Posts Tagged ‘History/Biography’

Plymouth Rock

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

PlymouthRock

Today is the day in 1620 on which the passengers of the Mayflower came ashore at what would become Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts. I had learned in elementary school about Plymouth Rock—the boulder onto which the Puritans supposedly first stepped—and assumed it was symbolic or even mythological. But on a family trip to the area some years ago I was taken aback to find along the shore an actual Rock enshrined in a mini-temple. Thus the entry that day (featuring the Standish/Alden trio) in my sketchbook. Happy Plymouth Rock Day!

St. Nicholas Day Plagiarist

Friday, December 6th, 2013

As part of my continuing obsession each December to remind the world about the discovery of the TRUE author of the beloved Christmas poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” I cannot resist once more posting a link to the story. Naughty, naughty, Clement Clarke Moore. No golden walnut for YOU.

Santa&HenryDetail

Anniversary

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

It is fifty years ago today that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the memory of that shocking, sad and terrible time is still strong. School closed, and along with all the other children I was sent home early, not entirely comprehending what had happened, until I met my father, also home unexpectedly early. It was the first and only time I saw him cry.

I post today a link to my husband’s art blog, with his own memories of that time, and a painting he created for this anniversary (detail below).

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CakeTomatoes Aunt Marge

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YCandleJohn Fitzgerald Kennedy

Local Hero

Sunday, July 14th, 2013

HouseofLaBoetie

Today, on Bastille Day, we wandered the streets of Sarlat, a Périgord village of remarkably well-preserved medieval and Renaissance architecture in the beautiful golden limestone of the region. We, and our fellow tourists, were inappropriately garbed for these picturesque balconies, flowery courtyards, and half-timbered façades. Really, only those in period costume ought to be allowed entrance.

Here I sketched the birthplace and childhood home of Étienne de la Boétie (1530-1563), philosopher, poet, government official in the reign of Charles IX, proponent of religious toleration in an era of bitter religious conflict, BFF of Montaigne, and, most famously, author of Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, in which he—centuries ahead of the French and American revolutions—questions and protests the inclination of human beings to acquiesce in their own oppression by tyrants.

Had he not succumbed to an outbreak of dysentery at the age of 32, what might he have gone on to write? His house (which, when la Boétie was born there, had just been completed five years earlier) seems an appropriate post for this national festival.

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Father of the Monitor

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

Where in Washington, DC—a city not known for its ancient fanciful mythology, except of the political kind—can you find an outdoor sculpture of Yggdrasil, the World Tree of Norse legend?

Ericsson

If you are zipping along in a car, you’ll miss it. But if you are traveling by foot or bicycle, you can take a break on a small green island (which I discovered by accident on a family bike ride, and returned to sketch) at the intersection of Ohio Drive and Independence Avenue, along the Potomac River. There at the foot of Yggdrasil sits John Ericsson (1803-1889), whose birthday it is today.

Ericsson, born in a Swedish village and son of a mining engineer, was a precocious child who demonstrated early an aptitude for all things mechanical. At five he created a working windmill from clock parts and household utensils. There is no historical record of his mother’s reaction to the missing tableware. At eight his education included informal instruction from his father’s engineering colleagues, and eventually he joined the team (although still too small to reach all the equipment), drawing up plans and supervising crews. During a period in the army he worked on designs for steam and fume-propelled engines, but finding no funding he took himself to England (leaving behind an out-of-wedlock son to be raised by his mother), which was then the hub of the Industrial Revolution and a showcase for new canals, railways, factories, and every sort of engine and mechanical device.

But despite his innovations in locomotive and marine engine designs, and his best-known creation, the screw propellor—which rendered vessels far more efficient and whose descendants are still in use worldwide—the English were unresponsive, perhaps because of Ericsson’s reputedly uncompromising nature, or perhaps because of his foreign origins. So Ericsson (leaving behind an English wife) betook himself to the young United States, with its energetic, ambitious entrepreneurs, and settled in New York, where pretty much everyone had (as today) foreign origins.

Here Ericsson sought supporters within the Navy and private industry for his screw-propellor vessel designs. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to interest the French Emperor, then engaged in the Crimean War, in a new rather peculiar-looking design for an iron-clad vessel (iron-clad ships having shown their effectiveness against the traditional wooden model).

But it was the American Civil War that delivered his opportunity. When the Southern states seceded from the Union in 1861, taking with them the Navy Yard at Norfolk and the USS Merrimac, which the Confederacy began to sheath with iron, it became obvious that the U.S. needed its own ironclad ship to protect the Northern coastal blockade. Ericsson’s industrial business contacts, who saw war as a terrific opportunity to increase their fortunes patriotically, used their influence within Congress and the U.S. Navy to advocate the implementation of Ericsson’s ingenious design, negotiate a contract, and launch construction of a vessel, in an unbelievably short period.

Ericsson’s ironclad ship (named the Monitor by Ericsson, as it was intended to monitor the coastline), with its iron sheath extending below the water line, its revolving turret that permitted it to fire in all directions, and its screw propellor, kept iron works, foundries, rolling mills, and manufacturers busily employed for months. For the sake of speed, some of its innovations (such as the underwater torpedo) were set aside, to be adopted later. Some were ignored, to the ship’s peril, as we will see.

Because the strange new vessel was untested, its crew was composed primarily of volunteers. Some observers (untutored in the laws of physics) predicted she would sink instantly when launched on March 6, 1862, headed for Norfolk. However, although the Monitor endured rough weather (and leaks, due to the  Navy’s having ignored Ericsson’s instructions for the turret’s sealing), she arrived safely in Hampton Roads on March 8th, to find disaster: two ships already destroyed by the Confederacy’s Merrimac, and two others run aground awaiting their own coups de grâce.

For, during the past few months, the Confederacy had been hurriedly adapting the Merrimac (which they renamed the Virginia), preparing it to ram and sink the Yankee ships at Hampton Roads, to break the blockade and enable the resumption of Southern trade. Because the Union and the Confederacy were both riddled with spies, each knew something of the other’s ship-building progress, so perhaps it is not simply an amazing coincidence that the two vessels were completed and launched only a couple of days apart. In any case, news of the Merrimac’s success ran through the telegraph lines, thrilling the South and alarming the North, who feared that the Merrimac would next turn northward to destroy its coastal cities. This was impossible; the Merrimac was clumsy, leaky, and barely seaworthy enough to have made it across Hampton Roads. But the North didn’t know that.

When the Merrimac returned to finish off the last two vessels, it found a small, oddly shaped object—the Monitor—pluckily barring its way. At first the Merrimac’s crew believed the Monitor to be a supply barge, until it fired upon them. Battle between the two ironclads continued for several hours, with each trying to inflict damage upon the other, the Merrimac attempting simultaneously yet unsuccessfully to attack the nearby remaining Northern ships. The Monitor, small, nimble, and quick, protected the ships from further damage, and eventually the Merrimac retired leaking to its port.

Both sides (naturally) declared victory in the battle, but the ultimate outcome was a contract between John Ericsson and the U.S. Navy for a fleet of ironclads, and the successful blockade of the South. The poor Monitor, however, caught in a storm at sea later that year (the Navy still ignoring Ericsson’s instructions on the proper sealing of its turret), went down with sixteen hands off the coast of Cape Hatteras. (Some of her artifacts have since been recovered and conserved.)

Ericsson, who had had a number of professional disappointments, was now vindicated and rewarded, and went on to work in maritime and naval technology and experiment with various sources of power—steam, electric, solar. Three Navy ships have been named after him, and in 1926 the monument pictured above, created by sculptor James Earle Fraser, was dedicated to him. There sits Ericsson (curiously, looking inland rather than out over the Potomac) beneath the Norse World Tree, with Vision standing behind him, flanked by Labor and a Viking warrior. It’s one of your more surprising Washington, DC sculptures. Go have a look.

Although Ericsson regularly sent funds for the support of that son and wife back in Sweden and England, his true passion was engineering, and neither ever joined him in the New World. Thus his days and nights were uninterrupted by the distracting joys and troubles of family life. Ericsson had a reputation for being stubborn, imperious, and single-minded, and perhaps these qualities do not a family man make… but they might enable one to overcome opposition and discouragement and press forward undespairing. Happy Birthday, husband and father of the Monitor.

CakeBalloons2Zoe

CakeRedRosesBonnie Rose

 

A Glimpse of Tolerance

Friday, April 13th, 2012

ParisMassChair

Today is the anniversary of  the enactment of the Edict of Nantes, a modest 16th-century attempt at freedom of worship. For a sketch and a mini-history, please see One Small Step for l’Homme.

Harry the Builder

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

Today is the birthday of Washington, DC carpenter and builder Harry Wardman (1872-1938), who is responsible for many of my neighborhood’s houses (although once he achieved success he no longer wielded the hammer personally). For a picture and bio, please see Wild About Harry.

WardmanDetail

CakePolkaDotsGreg

Birthday Splash

Saturday, January 28th, 2012

Today is the birthday of painter Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). For a comic and mini-bio, please see Action Jackson.

Pollock1Detail

And for the story of another artist born on this day, please see It’s an Oldenburg.

CakeBalloons2Alexander

 

Obscure Thanksgiving Tales

Thursday, November 24th, 2011

MilesStandishAnd a Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.


 

A Stately Pleasure Dome

Friday, October 21st, 2011

If the word “Xanadu” happens to come up at our dinner table (and doesn’t it come up from time to time at yours?) we can count on our son’s launching into Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” which he memorized at some point due to sheer fascination with the language.

Today is the birthday of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), and in his honor I post the opening lines of that poem. Along with it I post my daughter’s drawing, from our homeschooling Middle Ages block, of the rooftops of Xanadu, the summer residence of Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan), who ruled China during the years of Marco Polo’s visit and subsequent years of service to the Khan.

MarcoPolo

Cambalu, the winter capital, grew quite hot in summer, so Kublai had a northern marshy river valley drained and transformed into a vast park of gardens, teahouses, terraces, and winding waterways for pleasure boats and wild birds. (Here is Marco surveying the scene from a rooftop.) At its center was the palace of polished bamboo painted with vermilion and gold and elaborate murals.

Xanadu was destroyed in the 14th century, but Marco Polo’s descriptions were familiar and inspirational to later writers, one of whose works (Samuel Purchas’ 1613 Purchas His Pilgrimage) Coleridge had been reading one summer day in 1797 before falling into a deep, some say drug-induced, sleep. While he slept, Coleridge “dreamed” the poem as a series of vivid and haunting images and phrases, which he instantly wrote down upon awakening.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery…

For the rest, please see Poetry Out Loud. You will want to memorize it, too.

For another Coleridge poem, and a painting, please see Thou shalt wander like a breeze.