Twenty-One Balloons

The Twenty-One Balloons is a curious mixture of fantasy and fact.

“The best way of travel…, if you aren’t going in any hurry at all, if you don’t care where you are going, if you don’t like to use your legs, if you want to see everything quite clearly, if you don’t want to be annoyed at all by any choice of directions, is in a balloon…you can decide only when to start, and usually when to stop.  The rest is left entirely to nature.  How fast you will go and where is left to the winds.”

“A balloon is a wonderful way to travel, particularly if you want to travel from home to school.  On your way, many delightful things can happen, such as:

  1. the wind will be calm and you’ll never get to school.
  2. The wind will blow you in the wrong direction and take you fifty miles out into the country away from school, and
  3. You might decide to play hookey, just once, and nobody can bother you in a balloon.

So Professor William Waterman Sherman constructs a balloon, suspends a basket cabin from it, and takes off—

Part of the fun of this book  is solving the riddle of what’s true, what’s fiction.  The happy colonists using diamonds as foundations for their homes and children racing around the living room on electrified chairs are, as you would guess, fiction.  The French balloonist Gaspar Felix Tournachon, known as “Nadar,” was a real person.  In 1858 he took the first aerial photograph.  He did fly an enormous balloon named Le Géant.

With history (and added fantasy), the plot of The Twenty-One Balloons blows up on an island named Krakatoa.  Google that!

Oldest Computer—The Antikythera Mechanism

  • Antikythera is the Greek island near where it was found.
  • It predicted lunar and solar eclipses, held a calendar, and signaled the next Olympic Games.
  • When scientists studied the device with x-rays, they discovered you could use it to track the sun, moon, and planets.
  • CT scans—the same procedure that might tell your doctor whether your appendix needs to come out–revealed tiny writing engraved on its parts, not exactly a built-in instruction manual, more like parts labels, but important clues to where it might have been made and what it was supposed to do—enough for scholars now to understand at least some of the workings.
"The first computer" found in shipwreck near the Greek island of Antikythera
The Antikythera mechanism on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Image credit: Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0.

The Antikythera Mechanism was found with a 2000-year-old wrecked ship in 1902.  It’s the only one found, but perhaps something similar will turn up elsewhere to answer questions about when it was made, who made it, and did anyone, a thousand years ago, build anything like it?

This model of the Mechanism, built by science modeler Massimo Mogi Vicentini, is an attempt to show what its insides might have looked like 2000 years ago:

Mogi Vicentini via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5