The death of Iona Opie who, with her late husband Peter, brought to light the rich and often amusing culture of children’s playground games and rhymes, sparked a memory of filming in a primary school for an episode in the ITV series Seven Ages shown back I the late 1970s. I had been fascinated by the Opie’s work for a long time with their maps of the different “truce” terms children use to get out of playground games and meticulous recording of regional variations in nonsense songs. My film was set in Colchester in Essex where I hoped to find a decent cross section of the population of all ages from infants to the elderly. I cannot remember now how we alighted on the primary school we chose to film five to eleven year olds but we got a friendly reception despite the belief amongst the staff that the kind of juvenile folk culture the Opie’s once recorded no longer existed.
The teachers were startled when I and the director took a couple of ...Read more
News that a Russian aircraft carrier and accompanying warships are in the English Channel on their way to the eastern Mediterranean should put fear into the hearts of North Sea fishermen. Here, from my book The Industrial Revolutionaries is an account of what happened in 1904 when a Russian fleet, en route to Vladivostok to confront the Japanese Navy, mistook Hull fishing boats for the enemy. The illustration above is from a postcard captioned the "Russian Outrage!".
On the afternoon of Sunday 23 October 1904 two fishing trawlers limped back to Hull on the north east coast of England, their flags flying at half mast. Those who came to greet them were at first puzzled, then horrified. The boats, the Mino and the Moulmein, were riddled with shell-holes. On board they carried the bodies of Henry Smith who had been skipper of another of the Hull Gamecock fleet, the S.T Crane, and his boatswain William Arthur Leggett. There were six wounded. It was a wonder that there were no more ...Read more
Shannon with his electronic mouse that could memorize a maze
I was pleased to see that Google chose on Saturday 30 April to celebrate the birth of Claude Shannon, one of the forgotten geniuses of the age of the computer. His name was unknown to me until I studied the history of the personal computer for my book Eureka: how invention happens (Yale 2015). I had been writing about another genius from an earlier era, George Boole, inventor of "Boolean logic" when I discovered that it was Shannon who had made practical use of this to create the digital age. This is what I had to say about him:
"It was a young American who realised that Boolean algebra could be used to process information electronically. Claude Shannon’s thesis, written in 1937, had the unexciting title A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits but came to be regarded as the most influential paper of twentieth-century electronics. As with so much innovation at the ...Read more
Edward Jenner in Kensington Gardens
While the imperialist Cecil Rhodes survived a recent campaign to have his statue removed from an Oxford University college, a little known bid to have the statue of an internationally renowned doctor returned to its rightful pedestal in London has been continuous for more than 150 years. Edward Jenner was the country surgeon who proposed in 1798 that a safer way of protecting against smallpox was to inoculate with a disease which affected cattle rather than the smallpox virus itself. Though the Royal Society refused to publish his proposal when it appeared as private paper it became an international sensation. Jenner called his miracle medicine variola vaccinae meaning literally “smallpox of the cow”. Its use soon became known as vaccination. In Jenner’s day it meant only inoculation against smallpox but was later applied to immunization against a great variety of infections in honour of his pioneering work.
There were problems ...Read more
Ever since the astonishing adulation heaped on David Bowie after his death on 10 January I have been mulling over the musical influences on my own life. Bowie meant absolutely nothing to me: his music did not appeal. When the Guardian made his portrait a full front page I, and most of my friends, were astonished. Yet Robert Peston, the former BBC reporter recently moved to ITV, said Bowie would “ have his vote as the most important Briton of our age.” Recognising that what he was writing might be dismissed as “sentimental pap”, Peston felt he could fairly say that Bowie “ probably had as big an influence on me as anyone, not just in respect of music and fashion, but also gender politics and identity.”
This set me thinking: while Bowie meant nothing to me, perhaps some other musician had a big influence on me. Bob Dylan maybe. I came to love some of his songs and I regard him as the greatest popular musician of my generation. But I ...Read more