Historical Science & Technology, War: What Is It Good For? (Absolutely Nothin'!)

Hillforts of Iron Age Britain

A hillfort (or hill fort [or hill-fort]) is pretty much just what it sounds like—a fort built into the top of a hill. Generally, hillforts featured an open central area where one or more buildings stood, with multiple ramparts of earth, stone, and/or wood surrounding the central area and proceeding down the hill to exploit the topography and gain a tactical advantage over would-be attackers. Beyond these ramparts was often a ditch or moat.

Historical evidence shows that these structures were first developed in the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age, and a number of these ancient hillforts still exist to this day. While the structures were common throughout Europe, here we will be focusing on the hillforts of Britain.

The Why, The How, The Whatnot

There are a number of theories relating to the emergence of hillforts in Britain. Some speculate that they were forts in the truest sense—military installations intended to keep invaders from mainland Europe at bay. Others argue that they may have been built by those same invaders to establish a stronghold on the island.

Modern view of Maiden Castle, built in the Iron Age near what is now Dorchester.

Modern view of Maiden Castle, built in the Iron Age near what is now Dorchester.

Still others suggest that the hillforts may have been constructed in response to social changes in the country, brought on by the increased use of iron. (It was the Iron Age, after all.) Because Britain’s prominent iron ore deposits were located in different regions than the tin and copper ore used to make bronze, trade patterns shifted greatly, and power shifted along with them.

Though a good number of hillforts were built during the Bronze Age, most of them were erected between 700 BCE and 43 CE (which coincides with the Roman conquest of Britain). Iron Age hillforts utilizes both natural and manmade defenses.

The ancient Britons built four main types of hillforts: contour, promontory, hill-slope, and plateau. Contour hillforts cut off the upper portion of the hill from the ground below with ramparts that followed the natural contours of the hill itself. Promontory hillforts limited the approach of outsiders through the use of natural features such as cliffs, steep slopes, rivers, etc. Hill-slope hillforts do not enclose the entire hilltop like contour forts do; instead, they are situated on the slope of one side of the hill, with the crest overlooking the structure. Plateau hillforts were built on the flat, level expanses of plateaus.

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Who Knew What New Noodles Could Do?

Noodles: I love ‘em, you love ‘em, we eat ‘em all the time. Though they seem like one of those things have just kind of always been around, they of course had to come from somewhere. So who do we have to thank for our spaghetti, our ramen, our spätzle, our elbows and our bowties? Whence did the humble yet noble noodle originate?

History? More like delishstory, amirite?

History? More like delishstory, amirite?

Oodles of Ancient Noodles

Because they were “invented” so long ago, it’s hard to nail down the region and time period of noodles’ origins exactly. For the most part, evidence suggests that the ancient Chinese were the first to develop noodles, with the oldest existing evidence pointing to the Qijia culture of some 4,000 years ago. Millet noodles discovered at the Laija archaeological site in 2002 were found in an upturned earthenware bowl. For millennia, the bowl had somehow maintained a seemingly-accidental airtight space that keep the noodles, if not exactly edible, at least well-preserved enough to be recognized as millet noodles.

By the time the Han Dynasty rolled around in about 200 BCE, noodles were a well-known staple food. The earliest written records of delicious noodles yet discovered date to the Eastern Han period of 25-220 CE. It was not until the Tang Dynasty that big fat fatty noodles were cut into smaller strips, and dried cook-them-later noodles were not created until the Yuan Dynasty.

Ninth century CE Buddhist monks in Japan began were known to have developed a wheat noodle recipe derived from a Chinese recipe. Buckwheat noodles were first cooked up in Korea during the Joseon Dynasty (which began during the 14th century CE).

Ramen noodles, the stuff on which so many college degrees (and indie rock careers) have been built, first became popular in Japan in the late 1800s. Instant noodles arrived on Japanese shelves in 1958.

Whose Noodles Are Whose?

In other parts of the world, the noodle took a little longer to take shape. The Ancient roman poet Horace wrote about similar but not-quite-noodle foods as early as the first century BCE. References to other noodlesque, dough-based delicacies can be found throughout Greek and Roman writing of the period and the following centuries.

The first written record of actual pasta in Europe does not appear until the 5th century CE, when Arabian travelers developed dry pasta varieties to eat during long treks. The first mention of pasta products from Italy is dated to the 13th century CE. By that time, however, pasta had already taken on a variety of shapes, so it’s possible that “pasta” wasn’t yet 100% codified as the as the “correct” term.

German historians have discovered written records of spätzle dating as far back as 1725 CE. Medieval illustrations from the same part of the world suggest that these noodles may have existed for far longer than that, however.

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Technology, World-Changing Inventions

A Brief History of the Paddleboat

As Mark Twain and any good, old-timey gambler can tell you, the paddleboat is where it’s at. The rotating paddles that propel these vessels across the water create a combination of sights and sounds that no other mode of transportation can offer. And, they’re a great way to dispatch any black hats that may be coming after you and your poker winnings. Whence did these glorious vehicles originate?


Probably China…

The first surviving written mention of a paddle-wheeled ship can be found in The History of the Southern Dynasties, a Chinese tome compiled in the 7th Century CE. The book was actually describing naval ships used by Admiral Wang Zhen’e against the Qiang, during the Liu Song Dynasty (ca. 420-479 CE). However, it’s entirely possible that paddleboats existed well before even this early date.

A few decades later, the ancient Chinese mathematician and astronomer Zu Chongzhi commissioned a special paddle-wheel ship for himself. This boat, known as the “Thousand League Boat,” was built on the Xinting River and presumably named for the distance one could travel before the “new boat smell” wore off.

Throughout the 6th and 7th centuries CE, numerous Chinese admirals used foot-treadle powered paddleboats in their naval campaigns. In 784 CE, Prince Li Gao developed a viable paddle-wheel warship design, and, centuries later, rulers of the Song Dynasty (circa 960-1279 CE) built entire fleets of paddleboats for their navies. Some included as many as eleven paddle-wheels on each side for greater speed and maneuverability. The Chinese continued to use paddleboats as part of their naval fleet as recently as the First Opium War (1839-1842).

But Maybe Europe?

The first mention of a paddle-wheel powered ship in European history comes from a 5th Century CE Roman military book titled De Rebus Bellicis (“On the Things of War”). The anonymous work describes an ox-driven paddleboat warship that, “drives with ease and swiftness, wherever utility summons it,” despite its size, which “prevented [it] from being operated by the hands of men.” Instead, it was powered by, “oxen, yoked in pairs to capstans, [turning] wheels attached to […] paddles” that “work with an amazing and ingenious effect, their action producing rapid motion.”

In the 15th Century CE, Italian engineer Roberto “Big Bob” Valturio had developed a new-and-improved paddleboat with five sets of paddles, all of which were powered by parallel cranks joined to one power source by a single connecting rod.

In 1704, the first steam-engine powered paddle-wheel ship was built by French mathematician, physicist, and inventor Denis “Big Denny” Papin. In fact, Papin’s vessel was the first steam-powered vehicle of any kind in the history of the world.

Building on Papin’s success, fellow Frenchman Claude-François “Big Frank” de Jouffroy oversaw the building of the world’s first paddle steamer in 1776; this ship was also among the world’s first functioning steamships. Seven years later, de Jouffroy and friends successfully piloted a new-and-improved paddle steamer up the Saône River in eastern France.

Later, in America…

The first commercially successful paddle-steamer was Robert Fulton’s Clermont, which began regular river voyages between New York City and Albany in 1807. Five years later, the first steam-powered paddleboat began sailing (?) the Mississippi River. Operating out of New Orleans, Captain Henry “Big Hank” Shreve’s boat was specially built for travelling the Mighty Mississip. By 1833, over 1,200 paddle-steamer landings were recorded annually in New Orleans.

Paddleboats driven by horses, called “team boats,” were used as ferries throughout the United States between the 1820s and 1850s. Sadly, these ships were almost entirely replaced by steamboats by the end of the 1850s.

The largest paddle-steamer ever to sail the Mississippi, the Sprague, was used to haul coal and petroleum in bulk. The Sprague was also among the last steam-powered paddleboats on the river, operating from 1901 until 1948.

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Historic Events, World-Changing Inventions

Shut Up, Frankenstein: Fire GOOD!

Life before man learned to control fire was many things, but mainly it was cold, dark, and perpetually undercooked. The harnessing of fire was perhaps the single greatest turning point in the history of mankind. But just when and where did early human finally learn to make their own fire? The answer lies at least 125,000 years in the past.

Actual photographic evidence of cavemen using fire.

Actual photographic evidence of cavemen using fire.

Come On Baby, Light My…

The earliest existing evidence of mankind—in this case Homo erectus—controlling fire dates back 1.7 million years. These claims are frequently refuted, and the veracity of it kind of depends on one’s definition of “control.” Solid, widely-accepted evidence of mankind’s intentional use, though not necessarily “control”, of fire comes to us from about 400,000 years ago. The earliest supported evidence of mankind for real, for sure, totally on purpose, actively controlling fire has been dated to roughly 125,000 years ago.

This definitive evidence includes burnt animal bones—with human-inflicted cut marks—found at Swartkrans, a National Heritage Site located 20 miles south of Johannesburg, South Africa. Even stronger evidence comes from Zambia’s Kalambo Falls area. Numerous artifacts related to the human use of fire have been found there, including charred logs, charcoal, carbonized plants, and fire-hardened wooden implements. Radiocarbon dating has established the date range of these artifacts as between 61,000 and 110,000 years ago.

Let Me Stand Next to Your…

In Asia, the Qesem Cave archaeological site near Tel-Aviv has yielded evidence of regular fire use that dates back to roughly 382,000 years ago. Evidence discovered in China’s Zhoukoudian cave system points to the use of fire by humans as far back at 460,000 years ago. Burned bones, ash, and charcoal are among the ancient artifacts found in the caves. Testing on the uniformly blackened bones shows characteristics of burning, rather than manganese staining, which could yield a similar visual effect.

I Fell Into A Burning Ring of…

Europe is lousy with evidence of later, but still plenty ancient, humans using fire. The oldest evidence comes from Beeches Pit in Suffolk, England. Uranium series dating—which sounds much more sinister than carbon dating, in an ‘80s to mid-‘90s action movie bad guy kind of way—of the site suggests that mankind utilized fire there as much as 415,000 years ago.

In Hungary, Spain, and elsewhere, various artifacts and evidence point to mankind harnessing fire around 350,000 years ago. Stone hearths found in France have been dated to 200,000 years ago, suggesting that humans of that time period had greatly advanced their control of fire and had truly made it their b!+©#.

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Important People, Important Discoveries

Studying Heliocentrism & The Tides with Seleucus of Seleucia

Before such a thing was proven to be fact, heliocentrism was the theory that the Earth revolved around the sun, instead of vice versa. It seems obvious now, what with our telescopes and modern book learnin’, but when it was first suggested, the heliocentric model of the solar systems was frowned upon hard. Like, “excommunicate you” hard. Yes, because most folks at the time were still so convinced that God and Jesus had built the universe with humans as its center-point, people were permanently shunned or house-arrested for suggesting—based on scientific reasoning—that maybe that wasn’t the case.

Fortunately for him, Seleucus of Seleucia did not meet that fate. However, his work did go a long way toward advancing the heliocentric model. He also sussed out the cause of the Earth’s tides. A right smart chap, he was.

The Mad Man of Mesopotamia

Born circa 190 BCE in Seleucia on the Tigris in Mesopotamia (in what is now Iraq), Seleucus was an astronomer, a philosopher, and, as has been noted, an early proponent of heliocentrism. Following the teachings of Aristarchus of Samos, which suggested that the Earth turns on its own axis whilst simultaneously revolving around the sun, Seleucus was the first to demonstrate the workings of a heliocentric system using reason. Unfortunately, the exact arguments he used to state his case have been lost to the sands of time.

Heliocentrism FTW!

Heliocentrism FTW!

The excellently named 20th Century CE Dutch mathematician and mathematical historian Bartel Leendert van der Waerden suggested that Seleucus likely arrived at his heliocentric view of the universe by first determining the constraints of a geometric model, then developing methods to compute the positions of the planets using said model. If that sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because Nicolaus “Big Nick” Copernicus used essentially the same process to create his own heliocentric model in the 16th Century CE.

Lucio “Big Luke” Rosso, a modern-day Italian physicist, mathematician, professor, and scientific historian, has suggested that Seleucus’ interest in heliocentric theory was likely related to Earth’s tides. Seleucus closely studied our planet’s yearly tidal cycle, and found that it could not be adequately explained in a geocentric system. Seleucus was the first to hypothesize that tides are caused by the Moon’s gravitational interaction with Earth, and the first to suss out that the “height” of the tides is dependent on the Moon’s position relative to the Sun.

Not too shabby for a punk kid outta Mesopotamia.

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