Celebrating the History of Science
and the Science behind History
During the Renaissance, French kings and queens built many palaces, in an area known as the Loire Valley. The royal family would travel from palace to palace to get away from Paris, the way you might head to a lake house. The Loire Valley is not very close to Paris. It’s about 110 miles from Paris to the palace of Chambord, for instance. I wondered how long it took sixteenth century travelers to make this journey—and why there were so many palaces.
First, the distance. Under the best of conditions (good roads, decent weather, level ground), humans can walk four miles per hour over long distances. Horses can’t do much better–maybe five mph—but a lot less if they’re pulling something or if roads are in awful condition. A horse can canter at 20 mph, but it can only do that for six to eight miles at a time, after which it will slow down and walk, or stop completely. So it would have taken a long time to get from place to place. Under the best conditions, a journey from Paris to Chambord would have taken three weeks.
But in fact, it took a lot longer than that. Because in the sixteenth century, the royal court didn’t just hop on a horse and head to their country home. They took everything and everyone with them, loading all the stuff onto the backs of horses and mules.
When Catherine de Medici was queen of France, she traveled with her ladies and gentlemen, foreign ambassadors, pet bears, servants, retainers, attendants, apothecaries, astrologists, tutors, musicians, cooking pots, food, clothing, portable triumphal arches, wall hangings, and furniture.
And the reason there were so many palaces is simply that the court in Renaissance times –thousands of people–had to move around from estate to estate so as to find new hunting grounds. Once they’d exhausted the food supply in the area, they moved on to the next estate. Also, the sanitation was dreadful. After thousands of people had taken up residence in and around a great estate for a few weeks, filth piled up, and with it, stench and disease.
The royal procession could be miles long. When Catherine de Medici’s court packed up and left for a new palace, the beginning of the royal caravan sometimes entered a town before those traveling at the back of it had left the last one.
Sara Albee's recent book is Why'd They Wear That?, published by National Geographic in 2015. Get ready to chuckle your way through centuries of fashion dos and don'ts! In this humorous and approachable narrative, you will learn about outrageous, politically-perilous, funky, disgusting, regrettable, and life-threatening creations people have worn throughout the course of human history, all the way up to the present day. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "Renaissance Road Trips." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/renaissance-road-trips.
You're too young to remember Laika, a stray dog from the Moscow streets, who became famous for becoming the first animal to orbit the earth. That was way back in 1957, when space exploration was taking off, and Russia was ahead of the game.
Laika wasn’t the first animal to fly—when the first free-flying hot-air balloon ever to carry living creatures was launched at Louis XVI’s magnificent chateau in Versailles in 1783, its passengers were a sheep, a duck, and a rooster.
Some 130,000 people watched as the multicolored balloon filled with hot air, stirred and rose, carrying a basket with the animals. The king was there, watching through field glasses. When the balloon came down a couple of miles away, he turned to one of its inventors, Etienne Montgolfier, and said, ”Magnifique! But now we must find out if the animals survived.”
They had. And proved to be in excellent condition. In a letter to his wife that evening, a triumphant Etienne playfully quoted the three as saying, “We feel fine. We’ve landed safely despite the wind. It’s given us an appetite.”
“That is all we could gather from the talk of the three animals,” Etienne continued, “seeing that we had neglected to teach them French, one could say only “Quack, Quack’; the other, ‘Cocka-a-doodle-do’; and the third, no doubt a member of the Lamb family, replied only ‘Baa’ to all our questions.”
Earlier, when the choice of animals was discussed, Joseph-Michel, his brother and co-inventor, had wanted a cow, as “that would create an extraordinary effect, far greater than that of a panicky sheep.”
A year before the brothers had experimented with a balloon made of fabric layered with paper. As hot air from a small fire filled the limp bag, it swelled into a bulging globe, thirty-five feet wide, and shot straight into the air, to a height of a thousand feet, and rode the currents for over a mile.
Thus was born the hot-air balloon.
After the successful flight of the sheep, the duck and the rooster, it was time for the first manned flight in a Montgolfier balloon. It took place in Paris. One of the spectators was Benjamin Franklin, America’s ambassador. When someone turned to him and said, “Oh what use is a balloon?” Franklin replied, “Sir, of what use is a newborn baby?”
Text and art copyright © by Roxie Munro 2014
Roxie has published a series of nine cool desktop fold-out KIWiStorybooks Jr., complete with a stand-up "play" figure and a free interactive app, loaded with great content, games, and activities, based upon the giant KIWi walk-in picture books.
Roxie Munro is a member of Authors on Call. You can learn more about her programs here.
MLA 8 Citation
Munro, Roxie. "Animals in Space." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 3 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/animals-in-space.
Two weeks before Halloween in 1944, a small jet fighter plane was parked on an Ohio airfield. The plane was wearing a kind of costume. It had fake propellers attached to the front of its wings. Was this jet getting dressed up so it could zoom off trick-or-treating at airports around the country?
Not exactly. Those fake propellers weren’t a Halloween prank. They were serious business, a disguise that the Army hoped would fool enemy spies.
Jet planes don’t use propellers, the spinning blades that give other aircraft the power to fly. A jet’s power comes from jet engines attached to the under side of its wings. A jet engine sucks in air and spins the air very fast inside the engine. The air is then mixed with gas fuel in the engine and an electric spark sets the gas-air mixture on fire. This burning mixture blasts out of the back of the engine with so much force that the plane can move forward and zoom up and away.
In 1944, World War II was still raging. For most of the war, military planes had been propeller planes, both for the United States and Britain, as well as for their enemies, Nazi Germany and Japan. Jet engines had only been invented a few years before the war began but weren’t used in military planes until early 1944, when Germany became the first country to use a jet fighter in battle.
The U.S. had built a jet plane—the XP-59A—but it was still being tested. In the fall of 1944, a version of this new jet, called the YP-59A, was shipped for testing to Wright Field, an Army aviation test center in Dayton, Ohio. To keep spies from finding out about the plane, it not only had fake propellers but also an armed soldier standing guard.
On October 14, 1944, test pilots took turns test-flying this jet at Wright Field, after the fake propellers were removed! They noted problems, so none of these U.S. jets were ever used in the war. But although the plane never made history winning any battles, one of the pilots testing it did make history that October day: 26-year-old Ann Baumgartner Carl. That day she became the first American woman to pilot a jet aircraft. She was one of the WASP pilots--Women Airforce Service Pilots—the first women’s unit to fly for the U.S military.
If you are interested in finding out more about the WASPS, Amy Nathan has written a book on the subject. Click here for more information.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "When a Jet Wore a Costume." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 28 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/when-a-jet-wore-a-costume.
When the United States was a baby nation, it had lots of wheel-busting wagon trails, but hardly any highways. Traveling was difficult—unless water was nearby. Then you could FLOAT yourself and your stuff to market. Rivers don't always flow where you want to go, so Americans did what ancient Egyptians and medieval Chinese and Europeans had done. They built CANALS, the BIG idea in America in the early 1800s, and none was more important than the famous Erie Canal.
On July 4, 1817, at tiny Rome, NY, the digging began. In the next eight years, thousands of men sweated, clearing woods, and digging miles of ditch, four feet deep, 40 feet wide! They built up a TOWPATH beside it for the animals, who'd pull the boats along, when the ditch was full of water. Inventive engineers built 83 LOCKS, too, in which the water moved up or down over the land, and 18 AQUEDUCTS (bridges to carry water over deep valleys).
Finally, early on October 26, 1825, at Buffalo, NY, a cannon BOOMED! Trumpets tootled! New York Governor DeWitt Clinton and his guests stepped onto their packet (or passenger) boat. A team of horses tossed their heads, eager to start. More horse-drawn packets waited to join the parade. Off they'd go, four smooth miles per hour, to Albany, seven days and 363 miles away, on the very first ride on the completed canal, the longest in the world.
People atop the flat-topped packets waved at the folks on the land. They watched out for low bridges—or else: splash! From Albany, the canal boats (minus the horses!) glided down the Hudson River, past dark hills sparkling with bonfires.
Bells rang and flags fluttered that November 4, 1825, as the packets passed Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. Then Governor Clinton emptied a keg of Lake Erie water into the harbor. Why? To show that the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean were connected and that Americans were connected to the world. In the next decades they'd build miles of canals— until their next BIG idea came chugging down the railroad track.
The wedding of the Great Lakes and Atlantic Ocean waters
Boats were pulled by horses walking along a towpath beside the canal.
Here's a treat for you. Cheryl Harness is not only an author, but she is also an illustrator. This is a spread from her book "The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal."
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Roads Made of Water." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 26 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/roads-made-of-water.
Nonfiction is the new black
In pro football’s early days, there was no set way of determining the league champion. In 1921, the Buffalo (New York) All-Americans had the best record (8-0-2) in the American Professional Football Association. Runners-up were the Chicago Staleys, named for team sponsor A.E. Staley Starch Company, with a 7-1 mark. (The team would become the Bears the following year.) The Staleys’ only blemish was a 7-6 loss to Buffalo on Thanksgiving Day.
Chicago player-owner George Halas lusted for revenge. He persuaded Buffalo owner Frank McNeil to travel to Chicago for a game the day after the All-Americans’ final game on December 3 in nearby Akron, Ohio. McNeil agreed, with one stipulation: the game would be an exhibition and not count in the final standings.
The Buffalo players took an overnight train to Chicago after a hard-fought triumph. Still recovering from the rigors of that game and lack of sleep, the All-Americans lost to the Staleys 10-7. Halas saw an opportunity. He quickly scheduled two more games with other teams, winning one and tying the other. In his eyes, the results of those additional games meant his team was now 9-1-1, while Buffalo was 9-1-2 (tie games didn’t figure in the standings). Despite the seeming identical records between the two teams, Halas appealed to the other owners. He said his team deserved the league title on two grounds: the second game between Chicago and Buffalo was more important than the first, and his team had outscored Buffalo 16–14 in their two contests.
The owners sided with Halas despite McNeil’s vehement protests that the second Chicago game was an exhibition. McNeil spent the rest of his life trying to overturn what he called the “Staley Swindle.” The league—now the National Football League (NFL)—decided that henceforth the season would have a definite ending date, though rejecting the idea of a championship game.
In 1932 Chicago and the Portsmouth Spartans had identical records. The NFL sanctioned a game between them to determine the champion. Chicago won 9-0. The game attracted so much interest that the NFL split into East and West divisions, with a playoff between the division winners to crown the champion. That playoff has continued to the present day (though adding several rounds to determine the finalists). Super Bowl Sunday has become so important in the United States that many people (not entirely jokingly) have suggested making it a national holiday.
Jim Whiting’s hometown team, the Seattle Seahawks, didn’t make it to the Superbowl this year, but you can still read about them in his book NFL Today The Story of the Seattle Seahawks. Click here to see the list of books Jim has written devoted to football teams and other sports.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "The Staley Swindle and the Super Bowl." Nonfiction Minute`, iNK
Think Tank, 2 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/