Feb
28
2010
3

Which English novel has the most memorable opening and closing lines?

paris-londonOne could, of course, argue about which English novel has the most memorable opening and closing lines, but since the novel has sold more than 200 million copies and is the most printed original English book, it is safe to say that the greatest number of persons have had a chance to remember the lines: [&hel[more...]

Feb
28
2010
0

Did Doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin invent the guillotine?

joseph-guillotinDr Joseph Guillotin may have instigated the guillotine, but he did not invent it. The good doctor (1738-1814) taught anatomy, physiology and pathology at the university in Paris for five years. He was a leading Freemason, reputedly acquainted with Voltaire. In 1784, together with Benjamin Franklin and others, he was a member of the commission [&hel[more...]

Feb
28
2010
1

What is the history and meaning of the phrase “There are no rules until they are broken”?

Image by Katiya (CC-BY)There are no rules until they are broken. The idea behind this phrase is that the boundaries of acceptable behavior are complex and subtle, and cannot be codified by a simple set of rules. Therefore it’s best to start out with a set of general expectations backed up by a few rules, and to add [&hel[more...]

Feb
28
2010
0

What is Isinglass?

isinglass-lanternsIsinglass is the name of two quite different things: a gelatinous substance obtained by cleaning and drying the air bladders of certain fish, used in the clarification of wines and beers and in making jellies, etc. These days, gelatin is mainly produced from other animal sources. the mineral mica, a silicate containing potassium and aluminum [&hel[more...]

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Feb
27
2010
2

What is Einstein's Theory of Relativity, in simple language?

theory-of-relativityAlbert Einstein's theory is known as the Theory of Relativity because its core principle is that the speed of light in a vacuum is always the same, relative to the observer. This is totally unlike the speed of anything else. If you are driving along the motorway at 100km/hr and the car in the next [&hel[more...]

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Feb
27
2010
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Has anyone ever been posthumously executed?

oliver-cromwellMany people have been executed after their death, the first one mentioned being Leonidas of Sparta in the 5th century BCE, beheaded and crucified after he died in the battle of Thermopylae. In the Christian era in Europe, more than a few persons suffered a death penalty after they had already died or been killed, [&hel[more...]

Feb
27
2010
2

Why is Gretna Green famous for weddings?

gretna-greenGretna Green, a small village in Scotland just across the border from England, is renown for the many weddings celebrated there: more than 5000 each year and one in six Scottish weddings. It is especially known as a place where young couples eloped to. It all started in 1754, when Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act took [&hel[more...]

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Feb
26
2010
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What does the author of “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling” have to do with the establishment of the London Police, or what is a “Bow Street Runner”?

henry-fieldingMany will remember that the hero of Henry Fielding's novel had a lively career that often ran afoul of the law. When the novel was published in 1749, Fielding was a magistrate in the Bow Street magistrates' office in London, also the site of the Bow Street Court. At the time, pursuit of criminals was [&hel[more...]

Feb
26
2010
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What is a railway union station?

denver-union-stationIn North America there are many Union Stations: Washington DC, Los Angeles, Chicago, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, even Saskatoon, to mention just a few. When railways were first built, each company had its own station. The situation in London in the 19th century suggests the problems: the use and expense of areas of land on the [&hel[more...]

Feb
24
2010
3

Why do they shout “Hear Hear!” in the British Parliament?

Houses of Parliament (photo by victoriapeckham CC-BY)The British Parliament is steeped in history and tradition, and parliamentary debates in the House of Commons are often very lively and noisy with Members of Parliament calling out to the opposition party, waving order papers, exaggerating laughter or deriding the speeches of the opposition members. Critics liken it to a bear pit or a [&hel[more...]

Feb
23
2010
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What is a hong bowl?

Two views of a hong bowl (photo by myoarin - CC-BY)A hong bowl is a punch bowl made in China for the export trade, originally in the 18th century, when European countries established trading posts in China. Back then, such a trading post was called a factory, in Chinese, hong. The factories didn’t produce anything but were rather the base of the factor: the agent, [&hel[more...]

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Feb
23
2010
3

What is the oldest sporting trophy?

Winners of Doggett's Coat and Badge, the oldest rowing race (PD-EXP)Each time the America's Cup match races are held, sponsors claim that the America's Cup is the oldest sporting trophy, and the media often say the same. The official website is more circumspect, stating: “… the America's Cup is often called the oldest trophy in sport.” The first race was in 1851, around the Isle [&hel[more...]

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Feb
23
2010
1

When did the White House get its name?

The White House .circa 1860 (photo from D.C. Public Library NKCP)The home of the President of United States was officially named the White House in October 1901. Construction of the building started in 1792, and the John Adams was the first President to occupy the building in 1800, even though it was far from finished. During the 19th century it was variously known as the [&hel[more...]

Feb
22
2010
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What popularized the expression "…and have used no other since"?

Cartoon by Harry Furniss (PD-EXP)If you think the expression sounds like a product endorsement, you are right. If you think it sounds like a soap ad, you are absolutely correct, perhaps envisioning an well-known lovely smiling from a magazine page or speaking in a television spot. The soap manufacturer in question didn't hesitate to advertise with testimonials. Lillie Langtry [&hel[more...]

Feb
22
2010
2

Why do traffic accidents happen?

What caused this? (photo by ZapTheDingbat CC-BY)The Department of Transport (D of T) in the UK produces detailed annual reports on traffic accidents where a person has been injured. When investigating a traffic accident, police will take report any contributory factors which contributed to the collision. Not every accident will have a contributory factor reported, and some may have more than [&hel[more...]

Feb
20
2010
3

Is a "50M" watch waterproof to 50 meters?

Photo by lovstromp - CC-BYIf you just bought a watch rated “50M”, you would be forgiven for assuming that it is waterproof to a depth of 50 meters. So can you go diving with it? No way… Ratings such as 30M, 50M, 100M and 200M indicate watches that are in some way water resistant, but are unsuitable for scuba [&hel[more...]

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Feb
20
2010
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What is red tape?

Photo by Paul Lowry - CC-BYRed tape is when bureaucracy gets in the way of what you need: local government asking for obviously unnecessary documentation for something you want to do to your house—that you probably could have gotten away with without asking for approval; or it's taking ages to just get a stamp of approval on a simple form, [&hel[more...]

Feb
18
2010
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What do they do with unwanted aircraft?

This Boeing 737 will eventually be recycled (photo by eisenbahner CC-BY)In this time of financial constraints, the aviation industry is finding things rather tough. However, one part of the industry is flourishing, and that is aircraft recycling. Airlines are disposing of aircraft which are old, or aircraft which for financial reasons cannot be maintained within their fleet and kept flying. Or where the airline has [&hel[more...]

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Feb
17
2010
6

Where did Johnny Cash's Scottish ancestors come from?

Easter Cash, Fife, Scotland: Did Johnny Cash's ancestors live near here? (Photo by Iain Gillespie, CC-BY)In the 1670s a young Scotsman called William Cash sailed to the New World and set up home in Virginia.  Nine generations later his direct descendant, country music star Johnny Cash, wanted to explore his ancestry. He crossed the Atlantic in the other direction, to visit the part of Fife once known as the “lands [&hel[more...]

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Feb
17
2010
1

What is the history of the Abbey Road Studios?

Abbey Road Studios. (photo by Misterweiss PD)The news that EMI are selling the Abbey Road Studios where the Beatles recorded the majority of their records, led me to do some research on the history of the building in which the studios are located. Number 3, Abbey Road, St John’s Wood, London, was built in the 1830s. Number 3 was called Agnes [&hel[more...]

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