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Madsen Pirie

Madsen Pirie



Articles by Madsen Pirie

Einstein and the bomb

1 day ago

On October 17th 1933, Albert Einstein arrived in the United States to stay. He and his wife had been returning to Europe by ship in the Spring, when they heard that Germany had passed the Enabling Act that gave Hitler dictatorial powers. They decided it would be unwise and unsafe to return to Berlin as planned, but went instead to Belgium, and six months later to the United States.Their precaution was justified, in that they learned that the Nazis had raided their cottage, confiscated and sold his sailboat, and later converted his cottage into a Hitler Youth camp. Einstein accepted an offer from the Institute for Advanced Study, a body that became a haven for refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Other big-name US universities had minimal or zero Jewish faculty or students at that time.Einstein’s

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Solving environmental problems

2 days ago

The Extinction Rebellion protesters say the world is in crisis, and that emissions must be reduced to zero by 2025. To achieve that would mean we’d have to drive much less, eat much less meat, and use much less energy. We’d rise with the sun and go to bed at sunset. We wouldn’t heat our homes in winter or cool them in summer. We probably wouldn’t fly at all, and certainly not take cruises. We’d have to stop using fossil fuels almost straight away, since their target date is just over 5 years away. Most shipping and freight would have to stop. We’d be eating locally grown turnips instead of mangoes from afar. Most people would never travel abroad.Fundamentally it’s a programme to abandon the Industrial Revolution and the growth that has lifted most of humankind out of subsistence and

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Thirteen October days of missile crisis

2 days ago

The Cuban Missile Crisis began on October 16th 1962 when US President John F Kennedy was shown photographs taken by a U2 spy plane that gave proof that the Soviet Union was building missile launching sites in Cuba from which it could launch a nuclear attack on the US. This began a 13-day tense confrontation that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.A U2 spy plane took photos that showed that the Soviets were constructing launch sites in Cuba for medium and intermediate range missiles targeted at US cities. The significance was that they could reach that targets in only a few minutes, giving the US no time to launch a counter-strike before they hit. The Soviets were this about to acquire a first strike capability and upset the balance of forces. Evidence suggested they were

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The 1987 storm before the stock market storm

3 days ago

The storm hit the UK on the night of October 15th 1987. Earlier on television, weather presenter Michael Fish had reassured viewers: “Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she’d heard there was a hurricane on the way. Well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t."I suppose that technically, hurricanes cannot reach this far North, but the UK certainly had hurricane force winds, the most violent since 1703. Winds reached 120 mph, causing major damage, with trees and power lines brought down. Britain lost an estimated 15 million trees, and hundreds of thousands of people were left without electricity, some for up to two weeks, as the National Grip suffered heavy damage. Buildings were damaged in London, and falling trees smashed onto parked cars and blocked roads.

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Speakers’ Corner still has free speech

4 days ago

On October 14th, 1855, a carpenter set up a soapbox in Hyde Park, near Marble Arch in London, and made a speech to onlookers complaining abut high food prices. Thus was born the tradition that became known as Speakers’ Corner, the place where free speech is exercised by anyone who wishes to. The place had a grimmer history, in that it was the site of the Tyburn Hanging Tree, where prisoners were hanged. Crowds would gather to be entertained by the spectacle, and it was the tradition that the condemned were allowed to address the crowd in a final speech. They would often argue with members of the crowd as they denounced the State, or the Church, or in some cases vainly protested their innocence.Following the Speakers’ Corner tradition, the Chartists held mass protests there in the mid-19th

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International Day for Disaster Reduction

5 days ago

Ten years ago, on October 13th, 2009, the United Nations General Assembly designated October 13th as the International Day for Disaster Reduction. The aim was to have annual observance of the day as a means to foster a worldwide culture of natural disaster reduction. Natural disasters happen, but the aim was to promote measures that would include prevention, mitigation and preparedness, and to encourage private citizens and organizations, together with governments, to participate in creating more disaster-resilient communities and countries. Obviously there will be floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes and typhoons, and we do not yet have the technical means to prevent them or to reduce their severity. But there are measures we can take, sensible measures, that can lessen the impact

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Landfall in the Bahamas

6 days ago

Christopher Columbus changed the world when his ships made landfall on October 12th, 1492. It is hard to appreciate how dangerous his voyage was, sailing in small, flimsy ships out into the great ocean we call the Atlantic. He had no idea of how long it would take or what he would find. He had to endure the storms and hardships of the journey, without knowing if he would find land at all. He’d set sail from Spain on August 3rd at 8.0 am, with the patronage of the King and Queen, but within 3 days the rudder of the Pinta broke. Securing it with ropes, they all limped into the Canaries for repairs. After 29 days out in a landless sea, they saw “immense flocks of birds” which they followed, identifying them as land birds. At 2.0 am on October 12th they sighted land, and put into a place the

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Making elevators safe

7 days ago

Alexander Miles did not invent the elevator, but he made it safe. The African-American inventor and entrepreneur patented his electric elevator with automatically closing doors on October 11th, 1887. Early elevators had been used several hundred years BC, powered by human or animal muscle power, and occasionally water power. Before Miles filed his patent, the elevators of his day were steam powered, and had doors that had to be opened and closed manually. Sometimes people forgot and were injured; sometimes people stepped into empty lift shafts and fell hundreds of feet. Miles improved their safety with mechanisms that closed off access when the lift was moving, and closed the doors automatically before the cage could move. His lifts were electric, and the mechanisms he devised continue to

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Happy birthday, Oleg

8 days ago

Oleg Gordievsky was born on October 10th, 1938. He was almost certainly the most important spy of the Cold War, as a high-ranking KGB officer and head of their station in London, while secretly working for British Intelligence from 1974 to 1985. He was a conviction spy, and his initial refusal to accept money when he was recruited alarmed the British, since this was a major way they controlled agents. Initially stationed in Berlin just before the wall was built, he became disillusioned with the Soviet system when the wall was put up to keep the population imprisoned. The last straw for him was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to extinguish its programme of liberalization. Posted to Denmark, he began behaviour that indicted to Danish Intelligence that he might be recruited. MI6

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Protectionist Navigation Acts

9 days ago

An “Act for increase of Shipping, and Encouragement of the Navigation of this Nation” was passed on 9 October 1651 by Oliver Cromwell’s Rump Parliament. It was mercantilism in spades, the start of a series of laws to regulate international trade to the advantage of British ships and British goods. Those Navigation Acts also regulated English fisheries and sought to prevent the access of foreign vessels to colonial trade. This was protectionism writ large, the desire to accumulate ‘wealth’ to Britain by selling more overseas than it bought. It was the start of a series of regulatory Navigation Acts, with an Act of 1660 that was developed and tightened by the Navigation Acts of 1663, 1673, and 1696The acts sought to shut out foreign ships from England’s colonial trade, banning their ships,

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Microwave makes life better

10 days ago

In 1945, Percy Spencer, employed by Raytheon, was working on a radar unit when he noticed that it had somehow melted a bar of chocolate in his pocket. He was lucky it didn’t melt him. He used it next to cook popcorn, and then an egg – which exploded in the face of the engineers. On October 8th of 1945, 74 years ago, Raytheon filed a US patent for the new cooking process that Spencer had discovered, and the microwave oven was born.The invention had British origins, in that it owed its existence to the cavity magnetron, developed to make shortwave radar possible in World War II. In 1940 Sir John Randall and Harry Boot invented a valve that could produce microwaves with a wavelength of 10cm. The magnetron was taken to the US by Sir Henry Tizard, a wartime scientific adviser, in exchange for

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Russia’s new Tsar

11 days ago

Vladimir Putin was born in what was then called Leningrad and is now St Petersburg on October 7th, 1952. After graduating in law he became a spook, a KGB officer for 16 years, eventually Lieutenant Colonel, stationed in East Germany until it collapsed in 1989. He then went into St Petersburg politics in 1991, and five years later moved to Moscow to join President Yeltsin. He became acting President on the last day of the 20th Century and has been President from 2000-2008, Prime Minister from 2008-2012, and President again since 2012. Assuming the interlude with Dmitry Medvedev as President was simply a subterfuge to get around term limits, Putin has been in power for just short of 20 years, and has announced he will not seek a further term when his present one expires in 2024. In his first

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Barbara Castle – remembered for what she didn’t do

12 days ago

Barbara Castle, born in October 6th, 1910, was one of the most successful female Labour politicians of the 20th Century. She served in the Department of Transport, overseeing the introduction of permanent speed limits, alcohol breath tests and compulsory seat belts. In the Employment Department she brought in he Equal Pay Act, and she also served in Overseas Development and Health and Social Security.However, it is probably something she didn’t do that will be recorded in the history books. In an attempt to bring the trade unions within the law, she proposed to limit their powers in her 1969 white paper, “In Place of Strife.” Union bosses were bringing the country to its knees by exercising industrial power with arrogant, bullying tactics that were beyond the rule of law. They rebelled

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The ill-fated R101

13 days ago

It was a major blow to British aviation when the airship R101 crashed and burned in France on October 5th, 1930, on its maiden overseas voyage. It was headed to Karachi, then part of the British Empire as part of a project to serve long-distance imperial routes. Two rigid airships were authorized in this programme, both publicly funded, and effectively in competition with each other. The R01 was designed and built by an air ministry-appointed team under Lord Thomson, the Labour Secretary of State for Air in Ramsay MacDonald’s government, whereas the R100 was designed and built by private industry, by a team headed by Barnes Wallis, later to design the dambuster bouncing bomb and the swing wing aircraft design. The R101’s trials had not met expectations. Its lift was nearly 3.5 tons lighter

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The space age began the space race

14 days ago

On October 4th, 1957, the USSR launched a satellite into Earth orbit as part of International Geophysical Year. Sputnik 1 was not the first man-made object to reach outer space; that feat was accomplished by Wernher von Braun’s V2 rocket in World War II (in 1944 a vertically launched one passed the internationally accepted Kármán Line of 100km, and one launched in 1943 had reached Richard Branson’s redefinition of space as 85km). But Sputnik was the first to attain Earth orbit. It was a polished sphere 23 inches in diameter, with 4 trailing antennae broadcasting radio pulses. The famous “beep, beep, beep…” could be heard by radio amateurs, and the satellite’s 65-degree inclination meant it could be heard almost in almost every inhabited part of the world. Travelling at 18,000 mph, it

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Politicians, public servants, and James Buchanan

15 days ago

I knew James Buchanan personally, largely through the Mont Pelerin Society, in which he served a term as President. He was born on October 3rd, 1919, one hundred years ago. He lived to be 93 years old, and changed economic thinking. He was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1986. He went through university in Tennessee, his home state, by living at home and working on the farm. His war years were spent under Admiral Chester Nimitz in Honolulu, after which he went to do a doctorate at the University of Chicago under Frank Knight, who also taught Milton Friedman and George Stigler. Buchanan had not realized how free market-oriented the economics department there was, but it converted him from being a youthful socialist to becoming a fervent and lifetime advocate of

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Redesigning the car, Issigonis style

16 days ago

We said goodbye to Alex Issigonis, who left us on October 2nd, 1988, but not before he had revolutionized motoring for millions of us. Sir Alex Issigonis, CBE, FRS, RDI, was the son of Greek and German parents, born into the Greek community of Smyrna, the Ottoman, now part of Turkey. He moved to the UK in 1923 after being evacuated to Malta by Royal Marines when the Turks captured Smyrna. He studied at Battersea Polytechnic, now part of the University of Surrey, and went into the auto industry working for Humber and competing in racing events. He was very proud of the part he played in developing the Morris Minor, but he leapt to fame when Sir Leonard Lord, head of the British Motor Corporation, tasked him with designing an ultra-small car following the fuel rationing that resulted from

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The People’s Republic at 70

17 days ago

Chairman Mao Zedong declared China to be a Communist People’s Republic on October 1st, 1949, 70 years ago. The small triumphal parade then will be dwarfed by the modern one. Tanks, planes, missiles, and thousands of marching feet will parade through Tiananmen Square, watched over by the current Communist Party leader, President Xi Jinping. They will celebrate 70 years of Communist Party rule, demonstrating China’s power, wealth and status. Mao Zedong will be honoured for his founding role. What will not be mentioned is that he was a disaster for China, holding back the talent and enterprise of her peoples, and it was only after Mao died and was replaced that China began the achievements that are being celebrated. It was only when the party abandoned collectivism, central planning of all

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The plane that changed the world

18 days ago

People were astonished as the new plane was unveiled in public for the first time on September 30th, 1968, 51 years ago. It was huge, bigger than any civilian aircraft they had seen. It was, of course, the Boeing 747, the first wide-body passenger plane to take to the skies. Its distinctive shape, with a bulge on top at the front, made it instantly recognizable. That bulge accommodated the upper deck, where there was a first class bar and lounge or additional seating, with the pilots at the front. Some first class passengers downstairs in the nose of the plane were (and are) ahead of the pilots upstairs. It was designed as a successor to the highly successful Boeing 707, and to carry 50 percent more passengers over greater distances. Its most common current variant, the 747-400 can cruise

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Ludwig von Mises

19 days ago

One of history’s most influential economists was born on September 29th, 1881. Ludwig von Mises was born into a very talented family at Lemberg in Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now Lviv in Ukraine. By the time he was 12 years old, he could read Latin, understand Ukrainian, and was fluent in German, Polish and French. One of the most famous of the Austrian economists, von Mises was influenced by Carl Menger, the founder of that school, and had attended the lectures of Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk. He worked for a time in the finance department of Austria’s civil service, but worked and wrote as an academic after fleeing Austria in 1940 and moving to the United States. Mises was an economist, an historian and a sociologist. Amongst his many original and influential

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An accidental Nobel Prize

20 days ago

The Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming recounted that the discovery of penicillin dates from September 28th, 1928. That was when he entered his laboratory in the basement of St Mary’s Hospital in London and found that one of the Petri dishes of Staphylococci that had been mistakenly left open had been contaminated by mould entering from an open window. It formed a visible blue-green growth, but around it was a ring of inhibited bacterial growth. Fleming concluded that something in the mould had killed the bacteria, and set about finding what it was.The rest, as they say, is history. Fleming isolated it and grew a pure culture of it, naming it Penicillin chrysogenum. It became the first of a range of antibiotics that have saved millions of lives since that first discovery. Penicillin

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The Model T Ford and the Liberty ships

21 days ago

September 27th was an important date in the development of mass production on two occasions. In 1908 it marked the beginning of production of Henry Ford’s Model T car in Detroit Michigan. The idea of using interchangeable parts that could be slotted together had been pioneered and popularized by Eli Whitney when he had won a contract to supply muskets to the new US army in 1798, but Henry Ford took it further. Using a moving production line, instead of individually crafting each car, as carriages had been made at one time, his workers put pre-assembled pieces together to make a car that became an icon. It could be made so cheaply that motoring ceased to be a plaything of the rich, but became accessible to the common man. Suddenly America became mobile, and people could travel from their

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How to succeed in communism

22 days ago

Nicu Ceaușescu died on September 26th, 1996. He was the youngest child of Romania’s Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, and was a close associate of his father’s political regime. He was being groomed to succeed his father eventually. While studying Physics at university, he became First Secretary of the Communist Youth Movement, and then Minister for Youth Issues when elected to the party’s Central Committee.His career seemed to be going well, despite his reputation as a heavy drinker and his involvement in rape incidents and car accidents. But it was permanently derailed when his parents were executed on Christmas Day, 1989, as the Communist government was overthrown. He was accused of holding children hostage, and of misuse of government funds, and was sentenced in 1990 to 20 years in

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Tackling the ozone hole

23 days ago

It was 45 years ago, on September 25th, 1974, that scientists alerted the world to the environmental damage being caused by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The ‘miracle compound,’ freon, representing several different CFCs, had been invented in 1928 for use in refrigeration and spray cans. It was regarded as safe because it was non-toxic, non-inflammable, and largely non-reactive, unlike dangerous alternatives such as ammonia.The study revealed, however, that CFCs made their way to the upper atmosphere, where ultraviolet radiation broke them down and released their chlorine to attack the ozone layer. The Earth’s high ozone later shields the surface from much of the ultraviolet radiation that might otherwise increase cases of skin cancer in humans and genetic damage to many organisms. Research

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Herman Hollerith began data processing

25 days ago

Herman Hollerith filed his first patent application on September 23rd, 1884. It was entitled "Art of Compiling Statistics," and was a description of how a machine could mechanically process at speed punched cards containing information. The idea was simple, but revolutionary. Data could be input by making or not making a hole in the card. Thus in one row, a hole might indicate married, whereas the absence of one might mean unmarried. In the next row a hole might mean North of England, while the absence of on might mean South of England. The cards, fed mechanically at speed, would encounter teeth that slotted them into appropriate columns. A pile of cards in one tray might contain all those registered as married, living in North of England. The data could be registered on cards with

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Number Ten’s first Prime Minister

26 days ago

On September 22nd, 1735, Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister (although the title was not used until much later), moved into Number Ten Downing Street (although it did not have that number then). Its famous door (through which it was not then entered) has become an iconic symbol of Britain’s democratic government. That famous door was not added until 40 years later, and was made of oak until after the 1991 IRA mortar attack on the building, following which it was replaced by bomb-proof material. The black bricks that surround the door, separated from it by the cream-coloured casing, are in fact yellow underneath. They were turned black, as were nearly all London buildings, by the 19th and 20th Century smog of the coal fires that heated every home and the smoke from industrial

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H G Wells – the future seen through fiction

27 days ago

Described as the most important English writer of his age, H G Wells was born on September 21st, 1866, and died in 1946, shortly before his 80th birthday. His international fame is demonstrated by his appearance in the cover of Time magazine on the day before his 60th birthday.He wrote novels, especially science fiction stories that anticipated the future. He managed to make the impossible seem believable, and his record of prediction is impressive. Writing in the late 19th and very early 20th Centuries, he anticipated space travel, aerial warfare, motor transport that led to commuting and suburban spread, changing sexual mores, world wars, and a “world brain” that held all the information. He even foresaw a federal Europe, but thought the UK would be happier to be involved with the US and

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A panic started a depression

28 days ago

The panic of 1873 triggered a worldwide recession, starting in the US. On September 20th the New York Stock Exchange suspended trading for the first time, and closed for 10 days. The panic resulted from speculative over-investment in railroads that followed the end of the Civil War. In the five years from 1868 – 1873, some 33,000 miles of track was laid, some resulting from government land grants and subsidies, but mostly funded on borrowed money from the sale of bonds. Vast amount of capital went into railway projects that seemed to offer no immediate or early returns. By November some 55 railroad companies had folded, and a further 60 went bankrupt within a year. Construction of new track dropped 80 percent, and within two years 18,000 businesses failed. Building stopped, real estate

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The Hong Kong transfer treaty

29 days ago

On September 19th, 1984, the UK and China agreed the English and Chinese texts of what came to be known as the Sino-British Joint Declaration. It set out the details of Hong Kong’s status when sovereignty was transferred on 1st July 1997. The Chinese had argued that Hong Kong should simply revert to being Chinese territory when the UK’s lease expired, since the historical treaties that underpinned that lease were acquired under duress. They ruled out any prospect of a continuation of British administration, but in discussions the idea emerged of Hong Kong being a Special Administration Region of the People’s Republic of China, a region with a high degree of self-government, and with the preservation of its lifestyle. In particular, the document set out that Hong Kong should enjoy a high

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The Anti-Corn Law League fought for free trade

September 18, 2019

On September 18th, 1838, the most successful single issue pressure group of the 19th Century was established as a nation-wide organization dedicated to free trade. Specifically, it demanded repeal of the Corn Laws, introduced in 1815 to keep cereal prices high in Britain by taxing foreign imports of cereals. The laws prohibited the import of foreign corn at less than 80s a quarter (28 lb), a limit replaced in 1828 by a sliding scale. The laws served the interests of the landed classes and aristocracy, who had dominated Parliament. They were opposed by the rising class of industrialists and merchants emerging from the Industrial Revolution, and who wanted cheap food for their industrial workers to stave off upward pressure on wages. Richard Cobden was its leading strategist, with John

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