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The Wow! Signal of 1977

During the 1950s over in Ohio, Professor of Electrical engineering and astronomy, Dr John D. Kraus, designed the Big Ear Radio Telescope. It was a prototype that cost 23000 dollars and preceded the building of the Big Ear Radio Observatory. Although the telescope was seated on the roofs of two university buildings, Kraus was eventually granted twenty acres of land to construct the radio observatory. 

The choice of land wasn’t completely random. Its remote location ensured a minimal risk of other interfering radio signals. Because the observatory wasn’t built to pick up radio signals from the earth, or satellites even. No, Dr Kraus hoped his observatory would manage to find proof of extraterrestrial life. 

The project was quite something. From 1956 to 1963 the observatory was constructed, mainly by students in order to reduce the costs. When the observatory, nicknamed ‘Big Ear’, was finally operational it was larger than three football fields. The Big Ear was equipped with two ‘ears’ if you will. On this photograph, you can see them. Generally, if radio signals were received by one ear, after several minutes, the other ear received them as well.

In order to potentially receive radio signals from extraterrestrial life, Kraus first had to map outer space for radio waves. It was quite the pioneering project and only after ten years, in 1973, was it completed. From then on they could ‘monitor’ these wavelengths, to detect radio transmissions that potentially originated from extraterrestrial entities.

It wasn’t until four years later that the Big Ear Radio Telescope detected a signal that was… unusual to say the least. The radio telescope received a powerful unidentified signal on August 15th 1977. Because of the technology used back then instead of acting on radio signals immediately, astronomers would look at a cluster of radio signals that had been picked up in the past couple of days. Usually, these were all somewhat predictable and the same. But astronomer Jerry Ehman, going over the documentation of the past couple of days noticed the unusual signal. The powerful narrowband radio signal, expressed as a string of code, captures his attention.

The signal contained signs of potential extraterrestrial origins, and certainly a source that wasn’t within our solar system. In total, the signal lasted 72 seconds. Because of how spectacular it was Ehman, circled it and wrote “Wow!” next to it. From then on the signal was known as the Wow! Signal. 

So why was this seemingly innocuous string of letters- and numbers so special? Well, several things about it are unusual. I am going to get into the technicalities for a short bit – so bear with me. Basically, the string of code, the 6EQUJ5, portrays the intensity of the signal. The graph you’re seeing right now visualizes that intensity. The numbers between 1 to 9 indicate the variation of intensity between 1.000 and 9.999, above 10 the intensity is indicated by a letter, in this case A for 10.0 to 10.999, B for 11.0 to 11.999 and so on. Right, so the strength of this signal had several values. Generally a .5 error margin is included: 6 being 6, E being 14.5, Q being 26.5, U being 30.5, J being 19.5 and 5 as 5.5. In the colour chart that is on-screen right now you can see the exceptional values. The short Wow! Signal burst is in the bottom left. 

Those strings of numbers don’t really say anything, until you know that when Big Ear received the peak of this signal’s intensity, namely U (between 30 and 31), it was the highest measured intensity by a radio telescope… ever. So, the intensity of this number is literally devoid of any dimension.

Because the Big Ear is a stationary telescope that scans space through the earth’s rotation, it observes a limited area. The maximum amount of time to observe an object was 72 seconds before the earth’s rotation moved the telescope away from it. Knowing this, it was hypothesised that any signal that lasted for exactly 72 seconds, would have a rising intensity for the first 36 seconds before it reached the core of the telescope, only to proportionately lose intensity the next 36 seconds. Both the length of the Wow! Signal, namely 72 seconds, as the trajectory of the signal’s intensity corresponded with the expectations of a signal of extraterrestrial origin.

Scientists have not been able to find the source of the signal. Since 1977 no such similar signal has been detected. It was received from a part of space where you wouldn’t expect any radio waves of the sort. What’s curious as well is that although the first ear received it, the second ear never confirmed the signal passed. This indicates that the signal was abruptly cancelled.

The SETI – Search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a term for scientific searches for intelligent extraterrestrial life. SETI has not been able to explain the source of the radio signal for the past 40 years. Now, the sole purpose of SETI is to identify signals such as this one, and the Wow! Signal is the only one of all those years of which the source has not been located. 

Now, there is an understandable reason for why after over 40 years nobody can say where the signal originated. It has only been detected once. So astronomers that investigate it, bump into the same problem over and over again. In the words of an astronomer: “image if you hear a sound in your basement one night, but you cannot find its source and it never appears again, then it’s near impossible to discover what made the sound.” And until another signal such as this one is detected its origin will most likely never be found.

Because there is no obvious source for the signal, many scientists theorise about its origins. The past four decades have seen many theories. Obviously, the most exciting one is that of extraterrestrial life that sent the powerful short signal. Yet other theories are perhaps a little bit more plausible. Many scientists claim that it is probably because of human interference that disturbed the activities of the radio telescope which led to the curious signal. Because of the contents of the signal: a strong radio signal on a very narrow frequency, which means that it has a specific wavelength. Generally, this is seen with electronic devices or fighter jets. Yet there are particular ways that signals from the earth can be filtered out from the signals Big Ear receives. And those filters have been used on the Wow! Signal… many times of the past years. And time and time again the signal proves that it did, in fact, originate in space.

In 2015 the scientists Paris and Evans published a new theory in an attempt to explain the origins of the Wow! Signal. A hydrogen cloud surrounding a comet could explain it. Back in 1977, the astronomers hadn’t detected any comets in the area that was scanned by Big Ear. It was in 2006, nearly 30 years later, when recalculating orbits of comets, it was determined two of them, the 266P/Christensen and the p/2008 Y2 (Gibbs) must have been in the area where the Wow! Signal originated.

Other scientists generally disagree with this theory because of two reasons. Firstly, comets are not known to produce signals with this type of intensity, nor on the wavelength that the signal was received on. And secondly, if it was a comet then the second ‘ear’ of Big Ear should have received the same signal after 70-odd seconds. That didn’t happen. And it’s impossible for a comet to disappear from Big Ear’s range within this timeframe. 

As for the Big Ear Radio Observatory, its scientists were included in the Guiness Book of Records thanks to their prolonged search for extraterrestrial life. The university sold the land the observatory was built on in 1983, and the land developers had different things in mind for it. In order to expand a nearby golf course and construct hundreds of homes they demolished the Big Ear Radio Observatory in 1998. And, well, other observatories around the world are still searching for unknown radio signals that could indicate extraterrestrial life, but so far none have been found. Well over 40 years after the Wow! Signal was received; it remains one of our closest encounters with potential extraterrestrial life. But fortunately for those curious about extraterrestrial life: SETI-telescopes are continuously scanning space for unusual radio signals. So if another Wow! Signal were to be transmitted, the modern technological improvements most likely would be able to determine where it came from.

Sources:

https://ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Big_Ear_Radio_Observatory
A. Paris, E. Evans: Hydrogen Clouds from Comets 266/P Christensen and P/2008 Y2 (Gibbs) are Candidates for the Source of the 1977 “WOW” Signal. Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, Winter 2015

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The Prussian Scam Artist that Robbed an entire Town

Prussia during the 19th century was an anomaly in the European theatre. By the early 20th century Prussia had managed to unify Germany in the German Empire, with its Kaiser, Wilhelm II at its head. Ingrained in Prussia’s culture was undisguised militarism, including the collective urge to obey army officers. Prussia’s militarism and its population’s docility to the army stand central in today’s story about a poor shoemaker, a petty criminal and scam artist that happened to be born in Tilsit, a city in then-Prussia. Thanks to a well-executed ruse, this man, Wilhelm Voigt, managed to impersonate a Prussian military captain, rally a troop of soldiers behind him and pulled off an extraordinary heist near Berlin which launched him to international fame.

The Prussian Scam Artist

Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt was born in 1849, Tilsit. Already at the age of 14, Voigt was convicted of petty crime and two weeks of imprisonment. He was expelled from school following the conviction and took up an apprenticeship with his father, a cobbler. According to Christopher Clark, he was convicted six times for theft, robbery, and forgery for which he received a prison-term totalling 25 years. He was released in February 1906, and settled illegally near the Schlesischer Bahnhof railway station, since Berlin authorities would not grant him a residence permit. He spent several months there as a night lodger, sharing his bed with factory workers that worked night shifts. 

Wilhelm Voigt

A bit over half a year after his release, in October 1906, in Western Berlin, Voigt managed to purchase second-hand Prussian military uniform parts from multiple thrift stores. He eventually managed to assemble the uniform of a captain of the First Foot Guards Regiment. On the morning of October 16th Voigt went to the Jungfernheide Park in Berlin and changed clothes into the captain’s uniform. He then made his way to the local military barracks, when he encountered four soldiers and a non-commissioned officer that were on their way back from guard duty at the Plötzensee prison. The officer told his soldiers to stand to attention while Voigt explained to them that he was under direct orders from the King and had to take command of the unit. He dismissed the officer and took the four soldiers with him to the Putlitzstrasse station. On his way there, he managed to get another 6 on-duty soldiers from the nearby rifle range to join his group in order to “carry out the supposed mission of the king.” He led his troops into a train that was bound to Köpenick, a historic town to the south-east of Berlin. On their way there Voigt treated ‘his’ men to beer bought at the station.

In Köpenick the band of soldiers made their way to the council chambers. There Voigt ordered his men to guard the main entrance, entering the building with the rest of his troops. They made their way to the suite administrative offices, the mayor’s workplace. In there were mayor Dr Georg Langerhans and the city’s most senior secretary, Rosenkranz. There, Voigt ordered the arrest of both men. Mayor Langerhans himself had served in the Prussian military as a reserve lieutenant. As such, when he saw Voigts epaulettes displaying his rank, the mayor immediately stood up and did not even consider resisting the arrest. Both the mayor and his secretary were told they were to be escorted to Berlin. Voigt also reached the office of the council police inspector. The inspector was sleeping, after all, this was an incredibly quiet district, and it was a pleasant early-autumn afternoon. Voigt reprimanded the inspector, before making his way to the office of the municipal cashier, von Wildberg.

Moving through the building Voigt arrived at von Wildberg’s office. He ordered him to open the municipality’s safe and give its entire contents to Voigt. Wildberg willingly did so, not even considering resisting a captain. Voigt cashed in 4000 marks and 70 Pfenning, and in turn, handed Wildberg an “official receipt”. Having managed to grab all the money the municipality had, Voigt now ordered his men to take their prisoners to Berlin and report to a military command post there. He himself left as well but disappeared on the way to Köpenick station. Much later Voigt told about what he did afterwards: he got rid of his military clothing, took another train to Berlin and settled in a café across the military outpost, the Neue Wache, he ordered his men to take the prisoners to. There he drank a beer as he watched the entire spectacle of confusion unfold in front of him. He then left the café and was on the run for six weeks before he got captured. He was arrested in December 1906 and received a prison sentence of four years.

Aftermath

Within days Voigt’s exploits launched a real media spectacle. German newspapers wrote about the ‘unheard-of trickster’s exploit’ and ‘a robber’s tale as adventurous and romantic as any novel’. The crime was perceived to be genuinely funny and Voigt’s motives were often elevated to him wanting to prove Prussian ‘militarism’ was dangerous. Berlin newspapers described Voigt as ‘cheeky’ ‘brazen’ ‘clever’ and ‘ingenious’ and for a while, everyone talked about it in taverns, on the street and on trains. Postcards of the ‘captain of Köpenick’ were produced and sold with considerable success. 

Statue of Voigt

International media too wrote about it. The Times reported that an event such as this could only happen in the militaristic German culture. Voigt rapidly became one of the famous fables of modern Prussia. In 1931 Carl Zuckmayr, a German writer and playwright, created the stage play Hauptmann von Köpenick which was later turned into a film which I have used clips of during this video. 

Voigt himself was one of the beneficiaries of his crime as well. He served less than half of his sentence when the German Kaiser and Prussian King, Wilhelm II ordered his release granting him a royal pardon. Within a week he was speaking to crowds in galleries and bars, reminiscing about his crime. Berlin authorities forbade him to make any such appearances and that is when Voigt capitalised on his foreign fame. He made an incredibly successful tour to the Austro-Hungarian empire, visiting Vienna and Budapest. He spoke at nightclubs, restaurants and fairs, talking about his adventure and selling postcards with his face on it. In 1910 he even left Europe to the United States and Canada. Apparently even a wax statue of him was created in London’s Madame Tussaud’s. In 1909 he published his memoirs: How I became the Captain of Köpenick, which earned him enough money to buy a house in Luxemburg, where he settled permanently. He stayed there during the first world war, living relatively comfortably from his book sales and tours. 

Wilhelm Voigt passed away in January 1922 at the age of 72. He started as a petty thief but due to his rather amusing crime, he ended up being an international celebrity for the last years of his life. I certainly think his story is worth telling and really enjoyed reading about him. And not just me, in 1996 the Köpenick municipality even created a statue for him, which stands in front of the council house.

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Rear Admiral’s Porter Ironclad Hoax during the American Civil War

When the American civil war broke out in 1861, the Union was pitted against the Confederate states. Besides all the underlying political reasons for this war breaking out, it is interesting for another reason. Because when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, it took decades for another war to break out between Western powers. Sure, there were uprisings such as the Belgian Revolution against the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, the 1848 revolutions that spared nearly no European state, and even the First Schleswig War from 1848 to 1851 between Denmark and mainly Prussia. 

But all these wars had at least one relatively small party. No full-fledged war between ‘Great Powers’ occurred. These decades of relative peace saw a lot of technological advancements in warfare, yet there was no real war yet where these weapons had been tested out. I suppose what got closest was the Crimean war of 1853 between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, France and Britain. This war was one of the first to see modern technology and tactics in use, such as trenches, artillery fire, tactical use of railways and explosive naval shells. I mention this war because I want to paint the full picture, but the American Civil War really was one of the first, if not the first war where modern weaponry such as the Gatling gun was used.

Now, another modern technological invention saw action: the Ironclad. Ironclads were the first type of armoured ships, powered by steam, armoured with iron or steel plating, hence the name. Because of the technological advancements in warfare, such as explosive naval shells, classic wooden ships became a hazard to enter combat due to them being very flammable. There wasn’t enough technical knowledge yet to build fully armoured ships. Instead, Ironclads were wooden ships that were covered with iron- and steel plating to mitigate the impact of explosive shells. 

Ironclads weren’t exactly first used during the American Civil War though: during the Crimean War at the Battle of Kinburn three French ironclad batteries, so a primitive version of the eventual warship, besieged Russian fortresses on the Kinburn Peninsula. These batteries were covered with iron plating, but by no means had the qualities a mobile ironclad warship would have. Although the batteries were hit several times, they weren’t destroyed nor did the crew suffer many casualties. Drawing on this success, other states started to develop and improve armoured batteries, leading to the eventual ironclad warship design.

The first ocean-going ironclad was the French warship Gloire, launched in 1859. With its steam engine and sails, it could reach a speed up to 13 knots, about 24 kilometres per hour. One year later the British launched their own ironclad warship, the HMS Warrior. Due to the heavy metal plating, the ships lay rather deep in the water. 

Construction of the Indianola

This too was the case for the Union’s ironclad river gunboat, the USS Indianola. The ship was commissioned after the American Civil War had broken out, was launched soon after and belonged to a new, ‘faster’ type of Ironclads. It had a three-inch iron plate in the bow and stern and was equipped with two 11-inch Dahlgren cannons and two nine-inch guns on its rear. It was a relatively mobile vessel too, thanks to independently powered paddle wheels. Its commander was George Brown, a capable lieutenant. In late January 1863, the Indianola joined the Union Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter’s Mississippi squadron, consisting of steamboat rams, mortar schooners and Ironclads. They were positioned north of the City of Vicksburg, which was a confederate stronghold, fiercely defended by its strategically located batteries. 

Gideon Welles, nicknamed “Father Neptune” was secretary of the Navy. He described Rear Admiral Porter as having “stirring and positive qualities. He’s fertile in resources, has great energy and is brave and daring.” As the confederacy would soon find out, Porter indeed was fertile in resources.

The USS Indianola

An overview of the Civil War Campaigns, with the Mississippi River to the west.

By this point of the war, the Confederacy still controlled nearly 400 kilometres of the Mississippi River, among which the Red River of the South. This tributary was essential to the Confederacy for its supply lines. Capturing Vicksburg was vital to the Union to disrupt the Confederacy. But after bombarding Vicksburg for months, Rear Admiral Porter could only admit that this tactic was far from effective.  

Porter switched up his tactics: he sent the 19-year-old colonel, yes colonel, one of the youngest of the Union, Charles Rivers Ellett, on a mission with the ram ship USS Queen of the West. Ellett initially had some successes, capturing a confederate steamboat, the Era No. 5, and burning plantations of Union sympathisers. But on February 14th, 1863, Ellett made a fatal mistake. Neither he nor any of his crew knew the Red River’s layout. As they approached Fort Taylor, Ellett decided to wait until nightfall to attack. When that night they sailed within range of the fortresses cannons, the helmsman ran the Queen of the West into a mudbank. They were bombarded by the Fort’s 32-pounder cannons and had to abandon the battered ship soon after. In a lifeboat, the crew managed to be rescued by the steamer De Soto, anchored downriver. But due to thick fog, this vessel too ran into a mudbank. Eventually, most of the crew was rescued by the recently captured steamboat, Era No. 5. The mission was a complete disaster: they lost the USS Queen of the West and the De Soto, not to mention several dead among the crew.

USS Indianola

Two days before this disaster Rear Admiral Porter, unbeknownst of what was going to happen to part of his fleet, sent the USS Indianola downstream from up north, to resupply the Queen and De Soto. The Steamboat Era No. 5 was sailing upstream, but during its escape ran out of coal. This led to Colonel Ellet ordering the burning of corn. As you can tell, they were rather desperate. So when the USS Indianola came in sight, they could not be happier, mainly because this Ironclad brought fresh coal supplies with it. A contemporary reporter from the New York Tribune wrote: “It was a miraculous escape… [for] from the depths of despair they were raised to the heights of exaltation.” The Indianola stayed behind to guard Red River, while the Era No. 5 sailed back to base up north.

But Porter’s trouble wasn’t over yet. After all, the captured Queen of the West would certainly be salvaged and reused on patrol as a Confederate ram. And it was, near-immediately. Major General Richard Taylor, the confederate commander, ordered it to be repaired and simply changed its prefix from USS to CSS. Long story short: the Queen of the West ended up, together with the William H. Webb and the steamers Grand Era and Dr Beatty to pursue the Indianola, which was slowly heading back north against the current. Although it had a lead, it was much slower than the small Confederate flotilla. 

David Dixon Porter (1813-1891)

On the evening of February 24th, the Queen of the West caught up to its former ally, and a bit north of Palmyra Island the Indianola came under attack by the Confederate ships. Heavily outnumbered and outgunned it didn’t take long for commander Brown to surrender, offering his sword to the commander of one of the steamers. The entire crew of the Indianola was put in jail at Vicksburg, only to be sent off to a POW camp in Texas. 

The Confederate forces ordered nearby labourers, including slaves, to repair the Indianola so they could redeploy her, just like they did with the Queen of the West. Over in the North, Rear Admiral Porter had other plans, however. He was incredibly frustrated he lost the Indianola, and understandably so. In his eyes it was of vital importance to recapture the Ironclad, not just because of its military value, but also because without it, the South would gain an advantage by continuing to use the Red River as a supply line. But Porter was painfully aware he didn’t have enough naval- and manpower to recapture the Ironclad. 

Porter Tricks the Confederacy

In Dutch, we have a saying: “wie niet sterk is, moet slim zijn.” It translates to as much as those that aren’t strong must be clever. That is what Porter must have thought when he created a ruse to prevent the Confederacy from salvaging the Indianola.

In order to do so, Porter used a flat-bottomed boat, akin to a barge, used to transport coal. He then ordered his men to build it up, use canvas and wooden planks to create the outer shape of an Ironclad, a hull. They tried to construct a proper dummy Ironclad, with a wheelhouse and casemate and a fortified gun site on deck. 

Porter’s men crafted two fake lifeboats for the non-existent crew. Besides the wheelhouse barrels were placed that resembled chimneys. They contained pots with tar that, when set alight, produced actual smoke like Ironclads produced. To appear more threatening the dummy Ironclad was painted black and to top it all off tree trunks, painted black as well, were positioned on it as cannons. Sources state the entire hoax cost Rear Admiral Porter half a day of construction work and 8 dollars and 63 cents. The ship was, fittingly named, the Black Terror. 

The Dummy Ironclad

The night after the Indianola was captured by the Confederacy, somewhere near midnight, the Black Terror was sent on its way. There was no crew on board, and the only thing that captured the eye aside from the slowly moving silhouette of the mock Ironclad was the “coal barge with stacked pork barrels to represent smokestacks and logs shaped like a cannon.” Because there was no crew on board to steer the vessel (although it couldn’t be steered even if there was) the Black Terror ran into the riverbank once. The Union soldiers had to manually push the dummy ironclad back onto the river, where it slowly drifted downstream to the confederate camp. It must have been quite a sight, to see soldiers push a wooden raft that was nothing more than a bunch of wooden planks and pots of burning tar onto the river, in an attempt to intimidate their enemy.

But it did intimidate the confederate soldiers. The ram Queen of the West, which laid in the trajectory of the Black Terror, quickly turned around to sail away upon the realisation that this Ironclad was undeterred, and seemingly in pursuit. Unbeknownst to its crew if they only waited a little longer, or decided to confront the slowly approaching vessel, would they have found out it was nothing to be feared.

A bit more downstream of the Red River, at their guardpost, a salvaging crew was repairing the Indianola. As the guards saw the silhouette of the Black Terror approach in the moonlight, a black skull-and-bones flag on its bow, they rang the alarm and opened fire. Although several of their cannons hit their target, it didn’t seem to dissuade the ironclad slowly moving their way. Rear Admiral Porter later recalled: ‘Never did the batteries of Vicksburg open with such a din.’ Because the barrage of fire didn’t deter the vessel, the confederate soldiers had to act quick: the last thing they’d want was to lose a firefight with an Ironclad and in turn, lose their recently captured Indianola. 

The Explosion

Although unsure who gave the command, the confederate soldiers decided to scuttle the Indianola. The only thing that they took off the vessel so far was the drink. Classic. So there was enough flammable material to sink it. They set its magazine, still filled with ammunition, ablaze. A massive explosion followed, here’s an original sketch of the blast by Theodore Davis, published in Harper’s Weekly in 1863 following the event. The explosion ended the Indianola. The ruse by Rear Admiral Porter, surprsingly enough, worked.

Following the scuttling of the Indianola, the Black Terror drifted on, towards the confederate soldiers. I mean, obviously, it wasn’t like someone would turn it around. It ended up running into a riverbank, again, and this time the confederate soldiers discovered what it consisted of: nothing more than some wood, tar and canvas. 

Learning about the true nature of the craft, Southerners “became convinced that their enemies were diabolically cunning”, according to contemporary reports in papers prepared for the Ohio Commandery. The Richmond Examiner ran the headline “Laugh and hold your sides lest you die of a surfeit of derision.” And the ruse by Rear Admiral Porter lived on to cause laughs over the years. It is quite the exceptional story for sure.

As for the war itself: in the next couple of months, both Vicksburg and Port Hudson, the Confederacy’s strongholds around the Mississippi fell, and eventually, the Union emerged victoriously.

Sources:

Girardi, Robert I. The Civil War Generals: Comrades, Peers, Rivals-In Their Own Words. Zenith Press, 2013.
Hearn, Chester G. Ellet's Brigade: The Strangest Outfit of All. LSU Press, 2006.
Hess, Earl J. "Northern Response to the Ironclad: A Prospect for the Study of Military Technology." Civil War History 31, no. 2 (1985): 126-143.
https://www.historynet.com/admiral-porters-ironclad-hoax-during-the-american-civil-war.htm
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Leonid Rogozov: The Soviet explorer that performed self-surgery all abandoned in Antartica

Welcome to House of History. Have you ever heard of the Chilean settlement Villas Las Estrellas? Well, I’d be surprised if you have. This settlement is located on King George Island in the Antarctic region. During the summer around 150 people live there, and during winter the settlement is inhabited by approximately 80. 

The conditions on the island are harsh, with temperatures easily reaching sub-zero degrees and without any form of wildlife. Nevertheless, the settlement has a post office, a school and homes of course. It is mainly inhabited by scientists and Chile’s air force and navy personnel. Now, this settlement is fascinating because there is a very curious requirement for all those that live there, including the children. Because the nearest major hospital is over 1000 kilometres away, in order to move to the island, every long-term resident has to have their appendix removed. There are doctors on the island, but none are specialised surgeons. 

This rule wasn’t thought up on a whim. As a matter of fact, there are cases in history of explorers that developed appendicitis while far away from civilisation. Without a capable surgeon on the team, severe appendicitis meant certain death. Right, so obviously developing appendicitis on an exploration to Antarctica is horrible. Still, a 27-year-old Soviet general practitioner that took part in the sixth Soviet Antarctic Expedition in 1960 truly drew the short end of the stick. Because, well, he was the only doctor on the team and as his illness grew progressively worse, he was left with only one option to survive.

Leonid Rogozov

Leonid Rogozov

This general practitioner, Leonid Rogozov, had interrupted his training to become a surgeon in order to join the Sixth Soviet Antarctic Expedition in 1960. He was the only doctor on the team and together with 12 researchers, the expedition group was tasked with building a new base at the Schirmacher Oasis, about 75 kilometres removed from the Antarctic coast. Four months in, in January 1961 the station was up and running. Now, this was in the midst of the severe winter months Antarctica is notorious for, and the group decided to sit out the harshest of the winter. 

But on the 29th of April, Rogozov started to experienced classic signs of appendicitis. Weakness, tiredness and nausea. The next day a distinct irritation began to develop on the right side of his abdomen. As a general practitioner and surgeon-in-training Rogozov had operated many people with appendicitis. And in reality, it was a routine operation, it still is. The thing is, it isn’t an ordinary operation when you’re in the middle of Antarctica. The boat trip to get there had taken 36 days, and the ship would not return for another year. Taking an aeroplane wasn’t possible because it was the middle of winter and blizzards made it impossible to take off. Rogozov’s situation rapidly grew worse, and as the only doctor, he realized the gravity of the situation: if the appendix burst it would near certainly kill him. As such, all abandoned in Antarctica Rogozov was stuck with an impossible choice between life and death: he would have to operate on himself.

At that time it wasn’t known if it was humanly possible to operate on oneself and, well, it certainly would hurt terribly because he couldn’t sedate himself. In addition, the commander of the expedition had to request official permission from Moscow because all this happened during the height of the Cold War, and a botched operation would put a dent in the prestige of the mission. Then again, without the surgery Rogozov would undoubtedly die, so even in Moscow they probably realised they had no other option. 

As the symptoms worsened considerably, Rogozov made his decision: he had to perform an auto-appendectomy on himself. Now Rogozov wrote a diary while he was at the station. His diary the night before the operation read: “”I did not sleep at all last night. It hurts like the devil! A snowstorm whipping through my soul, wailing like 100 jackals.”

“Still no obvious symptoms that perforation is imminent, but an oppressive feeling of foreboding hangs over me… This is it… I have to think through the only possible way out – to operate on myself… It’s almost impossible… but I can’t just fold my arms and give up.”

Fortunately for Rogozov, there were 12 other men. Although they didn’t have any real medical knowledge he assigned them specific tasks for the operation as he worked out a detailed plan for the surgical procedure. Two close aides had to position the lamp a certain way and hand instruments when he requested them. In the unfortunate event that he would pass out, he even taught them how to inject adrenalin and perform artificial ventilation. Because he would have to operate ‘from above’, an unusual angle, an assistant had to hold a mirror so Rogozov could see what he was doing. 

The self-surgery

As I mentioned, Rogozov couldn’t sedate himself. He managed to apply a local anaesthetic but could not take any as he was performing the surgery in order not to get cloudy. Rogozov later said about the moments leading up to the surgery:

“My poor assistants! At the last minute, I looked over at them. They stood there in their surgical whites, whiter than white themselves. I was scared too. But when I picked up the needle with the novocaine and gave myself the first injection, somehow I automatically switched into operating mode, and from that point on I didn’t notice anything else.”

 As for using the mirror, the upside-down view made operating more difficult, so Rogozov quickly switched to working by touch without gloves, instead of sight. Now during the operation, the bleeding was rather intense and there were several moments where Rogozov thought he would pass out and bleed to death. He later wrote: 

“The bleeding is quite heavy, but I take my time… Opening the peritoneum, I injured the blind gut and had to sew it up,” I grow weaker and weaker, my head starts to spin. Every four to five minutes I rest for 20 – 25 seconds. Finally here it is, the cursed appendage! With horror I notice the dark stain at its base. That means just a day longer and it would have burst… My heart seized up and noticeably slowed, my hands felt like rubber. Well, I thought, it’s going to end badly and all that was left was removing the appendix.”

After the 2-hour surgery, Rogozov managed to remove his appendix, and as his notes reveal if he had waited one more day, it would have burst which would have ended in certain death. After he removed the appendix, he recovered just two weeks before he managed to pick up his regular duties. The British medical journal published a case report about Rogozov’s auto-appendectomy in the Antarctic; I’ll post the link in the description if you want to read through the full account of the surgery. 

After his surgery, the men held out until the agreed-upon time to leave Antarctica. But due to an extreme polar winter, the ship couldn’t pick them up, which meant the entire team would be stuck in the base for another year. Fortunately, they ended up being airlifted out, albeit slightly later than planned and due to the bad weather one of the planes nearly crashed. 

Regardless of Rogozov’s heroic feat that became a media spectacle in the Soviet Union and abroad, Rogozov didn’t have many pleasant memories of the expedition. He later stated he felt saddened that he wasted two years of his life in the icy abandoned place, which had lost its mystery within the first month. Due to the height of the Cold War Rogozov’s story was a welcome one after another success: just 3 weeks before his self-surgery Yuri Gagarin had become the first man in orbit. Both men were 27 and both became somewhat of the embodiment of a Soviet hero. 

Yuri Gagarin

Upon his return, Rogozov didn’t seek a public life. He received the Order of the Red Banner of Labour, a prestigious award for exceptional achievements. And, well, ever since participants of expeditions to the Antarctic are subject to a thorough medical examination because of the risk involved. Rogozov’s story explains the rule for the Chilean town on the Arctic island as well: without a hospital closeby it is safer and better to remove an appendix preemptively.

I would like to thank all my Patrons for their generous support. If you enjoy House of History and want to support my work consider checking me on Patreon. For just 1$ a month you will gain access to the exclusive Patreon series. Don’t forget to subscribe. See you next time! 

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The Oldest Kiss in the World

Welcome to House of History. As I was researching this video, which is about the oldest kiss in the world, I stumbled upon the world record of the longest kiss in the world. Apparently, in 2011 a Thai couple has managed to establish the new record: 46 hours, 24 minutes and 9 seconds. They beat the record by two Germans from 2009 that spent 32 hours, 7 minutes and 14 seconds kissing. Right. I doubt you’d ever want to kiss again after such an experience, but okay. Now, today I’m not going to talk about people that kiss longer than most people have ever been awake in one go. I want to talk about the oldest kiss in the world. I’m talking about the so-called Hasanlu lovers, an incredible archaeological find. Excavated in 1972, this “kiss” is estimated to have lasted for 2800 years and still fascinates archaeologists and the world alike. We’ll also be looking at some other rare archaeological finds of remains discovered in a loving embrace.

Teppe Hasanlu is an ancient city located in north-western Iran. It was inhabited from approximately 6000 BC to 300 AD, and nowadays there are still attempts by institutions to get the entire site to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And that isn’t too odd; in fact, it is rather strange the site isn’t on the list already. The city was destroyed in a fire during the 9th century BC, in effect rendering an entire layer of the city frozen in time. Knowing this, archaeologists had a field day: pots and pans, skeletons, artefacts and constructions remain preserved in the layer to be studied. Now, between 1956 and 1974 a team of scientists and archaeologists of the Metropolitan Museum in New York in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania excavated the archaeological site. Already in 1957 the archaeologists Robert Dyson discovered the Golden bowl of Hasanlu. The bowl was of solid gold and preserved in a great state, and estimated to be well over 3200 years old!

Besides the bowl, it was this excavation that lasted for 18 years that led to another surprising discovery. In 1972 two human remains were found on the excavation site. Now, there were 246 skeletons found in total, so that isn’t too rare. No, what was really surprising was the position of the remains. Apparently, this couple had been lying there, embracing each other in a kissing position for thousands of years. They were nicknamed ‘the Lovers’ and upon discovery became famous throughout the world.

So do we know what happened in the lead up to their deaths? It is assumed the couple died during a battle for control over Teppe Hasanlu during the 8th century BC. The 246 other skeletons found at the site and the injuries they sustained support that thesis. The Lovers, I’ll call them, sought refuge in a hole which must have collapsed on top of them leading to suffocation. They died together in an endearing embrace. Carbon-dating confirms them passing away around 800 before Christ, so a bit over 2800 years ago. The right skeleton was confirmed as being a man because of his pelvis structure. For a long time, it was assumed the way the man is positioned makes it seem he protected his lover as she was kissing him. 

New research shows that the body on the right is a young adult between the age of 19 and 22, whereas the other skeleton is between 30 and 35. This skeleton’s gender cannot be determined for sure, but there are studies that state both skeletons were male. And because no scientific research has conclusively confirmed the gender of the skeleton on the left, there is still an ongoing debate what the relationship between the remains was. 

Although the Lovers of Hansalu are technically the “oldest kiss” in the world, there are more examples, although they are rare, of skeletons excavated in a romantic position. The Lovers of Valdaro, for instance. Excavated in 2007 in San Giorgio near Mantua, Italy, human remains from the Neolithic era were found. Now to put that into perspective: archaeologists concluded the remains were over 6000 years old! Two skeletons appear to be embracing each other, looking in each other’s eyes as they died. The remains were of a man and woman, around 20 years old, face to face with their arms and legs intertwined. Thing is, these so-called double burials, where a couple is buried together were rare, if not unique during the Neolithic period. Certainly for Italy: this is the only double-burial from this era discovered. The region the couple was discovered was great for preservation: it consisted of marshland and rivers, which is why the skeletons were preserved so well. 

Lovers of Valdaro

So then there is the big question: how did they die? It is a bit of irony, but Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is situated in Verona, very closeby to where the lovers were found. Unfortunately, their deaths were probably a bit less romantic than in Shakespeare’s work. Well, the man had an arrow in his spinal column and the woman had an arrowhead in her side. The head archaeologist, Elena Maria Menotti, had this to say about the discovery: “We have never found a man and a woman embraced before and this is a unique find. We have found plenty of women embracing children but never a couple. Much less a couple hugging΄and they really are hugging. It’s possible that the man died first and then the woman was killed in sacrifice to accompany his soul. From an initial examination they appear young as their teeth are not worn down but we have sent the remains to a laboratory to establish their age at the time of death. They are face to face and their arms and legs are entwined and they are really hugging.”

If you’re interested, the skeletons are on permanent display in their own rooms in the Archaeological Museum of Mantua! 

Alright, so the last example I want to talk about is an interesting one as well. Closeby our previous example, in Modena, Italy, a couple was found that had been holding hands for 1600 years! These “lovers of Modena” were unearthed in 2009 and the media’s attention was drawn to it because of their seemingly romantic position. The skeletons had degraded to a point where archaeologists had difficulty establishing the gender of both skeletons. In 2019 a team of scientists ran teeth-analysis on the couple in order to determine their gender. Both skeleton’s teeth contained a protein called amelogenin isoform Y, a protein that is only found in the teeth of men. In the study, the scientists wrote “We suggest that the ‘Lovers of Modena’ burial represents a voluntary expression of commitment between two individuals,” and that they were uncertain if the reason for their position was romantic or not. 

It could very well have been the two were war friends. 11 other skeletons were found at the excavated site, all of them with injuries suggestion they died during a war. These two bodies could have been friends and have been lumped together in a grave because of that, according to the researchers. Or they could have been cousins or brothers due to their age, sharing the grave because of their family bond. The researchers reasoned that they could not be sure the two weren’t in a romantic relationship, but it is unlikely that [the] people who buried them decided to show such [a] bond by positioning their bodies hand in hand.” Many of the people in the region had converted to Christianity by the time the men were buried, and authorities held a negative view of same-sex relationships, although admittedly Greek and Roman culture did allow for very intimate bonds between men to be expressed, and even encouraged.

Now as for the Hasanlu Lovers debate will continue about the gender of the skeletons since there cannot be a conclusive decision on the left skeleton. Nevertheless, it makes for a fascinating archaeological find and all three cases are, in my opinion, incredibly interesting.

I would like to thank all my Patrons for their generous support. If you enjoy House of History and want to support my work consider checking me on Patreon. For just 1$ a month you will gain access to the exclusive Patreon series. If there is a person or event from the Second World War you would like to know more about, let me know your thoughts in a comment. Don’t forget to subscribe. See you next time! 

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The Millionaire that pranked Canada from beyond the grave

Hey, welcome to House of History. Today I’m going to tell you about Charles Vance Millar, who definitely is one of the most colourful characters in Canada’s history, but only truly managed to rise to fame, or perhaps infamy, after his death. During Millar’s lifetime, he already made a name for himself. He was a Canadian corporation lawyer and financier and for that time he amassed a considerable fortune. He was part-owner of the O’Keefe Brewery, acquired BC Express Company, gained the government mail delivery contracts in Northern British Columbia and he was an avid fan of horse-racing, owning several horses himself. All in all, he was a rather successful man. Now, during his lifetime, Millar’s became known as quite the practical joker, and he was notorious for connecting his humorous jokes to the price of people’s ethics. Some anecdotes state that he would often leave money on the sidewalk and enjoy to see people rush and pick it up, and other small innocent pranks like that.

Charles Vance Millar

But his final prank was undoubtedly his greatest. In order for it to be successful, he required quite a bit of patience, and he wouldn’t even be there to enjoy the end results. Honestly, I believe Millar’s elaborately planned prank easily make him one of the greatest pranksters of history. So what did he do? Well, on the 7th of June 1921 at the age of 68 he wrote his will. After a poor relationship as a young man, he never married and he didn’t have children. His parents had passed away long before him and as such he probably figured he could play a prank with the businesses and capital he would leave after he passes. In his will, Millar bequeathed his entire estate, but it would take five more years for anyone to find out to whom, and on what conditions.

Millar died of a heart attack on the 31st of October 1926, at the age of 73. The will was filed with Ontario’s Surrogate’s Court, and the opening passage revealed the general tendency of the entire inheritance:

“This will is necessarily uncommon and capricious because I have no dependants or near relations and no duty rests upon me to leave any property at my death, and what I do leave is proof of my folly in gathering and retaining more than I required in my lifetime”.

Alright, so there were 4 bequests that were humorous in the short term and one that I’ll leave for last, that basically rocked the entire province of Ontario and Canada as a whole for an entire decade. 

Part of Millars will

To begin with, Millar owned a vacation home on the island of Jamaica. As a lawyer, over the years he met several other lawyers that he knew detested each other. In his will, Millar bequeathed his Jamaica holiday home to all three lawyers who shared joint lifetime tenancy. After their deaths, the property would be sold and the proceeds would be distributed among the poor of the city. But until that moment these three lawyers now were joint owners of a holiday home. During his lifetime Millar had already sold his home and as such we’ll never find out how this would have went on.

The next bequest was about his shares of the O’Keefe brewery stock. He gave each practising Protestant minister and every Orange Lodge member, an international Protestant fraternity, in Toronto a share, but only if they participated in its management and drew on its dividends. Now, that shouldn’t be a problem, should it? Thing is, the O’Keefe brewery was a Catholic business. But that’s not all, it was Protestant ministers that led the Temperance movement, a movement that propagates the abstinence from alcohol. A practical problem within the company’s structure prevented the legates from receiving their money initially, until the brewery was sold for 1.35 million dollars in 1928. Every protestant minister and Orange Lodger that accepted the bequest ended up receiving 56 dollars and 38 cents. 

As for his very valuable stocks of the Ontario Jockey Club, the horseracing track, Millar bequeathed these to two very vocal opponents of horse racing, William Raney and reverend Samuel Chown. These men were known as moral pillars of the community. A third man who hated the Ontario Jockey Club, Abe Orpen, received shares as well. Orpen owned several horse-racing tracks in Canada and due to his shady reputation was not allowed to become a member of this Jockey Club, his competitor. He thus received a share of his most important rival. But there was a catch: all three men had to become shareholders within three years. Contrary to most reports only Orpen accepted his share, once again proving Millar’s notion that some men’s morals have their price. Still, Raney and Chown’s shares were supposedly given to charity.

Lastly Millar left one stock of the Kenilworth Jockey Club to each practising ministers of three towns close to Ontario. Obviously accepting the stocks would go against a certain moral conviction for these ministers, and there was quite a public struggle on whether they would accept the stock or not. Thing is, the Kenilworth Jockey Club wasn’t publicly traded, and after the embarrassing public struggle it turned out the share was worth around half a cent. 

But although these clauses were funny in itself and caused a public uproar, it was clause 9 that really did the trick and dominated the news for a long time to come. Basically, Millar left the rest of his estate to the mother that would be able to give birth to the most children in the ten years following his death. As such, the Great Stork Derby began. Clause 9 read: 

All the rest and residue of my property wheresoever situate I give, devise and bequeath unto my Executors and Trustees named below in Trust to convert into money as they deem advisable and invest all the money until the expiration of nine years from my death and then call in and convert it all into money and at the expiration of ten years from my death to give it and its accumulations to the Mother who has since my death given birth in Toronto to the greatest number of children as shown by the Registrations under the Vital Statistics Act. If one or more mothers have equal highest number of registrations under the said Act to divide the said moneys and accumulations equally between them.

In short: the woman in Toronto that would in the ten years after Millar’s death have the most babies would receive the remainder of Millar’s estate. Right, so some other things were set in motion during these ten years that Millar could not have known about. For one, the great depression from 1929 led to a massive unemployment wave in Canada. Jobs were very scarce and families often were fully unemployed: around a quarter and a third of all working-age Canadians were out of work in 1933. As such, by 1929 some families started to seriously consider the Great Stork Derby as an only viable way to survive and have any income. 

The thing is, due to a fortunate sequence of events the value of Millar’s left-over estate increased significantly. He had made some long-term investments, for example, in the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. He invested 2 dollars, but his share would be worth over 100.000 dollars by the time the Stork derby was over. His entire estate was valued at around 750.000 dollars by the time the derby was over. Considering the minimum wage was 12 dollar 50 for a 60-hour workweek, even a fraction of Millar’s estate could lift many families out of poverty.

Throughout the years, several mothers that were ‘competing’ became famous in Canada and the Derby itself became famous around the world. Though many women that were in the race didn’t necessarily have their children because of it, and would probably have had large families if it wasn’t for the derby either. Anyway, after a decade of a media spectacle, the Great Depression and an ever-increasing estate, by 1936 the results were in.

Four women eventually tied “first place” with nine babies each. All four received 125.000 dollars each. In the aftermath of the great depression, this windfall obviously was lifechanging. Two other women were awarded 12500 dollars after a court battle. One of them had an uncertain claim because of two stillborn children when Millar’s will expressly stated ‘live children’. A very sad and grim twist to an otherwise funny and curious event. The other woman simply cheated on her husband and bore several illegitimate children.

All in all, Charles Vance Millar ended up indirectly fathering 36 children, and another 16 of the two women with disqualified claims. Not bad for someone that never had any children himself. According to a news article, the four families that won the fortune spent it in a very responsible manner. They bought a home and a car and provided a proper education for their children. As for Millar, 10 years after his death and during the worst economic crisis in history, he managed to improve the lives of six families with his final and incredibly sensational practical joke.

If you enjoy House of History and want to support my work consider checking me on Patreon. For just 1$ a month you will gain access to the exclusive Patreon series. Don’t forget to subscribe. See you next time!