1512: The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican opens for public visitation for the first time since completion of the great ceiling fresco by Michelangelo.
1520: Fifteen months after departing on his epic voyage of discovery, Ferdinand Magellan enters the narrow strait that now bears his name. The “shortcut” between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans cuts off significant distance from the more navigationally straightforward route around Cape Horn, and it avoids the ferocious westerlies and high sea states of the Horn passage. On the other hand, the narrowness of the channel and those same prevailing westerlies make the strait a particularly difficult passage in a sailing vessel, especially for a square-rigged design that does not go well to windward.
1734: Birth of colonial era explorer, hunter, adventurer and elected member of the Virginia State Assembly, Daniel Boone (d.1820). After opening up the routes westward from the eastern seaboard into Kentucky, he became one of the nation’s first folk heroes for his exploits in taming the wild frontier west of the Appalachians. He spent his final years even further west in the central Missouri shores of the Missouri River, where he is buried in a modest gravesite near Marthasville, Missouri.
1755: Birth of the Austrian princess Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, better known as Marie Antoinette (d.1793) wife of French King Louis XVI. Widely regarded during the early days of the Revolution as a spendthrift and empty-headed waste of oxygen, she fought back publicly with a con brio performance as a caring mother and patron of the arts. It was in vain, however, and after the King fell victim to Madame Guillotine, the Queen met a similar fate ten months later.
1765: Continuing to pursue novel ways to get the American colonies to pay for the French and Indian War, Parliament passes the Stamp Act, a tax levied on every sheet of paper imported into the colonies, with payment proven by the presence of a royal stamp on the paper itself. Colonial leaders become highly agitated by this seemingly arbitrary ability of the government to tax its subjects without consultation.
1772: Increasingly concerned about unchecked British pressure on the American colonies, Samuel Adams and Dr. Joseph Warren of Boston form the first Committee of Correspondence, which functioned as the 18th century version of a blog, except the writing was done with a quill pen on paper or parchment, and the letters traveled by post road or were printed up as handbills. The Committees grew in importance as the Revolution developed, providing a well-read venue for debate, and allowing the leading political leaders of the time to reach an audience far larger than the usual speeches and lectures.
1783: The final public execution is held at London’s Tyburn Gallows. The place played a significant role in 18th century popular culture, with permanent grandstands set up for the regular spectacle. A number of popular catch phrases were coined to describe the happenings: a Tyburn dance or jig (i.e., the post-drop twitching); take a drive to Tyburn (i.e., in the gaol wagon); the Lord Manor of Tyburn (the executioner). According to Wikipedia, the condemned were expected to put on a good show, being both well-dressed for the hanging, and displaying no fear. Those that failed to live up to the crowd’s standards were jeered. All in all, I’d say it was a pretty coarse time. The site is now covered by the traffic roundabout at Marble Arch.
1790: British author and political philosopher Edmund Burke publishes his letter, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he examines the French body politic and its leadership through the lens of the same Natural Law that guided the original revolution in the former British colonies. Burke is not impressed, and says so in scathing and prescient terms that accurately predicted the ruinous events on the continent. His main argument is that the abstract foundations of the French revolution could in no way account for the complexity of human nature, and were thus doomed to lead to tyranny. Further, he had no time for the rule of intellectuals, arguing that, “What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or to medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In this deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor.”
1814: The Congress of Vienna meets to negotiate the form of European politics after the final defeat of Napoleon at the hands of the Sixth Coalition and 25 years of nearly continuous war. The resulting Treaty of Paris exiled the former emperor to tiny Elba off the south coast of France.
1861: The day after General Winfield Scott resigns as Commanding General of the Army, President Lincoln appoints the young and ambitious George B. McClellan to replace him.
1871: Birth of American author Stephen Crane (d.1900), whose classic The Red Badge of Courage vividly tells the story of a Civil War private who seeks redemption from his earlier desertion by repeatedly throwing himself at subsequent battles through the eyes of his original idealism; a glory glaringly at odds with the actual war’s gory reality.
1903: The Colombian province of Panama stages a revolt and declares its independence. The United States immediately recognizes the new nation, and guarantees its defense. Conveniently, the United States also has plans to build a canal across the isthmus, and the new government of Panama graciously cedes the Canal Zone to the U.S. to ensure the security and successful administration of the project.
1918: After four years of bitter fighting in the southern Alps, Austria-Hungary surrenders to Italy, thus closing the Great War’s Italian front.
1918: Spurred on by communist agitators, and triggered by the issuance of an order to sortie the High Seas Fleet for combat against the Royal Navy, over 40,000 German sailors mutiny in support of a smaller cadre of earlier mutineers who were already imprisoned. Chanting the slogan, “Peace and Bread!” (Frieden und brot!), the sailors surge through the city, overwhelming the police and taking control of key government buildings. News of the mutiny spreads throughout Germany, catapulting the Social Democrat Party (SPD) from a rump of left-wing radicals into a powerful force suddenly at the head of a communist revolution. With the real possibility of a devastating social revolution compounding German losses on the Western Front, the government convinces the Kaiser to abdicate the monarchy, thereby permitting the formation of an interim constitutional government. Although the SPD did not plan on completely overthrowing the existing order, the revolutionary and political turmoil continued to ferment throughout the major German cities but never proceeded to the level of violence or political angst duplicating the Bolshevik takeover of Russia. The German revolution fizzled out concurrent with the announcement of the Weimar Republic in August of 1919.
1926: Death of legendary sharpshooter, Annie Oakley (b.1860).
1939: President Franklin Roosevelt orders the U.S. Customs Service to allow cash and carry sales of armaments to belligerents in the European war, Great Britain in particular.
1942: German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, having had his North African armored juggernaut stopped at the gates of Alexandria, is forced to begin his withdrawal back toward Tunisia as a result of British Field Bernard Montgomery’s armoured breakout at the seam between the German and Italian forces. The advancing British not only split the Axis force, they also threatened to completely encircle the Germans. Rommel ignored a direct order from Hitler to fight to the last man, deciding instead to save his forces and make a strategic withdrawal to a position where he could counter-attack the soon-to-be overextended British tanks. Rommel’s withdrawal today was the turning point for the Battle of El Alemain.
1947: Aircraft designer and movie mogul Howard Hughes takes his enormous H-4 Hercules seaplane on a “taxi test” in Long Beach Harbor. The gigantic plane, dubbed the “Spruce Goose” by its detractors, functioned exactly as Hughes thought it would, including getting airborne for its first and only flight, which lasted all of a few moments, climbing to 70 feet and flying about a mile down range. It remains the largest aircraft ever built. After the flight Hughes stored the machine in a climate-controlled hangar, where it remained in pristine flying condition until after Hughes’ death in 1976.
1952: The United States detonates its first hydrogen bomb, Operation IVY MIKE, at Eniwetok Atoll. The blast came in at 10 megatons.
1954: Death of French post-impressionist painter Henri Matisse (b.1869).
1957: The Soviet Union launches the first living being into orbit, the dog Laika, who survives the launch and initial orbit, but dies within two hours. There was no plan for a de-orbit recovery, and the Soviets announced she died by being automatically euthanized prior to oxygen deprivation. Recently opened archives indicate she actually died from overheating due to a critical component of the booster system failing to detach.
1966: The River Arno floods Florence, Italy, cresting at 22 feet, causing 113 deaths, displacing over 30,000 from their homes, and creating untold havoc on thousands of pieces of Renaissance art and books.
1979: Under the direction of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iranian University “students” storm the United States Embassy in Tehran and take 90 hostages, 53 of whom are American citizens. Despite a few releases, the Americans are held hostage for 444 days, released by the Iranian government at the hour of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as President at noon on January 20th, 1981.
2006: Death of French composer Paul Mauriat (b.1925), probably best known on this side of the Atlantic for his instrumental piece Love is Blue (L’amour est bleu) (1967).