Little Bits of History

 April 24

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 24, 2017

1895: Joshua Slocum sets sail from Boston, Massachusetts. Slocum was born in Nova Scotia in 1844 near the Bay of Fundy. His grandfather was the keeper at the lighthouse and he spent time around and on the water. His father made boots for the seamen of the area but the son was far more interested in being in the boots than making them. He was one of eleven children of a strict father and made several attempts to run away from home before succeeding at the age of 14. He did so by hiring himself out as a cook and cabin boy on a fishing schooner. He returned home shortly before leaving for good, signing on as a seaman aboard a transatlantic ship.

He sailed with several different concerns before settling in San Francisco at the age of 21. He became an American citizen, fished and hunted locally, and then became the pilot of a schooner travelling between San Francisco and Seattle. He moved from ship to ship, became master of several, sailed between Asia, Australia, and the US, and married. His wife joined him aboard ship and over the course of the next 13 years, they had seven children, all born at sea or in foreign ports. One of the ships he captained was wrecked during a gale, but Slocum saved his family and crew and most of the cargo. This led to greater ships and more sailing. Not all smooth sailing, twice the family was stranded and eventually returned to the sea by luck and determination.

Back in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, Slocum rebuilt a 16’9” gaff rigged sloop oyster boat christened Spray. On this day, he sailed forth from Boston on a solo trip around the world. He first sailed up to Nova Scotia and spent time there before leaving North America on July 3. He did not have a chronometer, but used traditional dead reckoning for longitude and noon sun sights for latitude. This meant he needed only a cheap tin clock for approximate times. While sailing across the Pacific, he was one of the last to use a lunar distance observation to check longitude – decades after these were commonly used.

He managed to sail most of the way without touching the helm due to the design and proportions of the ship and sails. The self-steering ship was helped by Slocum’s adjusting the sails and lashing the helm. In fact, he sailed 2,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean without once touching the helm. Finally, on June 27, 1898 he returned to Newport, Rhode Island, travelling more than 46,000 miles. He wrote about his journey and published Sailing Alone Around the World, a classic in travel literature today. He was the first person to make a solo trip sailing around the world. He made enough money from his book and lectures to support himself and future sailing projects. On November 14, 1909, he once again went to sea, heading for the West Indies and never arrived. He was lost at sea and presumed dead at the age of 65.

I had resolved on a voyage around the world, and as the wind on the morning of April 24, 1895 was fair, at noon I weighed anchor, set sail, and filled away from Boston, where the Spray had been moored snugly all winter.

The twelve o’clock whistles were blowing just as the sloop shot ahead under full sail. A short board was made up the harbor on the port tack, then coming about she stood to seaward, with her boom well off to port, and swung past the ferries with lively heels.

A photographer on the outer pier of East Boston got a picture of her as she swept by, her flag at the peak throwing her folds clear. A thrilling pulse beat high in me.

My step was light on deck in the crisp air. I felt there could be no turning back, and that I was engaging in an adventure the meaning of which I thoroughly understood. – Joshua Slocum in Sailing Alone Around the World

Tallest, For a While

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 24, 2015
Woolworth Building in 1913

Woolworth Building in 1913

April 24, 1913: The Woolworth Building opens. At the time of its opening, it was the tallest building in the world overtaking the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower. It remained the tallest building until 1930 when 40 Wall Street took over that designation. The building located at 233 Broadway, Manhattan, New York City cost $13.5 million to build or $328.3 million in today’s dollars. Cass Gilbert was the architect responsible for designing the skyscraper. The site for the building was purchased by FW Woolworth and Edward J Hogan (Woolworth’s real estate agent) from the Trenor Luther Park Estate. They paid $1.65 million for the land in 1910. It took until January 18, 1911 for the men to acquire the final building site at a cost totaling $4.5 million.

The building was neo-Gothic style and initially designed to be 20 stories high and act as the new corporate headquarters for FW Woolworth Company. At its opening, the building was 60 stories tall and had over 5,000 windows. Irving National Exchange Bank and Woolworth set up the Broadway-Park Place Company to finance the building but by May 1914 Woolworth was able to buy all the shares, thus owning the building outright. On this date, the building officially opened as the tallest building in the world when President Woodrow Wilson turned on the lights from a switch located in Washington, D.C. Since the building resembled European Gothic cathedrals, it was called “The Cathedral of Commerce”.

Gunvald Aus and Kort Berle, engineers, designed the steel frame. There were high-speed elevators installed, an innovation at the time. With 34 elevators, the high office-to-elevator ratio made the skyscraper profitable. The ornate lobby was “one of the most spectacular of the early 20th century in New York City”. It is covered in Skyros marble and has vaulted ceilings. A stained glass ceiling light with bronze fittings remains to this day. Over the balconies of the mezzanine were murals of Labor and Commerce. There were several sculptures included of the men involved in the project. Woolworth’s private office, done in marble in the French Empire style, remains preserved.

The building was owned by Woolworth Company for 85 years until it was sold in 1998 to the Witkoff Group for $155 million. Foot Locker (the successor of the Woolworth Company) maintained a presence there even after the sale. The World Trade Center, just a few blocks away, was often photographed in such as way as to include this building between the two towers. After the bombing on September 11, 2001 the building was without electricity, water, and phone service for a few weeks. The windows and top turret were damaged by falling debris. Since the attack, security concerns have restricted access to most of the lobby, previously a tourist attraction. Witkoff sold the top 30 floors to an investment group led by Alchemy Properties in 2012 for $68 million. They plan to convert the space into luxury apartments with the top five floors a penthouse. The lower floors will remain office space.

I am the world’s worst salesman. Therefore I must make it easy for people to buy. – F. W. Woolworth

Dreams never hurt anybody if you keep working right behind the dreams to make as much of them become real as you can. – F. W. Woolworth

We would rather have one man or woman working with us than three merely working for us. – F. W. Woolworth

A skyscraper is a boast in glass and steel. – Mason Cooley

Also on this day: Greeks Bearing Gifts – In 1184 BC, the Greeks bring a gift to Troy.
Soyuz 1 – In 1967, the first space fatality occurred.
Hershey’s Park – In 1907, Hersheypark opened.
Looking Outward – In 1990, mission STS-31 boosted into space with the Hubble Space Telescope aboard.
Reference Work – In 1800, the US Library of Congress was established.

Reference Work

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 24, 2014
Library of Congress

Library of Congress

April 24, 1800: The US Library of Congress is established. The first proposal for this reference library for members of Congress to use was put forth in 1783 by James Madison. It finally came to fruition on this date when President John Adams signed an Act of Congress allocating $5,000 for the purchase of “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress” as well as setting up an appropriate place to contain them. Initially, 740 books and 3 maps were purchased and housed in the new Capitol Building as the seat of government moved from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. It was Thomas Jefferson in 1802 who signed a bill into law which provided for the actual building of the Library of Congress.

Not only did Jefferson provide for the building but also established a presidential appointment for the post of Librarian of Congress and a Joint Committee on the Library which regulated and oversaw the Library and allowed for the President and Vice President to borrow books. The Library of Congress was destroyed in 1814 when the British came to town and set the Capitol as well as the library contained within on fire. About 3,000 volumes were lost. Within a month, former President Jefferson offered his personal library as a replacement. He had been collecting books for 50 years and had a wide-ranging selection of books, including some not normally seen in a legislative library – such as cookbooks.

By January 1815, Congress had approved the collection and appropriated $23,950 to purchase his 6,487 books. His books were those of a working scholar and not a gentleman’s collection of books and so it was deemed appropriate as a replacement. At Monticello, Jefferson had grouped his books according to Francis Bacon’s scheme with three main groups subdivided into 44 more smaller portions. The books were stored for Congress using this same plan until late in the 19th century when Herbert Putnam (as the Librarian) began to work on a more flexible Library of Congress Classification system which is now used for the more than 138 million items contained therein.

In 1815, another fire caused great damage to the Library and many of Jefferson’s books were lost to the flames. Only 2,000 of the original books remained after the second fire. Between 1998 and 2008, the librarians working at the Library were able to replace these lost books – all but the last 300 which are still missing. Over the years, the space housing the Library has increased proportionately to the number of items contained. Today, preservation is centered on digitalizing the collection. Today, there are more than 32 million books and other print material in 470 languages and more than 61 million manuscripts. It is the largest rare book collection in North America. Housed within are many collector items such as a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence and a Gutenberg Bible (one of three perfect vellum copies known to exist). Also included are more than 1 million US government publications and another million newspapers spanning the last three centuries.

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. – Marcus Tullius Cicero

Books constitute capital. A library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years. It is not, then, an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital, and often in the case of professional men, setting out in life, it is their only capital. – Thomas Jefferson

My Alma mater was books, a good library… I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity. – Malcolm X

A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life. – Henry Ward Beecher

Also on this day: Greeks Bearing Gifts – In 1184 BC, the Greeks bring a gift to Troy.
Soyuz 1 – In 1967, the first space fatality occurred.
Hershey’s Park – In 1907, Hersheypark opened.
Looking Outward – In 1990, mission STS-31 boosted into space with the Hubble Space Telescope aboard.

Soyuz 1

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 24, 2013
Vladimir Komarov

Vladimir Komarov

April 24, 1967: A space mission goes from bad to worse and results in the first space mission fatality. The space race was in full swing. The Russians launched the first successful satellite on October 4, 1957. The US reacted with panic and attempted to first catch up and then surpass the USSR’s efforts. It took four months and several failures before the US could manage to become the second space power. The two superpowers continued to launch rockets. The USSR sent the first living creature into space – Laika, a small dog, did not survive. Finally on April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.

Six years later, another first. Soyuz 1 was a doomed ship. No Soyuz craft had ever successfully flown. The Politburo pushed for the launch despite being told of 200 design faults. Engineers’ concerns were dismissed so the launch could take place on Lenin’s birth date. A successful Soyuz program would give the Soviets an edge on the race to the moon. Not only was Soyuz 1 to launch, but there were plans to launch Soyuz 2, with three cosmonauts aboard, the next day.

Yuri Gagarin was the backup cosmonaut. He attempted to bump Vladimir Komarov, hoping the bureaucrats would not risk their National Hero. Komarov remained on the flight. Launched at 3:35 AM, it was the first night launch. The problems started almost immediately when a solar panel malfunctioned. All systems were compromised by the power shortage. By orbit 13, automatic stabilization systems were gone and manual override was only partially effective. The Soyuz 2 mission was changed to repair and rescue Soyuz 1.

With system failure cascading, it was decided to abort the mission. During orbit 18, retro-rockets were fired as soon as the spacecraft was above the USSR. Even with limited mobility, the spacecraft might have landed safely. But there was a faulty pressure sensor that kept the main parachute from opening. Komarov tried to manually deploy the reserve chute and it tangled. The craft fell to Earth nearly unbraked as further retro-rockets also failed to fire. Vladimir Komarov was given a state funeral. He left a wife and two children behind.

“I’m sure we would not have had men on the Moon if it had not been for Wells and Verne and the people who write about this and made people think about it. I’m rather proud of the fact that I know several astronauts who became astronauts through reading my books.” – Arthur C. Clarke

“As a kid, I knew I wanted to be either a cartoonist or an astronaut. The latter was never much of a possibility, as I don’t even like riding in elevators.” – Bill Watterson

“It is better to be wrong too soon than right too late.” – Yuri A. Gagarin

“Since Yuri Gagarin and Al Shepard’s epic flights in 1961, all space missions have been flown only under large, expensive government efforts, … By contrast, our program involves a few, dedicated individuals who are focused entirely on making spaceflight affordable.” – Burt Rutan

This article first appeared at in 2010. Editor’s update: Vladimir Komarov was born in Moscow in 1927. He was a test pilot, aerospace engineer, and a cosmonaut in the first group the Soviets selected in 1960. He was declared unfit for training twice, but with great effort and the knowledge he had as an engineer, he continued to play an active role in the USSR’s space program. He became a member of Air Force Group 1. He helped with space craft design and was selected to command the first Soviet multiman Voskhod 1 spaceflight. When he was also chosen to man the Soyuz 1 flight, he became the first man to enter outer space twice. His total time in outer space was two days, three hours, and four minutes. He was 40 years old when he died.

Also on this day: Greeks Bearing Gifts – In 1184 BC the Greeks bring a gift to Troy.
Hershey’s Park – In 1907, Hersheypark opened.
Looking Outward – In 1990, mission STS-31 boosted into space with the Hubble Space Telescope aboard.

“Off With Their Heads” – The Queen of Hearts

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 25, 2010

Guillotine in use; entertainment for the masses

April 25, 1792: Nicolas J. Pelletier is the first person to be executed by guillotine. A guillotine is a machine made to decapitate those being executed. Earlier types of the machine were in existence as early as 1307, when the Scottish Maiden’s use was first documented. The improved, more humane guillotine was designed by Antoine Louis at the request of Joseph-Ignace Guillotin as a more humane method of execution. Tobias Schmidt won the contract to build them for 960 francs.

Prior to 1792, those of noble birth in France who were condemned to death were beheaded, commoners were usually hanged, but some people were tortured with the wheel [tied to wheel spokes, breaking limbs with hammers, then weaving the sometimes still living person through the spokes and letting birds eat the remains] or burned at the stake.

It was considered more humane to chop off someone’s head and have them die instantly. The guillotine was more efficient at the process than beheading by sword or axe. In egalitarian times, it was also deemed to be more equitable to have both aristocracy and the common criminal executed using the same method. The guillotine was exported to other countries, mostly in Europe. There were tales of heads living without being connected to the bodies, leading to speculation concerning the humanity behind the method. The “living head” issue has never been scientifically proven and there is evidence pointing to loss of consciousness in seconds even if actual death came slower.

Eventually the guillotine became the only means of capital punishment in France. Public beheadings were stopped in 1939. Hamida Djandoubi was the last person executed with the guillotine on September 10, 1977. It is thought that between 15,000 and 40,000 people were executed using the guillotine during the Reign of Terror which lasted from June, 1793 to July, 1974. There is no longer a death penalty in France.

“GUILLOTINE, n. A machine which makes a Frenchman shrug his shoulders with good reason.” – Ambrose Bierce

“The world itself is but a large prison, out of which some are daily led to execution.” – Walter Raleigh

“Laws are rules established by men who are in control of organized violence for the non fulfillment of which those who do not fulfill them are subjected to personal injuries, the loss of liberty, and even capital punishment.” – Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy

“As long as you have capital punishment there is no guarantee that innocent people won’t be put to death.” – Paul Simon

Also on this day, in 1961 Robert Noyce received a patent for a semiconductor, leading the way to our current computers.

Greeks Bearing Gifts

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 24, 2010

Trojan horse

April 24, 1184 BC: This is given as the traditional date for the Greeks bearing gifts to Troy. According to mythology, Helen [daughter of the current king of Sparta and wed to Menelaus – the next king of Sparta] is either kidnapped and forced to wed Paris of Troy, or else she elopes willingly with him. Either way, the Greeks were unhappy with the situation and vowed to get Helen back to Greece.

After fighting for ten years with no apparent winner, the Greeks got a brainstorm for a ruse. They built a huge wooden horse. Forty soldiers were secreted inside. Or perhaps there were thirty hidden in the belly and two spies in the horse’s mouth. Or maybe Apollodorus was correct at fifty men or maybe Tzertzes was correct with 23. Today we settle on forty men hidden. The citizens of Troy were convinced that it was a gift from the beaten Greeks. The rest of the Greek army hid as the Trojans brought the “gift” inside the city walls.

After ten years of war, the seeming victors celebrated long and hard. They were thus impaired and didn’t hear the hidden soldiers emerge, kill the guards, and open the city gates to the rest of the Greek army. Every Trojan male was killed, including infants. Every female was enslaved. The city was ransacked, the riches hauled away and the remains of the city were reduced to rubble.

The epic poems Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer and The Aeneid by Virgil saved these mythic stories for us. In ancient times this was all considered to be a true story, today it is considered to simply be a myth. Archeologists have tried to locate Troy. Homer placed the city overlooking the Hellespont, today called the Dardanelles. The strait separates Asia Minor and Europe. In the 1870s Heinrich Schliemann, an archaeologist as well as the man who hunted for the historically accurate sites mentioned in the ancient Greek texts, came to the area to dig. He found several ancient cities, one built on top of the other. Several of the cities were obviously destroyed by violence. It was not clear if any of these was the actual place called Troy.

“Always remember to pillage before you burn.” – unknown

“I should like to know who has been carried off, except poor dear me — I have been more ravished myself than anybody since the Trojan war.” – Lord Byron

“Motherhood is the strangest thing, it can be like being one’s own Trojan horse.” – Rebecca West

“Hell to ships, hell to men, hell to cities – of Helen of Troy.” – Aeschylus

Also on this day, the Soyuz 1 crashed to Earth.