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…

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Animals That Save Human Lives

Gen. John Pershing awards Sgt. Stubby with a gold medal in 1921. Stubby served in 17 battles and fought in four major allied offensives during WWI. PHOTO: SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION’S NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY

Gen. John Pershing awards Sgt. Stubby with a gold medal in 1921. Stubby served in 17 battles and fought in four major allied offensives during WWI. PHOTO: SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION’S NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY

One of the most popular monuments to animal bravery can be found in New York City’s Central Park. A little north of the Children’s Zoo, the statue of a Siberian husky named Balto stands at attention on a granite rock. In February 1925 Balto led the final team of sled dogs that battled through 674 miles of snow and ice to bring diphtheria serum to the stricken children of Nome, Alaska.

The statue is a reminder of the debt of gratitude that we owe not just to the brave dogs that helped to save a town’s children but to all of the animals that have served humankind or given their lives for us.

For most of history, humans blithely ignored that debt. There is, for example, the Homeric story of Odysseus coming home after 20 years to find that no one had bothered to care for his faithful dog, Argos. And in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” we find the lovesick Helena crying to Demetrius, “Use me but as your spaniel—spurn me, strike me, / Neglect me, lose me,” all of which rather aptly sums up the Elizabethan attitude to Man’s Best Friend. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: Dreams That Created Literary Masterpieces

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the British writer best known for 'Frankenstein,’ and second wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the British writer best known for ‘Frankenstein,’ and second wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Dreams have been the stuff of divine inspiration ever since Jacob, in the Book of Genesis, dreamed of a ladder that connected heaven and earth.

In the “Divine Comedy” (completed in 1320), Dante Alighieri wrote of the three dreams that beset him while traveling through Purgatory. In 1678, John Bunyan claimed that “The Pilgrim’s Progress” had come to him while sleeping: “I layed me down in the place to sleep: and as I slept, I dreamed a dream.”

The Romantics, because of their obsession with the sublime, were particularly sensitive to dreaming. The poet William Blake inhabited a twilight of visions and dreams. “O, what land,” he wrote, “is the land of Dreams?” It was a place so real and vivid to him that Blake claimed his method for relief etching—which he used to combine text and color images in “illuminated printing”—was the gift of his late younger brother, Robert, who explained it in a dream. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: Resolved to Lose Weight in ’16? Join a Venerable Club

English Romantic poet George Gordon Noel Byron (from around 1810). To keep his weight down, he subsisted on a diet of flattened potatoes drenched in vinegar. PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

English Romantic poet George Gordon Noel Byron (from around 1810). To keep his weight down, he subsisted on a diet of flattened potatoes drenched in vinegar. PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Resolutions and Jan. 1 have a fatal attraction for one another—much like beer and pizza. The vow most often cited, “to go on a diet,” also happens to be the one most quickly abandoned. According to a 2013 British study, two out of five dieters don’t make it beyond the first week.

The problem isn’t that people are lazy or spoiled. It’s that the purpose of a diet has become divorced from its original intentions. The ancient Greeks were largely responsible for the concept. “Diatia” means “way of life” or “regimen.” How a person approached the business of eating was as important as what entered his stomach. Balance, self-control and proper order were thought to be three key aspects to living the good life. Only barbarians, such as the Persians, gorged on luxuries.

The two greatest doctors of the classical world, Hippocrates (around 460 to 375 B.C.) and Galen (A.D. 129 to about 216) had strong ideas about the kind of diatia everyone should follow. They argued that the mind and body were controlled by four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. The goal was to keep them in equilibrium. A surplus of phlegm, for example, could make a patient lethargic, requiring more citrus in the diet. Too much black bile, on the other hand, made a person melancholic—which, Galen thought, required bloodletting or purging to remove the noxious humors from the body.

Continue reading…