Tag Archives: history

Watching History

Watching History

When I was a kid, I adored The History Channel (now rebranded as just History.) I could (and did) spend hours watching various documentaries on a whole smattering of historical times and events. But as time went on, things changed. Reality television rose in prominence and infected every channel. Scripted shows became more commonplace even on specialty stations. And while Vikings is fantastic, many of the time slots once devoted to actual history are now focused on conspiracy theory or propping up stereotypes. The beloved channel from my childhood has lost most of its luster.

Lately, I’ve discovered several sources that have filled the void left behind from The History Channel’s slow demise. In particular, a pair of unrelated YouTube channels that have rekindled some of that excitement I felt when watching history documentaries the mid-90s. I’ve been enjoying them a lot, and I’d love to share them with you as well.


🗝 Townsends

Townsends is a great many things. It’s primarily a cooking channel hosted by Jon Townsend focusing on 18th-century cooking using period appropriate methods, ingredients, and tools. But quite often it goes far beyond food and serves as an exploration into the daily life of the people who lived in early North America.

With over ten years of videos there a lot here and it’s all fantastic. Jon is a wonderful and engaging host who clearly cares about the subject matter. I’ve including a few of my favorite videos below, but I highly recommend subscribing to the channel and joining Jon as he “savors the flavors and aromas of the 18th century.” (Hope you like nutmeg.)


Food. As I said, Townsends is primarily a cooking channel and for a good reason. Eating is a constant in human life and an easy connection for writers to make when it comes to connecting a reader to a world. It’s fascinating to see the small nuances between 18th-century cooking and modern day.


Beyond the food, Townsends explores living in the colonies. There are videos about camping, marching, scurvy, map making, and eyeglasses… and there are series like this one about how canoes were made.


Ship’s biscuit or hard tack crops up all the time in history, but what is it exactly? How was it prepared? And, most importantly, how was it eaten? Thankfully the good folks at Townsends decided to answer those questions for us in this handy video.


Want More Townsends?

If you liked Townsends’ YouTube channel be sure to subscribe they’re always producing new content, and it’s the best way to be alerted anytime they release a new video.  Be sure to check out all the goods they offer on their website, follow them on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.



⚔️ Modern History TV

Businessman Jason Kingsley is one of the co-founders of Rebellion Developments, by day he makes videos games by night he is a historical reenactor who focuses on the medieval knight. (It also helps that he was actually knighted and holds an OBE title.) Along the way, he creates some fantastic videos that go into the details of everyday life for a knight with a focus on historical accuracy. He’s a great presenter, and the videos are full of heart and well worth your time. Here are a few of my favorites, starting (unsurprisingly) with food…

So yeah, I am including a lot of food-related videos, and for a good reason. As I mentioned above, food and our connection to it is one of the constant experiences in human lives. I think it’s vital for storytellers and world builders as well, after all… “what did they eat?”


The accurate medieval wardrobe is often ignored by movies and video games, focusing instead on our modern sensibilities and often ignoring reality. Jason’s dedication to exploring the truth is a refreshing change—if you liked this be sure to check out Jason’s video where he debunks the sword on the back.


Like clothing, armor is often overlooked. Many people don’t understand the time and effort it takes to equip a knight, and they rarely portray it accurately. In this episode, Jason walks through the effort required and how varied duties used different armors.


Want More Modern History TV?

As always subscribing to a channel is the best way to stay connected, but be sure to visit Modern History TV’s website where you can find out more about the project. You can also follow them on Twitter and Facebook where they share more content about medieval life.


💭 What about you?

Is there a show or channel or blog you like that harkens back to the classic era of The History Channel. The sort of content that you walk away from feeling informed and inspired and itching for more knowledge? Let us know about it by either leaving a comment below or sending me an email. I’d love to find more sources like these.

Watching History


Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. AlexanderWant to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →

How to Understand the Image of a Black Hole

How to Understand the Image of a Black Hole

I thought this quick video from Veritasium was an excellent explanation on the “why” behind yesterday’s historical announcement. Being able to present such a complex topic so simply is a talent that I admire. So sit back, watch, learn, and join me in staring in awe.


Looking for more?

🌌🔭🌌

On Armistice

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short day ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCraeIn Flanders Fields (1915)


It’s Veterans Day here in the United States, Remembrance Day in the Commonwealth of Nations, and  Armistice Day everywhere else. A day set aside around the world to reflect on the ending of World War I which ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918—one hundred years ago today.

World War I is a moment in history we should all consider, and its one we should not forget. The outcome and ramifications of that terrible mess of a war influenced so much of the following century. So, if you’re in the States thanking a veteran, take some time to pause and reflect on WW1 as well.

If you want to know more about the Great War. Here are a few places to start.


📖 Something to Read:

The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I by Barbara W. TuchmanThe Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I
by Barbara W. Tuchman
My favorite nonfiction books tend to read like fiction, they tell engaging stories. Tuchman is that sort of historian, and she makes the early days of WW1 as riveting as it was tragic.


🎧 Something to Hear:

Hardcore History 50 – Blueprint for Armageddon IHardcore History 50 — Blueprint for Armageddon I
by Dan Carlin

Carlin is a historian who does deep dives into moments in history on his podcast Hardcore History. I’ve been listening to him for years. He’s an invaluable resource and a dynamic storyteller. Very much worth a listen.


📺 Something to Watch:

Impossible Peace: The Time Between World WarsImpossible Peace: The Time Between World Wars
by Michael Cove
This documentary series produced for the History Channel looks into the time between the wars—only twenty years separated the tragedy of WW1 from the violence of WW2, and Europe was in turmoil.


lest we forget

A Riverboat's Pilothouse

A Riverboat’s Pilothouse

If the boilers are the heart, the engines the muscles, then the pilothouse is the brain of the riverboat. This small room perched high above the deck controls the steamboat. It is here where the pilot holds court, directing the engines, calling for leads, watching the waters, and guiding the big boat safely along its course.

Pilothouses came in all shapes and sizes, some were fanciful, onion-domed, and decorated with wooden designs known as gingerbread. Others were simple and austere, with little to no decorations and flat-roofed. Early pilothouses were open to the elements, while later pilothouses were glassed in to protect the pilot from the weather.

The expansive pilothouse of an unknown towboat
The expansive pilothouse of an unknown towboat

The enormous spoked pilotwheel was the focal point of the room. It rose arcing from the floor and connected to a tiller rope giving the pilot command of the steamboat’s rudders. Wheels varied in size, but most were quite large. The Steamer Sprague had an enormous wheel that measured over thirteen feet.

Speaking tube onboard the Str. W.P. Snyder Jr.
Speaking tube onboard the Str. W.P. Snyder Jr.

Communication between the pilothouse and the engine room varied from boat to boat. Before the inventions of the engine-order telegraph, pilots communicated by signaling the engineers via bells-and-gongs systems. Bells ropes were pulled and down below bells rang signaling the engineers to stop, start, and reverse engines. Many boats also had a series of hollow (usually one way) speaking tubes which allowed the pilot to get a little more creative in their communication. (See Mark Twain’s copious notes in Life on the Mississippi describing the flowery cursing that was common among pilots and crew.)

Most pilothouses had stoves to keep the pilot warm, and a lazy bench as seating for visitors and guests. Large bells on the roof of the boat signaled the leadsman. Whistles, often controlled by treadles on the floor, allowed the pilot to blow the steam whistle.

Mark Twain, served as Horace Ezra Bixby’s cub pilot on the steamer Paul Jones, a 172′ sidewheeler out of Pittsburgh. He described her pilothouse as “cheap, dingy, battered rattle-trap, cramped for room” but after the Jones, he and his mentor spent some time on a much larger and finer vessel1 and the pilothouse there was entirely different:

“…here was a sumptuous glass temple; room enough to have a dance in; showy red and gold window-curtains; an imposing sofa; leather cushions and a back to the high bench where visiting pilots sit, to spin yarns and ‘look at the river;’ bright, fanciful ‘cuspadores’ instead of a broad wooden box filled with sawdust; nice new oil-cloth on the floor; a hospitable big stove for winter; a wheel as high as my head, costly with inlaid work; a wire tiller-rope; bright brass knobs for the bells; and a tidy, white-aproned, black ‘texas-tender,’ to bring up tarts and ices and coffee during mid-watch, day and night.”

—Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

My new novel Coal Belly is a weird-west steampunky fantasy set on a planet crisscrossed by interlocking rivers. It’s a rough-and-tumble place where riverboats are omnipresent and necessary for everyday life. One of the main characters in the novel is a riverboat pilot, and learning the ins and outs of the pilothouse, how a pilot moved, and how they behaved in their domain was key to making my pilot an authentic character. I’m still hard at work on editing the manuscript (which I finished earlier this year), but I believe people will enjoy reading about her adventures among the Thousand Streams.

Below are some images of pilots and pilothouses which I have collected during my research. You’ll see rooms of all types, from the simple to the more fanciful and you’ll meet some of the people that worked there as well.



The pictures above have been collected over the last five years, so I am unsure where they all come (usually the Library of Congress.) But, they’re all old enough to be in the public domain. In some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping. I’m happy to answer any questions folks have about any of these images or riverboats in general. (Sometimes it gives me a good excuse to research something.) You can send me an email or leave a comment below. I love comments.

A Riverboat’s Pilothouse is the latest in my series of posts sharing my research for Coal Belly. You can check out the other riverboat-related posts with the links below.


1 It’s possible this was the pilothouse to the Crescent City, he and Bixby worked onboard from April to July of 1857, shortly after serving onboard the Paul Jones. It regularly ran between New Orleans to St. Louis.


Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. AlexanderWant to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →

The Royal Game of Ur

The Royal Game of Ur

I love history. I love board games. So I was intrigued when I saw this video from The British Museum about the national board game of ancient Mesopotamia, the Royal Game of Ur. In it, Dr. Irving Finkel (noted philologist, Assyriologist, and the discoverer of the rules) takes on Tom Scott in the ancient race game.

If you’re interested in learning how Dr. Finkel discovered the rules. Make sure to check out this Curator’s Corner video where he goes into detail.

How Airships Worked

How Passenger Airships Worked

For years I didn’t understand the steampunk community’s obsession with airships. I understood that they were transportation ephemera of a sort and that they harkened back to a bygone era, but I always thought they were too small. This was due in large part to my misunderstanding of their construction.

I was further confused when I realized I didn’t understand how mooring masts worked. The giant spire atop the Empire State Building was initially designed to be a mooring mast, but I could never understand how passengers would get down from the gondola. Ropes? Ladders? Either way, it sounded like it would be dangerous.

It wasn’t until I read Larry Correia’s novel Hard Magic in January that I decided to look further into dirigibles. His book utilizes them a great deal, but I was having a difficult time picturing the spaces described, so I began to research. It turns out my assumptions were very wrong. Airships had decks! Passenger cabins! Lounges! Promenades! As I started asking my friends, I discovered that I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. I blame The Rocketeer.

So where were these accommodations? This surprised me as well. As the illustration below describes, they were most often inside the ridge frame of the airship itself.

A 1928 drawing by S.W. Clatworthy showing the accommodation aboard the R100
A 1928 drawing by S.W. Clatworthy showing the accommodation aboard the R100

For years, I operated under the assumption that passengers were as crammed into the tight space of a gondola (similar to military dirigibles.) But the tiny gondolas that dangled below looked uncomfortable for a long flight across the Atlantic. It turns out they were the exact opposite of cramped. When I realized they had more in common with starships, ocean liners, and riverboats, my perspective changed. They became something much more, and I immediately understood the obsession.

My research led me to The Airship Heritage Trust, which had a collection of images of the British R100, one of the premiere passenger airships of its day and similar in design to the famous Hindenburg. There you can find photos, ship plans, flight logs, and much more. If you’re looking for details, I highly recommend browsing that site.

Plans of the R100
Plans of the R100

I was fascinated by the layout, and the passion began to make sense. Below is a collection of images and some deck plans I have found relating to the interior and passenger spaces of airships. These come from the British R100 and R101 and the Nazi LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, LZ 129 Hindenburg, and LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II. I also included a photo at the end showing passengers boarding the R101 so you can see how mooring masts worked. Makes a lot more sense than what I had in my head. In some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping to give the gallery some unity.


[!] Note: While one of the most successful dirigibles, the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin had a different layout than the others. It crammed passengers and crew into a large forward gondola that extended partly into the ship’s frame. You can see its design and deck plan here. The larger LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II moved passengers into the frame.


While airships won’t be appearing in my writing anytime soon, I now understand the attraction. They’re an ocean liner in the sky, a home to their crew, and a hotel to their passengers. They’re not at all cramped. I can see why they’d be the transportation choice for pulpy adventures. Just make sure you have your ticket.