How One Earthquake Changed the Course of Human History

Amazon/iStock
Amazon/iStock

At its height, the Portuguese empire spanned four continents, with territory everywhere from Rio de Janeiro to Macau. The first global empire, Portugal's mastery of the seas began in earnest in the 1400s, when the relatively small and isolated country sought to find new trade routes with Europe and the rest of the world. Its first major success came in 1488, when Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias rounded the southern tip of Africa. Ten years later, Vasco da Gama reached India. The ensuing centuries would witness Portuguese navigators establishing relations and trade with countries as far as Japan.

By the middle of the 18th century, Portugal's capital of Lisbon was the fifth-most populous city in Europe, its port the third-busiest. It was one of, if not the, wealthiest cities in the world. It might still be, as Mark Molesky reveals in This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason, if not for an unspeakable catastrophe in 1755 that would leave the city leveled, the empire crippled, and the course of Western civilization forever altered.          

WHAT HAPPENED IN LISBON

Just before 10 a.m. on November 1, 1755—All Saints' Day—a fault line 200 miles or so off the Iberian Coast ruptured, releasing the energy equivalent of 32,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. So powerful was the earthquake that its effects were felt from the Azores to Sweden. Lisbon suffered the worst of it. "It began as a slight tremor, followed by a dull and persistent roar," writes Molesky. "Over the course of the next few minutes—and the arrival of two additional tremors—[the earthquake] would bring one of the greatest cities of Europe to its knees." It is thought to have measured up to a 9.2 on the Richter scale.

The city was obliterated. Ten thousand people were dead beneath the ruins of churches, houses, and markets. As the dust settled, the survivors pulled themselves free and gathered to witness and mourn what, even today, must have felt like the apocalypse. Then the tsunami hit.

The Atlantic Ocean rarely produces tsunamis, so the people of Lisbon would have been as unprepared for the tidal wave as they were for the earthquake. It seemed to come from nowhere, this wall of water, and so terrible was the tsunami that people as far away as Brazil were killed. Hundreds of the Lisbon earthquake's survivors emerged from rubble only to be pulled into the Tagus river and sucked into the Atlantic Ocean. This was a mere 30 minutes after the earthquake.

Then the fires came. There was no electricity in 1755, but there were an awful lot of candles, and they were all lit to celebrate All Saints' Day. Likewise, stoves and hearths had been primed with strong fires to celebrate the feast day. When the earthquake first hit, those candles and stoves were knocked to the ground, causing hundreds of small fires across the city. With the entirety of the city now reduced to kindling, not only did the fires spread, but they joined to create a literal firestorm that was so powerful in its thirst for oxygen that it could asphyxiate people 100 feet from the blaze—before incinerating them. Thousands of people trapped in rubble—people who had just survived the worst earthquake in European history, and who then survived a rare and terrible tsunami—were burned alive. The firestorm raged for a week, and smaller fires lingered for weeks after. In all, up to 40,000 people were killed in what the day before was the richest, most opulent city in Europe. The city would lay in ruin for years.

OUT OF CHAOS, A TYRANT

So sudden and catastrophic was the earthquake that the ruling state ground to a halt. The monarchy was paralyzed with fright, and other government officials had absconded, were dead, or were indisposed. This left a conspicuous vacuum of power soon to be filled by Portugal's secretary of foreign affairs, Marquês de Pombal. He seized the initiative in the chaos, and "dashed off orders and proclamations with great gusto." He took control of the recovery effort, and with the king's blessing, assumed the role of a dictator. As Molesky writes, "One might say he was the earthquake's fourth tremor, so swift and violent was his rise in the weeks after disaster."

To be sure, his actions in the earthquake's aftermath were decisive and oftentimes beneficial. Bodies had to be buried lest disease flourish, and the border and coast had to be secured from invaders and pirates who might take advantage of the chaos. His policies of conscripting vagabonds into forced labor were less favorable, however, as were his price controls on all food and goods, which prevented price gouging but ultimately discouraged vendors "from assuming the substantial risks of transporting their wares into a disaster zone."

As generally happens when one is made dictator, scores with old enemies were soon settled, freedoms were curtailed, and criticisms suppressed. Enemies who rose up were brutally crushed. (Featured were beheadings, limbs broken before executions, and burnings at the stake.) This "emergency rule" continued for more than 20 years, until 1777, when Queen Maria I assumed the throne of Portugal and exiled Pombal.

Portugal would never again see its former glory. Weak leadership, wars, revolutions abroad, and invasions at home—all of which might have gone differently or been averted entirely had Lisbon not been destroyed—slowly decomposed the empire and eventually ended the country's global ambitions. "Portugal was never the same after the earthquake," writes Molesky. With the existing order annihilated—the nobility, the church, commercial interests, and the military—the Portuguese empire would begin a decline from which it would never recover. "The earthquake, in short, had brought about a revolution."

THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS

The effects of the catastrophe were felt in other ways across Europe. Paradoxically, it both strengthened and weakened Enlightenment thinking, which was then in full force. Scientists around the world put forth explanations for the earthquake, establishing the fields of seismology and scientific geology in the process. Because scientists were unable to give a compelling reason for all that had transpired, however, the clergy were able to point to the Enlightenment as flawed, and suggest that maybe it was a vengeful God expressing his wrath at a decadent city.

The earthquake inspired artists as well—most notably Voltaire, who was then in exile in Switzerland. So infuriated was he at philosophers of the age who, even after the earthquake, called ours "the best of all possible worlds," that he wrote a novel savaging the philosophy of optimism, the church, and the ruling class. In Candide, the destruction of Lisbon is featured.

After the earthquake had destroyed three-fourths of Lisbon, the sages of that country could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin than to give the people a beautiful auto-da-fé; for it had been decided by the University of Coimbra that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking.

This Gulf of Fire reminds us what true devastation looks like, and that it needs no motivation or incitement. Our own nature might lead to our doom, but nature itself is unimpressed with our arguments and unmoved by our cries. "What a game of chance human life is!" Voltaire wrote. "[Lisbon] ought to teach men not to persecute men: for, while a few sanctimonious humbugs are burning a few fanatics, the earth opens and swallows up all alike."

Turn Your LEGO Bricks Into a Drone With the Flybrix Drone Kit

Flyxbrix/FatBrain
Flyxbrix/FatBrain

Now more than ever, it’s important to have a good hobby. Of course, a lot of people—maybe even you—have been obsessed with learning TikTok dances and baking sourdough bread for the last few months, but those hobbies can wear out their welcome pretty fast. So if you or someone you love is looking for something that’s a little more intellectually stimulating, you need to check out the Flybrix LEGO drone kit from Fat Brain Toys.

What is a Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit?

The Flybrix drone kit lets you build your own drones out of LEGO bricks and fly them around your house using your smartphone as a remote control (via Bluetooth). The kit itself comes with absolutely everything you need to start flying almost immediately, including a bag of 56-plus LEGO bricks, a LEGO figure pilot, eight quick-connect motors, eight propellers, a propeller wrench, a pre-programmed Flybrix flight board PCB, a USB data cord, a LiPo battery, and a USB LiPo battery charger. All you’ll have to do is download the Flybrix Configuration Software, the Bluetooth Flight Control App, and access online instructions and tutorials.

Experiment with your own designs.

The Flybrix LEGO drone kit is specifically designed to promote exploration and experimentation. All the components are tough and can totally withstand a few crash landings, so you can build and rebuild your own drones until you come up with the perfect design. Then you can do it all again. Try different motor arrangements, add your own LEGO bricks, experiment with different shapes—this kit is a wannabe engineer’s dream.

For the more advanced STEM learners out there, Flybrix lets you experiment with coding and block-based coding. It uses an arduino-based hackable circuit board, and the Flybrix app has advanced features that let you try your hand at software design.

Who is the Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit for?

Flybrix is a really fun way to introduce a number of core STEM concepts, which makes it ideal for kids—and technically, that’s who it was designed for. But because engineering and coding can get a little complicated, the recommended age for independent experimentation is 13 and up. However, kids younger than 13 can certainly work on Flybrix drones with the help of their parents. In fact, it actually makes a fantastic family hobby.

Ready to start building your own LEGO drones? Click here to order your Flybrix kit today for $198.

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When Al Capone Ran a Soup Kitchen During the Great Depression

Al Capone: Public Enemy #1, soup kitchen proprietor
Al Capone: Public Enemy #1, soup kitchen proprietor
The Paris Bureau of The New York Times, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

Four years after gangster Al Capone took over Chicago’s leading crime syndicate, he had raked in over $40 million—around $550 million today. The money came from illegally selling booze during Prohibition; bottles were distributed to more than 10,000 speakeasies and brothels in a vast bootlegging network across the Midwest.

Capone’s alcohol distribution was unlawful, but to many Americans, the man’s work was heroic. He claimed he was just a businessman giving the people what they wanted—and what the people wanted more than anything in the 1920s was liquor.

But Capone’s role as an Italian-American Robin Hood didn’t stop there. As he orchestrated criminal activities behind the scenes, Capone simultaneously launched a program to provide milk to Chicago school children and donated huge sums to local charities.

It was the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, however, that spurred Capone to his greatest work of philanthropy. Almost overnight, the American economy collapsed into the Great Depression. Banks failed, businesses shuttered, and millions were suddenly unemployed and hungry. Hundreds of soup kitchens popped up around the country. One of them belonged to Al Capone.

No Questions Asked

Men line up at Al Capone's soup kitchen during the Great Depression
Men line up at Al Capone's soup kitchen during the Great Depression.
The Paris Bureau of The New York Times, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

When Al Capone’s soup kitchen opened at 935 South State Street, in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood, in mid-November 1930, hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans were out of work. By the following year, 624,000 people—or 50 percent of the Chicago workforce—were out of a job.

Capone’s charity had no name, just a sign over the door that advertised “Free Soup, Coffee & Doughnuts for the Unemployed.” Inside, women in white aprons served an average of 2200 people a day with a smile and no questions asked. Breakfast was hot coffee and sweet rolls. Both lunch and dinner consisted of soup and bread. Every 24 hours, diners devoured 350 loaves of bread and 100 dozen rolls. They washed down their meals with 30 pounds of coffee sweetened with 50 pounds of sugar. The whole operation cost $300 per day.

The soup kitchen didn’t advertise its connection to Capone, but the mobster-benefactor’s name was connected to it in stories printed in local newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and The Rock Island Argus. Those who were down on their luck, though, apparently had few qualms about eating from the hand of Chicago’s worst crime boss. Often the line to get in to the kitchen was so long that it wound past the door of the city’s police headquarters, where Capone was considered Public Enemy #1, according to Harper’s Magazine. The line was particularly lengthy when Capone’s soup kitchen hosted a Thanksgiving meal of cranberry sauce and beef stew for 5000 hungry Chicagoans. (Why beef and not turkey? After 1000 turkeys were stolen from a nearby department store, Capone feared he’d be blamed for the theft and made a last-minute menu change.)

Capone's Ulterior Motives

Capone’s efforts to feed Chicago during the darkest days of the Great Depression weren’t entirely altruistic. It wasn’t even originally his idea, but that of his friend and political ally Daniel Serritella, who was elected to the Illinois state senate in 1930. Nor did Capone invest much of his own money into the operation. Instead, Deirdre Bair writes in Capone: His Life, Legacy and Legend, he bribed and extorted other businesses to stock the pantry. In just one example, during Seritella's 1932 trial for conspiring with grocers to cheat customers [PDF], the court discovered that a load of ducks that had been donated to Christmas baskets for the poor ended up in Capone’s soup kitchen instead.

Perhaps more than anything, Capone opened his soup kitchen to get the public back on his side after he was implicated in the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. In that murder spree, Capone's associates were believed to have assassinated seven men, five of whom hailed from the rival North Side Gang, inside a Chicago parking garage—though no one was ever prosecuted. Harper’s writer Mary Borden distilled Capone's double-dealing when she described him as “an ambidextrous giant who kills with one hand and feeds with the other.”

Capone’s soup kitchen closed abruptly in April 1932. The proprietors claimed that the kitchen was no longer needed because the economy was picking up, even though the number of unemployed across the country had increased by 4 million between 1931 and 1932. The diners who had attended the kitchen daily were forced to move on to another one.

Two months later, Capone was indicted on 22 counts of income tax evasion; the charges that eventually landed him in San Francisco’s Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Though Capone vowed to reopen his soup kitchen during his trial, its doors stayed shut. By the time he was released from prison in 1939, a raging case of syphilis had rendered Capone mentally and physically incapable of managing his own life, let alone that of Chicago’s once-dominant crime syndicate and the soup kitchen that softened his gangster image.

Capone died in 1947, but his larger-than-life legacy lives on. His soup kitchen wasn’t so lucky. The building became a flophouse, and in 1955, Chicago authorities deemed it a fire hazard and shut it down permanently. Today, only a parking lot remains at the site of Chicago’s most notorious food pantry.