This Day in History

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August 20, 1911: First around-the-world telegram sent, 66 years before Voyager II launch

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 1911, a dispatcher in the New York Times office sends the first telegram around the world via commercial service. Exactly 66 years later, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) sends a different kind of message--a phonograph record containing information about Earth for extraterrestrial beings--shooting into space aboard the unmanned spacecraft Voyager II.

The Times decided to send its 1911 telegram in order to determine how fast a commercial message could be sent around the world by telegraph cable. The message, reading simply "This message sent around the world," left the dispatch room on the 17th floor of the Times building in New York at 7 p.m. on August 20. After it traveled more than 28,000 miles, being relayed by 16 different operators, through San Francisco, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Saigon, Singapore, Bombay, Malta, Lisbon and the Azores--among other locations--the reply was received by the same operator 16.5 minutes later. It was the fastest time achieved by a commercial cablegram since the opening of the Pacific cable in 1900 by the Commercial Cable Company.

On August 20, 1977, a NASA rocket launched Voyager II, an unmanned 1,820-pound spacecraft, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It was the first of two such crafts to be launched that year on a "Grand Tour" of the outer planets, organized to coincide with a rare alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Aboard Voyager II was a 12-inch copper phonograph record called "Sounds of Earth." Intended as a kind of introductory time capsule, the record included greetings in 60 languages and scientific information about Earth and the human race, along with classical, jazz and rock 'n' roll music, nature sounds like thunder and surf, and recorded messages from President Jimmy Carter and other world leaders.

The brainchild of astronomer Carl Sagan, the record was sent with Voyager II and its twin craft, Voyager I--launched just two weeks later--in the faint hope that it might one day be discovered by extraterrestrial creatures. The record was sealed in an aluminum jacket that would keep it intact for 1 billion years, along with instructions on how to play the record, with a cartridge and needle provided.

More importantly, the two Voyager crafts were designed to explore the outer solar system and send information and photographs of the distant planets to Earth. Over the next 12 years, the mission proved a smashing success. After both crafts flew by Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager I went flying off towards the solar system's edge while Voyager II visited Uranus, Neptune and finally Pluto in 1990 before sailing off to join its twin in the outer solar system.

Thanks to the Voyager program, NASA scientists gained a wealth of information about the outer planets, including close-up photographs of Saturn's seven rings; evidence of active geysers and volcanoes exploding on some of the four planets' 22 moons; winds of more than 1,500 mph on Neptune; and measurements of the magnetic fields on Uranus and Neptune. The two crafts are expected to continue sending data until 2020, or until their plutonium-based power sources run out. After that, they will continue to sail on through the galaxy for millions of years to come, barring some unexpected collision.

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August 19, 1909: First race is held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 1909, the first race is held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, now the home of the world's most famous motor racing competition, the Indianapolis 500.

Built on 328 acres of farmland five miles northwest of Indianapolis, Indiana, the speedway was started by local businessmen as a testing facility for Indiana's growing automobile industry. The idea was that occasional races at the track would pit cars from different manufacturers against each other. After seeing what these cars could do, spectators would presumably head down to the showroom of their choice to get a closer look.

The rectangular two-and-a-half-mile track linked four turns, each exactly 440 yards from start to finish, by two long and two short straight sections. In that first five-mile race on August 19, 1909, 12,000 spectators watched Austrian engineer Louis Schwitzer win with an average speed of 57.4 miles per hour. The track's surface of crushed rock and tar proved a disaster, breaking up in a number of places and causing the deaths of two drivers, two mechanics and two spectators.

The surface was soon replaced with 3.2 million paving bricks, laid in a bed of sand and fixed with mortar. Dubbed "The Brickyard," the speedway reopened in December 1909. In 1911, low attendance led the track's owners to make a crucial decision: Instead of shorter races, they resolved to focus on a single, longer event each year, for a much larger prize. That May 30 marked the debut of the Indy 500--a grueling 500-mile race that was an immediate hit with audiences and drew press attention from all over the country. Driver Ray Haroun won the purse of $14,250, with an average speed of 74.59 mph and a total time of 6 hours and 42 minutes.

Since 1911, the Indianapolis 500 has been held every year, with the exception of 1917-18 and 1942-45, when the United States was involved in the two world wars. With an average crowd of 400,000, the Indy 500 is the best-attended event in U.S. sports. In 1936, asphalt was used for the first time to cover the rougher parts of the track, and by 1941 most of the track was paved. The last of the speedway's original bricks were covered in 1961, except for a three-foot line of bricks left exposed at the start-finish line as a nostalgic reminder of the track's history.

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August 18, 1991: Soviet hard-liners launch coup against Gorbachev

Sun, 08/17/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 1991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is placed under house arrest during a coup by high-ranking members of his own government, military and police forces.

Since becoming secretary of the Communist Party in 1985 and president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1988, Gorbachev had pursued comprehensive reforms of the Soviet system. Combining perestroika ("restructuring") of the economy--including a greater emphasis on free-market policies--and glasnost ("openness") in diplomacy, he greatly improved Soviet relations with Western democracies, particularly the United States. Meanwhile, though, within the USSR, Gorbachev faced powerful critics, including conservative, hard-line politicians and military officials who thought he was driving the Soviet Union toward its downfall and making it a second-rate power. On the other side were even more radical reformers--particularly Boris Yeltsin, president of the most powerful socialist republic, Russia--who complained that Gorbachev was just not working fast enough.

The August 1991 coup was carried out by the hard-line elements within Gorbachev's own administration, as well as the heads of the Soviet army and the KGB, or secret police. Detained at his vacation villa in the Crimea, he was placed under house arrest and pressured to give his resignation, which he refused to do. Claiming Gorbachev was ill, the coup leaders, headed by former vice president Gennady Yanayev, declared a state of emergency and attempted to take control of the government.

Yeltsin and his backers from the Russian parliament then stepped in, calling on the Russian people to strike and protest the coup. When soldiers tried to arrest Yeltsin, they found the way to the parliamentary building blocked by armed and unarmed civilians. Yeltsin himself climbed aboard a tank and spoke through a megaphone, urging the troops not to turn against the people and condemning the coup as a "new reign of terror." The soldiers backed off, some of them choosing to join the resistance. After thousands took the streets to demonstrate, the coup collapsed after only three days.

Gorbachev was released and flown to Moscow, but his regime had been dealt a deadly blow. Over the next few months, he dissolved the Communist Party, granted independence to the Baltic states, and proposed a looser, more economics-based federation among the remaining republics. In December 1991, Gorbachev resigned. Yeltsin capitalized on his defeat of the coup, emerging from the rubble of the former Soviet Union as the most powerful figure in Moscow and the leader of the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

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August 17, 1969: Woodstock Music Festival concludes

Sat, 08/16/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 1969, the grooviest event in music history--the Woodstock Music Festival--draws to a close after three days of peace, love and rock 'n' roll in upstate New York.

Conceived as "Three Days of Peace and Music," Woodstock was a product of a partnership between John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfield and Michael Lang. Their idea was to make enough money from the event to build a recording studio near the arty New York town of Woodstock. When they couldn't find an appropriate venue in the town itself, the promoters decided to hold the festival on a 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York--some 50 miles from Woodstock--owned by Max Yasgur.

By the time the weekend of the festival arrived, the group had sold a total of 186,000 tickets and expected no more than 200,000 people to show up. By Friday night, however, thousands of eager early arrivals were pushing against the entrance gates. Fearing they could not control the crowds, the promoters made the decision to open the concert to everyone, free of charge. Close to half a million people attended Woodstock, jamming the roads around Bethel with eight miles of traffic.

Soaked by rain and wallowing in the muddy mess of Yasgur's fields, young fans best described as "hippies" euphorically took in the performances of acts like Janis Joplin, Arlo Guthrie, Joe Cocker, Joan Baez, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Sly and the Family Stone and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The Who performed in the early morning hours of August 17, with Roger Daltrey belting out "See Me, Feel Me," from the now-classic album Tommy just as the sun began to rise. The most memorable moment of the concert for many fans was the closing performance by Jimi Hendrix, who gave a rambling, rocking solo guitar performance of "The Star Spangled Banner."

With not enough bathroom facilities and first-aid tents to accommodate such a huge crowd, many described the atmosphere at the festival as chaotic. There were surprisingly few episodes of violence, though one teenager was accidentally run over and killed by a tractor and another died from a drug overdose. A number of musicians performed songs expressing their opposition to the Vietnam War, a sentiment that was enthusiastically shared by the vast majority of the audience. Later, the term "Woodstock Nation" would be used as a general term to describe the youth counterculture of the 1960s.

A 25th anniversary celebration of Woodstock took place in 1994 in Saugerties, New York. Known as Woodstock II, the concert featured Bob Dylan and Crosby, Stills and Nash as well as newer acts such as Nine Inch Nails and Green Day. Held over another rainy, muddy weekend, the event drew an estimated 300,000 people.

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August 16, 1896: Gold discovered in the Yukon

Fri, 08/15/2014 - 11:00pm

While salmon fishing near the Klondike River in Canada's Yukon Territory on this day in 1896, George Carmack reportedly spots nuggets of gold in a creek bed. His lucky discovery sparks the last great gold rush in the American West.

Hoping to cash in on reported gold strikes in Alaska, Carmack had traveled there from California in 1881. After running into a dead end, he headed north into the isolated Yukon Territory, just across the Canadian border. In 1896, another prospector, Robert Henderson, told Carmack of finding gold in a tributary of the Klondike River. Carmack headed to the region with two Native American companions, known as Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie. On August 16, while camping near Rabbit Creek, Carmack reportedly spotted a nugget of gold jutting out from the creek bank. His two companions later agreed that Skookum Jim--Carmack's brother-in-law--actually made the discovery.

Regardless of who spotted the gold first, the three men soon found that the rock near the creek bed was thick with gold deposits. They staked their claim the following day. News of the gold strike spread fast across Canada and the United States, and over the next two years, as many as 50,000 would-be miners arrived in the region. Rabbit Creek was renamed Bonanza, and even more gold was discovered in another Klondike tributary, dubbed Eldorado.

"Klondike Fever" reached its height in the United States in mid-July 1897 when two steamships arrived from the Yukon in San Francisco and Seattle, bringing a total of more than two tons of gold. Thousands of eager young men bought elaborate "Yukon outfits" (kits assembled by clever marketers containing food, clothing, tools and other necessary equipment) and set out on their way north. Few of these would find what they were looking for, as most of the land in the region had already been claimed. One of the unsuccessful gold-seekers was 21-year-old Jack London, whose short stories based on his Klondike experience became his first book, The Son of the Wolf (1900).

For his part, Carmack became rich off his discovery, leaving the Yukon with $1 million worth of gold. Many individual gold miners in the Klondike eventually sold their stakes to mining companies, who had the resources and machinery to access more gold. Large-scale gold mining in the Yukon Territory didn't end until 1966, and by that time the region had yielded some $250 million in gold. Today, some 200 small gold mines still operate in the region.

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August 15, 1969: The Woodstock festival opens in Bethel, New York

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 1969, the Woodstock Music Festival opens on a patch of farmland in White Lake, a hamlet in the upstate New York town of Bethel.

Promoters John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfield and Michael Lang originally envisioned the festival as a way to raise funds to build a recording studio and rock-and-roll retreat near the town of Woodstock, New York. The longtime artists' colony was already a home base for Bob Dylan and other musicians. Despite their relative inexperience, the young promoters managed to sign a roster of top acts, including the Jefferson Airplane, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival and many more. Plans for the festival were on the verge of foundering, however, after both Woodstock and the nearby town of Wallkill denied permission to hold the event. Dairy farmer Max Yasgur came to the rescue at the last minute, giving the promoters access to his 600 acres of land in Bethel, some 50 miles from Woodstock.

Early estimates of attendance increased from 50,000 to around 200,000, but by the time the gates opened on Friday, August 15, more than 400,000 people were clamoring to get in. Those without tickets simply walked through gaps in the fences, and the organizers were eventually forced to make the event free of charge. Folk singer and guitarist Richie Havens kicked off the event with a long set, and Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie also performed on Friday night.

Somewhat improbably, the chaotic gathering of half a million young "hippies" lived up to its billing of "Three Days of Peace and Music." There were surprisingly few incidents of violence on the overcrowded grounds, and a number of musicians performed songs expressing their opposition to the Vietnam War. Among the many great moments at the Woodstock Music Festival were career-making performances by up-and-coming acts like Santana, Joe Cocker and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; the Who's early-morning set featuring songs from their classic rock opera "Tommy"; and the closing set by Hendrix, which climaxed with an improvised solo guitar performance of "The Star Spangled Banner."

Though Woodstock had left its promoters nearly bankrupt, their ownership of the film and recording rights more than compensated for the losses after the release of a hit documentary film in 1970. Later music festivals inspired by Woodstock's success failed to live up to its standard, and the festival still stands for many as a example of America's 1960s youth counterculture at its best.

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August 14, 2003: Blackout hits Northeast United States

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 2003, a major outage knocked out power across the eastern United States and parts of Canada. Beginning at 4:10 p.m. ET, 21 power plants shut down in just three minutes. Fifty million people were affected, including residents of New York, Cleveland and Detroit, as well as Toronto and Ottawa, Canada. Although power companies were able to resume some service in as little as two hours, power remained off in other places for more than a day. The outage stopped trains and elevators, and disrupted everything from cellular telephone service to operations at hospitals to traffic at airports. In New York City, it took more than two hours for passengers to be evacuated from stalled subway trains. Small business owners were affected when they lost expensive refrigerated stock. The loss of use of electric water pumps interrupted water service in many areas. There were even some reports of people being stranded mid-ride on amusement park roller coasters. At the New York Stock Exchange and bond market, though, trading was able to continue thanks to backup generators.

Authorities soon calmed the fears of jittery Americans that terrorists may have been responsible for the blackout, but they were initially unable to determine the cause of the massive outage. American and Canadian representatives pointed figures at each other, while politicians took the opportunity to point out major flaws in the region's outdated power grid. Finally, an investigation by a joint U.S.-Canada task force traced the problem back to an Ohio company, FirstEnergy Corporation. When the company's EastLake plant shut down unexpectedly after overgrown trees came into contact with a power line, it triggered a series of problems that led to a chain reaction of outages. FirstEnergy was criticized for poor line maintenance, and more importantly, for failing to notice and address the problem in a timely manner--before it affected other areas.

Despite concerns, there were very few reports of looting or other blackout-inspired crime. In New York City, the police department, out in full force, actually recorded about 100 fewer arrests than average. In some places, citizens even took it upon themselves to mitigate the effects of the outage, by assisting elderly neighbors or helping to direct traffic in the absence of working traffic lights.

In New York City alone, the estimated cost of the blackout was more than $500 million.

 

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August 13, 1961: Berlin is divided

Tue, 08/12/2014 - 11:00pm

Shortly after midnight on this day in 1961, East German soldiers begin laying down barbed wire and bricks as a barrier between Soviet-controlled East Berlin and the democratic western section of the city.

After World War II, defeated Germany was divided into Soviet, American, British and French zones of occupation. The city of Berlin, though technically part of the Soviet zone, was also split, with the Soviets taking the eastern part of the city. After a massive Allied airlift in June 1948 foiled a Soviet attempt to blockade West Berlin, the eastern section was drawn even more tightly into the Soviet fold. Over the next 12 years, cut off from its western counterpart and basically reduced to a Soviet satellite, East Germany saw between 2.5 million and 3 million of its citizens head to West Germany in search of better opportunities. By 1961, some 1,000 East Germans--including many skilled laborers, professionals and intellectuals--were leaving every day.

In August, Walter Ulbricht, the Communist leader of East Germany, got the go-ahead from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to begin the sealing off of all access between East and West Berlin. Soldiers began the work over the night of August 12-13, laying more than 100 miles of barbed wire slightly inside the East Berlin border. The wire was soon replaced by a six-foot-high, 96-mile-long wall of concrete blocks, complete with guard towers, machine gun posts and searchlights. East German officers known as Volkspolizei ("Volpos") patrolled the Berlin Wall day and night.

Many Berlin residents on that first morning found themselves suddenly cut off from friends or family members in the other half of the city. Led by their mayor, Willi Brandt, West Berliners demonstrated against the wall, as Brandt criticized Western democracies, particularly the United States, for failing to take a stand against it. President John F. Kennedy had earlier said publicly that the United States could only really help West Berliners and West Germans, and that any kind of action on behalf of East Germans would only result in failure.

The Berlin Wall was one of the most powerful and iconic symbols of the Cold War. In June 1963, Kennedy gave his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" ("I am a Berliner") speech in front of the Wall, celebrating the city as a symbol of freedom and democracy in its resistance to tyranny and oppression. The height of the Wall was raised to 10 feet in 1970 in an effort to stop escape attempts, which at that time came almost daily. From 1961 to 1989, a total of 5,000 East Germans escaped; many more tried and failed. High profile shootings of some would-be defectors only intensified the Western world's hatred of the Wall.

Finally, in the late 1980s, East Germany, fueled by the decline of the Soviet Union, began to implement a number of liberal reforms. On November 9, 1989, masses of East and West Germans alike gathered at the Berlin Wall and began to climb over and dismantle it. As this symbol of Cold War repression was destroyed, East and West Germany became one nation again, signing a formal treaty of unification on October 3, 1990.

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August 12, 1990: Skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex discovered

Mon, 08/11/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 1990, fossil hunter Susan Hendrickson discovers three huge bones jutting out of a cliff near Faith, South Dakota. They turn out to be part of the largest-ever Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever discovered, a 65 million-year-old specimen dubbed Sue, after its discoverer.

Amazingly, Sue's skeleton was over 90 percent complete, and the bones were extremely well-preserved. Hendrickson's employer, the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, paid $5,000 to the land owner, Maurice Williams, for the right to excavate the dinosaur skeleton, which was cleaned and transported to the company headquarters in Hill City. The institute's president, Peter Larson, announced plans to build a non-profit museum to display Sue along with other fossils of the Cretaceous period.

In 1992, a long legal battle began over Sue. The U.S. Attorney's Office claimed Sue's bones had been seized from federal land and were therefore government property. It was eventually found that Williams, a part-Native American and member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, had traded his land to the tribe two decades earlier to avoid paying property taxes, and thus his sale of excavation rights to Black Hills had been invalid. In October 1997, Chicago's Field Museum purchased Sue at public auction at Sotheby's in New York City for $8.36 million, financed in part by the McDonald's and Disney corporations.

Sue's skeleton went on display at the Field Museum in May 2000. The tremendous T.rex skeleton--13 feet high at the hips and 42 feet long from head to toe--is displayed in one of the museum's main halls. Another exhibit gives viewers a close-up view of Sue's five foot-long, 2,000-pound skull with its 58 teeth, some as long as a human forearm.

Sue's extraordinarily well-preserved bones have allowed scientists to determine many things about the life of T.rex. They have determined that the carnivorous dinosaur had an incredible sense of smell, as the olfactory bulbs were each bigger than the cerebrum, the thinking part of the brain. In addition, Sue was the first T.rex skeleton to be discovered with a wishbone, a crucial discovery that provided support for scientists’ theory that birds are a type of living dinosaur. One thing that remains unknown is Sue's actual gender; to determine this, scientists would have to compare many more T.rex skeletons than the 22 that have been found so far.

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August 11, 1934: Federal prisoners land on Alcatraz

Sun, 08/10/2014 - 11:00pm

A group of federal prisoners classified as "most dangerous" arrives at Alcatraz Island, a 22-acre rocky outcrop situated 1.5 miles offshore in San Francisco Bay. The convicts--the first civilian prisoners to be housed in the new high-security penitentiary--joined a few dozen military prisoners left over from the island's days as a U.S. military prison.

Alcatraz was an uninhabited seabird haven when it was explored by Spanish Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775. He named it Isla de los Alcatraces, or "Island of the Pelicans." Fortified by the Spanish, Alcatraz was sold to the United States in 1849. In 1854, it had the distinction of housing the first lighthouse on the coast of California. Beginning in 1859, a U.S. Army detachment was garrisoned there, and from 1868 Alcatraz was used to house military criminals. In addition to recalcitrant U.S. soldiers, prisoners included rebellious Indian scouts, American soldiers fighting in the Philippines who had deserted to the Filipino cause, and Chinese civilians who resisted the U.S. Army during the Boxer Rebellion. In 1907, Alcatraz was designated the Pacific Branch of the United States Military Prison.

In 1934, Alcatraz was fortified into a high-security federal penitentiary designed to hold the most dangerous prisoners in the U.S. penal system, especially those with a penchant for escape attempts. The first shipment of civilian prisoners arrived on August 11, 1934. Later that month, more shiploads arrived, featuring, among other convicts, infamous mobster Al Capone. In September, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, another luminary of organized crime, landed on Alcatraz.

In the 1940s, a famous Alcatraz prisoner was Richard Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz." A convicted murderer, Stroud wrote an important study on birds while being held in solitary confinement in Leavenworth Prison in Kansas. Regarded as extremely dangerous because of his 1916 murder of a guard at Leavenworth, he was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942. Stroud was not allowed to continue his avian research at Alcatraz.

Although some three dozen attempted, no prisoner was known to have successfully escaped "The Rock." However, the bodies of several escapees believed drowned in the treacherous waters of San Francisco Bay were never found. The story of the 1962 escape of three of these men, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin, inspired the 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz. Another prisoner, John Giles, caught a boat ride to the shore in 1945 dressed in an army uniform he had stolen piece by piece, but he was questioned by a suspicious officer after disembarking and sent back to Alcatraz. Only one man, John Paul Scott, was recorded to have reached the mainland by swimming, but he came ashore exhausted and hypothermic at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Police found him lying unconscious and in a state of shock.

In 1963, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered Alcatraz closed, citing the high expense of its maintenance. In its 29-year run, Alcatraz housed more than 1,500 convicts. In March 1964 a group of Sioux Indians briefly occupied the island, citing an 1868 treaty with the Sioux allowing Indians to claim any "unoccupied government land." In November 1969, a group of nearly 100 Indian students and activists began a more prolonged occupation of the island, remaining there until they were forced off by federal marshals in June 1971.

In 1972, Alcatraz was opened to the public as part of the newly created Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which is maintained by the National Park Service. More than one million tourists visit Alcatraz Island and the former prison annually.

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August 10, 1846: Smithsonian Institution created

Sat, 08/09/2014 - 11:00pm

After a decade of debate about how best to spend a bequest left to America from an obscure English scientist, President James K. Polk signs the Smithsonian Institution Act into law.

In 1829, James Smithson died in Italy, leaving behind a will with a peculiar footnote. In the event that his only nephew died without any heirs, Smithson decreed that the whole of his estate would go to "the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Smithson's curious bequest to a country that he had never visited aroused significant attention on both sides of the Atlantic.

Smithson had been a fellow of the venerable Royal Society of London from the age of 22, publishing numerous scientific papers on mineral composition, geology, and chemistry. In 1802, he overturned popular scientific opinion by proving that zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals, and one type of zinc carbonate was later named smithsonite in his honor.

Six years after his death, his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, indeed died without children, and on July 1, 1836, the U.S. Congress authorized acceptance of Smithson's gift. President Andrew Jackson sent diplomat Richard Rush to England to negotiate for transfer of the funds, and two years later Rush set sail for home with 11 boxes containing a total of 104,960 gold sovereigns, 8 shillings, and 7 pence, as well as Smithson's mineral collection, library, scientific notes, and personal effects. After the gold was melted down, it amounted to a fortune worth well over $500,000. After considering a series of recommendations, including the creation of a national university, a public library, or an astronomical observatory, Congress agreed that the bequest would support the creation of a museum, a library, and a program of research, publication, and collection in the sciences, arts, and history. On August 10, 1846, the act establishing the Smithsonian Institution was signed into law by President James K. Polk.

Today, the Smithsonian is composed of 19 museums and galleries including the recently announced National Museum of African American History and Culture, nine research facilities throughout the United States and the world, and the national zoo. Besides the original Smithsonian Institution Building, popularly known as the "Castle," visitors to Washington, D.C., tour the National Museum of Natural History, which houses the natural science collections, the National Zoological Park, and the National Portrait Gallery. The National Museum of American History houses the original Star-Spangled Banner and other artifacts of U.S. history. The National Air and Space Museum has the distinction of being the most visited museum in the world, exhibiting such marvels of aviation and space history as the Wright brothers' plane and Freedom 7, the space capsule that took the first American into space. John Smithson, the Smithsonian Institution's great benefactor, is interred in a tomb in the Smithsonian Building.

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August 9, 1974: Unusual succession makes Ford president

Fri, 08/08/2014 - 11:00pm

In accordance with his statement of resignation the previous evening, Richard M. Nixon officially ends his term as the 37th president of the United States at noon. Before departing with his family in a helicopter from the White House lawn, he smiled farewell and enigmatically raised his arms in a victory or peace salute. The helicopter door was then closed, and the Nixon family began their journey home to San Clemente, California. Richard Nixon was the first U.S. president to resign from office.

Minutes later, Vice President Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States in the East Room of the White House. After taking the oath of office, President Ford spoke to the nation in a television address, declaring, "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over."

Ford, the first president who came to the office through appointment rather than election, had replaced Spiro Agnew as vice president only eight months before. In a political scandal independent of the Nixon administration's wrongdoings in the Watergate affair, Agnew had been forced to resign in disgrace after he was charged with income tax evasion and political corruption. In September 1974, Ford pardoned Nixon for any crimes he may have committed while in office, explaining that he wanted to end the national divisions created by the Watergate scandal.

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August 8, 1974: Nixon resigns

Thu, 08/07/2014 - 11:00pm

In an evening televised address, President Richard M. Nixon announces his intention to become the first president in American history to resign. With impeachment proceedings underway against him for his involvement in the Watergate affair, Nixon was finally bowing to pressure from the public and Congress to leave the White House. "By taking this action," he said in a solemn address from the Oval Office, "I hope that I will have hastened the start of the process of healing which is so desperately needed in America."

Just before noon the next day, Nixon officially ended his term as the 37th president of the United States. Before departing with his family in a helicopter from the White House lawn, he smiled farewell and enigmatically raised his arms in a victory or peace salute. The helicopter door was then closed, and the Nixon family began their journey home to San Clemente, California. Minutes later, Vice President Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States in the East Room of the White House. After taking the oath of office, President Ford spoke to the nation in a television address, declaring, "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over." He later pardoned Nixon for any crimes he may have committed while in office, explaining that he wanted to end the national divisions created by the Watergate scandal.

On June 17, 1972, five men, including a salaried security coordinator for President Nixon's reelection committee, were arrested for breaking into and illegally wiretapping the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Washington, D.C., Watergate complex. Soon after, two other former White House aides were implicated in the break-in, but the Nixon administration denied any involvement. Later that year, reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post discovered a higher-echelon conspiracy surrounding the incident, and a political scandal of unprecedented magnitude erupted.

In May 1973, the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, headed by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, began televised proceedings on the rapidly escalating Watergate affair. One week later, Harvard law professor Archibald Cox was sworn in as special Watergate prosecutor. During the Senate hearings, former White House legal counsel John Dean testified that the Watergate break-in had been approved by former Attorney General John Mitchell with the knowledge of White House advisers John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman, and that President Nixon had been aware of the cover-up. Meanwhile, Watergate prosecutor Cox and his staff began to uncover widespread evidence of political espionage by the Nixon reelection committee, illegal wiretapping of thousands of citizens by the administration, and contributions to the Republican Party in return for political favors.

In July, the existence of what were to be called the Watergate tapes--official recordings of White House conversations between Nixon and his staff--was revealed during the Senate hearings. Cox subpoenaed these tapes, and after three months of delay President Nixon agreed to send summaries of the recordings. Cox rejected the summaries, and Nixon fired him. His successor as special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, leveled indictments against several high-ranking administration officials, including Mitchell and Dean, who were duly convicted.

Public confidence in the president rapidly waned, and by the end of July 1974 the House Judiciary Committee had adopted three articles of impeachment against President Nixon: obstruction of justice, abuse of presidential powers, and hindrance of the impeachment process. On July 30, under coercion from the Supreme Court, Nixon finally released the Watergate tapes. On August 5, transcripts of the recordings were released, including a segment in which the president was heard instructing Haldeman to order the FBI to halt the Watergate investigation. Three days later, Nixon announced his resignation.

Categories: Fun Stuff

August 7, 1947: Wood raft makes 4,300-mile voyage

Wed, 08/06/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 1947, Kon-Tiki, a balsa wood raft captained by Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, completes a 4,300-mile, 101-day journey from Peru to Raroia in the Tuamotu Archipelago, near Tahiti. Heyerdahl wanted to prove his theory that prehistoric South Americans could have colonized the Polynesian islands by drifting on ocean currents.

Heyerdahl and his five-person crew set sail from Callao, Peru, on the 40-square-foot Kon-Tiki on April 28, 1947. The Kon-Tiki, named for a mythical white chieftain, was made of indigenous materials and designed to resemble rafts of early South American Indians. While crossing the Pacific, the sailors encountered storms, sharks and whales, before finally washing ashore at Raroia. Heyerdahl, born in Larvik, Norway, on October 6, 1914, believed that Polynesia's earliest inhabitants had come from South America, a theory that conflicted with popular scholarly opinion that the original settlers arrived from Asia. Even after his successful voyage, anthropologists and historians continued to discredit Heyerdahl's belief. However, his journey captivated the public and he wrote a book about the experience that became an international bestseller and was translated into 65 languages. Heyerdahl also produced a documentary about the trip that won an Academy Award in 1951.

Heyerdahl made his first expedition to Polynesia in 1937. He and his first wife lived primitively on Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas Islands for a year and studied plant and animal life. The experience led him to believe that humans had first come to the islands aboard primitive vessels drifting on ocean currents from the east.

Following the Kon-Tiki expedition, Heyerdahl made archeological trips to such places as the Galapagos Islands, Easter Island and Peru and continued to test his theories about how travel across the seas played a major role in the migration patterns of ancient cultures. In 1970, he sailed across the Atlantic from Morocco to Barbados in a reed boat named Ra II (after Ra, the Egyptian sun god) to prove that Egyptians could have connected with pre-Columbian Americans. In 1977, he sailed the Indian Ocean in a primitive reed ship built in Iraq to learn how prehistoric civilizations in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and Egypt might have connected.

While Heyerdahl's work was never embraced by most scholars, he remained a popular public figure and was voted "Norwegian of the Century" in his homeland. He died at age 87 on April 18, 2002, in Italy. The raft from his famous 1947 expedition is housed at the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, Norway.

Categories: Fun Stuff