Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Musician and songwriter Jimi Hendrix was born Johnny Allen Hendrix (later renamed James Marshall Hendrix) on November 27, 1942, in Seattle. The child of an unstable family life, he became intensely focused on the acoustic guitar, the first of which he bought at age 15 for $5. The first music he learned to play was the theme to the TV series “Peter Gunn.” After a very brief stint in the U.S. Army, he began playing electric guitar in bands for the Isley Brothers, Little Richard and others. In 1966 he went to England, where he formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience and scored hits with "Hey Joe" and "Purple Haze," making use of distinctive guitar effects such as feedback and, later, the wah-wah pedal and stereophonic phasing. The first of his three influential studio albums, “Are You Experienced” (1967), combined rhythm and blues, rock and roll and psychedelic rock. His U.S. fame was launched at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Two years later, Hendrix was the world’s highest-paid musician when his rendition of the national anthem at Woodstock became the anthem of a generation.
Sunday, November 24, 2013
Architect Cass Gilbert was born on November 24, 1859, in Zanesville, Ohio, near Columbus, and grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he began his architectural career at age 17. His design for the Minnesota state capitol (begun 1896), modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, launched his career. He moved to New York, where he designed major buildings in a classical, Beaux Arts style that presented an idealistic, optimistic view of American society. These included the monumental U.S. Customs House (1901) in lower Manhattan, and the steel-framed, 60-story Woolworth Building (1910-13), known as "The Cathedral of Commerce," which was the world’s tallest building until three major skyscrapers were erected in 1930. Gilbert’s other major works include the Saint Louis Art Museum (1904), the St. Louis Public Library (1912), the George Washington Bridge (1931), and the U.S. Supreme Court Building (1935). Gilbert held deeply conservative, traditional beliefs – dismissed for decades – that architecture is meant to confer dignity and nobility upon people and institutions and to reflect society’s greatest aspirations.
Friday, November 22, 2013
120 years ago: Automotive designer and executive Harley Earl was born on November 22, 1893, in Hollywood, California. He left studies at Stanford University to join his father as a coachbuilder, first in horse-drawn carriages, then in custom automobile bodies. Early clients included Mary Pickford, Cecil B. DeMille, Fatty Arbuckle and cowboy star Tom Mix. The business became associated with General Motors’ Cadillac luxury division, and when Earl designed its successful 1927 LaSalle, GM’s CEO, Alfred P. Sloan, hired Earl as the first director of what became GM’s Design Studio. Together they established “planned obsolescence” and the annual “model change” as two linchpins of GM’s stupendous profits. In his 30-year career, Earl eventually controlled all design and styling at GM. He lengthened and lowered the size and stance of autos, and introduced the wraparound windshield, the use of clay-modeling in auto design and “concept cars” as a marketing approach. His enduring legacies include the 1959 Cadillac, with its exuberant, excessive tailfins, and the industry-disrupting 1953 Corvette sports car.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte was born on November 21, 1898, near Brussels. Little is known about his early life, but his mother, who was disturbed, killed herself when René was 13. While studying painting in the 1920s he also worked as a draughtsman in a wallpaper factory and designed posters and advertisements. His early works were poorly received, so he moved to Paris and London for brief periods, and his surreal, illusionistic paintings began to distinguish him as a leader of the Surrealistic movement. After World War II he supported himself by painting fake Picassos, Braques and others, and forging banknotes. His astonishing, thought-provoking paintings include” “The False Mirror” (1928), two versions of “The Human Condition” (1933, 1935), “Not to Be Reproduced” (1937), “Time Transfixed” (1938), “Golconde” (1953) and “Son of Man” (1964). Magritte’s deep interest in what he called the “mystery” evoked in representational art, and the elusiveness of “meaning,” is notably reflected in “The Treachery of Images” (1929, pictured), in which he points out that a picture of a pipe is not a pipe.
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Federal judge and commissioner of baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis was born on November 20, 1866, near Cincinnati, Ohio. He was named after a Civil War battle in Georgia in which his father had fought. Kenesaw practiced law in Chicago, where, in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him U.S. district judge for the northern district of Illinois. Two years later, he imposed a $29 million fine on Standard Oil for granting unlawful freight rebates. Though the decision was reversed on appeal, it made Landis famous nationwide. During World War I he presided over sedition trials of Socialist and labor leaders for impeding the war effort. In 1920, after the “Black Sox” bribery scandal in which eight Chicago White Sox players threw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, Landis was appointed commissioner of baseball. He immediately barred the White Sox players from the game. Landis was known for cleaning up baseball and restoring public confidence in the game. He reigned omnipotent for 24 years, having warned baseball owners, "You have told the world that my powers would be absolute."
Saturday, November 16, 2013
75 years ago: Lysergic acid diethylamide, known as LSD or “acid,” was first synthesized on November 16, 1938, by a Swiss chemist, Albert Hofmann, at Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland. The company was researching lysergic acid, derived from a parasitic fungus, ergot, which grows on rye. Hofmann produced one derivative of this acid (LSD-25), but ignored it until 1943, when he recreated it and unwittingly dosed himself with a tiny amount. He went home in a "dreamlike state," seeing “fantastic pictures … with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors." The next day he took what is now known to be a massive dosage (250 micrograms) and became delirious. Sandoz researched the psychoactive hallucinogen further, and in 1947 marketed it as Delysid for use in analytical psychotherapy, even suggesting that psychiatrists take it themselves, to better understand their patients. The CIA conducted LSD “mind control” experiments at Harvard in 1959-1962, which have been called "disturbing" and "ethically indefensible." Theodore Kaczynski, later known as the Unabomber, was one of the test subjects at age 16.
Friday, November 15, 2013
German-born British astronomer and composer Sir William Herschel was born on November 15, 1738, in Hanover in what is now Germany. With the French invasion of Hanover in the Seven Years’ War, he emigrated to England and became a music teacher and composer in Bath. His music led to interests in mathematics and lenses, and thence to astronomy, for which he built his own reflecting telescopes (more than 60 over his lifetime), and began comprehensive cataloging of stars. In 1781 he discovered a “nonstellar disk” that became known as the planet Uranus. King George III named him the King’s Astronomer. By 1802 he had discovered more than 2,400 objects he called nebulae, each formed of stars (i.e., galaxies). He also discovered two moons of Saturn (Mimas and Enceladus) and coined the term “asteroid,” meaning “star-like.” By studying stars’ motion, he was the first to determine that the solar system is moving through space, and the direction of that movement. He found that the Milky Way’s structure is disk-like. He also believed that all planets are inhabited.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
Impressionist painter Claude Monet was born on November 14, 1840, in Paris. He was baptized as Oscar-Claude, and his parents called him Oscar. He grew up in Le Havre on the coast of Normandy. As a young painter in Paris for several years, he became friends with artists that included modernist Édouard Manet. At the start of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, he went to England and studied paintings of Constable and Turner, which led him to innovate with color and light. He returned to France via the Netherlands in late 1871 and lived at Argenteuil, on the Seine, near Paris. The following year he painted a landscape of the port of Le Havre he called “Impression, Sunrise” (“Impression, soleil levant”). When the work was exhibited in 1874 with works of other artists, including Renoir, Cézanne and Degas, it attracted special attention from an art critic, who titled his derisive newspaper review "The Exhibition of the Impressionists," deploring the “unfinished” painting and comparing it unfavorably with wallpaper. But the artists adopted the title and became Impressionists.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Augustine of Hippo, known as Saint Augustine, was born on November 13, 354 CE, in Roman North Africa, in what is now Algeria. His mother, Monica, was a Christian; his father was a pagan who accepted Christianity on his deathbed. As a teen in the city of Carthage, Augustine indulged in worldly excesses and fathered a son. His spiritual struggle led him to be influenced by Manichaeism – a dualistic philosophy that divides the world between good and evil – and then Neo-Platonism, which posits a single divine source from which all existence emanates, with which souls seek to mystically unite. In Italy, Augustine studied with Ambrose, the Christian bishop of Milan. At age 33, while prostrate beneath a fig tree, he experienced a spiritual epiphany through a stream of tears, and was baptized a Christian. He documented his sinful youth and conversion to Christianity in his Confessions, written between 397 and 398 CE, regarded as the first formal autobiography to appear in the Western world. In a famous passage, Augustine marvels that Ambrose read manuscripts in silence, without vocalizing the text.
Sunday, November 10, 2013
On November 10, 1951, the first U.S. direct-dial transcontinental telephone call was made by the mayor of Englewood, NJ, who dialed a 10-digit number on a black rotary phone in an AT&T switching station. He was flanked by nine men in business suits from AT&T and its Bell Laboratories subsidiary. Eighteen seconds later, he reached the mayor of Alameda, CA, near San Francisco. The connection speed was blisteringly fast compared with that of 1915, when early attempts at transcontinental calls from San Francisco to New York required as many as five operators nationwide, each asking “Number, please?” – taking 23 minutes to complete. Direct-dialing was made possible via the Bell System’s use of expensive automated switching systems and the North American Numbering Plan, which assigned three-digit area codes to the continent in 1947. States needing multiple area codes had codes with a middle digit of 1; the rest had a middle digit of 0. The most populous regions received codes that took the shortest time to dial on rotary phones. Today the U.S. has nearly 300 area codes.
Saturday, November 9, 2013
“Billions upon billions of stars” … Astronomer, astrophysicist and cosmologist Carl Sagan was born on November 9, 1934, in Brooklyn, NY. He developed an interest in the stars at an early age. He attended the University of Chicago, earning graduate degrees in astronomy and astrophysics. Later he lectured at Harvard University but was denied tenure in 1968 and moved to Cornell University, where he became a full professor and directed its Laboratory for Planetary Studies until his death in 1996. From the start of the U.S. space program in the 1950s he was a NASA advisor, and he played important roles in major robotic spacecraft missions into the Solar System, including Pioneer 10 and 11 and both Voyager space probes (1977). Sagan became one of the world’s most famous scientists in the fall of 1980 when he developed and hosted the 13-part PBS series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” which covered many subjects, ranging from the history of science to the nature of the universe. He was a key advocate for the search for extraterrestrial life and sounded an early alarm on global warming.
Friday, November 8, 2013
Author and journalist Margaret Mitchell was born on November 8, 1900, in Atlanta, Georgia. Her mother instilled in her a bitter view of the post-Civil War South, haunted by the damage of General Sherman’s “March to the Sea” through Georgia. She also listened to war veterans’ one-sided stories. Mitchell attended Smith College, then wrote for the Atlanta Journal for six years. She quit after marrying John Marsh in 1926 because of a persistent ankle injury. Partly egged-on by her husband, she began writing a Civil War novel (in secret) whose heroine, a plantation-owner’s spoiled daughter named Pansy O'Hara (later renamed Scarlett), would do anything to escape post-war poverty and loss. Mitchell used parts of the manuscript, titled Gone With the Wind, to steady a wobbly sofa. Known for her interest in “dirty” book stores, she collected erotica and relished pornography. During the 10 years in which she wrote the novel – published in 1936 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize – she was also reading sexology books. Her racially-charged views on sex are strongly reflected in the character of Rhett Butler.
Thursday, November 7, 2013
Happy 70th birthday to singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, who was born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943, at Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada. At age 8 in Saskatchewan, she contracted polio during the last major epidemic in North America (1951) prior to the Salk vaccine’s success. She recovered, took an avid interest in many types of music, learned guitar from a Pete Seeger instruction book, and in 1964 moved to Toronto, where she found folk singing gigs. She also had a daughter she gave up for adoption, not even telling her parents. Joni’s compositions were covered by Tom Rush, Buffy Sainte-Marie and especially Judy Collins ("Both Sides Now," "Chelsea Morning"). After winning a Grammy for her album “Clouds” (1969), Joni released “Ladies of the Canyon” (1970), which included the song "Woodstock." In 1971 she recorded her landmark album “Blue,” which followed successive breakups with Graham Nash and James Taylor. The New York Times has ranked “Blue” as one of 25 albums representing "turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music."
On November 7, 1929, nine days after the Stock Market Crash, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) opened at its first location in rented space at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in New York. It was the brainchild of three progressive art patrons: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, wife of multimillionaire John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and two of her friends, Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan. Known as "the Ladies," they wanted to counterbalance the prevailing conservatism of traditional museums and promote modern art. Mrs. Rockefeller began amassing her own collection between 1925 and 1935, largely works on paper, focusing on living American artists. Because her husband was opposed to the museum – and modern art – he would not fund the venture, so MoMA moved into three other temporary spaces in the next 10 years. But in 1936, Rockefeller donated the land for its current site on 53rd Street. Its distinctive “International Style” building opened in 1939 (renovated in 2002-2004). Pictured: MoMA’s renowned “Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond,” Claude Monet (c. 1920).
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Conductor and composer John Philip Sousa, America’s “March King,” was born on November 6, 1854, in Washington, D.C. As a child playing the violin and studying music, it was found he had perfect pitch. At 13 he apprenticed with the U.S. Marine Band, in which his father was a trombonist. Starting in 1880 and for the next 12 years, he conducted that band and began writing marches – 136 over his lifetime. He also conducted "The President's Own" band for Presidents Hayes, Garfield, Cleveland, Arthur and Harrison. His greatest marches include "Semper Fidelis" (1888), the official march of the U.S. Marine Corps; "The Washington Post" (1889), named for the newspaper that commissioned it; "The Liberty Bell" (1893); and his greatest work, "Stars and Stripes Forever" (1896), with its piccolo obbligato, declared by Congress the National March of the United States. In 1892 he formed his own Sousa Band and developed the sousaphone (similar to the tuba). Sousa was also one of the world’s greatest trapshooters and helped found what became the Amateur Trapshooting Association.
Tuesday, November 5, 2013
On November 5, 1605, the Gunpowder Plot, intended to assassinate King James I by blowing up the House of Lords, was thwarted in London. The treachery was part of a revolt in Britain’s Midlands designed to install James' young daughter (granddaughter of Mary Queen of Scots) as the Catholic head of state, thereby reversing England’s break from the Church of Rome. One of the 13 members of the plot, Guy Fawkes, was apprehended while guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder placed under the House of Lords. He was later sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The date became known as Gunpowder Treason Day, Bonfire Night and other names, on which people lit bonfires and burned effigies of hate-figures, often the pope, out of anti-Catholic sentiment. Over time masks of Fawkes became common and the annual occasion was called Guy Fawkes Day. Stylized Fawkes masks seen in the movie “V for Vendetta” (2006) are now used by post-modern anarchists, particularly the hacktivists Anonymous. The modern word “guy” is derived from references to Guy Fawkes.
Monday, November 4, 2013
The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) was established on November 4, 1952, by order of President Harry Truman. Its predecessor was the Armed Forces Security Agency (1949), which failed to centralize post-World War II intelligence functions or coordinate them with civilian agencies. Operating under the Defense Department, the NSA’s function is to manage signals intelligence, i.e., interception of communications. It monitors, collects, decodes and analyzes information for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence. It is authorized to do so via clandestine means and allegedly via use of subversive software. It conducts surveillance of specific individuals within the United States and collects and stores all phone records of all American citizens. Its 1,300 buildings are headquartered at Fort Meade, Maryland, between Baltimore and Washington. The NSA is Maryland’s largest employer and largest consumer of electric power. Its large main building is sheathed in one-way dark glass that is lined with copper shielding to trap signals and prevent espionage. NSA owns the world’s single largest group of supercomputers.
Sunday, November 3, 2013
Bookseller and publisher Karl Baedeker was born on November 3, 1801, in Essen, Prussia, the eldest of 10 sons of a printer and bookseller. In 1827, at age 25, he started a bookselling and publishing business in Koblenz, a hub of tourism in the Rhine region. He acquired a publishing house that sold a traveler’s handbook for Rhine journeys, which he revised as a single-source guide that included information he believed would be useful, such as tourist sights, routes, transportation, hotels, restaurants, tipping and prices. Such data distinguished his books from English travel guides published from 1836 by John Murray, which Baedeker admired and emulated. He was known for being incorruptible in his dealings, often checking the quality of establishments by making incognito visits, and used a system of stars to denote places of special interest. His red-bound Baedeker handbooks became indispensable for their clearness, accuracy, detail and reliable maps. One historian has said of Baedeker, "It is a moot point whether he invented tourism or tourism invented him."
Friday, November 1, 2013
Realist author Stephen Crane was born on November 1, 1871, in Newark, NJ, the last of 14 children of a Methodist minister and his wife. Though sickly as a child, he was precocious and taught himself to read by age 4. He spent less than two years as a college student, partly at Syracuse University, before starting a freelance writing career in New York, where he lived in the gritty, impoverished world of the Bowery in Lower Manhattan. From this emerged his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), the tale of a girl driven to prostitution. He also contracted various diseases in this period (and later as a war correspondent abroad). Crane’s fascination with stories of Civil War battles resulted in his masterwork of naturalism, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), which he called "a psychological portrayal of fear," told through the inner experiences of a young Union private whose dreams of glory disappear when he flees from battle. Crane had never been to war, but the book became a huge bestseller in the United States and Britain. He died of tuberculosis at age 28.