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No. 2526:

Today, Sandwich's islands. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The story has it that the sandwich was created when John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich, told his valet to bring him a piece of meat between two slices of bread. That'd surely been done before, but Montagu was Lord of the Admiralty and people seemed bent on naming things after him.

Captain James CookTake the Hawaiian Islands: He was Captain Cook's patron, so Cook named them Sandwich Islands on his third voyage in 1778. Cook came back a year later, got into a squabble with the natives, and was killed. Then the name lasted only until 1819 when King Kamehameha I formed the islands into a kingdom called Hawaii.

But before that, on his second voyage, Cook had put his patron's name on another set of islands. He found a 700-mile-long island chain beginning a thousand miles southeast of the Falklands -- far, far, from the south Argentinean coast. 

Cook mapped the main island and named it South Georgia Island after King George III. It's big -- 1500 square miles. Then Cook sailed hundreds of miles southwest from there. He found a string of small islands curving southward and called them Sandwich Land. Today, we know that they and Georgia Island, lie on the northern border of a tectonic plate whose southern border touches Antarctica. 

Later, after Cook had extended the name Sandwich to the Hawaiian chain, these became the South Sandwich Islands. And how different they are -- barren, cold, and mountainous. Cook named one Montagu Island -- again after his patron. It's only 50 square miles, but on it, Mt. Belinda volcano rises almost a mile into the sky. Belinda erupted in 2001. Ever since, it has spewed lava that cuts a channel through its ancient cloak of ice, all the way to the sea. 

The Scotia tectonic plate

John Montague, 4th Earl of SandwichGeorgia and the Southern Sandwich Islands rather mirror Montagu's and King George's lives. They've been in as much political turmoil as their namesakes were. Only Georgia has a small permanent population. But the whole island chain was one bone of contention in the 1982 Falkland War between Britain and Argentina. That argument continues today, maybe more about pride than purpose. 

The life of Montagu/Lord Sandwich was no less turbulent. He was a brilliant, ruthless politician, twice Lord of the Admiralty among other high posts. Today, he's credited and blamed for British Naval might and for her loss of the American Colonies. 

He first married a young woman. History says she went insane, but doesn't tell us how. Then Montagu spent sixteen years with a famous singer, Martha Ray, as his mistress. Ray bore five children and was then murdered by a deranged admirer. Montagu was also deeply involved in promoting the music of his recent past. He's probably the reason that Handel is so popular today. 

So it's fitting that a volcanic Island carries his name -- this volcanic man from volcanic times, like Montagu Island, is now just a bit of history smoldering away and largely forgotten.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

N. A. M. Rodger, Montagu, John. Fourth earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. ?, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): pp. 744-748.

See the Wikipedia articles on HawaiiSouth Georgia and the South Sandwich IslandsJames CookJohn Montagu, 4th Earl of SandwichMontagu Island, and Plate Tectonics

The tectonic plate ringed by Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is the smallish Scotia Plate. (See map below.) All images courtesy of Wikipedia Commons except the Google Earth satellite view of the Scotia Plate. My thanks to Peter Copeland, UH Geoscience Dept., for additional counsel.

Tectonic plates