The Explainer General
Most disasters are a cascade: small failures and minor circumstances, one leading to another, blossom into a cataclysm. On January 16, 1919, a cascade of tremendous size was poised above Boston’s North End.
The weather was one factor: unusually warm for winter.
Purity Distilling Company fermented and distilled molasses to make rum and alcohol. The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, prohibiting sales of alcoholic beverages, was due to be passed the very next day. This may have prompted Purity to collect as much molasses as possible.
The enormous tank holding the molasses was about 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter, holding 2,300,000 gallons. It was poorly built of thin steel painted brown to hide its leaks. Local families often collected some of the dripping molasses to sweeten their food. The unseasonably warm temperature quickly rose from 2° F (-16.7° C) to 40° F (4.4° C), expanding the liquid, and natural fermentation produced CO2 increasing tank pressure.
Just after noon, North End families felt the ground shake and heard a sound like a machine gun— the tank’s rivets popping out. The big tank exploded, sending a 25-foot wall of molasses roaring down the hill toward Commercial Street at about 35 miles an hour. In front of the molasses went a blast of air that blew some folks off their porches and tumbled others along the street like rag dolls. Homes and buildings were destroyed, smashed from their foundations. Horses pulling wagons were swept away. The steel girders of the Boston Elevated Railway were buckled, knocking a rail-car off the tracks.
Twenty-one people were killed and more than a hundred were injured. Many were saved by Massachusetts Maritime Academy cadets who rushed off their docked training vessel and plunged into the brown goo to rescue people. It’s difficult to know how many dogs, cats and horses died.
As you can imagine, the clean-up was awful. Firehoses from hydrants and harbor fireboats washed away as much as possible. Boston Harbor was brown for months. Sightseers tracked the goo back to homes, into hotels, onto pay-phones and onto doorknobs. Everything Bostonians touched was sticky for months.
Some say that on a hot summer day along the North End’s docks, the sickly sweet smell of molasses lingers. Bostonians can smile at the Great Molasses Flood now, but in January of 1919, that cascade of disasters was deadly serious.
Jan Adkins is an author, an illustrator, and a superb storyteller. Read about him on his Amazon page. He is also a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "The Great Boston Molasses Flood: How Can a Tragedy Sound Funny?"
Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 19 Jan. 2018,
Nonfiction is the new black
In the early 1900s, becoming the first to reach the South Pole was a huge source of individual and national pride. English explorer Ernest Shackleton came within 97 miles of that goal in 1909 before being forced to turn back.
Fellow Englishman Robert Scott made well-publicized plans to succeed where Shackleton had failed. He was therefore dismayed to learn that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had his own secret plan to reach the Pole. Amundsen hadn’t even told his crew members where they were going until they were at sea.
The two expeditions landed in Antarctica at roughly the same time and spent months preparing for their respective treks. Amundsen departed on October 18, 1911. He was fortunate to encounter relatively good weather. On December 7, he passed the southernmost point Shackleton had reached. One week later, on December 14, he and his four men stood on the South Pole. Each man grasped the Norwegian flag. They celebrated in the evening with seal meat and cigars. Before returning, they erected a tent and put letters for Scott and Norwegian King Haakon inside. Amundsen and his men arrived back at their starting point in late January and sailed to Tasmania, where Amundsen sent a cable trumpeting his accomplishment. Even though the response was mostly favorable, some people in England thought Amundsen had played a dirty trick by being so secretive about his plans.
Meanwhile, Scott and his four men left from their base three weeks after Amundsen. They encountered some of the worst weather Antarctica could throw at them. Several times they had to stay in their tents for extended periods, eating valuable food. They finally arrived at the Pole on January 17, only to have their triumph replaced with bitter disappointment. They found Amundsen’s letters and knew they were five weeks too late.
Their difficulties worsened on the way back. Two men died from cold, hunger, and exhaustion. Scott and the two others made what proved to be their final camp on March 19, confined to their tent by horrific weather. They were about 10 miles from a food depot that would have ensured their survival, but couldn’t reach it. Searchers found their frozen bodies eight months later.
Amundsen died in 1928 in a plane crash during a rescue mission in the Arctic Ocean. Shortly before his death, he told a journalist, “If only you knew how splendid it is up here, that’s where I want to die.”
Aristotle discovered Antarctica nearly 2,500 years ago, though no one set foot on the continent until the 1800s. Exploration went into high gear several decades later during the Heroic Age. The peak came in 1911 when Norwegian Roald Amundsen reached the Pole, followed soon afterward by the tragic deaths of Englishman Robert Scott and four companions. This is one of many of Jim Whiting's books.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "To the Ends of the Earth." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 18
Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Sonora Webster of Georgia adored horses. At age five, she even tried to swap her baby brother for one. Alas, grownups disapproved. At age nineteen, in 1923, Sonora went to the Savannah fair. There she saw a huge, deep pool of water beside a tower as tall as a four-story building. High atop was a lady in a red swimsuit and circle of spotlight. At her signal, a gray horse pounded up the ramps. The lady jumped on. The horse tossed its snowy mane and tail, leaped into space, and down into the pool! Glittering sheets of water SPLASHED the shrieking crowd. After a breathless moment, the horse rocketed UP from the depths, made its way to the arena, and the smiling lady dismounted. How Sonora clapped and cheered— for that beautiful horse!
As it happened, the elderly showman who’d invented this amazing act needed extra ladies for his popular traveling shows. He advertised in the local paper:
“Likes horses?” THIS was the job for Sonora!
As a trainer, “Doc” Carver was tough, but so was Sonora. She learned how to dive with all five of Doc’s horses, all carefully trained and cared-for. (Veterinarians checked often to see that they were.) In time, she made countless dives— and fell for Doc’s son Al. They married. After Doc died, Al took over the act, starring Sonora and the magnificent diving horses.
Sonora met her day of destiny at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, New Jersey’s great amusement park, July 14, 1931. She hopped astride Red Lips, her favorite horse. “Red” leaped from the tower. And somehow, Sonora hit the water face first, in the instant before she closed her eyes. They stung, but how could she know that the water collision had loosened her eyeballs’ retinas? She didn’t! Soon, despite medical treatments, 27-year-old Sonora saw her vision fading away. Could she accept that her diving days were over? She wouldn’t! She might have lost her sight, but her love and trust for her brave horses? Never! They’d keep flying through the air together, thrilling and splashing audiences for the next eleven years.
Sonora Webster Carver told her story in her 1961 memoir, A Girl and Five Brave Horses, which inspired a 1991 film, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. She died at age 99, in 2003.
Because world-traveling sharpshooter, William Frank Carver had been a dentist, such friends as “Buffalo Bill” Cody called him “Doc.” Wikimedia
Sonora and her brave diving partner. Equine Inc.
An exciting day at Steel Pier, Atlantic City, N.J. NJ com
Cheryl Harness is an illustrator as well an author, as seen by her delightful poster-like illustrations in Women Daredevils by Julia Cummins. The book offers mini biographies of ten fascinating women who risked their lives in the late 1800s and early 1900s to entertain the public.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Splash!" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 17 Jan. 2018,
You’ve probably heard about Charles Lindbergh, the first pilot to fly across the Atlantic. But did you ever hear about Cal Rodgers?
Only eight years after the Wright brothers flew the first heavier-than-air machine, newspaper tycoon William Hearst offered a $50,000 prize to the first to fly across the continent in less than 30 days.
Although Cal Rodgers had just learned to fly, he was ready. “He’ll need every atom of courage..,” Wilbur Wright had said of any man who attempted to win the prize.
The nation had not a single airport, and there were no navigation aids or repair places. . To help him, a train carrying a second plane, spare parts, a crew of mechanics, Cal’s wife Mabel, his mother, and reporters was rented by a company producing a grape drink named Vin Fiz. In exchange, Cal named his airplane after it, and would scatter Vin Fiz promotional leaflets from the sky— the first aerial ad campaign.
On September 17, 1911, Cal took off from Brooklyn, made a sweep over Manhattan and headed for New Jersey, where the train, and an enormous crowd, was waiting.
The next morning, right after takeoff he tried to avoid some power lines, hit a tree, and plunged into a chicken coop. Feathers floated as he emerged from a tangle of wires, splintered wood, and torn fabric. Head bleeding, cigar clenched between his teeth, he muttered, “Oh, my beautiful airplane.”
They rebuilt the Vin Fiz, and a few days later he was again airborne. Stopovers were frequent, as were brushes with death. The plane struck telegraph wires; it piled into a barbed-wire fence (demolished again); and landing in Indiana, Cal was attacked by a bull. He became the first pilot to fly in a thunderstorm. But the Vin Fiz buzzed on.
When he reached Chicago, other contenders had dropped out. Cal realized that he wasn’t going to make it to the west coast in 30 days. But he pressed on…
To avoid the Rocky Mountains, he flew south over Texas, then west. By the time he reached California, after a dozen crashes, his plane had been rebuilt so often that little remained of the original.
A month later, after still another crash and in yet another rebuilt plane, he finally reached the Pacific, greeted by 50,000 spectators
Tragically, Cal’s luck ran out. A few months later, he flew into a flock of seagulls, and plunged to his death.
But he did it— he became the first pilot to fly across the American continent.
In eleven intricately drawn mazes, eight vehicles, each carrying a different product, are on their way to the city. Fish, apples, dairy products, corn, vegetables, flowers, eggs, and baked goods all travel through colorful and minutely detailed landscape mazes to reach the city farmer's market. Information on all of the products and their journeys is included, along with answers to all of the mazes. For additional fun, kids are challenged to look for objects hidden on each spread. For more information, on Roxie's Market Maze, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Munro, Roxie. "A Transcontinental First." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 22
Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
David M. Schwartz
The amazing, engaging, math exponent
Imagine Earth as a button. I don’t mean you’re going to sew it onto your shirt. But imagine the planet Earth shrunk to the size of a button. (Of course Earth is not flat like a button but we’re giving our shrunken Earth the same diameter as a shirt button.)
Go ahead and draw a circle around a shirt button. Call it “Earth.” Suppose you wanted to draw Jupiter, the largest planet, at the same scale as this micro-Earth. That means you’re going to shrink it to the same fraction of its original size as our button-Earth. What size would little Jupiter be?
One way to find out would be to calculate how many times bigger the real Jupiter is than the real Earth. Earth’s diameter is about 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers). Jupiter’s is about 88,000 miles (143,000 km). Divide the size of Jupiter by the size of Earth to see that Jupiter is about 11 times bigger.
So, since Jupiter’s diameter is 11 times that of Earth’s, put 11 buttons in a line to show the diameter of Jupiter. Then draw the circle that represents Jupiter. If you don’t have 11 buttons, just look at the picture. Did you think the Earth was a big place? Look at it compared with Jupiter!
But what about the sun? The sun’s diameter is about 865,000 miles (1,400,000 km). That means it’s almost 10 times bigger than Jupiter. Can you find a way to draw a circle 10 times the size of our Jupiter? We’ve drawn part of it for you, on the same scale as our button-sized Earth. On the picture, it’s labeled “our arc.” (An arc is part of a circle.) Looking at the arc, you can imagine the rest of the circle and compare the sun to Jupiter and Earth. A minute ago, you thought Jupiter was big. Now it looks shrimpy compared to the sun!
But is the sun really gigantic? Do some research to find out the size of a red giant star like the strangely named Betelguese (pronounced “beetle-juice.”) Figure out what it looks like compared to our sun, which is a medium-sized star. You may be amazed at the difference. And you thought the sun was big!
Is anything truly big? Is anything truly small? Or does that depend on what it’s being compared to?
Both images are by Marissa Moss, the illustrator of David M Schwartz's book, G is for Googol.
G is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book is a wonder-filled romp through the world of mathematics.
For more information, click here.
David Schwartz is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
Schwartz, David M. "If the Earth Were a Button." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 16 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/