Inverted Jenny stolen 61 years ago found in Ireland

June 5th, 2016

An Inverted Jenny stamp that was stolen 61 years ago has been found and returned to its owner. The stamp, beloved by collectors for its mistakenly upside-down biplane, was consigned to New York auctioneer Spink USA by Keelin O’Neill of Northern Ireland. O’Neill got the stamp in October of 2013 from his late grandfather who he believed bought it at a garage sale. He had no idea of its value until recently when he did a little Google snooping and realized he might have a winning lottery ticket in stamp form.

At first the Spink appraiser thought it had to be fake, so he had it authenticated by the Philatelic Foundation in New York. There it was recognized as one of the block of four Inverted Jennies stolen in 1955. They notified the FBI and the owner, the American Philatelic Research Library (APRL). When he learned the stamp was stolen, O’Neill agreed to give it back to the APRL. He didn’t hit the jackpot he would have had the stamp been legitimately his — another Inverted Jenny, position 58, sold last Tuesday at auction for $1.175 million including buyer’s premium — but he wasn’t left empty-handed. O’Neill got a $10,000 reward from the American Philatelic Research Library and was just in the nick of time to collect a $50,000 reward offered by Donald Sundman of Mystic Stamp which was set to expire Saturday.

The Inverted Jenny was coveted by collectors before it was even sold. The US Post Office created the stamp to coincide with the launch of the first regular airmail routes on May 15th, 1918, in Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia. A fleet of six modified (the co-pilot seat was removed to make space for more mailbags) Curtiss JN-4H biplanes would transport the mail. Flying was a more expensive proposition so the three-cent stamps of standard first-class mail wouldn’t cut it. The price of an airmail stamp was set to a whopping 24 cents, and the first series of stamps would celebrate the new medium by featuring the Curtiss JN-4H in blue against a carmine rose frame for a patriotic red-white-and-blue color scheme.

This was a very last-minute operation. The engraving began on May 4th, printing on May 10th. The first deliveries reached post offices in D.C., New York and Philly on May 13th and the stamps went on sale May 14th, just under the wire for the inaugural airmail flight from Washington, D.C. the next day. Collectors were on high alert already, knowing that this speedy print run was susceptible to inverts. At least three sheets with upside-down biplanes were spotted by inspectors and destroyed. A single sheet of 100 stamps managed to slip through quality control and into history.

Collector William T. Robey hit the philatelic lottery when he bought that sheet at the New York Avenue Post Office in Washington, D.C. on May 14th, 1918. He bought it for face value, of course: $24. Robey spread the news of his score to other collectors and the media and within a week he was assailed by all manner of folks clamoring to buy it, not to mention several postal inspectors who wanted the error sheet back. He sold it to Philadelphia stamp dealer Eugene Klein for $15,000. By the end of the month, Klein had sold it collector Colonel Edward H.R. Green for $20,000. It was Green who broke up the sheet. He had Klein divvy it all up into single stamps and small blocks. They wrote a number in light pencil on the back of each stamp so they could be identified by their original positions on the sheet. Those numbers are still in use today. Green kept a few blocks and sold the rest.

One of those blocks — positions 65, 66, 75, 76 — was acquired in 1936 for $16,000 by philatelist Ethel Bergstresser McCoy, daughter of Charles M. Bergstresser, silent partner and co-founder of Dow Jones & Company. McCoy was one of very few women to break into the old boys’ club that was philately at that time. She was widely respected as an expert in the field and had a particular interest in stamps with airplanes and palm trees. The McCoy block of Inverted Jennies was on display at a convention of the American Philatelic Society in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1955 when it was stolen by person or persons unknown.

Before her death in 1980, Ethel McCoy signed an agreement assigning all title to the stamp block to the American Philatelic Research Library. The FBI recovered the position 75 (lower left of the block) stamp in 1977 and position 65 in 1982. They were both in the hands of Chicago dealers and had been altered to make them less recognizable as McCoy block stamps. Now the first of the stamps on the right side has been recovered, leaving only position 66 still missing.

The Dragon has Newfoundlanded!

June 4th, 2016

For the first time in a thousand years, a Viking longship has crossed the North Atlantic. The Draken Harald Hårfagre reached port of St. Anthony in Newfoundland on June 1st. It was not an easy voyage. There’s only a short window in late spring and early summer when crossing the frigid waters of the North Atlantic is possible, and even then conditions are challenging, to put it mildly.

After setting sail from Haugesund, Norway, on April 23rd, the Draken made its first unplanned stop just three days later on Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. One of the ship’s shrouds (rigging connected to the mast) had parted a day after departure so the crew stopped at Lerwick to make the repairs. They had to take down the mast to do it, which is a harder job now than it would have been for the Vikings because they didn’t have electronic equipment on their masts.

On April 27th the Draken set sail again, making for Tórshavn on the Faroe Islands. They arrived May 2nd and had to stay until May 6th waiting for propitious winds. The crew took advantage of the longer stop to examine the 3,200-square-foot silk sail for damage. You can see highlights of the trip from the Shetlands to the Faroes in this video. It’s damn hard going.

The next leg of the voyage took them to Reykjavik, Iceland. The landed in Reykjavik Harbour on May 9th and were again compelled to wait out the wind, this time for a full week. This amazing video features the Captain of the Draken Björn Ahlander in Iceland, talking about how the difficulties of the voyage only strengthened his crew’s bond and pointing out the commonalities between their experience navigating the longship and the Viking’s. There is footage of them sailing in a storm with waves battering the clinker-built ship. In the beginning he’s holding up a piece of Iceland feldspar, the stone his seafaring Viking ancestors used to find the sun even through thick cloud cover. He’s being filmed in Tingvallir, by the way, the place where Iceland’s Althing, or parliament, first met in 930. Tingvallir remained the site of the Icelandic Parliament until 1798. It is now a national park.

The northeasterly wind they were waiting for finally graced them with its presence on the 16th and off the Draken went to Greenland. On May 21st, the reached the harbour of Qaqortoq, southwest Greenland, navigating the same waters Leif Eriksson navigated when he founded the first European settlement on Greenland in around 1000 A.D. The crew made good use of their time there, too. Captain officiated at the wedding of two crew members in the ruins of the early 12th century church in Hvalsey. The last record we have of the Norse settlement in Greenland was a wedding held in that same church between Thorstein Olafsson and Sigrid Björnsdottir on September 14th, 1408.

On May 27th, the Draken set a course for North America. The final leg from Greenland to Newfoundland proved the most difficult. Icebergs, dense fog, harsh and unpredictable winds put the Draken‘s crew of 32 volunteers to the test. Modern water-repellant clothing could not keep them dry, and layers of thick knit sweaters could not keep them warm, but the elements could not break them either. On Wednesday they reached Newfoundland, landing near L’Anse aux Meadows where the remains of a Viking settlement were discovered in 1960.

Soon the valiant Draken and its riders will head inland for Quebec City and its summer tour of the Great Lakes and canals. No more icebergs for the forseeable future.

Utrecht’s first newspaper printed in 1623 found

June 3rd, 2016

The first newspaper ever printed was created by bookseller Johann Carolus in Strasbourg, Holy Roman Empire, in the early 17th century. Carolus had produced a weekly current events newsletter before then, but he wrote it by hand and mailed it to a small number of moneyed subscribers. His source was the avise or avvisi, a summary of political news originally written by imperial postmasters on the routing slips accompanying dispatches and correspondence. Some newsletter writers also had their own sources with access to the latest goings-on in political circles. Carolus and other newsletter producers took one or more of the avvisi and copied them out or made their own compilation of them for their subscribers. It was expensive and the audience was limited to the elites who could afford the service.

In 1604 Carolus bought a print shop and it soon dawned on him that he could sell far more newsletters if he didn’t have to handwrite every copy. The first issue of the Relation aller Fürnemmen un gedenckwürdigen Historien (Collection of all distinguished and commemorable news) was printed in September of 1605. He realized he was onto something and in December of that same year he petitioned the Strasbourg City Council that he be granted the exclusive privilege of being the sole publisher of weekly printed news. His petition was declined, but it’s a good thing he engaged the bureaucracy because that petition is the only surviving evidence that Carolus was printing his newspaper in 1605. The earliest known surviving issues of the Relation are from 1609.

Carolus didn’t realize it at the time — this was purely a make-more-things-sell-more-things proposition for him — but the introduction of print made the news accessible for the first time to the vast majority of people who were not in the market for expensive manuscript newsletter subscriptions. The cheap overhead, mass-production and retail sales forever altered and democratized news distribution. His innovation was soon picked up by others and within 20 years, printed sheets with news of the day were distributed in cities large and small all over Europe.

It took a while for a stable, profitable newspaper model to develop. Printers needed funding, political support, a reliable postal system and a network of sales outlets. Many papers quickly went under. Early newspapers were just a few pages, or even one page, long and had small print runs of a few hundred copies at most. They are therefore very rare survivals, and when they do survive, often it’s just a single copy of a single issue. You aren’t going to find these in newspaper archives or on microfiche somewhere. The early newspapers that have survived usually made it through the centuries because someone included them in a letter, diplomatic dispatch or manuscript. That’s why there may be only one copy of them. Some of them have been found folded inside Sammelbände, anthologies of different works printed at different times that were later bound together in a single volume.

With no known surviving copies and no references in other sources, on occasion entire early newspapers have simply disappeared from the historical record. One of these was recently rediscovered by Dutch book historian Arthur der Weduwen. While working on compiling the first complete bibliography of all 17th century Dutch and Flemish newspapers, he spotted a catalogue entry for an issue of the Nieuwe courante uyt Italien, Duytslandt ende Nederlant (New paper from Italy, Germany and The Netherlands), published by Adriaen Leenaertsz in Utrecht in 1623. Historians have long believed that the first newspaper in Utrecht was the Mercurius published in 1658 by Gerard Lodewijk van der Macht, a The Hague newspaper publisher and all-around gadfly who only settled in Utrecht after he was exiled from Holland for 10 years for allegedly fabricating news stories. Weduwen’s discovery advances the date of the first paper in Utrecht by more than three decades.

The issue of the Nieuwe courante is part of a Sammelbände held by the City Archives and Athenaeum Library in Deventer, the oldest city library in the Netherlands. There are 25 assorted pamphlets — political dialogues, court sentences, etc. — dated from 1611 to 1672 in the anthology. The Nieuwe courante is the only early newspaper among them. The issue is dated January 5th, 1623, and contains a dozen news reports on four pages. There are stories from Rome, Prague, Berlin, Regensburg, two from Leipzig, Heidelberg, Frankfurt, Breeslinghen (likely Brietlingen in Germany), Cologne, Arnhem and Amsterdam, arranged chronologically, each report titled with the city it came from and the date of the news.

Those dates, incidentally, are notably old for a newspaper. Prague, dated to December 1st, 1622, is the oldest at more than a month old before publication. That wasn’t unusual for small town presses. The big city papers had the resources to ensure their news was well and truly breaking, even when it came from relatively distant places, and their market put a premium on timeliness since news had a great impact on the stock market and financial decisions. In the provincial market, newspapers were more about keeping abreast of the issues for conversation and intellectual stimulation.

The newspaper was valued for its curiosities and for its accounts of foreign affairs, which did not necessarily decline in interest several weeks after their occurrence. In this respect the issue of the Nieuwe courante of 5 January 1623 could offer an impressive panorama of European affairs. The report from Rome included news of the papal pardon of the Archbishop of Spoleto; of an alliance between France, Venice, Savoy and Swiss Cantons in the Valtellina; of attacks by Turkish troops on Venetian merchants in Smyrna; and of the arrival in Genoa of a ship from Barcelona laden with gold. From Prague came news of the publication of an imperial mandate in Liechtenstein against Calvinist preachers; a report from Berlin carried word of the reinstatement of Christian of Anhalt by the Emperor; and the reports from Leipzig detailed the progress of the Elector of Saxony. Other reports continued the relation of affairs from the crises in the Holy Roman Empire; of skirmishes near the border of the Dutch Republic; and of the general Protestant plight throughout Europe. This was information of great relevance to the early modern Dutch reader in the 1620s: it strengthened their grasp of geography and expanded their worldview; it affirmed their presumptions of the international order and the righteousness of the Protestant cause. This January issue of the Nieuwe courante neatly encapsulates the purpose and use of the newspaper in the seventeenth century.

Since this is the only issue ever found, we don’t know how long the Nieuwe courante was in circulation. Probably not very long at all. Adriaen Leenaertsz published several pamphlets — there are 27 listed in two catalogues — between 1606 and 1623. They weren’t newspapers because they were single-topic pamphlets, but they were all about current events, making Leenaertsz a proper early newsman. The record stops after 1623, the year this issue of the Nieuwe courante was printed. It’s possible the expense and failure of the newspaper may have driven him out of publishing altogether.

You can and should read Arthur der Weduwen’s excellent research article on the find published in the journal Quærendo here. It’s a fascinating look into the early decades of newspaper history where they first really took off.

The History Blog’s Tin Anniversary

June 2nd, 2016

Ten years ago today, I wrote the first post on The History Blog. It was a more innocent time then, a time when a crappy thumbnail picture was good enough for me, when a post could consist of little more than a link and a blockquote, sometimes two threadbare posts a day, more often with days-long gaps between them, when it hadn’t yet occurred to me that people might actually be interested in reading about the deep background stuff and the leaps and tangents that often sucked up entire weekends of my time. And so, after a grand total of 21 posts including the introduction, I meandered off somewhere and The History Blog fell fallow like so many blogs before and since.

I did have the decency to feel guilty about it, but that only served to keep me away longer because the more time passed, the worse I felt about abandoning the project and the worse I felt, the more I shrank from returning. A year and a half would pass before I finally got my act together and started posting again. This time I told myself I had to post daily, to make a real committment to produce content on a reliable schedule. If I still had readers after so long an absence, then by Odin I was going to give them something to read.

I’ve (almost) held to that committment ever since. There was a little three month radio silence relapse in the Spring of 2009, but other than that, the history nerddom has flowed like wine up in here. Over time I have developed several new obsessions y’all might recognize, most notably an insatiable greed for high resolution images, linking to any relevant source I can find, wandering around to barely related topics, and appreciating the more salacious or disgusting parts of any given story. Also poop. Poop is just the best. Note to self: it’s been way too long since I posted a poop story.

Thank you for bearing with my idiosyncracies all these years. Now onto the next decade!

:thanks: :love: :chicken: :love: :thanks:

Britain’s oldest written document found in London

June 2nd, 2016

The Museum of London Archaeology’s excavation of the site of Bloomberg’s future European headquarters in central London has proven to be an even richer archaeological motherlode than we knew. Thanks to its proximity to the Thames and the waterlogged embrace of the lost Walbrook River, organic remains from the earliest days of Roman London through the 5th century were preserved in exceptional condition: entire streets, hundreds of shoes, a cavalry harness and the largest collection of fist and phallus amulets ever found. When the story broke in 2013, archaeologists had unearthed more than 100 fragments of writing tablets. That was just the beginning. In the final tally, a total of 405 wood writing tablets were found during the Bloomberg Place excavation. Only 19 tablets were discovered in London before this.

These wooden tablets were the notepads of the Roman world. Coated in a layer of blackened beeswax, the writing was scratched on the surface with a stylus, usually in cursive Latin. They were used for correspondence, contracts, financial records, school lessons, anything else that needed writing down. While the beeswax is long gone, the impression of the writing sometimes marked the wood making it possible to read the tablets. Possible, but far from easy. High resolution photography with raking light and microscopic analysis can reveal the faint markings. Even when visible, cursive Latin is no picnic to read. Cursive Latin expert Dr. Roger Tomlin was enlisted to crack the tablet code, which is very much how he sees the work.

“The Bloomberg writing tablets are very important for the early history of Roman Britain, and London in particular. I am so lucky to be the first to read them again, after more than nineteen centuries, and to imagine what these people were like, who founded the new city of London. What a privilege to eavesdrop on them: when I decipher their handwriting, I think of my own heroes, the wartime academics who worked at Bletchley Park.”

Out of the 405 tablets, 87 have been deciphered thus far, more than quadrupling the known letters from Roman London and shedding new light on the early decades of the city.

More than 1,300 wooden writing tablets have been unearthed at the fort of Vindolanda in Northumberland just south of Hadrian’s Wall, most of them letters to and from the soldiers stationed there, but the earliest date to 85 AD when the first timber fort was built. The earliest of the Bloomberg tablets to include a date is a financial transaction from January 8th, 57 A.D. It reads:

“In the consulship of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus for the second time and of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, on the 6th day before the Ides of January. I, Tibullus the freedman of Venustus, have written and say that I owe Gratus the freedman of Spurius 105 denarii from the price of the merchandise which has been sold and delivered. This money I am due to repay him or the person whom the matter will concern…”


It’s the oldest intrinsically dated writing in Britain and the earliest legal document. It was written less than 14 years after the conquest and three years before the Boudiccan revolt.

Another tablet is even older although its author didn’t do us the favor of dating it for us. It was stratigraphically dated to 43-53 AD, the first decade after the Roman conquest of Britain. There’s also the first written reference to Roman London, a tablet from 65-80 AD addressed to Londinio Mogontio, meaning Mogontius in London. (Mogontio only pawn in game of life.) The next reference would come 50 years later in Tactitus’ Annals 14.33 where he describes the Boudiccan revolt.


Speaking of which, one of the tablets illuminates how quickly the city of London recovered from the devastation of the insurrection. It’s a contract dated October 21st, 62 A.D., a year after the revolt, which arranges for the transportation of “twenty loads of provisions” from Verulamium (modern-day St Albans, Hertfordshire) to London, a distance of about 25 miles, by November 13th.


Almost 100 proper names of individuals from various walks of life — emperors, soldiers, a brewer, a judge, a cooper, freedmen, slaves — have been identified in the tablets. The earliest residents of Roman London were primarily soldiers and businessmen, most of them originating from Gaul and the Rhineland. One significant name mentioned is that of Julius Classicus, a nobleman of the Belgic Treveri tribe, who would go on to become a leader of the Batavian revolt (69-70 A.D.) that broke out in the province of Germania Inferior after the assassination of the emperor Nero. A few years earlier, around 65 A.D., he was the prefect of the Sixth Cohort of Nervians, an auxiliary infantry cohort in London. One Julius Classicianus, in all likelihood a relative of Classicus’, was procurator of Britain from 61 to 65 A.D. so he probably pulled a few nepotism strings to give his kinsman the commission. Before this the earliest confirmed presence of the Sixth Nervians in Britain was 122 A.D. and they were known to have remained in the province until the end of the 4th century shortly before the Roman withdrawal in 410. Now we know they were there practically from the beginning too.


Another intriguing tablet doesn’t actually say anything. Dating to around 60-62 A.D., it’s just the last two lines of the alphabet, “ABCDIIFGHIKL / MNOPQRST.” A few letter are missing. This was probably writing practice, maybe even schoolwork. If it is, it would be the first evidence of Roman schooling discovered in Britain.

The tablets were cleaned and conserved using PEG, a waxy substance that replaces the water in saturated wood preventing it from drying and cracking. They were then freeze-dried for long-term conservation. The tablets will continue to be studied at MOLA. At least one of them, the earliest intrinsically dated tablet in Britain, will be part of the permanent public exhibition in the new Bloomberg building which will display more than 700 of the 10,000+ artifacts discovered in the excavation, plus the reconstructed London Mithraeum. It’s scheduled to open in fall of 2017.

Tutankhamun’s dagger made from meteoric iron

June 1st, 2016

When Howard Carter opened the sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun and unwrapped the mummy in 1925, three years after his discovery of the tomb, he found 107 objects placed in the linen bandages. One of them was an iron dagger with a gold handle elaborately decorated with cloisonné enamel, gold granulation in geometric patterns and a crystal pommel. Its sheath was made of gold with a lily motif engraved on one side and feathers terminating in a jackal head at the peak of the sheath on the other side. It was found on his right thigh.

Iron is very rare in Egyptian tombs. Bronze was the dominant metal in funerary artifacts until the Assyrian Occupation (656-639 B.C.), 600 years after iron production became widespread elsewhere around the Mediterranean. When iron has been found in a funerary context, archaeologists have suspected it was of extra-terrestrial origin. Since it falls from the sky, it would have been seen as a direct gift from the gods. Iron meteorite impact craters have been discovered in Egypt. One found in southern Egypt in 2008 dates to within 5,000 years, so it could well have been a source of godly iron for the ancients.

It’s also possible that the iron in Tutankhamun’s dagger has more earthly origins. Iron was a byproduct of bronze and copper smelting, metals Egypt produced in abundance, and there are references in the 14th century Amarna letters to gifts of valuable iron from the King of Mitanni. There has been much debate on the question since 1925. Two studies done on the metal of the dagger had conflicting results. Iron meteorites are composed mainly of iron and nickel with trace amounts of cobalt, phosphorus, sulfur and carbon. The nickel content in iron produced from ore is no more than 4 percentage by mass (wt%), while in iron meteorites it’s at least 5 wt% and can go up to 35 wt%. The first study in 1970 found high nickel content indicative of meteoric iron, but it was never published and the methodology is unknown. A 1994 X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry analysis found a nickel content of 2.8 wt%, which is too low for meteoritic iron.

Now a new study by an international team of researchers has used state-of-the-art XRF technology to determine whether the iron in King Tutankhamun’s dagger is of meteoric origin. Italian and Egyptian researchers from the Politecnico di Milano, the University of Pisa, the Cairo Museum, the University of Fayoum, and the Politecnico di Torino compared XRF measurements of two areas of Tutankhamun’s dagger, 11 meteorites of clear composition and 11 examples of certified steel. Their analysis found that the dagger’s blade is 11 wt% nickel, which can only be meteoritic iron. The amount of cobalt, .6 wt%, is also consistent with the ratio of nickel to cobalt found in iron meteorites.

Our finding confirms that excavations of important burials, including that of King Tutankhamun, have uncovered pre-Iron Age artifacts of meteoritic origin (Johnson et al. 2013).

As the only two valuable iron artifacts from ancient Egypt so far accurately analyzed are of meteoritic origin, we suggest that ancient Egyptian attributed great value to meteoritic iron for the production of fine ornamental or ceremonial objects up until the 14th C. BCE. Smelting of iron, if any, has likely produced low-quality iron to be forged into precious objects. In this context, the high manufacturing quality of Tutankhamun’s dagger blade is evidence of early successful iron smithing in the 14th C. BCE. Indeed, only further in situ, nondestructive compositional analysis of other time-constrained ancient iron artifacts present in world collections, which include the other iron objects discovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb, will provide significant insights into the use of meteoritic iron and into the reconstruction of the evolution of the metal working technologies in the Mediterranean.

Museum finds part of Nazi cipher machine on eBay

May 31st, 2016

Last week the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park discovered the teleprinter of a Lorenz SZ42 cipher machine for sale as a “telegram machine” on eBay. Museum volunteers went to Southend to inspect it in person. They found it in its original case on the floor of a shed, confirmed it was a Lorenz teleprinter and paid the seller the “Buy it now” price of £9.50 ($14). It is going on display with a Lorenz SZ42 code machine loaned by the Norwegian Armed Forces Museum to tell the full story of how the British broke the Lorenz code.

The Lorenz SZ42 cipher machine was used to transmit the top-secret messages of the German High Command to Army Commands in German-occupied countries. The operator would type the message in plain text on the keyboard of a teleprinter connected to the Lorenz cipher machine which would then convert the message into code. It was in widespread use from 1942 until the end of the war, and with 12 wheels each with a different number of cams, the code it generated was deemed unbreakable.

Andy Clark, chairman of the trustees at The National Museum of Computing, said the Lorenz was stationed in secure locations as “it was far bigger than the famous portable Enigma machine”.

“Everybody knows about Enigma, but the Lorenz machine was used for strategic communications,” said Clark.

“It is so much more complicated than the Enigma machine and, after the war, machines of the same style remained in use.”

Little did the Nazis know the British deciphered the code six months after the first experimental Lorenz SZ40 started sending data in June of 1941. A remarkable feat of reverse engineering by cryptographer Bill Tutte cracked the code in January 1942. Tutte and his team at Bletchley Park figured out the design and function of the machine without ever having seen one. Operator error in a message transmitted from Athens to Vienna on August 30th, 1941, gave the cryptographers a unique opportunity Bletchley to figure out the plain text and the keystream.

Bletchley analysts saw their first Lorenz cipher machine in 1945. By then they had intercepted and read enormously important tactical messages for four years. That’s how the Allies were able to confirm that the Germans had swallowed their bluff that the D-Day landings were happening at Calais. The breaking of Lorenz also played a major role in the construction of Colossus, the first programmable computer. Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers devised Colossus to calculate the positions of the 12 wheels of the Lorenz code machine in hours rather than weeks.

The Lorenz SZ42 encryption machine is extremely rare. Only 200 were built during the war and just four known examples survive. Lorenz teleprinters, on the other hand, were standard production, with a large number of commercial models manufactured. The military-issue teleprinter is much more rare than the commercial models. Bletchley staff first thought it was a standard commercial teleprinter. They only realized it was the rarer military issue, complete with its wartime serial number, swastika accents and a special key for the insignia of the Waffen-SS, when they brought it back to the museum for cleaning and conservation.

The code machine is missing its motor. The museum hopes there’s a Lorenz motor out there in someone else’s shed that would allow them to restore the whole apparatus to working order. If you see something in your attic that looks like a motor in smooth black capsule-like casing with shafts on both sides manufactured by the Lorenz Company at Tempelhof in Berlin, please contact the National Museum of Computing.

Looters dig up Petersburg National Battlefield

May 30th, 2016

Just in time for Memorial Day, the National Park Service has discovered extensive looting of the Petersburg National Battlefield in Virginia. Rangers found a large number of pits dug by treasure hunters looking to steal Civil War artifacts. They likely used metal detectors to discover small, easily removed and carried objects like uniform buttons, buckles and bullets.

These excavation pits were discovered by park staff last week. That area has now been sealed off as an active crime scene while the rest of the park remains open to visitors who, unlike the looters, have respect for thousands of Union and Confederate troops who were killed and wounded in the Siege of Petersburg.

Since the park is nestled in an urban setting, Rogers said, “Someone may have seen something we need to know. The public can help by calling in any tips or other information. The toll-free number is 888-653-0009 and callers can leave a message.”

The looting at Petersburg National Battlefield is a federal crime covered by the Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. Violators, upon conviction, can be fined up to $20,000.00 or imprisoned for two years, or both.

Unfortunately it will be difficult to recover any looted artifacts. The kinds of things likely to have been found would be next to impossible to trace specifically to the Petersburg battlefield as opposed to the Civil War period in general.

Petersburg is where the battles that finally ended the Civil War took place, and much like the war itself, it took far longer and claimed more casualties than anyone expected. The longest siege in US history began in June of 1864 after General Ulysses S. Grant put a stop to six weeks of failed frontal assaults on Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s army defending Richmond and withdrew to Petersburg. Then the second largest city in Virginia, Petersburg was a railroad hub and an essential supply line to Richmond.

The Union army failed to take Petersburg thanks to its leaders’ usual lack of coordination and failure to immediately press hard-won advantages, so they settled in for the long haul, digging trenches that would ultimately cover 30 miles of ground from the outskirts of Richmond to the outskirts of Petersburg. The subsequent siege lasted nine and a half months and saw a dozen major engagements between the Union and Confederate armies. With soldiers digging ever-growing networks of trenches, long periods of inaction peppered with battles that achieved few tactical goals at a great cost of human life, Petersburg presaged the approach that would characterize the First World War.

The Third Battle of Petersburg on April 2, 1865, was the last battle of the siege. The Union victory forced General Lee to evacuate Petersburg and Richmond. The city of Richmond surrendered on April 3rd. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, mortally wounded by exhaustion, disease, hunger and desertion, fought on for another week until it was defeated at the Battle of Appomattox Court House and Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9th, 1865. That triggered the surrender of the rest of the surviving Confederate forces and the end of the American Civil War.

Ancient gold wreath kept in a box under the bed

May 29th, 2016

On June 9th, Duke’s of Dorchester auction house will be selling an ancient gold myrtle wreath kept for years in a box under a bed in Somerset. Duke’s appraiser Guy Schwinge went to the cottage to examine some of the belongings of the elderly resident. He was amazed when the owner pulled a busted old cardboard box out from under the bed, dug through the crumpled up newspaper and fished out a Hellenistic gold wreath. It’s a hoop of pure gold with gold myrtle leaves and flowers attached that obscure the hoop and give it the look of a natural myrtle wreath when seen from the front. The workmanship is very fine, with delicate veining on the leaves and details like the anthers and filaments of the flowers.

The style suggests it dates to around the 2nd or 3rd century B.C., but its exact age can’t be determined.

“It is notoriously difficult to date gold wreaths of this type. Stylistically it belongs to a rarefied group of wreaths dateable to the Hellenistic period and the form may indicate that it was made in Northern Greece,” [said Guy Schwinge].

“It is eight inches across and weighs about 100 grams. It’s pure gold and handmade, it would have been hammered out by a goldsmith.

“The wreath is in very nice condition for something that’s 2,300 years old. It’s a very rare antiquity to find, they don’t turn up often. I’ve never seen one in my career before.”

I’ve never seen an ancient Hellenistic gold wreath with those hoops at the end of the circlet before. The current owner, who prefers to remain anonymous, inherited the piece from his grandfather. He doesn’t know anything about it. He is quoted in the article saying that his grandfather traveled extensively in the 1940s and 1950s, including in northwest Greece near the border, but the Duke’s auction catalogue says it was acquired by the seller’s grandfather in the 1930s.

It’s all a bit shady, especially since according to the article there are still bits of dirt embedded in the wreath. Dirt suggests recent excavation, not something that was bought legitimately 60, 70 or even 80 years ago. Gold wreaths are expensive, small and portable which makes them highly desirable to looters. In 2006 the Getty had to return one they had bought in 1993 from a “Swiss private collection,” ie, a gang of Greek smugglers, to Greece. In 2012 traffickers were caught red-handed trying the sell a looted gold wreath in Greece. On the other hand, there are plenty of nooks and crannies in the hammered sheet gold for dirt to nestle in for the long haul. If it was never professionally cleaned, it’s possible that some of the soil from its burial place stuck over decades.

It almost certainly was deliberately buried as a funerary offering. Wreaths of braided flowers, grasses, leaves and branches were used in ancient Greece and Rome as symbols of victory, honor and sovereignty crowning the heads of Olympic athletes, generals on the battlefield, even literary giants like Ovid and Virgil. Wreaths also symbolized the ascension to immortality or apotheosis, often seen in funerary monuments held over the head of a deified emperor, for example.

Myrtle, along with laurel, palm, oak, olive, grape vines and ivy, were popular wreath motifs. The myrtle was associated with the goddess Aphrodite, symbolizing love and immortality. Myrtle wreaths were worn at weddings, by victorious athletes and by initiates into the Eleusinian mysteries. In Rome, the Corona Ovalis was given to a military commander determined by the Senate to be worthy of an ovation (a ceremony a step short of a triumph) for a victory realized without bloodshed.

Gold versions of the wreaths during the Hellenstic period were placed in graves as funerary offerings for the honored dead or dedicated to the gods in sanctuaries. They were too fragile for use as crowns or diadems in life. They are best known from the graves of Macedonian rulers — a gold myrtle wreath believed to have beloned to Meda, fifth wife of Philip II of Macedon, was found in the royal tombs at Vergina — but Hellenistic gold wreaths have been found as far afield as southern Italy and the Dardanelles.

The articles about the Somerset wreath say it could sell for as much as £100,000 ($146,000), but Duke’s is far more circumspect. The pre-sale estimate is £10,000-20,000 ($14,600-29,000).

The Father of Quality Lager reborn

May 28th, 2016

Humans have been brewing beer since at least 6000 B.C. in Mesopotamia — a study was just published a few days ago revealing a 5,000-year-old recipe for beer derived from residue inside pottery found in China’s Shaanxi province — but for thousands of years the chemical processes of fermentation were mysterious. Ingredients varied widely, and even when stripped to the bare bones, as with Bavaria’s 1516 beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, which stipulated that beer could only be made from water, hops and malted barley, things could still go horribly wrong. Some barrels from the same brew could go bad. This bad beer or “beer sickness” made the beverage undrinkable, or drinkable only at a great cost in intestinal discomfort.

It was only in the late 19th century that a cure was found for beer sickness. Mycologist Dr. Emil Christian Hansen, who in addition to being a veritable paragon of human determination is pretty much directly responsible for every healthy sip of lager you’ve ever had. Hansen was born in Ribe, Denmark, in 1842, the son of a hardworking laundress and an alcoholic Foreign Legion vet who lived on the streets a homeless drifter. To help support the family, from an early age Hansen took on all kinds of jobs, from acting to house painting. When he got a steady job as a tutor, he was finally able to support his formal schooling. He graduated high school at the age of 29 and matriculated at the University of Copenhagen where he studied zoology with a particular interest in fungi.

(Random historical connection interlude: when he was a student at the University of Copenhagen, Hansen was the assistant of Professor of Zoology Japetus Steenstrup. Steenstrup, also head of the university-affiliated Royal Natural History Museum, in 1850 loaned Charles Darwin some modern and fossil barnacle specimens from his personal collection to aid Darwin in his research for On the Origin of Species. Four years later Darwin expressed his gratitude by gifting Steenstrup with 77 barnacle fossils, 55 of which were discovered in storage and put on display at the Natural History Museum in 2014. In 1876, Hasen would co-author the first Danish language translation of Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle.)

In 1877, Emil Hansen got a job at Copenhagen’s Carlsberg Brewery reserching “organisms in beer.” The Carlsberg Laboratory had opened in 1875, the brainchild of brewery founder Jacob Christian Jacobsen, its mission advancing knowledge of biochemistry and brewery science. Just two years later, Hansen was head of the laboratory. In 1883, he made a momentous breakthrough while studying yeast. He realized bad beer wasn’t caused solely by bacterial contamination, as Louis Pasteur had proposed, but also by contamination from wild yeast strains. He isolated a single cell of favorable yeast and grew it into a pure yeast culture he called “Unterhefe Nr. I” (bottom-fermenting yeast no. 1) which when used as the sole yeast source in the fermentation process ensured that the microorganisms which caused beer sickness would not develop in the lager.

Carlsberg yeast no. 1 went into production in November 1883. Jacobsen was a philanthropic, progressive-minded man who was deeply committed not just to enlisting science to produce excellent beer, but to supporting scientific endeavors for the betterment of mankind in general. Jacobsen could have easily patented the “clean yeast” isolated in his laboratory, but instead he spread the purified yeast culture far and wide, reaching out to competitors and offering them living yeast specimens free of charge. Thus Carlsberg ended lager’s beer sickness problem and lager began its reign as the most popular beer in the world, today comprising 90% of all beer sold. Most of the lager produced today uses the same strain isolated by Hansen and distributed by Jacobsen.

Three years ago during construction outside the Carlsberg Laboratory in Copenhagen, three bottles of beer, still corked and in remarkably good condition, late 19th century labels and all, were discovered in a forgotten cellar. Researchers at the lab uncorked one and sipped the contents. It was still good, apparently, although it no longer tasted like lager so much as a sherry or port. Carlsberg Laboratory scientists then took samples from the bottle in an attempt to isolate the original live brewing yeast that revolutionized lager production worldwide. Nobody thought they’d be successful, but against all predictions, after a year of research they succeeded, thanks to the thick layer of precipitate at the bottom of the bottle which was characteristic of late 19th century lager.

With a living culture of the original Unterhefe Nr. I, Carlsberg’s brewers set to the challenging task of recreating the first consistent quality lager. While the brewery has exceptional archives and even a museum, there is no exact recipe for the 1883 lager. All they had to go on in the records was the ratio of water, malt and hops, because the brewers back then didn’t write down the detailed recipe. At the time the brewery really only made one type of beer, and brewers worked on multiple batches a day. They knew the recipe backwards and forwards, so they didn’t bother to document it in writing.

The ratio was a solid starting point, though, and they did know a great deal about the sources of ingredients and the equipment used. They acquired floor-malted barley malt (floor malting was the system used in 1883). They secured well water drawn through the chalk layer that underlays Copenhagen, just as the water from the 68-foot feep well that supplied the Carlsberg brewery in 1883 was. They used “Gammel Dansk” barley, one of the first domestic barleys J.C. Jacobsen considered of high enough quality to use instead of importing Scottish and British varieties. Like the 1883 brew, the rebrew was not filtered or pasteurized, nor was gelatin added to clear the brew of hazy sediment.

Because perfectionism is the name of the game, the brewers called in glassblower Peer Nielsen from the Holmegaard glassworks, the oldest in Denmark founded in 1825. Holmegaard has been making Carlsberg bottles since the 1850s. Nielsen consulted with Carlsberg museum staff and glass collectors to determine what kind of bottle would have been used in 1883. He found that machine moulded glass bottles were only produced starting in the 1890s, so he used a wooden mould and to mouth-blow the green glass bottles just as his vocational ancestors had done.

On May 18th, the press, craft beer producers, connoisseurs and critics were invited the first tasting of the rebrew, named the Father of Quality Lager.

“I’m relieved,” Bjarke Bundgaard, a beer history expert for Carlsberg, told Live Science after the cask was tapped. “We were very afraid of unwanted microorganisms visiting in the barrel. But basically the beer fulfills what I would expect: rich, malty, higher levels of residual sugars. I think it’s quite authentic, so I’m satisfied.”

The lager was darker in color, sweeter and less fizzy than the familiar green-bottled Carlsberg pilsner of today, and it had 5.7 percent alcohol content (just short of their goal of 5.8 percent). Bundgaard said the historic lager was not as flavorful as the craft beers of today because “this was an everyday-life beer —it was something that people were drinking for lunch or even for their breakfast.”

Only around 30 bottles of the rebrew were made and there are no plans for retail production, but Carlsberg will be holding beer tasting events around the world. Enter your name and email here to be notified should there be one in your neck of the woods.

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