6 Secrets We Once Knew But Are Now Lost to History

Something terrible happened in 1458, but no one wrote it down
6 Secrets We Once Knew But Are Now Lost to History

We know so much about history, and yet our knowledge is filled with holes. We have some Russian doodles dating back to the year 1260, showing a six-year-old imagining himself as a knight fighting monsters, but we have other whole years where our records are blank. For example, let’s be honest, can you remember a single thing that happened in 2019? Or, more seriously, historians are stumped about such matters as...

What Volcano Blackened the World, Half a Millennium Ago?

When we dig through the ground and analyze mineral records, we can learn all sorts of things about the distant past. We can also learn about the comparatively recent past, a time otherwise thoroughly covered by historical records. When we dug into the ice in Antarctica and Greenland, we discovered deposits of sulfur that had once been in the air. This pointed to a major volcanic eruption, which we calculate must have happened in the year 1458. 

Christopher Columbus

Sebastiano del Piombo

Columbus was seven years old. This was very much the era of recorded history. 

The word “major” in the previous sentence understates this event, hugely. This eruption added roughly as much sulfur into the atmosphere as the 1815 Tambora eruption, whose similar sulfur spewing resulted in the northern hemisphere missing summer because the ash blotted out the sun. Worldwide famine set in, as it did following the 1458 eruption as well. We know which volcano erupted in 1815 (Mount Tambora, in Indonesia). So, which volcano erupted in 1458? We don’t know. 

It seems like we should know. An eruption that big should have created immediate columns of ash 15 miles tall and would have been audible a thousand miles away. However, we don’t have records from anyone who saw or heard it. The eruption also created a tsunami that devastated some coast. We know it did, because it must have; we know how seismic events of that magnitude function. But here as well, we don’t have records from anyone who got swept up in that.

volcanic eruption

Science Photo Library

The records all got swept away, too

The volcano probably stood in the tropics, and we thought we had a good lead for a while. The people of Tongoa Island in the Pacific had oral records of some massive volcanic blast in the 15th century. But we investigated and found that happened slightly earlier in the 15th century and wasn’t nearly as big as what we were looking for. Confusing matters further, we stumbled on another enormous volcanic eruption, separate from the Tongoa one or the 1458 one. It happened in 1452 or 1453 and also led to worldwide effects and widespread famine. We don’t know where this one happened either. 

If any of you were alive in the 1450s and witnessed either of these eruptions, please contact the United States Geological Survey at 1-888-392-8545 to send in your tip. Anonymity guaranteed. 

What Does pH Mean?

The pH scale measures how acidic a solution is. Or rather, it measures how acidic a solution isn’t — if something has a pH of 0, it’s extremely acidic, and if it has the max pH of 14, it’s extremely alkaline. You know all about the pH scale if you use quack remedies that promise benefits from balancing the pH in your body.

water with lemon

Brittney Weng/Unsplash

“For real balance, here’s some alkaline water, with lemon!”

If you’re a student of chemistry, you know how to calculate pH from the concentration of ions in a sample. But do you know what the letters “pH” stand for? No, you don’t, and neither does anyone else alive. 

The H stands for hydrogen — that much, we know. But the p? It doesn’t stand for “percent,” though pH does measure the proportion of hydrogen. Nor, for that matter, does it stand for “proportion.” Many people think it stands for “power,” because pH takes into account exponents, which we sometimes describe using the word power. It can’t, though, be power either (pH is the negative logarithm of hydrogen ion concentration, so “power” is really a bad way of describing anything here). 

urine sample


Maybe the p stands for... pee. Pee has pH, right? 

Various urban legends say it stands for various foreign words, like puissance, Potenz, pouvoir, potential and pondus. Some theorize that it means “positive,” relating to which electrode negative ions move toward, or that it might simply be the letter p, because n and o already represent other stuff. The only person who knew the real answer was chemist Søren Sørensen, who coined the term pH in 1924. He died in 1939, and during those last 15 years, not one person asked him why he’d named it that. Hey, we get it. Most of us avoid asking chemistry teachers anything if we can help it. 

Who Was the Guy on This Coin?

Roman emperors lived thousands of years ago, and yet we know plenty about them. They were the most important people, in what enthusiasts assure us was the most advanced civilization. We know all about Julius Caesar; we know all about Claudius. We know so much about the emperors that men like Nero, Commodus and Caligula have traditional depictions in pop culture, which we’re able to debunk using the unvarnished historical record.

Then there’s this guy:

Obvers of Silbannacus' coin from British Museum

British Museum

That’s Silbannacus. We know that’s his name because it’s written on the coin. He must have been an emperor of Rome — we know that, because his face was on a Roman coin. In fact, everything we know about Silbannacus (not much) comes from this coin. This coin, and one other similar coin. Other than those, we have no record of him anywhere

For reference, this was 300 years after the reign of Julius Caesar. It was after all those emperors we listed before, so the issue wasn’t that people hadn’t invented history yet. We also have detailed records of various emperors that came after Silbannacus, including plenty of stuff about his immediate successor. But we have nothing on this one guy, other than two coins. 

Both sides of the first Antoninianus of Silbannacus, discovered in the 1930s

via Wiki Commons

Just my two cents. 

Silbannacus must have been emperor for a couple months in the year 253. There was enough of a gap in the timeline for him to reign for a little bit. For a short spell in September and October, exactly 1,770 years ago this week, he was the most powerful person in the world. Then he was gone, leaving behind only two coins. 

It’s like the poem about Ozymandias, king of kings, who died leaving behind only a statue, which collapsed. Except, we actually have a ton of info on the life of Ozymandias, so that guy was never close to being forgotten, though he lived 1,500 years before Silbannacus.

What Is This Battery Made Of?

In 1840, the science of electricity was taking its first faltering steps. Oxford professor Robert Walker bought a curiosity called the Clarendon Dry Pile, which he set up in his lab. It used some kind of chemical reaction to generate electricity, which sent a clapper back and forth between two bells. It’s kind of like those swinging balls you see on desks today, professor desks included, but the Oxford bells don’t rely on conservation of momentum. They rely on continuous electric power. 

Oxford Electric Bell

Oxford University

The least painful way to apply electricity to a pair of balls.

The swinging balls that you know so well (they’re called Newton’s Cradle) stop swinging after a while. The Oxford Electric Bell? It’s been running almost 200 years now, without pause. The bells have chimed two billion times. They continue to be powered by a single battery, the longest-running battery in history. The cell produces a huge voltage (measured in kilovolts), but a minuscule bit of charge passes with each chime. 

We don’t know how much longer the battery will last and indeed don’t know what the battery even is. We have some idea — there has to be metal in there, and some kind of electrolyte paste — but we don’t know, and no one has ever made another battery that’s lasted this long. While we probably could make a battery with these properties today if we wanted to, as a gimmick, we’re sure curious how they managed it back them. 

Oxford Electric Bell

DavidCWG/Wiki Commons

Witchcraft? They still had witchcraft back then, right?

The only way to find what’s in the battery is to cut it open. This would end the ringing and may also end the world. To be on the safe side, we’re going to leave the battery alone for the moment. 

What Do Levi’s 501s Mean?

Jeans trivia is its own special branch of knowledge. Did you know that the rivets in denim are essential for holding the fabric together, and aren’t there simply to look cool? If not, pretend you did, else someone who did know will think you’re dumb. Did you know that the leather patch that bears the brand logo is called a Jacron? And that the tiny upper jeans pocket (the one that fits a single key or an emergency ecstasy pill) was designed to hold your pocket watch?

jeans pocket watch

Tamara Bellis/Unsplash

“But I don’t have a pocket watch!”
You do. You call it a phone, and it goes in a different pocket now. 

And did you know what the “501” in Levi’s 501s stands for? Nope, you didn’t, and as you might now guess, having read this far in the article, no one else today knows that answer either. 

The answer was formally written down, a century or so ago. The reasoning behind the number “501” was spelled out in company records, along with the logic behind a different line, called 201 jeans. These records were in San Francisco in 1906. That happened to be the year of one of the most destructive earthquakes ever. 

San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

H.D. Chadwick

For details about the quake, contact the U.S. Geological Survey at 1-888-392-8545.

Records can be retrieved after a quake. The 1906 earthquake, however, immediately led to one of history’s most destructive citywide fires, this one largely started by the firefighters. The truth about the 501s went up in smoke. 

Maybe the explanation behind the number 501 is the same one behind the number 51 in “Area 51.” That’s not exactly a joke. Area 51 (properly called Groom Lake) was never officially designated “Area 51” by the government, and no one knows for sure who chose that nickname or why. 

Why Was Ivar the Boneless Boneless?

In the ninth century, there lived a Viking chieftain named Ivar the Boneless. We have a fair bit of info about him (compared with, say, that obscure Roman emperor known as Silbannacus). We actually have more information than we can verify, because it’s hard to tell what’s history and what’s legend when you’re reading ancient manuscripts.

Ivar manuscript

via Wiki Commons

Our descendants will remember David Copperfield, the famed magician interviewed by Charles Dickens.

Ivar, if the stories speak true, was the son of King Ragnar Lothbrok. The British killed Ragnar, and Ivar invaded Britain in search of vengeance. We think Ivar successfully conquered Scotland, and we know he died in the year 873. None of that answers the first question you’d have about Ivar the Boneless. What was so boneless about him?

Was he missing an arm maybe, or a leg? That sounds reasonable, but it would still leave him with plenty of other bones and may not justify the “boneless” sobriquet. One theory is that he really did have no bones, as we normally know them, but had cartilaginous bones, a condition known as osteogenesis imperfecta. If he did, you’d think every account of his life would have mentioned this fact, long before detailing which parts of Northumbria he raided. 

A fifteenth-century depiction of Ívarr and Ubba

British Library

“Ivar the Viking Alien,” he’d probably be called.

“Boneless” could be a mistranslation, for something more like “Ivar the Detestable.” However, one other theory remains. The name could have been a way of noting that Ivar couldn’t get a boner. We have no record of Ivar having children, and his name may have mocked his impotence.

If you yourself have a nickname, of any kind, make sure your epitaph explains it in detail to prevent future humans from assuming the worst. In fact, you should probably invent a fake explanation to cover up the clearly embarrassing truth. 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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