Archive for July, 2012

It’s About Time!

July 31, 2012

The Art, Science, and Business of Timekeeping, in the Olympics and Long Before

Michael Phelps was 4.10 seconds behind Ryan Lochte in the 400-meter Individual Medley at the 2012 Olympics.  Lochte lost the lead to a Frenchman on the final relay leg and checked in 0.45 seconds behind.

Mere fractions of seconds now separate Gold Medal winners from out-of-the money participants. The swiftest will reap millions and bask in fame for the rest of their lives. The slower – barely, but still slower – ones who finish in their wakes will join the madding crowd in anonymity.

“As long as I’m around you’re second best. You might as well learn to live with it,” said Edward G. Robinson as Lancey Howard in The Cincinnati Kid. Live with it, they will. Maybe they won’t like it, but the also-rans should be bloody well proud that they even had a chance to compete.

Is there a higher honor for an athlete than to represent his country in the Olympic Games? I don’t think so. Well done, ladies and gentlemen, whatever your time or place of finish happens to be. That’s the editorial comment. Now, to our story.

Time is Money

The games of the Thirtieth Olympiad take place in London. It’s fitting. London is home to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, which has long been the world’s point of geographical reference and is the fons et origo of modern timekeeping. Back in 1836, the Royal Observatory knew, down to the second, what time of day it was. But they had just about no way of sharing that information with the public.

Enter the first entrepreneur of time: John Henry Belville, an astronomer and meteorologist who worked there. He built up a lucrative side business – selling time.  Customers – local merchants, dockyards, shipping offices, instrument shops – paid a subscription fee for a weekly visit from Belville and his personal chronometer. That pocket timepiece, which was nicknamed Arnold, was tuned to the observatory’s clock to within one-tenth of a second.

Belville died in 1856, and his young widow Maria took over the time-supply business with the blessing of the Observatory. Her daughter Ruth inherited both the business and Arnold. Though telegraph, radio, and telephone’s “speaking clock” service moved onto the scene, the “Greenwich Time Lady” was most reliable and had a loyal following of customers. Ruth stayed in the time-selling business until 1940.

Timekeeping in Sports

Omega, the official timekeeper of the games, is now able to calibrate race times to one-thousandth of a second.  The starter’s “gun” is integrated with the laser detectors at the finish.  There’s no longer a human element to Olympic timing.

George V. Brown (right), the writer’s grandfather, finish line judge at 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Omega has been the Olympic timekeeper for eight decades. The relationship began back in 1932, at the Los Angeles Olympics. Omega supplied 30 stopwatches for the track judges.  These watches were accurate to a tenth of a second. In the Amsterdam games of 1928, the timers had all used their own stopwatches.

The writer has little doubt that one of those who used the first official Olympic stopwatches from Omega was his grandfather, George V. Brown (pictured here).  George V. had been involved with U.S. Olympic Track and Field since the first London games in 1908. In Los Angeles, he was a finish line judge.

More accurate watches didn’t make for undisputed decisions at the 1932 Games, however. The 100 meter duel between Thomas Edward “Eddie“ Tolan and Ralph Metcalfe, both USA sprinters, is described thusly by Robert Parienté in his book La Fabuleuse Histoire de l‘Athlétisme:  “Everyone saw Metcalfe win, and yet he was only placed second… Metcalfe was beaten by the rule book.”

The timekeepers‘ hand-held Omega stopwatches had recorded three times of 10.3 seconds for Metcalfe and two times of 10.3 and one of 10.4 seconds for Tolan. Even so, Tolan was declared the winner. Why? Both competitors reached the finishing tape at exactly the same moment, but the rules specified that the race is finished only when the athlete‘s torso has completely crossed the finishing line marked on the ground.  Tolan crossed before Metcalfe. This rule, which was often interpreted in different ways, was changed in 1933. Since then, the winner has been the first person to cross the line with any part of his or her torso.

Thomas Edward “Eddie” Tolan

The results list shows both Metcalfe and Tolan with times of 10.3 seconds. Even though this time, which was achieved against a headwind of 1.4 m/sec, equaled the world record then held by Tolan, it was never officially recognized as such by the IAAF.  Tolan won two gold medals in Los Angeles, and Metcalfe went down in the history books as an unlucky loser. In the 200 m final, he was wrongly told to start the race from the relay mark and ran 3.5 m further than he needed to, finishing third as a result. Unbelievably, neither Metcalfe nor Tolan was a member of the USA 4 x 100 m relay team!

Ralph Metcalfe

Metcalfe did not win a gold medal until 1936, when he was part of the US relay team that included the legendary Jesse Owens. Tolan and Metcalfe were the world‘s top sprinters before

Owens began to rewrite the sporting history books. Metcalfe set a total of 15 unofficial world records over 100 yards, 100 m, 200 m, 220 yards and the 4 x 100 m relay; Tolan set 14.

Tolan later became a teacher. Metcalfe spent the last seven years of his life as a Democrat member of the House of Representatives. Both were members of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first academic fraternity for blacks in the USA.

The Horse and the Stopwatch

Stopwatches were not a new thing in 1932. As far back as the 1850s, they came into demand in America because of the famous racehorse, Lexington. Here too, is an interesting story in the history of race relations and American sport.

Lexington was a beautiful bay that stood at 15 hands and 3 inches. He was foaled in 1850, bred for a Dr Elisha Warfield, who named him Darley. Darley’s trainer was a former slave known as Burbridge’s Harry. He was a superb and well-known trainer, but Darley could not be entered into races by the Burbridges because the trainer was black. The horse first ran under Dr. Elisha Warfield’s name.

The Chronodrometer from American Watch Company

Darley was fast and strong.  He won his first two races handily and was purchased by a Richard Ten Broeck. The horse was renamed Lexington, and he proceeded to become one of the most popular of all race horses during his day.  He raced seven times and won six of them. Those races were four miles long. In April 1865, Lexington was raced against the clock. He complete four miles in seven minutes and 19 ¾ seconds, a record speed that he held for more than twenty years.

Lexington’s success spurred demand for timepieces that could measure fractions of seconds.  In 1869, the American Watch Company of Waltham, Mass. introduced the “chronodrometer,” or improved timing watch. The company made about 600 of the watches between 1859 and 1861. The watch sold for $50, compared to as much as $350 for a high-grade European import.

The Photo Finish

The first Olympic photo finish. Harrison Dillard wins the 100 Meters in 1948.

The Omega company’s website claims that the “Birth of Modern Sports Timekeeping” came at the second London Olympic Games in 1948. The world’s first independent, portable and water-resistant photoelectric cell, made by Omega, made its Olympic debut in 1948. There was also the Racend Omega Timer, a device that combined a Race Finish Recording photo finish camera with a timer.

The first photo finish came in the 1948 Men’s 100-Meter Final.  In that race, Harrison “Old Bones” Dillard of the United States finished in 10.3 second and beat out fellow American Barney Ewell by a tenth of a second.

Then at Helsinki in 1952, Omega became the first company to use electronic timing in sport with the Omega Time Recorder .

The Clock that Saved Professional Basketball

Hard to believe, but the National Basketball Association has not always used the 24-second clock. The league had been in operation for five years before the owners realized that they had to speed up the game or go out of business. Fans were often disgusted and upset when teams would hold the ball for minutes on end.  In 1954, Syracuse Nationals owner Danny Biasone figured it all out with some simple arithmetic.

Biasone believed that basketball was most entertaining when it was neither a stallball game nor a wild shootout. His personal observation put the optimal level of shots per team at 60. That meant 120 shots per game. So he divided the length of each game, 48 minutes or 2,880 seconds, by 120. The result? 24 seconds per shot.

We’ve Come a Long Way

As with almost any subject, the history of timekeeping has a number of interesting developments in the 5,000 or so years since the Egyptians started building obelisks to track the passage of time with their shadows.

The Chinese used candles with evenly-spaced markings to track the passage of time. The Greeks had the clepsydra, which might have been the first way to record attorneys’ billable hours.  It was used to limit the length of lawyers’ speeches, actually. A hollow vessel with a hole in the bottom, the clepsydra was filled with water that would gradually run out into another vessel.  When the water was gone, the speaker’s time was up.

“Clock” comes from cloche, the French word for “bell.” The first mechanical clocks originated in European monasteries. They were faceless devices that marked the time with chimes rather than with hands.

The Swiss were talented horologists, as we all know. In 1577, Jost Burgi of Switzerland invented the minute hand. But it didn’t get popular until some 80 years later, when the addition of a pendulum decreased clocks’ daily margin of error from 15 minutes to about 15 seconds.

Back to Britain for our final story, and another lesson in economics.  Advocates of big government and of taxing everything that moves should be aware of yet another example of the killing power of taxes, this one involving timepieces. In 1797, British Parliament in its wisdom passed a law requiring citizens to register privately-owned timepieces, then pay taxes on them. The scheme, predictably, devastated the British clock making industry.  The law was repealed just nine months later.

Fun with History: How Thomas the Tank Engine Arrived at His Home Land of Sodor

July 17, 2012

Thomas the Tank Engine

When the Vikings invaded the British Isles back in the Middle Ages, they divided the northern islands into two kingdoms.  Nordr, the northern kingdom, comprised the Shetland and the Orkneys. Sodor, the southern kingdom, included the Hebrides and the Isle of Man.

In 1266, the Vikings lost control. The Church, however, preserved the Southern Kingdom’s name in its already-established diocese of Sodor and Man. Seven centuries later, Rev. Wilbert Awdry visited the area on church business. He noted that, while there was an Isle of Man, there was no Sodor to be found.

Awdry was on the lookout for a fictional setting for his books, “The Railway Series.”  Thomas the Tank Engine was the subject of four stories in the second book of that series. Thomas was modeled after a wooden toy that Awdry had made from a piece of broomstick for his son Christopher. Awdry decided to use the name Sodor for the setting in the books.

Thomas was described as “a tank engine who lived at a Big Station. He had six small wheels, a short stumpy funnel, a short stumpy boiler and a short stumpy dome.  He was a fussy little engine, always pulling coaches about. … He was a cheeky little engine, too.” Kids loved Thomas, and he eventually became world-famous.

The Railway Series books were rediscovered in 1979 by British writer Britt Allcroft. The TV series “Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends” began in 1984. Ringo Starr was the first narrator for the series.  The accompanying picture of Thomas appears on a British postage stamp.

That’s how the ancient Viking kingdom of Sodor came to be the home of Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends.

VeepStakes: “We’re Number Two!”

July 12, 2012


Vice President Dan Quayle. On the subject of his frequent mistakes and verbal miscues, his wife Marilyn once quipped, “What do you expect? He’s a blond.”

Would you like to be Vice President of the United States?  You’re probably better suited than many of the people who have held that high office.

The election is just a few months away.  Looks like Barack and Joe will be running together again, and we still don’t know who’s going to pair up with Mitt and run for vice president on the challengers’ ticket.

But whatever your political leanings, I hope you agree with me that the next person who will be a heartbeat away from the most powerful job in the world ought to be both of sound character and well qualified to step in, just like the Miss America runner-up. It hasn’t always been that way.

Perhaps that’s why so few sitting vice presidents get elected to the presidency.  It was more than 150 years between the elections of Martin Van Buren (1836) and George H.W. Bush (1988). Both of them lasted a single term as president.

You and I are more suited to stand first in line to succeed the president than many of those who’ve done so.  As Lord Acton wrote in his oft-quoted passage about the corruptive lure of power, “There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”  He might have been thinking of one or more vice presidents of the United States. Examples abound. Consider:

John Nance Garner

John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner

A Texan, he was vice president for Franklin Roosevelt’s first two terms. He got the nickname after campaigning for the prickly pear cactus to be named the official state flower. It wasn’t – the Bluebonnet got the nod in that crucial political decision. Garner is often quoted as saying that the vice presidency isn’t worth “a bucket of warm spit.” Only he didn’t say “spit.” You can guess what the actual word was. He also called himself “the president’s spare tire.”

Okay, okay, at least Garner was qualified for the job, having been Speaker of the House. But you wouldn’t have wanted to invite him over for dinner. Labor leader John L. Lewis called him “a labor-baiting, poker-playing, whiskey-drinking, evil old man.” That must have been partly accurate; during Prohibition he convened his “Board of Education,” a place where politicians of both parties could consume alcoholic beverages.

Liberals didn’t like him; he opposed FDR’s New Deal machinations and the plan to pack the Supreme Court.  Garner declared for president in 1940 but got nowhere at the convention.  FDR couldn’t let go and ran for a third term, picking Henry Wallace as running mate.

Schuyler Colfax

Schuyler Colfax, Financial Scandal Pioneer

Garner died at age 98, making him the longest-living vice president.  He and Schuyler Colfax – the coolest-named VP – who served under Ulysses Grant, are the only two Vice Presidents to have been Speaker of the House of Representatives prior to becoming Vice President.  That means that Garner and Colfax are the only people to have served as the presiding officer of both Houses of Congress.

Colfax, one of four veeps from Indiana, was another rogue. He was serving as Speaker of the House in 1865 when he declined an invitation to attend “Our American Cousin” with President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater.  Colfax was one of 13 congressmen who took bribes in the Credit Mobilier scandal that took place in the Andrew Johnson administration.  The news of those sleazy dealings, associated with the building of the first transcontinental railroad – the “Big Dig” of its day – came to light in 1872 when Colfax was VP.  He was bounced off the ticket and didn’t run with Grant for the latter’s second term in office. His successor, Henry Wilson, died in office after soaking in a tub.

Levi Morton, Civil Rights Obstructionist

Levi Morton

Levi Morton was vice president under Benjamin Harrison from 1889 to 1993. He is a bit player in American history, but he might have become president had he accepted James Garfield’s invitation to run with him in 1880. He refused, and asked to be appointed Minister to France instead. Garfield – who had a superb background and might have made a wonderful president had he lived – agreed to the request. Soon he was assassinated by the screwball Charles Guiteau, who thought that he had been “passed over” for the job that Morton took.

Morton actually did a decent job as Minster to France.  In Paris, on October 24, 1881, he placed the first rivet in the construction of the Statue of Liberty. The rivet was driven into the big toe of Lady Liberty’s left foot.

When Morton was serving as VP, President Harrison tried to pass the Lodge Bill, an election law enforcing the voting rights of blacks in the South. Morton did not support the bill against a Democratic filibuster in the Senate, and Harrison blamed Morton for the bill’s failure. He bounced Morton from the ticket and chose Whitelaw Reid as the vice-presidential candidate for the next election. They lost to Democrats Grover Cleveland and Adlai E. Stevenson.

Daniel Tompkins

Daniel Tompkins, Sad Case of a Good Man’s Ultimate Failure

Governor of New York from 1807 to 1817, Tompkins won re-election three times and once turned down an offer to become James Madison’s Secretary of State.  He was vice president for James Monroe’s two terms. During the War of 1812, he was one of the nation’s most effective governors. He organized the state militia, initiated the practice of conscription, and funded much of the militia’s operations when the state legislature would not do so. This financial generosity to his country proved his undoing. Tompkins took out loans and used his personal property as collateral.  By the end of the war he was owed $90,000, quite a fortune in those days.

When Tompkins tried to recover his loans from the state and the federal government, they both stiffed him. Litigation ran to 1824, the last of his eight years as vice president. His financial problems drive him to alcoholism and to embezzling schemes, and he often presided over the Senate while drunk.  It got so bad that Congress even docked his pay.

Thomas Marshall, Small Caliber but Funny Guy

Thomas Marshall

An Indiana lawyer, Marshall was VP for Woodrow Wilson, the supercilious and much overrated president, who was also once the president of Princeton University.  Wilson called Marshall a “small-caliber man” and wrote that a vice president’s only significance is that he “be may cease to be Vice President.” Marshall should actually have assumed the top spot after Wilson had a paralytic stroke. Instead, Wilson’s wife effectively ran the country.  Marshall had been in the dark about how bad Wilson’s condition was, but he didn’t want the presidency anyway.

He was a wit, though. It was he who stated, after listening to a long, blustering Senate speech on the country’s needs, “What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar.” When he left the vice presidency, he retired to Indiana and did not want to work anymore. His memoirs made that point, and added, “I wouldn’t mind being Vice President again.”

Richard Johnson, Disheveled Tavern Owner

Richard Johnson

Martin van Buren, successor to President Andrew Jackson, was a foppish New York dandy who was accused of wearing corsets. To “balance” the ticket, they picked Kentuckian Richard Johnson, who tried to claim credit for slaying the Indian chief Tecumseh. That gave rise to a campaign slogan: “Rumpsey Dumpsey, Col. Johnson killed Tecumsey.”

Johnson once petitioned Congress to drill “the Polar regions” to see if the Earth was hollow. He also alienated Southern Congressmen by taking a slave as a common-law wife and escorting his two mulatto daughters to official functions. He ran up many debts as vice president, so he fled to Kentucky and ran a hotel and tavern. His appearance was so unkempt that an English visitor wrote, “If he should become President, he will be as strange-looking a potentate as ever ruled.”

“His Accidency” John Tyler, and Others Who (Briefly) Moved Up

Tyler succeeded William Henry Harrison, who died after a month in office. He became the first president not to run for a second term. No party wanted him.  Millard Fillmore, who moved in after Zachary Taylor died, fared no better when he tried to run again. It was he who appointed Brigham Young governor of Utah Territory. Andrew Johnson, disastrous second vice president under Abe Lincoln, was drunk at his vice presidential inauguration.  Chester Arthur, who took over for the assassinated James Garfield, was the presidency’s premier gourmand. He served 14 course meals at the White House.  His party dumped him too.

Vice Presidential One-Liners

Thomas Jefferson called his vice presidency under John Adams “a tranquil and unoffending station” and spent most of his time at Monticello. Adlai Stevenson, vice president to Grover Cleveland, was asked if the president ever consulted him on anything. His reply: “Not yet, but there are still a few weeks of my term remaining.”

Senator Charles Fairbanks of Indiana was Teddy Roosevelt’s vice president. T.R. did his best to foil Fairbanks’ career ambitions, dubbing him “the Indiana icicle” and undercutting him at every opportunity.  Four years after Roosevelt left office, Fairbanks was approached again for a possible vice presidential run. His answer: “My name must not be considered for Vice President. Please withdraw it.”

Hannibal Hamlin

Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, Lincoln’s first running mate, was an avid card-player. He said that the announcement of his candidacy “ruined a good hand.”

Lyndon Johnson, JFK’s vice president, was no friend of the Kennedys.  They called him “Uncle Cornpone.” Nelson Rockefeller, VP under Jerry Ford, said “I go to funerals. I go to earthquakes.”

And then there’s Bush I’s vice president Dan Quayle, who once spelled the name of a popular food “potatoe.” He also butchered the slogan of the United Negro College Fund and earned a spot in Bartlett’s, saying “It’s a terrible thing to lose one’s mind.  Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful.”

Source for most of the information in this post is the July/August issue of Smithsonian magazine. If you’d like to know more of the stories behind the stories of our country’s vice presidents, you might want to check out the Vice Presidential Learning Center in Dan Quayle’s home town of Huntington, Indiana. It’s the only museum dedicated to vice-presidential history and memorabilia.

The Center’s former marketing slogan: “Second to One.”

The All-Star Game: What a Classic It Was Back When

July 10, 2012

Dick Radatz

Members of “Red Sox Nation” don’t know how good they have it: World Series championships, playoffs, perennial contender status. Back in the bad old days when I was growing up, the only thing we could ever look forward to was the All-Star game. The Red Sox never had any hope of winning the American League pennant. They were mediocrity personified.

You had to win the pennant to get into the World Series. There were no playoffs, no wild cards. And just about every year, the Yankees would have the regular season title clinched by the end of July.

There was almost no television coverage of baseball from out of town either. So the only time we could see the mythical immortals of the National League was in the mid-summer All-Star game. At least one player from every team had to make the All-Stars, so we could root for a smattering of our local heroes against the titans from afar.

The game was a very big deal. The baseball card companies even hustled out packets of All-Star cards around that time. And the teams played to win. Many of the starters would play the entire game. A lot of those who made it to the game just rode the bench.

From 1950 through 1980, there were 35 All-Star games, because in three of those years they played two games. The National League won 28 of the 35. It was close to utter domination.  Musial, Spahn,

Willie Mays

Matthews, Mays, Marichal, Clemente, McCovey, Drysdale, Koufax – demigods all – were the typical opponents. We of junior circuit were always overmatched.

The Carmine Hose’s perennial representatives were Ted Williams and his successor, Carl Yastrzemski. Others who made it onto the team more than once in that era included Frank Malzone, Pete Runnels, and Jackie Jensen.  Sox fans could hope they would get in for an inning or two, and maybe one at-bat.

In 2009, six Red Sox made the All-Stars.  This year the only Sox player on the team is Ortiz. The team is in last place. Feels familiar. To me, not to the Gen-Xers, and not to the Millennials. They’ve been spoiled.

The Monster

Back before anyone invented the term “closer” or dreamed up “saves” as a baseball statistic, Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Dick Radatz was the best in the business. And he pitched for us!

He was big, burly, and intimidating beyond words. He threw heat, heat, and more heat. For three seasons, 1962-64, Dick Radatz and his fastball were masters of the late-innings – not just the ninth. Mickey Mantle dubbed him “The Monster.” It stuck. Radatz didn’t last long in the majors. Once he lost just a tad off his fast ball, he was history.

Richard Raymond Radatz was born in in Detroit and graduated from Michigan State. College graduates in pro baseball were a rarity back then. I once heard – it may have been from him – that he was only the 25th college grad ever to play major league ball. I don’t know if that’s true, but it sounds plausible.

I met Dick one evening in a corporate “Legends” box at a Red Sox game.  He was an ideal host in that venue; he loved to tell stories and share his knowledge of the sport. Radatz was also a good sport with a sense of humor. I decided to kid him during handshakes and introductions by saying that my name was Johnny Callison. He glared at me, then broke into a grin and said, “They were bringing me the keys to the Corvette, and that guy took it away from me. Let me tell you about Johnny Callison.”

Johnny Callison

John Wesley Callison was a right fielder who grew up in Oklahoma, broke in with the White Sox, and was traded to the Phillies in 1961. In Philadelphia, he blossomed into a star. Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito was a big fan. Callison’s single against the Chicago Cubs in a 1962 game was the first hit ever seen by a live television audience in Europe. A portion of that game was shown on the first transatlantic broadcast via Telstar, which had been launched a few days earlier.

The 1964 Game

Radatz and Eddie Bressoud, a journeyman shortstop who was enjoying a career year, were the only Red Sox on the American League’s 1964 All-Star squad. Bressoud had also done Boston an enormous favor. He was the guy who came here in trade for Don Buddin, the hapless butt of endless jokes and one-liners. Boston writer Clif Keane once suggested that Buddin’s license plate be “E6.”

The game was a thriller, played in brand-new Shea Stadium adjacent to the New York World’s Fair. Radatz took the mound in the seventh inning with American League leading 4-3. The first player he faced was Callison, who flied deep to right field; the long out carried to the warning track. Radatz then retired the next five batters.

The Nationals tied the game in the last of the ninth. Willie Mays – maybe the greatest ball player ever, and certainly one of the top five – walked after fouling off five third-strike pitches. He stole second and scored on a bloop single and a bad throw by the grossly overrated Yankee Joe Pepitone.

Callison came up with two outs and two men on base. He stepped into the batter’s box, then asked for time and went back to the dugout. He emerged a minute later and blasted a Radatz fastball into the seats for a walk-off home run, the third in All-Star Game history. In previous years, Stan Musial and Ted Williams had also ended the All-Star Game with a home run. That hit earned Callison the game MVP award, a Chevrolet Corvette.

Years later, Radatz related, he encountered Callison and asked why he had gone back to the dugout.  Callison explained that, with his own bat, he hadn’t quite been able to “get around” on Dick’s fastball.  His fly-out had gone to the warning track – not good enough. So Callison borrowed a bat from his teammate, Willie Mays. Willie’s bat was one ounce lighter. A single ounce made all the difference.

Earthshine: The DaVinci Glow

July 8, 2012

When you think of Leonardo Da Vinci, you probably think of the Mona Lisa or 16th-century submarines or, maybe, a certain suspenseful novel that has been made into a movie. That’s old school. From now on, think of the Moon. Little-known to most, one of Leonardo’s finest works is not a painting or an invention, but rather something from astronomy: He solved the ancient riddle of Earthshine.

You can see Earthshine whenever there’s a crescent Moon on the horizon at sunset.  Look between the horns of the crescent for a ghostly image of the full Moon. That’s Earthshine.  There should be one on July 15 – and at dawn that day it will also be framed in a celestial triangle with Jupiter and Venus. Worth getting up early to see it – hope there are no clouds!

For thousands of years, humans marveled at the beauty of this “ashen glow,” or “the old Moon in the new Moon’s arms.” But what was it? No one knew until the 16th century when Leonardo figured it out.

In modern times, the answer must seem obvious. When the sun sets on the Moon, it gets dark–but not completely dark. There’s still a source of light in the sky: Earth. Our own planet lights up the lunar night 50 times brighter than a full Moon, producing the ashen glow.

Visualizing this in the 1500s required a wild kind of imagination. No one had ever been to the Moon and looked “up” at Earth. Most people didn’t even know that Earth orbited the sun. (Copernicus’ sun-centered theory of the solar system wasn’t published until 1543, twenty-four years after Leonardo died.)


Wild imagination was one thing Leonardo had in abundance. His notebooks are filled with sketches of flying machines, army tanks, scuba gear and other fantastic devices centuries ahead of their time. He even designed a robot: an armored knight that could sit up, wave its arms, and move its head while opening and closing an anatomically correct jaw.

To Leonardo, Earthshine was an appealing riddle. As an artist, he was keenly interested in light and shadow. As a mathematician and engineer, he was fond of geometry. All that remained was a trip to the Moon. This marvelous Renaissance man made that mental journey.

In Leonardo’s Codex Leicester, circa 1510, there is a page entitled “Of the Moon: No Solid Body is Lighter than Air.” He states his belief that the Moon has an atmosphere and oceans. The Moon was a fine reflector of light, Leonardo believed, because it was covered with so much water. As for the “ghostly glow,” he explained, that was due to sunlight bouncing off Earth’s oceans and, in turn, hitting the Moon.

Not oceans – clouds do most of Earth’s reflecting. And the Moon has no atmosphere. But he was basically right. Nice going, Leonardo da Vinci!

To Celebrate and Remember: July 1

July 1, 2012

Poppies of Flanders

Today is Canada Day, national holiday of our northern neighbor.  In America, we are preparing to celebrate the birth of our own nation three days hence. Let us wish our Canadian friends the best end enjoy the festivities here. But let us also pause and remember once again the suffering and sacrifices of those who made it possible for us to live freely in these blessed and noble lands.

99 years ago today, July 1, 1916, was the first day of the Battle of the Somme.  In that horrific encounter the British suffered 3,483 casualties an hour.  By midnight, British losses were 57,470 men. This is more than 50% of the manpower of the entire regular British Army in 2010.

That was in World War I, perhaps the most hideous and tragic of all conflicts because it was the first time that the tactics of ancient war confronted the machinery of modern war.  Formerly mighty stone fortresses and their defenders, blasted to rubble by monstrous artillery shells fired from 20 miles away. Cavalry and infantry charges, across open fields into cataracts of death spewed from automatic machine guns.

These encounters were foreshadowed years previously at places like Gettysburg and Balaclava, but they burst into full horror and unspeakable carnage with the perfection of the devilish engines of World War I. The Somme and battles like it befouled the battlefields and left large deposits of lime in the soil of France and Belgium.   Poppies were among the few plants that could still grow there.  In 1918, American professor Moina Michael resolved to wear a red poppy year-round to honor the soldiers who died in the war.  She also wrote poetry and campaigned to have the poppy adopted as an official symbol of remembrance by the American Legion.

John McCrae

One literary work that never fails to move me is “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, who was a Canadian physician in World War I.  On this day, I think, it’s well to ponder his touching poem once again.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
         In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

Lincoln (circled) at Gettysburg, three hours before delivering the Gettysburg Address.

The final stanza also calls to mind the message of Lincoln at Gettysburg: “… that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom..”

So yes, let us enjoy our nation’s upcoming birthday celebration and raise a glass in salute to our Canadian friends. But may we pause a moment, both to highly resolve as Mr. Lincoln said, and to hold the torch high as Mr. McCrae said. And on this day, July 1, it is also fitting that we whisper a prayer of gratitude and remembrance for those brave lads who suffered so terribly and made the ultimate sacrifice nearly 100 years ago in the War to End All Wars.