Category: History is cool

Acoustic mirrors

On the beach at Druridge Bay in Northumberland, near where I live, there are large blocks in various intervals. These hulking pieces of concrete, now half-submerged, were deployed on seafronts up and down England to prevent the enemy successfully landing tanks during the Second World War.

I was fascinated to find out that these aren’t the only concrete blocks that protected Britain. BBC News reports that ‘acoustic mirrors’ were installed for a very specific purpose:

More than 100 years ago acoustic mirrors along the coast of England were built with the intention of using them to detect the sound of approaching German zeppelins.

The concave concrete structures were designed to pick up sound waves from enemy aircraft, making it possible to predict their flight trajectory, giving enough time for ground forces to be alerted to defend the towns and cities of Britain.

Some of these, which vary in size, still exist, and have been photographed by Joe Pettet-Smith.

The reason most of us haven’t heard of them is that the technology improved so quickly. Pettet-Smith comments:

The sound mirror experiment, this idea of having a chain of concrete structures facing the Channel using sound to detect the flight trajectory of enemy aircraft, was just that – an experiment. They tried many different sizes and designs before the project was scrapped when radar was introduced.

The science was solid, but aircraft kept getting faster and quieter, which made them obsolete.

Fascinating. The historian (and technologist) within me loves this.

Source: BBC News

Soviet-era industrial design

While the prospects of me learning the Russian language anytime soon are effectively zero, I do have a soft spot for the country. My favourite novels are 19th century Russian fiction, the historical time period I’m most fond of is the Russian revolutions of 1917*, and I really like some of the designs that came out of Bolshevik and Stalinist Russia. (That doesn’t mean I condone the atrocities, of course.)

The Soviet era, from 1950 onwards, isn’t really a time period I’ve studied in much depth. I taught it as a History teacher as part of a module on the Cold War, but that was very much focused on the American and British side of things. So I’ve missed out on some of the wonderful design that came out of that time period. Here’s a couple of my favourites featured in this article. I may have to buy the book it mentions!

Soviet radio

Soviet textiles

Source: Atlas Obscura

* I’m currently reading October: the story of the Russian Revolution by China Mieville, which I’d recommend.

Humans responsible for the Black Death

I taught History for years, and when I was teaching the Black Death, I inculcated the received wisdom that it was rats that were responsible for the spread of disease.

But a team from the universities of Oslo and Ferrara now says the first, the Black Death, can be “largely ascribed to human fleas and body lice”.

The study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, uses records of its pattern and scale.

There are three candidates for the spread of the Black Death: rats, air, and lice/fleas:

[Prof Nils Stenseth, from the University of Oslo] and his colleagues… simulated disease outbreaks in [nine European] cities, creating three models where the disease was spread by:

  • rats
  • airborne transmission
  • fleas and lice that live on humans and their clothes

In seven out of the nine cities studied, the “human parasite model” was a much better match for the pattern of the outbreak.

It mirrored how quickly it spread and how many people it affected.

“The conclusion was very clear,” said Prof Stenseth. “The lice model fits best.”

Apologies to all those I taught the incorrect cause! I hope it hasn’t affected you too much in later life…

Source: BBC News

Where would your country be if the world was like Pangea?

I love this kind of stuff. As my daughter commented when I showed her, “we would be able to walk to Spain!”

The supercontinent of Pangea formed some 270 million years ago, during the Early Permian Period, and then began to break up 70 million years later, eventually yielding the continents we inhabit today. Pangea was, of course, a peopleless place. But if you were to drop today’s nations on that great land mass, here’s what it might look like.

Source: Open Culture

Film posters of the Russian avant-garde

I love the style of these posters, published in a new book to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution.

So creative!

Source: i-D

Atlas of Hillforts

This makes me happy.

Back in 2013, archaeologists at Oxford and Edinburgh teamed up to work on the Atlas of Hillforts. Their four-year mission was identify every single hill fort in Britain and Ireland and their key features. This had never been done before, and as Oxford’s Prof. Gary Lock said it would allow archaeologists to “shed new light on why they were created and how they were used”.

Although prehistory is ‘not my period’ as an historian, I’m fascinated by it, and often incorporate looking for a hill fort during my mountain walks.

When the project was under development, Wikimedia UK was supporting a Wikimedian in Residence (WIR) at the British Library, Andrew Gray. He talked to the the people involved in the project and suggested using Wikipedia to share the results of the project. After all they were going to create a free-to-access online database. Perhaps the information could be used to update Wikipedia’s various lists of hillforts?

That data is now live. What a resource! The internet, and in particular working openly, is awesome.

Source: Wikipedia UK