Cyclopedia of Factoids - The Letters U-V-W

Entries written by Sam Vaknin for the Links and Factoids Study List


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Uganda Scheme

Theodore Herzl, the visionary who founded Zionism, was an assimilated Jew, who did not consider Palestine the optimal choice for a resurgent Jewish nationalism.

When the British offered to him a homeland in East Africa (today's Uganda), he accepted and proposed it to the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basle in 1903. After bitter recriminations, the Congress decided (295 for, 178 against) to send an "investigatory commission" to the territory to inspect it and report back.

Herzl vowed that the Uganda scheme is not a substitute for the reclamation of Palestine as the historic homeland of the Jewish people. But his actions defied his speech. He pursued the British proposal to his death (in 1904) as did many other prominent Jewish leaders, organized in the Jewish Territorialist Organization (ITO).

The plan was decisively abandoned only after the Balfour Declaration which granted the Jewish people a homeland in Palestine under the British mandate.

Yet, in the meantime, other territorial plans emerged: in Canada, Australia, Iraq, Libya, and Angola. Close to 10,000 Jews settled in Texas. Stalin created a "Jewish Homeland" in Birobidjan. Even the Nazis tried to revive some of these "solutions to the Jewish  question" - notably in Lublin, Poland and in the island of Madagascar.


Vegetarianism is associated with compassion. Yet, it pops up in the most unlikely historical contexts. Hitler is alleged to have been a non-smoker (which he was) and a vegetarian (which, strictly speaking, he was not). True, he is known to have scathingly castigated meat eaters as cruel. He loved dogs and was surrounded by a few favourite canines even in his last days in the bunker in Berlin.

But he many sources document his passion for caviar, Bavarian sausages, liver dumplings, and ham, for instance. Moreover, the vegetarian movement in the Third Reich (Nazi Germany) was considered dangerously "cosmopolitan". It was (mildly) persecuted, was forced to abstain from participating in international activities and was forbidden to own offices or publish books. The state did allow individual vegetarians to convert their meat rations into dairy products, though.

Another curious affair involves the Japanese Shogun, Sunayoshi, who, on January 28, 1687, following the death of his only and beloved son, became a devout Buddhist. He criminalized the killing of all land animals, and the eating of fish, shellfish, and birds. When he died, in January 1709, his successor (and cousin) Ienobu, freed 9000 violators of the royal edict from jails across the country.

Verdi, Giuseppe

Like Puccini, the career of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) did not start auspiciously.

Coming from a tiny hamlet and the son of an innkeeper and farmer, he was snootily rejected by the Milan Conservatory due to his "advanced age" and "poor playing of the piano". He, thus, had to take private lessons from the Milanese composer, Vincenzo Lavigna. His second opera, King for a Day, was a flop. When his wife and two children died, he gave up composing altogether.

Luckily, the director of La Scala, the Milanese opera house, succeeded to convince him to rescind his vow. The result was Nabucco (1842). The opera was so adored that it was still playing in Buenos Aires and St. Petersburg a decade later.

As opposed to nostalgic re-writing of history, not least by Verdi himself, the fact is that the opera's  subject matter - the Babylonian captivity of the Jews - was not meant to allude to the subjugation of the Italian people to Austrian rule. Only after Italy was unified in 1861, did Verdi propagate the apocryphal story of how he snapped out of his depression when the libretto fell and opened in the chorus "Va, pensiero", the song of the enslaved Hebrews. The new nation of Italy needed heroes and Verdi was "recruited", his earlier work deliberately recast as subversively anti-Austrian and nationalistic.

A series of successful operas - such as Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore (1853) and La Traviata (1853) - brought him international acclaim. When the Suez canal was completed, the Khedive of Egypt commissioned Aida (1871) to celebrate the opening of the waterway.

Verdi's dream was to retire early as a "gentleman-farmer" to land he purchased in 1844. He reluctantly served as a member of the Chamber of Deputies after the unification of Italy in 1861 but soon resigned. He did finally settle down in 1873 and became a very wealthy landowner.

Like Puccini, Verdi lived, out of wedlock, with the common-law wife of a musical agent, the prima donna Giuseppina Strepponi. When she met Verdi, she already had three children, the oldest of whom was being reared by her former maid. Verdi refused to allow her to accompany him on official travels, due to the scandal that swirled around their relationship. Moreover, he had at least one documented affair with the fiancée of his best friend, Angelo Mariani. Her name was Teresa Stolz and she was a soprano opera singer. He loved her so much that she was even allowed to attend his deathbed.

Verdi was a very unpleasant and cantankerous person. He was known for his litigiousness, evasiveness, vindictiveness, reversals and constant bickering. He frequently clashed with censors due to the bold subject matter and librettos of his operas. But he gave rise to so much beauty that his personal foibles are all but forgotten by now.

Video Cassette Recorder

A Californian company, Ampex Corporation, invented the video cassette recorder in 1956. The Ampex VR1000 weighed 665 kilograms and stood 110 centimeters tall. It was not until 1972 that a home version was introduced by Philips of the Netherlands. Sony introduced the first affordable home video recorder and player in 1969 but it was JVC (Matshushita) from Japan which invented the VHS recording system in 1976 and competed with Sony's less successful Betamax standard.

Vinci, Leonardo da

Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, sculptor, architect, cartographer, engineer, scientist and inventor in the 15th century. Yet, despite his genius, he referred to himself as "senza lettere" (the illiterate, the man without letters).  For good reason: until late in life, he was unable to read, or write, Latin, the language used by virtually all other Renaissance intellectuals, the lingua franca, akin to English today. Nor was he acquainted with mathematics until he was 30.

Leonardo was born out of wedlock but was raised by his real father, a wealthy Florentine notary. He served at least ten years (1466-1476) as Garzone (apprentice) to Andrea del Verrocchio and painted details in Verrocchio's canvasses. Only in 1478, when he was 26, did he become independent.

He was not off to an auspicious start. He never executed his first commission (an altarpiece in the chapel of the Palazzo Vecchio della Signoria, Florence's town hall). His first large paintings were left unfinished ("The Adoration of the Magi" and "Saint Jerome", both 1481).

Most of the sketches and studies for Leonardo's works of art and engineering are found on his shopping lists, personal notes, and personal expenditure ledgers.

No one was allowed to enter Leonardo's den, where he kept, as Giorgio Vasari in "Lives of the Artists", describes: "a number of green and other kinds of lizards, crickets, serpents, butterflies, locusts, hats, and various strange creatures of this nature".

Leonardo's clients were often dissatisfied with his glacial pace, lack of professional discipline, and inability to conclude his assignments. He was frequently involved in litigation. The Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception sued him when he failed to produce the Virgin on the Rocks, an altarpiece they commissioned from him in 1483. The court proceedings lasted 10 years. The head of Jesus in "The Last Supper" was left blank because Leonardo did not dare to paint a human model, nor did he trust his imagination sufficiently. Leonardo worked four years on the Mona Lisa but never completed it, either. He carried it with him wherever he went.

Leonardo's terra cota model for a colossal bronze sculpture of the father of his benefactor and employer, Ludovico Sforza, was used for target practice by invading French soldiers in 1499. The metal which was supposed to go into this work of art was moulded into cannon balls.

Leonardo was a member of the commission which deliberated where to place Michelangelo's magnificent statue of David. His cartographic work was so ahead of its time, that the express highway from Florence to the sea - built in the 20th century - follows precisely the route of a canal he envisioned. His scientific investigations - in anatomy, hydraulics, mechanics, ornithology, botany - are considered valuable to this very day. Bill Gates owns some his notebooks containing scientific data and observations (known as the Codex Hammer).

But Leonardo's loyalties were fickle. He switched sides to the conquering French and in 1506 returned to Milan to work for its French governor, Charles D'Amboise. Later, he became court painter for King Louis XII of France who, at the time, resided in Milan. In 1516, he relocated to France, to serve King Francis I and there he died.

Leonardo summed up the lessons of his art in a series of missives to his students, probably in Milan. These were later (1542) collected by his close associate, Francesco Melzi, as "A Treatise on Painting" and published in print (1651, 1817).


In 1896 Zanzibar surrendered to British forces after 38-45 minutes. It was the shortest war in history.


On 25 August 1896, following Sultan Hamid bin Thuwain death, an usurper declared himself the new Sultan in the palace.

England ran a protectorate on the island of Zanzibar since 1890. On  August 27, three warships of the Royal Navy opened fire and, in less than an hour, levelled the palace and deposed the wannabe.


The 100-years war between Britain and France lasted 117 years (1337-1453). The Britons were expelled from Calais only in 1558. This is by far the longest war in history.


Warfare, Biological and Chemical

Chemical and biological warfare are not an invention of the 20th century.

Solon (638-559 BC) used a strong purgative, the herb hellebore, in the siege of Krissa. During the 6th century BC, the Assyrians poisoned enemy wells with rye ergot. In the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), the Spartans flung sulphur and pitch at the Athenians and their allies. In the Middle Ages, besiegers used the bloated and dripping bodies of plague victims as readymade "dirty bombs".

In 1346, during its siege of Kaffa (present day Feodosia in Crimea), the Tartar army suffered an outbreak of the Plague. They hurled the corpses of their infected dead over the city walls and into the city's water wells. The resulting epidemic led to the city's surrender. It is widely believed that people afflicted with the horrendous disease fled the place and started the Black Death pandemic which consumed at least one third of Europe's population within a few years. Russian troops adopted the same tactic against Sweden in 1710.

Smallpox was another favourite. Francisco Pizarro (1476-1541) gave South American natives clothing items deliberately contaminated with the variola virus. During the French and Indian wars in North America (1689-1763), blankets used by smallpox victims were given to American Indians. General Jeffery Amherst (1717-1797) gifted Indians loyal to the French with smallpox-contaminated bedspreads during the French and Indian War of 1754 to 1767. An epidemic broke among the Native American defenders of Fort Carillon and they lost it to the English.

War of Independence, Background to American


The American Revolution was a civil war between Loyalists to the British crown (aka Tories, about one fifth of the population), supported by British expeditionary forces, and Patriots (or Whigs) in the 13 colonies that constituted British North America.


About 20-25% of the populace in the colonies - c. 600,000 - were blacks. About one third of the white denizens were non-British. Local patriotism ran high. All adult, white, property-owning, men (about two thirds of the male numbers) were eligible to vote in elections to the lower house of the legislative assembly of the colony they resided in. Each colony also had its governor.


Some colonies (e.g., Rhode Island and Connecticut) were, in effect, incorporated under royal charter as semi-commercial ventures. Others belonged to the descendants of their founders (proprietary colonies such as Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware). Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire were royal provinces, under direct British rule.


Some of the colonists - for instance, the New Englanders - were among the wealthiest and best educated people in the world, better off than the British themselves. But, per capita, they paid only 3% of the taxes levied on a typical Briton. The colonies supplied the West Indies with most of their foodstuffs and consumed British finished products - but they were not economically crucial to the British Empire.


In the years leading to the War of Independence (1765-1776), the British actually repealed all the taxes on products imported into the colonies - with the single exception of tea (and even this tax was drastically reduced). The colonists' slogan "no taxation without representation" was, therefore, more about local representation than about foreign taxation. And even this bit ringed hollow. The Encyclopedia Britannica: "The assemblies had the right to tax; to appropriate money for public works and public officials, and to regulate internal trade, religion, and social behavior". The role of British government was confined to foreign affairs and trade.


But both parties to the conflict breached this modus vivendi. During the Seven Years (French and Indian) War (1754-1763), the colonies refused to relinquish control over their militias to the British command and smuggled French goods into British North America (France being Britain's enemy). The British, on the other hand, began interfering in the colonies' internal affairs, notably (but not only) by imposing taxes and customs duties in order to ameliorate Britain's growing national debt and by rendering tax officials financially independent of the local colonial assemblies.


Add to this a severe recession in the colonies brought on by unbridled spending financed with unsustainable personal indebtedness and, not surprisingly, acts of resistance to British taxation - such as the Boston Tea Party - were organized mainly by smugglers, artisans, and shopkeepers. Secret groupings, such as the Sons of Liberty resorted to violence and intimidation to achieve their (mostly economic but disguised as "patriotic") goals. Even women got involved in a "buy American" campaign of boycotting British goods.


Many British merchants, bankers, politicians, intellectuals, and journalists supported the colonies against the crown - each group for its own reasons. The merchants and bankers, for instance, were terrified of a mooted unilateral debt moratorium to be declared by the colonies if and when militarily attacked. Others found it distasteful to kill and maim white British subjects (as the insurgents were). Yet others resisted imperialism, the monarchy, taxes, or all three. Even within the British Army there was strong dissent and the campaign against the rebellious colonies was carried out half-heartedly and lackadaisically. On the other hand, British die-hards, such as Samuel Johnson, demanded blood ("I am willing to love all Mankind, except an American").


The denizens of the colonies tried, till the last moment, to avert a constitutional (and, consequently, military) crisis. They suggested a model of two semi-autonomous nations (the United Kingdom and the colonies), united by the figurehead of the King. But it was too little and way too late. Violent clashes between the citizenry and British units started as early as October 1765 with the First Nonimportation Movement, directed against the Stamp Act. They continued with the Boston Massacre (five dead) in 1770; the attack on the British customs ship, the Gaspée, in Rhode Island, in 1772; and the Boston Tea Party in 1773.


In April 1775, General Gage, governor and military commander of Massachusetts, suffered a humiliating defeat in a skirmish in Concord and Lexington. The Patriots were alerted to his movements by Paul Revere who rode all night to inform them that the "regulars (not the British, as the legend has it) are coming." He was one of many such scouts.


The Loyalists fielded 50-55,000 armed men and the Patriots countered by organizing "militias" - irregular units of ill-trained and undisciplined volunteers. The Continental Army was established only in June 1775, under the command of George Washington, a veteran of the French and Indian War. At their peak, the rebels mastered less than 100,000 men in arms - only 25-30,000 of which were on active duty at any given time.


The Continental Army was, in the words of General Philip Schuyler of New York “weak in numbers, dispirited, naked, destitute of provisions, without camp equipage, with little ammunition, and not a single piece of cannon.” Late pay caused frequent mutinies and desertions. In 1783, Washington had to personally intervene to prevent a military coup. Only repeated promises of cash bonuses and land grants kept this mob of youngsters, foreigners, and indentured servants intermittently cohesive.


Still, they outnumbered the British and the "Hessians" - the 30,000 German mercenaries who participated in the 8 years of fighting. In all of North America, the British had 60,000 soldiers as late as 1779. They had to face a growing presence of hostile French, Spanish, and Dutch armies, supplies, and navies. The Native-Americans (Indians) supported mostly the British, especially west of the Appalachians. This provoked numerous massacres by the Patriots.


The War spread to other parts of the world: the Gulf Coast, the Caribbean, India, the Netherlands, the Mediterranean. The US Navy even invaded the British port of Whitehaven in 1778.


The conflict affected the civilian population as well with both sides committing war crimes and atrocities aplenty. With many men gone, women took over traditionally male roles and vocations, such as farming. Hyperinflation - brought on by $500 million in newly minted and printed money - led to mob scenes as storekeepers were attacked and warehouses looted.


The blacks largely sided with the British - but many joined the Patriots and, thus, won their freedom after the war. Virginia planters alone manumitted 10,000 slaves. By 1800, slavery was abolished in all the states north of Delaware.


All told, less than 7000 Patriots died in battle (and 8500 wounded). About 1200 Germans perished, too. No one knows how many British troops, Indians, and other combatants paid with their lives in this protracted conflict. About 100,000 Loyalists emigrated to Canada and thousands others (mainly of African ancestry) went to Sierra Leone and the Bahamas. They were all fully compensated for the property they left behind in what came to be known as the United States of America (USA).


Washington DC

People who have resided in Washington DC for longer than 12 months were enfranchised - given the right to vote - only in 1961 with the passing of the 23rd amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The Amendment was proposed in Congress on June 16, 1960 and ratified on March 29, 1961. It reads:

Amendment XXIII

Section 1. The District constituting the seat of government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as the Congress may direct:

A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a state, but in no event more than the least populous state; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the states, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a state; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The District of Columbia was formed in 1802 from bits of Maryland and Virginia.

Weimar Republic, Constitution of

The Weimar Republic was established in February 1919 in defeated Germany and lasted until March 1933, when it was replaced with Hitler's Third Reich. The Constitution of the Weimar Republic was adopted in August 1919. It created a bicameral house of representatives: the Reichstag, a national assembly, and the Reichsrat, comprised of the representative of the various Lander (states).

The Reichsrat could reject laws passed by the Reichstag. The Lander sported their own state parliaments, local police forces, and judiciary. During states of emergency, Lander assemblies and governments were suspended and they were ruled directly from the center.

Elections were supposed to be held every 4 years and anyone over 20 years of age could vote. A system of proportional representation gave voice and presence in the Reichstag to even the smallest political parties. One tenth of the population could force a referendum on draft legislation rejected by the Reichstag.

The President, elected by universal suffrage,  was the head of state and served a term in office of seven years. He appointed and dismissed the Chancellor (prime minister) and commanded the Republic's much-reduced armed forces. He had the right to veto laws passed by the Reichstag, dissolve it and call early elections and referenda. He could also rule by decree, having declared a state of emergency.

The Weimar Constitution guaranteed the right to local self-government, a "dignified existence", economic and religious freedoms, freedoms of speech, press, and assembly, and the right to form trade unions.

The Weimar Constitution was never abrogated or replaced. it remained in force until 1949 - throughout the 12 years of the Third Reich.

But on February 28, 1933 - a day after the Reichstag building was set on fire, allegedly as part of a "Communist plot" - Hitler submitted to von Hindenburg, the ailing and octogenarian German president, an emergency decree titled "For the Protection of People and State; to guard against Communist acts of violence endangering the state".

Article 1 of the decree suspended all rights guaranteed by the Weimar Constitution. It read:

"Thus, restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press, on the right of association and assembly, and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic, and telephonic communications, and warrants for house-searches, orders for confiscations, as well as restrictions on property rights are permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed."

Article 2 of the decree allowed the Reich government to take over the power of the Lander governments in order to restore security and order.

The Weimar Constitution was a dead letter.

The 13,000 word Constitution, adopted in 1949, by West Germany, was patterned after its Weimar predecessor but contained safeguards against its own suspension by a willful dictator and against the declaration of aggressive war.  The Land of Bavaria - an important constituent of West Germany - refused to ratify it because it deemed it too "centralistic" (not enough power was granted to the Lander).

The first elections under this revamped document took place in August 14, 1949.

Women’s Rights

The equality of the genders is a recent development. Switzerland granted women the right to vote in national polls only in 1971 - long after Muslim women in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Indonesia, for instance, were enfranchised. Britain allowed them to cast ballots only in 1928-9. Women in France were not allowed be sole signatories of cheques until 1962.

In the USA women were barred from jury duty and public office until the early 1930s. Women in both the Republican and Democratic parties were relegated to special "Divisions" until 1952. The Equal Rights Amendment was proposed in 1923 and passed both houses of Congress only in 1972. It expired in 1982, three states short of adoption.

The first woman governor – Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming - was elected in 1924, upon the death of the previous governor, her husband.

The second woman governor - Ella Grasso of Connecticut - was elected in 1974 and the first judge of the Supreme Court - Sandra Day O'Connor - was appointed in 1981.

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