January 28, 2013
Siberian summers do not last long. The snows linger into May, and the cold weather returns again during September, freezing the taiga into a still life awesome in its desolation: endless miles of straggly pine and birch forests scattered with sleeping bears and hungry wolves; steep-sided mountains; white-water rivers that pour in torrents through the valleys; a hundred thousand icy bogs. This forest is the last and greatest of Earth’s wildernesses. It stretches from the furthest tip of Russia’s arctic regions as far south as Mongolia, and east from the Urals to the Pacific: five million square miles of nothingness, with a population, outside a handful of towns, that amounts to only a few thousand people.
When the warm days do arrive, though, the taiga blooms, and for a few short months it can seem almost welcoming. It is then that man can see most clearly into this hidden world–not on land, for the taiga can swallow whole armies of explorers, but from the air. Siberia is the source of most of Russia’s oil and mineral resources, and, over the years, even its most distant parts have been overflown by oil prospectors and surveyors on their way to backwoods camps where the work of extracting wealth is carried on.
Thus it was in the remote south of the forest in the summer of 1978. A helicopter sent to find a safe spot to land a party of geologists was skimming the treeline a hundred or so miles from the Mongolian border when it dropped into the thickly wooded valley of an unnamed tributary of the Abakan, a seething ribbon of water rushing through dangerous terrain. The valley walls were narrow, with sides that were close to vertical in places, and the skinny pine and birch trees swaying in the rotors’ downdraft were so thickly clustered that there was no chance of finding a spot to set the aircraft down. But, peering intently through his windscreen in search of a landing place, the pilot saw something that should not have been there. It was a clearing, 6,000 feet up a mountainside, wedged between the pine and larch and scored with what looked like long, dark furrows. The baffled helicopter crew made several passes before reluctantly concluding that this was evidence of human habitation—a garden that, from the size and shape of the clearing, must have been there for a long time.
It was an astounding discovery. The mountain was more than 150 miles from the nearest settlement, in a spot that had never been explored. The Soviet authorities had no records of anyone living in the district.
The four scientists sent into the district to prospect for iron ore were told about the pilots’ sighting, and it perplexed and worried them. “It’s less dangerous,” the writer Vasily Peskov notes of this part of the taiga, “to run across a wild animal than a stranger,” and rather than wait at their own temporary base, 10 miles away, the scientists decided to investigate. Led by a geologist named Galina Pismenskaya, they “chose a fine day and put gifts in our packs for our prospective friends”—though, just to be sure, she recalled, “I did check the pistol that hung at my side.”
As the intruders scrambled up the mountain, heading for the spot pinpointed by their pilots, they began to come across signs of human activity: a rough path, a staff, a log laid across a stream, and finally a small shed filled with birch-bark containers of cut-up dried potatoes. Then, Pismenskaya said,
beside a stream there was a dwelling. Blackened by time and rain, the hut was piled up on all sides with taiga rubbish—bark, poles, planks. If it hadn’t been for a window the size of my backpack pocket, it would have been hard to believe that people lived there. But they did, no doubt about it…. Our arrival had been noticed, as we could see.
The low door creaked, and the figure of a very old man emerged into the light of day, straight out of a fairy tale. Barefoot. Wearing a patched and repatched shirt made of sacking. He wore trousers of the same material, also in patches, and had an uncombed beard. His hair was disheveled. He looked frightened and was very attentive…. We had to say something, so I began: ‘Greetings, grandfather! We’ve come to visit!’
The old man did not reply immediately…. Finally, we heard a soft, uncertain voice: ‘Well, since you have traveled this far, you might as well come in.’
January 2, 2013
Breaking on the wheel was the most horrific punishment ever visited on a convicted criminal. It was a form of crucifixion, but with several cruel refinements; in its evolved form, a prisoner was strapped, spreadeagled, to a large cartwheel that was placed axle-first in the earth so that it formed a rotating platform a few feet above the ground. The wheel was then slowly rotated while an executioner methodically crushed the bones in the condemned man’s body, starting with his fingers and toes and working inexorably inward. An experienced headsman would take pride in ensuring that his victim remained conscious throughout the procedure, and when his work was done, the wheel would be hoisted upright and fixed in the soil, leaving the condemned to hang there until he died from shock and internal bleeding a few hours or a few days later.
“Breaking” was reserved for the most dangerous of criminals: traitors, mass killers and rebellious slaves whose plots threatened the lives of their masters and their masters’ families. Yet in the case of one man who endured the punishment, a slave known as Prince Klaas, doubts remain about the extent of the elaborate conspiracy he was convicted of organizing on the West Indian island of Antigua in 1736. The planters who uncovered the plot, and who executed Klaas and 87 of his fellow slaves for conceiving of it, believed it had as its object the massacre of all 3,800 whites on the island. Most historians have agreed with their verdict, but others think the panicky British rulers of the island exaggerated the dangers of a lesser plot—and a few doubt any conspiracy existed outside the minds of Antigua’s magistrates.
October 18, 2012
When Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner leaped from a capsule some 24 miles above earth on October 14, 2012, millions watched on television and the internet as he broke the sound barrier in a free fall that lasted ten minutes. But in the anticipation of Baumgartner’s jump (and his safe parachute landing), there was little room to marvel at the massive balloon that took him to the stratosphere.
More than 200 years ago in France, the vision of a human ascending the sky beneath a giant balloon produced what one magazine at the time described as “a spectacle the like of which was never shewn since the world began.” Early manned flights in the late 18th century led to “balloonomania” throughout Europe, as more than 100,000 spectators would gather in fields and city rooftops to witness the pioneers of human flight. And much of the talk turned to the French aeronaut Sophie Blanchard.
Known for being nervous on the ground but fearless in the air, Blanchard is believed to be the first female professional balloonist. She became a favorite of both Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis XVIII, who bestowed upon her official aeronaut appointments. Her solo flights at festivals and celebrations were spectacular but also perilous, and in the summer of 1819, she become the first woman to be killed in an aviation accident.
She was born Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant in Trois-Canons in 1778, not long before the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne began experimenting with balloons made from sackcloth and taffeta and lifted by heated air from fires in a box below. As the Montgolfiers’ balloons became larger and larger, the brothers began to consider manned flight. Louis XVI took an interest and proposed sending two criminals into the sky to test the contraption, but the brothers chose instead to place a sheep, a duck and a rooster on board for the first balloon flight to hold living creatures. In a 1783 demonstration before the King and Marie Antoinette and a crowd at the royal palace in Versailles, the Montgolfier brothers saw their craft ascend 1,500 into the air. Less than ten minutes later, the three animals landed safely.
Just months later, when Etienne Montgolfier became the first human rise into the skies, on a tethered balloon, and not long after, Pilatre de Rozier and French marquis Francois Laurent le Vieux d’Arlandes made the first human free flight before Louis XVI, U.S. envoy Benjamin Franklin and more than 100,000 other spectators.
Balloonomania had begun, and the development of gas balloons, made possible by the discovery of hydrogen by British scientist Henry Cavendish in 1766, quickly supplanted hot-air balloons, since they could fly higher and further. More and more pioneers were drawn to new feats in ballooning, but not everyone was thrilled: Terrified peasants in the English countryside tore a descending balloon to pieces.
A child of this pioneering era, Sophie Armant married Jean-Pierre Blanchard, a middle-aged inventor who had made his first balloon flight in Paris when she was just five years old. (The date of their marriage is unclear.) In January 1785, Blanchard and John Jeffries, an American doctor, became the first men to fly over the English Channel in a hydrogen balloon, flying from England to France. (Pilatre de Rozier, trying to cross the channel from France to England later that year, became the first known aviation fatality after his balloon deflated at 1,500 feet.)
Jean-Pierre Blanchard began to tour Europe. At demonstrations where he charged for admission, he showed off his silk balloons, dropped parachute-equipped dogs and launched fireworks from above. “All the World gives their shilling to see it,” one newspaper reported, citing crowds affected with “balloon madness” and “aeriel phrenzy.” Spectators were drawn to launches with unique balloons shaped like Pegasus and Nymp, and they thrilled to see men risk their lives in flights where fires often sent balloons plummeting back to earth.
“It may have been precisely [their] lack of efficiency that made the balloon such an appropriate symbol of human longings and hopes,” historian Stephan Oettermann noted. “Hot-air balloons and the gas balloons that succeeded them soon after belong not so much to the history of aviation as to the still-to-be-written account of middle class dreams.”
Furniture and ceramics at the time were decorated with images of balloons. European women’s clothing featured puffy sleeves and rounded skirts. Jean-Pierre Blanchard’s coiffed hair became all the rage among the fashionable. On a trip to the United States in 1793 he conducted the first balloon flight in North America, ascending over Philadelphia before the likes of George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
But not everything Blanchard did succeeded. He escaped a mid-air malfunction by cutting his car from his balloon and using the latter as a parachute. He falsely marketed himself as the inventor of the balloon and the parachute. He established the “Balloon and Parachute Aerostatic Academy” in 1785, but it quickly failed. John Jeffries, Blanchard’s English Channel crossing partner and chief financier, later claimed that Blanchard tried to keep him from boarding the balloon by wearing weighted girdles and claiming the balloon could carry only him.
Facing ruin, Blanchard (who had abandoned his first wife and their four children to pursue his ballooning dreams) persuaded his new wife to ride with him, believing that a flying female might be a novel enough idea to bring back the paying crowds.
Tiny, nervous, and described by one writer as having “sharp bird-like features,” Sophie Blanchard was believed to be terrified of riding in horse-drawn carriages. Yet once in a balloon, she found flight to be a “sensation incomparable,” and not long after she and her husband began ascents together, she made her first solo ascent in 1805, becoming the first woman to pilot her own balloon.
The Blanchards made a go of it until 1809—when Jean-Pierre, standing beside Sophie in a basket tethered to a balloon flying over the Hague, had a heart attack and fell to his death. Crippled by her husband’s debts, she continued to fly, slowly paying off creditors and accentuating her shows with fireworks that she launched from the sky. She became a favorite of Napoleon’s, who chose her the “aeronaut of the official festivals.” She made an ascent to celebrate his 1810 wedding to Marie Louise.
Napoleon also appointed her chief air minster of ballooning, and she worked on plans for an aerial invasion of England by French troops in balloons—something she later deemed impossible. When the French monarchy was restored four years later, King Louis XVIII named her “official aeronaut of the restoration.”
She had made long-distance trips in Italy, crossed the Alps and generally did everything her husband had hoped to do himself. She paid off his debts and made a reputation for herself. She seemed to accept, even amplify, the risks of her career. She preferred to fly at night and stay out until dawn, sometimes sleeping in her balloon. She once passed out and nearly froze at altitude above Turin after ascending to avoid a hailstorm. She nearly drowned after dropping into a swamp in Naples. Despite warnings of extreme danger, she set off pyrotechnics beneath her hydrogen balloon.
Finally, at the age of 41, Sophie Blanchard made her last flight.
On the evening of July 6, 1819, a crowd gathered for a fete at the Tivoli Gardens in Paris. Sophie Blanchard, now 41 but described as the “still young, sprightly, and amiable” aeronaut, rose from the lawn to a flourish of music and flare of fireworks. Despite the misgivings of others, she had planned to do her “Bengal Fire” demonstration, a slow-burning pyrotechnics display. As she mounted her balloon she said, “Allons, ce sera pour la derniere fois” (“Let’s go, this will be for the last time”).
In an elaborate white dress and matching hat accessorized with an ostrich plume, Blanchard, carrying a torch, began her ascent. Winds immediately carried her away from the gardens. From above, she lit fireworks and dropped them by parachute; Bengal lights hung from beneath her balloon. Suddenly there was a flash and popping from the skies; flames shot up from the top of the balloon.
“Beautiful! Beautiful! Vive Madame Blanchard,” shouted someone in the crowd. The balloon began to descend; it was on fire. “It lighted up Paris like some immense moving beacon,” read one account.
Blanchard prepared for landing as the balloon made a slow descent, back over the gardens along the Rue de Provence. She cut loose ballast to further slow the fall, and it looked as though she might make it safely to the ground. Then the basket hit the roof of a house and Blanchard tipped out, tumbling along the roof and onto the street, where, according to a newspaper account, “she was picked up dead.”
While all Europe mourned the death of Sophie Blanchard, some cautioned, predictably, that a balloon was no place for a woman. She was buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, beneath a tombstone representing her balloon in flames, with the epitaph Victime de son Art et de son Intrepidite (Victim of her art and intrepidity).
Articles: “The ‘Balloonomania’: Science and Spectacle in 1780s England,” by Paul Keen, Eighteenth Century Studies, Summer 2006, 39, 4. “Consumerism and the Rise of Balloons in Europe at the End of the Eighteenth Century,” by Michael R. Lynn, Science in Context, Cambridge University Press, 2008. “Madame Blanchard, the Aeronaut,” Scientific American Supplement #195, September 27, 1879. “Sophie Blanchard—First Woman Balloon Pilot,” Historic Wings, July 6, 2012, http://fly.historicwings.com/2012/07/sophie-blanchard-first-woman-balloon-pilot/ “How Man Has Learned to Fly,” The Washington Post, October 10, 1909.
Books: Paul Keen, Literature, Commerce, and the Spectacle of Modernity, 1750-1800, Cambridge University Press, 2012.
August 28, 2012
What is it that makes us human? The question is as old as man, and has had many answers. For quite a while, we were told that our uniqueness lay in using tools; today, some seek to define humanity in terms of an innate spirituality, or a creativity that cannot (yet) be aped by a computer. For the historian, however, another possible response suggests itself. That’s because our history can be defined, surprisingly helpfully, as the study of a struggle against fear and want—and where these conditions exist, it seems to me, there is always that most human of responses to them: hope.
The ancient Greeks knew it; that’s what the legend of Pandora’s box is all about. And Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians speaks of the enduring power of faith, hope and charity, a trio whose appearance in the skies over Malta during the darkest days of World War II is worthy of telling of some other day. But it is also possible to trace a history of hope. It emerges time and again as a response to the intolerable burdens of existence, beginning when (in Thomas Hobbes’s famous words) life in the “state of nature” before government was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” and running like a thread on through the ancient and medieval periods until the present day.
I want to look at one unusually enduring manifestation of this hope: the idea that somewhere far beyond the toil and pain of mere survival there lies an earthly paradise, which, if reached, will grant the traveler an easy life. This utopia is not to be confused with the political or economic Shangri-las that have also been believed to exist somewhere “out there” in a world that was not yet fully explored (the kingdom of Prester John, for instance–a Christian realm waiting to intervene in the war between crusaders and Muslims in the Middle East–or the golden city of El Dorado, concealing its treasure deep amidst South American jungle). It is a place that’s altogether earthier—the paradise of peasants, for whom heaven was simply not having to do physical labor all day, every day.
March 29, 2012
“Kipper und Wipper”: Rogue Traders, Rogue Princes, Rogue Bishops and the German Financial Meltdown of 1621-23
The great German hyperinflation of 1923 is passing out of living memory now, but it has not been entirely forgotten. Indeed, you don’t have to go too far to hear it cited as a terrible example of what can happen when a government lets the economy spin out of control. At its peak in the autumn of that year, inflation in the Weimar Republic hit 325,000,000 percent, while the exchange rate plummeted from 9 marks to 4.2 billion marks to the dollar; when thieves robbed one worker who had used a wheelbarrow to cart off the billions of marks that were his week’s wages, they stole the wheelbarrow but left the useless wads of cash piled on the curb. A famous photo taken in this period shows a German housewife firing her boiler with an imposing pile of worthless notes.
Easy though it is to think of 1923 as a uniquely terrible episode, though, the truth is that it was not. It was not even the worst of the 20th century; during its Hungarian equivalent, in 1945-46, prices doubled every 15 hours, and at the peak of this crisis, the Hungarian government was forced to announce the latest inflation rate via radio each morning–so workers could negotiate a new pay scale with their bosses—and issue the largest-denomination bank note ever to be legal tender: the 100 quintillion (1020) pengo note. When the debased currency was finally withdrawn, the total value of all the cash then in circulation in the country was reckoned at 1/10th of a cent. Nor was 1923 even the first time that Germany had experienced an uncontrollable rise in prices. It had also happened long before, in the early years of the 17th century. And that hyperinflation (which is generally known by its evocative German name, the kipper- und wipperzeit) was a lot stranger than what happened in 1923. In fact, it remains arguably the most bizarre episode in all of economic history.