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.
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. Kind of makes you wonder how economic human nature is now, compared to then.
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.
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).
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.
1865: With the Union noose ever-tightening its death-grip on Richmond, the Confederate government names Robert E. Lee as General-in-Chief of the southern armies.
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.
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.
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.
1917: The United States breaks diplomatic relations with Imperial Germany, the day after the Germans announce resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in the waters surrounding Great Britain.
924: 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, similar to the stuff you have sitting on your desk. It is supposedly named after those thrifty folks from Scotland…
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 flood waters. 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.
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.
1979: Ayatola Ruhollah Khomeini returns to Iran after 15 years of exile in France. Rapturous crowds meet him wherever he goes, at least initially, but within months the cold hand of the Islamic Revolution will begin to choke the life out of Persian society.
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. You may not have known that 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.