February 28 - Happy Birthday, Sir John Tenniel

 Posted on February 28, 2021

Self-portrait by Sir John Tenniel 

Sir John Tenniel was not born "sir," of course. He was born on this date in London, England, in 1820; his dad was a fencing teacher and a dance instructor. 

At age 20, Tenniel was practicing fencing with his father, and unfortunately his dad's protective tip came off the foil (which is a lightweight, flexible sort of sword that is often used in fencing). With the tip off, his father injured Tenniel's right eye. Of course his dad felt terrible! Over the years, Tenniel gradually lost sight in the eye - but he never told his dad, because he didn't want to make him feel even worse.

Tenniel became an artist and illustrator - remember, he only lost sight in one of his eyes, so he could still see! He did political cartoons, and he became the main political cartoonist for Punch magazine - a magazine of humor and satire - and he held that "main cartoonist" position for more than 50 years! Wow!

Most people nowadays know Tenniel best for his illustrations in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Apparently Tenniel talked a LOT to author Lewis Carroll (who had originally illustrated Alice himself) before creating 92 illustrations for the two books. When Alice's Adventures in Wonderland became an instant best-seller, Tenniel became even more famous than he was for his work in Punch.

In 1893 Tenniel was knighted and given the title "Sir" for his artistic contributions. He lived to be 93 years old.

Also on this date:

February 27 - On This Day in Science...

 Posted on February 27, 2021

This is an update of my post published on February 27, 2010:

On this date in 1813, President James Madison signed into law a Congressional “Act to Encourage Vaccination.”

On an earlier post, I commemorated the introduction of the smallpox vaccine and mentioned that Edward Jenner, whose work led to the eradication of smallpox, is credited b
y some experts with saving more lives than anyone else in history.

Well, today we celebrate government support of vaccinations and other preventative health care measures that really work. What could be more timely as various governments of the world have been striving to control the pandemic and vaccinate their populations?? 

The Act to Encourage Vaccination was the first U.S. program in the young nation's history to improve the health of the general populace. It not only “encouraged” people to get vaccinated against the dreaded disease, it established a safe, uncontaminated supply of vaccine, subsidized distribution of the vaccine, and appointed a National Vaccine Agent.

The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia website has some resources for kids to learn about vaccines - including an activity book in English and Spanish.

This PBS video - for kids as well as adults - explains how vaccines work.


On this date in 1932, Dr. James Chadwick discovered the neutron. This is the particle in the nucleus (center) of atoms that is similar in size (mass) to the positively-charged proton, but that has no electrical charge. (Chadwick named it neutron because something with no charge is “neutral.” In the diagram below, the neutrons are green.)

His discovery was no accident, no surprise. Chadwick reviewed others' work and thought there must be a particle as large as a proton but electrically neutral, and he ran experiments specifically designed to detect it. Chadwick won a Nobel Prize for his discovery.

Charge up with Math!

A proton is made up of 2 Up quarks and 1 Down quark.

A neutron is made up of 2 Down quarks and 1 Up quark.

An Up quark has a 2/3 positive charge.

A Down quark has a 1/3 negative charge.

Can you come up with equations that shows how much charge a proton has, and that shows why a neutron has no charge?

Learn more about atoms
 at the Jefferson Lab website.
 Older kids might enjoy a more detailed look provided by Particle Adventure.


On this date in 1940, Martin Kamen and Sam Ruben discovered carbon-14 - which had been predicted by Willard F. Libby. A physical chemist, Libby also predicted a way to use carbon-14 - and he was right about that, too!

Willard F. Libby

A carbon-14 atom is a rare variation (or isotope) of carbon that has two more neutrons than the usual carbon atom. It basically behaves like normal carbon but is a little bit heavier. It's also radioactive, and it slowly decays, changing into nitrogen-14.

There is always a tiny amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere, along with a whole lot of normal carbon, in a gas called carbon dioxide. As long as plants are alive, they take in carbon (a tiny amount of carbon-14 and a whole lot of normal carbon) and use it to make leaves and fruits and seeds and roots. Animals, including people, eat plants or the animals that eat the plants and get carbon in their bodies, too (a tiny amount of carbon-14 along with a whole lot of normal carbon).

This means that, as long as plants and a
nimals are alive, they have in their bodies carbon-14 in about the same proportion to normal carbon as every other creature. But when a plant or animal dies, the proportion changes. Remember, carbon-14 slowly changes into nitrogen-14. A dead animals isn't breathing or eating, so it doesn't get any more carbon-14, and the carbon-14 that is already in its body starts to break down, or decay. Measuring the amount of carbon-14 that is still left is key to using carbon-14 to figure out about how long ago organisms died.

And THAT is the use Willard Libby predicted for carbon-14: figuring out about how long ago organisms lived and died. He called this radiocarbon dating.

See the diagram at “How Stuff Works” for a more detailed explanation.

Notice that carbon-14 dating only works to figure out dates of biological things like bones, wood, fabric—things that were once living or that were made from once-living things.

Also, radiocarbon dating only works to figure out ages of items that are 50 thousand years old or younger. That means it's useful to figure out how old early cave-dwelling human remains are, but it cannot be used to test anything dinosaur-related, since dinos died out about 65 million years ago!

Carbon Dating...Simplified

This lesson plan uses fun things like gummy bears and popcorn to explore concepts such as half-life and the process of carbon dating. It's written for an entire classroom but could be modified to work with individual students, too. It's high-level stuff but designed to be accessible to Grades 3 to 6.

Also on this date:

February 26 - Happy Birthday, Levi Strauss AND Buffalo Bill Cody

 Posted on February 26, 2021

This is an update of my post published on February 26, 2010:

The West (and the world) would never be the same again!

On this date in 1829, Levi Strauss was born in Bavaria, Germany. (His first name was Löb back then.) At age 18, this German-Jewish fellow came to America with his mother and sisters. They arrived in New York, where his brothers had earlier immigrated and opened a successful wholesale dry goods store. (Dry goods are fabric and clothing and other non-perishable items such as combs, purses, and bedding.)

A couple of years later, gold was discovered in California, so Strauss went by steamship to the isthmus of Panama, crossed the jungle to the Pacific side, and caught another steamship to San Francisco. There he opened a west coast branch of the dry goods store.

According to Mary Bellis's “The History of Blue Jeans,” a miner asked Strauss what he had to sell. One thing S
trauss offered was canvas for tents and wagon covers. The prospector said, “You should have brought pants!” He told Strauss that he couldn't find any work pants that held up to rough conditions.

So Strauss began to make the canvas into pants. They held up great, but they rubbed and chafed. So Strauss imported some fabric from Nimes, France, to make more comfortable—but still sturdy—pants.

A Reno, N
evada, tailor named Jacob Davis (born Jacob Youphes, an immigrant from Latvia) did a lot of repairs on work pants. He did so many repairs in the same spots on the work pants, he got the idea of using copper rivets to strengthen pockets and other easily-torn places. He asked Levi Strauss to help him take out a patent and manufacture the riveted pants—and soon double-stitched, riveted denim work pants were being manufactured by Levi Strauss & Co.

Of course, those pants were Levi's blue jeans!

Why are they called “jeans”?

Jeans are made out denim, as we just
 mentioned. This sturdy fabric was invented in two different places in the world (independently of each other). The first place was the French town of Nimes; we probably got the word denim from the name of the cloth: serge de Nimes. The second place was in India, where the sailors of Dhunga wore them; we get the word dungarees from that.

A similar sturdy cloth was called jean. This cloth was made in what is now Italy and was sold through the harbor of Genoa. The French referred to the fabric as bleu de Genes (“blue of Genoa”). So the word jeans comes from the French name (Genes) for Genoa, Italy! Who knew?

(Actually, Levi Strauss & Co. didn't originally call their denim pants jeans. Instead, they called them waist overalls. It wasn't until the 1960s and the baby-boomer generation that these popular pants were commonly called jeans.)


  • Jeans are traditionally dyed blue using indigo dye. About 20 million tons of indigo are produced each year just to dye jeans—even though only a few grams of dye are needed for each pair of pants.
  • In 1885, blue jeans could be purchased for $1.50 U.S.
  • In the U.S. alone, in just one year (2004), more than $14 billion was spent on jeans.

    The popularity of blue jeans has extended
    to WAY more than just pants. There are denim
    dresses and jackets, handbags and shorts, skirts
    and every sort of garment!

A Quick Modern History of Blue Jeans

1800s to early 1900s – jeans used for work
1930s – cowboys in movies wore jeans, which became popular with movie goers  
1940s – U.S. soldiers introduced jeans to the world
1950s – jeans popular with teens and a symbol of rebellion 
1960s to 1970s – different styles such as embroidered or painted jeans, bell bottoms...
hard to get in Soviet Union, but very sought after
1980s – designer jeans and high fashion
1990s – a downturn for denim and jeans among youth and fashion
2000s – upturn again – but lots and lots of variation...
slashed and distressed, acid-washed, feathered, beaded, stretch, skinny, etc.
It's kind of funny to think of parents buying pre-ripped and distressed jeans for their kids... When parents used to be upset if their kids ripped their jeans!



Also on this date...

In 1846, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody was born in Iowa. He joined the Pony Express, riding horses cross-country to carry the mail to far-away settlements, when he was just 14 years old. During the Civil War he acted as a scout and a soldier on the Union side, and later he continued to scout for the army. “Bill” is a common nickname for “William,” but this particular Bill hunted so many buffalo (really, American bi
son), that he was nicknamed “Buffalo Bill.”

Cody began his famous Wild West Show in 1882. His outdoor show featured various acts, including sharpshooter Annie Oakley, hunts, racing, historical reenactments, roping, riding “broncos” (unbroken horses) and so forth. The three- to four-hour show was meant to teach people as well as entertain them. There were hundreds of people in the cast (at times more than a thousand performers at once!), but there were also live animals, including buffalo, elk, horses, deer, bears, cattle, and a moose.

Buffalo Bill's show glamorized the Old West and got a hyper-adventurous picture of the frontier deep into the psyche of people who didn't live in the West.

Did you know...?

The Wild West Show used to begin with a parade on horseback, and some of the performers were “the Congress of Rough Riders,” which included the then-future President Teddy Roosevelt.

Buffalo Bill's show toured every year for 30 years! It even went to Europe for Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887. It took several ships to carry 297 passengers, 18 buffalo, 181 horses, 10 elk, 4 donkeys, 5 longhorns (cattle), 2 deer, 10 mules, and a stagecoach. It toured Europe until 1892, visiting England, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

  • In 1893 the show performed at the Chicago World's Fair. There were 18,000 people in the crowd watching!

The legacy of the Wild West Show includes the Westerns of TV and movies, modern rodeos, and even modern circuses.

Westerns were popular, not just in the U.S., but in Europe and elsewhere. And these movies and TV shows weren't all made "in Hollywood" - European writers, directors, and actors created a TON of material set in the (mostly fictionalized) Western United States. There's even a name for these European creations: Spaghetti Westerns.

Even though Buffalo Bill had to declare bankruptcy and close the show in 1913, a rodeo trick rider named Montie Montana, Jr., held auditions and staged the show in 26 countries on 5 continents, starting in 1971 and possibly continuing until his death in 1998. He held at least 2,500 performances - and he was the only person licensed to use the name "Buffalo Bill's Wild West" in his show!

Montie Montana did a lot of stuff in addition to staging the
Wild West show. For example, he was in the Rose Parade
on New Year's Day - more than 60 years!!!


Wear blue jeans.

Watch an old-fashioned Western movie or TV show.
But be prepared to discuss the racism and sexism you will see!

Recycle your old jeans with a sewing project.
There are lots of ideas on the Artists Helping Children website (scroll down).

Color a “wild west” 

Hold a “wild west” party.

The Coolest Kid Birthday Parties site has some good ideas.


Also on this date:

(original post)

(original post)

 Birthday of astronomer and author Camille Flammarion