The biggest bang in two thousand years was heard as far as sixteen hundred miles away. It happened in April of 1815, on the island of Sumbawa in the southwest Pacific Ocean, now part of Indonesia. Mount Tambora erupted in an immense volcanic explosion. Seventy-one thousand islanders were killed almost immediately. The big bang began a global cataclysm that sowed the broadest crop of human misery any single earthly event has yielded.
Tambora’s eruption hurled millions of tons of ash and sulfur high into the circulating jet-stream, cooling temperatures around the world. It delayed the monsoon rains that were supposed to sustain crops around the Indian Ocean. Floods followed drought along with a deadly surge in the water-borne disease, cholera: tens of millions died of it all along the Ocean’s shores and as far north as Moscow. As the shroud of ash spread north, China’s rice crop failed in cold weather: more millions died.
The volcano’s effects reached the higher latitudes of Europe in 1816. Crops were killed by hard frosts in spring and summer. The price of oats and wheat tripled, quadrupled. “Bread Riots” swept through the streets of British and European cities as starving farm families crowded the cities, looking for any kind of work.
In North America, hard frosts were recorded in every month of 1816. Late-sown seedling plants were killed as far south as Virginia, where retired President Thomas Jefferson’s crops were destroyed, plunging him into lifelong debt. Snow fell across New England on July 6, 1816, a foot deep in Quebec City, Canada. Steam railroad lines weren’t laid, yet, so grain couldn’t be brought from warmer southern fields. An exodus of failed northern farmers left family homes to populate those milder Midwest prairies. They called this year of famine and disappointment, “Eighteen Hundred and Froze-To-Death.”
While millions of the poor starved, wealthy classes of Europe were merely inconvenienced by Tambora’s weather. A privileged group joined the poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron to “summer” in Switzerland. Storms and cold drove them indoors where they competed to write the best “ghost story.” Percy’s wife Mary Shelley won with Frankenstein. Byron’s personal doctor, John Polidori, also wrote a humdinger: The Vampyre, which was adapted by Bram Stoker decades later as Dracula.
Tambora’s chilling effects lasted only three years. Our own challenge of global warming is building more slowly but could be even more troublesome. Tambora’s big bang taught us that we all share cataclysms and weather, even a world away.
The 1815 Tambora volcano produced an estimated thirty six cubic miles of exploded rock and ash which showered down in varying depths over land as far away as eight hundred miles to the northwest. But it was the debris that the jet stream carried over Asia, Europe and North America that earned 1816 the title "year without a summer." NASA
This photograph depicts the summit caldera of the Mount Tambora volcano more than a hundred years after its massive explosion. A collapse was triggered by the emptying of the magma chamber beneath the volcano as the result of the 1815 eruption. The volcano removed the mountain's estimated thirteen thousand-foot high peak leaving a hollow area 3.7 miles in diameter and thirty-six hundred feet deep. By Tisquesusa via Wikimedia Commons
Adkins' latest book is about the first drive in an automobile. The wife of the inventor took her kids to see their grandparents. Learn more about it here.
The author/illustrator 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.
You know how it is: old campfire stories, interesting things you’re doing or seeing or hearing about—they get all mixed up in your dreams and your stories. That’s how it was for Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. One night in 1816, in Switzerland, when there wasn’t anything on TV (because it wasn’t invented yet), she and her friends decided they’d each write a horror story. By combining her knowledge with the idea what if, 18-year-old Mary made up one about a monster. It’d turn out to be one of the most famous monsters ever.
These were some of the ideas that influenced Mary’s thinking:
Hmmm…I’ll bet you can guess now what story Mary wrote! In it, her character, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, gathered parts of dead people’s bodies in his laboratory. His experiment? He’d make a perfect person then bring it to LIFE with the power of lightning – and it worked! But – oh no! Dr. Frankenstein accidentally created a MONSTER! And then a lot of horrible things happened!
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was first published in 1818, never got very good reviews, but never mind. In the almost two centuries since she wrote it, Mary’s monster story has sparked the imaginations of playwrights, moviemakers, cartoonists, musicians, and Halloween costume-makers again and again and again.
It kind of makes you wonder about your own ideas and memories. What if you put them together in your imagination? You could spark a story into LIFE!
Cheryl Harness is not only a nonfiction author and an illustrator, but she has also written a novel called Just for You to Know. If you would like to read an excerpt from her book, click here.
The Explainer General
The real Dracula didn’t drink blood or sleep in a coffin. He was not a count but an honorable, well-educated warlord. And much, much scarier than the movie Dracula.
As a Knight of the Dragon Society his father, Vlad II, was called Dracul (“dragon”) . When Vlad III was born in 1431, he was called “little dragon,” Dracula. He was always loyal to his family, friends and to his people, but he was betrayed over and over, beginning with his father. Dracul gave Vlad and his brother Radu to the Turks as hostages—then attacked the Turks!
Wallachia (now part of Romania) was harried in the south by Turkish Moslems. In the north, Hungarian warlords schemed to take over. When the Turks killed his father, Dracula escaped to defend his country and his people.
His methods were rough. He punished offenses large and small by impaling. A long sharpened stake was pushed into the offender’s bottom, then raised upright. Death might come in an hour or in two days. He raised a forest of stakes with impaled offenders in a valley near his capital, Tirgoviste.
Messengers came from the Turks to demand tribute money. Dracula asked why they didn’t take off their turbans as a sign of respect. They said they never took off their turbans. Dracula made certain they didn’t. He had the turbans nailed onto the messengers’ skulls.
An enormous Turkish army attacked from the south. Dracula retreated wisely, seizing and impaling hundreds of the invaders’ stragglers. He made a fierce night attack on the sultan’s camp, killing thousands of Turks before he was beaten back. But when the Turks approached Tirgoviste they rode through a valley lined with 20,000 impaled corpses. The most recent victims were Turkish soldiers. The Turks were so scared that they turned back to home.
Dracula ruled for only seven years. His brother, Radu the Handsome had converted to Islam and swept into Wallachia with the Turks. Another betrayal. Dracula was defeated.
Was Dracula a fiend or a warrior sternly protecting his people from the invading Turks? We just don’t know. We can’t believe the grisly tales his enemies told about him. Best historical guess: Wallachians both loved and feared him. You can see that in an historic tale. Vlad Dracula placed a fabulous goblet at a fountain in Tirgoviste. Any citizen could drink from the golden vessel. It was never stolen. They were too afraid.
Jan Adkin's DK Biography: Thomas Edison tells the story of the famous inventor, from his childhood as an "addled" student, to his reign as the "Wizard of Menlo Park," where he developed the electric light bulb, the phonograph, and many other inventions still in use today. For more information on the book, click here.
Teaching the Power of Wonder
Long before we celebrated Halloween, Celtic people in the British Isles honored the dead during Samhain (which we pronounce “SOW-ren”). Some scholars think that Samhain was a Celtic version of New Year’s Eve. It was a holiday filled with ritual. Folks believed that in late fall, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its very thinnest.
To light their way at this dark time of year, they carved out vegetables, and popped glowing coals inside. A popular choice was the humble turnip, which they grew, cooked, and ate, of course.
Why turnips, you may ask? Think! Pumpkins didn’t grow in Europe—they are a New World vegetable. In fact, an old drawing shows how Indians in Virginia grew pumpkins in their villages in the late 1500s.
Why not give turnip carving a try? Order big ones at your farm market. When you first bring them home, they might be hard as rocks. Let them sit out in the open for several days until they soften up a bit.
To carve yourself some examples of the original “jack-o-lantern,” grab the turnips, some tea lights, a small knife, and a pointy spoon. Hold the turnip root tip up. Use a marker to draw the circle for the lid. Then trace or draw eyes, nose, mouth—whatever you’d like.
Now be sure there’s an adult to help you! Use the knife to carve around the circle. Remove the top of the turnip and set it aside. That’s your lid. Use the spoon to scoop out the turnip just like a pumpkin. Be sure to leave a nice thick wall. Then pierce the turnip with your knife and gently carve out the features.
Pop the tea light inside. Find a dark spot. Have the grownup help you light the wick and… LET IT GLOW!
Today, folks grow pumpkins in the Old World, so kids all over Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales carve jack-o-lanterns just like you do. Turnips are out….unless you want to feed the cows.
Kerrie Hollihan's biography of Isaac Newton sheds light on a lot of ideas people thought were mysterious. If you liked the turnip activity, there are lots more in this book.
Kerrie Hollihan is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through FieldTripZoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
Celebrating the History of Science and the Science behind History
Diego Velazquez (1599 – 1660) was a famous Spanish painter. He had a slave named Juan de Pareja (1606 – 1670). Call him an indentured servant if you want, but it’s more accurate to say he was Velazquez's slave, as he was not at liberty to leave. For years, Pareja prepared brushes, ground pigments, and stretched canvasses for the artist. While he was at it, Pareja observed his master carefully, and secretly taught himself how to use the materials, and how to paint.
Pareja was referred to as a Morisco in Spanish. One way to translate the word is that he had mixed parentage (the offspring of a European Spaniard and a person of African descent). Another way to translate the word is that he was a Moor—someone descended from Muslims who had remained in Spain after its conquest by Ferdinand and Isabella.
In 1650, Velazquez was preparing to paint a portrait of Pope Innocent X. As practice, he painted Pareja, who had accompanied the artist to Italy. Here is the portrait.
It's a pretty amazing picture, isn't it?
Velazquez got all sorts of praise for it from the artists in Rome—he was even elected into the Academy of St. Luke.
According to some sources, Velazquez would not allow Pareja to pick up a paintbrush. But one day, when King Philip IV was due to visit Velazquez, Pareja placed one of his own paintings where the king would see it. When the king admired it, believing it to be by Velazquez, Pareja threw himself at the king’s feet and begged for the King to intercede for him. Whether or not that story is true, Pareja did become an accomplished painter, and impressed the king so much that he ordered Pareja freed.
Pareja remained with the Velazquez family until his death.
It was hard to find examples of his paintings, but here are two that are attributed to him.
Sarah Albee's latest book is Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions and Murderous Medicines. You can read a review that gives you a dose of what's in this book.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "The Painter Was a Slave." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 25 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/the-painter-was-a-slave.