Tuesday, 22 May 2018
Wednesday, 16 May 2018
Pasta, in its various forms, has been a mainstay of the Italian diet since the Middle Ages. However, it is known that the Chinese had been eating noodles, a closely related foodstuff, for thousands of years prior to that. Could it be that the Italians learned about pasta from the Chinese?
Pasta - the Marco Polo connection
The Venetian explorer Marco Polo returned from more than twenty years of travel in the Far East in 1295, so could this be the connection? Did pasta reach Italy from China thanks to Marco Polo? It sounds like a highly plausible story.
In 1929 an article appeared in the “Macaroni Journal”, which was an official publication of the National Pasta Association of the United States. This article, entitled “A Saga of Catai”, purported to tell the full story.
It appears that an Italian sailor on the ship that brought Marco Polo home from China had met a beautiful Chinese girl who was making noodles. She offered some to him, which he tasted and found to be delicious. He asked if he could take some of the noodles back to his ship so that he could show them to Marco Polo and the rest, as they say, is history.
On the other hand …
Unfortunately, however, the rest is not history but pure bunkum. For one thing, the story includes Marco Polo naming this new dish after the enterprising sailor, whose name was Spaghetti. Given that “spaghetti” is a variant of the Italian for “thin string”, this derivation is highly unlikely.
There is another excellent reason why the story, attractive though it may be, should not be given much credence. This is that pasta was being eaten in Italy long before Marco Polo turned up with his traveller’s tales. There is a record dating from 1154 to the effect that pasta was being made at that date in Sicily. It is also known that soldiers in the 13th century carried pasta as part of their food rations. If Marco Polo did, by some happy coincidence, happen to bring some noodles back with him from China to Italy, they had nothing to do with introducing something new in the food line, because pasta was on the menu in Italy long before he started off on his journey in 1271.
Whether the author of the “Macaroni Journal” article was being serious in his claim or not is a debatable point, but the fact remains that it acquired a patina of reliability about it. After all, if the National Pasta Association did not know where their product originated, who did? It seemed to be the sort of story that could easily be true and so, as it spread beyond the limited confines of the pasta trade into the outside world, it was taken by many people to be absolutely true.
So what is the origin of pasta?
If pasta did not originate in Italy, and it was not introduced by Signor Spaghetti and his boss Marco Polo, then where did it come from? There are various mentions of products made from dried sheets of dough from as far back as the 5th century, with the Arabs apparently being their first users. When Arabs from Libya invaded Sicily in the 7th century they apparently brought durum wheat with them, this being the most suitable wheat type from which to make pasta. It could be that it was at this time that pasta production began in Sicily, thus making it several hundred years older than the 1154 date noted above.
In any event, one thing that can be taken as being beyond the shadow of a doubt is that Marco Polo had nothing to do with it.
© John Welford
Wednesday, 9 May 2018
Consideration of the Hossbach Memorandum has played a significant role in deciding the question of Hitler’s intention to wage war in Europe. Hitler, Goering, and a number of other high-ranking military Germans met at the Chancellery in
November 1937 and Hitler outlined a number of his ideas as to where he saw
things heading over the next few years. Count Friedrich Hossbach (the central figure in the above photo) was the staff
officer who took the minutes of the meeting, which is why his name is attached
to the document. Berlin
Hitler was clearly obsessed with the concept of “Lebensraum”, by which was meant “living space” for racially pure Germans. This concept was not new, in that it was not invented by the Nazis, but Hitler gave it the formulation of expansion eastwards into lands occupied by racially inferior people (in his eyes) such as the Slavs and the Poles.
At the “Hossbach” meeting, Hitler made clear that such moves would inevitably be opposed by France and Britain, so care would be needed to ensure that these powers would not cause trouble when the time came. The first move would be to absorb
into the Reich. Czechoslovakia
Hitler believed that France would eventually fall into internal turmoil, at which point a move against the Czechs would be advisable. He also thought that Britain would soon be at war with Italy, and not in a position to wage war with Germany. Likewise,
was too preoccupied with events to the east, concerning Japan, to be an obstacle to in the west. Germany
However, Hitler said nothing about making war on his neighbours at an early date. He clearly believed that
would need to act before around 1943 or 1945, but that was six years ahead at
the earliest. Germany
As we all know, events moved faster than envisaged at the Hossbach meeting, with the “Anschluss” of Austria occurring in March 1938 (only four months after the meeting) and the annexation of the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia in September/October.
After Germany’s final defeat in 1945, the prosecutors at the Nuremberg tribunals produced the Hossbach Memorandum as evidence that Goering and others on trial had planned the war as far back as 1937. However, the British historian A J P Taylor, who was certainly no friend of
, took the view that the
Memorandum proved nothing of the sort and could not be used as documentary
evidence that Hitler was hell-bent on war at this time. Germany
In Taylor’s opinion, all the Memorandum revealed was a vague rant on the part of Hitler concerning the possibility of a somewhat limited war at an indeterminate time several years in the future. To quote
, “A racing tipster who only reached
Hitler’s level of accuracy would not do well for his clients”. Taylor
Taylor’s words did not please those who wanted to prove intent on the part of Hitler, and he was accused by some of being an apologist for the Nazis. However,
had shown that
Hitler, not for the first or the last time, was able to combine aggressive talk
with an inability to translate intention into plans for action. Taylor
Historians have continued to argue ever since about whether the Hossbach meeting marked a turning point in the events leading to World War II, or whether it is wrong to see the Memorandum in this light. As with many incidents in history, it is always difficult to view an event in isolation from the events that followed it.
© John Welford
Tuesday, 8 May 2018
One of the greatest problems that marine navigators face is working out where they are when out of sight of land. Knowing one’s latitude (i.e. how far north or south) is not too difficult, because the height of the Sun in the sky will tell one this, but navigation also relies on pinpointing one’s longitude, or position east or west, which is harder to determine.
In order to determine longitude, there are two possible methods. One is to use the night sky, including the position of the Moon, as a kind of celestial clock. This is the “lunar distance” method, but it has the obvious disadvantage that measurements can only be made at night, and is not particularly accurate. The other is to have on board a clock that is set to the time at some predetermined place, such as one’s home port, that can be compared to local time.
It is not difficult to work out the current local time, based on the Sun’s position, but the problem is knowing what the time is at the port that could have been left weeks or months before. In the early 18th century there was no clock available that could be relied upon to be accurate enough, especially on a ship at sea that was subject to being tossed about by wind and waves.
The Royal Observatory in
had been established in 1675 with the sole purpose of solving the problem of
finding longitude at sea, but by 1714 it had produced nothing better than the
lunar distance method. The British Government therefore passed the Longitude
Act which offered a prize of 20,000 pounds (several million in modern money) to
anyone who could devise a timepiece that could operate with accuracy at sea.
The size of the reward shows just how serious this issue was. Great Britain was
now a maritime nation that wished to “rule the waves”, but the huge losses of
ships at sea, caused by navigational errors, presented a severe handicap to
this ambition. London
Enter John Harrison
The man who solved the problem was John Harrison (1693-1776), a carpenter’s son from
with no formal education but with an interest in clocks. Although he had only
built a few wooden clocks before seeking the longitude prize, he had made
several important advances in their accuracy and believed that he had the
He heard about the yet-to-be-claimed prize in 1726, and in 1730 had designed a portable version of his best long-case clock. He showed his drawings to Edmond Halley, the Astronomer Royal, who advised him to consult a well-known clockmaker named George Graham. Graham was impressed by the design and lent
Harrison the money to build a prototype clock.
This clock, now referred to as “H1” was completed by 1735. Although portable by the standards of the day, it still weighed 72 pounds. Halley and Graham recommended that it should be tested at sea, and this was done in 1736 on a voyage to
. Harrison’s clock
was accurate enough to correct the ship’s reckoning by one and a half degrees,
which was sufficient to persuade the “Board of Navigation” to make Lisbon Harrison an award of 500 pounds to allow him to make an
The next two prototypes, H2 and H3, were even heavier than H1, and beset with various technical problems, but the real breakthrough came with H4, which was built to a different specification altogether.
This was a large pocket-watch, more than five inches in diameter but only weighing three pounds.
Harrison had intended to use
this only as a means of “transferring” time from land to sea, so that the sea
clock could be set accurately before a ship left port, but he found that H4
worked far better than expected and made the heavy sea clock unnecessary.
How John Harrison eventually won his reward
The terms of the prize were that the timepiece should be sent on a voyage to the
West Indies (a regular route at the time of the slave trade),
and the amount of the award would depend on the degree of accuracy of the clock
or watch. The full 20,000 pounds would be paid if the longitude obtained was
correct to within 30 miles, but if this was only 60 miles the prize would
reduce to 10,000 miles.
When tested in 1761, the watch lost only 5.1 seconds over the 81 days of the round voyage, although this figure was arrived at by making an allowance, or “rate”, for the known performance of the timepiece over that length of time. Unfortunately, this was not made clear by
Harrison at the outset,
and the discrepancy nullified the trial. As a result, he was only awarded 2,500
pounds, and this would only be paid if the result was confirmed by a second
This second trial took place in 1764, with a gain of one second per day. On the outer voyage of 47 days, the watch allowed computation of the longitude to within 10 miles, which was three times better than the maximum requirement of the test and should have been enough to land
the full 20,000 pound prize.
However, the Board of Longitude refused to believe that the watch was that accurate and made all sorts of stipulations before they would agree to hand over the money.
Harrison was required to make two more watches, and to
hand over the original watch so that it could be dismantled and examined by a
committee. If an independent craftsman could replicate the watch, Harrison would be awarded the balance of 10,000 pounds,
with the remaining 10,000 pounds only being payable if the two extra watches
When the committee met in August 1765 and examined the H4 watch in Harrison’s presence they were sufficiently impressed to pay him the money, but it was still only half of what had originally been promised.
was determined to win the full amount.
When H4 was copied by a master watchmaker, Larcum Kendall, in 1769, it was found to be of such excellent craftsmanship that it was taken by Captain Cook on his second and third voyages of discovery and used to map the
Harrison could produce another watch, mariners
were able to make full use of another invention, namely the sextant, which
could be used to make much more accurate calculations of local time and thus
render the rival lunar distance method more workable. Harrison
therefore had to produce something that was even more accurate than H4, and he
was not even allowed access to his own invention when building the new watch,
which was labelled H5.
In order to get H5 tested, and to claim the rest of the 20,000 pounds, Harrison was forced to appeal to the King, and in 1772 H5 was tested by the Royal Observatory and found to keep time to within a third of a second a day. Nevertheless, the Board refused to acknowledge the test and it was only when
Harrison appealed to Prime Minister (Lord North), and a
further Act of Parliament was passed in 1773, that the full prize was finally
Harrison was by now an old man, and he only
had three years left in which to bask in the recognition that he so fully
deserved. He died in 1776 on what was believed to be his 83rd
One has to suppose that the Board of Navigation never really believed that anyone would meet the full terms of the prize, which had been unclaimed since 1714, and was always going to be reluctant to award it to a man whose background was in joinery and was, to all intents and purposes, an amateur when in came to clocks and watches. However, John Harrison was an extremely clever and inventive man who was prepared to spend many years on getting something as good as he could get it.
One innovation that Harrison incorporated was the bimetallic strip, being a strip of two metals fixed together such that changes in temperature would be compensated due to the different expansion coefficients of the two metals. This is the principle used in many later inventions, including the electric toaster. In clocks and watches, the mechanism will not be subject to warping as the temperature rises and falls, thus affecting the accuracy of the timepiece.
The modern marine chronometer, developed from Harrison’s watches, enabled the British Navy to explore and chart the world’s oceans for the next 200 years, and helped
to become a major world power due to its dominance of the sea. Great Britain
Of course, the advent of satellites has revolutionised navigation and made much of Harrison’s work redundant. That should not, however, diminish the credit that Harrison deserved. Countless lives must have been saved thanks to his hard work and dedication.
© John Welford