Paul Marlowe author of historical and science fiction SF
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Book One of The Wellborn Conspiracy

Some Historical & Other Notes

Acadia & the Wars - The area that's now the Maritime Provinces of Canada, along with the north-eastern United States, was first colonized by Europeans when the French came in 1604. These colonists referred to the area as Acadia. It would be too complicated to try to describe here the long series of wars during which the region was fought over; however, as you see, I'm going to try anyway.

Between 1689 and 1763, Europe waged numerous wars that affected the Americas, and to this date no-one seems to have really decided, once and for all, what the wars' names were. In the United States they tend to be called the French and Indian Wars, since the American colonists were mainly concerned about the attacks of the French and their native allies. The North American parts of the European wars are also known by the names of whoever the monarch of Great Britain was at the time - for example, Queen Anne's War. In Europe, the conflicts had other names more relevant to what the war was being fought over. The War of Jenkins' Ear, for instance, was started after a fellow named Robert Jenkins had his ear cut off by some Spaniards. He was rather put out about this, and showed his ear to the members of the House of Commons, who felt that the Spaniards were being unsporting, and so Britain declared war. Other wars, such as The War of the Spanish Succession, had causes and names which weren't quite so ridiculous.

In chapter two Mr DeLoup mentions that their fortress was built at the time of Queen Anne's War (1702-1713). This conflict ended in a treaty that allowed Britain to keep Acadia, or part of it, which became known as Nova Scotia. The area remained in dispute for another fifty years until Britain finally controlled all of New France. During the final stages of the conflict, several thousand Acadians were deported from the region. The British felt that any Acadians who refused to swear allegiance to the British Crown —in effect to become British subjects— would be dangerous and potentially disloyal in the event of further wars between France and Great Britain. It had been a messy struggle of religious prejudice, massacres, and guerrilla warfare that had blurred the traditional lines between soldier and civilian, and the deportations continued into the Seven Year's War (1754-1763), a global conflict that drew into battle most of the European powers as well as their colonies around the world.

Allergies – Strictly speaking, Elliott shouldn't be thinking of his sneezing, coughing, and other reactions as an allergy, since the word wasn't coined until 1906. Baron Clemens von Pirquet of Austria made up the term from the Greek words allos (altered state) and ergon (reaction). Elliott probably would have thought of his allergy as hay fever, even though this isn't a description that can really cover the many causes of allergies.

Cameras – In the 1880s cameras tended to be big devices mounted on tripods. Instead of rolls of film, cameras used glass plates coated in light-sensitive chemicals. These were heavy, liable to break, and could only be inserted into the camera one at a time. Artists continue to use large cameras of this sort because of the very sharp images they produce. Instead of glass plates, though, large sheets of flexible film are used now.

Carbide Lamps – This type of lamp works by burning acetylene gas, which is also used for welding metal. The gas is created inside the lamp when water and calcium carbide mix. It was only a decade or so after the events in Spohrville that carbide lamps became widely used for mining, bicycle lamps, automobile headlamps, and other things. Thomas "carbide" Wilson, who was born and grew up in Ontario, invented a practical way of making calcium carbide in 1892, so there probably wouldn't have been carbide lamps in Spohrville at this time. As with many inventions, though, it's possible that someone else invented something first, without ever patenting it or becoming famous for it. Perhaps Strange stole the idea from some unfortunate inventor, who disappeared from history? Today, carbide lamps are only used by cave explorers who don't want to lug heavy batteries through narrow underground passages, and are succumbing even there to LED lights.

Carbolic Soap – First used as an antiseptic by Sir Joseph Lister, carbolic acid was later added to soap to make a washing material that killed bacteria. Antiseptics, such as carbolic acid, in combination with anaesthetics like ether, were what made modern surgery possible. These two discoveries of the 1800s laid the foundation for much of the modern medical care that we take for granted today.

Cocaine – Made from the coca plant (not to be confused with cocoa!), from South America. Around the time when Elliott was growing up, cocaine began to be used in small amounts by doctors as an anaesthetic, especially in dentistry and eye surgery (and, famously, in Coca-Cola, invented the year before the events in Sporeville). Like many pain-killing drugs, though, it can be addictive if misused. In Spohrville, the previous doctor began to abuse cocaine as a way to combat the exhaustion he felt from working all day, and then working all night as well, when the spores took control of him. Eventually it was the cocaine that killed him, so Paisley is correct when she says that “he died horribly”. At the time Elliott was in Spohrville he wouldn't have read of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, whose exploits were first published a year later in 1887. Sherlock Holmes is perhaps one of the better known abusers of cocaine. Dr Watson frowned upon this vice, but fortunately for Holmes it was never the deadly, destructive addiction that it is in real life.

Crime – In the mine, Elliott reminds Denis that he'll be hanged if he kills Strange in cold blood (or hot blood, for that matter) rather than, say, in self defence. The death sentence was the official punishment for murder in Canada until 1976. By then, people had realized that hangings didn't do much to discourage anyone from committing murders in fits of rage or stupidity, and enough innocent people had been hanged by mistake that it seemed wise to do away with executions before they did away with any more people who had been wrongly convicted of crimes.

Doctors – Universal public health insurance didn't start to appear in Canada until Saskatchewan created public hospital insurance in 1946. Gradually that grew into the health care systems enjoyed today in every province & territory. In Elliott's day, people had to pay the doctor or hospital directly every time they got sick. If someone in the country couldn't afford to pay, they might have tried offering some chickens or other items of barter if the doctor was soft-hearted enough to take such things instead of cash. Otherwise the poor were out of luck and just had to live with, or die of, their illnesses.

Eaton's (or "Eatons" in Quebec, where apostrophes are illegal) – Also known as T. Eaton Co. Limited. Eaton's was Canada's biggest department store chain, in business from 1869-1999. From 1884-1976 they also had a catalogue which became a Canadian icon.

Ether – A clear, colourless liquid that evaporates easily, and is very flammable. In 1842 it became the first general anaesthetic when it was used to render a patient unconscious during an operation. Up until that time, surgery had to be performed on patients who were wide awake and feeling everything (or at best, stupified with liquor), which was rather unpleasant for everyone concerned. Prior to its use in medicine, ether was a source of dubious amusement at parties called "ether frolics" (hence the title of chapter 19). At these gatherings, people would sniff ether and stumble around the room crashing into things, not feeling the bruises and cuts they were receiving. At least, not until they came out of the ether stupor, at which point they felt pretty awful. Apparently other party-goers found this very amusing, which perhaps only shows that they were even more foolish than the ones staggering around sniffing the ether.

Eugenic – The name that Strange gave to his ship comes from Greek words meaning "well-born". This sounds innocent enough, but after 1883 the word "eugenics" began to be used as the name of a pseudoscience (a false science). Believers in this theory abused Charles Darwin's idea of evolution, and used it as an excuse to discriminate against those they thought inferior. They thought that humanity could be improved if only the "superior" people were allowed to have children, since they believed that strength, health, cleverness, and other desirable traits were inherited. Many eugenicists also imagined that some races (nationalities, skin colours, etc.) were naturally superior to others, since this mistaken belief was common at the time. Eugenic ideas were the cause some of the worst evils of the Nazis in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, where the notion of one race being superior to another led to genocide (the attempt to murder an entire race). The Nazis were not the only people to adopt the pseudoscience of eugenics, though. Many people in the United States, Canada, and other countries also believed in eugenics, and most of them were considered very respectable at the time. Thousands of people were forcibly sterilized in the United States during the period when eugenics laws were in effect.

Fire Arms – Before about 1840, most guns were similar to the flintlocks you might see in pirate movies. They fired one shot, after which gunpowder and a lead ball had to be crammed down the barrel to reload. Towards the end of the 19th century, brass cartridges were invented which are essentially the same as ammunition today. Between these periods guns used a sort of mix of the two technologies. There were guns that were loaded with loose gunpowder, and a lead ball or bullet, but instead of using sparks from flint and steel to light the powder they used percussion caps. These were little explosives that went off with a bang when struck by the hammer on a gun. The cap set off the powder, and that propelled the bullet. They had the advantage of being more reliable than flintlocks. But as we see with the pistol that Elliott's father had, there was a drawback — the bullets and powder can fall out of the barrel (especially if you buy the wrong size of bullet). There were fewer laws about fire arms in the 1800's, so Elliott's father was able to carry a pistol around in his luggage, in a place where his son could get at it, and without a licence — all things that would probably get him arrested today.

Fog Horns – Like lighthouses, fog horns were essential navigation aids for sailors before the introduction of electronic navigation systems like LORAN and GPS. Bells and cannons were used at one time to warn ships in fog, but the first truly effective fog warning machine was a steam-powered fog horn invented by Robert Foulis in Saint John, New Brunswick in the 1850's. Unfortunately for Foulis, while the world benefited from his invention, he never did. He died in poverty in 1866. Strange's fog horn is a steam-powered machine based on Foulis' design.

Gas Lights – Early in the 1800s, gas light began to be used in London, England. Because gas was produced by heating coal until flammable gas was emitted, generally only cities had gas lighting. Outside cities, some people who could afford it (such as the DeLoups) installed reactors in their houses to generate gas for lighting (in the DeLoup's case, on that converts Albertite to gas). The only other alternatives were candles, whale oil, kerosene (invented in the 19th century by Abraham Gesner), or dangerous "burning fluids" made of alcohol and turpentine. Even gas lighting was dim and flickering until the invention of the gas mantle by Carl Auer von Welsbach. His gas mantle was a fine, fragile mesh of rare elements that glowed brightly when heated, converting a lot of the heat from the burning gas into light. The DeLoups have some of these early models of gas mantle — the greenish ones that weren't too popular, and were later improved with thorium to give a whiter light. Gas mantles are still used today in propane camping lanterns.

Krakatoa – This volcano, in what is now Indonesia, exploded in August 1883. The blast was greater than the largest nuclear weapon ever built, and was so loud that people heard it in Australia, 3500 km away. The volcano was completely destroyed, creating huge tsunamis (tidal waves) that travelled as far as South Africa before petering out. Because of the dust thrown into the atmosphere, sunsets were more colourful around the world for years afterwards, but the volcanic ash cooled the Earth, causing cold summers and crop failures.

Mary Celeste – A brigantine built at Spencer's Island, Nova Scotia. She was found adrift off Portugal in December 1872, a ghost ship, the crew and passengers gone. The reason for their disappearance has never been discovered.

Money – At the time Elliott was in Spohrville, money in most countries was on the gold standard, meaning that gold coins were used as currency, and paper money (bank notes) was worth a certain amount of gold. Banks were allowed to print their own money in those days. The Dominion (federal) government also printed money, in addition to minting all of the copper, silver, and gold coins. You can get a taste of this odd system of mixed monies if you visit the United Kingdom, where several Scottish banks still print their own money, and you can find coins from the Isle of Man in your change in London or Edinburgh. Sovereigns, which Dr Graven mentions on the ride in to Spohrville ("I'll wager sovereigns to sow bugs...") are gold coins originally worth £1, or $4.86. That was a lot more money in 1886 than it is today, of course. A sovereign has about 7 grammes of gold in it, so today that would be worth around $140. They aren't used as currency any more, but are still made for coin collectors (and people who like gold).

Pinkertons – The Pinkerton detective agency was started in 1850. They were hired to serve as guards, detectives, or a sort of private police force. In addition to their other work, they were often hired by the owners of factories or mines and used to prevent workers from forming unions. Since work conditions were often terrible and pay very low, workers occasionally became a trifle excitable when thrown out of work to starve. Strikes sometimes nearly turned into wars between workers and Pinkerton men. During the Homestead Strike in 1892, workers and Pinkertons fought with guns, cannon, dynamite, and burning oil. It was the Pinkertons' detective work that Elliott had in mind when he was considering hiring them, rather than the darker side they showed in anti-union activity.

Poe(try) – The poetry that Paisley occasionally quotes, about the "proud tower", etc., is from Edgar Allan Poe's The City in the Sea, written 1831 (which is also, incidentally, the origin of the title of Barbara Tuchman's excellent collection of essays on the First World War, The Proud Tower). If you'd like to read the rest, you should be able to find it in any complete works of Poe collection. At the Eel Fair, Paisley also recites something from Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Petruchio says to Katharina:

Well, come, my Kate; we will unto your father's
Even in these honest mean habiliments:
Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor;

For 'tis the mind that makes the body rich;
And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds,
So honour peereth in the meanest habit.
What is the jay more precious than the lark,
Because his fathers are more beautiful?

Or is the adder better than the eel,
Because his painted skin contents the eye?

Reeves – The office of reeve is a very old one dating back to Saxon times, before the Norman conquest of England in 1066. A reeve used to be someone who gathered taxes for the king or queen, and who kept the peace and administered justice. In a particular shire (a region something like a county) the chief reeve was called the shire-reeve, from which we get our word "sherriff". Reeves today are more or less like mayors, except that they are the elected leaders of smaller places, like townships, rather than cities.

Spohrville Fair Song – If you’re keen to sing this song about eels, it can be chanted to the tune of "In Zanzibar", which is a song from the 1903 musical comedy The Medal and the Maid [and you can listen to an antique wax cylinder recording of the song here]. Curiously (since "In Zanzibar" is an amusing little ditty about a chimpanzee king going to Zanzibar in search of a monkey maiden to make his queen), the tune is also used for the alma mater song of Mount Allison University, "Mount Allison So Fair".

Steam ships – It took a while for steam-powered ships to catch on back in the age of sail, partly because the British Navy felt that, since they’d perfected sailing, it would be a waste to start all over again with steam (though, to be fair, the paddle-wheels did get in the way of the cannons). In 1838 the first regular steam-powered Atlantic crossing began with the Great Western, a paddle-wheel ship. By the 1880's, paddle-wheels were already obsolete (except for river travel, where having a paddle-wheel on either side made ships more manoeuverable in tight spaces, like around docks). Screw-propellers were much simpler, more reliable, and faster. Strange's ship, Eugenic, is one of these propeller-driven wooden steam ships.

Tides – The Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world as a result of the bay's peculiar shape. In places the sea level goes up and down by 14 metres twice per day, and the amount of water sloshing in and out of the bay is roughly the same as the amount that flows through all of the rivers on Earth, combined, in a day. So it's not impossible to get stranded someplace by the tide, as Elliott is on Strange's island.

Typewriters – The first QWERTY keyboard, with a layout like today's computer keyboards, appeared in the 1870's.

US Civil War – Between 1861 and 1865 the United States of America was divided in two. The southern half had seceded from the country and called itself the Confederate States of America. During those years, the North and South fought a bitter war. The North ultimately won the war, and forced the Confederate States to re-join the US. The war ended the practice of slavery in the United States, but not the prejudice that had supported that slavery. It was the first great war to use railways, telegraphs, machine guns, submarines, and many other modern innovations. There actually was a prison camp in the Confederacy named Andersonville, whose commander—Henry Wirz— really was executed for war crimes. Strange's experiments, of course, are fictional.

Widow's Walk – A widow's walk is a flat, enclosed look-out platform atop a house. They are so named because of their association with seafaring. The wife of a mariner would watch for her husband's return from the observation platform on the roof, waiting to see whether she would be widowed by the sea.

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