1468: Death of Johannes Gutenberg (b.1398), who invented re-usable, movable type for printing presses, launching an information revolution. In 1455 he published his first major project, the Holy Bible, of which about 180 were produced. The last modern sale of a complete Gutenberg Bible was for $2,200,000 in 1978. Many of the other surviving copies have been broken apart for sale of individual leaves or sections; an estimated 21 remain intact as complete.
1488: Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Diaz lands at Mossel Bay in what is now South Africa, becoming the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope and sail into the Indian Ocean.
1606: Death of the Gunpowder Plot ringleader, Guy Fawkes (b.1570), the last of the conspirators to be executed. As he mounted the platform he apologized for his part in the plot, and in a final act of defiance, leaped from the scaffold as soon as the noose was around his neck, so he would already be dead before his body was drawn and quartered.
1637: Peak day of the world’s first recorded speculative bubble, the “Tulip Mania” of 1636-37. Plenty of money evaporated over the next few weeks.
1646: After a tumultuous reign that saw two vicious civil wars fought between his royalist army and armies of an increasingly assertive Parliament, King Charles I is beheaded for high treason. General Oliver Cromwell assumes a role as Lord Protector of the Realm.
1661: As part of the settlement leading to the restoration of the British monarchy, the two-years dead remains of Oliver Cromwell are exhumed and ritually executed for regicide, 12 years to the day from Charles I’s beheading at Cromwell’s instigation. After the ceremony, the mutilated corpse was tossed into a common pit grave, and his head was displayed on a pike outside Westminster until 1685. It changed hands several times and was finally buried in 1960.
1793: Death of New England farmer Samuel Whittemore (b.1696), who, at age 78 was the eldest of the original cadre of Massachusetts militia who fought the British Regulars on their retrograde from the battles of Lexington and Concord on 19th April, 1775. Shot, bayonetted, beaten, and left for dead, he recovered from his wounds and lived to the ripe old age of 96. I’m guessing he was a mean old codger. In 2005 the legislature designated him as an official state hero of Massachusetts, whose memory is celebrated on this day.
1794: The French National Assembly abolished slavery throughout the territories of the French Republic.
1801: Birth of Horatia Nelson (d.1881), illegitimate daughter from the public affair between Royal Navy hero Horatio Lord Nelson and Mrs. Emma Hamilton, wife of the British Consul in Leghorn, Italy.
1812: Russian trappers and traders settlers establish Fort Ross on the coast of Northern California, about an hour up the coast from my hometown in Marin County. The site is on a windswept bluff above a small cove, and over the years some very accurate reproductions of the palisades and buildings have been built. Interesting to consider how far south, and how recently, the Russians operated down our western shoreline.
1839: Birth of German aviation pioneer Hugo Junkers (d.1935).
1850: The great Kentucky senator Henry Clay introduces on the floor of the U.S. Senate The Compromise of 1850, a complicated set of bills designed to diffuse the increasingly volatile issue of slavery in the new territories of the United States. The proximate trigger was the end of the Mexican War, which brought with it a huge acquisition of territory from the Mexican Cession, the status of which could not be adequately defined by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which set the slave-free line in the territories at N36-30*). Without going into all the details- and they are worth the time to study- the bottom lines of the 1850 plan were these:
a) California is admitted as a free state;
b) Texas is admitted as a slave state;
c) Texas drops its claims for territories in New Mexico in exchange for Federal assumption of Lone Star debt (hmm- plus ca change, as they say);
d) New Mexico and Utah territories are organized to permit popular sovereignty to decide slave or free status;
e) The importation and sale of slaves is prohibited in the District of Columbia, although slave labor there remains legal;
f) The Fugitive Slave Act is strengthened.
The final portions of the Compromise passed in September, 1850, nominally cooling emotions for another four years.
1861: Kansas, “Bleeding Kansas” of the decade prior, is admitted to the Union as a free state.
1862: Launch of USS Monitor at the Brooklyn Navy yard in New York. We’ll be seeing more about her operational history in March, but a little-remarked side note in her history was the alacrity with which she was built: 120 days from the contract signature to launch. Granted, designer John Ericsson had the plans already in hand but it is still an amazing feat of organization to produce such a technically advanced machine in such short order.
1865: With the Union tightening its death-grip on Richmond, the Confederate government names Robert E. Lee as General-in-Chief of the southern armies.
1865: After passage in the House of Representatives, President Abraham Lincoln signs a bill for the 13th Amendment, ending involuntary servitude in the United States, and sending it to the Several States for ratification. Illinois ratified it the same day, and 10 others followed suit in the first week. Ratification came into force in December, 1865. To date, 36 states have formally ratified the amendment, the latest being Mississippi in March of 1995 (although the state failed to notify the Director of the Federal Register until February of 2013).
1880: Birth of actor W.C. Fields (d.1946).
1887: Punxsutawney Phil sees or doesn’t see his shadow for the first time. At least, not in front of crowds of adoring Pennsylvanians. Happy Groundhog Day.
1899: Only months after our prying the islands from Spanish colonial rule, Philippine nationalists rebelled against nascent American rule, opening the Philippine Insurrection. The war officially lasts through July, 1902, but at that point the rebellion simply moved underground, becoming a terrorist movement that simmered and flared for two years. In April, 1904, the Moro Rebellion broke into open warfare against American occupation forces, becoming a bitter jungle war lasting through June, 1913.
1902: Birth of Charles Lindbergh (d.1974).
1905: Birth of Ayn Rand (d.1982), philosopher, author, and patron saint of the libertarian movement. Her magnum opus, “Atlas Shrugged,” tells of a world where the most productive minds in the country refuse to be crushed by society, or the increasing encroachment of the government in their lives.
1906: Birth of American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh (d.1997). At just 25 years old, he was working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. He was continuing the search for a ninth planet (Planet X), a search that Percival Lowell began in 1906. On February 18, 1930, Tombaugh compared photos of a single star field – taken six days apart a few weeks earlier – and noticed an object was moving against the backdrop of stars. It was a small, dim, remote body in our own solar system. Today, we know this little world as Pluto.
1906: Birth of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (d.1945), whose incisive observations on the nature of the Christian in civil society are cited to this day. One of his core theses was the fight against what he called “cheap grace,” a philosophy that fails to comprehend the extraordinary price paid for God’s real gift of grace. He was an outspoken leader of the German church resistance to the Nazi movement. Bonhoeffer was arrested in April of 1943 as part of bureaucratic infighting between the Abwher (of which he was an agent, and active participant in plots against Hitler) and the SS. After multiple prison transfers, he stood before a kangaroo court, was found guilty, and was executed by hanging only three weeks before the end of the war.
1913: Final ratification of the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, the full text of which reads: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” You’ll note there is no “temporary” in the text, contrary to the gripes of the many, many in the country who find this a most obnoxious levy.
1913: Birth of civil rights activist Rosa Parks (d.2005), whose refusal, in December of 1955, to sit in the back of the bus finally sparked the kind of widespread outrage that led to the burgeoning and ultimately successful civil rights movement.
1917: The United States breaks diplomatic relations with Imperial Germany, the day after the Germans announce the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in the waters surrounding Great Britain.
1924: Death of President Woodrow Wilson (b.1856), incapacitated since collapsing of exhaustion in September of 1919. He further suffered a debilitating stroke on October 2nd that year, leaving him paralyzed on the left side and blind in the left eye. From that point, he was essentially sequestered from seeing anyone except his wife and doctor. The isolation most particularly affected the Vice President and Cabinet officers, who carried on their duties with Presidential relations carefully stage-managed by his wife, Edith. His incapacity was a primary argument in support of the 25th Amendment.
1930: Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Corporation, a.k.a. 3M, begins marketing a self-sticking cellophane tape.
1948: Death of Orville Wright (b.1871).
1953: A combination of new moon spring tides and a severe winter storm push the waters of the North Sea 18 feet above normal overnight, overwhelming the dykes and flood canals of the Netherlands and southeastern England, flooding the sleeping towns and farms of Zeeland in particular, and creating general havoc well down the coast into France. Over 1,800 Dutch citizens lost their lives that night, and hundreds more perished in Belgium and England. Thousands of acres of polder land suddenly were again underwater, tens of thousands of farm animals drowned, and thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed by the floodwaters. The disaster triggered the creation of the Delta Works, a massive flood control project consisting of dykes, seawalls, flood gates, and pumping stations across virtually the entire coastline of the Netherlands.
1956: Death of journalist H.L. Mencken (b.1880). “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
1959: Deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and Big Bopper Richardson in a plane crash in Iowa.
1971: Ten months after the near-catastrophe of Apollo 13, astronauts Alan Shepard, Stuart Roosa, and Edgar Mitchell launch in Apollo 14 for a moon landing mission that will take them to the surface of the Frau Maru highlands. At age 47, Shepard was the oldest man to fly in space, and the only of the original Mercury astronauts to reach the moon.
1974: First flight of the F-16 Fighting Falcon. That is, its actual planned first flight; during a high-speed taxi test last week, the test pilot got into a pilot-induced-oscillation that caused the wingtip to hit the ground. To avoid more damage, he went ahead and lifted off, safely landing after about six minutes of stable flight.
2003: After a two week-long science mission, Space Shuttle Columbia, the original orbiter in the fleet, disintegrates on re-entry into the atmosphere, killing all 7 astronauts aboard. After completion of the mishap investigation, NASA decided to terminate the Shuttle program in favor of a newly designed Constellation system. The Columbia weighed around 8000 pounds more than the other orbiters, and was thus not suited for high inclination missions. She was also not fitted with an ISS-compatible air lock, so she was never used for an ISS servicing mission, but assumed primary duties for science missions and satellite launches. Columbia flew 28 times, spending just over 300 days in orbit. Due to the annual proximity of the 17 spaceflight deaths of its astronauts, NASA commemorates their memory on January 27th.