Historically Speaking: Duels Among the Clouds

Aerial combat was born during World War I, giving the world a new kind of military hero: the fighter pilot

“Top Gun” is back. The 1986 film about Navy fighter pilots is getting a sequel next year, with Tom Cruise reprising his role as Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, the sexy flyboy who can’t stay out of trouble. Judging by the trailer released by Paramount in July, the new movie, “Top Gun: Maverick,” will go straight to the heart of current debates about the future of aerial combat. An unseen voice tells Mr. Cruise, “Your kind is headed for extinction.”

The mystique of the fighter pilot began during World War I, when fighter planes first entered military service. The first aerial combat took place on Oct. 5, 1914, when French and German biplanes engaged in an epic contest in the sky, watched by soldiers on both sides of the trenches. At this early stage, neither plane was armed, but the German pilot had a rifle and the French pilot a machine gun; the latter won the day.

A furious arms race ensued. The Germans turned to the Dutch engineer Anthony Fokker, who devised a way to synchronize a plane’s propeller with its machine gun, creating a flying weapon of deadly accuracy. The Allies soon caught up, ushering in the era of the dogfight.

From the beginning, the fighter pilot seemed to belong to a special category of warrior—the dueling knight rather than the ordinary foot soldier. Flying aces of all nationalities gave each other a comradely respect. In 1916, the British marked the downing of the German fighter pilot Oswald Boelcke by dropping a wreath in his honor on his home airfield in Germany.

But not until World War II could air combat decide the outcome of an entire campaign. During the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, the German air force, the Luftwaffe, dispatched up to 1,000 aircraft in a single attack. The Royal Air Force’s successful defense of the skies led to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s famous declaration, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

The U.S. air campaigns over Germany taught American military planners a different lesson. Rather than focusing on pilot skills, they concentrated on building planes with superior firepower. In the decades after World War II, the invention of air-to-air missiles was supposed to herald the end of the dogfight. But during the Vietnam War, steep American aircraft losses caused by the acrobatic, Soviet-built MiG fighter showed that one-on-one combat still mattered. The U.S. response to this threat was the highly maneuverable twin-engine F-15 and the formation of a new pilot training academy, the Navy Fighter Weapons School, which inspired the original “Top Gun.”

Since that film’s release, however, aerial combat between fighter planes has largely happened on screen, not in the real world. The last dogfight involving a U.S. aircraft took place in 1999, during the NATO air campaign in Kosovo. The F-14 Tomcats flown by Mr. Cruise’s character have been retired, and his aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, has been decommissioned.

Today, conventional wisdom again holds that aerial combat is obsolete. The new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is meant to replace close-up dogfights with long-range weapons. But not everyone seems to have read the memo about the future of air warfare. Increasingly, U.S. and NATO pilots are having to scramble their planes to head off Russian incursions. The knights of the skies can’t retire just yet.

Historically Speaking: Playing Cards for Fun and Money

From 13th-century Egypt to the Wild West, the standard deck of 52 cards has provided entertainment—and temptation.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

More than 8,500 people traveled to Las Vegas to play in this year’s World Series of Poker, which ended July 16—a near-record for the contest. I’m not a poker player myself, but I understand the fun and excitement of playing with real cards in an actual game rather than online. There’s something uniquely pleasurable about a pack of cards—the way they look and feel to the touch—that can’t be replicated on the screen.

Although the origins of the playing card are believed to lie in China, the oldest known examples come from the Mamluk Caliphate, an Islamic empire that stretched across Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean from 1260 to 1517. It’s significant that the empire was governed by a warrior caste of former slaves: A playing card can be seen as an assertion of freedom, since time spent playing cards is time spent freely. The Mamluk card deck consisted of 52 cards divided into four suits, whose symbols reflected the daily realities of soldiering—a scimitar, a polo stick, a chalice and a coin.

Returning Crusaders and Venetian traders were probably responsible for bringing cards to Europe. Church and state authorities were not amused: In 1377, Parisians were banned from playing cards on work days. Like dice, cards were classed as gateway vices that led to greater sins. The authorities may not have been entirely wrong: Some surviving card decks from the 15th century have incredibly bawdy themes.

The suits and symbols used in playing cards became more uniform and less ornate following the advent of the printing press. French printers added a number of innovations, including dividing the four suits into red and black, and giving us the heart, diamond, club and spade symbols. Standardization enabled cards to become a lingua franca across cultures, further enhancing their appeal as a communal leisure activity.

In the 18th century, the humble playing card was the downfall of many a noble family, with vast fortunes being won and lost at the gaming table. Cards also started to feature in paintings and novels as symbols of the vagaries of fortune. The 19th-century short story “The Queen of Spades,” by the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin, beautifully captures the card mania of the period. The anti-hero, Hermann, is destroyed by his obsession with winning at Faro, a game of chance that was as popular in the saloons of the American West as it was in the drawing rooms of Europe. The lawman Wyatt Earp may have won fame in the gunfight at the OK Corral, but he earned his money as a Faro dealer in Tombstone, Ariz.

In Britain, attempts to regulate card-playing through high taxes on the cards themselves were a failure, though they did result in one change: Every ace of spades had to show a government tax stamp, which is why it’s the card that traditionally carries the manufacturer’s mark. The last innovation in the card deck, like the first, had military origins. Many Civil War regiments killed time by playing Euchre, which requires an extra trump card. The Samuel Hart Co. duly obliged with a card which became the forerunner to the Joker, the wild card that doesn’t have a suit.

But we shouldn’t allow the unsavory association of card games with gambling to have the last word. As Charles Dickens wrote in “Nicholas Nickleby”: “Thus two people who cannot afford to play cards for money, sometimes sit down to a quiet game for love.”

Historically Speaking: Beware the Red Tide

Massive algae blooms that devastate ocean life have been recorded since antiquity—and they are getting worse.

Real life isn’t so tidy. Currently, there is no force, biological or otherwise, capable of stopping the algae blooms that are attacking coastal waters around the world with frightening regularity, turning thousands of square miles into odoriferous graveyards of dead and rotting fish. In the U.S., one of the chief culprits is the Karenia brevis algae, a common marine microorganism that blooms when exposed to sunlight, warm water and phosphorus or nitrates. The result is a toxic sludge known as a red tide, which depletes the oxygen in the water, poisons shellfish and emits a foul vapor strong enough to irritate the lungs.

The red tide isn’t a new phenomenon, though its frequency and severity have certainly gotten worse thanks to pollution and rising water temperatures. There used to be decades between outbreaks, but since 1998 the Gulf Coast has suffered one every year.

The earliest description of a red tide may have come from Tacitus, the first-century Roman historian, in his “Annals”: “the Ocean had appeared blood-red and…the ebbing tide had left behind it what looked to be human corpses.” The Japanese recorded their first red tide catastrophe in 1234: An algae bloom in Osaka Bay invaded the Yodo River, a major waterway between Kyoto and Osaka, which led to mass deaths among humans and fish alike.

The earliest reliable accounts of red tide invasions in the Western Hemisphere come from 16th-century Spanish sailors in the Gulf of Mexico. The colorful explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (ca. 1490-1560) almost lost his entire expedition to red tide poisoning while sailing in Apalachee Bay on the west coast of Florida in July 1528. Unaware that local Native American tribes avoided fishing in the area at that time of year, he allowed his men to gorge themselves on oysters. “The journey was difficult in the extreme,” he wrote afterward, “because neither the horses were sufficient to carry all the sick, nor did we know what remedy to seek because every day they languished.”

Red tides started appearing everywhere in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Charles Darwin recorded seeing red-tinged water off the coast of Chile during his 1832 voyage on HMS Beagle. Scientists finally identified K. brevis as the culprit behind the outbreaks in 1946-47, but this was small comfort to Floridians, who were suffering the worst red tide invasion in U.S. history. It started in Naples and spread all the way to Sarasota, hanging around for 18 months, destroying the fishing industry and making life unbearable for residents. A 35-mile long stretch of sea was so thick with rotting fish carcasses that the government dispatched Navy warships to try to break up the mass. People compared the stench to poison gas.

The red tide invasion of 2017-18 was particularly terrible, lasting some 15 months and covering 145 miles of Floridian coastline. The loss to tourism alone neared $100 million. Things are looking better this summer, fortunately, but we need more than hope or luck to combat this plague; we need a weapon that hasn’t yet been invented.

Historically Speaking: How We Kept Cool Before Air Conditioning

Wind-catching towers and human-powered rotary fans were just some of the devices invented to fight the heat.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

What would we do without our air conditioning? Given the number of rolling blackouts and brownouts that happen across the U.S. each summer, that’s not exactly a rhetorical question.

Fortunately, our ancestors knew a thing or two about staying cool even without electricity. The ancient Egyptians developed the earliest known technique: Evaporative cooling involved hanging wet reeds in front of windows, so that the air cooled as the water evaporated.

The Romans, the greatest engineers of the ancient world, had more sophisticated methods. By 312 B.C. they were piping fresh water into Rome via underground pipes and aqueducts, enabling the rich to cool and heat their houses using cold water pipes embedded in the walls and hot water pipes under the floor.

Nor were the Romans alone in developing clever domestic architecture to provide relief in hot climes. In the Middle East, architects constructed buildings with “wind catchers”—tall, four-windowed towers that funneled cool breezes down to ground level and allowed hot air to escape. These had the advantage of working on their own, without human labor. The Chinese had started using rotary fans as early as the second century, but they required a dedicated army of slaves to keep them moving. The addition of hydraulic power during the Song era, 960-1279, alleviated but didn’t end the manpower issue.

There had been no significant improvements in air conditioning designs for almost a thousand years when, in 1734, British politicians turned to Dr. John Theophilus Desaguliers, a former assistant to Isaac Newton, and begged him to find a way of cooling the overheated House of Commons. Desaguliers designed a marvelous Rube Goldberg-like system that used all three traditional methods: wind towers, pipes and rotary fans. It actually worked, so long as there was someone to crank the handle at all times.

But the machinery wore out in the late 1760s, leaving politicians as hot and bothered as ever. In desperation, the House invited Benjamin Franklin and other leading scientists to design something new. Their final scheme turned out to be no better than Desaguliers’s and required not one but two men to keep the system working.

The real breakthrough occurred in 1841, after the British engineer David Boswell Reid figured out how to control room temperature using steam power. St. George’s Hall in Liverpool is widely considered to be the world’s first air-conditioned building.

Indeed, Reid is one of history’s unsung heroes. His system worked so well that he was invited to install his pipe and ventilation design in hospitals and public buildings around the world. He was working in the U.S. at the start of the Civil War and was appointed inspector of military hospitals. Unfortunately, he died suddenly in 1863, leaving his proposed improvements to gather dust.

The chief problem with Reid’s system was that steam power was about to be overtaken by electricity. When President James Garfield was shot by an assassin in the summer of 1881, naval engineers attempted to keep him cool by using electric fans to blow air over blocks of ice. Two decades later, Willis Haviland Carrier invented the first all-electric air conditioning unit. Architects and construction engineers have been designing around it ever since.

Fears for our power grid may be exaggerated, but it’s good to know that if the unthinkable were to happen and we lost our air conditioners, history can offer us some cool solutions.

Historically Speaking: New Year, Old Regrets

From the ancient Babylonians to Victorian England, the year’s end has been a time for self-reproach and general misery

The Wall Street Journal, January 3, 2019

ILLUSTRATION: ALAN WITSCHONKE

I don’t look forward to New Year’s Eve. When the bells start to ring, it isn’t “Auld Lang Syne” I hear but echoes from the Anglican “Book of Common Prayer”: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”

At least I’m not alone in my annual dip into the waters of woe. Experiencing the sharp sting of regret around the New Year has a long pedigree. The ancient Babylonians required their kings to offer a ritual apology during the Akitu festival of New Year: The king would go down on his knees before an image of the god Marduk, beg his forgiveness, insist that he hadn’t sinned against the god himself and promise to do better next year. The rite ended with the high priest giving the royal cheek the hardest possible slap.

There are sufficient similarities between the Akitu festival and Yom Kippur, Judaism’s Day of Atonement—which takes place 10 days after the Jewish New Year—to suggest that there was likely a historical link between them. Yom Kippur, however, is about accepting responsibility, with the emphasis on owning up to sins committed rather than pointing out those omitted.

In Europe, the 14th-century Middle English poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” begins its strange tale on New Year’s Day. A green-skinned knight arrives at King Arthur’s Camelot and challenges the knights to strike at him, on the condition that he can return the blow in a year and a day. Sir Gawain reluctantly accepts the challenge, and embarks on a year filled with adventures. Although he ultimately survives his encounter with the Green Knight, Gawain ends up haunted by his moral lapses over the previous 12 months. For, he laments (in J.R.R. Tolkien’s elegant translation), “a man may cover his blemish, but unbind it he cannot.”

New Year’s Eve in Shakespeare’s era was regarded as a day for gift-giving rather than as a catalyst for regret. But Sonnet 30 shows that Shakespeare was no stranger to the melancholy that looking back can inspire: “I summon up remembrance of things past, / I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, / And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.”

For a full dose of New Year’s misery, however, nothing beats the Victorians. “I wait its close, I court its gloom,” declared the poet Walter Savage Landor in “Mild Is the Parting Year.” Not to be outdone, William Wordsworth offered his “Lament of Mary Queen of Scots on the Eve of a New Year”: “Pondering that Time tonight will pass / The threshold of another year; /…My very moments are too full / Of hopelessness and fear.”

Fortunately, there is always Charles Dickens. In 1844, Dickens followed up the wildly successful “A Christmas Carol” with a slightly darker but still uplifting seasonal tale, “The Chimes.” Trotty Veck, an elderly messenger, takes stock of his life on New Year’s Eve and decides that he has been nothing but a burden on society. He resolves to kill himself, but the spirits of the church bells intervene, showing him a vision of what would happen to the people he loves.

Today, most Americans recognize this story as the basis of the bittersweet 1946 Frank Capra film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” As an antidote to New Year’s blues, George Bailey’s lesson holds true for everyone: “No man is a failure who has friends.”

Historically Speaking: The Miseries of Travel

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Today’s jet passengers may think they have it bad, but delay and discomfort have been a part of journeys since the Mayflower

The Wall Street Journal, September 20, 2018

Fifty years ago, on September 30, 1968, the world’s first 747 Jumbo Jet rolled out of Boeing’s Everett plant in Seattle, Washington. It was hailed as the future of commercial air travel, complete with fine dining, live piano music and glamorous stewardesses. And perhaps we might still be living in that future, were it not for the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.

Deregulation was meant to increase the competitiveness of the airlines, while giving passengers more choice about the prices they paid. It succeeded in greatly expanding the accessibility of air travel, but at the price of making it a far less luxurious experience. Today, flying is a matter of “calculated misery,” as Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu put it in a 2014 article in the New Yorker. Airlines deliberately make travel unpleasant in order to force economy passengers to pay extra for things that were once considered standard, like food and blankets.

So it has always been with mass travel, since its beginnings in the 17th century: a test of how much discomfort and delay passengers are willing to endure. For the English Puritans who sailed to America on the Mayflower in 1620, light and ventilation were practically non-existent, the food was terrible and the sanitation primitive. All 102 passengers were crammed into a tiny living area just 80 feet long and 20 feet wide. To cap it all, the Mayflower took 66 days to arrive instead of the usual 47 for a trans-Atlantic crossing and was 600 miles off course from its intended destination of Virginia.

The introduction of the commercial stage coach in 1610, by a Scottish entrepreneur who offered trips between Edinburgh and Leith, made it easier for the middle classes to travel by land. But it was still an expensive and unpleasant experience. Before the invention of macadam roads—which rely on layers of crushed stone to create a flat and durable surface—in Britain in the 1820s, passengers sat cheek by jowl on springless benches, in a coach that trundled along at around five miles per hour.

The new paving technology improved the travel times but not necessarily the overall experience. Charles Dickens had already found fame with his comic stories of coach travel in “The Pickwick Papers” when he and Mrs. Dickens traveled on an American stage coach in Ohio in 1842. They paid to have the coach to themselves, but the journey was still rough: “At one time we were all flung together in a heap at the bottom of the coach.” Dickens chose to go by rail for the next leg of the trip, which wasn’t much better: “There is a great deal of jolting, a great deal of noise, a great deal of wall, not much window.”

Despite its primitive beginnings, 19th-century rail travel evolved to offer something revolutionary to its paying customers: quality service at an affordable price. In 1868, the American inventor George Pullman introduced his new designs for sleeping and dining cars. For a modest extra fee, the distinctive green Pullman cars provided travelers with hotel-like accommodation, forcing rail companies to raise their standards on all sleeper trains.

By contrast, the transatlantic steamship operators pampered their first-class passengers and abused the rest. In 1879, a reporter at the British Pall Mall Gazette sailed Cunard’s New York to Liverpool route in steerage in order to “test [the] truth by actual experience.” He was appalled to find that passengers were treated worse than cattle. No food was provided, “despite the fact that the passage is paid for.” The journalist noted that two steerage passengers “took one look at the place” and paid for an upgrade. I think we all know how they felt.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-miseries-of-travel-1537455854?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=1

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Psychology and History of Snipers

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

Sharpshooters helped turn the course of World War II 75 years ago at the Battle of Stalingrad

The Battle of Stalingrad during World War II cost more than a million lives, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. The death toll began in earnest 75 years ago this week, after the Germans punched through Soviet defenses to reach the outskirts of the city. Once inside, however, they couldn’t get out.

With both sides dug in for the winter, the Russians unleashed one of their deadliest weapons: trained snipers. By the end of the war, Russia had trained more than 400,000 snipers, including thousands of women. At Stalingrad, they had a devastating impact on German morale and fighting capability. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: ‘A Brief History of Brinkmanship’

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

In 1956, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, explaining how America could use the threat of nuclear war in diplomacy, told Life Magazine, “The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art…. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.” President Donald Trump recently seemed to embrace this idea with his warning that if North Korea made any more threats to the U.S., it “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: A Brief History of Lemonade

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The lemonade stand has symbolized American childhood and values for more than a century. Norman Rockwell even created a classic 1950s drawing of children getting their first taste of capitalism with the help of a little sugar and lemon. Yet like apple pie, the lemonade stand is far older than America itself.

The lemon’s origins remain uncertain. A related fruit with far less juice, the citron, slowly migrated west until it reached Rome in the first few centuries A.D. Citrons were prestige items for the rich, prized for their smell, supposed medicinal virtues and ability to keep away moths. Emperor Nero supposedly ate citrons not because he liked the taste but because he believed that they offered protection against poisoning. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Perils of Cultural Purity

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

“Cultural appropriation” is a leading contender for the most overused phrase of 2017. Originally employed by academics in postcolonial studies to describe the adoption of one culture’s creative expressions by another, the term has evolved to mean the theft or exploitation of an ethnic culture or history by persons of white European heritage. Continue reading…