Sunday, May 28, 2006

Death of Niccolo Paganini - May 27, 1840

I must be on a death kick or something, but here's another.

Niccolo Paganini was born October 27, 1782 in Genoa, Italy. He was playing ther mandolin by age five, violin by age seven, composing by age eight and giving public concerts at age twelve. He seems to have suffered from early fame and was drinking by the age of sixteen. A mystery woman saved him by taking him to her estate where he studied violin and guitar until he re-emerged when he was 23.

Paganini became one of the first musicians to tour as a single perfomer. He was so accomplished on the violin that people would say he'd made a deal with the Devil for his virtuoso ability. Actually, he had Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which lended him extraordinary flexibility of the wrist, as well as his natural genius for music. He was apparently so talented he could make people cry and faint at his concerts. He was the original Elvis.

Paganini played his own compostions on his tours. These compositions were written to be challenging to him and are considered some of the most difficult pieces for a violinist to play. What was new when he was coming up with them is now standard for violinists today.

Paganini died in Nice on May 27, 1840 due to cancer of the larynx. He had already lost his ability to speak, but continued playing the violin the night before he died.

"Pavarotti is a tenor, Paganini was a composer." - The Hunt for Red October

Niccolo Paganini - Wikipedia - May is National Ehlers-Danlos Awareness Month. Personally, I'd never heard of it before this.

Death of the Venerable Bede - May 25, 735

Bede (the Father of English History) was a Benedictine monk born around 672 at Wearmouth, England. He was brought to the abbey of Saints Peter and Paul at Wearmouth-Jarrow, England when he was only seven. He became a priest by the time he was thiry years old and was well-suited and happy with his life as a scholar and historian. The abbey at Jarrow had one of the largest English libraries of the time with between 300 and 500 volumes. (To contrast the times, my own library, including brain candy, easily passes 1500 books. Yes, I have a lot of books in boxes.)

Bede wrote about history, science, music, grammar and theology. He was not averse to including legends and tales in his histories and even penned a few poems. He quoted classical writers like Pliny and Virgil easily. His two greatest works were a history of England from the time of Caesar to its completion in 731 titled: Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and a re-editing of the Vulgate Bible, for which he used many different texts instead of just one. This edition became the standard used up to the Reformation.

Bede is credited with the invention of footnoting (so now students know who to blame!) and dividing time into the BC/AD system we now use. He had a good knowledge of science and even compared the earth to a "playground ball". He also understood tides, longtitude and latitude and one of his scientific treatises became very important in the Church's determining the date of Easter each year.

Bede died in his cell in 735, first finishing up a chapter of a translation and asking a young priest to get his few treasures and bring them and another priest so Bede could give them to some friends.

He was both canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1899. His feast day is May 25th.

Note - the first reference I found to his death was on May 26. I am now finding references that he died on May 27th (Julian calender), which is now May 25th (Gregorian calender). Since I really don't want to wait a year to feature him, you're getting two May 25th people instead of one. Also, since the book I saw the 26th in seems to be the only one mentioning that date, I'm going to say it was wrong.

The Venerable Bede - Wikipedia
Patron Saints Index - Bede
The Catholic Encyclopedia - The Venerable Bede
Bede's World (I have this insane picture in my head of a monk riding in a dogcart banging his head to Bohemian Rhapsody) - The Venerable Bede

Gustav Holst Dies - May 25, 1934

Gustav Theodor Holst (composer of one of my favorite classical pieces) died in London, England May 25, 1934. He was born in Cheltenham, England September 21, 1874 of Swedish and Irish parents. His father was an accomplished pianist who taught and was organist for All Saints' Church in Pittsville, England. He was bound and determined that his son become a pianist as well, but Holst developed neuritis in his hands, making playing the piano difficult. He did it anyway and became organist at Wick Rissington (Cotswalds) in 1893.

Composing interested him and although his problems playing piano prevented him from getting scholarships at music colleges, his father was impressed enough by his first composition to borrow the money to send him to the Royal College of Music. At school his neuritis and eyesight bcame worse, thanks to a case of malnutrition due to his frugality and vegetarian lifestyle. He finally gave up the piano and started playing the trombone instead.

He married a soprano named Isobel Harrison in 1901 and was appointed Director of Music at St. Paul's Girls School in Hammersmith, London in 1905. Before and during this time he had been composing. He was becoming heavily influenced by Hindu philosophy and the poetry of Walt Whitman. His composition, Sita, (finished in 1906) is based on the Hindu epic Ramayana.

The Planets has become Holst's most famous composition (the favorite I mentioned earlier - I own two different recordings of it!). It was published in 1916 to wide acclaim. It was the most successful of any of his compositions. One other, The Hymn of Jesus (1917), was nearly as popular, but after his opera, The Perfect Fool, was published 1923, his critical successes began to wane.

His death followed a stomach operation on May 23rd. The operation was to fix ulcers he had developed and was a success, but his heart couldn't take the strain. He died two days later. His ashes were interred at the Cathedral at Chichester.

The Gustav Holst Website - there was so much more in the bio I couldn't mention
Holst Birthplace Museum
Gustav Holst - Wikipedia
Holst: The Planets - Wikipedia

Marx Brothers Release Cocoanuts - May 24, 1929

The first Marx Brothers movie, The Cocoanuts, was released May 2, 1929. It was a movie version of their stage play of the same name and included some of the same cast members, including Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo Marx and Groucho's frequent straight-woman, Margaret Dumont. The movie was set in Florida during the hotel boom with Groucho and Zeppo (the family straight man - and quite handsome) being the managers of the hotel and the other brothers doing, um, other things.

According to Joe Adamson, the brothers were so appalled by the final version of the movie, they tried to buy the negatives from Paramount so they could burn them. It's a good thing they didn't because the movie earned nearly two million dollars in profit!

An interesting tidbit: since they couldn't digitally remove unwanted sounds at that time, the sound techs soaked every bit of paper that was used as a prop so they wouldn't make crinkly sounds.

The Cocoanuts - Wikipedia
The Cocoanuts - Internet Movie Database

Monday, May 22, 2006

S.S. Savannah Leaves Port - May 22, 1819

While we're doing firsts...

The S.S. Savannah, based out of Savannah, Georgia (how surprising), was the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. She was captained by Moses Rogers, of New London, Connecticut. He was a major proponent for the use of nautical steam power.

The Savannah was built in New York at the Crockett and Fickett shipyard. She was equipped with an auxiliary steam engine, since she had already been under construction when Captain Rogers purchased her for the Savannah Steam Company. She was the size of a modern tugboat at about 100 by 25 feet and 320 tons. She was a three-masted ship with a steam engine that operated a paddle wheel.

As an unknown engineering feat, the Savannah picked up the nickname "Steam Coffin". Captain Rogers had to recruit his crew from New York, rather than Savannah. After a hard battle to convince crew and passengers to trust the smoke-belching ship with sails, Rogers and the Savannah Steam Company were finally ready for their historic voyage.

The Savannah set out on May 22, 1819 on her transatlantic voyage. She reached Liverpool in a little over 29 days, on June 20, with the steam engine having been in use for eighty hours of her overall voyage.

She visited Stockholm, Sweden and St. Petersburg, Russia before returning to Savannah, then voyaging on to Washington, D.C.

The anniversary of the Savannah's voyage is celebrated as National Maritime Day. - History of the SS Savannah - amusing anecdote and worth reading - Captain Moses Rogers
Wikipedia - SS Savannah
SS Savannah - picture
SS Savannah -

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Amelia Earhart Completes Transatlantic Flight - May 21, 1932

Forget Charlie, I like Amelia better.

Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo transatlanic today, 64 years ago. She left Saint John, New Brunswick on the morning of May 20, 1932, stopping briefly in Newfoundland and intended to exactly duplicate Lindbergh's flight to Paris five years earlier.

Her flight was sponsored by a wealthy woman named Amy Guest. Guest wanted to be the first woman to fly transatlantic, but settled for being the money behind it. She chose Earhart because she had "the right image". Earhart flew with a three-person team in 1928, becoming the first woman to fly transatlantic (and piloted part of the way).

Her solo flight lasted 15 hours, 18 minutes and she traveled over 2000 miles. It was plagued by troubles, though. The weather went nuts, gasline leaked into the cockpit and her altimeter broke so she didn't even know what altitude she was flying at. She dropped suddenly 3000 feet once and went into a spin that she obviously pulled out of. Due to the weather and the other problems she had to scrub her landing in Paris and landed instead in a field near Londonderry, Ireland on May 21, 1932.

She received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society and the Cross of Knight of the Legion of Honor from France.

Amelia Earhart - Wikipedia
Amelia Earhart - The History Channel
Amelia Earhart - First Flight Shrine
Amelia Earhart - Centennial of Flight
Amelia Earhart - Amelia Earhart Museum
Amelia Earhart - article on her disappearance

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Mount St. Helens Erupts - May 18, 1980

I realize everyone will be featuring this, but I love volcanoes, so here goes anyway...

At 8:32 AM on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens (Loo-Wit), in southern Washington decided she was going to blow her top. After all, the venerable lady was sick of being fought over by Mounts Hood (Wy'east) and Adams (Pahto) [First Nations' legend]. The volcano had been dormant since 1857. She started showing signs of activity in March 1980 with earthquakes, steam vents and a small eruption on March 27th. A bulge began forming under the crust of the north slope as magma and gas pooled underneath it.

Vulcanologist David Johnston, manning a watchpost ten miles away, was able to trigger a warning just before the pyroclastic cloud took over his position. A 5.1 earthquake had triggered a landslide that swept away the north face of the mountain. One of the largest landslides ever recorded, it deposited more than half a cubic mile of debris a distance of 13 miles down the Toutle River.

The landslide uncovered the steam and magma vents under the mountain's surface, causing an eruption that overtook the landslide itself. The first of many pyroclastic flows (composed of super-heated gas, rock and ash) moved laterally as it followed the landslide. The blast was calculated at about 24 megatons. Within fifteen minutes a tower of ash and smoke had reached about 80,000 feet high.

The eruption lasted nine hours. By the time it was over 57 people had died, including David Johnston, whose body was never found. Countless animals were killed and 230 square miles of land were damaged and enough trees were blown down to build 300,000 two-bedroom houses. The plume of smoke and ash blew as far as 22,000 square miles away - in Colorado and Oklahoma. Ash circled the globe in two weeks. She was reduced in height from 9677 feet to 8364 feet almost instantly.

Sites about the eruption:
USGS: Mount St. Helens - 1980
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
1980 Eruption - Wikipedia
1980 Eruption - The History Channel

First Nations' Legends regarding Mount St. Helens and the Cascades:
The Bridge of the Gods
The Gardner School description of area names
USGS Mount St. Helens site

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Charlie Chaplin's Stolen Body Recovered - May 17, 1978

Charlie Chaplin died at the age of 88 on Christmas morning, 1977. He was buried in Vevey, Switzerland. On March 2, 1978 his coffin was dug up and stolen. The unopened coffin was recovered eleven weeks later, on May 17, 1978.

Ransom demands had started pouring in immediately, but the police only found one claim credible, because it was backed up by photographs of the oak casket. Oona Chaplin, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, refused to pay them because “Charlie would have thought it ridiculous.” The police convinced the family to at least play along so they could catch them.

After monitoring about 200 public telephones in the town of Lausanne, Switzerland (where the Chaplins had settled after being denied entrance into the US in 1952 as potential Communist threats – Yeesh!) the police captured two men: Roman Wardas, a Polish mechanic and Gantscho Ganev, a Bulgarian mechanic. The men admitted to robbing Chaplin’s grave to improve their financial situations. The two men were convicted of extortion and disturbing the peace of the dead. Wardas was sentenced to four and a half years hard labor, while Ganev (the muscle) was given an eighteen month suspended sentence.

Oona Chaplin reburied her husband under six feet of concrete. The farmer who owned the plot of land the robbers had buried Chaplin in until their plans were foiled erected a cross where he had been temporarilly interred. When Oona died fourteen years later, she requested her body also be covered by cement to ensure no repeats of the event.

Charlie Chaplin’s Body Stolen – Urban Legends
Charlie Chaplin – Wikipedia
This Day in History – BBC
Today in Odd History

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Velcro - May 13, 1958

Velcro's trademark was registered in the USA on May 13, 1958. The fastener was invented in 1948 by a Swiss enginer named Georges de Mestral and patented in 1951. He came up with the idea after observing the Burdock seeds that would hook on his dog's hide as they took their walks. The seeds have evolved a hook and loop system that cling to the hides of passing animals to ensure pollination and germination.

De Mestral's invention has loops on one side that mesh with smaller, finer loops on the other side. He named it Velcro from the Fench words "velours" and "crochet", meaning "velvet" and "hook". Velcro being the trademarked name of the company that makes the stuff, it should actually be referred to by one of its' generic names: "hook and loop", "touch" and "burr" fasteners. One of the websites mentioned that when a trademarked name becomes common parlance the company could be at risk of losing the trademark.

As with everything else in this world, rumors and stories have sprung up about it. The best is that Velcro was actually invented by NASA. This is probably due to that fact that they popularized its use in the space program and the aeronautics industry. (Of course, we all know it was actually invented by Vulcans.) A couple of films and other media have run with the idea that it was an alien invention, actually. And what would the world be like without velcro for sneakers?

Velcro - Wikipedia
Velcro's Company website
The site I got the amazing picture from - it was only an honorable mention! The rest of the site is awesome.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Kasparov v. Deep Blue - May 11, 1997

IBM developed a chess-playing computer named Deep Blue that was capable of thinking 6 moves ahead. The average person can only think 5 moves ahead. They got Garry Kasparov, then-reigning chess champion from Russia, to test it out for them.

The first match occurred in February 1996. Garry Kasparov beat Deep Blue 4-2. IBM then upgraded the computer and matches began again in May 1997, with the last being played on May 11th. Deep Blue won. Kasparov conceded the game after only 19 moves. The total score for the match was 3.5 to 2.5 in Deep Blue's favor. This was the first time a chess computer actually beat a reigning champion.

Deep Blue was retired immediately, even though Kasparov wanted one more rematch. The computer's chess functions were created by analyzing thousands of championship games. Four grandmasters helped to tweak and add to Deep Blue's capabilities. Rules of the match allowed IBM to tweak Deep Blue between games.

The current champions are Xu Yuhua, women's champion from China and Veselin Topalov, men's champion from Bulgaria.

Oh, any mistakes in reporting this incident in history, you can blame firmly on the fact that I can't play chess to save my soul. I wish I could, but I can't.

Deep Blue - Wikipedia
Deep Blue beats Kasparov - History Channel
Deep Blue - IBM's webpage
Quarantine, by AC Clarke - great short story

All Hail Spock! - the true chessmaster --->

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Inspiration Request

Anyone reading this blog most likely already has an interest in history. Therefore, you probably have one event, place or person in your "favorite moments in time" mental file - maybe more than one if you're as demented as I am.

To paraphrase:
"Give me your tired, your strange,
your muddled moments yearning to be recalled,
The wretched refuse of your twisted minds.
Send these, the timeles, tempus-tost to me,
I lift my fingers to the black keyboard."

Okay, Emma Lazarus I ain't, but it's not bad for about five minutes of work.

Tomorrow, we play chess...

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Colonel Blood arrested - May 9, 1671

Colonel Thomas Blood supported Cromwell's cause during the English Civil War and lost his estate in Ireland with the Restoration. To recoup his losses, Blood decided to steal the English Crown Jewels (after attempting to kidnap the Duke of Ormonde twice!).

Using the disguise of a parson he made friends with the Keeper of the Jewels, Talbot Edwards. After a few weeks of friendship, on May 9, 1671, Blood brought his "nephew" to introduce to Edwards' unmarried daughter along with a few friends. The friends wanted to see the jewels and as Edwards was showing them, they knocked him out and tried to steal the jewels. One man stuffed the Royal Orb down his pants. One of the others tried to saw the Royal Sceptre in half and Blood flattened St. Edward's Crown with a mallet to hide under his clerical robes.

Edwards' son, Wythe, had been a soldier stationed in Flanders and happened to choose that particular day after years of absence to visit his father. He roused his father and they sounded the alarm. After a short chase, the thieves were caught. Blood refused to speak to any but the King and somehow managed to convince the King Charles II to spare his life.

Strangely enough, he did such a good job of impressing the King that he was granted a pardon for the theft and anything he did prior, as well as having his estates in Ireland granted to him again plus an annual pension of 500 pounds! (Yeah, he was an Irishman, alright!) Of course, some speculate that his pardon may have indicated that he had actually aided Charles II in some way during the Civil War.

This Day in History - Thomas Blood
Wikipedia - Thomas Blood
Time and History, 7am - British Crown Jewels Stolen
Clare People - Colonel Thomas Blood - Thomas Blood
The Affair of Thomas Blood - an annoying waltz plays in the background as you read, with no pop-up to turn it off - but the info is worth it.

Friday, May 05, 2006

No Pants Day - Moveable Holiday

Well, this one definitely deserves a mention. Apparently a joke/tradition that began in Austin, Texas by the Knighthood of BUH to ease tensions around Finals Week is held on the first Friday of May every year - No Pants Day. This year it falls on May 5th. Quoting a high school student named Minda, from somewhere in Nebraska, it is "Just a fun day of leg liberation, and getting heckled by dumbasses who are too insecure to join in by taking off their pants." It's being touted from Austin to New Brunswick, Canada and from Pittsburgh to the UK - although in the UK it could be problematic since "pants" mean "underwear" there. Commando!
Anyway, the rules are simple: no pants, skirts, kilts (yes, they specify kilts), shorts or dresses. "Usually this means wearing thick, appropriately modest boxer shorts, but bloomers, slips, briefs, and boxer-briefs all work as well." I'm so glad they actually mention modesty or this celebration could get ugly quick! (I also wish I could have gotten away with this one at work today. It's hot there early in the morning!)

No Pants Day Official Website
No Pants Day Myspace - has songs about the holiday, even.
No Pants Day - Wikipedia
The Daily Texan - article from May 10, 2004 about the 2004 No Pants Day

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Burial of John McCormick - May 4, 1945

John McCormick was a waist gunner on the B-24 Liberator (bomber) Jolly Duck, when it was shot down over Zoeterwoede, Holland on February 22, 1945. He was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania (my hometown) August 1, 1921 and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942. Trained as a gunner he eventually taught others at gunnery school in Harlingen, Texas. McCormick requested an overseas assignment and was sent to England in 1944. He joined the 392nd Bomb Group in Norfolk, England.

The last mission of the 241 (the Jolly Duck) was originally to bomb the marshalling yards at Nordhausen, Germany. Heavy smoke prevented them from this, so the crew decided to go after the rail yard in Northeim. This target was scratched due to a bombing error by another plane and the squadron elected to drop their ammunition on a factory nearby instead. As the 241 returned to base, one engine quit, then another. They crashed next to a farm in Zoeterwoede, Holland under heavy small-arms fire by the German occupation force. The crew all got out with only minor injuries.

Four of the crewmen were captured almost immediately. They were taken to a POW camp to wait out the war. Two made it home via the Dutch Resistance and Canadian Army, while two stayed hidden in Holland, near Rotterdam, until the war was over. McCormick ended up fighting with the Dutch Resistance. He was given the choice by the leader of the resistance, Dr. Joseph Kentgens. He could surrender and spend the rest of the war relatively safe in a POW camp or he could join the resistance. McCormick chose to fight.

He helped the Dutch make fake passports and IDs and stole ration cards to get food to people who needed it in the underground and in hiding: talents he obviously never learned here in Scranton, since noone would ever think of doing that here. He also led raids and helped with physical conditioning.

John is kneeling in the center of this photograph, with Dr. Kentgens, Ali van Rij and Jacob van Rij standing directly behind him.
On April 29, 1945, just six days before the Northern German Army surrendered, McCormick along with Dr. Kentgens, some other members of the resistance and their families, the crew of a British Stirling and a Dutch Nazi-sympathizer being held prisoner were hiding in a remote lodge near Zevenhuisen. Noone is sure how, but a group of about 20 German soldiers came upon the lodge and opened fire on it. Kentgens was wounded and presumed dead. McCormick and another resistance member, Jacob van Rij, were killed trying to help everyone escape in a prearranged plan. McCormick was shot first and when van Rij's wife, Ali, was wounded van Rij went berserk and attacked the Germans by himself. His distraction allowed the British fliers and other resistance members to escape.

McCormick was found on May 2nd behind the barn and van Rij was found in a pool of water where he'd drowned after being shot unconscious. They were buried in Zevenhuisen on May 4th, the same day the German High Command in the Netherlands surrendered. (Today, May 4th is honored in the Netherlands as a day of Remembrance of the Dead, with two minutes of silence at 8pm.) Fearing reprisals, the Dutch owner of the lodge the resistance had been using, told the Germans who inquired that McCormick was a stranger from the Hague, thus McCormick's first burial was without military honors.

On October 31, 1945 he was reburied with full military honors in Zoetermeer, along with van Rij and two other resistance heroes: Cornelis van Eerden and Jan Hoorn. There is a memorial erected to them above their gravesite and it is honored every May 4th. John McCormick may not have been born Dutch, but he is as much a hero and spoken of with as much pride as any of the natural-born Dutch Resistance heroes. There is even a Dutch scout troop named after him.

392nd Stories: John McCormick
Lucky Duck's last mission
Salisbury Post - article about Zoetermeer celebration on May 4, 2005 by the daughters of one of the crew that made it home
Scranton Times - article about John McCormick

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Great Exhibition - May 1, 1851

The Crystal Palace was the site of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, opening May 1, 1851 and running until October of that year. It was the brainchild of Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria. Fairs had been held since 1756 all over the world to display the technological and artistic wonders of various coutries. The theme of the 1851 Exhibition was, obviously, industry and machinery, however one of my favorite tidbits is the inclusion of the Victorian idea of what Iguanodon looked like (not even close).

The building was a steel and glass strucure designed by Joseph Paxton with the help of Charles Fox and was designed and completed in only nine months. People would often pack a lunch and spend the entire day there, going through the exhibits. There were exhibits from all corners of the world including silk and surgical instruments and a penknife with eighty blades from Britain; part of a bridge, weapons and soap shaped like people from America; stuffed animals from Germany, the stuffed kittens reputedly being Queen Victoria's favorites.

In an amusing note to us in this day and age, one of the men in charge, Capt. Boscawen Ibbetson had to write a report on the usage of the new invention: the public toilet. He diligently recorded how many peple used them the entire time of the Exhibition. The highest usage was on Wednesday, October 8th, a week before the Exhibit closed. There were 11,171 visitors to the 'loo that day.

The Great Exhibition saw over 6 million visitors from all over the world. The profits from the fair were put into the purchase of land for the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Charlotte Bronte was one of the repeat visitors. She wrote in a letter:

"It may be called a bazaar or a fair, but it is such a bazaar or fair as Eastern genii might have created. It seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth - as if none but supernatural hands could have arranged it thus, with such a blaze and contrast of colours and marvellous power of effect." - From Eyewitness To History: John Carey, p.324

Victoria & Albert Museum - Great Exhibition
University of Kansas - The Great Exhibition
Wikipedia - Great Exhibition
Wikipedia - Crystal Palace
The History Channel - Great Exhibition
Eyewitness To History; John Carey; 1987; Avon Books; NY, NY (a collection of first-hand accounts of events throughout history - one of my favorite books)