Could a Massive Volcanic Eruption Have Led to Napoleon's Loss at Waterloo?

iStock
iStock

Losing parties often have excuses for why they came up short. If you’re playing softball, maybe the sun got in your eyes. If you drop a Monopoly game, maybe someone cheated and squatted on Park Place. And if you’re Napoleon Bonaparte, maybe an Indonesian volcano helps explain why you lost the Battle of Waterloo.

Obviously, Napoleon isn’t around to lay blame for his defeat in Belgium in 1815, a conflict that ended his long reign as France’s emperor and premier military strategist. But recent research into how volcanic eruptions can influence weather patterns might be able to offer insight into why Napoleon made the fateful choice of delaying engagement against the Duke of Wellington’s forces 12 miles south of Brussels.

A paper published in the journal Geology [PDF] and authored by Imperial College earth scientist Matthew J. Genge offers new information about how high volcanic ash can rise following an eruption. Previously, it was believed ash could reach as high as the stratosphere, or 31 miles above Earth’s surface. Genge’s research, based on computer modeling, suggests that an electrostatically charged volcanic plume could force the ash even further, sending it 50 to 600 miles up and into the ionosphere, where the particles can cause cloud formation and precipitation.

An illustration depicts Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo
iStock

Two months before Napoleon arrived on the scene at Waterloo, Mount Tambora in Indonesia exploded, likely sending ash into the ionosphere. More than 8000 miles away from Belgium, the ash scattered for months, slowly migrating to Europe. Some climate historians have inferred that the resulting precipitation in Belgium created a waterlogged battleground for Napoleon and the opposing Prussian and British armies. It was this muddy, uneven terrain that likely prompted Napoleon to hold off advancing until the middle of the day, allowing his rivals to gather their forces and eventually forcing his retreat.

While Mount Tambora’s eruption was devastating—it killed 100,000 people on the island of Sumbawa and forced a global temperature drop of more than 5°F in 1816—the theory that it led directly to Napoleon’s defeat is hard to substantiate. While waiting until later in the day to attack and having unsure footing didn’t help, Napoleon's opposition was fighting in the same conditions and may have outmaneuvered him regardless. In one key sequence, he failed to follow up on an effective artillery attack, allowing Wellington to compose his forces and make a successful bid to end the scuffle.

Genge draws heavily on the behavior of volcanic ash from two subsequent massive eruptions—Indonesia's Krakatau in 1883 and the Philippines's Mount Pinatubo in 1991—to illustrate his “short-circuited” theory of ionosphere disruption, and not from Tambora specifically. While rain may have indeed altered Napoleon’s plans, it may not necessarily have been the result of Tambora. Genge's work will, however, likely inspire further investigation into how inclement weather may have changed the course of history.

[h/t Smithsonian]

Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?

Elsa, Getty Images
Elsa, Getty Images

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team was founded in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions will host the Chicago Bears.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?

The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Washington Redskins on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?

In 2006, because six-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the New Orleans Saints will welcome the Atlanta Falcons.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

'Obscene' Books From Oxford's Bodleian Libraries Go on Display for the First Time

The title page of The Love Books of Ovid (1925), translated to English by James Lewis May and illustrated by Jean de Bosschère
The title page of The Love Books of Ovid (1925), translated to English by James Lewis May and illustrated by Jean de Bosschère
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford // Reproduced with permission from Alain Bilot

A Picture of Dorian Gray and Lady Chatterley’s Lover were deemed so scandalous in the Victorian era that a separate restricted library was created within the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries just to store them. If a student wanted to read one of these semi-banned books, they had to submit a letter of support from a college tutor.

They were dubbed the “Phi books” after the Greek letter phi, which was the shelfmark used to categorize them. Now, for the first time, these so-called “obscene” books are on public display at the Bodleian's Weston Library in Oxford.

An illustration of two people about to kiss
The title page of the 1974 book The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking by Alex Comfort, with illustrations by Chris Foss.
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford/ © ChrisFossArt.com

The collection contains around 3000 items, including scientific and scholarly works, as well as novels that were deemed too inappropriate for public consumption at the time. One of the texts on display is a volume of Love Books of Ovid that was held in the Phi section due to its erotic illustrations. The unillustrated version, on the other hand, was publicly available in the library.

Two other books on view are The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was restricted "presumably because of its homoerotic subtext," and a first edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover that was reportedly smuggled into Britain to avoid censorship laws. There will also be sex manuals, books about phallic symbolism, the "first modern European work of pornography" (the 17th-century Satyra Sotadica), and even a copy of Madonna's 1992 book Sex.

Why does the Bodleian have so many sexually suggestive books in the first place? It serves as a legal deposit library, meaning it's entitled to a copy of every book published in the UK. “This partly accounts for the Libraries' large Phi collection although the collection has also grown through donations and bequests," the library notes on its website.

Illustration of Dorian Gray
Title page of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1925), written by Oscar Wilde and illustrated by Henry Keen
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

The title "Phallic objects and remains" is written under an illustration of a rocket ship
The cover of the 1889 book Phallic Objects, Monuments and Remains; Illustrations of the Rise and Development of the Phallic Idea (Sex Worship) and Its Embodiment in Works of Nature and Art, written by Hargrave Jennings
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

The Phi shelfmark, which was established in 1882, only stopped being used in 2010 when the library opened its Book Storage Facility in Swindon and changed the way it catalogs books. As a result, the “obscene” books were no longer grouped together, and the Bodleian Libraries stopped separating sexually explicit books from other reading materials. 

The collection, called the "Story of Phi: Restricted Books," will remain on public display until January 13, 2019. Admission is free.

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