Roman Aqueducts

Of all the things the Ancient Romans did, what fascinates me the most are the Roman Aqueducts. These bridge-like structures supported by multiple levels of Roman arches can be seen spanning across valleys in many countries across Europe and North Africa – territories that were part of the Roman Empire.  The aqueducts carried fresh water into Rome’s homes, baths, and fountains. In fact, even today the famous Trevi fountain in Rome is fed by water from an aqueduct that was built in 19 BCE.

The Romans built the aqueducts from 312 BCE to 226 CE, under the rules of Augustus, Caligula, and Trajan. While the parts above ground are the most recognizable, a majority of the aqueducts were laid below ground – and are made up of underground tunnels, pipes, and canals. Of a total of 420 kms of aqueducts, only 50 kms are above ground.

The water flowed from dams, reservoirs, and other sources towards Rome because of gravity. The entire aqueduct system had to have just the right gradient – too much and the water would flow too fast particularly into Rome and burst the pipes, too low and the water would stop flowing. The Romans used rivers and riverbeds to learn about gradient technology to allow water to flow at the correct speed. The engineering knowledge the ancient Romans must have possessed to achieve this feat is remarkable.

Ancient Roman Aqueduct

Once the water arrived in Rome, it went into a large storage reservoir called the main castellum. From the castellum, the water traveled to different parts of Rome in smaller channels, and entered a secondary castellum, from where it further branched until it reached its final destination like the Trevi fountain.

The ancient Romans built 11 aqueducts in all. Some of the Roman aqueducts are Aqua Claudia, Aqua Appia (oldest), Aqua Anio Vetus, Aqua Marcia (could take water up to Palatine hill), Aqua Alexandina (last one built), and Aqua Traiana.

Pont du Gard, Nemes, France

Trentino or Quarantino

It almost sounds like I’m going to write about the movie director Quentin Tarantino – but I’m not – not that it’s not the most fascinating name – but I’m actually  writing about something that’s been on everyone’s mind a lot lately – Quarantine.

Quarantine comes from the Italian word Quarantino, which comes from the Latin word quaranta giorni – which translates to “space of forty days.” The policy of quarantine was first enforced during the bubonic plague in 1348 in Venice. Ships carrying sailors and cargo had to stay on the ship in Venetian lagoons for 40 days before they could enter Venice.

Medieval Dubrovnik

Even before the Venetian quarantine the city of Dubrovnik in Croatia became the first to pass laws requiring a mandatory order for all inbound ships and sailors to stay away from the city for a period of 30 days for fear of carrying infection into the city. The sailors were sent to an uninhabited rock island for 30 days – and this was called trentino. This is the first known evidence of isolation and is remarkable that the officials of Dubrovnik had this much understanding of diseases and incubation.

Biblical importance of 40 days

The 30 days was later changed by Italians to 40 days – and this makes us question – why 40 days? The period of 40 days has numerous biblical references – and may have been picked for that reason. According to the bible when God flooded the earth it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, and Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days. Even today, in many countries, women have to rest for 40 days after childbirth.  

Another interesting and related term is Lazaretto – which is the place where the quarantine took place, or a place where people with diseases, especially lepers, stayed. The term traces its origin to the biblical Lazarus who was covered in sores. So for instance the rocky island near Dubrovnik where the quarantined (or should I say trentined) people were sent would be a lazaretto.

Dubrovnik Lazaretto

“the German War is at an end”

This is how Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced the end of World War II 75 years ago today. On May 8, 1945, after six years at war in which millions of young lives were lost, the guns finally fell silent over Europe. The Allies defeated Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, and the day became known as VE – Victory in Europe – day.

75 years later the generation that fought this war remains undoubtedly the greatest generation. The sacrifices made by the young men and women of this generation defy understanding, and we owe them an unpayable debt of gratitude for the freedoms we all take for granted. The men that fought this war, those that are still alive, continue to inspire and amaze us to this day. One such hero is World War II veteran captain Tom Moore who turned 100 years old on April 30th.

Captain Tom celebrating his 100th birthday

War veterans like Captain Tom know how to inspire – they have seen the worst of humanity, they have lived to tell about it, they choose to see the positive instead of dwelling on the negative. Captain Tom has singlehandedly brought the UK – perhaps even the world – together at this time – across generations and across all financial and racial boundaries. Captain Tom, a lifelong fan of Britain’s Health system (NHS) decided to walk a 100 laps of his garden by his 100th birthday to raise $1200 for the NHS.

Captain Tom completing his 100th lap for charity
Captain Tom as a young man in the army.

A world dealing with a pandemic found its hero – and Captain Tom raised $40 million. He received 125,000 cards on his birthday, a Royal Air Force flypast, and a possible knighthood. And like all people of his generation, Captain Tom told the world to remain positive and hopeful: “For all those finding it difficult: the sun will shine on you again and the clouds will go away.” What an amazing man!!

As the world battles with an enemy of a different sort, on this day when six years of darkness ended, we should pause and remember the heroes of World War II that sacrificed so much, and learn to live life with the same grace that they showed during and after the war, and continue to show to this day.

It’s May Day!!

There’s Mayday and there’s May Day – the 1st day of the month of May which falls right in between spring equinox and the summer solstice.

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!!

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday !!– interestingly has nothing to do with the lovely month of May. It’s the international signal for a distress call over the radio – and it has to be used only when the distress is real, life-threateningly real. And it has to be said three times so there is no confusion over static radio signals as to what the caller is saying.

Mayday as a distress signal started in 1923, when a radio officer at the Croydon Airport in London came up with this term – primarily because it sounded like the French word for help me m’aider. Also it had no ‘s’ or other sounds which tend to get lost over radio signals. For non-life-threatening issues the signal is pan-pan pan-pan pan-pan which is a derivation of another French word “penne,’ which means breakdown.

May Day on the other hand is a word that relates to this day which traditionally is celebrated with May flowers in baskets and dancing around maypoles. All across Europe, the seeds sown in springtime had started to sprout and this was cause for celebration – cattle were driven to pasture, special bonfires were lit, and people decorated their front doors and filled baskets with May flowers. Many of these festivities were shunned by the Puritans, and traditional May Day celebrations never really took hold in the US.

Starting with the 19th Century May Day took on a new significance – it became the International Workers’ Day –  a day that celebrates the struggles and gains made by the labor movement such as the fight for an 8 hour work day in the US. May 1 was chosen as Workers’ Rights Day in 1889 as an homage to the May 4, 1886 Haymarket Riots in Chicago. The communist states embraced this day and used it unite workers against capitalism. It became famous for the spectacular annual May Day parade in the Red Square in Moscow. After the decline of communism, the importance of this day diminished in the communist countries.

(Images courtesy Old Farmer’s Almanac).

From the Romans to Twitter

The journey of the hashtag is long and storied – it saw many lives before it became the powerful organizer of tweets by topic. Like many of the other symbols, its first known use too was by the Romans.

The Roman libra pondo lb

Its origins started with the Roman use of the short form “lb” for libra pondo or “pound in weight.” Eventually, with its use in English, and as people started writing faster, a line was placed across the lb until it started to look like #.

The # symbol appeared on the 3 key on Remington typewriters in the 1870s

The # was included as a character in printers, though it continued to be called pound sign. And then in the 1870s it reached the typewriter (often on the 3 key).

The # symbol saw another life as an octothorpe when it got included on the telephone keypad. It was this inclusion on the phone keypad that made it a well-known symbol to the general public. The # on the phone started to signify numbers in automated customer service systems, and it would have stayed like that forever, had it not been for Chris Messina’s attempt to organize Twitter.

Looking for a way to organize twitter by topicality, Chris Messina chanced upon the # symbol, and used it for the first time in a tweet on August 23, 2007, “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”

With #barcamp, the # symbol begins a new life

Chris Messina used the # symbol as an organizing tool for the Twitter community. Twitter did not have a way to support groups, and using the # symbol provided a way to categorize by topic, and indicate topicality. He only picked it because it already existed on mobile phone keypads, and was therefore readily available to use.

And with that, a symbol that started its journey with the Romans finally achieved greatness in social media as a hashtag. On a daily basis around 125 million hashtags are shared daily on Twitter.


For centuries, lighthouses have been the guiding light that have helped weary travelers find the way home. Standing steadfast at the edge of turbulent waters, these lighthouses have been a beacon of hope since ancient times. The US coastline is dotted with more than 1000 lighthouses – starting with the Boston Light in 1716, which still sits on a rocky island 10 miles out in the Boston Harbor.

These lighthouses were instrumental in building the nation – the colonies built lighthouses along the coast to make navigating their shores safer for maritime sailors. They also played an important role during the Revolutionary Wars, as a result of which in 1789, The First Federal Congress passed the Lighthouse Act which was the nation’s first public works program. The US Lighthouse Board, established in 1847, was the second agency of the US Federal Government. The list below shows lighthouses from Maine to Michigan.

These lighthouses became the guiding light which guided the settlers to new lands across the vast expanse of this nation’s coastlines and lake shores.

The Hook Lighthouse in Ireland as been guiding sailors for over 800 years.

The oldest working lighthouse in the world is the Hook Lighthouse which was built around 1210. It was built by the monks who had lived in a monastery there since the 5th century, and had a practice of lighting a warning beacon at Hook Head. This tradition of warning sailors and fishermen continued for centuries until a lighthouse was built around 1210.  

St. Augustine Lighthouse: the oldest lighthouse in Florida

The 1868 Lighthouse Board Report included this statement, “Nothing indicates the liberality, prosperity or intelligence of a nation more clearly than the facilities which it affords for the safe approach of the mariner to its shores.” With these lighthouses that dotted the coastline, the United States has always kept the light on at night, making sure its people find their way home safely.