The Langley Aerodrome A: The Story of “Almost”

Everyone knows that the first manned airplane flight was made in December 1903, by two obscure bicycle manufacturers from Ohio named Wilbur and Orville Wright. But many people don’t know that the Wright Brothers had competition, and one of the most famous scientists in the country, with generous government financing, was also attempting to get into the air. His last attempt was on December 8, 1903–just nine days before the Wright Brothers . . .

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The Langley Aerodrome A, on display at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center

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Apollo-Soyuz: When the Cold War Thawed Just a Little Bit

The 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was billed as a scientific experiment to test the possibility of an emergency space rescue. In reality, it was a carefully planned political stunt, designed to bring two superpowers together and help prevent the end of the world.

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The Apollo and Soyuz spacecrafts, joined by their docking module. On display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

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The 1903 Winton “Vermont”: First Car to Cross the US

For most people, the American automobile industry is made up of names like “Ford” and “Chevrolet”. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the center of the auto industry was Clevelend, not Detroit, and it was dominated by the Winton Motor Carriage Company. In 1903, the first motor car to cross the US coast-to-coast was not a Ford or a Chevy, but a Winton, driven by a doctor from Vermont who did it on a bet.

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The 1903 Winston Touring Car “Vermont”, on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History

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Changing Stances: How the Dinosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History Rotunda Evolved

Dinosaurs were first discovered by science in the 1820’s, and were depicted as slow, plodding, tail-dragging, dim-witted animals. But in the 1970’s and 1980’s, our whole impression of dinosaurs was profoundly changed–now dinosaurs were viewed as fast-moving warm-blooded active and intelligent creatures, and this shift in perception had an enormous impact on science and popular culture, leading to a “Dinosaur Renaissance” in the 1990’s.

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Barosaurus rears up to tower over an Allosaurus, in the Rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

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The Cradle of Humankind: South Africa and the Story of Human Evolution

When Charles Darwin wrote his classic Origin of Species in 1859, “humans” were mentioned only once, in passing: “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”. But the implications of the theory of evolution for the place of humans in nature were earth-shattering, and nobody missed them. In 1871, Darwin took the step of specifically applying his theory to humans, in his book The Descent of Man, in which he made what was at the time a bold prediction: “In each great region of the world the living mammals are closely related to the extinct species of the same region. It is therefore probably that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and chimpanzee; and as these two species are now man’s nearest allies, it is somewhat more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere.” Half a century later, discoveries in South Africa proved Darwin to be correct.

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Fossil hominid skulls on display. Cradle of Humankind Museum, Maropeng, South Africa

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The Workers Opposition: Defending Socialism Inside Stalinist Russia

The history of the Workers’ Opposition has been largely forgotten, both in the West and in the former Soviet Union.  This is unfortunate, since it is the history of a faction within the Russian Communist Party itself which, during the very time that the Russian Revolution was falling into the centralization of political and economic power that would shortly lead to Stalin’s dictatorship, stood up to defend socialism, democracy, workers’ control, the rights of union workers, and economic justice.  Sadly, their struggle was in vain—the bureaucratic Party concentrated all power in its hands, and Stalin soon assumed sole power and crushed the people of the Soviet Union under one of the most brutal regimes of the 20th century.  Many of the members of the Workers’ Opposition died in Stalin’s jails.

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