Little Things That Changed History

From Roman Chariots to Modern Railroad


The distance between the rails on a railroad (also called a gauge) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. This awkward distance comes from the length wide enough to accommodate the back-end of two horses. Yes, the first military vehicle to be mass-produced was the Imperial Roman Chariot, and they were specifically made to be just wide enough to accommodate two horses’ asses. When Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe for their legions, they built in ruts into the road. Rome may be long gone, but the rut remained and every man and every wagon maker since has been using the Roman rut distance for their wheels and axles. From wagon, the practice was transferred into trams and then into the modern railroads. Such was the power of tradition and human reluctance to change/adapt.

1st Century AD: Lead pipes fell the Roman Empire


A lot of causes has been cited at the source of the decline and the fall of the Roman Empire–decadence, incompetency of the latter empires, and internal strife. However, it seems that lead, the noxious metal the Romans used in water pipes and bath linings, was behind the fall of one of history’s greatest empires. Musonius, a Roman writing in the first century A.D., observed that masters were weaker, less healthy and less able to endure labor than the servant class. What Musonius didn’t guess was that the mysterious maladies were coming from the lead in food, water and wine. To boil crushed grapes, vintners insisted on using lead pots or lead-lined copper kettles for the best quality. Lead’s sweetness complemented food as well–the metal was used in one-fifth of the 450 recipes in a Roman Cookbook, complied by the gourmet Apicius. It was also used in the cosmetics. However, its toxicity and abilities to cause mental instability and impotency overlooked, lead would go on to play a major role well into the middle ages–its crowning achievement being the moveable type.

1347: Bubonic Plague kills Latin


There were many epidemics that plagued the Middle Ages, but not many epidemics were as devastating as the Black Death that occurred in the 14th century. Carried by the Mongols, who had been invading Eastern Europe for the past century, the first outbreak was recorded among the Tatar army ranks besieging the Genoese city of Kaffa in the Crimea in 1347. Over the next three years, the Bubonic Plague will sweep nearly every corner of Europe, killing a third of the population. The plague also set in motion one of the greatest linguistic transformation in history. Among the people who suffered the worst were the clergyman, who lived in close quarters in monasteries and attended their dying parishioners. Half of the Latin-speaking clergy died. Semi-literate laymen replaced these clergy, which hastened the fading of Latin and the rise of vernacular English, French, Spanish as languages of learning. Germany received the worst of the plague and it stunted the development of the German language. In addition, after the plague, the dwindling population demanded higher wages, consolidated wealth and broke free from the old feudal system. The new middle class and its vernacular language slwoly gained economic and social importance.

1415: Rain wins the Battle of Agincourt


Much has been written about the Battle of Agincourt–the stunning English victory over a larger French army in the Hundred Year’s War–starting with Shakespeare’s Henry V. Centuries of politicians and military strategists extolled this as a victory of both leadership and technology (longbow). However, it was another factor that played a bigger role in that fateful October day, 1415. Indeed, the odds were against the English – the troops were exhausted, hungry, and dysentery-ridden. Also the night before battle, heavy downpour left the English soaking wet. However, the rain was a blessing in disguise. It turned the battlefield into a quagmire. Having no cavalry of his own, Henry V was unperturbed, but the French cavalry, weighed down with heavy armour, were bogged down. The horses lost their footing in the mud and fell or ran into each other. They became an easy prey to Henry’s longbows, and within a few hours, a victory was secured. Above, central panel of “The Battle of Agincourt” the triptych by Donato Giancola (2007).

1519: The Plague that Gave Us Bread and Butter


In 1519, Polish forces were besieged in the fortified town of Allenstein, a Polish town on the Prussian border. During the siege, the town was struck by a plague–a plague that comes from a contamination in bread supply. Sanitary conditions in the town were very bad, and the coarse black loaves were usually dropped in the dirty streets. However, luckily for the town, the noted scientist Nicolaus Copernicus [above] was in the vicinity. A man named Gerhard Glickselig suggested to Copernicus that the bread loaves be colored with a thin layer of light-colored spread, which would make it obvious if the bread was dropped or if debris fell on it. Copernicus ordered it be done, and the plague soon ended. For the first time in history, bread and butter were combined and the custom slowly spread in Europe during the following century.

1520: Jesus got his image from Cessre Borgia


Since the Middle Ages, art was considered as religious expression, and the Borgia family was notorious for painting themselves into the Biblical milieux. Some pictures of Jesus Christ produced in their time were based on Cesare Borgia, and that this in turn has influenced images of Jesus produced since that time. Cesare Borgia, the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI became a Cardinal at 17, a commander in the Papal Army, a patron of Leonardo da Vinci and many other artists. Many of his contemporaries have left varying descriptions on Cesare’s appearance, but the celebrated portrait by Altobello Melone which depicts pondering and placid man belies Cesare’s bloodthirsty and depraved nature inside. However, when Altobello Melone painted his Christ figure in 1520, he drew inspiration from his earlier Cesare Borgia portrait, inadvertently blurring the distinctions between the visages and the ethnicities of one of history’s one holiest figures and one of its most depraved. [Above, Christ is the leftmost figure in Melone’s Walk to Emmaus. Cesare is painted by Melone on right.]

1648: Dwaves to Democracy


One of history’s most dramatic entourages was maintained by Ferdinando I and Francesco II, brothers and dukes of Mantua in the early 17th century. Their penchant was for dwarves. In the process of collecting them, they managed to bankrupt the Mantuan state. Their family, the Gonzagas, had amassed what was at the time probably the greatest private art collection ever assembled. To pay for their dwaves, they had to sell the art. The buyer was Charles I of England. He wasn’t on very good terms with Parliament, and the purchase of the Gonzaga art collection helped put him over the line into the red, triggering the English Civil War. So constitutional government in the Sceptered Isle rests, in a way, on a pair of Italian princes’ insatiable need for dwarves.

1715: Nature Gives Us Stradivarii


Scientists for decades have been trying to explain superb sound quality behind violins of Antonio Stradivari. A group of American scientists claim that a drop in temperatures between 1645 and 1715 (because of a reduction in sunspots and solar inactivity known as the Maunder Minimum) enhanced the quality of wood from which the instruments were crafted. These factors slowed tree growth, thereby creating the ideal building material for violins later manufactured according to the tree ring science journal Dendrochronologia. This also explains why history’s most famous violinmakers—Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari—all hail from the 17th and early 18th centuries. Other contending theories however state that Stradivari and his contemporaries used a special varnish (the secret of which has been lost today), or that the wood was chemically treated, soaked in water, specially dried, or stored for long periods of time.

1862: Close but No Cigar


The bloodiest one-day battle in American history came on September 17, 1862 when some 24,000 soldiers died in the clash between Union and Confederate troops at Antietam Creek. The battle’s outcome was decided by McClellan’s ability to predict the Confederate Army’s movements–however, McClellan got his help from three cigars. Yes, the outcome of the battle and of the Civil War was decided by three lost cigars being discovered in a field. A Union solider discovered Special Order 191 wrapped around three cigars; the order noted Lee’s army’s movements. Although McClellan waited long enough to lose the opportunity to defeat Lee decisively, Antietam became the first battle in which Lee’s army had been denied its main objective. Lincoln decided to release the Emancipation Proclamation only after the Union victory at Antietam. [Prior, a string of disastrous Union defeats had prevented Lincoln from issuing the proclamation for fear of appearing desperate]. In the proclamation’s wake, the war not only gained a higher moral purpose, but also record numbers of now-emancipated slaves joined the Union Army, thereby increasing its military strength. A carelessly lost parcel containing three cigars extended the American Civil War for four years, tipped the scales to the Union side, and altered forever the United States’ future. And as , in great part, it came down to that carelessly lost, cigar-encasing battle plan. [Above, Lincoln at Antietam]

1873: Jamming leads to an iconic keyboard


The QWERTY keyboard, so-called for the top row of letters on its left-hand side, came into existence because of a terrible structural flaw when the typewriters were first invented. In the first practical typewriter, designed by an American Christopher Sholes in the late 1860s, the keys were arranged in a sort of circular basket under the carriage. The first typewriter was extremely prone to frequent jamming at fast typing speeds. To solve the jamming problem, Sholes and Co., who had originally arranged the keyboard in alphabetical order, decided to put the most commonly used letters as far apart as possible in the next model. The next year, 1873, when they came up with the new invention which would set the standard of the keyboards. A faster, more convenient keyboard ‘the Dvorak’ was patented in 1932, but the cost of changing into a new system perpetuates the Qwerty.

1940: A Geological Map aids the Miracle of Dunkirk


The Miracle of Dunkirk was portrayed as a “divine” injuncture where the British Expeditionary Force incredibly were saved from the marching armies of Hitler. However, the ‘miracle’ wouldn’t have happened without an inadvertent help from Hitler himself. Hitler’s specific orders to halt the advance of German Troops for 3 days (which gave the British enough time to escape) was one of the last unsolved mysteries of the World War II. Some historians contend that Hitler was thrown into panic by a geological map, which convinced him that his tanks would be trapped in waterlogged, low-lying fields near Dunkirk if he let them advance. Hitler was haunted by his own experience as a solider in the notorious Flanders mud, but the land was dry and safe for tanks during this period and Hitler’s frontline panzer commanders sent a message to Berlin. Immediately Hitler rescinded the command, but the rain began to fall, which made the fields genuinely impassable, allowing the evacuation to be completed despite Luftwaffe attacks. It was the pause that lost Hitler the Second World War.

One Response to “Little Things That Changed History”
  1. David Limon says:

    I am trying to find a photo of the Dunkirk evacuation I can use in a textbook (for students at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia). I see you have a picture here. Do you happen to have the copyright or know where I could get it?
    Thanks for your help
    David Limon

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