Before the Civil War, the United States was cut into three pieces: the east, far west California, and the middle piece. The middle was a problem. The “Great American Desert” west of the Mississippi was an enormous sea of grass with only a few rivers in the north, and the brutal Mojave (mo HAH vee) Desert in the south. West-bound wagon trains formed up in Missouri and rumbled for months across the dry prairie and wicked mountains. Folks in a hurry took Clipper ships from the East Coast, south around Cape Horn, and up to San Francisco—a miserable 3- to 5-month sea journey, and expensive ($100 to $300 then, $3000 to $9000 today).
A letter from Boston could take a year to arrive at San Francisco. Until the Pony Express! Businessmen in St. Joseph, Missouri, created fast east-west postal service to California. They invented a kind of relay race, positioning about 400 tough little horses (ponies) at 186 “swing stations” along the route.
Pony Express riders were special. An Express recruiting ad is apocryphal (never proven) but describes them well: “Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”
Each rider was given the precious mochilla, a kind of sit-on saddlebag with four pockets holding the letters. He would ride hard for 10 to 25 miles between stations, where he would jump off one horse, throw the mochilla across a fresh horse’s saddle, and gallop away. Each rider covered 80 to 100 miles before he was replaced by the next rider. The exhausted pony-boy would eat and sleep at the station, then take the next day’s ride going the opposite direction. They faced enormous dangers with nothing but a water bag and a pistol.
Pony Express charged $5 for a half-ounce letter (more than $130 today), but it arrived in 10 or 11 days! The Express was celebrated as a first step toward uniting far west California with the eastern states.
The pony boys rode for only 19 months. On October 24, 1861, the first transcontinental telegraph line reached Salt Lake City, Utah, where existing lines ran to Sacramento and San Francisco. The Pony Express closed for business two days later. It had carried 35,000 letters but it was a financial disaster, losing $110,000 (about $3 million today) . Yet the heroic image of those young, wiry pony boys still seems fresh.
This illustrated map of the Pony Express mail route in 1860 was drawn by William Henry Jackson.
by William Henry Jackson
~ Courtesy the Library of Congress ~
The Pony Express mail route, April 3, 1860 – October 24, 1861; Reproduction of Jackson illustration issued to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Pony Express founding on April 3, 1960. Reproduction of Jackson's map issued by the Union Pacific Railroad Company.
Adkins new 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.
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. "A Brief Flicker of Glory." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 13
June 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
The Explainer General
On May 24, 1883, The Brooklyn Bridge was opened to the public. It took 14 years, $15 million and many lives to link Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Before work was begun, its designer, John A. Roebling, was making final surveys of the site. A docking ferryboat nudged a piling near him, driving a dirty nail into his foot. He died of tetanus 24 days later. His son, Washington Roebling took over the engineering project.
To sink the bridge tower foundations down to bedrock, workers excavated river silt inside two open-bottomed 3000 ton iron bases, caissons. High-pressure air pumps kept river water out. As the caissons were dug deeper beneath the river surface, air pressure grew higher; work became more dangerous. When they were digging near seventy feet deep, a few workers walked through the caisson air-lock at the surface, across the street to the tavern, and dropped down dead. The cause: nitrogen embolism—gas dissolved in blood under high pressure expanding rapidly at normal pressure. Scuba divers call it “the bends.” Washington Roebling, himself, was crippled this way but monitored the project through a telescope from his bed upriver. His brilliant wife, Emily Warren Roebling, managed construction on-site. Twenty to 30 bridge workers were killed in construction from nitrogen embolism, being struck by falling material, and by falls from the towers.
It was the longest suspension bridge in the world, with a river-span of 1595.5 feet. Anyone could cross: 1¢ for a pedestrian, 5¢ for a horse and rider, 10¢ for a horse and wagon, 5¢ for cows, 2¢ for sheep or hogs.
Only six days after its opening, the bridge was crowded with walkers when a rumor started that the bridge was collapsing! Strollers stampeded, killing 12, injuring 35 in the panic. Was the great bridge safe?
Months later, May 17, 1884, the great huckster and self-promoter P. T. Barnum set out to prove the solidity of the bridge “in the interest of the dear public.” Across the broad bridge paraded 21 elephants with Barnum’s famous African elephant Jumbo in the rear. They were followed by seven Bactrian camels (two-hump) and ten dromedaries (one-hump). Since elephant and camel fares had never been specified, no tolls were paid. The New York Times reported “…it seemed as if Noah’s Ark were emptying itself over on Long Island.”
If any doubts remained, Barnum’s ballyhoo proof put them to rest.
The story of how Jumbo was brought from Africa to the United States is a fascinating one -- Google it. In the meantime, you might want to have a look at Jan Adkin's fascinating description of how people often have to use brains rather than brawn to move heavy items.
Jan 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. "Proof Positive: Ballyhoo Confirms the Safety of the Brooklyn
Bridge." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 7 June 2018,
Russian pilot Marina Raskova was famous for her long-distance flying records. In WW II, she gathered the Soviet Army’s first female pilots into the 588th Women’s Night Bombardment Regiment. They wore hand-me-down pilots’ uniforms and, even worse, they had to cut their long hair to a regulation two inches.
Major Raskova worried about her girls. “Don’t you know the Germans will shoot at you?” she asked her new regiment. A woman yelled from the back, “Not if we shoot them first, Major Raskova!”
They flew Polikarpov U-2’s, fabric-covered wood and wire biplanes. The only way they could carry a load of six 50 pound bombs was to leave the weight of their parachutes behind.
They attacked in threes, cutting their engines and gliding down over German camps before dropping the bombs, only restarting their engines to head for home. The sleepless ground soldiers were especially upset when they learned that they were being bombed by women! The gliding whoosh just before the bombs reminded Germans of broom-sweeping, so they called them Nachthexen, “night witches.”
A German captain said, “We simply couldn't grasp that the Soviet airmen that caused us the greatest trouble were in fact women. These women feared nothing. They … wouldn't give us any sleep at all.”
The Luftwaffe was ordered to shoot the Night Witches down. Not easily done. The PoU2s flew slower than German fighters could fly without crashing. The cloth-and-wood biplanes didn’t appear clearly on radar, and they could maneuver more quickly than fast fighters.
Ground troops surrounded their camps with searchlights and antiaircraft cannon but the Witches outwitted them. Two PoU2s roared in under power to attract the searchlights and cannon, then separated, turning and jinking to escape, while the third biplane glided in quietly— bombs away! The Witches would join up and switch places until all three Witches had dropped their loads. They were persistent witches: they sometimes flew 18 missions every night.
Twenty-three of the brave women of the 588th received the USSR’s highest medal: Hero of the Soviet Union. A more tender award of flowers was given to them by admiring Free French pilots who flew from their airfields. The French pilots said:
Even if it were possible to gather and place at your feet all the flowers on earth, this would not constitute sufficient tribute to your valour
Jan Adkins is a superb storyteller as well as a talented illustrator and he is now available for classroom visits throughout the country. He is a member of INK's Authors on Call which uses Field Trip Zoom, a technology that requires only a computer, wifi, a webcam, and a roomful of enthusiastic children. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "The Night Witches: Dangerous Women." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 24 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
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/
Since he was a boy, John Collins has been fascinated by paper airplanes. Who isn’t? Most of us have folded the familiar dart-shaped classroom airplane. Good fun. And it’s science.
Big and small aircraft depend on the same four principles: weight (of the craft), drag (wind resistance over the craft), lift (upward force from air passing over the craft’s flight surfaces), and thrust (what pushes the craft). A 747 Jumbo Jet and a paper airplane depend on the same forces.
Collins wanted to fold this aeroscience into paper. But how to build (fold) complex principles into something so small?
He found the ancient Japanese art of origami and used its sculptural tricks. He created paper aircraft that do astonishing things. One comes back in a horizontal circle, like a boomerang. Another flies up, turns over and comes back vertically. One actually flaps its wings as it glides slowly. To John, they’re all working science experiments: every flight leads to some knowledge and to new ideas for tweaking the aircraft so it flies better.
John Collins became “The Paper Airplane Guy.” He believes that scientific research happens everywhere, every day. He says, “It doesn’t take computers, lab coats, microscopes and the like. It takes a hunger to know. Science is just the structured way we find stuff out. The science you can do with a simple sheet of paper is no less important than what can be done with an electron microscope.”
On February 26, 2012, John and Joe Ayoob stood in a big, windless aircraft hangar with John’s best-so-far flyer, Suzanne. (He named it after his wife.) Joe was a professional football quarterback who learned to throw Suzanne hard but steady, not like a football but like a delicate piece of origami. Joe threw Suzanne up, up, and it dived down to fly – really fly – 226 feet and 10 inches, the Guinness World Record for distance thrown.
John wanted paper airplanes to welcome young people into science. He started a National Paper Airplane Contest called the Kickstarter Project with a big prize for anyone who throws Suzanne farther than Joe. Or you could throw your own better, more aeronautically elegant paper airplane. It was a simple, scientific task. Every paper airplane and every flight would be a new experiment, just as important as the Wright Brothers’ Kittyhawk flight. Science isn’t just geeks and labs; we’re all part of it. The project didn’t get support and ended. John would like to direct people to www.TheNationalPaperAirplaneContest.com. Air and Science museums across the country will be hosting events. The museums get three Fly for Fun Days; STEM education days that teach basic flight concepts and skills for the national contest.
Jan 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. "Flat Paper Flight." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 9 Apr.