Archive for the ‘history’ Category

The Day with Two Noons, and How Eastern Standard Time Came to Be

January 11, 2023

Many years ago, I was listening to a late-night radio show. Up came the topic of how the map of the world got divided up neatly into 24 segments, each of which registered the time on its clocks as different by one hour from the times in the adjacent segments.

                The show host – I believe it was Dick Summer of Boston’s WBZ  – noted that the job of laying out the world into those segments had been done by a little-known Russian cartographer by the name of Alex Andersrag.

                After an appropriate pause, he continued, “And that’s where we got the Alex Andersrag Time Band.”

                Boo! Hiss! My kind of groaner…one of the best I’ve ever heard.

                That sick pun came to mind recently when I read the real story of how time zones and standard times in America came to be. It was the work of a man who deserves to be remembered but whose name is virtually lost to history: Charles Ferdinand Dowd.

Charles Dowd

                Dowd graduated from Yale in 1853. He got married, moved to upstate New York and eventually settled in Saratoga Springs. He and his wife Miriam, a graduate of Mount Holyoke Seminary, bought the Temple Grove Seminary in Saratoga Springs and taught there for 35 years.

                According to one of his biographers, Dowd “liked order, and he disliked confusion.” He was also a frequent railroad traveler, and he knew that there was little order and much confusion that stemmed from the difference between local times and railroad times. It wasn’t only confusing. It was life-threatening.

                In 1853, the year Dowd graduated from Yale, a story in the New York Times laid out the problem that Dowd would eventually solve. Two express trains, speeding in opposite directions, had collided head-on and killed several passengers.

“Our columns groan again with reports of wholesale slaughter by railroad trains…the variation of a time-piece is assigned as the immediate occasion of the meeting…Has human ingenuity been exhausted, in devising the means – or has the power of Society proved unable to enforce by law such regulations as will prevent these horrible holocausts to the Railway demon?”

                What was the problem? There was no uniform standard of time. In every place in the country, they determined noon of the day astronomically. It was 12 noon when the sun was directly overhead. Just as one example, in Connecticut there was eight minutes’ difference registering on town clocks between the Rhode Island border to the east and the New York border to the west.

Every railroad in the country operated on its own sweet time when constructing its timetables. If there were any differences, transfer-seeking passengers had to figure them out. It was a nuisance, but as the case of the 1853 crash sadly proved, it could often be a fatal nuisance. And especially since the end of the Civil War and the driving of the Golden Spike in 1869, thousands of railroad lines crisscrossed the nation. Timely connections and uniform timetables became an even more critical need.

Charles Dowd, the order-obsessed philosophy professor from Saratoga Springs, set out to do it. He already had some technology-based tools at his disposal. In New York, citizens had been able to do away with reliance on sundials in 1877, thanks to Western Union. At noon every day, a telegraph operator at the Naval Observatory in Washington would tap a key. That signaled an electromagnet in New York, tripping a lever that released a large copper ball atop a pole at the Western Union Telegraph Building in New York. The ball descended, and New Yorkers knew that it was noontime.

That was nice for New York. But what about the rest of the country?

Dowd’s first try at an all-encompassing system failed. He made more than eight thousand calculations along five hundred rail lines, and he came up with a uniform national time. It didn’t work. The four-hour time difference between the coasts was too great. So he went back to work and drew up a set of four time zones, each fifteen degrees of longitude in width.

That was in 1863, when he presented it to his students at the seminary. Six years later, he proposed the system to a group of railway executives in New York City. And for the next fourteen years he lobbied and badgered anyone who would listen – engineers, astronomers, college professors, magazine and newspaper edits.  Dowd wasn’t in it for the money. He just wanted to solve the problem.

Fortunately, he’d found a champion. John Toucey was general manager of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad. His line’s Grand Central Depot was the nation’s busiest. In 1883, a full 20 years after Dowd had devised the system, Toucey introduced it as a resolution before the General Railway Time Convention. The resolution consolidated the 50 existing time zones into four.

The new system became effective on Sunday, November 18, 1883. It helped that New York mayor Franklin Edson was on board, decreeing that all clocks comply with the new railway time. That day became known as “the day with two noons,” because the ball atop the Western Union Telegraph Building would descend twice. First it would signal 12:00 noon local time; then it would signal 12:00 Eastern Standard Time.

At 9:00 a.m. New York time on that day, the superintendent of Western Union’s Time Telegraph subsidiary stopped the pendulum of his regulator clock. Time stood still for three minutes and 58 seconds, when the pendulum was reactivated. Ten o’clock came and went, and then twelve noon New York time the ball dropped.  Four minutes later the ball dropped again. It was noon, Eastern Standard Time.

The U.S. Attorney General, Benjamin Brewster, tried to get in on the act. He stated that such a revision that affected the entire nation needed congressional approval. But the superintendent of the Naval Observatory ignored him and adopted the railway standard as the nation’s official timekeeper.

The New York Times covered the story of the new standard time on page five, remarking that “All intelligent persons will ask why the change was not made years ago.” And that very day its front page headline blared “TERRIBLE RAILWAY COLLISION IN ILLINOIS.”

Charles Dowd, the man who had made it all possible, was nearly forgotten. That’s because he didn’t write the history. He tried, but the man who told the story and claimed the credit was William Allen, an engineer and editor of the Travelers’ Official Railway Guide for the United States.  

At least Allen pointed out that Dowd’s original proposal in 1870 to his organization was “the first published proposition of which I have any knowledge.”  And somewhere along the way, Dowd received annual passes from all major railways, in recognition of his claim of designing the country’s time zones.

Dowd’s life ended tragically. At age 80, in November 1904, he went to visit a sick friend. As he was walking home, he was killed by a train as he crossed North Broadway in Saratoga Springs.  Delaware and Hudson train number 6, running late and speeding around a corner at 30 miles an hour just two blocks from the station, ran over him.

Saratoga Springs’ city fathers eventually recognized Charles Dowd’s towering achievement some years later when, near the site of the fatal accident, they placed a monument to his name: a sundial.

(Note: My source for this story is The New Yorkers: 31 Remarkable People, 400 Years, and the Untold Biography of the World’s Greatest City, by Sam Roberts.)

The Silver Wolf, by J.C. Harvey: Review and Reflection

March 4, 2022

William Tecumseh Sherman, the American Civil War general, famously stated to his men, “War is hell.”

J.C. Harvey

He also wrote to John Bell Hood, an opposing general, “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.”

That’s right, as far as it goes. But had General Sherman read J.C. Harvey’s The Silver Wolf, he might have suggested to General Hood that “We’ve had it pretty easy here. I’m just glad this isn’t the Thirty Years War.”

Horror and brutality. That’s what I felt about what life must have been like for people like Jack Fiskardo, the hero of The Silver Wolf.  Jacky Colliss Harvey the historian (Red: A History of the  Redhead and The Animal’s Companion, both previously reviewed here) dons her fiction-writer’s hat to tell his tale. As J.C. Harvey, she immerses us in the fog of the Thirty Years War, which ran from the Defenestration of Prague in 1618 to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

The Thirty Years War was one of history’s most devastating, destructive, complicated conflicts, and Harvey doesn’t intend to explain its broad sweep and its historical significance. Though she gives a concise summary in the introductory author’s note, she states that her book’s events

“stand in much the same relation to the events of the Thirty Years War as a tapestry does to its support: in other words, with just enough points of connection, I hope, to bear the weight…I have played fast and loose with documented history, opening real doors onto landscapes and happenings that never existed until I made them up. Then again, all too often, I would hit the horrid truth that no matter what I might create in my imagination, the actual events of the war would be worse: stranger, crazier, even more hideously comic; more incredible, more appalling.”

Fiskardo seems to be part Achilles, part Ulysses, part Frodo, and even part Harry Potter (without the magic tricks.) Harvey models him on the description of one real-life individual, Carlo Fantom, by 17th-Century biographer John Aubrey in his Brief Lives:

“[he] had such skills in the bearing of arms that it was said he had purchased them of the Devil, in especial, that he was a Hard Man, so could not be put down by bullets nor by steel; and that he carried with him always the silver token of  wolf, such as the Hard Men use, so that one may know another…His father was a gentleman-at-arms under King Henry of France and there was much black work, as the soldiers say, in his father’s death, and in his mother’s too.”

This book, subtitled Fiskardo’s War, is the first of a series. Because there are more books to come, I’m not spoiling it for you when I tell you that Jack Fiskardo lives to fight again, and that he has unfinished business to attend to. But many of those whom we meet do not survive, including Fiskardo’s parents. Like the real-life Carlo Fantom, Jack’s father Jean had once been a cavalry captain in the army of King Henry IV of France.

Along the way, we see Jack fighting for his life and barely surviving as a wharf-rat in the merciless port of Amsterdam; learning swordsmanship and horsemanship; dealing with spies and traitors; negotiating his price as he enlists in armies; narrowly escaping death as a town is sacked and burned; and revenge-killing one foe.

Perhaps the author played loose with some of the historical facts and dates, as she stated above, but she lets us know what life must have been like in those times. It’s not just in descriptions of the horrors of combat, and it’s even in the argot-infused soldiers’ conversations.

Consider the motivations of those who took up arms back in those days. They weren’t fighting to save the world for democracy or to rid us of the scourge of slavery. They were in it for the bucks, both their soldier’s pay and whatever they could carry away from villages, cities, and individual homes and farms that ever stood in their path.

The real-life Carlo Fantom fought in the Thirty Years War, then made his way to England to fight in the Civil War.  Here’s Harvey’s description of Fiskardo, showing up as a new recruit in the army of the Empire. Asked what action he’s seen, he replies

“Joined up at Heidelberg in twenty-two. I was a scout.”

“A scout, eh? That’s good enough for me. I pay eight gulden a month—“

“I get fifteen.”

“[The captain] is paid one hundred and fifty gulden a month – as much as any captain in the regiment. But out of that he has to find for his kit, his horses, his four boys, not to mention his pleasures, none of which come cheap…never mind. There’s always some new ruse, to keep his crew’s wages in his hands.  ‘All right, fifteen then, fifteen gulden a month, and you’d better be worth it.’”

I can’t imagine soldiers and officers in a modern army acting this way. But I think that is a good example of one of those real doors that Harvey said she has opened up into landscapes of that hard and brutal world.  We see many more of them.

Here’s a description of a meal at a tavern called The Carpenter’s Hat. “The meal is house-pot, a type of stew – potatoes, onion, shredded cabbage, flakes of fish (today it is salmon, both plentiful and cheap; Zoot runs a thrifty kitchen, as one might expect) – enriched with chicken livers and ground pork sausage, thickened with egg yolks, spiced with mace and sharpened up with vinegar.”

Eww. But I guess a man’s gotta eat. Especially a freebooting soldier of fortune.

How to become a gentleman-at-arms? Harvey covers that too. Jack comes under the tutelage of a Master Nicholas, who “offers tuition in rapier, fauchon, hanger, glaive. The smallest weapon in his armoury, all of which hangs neatly from racks on the classroom walls, is a novelty that fits between the knuckles of the fourth and middle finger; the largest, a Swiss broadsword, has a blade of four feet. Armed with such a weapon, at the height of his stroke a man can attain the velocity of a slash with a throat-cut razor.”

And what about that horror and brutality I mentioned earlier? Just a few examples.

Early in the book, Jack nearly dies at the hands of the gang on the Amsterdam docks. He’s found just in time with “a wound below the arc of his ribs, crusted with pus, like a fissure in a geode.” But he survives.

He also survives a climactic battle when the Swedish army of King Gustavus Adolphus attacks and destroys the town which the Imperial army is occupying.  Harvey’s meticulously researched description of the weaponry is masterful. Her telling of the up-close-and-personal nature of the killing is mesmerizing. Sickening, but mesmerizing.

A colonel Bronheim, already wounded, shouts in despair at his fleeing men. Then,

“At a window fifty feet away, a Swedish musketeer, less hurried than his fellows, takes a paper cartridge from his belt (another innovation, this), opens it with his teeth, tips powder and cartridge straight down the barrel of his musket and thinks, Now then. Let’s see what this can do. There. That fellow, that one bellowing and roaring – how could he miss?

“Kneeling, he balances its barrel on the windowsill. Squeezes the trigger, back, back, ba-a-ack…they’re a novelty, firelock muskets, and none of them quite trusts that the burning fuse, coiled in its iron pincer by the stock, coiled like the smallest, deadliest of snakes, will somehow every time find the touch-hole – and fires. A single shot, a calligraphic flourish of smoke.

“Bronheim, still bellowing, hears the shot that takes him; hears it come in like a hornet for the attack. Feels the course of fire it ploughs through his chest, feels those organs in its path implode.”

I’ll leave it to you to read the book and Harvey’s ever more graphic and gruesome account of Jack dispatching a foe with sword and dagger. But suffice it to say that it might just be enough to turn a guy like General Sherman into a peacenik.

Yes, war is hell. Always was.  

So we know what kind of guy Fiskardo is. He is a Hard Man. He has a silver wolf token.  Whoever it was that killed his mother lost it in the doing of that “black work.” The killer is still at large, and at the end of the book, when Jack is with the Swedish army, he tells his second-in-command as they march into Germany, “He’s there. Trust me. I can feel it in my blood.”

There’s another Fiskardo book coming, and then another. So move over, J.K. Rowling. Here’s J.C. Harvey.

Never Forget

January 27, 2022

Today, January 27, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the massive murder factory where more than a million Jews were put to death as part of Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution.

We must never forget those innocent victims of the Nazis’ insane crusade. Nor must we forget the five million other Jews and the five or six million other people who were killed by a nation that had gone mad. These numbers are estimates, educated guesses. No one really knows for sure just how many lives were snuffed out, how many life stories will never be told.

But some people lived to tell about it. I have been most privileged to help one of them, Mary Wygodski, to tell her story in book form. Evil Must Not Have the Last Word is the fruit of almost six years of research. It was released for publication on December 31, 2021.

The book is written in the first person. Mary is the principal narrator, but we hear the voices of several others: her husband Mort; her girlfriends Bella and Edith, who also survived the three concentration camps where Mary was imprisoned; her cousin, Genia Kovner; and her children and grandchildren, son Avi, daughter Charlene, and grandsons Matthew, Jeremy, and Elan.

The book took much longer to write than I had ever imagined. Once I had done several interviews with Mary, I realized that I needed to learn much more about the Holocaust and its aftermath, as least as it had directly affected her, in order to place her story in the proper context and to do it full justice. So I undertook the research that gave me an appreciation of, inter alia: the history and culture of her native city of Vilna, the wonderful “Jerusalem of Europe;” how the Nazis used people of the conquered lands to carry out much of their diabolical work; the particular history of the concentration camps at Kaiserwald, Stutthof, and Magdeburg; the Jews’ difficulties in escaping from post-war Europe to Palestine, America, and other places; and the emergence, through the crucible of war, of the new state of Israel.

So, to mark this Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am pleased to inform you that the book is available on all of the major online sites – Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Goodreads etc. – and that it can be ordered through your local bookstore.

If you wish to contact me directly about the book or would like to purchase a signed copy, please email me at tjburke@veteranscribe.com.

I will close this blog post with the book’s epigraph. It ends another Holocaust memoir, I Was a Boy in Belsen, and it sums up perfectly my own beliefs and feelings.

“Go home from this place and tell your children and your grandchildren that you have looked into the eyes and have shaken hands with people who have survived the greatest cataclysm mankind has unleashed on mankind. Tell them to tell their children and their children’s children, because these people will be mourned and spoken about and wept over for 10,000 years. For if they aren’t, we are all done for.”

— Paddy Fitzgibbon, On the Occasion of the Dedication of Irish Shoah Memorial, Listowel, Ireland, 2010

History I Never Knew: Saint Hildegarde, Sybil of the Rhine

September 22, 2021

Today’s history-I-never-knew blog post is from the annals of religion. Or, maybe it’s from the annals of medicine.  You can decide.

It took almost a thousand years for the Catholic Church to get it right about Saint Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179.) She’s known as “The Sybil of the Rhine” for her poetic prophecies. She was already canonized a saint, but it wasn’t until 2012 that Pope Benedict XVI named the learned Hildegarde a Doctor of the Church. She’s only the fourth woman to be so designated.

Hildegarde of Bingen

I’d say she deserves it. When it came to health care matters, she knew what was good for you.

According to “Drinking with the Saints: A Sinner’s Guide to a Holy Happy Hour,” Hildegarde was exceptionally wise, “with a keen insight into moral psychology and an avid interest in many subjects, including medicine. An important example of Hildegarde’s wisdom is her high regard for wine and beer.”

In her treatise “Causes and Cures,” Hildegarde’s prescription for treating a sick person is “Cerevisiam Bibat.”

Translation: “Let him drink beer.”

She explains why: “For beer fattens up man’s flesh and bestows a beautiful color to his face on account of the strength and good vitality of the grain. But water debilitates man and, if he is sick, sometimes produces a bluish discoloration around the lungs. For water is weak and does not have a strong power.”

Brilliant. Why didn’t they think of that before? Holy and wise she was, indeed. But medicine was hardly her only subject. She wrote fifteen books and composed dozens of hymns; she is one of the most renowned composers of sacred monophony, which will be familiar to people of my generation as Gregorian Chant.

Hildegarde founded two abbeys in Germany. They were dissolved in a nineteenth-century wave of secularization, but Benedictine nuns later re-established one as Eibingen Abbey. It is also known as Abtei St. Hildegard, and it is a “Klosterweingut,” a monastic winegrowing estate.  They make their own Riesling wine, which is unfortunately not distributed beyond the borders of Germany.

The wine from that abbey has nothing to do with the Blue Nun brand. You may remember how popular Blue Nun used to be, and the radio ads for it by Stiller and Meara. It was called a “Liebfraumilch,” or “Dear Lady’s Milk,” and the nuns in blue habits that are associated with it were garbed in that color as a display of devotion to the Virgin Mary.

Blue Nun was invented in the 1920s by the H. Sichel Schöne Company. The Blue Nun name and labeling was a branding maneuver to help boost exports. Up until that time, German wine labels were printed in a typeface called Fraktur, which was difficult to read. Blue Nun’s simplified visuals and graphics were a welcome change.  The first nuns depicted on the labels actually wore brown habits, not blue ones. But in the United States, even they couldn’t be shown initially because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms prohibited images of nuns.

There’s a Hildegard wine put out by Au Bon Climat winery of Santa Barbara, California, but it has nothing to do with Hildegarde of Bingen. It’s named for Empress Hildegard, the wife of Charlemagne. She lived a couple of hundred years before our admired friend from Bingen. According to the Au Bon Climat website,

“The name Hildegard is a salute to the history of Burgundy and to her husband the King of the Franks, Charlemagne. During his rule in the early 800s the importance of wine and viticulture exploded. The Catholic Church and Charlemagne ruled most of Europe and both were interested in wine and viticulture.  The Church needed wine for the Eucharist and under Charlemagne more and more vineyards were planted in Burgundy. Charlemagne brought civilization and order back after the dark ages. Part of this rebirth was wine production.”

You might have a little more luck obtaining one of two Réserve Hildegarde beers, a blonde and an ambree, from the Brewery St. Germain in Aix-Noulette, France. They make the beers as “a special tribute to Hildegarde of Bingen, who lived and loved hops more than 800 years ago.”

So that’s my story of Hildegarde of Bingen. Kudos to Pope Benedict for his better-late-than-never accolade to her.

And let’s heed her excellent recommendation and raise a stein in her honor: “Cerevisiam Bibamus!”