Tag Archives: Documentary

Planet Oil

I recently watched part one of the BBC Scotland documentary Planet Oil, presented by geologist Professor Iain Stewart. The programme considers the story of how oil completely changed our world. It created riches on a previously unimaginable scale. It led to technology that revolutionised our lives. It changed the outcome of wars, and sent the balance of global power into a tailspin. The programme covered so many great stories that I thought I’d share a few.

Up until the mid-19th century the world’s lamps were lit by whale oil. But collapsing whale populations meant the industry, and the whales, were under serious threat. A new source of oil was urgently needed. In 1853 an industrialist named George Bissell took a trip to Pennsylvania. He’d heard stories of the region’s strange oily puddles and wondered if they might provide a solution.

The oily puddles bubbled up from deep underground. Bissell realised he needed to drill down to reach the source. This wasn’t something anyone had attempted before, so new technology was required. He partnered up with a former railway conductor, Colonel Edward Drake, who possessed the necessary engineering skills. By 1859 they were ready, and on 27th August Drake struck oil. Being the first to person to do so, he was taken by surprise when the oil erupted with such ferocity that it sprayed high into the air. Not wanting to waste the precious material he frantically grabbed some old whiskey barrels he had lying around and began filling them with the oil. This chance action is the reason we still trade oil in barrels today.

Bissell and Drake refined the oil into kerosene, which could be used to light lamps. This new type of oil was rapidly adopted, making the men extremely wealthy. Their wealth soon attracted the keen interest of others. Within twelve months over seventy-five drilling rigs were operating in the area. Within another year the area was generating around one million barrels a year. The shocking speed with which this new industry grew couldn’t be better illustrated than by the story of the town Pithole.

The discovery of oil in one particular location resulted in people flocking there to drill it. Within six months a prosperous town had grown from nothing. The town, named Pithole, was replete with ten hotels and numerous saloons, but the oil quickly dried up and the town disappeared. The rise and subsequent demise of Pithole occurred so quickly that it never appeared on the US census. A census is taken every ten years. At the time of the 1860 census the town didn’t exist. Oil was discovered in 1865. But by the time of the next census, 1870, the oil had dried up and the town was deserted.

These rapid changes were owed to the huge wealth this new mineral could bring. And there’s no finer example of this than the story of John T Rockefeller. He’s known as an infamous philanthropist, but he was also a ruthless businessman. He nickname was the anaconda.

Rockefeller originally worked as a greengrocer, but he soon saw the attraction of oil. It was hard not to. Every dollar invested in oil drilling returned a thousand. In 1865 he invested all his savings in an oil refinery. He used the profits to build a second. With so many people drilling for oil there was a risk of oversupply, so Rockefeller decided to distinguish his product by going for quality. To underline this commitment he opted to name his oil Standard.

Rockefeller’s business grew quickly. He soon became the country’s biggest supplier, but he still wasn’t satisfied. To further tighten his grip on the industry he focused upon the supply chain. Oil was transported via the railways. The size of his company afforded him great power, which he used to entice railway operators into extremely biased deals. The deals meant the more oil a supplier shipped, the cheaper the shipping became. As he was the largest shipper, the deal favoured his company. He then went a step further and arranged a deal that actively penalised smaller distributors. This killed off competition allowing him to monopolise the industry. The result? Never before in the course of history had one man become so rich so quickly from a single resource. He became the richest man that had ever lived, amassing a fortune equivalent to ten times that of Bill Gates.

In the 1870s a British military industrialist named Robert Nobel arrived in Baku on the Caspian Sea. He was seeking wood to make rifles. But instead he found a black, barren landscape. Gas would belch from underground vents. Volcanoes of mud spluttered into the air while rivers of oil oozed along the sun-baked sand. In this strange alien landscape he saw rocks on fire. He also saw an opportunity.

With his brother he formed the Nobel Petroleum company. They knew there was a ready waiting market, eastwards. The problem was getting their oil there.

The journey over land was long and arduous. The sea option was quicker, but required access to the newly opened Suez Canal (which connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea). But there was a problem, the clipper ships used to transport oil were deemed unsafe by the canal owners. They viewed wooden ships with thousands of oil barrels rolling around a dangerous prospect. The Nobel brothers needed a new design of ship.

The solution was found by the son of an English shell merchant, Marcus Samuel. His design is still in use today. It’s become one of the world’s most recognisable ships: the super tanker. Samuel then created his own oil company, Shell. Its name and logo was inspired by the shells his dad would sell. It soon became one of the world’s most recognisable brands.

Samuel’s new design of ship could carry twice as much oil and move it safely through the Suez Canal. This allowed the Nobel brothers to dominate the Asian market, much to Rockefeller’s frustration.

Drawn by the astonishing levels of potential riches many wells opened up across the world. But in their clamour to enrich themselves the new oil barons failed to notice the massive threat looming on the horizon: electricity.

In 1882 Edison flipped a switch. The switch sent electricity through wires which lit a series of streetlights across a London bridge. The world would never be the same again.

Towns and cities across the globe soon embraced this new technology. It wasn’t long before it was busy banishing darkness from inside people’s homes as well. Oil was made redundant almost overnight.

At that time oil only really had one use, and once that use had been supplanted the industry was obsolete. The oil barons needed a new use for their product. Conveniently, a German engineer was working on exactly that. Much like electric lights, his invention also completely revolutionised the world.

Oil reaches the surface in the form of crude oil. This is a mixture of numerous hydrocarbons (compounds of hydrogen and carbon). Only one molecule, kerosene, was used for lamps. By heating the raw oil the various types of hydrocarbons can be separated. This process, called distillation, causes the lighter molecules (such as propane) to evaporate first. As the temperature is increased the heavier molecules (such as kerosene) are separated out. This process generates many different products. One particular molecule was originally thrown away as a waste product. This made it the only fuel the German engineer, Carl Benz, could afford. So he designed his new internal combustion engine to run on it. The product was gasoline. Despite being initially considered worthless, a mere thimble full could perform the work of twenty horses. It wasn’t long before the world embraced Benz’s invention. And it wasn’t long before gasoline became oil’s most prized product.

Often the military is the first to embrace new technology. As was the case for gasoline. In 1911 Winston Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty. One of his immediate concerns was the German navy. Their ships ran on oil, whereas the British fleet ran on coal. Coal ships travelled at ten knots; oil ships travelled at twenty-five knots – clearly a massive advantage in a battle situation. Churchill soon set about converting Britain’s ships to oil. Fortunately his work was well underway when war broke out in 1914.

A month after war broke out an event took place that’s largely unknown outside of France. Paris was on the verge of being taken by the Kaiser. His forces were amassed only thirty miles from the city. Many considered the city’s fall inevitable. Most people, including the entire government, had already fled. But the city’s military general, Joseph Gallieni, was determined to save the city. Frontline troops were heavily outnumbered. Reinforcements were available, but stranded in Paris. The story goes that Gallieni was standing on a Parisian street when he saw a taxi go by, then another, then another. A thought occurred to him. What if he used these new, fast, gasoline-powered vehicles to take his troops to the frontline?

The call went out to all Parisian cab drivers to abandon their passengers and come to the army’s aid. What resulted is now referred to as the Taxi Armada. Six hundred taxis answered the call. Within twenty-four hours six thousand troops had been delivered to the frontline. Never in world history had so many people been transported so far so quickly. The Germans were pushed back; the city was saved. The age of motorised warfare had arrived, and the world was in no doubt as to where the future of transportation lay. Although, as an amusing side note, it’s claimed the taxis’ meters were still running during the mass exodus. Well, we’ve all got to earn a living…


Life on the Ocean Wave

The control room’s atmosphere was suffocatingly tense. The command was sent. The room feel silent. Anxious glances and hopeful smiles were traded as several excruciating minutes slowly passed. The tension was finally broken by a gasp drawing the attention of the room’s nervous eyes. A reading began to scan across the large central screen. The news was good. The submarine’s engines had successfully fired. The room erupted with relieved cheers, whoops of joy and punches of the air.

Hugs were exchanged, and tears were wiped from disbelieving eyes. All those years of gruelling hard work had hinged upon this one moment. And now, the meticulous planning and endless testing, had proved its worth.

A second reading began to appear upon the central screen. Preliminary checks indicated that the submarine had survived its perilous journey. It was ready for its mission. Engine power was increased. The ballast tanks were opened. The hydroplanes were adjusted and the craft began to disappear beneath the icy waves.

Back in the command centre eager eyes studied the murky images sent back by the on-board cameras. The army of eyes stared intently as ghostly shapes and shadows loomed in and out of view.

The images depicted a bizarre, alien world unfamiliar to human eyes. No one could predict what these images might reveal. The submarine’s radar indicated the ocean floor was approaching. If there was life to be found, this was most likely where.

As the ocean floor rose up to greet the craft, the propellers began kicking up mud and silt that had lain undisturbed for millennia. As the clouds dissipated the crowded room stood silent and motionless. From the fading clouds shapes began to emerge. Gasps of shock accompanied sharp intakes of breath. As the image cleared it revealed a field of plant-like creatures attached to the ocean floor. The control room once again erupted into ecstatic cheers and excited screams. The unbridled jubilation was well-placed. The room, and the world watching, had just witnessed the most incredible discovery in human history: life, found by NASA, using a remotely controlled submarine a billion miles from earth exploring the freezing oceans of Saturn’s largest moon: Titan.

It’s astounding to think that the scene described above may actually take place within the next decade or so. There are several locations within our solar system, over than Earth, where liquid oceans exists. Any of these may contain life. These worlds, and their potential exploration, was the focus of the latest episode of the BBC’s flagship science programme, Horizon.

Titan is fifty percent larger than Earth’s moon. At -180C it’s clearly too cold to host liquid water, but there are still oceans. Oceans of liquid methane.

In 2005 a probe named Huygens descended through the dense, cloudy atmosphere to provide our first ever glimpse of Titan’s landscape. Previously, the moon had been shrouded in a dense, hazy atmosphere. Huygens revealed a landscape more Earth-like than had ever been seen before. The surface was covered in large bodies of open liquid oceans. There were rivers, coastlines, lakes and seas. The revelations inspired speculations that life may well inhabit those frigid oceans.

It would be life completely distinct from that on Earth, with a completely different chemistry. It would be an example of a second genesis, featuring lifeforms occupying branches of a second tree of life.

But it wasn’t just the landscape that revealed tantalising clues to Titan’s potential for life.

Life on Earth produces seasonal changes in carbon dioxide levels. It’s absorbed by plants during the summer and released again during winter. It was predicted that life on Titan might produce a similar seasonal pattern in hydrogen. If so, hydrogen levels would be significantly lower near the surface than higher in the atmosphere.

As Huygens descended it sent back some intriguing readings. Hydrogen levels remained steady until close to the surface, where they dropped abruptly. Could this be owed to the behaviour predicted? Or could there be another, more prosaic, reason?

The intriguing readings convinced NASA to assemble a team tasked with designing a craft capable of exploring Titan’s alien oceans. After much experimentation and exploration of computer models, they settled upon a submarine design capable of plumbing the frozen depths. If ongoing tests are successful, launch may be only a decade or so away. If life exists elsewhere in the Solar System, it’s thought this is our best chance of finding it.

Horizon also discussed Enceladus. Enceladus is Saturn’s sixth largest moon. The Cassini craft that carried the Huygens probe captured photographed of giant jets of water spraying out from between large cracks in the moon’s icy crust. We now know that, beneath this thick layer of ice, is a briny, water ocean 10km deep. It would be too dark for photosynthesis to take place. But evidence of geysers raises the possibility of life eking out an existence around hydrothermal vents, just like on Earth. There are several proposals vying for funding to investigate, with a scheduled launch date of 2021. Will they detect the tell-tale chemical signature of life?

Lastly, Horizon considered Ganymede. Ganymede is Jupiter’s, and indeed the Solar System’s, largest moon. Beneath its icy crust exists a vast, salty ocean containing more water than all of Earth’s oceans. Beneath the 150km of ice exists an ocean reaching down 100km. Ten times the depth of Earth’s oceans. A probe tasked with exploring Ganymede is scheduled to launch in 2022.

It’s astounding to consider the very real possibility that life could inhabit these alien worlds, lurking beneath those thick icy crusts or frigid methane seas. And it’s even more awe-inspiring to acknowledge that, if such life exists, it may be discovered within only a decade or so. What a time to live – whether on Earth or elsewhere.

Horizon: Oceans of the Solar System is currently available on the BBC iPlayer.


Your Inner Fish

Warning: this post contains spoilers of the brilliant book Your Inner Fish and its accompanying, and equally brilliant, TV series.

Some time ago I read the fascinating book Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin. It’s a popular science book about evolution – focusing on the connection between fish and us. There was a three part series made to accompany the book. I read the book and later watched the TV series, both come highly recommended. The BBC recently repeated the series which I thoroughly enjoyed, again. It contains the story behind one of my favourite examples of the evidence for evolution, which I’ve decided to share.

But it’s not just a great story about the evidence for evolution. It’s also a great human story. It’s a great example of humanity’s insatiable quest for knowledge. We strive to understand the world around us. Not just for fame, money or glory, but because we just want to know. It’s part of who we are. This drive has undoubtedly compelled humanity towards some of its greatest achievements. It’s undoubtedly one of our noblest of traits, and sometimes it inspires us to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds in our thirst for truth.

If you hopped in a time machine and went back 400 million years the only type of vertebrate you’d encounter would be fish. Forty million years later, amphibians appeared. Some amphibians evolved into reptiles, some of which later evolved into dinosaurs, mammals and birds. Collectively these creatures are known as tetrapods – four-limbed creatures. You don’t have to think about it very long to realise that the transition from an aquatic lifestyle with fins and gills to a land-based lifestyle with limbs and lungs was one of the most momentous moments in life’s history, but no one knew how this dramatic change had occurred.

The problem had been a long-standing one. It can be traced back as far Charles Darwin. He predicted that at some point in the past a creature must have existed which exhibited both fishlike and tetrapod characteristics. Around the same time one of his contemporaries was grappling with a strange realisation. Sir Richard Owen was a leading anatomist confused by the skeletons he was studying. He realised that all tetrapods exhibited a common basic body pattern. This commonality was particularly prominent in the limbs. There was a single bone connected to the trunk. This was followed by two bones. Then there were lots of bones (comprising the wrist or ankle in humans) followed by the digits. This same pattern is found in creatures as diverse as turtles, birds, frogs, lions and humans. Why would this be?

The oldest known tetrapod was Ichthyostega. The world expert on Ichthyostega, Jenny Clack, unearthed some of the best examples while investigating Greenland’s rocks during the 80s. It was known that Ichthyostega had fishlike gills and an amphibian skull. It had limbs at the front and fin like appendages at the back used for balance. Surprisingly, it had seven digits on its hind limbs. Clearly it existed during a time when Mother Nature was still experimenting with the optimum number of digits. It was obviously a creature that had only just climbed onto land, but it there was still a gap of millions of years between it and fish. In the 90s the fish palaeontologist Neil Shubin decided to discover what filled that gap and solve the mystery of how the evolution of fish to tetrapods took place.

Shubin’s challenge was far from a modest one. Comparisons to needles and haystacks don’t quite cut it. It’s incredibly unlikely than any individual will ever by fossilised. And if an individual is fossilised, the chance of it being found are even slimmer. After all, an individual

may become the most perfectly preserved fossil of its kind, but that’s no use if it’s buried under several hundred metres of solid rock. To find a fossil you need three things: you need rocks of the right type (as not all rocks contain fossils). You need rocks of the right age, and, lastly, you need them exposed at the surface.

With this in mind Shubin and a geologist friend set out to Pennsylvania. There they could find 360 million year old rocks. Conveniently, roads had been blasted through the rocks exposing them. After a few trips they found the shoulder girdle of a tetrapod. It was an animal previously unknown to science, but it wasn’t what they were looking for. It was a fully land-dwelling tetrapod. Clearly the Pennsylvania rocks were too young. They needed older rocks.

Shubin and his geologist friend pulled out a college textbook. It was a geology book containing maps of the earth and the ages of the rocks exposed at the surface. The maps showed three regions where rocks of roughly the right age were exposed: Greenland, Pennsylvania, and northern Canada. The rocks of Greenland had already been studied by Jenny Crack and contained the Ichthyostega. They themselves had already searched in Pennsylvania. Clearly the rocks of both regions were slightly too young. They needed older rocks. Shubin described his heart racing as he looked at the map. The rocks of Canada were ten million years older, and he knew that no Palaeontologist had ever searched them. They were off to Canada.

Three hundred and seventy-five million years ago the region of Canada high-lighted on the map was a warm watery world with a giant flood plain criss-crossed with rivers. These rivers formed swamps and streams home to diverse life. The situation today couldn’t be more different.

Today the region is in the high-arctic. It’s a barren, rocky terrain of frozen valleys carved by the waxing and waning of passing glaciers. It’s also incredibly remote. There are no human settlements for miles and no roads. The only way there is by helicopter. It’s also very dangerous. Any intrepid visitors could easily get trapped by some of the worst weather in the world and find that hungry polar bears are their only companions.

Shubin and his team first headed out in the summer of 1999. There is only a narrow window of a few weeks in July when the snow melts long enough to access the rocks. If the remoteness and ferocious weather didn’t make things difficult enough, there was also the terrain. The ancient river beds have been crushed and distorted by 375 million years of geological upheaval. It’s unsurprising that they initially found nothing.

Unperturbed, they returned in July 2000. They were finding hardly anything in the barren terrain. At the end of a long day’s searching they were returning to camp. They had spent the days separated in teams. As they regrouped a question arose “Where is Jason?” No one had seen him. It was an alarming realisation. The inhospitable terrain is not an ideal place to get lost and subsequently found by a roaming polar bear.

The team became increasingly concerned about Jason’s whereabouts and their radio calls became increasingly frantic. He was the youngest member of the team, exacerbating their worries. Eventually the sound of hurried approaching footsteps allayed their fears. Jason’s silhouette appeared and began frantically unzipping the tent. He dived through the doorway with bulging eyes. “I’ve found it!” he said excitedly. He then began emptying his pockets

onto the ground. His pockets were full of fossils – exactly the type of fossils they were searching for.

They were so far north that they were experiencing twenty-four hour sunlight, so they immediately rushed back out. Jason took them to an area where the floor was littered with thousands of fossilised bone fragments. There was clearly a seam further up the hill from which the bones were falling. It took several weeks but eventually they found the seam from which the fossils were pouring. Frustratingly, the short seasonal window had closed and it was time to head home for another year.

For the next few years they repeatedly returned to Jason’s ancient river bed. They had huge amounts of rock to excavate. They would spend their days cramped into tiny spots armed with hammers and brushes carefully removing the rocks in search of their quarry. Each season they must have arrived full of hopes and dreams. They must have spent their few short weeks frustratingly finding nothing before, deflated, packing up and heading back home again.

They endured four years of this before their dedication finally paid off. In the second week of July 2004 a member of the team asked “Hey, what’s this?” Shubin went to investigate. He was faced with a V shaped fossil protruding from the rock. The visible teeth indicated that it was the tip of a snout extending into the cliff face. Its flat head suggested that it was likely a transitional creature. But how much of it was still in the rock?

They painstakingly dug around the fossil to free it from the cliff face. What resulted was a heavy chunk of rock that possibly contained the find of their careers, and possibly contained little more than what they could already see; there was no way to tell. They encased it in plaster and sent it home. Next it was the job of the preparers to meticulously chip away the rock and reveal whatever was inside.

It took many months of painstaking work but eventually the preparers finished. Their work revealed almost the entire top side of a creature previously unknown to science. It had a head connected to a body with fins. But these weren’t just any fins. Inside the fins were bones. The fins were primitive limbs that even exhibited functioning wrists and digits. And inside could be found the same bone pattern that had puzzled Sir Richard Owen. There was one bone, two bones, lots of bones and then digits. It explained why the diverse creatures Sir Richard Owen had studied possessed the exact same pattern: it was a pattern laid down over 375 million years ago and inherited by every subsequent tetrapod.

Shubin’s discovery also had tetrapod ribs and, unlike fish, it had a neck. This meant it could move its head in search of prey. Clearly this was a creature on the path to becoming a tetrapod. But it was still a fish in many ways. It had scales and fins. But its transitionary nature couldn’t be better exemplified than by its method of breathing. It had both gills and a primitive lung. This was exactly the creature that Darwin had predicted.

This particular specimen was about a foot and a half long. Other specimens have since been found up to nine feet long. It had adapted to the oxygen-poor, shallow water habitats of the region. It, and its cousins, are the likely common ancestors of all tetrapods. It’s thought that the creature mainly used its proto limbs to support itself on the floor of shallow streams and pulling itself onto shore for brief periods. The local Inuit people called it Tiktaalik, meaning large fresh water fish.

This story is a brilliant example of humans overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds in our thirst for knowledge. The frustration that Shubin and his team undoubtedly experienced didn’t deter them. Year after year they went back and continued looking for that proverbial needle.

The story is also one of my favourite examples of the evidence for evolution. If evolution wasn’t true, how could this discovery have occurred? How could it be possible to predict that this creature existed? Or to predict what traits it would exhibit? Or to predict when in time it would have existed? And then use that prediction to work out where in the world to search for its fossil remains? And then to actually go out and find the evidence of it? Clearly none of that would be possible if evolution wasn’t true. As Jenny Clack said about Tiktaalik “It’s one of those things you can point to and say ‘I told you this would exist.’”

Tiktaalik

A Footnote on Testicles (which sounds painful)

In addition to the tale above, the programme also discussed an interesting fact about gonads. The gonads of fish are situated in their chests. Just in case you’ve never noticed, human gonads are located outside the body. In order to produce sperm the gonads have to be kept relatively cool. This isn’t a problem for cold blooded fish, but is a problem for warm blooded mammals. This is why mammalian gonads are found externally. What’s fascinating is that during foetal development the gonads originally develop in the chest. As the foetus grows they re-enact the millions of years of evolution by descending through the body. Once the gonads reach the body wall they break through and exit the body. The problem is that this causes a weak spot in the body wall. It’s this weakness that makes men particularly prone to hernias. Sometimes a part of the gut can break through the weak spot and enter the scrotum. If you’ve ever suffered this condition, blame your fishy relatives.


The Tale of Queen Victoria’s Grandson

I wanted to share the fascinating story of a Channel Four documentary I watched about Queen Victoria and her disabled grandson. WARNING: major spoiler alert. I highly recommend watching the programme if possible (details at bottom of post), if not, here’s the story:

In 1858 Queen Victoria’s daughter, also called Victoria but referred to as Vicky, married Prince Frederick William of Prussia. The intention of the marriage was to unite the two great European kingdoms of Britain and Germany. The union of the two nations became literal when Vicky fell pregnant.

A Scottish doctor named St James Clark, an expert in the use of the new anaesthetic chloroform, was despatched to Germany to assist the birth. He’d administered pain relief to Queen Victoria during some of her pregnancies. Vicky was actually given so much chloroform that she was rendered insensible and unable to assist during the birth. This wouldn’t have ordinarily posed a problem, but it did on this occasion. The baby was breeched. It was coming out feet first. This was a deadly situation at the time. The normal reaction was to perform a caesarean, but there was a major downside to caesareans at that time: they killed the mother. Unsurprisingly, no doctor was willing to kill Queen Victoria’s daughter.

With some difficulty they managed to free the legs, but the baby was still stuck. In desperation the doctor reached in and located the babies left arm. He pulled on the arm and managed to drag the child from the womb. Those in attendance were initially concerned that the baby had not survived the traumatic birth, but after some time he began to cry and everyone felt jubilant, at least initially.

It was three days later that the nurse expressed her concerns to Vicky. The baby had developed a strange crease across its left shoulder and the arm wasn’t moving. Unbeknown to them, the act of pulling on the baby’s arm had caused irreparable nerve damage to the side of his neck, rendering the arm paralysed. It’s a condition known today as Erb’s palsy.

During Victorian times disabled people were looked down upon, and the idea that the royal family could have a disabled member was completely unacceptable. The royals were supposed to exude strength and power, not fragility. As a commentator on the programme said: “The royals donate money to disabled people. They don’t have disabled people.”

Vicky was devastated. She wanted a cure, and the doctors were determined to find one. At that time German medicine was awash with quack ‘cures’ and remedies, and the young boy was subjected to some of the most horrific of these.

Hares were viewed as brimming with vitality and strength. It was believed that this vitality could be transferred to the boy’s arm. As such, the young boy was forced to watch a hare being slaughtered and gutted in front of him. The still-warm skin was then tied around his arm and he was forced to wear it. This procedure occurred twice a week and continued for many years. Who knows how much such a barbaric act would traumatise a young boy?

Besides animal slaughter they would tie his good arm behind his back in the hope that he’d be forced to use his good arm. But the arm was paralysed. Using it was impossible. There was nothing he could do to ‘force’ it to work. This practice would only leave the child feeling confused and frustrated. Due to such treatments the child, unsurprisingly, began developing behavioural problems. He began to get angry and violent, but the procedures continued. At one time they tried electrotherapy. It was a painful procedure whereby severe electric shocks were applied to his arm. They were essentially torturing him.

As he grew older they realised that his condition was also affecting his posture. His head began twisting to the right. When he was around four they constructed a machine into which he would be strapped. It had a metal rod going up the back and various leather straps. There was a screw device that could be tightened. As the screw was turned his head would be wrenched into the correct position. This medieval practice continued for two years.

The years of repeated failure coupled with the huge expectation upon him caused the boy great pain and frustration. It wasn’t until he was twelve that they finally accepted that the horror they were inflicting was futile.

Meanwhile, the condition was considered an embarrassment and was kept hidden. This was during the era of photography, so elaborate ploys were developed to avoid arousing suspicion. He even had clothes specially made with one arm shorter than the other to mask the fact that one arm was less developed than the other.

In a letter to Queen Victoria, Vicky openly admitted that the condition spoiled all the pleasure and pride she should have felt. And after she had more children, she began to reject him. Those who’ve studied the case have concluded that Vicky’s rejection was something that devastated the boy even more than the illness itself.

He began to blame his mother and reject her too. He felt great love for his grandmother, but not for his mother. He enjoyed trips to Britain where he would stay at his grandmother’s family residence on the Isle of Wight. There he enjoyed the British way of life, particularly sailing.

Accepting that he was never going to be physically superior his mother decided to make him intellectually superior. She sent him away to a prestigious boarding school, but this only exacerbated his feeling of rejection. He desperately wanted to be close to her, but she just pushed him further away. Aged sixteen, while away at school, he sent her a long gushing letter about his desire to be with her. Heartbreakingly, her response was to simply correct his grammar. It’s no surprise that he stopped writing to her. When she later wrote a twenty page letter and he declined to respond she became annoyed at his indifference.

He became increasingly awkward, angry and violent. When his dad developed cancer an English doctor was summoned. The, by now young man, began claiming that an English doctor had crippled him and an English doctor was going to kill his dad (even though the original doctor was Scottish). At that time cancer was something the doctor could do nothing about. He was second in line for the throne, so when the inevitable happened and his dad died he became the new king. He had serious emotional problems and was widely recognised as unprepared for the role. But the die had been cast. At twenty-nine years old he became the leader of a huge and powerful country. The volatile young man had become Wilhelm II the German Emperor and King of Prussia. Today he’s often referred to as simply The Kaiser.

He marginalised his mother and she retreated to a residence outside of Hamburg. She feared his behaviour and recognised the potential threat. Meanwhile, he began building a navy capable of rivalling the great navy of Britain. He felt that Germany needed a strong navy so that she too could develop a great empire.

His military ambitions created growing tension between the two nations. They were only abated by the great love he had for his grandmother, who still occupied the British throne, but this wasn’t to last.

In 1901 he received a message that his beloved grandmother was seriously ill. He immediately rushed to Britain to be by his grandmother’s side. In fact, he was with her when she died. It’s a little known fact that Queen Victoria died in the arms of the Kaiser.

With this familial connection severed his fondness for Britain subsided. He became convinced that Britain was standing in the way of a German empire. He continued growing his navy, and Vicky became increasingly worried. She feared for the future of the two countries. Her fears were well grounded, but she didn’t live long enough to know. She died seven months after Queen Victoria.

With his English mother dead Wilhelm’s ties with Britain were severed completely. His difficult childhood had created a quarrelsome man with anger issues and an inferiority complex. These traits were to play out in the most devastating way imaginable when his provocative actions would lead to the First World War, the deaths of millions and the devastation of Europe. Many people forget that when Britain and Germany went to war it was the armies of two cousins who were fighting each other.

After the war much of the hatred and anger was directed at him. Some even called for him to be hanged. He was forced to give up his throne and crossed the border into the Netherlands where he lived the rest of his life in exile. He died in June 1941, aged 82. At his request he was buried in the Netherlands’, meaning that he never returned to Germany. He was the last of the German monarchs.

The intention of Vicky and Frederick’s marriage was to unite the two great European kingdoms. Wilhelm was the child who literally embodied that union. But, contrary to all that was hoped, it was he who tore the countries apart. It’s sobering to realise that the horrors of World War I may not have happened if it wasn’t for the serious emotional issues that resulted from the horrors of Wilhelm’s childhood.

The brilliant Channel Four documentary “Queen Victoria and the Crippled Kaiser” is still available on 4oD