The Neanderthal Flute

Every parent dreads the day that their child comes home with a recorder. No, not the one that sits in your pocket and waits for someone to say “Okay Google.” I mean the little recorder/ children’s flute. The one that looks something like this:

A children’s recorder

They’re a good choice for a first instrument. Easy to learn, simple to use for small fingers. Children never seem to learn to play as quickly as parents seem to run out of patience for the squeaky high-pitched noises their child will somehow convince the recorder to make.

What parents may not know is that this recorder is probably the oldest instrument. The Neanderthal flute, a simple flute with four holes, is estimated to be about 60,000 years old. Scientists found it in the Divje Babe cave in Slovenia. Neanderthals made the flute from the bone of a cave bear. The flute is 20,000 years older than any previously found instruments. It’s also the only known instrument made by Neanderthals. Stone tools were used to make it and were found near the flute along with other cave bear bones. Ivan Turk discovered the flute and tools in 1995.

The next known musical instruments appear to be flutes found in Germany near the Danube river. Estimates put these flutes around 42,000 to 43,000 years old. They were made from mammoth ivory and bird bones. These two flutes are the oldest known instruments made by Homo Sapiens.

The Neanderthal Flute is kept on display at the National Museum of Slovenia.

So next time your child brings home a recorder and decides to serenade the family at Christmas dinner with what might have been “Silent Night”, just remember that they’re following in some of humanity’s oldest footsteps. We just can’t believe it took thousands of years to develop earplugs.

Article Share! Traces of 13,000-Year-Old Beer Found in Israel | Smart News | Smithsonian Magazine

This one is very cool. Beer is one of humanity’s oldest creations, with evidence of beer production going as far back as 13,000 years ago. For context, the Ancient Sumerian civilization is estimated to have started roughly 6000 years ago. Beer in the ancient times was pretty different from what we have today. The Natufian beer named in the article above, was more of a thin porridge, as was the early beer discovered in China and Egypt. The alcohol content was much lower, and beer probably played an important role in rituals, not just daily life.

A History of Carousels, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Carousels are often a family favorite at parks, carnivals, and amusement parks. They’re fantastically decorated, have options for riders of all ages, and play inviting music. There are various animals to be ridden or carriages to ride in. Everyone from the youngest in the family to the oldest can enjoy a turn around the carousel. The carousel is probably the oldest amusement ride!

There is evidence that the idea of a gently spinning ride goes back to the 6th century in the Byzantine Empire. Specifically Istanbul. Riders would be placed in small baskets attached to a central pole. The pole would be spun and the riders would twirl around the pole. Not bad at all for 500AD!

The merry-go-round as we think of it today actually has its roots in war. Well, training for war, in any case. Have you ever noticed that most carousels have horses as the main animal? There’s a good reason for this. Knights used to have games that involved riding in a circle on their horses to better prepare them for war! In the 12th century, knights from both Asia and Europe would have jousting competitions. The goal, at first, was to knock off their opponent’s hat. Turkish and Arabian warriors would toss fragile glass balls filled with perfume. If someone missed a toss, they would be covered in the perfume and all would know that they had missed a throw. These games were designed to improve their abilities on horseback and make them more effective in war. These games were called “carosella” in Spanish.

Peter Trimming / Jousting at Hever Castle, Kent (9),Kent(9)

Starting in the 17th century, knights had to spear their lance through a small ring. To practice this, knights had a contraption with “legless horses.” It gave them the chance to practice when the field, or their horse, were unavailable. It was not only the knights that could use these. Children and commoners were also able to practice riding on top of the “legless horses.” A children’s version of the training carousel was also made in the 17th century. It wasn’t a huge leap from there to go from a training device to entertainment.

Carousels for Entertainment

The first carousels designed for entertainment were lightweight and portable. They traveled to various fairs and gatherings. At this point, merry-go-rounds were mostly wooden platforms with swing-like seats hung from chains, although the mounted horses were added soon after. Mules were enough to move the platform, although some were hand-powered instead. The first merry-go-round in the US was in Salem and was installed in 1799. It was known as the “wooden horse circus ride.” What a mouthful! European and American carousels began to differ. Those in the US were more ornately decorated and larger than their European counterparts. Horses were no longer the only animals depicted but were joined by unicorns, tigers, elephants and other animals.

19th Century Carousels

Carousels began to really take off in the 19th century. Pole mounted mounts were put into place. These replaced the original chain-mounted animals. John Merlin was the first to play music while the carousel was moving. In 1803 his London carousel was immensely popular. Amazingly, carousels were animal or man-powered until 1861. Thomas Bradshaw was the first to create a carousel powered by steam. His carousel was patented in 1863 and made operating them much easier.

In 1870 Federick Savage began designing new carousels that changed out the animals for other seats. Some had boats, others bicycles. His designs were popular and could be found around the world. He also invented a new mechanism to move the horses. Previously the animals sat on springs that would make the animals move as the rider shifted. Savage designed the mechanism at the top of the pole that made the animals shift up and down as the carousel moved.

20th Century

Unfortunately, the 20th century was not kind to carousels. During the Great Depression, many carousels were destroyed, abandoned, or left to fall into disrepair. Of an estimated 4,000 carousels, less than 200 survived. People simply did not have the money to keep them going.

Carousels did not disappear entirely but struggled back to life. Today merry-go-rounds are made of plastic and fiberglass but are no less beautiful than the original wooden merry-go-rounds. Most are now powered by an electric motor and the music played by speaker rather than pipe organ. The absolute wonder and joy of the those who ride them hasn’t changed a bit.

Want to read more?

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The Good Old Mechanical Pencil!

Students, artists, and engineers alike are all very familiar with the mechanical pencil. Preferred by many, the mechanical pencil is reusable, refillable, and always sharp. The little mechanical pencils that students love to fidget with are a surprisingly old invention! The idea of an “always sharp” pencil has been an attractive one for centuries and produced many variations of the much-beloved plastic pencils of today.

The first person to “invent” the mechanical pencil was the man who first invented the pencil itself. Conrad Gesner improved on the original stick of lead by devising a holder. The holder supported the lead, and the lead could be adjusted downwards and sharpened. This was not a true mechanical pencil as we would think of it today- it is not always sharp and needs to be manually adjusted. Still, Gesner’s holder was an innovation that paved the way for standard and mechanical pencils alike. Previously, people would simply hold the stick of lead.

A stick of lead with Futhark Runes etched into it.
mararie, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The next time a mechanical pencil pops up in history in is 1791. The HMS Pandora, a Porcupine class frigate of the English navy, was sunk near the Great Barrier Reef. Onboard was a mechanical pencil! This was not discovered until 1977 when the ship was finally located. This is still not quite a “mechanical pencil” as we would think of it today.

The 1800s were when the mechanical pencil began to take off. In 1822 the first patent for a mechanical pencil that had a replaceable lead and a method to push the lead forward was filed in Britain. Sampson Mordan and John Hawkins had filed the patent, but only Sampson manufactured the pencils. He called the pencils the “ever-pointed” pencils. His company, S. Mordan and Co, manufactured the pencils from 1837 until World War II.

Mordan’s patent drawings for his mechanical pencil

In 1833, James Bogardus patented a similar pencil in the United States. His “forever pointed” pencils were encased in a metal tube, but there is little evidence it went into mass-production.

Well over 150 patents were filed in the 1800’s for many variations of the mechanical pencil. 1877 had the first spring loaded system. This is the system mainly used today, with a “push button” design that moves the lead forward with the simple click of a button. John Hoffmann designed the spring loaded system and incorporated it into the Eagle Automatic company. These pencils, while very close to today’s style of pencil, had far too much “give” to the lead, making them hard to use. 1895 introduced a twist feed system which was not as popular as the push-button design.

An ad for an Eagle Pencil Company Mikado pencil
The Eagle Pencil Company made various pencils- the mechanical pencil was only a small part of what they offered!

 The event that really propelled the pencil into wide usage was the patent filed by Tokuji Hayakawa in 1915. He changed the casing to a nickel casing and improved on the feeding process of the lead. It took a few years, but a large order from a trading firm helped to popularize the “Ever-Ready Sharp Pencil.”

An interesting pen/mechanical pencil combo!

The mechanical pencil did go through several improvements since 1915. Most are now constructed mainly of plastic, and the sizes of the leads range anywhere between .2 to .9. Many include an attached eraser. However, traditional mechanical pencils used by engineers are often still made of metal and do not include the attached eraser.

Want to know more? Check out these sources!

The USS North Carolina

The USS North Carolina was among the most decorated ships during WWII. She was awarded more battle stars than any other battleship during WWII. She was one of the few ships still capable of battle after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

North Carolina and her sister ship Washington were launched on June 13th, 1940, and commissioned about a year later, on April 9th, 1941. She was the only battleship in the assault on Guadalcanal in August 1942. She was struck by a torpedo hit from the Japanese submarine I-19. The shot filled five men and injured 20, but the ship was able to stay in formation despite two flooded compartments. Overall, North Carolina participated in 9 shore bombardments and shot down 24 Japanese aircraft. It’s said that during one battle, the Battle of Eastern Soloman, the fire coming from North Carolina was so intense she appeared to be on literal fire.

I recently was able to visit North Carolina. She was placed out of commission in 1947, and finally stricken from the Navy list on June 1st in 1960. By 1961, she was dedicated as a war memorial in Wilmington North Carolina. She is a public memorial with a dedicated group that continually works to maintain and restore her. Below are some of the many photos I took. Unfortunately, some parts of the ship were under restoration when I visited, and it was rather crowded. The photos below have been edited to remove most people and improve clarity. You can click on the first photo to enlarge it, and browse the gallery. They are in no particular order.

Pep the Prison Dog

In 1924 a black Scotch retriever received terrible news: he was sentenced to life in prison. Pep, a friendly male dog said to be good-natured, was being sent to Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania for the alleged crime of killing the governors wife’s cat. He was brought to the prison, had his mugshot taken and a prisoner number issued to him, and taken to meet the other inmates.

Life behind bars, taken by John McGuire, found on Flickr.

Pep, aka Prisoner C2559, wasn’t assigned a cell, but rather slept in the cell of his choice each night. He reported every morning for rollcall and supposedly took his work assignments with no complaints. He stayed in the prison from August 31, 1924, until his death.

The truth behind the tale

Pep was absolutely a real dog who lived in the prison in 1924. However, he was never sentenced to life in prison and according to Mrs. Pinchot, the governor’s wife, had never killed any cat, let alone hers.

Pep was sent to the Eastern State Penitentiary primarily as a morale boost. In the years up to 1924, the prison had issues with security, overcrowding, and general morale. Some improvements were made, such as new watchtowers and a new communal prisoner cafeteria. However, the Governor of Pennsylvania, Gifford Pinchot, had recently heard about an odd improvement to a prison in Maine, and had decided to emulate it. He would send in a dog to improve the morale of the prisoners. The mugshot and prisoner number were a joke, as was the entry listing Pep’s crime as “murder.” The joke proved to be in poor taste, and stayed international protests.

Pep stayed at the prison for roughly (2) years before being retired to the farm branch of the prison, SCI Graterford. He remained there until his death.

Want to know more? Check out: Eastern State’s article about animals in prison

The First Horseless Carriage

While many people think of cars and automobiles as the product of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution, the first horseless carriages were built before the American Revolution!

Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot was an engineer in the French Army when he successfully built one of the world’s first steam engines designed specifically for turning wheels. By 1769 he had constructed a small vehicle around the steam engine, which he called the “fardier à vapeur” or “Steam Dray” It had only three wheels. The next year he had constructed a full-sized Steam Dray for testing. This version had two wheels in the rear and one in the front, capable of steering the 2.5-tonne vehicle. There was a large boiler onboard to produce the necessary steam for the engine.

This monster of a cargo-mover was capable of a stunning 2.5mph, about the same as an easy walking pace. Unfortunately, the fire for the boiler was difficult to maintain and often went out at inconvenient times. When it had to be relit it took up to 15 minutes to generate enough steam to power the engine. It was also a rather unstable vehicle, making it unsuited to the military transport purposes it was originally designed for. The idea was interesting but ultimately shelved in favor of more practical innovations.

One unverified story states that not only was Cugnot responsible for the first “Horseless Carriage”, but also the first car accident. Supposedly while testing the Steam Dray, he had collided with a brick or stone wall, collapsing part of the wall. The truth of this story is in question, however, as there are no written accounts of the said crash.

Several replicas of the Steam Dray can be seen in various museums around France, as well as in Cugnot’s town of birth, Void-Vacon. The original can be seen in the Musée des Arts et Metiers in Paris.

The Fardier à Vapeur in the Musée des Arts et Metiers
By Joe deSousa – Joseph Cugnot’s 1770 Fardier à Vapeur, CC0,