Monthly Archives: August 2019

William Cobb demonstrates first solar-powered car

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/william-cobb-demonstrates-first-solar-powered-car

On August 31, 1955, William G. Cobb of the General Motors Corp. (GM) demonstrates his 15-inch-long “Sunmobile,” the world’s first solar-powered automobile, at the General Motors Powerama auto show held in Chicago, Illinois.

Cobb’s Sunmobile introduced, however briefly, the field of photovoltaics–the process by which the sun’s rays are converted into electricity when exposed to certain surfaces–into the gasoline-drenched automotive industry. When sunlight hit 12 photoelectric cells made of selenium (a nonmetal substance with conducting properties) built into the Sunmobile, an electric current was produced that in turn powered a tiny motor. The motor turned the vehicle’s driveshaft, which was connected to its rear axle by a pulley. Visitors to the month-long, $7 million Powerama marveled at some 250 free exhibits spread over 1 million square feet of space on the shores of Lake Michigan. In addition to Cobb’s futuristic mini-automobile, Powerama visitors were treated to an impressive display of GM’s diesel-fueled empire, from oil wells and cotton gins to submarines and other military equipment.

Today, more than a half-century after Cobb debuted the Sunmobile, a mass-produced solar car has yet to hit the market anywhere in the world. Solar-car competitions are held worldwide, however, in which design teams pit their sun-powered creations (also known as photovoltaic or PV cars) against each other in road races such as the 2008 North American Solar Challenge, a 2,400-mile drive from Dallas, Texas, to Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Thomas Edison patents the Kinetograph

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/edison-patents-the-kinetograph

Thomas Edison receives a patent for his movie camera, the Kinetograph. Edison had developed the camera and its viewer in the early 1890s and staged several demonstrations.

The camera was based on photographic principles discovered by still-photograph pioneers Joseph Nicephone Niepce and Louis Daguerre of France. In 1877, inventor Edward Muybridge developed a primitive form of motion pictures when Leland Stanford, governor of California, invited him to develop photo studies of animals in motion. Muybridge developed an ingenious system for photographing sequential motion, setting up 24 cameras attached to trip wires stretched across a racetrack. As the horse tripped each wire, the shutters snapped. The resulting series of photos could be projected as something resembling a motion picture. This breakthrough in the early 1870s inspired another student of animal motion, Etienne Jules Marey of France, to develop in 1882 a rotating camera rather like a rifle, where different pictures were taken in a rapid sequence by a rotating cartridge.

Unlike these earlier cameras, Edison’s Kinetoscope and Kinetograph used celluloid film, invented by George Eastman in 1889. In February 1893, Edison built a small movie studio that could be rotated to capture the best available sunlight. He showed the first demonstration of his films—featuring three of his workers pretending to be blacksmiths—in May 1893.

The invention inspired French inventors Louis and August Lumiere to develop a movie camera and projector, the Cinematographe, that allowed a large audience to view a film. Several other cameras and projectors were also developed in the late 1800s.

In 1898, Edison sued American Mutoscope and Biograph Pictures, claiming that the studio had infringed on his patent for the Kinetograph. He had entrusted the development of the machine to his assistant, W.L.K. Dickson, who left Edison’s company in 1895 and helped found Biograph. However, in 1902, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that although Thomas Edison had patented the Kinetograph, he only owned rights to the sprocket system that moved perforated film through the camera, not the entire concept of the movie camera.

In 1909, Edison and Biograph joined forces with other filmmakers to create the Motion Pictures Patents Company, an organization devoted to protecting patents and keeping other players from entering the film industry. In 1917, the Supreme Court dissolved the trust, and the Edison Company left the film industry the same year.

Jack the Ripper’s first victim murdered

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/jack-the-ripper-claims-first-victim

Prostitute Mary Ann Nichols, the first known victim of London serial killer “Jack the Ripper,” is found murdered and mutilated in the city’s Whitechapel district. London saw four more victims of the murderer during the next few months, but no suspect was ever found.

In Victorian England, London’s East End was a teeming slum occupied by nearly a million of the city’s poorest citizens. Many women were forced to resort to prostitution, and in 1888 there were estimated to be more than 1,000 prostitutes in Whitechapel.

That summer, a serial killer began targeting these downtrodden women. On September 8, the killer claimed his second victim, Annie Chapman, and on September 30 two more prostitutes–Liz Stride and Kate Eddowes–were murdered and carved up on the same night.

By then, London’s Scotland Yard police had determined the pattern of the killings. The murderer, offering to pay for sex, would lure his victims onto a secluded street or square and then slice their throats. As the women rapidly bled to death, he would then brutally disembowel them with the same six-inch knife.

The police, who lacked modern forensic techniques such as fingerprinting and blood typing, were at a complete loss for suspects. Dozens of letters allegedly written by the murderer were sent to the police, and the majority of these were immediately deemed fraudulent. However, two letters–written by the same individual–alluded to crime facts known only to the police and the killer. These letters, signed “Jack the Ripper,” gave rise to the serial killer’s popular nickname.

On November 7, after a month of silence, Jack took his fifth and last victim, Irish-born Mary Kelly, an occasional prostitute. Of all his victims’ corpses, Kelly’s was the most hideously mutilated. In 1892, with no leads found and no more murders recorded, the Jack the Ripper file was closed.

Polish government signs accord with Gdansk shipyard workers

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/polish-government-signs-accord-with-gdansk-shipyard-workers

On August 31, 1980, representatives of the communist government of Poland agree to the demands of striking shipyard workers in the city of Gdansk. Former electrician Lech Walesa led the striking workers, who went on to form Solidarity, the first independent labor union to develop in a Soviet bloc nation.

In July 1980, facing economic crisis, Poland’s government raised the price of food and other goods, while curbing the growth of wages. The price hikes made it difficult for many Poles to afford basic necessities, and a wave of strikes swept the country. Amid mounting tensions, a popular forklift operator named Anna Walentynowicz was fired from the Lenin Shipyard in the northern Polish city of Gdansk. In mid-August, some 17,000 of the shipyard’s workers began a sit-down strike to campaign for her reinstatement, as well as for a modest increase in wages. They were led by the former shipyard electrician Lech Walesa, who had himself been fired for union activism four years earlier.

Despite governmental censorship and attempts to keep news of the strike from getting out, similar protests broke out in industrial cities throughout Poland. On August 17, an Interfactory Strike Committee presented the Polish government with 21 ambitious demands, including the right to organize independent trade unions, the right to strike, the release of political prisoners and increased freedom of expression. Fearing the general strike would lead to a national revolt, the government sent a commission to Gdansk to negotiate with the rebellious workers. On August 31, Walesa and Deputy Premier Mieczyslaw Jagielski signed an agreement giving in to many of the workers’ demands. Walesa signed the document with a giant ballpoint pen decorated with a picture of the newly elected Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla, the former archbishop of Krakow).

In the wake of the Gdansk strike, leaders of the Interfactory Strike Committee voted to create a single national trade union known as Solidarnosc (Solidarity), which soon evolved into a mass social movement, with a membership of more than 10 million people. Solidarity attracted sympathy from Western leaders and hostility from Moscow, where the Kremlin considered a military invasion of Poland. In late 1981, under Soviet pressure, the government of General Wojciech Jaruzelski annulled the recognition of Solidarity and declared martial law in Poland. Some 6,000 Solidarity activists were arrested, including Walesa, who was detained for almost a year. The Solidarity movement moved underground, where it continued to enjoy support from international leaders such as U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who imposed sanctions on Poland. Walesa was awarded the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize, and after the fall of communism in 1989 he became the first president of Poland ever to be elected by popular vote.

Sam Mason survives Native American attack

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/sam-mason-survives-indian-attack-2

Samuel Mason, a Patriot captain in command of Fort Henry on the Ohio frontier, survives a devastating Native American attack on August 31, 1777.

The son of a distinguished Virginia family, Samuel Mason became a militia officer and was assigned to the western frontier post of Fort Henry in present-day West Virginia. In the summer of 1777, with the colonies fighting a war for independence, Mason feared attacks by the Native allies of the British. He was proven correct on August 31, 1777, when a band of Native Americans from several eastern tribes attacked the fort.

The Native Americans initially fired only on several men who were outside the fort rounding up horses. Hearing the shots, Mason gathered 14 men and rode to their rescue; this was exactly what the warriors hoped he would do. They ambushed the party, killing all but Mason. Badly wounded, Mason escaped death by hiding behind a log. A second party that attempted to come to his rescue suffered the same fate as the first. All told, Mason lost 15 men, compared to only one fatality among the attackers.

Mason recovered from his wounds and continued to command Fort Henry for several years. Following the end of the war, though, he fell on hard times. Repeatedly accused of being a thief, he moved farther west into the lawless frontier of the young American nation. By 1797, he had become a pirate on the Mississippi River, preying on boatmen who moved valuable goods up and down the river. He also reportedly took to robbing travelers along the Natchez Trace (or trail) in Tennessee, often with the assistance of his four sons.

By the early 1800s, Mason had become one of the most notorious desperados on the American frontier, a precursor to Jesse James, Cole Younger and later outlaws of the “Wild West.” In January 1803, Spanish authorities arrested Mason and his four sons and decided to turn them over to the Americans. En route to Natchez, Tennessee, Mason and his sons killed the commander of the boat and escaped.

Determined to apprehend Mason, the Americans upped the reward for his capture, dead or alive. The reward money soon proved too tempting for two members of Mason’s gang; in July 1803 they killed Mason, cut off his head and brought it into the Mississippi territorial offices to prove that they had earned the reward. The men were soon identified as members of Mason’s gang, however, and they were arrested and hanged.

Princess Diana dies in a car crash

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/princess-diana-dies-in-car-crash-paris

Shortly after midnight on August 31, 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales—affectionately known as “the People’s Princess”—dies in a car crash in Paris. She was 36. Her boyfriend, the Egyptian-born socialite Dodi Fayed, and the driver of the car, Henri Paul, died as well. 

Princess Diana was one of the most popular public figures in the world. Her death was met with a massive outpouring of grief. Mourners began visiting Kensington Palace immediately, leaving bouquets at the home where the princess, also known as Lady Di, would never return. Piles of flowers reached some 30 feet from the palace’s gate.

Diana and Dodi—who had been vacationing in the French Riviera—arrived in Paris earlier the previous day. They left the Ritz Paris just after midnight, intending to go to Dodi’s apartment on the Rue Arsène Houssaye. As soon as they departed the hotel, a swarm of paparazzi on motorcycles began aggressively tailing their car. About three minutes later, the driver lost control and crashed into a pillar at the entrance of the Pont de l’Alma tunnel.

Dodi and the driver were pronounced dead at the scene. Diana was taken to the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital and declared dead at 6:00 am. (A fourth passenger, Diana’s bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, was seriously injured but survived.) Diana’s former husband Prince Charles, as well as her sisters and other members of the Royal Family, arrived in Paris that morning. Diana’s body was then taken back to London.

Like much of her life, her death was a full-blown media sensation, and the subject of many conspiracy theories. At first, the paparazzi hounding the car were blamed for the crash, but later it was revealed that the driver was under the influence of alcohol and prescription drugs. A formal investigation concluded the paparazzi did not cause the collision. 

Diana’s funeral in London, on September 6, was watched by over 2 billion people. She was survived by her two sons, Prince William, who was 15 at the time, and Prince Harry, who was 12. 

Vladimir Lenin shot

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/vladimir-lenin-shot

After speaking at a factory in Moscow, Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin is shot twice by Fanya Kaplan, a member of the Social Revolutionary party. Lenin was seriously wounded but survived the attack. The assassination attempt set off a wave of reprisals by the Bolsheviks against the Social Revolutionaries and other political opponents. Thousands were executed as Russia fell deeper into civil war.

Born Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov in 1870, Lenin was drawn to the revolutionary cause after his brother was executed in 1887 for plotting to assassinate Czar Alexander III. He studied law and took up practice in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), where he associated with revolutionary Marxist circles. In 1895, he helped organize Marxist groups in the capital into the “Union for the Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class,” which attempted to enlist workers to the Marxist cause. In December 1895, Lenin and the other leaders of the Union were arrested. Lenin was jailed for a year and then exiled to Siberia for a term of three years.

After the end of his exile, in 1900, Lenin went to Western Europe, where he continued his revolutionary activity. It was during this time that he adopted the pseudonym Lenin. In 1902, he published a pamphlet titled What Is to Be Done? which argued that only a disciplined party of professional revolutionaries could bring socialism to Russia. In 1903, he met with other Russian Marxists in London and established the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party (RSDWP). However, from the start there was a split between Lenin’s Bolsheviks (Majoritarians), who advocated militarism, and the Mensheviks (Minoritarians), who advocated a democratic movement toward socialism. These two groups increasingly opposed each other within the framework of the RSDWP, and Lenin made the split official at a 1912 conference of the Bolshevik Party.

After the outbreak of the Russian Revolution of 1905, Lenin returned to Russia. The revolution, which consisted mainly of strikes throughout the Russian empire, came to an end when Nicholas II promised reforms, including the adoption of a Russian constitution and the establishment of an elected legislature. However, once order was restored, the czar nullified most of these reforms, and in 1907 Lenin was again forced into exile.

Lenin opposed World War I, which began in 1914, as an imperialistic conflict and called on proletariat soldiers to turn their guns on the capitalist leaders who sent them down into the murderous trenches. For Russia, World War I was an unprecedented disaster: Russian casualties were greater than those sustained by any nation in any previous war. Meanwhile, the economy was hopelessly disrupted by the costly war effort, and in March 1917 riots and strikes broke out in Petrograd over the scarcity of food. Demoralized army troops joined the strikers, and on March 15 Nicholas II was forced to abdicate, ending centuries of czarist rule. In the aftermath of the February Revolution (known as such because of Russia’s use of the Julian calendar), power was shared between the ineffectual Provincial Government and the soviets, or “councils,” of soldiers’ and workers’ committees.

After the outbreak of the February Revolution, German authorities allowed Lenin and his lieutenants to cross Germany en route from Switzerland to Sweden in a sealed railway car. Berlin hoped (correctly) that the return of the anti-war Socialists to Russia would undermine the Russian war effort, which was continuing under the Provincial Government. Lenin called for the overthrow of the Provincial Government by the soviets, and he was condemned as a “German agent” by the government’s leaders. In July, he was forced to flee to Finland, but his call for “peace, land, and bread” met with increasing popular support, and the Bolsheviks won a majority in the Petrograd soviet. In October, Lenin secretly returned to Petrograd, and on November 7 the Bolshevik-led Red Guards deposed the Provisional Government and proclaimed soviet rule.

Lenin became the virtual dictator of the world’s first Marxist state. His government made peace with Germany, nationalized industry, and distributed land but beginning in 1918, had to fight a devastating civil war against czarist forces. In 1920, the czarists were defeated, and in 1922 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was established. Upon Lenin’s death in early 1924, his body was embalmed and placed in a mausoleum near the Moscow Kremlin. Petrograd was renamed Leningrad in his honor. After a struggle of succession, fellow revolutionary Joseph Stalin succeeded Lenin as leader of the Soviet Union.

First African American in space

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-african-american-in-space

U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Guion S. Bluford becomes the first African American to travel into space when the space shuttle Challenger lifts off on its third mission. It was the first night launch of a space shuttle, and many people stayed up late to watch the spacecraft roar up from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 2:32 a.m.

The Challenger spent six days in space, during which time Bluford and his four fellow crew members launched a communications satellite for the government of India, made contact with an errant communications satellite, conducted scientific experiments, and tested the shuttle’s robotic arm. Just before dawn on September 5, the shuttle landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California, bringing an end to the most flawless shuttle mission to that date.

Guion Stewart Bluford II was born in Philadelphia in 1942. From an early age, “Guy” was fascinated with flight and decided he wanted to design and build airplanes. In 1964, he graduated from Penn State with a degree in aerospace engineering. Deciding he’d need to know how to fly planes if he wanted to build them, he entered the U.S. Air Force and graduated with his pilot wings in 1965. He was assigned to a fighter squadron in Vietnam, where he flew 144 combat missions. After combat service, he became a flight instructor and in the 1970s went on to receive a master’s degree and doctorate in aerospace engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology.

In 1979, he was accepted into the U.S. astronaut program. He made his first flight in 1983 as a mission specialist on the eighth shuttle mission. He later flew three more shuttle missions, logging a total of 700 hours in orbit. After returning from NASA, he became vice president and general manager of an engineering company in Ohio.

Washington refuses Howe’s letter

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/washington-refuses-howes-letter

On August 30, 1776, General George Washington gives the New York Convention three reasons for the American retreat from Long Island. That same day, he rejects British General William Howe’s second letter of reconciliation.

With Howe and a superior British force having recently landed at Long Island–they handed the Continentals a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Brooklyn Heights on August 27–Washington gave these reasons for his decision to retreat: the need to reunite his forces, the extreme fatigue of his soldiers and the lack of proper shelter from the weather.

For his part, Howe had attempted to reconcile with the Patriots before blood was spilled, but had been rejected by Washington because he had failed to use Washington’s title of “general” when addressing the letter. Even after beating the Continentals at Brooklyn Heights, Howe looked for a peaceful resolution, allowing Washington and his army to escape by boat to Manhattan and sending yet another letter to Washington through American General John Sullivan. Washington refused to accept the missive, but gave Sullivan permission to deliver it to Congress in Philadelphia.

On September 11, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and other congressional representatives accepted Howe’s offer and reopened talks on Staten Island. The negotiations fell through when the British refused to accept American independence as a condition for peace.

The British captured New York City on September 15; it would remain in British hands until the end of the war.

Christopher Cross has his first of two #1 hits with “Sailing”

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/christopher-cross-has-his-first-of-two-1-hits-with-sailing

The music video that famously played during MTV’s first minutes on the air was “Video Killed The Radio Star,” by the British synth-pop duo The Buggles. Four weeks later, a young American singer-songwriter named Christopher Cross completed a meteoric rise from obscurity when his hit ballad “Sailing” reached the top of the Billboard pop chart on August 30, 1980. In the years since, many observers have linked the first of these two events to the eventual decline of the man who accomplished the second. But even if MTV is what “killed” the radio star Christopher Cross, it did so only after he accomplished a run of success as great and unexpected as any in pop history.

Released in January 1980, Cross’s self-titled debut album was one of the biggest soft-rock hits of all time. The first single was “Ride Like The Wind,” which featured a memorable backup vocal by Doobie Brothers singer Michael McDonald and rose to #2 on the pop charts the following summer. “Sailing” was the follow-up single, and it rose even faster and higher, hitting #1 on this day in 1980. It also transformed Christopher Cross from a complete unknown to the biggest name in pop almost overnight, propelling him to a still-unmatched sweep at the 1981 Grammy Awards, where “Sailing” won Grammys for Best Record and Best Song, Christopher Cross won for Best Album and Cross himself won for Best New Artist. Cross would have another #1 pop hit later that year with “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do),” co-written with Burt Bacharach and Carol Bayer Sager and winner of the 1982 Oscar for Best Song. But Cross’s next top-10 hit, “Think Of Laura” (1983), would be his last.

Some say that the extremely talented but not terribly telegenic Christopher Cross was undone by the esthetic imperatives brought on by the dawning of the MTV era. But it is just as reasonable to suggest musical fashions were already shifting away from Cross’s “lite” Adult Contemporary sound without the help of MTV. In any event, Cross disappeared from the pop scene almost as quickly as he entered it.

“Would I have rather had a career like Peter Gabriel’s or Sting’s or somebody that grows over a long period of years and sustains like they have?” Cross asked himself in an interview 20 years after his heyday. “I’d prefer that as opposed to the sort of meteoric curve of my career…[but] I hear my music in grocery stores and people do know who I am, and I continue to tour so it’s great. Given the options, I wouldn’t change a thing.”