Tag Archives: civilization

Railroads go everywhere

Soon railways stretched across Great Britain, Europe, the Americas, India, Russia, Africa, Australia—the whole world. Travel became safe and affordable. You didn’t have to be an explorer or spice trader or soldier to wander to a new country. You could travel as a ‘tourist,’ just for fun. Railway lines from neighboring countries linked up with each other. Land-locked areas were connected with port cities. And the father of all science-fiction writers asked himself, “With all these improvements in travel, exactly how long would it take for someone to circle the globe?”—but in French.

History of the railroad in Europe—https://europeanrailroads.blogs.wm.edu/briefhistory-of-railroads-in-europe/

And Canada—https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/railway-history

Here is the fascinating story of railroads in India. Their railway system began in the days of the British Empire (the Raj). The railroad changed the country and saved many lives in areas struck by famine and drought. Food and water could be brought quickly to remote parts of India.

Timeline: 165 years of history on Indian Railways

History of the railroad in Russia—https://www.railstaff.co.uk/2015/09/25/history-of-russian-railways-part-1-the-tsars/
George Whistler, the American engineer brought in as consultant to the Tsar’s project, was James’ dad (James the guy who famously painted his mother. That James Whistler).

In both Africa—https://utahrails.net/articles/central-africa-railroads.php
and Australia—https://www.infrastructure.gov.au/rail/history.aspx
there was no unified vision of a continent-wide rail system. Different regions or countries laid track but each chose its own gauge (so some tracks were wide, some narrow) which resulted in regrettable setbacks. The railroads couldn’t connect to each other. Many lines had to be rebuilt. Some locomotives and cars were unusable.

Latin America—http://logisticsportal.iadb.org/node/4213?language=en
Paul Theroux wrote a travelogue, The Old Patagonian Express, about his journey from a Boston suburb to the south of South America, all by rail.  He wrote a similar travelogue, The Great Railway Bazaar, taking a rail trip from London to Tokyo (he rode the Trans-Siberian Railway—all the cars piped in loud, over-produced Christmas music ha ha—just kidding). I read these 2 books decades ago, and dimly remember some adult content so I shouldn’t recommend them to you guys until you graduate from high school. On the other hand…

…I can recommend Jules Verne. If you haven’t seen the movie Around The World in Eighty Days (the good one—Michael Todd directing David Niven and practically every character actor or celebrity of the day), read the book first. It’s the most fun of Jules Verne’s work. Both book and movie (yes, there are cringey moments from today’s viewpoint) are highly recommended by me.




Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

The Greeks

Athena, Goddess of Wisdom

Let’s travel north from Egypt, across the Mediterranean Sea, to the island of Crete and the Greek mainland. It’s the Bronze Age, everybody!—from 3200 to 1100 bc—because some genius figured out smelting. Smelting is melting down 2 or more metals at very high heat, then combining them so when they cool, they’re a new metal, called an alloy. If you smelt the metals copper and tin, you get the alloy bronze. Bronze is stronger than copper or tin. Bronze was a handy material for making weapons and armor.

Like the Sumerians and Egyptians, the Greeks were farmers. Because Crete and the Cyclades are islands, they spent some time zipping around the Mediterranean in ships and trading with other people who lived along the sea. They used coins for conducting business—first made out of electrum, an alloy of gold & silver, later replaced with coins of pure gold and pure silver.

When we talk about the Greeks as a civilization, we’re talking about a bunch of individual city-states—like Athens, Sparta, Thebes and Corinth—who shared language, religion and culture. Sometimes they fought with each other, sometimes they banded together to fight a common enemy.

The Greeks were polytheistic—they worshiped many gods. Polytheism: poly= many; theo/deo=god.

These city-states were ruled by kings, but in Athens they began a system of government called democracy, where citizens can vote on who rules them.

The Greeks introduced theater; created statues and pottery; wrote epic poetry and songs; and developed a style of architecture using weight-bearing columns.

Measuring length in ancient Egypt

One thing about a civilization: people are always building things or buying & selling things. The Egyptians built some impressively big things. When you’re putting together something as big as a pyramid, you need to get all the measurements right. The Egyptians traded things as well. If you’re selling or buying a plot of land, or a roll of fabric, or a quantity of wheat, both buyer and seller need to agree on how much is being traded.

What you need are standardized measurements. Before the Egyptians started building a pyramid, they had to figure how big the base of it would be so that the sides could come to a point at the top at the right height. If an Egyptian were buying a roll of fabric, she’d need to use the same measurement as the seller to describe how much fabric was being sold.

What do you do if you don’t have a ruler or a tape measure or a yardstick? Or, what if you have a ruler or a tape measure or a yardstick but yours is different from somebody else’s?

Here’s what the ancient Egyptians did: they used the good old human body for measuring.

A grown man’s foot is more or less the same length as every other grown man’s foot. Sure, some are longer, some shorter—but not by very much. The average grown man’s foot can be used as a standard measurement. Those clever Egyptians imaginatively named this measurement a ‘foot.’

The length of a grown man’s forearm—from elbow to the tip of the middle finger—is more or less the same length as every other grown man’s forearm. This measurement was known as a ‘cubit.’ The Latin word ‘cubitum’ means elbow. In the Hebrew Bible, cubits are used to describe the size of Noah’s Ark, or how tall Goliath was, or how long to make the curtains for the Tabernacle.

From the middle of a man’s chest to the tip of his middle finger is two cubits. From fingertip to fingertip of both outstretched hands is four cubits.

Using a grown man for measuring.

One ‘palm’ equals 4 digits (fingers) of a grown man’s hand. There are 7 palms in a cubit, or 28 digits. A digit is roughly 3/4 of an inch. A palm is just under 3 inches.

That’s how the Egyptians standardized their measurements. You can find grown men just about anywhere! If not, they had cubit rods marked with cubits, feet, palms and fingers.

Cubit rod.