Category Archives: History

“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough


I liked McCullough’s account of the Wright brothers a lot, but fact-wise did not get too much out of it since all of this ground had been covered in my previously-read To Conquer The Air.

One new facet that struck me on this reading of the story is how determined Wilbur was to not fly until everything was ready, no matter what/who was pressuring them.  Multiple times in France and later famously at Ft. Myers near Washington, DC, many thousands of onlookers, dignitaries, and even royalty gathered hoping to see a flight, only to wait all day and be disappointed when Wilbur judged the weather or the airplane not quite right yet.  The mechanics assigned to help Wilbur with the Flyer in Le Mans were amazed how he insisted on inspecting and doing much of the work himself.  Very high standards in this regard led to a remarkable safety record for the Wrights.  The one major accident, where Orville crashed and Lt. Selfridge was killed, took place while Wilbur was away in France…I wonder if Orville let the crowds pressure him more than Wilbur did, and thus he failed to notice a crack or weakening of the propeller which eventually broke in mid-air.

Once again, I am amazed how nobody believed that they were really flying despite numerous eyewitnesses at Huffman Prairie.  I guess it gave all the more wonder and glory when they finally showed the world nearly simultaneously at Le Mans in France (Wilbur) and Ft. Myers in the US (Orville).

I think it would be fun to do a Wright Brothers-focused tour someday – Dayton, Kitty Hawk, Ft. Myers, maybe New York; then Le Mans and Pau in France followed perhaps by Rome and Berlin.

Wilbur’s early death at age 45 in 1912 from typhoid fever is sad … but at the same time, it seemed like his work was complete – the world knew flight was possible and the new age of aviation had begun – and thus the main actor freely exited stage left with characteristic humility.

The Story of Medieval England: From King Arthur to the Tudor Conquest by Jennifer Paxton


This is an audio book of the “Great Courses” series which I listened to while commuting.  Fairly interesting and well-told history of England, from the Saxon Heptarchy to Henry VII (the first Tudor).

First impression, on early English history: it’s all Vikings.  The Roman Britons were pushed out by Germanic raiders who seemed pretty similar to the raiders later known as Vikings.  This initial wave of settlers was the “Anglo-Saxons.”  Later, other Viking raids and settling continued.  England even had a Viking king, Cnut the Great, shortly before the Norman Conquest.

Second impression is a continuation of what I realized from reading earlier books – the world is in a constant state of change.  Peoples are always on the move; no one is an “aborigine.”

“Empire of the Summer Moon” by S. C. Gwynne


Pretty interesting history of the Comanche during the Texas-Indian wars, and also a sort-of biography of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah.  Cynthia was kidnapped in a raid on her family’s frontier fort when she was 9 years old.  The Comanche sometimes adopted white children “into the tribe” and this is what happened with her.  She became a Comanche and eventually married a chief.  Nearly 25 years later, she was “rescued” (and her husband killed) by whites and reunited with family members.  She was regarded as a little crazy because she kept trying to escape back to the Comanche!  Kind of sad as it is pretty obvious that she wasn’t going to fit in / didn’t want to fit in, and never did.

Cynthia’s “rescue” happened when Quanah was 12.  He escaped, but never saw her again.  He became a mighty war chief, organizing all sorts of raids himself against the hated Texans.  Eventually, the warring came to an end for two main reasons: the slaughter and subsequent scarcity of the buffalo made survival very difficult, and the persistent efforts of the US Army in the 1870s under Mackenzie.  On the reservation, Quanah adapted to the white man’s life as completely as his mother did to the Comanche.  He became a skilled negotiator and businessman, chiefly through managing access to Comanche land by cattle ranchers.  (Some of these activities sound similar to mob “protection rackets” where a large group of Indians would approach ranchers and say how much of a shame it would be if all their cattle went missing, but they would help protect them … for a small fee.)  The Comanche looked to him for leadership, and he was known for generosity in feeding all comers and helping them out in his Star House.

Some other things I learned / thought were interesting:

  • The Comanche are described as having a very simple and war-like culture.  The were a stone age band of buffalo hunters and master horsemen who brutally attacked and tortured other Indians.  The author explains that because Plains Indians were 4000 years late to agriculture compared to the West, they were that much further behind in the “tech tree” (to frame it in a Civ-like manner).  They were very violent and didn’t have a set of familiar morals and so a lot of the things they thought nothing about seemed really horrible to the settlers (and to us today).  Like choking a 7-week old infant, then tying rope around his neck and having a horse drag him through prickly cactus.  Or bringing a 15 year old white girl prisoner, with visible scars of her torture (cut off/burned nose) on a San Antonio trading/peace negotiation trip.  They had no idea that such a sight would outrage the Texans.
  • The Spanish and later Mexicans were plagued by the Comanche just as the Americans later were.  Comancheria is a big reason why Mexico never really extended north beyond Texas.  It didn’t help the Spanish that the neighboring Apache, themselves persecuted by the Comanche, tried to put the Spanish in situations where they would be in the path of the warring Comanche, and not the Apaches.  eg. The San Saba massacre – they persuaded the Spanish to set up a mission in “Apache homeland” but actually it was in Comancheria.
  • James W. Parker, Cynthia’s uncle – shady, yet fascinating character.
  • Backwards Indian policy: many tribes noticed that in treaties (which were silly since they never really understood them, and which no band’s chief could ever make binding over any other band), they often got lots of food and other gifts.  But, if they did nothing, they were ignored (at best.)  So they raided intensely in the summer, then signed a treaty in the fall to get food for winter.  Meanwhile, the “good” Indians who did not raid got nothing.  Those on reservations were even denied their annuity payments, since they went to compensate the settlers who had been raided.  There was every incentive for the Indians to reject reservations and just raid settlers.
  • Just a few years after joining the reservation, Quanah and others got permission to go out on a last buffalo hunt in 1878.  It’s not known if they planned it to be a regular event or not; it turned out to be the first and last because there weren’t any more buffalo!  The Comanche were astounded to not find any buffalo for 100 miles, in areas where previously they had never been out of sight of a buffalo.  There were even cattle ranchers in sacred Palo Duro Canyon.  (The canyon and the Caprock Escarpment sound like some interesting geography – would like to see someday.)

“Apollo: The Race to the Moon” by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox


Great book that focuses primarily on the engineering problems and people of the Apollo program.  Not so much on the actual missions or astronauts, except when something went wrong and the guys on the ground had to figure it out.  As everyone knows, during every mission there was a roomful of engineers and flight controllers (the MOCR, “Mission Control”) who knew the systems like the back of their hand, continuously scanning their screens full of numbers for any inkling of a problem.  What I didn’t know, is that every operator in the room was connected to their own “back room” full of other engineers looking at the same info and available for consultation at anytime via the “loops.”  Furthermore, for really bad problems (like Apollo 13), they were able to reach out to even more people and sites, such as the contractors, basically in real time.  During the 13 crisis, probably over a thousand engineers around the country went to work in the middle of the night to support.

There was some intense flight ops sim training.  Only 10-20% of the procedures and software dealt with the nominal case.  Lots of things that could go wrong.  Some said that the real missions were piece of cake compared to the sims.  The flight controllers were there in the MOCR, but they were hooked up to a nearly equal number of sim operators controlling the flight and injected any problems they could think of.

As far as planning for going to the moon, engineering-wise it was a decent next step after Mercury, which got us into orbit.  Politics really pushed it forward by a decade or so, however.  Really seemed to be kind of a publicity stunt: the Russians had beat us to space with Sputnik and likely were going to beat us to having a man in space (they did).  So we had to pick a far enough out event that we had a chance on: the moon landing.  It was acknowledged that it was not really for science from the get-go.  All the science that Apollo produced could have done much more cheaply and safely without men in the loop.

Deciding on L.O.R (Lunar Orbit Rendezvous) was not easy.  For a while, it was either a choice between Direct Ascent (one big rocket to take off from Earth, land backwards on Moon, then takeoff back for home) or E.O.R (Earth Orbit Rendezvous – launch pieces separately into Earth orbit, final assembly there, then proceed as with Direct Ascent).  Joe Shea was one of the early managers who applied the principles of systems engineering, matured in the recent ICBM programs, to the problem and got everyone to agree to LOR.

“Only three things matter – man, moon, decade.”  These were the high-level requirements which drove everything else.  George Mueller decided to go with all-up testing because there was no time to incrementally test stages.  Seems very risky, and it was!  Some other systems engineering successes:

  • Discarded plans for a complex nuclear gas gauge in favor of secondary backup fuel tank with enough to get back to earth from moon.
  • Heat shield was predicted to degrade after 13 hours of interstellar cold (when facing away from sun)– engineers wanted to develop a brand new material for heat shield; but Shea’s solution was to apply a slow spin to the CSM so that it would be warmed by the sun.

The Apollo 1 fire happened during mock launch test event.  The combination of pure oxygen in capsule, plus faulty wiring yielded the fire; a complicated series of hatches that effectively locked the astronauts in made the accident fatal.  It seemed like the program was going too fast and putting safety in the background.  Although, the problem DID manifest itself during a ground test, as it should have.  The real failure was in the hatch – it was too complicated to open in time.  It was lucky that they didn’t encounter the same problem in space, which may have shut down program likely.  (Although it was a risky business no matter what; all engineering can do is reduce the probability of failure.  Even if something is 99% ok and you are unlucky enough to draw the 1% failure, you are still the goat … there is no way with something like Apollo, with such a limited number of trials, to operationally prove a 99% success rate.)  Grueling disassembly of the ruined CSM followed the fire.  Procedures were written for the removal of each and every part (down to the screws) and NASA and North American reps witnessed removal of each.

The overwhelming success of 501 (aka Apollo 4), the first all-up test of Saturn V, only 1.5 years after fire, was likely achieved only due to the renewed sense of urgency and attention to detail that came out of the fire.

Finally, while Apollo 11 gets all the glory, to the engineers the actual most significant mission was Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the moon.  It was only the second manned Apollo mission, period.  But it showed that the era of spaceflight beyond the Earth had begun.

“The Greater Journey” by David McCullough


I would have been bored to tears with this one if it wasn’t for McCullough’s great writing style.  As it is, that barely made it tolerable … almost completely uninteresting subject matter as far as I am concerned.  A bunch of Americans spent time studying or making art in Paris.  There’s not much tying all their random experiences together.  Kind of a unique take on history – the story of a single city from the perspective of a single class of individual.  But anyway, I didn’t really enjoy it nearly as much as McCullough’s other books.  Didn’t really see the point.

There are some items of interest, however.  One is Samuel Morse, of telegraph fame.  He was an accomplished painter, working in Paris.  He became inspired by the French semaphor flag telegraphy relay system and figured out how to make it work with an electric line.  Right there is one benefit of travel and seeing different ways of doing things.  (Sidenote on “diversity” — I think the diversity that is important and needed is such diversity of ideas, not necessarily of race or other classifications.)  But then again, I also think the world is much smaller now that it used to be, and becoming more homogenous by the day.  Is there anything to be gained from travel in 2015 as there was in 1815?  Is it all just a bunch of tourist traps?

Second interesting bit was about the heroics of Elihu Washburne during the Prussian Siege and the Commune.  Not fun times to be in Paris, but Washburne served his role as American diplomat with courage and honor.

“To Conquer the Air” by James Tobin


This was a great read – I found myself cheering at the triumph of Wilbur Wright as he navigated the Flyer around the Statue of Liberty in 1909.  That’s what is depicted on the book cover, and was a great place to wrap up the book.  Wilbur (not to knock Orville too much, but per Tobin it was Wilbur who was the driving force) definitely deserves his place in the pantheon of engineering heroes.  His life was a little bit aimless or off course, due to protracted illness and some family considerations.  But then he got interested in the problem of manned flight, had a novel idea (wing-warping, from observations of birds), and went to work in his quiet, focused manner in spite of the derision or disbelief of others.

In those early days, manned flight researchers were almost universally regarded as crackpots.  Occasionally, it even diminished the reputation of those more established in other fields, such as Samuel Langley or Alexander Graham Bell.  The Wrights built upon the foundation of those who came before, but it might be hard for us now to comprehend the diversity of approaches to the problem of manned flight that they had to wade through.  Dirigibles?  Ornithopters?  Kites?  Fixed-wing gliders?  Wilbur obviously ended up in the glider camp, and then correctly focused on the problem of balance and control.  Only after the glider was controllable did he think about adding an engine.

1900-1902 – autumn glider tests at Kitty Hawk.  Construction of homemade wind tunnel and methodical testing of wing shapes; verification of Lilienthal lift tables

1903 – glider + engine test at Kitty Hawk

1904-1905 – continued powered glider experiments at Huffman Prairie near Dayton

1906-1907 – incredibly, the Wrights locked up their Flyer and conducted no flights!  I can’t really believe it.  Tobin surmises they were trying to secure government contracts and thought that secrecy and exclusivity would work in their favor, but I don’t know.  Part of it was the Wrights’ stubbornness – they felt like they had shown their best to the world and had been ignored; now the world would have to come to them begging for forgiveness…

1908 – exhibitions in France

1909 – triumph in New York

“The Conquest of the Incas” by John Hemming


In 1532, in one of the most surprising military engagements of all time, a group of 168 Spanish adventurers led by Francisco Pizarro captured the Inca emperor, Atahualpa, at Cajamarca.  The emperor was with his army, in the midst of a succession war that began a few years prior upon the death of his father, Huayna Capac.  As was pointed out by Charles Mann, Huayna Capac had died in a smallpox epidemic, a European import which preceded the arrival of actual Europeans in Peru.  The epidemic served to destabilize the country, and was a key factor in the civil war which made it possible for the Spanish to get their foot in the door.

Still, even given those circumstances, what happened was pretty amazing.  The Incan army was paralyzed due to confusion and concern over their god-emperor.  Atahualpa promised a ransom of a huge quantity of gold and treasure, which he dutifully had his people collect over the next several weeks.  He was executed anyway; the Spanish got involved with a successor, and the rest was history.  There were several key battles, with thousands of Inca foot soldiers facing off against a mere handful of Spaniards.  The Spanish never lost — the secret weapon was not gunpowder, as one might suppose, but horses, which gave them mobility and an insuperable tactical advantage in close combat.  The few times the Inca were able to counter these new weapons were when they used the mountainous terrain to set ambushes and chokepoints and rockslides; kind of surprising that they did not do this more, since they lived in a country of mountains…

The Spanish rulers were kind of uneasy with the Peruvian conquest, as well as the other New World holdings won around the same time period.  They were a warfaring people, but typically against the Moors; obviously a divinely sanctioned target due to their heathen nature and previous crimes against Christians.  The Inca, however, had never given cause for offense, nor did they know anything about Christianity.  This actually gave the Spanish plenty of room for pause, when they considered the heavenly consequences of unprovoked conquest.  They finally hit upon The Requirement, a document which was read to native rulers (including Atahualpa before his capture) which basically requested a swift conversion and submission to the Church, upon pain of destruction and enslavement.  Apparently, anything less than immediate surrender was grounds for whatever conquesting might follow.

The average Peruvian did not fare especially well under the Spanish; although some might make the case that the vast majority were already oppressed by the Inca overlords, or that there was basically nowhere in the world at the time where the commoner had it good.  The encomienda system and the mita both turned large numbers of natives into virtual slaves.  There were many defenders of the Indian in early colonial Spain, notably Las Casas, but it seemed like whenever a new system was enacted or new types of officials appointed to watch out for the Indians’ interests, they became corrupted and soon were trying to wring as much out of the Indians as ever.

One final note about the Viceroy Toledo – he just struck me so much as the villainous governor sterotype.  One of his big ideas was the “reduction” of villages into towns; a forced migration of Indian communities meant to help them integrate into society.  He also prosecuted the war on Vilcabamba and executed Tupac Amaru, the last independent emperor, after a sham trial in 1572; 40 years after Cajamarca.

“Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard


First a note to Bill… it’s CAV-alry, not CAL-vary.  Grrrr…

The story of the Lincoln assassination is pretty incredible.  Lots of little things came together which permitted it to happen, not the least of which Booth, a famous actor, finding out that Lincoln would be attending Ford’s Theatre, where he was well known and basically had his run of the place.  Lincoln kind of suspected his end would come violently for some time; it actually is kind of miraculous that he lasted throughout the war, given his generally lax protection and personal disregard for security.  Seems like he had a fatalistic attitude – if it happens, it happens; no use hiding from it.  Maybe the Confederate Secret Service had too much Southern gentlemanly honor to really plan the President harm — even Booth himself, in the pay of the CSS at one point, was initially planning a kidnapping before plans got more desperate.

Some interesting things brought out in this book were the role of Lincoln’s bodyguard (a drunk/scalawag who left his post), and the connection between Lafayette Baker and Edwin Stanton.  Stanton could have called on anybody to lead the investigation for Lincoln’s killer, but he picked Baker.  Some conspiracy theorists think that both Baker and Stanton were in on the plot with Booth, and Stanton wanted another inside man to prevent any leaks.   The “18 missing pages” from Booth’s diary fall into this line — must be a bit excised by Baker or Stanton, right?

Apparently the theories are not really accepted at all.  For one thing, apparently there were quite a few more than 18 pages missing from the diary.  I could definitely imagine Booth deleting personal entries and leaving only a carefully worded portrayal of recent events that he wanted posterity to have.  Maybe it took him a draft or two to get everything “just right.”  He had several days hiding out in the swamps of Maryland to work on the composition; it is not unlikely that such a narcissistic personality would constantly revise his last sounding board to the general public.

“The Price of Admiralty” by John Keegan



Oceanic naval history, with the usual in-depth Keegan look at a few case studies.

First, Trafalgar. British strategy during the Napoleonic era was to maintain a strong presence in the Mediterranean, specifically so that France would also have to split its own forces to defend the SE coast. Nelson was slightly outnumbered when a combined French/Spanish force left the Mediterranean to support a pending invasion of the British Isles. Nelson gambled on superior British gunnery and surprised the enemy with basically a point-blank rough and tumble fight. His great realization was that the typical battles of the day, with each line of ships firing volleys across long distances, didn’t really work. The only way to produce a decisive battle was to close up and really get in their face, with Marine sharpshooters and boarding parties.  The ships themselves were more or less unsinkable by cannon, unless a powder room was hit. He understood that effective Naval warfare was necessarily a man-killing business.  Nelson’s ships started upwind, then “crossed the T” of the French-Spanish line, risking the initial broadsides to their unprotected bow, but the poorly trained gunners missed.  Once Nelson was in the midst of the enemy, the situation was reversed, with British broadsides pointed to the French bow and aft.

I don’t have much to comment about Jutland. Now weaponry really was of the ship-killing variety. The battle seemed really confused … well, I guess Trafalgar was too but that was kind of by design.

At Midway, the U.S. really had some incredible luck. The morning was not going well — several U.S. attack waves were dashed on the Japanese carrier defenses. Then, yet another wave managed to catch two carriers right before they were sending off an attack of their own. Their fighter cover had been temporarily landed and was refueling when the U.S. dive bombers struck, unopposed. Four Japanese carriers were sunk, at a cost of the Yorktown. Truly a turning point in the Pacific War. Amazing how naval warfare can be so governed by chance… it really is just about probabilities, and “calculated risk.”

Finally the Battle of the Atlantic, of course not a single battle but rather the drawn out U-boat campaign to cut off British shipping. The Germans had tried the same thing during WWI, where 378 U-boats has sunk 5708 ships, 1/4 of global tonnage at the start of the war. But, increased wartime building meant that total tonnage in 1918 actually exceeded that of 1914. The campaign was thus a failure. The second time around, Donitz came up with the wolf-pack strategy to counter the Allies convoys. The logic of convoys was simple and probabilistic. The hard part about submarine warfare was finding a ship to torpedo. If all the Allied ships go on their own, then there are far more targets for subs to find than if they joined together to form a single (large) target. Even if a lone sub found the convoy, it still wasn’t likely to torpedo more than one vessel, as the escorts would quickly move in and drive off the sub. The wolf-pack idea was to coordinate the submarines actions and hit the convoys from multiple angles at different times, so the convoy was pretty much under attack during much of the voyage, at least during the portion when it was in the “air gap” with no land-based air coverage.  The intermittent attacks, every few hours over several days, must have been terrifying and incredibly wearing for the merchant marine.

Keegan ends with his opinion on the undisputed king of future naval warfare: submarines.  Even the mighty aircraft carrier plays seconds fiddle.  Carriers are the undisputed masters of the surface; but they are exposed to many threats, including to submarines. Keegan predicts a multiplicity of submarine types to follow the pattern of specialization which occurred with ironclad surface ships. It makes me wonder what’s going on in the secret drawing rooms of naval strategy now.  Unmanned technology has progressed quietly undersea just as it has in the air… I could see large swarms of automated, unmanned subs (each one basically a “smart” long-range torpedo) doing some incredible devastation to a convoy. Like, sinking all the ships at once.  The twice-failed German strategy may succeed on try #3, for some navy, somewhere.

“1493” by Charles C. Mann


(Another audio book read by Mr. Navy.)

This is a book about the beginnings of globalization – the Columbian Exchange – and the “Homogenocene” (biological diversity moving towards uniformity, thanks to mankind).  Mann jumps from one fascinating “case study” to the next, showing just how intertwined the world really is — and has been for a long time.  Here’s just a sampling.


The English tobacco “craze” saved Jamestown. The colonists were struggling, as many early colonies did, due to a poor location and a lack of local agricultural knowledge and other effective survival techniques. The local Indians should have been a good source of helpful expertise in these matters, but the English seemed set on antagonizing them at every turn. (“Antagonize” is probably too weak of a word … there were a surprising number of brutal atrocities, on both sides.) Anyway, John Rolfe came in and introduced tobacco, which was an almost immediate monetary success.  The colonists didn’t really change their ways, but they did figure out how to grow the new cash crop in large quantities, and thus were able to buy food and other necessities with the proceeds.

The English planted tobacco just like they did other crops in Europe – in large, monoculture fields. This was at odds with traditional Indian agriculture, which mixed different crops in a more natural arrangement (this survives today as milpas). The English were so unfamilar with the technique that they saw Indian “fields” as wilderness to be cleared and planted over with tobacco, which they did much to the anger of the Indians.  Also, pre-contact America had no large livestock and so no real tradition of building fences, which also led the English to consider the land as unclaimed. (This kind of all worked out in a way when a large proportion of the Indian population died of European diseases, which did actually leave the land open in a tragic fashion.  See 1491.)


Potosi in Bolivia was the New World’s first boom town. Think the Wild West at 14,000 feet in the Andes. Spain became fabulously wealthy from all the galleon bullion, but massive inflation and a series of ambitious foreign wars, funded by the new found wealth, brought their own problems. A large chunk of silver also made it’s way west over the Pacific to Manila (thanks Legazpi) and then into China. The Pacific galleon trade connected Spainard silver to Fujianese porcelain and silk via Mexico City and Manila, two of the world’s first multicultural melting pots. The same factors which wrecked havoc on the Spanish economy also affected China and brought down the Ming.

Potatoes and Maize

Potatoes (sweet and “Idaho”) are from the Andes, maize (corn) from Mexico. Both had a huge impact on population growth in Europe and China. Seriously, huge: something like a third of the population in the years following these new crops introduction could have owed it’s existence to them. The Europeans and Chinese grew them both in vast monocultures, like tobacco, and were thus vulnerable to plant diseases. Per Malthus, the hungry population expanded to use up available resources, and was soon once again teetering on the brink. Events like the Irish Potato Famine likely killed off the “extra” population that had been made possible due to the potato’s introduction in the first place.

Fun fact: apparently you can live off nothing but potatoes and milk with no ill effects. It’s a complete diet, and those who have tried it long term expressed no desire for change.


I didn’t realize how critical natural rubber still is to the world economy. Like tobacco, potatoes, and maize, there are vast monocultures of rubber trees in Amazonia and also SE Asia … apparently there is a rubber tree disease in Brazil that is going to be really bad news once it finally makes the hop to Asia.


Malaria and other tropical diseases were big reasons why slavery became such an institution — adult Africans from malarial areas had more resistance, both from genetic immunity and also from childhood exposure. It became more cost effective to import an “expensive” African, even with the moral and practical troubles that slavery entailed, vs several rounds of European indentured servants who kept dying off.


Runaway slaves established countless “maroon” villages hidden in Amazonian jungles. This happened everywhere there were slaves – for instance Florida had “black Seminoles.” Africans mixed with Indians and were really the first Old World-New World contact in many cases, but we will likely never know that true history.


The world has always been in flux, ever changing. The world is not static; “that’s how it always has been!” is “imagined history.”

Mann is excellent at teasing out fascinating connections and stories from this very interesting time in history.  I highly recommend both 1491 and 1493.