The vexed history of the world extreme heat record

Death Valley, California, near Furnace Creek, August 2010 (author’s photo)

Western North America has been having an unusually hot summer. On Friday, 9 July 2021, the mercury at Furnace Creek in Death Valley, California, hit 130ºF (54.4ºC). This temperature has been previously been recorded once before, in August 2020. If accurate, it might be the highest temperature measured on Earth in recorded history. We say might, because the global extreme temperature record has a usually troubled history.

Creating the World Temperature Record

Dutch scientist Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit invented the mercury thermometer in 1714, and soon after, came up with a scale for measuring temperature which (slightly modified) bears his name today. The systemic building of…

The U.S. Library of Congress’ remarkable collection of recorded interviews with former slaves

Slaves working on a tobacco plantation in Virginia, c. 1670 (Wikimedia Commons)

“I’m the oldest one that I know that’s living. But, still, I’m thankful to the Lord. Now, if, uh, if my master wanted send me, he never say, you couldn’t get a horse and ride. You walk, you know, you walk. And you be barefooted and collapse. That didn’t make no difference. You wasn’t no more than a dog to some of them in them days. You wasn’t treated as good as they treat dogs now. But still I didn’t like to talk about it. Because it makes, makes people feel bad you know. Uh, I, I could say a…

What can language tell us about history?

Image from Niabot, Wikimedia Commons, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

Suppose you needed to figure out where English speakers originally came from, but you knew absolutely nothing about European or American history and had no access to a book or any other written source (a strange hypothetical, I know). How could you do it?

You might simply start with the part of the world where most English-speakers are found, reasoning that’d be the place where the language was spoken for the longest. This would lead to assume that the English language comes from North America. Perhaps, you might reason, English was first spoken in New York City and spread through…

How could people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries possibly come to think that the Earth is flat?

Samuel Rowbotham’s proposed world map, from ‘Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe’ (1865)

“It is a most curious thing that in the nineteenth century any man should be found to wager £500 that the Earth was not round.”

From the judgement in Wallace v Hampden (1871)

In the fens north of Cambridge, near the village of Welney, the Old Bedford River flows through an impressively straight six-mile drainage canal called the Bedford Level. Built in the seventeenth century as part of a series of major engineering works to drain the fens, it directs the wayward waters of the Great River Ouse northward.

On a warm summer’s afternoon in 1838, a man in…


Bartitsu demonstration (Pearson’s Magazine)

“Carry your overcoat upon your shoulders without passing your arms through the sleeves, in the style of a military cloak, with your right hand ready upon your left shoulder to use your coat in the way explained below, should the necessity arise. Be careful always to walk in the middle of the road. Directly your assailant attacks, face him and wait until he is within a distance of two or three yards. Then envelop his head and arms by throwing your coat at him, with a sweeping, circular motion of the arm. …

How a language dies — and how it can come back to life

Lizard Point, Cornwall (Wikimedia Commons)

“Me deskey Cornoack moas da more gen tees coath”

(I learnt Cornish going to sea with old men)

From a letter from William Bodinar to Daines Barrington, 1776, one of the last surviving written lines of traditional Cornish

Eighteenth-century Mousehole was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bustling place. The residents of the small, out-of-the-way Cornish village about two miles south of Penzance spent their time fishing, repairing their boats and nets, and doing their best to keep the Atlantic gales out of their cottages. …

How the Wild West, industrialisation, and public education led to votes for women

British poster by the Women’s Social and Political Union, 1909 (Wikimedia Commons).

At the outbreak of the First World War in July 1914, three countries had fully enfranchised women at a national level. They were New Zealand (1893), Australia (1902), and Norway (1913). The Grand Duchy of Finland, then part of the Russian Empire, had enfranchised women in 1906. Every Australian colony or state had granted women the right to vote, beginning with South Australia in 1894 and ending with Victoria in 1908 (the colonies federated into one country and became states in 1901).

In the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man allowed female property owners to vote in 1880. In the…

It’s an unlikely scenario, but we have a rough idea how it might play out.

Antony Green on the ABC on election night (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

It is the night of a federal election, sometime in the future. It’s clear the Government is doing badly, losing seat after seat. Antony Green projects that the Government has been defeated. TV stations turn to the governing party’s campaign HQ, where the Prime Minister is taking the podium before a crowd of cheering supporters to give what everyone assumes must be a concession speech. Instead, they insist they’ve been robbed of a landslide victory by widespread fraud, and refuse to concede defeat.

With former…

Sadly, The Tasmanian Tiger probably is extinct after all

Thylacines at National Zoo, Washington D.C., c. 1903 (Wikimedia Commons).

On Monday, Twitter lit up with the hashtag #Thylacine. “We found a thylacine” declared Neil Waters, president of the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia (TAGOA), in a video posted to Youtube. When checking the SD card of an automatic camera in remote north-eastern Tasmania, Waters claimed to have found photos of three thylacines — two adults and a joey. This would be proof that the animal, officially considered to be extinct since 1936, was both alive and breeding. There was, he admitted, some ambiguity about the two adults, but the joey…

How felons built a successful community

The founding of Sydney, 26 January 1788 (Wikimedia Commons)

On a sultry summer day in January 1788, beside the languid waters of Sydney Harbour, Great Britain began a truly strange, unprecedented experiment. It would build a colony using convicted criminals as colonists. Under the plan, Britain would turn Australia into a profitable and strategically-important colony, and the felons who would otherwise be hanged under harsh Georgian penal laws would be given a second chance at life.

James Mario Matra, one of the champions of the scheme, described it as “a most desirable and beautiful union […] economy to the public, and humanity to the individual”. …

Adam M Wakeling

Adam Wakeling is an Australian writer, lawyer and historian. He is online at and on Twitter @AdamMWakeling.

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