Archive for the History Category

R.I.P. Clive Sinclair (1940-2021)

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , , , , , on September 17, 2021 by telescoper
Clive Sinclair, with the Sinclair C5

I heard last night of the death at the age of 81 of (Sir) Clive Sinclair. The news brought back a flood of memories.

I am of a generation that began secondary school (a grammar school in my case) before pocket calculators were generally available, so my first two years of secondary mathematics education including learning how to logarithms for multiplying and dividing numbers. After that, from the third year onwards, slide rules were in use but by the time I got I got into the 3rd form these had been phased out and replaced with electronic calculators. The first commercially available such device was produced by Sinclair. I didn’t like the Sinclair calculator, however, which had a reputation for unreliability so my first simple calculator was a Casio machine which, if I recall correctly was also cheaper. Later on when I wanted a more advanced calculator I went for the wonderful Hewlett Packard HP32E, complete with Reverse Polish Notation.

I got interested in computing at school too. The machines we had available were Commodore PET machines running BASIC. The first computer I ever had at home was the very simple Acorn System 1 which had just 1K of RAM, a hexadecimal keypad and LED display and was programmed in 6502 Assembly language. Curiously, although I have great difficulty remembering my own phone number, I can still remember quite a lot of the 6502 instruction set!

The Acorn System 1 went into production in 1979 but just a year later Sinclair introduced the ZX80. Although very limited by today’s standards, it was really much more advanced than the machine I had. It did, however, have a reputation for unreliability and it was actually quite difficult to get hold of one due to supply issues. A friend at school bought one, but it seemed to me flimsy and awkward to use, so I never bought one. Nor did I buy the successor the ZX81.

Because I had experience using machines based on the 6502 processor I thought I would buy a BBC micro when they came out as I used to enjoy bypassing the BASIC interpreter on the Commodore PET and running my own machine code. In 1982, however, Sinclair released the ZX Spectrum. This again was very limited by today’s standards but was a significant improvement on its predecessors, so I bought one. I took it with me to Cambridge when I began as a student there in 1982.

I remember also buying various peripherals for it, including a dreadful printer that required rolls of special paper.

The ZX Spectrum was a great success but soon other companies took over the market. It seemed to be in Sinclair’s character to invent things and then lose interest and he subsequently switched his attention to other inventions, many of which flopped, such as the ridiculously impractical Sinclair C5 which launched in 1985 and sank shortly afterwards. He never seemed to let such failures bother him too much, though, which is to his credit, and he didn’t seem to mind being ribbed about them either. Here he is on Clive Anderson Talks Back:

Despite his failures it seems very clear to me that Clive Sinclair was a pioneer in the technological revolution who played a major role in shaping the digital landscape in which we find ourselves today, forty years after the first home computers. My washing machine has much more CPU power than any of the 1980s home computers, but you have to start somewhere.

Rest in Peace, Clive Sinclair (1940-2021).

Attica Blues

Posted in History, Jazz, Music with tags , , on September 9, 2021 by telescoper

I was reminded just now that today marks the 50th anniversary of the Attica Prison Rebellion, the bloodiest prison riot in American history which began on 9th September 1971 as a protest against poor living conditions in the Attica “correctional facility” in New York state. Four days of violence ensued that ended in the deaths of 32 inmates and 11 prison officers, along with scores of wounded.

That episode inspired a brilliant album by Archie Shepp, which I have on LP (above), which is dedicated to George Jackson, a leading member of the Black Panthers who was shot dead while attempting to escape from San Quentin prison in California in August 1971, an event which contributed to the tensions in Attica prison that led to the riot a few weeks later.

Musically, the album is a fusion of soul, funk and avant-garde Jazz, the arrangements incorporating strings and vocals alongside the jazz soloists. The sound is absolutely redolent of the early 70s. Here’s the title track, Attica Blues:

The Irish Population

Posted in Art, History, Politics, Television with tags , , , , on August 31, 2021 by telescoper

Not long ago I did a post about a documentary series called The Hunger which was broadcast on RTÉ just before Christmas. It was, of course, about the Great Irish Famine, which led to the death of one million (mainly poor) Irish people and the emigration of over two million in the subsequent years. It was a shattering episode that altered Ireland for ever. I remarked at the time that “the population of this island still hasn’t recovered to pre-Famine levels”.

Well today saw the announcement of a significant milestone in the trajectory of Ireland’s population. According to the Central Statistics Office, in April 2021 the population of the Republic of Ireland exceeded 5 Million for the first time since 1851. To be precise Ireland’s population was estimated to be 5.01 million in April 2021, which is the first time the population has risen above five million since the 1851 census, when the comparable population was 5.11 million. By “comparable” I mean the population of the 26 Counties that now constitute the Republic of Ireland.

The total population on the island of Ireland in 1851 was 6.6 million. Including the population of Northern Ireland brings the current population on the island of Ireland to about 6.9 million. The population of Ireland (ie the whole island) in 1841 was over eight million.

The following (rather old) graphic shows that catastrophic drop that was an immediate consequence of the Great Hunger but also the long period of decline caused by emigration and poor public health leading to low levels of fertility. The population did not begin to grow significantly until the 1970s.

Although the population is still nowhere near the level it reached in 1841, Ireland is in the grip of a housing shortage that the present Government seems reluctant to do anything about, not surprisingly when you realize that the present Government represents the property-owning classes in whose interests it is to keep housing scarce and rents correspondingly high. Ireland’s housing crisis is not an accident, it’s a matter of policy. Irish landlords oppressing the poorer classes and exploiting them for monetary gain. Some things haven’t changed…

It fascinates me that, with political will, human societies have made enormous changes – including financial interventions, inventing new vaccines and delivering mass vaccination programmes – to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Poverty and homelessness do not require new inventions – we already know very well how to build houses – only the political will is needed, and that’s just not there.

The Old Man of Killeaney

Posted in History, Maynooth with tags , , , on August 28, 2021 by telescoper

I stumbled across this remarkable little clip completely by accident and thought I would share it here. It is part of an interview, broadcast in 1965, with a retired farmer by the name of Michael Fitzpatrick who was 107 when the interview was recorded. Mr Fitzpatrick was born in County Clare but moved to Killeaney, a townland just a couple of miles north of Maynooth, in 1940.

He would have been in his eighties in 1940 and moved as a result of a Land Commission scheme. I guess he moved with his family who would have run the farm and looked after him in his retirement.

He talks about the infamous Bodyke Evictions, which took place in the late 1880s, and which he witnessed personally. It’s amazing to imagine what those old eyes had seen in his lifetime, not only the cruelty and brutality of the system of land ownership in Ireland through the latter half of the 19th Century, the War of Independence and the Civil War of the 1920s, but also the dramatic changes in farming he mentions. Michael Fitzpatrick passed away a couple of years after this interview, at the age of 109.

I posted this in the local history Facebook page for Maynooth and it seems there are people who remember Michael Fitzpatrick and that his grandson, also named Michael, passed away recently after a long life of his own.

On Lúnasa

Posted in Biographical, Education, History, Maynooth on August 1, 2021 by telescoper

It’s the first of August which means it is the ancient Celtic festival of Lughnasadh (which, in modern Irish, is Lúnasa). This coincides with the English Lammas Day one of many Christian festivals which have pagan origins. Traditionally 1st August marks the start of the harvest season and is celebrated accordingly, with rites involving the first fruit and bread baked from flour obtained from the first corn.

Tomorrow being the first Monday in August it is a Bank Holiday in Ireland called Lá Saoire i mí Lúnasa. This holiday was created by the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 when Ireland was under British rule. While the holiday was subsequently moved to the end of August in England and Wales it has remained at the start of August in Ireland, which is a far better place for it in my opinion.

In the Northern hemisphere, from an astronomical point of view, the solar year is defined by the two solstices (summer, around June 21st and winter, around December 21st) and the equinoxes (spring, around March 21st, and Autumn, around September 21st). These four events divide the year into four roughly equal parts of about 13 weeks each.

Now, if you divide each of these intervals in two you divide the year into eight pieces of six and a bit weeks each. The dates midway between the astronomical events mentioned above are (roughly) :

  • 1st February: Imbolc (Candlemas)
  • 1st May: Beltane (Mayday)
  • 1st August: Lughnasadh (Lammas)
  • 1st November: Samhain (All Saints Day)

The names I’ve added are taken from the Celtic/neo-Pagan (and Christian terms) for these cross-quarter days. These timings are rough because the dates of the equinoxes and solstices vary from year to year. Imbolc is often taken to be the 2nd of February (Groundhog Day) and Samhain is sometimes taken to be October 31st, Halloween. But hopefully you get the point.

Incidentally, the last three of these also coincide closely with Bank Holidays in Ireland, though these are always on Mondays so often happen a few days away. I find it intriguing that the academic year for universities here in Ireland is largely defined by the above dates dates.

The first semester of the academic year 2021/22 starts on September 20th 2021 (the Autumnal Equinox is on September 22nd) and finishes on 17th December (the Winter Solstice is on December 21st ).  Halloween (31st October) is actually a Sunday this year so the related bank holiday is on Monday 25th October; half term (study week) always includes the Halloween Bank Holiday. The term is pushed forward a bit because it finishes on a Friday and it would not be acceptable to end it on Christmas Eve!

After a break for Christmas and a three-week mid-year exam period Semester Two starts 31st January 2022. Half-term is then from 14th to 18th March (the Vernal Equinox; is on March 20th) and teaching ends on May 6th.  More exams and end of year business take us to the Summer Solstice and the (hypothetical) vacation.

So we’re basically operating on a pagan calendar.

Another tradition seems to be that examinations come straight after bank holidays, both in May and August. The repeat examination period begins on August 4th this year. You can interpret that in two ways: one is that students have a guaranteed day off to do revision; the other is that the bank holidays in May and August are ruined by the need to prepare for exams…

A Medicine for the Pestilence

Posted in History with tags , , , , on July 30, 2021 by telescoper

I came across the above 14th century remedy for the Black Death here.

For those of you not familiar with the names, rue is a fairly common wild plant/shrub that you can grow easily in a domestic garden. I have some in mine, actually (along with columbine). It’s a hardy perennial that can be cultivated from seed. Its flowers are quite attractive but has a weird lemony smell that cats in particular dislike and which also seems to serve as an insect repellent. The leaves have a very bitter taste and also, in the summer months, secrete an oil which can make your skin blister; what they do to your insides if you eat them is anyone’s guess. Rue has been used as traditional medicine since ancient times, presumably partly because it tastes so bad. If you eat lot of it you’ll probably regret it!

Tansy is another fairly common herbaceous plant that is thought to have medicinal use. I have tasted it actually although it’s not often used in cooking nowadays. It’s quite sweet with a bite, rather like peppermint, and was traditionally used in cakes, biscuits and puddings. Interestingly, like rue, tansy serves to deter bugs and insects; wreaths were until recently put in coffins with the deceased to delay corruption. This is not one for the garden, though, as it is very invasive.

I am not sure of the medicinal use of marigolds – another common wild flower – although they are edible and can be used to make food colouring additives and garnishes. Like tansy and rue, marigolds are yellow (or orange) in colour.

It’s also interesting to see the instruction to blow out the contents of an egg. I remember doing this as a kid, so as to paint the shell at Easter. You make a small hole at either end, insert a toothpick and waggle it around to break up the yolk, then take the toothpick out and use a straw to blow out the contents. It takes a while to start moving, but eventually the contents emerge, starting with the white.

I think the recipe involves discarding the contents and grinding the shell to a powder rather than the other way around. The text is ambiguous.

Anyway, the recipe looks more like an emetic than a remedy. My first thought was if you make a sick person drink that mixture for three evenings and three mornings they’d probably prefer to be dead! I’d rather leave all the leaves and other stuff out and just have the strong ale..

Extensive view of Carton House, County Kildare, with Maynooth in the distance – Willem van der Hagen

Posted in Architecture, Art, History, Maynooth with tags , , , on July 8, 2021 by telescoper

I came across the above painting on the Maynooth local history Facebook page the other day and thought I’d share it here. It’s by a fairly obscure artist called Willem van der Hagen who was Dutch but who settled in Ireland around 1720. The painting (oil on canvas, 107.6 cm by 133.6 cm) dates from around 1730 and was sold at Christie’s in 2017 for £428,750. The painting was probably commissioned by Henry Ingoldsby who inherited Carton Demesne on the death of his father Sir Richard Ingoldsby in 1712.

The view is of Carton House, a location very close to where I live and which I blogged about here. The grounds of Carton House are very pleasant for taking recreational walks.

The bird’s-eye view in the painting shows Carton and its demesne before the house was extensively remodelled in the mid-18th Century, although the layout is still recognizable in the modern house:

Th refurbishment of the house was undertaken by architect Richard Castle for the 19th Earl of Kildare between 1739 and 1745. The view in the painting dates from before this change and shows Carton at the centre of an elaborate formal garden. In the foreground, on the southern side of the house, avenues of lime trees radiate outward into the countryside from the enclosed entrance courtyard; on the northern side of the house can be seen a stepped series of walled gardens and terraced walks.

The gardens and demesne were also transformed when the house was rebuilt to reflect mid eighteenth-century taste. More recently the grounds have been turned into golf courses, one to the front and one to the rear as the house itself is now a golfing resort hotel so nothing remains of these extensive gardens.

In the distance to the far left you can see the ruins of the keep of the ancient FitzGerald castle in Maynooth, but St Patrick’s College was not built until the end of the 18th Century and much of the present-day town centre dates from the 19th Century so in those days Maynooth was a small place. The area between the castle and the walls surrounding Carton House demesne is now largely built-up although there is a pleasant tree-lined avenue leading from Maynooth towards the House as far as the Dunboyne Road.

In the right foreground you can see the Prospect Tower built by the Earl of Tyrconnell, which still stands. I always assumed this was some sort of folly but it was apparently intended as a mausoleum for one of the previous owners of the house.

The Hundred

Posted in History with tags , on June 18, 2021 by telescoper

I saw this on Twitter recently and thought I’d share it because I found it fascinating. Taken from here and it shows the evolution of the word “hundred” across Indo-European languages:

Apologies if you thought I was going to go off on one about the silly new English cricket format. I think it’s best I don’t discuss that.

Who is a proper physicist?

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff on June 1, 2021 by telescoper

There is a rather provocative paper on the arXiv by Jeroen van Dongen with the title String theory, Einstein, and the identity of physics: Theory assessment in absence of the empirical. I thought I’d share it here because it sort of follows on from yesterday’s post.

The abstract is:

String theorists are certain that they are practicing physicists. Yet, some of their recent critics deny this. This paper argues that this conflict is really about who holds authority in making rational judgment in theoretical physics. At bottom, the conflict centers on the question: who is a proper physicist? To illustrate and understand the differing opinions about proper practice and identity, we discuss different appreciations of epistemic virtues and explanation among string theorists and their critics, and how these have been sourced in accounts of Einstein’s biography. Just as Einstein is claimed by both sides, historiography offers examples of both successful and unsuccessful non-empirical science. History of science also teaches that times of conflict are often times of innovation, in which novel scholarly identities may come into being. At the same time, since the contributions of Thomas Kuhn historians have developed a critical attitude towards formal attempts and methodological recipes for epistemic demarcation and justification of scientific practice. These are now, however, being considered in the debate on non-empirical physics.

You can find a PDF of the full paper here.

As always, proper comments are welcome through the box below.

P. S. The answer to the question posed in the title is of course that a proper physicist is a physicist who’s at rest in the laboratory frame.

The Tironian et…

Posted in History with tags , , , , , on May 30, 2021 by telescoper

Last week I had my last Irish language lesson at Level 1. Although I struggled to find the time to do anything outside the actual classes, and am consequently struggling generally with the language, I have enjoyed it a lot and do intend to go again next year to try to learn a bit more and get better at the basics.

One thing that came up in passing last week was the abbreviation “srl” which I’d seen a few times but although I didn’t understand it I didn’t ask – largely because there were so many other things I didn’t understand. Anyway, it turns out that “srl” is short for agus araile which means “and others”, so is the Irish equivalent of “etc” (et cetera in Latin).

In English “etc” can be abbreviated to &c, where the ampersand is a ligature of the e and t that make up “et” and so stands for “and”. After some googling and discussions on Twitter I learn that Old Irish had quite a lot of special symbols for abbreviations which are no longer used in modern Irish. In fact “srl” used to be “⁊rl” where the “⁊” is not a seven (7) but a Tironian et. It looks like 7 in modern typefaces but in older Irish script it looks more like the ligature “koto” found in Japanese (ヿ). Thys symbol is not entirely extinct – I’ve seen it a few times (e.g. above) and also on old post boxes. Here’s another example from a pub sign in Galway.

This is not a name, by the way. The sign means “bar” and “restaurant” (bialann = bia +-lann, the suffix “-lann” meaning place, usually an enclosed space, so it’s literally food place; the Irish word for “library” is leabharlann, srl.)

The Tironian et is one of the characters in a system of shorthand invented by Marcus Tullius Tiro, the slave (subsequently freed) who worked as private secretary to Cicero (aka Marcus Tullius Cicero). This system was used extensively in monasteries until the mediaeval period, which explains how its use came into Irish through Irish monks. It went out of fashion when printing presses became widely available and the Tironian et is one of the few still in use in the age of computers – it does have a unicode and is available in various fonts that come free with most operating systems in use today.

I think one of the reasons I am struggling to learn everyday Irish is that I keep going off at tangents like this, something I tend to do in all kinds of contexts.