Thursday, October 31, 2013
English poet John Keats was born on October 31, 1795, in London. He developed an interest in the classics and Renaissance literature, but by age 20 he had become a medical student, showing some talent as a surgeon’s assistant. But his literary ambitions were aroused by poets such as Leigh Hunt (a friend of the poet Shelley) and Lord Byron. In 1816 he published his first book of verse, Poems. It was a critical failure. But during most of 1819, while staying with a friend on London’s Hampstead Heath, Keats began writing his most mature and enduring works – six famous odes – after hearing lectures on the subject of poetic identity by literary critic William Hazlitt, and also meeting the celebrated poet William Wordsworth. That spring he wrote five poems: "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode on Indolence,” "Ode on Melancholy," "Ode to a Nightingale" and "Ode to Psyche." In September, he composed "To Autumn" shortly before he showed the first signs of the tuberculosis that would kill him. When he died at age 25, Keats had been writing poetry seriously for only six years.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
English Impressionist painter Alfred Sisley was born in Paris on October 30, 1839, to affluent, educated parents. In the 1860s he abandoned a business career in London, inspired by works of English landscape painters including Turner and Constable. In Paris, he joined with Impressionists Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir in pioneering realistic and natural depictions of subjects. Most notably, they painted landscapes en plein air (outdoors), not in the studio, to focus on capturing the transient effects of sunlight. Sisley was the most consistent Impressionist of his time, exclusively painting plein air landscapes. Of his nearly 900 oil paintings, fewer than 12 were still lifes. He favored the pastoral Fontainebleau region southeast of Paris, avoiding industrialized cityscapes, and is also known for a series of paintings of the River Thames (1874) near Hampton. One of his most alluring landscapes, “Lane of Poplars at Moret-sur-Loing” (1890, pictured), has been stolen three times from a museum in Nice, and recovered each time, in 1978, 1998 and 2007.
Sunday, October 27, 2013
155 years ago: Theodore "T.R." Roosevelt, Jr., who was elected the 26th President of the United States in 1901, was born on October 27, 1858, in New York, NY. His father was a philanthropist, his mother a socialite. An asthmatic, he had to sleep propped up in bed or in a chair in his youth. Although frequently ill, he was a hyperactive hellion. During his life, Roosevelt wrote 18 books, including his Autobiography, The Rough Riders and a four-volume The Winning of the West. The Teddy bear is named for him, but he deeply disliked the name “Teddy” and was unafraid to let people know it. He deplored the use of the phrase "In God We Trust" on U.S. currency, writing that "It seems to me eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by use on coins, just as it would be to cheapen it by use on postage stamps, or in advertisements." He often skinny-dipped in the Potomac and pursued strenuous exercise, including boxing. But he discontinued sparring when a blow to his left eye while President detached his retina and left him blind in that eye – a fact that was concealed for years.
Saturday, October 26, 2013
On October 26, 1861, the Pony Express ceased operating between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, two days after the transcontinental telegraph reached Salt Lake City to complete a connection between Omaha, Nebraska, and Sacramento. The mail delivery system, originally part of an express freight company, carried messages, mail, newspapers and small packages, much of which originated from the East coast. The need for fast mail service beyond the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada was hastened by westward migration on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s, then the 1849 Gold Rush. Horses of the Pony Express raced between more than 150 relay stations for a period of only 18 months, starting in April 1860. Riders earned $25 a week at a time when unskilled labor was paid between 43 cents and $1 a day. They covered more than 1,800 miles, delivering mail in an advertised “10 days to San Francisco!” Today nearly all of the express trail has disappeared, although short segments, open to guesswork, can be seen in Utah and California.
Thursday, October 24, 2013
On October 24, 1590, English explorer and artist John White returned to Plymouth, England, after failing to rescue the ill-fated “lost colony” at Roanoke Island. He had been a member of the settlement in 1585, in what is now North Carolina, sent by Sir Walter Raleigh as an artist and illustrator for the New World expedition. His watercolors of the flora, fauna and native peoples (pictured) are the earliest, most informative extant illustrations of native societies on the East coast. No Englishman had ever before painted America. White returned as governor in 1587 to reestablish Roanoke with more than 100 colonists (though his destination was actually Chesapeake Bay). In August his daughter, Elenora, gave birth to Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas. When the colony clashed with natives and began to fail, White returned to England against his will to bring back supplies. He was promptly delayed by the invasion of the Spanish Armada (1588). When he finally returned in 1590, the settlement – and his family – had disappeared.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
On October 22, 1879, Thomas Edison successfully tested the first commercially practical electric incandescent light bulb. To conduct current and create light inside the bulb, he used a filament of carbon, which he had tried previously along with platinum and other metals in many experiments since 1878. The bulb lasted 13.5 hours. Edison did not invent the first electric light bulb. He had been preceded by numerous other inventors, particularly Joseph Swan, a British physicist and chemist who had made early attempts in the 1860s and later lit homes and a London theater with light bulbs. However, Edison overcame key shortcomings that included short life and high cost. He made further improvements on the bulb, filed for a patent in November, and formed the Edison Electric Light Co. in New York with investors that included J. P. Morgan. At the first public demonstration of his incandescent light bulb on December 31, 1879, in Menlo Park, NJ, Edison commented, "We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles."
Monday, October 21, 2013
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure dome decree” … Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on October 21, 1772, in Devon near the southwest tip of England. His influence on English literature in the Romantic period and beyond was significant not only because of his own poetry but through his friendship with poet William Wordsworth and others, and his literary criticism, which included the concept of willing suspension of disbelief. He suffered from poor health, stemming from rheumatic fever, and was often crippled by anxiety and depression, for which he was treated with laudanum (an opium mixture), resulting in addiction. One of his most famous poems, “Kubla Khan” (1797), was the product of an opium-influenced dream, after reading about Xanadu, the summer palace of the Mongol ruler and Emperor of China. Coleridge maintained he had remembered 200-300 lines of verse, but had written down only 30 lines when he was famously interrupted by “a person from Porlock” (a nearby town). It is believed the interruption was a convenient fiction.
Sunday, October 20, 2013
40 years ago: The Sydney Opera House in Australia was formally opened on October 20, 1973, by Queen Elizabeth II. Designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, the facility is located at the tip of a peninsula in Sydney Harbor. It is comprised of three groups of interlocking vaulted “shells,” housing two main performance halls and a restaurant, set on a huge platform and surrounded by terraces. Utzon won a 1955 competition on the basis of designs that were little more than preliminary drawings. Construction begun in 1958 involved radically new construction approaches that caused repeated delays and difficulties. Work on the soaring shells took eight years, required specially-cast ceramic tiles, and was one of the earliest uses of computers in structural analysis to understand complex design forces. The project was completed 10 years late and more than 14 times over-budget. Utzon, who resigned midway through the work because of hostility from a new, conservative Australian prime minister, was not invited to the opening, nor was his name mentioned.
Saturday, October 19, 2013
Filmmaker and inventor Auguste Lumière was born on October 19, 1862, in Besançon, France, near Switzerland. He and his younger brother Louis lived in Lyon, France, where they became the world’s earliest motion picture filmmakers. Antoine manufactured photographic equipment, which Louis improved upon (at age 17) with a “dry plate” process. In 1894 their father saw Edison’s bulky Peephole Kinetoscope (built for a single viewer) in Paris and charged his sons with improving on the phenomenon. By 1895, the brothers had invented their smaller, lightweight Cinématographe, combining a hand-cranked camera with a printer and projector. On March 22, 1895, they held a private screening of a full-fledged motion picture, known by its eponymous title, “Workers leaving the Lumière factory.” History’s first-ever public screening of motion pictures, consisting of 10 short films (each lasting less than 50 seconds), occurred on December 28 at the Grand Café in Paris. They were called actualités (documentaries). In 1896 the Lumières opened movie theaters that became known as cinemas.
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
The Cardiff Giant was unearthed on October 16, 1869, on the farm of William "Stub" Newell, in Cardiff, NY, near Syracuse, during a well-digging. The 10-foot tall “petrified man” was a hoax carved from gypsum and “aged” by being pounded with steel needles and treated with stains and acids. It was the creation of New York tobacconist George Hull, an atheist who had argued with the Biblical literalism of a Methodist minister who insisted on the truthfulness of Genesis 6:4, which states, "There were giants in the earth in those days." Hull planted the stone giant at the farm of Newell, his cousin, then charged 50 cents a head for vast crowds of eager viewers. It was a sensation. He sold the figure to a syndicate headed by David Hannum, who later refused to sell the Cardiff Giant to P.T. Barnum for $50,000. When Barnum secretly made a plaster replica and exhibited it as the “authentic” oddity, Hannum uttered the immortal sentence, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” referring to Barnum’s double-hoaxed paying customers. Today the infamous giant resides in Cooperstown, NY.
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
“Audentes fortuna iuvat.” (“Fortune favors the bold.”) … Ancient Roman poet Virgil was born Publius Vergilius Maro on October 15, 70 BCE, in what is now Mantua in Northern Italy. He apparently suffered ill health and lived as an invalid. In the last eleven years of his life, from 29 to 19 BCE, he wrote his sprawling Latin epic poem, the Aeneid, commissioned by Emperor Augustus. The poem tells the story of Rome’s mythical founder, Aeneas, an exiled warrior who fled the Greeks’ sacking of Troy, arrived on Italy’s shores, fought the native Latin tribe and fulfilled his destiny by proclaiming Rome’s mission of civilizing the known world under divine guidance. Composed of nearly 9,900 lines of dactylic hexameter verse, the poem’s first six books are partly based on Homer’s Odyssey and the second six on the Iliad. Aeneas’ devotion to duty (“pietas”) is a key feature of Virgil’s implicit commentary on Rome’s new era of vast, powerful empire that followed its civil wars. As a national epic, it associated Rome with Troy’s greatness and legitimized the rulers of the new Augustan Age.
Sunday, October 13, 2013
The cornerstone of the White House in Washington, D.C., was laid on October 13, 1792. Thereafter construction proceeded very slowly for the next eight years. Two years earlier, architects had submitted plans to a design competition for the executive mansion offering a $500 prize. Thomas Jefferson submitted a design anonymously. The winner was James Hoban, a young Irish immigrant who had based his idea on a palace in Dublin. Enslaved and free African-American workers along with employed immigrants built the foundations and parts of the main structure of the White House. Hoban hired Scottish immigrants to erect the sandstone walls and install decorative motifs. The porous sandstone was whitewashed with a mixture of lime and glue-like materials as a sealant. In November 1800, President John Adams and wife Abigail moved into the residence, then President Jefferson became the occupant in 1801. The cornerstone, which is said to have an inscribed brass plate, has never been located, though it is believed to be in the southwest corner. Pictured: Today and in 1800.
Thursday, October 10, 2013
English experimental chemist and physicist Henry Cavendish was born on October 10, 1731, in Nice, France, to an aristocratic family. He studied for a time at Cambridge University and then completely absorbed himself in scientific studies. He was the first to discover hydrogen gas, which he called “inflammable air” (forming water upon combustion), and to measure its density. The gas was later named by French scientist Antoine Lavoisier. Cavendish is distinguished for his remarkable accuracy in studies of the composition of atmospheric air, the properties of various gases, the law governing electrical attraction and repulsion, measurement of the force of gravity, and calculations of the density (and, by extension, the weight) of the Earth. Though he was a renowned member of the Royal Society of London, he was notoriously asocial and solitary, and may have had Asperger’s syndrome. He was alarmed by women. Because he avoided publishing his work, others were credited with many of his discoveries, including the principles of electrical conductivity.
Monday, October 7, 2013
Danish physicist Niels Bohr was born on October 7, 1885, in Copenhagen. Two years after earning his doctorate at the University of Copenhagen, he developed the Bohr model of atomic structure, involving his theory that electrons orbit around an atom’s nucleus. An element’s chemical properties are largely determined by the number of electrons in the outer orbits. He also theorized that an electron can drop from a higher-energy orbit to a lower one, thereby releasing a “quantum” of energy. In the 1920s, Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and others devised the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum physics, which involved ideas of probability, uncertainty and observation. Bohr and Albert Einstein famously debated the complex issues arising from theories of quantum mechanics. The latter declared, "I, at any rate, am convinced that He [God] does not throw dice." Bohr is said to have replied, "Einstein, stop telling God what to do!" Bohr barely escaped arrest by the Nazis in 1943 and went on to consult with the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb.
Friday, October 4, 2013
The Orient Express long-distance passenger train service, originally called the Express d'Orient, began operating on October 4, 1883. It was part of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, owned by a Belgian banker who had been impressed by Pullman cars in the United States. The train’s first route ran from the Gare de l'Est in Paris, via Munich and Vienna, to the Romanian city of Giurgiu on the Danube River, bordering Bulgaria. Passengers were ferried across the Danube to connect with a train to Istanbul (still called Constantinople). In 1885 another route was established through Vienna and Belgrade. Orient Express service reached its height in the 1930s, when its dining cars offering haute cuisine and its sleeping-cars gained a well-deserved reputation for luxury, comfort, sophistication and intrigue. The train ran three parallel services, one of which crossed the Alps via Zürich and Innsbruck to its destination in Athens. Because each Orient Express route included sleeping-cars originating at Calais, service spanned the length of continental Europe.
Thursday, October 3, 2013
Novelist, playwright, essayist and public intellectual Gore Vidal was born on October 3, 1925, at West Point, NY, where his father was an aeronautics instructor. As a youth he read aloud to his grandfather, Sen. Thomas Gore (D-Oklahoma), who was blind. His early novel The City and the Pillar (1948) dealt explicitly with homosexuality, a term he considered false or misleading since he believed all people are potentially pansexual. Of his 24 novels, one of the best known – and most notorious – is Myra Breckinridge (1968), set in Hollywood and written as a diary, which satirizes 1960s subversion of norms of gender and sexuality. It was a major best-seller despite its quasi-pornographic treatment of themes that included transsexuality and feminism. He wrote the successful play “The Best Man” (1960) and a range of historical and sociopolitical novels, including Julian (1964), about the apostate Roman emperor; Washington, D.C. (1967); Burr (1973); 1876 (1976); and Lincoln (1984). He was also a script-doctor at MGM for the movie “Ben Hur” (1959).
Wednesday, October 2, 2013
On October 2, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke at the White House that left him partly paralyzed on his left side and blind in one eye. He had collapsed in late September while on a U.S. speaking tour to raise support for the Treaty of Versailles and U.S. participation in the League of Nations in the aftermath of World War I. The American public was left largely uninformed, and at times misled, about the nature and extent of Wilson’s incapacity. The White House said he was suffering from "nervous exhaustion." For the remainder of his second term, through 1921, Wilson’s strong-willed second wife, Edith, screened and selected issues that reached her husband. She opposed allowing Vice President Thomas Marshall to assume the presidential powers. She later wrote that her goal was to protect Wilson’s physical and mental health. Before the stroke, Wilson was an avid golfer. He holds the presidential record for the most rounds of golf played – more than 1,000, almost one every two days. He even played in the snow with golf balls painted black.
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
105 years ago: On October 1, 1908, Ford Motor Company began making the first Model T automobiles at its production line in Detroit. The car came to be known as a “Tin Lizzie” and a “flivver” (a slang term) because of its ungainly appearance, rough ride and constant rattling at reasonable speeds. It was the first automobile to be mass-produced on Henry Ford’s revolutionary moving assembly lines (perfected by 1913), entirely with interchangeable parts. The process, based on the division of labor, allowed the car to be marketed to the middle class, not just the rich, at an initial price of $825 for the runabout (two-seats). By 1925 the price had dropped to $260. A durable, easily maintained machine, the Model T was also available as a touring car (five seats) and town car (seven seats). In a largely agrarian nation, owners often pulled the car apart and made it into a tractor. Gasoline was fed to the engine by gravity from a 10-gallon tank (under the front seat), and reverse gear provided the greatest power. As a result, the Model T had to be driven backward to climb steep hills.