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Not Your Father’s World History Part 10:
“Never... a spectacle so worthy of His notice”

29 November 2005

Lavoisier & Wife
Chemist A. Lavoisier + Wife
by Jacques-Louis David 1788

Curious Article No. 19:

There was a Dark Day, literally, in much of New England on May 19, 1780. The sun rose as it always had, but this time the light began to fail around eleven in the morning when a haze moved in from the southwest. Over the next hour or so the cattle returned to their barns and birds stopped singing and went to sleep. By one in the afternoon it was nearly impossible to see, though candlelights in windows twinkled pitifully through an ominous greenish mist. Work ceased, schools closed, and many stumbled in panic for their churches. The darkness continued into the evening, and though the moon was scheduled to rise at nine it didn't fade into view until after well after midnight, blood red.

But soon all the stars came out, and by morning everything returned to normal. There was no solar eclipse due on the 19th, nor were there any volcanic aerosols. John Greenleaf Whittier later wrote a poem about the Dark Day and for generations people puzzled over it; but we now know what happened, more or less. It was an unlucky combination of heavy smoke from forest fires to the west and a freakishly dark overcast from a very slow-moving storm front.

A volcanic fissure called Laki near the small Icelandic town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur erupted during much of the last half of 1783. It cooled the global climate by about a degree Celsius for a year or so, but closer to home the event was catastrophic. Most of the Icelanders’ livestock died from eating fluoride-contaminated grass and their crops withered from the acid rain. The resulting famine claimed between 9,000 and 10,000 lives, at that time one quarter of the country’s entire population.

Although Christiaan Huygens, Thomas Jefferson, and many others contributed both before and after, history credits French vicar/mathematician Gabriel Mouton as having conceived the first metric system in 1670. After many refinements, French revolutionaries officially adopted the version now familiar to us all in 1795. But what many forget is that in order to further purge their society of all vestiges of aristocracy and papism, they also inaugurated a corresponding calendar and religion.

Philip Fabre d'Eglantine
Calendar Innovator
Fabre d’Eglantine
The new metric calendar continued to divide the year into twelve months, but each of those contained three weeks of ten days. A day had ten hours divided into 100 minutes, each into 100 seconds. A committee led by poet Philip François Nazaire Fabre d'Eglantine coined new naturalistic names for the months: Vendémiaire, Brumaire, Frimaire, Nivôse, Pluviôse, Ventôse (“Vintage, Mist, Frost, Snowy, Rainy, Windy”) and so forth. Year One, of course, opened with the birth of the French First Republic in 1792. Their neighbors across the English Channel found this all quite amusing and respectfully proposed their own new months which included Wheezy, Sneezy, Freezy, Slippy, Drippy, and Nippy. Most French privately scorned their new calendar for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that workers could only take one day off from every ten instead of every seven. Napoleon abolished it in 1806.

The new religion, a pet project of terrormeister Maximilien Robespierre, was called the Cult of the Supreme Being. Its tenets were no less platitudinous than its name. Crime, imposture, and tyranny were evil for example and riches, love, and happiness were good. Robespierre orchestrated an inaugural CSB festival which mandated everyone to dress in tricolor uniforms and move to and fro in formation. "Never has the world which He created offered to Him a spectacle so worthy of His notice," he declared. Unfortunately the faith lacked any of the mystique or charisma that might have made it popular to at least the more gung ho of the masses, and Robespierre met his own Supreme Being at the scaffold not six metric weeks later.

Part II cites the Oruanui/Taupo volcanic eruption of 181 ce as among the Common Era’s most violent. But that of Mount Tambora on the Indonesian Island of Sumbawa in 1815 may rank at the very top. Before the disaster its near-perfect cone stood on a peninsula on the western end of the island and rose 13,000 feet (4000 meters) from its densely forested base 40 miles (60 km) in diameter. About 12,000 people lived on the peninsula and another 130,000 on the remainder of the island. Starting on April 5th Dutch East India sailors on the island of Macassar 200 miles (320 km) to the northeast heard rumbling and assumed some sort of naval engagement had broken out, though they couldn't imagine who it might have been. Simultaneously many of the natives on Java where ash was falling rejoiced, believing it to be an omen that their their islands would soon be rid of their European colonists.

No such luck. In the early evening of the 10th the entire mountain blew, losing 4000 feet (1200 meters) in height. Whirlwinds, landslides and tsunamis ripped trees from the ground and scattered people, horses, boats and houses. Ash piled up to three feet deep on dry land and vast rafts of tangled vegetation, pumice, and corpses clogged shipping lanes for months. Incredibly a few dozen people very close to Tambora did survive, plus several thousand on the rest of Sumbawa. But the ash finished off the crops and livestock and brought widespread famine which ultimately killed many tens of thousands more.

The impact of Tambora's sun-blocking aerosols was global. Millions admired its exquisite sunrises and sunsets, but history remembers 1816 bitterly as The Year Without a Summer. Snows and killer frosts struck repeatedly throughout the northern hemisphere during June, July and August. New England Farmers tried several times to re-seed but ultimately ground up their stunted, sickly produce and fed it to whatever animals they had who hadn't already frozen to death. Thousands starved in Ireland, and soaring food prices triggered riots in England, France, and Belgium. That June the writers Percy Bysshe Shelley, his future wife Mary, and Lord Byron vacationed at Lake Geneva. The inexplicably stormy weather they encountered and its constant lightning inspired Mary to conceive her story of Frankenstein.

Next: More volcanos and Indian “removal” »
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Text © Peter Blinn 2006

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