Could a Massive Volcanic Eruption Have Led to Napoleon's Loss at Waterloo?

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iStock

Losing parties often have excuses for why they came up short. If you’re playing softball, maybe the sun got in your eyes. If you drop a Monopoly game, maybe someone cheated and squatted on Park Place. And if you’re Napoleon Bonaparte, maybe an Indonesian volcano helps explain why you lost the Battle of Waterloo.

Obviously, Napoleon isn’t around to lay blame for his defeat in Belgium in 1815, a conflict that ended his long reign as France’s emperor and premier military strategist. But recent research into how volcanic eruptions can influence weather patterns might be able to offer insight into why Napoleon made the fateful choice of delaying engagement against the Duke of Wellington’s forces 12 miles south of Brussels.

A paper published in the journal Geology [PDF] and authored by Imperial College earth scientist Matthew J. Genge offers new information about how high volcanic ash can rise following an eruption. Previously, it was believed ash could reach as high as the stratosphere, or 31 miles above Earth’s surface. Genge’s research, based on computer modeling, suggests that an electrostatically charged volcanic plume could force the ash even further, sending it 50 to 600 miles up and into the ionosphere, where the particles can cause cloud formation and precipitation.

An illustration depicts Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo
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Two months before Napoleon arrived on the scene at Waterloo, Mount Tambora in Indonesia exploded, likely sending ash into the ionosphere. More than 8000 miles away from Belgium, the ash scattered for months, slowly migrating to Europe. Some climate historians have inferred that the resulting precipitation in Belgium created a waterlogged battleground for Napoleon and the opposing Prussian and British armies. It was this muddy, uneven terrain that likely prompted Napoleon to hold off advancing until the middle of the day, allowing his rivals to gather their forces and eventually forcing his retreat.

While Mount Tambora’s eruption was devastating—it killed 100,000 people on the island of Sumbawa and forced a global temperature drop of more than 5°F in 1816—the theory that it led directly to Napoleon’s defeat is hard to substantiate. While waiting until later in the day to attack and having unsure footing didn’t help, Napoleon's opposition was fighting in the same conditions and may have outmaneuvered him regardless. In one key sequence, he failed to follow up on an effective artillery attack, allowing Wellington to compose his forces and make a successful bid to end the scuffle.

Genge draws heavily on the behavior of volcanic ash from two subsequent massive eruptions—Indonesia's Krakatau in 1883 and the Philippines's Mount Pinatubo in 1991—to illustrate his “short-circuited” theory of ionosphere disruption, and not from Tambora specifically. While rain may have indeed altered Napoleon’s plans, it may not necessarily have been the result of Tambora. Genge's work will, however, likely inspire further investigation into how inclement weather may have changed the course of history.

[h/t Smithsonian]

A Letter Written by Albert Einstein in 1922 Predicted the Rise of the Nazis

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As a Jew living in Germany in the 1920s, Albert Einstein had an up-close view of the Nazis’ rise to power. As early as 1922, he could see turbulent political times ahead, as a letter to his sister reveals. The handwritten, signed letter recently sold at auction for $39,360, Live Science reports.

The letter, offered by the Jerusalem-based Kedem Auction House, is addressed to Einstein’s younger sister Maja. Einstein wrote it from an undisclosed location—probably Kiel, Germany, according to the auction house—after he fled Berlin in 1922 in the wake of the assassination of Germany’s Jewish foreign minister, Walther Rathenau, by a right-wing terrorist group. Police had warned Einstein that as a prominent Jew his life could be in danger, too. “Nobody knows where I am, and I'm believed to be missing,” he writes in the letter.

He remained upbeat while at the same time acknowledging the seriousness of the political situation that he and other German Jews were facing. “I am doing quite well, in spite of all the anti-Semites among my German colleagues,” he assured Maja. "Here are brewing economically and politically dark times, so I'm happy to be able to get away from everything for half a year,” he wrote, alluding to his upcoming six-month trip to Asia, during which he would learn that he had won the Nobel Prize. He was right—Adolf Hitler's failed coup in Bavaria would take place the next year, in November 1923.

Einstein goes on to say “Don't worry about me, I myself don't worry either, even if it's not quite kosher; people are very upset. In Italy, it seems to be at least as bad, by the way."

After his Asian tour, he returned to Germany before setting out on new travels, including a tour of the United States. He was in the U.S. when Adolf Hitler became Germany’s chancellor, and decided to renounce his German citizenship. He eventually settled in Princeton, New Jersey.

See the full details of the letter at the Kedem Auction House’s website.

[h/t Live Science]

No Joe: The Time Coffee Was Banned in Prussia

iStock.com/NickS
iStock.com/NickS

In the late 18th century, Prussia's King Frederick the Great (officially Frederick II) blacklisted coffee and encouraged his royal subjects to drink something far more wholesome—beer. According to William Harrison Ukers's classic 1922 book All About Coffee, Frederick issued this decree on September 13, 1777:

"It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the amount of money that goes out of the country in consequence. Everybody is using coffee. If possible, this must be prevented. My people must drink beer. His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were his ancestors, and his officers. Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer; and the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be depended upon to endure hardship or to beat his enemies in case of the occurrence of another war."

Though the authenticity of the above quotation cannot be confirmed, it certainly jibes with King Freddie's other opinions on the matter, according to Robert Liberles, a scholar of German-Jewish history. In a 1779 letter, Frederick wrote, "It is despicable to see how extensive the consumption of coffee is … if this is limited a bit, people will have to get used to beer again … His Royal Majesty was raised eating beer-soup, so these people can also be brought up nurtured with beer-soup. This is much healthier than coffee."

So Old Fritz, as he was called, loved beer. But why was he so opposed to coffee?

For one, Frederick was terrified that excessive imports could ruin his kingdom's economy, and he much preferred to restrict commerce than engage in trade. Since coffee, unlike beer, was brought in from across the border, Frederick regularly griped that "at least 700,000 thaler leave the country annually just for coffee"—money, he believed, that could be funneled into well-taxed Prussian businesses instead.

In other words, into Fritz's own pockets.

To redirect the people's spending patterns, Frederick ordered a number of steep restrictions, demanding that coffee roasters obtain a license from the government. This sounds like a reasonable regulation until you learn that Frederick summarily rejected nearly all of the applications, granting exceptions only to people who were already cozy with his court.

If that sounds elitist, it was. Frederick was adamant about keeping coffee out of the hands and mouths of poor people, writing, "this foreign product [has] extended into the lowest classes of human society and caused great contraband activities." To stop them, he hired approximately 400 disabled soldiers to work as coffee spies, or "sniffers," to roam city streets "following the smell of roasting coffee whenever detected, in order to seek out those who might be found without roasting permits," Ukers writes.

But none of these tactics worked. Rather, they just increased coffee smuggling and exacerbated the "contraband activities" that Frederick claimed he was trying to prevent in the first place. So shortly after the king died in 1786, many of these restrictions were lifted, proving yet again that it's always a mistake to get between someone and their java.

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