Wednesday, 29 February 2012

A Brief History of the Measurement of Time

It’s Leap Day, and if you’re not busy proposing to your fella or counting the number of bonus attoseconds, what better way to spend it than considering where the day came from, and how indeed we have come to measure the unmeasurable concept of time?
'Time stands still for no man'

You may already know that the leap day occurs in the Gregorian calendar because the Earth takes 365 days and six hours to make a complete revolution around the sun, and that the accumulated six hours make up that extra day every four years. But did you know that years that are evenly divisible by 100 do not contain a leap day, unless they are also divisible by 400? This means that there was no Leap Day in 1900, but there was in 2000.

The Gregorian calendar, a solar calendar, was introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII in an effort to correct the inaccuracies in the Julian calendar that assumed that the time between spring equinoxes was 365.25 days, when in fact it is roughly 11 minutes shorter. The spring equinox, which determined the timing of Easter, thus kept creeping forward, and so the Roman Catholic Church sought a way to stabilise time.

But, of course, although an internationally-recognised system, the Gregorian calendar is not the only one concocted in history still in use today. Consider the Islamic calendar, which is lunar and based on 12 months in a year of 354 or 355 days and therefore has a discrepancy of 10 or 11 days compared to a solar calendar such as the Gregorian calendar. This means that the Islamic calendar does not synchronise with the seasons. One of the main challenges of this for practising Muslims here in the UK can be the moveable nature of the month of Ramadan. Fasting during daylight hours in mid-summer is testing, to say the least. And it’s hard to plan ahead with the Islamic calendar as one month may only begin when the crescent moon has been sighted for the first time shortly after sunset by one or two trustworthy menfolk testifying before a committee. The combination of further factors, such as the moon setting progressively later than the sun the further west you travel, means that the beginning of each month differs from one Muslim country to the next.

Once you’ve decided which calendar to follow, you need to select a method for measuring the days therein. Where did that all begin? It’s those canny Egyptians we can thank for being the first to organise the day. They arranged a 24-hour day which divided the night into 12 hours, tracked by the position of the stars in the sky. Day was divided into 10 hours, with the extra two hours accounted for by the hours before sunrise and after sunset. They used shadow clocks or sundials to tell the time during the day. It was their obvious design fault of not working at night that gave rise to the invention of the clepsydra or water clock where time was measured by the regulated flow of liquid. Again, the design was not perfect as the rate of flow varied according to the temperature and so sand clocks or hourglasses came into existence.
Egyptian water clock

Time measurement moved on in the eleventh century when a Chinese inventor came up with a mechanical clock, the technical challenge being how to create a wheel of a manageable size that would turn continuously at the same speed as the Earth. While the first model of a mechanical clock was created in 725 AD, it was Su Sung who in 1092 unveiled his “cosmic engine” to the world—a 35-feet-high monster incorporating a sphere for observing the stars and a chain drive driven by dripping water.

And it’s Galileo Galilei we have to thank for the pendulum clock. Standing in Pisa Cathedral one day in a reverie, he noticed that no matter how long or short its arc, the chandelier there took exactly the same length of time to complete a swing. And so his observation inspired the invention of the pendulum in the late sixteenth century, an amazing achievement when you consider that they are still widely-used today.

Quartz clocks, where quartz crystal regulates an electronic oscillator to keep time, came into use in the 1920s. Atomic clocks, using the spin property of atoms as their mechanism, emerged in the 1950s—and these are accurate to seconds in millions of years.

And, of course, we must also pay homage to the Global Positioning System (GPS), one of several internationally-recognised systems to keep tabs on time. The space-based satellite navigation system was developed by the US in 1973 to provide location and time information and is a vital component of many a Smart phone today. (We have President Ronald Regan for gifting GPS to the world in the 1980s. He decreed that it should be available for all after the shooting-down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 after in strayed into the USSR’s prohibited airspace for lack of decent navigation.)

'The Persistence of Memory' by Salvador Dali

Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) is another household name worth exploring, most especially as it brings us neatly back to the Stephensons (see last week’s blog post). The system refers to mean solar time at The Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, and is the official time during winter months in the UK. GMT had traditionally been used by British mariners to calculate their longitude from the Greenwich meridian, considered to be longitude zero degrees. But it was the expansion of the railways in the mid-eighteenth century that really put Greenwich on the map. Before “railway time”, based on GMT, was introduced in 1840, time was set by referring to the position of the sun from town to town. This was not a problem pre-railways as journeys took longer and the traveller could adjust his or her timepiece every now and again without too much bother. With the much faster journeys afforded by trains, a standard time was needed to bring schedules in line. The Great Western Railway Company was the first to use GMT as its benchmark in 1840, and by 1848 the other companies had followed suit. GMT caught on in many other areas of life, and by 1855 it was reported that 95 per cent of towns and cities had adopted it.

I think I can unashamedly say that I have now come full circle on this very brief history of time. I shall now undo all the above talk of how to measure time with a quote from Benjamin Disraeli:

‘But what minutes! Count them by sensation, and not by calendars, and each moment is a day.’

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Historical heroes & heroines: Part Two, George and Robert Stephenson

It’s back to the north east for the second of the “historical heroes and heroines” series. Here I salute two more heroes of the industrial age: father and son George and Robert Stephenson.
George Stephenson
It’s hard to know where to begin with this pair. Perhaps most famous for their pioneering work on the railways, between them they notched up a considerable number of firsts. Although neither could claim that they invented the steam locomotive (this was the work of Richard Trevithick in 1804), in 1820 George was to build the first railway in the world to use them, running from Hetton Colliery to Sunderland. Hailing from the north east, it was inevitable that the need to transport coal and other heavy goods inspired the development of the railways. It was not long before father and son set up in business as railway engineers, and were responsible for designing many lines throughout the land. In another landmark, on the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825 father and son attached a passenger carriage to one of the locomotives—and so this was the first time a passenger car had run on a steam locomotive railway. And almost as famous as its creator, George’s Rocket won the Rainhill Trials in 1820 for use on the Liverpool to Manchester Railway—this was his X Factor moment and forevermore the Stephensons were synonymous with railway achievements.


How inspiring, then, that this pair laid the foundations for rail travel not just here but the world over. Towards the end of his life George was appointed one of the first directors of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway Company, and Robert a consulting engineer, for the first proposals to construct a railway system in India (nowadays the fourth most extensive railway network in the world). Sadly, George died in 1848 and did not live to see the first commercial train run from Bombay to Thana in 1853. (In a personal aside, my great-great-grandfather was a train driver for the Northern Railway in India at the inception of the railways. His career move from lush but limited County Wicklow several thousand miles east informed the course of my family’s history, and established connections all over the subcontinent, from Kolkotta to Karachi with Simla and Amritsar in-between, but that’s an entire other blog post.)

But it wasn’t all railways! Although Sir Humphrey Davy is often credited with doing so, it was George who created the first miners’ safety lamp in 1815. There was disbelief that an uneducated man such as George could have trumped SHD, but he was, in the end, exonerated of stealing his idea. And some say that George inadvertently gave the name “Geordies” to the folk of Tyneside—Stephenson’s lamp was informally referred to as a “Geordie lamp”, and so the phrase spread from a reference to the miners who used it to any native of Tyneside.

There were bridges too. Robert designed the double-decker High Level Bridge in Newcastle, still in use today, and many others used to support the new railway lines, such as the Royal Border Bridge over the Tweed, with its impressive 28 arches.

And perhaps most thrilling of all, George invented the cucumber straightener—a straight, thick glass tube for propagating straight as opposed to curved cucumbers. I don’t know what your feelings on the topic are, but as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing more perverse than a curvy cucumber, so for this achievement alone the man should be hailed a hero. These amazing items can still be viewed today at the Chesterfield Museum, Derbyshire. He is also believed to be responsible for the invention of the cucumber slicer, which, as it name suggests, produced slices as fine and even as a fairy’s wings. The cucumber sandwich is forever indebted.
This lady looks delighted with her cucumber straightener 
What is particularly poignant, I think, is to compare these outstanding achievements with George’s modest background and upbringing here in the north east. I shan’t recount the details here as Vintage Script writer David Williams has already done so more eloquently than I ever could in his recently-published novel Mr Stephenson’s Regret. Check out David’s blog Writer in the North, always an inspiring read, where he describes his travels around the north east on the trail of the Stephensons.
Although George was not the inventor per se of the locomotive, it was he and his son who progressed the railways so that within a relatively short space of time, rail travel became an accessible liberator of the masses. The safety lamp, of course, can be credited with saving many lives. And where would we be without the cucumber straightener? It sends a shiver down my spine to imagine a world without the Stephensons and their far-reaching, liberating and eclectic contributions to life as we know it today.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

A Celebration of Courtly Love

It’s St Valentine’s Day and what better way to celebrate than to explore the medieval phenomenon which spawned many a romantic tale: courtly love.

Courtly love was a means of expressing love and admiration between two members of the nobility who were not married to one another. A perfect recipe, then, for repressed desire, intrigue and subterfuge. You can see, too, how these elements inspired troubadour songs and many of the top writers of the Middle Ages: Geoffrey Chaucer, Dante and Sir Thomas Malory, for example.
Although the phrase “courtly love” was not coined until 1883, its origins can be traced to the courts of Aquitaine, Provence, Champagne and Burgundy towards the end of the eleventh century, and is believed to have been brought to England by Eleanor of Aquitaine. In a parallel strand, practices similar to courtly love went on in Arab-occupied Spain and throughout the Islamic world. “Love as desire never to be fulfilled” was one description, and this was an implicit theme of Arabic poetry at the time. (It has to be said, though, that some scholars disagree that the practice of courtly love did really exist. They argue that it was purely a cover for adultery and there was nothing courtly about it.)
La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Sir Frank Dicksee

So how did it go on? Typically, a “courtly lover” would declare his admiration for some higher-ranking female, for example the wife of his employer, or some female who held office in the life of the castle. Remember, in those days marriages would often be arranged for political rather than romantic reasons, so you can see why this phenomenon provided a delicious bubble of escapism from a loveless existence. The lady could even be a faraway princess, with whom the lover had no contact, only the most fleeting detail igniting his passion. Courtly love was subject to a number of stages, from initial attraction, a passionate declaration of devotion, virtuous rejection by the lady and sometimes (but not always) consummation of a mutual passion (though whether the love remains chaste or not is a matter of debate).

You can imagine the scene—the knight, a skilled and handsome horseman, and the object of his devotion, pale-faced and bright-eyed, arrange a tryst. The knight, careful to appear devoted, waits for his lady to dismount. (Secretly, he is admiring her svelte figure.) There is much holding of hands and whispering of sweet nothings, while the knight, a slick communicator, charms his lady as much with his words as his good looks. As etiquette commands, the lady at first rejects his advances. The more enthusiastic the knight appears, the more she withdraws (though not through lack of desire). And so it goes on…you can see how this exquisite game of cat-and-mouse was readily turned into popular fiction.
God Speed! by Edmund Blair Leighton
The most famous example of a courtly love affair in literature (and some would say, in history) is that between Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot, first described in Chrétien de Troyes’ Lancelot, The Knight of the Cart, a poem composed in the 1170s.  The story was related by many poets and writers since then, including Sir Thomas Malory (Le Morte d’Arthur) and Alfred, Lord Tennyson (Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere). There’s no happy ending for this pair, though. The discovery of their affair led to the downfall of the Arthurian kingdom, and Lancelot ended his days as a hermit on hearing that Guinevere had become a nun.
Arthur's Tomb: The Last Meeting of Lancelot and Guinevere by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Courtly love is also described in The Knight’s Tale, part of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from the fourteenth century. Here, cousins Arcite and Palamon are rivals for noble Emily, and a tournament is arranged to decide who should take her hand. While Arcite prays to Mars for victory and Palamon to Venus that he should marry Emily, Emily prays to Diana to remain unmarried, but if this can’t be arranged, that the one who truly loves her should win. Although Arcite wins the battle, divine intervention (thanks to Saturn) means that he is wounded by his horse and Palamon claims Emily as his bride. (Incidentally, the earliest association of St Valentine’s Day with love and romance can be traced to Chaucer’s poem The Parliament of Fowls in which birds set up an assembly to find their mates.)

And then, of course, there were the troubadours—composers and performers of lyrical poetry, originally from Occitania in southern Europe. The themes of many of these works were related to chivalry and courtly love, and the classification of verse forms was as intricate as the Occitan language in which they were composed. The “pastourelle” would be a song about a romance between a knight and a shepherdess, the “alba” a song to describe the approach of dawn as a warning to lovers, the “serena” would be the song of a lover impatient for the arrival of the evening and his lover. As the troubadour tradition spread throughout Europe, so their tales travelled with them, and they helped to perpetuate the concept of courtly love and romance.
So, a quick tour through the world of courtly love tells us that while it could easily end in bitterness, disappointment or tragedy, it at least provided a distraction—chaste or unchaste—from what could be the bleakness of married life.

And so I would like to wish lovers everywhere—especially those who love gallantly and from afar–a very happy Valentine’s Day…

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Most Haunted House in England?

Borley, a hamlet on the Suffolk/Essex border, is an unlikely backdrop for one of the most notorious ghost stories of the twentieth century. Surrounded by arable land, so typical of this part of the world, the view on a late summer’s day is benign: newly-harvested fields with the fifteenth century Holy Trinity Church at Long Melford in the distance—tranquillity, all is well.
It was Harry Price, self-proclaimed paranormal investigator, who bestowed upon Borley Rectory the sobriquet “The Most Haunted House in England” in his 1940 book. In 1929 Price was appointed by the Daily Mirror to investigate reports of hauntings by the then-occupiers of the rectory, the Reverend Guy Smith and his wife. It is said that Mrs Smith found a woman’s skull wrapped in brown paper when clearing out a cupboard not long after moving in, and that this discovery was the catalyst for a series of disturbing and unexplained events: disconnected servants’ bells ringing, lights appearing in windows, the sound of footsteps, even the appearance of a horse-drawn carriage.
Borley Rectory
The alleged paranormal activity pre-dates this time. The first reports emerge not long after the rectory was built to house the Reverend Henry Bull and his large family in 1862: unexplained footsteps, the appearance of a ghostly nun in the garden and a coach driven by two headless men. The local legend that explains the hauntings told that in the fourteenth century a monk from a Benedictine monastery on the site and a nun from nearby Bures Convent fell in love and attempted to elope. On discovery, the monk was hanged, the nun bricked up alive within the convent walls and the coachman who was to drive them to their new life was beheaded.
Harry Price’s arrival coincided with more weird phenomena: the throwing of objects, and the tapping-out of “spirit messages”. Events stepped up during the occupancy of the Reverend Lionel Foyster, his wife Marianne and their daughter from 1930 to 1935. More unexplained incidents, many reported by Marianne including poltergeist activity and ghostly writing on the walls addressed directly to her. She even claimed to have been hurled out of bed, slapped and almost suffocated by spectral hands. One of the written messages to Marianne referred to “mass prayers”, and from this and other clues, Price concluded that the “spirit” was a young Catholic woman, a nun, who had suffered some act of betrayal and violence.
The ghostly writing

When the Foysters moved out of the rectory in 1935 Price leased the house for a year-long investigation. Price conducted a series of séances and claimed to have made contact with the spirit of Marie Lairre, who had been a nun in France until she had come to England to marry Henry Waldegrave, whose ancestral home stood on the site of the rectory. He had strangled her and buried her in the cellar, she said. Shortly afterwards, in March 1938, another spirit claimed that the house would burn down that night and that evidence to prove Marie’s murder would be found in the cellar. The night came and went, but there was no fire, no drama. It was not until February 1939 that the new owner accidentally tipped over an oil lamp, the fire spread and by morning the rectory was in ruins. Price did indeed investigate the cellar and the bones of a young woman were found, and reburied in the nearby village of of Liston.
The ruined Borley Rectory

Without doubt, Price was a brilliant publicist, who, through his many articles and two books on the subject, put Borley well and truly on the map. His involvement is not without controversy, though. A reporter from the Mirror, Charles Sutton, accompanied Price to Borley in July 1929. Along with Price’s secretary, the men investigated each of the house’s ground floor rooms in turn by the light of a hurricane lamp, Price always following Sutton and locking the doors behind him. Each time Price went to turn the key, the sound of a stone hitting the floor would be heard. Upstairs Sutton suggested that he would be the last to enter. Price objected and they carried on before. As they crossed the landing there was another crash. Sutton had had enough. He grabbed Price and plunged his hands into his jacket pockets to find them full of stones. (The Mirror apparently suppressed the story for fear of a libel action.)
Harry Price

Whatever your point of view, Borley is worth a visit. Today modern bungalows stand on the site of the rectory, but the twelfth century church, guarded by a line of sombrely clipped yew trees, remains. Without doubt, the place has atmosphere and the many ghosthunters who still visit today would agree—but whether that’s because of its notoriety is, of course, impossible to prove. Weird phenomena such as the pervading scent of violets, the clapping of invisible hands and the appearance of objects out of the blue have all been reported in recent times.
Borley Church

And whether you’re a believer or not, I defy you, on a sharp winter’s night, such as tonight, not to feel a frisson as you stand amongst the distorted shadows in the light of an almost-full moon…
Is there a place with a spooky history down your way?

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Historical Heroes & Heroines: Part One, Lord Armstrong

To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, there is in Newcastle all that life can afford: pioneering industry, lush green spaces, a buzzing cultural scene, a renowned seat of learning and some of the best healthcare in the country. Of course, you can’t build a beautiful, vibrant city overnight. Time to nominate an historical hero, I think—an outstanding individual whose legacy, in my opinion, has helped secure Newcastle’s position as one of the finest cities in the country, if not Europe—William George Armstrong.
Lord Armstrong

Born in 1810, Armstrong’s ambitious father, a corn merchant by trade, insisted he pursue a career in law. However, engineering was his great love. In his spare time he designed various devices, and in 1847 exchanged his legal career to found his own company, manufacturing cranes and hydraulic equipment. At its peak, the company employed over 25,000 people. The company continued to expand, diversifying into bridges, armaments and battleships, with several mergers along the way. (The Swing Bridge over the Tyne still in use today was built by the company to enable larger ships to move upstream to the Armstrong works in Elswick.) Apart from being the major employer in the city at the time, the goods produced were ingenious and their templates adopted the world over.
Innovation only makes up a small part of Armstrong’s legacy. Culturally, his contribution to the north east is huge. He bought Jesmond Dene House in 1863, landscaping the surrounding land and donating Jesmond Dene to the people of Newcastle 20 years later. The Dene—an 80-acre wooded valley formed by post-Ice Age meltwater is a true oasis complete with waterfall and grotto. And his famous country retreat at Rothbury, Cragside, was the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity. (Armstrong was a fan of green energy, predicting the decline of the coal industry and favouring solar and hydroelectric power.) Now under the aegis of the National Trust, the estate is a playground for adults and children alike, and showcases his love of innovation with its collection of ahead-of-their-time gadgets. And let’s not forget his restoration of the wild and romantic Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast (which he even kitted out with central heating and air conditioning). It remains the home of the Armstrong family to this day.
Bamburgh Castle

A generous benefactor, Armstrong founded the College of Physical Science in 1871, which later became part of the top-ranking Newcastle University we know today. He contributed to the establishment of the Hancock Natural History Museum, now the Great North Museum, where you can wonder at a full-size T Rex skeleton, an interactive Hadrian’s Wall and curiosities from around the world. And in 1901, a year after his death, his heir William Watson-Armstrong donated a hefty sum towards the building of the Royal Victoria Infirmary.
Writing this article has made me realise how much this man’s legacy has touched my own life in Newcastle. My children were born at the Royal Victoria Infirmary. On many occasions I have walked, waddled and pushed a pram along Armstrong Bridge to Jesmond Dene and spent many happy hours therein (most memorably at 5.30 on a summer’s morning thanks to pregnancy insomnia and noisy neighbours—an enchanted garden, full of greenness and rhododendrons, all to myself). Here in Blaydon, with the now-downtrodden Elswick just in view, I can well imagine how only a few generations ago it would be bustling with life and industry, at the forefront of industry and innovation.
Jesmond Dene

Forward-thinking, innovative and philanthropic, green champion and all-round polymath, I nominate Lord Armstrong as my first historical hero…now it’s your turn—who’s yours?