Amelia’s Last Flight

Amelia Earhart planned to write a book about her around-the-world expedition. It was to be called “World Flight.” She wrote some material before departing, and she sent back notes and logs from various stops across the globe. When the flight ended prematurely, her husband assembled the pieces and notes into a book that he published as “Last Flight.”

The first-person narration gives you a real sense of Amelia’s voice and character. She was fearless, in an awe-inspiring way. She was ever ambitious, reaching for the next challenge. She was also very interested in encouraging women in engineering (and aviation in particular). She criticized the way boys and girls were (… are …) shuffled into certain kinds of hobbies. “With rare exceptions,” she wrote, “the delights of finding out what makes a motor go, or batting the bumps out of a bent fender, are joys reserved for masculinity” (p. 47).

To enable her plans to go around the world, she acquired a plane that seems mammoth to me:

“The plane itself is a two-motor, all-metal monoplane, with retractable landing gear. It has a normal cruising speed of about 180 miles an hour and a top speed in excess of 200. With the special gasoline tanks that have been installed in the fuselage, capable of carrying 1150 gallons, it has a cruising radius in excess of 4000 miles. With full load the ship weighs about 15,000 pounds. It is powered with two Wasp ‘H’ engines, developing 110 horsepower” (p. 50).

By comparison, the Cessna 172 that I am learning to fly carries a maximum of 40 gallons of fuel and has a max takeoff weight of 2300 lbs. It has a cruising speed of 120 mph and a radius of about 600 miles. It would take a long time to get around the world that way!

She chronicles her travels from Miami to Brazil, then over to Dakar in Africa, then through India, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, and Lae in Papua New Guinea. Even knowing in advance that her trip will be truncated, it’s hard not to gain enthusiasm and confidence that it will somehow succeed, after she travels through so many different places, weather, and challenges. The book ends, necessarily, abruptly.

… and we still don’t know exactly why.

American female pilots in WWII

Did you know that American female pilots flew, and died, for their country in WWII?

For a brief period from 1942 to 1944, the U.S. trained and employed 1,102 female pilots (WASPs) to help with the war effort. They weren’t allowed to fly in combat, but they performed other duties that consequently freed up male pilots to head overseas. Those duties included variously low-prestige and/or high-risk activities such as:

  • flying planes from where they were assembled to the port from which they’d be flown to the war fronts
  • towing a canvas target for ground troops to shoot anti-aircraft guns at (really!)
  • testing newly repaired planes to certify them to be sent back out to the front

They also learned to fly large bombers that, in some cases, no other pilots were willing to fly. These planes (such as the B-29) were often prone to engine fires or other issues. Yet after a few women pilots were trained to fly them, and started providing instruction in the strategies they developed to avoid or deal with those problems, male pilots became willing to take over the controls. The B-29 was later used to drop the bomb on Hiroshima.

Despite their excellent track record in terms of safety and efficiency (e.g., in delivering planes across the country), the WASP program was canceled in late 1944, and women were not allowed to fly military planes again until 1977 (!).

WASPs were, in fact, never an official part of the Army (the Air Force had not yet been created) because Congress had not included “pilot” in its list of wartime duties women were allowed to perform. WASPs therefore did not receive military insurance, and those who died while performing their duties (38 women) received no government recognition. This changed in 1977 when President Carter signed a bill that recognized WASPS retroactively as having served in active duty, and WASP veterans received official honorable discharges.

Other countries employed women as military pilots in battle during WWII. In Russia, female pilots were called night witches (fascinating reading) by the Germans who often tangled with them in the air at night. From what I’ve read, our female pilots would have been willing to do the same.

For more info on WASPs and their accomplishments, see WASP on the Web.

America’s first library

Leave it to Benjamin Franklin to conceive of the idea of a shared lending library. He hypothesized that a group with pooled resources could build a book collection that would go beyond the means of any individual member. In 1731, the Library Company of Philadelphia was incorporated as a subscription library. Wikipedia cites this motivation for the library’s creation:

“… they had discovered that their far-ranging conversations on intellectual and political themes foundered at times on a point of fact that might be found in a decent library.”

Members paid 40 shillings to join and 10 shillings per year after that. This library still exists today (with about 500,000 books) and still works under a subscription model ($200 to join and $100 per year).

In addition to benefiting its direct subscribers, the Library Company offered free access for delegates to the Continental Congress and Constitutional Conventions in 1774 – 1787. Perhaps they, too, stood to benefit from resolving points of fact that arose during debate. Hooray for fact-based discussion and resolution of arguments! Thank you, libraries one and all!

What’s the “case” in upper and lower case?

If I thought about it at all, I assumed that upper case and lower case were just two different cases (options) for big, or small, letters. You might therefore assume that these terms have been with us since the invention of writing, or at least writing in two sizes.

Not so!

These terms came into being with the invention of moveable type and the printing press (1450 A.D.). Typesetters would pick letters from a large case organized by letter. And — you guessed it — capital letters were in the “upper case” and the rest were in the “lower case.” The terms referred to their physical location, which quickly became convention, because then a typesetter from one press could quickly adapt to another press. Yet now the terms are so generic that they are used even in handwriting instruction. The printing press’s influence echoes down the ages!

Notice the upper-case letters had slots of equal size, while the lower-case letters (more often used) had slots proportional to their frequency of use (in English). This is what you’d need when setting a single line of type.


There were already existing terms for the two cases. Capital letters were referred to as “majuscules” and small letters were “minuscules.” But such was printing’s influence that the jargon of the trade has spread out to general use. Also, scripts that have two sizes, like this, are referred to as “bicameral” scripts (just like bicameral government!).

I learned about this in “The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800” by Febvre and Martin, which I am reading for a library school course on the history of books and libraries. This book contains other interesting tidbits, like the fact that once the printing press got going, it was very productive; skilled teams could produce a sheet every 20 seconds. Further, there’s a sordid and fascinating story behind Gutenberg and his associates Fust and Schoeffer, who took over his printing press just as he was finalizing the process, because Gutenberg defaulted on a loan; as a result, none of the books printed with his press bear his name as the publisher, although the history books have given his name full credit.

Nowadays even fonts displayed digitally continue the use of “upper” and “lower” case to distinguish these two components of the English script. The very term “font” is also an echo of early printing press technology developments, as it comes from “fondue” which means something that has been melted; early fonts were cast in metal at a type foundry. Can we imagine “tweet” or “text” or “facebook” persisting in our vocabulary for a similar span of more than 500 years?

A monk and his cat: Pangur Bán

In my class on the History of Books and Libraries, we were recently introduced to this fun 9th century Irish poem. My own cat and I are amused.

The cat’s name, Pangur Bán, is a little tricky to decode. “Bán” means “white,” and “Pangur” seems to have been a common name for cats (maybe like Felix) that may mean “Fuller” (as in fulling cloth: beating it to remove dirt and impurities — like how cats knead blankets?).

I and Pangur Bán, my cat
‘Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way:
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

Translation by Robin Flower

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