Category Archives: History

Nelson Mandela Is Free

Nelson Mandela is dead. The world is full of TV documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles, and blog posts about his life. Most of these are reverent tributes to Mandela’s remarkable contributions to freedom and equal rights for the oppressed, while a few loud voices attempt to paint him as a villain. I haven’t been following the media coverage too closely; there is no need. The figure of Nelson Mandela has loomed large in my consciousness for most of my life. I will not attempt to retell his story here – there are far better sources you can find easily enough. Rather, I want to share with you how Nelson Mandela’s life has influenced mine.

I may be the only person in the world to become aware of apartheid because of a model airplane. I was thirteen years old, and building model airplanes was my main hobby. (For the benefit of my younger readers, “hobbies” were things people used to do before there were smartphones.) I had just finished assembling a Dassault Mirage jet fighter, and the only thing left to do was paint the camouflage and fasten the decals. There were two patterns diagrammed in the instructions: a rather boring French Air Force paint scheme, and a much more exciting one unlike any I had seen. It showed the whole airplane painted like a cheetah, snarling head and all, and it was South African Air Force. It looked fantastic, and I went to find my father and show him what I was going to do.

“Paint the French one,” he said, to my amazement. Then he explained how South Africa was a populous nation of black people ruled by a small white minority through the brutal enforcement of an evil policy called apartheid. I had never heard that word before – like most Norwegian kids in the early 80’s, I was as ignorant about South Africa as I was about Africa in general. The truth was an unpleasant shock. I painted French colors on my Mirage.

Over the next few years, apartheid and South Africa grew increasingly in the public consciousness. By the time I was in high school, everyone knew that Nelson Mandela had been in prison for over twenty years for opposing apartheid in his own country. We sang “Free Nelson Mandela” between classes and listened to United Artists Against Apartheid singing “I ain’t gonna play Sun City” on our boomboxes after school. Social pressure became political pressure; the rest is history. International boycotts and trade embargoes, added to the disapproval of the global public, took their toll. The face of the entire anti-apartheid effort across the world belonged to a black man serving his third decade on Robben Island. When F.W. de Klerk became President of South Africa in 1989, he immediately began the process of ending his own government. Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1990. Blacks were allowed to vote for the first time in 1993, with the predictable result that Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president.

I don’t suppose anyone knew what to expect next. It would have been very easy for Mandela to rub salt into the deep and painful wounds left by racist-motivated atrocities, to inflame the long-suffering hearts of black South Africans against their white countrymen with words of anger and hate. Instead, he did the right thing – which, as usual, was the hard thing – and chose a path of truth and reconciliation.

And that is Nelson Mandela’s legacy to me, whatever anyone else makes of him: maybe the only public figure of my lifetime to play the roles of prisoner and president, of revolutionary and reconciler, of torture victim and healer of a nation. Now, after having done so much, he has sloughed off this mortal coil.

Nelson Mandela is free.

Were the Apollo Moon Landings Real, or Not?

This summer, I took my two sons and my nephew to the Frontiers of Flight Museum at Love Field Airport in Dallas.

If you like airplanes half as much as I do, you will want to visit Frontiers of Flight next time you are in the Dallas area. The exhibits cover the entire history of human flight, from Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches to the current space program. What sets this flight museum apart from most others is the sheer number of real planes on display; an aircraft enthusiast could easily spend all day there learning and exploring, and every time I visit, there seems to be something new to see.


The best piece of all is the Apollo capsule. This is not a replica. It is the actual command module from the Apollo 7 mission. That fact in itself is enough to make me stand silently for a few moments every time I visit, and reflect on the audacity of the human spirit. Three human beings sat in that very box for eleven days, the rude metal cone hurtling through the vacuum of space at 50,000 miles per hour, guided by a primitive calculating machine with far less power than any cellphone you can buy today. Their courage and skill paved the way for the triumphant moment a year later, when an air-breathing mammal from Earth set foot on the dusty, airless surface of the Moon with the unforgettable words “one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.”


The Apollo capsule represents something that makes me proud to be a man. That’s why it makes me sad when a student asks me if the moon landings were real – because they read some silly web page (written by someone too ordinary to capture anyone’s attention without capitalizing on fear, distrust, and ignorance) about how the whole space program was faked.


The Apollo program was a giant leap for humankind. It was a gigantic push, by a nation of dreamers, to go where no one had gone before, to do the impossible. It took a decade and cost $25 billion, which sounds like a lot of money until you compare it with the amount we spend on other kinds of hardware from stealth bombers to aircraft carriers (if you care to research this, make sure you look at operating costs, not just cost to build). And I have no doubt whatsoever that Apollo was a genuine program that delivered genuine results – among the most spectacular results ever achieved by any human enterprise. The reason for my lack of doubt is called Occam’s Razor.

Occam’s Razor is a general rule of logic, the idea being that when you have to choose between a number of explanations, the simplest one – the explanation that requires the fewest assumptions to support it – is the most reliable.

There are many websites devoted to the idea that the Apollo moon missions – if not the entire U.S. space program – were a hoax. I will not list all the arguments here; you can find them easily enough if you are interested (or more likely, if you are really bored). The most obvious weakness of these theories is that they fail the test of Occam’s Razor. They depend on many more assumptions without evidence to support them – let alone the fact that they fail to explain how GPS works if we never went into space. But the thing that annoys me the most about these people is the way they disrespect all the courageous astronauts who risked their lives – and a few who lost their lives – for the sake of lifting a nation’s eyes and spirits to the stars. I wonder if they would have the nerve to look Buzz Aldrin in the face and call him a liar. Somehow I doubt it.

Will We Ever Find A Dinosaur Frozen In A Block Of Ice?

I love the “Ice Age” movies. Who doesn’t? Granted, they kind of go downhill after the first one, but it’s a gentle slope, and making a sequel better than the original is arguably impossible. Don’t get me started on Star Wars.

One of my favorite scenes from “Ice Age” is the one where the oblivious Sid, lost in the ice cave and peering at the walls with his natural curiosity, is startled by a frozen fish with large needle-sharp teeth. He turns quickly away, only to be confronted with a much larger, much scarier specimen: a Tyrannosaurus Rex, razor jaws gaping, frozen into the icy wall. Sid continues past a row of frozen fossils in phylogenetic order; all share features in common with Sid. As he reached the end, he stops, completing a tableau of his own evolutionary history.

The last time I saw the movie, someone asked if a dinosaur had ever been discovered frozen in the ice. I said that we haven’t, which prompted the question whether we ever would make such a discovery. What a find that would be! Much as I love the idea, it is very unlikely. I don’t like to say “impossible” – too many things once considered impossible have already become reality – but in this case, it might not be too strong a word.

The frozen dinosaur in the movie was buried deep in a glacier. Glaciers are frozen rivers; they flow downhill towards the ocean just like any other river, but much more slowly. As the bottom of the glacier melts, the top is being formed out of snow that falls high in the mountains where the glacier begins.

For an animal to become trapped in a glacier, it would have to die high up in the snowy mountains where glaciers form. The animal would be covered over with snow that would slowly turn to ice as it built up over centuries. After some thousands of years, it might be found deep inside a glacier like the frozen dinosaur in “Ice Age”.

As far as I know, nobody has ever found an animal frozen inside a glacier. It may have happened, but I doubt it. Animals need food, and there is nothing to eat high up in the eternal snows where glaciers begin. Humans are the only things that climb around glaciers on purpose. If an animal got lost in the mountains, it would die long before it could reach the source of a glacier.

We have learned many things about dinosaurs since I was a child. Some scientists think that certain dinosaurs may even have been partly warm-blooded, like some fish are. But no one is suggesting that dinosaurs were able to live in icy Arctic conditions. There may have been mountains with glaciers during the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous Periods when dinosaurs were alive, but the dinosaurs would never have been anywhere near the tops of those mountains.

It is a pretty sure thing that no animal, much less a dinosaur, will be found preserved inside a glacier. But I still love the movie.

The Little-Known History Of Teddy Bears

Last time I went shopping for a child’s birthday gift, I was struck by how usual it seemed to be in a toy store the size of a big-box discount mart. When I was a child, the only real mega-size toy store in the world was Hamleys in London (still the world’s biggest!) For those of us not fortunate enough to live within pilgrimage range of Hamleys, the toy store was a small shop on the street, or a section in a department store. It has been many years now since I have seen a small toy store – I don’t even remember having seen a toy section in a department store recently. Come to think of it, since we have been back in the USA, I can’t remember having seen any toy stores at all except for the one big chain. I hope it’s my lack of attention and not an actual monopoly. The big retailer has a mind-boggling selection, more variety than I ever imagined as a child, but it just doesn’t feel like a toy store to me. Getting old, I guess.

I like the old toys, the ones I remember from childhood. The wooden train set, the LEGOs, the teddy bear. You know, the toys that have been around forever. Or have they? (Cue dramatic music.)

Of all the classic (or old-fashioned, depending on your point of view) pre-electronic toys, teddy bears are among the newest. They were first manufactured for sale in 1902 (LEGO goes back to 1934). There is no doubt that teddy bears had existed before 1902 – people have made stuffed toys for their own children for centuries, and dolls go back to the dawn of civilization – but nobody can verify dates for unique, home-made toys from hundreds of years ago, so toy history has to deal with factory-made toys available for sale to the public.

Of all toys, the teddy bear has the coolest legend behind its origin. President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt is usually credited with being the inspiration for the creation of the teddy bear. Unfortunately, this turns out to be not quite true. I can already hear the angry howls of outrage from Teddy Roosevelt fans everywhere. Slow down and give me another minute. The legend is true; it’s the connection to teddy bears that doesn’t quite hold water.

For those readers who don’t know what the fuss is about, the legend – which, I repeat, is completely true – goes like this:

President Teddy Roosevelt was an avid outdoorsman – a genuine tough guy who loved big-game hunting. His physical fortitude was matched by his strength of character, which fact explains his continuing stature in American history as one of our great leaders. In November of 1902, President Roosevelt was invited on a bear hunt by the governor of Mississippi. After a long, exhausting day of hunting, Roosevelt still had not bagged a bear. He may have been in a bad mood at that point – hard work with no results will do that to most of us – and some of the staffers hunting with him thought it would be a good idea to make sure the President got a bear. In the end, hunting guide Holt Collier, aged 56, went out and brought a large black bear back alive – an incredible feat for a single hunter before tranquilizer darts. The bear was exhausted and hurt; the staffers tied it to a tree, brought the President, and told him he could shoot the bear. To his credit, Teddy Roosevelt was disgusted. No self-respecting hunter would shoot an animal that way. He refused, to the surprise of lesser men present. People talked; the word spread. The ground was laid for the legend of the Teddy Bear.

On November 16, 1902, the Washington Post published a drawing by political cartoonist Clifford Berryman. The cartoon showed President Roosevelt refusing to shoot a captive bear. Most readers paid more attention to the picture than to the caption: “Drawing the Line in Mississippi.” Berryman was using the hunting incident as a metaphor for President Roosevelt’s attitude towards racism in the South (and Mississippi in particular). The President had openly criticized the Mississippi state government for failing to stop lynchings of black citizens. He had also made a friend of his hunting guide Holt Collier, which was only an issue because Collier was black. The icing on the cake, though, came when President Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House. Washington, the great black orator, activist, and political advisor, had been at the White House before, but always on business. This was different; this was a social occasion. Racists were furious at such a public statement of race equality. Berryman’s cartoon was an acknowledgement of Theodore Roosevelt’s contribution to civil rights in America. But it was 1902; sixty years too early for civil rights. The cartoon inspired a Brooklyn shopkeeping couple, Rose and Morris Michtom, to make and sell small stuffed bears – called “Teddy bears”, of course. The toys became immensely popular almost overnight. Teddy bears became the most popular toys in the world; they still are today, after an 111-year run.

So where is the legend wrong? The problem is that, although President Teddy Roosevelt did indeed inspire the Michtoms to make toy bears, and although Berryman’s cartoon was directly responsible for the popularity of the teddy bear, the first factory-made teddy bears were made in Germany by Richard Steiff. There are at least two important facts supporting Steiff as the creator of the modern teddy bear, rather than Michtom:

First, Michtom’s toy bear was directly inspired by the Nov. 16, 1902 cartoon referring to the Roosevelt hunting incident. Even if the Michtoms could have gone from the idea stage to production of the first prototype bears, and sold them before Christmas, this places the origin of the toy bear in America at the very end of 1902. The Michtoms’ son Benjamin remembered a letter from February 1903 from his mother to the President, requesting permission to use the name “Teddy” to market the bears. This letter has never been produced, but it is reasonable to date the beginning of teddy bear production in America to the beginning of 1903.

Second, the Steiff factory did begin production of toy bears in 1902, although they were not called “teddy bears” until after the Michtom bears became popular by that name.

Third, the likelihood of Steiff producing toy bears before Michtom is increased by the fact that Steiff was an established toy factory that had been making stuffed animals since 1880. The bear was a new addition to a number of stuffed animal toys, the first of which was an elephant. The Michtoms’ business was stationery, not toys; the bears were made by Rose Michtom as a personal response to the Roosevelt hunting story.

So, although the legend of the Teddy Bear remains intact, it was responsible for the name and the popularity of the toy, not for the stuffed bear itself. It will always be a good story, and even more so if we remember the character and the values of the man who gave his name to a stuffed bear.