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Madsen Pirie

Madsen Pirie

Articles by Madsen Pirie

Eiffel – symbolic engineer

1 day ago

Gustav Eiffel, one of the 19th Century’s significant engineers, was born on December 15th, 1832. He became one of the leading figures in France’s Industrial Revolution which, for economic, cultural and political reasons, developed much later than its English counterpart. France was building infrastructure such as railways, and needed creative engineers to build the bridges and viaducts it needed. Eiffel pioneered many innovative design features, including prefabricated bridges that could be transported in sections to remote areas and then assembled with nuts and bolts rather than welding, and thus needing less skilled labour. He built bridges across Europe, showing a talent for combining the aesthetic with what the function required and what the materials allowed.He is most famous for two

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Andrei Sakharov

2 days ago

We said goodbye to Andrei Sakharov on December 14th, 1989, 30 years ago. He lived just long enough to witness the total collapse of the evil regime he had spent much of his life in opposition to.As a PhD physicist, his primary interest was initially in cosmic rays, but he was assigned to the postwar team that developed the first Soviet atomic bomb. They were able to produce one rapidly because Soviet spies had stolen the technology from the US Manhattan Project. Sakharov researched a possible way of making thermonuclear weapons in a way that was totally original, however, and produced a device radically different from the US Teller-Ulam design. Although the US exploded the first H-bomb, Sakharov’s design for the Soviet Union was in many ways more practical, and gave them a brief lead in

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The last moonwalk

3 days ago

It was on December 13th, 1972, that Eugene Ceman and Harrison Schmitt, crew members of Apollo 17, stepped out onto the lunar surface on their final extra-vehicular activity (aka moonwalk). It had been an extraordinary mission, starting with a night launch and including three days on the moon and three trips in the lunar rover, the longest of which saw them 4.7 miles away from the lunar module, at the limit of the range they could have walked back if the rover had failed. They collected more lunar samples than on previous landings, aided by the professional eye of Schmitt, a trained geologist. Before re-entering the module after their final EVA, Gene Cernan uttered the final words spoken on the moon’s surface: “… as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing,

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The hovercraft

4 days ago

On December 12th, 1955, Christopher (later Sir Christopher) Cockerel patented the new mode of transport called the hovercraft. It used fans to lift the craft on a cushion of air so it could glide over land or water with minimal surface friction.Cockerel was an inventor with a very original mind. He experimented at home with two concentric tins, one coffee and one cat food, using a hair-dryer to blow air between them. He found that the craft could be stable of air were blown through outlets surrounding a disc or oval shape, and later found that a flexible ‘skirt’ of rubber or similar material increased the efficiency and enabled it to pass over small obstacles without mishap. He tried to win financial backing, but despite numerous demonstrations on Whitehall carpets, the military was

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The Mayflower and Plymouth Rock

5 days ago

The story has it that the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock in New England on December 11th, 1620. They had landed earlier at Provincetown, but had no authority to found a colony there. Plymouth Colony was settled by Puritan Separatists, known to history as the Pilgrims. An earlier English colony had been founded at Jamestown, but that was largely by entrepreneurs seeking fortune in the New World. The Pilgrims were fleeing persecution, seeking religious freedom.The Mayflower had set sail on September 6th with 102 passengers and 30 crew crammed into a ship just over 100 feet long. In the second month of its voyage it was hit by storm-force gales. It was buffeted, sprang leaks, and saw its main beam crack. While still on the ship, the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Contract, to have the

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Signing the Human Rights Convention

6 days ago

It was on December 10th, 1948, that the United Nations Convention on Human Rights was signed by 48 countries, with 8 abstaining and none opposed. It was a reaction to the horrors and the atrocities committed during the Second World War. It was felt there needed to be some internationally agreed standard that would protect people from the criminal abuse that had been perpetrated by Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and others.Its 30 articles are not legally binding, though some lawyers have tried to make them so. They are, however, a strong moral force to restrain those inclined to engage in systematic violation of accepted standards of human decency. The US Supreme Court (Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, 2004), ruled that the Declaration "does not of its own force impose obligations as a matter of

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Fritz Haber fixed nitrogen

7 days ago

Fritz Haber, who was born on December 9th, 1868, made it possible for us to pluck useful stuff out of thin air. Specifically, he developed the chemical process that enables us to turn atmospheric nitrogen and the hydrogen found in natural gas into ammonia and nitrates. He joined the industrialist, Carl Bosch, of BASF to scale this up into an industrial process – the Haber Bosch process – that could manufacture huge quantities of ammonia and nitrates to use for fertilizers and explosives. One of my vivid memories from school chemistry classes was the huge chart on the laboratory wall of the Haber process.The process fed in atmospheric nitrogen combined with methane as a source of hydrogen under high temperatures and pressures using iron-based catalysts. It revolutionized industrial

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Eli Whitney

8 days ago

A remarkable American who made a profound impact on history was born on December 8th, 1765. This was Eli Whitney, an inventor, engineer and manufacturer. He found fame not only as the inventor of the cotton gin, a device that separated the cotton fibres from the hard seeds, but also as the pioneer of mass manufacture based on putting together interchangeable parts.The new machines of England’s Industrial Revolution needed cotton, but it was very labour-intensive. It took one person a full day to separate one pound of the cotton fibres from the attached seeds by hand. Whitey thought this process might be done by a simple hand-cranked machine, easy to make, operate and repair. Cotton was fed via a hopper onto a revolving cylinder bristling with short wire hooks to snag the fibre. A mesh

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A day that will live in infamy

9 days ago

One day after the Japanese attack on the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941, President Roosevelt made a speech to Congress describing it as “a date which will live in infamy.” History has usually shortened and corrected “a date which” to “a day that,” and often abbreviated it simply to “Day of Infamy.”The Japanese attack was made without a declaration of war against a country at peace that had hitherto refrained from entering the Second World War, already raging in Europe and elsewhere. Japanese diplomats in Washington DC were pretending to talk peace even as its carrier fleet sailed towards its target in the Hawaiian Islands.The unprovoked nature of the peacetime attack, compounded by the duplicity of the Japanese, outraged American opinion. Congress declared war

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The ruin of Venezuela

10 days ago

Venezuela’s collapse from one of Latin America’s richest countries to one of its poorest began on December 6th, 1998, with the election of Hugo Chavez as its President. Chavez had imbibed Marxist communism as a teenager, and was affected by the FALM communist insurgency in Venezuela, one supported by Cuban leader Fidel Castro. He was by no means a Marxist intellectual, enrolling in the Military Academy to receive expert baseball coaching, but lacked talent, and was remembered as a barely adequate student who graduated near the bottom of his class. With fellow officers, he took part in a failed coup in 1992, but established a popular leftwing political party and won the presidency in 1998 with 56 percent of the vote, having persuaded the country’s outsiders and impoverished groups to unite

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The end of Prohibition

11 days ago

America went dry on January 17th, 1920, as the Eighteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution, inaugurating Prohibition. Just under 14 years later, on December 5th, 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment was added to the Constitution, repealing the Eighteenth and ending the era of Prohibition.Prohibition was a disaster, in that it was an attempt to force the views of some, led by pious protestants and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, upon the whole of America. The Anti-Saloon League was opposed by many Catholics and German Lutherans, but German Americans had lost prestige during the First World War, and were unable to prevent the victory of the “drys.”Criminal gangs were prepared to supply illicitly what the government had made illegal, and soon dominated the illegal supply of beer

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When a killer smog hit London

12 days ago

It began late on December 4th, 1952, and lasted about a week. It was London’s Great Smog, a name that derived from the combination of smoke and fog. Unusually cold weather coupled with an anticyclone and windless conditions created a pall of airborne pollutants that gripped the UK’s capital city for days.Virtually all of London’s several million homes were heated by coal fires, and the coal used was a low-grade, high sulphur variety, since the higher grade ‘hard’ coals such as anthracite were mostly exported. To the smoke from domestic fires was added that of coal-fired power stations, such as those in Battersea, Bankside, Fulham, Greenwich and Kingston upon Thames. The UK’s meteorological office estimated that there were emitted each day of the Great Smog some 1,000 tonnes of smoke

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ASI Forum will change your life — sign up before it’s too late

13 days ago

This is important!Saturday, December 7th will not only change your life. It will change the world.That is when the people who will shape tomorrow’s world, including yourself, will see a glimpse of the future.That’s because Saturday is the ASI’s Forum at The Comedy Store in London, where we will explore the ideas for a better future. A world in which young people are well educated so they can achieve success. Flying cars make traffic jams as obsolete as the smog they generated. Young people can afford houses they want to live in.Is this some Corbynist fantasy funded by money grown on trees? No!It is the reality already happening if only more people had eyes to see it.On Saturday you can.Watch how a single tax trick boosts our wealth, how vigilance today will banish the would-be surveillance

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The arrival of the potato

13 days ago

Thomas Herriot, an astronomer, mathematician, ethnographer and translator, is credited with first introducing the potato into England from Colombia in South America on December 3rd, 1586. It was a fateful event.The potato was a richer food source than grain. This was because grain stalks would collapse if the head were too heavy, whereas potatoes, grown underground, had no such limits. Not until Norman Borlaug developed short-stemmed grains in his Green Revolution, could cereal crops compete. Farmers had previously had to leave half their fields fallow to allow the soil to replenish itself, but now they could grow potatoes on the fallow land. The result was an effective doubling of Europe’s food supply. The norm had been that city dwellers could survive lean times by having the wealth and

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Gary Becker

14 days ago

On December 2nd, 1930, Gary Becker was born. One of the most influential economists of his day, he received the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1992. Much of his influence came about because he used the methods of economics to analyze human behaviour for the first time in areas such as family life, crime and sociology. As a professor of Economics and Sociology at Chicago, he was among the leaders of the so-called third generation of the Chicago School.In his “The Economics of Discrimination” (1957) he studied racial discrimination in employment, finding that employers who discriminate against minorities deny themselves access to low-wage labour and thus raise their costs and lower their profits. Employers who do not discriminate against minorities, on the other hand, increase their

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The start of Stalin’s Great Purge

15 days ago

It was on December 1st, 1934, that a gunman burst into the offices of Sergei Kirov, the Mayor of Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and shot him dead. Stalin used the assassination as a pretext to launch his Great Purge of dissident Communist officials and any party members who did not toe Stalin’s official line one hundred percent. In the show trials that took place in the late 1930s, over a million people were put to death after a sham judicial process. Although Kirov was loyal to Stalin, popular opinion at the time, supported by some later historians, was convinced that Stalin had personally ordered the murder fearing that Kirov’s popularity was making him a potential rival to Stalin himself. When Kirov had been elected to the central committee earlier that year, he had only three votes

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Winston Churchill

16 days ago

On November 30th, 1874, a remarkable man was born as Winston Churchill came into the world at Blenheim Palace, ancestral home of the Dukes of Marlborough. Although the family was wealthy, he himself was not, and at many times in his life, especially in the wilderness years of the 1930s, he supported himself by his writing skills, and received backing from patrons who supported his stance.He gained early fame as an army officer and war correspondent, including an escape from imprisonment by the Boers in South Africa. During his political career he represented five constituencies, first as a Conservative, then as a Liberal, and finally as a Conservative again.He was out of power and influence in the 1930s when the UK’s policy was one of appeasement to the growing might of Nazi Germany.

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Compulsory education

17 days ago

On November 29th, 1870, the Elementary Education Act passed into law. We’ve tended to call landmark education acts in the UK after the education ministers who put them through, and this one is popularly called the Foster Act, just as later ones were the Butler Act of 1944 and the Baker Act of 1988. The Foster Act introduced compulsory private education in England and Wales, though it was not initially all tax-funded state education. Until then schooling had been private, with the “penny schools” teaching a high proportion of children literacy at the cost of one penny a week. A penny was then one 240th of a pound. The 1870 Act established local education authorities to fill gaps in schooling, and authorized public monies to upgrade existing schools where this was deemed necessary. The 1902

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Hazlitt and Engels

18 days ago

Henry Hazlitt was born on November 29th, 1894. He shared a birthday with Friedrich Engels, who was born on the same day in 1820. Hazlitt is most remembered and appreciated for his classic work, “Economics in One Lesson,” first published in 1946. For many free market advocates, this has been a gateway book, introducing them to the basic ideas of economics in clear, simple prose.The book starts with the observation of Frédéric Bastiat in his essay, "What is Seen and What is Not Seen." It makes the point that we have to look beyond the immediate impact of economic activity to the longer-term consequences. Bastiat points out that the broken window appears to provide money for the glazier, who spends it to augment the local economy, but we too easily forget that the owner of the window is

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The early dawn of helicopter money

19 days ago

In 1969, Milton Friedman coined the phrase "helicopter money" to dramatize extra money being pumped into an economy as if dropped from helicopters. Some economists have since suggested that this could boost demand in a severe downturn to lift the economy, though others point to the inflation that would result. It was almost given a trial in one of the most bizarre Nazi plans of World War II, entrusted to SS Major Bernhard Krüger, who was born on November 27th, 1904, and whose name was used as the codename for the plan, Operation Bernhard. The idea was to produce large quantities of fake British banknotes and drop them from aircraft all over Britain. It was reckoned that the British people, suffering from war privation and rationing, would spend the money instead of turning it over to the

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Charles Forte and attention to detail

20 days ago

Charles Forte exemplified a typical ‘Italian boy makes good’ story. He was born on November 26th, 1908, in an Italian mountain village where his family had lived for centuries. He was the eldest of four children and remained, throughout his life, very proud of his family and his background. Seeking to climb out of poverty to a better life, his father went to Scotland in 1911, opened the Savoy café in Alloa, and sent for his family, including young Charles, three years later. Although he subsequently became a British citizen, Charles always described himself as Scottish Italian. When he was 21, Charles entered the catering trade by managing the Venetian Lounge in Brighton for a cousin. He struck out independently by opening a milk bar in London’s Regent Street, helped by his father, but

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Alfred Nobel gave us armaments and achievement prizes

21 days ago

On November 25th, 1867, Alfred Nobel filed a patent for a new type of explosive he called ‘dynamite.’ Nobel was a Swedish businessman, but also a chemist, an engineer and an inventor. He held 355 different patents, with the first, filed in England in 1857, being for a gas meter. His first Swedish one, in 1863, was for "ways to prepare gunpowder." He’d acquired an early interest in explosives from his father, and pioneered many innovations in that field. He invented a detonator in 1863, and two years later designed the blasting cap.He met Ascanio Sobrero, the inventor of nitroglycerin, and became interested in discovering ways to make it safe. It was so unstable and unpredictable that Sobrero himself was opposed to its use. Heat or pressure could make it explode, so Nobel wanted something

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Steel nationalized

22 days ago

The steel industry in Britain was nationalized on November 24th, 1949, with the passage of the Labour government’s Iron and Steel Act. This was reversed by the Conservative government elected in 1951, but the industry was nationalized again in 1967 under a Labour government as British Steel Corporation. The problem with steelmaking in Britain has been that political control meant that the post-war industry was never properly capitalized and modernized. Its processes were outdated and expensive, inefficiently operating below capacity, and new competitors overseas were entering the market to undercut it on both price and delivery dates. Meanwhile government price controls hindered the domestic industry, as did higher coal and oil costs.Following the 1967 re-nationalization, the Labour

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Russia murders dissidents

23 days ago

Alexander Litvinenko was a one-time officer in the Russian FSB, successor to the KGB intelligence service. His task there was dealing with organized crime. He died in London on November 23rd, 2006, having been poisoned by Kremlin agents with radioactive polonium-210. What aroused Vladimir Putin’s anger was that Litvinenko had identified links between the Russian hierarchy and organized crime. He coined the term ‘Mafia state,’ and went public at a Moscow press conference with details of officially ordered or sanctioned murders of political dissidents and reporters.He was dismissed from the FSB on Putin’s orders, and put on trial for “exceeding the authority of his position.” He was acquitted, and fled to Britain vis Turkey with his family before new charges could be brought against hm. In

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Thomas Cook and package tours

24 days ago

Thomas Cook virtually invented modern tourism. He was born on November 22nd, 1808, in the village of Melbourne in Derbyshire. He started work aged 10, first as a market gardener, then as a cabinet maker. He saw the possibilities the new railways offered, and conceived the idea of taking people in groups on them. He first took 500 people from Leicester to Loughborough for a temperance rally, charging them a shilling (£0.05) for the round trip. He later took 350 people from Leicester on a tour of Scotland, then 150,000 people to London for the 1851 Great Exhibition.In 1855 he undertook his first foreign tour, taking two groups on a circular tour of Belgium, Germany and France, ending in Paris for the French Exhibition. He later introduced ‘hotel coupons’ in counterfoil books, to be traded

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Economic warfare

25 days ago

The Berlin Decree, issued by Napoleon on November 21st, 1806, declared economic warfare on Britain. The British Order in Council of six months earlier had started a blockade of French ports; now France responded by banning all contacts and commerce with Britain. British subjects found in France or its allies were to be seized, as were British goods and merchandise. Vessels violating this order were to be confiscated along with their cargoes.Napoleon thought to force Britain to surrender by stopping its industries from trading with continental Europe. The lack of foreign gold coming in for its exports would bankrupt Britain’s Treasury, he supposed. His “Continental System” might have looked plausible in theory, but was difficult to enforce in practice over the large landmass he controlled.

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War criminals brought to justice

26 days ago

It used to be the case that tyrants could torture and murder their own subjects, and those they conquered, with impunity. That all changed on November 20th, 1945, when the War Crimes Tribunal began its hearings at Nuremberg, following the end of World War II.The military tribunals were held by the Allies under international law, in order to put on trial 24 of the leading Nazi political and military leaders who had planned or participated in mass murders and other war crimes. They marked a major advance in international law because they put on trial people who had committed acts that were not illegal in their own countries at the time, but were deemed to be crimes against humanity.Many of those most guilty of such crimes could not be tried because they were already dead. Hitler had shot Eva

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Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg

27 days ago

On November 19th, 1863, US President Abraham Lincoln delivered at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania a speech of 271 words that has resonated through the culture of the United States and of the liberal democracies throughout the world. It was the famous Gettysburg Address, delivered at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery, four and a half months after the victory there of the Union army over that of the Confederacy.Edward Everett, a former senator, governor of Massachusetts, and president of Harvard, and regarded at the time as America’s best orator, delivered a two-hour oration before Lincoln’s short remarks. Everett’s speech was fine, but was eclipsed by the brief eloquence of Lincoln’s short address. Lincoln had travelled by train with some of his cabinet and staff. His assistant

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Political diplomats

28 days ago

You might think that the term "political diplomat" is an oxymoron, but it is not one in the United States. Ambassadors representing that country are often chosen, not on the basis of any diplomatic experience or skills, but because they are friends and supporters of the current President. Joseph Kennedy, who died 50 years ago on November 18th, 1969, was such an appointee, representing President Roosevelt and US interests in Britain in the run-up to the Second World War, and during its early stages. His qualifications for this highly important post were that he was an investor and businessman who had supported and contributed to the Democratic Party, and helped to bring Roman Catholic voters onside, as a high-profile Catholic himself.  He was also very rich. He made a fortune in the 1920s

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Global trading

29 days ago

The Suez Canal opened on November 17th, 1869, and it was on the same date 44 years later, in 1913 that the first ship sailed into the Panama Canal. The Suez Canal connected the Indian Ocean to the North Atlantic via the Mediterranean, and the Panama Canal joined the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Suez Canal eliminated the need for ships to round the Southern tip of Africa, and the Panama Canal cut the need to pass the stormy seas off the Southern tip of South America. Both were stupendous engineering projects, and both facilitated global trade, making freight and passenger transit times both shorter and safer. Both were early pioneers of measures to speed up worldwide trade, and both lowered not only the time it took to convey goods internationally, but also the cost of doing so,The

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