Stories that Surprise and Inspire
What do the words on this list have in common?
Hint: They describe an amusement park attraction that goes round and round.
As you probably guessed, they’re names people have used for a ride you may call a merry-go-round or carousel. No matter their names, these rides have roots in the days of knights in shining armor.
Nearly a thousand years ago, European knights traveled to the Middle East to fight in the Crusades. They saw Turkish and Arabian fighters training in an unusual way: galloping on horseback in a circle while tossing balls to each other, to become more skilled horsemen. European knights named this a “carosella,” an old Spanish word for “little war.” When they returned home, they began having “carosella” contests as part of their tournaments. The French called these contests “carrousels.”
By the 1600s, carrousel contests changed to having knights use a long lance to spear a metal ring dangling from a tree or post overhead. In the late 1600s, some young French knights began using pretend carrousels to practice ring-spearing. Wooden horses or small chariots—arranged in a circle—were raised up in the air, attached by strong chains to wooden bars jutting out near the top of a tall pole in the center of the circle. Men on the ground (or a real horse) would pull the wooden horses so they would circle around the pole, as riders practiced spearing rings dangling from above.
By the 1700s, rides like this started being built just for fun, not as knight training. They became popular in Europe and really took off in the United States in the late 1800s when newly invented steam engines began powering them. These engines provided much more power than a worker or horse could. So bigger carousels with more wooden animals could be built. No longer suspended in midair, the animals were attached to round wooden platforms.
Most merry-go-rounds today are powered by electricity, not steam engines. Many carousel animals created now are made of aluminum or fiberglass, but some are still carved from wood. Of the more than 350 carousels operating in the U.S., more than 200 are old-time classics with wooden animals. A few carousels even let riders try to snag an overhead ring as they circle round and round.
Click here for a listing of carousels in the U.S. today.
Sources for this article may be found on the author's website
Amy Nathan is the author of Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round into the Civil Rights Movement, which tells the surprising civil rights history behind one of the classic wooden merry-go-rounds that still offer rides every day—the Carousel on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "Knight Time Fun." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 18 May 2018,
On November 3, 1957, a tiny capsule rocketed into space. Inside was a diminutive, 14-pound, black and white dog named Laika. And when her spaceship pierced the Earth’s atmosphere, she became the first creature in history to make it to outer space. No small feat for a stray that only days before had been fighting for scraps on the streets of Moscow!
Laika’s unlikely journey was borne out of the race to prove that human spaceflight was possible. Just a month earlier, on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union—Cold War nemesis of the United States—launched into orbit history’s first satellite, Sputnik 1. That’s when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev insisted that his scientists perform a second test—this time to determine if a living being could survive the journey to the stars.
The mission was too dangerous to risk a human life, so the Soviets decided to train a stray dog to be Russia’s first cosmonaut. Nine days before the scheduled launch, they chose Laika for her gentle disposition and natural beauty. If she was to make history, they reasoned, she would need to be photogenic.
Laika did make history. Monitors followed the sound of her tiny beating heart all the way into Earth’s orbit. But there was a problem: the Soviets had not worked out how to get Laika back. She perished, circling the earth, most likely from the profound heat created by the capsule’s firing rockets.
Laika’s journey sparked not one but two historic advances: the era of human space exploration, and the animal rights movement, particularly in scientific testing. She became a global folk hero. Her sacrifice inspired poems and novels. She was featured on stamps and coins, and memorialized in a Moscow statue. Her fame ensured that going forward efforts would be made to protect the lives of canine cosmonauts.
Sure enough, on August 19, 1960, two more Moscow strays, Belka and Strelka, became the first living creatures to make the round trip to space.
Laika the Soviet Space Dog will always be remembered as the first living being to boldly go where no one had gone before. Laika was a pioneer for humanity.
Sarah Towle is an award-winning digital storyteller of immersive tales for educational tourism. With her latest project for secondary school students—the History Hero BLAST—she puts the Story back in History, bringing a fictional flair to factual tales of inspirational figures from around the world and throughout time. A blog and future podcast, the HHBLAST welcomes the participation of published and aspiring authors, including young writers. Click here to find out more about how to bring the HHBLAST—and Sarah—to your school!
The Explainer General
For us “Doodlebug” is a name for a “roly-poly” or “pill bug.” During World War II, however, it meant a flying bomb. Putting a silly name on such a wicked object was characteristic of Britain’s plucky humor during a devastating war.
Adolph Hitler gave it an official name: Vergeltungwaffe 1 or the V1, “first vengeance weapon.” It was also called the buzz bomb, because it was powered by a pulse jet with metal shutters that opened and closed over its intake fifty times a second to direct the force of its jet-fuel combustion to the rear. This noisy but simple jet engine made a loud, stuttering buzz. You could hear a buzz bomb 10 miles away, and you hoped to keep hearing that buzz as it passed overhead. Attached to the nose of the buzz bomb’s body was a propeller that measured the miles it had traveled. Once the mile counter reached a preset distance, the engine stopped. That was the worst sound: sudden silence. It meant that the doodlebug was plunging to earth near you carrying almost a ton of high explosive.
A doodle bug was only about 26 feet long. The body and engine were metal, the stubby wings were mostly plywood. They were cheap to build; they didn’t put a German pilot at risk. In war terms, they were a bargain.
Doodlebugs were also fast, about 400 miles an hour. Most airplanes couldn’t catch them. Even when the fastest fighters closed in on a buzz bomb, bringing it down wasn’t easy. Machine gun slugs bounced off the sleek metal body. Fighters with cannons were effective but the ton of explosive in the doodlebug could destroy the fighter if it got too close.
Intrepid fighter pilots found another way. They flew right beside the flying bomb and slipped the tip of their wing under the doodlebug’s wing. Airflow over the fighter’s wing flipped the V-1 over in a roll from which its autopilot couldn’t recover. Hundreds of doodlebugs crashed into fields far short of London.
With Britain’s improved anti-aircraft shells and enormous lines of anti-aircraft cannon, most of the doodlebugs launched from the European coast were shot down but they still kept coming. Before Allied forces stopped the bombs in late 1944, more than 8,000 had hurtled toward England, damaging more than 1,125,000 buildings in London, and killing almost 23,000 Britons.
Jan Adkins is excited by things tiny and by enormous concepts. He’s published about forty-five books but they seem to be only excuses to find new stories and learn new facts. He’s been called “The Explainer General” because most of his work unsnarls complicated knots of confusion and re-builds them as simple paths to understanding. He explains bright bits of the world in pictures and words, often to young people. He’s written about sandcastles, bridges, pirates, knights, cowboys, maps, sailing, knots, coal, oil and gold. He’s got a long list of things he still wants to figure out and explain. Adkins (this is what his grandsons call him) believes real history and real science are ten or twelve times cooler than fairy tales and magic.
Adkins 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.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "Doodlebugs: Evil Robots in the Skies." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 10 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
The Running Encyclopedia
Nearly everyone is familiar with Thomas Edison, born [February 11] day in 1847.
When Thomas started school, his teacher called him “addled,” and he soon dropped out. His mother home-schooled him for several years. He began his entrepreneurial career when he was 12, publishing his own newspaper and selling it on the train. A few years later, he became a telegrapher and started tinkering in his spare time. He made many improvements to telegraphy and eventually turned to inventing full-time in his New Jersey workshop.
He was amazingly persistent. He explained that “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work,” and “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” As a result of his persistence, he received more than 2,000 patents worldwide. These patents included the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and the movie camera. He became one of the most famous Americans of his era. When he died in 1931, light bulbs around the world were briefly dimmed or turned off.
There’s another, lesser-known side of Edison however. He was a ruthless businessman. One of the most notable examples involved the movie camera. Soon after inventing it, he established a company called Edison Studios in New Jersey. The building was set on rollers to follow the sun’s path across the sky. In 1894, his 5-second film “Fred Ott’s Sneeze” became the first-ever copyrighted motion picture. Audiences loved this new technology and flocked to theatres. To meet the demand, many other small moviemaking companies sprang up.
Edison hated the competition. In 1898, he began filing lawsuits to force them out of business. When that didn’t work, he organized the Motion Picture Patents Company, a group of 10 film companies headed by Edison Studios. The Patents Company continued the court battles. Presumably with Edison’s approval, it sometimes hired thugs who broke into rival studios and ransacked them.
Not surprisingly, many of Edison’s victims wanted to get as far away as they could. They headed for southern California, on the other side of the country. Side benefits were generally better weather that allowed year-round filming, a variety of terrain features, and cheap land and labor. Many of the newcomers established their offices in a tiny village near Los Angeles called Hollywood—the name now synonymous with the movie industry.
Click! The lights come on, and it seems like the most natural thing in the world. But without science, you’d be left in the dark. Jim Whiting's The Science of Lighting a City takes a closer look at the amazing places that Edison's invention of the light bulb has led.
Whiting, Jim. "Thomas Edison: Cutthroat Businessman." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 21 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature’s Animal Ambassador
The question “how smart are animals?” has puzzled many people for generations. Scientist Irene Pepperberg became intrigued with this problem after viewing NOVA TV programs about communication studies in apes and dolphins. Trained as a chemist, Irene decided then and there that her true passion was actually animal intelligence, not chemistry.
Irene plunged into learning what was already known and the revolutionary ideas of scientists who were changing how people thought about animals. At that time, in the early 1970s, people thought that animals didn’t think and make decisions but merely responded moment by moment to their environments. But researchers working with apes and dolphins were overturning that concept and showing that indeed, animals could think, solve problems, and act intelligently about what they had learned.
What about birds, Irene wondered? She had kept pet parakeets and knew they were smart and could learn to speak at least a few words. . She decided to study an African Grey parrot, a popular pet that can learn to pronounce words especially well.
She bought a young parrot, named him Alex, and got to work. To probe Alex’s mind, Irene needed to teach him to use words to describe his world. This took long, patient training. After a few years Alex could name objects and foods, such as a key, a piece of wood, or a banana. He also learned several colors, and soon could label an object by both its label and color, such as identifying “green key” or “yellow corn.” He learned to distinguish whether an object was made of wood, paper, or rawhide, and could distinguish shapes such as “three-cornered” or “four-corner.”
Alex also used his vocabulary to express his own desires. In the middle of an experimental session he might say “Want nut,” or “Wanna go shoulder.”
As the years passed, Alex kept learning. If Irene presented him with a tray of items of different numbers and colors—say 2 green keys, 4 blue keys, and 6 red keys—he could correctly answer the question “What color four?”
By the time he died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2007, Alex had learned more than 100 labels and showed understanding of many concepts. When people asked Irene why Alex was special, she’d reply, “Because a bird with a brain the size of a shelled walnut could do the kinds of things that young children do. And that changed our perception of what we mean by ‘bird brain.’ It changed the way we think about animal thinking.”
Alex isn't the only bird Dorothy has written about. This book explores a University of Montana research project using blood samples from osprey chicks to investigate the effects of heavy metal refuse from mining on the ecology of the Clark Fork River.
To learn more about The Call of the Osprey, go here.
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent 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.
MLA 8 Citation
Patent, Dorothy Hinshaw. "Alex the Parrot, a Real Bird Brain." Nonfiction
Minute, iNK Think Tank, 15 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
The NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Committee is pleased to inform you
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