We’ve returned with your regularly scheduled programming…Things in history that mankind is resurrecting because the time is right again.
The Age of Sail
In the days before the industrial revolution, sail ships dominated international trade and naval mastkicking. Enormous Spanish galleons carried gold, rum, and tobacco from the Caribbean, while more efficient ships like the Dutch fluyt gave their merchants a competitive edge in the global economy. As years progressed rigging became ludicrously elaborate to make full use of the wind’s power until the um, wind shifted in favor of coal-powered ships. From there on out it was fossil fuels for life baby. Ok, and maybe a little nuclear power here and there.
But some things never change. Companies still want to get a competitive edge and have returned to sails to provide it because, like everything else, oil is expensive and finite. Several steps have already been made to supplement ships like having kites help tug them along.
I’ve written here before about how nobody in history is really ahead of their time because ideas in the past must be looked at in their own context, and it’s utterly impossible to separate those ideas from the culture of their generation. However, that doesn’t mean that things that were totally popular in their own time can’t find new uses in the future, so here’s 8 things from history that are making a comeback.
Airships once held the future for aviation. People thought these behemoths would litter cityscapes like floating urban sky-whales. That’s why skyscrapers like the Empire State Building were designed with docking ports for zeppelins and why Lakehurst, New Jersey used to be a city people have heard of. Then several different high profile disasters put an end to all those dirigible dreams, condemning blimps to cameos at football games and supporting fringe GOP candidates. First the Akron, the US Navy’s signature airship, went down off New Jersey killing all aboard, then the airship that went to look for survivors of the Akron went down, then the Akron’s sister airship crashed, and finally, after the US had all but given up on the ships, the Germans sent the Hindenburg over to get everyone excited again. That didn’t work too well.
With that the era of airships ended and planes took over forever…or did they? Several companies, both in the US and Germany are not only bringing zeppelins back, but hailing them as the future of transportation. And it’s not just corporate spokespeople hyping their product, truthful folks also see promise in bringing the ships back. They’ve pointed to several advantages they have over planes, like transporting cargo without the need for infrastructure like runways, doing it at a much cheaper fuel cost, and able to take off and land almost anywhere. The only problem appears to be the dwindling global helium supply, which the ships require in massive amounts. And yes, they look all cool and futuristic because steampunk stopped being cool in 2009.
An easy way to measure the relevance of questions is to quickly check in with Google’s autocomplete for a reading of the public consciousness. A search for “Were the founding fathers…” quickly leads to “Christian” as the top choice, followed by “democratic reformers,” “deists,” and “liberals.” It turns out the second choice of “democratic reformers” ranks so high because it’s the title of a chapter in a history textbook, which also might point to how kids do their homework these days. Nonetheless, two of the top three questions were about the Founding Fathers’ religion, apparently a lot of people want an answer to what seems like a fairly simple question.
This week marks both the annual celebration of American Independence, the overthrow of Egypt’s first elected president, Morsi, and the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, a pivotal point in the US Civil War. While unrelated on the surface, all three are landmarks in building a nation and while we’ve yet to see the outcome of Egypt’s struggle with democracy, the other two certainly have appeared fruitful. Today the US is a thriving democracy with a strong economy. Meanwhile, many commentators have placed Egypt in another group – the failed Arab Spring.
Altogether, five nations have seen protests resulting in massive political upheaval with demonstrations in Tunisa, Yemen, and Egypt bringing in new leaders, and armed revolts in Lybia and Syria leading to both democracy and an uncertain ongoing civil war respectively. The outcomes of these revolutions has been highly criticized by many on both the left and the right who claim that the costs of such revolutions will outweigh any benefits as the economies of Egypt and Lybia are in turmoil and most of Syria is still a warzone with no end in sight. Often onlookers will remark, either cynically or racially, that Arab countries are not ready for democracy and that they lack the institutions or culture to support it. This critique was formerly lobbed at the US when it tried to impose democracy on Iraq after overthrowing Saddam’s regime with a lead story from The Economist labeling it “Democracy at Gunpoint.” However, liberals will be quick to remark that the Arab Spring is different in that democracy imposed lacks the ummm…democracy that a spontaneous self-propelled revolution inspires. Still there are those who point to every short-coming of these revolutions as evidence that they have already failed after only 2 years. These people have either forgotten their own history of the American Revolution or have gotten so used to instant gratification that they accept nothing less. Did the American Revolution look any better after 2 years? after 10? From where we are now the revolution looks like a beacon of success but what was it really like in those years following independence? Here are some things to keep in mind.
History’s hit new show “Vikings” has drawn a fair amount of praise from critics who have hailed it as the next “Game of Thrones” and the show that will rescue the network formerly known as The History Channel from its “Ancient Aliens” past. The show follows the saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, a legendary 8th century Viking who carved out a small kingdom for himself. “Vikings” has been renewed for a second season, and its unclear whether they’ll stay with Ragnar or jump ahead to show Viking quests to Iceland, Greenland, and beyond. Personally, I’d love to see them tackle the attempt by some eastern Vikings to sack Constantinople, but that will probably have to wait for season 67 at this rate. Either way, despite the praise from critics and viewers, the show has come under fire from historians. Often the criticism focuses on how the Vikings are dressed, whether Iceland Spar was really used , or what type of government they had. All these concerns are fine for the nit-picking historian, yet they omit quite possibly the most egregious error – that the Viking world had no knowledge of the British Isles or anything outside the Baltic.
File this under the category of what’s mildly annoying me this week, or annoying me enough to write about it here.
Whenever someone mentions that the US is a democracy, even in passing, someone will undoubtedly chime in with, “the US is a republic, not a democracy,” as if that somehow negates everything previously said.
How people got this notion remains a mystery. I first recall one of my high school history teachers telling me it, and I’m undoubtedly guilty of repeating the statement as a teenager. Anyway, (before I start discussing my teenage years) it appears that people see a republic and a democracy as two distinct forms of government. Democracies supposedly elect everyone directly while republics elect representatives to vote in their place. By these definitions America is a republic – too bad these definitions are wrong. Continue reading ““The US is a Republic, not a Democracy!””→
It’s a phrase we hear constantly when discussing the great people of history – “they were ahead of their time.” Often the label is used to denote someone or something as too advanced for people to properly appreciate, while other times it simply means something better than the rest. These are fairly contradictory sentiments so I’ll discuss which is more appropriate first and then go on to examine four people in history – Leonardo Da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Hieronymus Bosch, and Gregor Mendel – to see if they were truly ahead of their time.
To call someone or something ahead of their time is to essentially say that they would be more comfortable living in an age beyond their own or that a product would have been more successful if released in the future. Assuming nobody has been time travelling, the only way someone could be ahead of their time is if their works were appreciated later. This has led some to abuse the phrase to simply mean something ground-breaking. For instance, take this piece on movies that were ahead of their time. It contains movies like Jaws, Tron, and Star Wars, all movies, while ground-breaking, were popular in their own time and therefore not really ahead of their time. In other words, if something is successful enough in its own time to influence tastes in the future then it can’t possibly be ahead of its time. If those movies did not exist then movies today would undoubtedly look very different. Instead, being ahead of time means something grossly under-appreciated to the point where it’s forgotten. Something can only be ahead of its time by coincidence – an idea disappearing and then re-emerging unrelated to the first. Continue reading “Is Anyone Truly Ahead of Their Time?”→