The Atomic Age

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There are a few anniversaries of major historical events at this time of year. A couple of weeks ago we had the anniversary of humankind’s first landing on the Moon. That commemorated a momentous occasion. Speaking on CBS News, Robert Heinlein called the Moon Landing the “greatest event in all the history of the human race up to this time.” “This is New Year’s Day of the year one,” he continued; if we don’t change the calendar, certainly others in the future will change it for us. Heinlein saw in the Moon Landing the very survival of our species. “The descendants of all of us will be in colonies elsewhere, the human race will not die. Even if we spoil this planet, the human race will not die. It will go on and on and on…”

Even if we spoil this planet, the human race will not die. That’s a theme he returned to in his writing; it’s not true as of yet, but it may well be true in the future. It was a hopeful moment.

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Yesterday was the anniversary of a less hopeful moment but one that probably had a far greater impact on day-to-day life in much of the world. Not the dawn of the Atomic Age precisely, but it was the day that the world at large learned that the Atomic Age had begun. It’s likely the reason that the survival of the human race was foremost on Heinlein’s mind mere moments before Armstrong took his first step onto the Lunar Surface. August 6th is the day the United States dropped the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima.

It’s hard to overstate the changes that came about as a result of the Atomic Age. The Soviet Union detonated its own “device” on 29 August 1949. The Cold War followed, as did nuclear proliferation, civil defense drills, duck and cover, the red scare, proxy wars, and fall-out shelters.

Asimov’s Foundation is one of those Science Fiction series that, as much as anything else, deals with the long sweep of history. While we were preparing for our next episode of The Stars End Podcast we realized that the story for the episode appeared in the first issue of Astounding that was published after that initial atomic bomb and John W. Campbell dedicated his monthly editorial to the event and we chat about it a bit on the podcast. It’s not every day that you run across a primary source of this salience.

Why? Well as Campbell points out, unlike the general public who were learning about nuclear energy for the first time, the SF community had been thinking about it for years. It’s a major plot point throughout the Foundation series for example; Asimov uses it as a metaphor for modernity. Campbell mentions three short stories specifically, two by Heinlein and one by Lester Del Rey. All three of these stories were published in Astounding, “Blowups Happen” in 1940, “Solution Unsatisfactory” in 1941, and “Nerves” in 1942. All three were prescient. “Blowups Happen” and “Nerves” foresaw the possibility of incidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima while “Solution Unsatisfactory” preconfigured the debate about the United Nations’ role in preventing this use of Nuclear Weapons.

Here’s the editorial in its entirety. This issue went on sale on 16 October 1945, so I’d guess this was written in mid to late August. It’s a fascinating read, mixing common-sense proposals with a realistic fatalism about what’s possible before the people are ready for it. It reminds me of the debates about taking COVID precautions vs. reopening the economy and it reminds me of the Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man. “For where I live the game to play is compromise solution… well now, what can a poor boy do, ‘cept to sing in a rock-n-roll band?”

The Atomic Age

by John W. Campbell, Astounding Science Fiction, November 1945

There’s a considerable lapse between the time Astounding goes through make-up and the time it appears on the newsstands, as you are well aware. We are not, nor have we tried to be, a news magazine. This time it made a difference, of course; not knowing beforehand when the news would be released made us a little behind the times for a change.

The atomic bomb fell, and the war was, of course, ended. During the weeks immediately following that first atomic bomb, the sciencefictioneers were suddenly recognized by their neighbors as not quite such wild-eyed dreamers as they had been thought, and in many soul-satisfying cases became the neighborhood experts.-Perhaps they’ve been able to do some good — give the people near them, who had no intellectual forewarning of what was coming, some idea of what it means. I recommend, as most salutary little lessons, the stories “Nerves”, “Blowups Happen” and “Solution Unsatisfactory” — particularly the latter. It is of some interest that, at the moment, there is considerable agitation toward the idea of a world peace force, a United Nations set-up, using the atomic bomb as a weapon to enforce peace. The precise proposal made by “Solution Unsatisfactory”.

It might work as a stopgap, and, at the moment, all we can hope for is a stopgap. The troubles to come have their roots in two factors, factors already quite evident in the world today.

People do not realize civilization, the civilization we have been born into, lived in, and been indoctrinated with, died on July 16, 1945, and that the Death Notice was published to the world on August 6, 1945.

The second factor is this: it is a basic characteristic of people that they refuse to accept change when it arrives.

On that latter point, which is, of course the most important, you can readily observe by the various newspapers and magazines that the Socialists go on being socialists, and see in the atomic bomb and its consequences the opportunity to spread and enforce socialism. The Communists see in it the final proof of the necessity of being communist. The Anarchists naturally see it as the perfect way of obtaining the annihilation of all government. And, of course, the reactionary sees it as the way we can finally teach those blasted revolutionaries to behave themselves.

People simply go on trying to be just what they were before, with the same old viewpoints, the same demands, the same prejudices and intolerances. Each sees the atomic bomb only as a way of enforcing more violently his own particular will.

The natural result is that they are trying very hard to patch up the old civilization. It won’t work, of course. The chicken has been beheaded; it still runs squawking across the world, acting very much alive, and not yet knowing it is dead. But you can’t sew the head back on, no matter how hard you try. You can’t simply outlaw the atomic bomb, and expect, thus, to thrust it back into the limbo of undiscovered things.

Civilization — the civilization of Big Power balances, of war and peace and bad international manners, of intolerance and hates, of grinding poverty and useless luxury — is dead. We are in the interregnum now, the chaos of moving our effects, our ideas and our hopes from a blasted edifice into a new structure. If we can make it in one move, we are an extremely wise, sane, and fortunate race. Probably we will require about three to six moves, from one unusable structure of world order to another before we find one that can work.

Each time we move — as in moving from one house to another — we will leave behind a few more things that we find we don’t need, can’t use, or were even responsible for the ills we knew in the old place.

The interregnum is beginning now, and we do not have a Hari Seldon to predict the ways in which sociopolitical psychology will work out. What structure the new culture will have, we can’t imagine, because we know too little of what atomic powers can be made to do. It’s conceivable that we might discover, in a period of a few brief weeks, the secret of the force-wall — something that can establish an absolutely impenetrable barrier. In that case, rather minor modifications of our culture would be possible.

If we do not — and I do not expect it — cities are impossible. At least until such time as the human race has learned to get along without intolerance, without hatred, and without their inevitable concomitant — vigorous, even violent, proselytizing.

What the world most needs is a breathing spell long enough to permit the peoples of the world to absorb the basic facts that we of science-fiction have at least a fair appreciation of. Too many people see the atomic bomb as simply a Bigger and Better, New-Type Bomb. There is only one appropriate name for the atomic weapon: The Doomsday Bomb. Nothing known to man can stand against its power. Some writers have proposed that this will mean “cities of the future, if they are to be safe, must be underground” — which is sheer balderdash. It’s a perfect acknowledgment that the writer doesn’t even vaguely know the score. The man who says any such thing is blatantly admitting that he believes that mere mechanical strength of material can defeat the power of the atomic bomb.

Of course, part of the reason for that misapprehension is that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first ever made. They were the weakest, crudest, least effective atomic weapons that will ever be used. Those who have followed the discussions of atomic power and atomic weapons in Astounding will certainly recognize that the United States Army, in applying its available atomic arsenal to the purpose of forcing the Japanese to defeat, consciously and carefully selected the least damaging, gentlest application of the terrible agency at their disposal. Then that manifestation of the weapon — the simple energy bomb — was applied in the least damaging possible manner; it was set off in the air, not on the ground.

Talk of cities safe underground is nonsense for the very simple reason that atomic powers are such that, if the rock is solid enough to resist the titanic blow of atomic detonation, the delicate isostatic balance of the Earth’s crust can always be upset. If the city can’t be reached directly, it can be destroyed by earthquakes.

Personally, I’d prefer being above ground, a long, long way from any target of sufficient concentrated value to merit the attention of the atomic bomber.

Everyone knows that the first atomic bomb was the death of the city of Hiroshima.

It would probably save a lot of lives if they would recognize that it was, equally, the death of every big city, the death of an era, and the death of a cultural pattern based on a balance of military power, controlled exclusively by big and wealthy nations.

Atomic war is as suicidal as a duel between two men armed with flame-throwers in a vestibule. Neither party can have the slightest hope of surviving.

The atomic weapon is, to nations, what the revolver was to the men of the old West — the Equalizer. It didn’t make any difference how big you were; the gun makes all men the same size. The atomic bomb makes all nations the same size.

And, just as the revolver produced an era of good manners or sudden death, the atomic bomb must, inevitably, force upon us an era of international good manners and tolerance — or vast and sudden death.

When the peoples of the world fully — both intellectually and emotionally — realize that, we may get somewhere.

THE EDITOR

You can find all episodes of our podcast here.

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We Came in Peace…

Each year, on 20 July, we fly a flag to commemorate when the first humans landed on the Moon. Two years ago was the 50th Anniversary. That was a lot of fun and also a good day for the blog. We flew the NASA flag, wrote about the probable state of the flags still on the Moon, and watched a lot of the coverage in real-time, just 50 years removed. I’ll share those posts below.

This year, we are flying an Apollo 11 flag. Well, kind of. We’re flying a flag that was marketed as an Apollo 11 flag. But it’s probably something that was cooked up for the semicentennial. It’s just the Apollo 11 mission patch on a black background. Vexillologists would call this a seal on a bedsheet like most of the state flags in the US.

But honestly, it’s better than those for a few reasons. First, the background is black, while most seals on a bedsheet have a blue background. Most predominantly black flags are black-and-white, so this one is distinctive in both of those groups.

The “seal,” as noted, was a mission patch, and unlike most state seals, patches are designed to be visible on clothing from across a room. That gives the design a simplicity that’s missing from most state seals. It’s clear what you’re looking at even from a distance. That makes it work much better as a flag.

Thirdly, the symbolism is clear and straightforward. The black background represents space, while the meanings of the Earth in the background and the lunar landscape in the foreground are self-evident. The eagle carries an olive branch in his talons to denote the spirit of peaceful exploration. The plaque left behind in the Sea of Tranquility is moving, “We came in peace for all mankind.” The eagle itself can be seen as a representation of its namesake, the lunar lander. Of course, the eagle, a national symbol of the United States, also proclaims that it’s the United States that got there first. Peaceful exploration is all well and good, but it’s impossible to deny the underlying motivation; the US had a Cold War to win.

There’s a lovely article on the NASA Website about the design of the patch.

There are also a couple of things that would mark this flag down according to the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) standards from Good Flag, Bad Flag. and so, I decided to play with the image.

The first is that there’s text. The NAVA standards point out that text is problematic on Flags. It’s both notable and gracious that Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins declined to have their names incorporated into the patch. That allowed it to represent all of the thousands of people who had a part in the endeavor. But it still says “Apollo 11.” How does the flag look without it? Pretty damn good. We don’t need the text to tell us what this is about; that’s undeniable.

The other place that this doesn’t meet the NAVA standards is in the colors. NAVA recommends no more than 4, but this flag has at least ten. That presents a question. Do we need the circles? Here’s a version without them.

I replaced the moonscape and background with part of one of the photos from the mission. This looks a little bland. I think I would be inclined to enlarge the Earth and eagle. And I’d make the background either a black and light grey bi-color or an extended drawing of the Lunar surface from the patch.

The other thing that I did on the 20th was to watch this again, the CBS interview with Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein. It’s always a treat.

My initial plan for this article was to transcribe this video and annotate it. There’s some great stuff there, but that turned out to be a time-consuming process. That might be the plan for next year.

For now I’ll leave you with this portion of the interview:

At about 3 minutes into the video, Cronkite muses, “I can’t imagine a moment to equal this. The only thing I could imagine is if some fella came forward and could say, positively, that we’re not going to have any more war.” “I think this is a step in that direction,” Clarke responds, “because this sort of thing is making our stupidities here on Earth seem more and more intolerable. And I think this might be the greatest result of the Space Program.”

Let’s hope that he was right.

Here are the posts from 20 July 2019.

References:

A Flag for the Fourth

Happy Independence Day!

We’ll begin in our usual way. To mark the occasion this year, we’re flying the “Bunker Hill Flag” which is a bit different from our usual July 4th flag; its not one of the variations of the stars and stripes. It’s famous for flying at the Battle of Bunker Hill the first major conflict of the Revolutionary War, except that it isn’t. I’ll explain. It’s a story reminiscent of the history of the Bennington Flag.

The Bunker Hill Flag, so named because many believe it was flown by the colonists at its eponymous battle, has a blue field with the red St. George Cross on a white background in the canton. In the upper left hand corner of the canton is a pine tree which to the colonists symbolized liberty.

There are no contemporary accounts of this flag being flown at the battle and most likely the colonists flew what is known as the colonial flag; a red ensign with a pine tree shown in the canton. Both of these flags are modeled on British flags with only the addition of a pine tree because at the time, many colonists still believed that reconciliation with Great Britain was possible.

The evidence that the blue Bunker Hill flag was flown at Bunker Hill consists entirely of a painting done by Jonathan Trumbull, an eye witness to the battle, and an interview of the daughter of a veteran of the battle.

But the daughter’s account only said that her father claimed to have raised a blue flag at the battle while an earlier version of Trumbull’s painting showed the blue flag colored red; that painting is considered to be evidence that the Continental Flag was used.

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There’s one piece of direct evidence that the Bunker Hill Flag was actually flown at the battle, a book published early in the 19th century. The book contained a picture of the flag but the description described it as red rather than blue. This is generally considered to be a printing error.

Despite it’s questionable origins, the Bunker Hill Flag became a symbol of both the Revolution and of New England. It remains in use as a flag of New England today.

This seems fitting. Despite Bunker Hill being the original objective of both the Americans and the British, most of the fighting occurred a third of a mile south on Breed’s Hill. Some even cal it “The Battle of Breed’s Hill.”

References

Juneteenth and Pride Month!

Two Flags for June

The Juneteenth Flag

Happy Juneteenth! I’ve been wanting to fly a Juneteenth flag for a couple of years now but I found an affordable one just this year.

You might be wondering what “Juneteenth” is. Also known as “America’s second independence day,” it’s been a state holiday in 49 states and commemorates the end of slavery in the US after the Civil War.

President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and it took effect on 1 January 1863. It proclaims “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” This changed the character of the war, transforming it from a conflict that could be perceived as an internecine squabble to a quest to expand basic human rights, Of course, it wasn’t that simple. But it meant that the tide of freedom advanced as the Union gained territory.

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The Army of the Trans-Mississippi was the last major Confederate force to surrender. On 19 June 1895, when General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to take command of the Army forces there, one of his first actions was to issue General Order 3, which informed the citizens of Texas that slavery there was ended. It read in part:

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

Celebrations erupted as Granger’s men traveled forth announcing the order. A few months later, slavery finally ended throughout the US on 6 December 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. One year after General Order 3, the first commemoration took place in Galveston as “Jubilee Day.” That became an annual tradition.

The name “Juneteenth” is a contraction of “June nineteenth.” Actually, it’s a “portmanteau” if you want to be all fancy about it. In a nice bit of synergy, Juneteenth became a national holiday two days ago, as President Biden signed the “Juneteenth National Independence Day Act” into law. That was long overdue; we should celebrate the moments when we actually got closer to the ideals the US is supposed to represent.

The Juneteenth flag is stunning! it was originally designed by Ben Haith in 1997 and refined by graphic designer Lisa Jeanne Graf. The symbolism of the flag is profound.

The colors are an intentional callback to the American flag emphasizing that the people freed that day and their descendants were, are, and remain Americans.

The central five-pointed star not only represents the freedom of African-Americans in all 50 states but also symbolizes Texas, the Lone Star State, where the celebration originated.

The burst that surrounds the star is a nova, a new star which represents a new freedom, a new people and a new beginning for African Americans.

Finally, the arc depicts the horizon; a new horizon representing the promise and opportunities that lie ahead.

The Ally Flag

Also, Happy Pride Month! Until yesterday we’d been flying the Ally flag in honor of Pride Month. I didn’t have much new to say about it since I wrote about it last time we flew the flag.

My previous Ally Flag Post

At the time I’d written about an alternative version that I liked a bit better and wished had been available. It’s still not available, but I’ve recreated it so you can see it here. In retrospect, I had some mixed feelings about this version as I realized that the background was initially a “Straight Pride Flag.” Frequently, things like that are a reactionary backlash to some new group looking for equality.

But the standard ally flag has the same problem; the black-and-white striped flag has a similar origin and it’s time to reclaim those images in any event. Having either as the background of an ally flag does nothing but decrease its salience as a reactionary symbol. And aesthetically I still like the shades-of-gray better. I’m not completely happy with this recreation though. The contrast between the pure black on top and pure white on the bottom is too stark. I’ll probably go back and try a version with shades of gray throughout.

References:

Happy Earth Day 2021!

Good morning everyone, and Happy Earth Day! Today, for Earth Day, we’ve finally gotten a copy of “the Flag of Earth” that was designed by James W. Cadel in 1970. I’ve been wanting one of these for a while. It’s a beautiful flag with clear symbolism, showing a simple representation of the Earth, Moon and the Sun. As it is stated on the Flag of Earth Website, “The Earth and its most important celestial neighbors – the Sun and Moon – are overlaid on a backdrop of the darkness of space.”

The origins of Cadel’s flag trace back to the Apollo 11 moon landing and a movement to plant, not the American Flag on the Moon, but one that represented all of humanity. The United Nations flag was proposed as an alternative, but that, it was pointed out, does not represent all of Earth, but merely a particular organization. This was “one giant leap for Mankind” but that sentiment was marred by an ostentatious display of nationalism. Surely if politics can end at the water’s edge, then nationalism can end at the edge of the atmosphere.

The following year Cadel designed this flag, hoping it would be used on future space missions in the spirit of the message that the Apollo 11 astronauts left on the Moon, “We came in peace for all Mankind.”

NASA never warmed to that idea, but the Flag of Earth became popular in astronomical circles and was flown at observatories and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) installations worldwide. It was lowered to half-staff to mark the passing of Carl Sagan. The North American AstroPhysical Observatory, which runs the ARGUS Array, is now entrusted with the Flag of Earth’s legacy and its website. You can find a lot more information there and you can also purchase merchandise, the proceedes of which support the Observatory’s projects including the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

One unrelated note: we had been flying the 1901 Maine flag prior to today although I did not have time to post about it at the time. It worked nicely for the holiday season and it did, in fact, fly for a part of 2020, Maine’s bicentennial year. While we were flying the 1901 flag, there was a welcome proposal to restore it as the official state flag that sadly failed. It would have been a big improvement. More on that when we continue our series on state flags.

References:

Two Flags for Election Day

Happy Election Day 2020! I hope every one who hasn’t is planning to vote. More on that later. Here are two flag related things about this year’s elections.

48 Star American Flag 3x5 Feet 1912-1959 Old Glory US USA for sale online |  eBay

We’ve decided to fly a 48-Star American Flag to mark the day of one of our most important patriotic duties. Why the 48-star flag? Well, the 48-star flag had the second-longest tenure as the nation’s official flag, from 1912 to 1959, and not once in that time did we suffer an electoral inversion where the Electoral College failed to elect the winner of the popular vote.

The 48-star flag was also the flag for the 1936 Election which is notable for two reasons. It’s the election where Literary Digest predicted a landslide victory for Republican Alf Landon. Don’t recall President Landon? There’s a good reason for that. The Literary Digest poll is literally a textbook example of how not to predict the winner of an election. Predicting that Landon would win 57% to 43%, they were off by a whopping 19 points! That’s the largest error ever in an important opinion poll. Don’t worry though, we’re a lot better at it now.

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The other reason that the 1936 election is noteworthy is that it holds the record for the largest electoral-vote landslide in American History. President Roosevelt won 527 electoral-votes to Landon’s 8. That, to borrow a joke from Barbara Holland, was the start of that old saying, “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.”

There’s one other flag with a connection to Election Day this year because Joanne and I actually cast our ballots on the 24th of October, the first day of early voting. It took us just over an hour standing in line and chatting with some friendly people. Toward the front of the line, in front of the Board of elections, I finally got a good look at a Chemung County flag. It’s the only one I’ve ever seen in the wild and it’s pretty good. It’s got an eagle and a wreath and some stars and it only uses three colors. It ticks off some of the NAVA standards. It could do without all the text and I have no clue about the symbolism but as a municipal flag, it’s above average.

Have a great day and don’t forget to vote!

Votes for Wonder Women

3x5 19th Amendment Victory Flag Women's Suffrage Right to ...

It’s now the 100th Anniversary of the day that Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, and the United States officially recognized women’s right to vote. We’re once again flying a “19th Amendment Victory Flag” to mark the occasion. I wrote about this flag last year. It’s based on the flag of the National Women’s Party, a gold, white and purple tri-color with 36 stars added for the thirty-six states that approved the amendment. The story about how the amendment passed is great. It’s also amazing that something that seems so unequivocally the right-thing-to-do by modern sensibilities came down to a single vote. You can find that story in last year’s article, 19th Amendment Victory Flag.

A turning point in that story involved a political cartoon where Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, was sweeping the letters “RAT” toward the letters “IFICATION,” symbolizing the campaign to support the amendment. When I was thinking about what to write this year, I spent some time looking for that political cartoon. If you’ve read this blog, you know I like to write about comics and I like to write about history and flags. History and flags are part of the “The Universe and Everything” part. Anyway, at some point I put “Carrie Chapman Catt” and “Cartoon” into duckduckgo.com and I stumbled upon something in the nice triple intersection of the Venn diagram that’s implied above. Ha! Math! There’s another thing!

I’ve always considered DC Comics to be the more conservative of the two major comic book companies. They were static for a long time while Marvel was innovating and they were so dedicated their own house style that they had other artists redraw Jack Kirby’s pictures of Superman when he was working on Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen. I get that those are small-c conservative, but you have to admit that’s pretty conservative. It’s like putting pants on Michelangelo’s David.

But there were pockets of progressive-ism as pointed out by Tim Hanley on his blog, The 1940s Justice Society Of America Were A Surprisingly Progressive Bunch. That’s well worth a read as is his post on Wonder Woman’s place in the JSA.

So, what was in that intersection mentioned above? “Wonder Women of History” a back-up feature that ran in Sensation Comics and Wonder Woman for twelve years starting with Wonder Woman #1 in 1942. Each issue featured a short biography of 1 to 5 pages, full of cheesiness and hyperbole. These included the stories of figures like Abigail Adams, Joan of Arc, and Marie Curie. Among the women featured were two important leaders of the suffrage movement taking us from the Seneca Falls Convention to the passage of the 19th Amendment.

And in honor of the Centennial that Amendment, here is the biography of Susan B. Anthony from Wonder Woman #5 (June-July 1943).

We also present the reason for the search result; Comic Vine tells me that Carrie Chapman Catt is a comic book character in Wonder Woman #26 (November-December 1947). That has the incongruous title of “Speed Maniacs from Mercury.” Luckily, that’s not the story in which Mrs. Catt appears.

Eventually, Wonder Woman of History was replaced with makeup tips and advice on landing a husband because DC is so progressive. But the Wonder Women of History were fun while it lasted. If you like these, there are a lot more here. It was nice when comics tried to educate as well as entertain.

References:

State Flags: The Good, Continued

Okay, so maybe slightly later than “later this week.” None the less, here is the conclusion to the first installment of our series on state flags. If you haven’t read the first part of this, it’s here.

Without further ado, my choices for the best of the state flags, #6 to #1.

6. Colorado

It’s interesting how your quickly opinions can change on some of this subjective stuff. Although Colorado has an objectively nice flag, this morning it’s looking like a piece of sporting apparel and I’m now pondering if it belongs in the category of flags that need a minor tweak. Not going to do it; that way lies madness. Well, maybe in the comments if there’s interest.

This flag technically breaks two of NAVA’s five criteria, there are four colors and the large “C” is text. But this is another flag that Good Flag, Bad Flag uses to demonstrate that one can depart from their principles “with caution and purpose,” calling the “C” a “stunning graphic element.”

The Colorado National Monument

Each of the four colors carries symbolic meaning. The red, perhaps most significantly, represents the land. “Colorado,” the name of first the river and then the state literally means “colored red.” The gold evokes the abundant sunlight, the blue the sky, and the white, the snow-capped mountains.

5. Tennessee

The “Tri-Star Flag” is a nice flag with some nice symbolism, but boy is that a lot of red! That’s not really to my taste. Still, the centerpiece makes a nice symbol that is used by businesses and sports teams. The three stars represent the three “Grand Divisions” of Tennessee defined in the state constitution, East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee, and West Tennessee. These divisions are “bound together in indissoluble unity” within the blue circle by the “unending white band.” The blue band is merely a design element to relieve, as LeRoy Reeves, the designer puts it, “the sameness of the crimson field and prevents the flag from showing too much crimson when hanging limp. The blue band is symbolically a bit of a missed opportunity. In its current location, it could represent the Blue Ridge Mountains on the eastern border of the state. On the left, it could symbolize the Mississippi River, the western border. Do both and the flag becomes a metaphorical map of Tennessee. The star placements are established by state law and are a bit fiddly; a commemorative stamp issued in 1976 showed the stamp upside down.

4. The District of Columbia

The nation’s capital was founded in 1791. It had to wait until 1938 before a flag was chosen, but at least it’s an objectively good flag. The design is striking and is based on the Washington family’s Coat of Arms so the symbolism more-or-less takes care of itself. The flag was designed by a three-member commission appointed by Congress and was initially a symbol of the District’s lack of representation. Ironically, Washingtonians have since embraced the flag. It appears on merchandise throughout the district and is used prominently by the DC Statehood Movement.

When a seal or a coat of arms is used in the design of a flag, the usual approach is to merely place the seal on a solid colored background as we see at left, and then perhaps add the name, a date of a motto to the flag. None of those are improvements. The DC flag is an object lesson in how to use a seal or a coat of arms as an inspiration for flag design. The trick, in this case, is to focus on one or two clear and distinctive design elements, rather than trying to include the entire coat of arms. Another excellent example can be found in this video.

3. Hawaii

Having the British flag in the canton of one of the thirteen original colonies would be kind of obnoxious, but here makes for a beautiful and distinctive flag. Before the War of 1812, King Kamehameha I flew the Union Flag over his home. This flag had been a gift from Britain’s King George III. During the war, this was replaced by the American flag until some British officers objected. Kamehameha responded by commissioning a new flag that was a hybrid of the two. Britain is represented in the canton while the stripes and their colors symbolize the United States. The eight stripes each stand for one of Hawaii’s major islands, echoing the symbolism of the American flag. Hawaii’s flag is one of only two state flags to have been the flag of an independent country and it is the only flag to fly over a kingdom, a republic, an American territory, and a state.

2. Ohio

NAVA’s fifth principle of flag design is to “Be original or be related.” Ohio’s flag is proof that the “or” is not exclusive. It’s certainly “related.” Of all the state flags, Ohio’s flag has the strongest resemblance to the Stars and Stripes. It is also original. It’s the only non-rectangular state flag and the blue triangle on the hoist as well as the white-and-red “O” are distinctive.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/36/The_Ohio_State_Flag_%28design%29.jpg

Virtually every element of the flag has meaning. The triangular swallowtail shape is thought to hearken back to flags carried by Ohio units in the Civil and Spanish American wars. The five stripes symbolize the roads and waterways of the state while the blue field stands for Ohio’s hills and valleys. The 13 stars encircling the “O” represent the thirteen original states while collectively the 17 stars evoke Ohio’s position as the 17th state to join the Union. The “O” doesn’t merely stand for the state’s name, it also suggests an eye and thus Ohio’s nickname as the “Buckeye State.”

It’s interesting that, although we now recognize Ohio’s is a well-designed flag, it wasn’t initially so well received. The “seal-on-a-bed-sheet” model was ubiquitous among state flags. It was seldom used and compared to the flags of Cuba and the Philippines. It was particularly disparaged for the red center of the O’s similarity to the Japanese flag’s sun.

1. Alaska

Readers of this blog might recall that Alaska is my favorite state flag. It’s a simple, attractive flag. If you know anything about celestial navigation, at least some of the symbolism is easy to deduce. The location of the big dipper makes it clear that the larger star is the north star; symbolizing that Alaska is the northern-most state.

But there’s a lot more going on here, worthy of a post of its own. The flag was initially chosen as the territorial flag in 1927 after the Governor held a design contest open to school children in grades 7 through 12. The winner of the contest was 13-year-old Benny Benson, a native Alaskan. His entry was the unanimous choice of the panel of judges and was adopted unanimously by both houses of the territorial legislature. There’s synergy here; the blue represents not only the night sky but also the color of a forget-me-not which was later chosen as the state flower. Marie Drake, the assistant commissioner of education wrote a poem about Benson’s symbolism for an educational program about the flag. Elinor Dusenbury, a former Alaska resident, set the poem to music out of, as she put it, “pure unadulterated homesickness for Alaska!” The song was quite popular; it was chosen as the territorial song in 1955 and became the state song when Alaska became the 49th state. It is the only state song about a flag.

Benny Benson.jpg
Benny Benson holding a homemade version of his flag

Eight stars of gold on a field of blue
Alaska’s flag. May it mean to you
The blue of the sea, the evening sky,
The mountain lakes, and the flow’rs nearby;
The gold of the early sourdough’s dreams,
The precious gold of the hills and streams;
The brilliant stars in the northern sky,
The “Bear,” the “Dipper,” and, shining high,
The great North Star with its steady light,
O’er land and sea a beacon bright.
Alaska’s flag to Alaskans dear,
The simple flag of a last frontier.

Alaska’s Flag

Coming soon(?), the state flags that require minor alterations.

References:

Image Credits:

  • Featured and Other Images: (c) 2020, ComicsTheUniverseAndEverything.net
  • Alaska State Flag: Wikimedia, BlinxTheKitty [Public domain]
  • Colorado State Flag: Wikimedia, Andrew Carlisle Carson [Public domain]
  • The Colorado National Monument, Wikimedia, Rennett Stowe [Public domain]
  • DC Flag: Wikimedia, -xfi- [Public domain]
  • Maryland State Flag: Wikimedia, Michael Wheeler [Public domain]
  • NY State Flag: Wikimedia, Xrman [Public domain]
  • Ohio State Flag: Wikimedia, John Eisenmann [Public domain]
  • Original specification for the Ohio Flag, Wikimedia, John Eisenmann [Public domain]
  • South Carolina State Flag: Wikimedia [Public domain]
  • Tennessee State Flag: Wikimedia, -xfi- [Public domain]
  • Texas State Flag: Wikimedia [Public domain]

Adding the Stars and the Stripes

Happy Independence Day! We’ve made it a tradition to begin flying a historic American flag on each July 4th. In 2018, it was the “Betsy Ross” flag. Last year it was the Bennington Flag. This year we’re flying the only American Flag to have anything other than 13 stripes.

The original United States Flag act was passed on 14 June 1777 and established the familiar 13-stars and 13-stripes that are still recognizable today.

But then, Vermont joined the Union as the fourteenth state in 1791 and Kentucky followed suit the following year. Two years later, the United States changed its flag for the first time, adding both a star and a stripe for each of the new states.

That from and after the first day of May, Anno Domini, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-five, the flag of the United States, be fifteen stripes alternate red and white. That the Union be fifteen stars, white in a blue field.

The United States Flag Act of 1794
https://images.dailykos.com/images/270502/story_image/Star_Spangled_Banner_Flag_on_display_at_the_Smithsonian's_National_Museum_of_History_and_Technology__around_1964.jpg?1467684539

But this flag is notable for more than merely the number of stripes. Also known as the “Great Garrison Flag,” it is this version of the American flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812.

It was seeing this flag both before and after that battle that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem Defence of Fort M’Henry which, when sung to the tune of To Anacreon in Heaven became our national anthem in 1931. And that gave this flag its far more famous name, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” If you’d thought Vermont and Kentucky waited a long time to be included on the U. S. Flag, the flag wasn’t changed again for another 24 years.

In the meantime, Tennessee (1796), Ohio (1803), Louisiana (1812), Indiana (1816), and Mississippi (1817) had joined the union. Tennessee had to wait for nearly a quarter-century for their star to officially be added. That seems strange to me. For Vermont and Kentucky, there was an existing national flag with established symbolism. Now the precedent of including new states had been established; the public responded with a variety of unofficial flags that added stars and frequently stripes, like this version with 17 stars and 17 stripes. It and an assortment of other flags from this time can be seen at the Zaricor Flag Collection.

You might be wondering what our flag would look like if we’d continued to add stripes as well as stars. So did Michael Orelove of the Portland Flag Association. He went a step further and had one made; it looks kind of cool. It’s interesting, but it’s very pinstripey. Joanne’s reaction was that it “messes with my astigmatism.” On the PFA blog, Scott Mainwaring points out that it would look pink from a distance. There are disadvantages, but in the era of printed flags, making such a flag is feasible. I can’t imagine trying to make such a thing by sewing red and white strips of cloth together.

It wasn’t until after the War of 1812, that the congress finally got serious about updating the flag when Peter Wendover, a representative from New York proposed forming an exploratory committee to find “an unessential variation” to the flag. He suffered the fate of many who proposed creating a committee; he was put in charge of it.

Wendover consulted Samuel Reid, “a privateer and naval hero of the War of 1812.” Reid was the first to propose maintaining 13 stripes on the flag. He designed three flags, a people’s flag with 20 stars in a “great star” pattern, a governmental flag for federal use, and a “Standard of the Union” for use at celebrations. Congress settled on the first version, with 20 stars and 13 stripes. Invoking the founders, Wendover argued, “In their memory, and to their honor, let us restore substantially the flag under which they conquered, and at the same time engraft into its figure the after-fruits of their toil.”

An Act to establish the flag of the United States.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress Assembled, That from and after the fourth day of July next, the flag of the United States be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be twenty stars, white in a blue field.

And be it further enacted, That on the admission of every new state into the Union, one star be added to the union of the flag; and that such addition shall take effect of the fourth day of July then next succeeding such admission.

The United States Flag Act of 1818

The 1818 Flag Act did two things that were smart. It limited the number of stripes to 13, and it established that the flag would change on July 4th after each new state joined the union. It remains in force today.

References:

Picture Credits:

Quick Take: The Professor and the Madman

Joanne played this audiobook for me on our last long drive; something was vexing me and this true, compelling yarn proved to be the perfect tonic.

I wouldn’t normally warn about spoilers for a book first published in 1998, but I learned today that this book was made into a movie starring Mel Gibson and Brad Pitt which premiered this year (2019) in limited release. If you’re worried about it, there are some slight spoilers below; you can come back and read this after you’ve seen the movie or read the book.

The story starts dramatically with a murder, an unprecedentedly brutal homicide by the standards of London in the 1870s. Dr. William C. Minor, an American whose mental health had eroded since his service in the Civil War, shot George Merrett in the throat and then waited calmly for the police. It had been a terrible mistake he confessed; he was attempting to chase away a man who had broken into his room to torment him, a figment of his dementia. He was soon committed to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, creating the circumstances where he would become one of the most prolific contributors to the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The book proceeds, at least at first, as a bibiography, by which we understand a biography focused on two subjects. (Editors of the OED please note: this may be the first recorded use of this word as I have just now made it up. This is probably moot however as it doesn’t really seem to be a very good word after all; it sounds like a stutter and is too easily mistaken for ”bibliography.”) The second subject, the titular professor, is Dr. James Murray, who rose from humble beginnings to become the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary throughout the lion’s share of its creation.

Their stories and the interplay between the two men is enthralling, but ”The Professor and the Madman” is far more than a shared biography of two men. The author turns lovely phrases and paints vivid scenes. There is a fascinating account of the debate about whether the word ”protagonist” could ever be used in the plural. The story of the creation of the OED becomes a history of all English lexicography and is far more compelling than it has the right to be.

Like most biographies, the ending is bittersweet. Dr. Minor’s end is pitiful as his facilities continued to desert him. The end of Dr. Murray’s life is a study in unfinished business. He toiled on the OED until his passing just shy of his 80th birthday and did not live to see its completion. But at least there is the coda of the OED itself; completed and now well on its way to a third edition, it can stand as a monument to both of these men’s lives.

Thus, I strongly recommend the book. I can’t speak for the movie, but we plan to check it out at our earliest convenience.

Bottom Line:

References:

Winchester, S., The Professor and the Madman, Harper Collins, 1998.
https://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewBook?id=360606279