9 Lines in the Sand

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader History's Lists.

Borders, fences, fortifications, demarcations- whatever you call them, there are a lot of dividing lines in history. Here are some of the most famous.


Milecastle 39 on Hadrian’s Wall near Steel Rigg. (Image credit: Adam Cuerden)

In AD 122, the Roman Empire was near the height of its power, but in the far-flung imperial province of Britannia, the empire was having some trouble near its northern border. To control that line in the heath, Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of what became the most heavily-fortified border in the Western world at the time: a 73-mile wall of limestone and turf, with small forts roughly every Roman mile occupied by a few dozen troops. Additionally, larger forts were also constructed. The Romans built the wall well enough that it survived the Roman Empire, and what remains of it became a World Heritage Site in 1987.


(Image credit: Lencer)

There’s a reason that the citizens of Brazil speak Portuguese while nearly all of the rest of South America speaks Spanish: that reason is the Tordesillas Meridian. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI offered a papal edict saying that Spain (Alexander VI’s native country) would control any land west of a meridian (a line stretching from pole to pole) that lay 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands, which were off the coast of Africa. This meant that the pope was giving the Americas to Spain, which did not sit well with the Portuguese, who thought they were entitled to it.

In 1494, the Spanish and Portuguese signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, which nudges that papal line further west -giving Portugal the eastern “bump” of the South American continent that would become Brazil.


(Image credit: Hamish Bain)

When is a line not just a line? When it is “the Pale” -an area on the eastern shore of Ireland that was directly under the control of the English crown during the Middle Ages. It derived its name from the Latin word palus, which literally meant a stake, but figuratively meant a fence or line, the lands beyond which one does not have control (and indeed, the Pale had a border fence, or some say a line of dikes). This is what people are referring to when they use the expression “beyond the pale.”


 (Image credit: Warner Brothers)

The Mason-Dixon Line is a shorthand term for noting the cultural division between the northern and southern states in the United States, but it’s also an actual surveyed line …one that in truth falls across the borders of just four states: Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia (which was once part of Virginia). The line was charted out between 1763 and 1767 by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in order to settle a long-standing and sometimes violent border dispute between the then-colonies of Maryland and Pennsylvania. After 1780, the line became shorthand for the difference between the north and south when Pennsylvania outlawed slavery and the Mason-Dixon Lline (along with the path of the Ohio River) became the effective border between states that allowed slavery and the ones that did not.


The 49th parallel at Waterton Lake, which spans Alberta, Canada, and Montana, U.S.A. (Image credit: Traveler100)

The border between the United States and Canada is the longest undefended border in the world, and much of that border -from Washington  state to Minnesota- runs almost entirely on a single line: the 49th parallel north. That long line was fixed as the border in two steps: the first in 1818, which secured the border from Minnesota’s Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Mountains, and then in the 1846 Oregon Treaty, which extended the line from the Rockies to the Strait of Georgia (in Washington state).


Anyone who looks at a world map can see that the 0º meridian runs through England, but the question is: Why does it run through England? Because the Greenwich observatory is there, and, in 1851, Sir George Airy, the United Kingdom’s royal astronomer, decided that’s where the prime meridian should be placed. Several European countries (and the United States) adopted Britain’s prime meridian for navigational purposes, and then in 1884, the International Meridian Conference fixed it as the prime meridian for the whole world (although France, hoping to have the prime meridian run through Paris, abstained from voting on the treaty).


The entrance to Ouvrage Schoenenbourg along the Maginot Line in Alsace.

After the devastation of World War I, and facing the specter of a new, strong German state in the 1930s, the French decided that the best offense is a good defense. Under the direction of the minister of war Andre Maginot, from 1930 through 1940 the French built a line of defensive forts and obstacles that ran from the border with Switzerland to the border with Belgium. Unfortunately, it was through Belgium that the invading Germans were able to outflank the Maginot Line, paving the way for a successful invasion of France in May 1940. This line turned out not to be such a good defense after all.


A preserved part of "iron curtain" in the Czech Republic. (Image credit: Pudelek/Marcin Szala)

In March 1946, Winston Churchill gave a then-unpopular speech about an “iron curtain” that had descended across Europe. The metaphorical curtain represented the political and economic control that the Soviet Union was exerting over the countries of Eastern Europe in the wake of World War II. Eventually, it became literal in the form of the Berlin Wall, which was built around what was then West Berlin by the Soviet-controlled government of East Germany. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the Soviet Union followed in 1991.


During the Cold War, the United States wanted to be ready for a war with the Soviet Union that could erupt at any moment. In the 1950s, along with Canada they devised the Distant Early Warning Line: a series of radar stations stretching from the Aleutians to Baffin Island, designed to spot and report on Soviet bombers coming over the North Pole toward the North American continent. Shortly after its completion in 1957, however, the system became outdated because radar couldn’t track intercontinental missiles -the new preferred vehicle of nuclear annihilation. Outposts of the line continue their existence as the North Warning System today.

DEW Line station at Point Lay, Alaska.


The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader History's Lists. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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