Saturday, September 17, 2016

Born September 17, 1857 - Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, First Rocketeer



Although growing up in rural Russian Empire and suffering partial deafness due to scarlet fever at age ten, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky would become one of the most internationally known figures of engineering as father of aerodynamics and rocketry. His handicap kept him out of traditional classrooms, so young Tsiolkovksy taught himself through reading and solving mathematics. As a teenager, he moved to Moscow to read in the great library. There he read the science fiction works of Frenchman Jules Verne such as From the Earth to the Moon that would fascinate him with space travel for a lifetime.

Tsiolkovsky returned to the countryside at 19, marrying and earning his teaching certificate, continuing his research as a hobby outside of class. In 1881, he published his “Theory of Gases,” which correctly deduced principal laws of matter that, unbeknownst to Tsiolkovsky, had already been determined decades before. Tsiolkovsky finally earned a position with the Russian Physcio-Chemical Society discussing “The Mechanics of the Animal Organism.” Then he turned his attention to the problem of flight.

The bulk of Tsiolkovsky’s work focused on metal-clad airships, which were much sturdier than blimps but suffered from their great weight. Working in his free time with his own means, Tsiolkovsky designed his own craft and tested his models in Russia’s first experimentally-accessible wind tunnel, which he himself constructed. Although he soon began to turn his attention to rigid, heavier-than-air aircraft, it was his wind tunnel that caught the attention of German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.

By 1900, Zeppelin found acclaim with the successful launch of the LZ1 zeppelin, but his success also brought his company into the midst of legal allegations of patent infringement. Reviewing the countless scientific journals and intellectual property documents, Zeppelin came across Tsiolkovsky’s old works and immediately sought him out as a consultant for streamlining his vessels. After much convincing and signed documents of financial support, Tsiolkovsky moved to Germany and began his research on an industrial scale.

Through the years, Zeppelin would often complain that Tsiolkovsky went “off topic” in his research, which was intended to be improvements for the colossal lighter-than-air behemoths. However, Tsiolkovsky showed again and again that the ungainliness and drag of the huge craft would hold them back while airplanes continued to surge forward. The two modes of thought were gradually brought together in Tsiolkovsky’s designs of an aerodynamically faired, fast-moving hybrid craft, which crossed the Atlantic in a fraction of the time an ocean liner could. Both Tsiolkovsky and Zeppelin greatly agreed on the importance of airboats, although their development of hovercraft would be eclipsed by the conquest of the skies.

Tsiolkovsky’s 1914 display of model craft at the Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne was met with international nods until the fair was closed early due to the declaration of World War I. Although disappointed, Tsiolkovsky soon had his attention diverted again when the German military showed interest in rocketry, yet another of Tsiolkovsky’s background hobbies. By the time of the Battle of Verdun in 1916, rockets were being launched from artillery sites well behind the German lines into the streets of Paris. Although ecstatic about the triumphs in range and height, Tsiolkovsky showed visible depression at the news of destruction wrought by his rockets.

Upon the death of Ferdinand von Zeppelin in 1917, Tsiolkovsky turned in his resignation and moved to America for an extended visit to his longtime pen pal, Robert Goddard. Goddard carried out his own rocket work in the New Mexico desert with a Smithsonian grant and sponsorship from the Army Signal Corps, but Tsiolkovsky pushed him to seek industrial applications. Goddard was suspicious about losing control of his work, but Tsiolkovsky’s encouragement and imagination for applied science proved to be beneficial as money thinned out with the closing of World War I.

While Germany was banned from rocket production with the Treaty of Versailles, the 1920s became the Rocket Age for the United States. Rocket-mail became a method for rapid delivery of post, outpacing even propeller airplanes that handled more delicate packages. Tsiolkovsky began blending his ideas to create manned rocketcraft that used gas turbine engines. Most notable, of course, was his aspiration for human spaceflight, which led to Charles Lindberg’s famous jaunt beyond the atmosphere in 1927.

Tsiolkovsky died in 1935 after an emergency surgery for stomach cancer after spending his final years working on anti-missile missiles. Although these designs were never successfully tested in his lifetime, his search-and-destroy methods of navigation laid groundwork for modern computing. Tsiolkovsky feared rocket-mail delivered across the Atlantic could easily be turned to intercontinental ballistics, a fear realized as World War II erupted.


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In reality, Tsiolkovsky was largely unknown outside of the Soviet Union, where he was awarded scientific recognition late in life. During his lifetime, he was considered a weird loner, but his work inspired generations of rocket scientists like Wernher von Braun and the many serving in the Soviet space program.

Friday, August 19, 2016

August 19, 1946 – Saxophonist Billy Blythe Born



Although he was known as William Jefferson Clinton for several years as a young man, as a famed member of the music industry, he would forever be known as Billy Blythe. William Blythe, Senior, Billy’s father, was a traveling salesman who died in a traffic accident just months before his son was born. The young widow and new mother, Virginia, made ends meet as a nurse. In 1950, she married Roger Clinton, a car dealer in nearby Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Clinton would prove a dominating force in Billy’s young life. He took his stepfather’s surname informally, though he refused to ever take it legally, one of many issues that arose between them. Clinton was a gambler and alcoholic, and he took out his struggles on Billy’s mother and younger half-brother, Roger, Jr. As Billy grew older, he stood up to his stepfather violently, and soon regular fights broke out in the Clinton household.

When Billy was sixteen, the same year Virginia divorced Clinton, he won first chair in saxophone in the Arkansas state band. This, he determined, would be his ticket out of his family’s struggles in Arkansas. Despite interests in being a doctor or even public servant, Billy focused on his music, dreaming of becoming a great like John Coltrane or Stan Getz. Upon graduation from high school, he moved to California and worked to establish a career.

If Billy lacked in talent, he more than made up for it in personality and his uncanny ability to make connections. He crossed paths with his idol Stan Getz several times as Getz won awards with his bossa nova style alongside talents such as Joao and Astrud Gilberto. Getz’s affair with Astrud broke their collaboration and created a turning point in Getz’s career. Billy, who would himself become infamous for his many affairs, worked his way into Getz’s circle and is often credited with turning the great saxophonist’s attention back toward cool jazz.

Working on albums with Getz and others, Billy’s true fame came when he burned his draft card and began his “Canadian Tour” after his name was announced for the Vietnam War effort. He eclipsed Getz and began playing peppier music in tune with the taste of his new, much younger fans. Although scandal would break out when it was discovered that Billy’s uncle had led a failed effort to get Billy into the Navy Reserve and thus wait out the war at home, Billy avoided any bad press in America by hopping the Atlantic and playing venues in Europe into the mid-1970s.

After Billy’s return during the Carter years, he continued to be loud in his politics, although it was the terms of Ronald Reagan that brought him to his height. The saxophone had become a widely popular instrument, and Billy’s concerts surpassed those of Kenny G and others. Billy proved to be a savvy businessman and was soon demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single appearance. Blythe Merchandising became a multi-million-dollar company, which transitioned into Blythe Entertainment as Billy’s personal fame dimmed.

Billy found that his smooth personality translated well into the backroom dealings of the music industry. Numerous stars of the nineties and new millennium owed their fame to his patronage, although later stories were told over how deep his take was, not to mention his routine encounters with interns. Billy’s name still often sprang into the news for a land investment scandal or the like, although his greatest legacy seemed to live on through his ongoing campaign for the legalization of marijuana, claiming, “I always inhale.”


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In reality, according to his autobiography My Life, Clinton only threatened violent repercussions to protect his mother and half-brother. “I loved music and thought I could be very good, but I knew I would never be John Coltrane or Stan Getz. I was interested in medicine and thought I could be a fine doctor, but I knew I would never be Michael DeBakey. But I knew I could be great in public service.” Clinton went to Georgetown on scholarship and became president of his class, the first of many successful campaigns, including President of the United States in 1992 and 1996.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Guest Post from Allen W. McDonnell: July 31, 1630 - Humiliating Tready of Madrid


 This post first appeared on Today in Alternate History.


As a result of the treaty, King Charles faced a new crisis: the claims of Sir Robert Heath to Cape Hatteras are now null and void and a number of wealthy Caribbean plantations owned by English colonists are no longer in English territory. Any troubles those colonists have with the Spanish became their own concern from then on. It was not long before they are pressured to leave by the Spanish, who want to take over their profitable trade.  Having no other legal recourse, they turn to King Charles who grants them land in 'North Virginia,' including what would have been Delaware and Maryland. The cash crops that do well in this region is not sugar cane, which had made them all wealthy, but indigo and tobacco.

Not realizing just how different the climate in New England is from that of England and Scotland, King Charles issued a new grant to Sir Robert Heath for New Scotland directly north of New England where Scots would be encouraged to colonize. As a result the first forts were built at Dundee, New Scotland, in 1635 on a truly excellent harbor discovered just south of the 45 degree parallel.

Queen Mary suffered an infection after the birth of her second child, the Princess Mary, and dies December 1, 1631. The sympathy generated for King Charles was substantial, and his decision to marry an young English noble woman of Anglican faith relieved most of the fears his nobles have about a secret cabal of Catholics trying to over turn the protestant reformation in England.

Queen Anne had ambitions for her own children. Her older step-child Charles was raised as a devout Anglican and was invested as Prince of Wales with all the honors and responsibilities on his 10th birthday in 1640. Under Anne's influence, the Princess Mary was not only raised as a devout Anglican but was made Duchess of New England in 1646 on her 15th birthday.

Charles I and Queen Anne had many children whom Anne insisted on naming in what she considered truly English royal name fashion. Her seven sons were Alfred, Edmund, Edgar, Harold, Stephen, Richard and William. Her four daughters were named Anne, Elizabeth, Imogene and Olivia.

Queen Anne had a profound influence over King Charles, encouraging him to sponsor many more colonial settlements in North America, though Charles insisted on placing them all north of the 36 degree treaty line with Spain. As a result, by the time he died at the advanced age of 60, New England and New Scotland have substantial populations.

When Charles II was invested with the crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1660, his sister Duchess Mary of New England moved her household to Boston. Though very small by English or even Scottish standards, her patronage soon created a thriving upper class set of establishments, like the Boston Opera house, and her palace on Nob Hill is beautiful and elegant, designed by an English architect and built by immigrant craftsmen.

Though Charles II was deemed by most to be a successful monarch, he was much more interested in the fleshpots than the day to day running of the kingdoms; he left that to his bureaucracy while he enjoyed the good life. Unfortunately his wife was unable to provide him an heir, though several stillborn children did result from the marriage. When Charles II passed in 1685 at the relatively young age of 54 from heart failure, he was hardly missed by the general public.

His half-brother Alfred inherited the throne because he had no legitimate children, but his reign was fairly short, lasting only until 1689 when he died from a bad fall off of his horse while fox hunting. Unlike his half-brother, King Alfred had several legitimate children with his wife, and by that time several grandchildren as well to carry on the line. His eldest son, Richard, became king in 1689 and pledged to carry on the 'New Colony' project King Alfred had begun in far southern South America.

Reasoning that Spain is much too strong for England to challenge successfully and that the easy to settle land near the cost of New England and New Scotland has already been distributed King Alfred had sent an expedition to explore and claim lands south of the 36 degree latitude in South America. The expedition had mapped the coast starting at 36 degrees south and discovered the Falkland islands quite by accident on its return journey having come back to London just a month before King Alfred hunting accident.

An excellent harbor had been discovered at 38 degrees 45 minutes south on the coast. and a small garrison had been left behind in a hastily assembled fort to make the English claim more secure. King Richard IV spent lavishly to support the colony, renamed New Wales, and the village Fort Alfred in honor of his father's ambitions. The land around Fort Alfred turned out to be very fertile and convincing colonists to move in with land grants was not difficult. Soon satellite colonies farther and farther south along the coast are planted, though, after about 150 miles, farming became predominantly ranching instead of crop oriented.

In that 150 mile swath of New Wales, grain farms prospered alongside legumes and scattered tobacco and indigo farms, reversing the order in North America. The farther south a farm is, the colder the winters and the harder it is to grow some crops, to the point that at the further reaches like the Falkland Islands are dominated by sheep ranching and fishing rather than field crops.

Meanwhile in North America, Duchess Mary of New England passed away in 1695, passing the duchy to her grandson Henry, her oldest son James having predeceased her. Like his cousin King Richard, Duke Henry was ambitious and wants to see his duchy prosper. In his case, he encouraged settlers to expand his borders north to the Saint Lawrence river valley and west to the coast of Lake Ontario. With a solid population base due to the high number of immigrants sponsored by King Charles I and the bureaucracy continuing those practices during the reign of Charles II, it was not long before the entire Saint Lawrence valley and western end of Lake Ontario's shoreline were settled with good New Englander pioneers hacking down the forests and planting English villages all across the landscape.

Author's Note: in reality England renounced supporting the rebels of the Spanish Netherlands and the Protestants in Germany.
The unfair Treaty of Madrid was signed between Spain and England, ending war between the two powers. A late addition to the treaty required England to relinquish all claims to territory in America further from the pole than the 36th parallel. The latitude was chosen because it was believed to be the center of the Strait of Gibraltar at the time of the negotiations though it is actually somewhat closer to the European side.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

July 24, 1802 - General Alexandre Dumas



The Dumas military dynasty continued into one of its most colorful generations with the birth of Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie, called Alexandre Dumas, père. His grandfather, Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, had been a minor noble who traveled to the Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue with hopes of revitalizing the family’s fortunes. Antoine fell in love with Marie-Cessette Dumas, an African slave, who gave birth to Thomas-Alexandre in 1762. Antoine brought his illegitimate son with him back to France and showered him with luxury as fostered Thomas-Alexandre through military school.

Though he had his freedom, Thomas-Alexandre still faced a great deal of social strife as a mixed-raced officer. He served valiantly with the Queen’s Dragoons, which became part of the National Guard upon the creation of the Republic during the French Revolution. The new egalitarian regime encouraged participation from all races, and Thomas-Alexandre became lieutenant colonel of the “Black Legion” of free Africans. His aptitude for leadership carried him into higher and higher ranks to general in the Army of Italy, just under Napoleon Bonaparte. The two routinely bickered about policy, such as seizing property. Thomas-Alexandre followed Napoleon on his campaign to Egypt as cavalry commander, yet he requested a transfer as soon as the fighting was done. Upon his return to Europe, he was reunited with his wife and daughters. In 1802, his son, Alexandre père, was born.

Upon the overthrow of Napoleon and restoration of Louis XVIII, young Dumas was placed in military school after years of firsthand tutoring by his father at their farm. Bright and energetic, Alexander père excelled in both his studies and training, although he was often disciplined for outlandish behavior, especially spending too much time reading. Dumas’s father’s exploits in the Revolution filled him with lofty aspirations, yet the real world never seemed to be as grand as the tales he read.

Young Dumas began to write extensively, first publishing letters anonymously but soon contributing articles in favor of fellow soldier Louis Philippe, Duke of Orleans, who had commanded the 14th Dragoons while Thomas-Alexander commanded the 6th.  The connection may have garnered attention, perhaps hastening Dumas’s promotions following the Revolution of 1830 that led to Louis Philippe’s kingship, but it did not earn Dumas a place in the court as his parents hoped.

Instead, Dumas was dispatched along with the invasion force to seize Algiers. This served as yet another case of his seemingly duplicitous nature, where he received commendation for valiant service in battle and yet openly praised the Algerian peoples in his letters. As the occupation turned to colonization, Dumas joined the military government and found he had more time than ever to write. He completed an eight-volume history of French warfare, but more widely received were his works of fiction set at many points within France’s turbulent history. His writing in colonialism is noted for its human portrayals of both native populations and colonizers, showing good and evil in both.

Upon the Revolution of 1848 and the return of the Republic, Dumas retired and began traveling. Unlike his writings about Louis Philippe, which had begun as hopeful and gradually became cynical as the monarch “for the people” proved to be more in tune with the upper class, Dumas was consistently distrustful of Louis-Napoleon. Many biographers tie this to his father’s portrayal of the original Bonaparte in Italy and Egypt. Alexandre père’s response to Louis-Napoleon declaring the Empire reborn was allegedly a laugh. Rarely returning to France, Dumas spent his latter days in Italy, where he campaigned for unification.

From his deathbed December 5, 1870, Dumas gave his final words, “I knew this would happen. I knew how it would all end.” Rather than referring to life, Dumas is believed to have been referring to the rule of Louis-Napoleon, who surrendered after his capture in the humiliating Battle of Sedan just three months before. The French government was in chaos, Paris besieged, and German demands overwhelming. He often said it was the duty of a Bonaparte to ruin France.

Alexandre Dumas père was survived by his wife and numerous children, both legitimate as well as many illegitimate. Most famous was Alexandre Dumas fils, born in 1824 while the elder Dumas was in the military academy in Paris. Alexandre fils followed his father’s footsteps in colonialism and literature, attaching himself to the expeditions in French Indochina that protected interests there in the name of protecting Catholic citizens. While perhaps not as widely read as his father’s works, Alexandre fils wrote extensively both for the stage and print about the Orient. The adoption of Vietnamese culture into Paris encouraged investment and industrialization in Indochina, making it a prominent member of today’s French Commonwealth.


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In reality, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas’s ship from Egypt wrecked in 1799, and he faced the next two years imprisoned in the Kingdom of Naples. He died in 1806 after struggling with ill health and disfavor from the Napoleonic regime. Alexandre père grew up in poverty, but he showed tremendous work ethic from a young age, which, coupled with his extensive imagination, allowed him to become one of France’s most iconic novelists with works such as The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Les Miserables. His final words are said to be a poetic “I shall never know how it all comes out now.”

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

June 6, 1807 – Burr Defends himself before Congress



In 1805, Aaron Burr’s life took an abrupt change that would change the course of the nation. He had seemed on a path toward greatness since his youth, yet fate always seemed to pull back the hand it offered. Burr was born as a grandson of the famed preacher Jonathan Edwards, orphaned at age two, and entered the College of New Jersey at 13. He abandoned his study of theology at 19 in 1775, deciding to turn to law as the American uproar grew toward revolution. At news of the first shots fired at Lexington and Concord, Burr enlisted, serving in the campaign in Quebec where he was promoted to captain. Washington invited Burr onto his personal staff, but Burr was determined to stay on the battlefield. Despite his heroism and national fame, he never received a commendation.

As the war came to a conclusion, Burr married in 1782 and settled in New York for his law practice, which soon led to politics. Governor George Clinton appointed him to the state attorney generalship in 1789, and two years later Burr was elected to the Senate. Already by 1796, he was getting attention for the presidency. It was then, too, that he had his first taste of political shenanigans. Burr spent great efforts campaigning for Jefferson in the north, trusting that the Virginian would do the same for him as the system of the electoral college at the time gave each member two votes. Instead of splitting their votes, however, Jefferson’s supporters gave them both to him and left Burr in a distant fourth place.

By 1800, Burr was savvier. He returned to local politics in the New York Assembly, where the deep rift between himself and Federalist campaigner Alexander Hamilton drove deeper still over water company rights and banking. Despite vicious campaigns on both sides, Burr was able to stir support from groups such as the Tammany Hall social club and won the 1800 election for Jefferson with himself as vice-president. Yet again Jefferson proved to be a short-lived ally, and it was clear that Burr would not be invited onto the 1804 ticket.

Instead, Burr stepped away from Washington politics and ran for governor of New York. The campaign was filled with brutal smears, both from rivals in his own party as well as Hamilton and his Federalists, who called Burr “dangerous… one who ought not be trusted with the reins of government.” After Burr’s bitter defeat, he demanded that Hamilton apologize for years of remarks. When Hamilton refused, Burr challenged him to a duel at the Weehawken Heights overlooking the Hudson River.

Hamilton wrote the night before that he intended to miss. After Burr shot Hamilton in the torso, he remarked that he would have hit Hamilton in the heart if not for blurry morning mist. Hamilton died of his wounds, prompting Burr to a hurried visit to his daughter in South Carolina. Ultimately there would be no penalty as Burr shot Hamilton in New Jersey, where dueling was not illegal, and Hamilton had died in New York, where the fatal shot could not be called murder. Burr ventured as far north as Washington to complete his vice-presidency, although his political ambitions died along with Hamilton.

Like many other Americans seeking a new life, Burr turned west. The Louisiana Purchase had been completed in 1803, and there seemed ample opportunity for anyone willing to take a chance. Burr leased a tract of 40,000 acres from Baron de Bastrop, a Dutchman some considered a con artist. Regardless, Burr began his colony with some eighty farmers, planting wheat since the lease stated that he could not start a plantation for cash crops like cotton.

Immediately, rumors began spreading about Burr. Some in the South feared that his strong abolition sentiments would create a haven for escaped slaves. Others throughout the nation felt that Burr had gathered a militia and sought to spark a war with Spain in which he could seize huge swaths of land in Florida or Texas as bounty. Allegedly even young Colonel Andrew Jackson was waiting to hear a declaration of war and charge into Spanish territory alongside him. With the latter suspicions of treason, Jefferson dispatched a warrant for Burr’s arrest.

Upon the news, Burr turned east. There is a difference of opinion about whether Burr was fleeing to Spanish Florida where he could make an escape into the Caribbean. In either case, he was quickly spotted and placed under arrest. Jefferson granted US Attorney George Hay carte blanche with pardons for anyone who would testify against the conspiracy. Hay intended to bring Burr to trial in the circuit court in Virginia, but initial arraignments before a grand jury could find no evidence. With the move clearly political, Burr managed to stir Congress into an impeachment hearing through his lawyer, Kentucky Representative Henry Clay. Burr himself had presided over the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase as vice-president and knew what damage could be done. Even though Jefferson escaped impeachment, the Jeffersonian wing of the Democratic-Republican Party broke up. In 1808, Burr’s old mentor George Clinton was elected president.

Burr, meanwhile, settled back to Bastrop. He ultimately purchased the land and resold it, building capital along with investments from old friends in New York. With Francophile Jeffersonians out of office, Burr established strong relations with London, importing a great deal of Newton’s Catalyst as he expanded his holdings to found Lake Providence as an industrial center on the west banks of the Mississippi.


Burr continually frustrated his Southern neighbors. As Burr’s influence in the area grew, he campaigned to wrest land north of the Red River away from Orleans, creating the territory of Gloriana, which would later become the twenty-third state after years of its admission being blocked in Congress. Southern leaders were fearful the free territory would become a free state, which it of course it did. Burr’s legitimized son John Pierre Burr, himself mixed-race, was an active proponent of the Underground Railroad and is said to have escorted many slaves across the Mississippi to freedom.

With the borders of Gloriana set running from the Mississippi to the Red River and up into the Ozarks, Burr turned to modernizing his territory. He was an avid supporter of steamboat captain and inventor Henry Miller Shreve, who cleared the Great Raft blocking the Red River and opened the west for navigation. As railroads were introduced, Burr drove lines out across the Texas Trail and up through the Ozarks into Indian Territory.

Burr served as governor until 1836, handing over the reins just a few months before passing away. The railroad bridge built across Stack Island, connecting the Lake Providence railhead with Jackson, MS, was named in his honor. It was the first to cross the Mississippi River, a fitting tribute to a man who brought East and West so close together.


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In reality, Burr faced his trial in Virginia. Despite being found not guilty, his reputation was destroyed. He fled to England, and the colony at Bastrop dispersed.

This alternate timeline serves as the setting for Hellfire released June 6, 2016, from Tirgearr Publishing.

Special thanks to Robbie Taylor for the use of “Gloriana!”

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