pleased to announce the publication of another essay collection by John D. Beatty, Britain and the American Revolution on Amazon.

Most scholars—especially Americans—when writing about the American Revolution emphasize the Western Hemisphere when considering the effects.  However, in this scribe’s opinion this view is short-sighted.  Great Britain, after all, is still around, and its Empire indeed flourished a century after it lost its then-largest and most prosperous colonies.  The Empire may have steadily degraded after Victoria’s diamond jubilee gala in 1897, but by the much-ballyhooed “Brexit” from the European Community in 2016, Britain herself was still a force to be reckoned with.

Great Britain, after all, is still around, and its Empire indeed flourished a century after it lost its then-largest and most prosperous colonies.

Recent writers, especially Steven Sears in The British Empire, have suggested that the British Empire was really nothing more than a jobs program for the English middle and upper classes.  In some ways this is arguably true.  However trivial this may seem in the great scheme of things, Great Britain was the largest single influence on human civilization between the fall of Rome and the triumph of the United States and the Soviet Union in 1945.  As these essays argue, this influence was in part because of the sheer genius of hard-pressed Britons to survive on their harsh, rocky islands.

Great Britain was the largest single influence on human civilization between the fall of Rome and the triumph of the United States and the Soviet Union in 1945

“Changing the Great Game” is an exploration of how the concept of “rights” was grudgingly preserved by dynasty after dynasty ruling the British Isles.  Even if the Scots, Irish and other ethnic groups didn’t recognize it, the rights enjoyed by Englishmen that were unique to their legal system did rub off on them as well, if only in small doses from time to time.  The ancient legends of Arthur, Alfred and the rest of the traditional lawgivers may have been perfected in the 19th century, but their origins are clearly much older.  The legal tradition that no sovereign is above his own laws far predate the Normans.

The ancient legends of Arthur, Alfred and the rest of the traditional lawgivers may have been perfected in the 19th century, but their origins are clearly much older.

“Kings, Kin and Killers” is something of an experiment.  Steven Pincus in 1688: The First Modern Revolution talks extensively about the motives of the supporters of the Stuarts and those who … well, did not support the monarch.  They hadn’t yet expressed a desire to throw out the monarchy as they would later, but the non-supporters of the Stuart kings were far more interested in the power of capital than that of land.  Their arguments were eerily similar to those that would take place in America before the shooting started in 1861.  It is almost certain that many of the philosophical animosities in English society between country and town, between farm and workshop, were locked into American society after the Revolution, and hung on in animus for another two generations.

… arguments [in 17th century Britain] were eerily similar to those that would take place in America before the shooting started in 1861.

“The Limits of Empire” is explicitly that: an essay into the administrative and technical limitations of imperial administration in the late 18th century.  Law, trade, finance, and community administration all depended on communications, and there was simply no good or reliable way to improve trans-Atlantic communications in the 1770s such that the Revolution, or one like it, could be put down.  Even if India were to become the most prosperous of all of Britain’s imperial properties, it wasn’t yet.  If the Gandhi revolution had come two centuries earlier, by that remove it may have succeeded much faster.

“Copper Bottomed Wizardry” began as a challenge—a sort of a bet.  This writer was wagered that he could not find enough technological innovation between 1775 and 1805 to explain how Britain defeated France at Trafalgar.  Knowing that coppering became standard by 1783, the research started there and proceeded to produce this essay.  The carronade, the short-barreled “smasher” that was the terror of small-vessel warfare before the shell gun, was intentionally left out because of other innovations that made British ships not only reliable and easier to handle, but overall better vessels.  Any sailor can tell you that, pound for pound, any well-handled warship in peacetime is worth three that are better gunned.  In wartime, it’s how well the guns are laid and how long they can stay on station, not just how well they can blast a target.

This writer was wagered that he could not find enough technological innovation between 1775 and 1805 to explain how Britain defeated France at Trafalgar.

Four essays are hardly a working thesis, but they may point to one: Britain was strengthened by the conflict that resulted in the loss of her thirteen colonies that would eventually become the United States.  Both she and the United States, ultimately, resolved the last of a conflict in Anglo-Saxon society that had raged since the Tudors: Do governments have a right to rule, or a duty?  Is society the master of an economic structure, or a servant or product of it?

Let these essays inform the reader’s decision.

John D. Beatty is a writer and historian who has published ten books on military history.  Britain and the American Revolution on Amazon is available on Amazon Kindle.

10 November: Three Beginnings and an Ending

As the shadows draw long and the days get cooler, we recall not the end of the waning fall but the beginnings of momentous things…and not so momentous.

First we must say “happy birthday” to our sister service, the United States Marine Corps, born on this day in 1775.  Two battalions were authorized but only one of what were called “Continental Marines” of about 500 was ever established.  The intent was that they be sent on an invasion of Halifax, the logistical base in Canada, but the British reinforced it before the enterprise could be undertaken.  They operated in a raiding capacity while establishing reputation for their global reach, attacking Nassau in 1776, joining the Continentals and militia at Princeton in 1777, then participating in the Penobscot expedition in 1779.  Smaller groups struck inland as far as the Mississippi and down to the Gulf of Mexico.  Though this force was disbanded in 1783, the Marines take this organization to be their origin, and their day to get noisily drunk as long as they aren’t otherwise engaged.

In 1864, this is the date William T Sherman’s memoirs uses for the beginning of his movement from Atlanta to Savanna: most sources start it on 14 November, but Atlanta was torched on 12 November, so Sherman’s date makes more sense.  Moving an army group of that size on a chevauchee (in this context, a strategic raid) of that scale would take a few days on the road network of the time.  Six weeks later the force would reach the Atlantic coast, none the worse for wear.

Exactly a year later, Henry Wirz, a one-armed, Swiss-born physician was hanged in Washington DC for the new offence of “war crimes.”  As commandant of a prison camp that the prisoners dubbed Andersonville (the proper name was Camp Sumner) for its entire 14 month existence, he was found guilty of criminally conspiring to kill the nearly 13,000 prisoners who died in the camp, in addition to eleven counts of murder that he almost certainly did commit.  Though he had tried to get more resources for his charges the murders were rather blatant and witnessed, so he was hanged at the Old Capitol Prison on 10 November 1865.  To this day the Wirz matter is controversial in some circles as it could be argued in the abstract that all war is a crime, and that as one of very few Confederates executed (and conveniently a non-American national) he was scapegoated as a cover for the deaths in Union camps.

A century later, on 10 November 1983, the general public got its first glimpse of a weird little program called “Windows 1.0” at an electronics trade show.  It was first pushed as a driver for OS/2 applications, and was not released to production for a little over two years.  But it was an easier interface for the operators of the fledgling PCs to use, even if it was once described as “pouring molasses in the Arctic.”  As older computer users recall, its first function was as a sales tool for mice.  Would that it were that simple now…

6 November: Printing Takes Mass Media By Storm

On this day in 1771, 1935, and 1947 the world of mass communications changed, for better or for ill, and all because oil and water don’t play well together.

On 6 November 1771, Alois Senefelder was born in Prague, in what was the the Holy Roman Empire.  He was trained in law but moved to his father’s profession–the theater–to support his family.  Though initially successful he needed to find a cheap method of printing his plays, and hit on what we now call lithography “stone writing” in 1796.  The basic principle was simple enough: treat an engraved surface with water and roll oil-based ink onto it.  The water and oil separate, making it possible for a piece of paper to pick up enough ink to make an image.  While somewhat more sophisticated than that, the principle is the same.  The advantage to lithography is that it can also make a picture, as well as words.

This lithographic process was patented, and a book he wrote on the subject was in print as late as 1977.  Still in limited used today for small and shorter-run jobs in traditional settings (albeit using paper or metallic plates), the principles of lithography was an important element in the explosion of publishing and learning at the end of the “enlightenment” period (when scholars burned their witches only at night).

And where would the Monopoly game be without colored lithography?  On this day in 1935, Parker Brothers bought the main patents for its best-selling property trading and acquisition game, after having rejected it the year before.  What started out as a teaching tool in 1903 by the end of the century was one of the most successful family board games of all time, translated into over thirty languages and sold in more than a hundred countries.  Until the 1970s, every Monopoly version and printed game part was produced by a lithographic process.  Parker Brothers has printed more “dollars” than the US Treasury every year since 1960.

On 6 November 1947, the new medium of television was struggling to reach markets.  On that day, Meet The Press first aired, after having begun on radio in 1945.  The first guest, James Farley, was grilled for half an hour by Martha Rountree, the show’s creator.  Since ti became a weekly program in 1948, Meet The Press has produced over 17,000 programs and is the longest-running television program in history.  This news and current events program is still the only one of its kind that has interviewed a sitting president live; Gerald Ford in 1975.

OK, the last one was something of a stretch, but that’s show biz.

Thinking About Stopping

It is understood that the very idea of air brakes may cause eyelids to droop, but on 5 March 1872, George Westinghouse was awarded a patent for his triple-valve air brake system for railroads, inspired in part by Elisha Otis’ elevator brake that dated from the 1850s, Dull as dust, right?  Well…

By the mid 19th century, railroads the world over were expanding exponentially, and so were accidents.  Most trains used either a mechanical linkage to operate any brakes they had, or used a brake car at the back of the train to slow the vehicle, adding to the reversal pressure of the locomotive and its own steam brakes.  But as the trains got longer it got harder to stop them.  On long trips through desolate areas, the brakeman fell asleep or the signal device failed.  Simply put, stopping the train depended on more human input than the engineer needing to stop.

Westinghouse’s brakes were unique not because they were air actuated, but because they were spring actuated; they were (and are still) air released.  Almost every air brake today in trains, trucks, cranes (yes, cranes), construction equipment, even elevators (using a hybrid system) operate on the theory that the stopping system has to be operating for the vehicle to move.  The air system has to be pressurized, and the controls and drive train available to operate the vehicle.  But with Westinghouse brakes all that ended.  The engineer hit the brakes, releasing the pressure on all the brakes in the train and they stopped the vehicle.  More important, the brakes activated when the system failed, increasing safety.

While it was the Americans that invented the air-release brake, it was Europe that first exploited it more completely.  Answering the need for an air supply, a diesel engine was mounted in a car immediately behind the locomotive tender to drive a compressor to pressurize the main air tank in Britain.  Diesels burned oil rather than coal, sparing the need to shuttle coal into a furnace to maintain the system.  As the technology improved, oil-burning locomotives were built with compressors, and finally the diesel-electric trains emerged after WWII with stand-alone compressors.  Today’s diesel-electric locomotives are rated by how much they can stop, not how much they can pull.

And as safety improved so did the size of the trains.  Similarly, so did construction equipment, especially with the emergence of Clessie Cummins after WWI.  Trucks and other heavy vehicles developed other braking systems, including the engine (reverse compression) brake.  But Westinghouse (and Otis, in a different way) started engineers thinking about the consequences of getting large machinery moving, and better how to stop them.

Modern large vehicles, from the mine pit to the rail head to the grocery store to the road construction project all use one version or another of the Westinghouse brake.  And that’s worth stopping and thinking about.