Cadillac Desert Interpreted

Newer Oak Ridge National Laboratory United States Hydropower maps are available, but they lack the labeling of meridians of longitude, so that for the context of this post the 2014 edition is preferred.

This short weblog post was written in response to someone who found it difficult to understand Mark Reisner’s (1948 – 2000) Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disapearing Water (1986, revised 1993).

Rather than struggling to read Cadillac Desert, readers are encouraged to examine a hydrological map of The United States of America. The country can be divided into a wet eastern half, and a dry western half. Admittedly, there is also a strip of wetness along the Pacific coast that extends almost as far south as San Francisco Bay. The east-west dividing line is not particularly neat, and doesn’t follow state boundaries consistently. So people resort to meridians of latitude. Both 100 W and 110 W have been used as the dividing line, but often go through the middle of more states. Thus some prefer to use 95 W.

What makes this book difficult for non-Americans to read is its failure to provide context. The book is largely a history of the Bureau of Reclamation and the United States Army Corps of Engineers, both American federal government agencies, that were more concerned with settlement policies in the western half of the United States, than they were with the area’s geographical realities. It assumes that readers are sufficiently acquainted with the geography of the west that they understand these water realities, as well as how federal institutions function.

The map also shows the numerous dams that have been build on the various Western rivers. The Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River created Lake Roosevelt. This dam is especially destructive for assorted species of Pacific salmon. Further south, there are also many extensive dams on the Colorado River and its tributaries. The Hoover Dam created Lake Mead, close to Los Vegas, in Nevada. Further north, the Glen Canyon Dam created Lake Powell located in Utah and Arizona.

The four major deserts in the United States are the Mojave Desert, 124 000 km2 in Nevada, Arizona and California; the Sonoran Desert, 260 000 km2 from Mexico through Arizona and into southern California; the Chihuahuan Desert 360 000 km2 from Mexico through Texas, Arizona and New Mexico; the Great Basin Desert, 490 000 km2, in Arizona, California, Utah, Oregon and Idaho. The Great Basin Desert is often divided up into several different desert ecoregions (3 – 8) shown in the map below.

Cold Desert ecoregions: 1. Thompson-Okanagan Plateau; 2. Columbia Basin; 3. Northern Basin and Range; 4. Wyoming Basin; 5. Central Basin and Range; 6. Colorado Plateaus; 7. Arizona/New Mexico Plateau; 8. Snake River Plain. Hot desert ecoregions: 9. Mojave Basin and Range; 10. Sonoran Desert; 11. Baja Californian Desert; 12. Chihuahuan Desert.

The title Cadillac Desert is not the name of a specific desert. Rather it refers to a very expensive desert, in contrast to, say, a cheaper Chevrolet Desert. Should I have written a book about the same topic, my choice of title would have been Gold-plated Desert. That is, a very thin but expensive coating that hides a base material underneath.

The book, Cadillac Desert, fails to interpret and describe water realities in terms of settlement and geography, with its focus on institutional history. There are other books that discuss the lack of water in the west. Perhaps the most enjoyable of these is, The West without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us about Tomorrow (2015) by B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam.

This book is documents the American West’s climate over twenty thousand years, with some explanations about past droughts and floods. It also looks forward, and predicts future climate impacts regarding water resources. One central question is what is a normal climate in the West, especially if the current relatively benign climate of the past century will continue. It also provides insights into paleoclimate research. This research shows that the area is subject to substantial climatic swings. Modern human environments are essentially artificial. Civilization is un/ ill-prepared for future climate changes. They end with a warning that residents must face the realities of the past, and prepare for a future where access to fresh water may be less reliable.


Homebound was sent as an entry in Bella Caledonia’s Scotland 2042 competition that describes Scotland in twenty years time, in 2042. In my letter accompanying the work, I asked it to be considered in the human category. This was because the organizers had wanted to distinguish three categories of writers: men, women and under 25 years of age. There was also a size limit of 1000 words. The submitted document’s word count was 998 words, 6 179 characters including spaces, 5 187 characters without spaces. That left two words to spare!

Bella Caledonia has existed an online magazine publishing social, political and cultural commentary since 2007-10, at the Radical Book Fair in Edinburgh. It was launched by Mike Small and Kevin Williamson (1961 – ). It also existed as a 24-page print magazine, at one time as a supplement to the Scottish pro-Independence newspaper, The National. This print version ended in 2017. It was named after Bella Baxter, a character in Alasdair Gray’s (1934 – 2019) novel Poor Things (1992). Gray later provided the site with a new version of his artwork.

The origins of Homebound date back to 1974. Working as a student archaeologist, I lived at one of the notorious Canadian residential schools, in Port Alberni, British Columbia. However, this school was not regarded as one of the worst! Other schools subjected First Nations children to inhumane treatment, that resulted in genocide. The Alberni Indian Residential School, as it was officially called, opened in 1890 under the Presbyterian Church. It burned down in 1917 and was closed for three years. In 1920 it was re-opened under the United Church. It officially closed in 1973. Many of the workers at the archaeological site had attended this school.

In preparation for this submission, I checked the current fertility rate in Scotland, and elsewhere. Without children, there is no future for humanity, but fertility has to be kept within bounds. In 2020, the latest date for which I could get figures (mainly from CIA produced, World Factbook), it was 1.29. The fertility rate for some other countries with name, rank and fertility-rate: Ireland, 124th, 1.94; United States, 141st, 1.84; Norway, 142nd, 1.84; China, 184th 1.60; Russia, 185th, 1.60; Canada, 193rd, 1.57; Ukraine, 194th, 1.56; Japan, 214th, 1.43; Taiwan, 226th, 1.14; and Singapore, 228th and last, 0.87. Total fertility rate (TFR) is the total number of children that would be born to each woman if she were to live to the end of her child-bearing years and give birth to children in alignment with the prevailing age-specific fertility rates. A TFR of 2.1 is regarded as a replacement rate. Thus, none of the countries mentioned here seem capable of replacing their populations. In Japan, many regard automation as the answer, in other places, it is immigration.

This submission focused on race relations, especially the negative impact of British colonization on First Nations people. Racism has also impacted many others, notably Chinese and East Asians (including British subjects from India, whose denial of entry into Canada was illegal, but supported by Canadian and British Columbia governments). With the word count limiting one’s freedom of expression, I opted to focus on First Nations. In a future post, I intend to discuss how colonial racism impacted the Chinese community.

One notable opponent to Asian immigration, from New Westminster, was former Premier, Richard McBride. He had many places named after him including a village, a mountain, a park, two schools and a boulevard. One of the schools, Richard McBride Elementary School in New Westminster was built in 1912 as a replacement for the Sapperton School. After it burned down, it was rebuilt, a task completed in 1929. In 2018, provincial funding allowed this school to be replaced.

There was, however, discussion about the name for the school. In a letter dated 2020-06-22, the Richard McBride Elementary School Parent Advisory Council writes:
During his time as premier (1903 to 1915), McBride advocated for “a white B.C.” and sought to shut out the “Asiatic hordes.” He worked hard to prevent “cheap” Japanese labour from competing in the fisheries and in “everything the white man has been used to call his own.”

McBride led the legislature in passing numerous anti-Asian measures, such as taxes on companies that hired Chinese labourers and legislation denying the vote to Asians and Indigenous people.

After the Conservatives formed the federal government in 1911, McBride urged Prime Minister Robert Borden to honour a promise to legislate against immigration from Asia.

McBride was premier at the time of the Komagata Maru incident, when the Japanese steamship carrying hundreds of Sikh passengers was prevented from docking and most of its passengers were barred from entering B.C. McBride was quoted as saying: “To admit Orientals in large numbers would mean the end, the extinction of the white people.”

As premier, McBride pursued a policy of making way for economic development and the expansion of cities by dispossessing Indigenous nations of their reserve lands.

McBride was also well-known as a leading anti-suffrage politician at a time when white women were gaining the vote across Canada. He believed extending the franchise to women would take away too much power from men.


Richard McBride Elementary School no longer exists. Long live, Skwo:wech Elementary School, opened at the beginning of the school year in 2021-09. The name means sturgeon in Halq’emeylem (the upriver dialect), a language understood by the local Qayqayt First Nation, but not actually in hǝn̓q̓ǝmin̓ǝm̓ (the downriver dialect). The school serves over 400 Kindergarten to Grade 5 students from the Sapperton neighbourhood in New Westminster. In promotional materials, it is stated that the school offers “diverse programs that support the social, emotional and academic enrichment of students. We feature both Montessori and regular programs, and host the StrongStart Early Learning Centre. Our Goal at Skwo:wech is to work together to foster a positive school community of socially and emotionally connected learners.

The name connects people with Sto:la = Sturgeon River = the Fraser River, central in New Westminster’s history. Sturgeon represented a primary food source for Indigenous communities, before commercial fishing in the early 1900’s overfished them for their caviar. It is a slow moving, but long-lived fish, there is a sense of resilience. The name itself also reflects a value necessary for reconciliation, with a name that honours local Indigenous practices, culture and contributions. Sturgeons are also an integral part of Coast Salish myth. Some have also pointed out similarities between schools of fish and schools of learners.

New Westminster in 1892

The above map of New Westminster, is oriented as many of its citizens perceive their city, with the west on the left and the east to the right, with the north at the top, and the south at the bottom. Streets run south to north, avenues from east to west. Even numbered addresses are on the southern and western sides, odd numbered on the northern and eastern sides. Unfortunately, even these basic facts aren’t actually true. The compass near the bottom of the map helps explain it. Most streets run from the south-east to the north-west; most avenues from the north-east to the south-west. The exception is Sapperton, on the right of the map, where streets run in their true north-south and east-west orientation.

New Westminster was founded by the Royal Engineers, led by Colonel Richard Moody (1813 – 1887), to be the capital of the Colony of British Columbia in 1858, and continued in that role until the colony’s merger with the Colony of Vancouver Island in 1866. New Westminster was the largest city on the mainland, from that year until it was passed in population by Vancouver during the first decade of the 20th century.

The most prominent street on the map of New Westminster is Fifth Street, where my sister lives. The architecture is attractive. Some patriots might even call it majestic with traffic divided by a boulevard. This was to be lined with foreign embassies, but by 1871, when British Columbia entered Canada, this dream came to an end. Victoria had become the capital of the united colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia.

This is the background image on all of my computers, showing Greater Vancouver and the Fraser Valley to the right of the Salish Sea, with Vancouver Island on the left.

This weblog post ends with the submitted story,


On board the sky blue C-5M Galaxy transport plane on its daily flight, scheduled to arrive at GLA, Glasgow Airport, at 10 in the morning, were Eileen Erskine, 97, her son Jack, 65, her grandson Nathan, 40, and his wife Ivy, also 40, and their daughter, Freya, 8. They were five of yet another 200 Canadian refugees being ferried in that day, this time the weekly flight from Vancouver, part of the four million that Scotland had agreed to repatriate. Each of them had their allotted 100 kg of baggage.

During the first two years of the flights only young, fully trained construction professionals arrived. They were the fore-troop, building out the housing and infrastructure for those to come later. Eileen had been born in Glasgow towards the end of the Second World War. Her parents had immigrated with her to Vancouver, where she had grown up. As housing prices escalated, she had been forced into the interior of British Columbia. Today, housing anywhere in Canada was worth nothing. The various First Nations own everything, the result of a Canadian Supreme Court ruling.

Refugee flights also arrived from Toronto and Halifax. Most of the passengers had been living in refugee camps in Canada since the beginning of 2040. The Erskines were allowed in now because Eileen had been born in Scotland.

When Britain gave reciprocal British citizenship to Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders, the First Nations of Canada, renamed the Canadian Nation, saw their opportunity to depopulate their sovereign country.

Deciding where all of the refugees should go was complex. People could apply for a particular country and location, but it was an algorithm that decided. Many of the refugees destined for Scotland, had one ancestor from there, often a result of highland clearances. Most were ethnically mixed, commonly with English, Irish or even Welsh, but often involving more exotic combinations. Many Scots-Irish were assigned to Scotland, despite arriving in Canada from Ulster. Everyone had to be moved by 2050. At its current rate only sixty thousand people made it to Scotland, in a year. That rate would have to ramp up to six hundred thousand a year, ten flights a day, to meet the timeline.

With all of these new immigrants, Scotland finally took action against the lairds. No corporation, family or individual could own more than one hectare; houses could not exceed 500 square meters. Excess lands and buildings had to be sold to local authorities, who could then either sell them onwards, or rent them out.

Similar flights were being made to the other British republics: Cornwall, England, Mann, Northumbria and Wales. European Canadians from France, Germany and most of the other countries still in the United States of Europe (USE), were not being treated this way. USE was skilled at getting its own way, but to its disadvantage. They, too, needed new immigrants because of the fertility crisis.

In Scotland, developing a green economy and repopulating the Highlands and Islands were priorities. Silicon Glen would extend into Silicon Highlands and assorted island offshoots. People with proven connections to the Lowlands, such as Eileen and her family, moved there. Greenness involved building wooden houses out of plantation woods such as Douglas-fir and Sitka Spruce, then rewilding Scotland with native species. It also involved growing several iterations of crops a year using hydroponics, and fish using aquaponics.

Bureaucrats loved the opportunity to create exceptions. Refugees thought to have connections to the Hudson Bay Company, were sent to the Orkneys, which was prime recruitment territory for the fur trading company. Of course, not all of these descendants were required to leave Canada. Those with First Nations heritage were allowed to stay in Canada, something a DNA test could prove.

Fur traders were not the worst of immigrants to Canada, if only because of their dependency on native trappers. Gold miners were often only interested in get-rich-quick schemes. When these failed, as they most often did, the former miners took to homesteading, taking the lands already occupied by the First Nations people, and often giving them European diseases that killed them off.

The Canadian Nation dealt more harshly with Scottish descendants, in part because the first prime minister of Canada, born John Alexander McDonald in Glasgow, infuriated past and present indigenous people, because federal policies he enacted, encourage their genocide, from gold miners, settlers and the residential school system.

With the Canadian Nation owning all of the land in Canada now, it was payback time, and the descendants of British settlers suffered the most. Except it wasn’t suffering at all. Scotland needed young workers!

Immigration reinforced English. Scots and Canadians spoke the same language, although with different dialects and vocabularies. At the Canadian refugee camps they were educated in green skills that could be put to immediate use on their arrival in Scotland. They also received a social education that gave them an understanding of Scottish history, but also a history of the European exploitation of Canada, and how this negatively impacted the First Nations peoples.

One of the many concerns was how long it would take the new citizens to drive comfortably on the left side of the road. Native born Scots wondered how many lives would be lost before the new immigrants consciously looked right, first, before crossing roads. Some worried that an upcoming plebiscite would change the country to driving on the right. The new citizens were restricted to autonomous vehicles. An agreement with Stellantis, and a reconstructed Linwood auto factory resulted in a new, electric and autonomous MPV, the Hillman Husky: a brand name that united the past with the future, a model name that appealed to most Canadian refugees, and a product that looked after most transportation needs.

Eileen soon arrived at her new home, an assisted living centre, in Laurieston. The tenements she had grown up with had disappeared, as had the towers that replaced them. “Absolute luxury,” she declared, as she ate her dinner of haggis, neeps and tatties, “Its good to come home, finally.”

Earth Day 2022

Blue Marble by NASA/Apollo 17 crew, either Harrison Schmitt (1935 – ) or Ron Evans (1933 – 1990), 1972-12-07.

The first Earth Day was held fifty-two years ago, on 1970-04-22. Officially, it includes events coordinated globally by Unofficially, anybody can do whatever they like. This year’s event happens on Friday, 2022-04-22, with an official theme: Invest In Our Planet. This weblog post is being published almost a week in advance, so that people will have some time to reflect on what they want to do.

When I visited the Earth Day website, to gain an understanding of what this year’s theme really means, I was underwhelmed. One section read: “The fashion industry is responsible for over 8% of total greenhouse gas emissions.  Sustainable Fashion refers to a clothing supply chain that is ecologically and socially responsible. Now is the opportunity to shift the industry and consumers away from the fast fashion model and toward sustainable practices in sourcing, production, distribution, marketing, and consumption.” Sadly, there is not much helpful detail. I am left wondering who, if anyone, is going to implement these sustainable practices? Who is going to do anything?

I am not impressed with the new European Union eco-labels for fabrics. From 2023 all clothes and shoes sold in the EU will include colour-coded labels informing customers about the products’ environmental impact. But the Make the Label Count campaign says the system of measurement developed in 2013 is misleading, outdated and not in line with the EU’s climate goals. Fossil fuel-derived fibres, such as polyester, will be certified as more environmentally friendly than natural fibres, such as wool and cotton. These will score red. Microplastic pollution, biodegradability and renewability are excluded from the assessment criteria. Thus, I will not pay attention to any of these labels.

Most of my clothing is made of natural materials, wool and cotton especially. I wear them for many years. For example, my spring and summer jacket was purchased in 2008. It should last the rest of my life. I wear my chinos until they wear out, and even then, they are transformed (through the miracle of a personal relationship with a textile craftsperson) into shorts. My shirts and underwear are cotton. Most of my shoes (4 pairs) are Allbirds, made of wool but with Sweetfoam soles made from sugarcane. This was the most ecological brand of shoes that I could find, that fit my feet, even if I would prefer them to offer a slightly wider variant.

75 Gigajoules

A Stanford University study has shown that the good life in terms of happiness involves the consumption of about 75 GJ of energy per person annually. Quoting from the abstract: “We analyze the maximum global performance of nine health, economic, and environmental metrics by country, determining which metrics increase with per capita energy use and which show thresholds or plateaus in maximum performance. Across the dataset, eight of nine metrics, including life expectancy, infant mortality, happiness, food supply, and access to basic sanitation services, improve steeply and then plateau at levels of average primary annual energy consumption between 10 and 75 GJ person−1 computed nationally (five metrics plateau between 10 and 30 GJ person−1). One notable exception is air quality (energy threshold of 125 GJ person−1 across 133 countries). Averaged across metrics, the 10 countries (with at least seven metrics) showing the best performance given their per capita primary energy use are Malta, Sri Lanka, Cuba, Albania, Iceland, Finland, Bangladesh, Norway, Morocco, and Denmark. If distributed equitably, today’s average global energy consumption of 79 GJ person−1 could, in principle, allow everyone on Earth to realize 95% or more of maximum performance across all metrics (and assuming no other limiting factors). Dozens of countries have average per capita energy use below this 79 GJ energy sufficiency threshold, highlighting the need to combat energy poverty.”

Personal efforts

In part because Earth Day begins and ends in words, I won’t be doing anything officially to support it, but here is a short list of my current personal priority issues for saving planet Earth from a 1.5 (or more likely 2.0) degree C increase in temperature, and a lower carbon footprint in the future.


I am fortunate to live in a house that I own together with Patricia, and to have the ability to undertake improvements. Not everyone is in full control of their housing. Some people rent rather than own, others live in condominiums = self-owned apartments. Thus, many individuals and families are at the mercy of others, including home-owner associations. However, we do live in a cold climate, that requires heating. With the construction season started, this year’s highest priority task is to increase the thickness of insulation in the ceiling. We discovered shortly after moving into the house in 1989, that it was essentially uninsulated in the walls, but was insulated in the ceiling.

All of the walls have been upgraded to a minimum of 100 mm of insulation. Two of the four walls that meet the worst of arctic winds, have been upgraded further, so that most of the length of these walls now has 250 mm of insulation, although there are a few meters that have only 200 mm. This year the focus is on increasing ceiling insulation from 200 to 400 mm. Throughout the pandemic there has been a construction boom in Norway, resulting in product and labour shortages and increased prices. Fortunately, most of the material needed for this year’s improvements were purchased before 2020, and have waited patiently to be used.

The other task is to install a balanced ventilation/ heating/ cooling system that will recycle heat, but not air, and will be connected to an air-to-air heat pump that should reduce energy consumption further.

Transportation and Travel

This year could be the year that we transition from an internal compustion engined (ICE) vehicle to an electric vehicle (EV). But transportation involves much more than just owning a car. In terms of driving, I am thinking that we should not drive more than once a week to our municipal centre, Straumen (26 km, round trip) for grocery shopping. About once a month we could allow ourselves a trip to Steinkjer that offers a wider selection of products (an additional 40 km, round trip). There would be an annual visit to Trondheim (240 km, round trip). Some social visits could come in addition. Norwegian Friends of the Earth has been particularly concerned about the use of tires, and their contribution of plastics to the environment.

In terms of air travel, we would like to prioritize one more trip to British Columbia to celebrate Patricia’s sister’s 80th birthday, and one more trip to California, to visit our daughter. We have decided that we can visit much of the rest of the world through documentaries. However, it must be admitted that excursions into warmer parts of Europe during the winter, are appealing. However, trains can be used to get there!


We continue to buy much of our dairy products and eggs from local farmers. This involves walking to the farms. While not vegetarians, we try to eat less meat. We also avoid almost all restaurant food, if only because of their excessive salt content.


In many weblog posts in 2021, and even now in 2022, music has been a major theme. Here, I would like to address the carbon footprint of the music industry, assisted – in part – by a recent Guardian article, that stated that on Earth Day about 100 international, intergenerational and eclectic musicians will release material exclusively via Bandcamp (with the platform waiving its fees) and with the income generated being distributed among causes working at the frontlines of the climate emergency.

On EarthPercent’s website, a somewhat different story is told. They state that for every track sold, a minimum of £1.30/$1.30 goes to our grantmaking programme, after deducting only third-party platform fees and applicable taxes from the purchase price. No EarthPercent operating costs are deducted.

The two sources also disagree about how much philanthropic funding is directed towards the climate crisis. The Guardian states less than 3%, EarthPercent states less than 2%. Regardless, EarthPercent encourages all participants in the music industry to divert a small percentage of their income, to the most impactful climate causes/ projects/ charities selected by an independent expert advisory panel, with the financial goal of raising $100m by 2030.

I do not support the music industry, with the exception of including YouTube links to specific songs in weblog posts. At a personal level, my musical content was converted to audio files from CDs, at a time when it was legal to do so. This is what I play. I do not stream anything. I do not attend concerts. I do not buy new CDs. I do not buy vinyl. I am attempting to go one step further, making my own music, but this is a long and arduous process.

The industrial approach to music is easy for listeners. Pay a regular sum of money (or listen to some ads) and you will be able to listen to (some) music using a streaming service. Pay somewhat more, and you will be able to download it, more still and it will be provided on a CD or vinyl record. Pay something outrageous, and you will be able to attend a concert.

The focus of the music industry is on the promotion of specific groups and individuals, who may be no better or worse than many others. Industry players then attempt to control this music to maximize their return on investment from the production of: CDs, vinyl records, streamed content, concerts. At the same time, they promote the excessive, luxurious lifestyle, enjoyed by a few performers, which only creates more disparity in the world. This disparity leads to an overheating of the world, in part because it prevents the less privileged from making improvements to their lives, such as an ability to replace the burning of fossil fuels with greener substitutes.

Environmentally, music concerts are particularly bad. They not only involve the movement of a band, its roadies and its equipment, but up to tens of thousands of fans (as in enthusiastic people, not mechanical devices that blow air). All this movement creates a serious carbon footprint.

Personally, I am not convinced that kinetic dancefloors, that harness crowd energy, or travel advice apps, will cut carbon emissions significantly. Instead, if people need live entertainment, they should enjoy locally produced music, produced by local musicians, in local venues. Even better, if a person is interested in music, they can make it themselves!

There are many different approaches to music. Here in Inderøy, which is a microcosm of what is happening in Norway and developed countries more generally, there are many different choirs: some are just for men, or women, or children; some are mixed for all genders of adults; some focus on just part of the municipality, while others are for all of it.

There are marching bands with woodwinds, brass and percussion instruments, that will be playing at a wide variety of venues on two upcoming holidays, Labour day (2022-05-01) and Constitution day (2022-05-17). Some of these bands march, some don’t.

Traditional music, often involves the Hardingfele (Norwegian) or Hardanger fiddle (English), often considered Norway’s national musical instrument. It is similar to a violin, typically with eight strings (in contrast to four on a standard violin) and thinner wood. Four of the strings are strung and played like a violin, the remaining understrings, simply resonate. Traditional, and not-so traditional dance bands play music at local events for people who like to dance.

There are also a wide variety of smaller bands that practice together, playing mainly for themselves, or at a few local festivals or other events. Increasingly, they place their music on YouTube.

Yet, the most important group involves solo musicians, who sing or play for their own personal enjoyment. There is some form of music for almost everybody, and the carbon footprint of playing that music does not have to be very high!


A Synclavier II was introduced in 1980. Many claim its fame is due to its cost, which was originally between $200 000 – $300 000. The largest system built and sold by New England Digital Corporation cost $500 000

Dartmouth College deserves praise for its role in starting advanced technological companies in rural environments. One of the first of these was New England Digital Corporation (NED). The company began life in Hanover, New Hampshire (NH), population 9 119, in the 1980 census, then moved to Norwich, Vermont (VT), with a population then of 2 398, located 2.4 km north-east of Hanover, and later to White River Junction, VT, with a current population of 2 286, located 9 km south of Hanover.

A location with a small population can become world famous for its products, but those products have to be carefully selected. In addition, product design will probably need some input from external experts, rather than relying on the efforts of a single entrepreneur, working alone, in a remote area.

On almost every corporate website, and many others, there is a section titled, Our Story or About. The wording is interesting, because it is usually not called Our History, for that would imply some truthiness. With Our Story or About there is more wiggle room for wishful thinking, and self-aggrandizement, and less need for objective facts. On the Synclavier website, the role of external experts needed to make the Synclavier successful has been reduced/ wiggled away. Here, the focus will be on some of the experts that made Synclavier the success it was.

As a university, Dartmouth College, in Hanover, NH is notable for several reasons. It is a rural university, without urban distractions. In the 2021 US News university ranking, Dartmouth College is #13 nationally, and #226 in the world. In 2016, Thayer became the first US national research university with a graduating class of engineers that was over 50% female. In the 1960s, Dartmouth was world famous for its invention of the Basic programming language, released 1964-05-01. In 1978, it became world famous for its founding of the Thayer School of Engineering’s entrepreneurship program, at the Cook Engineering Design Center. At Cook, they solicit industry-sponsored projects for degree candidates to work on. Prior to this, in 1975, one of the first such project resulted in the Synclavier.

Without the support of Dartmouth’s faculty members, it is unlikely that the Synclavier would have existed. The Synclavier has its origins with Jon Appleton (1939 – 2022), a professor of digital electronics, and Frederick Johnson Hooven (1905 – 1985), a part-time professor of engineering. They worked with Dartmouth Thayer School of Engineering research professor Sydney Alonso (1936 – ) and Cameron Warner Jones (ca. 1955 – ), at the time an undergraduate student. These last two apparently met in the university computing centre. They discovered a common interest, that resulted in the Synclavier.

From 1957 to 1961 Appleton was a student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. During the 1962–1963 school year, he was a music teacher in Sedona, Arizona. From 1963–1966 he was a graduate student at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon. During 1966–1968 he was hired by Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, to establish an electronic music studio. When the university officials reneged on their promise to develop this studio, Appleton resigned and accepted a position at Thayer school of engineering, at Dartmouth College. He took a leave of absence from Thayer in the mid-1970s to become the head of Elektronmusikstudion (EMS) = Centre for Swedish electroacoustic music and sound-art, established in 1964. It is run as an independent part of Musikverket = Swedish Performing Arts Agency. It is located in Stockholm, Sweden.

Hooven held thirty-eight U.S. patents and devised numerous other inventions that were not patented. His engineering career started before he graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1927. In 1925, at DayFan Radio, he designed improved radio receivers. After graduation he worked for General Motors (GM) where he designed a brake shoe system used on all GM vehicles for twenty-five years.

From 1930 to 1931, Hooven designed automobile suspension systems at Dayton Rubber Company. During 1931 and 1932, he designed a blind aircraft landing system for the American Loth Company. In 1932 he independently produced the first successful high-fidelity crystal phonograph pickup. He worked as vice-president and chief engineer for Bendix’s Radio Products Division from 1935 to 1937, where he developed the first automatic steering system for unmanned flight. From 1937 to 1957, he was self-employed working on product research and development.

In 1957 Fred Hooven went to work for the Ford Motor Company where he supervised the design and development of assorted automobiles. When he left Ford in 1967 he once again become a consultant, but also an adjunct professor of engineering at Thayer, becoming a part-time professor in 1975. He remained in that capacity until his death in 1985.

Civilian inventions include the first radio compass (1936); an automobile ignition system (1948); the first heart-lung machine (1952); the Harris intertype digital electronic phototypesetter (1955); and a front-end drive system for automobiles (1962).

The Synclavier I was released at the end of 1977. It used FM synthesis, re-licensed from Yamaha, and was sold mostly to universities. The initial models used a computer with synthesis modules, later enhancements added a (musical) keyboard and a control panel.

The Synclavier II was released in 1980. Once again, external help was needed. Synthesist and music producer Denny Jaeger suggested that FM synthesis be extended to allow four simultaneous channels to be triggered with one key depression to allow a fuller synthesized sound. This became a key selling point of the model.

Alonso and Jones made significant contributions to the design. Alonso was awarded US Patent 4108035 for a musical note oscillator, in 1978; US Patent 4178822 for musical synthesis envelope control techniques, in 1979; US Patent 4279185 for Electronic music sampling techniques, in 1981; US Patent 4680479 for a method of and apparatus for providing pulse trains whose frequency is variable in small increments and whose period, at each frequency, is substantially constant from pulse to pulse, in 1987; and, US Patent 4726067 for a method of and apparatus for extending the useful dynamic range of digital-audio systems, in 1988. Jointly, they were awarded US Patent 4345500 for their high resolution musical note oscillator, in 1982; and, US Patent 4554855 for their partial timbre sound synthesis method, in 1985.

The original keyboard, referred to as the ORK, was nothing more than an on-off switch. A weighted velocity and pressure-sensitive keyboard, the VPK was licensed from Sequential Circuits. It was identical to that used on their Prophet-T8 synthesizer.

The main contribution made by Synclavier was the development of hardware cards that could be fitted into computers. This included cards for a real-time CPU, input and output, analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion (ADC/ DAC), as well as memory. All of these needed to be programmed to function.

As newer models emerged, Synclavier became less dependent on external consultants, Synclavier music workstations/ digital synthesizers/ polyphonic digital samplers were made from the late 1977 to 1993. Wikipedia provides an overview of these. In 1993 Synclavier went bankrupt, its intellectual property was taken over by a bank, then sold to a Canadian company, Airworks, which itself then foreclosed. This gave Jones the opportunity he needed to buy back critical assets and to restart Synclavier.

Jones pursued other interests than building synthesizers. His bachelor thesis is about an XPL Language Compiler, a simple, small, efficient dialect of the computing language PL/1. PL/1 had been developed by IBM in 1964 to replace Algol, Cobol and Fortran. A variant, Scientific XPL, was used on New England Digital’s ABLE series computers, for laboratory automation and computer networking, as well as controlling music synthesis hardware.

Between 1982 and 1984, Jones studied the double bass with Stuart Sankey at Indiana University, Jacobs School of Music, and was active with the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra.

His DSP (Digital Signal Processing) engine allowed C Code to run on Windows and MacOS. Moreover, side-by-side testing was carried out with original equipment to ensure the systems sounded identical. Arturia’s Synclavier V was released in its own right to widespread critical acclaim in May 2016. He also brought Synclavier V software synth to Arturia to be included in their V Collection plug-in suite.

In 2019, Jones released Synclavier Go!, an iOS version of the synthesizer, repurposing much of the original DSP engine so that it runs on an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch. It provided over 1 000 preset timbres, 19 preset libraries and over 100 lossless-quality samples/ sound files. It supports portamento, arpeggiate, mono/poly triggering, and other keyboard modes.

Sources: Jon Appleton; Fred Hooven; Synclavier; Play Synthesizer.


1: Of the readers receiving notifications of weblog posts, only one lives in New Hampshire, at Keene, located about 100 km south of the other NH and VT locations mentioned here. Before I was adopted as an infant, my original first name was Richard. I have good reason to believe that I was named after him. Hello, Dick!

2: My niece, Cally, is currently a student at Oakland University, the Michigan university that had originally hired Jon Appleton to start an electronic music studio. Hello, Cally!

3: On 2022-04-01, I acquired a new toy/ learning machine, a Behringer MS-1 monophonic analogue synth. At a price of NOK 3600/ US$ 400, it is only 0.2% of the cost of the cheapest original Synclaver!

Mother of Biology

Maria Sibylla Merian, Metamorphosis of the silkworm, from Studienbuch (Book of Studies).

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-04-02 – 1717-01-13) was born in Frankfurt am Main, she is notable as an entomologist and scientific illustrator. She spent much of her life living in what is now Germany and the Netherlands, where she died, but also two years in the Dutch colony of Surinam, in South America. Today, it is 375 years since she was born.

After her father, Matthäus Merian der Ältere (1593 – 1650), a Swiss-born engraver/ publisher, died when she was three, her widowed mother, Johanna Sybilla Heim(ius), remarried Jabob Marrel (1613/4 – 1681), a still-life painter, in 1651. Merian received her artistic training from Marrel.

Many Dutch dissenters also moved to Frankfurt, seeking refuge from persecution in the Netherlands. They turned their attention to silkworm breeding and the silk trade towards the end of the 16th century. Maria Sibylla Merian’s earliest nature studies had their origins in this context. She started to collect insects as an adolescent. At 13, she raised silkworms.

In 1665, Merian married Johann Andreas Graff, an apprentice of Marrel. In 1668, her first child, Johanna, was born. The family moved to Nuremberg in 1670. In addition to painting and other artistic activities she gave drawing lessons to unmarried daughters of wealthy families, which helped her family financially, and gave her with access to private gardens, where she could collect and document insects.

She published her first book of natural illustrations in 1675. In 1678 a second daughter, Dorothea Maria, was born, and the family moved back to Frankfurt am Main. In 1679 she published the first volume of a two-volume series on caterpillars, opening with a presentation of the silkworm’s life-cycle.

Merian’s marriage was unhappy, and she moved in with her mother after her stepfather died in 1681. The second volume on caterpillars appearing in 1683. Each volume contained 50 plates that she engraved and etched. These documented the process of insect metamorphosis, and recorded the plant hosts of 186 European insect species. She also included descriptions of insect life cycles.

In 1683, Merian travelled to Gottorp, in Schleswig-Holstein, where she became attracted to the Labadist community, founded by Jean de Labadie (1610–1674). He originally came from the Bordeaux region of France. Later, the community moved to Walta Castle, at Wieuwerd in Friesland.

In 1685, Merian moved with her mother, husband, and children to Friesland. The Labadist community generated income from farming, milling and craftsmenship. Children were tutored communally. Women had traditional roles. A printing press was set up, to disseminate writings by Labadie and others, including Anna van Schurman, (1607 – 1678) painter/ engraver/ poet/ scholar and defender of female education. Another member, Hendrik van Deventer (1651 – 1724),[skilled in chemistry and medicine, set up a laboratory and was regarded as a pioneering obstetrician.

Here, Merian studied natural history and Latin, used as a scientific language. On Friesland’s moors she observed frog development, collecting and dissecting them. Merian’s mother died in 1690, and Merian moved, with her daughters, to Amsterdam in 1691. In 1692, her husband divorced her, and her daughter Johanna married Jakob Hendrik Herolt, a successful merchant in the Surinam trade.

In 1699, Merian and her younger daughter, Dorothea Maria Graff (1678–1743), travelled to Surinam to study and record the tropical insects native to the region. This was financed by selling 255 paintings. For two years she travelling throughout the colony, sketching local animals and plants, recording local/ native names and describing local uses.

Merian criticised the colonial merchants for their obsession with sugar. She took a broader interest in local agriculture, especially the vegetables and fruits that could be grown in Suriname, such as the pineapple. She also condemned their treatment of slaves. One such enslaved person assisted her in her research, and allowed her to interact with other Amerindian and African slaves.

In 1705, she published Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium. Merian’s Metamorphosis has been credited with influencing a range of naturalist illustrators. In Metamorphosis, she writes: “I have been concerned with the study of insects since my youth. I started with silkworms in my native Frankfurt. Later I realized that other caterpillars developed into much more beautiful diurnal and nocturnal butterflies.”

Because of her documented observations of butterfly metamorphosis, she is often considered to be the founder, and a significant contributor, to the field of entomology. Through her studies, Merian discovered many facts about insect life, earning her the title of mother of biology.

Maria Sibylla Merian from 1679, possibly by Jacob Marrel

More information about the life and work of Merian can be found in an article by Tanya Latty.