Sunday, September 30, 2012

September 30

On September 30, 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated Boulder Dam, spanning the Colorado River between Arizona and Nevada. Begun in 1931, the gravity-arch dam curves upstream to direct water pressure against the canyon walls. Through 1936, 21,000 men built the structure (5,000 at any one time); 107 were killed. Workers turned a sleepy Las Vegas into today’s Sin City. Intended to prevent flooding and provide irrigation and hydroelectric power for California, Nevada and Arizona, the dam is 660 feet thick at its base, 70 stories high, made from more than 6.6 million tons of concrete, and generates 4 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power annually. Lake Mead behind it is one of the world’s largest man-made lakes. Congress saw fit to rename the dam after a much-reviled Herbert Hoover in 1947.

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September 30

Animated sitcom “The Flintstones” premiered on September 30, 1960, on ABC-TV and ran through April 1966. Produced by Hanna-Barbera, working-class Stone Age individuals lived quasi-modern lives, using technology powered by animals that frequently broke the “fourth wall” to complain to viewers about their jobs. Trade rag Variety called the show "A Pen and Ink Disaster," but it became wildly popular and was the first animated series nominated for an Emmy Award (Outstanding Comedy Series). It was blatantly modeled after Jackie Gleason’s “The Honeymooners”: Fred Flintstone as Ralph Cramden, neighbor Barney Rubble as Ed Norton (Art Carney’s character), Wilma and Betty as their wives. Gleason threatened to sue but did not want to be known as “the guy who yanked Fred Flintstone off the air.”

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Saturday, September 29, 2012

September 29

“Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.” September 29 is the birthdate of immortal Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, whose picaresque masterpiece, Don Quixote (two parts, 1605 and 1615), is a foundational work of Western literature, considered the first modern European novel. The chivalric adventures of Quixote and sidekick Sancho Panza, though farcical on the surface, explore the nature of reality (and sanity), the serious theme of deception, and the truth of our own lives by forcing us to question the principles and structure of his own narration. Pictured: Picasso’s celebrated 1955 sketch of Quixote riding Rocinante, with Sancho and the windmills, which marked the 350th anniversary of part one of Quixote.

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Friday, September 28, 2012

September 28

"When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn't plan to revolutionise all medicine by discovering the world's first antibiotic, or bacteria killer.” So recalled Scottish biologist and pharmacologist Sir Alexander Fleming, who was working with staphylococci when he saw, in one culture, that this bacteria had surrounded and destroyed a fungus contamination. The resulting mold (of the Penicillium genus) killed other disease-causing bacteria. In 1929 he named the "mould juice” it released “penicillin.” He gave up efforts to refine his discovery in the 1930s, but Oxford researchers Howard Florey and Ernst Chain (with whom Fleming later shared a Nobel Prize) succeeded in mass-producing it early in World War II. Today, many bacteria are now resistant to the world’s first “wonder drug.”

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Thursday, September 27, 2012

September 27

On September 27, 1066, William the Conqueror and his army set sail from the bay of the River Somme in Northern France to begin the Norman Conquest of England. As Duke of Normandy, William became a contender for the English throne held by his childless relative Edward the Confessor, succeeded by King Harold. William decisively defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings (October 14), southeast of London, and was crowned King on Christmas Day. He then began transforming England by seizing lands of the elite, introducing the use of French (forever altering Old English), abolishing slaveholding, and consolidating his power through taxation via the Domesday Book (1085). Pictured: detail of the Bayeux Tapestry (1070-79), showing Harold the King is killed (“Harold Rex Interfectus Est”).

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

September 26

September 26 is the birthdate of Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot, considered one of the most important poets in English of the 20th century. Born in St. Louis, he moved to England in 1914 at age 25 and became a British subject in 1927. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915) marked the beginning of Eliot's career as a highly influential poet; it is viewed as a masterpiece of the Modernist movement. Several major poems of the English language followed, including “The Waste Land” (1922), “The Hollow Men” (1925), “Ash Wednesday” (1930) and “Four Quartets” (1945) as well as seven plays. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. Prufrock’s angst-filled monologue expressed the longing and regret of one of the most significant voices in modern poetry. Pictured: a famous line from “Prufrock.”

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

September 25

September 25 is the birthdate of William Faulkner, author of novels and short stories, many of which are set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County in his native Mississippi. From the early 1920s he wrote 13 novels, including The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930) and Light in August (1932). He also wrote screenplays, including those for “To Have and Have Not” (1944) and “The Big Sleep” (1946). He was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature for unique contributions to the modern novel, in which he made frequent use of "stream of consciousness" and highly complex, often grotesque plot lines. Faulker’s Absalom, Absalom! (pictured, 1936) contains the "longest sentence in literature," at 1,288 words, beginning with the words “He sounds just like father” (Chapter 6).

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Monday, September 24, 2012

September 24

September 24 is the birthdate of F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of novels and short stories chronicling the flamboyant “Jazz Age” (a term he coined in Tales of the Jazz Age, 1922), the “anything goes" era following World War I. He grew up acutely conscious of wealth and privilege and his family's exclusion from the social elite. His greatest novel, The Great Gatsby (1925), which fell short of his earlier novels’ commercial success, describes the arc of a wealthy bootlegger obsessed with the unobtainable. Fitzgerald conveys a sweeping sense of dreams, hopes and youthful awe inspired by the promise of America, and also the betrayal, corruption and dark loss hidden within that promise. Pictured: First edition of Gatsby with scarce dust jacket, auctioned in 2009 for the astounding price of $180,000.

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

September 23

On September 23, 1806, the Lewis and Clark Expedition (formally the Corps of Discovery Expedition) returned to St. Louis after two and a half years, having gathered information about the northwestern region of the Louisiana Purchase between the Mississippi and the Pacific, and laying claim to the Oregon Territory. Its objectives were to map the uncharted continent and study flora, fauna and resources to be exploited economically. President Jefferson also placed special importance on showing U.S. dominance over Native Americans along the Missouri River. Pictured: one of many “Indian Peace Medals” carried by Lewis and Clark, intended to establish U.S. sovereignty over indigenous inhabitants. It is actually two silver plates held within a silver ring; the U.S. Mint could not yet strike solid, heavy medals.

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

September 22

September 22 is the birthdate of English scientist Michael Faraday. The son of a blacksmith, he had little formal education but is considered one of history’s most influential minds, in both chemistry and physics. His research in the 1820s using an iron ring, insulated wire and a direct electric current established the concept of the electromagnetic field. Thereafter, he invented electromagnetic rotary devices that formed the foundation of electric motor technology. Largely because of Faraday, electricity became viable for use in technology. Albert Einstein kept a picture of Faraday on his study wall, alongside those of Isaac Newton and Faraday’s protégé, James Clerk Maxwell. Pictured: Six lectures Faraday wrote for young minds on gravitation, cohesion, chemical affinity, heat, magnetism and electricity (1859).

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Friday, September 21, 2012

September 21

September 21 is the birthdate of Charles "Chuck" Jones, animator, cartoon artist, screenwriter, producer and director of animated films, including Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts for Warner Bros. He directed many classic, short animated cartoons starring Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, Sylvester, Pepé Le Pew and other Warner characters. He helped create Bugs Bunny cartoons starting in the late 1930s, and in 1948 Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner sprang from his imagination. Jones' 1957 classic, “What's Opera, Doc?” placed Bugs and Elmer in a parody of Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" (running less than seven minutes); it was later selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, the first cartoon short to receive that honor.

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

September 20

On September 20, 1519, Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan set sail from Spain to find a western sea route to the Spice Islands (Indonesia), commanding five ships and 270 men. He sailed to West Africa, then the South American coast, seeking a strait leading to the Pacific. In October 1520, he discovered a treacherous passage near the tip of South America, which took him 38 days to navigate. He wept with joy when ocean was sighted at the far end. His fleet navigated that ocean in 99 days, crossing waters so strangely calm that it was named "Pacific," from the Latin “pacificus” ("tranquil”). Magellan was killed in the Philippines, but one of his ships, the Victoria, became the first to circumnavigate the globe (1522), having sailed 42,000 miles. Pictured: the Victoria, from a 1590 map.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

September 19

On September 19, 1946, the first Cannes International Film Festival (“Le Festival de Cannes”) kicked off in the south of France. It was conceived in 1939 in response to fascist interference by Italy and Germany with a film festival in Venice. Movies screened included “The Lost Week-End” (directed by Billy Wilder), “Notorious” (Alfred Hitchcock), “La Belle et La Bête” (Jean Cocteau), “Gilda” (Charles Vidor) and “Brief Encounter” (David Lean). It has become the world's most prestigious and publicized film festival, now held in May, mainly to showcase and promote European films. Since the early 1950s, however, when Brigitte Bardot posed at Cannes in a bikini (pictured, 1953), the Festival has largely embodied sex, cinema, red carpets, palm trees, intrusive paparazzi and celebrity parties.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

September 18

September 18 is the birthday of English author and literary polymath Samuel Johnson, often referred to as Dr. Johnson, who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. He was the subject of the single most famous biography in English literature, James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791), in which he was portrayed as a complex, heroic figure who won moral wisdom through constant struggle with despair. In 1755 Johnson published his monumental Dictionary of the English Language, one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship, which had strong influence on the English we speak today. It was the standard dictionary in Britain until the Oxford English Dictionary was completed in the 1890s.

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Monday, September 17, 2012

September 17

150 years ago: On September 17, 1862, a turning point occurred in American history with the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland, at Antietam Creek. It was the first major Civil War battle fought on Union soil and the bloodiest single-day battle in American history. Union Army Maj. Gen. George McClellan stopped the Confederate army of General Robert E. Lee on its march into the North. By sundown, savage and bloody combat resulted in nearly 23,000 combined casualties among the 100,000 soldiers engaged, including almost 4,000 dead. Lee’s retreat provided President Lincoln with the circumstance he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, thereby redefining the Civil War – and the nation. Pictured: Union burial crew at Antietam by Alexander Gardner.

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Sunday, September 16, 2012

September 16

On September 16, 1908, William Durant, head of Buick Motor Company, incorporated General Motors in New Jersey. He had made a fortune making horse-drawn carriages, and ironically he hated noisy, smelly and dangerous automobiles. Unlike Ford, GM bought 11 other automakers including Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Oakland (Pontiac), to sell many different cars to many people. Durant was forced out of the company, started Chevrolet, then was forced out of GM again. He spent his last years bankrupt, managing a bowling alley in Flint, MI. GM led global vehicle sales for 77 consecutive years from 1931 through 2007, longer than any other automaker. Pictured: GM Parade of Products, Lansing, MI, 1927.

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September 16

On September 16, 1880, the Cornell Daily Sun was founded by students at Cornell University. It is the oldest, continuously independent college daily newspaper in the United States, published as a tabloid on weekdays when the university is in session, staffed entirely by students except for some production and business positions. It is independent of the university and operates from its own building in Ithaca, NY. Sun alumni include Frank E. Gannett, founder of the Gannett Company; Oscar G. Mayer, Jr., executive of Oscar Mayer company; Dick Schaap, sports writer and broadcaster; Kurt Vonnegut, novelist and satirist; and E. B. White, columnist and novelist. Pictured: special edition during student activism, April 1969.

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Saturday, September 15, 2012

September 15

September 15 is the birthdate of Agatha Christie, British author of 66 detective novels, most of which involve the investigations of Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. Her books have sold roughly four billion copies; she is one of the most widely published and translated authors ever. Her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), featured Poirot and launched her career. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, Christie became increasingly weary of her own detective, calling him “insufferable" and "an ego-centric creep." She killed him off in the novel Curtain, published in 1975 but written during World War II. Poirot is the only fictional character to have been given an obituary in The New York Times (appearing on the front page).

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Friday, September 14, 2012

September 14

On September 14, 1982, Grace Kelly, Her Serene Highness the Princess of Monaco, died at age 52 after suffering a stroke while driving with her daughter, Stéphanie, plunging off a mountainside along the French border. She had been pulled alive from the wreckage the day before. Kelly began acting on stage in 1950 at age 20; in 1956 she left acting in movies to marry Ranier III, Prince of Monaco. While pregnant in 1956, Princess Grace was frequently photographed clutching a distinctive leather sac à dépêches (message bag), manufactured by Hermès, to shield her baby bump from paparazzi cameras. The purse became so closely associated with the fashion icon that it was known thereafter as the Kelly Bag. Today’s price tag? Anywhere between $10,000 and $60,000. Each.

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Thursday, September 13, 2012

September 13

On the night of September 13, 1814, lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key was detained overnight aboard a British truce ship during the bombardment of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, in the War of 1812, while arranging the release of a friend who was held prisoner. When he saw “by the dawn’s early light” that the U.S. flag was still flying, he knew the Fort had not surrendered. Moved by the sight, Key began writing “The Defence of Fort McHenry” on the back of a letter (he had an English drinking tune in mind). The completed poem was published later in 1814 as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Set to music, it became our national anthem in 1931. Pictured: the original flag (15 stars, 15 stripes), made in Baltimore by Mary Pickersgill in 1813.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

September 12

On September 12, 1940, four teenage boys set out to find a dog named Robot near Montignac in southwestern France. They found the dog – and more than 2,000 dramatic paintings in the caves of Lascaux. The Late Stone Age art, painted with mineral pigments, is estimated to be more than 17,000 years old; it includes abstract figures, animals and one human figure. Equines predominate (364 images), but the most famous “room” is The Great Hall of the Bulls, where the animals appear to be in motion. The Lascaux complex was opened to the public in 1948 but closed in 1963 because of damage from human intrusion. A replica of two cave halls opened nearby in 1983. Pictured: two aurochs (bulls), extinct ancestor of domestic cattle.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

September 11

On September 11, 1609, English navigator Henry Hudson and the crew of his ship the Halve Maen (Half Moon) sailed into what is now Upper New York Bay. He was contracted by the Dutch East India Company, from Holland, to find a fabled northwest passage to Cathay. The next day, Hudson began exploring the river that now bears his name, going as far as present-day Albany, trading with native groups mainly for furs. His voyage established Dutch claims to the region and the lucrative fur trade there. He named the natives at the estuary’s mouth the Manahata and never realized that what are now Manhattan and Long Island are islands. Pictured: modern replica of the tiny Halve Maen in the Hudson, prior to 09/11/2001.

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Monday, September 10, 2012

September 10

On September 10, 1946, Sister Teresa, a missionary with the Sisters of Loreto, was traveling by train from Calcutta, India, to the Loreto convent in Darjeeling for her annual retreat, when she experienced what she later described as "the call within the call." She wrote, "I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith." This marked the moment that Sister Teresa became Mother Teresa. Born in Albania, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu left home at age 18 and took her vows at 21. In 1948, she replaced her Loreto habit with a white cotton sari decorated with a blue border and started a new religious community to help the destitute and starving – the "poorest among the poor."

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Sunday, September 9, 2012

September 9

September 9 is the birthdate of English novelist James Hilton, author of Lost Horizon (1933) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934). His inspiration for Lost Horizon and its utopian "Shangri-La" in the Himalayas was partly a Tibetan travelogue by two French priests written in the 1840s. In 1939 the book became the first “mass market” paperback published by Pocket Books (with serial number "1"). These portable paperbacks were affordable for people of modest means. The book saw more than 40 printings by the 1960s (when I read it!) and sold millions of copies. President Roosevelt called what later became Camp David in Maryland “Shangri-La.” Pictured: 1939 paperback cover.

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Saturday, September 8, 2012

September 8

On September 8, 1504, Michelangelo’s statue of David was unveiled in a public square in Florence. David the giant-killer had long been a politically important symbol in Florence, from the time Donatello created his bronze David for the Medicis in 1440. Michelangelo’s 17-foot statue (sculpted 1501-1504) represented the defense of civil liberties flourishing in the Florentine Republic, an independent city-state threatened on all sides by more powerful rival states and by the designs of the (now exiled) Medicis. To that end, David’s eyes flash a stern, warning glare directly at Rome. The original was moved to Florence’s Accademia Gallery in 1873.

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