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4 Doctor Who Stories Ripped From History Books

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Earlier this week, we looked at Doctor Who stories inspired by the headlines. But far more stories were ripped from the history books. In fact, the original series concept back in 1963 was to alternate science fiction stories (which could be used to introduce science concepts) with period pieces (which could be used to teach history). Since there were so many in nearly fifty years, I'll just list a small selection.

1. The Abandonment of the Mary Celeste

The History: On December 4, 1872, the crew of the Dei Gratia sighted another vessel sailing in the Atlantic Ocean. Something didn't look right about her, as if she was not being properly helmed, and the Dei Gratia moved in closer and identified it as Mary Celeste. They could see no one on board, and after a while, although she flew no distress signal, they decided to board her. They found the ship deserted. The cargo and personal effects of the crew were all intact, along with ample provisions for the voyage, but most of the ship's papers were missing, along with a lifeboat. The ship appeared to have been abandoned in a hurry, but since the crew and passengers were never seen again, to this day no one knows exactly what happened.

On Doctor Who: Starting in May 1965, the BBC began transmission of "The Chase," a six-part adventure featuring the Daleks and providing for the departure of long-running companions Ian and Barbara. The Daleks have developed time travel and are pursuing the TARDIS through time and space, with the intention of eliminating the pesky Doctor. The Doctor discovers the plot and flees through history, with the Daleks in pursuit. In part three, after a brief stop on the Empire State Building, they find themselves on a sailing ship that's becalmed off of the Azores. Barbara goes out to investigate, because she loves sailing vessels, and the companions are mistaken for stowaways. They manage to escape, and the Doctor dematerializes the TARDIS, leaving the ship's crew very confused. Then the Daleks' time vessel arrives. As the Daleks emerge, the crew and passengers flee the ship. The Daleks then leave to resume their pursuit, leaving the abandoned ship adrift.

Here's a fan compilation of clips from "The Chase" set to "A Pirate's Life for Me":

2. Jack the Ripper

The History: London, 1888. A maniac is stalking the streets of Whitechapel, targeting prostitutes, killing them, and sending gruesome trophies and taunting letters to the police and press. The crimes were never solved and the murderer was never identified, but he became known as Jack the Ripper. The general public quickly became frustrated with the inability of the police to find a murderer, and newspapers took to hiring private detectives, a la Sherlock Holmes, whose first adventure had been printed just the year before.

On Doctor Who: In "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" (1977), the TARDIS materializes in London around 1890; the Fourth Doctor wants to show his companion Leela some of the customs of her Earth ancestors, and they see a poster advertising a magician named Li H'sen Chang. En route to the Palace Theatre where he performs, they happen upon a murder in progress. The Doctor decides to investigate.

The victim is a cab driver who had gone to the Palace Theatre to confront Chang, claiming that he must have abducted his wife. The man's wife had attended a performance and been selected as a volunteer for a mesmerism demonstration, and had subsequently walked away. The police had been disinclined to investigate, but one of the theater's staff believes it's the work of the Ripper or a copycat, because this isn't the first woman to disappear in the vicinity of the theater recently. This turns out to be nothing more than cover for the real culprit: a deformed man hiding under the theater and claiming to be the Chinese god Weng Chiang, who needs the young women for a nefarious purpose.

The story is heavily informed by the media treatment of the Ripper murders, the public media frenzy about him, and the growing popularity of Sherlock Holmes (whom the Doctor deliberately imitates, complete with deerstalker hat).

3. The Disappearance of Agatha Christie

The History: In 1926, Agatha Christie's husband Archie revealed that he was having an affair and asked for a divorce. On December 8, they had a fight of some kind and her husband left. So did Agatha, leaving only a note stating that she was going to Yorkshire. No further trace of her was found until she turned up at a hotel eleven days later in Harrogate, Yorkshire. She would give no explanation of her disappearance, though many believe it was a stunt staged to embarrass or otherwise inconvenience her husband.

On Doctor Who: On May 17, 2008, the BBC aired "The Unicorn and the Wasp." The Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble arrive at a manor house in 1926 England and are promptly mistaken for guests at a party thrown by Lady Eddison, who as a fan of Agatha Christie, has invited her for dinner. But in a pattern that seems lifted right out of Agatha's fiction, the guests start dying mysteriously. It's obvious the killer is one of them -- but which one? In the end, Agatha Christie must save the day, but in so doing suffers temporary amnesia. The Doctor drops her off at a hotel in Harrogate, ten days later.

4. Vincent Van Gogh

The History: Born in the Netherlands on March 30, 1853, Vincent Van Gogh lived a life which is, for many, the epitome of the tormented artist. Though wildly famous today, in his lifetime he toiled in obscurity, unable to sell his paintings and frustrated at his inability to work during bouts of mental illness. His most productive period was the last two years of life. He moved to the city of Arles in 1888 with visions of starting an artists' colony; this dream went unrealized and he began to feel increasingly abandoned. The townsfolk called him mad and wanted him removed; the artist Gaugin visited but ultimately rejected the idea of continued artistic collaboration; and his bouts of madness grew progressively worse, longer, and more frequent. In 1890, he is believed to have shot himself, although some believe it was an accident and not a suicide.

On Doctor Who: On June 5, 2010, the BBC transmitted "Vincent and the Doctor." Intrigued by a strange monster appearing in one of Van Gogh's paintings at the Musee D'Orsay, the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond decide to investigate. They land in Provence, in the city of Arles, and quickly find a cafe that looks exactly like Cafe Terrace at Night, painted by Van Gogh in September of 1888. There they find a redheaded Dutchman trying (and failing) to pay off his bar tab by bartering a self-portrait. They immediately recognize him to be Van Gogh and begin making friends with him to try and work out when the monster will appear. I won't spoil the episode, because it's one of the best, but the real star is Van Gogh's art. Many of his paintings are featured at some point in the story -- backgrounds in his apartment, the layout of his room, The Church at Auvers where the creature had appeared, why he decided to paint all those sunflowers, and a lovely scene explaining why he painted Starry Night in that distinctive way.

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NASA // Public Domain
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Space
On This Day in 1962, NASA Launched and Destroyed Mariner 1
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NASA // Public Domain

On July 22, 1962, NASA launched the Mariner 1 probe, which was intended to fly by Venus and collect data on its temperature and atmosphere. It was intended to be the first interplanetary craft—the first time humans had sent a space probe to another world. Unfortunately, NASA aborted the mission 293 seconds after launch, destroying the probe in the Atlantic. What happened?

First off, a bit of history. Mariner 1 was based on the pre-existing Block 1 craft used in the Ranger program, which was aimed at gathering data on our moon. Those early Ranger probes didn't do so well—both Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 suffered early failures in orbit. Mariner 1 was a modified version of the Ranger design, intended for a much longer mission to another planet. It lacked a camera, but had various radiometers, a cosmic dust detector, and a plasma spectrometer—it would be capable of gathering data about Venus, but not pictures per se.

The two previous Ranger missions had used basically the same launch system, so it was reasonably well-tested. The Ranger probes had made it into orbit, but had been unable to stabilize themselves after that.

Mariner 1 launched on the evening of July 22, 1963. Its Atlas-Agena rocket was aided by two radar systems, designed to track data on velocity (the "Rate System") and distance/angle (the "Track System") and send it to ground-based computers. By combining that data, the computers at Cape Canaveral helped the rocket maintain a trajectory that, when separated, would lead Mariner 1 to Venus.

Part of the problem involved in handling two separate radars was that there was a slight delay—43 milliseconds—between the two radars' data reports. That wasn't a problem by itself. The Cape computer simply had to correct for that difference. But in that correction process, a problem was hiding—a problem that hadn't appeared in either of the previous Ranger launches.

To correct the timing of the data from the Rate System—the radar responsible for measuring velocity of the rocket—the ground computer ran data through a formula. Unfortunately, when that formula had been input into the computer, a crucial element called an overbar was omitted. The overbar indicated that several values in the formula belonged together; leaving it out meant that a slightly different calculation would be made. But that wasn't a problem by itself.

The fate of Mariner 1 was sealed when the Rate System hardware failed on launch. This should not have been a fatal blow, as the Track System was still working, and Ground Control should have been able to compensate. But because that overbar was missing, calculations on the incoming radar data went wonky. The computer incorrectly began compensating for normal movement of the spacecraft, using slightly incorrect math. The craft was moving as normal, but the formula for analyzing that data had a typo—so it began telling Mariner 1 to adjust its trajectory. It was fixing a problem that didn't exist, all because a few symbols in a formula weren't grouped together properly.

Mariner 1's rocket did as it was told, altering its trajectory based on faulty computer instructions. Looking on in horror, the Range Safety Officer at the Cape saw that the Atlas rocket was now headed for a crash-landing, potentially either in shipping lanes or inhabited areas of Earth. It was 293 seconds after launch, and the rocket was about to separate from the probe.

With just 6 seconds remaining before the Mariner 1 probe was scheduled to separate (and ground control would be lost), that officer made the right call—he sent the destruct command, ditching Mariner I in an unpopulated area of the Atlantic.

The incident was one of many early space launch failures, but what made it so notable was the frenzy of reporting about it, mostly centered on what writer Arthur C. Clarke called "the most expensive hyphen in history." The New York Times incorrectly reported that the overbar was a "hyphen" (a reasonable mistake, given that they are both printed horizontal lines) but correctly reported that this programming error, when coupled with the hardware failure of the Rate System, caused the failure. The bug was identified and fixed rapidly, though the failed launch cost $18,500,000 in 1962 dollars—north of $150 million today.

Fortunately for NASA, Mariner 2 was waiting in the wings. An identical craft, it launched just five weeks later on August 27, 1962. And, without the bug and the radar hardware failure, it worked as planned, reaching Venus and becoming the first interplanetary spacecraft in history. It returned valuable data about the temperature and atmosphere of Venus, as well as recording solar wind and interplanetary dust data along the way. There would be 10 Mariner missions in all [PDF], with Mariner 1, 3, and 8 suffering losses during launch.

For further reading, consult this Ars Technica discussion, which includes valuable quotes from Paul E. Ceruzzi's book Beyond The Limits—Flight Enters the Computer Age.

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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain
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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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