The Antikythera Mechanism

Andrew Robinson | Published 08 September 2017
Everyone has heard of the Rosetta Stone. Not so familiar, but equally compelling, is a purely Greek artefact of the same period found in a first-century BC shipwreck chanced upon by sponge divers off the coast of Antikythera, an island between Crete and the Peloponnese. It triggered the first underwater archaeological excavation in 1901. The Antikythera Mechanism comprises more than 30 precisely cut bronze gear wheels, dials and pointers held in a wooden box the size of a phone book, with a damaged inscription indicating that they formed a model of the ‘cosmos’ (the Greek word appears in the inscription)...Read more »
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The Savage Punishment of Siberian Exile

Paul Dukes | Published 01 June 2017
When the Scottish explorer John Dundas Cochrane visited the town of Tobolsk in the early 1820s, he found ‘very good society … and the strongest features of content … in this hitherto supposed metropolis of barbarism and cruelty’. But few others walking through Siberia in the 19th century would have shared this view, since the majority of them were convicts shackled and poorly fed and more likely to agree with Dostoevsky that they were in ‘The House of the Dead’. In this welcome book, Daniel Beer follows in the path of others but brings to the subject a new view...Read more »
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The Wolf Must Be in the Woods

In the popular imagination, early medieval England was a wild place populated by packs of ravenous wolves, devouring people and livestock. The image is at odds with modern research into wolf biology and wolves were extinct in England by the time of Henry VII. With a programme of wolf reintroduction proposed for the UK, it is time to look back at the history of attitudes to wolves from when written accounts began, in the Anglo-Saxon period.

Tim Flight | Published 31 May 2017
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Volume 67 Issue 6 June 2017

The Crusades: A Complete History

A comprehensive account of a compelling and controversial topic, whose bitter legacy resonates to this day. 

During the last four decades the Crusades have become one of the most dynamic areas of historical enquiry, which points to an increasing curiosity to understand and interpret these extraordinary events. What persuaded people in the Christian West to want to recapture Jerusalem? What impact did the success of the First Crusade (1099) have on the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities of the eastern Mediterranean? What was the effect of crusading on the people and institutions of western Europe? How did people record the Crusades and, finally, what is their legacy?

Academic debate moved forwards significantly during the 1980s, as discussion concerning the definition of a crusade gathered real steam. Understanding of the scope of the Crusades widened with a new recognition that crusading extended far beyond the original 11th-century expeditions to the Holy Land, both in terms of chronology and scope. That is, they took place long after the end of the Frankish hold on the East (1291) and continued down to the 16th century. With regards to their target, crusades were also called against the Muslims of the Iberian peninsula, the pagan peoples of the Baltic region, the Mongols, political opponents of the Papacy and heretics (such as the Cathars or the Hussites). An acceptance of this framework, as well as the centrality of papal authorisation for such expeditions, is generally referred to as the 'pluralist' position.

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Did Britain Fail Hong Kong?

Hong Kong student strike on 23 September 2014. By Voice of America [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsAt midnight on June 30th, 1997 Hong Kong reverted from British control back to China. Looking back, did Britain fail the people of Hong Kong?

To answer this question it is important to understand the relative balance of power between China and the United Kingdom. During the 19th century Britain was in its heyday. The Royal Navy could project her power to any seaport in the world. Britain was able to coerce China into signing the treaties that acquired Hong Kong and leased the New Territories for 99 years. By the late 1970s, those days were long gone. Delicate negotiation, rather than gunboat diplomacy, was Britain’s best hope of keeping control of Hong Kong.

Much has been made of Prime Minister Thatcher’s visit to Hong Kong in September 1982. Images of her tripping on the steps at the Great Hall of the People and reports of Deng Xiaoping’s irritation at her proposal of keeping a British presence in Hong Kong, have been well documented and criticised. However before Margaret Thatcher even arrived in Beijing, the British had encountered Deng’s ire over Hong Kong. Deng had made clear his intention to re-acquire Hong Kong and the New Territories to Hong Kong Governor Sir Murray Maclehose in 1979.

Thomas Benge | Published in History Today
Thomas Benge | Published 07 October 2014
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Who Got Mao Right?

The legacy of the Great Helmsman is the source of bitter conflict over China’s future direction, argues Tim Stanley.

'Long Live the Invincible Marxism, Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought!', Chinese poster, 1967Western opinion of Mao Zedong is at an all time low. Recent historical research, such as Frank Dikotter’s Mao’s Great Famine, has brought better understanding of just how much China suffered during the Chairman’s rule from 1949 to 1976. From the man-made famine of the Great Leap Forward to the political terror of the Cultural Revolution, Mao emerges as a vain Communist despot, who manipulated peasants and students to build a tyranny out of anarchy.

Opinion in Mao’s native China is a little more mixed. The recent dismissal of Bo Xilai from the governing Politburo illustrates how the dictator has become, for some people, a weapon to use against the Communist bureaucracy.

Bo was a ‘princeling’ of the revolution, descended from one of its historical leaders, led a luxurious lifestyle and even sent his son to Harrow. He fell from grace on March 15th, 2012 after a former lieutenant implicated his wife in the murder of a British businessman. But, as head of the Communist Party in the megalopolis of Chongqing, Bo was a charismatic leader who confronted organised crime and raised welfare spending. Curiously his working-class populism was expressed through a revival of Cultural Revolution Maoism. He encouraged students to go to work in the countryside and sent out text messages to the city’s 13 million mobile phone users that used quotes culled from Mao’s Little Red Book.

The Man Who Invented Pi

In 1706 a little-known mathematics teacher named William Jones first used a symbol to represent the platonic concept of pi, an ideal that in numerical terms can be approached, but never reached.

William Jones, mathematician from Wales, 1740
William Jones, mathematician from Wales, 1740

The history of the constant ratio of the circumference to the diameter of any circle is as old as man's desire to measure; whereas the symbol for this ratio known today as π (pi) dates from the early 18th century. Before this the ratio had been awkwardly referred to in medieval Latin as: quantitas in quam cum multiflicetur diameter, proveniet circumferencia (the quantity which, when the diameter is multiplied by it, yields the circumference).

It is widely believed that the great Swiss-born mathematician Leonhard Euler (1707-83) introduced the symbol π into common use. In fact it was first used in print in its modern sense in 1706 a year before Euler's birth by a self-taught mathematics teacher William Jones (1675-1749) in his second book Synopsis Palmariorum Matheseos, or A New Introduction to the Mathematics based on his teaching notes.