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Discover world history, culture and ideas with today’s leading experts

Discover world history, culture and ideas with today’s leading experts


London, United Kingdom




Discover world history, culture and ideas with today’s leading experts




Ida Pfeiffer: 19th Century globetrotter

Ida Pfeiffer's desire to see the world was like many childhood fantasies - destined to remain just that. And yet at the age of 44 once her sons had reached adulthood, she set off from her home in Vienna on a series of journeys that no woman of her time or background had contemplated. Beginning with a trip to the Middle East, Pfeiffer travelled mostly alone, documenting her voyages and collecting specimens that she later sold to help finance her adventures abroad. Budget travel was her...


Rain or shine? A short history of the weather forecast

How did we get from not having any reliable way of predicting the weather just 150 years ago, to today's accurate, tailor-made forecasts for places as small as a village? Bridget Kendall and guests trace the history of meteorology, from its first steps as an aid to quicker trans-Atlantic shipping to the latest methods which can help anticipate weather events as short-lived as a tornado. Bridget is joined by Kristine Harper, a former US Navy forecaster and now a history professor at Florida...


Emile Berliner, inventor of the gramophone

A young immigrant to the USA who started out working in a draper's shop, Emile Berliner ended up paving the way for the world of recordings and home entertainment that we delight in today. But even before he got to work on his recording machine - which he would later call the gramophone - Berliner made a major contribution to another piece of technology that's very familiar to us today: the telephone. And not content with all these achievements, he also promoted the pasteurisation of milk,...


Tracing the roots of ancient trees

Have you ever sat against the trunk of a large old tree, looked up into its canopy and wondered what it’s seen in its lifetime? There are many species of tree that survive well beyond a human lifespan, for hundreds of years, and some that can live far longer than that, spanning millennia. What can we learn from large old trees around the world? How do they influence the environment? And how can we preserve them for future generations? Joining Bridget Kendall to discuss ancient trees are...


The Wizard of Oz: A homegrown American fairy tale

The Wizard of Oz is best known as one of the most watched films of all time, or as one of its many re-incarnations, such as the hugely successful Broadway musical Wicked or the Soviet, The Wizard of the Emerald City. But fewer people nowadays may be aware of the original book by the American writer L. Frank Baum that inspired these stories about a young girl who travels through a magic land in the company of a talking scarecrow, a tin man and a fearful lion. While he was a controversial...


Falconry: The history of hunting with birds of prey

The practice of hunting with birds of prey is thought to stretch back thousands of years. In early nomadic societies, falconry was used to hunt animals to provide food and clothing in places such as the steppes of Central Asia. As the practice spread, falconry evolved into a pastime that attracted the elite of European society, reflected in the extensive iconography of noblemen and women and their falcons. Today falconry is found in more than 90 countries around the world. At its core...


Aramaic: An imperial language without an empire

Aramaic is a language that for some three thousand years facilitated the exchange of ideas across large tracts of the Middle East and Asia. In its heyday it was the main official and written language across the Neo-Assyrian and Achaemenid empires. It was the language in which several sections of the Old Testament Bible were written. A Galilean dialect of Aramaic was probably the language Jesus spoke. Different dialects of Aramaic still exist today but numbers of speakers are dwindling and...


X-rays: New ways of seeing

The discovery of X-rays by the German scientist Wilhelm Roentgen in 1895 was nothing short of ground-breaking, opening up a new era in medicine. For the first time, doctors could see inside the human body without the need for surgery, and diagnose many more living patients. X-rays had major implications for physics as well, allowing scientists to study the structure and arrangement of molecules. Within wider society, they inspired artists to explore what these new rays could tell us about...


Machiavelli, master of power

Over five hundred years ago, dismissed diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli produced his most famous work, The Prince. Written on the fringes of the Italian city of Florence, the book has long been read as a priceless guide to power and what holding it truly involves. But who was the man behind the work? Why did he claim that a leader must be prepared to act immorally? And why did the name of this one-time political insider become a byword for cunning and sinister strategy? Rajan Datar explores the...


The birth of the modern car

The motor car is a feature of contemporary life the world over but when and where did motor vehicles begin? How did we get from the slow, noisy, dangerous, early vehicles of the 19th century to the swish, sleek, practical cars of today? Why did the early electric vehicle – so popular early on and the first car to go faster than a hundred kilometres an hour - suddenly fall out of favour? And who were the early engineers whose major contributions to car design deserve to be better known? These...


Ukulele - a history of Hawaii's national instrument

Throughout its 130-year-old history, the ukulele has often been underrated – for many, this tiny four stringed instrument is a musical joke, a plastic toy or a cheap airport souvenir, but in fact, some of the world’s greatest musicians have played and admired it, and it has enduring associations with the struggle for Hawaiian independence since its arrival on the islands from Madeira in the late 19th century. The ukulele is also surprisingly versatile and musicians are forever involved in...


Tadeusz Kosciuszko, groundbreaking fort builder

The American president Thomas Jefferson called Tadeusz Kosciuszko "as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known". Kosciuszko was born in what is today Belarus, trained as an engineer in Poland and France and went on to become one of the important military players in the American War of Independence. This was when he wasn’t pursuing his dream of a free Polish republic against the might of a conservative aristocracy and neighbouring Russian and Prussian armies. Or campaigning against slavery...


The census: A snapshot of life

Anyone who has ever researched their family tree will have most likely come across the census, the process by which every citizen or subject of a country is counted and classified. Data collected by the census, often carried out every ten years, has been invaluable to genealogists, both amateur and professional. And the census has also developed into an essential tool for governments and organisations to plan how and where they focus their investment in public services such as health care...


Unravelling the history of knitting

Like many traditional domestic crafts, knitting has experienced a huge surge in popularity in the 21st century, making it fashionable and even radical. But the history of hand knitting is still relatively obscure. The oldest knitted artefacts are Coptic socks found in Egypt dating from the fourth century AD, but although they look like modern-day knitting, they’re actually made using a technique called nalebinding or needle-binding. So what then are the real origins of knitting? How did it...


One Hundred Years of Solitude: The story of Latin America

Considered to be one of literature’s supreme achievements, One Hundred Years of Solitude by the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez is reported to be the most popular work of Spanish-language fiction since Don Quixote in the 17th century. Written in 1967, it tells the story of seven generations of the Buendía family, whose patriarch is the founder of a fictional Colombian village called Macondo. But why is it said this novel – which fuses the fantastical and the real – tells the story...


Rabindranath Tagore: The Bard of Bengal

So prodigious was the polymath Rabindranath Tagore, there’s a saying in Bengal that one lifetime is not enough to consume all of his work. Poet, playwright, thinker, activist, educator, social reformer, composer, artist… the list of his talents is long. Today his name is known all over India and Bangladesh; children recite his poetry at school and his legacy lives on in many different ways. When he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore was feted...


Pauline Viardot: 19th-Century diva

While the name of Pauline Viardot may be unfamiliar to many, in her lifetime she was one of the most celebrated performers in Europe. Her interpretation of Orpheus in a revival of Gluck’s opera made the writer Charles Dickens weep, and the novelist George Sand said that whenever she heard Pauline Viardot sing, nothing else mattered. In addition to her vocal talents, Pauline Viardot dazzled in high society. She knew almost everybody who came to define 19th Century European culture, thanks to...


The One Thousand and One Nights

The One Thousand and One Nights are a collection of fantastical stories of flying carpets, magic and genies whose ancient origins go back to the 7th century or earlier. The tales are told by Scheherazade who uses the power of storytelling night after night to stop her Sultan husband from beheading her. These highly influential stories were brought to the West in the 18th century, when more tales like Aladdin and Ali Baba were said to have been added by the French translator, and it has...


Adventures with dentures: The story of dentistry

Until the eighteenth century there were no professional dentists. The only way to deal with a serious case of toothache was to call on the services of blacksmiths, travelling showmen or so-called barber-surgeons, all of whom had a sideline in tooth extraction. But in 1728, French physician Pierre Fauchard published the first complete scientific description of dentistry and he is credited as being “the father of modern dentistry”. His book, Le Chirurgien Dentiste or The Surgeon Dentist, was...


BR Ambedkar: The Dalit hero of India

Educate, Agitate, Organise. This was the motto of the Indian scholar BR Ambedkar who led an extraordinary life of activism and achievement. It put him in conflict with many other political forces in his native country, such as the Indian National Congress and Mahatma Gandhi. In India itself, Ambedkar's legacy is widely respected but in other countries he is not so well known. And yet, Ambedkar was not only a leading intellectual of his day, brilliant orator, lawyer, successful politician and...