Beyond Timbuktu

One has to be a little nervous about any book whose description of its own first chapter says that “it might be of interest to specialists but can probably be skipped by the average educated reader who does not know Arabic.”

Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa is certainly a book that’s best suited for the specialist, though it does contain a lot of interesting information. Ousmane Oumar Kane ranges widely over the history of Muslim education in West Africa, focusing mostly on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but reaching forwards to contemporary Islamic colleges and universities in Africa and back into the Middle Ages.

The latter caught my attention for the usual spate of connections between distant regions. One I already knew was the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324/25 of the Malian emperor Mansa Musa, a king so rich he was immortalized (in European style) as an ornament on the famous Catalan Atlas. One I had never heard of was the existence of a school in Cairo for students from Borno, near Lake Chad, endowed in the mid-thirteenth century by merchants from the region.

Though most of the literature Kane discusses is Arabic, he also mentions the phenomenon of ajami, African languages transcribed in the Arabic alphabet. I was surprised to read that ajami may have appeared as early as the twelfth century, and that ajami literature exists in twenty-nine languages in West Africa and more than eighty throughout Africa.

It always interesting to get a little prod in one’s blind spot, since I really shouldn’t have been surprised at all. I already knew that appropriating one alphabet to write another language was a medieval commonplace. Christians in Muslim Spain wrote Latin and Spanish (or what would become the latter, over time) in Arabic script, usually called mozarabic. Muslims and moriscoes (converts from Islam) in Christian Spain did the same, called aljamia (sharing the same root as ajami). Judeo-Persian (which is more Persian than Hebrew) is written with Hebrew script, as are Judeo-Arabic and Ladino. Why shouldn’t the same be true in West Africa?


The Last of the Computers

One of the first hires at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, before JPL became a NASA facility and even before it had the name JPL, was Barbara Canright. Canright was employed as a “computer” who would do complicated and repetitive mathematics for JPL’s engineers, as were many women who followed in her footsteps at JPL.

From the nineteenth century until the 1960s, many large-scale scientific and engineering project relied on human computers – often female university graduates without the same employment opportunities as their male counterparts – to handle the computational load. As Nathalia Holt explains in her recent book Rise of the Rocket Girls, JPL was no different. Holt’s book describes the careers of computers at JPL from the 1940s to the present: one of the last computers to be hired, Susan Finley, still works at the laboratory.

The book does an excellent job narrating the personal trials and professional triumphs of these women, including the disappearance of computing by hand. By the time JPL acquired its name in 1943, multi-purpose electronic computers were only a matter of years away. In the 1950s, JPL’s computing department acquired the first of many IBM mainframes to do calculation work. “Cora” (for Core Storage) was given a woman’s name to fit into the all-female group. Many of the women who worked with it soon branched out into programming in FORTRAN and other languages, at a time when programming had little or none of the prestige which it would later acquire. That decision helped them carve out a niche which survived when hand calculation was eliminated as a trade by the electronic computers, leading to the computer department being renamed Mission Design and the women who had worked there eventually retitled as engineers. Rise of the Rocket Girls describes their ongoing contributions to a list of JPL space probes that includes Ranger, Mariner, Viking, and Voyager.

It’s an interesting story not least because the female calculators employed at JPL were among the last in the business. Their success in transitioning into the Computer Age, reflected both in their success as individuals and in the establishment of Mission Design, was loaded with assumptions about how the aerospace industry valued various kinds of work. Though Holt doesn’t linger on them, in a lot of ways the undercurrents in Rise of the Rocket Girls reminded me of Rebecca Slayton’s Arguments that Count, which examined the relative influence of physicists and computer scientists in planning for ballistic missile defense during the same era.


Architecture against Insurrection

NelsonThe eighteenth century was never really my area, but Louis P. Nelson’s Architecture and Empire in Jamaica (Yale University Press, 2016) is one of the more striking books I’ve read recently. Focusing on domestic and commercial architecture, Nelson outlines how buildings in eighteenth-century Jamaica articulated both slave-holding society’s violent authority and its fears of an slave uprising.

Some of the features that Nelson discusses are blatant. In the mid-century, planters imported fortified designs such as tower houses and the “Z-plan” from Scotland and Ireland. They positioned overseers’ homes on hills that offered easily surveillance of plantation works (though often not of slave housing, interestingly). They even made it illegal for the homes of free blacks to have back doors, in a bid to make it harder to harbor runaway slaves. Other features were more subtle. Nelson argues that the open plan and lodging rooms of the prototypical Jamaican “creole house” helped make the planter’s home a place for broad white solidarity against the enslaved population, making fortification and hospitality two parallel (or overlapping) architectural strategies for security against rebellion.

The scope of fortified construction and other less obvious security measures were what struck me most about Architecture and Empire, but the book covers a lot more too: design and construction techniques to resist hurricanes and earthquakes, to moderate the inconvenience of heat and sun, and to landscape town and countryside in ways that demonstrated prosperity and a connection with the motherland. A hefty and well-illustrated book, Architecture in Empire in Jamaica is more or less intended for the specialist, or at least for the architectural historian. But if you are willing to take the time and look up some terminology then it’s an interesting read.

Aerospace History on the Web

In a very exciting move, Aviation Week and Space Technology has put its entire magazine archive from 1916 to 2016 online (h/t the latest NASA history newsletter). It’s free for now, courtesy of Boeing, although you do have to register. The interface is pretty slick, considerably more so than Flight magazine’s archive, but unlike Flight none of the pages can be downloaded and the content doesn’t come with an encouragement to “link to, copy and paste from, and contribute to the development of this unique record of aerospace and aviation history.” Still, it’s a very cool resource while it lasts.

In the meantime, the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast has a nice two-part interview about the Women Airforce Service Pilots during the Second World War.

The Space Review has a review of Rise of the Rocket Girls, which looks like a fascinating book about the women who worked as human “computers,” doing repetitive calculations for NASA in its early years. The story of computers,” one of very few opportunities for women with educations in mathematics at the time isn’t a new one: David Alan Grier’s When Computers Were Human is about a decade old, but this looks like a valuable addition to the story. It looks like we’re also going to get both a book, Hidden Figures, and a movie about the first African-American women who worked as NASA computers.

Did Wartime Recycling Destroy More British Heritage than the Blitz?

That’s the startling conclusion from Peter Thorsheim, a historian at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His 2013 article “Salvage and Destruction: The Recycling of Books and Manuscripts in Great Britain during the Second World War” (version of record here; hosted on Thorsheim’s own website here) details how Britons recycled 600 million books in 1943 alone, not to mention letters, ephemera, business records, and historic manuscripts – compared to only about 20 million volumes destroyed by the Luftwaffe.

“Salvage and Destruction” and Thorsheim’s recent book Waste into Weapons: Recycling in Britain during the Second World War capture the remarkable scope of Britain’s recycling efforts during the war. Steel, iron, and aluminum were the most obvious materials whose conservation were important to the war effort, but in wartime Britain even paper, rubble, and food scraps were saved. The former had plenty of direct uses in military production: as various propaganda pamphlets explained, one envelope could make the wads for fifty rifle cartridges, three comic books could be converted into the cardboard cups for two 25-pounder artillery shells, and a breakfast cereal box could be recycled into two practice targets.

One of the most interesting aspects of Waste into Weapons is how political the recycling process was. In many cases the need to mobilize support led to counter-productive collection efforts, like piles of tin cans whose tin content wasn’t worth the effort of its extraction. The hordes of children who were mobilized for scrap drivers were considered an obstacle and a waste of effort by the professional salvage industry (like prewar rag-and-bone men), who fought against state and volunteer interference in their work for the entirety of the war. Being seen to recycle everything, for example, was important to convincing American agents for Lend-Lease that Britain was fully committed to the war effort. On the other hand, at least two Quaker conscientious objectors ran afoul of the law for refusing to recycle, since they considered that tantamount to aiding the war effort. Whether or not the wartime recycling effort was well managed – and Thorsheim’s book offers a lot of evidence that it was not – the politics of total war made the idea inescapable.

h/t: New Books in History

The Gunpowder Age

AndradeI stopped following the historical debates surrounding the early modern “military revolution” shortly after I finished grad school, but I imagine that Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History will make a splash.

Andrade’s book is a methodical discussion of a topic that’s been a staple in military history for decades and been connected with the idea of the military revolution at least since Geoffrey Parker’s essential 1988 book The Military Revolution: why, and to what extent, did western and central European military power become not just mildly but dramatically superior to that of polities in the rest of the world?

The Gunpowder Age makes three contributions to the long-standing conversation surrounding that question. The first is a grand causal theory to explain this divergence. Andrade argues that China innovated militarily at about the same pace as Europe whenever there was serious internal or external conflict – leading to a first, brief divergence between 1450 and 1550 that coincided with the peace under the Ming and a second, broader divergence after 1700 when Chinese regional hegemony was secure under the Qing. The second contribution is Andrade’s close reading of both the Chinese primary sources and the latest Chinese-language research (it’s no use to me, but I really appreciate the fact that the book prints the relevant Chinese characters when a word connected with firearms is translated). Whether discussing the lengthening of Chinese cannon barrels, the use of the countermarch in China for both massed crossbows and handguns, or Sino-Portuguese naval battles in the sixteenth century, Andrade offers a lot of important evidence to bolster his grand argument of the military balance. Third, and hardly least important, Andrade is both an expert on early modern Chinese history and a military historian who discussed these developments in the context of the voluminous historiography of the military revolution debate (full disclosure: Geoffrey Parker, who was Andrade’s dissertation advisor, sat on my dissertation committee, at a different institution and in a different decade) – there aren’t that many people who with a foot in both of those areas.

There are, of course, quibbles to makes. A fair bit of Andrade’s analysis will be familiar to anyone who’s been following these academic debates over the years, he repeats a fair bit when driving the broader points home, and one can’t assume that the factors that shaped the balance of firepower East Asia also explain developments elsewhere in the world. The Gunpowder Age also covers almost a thousand years of history, and I expect there are details that Andrade’s gotten wrong. Still, I can’t think of another book covering this topic that is so clear and intriguing in its material.

Deconstructing the NES

Like a lot of kids of my generation, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was the first video game system that I owned. My friends and I played its games a lot: not just the three Super Mario Brothers, Duck Hunt, and Final Fantasy but also the NES’ weirder and more obscure cartridges. As a budding history buff, I owned Silent Service (the only Second World War submarine simulator ever produced for an 8-bit system) and Desert Commander (which put you in command of an abstract version of the Second World War campaign in the North African desert). The genre seemed limitless, and where there wasn’t yet a game we took to the playground to create our own pen-and-paper or imaginary variations.

We knew the NES was incredible, but I doubt that any of us – except perhaps a friend whose parents were collectors of antique computer and game systems – realized what set the Nintendo system apart from its predecessors. Luckily, last year’s I Am Error in MIT Press’ “Platform Studies” series explains it in language that those who are only modestly computer literate can understand. I Am Error, whose title comes from a in-joke in the original Legend of Zelda, describes the NES’s origins in Japan as the Nintendo Family Computer (or Famicom), the qualities in inherited from its arcade predecessors (like Nintendo’s Donkey Kong), and how its most iconic games were designed.

There’s a lot of technical information here, and while I found most of the explanations fascinating I admit that I skimmed the chapter on the NES’s audio processing unit and the creation of “chiptunes.” You’ll want to have played the original Super Mario Brothers and at least dabbled with the games that Nathan Altice discusses for the book to make sense. Also, this is academic game studies so a tolerance for off-hand references to French critical theorists is somewhat necessary. Still, if you belong to any of the generations whose paths crossed with the original NES (or, I suppose, if you are a fanatic follower of games before or since), I Am Error is bound to create both give you a warm nostalgic glow and regular exclamations of “I never knew that!”