TOM #20

In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that travelled with the expedition


By now, most of us reading this, will have heard of, or experienced the symptoms of Covid 19!  Some may also have read about another frightening pandemic that swept across Asia, Europe and North Africa in the 13th and 14th century known as the Bubonic Plague or Black Death.

Over many hundreds of years, a series of land and sea routes developed, connecting China and the Far East with Europe creating a lucrative trade network.  It became known as the Silk Route, although it carried many other valuable cargos as well. Unhappily, it also became the conduit of a deadly plague aptly named the Black Death, killing more than 50 million people between 1346 and 1352!

                             Bodies being carted away for burial

Up until recently, the disease that caused the plague was thought to have been carried by fleas found on ground rodents in the fields, which included marmots and gerbils. Climate change dried out the grasslands of China and forced these fleas to abandon their rodent hosts and look for a more suitable habitat, which they found in the villages and overcrowded cities on rats and the people living there. As traveling overland along the busy trade routes increased, so did the number of infected merchants and travellers multiply.

Recent research suggests that the Black Death was not spread when bitten by fleas, but that it was a pneumonic plague, meaning that it was transferred through the air from person to persons breathing. [like Covid 19] Whatever the cause, the horror and destruction cannot be diminished.

Seaport towns became infested and the trading ships rapidly carried the sickness long distances across the Mediterranean.

It is said that a Crimean Black Sea port called Kaffa was deliberately infected during a siege of that city, by the Mongol Golden Horde army of Jani Beg in 1346, when his army hurled plague-ridden corpses over the city walls. [See blog posting TOM #15 how this was done] The pandemic probably reached the ports of Constantinople, Athens, Venice and Genoa this way and then spread the tidal wave of death, inland.

At that time the population of Europe was in poor health, weak and malnourished because of the hardship of the feudal system and the stress of constant famines. The importance of personal and public hygiene was non-existent in the 14th century. Streets were filthy, soils management was often raw sewage flowing in open earthen gutters along the side of the road past the houses. Live animals of all sorts added to the squalor that fed the cocktail of parasitic germs spreading the plague


                                            Plague Doctor’s mask

Europeans struggled to find ways to combat the plague’s wrath. It is interesting to note that plague doctors wore facemasks that resembled a bird’s head with a curved beak filled with herbs and sweet smelling spices, perhaps not only to avoid inhaling the possibility of air-born germs, but because of the stench when removing the bodies piled up outside doorways. About one-third of Europe’s population died in the epidemic.  The Black Death certainly caused the total disappearance of about 1,000 villages. Think about that!

 City officials and medical staff tried everything to slow down the death rate including setting up dedicated plague hospitals, quarantining the sick, establishing health-cordons and even shutting the borders. [Do these restrictions sound familiar?] Different strains of the same disease kept coming back to devastate Europe again and again for 400 years! Modern researchers have found that a strain of the disease that developed in Europe eventually made its way back to China killing millions of people there in 1800. Outbreaks of the plague keep recurring around the world, as recently as 2013 in Madagascar.

 In England in 1400, the population was down to half of what it had been 100 years before. The population of western Europe took 200 years to reinstate its pre-1348 level.

Drastic changes, brought about by the deaths of so many labourers, reduced the amount of land under cultivation. This proved to be the ruin of many landowners. Labour shortage compelled them to pay higher wages to artisans and peasants alike. These changes challenged the feudal system and began to change the hitherto rigid stratification of society.

 Religious believers polarised into groups that either became more fanatical, while others turned away from God, rebelling against being punished. Mystics searched for signs and symbols in the heavens above, blaming the relative positions of well- known planets as a portend of ‘a great pestilence in the sky’. Some Muslim physicians warned against trying to treat the pandemic as it was sent by God as a trial. Fear filled sections of the population began to lash out at minority groups, looking for scapegoats that could be blamed for the spread of the plague. Jews, Gypsies, foreigners, beggars and lepers were rounded up and killed or burnt at the stake!


Let us now have a look at our own current situation with Covid 19 infecting the whole world.

 Although statistics for Covid 19 pale into insignificance when compared with the Black Plague’s figures, there are however many frightening similarities. Both diseases mutate and become more resistant to medication. The vehicle for carrying both the sicknesses, Black Death and Covid 19, are the infected people, no longer slowly along the ponderous silk route, but across to the other side of the world in one overnight jet flight! This makes the Covid 19 virus potentially far more dangerous than the Black Death.

 Should this be a warning for us to heed? Could Covid 19 and its ensuing mutations supersede the devastation of the Black Death? Surely the answer must be “Yes it could!”



As this is once again an even numbered posting of this blog, it is M4M time again, which means Monsters for Monsters where we post a drawing of some fictitious monster to scare or delight our younger readers.

As a follow-on to the article above, I thought a group of pictures of real live bugs photographed and enlarged with an electron microscope would be scary enough, more so, since some of these actually live on us! Perhaps it was one of these that spread the plague. Creepy, isn’t it?

 Stay Safe.



TOM #19

In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition


In 1835, the New York Sun published a series of articles about weirdo monsters seen on the moon. These were seen through a powerful telescope manned by the eminent astronomer Sir John Herschel’s assistant Andrew Grant. Sir John actually knew nothing about it because Andrew Grant was a fictitious character created by Richard Adams Locke a journalist for the Sun. It was a hoax and including the famous astronomer Herschel’s name in the series, gave the story credibility. It did fool many people who were unaware that it was fake news.




Fake news is lying.

Fake news is deliberate lying to achieve an end.

Fake news is not a new concept. Its history goes back over 33 centuries ago, when the Egyptian, Rameses the Great, lied about his army’s victory over the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh. He probably did this to save face with his people when the result of the battle was inconclusive.

The word fake news is not new either. According to the Christian Science Monitor, it was being bandied about in the late 19th century when a Californian newspaper denounced another newspaper of initiating fake news when they could not source the truth.

People who promote fake news have no motivation to be honest and no

reputation to protect. Some openly admit they get a kick out of seeing how gullible readers are when they believe the lies and they also don’t give a tinker’s cuss how it undermines public trust.

In the past the mass distribution of news was confined to organizations that had access to a printing press of some kind. A greater degree of responsibility and censorship was exercised by many of the larger newspapers then. However independent print shops, with no standard of journalistic ethics, happily printed whatever they could charge for, without being accountable for what they reproduced. Now, reputable distributors of news and information, both in print and electronically have been accused of spreading fake news. Seems as if the rot is setting in.

Today, anyone can publish blatant lies on the social media and if it is sensationaliztic enough, can go viral and reach millions of unsuspecting viewers. An extremely profitable business indeed!

We don’t have a hope. Fake news organizations employ hundreds of computer experts, mostly teenagers, to instantaneously create misleading variations of current news and information and sell these lies to the media. They orchestrate the proliferation of spam. It is very lucrative!

The human brain’s insatiable need for sensational news is not tempered by its need to verify the accuracy of this news. Verifying everything one hears, sees or reads is almost impossible. How to spot fake news, I am told, is to develop a critical mind-set! From now onwards, I will probably develop a suspiciously wary mind-set.

Writing this blog about fake news, suddenly stopped me short when I thought of all the times I have used the net to search for information. I cannot remember if I ever checked for content veracity. At the top of this blog I wrote about Rameses the Great and quickly went back to check if my sources were reliable. They were.

Researching the subject of Fake News I remembered that in my book ‘The Other Marco’ I had unwittingly written about fake news but did not see it as such at the time. TOM [the other Marco] is being instructed in celestial navigation by his father. They are traveling through a desert in Asia with a large group of Mongolian horsemen. An earlier incident has confused Tom and he confronts his father in the following excerpt:


That night, looking at the stars, I was not happy, so I turned to my father, “You were lying today, weren’t you father?”

‘Was I?”

“You said you were a military adviser,” I continued.

“Not at any stage did I say I was a war expert, but you understood it like that, and so did Temuchin. It is not what is said, Marco, but what is implied, that confuses the listener enough, for him to lie to himself.”

“You also said that there would be an invasion!” I grumbled.

“It is a rumor that is so persistent that the people in Cipango themselves, have built protective sea walls all along the coast facing Cathay.”

“But it remains a rumor, and not the whole truth,” I insisted.

“Perhaps not but giving the impression that we are specialists with access to privileged information, achieved what you wanted, access to Yasu!”

“So, to be successful, one must lie,” I was adamant.

“No, to be successful one must simply not tell what the truth is. There is a difference,” my father said patiently.

I stopped looking at the stars and held my head.



Leading someone on, but not telling the whole story, so that the listener adds his own, wrong ending, is also fake news. The information has been incorrectly understood, exactly what the narrator had intended and another victory for fake news was achieved.

Later in the book, TOM is being interrogated by Mongolian soldiers who are amazed to find a foreigner on a barge being towed along the Grand Canal when the country is preparing for war. Tom finds himself only giving half the answers to the questions being asked of him and he is embarrassed:



“My name is Marco and I am from the Kingdom of Venice in the west!” I addressed the men, in the boldest voice I could muster. The Mongolians waited, so I carried on. “I have here the Great Khan’s tablet of authority giving us free passage. He has asked me to travel to Kinsai as a military adviser to the war council over there. I carry this sealed document to them as proof of my identity,” I said, holding up the letter.

“Who are your travelling companions?” the Mongolian asked, noticeably not so sure of himself any more.

“Yasu is an expert in foreign languages, especially the language of Cipango, which the council needs,” I said, “and Tzun is our guide and interpreter.” I could feel my ears flushing red as I lied. My father’s words, that not telling the whole story, was not lying, did not make me feel any better.



The word Fake News, to me, sounds altogether too innocent.

I have always, unfairly so, thought of glib, slick, smooth talking Salesmen as Purveyors of fake news.

The implications of being fooled by fake news can have far reaching consequences and can develop into extremely dangerous situations. It seems as if Mark Anthony of Cleopatra fame, committed suicide after receiving fake news that pushed him to the limit. The more we are submersed in fake news lies, the poorer we are becoming as humans. What a pity.


In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition



Hello to all the people who have sent comments to this blog.

You may have noticed that the comments section is now closed. I have been thinking how to tell you why it has been necessary to do so.  Perhaps a comic would be a good way of explaining the reason. So here goes, please read the comic.

When I started this blog, I received comments, mostly from friends and family. I replied to them all.Then one day a total stranger commented. I was very happy and wrote back to this person and thanked him.Soon, more and more ‘strangers’ from all over the world wrote to me. I was thrilled and thanked them all. I simply felt if someone, whose first language is not English, took the trouble to contact me, I should respond. I even replied to the comments that were negative! All comments are valuable.

Then suddenly, the comments doubled, then trebled and soon I was receiving over 200 contacts a week. I desperately wanted to answer all of them. When my inbox registered 1000 incoming comments I knew I was in trouble.

In desperation I contacted my blog manager and asked him to stop the blog. He wisely decided to close down the comments only and suggested that I carry on with the blog but explain to the readers why we have done this.

I have now dug myself out from under your wonderful comments and want to say THANK YOU for writing. I cannot possibly answer you all individually but I want you to know I appreciate the fact that you took the trouble to comment.

I will open the comments again soon but will only be able to answer a few. Thank you so much for reading ‘The Other Marco’s blog’.



As this is TOM #18 and being an even number, it is Monster Time again.

Thinking about what kind of Monster to draw, I eventually thought how important it is to say THANK YOU.  So here we have the kind of Monster that never says THANK YOU.  This is how I would have imagined myself if I had not said THANK YOU to all of you who have commented to my blog.


Awful looking, isn’t it?

TOM #17


In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition



Rope Making

[The art of twisting, long before Chubby Checker]

Next to their flint tipped spears and stone tools, the art of rope making must surely have been one of the oldest crafts practiced by prehistoric man.

Initially ‘ropes’ were probably simple strands of long grass or lianas and vines.  Twisting these strands together and braiding them produced longer and stronger ropes.  Evidence of these early ropes has been found on fired clay dating back 28,000 years.  Further evidence of fossilized rope fragments found in the Lascaux caves has been dated to be 17,000 years old.

In ancient Egypt, over 3500 years ago, rope was made from papyrus reeds with special rope making tools.  Without these ropes it would have been impossible to undertake the massive building projects that Egypt is known for.  China is another source of the earliest rope making ‘factories’.  Needless to say, this essential craft soon spread to Europe and beyond.

The Middle Ages saw long buildings being erected all over Europe called ‘ropewalks’ in which ropes were manufactured.  The length of the ropewalk was the maximum length of the rope being ‘laid up’ or twisted together.

As ships became bigger and taller, the need for longer and longer rope became essential.  Some shorter ropes could be made longer by splicing them together.  Unhappily, this spliced area would become fatter, and as most ropes on the big ships had to pass through pulleys or blocks, they jammed.  It was therefore imperative that rope makers built longer and longer ropewalks!

 Modern rope manufacturing of course, no longer needs a stretched building to produce rope.

No matter which raw material is used to make rope, it must be twisted together [possibly spun on a spinning wheel] to make a thin yarn [also known as string or twine].  I could never understand how the very short segments of wool, or cotton or the hair of Angora rabbits could be twisted [spun] into long lengths of yarn without them untangling themselves when the twisting stopped and falling apart on the ‘take-up’ bobbins or sticks they were being wound onto. So, I looked at a few videos on spinning and was amazed how handfuls of rabbit fur attached themselves to a turning line and to the fur already spinning there.

At last I knew how the yarns are made in the first step of traditional twisted rope making. These yarns are then formed into thicker strands by twisting them together. Three strands are then twisted together to lay the rope

                       YARN                                         STRANDS                                       ROPE

This counter-twist, introduced with each successive process, holds the rope together in it’s combined final form and evenly shares the tension in the individual strands.



Common twisted rope generally consists of three strands and can be twisted to the right or to the left.  The middle section of the uppercase letters S and Z show the slant of the twist to the right or to the left. as they move away from the onlooker. Thus Z-twist rope specifies a right-handed twist, and S-twist is a left-handed twist.

Twisted ropes have a preferred direction for coiling. Normal right-laid rope should be coiled clockwise, to prevent kinking.

Since 1950, synthetic fibres such as polypropylene and nylon, began to replace natural fibres as the preferred rope making material.  Synthetic fibre ropes are not only much stronger than natural fibres, they also do not rot when stored in damp conditions.

Rope is also made from steel wire.

It is interesting to note that rope changes its name, depending on the task or function assigned to it.  On sailing ships, ropes that pull sails up the mast are called halyards and ropes that control these sails at deck level are called sheets.  The thick rope that holds the anchor is called a rode.  We think of a clothes line not a clothes rope and catch fish with a fishing line, not a fishing rope.

Rope has been used for thousands of years and will continue to assist man for thousands of years into the future.


Next Blog TOM #18 will of course have a Monster in the Monsters 4 Monsters section.

See you then!

TOM #16

In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition.


The Grand Canal

The Other Marco, also known as TOM in this blog, grew up near the Grand Canal that wound its way through the middle of Venice. Little did he know that he would one day travel along another Grand Canal far from the one he knew at home.
This was the Grand Canal of China, stretching for 1800 km from Khanbaliq [Beijing] in the north, down to Hangzhou in the south as the longest artificial river in the world. According to historians this massive project was probably started as far back as 600 BCE. It was mentioned in 330 BCE by a diplomat called Su Qin. Naturally it began as a series of canals near natural rivers and was not linked up as a continuous waterway for centuries. It took five million labourers, men and women, to eventually complete the task in the years 604 to 609 CE.
Besides its sheer size, TOM was fascinated by the system of locks on the Grand Canal that lifted the boats and barges on the water over the hills that obstructed their progress. There were of course no locks on the Grand Canal in Venice where he came from.


Earlier locks were known as Flash locks, basically a gap in the wall of a weir that dammed up the ‘higher water’ of the river or canal. This opening was controlled by a single gate. A boat going down stream would position itself near the entrance of the gate to be opened and wait to be propelled through it as if shooting a rapid. This operation was extremely dangerous as the boats could slew sideways and be rolled over. Up-stream boats had to be pulled through the out-flowing gate by ropes around a capstan [winch] positioned higher up the waterway.
Rereading this last paragraph, I realized what was troubling me. The ‘single gate’ needed more information so I returned to the references I had been consulting. After much more searching, I eventually understood just how complex that single gate’s mechanism was. One cannot simply slide or swing a gate across a gap gushing torrents of water to close it and then opening it again later when the pressure of the high water was pressing against it. The answer was to construct a temporary barrier across the gap to allow the water to rise up behind it, and then to quickly dismantle the obstruction to let the boat ‘flush’ through. A formidable task to be sure.

Flash Lock Gates.

A huge heavy beam, with evenly spaced square slots cut into it, was securely fixed into the canal bed where the ‘gate’ would be positioned. This beam became known as the Sill. Two equally sturdy posts with bracing arms were also permanently fixed on either side of the Sill with the weir wall closing against these posts.

This diagram shows the steps in erecting a flash gate only, the real barrier was of course a lot wider.


The material to build the temporary barrier lay on the wall ready to be used. Another sturdy beam as long as the gap was wide, was placed and held against the top of the two side posts. Positioning this beam and then quickly removing it must have taken skill and strength. Next a series of square timber poles called Rymers, were slotted into the holes in the Sill, resting against the upper beam and being held in place by the water’s force. This framework looked like a giant comb with water gushing between the gaps. To close these gaps, flat timber panels fixed to longer poles for ease of handling were slid down to block the water flow through the rymers. The water behind the now closed barrier would rise and the boat needing to go down-stream would be positioned nearby.
When sufficient water had been damned up, the Flash barrier would hurriedly be dismantled allowing the waiting boat to be shot through the opened gap by the flood of released water. Not for the faint-hearted.


The need for greater safety saw the invention of the double gated pound lock in the tenth century CE. Having two gates the boat was impounded [trapped] on the level water between them, giving rise to the lock’s name, ‘pound’. The vessel would enter through the first gate and be stopped by the second one. The first gate now closed behind the boat and the water in the lock was either pumped out, lowering the boat to the lower water level, or more water was added raising the water level in the lock and thus lifting the boat to the higher water level behind the second gate!


Guillotine Lock Gates

The first pound lock in Europe was built in Holland in 1373 – like Chinese locks it had Guillotine gates, designed to drop down like a castle’s portcullis [or guillotine] to shut off the water flow. This system replaced the flash locks and quickly spread throughout Europe

The biggest drawback of this type of gate was the immense effort required to overcome the weight of the gate when lifting it up high enough for a boat to pass beneath it. As the diagram shows, a system of geared pulleys, wheels and a counter-weight eventually overcame that problem. The rapid wearing down of the gate edges as they slid up and down in their vertical channels was also a problem. Yet this design continued for hundreds of years.


The Mitered Lock Gate

In 1487 Leonardo da Vinci invented the miter system, and changed the opening and closing procedure of lock gates forever, vastly improving on everything that was used before. Because each gate was longer than half the canal width, they slotted together when closed to form a right angle pointing up-stream. The water pressure pushing against the gates, increased the water tight properties at this joint.
The first lock with mitered gates was known as the San Marco lock, built in Milan in about 1500 to join two canals of differing levels. Modern locks on the Panama canal and other huge systems world-wide, still use the miter lock method.


The diagram above has a section removed from the body of the lock to show the difference between the high water mark on the left side and where the water level drops to on the right side.


So much for locks and their history, it is time for MONSTERS!
Here I must apologize that I have not had time to draw a new creepy monster for this even numbered posting, so I am cheating a little by giving you a photo of a goofy looking monster I built many years ago for a theme park. As we have been talking about locks, perhaps we can call it the Lockless Monster with apologies to the fabled Loch Ness Monster of Scotland.


Have a super monstrous time till we meet up again in TOM#17 [Tom#18 for the next monster]



TOM #15


 In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition.


The only positive thing one can say about warfare, is the rapid advance and improvement in technology during hostilities, provided these innovations are passed on to peace-time engineering.

Researching Mongol history for my book, The Other Marco, I came across the siege of Xiangyang, a huge fortressed city in southern China.  History tells us that the Genghis Khan conquered northern China and his grandson Kublai Khan eventually overran the southern Song dynasty.  One of the hardest nuts to crack was the massive walls of Xiangyang.  Kublai Khan therefore acquired the expertise of two Persians, Ismail and Al al-Din to build rock hurling siege machines to break this barrier.  These engineers improved on an older design and surrounded the city with 20 of these new weapons that could toss a projectile of 300 kg from a distance of 500 meters.  The strongest fortress in southern China fell quickly, which opened the door to the rest of the country, thanks to this new technology.

Let’s have a look at these rock-lobbing monsters.

Machines that flung projectiles [mostly rocks] appeared hundreds of years earlier in China itself and during Roman times.  These prototypes were possibly more dangerous to the soldiers loading and firing them than for the enemy.  During the middle ages there seemed to be a resurgence of siege weapons, perhaps because more castles were being built at the time.  Needless to say, the more siege machines being built the quicker new ideas improved the design.

I will not dwell on the older machines but will look at the Mangonel firstly as the fore runner of the Trebuchet.


All siege machines have a heavy wooden framework to contain the arm that flings the projectile.  This arm is powered in three different ways, tension, torsion or gravity.  Earlier Mangonels [or Onager] used the ‘tension’ method.  Bending a thin piece of wood with one’s hands [putting it under tension] and then flicking a small pebble from the open end is how it worked, only much bigger, of course.

The piece of wood is in tension

Another version of the older Mangonels was to have a huge crossbow adding to the tension by attaching the bow string to the launching arm so that when this arm was loaded [bent back] the crossbow was loaded at the same time [adding more tension].  In spite of doubling the power, it was not always strong enough to breach castle walls.  This called for a new method for storing energy that the launching arm could harness. It was eventually found by twisting ropes and sinews around the base of the arm to form a torsion bundle.

Torsion [twisting] builds energy in the winding.




Notice the twisted cordage at the bottom of the launching arm and the slotted wheels on either side that are used to tighten the bundle by inserting poles into the slots and turning.  There is also a pin jutting out that must be inserted into one of the four ‘braking’ holes on the side of the wheel to stop the twisting unravelling itself before the rock is thrown.  This is a very simplified drawing of a working Mangonel as I have not shown the complex tackle used to lower the arm back down to the firing position, nor have I shown the trigger method for holding down the load and letting go when the command to “Fire!” is given.  No single man could hang onto the rope as I have drawn – I am simply having a bit of fun!

Mangonels were not very energy efficient, as too much of the stored energy in the twisted bundle is used directly in moving and lifting the weight of the launching arm.  The projectile uses whatever energy is left to break the wall.  Another drawback of the Mangonel’s launching system is that the arm has to be stopped at full speed against a padded framework which surely damages not only the contact areas, but the whole structure through continual vibration.  I wonder how long the average Mangonel lasted before being rebuilt.

Some machines had wooden wheels but would be more stable without them during operation.




The design of the Trebuchet is quite ingenious.  It also has a launching arm to fling the projectile by means of a falling counter-weight to produce the required energy through gravity.  The launching arm is pivoted to one side where the hinged weight is attached.  This causes the end of the long side to move through a greater arc increasing it’s velocity.  A sling holding the projectile is attached to this fast moving end.  Because the sling is free moving, it swings out through centrifugal force to its full length, scribing an even greater and faster moving arc that flies high over the machine.  At this point, a simple angled pin allows the one side of the sling to slip off and free the payload to fly at, or most times over the walls and into the castle.


It was this release mechanism that intrigued me most, and that is why I have drawn it here.  It is so simple and yet so brilliant!  [Again I have not included in the illustration, any of the ropes used to retrieve the arm or lift the weighted bucket, neither the holding down trigger mechanism as I felt it would complicate the picture unnecessarily.]  Let us not forget how the power was increased through velocity by moving the business end out as far from the pivotal point as possible. This is nothing short of sheer brilliance as well.  Small wonder the fortresses of the southern Song dynasty crumbled before the invading Mongols.

Siege machines were eventually superseded by gunpowder and canons.  The only ones still found today are scaled down models built by enthusiasts who compete against each other at staged competitions.  Sounds like fun!


In the book, The Other Marco, TOM travels from Venice with its Grande Canal to China’s Grande Canal with its system of locks.  TOM is intrigued by this innovation, so, perhaps we could have a look at locks and how they work in the next posting which will be TOM #16.  Being an even numbered edition it will of course include the Monsters 4 Monsters section.  We will have to incubate and deliver a monster by then.  See you there.

TOM #14

In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition.


          ‘All night long I lay looking up at the stars and began to notice how each recognizable group moved in an arc through the branches of the tree above my head.  It did seem as if they were turning around the Great North star.  Try as I might, I could not get the heavens to stand still and see myself and the earth I was lying on, doing the turning.  I had a lot to learn.’

          This quote from the book ‘The Other Marco’, sees TOM looking up at the night sky and trying to make sense of his first lesson in celestial navigation his father had just given him.  Only when TOM became comfortable with the reality that he was moving and that the sun and night sky were fixed, could the celestial bodies out there be used to his advantage to tell the time and date and to navigate by.

          This posting is an invitation to look up and see the stars and other moving lights that are visible to our naked eyes.  Above brightly lit cities the night sky is not nearly as clear as viewing it from the darker countryside or best of all from a dry desert location, like TOM was doing.

          All TOM could see at first were the millions of stars stretching from horizon to horizon.  Eventually star clusters or the brighter stars began to form patterns that he memorized as reference points in the sky.  Also out there were the 4 readily visible planets of our solar system, namely Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.  There are 4 more planets, Mercury, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto but they are not bright enough to be noticed in the star field. Besides the moon, Venus is the brightest light in the night sky.   Planets do not twinkle as stars do and are brighter than most stars.  Although planets look like stars, they are not fixed in their celestial positions since they orbit around our sun, while stars are fixed and do not alter their relative positions.  So, if TOM had combined a group of stars with one of the planets as a reference cluster, he would have been surprised to see his group changing as the planet moved. 

Constantly looking up at the night sky, TOM would definitely have seen shooting stars, falling stars, meteors, meteorites, or bolides whizzing across the night sky leaving long fiery tails.  These fast moving lights are bits of space dust or rocks that enter earth’s atmosphere and burn up.












A ‘Shooting Star’ [meteor] and The Milky Way

Other visitors from outer space that are not as spectacular as meteors, are comets.  Comets have huge elliptical orbits around our sun and can only be seen when they swing through our solar system and then fly off to their outer limits somewhere deep in space. Halley’s comet is the best known and has been mentioned by Greek astronomers as far back as 466 BCE.  Ancient Chinese, Babylonians and medieval Europeans were aware of the comet since 240 BCE.  In 1066 when William the Conqueror invaded England from France, the women of the town of Bayeux created a long tapestry to chronicle the event.  Stitched into the sequence they depicted a comet in the sky, which historians and astronomers assure us is Halley’s comet.

This is the section of the tapestry that shows the comet at the top right of the picture, trailing a banner behind it.

Edmond Halley predicted in 1708 that the comet would be back in 1758 and also calculated its orbit.  Small wonder that the Scientific community honoured him by naming the comet after him.

          Tom never saw Halley’s comet when he was gazing up at the night sky as it was precisely at that time that the comet was making its U-turn at the far end of its orbit to return to our solar system.  He would however witness its return around his 54th birthday.

          Today more lights have appeared in the sky but TOM never saw them either.  High flying airplane navigation lights and after 1957 man-made satellites that move steadily through the star field and lastly the blazing trail these same satellites leave as they plummet back to earth. [Some years ago, I witnessed such a re-entry that looked like a jet liner crashing.  A row of lights resembling the windows of a plane rocketed across the sky, each one exploding silently as they went.  Writing about it now, I am wondering if TOM had seen this, would he have been frightened by the experience.  It certainly shocked and amazed me.]

This is what it looked like arching across the evening sky.

TOM went on to learn how to navigate by the stars and saved his own and an injured Mongolian’s life by knowing it.  He found his way back to the caravan at night after being delayed out in the desert where he could have frozen to death.

 There is so much more one can write about the night sky but it is far more interesting to simply look up and enjoying the spectacle!


At last I have a dragon for our Monsters 4 Monsters corner that I did not draw.  Here we see the work of ten year old Finley Dale Roberts.  He was quick to remind me that he had drawn a dinosaur and not a monster.  There I was thinking I was an expert on recognizing monsters.  Goes to show one can always learn something new every day.

Well done and thank you Finley, I really hope you have started the ball rolling where other youngsters will join you in creating monsters for the M4M corner of this blog.  Send your drawings to and I will be happy to publish them.


See you all in TOM #15 soon.



TOM #13


In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition



The Assembly Line


 Knowing that the Venetians had a vigorous boat building program to maximise their commercial strength in the eastern Mediterranean, coupled with my interest in yacht design and building dinghies, I thought I might research this medieval industry.  What a revelation! 



Hundreds of years before Henry Ford rolled his first Model T off the assembly line, the Venetians were building a sailing galley a day on their assembly line in an area called the Arsenal back in 1104.  I consulted Google to find out who invented the concept of an assembly line, characterised by the product being built not swamped by dozens of competing craftsmen, but moved along to the specialist sections where prefabricated parts are added and then moved on to the next.  I was not surprised to see only Henry Ford’s name on all the first page sites and nothing at all about the medieval Arsenal of Venice.  Then my eye caught the heading: ‘Henry Ford did not invent the assembly line’.  For a moment I was happy that the truth will out, only to find that another car manufacturer, Ransom E. Olds is given the credit!  All I have to say is: “GARBAGE!”


Let’s take a look at the real contender to the title of: ‘Inventor of the Assembly Line’.


Venice is unique.  From the first settlers, who had to cross from island to island in the lagoon, to the inhabitants today that use water transport to get around their city, Venice has always needed boats.  As the population grew and dwellings became more permanent, the need for building material became imperative.  Wood and stone and later marble came from hundreds of miles away so they built cargo boats.  When trading expanded, they built trading boats.  When pirates harassed their commercial fleet, the Venetians built war galleys to counter them and protect their sea lanes and the city itself!  Venice always needed boats, and as that need escalated, their building facility became more sophisticated and the shipwrights and tradesmen more skilled.



The area set aside for boat building became known as the Arsenal.  A massive impenetrable wall was built around it and became a huge fortress, a testimony of how important the boat building industry was to Venice.  Eventually it was not only boats that were being built there, but also canons and other weapons as well as ropes and sails to equip the boats.  They replaced the Roman square sail with the more efficient triangular lateen rig.  What intrigued me most was HOW they built the boats.

At first, they copied the Roman technique of building a complex outer shell for the hull and later fitting frames and stringers inside it.  Changing the process to create the framework first and then cladding it with planks speeded up the building time tremendously.  The hull was then floated on a canal which became the conveyor belt to move it along to the next assembly point to have a set of prefabricated parts fitted. This movement allowed the next hull to take its place behind the one ahead of it.  As they floated down the canal more and more bits and pieces were added till the vessels were complete.  It is said that the Arsenal even recruited and crewed the boats before they sailed out!  At its peak, the Venetians produced a fully equipped galley a day!

venetian galley (2)

Please bare in mind, we are talking about the 12th and 13th centuries here. 

Skilled craftsmen in all the trades enjoyed privileged positions in the Venetian society and lived in homes on the outside of the fortress wall, right next the job.

The Arsenal also attracted other skills not directly connected to boat building.  The emerging glass blowing industry was contracted to supply hour-glasses for time keeping at sea.  Even Galileo Galilei was hired to help redesign the rowing system of the galleys and became a consultant about instrumentation and ballistics.

Arsenale della Repubblica di Venezia

The Arsenal as it today.

The Arsenal lasted into the early Industrial Revolution, yet in spite of this, the assembly line production process was only next seen with the Model T Ford in the 20th century.

Without the Arsenal, Venice would never have reached its powerful position as an influential and dominant leader in the Eastern Mediterranean. 




I would like to thank all the readers of my blog for your encouraging comments.  Thank you very much!

I will always try to respond and enjoy doing it.  Lately I seem to be inundated by brainless trash and relegate these comments to the trashcan immediately.  I have heard that some of this unwanted rubbish could find it’s way into the content of my writing and this scares and annoys me greatly.  Most of my readers have seen what I post, so if something crude finds it’s way into what I publish, please ignore it, it does not come from me.

Sometimes I receive mail with nothing in it at all.  Please feel free to make a comment, even if you disagree with what I write.  Criticism can only improve the blog.

See you again in TOM #14.  I’ve got a Monster for you and this time it is not drawn by me.  Will post as soon as I can.

All the best,

TOM [The Other Marco]


TOM #12


In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition



Whenever I come across a book on Marco Polo, I read it or at least page through it.  The adventures of Marco Polo are of course the basis of my book, ‘The Other Marco’.  The other day I found ‘Marco Polo by Richard Humble’, totally misfiled at the local library, so I brought it home as it seemed that I was meant to discover it.  This book is well illustrated and when I came across these delightful drawings of an elephant and a giraffe, I felt I should comment on how important it is to use reference when drawing.


Drawing from life is usually the best reference available to an artist, but it can also be the most difficult and frustrating.  Animals and birds simply don’t stay in one position long enough to capture accurately.  Even models in a life class tend to sag or readjust when pins and needles make a pose untenable.

Artists today have access to photographic reference that the Masters of yesteryear could only dream of.  It is interesting to look at these two animals drawn centuries ago to see that the artists had probably never observed their subjects in real life.  It is often glaringly obvious that the animals to be drawn were described to the artist by a third or even forth party.  The end result is usually somewhat comical but also woefully inaccurate.

Take a closer look at the elephant in this war scene from Le Livre des Merveilles.


 The artist draws the horses accurately but has obviously never seen an elephant in real life.  Imagine being told that the tusks protrude from the side of a long serpentine nose that makes a trumpeting sound!  No wonder that he had some vicious teeth sticking straight up through the trunk and then added a trumpet bell on the end of it.  Notice, no one told the artist that there was supposed to be a mouth somewhere under the trunk as well.  Needless to say, the artist would have to believe what the reference person tells him and not be too skeptical either!


Perhaps the birth of Modern Art was the result of artists being confused by over-exaggerated verbal reference. One never can tell.


I usually draw from reference, but a few years ago I was illustrating a children’s book and was, as always, in a hurry.  I tried to take a short cut and attempted to draw the giraffe in the story from memory.  It was going to be slightly stylized anyway, so I thought I could freely interpret the shape.  After several hopeless tries I found some reference and was astounded.  A giraffe’s outline is more complex than one imagines.

The body of this animal is not an ellipse with a long neck attached to one end.  It is far more complex than that.  Take a look at this explanatory sketch to see where I went wrong.




Now let us have another look at the giraffe illustration from the book.


As the original picture is a bit dark, I have traced an outline to show it more clearly.

The long angled body is not quite right.  The sloping back is fine but the stomach underneath should have been parallel with the ground, making the back legs as long as the fore legs.  The neck is long enough but must be higher up on the back and the head could have been a fraction bigger.   Well done to the artist of long ago who depended on someone else’s observation.


The sabre-toothed trio in the Monsters 4 Monsters section at the end of this blog, was drawn without reference as they are stylized cartoons and has no reference with reality to compare it with.  Almost.  As for the brave Leprechaun, my first attempt had him looking like a miniature Father Christmas, since I drew a soft nightcap with a pom-pom at its long tapering end on his head.  Again reference , in the shape of an indignant Irishman, helped me to ‘Get it right, Begorrah!’

“Thus endeth Art lesson #1!”  Hope you enjoyed it.


Right!  That brings us to the Monsters for Monsters corner.  Another Aydan creation.  Aren’t there any other youngsters out there with fertile imaginations that can suggest a monster for me to draw, or better still, that they can draw themselves and allow me to publish them on this blog?   GGGGGrrrrrrrrrrrooooowwwwwLLLLL!!!!!



TOM #11

In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition




BeautVenice 50

                                                                                                                                                              Picture credit:  Lonely Planet.

          Venice must surely be one of the most fascinating cities on earth.


          Venice served as the starting point for my book; ‘The Other Marco’, but Venice has a colossal story of its own.  Celtic people called Veneti lived along the north eastern coast of Italy since 50 BC as Roman citizens. In 330 AD Constantine established the Eastern Roman Empire at Constantinople and it became known as the Byzantine Empire.  Atilla the Hun invaded what was left of the now weakened Western Roman Empire in 453, causing the Veneti to flee onto the islands in a huge lagoon nearby. There they built villages and lived in relative safety.  A hundred years later more Veneti joined the island people when the Lombards invaded Italy.  They eventually realized when all the 117 available islands in the lagoon were occupied that they would have to expand onto the water.  This for me is the incredible story of Venice.  How they built a magnificent city on a lagoon.


          Moving down the Grand Canal in a waterbus called a Vaporetto and looking at the superb palaces and huge churches one cannot but wonder what lies below these buildings.  What are the foundations made of and how were they built?  It was when I began to find answers to these questions that my opinion of the medieval engineers and architects that created this city, soared!  Who would have thought that Venice sits on top of millions of trees?


          To create a solid foundation, thousands upon thousands of 4 metre long wooden stakes were driven into the lagoon bed by human pile drivers as shown by this simple animated sequence.  One immediately wonders how heavy the battering ram was that the men used.  Also how strong the men were and for how many hours a day they lifted and slammed that weight down on top of the wooden stake.  I always come back to this same question:  Were they tougher then, than we are today

ABG4 (1)

 Onto these ‘piles’, wood was laid horizontally and fastened.  On top of this platform rose the buildings we now see along the water’s edge.  One church alone, the Santa Maria della Salute required over 1,100,000 wooden stakes!  This foundation took more than 2 years to complete.

Santa_Maria_della_Salute 50

Santa Maria della Salute.

          As Venice has no timber of its own, trees were imported by sea from Croatia, Slovenia, and Montenegro.

          The next question that begs is why these wooden foundations have not rotted away centuries ago.  A simple answer is that they pickled in the salt water of the lagoon and have become hardened like stone.  Because the stakes are underground, the lack of oxygen makes it impossible for microorganisms to attach themselves and rot the wood.

          Venice is periodically plagued by ‘Aqua alta’ or unusually high tides that floods all low lying piazzas like St Marks square.  I was therefore intrigued by this picture of an exceptionally low tide that drained the shallower side canals.  It clearly shows the foundations of the buildings and gives an idea of the weight pressing down on the tree stumps buried in the mud.



           Sadly, it seems from professional engineering assessments that Venice is sinking and rising tides will eventually destroy this magnificent city.  What a pity.



The next posting will be TOM #12 which means Monsters 4 Monster’s time again.  I can see some Sabre Toothed Tigers coming this way.  Will catch up with you there!