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Anecdotes from the Archive

Anecdotes from the Archive


Intriguing finds from Scientific American's past
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    Dan Schlenoff Dan Schlenoff edits the “50, 100 & 150 Years Ago” column for Scientific American. He is a keen student of the role of science in history.
  • Letters from the Firing Line, 1914

    “Bivouac on the allied line.” French infantry sleeping in a comfortable haystack on some field in France; their rifles, packs and other accouterments carefully stacked at the ready in the hay.

    Reported in Scientific American This Week in World War I: October 24, 1914 This article, “Letters from the Firing Line,” is bylined “By an Officer in the French Army—Special War Correspondent of the Scientific American.” The short biography describes an “artist as well as an officer.” The drawings here (see illustrations) may have been the [...]

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    Censorship and Armored Cars, Circa 1914

    1914-10-17-armoredcar

    This Week in World War I: October 17, 1914 The cover wrap of the issue has a painting of an armored car, charging into—surely not running away from!—some battle, gun blazing. There’s a boisterous quality to the image: it looks like some fictional illustration from the “Boy’s Own Guide…” to derring-do in the Great War. [...]

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    Aerial Spy, 100 Years before Drones

    pigeon with a camera

    Reported in Scientific American This Week in World War I: October 10, 1914 Drones are at the forefront of warfare in the 21st century. These unarmed and unpiloted aircraft, big and small, circle far above the battlefield, collecting images and reporting back to headquarters, electronically. In 1914, early on in the new Great War, one [...]

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    The Dash of Cavalry in the Great War

    WWI Cavalry

    Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: October 3, 1914 The opening weeks of the First World War saw sweeping movements of vast armies. Generals seeking quick tactical victories hoped to outflank or “pierce” or “break through” the enemy’s line, and then exploit this success by sending cavalry charging through the breach [...]

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    Antwerp, 1914: New Technology, Civilian Targets

    Antwerp bombing

    Reported in Scientific American—This Week in World War I: September 19, 1914 The Belgian field army retreated into the fortified city of Antwerp only 16 days after the Germans had invaded. During the German assault on the city, they dropped several bombs from a Zeppelin. Aiming was really nonexistent and the results were useless from [...]

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    Needs of the New War: Fresh Aviators and Novel Tactics

    airmen training

    Reported in Scientific American: This Week in World War I: September 19, 1914 The first few weeks of the Great War in Europe had convincingly shown the value of aircraft for reconnaissance work. The technology was brand new: workable airplanes were an invention less than ten years old. Armies scrambled to set up a steady [...]

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    First Sea Battle of World War I

    HMS Laurel

    Reported in Scientific American this Week in World War I: September 12, 1914 The Battle of Heligoland Bight took place in the North Sea on August 28, 1914. Reports of the fight took a couple of weeks to make it into print. The battle was a convincing victory by the British Royal Navy against the [...]

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    This Week in World War I: September 5, 1914

    The original caption from 1914 says “Foraging squad returning to camp with a drove of steers,” and shows French soldiers gathering supplies for their brigade. The image seems authentic but is very likely a photograph taken “somewhere in France” far from the front lines. Credit: Scientific American, September 5, 1914

    Censored: How the Army Eats In this issue, a telling line reads: “The censors have not allowed the press of the world to state whether or not explosives were dropped on the fortifications of Liège.” This special “War Issue” contained much on military theory, organization and resources, but apart from a scattering of images little [...]

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    This Week in World War I: August 29, 1914

    1914-08-29-digging-trench

    A Monstrous Paradox In the late 19th and early 20th century before the Great War broke out, Germany (which had become unified only in 1871) could be held up as a shining example of how science and the arts (philosophy, music, painting) could help a country prosper, grow and become civilized. Early on in the [...]

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    This Week in World War I: August 22, 1914

    A week’s rations for the German army, or as near as could be calculated by the editors of Scientific American in 1914. Credit: Scientific American, August 22, 1914

    The Vast Scale of War When the Great War broke out the scale of it was unprecedented. Citizens, soldiers and governments alike tried to grasp the sheer immense numbers of combatants and materièl involved. One article that we published shortly after the war started presented an “infographic”: the volume of the amount of food eaten [...]

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