Zachary Taylor by John S. D. Eisenhower

I have a long term goal to read a biography of each American President. My list of the books I have read so far is here.

Reading biographies is giving me a more focused feel for American History. During our recent road trip I finished reading about President number twelve, Zachary Taylor. The biography was written by John S. D. Eisenhower, a retired brigadear general, historian and the son of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

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Eisenhower’s biography of Taylor is short, only 140 pages. “His presidency was also short. He was sworn in March 5 1849 and he died of an infection on July 9, 1850.” Taylor’s personal papers were destroyed during the Civil War when Union soldiers destroyed the home of Taylor’s son, Richard, at Baton Rouge. As a result not a lot is known about Taylor’s view of his presidency.

Taylor was best known as Old Rough and Ready, the general who led the U.S. to victory in the Mexican American War. Reading about the significant battles in that war and about Taylor’s leadership was the highlight of the book.

If you are looking for a book to read about Taylor I would recommend the Eisenhower book. It is a well written easy read.

Next I will be reading about Millard Fillmore, Taylor’s Vice President, who took over when Taylor died. He is considered one of our worst presidents so this should be interesting.

 

 

The Beginnings of a Computer Career 45 Years Ago

I attended college and had a career in the computer industry during a fascinating time. When I started college the computer industry was young. I don't think Iowa State had more than a hand full of computers and undergraduates only saw the computer from behind glass. During the 40 plus years since I started college computers have become ubiquitous

I've decided to start writing a series of blog posts about some of my experiences. I hope to write about things that might be interesting to my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.  I would have liked my grandmothers to write for their descendants. They could have written about driving a Model T, teaching in a one room school house, growing up on a homestead in North Dakota or living in the Canadian Rockies in the 1930s.

I remember being intrigued by computers during my last couple of years in High School. I built an electronic decimal to binary converter for a science fair, I think during my senior year. It was a project from a book. I knew nothing about soldering and not much about electricity. I built it but it didn't work. As I recall my Dad took it to one of his friends who got the project working for me. It had a few resisters, some wires, some lights and some push buttons. You pushed a button next to one of the numbers 1-9 and the right combination of four lights would come on to represent the binary equivalent of the number.

This is a picture of me in January 1969. I was 17. January is the beginning of the school year in Australia.

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I attended school in Australia from 1964 until 1969. I went to high school at Clayfield College a Presbyterian and Methodist Girls school in Brisbane. The space flights leading to the first landing on the  moon were during this period. I was fascinated by space exploration. The practical use of computers and science in the space program fueled my interest in computers. Not long before we left Australia my Mom brought a television to school so we could watch the first moon landing on  20 July 1969.

From Australia we moved to St Charles Illinois and I started my senior year of High School year there in September 1969. It was hard being a new kid and having no friends. I was really glad to leave St Charles and move to London, England. I attended an American military dependents high school. I'm not sure but I think the science fair and the binary converter project may have been while I was a student at London Central High School. 

I got contact lenses soon after we moved ot London. This is my HIgh School graduation picture.

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I knew I was going to go to college in the U.S. but I had no idea where to go. I took the SAT test in Brisbane before we left Australia. There was one other guy taking the test at the same time. I remember I had to have a social security number to sign up for the test so that is when I applied for and received my social security number. 

While we were living in Illinois one weekend my Dad drove me out to Ames, Iowa to visit Iowa State where he and my mother had gone to college. It is a beautiful campus. We met with the admissions director because I had a pretty strange high school transcript. He said I was admitted. As part of the admissions process I had to declare a major. I remember pouring over the Iowa State catalog which was a thick paperback book listing all the majors and classes. Since I enjoyed math I thought "What the heck, Computer science looks interesting." and I checked that box on the application. I figured I could always change it later.

At Iowa State in the Fall of 1970 my first computer science class was Fortran. We wrote programs on key punch pads so the key punch operators could punch the cards for us. Each line on the programming pad became a card to read into the computer.  If you procrastinated on your programming assignments you would have to use one of the key punch machines in the  basement of the computer science building to punch the cars for your assignment yourself.

This picture of one the keypunch machines in the basement of the computer science building is from my college yearbook.

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Once we had our program on cards we would hand in our deck of cards to the clerks behind the desk in the basement where the computer was and the program would be run through the computer in the room behind the glass. Just finding all your syntax errors could take several cycles of handing in cards and coming back a few hours later to get the results of your run.

Although there were very few woman  in my classes my first computer science teacher for the Fortran class was a woman. I think June Smith was here name. We learned early on that if a line of code was longer than the 80 characters that would fit on one card we could create a continuation card by putting an x in the first column of the next card.  I remember her telling us about the student who thought you made continuation card by stapling the two cards together. You can imagine the serious damage that did to the card reader machine!

The first electronic pocket calculator the HP-35 was introduced by Hewlett Packard in 1972. It cost $395. I don't think I ever owned a calculator while I was in college. We did math for classes like Physics by hand or we used a slide rule. This picture of the HP-35 is from the book Core Memory – A Visual Survey of Vintage Computers.

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 Student protests against the war in Viet Nam and the killing of students at Kent Sate by the national guard occurred during my Freshman year at Iowa State. I was politically very conservative and Iowa State was a fairly conservative school. Although I had misgivings about the war I supported the U.S. policy in Viet Nam so I took no part in the protests at Iowa State.

If you have memories of this era please add them in the comments.

A Race of Giants

I have been doing some research on my Erb family ancestors in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and I found this article in the January 7, 1842 edition. I found it amusing and you might too.

A Race of Giants – An extraordinary family. — There is now a person of the name of Scott, a nurseryman, about three miles form Manchester, and near the Independent College now building, who is one of six sons, now living, and whose united stature is the extraordinary one of 38 feet, or six feet four inches on the average. The lowest in stature is six feet two inches and a half. The father of this race of giants, who was married when thirty nine years of age, has now living nine children, six sons and three daughters, two of the latter being very tall, whilst the other is by comparison diminutive, About seven years ago, all the family assembled at the family residence near Carlisle and on the sons visiting the city, which they did, walking two and two, arm in arm, the circumstance caused much attention. The mother was only nineteen at the time of her marriage, and she died about twelve months ago.

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My Grandparents – Marion Etta Bagnall Gibson and Robert Alexander Gibson

My Grandfather Robert Alexander Gibson "Bob" was an engineer for the Canadian National Railway in the Canadian Rockies. My Mother (Margaret Helen Gibson Robinson) told me that when she was young she was afraid of the steam locomotives he drove  because they were so big and so noisy. Here are a couple of pictures of my Grandfather.

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Both my Mother and her brother Gordon are gone now. I recently called their cousin Helen who is 92 now and lives in Kingston Ontario. I asked her what she remembers about my Grandfather and Grandmother. They were  Aunt Marion and Uncle Bob to her.  She said:

"Well
you know one thing I can remember… one
time after Jane (my sister) was born Grandma came down and she asked me if I wanted to go
home with her and of course I jumped at the idea. I thought it was great. So I
went home with her and you know I ended up staying about a year and a half. While I was in Edmonton your Grandfather  was transferred to Jasper
and while he was getting a place to live in Jasper Aunt Marion came to
Grandma’s. We were all there. There was
she and Margaret and Gordon and me. 

I remember Uncle Bob, he was a nice man, good looking too. You know the train went right back of Grandma’s house, about a block, and of course we’d watch, we knew what train when he was going by and used to run out the back and wave at him and he’d blow the whistle. He was
the engineer. He was always leaning out the window there and waving at us. That
was my Uncle!

He worked for the CNR,
Canadian National Railway. I’m sure
about that. You know Gordon used to say
… He was a little bit lonesome for his Dad you know and he used to say “I’m
going to jump out the window. I’m going to run to the CNR station and I’m going
to say Jasper Park!”"

At this time Gordon would have been about 4 my Mom about 6 and Helen about 11.

When I asked Helen what she remembered about her Aunt Marion, my Grandmother, she told another story from the same time period.

"I can remember Aunt Marion sewing. She was a great seamstress. She could make anything! She made these Hudson Bay
coats.  Aunt Hilda and Aunt B each bought
a Hudson Bay blanket and Aunt Marion made coats for them. Theirs were that camel color with the black
stripe around the bottom. 

Then Grandma bought the white Hudson Bay blanket
with all the candy stripes you know, the red and the green and the gold and Aunt Marion made me a coat.  And the way she cut it she got a coat for
Margaret too. Margaret and I both had a coat out of that blanket." 

Her is a picture of my grandmother, Marion

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Here is my Grandparents wedding picture

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The baby in the picture below is my Mom with her parents.

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Helen and I talked for about 45 minutes and I got some great family history stories and information.

Champlain’s Dream by David Hackett Fischer

A few months ago I listened to a talk by David Hackett Fischer about his book Champlain's Dream. In the question period I asked him for advice about how to become a better amateur historian. I blogged about his answer here. Fischer quoted Francis Parkman who said that in studying history one should  “First, go there! Do it! Then write it!”

I just finished reading Fischer's book Champlain's Dream about the French explorer and the founder of new France Samuel Champlain. Fischer spends his summers in part of the area that Champlain explored. This sparked his interest in Champlain and the writing of this Champlain biography.

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To quote Professor Fischer "Champlain’s greatest achievement was not his career as an explorer, or his success as a founder of colonies. His largest contribution was the success of his principled leadership in the cause of humanity. That is what made him a world figure in modern history. It is his legacy to us all."

I found Champlain's interactions and relationships with the Indians fascinating. Today one tends to assume that all Europeans conquered the Indians and were constantly taking advantage or them or fighting them. Just the opposite is the case with Champlain.

"Many stories have been told about first encounters between American Indians and Europeans. Few of them are about harmony and peace. The more one reads of these accounts, the more one learns that something extraordinary happened in New France during the early seventeenth century "

"Samuel de Champlain was able to maintain close relations with many Indian nations while he founded permanent European colonies in the new world. He lived among the Indians and spent much of his time with them, while he also helped to establish three francophone populations and cultures—Québécois, Acadien, and Métis."

"More young lads were exchanged by the French and the Algonquin, so as to learn each other’s customs."

One downside of reading a book like Champlain's Dream on the Kindle is that the pictures are very small. I just discovered that by downloading Kindle for PC I can see the pictures in a larger size.

Champlain

Champlain's Dream is the third Biography of a French person that I have read in the past year or so. Coincidentally they have given me a overview of French history from the early 1500's to the mid 1800's.

Catherine de Medici – Renaissance Queen of France lived from 1519 to 1589.

When she died Henry IV was King of France. Fischer makes a strong case for the hypothesis that Champlain was an illegitimate son of Henry. Champlain lived from about 1580 to 1635

The third French biography I read this year was Dancing to the Precipice by Caroline Moorehead. It is the biography of Lucie de la Tour du Pin who lived from 1770 to 1853.

Reading biography is a fascinating way to learn about history.

Champlain's Dream struck me as a primer for future Champlain scholars. 55% of Fischer's book is his detailed biography of Champlain. Champlain's Dream also includes an essay titled Memories of Champlain Images and Interpretations 1608-2008. I found it thought provoking to see how historians' interpretation of Champlain has changed in the last 400 years.

In addition Champlain's Dream includes several essays that discuss everything from Champlain's money to Champlain's Favored Firearm: The Arquebuse a Rouet. The notes and bibliography are of course extensive. They complete the book.

Professor Fischer practiced what he preaches in writing Champlain's Dream. He makes me want to explore the places Champlain explored.To Parkman's original words “First, go there! Do it! Then write it!” David Hackett Fischer has with this book  added – and Inspire others to do the same!.

Men to Match My Mountains by Irving Stone

I have read quite a bit of American history over the last year. I've enjoyed it and learned a lot. But everything I have been reading took place in the eastern half of the U.S.  So I decided I wanted to read Men to Match My Mountains by Irving Stone about the explorers and early settlers of California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. I wanted to be able to visit the locations and learn more about the history of the area where I live.

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Men to Match my Mountains was written in 1956. The writing is not as compelling as the best current history writing but the story itself is so compelling that the book is a classic. It took me a long time to read. In fact it is overdue at the library. But Men to Match my Mountains filled the bill and enlightened me about history that I knew little about.

It was fun to read about Theodore Judah who laid out the route for the first train route across the Rockies. I followed that route when I took the train back from Sacramento last week.

It was interesting to read about how California was settled by the Mexicans, how the Americans moved in, the enormous role that John Sutter played in settling the area around Sacramento, and how the American Lieutenant John C. Freemont  in 1844 on one of his exploring trips came south from the Oregon border.

"The next two weeks were spent in this frightening death like country until the party reached a thirty five mile long lake which Fremont called Pyramid Lake and from which his men gorged themselves on salmon trout. On this newly garnered strength they pushed through to the present site of Reno and south of that to the Carson River."

Last summer Duke and I explored that area north of Reno in a wonderful road trip.

Virginia City which is a very short drive southeast of Reno was the center of the silver mining that was done on the Comstock Lode. It was fascinating to read how the rich silver deposits were discovered and opened up.

The miners were looking for gold and ignoring the fact that the Mexicans kept talking about how much silver was in the area. B. A. Harrison  from Truckee Meadows collected some rock from the area and sent it to be assayed. The editor of the Nevada Journal in Nevada City, California split it in two parts and sent it to two independent assayers.

"On July 1, 1858 the Nevada Journal published the results of the two assays: the black rock was incredibly rich. It not only proved the Mexican cry of "Mucho plata" with its one third assay of silver, but also contained high proportions of gold, antimony and copper.

Hundreds of miners walked out of the California mines and made their way over the Sierra Nevada on horseback, muleback and foot. The first legal claim office was setup in V.A. Houseworth's saloon. In Gold Canyon the old timers were lost in a flood of newcomers. By mid July all roads and trails over the mountains were jammed with thousands of men pouring into the new fields."

The money that came out of the Virginia City area is staggering. In 1875 "the Consolidated Virginia and adjoining California mine were the richest producing mines in the history of the world." At that time they paid over $1,000,000 a month in dividends  Today Virginia City is a small little town with an economy that seems to be centered only on tourism. What a change.

I'm looking forward to continuing to read about this area and to traveling around to see the sites I am reading about. Can you recommend any good books?

Reno to Virginia City via Back Roads

If you live in, or are just visiting Reno, a trip to Virginia City is a must. Virginia City is one of the oldest towns in Nevada. It was at the center of gold and silver mining and the rich Comstock Lode in the late 1800s. At its height 23,000 people lived in Virginia City. Today the population is about 1000. Although it is a tourist town it still feels like the old west and is a fun place to visit. If you take the main roads it is probably no more than an hour from Reno. But in the words of Doc Brown in the movie Back to the Future –  “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.” My husband, Duke and I really enjoy exploring by taking old dirt roads.

Today Duke and I went with some friend and took the Jumbo Grade Trail and the Ophir Grade Trail to Virginia City. We came home on the Old Geiger Grade Toll Road. All of these roads are rough dirt roads and I think four wheel drive and high clearance are definitely necessary to drive on them. We had a great time. Ed, our leader, and his wife had done the trip before using the book Nevada Trails – Western Region as a guide.

We left the paved roads about 4 miles south of highway 395 near New Washoe City. You can see where we left the pavement and the road we started up on in this picture.

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In this next picture I am looking west across Washoe Valley. You can see the remains of a giant landslide described in an article titled Catastrophic rockfalls and rock slides in the Sierra Nevada, USA by Gerald F. Wieczorek

“At about noon on May 30, 1983, a large complex rock and soil slide detached from the southeast face of Slide Mountain, Nevada…… Subsequently, along the northeastern margin of the rockslump zone, a rapidly moving rockfall avalanche of large boulders and a debris avalanche of gravelly sand initiated and entered the northern end of Upper Price Lake, a small reservoir….Price Lake, displaced most of the lake water, which overtopped and breached a low dam. The water then breached the dam of Lower Price Lake and sent a torrent down the gorge of Ophir Creek. In the steep canyon the rapidly moving water picked up fine and coarse rocky debris. Emerging from the canyon 6 km downstream, the debris flow spread out and deposited over the alluvial fan of Ophir Creek in the Washoe Valley, destroying and damaging houses, causing one fatality, and covering old U.S. Highway 395.”

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Further along the road we had a wonderful view of Carson City, Nevada’s capital.

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Here are a couple more pictures of us and the road. It was a cool, overcast, beautiful day.

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After lots of rocks, ruts, and stops for pictures we eventually got to Virginia City. 

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Virginia City has a very large Catholic Church. Some guys were in a basket at the end of a very tall cherry picker repairing the steeple. It is not a job I would want to do!

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We had a barbecue lunch at Virginia City Jerky and Smokehouse. My spicy pulled pork had a wonderful smoky flavor and was some of the best I have ever eaten.

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After leaving Virginia City we headed down on the old Geiger Grade toll road. The Online Nevada Encyclopedia describes the road:

opened completely in 1863 with several toll
stations. Its sharp descent, including hairpin turns and steep slopes,
made it impractical for heavy loads, but it was a popular route for
stagecoaches. Because drivers had to slow in some places, these became
favorite locations for robberies."

Even now it is a very steep and in places very narrow road. It is hard to imagine driving a stagecoach up that road or for that matter riding in one.

Here is a slide show of a few more of the pictures I took on the trip today.

http://www.flickr.com/apps/slideshow/show.swf?v=71649