WSJ Historically Speaking: HMS Terror—and the Moral Challenge of Exploration

Engraving showing the end of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated Arctic expedition of 1845 entitled 'They Forged the last link with their lives'. This engraving was taken from a painting by W. Thomas Smith exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1896. PHOTO: MARY EVANS/ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS LTDT/EVERETT COLLECTION

Engraving showing the end of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated Arctic expedition of 1845 entitled ‘They Forged the last link with their lives’. This engraving was taken from a painting by W. Thomas Smith exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1896. PHOTO: MARY EVANS/ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS LTDT/EVERETT COLLECTION

Earlier this month, searchers found the HMS Terror beneath the Canadian Arctic ice, solving one of the most famous mysteries in maritime history. The ship was part of an expedition led by Sir John Franklin that vanished in the 1840s while trying to locate the Northwest Passage.

The disappearance inspired more than 50 search expeditions, as well as an outpouring of literature. Charles Dickens had a major hand in a stage production about the disaster, and an elegy by the poet Algernon Swinburne, “The Death of Sir John Franklin,” asked poignantly, “Is this the end?” Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Risks of Trading Abroad, From Mesopotamia to Apple

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Doing business overseas has put many enterprises on the road to making big money—but it can also be a quick way to lose a lot. Apple is vigorously fighting a bill for $14.5 billion in back taxes that the European Union says it owes Ireland. The iPhone maker will survive whatever happens, but the dispute illustrates the risks that businesses face when dealing with foreign governments. It’s a challenge that has grown more serious in recent years with the rise of aggressive nationalism in many countries.

In much of the ancient world, the presence of foreign merchants was regarded as a boon. During the third millennium B.C., the Mesopotamian ruler Sargon the Great boasted of his modern port facilities and the international trade that they attracted. The ancient Greeks went further and built specially protected ports for trade. There, taxes were low and legal rights were guaranteed, and foreigners could enter into contracts with confidence. Such arrangements enabled the Greeks to profit from extensive long-distance trading networks and proved inspirational to the Romans. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: Five Millennia of Swimming Pools

The swimming pool and centuries of tradition ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The swimming pool and centuries of tradition ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

For many people, the perfect July Fourth weekend includes three All-American ingredients: fireworks, a barbecue and a pool party. We share the first two emblems of national identity with the Chinese and the Australians. Only the third, the backyard swimming pool—in John Cheever’s words, “that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county”—is indelibly American, a ubiquitous symbol of suburbia. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: How Earthquakes Have Changed History

A 6.0-magnitute earthquake in Napa, Calif., on August 24, 2014, damaged buildings and caused injuries. PHOTO: RICK LOOMIS/LOS ANGELES TIMES/GETTY IMAGES

A 6.0-magnitute earthquake in Napa, Calif., on August 24, 2014, damaged buildings and caused injuries. PHOTO: RICK LOOMIS/LOS ANGELES TIMES/GETTY IMAGES

The Big One is looking a little more likely these days. Since the California earthquake of 1857, tectonic plates along the San Andreas Fault are thought to have shifted by as much as 26 feet. Only last year, scientists raised the chances of a quake in California of magnitude 8.0 or greater in the next 30 years to 7% from 4.7%. Unfortunately, for all the sophisticated science behind this prediction, nobody knows whether this means devastation tomorrow or many decades from now. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: Four Millennia of the Hotel Industry

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

May is a merry month, not least because it heralds the start of tourist season. That’s good news for a visitor-friendly country like the U.S., where tourism has generated nearly $1.6 trillion of annual economic output in recent years.

Orlando, Fla., and New York are the two most popular destinations, though New York claims to have the better-quality hotels. Whether or not that’s true, it’s a sales pitch that has been used for at least 4,000 years. Tourism and its adjunct, the hotel industry, are as old as civilization. When the Sumerian King Shulgi of Ur (circa 2094-2047 B.C.) wanted to boast about his achievements, the list of accomplishments included having improved the roads in and out of Ur and “built there lodging houses…and installed in those places experienced men. Whichever direction one comes from…the traveler who reaches nightfall on the road can seek haven there as in a well-built city.” Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: As You Dislike It: The Anti-Shakespeare Club

Why people still brush up on their Shakespeare. PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Why people still brush up on their Shakespeare. PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

In David Lodge’s 1975 novel “Changing Places,” a group of university professors play a party game called Humiliation, competing to see who has read the fewest great works of literature. A professor of English literature is in the lead, having declared his ignorance of Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” when Harold Ringbaum, a man with “a pathological urge to succeed,” declares that he’s never read “Hamlet.” The more he insists, the more the others scoff—until Ringbaum angrily swears a solemn oath to the fact, by which time everyone is stone cold sober with embarrassment.

Ringbaum’s faux pas neatly sums up Shakespeare’s towering presence in modern culture—underlined by the tempest of celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, which falls on Saturday. His reputation exists on a plane separate from other writers. With apologies to a speech from “Richard II,” Shakespeare himself has become a precious stone set in a silver sea of words.

Yet over the centuries, a surprising roster of famous writers and celebrated personages has picked quarrels with the Man from Stratford. Though complaints about the Bard have run the gamut from the moral to the artistic, one type is almost unique to him. I call it WAMS, or the What-About-Me Syndrome.

Among the first to suffer its ravages was Shakespeare’s friend, fellow dramatist and eventual British poet laureate Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Second Life of Troubled Inventions

Thomas Edison, circa 1870s, with his phonograph PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION

Thomas Edison, circa 1870s, with his phonograph PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION

It’s been a difficult time for the high-profile medical startup Theranos. For months, controversies have shadowed the linchpin Edison blood-testing device that the Palo Alto, Calif., company​ has developed. The method uses a few drops of blood, obtained by a finger-stick, instead of the usual multiple vials.

The fate of the Edison device, named after the inventor, remains unclear. But the story of Thomas Edison himself offers some hope. Not all troubled products remain troubled.

In 1875, the 28-year-old Edison had already obtained almost 100 patents without having invented something truly new. He thought he had the answer in the electric pen. Edison wanted to take the tedium out of copy-making by designing a motorized stylus that would act like a kind of stencil, able to punch words through a stack of papers up to 100 pages thick. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: Before Chocolate Bunnies: An Easter Season History of Cocoa

In the week leading up to Easter, estimates say Americans will have bought more than 70 million pounds of chocolate. PHOTO: ISTOCK

In the week leading up to Easter, estimates say Americans will have bought more than 70 million pounds of chocolate. PHOTO: ISTOCK

A combination of drought, violence, disease and pollution has caused the price of cocoa beans to rise by an eye-watering 40% since 2012—without having the slightest effect on global demand.

In the week leading up to Easter, estimates say Americans—who are no slouches when it comes to candy consumption—will have bought more than 70 million pounds of chocolate. The cocoa bean—like the coffee bean, the wine grape and the tea leaf—has become one of life’s indispensable indulgences—unnecessary for health but necessary (many would argue) for happiness.

Yet our passion for chocolate almost didn’t happen. The Aztecs brought cocoa beans as gifts to Christopher Columbus in 1502 during his fourth and final voyage to the New World. He was given chocolate in drink form under the name xocolatl, which in Nahuatl, the Aztec language, means “bitter water.” Despite its popularity and ancient pedigree in South America (the earliest traces of cocoa use date from 1400 B.C.), Columbus couldn’t see the sharp and spicy drink catching on in Spain. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: For Feb. 29, Tales of the Calendar Wars

A carved Mayan calendar on textured background. Despite the provisional nature of calendars, two real phenomena govern almost all of them: the phases of the moon and the rotations of the sun. PHOTO: ISTOCK

A carved Mayan calendar on textured background. Despite the provisional nature of calendars, two real phenomena govern almost all of them: the phases of the moon and the rotations of the sun. PHOTO: ISTOCK

Every four years on Feb. 29, we are reminded of one of life’s most puzzling conundrums: Time is both arbitrary and immutable. The “leap” making its appearance this Monday shows that the Western calendar on which we place so much reliance is a conceit—a piece of fiction introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in October 1582.

Despite the provisional nature of calendars, two real phenomena govern almost all of them: the phases of the moon and the rotations of the sun. Our Mesolithic ancestors were the first people to harness the movements of the cosmos to provide a fixed notion of the past, the present and the future. The oldest known calendar in the world was discovered in a Scottish field in 2013, notched into the earth some 10,000 years ago. Our forebears had created it by shaping 12 specially dug pits around a 164-foot arc to mimic the phases of the moon and track the months. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: A Valentine to the Bad Boys of Literature

Among the ancient Greeks, the greatest ‘bad boy’ of them all was Zeus. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Among the ancient Greeks, the greatest ‘bad boy’ of them all was Zeus. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

In “Pride and Prejudice” Jane Austen highlighted a truth not universally acknowledged when she made Elizabeth Bennett fall for the dark and brooding Mr. Darcy rather than for a sweet-tempered suitor like her sister Jane’s Mr. Bingley.

Readers just love the bad boys. As Lady Caroline Lamb once said about her lover Lord Byron, it’s the men who are “mad, bad and dangerous to know” who set the heart racing.

Among the ancient Greeks, the greatest “bad boy” of them all was Zeus, who had his wicked way with innumerable nymphs and princesses, though his Olympian brothers were little better. For sheer priapic energy, however, the prize goes to Gilgamesh, god and hero of the Sumerian epic that bears his name. His lust, we’re told, left “no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble.” Continue reading…