8 Things You May Not Know About Trains

8 Things You May Not Know About Trains

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1. The term “horsepower” originated as a marketing tool.

James Watt didn’t invent the steam engine, but he did create the world’s first modern one, and developed the means of measuring its power. In the 1760s, the Scottish inventor began tinkering with an earlier version of the engine designed by Thomas Newcomen. Newcomen’s design required constant cooling down and re-heating, wasting vast amounts of energy. Watt’s innovation was to add a separate condenser, greatly improving the engine’s efficiency. A savvy salesman, Watt knew that he needed a way to market his new product. He calculated how much power a single horse working in a mill could produce over a period of time (though many scientists now believe his estimates were far too high), a figure that he dubbed “horsepower.” Using this unit of measurement, he then came up with a figure that indicated how many horses just one of his engines could replace. The sales ploy worked—we’re still using the term “horsepower” today—and his engines soon became the industry standard, leading directly to invention of the first steam locomotive in 1804.

2. America’s first steam locomotive lost a race to a horse.

In 1827, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad became the first U.S. company granted a charter for transporting both passengers and freight. However, the company struggled to produce a steam engine capable of traveling over rough and uneven terrain, instead relying on horse-drawn trains. Enter industrialist Peter Cooper: Cooper, who not coincidentally owned extensive land holdings over the proposed route of the railroad (the value of which would grow dramatically if the railroad succeeded), offered to design and build just such an engine. On August 28, 1830, Cooper’s engine, which he called the “Tom Thumb,” was undergoing testing on B&O tracks near Baltimore when a horse-drawn train pulled up alongside it and challenged Cooper (and “Tom Thumb”) to a race. Cooper accepted, and the race was on. The steam engine quickly roared into the lead, but when a belt broke loose it was forced to retire, and the horse crossed the finish line first. However, B&O executives, impressed with the massive power and speed Cooper’s engine had proven capable of, made the decision to convert their fledgling railroad to steam. The B&O became one of the most successful railways in the United States, and Cooper (with his newly minted fortune) went on to a career as an investor and philanthropist, donating the money for New York’s Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

3. Trains helped the North win the American Civil War.

Throughout the war, railroads enabled the quick transport of large numbers of soldiers and heavy artillery over long distances. One of the most significant uses of trains came after the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863, when Abraham Lincoln was able to send 20,000 badly needed replacement troops more than 1,200 miles from Washington, D.C. to Georgia (in just 11 days) to fortify Union forces—the longest and fastest troop movement of the 19th century. Control of the railroad in a region was crucial to military success, and railroads were often targets for military attacks aimed at cutting off the enemy from its supplies. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman provided particularly adept at the art of railroad sabotage. During his infamous “March” through Georgia and the Carolinas, his men destroyed thousands of miles of Confederate rails, leaving heaps of heated, twisted iron that southerners wearily referred to as “Sherman’s neckties.”

4. Abraham Lincoln’s assassination helped publicize train travel.

George Pullman, who had made a name for himself during the 1850s as a self-trained engineer and building mover in Chicago, began tinkering with the idea of a comfortable railroad “sleeping car” after a particularly uncomfortable train ride in upstate New York. By 1863, he had produced his first two models, the Pioneer and the Springfield, named for the Illinois hometown of then-President Abraham Lincoln. Pullman’s cars were indeed comfortable, but they were also prohibitively expensive and few railroad companies were interested in leasing them—until President Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865. After Lincoln’s death,, a Pullman car was used as part of the cortege that travelled through several Northern cities before returning his body to Illinois. The funeral train was front-page news, and when Pullman also temporarily loaned one of his beautiful sleeper cars to a grief-stricken Mary Todd Lincoln, the publicity poured in. Two years later, he established the Pullman Palace Car Company, which would revolutionize train travel around the world. Curiously enough, when Pullman died in 1897, his replacement as head of the company was none other than Robert Todd Lincoln, the slain president’s eldest son.

5. The world’s first travel agency got its start thanks to a train trip.

In 1841, Englishman Thomas Cook, a Baptist minister, organized a train excursion for 540 parishioners to attend a temperance meeting in London. Cook negotiated a set fare for passengers, including tickets and a meal. The trip was so successful that he expanded his operations, first within the United Kingdom and then to the United States and Europe, providing passengers with comprehensive packages including transportation, accommodations and meals. In 1873, the agency, now known as Thomas Cook and Son, launched an international railway timetable, still published today, and by 1890 they were selling more than 3 million rail tickets annually.

6. The railroads also gave us standardized time zones.

Britain adopted a standardized time system in 1847, but it took nearly 40 more years before the United States joined the club. America still ran on local time, which could vary from town to town (and within cities themselves), making scheduling arrival, departure, and connection times nearly impossible. After years of lobbying for standardized time, representatives from all major U.S. railways met on October 11, 1883, for what became known as the General Time Convention, where they adopted a proposal that would establish five time zones spanning the country: Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific. The plan originally called for a fifth time zone, the Intercontinental, which was instituted several years later and became known as Atlantic Time. At noon on November 18, the U.S. Naval Observatory sent out a telegraph signal marking 12:00 pm ET, and railway office in cities and towns across the country calibrated their clocks accordingly. However, it wasn’t until 1918 that standard time became the official law of the land, when Congress passed legislation recognizing the time zone system (and instituting a new “daylight savings time” designed to conserve resources for the World War I war effort).

7. The miles of railroad track in the United States reached its peak in 1916.

It didn’t take long for railroads to catch on in the United States. The same year that the “Tom Thumb” lost its race, there were just 23 miles of railroad tracks in the United States. But within 20 years there were more than 9,000, as the U.S. government passed its first Railroad Land Grant Act, designed to attract settlers to the undeveloped parts of the country. By the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, there were 30,000 miles (more than 21,000 of them in the North), and lobbyists were clamoring for a transcontinental system across the nation. The number of railroad miles continued to climb until hitting its peak in 1916. That year there were more than 250,000 miles of track—enough to reach the moon from Earth.

8. Today’s bullet trains can top 300 mph.

When Englishman Richard Trevithick launched the first practical steam locomotive in 1804, it averaged less than 10 mph. Today, several high-speed rail lines are regularly travelling 30 times as fast. When Japan’s first Shinkansen or “bullet trains,” opened to coincide with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, they were capable of running at speeds in excess of 130 mph. In the 40 years since, the top speed of these trains has been steadily climbing, with a current world speed record of 361 mph. Japan is no longer alone in the high-speed rail department however: France, China and Germany all operate trains capable of similar extreme speeds, and the plans are currently underway in the United States to construct a high-speed rail line connecting the California cities of San Francisco and Anaheim.

13 Things You Might Not Know About Wings

In 1990, television-watching America was introduced to the tiny Massachusetts island of Nantucket when Wings—the airport-set, Emmy-nominated series about a couple of pilot brothers trying to make a go of a one-plane airline in a seasonal destination—made its debut on NBC. Here are 13 things you might not know about the high-flying comedy, on the 20th anniversary of its season finale.


It’s no coincidence that Wings is the airport version of Cheers, as its co-creators—David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee—spent several years working together on the beloved series about the bar where everybody knows your name. Though it’s not a spinoff, Wings featured several tie-ins with both Cheers and Frasier (another Angell-Casey-Lee creation). Rebecca Howe, Norm Peterson, Cliff Clavin, and Frasier and Lilith Crane all popped up on Wings over the years.


Four years before landing the career-changing role of Dr. Doug Ross on ER, George Clooney auditioned to play the role of fun-loving playboy Brian Hackett. David Duchovny and Hank Azaria were among the other actors considered for the role, which eventually went to Steven Weber.


The future Walter White auditioned to play Joe Hackett, the anal-retentive owner of Sandpiper Air. Daniel Stern and Nick Cassavetes tried out, too, but Tim Daly got the part.


In a 2014 interview with The A.V. Club, Daly admitted that “like a lot of people, I hadn’t really appreciated Wings until sort of recently.” Though he says he had a great time filming the show, and worked with lots of talented people, he was frustrated by the fact that “it didn’t get very good reviews, and it wasn’t, like, hip, you know? It wasn’t Seinfeld, it wasn’t Friends, it didn’t really have a reputation as a ‘hot’ show, and—it kind of made me feel a little bad. I was like, ‘Hey, how come nobody likes this show?’ Well, in retrospect, being many years removed from it, I look back at it, and that show was really f***ing great! It’s hilarious! And we were very good. We were really funny. I don’t know why we didn’t get the credit we deserved at the time. But it’s odd—now people think of it as a classic TV show. Critics, maybe not, but the citizens or whoever seem to think it was one of the all-time greats. At the time, nobody cared about it that much.”


Daly’s got a point about the series’ original critical reception. Though it features top-notch acting and writing, Wings only ever received a grand total of three Emmy nominations—one for Outstanding Makeup in 1996, and the others in 1992 for guest stars Kelsey Grammer (playing Frasier Crane) and Tyne Daly (Tim’s sister) for her one-episode appearance as Mimsy Borogroves.


The Club Car is a favorite after-work hangout for the Wings gang. And though it wasn’t filmed on site, it is indeed a real place that you can visit in person (in season, of course).


There is a Tom Nevers Field on Nantucket, but it's a park, not an airport. Nantucket Memorial Airport is where you’d jet in and out of for a visit.


The Sandpiper plane that is featured in the series’ opening and closing credits—the N121PP—is still up and running and part of Cape Air’s fleet. The airline’s slogan? “We’re Your Wings.”


Crystal Bernard’s character, Helen Chapel, was originally written as Helen Trionkis—and intended for Peri Gilpin. “Yes, Helen in the first draft was Helen Trionkis, a dark beauty of Greek descent,” David Lee shared in 2010. “Our first choice was Peri Gilpin. [NBC President Brandon] Tartikoff thought she wasn't ready to head a series yet.”


Though she plays a native islander, Helen Chapel has a pretty thick Southern accent for a New Englander. “[Tartikoff] pitched Crystal and left it up to us to figure out the accent bit,” David Lee recalled. “Can't remember what lame convoluted plotting we came up with to explain the accent, but after convincing no one, it was soon forgotten. I remember she came in to meet Peter, David, and I the morning after she had almost been killed by a CO2 leak in her dressing room trailer on a movie she was shooting. Now that's a trooper.”


By the time Frasier premiered in 1993, Angell, Casey, and Lee were able to sell the network on Gilpin’s leading lady abilities. And her character on that show, radio producer Roz Doyle, is actually named for one of the producers of Wings, who passed away from breast cancer in 1991.


Though he was hardly a well-known name, the creators of Wings wrote the part of the idiot savant mechanic Lowell Mather specifically for future Oscar nominee Thomas Haden Church. In 1995, while announcing his departure from the series, Church explained that, “I don't forever want to be known as Lowell,” noting that, “The character was based directly upon a guy I played in Cheers.” That would be the character of Gordie Brown, who made a one-time appearance during Cheers’ eighth season.


In 1996, John Ritter made a guest appearance on Wings as Stuart Davenport, the ex-husband of Helen’s sister, Casey Chapel Davenport, who was played by Amy Yasbeck. Three years later, Ritter and Yasbeck got married.

Big Ben is arguably London’s most famous landmark. Surprisingly, it is actually meant to go by the name ‘The Clock Tower’, while ‘Big Ben’ is the name of the bell. Feel free to bore your friends and family with that fact if you ever do a tour of London.

Despite popular belief, it isn’t illegal to die in the Houses of Parliament. Although it is illegal to enter the Houses of Parliament wearing a suit of armour. According to gov.uk:

‘The issue of dying in Parliament appears to arise from the idea that anyone who dies in a Royal Palace is eligible for a state funeral. We have not been able to trace any such law, and neither have the House of Commons authorities.’

Arrange a visit to the Houses of Parliament here.

Saguaros are quite the characters

“Now hang on a minute,” I can already hear some of you saying. “What do you mean saguaros have character? Saguaros are cacti. They don’t do character.”

Of course they do. Think about it. Every single saguaro starts with the same shape a simple column. Then they get creative. And boy howdy do they get creative! That’s what I love about them.

I visited Saguaro National Park down in Tucson during saguaro flowering season and was awed by the variety of saguaros out there. Sweethearts. A visionary. BFFs. Saguaros with big hair. There was even a gunslinger. It felt like people-watching in the New York City subway, only pricklier.

Still don’t believe me? Check out the photos below. These are my kind of people. I mean saguaros. Who needs trees when you’ve got these?

8 Things You Didn't Know Social Security Could Do for You

by Andy Markowitz, AARP, September 10, 2020 | Comments: 0

En español | For many people, Social Security's function begins and ends with a monthly payment. And to be sure, ensuring benefits get delivered on time and in full to tens of millions of older adults, people with disabilities and members of their families 12 times a year is the agency's job one.

But over its history, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has added numerous special services to help customers (that's you and me) deal with pressing medical, familial and financial issues. Here are some of the lesser-known things Social Security can do for you.

1. Expedited disability claims

It takes SSA about four months on average to process claims for disability benefits. And that's just the initial application it can take many more months, even years, to appeal a claim that's first denied.

Waits like that can be especially hard for people with severe or worsening illnesses. That's why SSA established the Compassionate Allowances program, a list of 242 serious medical conditions that by definition meet Social Security's standard for disability. Applications for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) involving those conditions are automatically flagged for fast-tracking and can be approved in a matter of days.

Learn more about Compassionate Allowances and other ways Social Security can fast-track disability decisions.

2. Representative payees

Not all Social Security recipients are able to manage their own benefit payments. Some have cognitive disorders or developmental disabilities some are small children. In such cases, Social Security can appoint someone to serve as the beneficiary's representative payee.

A representative payee has authority to receive another person's benefits and use them to meet that person's essential needs, such as food, shelter and health care. It's typically a family member or friend, but organizations such as nursing homes can also fill the role. It's a serious job that requires diligence: Social Security holds payees accountable for how they spend benefit funds, and they are strictly prohibited from putting the money to their own use.

Learn more about how to become and serve as a Social Security representative payee.

3. Help with Medicare drug costs

Extra Help, a program run by Social Security and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), can reduce prescription drug expenses for low-income Medicare beneficiaries by up to $5,000 a year. The aid can be put toward premiums, deductibles and copays related to a Medicare drug plan.

The program is open to residents of the 50 states and the District of Columbia who are enrolled in Medicare Part A and/or Medicare Part B and have income of no more than $19,140 for an individual or $25,860 for a married couple living together. There are also strict limits on financial assets such as savings, investments and property.

You can apply for Extra Help online or by phone at 800-772-1213. You'll find detailed information in the Social Security pamphlet "Understanding the Extra Help With Your Medicare Prescription Drug Plan."

4. Translation and interpretation

Like everyone else, people who speak little or no English may need to talk to the staff at Social Security about benefits or other concerns. To address this, Social Security provides free interpreter services to anyone who requests or shows a need for language assistance.

Languages that the agency can translate on a phone call or office visit include Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Farsi, French, Greek, Haitian Creole, Hmong, Italian, Korean, Portuguese, Polish, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese. To request an interpreter, call Social Security at 800-772-1213. SSA also provides written materials in several languages on its website.

5 Old VHS Copies of Awful Movies

Audio/visual formats go out of style so fast that DVD now seems quaint, and we sort of skipped Blu-ray entirely. But, where hipsters get nostalgic for vinyl records, there is no equivalent retro appreciation for VHS. The first home video format seemed like a miracle in its day, but the tapes quickly wore out, as did the players (raise your hand if you're old enough to remember having to adjust the "tracking" on your movie rental). From the horrible quality to the cheap cardboard sleeve packaging, your stack of old VHS is something you can be sure even the most desperate thieves will leave behind. Yet .

The Price Tag: $700 (or more)

Collectors pay impressive amounts of money for old tapes, especially if they're rare, and especially if they're bad. For some, the grainy, deteriorating look of old VHS film is closer to a B-movie director's original vision, and because a significant amount of this direct-to-video crap will never see a DVD release, the race is on to collect and treasure our questionable film heritage.

For example, in 2011 a seller on eBay managed to snatch nearly $700 for a VHS copy of a movie called Tales From the Quadead Zone, a 1987 horror movie that was released direct to VHS and apparently has something to do with a zombie clown from hell. The tape is considered the holy grail of VHS aficionados due to its rarity and terrible, nonsensical plot. Dan Kinem, director of a documentary about VHS collectors, thinks that it could fetch as much as $2,000 today, which is probably about 1,000 times more money than the actual movie ever made when it was new.

Then there's Hack-O-Lantern, a clumsy 1988 slasher movie most notable for being the last movie role for the guy who played the bartender in Blade Runner, who is apparently a big deal among a select group of film nuts. That one grabbed just over $200 on eBay, which is impressive considering bids started at under $10. So, if you're a fan of schlock whose VHS collection has been rotting in your attic ever since you saved up for a DVD player, you might unwittingly be sitting on a treasure trove. There are people out there crazier than you, and they're apparently really rich?

Related: Physical Copies Of Video Games Will Be The Next 'Vinyl' Trend

8 Boxer Facts You Might Not Know

There are so many reasons to fall in love with a Boxer. Consider that powerful body, expressive face, clownish sense of humor, innate intelligence, and intense attachment to his people. If you haven’t fallen in love yet, some of these interesting facts may do the trick. Even seasoned Boxer owners may learn a few surprising things about their beloved breed.

1. Boxers have a long, interesting history.

Along with their cousins, the Bulldog and Mastiff, Boxers have ancestors that can be traced to the ancient Assyrians, as long ago as 2000 B.C. They were powerful, brave dogs, often used in war. Centuries later, these dogs were named for the ancient city of Molossis, in what is now Albania.

For centuries, the Bullenbeisser, the Boxer’s more recent antecedent, was used as a hunting dog for wild boar, bear, and deer. The breed spread all over continental Europe and England and can be seen as early as the 16th century in Flemish tapestries. Most experts agree that this smaller Bullenbeisser, from northeast Belgium, is the direct ancestor of the modern Boxer. However, it was in Germany that the breed’s development reached a peak of development to become the remarkable dog we know today.

2. Boxers made relatively late arrivals in America.

The Boxer, as we know it today, was first imported to the U.S. after World War I, but didn’t reach any real degree of popularity until the late 1930s.

Four dogs, in particular, are considered the foundation of the American Boxer. They’ve even been nicknamed “The Four Horsemen of Boxerdom.” The first was Sigurd, born in Germany in 1929. Ten of his puppies were imported to America and became champions or were the progenitors of champions. The next two were Lustig and Utz, and each sired dozens of champions. Lustig sired 41 American champions, and Utz sired 35. The last of the four was Dorian, and he won the Working Group at Westminster in 1937.

According to AKC statistics, Boxers are now the 14th most popular breed in the country.

3. Boxers have excelled in dog shows.

The breed has won Best in Show at Westminster four times, in 1947, 1949, 1951, and 1970.

4. Your Boxer can succeed in dog sports like agility and rally, but you’ll have to work at it.

When he’s racing the agility course, performing in rally, or strutting his stuff in obedience trails, the Boxer can be absolutely glorious. But this extremely intelligent dog has a mind of his own. As his trainer, you must be patient, consistent, and creative. A Boxer becomes bored with repetition and may, given his sense of humor, invent his own idea of obedience or agility during training, and even during performance.

5. Boxers are lovers, not fighters.

In spite of their heritage as powerful and courageous hunters, one of the modern breed’s most appealing traits is a tremendous love for their humans and a need to be loved in return. A Boxer is happiest when he’s with his family, especially children. He’s protective and patient with kids and makes an ideal family dog.

6. Boxers have their own distinct antics that are both lovable and (sometimes) annoying.

When excited, which is every time they greet a beloved human, they are known for jumping up and down in exuberance and leaping about. “Down” may be the first command to teach them. And almost any lover of the breed can tell you about the “kidney bean” dance Boxers do. They twist their bodies into a sort of semicircle and, in their excitement, start turning in circles.

7. Boxers are excellent service dogs.

With their innate attachment to humans and their intelligence, Boxers are often used as guide dogs for the blind and even as alert dogs for people who suffer from epilepsy, alerting them to an imminent seizure.

8. The Boxer was the breed of choice for a pair of famous movie stars.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were both dog lovers. They received their first Boxer, Harvey, as a wedding gift, and he appeared in many of their publicity photos. They acquired two more Boxers, Baby and George, as well.

8 ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses you might not know about

The ancient Egyptians worshipped at least 1,500 gods and goddesses. Some of these, such as the mummified god of the dead, Osiris, and the goddess of magical healing, Isis, are well known today. Others are more obscure. So how much do you know about Egypt’s forgotten deities? Here, egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley shares 8 lesser-known gods and goddesses

This competition is now closed

Published: September 24, 2019 at 10:20 am

Discover 8 lesser-known deities worshipped by ancient Egyptians…


At first sight the goddess Taweret, ‘the great female one’, appears to be composed of randomly selected animal parts. She has the body and head of a pregnant hippopotamus standing on its hind legs, the tail of a crocodile, and the limbs of a lioness – topped, occasionally, by a woman’s face. Her mouth lolls open to reveal rows of dangerous-looking teeth, and she often wears a long wig. We might find this combination of fierce animals and false hair frightening, but the women of ancient Egypt regarded Taweret as a great comfort, as she was able to protect them during childbirth by scaring away the evil spirits who might harm either the mother or the baby. This made her extremely popular so that, although she did not have a grand temple, her image was displayed on walls, beds, headrests and cosmetic jars in many private homes, and she even appears on palace walls.

The same assortment of animal parts – this time the head of a crocodile, the foreparts and body of a lion or leopard and the hind parts of a hippopotamus – can be found in Ammit, the ‘eater of the damned’. Unlike Taweret, Ammit was greatly feared. She lived in the kingdom of the dead where she squatted beside the scales used during the ‘weighing of the heart’, a ceremony that saw the heart of the deceased being weighed against the feather of truth. Those whose hearts proved light were allowed to pass into the afterlife. Hearts that weighed heavy against the feather were eaten by Ammit.

Bes was another god who brought comfort and protection to mothers and children. A part-comical, part-sinister dwarf with a plump body, prominent breasts, bearded face, flat nose and protruding tongue, Bes might be either fully human, or half-human, half-animal (usually lion). He might have a mane, a lion’s tail, or wings. He often wears a plumed headdress and carries either a drum or tambourine, or a knife.

Bes offered a welcome protection against snakes. But his primary role was as a dancer and musician who used his art to frighten away bad spirits during the dangerous times of childbirth, childhood, sex and sleep. His image decorated bedrooms of all classes, and we can also see him, either tattooed or painted, on the upper thigh of dancing girls.


Neith is a warrior or a hunter. Human-form and bald, she wears a crown and carries a bow and arrows. Her linen sheath dress is so tight that, in an age before lycra, she would have had difficulty moving around the battlefield. Her title ‘mother of the gods’ identifies her with the creative force present at the beginning of the world, and it is possible that she is credited with inventing childbirth. On the wall of the temple of Khnum at Esna, in southern Egypt, we see Neith emerging from the primeval waters as a cow-goddess who creates land by simply saying the words: “Let this place be land for me.”

Neith was worshipped throughout Egypt, but was particularly associated with the western Delta town of Sais (modern Sa el Hagar) where her temple became known as the ‘house of the bee’. During the 26th dynasty (664-525 BCE), a time when Sais was Egypt’s capital city, she became the dominant state god, and the kings were buried in the grounds of her temple. Her temple and the royal tombs that it contained are now lost.

The Aten

If Taweret and Ammit seem to have too many body parts, the god known simply as the Aten, or ‘the sun disk’, does not seem to have enough. The Aten is a bodiless, faceless sun that emits long rays tipped with tiny hands. He hangs in the sky above the royal family, offering them the ankh, symbol of life. As he has no known mythology, we can say very little more about him.

This apparently dull deity inspired such devotion in Pharaoh Akhanaten (ruled c1352–1336 BC) that he abandoned the traditional gods, closed their temples and built a new capital city which he named ‘Horizon of the Aten’ (modern Amarna), dedicated to the Aten. Had a private citizen decided to worship just one god, there would have been no problem. But Akhenaten, as pharaoh, was expected to make offerings to all of Egypt’s gods. His decision to abandon the traditional rituals was seen as very dangerous –surely the old gods would get angry? Not long after his death, the pantheon was restored by Tutankhamen (ruled c1336–1327 BC). As the old temples re-opened, the Aten sank back into obscurity.


Many of us are familiar with Hathor, the gentle cow-headed sky goddess associated with motherhood, nurturing and drunkenness. Few of us realise that Hathor has an alter ego. When angry, she transforms into the Sekhmet, ‘the powerful one’, an uncompromising, fire-breathing lioness armed with an arsenal of pestilences and plagues and the ability to burn Egypt’s enemies with the fierce heat of the sun. Sekhmet was a ruthless defender of her father the pharaoh and this, together with her skill with a bow and arrow, caused her to become closely associated with the army. When the sun god, Re, learned that the people of Egypt were plotting against him, he sent Sekhmet to kill them all. When he changed his mind, and determined to save the people, he had a lot of trouble stopping the killing. Sekhmet was not entirely vicious, however. As ‘mistress of life’, she could cure all the ills that she inflicted, and her priests were recognised as healers with a powerful magic.


Khepri, ‘the one who comes into being’, is the morning sun. He is usually shown in the form of a beetle, although he might also be a beetle-headed man, or a beetle-headed falcon. He is a divine version of the humble scarab beetle whose habit of pushing around a large ball of dung made the ancients imagine a huge celestial beetle rolling the ball of the sun across the sky.

Hidden within the scarab beetle’s dung ball were eggs that eventually hatched, crawled out of the ball and flew away. Observing this, the Egyptians jumped to the conclusion that beetles were male beings capable of self-creation. This enviable ability to regenerate made the scarab one of Egypt’s most popular amulets, used by both the dead and the living. Although Khepri did not have a temple, he was often depicted alongside Egypt’s other gods in the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings.


Renenutet was a cobra goddess. The Egyptian cobra can grow to be nine feet long and can, when angry or threatened, raise a third of its body from the ground, and expand its ‘hood’ (cervical ribs). This made the female cobra a useful royal bodyguard. A rearing cobra (the uraeus) was worn on the royal brow cobra amulets were included in mummy wrapping to protect the dead and a painted pottery cobra, placed in the corner of a room, was known to be an effective means of warding off evil ghosts and spirits.

Every year the river Nile flooded in late summer. The rising waters caused an increase in the number of snakes attracted to the settlements by the vermin flushed from the low-lying ground. This caused the cobra to be associated with the fertility of the Nile. Renenutet, ‘she who nourishes’, lived in the fertile fields where, as goddess of the harvest and granaries, she ensured that Egypt would not go hungry. Cobras were considered exceptionally good mothers, and Renenutet was no exception. As a divine nurse she suckled the king as a fire-breathing cobra she protected him in death.

In most mythologies, the fertile earth is classed as female. In ancient Egypt, however, the earth was male. Geb was an ancient and important earth god who represented both the fertile land and the graves dug into that land. For this combination of attributes, and for his prowess as a healer, he was both respected and feared. He usually appears as a reclining man beneath the female sky. His naked green body often shows signs of his impressive fertility, and he may have grain growing from his back. Alternatively, he might appear as a king wearing a crown. In animal form, Geb might be a goose (or a man wearing a goose on his head) or a hare, or he might form part of the crew of the sun boat that sails across the sky each day.

Geb ruled Egypt during the time when people and gods lived together. Later, Greek tradition would equate Geb with the Titan Chronos, who overthrew his father Uranus at the urging of his mother, Gaia.

Joyce Tyldesley teaches a suite of online courses in Egyptology at the University of Manchester. She is the author of Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt (Viking Penguin 2010).

This article was first published by History Extra in January 2017

How Trains Work

­Chugging across short distan­ces or entire continents, trains act as a major form of transportation worldwide. Also called railroads or railways, trains carry within their cars passeng­ers or freight -- such as raw materials, supplies or finished goods -- and sometimes both.

Back before the wild ideas of people like the Wright brothers, Henry Ford and Gottlieb Daimler, you had limited options for traveling around town and country. Paved roadways didn't always crisscross the countryside. Even with roads, horse-drawn vehicles still struggled to move people and goods, especially in bad weather. As early as 1550, pragmatic Germans constructed and used wooden railway systems, reasoning that horse-drawn wagons and carts could travel more easily and quickly over wooden rails than dirt roads. By the late 1700s, iron wheels and rails had one-upped wooden ones.

­But it wasn't until the steam locomotive was invented in 1797 in England that the railroad as we know it began to take shape. The Stockton & Darlington Railroad Company in England became the first public railroad to carry passengers and freight. Steam-powered locomotives carried six coal cars and up to 450 passengers a distance of 9 miles (14 kilometers) in less than an hour. Horses just couldn't top that.

Across the ocean, the B&O Railroad Company established itself as the first U.S. railroad company in 1827. By 1860, U.S. rail workers had laid more than 30,000 miles (48,280 kilometers) of track, more than in the entire world [source: AAR]. Railroads served as the main mode of transportation and made it cheap and easy to ship supplies and goods, even for Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War.

After the Civil War, the U.S. railroad network expanded again, and the country's first transcontinental railway was completed in 1869. Towns sprouted along the railway lines, and the railroad hastened westward expansion. By the early 20th century, U.S. railroads operated 254,000 miles (408,773 kilometers) of track. Diesel locomotives had replaced steam ones.

But by the mid-20th century, the decline of the U.S. railroads had begun. A developed interstate highway system and extensive federal regulations took their toll on trains. In the ongoing energy crisis, however, trains, which run on diesel and som­etimes even biodiesel fuel, may regain their former popularity with passengers as we move through­ the 21st century.

­Don't get derailed. Stick around as we talk about train technology, how trains move people and freight, and what the future of rail transportation may hold.

Full Steam Ahead: Locomotives and Train Technology

When we say train, we don't just mean a Thomas the Tank Engine. Rather we're referring to the whole package: railroad cars, railroad track, switches, signals and a locomotive, although not all trains rely on locomotives to pull them, but most of the trains we'll mention do.

With the locomotives leading the way, coupled-together railroad cars follow, filled with freight and passengers -- even circus animals in some instances. The railroad track steers the train and does a few other things that we'll talk about later. Because many trains operate on the same track, switches and signals control the traffic. Let's break it down.

Mouse over the part labels to see where each is located on the diesel engine.

The job of the locomotive is to change the chemical energy from the fuel (wood, coal, diesel fuel) into the kinetic energy of motion. The first locomotives did this with a steam engine, which you can read more about in How Steam Technology Works. The steam locomotive lasted for about a century, but was eventually replaced by the diesel locomotive, a mighty mechanical wonder that may consist of a giant engine along with electric alternators or generators to provide electrical power to the train. In fact, diesel locomotives have their very own article -- How Diesel Locomotives Work. Many trains intersperse multiple locomotives throughout their lineup to increase and distribute the power.

Besides steam- and diesel-powered locomotives, many trains operate solely on electrical power. They get the electricity from a third rail, or electrical line, along the track. Transformers transfer the voltage from the lines, and the electrical current drives the motors (AC or DC) on the wheels. Electrical locomotives are used on subways and many commuter rail systems.

Operators control the train by using the throttle, reversing gear and brake. The throttle controls the speed of the locomotive. The reversing gear enables the locomotive to back up. The brake allows the locomotive to slow and stop. Regardless of the type, locomotives use air brakes and hand brakes to stop the engine. Air brakes use high-pressure air to drive the brake foot against the wheel. The friction between the brake pad and the wheels slows the wheels' motions. The operator also throttles the engine back to slow the train, like when you take your foot off the gas pedal when stopping your car. A mechanical hand brake is also used in case the air brakes fail (usually when there's insufficient air pressure to drive them).

All railroad cars have an undercarriage that contains wheels and a suspension system to buffer the ride. On each end of the undercarriage, couplers, which are like hooks, connect the cars.

What's on top of the undercarriage depends upon the type of railroad car, and there are several.

  • A boxcar is a basic box into which crates of goods can be piled up.
  • An ore car has an open top and carries coal or other mineral ore such as bauxite.
  • A tank car holds liquids, usually chemicals such as chlorine and ammonia.
  • Flat cars can hold bulky irregular items on them, such as construction equipment or spools.
  • Trailer cars can transport automobiles.
  • Container cars are filled with boxed containers of various materials. Often, containers can be double-stacked on these cars.
  • Passenger cars, of course, hold people. Some have glass-enclosed viewing areas on top, and some may even be sleeper cars for long trips.

­ Keep reading to learn about what guides trains on their travels.

Keeping Us in Line: Train Tracks

­Railroad tracks guide the train, acting as the low-friction surface on which the train runs and often transferring the weight of the train to the ground below. The track may also provide electrical power along the third rail, as you'll recall.

A railroad track consists of two parallel steel rails set a fixed distance apart, called the gauge. The standard gauge is 4 feet 8.5 inches (1,435 millimeters). The rails are connected to each other by railroad ties (called sleepers in Europe), which may be made of wood or concrete. The rails are usually bolted to the ties. The ties are set into the loose gravel or ballast. Ballast often consists of loose stones that help transfer the load to the underlying foundation. The ties "float" on the ballast and the weight of the track keeps them stabilized.

When rail workers are laying train tracks, they often use a flat-bottom steel rail that resembles the steel I-beam girders of construction. The rail has a wide base or foot, a narrow web and a head (wider than the web, but not as wide as the foot). The weights of the rails vary from 80 to 160 pounds (36 to 73 kilograms) per yard depending upon the type of train operating on the tracks and the country. Segments of rail track may connect to one another by bolted plates called fishplates, but most modern rail segments are welded together to provide a smooth ride.

Beneath the rails, the track is sometimes cushioned or ballasted. The foundation may be made of sand or concrete. In many cases, railroad tracks are elevated above the surrounding ground and have drainage systems to remove water. They may also be surrounded by fences to prevent animals and people from wandering on to the tracks. Finally, electrical trains will have either a third power rail or overhanging wires that supply the electricity.

­Steel tracks can be straight or curved to steer the train since steel is easily bent into shape. Depending upon the topography, some curves may be slightly angled or banked to help the train stay on the track as it negotiates the curve. At various points along the track, rails may have switches, which can move a train from one track to another. Switches and accompanying track are important for controlling traffic. For example, when two trains are operating on the same track, a switch can allow one train to pull off to a holding track while the other one passes. A switch also can change a train's direction like moving it from a north-south track to an east-west one. Many railroad stations have switching yards where trains are assembled and moved onto various tracks.

Finally, signals along the tracks keep the train operators informed of traffic conditions ahead. Signals control train traffic much like traffic lights control automobile traffic on roads. Besides signals, many locomotives have radios and computer terminals that monitor traffic conditions using information supplied by signaling centers, which are similar to air traffic control stations.

Now that we have the mechanics down, let's see how they fit together to move packages and people.

One popular myth is that the standard train gauge was based on the width of the Roman chariot. This is untrue, especially as the Romans didn't use chariots to transport goods and supplies. The standard train gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches (1,435 millimeters) was chosen by British inventor George Stephenson, who designed the first railway system. Stephenson had been working with various railways used in British mines and settled on what is now the standard gauge.

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