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History Magazine cover
The 1650s
Victoria L. King examines a decade of civil unrest and enlightenment in Europe.

Birth of the Boardwalk: A Sandy History
Russell Roberts looks at the illustrious beginning of the "walk of boards".

David A. Norris looks at the plastic of the Victorian Age.

The Battle of Cannae
Nicky Nielsen tells the story of the ancient battle between Hannibal Barcas and his sworn enemy, Rome..

Barter and Trade in Colonial America
Joanne Liu looks at the early history of Colonial America where currency as we know it was scarce.

Chroniclers & Scribes — Medieval Historical Writers
William Stroock chronicles some of the great medieval documents that have survived.

The Pedigree of Platinum
Steve Voynick relates the fascinating history of the "other" precious metal.

Pyramids and the Occult — Fact or Fiction?
Pamela D. Toller chronicles the search for the magical meaningn of the pyramids.

The Early Days of Radio
From the book With Amusement For All: A History Of American Popular Culture Since 1930, author LeRoy Ashby looks at the early programs that made radio so popular.

"The Storm": Killer Hurricane Devastates Galveston, Texas
Joanna Bostwick Backman tells the story of a killer hurricane.

Fire Below! The Devastating Reality of Coal Bunker Fires
Patrick McSherry chronicles the dirty and dangerous history of coal bunker fires and the men that fought them.

The Timeless Appeal of Clocks
Phill Jones chronicles the history of timekeeping and its impact on history.

Lizzie Borden and the Fall River Axe Murders
Daniel M. Hoenig describes the enduring interest in this case of murder most foul.


Ron Wild describes some of the major eruptions that have changed the course of history.

Almost as beautiful as they are destructive, in modern times some volcanoes have become tourist spots.

MENTION KRAKATOA, Vesuvius, Tambora or Santorini and images immediately come to mind of volcanic events of interest that happened sometime in history in some far-away place. While some active volcanoes are in remote areas, others like Sicily's Mt. Etna have become major tourist attractions. Mt. Etna puts on a spectacular display shooting red-hot lava 1,000 feet into the sky, and citizens and tourists approach to within a few thousand feet of the crater to take pictures and sightsee. No one knows when or if a massive eruption will come, but if a large eruption occurs much of Sicily and all of southern Italy and Greece would be affected. This is not without precedent in the Mediterranean Region. Unanticipated eruptions have taken an enormous toll in lives and property and upon the environment throughout history.

As shown in this July 2001 satellite photograph, Sicily's Mt. Etna is still very much an active volcano.

The volcanic craters of the island of Santorini hint at the destructiveness of the largest volcanic eruption in the last 10,000 years.


Santorini is a small volcanic island in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Greece that erupted in 1650bc. It is considered to be the largest volcanic eruption in the last 10,000 years. When the magma chamber under the island was emptied, it collapsed, leaving an underwater caldera 400 feet deep and four miles in circumference. The tidal wave that followed the eruption and collapse of the magma chamber was over 100 feet high and swept the Mediterranean crescent clean of villages, killing millions. There are no historic accounts of this devastating eruption, except, possibly, the biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah being overcome with a deluge of hot ashes and showers of rock.

Historians have surmised that the Minoan civilization on the nearby island of Crete, considered to be the most culturally advanced society of that time, owes its sudden and complete disappearance to the eruption of Santorini. Entire villages have been excavated from beneath 100 feet of pumice and ash deposited on Santorini and nearby islands.

In 167bc, a small cone appeared in the Santorini caldera that has grown to be the Kameni Islands. This relatively new but small volcano has erupted 11 times since its creation, most recently in 1950 on the northern island of Nea Kameni. Geologists believe that Santorini itself developed in the caldera of an earlier volcano, and that eventually the Kameni volcano will become a threat to European and Mediterranean populations.

Mount Vesuvius

On the afternoon of 24 August 79ad, Mount Vesuvius shot a stream of ash miles into the air. The next morning, Vesuvius erupted, killing the citizens of the nearby towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pompeii was a holiday resort and thousands had flocked there to escape the heat of a Roman summer. The streets were busy that August evening, with many holiday visitors busy shopping for Pompeii's famous pottery, while others relaxed over a glass of wine and enjoyed the evening breeze and the passing parade at outdoor restaurants. Others were in the theater enjoying the lively performances that were a feature of this vacation resort. Many had gone to the opulent bathhouses to be cleansed and relaxed after a busy day around town and still others had resorted to their beds to refresh themselves for the new day that never came for them. There were no eyewitness accounts, but it is recorded that a 750 degrees F cloud of hot gases swept down from Vesuvius and enveloped the town killing almost all the residents and holiday visitors instantly from thermal shock. While lava poured into Pompeii, clouds of ash rained down on Herculaneum burying everything including the buildings of the town under 75 feet of volcanic ash. Such was the devastation and loss that the government in Rome decided to leave the towns and the victims buried under the lava and ash of Mount Vesuvius.

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD destroyed the nearby towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Centuries later, historians and archeologists have excavated Pompeii and affirmed the swiftness with which this event snuffed out lives. Bodies were found huddled in buildings, in their beds, on the streets and in every position that one might expect to see a blissful population that was overwhelmed in an instant. The ruins of Herculaneum were not discovered until the 1700s, when excavations were begun in 75 feet of solidified volcanic ash. The ongoing excavation has revealed that Herculaneum was populated by wealthy Romans who lived in their villas with lavish gardens and beach-front property on the Bay of Naples. Many bodies were excavated on the beach, where women were found wearing exotic jewelry with a ring on every finger and exquisitely carved bracelets. The presence of over 300 bodies on the beach suggests that they were trying to escape by water but the surge of gas from Vesuvius ended their lives instantly.

The Year Without a Summer

The eruption of Indonesia's Mount Tambora on 5 April 1815 was one of the largest eruptions in history. Tambora spewed sulphur-rich gases that rose to a height of 28 miles and created a giant sun filter in the northern hemisphere that caused the spring and summer of 1816 to be extremely cold across Europe and North America. Snowfalls and frost occurred in June, July and August and all but the hardiest grains were destroyed. Destruction of the corn crop caused farmers to slaughter their livestock. Soup kitchens were opened to feed the hungry. Sea ice formed in the Atlantic shipping lanes and glaciers advanced down mountain slopes to exceptionally low levels. Hundreds of thousands died of starvation as crops failed, touching off a wave of migration to the American South and Midwest. Farmers repeatedly tried to get a crop in the ground, but each time a killer frost withered the tender roots. Corn and grain prices shot up to $5 and $10 per bushel and oats that had been 12 cents a bushel rose to 92 cents. Riots erupted in Britain and France as starving citizens broke into grain warehouses and left them empty. Violence was even worse in Switzerland where the government declared a national emergency and grain purchases from Russia were intercepted at the border and confiscated by hungry citizens.

In Indonesia itself, 83,000 died as a direct result of the eruption, most from the hot gases and many from being bombed by hot lava being ejected for miles around Mount Tambora. It has been estimated that 93 cubic miles of ash were ejected, and it took five years before the green shoots of vegetation began to poke through the land covered with volcanic ash to a distance of 250 miles from Tambora.

The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa was 10,000 times more powerful than the atomic blast at Hiroshima.


On 26 August 1883, two-thirds of the island of Krakatau in Indonesia were blasted 50,000 feet into the atmosphere. Eleven cubic miles of the island vanished and were pulverized by the eruption into fine ash and rock particles that blocked out the sun for two days to a distance of 250 miles from the volcano. So much material was ejected from Krakatoa that world weather was affected for five years and the filter effect of the atmospheric dust on the sun's rays caused the earth to cool. Spectacular sunsets lasted for several years and in the first year the sun was often changed to blue or green as vast clouds of sulphuric ash drifted around the world. The blast was heard 3,000 miles away. The tidal wave created by the explosion and the sea rushing to fill the nine-mile-wide caldera rushed outward at a speed of 150 miles an hour and a height of 120 feet. The shores of the islands in Indonesia were swept clean of thousands of villages and it is estimated that 36,400 people lost their lives. Coral blocks weighing as much as 600 tons were swept miles inland. The tidal wave traveled 3,600 nautical miles to Aden in 12 hours. Huge rafts of pumice, thick enough to support many passengers, floated across the Indian Ocean in 10 months and were still afloat two years after the eruption.

Krakatoa's massive eruption was assigned a Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) of six, which rates as colossal. An explosion of this magnitude only occurs on Earth every few hundred years. The total energy released by the Krakatoa explosions was 200 megatons, 10,000 times more powerful than the atomic explosion at Hiroshima.

European Volcano Watchers

In view of the potential for massive loss of life and economic destruction posed by a major eruption, the Brussels-based European Science Foundation has created a special volcano watching commission. Staffed by scientists, geologists and vulcanolagists, the commission is making a special study of volcanoes in Europe that could cause fatalities numbering in the tens of millions as well as economic devastation that could wipe out entire countries. Of particular concern are two of the most active volcanoes in the world, Mt. Etna and Stromboli, both in Sicily and positioned to affect most of Europe, particularly Italy and Greece. Both of these volcanoes have become tourist attractions and tours take visitors right to the rim of the volcanoes' craters to experience and photograph the lava eruptions that send hundreds of tons of red-hot lava over 1,000 feet into the air.

This article originally appeared in our October/November 2001 issue.