Johannes Gutenberg

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg was born in Germany, 1398.  Before movable type, Gutenberg was involved in a scheme to sell magic mirrors that captured the light from holy relics.  It went bust.  He then borrowed money from Johann Fust to fund his movable type printing press project.  Products of Gutenberg’s printing press are hard to identify, as he didn’t include any publisher’s information.  It’s understandable; if you were the only person in the world, would you bother to name yourself?

The most famous product was a version of the Bible.  Gutenberg’s Bible lacked a few modern conveniences, such as page numbers, indentation, or paragraph breaks.  It cost three-years’ wages for an average clerk.  The market wasn’t competitive.  The Bibles didn’t sell particularly well; Gutenberg made more money on indulgences for the Catholic church.  That says something about the nature of religion but I don’t know what.

Fust was alarmed at the growing Biblical debt, and sued, receiving control of the press and half the Bibles.  From then on, Fust put a name and date on all products.  Gutenberg was given some recognition and some clothes by the court of Bishop von Nassau, which helped as von Nassau had exiled him.  Gutenberg still died relatively unknown, his grave later destroyed.  He would remain obscure until his inclusion in a book of famous Germans one hundred years later.

The life of Gutenberg shows us that when you invent a new medium of communication, you should mention your name with it as much as possible.  You can’t expect people to just remember.

Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton was born in England in 1642 or 1643, depending on your calendar.  His family tried to make him the best farmer he could be, but his head wasn’t in it.  He went to school, came up with a list of mathematical concepts that needed inventing, and went to it.

Newton hated Gottfried Leibniz over a bunch of numbers, and Leibniz hated him right back.  They both wanted credit for calculus, having both invented it at the same time.  Their egos were so big, they couldn’t stand for a tie until centuries after they’d both died.

Why Newton was so obsessed over the calculus issue, I don’t know, as he had a thousand other achievements to his name.  In addition to the math, he reconciled astronomical and earthbound physics, got the idea of universal gravitation from watching a falling apple, and built the first practical reflecting telescope.  He became Master of the Royal Mint and settled the country on the gold standard in his spare time.

Newton was deeply religious, as well, but rejected the Christian Trinity as a blasphemy against the monotheistic “watchmaker” God that he believed designed all the parts and movements of the universe.  He still believed in miracles, because how else was God going to wind His watch?  Newton dodged every religious obligation he had as a man of his era, a stance which came to be called “Natural Religion”.  He just didn’t have the time.

After Newton died in his sleep at eighty-four, examinations showed that he had mercury poisoning, probably from dabbling a bit too much into alchemy.  There’s such a thing as over-extending yourself, and poisoning yourself in an attempt to turn lead into gold is probably one those lines.

Moctezuma II

Moctezuma II, bless him, was wonderfully trusting.  Born in 1466, his name (Moctezuma, Montezuma, Moteuczoma, or Motecuhzoma) means “he who frowns like a lord”, and why wouldn’t he? (Not much needs to be known about Moctezuma I except that he was better than II.  You had to be.)  He was the ninth tlatoani, or ruler of Tenochtitlan, which would change.  Before the coming of the Spanish, Moctezuma had expanded the Aztec Empire to its greatest, and that would change too.

Accounts vary concerning the life of Moctezuma, according to which conquistador tells the tale. (Bernal Díaz del Castillo praised Moctezuma, noting that he took a bath every afternoon and was “quite free from sodomy.”  Well la-ti-da!)  When asked after the fact, the Native population depicted him as weak-willed, superstitious, and indulgent.  That might just have been sour grapes, but then they were the ones who had stoned him to death, so they must have felt strongly about the matter.

In their first meeting, Moctezuma offered Cortés calendars of gold and silver, which Cortés melted down for their material value.  Undeterred, he invited Cortés to his palace.  Much has been made about Moctezuma welcoming Hernán Cortés as the second coming of the god Quetzalcoatl.  It’s argued that offering a stranger your throne may have meant different things in different cultures.  Could be, but I’m flummoxed as to what.  Finally, there were some harsh words between Spanish and Aztec, and Moctezuma became a prisoner in his own home to secure the Spaniards’ safety.

The Spanish forced Moctezuma to appear on the balcony of his palace and appeal to his countrymen to retreat.  He was then pelted with rocks and debris until he died.  Some argue against this, saying that Cortés himself had Moctezuma stabbed after it was clear he was no longer of use as a hostage.  If so, that Cortés later slept with Moctezuma’s daughter defines “adding insult to injury.”

The life of Moctezuma II shows us that the armoured, sword-wielding men that show up randomly on your doorstep may be up to no good.

Henry Hudson

Henry Hudson nobly sought out the Northwest Passage in exchange for money.  He didn’t do a great job but kept getting hired somehow.

In 1607 the Muscovy Company of the Kingdom of England gave Hudson the Hopewell and a mission: find the Northwest Passage around North America to China.  Hudson toured Greenland, giving all the landmarks new names that never really caught on amongst the Scandinavians.  The theorists had thought that, due the three months of the summer sun that shone in the northern latitudes, the sea would be free of ice for that time.  They were wrong, and Hudson had to go home.  He tried again the next year and all he found was more ice.

His roaring success at finding nothing made him top candidate for another mission to find the Northwest Passage, this time by the Dutch East India Company.  In 1609 they sent him northwest on the Halve Maen until he found his way blocked with ice (again) and, against instructions and logic, he went southwest instead.  He was working on second-hand rumors of a navigable passage to a great body of water that was probably the Great Lakes, which don’t have a navigable passage to them.

Travelling south, Hudson found the river that bears his name.  He wasn’t the first to find it.  He and his crew travelled upriver to present-day Albany, New York, which so impressed Hudson that, having done little trade on his voyage and having lost a man to the Natives, he decided to go home.  His bosses the Dutch got claims to New Netherland and any fur that might be found there, but no passage to China, which stuck in the craw.

The next year, the English funded the voyage of the Discovery for another stab at it.  This time he stayed northwest, mapping much of the northerly coasts of Labrador and Quebec until he found Hudson’s bay.  He liked it so much, he stayed there permanently, with the encouragement of the crew.  We don’t know when he died, but no one heard from him after that, so it might as well be then.

Henry Hudson’s quest looks foolish in hindsight.  By now we know that the Northwest Passage is impractical unless you heat up the Earth significantly, so we did.


Saladin, or صلاح الدين يوسف بن أيوب as his mother called him, was as nice as you can get while still killing people (if you asked Sir Walter Scott, at least). He once bought back a baby lost by a Frankish woman with money from his own pocket. He only massacred civilians in response to his enemies doing the same, which is what is called chivalry.

Saladin was born in 1137 in what is now Tikrit, Iraq, but raised in Damascus. Growing up, he was more interested in religion than the military, but you’d be surprised how well the two complement each other. He fought both Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, depending on who needed the most correction. (Part of his religious correction included who would be the ruler of the known world. It was him.)

Saladin was soon recognized as Sultan of Egypt and Syria, and set to kicking about the Crusaders around Palestine properly. They harassed each other’s pilgrims, besieged each other’s cities, and executed each other’s commanders (War) until Saladin captured Jerusalem and shocked all by allowing poor Frank civilians to leave without paying the ransom they couldn’t have afforded.

Richard I of England later arrived, executing 3000 Muslim men, women, and children in the siege of Acre, for which Saladin declared “there was not a more noble Christian lord” than he, subsequently killing thousands of Frank prisoners. Richard responded that Saladin was clearly the greatest leader in the Muslim world. Mutual respect is worth something, just not lives.

Saladin died in 1193 of a fever. He was a generous man, saying “the most miserable rulers are those whose purses are fat and their people thin.” This is why he died without enough money to pay for his own funeral. He didn’t think you could take it with you and didn’t try.

The life of Saladin tells us that chivalry is all relative.

Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I was famous for her non-disastrous rule over England. Born in 1533 as yet another non-male heir to Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s status proved a problem to herself and others. When she was fourteen, the first of many suitors tried to secure the throne for themselves by getting into her proverbial pants. He lost his head. Some relatives took to the throne between her father’s death and her ascension, but were without male issue. (It’s difficult to produce a male heir after you’re dead, by all accounts.) Elizabeth became queen at twenty-five.

One of the first orders of business for Elizabeth was to sort out what religion she (and by extension, everyone else) was. She took her father’s excuse for a divorce and turned it into an organized faith. As head of the new Protestant Church of England, historians have praised her for not killing all of the Catholics.

During her reign, Elizabeth was expected to marry Lord Robert Dudley, Philip II of Spain, Archduke Charles of Austria, Duke Henry of Anjou, and Duke Francis of Alençon, among others. Some made the best of the situation by depicting her as a virgin goddess. This would have surprised her lovers. On occasion she would address all her people as “her husbands”, which wasn’t seen as inappropriate.

Elizabeth proved England’s military might by having a storm sink the invading Spanish Armada. Otherwise, her Dutch expedition floundered and she lacked control over Protestant actions in France. She oversaw the slaughter of women and children during the campaign in the “rude and barbarous nation” of Ireland, though, which is a success of sorts.

As the years went on, Elizabeth went from “most eligible bachelorette” to “least fooling anybody with that make-up”. She was half-bald and scarred with smallpox, which didn’t hide well except for in portraits. Her courtiers still praised her beauty, but when you start preferring dark rooms to light, you probably know something is up.

Elizabeth I’s reign was alright, I guess. She played it safe, and most of the hallmarks of the “Elizabethan Era” weren’t her responsibility. Some people can be pleased just by not becoming Spanish.


Hatepshut was so wild over monuments that she put her name on all of them. She was the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth dynasty of Ancient Egypt, and liked to be called king just so no one thought she was joking around.  Born 1508 BC, she was married to her half-brother Thutmose II to strengthen his legitimacy, being twice as royal as him.  As is so often the case, this arrangement ended in a mysterious death, and Hatepshut became pharaoh.

Egypt was still struggling out a the mess left by the Hyksos, a group of foreign rulers, and pharaohs like the Thutmoses hadn’t helped much.  Hatepshut sent an expedition to the land of Punt, bringing back important trade goods such as myrrh trees and Puntites.  More importantly, Egypt was still looking pretty shabby, and Hatepshut set out on a beautification project.

Hatepshut produced so many statues that most Western museums have managed to steal something of hers.  Don’t let the beards fool you; they were probably just for show.  Kings had beards and Hatepshut was king so Hatepshut had to have a beard.  We still get to see her feminine side in some candid statuary.

Hatepshut spent about twenty years having temples and obelisks and sundries built with inscriptions describing how super she was.  It wasn’t abnormal for pharaohs to applaud themselves on their monuments; she just had more writing material.  By the time she died, she’d linked herself to most major gods and goddesses and left little space for anyone else to inscribe anything.

Thutmose II’s son Thutmose III tried his best to chisel Hatepshut off of her monuments after he ascended to the throne, but he didn’t do a very good job, leaving obvious Hatepshut-shaped holes in their place.  If you see one of these holes, you’ll know at least two people who’ll have been there.