Subject: April 27, 4977: Universe is created, according to Kepler
On this day in 4977 B.C., the universe is created, according to German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, considered a founder of modern science. Kepler is best known for his theories explaining the motion of planets.
Kepler was born on December 27, 1571, in Weil der Stadt, Germany. As a university student, he studied the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus' theories of planetary ordering. Copernicus (1473-1543) believed that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system, a theory that contradicted the prevailing view of the era that the sun revolved around the earth.
In 1600, Kepler went to Prague to work for Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, the imperial mathematician to Rudolf II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Kepler's main project was to investigate the orbit of Mars. When Brahe died the following year, Kepler took over his job and inherited Brahe's extensive collection of astronomy data, which had been painstakingly observed by the naked eye. Over the next decade, Kepler learned about the work of Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who had invented a telescope with which he discovered lunar mountains and craters, the largest four satellites of Jupiter and the phases of Venus, among other things. Kepler corresponded with Galileo and eventually obtained a telescope of his own and improved upon the design. In 1609, Kepler published the first two of his three laws of planetary motion, which held that planets move around the sun in ellipses, not circles (as had been widely believed up to that time), and that planets speed up as they approach the sun and slow down as they move away. In 1619, he produced his third law, which used mathematic principles to relate the time a planet takes to orbit the sun to the average distance of the planet from the sun.
Kepler's research was slow to gain widespread traction during his lifetime, but it later served as a key influence on the English mathematician Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and his law of gravitational force. Additionally, Kepler did important work in the fields of optics, including demonstrating how the human eye works, and math. He died on November 15, 1630, in Regensberg, Germany. As for Kepler's calculation about the universe's birthday, scientists in the 20th century developed the Big Bang theory, which showed that his calculations were off by about 13.7 billion years.
Subject: April 28, 1945: Benito Mussolini executed
On this day in 1945, "Il Duce," Benito Mussolini, and his mistress, Clara Petacci, are shot by Italian partisans who had captured the couple as they attempted to flee to Switzerland.
The 61-year-old deposed former dictator of Italy was established by his German allies as the figurehead of a puppet government in northern Italy during the German occupation toward the close of the war. As the Allies fought their way up the Italian peninsula, defeat of the Axis powers all but certain, Mussolini considered his options. Not wanting to fall into the hands of either the British or the Americans, and knowing that the communist partisans, who had been fighting the remnants of roving Italian fascist soldiers and thugs in the north, would try him as a war criminal, he settled on escape to a neutral country.
He and his mistress made it to the Swiss border, only to discover that the guards had crossed over to the partisan side. Knowing they would not let him pass, he disguised himself in a Luftwaffe coat and helmet, hoping to slip into Austria with some German soldiers. His subterfuge proved incompetent, and he and Petacci were discovered by partisans and shot, their bodies then transported by truck to Milan, where they were hung upside down and displayed publicly for revilement by the masses.
Subject: April 29, 2004: World War II monument opens in Washington, D.C.
On April 29, 2004, the National World War II Memorial opens in Washington, D.C., to thousands of visitors, providing overdue recognition for the 16 million U.S. men and women who served in the war. The memorial is located on 7.4 acres on the former site of the Rainbow Pool at the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The Capitol dome is seen to the east, and Arlington Cemetery is just across the Potomac River to the west.
The granite and bronze monument features fountains between arches symbolizing hostilities in Europe and the Far East. The arches are flanked by semicircles of pillars, one each for the states, territories and the District of Columbia. Beyond the pool is a curved wall of 4,000 gold stars, one for every 100 Americans killed in the war. An Announcement Stone proclaims that the memorial honors those "Americans who took up the struggle during the Second World War and made the sacrifices to perpetuate the gift our forefathers entrusted to us: A nation conceived in liberty and justice."
Though the federal government donated $16 million to the memorial fund, it took more than $164 million in private donations to get it built. Former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, who was severely wounded in the war, and actor Tom Hanks were among its most vocal supporters. Only a fraction of the 16 million Americans who served in the war would ever see it. Four million World War II veterans were living at the time, with more than 1,100 dying every day, according to government records.
The memorial was inspired by Roger Durbin of Berkey, Ohio, who served under Gen. George S. Patton. At a fish fry near Toledo in February 1987, he asked U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur why there was no memorial on the Mall to honor World War II veterans. Kaptur, a Democrat from Ohio, soon introduced legislation to build one, starting a process that would stumble along through 17 years of legislative, legal and artistic entanglements. Durbin died of pancreatic cancer in 2000.
The monument was formally dedicated May 29, 2004, by U.S. President George W. Bush. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it received some 4.4 million visitors in 2005.
Subject: April 30, 1945: Adolf Hitler commits suicide
On this day in 1945, holed up in a bunker under his headquarters in Berlin, Adolf Hitler commits suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule and shooting himself in the head. Soon after, Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allied forces, ending Hitler's dreams of a "1,000-year" Reich.
Since at least 1943, it was becoming increasingly clear that Germany would fold under the pressure of the Allied forces. In February of that year, the German 6th Army, lured deep into the Soviet Union, was annihilated at the Battle of Stalingrad, and German hopes for a sustained offensive on both fronts evaporated. Then, in June 1944, the Western Allied armies landed at Normandy, France, and began systematically to push the Germans back toward Berlin. By July 1944, several German military commanders acknowledged their imminent defeat and plotted to remove Hitler from power so as to negotiate a more favorable peace. Their attempts to assassinate Hitler failed, however, and in his reprisals, Hitler executed over 4,000 fellow countrymen.
In January 1945, facing a siege of Berlin by the Soviets, Hitler withdrew to his bunker to live out his final days. Located 55 feet under the chancellery, the shelter contained 18 rooms and was fully self-sufficient, with its own water and electrical supply. Though he was growing increasingly mad, Hitler continued to give orders and meet with such close subordinates as Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himmler and Josef Goebbels. He also married his long-time mistress Eva Braun just two days before his suicide.
In his last will and testament, Hitler appointed Admiral Karl Donitz as head of state and Goebbels as chancellor. He then retired to his private quarters with Braun, where he and Braun poisoned themselves and their dogs, before Hitler then also shot himself with his service pistol.
Hitler and Braun's bodies were hastily cremated in the chancellery garden, as Soviet forces closed in on the building. When the Soviets reached the chancellery, they removed Hitler's ashes, continually changing their location so as to prevent Hitler devotees from creating a memorial at his final resting place. Only eight days later, on May 8, 1945, the German forces issued an unconditional surrender, leaving Germany to be carved up by the four Allied powers.
Subject: May 1, 1931: Empire State Building dedicated
On this day in 1931, President Herbert Hoover officially dedicates New York City's Empire State Building, pressing a button from the White House that turns on the building's lights. Hoover's gesture, of course, was symbolic; while the president remained in Washington, D.C., someone else flicked the switches in New York.
The idea for the Empire State Building is said to have been born of a competition between Walter Chrysler of the Chrysler Corporation and John Jakob Raskob of General Motors, to see who could erect the taller building. Chrysler had already begun work on the famous Chrysler Building, the gleaming 1,046-foot skyscraper in midtown Manhattan. Not to be bested, Raskob assembled a group of well-known investors, including former New York Governor Alfred E. Smith. The group chose the architecture firm Shreve, Lamb and Harmon Associates to design the building. The Art-Deco plans, said to have been based in large part on the look of a pencil, were also builder-friendly: The entire building went up in just over a year, under budget (at $40 million) and well ahead of schedule. During certain periods of building, the frame grew an astonishing four-and-a-half stories a week.
At the time of its completion, the Empire State Building, at 102 stories and 1,250 feet high (1,454 feet to the top of the lightning rod), was the world's tallest skyscraper. The Depression-era construction employed as many as 3,400 workers on any single day, most of whom received an excellent pay rate, especially given the economic conditions of the time. The new building imbued New York City with a deep sense of pride, desperately needed in the depths of the Great Depression, when many city residents were unemployed and prospects looked bleak. The grip of the Depression on New York's economy was still evident a year later, however, when only 25 percent of the Empire State's offices had been rented.
In 1972, the Empire State Building lost its title as world's tallest building to New York's World Trade Center, which itself was the tallest skyscraper for but a year. Today the honor belongs to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower, which soars 2,717 feet into the sky.
Subject: May 2, 1933: Loch Ness Monster sighted
Although accounts of an aquatic beast living in Scotland's Loch Ness date back 1,500 years, the modern legend of the Loch Ness Monster is born when a sighting makes local news on May 2, 1933. The newspaper Inverness Courier related an account of a local couple who claimed to have seen "an enormous animal rolling and plunging on the surface." The story of the "monster" (a moniker chosen by the Courier editor) became a media phenomenon, with London newspapers sending correspondents to Scotland and a circus offering a 20,000 pound sterling reward for capture of the beast.
Loch Ness, located in the Scottish Highlands, has the largest volume of fresh water in Great Britain; the body of water reaches a depth of nearly 800 feet and a length of about 23 miles. Scholars of the Loch Ness Monster find a dozen references to "Nessie" in Scottish history, dating back to around A.D. 500, when local Picts carved a strange aquatic creature into standing stones near Loch Ness. The earliest written reference to a monster in Loch Ness is a 7th-century biography of Saint Columba, the Irish missionary who introduced Christianity to Scotland. In 565, according to the biographer, Columba was on his way to visit the king of the northern Picts near Inverness when he stopped at Loch Ness to confront a beast that had been killing people in the lake. Seeing a large beast about to attack another man, Columba intervened, invoking the name of God and commanding the creature to "go back with all speed." The monster retreated and never killed another man.
In 1933, a new road was completed along Loch Ness' shore, affording drivers a clear view of the loch. After an April 1933 sighting was reported in the local paper on May 2, interest steadily grew, especially after another couple claimed to have seen the beast on land, crossing the shore road. Several British newspapers sent reporters to Scotland, including London's Daily Mail, which hired big-game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell to capture the beast. After a few days searching the loch, Wetherell reported finding footprints of a large four-legged animal. In response, the Daily Mail carried the dramatic headline: "MONSTER OF LOCH NESS IS NOT LEGEND BUT A FACT." Scores of tourists descended on Loch Ness and sat in boats or decks chairs waiting for an appearance by the beast. Plaster casts of the footprints were sent to the British Natural History Museum, which reported that the tracks were that of a hippopotamus, specifically one hippopotamus foot, probably stuffed. The hoax temporarily deflated Loch Ness Monster mania, but stories of sightings continued.
A famous 1934 photograph seemed to show a dinosaur-like creature with a long neck emerging out of the murky waters, leading some to speculate that "Nessie" was a solitary survivor of the long-extinct plesiosaurs. The aquatic plesiosaurs were thought to have died off with the rest of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Loch Ness was frozen solid during the recent ice ages, however, so this creature would have had to have made its way up the River Ness from the sea in the past 10,000 years. And the plesiosaurs, believed to be cold-blooded, would not long survive in the frigid waters of Loch Ness. More likely, others suggested, it was an archeocyte, a primitive whale with a serpentine neck that is thought to have been extinct for 18 million years. Skeptics argued that what people were seeing in Loch Ness were "seiches"--oscillations in the water surface caused by the inflow of cold river water into the slightly warmer loch.
Amateur investigators kept an almost constant vigil, and in the 1960s several British universities launched expeditions to Loch Ness, using sonar to search the deep. Nothing conclusive was found, but in each expedition the sonar operators detected large, moving underwater objects they could not explain. In 1975, Boston's Academy of Applied Science combined sonar and underwater photography in an expedition to Loch Ness. A photo resulted that, after enhancement, appeared to show the giant flipper of a plesiosaur-like creature. Further sonar expeditions in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in more tantalizing, if inconclusive, readings. Revelations in 1994 that the famous 1934 photo was a hoax hardly dampened the enthusiasm of tourists and professional and amateur investigators to the legend of the Loch Ness Monster.
Subject: May 3, 1469: Niccolo Machiavelli born
On this day in 1469, the Italian philosopher and writer Niccolo Machiavelli is born. A lifelong patriot and diehard proponent of a unified Italy, Machiavelli became one of the fathers of modern political theory.
Machiavelli entered the political service of his native Florence by the time he was 29. As defense secretary, he distinguished himself by executing policies that strengthened Florence politically. He soon found himself assigned diplomatic missions for his principality, through which he met such luminaries as Louis XII of France, Pope Julius II, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and perhaps most importantly for Machiavelli, a prince of the Papal States named Cesare Borgia. The shrewd and cunning Borgia later inspired the title character in Machiavelli's famous and influential political treatise The Prince (1532).
Machiavelli's political life took a downward turn after 1512, when he fell out of favor with the powerful Medici family. He was accused of conspiracy, imprisoned, tortured and temporarily exiled. It was an attempt to regain a political post and the Medici family's good favor that Machiavelli penned The Prince, which was to become his most well-known work.
Though released in book form posthumously in 1532, The Prince was first published as a pamphlet in 1513. In it, Machiavelli outlined his vision of an ideal leader: an amoral, calculating tyrant for whom the end justifies the means. The Prince not only failed to win the Medici family's favor, it also alienated him from the Florentine people. Machiavelli was never truly welcomed back into politics, and when the Florentine Republic was reestablished in 1527, Machiavelli was an object of great suspicion. He died later that year, embittered and shut out from the Florentine society to which he had devoted his life.
Though Machiavelli has long been associated with the practice of diabolical expediency in the realm of politics that was made famous in The Prince, his actual views were not so extreme. In fact, in such longer and more detailed writings as Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy (1517) and History of Florence (1525), he shows himself to be a more principled political moralist. Still, even today, the term "Machiavellian" is used to describe an action undertaken for gain without regard for right or wrong.
Subject: May 4, 1994: Rabin and Arafat sign accord for Palestinian self-rule
On May 4, 1994, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat reached agreement in Cairo on the first stage of Palestinian self-rule.
The agreement was made in accordance with the Oslo Accords, signed in Washington, D.C. on September 13, 1993. This was the first direct, face-to-face agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and it acknowledged Israel's right to exist. It was also designed as a framework for future relations between the two parties.
The Gaza-Jericho agreement signed on this day in history addressed four main issues: security arrangements, civil affairs, legal matters and economic relations. It included an Israeli military withdrawal from about 60 percent of the Gaza Strip (Jewish settlements and their environs excluded) and the West Bank town of Jericho, land captured by Israel during the Six-Day War of 1967. The Palestinians agreed to combat terror and prevent violence in the famous "land for peace" bargain. The document also included an agreement to a transfer of authority from the Israeli Civil Administration to the newly created Palestinian Authority, its jurisdiction and legislative powers, a Palestinian police force and relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The Israeli Defense Forces withdrew from Jericho on May 13 and from most of the Gaza Strip on May 18-19, 1994. Palestinian Authority police and officials immediately took control. During the first few days there was a spate of attacks on Israeli troops and civilians in and near the Strip. Arafat himself arrived in Gaza to a tumultuous, chaotic welcome on July 1.
As time went on, timetables stipulated in the deal were not met, Israel's re-deployments were slowed and new agreements were negotiated. Israeli critics of the deal claimed "Land for Peace" was in reality "Land for Nothing."
The momentum toward peaceful relations between Israel and the Palestinians was seriously jolted by the outbreak of the 2000 Palestinian uprising, known as "Second Intifada." Further strain was put on the process after Hamas came into power in the 2006 Palestinian elections.
Subject: May 5, 1961: The first American in space
From Cape Canaveral, Florida, Navy Commander Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. is launched into space aboard the Freedom 7 space capsule, becoming the first American astronaut to travel into space. The suborbital flight, which lasted 15 minutes and reached a height of 116 miles into the atmosphere, was a major triumph for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
NASA was established in 1958 to keep U.S. space efforts abreast of recent Soviet achievements, such as the launching of the world's first artificial satellite--Sputnik 1--in 1957. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the two superpowers raced to become the first country to put a man in space and return him to Earth. On April 12, 1961, the Soviet space program won the race when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into space, put in orbit around the planet, and safely returned to Earth. One month later, Shepard's suborbital flight restored faith in the U.S. space program.
NASA continued to trail the Soviets closely until the late 1960s and the successes of the Apollo lunar program. In July 1969, the Americans took a giant leap forward with Apollo 11, a three-stage spacecraft that took U.S. astronauts to the surface of the moon and returned them to Earth. On February 5, 1971, Alan Shepard, the first American in space, became the fifth astronaut to walk on the moon as part of the Apollo 14 lunar landing mission.
Subject: May 6, 1994: English Channel tunnel opens
In a ceremony presided over by England's Queen Elizabeth II and French President Francois Mitterand, a rail tunnel under the English Channel was officially opened, connecting Britain and the European mainland for the first time since the Ice Age.
The channel tunnel, or "Chunnel," connects Folkstone, England, with Sangatte, France, 31 miles away. The Chunnel cut travel time between England and France to a swift 35 minutes and eventually between London and Paris to two-and-a-half hours.
As the world's longest undersea tunnel, the Chunnel runs under water for 23 miles, with an average depth of 150 feet below the seabed. Each day, about 30,000 people, 6,000 cars and 3,500 trucks journey through the Chunnel on passenger, shuttle and freight trains.
Millions of tons of earth were moved to build the two rail tunnels--one for northbound and one for southbound traffic--and one service tunnel. Fifteen thousand people were employed at the peak of construction. Ten people were killed during construction.
Napoleon's engineer, Albert Mathieu, planned the first tunnel under the English Channel in 1802, envisioning an underground passage with ventilation chimneys that would stretch above the waves. In 1880, the first real attempt was made by Colonel Beaumont, who bore a tunnel more than a mile long before abandoning the project. Other efforts followed in the 20th century, but none on the scale of the tunnels begun in June 1988.
The Chunnel's $16 billion cost was roughly twice the original estimate, and completion was a year behind schedule. One year into service, Eurotunnel announced a huge loss, one of the biggest in United Kingdom corporate history at the time. A scheme in which banks agreed to swap billions of pounds worth of loans for shares saved the tunnel from going under and it showed its first net profit in 1999.
Freight traffic was suspended for six months after a fire broke out on a lorry in the tunnel in November 1996. Nobody was seriously hurt in the incident.
In 1996, the American Society of Civil Engineers identified the tunnel as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
Subject: May 7, 1994: Munch's The Scream recovered
On May 7, 1994, Norway's most famous painting, "The Scream" by Edvard Munch, was recovered almost three months after it was stolen from a museum in Oslo. The fragile painting was recovered undamaged at a hotel in Asgardstrand, about 40 miles south of Oslo, police said.
The iconic 1893 painting of a waiflike figure on a bridge was stolen in only 50 seconds during a break-in on February 12, the opening day of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. Two thieves broke through a window of the National Gallery, cut a wire holding the painting to the wall and left a note reading "Thousand thanks for the bad security!"
A few days after the theft, a Norwegian anti-abortion group said it could have the painting returned if Norwegian television showed an anti-abortion film. The claim turned out to be false. The government also received a $1 million ransom demand on March 3, but refused to pay it due to a lack of proof that the demand was genuine.
Eventually, police found four pieces of the painting's frame in Nittedal, a suburb north of Oslo, and what may have been a cryptic messages that the thieves wanted to discuss a ransom. Finally, in January 1996, four men were convicted and sentenced in connection with the theft. They included Paal Enger, who had been convicted in 1988 of stealing Munch's "The Vampire" in Oslo. Enger was sentenced this time to six-and-a-half-years in prison. He escaped while on a field trip in 1999, and was captured 12 days later in a blond wig and dark sunglasses trying to buy a train ticket to Copenhagen.
In August 2004, another version of "The Scream" was stolen along with Munch's "The Madonna," this time from the Munch Museum in Oslo. Three men were convicted in connection with that theft in May 2006. Police recovered both works in August with minor marks and tears. Yet another version of "The Scream" remained in private hands and sold on May 2, 2012, for $119.9 million, becoming the most expensive work of art to sell at auction.
Munch developed an emotionally charged style that served as an important forerunner of the 20th century Expressionist movement. He painted "The Scream" as part of his "Frieze of Life" series, in which sickness, death, fear, love and melancholy are central themes. He died in January 1944 at the age of 81.
Subject: May 8, 1945: V-E Day is celebrated in America and Britain
On this day in 1945, both Great Britain and the United States celebrate Victory in Europe Day. Cities in both nations, as well as formerly occupied cities in Western Europe, put out flags and banners, rejoicing in the defeat of the Nazi war machine.
The eighth of May spelled the day when German troops throughout Europe finally laid down their arms: In Prague, Germans surrendered to their Soviet antagonists, after the latter had lost more than 8,000 soldiers, and the Germans considerably more; in Copenhagen and Oslo; at Karlshorst, near Berlin; in northern Latvia; on the Channel Island of Sark--the German surrender was realized in a final cease-fire. More surrender documents were signed in Berlin and in eastern Germany.
The main concern of many German soldiers was to elude the grasp of Soviet forces, to keep from being taken prisoner. About 1 million Germans attempted a mass exodus to the West when the fighting in Czechoslovakia ended, but were stopped by the Russians and taken captive. The Russians took approximately 2 million prisoners in the period just before and after the German surrender.
Meanwhile, more than 13,000 British POWs were released and sent back to Great Britain.
Pockets of German-Soviet confrontation would continue into the next day. On May 9, the Soviets would lose 600 more soldiers in Silesia before the Germans finally surrendered. Consequently, V-E Day was not celebrated until the ninth in Moscow, with a radio broadcast salute from Stalin himself: "The age-long struggle of the Slav nations...has ended in victory. Your courage has defeated the Nazis. The war is over."
Subject: May 9, 1950: L. Ron Hubbard publishes Dianetics
On this day in 1950, Lafayette Ronald Hubbard (1911-1986) publishes Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. With this book, Hubbard introduced a branch of self-help psychology called Dianetics, which quickly caught fire and, over time, morphed into a belief system boasting millions of subscribers: Scientology.
Hubbard was already a prolific and frequently published writer by the time he penned the book that would change his life. Under several pseudonyms in the 1930s, he published a great amount of pulp fiction, particularly in the science fiction and fantasy genres. In late 1949, having returned from serving in the Navy in World War II, Hubbard began publishing articles in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction, a magazine that published works by the likes of Isaac Asimov and Jack Williamson. Out of these grew the elephantine text known as Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.
In Dianetics, Hubbard explained that phenomena known as "engrams" (i.e. memories) were the cause of all psychological pain, which in turn harmed mental and physical health. He went on to claim that people could become "clear," achieving an exquisite state of clarity and mental liberation, by exorcising their engrams to an "auditor," or a listener acting as therapist.
Though discredited by the medical and scientific establishment, over 100,000 copies of Dianetics were sold in the first two years of publication, and Hubbard soon found himself lecturing across the country. He went on to write six more books in 1951, developing a significant fan base, and establishing the Hubbard Dianetics Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Despite his fast-growing popularity from books and touring, strife within his organization and Hubbard's own personal troubles nearly crippled his success. Several of his research foundations had to be abandoned due to financial troubles and he went through a divorce from his second wife.
By 1953, however, Hubbard was able to rebound from the widespread condemnation beginning to be heaped upon him, and introduced Scientology. Scientology expanded on Dianetics by bringing Hubbard's popular version of psychotherapy into the realm of philosophy, and ultimately, religion. In only a few years, Hubbard found himself at the helm of a movement that captured the popular imagination. As Scientology grew in the 1960s, several national governments became suspicious of Hubbard, accusing him of quackery and brainwashing his followers. Nonetheless, Hubbard built his religion into a multi-million dollar movement that continues to have a considerable presence in the public eye, due in part to its high profile in Hollywood.
Subject: May 10, 1869: Transcontinental railroad completed
On this day in 1869, the presidents of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads meet in Promontory, Utah, and drive a ceremonial last spike into a rail line that connects their railroads. This made transcontinental railroad travel possible for the first time in U.S. history. No longer would western-bound travelers need to take the long and dangerous journey by wagon train, and the West would surely lose some of its wild charm with the new connection to the civilized East.
Since at least 1832, both Eastern and frontier statesmen realized a need to connect the two coasts. It was not until 1853, though, that Congress appropriated funds to survey several routes for the transcontinental railroad. The actual building of the railroad would have to wait even longer, as North-South tensions prevented Congress from reaching an agreement on where the line would begin.
One year into the Civil War, a Republican-controlled Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act (1862), guaranteeing public land grants and loans to the two railroads it chose to build the transcontinental line, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific. With these in hand, the railroads began work in 1866 from Omaha and Sacramento, forging a northern route across the country. In their eagerness for land, the two lines built right past each other, and the final meeting place had to be renegotiated.
Harsh winters, staggering summer heat, Indian raids and the lawless, rough-and-tumble conditions of newly settled western towns made conditions for the Union Pacific laborers--mainly Civil War veterans of Irish descent--miserable. The overwhelmingly immigrant Chinese work force of the Central Pacific also had its fair share of problems, including brutal 12-hour work days laying tracks over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. On more than one occasion, whole crews would be lost to avalanches, or mishaps with explosives would leave several dead.
For all the adversity they suffered, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific workers were able to finish the railroad--laying nearly 2,000 miles of track--by 1869, ahead of schedule and under budget. Journeys that had taken months by wagon train or weeks by boat now took only days. Their work had an immediate impact: The years following the construction of the railway were years of rapid growth and expansion for the United States, due in large part to the speed and ease of travel that the railroad provided.
Subject: May 11, 1934: Dust storm sweeps from Great Plains across Eastern states
On this day in 1934, a massive storm sends millions of tons of topsoil flying from across the parched Great Plains region of the United States as far east as New York, Boston and Atlanta.
At the time the Great Plains were settled in the mid-1800s, the land was covered by prairie grass, which held moisture in the earth and kept most of the soil from blowing away even during dry spells. By the early 20th century, however, farmers had plowed under much of the grass to create fields. The U.S. entry into World War I in 1917 caused a great need for wheat, and farms began to push their fields to the limit, plowing under more and more grassland with the newly invented tractor. The plowing continued after the war, when the introduction of even more powerful gasoline tractors sped up the process. During the 1920s, wheat production increased by 300 percent, causing a glut in the market by 1931.
That year, a severe drought spread across the region. As crops died, wind began to carry dust from the over-plowed and over-grazed lands. The number of dust storms reported jumped from 14 in 1932 to 28 in 1933. The following year, the storms decreased in frequency but increased in intensity, culminating in the most severe storm yet in May 1934. Over a period of two days, high-level winds caught and carried some 350 million tons of silt all the way from the northern Great Plains to the eastern seaboard. According to The New York Times, dust "lodged itself in the eyes and throats of weeping and coughing New Yorkers," and even ships some 300 miles offshore saw dust collect on their decks.
The dust storms forced thousands of families from Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico to uproot and migrate to California, where they were derisively known as "Okies"--no matter which state they were from. These transplants found life out West not much easier than what they had left, as work was scarce and pay meager during the worst years of the Great Depression.
Another massive storm on April 15, 1935--known as "Black Sunday"--brought even more attention to the desperate situation in the Great Plains region, which reporter Robert Geiger called the "Dust Bowl." That year, as part of its New Deal program, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration began to enforce federal regulation of farming methods, including crop rotation, grass-seeding and new plowing methods. This worked to a point, reducing dust storms by up to 65 percent, but only the end of the drought in the fall of 1939 would truly bring relief.
Subject: May 12, 1957: Race car driver A.J. Foyt gets first pro victory
On this day in 1957, race car driver A.J. Foyt (1935- ) scores his first professional victory, in a U.S. Automobile Club (USAC) midget car race in Kansas City, Missouri.
A tough-as-nails Texan, Anthony Joseph Foyt, Jr. raced midget cars--smaller vehicles designed to be driven in races of shorter distances--and stock cars before moving up to bigger things in 1958, when he entered his first Indianapolis 500 race. Foyt won his first Indy 500 crown in 1961, when rival Eddie Sachs was forced to make a tire change in the final laps, giving Foyt the chance to overtake him and win with a then-record average speed of 139.13 mph.
The 1964 season saw Foyt earn a record-setting winning percentage of .769 with 10 wins in 13 races. His most important win that year came in the Indy 500, which he finished with an average speed of 147.45 mph. After a near-fatal crash in a stock car race in 1965--in which he broke his back, fractured his ankle and suffered severe chest injuries--Foyt came back to continue his string of impressive achievements. In 1967, he won his third Indy 500 in a car he had designed himself, with his father Tony as chief mechanic. Two weeks later, he traveled to France and won the 24 Hours of LeMans international competition with teammate Don Gurney. With a win at the Daytona 500 in 1972, Foyt became the first driver to win all three major races in motor sports: the Indy 500, the Daytona 500 and the 24 Hours of LeMans.
In addition to the records for most total victories (67), most national championships (7) and most victories in one season (10), Foyt also has the most consecutive Indy 500 starts: He competed in the race for 35 straight years. His fourth win came in 1977, when the 42-year-old Foyt screamed around the track at an average speed of 161.331 mph. Only two other men have equaled his record of four Indy 500 wins.
In 1989, Foyt became the first driver inducted into the brand-new Motor Sports Hall of Fame in Novi, Michigan. He practiced at the Indy 500 track in 1993, but retired on the first day of qualifying races. Apart from auto racing teams, Foyt's later business interests have included car dealerships, funeral homes, oil investments and thoroughbred racehorses.
Subject: May 13, 1846: President Polk declares war on Mexico
On May 13, 1846, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly votes in favor of President James K. Polk's request to declare war on Mexico in a dispute over Texas.
Under the threat of war, the United States had refrained from annexing Texas after the latter won independence from Mexico in 1836. But in 1844, President John Tyler restarted negotiations with the Republic of Texas, culminating with a Treaty of Annexation.
The treaty was defeated by a wide margin in the Senate because it would upset the slave state/free state balance between North and South and risked war with Mexico, which had broken off relations with the United States. But shortly before leaving office and with the support of President-elect Polk, Tyler managed to get the joint resolution passed on March 1, 1845. Texas was admitted to the union on December 29.
While Mexico didn't follow through with its threat to declare war, relations between the two nations remained tense over border disputes, and in July 1845, President Polk ordered troops into disputed lands that lay between the Neuces and Rio Grande rivers. In November, Polk sent the diplomat John Slidell to Mexico to seek boundary adjustments in return for the U.S. government's settlement of the claims of U.S. citizens against Mexico and also to make an offer to purchase California and New Mexico. After the mission failed, the U.S. army under Gen. Zachary Taylor advanced to the mouth of the Rio Grande, the river that the state of Texas claimed as its southern boundary.
Mexico, claiming that the boundary was the Nueces River to the northeast of the Rio Grande, considered the advance of Taylor's army an act of aggression and in April 1846 sent troops across the Rio Grande. Polk, in turn, declared the Mexican advance to be an invasion of U.S. soil, and on May 11, 1846, asked Congress to declare war on Mexico, which it did two days later.
After nearly two years of fighting, peace was established by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848. The Rio Grande was made the southern boundary of Texas, and California and New Mexico were ceded to the United States. In return, the United States paid Mexico the sum of $15 million and agreed to settle all claims of U.S. citizens against Mexico.
Subject: May 14, 1804: Lewis and Clark depart
One year after the United States doubled its territory with the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark expedition leaves St. Louis, Missouri, on a mission to explore the Northwest from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.
Even before the U.S. government concluded purchase negotiations with France, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned his private secretary Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, an army captain, to lead an expedition into what is now the U.S. Northwest. On May 14, the "Corps of Discovery"--featuring approximately 45 men (although only an approximate 33 men would make the full journey)--left St. Louis for the American interior.
The expedition traveled up the Missouri River in a 55-foot long keelboat and two smaller boats. In November, Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trader accompanied by his young Native American wife Sacagawea, joined the expedition as an interpreter. The group wintered in present-day North Dakota before crossing into present-day Montana, where they first saw the Rocky Mountains. On the other side of the Continental Divide, they were met by Sacagawea's tribe, the Shoshone Indians, who sold them horses for their journey down through the Bitterroot Mountains. After passing through the dangerous rapids of the Clearwater and Snake rivers in canoes, the explorers reached the calm of the Columbia River, which led them to the sea. On November 8, 1805, the expedition arrived at the Pacific Ocean, the first European explorers to do so by an overland route from the east. After pausing there for the winter, the explorers began their long journey back to St. Louis.
On September 23, 1806, after almost two and a half years, the expedition returned to the city, bringing back a wealth of information about the largely unexplored region, as well as valuable U.S. claims to Oregon Territory.
Subject: May 15, 1937: Madeleine Albright is born
On this day in 1937, Madeleine Albright, America's first female secretary of state, is born Maria Jana Korbelova in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic).
The daughter of Czech diplomat Josef Korbel, Albright fled to England with her family after the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. Though Albright long believed they had fled for political reasons, she learned as an adult that her family was Jewish and that three of her grandparents had died in Nazi concentration camps. The family returned home after World War II ended but immigrated to the United States in 1948 after a Soviet-sponsored Communist coup seized power in Prague. Josef Korbel became dean of the school of international relations at the University of Denver (where he would later train another female secretary of state, Condoleeza Rice).
After graduating from Wellesley College in 1959, Albright married Joseph Medill Patterson Albright of the prominent Medill newspaper-publishing family. With an MA and PhD from Columbia University under her belt, Albright headed to Washington, D.C., where she worked for Maine's Senator Edmund S. Muskie and served on the National Security Council in the administration of President Jimmy Carter. She and Joseph Albright divorced in 1982. During the Republican presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Albright worked for several nonprofit organizations and taught at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
With a Democrat--Bill Clinton--in the White House again in 1992, Albright found herself at the center of Washington's most powerful circle. In 1993, Clinton appointed her ambassador to the United Nations. In that post, Albright earned a reputation as a straight-talking defender of American interests and an advocate for an increased role for the U.S. in U.N. operations. In late 1996, Clinton nominated Albright to succeed Warren Christopher as U.S. secretary of state. After her nomination was unanimously confirmed by the Senate, she was sworn in on January 23, 1997.
As secretary of state, Albright pursued an active foreign policy, including the use of military force to pressure autocratic regimes in Yugoslavia and Iraq, among other troubled regions. Her trip to North Korea in October 2000 to meet with leader Kim Jong Il made her the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit that country. She drew some criticism for her tough position on U.S. sanctions against Iraq, which led to many civilian deaths in that country and fueled the rage of Muslim extremists such as Osama bin Laden.
Albright's term ended with the election of President George W. Bush in 2000. Though there was talk of her entering Czech politics, she returned to her teaching post at Georgetown and became chair of a nonprofit organization, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.
Subject: May 16, 1929: First Academy Awards ceremony
On this day in 1929, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hands out its first awards, at a dinner party for around 250 people held in the Blossom Room of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, California.
The brainchild of Louis B. Mayer, head of the powerful MGM film studio, the Academy was organized in May 1927 as a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement and improvement of the film industry. Its first president and the host of the May 1929 ceremony was the actor Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Unlike today, the winners of the first Oscars--as the coveted gold-plated statuettes later became known--were announced before the awards ceremony itself.
At the time of the first Oscar ceremony, sound had just been introduced into film. The Warner Bros. movie The Jazz Singer--one of the first "talkies"--was not allowed to compete for Best Picture because the Academy decided it was unfair to let movies with sound compete with silent films. The first official Best Picture winner (and the only silent film to win Best Picture) was Wings, directed by William Wellman. The most expensive movie of its time, with a budget of $2 million, the movie told the story of two World War I pilots who fall for the same woman. Another film, F.W. Murnau's epic Sunrise, was considered a dual winner for the best film of the year. German actor Emil Jannings won the Best Actor honor for his roles in The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh, while 22-year-old Janet Gaynor was the only female winner. After receiving three out of the five Best Actress nods, she won for all three roles, in Seventh Heaven, Street Angel and Sunrise.
A special honorary award was presented to Charlie Chaplin. Originally a nominee for Best Actor, Best Writer and Best Comedy Director for The Circus, Chaplin was removed from these categories so he could receive the special award, a change that some attributed to his unpopularity in Hollywood. It was the last Oscar the Hollywood maverick would receive until another honorary award in 1971.
The Academy officially began using the nickname Oscar for its awards in 1939; a popular but unconfirmed story about the source of the name holds that Academy executive director Margaret Herrick remarked that the statuette looked like her Uncle Oscar. Since 1942, the results of the secret ballot voting have been announced during the live-broadcast Academy Awards ceremony using the sealed-envelope system. The suspense--not to mention the red-carpet arrival of nominees and other stars wearing their most beautiful or outrageous evening wear--continues to draw international attention to the film industry's biggest night of the year.