History

Did Archimedes build a death ray?

During the siege of Syracuse in 214 BCE, the city-state's resident genius, Archimedes, built a number of clever war machines to thwart the invading Roman fleet. One invention, the death ray, has been considered the stuff of legend. But could it have been real?

Here is everything we've released this week, wrapped up into one neat blog post. We hope you enjoy it.

The Best Stuff We've Read This Week

Every week, Chuck and Josh read tons of articles. Here are links to the best of the bunch.

How the Rosetta Stone Works

Sometimes providence smiles on historians. Thus is the case with the Rosetta stone, an ancient Egyptian tablet that served as the key for unlocking hieroglyphics, lost to time for a millennia. Learn about the international intrigue, rivalry to translate it and the luck that led to the founding of Egyptology.

Back in 1839, a man named Charles Goodyear figured out how to vastly improve rubber beyond its natural state with a process called vulcanization. Once vulcanized, rubber -- which is naturally gooey at warmer temperatures and rigid at cool temps -- becomes capable of withstanding punishing heat and pressure. Suddenly the uses of rubber opened up considerably -- tires, hoses, shoe soles, fan belts -- and since this coincided with the Industrial Revolution, mass production of these products meant vast supplies of raw rubber were needed.

The Black Death is now (Likely) Extinct (Perhaps)

You may now breathe a small sigh of relief; if you are the type to believe what you read in studies from the University of Tübingen, at least: The bacteria thought to be behind the Black Death plague that killed 50 million people in Europe and Asia in about five years in the middle of the 14th century is thought to now be extinct. Oh, there are related versions of the bacteria, Yersinia pestis, alive and well today. As many as 2,000 people die from it around the world each year. But the particularly virulent form that swept across the East like a black death, that one is probably no longer around.

Some cities like Paris, Rome and Budapest are well-known for the catacombs carved beneath. Another city, Nottingham, home of Robin Hood, is less famous for its system of caves, though its been getting its due lately. There are about 500 man made caves beneath the town, dating back at least as far as the Medieval period.

Occasionally I'll dive into some of these "this day in history" Web sites just to see what famous event took place that day. Today, I checked out history.com and learned that the phrase "OK" just turned 170 years old. "OK" is one of those odd phrases - it's not exactly a word, it's not exactly a sentence. It's two letters smashed together and it means a variety of things. If someone asks how you're doing and you respond with an "OK" it can mean a few things depending on how you say it. A cheery "OK" could mean that things are looking up. A dour "OK" means that you could be better. It can also be both a question and an answer. Question - "I'm going to the store to get some milk, OK?" Answer - "OK." There probably aren't two more versatile letters in the English language.

A new document released in England this week revealed some private details about German dictator's personal habits. Aside from having some poor table manners, Hitler was also reportedly known to suffer from excessive flatulence. Is this an important historical document or a case of too much information?