Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Wednesday Search Challenge (10/31/12): What beach am I on?

Seems like just the other day I was walking down the beach, enjoying a beautiful day.  Sun, sand, surf, great food, interesting people—it was all just about everything you could want in a day at the sea. 

Nearby there’s a very famous statue that’s clad with an exterior of steatite that’s placed in very, very prominent location.  His right hand points to the strip of sand I was on; a world-famous beach that’s famed in song and story. 

        What’s the name of the beach?

As usual, be sure to tell us HOW you found this, and about HOW LONG it took you to find the answer.  Did you have to do anything unusual?  If so, teach us what search magic you used to find this beautiful beach!

Search on!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Answer: What could go wrong? Fighting fires in the 19th century

Quick answers: 

     1.  What were these  devices commonly called?
     A:  Hand grenades, or hand grenade fire extinguishers. 

     2.  What problematic fluid were they often filled with?
     A: Some were filled with salt water (salt added to prevent freezing);
          but most were filled with carbon tetrachloride, which is very poisonous
          and can be transformed into phosgene gas in the presence of high heat…
          ...which frequently happens in fires. 

     3.  Can you find the original patent for this device?
     A:  US11781 – Samuel Johnson, Aug 8, 1871 (filled with carbonic acid or chlorine gas!)
           Soon after, John J. Harden, US282981, Aug 14, 1883 (filled with carbonic acid
           or sodium bicarbonate).  This version became most popular in the US.  

Background:  In the 19th century, fires were a big deal.  They were much more common than now, with buildings and interiors being made mostly of flammable substances and fire-fighting technology being much less capable than it is today. 

Inventors started building any number of clever, and occasionally Rube Goldberg-ian fire-fighting devices, of which the fragile, fluid-filled globes known as “hand grenades” were possibly the most common at the time. 

I first ran across this notion when I was reading through an old address directory for 1895 and found an ad for “hand grenades.”  That surprised me a bit, so I started looking into the topic.  What I found was this amazing bit of tech from the 1800’s. 

Fire grenades were sold as essential household items, and the advertisements played up their ease-of-use (especially by women in peril, a common thread at the time). 

If you look up the patents, you’ll find an amazing technology battle as inventors tried to create ever better grenades, sometimes with remarkably bad idea.  For instance, Van Houten patented a fascinating device (US366901) that uses a burnable string causing the bottle to pivot and spill the fire extinguishing agent out on the fire below.  BUT if the stopper gets stuck, it also has a small glass bottle of gunpowder to be set afire by another burning string and that will shatter the bottle.

My search process:

[ fire fighting shatter 1800..1900 ]  to find:  They’re called fire fighting grenades.  Since I knew they existing in the 19th century, I used the number operator (1800..1900) to find dates associated with the web pages from that era. 

[ fire fighting grenades fluid ] to find: That they were often filled with carbon tetrachloride.  Okay, got that.  Why is it problematic?  Is there some hazard associated with carbon tet? 

[ carbon tetrachloride hazard ] to find: That carbon tet,  when breathed, can damage the lungs and kidneys.  What’s more, it’s easily converted in the presence of heat to phosgene gas, a major chemical weapon used in World War I.  Obviously not something you’d want to use in an enclosed space, such as a fire in the home. 

Search lessons:  Let’s look at some of what people did as their first queries…  There were a few natural buckets of initial queries.  I've grouped the initial queries by their most prominent features.  (And note that one person used the intext: operator!)  

fire globe home fire extinguisher  
fire extinguisher 19th century intext:globe
fire fight globe glass 
glass globe fire extinguisher 
fire globes nineteenth century 
glass globe fight fire history 
antique fire extinguisher globe

19th century:
19th century glass globes home to fight fires 
19th century fire prevention home 
19th century fire-fighting devices glass globe 
19th century fire extinguisher 
19th Century Glass fire fighting 
19th century fire-fighting devices  
19th century Fight fire home devices 
fire extinguisher 19th century intext:globe

Fire Extinguisher history 
"fire extinguisher" home globe 1800..1900 
antique liquid filled glass balls  
glass vial to extinguish fire 
home fire-fighting glass shatter base of fire
Didn’t work as initial queries:
19th century fire globe 
19th century fire-fighting devices 
fire bomb glass ball

There were three different approaches to this challenge.

1.  Globe:  7 of the initial queries had the word “globe” in the query.  You picked this up from the language I used in the challenge (which is fine)… but note that it’s a fairly uncommon word.  If I were devious, I might have used that word to throw you off the path.  As it was, I planned it as a hint. 

2.  19th century:  8 of the initial queries had “19th century” in the query.  That’s not a bad way to build the query, but if it hadn’t worked, you’d be right to take it out of your query and try it without that specifier.  A time period can be overly limiting your query.  For example, suppose these things had been popular in the 17th century as well… then nobody would have written about them in conjunction with the phrase “19th century” and you would have wasted a lot of time.

3.  Historical:  3 people had initial queries that were fairly broad, looking for the history of firefighting or antiques.  That’s not a bad approach (and the person who used the number range operator, 1800..1900, echoed what I did myself). 

Finally, it’s interesting to see the 3 initial queries that did NOT work well for their searchers.  Everyone was able to do the challenge, but compare these unsuccessful initial queries with those that worked.  As you can see, the difference is often just adding a word or two.  Since it’s so fast to iterate, these searchers were right to extend their queries to include the missing word or two that got them to fire grenades. 

For extra credit, many searchers found truly wonderful images, many of which I have linked in here below.   (I especially like the French advertisement for the Harden hand grenade.  Beautiful.)  

Search on.  (But safely!)  

From: Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News volume 2, September 1885

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Search challenge (10/24/12): What could go wrong? Fighting fires in the 19th century home

A mother in distress.  (Don't bother trying search-by-image. I've altered it to make it
evocative, but not useful in SBI...)
What could go wrong? 

Back in the day, fragile glass globes would be kept in the home to fight fires.  The instructions were, more-or-less, “in case of fire, throw this at the base of the flames…”   The globe would shatter, scattering a fluid that would chemically help to extinguish the flames. 

The globes came in red and blue (possibly other colors as well) and would be kept in places where fires might start—the kitchen, but also the living room (fireplace), and the bedroom (near candles and lanterns). 

But in retrospect, these fire-fighting devices were a really terrible idea.  They actually seem to have worked, but the fluid they contained was problematic for several reasons.

Now that you know a bit about 19th century fire-fighting devices, let me pose today’s challenge:

     1.  What were these  devices commonly called?

     2.  What problematic fluid were they often filled with?

     3.  Can you find the original patent for this device? 

And for extra credit, should you be inclined, can you find an advertisement from the day showing this device in use?   (Some of them are truly wonderful.)  

Search on! 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Answer: Intellectuals and land-change in Colorado?

Yesterday’s questions were all about a large-scale educational movement that began in New York state during the late 1800s. 

The simplest search to figure out what I meant by that would be: 
    [ education movement New York ] 
which leads you pretty quick to the  Chatauqua institution.  (On my page, Chatauqua was the 5th link in the SERP.) 

You could have also done:
     [ education movement New York 1800..1900 ] 
(the number range operator would give preference to pages that mention those years in the text of the page). 

The Chatauqua was a cultural, religious, and political education movement that began in the 1870s on Lake Chataqua, New York as a move towards mass education and a commonly held sense that the people needed to have a socially acceptable way for family education.

Some consider it the first form of mass culture in North America. With encampments springing up to hold Chatauqua-style meetings throughout the US, Theodore Roosevelt called it “the most American thing in America.” Some scholars credit it with sowing the seeds of liberal thought in the U.S. and Canada

It was a social and cultural phenomenon that permeated rural North America until the mid-1920s. At its height, the Chautauqua Movement attracted millions to hear educators, preachers, explorers, travelers, scientists, prohibitionists, politicians and statesmen, comedians, singers, violinists, pianists, bands, and orchestras. 

But today, only a handful of Chautauqua communities survive.  

While there’s a good deal to say about the Chatauqua movement (which is fascinating itself), I want to focus on the Boulder branch.  It began on July 4, 1898, when over 4,000 people gathered for the opening day of the Colorado Chautauqua which had been established when Boulder civic leaders and Texas educators joined together to create a cultural and educational summer retreat.  (Basically, the Texas teachers wanted to escape the summer heat and have what we’d now call “professional development” time in a salubrious place.  Boulder was just the ticket for them. 

The Boulder Chautauqua has been in business, holding sessions ever since.  

So let’s answer our questions: 

1. Even after more than 100 years, one of these education franchises is still active and well-known in Colorado.  What city is it in?   (For search fans, give us the lat/long.) 

Now that you know that it’s the Chatauqua movement,   [Chataqua Colorado] tells you it’s Boulder, CO.   A quick look at Google Maps findsthe Chatauqua site at Lat/Long (from the Maps Lat/Long tool):  39°59′51.42″N 105°16′46.64″W

2.  Can you find a current photo of the grounds of this institution AND a photo from a 1899?   (We’re going to ask for a highly reputable source for the image from more than 100 years ago.) 

See answer below... 

Getting a current photo is easy: use Street View or visit the Boulder Chautauqua web site.   

3.  What’s the most striking difference in the appearance of the land between now and 100 years ago?  (For extra credit, can you show the current and 1899 views side-by-side?) 

For this kind of highly reputable information, one excellent resource to remember is the local public library!  Many (MANY!) cities are proud of their local history and maintain superb archives.  To find archival images of Boulder’s Chautauqua, I first did a search for [ Boulder Colorado libraryhistory ], which led me immediately to Boulder’s Carnegie Library which is their local history branch.  

This wonderfully historic library  (one of the original Carnegie libraries in the United States) is full of a great collection of Boulder-iana, and has an extensive archival image collection—much of which is devoted to the local Chatauqua. 

I just clicked through to their catalog and was able to quickly find a trove of images from the site.  A search for [ Chautauqua ] on their photographs archive (using their search tool, not Google) yields 972 images. 

Here’s the best pair of current vs. 1899 photos I could find.    (near the auditorium, looking roughly northwest at the front of the building) vs. now. 
(Linked from Boulder library archive)

 And then the closest place as seen by Street View: 

This shows clearly the biggest difference between then and now.  In 1899, as you scan through the libraries archival photos, you'll see this was all a VERY open space, dominated by a prairie landscape—short grasses and no trees.  None.  
(Linked from Boulder library archive)

Now, after more than 100 years of people living in this space, the land is covered in trees, making photo matching a bit of a challenge.  Contrast these 1899 images with the aerial view of Boulder above.  

A remarkable change for the place.  And a remarkable place. 

Search lesson:  Don’t forget the local resources!  Libraries are wonderful repositories of information that can be easily accessed through their catalogs.  Note that not all archives are available online—sometimes you just have to go there to see what they have. But most libraries have a description of their holdings, which IS searchable.  If they seem to have what you need, it’s time for a road trip. 

Luckily, Boulder has scanned much of its archive and added pretty decent metadata, which makes our life (those of us who don’t live in Boulder) much easier.