Tag Archives: home school

He’s a lumberjack and he’s okay

What if you could make paper out of something cheap, that’s not cloth? Cloth rags are expensive. Cloth rags have fiber that can be made into a pulp. What else has fiber? I mean besides broccoli. Imagine living in North America—in Canada—and you’re surrounded by literal millions of big humongous huge growths that are nothing but fiber. I’m talking about trees. Pine wood is soft enough to break down into a pulp.

Paper from wood fiber is called newsprint—can you guess why? It was invented by Charles Fenerty, a 17-year-old lumberjack and poet. He figured that wood fibers would make decent paper. He was right. It was good enough to print newspapers on. Charlie lived in Canada, where they have tons of wood and lumberjacks to harvest it. The Fenerty family business was farming and lumber. They grew trees, cut them down, milled them and sold the lumber.

Newsprint is the name of the paper that newspapers are printed on nowadays. It’s ridiculously inexpensive. Newsprint is made out of wood pulp instead of rags. Newsprint turns yellow quickly because wood has a lot of acid in it. But that’s okay—nobody minds. Newspapers are only meant to be read once and then thrown away or recycled. Because newsprint is cheaper than cloth-fiber paper, printers can sell newspapers at a much lower cost. What’s that mean? That means more people can afford the newspaper.


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Worth the paper it’s printed on

Those newspaper printers wanted to make a buck. They needed to pay close attention to that ol’ bottom line. ‘Bottom line’ is a jokey way of saying what you get when you subtract how much you spent from how much you made. You get a bigger bottom line (more profit) by reducing what you spend.

Take paper, for instance. Paper is one of the expenses of printing a newspaper. Making paper hadn’t changed much since its invention. It was good stuff. Fiber from linen, wool and cotton rags was broken down into a watery slurry that got pressed into a gorgeous piece of paper.*

Paper must have been a big overhead expense for a newspaper operation in those days. Think about it—what happens to a newspaper the day after it’s published? It lines bird cage floors. Kids make hats out of it. British people use it like a cone to hold their fish ‘n’ chips. Nobody needs a newspaper once it becomes yesterday’s news. Seems a waste of top-quality paper, doesn’t it?

* I know all about it. I shell out extra samolians for rag content paper because it’s such a treat to draw on (I like Borden & Riley #37 Boris Layout Bond. I draw on it with a 2B lead pencil).

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You gotta be authorized!

Newspapers provided news, information and opinion at a reasonable cost. As we saw in past cultures, the big-shots in charge like to exercise tight control on news, information and opinion. The early newspapers of the 1600s & 1700s had to be ‘authorized.’ Authorized newspaper printers were given permission to publish by the government. Maybe the government covered some of the costs of running an authorized newspaper. Running an unauthorized newspaper had some downsides. In England and her colonies, unauthorized newspaper printers were shut down by government officials, all copies destroyed and everybody who worked there arrested.

This happened to America’s very first newspaper publisher in Boston on September 25, 1690. Today, only one copy of that first newspaper—Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick—exists.


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Newspapers and coffee

Around the same time that newspapers first appeared, coffee houses were becoming a thing in London, England. Coffee is a hot beverage that was first imported from Turkey. People (okay, men) gathered at coffee houses to meet, talk, exchange ideas and gather news. It was natural that newspapers were sold there.

For the cartoon up top, I redrew part of this wonderful drawing pretty much as is. It’s the interior of Lloyd’s coffee house in the late 1600s. Right away you can see everybody has a newspaper—newspapers were much smaller then than what we’re used to, and just one sheet of paper. Business was conducted here. Lloyd’s insured ship’s cargoes so they depended on being up-to-the-minute on world events. Coffee was served in saucers. Look at the serving-boy on the left—he knows how to pour coffee, from a height. That way you get some froth into the drink.

Lloyd’s still exists as a big insurance company today. They insure everything.

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And now, the news

We talked about pamphleteers and pamphlets. The mechanized printing press made it feasible (you wouldn’t go broke doing it) to write up an essay or an article and get copies of it printed, distributed and sold. There were enough literate (they could read) customers to support a pamphlet business. Some of those pamphleteers got rich and famous. It must have become clear after awhile that news could be reported, printed and published in a larger format and on a regular schedule—weekly or even daily—at an affordable cost. A newspaper! A newspaper could tell you what was going on and also offer opinions about current events. If you can make money from a pamphlet, why not make money from a newspaper?

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Okay, where were we?

Oh, yeah—we’d started to talk about newspapers.

What is a newspaper?

: a paper that is printed and distributed usually daily or weekly and that contains news, articles of opinion, features, and advertising

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Early newspapers

First newspaper printed in Europe—1605, Belgium
First newspaper in America
https://www.poynter.org/reporting-editing/2014/today-in-media-history-first-colonial-newspaper-published-in-1690/ (I think there may have been a South American colony with a newspaper earlier than that)
Okay, okay—I’m not sure this counts but it is true that in 59 bc there was a newspaper in Rome. No printing press yet, of course, so every copy of every edition was chiseled in stone.* No, really. I’m not kidding you—check the link. Newspapers were stone slabs, you guys. The cartoons practically draw themselves: Roman newspaper boys riding their bicycles in the early morning and flinging copies onto people’s front stoops, shattering potted plants and braining pets. The Sunday paper weighed about 700 pounds. You had to bust up the Sunday circular with a sledgehammer to clip a coupon (alright, yes, now I’m kidding you).

*The late President Ronald Reagan (who was famous for his one-liners) beat me to this gag: https://apnews.com/article/838395d21680de45ca7d4657bc3ee3a3


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The liquid crystal display explained!

Three inventions moved clocks and watches away from being mechanical/analogue so they could become digital: The quartz crystal, the circuit board and the liquid crystal display.

Okay, I sort of explained how a battery works. I kind of explained how a quartz crystal works. The circuit board was easy—even a shmo like me can explain printed metallic ink on a plastic card. But—liquid crystal display? I started this post about 17 times and kept getting lost in the weeds with carrot juice and double melting points and twisted nematics and polarization…

Let’s start here: analogue clocks and watches were inaccurate because they have physical, mechanical moving parts. So we replaced the wound-up mainspring with a battery. We replaced the balance wheel with a vibrating quartz crystal. Now we need to replace the moving mechanical gears, hour-hand and minute-hand with a digital (just the numbers) display of the correct time. How do we do that?

A digital wristwatch made by the Japanese company Casio.

Instead of mechanical gears and hands, we’re going to use electricity and light.

We want a watch-face that will light up and show us what time it is. We want most of the face to light up except the numbers, which should be black so we can read ‘em easily. We’ll block the light in the shape of each number so it shows up black. The numbers will change every minute, so we need a way to change the blocked areas every minute.

In order to block the light, we need a filter. The filter lets us control which rays of light pass through and which rays get blocked. A filter could be a wall of liquid filled with crystals that all face the same direction. The lined-up crystals let the light pass through. We’ll sandwich this wall between 2 plates of glass. The crystals still let light pass through—until we zap them with a little electricity. The electricity upsets the crystals so they don’t line up anymore and light can’t pass through.

We’re only going to zap in certain areas. We want those certain areas to be shaped like numbers. For instance, when we zap the glass in the shape of a ‘3,’ those crystals in the 3-shape get upset and don’t line up with the rest of the crystals in the wall. Light can’t pass through the 3-shape, so we see a black ‘3’ on a lighted watch-face.

Just like on a circuit board, we’ll print the numbers onto the glass in ink. This ink is transparent—and it conducts electricity. Each number is designed as a 7-segment figure, so we can zap only the segments that form a ‘3,’ or whichever number we want. Each segment is wired to the battery.

This is the principle behind LCDs. It’s a simplification. I left out a lot of stuff. But you get the idea, right?


Many thanks to a couple of the Western Civ Irregulars, Diana (Ms Physics) and engineering-wiz Don M—both pals of mine since childhood. They pointed me in the right direction when I couldn’t find a way to explain this one.

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Eratosthanes and longitude

Old-time tv newsrooms had clocks on the wall set to local times of the big cities.

How did Eratosthanes or Ptolemy determine where the longitude lines should go? I got this from the History Stack Exchange site:

Longitude is calculated by comparing the elevation of an astronomical object to the pre-calculated (or observed) elevation of the same object at a reference location at the precisely simultaneous moment in time. Everything in the sky rotates once around that vast celestial sphere every 24 hours, so the more precisely one can establish simultaneity the more precise one’s measurement of longitude will be.

Whew! In other words: 2 people standing in 2 different places can measure the height in the sky of the moon, or the Sun, or the North Star to figure out how far east or west they are from each other. BUT—the measurement must be taken at exactly the same moment. Eratosthanes figured a way to find longitude without the measuring. Eratosthanes (in Alexandria) and an assistant (in someplace to the west—maybe Benghazi?) watched a lunar eclipse. They agreed to mark the exact local time the eclipse began. The local times won’t be the same, right? When it’s midnight in Benghazi, it will be 12:36 am in Alexandria. The difference in their times told Eratosthanes how many degrees apart from each other they were.

I’ll tell you how in the next post.

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Like a pendulum do

One time while sitting in church, Galileo noticed a lamp suspended from the ceiling that was swinging back and forth. That motion is known as a pendulum. As it swung, he observed the lamp kept the same rate of speed. It occurred to Galileo that you could use a pendulum’s regular rate of speed to regulate a clock.

We learned that in Galileo’s time a clock was powered by a weight that slowly released its energy as it was pulled to Earth by gravity. The mechanism that slowed down—regulated—the weight’s energy is called an escapement. Galileo thought to replace the verge and foliot escapement with a pendulum escapement.

Just like the verge and foliot, as the pendulum swings back and forth it allows a gear to move forward a little bit just before a pawl stops it—until the pendulum swings to the other side. The pendulum escapement releases-stops-releases-stops the gears as they move the hands of the clock. Here is an excellent animation of Galileo’s escapement. Notice how when the gear turns it gives the pendulum a teensy little push.


Watch this guy make a wooden pendulum clock: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rvU37Aho4FA

Here’s some terrible music:

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